Monday, May 31, 2010

Cuckoo Flock, 377 words

The Cuckoo Flock looks like a swarm of tiny clocks of many designs, all flying on feathered wings. Individually, a given Cuckoo is a harmless pest, and will flee anything much larger than a house cat. It is when they gather together into a Flock that they become dangerous.

A Flock is a Cuckoo mating swarm, which gathers together on some arcane yet precisely-kept schedule. Much as salmon must swim upstream to their original spawning grounds, each Swarm keeps its parents' schedule. A small Flock in full mating frenzy is of little danger, while larger Flocks are a much greater threat to anyone in the surroundings. This is because of how they raise their young.

Which is to say, they don't. Cuckoo Flocks are psychic brood parasites, like their avian namesakes. Once the mating is complete, the Flock will lay their eggs in the minds of everyone in the immediate proximity, and then die off. A small Flock may use one or two people as a nest, while the largest Flocks can nest their eggs in the minds of dozens of people. Few know they've been compromised until the eggs shortly hatch. When the eggs hatch, the fledgling Cuckoos unseat the host's consciousness and take over the body, killing the original personality.

For a time that may last weeks or even months, the host becomes as a local in the Mad City, living only to fill its role. They transform into gray-suited, gray-faced businessmen that wander the City streets to and fro, going from place to place on precise schedules. If blocked, they walk around the obstacle. If constrained, they fight fiercely to get away and resume their schedules. They don't stop to talk, eat, or drink unless it's part of the schedule, and even then they'll do the exact same thing day after day — even if there's nobody to talk to or nothing to consume, they say what they have to or go through the motions of eating the same foods over and over again.

The cycle ends when the Cuckoos inside have finished their growth, having fed off such pure, dedicated precision in their host. They violently depart from their host's mind and scatter, to come together when next the mating cycle begins anew.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Superheroes, Peregrine, 484 words

Peregrine is one of any number of well-endowed but unremarkable "flying bricks," heroes with the extremely common powers of invulnerability and strength. She's also picked up a nickname, whispered behind her back, of "Black Widow," not to be confused with the spider-themed villainess of the same moniker.

Peregrine has had bad luck with boyfriends all her life. It started in high school, when a relationship ended in an acrimonious argument the day after they first had sex. Her ex-boyfriend shed his bland "good student" habits and turned into something of a delinquent shortly thereafter. Her track record didn't show much improvement at all as she found her relationships falling apart through college and afterwards, but it didn't really get bad until after she developed her powers in a car accident, when a tanker truck full of strange glowing chemicals overturned on the highway. Her boyfriend at the time, a bit of a narcissistic prat, was in the same accident, and came out of a two-week coma with his own powers and some fresh scars that marred his "all-American" (read: unthreatening white male) good looks. He freaked out on her for coming out of the accident clean, especially since she had been driving, and blamed her for their crash into the truck. They broke up there and then, while he was still in his hospital bed, and she only learned a couple months later that he'd started using his powers to enable a crime spree.

Since then, Peregrine has had a string of failed relationships, in her mid-30s now with no signs of this bad luck stopping. Two of her previous boyfriends have died, one in a freak accident within a week of proposing to her, and the other murdered and stuffed into a fridge by a villain who she had crossed paths with one too many times. After recovering from that second death, she's kept her relationships restricted to her secret identity, so nobody can pin boyfriends to Peregrine again and repeat the act.

Peregrine is an unassumingly pretty woman in her civilian life, who "dresses to repress" -- thick nerd-glasses, baggy t-shirts and jeans (or bulky sweaters in the winter) that hide her figure, and her long brown hair tied back in a simple ponytail. In costume, she looks and acts completely different, with her hair flying free and flaunting her ample figure in a skin-tight suit that leaves little to the imagination. Unfortunately for her reputation, she's hardly the first to go this route with her public persona, meaning she's easily mistaken for other heroines with regularity. Still, she has a small but intense group of fans who admire her from afar and spend far too much time in online groups dedicated to discussing her latest exploits (including, in one infamous case, a wardrobe malfunction during a fight that revealed once and for all she doesn't wear a bra underneath her costume).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Superheroes, Science Jesus, 412 words

Science Jesus is a science-fictional messiah, prophet of the Technocracy of Heaven. He claims to have appeared in a cloning tank, as a donated egg cell miraculously fertilized by no known sperm donor. When he was decanted at full growth, attended by the three wise heads of the operation, the infant blessed the AmnioSynth (tm) fluids in the tank, and the LikeLife brand artificial placenta was claimed as a holy relic by the representatives of a fringe religious order. When he reached his thirtieth year, he was struck by a holy vision that informed him that he was the only cloned son of God, and he went forth to spread the gospel anew.

