Shadows & Sorcery #76
It’s time, as they say in the old country, for the seventy-sixth edition of Shadows & Sorcery!
A classic five tale edition this week, we got cults, we got conjurors (and I insist on that spelling), we got lots and LOTS of weird gods, and some monsters!
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This week, we delve into the darkness of the Dragon Depths, we learn just what happened in the Abandoned Sepulchre, we learn of the terror and might of the Storm Demon, we find out what’s in those Conjuror’s Dungeons, and we take a minute to hear about those who don the Armour of the Undead…
They say a great chasm has opened up in the cold southern reaches of the Stone Lands. Strange geological phenomena invite dread before curiosity, especially that close to the Ice Belt, those sky-flung and forbidding wastes being all that defend the overworld from the dragons of the underworld. But things still make it through from time to time, like smuggled dragonblood, or their spawn, even the odd dragon itself finds a way through the barren mountain corridors. This isn't anything that the combined might of Man and Greyfolk cannot conquer.
Yet every so often, their incursions gain a foothold in the overworld. Serpent-men cults and their dark knowledge of immortality, a poisoned stretch of bleak forest in the Silver Woods that cannot be cleansed, the myths of the Dragon Mountain and the Archdragon Chasm from which all manner of evils emerge spreading fear and dark curiosity. So when this rent opened up, and word began to spread, people naturally began to brace for the worst.
Stonefolk scouts, the finest in the overworld, raced back from the cold south and confirmed suspicions: dragonspawn dwelt in the depths. Several large wyrms were seen coiling and slithering about, but not much else. At least not right now. Sages in the easternmost stretch of the Silver Woods converged, and decided it was no chance emergence. They did not speak openly of their gravest concerns, but merely whispered, "Have they finally done it?"
The chasm wasn't that deep, at least that they could see, but they'd spent no less than two hours battling their way through the chaos of collapsed rock and earth. Serpent-men had found it after the Stonefolk scouts and were what met the questing party. The serpent-men had been led not by a full-fledged member of their kind, but by a manorm, a two-limbed and cunning dragonspawn, who along with wyrms, are the objects of worship for serpent-men. The serpent yearns for dragonhood, but fears the power and wrath of the full-blooded dragon, and so their kind flock to the least of the spawn.
Wyrms are limbless, crawling, bestial horrors, more akin to great horned snakes than their more draconic cousins. They were believed by some in the past to be the severed tails of dragons that gained life of their own. But for all that they're little more than animals, they're extremely hardy creatures, difficult to kill. They have regenerative abilities akin to true snakes, and can even reconnect several sections of their bodies. Their blood is highly prized by human warriors for that very reason. They also never stop growing. Given the right habitat, and plentiful prey, a wyrm can grow and grow, and there are dim legends of leagues-long wyrms in the arid wastes of the underworld.
The manorm had fled deeper into the chasm as the tide of battle had turned, though its price had been three lives of the questing party. Now all that were left of the band were Kastaine, the one-armed swordsman who was a recipient of a full arm of spectral King's Armour which he used as a replacement limb, and Yar, a master Artisan, who wielded a shimmering longsword composed of a thousand interlocking barbs—a weapons designed to deter a wyrm's regenerative powers.
Tough-scaled arms flexed their wicked talons as the two warriors approached. Kastaine summoned his arm and unsheathed his blade. The arm acted as an almost weightless shield, for he had no fear of damaging it or wounding a limb beneath. The accident had, in a way, been the best thing to happen in his soldiering career. Yar hadn't once put his sword away, and his grey-fleshed hand tightened around the polished silver grip. With a lightning-fast lunge, the greyfolk had sent his thousand edges across the manorm's taut-wire arm, tearing a ragged rent in the dark brown and dully shining scales. But the thing lashed back with its black talons, raking them across the greyfolk's shoulder, drawing out shining white blood.
Kastaine rushed in and drove his spectral fist into the manorm's chest and leapt back, bringing his sword down upon it. Yar had readied himself in a battle stance, but winced in pain. Those claws had dug deep. The manorm struck out at Kastaine who barely blocked the hit, his sword being nearly ripped from his hands. But it staggered the manorm just long enough for Yar to take a single graceful step forward and send his thousand barbs up in a gleaming arc, cleaving the manorm's neck open.
