Monday, November 30, 2020

The City on the Steppe

Untitled engraving by GĂ©rard Trignac
for Jorges Luis Borges' "El Inmortal"

There is a City here, out on the steppe.

It is here now, but it wasn't last month.

Nothing was here, except grass, and herds, and blue sky.

But all those are gone now. Now there's only the City.

The City, and the people who are drawn to it.

The City presently covers an area of approximately 100km² upon the inner steppe. Sandwiched between taigas to the north, mountains to the south, deserts to the east, and spiderwebbing river valleys to the west, the steppe has been thought of as a central heartland by many, and as an empty wasteland by many more. This is beginning to change, as news of the City spreads farther.

The City appears to grow at a rate of about 5 meters per day, with the expansion occurring at random intervals between 00:00 and 04:00 every night. This always coincides with particularly heavy cloud cover blocking out the light of the moon and stars, making the event very difficult to observe. The outskirts of the City expand outward when this happens, pushing up mounds of earth and even causing small tremors. It is speculated that 'new' City appears near its center like lava rising up out of a divergent boundary between deep sea plates, but this hypothesis has not been confirmed.

The City is staggering. It is extremely dense, its buildings exceeding the size and scale of those in any other urban center in the world. It is the place where urban planning has come to die, possessing almost no rhyme or reason to its layout and construction. Nor could it be said to have evolved 'naturally' like older cities. It is somehow far older feeling. Buildings shoot up for dozens or even hundreds of stories at random, making the City's skyline a jagged assortment of teeth.

The City is an inturning jumble of structures in disparate, anachronistic architectural styles; a roiling chaos that seems to be frozen in stasis for the moment. Some buildings are immensely tall and fully fleshed out, while others stand half-built, crumbling, and skeletal, like the remains of trees who lost the battle for sunlight in a climax forest. All are built from the same materials: basalt, marble, plaster, and something flammable yet not quite organic which has been conveniently dubbed 'City-wood'.

The City is a place of alienating familiarity, and elegant dysfunction. Vaulted domes sit freestanding and inverted like immense bowls. Bridges span the gaps between doorless and windowless buildings with no access points. Colonnades that lead nowhere stand apart from everything else, perched upon yet more columns like legs or stilts. Buildings can lack doors entirely, or have them placed meters above the street level. Houses can intersect at the edges as if they are superimposed, or fitted together like puzzle pieces.

The City is almost deserted. The herds of horses and sheep, as well as the people minding them on the night of the City's arrival at that site vanished without a trace. Despite rumors of figures spotted on the streets and in windows in unsanctioned areas or during curfew hours, the City does not appear to have any native residents, or any local animal life for that matter. Animals are loathe to come near the outskirts, with the exception of some birds who have begun roosting in high places. Rare gardens boasting exotic plant life have been discovered, but the most vegetation anyone is likely to find are weeds or lichens chipping away at the cracks in streets and foundations.

The City offers sparring hospitality to those who venture deep enough. A flying aqueduct may spill potable water down an alleyway to create a small river. A bazaar might have market stalls stocked with random items and passably fresh food. A sealed room, once broken into, could have a cozy little hearth readied with oil and a stack of dried City-wood.

The City has drawn many people to its outskirts, and a small handful to its interior. A series of camps ring the City, set about half a kilometer out from its creeping limits, where the folds in the earth stop, and horses can tolerate staying. Tensions are already running high across the camps as competing factions arrive to stake claims or assess risks amid a growing sea of settlers, refugees, and curious onlookers.

(The City should have a certain timeless or time-lost quality to it, but the world it has appeared in can be more grounded and defined. Anything from an Iron Age to an Early Modern Period inspired setting could work- too much earlier than that and it becomes unrecognizable for lack of what we consider 'normal' cities, but any later and technological advances can begin to cut into the mystery of it all.

On a whim I plugged Central Asian and late Imperial Russian influences into my host-world for the City, so I'll roll with that for the rest of this post.)

