Wednesday, November 2, 2022

MSF: Dangers of the World

The thought process that goes into these is the same as in my post on the Champawat Tiger - the great dangers in the world of Mother Stole Fire come from a disruption in the machinery of the world.

 

Swine-Things

Feed a pig enough human flesh and it will learn how to hate. Its bones will snap and knit themselves back together in poor imitation of a man. Great tumors will grow in its bowels and buboes and sores will open up its flesh. It will slouch forth in a knuckle-walking gait that mocks the gracefulness of apes. It will learn nothing of kindness, nor love, nor mercy, nor any of those traits that make human life endurable. Its mind will become a whirlwind of demons, swirling around in shadowy legions like a great school of blackened fish. It will hunger, and no matter how much it eats it will always hunger for more.

Swine-things rarely occur on their own - few pigs will eat enough humans for the transformation to take root. Their creation is nearly always intentional; sorcerer-kings and other tyrants looking for a convenient way of translating their pogroms into monstrous hoards that can be unleashed on their enemies.

If an individual swine-thing is allowed to reach critical mass, it will metamorphose into a hive-queen and begin spawning new swine-things on its own. At this point the danger is greatest, as the primary cap on population (the amount of human flesh needed to create each individual swine-thing) has been removed and hive size is now limited only by availability of food.

Swine-things show no signs of higher faculties - no symbolic thinking, no magic-working, no tool use beyond the occasional sharp rock.



Manticores

A tiger that devours one hundred humans will transform into a manticore, often called "the king of monstrous beasts". They retain the black stripes and deep orange coat of their former lives, though they will grow far larger than any other great cat (closer indeed in size to an elephant). Great shaggy manes fall about their shoulders, and their faces are like that of a man, though their jaws are far too wide and bear rows of serrated teeth like a shark. While they possess the ability to speak the languages of humanity they will rarely do so, except perhaps in mockery. They might be mollified through tribute, though treasure will always remain secondary to sacrifice.

The residual souls of the devoured are an irritant to the manticore, and will form pearls in its gut over time. These are a potent reagent, can be crushed and ingested to imbue the eater with a temporary rush of vitality, and are otherwise valuable simply for their rarity. Unlucky hunters (of which there are many) hoping to come home with a handful of pearls are the leading source of manticore-related deaths.



Ghouls

A slouching, pallid, scabrous creature, hardly recognizable as the human it once was. Lank, stringy hair, a long wedge-shaped snout, serrated, yellowing teeth, blind eyes. The stench of rotting meat. They are not the only monsters formed from habitual cannibalism, but they are the most systemic of them all.

Ghouls dine exclusively on human flesh, and so will not only live in those places where food is plentiful, but will encourage, in whatever way they can, the generation of corpses. So they will make deals with tyrants and despots, offering their support from the shadows in exchange for the bodies of the undesired. When there are wars, they benefit. When there is plague, they are pleased. When there are pogroms, they celebrate. When the worker dies in the factory, they are there, claws rap-tap-tapping upon the secret door, to ask for their share. They offer in turn the secrets of the deep crypts, of ages long past, of treasures and rites buried by time.

 

Wizards

Phenomenal cosmic power has a tendency to corrupt phenomenally. Not because the practice of magic is inherently corruptive, or inherently addictive, or anything of that nature - it's simply the fact that if you give a human being an easy means of fulfilling their desires and exerting their will over that of others (that is to say, give them power), it is often an arrow-swift shot right to the bottom.

It's not very useful to think of good wizards and bad wizards: there are wizards that currently pose an active threat, and those that pose only a passive one. The safest are those that become so consumed by their personal projects and their solipsistic distractions that they lose all interest in - or even awareness of - the world outside their tower. History is peppered with the others, those wizards who sought to conform the world to their visions. A cycle of would-be sorcerer-kings, emerging as if from nowhere, starting a war, carving out a personal fief for a time, and then dying. Only the ruins, again and again.

Regardless of the incredible power available to wizards, death remains unconquered. Thousands have tried and failed in the quest to overcome the end - and many will become monsters themselves in the process. They have tried and failed to create the Magnum Opus, they have tried and failed to develop a means of extending the life of the body, they have tried and failed to transfer the soul to another living body, and they have failed still in their efforts to create an artificial eternal soul, or to kindle their own eternally through the consumption of other souls. Yet they continue, and the death tolls rise ever higher - for the wizard's mind is fueled by the unquestionable belief that this time, it must certainly work.

