Herodotus, The Histories -Extract- Labyrinth of Egypt

It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, one after another. and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw, going through them, and we tell of them having looked upon them with our own eyes. The chambers under ground we heard about only; for the Egyptians who had charge of them were not willing on any account to show them, saying that here were the sepulchres of the kings who had first built this labyrinth and of the sacred crocodiles. Accordingly we speak of the chambers below by what we received from hearsay, while those above we saw ourselves and found them to be the works beyond the human. For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts. Over the whole of these is a roof made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them. each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of 240 feet, upon which large figures are carved, and into this there is an underground way.

A labyrinth, with an underground level and an adjacent pyramid? That’s a megadungeon right here!

Herodotus, The Histories – Extract – The Gate of the Dead Queen

This same queen [Nitocris] also contrived a snare of the following kind: — Over that gate of the city through which the greatest number of people passed she set up for herself a tomb above the very gate itself. And on the tomb she engraved writing which said: « If any of the kings of Babylon who come after me shall be in want of wealth, let him open my tomb and take as much as he desires; but let him not open it for no other cause, if he be not in want; for that will not be the better way. » This tomb was undisturbed until the kingdom came to Dareios; but to Dareios it seemed that it was a monstrous thing not to make any use of this gate, and also, when there was money lying there, not to take it, considering the inscription itself invited him to do so. Now he would not make any use of this gate because the corpse would have been above his head as he drove through. He then, I say, opened the tomb and found not indeed money but the corpse, with writing which said: « If you had not been insatiable for wealth and basely covetous, you would not have opened the resting-place of the dead. »

This is neat. But I can’t help but think that in lieu of this mild disapproval it should have ended with a terrible world-shattering curse!

Herodotus, The Histories – Extract – Babylon, Lady of the Tower

[…] and in the midst of the temple precinct is built a solid tower measuring 606 feet both in length and in breadth, and on this tower another tower has been erected, and another again upon this, and so on up to the number of eight towers. An ascent to these has been built running outside round about all the towers; and when one reaches about the middle of the ascent one finds a stopping-place and seats to rest upon, on which those who ascend sit down and rest: and on the top of the last tower there is a large sanctuary, and in this cell a large couch is laid, well covered, and by it is placed a golden table. No image is there set up nor does any human being spend the night there except only one woman of the natives of the place, whomsoever the god shall choose from all the women, as say the Chaldeans who are the priests of this god.

I wonder, is Babylon’s the original archetype of a « princess » locked in (atop) a tower?

from a russian fairy tale

Three Kingdoms – Vol IV – Extract – Foreshortening the Land

The Chinese classic Three Kingdoms is one of a kind historical novel. An epic drama, mostly about warfare and governing; here and there we can find interesting fantasy tidbits.

As the Wei cavalry raced after the procession, they noticed a chill wind blowing in little gusts and an icy mist spreading around them. They pursued strenuously for another stage but failed to catch up with Kongming, The soldiers reined in and said in amazement, « How strange! There they are still –we’ve gone thirty li without catching them! What do we do? » When Kongming saw that the pursuers had stopped, he ordered the porters to rest facing the enemy. After a long pause, the northerners resumed the chase; and Kongming returned to his wagon and began moving with studied slowness. The northerners pursued another twenty li but never reached their objective. Dumbstruck, they watched as Kongming had the wagons turn round again and advance toward them. The Wei troops wanted to pursue. But at that moment Sima Yi arrived with a company and issued an order: « Kongming’s marvelous skill with Eight Gateways and the « Taboo Days » formula has enabled him to control the Six Ding deities and the Six Jia deities. As he is now using the technique « Foreshortening the Land » from the divine text of the Six Jia, the army cannot overtake him. »

Three Kingdoms – Vol III- Extract – Rattan-Armored Soldiers

The Chinese classic Three Kingdoms is one of a kind historical novel. An epic drama, mostly about warfare and governing; here and there we can find interesting fantasy tidbits.

« There is a kingdom that can defeat the Riverlanders. » « Where? » asked Meng Huo. « To the southeast, seven hundred li from here, » the chief responded. « The Black Lance kingdom. Their chief, Wutugu, is some twelve spans tall, eats no grain, and survives on live snakes and vicious animals. His body is covered with scales no arrow or blade can pierce. The men in his command have rattan armor made from vines that grow in the ravines and wind around their rocky walls. Natives pick the vines, soak them in oil for half a year, then dry them in the sun. After being thoroughly dried, they are returned to the oil. The vines are dried and soaked this way ten times before being made into armor. The cured rattan keeps the body afloat and dry, as well as safe from arrow and blade; that’s why they’re called « rattan-armored soldiers ».