Agents of the Czar and His army are eager to know first if the City is a threat to the Empire, and second if it can be exploited to its benefit.

Clandestine revolutionaries seeking a glorious people's uprising see the City as a new frontier for their cause, if the Empire can be beaten to it first.

Dispossessed nomads and impoverished Sarts struggle to make the best of the bad situation their homeland has fallen into, with agitations for independence quietly starting again.

Natural philosophers and other men and women of knowledge have come from far lesser cities to marvel at the City and all its mysteries.

Fortune-seekers and ne'er-do-wells of all classes and backgrounds have come to plumb the depths of the City for unknown riches, or simply to rob those who already have done so.

People who might be found in the camps around the City include, but should not be limited to:




Imperial Official


Enterprising Merchant


Roving Cossack


People's Revolutionary


Venturesome Boyar


Aspiring Homesteader


Bereaved Herder


Secessionist Sart


Moonstruck Philosopher


Very Drunk Burlak

1) Imperial Official: You serve Crown and Country, and you will not let a little otherworldly apparition get in the way of business as usual. You will analyze the situation in full and send word back to the Ministry, or the Czar's secret police will want to have a word with you.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (authentic), warm uniform, pistol, bureaucratic I.O.U. for pistol shot, unfinished report on the City, list of local suspects.
  • Quirk: At the cost of burning what little goodwill the Empire has left in the area, you may requisition a service from a camp at no cost.
2) Enterprising Merchant: The world is changing, and you know it. Titles and oaths are on the wane. Money is power now, and money comes with opportunity. Something that defies all expectation and explanation like the City is a source of potentially infinite opportunities.
  • Possessions: merchant's scales, chest full of paper money, prybar, certificate of merchant guild membership.
  • Quirk: You have already established trade contacts throughout the camps. There is a decent chance you can buy or barter for common items at a small discount.
3) Roving Cossack: Things got a little crazy while you were pacifying that village. You were separated from the rest of your host, and worse yet, from all of the loot. This strange new City seems like a place where you could find a bit of either.
  • Possessions: skittish mare, weathered old papakha, broken shashka, fistful of coins (rubles or tankas).
  • Quirk: You have seen and done things. Committing deeds of ruthless pragmatism are less draining on your psyche than others... for the moment.
4) People's Revolutionary: The flash flood of revolution is already on its way, or so you are convinced. You need only add cracks to the dam of autocratic iniquity, and give it a vessel to surge into. The City could serve both purposes, in the right hands.
  • Possessions: badge & seal of office (counterfeit), contraband pamphlets, your own manifesto (very rough draft), list of local sympathizers.
  • Quirk: You are a bit of a firebrand. Whatever your usual charm and charisma, you can deliver an impassioned speech about your cause that can win common people over to the movement- enough to aid your party, not so much.
5) Venturesome Boyar: Your highborn parents don't exactly approve of you going off on another adventure when you should be at home looking for a spouse to hold onto what little the family has left, but they can't exactly stop you, either. The novelty and adventure of the City call to you.
  • Possessions: legally mandated shaving kit, bird gun & pellets (3 shots), signet ring, beleaguered servant.
  • Quirk: You may send a letter back home asking for help in solving one problem you face at the city. The letter takes a week to deliver, and your parents refuse to help for a month afterward.
6) Aspiring Homesteader: It took such haggling, and you may have sold one of your relatives to do it, but your feudal landlord finally allowed you a temporary reprieve from serfdom. Now you must race against the clock to claim a home- and what cheaper real estate is there than allegedly haunted land?
  • Possessions: shovel, axe, old burlap clothing, contract for free movement from your feudal lord (deadline fast-approaching), sack of buckwheat cereal.
  • Quirk: Food is a luxury for you. Lean years and ruined harvests have shrunken your stomach. You can go longer than others without eating.
7) Bereaved Herder: Your forebears suffered much when the Empire abolished the old khaganate. Your family suffered when its pastures were repossessed. Now, you have suffered the loss of kin and kine to the City. But unlike those past grievances, you have the power to change this one.
  • Possessions: resigned nag, itchy wool deel, prayer box (real wood), tiny (but vicious) sheepdog.
  • Quirk: You are hardy. You've endured wind and winter out on the steppe a number of times. Exposure hurts you less than it does others.
8) Secessionist Sart: Your oasis town was once a grand city- a flower of the wastes. Now it is just a stop for thirsty vagabonds destined for greater places. You know where the fault lies for this. The village elders and you agree that the City can be a catalyst to destabilize the Empire elsewhere.
  • Possessions: sumptuous silk kaftan, ancestral tamgha banner, aqsaqal correspondence, dried peaches, heirloom saber.
  • Quirk: Being from the arid, desert parts of the steppe, you are better at locating water than most. Somehow this applies even within the City limits.
9) Moonstruck Philosopher: While most have come to gawk at the City, you have come to study it. Something about it has enchanted you and lured you to it, and you will be damned if you don't learn why- or perhaps even then.
  • Possessions: voluminous notes (any discipline), stack of books & journals, unnecessarily sharp letter opener.
  • Quirk: Choose one or two of the sciences and/or humanities. If you choose one, you have expert knowledge to offer in situations involving that subject. If you choose two, you have moderate knowledge.
10) Very Drunk Burlak: Where did the river go? Where is the barge, and the artel, and your pulling crew? Were you transplanted here by the same strangeness as the City, or did you simply wander here on another bender? Your head hurts.
  • Possessions: leather yoke, coil of rope (15m), bottle of alcohol (vodka or kumis), a bad case of kyphosis.
  • Quirk: You've seen stranger things while sober. The weirdness of the City doesn't hurt your psyche as much as it does others, so long as you possess alcohol.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

