Shadow Earth (VI) (2017)

Salmagundi: A heterogeneous mixture

—Merriam-Webster Dictionary

 

Welcome to Salmagundi, crossroads of the multiverse.  If you can’t find it here for sale, it doesn’t exist.  All worlds, all realms meet here.

—Garvindis the Great, self-proclaimed master of tourism, Salmagundi

 

Beyond these doors, two things will happen.  First, you will take an oath to defend Salmagundi and its laws with your life.  This oath is taken before all the gods, so do not take it lightly.  If you feel the slightest doubt about devoting your life to the Order, turn away now.

<pause to let people leave>

Second, you will approach Chaplain Thurian and draw a stone from her bag.  This stone will guide your training.  Each has one of four divine sigils.  Among civilians, they say magic has many branches.  We don’t have that luxury.  We only care about: communicators, healers, scryers, and warriors.  The gods will tell us your talents and place through the stones.

—Marec Hassan, Training Director, Bronze Guard, Salmagundi


 

Many centuries ago, visitors arrived from a distant land.  They were dismayed by the rule of the dragon lords.  Thus, they taught the secrets of sorcery to those outside the Magisterium, including knowledge the dragon lords forbid.  In time, the sorcerers trained by the strangers built three towers to which they anchored powerful spells that enclosed and shielded the land.  This became a haven for the people under the reign to a family chosen by the sorcerers, who knew they would be too busy to govern.  The new land attracted priests worshiping the gods of the First Men, hunted by the dragon lords.  the gods granted knowledge of the divine language to their priests, who sanctified the ruling family and supported the sorcerers’ efforts.

—from The Chronicle of Thyure, Dragonland

Shadow Earth (V) (2017)

Welcome to Paradise . . . Resort at the St. Kadesh Islands.  It is a magical place, unlike Tahiti.  Your every wish is our command, simply say the word.  Please follow the dock to the left and inform the attendants as to which island is your destination.

—Padma Hamdan, Paradise Resort

 

The St. Kadesh Islands are an anomaly.  They are not unique in this, but we have no information on them and attempts to scry the location continually fail.  Attempts to so much as locate the islands have been unsuccessful.  However, we are certain they exist, through significant anecdotal evidence.  Similar fruitless searches in the past, for other sites, have indicated the presence of powerful magical devices or beings.  Current recommendation is to take a hands off approach, but passively monitor any information that comes to our attention.

—Septimus Gottwald, intelligence report to the Demjan Chantry elders, NYC

Shadow Earth (IV) (2017)

Son, you do not want to mess with a dragon. Caught one, oh, ‘bout the time Sumer was building its walls, I guess. This was up around, I suppose it’s Kiev now. Massive bastard it was. Three, no five, heads, each one worse than the last. All of ‘em breathin’ mist cold enough to freeze steel. Not that we had steel back then, most of us had bronze. Took him down, but lost half my people doing it. Damn things were forces of nature. Pray we never see another of those scaly bastards in this world ever again.

—Veris, in Berlin (claimed to be one of the first moroi)

 

You might think that in this era of smart phones and security cameras, concealment would be more difficult than ever. However, the opposite has been our experience. Between the explosion of conspiracy theorists on the internet, confirmation bias, and the human mind’s incredible ability to protect itself from anything that challenges its worldview, skeptics are on the rise. Two centuries ago, if you said your neighbor was a witch, there’d be a trial the next day with dozens of witnesses to witchcraft turning out. Post a video of a man flying unassisted by the Statue of Liberty today and within an hour you’ll have thousands of people commenting that they can “see the wires” or critiquing the poor editing quality of the effects.

—Jeri Mayweather, Galliard Chantry, NYC

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 5; Last Part)

Halflings

Diminutive, often chubby or rotund, pastoral humanoids, halflings don’t appear in a lot of “mainstream” fantasy or urban fantasy. They could be adapted to either, though, or even played with by basing them off a wide variety of “little people” that appear in global folklore.