The dragonspawn flailed and fell back, thrashing, before another diving blow from Kastaine's armoured fist silenced it forever.
They could hear the shifting of dry flesh over stone all around them, yet saw nothing. This place must have been infested with wyrms. There had been a clear few when the scouts had reported back, but that was a month ago now. Yet it was only wyrms, that they were sure of. Nothing else had spawned. The manorm had come with its cult from elsewhere.
The sheets of split rock resembled great natural steps, but they were already in a half-darkness threatening to become absolute. Yar did what could be done there, and lit the place with dancing bars of light from the barbed sword and a shining crystal. They descended that cracked earth, the must of reptiles all about them yet the air deathly chill. There was a bottom, or so they believed, through which something moved. It looked, in the pale light, like a great underground river. Likely it was what these things had followed from leagues beyond in the underworld. Who knows where it eventually surfaced, if it at all, or if it simply fell into some fathomless planetary core.
There came a point where they could no longer descend. It was just sheer, jagged rock beyond. Yar took the light-bearing crystal and bid Kastaine to shield his eyes, the greyfolk would now try something dangerous, but it would help show them the way better, perhaps follow the wyrm trails to a source they could plug up. He raked the crystal along the flat length of his sword and illumination flooded the chasm as if in a dancing prism. But what was then suddenly opened to their eyes was not the answer either would ever have imagined.
The river below them wasn't the concourse from which dragonspawn had found their way to the overworld. It was dragonspawn. It was, in fact, a wyrm, of a league-long kind in dim and dreadful myth. A single coil which slowly shifted, black and shining, unimaginably huge. The pit below must have been filled with cast off scales, slowly becoming wyrms. Even the vastness of the greatest trunks of the Silver Forest tower trees paled in comparison to that one glimpse. It called to the mind of both warriors legends of the primal archdragons, whose corpses, slain by the Great Grey Ones of ancient epochs, were what had birthed the first dragonspawn. What had likely birthed the thing they looked upon, and now fled from.
But that spawn could come from spawn was a dire lesson, one that meant that spawn themselves were capable of terrible power. Such knowledge a dark prize indeed for this quest, which they feared was only the beginning of a more terrible and ruinous campaign...
Faith doesn't necessarily have regulation, it's more that we all expect it to behave itself. And for the most part it does. Sure, bacchanals might get a little rowdy every so often, but there's always some other sect ready to stand and shut them up. Don't even need the guard sometimes. Anyway, they're most likely to be in with the military cult, so there's little difference.
You could say religion is stratified, yes. You have the big public cults which provide more than just a spiritual framework, they provide community, services to adherents, protection, and so on. Then you have your family cult, the generational faith of your lineage, often a complicated affair since married families are inducted into each other's cults. Then you have your personal cult—the one a lot of people consider your real faith. The one you found for yourself, sought out and joined, that you weren't bound by culture or blood to. And quite naturally, there's sometimes overlap between all these things.
That's how it is with the Sepulchralites, only in the extreme. They're small in influence, but very widespread, they're what is academically termed a mortuary cult, that is, practices relating to the dead, graves, and so on. Their churches are their tombs, intensely private where many other temples are open to the public. Communities gather in the resting places of their own families. Their floors are paved with gravemarks, the walls lined with sarcophagi, even the vaulted ceilings may contain hanging specimens. Most surfaces are covered in little carvings of letters, figures—icons and sigils, apparently, devotional symbols to aid worship in place of statues and other idols.
Though they do get funny looks, maybe not undeserved, as they are grave-dwelling and terribly isolated, they're not one of those outlawed death cults. The state of death is obviously very important to them, but from what I understand it's more they believe it's where we're all going to be spending the most time, and it ought to be tended to. Not too outlandish, most religions have cemeteries of one kind or another, most are very nice, tranquil places. But where it gets a little, well, I suppose odd, is what they think death is. It's like a dream, they say, and sleep is like death. It's hard to get across just right, they talk a lot about your waking life and dreaming life—but it's the same life, just different focus.
