Friday, November 7, 2014

Ia! Shuth-Meleth Fhtagn!

As always, I'm writing back story details for Ramzca's civilization game, specifically the characters from my own civilization, the Empire of Transmyridil. Well here's a character profile I've been meaning to finish for a long while now. Like so many other things I've written lately, this has ballooned out of proportion and probably counts as a a full novelette at this point. So, because I have no self-control, enjoy the biography of a pink octopus monster that's been very near and dear to me lately.

...

The Black Book of Ajez Saala-Abdul speaks darkly of what are variedly called the Old Ones or the Outsiders; godlike beings from outside space and time, the very manifestations of otherness, the alien and the incomprehensible. They do not adhere to physical laws as we understand them, having come from the realms beyond or some other primeval darkness before time. It said that to look upon such things is to gaze into the abyss itself. No one born of our material world could have their eyes opened to such otherness and walk away unscathed. The Black Book tells of those foolish or unfortunate enough to have laid eyes on the true form of an Old One, all of whom have unfailingly perished or have gone mad at the sight of such things. That is the danger of the Ancients; they are so vast, powerful and alien that we as mere mortals cannot perceive them without becoming aware of the true, monstrous nature of reality. No mind can comprehend the Old Ones, not even a glimpse of them.

The Black Book lists many blasphemous names in it's yellowed pages; Xorchlcotyl, Zoth-Morazoth: It Which Waits, Tlhordl, Capatatosh: The Rancid Mother. Some are so horrible that even the merest mention of them spells doom for those who speak their name. There is the Indescribable One, who's name cannot be printed without the page eroding away. There is the Unspeakable: That Which Blots Out The Stars. Among the worst is a force known simply as The Other, which is prophesied to plunge all being into unending elemental darkness.

Then there are some that are altogether less horrible. In the back pages of the annotated third edition of the Black Book, in the appendix on chapter III Saala-Abdul makes mention of some minor or otherwise inconsequential Old Ones, many of whom were not named in the original Tablet of Black Utterances. Among them was Sthoth, Zoz and most importantly to us, Shuth-Meleth.

Shuth-Meleth was said to have entered our world with the alignment of the twin blue stars of Allistus and Obern. On that night, a red comet was observed streaking across the sky above the city of Yg and plunged far out to sea. The waters boiled and it is said that all the milk for several miles went sour and all the eggs of domesticated birds rotted. But beyond that, there were none of the deleterious effects commonly associated with the coming of an Old One. No more is said of Shuth-Meleth in the Black Book, but an account of what happened after it's arrival appeared in The Complete Traveler's Guide to the Southlands by Tholir Stonemason. In chapter VIII while elucidating on the issue of which beaches had the most attractive women, Stonemason retells the story of a curiously shaped ruby that washed to shore and was snatched away by a passing Kaam, a kind of squamous humanoid octopus.

Later, in a chapter devoted to which drinks the author thought were best served in coconut husks, Stonemason continues the story of the ruby. While on a journey to the desert city he encountered the ruby once more while spending the night in a tavern; only this time it appeared as a symbol on a tabard worn by a Vyllnr. The Vyllnr, named Bora Saanak-Rek, claimed to be a member of the Order of the Sleeping God. He went on to describe how his god had fallen out of the sky in the form of a glittering gem and had instructed it's high priest to build a temple in the jungle on the edge of a nearby river. After a night of drunken carousing that would take too long to describe here, Stonemason woke the next day, hung over and laying on the makeshift alter in the temple of the Sleeping God.

It is unclear if what happened next was a genuine religious experience or a hallucination brought about by poorly manufactured mead. But Stonemason claims to have received a vision of Shuth-Meleth:

I had an unbelievable headache the morning after. The bed I was laying on was lumpy and hard and I realized Melindra must have snuck off sometime during the past few hours. Everything looked fuzzy and dark. I started to worry I'd have a repeat of the Monday incident. But as my eyes adjusted I noticed a pair of braziers with unnaturally red fires casting an eerie glow on the small room. I was in a small, circular building, made of piled together stones, with what looked like moss used as cement.

As my eyes were adjusting I could see the room getting darker. A small, slimy looking thing, smaller than a dwarf was standing at the other end of the room. My vision went black. The only thing I could see was a dim red haze. Then, all of a sudden, a shape appeared. At first I thought I was going blind because of bad grog, but something was floating in front of my eyes. Something pink.

As I stared at it I started to see something like a tiny pink octopus. It stared back at me with three beady little eyes. It was ringed by an aura of shimmering green light and it's stubby little tentacles waved in a rhythmic, hypnotic motion.


-Tholir Stonemason, The Complete Traveller's Guide to the Southlands

What's notable about this experience is that the author did not go mad upon seeing an Old One in person, nor did his ears bleed upon hearing it's voice as he goes on to describe:

Suddenly, it spoke to me. It had a soft voice, faint and distant sounding. The glowing pink thing called itself Shuth-Meleth and greeted me and welcomed me to it's temple.

The author continues his interactions with the Sleeping God. For the better part of a day he sits and listens as it tells it's story; Shuth-Meleth appeared when the stars aligned, arriving in the form of a multifaceted gemstone which was the closest thing to it's true form as could appear in our world. When asked where it came from, Shuth-Meleth only vaguely hints at what it calls "a realm of primal darkness". When the stone fell to Myridil and crossed the ocean it reached out to find the mind of a worthy follower. When it finally made it's way to the northern shores of the Southlands what it found was Grrgl.

Stories from that area seem to collaborate with this claim. In the earlier chapter, Tholir mentions others present for the incident when a shiny stone or crystal washed to shore. When a crowd gathered around to inspect the glowing object a Kaam rose out of the water, snatched the gem and fled into the nearby jungle before anyone had a chance to stop it. Tholir went on to describe sightings of a "slimy blue creature with tentacles where it's face should have been" at a later point while traveling in the jungle but dismissed the sightings as alcoholic hallucinations.

What Stonemason didn't know was that Grrgl, the Kaam had taken the stone of Shuth-Meleth up river to a safe hiding place, becoming the first High Priest of the Cult of the Sleeping God. There, Shuth-Meleth started to speak to the Kaam telepathically, allowing it small glimpses into the realm from whence it came. At first, Grrgl responded with sheer horror and was left catatonic for nearly a week. But as time went on, the Kaam started to make cave paintings depicting the terrifying home of Shuth-Meleth and it's arrival into our world. It was at this time that the Cult's visual vocabulary started to develop. It's still possible to find images of rubies and red comets in the jungle, carved into trees or painted in caves.

There has been at least one instance where a large mural depicting Shuth-Meleth was found by explorers. An account of an expedition into Spinebreaker cave described an enormous symbolic scene, rendered in caked mud and paint made from crushed tropical berries;

Day 32,

We found an impressive mural today near the subterranean river. While it looks like something left behind by prehistoric people, it couldn't possibly be older than several weeks as it clearly depicts King Rodriq in several scenes. We're trying to find clues of who made it since we've made camp here. I'm recording a miniature copy for my own study while Saala-Mustafa writes up a summary of what we've found. I'll copy it here:

"Painted on the wall is a well designed image of Dwarves and a large pink octopus by an unknown artist. The Dwarves are bowing before the octopus. The octopus is surrounded by the Dwarves. On the mural is an image of red meteors in bumbleberry paint. On the mural is an image of a fishman. The fishman is holding up a red gem. The artwork relates to the worship of an unnamed icon in a fortress and the appointment of the fishman to the position of priest of some local cult."

The octopus (or squid) is an interesting feature. It is large and bright pink, with tentacles (eight in total) reaching all over the wall. What's notable is that it seems to be crushing a tower in one arm and flicking a figure off a horse in another. The crown on the figure's head is unmistakably "Rodriqesque". The deity, or sea monster or whatever it is has three eyes, two closed and one open and staring at the viewer. It has a bright red pupil.

Note: Yalric's gangrene is getting worse - consider amputation.

As Tholir recovered from his hangover the eponymous pink octopus continued it's story; after Grrgl's traumatic visions the pair went back to the port city to preach and hopefully gather more followers. They were met with open hostility by the locals who took the Kaam for an insane cultist. Despite insistence that Shuth-Meleth wouldn't be accepting blood sacrifices the pair were forced to leave with only a single Vyllnr to show for their efforts.

This ended up working to their advantage in a small way however, as the Vyllnr was able to bring them back to it's village in the jungle where reception to the Cult was much more favorable. In the weeks following their arrival, Shuth-Meleth made the first real show of it's godly powers. First, it healed the blindness of a young Vyllnr in the village. Then, when a family fell ill because of tropical disease, the Sleeping God whispered into the mind of the local alchemist, telling him what ingredients to gather to make a potion to cure them. As time went by and the Kaam and it's magic gemstone made themselves generally helpful, favor in the Sleeping God grew. After nearly a month in the jungle, the tribe decided to completely devote themselves to Shuth-Meleth. The chieftainess saw it's true form in a vision and declared it the tribe's only god and the only one who would lead them to salvation.

