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Posted on November 18, 2018, 10:56:16 PM by Jubal
A Forgotten Realm: Tartessos

A Forgotten Realm: Tartessos
By Jubal

Tartessian gold artefacts. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC-By-SA license.
The Guadalquivir is the only great river in Spain that is navigable for a significant proportion of its length, cutting down from the mountains through Cordoba and Seville to the Gulf of Cadiz where it meets the Atlantic. Long before it was the Guadalquivir, though (a name stemming from the Arabic for Great Valley), hundreds of years before Muhammad, Jesus, or Caesar stepped foot into the world, it held another name. That name, seemingly shared with the region generally and perhaps also with a now lost city at the river’s mouth, was Tartessos.

Tartessos is a Greek word, and it is to the Greeks that we must mostly look for writing on the people who lived there. Herodotus, in the fifth century BC, paints a picture of a fully functional monarchy capable of negotiating with Greek merchants who arrived on Tartessian shores. He gives us just one name for a king, Arganthonios, though whether this is really a name, a title, or an epithet is impossible to tell. Either way, it is likely linked to modern words like argent, meaning silver – the metal that southern Iberia was known for and which could well have given the Tartessians great wealth. Herodotus shows them having friendly relations with Greek seafarers, with their trade making an accidental lifetime’s wealth for Kolaios of Samos, apparently the first Greek to sail so far west and only then due to being driven there by storms. These friendly relations may have had a darker overtone though, too, in mutual fear at the rise of what would ultimately become the dominant pre-Roman power of southern Iberia, Carthage. Scattered references exist elsewhere – Stesichorus gives Tartessos as the home of the giant Geryon whose cattled Heracles stole, and one later reference suggests that the Tartessians’ own sailors reached as far as Brittany – but for the most part the history of Tartessos as a country remains mysterious.

This vague picture of a rich and welcoming culture is only the starting point, however, for what we now know about the Tartessians – archaeology in recent decades has provided a considerable amount of additional interest. Huelva, a modern city that is another strong candidate for having once been the Tartessian capital, boasts huge pre-Roman deposits of silver-bearing slag material. With gold and tin also present in southwestern Iberia, the fabled wealth of Arganthonios seems thoroughly historically plausible, and mining (done without even the aid of iron tools) seems to have been a common activity even before Greek and Punic influence on the area began in around the eighth century BC.

An excavated Tartessian building, probably a temple. Image: Turismo Extramadura
The arrival of foreign trade is likely to have supercharged the mineral-rich economy of the region, with trade posts springing up on the coast and imported pottery starting to appear in Tartessian graves, flowing in as heaps of rough-chipped hacksilver flowed out to be traded by weight at markets across the Mediterranean. Along with their pottery, other new objects brought by traders started appearing in Tartessian life – incense burners, bronze jugs and braziers. Decoration styles, as in the Greek world, moved from geometric designs to more detailed imagery, with jug handles made as hands grabbing the bowl, and lotus flowers, gryphons, ram’s heads, and other such motifs found more and more on common items. Trade may have even touched the Tartessians’ gods, with statues of recognisably eastern and Punic-style deities providing some of the more spectacular archaeological finds in the region.

It this period that defined Herodotus’ Tartessos, where a creative, if perhaps difficult, fusion of native culture, a thriving raw materials trade, and increasing economic and political influence from outside shaped a culture and, perhaps, the state that Arganthonios ruled. Tartessos moved from being a land where villages were formed of scattered circular huts to one where settlements had planned, stone-built houses. This land was not simply being absorbed into a new culture, though – it was adapting to it. The introduction of writing allowed the Tartessians to express in a Punic-style alphabet their own, possibly Celtic-related, language in inscriptions on their tombs, calling on deities with names that seem to link to the Irish god Lugh or the Celtic horse-Goddess Epona rather than to Punic Baal or Astarte. Spears and carp-tongue swords, in which a broad blade narrows in its final third to a stabbing point, seem to have been the favoured weapons of the Tartessians.

We have no records of how Tartessos fell, though Carthaginian expansionism is perhaps one of the more likely culprits. If there was a city of Tartessos based in the Guadalqivir delta, the shifting waterways at the mouth of the river may have also contributed to the loss of the city’s power, as they have done with so many other port cities around the Mediterranean world. Either way, by not long after 500 BC Carthaginian dominance had been far more firmly established in the region, and Tartessian culture and literary references alike drop out of the historical record.

The rosy picture Herodotus handed down of Tartessos has proven captivating to some more modern imaginations. In these scattered references, some scholars saw in Tartessos a link to the fabled wealth of the biblical city of Tarshish, which spurred on archaeological searches for a central Tartessian city. Others aimed still higher, seeing in it, shining in silver beyond the Pillars of Hercules before ultimately being lost to floods, a possibility of discovering Atlantis itself. Even in recent weeks, a new film suggesting the ‘discovery of Atlantis’ involves aerial mapping teams claiming to have major new archaeological discoveries in the Guadalqivir delta. If they are to any degree correct – and given they have rushed to film-makers rather than academic journals, one should be cautious – it may well be Tartessians, not Atlanteans, who they have to thank.

Perhaps, though, Tartessos is as intriguing as Atlantis anyway. Being the only attested Iberian state to have been recognised across the Mediterranean before the Romans, they occupy a unique position in history. Caught between the Punic and the Atlantic, theirs was a land built on a metal-rush, full of new ideas and foreign images, all the while using them to express a culture they made their own. The silver wealth of Arganthonius may have long since been scattered, but the gods and people of his realm still have the power to intrigue.

