From the pen of Zaduth-Jar, lecturer of Xenology, subdivision of Zoology,
division of Anatomy, school of Holosomatic Sarcaphigination, seventh discipline,
Academy of Sarcaphogi, Hall of Corundum and Ivory, Eighth Level, city of Bes-Tharal,
To his eminence, Al-Fath-Hunda'ath-Banezub-Hazraa, Celestial of the fourteen hundred and fifty-sixth ordinal, twelfth custodian of the sine of the root of the speculative fifth immaterial bipolar prime, and you'll forgive me if I leave aside your other titles as I'm sure I would mangle them anyway, Everchanging Hallway, Kumatru Academy, the Djinn Cities,
Greetings, old friend.
These are dangerous times, and I hope this letter finds you well. It is not altogether without risk for either of us that I send it, and yet my enthusiasm for your researches is so great, I could not restrain myself any longer. I have gambled that the renown of the message-bearer in both our lands will protect this poor epistle from unwanted eyes; and my gratitude to Theralda Glaivesforge for not merely bringing me your fascinating manuscript, but going so far as to bear this worthless epistle in return, is boundless. What right I, a minor academic in a suspect and disregarded field, devout coward, and miserable cook, have to the friendship of a Dwarven Heroine, is beyond my understanding. For that, and for our correspondence as well, I can only thank the Sleepless Fathers Below with incredulity.
Well, enough of that offal, and on to the flesh of the letter. I cannot tell you how honored I am that you not only sent me your manuscript, but translated it into (fluent!) Middle Keeper. Naturally the original would be beyond my ken, but I had feared to have to brush up on my Literary Dwarvish. What an odd treat to see our own lovely howls, barks and hisses in your calligraphic, curlicued hand. I am honored.
In another side note (I am growing doddering, and long to be embalmed, but as usual the honor passed me up this year), I truly sympathize with what I take to be your o-so-subtle complaints at the lack of recognition of your peers. (You will forgive my bluntness as always!) I certainly have gnawed that bone enough! Ironic, of course, that our shared line of inquiry, which I take disgusts your Kumatru fellows by its corporeal grossness and transitory physicality, is regarded by my colleagues as impractical and ethereal philosophizing. "Gawking at the prancing pump-bloodies when there's burying to be done", as the saying goes. Just as your Kumatru Academy, with its inquiry into the physical world, is a bit suspicious to begin with, so is Holosomatic Sarcaphigination almost entirely out of fashion; even commoners -- from poisoners down to bricklayers -- are going in for embalming or fire burial these days. And while xenosarcophigination is a respectable trade (brings the gold in, anyway), a preoccupation with living members of other species has always been seen as suspect, and in the current political climate, well, heretical is no exaggeration. I'm sure you understand. Your request for empirical data from my work is, if I understand you floaters, as iconoclastic and radical in your terms, as it is brilliant.
But I've yipped enough like a restless pup. On to your lovely "bible of the nations" (if I may so abbreviate its, ahem, rather lengthy title).
I will try to keep the scalpel sharp, and direct my comments not to the excellent accuracy of the work, but to a few minor points where my experience differs, which you may wish to take into account.
CYCLOPSES. While the one-eyes in these parts are consistently orange, I myself have seen several specimens of different hues on the cutting table during my apprenticeship in Bar-Thadarak. Maroon is not uncommon in that region, ochre is not unheard of, and in one case I viewed a lovely male, one of the great ones, who was a garish purple. He had particularly compelling intestines, smooth and translucent, like great tubes. (I must comment that you seem particularly preoccupied with the exterior features of the nations, whereas naturally the innards are more interesting to me, as well as the consistency, weight, and durability of the component materials, even though I am myself no Embalmer. I will restrict myself for the moment to commenting on exterior features, since that seems to be your interest). Woad seems universal. I cannot confirm myself that the Monoscopes of the far cold South are covered with thick white fur, but that is the rumor. They are reputed not to use woad nearly as much, and to be correspondingly more passive. I believe Cyclopes do not write, other than the tatoo and petroglyph arts, which in most cases, so I have heard, have more to do with the inherent visual and sensual qualities of the forms inscribed at the moment of inscription, and little to do with an abstract, formal code. (It was once put to me something like, "the meaning at the moment of writing and at the moment of seeing have nothing to do with one another. If they did, it would be a djinni lie." Your pardon.)
Eucharia, by the way, is technically illegal in lands which honor the so-called Keeper Code, but we rarely enforce the restriction. I actually observed an instance in a class on Somaphagy during my school years.
I thought it interesting that you attributed "anatomy" to the one-eyes -- I would have thought that more one of ours! And yet, of course, come to think of it, it is the study of the Body, after all.
I will remain largely silent on your own inscrutable species, my friend. I was interested to note that you list only male and female genders. At birth, certainly, I suppose; but perhaps I have misunderstood your social organization or concept of gender, but the importance of eunuchs in your society, as well as the Palini transformation, seems worthy of note. (If I offend by speaking of such matters, you will forgive a foolish old hound, I hope).
Excellent review. You neglect the critcal importance of the guilds and masterhalls in their social organization, I think; Theralda would be of more help than I on this point. To be frank, I find the endless politics between Heroes, Heroines, Guildmasters, Clan Patriarchs and so forth in her stories somewhat boring. You allude to the origin of their odd reproductive arrangement, but I have always found Fingle's brave but misguided attempt to recapture dwarven isogynofertility by consorting with Unmaking itself, and what it cost him and his people, to be the most fascinating part of the story.
