Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Four-Chambered Mountain

Vaboola spent the first half of her brief career searching for the smallest discrete unit of undeath.

When her labors yielded nothing, she exiled herself, perhaps as a form of repentance, perhaps as a type of new beginning.

For many years, she was forgotten.  When letters finally began to arrive, it was learned that she had settled on the Mondravian plains, to study the hills that grew there.

At its heart, each hill possessed a node of growstone, a type of stone that was known to increase in size over time.  Aside from that property, it was an otherwise unremarkable stone, similar to dolomite.

In her letters, Vaboola theorized that the stones were a meteoric organism.  Growth, after all, was one of the primary indicators of life.  To see growth in a stone was sure evidence that the stone was alive (in a biologic sense), or that the qualities of life were not as unique as scholars had believed.  She had hoped that pursuing such a line of inquiry might grant her some insight into the fundamentals of growth, and therefore life.

Which makes her fate only slightly ironic.


The Four-chambered Mountain is a vast and sepulchral thing.  It sits atop the Hill of the Mountain, a gentle swelling of the ground that results in a broad hill.  Approaching the Mountain by land, you will ascend a grassy incline for several miles before you reach the roots of the mountain.  Uniquely, the grassy incline is completely symmetrical all around the Mountain.

The Four-chambered Mountain has a strange shape: a rough cuboid.  While the mountain sides are steep and goat-infested, the crest of the mountain is broad and dotted with deep pools, full of gawping fish and mosquito larvae.

The stone of the Four-chambered Mountain is inert.  Unlike the growstone, it does not change size.


Vaboola built a house for herself on the plains.  It was made from mortared granite and plaster.  A stream curled around it, like the tail of a cat.

Her house had a simple kitchen and bedroom.  The southwest room was her alchemical lab (primarily composed of reagents stolen during her brief tenure at the Tower of Academy), and this was the largest of the rooms.  Around the room were different samples of growstone, arranged under different conditions (light, water, temperature, immersion in blood).  She was wondering if any of these conditions would affect the growth of the stones in any way.

Very little affected the growth of the stones, which continued to grow as they always did: imperfectly.  The stones would "puff" and "droop" as they grew, like marshmallows swelling inside a microwave.  

Cut stones would not preserve their shape.  In her letters, Vaboola described the stones as "striving" to return to naturalistic organizations.  Just as all elements of earth would seek to return to the earth (causing the phenomenon of gravity), so would stone strive to return to the shapes of its purpose: lumps, ridges, mounds, layers, cobbling.

She even went so far as to speculate that stones felt pain when they were cut into square shapes, or when they were thrown into the air.  Her later letters are full of speculation.


The Four-chambered Mountain is sometimes called the Great Cave, because of the enormous opening on the south side.  It yawns like a cave mouth, five hundred feet tall and roughly square.  At twilight, long caravans of white bats set out into the cloying dusk.

There are four caverns within the Four-chambered Mountain.  They are all linked by similarly large cave openings.  Each is large enough to hide an army (and one does).


The northwest room was where Vaboola kept her scrolls and geology samples.  On a table beside a reading chair, a taxidermied crow bore a candle.  The stuffed crow was capable of speech, but only during rainstorms, and only on subjects that were unpleasant to the listener, and only when the querent was alone.

It contained a minor spirit that Vaboola had trapped during her apprenticeship.  She described the trapped thing as petty, bitter, and cruel.

Vials had shattered unexpectedly in that room, and the window latch had once failed catastrophically during a downpour.  Perhaps most dramatically, a mouse had once died in the center of the room and then rotted into the carpet, all in the space of a single night.  

She was careful never to leave any fragile objects near the crow overnight, or any unattended candles in the room.


If you enter the Four-chambered Mountain from the primary mouth, you'll find yourself in an stone-littered cavern, well-illuminated by the sunlight entering behind you.  The ceiling of the cavern is lost in the haze, but you can sometimes hear the chittering when the bats crescendo.  They call it the Kitchen.

Plants grow in the darkness here, products of an unknown biology.  Slow-growing grasses push up through the guano like wisps of white hair.  Enormous lice shiver among the boulders, and ponderous roaches wander the roads of the cavern, pressing their broad foreheads to the floor.  Gargantuan demodex arrange stones into shapes that will amplify echoes towards their infundibular lairs.

The most remarkable feature of the cavern is the wooden plateau.  The upper surface can only be reached by climbing one of four wooden pillars that supports the upper plateau.  Each pillar is about 700' tall and made from what appears to be wood, but more porous and irregular, like a distorted sponge.

The "wood" is sick and crumbling.  It pulls away under your touch, like a rotten log.  

The cores of the pillars are stronger.  They must be, or else the plateau would fall.

No accurate account of the plateau's surface is known.  It is rumored to hold enormous structures: glass towers, ceramic domes.  


We do not know the exact nature of the disaster that killed Vaboola, or how she discovered such powerful magic.  Many, many academics are interested in these questions.  Vaboola was both well-known and well-liked.

Of all the groups that have explored the remains of her house, they all returned bearing interesting artifacts and bits of information.

The only exception was the first expedition, which made the mistake of eating the meat they found.  They were a group of rangers called the Mountain Guard, affiliated with two border barons that kept them supplied and busy.  They were chosen for their ability to resourcefulness and independence.


