The Tree of Bone
High above the lands of the living, where frost and howling of the wind reign, the morbid monument to a faith long dead calls the deceased on a last pilgrimage.
Forever be blessed the divine emperor of Valersund, who brings the gifts of justice and peace. He is our benevolent father, sire to one and all. From his voice, we learn wisdom and the secrets of the world; in his shadow, we find shelter; in his arms, comfort.
- First verse of the Truth-Song, imperial Valersund, approx. 1300 before Crown Time.
We are divided about what cataclysm brought the free cities of Valersund to their knees - but the strata from that time are abundant with Mindorite, the coalesced fallout from an eldritch disaster. Their thickness hints at a great upheaval, and indeed, following that time, little of the culture of Valersund can be found. It is as if with a sweep, the republics of the Valerian subcontinent were gone, and with them, six hundred years of uninterrupted cultural development.
What replaced them was the realm of the Eternal Emperor, who luckily proved not to be entirely eternal after all. Though the newly-fledged Empire of Valersund was similar in name, the parallels end there. It followed a wholly different philosophy of government - complete centralization and authoritarian reign by the sovereign and his favourites as opposed to the previous meritocracies; the arts, the technological base, the aesthetics and social structure have nothing in common with the preceding realm.
Apparently, the Emperor and the ruling elite surrounding him were exceedingly powerful arcanists, as can be judged from the artifacts left behind by the empire, as well as the historical reports of battles fought by the opponents of the realm - apparently, the imperial armies consisted solely of supernatural beasts and arcane automata, only overseen by humans.
Most prominent are the mentions of the Emperor himself - apparently, whenever he took to the field of battle, his host scattered its foes within the day.
Understandably, with his demise, a realm based solely upon his judgment and personal prowess had little to hold it up, and collapsed, picked apart by its foes within one generation.
- Antonius valSarna, history lecture
He had taken us all as wives, for we needed no other man than him, and he could comfort us all, a whole people. The men, they served as guardians, changed by his magic to better suit that task. We cared not, for what was mortal love compared to passion divine?
All we learned, we learned from him; the designs for all wonders we crafted were from his mind. In his embrace, we knew not age nor disease. His touch awakened our sorcery, and led by his example, we sought to improve being itself.
We deemed the strangers lunatics at first, for how else would they be able to speak such heresy against our divine ruler, our father, our keeper?
Then, they came allied with great scaled beasts descending from the skies, and though the emperor smote their numbers down to a handful, they felled him atop the Ivory Hold, and his blood blossomed red over its snow-white floors.
The god-slayers told us to rejoice, to celebrate our freedom, but we, the widows of the god-made-flesh only wept, and so they left us to our grief.
The next day, the enemies of the divine order were knocking at our gates.
We feared that he was forever taken from us, yet the spirit of our keeper came to us one and all in our dreams, and promised reunion if not in life, then in death.
As the blood-stained sun rose, his dead majesty ascended to the Breathless Heights, to the temple where he saw the light of day the first time. There, he will welcome his daughters once their worldly ordeal is over, to revel in his presence and divine light forevermore.
Book of Lamentations, imperial Valersund, approx. 800 before Crown Time.
I had traveled to the lands of Valeria to catalog the customs of its dwellers and compare them to those in their place of origin. How do the Aberlii differ from their cousins across the sea since they chose to cross three hundred leagues of tempestuous sea to conquer the lowlands of western Valersund following the collapse of its theocratic empire? How far has the culture of New Ebernesse changed since the time its archmages declared independence and closed the gates to the homeland?
A patchwork of nationalities from all over the world is the bountiful realm, with unique cultures flourishing upon the ruins of old, yet what remains unclaimed by the newcomers are the sky-tearing peaks of the Emperor's Tombstone mountain ridge. The descendants of fallen imperial Valersund dwell in their shadow, hiding in steep valleys in their midst and clinging to glory long past.
In fact, Valerian blood flows in many a settler of the lowlands - the conquerors took the empire's daughters as their wives, for it is in the nature of most armies to be predominantly male and hungry for the company of wenches. None but the highland recluses can claim pure Valerian heritage, though - and they are a strange lot, with their females fey and of ethereal beauty, and males misshapen and displaying their thin and inbred blood in full.
