Author Topic: Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special  (Read 2206 times)

Polycarp

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Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special
« on: January 16, 2010, 06:56:37 AM »
I feel like taking a holiday from my usual encyclopedia-building and writing some very short stories for my campaign setting.  Actually, I feel like that a lot; what makes this different from then is that right now I also feel like letting other people read them if they so desire.  Some of these are recent writings, while others are many months old.  I'll update this from time to time as I edit old stories to the point where I don't feel too embarrassed to post them.

Here and here are two earlier stories posted in the main thread.  Since I don't have a discussion thread for CJ, I figured it was getting a bit crowded with my related fiction forays to clutter things up - thus this thread.  I hope you enjoy.

IC: Taking Tea with the Umbril
'Tea, First.'  Jeszash's command was terse, but she intended it that way.  For one, the First was a warrior, and would be accustomed to being addressed like one, even if in the present situation his primary responsibility was to carry a pot of tea.  For another, the Umbril were staring at her, and she had no intention of letting them glean anything about her state of mind, real or imagined, from unnecessary speech.  'The Umbril are clever and deceitful' - that is what all in her village were taught as hatchlings.  She had walked in the world and was not limited by such comfortably simplistic generalizations, but if any Umbril were true to this elementary statement, it would be these three.  Jeszash rarely gave compliments, but readily admitted to herself that these three missed nothing.  Either that, or they were extremely good at pretending they missed nothing.  Regardless, she was not going to do them any favors.
   
The First silently fetched the copper tea kettle and a stack of square wooden cups.  He placed them in front of Jeszash with an awkwardness typical of one whose station would make him completely averse to such menial tasks under normal circumstances.  This too was something the Umbril might notice, but Jeszash had no control over that, and she knew it.  Humility, she reminded herself, was the recognition that one's power always has limits.  If the Umbril did observe anything about the First, they did not reveal it on their faces, and continued staring at her as the warrior silently left the room.

Jeszash took the top cup in her hand, poured the steaming tea into it, set the kettle down, and held it out to the Umbril directly across from her with both hands.  It was this Umbril - clearly the one in charge - that she was most interested in.  It was veiled from head to foot in dark cloth embroidered in the mycelial spirals that usually indicated an Umbril priest, but Jezash knew enough to be reasonably sure that no priest could be leading a delegation of such importance.  The robes obscured its features, but it was perilously thin for an Umbril, and had entered the room with a slow, painstaking gait that indicated either great age or infirmity.  Jeszash had never heard of a crippled Umbril wielding any sort of power - but then again, she had never heard of a crippled Umbril.  She had the impression that the infirm did not last long among Ivetziven's people.  In addition to all this, the Umbril had an unbelievably strong odor to it, one of strange herbs and brews that Jeszash had never smelled before.  It was repellent, but bearable, at least in the name of diplomacy.
   
For a few seconds, nothing happened.  Sseswe, the Iskite on her left, fidgeted.  It was a moment of great tension; to decline her offer would mean that the Umbril had never been interested in peace, and if this was the case, it was likely that this entire meeting was a trap that she very well might not escape from.  Perhaps the veiled Umbril held weapons under that cloth.  Certainly her subordinates had thought so, and they urged her not to let the creature in, but such a denial would mean the same thing as refusing tea, and she was convinced that any failure to find peace with these aliens must not lie with her.  She would die naïve, but blameless.  She closed her eyes, breathed in and out, and waited for the blow to fall.
   
It did not come.  Neither, however, did the veiled Umbril accept her tea.  Instead, the Umbril to its right reached out its tendrils and took the tea from her hands, wheezing under its breath and bobbing its head briefly.
   
'Th-this' - Sseswe's mouth worked without making any further sounds for a few seconds.  Her hackles were straight and her fingers dug into her thighs.  The Umbril certainly did not miss this, and stared at her with their blank, milky eyes.  'This is an-'
   
'Be silent,' Jeszash snapped, with an edge of desperation in her voice that she fervently hoped the Umbril did not notice.  They looked from Sseswe to her, and then back again as Sseswe ignored her order.
   
'An - an outrage!  See how it has refused us,' she hissed, and placed her hand on the ground as if getting ready to stand.  The two Umbril flanking the veiled one stiffened, presumably uncertain if this Iskite was about to strike them or not.  'See tha- '

Jeszash made a throaty hiss with a volume and vigor that she seldom employed even among disobedient pupils.  Sseswe turned to her in shock, looking for an explanation, but Jeszash did not deign to look in her direction.  She only spoke to her, and did so in what her people called the 'least degree' - the words that transmitted no respect at all, no recognition of station or authority or anything that could possibly merit it.