Posted on October 27, 2018, 10:37:44 PM by Jubal
Bosch, Breugel, Beelzebub and Baphomet

Bosch, Breugel, Beelzebub and Baphomet
By Jubal

The Prince of Hell, from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights
It’s nearly Hallowe’en, so let’s talk about some of the darker creatures of myth and legend – in this article, specifically, demons! I’m here using demon as a general category for evil magical creatures associated with hells and punishment – I’m not for example differentiating demons and devils in the way some specific settings do. One of the most important influences on modern ideas of hell is the work of Heironymous Bosch, an late fifteenth to early sixteenth century painter whose bizarre, horrific, and chaotic scenes created a grotesque, absurd, terrifying image of the hereafter. As well as his own contributions he practically started a genre, with Pieter Breugel being perhaps the most famous follower to create a number of works in a similar style. Rather than the emphasis being on punishment or sin per se, the emphasis of Bosch and Breugel’s hell seems to be chaos, the warping of real and everyday things into disconcerting and unfamiliar combinations, busy pictures showing a mass of uniquely crafted tortures and creatures scuttling around.

Given their already notable impact on the genre, can these eccentric painters of the sixteenth century teach creators of fantasy anything today or add anything new to how we treat hellscape-style subjects? I think they can, especially when it comes to our depictions of demonic creatures. The dazzling variety of beasts in the works of the two men is one of their crowning achievements. Their demons are not regimented or regular, even when they appear in armies – they are the unique horrors of unique contraventions of the moral order of the universe.

Despite this, depictions of the demonic in fantasy media have settled to some degree. Horror demons have a lot of variation, but primarily down the lines of body horror and lovecraftian tentacles: meanwhile fantasy imps, devils and demons have in many cases settled into the goat-horned, satyr-like devil depiction, or at least some other form of humanoid. Tabletop gaming perhaps further builds on this perception, by presenting regular ranks of, to take two Warhammer examples, ‘bloodletters’ or ‘plaguebearers’, all of whom are essentially similar in style and function. If I say “demon” to you, you probably expect a pointed tail, red skin, perhaps a prodding weapon like a trident. Whilst it’s great to have such an evocative image available, it feels like there’s more that could be done to play around with those ideas.

Reintroducing a much wider conception of flat out weird demons and what they look like has a bunch of advantages for any creative work that touches on the subject.  As such, here’s three key ideas for how to use Bosch-style demon ideas in your creative work.

Firstly, ditch the humanoid body plans. Some of Bosch’s stuff may be more body horror than you want in a fantasy campaign, but there’s plenty that isn’t, especially among the smaller demons he depicts. There are a few broad categories here it’s worth thinking about: firstly, chimera-type demons, with animal heads, bodies, or both; secondly, blemmye types, where the order and number of humanoid body parts is edited, but in a way that is grotesque rather than horrific; thirdly, combination types, where a demon is heavily associated with a non-animal item, such as a walking helmet or a creature with knives for feet; and finally, a particular specialism in the bosch oeuvre, cavity types, where a creature’s body is hollow and actually contains something else, be that a smaller demon or a useful/important item or similar.

Many of these are also great from a storytelling perspective compared to a ‘standard’ demon. Chimera-types create an interesting mix of absurdity alongside malice, especially those with animal bodies and human heads. Their animal parts might be meant to exaggerate the extent to which they’re a reversal of the norms – a fish or a chicken attacking a human, for example – or they might give clues as to a demon’s character or goals (a conniving fish-demon or a cowardly chicken-headed demon might be fun for example). These things are done best when they’re done with the most every-day things possible – there’s something much more unsettling about a demon with spoons for feet and forks for hands than one with giant iron maxes for feet and swords for hands, because the former demon takes things we associate with normality and safety and puts a twist on them, rather than things we associate with danger already. Different body forms can also make a big difference to what you want players to think about a creature – a small creature, such as you might get from having a walking head with feet and a tail, is going to feel inherently less dangerous to the extent that it might almost be cute. Enlarging human anatomical items for example, like making the mouth of part of hell the literal mouth of a monster, is gross and definitely fully into the demonic idea. Finally, the demons-with-cavities idea that Bosch and Breugel both used is well worth considering: if a demon visibly is, say, carrying a vital artefact inside their body space, then the characters can get a visible reminder of what they’re doing without encumbering the demon with having to waste a hand carrying it.

Demons need something to do - this sad guy from Breugel's Dulle Griet at least has a hobby!
Second, give demons things to do! The concept of demons as generic servants of some greater evil who basically just obey orders is not at all borne out in sixteenth century illustrations – these guys might be peons of the lowest kind, but they still have both personalities and specific roles/functions, even if that work is magically dangling food above the hungry or just something bizarre like stealing eggs from geese and laying beetles in them or whatever. Even smaller demons ought to have personalities and hobbies, ideally – the idea of a strict typology where “type X demon has powers E, F, and G” can work with demonic creatures, but typology of characteristics shouldn’t necessarily create complete conformity of character, especially among the more chaotic sorts of demons.