Theralda attests that in far Utabo, across the Eastern sea, there is a different phenotype of dwarves, with ebony to bronze skin, generally white hair the texture of sheep's wool, and catlike eyes; other than the eyes they resemble shorter, stouter variants of some of the human tribes, and there being few elves in Utabo, supposedly they interbreed with humans. This is strange, given that Dwarves have no particular sympathy with the House of War, and indeed are natural allies of the Gargoyles; but then the same is true of their liaison with Elves, in that strictly speaking their House is closer to ours than to our Elven enemies. It is in the nature of the dwarven curse, I suppose, that they are thrown into relation with creatures physically similar to themselves, but ideologically in conflict. I am told there were several attempts, in the era of the Dwarven King Thedral, to interbreed with nymphs and dryads, in
order to replace their dependence on the Seelie court with the more palatable and stable denizens of Nature; but these unions were not fertile. In any event, these Utaban Dwarves are masters in the working of iron, which art they are said to have originated, in precious stones, and in explosive powders, which they use in the inevitable wars that break out between their city-states and the aggressive human tribes to whom they are related by blood.
The very fact that Dwarves are capable of interbreeding with humans and elves is believed by some to be an aspect of the curse. Most of the Nations are incapable of fruitful unions across Houses, although Satyrs and Elves are believed to be capable of progeny, and then of course there are the Sompsychoi, now extinct but well preserved (there are several mummified here in Bes-Tharal), which have been proved indispuably on anatomic grounds to be admixtures of Djinni and Cyclopes, having three eyes, enormous frames, and intricate patterns of orange and blue upon their skins. What is not known is whether these were produced by a natural union, or whether they were the work of some twisted Mage, possibly of Unmaking.
Misfits, under the right conditions, are believed to be capable of interbreeding with anything.
In Utabo there are also rumored to be Foxpeople, denizens of Nature like the Satyrs, who might be capable of offspring with Keepers.
Well, I will not get overly political with you, old friend, but I must say I found this part difficult reading. At some moments I half wondered if you had decided to provoke me; some outbreak of that abstruse djinn humor that leaves us burrowers frustrated and annoyed. Grace is, I suppose, subjective, but the ever-prancing restlessness, the shiny frippery, of these soft chatterboxes; the idea that this has entranced you enervates me. Your tone seems altogether one of romantic infatuation: you neglect to tell of the drunken elvish crooners lying unconscious in pigswill whom I have seen outside human taverns during brief truces in the Kail Interregnum (their cloaks hardly "impeccable"), or the obsessive whoring of the Seelie court. I hope I do not intrude too roughly on your sensibilities: I know most Djinni flinch at speech about the body and the sexes, but you are a xenologist, after all. To understand the elves you must understand their obsession with the sensual. To my mind the Cyclopes, with their brute immediacy, are at least steadier than the Seelie Mob. To the cyclopes the body is simply all there is. To you and yours, it is nothing, a flawed and inconvenient vessel. To my kind, it is interesting for its parts, and their cycle; edible, combustible, separable; the simple boat of this Middle Passage to the Lower-and-Finer Realms. But to those shiny horrors, it is an endless curiosity, a toy, something they must constantly fiddle and play with, like hot-bottomed geese. And yet they cannot be honest about it, as satyrs are. Hypocrites, hiding behind a sham of dignity. Eagles indeed: they are a flock of endlessly honking geese, and it makes me tired to think about them, makes me long even more for the Peace I am denied.
Sorry to howl like a rabble-rousing charioteer, friend: you know I am even-tempered and a lover of peace, and can be civil even to Seelies. But you have provoked me with your childish adoration, and I feel I must lay you straight. (We won't even discuss your "catspaw" comment).
Mysterious indeed, these creatures. I wish I were at liberty to discuss our arrangement with them, but loquacious old fool that I am, I am still not about to tempt the Justicars.
Personally I have always found humans annoying. They do bring destruction and death in their wake, true, which is all to the good: move graves, more beings who enter into the still dark. Death by axe or arrow is no more and no less lovely than death by poison, age or disease, though it is messier. But their clamoring disorder, their skittishness is often disturbing. Battlefields of rotting bodies do not please me, when there is no care taken with the remains, no solemnity, no pause. It is often said that humans are brave, but they are not what we call brave; they want to live. Their supposed acts of courage are like the thrashings of a trapped animal. They do not solemnly go into battle as a path into the Night. Now, certainly there can be a beauty to such thrashings as well; sometimes they throw the approaching Night into final relief. Humans do fear in abundance, and as you know, fear is a holy emotion for us. But their fear is not our fear either. The fear we prize (more properly called awful dread) is the embrace of the darkness, the state of a sentience totally stripped of its surety, its pleadings, its excuses, before the huge mystery of
existence; the moment when the soul turns from its retreat, and fearing all the more, plunges into the dark abyss, embracing the end. Humans, in my experience, even in the most special circumstances, never reach that point. They are always expecting to break free and win the day. I was once privileged to observe a vivisection of several captive human warriors on the border of the Shadowlands. The vivisectionists were Imps, as is usual, but the Mage attending was Thardoughuk, a mage of Despair, and the Imps under his spell were so afflicted with Bleak Hearts that they were almost solemn. I was attending in an official capacity under the terms of the alliance of the time, and the whole day (it had a rather festive air, or what passes for festive in the Shadowlands) was carefully planned. Our Bes-Tharalian forces had taken the unusual step of capturing opponents in battle rather than giving them the final peace quickly, at the request of Thardoughuk, on the condition that they would be not simply subjected to endless agony, but brought through Despair to that acceptance which we consider holy, and then to death. Two of our finest priests had negotiated the deal. My job – and I must say I was bloated with pride at the thought that my strange calling of Xenology finally had an honorable role to play – was to advise on the tolerances and psychologies of the captives. Anyway, it was to be a grand experiment, putting the best of Shadow and even Impish natures in the service, for once, of peace and mystery, but in the end it was a disappointment. Even under the most exacting tutelage, the humans never turned the corner into the dark, solemn embrace of the night, that grand embrace of unknowing which is true meaning, that terror which is almost joy; no, ignorant, stubborn creatures, they acted until the end as if this were the climax of one of their loud, heroic horseback theatre-pieces (which by the way, you neglect in your "Arts" section), as if any moment some of their cavalry would burst onto the scene and they would slay us all. They never got it. Humans are fundamentally superficial and absurd. What a foolish game to play, to fight death, to struggle for the light. No mortal wins that game. Now, you djinn are long-lived, you abide in the light, and then you die when you die. Simple enough, if not to my taste. But the absurdity is that the humans slay each other in droves, their lives are short and brutish, and yet each as an individual, there on the battlefield with death raging all around, endeavors not to die, hates it, thrashes against it. Farce.
