Monday, February 1, 2021

Caldera Men

The Caldera Men live around the inner sea/lake/swamp of the greatest caldera in the world- the mouth of the Firespear Mountain. Once the biggest and most most murderous volcanoes in the world, Firespear Mountain was finally silenced by a very powerful Sorceress. The active volcano was quieted with a powerful spell, stopped killing people, and since then the rain has filled the massive ashy hole with water. Life has grown around here- once untamed, now treasured.

This oasis, also known as Firespear Caldera, is one of the only sources of water and life in the blasted hellscape of the Firespear Wastes. It is incredibly fertile. The water mixed with the volcanic ash to create a beautiful sludge- almost any bit of seed or grain placed here will begin to sprout in but moments and will lead to a huge and healthy plant. But this is not a history lesson, nor is it a course on natural philosophy. This is about the men who live there.

Nobody likes the Caldera Men.

Caldera Men
They are roughly the size of a human, but fatter in the middle and more slender in the limbs. Their faces are tall and totemesque. They have yellow skin with gray patches of “ash” that is genetic. The offspring of any couple will have this “ash” of their parents, so a father with ash on his right arm and a mother with ash on her left arm will have a child with ash on both arms, or perhaps on their chest as though the ashes are combining together. It's a dominant trait, so only a few of the Caldera People are pure yellow anymore- it is a sign of exclusive and high breeding, but it is not as respected as “ashy” warriors whose whole body can blend in easier with the wastes around the Firespear Caldera. They are not especially strong and agile, but they are hardy enough.

Additionally, they have heads covered in stones. These “stones” pressed into their formative skulls as young babies- they are stuck in the skin, absorbed, blood vessels grow into these stones. They become a part of themselves as much as a horn of a rhino or the scales of a dragon. It seems the Gods saw it fit to give them this skill to harden their skulls for two purposes- the first is to avoid being too badly hurt by falls around the rocky cliffs of their lands, and the second is to dive faster and deeper in the great Firespear Caldera's deep black pool.

Obsidian blades are very common in their culture- though they have mastered many forms of metal working. They prefer to use obsidian for cooking knives, razors, assassin tools, and the odd arrow heads, but use iron and steel tools for weapons, which are more reliable especially on campaign away from their mountainous homes. Essentially; stat them as bandits with chainmail.

Firespear Caldera
The caldera itself is a natural wonder. It is huge, the largest in the world, and the volcanic ash has made it especially fertile. While it is quite large and fecund, it still is among the only source of life in the region where it is located, and it is essentially the only source of food and water for the race that live within it. For this reason, it is heavily guarded. Small structures, fences, and many ridges and empty trenches dash the landscape leading up to the volcano (these trenches also act as a last ditch effort to catch some of the precious water in the event of a massive tremor that breaks the caldera's walls and causes mass flooding). The entire mountain itself is inhabited with the many estates and homes of the various Caldera Men. The volcanic soil is home to a few small crop farms- but not nearly enough to feed the many that make up their number. They are very vigilant, and will slay or capture any outsiders who even enter their valley- hence why nobody likes them.

The caldera is defined as the explosive cavity left after a volcanic eruption. It is shaped in three dimensional space like a cauldron; a wide rim, buckling outwards, and then thinning again towards the bottom in the shape of a rough, squashed sphere. The Firespear Caldera where the Caldera Men live is the same; but developed. The majority of their population does not live on the sides of the volcano, or in the lands scattering around. They live inside the caldera's lake. The massive pool of water is like a ringed city- chambers and homes are carved into the sides of the water. If one was to dive into it- they would see the expanse go out before them in all directions and then, feel the total stillness. The caldera was never connected to the lake or ocean- there are no fish that naturally life here. It is totally silent and still; you would feel like you are being watched. And that's because you would be- Only the massive, artificial kelp and freshwater corals that act as the true farms of the Caldera Men are alive down here, except for the Caldera Men themselves. There are more living in this water then anywhere on the sides of the mountain. They cannot breathe under water.

This massive space is cultivated and orderly to a fault. The Caldera Men make every single use of available area- the farms are floating on many levels. Most of the top of the caldera is dedicated to long growing plants requiring the most sunlight- their broad water leaves make a canopy of green light that penetrates a bit deeper into the caldera. The middle and broadest part of the caldera is where the corpse garden is- and that is the true darkness of the Caldera Men. And once again; why nobody likes them. The bottom of the caldera is very dark; muscles grow on vertical pillars that rest on a field of rich mud. This mud is dragged up for use of farming on the surface- but it is also used as the location for the Caldera Men's most hidden members.

This 'corpse garden' is where most of the outsiders and members of other races who end up in the Caldera Men's clutches end up. They are forced to drink salt water from “Breathless Urns”- salt water must be carried by hand over a hundred miles to the ocean, and then the outsiders are drowned. Pulled into the water, they cannot breathe and the salt water within them preserves their body. The salt water is also denser then the fresh water of the caldera, keeping their body neutrally buoyant. They are lined in rows- sometimes according to height or their species, and forced to hold hands long after death. These long daisy-chains of dead bodies are then violated by seeds shoved in their mouth, ears, nose, and anus or the sex organs. These seeds grow fierce underwater vines that grow murky corpse fruit by consuming the bodies- slowly breaking them down even as they are frozen in place. Despite the grotesque nature of this use of the corpses of intelligent people; the Caldera Men have them right outside their front doors of their underwater homes. There are thousands of corpses here- the source of the Caldera's nutrient wealth and a huge portion of the Caldera Men's food production. While it is not cannibalism, most races consider them only one step above it.

