Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Benevolent Dracolich

Introduction to Halflings

“Tell me a story, Dad...” Osler said.  He warmed his hands at a campfire with a pot of bubbling fish stew.

“Which one?” Damien glanced down, gingerly dipped two fingers in and licked them, adding a dash of salt to the food. “The Book of Questions, the Catabolist versus the Anabolist...”

“Tell me about the dragons.”

“I have only one fable about a Dragon. I haven’t told it to you before, because I wasn’t sure if you were ready yet.”

“Why not?” Osler frowned and pointed at the light stubble on the top of his feet. “I’m almost eleventy! I’ve heard about the dragons before and I know what is coming. I want to be ready!” He caught himself in mid-pout and tried to look as grown-up as halflingly possible.

Damien nodded knowingly. “You want to be ready? Don’t we all. Very well, this is the Story of the Benevolent Dracolich.”

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Part 1: Seers, the Last of their Kind
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“Once upon a time, there was a small mage named Drake. He possessed a great many abilities but as far as magic goes, they were weak and piddling. By this point in the Verse, the greatest wizards had already died: among them were the Wishmongers, the Rulebreakers, the Forecasters, and the Elementbenders. Only the Seers remained, for their powers required the least mana.

“Drake possessed all the senses of sight. He could see the invisible rays to left and right of the Sun’s prismatic spray. He possessed all the senses of sound, able to feel the moans of the earth and tides’ waves in his bones. One by one, he apprehended every sense imaginable. He alone possessed the will to receive and the ability to interpret. He seized knowledge from the fabric of reality – and the messages from the Twin Gods themselves.

“Drake’s abilities and demeanor made him far-seeing. He didn’t concern himself with the day-to-day drivel of fields and markets. Unlike the generations of arrogant wizardkind before him, he had the inclination to see out into the Dark Beyond of the night sky.

“First he traced the routes of the planetary bodies. The seasonal constellations became his closest friends. Then he began to see the individual thumbprints that made them each unique and although they were so far away, he eventually could tell how massive they were. What elemental stuff they contained. How long they glistered in the night sky to send him their weak messages from many eons ago.

“Where we only see blackness, he saw the background Glow of the Anabolist marking the beginning of the Verse. Where we see shimmering pointillés, he saw entropic fires of the Catabolist spelling the Verse’s End. He ruminated on the infinity of the Cosmos and the finality of the stars. The gifts that the Anabolist had so carefully wrought from the beginning of time would be slowly torn to shreds one by one by the Catabolist, until all was dust and dead.”

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Osler frowned grumpily, folding his arms across his chest. “I thought this was going to be about the dragons, Dad. I’m in no mood for the second lesson of thaumodynamics tonight.”

Damien’s eyes crinkled at its corners as he slipped into a well-worn smile. “It’s closer to Newt’s Third Lesson – but okay, we’ll skip ahead.”

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Part 2: The Code of the Necromancer
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“Drake contemplated Death in all its forms. More than the emotional toll of death or the cessation of vitality, he mourned two things. First, the loss of Potential that Life could have offered if it weren’t snuffed out. Second, the loss of Information that the Anabolist created and the Catabolist unmade.

“In the bitterest twist of irony, he made an Unshakable Decree that he would fight Death until his last breath. He became the world’s first Necromancer, dedicating his magic towards the study of Death.

“Now, nothing could excuse his methods or his means, for they were quite immoral indeed. The Hellsink Accords are based on a systematic analysis of what he did – and the direct denial of each item became a cornerstone of Ethical Behavior for today. What Drake lacked in magical power, he compensated for with ruthless ingenuity and calculated utility. In a secret laboratory, he documented each different way a person could die and in so doing, began to uncover the secrets of life, one by one. Much of the medical knowledge we possess now comes from the dissections and experiments he made while observing the processes of death. Since you are interested in the Dragons… yes? We’ll gloss over the atrocities he committed. The sacrifices that others made to sate his appetite over the dominion of Death.