It occurs to me that in agreeing to our conditions and then allowing the experiment to fail, Thardoughuk may have hoodwinked us. Never trust a mage.
You emphasize the industrial proclivities of humans: coal mining, steel forging and such. Other than in Omistad and Valgrave, which have significant industries of their own, I believe this is mostly due to hired or captive dwarven labor, and the more mobile and nomadic human groups are often without industry altogether. On the other hand, though from a djinn perspective they are nothing to remark upon, there are some significant centers of learning in Valgrave, notably Fain u Thadde, where the humans carry on reasonably civil trade with the more powerful elves of Aliaen. Though naturally humans excel as warriors, they are also a significant number of human merchants, particularly in dangerous and forbidding areas such as the Vast Desert. The struggle and scheming which characterize their nation tend to give them an advantage in this profession as well.
In the annals of politics and religion, surely one of the most ironic marriages is that between your people and the Venomous Ones. Of the six Ancient Alliances, surely that of Will has the most mismatched pair; whenever some Mage levies your two Nations together, the Djinn never fail to first haughtily ignore, then become coldly infuriated at the little horrors. The exception to this, of course, is the Shar'ul Academy, concerning itself as it does with the extremes of phenomenological existence, and in particular the court of Vizier Tha'al-Kharun-Sahdhar-Shanala-Qu'al'a'ash-Brzuk-Anaala, that most expansionist and aggressive of Djinn nobles. I have heard from Theralda, who was briefly imprisoned there, that Imps have the run of the place, and are encouraged to practice their arts on prisoners and commoners alike, for the edification and illumination of the vizier's sages, and to aid his inquisitors. In return, Theralda observed, the Imps do not play as stupid as they usually do: for they are quite cunning creatures, in truth. And of course, some of your Sages have kept their Imps on a short leash, always beat them in the contest of wills, and been well served by them. Still, these are exceptions, and I have always harbored the suspicion that if the Faldathi prophecy were to come to pass, as Shadows and Visions alike appear to believe (though I have never been able to get a straight answer from members of either species on that or any other topic), and all the Nations of the world were called to serve one of the Six Great Forces, quite a few Djinn would defect to Clarity, if only to get away from the Imps.
We Keepers do not have as much trouble with the Imps as you do. True, there have been truly horrific wars between us on occasion; but we have also cooperated well. We do not underestimate them, as you do. They may be absolutely untrustworthy, but frankly, of all those Nations born of Strife, they are the most predictable. You can usually bet on them taking the course of action that will cause the most pain (whereas you cannot bet on Misfits to do anything). I cannot claim to have affection for them, or to admire them, but I also cannot get worked up over their depredations. A brain in a bone box, a net of blood vessels, a bag of fine organs, this is the Boat that carries me to my destination. And if some Imp raiding party takes me, and plays the tune of pain upon my nerves, well, that is one more Gate of Fear, one more chance to grasp the hollow realms' fundamental Mystery, to strip away the false certitudes and hollow chattering with which we walkers-above hold the Empty Truth at bay. Not that I am volunteering for such an experience, mind you, but Imps have their role to play. I expect you have never cut open an Imp and felt your organs convulse at the stench; it is not a pleasant experience, dissecting the Venomous Ones (one must wear protective garments to avoid being burned, and be very careful to catch and dispose of all the larvae), but it is educational, and deeply death-affirming.
I do admire the Mages of Abomination. What a vast and constant exercise of Will, to endure such torments, to dominate creatures so full of powerful hatred and vicious caprice with only the Word, to scrape one's own psyche clean of all attachments, all shreds of tenderness and doubt and mercy, for if any bit of those emotions remain, the Imps themselves (never mind the more formidable Abominations) will seize upon them as a wedge to manipulate and poison, and drag the would-be Magister down. I admire such single-mindedness, and express my admiration by staying as far away from it as possible, and if that fails, trying to kill it as quickly as possible.
You mention two of the modes of Imp creation: the Greater or Intentional Summoning, as practiced by the Mages, and the Lesser or Unintentional Summoning, which is less well understood, but clearly involves a cruel and conscious mendacity or betrayal of a solemn promise by a sentient. There is also a biological mode, involving the larvae, which infect and devour a host, giving rise to an Imp. This is less well known, but is a classic problem in my own field of Xenosarcophagination, thus I remark upon it.
Ah, I believe in an earlier draft you referred to the Forces of Abomination as "Dark" Powers. This is not technically correct, as "Dark" classically connotes Mystery. Perhaps, however, this is some complex djinni pun that eludes me. Our Silent, Peaceful Fathers Below are Dark (and in the darkness, Bone-White): the vile and odious Powers of Abomination are all too well lit by the Fire.
With one's own nation, it is hard to know where to begin. Actually you do an excellent job; you do us honor by your mentions of our honored Bes-Kandra and Zadath-Ku.
In this section, it is evident that your bible is a document translated into Middle Keeper, and not originally written in it, because you overuse the terms "dead" and "alive", which are only two of the sixteen categories of existence recognized by all the Keeper languages. Since I cannot think where else to begin to examine my own people, I may as well pause to give you a lesson in Keeper; after all, these categories are central to our way of thinking. So, from most to least prized, here are the categories of existence:
Ancient Keeper Middle Keeper Meaning
1. ThraHull'(h) Thurul Immutable and utter stillness and unbeing. The mode of existence of the Silent Dark Fathers.
2. Thr'NNutsch(e) Tarnush Not existing, and being undreamed-of
3. Thr'Nnard Tanard Not existing, and being apprehended only through an emotional state of terror, and only by immortal beings
4. Thr'NNard(i) Tanardi Not existing, and being apprehended only through an emotional state of terror, by both immortal and mortal beings, usually in dreams. The mode of existence of nightmares.