Anyway, dreams are very susceptible to outside influences, and that's where they come in, making sure the dead's dream life is peaceful, because it's still a dream, and therefore very esoteric in nature. It's a very fragile, sacred state. You want to make sure the dreaming is calm and smooth, you know, so that nothing disturbs the rest. And while the dead can't be woken...they can be stirred. I'm sure you can see where this is going.
It's what makes that abandoned sepulchre just off the Voletarc Thoroughfare so unsettling.
You won't find many Sepulchralites who'll talk about it. They don't want to bring thoughts or feelings of it into their tomb-temples. You might think it's so as to not impact the dreams of their dead, but if the words of the few who did talk are true, it's more to do with not giving their dead any ideas. You see, the Sepulchralites don't really worship anything, they don't make offerings or sacrifices—and good on you if you know the difference!—and they don't commune, either. But the people in that abandoned sepulchre had apparently been doing just that.
Here's where it gets tricky. Sepulchralites are adamant that some heterodox element had crept in from outside, it's very possible one of the less savoury mystery cults infiltrated it for some obscure oath or curse, but I've the idea that perhaps one of their dead hadn't been resting too well, and had stirred the others around it. They don't all have to have been good people in life, you know. I'm sure there's scores of Sepulchralite dead with unfinished business, and much of their rites are probably dedicated to keeping that business unfinished. The long and short of it is that the members of that temple had begun to worship their dead, disturbing their sleep, blurring dream and waking.
Sepulchralites have connections through friend and family to many sepulchres, and when this particular one, in a fairly prestigious setting off a grand thoroughfare, started to go quiet, cult members around began to take notice. Slowly at first, as there is no real central dogma, just shared practices, so it's not unheard of for different tombs to do things a little differently for a while, but not to this extent. Their members ceased to appear elsewhere, and what's more, visitors to that tomb began to be denied entry, or find the place just completely shut up.
When someone broke in, they found something no one will talk about, but it had to be reported to officials, and I'll be honest, I believe that's where most of the poor reputation Sepulchralites have today comes from. If one were to scour the less open official records on the matter, especially those dealing in cult infraction and blasphemies, one will find countless references to "unorthodox rites" amongst the dozens of personal accounts, speaking of people brought from that tomb-temple making incredibly strange sounds, of something else behind the eyes, of those people making inhuman motions—put it all together and you'll come to the conclusion that others have, that what had been growing in that sepulchre was a possession cult.
The dead been reaching out from their stirred sleep and seeking a half life through their adherents, leaving their dreaming death and walking in the living, waking world once more, seeing and doing things which ought not to exist. One account recalls a great bonfire of "dream wisdom" from beyond the veil of death not meant for mortal eyes, destroyed at the behest of the Sepulchralites themselves.
In the end, the cult converged one night upon the tomb-temple and destroyed it, slaying those within, and sealing the doors shut. They could be not be persuaded to speak of it or undo it after, and most folk were content to leave it at that as things were found around the city that had apparently been built by possessed Sepulchralites. Small effigies, little symbols, all found in odd places. The cult said it didn't know what they were, but they said so with bad looks in their eyes. If any remain, they will likely fade with time. The city prays for it, if those accounts are anything to go by.
The world is filled with gods from top to bottom, in every little corner, for every little thing—every single thing has an attendant power, a being who in a time before time, was granted dominion or attachment to some piece of the earth by that which lies beyond.
A god for the earth, a god for a cave, a god for the miners and the mine each, and a god for the metals they extract, then a god for the smith, and a god for the weapon he crafts as well as what type of weapon it is, a god for the warrior who wields it, and gods crowding about the point of the blade as it is driven to its mark by the answered prayer of a war god overcoming the desperate pleas and wavering faith of the opponent soon to be delivered, by his god, into the hands of another god.
Man is not a god, but rather a thing that has gods—there gods of mankind, as there are gods of beasts (and gods of every individual kind of beast), but humans are in a unique position in that they can commune with and, in some cases, bend the powers of these gods, for there are many gods who are lesser than men in power and intellect, though they are no less eternal and all-knowing of their charges.
