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from C R Taxon

[Worldbuilding] A Handful of Funerary Traditions

#WritingWonders is at it again, asking questions that push me over the character limit. Today's prompt asks how death is handled in my world, which is something I've thought about quite a lot.

I'll try to keep this post short-ish, though. I'll only discuss the funeral traditions of a few countries.

Being a full second world, the setting of OwtB contains many different funerary traditions. However, one trend that appears across the globe is to place the freshly deceased in a dark room or shroud them in dark fabric. This custom is so ubiquitous because spirits of shadow double as this world's psychopomps; holding a body in darkness is thought to help these spirits locate the souls of the departed and ease their journey to the afterlife.

(An opposing tradition—keeping the body brightly lit until everyone has a chance to say goodbye—is also common.)

Otherwise, funerary traditions in the current day look much, much different than they did a few hundred years ago. When the gods made themselves known and began to roam the earth, they disrupted just about everything, including the processes of mortal death and mourning. Many older traditions have been neglected in favor of ones that honor—or rebuke—specific gods. For example:

The Kyrdal Empire was founded by its eponymous demigod, Kyrdal, child of the fire god Oreth. Its royal family (along most of its upper class) are all descended from fire spirits. Descendents of fire spirits cannot be cremated; their bodies will not burn. So in Kyrdala, cremation is considered highly disrespectful all around. It's mostly reserved to further humiliate executed enemies of state.

Meanwhile, in Borali, cremation is one of only two legal methods of handling a dead body. While Kyrdal was founding her empire, Borali was busy suffering in the throes of a divine plague. Its people remain germophobic to a fault (or would, if they understood germ theory). Dead bodies are considered vectors of disease no matter how the person in question died. Borali's metropolitan capital, Rivermouth, employs a small fleet of mediums to watch for deaths that might otherwise go unnoticed and retrieve bodies before they can begin to rot in the hot, humid climate.

Aside from cremation, the only legal method of body disposal in Borali involves bringing bodies deep below the earth, far from occupied areas, where those same mediums can control the process of decay and keep the resulting rot spirits contained:

Bodies are interred in small alcoves dug into a stone wall. These alcoves are then shut and sealed with wax for a specific amount of time relative to how many other alcoves are currently occupied. Small holes between niches allow rot-spirits to move from one body to the next; because these spirits are constantly fed by new arrivals, they're healthy enough to break a body down in around 3-10 days. Bodies are retrieved after all risk of lingering rot-spirits has passed and the resulting bones are either ground or delivered whole to next of kin.

Not all cultures have adapted their funerals to the presence of gods. In many parts of Oxhar, bodies are simply shrouded for three days and then buried. Escian funerals involve long processions; mourners march the deceased to designated areas for various spirits to do with as they please.

Among the sleth, funeral traditions proliferate just like they do in human cultures. But sleth are faced with a problem those on land are not: people who die in the ocean do not stay put.

This is a particular problem for pelagic sleth, who are more likely to die somewhere out of sight than sleth who live in the populous shallows or in ocean floor communities. Given low visibility and the vastness of the ocean, it is often difficult to know with reasonable certainty the fate of any given sleth who has fallen out of touch.

Lost sleth bodies have a habit of washing ashore or being found by shallows-dwelling sleth. In preparation for this, most sleth pierce themselves with jewelry that identifies their ties to various clans, families, communities, and/or human nations. This jewelry, when found, is collected, bundled with a description of the body (if possible!) and displayed in public area of the nearest community. Descriptions of recently found bodies are also sung out during transoceanic news relays.

Given the flaws in this system, the sheer size of the ocean, the hunger of sharks, and the transient nature of many sleth, it is estimated that somewhere between 5 and 10% of all sleth funerals are held for people who have not actually died.

Sleth mourn death like any other people, but realities of ocean life have given them a sense of morbid humor about it. Some consider it a game to collect funerals; one apocryphal folk hero is said to have tricked various clans into throwing over two hundred funerals for them before they actually died—by which point nobody saw the point in throwing them another.