5. Thr'Strukk'(h) Tasruk Existing absolutely alone, in an inaccessible place, apprehended only through dreams, and having the power to kill by an act of will. The mode of being of Trzduk and Falashi, the Dream Killers.
6. Thr'shann'(h) Tashan Never having beeen mortal, no longer having a physical form, being perfectly at rest, and being utterly forgotten. This mode is sometimes translated into non-Keeper languages as "God-death"
7. Thr'shall'(e) Tashal Having been mortal, died, been properly buried, having had great honor, having realized Mystery,
having merged with the Darkness, and having been utterly forgotten in spite of the best efforts of your civilization.
8. Thr'harruk Taruk Having been mortal, died, been improperly buried, dishonored, outcast, or a slave, but nonetheless
having realized Mystery, having merged with the Darkness, and been utterly forgotten.
9. Theh'SSola'h Thesola Having been mortal, died, been properly buried, having realized Mystery, and continuing to act and
move in a body, in the mortal world, out of duty. This is the mode of a Greater Lich, such as Zadath-Ku.
10. Theh'SSol'hran Thesol'n Having been mortal, died, been improperly buried or not having realized Mystery, and continuing to
act and move in a body, in the mortal world, out of duty. This is the mode of a Lesser Lich, such as Bes-Kandra at the end of her reign.
11. Thr'zzan(e) Tazan The state of a mortal whose bodily systems are failing as a result of starvation, suffocation or loss of
fluids, due to having been buried, embalmed, or impaled with ceremonial honors, particularly if unwilling. This is considered to be the ideal state in which to apprehend Mystery, and you will note that the slaves who are honored by being so buried with Kings actually achieve a higher status
thereby than the Kings themselves will achieve unless they themselves apprehend Mystery, and only then until they are forgotten (i.e. become Tashal).
Interesting tidbit: Zanaa of Hope, herself, was in such a state in a Keeper Tomb when she had her Great Revelation, and although the case is
exceptional in that the Revelation was a Revelation of Clarity, and in that she was rescued, I have nonetheless always felt that in this sense the Visions owe us Keepers a debt -- not that they would admit it.
12. Thr'sharaf Tasharaf Having been mortal, died, been properly buried, having had great honor, having realized Mystery, having merged with the Darkness and being remembered and honored still by your civilization.
13. The'SSol'chur Thesolur Having been mortal, died, and continuing to act and move in a body, in the mortal world, for reasons other than duty. This is the mode of a Vampire, for instance.
14. Thr'SSaraf(e) Tasaraf Having been mortal, died, and either been improperly buried, or not having realized Mystery, and being remembered still. In practice, frankly, the state of most Keeper dead. While remembered, honored and tended, however, there is a chance that these may become Tasharaf, and then Tashal.
15. Thr'SSarall(e) Tasaral Having been mortal, died, not having realized Mystery, and being forgotten. As far as I know, the state of most of the dead of the non-Keeper nations, except where the Keeper Code is in force. According to orthodox Keeper belief, there is no chance for these to progress to other levels, although there are heretical currents which have their doubts.
16. Thr'zzash Tazash Being mortal and alive. The mode of living members of the 12 Nations, most Mages, other sentients, and non-sentient animals and plants.
Since coming into contact with other Nations, Keeper languages have shifted, and Middle Keeper, for instance, recognizes two other categories:
Middle Keeper Meaning
17. Nazash Being fundamentally immortal, real, non-alone, and taking action in the world. "Nazash" is used to describe the mode of the various unseen but active immortal beings in which some
of the other nations believe, and of beings believed by some to be immortal, for instance a debate rages as to whether the Horror Maloch is Tazash or Nazash. Note that these beings, as they are unable to die and probably unable to realize Mystery at all, are pitied and relegated to the seventeenth status.
18. Nanardi Not existing, and being apprehended through means other than terror: the mode of ideas, figments and fancies.
There are various theological/political disputes raging around these categories, such as whether it is possible for a being dying, for instance, in terror on a battlefield, to be in extraordinary circumstances considered Tazan (an opinion naturally favored by the military caste, and despised by the priests and embalmers); what to call those beings who would be Taruk, except that they are still remembered, or to put it another way, the improperly buried Tasaraf who realize Mystery (the orthodox consider these a kind of Tasaraf until forgotten, but many in the lower classes hold them to be at least equivalent in honor to the Thesolur, and some radicals have called them Tasharaf, for which crime they are usually executed and buried improperly, giving them a chance to test their theory); and the bitter priestly debate over whether mortals can realize Mystery while alive, and if so what to call them, about which there are innumerable opinions; and the historical debate about to what extent Nanardi are a corruption introduced by contact with other nations: some isolationist romantics deduce (absurdly in my view) from the absence of such a concept in Ancient Keeper that our ancestors were pure creatures of Mystery and Will, with no ideas, figments or fancies at all, but only "nightmares, the apprehension of duty, and action". I fear this romantic tomfoolery is becoming popular here in my lovely Bes-Tharal, which will not help my case if my correspondence with a Djinn is discovered -- Djinni are considered the worst culprits in the introduction of Nanardi, or ideas, into the world and thence the previously pure Keeper brains!