Although humanity inhabits a living world teeming with divine spirits, alas, there came a time when it had to make peace with the fact that not every god could be placated, propitiated, or worshipped, or even controlled with theurgical forces. Some gods were just bad, or dangerous, or so totally unpredictable that they were best left untouched. Thus was a distinction slowly formed and made between a god, which could be prayed to, and a demon, which could not, or rather, should not be prayed to.
Not that demons cannot be invoked, of course. That was the danger—they could be, and sometimes inadvertently. Warmongers have turned the tides of battles both ways by speaking demon names and making their signs. Bizarre calamities have befallen people who speak a name or old phrase whose dark associations have been forgotten. And one of the single most dreaded demons around which disaster and doom hang, who walks often and whose invocations have been scrubbed from memory, is the Storm Demon.
There is rainfall, there is the thunder, there is wind—then there is a storm, the thing itself, boundless energy, unfocused, rampant, wrathful. There are gods—not demons, but gods—for each aspect of a storm, but there is the one demon for storms themselves, who rounds up the sky gods into a mad frenzy of terror and drives them across the upper air, spreading chaos. Indeed, some gods are vast and hold half the world in their palms, and some gods are so small that a score of them may fit in a child's palm. But the storm demon holds the entire world in its grip at times.
Both history and myth record the image of the demon, seen a handful of times by those whose horror was so great they felt the need to exorcise it from their minds and onto parchment. In it is bestial fury, wildness, and a primal nature. Said to resemble a great horned wolf with ink-black fur, racing across the skies on cloven hooves. Its horns are forks of lightning, its hooves the crash of thunder, its howls the baying of the wind. The upper air trembles at its passing, and to see the host of gods being driven forth by the roars of the demon is to be struck dead on the spot, if one is lucky.
Some have not been blessed with death, but have been dragged into the tempest and returned changed—as killers and madmen whom no gods will touch, and many will shirk from, for demons of calamity, such as the storm, are too potent. Such persons become exiles and outlaws, though rarely they channel the inhuman vitality their frames have been suffused with into some kind of great work, though mercifully these folk do not live terribly long. Such works tend to be hidden away for fear of their associations with the storm demon anyway.
Does a cult of the storm demon exist? The grand theologians should hope not, for the idea of it is abhorrent to every god in the world. And yet, the sight and sound of a storm elicits the greatest terror, and perhaps secretly, the greatest respect. Such superhuman life would be a boon for some folk, no doubt. Pray to the ten hundred thousand gods of earth these desires are never realized.
There is another world adjacent to this one. We don't know what it is, but our ancestors glimpsed it in certain places, at certain times, and grew such a deep fascination with it that they eventually found a way to sunder the barrier which separates these parallel planes. It was a method derived from an accident—as many discoveries are—in which lighting happened to strike a particular crystal growth...and something emerged. That much is known. The eyewitness to the event fled, but returned later and spent great effort extracting the crystal. That growth became the bedrock upon which is all conjuration is based: the heat-warped matrix, the energy source, and the veil it can sunder.
And then, one deep moonlit night, after months of blind fumbling, the first cabal of conjurors came together in an old tower in a wild place, and there called forth the first envoy from beyond. With it came their first real vision of the other world, and they saw before them a dismal, stagnant vastness, upon which gloom and darkness hung like a pall. They quickly realized that which destroyed their budding institution: the other world was a cursed world, never to be looked upon again, and those from the other side were not the astral intelligences, or primal beings, or ancestors, or gods, or shadow selves, or any other spiritual desire they had been praying for. What came through the gate was ravenous, violent, cruel...desperate. No matter the weapon set against this thing, steel or flame, it could not be stopped.
So, the veil through which it had been pulled was opened with great tribulation once again, but despite every method available to the conjurors, there was simply no way to return that which had been summoned. Thus were the two great and unbreakable laws of conjuration formulated: that which is conjured can never die, and can never be sent back. A dungeon was constructed to hold this thing, the old tower converted into a prison to brood over an unseen cell in which a nameless being from beyond crashed against the walls relentlessly, its terrible howls mercifully kept from leaking into the world.
But alas, these would not be the last secret prisons the conjurors would ever build.
