Unto the Ripening of the World




A flint snapped in the dark. Greasy flame rippled over meagre kindling; hair and pine chippings soaked in oil. A startling blaze. A blinding point in a pitchy void. 

"S'bright," mumbled Dole, squinting tired eyes. He pulled his miner's cap low.

His companion, a spindly ragman with a sack and a guitar on his back, shaded his red orbs. "Yeah."

They sat stiffly, squinting, hunched on the stone. About, grey trunks showed in the dark, vertiginously tall. Countless pillars of granite. Great chains hung amidst, their anchors lost beyond firelight. Bony things dangled from their hooked ends.

Dole watched them. Human-shaped, mostly. All still as stone. "Who's hung them there, Senaphor? he pointed.

"Black knights," said the ragged man, not looking. He plucked a long, dry bone from his sack, placed it on the fire. It cracked, caught quickly. "Built these halls, long time ago."

"Ye ever see one?"

"Seen?" He shrugged, piled more bones on the fire. They smoked greyly. "Nah. Seen their stone beds, though. With themselves carved on top, like dead kings."

"Why'd they do it?"

"Storage, I guess."

They sat awhile. Senaphor piled legbones on the fire til it smoked and stank, hot and oily. Dole slouched, watched. Idly, he pulled a little round cage from his jacket. A battered toad squatted inside, large as his thumb. It gave a peep.

Senaphor looked up, eyed the toad. "Chow, or pet?"

"Neither." Dole frowned at the amphibian. "S'a mince toad. A tool."

"What's it do ye?" said the ragman. He produced a tin kettle from his sack, blew out the dust, put it on the fire.  

Dole turned his lip. "S'meant to keep a person from falling down 'ere."

Senaphor opened a tin, shook some ground coffee into the kettle. "Lot of good it did, yeah?"

"Ay, don't be tellin' me." 

He pondered a bit, watched his companion pour from a canteen. "Mad luck I ran into you. S'worth marveling at."

"Yeah, well," said Senaphor. "Suppose it is." 

Dole eyed the frog. It gave him a lop-eyed look of distaste. "I'll set this little gob free, when we get back." He stuffed it back in his coat. "And show you a real good ale back at home, Senaphor. I'm right grateful."

"Not troubling me," croaked the ragman. "Be back before long.He stretched, groaned for his joints, drew the battered guitar from his back. With a huff, he leaned against his sack, plucked a string, turned a peg, plucked again. 

Dole frowned. "Something gonna hear?" he said, looked about. 

Senaphore pointed up. "Nothing to hear, anymore." 

He plucked and tuned til the catgut sang an open G, began to pick out a lazy toque. Strings echoed long and lonesome midst the pillars and the hanging bones. Senaphor played slow, listened for every note returned from the void. 

Steam curled into the black. Bones snapped, spat sparks. The kettle burbled. Dole poured thick coffee into copper mugs. They drank gratefully, despite the grit and taste of char. 

A crack of iron boomed over the dark stone. 

The travelers froze, listened. A coiling crash of falling chain met their ears. A sequential thunder of cracking links, blaringly loud over the sheer breadth of stone. It went on for whole seconds, directionless. Reverberations shuddered long after it quit.

Dole's eyes bugged. "Think something did hear," he whispered.

"Yeah," scrambled Senaphor, red eyes darting. He kicked to linen-wrapped feet, hunched in alarm. He stowed his guitar, scuttled to the nearest pillar. "Out of the light. Quicklike."

They scuttled behind the darkened rear of one granite trunk. Pressed to cold stone, they heaved nervous breath, quiet as could be allowed. For many minutes, they hid.

Scraping footfalls gained from the black. Footfalls, accompanied by the slick grind of dragging chain. Metal gleamed dully. Dole's eyes bugged. He tapped Senaphor, pointed.

From some far angle between the fire and the travelers' hiding place, there stumbled a bony thing. An emaciated wreck, pegged through the collarbone by a hook and iron chain. It leaned into that weight, drug raw heels hard over stone.

Briefly, it stopped, turned to the fire. Some vague light caught on its lipless teeth, its eyes bolted over by old steel. It walked on.

Only long after its grinding faded did Dole dare speak.

"Blimey. What are they?"

"Sorcery," said Senaphor. 

Dole gulped, looked to the fire, now burned low. 

"Say we take the coffee and we run the opposite way."

"Yeah."

They did.



An afternoon drowse subsumed the lecture hall. Some hundred students dozed where they sat, backs warmed by a green sunset filtered through ivy-encrusted windows. Blue uniform jackets strewed the isles, discarded for cooler shirtsleeves. In the heat, students reclined, soles propped on groaning seat backs.