Simply because of their variety, the dissection of Misfits occupies a great deal of time and attention during every Keeper scholar's study of Xenoanatomy. In fact even at the primary school level, Misfit organs are often brought into dissection classes as an attention-getter. However, it is a dangerous and somewhat frustrating discipline. Misfit organs have been known to explode, flee, or begin to speak during a dissection. In fact, when I was a young student in Bar-Thadarak, during a dissection of a Misfit who had lived in Keeper country, the presumed pancreas began to loudly criticize the professor's performance in fluent Northern Middle Keeper, driving the old hound to distraction while we students tried to suppress growls of laughter. In extreme cases, determining when Misfits are in fact dead, or which parts of them are dead, is often quite demanding in and of itself. And it is a discipline never really mastered.
I know of nowhere in the world where Misfits follow the Keeper Code, so most of the sample Misfits we have are taken in battle or simply expire while living in nearby areas. Misfits' lifespans seem to be as variable as their other attributes. Though Misfits take great joy in one another's company, they seem to neither grieve for their dead, nor to have any attachment to their remains. Misfit corpses are most often abandoned, sometimes eaten, and other times recycled into housing materials, jewelry, and so on. Generally speaking, even in strict Keeper-Code areas, enforcement of the Code seems useless against Misfits. Keeper legions, attempting punitive action against Misfits for failing to yield their dead, are sometimes victorious, but since there is never a governing body with which to negotiate (Misfits claiming to be leaders or their emissaries invariably turn out to be kidding), and Misfits generally never sign nor keep contracts, nor do they seem to fear retribution, there seems little point. They do become angry at what they see as meanness and injustice, and flock to each other's defense, but when the battle is ended or the other side attempts to negotiate a peace, they tend to lose interest and wander off. I was once involved in such a negotiation, with an extraordinarily straightforward and reasonable Misfit named Thud Thud (in fact he had been a Djinn, and left to embrace Unmaking of his own volition, after coming to the conclusion that Truth lay in Freedom, and Unmaking was the true path to Freedom), who explained to me why Misfits don't sign treaties or contracts: because they find the notion of predicting their own behavior laughable. This is also the reason that they do sign treaties, when they do: because it's so funny.
It is easy to mistake the Misfits for fools, or their society's utter disorganization for weakness. Certainly they are foolish, but they are extremely formidable. They lack social organization, but not society; information travels fast between Misfit encampments, and in a sense their society does make decisions, largely by means of the fashions, tales and rumors that race through the Misfit nation constantly. The Impish secret society Izithikum, or Last Blind Gurgle, was entirely wiped out by Misfits after they had done something particularly horrible to the well-beloved Misfit bard Goldfish; jelly made from Izithikum spines and mulberries instantly became the fashion, and collecting the ingredients struck innumerable Misfits as endless fun (though others were equally amused by trying to disguise themselves as Izithikum Imps and have their spines harvested; those who actually succeeded in putting one over on their fellows in this manner were widely (though posthumously) regarded as hero-jesters). I am relatively sure of the accuracy of this story, having heard it not only from Thud Thud, who of course might have been kidding, but also certain details from a Shadow who was involved with Izithikum, who was definitely not kidding.
Technically, satyrs, dryads, nymphs, mossy goats and magic grey birch trees comprise the five sexes of a single extremely complex pentamorphic species, or at least that is the current theory among most Keeper and Dwarven xenologists, though I have the vague suspicion that it may have originated as a vulgar joke, possibly told by the Satyrs themselves but more probably – given its abstruseness – by Elves. Then again, other such extremely complex interactions have been observed where the House of Nature is particularly potent, as it is in the Satyral Groves. For all practical purposes, at any rate, these five sexes, only three of which are sentient, comprise five different societies, and so may be treated as separate peoples for ethnographic purposes.
I note that, with typical djinni delicacy around the functions of the body, you comment only tangentially on the Satyrs' legendary sexual exploits (indeed, you employ the somewhat ambiguous term "maidens", to which one is forced to add, "not for long..."). In addition to each other and the other four purported members of their technical species (though what they do with the birch trees was never clear to me), Satyrs exercise their extraordinary libidos on just about anything willing to undergo the experiment. I think they draw the line at Imps, and at Shadows after the first such attempt.
The fact that, of all the peoples of Nature, only Satyrs are traditionally numbered among the Twelve Nations, has of course been the subject of much debate. Often it is simply asserted the Nature is so fecund and prolific, her sentient and nonsentient species do uncountable, that Satyrs are simply taken as representative. The economic argument has been made that Satyrs tend to enter into trade with the other Nations, whereas the other peoples of Nature find her immediate bounty sufficient; this fact has largely to do with the Satyrnine predilection for fermentation, a process that is best achieved with some degree of technical sophistication. I have even heard advanced the theory that Satyrs are tool-using, whereas the other Naturals are not; this is simply inaccurate, for brownies and apparently also Utaban Foxpeople use tools, whereas Visions are extremely reluctant to do so. I think in the end it is simply that Satyrs, like the other eleven, will take up swords and bows on the battlefield in the service of Mages; that and the absurd need for the devotees of Clarity for everything to work out neatly in the end: twelve Houses, hence twelve Nations, there you are.
I would disagree with your assertion that the Satyrs serve Nature best. If the peoples of Nature were as judgmental as yours and mine are, they might well argue that in trafficking with made things and with planned battles, the Satyrs have fallen from the ideal. But Naturals seem inherently pluralistic, and they respect that the Satyrs' efforts defend the Groves.
Satyrs and Keepers rarely find themselves on the same side of anything; they are lazy, ridiculous creatures of the wilderness, and we are solemn, disciplined masters of great cities. Satyrs make exceedingly poor slaves: they pine away quickly but loudly in our quiet, empty lands. They have none of what we call courage. But I cannot find it in my entrails to truly despise them, for they are not hypocrites. Their lusts are open, wild and honest, not like the cloying decadence of Elves; they clutch as desperately for life as do the Humans, but at least they do not affect to relish the battlefield. Although it is the sort of opinion which one no longer barks aloud in Bes-Tharal, I say leave them to their groves and their orgies, where they do not trouble us; let them sweeten their lives with those strange things that are as sweet to them as the dark peace is to us. They will all be quickly Tasaral, buried badly and forgotten; let them have their spring evenings.