Third, link demons to what they’re doing in form. This is an area where the D&D alignment system has done more harm than good, by promoting a subdivision of demonic creatures where the primary differentiating feature is their attitude to . This then encourages demonic beings to be presented first within that framework and then given other attributes secondarily, whereas ideas like the classic deadly sins, or the circles of hell, might be significantly better organising principles. Beside the iconic idea of the succubus, there are surprisingly few demonic creatures that spring to mind that are really designed as a direct representation of other sins, despite the fact that these by definition lend themselves to interesting plot-hooks and visuals: imagine an avarice demon with a cavity body into which it pours money, an envy demon that takes on the visual form of the strongest enemy present, or a gluttony demon with two extra arms devoted to stuffing its face full of meat.

Breugel's sin of pride - note the bizarre buildings that form the background.
Fourth, remember that demons reflect the concerns from a human reality. Take the seven deadly sins, which whilst famously generic in some ways do specifically showcase the preoccupations of the time. Two sins excluded from the modern list were used at times in the past (acedia, of spiritual indifference, and vainglory, the sin of boasting). Gluttony makes the traditional list, but there’s no deadly sin related to lying – those priorities might be different in a society less concerned about food supplies and more concerned about information access. The tools and creatures that the demons use to make up themselves should reflect the world the characters and/or the users of your work know. Are there particular professions thought to be mysterious or magical in your setting? Breugel alluded to superstition about tightrope walkers by putting a demonic one in his Fall of the Magician. Particular creatures associated with certain virtues or vices in this world (Breugel associated pigs with gluttony)? The fact that a standard devil has goat hooves and horns is simply less interesting in a world that doesn't actually have any obvious goats in it!

Finally, give demons a suitable environment. The thing that really hammers Bosch's hell into place isn't the demons so much as the fact that they're living in such a rich environment that has all the same upended madness that they themselves embody. We're perhaps too used to just thinking of hell/underworld locations as grim and firey and full of things that kill you. In fact, hell doesn't need lots of things in it that kill people, for the simple reason that most people who get there are decidedly past the point where that would be a significant concern to them. Rather, hell is about messing with their immortal souls - a place of buildings jumbled together in utterly wrong ways, clocks running backwards and forwards alternately every time you look at them, people living in bottles and the open mouths of giants and ships on land and castles in the sea. The overall theming of a hellscape is often done well, but the richness and maddening detail of these fifteenth and sixteenth century depictions is something that could be very usefully brought into more fantasy writing and settings as well.

So there you have it. I hope that this has given you some good ideas for demons - let me know if you liked it, or if you know any good recent examples of Bosch-style demons in fantasy settings, by commenting below!

Posted on October 13, 2018, 10:39:27 PM by Jubal
The Divine and the Feline - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

The Divine and the Feline
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By Jubal, Sam Cook (Tar-Palantir), HanSolo, Holly S-E, La Ciguapa, Suzi (Spritelady), Andrew Conway, and Eadgifu the Fair

Mediterranean cats are an institution. Not for them the soft furnishings and barrel-guts of the lap-cat: they are slender, clever, proud. They do not so much live beside as strut above the humans – poor, blundering humans – who catch their fish, build the buildings that shelter them, give them the respect they deserve. They are daughters of the sphinx, living in state as their forebears did ever since mankind settled those jagged shores, and the buildings and the villages grew, and curled up just like cats in every inlet and every bay.

It was a warm afternoon; the cat was curled up on a low wall, waiting for the fishing boats to arrive, moving for no-one. Apollo stroked her fur with sunbeams, Poseidon yielded her dinner from the deeps, and the daughters of Prometheus stumbled past as they did every day, as they had done since people had first brought those gods to this shore. The cat stretched and yawned.

A group of travellers stopped by the little empty house. They had no bags. Three were shown into it by a suited official – a man with creased brow, a broad-shouldered son, and a girl who skipped out, squeezing her face up in the sun.

The cat opened half an eye as she grew near. Her eyes were slate, her hair a dark tangle, her skin sun-beaten. The cat opened its other eye, sleepily, and looked into hers. Mediterranean cats move for no-one.

The cat stood, and walked over to the girl.

‘Miaow’. The cat sat looking at her. ‘Miaow?’ it added again, for good measure.

The girl completely ignored it, absorbed in looking around her new surroundings.

‘MIAOOWWWW??!’ tried the cat a third time. It was quite fed up now. The human was ignoring it. What did it think it was, some kind of superior being, despite all the evidence to the contrary? Though, in this case, the girl might have a point, conceded the cat in what it thought was a gracious manner. It wouldn’t have abandoned its O-so-comfortable perch for any normal human.
This time, the strident yowling did the trick. The boy looked round and saw the cat gazing at the girl. In the manner of brothers everywhere, he promptly nudged his sister, saying ‘Look round deafy, I think you’ve got an admirer!’, before contorting his face into a leer to make the point. ‘Maybe if you kiss it, it’ll turn into a prince who can dig us out of this hole.’ he continued, before making an obscene pout.

At this point, his sister punched him. ‘Shut up, Niko!’ at which point, Niko did indeed shut up.

The girl turned round to face the cat. ‘Well, what do you want? I’ve not got any food.’

The cat, satisfied that it now had the girl’s attention, responded by coming over and sitting on her now-stationary foot in an entirely unhelpful manner, whilst purring contentedly. She needed to be observed for a while to make sure its instincts were correct.

The not-so-normal human did what a not-so-normal human would do: she sat down without moving her feet, her bare knees pointing to the sky and the cat undisturbed on her foot. Then she stared at the cat.

“You’re strange.”

“So are you!” Her brother muttered, not quite quietly enough for their uncle not to hear. His creased brow creased some more but he did and said nothing.

