Wednesday 16 December 2015

More Central Asian weirdness: the Golden Lady and the Sea of Darkness

This is Yugra.

Painting by Fyodor Vasilyev, who deserves to be better known than he is.
Yugra extends in an enormous arc to the east of the Ural mountains. Almost no-one has heard of it, even though it's roughly the size of Germany and England put together. It is the ancestral home of the Khanty and Mansi peoples: hunters, shamans, keepers of the rites of the Bear and Crow. Almost no-one has ever heard of them, either. Today, they're mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians; but once, long ago, they worshipped a woman made of gold.

She probably looked nothing whatsoever like this.
Now, if you dig for any length of time into the 'history' and legend-lore which surround the Golden Woman of Yugra, you'll rapidly come across some pretty bizarre theories. That it was a Sumerian idol, carried to Yugra by the Mansi people, who were themselves secretly the descendants of the ancient Sumerians; that it was a Roman statue, looted during the fall of Rome and carried all the way off to the other side of the Ural Mountains; that it was an Indian image of a Hindu divinity; even that it was a robot built by aliens from outer space. The fact is that no-one has any idea what the damn thing was, and some scholars question whether it ever existed in the first place. But during the Early Modern period, the cult of the Golden Woman was pretty much the most famous thing about Yugra - that, and its proximity to the legendary Sea of Darkness, a land of eternal night held to exist somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. And if you're writing an RPG, a race of hunters worshipping a golden idol on the edge of a sea of darkness is just too damn good to miss.

So, in ATWC, there is a land far to the north-west of the Wicked City; a land of forests and mountains, home to a hardy race of hunters and trappers. When outsiders refer to them at all, which is seldom, they just call them 'those guys who live in that forest over there', but they call themselves the Children of the Golden Lady. Like all the taiga peoples, they worship the spirits of the land and the forest, the spirits of the fish and the animals, the bears and the crows; but they revere the Golden Lady above all others. She is, after all, a rather more obvious and spectacular presence than the rest of their pantheon.

Posted Image
Khanty people, circa 1900. Photo by U.T. Sirelius.
They keep her in a hidden shrine, high in the most inaccessible region of the mountains. She stands almost ten feet tall, and for the most part she remains as motionless as any other statue; but sometimes she will turn and speak in response to a question, or even step down from her plinth to walk among the faithful. Her movements are accompanied by the clicking of clockwork gears, but what's powering the clockwork is anyone's guess; there's no way to wind it up, no furnace into which fuel could be thrown, and yet she's remained active for longer than anyone can remember and shows no signs of running down. The craftsmanship of her golden body is phenomenal, and if stolen she could be sold for some quite staggering sum: but given that she weighs several tons, is hidden in a secret shrine-complex which is never revealed to outsiders, and is guarded by a whole retinue of devoted worshippers, it's not exactly surprising that no-one's ever managed to carry her off. Besides, she's quite capable of defending herself, and those golden fists are very heavy.

The Golden Lady performs four main services for her worshippers.

  • Firstly, she serves them as an oracle: most questions that they put to her are met with silence (although her attendants are adept at reading rather fanciful meanings into the slightest twitch of her golden fingers), but from time to time she will deliver an answer, in a melodious voice like the chiming of bells. Sometimes her answers are clear and practical; sometimes they are cryptic and obscure. They are sometimes unclear, but they are never simply wrong.
  • Secondly, she blesses their children. When a woman in the early stages of pregnancy comes before her, she sometimes (about 10% of the time) reaches out and places one golden hand upon the woman's stomach; the resulting child is always healthy, always female, and always has a slight golden tint to her skin. These 'golden women' make up about 5% of the local population, and are held in high esteem. Their gift does not seem to be heritable, however, and when they become pregnant in turn they are no more likely than anyone else to receive her blessing.
  • Thirdly, she defends the shrine. (Attacking it is the one certain way to cause her to animate.) The Children of the Golden Lady love and revere their goddess, and would never place her in unnecessary danger; but when raiders or monsters threaten, they are not above luring them into the shrine so that she can beat them to death with her massive golden fists. They always apologise to her afterwards.
  • Fourthly, and most importantly, she holds back the Sea of Darkness.
The Sea of Darkness lies to the north of the land of the Children. It has no clear border; one simply stumbles deeper and deeper into the taiga, with the light fading and failing more and more, until finally one finds oneself surrounded by impenetrable darkness that never lifts. It stretches, at minimum, for several hundred miles. Things live inside it: horrible, shuffling things that no-one has ever seen. People who go in don't usually come out again.

From time to time - once or twice in a decade, perhaps - the darkness rises like a tide, threatening the land of the Children. Days become gloomier; the sun grows dim, and late afternoon becomes as dark as midnight. Horrible shuffling sounds are heard out in the woods at night - nights which are now lightless, black as pitch, for the light of the moon and stars is far too weak to penetrate the darkness of the Sea. At such times, the people beseech the Lady for aid; sometimes they pray for days before she seems to hear them, and sometimes for weeks, but sooner or later she always responds. She walks to the entrance of the shrine, and speaks a series of words in some strange, musical language; and, over the next few days, the Sea of Darkness goes rolling back to its proper boundaries. The Children are convinced that, were it not for the Golden Lady, their lands would have been swallowed by the Sea of Darkness centuries ago. 

In the Cities of the Great Road, scholars who have heard of the Golden Lady usually conclude that she must be some kind of mechanical marvel left over from an earlier age; they speculate that she may, in fact, have been built specifically to hold back the Sea of Darkness, and that the the land now inhabited by the Children may have once been part of the Sea itself, artificially reclaimed by the presence of the Golden Lady much as one might use dykes and levees to reclaim land from the edges of a lake. Others theorise that it is the Sea of Darkness which is truly artificial: that the veil of night which hangs over it is being generated by some ancient magical relic at its heart, and that the Lady may have been constructed as a counter-measure, perhaps by a rival wizard-king. Some Steel Aspirants suspect that she might have been built by the Cogwheel Sage herself; a few of the crazier ones even think that she is the Cogwheel Sage, although to date all their efforts to reclaim 'their' goddess from the Children have ended in ignominious failure. 

PCs could encounter the Golden Lady in several different ways. They could come to her shrine hoping for an oracle, perhaps seeking her advice on how best to combat the Wicked King. They could get mixed up in some loopy Steel Aspirant plan to steal her or study her; they could need her aid to roll back the Sea of Darkness in order to make something inside it accessible to them; or they could chase some enemy of theirs right the way back across the taiga, only to discover that the mountaintop shrine he's holed up in has a very surprising defense mechanism. If they actually destroy her, then the Children will probably be forced to migrate to a new homeland, as theirs will become gradually uninhabitable due to submersion in the Sea of Darkness. Then again, maybe a sufficiently skilled clockworker might be able to put her back together again...

  • The Golden Lady: AC 20 (metal skin), 8 HD, AB +8, 2 giant metal fists (2d6 damage each), FORT 6, REF 7, WILL 6, morale 12. Immune to poison, disease, and anything else that only affects creatures of flesh and blood. Self-repair mechanisms restore 1 HP per hour. May have other abilities at GMs option.

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