Monday, December 2, 2013

The Abominable Island

Before she ascended, Ianu (blessed be Her name) taught us that the waters of River of Souls carries our souls into the afterlife.

Since her time, the River of Souls has become choked with pollution from Gattica and runoff from cursed Cauterus, becoming mildly poisonous in the process. In some places, it is more like quicksand than water.  One time the river even caught fire for a couple of days.

Regardless, pilgrims still flock to its holy waters to bathe and purify themselves for the new year.

The river empties into the salty water of Greywing Bay.  True to it's name, the air above the Bay is filled with a great number of the little grey birds.  Their chirps of tekeli-li-li are said to be in honor of the prophetess Ianu (blessed be her name), and their beaks are used to snatch the souls of the unwilling dead and bring them to their eternal reward.

If you go further out into Greywing bay--just over the horizon, really--you will see the island.

From a distance, it isn't too impressive.  It's a small, steep-sided island.  The soil looks chalky white and a few small shrubs dot the hillsides. Gulls nest on its pale dome, and marine shoebills stalk fish along the shoreline, sometimes standing still for over an hour.

You may see men dotting the sides of the island, like ants on a hill.  These men are all murderers.

The Abominable Island has stood off the shore of Gattica since time immemorial. It's steep sides were rarely visited, although fishermen passed by it frequently enough. In those days, it was known as White Island.

Then bits of statues were discovered on the island. A careful carving of a woman's arm and wrist, with the fingers all broken off.  It was made from some unknown stone, some unknown type of marble or fused coral or cement.

Then another piece, a torso.  Then someone tried to dig among the crumbling stone of the island, and all everything changed.

As incredible as it sounds, the whole island was made of statues.  The surface was smoothed by erosion and diluted with windblown dirt.  Even the few small, stunted trees were growing in soil that contained fragments of crumbled statues.  And just beneath the surface layer of pale dirt and smoothed stone, a solid mass of statues piled atop one another.  If it had a basal shape, it could be said to be a round, broad, spiral ziggurat.

Picture an orgy, with everyone pressed against each other.  Or a mass burial, with the dead stacked atop each other like cordwood.  No objects between them and only a little bit of open air.  Thousands of statues.  Millions of statues. An impossible number of statues.

Scholars claim that a million hours of labor must have gone into it.  Scholars claim that ten million hours of labor must have gone into it.  Scholars don't know, because who knows how deep the island's roots run, beneath the silt and sludge of Greywing Bay?

The statues were layered from the inside out. They must have been. And then some alchemical process must have been used to join the statues together, so that they appear to be a single piece of stone. What other explanation can there be for this mountainous statuary, rising up from the brown water as if it were a single stone?

A few of the murderers disagree. They say that it was built by a single artisan.  But we'll return to them in a minute.

The statues are striking. All genders, all species. They clamor on top of each other like the worms of the earth, or like the contents of a fishing net emptied upon a ship's deck. Some are enraptured in very graphic depictions of fornication. Others are fighting, with their legs locked together and their teeth sunk into each other's necks. Humans, elves, anacondas, pigs, and stranger creatures that no one can identify.

Riding atop an elk, an orc with human eyes kisses (or bites) the inner thigh of an elf who is splayed out atop the antlers of the elk. A woman tangles her fingers in the elf's hair and wraps her legs around a dwarf, whose eyes are closed and hands are clasped, as if in prayer. Leaning heavily on the orc, a boy thrusts a sword upward, perhaps taken from the empty scabbard of the orc, into a quadrupedal creature that appears to have four human legs. And coiled around all of them, a trio of gillmen, who lick the orc's eye and seem to caress the sole of the woman's foot. And all around them, the same intricacy, density, and worksmanship, piled up into an impossible mountain of entangled figures.

It is impossible to recover the statues without damaging them. They seem to be carved from the same stone, or at least, whatever method the builders used to bind them together has restored them to a state exactly like a single piece of stone. (Although to be fair, only hasty examinations have been done, and those by prison officials and priests.)

