Clark Ashton Smith Collected Fantasies, vol 5 – The Last Hieroglyph

Trekking through the entirety of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose writings has been a long and rewarding experience. The fifth and final part of the journey, The Last Hieroglyph, is mainly characterised by a good level of quality and a (not unrelated to the previous point) shortage of heavy sci-fi material. It also includes a number of stories written after CAS’s main period of activity (namely after the ’30s). These do stand out, in terms not of quality but of writing style: they are more modern (though still quite eloquent, especially vocabulary-wise) and taboo subjects as sex are not being self-censored as much as in his golden pulp era.

Bad:
-The Dart of Rasasfa
: A couple from Earth is stranded in a hostile planet and captured by serpent people who want to sacrifice them.
CAS’s last story is arguably a mess, almost a parody of his writing. Pulpy sci-fi in genre, the plot is weak, and the pacing pretty tiring. To his defense, this was written while weakened and ill.

Mediocre:
-The Witchcraft of Ulua: A wizard apprentice visits the king’s court, where he is under constant siege by the princess (also a witch) who tries to seduce him. Due to an amulet given to him by the wizard, as well as his own merit, he is proven immune to the seduction. When he returns to the wizard, the old man performs a ritual that brings doom upon the palace.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Highly puritan in spirit and character, this is a classic example of how embedded the Christian/Neoplatonic fear and hatred of the flesh is, even in writers who would definitely not be characterized as religious. Other than that, the writing is a typical example of CAS’s mastery.

-The Chain of Aforgomon: A man is found dead. His journal reveals how he tapped memories of a vastly ancient previous incarnation of his, discovering a terrible hubris this incarnation had performed against the god of time.
This is a mediocre foray into the reincarnation theme, where previous life deeds haunt the «descendants.» Nice idea but not terribly great executed, just leaves a blunt aftertaste. 

-Xeethra: A shepherd boy enters a cave, only to be possessed by the spirit of a long dead prince, whose consciousness quickly overwhelms that of his host. The deceased starts looking for his city of old.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This slides into the reincarnation-themed stories of CAS. Something of a fairy-tale, with the echo of ominous fae elves in the distance, a hue of melancholy and nostalgia, as well as the ever-present demonic pact. Solid, though not spectacular.

-The Death of Ilalotha: One of the queen’s consorts, enchanted in life and in death by the lady-in-waiting Ilalotha, visits her tomb in the deep of the night, and the jealous queen follows suit.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Many a time had the stories of CAS been rejected by magazines with the excuse that they are prose poems rather than proper stories, something almost never justified. In this particular case the story does resemble non-prose art transmuted into prose, though I would say it is sculpture, not poetry that provides the raw material. A sword & sorcery foray into Poe.

-The Great God Awto: A lecture from the far future of Earth, concerning the ancient Hamurriquanes people and their sacrificial religious frenzy.
This was unexpected. Akin to the Nacirema case of Horace Mitchell Miner, it is permeated with CAS’s mistrust of technology and modernity. A curio.

-Strange Shadows: A man starts seeing people casting strange shadows in lieu of their normal ones. Set in the contemporary era.
Another atypical specimen of a story, this one is quite sexually suggestive, and exudes a Twilight Zone vibe.

-The Enchantress of Sylaire: Having become a recluse due to unrequited love, the protagonist encounters an enchantress and follows her to her world. There he meets with her previous lover and is forced to choose between his former and new love.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. A play on the seduced-by-the-otherworldly theme, with a bit of lycanthropy thrown in. Reminiscent of Circe and fae abductions. The rather unexpected ending fails to elevate it beyond mediocrity.

-Double Cosmos: A disappeared chemist has left behind a manuscript in which he describes the perception-expanding experiments that revealed to him the existence of a parallel world, in which exist doubles of everything in our world, including him.
Interesting musings concerning cause and effect, as well as the interaction of instances of the same being. Solid.

Nemesis of the Unfinished: A semi-autobiographical story in which the protagonist finds certain unfinished tales of his being completed while asleep, and watches as the piles of incomplete material keep expanding.
A rather predictable story of no large shock value or atmosphere, not very memorable.

-Morthylla: A brooding melancholic poet seeks out a lamia in the wilderness. He finds a woman that seems to fit his criteria.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Tragic poet and undead with a twist. The story simply doesn’t stand out, as its plot seems banal.

-Monsters in the Night: A werewolf lies in waiting for his next victim which turns out to be a bit more than he can stomach.
Very small story with a twist in the end, nothing spectacular or even memorable.