It was this same village that Tholir had drunkenly stumbled into the night before. As the Sleeping God ended it's story the chieftainess came inside to greet the Dwarf. After, she brought him outside to show him the village. Banners carrying the symbol of the red ruby were flying from every mud hut. All around him, Vyllnir were packing up supplies for a long journey into the heart of the jungle. As he stood there, rubbing his tired eyes, the chieftainess announced the tribe's intentions to travel up the river and find the promised land of her visions.

She spoke of a tall mountain peering above the jungle, with a volcano smouldering in the distance. A short one-eyed king stood on the mountain, surveying the untamed wilderness. She told the tribe that this place was to be their new home and in order to find it, they must seek out the man from her visions. Immediately, Tholir suspected she was talking about Agekugog, or Beebane, and the king she spoke of was actually Emperor Urist Thunderbeard. Having no idea what either of those things were, the chieftainess agreed to let Stonemason come with them, as he was headed in that direction anyway.

The tribe set off the next day, swimming upstream as they carried their supplies in waterproof bags. Stonemason was pulled close behind in a small boat. While his original intention for going to the Empire was to sample their local beer and mead he started to hear the whispers of Shuth-Meleth in his mind. As the days dragged on, he started to see strange things in his dreams. Stonemason described seeing "impossibly tall towers" and "writhing tentacles" in a veil of absolute darkness. Throughout the next several chapters he would complain about a pinpoint of red light that always seemed to be in the corner of his vision.

As the Sleeping God's influence in his mind grew, disaster struck. Bandits raided the Vyllnr camp one night as they were resting on the riverbank and stole several bags of supplies, including the gemstone itself. Several members of the tribe died fighting off the bandits. As panic started to grip the survivors Grrgl and Tholir resolved to go searching for the stone themselves, convincing many of the Vyllnr to do the same.

They stumbled through the thick underbrush throughout the night, guided only by the sense of unearthly power drawing them to the stone. Eventually they  found the camp as the bandits were sifting through their spoils. The bandit leader was busy arguing with an underling; it was clear to the cultists that they were fighting over ownership of the stone.

Tholnir used this opportunity to silently kill the bandit on watch, allowing Grrgl to usher the Vyllnr into the camp. All at once, they sprung from ambush and attacked. While the bandits were more well armed, the cultists had the element of surprise and managed to kill several of them before anything could be done to stop them. One of the bandits was a sorcerer however and was quickly whittling down their numbers as he roasted the angry cultists with lightning.

Being so short, Grrgl was able to avoid most of the tall bandits' swings. He leapt on top of a table, tossing a candle into a tent which quickly burst into flame. Almost in imitation of that early day on the beach, no one was able to get a grip on him as he rampaged around the camp, searching for the stone. Eventually, he found the leader and threw himself onto his face. Grrgl tried to pull his eyes out with his suction cups as they struggled for the stone. In the heat of the moment the bandit leader pulled out a knife and plunged it deep into the scaly neck of the Kaam.

Overcome by the death of his first, most loyal follower, Shuth-Meleth took revenge against the bandits. Mustering all his godly power, he reached out to the minds of each one, filling them with horrifying visions of the "primal darkness" from whence he came. They all dropped their weapons at once and blanched at the sight of such horrors. As Tholir reached for the stone, the bandits fell to the ground and started gibbering madly. Coming in contact with such alien chaos was too much for them. The brains of the highwaymen started to cook from the inside out, oozing out of their ears as they died.

Grrgl laid dead and the Vyllnr scattered all over the jungle, irrevocably lost due to their awful sense of direction. All that remained was Tholir. He buried Grrgl by the riverbank, making a makeshift headstone with the symbol of the red comet and continued on his way.

For nearly a week he trekked through the jungle. All the while, Shuth-Meleth spoke to him in his mind. The two beings, the lowly dwarf and the Old One consoled each other over the death of the cult. Shuth-Meleth assured him that, while scattered, he could still hear the thoughts of the Vyllnr and was reaching out to them. And while he could still hear the prayers of his followers there was no hope of gathering them back to the river because, again, they had an awful sense of direction. Instead, he told Tholir to "follow the smoke". Tholir did as he was commanded, thinking he was making his way to the lip of the volcano.

Instead what he found were the smouldering ashes of siege equipment and the half-demolished walls of Beebane. Urist was dead. The Empire was still reeling with their war with the neighboring Isolationists. Sankis had been declared interim Empress as she tried to rebuild the fortress. Shuth-Meleth had arrived in the promised land with no followers and no one willing to listen to his message.

Nonetheless, he and Tholir took up residence in the fortress. They were quietly ignored as the Imperials took the remaining Isolationists to trial for war crimes. Tajjini Besaa-Mora, former Arch Minister of Information, was executed for high treason. For the next several months Empress Sankis was kept busy retaking the lost territories of Bistleholm and Thunderbeard's Hallow. The entire Empire was embroiled in the ongoing campaign of executions as well as preparing for the coming Goblin War. The only official who seemed to notice the strange crystal's arrival was Caten Ironfist. As Arch Minister of Magic, she was concerned largely in the manufacture of glowing lightstones and wasn't interested in the politics of running an empire.

Caten wrote a yearly address concerning the state of magic in the Empire. While it largely consisted of records regarding the movements of enchanted items from one office to another, during the year of the Goblin War she made sure to point out that a dark god had taken up residence in Beebane and was quietly gathering followers while the government was otherwise preoccupied:

Shuth-Meleth is some manner of squid-deity worshiped by the spiderfolk living in Beebane. As far as I can tell it practices astral magic, specializing in thaumaturgy with a passive dormant ability to make followers more perceptive of potential danger and solutions to problems. A dormant god from the deep sea, it's conjured form is an oddly shaped ruby.

-Caten Ironfist, Arch Minister of Magic

While neutral in tone, Caten's report contained just enough alarmist language to cast serious doubt on Shuth-Meleth's intentions and cause a panic. The Empire had already had dealings with dark gods in the past. Urist's near-transformation into an elf was still fresh in the minds of the citizens and many feared a repeat of those events.

The Sleeping God had already gathered followers among the Spiderfolk population when he came under serious scrutiny from the Arch Ministry of Magic. He was asked to appear before the Empress as part of a formal inquiry. Holding nothing back, he told the Imperials the plain truth; he was an immensely powerful being from beyond space and time. Coming from a realm of pure terror and chaos, Shuth-Meleth was peeking through a hole in the fabric of reality and sought mortal worshipers in Beebane. As Shuth-Meleth continued it's tale of cosmic horror the Imperial council squirmed in their seats. A sense of dread hung over the whole room as everyone stared into the uneven contours of the crystal. Meanwhile, Empress Sankis slouched in her throne. Her son Biin listened to the story with rapt attention, at once terrified and fascinated by the alien monstrosity.

Despite objections from Caten, the Empress decided that the newly formed Cult of the Awakened God had every right to live in Beebane. Tholir Stonemason and Shuth-Meleth were granted full Imperial citizenship.

Today, Shuth-Meleth's crystal resides in the Temple of the Awakened God in Beebane, attended to by the Spider People who call the fortress home. The temple mirrors the one built in the jungle. A small, dignified place of quiet prayer and study; it is a circular room with a low arching ceiling. On all sides are alcoves leading to small libraries and study rooms. The stone rests on a copper dais in the center of the room and the smokeless red fires burn in their brazers, never needing fuel.

In the foyer leading to the temple is a small stone statue of Grrgl, former high priest and first saint of the cult.

What's interesting about this particular god is that, in spite of being an alien monstrosity from outside space and time, Shuth-Meleth is relatively benign. While it could be blamed for the deaths of it's Vllnir followers, the Sleeping God has never killed something except in self-defense or the defense of it's followers.

The tenants of the Cult of the Awakened God are relatively simple. It forbids murder, theft and other crimes that are frowned upon in the Empire. What's unusual isn't it's safe, pedestrian commandments, but that such safe, pedestrian commandments are coming from an Old One, something that by all rights should be driving it's mortal followers mad or imparting knowledge man was not meant to know. It has been argued that Shuth-Meleth is not an eldritch abomination at all like it's followers have been lead to believe. But instead, it is in fact a much weaker being masquerading as a powerful Old One to impress the mortal population. Others suggest that Shuth-Meleth should represent a paradigm shift in how we view the nature of the Old Ones. Some scholars take the Sleeping God as evidence that mortals can in fact be bestowed with cosmic insight and keep their sanity intact.

Whatever the case maybe, Shuth-Meleth maintains that it itself is a vastly powerful cosmic being from outside space and time and that it's meager influence in the physical world is due to a combination of the lack of belief from it's mortal followers and the stars not "being right enough". Only a small portion of it's power can escape through the pinprick hole in reality that Shuth-Meleth is forcing itself through.

