Sunday, April 5, 2020


The Masib people have been dead for over two thousand years.

While it is possible that small numbers of them fled into the Oron'er Mountains and lived among their distant kin there, the distinct Masibi culture is undeniably extinct- Haraal made sure of that.

The westward push of the Haraalians culminated in the Battle of the Masibi River, where the ascendant emperor's army dammed up the river's headwaters. This is seen by some as a link to the old Ersuunian methods of control through riverine despotism.

This maneuver both deprived the Masibs of water and use of their sailboats for battle or evacuation, and allowed Haraal's cavalry to cross the muddy riverbed and attack the uncooperative river people on both banks. Those who were not cut down were rounded up. Many were given over as hostages and slaves to high-ranking Ersuunian warriors and personal allies of Haraal, but many more were herded into the riverbed.

The only known facet of Masibi religion is that they venerated their river. Just as it gave life to them, it took it away, for they believed it was the gateway to the afterlife. They were known to set their dead adrift downriver on tiny rafts which often made it all the way out to sea despite the tumultuous rapids downriver. Haraal was aware of this practice, and decided to end the massacre with a bit of poetic flourish, as so many heroes are wont to do.

So he kept the surviving Masibs huddled and pinned upon the silt, his lancers lining the riverbanks to keep them from escaping. By the time they heard the roar of the river surging forward after the dam had been broken, it was too late to flee. Every remaining Masibi man, woman, and child was swept away in a current that was said to have struck their bodies with the force of a stampede of wild horses.

A regional myth from southeastern "highland" Nambar references a day when thousands of drowned bodies were found floating down a river after a local god was angered, but it is unknown if this is more than an eerie coincidence.

Regardless, the Masib people are dead. But their relics still survive.

Many trophies were taken as part of the conquest, and by some faint luck several specimens were not melted down, repurposed, or otherwise destroyed. They became collector's items and curiosities destined to collect dust in display cases for centuries at a time until, at last, they began to trickle into Deneroth. Again, they languished in obscurity in the archives and storage rooms of so many moneyed hobbiests, but at least here they began to be taken notice of by more academic minds, now and then. Eventually a call went out when someone with enough clout and interest in material culture offered to purchase any verifiable Masibi artifacts and retain them at the ITU.

Forgeries, deliberate misidentifications, and simple mistakes meant that this collection was swollen with unrelated specimens for several generations, but over time it was narrowed down based on what little is known or able to be reconstructed about the Masib people. Precious few items remained in the end.

I saw one of them in the Grand Archive, once. I even held it.

It was a dark, lozenge-shaped piece of heartwood about the size of a small dinner plate. The wood was flat on one face, with a bowl-like depression on its obverse. Many smaller indents filled the space. These carvings created a complex series of patterns, images, and scalloped shapes which were filled and surrounded by dozens of tiny, inset pieces. Ridges of whitish shell like little mountain ranges were most visually prominent, but much of the face was dominated by swirling lines of colored beads. Pieces of metal or precious stone were also visible, where they hadn't been pried off ages before.

This thing was a ghomta, or "rememberer's friend". It is the only instance of the language which the Masibs spoke that we know of, for not even the original name of the river they lived beside is known.

The ghomta was a sort of mnemonic device used to aid a speaker in telling a particular story, or cycle of stories, or a set of laws. The Masibs were a pre-literate people, like many of the tribes of the Oron'er Mountains today. They relied instead on memory to keep their rich oral tradition alive, and items like this ghomta helped facilitate that.

Every piece on a ghomta was coded with significance that every storyteller would have been trained to understand. A certain border motif might evoke the presence of a god in a given story, while a series of red and black beads indicate where two major characters in an epic met or had a confrontation. The speaker would hold a ghomta in their lap and trace it with both hands as they spoke, each part meant to jog the memory of a person who had worked to memorize these stories since their early childhood. Yet the tradition was expansive enough that even professionals required memory aids like the ghomta. They apparently took many different forms, but only a handful of bowl-types have ever been found.

A storyteller was at a disadvantage without their ghomta, but a ghomta is absolutely nothing without its storyteller. The connotations and deeper meanings to each piece and motif on a ghomta was not actually recorded in them- without having knowledge of the stories they aided in telling, they could not be read. Indeed, to say that they were ever "read" is inaccurate.

I held the ghomta in my hands one day, during my second freshman year. I was still struggling to learn Liturgical Ersuut, and a mistranslated footnote sent me on a wild pig hunt through the wrong part of the archive. But even after I realized I was in the wrong place, I had to sit down with this thing. I had to place it in my lap, and run my fingertips over its worn old surface. I stared at every little detail, as well as the spots and blotches of discoloration from hand oils, where other hopelessly lost undergraduates had held it and tried to puzzle through its meaning for a term paper.

I never wept harder in my entire life, than I did then.

There are no more Masibi storytellers. They all died over two thousand years ago. Their voices are eternally silenced. We have a piece of their vibrant history right here, at our very fingertips, but we will never be able to know what it says. No one is left alive to make sense of its weathered beauty.

We will never know what they thought of the world.

We will never know what they named their beloved river.

We will never know the stories they told their children around the fire at night.

What did they say? What did they learn? What did they love, and hate, and use as an excuse to celebrate and drink when dark days were upon them?

It is right here, and yet it is gone.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The God of Dust

((In honor of World Rat Day, which is apparently a real thing, I thought I'd slightly tweak and then finally implement a little idea I came up with a long time ago.))


