Thursday 17 March 2016

Bone Witches of the Cold Desert

Frozen corpse of a Bactrian camel, Gobi desert, Mongolia. Image from BBC Natural History.

Of all the regions through which the Great Road passes, this is perhaps the harshest. The desert burns by day and freezes by night: the dunes glitter with frost in the moonlight, and in winter the sand is covered with drifts of snow. The wind flings mingled sand and ice into the faces of travellers as they trudge across the desert, their garments crusted with frost; greenery is scarce, and horses and camels must forage on needle grass as best they can. The clans who inhabit the Cold Desert must combine all the hardihood of both the steppe and desert peoples, enduring heat and cold, hunger and thirst, jealously guarding knowledge of the scant and secret pastures upon which their livestock depend. The boldest of them ride fearsome Storm Worms into battle; and when the traders come they guide these great beasts up to the edges of the caravans, demanding bribes in exchange for keeping their monstrous mounts at a safe distance. Faced with these twenty-foot horrors, their bodies crackling with electricity, most caravans are happy to pass over a tribute of strong drink and warm clothing in order to keep the beasts at bay.

So life in the Cold Desert is possible, albeit demanding; but the land is constantly offering up proofs that it truly belongs to the dead. As the sands are blown back and forth by wind and storm, they expose the bones of great beasts jutting from the rocks, the remains of long-dead monsters from some previous age of the world; fossilised rib-cages a man could sleep in, vertebrae one could use as stepping-stones, gigantic reptilian heads, and limbs ending in murderous claws. An unseen presence broods over these ancient bones of stone: the spirits of the Cold Desert seem to take a special interest in the places where they lie, and indeed some speculate that the spirits of this desolate region are none other than the ghosts of the great beasts themselves, eternally watching over the wasteland which became their tomb. The Cold Desert tribes conduct all their most sacred rites under the gaze of these fossilised monsters, and revere them as the guardian spirits of the land.

Fossil skull excavated in the Gobi desert. (Source here.)

Given their ritual significance, it is held to be an act of extreme impiety to damage or desecrate these fossilised remains. Some greedy souls do so anyway, in order to sell them to passing caravans, as they command high prices among the scholars of far-off cities; but many experienced caravan-masters refuse to have anything to do with this trade in fossils, as more often than not the spirits of the land seem to object to it, heaping all manner of misfortunes upon those who dare to carry their bones away. Rarer and more dangerous are those individuals who seek the bones not for enrichment, but for personal power, seeking to claim the spiritual energies which lurk within them for themselves. Known as Bone Witches, these men and women practise a corrupt form of shamanism, using the fossils in their possession to compel the spirits which inhabit them to do their bidding. The Cold Desert tribes hate and fear Bone Witches, hunting them down and feeding them to the Storm Worms whenever they get a chance; but in the Wicked City the practise flourishes amongst those wealthy enough to afford the ancient fossils it requires, and a few Cobweb families have even financed their own expeditions into the depths of the Cold Desert in order to bring back as rich a haul of such skeletons as possible.

The Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert, famous for their fossils.
Most Bone Witches are taught their unholy craft by another Bone Witch, but if one is a shaman already then it is possible to teach oneself the basics given a decent supply of fossil bones to study over the course of (20 - your Wisdom score) months. From this point forwards, any fossilised bones of dinosaurs and megafauna you manage to retrieve from the Cold Desert (and maybe a few other places elsewhere in the world) may be tapped as sources of power. After spending 24 hours meditating on such a fossil (during which your spirit beats the spirit within it into submission), you may use it as if it was a magical item, as follows:

  • Fossilised bone wielded as club or staff: Counts as a +2 weapon.
  • Fossilised dinosaur tooth or claw wielded as dagger: Counts as a +3 weapon.
  • Fossilised bones glued to the sides of a bow or gun: Counts as a +1 weapon.
  • Fossilised bones used as thrown weapons: Grant +2 to-hit and inflict 1d8 base damage.
  • Fossilised bones stitched to fur or leather armour: Counts as +2 armour.
  • Fossilised bones glued to a shield like the spokes of a wheel: Counts as a +1 shield.
  • Fossilised tooth worn as an amulet: Grants +1 to all saves.
  • Fossilised skull worn as a helmet: Grants +3 to all saves.
  • Fossilised dinosaur egg bound to body and worn over heart: Grants +2 HP per level, which are lost immediately if the egg is removed. (This may prove fatal if you're already wounded.)
  • Almost-complete fossil skeleton: If a Bone Witch is lucky enough to be able to excavate a fossil skeleton with its skull, spine, and limbs all mostly intact, then after binding it to them in meditation they may animate it and force it to do their bidding. They must fuel this process with their own life-energy, however; animating a man-sized or smaller skeleton costs 1 HP per day, animating a horse-sized skeleton cost 1 HP per hour, animating an elephant-sized skeleton (e.g. a woolly mammoth) costs 1 HP per minute, and animating anything larger than this costs 1 HP per round. Skeletons thus animated may act as mounts, fighters, or beasts of burden, but cannot communicate in any way. The Bone Witch may cause them to de-animate at will. 

Only Bone Witches may benefit from these items: for anyone else, they are just so many useless chunks of fossilised bone. Wearing or wielding them around Cold Desert clansmen is a good way of getting yourself fed to the Storm Worms.

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