-Phoenix: In the far future humanity has sought refuge underground, after the sun has dimmed. Now, the protagonist embarks on a desperate space mission to re-ignite the sun via a number of atomic bombs.
An okay dramatic sci-fi story that seems to bit the (uncredited) inspiration for 2007 Sunshine film.

-Symposium of the Gorgon: A man finds himself in a feast hosted by the mythological Gorgon; her myth is swiftly reenacted and then the protagonist, after a brush with petrification, finds himself in a tropical island, where he is a novelty for the cannibal indigenous people.
A pocket of mythology in the contemporary world, sadly with almost no integration. The story feels like a dreamy Dunsanian excerpt, with a strong undercurrent of hatred of the modern world, but also many stereotypes. Could have been better.

Good:
-The Dark Age: After the collapse of contemporary civilisation, the vast majority of humanity has returned to an uncivilized life, with only a handful remaining as secretive keepers of now-lost knowledge. One of them abandons the citadel and joins the «wild» people, has a son and is lost. His son grows up and tries to avert an attack upon the citadel.
Though they idealized the noble savant, CAS, Howard and the others of the pulp age had an almost obsessive adherence to civilization, considering it as the last threshold against Chaos. Here, in the story’s last paragraph, is one of the rare moments that CAS stands back and wanders – totally worth it. Other than that the story is pretty well-executed in plot and pacing, though not stepping over the greatness threshold.

-The Tomb Spawn: A pair of jewelers stumble upon the desert ruins of a forgotten city and discover the grotesque tomb of a magician-king and his extraterrestrial servant.
Part of the of the Zothique circle. Of oriental hue, sort of dungeon crawl. Highly memorable grotesquery and tight-packed action. A solid piece of delving adventure writing.

-The Seven Geases: An arrogant military general is lost in the mountains, interrupting a wizard’s ritual. The sorcerer curses him with a geas that takes him in a tour of seven underground realms, each with a ruler more alien than the previous.
Part of the Hyperborean Cycle. This is an excellent basis for an underground RPG campaign setting, describing what could be a megadungeon with seven large sections. Tsathoggua, serpent people, and other beings pass from our sight as the detestable protagonist is forced to descend into the bowels of the earth. Richly decorated with a very sudden ending.

-The Primal City: The protagonists climb unexplored mountains in search for an ancient city. They discover the existence of tremendous nebulous guardians the hard way.
The idea of this short story is amazing, as is its execution. Giants guard an ancient city – menacing clouds that hunt all trespassers. It has something of the cosmic natural majesty of Algernon Blackwood, a truly breathtaking spectacle.

-Necromancy in Naat: A nomad prince goes half across the world searching for his abducted fiancé. He ends up in the island of Naat where necromancers rule. There he falls under their thrall and is intertwined in their byzantine schemes.
Part of the Zothique cycle. Pulp/folk-tale adventure with a strong emphasis on the wonders of necromancy. Reminiscent of the Isle of the Torturers from the previous volume. This is a good story with wonderful imagery. It falls short of Greatness due to its never going beyond the mundane – even with a host of magic, it all seems to human.

-The Treader of the Dust: A contemporary occultist returns home to find it unnaturally full of dust. His servant is missing and his latest grimoire has been disturbed.
Short horror piece with a brooding archaic atmosphere. Nothing spectacular but nice to roll upon. The ending with the star is a nice touch. Extra solid.

-Mother of Toads: An apothecary’s apprentice visits a witch to get some ingredients. This crone, the Mother of Toads, seduces him with an aphrodisiac potion. When he tries to escape, he finds that a legion of toads hamper his flight from the swamp.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. This unusually somatic and erotic tale (written initially for a different type of magazine than the pulp usual suspects) has a strong fairy-tale vibe with a carnal hue. Thus it resembles more than anything one of the imaginal forms of the pre-modern fairy-tale. Very vivid description of both swamp and amphibian element, a quick foray into mythic mires of witchcraft.

-The Garden of Adompha: A bored king and his wizard have a garden wherein they graft human body parts on plants. The king decides to use the wizard’s body so as to pump up the garden’s magic.
Part of the Zothique cycle. A very vivid foray into the blending of forms and beings, quite extreme for CAS yet utterly enjoyable.

-The Master of the Crabs: Following a treasure map wielded by an enemy, a wizard and his apprentice end up in an uninhabited island, amidst some very single-minded crabs.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This is also highly grotesque, painted with colorful, adventurous strokes, and expands the Zothique universe. Not stellar but formidable.

