Chapter Type: Background/World Development, Character Development, Exploration, Slice of Life
Athal, the world of my birth, was much like other worlds. It had a great number of squabbling and warring races, and a plethora of monsters who existed in the realms between. In times of great trouble, the Great (or Legendary) Heroes were summoned from other worlds, and handed the Legendary Weapons to gain strength and then deal with whatever monsters were threatening civilization in that age.
Long story made short, when the Dragon of Wands first began his campaign of conquest, twelve Heroes were summoned, one for each Legendary Weapon. They botched the job, and all of the Legendary Weapons were lost, or worse, found their way into the hands of beastmen, trolls, or other sentient monsters.
Civilization fell. The elves were burned from the Elder Wood, and fled into the lesser woods of the world, much of their lore and magic lost forever. The Duhr and their dwarven brethren were rooted out from the central mountain ranges, and their underground highway system used to devastate their empire.
The cities of man, once numerous and thick, were thinned out. A tapestry of farms stretching from one coast to another was broken, only single points of light surviving. A castle here, a forgotten herd of shepherds there.
The Dragon of Wands ruled, the dragons under him, the giants under them, and other servant races under the giants. That age fell when the Dragon of Wands grew tired of politics and retired to the Black Mountains to pursue his studies into magical energy cultivation, stating he had no intention of returning, and didn't care who took his throne.
Without strong leadership, various beastmen fell upon each other, and upon their masters. A war of less than four decades ended; everyone and everything lost. Over the three centuries since then, those able to rebuild did so.
It was into this shattered world that I was born:
Level 0 Magical Beast, Protean (lesser Titanspawn)
MIGHT: 0 (base health 10)
INSIGHT: 1 (modified from base 0)
RESOLVE: 0 (base sanity 10)
CHARISMA: 0 (base serenity 10)
Curious (+1 INSIGHT, max 3, paltry INSIGHT XP Bonus)
Omnivore (0/120 biomass)
Naturally, I was born hungry. Fortunately, the egg I was hatched from contained enough Protein, rank 0 for a full meal, so I ate that. It granted me a single point of biomass. I regarded the world around me while nibbling on the eggshell, made of Dairy, rank 0.
We were dozens, my brothers and sisters and I, and there seemed to be hardly enough room for all of us. Our world was a lagoon, vaguely shaped like a bean, not that I knew that at the time. Where the sun rose in the morning, there was sand. On the other side a rocky structure that I now know was coral.
We lived beneath the waves, and the horrors lived above. Oh, you know them as seagulls, or birds. But to us? Monstrous horrors that would smash into our world from above if we wandered too close to the border between our world and theirs. For the most part, we subsisted on paltry seaweed (vegetable, rank 0), but sometimes when the tide was high smaller sea creatures were washed into our domain.
I say smaller sea creatures, but to a youth the size and power of a shrimp, born without armor or tooth or claw – they were monsters. There was combat XP for defeating those foes, but our sisters discovered the party system long before we males did. They grew fast and strong and into two groups, blue and red. When one red sister approached the blues and assumed a shade of purple, they tore her apart.
Oh, I had my first point of MIGHT, to be sure, increasing my base health from 10 points to 15, but to be honest, it didn't surprise me that as the runt of our litter that I wasn't invited into many groups. It was okay at the time; although biomass was gained by different tracks, I was happy to exist on vegetables and the stray bit of protein my siblings left behind.
I stayed much as a sea-snake in form; there were evolutions to be gained from anything I ate, but those cost biomass, usually much more than the creature itself. So, I was lax in developing my abilities, and in acquiring spare biomass.
This was nearly my death; I had wandered too close to the region claimed by a group of my brothers who were developing armored shells. They transmitted their hostile intentions, and I fled. I didn't have the speed of those who had developed the fins of fish, nor the stamina to run far.
As I approached the coral, I followed it upward. I knew I was too near the border between the living world and the world of death, but my brothers continued pursuing.
And then I was through.
It was horrible. For the first time in my life, I was losing water! Not blood, but water. Oh, and the Smothering condition. That wasn't fun, as I gasped for water that just wasn't there. Gravity had become more insistent, crushing my body into the sharp rock beneath. But mostly, I writhed in pain, wishing I could just breathe.
