“The world is ashes and the gods are a horror.” – Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
So what does it matter what day it is or what time? On time, early, slightly tardy, late, who cares? [I do! -ed.]
Patently not on time, early, or even a little late, it is my excruciating pleasure to present to you the fourth installment of the Chronicle of the Lightbearer, the latest in a series of unwarranted grotesqueries by yours truly. TW for body horror.
Chronicle of the Lightbearer: The Skin of the World
I blinked, my pupils tightening and skin flooding with ochre and indigo pigment to resist the solar radiation that assaulted me. Everything up here was so garish and obvious, rendered in the single vision of a tyrant sun. It is no wonder they see so little, and understand so narrowly. Utter darkness is less blinding.
I wandered for a time, and found a farming village. Skindwellers see only what they expect to, and so they reacted to me with the deferential caution they would show any armed stranger.
“I have a strong arm,” I said, drawing their attention to my most human appendage, “and seek to ingratiate myself with the Allied Kingdoms of Human and Halfling-kind. Is there any service I may render that you should afterward give credit to this one?”
There was a long pause. I began counting the number of times the farmers blinked to pass the interval. Finally one spoke: “someone should do something about those trolls.”
The rest of the farmers nodded assent.
“Cows give less milk.”
“Lost three goats.”
“Ought to get rid of them.”
A farmer wearing a large, battered straw hat, silent until now, said “there’s also the ruins of Kor’Pul.”
“Kor’Pul?” I asked, intrigued. Was this the same necromancer who has created the razor I found in the giant worm?
A shudder passed through the group, and several of them glared at the farmer in the yellow hat.
“Don’t go there,” one said.
“Damn it,” said the behatted farmer, “the bandits make their lair there and you know it. They take more than the trolls do.”
“And the undead?” I asked, hopeful.
“Supersition,” he started, then was cut off by a chorus of voices.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s daft.”
“Leave well enough alone.”
“We’ll show you the way to the Trollmire.”
“Kill as many as you can.”
Two of the farmers took it upon themselves to escort me there, showing off reclaimed swampland as they went.
“We’re making this land productive,” one said.
“Good for everyone.”
“And all the trolls do is steal.”
“And kill. A troll ate my cousin.”
They showed off the ditches that had been dug to partition and drain the swamp, and left me at the outer perimeter of their efforts. Beyond, the land quickly became wild and hostile, full of vipers, stinging insects, and stinging plants as well. I resolved to check the ruins of Kor’Pul for traces of the abominable undead hereafter, and set to the chore at hand.
The trolls defended their territory in much the same manner as the dire eels and hornets: with sudden, vicious, uncoordinated attacks, each easy enough to meet and overcome. No wonder the farmers have been able to take the swamp from them an inch at a time.
A stone troll I’d swallowed whole bellowed rage and fear inside my hugely swollen gizzard.<1> Bones cracked and sinews torn, it had no hope of escape, but it gave me pause. The biological defenses of the great worm and made no real protest at being digested, had shown no signs of pain responses. This, however, raised a question: faced with those who would kill me, was it better to give them a swift death or to let them live and feel a little longer, even if their final moments were nothing but agony?
I chewed on this problem as I made my way through the swamp, and I had finished digesting the troll but made little progress on the philosophical question when I stumbled across something interesting.
Bears are normally solitary creatures, so when I was set upon by a large pack of them, frothing as if rabid but coordinated in their movements, I was taken aback.<2> They attempted to flank me and I retreated, whipping my sinister arm around me in circles to avoid being surrounded. They were not all of the same species, and some seemed more crazed than others. At the center of the pack towered a colossal specimen, the epicentre of this remarkable behavior. I needed to get closer, but to do that, I had to survive – and thin the pack.
I’d felt new blood vessels growing in my face and neck over the days of travel, ringed round with new lymph nodes. I sampled the living tissue of the bears nearest me with a tongue strike, and they sprang to life, each node swelling to a painful goiter of hyperactivity. Blood, rich with tailored antigens, flowed into sacs in my face that swelled and stretched until they covered my face and obscured my vision. My hearts pounded furiously, matched athletes sprinting, my veins contracted, redoubling the pressure, and the sacs burst, spraying the pack with blood and lymph.
One of the bears nearest me clawed at its eyes, and I pierced its heart with Kor’Pul’s scalpel. I hewed my way through the pack to the dire bear, which marked my approach with something much more like cold calculation than bestial fury. There were signs of change upon it as well, mutant growths upon its face, strange knottings of muscle in its arms, something shifting in its chest. It lept at me with preternatural speed and it’s claws raked my shoulder even as I avoided being pinned down by the charge.
I missed my chance to counter as a bear I hadn’t previously noticed set upon me. I smacked it in the face with my tentacle arm, and blood flowed when I peeled away my suckers. One on one, I should have been able to get a killing blow in, but the remaining bears kept me off balance, and the glancing strikes with I landed with blade and tongue and tentacle scarcely seemed to phase the giant. The blood sacs in my face had sutured themselves shut, and my new immunological organs once again strained to fill them with a plague that, this time, included the particular susceptibilities of the great bear.
Coated in infectious gore, several of the lesser ursines succumbed, and I saw blind fury overcome the big one. I puffed up a layer of skin into supplementary armor and dove in, letting it bite and tear me. I wished for a heftier weapon as I sliced away layers of fur and skin and barely scraped the bone. Finally, I caught the bear around the jaw with my tentacle, and, after letting it sink its teeth agonizingly deep into the rubbery flesh, I braced myself and yanked with all my strength, pulling the jawbone free, taking the bear’s attendant muscle and sinew and soft flesh with it. The beast gave a gurgling bloody wheeze and died.
Bears are not normally hoarders of treasure, but this bear had been highly irregular in every way, and so I was not terribly surprised to find a cache of shining coins and broken bits of arms and armour nearby. Draped over the horde like a nesting bird atop her eggs was a singular garment, a patchwork of oddly tanned leather pieces, the faces of humanoids of all races, each one still animate, mouths moving in a low susuration of voices in many tongues.<3> I bent and listened, suspecting necromancy, but when I touched it, it was warm, and when I lifted the corner of this singular greatcoat, I saw blood vessels running through it.
It slid onto my arm when I beckoned, and as I lifted and spread it, it contoured itself to my arms, chest and back. Tiny blood vessels wormed their way into my body and began to draw nourishment. I might have guessed that this was the source of the great bear’s mutant form and intelligence, but I had no need. Several of the voices were keen to inform me of their previous work, and promised that together, we might exceed all imagination. It reminded me of a pet ratking I’d had as a child, so many small minds networked but not fully fused, a soft chittering of semi-coherent ambitions and less sensible plans that had often soothed me to sleep when the changes taking place in my conjoined bodies left me sore and scared.
Next: Slime, Bone, and Worrms
1. Tales of Maj’Eyal occasionally confronts the player with the cries and pleas of “intelligent” creatures being digested via the Digest ability, and frankly, I was distressed when I first saw these bits of horrific flavour text. Rather than giving up the ability or omitting this part of the Writhing One’s inhumanity, I decided to work with it as part of the challenge of writing the monstrous.
2. This entire encounter may have resulted from a bear-related special event when the “Bearscape” briefly came into close alignment with Maj’Eyal: ToME is a “massively singleplayer” game, with a chat system and special events: one might loosely compare it to Fallen London in that regard.
3. This is the “Skin of Many,” a particularly horrid unique armour that seemed especially apropos for the Lightbearer. Fictionalized to a significant degree, of course.