In Centerra, itinerant poets are an extremely common minority among travelers and sailors.

Atop the muddy waters of Greywing Bay, poets cluster in great numbers, huddled up in their small boats. They carry parasols to protect against seagulls, and their vests will never unwrinkle. They rinse their stolen pears in the water and remark that there must be more Artistry entombed within the island than the entire rest of the world.

It really is quite tragic, they say.

Is there any more wine, another asks.

Of course not.  You drank it all, you pig.

And so the poets eat their pears and watch how the pickaxes glitter in the afternoon sunlight.  They listen to the blunt rhythms of sledgehammers upon stone faces.

Heads are hurled from the cliffsides. Heavy torsos shatter on the shore. A small landslide occurs and hundreds of pale limbs roll down the broken hillside and disappear forever into the brown water.  The poets wipe their sticky hands on their vests, and the seagulls fly overhead, shitting on everything.

Gattica is perhaps the most religious nation in the world. When they heard that statues had been discovered on White Island, they investigated, and they didn't like what they found.  A mountain of what was clearly infidel art was bad enough, but what's more, some of the statues were clearly fucking or biting or both. And then they found the book.

Some of the statues were holding things, spears, baskets, apples, a book.  And once that book was shattered, it resulted in a great deal of dust and fragments, some of which were still legible. After great expense and magical translations, it was determined that they were holy books in praise of Dendrola, goddess of the gillmen and the briny deep.  This was enough proof.

(As recent as a few hundred years ago, Dendrola ruled over an empire of gillmen that covered all of the coastline in the southeast seas.  But her capital was inland, built in the shallow waters of the Three Secret Seas. Her empire of fishy fanatics even extended a dozen miles inland from the lakes, rivers, and sea.  She absolutely dominates the ancient history of Noth, Gattica, and Kaskala.  Eventually, she was killed.  Her only remaining child attends mass in a Gattican church twice a week.)

Now, Gattica absolutely cannot abide a blasphemous sculpture just off its shores, and the prophetess (blessed be her name) shouldn't have to endure such an odious thing so close to the gateway to her afterlife. Clearly the thing must be destroyed.

But there are laws concerning how much exposure is permitted when dealing with heathen beliefs and infidel art, and the Abominable Island is clearly both. It would not be acceptable to have hired laborers suffer corruption during the many hours it would take to destroy the thing. An arcane intervention is infeasible, since magic is forbidden in Gattica, and even prayer failed to destroy the island. And so it was decided that a prison camp would be built on the shore, and the vilest scum of Gattican society would be tasked with disassembling that vile monolith.

By most accounts, the project has been an abject failure.

Prisoners--nearly all of them murderers--sleep in a dirt-lined dungeon that they dug themselves. In the mornings, they are rowed  out to the Abominable Island where they relieve any frustration by shattering gracile faces and heaving broken legs into the bay. So far they have destroyed several thousand tons of statuary.

Although the official stance forbids it, the statues are frequently smuggled off by those with extensive connections or bankrolls. There are many nobles in Gattica who have a sculpture in their basement, rescued from the bludgeons of convicted felons. The statues are beautiful, and many speak of the intense emotion that comes through in each piece, and the vivid dynamism inherent in even the smallest bit of anatomy.

The statues always seem incomplete. It is difficult for brutes with hammers to remove an entangled statue without fracturing a wrist or blunting a nose. And there is no escaping the fact that each statue was meant to be a part of something much more. In the gardens, carved hands reach for a partner that is no longer there.  In the boudoir, a stone woman arches her back, her chin tilting toward something that is no longer there; her owners can only speculate what fixates her rapturous eyes.

There is a renewed interest in sculpture in Gattica. Hoards of apprentices inflict their presence on masters who have already been commissioned for half a decade of carving. Perhaps their patrons are trying to compensate for the sculptural genocide at the Abominable Island.