[Amphibian Lungs unlocked! Evolution complete! Transformation begun...]
Well, not in those words. We didn't have or need words. But the sudden knowledge that I could invest LOTS of biomass points in order to breathe occurred to me. Not wanting to die, I did so. Blessed air filled my lungs, and I stopped smothering. I was dizzy for a time, and I kept losing water. If that kept up, horrors or no, I would die.
Through a process of trial and error, I learned enough experience in Agility/Mobility/Ground/Slither to gain my first point. I re-entered the water at a point far removed from my brothers. I was near my Red Sisters, who sent unhappiness toward me. I swam to a distance where they stopped minding my presence.
I may not have been the first among us to discover that I could survive in the hostile world above, but I believe I was the one most profoundly affected. My curiosity led me to discover exploration XP before my siblings. It wasn't much, but I improved two Insight sub-statistics, Listen and Smell. It was my first improvement that didn't depend on using the skill (Valor/Melee Defense/Dodge/Natural Weapons was my highest at 3) or just using biomass points.
Most of my statistics were still 0, and my MIGHT and INSIGHT were only 1 at this point. I wanted AGILITY next; it was the statistic that was the basis of stealth, which I used to avoid detection by the horrors, usually with poor results. I usually ended up smooshing my flexible body into deep cracks, or using my dodge/melee until I could get back to the lagoon.
Most of my sisters and some of my brothers had MIGHT of up to three, which was enough to fight the horrors on even terms. If the horrors were foolish enough to take on a group of us, we won. Well, I say we, but I was still the runt of the litter, and not involved in any of these victories or partaking of the spoils.
Oh, I had my discoveries, in part because of my newly sharpened senses. The tides washed up Poor Seaweed(rank 1) and dead fish on the outside of the coral, which I had learned it was better to eat at night, when the horrors were fewer and seemed less capable than those in the daytime. I had discovered bones and scales, and invested the biomass points to grow both. The scales, in particular, helped reduce the rate of water loss to the point where I could spend extended times (almost an hour per jaunt) above the surface.
With the discovery of rank one foods (providing two or three biomass points per meal), and my larger stomach being able to hold and digest two meals at a time, I must have grown to near a foot in length. I had developed two forelegs and the Crawling subskill of the Ground movement group. I was not the strongest or fastest or toughest of our group, but I was happy with the balance between those that I had struck.
Alas, these days were not to last. Food had grown scarce in the lagoon, and others had discovered the joys of nocturnal foraging. I lost a few brothers and sisters who entered the sea, only to become part of the food chain. Worse, there was a tentacled thing that began hunting along the outside of the coral.
Those who went out on the beach at night did so only in groups; there were Crustacean, Level 1 there that could do up to three health points in a single hit to us. Some embraced the slaughter with an aggression supported by their size or adaptions. I let my hunger meter rise, slowly losing energy levels (particularly stamina) and getting near to the point where my body would start consuming my own biomass points to survive. I was glad to have a small body, for I needed less food than my siblings.
When the first culling arrived, it was over an oyster of all things. A rock with a meaty core, more effort than the protein was worth, in my opinion. That said, I had been a forager more than a fighter. It didn't take me by surprise when one of my brothers darted in at the moment a Blue sister had cracked open the oyster; hunger had made my siblings desperate.
No, what surprised me was that my brother extended spines and flailed about, injecting paltry poison (level 0) into her. It was a lost cause before her sisters came to her aid. I forget which one got a good bite hold on his back just beneath his head, but she got in a good bit of damage before he escaped. The Blue Sisters returned to their sorority with their prize, and that should have been that.
Except it wasn't. My brother was severely wounded, and had the Bleeding condition. He was clearly weakened – and my other brothers were hungry. They killed the wounded and began to divide up the pieces, coming to blows and bites and claws. One crab-like brother grappled with one patterned after a lobster. My stomach growled, but I knew there was no chance of food.
Through the mist of kicked-up sand, I saw a flash of red. Red? That was the color of my sisters, who were – who were above and off to one side of the conflict, looking hungrily down upon the conflict and using their superior swim speed and size to pick off weak targets. I tried to subtly shift my position toward the Blue side of the lagoon – only to notice the Blue Sisters also interested in the fray.