Tolkien first created the halfling, as Hobbits, possible basing them loosely on the “Little People” of English folklore. They were a tough, pastoral folk excellent at concealment and enjoying “simple” lives. They were very much a sort of representation of Tolkien’s idealized pastoral English middle class.

Halflings mostly appear in RPG related fiction, tabletop games, and video games. They are hobbits under a different name due to copyright issues, but have essentially the same traits as Tolkien’s hobbits. Over the last few decades, some game (D&D, for instance) have introduced different varieties of halfling. One of the most notable variations is the Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman kender—kleptomaniacal halflings cloaked in an innocent demeanor and hyperactive chatter.

George Lucas and Ron Howard created their own variation for the movie Willow. Their Nelwyns are clearly similar to halflings, though they appear a bit darker, or more realistic, and much more like the Sackville-Bagginses than the idyllic Gamgees in many ways.

Merfolk

Merfolk are partly humanoid fish people that have had a variety of physical appearances. A classic version is a human top and fish bottom, as seen in mermaid tales. Others are entirely aquatic and fish-like in appearance, although with a humanoid top half (as in Sci-Fi’s show Sanctuary). Some herd sea creatures or cultivate sea plants. Most hunt sea animals and almost all use echolocation to some degree. Unfortunately, because of their aquatic nature, they can be difficult to work into human focused stories and worlds, although they do appear in some of the Dragonlance novels and many fantasy RPGs. Merfolk could be potentially active and interesting in a Venice-based fantasy city or urban fantasy story, living in lagoons and canals. They could even potentially work in a city with multiple decent sized rivers or a river delta.

Rowling introduces a settlement of merfolk in the Hogwarts lake, preserved there and safe. These merfolk are friendly to Dumbledore, who speaks mermish. They only appear a few times, though, notably for a Triwizard Tournament event and for Dumbledore’s funeral.

Minotaurs

The minotaur originates in Greek myth, where it was a bull-headed humanoid. That element of appearance has been retained, though there is debate about whether minotaurs should have human feet or bull feet. There are a host of other appearance elements and uses in modern fantasy and urban fantasy, but they all generally agree that minotaurs are taller than humans and have bull (or cow) horns. Most varieties have tails.

In the Greek myths, the minotaur was a unique being, a child of the Minoan queen Pasiphae and a bull meant as an offering to Poseidon. It was kept in the Labyrinth where it ate an annual sacrifice of humans. What it did between the Athenian tributes is unclear, but presumably Minos was exacting tribute from other cities as well.

Rick Riordan continues to hold with the classical sources with a unique Minotaur. His Minotaur is an axe or sword wielding beast bent on killing demigods.

The Dragonlance creators took the minotaur myth and spun it into an entire species of beings. Their minotaurs form an honorable warrior culture governed by the winner of arena combat. They are excellent sailors. Unfortunately, they often find themselves beholden to the forces of Takhisis (in the time of Huma and the War of the Lance).

Tonya Huff (The Enchantment Emporium) makes brief mention of minotaur cattle ranchers in central Canada. No other description appears, but presumably the minotaurs are a species of beings and they seem to be relatively inoffensive—as ranchers and there’s no worry that the protagonist’s grandmother appeared to be on good terms with them.

Nmphs

According to classical sources, nymphs are representatives of nature. They are typically described as all being female, sort of counterparts to satyrs & fauns. Many are tied to specific locations and able to exert some degree of control over their natural feature. As legends evolved, nymphs became tied to sexuality as well, which is not necessarily true of the mythic stage. In the early phase of their development, they were more focused on nature and roles as children of lesser gods.

For the Greeks (and Romans), there were many varieties of nymphs from meadows to trees, oaks to rivers, oceanic to the daughters of Atlas. They were always female and were often pursued by satyrs and gods alike.

Rick Riordan remains true to the classical sources, depicting his nymphs as the female counterparts to satyrs. In this form, they have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the all male satyrs. Many of the nymphs serve and protect Camp Half-Blood, but there are exceptions who are tied to other parts of the world, such as Artemis’s nymphs.