Or so he claims. Most people think Science Jesus is a crank with a talent for engineering, but he has a dedicated -- if small -- following. He supposedly performs miracles wherever he goes, as well as preaching to any who will hear him. Two recent incidents of note have focused the public eye on him, however. The first was the Sermon on the Wal-Mart, where he got up on the roof of a department store in a small city in the middle of the business day and gave a lengthy exegesis on his transhumanist philosophy, attracting attention from everyone down in the parking lot.

The second event was when Science Jesus went down Wall Street and into the New York Stock Exchange and -- personally -- caused a near-riot. He drove the stock traders from the building, knocking things over and throwing them around in a general ruckus, all while decrying the use of so much technology to enable a "den of thieves," as he called them. Police arrived on the scene in short order, but he eluded capture. Some witnesses claimed he yelled "Not this time!" as he ran.

Science Jesus looks like a 30-something man of Middle-Eastern descent, with long and scraggly black hair, a heavy unkempt beard, and a long white lab coat that hides his emaciated frame. He looks like he hasn't slept in weeks, but moves with a frenetic energy, as if every second spent idle is a sin. Despite his unsavory appearance, people who've met him say that he has a light in his eyes like the burning passion of a true believer, one who's seen the divine and has to spread the word. If he really does perform his miracles by strange super-tech devices, nobody can see the devices on him.

Superheroes, LAN, pt. 2, 166 words

Pariah has been playing the anti-hero ever since. He uses his powers more personally now, preferring to fight directly instead of providing support -- mostly because nobody else will have him on their side, now. He uses his telepathy to plant suggestions and fear into the minds of his foes, to erase his presence from their minds, and has started dabbling with mind control to turn enemies against one another. His technopathic powers have made almost any mechanical or electronic device more current than the transistor radio into his plaything, and he exploits them to near-lethal effect. Most modern facilities have the potential to become death traps in his hands. He's still not a very strong physical combatant, but he's been working on that. And his reputation is almost as effective now in cowing criminals as any power.

As soon as he finds out who set him up, though, there's going to be nothing holding him back from annihilating his foe's mind and destroying his body.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Superheroes, LAN, pt. 1, 424 words

The hero once known as LAN is a telepath and a technopath both. Given his rare mixed gifts, he found a place aiding other heroes as a sort of one-man "mission control," offering the ultimate in secure communications and information support, and prospered.

Then, one day, he was found next to a pile of dead bodies.

The deceased were all members of a small organized crime family, apparently all murdered in spectacular fashion in an abandoned warehouse. An anonymous tip sent the police to find the bodies, and when they arrived, LAN was still standing over the pile of corpses. His costume had blood from the dead all over it, and forensics found only the finger- and footprints of LAN and the deceased in the area. There was too much blood everywhere, in such a horrendous mess, to make a good survey of genetic evidence.

The trial was a media circus. LAN had to go in with inhibitors strapped to his head to keep him from trying to influence the course of the case with his powers, and his real name was revealed and dragged through the mud. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial, and claimed that he had gotten a similarly anonymous tip -- telepathically, and breaking his personal "encryption" -- to investigate a meeting of local crime heads, a prime opportunity to listen in and learn any number of things to exploit against them. The tipster, he said, had offered some vague reason why he or she couldn't listen in him- or herself, so LAN decided to give it a look, because the opportunity sounded too good to pass up. LAN and his lawyer pushed the point that his registered powers had only minimal offensive and defensive capability, certainly not enough to murder a dozen men and women and come away unscathed. The prosecution countered by pointing out that many supers, for one reason or another, failed to register all their powers, or changes in their powers.