I need to stop

“I'll keep it short,” I said. “Short ish, anyway”.

But you see what you get? Eight hundred and something words. None of which bear any relevance whatsoever to the actual plot of Out with the Bathwater, but all of which have been very, very fun to consider.

 
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from C R Taxon

Another post in which CR invites you to spectate while he infodumps worldbuilding at himself. These types of posts will all be about the same world.

This time, I'll ramble about...

Quanders! Land spirits with total control over their domains. Some create perfect, climate-controlled zones for the benefit of their resident humans; others have decided rain must be dangerous and prevent it from falling, ever. Some despise erosion and hold themselves as elevated pillars among worn canyons. Some despise gravity.

None of them know what they're doing, but good luck changing their minds.

Quanders are spirits of location. Each governs a single rigidly-defined territory; governing duties include management of all geographic processes and lesser spirits found within that territory.

Being spirits, quanders are incorporeal. Only other spirits and mediums can see or communicate with them. But quanders often choose small physical objects to dwell in, and these silent, inert bodies are visible by all. These forms are usually representative of something from their territory: rocks, tree stumps, and puddles of water are common.

Quanders were created as a way to keep living beings safe when gods could not or would not interfere themselves. To this end, the spirits were given unprecedented magical control over their territories. A quander's duty can be summarized as: “selectively break the laws of physics for the benefit of mankind”.

Though, at the time of the quanders' creation, complex biological life did not actually exist. Single cells hadn't bothered clumping together yet. This left the quanders somewhat confused by the gods' command to “protect complex life from undue hardship”, no matter how much the gods qualified the order with statements like “should it develop” or “when it arrives”.

(Then the gods abandoned the planet for a few billion years. But the gods' ineptitude is beyond the scope of this post, except that they left the quanders in charge.)

Every cubic inch of the world is contained within exactly one quander's territory. No gaps, no overlaps. These territories are fixed in relation to the core of the planet and never change, though there are marked differences in size and shape among them.

Ground- and sea-level quanders were given vertical territories that stretch up into the stratosphere. But due to tectonic shift and other natural geographic processes, almost every quander's territory looks different from how it once did. Some who were content to monitor rock-spirits below the earth have long since been exposed to the sky (the control of which still belongs to a different quander). Some who oversaw the ocean have found islands erupting into their care. Still others have been buried or had their land eroded down below their area of control.

Most quanders are okay with this type of change. Their only concern is to facilitate complex life, and life operates on a non-geologic scale. Tectonic plates can shift all they want. Individual quanders might steady the ground beneath a few buildings or prevent poorly-placed sinkholes; who cares if change occurs beyond that?

Some, however, have taken a more radical outlook on their responsibilities. They received no further guidance than that one directive, “prevent undue hardship for complex life,” for billions of years. Given that both “undue hardship” and “complex life” are phrases open to creative misinterpretation, some quanders take a far more active and stubborn role in their territory's day-to-day function.

This activity makes their territories... weird.

These weird territories come in clusters. Quanders cannot perceive anything beyond the boundaries of their territory except the speech of nearby quanders, a condition which creates regional and often highly localized differences of opinion. The most radical dissidents may only implement rule changes to one or two territories; those with less severe opinions can cause changes across a dozen or more.

Quanders whose land has been settled are more likely to depart from normal physics than those in charge of wilderness. Protect that life, guys.

I could now explain in excessive detail the types of changes a quander can make to its territory—or I could just give significant examples.

Quanders of Notable Weirdness

The Borali capital of Rivermouth lies, unsurprisingly, near the mouth of a river on the bank of a sea. The cluster of quanders it sits atop has decided it would present undue hardship for Rivermouth if water could intrude on manmade structures. In other words: despite its precarious location, Rivermouth cannot flood. While many quanders will mitigate floods, this cluster takes it to the extreme; the interiors of Rivermouth buildings are even notably less humid than the exteriors.