-The Theft of the 39 Girdles: Satampra Zeiros and Vixeela, his one true love, plan and execute a temple heist involving 39 holy girdles made of precious metals and gems. In order to succeed they enlist the help of an alchemist acquaintance.
Part of the Hyperborean cycle. This would be up there at the Great list, if not for the very anti-climatic and sudden ending which left me thinking that this was an unfinished work. The re-introduction of the legendary Satampra Zeiros, the planning and execution of the temple raid, the description of the alchemies the rogues use to obtain the treasure, all of that is sword & sorcery at its best, akin to Conan and Lankhmar. But the end feels like a letdown, a true shame.

The White Worm, by the Cosmic Antipodes blog

Great:
-The Death of Malygris: A royal magician discovers that his arch-nemesis, the tyrant of the land, Malygris, may well be truly dead. Magicians start visiting Malygris’ abode in order to ascertain the truth of the claim.
Part of the Poseidonis cycle. Oh blessed serpents of the deep, slithering through veils of narcotic haze, among chryselephantine artifacts. This story is a painting come to life. Imagine the halls of Thulsa Doom from Conan, but sombre and with the occult element tuned up to eleven. Amazing imagery, amazing language, CAS at his best.

-The Last Hieroglyph: An astrologer discovers a hieroglyph in a zodiac map, which seems to approach him, night by night. When the hieroglyph appears before him, he embarks along with his two companions on a journey through mythic regions.
Part of the Zothique cycle. The core idea (a sign that is both signifier and signified, carrying in either of its aspects the full weight of the other) is weird enough to stand out on its own. The way CAS materializes it is beautiful.

-The Coming of the White Worm: Unnatural snow creeps in a village, leaving only a wizard alive; he finds himself upon the iceberg that was heralded by the frost. There he is forced, along with other magicians, to worship a Worm-like thing with tremendous power, watching helplessly the world falling under the banner of eternal cold.
Part of the Hyperborean cycle. The beginning of this story shines like a frozen star, as an enchanting sense of winterness is evoked. Literary cold-white descriptions. The quality remains excellent throughout and the description of the worm itself is brilliant.

-The Black Abbot of Puthuum: A couple of mercenaries, along with a eunuch and a girl end up in a strange monastery in the wilderness, whose 12 monks and abbot exude malice.
Part of the Zothique cycle. This is very good. A time-forgotten monastery full of unnatural monks and dark corridors is a great setting, and the sword-sorcery pulpness is tangible. What hits the nail of greatness, however, is the final scene, where the protagonists use the abbot’s black fingernails to draw lots.

-Schizoid Creator: A psychiatrist believes that God and Satan are the two faces of a schizophrenic being. Thus, he sets out to cure God’s schizophrenia, by electrocution.
Very nice idea, excellent execution, and an underlying sarcasm atypical of CAS.

Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4

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Knoest – Dag

  • How it sounds: atmospheric in a Nordic way, sylvan, heroic, adventurous, marching, autumnal, deep clean sonorous vocals at the forefront, raging Enslaved moments, lots of folkish acoustic moments, hints of post-punk rhythms (listen to track 3, Avond)
  • How it feels: nostalgic, wandering, past glories, impressionistic, naturalistic, hiraeth
  • Sounds like: first-era Enslaved (especially the blasting moments), first-era Ulver, Borknagar, Empyrium, slight traces of epic Bathory,
  • Shortcomings: songwriting could be more robust, some rasping vocals would fit nicely with the faster parts
  • Verdict: Graced with an good baritone frontman who raises the majestic and emotional bar, the album captures in a skilled way the spirit of forest wandering (which apparently was the conceptional seed of the record). Solid pagan naturalistic black metal.

Insulter’s Altar – Devastating the Original Sin

  • How it sounds: through a Kampfar lens, traces of thrashing inferno and De Mysteriis riffage, ridge-like lines riffs, hints of dissonance, slightly flirting with ritual atmosphere, rehearsal atmosphere, gnarly vocals
  • How it feels: assimilated are the pillars of Norsk Svart Metall, a drakkar moving steadily through ice covered seas, furious, turbulent, great tape cover and logo
  • Sounds like: Kampfar, Ondskapt, Tsjuder, Norsk Svart Metall
  • Shortcomings: oscillating songwriting quality, not reaching their full potential
  • Verdict: Kind of a tour-de-force of the ideal late ’90s Norse sound, somewhat like Tsjuder had done in Desert Northern Hell. The 2 tracks that appeared first (Desecration of the Light and Queen of Flesh) remain the best of the bunch. Good potential, it being their first demo and all.