Prosecutors and the police blamed what they called the "CSI Effect" for LAN's eventual acquittal. The lack of comprehensive forensic evidence of LAN's participation in the murders -- his finger and footprints only established that he was there, and he claimed the blood on his costume was from trying to check for survivors -- put enough doubt in the jurors' minds as to whether he did it. He got off, but not cleanly. His reputation would tarnish him forever, and in a fit of melodrama he took on the new hero name of Pariah.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Stormborn," The Golden Age, 423 words

“We saw our future in the stars. Glorious, perfect, unchanging and unchangeable. Those of us born under a favored sign took power, set ourselves as high above common men as the stars were above us. Led by the greatest of us, we shaped an empire constant as the stars and unstoppable as the dawn.

“But the stars are not constant. A change came upon them, one that no man could read or foretell. It was not a sudden thing, but one in the workings for countless, unknown years. A fractional misalignment, and the powers of the starborn nobility began to fail. Not all at once, no, for such things were measured in generations, not years. The eldest starborn kept their potent powers, but their children were marginally weaker – so little as to be unnoticeable. But each generation weakened, and over the centuries the powers of the starborn became lesser things.

“And the stormborn waxed as the starborn waned. Disaster wracked the land, hurricanes and earthquakes and grand fires, empowering and multiplying the stormborn until there seemed as many with such powers as those without. The very heavens above seemed set to wipe the starborn from the face of the world, to be replaced by a mad rabble strengthened by cataclysm and war, the chaos in the stars reflected in the chaos of the world. What none knew was that the changes in the stars that had so weakened the starborn were also to sweep away the stormborn, once both powers were burned out.

“And so, on a river of blood, a golden age was borne away, the world swept clean for ages of stone, bronze, and iron. And the stars, silent in their heavenly reaches so far above, no more touched upon the fates of men.”

The End of an Age, Jairal the Eunuch, last scion of House Cadin

***

"We told ourselves that we had found perfection. A golden age that would never end, an empire that would rule forever. We promised glories unsurpassed, a glorious future for all our children and their children, on nigh unto infinity.

“We should have known better.

“Perfection isn't what it used to be. The golden age is gilt and rust beneath. The empire is rotting from within. There are no glories, and the future is a lie. Infinity shall never be ours to grasp.

“And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”

–His Immortal Resplendence, Emperor Taal the Solitary, first and last of the Methis Dynasty

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Stormborn," House Gorav, pt. 3, 410 words

Every starborn of Gorav is raised with the sure knowledge that there is more grace and glory in the smallest act of creation than in the greatest acts of destruction, encouraging them all to seek acclaim through the pure exercise of their Art. This does not mean they’re all productive – by no means! – but it does mean they tend to keep out of harm’s way, discouraged from entering the military or even their own House’s armed forces. As a result, Gorav has a slight edge on most any other House but Jerit on the number of starborn in its ranks. While many of them are fools and spend far too much idle time (from the House’s perspective) on their personal interests, every so often one comes up with something in their dabbling that’s useful to the House and the Empire.

By the grace of their Art, House Gorav trades in expertise. It runs many of the most productive mines and quarries in the Empire, most under the auspices of the Empire – a percentage of the output kept free for Gorav’s own purposes in exchange for hefty taxes on any profits, and every speck of carmot uncovered. Gorav uses what it keeps for its private construction efforts, many commissioned by the Emperor. Other Houses also employ the Gorav for their own needs, building fortifications and maintaining the provincial roads. As well, the artisans of House Gorav produce many of the finest goods in the Empire, from the deadliest arms and armor down to the most exquisite bone china, all for noble and Imperial customers. House factors provide a similar service in producing goods meant for the common market, but do not hold as tight a monopoly over that as the House itself does on higher-quality goods.

The Sign of Gorav is the Salamander, a great lizard wreathed in flames. Salamanders have long been considered both auspicious and dangerous. Legend tells that they are responsible for giving fire to man, but they are also rapacious and all-consuming. To this day, many forest fires and other similar disasters are blamed on salamanders, to the point that those guilty of arson will claim a salamander did the deed if questioned. By the same token, the fire that they gave to man is also a metaphorical one: the spark of inspiration, the fire of industry. It is this which House Gorav claims for itself, promising the very future itself in their Art.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Stormborn," House Gorav, pt. 2, 391 words

Taal granted Ludo a rare title of merit, making him Lord Engineer and eligible for a marriage into one of the Houses. Despite the embarrassment of the revolt, Gorav snatched him up in a trice with a first marriage to one of the matriarch’s second-born half-sisters. With the matriarch’s untimely death without issue some years later (which, despite various efforts to prove otherwise, could not be pinned upon Ludo nor his wife), Ludo was in a position to assume the head of the House. The promise of his expertise in warfare and siegecraft, and the favor in which Taal held him, appealed to enough of the House elders to assure him sufficient support for his claim, especially as Gorav had long been looked down upon as a House of common craftsmen. As Ludo’s star has risen, so has that of House Gorav.