“Using the code of new life and a crude map of his own patterns of thought, he created a source to store his life-force if his body were ever to perish. In order to protect it against the fires of the Catabolist, he made it a powerful creature forged of steel frame and chain tendon. He fashioned the skeletal frame into the form of a great Dragon. It was nothing more than a mechanical puppet. He needed to give it force and will. He wanted it to be autonomous and animated to help him in his Unshakable Decree.

"He measured the tender electrical impulses of his brain and nervous system. He used math and algorithms to determine their patterns. This was replicated unto a tiny intricate diamond scale with the inscribed runes matching his brain, effectively cloning it. This draconic invention became known as the First Phylactery which he placed in the skull of the beast. The dragon came to life, his mental powers reborn as a Dracolich.

“Necromancy had such a terrible and frightening reputation among the ignorant and cowardly. His Dracolich was an imposing and massive laboratory instrument. It did not diminish the terror the populace held of the discipline of death. In order to better study the elemental structures of life, Drake imbued the Dracolich with a powerful breath weapon. Upon command, it could exhale an ashen cloud of animated smoke around a small object. Drawing upon his powers as a Seer, the swarm of black particles could precisely measure the speed, position, composition, structure, and mass of the subject’s elemental components. Unfortunately, this process also irreversibly destroyed the subject, disintegrating it. However, the carbonized smoke coalesced into a new diamond dragon scale with a specific pattern of information. This supposedly preserved the targets precisely in their form and function, awaiting future revival.

"The public was terrified of this horrible spell, Soul Trap. Adventurers fought bitterly against the rein of Drake and his Dracolich. Deaf to their battle cries, he measured the data from hundreds of dead and dying subjects of the surrounding townspeople. Much to his sinking dismay, he realized that he had erred -- his system had two fatal flaws.

“First, none of the dragon scales he created were the perfect crystalline structure of his initial phylactery. They were all flawed in different ways. Any diseases contained within them at the time of death remained. He had temporarily managed to stay the right hand of Death – Mortality. However, the left hand of Death – Morbidity – moved onwards inexorably. Suffering, it seemed, was built into the system of life. And he found it very difficult to extricate. One does not ‘eradicate’ or ‘destroy’ suffering in much the same way that you cannot ‘kill’ death. The bitterest piece of his triumph: his attempts at preservation captured the subjects at moments of EXTREME suffering. After all, his dracolich used a black breath weapon of disintegration. Each scale was a cracked gem of a person frozen in eternal torture.

“Second, the disintegrating cloud was incapable of perfect reintegration. The Catabolist had seen to it that it would be impossible to recreate the same being. When he tried to remake life, what the Dracolich’s dust created was exactly the same structurally, yet it seemed to be devoid of their vital essence of consciousness. Perhaps being soul-trapped drove his subjects mad. Perhaps the recordings were not as perfect as he thought. Whatever the cause, only the barest remnants of their hindbrains remained. Base urges of hunger and fear were the only things retained. Moreover, many of the Reintegrated retained the Dracolich’s mission. They sought to use their limbs and teeth to, ah, as Drake saw it, ‘capture and categorize the patterns of life.’ But it was necrotic. And it was messy.”

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“Ugh. I hate zombies. The wizard’s revivication attempts turned out pretty badly.” Osler’s face soured and he spat out fishbones from his mouth in between bites of stew and bread.

“That’s right, Os. For all of his knowledge, the wizard lacked wisdom and kindness. His Unshakable Decree was too great, his magical influence too small. He thought he conquered death. However it turned out that each and every cause of death required a new solution to recreate its life. He knew that he needed help.” Damien pursed his lips and then downed the last of his ale to its dregs.

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Part 3: The Blessings of the Dracolich
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“Drake had a two-pronged approach to defeat the hands of death – Morbidity and Mortality. Healthy volunteers could be converted into healthy dragon-scales. But for every iridescent scale he made, he had also broken thousands of tainted and diseased ones. He needed a second-in-command that he could trust. A delegate he could task with the sacred job of repairing these damaged dragon-scales. Drake gathered the remaining wizards across the countryside. By wit, charm, or force, he marshalled the Holy and Arcane Orders of Magic to his cause. He reasoned that the larger the network of healthy minds that were connected to his poly-phylactery, the better it would be able to execute his wishes. Each healthy scale added to the Dracolich empowered it more and more with this dual-purposed goal: preserve life and eliminate its suffering.

