Lords of Chaos
A Kenku player character. Remember them from the old Fiend Folio?
Gunga Sam saw the world in a way distinct from that of Humanity at large, but this should not be terribly surprising, for it would have taken the most nearsighted of viewers to mistake his short, slight, and feathered body for anything but a Kenku. Great green-gold eyes were placed on either side of the bony crest running from hooked beak to neck-nape; above and behind his shoulders sprouted vestigial wings slightly less useful than those of a common rooster.
Talons small and sharp grew from his fingertips and great splayed toes. As for feathers, they covered him completely; still he felt compelled to wear shirt and breeches after the human fashion, if only for the convenience of the pockets they afforded. In early spring he would abandon his shirt for a matter of several weeks; this he did to allow the proper display of the fiery red feathers sprouting along his slightly protuberant breastbone at this time. Up and down the most travelled thoroughfares he would strut and preen in a futile search for a Kenku female until the local shopkeepers, incensed and disgusted by his insufferable display, would pelt him with clods of earth and foul substances gleaned from nearby alleys. This they were obliged to do every year.
Alas, this was only when fortune was with him. In a recent altercation with three Vulgars over the golden offering bowl at a forest temple, he had attracted the unfavorable attention of the law and had been forced to flee, his nemesis — The Great Kaboo, an officious and meddling wizard/lawman — in hot pursuit.
That was weeks ago now, and while he had succeeded in stealing a katana and eluding the small band sent after him into the wilds, he was now quite lost. He hopped along, piping and hissing through the tip of his beak in vexation, while scouring the ground with famished eyes.
Little commended itself. Three small lizards swallowed live made a quick but unsatisfying snack; an abandoned cistern temporarily slaked his thirst and filled his water bottle.
Discouraged but stubborn, Gunga designed several deadfall traps from large stones and Byzantine arrangements of sticks, baiting them with pieces of a fourth lizard. This accomplished in the vicinity of the cistern, he continued scouting until an hour or two later, when he came upon a well-worn dirt road.
With the discovery he experienced a thrill of hope. Rather than head back to the cistern, Gunga instead flung himself down in the shade of a ditch near the road to wait.
Hours crept by, and the exhausted birdman slept. When he started awake, it was near sunset, and he instantly regretted his choice – but then felt the faint, rhythmic vibration of something moving along the road. Peering over the lip of the ditch, Gunga saw that indeed, the road was no longer deserted. Rolling towards him from the east was a cart – a very large, wooden box on wheels, dim lanterns swinging silently from iron braces near its roof.
A lone figure hunched in the driver’s seat; pulling the wagon were several thick-bodied beasts with long, stocky legs, bulging shoulders, and crowns of jagged growths atop their heads like the gnawed merlons of a castle laid waste by siege. As it rolled past, he sensed the strong savor of magic wafting down from the conveyance, and the lantern light showed the sides of the cart to be garishly painted with wild designs framing the announcement:
Dulce Lo-Lo’s Mercantile Museum!
Oddities of Vast Antiquity!
Items rare and strange!
All are bought, sold, and displayed here for your bemusement and wonder!
“A merry evening, fellow wayfarer, “ said a pale voice which drifted down from the shadowed driver’s seat. “If you were seeking out my remarkable collection you have succeeded, but if not, you are no less a very lucky individual.”
“Lucky indeed”, thought Gunga, momentarily forgetting his dire situation. “The man has cash, seems to be alone, and carries a stock of ‘wonders’ that, at the very least, smell decidedly of magic!” Aloud he said, “Fascinating! You must show me this amazing collection of oddities!”
“Readily, my friend. I detect a note of incredulity in your voice, but quelling the incredulous is Dulce Lo-Lo’s chosen pursuit in life!”
So saying, a gaunt, sharp-featured man leapt from the driver’s bench, and releasing a catch high on the cart’s right edge, caused the side of it to ratchet slowly out and down to reveal an astonishingly diverse assortment of items; the touted treasures twinkling mischievously in the weak light. The man turned to Gunga, the glint of the odd and antique merchandise mirrored momentarily in his otherwise dull eyes as he did so. “Now then”, he said merrily, “What manner of thing are you interested in seeing?”
Gunga meandered up to the compact but extremely busy display, noting that behind the first layer of pedestals, boxes, and hooks ran a narrow aisle bordered on its other side by an edifice of shelving evidently accessible only by entering the back of the wagon. He guessed that a similar aisle ran along the other side of the shelves; beyond that would surely be the wagon’s other side, most likely arranged much like the one before him.