In addition to the obvious benefits, this quander-rule has allowed the construction of basements in an area that would normally see them vanish beneath the water table. Its residents have taken full advantage of this to escape Borali's muggy equatorial heat; more of Rivermouth is excavated than built up. This excavation led, in turn, to a second set of quander rules forbidding cave-ins and altering the mechanics of air exchange... which then led to further excavation, as well as the expansion of Rivermouth into the sea itself, where the seal created by water refusing to touch manmade structures prevents those structures from weathering whatsoever. (Rivermouth could not extend far into the sea, though, due to conflict with its resident fishpeople, the sleth).

Another unusual cluster exists nearby along the eastern Borali border. Two hundred years ago, the gods destroyed that border, drowning it in impassible, non-Newtonian mud (never mind why; post, scope, beyond). The area is now referred to as the “bottomless marsh” (though it is neither thing). Most quanders permitted the construction of this “marsh”; the gods gave them their orders in the first place, after all. However, a cluster near its center maintained that impassible ground constituted undue hardship and would revert to dry land each time the gods tried to change them. Eventually the gods surrendered; the midmarsh quanders now serve as a dry waypoint along the marsh's lone passable road.

On the southern tip of the continent, far below the antarctic circle, lies a single, large quander known as the Polar Tropic. The Polar Tropic had concerns about humanity's ability to exist in a polar climate—so it decided not to be one. The Polar Tropic imports all of its qualities from the north; it imposes equatorial day-night cycles, humidity, rain, temperature patterns, and topsoil richness. It contains a totally unique ecosystem full of plants and animals found nowhere else, as well as a mixed orchard of crops and livestock imported from the north. During the months of polar sun, this quander is visible for miles as a column of midnight; during months of darkness, it becomes a horrible beacon that ruins everyone's night vision and disorients the wildlife.

(Imagine here: several hundred words of sociopolitical context regarding ownership and utility of the Polar Tropic. Deleted, re-typed, and re-deleted. That's Beyond The Scope Of This Post™).

Humans don't get all the fun quanders. Long ago, an enterprising group of sleth figured out how to chip off pieces from a quander's physical dwelling. These shards project a space around themselves that recreate the conditions of their home territory. The shards are mostly taken from land-based quanders and used to create pockets of air to transport humans below the sea. (Note: there is always the danger of sudden, violent decompression if you brush against that pocket of surface pressure while deep in the ocean.) Others are used to bring ocean-based sleth into freshwater conditions without needing months of transition time. Knowledge of how these shards were made has been lost, but the shards themselves remain.

Now a few shorter examples, for fun:

A river flows against a hillside at the junction of two quanders. One refused to erode that hill, and the other refused to reroute its river. Their solution: the water flows upward and transits through the air before tumbling down the other side.

The Godfall quander marks the location the gods first appeared physically on the planet. It towers several hundred feet above the surrounding landscape, as it, too, refuses erosion. By this point so many tunnels have been dug through that its column of rock is effectively floating midair.

A small group of quanders in the northwest black out the sun for five minutes whenever a resident of their cluster dies. (Shadow-spirits serve as psychopomps in this world, but, uh, they really don't need the help.)

A stretch of Cazh desert is actively terrified of rain. It diverts all storms around itself and begs adjacent quanders for help recharching its aquifer.

Across the globe, multiple clusters have expanded the definition of “complex life” beyond the standard generally used by their fellows (ie, “humans and sleth”). These clusters all consider vertebrates complex; some include invertebrate animals or fungi; a handful include plants, and one includes only plants. The methods used to protect these places varies, but a common theme is to consider humans as presenting undue hardship towards other life (and sleth, and sometimes any carnivore or omnivore).

Prompted Again by Writing Wonders

Like my last worldbuilding post, this post was prompted by difficulties in answering the #writingWonders prompts on Mastodon within a 500 character limit. They're often thoughtful prompts, though, so I wanted to give them their due here for encouraging me to get this all down in one place.