A wall has been built between the prison camp and the island. A lattice of bamboo and burlap cloth, built to screen the prisoners from the corrupting effects of the idolators while they are in their camp. Originally the prisoners were forced to wear blindfolds while working on the island, but after a series of accidents (loose marble, birdshit, sledgehammers) a compromise was reached, and the prisoners are now only required to wear the blindfold over one eye.

Every evening, the convicts attend mass beside their dirt dungeon.  Braziers burn around the priests, and the paladins keep watch from the back. Visitors often remark how pagan the whole thing seems without an honest church roof overhead. But there is no time for construction--the monolith must be destroyed.

The daily masses are a drastic measure, taken as a precaution against certain rumors. Some of the prisoners may have taken to worshipping Dendrola, the ocean goddess of the gillmen. Some of them have smuggled small statues back to their cells. Five men were even accused of holding black mass at the ocean's shore, scorning the prophetess (blessed be her name) and praying that they might breathe water. One of these men was a paladin, and all of them were hung. (Their requests to be drowned were denied.)

More troubling are reports that the men are intentionally delaying the destruction of the island. At least one prisoner found a hidden tunnel inside the island. For a week he hid there, sabotaging the small dock, throwing tools into the bay, and restoring sections that had been destroyed.

This is a common problem--there are many hidden tunnels and grottos. Many have been discovered and collapsed, but every day, pickaxes punch through into new areas. At least one prisoner, named Bohan, crept into the structure and become lost. His friends could hear him yelling in there for days. The structure is quite porous, and the gaps between the statues are quite large.

In fact, quite a few men have gone missing. The warden suspects that they slipped into the interior of the island and quickly became lost, lacking torches. No search parties are ever sent into such a corrupting environment, for how the priests sanction so much exposure to an unholy environment?

And so the interior of the island remains a mystery, and any prisoner who has glimpsed it is forbidden to speak of it.

Numerous scholarly groups are eager to study it before it is totally destroyed. How old is it? Is it truly the work of ancient gillmen? What was its purpose? And how were the fused statues constructed?  How deep does it go? And is there a structure at its heart? (Excavation has already found structures near the shore that resemble cross-sections of streets: flagstones radiating out from a center point, complete with parallel ditches, all filled with statues.)

As you might expect, there are no shortage of rumors among the murderers and traitors of the Greywing Bay Prison Camp. The statues come alive at night. There is a monster inside the island. There is a tunnel beneath the island that leads to freedom. The tunnels beneath the island are flooded. Bohan has become a gillman and visits the prisoners at night, trading secrets for cigarettes. Dendrola has come to the Abominable Island. No, it is her daughter that has come. The gillmen are here to enslave us. The gillmen are here to kill us. The island is our gallows. The island is our home.

Notably, there have been a number of attacks by the gillmen. But the fish people are not as numerous as they once were, and the gillmen of Greywing Bay are famously meek.  In fact, the gillmen that attacked seem to have sailed here from a great distance away (in their semi-submerged ships), perhaps some location off in the ocean.

Unfortunately, extensive interrogation of captured gillmen has revealed that not even they know the origins or purpose of the Abominable Island. Most of their recorded history was destroyed when we destroyed their civilization; it seems their brief attempts to repossess the monolith-island were driven by a minority faction seeking to reclaim some of their former glory.

And so the paladins face the sea when they stand watch.

Thank you +Noah Stevens +Jacob Hurst +Brendan S +Jeremy Duncan for recommending me some good statues.

In case anyone was wondering where all this is on the map of Centerra, here you go.  Gattica is red, the River of Souls forms its northern boundary, and the capitol of Angelmar is roughly halfway along the river, between Greywing Bay (to the east) and the Three Secret Seas (to the west). I guess that star should be a little further northwest. Anyway, the Abominable Island is sort of in the middle of that narrow bay.

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