The wood platform was about ten paces across, suspended in the air by thick ropes looped through massive iron eyebolts sunk into each corner. It was low enough that a fall to the jungle floor would probably not prove fatal, though a poor landing could certainly mean a broken back or neck.
Multi-tiered platforms ringed the thick trunks of the surrounding silk-cotton trees, and a profusion of rope bridges and ladders stretched between them, criss-crossing at every level like the web of some giant, deranged spider. Both platforms and connecting ropes were packed to their limit, straining under crowds of wild-eyed Dwellers who had come to cheer on their clan’s champion. High above us, nimble children swarmed through the jungle canopy, leaping from branch to branch with astounding agility.
Most of the spectators hailed from one of the two most powerful clans, the Thousand Eyes and the Rootcage. This made sense: tensions had been rising between these nations for some time, and they had decided to settle it in ritual combat, rather than risk an outbreak of war. My guide pointed out contingents from smaller tribes, including the Leafcutters, the Children of Karuko and the Ghost Apes. These smaller clans had their own web of grievances, to be settled in the arena by their respective champions.
Suddenly, the general chatter turned into a roar as a huge figure leapt from the crowd to land heavily on the suspended platform. The elevated arena swayed with the impact, the figure easily compensating for the movement like a seasoned sailor riding the bucking deck of a ship in storm.
The figure straightened to her full height. At first glance, she she appeared to be a female mab, though one of heroic size and physique. The longer you gazed at her, however, the stranger she became. Her legs were bent at an odd angle, covered in spotted fur like that of a jaguar, and ended in cat-like paws. The cruel musculature of her upper body was sheathed in tough-looking, scaly hide, and as she paced the platform, rolling her neck and swinging her powerful arms, I saw that her already broad back and shoulders were accentuated further by plates of what looked like tortoise shell. Her forehead bulged alarmingly, sprouting a pair of horns like those of an ibex, which arched up and back over her head in an elegant curve.
My awe was undercut by the sound of my guide clicking his tongue in annoyance.
“The horns are a liability. The first thing an opponent will do is grab those, and then they’ll be able to pull her around wherever they want. I suppose she’s trained for it, though…”
– From A Caravan of No Cars by the Repentant and Reformed Bandit Deadtongue Taal yub-sar-Taal
Home in the Heart
The term “Deepheart Dwellers” refers collectively to the peoples that live in the jungle of Modui’s Heart. The Dwellers are divided into a number of clans, the most powerful being the Thousand Eyes in the northwest and the Rootcage in the southeast.
Each Deepheart clan controls a hunting ground that radiates out from a centralized city or town. Rather than clearing land for their settlements, Dwellers usually build them into the jungle, using the massive silk-cotton trees as support pillars for multi-tiered buildings that are then connected by stairways, ladders, and ropes. The larger Deepheart cities like Hanging Baskets and Dew Jewel reach into the canopy itself, their highest platforms forming causeways through the spreading green crowns of the trees.
Reality as Change
It is somewhat difficult to describe a coherent Deepheart culture, as its most sacred tenets are metamorphosis, rejuvenation and impermanence; this makes the art, religion and even legal practices of the jungle clans highly changeable. This is in direct contrast to their neighbors to the north, the Vanni, whose codified and closely-guarded traditions form the basis of a rigid and byzantine legal system administered by a caste of lawyer-priests. Put another way, the Vanni have an established, unchanging canon of sacred texts that are endlessly debated and interpreted; the Dwellers, however, are constantly adding new material to their sacred mythos.
Most Deepheart creation myths do not involve an intelligent deity consciously delineating the bounds of existence; rather, our reality is usually the result of explosive and random generation. There are thousands of these stories; more bewildering still, the same story will have the universe starting in several different ways at the same time. Deepheart gods almost never control this chaotic process, but rather serve as avatars of it – they are multiform, constantly-changing conglomerations with many aspects, names and incarnations.
Within the various jungle clans, there are almost no recognized religious authorities or inviolable texts – the corpus of Deepheart religion emerges from a chaotic process of creation, reinterpretation and reinvention. At yearly religious festivals, any Dweller can present new stories involving well-known gods and heroes, or introduce entirely new deities and demigods. If the audience likes these, they might adopt these new figures into their personal pantheon, worshiping them as they might a god they have known since birth. These festivals give Deepheart society the closest thing to a priestly caste, as certain skilled storytellers will gain devoted followers who will spread their stories throughout the jungle. In turn, these stories will be transformed through this process of telling and retelling, forming the basis for new tales told in following festivals.
The Shiftspore Chosen
One similarity between the Deepheart clans that live along the border of the White Soft is the ritual use of a mysterious substance called “shiftspore.” Deepheart shamans will collect clumps of the Soft, combining the strange fungus with other ingredients in a process that varies from clan to clan, from shaman to shaman, and even from batch to batch (as experimentation is strongly encouraged).
While the details of fermentation and distillation may vary widely, the resultant substance is always known as “shiftspore,” and it is always put to the same use. Every year, the clans will select a small number of their strongest, most accomplished warriors and have them ingest the liquid.
Shiftspore causes extreme anatomical transformations in those who drink it, similar to those caused by the White Soft; and just like with the White Soft, no two subjects will change in the same way. More often than not, the transformation will be deadly and gruesome. The heart could become a hunk of wood, the esophagus a writhing snake. Skin will become a delicate membrane of dragonfly wings while muscles pull themselves off the bone, crawling away from the body like slugs. A twitching spider-leg could push out from every pore, hands could suddenly sprout inside the body and start rending the organs apart. Every time the ritual is undertaken, some of the subjects die in agonizing, previously-unimaginable ways.
However, those who survive will become Shiftspore Chosen.
The Chosen are transformed into something more-than-mab by the ritual. Again, the process is highly individualized, and no two will emerge the same way. For some, the outward physical changes will be minimal, but they will find that their speed, strength or endurance have vastly improved. They could be immune to poisons, disease or sickness.
Others will show outward signs. Skin could be covered in plates of unbreakable carapace, bark or tough alligator hide. Teeth could become fangs, hands could become the claws of a jaguar or tiger. They could sprout a tail – either simian, reptilian or insectile. Again, the possible changes are innumerable.
One thing that remains constant to all of the Chosen; the change grants them unnaturally long life. There are some Chosen who have lived for centuries, watching clans rise and fall and becoming legends that stalk the jungle. As stories about them proliferate, they can even become living gods.
Usually, the Chosen act as elite warriors, leading the fight against rival clans or outsiders encroaching on the Heart. Sometimes, interclan disputes are settled by two Chosen engaging in ritual combat, their fight acting as a proxy for a larger, bloodier conflict.
Besides shiftspore, the most prized resource of the Deepheart clans is shapewood. Small groves of shapewood trees can be found throughout Modui’s Heart. These trees resemble the usual silk-cotton giants of the jungle, but their wood is as durable as steel and exceedingly lightweight, making it an ideal material for fashioning armor and weaponry.
However, shapewood’s unique properties present similarly unique challenges when working it; the material will dull a steel axehead or chisel before the tool makes much of a dent, and it is resistant to fire. Working with shapewood requires a time-consuming, highly specialized process. Deepheart woodsmiths paint the trees with specially-formulated acids that eat it into smaller and smaller pieces, finally resulting in the desired shape for a weapon, a shield, or a plate for a suit of armor. These woodsmiths are as much artists as chemists, using smaller and smaller amounts of different acids to hone razor sharp edges or do delicate detail work, resulting in beautiful products with curving, organic shapes covered in swirling designs. The difficult smithing process makes shapewood armor and weaponry exceedingly rare; however, once made, these items can last for centuries.