Under Lord Engineer Ludo, House Gorav has made some sharp changes to how it operates. More commoners than ever have been brought into positions of power, based on merit more than birth. The starborn of Gorav still hold a privileged place, but in the fashion of spoiled children given amusements to silence their tantrums. True power in Gorav’s affairs belongs to those who earn it. Ludo’s changes have painted Gorav further with the black brush of “commonness,” but their efficacy cannot be doubted. Only stormborn are barred from holding a high post. Ludo knows that granting them any true power will bring the wrath of Taal down upon his head.

The Art of Craft grants its bearers the natural talent of a master craftsman. A starborn of Gorav is preternaturally capable with any act of creation they set their minds to, from pottery to smithing, from sewing to carpentry. Clay almost seems to shape itself in their hands, and the grain of the wood always seems to flow perfectly for whatever they make. A Gorav starborn can fold and forge a fine steel blade in a fraction of the time that another swordsmith might, and almost from the moment they can first lift the hammer and tongs. Through various marriages to the Emperor and others of House Methis, they hold all the contracts on supplying Imperial arms and armor, be it the ceremonial blade of a Grand Exarch, or the short blade and breastplate of an Imperial soldier.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Stormborn," House Gorav, pt. 1, 222 words

Ludo of Kir is an oddity amongst House leaders. He is not starborn – he is not even of the Gorav blood. He began his career as an engineer in the Empire’s siege corps, a military body used to trap annoying commoners and embarrassing young nobles in a dead end. The siege corps had been moribund for centuries, after the Empire had solidified its hold on the continent. As an overseas war of conquest was not and has not been in Taal’s interests, the siege corps became useless, maintained at a minimum standard of readiness. Even that standard declined over the centuries, until just thirty years ago, when a commoners’ revolt managed to capture a Gorav fortress that oversaw Ludo’s home city of Kir. Considering the fortress was of Gorav make, it was nearly impenetrable once taken. Ludo, the head of the last intact company in the siege corps, was tasked with cracking the fortress open – both because of his knowledge of the region and the fortress as a former Gorav factor, and because his superiors found him annoying enough to hope that he failed. Instead, he succeeded brilliantly by winning the trust of the rebellion’s leader and an old friend – the same woman in one – and sharply betraying that trust once he learned the weaknesses of her defenses.

"Stormborn," House Methis, pt. 2, 286 words

House Methis makes nothing, trades nothing, and sells nothing except power. The Emperor holds that the prosperity of the Empire this last millennium is based upon unprecedented continuity in governance, with no wars of succession and policy upheavals every century or so. Taal rules the Empire like he ruled his army, with a clear and direct chain of command that leaves no official in doubt as to exactly where he stands in relation to the Emperor – and that all are ultimately subordinate to the Emperor. All the most powerful officials in the Empire are either scions of House Methis, or have a Methis heir as first spouse. As well, every appointee to a position on the Imperial payroll must be approved personally by Taal or one of his many second spouses.

The Sign of Methis is the Naga, a snake with the torso, arms, and head of a man. Nagas were originally associated with a wide range of occult matters, including the practice of magic and numerology. The early serpent cults of pre-empire Ordal revered the Naga as the final reincarnation of an enlightened mortal, and so they were also associated with special knowledge of the spiritual and divine. The first Methis lords adopted a Naga motif for their favored arts and architecture. When the Art of Longevity emerged amongst the Methis, the association with enlightened mortality became conflated with the practical immortality of the greatest Methis, and so the Naga became a symbol of immortality through spiritual awakening, an image the House promoted. The Sign of the Sorcerer, which had once been called the Savant, assumed the Naga’s aspects relating to magic and occult lore, particularly when House Crowan developed the Art of Foresight.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Stormborn," House Methis, pt. 1, 431 words

In the Golden Empire of Ordal, House Methis has held the reigns of power for over a thousand years. Presiding over House and Empire, Taal is the master of all he surveys. To defy Taal is to defy the Empire. Yet despite that, the Emperor is but one man, and his House but one of many. Defiance of the Empire, even within Methis, is more common than one might suppose.