An old local woman started creaking down the narrow street, paused when she saw the girl, made the evil eye at her, then hurried back the way she’d come.

From the other end of the street, Hera appeared and marched toward the group.

The cat spotted the goddess over the girl’s shoulder and scarpered back to her wall, ears down and tail up. Satiating curiosity was one thing, but she didn’t want to be anywhere near Zeus’ latest offspring when Hera was around!

The girl was too busy watching the disappearing cat to spot her danger so the clipboard-carrying official was the first human to spot the wrathful matriarch of Olympus. The centuries had been kind to her and of course she’d kept up with the latest Greek fashions. Her peacock-blue maxi-dress swished side-to-side through the street dust while her silver bangles jangled angrily as her arms swung back and forward. The official had never seen such a beautiful yet terrifying sight. He saw a lot less when she turned him into a weasel with a brief flick of her bejewelled index finger.

This was a feud between men and gods, or so the cat thought. The cat brushed its fur against stone walls as its paws avoided the muck of gutters; the muck of men and gods. The cat peered into the drains, disgusted by the fishless sea beneath that bred rats. The cat had no interest in rats or men or gods, but the cat was hungry.

The cat climbed to find itself on the very roof of the travellers’ new house. The straw roof scratched its stomach as it spied through a hole. The weasel was no longer with them but Hera was.
“This is to be your home,” Hera’s voice roared like a lion’s. The cat could respect a lion.

“Please, we have nothing--” The uncle began, his brow turned upwards as if to beg. The cat thought the uncle was like a dog.

“I am not speaking to you,” Hera looked up to the hole in the roof, into the cat’s green eyes. The cat’s back arched and its fur shot out like blades. It shrieked and jumped off the roof, landing on all fours before the door of the small stone house.

The girl ran to open the door.

“Zoe!” The girl’s brother called after her. Hera stood unmoved. Her eyes glared at the back of the girl’s head painted with soft yellow curls. The girl once again paid no mind to the men and the god towering behind her. She saw only the cat.


Hera examined the girl curiously as she stroked and played with the cat. Zoe's innocent laughter bounced through the air as its tail tickled her legs. Hera had endured countless bastards over the centuries. This child was just another example of her licentious husband's brazen infidelity. And yet, there was something different about this one.

She watched as the cat weaved in and out of Zoe's delicate legs before settling on her feet just as before. The cat looked up and met eyes with the towering goddess.

"This child is now under your protection," Hera declared. "Should any harm come to her you will suffer Zeus' mighty wrath... and mine."

Zoe's uncle fell to his knees and grovelled before Hera, thanking her for her mercy and generosity. She stoically raised her right hand and left the family in their hovel.

Zoe lifted her new companion up into her arms and brought her to a small chair in their new home. "I will call you Sapphira." She whispered, nuzzling her face into the cat's neck.

"Chirrrp" So this is to be my fate? Guardian to a demi-god and her family of simple mortals. So be it.

"A cat?" Niko shouted, "We're starving and all she gives us is a stupid cat!"

“Be quiet! Do you want to bring her wrath down upon us even now?”

Zoe’s uncle spoke wisely; Hera was known to be ruthless to any she considered disrespectful of her. And of course, Zeus’ philandering was the greatest disrespect of all. The cat had no doubt that Hera’s apparent mercy in giving Zoe and her family the hovel and entrusting their protection to the cat was more than it seemed. Somehow it was linked to Zoe’s father.

For now, however, the cat would begin its duty of protection by leading the family to the docks, where they would be able to find some food.

“Miaow.” The cat leapt from the chair it had been placed on, briefly winding itself round Zoe’s legs, before heading towards the door. There, it stopped, disappointed in the lack of attention the family had paid to its attempts to lead them outside. Instead of following it, they had begun discussing what they might do about dinner.

“MIAOW!” The cat tried again, louder this time. This caught their attention and so the cat began to scratch at the door insistently. When none of them moved to exit the room, the cat returned to Zoe’s legs and began attempting to headbutt her towards the door, with little success.

The cat gave up on trying to communicate with the humans. They were just too stupid to understand. She would just have to bring food to them. It was too far to bring a fish back from the docks. There were too many small children in between with stones to throw at a cat burdened with a purloined mullet. But there had been something nearby that would do for prey. She knew humans ate fish, but would they eat weasel?

She jumped to the windowsill, and looked around. The distinctive aroma of mustelidae still lingered. Was there any motion? Yes, under that rosemary bush. The cat dropped to the ground within pouncing range. The weasel sensed danger, arched it’s back, and hissed. “I am a lion among weasels,” the hiss said, “Meddle with me and I will rip your face off.”

The cat was not impressed. It crouched, nothing moving but the tip of its tail. The weasel stared at the cat. The cat stared at the weasel. 

The weasel broke first. It turned to scuttle deeper into the bush. The cat leaped. The weasel turned to meet the attack. There was a flurry of claws and teeth, and the then cat had the weasel by the neck and was shaking it. There was a rumble of thunder in the cloudless sky, and then where the weasel had been stood the god Zeus, still wearing the ill-fitting suit of the rental agent, with rosemary in his hair and the cat hanging desperately from his tie.

The cat retracted her claws - carefully - and dropped to the ground, landing on all four paws, as was proper.

Forgive me, Your Divinity, she said, in that cat's way of speaking with two meanings, so that she was also saying: A weasel? Really?

Zeus could read between the lines. "I didn't choose this form," he said, rather resentfully. "You would do well to be more careful of your prey, cat."