Cursory inspection of the arrangement finished, Gunga turned his attention to the display proper, eyes quickly alighting on a well-tanned, fragile hide tattooed with a green emblem and edged with arabesques done in gold thread. He ran the tips of his fingers over it, careful not to mar the surface with his short talons; he sniffed unobtrusively but was unable to distinguish if it carried a magical odor separate from the overpowering chife of the vehicle in general.
Gunga looked sidewise at the wagon’s curator. “This is human skin,” he commented casually. “Why is it decorated in such a quaint fashion?”
“Because, “ the man rejoined with animation, “it is not merely human skin but that of the famed Queen Kuyanaas, who ruled The Kingdom of Poks in the 2nd century after the Eighth Great Cataclysm. She reigned seventeen years until the year 236, in which she was slain and her capital overthrown by the upstart Praz Vermilion, who had her skin removed as a trophy and used as a throw rug on the royal dais. Later stolen by patriots, her skin was then tattooed with her insignia and flown as a standard when they retook her capital almost a year later; great was its inspiration upon those who fought in honor of her memory! It is generally believed that Vermilion met a bad end, but the stories as to this vary so widely that none may be safely believed; certainly no pieces of him survive to this day.”
“Remarkable!” declared Gunga. “Does a similarly colorful tale attend to the bronze ram’s-head ring on this mummified hand?”
“Indeed!” said the curator merchant, further enlivened by the Kenku’s apparent enthusiasm. “The distinctive ring positively identifies the hand to be that of Haxx, great hero of the 3rd century until the year 388 when he blundered into the cave of the feared Ogress Glotchett as she prepared a breakfast of raw antelope in the nude. According to legend, so startled was he at the sight that she was able to whack him to bits while he stood paralyzed with loathing. Close examination reveals the hand may have been boiled before being mummified; perhaps she made soup stock of him for some subsequent repast!”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” muttered Gunga as his sharp eyes travelled over other curios and ornaments in search of something of greater obvious value. Unsatisfied with the immediate display, Gunga again addressed the curator. “Would I be correct in assuming that even more wondrous treasures reside within the wagon proper?”
“You are an individual of discernment! My largest and richest stock is indeed kept inside; the objects which I display here are more attuned to the coarse and sensationalistic tastes of the carnival crowd I left behind in the town of Dingamoor three days ago. By all means, let us proceed to the subtler items tucked away from the common eye!”
“By all means,” echoed Gunga’s thoughts as the angular man closed the side of the wagon and gamboled to the back to unlock its double doors, “let us explore the wilds of your rolling antique shop for its buried treasures; mayhap I shall learn how heavy a metal you line your coffers with as well.” Alert, he mounted the two wooden stairs up to the door and entered; the man did likewise, closing the double doors behind him.
The layout, as revealed in the light of the three tapers hastily lit by the proprietor, was as he expected: Two skinny aisles shared a common border in a wooden bookcase crammed with all manner of things; wagon walls just beyond two sparser displays (the right one of which Gunga had already examined from outside) delineated their other respective borders. The wall opposite that which they entered by was bare save for a door certainly opening onto the driver’s bench. Gunga moved to the left of the bookcase, closely followed by the man.
At first glance the shelved items appeared, if anything, less singular than those he had seen outside. A thick tome of elegies to deceased pets, an alchemist’s attempt at a distilled liquor which after one hundred years no one had yet had the courage to taste, and a hairbrush with a worked bronze handle and an inconspicuous needle set among the bristles (used to poison the megalomaniac Baron Voitch in the year 223 AFGC* Gunga was solemnly assured) – all of these things and many others failed to impress the birdman, though he did verbally fondle them all.
“What an outrageous charlatan,” thought Gunga. “Buy cheap, or better scrounge a great pile of rubbish from junkheaps, graveyards, and sleazy second-hand stores, work it over to imbue it all with a hint of false mystique, and then pay some mage a bit of real coin to taint the entire display with a vague magical ambience … that’s what we have here. What a wretched –“
Gunga’s musings were disturbed by the proprietor’s next pitch. Reaching behind a surgeon’s rib-spreading apparatus, the man drew forth a silvery orb fashioned in the likeness of a glaring eye and set atop a small stick of black wood. As it moved a thin metallic tinkling sound could be heard; clearly the orb was hollow.
“What is this new object?” Gunga asked, interest renewed by the appearance of precious metal.