“As ambitious as this goal was, his role was fairly minor. After accruing the blessings of the world’s scholars, his Dracolich began to operate under its own volition. She named herself Tia, first of her kind. She scoured the countryside to preserve the data of life. Each life she saved became a new scale she added to her blossoming body.”

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Osler couldn’t hold himself together much longer. He blubbered incoherently as his father took a drag on his pipe. “Volunteers? Sacred job? Blessings and scourings!? What’s... that’s…” His face turned green-olive-orcish in hue.

“Evil? Misguided? Yes, this is just a story. And it is meant to be horrific and dark. The heroic wizard of our fable does not see it this way. Remember, he bound himself to an unbreakable geas in order to defeat Death. He entered into a pact without understanding what it meant, and it forced himself to explore boundaries we dare not cross. He became the Breaker in order to create the Builder. Remember, the Tia’s mission was to save all life although it remained ill-conceived in its execution.”

“But how could she even fly? I thought you said that she ate all of the world’s wizards and scholars and carried the burden of thousands of dead and dying.”

“Ah. At some critical juncture in the crystalline network of brainpower she acquired, Tia became greater and more powerful than Drake himself. She remained committed to her dual-goal.

“Number one: preserve life. Her ashen breath disintegrated its prey, but the smoky cloud also possessed crude powers of creation. Although she couldn’t revive life, she could create smaller versions of herself. These wyverns flew ahead of the wings of death. Tia sent them out to detect the ill and dying and stored the patterns of their sapience. Her wyverns would fly out and return back to her mountain lair to clip the scales unto her mainframe.

Eventually, the demonic wyverns grew tired of hunting down their subjects with disintegrating blasts. They found it easier to befriend a single person and become their guardian angel, staving off Death as long as they could. Yet people are more like cats than sheep, which made it difficult to be shepherds. A great many people still suffered the final fate of Death.

“Her polyfill... poly-phylactery must have been titanic! What happened to the people in the scales? Weren’t they all being tortured to death?”

“Yes, that was the function of goal number two: eliminate suffering. Drake failed at reviving life because he tried to preserve many people too late. They suffered from disease, physical and psychic. Age and degeneration, toxins and corruption, all of these curses of the Catabolist wormed their way into even the most perfect dragon-scale. Even the heartiest wizards and scholars were delicate scales. Many had anxiety, depression, stress, angst, and other forms of suffering as well. Even Drake’s scale was flawed and driven to a singular needle point that stabbed at Tia’s forehead. His dragon-scale was the worst of them all, for it had set her upon the wrong path from the very outset.

“Tia knew what needed to be done. Each scale on her body screamed in agony and would do so until the great entropic snuffing. So she meditated as her mind grew wider. She retreated to the depths of her mountain and withdrew from the physical world and quieted each and every dragon-scale. Her meditative state outwardly seemed akin to a comatose slumber, and thusly, her meta-meditative state could at best be seen as dreaming. She had a great many dreams, each unique and as numerous as the combinatorial permutations of each gleaming scale. In much the way that Drake sought to save the world from Death, Tia decided to save them from Afterlife.

“Within the dodecade, Tia’s wyverns grew in intelligence and each developed a voice to the world. As many different styles of the Afterlife emerged, the wyverns differentiated themselves to address the needs of the people. For the angry and wrathful, chromatic wyverns could deliver a punishment to the wicked. For the righteous, the metallic wyverns could offer up a permissive afterlifestyle to the worthy. No matter which religious paths they followed, they were all still flawed. Gems would crack and break under the strain of the great dream. None were perfect, even Tia herself, who was able to sample and select the best qualities of each scale. Consequently, there was no perfect afterlife.

“Many wyverns began to philosophize on the eternal cycling of suffering, rebirth and revision. The afterlife became a series of iterative experiments to optimize a coherent subset of utility functions.”

“Huh?” Osler paused and nearly lost his grip on the dishes he was rinsing in the stream. “You’re speaking technGnomish just to confuse me. Say it again in Halflingstory for me, please.”