It is a dangerous sign for me, old friend, that I can appreciate, even at a great distance, the pleasures of a Satyr; it means I have spent altogether too long studying the Tazash of other Nations. I have turned one eye away from my steadfast, longing gaze into the sweet grave; one eye watches the nymphs and bears dancing in a green grove, and finds it utterly alien, but fascinating nonetheless. Infatuation with Tazashun is the most fatal psychological disease that can befall a Keeper.
Some Satyrs who reach a great age become somewhat more solemn, like earthier versions of the proud Centaurs. Their hair turns white, their flesh gnarls, moss grows upon them and birds nest in their hair, and they become quiet, laughing sages of Nature. Usually they leave the lowland groves and settle in forested mountain country. They leave the nymphs and brambles to their grandchildren, and carry out subtler dalliances with dryads, Witches, and heroes and heroines of various Nations who seek them out.
I must confess, it has been some days since I last wrote. I have been avoiding this section.
My hand shakes; I am in the presence of that holy fear, a priceless gift I know, yet not one I embrace with my whole being.
I have watched myself carefully, said nothing of my political convictions for years now, made no further attacks on the radical Sar-nanardu-chal (the romantic isolationists I mentioned earlier who blame the supposed fall of Keepers from their ancient glory on the introduction of Nanardi from the other Nations); I have not published the fruits of my xenological research.
Still, they know. I have been passed over again and again for the privilege of being killed and embalmed; I am now by far the oldest lecturer in the department, all the others having been granted rest in a manner that is said to almost guarantee Tasharafun. I have never been financially successful; I cannot even afford a suspect peasant's mound burial with a single paid funereal howler and a cheap enamel inscription in a crowded public hall. I have been snubbed, excluded from every burial society in the city. I am growing daily more enervated. I twitch.
Theralda's visits are a comfort and a solace, but also a mixed blessing. She is well esteemed by my people, and a few decades ago my association with her would have brought me honor. But in the current climate, such a relation with any outsider, particularly a Dwarf, is highly suspect. I fear it worsens my case.
In fact, I believe I am guilty of the unspoken accusations. First, I am a heretic. I have long since gone beyond the accumulation of useful knowledge for the business of easing the way into the darkness, or the quest for the open question that leads to the apprehension of Mystery. I have been seeking knowledge-for-it's-own-sake, or worse yet, certainty. I am infected with Clarity, I stink of it. I do not blame you, friend; if a fool tries to builds a pyramid from water, no one blames the water for his failure.
Second, I am a traitor. We are Keepers of Secrets, yet I have been yapping our secrets to the wind.
Third, I am perverted. Each time I have been passed for the honor of the grave, I have grieved; but another voice in me, an alien voice, has been relieved. Not that I love prancing creakily in this outworn body!
No, it is that clarity-lust, that hunger after knowledge, that makes me foolishly glad for more days in the too-bright, twitching, noisy, stinking world of the living. As if learning more would do more than poison me for that moment when I face the Bone-white Fathers, and all is swept away!
There is but one cure for a Keeper with the disease I have. I know it, but I do not report my crimes, and beg for the honor of the cure. Partly I am afraid that they will not waste the resources on an old fool like me; they will leave me as I am, only more of a laughing stock; or end me, but let me lie unburied, unmarked, soon to be Tasaral. But even more, I think, I am afraid of the cure itself.
The cure is a Shadow Friend.
Shadows and Keepers are brothers in Mystery, we have ancient and strong relations. In some sense, the foreign policy of the Keepers has always been divided between a faction, usually the majority, which prizes Shadows as our most important allies, followed by Imps, and an almost always much smaller faction that looks to Dwarves and Gargoyles. I am by nature of this Orderite faction, which is now more even than usual in disrepute. The Sar-nanardu-chal are Strifites, and very close to the Shadows; of all the Nations, only the Shadows brought no Nanardi, no ideas or fancies; instead, Shadows bring nightmares, which are Tanardi, one of the most sacred states of existence.
The institution of the Shadow Friend is old, much older than the current political scene; it was already well established and much used even in the days of Queen Bes-Kandra, the greatest partisan of the Orderites ever among our monarchs. In those days, however, it was a sort of duel, an honor match between our two peoples. Now it is more a test, penance, punishment and therapy for the Keeper; the Shadow chosen is a kind of professional in the matter.
The Keeper is assigned a Shadow. The Shadow stays with him always, sings to him, gives him tasks, touches him. The Shadow may take him away, into the desert, or stay with him in a little room, or follow him about his daily routine, where no one will look his way or acknowledge the Shadow's bleak existence.
The Shadow is expert in being horrible, expert in conjuring Despair, in finding the fond memories, self-indulgent whimsies, little boasts and longings that accrue to the brains of Keepers in this imperfect, restless, too-bright life, and crushing them to ash and silence; in finding the idiosyncratic, unconfessed, secret fears, frustrations, and bitternesses we each harbor, and making of them huge chambers in which the two of them dwell. In the first stage, the Keeper is stripped bare, breaks down, confesses his sins, and, no matter how well he knows the system, expects to be forgiven and freed. In the second stage, he loses all dignity, cries and pleads, howls madly, tries violence, tries patience, tries escape, and always fails. In the third stage, the Keeper becomes numb, loses all sensation, sits dully rocking back and forth. Some of the most inexperienced Shadow amateurs fail to move beyond this point, but as I mentioned, they are no longer employed. In the fourth stage the wounds are ripped open again, and in a final searing clash the Keeper's personality is destroyed. In the fifth stage the husk of the Keeper is exposed to deeper pain, guilt, horror, desperation, and remorse. And in the sixth stage, the Keeper starts to become a Shadow.
