The Secret Jackalope Extravaganza of the OSR Discord continues. This time, the prompt is
Many stories have a purpose. Write one such story from your world. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale spread by a knightly order, maybe a spiritual parable, maybe a coded message from a thief’s guild, what have you.SunderedWorldDM
Hm. I’m going to be perfectly honest – RPG world stories have never really been my cuppa tea to read. I’ve actually written loads of them from the Dawn State, because they’re genuinely quite indulgently fun to write, but without actually playing in the game world, and without like…the sense of a real full narrative, just a snippet, I don’t really get the appeal. But this is the prompt, so… here, have three such stories.
An Orphan’s Tale
The backstory I wrote to one of the major NPCs of the Dawn State, who works alongside several other major NPCs.
Podsnap Bokanovsky is an orphan.
He’s a changeling, specifically, placed into the crib as a cruel joke to terrify his parents, who promptly dumped him out on the streets, where pickpockets and ruffians took him in, willing to overlook his pointed ears, pale skin, and lack of a heartbeat.
Podsnap matured faster than most, and with his new kleptomaniac family made a sort of foster home for other orphans in the city – it wasn’t set up well, it wasn’t always the best home for them, but it was what they had. The responsibilities that the children took on were well beyond the norm in the rest of the world, ranging from cooking and cleaning to dumping bodies into the river when a heist went wrong. The less said of the adults, the better.
Podsnap wasn’t in charge, but he served as a good face for the “orphanage”. As it grew, those who ran the criminal side of the orphanage came to value the “legitimate” side of things as well. Podsnap had wide eyes, an elegant appearance, was whip-smart, and with the help of a cossack hat, his ears were covered. He had a voice that sounded alternatively forlorn and adorable with a mastery borne from many a mark.
Of course, what made Podsnap so ideal as a face also made for an ideal adoptee, so the orphanage found various reasons to have him become unpopular if prospective parents became too interested – sudden onsets of sickness, a flash of his knife-pointed ears, a hitherto undiscovered “food allergy”. Podsnap himself was fine with this – somewhere deep inside, he still yearned to find his original family.
However, the day came when Fauvas von Alba, one of the Crusader’s foremost lieutenants, came to the city. Fauvas was experienced in both sword and sorcery, and in particular was conversant in the art of spirit sight – the ability to follow the paths of spirits through our mortal world.
Spirits crowded around Podsnap – his magical essence attracted them, and they flew around him, granting him a little luck here, a little nudge there, sure that this young changeling was destined for something great – or something terrible..
It didn’t matter how unattractive the orphanage attempted to make the young changeling, nor did it matter the extent to which Podsnap strove to lose Fauvas. The man spent a week and a day doggedly following the boy around, learning what he was about. At the end of it all, he made his first and only offer: “be my son, and we shall vanquish all unfairness in the world.”
Podsnap was nine. He’d spent all nine of those years with a changeling’s near-perfect memory, looking for his original family, and hope had been replaced with bitterness. The world had been unfair to him, he judged, and Fauvas had made the offer at a time when Podsnap’s judgment was still new and all-encompassing. The young changeling nodded, and that was that.
Fauvas wasn’t an idle man – he and his wife trained Podsnap rigorously aboard their airship – the Demonwrecker. By the time Podsnap was a teenager, he could scrap with the best of the crew, and his father’s magic was reflected in his own prowess with the arcane.
Not all was well, however…
One of the unfortunate effects of fighting demons, you see, was that contact corrupted. This was often not seen as a problem with most of the crusaders, who were far too zealous for their own good to start with. A corrupted crusader just became more devious and reckless, which is exactly what the Crusades warranted. Fauvas, however, was different. He was filled with love for his wife Sarnai, and love for this child that made up for the infertility of his coupling. He had a love of studying new and novel perspectives, a joy even as an older man for reading philosophy, and a habit of out-of-the-box thinking that made him so valued in the Crusader’s army.
The demons used this – they took careful gouges out of his memories. They granted him false memories of fertility that were then taken away during the Crusades. Every defeat at the hands of the demon army, they amplified into overwhelming moments of futility, and every success was rendered impotent, insignificant. The demons even went so far as to do the opposite in the men Fauvas led, so that when he was hopeless, they would dismiss it, and when he felt listless, they were roused to revelry. Over the course of half a decade, the Choirs of Ruin had crawled into and through him, and left him broken.
Fauvas came to believe that demons were not the problem with the world; he believed instead that the angels were to blame for his tragedies, complacent to abandon humankind to the terrors of the world below. The demons saw this, and stoked this feeling of abandonment, placed words of anger in his mouth that Podsnap, who had been abandoned by his own parents, heard. Fauvas hunted them zealously and lined his airship’s sails with the feathers of those he destroyed…and meanwhile, the demons started on Podsnap.
