This place is not a place of honor

I’ve tagged this post with ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ because it might make for good gaming inspiration. But it’s actually real.

The US government has spent some time thinking about how to warn future generations that nuclear waste is buried in particular places. The problem is that it needs to be stored for thousands of years – up to a million by some estimates – long enough for language and culture to change beyond all recognition. Writing, for example, has existed for ‘only’ 5000 years.

One group of experts defined the intended message as follows:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

Suggestions include

  • An “atomic priesthood” which would “preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths.”
  • Breeding a special type of cat, which would change color near radiation. The significance of this change would be taught “through fairy tales and myths. Those fairy tales and myths in turn could be transmitted through poetry, music and painting.”
  • Building a wall with furrows and ridges so that “the wind blowing across would make a sinister sound”, a landscape of thorns, or high, black blocks that look forbidding and are too hot to give shelter.

Sources:

Damn Interesting

Wikipedia

Grist

The Cats of Ulthar

I’m currently working on a verse version of HP Lovecraft’s story The Cats of Ulthar. Since it’s very short, I thought I’d post the original here.

The Cats of Ulthar

It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors. Why they did this I know not; save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight. But whatever the reason, this old man and woman took pleasure in trapping and slaying every cat which came near to their hovel; and from some of the sounds heard after dark, many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar. But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife; because of the habitual expression on the withered faces of the two, and because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees. When through some unavoidable oversight a cat was missed, and sounds heard after dark, the loser would lament impotently; or console himself by thanking Fate that it was not one of his children who had thus vanished. For the people of Ulthar were simple, and knew not whence it is all cats first came.

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a headdress with two horns and a curious disk betwixt the horns.

There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.

On the third morning of the wanderers’ stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife, and of sounds heard in the night. And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming. It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked disks. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.

That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again. And the householders were troubled when they noticed that in all the village there was not a cat to be found. From each hearth the familiar cat had vanished; cats large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white. Old Kranon, the burgomaster, swore that the dark folk had taken the cats away in revenge for the killing of Menes’ kitten; and cursed the caravan and the little boy. But Nith, the lean notary, declared that the old cotter and his wife were more likely persons to suspect; for their hatred of cats was notorious and increasingly bold. Still, no one durst complain to the sinister couple; even when little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, vowed that he had at twilight seen all the cats of Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage, two abreast, as if in performance of some unheard-of rite of beasts. The villagers did not know how much to believe from so small a boy; and though they feared that the evil pair had charmed the cats to their death, they preferred not to chide the old cotter till they met him outside his dark and repellent yard.

So Ulthar went to sleep in vain anger; and when the people awakened at dawn-behold! every cat was back at his accustomed hearth! Large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white, none was missing. Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content. The citizens talked with one another of the affair, and marveled not a little. Old Kranon again insisted that it was the dark folk who had taken them, since cats did not return alive from the cottage of the ancient man and his wife. But all agreed on one thing: that the refusal of all the cats to eat their portions of meat or drink their saucers of milk was exceedingly curious. And for two whole days the sleek, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.

It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. In another week the burgomaster decided to overcome his fears and call at the strangely silent dwelling as a matter of duty, though in so doing he was careful to take with him Shang the blacksmith and Thul the cutter of stone as witnesses. And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.

There was subsequently much talk among the burgesses of Ulthar. Zath, the coroner, disputed at length with Nith, the lean notary; and Kranon and Shang and Thul were overwhelmed with questions. Even little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, was closely questioned and given a sweetmeat as reward. They talked of the old cotter and his wife, of the caravan of dark wanderers, of small Menes and his black kitten, of the prayer of Menes and of the sky during that prayer, of the doings of the cats on the night the caravan left, and of what was later found in the cottage under the dark trees in the repellent yard.

And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travelers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.

Tigers

In Teleleli it is said that anyone may escape a tiger by throwing a glass ball to the ground. If it does not shatter then the tiger, seeing its own reflection within, will believe it to be one of its cubs, and will attempt to pick it up to bring it back home. Others say that this will only be successful for mother tigers.

Since tigers are not known in the city this belief is entirely theoretical and untested. Indeed it occurs to me that it may be based on observing the fascination that cats (both talking and mute) have with their own reflections.

>The Astral Plane

>The astral plane (or luminiferous ether) is a world which exists near our world (the material plane) but separated from it in an arcane and unknowable direction. Normally, beings in our world have no ability to see or influence the astral plane. However at least some creatures in the astral plane are either dimly visible from the material world, or can interact with the material world at will, or both.

Alas, astral creatures, at least those who interact with the material world, are very often malevolent. Or perhaps they perceive material creatures as a horrifying threat. In either case, the result is the same.