On the Pain-Tasters of Najis.

Najis is the godhead of harm and healing, and the cycle of endurance and suffering that they perpetuate. While not uniformly sadistic in their depictions across the known world, the cast of the deity's clergy and most fervent devotees tends to be somewhat grim. It is the only known cult in which self-flagellation is a competitive sport, and the 'self' part is often omitted.

Even so, the god's focus lends its followers a keen understanding of the bodies of living things, and the myriad problems and ailments that can befall them. While they may approach infirmity with more spiritual glee than more mundane healers, the priests and surgeons instructed in the ways of Najis are often skilled and sought-after doctors all across the Basin. Sought-after, but not necessarily wanted- one of the more infamous pieces of commonly known Najisi stricture is the forbiddance of any and all anesthetics during procedures: pain is life, and so the absence of pain is an abominable miniature death.¹

The most (in)famous of these healers are the Pain-Tasters.

Barber Surgeon (Zweihander RPG)
Dejan Mandic

While their name is a bit too on-the-nose, their expertise is remarkable regardless of whether you have a high or dim opinion of the order as a whole. The Pain-Tasters are alumni of the highly prestigious and highly secretive Sodality of the Blissful Scourging, a medical school and seminary in Serminwurth with another extremely on-the-nose name.

The Sodality is open only to Najisites of demonstrable faith and fervor, and the vast majority of students already have successful medical careers prior to their induction. Students are forbidden to leave the school until they have either dropped out or completed their training, which is a process that can take up to a decade or more. More than one disappearance or suspected murder in the city has been explained by a new entry to the Sodality simply forgetting to alert every relevant party in their life of their aspirations before cloistering.

Most students do not complete their training. The isolation, coupled with rigorous daily schedules and study regimens that blur the material with the arcane, can lead many to burn out within their first year or two. Surprisingly, these dropouts are often allowed to leave and resume their lives in the outside world, though they all share some dismay when they wake up and find that much of the knowledge they acquired at the school has been obliterated by an as-of-yet unknown agent--possibly a potent and specialized drug--employed by the school.²

Because of these measures, very little slips out about what actually goes into training a Pain-Taster, and its members are quite tight-lipped about it. It doubtless involves mastery of any and all bleeding-edge knowledge and technology of medicine, as well as liberal addition to the 'bleeding' side. It is also possible that they undergo a series of inoculations against any diseases they could conceivably encounter during their practice: Pain-Tasters are well known for how fearlessly they throw themselves into highly contagious situations, yet rarely ever seem to grow sick themselves.