Shuth-Meleth's sacred number is 8. Missionaries of it's cult are expected to wear a black tabard with a red border, with the symbol of the ruby acting as their badge of office. It's followers value knowledge and discovery, believing Shuth came to Myridil to give them the gift of enlightenment. What could perhaps be considered the central belief of this new religion is that, with the devotion of enough followers, Shuth-Meleth will be able to break the bonds of it's stone and physically enter our universe. While it's followers in Beebane are enthusiastic about this so-called Great Arrival, scholars of the Old Ones are not so happy to hear that an eldritch abomination is planning to break into their universe. Shuth-Meleth itself has commented on the situation:

While I would not oppose passing through the Gate into your world I have no plans for making this come to pass myself. And I certainly have no plans to make my presence known here with a calamitous End Time, great devouring or any event that would plunge the world into darkness, elemental or otherwise. If an opportunity for me pass through the gossamer-thin barrier between worlds ever did present itself I certainly would not take it if it involved the blood sacrifice of a living being, virginal or otherwise. So please, no virgin sacrifices. I will not accept them.

-Shuth-Meleth, An Open Letter to the Empire

When asked why hearing it's voice didn't drive mortals to madness or why gazing at it's true form in visions did not instantly kill it's high priests, the god has this to say:

It is a common conceit among your kind that anything that comes from beyond the Veil must be all-knowing or all-powerful. While I admit that I exist beyond your conceptions of time and space and in fact transcend it, I am not the omnipotent alien being you make me out to be. I still appreciate that you worship me as a god, but I am not the sort of god to melt your minds or cast your souls adrift in the limitless expanses of chaos. For this reason, you have nothing to fear.

And to answer that young man's question from earlier; yes, if you worship me I absolutely do lay claim to your soul.

Shuth-Meleth has claimed that it is perfectly happy existing alongside the rest of the Imperial pantheon, making sure to point out that it wasn't looking to take followers away from the Everfire. So for better or for worse, Shuth-Meleth's new temple resides in the lowest layer of Beebane, attended to by High Priest Chkl'thak, a Spiderperson who emigrated to the Empire that same year. While most of it's followers have been Spiderfolk, Shuth-Meleth has a small following among the Llynir population in Beebane and even one or two Dwarves. Worship of the Awakened God isn't especially popular among Humans or Gnolls, but so far no tensions have formed between the various belief systems of the Empire. Our operatives have asked around Beebane, Thunderbeard's Hallow, Bistleholm and throughout the Empire; the reaction seems to be the same. Most citizens are comfortable having the new temple in their capital city. While those who aren't are merely distrustful.

The cult has found Beebane very accommodating to their needs and have been able to assimilate into the local culture rather well. They recently gathered enough funding to have a holy book printed using the press in Beebane. The Eightfold Path is a small one-hundred twenty-eight page volume that easily fits in a coat pocket and mainly concerns itself with the early history of the cult and the philosophy of Shuth-Meleth, as well as prayers, blessings and tacit warnings against dealing with other Old Ones.

When asked how he feels about Shuth-Meleth residing in his fortress, young Emperor Biin Thunderbeard had this to say:

I had tha chance ta speak to the octopus-deity when 'is followers first signed tha deed ta tha land. To tell ye the truth I was a little wary at first, but after speakin' to it I feel like 'e'll make a nice addition ta Imperial culture. Besides, the Spiderfolk seem ta like him an' anything ta make them feel at 'ome is good. After all, that's what me father founded this country on: a people unified by their diversity, not divided by it.

-Emperor Biin Thunderbeard

Due to it's benign policies and positive reception in Transmyridil, our organization have decided to reclassify Shuth-Meleth to a level 6 cosmic entity with ROOK type psychosomatic influence. There is no reason to assume the great Happening will occur because of it's actions, nor will there be any danger of a Helvetica Scenario if it's allowed to expand it's influence. The recommended course of action at this time is continued observation but it is in our professional opinion that it is now safe to redirect vital equipment to other listening posts. No tunneling entanglement activity has been reported and all stellar charts are safely out of alignment. Finally, to address [...] concerns, there is no evidence at this time to suggest Shuth-Meleth is a guise of Xyphochotl.

Next Report:

Udil Bronzebolt: Interdimensional Terrorist or Elaborate Hoax?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pluto

The S.L.A.M. saga isn't over yet. Lo and behold there's a documentary on YouTube all about the history of Project Pluto from the early design phase to the construction and testing of the nuclear ramjets.











Once again, I have no idea how long these videos will stay here. So for the time being enjoy this informative documentary on the most hideous weapon ever devised. Plus, it has commentary from some of the scientists who actually worked on the project.

And if that somehow still isn't enough S.L.A.M. for you there's a wonderful short story by Charles Stross called A Colder War involving our favorite missile. I don't want to spoil it so I'll just say it involves something called XK-Pluto, an alternate timeline and a poorly timed joke made by Ronald Reagan. Trust me, it's good.

You can read it here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Berserker

Imagine the worst idea in the world.

I don't mean a merely bad idea, like trying to rob a bank or investing in a viatical settlement. Those are bad ideas, but they're not world-ending. When I say "the worst idea" I mean something well and truly diabolical. The worst idea is something that is not only dangerous and ill-conceived but can threaten to kill on a scale as of yet unheard of.

But the worst idea doesn't necessarily have to be ill-conceived or poorly thought-out. In fact, it could be the product of sheer genius. The finest minds of a generation could come together and pool their knowledge to create the single worst object the world has ever seen. Because remember, this isn't just a bad idea; it's the worst creation our species has to offer. It's going to take billions of dollars and millions of man hours to bring this monstrosity to life.

The Cold War was a hotbed of terrifying new doomsday devices, some of the worst ideas we've ever had. On either side of the Iron Curtain, nestled away in their secret research bases, the most brilliant minds of the 20th century were at work building new and exciting ways to end all life on Earth. The USSR had the Dead Hand, an autonomous defense system that would deploy their entire nuclear stockpile if the Soviet leadership was otherwise occupied or dead. They also built the infamous Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated. If a Tsar were dropped on Washington D.C. it would destroy every building within a 3.5 kilometer radius from the fireball alone. The resulting shock wave would topple every structure for hundreds of miles as the sheer heat incinerates the entire landscape. And then, the Tsar would kick up a cloud of fallout large enough to render much of the east coast uninhabitable for the next hundred years. In all, a single Tsar Bomba, if dropped on the right population center, would accumulate close to seven megadeaths worth of damage. (Doubly so if dropped on Paris.)

Meanwhile the Americans were busy building their own bigger and better bombs, happily vaporizing the Bikini Atoll in their quest for the perfect thermonuclear device. They also developed such strange novelties as the M28 "Davy Crockett" nuclear artillery, a kind of recoilless rifle designed to fire a small nuclear bomb over a distance of just over four kilometers, making it the smallest nuclear weapon ever devised.

They also worked on plans for a variety of enhanced radiation weapons, bombs designed to have a smaller explosive yield while spreading much more radiation than a "conventional" thermonuclear weapon. Included in this were plans for neutron bombs, which were intentionally designed with thin radiation cases in order to allow neutrons to escape and irradiate the blast site. There were also salted bombs, which came packed with easily irradiated material such as cobalt or gold, which would be spread in the form of deadly, radioactive dust when the device was detonated.

Either of these proposals had the capability to destroy all life on Earth if enough of them were detonated.

And these doomsday devices are certainly impressive. Their potential for destruction is harrowing. But can we really say they're the worst product of Cold War engineering? Because as horrible as these weapons were they lacked the certain pointless cruelty needed to bridge the gap between "terrifying" and "nemesis of all life and creation".

No. There's something even more sadistic than the Dead Hand or cobalt bombs. There is an area-denial weapon more pointlessly cruel and over-engineered than any of those...


There is the SLAM: Supersonic Low Altitude Missile; officially the worst thing mankind has ever set out to build.

The SLAM was developed in the early 1960's as part of Project Pluto, a government program to develop nuclear powered ramjet engines for cruise missiles. At the start of Project Pluto the Air Force was relying on long-range bombers like the B-52 to deliver nuclear munitions. ICBMs were still an emerging technology and military analysts were concerned that the missiles wouldn't be ready in time. So the Air Force started work to bridge the gab between bombers and missiles, hoping to create a cruise missile that could fly under enemy radar and deliver a nuclear payload with virtual impunity. Thus, the SLAM was born.



The SLAM's reactor was developed as a joint venture between the Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission. Together they approached the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design Pluto's reactor. The lab gladly accepted the offer since before then most nuclear engineering contracts where handed over to their rival, Los Alamos. What the Air Force wanted was a compact, lightweight reactor that they could put in an aircraft. This was a tall order to fill since every reactor built up to that point had been encased under several feet of concrete. Never mind powered flight, precious few reactors had been built to even be portable. What Project Pluto needed was several leaps and bounds in metallurgy, a material that could withstand the near 2330 °F expected to be pulsing through the reactor. The sort of metal used in jets and missiles before then could only be expected to liquify in the presence of such extreme operating conditions.

Not even the exotic compounds used in the X-15 hypersonic jet were expected to be able to withstand the the stresses the SLAM was expected to endure. This missile would have to pass through wind and rain, enduring salty ocean air, not to mention the extreme heat and radiation produced by the reactor. Before long it was decided to use ceramic to construct the fuel elements, much like how ceramic would be used in the construction of the space shuttle years later. So, Livermore ended up approaching the Coors Porcelain Company (yes, that Coors) to construct the hundreds of pencil-shaped fuel elements for the reactor. As time went by it started to dawn on the scientists just how durable this missile would be, leading to project director Ted Merkle giving it the nickname "The Flying Crowbar".