Neraines – Yggdrasil

Experimenting with a new compact review format, consisting of keywords and bullet-points.

  • How it sounds: grainy sound, hazy distant sparse vocals, feels like instrumental, embroidery riffing with a crunchy edge, artistic monotony
  • How it feels: elegant, optimistic, nostalgic, oozing, traveling through verdant barrows, ancient pagan soul, from forest floors unknown, mythological, green seascapes
  • Sounds like: Ancient (Svartalvheim-era), Heathen (International), Burzum
  • Shortcomings: stretched out too much, could use more vocals
  • Verdict: A very nice -if somewhat protracted- atmospheric, riff-heavy black metal of a definite naturalistic hue.

The Cult of Seryia in east Thessaly

I recently wrote a folk horror short story for a local literary magazine. The plot changed quite a lot during writing and some of the changes were due to my thinking of how the material could be also used as the basis for a small-scale RPG setting. Here are most of the salvageable aspects:

Amidst the tree-nurtured shadows of west Pelion mountain (or any other seaside wilderness) survives a centuries-spanning cult. This cult worships Seryia, a woman chained at the bottom of the Pagasetic bay (/in the bottom of the nearest sea). A thousand years ago she was a great artisan who sculpted stones into people – such was her skill, such the life-likeness of the forms she created out of rock, that the sculpted stones were convinced that they were humans and so they walked, breathed and talked. They even built a small village, promptly forgetting that they ever were stones.

A lawful goddess (Holy Mary in the story) was enraged with Seryia; she could not abide the chaos and fluidity of forms that the latter’s art expressed and realised. She descended to the unnamed village one day and whispered to the ear of every villager, reminding them that they never stopped being rocks. As soon as the words were said, each villager turned back into plain, formless stone. The village was lost and angels scattered the stones all over the sea and mountain.

Seryia was imprisoned beneath the waves, bound with chains made of constellations and sunlight. Her needles, the tools of her trade, were hidden by the goddess/Mary. Seryia has since been in an unbreakable underwater slumber. Only when the night sky is covered with clouds does the bonds’ strength lessen somewhat, and Seryia’s dreams start looking for her needles. Their shadow can be seen in sea caves, beneath the waves and in silent beaches.

The cult appeared almost immediately after Seryia’s imprisonment and has been searching ever since. Their uttermost goal is of course to liberate their artisan/saint. This involves not only finding the exact location of Seryia’s prison, but also finding her two needles, the only items supposedly able to shatter her bonds.

Being unable to locate either, the members of the cult wander the countryside and the sea all year round, looking for the stones that the goddess/Mary scattered in earth and sea. The ones they find they place on the  cliffs above the sea. One night per year, on the anniversary of Seryia’s imprisonment, they visit those standing stones and carve faces and bodies on them with their nails and burned sticks, and then they proceed to question them in a ritualized way, for directions about the needles’ location. Sometimes the faces answer, albeit in cryptic fashion.

Some facts about the cultists:

  • They wear thick long dresses drenched in sea salt and dark mud. They are difficult to visually spot in the night, though the salty smell can betray them if far from the sea.
  • Their figures are horrible to behold; even faeries and goblins (the latter like to dance with their gold coins) run in terror when they appear.
  • When searching, their figures are short, gnarly and resemble ruined wells. Salt water always trickles from their right sleeve. When standing still they can be mistaken for an abandoned well – any who tries to look down the well hole may fall in their enormous pockets.
  • They wear metal fingernails which plow the ground, tracing strange patterns throughout the countryside. Some of these trails are magical; if crossed by a non-cultist they may create various effects (cause a very localised rain of frogs, sound a hollow bell-like alarm, turn back the clock by half an hour, etc)
  • When on land they mostly wander through wind-lashed coasts and low trees.
  • They search in natural holes of the earth and in any abandoned chimneys they can find (sometimes in working chimneys, too).
  • They open graves so as to shake the longer bones, to listen if the goddess/Mary hid the needles inside.
  • They take the oars from any grounded boat, and break them upon rocks to reveal their insides.

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)

In most social circles, profession is what most characterizes a person, in a far larger degree than the name or any other individual characteristic. “What’s your job/occupation?” is usually a default question when coming into more-than-trivial conversational contact with someone, and profession tends to extensively colour our thought-form of most persons. It could be said that name and surname are necessary evils only in situations where the same occupations is shared by more than one person.