The rumor that the government of Serminwurth hands certain condemned criminals over to the Sodality for clandestine vivisections is unsubstantiated, but it would surprise absolutely no one if it came to light as truth. They possess insights into the physiology of humans and many other living things that could only be obtained through intimate familiarity.

Once a Pain-Taster has graduated from the Sodality and donned their ceremonial mantle of knives and needles, they have a wealth of options available to them. Most hospitals in any given area will accept them outright- if not as full-fledged members of their staff, then at least as advisors and specialists kept at a cordial arm's length. They may emphasize their religious training and become members of the formal religious hierarchy. Or, they go wandering in search of new avenues and methods of practice.

Some of the best details on Pain-Tasters outside of Serminwurth have been recorded in Deneroth, where a permanent office for one has been in place ever since the founding of the city by Laizij. Here, a senior Pain-Taster operates out of a small Najisi shrine that has nonetheless been granted the flattering title of "basilica". This taster acts as the personal doctor for the city's Steward, as well as the Directorate of Ivory Tower University.

The voluminous notes taken at the latter location has teased out many details about Pain-Tasters over the centuries, much to the chagrin of the Sodality. But in the interest of maintaining the relationship between the two cities, Serminwurth does not object to these incidental gleanings.

Foremost among the abilities of a Pain-Taster is their skill at diagnosis. This is where their name comes in, and they live up to it every bit. They can reportedly see, smell, feel, or occasionally even taste the onset of an illness hours or days before visible symptoms appear in a patient.

They can identify broken bones or ruptured arteries at a glance, and even make educated guesses at the exact breed of parasite infesting someone based on the 'look' of their eyeballs or the smell of their bodily waste. They operate on the threshold where preventative medicine is no longer possible, and treatment and pain are the only paths forward- precisely as Najis would will it. Their senses seem to have been honed by years of study and memorization of subtle cues coupled with experience, but something about it is downright preternatural.

Just as they are skilled in determining what will happen, they are unerringly accurate with what has happened. Pain-Tasters can act as coroners, able to detect even subtle causes of death some time after the event, at least so long as the cadaver has not undergone considerable putrefaction. The most famous instance of this comes again from Denerothi records, in which the senior Pain-Taster of the basilica determined the cause of death of Laizij.

The rumor that had spread like wildfire upon the discovery of the Eternal Scholar's body was that he had been poisoned, or smote by black magic conjured by everyone's favorite scapegoats, the followers of Dherna. The taster was able to determine quite confidently that he had died of blockage related to a truly prodigious collection of gallstones. The taster reportedly came to suspect this after ingesting a piece of Laizij's raw, jaundiced skin. After the requisite amount of bureaucracy was waded through to receive a permit to perform an invasive examination, the gallstones were found. 

The chronicle then takes an extensive sidetrack relating the legend of how these stones were inscribed with motes of wisdom that were then sought after or scattered with the winds, in good Denerothi fashion. But the procedure itself is corroborated in similar cases elsewhere, adding to the Pain-Tasters' lengthy list of qualifications for everyone else's reluctant respect.

¹ To say nothing of the fact that one common depiction of the afterlife in the inner esoteric circles of Najis-worshipers is a perfect perpetuation of life-affirming, exhilarating pain via stabs and scrapes.

² This memory erasure does not appear to be flawless, however. Mersind, once an aspiring biologist and anatomist of Serminwurth, was expelled after breaking some sort of grave taboo during his second year at the Sodality. Yet descriptions of the pale, enigmatic man suggest that he fled the city with his memories of the school almost fully intact a decade and a half ago. Ever since then, his former colleagues have been keenly interested in returning him for examination, and to put a stop to his more well-known excesses (while also seizing all of his collected data for their own research).