The cat nodded her head. Yes, Your Divinity. I was trying to find food for your daughter. Between the lines, she said: Since that didn't seem to occur to you.

"My daughter deserves better food than a weasel," Zeus retorted, though he seemed less displeased. "And I will hear no reproaches from you, feline. Not by my choice did I hide my true face, and it is not by my choice that I cannot be near her."

The cat did not deign to respond to the weasel comment. Some deities simply didn't understand the refinement of the feline palate.

But Zeus' words struck her. She was a knowledgeable cat, when it came to the gods and their histories: all Mediterranean cats are. They soak up history the way they soak up the sun, from cobblestones. Zeus usually did what he could to save his paramours from Hera's wrath, but he had never showed any interest in being present in the lives of his offspring.

She is different, the cat said to Zeus, tail flicking in the air. I knew it as soon as I met her. Why? What was her mother?

Zeus' gaze grew distant, for a moment, and he suddenly looked less like a rental agent and a little more like a king among gods.

"She has none," he said. "I created her, and I bore her myself. She shares no blood with her human family."

At the cat's silence, he added: "Well, if Hera could do it with Hephaistos...!"

So that was it. He had been jealous of his wife's feat, and tried it himself - and now, being the child's only parent, felt responsible for her as he had never felt before. Perhaps that was why Hera had spared this child, too: she had sensed that no infidelity lay behind this.

The cat thought for a moment. Hera had charged her to protect the child, but she had given the cat no help, and certainly no food. Zeus, however... if Zeus was entertaining parental feelings, he might be more forthcoming.

Then she is unique, she said, playing to his vanity. A treasure. She deserves to be well protected.

Zeus’ gaze turned sharp: he knew when someone was opening a negotiation. “Are you offering? Have you not been charged with her care already?”

Yes, the cat purred, but how I am to keep her fed and protected, by myself, I really do not know, Your Divinity. Humans are very slow creatures: they cannot even be taught to hunt.

Zeus’ eyes narrowed. The cat stared steadily back, confident of her victory if a staring contest ensued.

“Very well,” Zeus said. “I will ensure you have an unending supply of fish. More – I will make you queen of the dockland cats, if you will lead them in her defence.”

The cat began to wind herself around his legs in approval. Your Divinity, I believe we have a deal.

(The cat accompanied Zoe on all her future exploits, some of which were outlandish and very heroic. But that is another story entirely.)

This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2018 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: As the starting writer on this chain I was interested to see how it would end up - the answer was much more pleasant and indeed cat-heavy than I'd expected, and although this was logistically the chain that had all the difficulties and ended up delaying the project several weeks I'm happy with the result. I'd initially only meant the mentions of Greek deities in the early section as metaphorical, and was amused to see them taken literally in what turned out to be a very nice and gently funny piece of chain writing.

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: The damage done to the local ecosystem by Zeus' unending supply of fish. And what Poseidon has to say about the matter!

Posted on October 13, 2018, 10:39:16 PM by Jubal
Of Storms and Silence - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

Of Storms and Silence
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By Rory HJ, rbuxton, Phoenixguard, Jake, Suzi, Caradilis, Jubal, and Lizard

Atop Three Kings’ Crag, the North Wind raged. It was a storm to uproot oak trees, to topple houses, to send all creatures scurrying to shelter. It cut through all the layers of fur, leather and wool I was wearing, chilling me to the bone. I scarce dared to stand for fear of being plucked from the rock and carried to ancestors know where. But I had business to be about that night, business that at its completion would uproot royal trees, topple noble houses and send oppressors scurrying for shelter. At least this high above the clouds, there was no rain to make the mountaintop yet more miserable.

Crouched low against the mighty gusts and roped together for safety, my companions and I inched our way across the bare rock. Ahead of us, Kelgar’s Rest – the smallest of the three barrows – seemed to glow faintly from within, a promise of warmth in the darkness. In fair weather, the journey from the top of the path to the barrow entrance was barely a minute’s stroll. That night, it was an eternity of biting cold.

At long, long, last, we reached the door. Pressing tight against it to seek respite from the wind, I beat against it with the haft of my axe-turned-walking pole.
“Who goes there?” asked a voice, muffled by stone.

“Can’t we do the interrogation inside? It’s freezing out here,” I replied, more concerned for comfort than security at this point.

“Spoken like a true spy. Who knocks?”

“I am Ren,” I said, “With me are Monok, Turin and Pey: three men with only one tongue between them.”

The door opened and I ducked inside to find a young Southern woman, weathered beyond her years, staring at the two mutes behind me. She rushed to greet them in their traditional way – foreheads touching – and, though her words were alien to me, her relief at seeing her kinsmen was palpable. Turin and Pey could only murmur in reply. I turned away to find two small children, a boy and a girl, at my feet.

“Isil vai,” I stammered, and they responded in kind.

Discomforted by the children’s stares, I looked about the room: a chimney hole had been made in the barrow’s stones; there were furs aplenty, but little else. Turin and Pey came inside to greet the children, and Monok heaved himself in after them.

“I apologise,” said the woman, “I am Surimay. You are welcome to shelter with us tonight, but you’ll find no food here.”

“We have plenty for us all”, I replied, as I sought comfort against the stones.

“How can you bear,” growled Monok, “To shelter in this tomb?”

“It will be our tomb before Midwinter,” was the curt response, “We have nowhere else to go.”