'I see,' she snarled, 'one who has forgotten her place.'

Sseswe tensed as if struck.  She wilted, her hackles flat against her neck and her nose pointing down to the ground.  Nothing more was said; the exchange was over.  Jeszash felt her blood warming under her scales as she watched for any reaction from the Umbril.  Sensing the need to distract them from this humiliating gaffe and justify herself in front of her subordinates, she spoke up and questioned the veiled Umbril directly.

'Why do you not accept yourself?'  The tone of her question was, again, as flat as she could make it, sounding less like a question than a statement.

'The delegate,' rasped the Umbril who had taken her tea, 'does not mean disrespect.  It is - impossible.'

'It is not impossible to take tea from me.  I repeat my question.'

'The delegate,' repeated the Umbril with some hesitation in its voice, 'respectfully cannot -'

A dry, crackling sound issued from beneath the dark veils of the central Umbril, at which the speaking Umbril's voice died away.  Two arms moved beneath the cloth - clearly arms, though Jeszash could not see them but for the shape the cloth made as it hung over them.  The sound the cloth made as the arms moved was like someone running a canvas bag over dried leaves, and Jeszash shuddered involuntarily.  The arms were outstretched now, held out in a gesture of acceptance.  The two uncovered Umbril on either side of the veiled figure looked at each other, and then they placed their tendril-fingers upon the cloth and drew it back.

The arms before her were like the arms of a corpse.  The skin - if it could be called that - was wrinkled like a snake's shed scales and nearly as pale.  There was no sheen to them at all, and they were so thin that it seemed impossible that any living flesh could lie within them, or that they could support their own weight and be held outstretched in such a manner.  The finger-tendrils looked rigid and askew, more like the guard-hairs of a hackler than the supple tendrils of an Umbril.

Jeszash did not pay attention to the mutterings of her companions.  This was outside the realm of her experience, but ultimately these were just hands, and placing a cup of tea in a pair of hands was inside the realm of her experience.  This, then, was what she did, struggling to suppress the part of her mind that frothed with horror and revulsion at the sight.

The tendrils crackled as she placed the cup upon them, but nothing broke as she half expected it to.  The veiled figure nodded discernibly under the cloth and drew the cup towards itself.  Jeszash poured another cup, gave it to the last of the three Umbril, and then one for herself and her flanking companions, both of whom still stared agape at the creature's hands.

'Master Jeszash,' came a soft whisper from beneath the veil.  The voice was dust blowing through dry bones on a cold breeze.  'I accept your hospitality.  Alas, I ceased to drink anything long ago.  It pains me that I cannot accept in the way you expect, and I ask your forgiveness.'

The explanation was obvious, but to say it was like reciting a child's demon-tale with the gravity of a Grandmaster.  It was a word that Jeszash had never heard spoken outside of the storyteller's lilting recitations of the travels of antique heroes and preposterously fictional adventurers.  It was, however, the undeniable truth, and though Jeszash hated stating the obvious, it came out anyway.  Later, she justified the statement to herself by saying that it was said for the benefit of her companions.

'You are a telavai.'

'I am.'  There was no emotion there that Jeszash could read.  It did not seem annoyed or impressed.  A statement had been confirmed, and this exchange too was over.

Jeszash nodded.  'You have done nothing here to require my forgiveness, but as you wish it, it is yours.'

'I am grateful.'  The withered arms slowly set the cup upon the mat.

'We are all grateful,' added the Umbril to the telavai's right, in a voice that was considerably more relieved than it had been during its earlier clumsy dissembling.  It easily slipped into the cool, scripted platitudes that Jeszash had been expecting.  'We are grateful for the hospitality of the Iskites, which we have never had cause to doubt, and we are grateful to be dealing with a people who are said to be reasonable and wise.  This conflict does not benefit us; we take no joy from the blood of Iskites.  Therefore we are here, among your people, hoping to confirm what we have heard of your reason and wisdom with our own ears...'

And so the negotiations began.  They continued late into the night, and all the while the untouched tea in the cup before the veiled Umbril grew cold.  Hours after the Umbril delegates had departed and the stars had begun their dance above the canopy, Jeszash stood alone in the room.  She loomed over the cup and considered what should be done with it.

In the end, she lifted the cup to her lips and drank to peace.
« Last Edit: July 08, 2014, 04:30:08 PM by Polycarp »
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Lmns Crn

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« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2010, 11:05:48 AM »
Breathtaking.