Only in this stage does the ancient duel begin, between the old Keeper-nature and the new Shadow-nature of the his being. It is a sacred contest for us, articulating as it does the sacred balance between Mystery and Will. Up until now the Keeper's struggles have all been to save his identity, or to not see the true pain and horror before him; and as he is at bottom a creature of Mystery, one who must confront the white bones in the darkness, he will always fail. But now his Keeper-nature rebels, now that the Shadow lure has already taken hold; and now not to save himself, now without any more idea of who or what he is, with no reasons, no excuses, no ideas, his Will emerges, to dominate the Strife boiling within him and drive it out.
Or to try to, anyway.
If his will is strong enough, if he deserves the name Keeper of the Dead, he vanquishes the Shadow-spirit and emerges purged of all flaws, owning Mystery, a true servant of the Will, clean, eager to embrace the Bone-white Fathers, or, if he must, to remain in this world, to dominate it, to show it Mystery. Depending on the contract, sometimes he is permitted to execute the Shadow Friend and bury it with honor; sometimes the Shadow simply leaves. He is never the same being again, but he is redeemed, revered, even heroic.
If his will fails, he becomes a Shadow, and the Shadows leave together for their own country. He was not fit to be a Keeper, and the Shadows are glad to have him. I am speaking metaphorically: I do not think Shadows are really ever glad. They have a kind of contentment-in-horror, a satisfaction of being given over entirely to Despair. Though they never cooperate or speak unless pressed into joint service by a Mage, they have a kind of bleak fellowship; unlike Keepers and Djinni, Shadows do not judge each other.
I do not think my will is strong enough. I think I will be slipping through the mountains soon.
There are other choices. I could leave Bes-Tharal. I could travel to other Keeper cities, though I doubt it would be much different there: the mood of the times is everywhere. I could perhaps find a place in some human warlord's court, although I despise humans; there are humans who employ renegade Keepers as executioners and torturers; though we do not relish the latter work as Imps do, we are more reliable, and our knowledge of anatomy makes us skillful at it. And of course, the other transformation is always open; I could find the nearest encampment of the Misfit fotoau, embrace their ways, choose Unmaking, and become one of them, as purely and completely as with the Shadows. Actually that would be the safest route in a way: anywhere else, in a human court or a satyr glen or a dwarven stronghold, if the Sar-nanardu-chal decided to make an example of me, they could send a Keeper legion to escort my Shadow Friend, and in these times, what other Nation would be sure to defend an outsider from his own people? But the Misfits make no such distinctions; the rawest newcomer who chooses them is one of their own.
But this is all idle foolishness. I will not run. I am a perverted heretic traitor, but I am a Keeper, and I follow my people's way. In the end, I believe it is the right way; this identity, with its addictions, quirks, and preoccupations, is a burden. I may not adhere with perfect orthodoxy to the belief in the sixteen levels of existence; I may not even be entirely convinced that the vast elaborate ceremony of a King's embalming confers all that much advantage over a pauper's grave; but I believe in the core of the Keeper Way, that in the end we are alone, confronting the Mystery, the lonely question to which there is no answer; in the end, the self and all its baggage are stripped away, and we stand before the Dark Fathers; we go into the night and are forgotten, and this conscious instant is our brief chance to know the Night, to embrace it with whole and holy fear, that we may be loved and nourished by the final peace.
Shadows are not all dark, by the way; the most terrible, those most often chosen for Keeper's Friends, are bone-white and ash-gray; and there are rumors that the oldest and most horrific shadows of all are transparent, so that they could be anywhere, they could be with you this moment, and that they pass through walls (the three types are respectively known as Shades, Shrouds and Specters).
I will press on, and finish my reply to your bible, old friend, that Theralda may leave. I am fairly certain that the department plans to act with regard to my case, and I am also fairly sure that they are waiting for my guest to depart. I have not told her what will happen to me; when she delivers this manuscript, I hope you will explain it to her, and tell her that my relations with the two of you have been an error, perhaps, but a sweet and wonderful one. Ah, I am a melodramatic old cur. Perhaps there was no error, but only my Fate; perhaps I will win the contest with my Shadow Friend, and my errors were in the end a path to glory. I should be clear: even in that case, you will not know me anymore; the Zaduth-Jar you know will be gone, replaced by someone better, in my terms, but probably not nearly as interesting, in yours. Ah well.
I am afraid my reaction on your Visions chapter is somewhat like that with the Elves; clever as you are, great Al-Fath-Hunda'ath-Banezub-Hazraa, I hope I will not offend if I submit that you are easily taken in by the propaganda of the Clarity Nations. Visions may have very little weight, but they clearly have inertia; all that is required is to strike one on the battlefield to discover that. Though I know of no Keeper who has had the pleasure of dissecting a Vision, as they tend to spontaneously combust at death, I am sure that it could be accomplished in principle, and that the Vision's body would contain organs and tissues: strange ones indeed, but there nonetheless. For beings "able to exist across all time", they are remarkably bad at dodging blows from an accomplished Keeper swordsman. One would think this transtemporality would make them somewhat better at strategy and tactics, or perhaps at moving; but other than their ability to walk on water, it seems to take a Vision battalion as long as anyone else to travel!
They do seem strangely composed; when struck, they seem to bleed light. It is not clear to me whether Visions eat; they have extremely protean features, and their mouths may be present merely as cosmetic features, as a kind of protective mimicry of the other Nations. I am tempted to follow the opinion of Fanar-Chahr in this matter, who holds that Visions are essentially solar creatures, deriving energy from sunlight, as Dwarven experiments have shown that plants do as well. However, Dwarven mechanical calculations also lead one to believe that the motive energy Visions display is much more than that which plants derive from sunlight, leading one to the conclusion that this is not their only energy source. It may of course be the case that Visions are able to convert Hope into motive force, in a manner similar to Mages' spellcasting; I am certainly no thaumaturge, but I find this somewhat suspect. Mages are chary with Mana: if every Vision archer or messenger tapped this power, I would expect them to use Visions reluctantly. Perhaps Visions are connected in a limited fashion to a brighter plane, and draw energy from there as well as from the sun.