Jaye Wells makes nymphs into a nature oriented sub-species of the Fae race. Only one, Vinca, is shown in detail. She exhibits power over plants, particularly enhancing and accelerating their growth, and hated cats as an ancestral enemy.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 4)

Centaurs

Half-horse and half-human, centaurs are a relatively common feature in classic fantasy fiction. They seem to be most suited as plains or steppes dwellers, but they are often placed in heavily wooded areas that would seem better suited to smaller varieties than are commonly described. There are some obvious issues with incorporating centaurs into urban fantasy, particularly in an human or city-based fantasy due to their size and shape. Some authors have played with this idea, though. Riordan developed a magic wheelchair for his key centaur while Eoin Colfer has a smaller breed of centaur that never leaves the faerie city, which has adapted vehicles and utilities for their shape. Rowling confined hers to a preserve in a relatively remote forest.

Centaurs are common in Greek mythology. They were noted for their violent tendencies and intoxication. However, the most famous centaurs include Chiron, the healer and trainer of heroes, as well as Nessus, who slew Heracles through deception. Greek myths also include the onocentaur, a goat variant that lives in the mountains, but which is less well known.

C.S. Lewis includes centaurs in Narnia, as allies of Aslan/good. His centaurs appear to be strong warriors, clad in barding and bearing large weapons to fight the forces that oppose Aslan and the Pevensies.

Rick Riordan brings in Chiron as a counselor at Camp Half-Blood as well as the paintball and root beer loving Party Ponies (virtually every centaur who isn’t Chiron).

J.K. Rowling’s centaurs are forest dwelling philosophers who have a talent for divination and astrology and a strong distaste for humans and wizards. They appear to be excellent archers, as displayed during the Battle of Hogwarts and their salute at Dumbledore’s funeral. They also hate giants.

Steven Brust, and others, have introduced variations on the “-taur” theme, such as his cat-centaurs in Dragaera (human top, feline below). Generally the variants serve roles as monsters, advisors, trainers, mentors, and warriors.

Fauns/Satyrs

Often conflated, fauns and satyrs are two rather different entities, though they serve similar roles, particularly as male counterparts to nymphs. Both are goat-legged men and appear in rural environments. However that is where the similarities end. The Roman faun is a semi-civilized, perhaps domesticated, creature and generally has small horns. The Greek satyr is a wild, often intoxicated, creature generally devoted to Pan or Dionysus. The Greeks did introduce some female satyrs, but they were a late invention of classical poets and only had rare appearances. Neither faun nor satyr are especially common in fantasy or urban fantasy novels. They are, though, known to appear frequently in fantasy video games and in some comics and stories as lords of the woods or hills, often in quasi-druidic sex magic rituals.

Rick Riordan employs both in his Greco-Roman demigods series. The satyrs serve as guides and protectors for young demigods, bringing them safely (usually) to Camp Half-Blood and assisting in both guarding the camp and mentoring the demigods. They also act as male counterpart to the nymphs. The fauns come across more as meek servants and pitiful individuals in New Rome/Camp Jupiter, although they occasionally serve as nurses to aid injured demigods.

 Gargoyles

For being relatively minor figures in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres, gargoyles display a fair bit of variation. Usually they are grotesque or semi-grotesque humanoids. Some are living stone, others are not. They seem to be heavily associated with churches, which makes sense given the locations of real gargoyles, so there is a lot of potential as religious protectors, whether directly creatures of God or beings created by magically active priests. Regardless, gargoyles have a lot of potential as warriors, spies, and such in cities. In rural areas, they would be likely to favor mountains and cliff areas, as the closest natural equivalents to urban buildings.

The Gargoyles TV show presents them as “handsome grotesques” who turn to stone by day and become living, strong, flying beings by night.

Terry Pratchett introduces gargoyles to Discworld as a variety of troll adapted to urban environments. They are exceedingly patient and observant. They love cities and high places, where they are often paid in pigeons for information. Eventually a few gargoyles become official members of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, as ultimately happens with every species Pratchett introduced to the world.