Every time I look at your work, I am more intrigued. I love this narrative presentation, the spotlight on etiquette and decorum, the thick tension of the negotiations. High quality.
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Ghostman

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Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2010, 11:38:22 AM »
Nice writing. I liked the interaction between the Iskites. Your description of the telavai's voice made me think of Darth Vader :-p
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Kindling

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Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special
« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2010, 02:17:56 PM »
A fantastically tense and tight little vignette, I'm very impressed. I think the only thing that didn't sit right with me was the sentence "The First silently fetched the copper tea kettle and a stack of square wooden cups with rounded edges."

It kind of seems as if everything stops for that one sentence so you can describe the tea-drinking paraphernalia. I realise that the tea ritual is very important to the story, and therefore everything related to it should be highlighted, but the way you've done it just seems a little... I dunno, clunky. Maybe you could space the description out throughout the next paragraph or two, so that it lies within the narrative and flows more?

Other than that, though, very good, and very flavourful. Really gives a great impression of the setting through its very tight focus.
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Polycarp

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« Reply #4 on: January 31, 2010, 07:13:53 AM »
I appreciate the comments.  And kindling, I agree - I think that would be a worthy edit to the piece.

Anyway, I have a twofer tonight.  The first is a conversation I wrote in just a few hours about a certain artifact that I haven't actually talked about yet.  It's not very polished and in general I think I'm better at description than dialogue, but here you go.

The second is actually a piece that predates the setting.  Before I thought of the whole "jungle with ruins and clockwork in it" thing, I had been working on a science fiction story.  The protagonists of this story were a pre-technological reptilian people.  When I began work on the setting, they became the Iskites, though with significant changes.  Originally, the reptile-people were cold-blooded, had bad eyesight, and were pretty laid back (compared to Iskites).  Some little elements, however - communal egg distribution, females being bigger than males, hissing and hackle-raising - came with them into the new setting.  The second story was part of the original abortive sci-fi attempt that I later re-wrote into a piece about the Iskites you may be more familiar with.

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Polycarp

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« Reply #5 on: February 25, 2010, 03:49:22 AM »
A quickie about a Gheen, an Iskite, and an errant head.

IC: Courtesy
Nyr Taska stood over the corpse of an Iskite.  Though he did not possess even a passing familiarity with alien anatomy or physiology, Nyr Taska was very certain that the Iskite was dead.  Besides the "normal" physical trauma one might expect from free-falling five hundred feet into the unyielding earth, the Iskite's neck was also placed at angle that erased any doubts.  Blood ran from its nose and mouth.  The jaw had either dislocated or snapped, and now jutted out diagonally forward and to the left of where the Iskite's lifeless eyes were pointing.  The Breath was not with this one.

The corpse of an Iskite, in itself, was not a new sight for Nyr Taska.  He had traveled in Sekah while the wars raged, and had seen a battlefield where the Iskites, though victorious, had piled great heaps of their dead awaiting cremation.  But those had just been nameless scales, the foolish and the hapless who had been consumed by the ravenous dream of Anath.  This Iskite was called Uszan, and had been known to him, if only for a few days.  Normally, Nyr Taska was not inclined to take passengers, especially heavy aliens who cost more in fuel than him and his food put together.  Uszan had paid well, however, despite the availability of far more safe and reliable routes, because he knew of the Gheen's reputation.

Nyr Taska had built a name for himself in the years of strife as the fastest courier in the outer Netai, and he was certain that he deserved it.  He was not the fastest because he was the most skilled, nor because his craft was the finest, nor because his fuel was the most refined.  He was fast because he alone - as far as he knew - was reckless enough to eschew the normal island-hopping routes and fly straight down the outwise coast of Netai, where the Mosswaste grew all the way to the water's edge.  He had been called insane many times, but he did make an effort to manage his risks.  He knew the little untouched islands, free of the Peril's corruption, that popped up here and there along the forsaken coast.  He had stocked food and fuel in these places - and fuel even in the Mosswaste, though never food - to make landfall quick, easy, and safe.  He knew the currents well and read the weather better, and took meticulous care of his equipment.  His clients knew only the vague details of his methods, and seldom asked the detailed questions that Nyr Taska refused to answer.  Ultimately, they were interested only in results, and he had delivered them time and time again without consideration for politics or purpose.  It was what kept him alive, sane, and comfortably supplied with the delights life had to offer when everything else seemed to turn to ash and agony.