Of the monstrous beings created by wizards there are a great many, and they include:

  • Swine-Things - See above.
  • Chimeras - Any creature that has been transformed from its natural state by a wizard's magic.
  • Miles Agnotes - The "unthinking soldier", a human modified for equal parts docile obedience and unthinking violence. In the past, it was seen as good sport among the wizards around the Mare Interregnum to engage in intentional breeding programs of their miles, as some might do for their hounds.
  • Teratoma - A wizard who has attempted to extend their life indefinitely through endless growth of the flesh. The body swiftly deteriorates from an ordered whole into a mass of muscle, bone, cartilage and half-shaped organs, eventually growing so large that it is rendered sessile.
  • Vitabibor - A wizard who has attempted to extend their life indefinitely through absorbing the souls of others. Their bodies wither with the ravages of age, but they will not die. They will swiftly become dependent on their servants, and will eventually become unable to move or speak.


Of the Magnum Opus, much has been written but little needs to be said - it is the dream of something from nothing, and wizards seek it firm in the belief that no cost is too great.

 

Devils

The heart is the seat of the soul; the lungs keep it kindled and the stomach keeps it fueled. If the heart can be removed without stopping it, and it is properly sealed away, the subject might remain alive while divorced from their soul: a devil.

To devils, there are no people - only objects. Even their own persons are mere matter to them. So separated from human connections, they are greatly skilled in the calculus of risk and resource, of gain and loss. They are without empathy and possess only the barest remnants of internality. They may be bound and set to a task, which they will perform with speed and precision, but if the binding be loosed they will be cut adrift, and resort to the trace memories and desires left behind when their soul was taken.

The art of devil-making has been developed only twice: once in Atri-Tun (from where it passed to the sorcerer-priests of Wend and from them taught to the wizards of Tanniclen), and again in Pelai. Of Atri-Tun, nothing can be said. In Wend, devils are used as part of mystery cults but we know little more. In Bensael-Tanniclen, they serve in the dual city's bureaucracy, with their hearts safely sealed away in a great vault carefully monitored by both wizards and non-wizards alike. In Pelai, the Adzat and Obet councils keep a legion of war-devils as a means of deterrence.

 

The Restless Dead

The dead shall forever outnumber the living, and in solemn procession their endless shaded ranks march silently down to the dark places below the world. And while they are beyond all thought and memory, they shall still rise up in anger if their places of rest be desecrated.

The restless dead come in too many forms for categorization to be worthwhile. Each is unique, shaped by the manner of their death or the manner of the desecration, though patterns will emerge. Some will take physical forms, animating the bones or bodies they once possessed in life, or forming bodies out of spirit as the Folk and sagani do. Many remain only as ghosts, unable to interact with the world of matter and energy and thus limited to attacking the spirit with curses and maladies of the soul.

The most common form of the restless dead is the angry shade - either acting on their own, or possessing an improperly-prepared corpse and forming an ambulmorte. Either might be dealt with through a simple exorcism and restitution - cleaning the grave or making one if there had been none; naming the dead; recovering the remains and interring them properly; a sacrifice - incense, libations, paper charms, food. And so on.

However, this becomes increasingly difficult with greater forms of the restless dead - those formed from grisly murders or great tragedies. With these more powerful dead it is often necessary to combat them directly. This will not solve the problem - the shade will simply form a new body or possess another, or redouble its curses - but it might buy the living the time they need for the sanctification.



The Angered Spirits

Not all spirits of the world are friendly to humanity. Indeed, it is only those who have agreed to the Compact (or are at least neutral towards it) that we call the Folk. Many of the rest bear us no mind, and there are those opposed to us no matter what offerings we might make.

But even friendly Folk may turn against us if the Compact is broken, if we mistreat their holy places or seek to dominate the world that is rightfully theirs. Their memories are long, but they understand innately the great cycles of give-and-take. Even if the damage is severe, it is still possible to make repayment - but repayment must be of equal measure to the damage made. The spirits of the world will not be shorted what they are due, and their patience will not last forever. Sooner or later they will take their due.

Fighting an angry spirit will accomplish little, for they live as long as their loci lives, and further desecration of their holy places will bear only greater retribution. Thus it is best to begin the work of healing, and to begin it now.


Demons

A shadow cast by the fire of the soul. A parasite of the spirit. Evil deeds given form. Fears given flesh. Reflections of the worst parts of ourselves.

In the end, definitions do not matter. They are as varied as the depravities and terrors of mankind, but you will always know them by their works.  


Hell, and the Lords Therein

There is always more to say about Hell.