And keep in mind this was all uncharted territory. While simple in theory, ramjets are notoriously difficult to test in the air. This difficultly is surely compounded when the ramjet in question is spewing radiation every which way. And yet, progress was slowly being made. Chance-Vought was commissioned to design the airframe and the shape of SLAM, which had come to encompass all of Project Pluto, was slowly coming together. Soon enough, there was a complete picture of what SLAM would look like and what it would be capable of.

Besides the rudders, the Pluto would have virtually no moving parts. It's fuel elements were arranged like a honeycomb and kept subcritical until just before take off. After that, the only thing protecting it's electronics and nuclear payload was a thick shadow shield. The ground crew were basically on their own.

Once take off was authorized the SLAM would be launched from a ramp using a cluster of rocket boosters. These would be necessary to get it up to the speed needed to force air into the ramjet. After take off the missile would navigate using an early TERCOM computer, using radar and radioed commands to map out it's surroundings.

Once the rocket boosters broke away the missile would be left flying under it's own power; drawing air into it's inlet which was then heated by the reactor, creating thrust. The missile would continue to fly at high altitude approaching Mach 4.2 before making a rapid descent as it approached Soviet airspace. From then on, the SLAM would level out and fly at extremely low altitudes, just barely above tree top heights, weaving around enemy radar as it closed in on it's target.

The missile came equipped with an enormous payload of up to sixteen thermonuclear warheads, each one capable of incinerating a city and all it's people. The SLAM would come careening across the landscape, dropping it's bombs on all manner of military bases, munitions stores, hospitals, anything that could aid the enemy in the coming post-apocalypse. It would then tear off into the sunset to vaporize the rest of the country. Relying on it's TERCOM navigation system, the missile would be able to snake it's way up the coast dropping bombs on a multitude of preprogrammed targets and making course corrections as need be.

And if Pluto's nuclear stockpile somehow wasn't enough to destroy the offending hemisphere, don't worry. Because researchers working on Project Pluto quickly realized that having the missile flying a crisscrossing pattern over the enemy country was more than enough to leave it an irradiated wasteland. Remember, the Pluto's nearly 600 megawatt reactor was almost entirely unshielded, meaning it would leave a plume of deadly radiation in it's wake wherever it went. Merely having a SLAM fly overhead would be enough to give a lethal dose of radiation to any would-be communist sympathizer. The neutron radiation would be enough to poison the land, indiscriminately killing all plant and animal life and leaving a trail of destruction wherever it went. Or if you were anxious to get this thing out of the air as soon as possible you could deliberately crash it, making a nice radioactive crater out of whatever unfortunate satellite nation it plunges into.

And if even that somehow wasn't enough, the SLAM could kill with noise alone. Remember, the missile was proposed to be around fifty-two feet long and weighing twenty-five tons; about the same size and weight as a steam locomotive. This very large missile would fly at Mach 3, just slightly higher than most rooftops. The shock wave left by it's passing would be strong enough to wreck all sorts of havoc, smashing windows, bursting eardrums, outright demolish buildings. Imagine the sound of a typical passenger jet taking off. Now imagine that same sound, magnified ten times, being made by a passing missile that's spewing gamma rays in every direction.

If the SLAM didn't vaporize you it would cook you like a T.V. dinner. And if it didn't cook you it left you slowly dying of radiation poisoning. And if it somehow didn't do that it would shred you to pieces as it came screaming over the countryside. Now you see why this would have been our worst weapon ever devised? The SLAM wasn't just cruel, it was monstrous. The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile would have been a proper doomsday device.


Sadly, it was never meant to be. As the researchers quickly found out, it would have been impossible to do a proper flight test of the Pluto, not unless they wanted to inadvertently irradiate Las Vegas or Los Angeles. There were some daffy proposals to tie a long steel tether to the missile as it flew circles around the Nevada Test Site or have it fly into the Pacific Ocean and intentionally crash it far from shore. Neither plan was put into action of course.

In the end, the Pentagon scrapped Project Pluto; deeming the missile too dangerous, too provocative to even test. Plus, they were afraid of the Soviets catching wind of their plans and developing their own counterpart to the SLAM, which, if it worked, would be impossible to defend against. But as it turns out there was no race to close the nuclear cruise missile gap and Pluto was quietly forgotten by the public.

However, the scientists at the Lawrence Radiation Lab were able to successfully test both the Tory II-A and II-C reactors, proving the feasibility of the nuclear ramjet. The project also lead to the development of new heat resistant materials. Pluto saw some interesting advances in metallurgy such as the development of ceramic fuel elements based on beryllium oxide and enriched uranium oxide, both highly carcinogenic of course. But eventually, ICBMs caught up with the SLAM, presenting a much cheaper and even more unstoppable delivery system. To the Air Force, the answer was obvious and Project Pluto was discontinued.

Still, one can only imagine a future where the SLAM was eventually tested in the air, a future were people live in fear of rampaging, out-of-control missiles with nowhere left to bomb. It would be a future of endless radioactive deserts, a glowing ball of dust where grass never grows. The land and sea would be poisoned by radiation and Plutos would streak across the sky like glittering needles, threading streams of nuclear fire wherever they went. The whole world would become a tapestry of fire as the missiles reached across the globe. And the last survivor would be there; their body rotting away, ravaged by high energy particles. And with their last dying breath they would claw their way up a pile of rubble and with scorched, sunken eyes they would stare off into the horizon and shake their sallow fist at the machine soaring in the distance. They would slump over and fall silent as she flies off into the sunset.

Atoms for Peace indeed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mandelbrot's Lament

Spacelander

By Tyler Baray

"How does this keep happening to me?" Udil thought to himself.

He gave up screaming several minutes ago when it became clear he wasn't going to stop falling anytime soon. At least it felt like falling. Udil couldn't tell what direction he was going in anymore. A brightly colored field of swirling abstract shapes was rapidly approaching, like the surface of some alien world. He held his arms in front of his face in a vain attempt to protect himself, but the "ground" never came any closer. The swirling, twisting shapes flew on by but no solid surface ever came to greet him. It was as if Udil was falling into the increasingly small, intricate details of an immense painting.

On and on he "fell". Air rushed past his face. His legs flapped around like strips of uncooked bacon. His beard flailed wildly in the wind for hours on end. As time went by and he fell further into the vortices he started to recognize some of the shapes racing by: spirals, twists, something like a giant black clover or heart, as if they were repeating the further in he went. The details were closing in, swirling around him as they emerged from the luminous haze below. The surface became a tunnel as the twisting clusters of light morphed into bands of solid color. He fell further, right into the pupils of dozens of spiraling eye-like shapes, bands of green, purple and pink radiating outward like a star. It became a tunnel of light as he felt himself picking up speed. The tunnel became a chaotic blur as he flew faster and faster. He shielded his eyes from the intense glare, catching a glimpse of the same heart-shape from earlier. He hurtled past it, falling into the infinitesimal gulfs and ridges along it's edge. Suddenly, he was back at the top again.


At least he thought he was. Wherever he was, it looked so much like the rest of the landscape he couldn't tell whether he was still falling in or not. He tried to look around but the rushing air stung his eyes. Further and further he went, past the repeating shapes for what felt like a whole day. By the third or fourth time he fell through the "heart" he was completely convinced that there was no true bottom. He would continue to fall through the increasingly small details of this figure. Forever.

Udil yawned and rolled onto his back. Looking "up", all he could see was an indistinct purple haze, like a night sky without any stars. He closed his eyes and felt the air rushing by. If he didn't stop falling any time soon he would probably end up dying of dehydration. He tried to ignore this and started to doze off as he continued to drop like a meteor into infinity.

For how long he slept, he couldn't venture to guess. But he never seemed to make it to the bottom. To his surprise, sleeping in free fall was mercifully pleasant. With no metal springs or lumpy pillow to keep him awake, he simply went limp and tumbled down to the unseen gravity well below. Later in life, he would remember that occasion as the best night's rest he probably ever had.

"I say Xonxt, look what got caught in our little Mandelbrot arrangement!" A voice said.

Udil woke with a start and flailed around to find the source of the voice.

"Oh my, you're right Zorg!"

"Look at how ugly it is! It only has three dimensions Xonxt!"

"Very gauche indeed Zorg!"

The voices seemed to come from all around him, even emanating from inside his body.

"He doesn't look too happy in there at all, does he Xonxt?"

"No Zorg I don't think he does!"

"Perhaps he'd like our help getting out?"

"Oh that is a wonderful idea indeed Zorg!"

Suddenly Udil could feel something pulling on his entire body. There was a flash of light as he was sent careening through space. All the while he was assaulted by a series of incomprehensible images and sounds. With a sickening lurch, he froze in midair. Floating in front of him were a pair of what looked like giant meatballs. These grew and shrank, sometimes splitting to form more of the alien shapes. The objects changed size, multiplied and divided as if by some impossible feat of magic.

"What are ye!?" Udil finally managed to bellow out.

"We are friends from the fourth dimension!" They said in unison. "And you seem to have fallen into our two-dimensional representation of a Mandelbrot set! Somehow!"