Caldera Men Society
The Caldera Men are an odd society. They focus on excellence, especially in military pursuits, magic, and growing food first and foremost. They are also almost entirely meritocratic- they do not have a royal family but instead a rotating position of powerful warriors and magicians elected by council and proving themselves in contests of skill and strength. Then, these members are advised by an elusive order of deep priests. These priests live in the mud of the deepest part of the Firespear Caldera- an entire world can be found by digging in that ultra fertile soil, and these rare priests only leave it occasionally to advise the rulers on the best course of action for spiritual matters.

The Caldera Men are a relatively advanced society- capable of metallurgy and large scale agriculture in their small home, but they barely wear clothes. The ones who live within the caldera's lake itself go around naked, except for women who are pregnant, which cover their developing baby with a large board leaf grown near the upper layers of the Caldera lake for just such a purpose. Those who live out of water wear simple loincloths made a lizard skin. The lizards are the closest thing to livestock the Caldera Men have; they are wild but certain families will claim ownership over the fattest lizards and allow them to grow as big as they can- passed from father to son like any inheritance. When one of these huge lizards is harvested there will be a small feast in celebration, and the precious skin will be taken to be made into leather. This lizard leather is used to make a black smith's apron; because it takes about eight lizards to make an apron and the Caldera Men society only allows those with one to practice the craft; this has become a mechanism for control. Basically the only way to become a blacksmith is to be born one and inherit an apron, or be sponsored by a wealthy and powerful Caldera Man to have one made for yourself. As blacksmithing is a lucrative career, this means that only a few can pursue it while most are stuck making food and capturing outsiders as professional warriors- this keeps the Caldera People fed, and is overall a more important profession.

Warriors of their society wear armor on their naked skin- one reason as they why they are able to compete with other cultures despite their apparent resource scarcity is because of their natural advantage of having a rock-hard helmet freely from biology. The handles of axes, swords, and maces are all made with decently long femurs taken from the corpse garden. Poorer warriors wear mail dresses made of the shells of the deep oysters from the Caldera lake. The richest and most powerful warriors in their society have a strange cultural obsession with the concept of flaming armor; some get theirs enchanted with ever-burning flaming magic from those that live within the deepest parts of Firespear Caldera.

Like many societies in Allwonder, the roles of men and women are segregated- but not considered unequal. Men in their society focus on physical strength and warfare, where as women are taught the secrets of healing and the magic of water and earth for both offensive and defense. This way, both sexes make up important and necessary roles to protect their lands from invasion. During peace, both are expected to take up equal roles farming and child raising. Food is precious, and as such parents are expected to produce only high quality children- daily training drills and heavy competition among siblings are common. Often, Caldera Men families will dispose of the lesser of two twins or killing two of three triplets- this pedicide has caused them to see twins of other races or cultures as being cursed or unnatural in some way.

Oddly, the Caldera Men have an unusual social role for those who fall outside of the normal gender spectrum- the transsexual or genderqueer Caldera Men are considered a sort of mystic sect by the others of their race. They take vows of celibacy and let go of all physical property and social ties to retreat into the mud at the base of the great caldera- there they are taught the secrets of fire magic, and tend to the fading soul of the great Firespear. These become the priests and advisers, and are thought to have special sight and powers from their ambiguous nature.

When it comes to their dealings with other races; the Caldera Men are simple and straight forward. They kill anyone they can get away with- merchants, diplomats, wandering mystics, and adventurers. Whenever faced with a large military force, they will begrudgingly accept talks or barter, but are considered too dangerous and difficult to invade, especially given nobody knows just how many live under the still waters of that dead volcano.

Soul of Firespear
The Firespear Volcano was the biggest in the world. It didn't erupt all at once however, there was no great cataclysm. It was inhabited by a spirit- Firespear. Firespear was a great spirit. It's mountain was its home, and every day it bubbled hot magma and sent up clouds of ash and steam. The volcano was always active- and Firespear threw balls of fire far into the sky and down again- burning anything that came close. For plants and physical objects, bolts of flame were enough. But for living things? The bolts turned into burning hot, red spears that pierced their bodies, cooling on their blood. These spears became the Red Caldera Spears- there are a few dozen out in the world today. They are moderately powerful magic items. In the mud of the Caldera itself? There are thousands of them. Enough for an army and to defend the Caldera Men- or start a conquest of their own.

Every place nearby the mountain was under attack constantly- it was a disaster in slow motion. The spirit would whisper to the winds to send its fire farther, or ball up its heat into a magma ball and send it boiling down a river to ignite a swamp. It was hungry to burn. The constant hazard meant everyone had to stay away from Firespear- until it was quieted. Firespear shriveled up until it became small- small for a God.