As for the various descriptions of the Visions' Eternal Home, they are charming, and I am not one to scorn anyone's religious ecstasies, but after all, that is just what they are: visions. It is not surprising that Visions do not speak clearly of their Home, since as I have remarked, they never give a straight answer to anything. (I am amused to remember that as a pup, I believed Clarity must have something to do with factualness, and that the denizens of the Clarity Houses must be straightforward types. How far from the truth!)
Visions are at least brave on the battlefield, or rather they seem relatively indifferent to death.
One of the intriguing aspects of the house of Hope is its ability to attract converts from the other Nations, although unlike with Shadows and Misfits, the defectors do not become Visions, but simply follow them. In a sense this is not much different from our taking of slaves, though those involved are enslaved by Hope itself, rather than by force. Of the two, Hope is by far the sterner taskmaster. Zanaa herself, of course, was no Vision, although it is not clear just what she was (my guess is Human, given her apparently mercantile knowledge of the Vast Desert.)
Though I am somewhat skeptical, I basically credit the idea you advance about Vision's infancy as immaterial essences influencing the emotions of sentients. Partly, because this makes sense of Hope's ability to attract defectors. However, there is another well-known theory, which I find appealing because of its parallelism to the Lesser Summoning of Imps; that Visions are born on another plane and summoned by sentient beings who, in desperation, turn to Hope; summoned indirectly, in that the Visions either first appear incorporeally, and then gain solidity, or appear only later or elsewhere; or in very extreme cases, summoned directly. In any event, as with Imps, there are also communities of visible Visions living in the world, usually in the presence of Mages of Hope, but not always. They engage in little commerce, but they do evangelize among the other Nations. In addition to those who explicitly defect to Hope and become the servants of the Visions, groups of many nations that build walled sanctuaries in inaccessible areas (many are to be found in the Vast Desert, others in mountain fastnesses, others in the jungles of Utabo, others in lakes among the Nereids), Visions send emissaries to spread their message -- which frankly, if you ask me, is hardly a message at all, but more of a mood -- particularly among Elves and Satyrs, who almost always receive them; Djinn -- particularly the Ch'tai Academy; and Dwarves, who I think put up with them more out of courtesy than anything else. These groups one would predict, as they are naturally allied with Hope; but Vision emissaries are also found not only among Humans and Gargolyes, but even among Cyclopes and Misfits (though I think the mutual incomprehension and bafflement is quite high in those cases.)
There is a natural tension between these emissaries' purported role to advise, rouse, and give solace, and their missionary activities. The former is not insubstantial: in the presence of Visions, I myself have felt that sense of endless possibilities, that lightness of the internal organs, that restless yet serene yearning which their presence inspires in all sentients. I found it quite disturbing. The dogged, childish belief of the Humans that everything is going to turn out physically -- that the cavalry will arrive -- is simply absurd; but this Vision spell, the feeling that everything will turn out *cosmically* all right, is wrong but seductive. They are dangerous creatures, make no mistake. If they are carefully controlled, another Nation can indeed use these emissaries to inspire their troops with (false) courage, to rouse a monarch struck with listlessness, and so forth. But like the embalmer who begins to sip motive ichor to work longer hours, they are playing with fire.
Many Nations have found this out; the obvious case is that of the Dwarves of Vandesford, in the far cold South. There a dwarven fastness, which was imperiled by repeated attacks from semi-civilized Snow Trolls (by the way, it has been conclusively proved by dissection that Trolls are not related by blood to Cyclopes, though the supposition is that their provenance is also of the House of Body) and by hunger, accepted Vision emissaries to boost morale. These then offered to send a garrison of Vision troops as reinforcements. In the end, the Snow Trolls were decisively beaten, but by this time the entire community had converted to the House of Hope, abandoned the Dwarven arts altogether, and become a huge sanctuary, which was attracting more converts continually. The other Dwarves of the area, led by the Mage of Making Jandar, were compelled to make war upon their own people out of duty to their House, and to stop the flow of defectors draining their reserves. After this, Vision emissaries in the South were forced to agree to certain limits on their activities, but you can never really reason with fanatics. (Of course, the blame can be laid at the feet of the other Dwarven communities for relying on the Visions to reinforce their brethren in the first place, probably the fault of a corrupt or naive administration, or these endless Dwarven political intrigues).
So ends my review of your bible. Publish it, my friend; in these times, it is vital that the Nations understand one another. Immoderate warmaking, driven by ideological rigidity, threatens to litter our world with corpses which will go unburied and unremembered, swelling the ranks of the Tasaral, and that is a fate I wish on no creature, not even an Elf. Not only that, but as these tides rage, we will be driven more and more into the hands of Mages; pitted against one another, the tribes and cities of the Twelve Nations will cede their independence to the spell-lords, to serve them on the battlefields and in their mighty Sancta. I do not trust Visions, I do not trust Seelies; but even less do I trust Mages, even (or especially!) our own. They are not of our world, my friend. They may claim to be our protectors, our champions, but we are playthings to them.
Soon, one way or another, the Zaduth-Jar you knew is no more. Be well, be clear of Mind, and I hope you will allow me to express my earnest wish that at the end of your days (which I suppose you prefer to be many), you truly grasp the Night. It is not our way to proselytize like Visions; we bury with the proper ceremony, and let the soul take care of itself. But you are an exceptional Djinni, for your willingness to ask questions for which Reason may not be sufficient, for which one must seek unknown answers in the World; so I am moved to pray that that same courage of Will lead you in the end to realize the Mystery, the unanswered question, in which all sentience ends.
Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead