Monday, April 16, 2018

The Dustwind and the Zaris Malgunnun

I started writing Centerra setting info back in 2010.  One of the first things I wrote were these places: the Dustwind and the Zaris Malgannum.  You can tell its from an early source because 'Dustwind' is sort of a stupid name (see also: Underdark).  August 20th, 2010 to be precise.

'Zaris Malgannum' is pretty awesome though.  I love that name.

every name on this map has a writeup somewhere in my computer

The Dustwind

The Dustwind was formed when Eladras fell to Earth.

Eladras was the ancient elven homeland: an enormous tree.  It's roots were in the moon, and the furthest tips of its branches brushed the mountaintops of Centerra.

It survived the Time of Fire and Madness only to later succumb to its own, private apocalypse.

Many of its fragments persisted as free-falling orbital biomes.  The druids somehow salvaged a seed and used it to grow Aglabendis, the Tree of Beasts, destined to destroy all civilization.  Its dead roots form the halls of Rah Shem Bool, the greatest of the lunar cities.

When the pieces fell into the Dustwind, they shattered.  Long limbs crossed valleys, each chambered with elven homes and entomo-gardens.

Even with a disaster of that magnitude, many elves survived.  Their homes were shattered, filled with the unreachable corpses of their families.  Many were killed as more flaming debris fell from the sky over the next night.

But the elves had hope, and they had magic.  They coaxed life back into the dying branches.  They sent down fresh roots and grew new branches.  Lights gleamed from the windows of new-sprung gall-houses for a while.  Taproots uncovered water, deep under the Dustwind.

They would have survived if Zevernus hadn't found them.

Zevernus

Zevernus is the eponymous Dustwind.  He is a Wind, like many other spirits of the air.

Unlike them, he is not of this world.  He is a refugee from the Milk Star, one of nine stars the Church has identified as moral hazards.

Those who observe the Milk Star for too long become determined to travel there.  This desire becomes obsessive and self-destructive, and many of its victims die in the pursuit of this foolish mania.

Sometimes, however, the victims leap skyward on moonless nights, and fly away cackling.  They are never heard from again.

Star-fools who are restrained from flying to their star eventually go howling mad.  After several weeks of this, they eventually die, leaving behind an empty husk and a pool of poisonous 'milk', hence the name of the star.

But I digress.

Zevernus hails from that evil star.  He has never been persuaded, befriended, nor coerced into telling what he knows of that place.  He spends his days and nights arranging the sand into vast geometric patterns.  Whether art or alphabet, no one knows.

He has been described as a "sucking" wind, rather than the regular "blowing" winds that we are all familiar with.  He has strange powers of desiccation and fossilization.  When he discovered the new-sprung elven homes, he destroyed them utterly.

He usually doesn't deign to interact with small groups of travelers, unless they interfere with his work.

The Petrified Forests

These are the last remnants of the elven refugees.  Half-buried ridges of petrified trees.

Beneath most of them are the hollow sections of elven construction.  Some are chambers from the original Eladras, with all of their strange wonder and artifice.  Other rooms are newly constructed, filled with the hopeful collections of desperate elves, and their fossilized bones.

These places are haunted by enormous, translucent ants.  Some say that they are elves who transformed themselves to survive the Dustwind.  Whatever the case, the ants seem to be uncannily familiar with elven technology, and are not accosted by protective enchantments or the surviving elven ashakkas (wood golems).

The Highway

Before the Great Tree fell, and perhaps before the arrival of Zevernus, there existed a system of aquaducts.

Now they exist only as sort of highway across the desert.  In some places, you can walk atop them for miles.  In other places, only the posts remain to guide you across the trackless hills of that place.

Many of the pillars have names and constructed shelters, as the desert does have its share of pilgrims.  Some of the pillars hold shrines.

At least one stylite calls the desert home, and meditates atop one section.  Her name is Vangoda, and she is an excellent source of information about the Dustwind.

And lastly, those who camp on the elevated highway are safe from the Dustwind's most famous danger, the Grinding People.

The Grinding People

They are basically zombies.  They run across the desert in large groups.  Most of them don't have arms.  They are called the Grinding People because they constantly grind their teeth.  It is the only sound that they make.

If you are bitten by one, you will be compelled to seek them out and join them.  Your mind will rot away, your soul will leak away from your flesh, and eventually your arms will fall off.  (The transition to undeath is very gradual, like a ghoul's.)

Their constant presence makes drives most travelers to the Highway.

The anatomy of the grinding people is unusual.  They grow teeth in their stomachs.  If you cut them open, their stomachs will be full of polished teeth, gleaming like pearls.  And their shoulders never seal over into stumps, but instead remains as holes.

When the arms fall off, they all crawl towards the Zaris Malgannum.

Digression Time: Endosymbiosis Theory

Wikipedia does a better job explaining it, but this is basically the idea that the mitochondria in our cells were once their own species.  Here's the quick version.

A long time ago, there was a single-celled organism that ate another, smaller single-celled organism, which persisted inside the first one.  The smaller organism persisted inside the larger one, breeding true.  And what's more, it proved to be really good at oxidative respiration, which was great for the larger cell, because it could get more energy out of its food.