HUNGER, one of them sent toward me, charging. A red octo-form intercepted her; Blue Sisters moved to aid her; Red Sisters took issue and also joined the chaos. I made my save against poison cloud (level 1) and dodged a Water Jet attack before the terror overcame me. About a quarter of us were dead at that point, brother and sister alike.
I fled to the shallows, and then to the sand beyond. I should have feared the horrors above, as they cawed out their hunting cries. But I was under Fear (Moderate) of my own siblings; it was all I could do to remember to begin shifting my color to a lighter brown as I fled blindly inland. When I heard one of my siblings emerging from the water behind me, I redoubled my efforts (if not my actual speed).
Now the sand was hot. Not hot enough to do thermal damage, but hot enough to increase the rate of water loss. Behind me, my sibling roared defiance and fought back against one of the horrors. Even as fears dueled for control of me, I struggled to propel myself to the imagined safety of the green at the far end of the beach.
Somehow, I made it. In retrospect, I shouldn't have. I looked back to see one of the horrors carrying off half of one of the Blue Sisters, still in the process of dying. Over the corpse of a horror, my brother looked after me, croaked, and projected his violent intent. I wonder, some days, how many of my siblings survived that day. What became of them?
Me? I fled from patch of green to patch of green, and when I was far enough away, risked a quick dash to refill my water from the sea before continuing away, the sea to my left, the unknown to my right.
For the next two days, I survived mostly on insects, having realized that the grass was only a paltry vegetable (level -1). It would take two meals to provide a single biomass point. There sure was a lot of it around, but the insects died with a single bite and provided a better food source.
The Protean lineage of the sea ran strong in me. I couldn't change forms in a blink, but inspired by a lizard, I was able to grow my second set of limbs. They were a mess of muscle and cartilage, but the rudimentary limbs allowed me to pull myself along, with a significant boost to my crawling rate. I took to nibbling on small seashells, but it would be weeks before I had enough bone mass to rework my skeleton properly.
On that second day, I found a broad area of water. It moved slowly, but fast enough that I was at risk of being swept out to sea if I dared to confront its current. I turned inland, wondering what to do with the exploration XP I had earned for discovering the river delta. I'd already developed my bite attack skill quite a bit (to level 2) just by using it. I decided to purchase a skill rank specifically to notice insects by Smell and another for the Sight group, as both of these were lower cost than the other senses available to me at that time.
In retrospect, this was a mistake. The river was a different terrain than the Coast, and meant that all my foraging bonuses went away. That, and I learned of the existence of fresh water, which initially stung my eyes and caused digestive issues. I didn't have the biomass points remaining to adapt; my body was converting biomass points into the physical stamina I needed to just crawl for hours on end.
I suffered minor injuries, on roots and tripping on rocks, and once by biting a briar I mistook for an insect. But these healed in a day's rest, allowing me to travel at night. I could not see in the dark at this point, but my other senses were (barely) enough to get by. There were times when a root or pile of rocks made my way difficult, and there was one day where the bugs flew by overhead, but none came within biting range. I subsisted on grass and algae, and was weaker for it.
There was one night where the river rose because of rain, which I didn't really understand at the time. It felt as though the sky dropped hundreds of tiny fists upon me, but I took shelter under a plant, and discovered my first paltry mushroom (level 0) there. It took several hours to digest and provide its biomass point, but it had a spice rating of one, which boosted the rate at which I regenerated mental fatigue. It was like magic, and I resolved to eat any other mushrooms I came across.
Yeah, not my first bad decision. But we'll get to the specifics of why later.
But it was on the fifth day that I encountered a plant taller than the lagoon had been deep. Its branches spread and vegetation blotted out the stars from the sky. It was, of course, only the first of many trees I would encounter in that wood, but I could not know it. I gazed up at its majesty and sheer bulk, and knew it for the largest life form I had ever encountered. It was a monolith in plant form, and although I received no exploration XP, I knew it had to be the single king of all plants.
The next day, I discovered the forest, and received exploration XP. I just stood there, breathing, until the dawn's sun forced me to seek shade.