Some astral creatures have the ability to move unliving things, but not to directly influence living creatures. For example, they might be able to cause stones to fly at a person. Their strength, if we may call it that, varies widely. Some may do little more than cause a book to fall off a bookshelf, or a door to close. Others have superhuman strength.

Other astral creatures have the ability to influence living things directly. Some will punch a person across the face, or cause scratches to appear. Others will seem to stroke their hands across a person’s heart, causing all but the bravest to be overcome with fear.

If a person stands in a position such that they are occupying the same space, as it were, as any astral creature, it has the same effect on the heart, even if the creature cannot cause this effect at will. Astral creatures themselves never seek to cause this effect, and indeed will actively avoid it. Perhaps it has a similar effect on themselves.

There are some such creatures who seem not to perceive material creatures, and so pose no danger unless a person gets in their way.

There does not seem to be a similar variation in the quality of material creatures. If an astral creature can see any material creature, it will be able to see all. If it can stroke the heart of one creature, it will be able to stroke the heart of all. Whereas there are visible and invisible astral creatures, there do not seem to be visible and invisible material creatures. It may be that what we call by the one name of astral creatures, may be several kinds of creature.

The superstitious are known to mutter that astral creatures are unquiet spirits of the dead. There is some evidence that these creatures favour places of death. It is speculated that the presence of death in the material plane may provide life in the astral plane. Perhaps our battlefield or slaughterhouse becomes a pleasant garden or abundant forest in the astral plane. More horribly, perhaps a pair of lovers who stroll through a sun-filled park appear in the astral plane as dim figures in the thick smoke of a crematorium. However, the wise are not taken with stories of spirits, and know that astral creatures are nothing more frightening than eldritch extra-dimensional entities who may wish to destroy all life.

Certain weapons have the virtue of existing in both worlds at the same time, and thus are effective against astral beings. There are also rituals which will render an area safe against such entities. Whether they forbid them from entering, or merely render them invisible and intangible, is unknown. Such rituals are far more difficult, if not impossible, if such entities are already present; just as a bargain not made may with ease never be made, yet once made, what a labour it may be to unmake.

The smoke from wood sprinkled with certain of the Noble Spices is said to reveal some otherwise invisible spirits. It does not appear to harm them.

Astral cats are bred for the fact that they live in the material world and the astral plane, at the same time. This means they can sense, and interact with, creatures of the astral plane. Astral creatures, unused to any threat, will often flee in terror from them (or at least, it is assumed that they feel terror). However astral cats are no more fearsome in combat than any other domestic cat.

>Talking Animals

>In general, for any species, there might be a talking, intelligent version, as well as the mute, bestial version that we are familiar with.

Some sages believe that apes and humans form such a pair. Yet there are rumours of bestial humans, and what of the Ape-Rajahs of the brass-walled City of Dust? Though some say that they are not true apes.

Teleleli is home to large numbers of talking animals, particularly cats, dogs, and mice.

Talking cats reach about five feet tall in adulthood. Young adults (toms and queens) rather remind one of characters from The Three Musketeers.

Normal cats have the ability to sense entrances to the underworld, and the desire to enter them (this is why they spend so much time under houses, and why they frequently disappear, never to be seen again). Some believe that talking cats have a dim echo of this sense.

Courting among talking cats involves toms displaying agility, for example by balancing on a fence, while playing the bagpipes. Talking cats are unique in their love of this instrument. Its music also affords the toms further ability to display their grace, by dodging the objects thrown at them by the neighbours. Queens are only allowed to court toms on one day of the year, the holiday Lost Saturday. This rule, being the command of the church, is universally obeyed, just as in our own society sex outside of marriage is unknown.

Although I have been unable to determine its truth, there is widespread agreement that a talking cat’s fur colour indicates a particular talent, as follows:

Black Held to have the ability to wish bad luck, especially hunger, on those who oppose them.
White, or van (coloured ears, rest of the body white): Believed to be lucky.
Grey “In the night all cats are grey” the Telelelenes say, since such cats are believed to excel in being stealthy at night.
Orange Believed to excel in predicting the weather.
Tortiseshell (black and orange patches) Said to excel in thwarting snakes, scorpions, spiders and like creatures, both normal and talking. Legend says that a tortiseshell cat defended the Tree of All Beasts from demons in the form of venomous animals, and was given this ability as a reward.
Tabby (light grey and dark grey-black stripes) Credited with an uncanny nack of locating hidden treasure.
Paws, chest, and lower face white – upper face, ears, legs, back and tail black Believed to excel in all matters pertaining to love, the home, marriage, and children.
Paws, chest, and lower face white – upper face, ears, legs, back and tail of any colour other than black Believed to excel in attracting the admiration of others (a most valued attribute for this generally vain and superficial folk).

Talking mice are about four feet tall, and generally have a similar style to talking cats.