The newly-named Angelwrecker was well-known as a trading vessel, as a stalwart champion of war for the Dragon Empire…but folks whispered that he flew through gates in the sky to hunt celestials, and folks counted the feathers, and saw that the feathers grew in number.
Amidst all this, Podsnap grew, and learned, and was molded.
He learned the art of the katar from his mother, a warrior-priest, and learned how to sheathe it in magic so as to stab through the flesh of angels from his father, one of the greatest of the Crusader’s army.
When he came of age, he swore to the Crusader that he too would enlist in the endless fight against the demons, but like his father, Podsnap had a sense that injustice did not come from below. So he did what few men, much less boys, dared to do: he asked the Crusader for a favor before he would enlist.
He said, in a tremulous voice lined with hard steel:
“I want to find my parents – they threw me away, and I know not who they are. I will find them and judge them. Please, Crusader, help me to do so. When I have judged my false family and purged myself of my past, I shall be yours to command.”
Underneath all of this, was the roiling intent of an angry young man. One who would not be satisfied by the mere slaying of kin, and who was starting to feel distant from Fauvas and Sarnai, as well.
And the Crusader, who was all this time a demon underneath, smiled at him.
An in-world description of an in-world monster that I occasionally make use of.
Sightless Hounds! Yes. They’re trackers for the church, trackers for the empire.
In exchange for their eyes and a large portion of their heads, they don’t have those distracting instincts that dogs normally have. It’s all been lobotomized, clear-cut, completely taken out.
All that remains is the instinct to find, and the additional senses grafted onto their not-heads give them access to detection of magic, of vibrations, of temperature. They have heightened smell and hearing that can be selectively sealed off in the event that a canny enemy turns those advantages against them
Some additional redundancies are built in – extra hearts and muscles are stitched in, organ rejection held at bay via regular injections of ichor. Their brain is rearranged to be all along the spine, so they can still function if bits and pieces are damaged.
The spine runs along the back and along the sides, three-ways. Each spine is redundant, so taking parts of it out don’t result in full-body paralysis.
Admittedly, there are limitations to chirurgery: none of these additions will keep them alive if they are damaged too much. All it does is keep them working for just a few moments longer. Often, those few moments are all that a handler needs to finish the job.
Once they find someone their tactics mostly involve holding down with large claws, since their heads have been repurposed to be sensory organs and have little left in lieu of jaw strength.
They’re still dangerous though. Not as lethal without a full jaw, but easily as able to hold you down or injure you.
Their handlers are usually well-trained enough to finish off what hounds are traditionally supposed to do, anyway.
A story about warbeast development.
The story begins in a lab. Steam puffs out half-heartedly from cracks in the floor, and in doing so obscures both the woman at the table and much of the first paragraph of the story she is in. Sandalwood is the first and most obvious scent, though immediately afterwards you will notice the not-quite-masked odor of aged pork broth – the standard smell of growth vats. Swathes of damp cloth coat the floor and the entirety of the room’s five walls. They help to maintain the appropriate humidity and double as soundproofing panels which mute the room from outside disturbances. There is no window through which you might see the weather outside, and the woman working there does not care at any rate about such things.
Her exhausted mien is set at odds against her stubborn wakefulness. The hypocaust’s maintenance is always shoddy at the late hours of the night, and even without the sound of tolling bells to speak of time to her, the woman knows that it is night from the way the steam sputters and the way her bones creak. She is tired, but there is a vigilance that comes only when one is tired but work is undone, and that vigilance possesses her now. She owns the room with her stride, gathering the appropriate vials for another dose of ichor to pour into the vat at the center, set within the pentacle of chalk and cloth and brick.
Labs are all alike in the Empire. The details may vary – not all rooms are pentagonal, not all warbeasts are grown in vats so large – but if you are familiar with one lab then you know the grind of such labs by heart. The woman knows that her creation, as large as it is now, is nonetheless fragile as it ever was. Shifts in the ratios will end it. Shifts in humidity will end it. Shifts in temperature will end it. As far as she knows, even a sound too loud or a light too bright may introduce an unexpected trauma.
She takes the proper precautions for all of these things. He shoes are wrapped in the same cloth as the room is swathed in, and she keeps her breathing quiet despite the stifling atmosphere. Briefly, she glares at the lab door, contemplating whether to open it and risk the cold air coming in. Her eyes narrow in calculation. Will the students downstairs keep the furnaces going well enough throughout the night, or does her project hinge on a stern lecture to them about responsibility? In the end, she resigns herself to trusting them. She finishes administering the required dose to an exposed vein on the warbeast’s arm and waits for the muscle spasms to cease. There is an air of anticipation. The steam billows forth, the cloth beats against the wall, and the beast heaves against the walls of the vat, splashing the broth out so that it drips through the floorboards, but the woman is still.