 
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from C R Taxon

You know how it goes: start one WIP and a dozen more brawl to be next in line.

I've really fallen out of the writing habit lately. To get back in the swing of things, I'm pausing my main project to work on a novella I've let stew for years. I figure this marks as good a time as any to post about all the projects I'm juggling.

Isle of John [novella]

It's been five years since a hive mind took over the island nation of Kyos. Nobody knows if the people it absorbed still exist as individuals, but with millions of locals and tourists alike trapped on the island, it's about time someone found out.

Enter Essel: a nervous accountant whose sole qualification is a debilitating immunity to magic. His condition may render him safe from assimilation, but Essel doubts it will keep him safe from anything else.

The aforementioned novella! “Guy immune to magic (in a society where its lack constitutes disability)” is an idea I return to a lot. My dear Essel was the first character I made to fit that profile. But I never did write his story.

I'm taking a much more whimsical tone with this one than usual. In part to lower the pressure and get back in the writing habit, but also so I can write things like “Claradon's hand fell on his shoulder like a fat spider from a basement shelf” without being dissonant.

Out with the Bathwater [novel]

Valyn cleans clothes. Valyn cleans people. Valyn cleans curses no one else can see out of clothes and off of people.

One day, Valyn wipes away a curse and the man beneath shrivels to dust.

This project is the one I'm taking a break from, and also, my darling. I've built up its world for years and plan to set other stories there once this one is finished, but they won't form a cohesive series. One novel here, one novel a hundred years earlier and across the globe, one novel down beneath the sea...

Feyport [podcast]

Feyport is a second-world fantasy travelogue hosted by the only man incapable of magic. Join shapeshifting host INH in his quest for Feyport: a legendary train station that takes you where you want to be. Along the way, he tracks down paper towns, stumbles into secret societies, takes part in bird festivals for birds, and gets lost in a series of impossible landscapes.

But INH isn't the only one searching for Feyport—and he'll soon realize his fellow seekers may have nefarious reasons to hunt that train.

Hm, “lone guy immune to magic in a world that relies on it”? Sounds familiar. INH was resurrected from what was, at the time, Essel's neglected ghost. Now in audio format!

I love the idea of a fantasy travelogue. I'm a sucker for podcasts hosted from within their own fictional setting. Combining the two was an obvious choice.

It'll be a while before I publish any episodes. It's a lot of writing per episode (basically a full short story each), I'm new to audio editing, and I'd like to finish up my novella before dedicating this much time to a side project.

The Ache [novel? series of novellas? video game??]

Citizens of Prine Harbor like to call the Ache a disease. But disease can't explain a fraction of the maladies afflicting their city: curses, meteors of molten slag, the disappearance of whole families...

The Ache is not a disease, and it cannot be cured.

Oof. The Ache. What a mess of a project that I love very, very much.

It began life as an over-ambitious idea for a mystery RPG. Then I remembered how much I hate programming, and it became a novel instead. One 115k-word draft later, the story suffers from both its original conception as a game and the dozens of iterative changes made to its setting (originally 1920s historical fantasy, it drifted further and further into second-world-itude as I went).

I can't decide what to do with it now.

I've identified major edits that should whip the novel into better shape. But it will require cutting out an entire POV character and beating back subplots wound tightly to the main arc. Can I really bring myself to butcher it like that?

It might work as a collection of novellas, each anchored to a lone viewpoint (the novel has four main POVs, plus a few more tossed in for flavor!) But the mystery at the heart of the story, the source of the Ache, would be revealed at the end of the first; can the remaining three stand by their own merit with their conclusions known in advance?

It might also work as a series of narrative point-and-click adventure games. Here knowing the source of the overall mystery wouldn't matter so much. But again: I hate programming. Oh, my god, I hate programming.

For now, my poor Ache remains in its trunk.