Laden with grudges and fearful are the mountain dwellers, parsimonious with words, and throwing hateful glances at any foreigner, even a harmless scholar as myself. If I had not the trustworthy Dietrich at my side, with his intimidating swords, they'd have dragged me off into the night for sure, never to be seen again.
So, we donned the strange dwarven contraptions filled with captive air spirits and ascended the wind-swept winding paths up to the aeries of old Valersund.
What a strange place it is, with chilling wind that freezes the flesh, yet cannot be breathed; with half-formed palaces that were never inhabited emerging from the rocks as if conjured by a feverishly dreaming mind! Women's faces adorn the walls, each different yet all misshapen in the same way - did the artist suffer from some peculiar disorder of vision or a malady of the mind?
The central peak ends in a mesa, a plateau elevated above the world of the living, its sides seared by a conflagration long past. In the splintered glass, countless paths have been walked; the intact stones likewise show polished paths carved into them by tireless feet.
Soon enough, the perpetrators of the mysterious erosion made their presence known: a procession of the unquiet dead clambered over the plateau's edge, and, unfazed, proceeded past us following the same course countless others must have before, to the mountain's center. Strangely, they were devoid of the usual hunger and hatred for the living, blindly focused on their eerie calling.
We stepped on the path and followed the morbid pilgrimage.
Simon Calardis, travel diary
Yeah, I left him there - there was little I could do to haul his broken corpse here, especially after it joined the... thing.
Here's his diary, along with all his drawings - but the real point of the hassle, he could not draw nor write about, due to being dead and all that.
You see, the dead do have a goal in Valersund, a promised land. In the middle of the table hill, the stone is shattered and plates a mile across rise like the petals of a colossal ice-glazed flower to the skies... did you know the heavens are almost black at the pinnacle of Valersund? Slowly, the blue fades as you ascend, and the stars gaze down upon you, radiating piercing white light that stings in the eyes...
The dead marched towards the center of that granite blossom, and from all directions, other corpses shambled, weather-worn and mangled from the rough voyage, yet relentless.
Soon, their goal became apparent: from the bleak surface of the mountain's top, a tree grew, towering over the crater at whose center it stood. White and black, it was devoid of any sign of life, yet its impossibly long branches swayed in the cutting wind. It twisted in its entirety, and the thin air carried to us its moans and whispers, so different from honest wood. Then, I realized that I had heard its insane song for our entire voyage.
Simon was enchanted, though, and urged me on; he pushed the dead aside to approach faster. We came closer, and the truth became apparent... the dead vanished upon arriving at the tree's foot, for they merged with its form, and became a part of its bulk. All of its surface was made of corpses, half molten and fused with each other - writhing, but not in pain, but some strange feeling beyond extacy; calling, in a cacophony yet unison; forever damned, yet reveling in their perdition. Many of them were just skin stretched over bone, yet they still rattled with that alien harmony.
And there were caves and orifices in the tree, and strange beasts dwelled within, unnatural yet reminiscent of men in the faintest sense, and they muttered and stared out of the dark with glittering eyes.
Then, the tree turned, and I beheld what had to be its heart. Do not ask me to describe it, for I lack the words, nor draw it, for it was somehow superimposed on the world's canvas, unable to be replicated in color and shape. What I could perceive with a mortal's senses was of unapproachable beauty and utter wrongness, smooth curves of pure existence studded with aberrant organs and nodes of energy, interwoven with the colossal mass of the deceased.
I knew it was dead, do not ask me how. But things like it cannot fade from existence fully, for they knew no birth, and will know no beyond.
It was the origin of the dominant tune in the omnipresent maddening calling that reverberated through the very bedrock of the mountains, and the focus of the collective dream of the dead. I felt their souls, they had not passed on; instead, they fluttered like leaves on the necrotic branches of their congealed corpse, a choir and audience to their dead god.
The foolish bookworm approached even closer, and faced the fallen god-thing. It awakened, and focused its attention upon him; me, it ignored. "Come closer, my child, I have a special fate for you" it called leaving no space for dissent, and we stood frozen. Its bent minions spewed forth, and carried him towards an orifice in the dead deity's flesh.