Enter the Annihilation’s 4-person expedition into Area X. A quartet of women, each with a different professional specialisation, inside an area empty of people. Suddenly names become unimportant; we are left with the surveyor, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and our protagonist, the biologist. Though it is implied later in the book that there might be yet another cause for this abandonment of names, it is also true that in a situation like this (where the only humans in the vicinity each have a different occupation) names are superfluous. Thing is, this equation of one’s being with one’s profession is a bit contradictory in a society where work and personal life are (ideally – for society at least) two completely separated spheres of one’s life.

Enough with this detour. Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is a rather short horror/sci-fi novel, which tracks the aforementioned expedition’s trek into Area X, an uninhabited area, demarcated from the rest of the world by a Border of unknown properties. Our expedition is the eleventh to brave Area X’s depths according to the Southern Reach, the vague organization behind the Area’s exploration. Written from the biologist’s first person view, the book reads like a journal of sorts, which mixes the present-day exploration’s narration with flashback fragments of the heroine’s past life.

Annihilation is laconic both in its cast of characters (four main ones, along with two or three more orbiting around them) and its spatial diversity. The whole novel takes place in Area X (though flashbacks connect us with the outside world); or, to be more specific, it unfolds in three landmarks inside the Area: the Camp, the Tower, and the Lighthouse.

«Scientific expedition» + «dangerous, uninhabited, and maybe infected zone.» This aggregate, evident from the book’s first pages, screams of science fiction and has a touch of apocalypse (could it be zombies that I see?) on the horizon. Not exactly my cup of tea as far as horror fiction is concerned. Thankfully, the story grows quickly towards the uncanny and weird side of horror, with a fairy-tale-esque touch towards the end. This is quite a feat, all things setting-wise considered. The unfolding of the story borders on the Lovecraftian, the ghost story, the post-structuralist linguistics, never quite letting any of these dominate. Allusion, implication, and the absence of graphic violence and gore are pillars of the book. The whole idea of the Crawler/Tower complex is pleasantly disturbing and archaic, almost mythological in hue. The despairing uselessness of written-speech-sans-reader is a theme resonating throughout parts of the narrative.

On the negative part of the spectrum I would put the somewhat anti-climactic resolution at the end, though I understand that it is the first part of a trilogy (and yet quite able to stand on its own, though many things are left unexplained). One other thing that bothered me (though not terribly) is the over-abundance of the protagonist’s personal and emotional details in the flashbacks. I understand that there really is one character, so she should be expanded upon, yet I think we could do with slightly less such material, since it tends to weigh down the narrative (this is obviously a matter of personal taste – I like my horror rather de-personized).

Annihilation is a great read, graced with several ideas and images that tend to stick in one’s mind. An excellent genre crossover, it emits an air of vagueness which satisfyingly rewards active imagining initiatives.

10 Monster Underworld (#tenmonstersetting)

The entrance to a spriggan’s crypt

A couple of months ago the 3toadstools blog posted a challenge: choose a monster manual book, pick 10 monsters out of it (1 for each category mentioned in the original post), and then create a mini-setting using these monsters, giving each of them a twist. Well, a bit late to the party, but here is my own.
The setting is an underground world of endless depth; there seems to be no surface world. Moving south the climate gets colder, moving down it gets wetter. Rigid social and political structures are almost non-existent – only the Jermlaine organize their society in such a way.
On to the monsters, selected from the AD&D 2nd Edition Core Monster Manual:

Giant/Ogre/Troll: The Spriggan Gnomes live in the wide expanses of the arid central caverns of the world, where the three last flames of Xasmo-Luur burn eternally. These creatures are normally giant-sized (20ft tall), but they are able to become small (3ft) or tiny (1ft) at will. Their mode of reproduction has nothing to do with intercourse as we know it: all new spriggans are found in crypts inside the earth, usually by members of their own race that dig for this exact (reproductive, one could say) purpose. It is unknown how the new spriggans come to be there in the first place – most believe that they are created by crypt things (see below), while some claim that the earth itself gives birth to them. They are adults when found – there are no young spriggans. They are great crafters and artists by need – they gain sustenance through crafting, not by eating food.

Undead: The body of a new spriggan is always connected to a Crypt Thing via an extremely cold leather chain. The undead guards it ferociously and has to be somehow disposed of, in order for the new member of the race to awake. The crypt things constantly whisper to the «unborn» spriggans they are connected with. They are gnarled, thin, and each has in its possession a small non-magical artifact of remarkable craftsmanship.