 
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from C R Taxon

Or: a post in which CR infodumps worldbuilding at himself. I've gussied it up with context for the context, in hopes other people might understand, but you have been warned. Setting up my own Writefreely instance has given me an unfortunate amount of power.

This time, I'm using that power to ramble about...

Borali! A country that isn't technically a country; a guild that isn't technically a guild; a cult that is... absolutely a cult. It's the setting for my WIP novel Out With The Bathwater, and it's a weird, weird place—even by the standards of its own world.

Part of that weirdness is simple enough: Borali fills a unique geographical niche. It lies at the heart of a Pangaea-eqsue continent scarred by stretches of dangerous, impassible terrain. I won't expand on those right now; suffice to say they funnel international travelers along winding, circuituous routes. Passing from one country to the next would be a short trip... if only you could surmount a sheer cliff that grows taller as you scale it, or cross a volcanic gulf that hasn't cooled one degree in its centuries of existence. But you can't. You must take the long way. You must pass through Borali—one of the only places to avoid such ruin.

This freedom of movement is important for context. Now, let's rewind a little.

Two hundred years before OwtB, gods roamed the physical world. It was terrible. They created all that deadly terrain and committed countless other atrocities. During this era, the mountainous highlands and tropical lowlands that would become Borali avoided being torn apart—but did not avoid a divine plague. It devastated their population. The desperate, disparate peoples of that region came together to drive the gods out.

This process cemented two core fragments of the nascent “nation's” identity: anyone properly Borali is both antitheist and deeply germophobic, as points of pride. It also established the region as a hotbed for change, progress, and hope.

So: the gods removed themselves from the world. Mortal cultures knew this absence was tenuous. Subject to revision. The gods were gone, not dead.

Mortals also knew they could not tolerate another fifty years of divine ruin. They could not risk drawing the gods back to earth. And of all the things that evoke the gods' displeasure, conflict tops the list; why else would they have destroyed the lands caught between warring nations?

Mortals, therefore, found themselves grasping for safety. For a neutral territory to work things out among themselves. For a collaborative, international effort to sustain peace, to ward off the gods, and to re-establish normalcy across a shattered land. For a group, perhaps, dedicated to that safety.

That group came together less than a year after the gods left. Drawing members from across the globe, it branded itself the Servantry: a hardworking organization devoted to the service of mankind (and also fishpeople-kind, but that is beyond the scope of this post). Servants commit to giving selflessly, to ensuring the privacy and safety of all travelers, to thwarting espionage, and to maintaining peace.

Where better to house such an effort than centrally-located, god-loathing Borali?

Though the chosen land was not yet called Borali. In fact, it was not yet a single entity; it spanned several smaller territories. The Servantry and its contributing nations drew new borders to encompass the crucial region most at risk of being warred over. The resulting territory was dubbed Borali after a specific upland people.

Borali is explicitly neutral. Its residents are explicitly stateless. On paper, it is defined by an absence of politic; on paper, it is not a nation. It is a crop of mountains and equatorial forest where people happen to be born sometimes, and where thousands of “stateless” people live. On paper, it exists purely to serve the interests of all other nations.

In reality, it functions as a nation governed by an ever-more-tyrannical Servantry.

Over the centuries, the Servantry's self-aggrandizing martyrdom has begun to ring hollow. They are now the de facto governing body of this small but populous “neutral territory”.

Borali residents may be technically stateless, but in every meaningful way they're citizens of a guild-state. Anyone born in Borali becomes a potential recruit to the Servantry. Those who flourish there become socially, financially, and politically powerful, no matter what modest title they have been given; those who fail at “Servant” life are consigned to second-class citizenship.

Yet: the Servantry does remain obliged to its stated goal. It remains obliged to other nations. Yearly trade summits are held in its capital city; Servantry are beholden to keep international guests safe, ensure their privacy, and, well, to serve them. At these times, even high-ranking members submit to busywork and drudgery (which serves both to make them look humble to outsiders and to reinforce their own bloated notions of martyrdom).