[…]

The Man warriors swarmed, covering the terrain. The Riverlanders shot their crossbow bolts; but the rattan was impenetrable, and the arrows dropped harmlessly. Neither the strokes of their blades nor the thrusts of their spears could break through it. The Man wielded their sharp knives and steel forks against the Riverlanders, who, unable to defend themselves, eventually withdrew. Wei Yan turned back and rushed to the riverside, where he watched im amazement as the enemy crossed over in full armor: those taken by fatigue simply removed their armor and used it to float across.

[…]

On the sixteenth day Wei Yan led his battle-worn men forth to oppose the rattan-armored Man. Riding an elephant, Wutugu took the lead. He wore a wolf-beard cap decorated with the sun and the moon. Gold and pearls laced his garment, through which his torso’s hard-scaled skin showed. A subtle fire darted from his eyes. Pointing to Wei Yan, he pronounced his malediction. Wei Yan wheeled round and fled again. The Man gave chase in full force. Wei Yan maneuvered around into Winding Serpent Valley as he made for the white flag. Wutugu closed in for the kill; seeing the hills bare, he had assumed he was safe from ambush.

When he reached the middle of the valley, Wutugu saw several dozen wagons with black-painted containers blocking the road. A soldier reported, « This is the Riverlands grain transport route. Your Highness’s arrival has caused them to flee and leave their carts. » Wutugu triumphantly urged his warriors to press the chase to the other end of the valley. There they found no Riverlands troops; but great logs and volleys of rocks crashed down, sealing the exit. Wutugu ordered his men to open the road, He had resumed his advance, when carts of all sizes loaded with burning wood loomed out of nowhere! Wutugu ordered immediate retreat. But from his rear ranks shouts went up: « The exit is blocked by dry tinder, and the carts, filled with powder, are in flames! » Wutugu remained calm because the site was too bare to conceal an ambush.. He ordered his men to escape however they could. Then, lo, from both sides of the valley torches were hurled down, hitting fuses on the ground that ignited iron missiles. The whole valley began dancing wildly with fiery light, and the rattan armor caught fire when touched by the flames. Wutugu and his thirty thousand men perished in Windind Serpent Valley, huddled together in the inferno.

From a hilltop Kongming looked down upon the incinerated men strewn over the valley. Most of them had had their heads and faces pulverized by the falling missiles. An unbearable stench rose from their corpses. Kongming wept and sighed at the carnage. « Whatever service to the shrines of Han this represents, my life-span will be shortened for it », he said. His words deeply touched every officer and man.

Three Kingdoms – Vol III- Extract- Four Poisonous Springs

The Chinese classic Three Kingdoms is one of a kind historical novel. An epic drama, mostly about warfare and governing; there and there we can find interesting fantasy tidbits.

The first, the Spring of the Mute, causes loss of speech; whoever drinks it (though the water be sweet) will perish in ten days’ time. The second, the Spring of Death, is hot, and bathing in it leads to putrefaction of the flesh; death follows after the bones show through. The third, the Black Spring, has somewhat clear water, but a few drops can turn your hands and feet black, and death will follow. The fourth is the Spring of Languor, whose icy water takes away the drinker’s warm breath while his body turns limp as cloth and he perishes. Neither birds not [sic] insects live there. During the Han, the General Who Tames the Deeps passed through; after him, no one.

Three Kingdoms – Vol II- Extract- Vast the River

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The Chinese classic Three Kingdoms is one of a kind historical novel. An epic drama, mostly about warfare and governing; there and there we can find interesting fantasy tidbits.

That night tremendous fogs spread across the heavens, and the river mists were so thick that even face-to-face people could not see each other. Kongming urged his boats on into the deep fog. The rhapsody « Heavy Mists Mantling the Yangzi » describes it well:

Vast the river! Wide and farflung! West, it laps the mountains Mang and E. South, it grips the southern shires. North, it girdles the nine rivers, gathers their waters, and carries them into the sea, its surging waves rolling through eternity.