The door cracked open. Heads lifted with vague alertness. A mop-haired professor in a blue tailcoat appeared. He carried a battered briefcase and a meter-long archival box bound in brass.

"Good afternoon, everyone."

A halfhearted chorus of "Good afternoon, Professor Piedmont," met him.

Piedmont grinned crookedly, skipped cross the broad stage. He strode there to a sunlit desk, set his box down carefully, dropped his briefcase unceremoniously. With a sleeve, he gave the hot blackboard a perfunctory, ineffectual swipe, failed to clean it at all. He turned to the class, straightened his coat.

"Pardon my lateness," he grimaced. "I wasted a considerable time convincing our good Dean to let me back into the Conservatory archives." He gestured to the box. A chuckle met that statement.

"Now," continued Piedmont. "I understand it is a lovely day, and that the temptation of the outdoors and the West Garden is likely disabling your ability to pay attention to another lecture about Prolish daubing rituals." At this statement, a mutter went up. Many eyebrows raised at the Professor.

"Ah, don't be surprised. It was my year that started all that ilicitude in the first place."
* Someone applauded. Piedmont waved it off. "So, in consideration of this disablement, I've elected to lecture on something else." He picked up his coattails, sat on the desk.

"If I could have everyone's attention, I think you'll find this a relief from the daubing rituals." He squinted up and down the isles, frowned. "'Attention' includes you, Hodgkins, Forder. Don't think I can't see you snogging." Hodgkins and Forder blushed, quit.

"Good." Piedmont shifted, leaned back til the rapidly-receding sunlight painted him only nose-up. "To begin, let's briefly forget we're studying ancient arcana; instead focus on the present day." Heads tilted at him, dull-eyed.

"These days, there's a lot of doomsaying going on, what with parousia and and the Los Lejanía epidemic. Strange times." He gestured expansively. "If we are to be doomsayers ourselves, how do we suppose civilization might end?"

Silence. Beyond the open window, a chaffinch sang briefly. Sunlight sunk further lower, left more of the desk to shadow. Students shifted awkwardly. Piedmont looked about expectantly, drummed his heels against the desk. "Come now. What do we fear?"

Finally, a hand raised. "Johansson?"

"Plague, Sir?" said Johansson, quiet.

Piedmont raised a finger. "You're right, but plague could only play a part. He nodded to Johansson. "If plague relies on us to reproduce, there's no sense in killing us all. Mice will remain, in any case. Anyone else?"

Another hand. "Quorelle?"

Quorelle adjusted her glasses, tentatively spoke. "Aggressions from the South?"

"A holy war, begun by the Southerners?"

"I guess."

Piedmont's face pinched politely, as if he were considering a mouthful of wine. "Destabilizing, at most. One side will most certainly remain, likely that which holds the Bay of Grey." He looked about. "Any others?"

A pause. People tittered amongst themselves. The sun had sunk further, casting their faces into backlit obscurity. Piedmont surveyed them, hopeful. "I promise we're getting somewhere, with this. Give me another."

"Manifest doom?"
** called someone in the back, abruptly.

Piedmont grinned. "Very good." He stood, began to pace into the beam of sunlight and back again.

"'Fast is the shield against night,' yes? One of our eldest cultural motifs: We must necessarily defeat the encroaching Other and return to anteinterstiction security–"
*** He stepped into shadow. "Lest the world of Man fall to älves."

Piedmont waved an insistent finger. "That, according to a millenium of folklore, of tradition, of propaganda, would be the end of the world." A chorus of nods.

"Hence, by breaking the forests, and slaying the monsters, and building our cities of salt and iron, we banish the Other. And banishing the Other is good." He paused. "Right?" More nodding.

Piedmont shook his head. "Wrong."

The drowsy rows looked askance. They straightened, frowned, muttered amongst themselves. Piedmont grinned back at them, returned to sit on his desk.

He reached for the archival box, began to undo its clasps. "'Wrong? Why wrong?'" he mimed. He undid the lid, gently removed something heavy from within. In the shadow, it was indistinct, large in his hands. "Because the älves supplanted something far, far worse." He lifted the thing into light.

It was an iron helm. Near a meter long, cruelly beaked like an eyeless crow's skull. Pitted and black, it shon not a glimmer in the sunlight.

"Naussians," he said. "The most awful practitioners of sorcery since the Ancient Nör."


Whispers filled the hall, mingled with summer breeze whistling through parted windowpanes. Students leaned forward, no longer a hint adoze.


"Masters of the Præcantian Age. †† Not humans any longer, but sorcerers. A people so raveled in their black art, they wore their armor as skin." He flipped the helm over, revealed patterns inside like spongy bone. The front rows gasped in disgust.

