Monday, October 12, 2020

El Dorado: a Hitch in Hell

 Table of Contents

  • Preface: Solemnity
  • The Structure of Hell
  • Player Characters
    • Kinds: the El Doradans, the Salamanders, and the Damned
    • Special Classes: the Mine-Rowdy, the Salamandrine Guide, and the Idolator
  • Hell-Crawling
    • Introduction
    • Settlement
    • Generating Hexes
    • Random Encounters and Settlement Score
    • Modifying Dungeons
  • Grumman's Claim

Agares, by Wayne Barlowe

El Dorado: a Hitch in Hell

"So soon born, now so soon leaving
Please remain, I love you dearly
I wonder, is this care or grieving?
I feel you here, but feel you nearly

Please remain, I love you dearly
Once we go, love, then we’re gone.
I feel you here, but feel you nearly
Once one falls, the whole is done.

Once we go, love, then we’re gone.
I’m not as resigned as once I was
Once one falls, the whole is done.
The parting, the breaking, the hollow cause

I’m not as resigned as once I was
So soon born, now so soon leaving
The parting, the breaking, the hollow cause
I wonder, is this care or grieving?"

Preface: Solemnity

I consider myself, though I have not always, a gentle person. I don't like for anyone to be hurt, even when absolutely necessary. The sorrow for suffering weighs on me, and when I despair it is for those who are helpless, as we all ultimately are. This is why the story of Hell has so gripped my mind, and why stories of religious horror in which cruelty is justice and my moral intuitions are squashed by some alien Rightness are equally striking.

In laying out a setting for dungeon RPGs in Hell, know that I am going to take it seriously, play it straight, and make very few jokes. What I lay out here will be very seldom explicit or crude, but if your stories descend into a place made for torture, then to ignore or negate it would make the setting of your story irrelevant.

Understand that every character depicted here in Hell is, if not evil by your personal definition, under the banner of evil. No one here can expect kindness from anyone else, and will get no reward for doing so. If a player character makes a merciful choice, it will have to be meaningful in its own moment. It is my hope that small kindnesses in such a miserable place will carry a note of miracle and of grace.
As a final note, some parts of this piece will reference the mythologies of our own world. You may wish to change some names around.

"Jehoram sent a messenger
When Jehu he approached
'My master ask for peace' said he
Hard-faced, Jehu reproached:

'No prophet I, nor savior,
Simply servant to surcease.
You serve the son of killers, page
So what know you of peace?

'Jehoram, Jezreel, Jezebel,
Heads seventy in heaps,
Punishment, divinity:
The proof ADOSHEM keeps.

'No prophet I, nor savior,
Simply servant to surcease.
I’m the ending, the epistle,
For what knows my LORD of peace?'"

The Structure of Hell

Deep under the Earth is the concentric place called Hell. Since before all records, it has been home to heat and cold, and the folk called Salamander who lived there. Since the start of recorded myth, it has also been home to the Devil and his demoniac host. Ruling from the seven cities built in the craters where their seven greatest first Fell, these creatures impossible to finally kill and capable of assuming whatever form is most horrible have harrowed the world since that time. After the Salamanders and the demons came the damned, the shades of those who the world had killed on the surface. They too cannot be finally killed, for their punishment by demons shall be unending.

(Some say that the individual punishment of each damned soul serves as some kind of poetic justice. A GM who cannot think of an appropriate ironic punishment may always fall back on one of two: "just as they afflicted X on others in life, so too are they afflicted by Y," or "just as they were slaves to their X in life, so too are they constrained by Y.")

After the salamanders, the demons, and the damned, the rest of the sinners have begun to arrive.  Coming through the deepest caves, blasting through the longest tunnels, the greediest from the surface have come to Hell in search of one thing: gold. Boomtowns have been birthed, boomed, and burned out. Men have gotten riches and gotten wrecked. There is a frenzy to take the treasures of Midas, the seals of Caesar, the crown of Satan himself back to the surface (or to a company on the edge of Hell) and strike it rich.

This is the stage for events. Near the center of Hell is treasure, cursed but cavernous. On the edges, greedy prospectors out of their element. In between, miles of hostile landscape, political wastelands beyond their ken, and literal demons. If they get to their destination, they are like to encounter all the normal perils of a dungeon before they can haul everything back.

"Well it’s cold down here as the devil’s scorn
Were I a baby they might a kept me warm
But they’re safe in their beds and as warm as fresh pie
And here in the snow is where I am to freeze and die

See, I used to have gold but the gold was spent
And it don’t spend twice and I had to pay rent
So I went to the folks I last year had lent to
They all looked at me and said 'who the hell are you?'

So I stole from the banker and I took from the plate
And I took off a running for the Usurer’s strait
But I carried so much gold I couldn’t pack my map
And I need to either burn or eat my last bootstrap

Well it’s cold, cold as the devil
But I’m hot, I’m hot with shame
‘Cause I’m not, not your tool, boy
But you don’t know my right name."

Player Characters

I have written this section with the assumption something GLoG compatible.