The children, ignorant of their mother’s words, looked at us in confusion. Seeing our expressions, Surimay continued:

“I’d rather we die before they take our tongues.”

* * * * *

I awoke with a start.

Around me, the other inhabitants of the barrow continued to slumber in their bedrolls, oblivious to my current panicked state.

I heard a snuffling on the other side of the door. Something was out there.

A slow scratching sound emanated from out in the cold, like a gigantic clawed hand dragging down the hard stone door.

My teeth chattered, not from the cold this time, but from fear. I’d never seen a Silencer, and everyone I had met were not able to tell me of them, but I knew that one was outside the door at that moment. Whether it had managed to follow my own trail, or if it were able to track the scent of its former prey, did not matter.

It was there, looking for a way in.

Slowly, quietly, I gathered my things, searching desperately for another way out.

The barrow was too well built for escape. Though furs hid the sharp edges of the smooth metal, silencer’s metal, there was no yielding. No exit.

I was fortunate among our broken people, not only had I so far avoided silencers I possessed a modicum of knowledge picked up from those few who had learnt before silencers rooted out our last settlements and we were truly scattered. The vague probing behind the door, as the natural sounds faded a low metallic whine began to fill the air rising in pitch and intensity before an earth-shattering crash sounded, again. And again. The door began to shudder and falter before the onslaught. There was no time.

From my pack I drew a glistening metal rod which seemed to hum in its natural surroundings. The tongueless drew back in fright; the woman spoke over the ear-piercing whine “What are you? That thing is of the silencers”.

I could not reply, entranced by the radiance. The soft glow of white behind the furs had been replaced by a dancing brilliance that assaulted my sense. The rod - the Baton - danced in conjunction as I wove it in the first form. New shrieks broke the night. The silencer seemed to grow more frantic, desperately whining. As the door buckled and I caught my first glimpse of the twisted metal and flesh which made the monstrous silencer.

It advanced in triumph.

Behind me, awakened from its slumber, a silencer emerged.

I realised that, in my fear, I had stopped moving. The Baton was still humming, held in the first form by my previous movements, but it no longer seemed to affect the two silencers as it had been. I knew from my research that the first form would only aggravate them, but was a necessary precursor to the end form that would allow a temporary reprieve. Quickly, I resumed my movements, weaving the Baton once again into the second form.

Sensing the change in the Baton, the two silencers once again began to move. However now they seemed dazed and I knew this was the work of the Baton. They shuffled sluggishly, as though half awake, towards me- they were pulled by the workings of the Baton. I began to weave the third form and finally dared myself to hope that I could pull this off. As long as nothing broke the trance that the Baton was creating, I could get myself and these people out alive.

Fate, it seemed, had other ideas.

As I began to weave the fourth and final form with the Baton, one of the barrow inhabitants finally decided that he should run. The noise he created broke the trance and I stared in horror as the two beasts advanced on me.

Okay, so subtly sneaking away wasn’t going to work this time. Fine. Violence it is then. “Run!” I shouted at the others, charging right at the two beasts, Baton still in hand. Hungry? Choke on this! I jammed the Baton right between their razor-sharp metallic teeth as I slid through the small space between them. This gave me just the second I needed to pull Songweaver from my belt. The albinium blade gleamed bright blue, humming contently and vibrating in my hand, thirsty to bite into the Starforge Titanium skin of the Silencers.

I had only done this once before. I had sworn to never do it again. Songweaver was one of only seven albinium blades, the only swords that could cut through Starforge Titanium, but there were consequences. Destroy a Silencer and the Lords of History – I did not name them, take it up with them if you have issues – would know immediately where you were. They would find me, but for now, that didn’t matter. The others still had a chance to escape.

The growling beasts were done chewing down on my Starforge Baton and turned to face me once again. The others had all made it outside. I had to believe that they would make it far enough away before the death of the Silencers would home in the airstrike. I lifted Songweaver and braced myself for impact. “These are my words. This is where I stand.” I thought, as I made my blade sing.

It sang of the Lords of History, the Takers of Tongues. It sang hope beyond death, joy beyond fury, and freedom beyond chains.

The blade tasted the shapeless, metal-jawed silencers, slicing the flesh-knots and the cacophony of jarring, jutting metal, singing lost harmony past the titanium skin and into the dark knots of energy that kept the silencers… alive, if they could be truly said to be living. Fighting is usually a grim, physical, sweaty business, but the blade of songs made it almost serene.
The two silencers slumped where they fell. And now they knew.

I looked down at myself. Beneath the heavy furs and gloves, I quivered. I took a glove off for a moment and just stared at my hand – earth-dark with a pale palm, as my family’s always were – and wondered what that hand might do with its fingers round such a hilt. I had sworn never to take that risk out of fear. That night, caught between the song of a sword and the cry of the thunder, I found the courage to become the oathbreaker I was destined to be.

Stepping up to the door, I passed out of the barrow. None of the Southerners could be seen. The dark, close curls of my hair tossed in the breeze, and lighting ripped across the sky. I held my sword aloft, and the sky seemed to roll around me. I screamed my name – my real name – and in the distance, shapes loomed through the clouds.

* * * * *

The maelstrom of storm-clouds, flickering with forked lightening, swirled, parted, and closed again around the man who held his sword high, challenging the night. He was manic, frenzied, broken by time and fear and held no qualms with his final stand being here, fighting off the ships which loomed on the horizon and were ready to purge.