Internally, she traces the record of her weary failures. Strength is drawn from tracing – she tells herself that all professors who tread new ground must have a similar record. In a world where people believe that the Empire churns out warbeasts regularly, this may be false, but the synthesis of such creatures is kept far away from the populace for reasons unknown to her. She has no metric for whether her experience is standard or not, only unwavering faith.
Externally, her attention is entirely on the beast, as surely as your attention is on the words on your screen. She keeps count of the guttural rasp-clicks from the beast’s throat as it calms, and simultaneously she keeps count of the amount of times it has spasmed since she performed the injection.
The beast calms, and she lets out a slow breath. Her notebook is splashed by the nutrient broth, but she flips diligently to one of the drier pages and records her counting. Something must have gone wrong. There is a frown on her face as she places down the record, and her back is hunched. She is more defeated now than she was mere seconds ago, though she isn’t ready to pull the plug on this project just yet.
“Again,” she whispers to nobody, and she starts measuring out the ratios for the injections to come.
When he talks, his chin quivers. He says words which do not matter individually, but as a whole they indicate his unhappiness. You can imagine the tones of distress and apply them here – the tremble in the voice of an outraged man unaccustomed to feeling such outrage, the screech of fear, the feigned dignity as the voice returns to a lower octave.
This man is an official of the Academy. It is not substantive to the story to state which one, as the story will soon move on from this Academy, and indeed this City, but the context is important. As a reader you now understand this man’s position to the woman encased in broth and gloom is one of a superior, and that despite his lack of talent his station affords him this wanton direction of his displeasure. She says words too in response. As far as the story is concerned, perhaps her words are sharp and argumentative. Perhaps she is shrill, and is told to calm down. Perhaps she is humble, and through her humility defuses the self-righteous anger of her director, her patron, and her useless confidante.
Whatever conversation is exchanged, the man is sated, though he insists that his patience has limits (as if he had not already exceeded them!) and he threatens the withdrawal of his gracious patronage (as if this project were not originally his suggestion!).
“Reassure me,” he says in the manner of someone who cannot be reassured.
And so the woman does. Her eyes are dull with the need for sleep and one of her hands beats an impatient rhythm against her leg. Her grey coat, plastered to her by the juices of the vat and her disposed-of warbeast, does nothing to earn her respect with the man. He asks her to repeat her ratios. He double-checks them on paper and on a large slate board, going through the motions of an advisor. It is apparent that he was once a man of some skill, but it is even more apparent that time has worn him down in the same way it wears down great mountains. Have no doubt, dear reader; he is the sort of professor who has enough lines on his face that he must have earned them through past feats of greatness. In like kind, she is the sort of professor who is young enough to still harbor at least the desire to respect those such as him. As you witness their back-and-forth, it might occur to you that this is a song and dance they have already performed many times before. He continues to express doubt and outrage and renewed faith, and she continues to express nothing but rigidly maintained politeness.
She has lost count. We have not – this is her seventeenth warbeast, and her fiftieth adjustment of the ratios. She has been through three teams of students who showed varying degrees of promise, but her senior had enough of her failures and had no ability to cut her loose. Many of those students became the target of his ire instead. Some dropped out. Some got involved with Wei’s personal experiments and never got the opportunity to drop out.
If she had kept count, she might marvel at the perfection achieved in her fiftieth ichor concoction. She might marvel that she was twenty-five and that fifty perhaps had numerological significance, as twice that. As with all humans, she might have held the inclination that coincidences bred truths, and that numbers held some tenuous flirtations with fate. However, she had not kept count, and so she was merely feeling the same blend of determination-dejection that she always did.
She doesn’t know yet that her seventeenth warbeast can hear her. She doesn’t know yet that it is healthy and growing stronger. She doesn’t know yet that when she mutters under her breath about Wei’s abuse of her students, it understands.
A month from now, her warbeast will be the talk of the Empire, Iammovan will be one of the most famous names to ever come out of The City of Decadence, and she will be personally scouted out by the Crusader himself. A month and two days from now, the warbeast will kill Longlong Wei in a sudden undirected rampage which ends precisely with his death. Due to the utility of the beast and the lack of promise from Wei’s personal experiments, the event will be swept under the rug. Angela will be guilty and paranoid about her creation for the rest of her life.
But she doesn’t know any of this yet. She administers the dosage, and she looks at the huge creature in the vat, derived from bats and demons and Wei’s last faltering bits of genius, and she prays for the first time in her life. She prays for her students, and she prays for herself, and she prays about other things which we will allow her to keep private. They are not important in this story.