"Three garbs have We- dust, cobwebs, and skin of flea. Long is Our tooth, for we hide from the blinding torches of truth."
- A snatch of skitterrhyme scrawled above a waste receptacle slot in the Basilica of the Blissful Calculation (Dormitory #12).

"[...] Lastly, all members of the Dutiful Staff and Most Enlightened Faculty are encouraged to remain alert, as you doubtless have been without need for admonishment nor reminder, of the traces of queer murine totemism which have of late infiltrated the Lower Colleges..."
- Agendum 261, CMOE DIX.

"Is this what the kids are into these days? Inventing gods? Incorrigible."
- Senior Editor Onsaro Adelbramp; Provost of the Board for Historical Ordination, Associate Vice-Dean of Affairs for ITU Publishing, and clueless old dodderer.

The Ivory Tower University, despite its pledge to pursue universal "truth" is not exempt from creating its own myths, folklore, and an urban legendarium murky and tantalizing enough to keep even the most exhausted undergraduate study groups riveted during cramming season¹. There is nothing wrong with myth-making by itself. In fact, I would consider it something of a sign of a healthy community- it means that their society is still thinking, dreaming, and being creative. However, certain myths sometimes lead one to wonder just what in the world that community was dreaming about when it thought them up.

A favorite example of mine is the God of Dust & Lost Things, popular among the residents of the Lower Colleges. The God of Dust is, when dignified with the attention of our resident theogonists, designated as a "small" god- both figuratively and literally speaking.

Its influence is said to be limited to the area in and around the ITU campuses, though some especially smitten young students claim that its reach even extends into the lower city and the world beyond. It exists where dust, dead insect husks, shed skin cells, and other detritus of the ages accumulate, dwelling in shady corners and forgotten storage rooms. When it takes a physical form, it is said to be fond of appearing as a small black rat with a skeletal head and tail. In this form, it finds and steals away any small, half-interesting item which anyone has ever lost. The god's warren somewhere deep below the university is said to be snarled with enormous stacks of knickknacks, bits and bobs, odds and ends, and a veritable ocean of lost change in denominations that are no longer recognizable, let alone acceptable as legal tender.

The god is lonesome, but not lonely. It has no altars, no priests, and no proper worshipers. Only the occasional undergraduate gives lip-service and offerings to it in the desperate hope that it will bring back some item which they have lost. This is done by leaving another item of minimal but equal value in a small, dark corner somewhere and then returning to the spot a few days later. The desired item is rarely left in its place, if any at all is given. It is unclear if the god has difficulty understanding human reasoning, or if some bored individual makes the rounds at night, looting places where the skeletal rat is believed to dwell. Sometimes it does seem to work, however, and this serves to reinforce a less-than-joking belief in Ol' Dusty. Rough, sketchy, and discreet images of rat skulls denote popular sites of invocation across campus.

One side effect of the playful, surreptitious "veneration" of the god among young undergraduates is the proliferation of a form of poetry known as Skitterrhyme. Skitterrhyme was originally a type of praise poetry directed at the God of Dust. The earliest recorded ones jokingly extol its "virtues" such as doing absolutely nothing with its massive yet useless hoard, or boring holes in the walls to keep tired academics awake at night. They displayed an extremely rudimentary rhyme scheme and virtually nonexistent meter, but over time the arrhythmic style became more sophisticated and mathematical. The words themselves also began to be coded with meaning, until finally the staccato hymns began to be used to gossip and share secret messages in public. There are about a dozen different cyphers for skitterrhyme today, spread out across the various dormitory houses of the ITU.

A popular story is that the god presides over an entire court of lost and little things, some of which could be the cast-off remnants of other, forgotten gods.

It is both the creator and ruler of a race of animated dust bunnies, who hold the god in distant reverence while going about their lives collecting dander and evading the brooms of the indefatigable but woefully underfunded Custodial Corps, which is often the butt of jokes among the student body- and the faculty, for that matter. The dust bunnies are believed to know the secret of how to summon and gain the permanent favor of the god, but none have ever been found living to question.

The ultimate enemy of the God of Dust is said to be a great, desiccated sparrow corpse which was reanimated by the spirit of the wind, to blow all dust away forever. Sparrows, alongside squirrels, are a ubiquitous and often very annoying sight around the university, so it is somewhat of a natural antagonist to set against this strange underdog.

The earliest attested references to the God of Dust & Lost Things is from an encyclical reminding members of the university staff and faculty to report any and all instances of skitterrhyme or unsanctioned and/or ironic religiosity to the old Committee for Mythological Ordination. This encyclical was published a few years before the committee was disbanded in the wake of Article 921, which de-problematized certain rites in the interest of expanding minority religious freedom on campus. Because this publication dealt with an informal belief in or at least playful acceptance of the God of Dust which was so entrenched in the Lower Colleges that the excruciatingly blind upper councils took note of it, it is safe to assume that the god had existed for at least a few decades before that point, placing its origin as far back as one hundred and fifty years in the past, at the time of this writing.

I personally suspect that the legend was created, or at least greatly contributed to, by our small but consistent body of exchange students from Serminwurth. While it is presumptuous of me, I can think of no other city that affords such respect to the rat without trying to ascribe any sort of lofty, unrealistic ideals to it.

¹ Which is to say, all semester ever semester.