In the Craft Sequence (a secondary world, post-industrial fantasy), Max Gladstone treats gargoyles as the creations of a, now believed, dead goddess. They were her elite servants, guardians, and warriors who protected her city (and eventually her remains). They appear human, but take a gargoyle form to fly, fight (stronger, claws), and meld with the city itself. They are fiercely devoted to the “deceased” goddess Seril and her surviving remnants. They are also feared by the city’s populace and hunted by its hive mind police force.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 3)

Vampires

What hasn’t been done with vampires?

Good question. They are perhaps the most widespread and varied species in urban fantasy aside from werebeasts, and to a lesser degree fantasy. In fact, it seems that we can’t go into the urban fantasy genre without tripping over vampires—Ilona Andrews, J.K. Rowling, Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Allyson James, Michael Scott, Anne Rice . . . the list goes on.

One of the advantages to the inclusion of vampires is that there are a lot of traditions around the world to play with. Some have even toyed with multiple kinds interacting in their worlds. Looking at global traditions, vampires can be living or undead, born or made, blood-feeders or emotion drainers. They appear as mindless beasts and sentient beings. They serve roles as antagonists, killers, violent destroyers, and interesting protagonists. They are used to explore the effects of eternal life, the morality of feeding on other animals, humanity’s place in the food chain, and the treatment of food species. Because of their wide usage, they have become somewhat clichéd now, perhaps, but it seems that they have more or less run their course as a popular trend.

In folklore, vampires appear around the world. There are too many varieties to fully discuss, but they vary from undead to living blood drinkers to emotion drainers to sex feeders. Some are corporeal, others are spirits. Most are nocturnal, but some are not. A few Balkan cultures claim that vampires come from dead werewolves (and vice versa). Other cultures in the area say they are hunted by werewolves. Beheading and fire are common methods leading to their demise. Stakes, garlic, holy items, and a host of other means of harming them vary by time period and culture. The idea of vampires dying in sunlight also varies widely, but none sparkle.

Tolkien briefly mentions vampires in the Silmarillion, describing them as spirits capable of taking a bat form. They are tied to Melkor and Sauron, but little is said about them.

Perhaps the most iconic vampire in Western culture is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Interestingly, although he is claimed as the source of many vampire traditions, most of those ascribed to him are not in fact in the book. For example, Stoker’s Dracula can go about in the daytime, in full sunlight, without being destroyed, although he does lose access to his paranormal powers.

Charlaine Harris employs some common types with her undead vampires (Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series). The look like pale humans, unless they fed recently. They are incredibly fast, strong, and tough. The have a fairly strict hierarchy, and are immortal. They are also vulnerable to sunlight and silver.

Ilona Andrews’s vampires, on the other hand, are mindless undead driven by an instinct to feed and destroy. This is their natural state, unless they are piloted by necromancers (The People). Then they mimic the pilot’s voice and expressions.

Michael Scott (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) presents his vampires as living, immortal beings. They are Elders, the original residents of Atlantis. Most of the ones presented in the book come from the post-Atlantis Next Generation. They feed on emotions, effectively draining their source of one emotion for a time, auras, or memories. Only a few do so via drinking blood (Dearg Due), and those are ostracized by the other vampiric clans.

Werebeasts

For the sake of argument, and this piece, werebeasts will be defined as beings capable of changing between human and animal shapes—possibly, but not necessarily, including a hybrid. There are several other possibilities, with roughly 10,000 years of folklore to work with, but limiting to the above will help here.

Even with that limit, werebeasts provide a full gamut of options. Even so, there will be “purists” who claim tradition, but most “traditions” referenced by modern individuals come out of 19th century literature and early-20th century film. Such traditions include silver vulnerability, moon based transformation, bite transmission of lycanthropy. These are not exactly traditional in the bigger picture of history, so there is a lot of “do as you please” with the species.

In stories, the werebeast often represents the border between the wild and the civilized, man and beast. They often serve to show how fragile the boundaries are, to reinforce and police social codes/morality, and to give protagonists monstrous enemies or cuddly friends. Often they are employed—such as Rowling’s Lupin—to question social structures.

