Only the Desperate or Insane
Only the Desperate or Insane
by CA Jarrett
Harsh breathing stifled his ears, wheezing along with the pounding of his heart. Sweat streamed from him in rivulets as he ran, the sun overhead exacerbating the perspiration stimulated by terror. He was close, too close to the border, but he had no choice, the smiteserpents were close behind, and if he didn’t want to die or spend his life in some Six only knew torture, running was his only option. Behind him, the hissing orders of the spyserpent in command slid through the trees like a miasma all its own, although the supporting war party was silent.
Stumbling over a tree root, he sobbed out a curse and struggled onward, he having lived a sedentary life up until now, using his Gift to subtly manipulate the weights and balances of his grain business. He was not in optimal condition for such exertions. How the Heirophar’s dogs had found him, he had no idea, but found him they had, and now he ran.
Towards the Stormtalons.
It was the only hope he could think of, to get close enough to where even those dogs feared to tread, the dreaded mists that wreathed all of Asmer. The tales flooded his mind as he floundered onward; the mist-twisted and who they used to be, the fog stealing people out of their very beds, the ravages of the things that dwelt within. To even approach meant death, madness, or worse, but such was the exigency he was driven to.
He became aware of cool, clammy air brushing his soaked skin, and the bright sun overhead had gone a muted, pale yellow. Staring wildly around, he saw nothing but shining white, enfolding him as gently and as quietly as a tomb. Over the hissing of his pursuer, he heard creaks, rumblings, and growls from the mists, seeming everywhere at once.
He froze, his bowels loosing themselves at the realization.
His intention had only been to run near the Stormtalons, but they had come to greet him. No one could predict how they moved, or when they would move, and he had miscalculated most dreadfully.
The damp air caressed his cheek, promises of poison to come.
With a shriek, he dashed back the way he had come, sobbing hysterically as sunlight burst over him, and he ran and ran and ran until a turned ankle flung him flat on his face.
“So here you are, cur.” The sibilants were pronounced. It was the spysnake. “Quite rude not to listen to my master’s offer.”
“I’ll serve, I’ll serve,” he cried, not righting himself, but instead turning from his prone position to grovel at the feet of the warrior that the spysnake perched upon. “Just take me from this place. I’ll do anything!”
“Most wise,” the serpent said smugly.
He was hauled to his feet, hands roughly bound with rope, and he was led off.
As he was herded, he could not stop the weeping gratitude tumbling from his lips at the saviors who had appeared to rescue him from the Stormtalons.
Welcome to the Stormtalons.
The setting’s namesake is the mists that inundate the entire world, and where they touch, paranoia and vigilance always follow.
Nothing is more feared in Asmer than the Stormtalons.
There are several reasons for this, and this article will touch on all of them. The entire point of the Stormtalons is to imbue the setting with an omnipresent sense of fear, even from those who don’t dwell near them. The Stormtalons are the boogeyman under the bed, the monster in the closet. Only this monster has actually dragged children away, screaming, to the darkness.
There are very real reasons people fear the mists, that are the factual foundation for tales and legends that feature them. They are not mere things of folklore and superstition, but events witnessed and researched, in all their ghastly glory. The Stormtalons are never romanticized, nor the stuff of daydreams and gentle wishes. They are brutal, savage, for all that they are seeming made of spun air and vapor. Those who wish to harness the power of the Stormtalons never go unscathed, and the hardiest among them suffer from some sort of insanity, no matter how functional they may seem.
The main reason the mists are feared is the basis for all good horror; they are the Unknown. Not the Six, not the ancient Dragons, not those versed in Stormtalons magic, not the elves or the Mist-Walkers, can ever hope to predict them. How they move, what they do to those who are unfortunate enough to be caught by them, what dwells within them, no one knows any answers to these. Are they intelligent, or directed by an intelligence of some sort? Are they some mindless, overwhelming force of nature? How did they come about and why do they persist? Is there some pattern that can be unlocked with the right ritual, study, prayer? Can they be reliably foiled, avoided, or perhaps even used?
No one knows.
Of course there are charlatans a-plenty, religious doctrine galore, and even those who study Stormtalons magicks, but all of them are unreliable at best and outright liars at worst. Banks of mist that have been quiescent for hundreds of years may suddenly roll forward vast distances, without warning, taking all in their path. Entire countries have vanished in the space of hours, their inhabitants never seen again. They may also move backwards, revealing intact cities, lush farmland, and other rewards.