Its depths holds monsters and strange forms: the Lord of the Dragons, the Sea Thing, the river goddesses, the Ocean Mother, ten-thousand-span whales, and the nine-headead centipede. This redoubt of gods and spirits, heroes fight to hold.

At times the forces of yin and yang that govern nature fail, and day and darkness seem as one, turning the vast space into a fearful monochrome. Everywhere the fog , stock-still. Not even a cartload can be spotted, but the sound gong or drum carries far.

At first, a visible gloom, time for the wise leopard of the southern hills to seclude itself. Gradually darkness fills the expanse. Does it want the North Sea leviathan itself to lose its way? At last it reaches the very sky and mantles the all-upbearing earth. Grey gloomy vastness. A shoreless ocean. Whales hurtle on the water. Dragons plunge and spew mist.

It is like the end of early rains, when the cold of latent  spring takes hold: everywhere, vague, watery desert and darkness that flows and spreads. East, it blankets the shore of Chaisang. South, it blocks the hills of Xiakou. A thousand warjunks, swallowed between the river’s rocky steeps, while a single fishing boat boldly bobs on the swells.

In so deep a fog, the deep-domed heavens have gone dark. The countenance of dawn is dull: the day becomes a murky twilight; the reddish hills, aquamarine jade. Great Yu, who first controlled the floods, could not with all his wisdom sound its depths. Even clear-eyed Li Lou could not use his measures, despite his keen vision.

Let the water god calm these waves. Let the god of elements put away his art. Let the sea creatures and those of land and air be gone. For now the magic isle of Penglai is cut off, and the gates of the polar stars are shrouded.

The roiling, restless fog is like the chaos before the storm, swirling streaks resembling wintry clouds. Serpents lurking there can spread its pestilence, and evil spirits can havoc wreak, sending pain and woe to the world of men, and the storms of wind and sand that plague the border wastes. Common souls meeting it fall dead. Great men observe it and despair. Are we returning to the primal state that preceded form itself — to undivided Heaven and earth?

In the Maw of the Earth Monster

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Some caves are truly awe inspiring and it’s no wonder people have so often associated them with the sacred. Needless to say, one can exploit such a rich domain to extract gameable/storytelling content…

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Inspiring tidbits:

  • Cave of the 4 Winds
  • Caves of the Earth Lord/ Earth Owner
  • associated with rain and thunder spirits
  • Caves of the Inner Maze
  • Lair of  soul-stealing sorcerer
  • the cave opens its mouth at midnight
  • sacred stalagmites (guardians)
  • stone idols
  • Land of the Dead
  • body preserved by fire and then mummified
  • the Mazatec fear the Masters of the Earth who live underground
  • it is said that thunders are controlled by little old men
  • access to the cave-tunnel is difficult as it lies in a deep, steep canyon filled with enormous boulders; its size dwarfs the human visitor
  • representation of a skeletonized figure whose heart is still in place
  • shell trumpet, incense burner
  • cenotes are sources of evil winds; plants and animals that inhabit them , especially tortoise, are sacred

 

On the matter of Ambivalent Entities

or how to say no to D&D alignment:

From the Nahua perspective, nature is not always beneficient, and absolute good or evil does not characterize the major entities. A benevolent manifestation of the earth mother, tonantsij, may kill if she feels neglected, while even the feared spirit of death, miquilistli, can be entreated to spare a patient’s life. In the Nahua view, nothing happens without a cause.

Extract from Chapter 2, Rites of Passage and Other Ceremonies in Caves, Doris Heyden.

Liane the Wayfarer

I recently read the first of the Dying Earth books and was much delighted by the inventiveness of these short stories, with so many colorful characters…

Of course Cudgel the Clever is the most well-known, but here’s another, at least as unforgettable in my opinion:

Liane the Wayfarer

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Art: Konstantin Koborov

You could easily  be deceived by his looks, this guy is, in fact, a bonafide murderhobo!

I mean, beside being an overconfident jerk…

  • He tortures a couple (killing the woman in the process) so he can get a lead on some sort of bounty-hunting.
  • He wants to steal an object (one half of a tapestry), just so he can have his way with a beautiful woman.
  • He must hide his identity in a city, less his own nefarious reputation brings him unwanted attention.
  • He kills a helpful old man in cold-blood after questioning him ’cause there’s a slight chance, very hypothetically, that he serves someone he wants to steal from!