It is the size of a sleeping bear, a heated lump of fire. Firespear is formless, genderless, and mindless. It is for this reason that hermaphrodites and the in-between of the Caldera People are considered sacred- it is an aspect of their God that is above and beyond normal mortal life. The chamber it is within is made of mud- so cooked by its endless inner flames that the walls have been fired into ceramic, hardened clay. The Caldera Men are its servants- they wish to speak to and know more about this enigmatic entity- but it is silent. By staring into its flames, a mortal mind is opened and unlocks the secrets of fire. The magic of water is taught from mother to daughter by the Caldera Men- but fire? Fire is learned by staring directly into the soul of a spirit.

The soul of Firespear dwindles, as though it is losing itself in its heat and deeply buried under the mountain of water just above it. The priests of the Caldera Men tend to it however they can; they fan its body to feed it air. They bring it sacred wood, which is any wood really since none of it grows around the volcano, and sink it into its form so it may consume it. They have a canal in the floor where lamp oil is steadily dripped- flowing into the body of Firespear as though it was life giving water, but for a living lump of flame instead. Occasionally it shifts in place; maybe lengths above it the water boils spontaneously, rising heated bubbles of steam to the surface of the caldera's pool. The priests examine the burns on the bodies of the victims of these random, thoughtless eruptions to divine the will of their sleeping God.

Temples of Mud
At the bottom of the caldera, past the corpse gardens and past the stone pillars crowded with muscles, there is a thick floor of mud. It is incredibly silty, rich, and very fertile. The mud is also the entrance to the underground temple. All of it. In order to enter the secret Firespear Temple; one must press themselves against this mud, lightly swimming down or having gravity push you through it. It takes two turns to fully sink in, and after the first turn you're stuck in place until you move through. As such, this is a final layer of defense for the temple against invaders; most mortal races can hardly hold their breath for a few minutes, much less half an hour or more like the Caldera Men can.

Once you have sunk through this floor of mud, you enter the temple through the ceiling at the corresponding location. It is for this reason that the top floor of the temple is a sprawling maze with no valuable rooms or items behind closed doors- too easy to sneak in from the mud. At least for the Caldera People. You can go back up through the ceiling in the same manner. Those who know the thin spots can even pass through walls here- pressing sideways until you slip through a wall, as it closes behind you in perfect repair. Passing through a wall takes 1 turn for a thin spot, 2 turns for a thick spot, and if you accidentally try to pass through a border wall or into a filled in “square” on the dungeon map, you are trapped within pure, thick mud that entombs you forever.

To enter the temple without an invitation is considered very rude, if not sacrilegious. Caldera Men only enter the temple for special duties, or for a magical or religious crisis. Like many societies, magic and religion are one in the same.

The Firespear Temple is made of hardened mud, the floor is warm and gets hotter the deeper you go- as you get ever closer to the burning soul of Firespear below. The walls are made of mud as well, shaped and kept in place by the pressure of the great stone pillars just above it. Everything is built as an arch; a technique perfected by the early Caldera Men to keep the temple's rooms from being crushed or bubbling up or below each other. The floors are patrolled not just be the temple adherents, the fire speakers, but also strange monsters that live in the mud. Lungfish as big as dogs, long deactivated crab golems, which will rise again if the symbols on their back have the mud wiped clean. The bones of uncountable thousands of victims to the corpse gardens are piled here, sometimes their angry spirits rise again as the undead without the Caldera Men even knowing of it.

The deeper you go in the temple, the darker and more humid it becomes. Water seeps through the roof and pools in the divots in the floor, like this whole place is just a filter-feeder itself. The air is so impossibly thick with moisture that if you flee from a combat, the party must spend a whole turn panting and catching their breath from how much water is in the air. For those who can breathe water, this does not apply. Indeed, the deepest parts of the temple are more closely aligned with the powers of fire over water and earth. The deep temple fire-speakers defend the holy place from intruders with sweeping robes of old lizard skin. They wear helmets made of clay, fired by the heat of their God's moaning, rolling madness, and cast magical fire upon you. The tunnels are lined with bones to help support the roof and keep out the water as it pools higher and higher at the deepest parts- metal is used here as well, scribbled with hundreds of names and wishes as it bolsters the way to the spirit's chamber. Even if you can past these defenses, the Soul of Firespear itself is a terrible foe if it was roused.

But even thus; there is opportunity here. Opportunity for adventure and treasure. Somewhere in this muddy temple is a storeroom which holds hundreds of Red Caldera Spears- magic items that could make you rich if you can bring back enough of them. Many also imagine a huge room filled with treasure from the surface- the lives ended by the Caldera Men must have been carrying some valuables sealed away down here, right? After the number they have slain, surely there must be a treasure hoard to rival that of a dragon at this point. Ancient clay tablets, fired with the knowledge of ancient magic could be found among the records, and magic suits of armor being enchanted by the priests could also be stolen away- rough in construction, strong in application. Finally, while few even know of the great spirit Firespear's existence, those who do say that one could slay the volcanic spirit to steal a portion of its godsoul, its divine spark, and instill it into oneself to become immortal, or at least, powerful beyond any dream.

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