As he approached the dark dripping opening, his form began to change, and ephemeral tendrils shot forth from the black to claim him. I caught but a glimpse of his nascent form, yet felt lust and blasphemy well in my heart, and feral thoughts cloud my reason.
Do not judge me for not coming to his aid; all I could was take his travel bag and my testimony, and bring them to you.
Yes, I will take the coin you offer, but pray tell: is there a monastery nearby that can use a man of strong arm, yet does not ask about the past? The sanest thing I can do now is become a monk...
- Gerard Holgers, testimony; penned by scribe Eulalius of Elden.
Do you hear me, sister? You are of his blood, of his brood. You will hear us, hear him, and be rejoined with him once free of the mortal coil.
You will dream of him and know his thousand names, and forever more know where his spirit resides.
Your blood and soul are of the stars, and with the descended star, they will rejoin...
- a strange dream...
Once, the Divine Emperor quite literarily claimed all the empire's women as his wives, and his blood flows in all of Valerian descent.
As the conquerors took the suddenly defenseless women of Valersund as slaves and concubines, far from uncommon is the man who can trace his lineage to the old blood.
Dead, the souls of the Emperor's descendants will not depart, but take their failed flesh onto a last pilgrimage to the Breathless Heights, to dwell in the embrace of the dead god forevermore. To what end this happens, we can but guess: does he need to collect their souls to ascend again once more? Does he collect them to spite the true gods? Or is it to stake off loneliness in death eternal?
The tree grows slowly, but incessantly, with each corpse added.
*A new faith: the missionaries of the Lady of Light have been quite successful in Valersund - but not even they can keep the corpses of their flock rising as the walking dead, to storm off into the night. Can you?
*A treasure cursed: through devout prayer and divine miracles, the priestesses have managed to block out the call of the Emperor; yet, bereaved of his much desired offspring, he has decided to send fell beasts down from the mountain's heights to ruin the temple and get what is his.
*A soul almost lost: one man knew what you desperately need, yet his soul and body rest within the Tree of Bone. Looks like an Odyssean quest to speak with the dead!
*A life eternal: you managed to gain eternal youth, yet due to your drop of old Valerian blood, the Tree calls to you, and should you resist, the Emperor's minions will be at your heels once your natural time is over.
*A love forbidden: a pure-blooded daughter of old Valersund falls in love with a priest; nothing good will come of that.
*A savior unbidden: from their union and the Tree's meddling, the new incarnation of the Emperor will arise. What would you do if your son was to grow into a blasphemous monstrosity?
*A treasure long lost: for your dungeon-crawling needs, the Tree offers deadly premises, a setting built of bone and flesh, and numerous misshapen beasts not seen elsewhere. The grave goods unwittingly hauled there by the restless dead are reward enough. Of course the tree has to go up in a huge explosion once you leave!
*A heaven for the Fallen: what if the Emperor was simply a creature from another world, denied an afterlife because his soul cannot find a way? Paving the road for him would be a truly good thing to do; on a plus side, all his descendants finally get to rest in peace.
*An unlikely usurper: a whole campaign about ascension to power may turn around a cultist's wish to steal the Emperor's power, and make Valersund rise again, with all the perks it brings.
*A twist in thy sombriety: you are of the old blood, and have been called to the Emperor sooner, before death. You shall be his hand in the world, gifted with a strange half-life, and once the stars are right, be his vessel of rebirth.
*The guardians of bones: harnessed has been the Emperor in undeath, and the Tree of Bone walks the world under his command, a dark fortress of damned flesh. The players may either have to bring down the dark spire, or they are the ones riding it to adventure.
Fallen Empires, monuments of old, sleeping kings and artifacts from eras long past.
Do you dare write of what crawls out of tombs and shambles out of ruins? What befell the ancient structures that still haunt the world. Are they truly abandoned or just awaiting a hardy soul to test their depths? Is the magic that destroyed the mighty fortress gone or does it seek its next victim. Only time will tell... Enter the Fallen Empires!
The minions of the Tree
Who keeps the dead god-emperor company besides his deceased children? It is the men of Valersund, forever bent by his sorcery, their flesh sustained by his will and their minds sundered by his presence.