Udil struggled to get away. All the while the higher-dimensional beings floated around him and laughed.

"How did such a three-dimensional creature find their way here Zorg?"

"I don't have the faintest idea Xonxt!"

A wave of pain suddenly shot through Udil's body. It felt like a sudden, intense cramping or like something was trying to pull his insides out. He doubled over and clutched at his stomach, wimpering.

"Zorg, you really mustn't prod them on their insides like that! They don't enjoy it."

"I'm sorry Xonxt, I sometimes forget how these lower-dimensionals work!"

Udil managed to squeak some kind of response.

"I say Zorg...does this one look at all familiar to you?"

"Hmm, yes. Now that you mention it..."

A cosmic meatball floated towards his face and gently started to orbit around his head. Several others appeared in the air around his face. Gingerly, they pressed down on his head and slowly moved it this way and that. Udil quivered as he said a silent prayer to the Everfire. He clamped his eyes shut, trying to block out the mental image of his head being torn from his shoulders.

"Look at those little 3-D legs...and those livers inside it. If I know my extra-planar taxonomy, and I certainly do, I'd say this was a Dwarf Zorg!"

"I believe you are right Xonxt!"

"Don't eat me!" Udil shouted. The creatures laughed uproariously.

"Why would we ever want to eat such a small creature Xonxt?"

"It would pass right through us Zorg! Besides, he's not even made of the same matter as we! We are lucky none of us annihilate on contact!"

"We are indeed!"

"Where am I? What is this place!?" Udil said.

"Of course! His tiny eyes cannot even fathom his surroundings!"

"You are in Hyperbolia traveler! The land of four dimensions!"

"But he still looks familiar doesn't he Xonxt? And not just because he is a Dwarf!"

"You are right! There is something different about this Dwarf, something that can rarely be said about their kind!" They both laughed. Another meatball materialized and yanked on Udil's beard.

"Look at his rosy beard! And this little collection of crystals!"

"And look here! See this symbol on his outer layer?"

The two creatures prodded him as they murmured amongst each other. All at once, they gasped and loosened their grips on him.

"You don't think-"

"I do indeed Zorg!"

Suddenly, a watery, gelatinous bag appeared in the air in front of Udil's face. A large black spot, like a pupil slid into view from no direction in particular.

"Sir, are you Udil Bronzebolt? Champion of the Everfire, warrior of Feresia?"

Udil stammered. "...Who's asking?"

"It is indeed! A bonafide celebrity in our midst!"

"Exciting indeed Xonxt!"

The creatures started prodding him again. From all around came invisible claws or tentacles or something, pulling his hair or forcing his limbs around like a rag doll. To his horror, he felt something prying at the contents of his stomach.

"Look at all these souvenirs! Trinkets he's kept from his travels no doubt!"

"And now he's come to steal from our little corner of the multiverse! Exhilarating!"

Suddenly, half of Udil's canteen appeared in the air, with half the water sloshing around inside. It started to fade away, like slices of the canteen were being shaved away until it disappeared again. The entire canteen reappeared then disappeared again. The contents of his backpack were floating in the air around him. As he struggled against the forces keeping him in place he caught a glimpse of Scully floating through the air. The human skull he carried with him was melting away, leaving it's empty interior exposed for him to see.

"What is going on!?" She shouted. "What am I looking a-"

"Bring 'er back!"

"Back? From where? She never left!"

"Not at all! She is right here before your nose! Just ever so slightly into the fourth dimension!"

Scully suddenly reappeared spewing expletives. Just as quickly as she materialized, she vanished again.

"And back she goes! She's right there, but so far out of reach!"

"Zorg, it is impolite to tease the lower-dimensionals!" They both laughed.

"Udil, is it true you were reborn to a human woman once?"

"And that you were summoned by the Cult of Shuth-Meleth on accident?"

"Uh, well..." He stammered.

"And is it true that you testified before the Xa Hegemony on behalf of the Kretak Supreme?"

"The what now?"

"Surely you remember the Supreme! It is the most prestigious of three-dimensional lifeforms! It was greatly honored by your testimony!"

"Lads...I...I've never 'eard of a Kretak."

They both gasped. "Esteemed Bronzebolt, surely you don't mean to tell us that in addition to living in only three dimensions of space, you still inhabit only one dimension of time?"

"What in Armok's name is a dimens-"

"The poor creature! I believe he only experiences time linearly Xonxt!"

"I'm afraid you're right Zorg!"

"What are ye talkin' aboot!?"

"Forgive us esteemed Dwarf. But I'm afraid we have just alluded to events that, for you, have not transpired yet!"

"It is good he isn't in his own timeline right now Zorg!"

"A frightening paradox indeed Xonxt! But I shudder to think...living in a timeline? I find even a timeplane cramped at times!"

"You should move around those times then!" They both laughed. The eye-like bag reappeared.

"We cannot help you with your time-problem, sadly. But perhaps while you are here we can give you a taste of life in four spatial dimensions?"

"Very charitable indeed Zorg!"

"What does that mean?" Udil said.

"You would not become 4-D like us of course, not even we have the biomancy to perform such a feat. But we can fire a beam into your eyes, allowing you to see light as we do. For a brief time, we can let you see four dimensions!"

"Physicists everywhere would relish such an opportunity!"

"I don't know..."

"Please? We would be honored to show you! It would be a gesture of goodwill from one dimension to another!"

"As long as ye stop pokin' me innards!"

"Of course!"

"An' gimmie back me stuff!"

"Absolutely!"

Just as Udil considered agreeing a beam of white light was fired into his eyes. He cried out as his eyes quivered in their sockets. The landscape around him started to melt, or started expanding, he wasn't sure which. Everything seemed to be stretching, growing sharper. He felt like his vision was becoming clearer, but he couldn't put into words exactly how. His eyes watered as the muscles in his face quaked uncontrollably. The whole world was unfolding around him.

"Well?"

"I...can see...everything..." Udil said.

It all suddenly made so much sense. Why couldn't he see any of this before? It seemed so obvious. There was an odd cubical shape in the distance. As his eyes adjusted he could see the entire surface of the cube; front, back, top, bottom. Not only that, he could see inside and watch the squirming, worm-like creatures living inside. And he could see inside of them. The entirety of every object was suddenly laid bare for him to see. He couldn't just see a certain angle of the objects around him, but the entire three-dimensional form, unfolded for him to see.

"Udil...what did they do? Why are you looking at me like that...?" Scully said.

To him, the skull looked like a blossoming white flower, reaching towards and away from him, receding into a distance he had no name for yet. The entire outer surface was there, laid out like a sheet as her hollow inside was pulled open to see. Every crack and crevice was there. She had become a kaleidoscope image, the whole world was an explosion of light and form the likes of which he had never seen before.

"Lass...it's beautiful."

"Yeah, no. That's where I draw the line. Change him back."

"But he is enjoying himself so much!"

"Now you see it esteemed Bronzebolt? Whereas you, a three-dimensional creature can see into a square and see every portion of it, inside and out, we, as four-dimensionals can see the entirety of a cube, inside and out."

Udil turned to see his captors for the first time. He suppressed a scream as he tried to make sense of what he was looking at; hundreds of appendages, not quite tentacles, but not quite claws either, were writhing in the air. Dozens of eyes dotted the molted grey surfaces of the enormous beings as their long antennae whipped around in rhythmic unison. The two beings weren't inside-out like the rest of the scenery. Their waving hides rippled as they danced in place, the three dimensional surfaces of four dimensional creatures. They stuck out a long appendage, appearing from beyond their bodies to keep Udil from stumbling over.

If seeing a three-dimensional object in four dimensions was beautiful, seeing Xonxt and Zorg as they were meant to be seen was like a miracle. Udil couldn't help but break down crying.

"Now you see what you have been missing? And consider, to us this is every day reality."

"Why couldn't I see this before?"

"How could you? Before now you lived in mere space, never knowing the greater elegance that is hyperspace."

"Just imagine it Zorg; to a denizen of Flatland, our esteemed Dwarf would be the extraordinary higher-dimensional. And he would be the one teasing them with his incredible third dimension. And here we are, doing the same with our fourth."

"Perhaps someday we will receive a visit from a five-dimensional Xonxt!"

"Over my dead body Zorg!"

Udil was breathlessly taking in his surroundings. The whole world seemed new to him. An entirely new direction of motion was opened before his eyes, a whole facet of existence he had no idea was there before. It seemed so obvious, so perfect. He was ashamed that he wasn't aware of it before.

Overjoyed by what he was seeing he looked down at his hands.

A wave of nausea washed over him as he saw the skin of his hands peeled away, revealing the muscles below. That was peeled away, revealing the pulsating blood vessels, which were opened to show the pumping blood coursing in and around his hands. His bones were floating in midair, appearing both inside and out, the gooey marrow visible wherever he looked..

His eyes traced the length of his arms. Everywhere it was the same; he had been dissected from the inside out. Now every muscle, every vein, every organ was suspended sickeningly in midair. As he looked down at his chest he could see his tattered green shirt, occupying the same space was the brand of the Everfire, his ribs floating like a grisly chandelier. His heart pulsated like a fleshy flower in his chest, blood flowing in and around it in utter defiance of gravity. His whole body had exploded, every square inch of his person had been made visible.