The second chamber of the mountain is known as the Bedroom.  It is a swamp of strange fibers and sodden mounds.  There are more giant cave lice here, and entire forests of mold.  Soft caverns filled with dripping cloth

Imagine a linen closet, dumped on the floor, soaked with water, and then magnified a thousand times.

At the back of the cavern, amid a landscape of broken "wood", are the bones.  They are enormous things, shattered in hundreds of places, and with strange tessellations of structure.  In some places they appear to be smaller bones fused together, in others, singular bones stretched out like taffy.

And all around, mountains of rotting meat.  So much, in fact, that it rots very slowly.  Bacteria permeate slowly, and even boring worms will remain near the surface.  The deeper anaerobic environments yield only to sluggest metabolisms.  Dig down into the rotting meat more than ten feet and you'll find sections that appear to be perfectly edible.


Many words have been spoken about the square-cube law and its implications in Vaboola's death.  Did her arteries collapse before her bones shattered?  She presumably died in her bed, supine.  As the blood drew away from her eyes and pooled at the back of her skull, was there a partial loss of consciousness?

And what thoughts went through her head during the process of her monstrous expansion?  For a while, she must have had the largest mind in existence.  Were any new levels of cognition revealed at that grand stage?  Or was it simply a larger container to hold all the pain of her body collapsing under its own maddening weight?

The details are arcane, but it seems to be sufficient to say that magic does not enlarge all objects at the same rate, at the same time, or through the same method.  There may be several different types of similar phenomena at work here.


The third chamber is the Laboratory.  Another "wooden" plateau, another cavern awash in giant insects.

This is where the Mountain Guard live.  They are pale and ragged from their years in the cave.  They regret ever eating any of Vaboola's flesh, because now they can never leave the Four-chambered Mountain.  

One step outside of the mountain, and their begin to dwindle.  Their skulls shrink, their teeth become tightened in their sockets.

Another step and spots swim in front of their eyes.  Their capillaries are beginning to seal up.

Another step and their eyes explode, crushed by their own skull.

Another step and it begins to get truly messy.

Two more steps and they are dead, killed by their own infeasible biology and the implications of magical reduction of size.

The Mountain Guard trade for most of what they need.  They trade in gold nuggets and alchemical reagents, both of which they seem to possess in plenitude.  Of course they do--any alchemist's table will include at least a small flask of gold shavings.

They are led by Captain Sila Oderec.  He is a brooding intellectual, loving nothing except his poetry and the men that he is responsible for.  He is quite different from his soldiers, who are by all accounts a violent and primitive lot.

They are known to execute their prisoners by climbing the scaffolding they've constructed around an enormous test tube and throwing them in.  The may tread the slimy water at the bottom of the test tube for as long as they wish, but they will always drown in the end.  Their killers will watch them through fogged glass.

Rumors abound that the soldiers have been looking to trade alchemical steel for female slaves, in order that they might feed them Vaboola's excavated flesh and thereby imprison them to the Four-chambered Mountain, just as they are.

Other rumors claim that they've already succeeded.

And yet other rumors claim that Mountain Guard are looking for ways to revenge themselves upon their previous employer, who hired them to explore the Four-chambered Mountain without ever giving warning of the places history or alchemical dangers.


There are many that would like to see the Mountain Guard killed and the mountain scoured of its secrets.  Some are the friends of Vaboola, who still live.

Others are rivals, or merely power-hungry wizards.  There are secrets to great power locked away in that mountain: as subtle as unexplored vistas of magic, or as blunt as two hundred pounds of gold inside an enormous glass vial.

Or perhaps those who have been sold to the Mountain Guard can be cured, rescued, and reclaimed.

At least one necromancer, Grixilis, claims that she can raise Vaboola from the dead.  Grixilis is well-versed in speaking with the dead, and has for a long time been tempted by the possibility of contacting what is left of that colossal brain-pan, and the powerful lunges its mind must have taken before it died.

If Vaboola were ever raised from the dead, it is unknown what such a creature would look like, or even if it would be functional at all.  Could something move on bones that were never strong enough to support it?  The bones continued growing, even after they broke; could they be reassembled?  Or would it just be a shuddering landscape of flawed flesh?


There is one last cavern in the Four-chambered Mountain.  It is called the Library.  Even the Mountain Guard do not venture in there often.

The farthest from the light of the entrance, it is the darkest chamber of the mountain.  No insects scuttle across its basements; no light births pale plants on the silt.

There are enormous bookcases, covered with vermiform tracts of mold, predatory without ever moving.

There is a crystal ball, awash in visions of magnified landscapes.

There is an oil lantern, filled with a fortune of oil.  If it were ever lit, it would light up the fourth chamber like a light house.

And there is an empty roost that once held a stuffed crow.  

If you are trusted, the Mountain Guard will tell you about the crow.  It is a colossal thing, all broken wings and flashing eyes.  It cannot fly.  Instead it crawls, or slithers.  The beak was broken off in an earlier skirmish, yet even with its broken jaw, it manages to devour men whole.  

It has uncanny spells as well, but the Mountain Guard will not speak of them.

And if you believe the optimists among us, somewhere in the Library is Vaboola's notebook.  It would contain all the notes of her research, beyond the scraps her letters contained.  

And perhaps somewhere in all of that text is an explanation.  Perhaps enough to cure, or to recreate.