The knowledge of conjuring spread, despite efforts to contain it, and conjurors, under the patronage of those who knew no better, began to call forth new forms from the dead world beyond. Each learned the same lesson, at greater and greater costs. It's hard to conceive just how many hidden chambers exists across the cities and towns, out in the wilderness, cells deep underground, hidden in walls, at the tops of towers overlooking busy market squares, each one housing something unspeakable from another world, aching to escape and devour until the end of time. And that number will continue to grow as long as there are fools who believe some untapped wealth lies in wait to be claimed by courageous souls.
Some think it all began on the other side. Every so often, a conjuror text will make reference to the idea that crystals are not native to this world, but instead minor incursions from beyond, advanced slowly over many ages until a usable specimen was formed, and something could step through. It's worth noting that whatever the first witness saw manifesting now so long ago is likely still out there...
Armour of the Undead
"So, tell me," asked the ferromancer over the din of the preparation chamber, "when did it happen?"
All undead have that distance in their eyes, but this one's eyes seemed to go even further in thought.
"It's been...nearly a month."
"A month, you say? They really haven't seen to you in that long?"
He was wrapping a thick, dark binding about the undead's fellow's torso. It looked wet, likely soaked in some alchemical solution beforehand. The arms and legs and already been done.
"I live—lived a good few miles from the city. Agents aren't so concerned with the wider country. I've seen folk half turned to dust out there-"
"Tied up with bandages and wicker," the ferromancer said through a restrained flash of anger. "I know it all too well, miserable state to be in." He shook his head. "But we'll have you sorted soon, don't worry."
The undead was silent for a few moments while the bindings were finished.
"I'd say you've been holding together well, though, very little ash on you. These," he said while lifting up a stack of metal plates, "will keep you in even better shape for a long time."
"Not forever, though." There was a tinge of fear in the undead's voice. The ferromancer didn't have an answer.
Measurements were taken of the body then, but the ferromancer had to stop several times.
"Sorry, I didn't realize I was."
"Oh it's okay, takes a while to forget."
"No, no, but I've talked to a lot of undead. Can't work iron if you're undead anyway. The ability just vanishes." He sighed. "I can give you a little room with these sheets, but it's best you learned to stop altogether."
"I'll try to remember." The voice was utterly flat. How many had he outfitted this week alone, thought the ferromancer, must have been in the double digits. More than usual.
"You know, I've had undead come in here that were half-dust already. Whatever you're doing, or not doing, keep it up, eh?" He tried to chuckle, but it didn't really work.
The ferromancer began to mould the iron plates around the limbs with his fingers, his motions were mechanical but precise. They had to be snug, but not constricting, form-fitting and capable of holding the body together, but also to work as actual armour and not just support. First, the limbs were done, and the ferromancer carefully flared the ends of plates where they met joints for more movement. The torso and its segmented plates came next, they needed to overlap so the undead could crouch and duck. Then the hands, the trickiest of all, lots of small plates on fingers, dexterity above all else here.
"Hey, before I seal the torso here, did the vivisectionists empty you out?"
He didn't like the tone of that response one bit. He ran his thumb down the length of the undead's side and made the plates smooth.
Lastly, came the mask and helmet. They were fitted and sealed fairly quick. There was always a part of him that didn't like this, but he couldn't quite figure out why. Like he was sealing something away. The last of their humanity maybe. Or what they could become. And he was responsible for either keeping it safe, or keeping others safe. In time, this undead would begin turning to dust, lose its mind, then be poured into a reservoir, and the metal melted down and reused upon another. Maybe it'd be on him one day. If new cases kept appearing with such alarming speed, it was likely.
And there he was, ready to join the front lines. He. This wasn't really a person anymore, the ferromancer tried to remind himself. Something very deep had been lost, or taken, and what walked and spoke here wasn't like him. By their own admission, undead were something else, becoming something else, or going somewhere else. They barely knew themselves, but they were sure they had been set apart. And yet, the ferromancer had looked upon the distant, terribly human eyes one last time before he sealed them behind that monstrous iron mask, made to the specifications of the High Circle. He stood back and inspected his work. A fearsome walking tomb for the legions. Some preliminary tests were done with movement, and satisfied, the ferromancer sent the hulking iron undead on his way into eternity.
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