"Udil, are you alright?"

He tried to shut his eyes, but he could only see his own eyelids sliding into place. Somehow, he could also see around them. No matter how hard he tried, the whole world remained open to him. He suddenly felt lightheaded as he could see the blood rushing past his own brain. Zorg reached out a limb to keep him upright. All he could do was watch as the appendage somehow managed to reach past his organs and grasp at his shirt collar. It's suction cups latched onto it from seemingly every angle possible.

"Perhaps...this is a little much to take in all at once."

"Yes, perhaps that is enough of the fourth dimension for now.

Udil was suddenly afraid to stand, worried that he might topple over and scrap his kidneys on the rocky floor. He looked down at the whirling vortices of meat he called his legs and stared deep into floor. It was rock. It was all rock. Rock all the way down. Terror seized him as he realized it: He was seeing clear through the other side of the world.

"I think we've made a terrible mistake Zorg."

A salty taste welled up in the vicinity of Udil's mouth. He looked down at his wagging tongue, watching as the muscles that used to be inside it contracted involuntarily. A cold sweat broke out somewhere as he felt himself starting to retch. He tried to look away. But no matter where he turned he could always see his own body suspended in the air from every conceivable angle, interior and exterior. No matter where he turned he couldn't help but see himself. Suddenly he noticed his stomach gurgling, the slimy contents of which were forcing itself past his esophagus. All at once, a stream of vomited shot out, or in, he wasn't sure. Udil crumbled to the floor, whimpering; covered, once again, in his own vomit.

"Perhaps we should apologize Zorg."

"I think it's too late for that Xonxt."



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Spooky Scary Skeletons

Meanwhile, in Beebane...


Actuarial Concerns

by Tyler Baray

It had been nearly a month since the start of the rainy season. Thunder echoed through the rock face as the front door quaked on it's hinges. The crypt was locked up for the coming months, with only the crypt keeper Margath Yaradrum left to keep watch over it's dank halls. The catacombs were lit by the enchanted lights left behind by the workers, which radiated a shining blue glow over the rough hewn stonework. On every wall were scenes from the legends of Armok, stories of the Empire's battles and their struggle to survive in the jungle.

Margath's boots echoed down the hall as he made his way to the Crypt of the Bronzesmith. He held a torch out to see into the dark tunnel and was greeted by the stone-like faces of the interred dead. Their leathery skin was stretched taut over their skulls. Their exposed teeth shone in the torchlight. The crypt was silent except for the crackle of the fire.

The crypt keeper went around to each corpse to check for signs of tampering. They were all accounted for. So far so good, he thought. At this rate, the rainy season just might go easy on him. As he stood there, scribbling notes on his clip board he became aware of a pair of blue lights in the hallway. He squinted to focus his eyes. What looked like a thin white shape was watching him, making a creaking, rattling sound as it stood there. Margath took the iron morning star from his belt and called out to it.

Suddenly, it's mouth opened wide, but no sound came out. The figure rushed into the light. Margath could see the darkness of the tunnel through it's ribcage. It's smooth skull shone in the ghostly lights in it's eyes. It jumped on him and the two toppled over. Margath's mace clattered to the floor as the skeleton shook him by the collar. He strained to reach the weapon when the skeleton raised it's arm high into the air. It tore into his forehead with it's bony fingers, tearing clear across his face. The crypt keeper struggled against the huge human skeleton, trying to get it off him. All the while it dug into his face with it's claw-like fingers. He shifted his weight to one side and snatched the mace. With a heave, he lifted it clear over his head and bashed the skeleton right in the side of it's skull. It shattered like pottery and the whole frame went limp on top of him. He pushed it off with a heave. Laying on the cold stone floor, he watched as the blood trickled down his face.

On second thought, maybe not, he thought. Idly, he kicked it's skull which bounced out of the room.

The first skeleton of the season...

...

"Three years, can ye even believe it?"

Hilni peered over the wall and took a deep breath of the tropical air. The jungle stretched out in every direction like a massive green quilt laid over the land. Standing behind him, silent and grey was the dormant volcano, the soaring peak of the Southland mountains. A single wisp of smoke billowed out of the volcano's lip and floated high into the sky to meet the gathering clouds above. Aban trundled over from the other side of the terrace carrying the last bundle of supplies with him. Altogether, he had three quivers of crossbow bolts, bandages, salve, caltrops and package of warthog jerky. With a heave he dropped it on the front step.

"I guess we'll only know if this was enough after tha rainy season." He said.

"Oh, I don' think we hafta worry aboot that." Hilni said. "He's got half the stockpile locked away down 'ere. If anyone's gonna go hungry it'll be us in tha fortress."

"What I mean is, is one person enough? The catacombs are crazy this time a' year. If anythin' we shoulda jus' lock tha military down there an' hope fer the best."

"Oh yeah, yer prob'ly right."

Hilni took another look across the jungle, stroking his beard.

"Suppose this is wrong of us...lockin' an old man up in tha crypt for tha whole rainy season, knowin' what's down there."

Suddenly the crypt door swung open. A dwarf with a long white beard appeared in the doorway, holding a muddy shovel in one hand and a blanched skeletal arm in the other. His boots were muddy and flecked with blood. his entire body seemed covered in knives and hatchets. On the inside of the door was a small wooden plaque. On it were the words Margath Yaradrum - Crypt Keeper.

"If anythin' it's you lot I'm worried aboot." Margath said. "Knowin' you, a dozen people will be dead between now an' the end of the season and ye'll have no place ta put 'em all."

"This is still more of a military thing."

The crypt keeper scoffed. "The army cannae be trusted with a job like this, not when they'll trip down the stairs an' hit their heads or get their fingers caught in their crossbow strings."

He picked up the bundle of supplies and went back inside. Dark clouds were starting to form over the jungle. Droplets of rain had already started to fall on the abandoned terrace. As the two farmers stood there poking around the freshly harvested crops a small figure could be seen limping from the fortress with a pair of Llynir followed close behind. Margath came back upstairs just in time to see the Emperor stopping buy for a visit.

Emperor Urist Thunderbeard smiled and waved from across the farm plots. Truth be told, he was actually an intimidating looking little man. The hand he waved with was missing it's pinkie finger. He wore an eyepatch that did little to hide the huge scar running down his face. He was covered in black leather armor, carrying a massive sword on his back with a hilt that was quite clearly made of Dwarven bone. To his side was the Archminister of Information, Tajjini Besaa-Mora and the head of guard in Beebane, Amsiir Saala-Abdasaa. The Llynir stared at them with their cold, unblinking eyes. Long scimitars hung from their belts on jeweled scabbards.

Aban and Hilni tried to look casual as the officials crossed the terrace.

"Well lad, looks like yer all stocked up fer the rainy season." Urist said.

"Yes your Eminence, I think things will go well down 'ere."

"Call me Urist." He said with a wave of his hand. He peeked inside and nodded.

"Do ye have enough weapons? I got this new crossbow but I don' suspect I'll be usin' it any time soon." He said as he held out a dignified looking, shiny crossbow. The Bee-and-Anvil emblem was burnt into the stock of course.

"No thank ye sir. I have plenty downstairs."

The Emperor only nodded and laughed.

For a while they sat and talked about their plans for the rainy season. It was a dangerous time of year, when all work outside came to a sudden grinding halt. Dense clouds would blanket the skies and rain would pour like an overflowing river. The jungle became a swamp as coastal flooding sent sea water crashing inland. It would take half a year or more for it to drain completely. All the while exotic tropical fish would swim right up to the entrance of Beebane, perfect for the fishing season to come.

But in the meantime the jungle would be buffeted by hurricane winds, strong enough to lift a small creature like a dwarf clear off the ground and send them flying, never to be seen again. During the rainy season, the entire fortress shut down. The farms on the terraces were picked clean. All the doors were barred shut. For the next three or four months it's swelling population of Dwarves, Llynir, Gnolls, Humans would do everything they could to wait out the storm, keeping busy however they could. The Emperor was optimistic though. He had devised an ingenious new method of underground farming he was eager to implement. He did his best to explain the concept to Margath who could only nod and try to look like he understood.

Eventually Urist wished him good luck and went back to the fortress with his crossbow in hand. Tajjini and the farmers followed close behind. Amsiir lingered behind long enough to give the crypt keeper one last ration of supplies; a small pot full of pork dumplings, a family recipe "from old country".

The rain was already starting to come down as Margath barred the door shut. For the next three months he would be completely alone, with nothing but the freshly dead to keep him company. He elected to stay behind because, in his own words, he was the one most qualified to keep things under control. He had been a grave digger for longer than most of the Imperials had been alive. If there was one thing he understood, it was the dead.

He wished he could say Beebane's crypts were a special case. But the truth was he had seen it all before. Beebane, he determined, had been suffering from a necromancer problem. A spirit, a wizard, whatever it was had taken residence at the deepest layer of the crypt and had been practicing it's foul art on the bodies inside. The military managed to fight back against the dark forces at work within, but just barely. There was a lingering evil inside that no one in the Empire knew how to cleanse and to the horror of all, bodies were still coming to life seemingly at random.