House Methis’s supremacy comes from its Art. The sign of the Naga is the sign of Longevity, and the greatest of the House are said to be immortal, falling only to wound and disease. Indeed, the Emperor is known to be more than 1500 years old, but looks like a man only just approaching middle age. He is the oldest member of his House, and history says that his ascendance came from a brutal House War against House Cadin in his youth. The elder starborn of Methis fought each other almost as much as they fought the Cadin forces, and were wiped out to a man in the course of the war, leaving Taal at the head of the House. His first act was to consolidate the forces of the fractious, now-deceased Methis leaders, and followed up by making a bloody example of any Cadin he could get his hands upon. Despite the supremacy of Cadin’s Art in war, Methis exacted a violent toll upon them under Taal’s generalship. When the Cadin finally acceded to Methis’s dominance, it was to be only the first of many Houses to fall.

The Art of Longevity gives its bearers the fullness of vision required to manage their extended lives. The most powerful Methis are therefore the most long-ranging planners, finding ways to fill lives so much greater than those of other men – even other starborn. Under Taal’s leadership, Methis embarked on a three century campaign to weaken and dominate each of the High Houses in turn. By the grace of their Art, House Santh was the last to fall, but in the least violent manner, leaving them favored in the eyes of Taal. With the last of the High Houses in line, the Minor Houses ceased all struggling and bowed before the new emperor. Taal has thus spent the last 1200 years amusing himself with the juggling exercise known as politics. Those who knew a time before his rule have been dead and gone for at least 1100 years, meaning he is a central fixture in the minds of his subjects, as constant and immutable as the rising and setting of the sun.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wirtwood Tree, 482 words

Young wirtwood trees are actually sapient, known once to the ancients as the "elders," repositories of knowledge about magic and the natural world. Modern peoples have lost this knowledge, however, due to the nature of the wirtwood's seeding. Mature trees, which takes upwards of a millennium to fully grow, do not reproduce through the normal methods of seeded fruit as is so common in other trees. Instead, the maturation and seeding of a wirtwood is a nearly apocalyptic event for those who live in the immediate region.

A wirtwood seeds only once in its life, during which it dies. The magic power bound up into the tree is released, destroying the tree in similar manner to burning, but releasing far more smoke than it should. What look like great, massive thunderclouds -- all perfectly black -- gather and sweep across the sky. Where the wirtwood's magical smoke blots out the sky, a black fog spreads across the land beneath, the seeds of the wirtwood saturating the earth.

Living creatures caught in a wirtwood's seeding fog are as good as dead from the first breath they take. The minds of people and animals alike are destroyed by breathing the fog, leaving insensate bodies that might as well be corpses but for the fact that they still breathe, their hearts still beat. In the worst cases, whole spans of a hundred miles around can be wiped out by a large wirtwood going to seed. It was some of these revered wirtwood "elders" which grew to maturation and annihilated the greatest cities and centers of power of the ancients, who had transplanted great wirtwoods around the known world so they might honor the trees and learn from them. The survivors of the ancients, when they learned what happened, destroyed all the younger wirtwoods they could find to prevent this from happening again, including their own village trees. In this manner did ancient society collapse and knowledge of the wirtwoods was lost. The trees themselves, however, did not go extinct. Each wirtwood has maybe four or five viable seeds in the storm of billions that it throws out, and so the trees have grown up again in the past millennium, with none knowing what disaster they harbor.

Rarely, so rare as to be as yet unknown, a single person may survive the seeding of a wirtwood tree. They do not come out of the experience unchanged -- whether through the influence of the seed-smoke or simply living through the horrors of such an event -- but they retain a functioning mind. Such a person is marked specially by the wirtwoods, though to what end nobody knows. Such purposes could be fair or foul, as nobody even knows whether the wirtwoods maliciously kept the secret of their seeding or are simply victims of their own need to reproduce and the horrible means by which it is done.