A much more practical reason they are so feared is what dwells within them; the mist-twisted. Horrors born of flora and fauna caught and warped by their dank touch. Twisted can come in any form, from the grotesquely beautiful to the mind-bendingly horrific. Those who manage to retain some sense of self still suffer from a variety of insanities, and it is those who do the most damage on the outside as they attempt to return to some semblance of their normal lives.
No one sane ever hopes for the return of a loved one lost to the Stormtalons. It’s like hoping someone would rise from the grave as an undead. Even should someone miraculously remain untouched by the mists and evaded the twisted, when they return they will likely be driven off or killed outright by those they hold most dear. The ravages of the twisted are well documented, and have given rise to story and song that does little justice to how terrible they are. They carry the magic resistance of the Stormtalons with them, making magic weapons and combat magic largely useless against them, both arcane and divine. Unlike the unknown of the Stormtalons themselves, the slaughter that accompanies the twisted is notoriously and indelibly branded into the consciousness of Asmer. Death is often release from their destructive insanity.
Even worse, some of the twisted have managed to breed, creating actual species from their altered genes. These species are never docile, cuddly, or able to be domesticated. Some are indistinguishable from a natural species, some defy the laws of nature. But all twisted species will share the same traits; a hatred for those not like them and a preference to live inside the Stormtalons, although they may range freely outside them to forage for food or because they sensed something close to the border. Or for no reason at all. Their motivations are as steeped in mystery as everything else associated with the mists.
And then there are the mutations themselves. Despite the tales, the odds of the Stormtalons warping someone are actually quite low, but naturally it also increases the longer one is exposed. No one is immune, and there is no cure. Once touched, always touched, although it is some small grace that it can only happen once. Plants, animals, and people, all are equally susceptible to the possible twisting. There are no native-born to the Stormtalons. All the monsters in the mists were once natural creatures. It is theorized that their life-spans are greatly extended for there to be this many, but no one knows for certain. All anyone knows for certain is if one is forced to enter the Stormtalons, there is the chance that they may end up as one of those who will dwell within, with nothing of who or what they once were remaining.
The mutations aren’t just physical and mental, they can also imbue strange powers that cannot be negated or absorbed by anti-magic items and abilities. These abilities can range from something as minor as being able to see in the dark to as shattering as an aura that melts flesh from bone. Just another reason that the Stormtalons and its denizens are the single most feared things in the entire world of Asmer. This has led to many beliefs surrounding the twisted; that their final form is the true nature of their being, that their souls are lost forever to the Cycle of All, that those lost are taken to build the army of some god or Dragon that will march at the end of the world. From fireside tales spun to raise gooseflesh on the arms of listeners, to foundational dogma of certain religions, those lost to the Stormtalons feature just as highly as the Stormtalons themselves in fearful Asmerian legend.
Those fears have fueled excessive lengths to control, combat, and try to understand the Stormtalons. Rheligor has its mysterious Blood Temples, where it is rumored that elves, twisted, and magic-users are sacrificed to try and force the Stormtalons back, increasing the land that Rheligor covers, and the hold of the Most High who rule there. Certain cults of Tlalore believe the goddess rules the chaos of the mists, and often slaughters the innocent on consecrated altars to curry her favor in keeping them back or to flood the holdings of their enemies. Rumors about the Heirophar’s studies of the Stormtalons are nearly as numerous as the ones about the mists themselves, with wild tales about laboratories that capture unfortunate souls, tie ropes around their waists, and toss them into the mists to see what will happen. Those who survive, or are even twisted, are subjected to experimentation and tests. The ancient Princes of Nai, an elven nation demolished by other elves, was infamous for its cruel research. It is said that they were destroyed because they meddled far too much with the uncontrollable and unknowable, and that invited disaster for all.
Life in Asmer continues on much as it does in other fantasy worlds, but with that constant knowledge that it could all be gone in a moment depending on the whims of the Stormtalons. It is an ever-present awareness, even if it’s simply in one’s subconscious that they are always there, always waiting. Like the sea, they can wreak untold havoc or grant great bounties. Unlike the sea, their merest touch could mean death or worse, there is no method of safe or reliable travel, and none of their denizens can be harvested or used for any domestic purpose.
There is a very real reason the entire setting is named after these nefarious fogs, and if one dares to step foot there, it is best to remember the reasons why.