Malcette watched, as if seated behind her pilot’s shoulder, but remained within the safety of the Lords of History’s court. She was fascinated. This provincial man, haggard by years of hard work and fear, so small when all things were considered… He should stand in the darkness, as if his albinium blade stood any chance of taking out three strike ships cruising at a thousand feet? It was absurd, comical, really. She sat forwards, over the communications array, and called off the strike.
“Lady Malcette?” The squadron leader’s voice crackled, the signal only just penetrating the storm.

“I said ‘disengage’.” The lightening stopped, the thunder gave one last clap, and the clouds began to lessen. The last she saw of the man, before the strike ships turned, was a look on his face somewhere between disbelief and triumph.

If he should fancy himself an Oathbreaker, she thought, then he would have to learn. They were dead, extinct, and it would do everyone good to relive the pain and remember.

She did not look forwards to the task ahead of her, breaking the people, destroying this man. But it had to be done. Before things could get any worse.

This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2018 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: This was the one of the three chains that was designated from the outset as "definitely SFF" though the other chains managed to fit that bill equally well. Storms and Silence ended up being a fairly consistent narrative throughout, and was probably in some ways the smoothest of the three resulting stories. The cliffhanger ending does rather beg for more, though...

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: Silencers. Silencers are scary.

Posted on October 13, 2018, 10:39:08 PM by Jubal
Last of a Kind - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

Last of a Kind
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By Loren, Andreas, ArtDodge, Tusky, Samuel Cook (aka Tar-Palantir), HenriNatalie, Caradilis, and Andrew Conway

If she could wipe out her own race, she would. But it is not time yet.

She allows the idiosyncrasies to snowball and explode in one large sitting, like a black holocaustic balloon of smoke. Anything less would be an insult to her years of precise planning.

She is at best a troll and at worst a misanthrope. The neurosis of her own kind creeps under her skin and annoys the crap out of her. The best part is she understands completely this neurosis, a pattern that has dominated her for the first 18 years of her life. She has been a nervous wreck. She refuses to spawn, even with elite specimens declared the best of her kind, to bring more little maniac Booyians into this already hysteric world.

She is obsessive with staging a reform – one that could turn back the clock and restore life proper on New Earth, and perhaps bring back the long-forgotten prestigious race. One that has tickled her fancy, one that she has for so long yearning to be part of, one that she could turn her back on her ascendants for, one that could undisputedly be the rightful ruling species, one that could be her downfall.

She cannot knock before it is time. Instead, she waits. Btobo is waiting as well, she knows. He is sat upright behind his desk, waiting for her to be done waiting.

'He will see you at 0900 hours.'

This is the statement Btobo's secretary made. It is a reality which has not yet come to pass, but a reality nonetheless.

She looks at her watch, an old thing from an old world, from a dead people, a bit of guidance to cling to amid the uncertainty. She thinks about the reality that is her plan and a shade of purple creeps into her skin tone. A balled up tentacle trembles as her thoughts drift. They had it all figured out, time and words and order, all of it was once theirs to understand, to command, and they are no more.

She will knock in thirteen seconds and Btobo will see no purple. She will speak and her words will not be reality.

At one second to 0900 hours, she raises her arm and it coils around the plain knocker. Thrice, she lifts the iron ring and thrice, at equidistant intervals, metal slams into wood.
The door swings open, their eyes meet, and Btobo nods his approval.

The forgotten race used greetings of varying formality, sometimes pleasantries and even physical contact, but the Booyians only incline their heads, confirming, 'Yes, you are who I expected. You are who I have business with.'

‘So, tell me what happened?' Btobo asks.

‘I had it again’ I answered. ‘Another attack.  Suddenly, I could not breathe, I started shaking and everything turned dark around me. I got lost, forgot where and who I was and what I was going. I kept my focus on my breathing. I do not know for how long. I closed my eyes. And I got lost in this darkness. I felt cold and empty. As if I was about to die; as if this darkness was my path. But I was not afraid. I was just empty… inside’.

 ‘Do you take your medication?’ Btobo looked disinterested.

‘Yes, I do’ I answered. ‘But it is not enough. I need something stronger. It is not working.’

‘I cannot give anything else now - it should be enough. You must keep on taking it and it will work. Now please, you have to leave’

‘But I cannot go back to work, I need to have a break. I am afraid I will make a fatal mistake ‘

‘Just be more concentrated and take your medication. Your condition will improve. Now go. Your time is over’

‘Yes, but what if it doesn’t?

‘In that case, we will find another solution, but you may not like it.’

She found it frustrating that so much of their discourse had to be hidden in code and double meaning. It was a necessary evil, however. The ministry was monitored too heavily and Btobo worked so deep within it that if they ever spoke frankly it would undoubtedly mean a swift end to both them, and the others involved in the plan.

'So you'd like me to leave... now' She asked with a laboured pause.

He nodded.

She had her answer. He'd got to the limits of what he could provide her. It meant the reform was coming, and much sooner than she had expected, or hoped. It was welcome news. Very soon perhaps she could be freed from these afflictions and affectations of a civilization she had no desire to be a part of.

With a slight nod in reply she stood and left. She felt a strange mixture of heady elation and a sense of deep foreboding of what must come next.

She made her way out of the building to the street. Despicable, chittering pen pushers in suits rushed here and there, oblivious to how futile their manic endeavours were. Endless rush hour traffic crawled past. She could see Eress waiting for her in the massive truck across the road. She ran over, dodging a few cars which honked in protest, and jumped in the passenger seat.