"Naussia ruled all the spine of the Coast for centuries. Not a sorcerer's empire,††† but a union of equals." Piedmont grew louder, more riled. "Every Naussian was a lord among lords. They shared their secrets of power and plague; their resources; their millions of chimeras and cauldron-slaves."

"Their union was so immense, the mere empires of the age paid them tithes of flesh and steel. They practically ruled the world."

Piedmont put down the helm. "Can anyone tell me what's so odd about this story? What doesn't add up?"

A hand shot up. "Yes, Philome?"

"Professor, I think it's odd we've never heard of it before."

"Ah," said Piedmont. "That's because it's unpopular to teach. The Crown doesn't really approve, and you'll see why momentarily. Anyone else?"

Another hand. "Daud?"

Daud spoke loudly. "If Naussia was so influential, why are they gone? Where's the ruins?"

Piedmont snapped his fingers. "Daud's guessed it. Where did they go?"

He began to pace again. Only a bare strip of sun still shon above the stage and blackboard. "After centuries of domination, the Naussians hit an obstacle: Somehow, they managed to draw the wrath of the älves."

On the dim stage, Piedmont's eyes twinkled. "And for all their slaves, and their fire, and their iron, the Naussians could not beat the Other. So, they buried themselves. In the Underworld, in their fortress catacombs"

"They buried their armies, their chimeras, their secrets. They shut themselves away in black sarcophagi, and went to sleep until the älves went away." Piedmont paused. "And they still sleep today."

The hall was now quite dark. A mere orange glow shon through the ivy-clogged panes. Reflections of eyes watched the professor, uncertain. They waited.

Piedmont carefully placed the helmet back it its box. He resumed speaking, softly. "If the forests are cut, and the älves are driven off, and the Otherworld is banished, Naussia will reawaken. With all its sorcery, and its chimeras, and its millions risen from their bone pits…"

"That would be the end of the world."

Piedmont stood, plucked up his briefcase and the archive box. He turned to face the darkened rows. Silent eyes surveyed him. "I'll give related readings on Firsday. Enjoy your weekend, everyone."

With that, he departed. 


Naussia

Neath the skin of the world, in the dry capillaries of mountains' dead bones, lie black gates to Naussia.

Naussia, once a realm of august sorcery—neither monarchy nor coven, but lord apparent to all the worldis now a relic. An antiquity black with wicked tarnish, sunk and sleeping; fled to the foreign depths of the Underworld.

At their height, some two thousand years ago, the armored sorcerers of Naussia commanded all the mountainous spine of the world. ‡‡

From catacomb fortresses, cut miles into granite by mindless slaves, they brewed armies from gluttonous cauldrons: Thousands of lobotomized slaves, eyes shut by steel plate, labors prolonged by sorcerous half-life. Countless chimeras cut from scorpion and bull; babe and wolf; serpent, goat, and lion. ‡‡‡  Millions of cauldron-born grues; plague repurposed with military intent. With these armies, the Naussians conquered all the world, fast and confident in their lairs.

No foe endured before the Naussians, for no human force could endure the ravages of plague and endless attrition. With every cauldron-born slain, another corpse was fed to the pots of sorcery, soon ready for redeployment with new life and fresh armament. Attrition assured the Naussians every victory, for their reserves grew with every death.

And all the while, their sorcery grew only more terrible. In their formative years, they quick slipped the limits of death, became no longer men and women, but beings of their own design: Creatures of high, terrible elegance. They forsook their mortal bones for those of titans, greater and more statuesque. They flayed their own frames, reset the flesh with plated, ebon iron. They discarded their own faces, their human eyes, chose each instead the blank, beaked gaze of high terror. §

The Naussians cared not for low Humanity, let alone what remained of their own. Any and all sorcerer-comrades to perish in the name of domination and hideous progress would be gladly dissected, absutured into incunabula of immense scale. These were books of sorcery, sewn from the brains of the greatest, most perverse practitioners to have ever crafted the black art. By these fleshly tomes, the knowledge and culture of Naussia grew ever greater, ever queerer with every passing century. §§

But before the third century of its height could round, Naussia was met with one foe which would not be so easily quashed nor ensorceled: The Otherworld, and all its fickle children.

For all those brief centuries after thinterstiction of the worlds, the Naussians had ruled in a relative vacuum, contested only by peoples of middling power and small sorcery. After crushing these, they set their dire conquest to the world's frayed edge: The raw borders of the alien Otherworld, the home of älves. Black eyes in creeping mist, capable of sudden and vicious violence when provoked.

The Naussians' provocation proved their undoing. Though they had no iron, no Worldly sorcery, the älves' response was fast and devastating. Nigh-invisible, immune to plague, and charged with a hostility so honed, so coordinated, it could only be the product of an ecosystem itself enraged, the pale soldiers of the Other cut down cauldron-born armies with one-sided ease. Sorcerers themselves fell on the battlegrounds, their iron carapaces proofless to the cruel ribbon-lances of Otherworldly knights.