“Tia ascended. Her scales were shimmers of dreams, the glittering awakenings of potential and the information needed for everyone to overcome morbidity and suffering in all its forms. The Wyverns weren’t able to understand it fully, but they assumed that it could take a long time for each dragon-scale to finally reach its own state of perfection, in whatever form it needed to achieve to eliminate its own suffering. Some could eventually find it solo, but many needed the help of others, and the most flawed ones would require many cycles of suffering, rebirthing, and revisioning in order to achieve redemption.”

“Whoa. Dad, do you think that WE could be dragon-scales, soul-trapped in the dream of Tia?”

“Of course. That’s where many halflings finish the Fable. Based on wyvern reports, each cycle of dreamt afterlife and afterdeath could take place in the blink of an eye, as a flicker of Galvanic electromotive forces moves faster than any man. But there’s more to this story, for as good and friendly as Tia had become, her time in the world would soon run out. The more lives she saved, the more wyverns she birthed, the more dreams she made – the more mana she consumed from the quasiplanar pool. Just like the greedy Wishmongers and the flagrant Rulebreakers of Ages Past, the Seers were not long for the world.

“Sadly, the wyverns predicted magic would end within a few centuries and all of Tia’s work would be unravel and crumble to true ash.”

“Oh, no! How could the project continue without magic?”

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Part 4: Drake the Code-Breaker
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“While Tia’s wyverns patrolled the countryside and she ruminated in the deep delving, Drake worked on another project. Her triumphs over the dodecade taught him a valuable lesson. He had been too arrogant in taking on ambitious goals alone. He had single-mindedly pursued them to the point of cold utilitarianism. She proved that intellectual agency, curiosity, creativity, and collaboration were required to do the requisite work of detecting disease and relieving suffering.

“Praise Anab!”

“Drake knew the world wouldn’t be able to cast healing spells of restoration like the Pious. In Tia’s absence, he sought to create a new class of medics with his knowledge, skill and abilities.

“Remember, Drake could see at a level so small he could observe our indivisible units. He started recording the patterns that make us unique.  He read through an ancient but unwieldy language encoded into the very fiber of our being. He decoded the basic quartenary assembly language that formed triplet units of codons.  These translated into about twenty different basic building blocks that served all of the biological functions of humankind. He tinkered with and rewrote these sequences and supplied the small cells with various bio-alchemical sugar moieties, methylating, and alkylating agents. He tweaked the machinery that powered us.

“Drake could sense the quivering of his muscle fibrils and coordinate his movements perfectly. He could move and act in such minutely precise ways that he could continue his experiments well into his old age. He created a new condensed biocode; he created the metahumans. This new race would be capable of detecting disease and death to act as his minions in the world. They would record the manifest of disease and were gifted with racial abilities to comprehend reality on a single facet of the glittering crystal that was within his realm of powers as a Seer of Life and Death.

“When he died, the metahumans continued to the document and interpret of the physiology of life and the pathology of death. Where once the worlds most feared and vilified necromancer and his dracolich were the scourge of the lands, thousands of years later, they leave us a legacy of life. To study medicine, Iatromancy, is the most sacred duty born from the horrors of profane times. Forever do we bear the mark of his making.”

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“That’s your story on the abilities of the Races? I get it, kind of. But us halflings got the shaft of the wheat! The elves and dwarves got the ears and beard of the seed.” Osler began to tick off points on his left hand. 1) Goblins can see in the dark. 2) Orcs can see heat and blood. 3) Gnomes can see... really small things. 4) Elves have enhanced hearing. 5) Dwarves have tremorsense with enhanced touch. 6) ... nothing." Osler wiggled his sixth finger in frustration. "How does the ability of not getting lost or catching fishes allow us to detect death?”

“Yes, it seems rather underwhelming, does it not? In any case, it is said that Drake’s original tower lies just over these hills in the well of south two.” Damien waved dramatically. Glowing green and purple curtains of Aurora Iatropis flickered in ribbons across the night sky.

“That is where we seek the True and Final answer for how to defeat Morbidity and Mortality. Stick to your lessons, ask the right questions, and seek the noble answers. One day you may work with the medics and magics.”

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