Two thrones sit in the great palace at the center of Dis. The greater throne remains empty, save for the sacrifices thrown to the furnace in its belly. The lesser throne is that of the Tyrannos Pangaea, head of Hell's civil government and chief priest of Moloch. As it was in the Maid's day, the Tyrannos of Hell is the sorcerer Kouros - previously court wizard to the Tribune of Coreolana. He is the Speaker for Moloch, interpreter of the will of the Devouring Machine.

Below the Tyrannos there is the Lordly House, consisting of all the many barons, marquises, and dukes of the city-nation. Here they quarrel and scheme and war amongst themselves in a great game with no end.

Below the Lordly House, there is the vast edifice of the military. Without a war to be fought, those legions that are not stationed on Hell's side of the DMZ remain in the city and enforce the laws of the Lordly House on the rest of the populace.

Below the military, there are those who are called freemen - not because they possess freedom, but because they are not legally enslaved. Most of Hell's population, even the ever-suffering commonality, would call themselves free if asked - it is a most fervently-believed lie. False-freemen serve as much of the bureaucracy of the city, though they cannot own any property of their own.

Below the false-freemen, at the very bottom of Hell's crushing hierarchy, are the enslaved masses. Here they toil away their lives and die in their droves, all the while believing that the great Dispaterian machine is necessary - necessary to drive back the chaos of the outside world, necessary to ensure the survival of humanity. They live in terror of the mad goddess Lu and her bestial hordes, fearing that at any moment the walls of Dis might crumble under the onslaught of the savage world beyond.

The Lords of Hell - Darvatius, Mammon, the Forge Baron and others - do not directly influence the day-to-day workings of the machine as much as one might expect. They might pull men and institutions into orbit around their vast masses, but they slow to break the inertia of their solitude - Darvatius, despite being the lord of conquest, took to the battlefield only hours before the end of the War of the Bull.

  • Of the Tyrannos Pangaea, we have already spoken.
  • Mammon - Keeper of the accounts. His appearance is akin to that of an enormously fat spider, shining and golden, thousands of arms perpetually busy at ledger and abacus as he feasts lavishly on the spoils of Hell. A traitor of the Hundred-Handed Ones. Status: Active. In the wake of the War of the Bull, it seems that Mammon has become the favored Lord in Dis.
  • The Forge Baron - He is such a small man, such a weak-looking man with his reedy voice and hacking cough, his dusty suit with tattered coattails, his decrepit silk hat. And yet it is his factories that fill the sky with their burnt offerings to steel and sword, lead and labor. Status: Active.
  • The Butcher - A warrior from an ancient people long-lost to the wheel of years. Enormous beyond even the greatest of humans today. Mindless from long centuries - millennia - of endless violence. The spears and swords of countless failed slayers rust where they are lodged in his body, from which he will tear their broken and corroded blades to make new mountains of the dead. His wounds sew themselves back together, but the pain does not cease. From, it is thought, an ancient civilization that suffered its own emergence event. Status: Uncertain. Last seen wandering the wastelands of the far north over fifty years ago.
  • Agrimas - A demon firm in the belief that they are an abandoned child of Lu and Tubalkhan, they travel the outside world in disguise, offering false visions and committing acts of anathema while wearing the form of the true gods. Status: Active, though their influence is small in scope.
  • The Sun-Eater - Intends to do just that. She never got on with the others, never even pretended to willingly cooperate. Status: Unknown.
  • The Worm - Thirty cubits wide and much longer still, it is a thing of soft, segmented flesh - cherry red - with mashing, grinding mouthparts at one end. Thought of some nature churns inside it, unknowable to the outside. Status: Complicated. The Worm spends its days in the sewage-flooded tunnels deep beneath Dis, and has always seemed more kin to an animal than the other Lords. It feasts upon attempted escapees and those others exiled to the depths as punishment, but otherwise does little.
  • Barbarlares - A ghoul grown so fat on corpses that it has taken to moving about with the contractions of a slug. Absurd, enormous powdered wig, useless limbs like little twigs, twitching and sputtering. Chief of the slave markets and the business of corpses. Status: Active.
  • Harastra, Queen of Heaven - The remains of a true dragon, animated by a legion of demons so great that not even the Tyrannos knows their number. Status: Inactive. Harastra saw battle during the War of the Bull and was damaged to such an extent that it can hardly keep itself together. In any case it has no coherent mind


There are, of course, others, who sit neatly in the box once belonging to Schrödinger that I have labeled "Narrative Convenience".