Fire has an interesting texture to it. The small ones tell me that what I’m hearing is wood, but fire shouts blurs into the world and renders sharp, wrong wall-objects into those blurs, and no wood is so blurry-sharp.
Behind the sense of upwardness, the billowy sound, between the pops, there is a continuous sound of contact against nothing – some sound sitting halfway between lips hitting lovers and sizzling butter, but a larger object that impedes echoes and adds echoes. Fires are no good for me, as much as they intrigue me, and so I give it its due marvel and turn away down another tunnel. Order to all things. Complete the emotion. Continue onward.
Even with the fire in the way, I still keep clicking my tongue against my mouth, ringing out my probes. The fire was in a broad room, in a pit. There were people around the fire. Their rebounding signal wasn’t familiar to me, so either they were new dungeoneers or old hands with new armor and sticking-out-bits. I wasn’t about to check, not with the fire.
The tunnel I went down led to a hall of paintings. I knew the soft-stickiness of my clicking off old canvas and oil well, but paintings were bumps and smoothnesses to me. Art was barred to me. I gave the hall its due lament. Order to all things. Complete the emotion. Continue- no!
Art did not crawl. There were two crawling-things there, in front of me. They were larger than my claws, smaller than my arms, connected by soft-sticky reverberation. I redoubled my clicking to get a better object-sense. Not two crawling-things, but one, cut in two but living by perverse magic.
This was what I was looking for I supposed. Disgusting crawling-things on the edge of death. I kept clicking – to the creature it would sound like dripping water, and in the darkness the creature had no object-sense of me.
No face-ruffles, so it couldn’t be one of the dwarves from town. That was frustrating.
Click click click.
Soft textures amidst a hard metal shell. A she-human, then. What was she doing? How was she moving? My job was to find the dead and bring them to the den, but she was still moving. Pain was there – the whines and pants confirmed it, and she was subvocalizing wetly. Revenge. Anger. Hopelessness.
I could sympathize. Revenge, anger, and hopelessness are things due their own time. I would wait for her to complete the emotions. Interrupting was no good – my form usually brought forward a lot of fear, what with my foam-covered torso and my gangly limbs. That fear would require even more due time. Even I can be impatient.
Eventually, the whines stopped and she stopped moving also. She died very softly. That sometimes happens, when you are tired so much that death is more resignation than roaring. During the time, I kept the clicking going, and the weapons laid around came into focus. Sharp unlike fire. Dangerous too, though not very much to me, and probably too many for her to carry alone.
I picked her up in my claw and deposited her almost halved-body into my pouch. I gave some thought to what would happen if my companions went the way hers did, silent-gone and with no object-sense left except their weapons.
Yes. Revenge and anger made sense. Hopelessness was something I would have to tell the Crusader to deal with when she was revived.
I started the return journey.
Soundbearers are derived from giant bats, but have much strengthened and exaggerated liminal wing structures capable of funneling sound where the soundbearer wishes the sound to go. Their arms extend into claws and carve away easily through flesh and bone, though they are highly obedient and non-aggressive (NOTABLE EXCEPTION: The Wei Rampage is the only documented case of a soundbearer apparently going berserk, but the creature seemed to calm after killing Longlong Wei, white coat professor of the City of Decadence medicinal hall. Said creature was sedated and, after Wei’s shaken pupil confirmed that she could produce more of such creatures, the creature was executed).
Each soundbearer’s skin looks rather aesthetically unappealing, as it is dotted with pouches and divots made to dampen sound, and has extendable pads on its legs and claws to similarly muffle its own steps. Furthermore, they intuitively secrete a sort of foam from their skin that reacts to the acoustics of their surroundings, further causing them to dampen sound. This effectively means that not only is a soundbearer nearly impossible to hear when it wishes to be silent, but that it can provide a cover of stealth for dungeoneers behind it as well. This makes it the perfect creature to use for revival dens seeking to recover delvers who have fallen in the dungeon. Even the soundbearer’s own clicking, used to form telerhythmic maps of its surroundings (see Telerhythmia Documentation by Angela Iammovan, included in the report) can be modulated by the creature to sound like water dripping, the roar of a river, or the soft sifting of soil.
The creature’s weakness seems twofold. Firstly, they are very strongly bonded to their “parents”, and will be extremely protective of those who grew them in vats. Secondly, they become disoriented when surrounded by loud noises, effectively becoming blinded when such sounds are overwhelming.
Soundbearers are one of the few warbeasts both large enough to pose a threat in a dungeon and flexible enough to traverse a dungeon. It is a promising road to pursue for future warbeast growth projects, and we of the Endless Crusade fully support such endeavors. While our funding strategies have been refused on account of our own poor reputation within the Empire, we’re confident that with more and more soundbearers being lent out, folks will come to accept our way of thinking.