Servantry are trained in almost every job under the sun. They are highly encouraged to seek out additional training beyond the mandatory core. “To discourage espionage,” visiting envoys are not permitted their own servants in public spaces. Everyone from footmen to barkeeps to laundresses, from jewellry appraisers to scribes to mediators, must be Servantry-provided.

The Servantry has, somewhat successfully, cast this as a luxurious experience. Visitors arrive in Borali and get pampered! They have everything taken care of before they even know they need it! Look, we'll even give your handmaid a break.

Despite the occasional crunch, high-ranking Servants wield immense domestic and international power. They have experience with and direct lines to the leaders of almost every other nation. The head of the Servantry (currently one Secretary Hillaith) is perhaps the most influential person alive.

Low-ranking Servants, on the other hand, live ascetic lives. Borali considers only two crimes worthy of the death penalty: espionage and god-summoning. The rules designed to prevent those crimes are prolific and oppressive; they were enumerated at Borali's founding, when the threat of the gods was omnipresent and things like espionage were of potentially cosmic consequence. Unlike their more well-off peers, low ranked Servants are permitted no flexibility with these archaic laws. Their training ground literally contains a guillotine to impress the consequence for disobedience (though, teenagers being as they are, “that's it, get to the 'tine!” has become a common joke).

The Servantry has even instituted a type of committed platonic relationship designed to foster compliance. When a youth exits training and is accepted as a Servant, they are matched with a culpar—short for “culpability partner”. A culpar is carefully chosen to be someone their partner will bond with and care about... because collective punishment is supposed to hurt.

Despite this unsettling origin, most people truly love their culpars. Culpardom is considered equal to, and sometimes more important than, marriage. (Marrying your culpar is not off the table, but is considered weird.) The number of crimes deemed serious enough to warrant punishing the perpetrator's culpar has been dialed down over the years; the practice has largely evolved into nothing more than a source of love and companionship, sourced within the insular society of the Servantry.

Largely evolved.

(I will probably write a full post some day about culpars and the state of love in Borali. It's a whole thing.)

Let me bring this post around to the real reason I have been prompted to write it. I've been half-following a series of ask prompts called WritingWonders over on Mastodon. The questions focus on the writing process and on WIPs; they often ask about main characters. Given how much my characters are shaped by their environment, that has made the prompts hard to answer without first giving some backstory on the Servantry.

Which I have now, um. Done.

And so. In the spirit of WritingWonders. Here is the relationship each POV character in my WIP has to the Servantry:

Sinorel and Valyn are both high-ranking members. They are also each others' culpars. Sinorel is the lead interpreter for a large language group; Valyn is a laundress, but has nonetheless attained high rank due to her relationship with Sinorel. Sinorel is rabidly patriotic and wants to become Secretary one day. Valyn appreciates the comforts of her position, but does not hold the same patriotic views.

Ifon is not a Servant or even a Borali resident. He lives just across the Cazh border. Hey, hold on, guy. Should you even be here? Pretty suspicious, if you ask me. Wait a minute, you don't even like the Servantry? My guy, I think you're in the wrong place.

 
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from updater

Just want to know when I have new stuff available to read? Here ya go.

You can follow this updater with RSS, or via ActivityPub-enabled platforms (including Mastodon) @updater@blog.crtaxon.info

 
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from C R Taxon

Welcome to my blog... again. Accidentally deleted the whole thing while trying to install something else to my VPS.

Technology!

Expect infrequent posts about: WIPs, writing prompts, craft talk. Maybe some flash fiction. Who knows! You can follow this blog via RSS or by searching for @crtaxon@blog.crtaxon.info on Mastodon or another Activitypub enabled... place. Thing.

Technology!

If you only want to get notified when I have something new out, check the other blog on this instance (@updater) and follow by the same methods.

 
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