“A ceremonial piece; talismans like it were used as wards against supernatural creatures of the night in the fifth epoch, “ the curator stated brightly. “At that time there was a plague of pestiferous ghouls that waylaid travelers and raided dwellings for fresh meat rather than mucking around in cemeteries digging for the newly buried. Most dangerous of all were the Taxims, which appeared as normal humans by day, but at night could elect to assume their true forms – aspects that they then could only abandon with the dawn. Well-documented sources attest to their uncanny knack for playing sadistic games of cat and mouse with their intended victims – unsavory creatures indeed. “
“Talismans such as this,” the curator merchant emphasized, hefting the small object, “were typically wrought of silver, a metal repugnant to ghouls and other night beings, and were fashioned, like this one, to resemble the eye of the god Latrotis, an entity reputed to abominate such demons of darkness. Those desiring protection from evil beings carried these; it is said one only had to present the Ward of Latrotis to the sight of a such a night horror to send it away shrieking.”
“Most unique!” Gunga enthused as he took the talisman and examined it with greater care in the wavering light. “It weighs nicely in the hand,” he thought. “It is hollow, but the metal is thick.”
Gunga made to replace the item on the shelf with a regretful whistle through his hard nostrils, commenting: “Alas, it is both fascinating and beautiful, but with my means, I must select some lesser object to commemorate this evening’s chance meeting.” … “and when I do,” he thought, he will reveal the location of his cash reserve to make change. And I relieve him at swordpoint of his cash, the supposed Ward of Latrotis, thus and so. A satisfactory conclusion to this evening’s entertainments.”
_* After the Fourth Great Cataclysm; a devastation most often blamed upon the excessive flatulence of Balgoon, the paralyzed world grub.
The man intercepted Gunga’s hand on the way to the shelf with his own. “Are you sure do not want this fine and unusual item?” For the first time Gunga noted the gaunt man’s hands. Was his index finger really longer by half a nail than his middle finger, or was it a trick of the bad lighting?
Noting Gunga’s focus, the curator merchant held up his other hand and smiled good-naturedly. “Surprising, isn’t it?” he commented. “This slight physical alteration is the result of the weekly consumption of the Wourwha Root”, he stated, presenting with a flourish a wizened lump of pale brown vegetable matter. “It grows only in Friklup and the lands of the Irradiated Ecclesiasticistes; great is its value to moneychangers and scholars, coin-cointers and page-turners, and all who would know the joys of more dexterous digits.”
Gunga eyed the unlovely tuber skeptically. “This is really too much. You really expect me to believe that the regular consumption of some viciously ugly variety of carrot makes your fingerbones grow funny?”
The man’s head tipped back in a cackle of mirth. “Human facial structure is unattractive enough,” thought Gunga, “why do they have to emphasize the fact by laughing? Look at the way the skin pulls over the bony ugliness, the way the donkey-kidney-colored lips pull back over the nastily sharp teeth, the …”
His interior monologue trailed away as he gaped slack-beaked at the developing, doubly hideous apparition before him. Dead black eyes, residing in their sockets like two chips of obsidian, stared at him hungrily from a face no longer merely gaunt, but now markedly skeletal. Wickedly snaggled teeth were packed in jagged rows in both upper and lower jaws, and the ghoulish thing’s clothes, well fit to the lean frame of the man, now hung oddly – too loose in some places, near bursting in others. It freed itself of now-awkward garments with a few expert slashes of its exceedingly long, katar-sharp claws.
Gunga dodged sideways, reaching for the place the monster had deposited Latrotis’ Ward, only to have his hand slapped away from the shelf with numbing force. A second blow followed, and Gunga was bodily propelled the length of the aisle to strike the blank wall with the driver’s-bench door at the end with such force that his wind whooshed out his beak with a shrill whistle.
It’s laughter of but a moment previous now a thin rasp, the night creature leapt at Gunga, claws extended like knives, lips drawn back in a snarl.
Possessed with panic-driven speed, the Kenku ripped out his katana and couched the long sword into the wall in one smooth motion, spitting the ghoul as the completion of its jump carried it onto the weapon’s point.
Unperturbed, the beast struck out, and, catching the hilt of Gunga’s sword, began pulling itself along the blade, reaching murderously for the birdman with its free hand.
Mortified, Gunga rammed his sword forward with all the strength desperation could muster. The point veered right, piercing the wood of the wagon’s side and sticking fast; Gunga released the hilt and hopped back to the wall with the driver’s-bench door.
He tried to open it, but found that it was either stuck or barred from the other side. Gunga turned to flee towards the door at the back of the cart even as he saw the ghoul win free of its impalement; the creature hurled the freed katana at the Kenku’s head and leapt after him.