Semi-intelligent humanoid: Sometimes rats find the crypts of the unborn spriggans, manage to stay beneath the Crypt Things’ notice, and start gnawing on the leather chains connecting the undead to the unborn, tearing them apart. From these leftovers, Jermlaine are formed – leather humanoid figures that prowl the underground in small well-ordered bands, looking for gems and the way to the surface, where they hope that they can find an ordered world. Their orderly, structured way of behaving is the closest thing to a lawful, ordered social organization in the world.

Ancient fey race: The Atomie Sprites dwell in the seemingly endless taiga caverns of the south parts of the world. They grow deadly mushrooms which they consider to be their priests, translators of the divine. The divinities in question are the numberless trees of their habitat. Through communion with their mushroom priests the fey try to discern the gods’ words, directions that are supposed to lead to the long-lost stars. The atomies are the only race ancient enough to remember the sky.

Great wyrm or lizard: The Behirs of the southernmost tundra-like caverns are twelve-legged reptilian scholars that wander upon and dwell within the walls of their vast caves. Their knowledge is vast and they may accept to trade a piece of information for a body piece of the inquirer; alternatively, they will accept a body part coming from the Living Wall (see below). The paths that are carved upon the walls by their indolent movement are rumored to hold untold secrets for anyone able to see them in their totality – alas, completely lighting one of their vast caves in order for the paths to become simultaneously visible, is beyond the power of any mortal flame, natural or otherwise.

Aerial creature: In their journeys through the western labyrinthine corridors of the world, people have glimpsed strange mists of deeply dark orange colour. They are Crimson Deaths, vaguely humanoid (though extremely elongated), gaseous creatures, the only animated remnant of the lost city of Xasmo-Luur. Even centuries after the ancient settlement’s disappearance, its burning sewers remain infamous; in them, for countless years, undying flames devoured hecatombs of sacrificial victims. The Crimson Deaths are the smoky remains of said sacrifices, the only thing that escaped the sewer grates. They will attack anyone holding or lighting a fire. Thus travelers are advised to avoid all flames within this area.

Something to lurk in the water: All waters of the world are connected, from the smallest stream to the huge sunless sea of Albixuatot to the contents of any water flask. When someone immerses her ear in any body of water, she can hear the faint splashing of the Dragon Turtle crawling and she can feel the creature’s ravenous hunger. The turtle is never far from any accidental fall in water. Whenever a boot steps in a seemingly innocent puddle of water only to find it surprisingly deep, when a thirsty wanderer kneels to drink from a lightless river, the huge turtle may pull the unlucky person into depths apparently impossible yet fatally real.

Something from another dimension: Commerce is scarce in the underground world, not only due to the difficulties of subterranean travel. The Arcane, towering creatures from another world, are the bane of merchants. Any transaction that involves profit has a chance of attracting the attention of these blue humanoids, which have been stuck for half a millennium on this world. They blame their plight on the mercantile ways of their past. They will approach any merchant they can detect and will force an unbreakable contract upon her with their telepathic powers: to find a way for them to escape this world, or die trying.

A classic creature from mythology: There is a seemingly endless network of stone staircases spanning much of the world: they cross the spriggan caverns, the ruins of Xasmo-Luur, the shores of the viscous Albixuatot Sea, and many other sunless places. The omnipresent handrails of these stairs have a scaly surface that sometimes writhes under the touch of whoever holds it. The rails are the countless necks of an enormous Lernaean Hydra. They may branch at seemingly random moments, creating new paths (and even locations as some fathom). There are those that say that the necks try to lead wanderers to the mouth they connect to; other claim that there are only necks; most agree that the hydra loves the taste of Atomies.

Some foul crawly thing that infests the underworld: All underground people have legends about the Living Wall that is sometimes encountered in the darkest of passages (always in total darkness) – a mosaic that is firstly sensed by touch: a bit of flesh where rock should be, a tooth, some bones, a writhing tongue. Then faint twinkling lights appear upon a frothing surface, usually the last thing someone sees as an individual being. The Wall seems to have existed for millennia, crawling, spreading throughout the bowels of the earth, incorporating (in the truest sense of the world) a legion of beings and things and cities (for the great city Xasmo-Luur now lives in the wall’s folds). It’s said that in some of its most ancient surfaces, far beneath the waters of the Albixuatot sea, the moon and the sun and the clouds can be seen. Some believe that if one passes through the living wall one reaches the surface world.