'Ok, there's no more' She said.

Eress smiled. She started the thunderous engine, and they pulled away.

Eress asked ‘So, it is time to leave, then?’

She replied ‘Yes. Now. We must leave.’

The rest of the journey passed in silence. Both occupants of the truck were too unsure of what lay ahead and whether the plan would work to engage in any unnecessary and probably pointless chitchat. In all likelihood, they would both be dead soon. Only the occasional pulsating patch of red on their skins belied the anxiety they both felt.

The truck pulled up at the deserted hangar, far away from prying eyes. This was the last consignment of materials and supplies. They loaded them quickly into the vessel, getting ever more nervous as the minutes passed. Surely they’d be discovered? Surely someone would shout ‘STOP!’ any second?

But nothing happened and soon the loading was complete. They both entered the vessel and began the pre-flight checks. Still no sound of sirens or signs of alarm. They couldn’t quite believe that everything was working so far.

It was finally time to leave. Leave this accursed civilisation and, in doing so, destroy it. The viral vials were secure – once they were in orbit, they’d rain death on the unsuspecting Booyians, her own race. They deserved it. And then, with the second set of vials, they could seed the cleansed biosphere and bring back the rightful rulers. The galaxy, if it cared, would thank them for it.

They initiated the launch sequence.


With the buzzing sound of the engine and raising dust the spacecraft took off. All had gone according to plan. Now was the critical moment, the whole plan hinged on. Btobo promised to distract the authorities that heavily guarded the airspace. But would it work? They could not be sure. All they could do was follow the plan.

As they had reached the perfect distance to New Earth, Jurou hesitated for a moment, looked at her beloved planet for the last time - how small and insignificant it seemed now - and pushed the button that released the vials into space. She watched them sail onto earth on their tiny parachutes and saw how New Earth was shrouded by a reddish-grey cloud. A deep feeling of woe swept over her and the tentacles on her head wound up on top of it. The first part of the plan was herewith realised.

Tense, Jurou now looked at her watch. Its arms still moved, albeit according to another time. She had learnt to interpret it correctly, so that she knew when to release the second set of vials. Jurou fathomed that after doing so she will have ushered in a new era. An era of peace and respect. The so-called Prestigious Race would once again not know war nor conflict. Wherever its seed fell on New Earth the Prestigious Race would settle and adapt to their surroundings perfectly. Each population would develop friendly relations with others and together they would prosper anew.
It was time. She turned her chair to the other side of the control panel and her hand reached for the red and black lever that would release the second set of vials. This was the moment all her efforts had been working towards. Her Prestigious Race. They would be so grateful to her for bringing them back. She would be revered, finally. She pulled the lever and a second patch of vials sailed down towards the planet below. Jurou smiled. She had prevailed. New Earth was cleansed and soon the Prestigious Race would be ruling it again, in peace and prosperity, and Jurou, she would be there every step of their way.

But there was not to be peace. There was not to be prosperity. There was not to be a Prestigious Race. It had all been a lie. The Booyians had glorified this mysterious species who had built so many wonders on New Earth. They had named the planet and built the cities. The Booyians never built anything. They never had to. The elaborate structures of stone and steel had been good enough, and they reminded them of what the Booyians had seen as a more glorious time, a time of prosperity and mystical inventions, when great cities were built and when there were still heroes. But the people who lived in those cities first were no heroes. They were monsters, who knew no peace, only greed. And their inventions, they were not meant for mysterious things, as the Booyians had thought. They were meant for war.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sarah pushed her chair away from the monitor and shook her head in disgust. “I guess we can kill this emulation.” She made a gesture in the control space, and New Earth was nothing but a collection of log files.

Sergei looked up from the novel he was reading. “Not again? I thought we had it this time.”
“Yep, total species extinction in 18.3 gigaseconds. Terrorist attack using bioweapons.”

“But they were doing so well. Strong central government, scientific research, a space program… Let’s try again with more deference to authority. Perhaps some sheep genes as well as the octopus, turtle, and magpie?”

“I think it’s time to give up on the air breathing octopuses. We’ve run twenty nine emulations now, and the best one only lasted less than 40 gigaseconds.  We need to go back and look at the bears again.”

Sergei shook his head in frustration. “Environmental collapse every time with the bears. Twenty runs, and they all ended the same way. Overfishing, overeating. You can’t build a decent civilization with a species that hibernates. It has to be octopuses. They are intelligent, they have fine motor skills and mainpulative ability. Just get them out of the water so they can learn metallurgy. Let’s try one more time.”

Sarah shrugged. “OK, one more octopus run, and then we do the bears again. I think there’s a hummingbird sequence we can add to prevent hibernation, and some sloth to slow down the metabolism.”

Sergei nodded, and began to set up another emulation run. Beneath the orbiting DNA bank, an empty planet turned, and the last two surviving humans tried to work out how to repopulate it.

This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2018 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: This was the one that I'd mentally pegged as "maybe this won't end up as Sci Fi". You... can see how well that ended up. It's a twisty narrative, but I think wrapped up very neatly in a way that actually drew pretty well on the strange octopoid life story that emerged in the early parts of it. This chain was the first to be completed, and holds an impressive record for fastest turnaround time on a section - part 4 of this was emailed back to me twenty-one minutes after I'd sent it to Sam Cook, which is certainly a record marker for future chain writers to have a crack at beating!

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: Whether octopuses and bears are really the best two options here. Axolotls may be underestimated as a possibility?