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.
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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.

The Village of Sirtol

On the north shores of river Dubul, looking west. On the left can be seen one of Banks’ houses.

This is the first of a series of posts describing a small riverside village (which once a year becomes a pilgrimage destination) and the surrounding areas. The settlement is split in two parts by a large chasm; this separation is also mirrored in the unusual social stratification of the population. In my setting the village is on the edge of a large forest, climbing on the foot of some wooded hills, in a secluded valley far from any sizable human civilization – the whole valley is very strongly influenced by real world animistic beliefs. (As a sidenote, the village’s name is a reference to the city of Sirtel, from the namesake Slauter Xstroyes song)

Facts about the village:

  • The village is split in 2 parts: a riverside (Banks) and an uphill one (Slopes). Between them lies a (10m wide, 1km long) chasm of unknown depth; this is called the Mouth. The settlement is bordered by the river Dubul on its north and western sides.
  • Once per year, vapors rise out of the Mouth for two weeks (always from a New Moon to a Full Moon). When this happens, pilgrims come: the villagers help them to descend with ropes (they are sacred ropes made of tree fibers and corpse hair) and sleep in small crevices on the upper chasm walls to get prophetic (and other kind of interesting) dreams – alas, some dreams are nightmares. Most of the pilgrims return to the surface.
  • The villagers, due to their permanently living in the area, are unaffected by the vapors. Some of them have slightly prophetic abilities (they frequently get glimpses of next day’s events or sometimes of something more distant in time).
  • The village population, mainly human with halfling clusters, has an unusually high number of twins. Twinship is the axis upon which the village is organized: Slopes is home to all non-twins, as well as the younger twins (those that exited last from the uterus). Banks is where all elder twins reside – they control the dock and maritime communication.
  • The population has remained roughly the same for the past two centuries ~ slightly less than 300 persons.
  • Almost no metal. Most things (weapons and armors included) are made of wood, bone, horn, earth, clay, scales, and other nature-occurring materials.
Rough preliminary sketch of Sirtol village

Slopes:

  • Roughly 30 single-floor houses spread over 20 square minutes.
  • Buildings have thick (2m wide) rounded adobe walls. The extreme thickness is due to the following burial custom: after decomposition, the bones of the dead are inserted in the house walls and covered with adobe mud.
  • Roofs are thatched and very wide, reinforced with hair of the aforementioned dead. Thus they become unnaturally sturdy, water- and heat-proof.
  • A bell chime from the temple of Fliria (goddess of the eastern fields) in the east end marks sunrise, while sundown is signaled by a gong sound from the shrine of Dubul (the namesake river-god) in the west end.
  • Slopes smell of earth, manure and hearth smoke (hearth fires burn almost throughout the year).
  • Domesticated animals include mostly hens, a few goats (for milk and hair), and semi-domesticated pigs which graze in the forested hills to the south and southeast. The swine may occasionally attack and eat a child or very frail person that wanders alone in their territory. Those pigs that dine on human flesh are able to move on the spectral paths of the dead.

Banks:

  • 15 houses, two- or three-storied, made of dark (almost black) wood. They have sloped roofs, covered with stone tiles (which are pretty stable, though it is not unheard of for some passerby to die due to a tile falling to his head – they are considered chosen by the winds, and are taken south, to the nearest mountaintop, and left there).
  • Banks smells of river and dump, of hearth smoke, and of sweet bread (this is an oddity due to a paradoxical property of the earth beneath the particular area).
  • Semi-domesticated animals include otters and ducks.
  • Banks has a hollow tree-like rock. Inside there are steps descending to a small cave whose walls are mirror-like. Therein are kept the sacred ropes that are used to lower the pilgrims to the chasm.
  • At four points of Banks there are the remains of a stone-paved road. It seems that at some era it connected the chasm to the river and beyond. The people will take great pains to avoid stepping on any of these parts.