The smaller cell went on to become mitochondria, which are present in all animal cells as an organelle with a fucked-up origin story.  The larger cells went on to become us (among other things).

This is perhaps similar to human gut bacteria, which can perform digestive feats that we cannot.  After we eat food, they eat the same food, making digestion more efficient.  Everyone wins.

With eons, the mitochondria lost a lot of their functionality.  They were no longer complete cells, and could no longer reproduce on their own.  They were just an appendage of the larger cell, entirely dependent on it.  Parts of the mitochondria genome fell away and were incorporated in the human genome.  We took their DNA and made it our own, in order to keep our pets alive.

Current mitochondria are vastly reduced things, a shadow of what they once were.  Mitochondria are so devoted to cellular respiration, that they are incapable of anything else.

Anyway, this is true for human mitochondria as well as for human hands.

Human Hands

Once there was a species of animal.  It was a mammal.  It didn't have hands or anything resembling hands.  It had hooves to help it run, or perhaps hooks to help it climb in the trees.

And there was another animal.  What it looked like wasn't important.  All that's important is that it had hands, and that it was most certainly not a mammal.

At some point, the first animal ate the second animal.  And against all odds, the second animal persisted within the first.  Not bodily, but functionally, it persisted in the germline.

<digression> Skeletons have a similar-but-different arrangement based on the Covenant of Flesh, made between the Flesh God and the Skeleton God long ago. </digression>

In fact, if you were to bring a microscope to Centerra and dissect some early human embryos, you would see that the hands develop independently from the body.  Only in the ninth week do they fully attach and become integrated into its body.

The second animal, the one that first invented hands, did not extinct.  The descendants from that ancient race persist, and can be found in the Zaris Malgannum.

The Zaris Malgannum

It's built like a strip mine.  An inverted ziggurat, ovoid and imperfect.  You can see the white walls from across the Dustwind, where they sheared through the shale strata of fossilized seabed.

The bottom floor of the inverted ziggurat is a vast mirror.  No dust collects there.  Zevernus is careful not to litter its surface, and the smaller winds of the Dustwind follow his example.

There are many entrances into the Zaris Malgannum, which weaves itself around the inverted ziggurat like a negative space bird's nest.

This is where hands breed true, with no human parasitizing their biology.

The ambrago are the final surviving finger on this evolutionary limb.  They are the masters of the Zaris Malgannum.

If you were to look upon one, you would see a tall, broad man in a heavy cloak.  The head is a giant hand, or something very much like a hand.

The rest of the ambrago's biology is concealed beneath the cloak.  They walk like old men, because they are old.  They suffer from a particular type of ossifying carpiculosis that inflames their synovia, and they have a great deal of joints.

Underneath the cloak is something like a man with bifurcated limbs, giving it a total of four limbs and eight hands.  All the limbs end in hands.  Though they walk like men, they run like horses.

At the center of their body is something akin to a face.  A beak-like mouth, ringed with palps and tactile hairs.  Radiating canals of auditory sulci.  Two more manipulating organs, similar to hands, attend to the face.

Ambragos communicate through a series of whistles, created by blowing through their hands.  They copulate through clapping, and spawn through budding.  Their crawling babies are nearly identical to human hands.

There's more to them than just the hand-theme.  They entomb their dead inside colonies of carnivorous plants that resemble coral.  They obtained the obedience of Zevernus by getting him addicted to ambragian music, which they practice religiously.  They sleep underneath furniture that resembles a padded turtle shell.  They eat spiced vegetables, threaded on long strings.

They employ a sort of weaponized feng shui.  Certain rooms become poisonous if the furniture is removed.  Taking certain paths through their labyrinthine dungeon causes brain lesions.  The players will have to learn some of these as they go: e.g. going under two arches of the same color in a row causes paralysis.

and you can use puzzles like this

The players won't care about most of this.  They'll just see the magic staves topped with big hands and the hand-faces and start with the puns.  You've been warned.

The ambrago are more than a little bit disgusted by the hands that humans have growing at the ends of their wrists.  They'll sever any hands that they can, and awaken them back into their rightful sentience.  Awoken human hands don't "grow" into adult ambrago, but they are usually loyal to the ambrago. 

Are there giant hands that serve the ambrago?  Of course.

Is there a severed hand of a titan in there as well?  Only one: Ashrendar's right hand.  (The titan's were primordial fire gods.  Each one was linked to a volcano that shared their name, like a dryad with her tree.)

All hands are their domain. 

They are very reasonable, and they are not evil.  But still, they will not want you to leave with your stolen appendages.  Humans are abominations, chimeras of two species.

Some Hand Themed Spells

  • Bigby's Hand.
  • Applause.  Opponent repeats the last action for 1d6 turns.
  • Finger Wag.  Opponent is banned from repeating its last action for 1d12 turns.
  • Magic Slaps.  Very high damage to unarmored opponents, very minimal damage to armored opponents.
  • Handiwork.  Does 10 hours of unskilled labor instantly.
  • Control Limb.
  • Detach Limb.  You still can't see out of it.  At a higher level, the limb can fly. 

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  3. The oddness of Centerra continues to impress and entice.

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