This time, however, things had not gone as planned.  Nyr Taska was not especially superstitious, but even he thought there was something queer about how the wind had come down on top of them like a diving wyrm, shearing the tether clean off and driving them into the canopy below.  Nyr Taska looked upwards and reflected on the fact that what remained of his craft was probably half a mile away and certainly strewn across countless treetops in small, unrecognizable scraps of silk and cordage.

It was only now, as his gaze returned to the forest floor and the shock of the accident began to wear off, that the full weight of the situation came to bear upon him.  On every rock, on every tree, hanging from every frond and shrub was a coat of orange-yellow growth.  This far beneath the canopy, it was a dull, sallow shade, not the bright saffron he was used to seeing on the spreading treetops as he floated well above them.  Here, the moss was not one uniform coat, but a creature of many forms.  On the trunks of trees, it was a thick woolen mass, several inches deep; on the leaves of twisted saplings, it was a silky, gossamer web of dewy yellow strands that twitched in the faint forest breeze.  There were no traces of animals, nor the usual cacophony of birds and monkeys calling to each other in the understory.  The clicking of insects and the pattering of a light rain on the moss-laden leaves far above were the only sounds to interrupt the terrible silence of the corrupted forest.

Nyr Taska could not suppress a chill that ran slowly from his feet to his leather-capped scalp.  He had never been this deep in the Mosswaste before, and certainly not without his craft or some other way out.  He was miles from the coast, perhaps more than a day's journey, and had neither his supplies nor his lodestone.  A flask of water and a thicket knife on his belt were all that remained on his person.

He rubbed his palms together, began pushing on the Iskite's corpse, and managed to roll it over with a strained grunt.  Its misshapen head lolled listlessly to the side.  Nyr Taska searched its clothes for anything usable, but the Iskite had not taken anything with him on his fall.

Nyr Taska scratched behind his ear and gave the Iskite a studious scowl.  He was unsure if the Peril would be interested in a body with such extensive damage.  A broken back, as far as he knew, was sufficient to cripple an Abomination, and a broken neck would probably make the corpse quite useless.  As he was not entirely sure, however, he drew the thicket knife from his belt and began his work of charity to a dead man.

It took only three forceful chops of the heavy-bladed knife to sever the Iskite's head from its body, owing to the fact that the neck was already snapped.  Nyr Taska wiped off his knife on the Iskite's clothes and tucked it back into his belt.

'Peace, old scale,' he said, a bit wistfully.  "And - sorry."  He stepped back a few paces, took a short running start, and booted the Iskite's mangled head into a mass of orange ferns.  He watched the ferns shake and come to rest, looked up at the nearest moss-covered tree, and pressed the backs of his hands together in a gesture of contempt.

'See if you can make that walk,' he said in a low growl.  It was the most he could do for a brief and former acquaintance.  Nyr Taska was well aware that it was probably a better fate than he would receive.
« Last Edit: July 08, 2014, 04:35:55 PM by Polycarp »
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Nomadic

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« Reply #6 on: February 25, 2010, 04:32:31 AM »
Loved it! Especially the iskite head/ball bit and the contemptuous gesture at the end. This one I think finally brought home for me the feeling of the danger of the moss and I finally realized how much that the main character of this story is screwed.

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« Reply #7 on: March 06, 2010, 05:16:45 PM »
I loved these stories. My two favorites are the Artificer Device story the one about the Saffron Peril. The world you have created is so in-depth that it feels like a real place (well, maybe not literally real, but you know what I mean).

Have you ever considered writing (and perhaps publishing?) a pdf/book/website full of short stories about the Clockwork Jungle? It may be a good way for people who do not know about the setting to learn about it (or at the very least, get them interesting about it enough to go check the Wiki or the discussion forums.

I can't wait to read more. :)
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Polycarp

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Re: Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special
« Reply #8 on: July 08, 2014, 06:46:41 AM »
Filed under "Tales of Ewok Hitler the World-Queen."  Entry #1 is an experiment with conversation, which I am generally bad with.  I may be slightly better at ~action sequences~ which is where #2 comes in.

Please take no notice of the fact that this is a four-year bump.   :ph34r:

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« Last Edit: July 08, 2014, 04:38:58 PM by Polycarp »
The Clockwork Jungle (wiki | thread)
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." - Marcus Aurelius

Rose-of-Vellum

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Re: Clockwork Jungle Storytime Special
« Reply #9 on: July 08, 2014, 05:55:55 PM »
Ah, I was quite unaware of this lode of wonderful vignettes! Thanks for posting both stories and reviving the thread. Love the names.