Folklore around the world is exceptionally varied when it comes to werebeasts. However, they are almost always a predator or domestic species, usually mammals. Occasionally an arachnid or reptilian appears. Most modern “traditions” don’t appear in the folklore. Transformations can be forced or unforced, clothing usually does not change with the werebeast, and they generally have no special recuperative powers (ex. regeneration). Most have two shapes—human and animal. Those in the folklore can be real change or psychic projections. They are a mix of good, sympathetic beings or evil man-eaters, depending on the era and story.

As one might expect, Tolkien briefly includes werewolves, as evil spirits inhabiting wolf bodies. Little is said about them, but they are associated with Melkor and Sauron in the Silmarillion.

Jack Williamson (Darker Than You Think) introduces his psychic werewolves, who are projections of the spirit in a non-corporeal form. These entities are able to manipulate chance and are vulnerable to both silver and fire.

Rowling’s werewolves use multiple traditions, both modern and old. Ignoring the movies and only focusing on the books, her werewolves have human and wolf shapes. They can transmit their condition via bite (a post-germ theory element) and only change at the full moon. Unless they are under the influence of the wolfsbane potion, they are maniacal beasts in wolf shape.

Charlaine Harris’s werebeasts change shape at will and take multiple bites to infect a person. Most are born. The born werebeasts have only human and animal shapes, but bitten weres have human and hybrid only. The books show wolves, tigers, and panthers, with the potential for others to exist.

Ilona Andrews’s werebeasts have three forms with no forced transformation. They are highly regenerative, but can go feral if too badly injured, and silver negates their regeneration. Her werebeasts represent many mammal species including wolves, bears, bison, rats, honey badgers, hyenas, and tigers.

Michael Scott shows multiple species of werebeasts including wolves and boars. They all appear to have been created by Hecate and all have Gaelic species/clan names.

Species in Fantasy and Urban Fantasy (pt. 2)

Dwarves

Dwarves appear in a number of forms in myth, legend, and fiction. However, there is little true variation between their appearances in fiction. Most modern depictions are heavily influenced by Tolkien—stout, strong, sturdy, immune to cold and fire, stubborn, persistent, brave, proud miners, metalworkers, and stone carvers. Many even hate or distrust elves, though Tolkien’s originally befriended elves, until the War of the Jewels.

Because of Tolkien’s influence, most modern dwarves have their roots in the Norse svartalfar. These beings were skilled artificers who rarely interacted with mortals and dealt almost exclusively with the gods. Perhaps one reason is that they turn to stone in sunlight. There are few, if any, real descriptions, but greed and miserliness seem common in the myths. Most accounts that describe them talk of bearded old men, but the Poetic Edda mentions women (the only source that does). The svartalfar created most of the notable artifacts of the Norse gods.

The Tolkien-style dwarf is common throughout the fantasy genre, though rarely as a focal character. There are some exceptions, notably some of the TSR/WotC novels and Markus Heitz’s The Dwarves. They are virtually unheard of in urban fantasy. Ilona Andrews briefly mentions some in the Kate Daniels series. A few are met, and one mentors the protagonist, in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. And one appears in Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, as a thief who is able to eat his way through dirt. This could be very interesting ground for some variations and adaptations.

Steven Brust creates the Serioli, who create Morganti weapons, as an insular and unknown culture and society. They live alone in the mountains and don’t interact with outsiders except to trade for their magical weapons.

RPGs introduced distinct varieties from mountain to hill, deep to grey, and even the infamous gully dwarves. They also introduce the idea of dwarves being non-magical. Warhammer and many video games give dwarves gunpowder, often. Still RPGs and video games limit dwarves to mountain dwelling of hills (surface or under) with little, if any, variation. This lack of variation can, perhaps, be laid at the feet of the FRPG introduction of gnomes as magic wielding cousins to dwarves.