The two scrambled and fought their way through the claustrophobic clutter of the second aisle. Gunga, lacking his weapon, feigned a talon slash at the ghoul’s eyes; when it flinched back he lunged for the back door, fouling his feet with Queen Kuyanaas’ skin in the process. Quick as a darting fish the demon was on his back, raking furrows in his shoulders as it sought a firm purchase.
Gunga crowed in pain. Lurching sideways, he wiped the monster from his back with the short end of a bookcase. The ghoulish thing hit the floor heavily, upsetting five nested cloisson bloodletting dishes that clattered about noisily; hampering the creature’s speedy rising.
Gunga took advantage of the ghoul’s temporary setback. Dodging around the corner to the place the battle had started, he reached past the rib spreaders for Latrotis’ Ward, this time successfully.
The ghoul bounded, yammering unintelligibly, into full view. Gunga thrust the talisman before its face so that its eyes momentarily crossed as it came to an abrupt halt.
The stood regarding each other from opposite sides of the ward for a long moment. “Why,” fretted Gunga inwardly, “isn’t it running?” A second nagging question occurred: “How was it able to handle this thing in the first place if it is what it says it is? … well crap.”
The ghoul leered in amusement, as if divining Gunga’s unhappy realization. “Because,” it said thickly, raising a long forefinger like a university professor, “Latrotis’ Ward must be wrought of silver to function properly. That, my friend, “ – here it inclined its head slightly towards the ward – “is a special ceremonial piece fashioned from white gold”.
“White … gold?” Gunga mumbled the words mechanically.
“Just so. The adherents of Latrotis’ credo reasoned – quite falsely, mind you – that if silver wielded such power, when cast in the form of Latrotis’ Eye, over the creatures of the night, that an even more noble metal must surely be more potent still. White gold talismans were reserved for their temple sanctuaries; rarely were they ever out in the field where their efficacy might truly be tested.”
The ghoul lashed out, striking the useless ward from Gunga’s hand. Its mouth gaped unnaturally open, as if to engulf the Kenku’s entire head.
Gunga snatched up the rib spreaders of a sudden and rammed them into the horror’s yawning oral cavity; squeezing the dual handles together caused the wide prongs now lodged in the ghoul’s mouth to fly apart and lock, stretching the creature’s cheeks to limits that would make an adder pea-green with envy.
The ghoul stopped abruptly, comtemplating its predicament with apparent dismay while venting harsh garglings and pawing at the bronze divaricator in a mincing fashion — it’s oversize claws, though, were clumsy and inexact tools for the task at hand.
While it was thus engaged Gunga fled quick as a rabbit down the aisle, scooped up his sword from the floor, and threw himself with renewed vigor against the door to the driver’s bench. It creaked pitifully at his second blow, and surrendered abruptly at his third.
Gunga lay sprawled across the bench in the cool night air, the stars and Brood-Moon* wasting their gentle light on the back of his head. The Kenku, as he made his headlong tumble through the ruined little door, had espied under the driver’s seat a small, locked wooden coffer. Groping, he found it in a moment, snatched it out, and leapt from the wagon, katana in one hand, the reassuringly heavy box in the other.
Leaning slightly to counteract the box’s weight, Gunga sprinted from the road into a stand of brush, where he threw himself down on his belly and lay low.
The ghoul issued from the broken driver’s door. The wound in its chest leaked a steady stream of thin ice-blue ichor; its cheeks hung like rent and tattered curtains before the antechamber of its gullet. The monster scanned the area for movement or telltale shapes with smoky eyes; finding none it tipped its head back and gave a great wail of dejection, the rising and falling of the howl adding a palpable chill to the evening air and causing Gunga to cringe and hug the ground as the feathers on his nape all prickled up.
The terrible cry faded away on the desolate road, tapering to a toneless whisper lost in the light rustle of scrub grass and brush. A tear rushed from the thing’s left eye, and running down a ribbon of cheek fell to the dust where it misted and sputtered. The ghoul sat disconsolately down, and, perhaps deciding to seek out easier (if no more gullible) prey, took up the reins and started its cart of macabre antiques down the road again, a lurching black rectangle that dwindled and was gone.
- According to the traditions of some far eastern cultures, the moon is in actuality the egg-sac of the cosmic spider-god Kumo; its ever changing-face is the result of the twitching, multitudinous young within. At the end of days the egg-sac moon will rupture, and its brood of infant kaiju spiders will descend upon the Earth and devour it.