Dracolarii

The Dragon Cults have already been written about at length, and so instead I will focus on these notable members. The dracolarii - typically drawn from the wealthy of the Dracon Republics - are those who seek to transform their souls into those of dragons, using certain rites and methods derived from the mysteries of An-Hehm.

A problem arises: humans are omnivorous social primates. Dragons are solitary apex predators. To become dragon-like is to reject human bonds and human kinship, to view those who were so recently your brothers and sisters as a cat might see mice. And so often the dracolarii sow the seeds of their own undoing in rivalry with each other or cruelty to their servants. 

 

Deep Powers

There are forces beneath the earth and under the earth, in the black deepness of the waters and the deepness of the sunless sky. Distant powers, nameless powers, unknowable powers; vast beyond measure, greater than belief. Of them we say only that it is best for us to leave their places of power well alone, for they are not ours to worship.

 

Leng-Men and Moon Beasts

Every so often, one will hear tales of some poor soul abducted by the black ships with fuligin sails: A man or woman is caught unawares, bound and gagged up by a band of masked assailants, and carried out into a desolate place. Then the Leng-Men come down in their ship, and they will nod their head yes or shake their head no. If yes, they will offer payment to the kidnappers - a king's ransom in precious jewels. If no, the story typically ends with the abductee killed by their kidnappers - though some who tell these stories claim that they were able to escape through luck, guile, or the aid of the gods.

We know that the Leng-Men speak of benefactors.

We know that they gladly take people in trade.

We know that they sell icons and idols of the New Gods.

We know of a few fragmentary, terrified accounts of great pale beasts lurking in the holds of their ships.

We do not know what they want.

11 comments:

  1. This one's been sitting in the draft folder forever

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  2. It's pretty wild how well you balance out MSF feeling like an incredibly comfy setting and posts like this which make it feel genuinely terrifying. Though I suppose that level of terror is kind of required for it to be a tabletop setting, otherwise it's just a very pleasant writing project.

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    1. Much of it, certainly, comes from the fact that MSF is much more a personal setting than a tabletop one (while the latter was intended, it is ultimately incidental) - and when working in a very personal setting, it is easy enough to translate one's fears and anxieties as well as one's hopes and dreams, and would feel somewhat empty without them.

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  3. I love every bit of this, most of all the diverse cast of the lords of hell. That's exactly how a weird pantheon of demons should work. Regarding swine-things: Reminds me of a game I made (that is a roguelike and inspired mostly by Darkest Dungeon): https://madzab.itch.io/the-swine-pit
    I like that your wizards cannot truly conquer death. Never liked lichs. Wasn't there a Greek myth of this dude who was immortal but they forgot to add eternal youth so he just grows more and more decrepeit? I imagine the Vitabibor to be a fate much, much worse than death.

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    1. The Darkest Dungeon swine were definitely the major inspiration

      The myth is Tithonus (who apparently gets turned into a cicada. Huh.)

      Vitabibors are above all else, utterly and desperately terrified. Their existence is hellish, and they still prefer it to considering death.

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  4. I *really* like the first lines on the Swine Things and Manticore entries.

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  5. The Swine Things are great. I've always loved that idea. I also like that one of the Lord's of Hell is just a big worm. The way you described the Deep Powers was also neat. Definitely reminiscent of Earthsea

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  6. Beautiful and brilliant. The devils as humans-without-empathy is terrifying and very much on brand.

    It is easy to think of ghouls as a natural consequence of cannibalism--a taboo, a crime, a sick act. But it's not a crime for a pig to eat a man, and it's practically what we expect from tigers. If enough of our flesh turns those beasts to monsters...I'm starting to think we're the problem. Some sort of spiritual equivalent to apex predators bioaccumulating mercury and other heavy metals.

    I bet a dragon would not become any more monstrous from eating any quantity of human flesh, but a human that ate dragon meat would become something very nasty indeed.

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    1. "I'm starting to think we're the problem. Some sort of spiritual equivalent to apex predators bioaccumulating mercury and other heavy metals."

      DING DING DING WE HAVE A WINNER!

      I have mentioned elsewhere that humans are the only creatures in the world to create demons. Elephants, dolphins, corvids, octopi, dragons, all demon-free.The Theft of Fire resulted in the spiritual equivalent of trying to run modern computer programs on a windows XP rig. Tries its best, but you can hear the hard drive deforming under the strain.

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    2. Oh, that's right! I remember a passage now to the effect that it is a mercy we don't get dolphin demons. AND IT REALLY IS.

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