Elves & Fae

Despite their reputation for being clichéd, there are actually a fairly wide variety of depictions of elves, and fae, out there. While most takes show elves as beings of good, there are several examples of spins that display them as evil, racist, capricious, cruel, manipulative, and vindictive. Some of these also focus on an elven/fae boredom and interest in games (ex. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Holly Black’s Tithe trilogy).

One of the primary sources of fantasy elves is the alfar of the Norse. These residents of Alfheim are governed by the Vanir, in some myths. They are beautiful, ambivalent toward mortals, and often worshipped as gods themselves. Some tales, later ones, suggest that they were vulnerable to Christian artifacts.

The other major source is the Celtic Sidhe. These fairies and spirits dwelled in barrow in Gaelic mythology. They possessed various powers, most oriented on combat effectiveness or nature/beasts. Some tales depict them as personifications of the Irish gods.

Tolkien’s version has influenced modern interpretations most heavily. His elves were the same size as Men, but stronger and immortal/unaging. They were the lords of natural spaces and possessed great power, though Tolkien did not explicitly state what they were capable of (just that the average Nazgul feared the power of Elflords). They appear to lack the need for sleep and are depicted as a purely good species.

This led to the “traditional” fantasy depiction. Many fantasy elves are woodland residents, just under human to human height. They are strong, slender, and agile beings with a strong affinity for magic. Unlike humans and other species, they tend to favor bows and speedy weapons rather than brute force. They typically display a distaste or hatred for dwarves and orcs, while being friendly or at least neutral to humans. They are often depicted as being condescending toward “lesser” races, but are good in nature.

One semi-deviation from the “norm” is Steven Brust’s Dragaerans. Dragaerans name themselves “human” but the Easterners (humans) often refer to them as elves. They are tall, strong, muscular beings able to access powerful magic via the Orb. Virtually all are racist toward Easterners. They are also related to some degree to the various beasts of the world (those of the Great Houses, at least). Most are urban dwellers, except the Teckla.

J.K. Rowling’s House Elves are both a deviation from the “norm” and a hearkening to the old folklore. As little folk who are bound to service to wizards, these spindly elves evoke the brownies and domovoi of European folklore. They, like their taller, noble cousins possess powerful magic, but they are subservient and limited in when they can use their powers.

Giants

Giants are, as their name suggests, tall humanoids that appear throughout myth, folklore, and the fantasy/urban fantasy genres. They often show up as mere muscle or a threat to the characters. Usually, they are uncivilized and sometimes man-eaters (folklore). That said, they have been incorporated into urban fantasy (Rowling, Riordan), though part-giants are much easier to conceal for a hidden magic world. Often in fantasy they appear as little more than war machines or wilderness threats.

Perhaps the most well-known mythological giants are the jotun of the Norse. These giants come in a variety of sizes, but all are taller than humans whether slightly so or the size of mountains. There are two major varieties: the fire giants of Muspelheim and the frost giants of Jotunheim. All Norse giants are strong, tough, and enemies of the Aesir. Some are excellent illusionists and shapeshifters, including Loki.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the last Welsh giant was Gogmagog. This creature was defeated by a companion of Brutus of Troy in Albion, causing the land to be named Cornwall in his honor.

Among the Greeks, giants were children of Gaia (Hesiod) and enemies of the Olympian gods. They are variously shown as humanoid or having snakes for legs. They appear in Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, and Alcman. These giants possessed great size and strength, being the size of mountains, and represented excesses and hubris.

Tolkien briefly discussed giants. His giants are massive beings of stone that throw rocks at each other and wrestle during a storm in the mountains near Rivendell (The Hobbit). There is minimal description, oddly for Tolkien, in this scene.

Rowling’s giants are primitive, massive, violent humanoids. They are capable of mating with humans, rarely. They are tribal in society, favoring strength over intellect. They are also a dying species, reduced to remote mountain lands due to human expansion and resulting habitat loss. They often side with dark wizards in the magical community’s conflicts.

George R.R. Martin presents giants beyond the Wall. These are powerfully strong, huge humanoids who only live in the North. They are presumably a dying species, but readers only see a handful, including Wun Wun. Even so, Martin provides relatively little description of the giants and their society.