Margath Yaradrum took it upon himself to keep their numbers down while the rest of the custodian crew was away. He loaded up on every variety of weapon the blacksmiths could forge and had a private storehouse stuffed with food and bandages. He did this in the hope that when the rain stopped, the people of the Empire could come back and pay respect to their dead relatives again in peace. Maybe some of them would be missing heads or have been sawed in half. But they wouldn't be moving and to Margath, that was a success in itself.

However, the first month was relatively quiet. In the morning he would take a brisk jog around the crypt before going back to his paperwork. There was a library's worth of books locked inside with him which kept him occupied. When there was nothing else to do he would make watercolor landscapes on old parchments, mostly of the inside of the crypt. As he counted each day going by he realized he would be missing the Emperor's wedding, not that he was particularly upset about this. A couple weeks later would be the third annual Imperial Day, celebrating the anniversary of the Empire's founding. That was something he was happy he was going to miss. He was in Beebane for last year's celebration which basically amounted to an out of control riot lasting a little over a week, little more than an excuse for the entire population to get drunk and start fist fights in the hallways. He could only imagine this year was going to be even more out of control, especially since there were over a hundred new people living in the fortress by that point.

No, he was happy to have his own private space for a few months, a safe place far away from all those in Beebane who were quickly succumbing to cabin fever.

It was only a week after Imperial Day that Margath met his first reanimated skeleton. It caught him by surprise in one of the tunnels and clawed him in the face, but he managed to overpower it. After that, it was quiet again. With little else to do and no sign of more skeletons awakening, he want back to work cataloging all the corpses. Aban asked him to make the list. Truth be told, there was no shortage of them; he had enough here to keep him busy for a whole month. Just as well, as he wanted a complete record for an actuarial table he was making.

Slowly but surely he made his way down the list of new residents:

# 124
Name: Tholdig Thornhammer
Race: Dwarf
Age: 51
Cause of Death: Ate a basilisk berry

# 125
Name: Lor'k
Race: Gnoll
Age: 22
Cause of Death: Killed by the Emperor

-She summoned an elemental made of all our food, it was her own fault. -U

# 126
Name: Bjorn Blackmarsh
Race: Human
Age: 32
Cause of Death: Beaten to death by monkeys

# 127
Name: Solon Silverspur
Race: Dwarf
Age: 35
Cause of Death: Suicide

Now this was an interesting case. Margath had only heard stories about her death, since it happened before he arrived in Beebane. But it had become something of a local legend and no one knew exactly how much of it was actually true. In life, she had been the Archminister of Agriculture and one of the original twelve who founded the fortress. Somewhere down the line she got in a fight with a Bugbear and lost her leg. Some say it was actually amputated to spread an infection, possibly by Nanaak Saala-Notila, who himself had died recently. Whatever the case, she was best remembered for her pegleg, which was carved by Urist himself. After the incident with the Bugbear, things generally went downhill for her.

She eventually lost her job at the Archministry. Aban took her place. From then on, if she hadn't herself locked in her room she could be found in her little corner in the tavern, drinking the night away. Eventually a rumor started to circulate that, in her worsening depression, she was having a turgid affair with a Gnoll living in Beebane. By then, her public reputation was completely ruined. A couple months later her neighbors started to complain of a foul smell coming from her room. Sure enough, she had killed herself. The funeral was small, attended only by her former colleagues. It was a closed-casket ceremony of course. She had reached a fairly advanced state of decay by that point.

Margath shuffled through her file and shook his head. She had the distinction of being the only suicide case in the Empire's admittedly short history. Almost every other death that year had occurred because of a mining accident, or eating poisonous vegetation or being beaten to death by the wildlife. But more than anything else, most deaths were related to the military. Margath snorted. If there was one thing the military was good at, it was getting themselves killed. Back when the undead problem was at it's worst they had formed a cordon around the crypt, trying to stem the tide of zombies and skeletons from making their way above ground. For weeks and weeks they stayed there. The battle line never moved once in all that time. And when they finally decided to venture down into the crypt nearly all of them died. Out of the twenty six that ventured down, only six were able to claw their way back up to the surface, leaving Beebane virtually defenseless until the next wave of immigrants arrived. And that wasn't counting the little expeditions they took before then, when a whole squad was torn to pieces by the skeletons waiting below.

He started to sort away the files. To be fair, the military had a few successes in the past. Maybe not with the undead problem specifically, but with other concerns outside the crypt. When the road was being built between Beebane and Bistleholm a worker was kidnapped by bandits who demanded a ransom for her return. The Emperor instead decided to send in the military, who managed to raze the entire camp, kill all but two of the bandits who they brought back as prisoners and somehow get the hostage back to safety. To this day no one's quite sure how they managed it, but the Empire hadn't had a problem with bandits since. Besides that, they were generally good at keeping the local goblin's numbers down.

In spite of everything, they had managed to put an end to the immediate threat in the catacombs, he had to give them that. Though he wouldn't admit it, the stories of what they actually fought at the bottom layer were enough to make even him uneasy. Margath found it harder and harder to ignore these thoughts as the days went by. Slowly but surely, the dead closest to the bottom started to become restless; moving when he wasn't looking, howling from the other side of the crypt. There were times when he would enter a room and find every body stored inside staring right at him. Silent and motionless; dead by all accounts but watching him.

As the weeks dragged on he found it harder to focus on the clerical side of his work. Bodies seemed to be moving from one crypt to another. Scratch marks started appearing on all the doors. Something had changed in the air, like a fog that pressed down on his chest. Each day it seemed to get darker and colder in the tunnels. All the while the sound of rain and thunder from outside never ceased. A black haze clung to the floor, rising up like smoke from the depths of the catacombs. Cold blue lights appeared in the eyes of all the corpses, glowing like candle lights in the darkness.

Margath quietly walked down the stairs to the third layer. A chill wind was blowing from below. He could see his breath in front of his face. He heard a loud scratching coming from down there earlier. With a torch in one hand and a long flail in the other he went down to investigate. There wasn't a hint of fear to be found on his face. Fighting the undead was nothing new to Margath. When he was younger he had been a squire in an order of Paladins dedicated to hunting such creatures. He had stared into the decaying face of death more times than he could remember. Whatever was waiting downstairs wasn't anything that would come as a surprise to him.

He put his ear to the door and listened; complete silence. The scratching had stopped back when he was climbing down the steps. Now, he waited with one hand clutching the handle, the other tightening over the flail. With a sudden rush of cold air he flung the door open and swung the flail over his head. Staring him right in the face were a pair of empty eye sockets, an eerie blue glow piercing him as he swung. The flail's spiked head came crashing down on the skull, shattering it. It continued to bore through the brittle skeleton, smashing the rip cage and sending it clattering to the floor in a heap of bone dust. In the light from the glowing stones and the flickering torch in the hallway, dozens of other skeletons could be seen. All of them were standing on shaking, creaking legs, watching the crypt keeper as he stood in the doorway. All at once, they started to scream and charged at him.

He stood back and let them crowd each other in the narrow doorway. Then, as they struggled to get through he started bashing them to pieces. Bone splinters were flung all over the room as he bashed them to pieces. With a heave, he swung the flail over his head and sent it crashing down right into the forehead of a skeleton reaching for his throat. It struck, splitting it neatly in half. The entire skeleton crumpled inward and collapsed. Suddenly there was an opening as undead started pouring out, falling over each other as they clawed at him.

A howling sound echoed throughout the crypt as all the light seemed to leave the tunnels. The air suddenly felt ice cold, piercing into Margath's bones as he climbed up the stairs. A skeleton crawled after him and latched onto his ankle. He kicked it, sending it careening down the stairs. It shattered as it fell to the bottom. Margath swung the flail in wide arcs like he was threshing grain, tossing skeletons around and sending them tumbling back down to the bottom. He found a steady rhythm as he climbed up the stairs backwards, always keeping the skeletons out of arms reach. Slowly he was whittling down their numbers until only two or three half-broken skeletons were trying to claw at him.

He made it to the top of the steps as the last of them was pulling itself up. With one last swing, he bashed it in the jaw, shattering it's skull. It fell over backwards and collapsed, bones bounced down the steps to the bottom, falling into the growing pile below. Margath laughed to himself as surveyed his work. He was busy dusting himself off when he was suddenly pushed forward. He fell and twisted his ankle. Before he even realized it, Margath started to roll down the stairs, falling on top of the pile of jagged, broken bones.

Standing at the top of the steps was a greenish-grey corpse, it's eyes glowing an eerie blue. The skin around it's mouth and nose had decayed so much as to render it unrecognizable. It's hands had been twisted into claws, like a vulture's. It's nails had long since fallen off. The creature gurgled as if trying to speak, barely able to move it's jaw under it's parched, leathery skin.

The zombie stumbled forward, it's leather boot shuffling on the stone floor. It's pegleg struck the ground with an audible plink. Slowly, clumsily it reached out for him. Margath could only lay at the bottom, bruised and battered as he watched Solon's corpse come after him. She reached with outstretched arms, bony fingers gripping at the air. She made it to the top step...and slipped.