They are hulking creatures, with exaggerated muscles bordering on the grotesque, and elongated arms ending often in rending claws. Some possess more than two, with extra appendages of murderous intent growing from their hunched backs, now useless mouths or as tails.
Though hideously deformed, they still are less horrid than their larger brethren, who consist of several fused bodies, walking on six legs and wielding weapons in all directions, or the jumbled amalgams of man and beast.
Each will also have a female face growing somewhere, disturbingly beautiful amidst his misshapen features; it is the face of the female who once commanded him, and forever it whispers to him the will of the god-emperor. The link, though, can be severed with magic or a weapon capable of harming ghosts, leading to confusion on the beast's part.
They are clad in remnants of armor, often of excellent make, and wrapped in shreds of dead flesh, skin and bone of those who sought to desecrate the Emperor's resting place. All over their skin, a strange slimy membrane is spread, exuded by the dead deity, to allow them to exist in the cold and thin air of the mountain summit, keeping them forever just beyond the grasp of death.
For weapons, the Servant Sons use their monstrous bodies, or man-made weapons, some of them even objects of power.
Most are hopelessly insane, driven but by the dead god-thing's will, though a select few embraced their monarch's influence and gave themselves to it, keeping reasoning and cunning largely intact, and their madness subtle.
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? Responses (13)
Interesting, but a bit ewww.
Yeah, the 'ewww' was sort of intended. A success, then!
With an HOH waiting for it.
This is one of the best submissions in quite a while, I think. Great blend of epic and creepy.
I am in awe of the quality of the prose. A whole lot more showing than telling, for sure.
An excellent addition to the quest - nicely done EM!
It's absolutely evocative prose, and were I to read it in a fiction work, it'd fit magnificently. It's just a bit much for the exigencies of a tabletop gaming campaign, where the amount of storytelling and flavor text with which you can batter the players is limited. There's a lot a GM has to invent here: what are the powers of the Tree? Is it a deity in of itself, a servitor/avatar of one, or simply an uber-Undead? Is there a nation near to hand or claiming this territory? What are these minions the Emperor has? Who are the cultists that serve/oppose him? I'd be happy to see more of these particulars fleshed out.
The flavor text doesn't say, and I'd wager the average player would raise eyebrows at several pages worth of it that boiled down to "Evil last emperor of destroyed empire / nasty undead tree / and here's the location."
I do not think the Emperor is evil, actually. He is alien - and knows little of human morals, perchance can't even understand them.
Whether his love for his wives/people was honest, I leave up to the reader, but in my opinion it was.
As for the 'power level' it is an undead god. Undead Old One. Starspawn. Clad in corpses. He has collected them for at least a thousand years. It's going to be huge. It's not something to be brought down through swinging a sword at it, but through role-play and smarts.
His location was described to be in the middle of a barely inhabitable mountain chain, as unclaimed. Sure, it will be inside the territory of one of the mentioned realms, Aberlia or New Ebernesse - at least on maps. But a fantasy kingdom has usually better things to conquer that an inhospitable mountaintop where you need a dwarven apparatus to breathe.
As for the minions and powers, I'll add a paragraph.
I like a lot about this submission, particularly that it was such a captivating read. Though I'm not quite sure how I would use it. It feels like it should be a focal point for a campaign, as the BBEG, but there isn't a whole lot to support a long running game (long enough to become strong enough to "defeat" the tree). It feels like you've given us enough for an encounter with the tree, but not enough to really use it.
I also think I am confused on one part: Some sections seem to imply that the tree would only call and accept females of a particular bloodline, while other parts make it sound like an epidemic of dead rising and journeying to the tree. I'm not sure how it could possibly take more than a few days to take in all of the women, or how you could fail to mention a plot hook involving undead rising and going on a pilgrimage, if that was the case.
I like it, but the style in which it is pieced together is confusing and seemingly not conductive to providing accurate information on using the submission.
I love this thing. An undead tree made of thousands of corpses because of a fallen emperor's love? You sir get a HoH. And the caesar193 seal of approval.
Very nice, a tad on the wordy side for me,but just a tad.I'm a sucker for anything vagoely Lovcraftian. For me right between a 5 and an HOH, so solid 5/5
As sverigessen said, both epic and creepy! And evocative.