The Mouth:

  • It is taboo to bridge the chasm in any way. The villagers will actively hunt down anyone trying it. The same goes for any attempt to place a fence.
  • During its steaming time, the Mouth’s vapors thicken each day. During the last night, when it is full-moon, the fog is so thick that nothing can be seen beyond half a meter.
  • There is a natural spring on the western edge of the Mouth, emptying in the chasm. Its water tastes like wet cotton.
Typical village scene when a hunt is under way

Seven Scenes:

  1. A procession of yellow-clothed villagers carry the body of a young man up to the hills, to release it to the winds.
  2. Under a horned moon, a trio of naked old women drive a wooden plowshare through the fields to bless the earth.
  3. Children chipping at their house’s (extremely thick) walls reveal a skeletal hand; the palm holds a clay eyeball-sized sphere.
  4. Someone is whipping his shadow, on the wall of a house.
  5. Villagers return from the monthly forest hunt, their bounty plentiful, though their eyes are clouded by grief – three of their numbers were claimed by the forest. A feast is joined by both village sides.
  6. At night, halflings are seen in their gardens, their feet immersed in the moist earth, eyes star-gazing.
  7. Scarecrow-like figures made of garments can be seen throughout the village, both outside and inside the houses. The clothes that form them seem to be in good condition. (Before embarking for the hunt, the villagers leave their normal clothes at their houses. They place them so as they resemble human figures – empty clothes sitting upon chairs, lying on the beds, standing in the garden. They want to trick the animal spirits into believing that they are still at the village.)

Five Adventure Seeds:

  1. A halfling woman seeks help – her only daughter has disappeared in the forest, where she had gone the night before last, as it is customary for all Sirtolian girls to spend the night before their 13th birthday at the forest. [If they ask around the PCs will learn that the girl was way taller than any halfling. There are rumors that her parents adopted a human child or a hag spawn.]
  2. A woman with newborn twins seeks help – her husband has been burning small animals to their hearth for the past days, and now she’s worried that he will sacrifice the twins to the flames. [He is trying to burn the mortality out of the creatures that he immolates, making them immortal. All this is according to knowledge he gathered from a tower across the river, just an hour deep in the forest.]
  3. Vapors emerge from the chasm, thicker than ever. But the ropes of lowering have vanished!
  4. The gong of Dubul’s shrine has disappeared and sunset refuses to come.
  5. Last week there was a large storytelling gathering at Banks. Since then, two creatures from the story have been rumored to roam the village at night: a leper and a horned snake.

Found in a Forest tables

Matazo Kayama, Frozen Forest

PDF version

10 weird things found in a forest clearing

1. A cart wheel made of marble, with a very tall candle at its center. While the candle is unlit it serves as a solar and lunar clock. If the candle is lit, the clock acts as a compass: its shadow points to a specific place (as suiting the DM’s needs). For as long as the candle is lit, and 24 hours after it is snuffed, the person that lit it is unable to rest and sleep.

2. A black flower that always moves away from the hand that tries to pick it. If somehow picked, a portal to the Underworld opens.

3. Three unbreakable, untearable yet quite flexible giant leaves (1 metre wide each). There appears to be no matching tree around. If taken out of the forest they try to constrict and suffocate whoever carries them.

4. A boar tusk, roughly the size of an open hand, with a serpent-like symbol engraved on it. If shaken, something can be heard inside it. It is resistant to any normal damage. Can be broken only by a charging boar, at which point the spine of a small snake is revealed.

5. The journal of a ranger’s shadow. It is made of the shadows of big leaves, bound with silver hair. The book can be grasped normally (it feels like touching cold dandelions). It is full of bitter entries: the shadow is bound to follow its owner around, never able to do what it wants.

6. Three little holes recently dug, as if someone wanted to plant something but then left in a hurry. The holes only accept teeth – anything other put in is ejected. If teeth are planted the next night a full-grown double of the tooth’s owner sprouts. Tusks also work.