Whether by fear or by hard consensus, the Naussians withdrew to their fortress catacombs. To the black of the Underworld§§§ they went, to their square-kilometers of chiseled halls in lightless granite, carved by millions of cauldron-slaves over an age of dominion.

In that awful subterranea, in uncounted, disparate tombs of unfathomable scale and separation, the Naussians buried themselves.

They locked away their cauldrons, their precious tomes in trapped complexes of horrid device, guarded by their direst, deathless chimeras. They marched their remaining legions into bonepits, ossuaries for once and future armies. They hooked their legions of slaves by their collars and their thin hips, hung them by the thousands in stark halls, like queer stalactites. They interred even themselves, in black sarcophagi secreted in grim sepulchres. 

In this way, Naussia disappeared, came to rest neath the skin of Nören for ponderous milleniaIt has slept, in all its strength and all its sorcery, in the silence and the dark, unto now. Unto the ripening of the world.

Somewhere, after all this time, black cauldrons are lit anew.

Author's Note

As a world element, Naussia facilitates ludicrous, Mines of Moria-level negadungeons.

To stumble into the Underworld is already fearful. To fall further into a Naussian tomb is a mishap worthy of real dread. As I've run it, it leads to a session or more of panicked escape, wherein one or more characters often die. Those who escape often do so with little to show, save tales of dread and dubious artifacts better left under the earth. That, and a good hunk of XP under their belts. 

To go willingly into the home of Naussia is to tempt doom. These are delves of highest risk, often justified by the acquisition of a single tome within. That, or meat grinder raids cruelly organized by banks. More on this to come.

Footnotes

* The West Garden, a gated and forbidden portion of the Royal Academy grounds, plays host to
weekly meeting of students interested in more than simple explorations of arcana and occultism. There, secrets, art, and lust are traded over smuggled cups of wine. Älves are rumored to attend.
** The concept of Manifest Doom dictates that the Coast, without intervention, will be subsumed by the encroaching borders of the wilderness, and, likewise, the Otherworld. "Imperative destiny" is an accompanying philosophy. It dictates that expansion into wilderness is both necessary and inevitable.
*** "Anteinterstiction" refers to a time, some 3,000 years ago, wherein the world was reduced to a tiny scrap spliced chaotically by its neighbors: The Coast.

† The Ancient Nör were an anteinterstiction race of humanity. They were the first sorcerers, commanding arts more awful than any known after. By their hubris, they burned nearly all the world, creating the Coast and destroying their empire in the process. Their ruins and language shape much of modern society.
†† The Præcantian Age was a time of high sorcery in which many sorcerous empires rose and fell. They sprung up in the ruinous wake of the Ancient Nör, fueled by scavenged sorcery and savage times.
††† Throughout history, "sorcerous empires" or "sorcerer's empires" have prevailed as the most
awesome and terrible of all.

‡ The structure of Naussian command, what existed, is greatly unknown. From what can be gleaned by translated writing, which are sparse, as access to them comes at a price of danger, the Naussians were a near-scholarly alliance of several hundred sorcerers united by insular culture, aesthetic, and aims, each of whom shared their knowledge of the black art, thus allowing alliance-wide gains in sorcerous power.
‡‡ Naussia commanded the full extent of the gigantic Gorathian Range, a land East of the throne of the fallen Ancient Nör, whose powers they salvaged and reverse engineered. The coastal locations which surround said range, though powerful in their own right, are thought to have served tithes of slaves and materials to the Naussians.
‡‡‡ A chimera is any sorcerous hybrid created by cutting, brewing, and splicing disparate creatures into one monstrous product.

§ Naussian helms, or faces, as they may be, are oft described by archaeologists and cutters as akin to the skulls of birds. Each is distinct, despite this unifying motif.
§§ A few Naussian Tomes have been discovered my modern explorers. Each is a thing of true awe: An altar, half the size of a man, of fleshy pages bound in hinges and plates of thick, pitted iron and chain. Their contents, written in High Naussian, are apt to change, when read. They are impossible to write in, as other incunabula are. One, the Wicked Tome, is known to have been destroyed, its contents detonated atop Mount Hellebore. Another, the Vile Tome, is yet at large. It is rumored to be an item of immense hazard, as all who fall asleep in its vicinity are driven to a state of unconscious, perverse violence.
§§§ Naussian sorcerers' greatest gift, that for which they are named, is their prowess in the manipulation and voyaging of Underworld gates. This discovery granted them reliable access to the lightless world's depths, without fear of entrapment.

Benton

Chief Producer of Typos at Incunabuli.com.

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