Solon fell down the stairs, bouncing the whole way. With a pained howl she fell into the heap of broken skeletons beside Margath. He pulled himself out as she struggled to free herself. He watched in bewilderment as she thrashed around, unable to stand up on her wooden leg. Rolling his eyes, the crypt keeper went back upstairs.

From all over the tombs came the sound of awakening undead, followed by a loud shuffling as they forced their way out of their caskets. Margath reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a glass jar filled with lamp oil. Beebane hadn't used lamps for over two years, so when he asked for a small supply of it from the Emperor, he had no trouble getting it. Seeing the roving band of last month's dead soldiers, he was glad he did. Margath flung the jar into the hallway. It shattered, covering the walking corpses in oil. Unable to think of anything witty to say, he tossed the torch in after them. Each zombie burst into flame at once and started screaming as they flailed around the cramped hallway. The fire burned so brightly it cut straight through the eerie haze and bathed the entire tunnel in flickering orange light. The zombies fell over and quietly burned in a heap of charred flesh.

The crypt keeper forced his way back up to the top, smashing his way through the awakening horde of the dead. By the time he made it back to his office there was a trail of blood and mismatched limbs strewn throughout the crypt. His face had been cut to ribbons by the skeletons trying to scratch his eyes out. Bite marks ran down the length of his arms and legs. He looked back on the carnage and groaned. All this meant was that he would have to clean it up later.

The next week and a half consisted of exactly that. All the while more corpses started to reanimate, or in some cases re-reanimate. As time went by he found himself smashing the same battered Dwarves three or four times each. And somehow, they just seemed to be getting stronger. Burning them seemed to kill them permanently, but as soon as he realized this he had run out of lamp oil. Removing heads and limbs made them less dangerous, but it also meant having to track down an increasing number of undead arms and legs inching around the tunnels like abominable worms.

Eventually however, he was able to get them back down to a manageable number. All the walls were covered in blood, some of it his. And there were piles of corpses stacked on top of each other as makeshift barricades, but after nearly two weeks of nonstop fighting, he was able to finally sit down and rest. And yet, the oppressive darkness and cold never went away. The thunder outside only ever seemed to get louder and louder, rattling through the mountain face.

Margath sat at his rocking chair, blowing into a bowl of soup when there was suddenly a knock on the front door. His brow twisted in disbelief as a loud cracking emanated from the door. As it swung open he thought the wind had ripped it from it's hinges. There was a deafening howl as the wind and rain rushed in. Papers and empty bags flew around the room as if the entire hurricane threatened to force itself inside. Margath's bowl of soup was thrown across the room as a single small figure tried to force it's way inside. More followed close behind.

Together they were able to push the door closed. The gale suddenly ceased and the sound of thunder returned to the distance outside.

"Who in blue blazes are ye people?"

"Who do ye think?" The one at front said as he pointed to the badge on his uniform: the Bee-And-Anvil, with a single chevron on his shoulder.

"Tourists?" Was all Margath could think to say.

One of the soldiers at the back gasped. "We lost Orik!" She said. The leader looked back at the rain-drenched group. "No, not just him," He said. "Valin is missin' as well." The whole squad suddenly went silent as they realized what had happened. Margath was left standing in front of them, wounds from battle with the undead visible all over his person, his soup strewn all over the floor.

"Wait a minute, what are ye people actually doin' here? No one was supposed ta even be outside until the rain let up."

"This is an emergency!" "The fate of the Empire depends on it!"

The crypt keeper looked at them with a blank expression.

"The Emperor is turnin' into an elf."

Margath opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

"Someone cast a spell on him an' if we don't find out how ta reverse it he'll hafta abdicate tha throne!" The leader said.

"Then Sankis will be Empress!" The one in the back said, starting to panic.

"Do you realize what's been going on down here!?" Margath said. "I have been knee deep in the dead all rainy season, no let up, no time to even have a bowl of soup! It's been hell down 'ere. So I expe-"

"Listen, we feel terrible, but have you seen any elves crawlin' around 'ere?" The leader said. "Or 'ave ye seen any evidence of evil rituals? Involvin' elves?"

"I have been fightin' skeletons nonstop fer weeks. I can only sleep while safetly perched ontop of a pile of bones so they can't reach me. I have seen walkin' corpses hewn in half so many times I feel more at home talkin' ta people's insides than their faces." Margath said.

"...So have ye seen any elves?"

Margath stormed off to his office without a word. As far as he was concerned, it was their problem now. He laid on his bed with his arms folded, muttering to himself, stupid brainless thugs wanderin' in 'ere, I hope they all get blown off tha mountain...It was just as well that they came, he thought. With them stumbling around he had enough of a distraction for the skeletons to get a few good hours of sleep. Suddenly he became very aware of how much his limbs ached. His head was swimming from exhaustion. Before he knew it, he had fallen asleep under his desk.

...

Margath awoke to the sound of screaming from deep in the crypt. Grabbing a crossbow and mace he bolted downstairs. He was in a fog. What did he do last night? Was there something important he was forgetting? There were bodies here he didn't recognize. These uniforms looked familiar. Suddenly it hit him: those idiots in the army again. What were they doing down here? Why were they in the crypt while it was still raining outside? His minds filled with questions. All the while the tombs seemed darker and colder than ever before. A thick haze filled his vision, something just seemed wrong about this place.

The screams faded away just as he made his way to the last layer. Below that was where the miners had given up digging. The door was swinging on it's hinges. A black vapor leaked out from the opening. Every hair on the crypt keeper's body stood up at once. He felt like he had ice water dumped on top of him. An overwhelming sense of evil washed over him as he saw the black haze creeping out of the basement door, almost like it was pulling on him.

A bead of cold sweat raced down his forehead. Slowly, silently, he crept toward the door. The vapor coiled around the door like snakes climbing up a tree. He felt colder and weaker with each step. As he approached the door and reached out his hand he felt like an icicle was piercing his palm. Suddenly he tripped on a crossbow bolt and the whole room seemed to freeze. The black smoke seemed to stop moving, as if watching him. He froze. For several long, agonizing seconds he simply stood and watched the unnatural emanation curling around the tunnel. Again, he advanced forward. Then, with a suddenly jolt of movement, he slammed the door shut. The smoke dissipated with a hiss and the whole room seemed suddenly brighter.

There was a faint sound from downstairs. What it was, he didn't know. But for once, he didn't care to find out. Margath let out a relieved sigh and got to work counting the bodies. From what he could remember, there should have been about five still down there in the basement, the cavern beneath the crypt. What things crawled down there, he couldn't guess. But as he made his way back up to his office the tombs seemed brighter and somehow warmer. If he had to guess, whatever was down there, was staying down there now.

...

The sun was shining. The last of the clouds  were breaking up on the horizon. From the terrace Margath could see Imperial citizens stretching their legs at the tunnel entrance, some were already hauling their fishing boats to the docks. The swamp stretched out like a massive emerald pool poured over the land, the tall boughs of the trees just barely peeking out of the water.

The Emperor was sitting on the wall, looking out at the metamorphosed landscape.

"Thanks fer gettin' yer report to my desk so soon." He said. "That was an interestin' read."

Margath could only manage an approving grunt as he slumped down in his chair.

"So everythin's alright down there now?"

The crypt keeper frowned. "Well sir, I have ta say no. I think the worst of whatever was 'appenin' down 'ere is over. But the reanimation will prob'ly never stop altagether."

The Emperor nodded, seeming to understand what he meant. "No, during the rainy season we figured out what was happenin', more or less." He said. "An' we were able to put a stop to it, or rather, it put a stop to itself. But something tells me that what was down there made it's mark. This is an evil that will linger with us fer a long, long time."

"You mean...you knew what was happenin'?" Margath said.

"Sort of. It's complicated." Urist said. "It involved elves. It's a long story."

They both sighed as they stared into the dark crypt. With a shrug Urist took his leave and made his way across the terrace. In the distance the crypt keeper could see Sankis Stonehammer looking across the wall. He reminded himself it was actually Thunderbeard now. A part of him didn't think it would last.

Margath closed the door and headed back to the office, rubbing his tired eyes the whole way. The path was littered with piles of splintered bones. There were deep gouge marks in the stonework. The air was thick with the smell of burnt flesh as he made his way down the steps. When he finally made it to the office the door was swinging on it's hinges. Long claw marks ran down it's length. From inside came the sound of moaning and a chain rattling. Cautiously, he pushed the door open.

An empty beer bottle flew past his head and smashed in the hallway. Inside, Solon struggled against the chain keeping her from tearing his lungs out. She had flipped his desk over, tossing papers and supplies all over the small room. He calmly walked around the mess and turned the desk over. All the while Solon snarled at him.

"Lass you know you can only stay up 'ere if ye behave yerself." He said sternly.

Solon roared as she slashed at the air with her bony claws. Margath said nothing and simply watched her with his arms crossed. Reluctantly, she sat back down and grumbled incoherently. The crypt keeper nodded in approval and placed a large stack of papers on the desk.

"I hope ye remember how ta do paperwork lass, because we need ta start preparin' fer next year."