7. A saw made entirely out of wood. Useless against wood, cuts stone easily. Will not let its owner rest in any settlement larger than a small village.

8. A rope ladder tied on a large tree branch. Cannot be separated from it. However, each person can cut and take one and only one step out of it. The step can be used to reach a safe place once – then it disappears forever.

9. A full helm (its closed visor is sculpted in the realistic likeness of a human face) half buried in the vegetation. If opened there emerges a small plant head on a very long, branch-like neck, waiting to be fed.

10. Α dead baby hanging from a tree branch. Stillborn, it was left in the air so as the soul would be reclaimed by birds (it has already been taken).

8 weird beings found in a forest clearing

1. (Only at night) An old man who despises the sun. He will pay handsomely for a piece of the sun or anything that is related to the star of day; he will then proceed to ritually destroy the object. If somehow tricked into staying with the characters until morning, he is bound to the nearest tree for a year.

2. The ghost of a long-dry stream. Appears as a pond of silvery water and will communicate with anyone that drinks from it (its water tastes like gaseous honey, its voice is like water dripping from a corpse’s lips). Will reveal the location of a magical dowsing rod (that leads to lost memories) to anyone carrying some of its water to a large city well. Only a special container will do the trick, which can be crafted from the hoof of a legendary forest boar.

3. A single cow moving backwards, part of a god’s stolen herd. If slain its meat will restore any wounds and heal all fatigue, but if its bones are not buried afterwards, the god-owner of the herd will know of the deed.

4. Three acorn spirits in the guise of children. They will ask to be guided out of the forest, and will try to climb on the three stronger characters, mentioning that they are very tired. If they are allowed to, they slowly and almost imperceptibly immerse themselves in their carriers’ bodies (8 hours). If completely immersed, they turn the carriers’ bodies to earth within 3 days, and a little tree sprouts from each.

5. A heavy-backed mother of three, her head always covered with a thick woolen kerchief. She will lead the characters to a destination within the forest, if they help her with a mundane chore. However, if the PCs refuse to help her with the chore, she removes the kerchief.
If the acorn spirits are on the characters she will immediately chase them away, saving the characters.

6. Large crows dining on a long table, upon golden goblets and silver plates. They are ancients of their species, and can cover huge distances very quickly; they can even fly up to the sun and bring a piece of it back. If they are disturbed while eating, or they are not addressed in a polite way, they trap half of the PCs in the other half’s shadows.

7. A peddler of hair, fur and wigs has spread his merchandise all around the clearing. Is currently looking for customers, as well as providers of exotic hair. For a sample of his merchandise roll on attached table.

8. A noble old man trying to make a compact with a spirit of darkness. He needs the blood of a special animal to craft the ink for the contract. If the PCs aid him he will reward them handsomely with his new powers. If they refuse and try to stop him, nightmares will haunt them, while in the forest, making rest impossible.

Table – Hair-peddler’s merchandise

1A wig made of scarecrows’ straw hair. Any kind of bird is unable to harm, or even approach the wearer, who however becomes slow in his movements and reactions.
2Hair of a corpse, still growing (one centimeter per night). They are unbreakable, but will try to subtly arrange for the hanging of anyone who uses them.
3Patches of boar fur boiled in liquid shadow. They can be used to walk on quicksand and pit traps without danger.
4A whip made from the gold-coloured ponytail of a long dead acrobat, renowned for her skill, notorious for her cruelty. It can be used to make a horse jump impossible distances, even walk on walls; however, as soon as the horse stops it falls dead. Horses will not willingly go near anyone carrying the whip.
5The complete (280cm long) fur of a winter snake, a species long thought to be extinct. A scabbard covered with this will break any faulty weapon inserted in it, no matter how tiny its flaw. Thus it is prized by weaponsmiths.
6A shoulder-length wig made of silver hair; the whole thing is extremely polished, so as to act as a flowing mirror when under moonlight. Any animal reflected in the wig can verbally communicate with the wearer.