Both talking cats and mice are physically ideal for the profession of burglar, but they are usually handicapped by their immense vanity in the first case, and their sense of fair play in the second. There are many famous cat-burglars, but few who are said to have lived for long. Some talking mice have become pirates, but talking cats generally disdain the sea – perhaps they retain some of their ancestral dislike of water.

Talking dogs can be any size from three feet to higher than the tallest human. Strangely, the variety of breeds in mute dogs is reflected in talking dogs. They believe that they were made thus by the Great Race. These theories are at least more credible than talking cats’ belief that they were created from the sneeze of a lion. The largest talking dogs of all are those with wolfish blood. True talking wolves are thankfully not seen in the city, but they are the terror of the forests.

Gangs of talking cats and dogs often fight each other. The main issue is religion, with one species being mostly Catolic, the other Eastern Orthodogs (except for some who follow the teachings of Martin Woofer).

Talking sea creatures can sometimes be seen in Teleleli, particularly around the docks. The mercantile Sell-Fish, ever seeking new markets, uses its fins as feet in order to walk on land. While on land, talking fish carry un-brellas. These devices look like umbrellas, but drop a constant stream of water on the talking fish. Talking dolphins transform into human form. Their human bodies are hairless, slim and muscular. They are said to have a city underwater, location unknown. In some accounts it is destroyed.

Talking sea creatures are largely uninterested in the religious conflict between dogs and cats. However they are sometimes the target of zealots from both communities, because of their liberal attitutes. For example prawnography is openly sold, and they have produced Salmon Rushdie, author of the controversial novel The Sardinic Verses. To protect themselves they have trained a force of Navy Seals.

Talking weasels are likewise uninterested in religious conflicts, due to their belief in the seperation of church and stoat.

Talking cockroaches, or Roaches of Al-Shahab, are about the size of a wolf or foal. They keep the streets reasonably clean by eating garbage. This reduces disease, and can keep away the eggs of many dangerous creatures such as the Invisible Worm Which Flies in the Night. Thus it is dangerous to drive them away, despite their many revolting habits. One such is that they dig up cemeteries. Although even this ensures that a place will not be infested by ghouls, who do not always limit themselves to those already dead. Another is their willingness to work with criminals such as the Bright Company, who use them to dispose of bodies.

Talking snails, turtles and tortises often find the pace of other creatures difficult to adjust to. Thus many of them live in the Slowtown district. Outsiders who enter this walled-off area are required to wear modified diving suits to slow them down. The economy of this district is largely based on the silver found in the trails which talking snails leave behind them.

Talking beavers mostly live in rural areas. However there is a small colony in Teleleli, who were driven here when their dam was destroyed by human farmers. Many of them listen to the bitter talking beaver Clint Eatwood who has sworn that he will take revenge, forcing the farmers to “go ahead punk – make my dam.”

Where most talking creatures are close to human-size, talking birds are the same size as their mute equivalents. Naturally many live atop the Roofs.

Lizard-folk are not talking animals, since their bodies are halfway between a human and lizard form.

>Old Cairo is Itself a Storybook and a Dream…

>Old Cairo is itself a story-book and a dream—labyrinths of narrow alleys redolent of aromatic secrets; Arabesque balconies and oriels nearly meeting above the cobbled streets; maelstroms of Oriental traffic with strange cries, cracking whips, rattling carts, jingling money, and braying donkeys; kaleidoscopes of polychrome robes, veils, turbans, and tarbushes; water-carriers and dervishes, dogs and cats, soothsayers and barbers; and over all the whining of blind beggars crouched in alcoves, and the sonorous chanting of muezzins from minarets limned delicately against a sky of deep, unchanging blue.

HP Lovecraft.

>The Abysmal Plain

>This sea-battered and wind-swept plain is home to little but rocks, wild dogs, and the temples of senile and forgotten gods. It does however hold the goblin-city of Tok, built in the shape of a huge wooden fort. Tok is rumoured to be rent by a struggle for leadership between two fierce goblin champions, Al Gore and Sarah Impalin’.

The other notable settlement on the Abysmal Plain, or rather floating above it, is the unapproachable floating castle of Arkeem.

Cats, dogs and frogs regularly fall from the castle, to fall to earth on a particular part of the Plain. The animals generally have parachutes, but sometimes fail to open. As a result, the traveller should beware of falling animals, as well as wild dogs and feral cats. The parachutes are of fine silk, and local goblins value them as material for clothing.

The motives of the inhabitants of Arkeem are unknown. It is speculated that they are unwanted pets, or some kind of offering. The sage Inkosi Kaas and her followers claim that the animals are letters in the alphabet of Arkeem, and spell out a great message to mankind. They live in a nunnery dedicated to recording and someday translating this message. Due to their belief that each type of animal may represent a different letter, the place is a centre of expertise on the various breeds of cats, dogs and frogs. The nunnery also manufactures protective steel parasols.