On the surface world, your race (ancestry, species, folk, whatever) might matter a lot. In Hell, you are defined by the kind of person you are-- the kind who just got here (El Doradans), the kind who were here before the demons (Salamanders), and the kind who got here the old-fashioned way (the Damned). Each may have some minor boon from their more specific extraction, but each kind is ruled by their undermining weakness. Every character starts with knowledge of at least two languages-- the trade language and their ancestral tongue.

"El Doradan" is the common term for those who willingly came here from the surface, either to seek gold or to form part of the logistical apparatus to do the same. Most are religious, but not in the kind of way that stops you from heading straight to Hell. You might find any of your typical fantasy folk among them. Elves, humans, dwarfs, definitely some tieflings, etc. Racial animosity is common unless gold is on the line. Each player who is making an El Doradan should work with the GM to come up with a minor boon that their people have imparted them. This should be specific if they are an elf, the kind of elf they are matters. Boons might be a minor trick of survival or diplomacy, a special language, or a unique item. The weakness of the El Doradan is their wanderlust. An El Doradan never regains HP for resting in a settled area. If you are playing with alignment, El Doradans are almost always chaotic evil.

(As an aside, the historical 49ers of the California Gold Rush were often called El Doradans by their contemporaries)

Salamanders are the original inhabitants of Hell, though most outsiders call them "Salamandrine Men." The typical Salamander is thin and ash-grey, though many muted phenotypes are found. They are not a singular people, and have many states and tribes in varied conflict and concords with each other. Racial animosity is common unless the intrusion of El Doradans is likely. The boon of the Salamander is their adaption to the wastes of Hell. A Salamander never gets fatigue for traveling, and takes minimum damage from environmental hazards, up to and including falling directly into lava. The weakness of the Salamander is their wrath. They must test their charisma to flee from a fight or skirmish after they have been hurt, and to avoid sulking after failing to get their way. It is important to note that the Salamander's mind is as rich and differentiated as yours or mine. You and I are different in many ways even when we are both angry. If you are playing with alignment, Salamanders are almost always lawful evil.

The Damned are those who have died on the surface and condemned to Hell. They are no longer defined by the political world of the world above but by the sins for which they have been tormented. If someone Damned dies in Hell, they reform after a year and a day of torment, losing any accumulated experience points. If you are playing such a character when this happens, roll up a new character. Damned characters start with an additional skill, whichever sin most ruled them in life. This might be a classic one like "Gluttony," or it might be something else. The weakness of the Damned is their punishment. They are usually the most prominent members of any group to a demon, and demons will preferentially target them with maledictions. Anyone who considers playing one of the Damned should know that demons are the most common encounter when travelling through Hell. If you are playing with alignment, the Damned are usually neutral for the first few months of their stay, then almost always neutral evil.

Each Kind has access to all the normal classes of your system, but also has access to a signature class. The El Doradan may become a Mine-Rowdy, the Salamander may become a Salamandrine Guide, and the Damned may become an Idolator.

Starting Equipment: mattock, sieve, whip, a box of devil cigars, lantern full of glowing lemures (harmless)
Starting Ken: Prospecting, one other

A: On your turn, you may push or sunder once for free. Also, you get advantage on checks to investigate stone, gas, and metal.

B: Hirelings always stick with you, regardless of poor treatment. They are always "willing" to risk bad environments.

C: You can deal nonlethal damage without penalty, and when you cause someone to take fatigue, you heal that much fatigue yourself.

D: Every time you clear out a mine or subterranean dungeon, you can turn it into a profitable mine in 1d4 weeks. This nets you automatic gold each month, but with a 1-in-6 chance per month that you'll have to crush a union or somehow crack the whip.

Starting Equipment: an ash walking stick, dark garments that would fit over armor, 2d4 rations only a salamander would eat, and a charm
Starting Ken: weather prediction, one other
A: When an ally hits a flanked foe, deal 1d6 damage. You get forewarning of random encounters.
B: When sneaking outdoors, you are effectively invisible past 15 feet.
C: Through gesture and intuition, you can communicate basic concepts with any living being.
D: You may enter a Sulking state, in which you automatically perceive all encounters, traps, and obstacles and gain 1 fatigue for each perceived.

Starting Equipment: holy book, grappling hook, a bronze idol, a betting pool on how you will die, and light armor
Starting Ken: demonology, heresies, one other
A: +1 Idol Dice. Spend dice to summon [sum] 1 HD demons (who seek to destroy all sinners, including you) or to cause malfunctions.
B: +1 Idol Dice. Spend dice to summon a [sum] HD major demon (who seeks to destroy all sinners, including you) or dispel defenses.
C: +1 Idol Dice. Once a month, spend dice to summon a catastrophe.
D: +1 Idol Dice. You are invisible to all but seven demons.

d12 Idolator Dead Pool (contribute 100 XP to next character if you "die" in this way)
  1. By water
  2. By fire
  3. By sword
  4. By beast
  5. By upheaval
  6. By plague
  7. By strangling
  8. By stoning
  9. In a lonely slip
  10. By barbiturate
  11. For your greed
  12. For your hunger
"O mortal man, pursue not immortal wrath!
It is masterless horror. It is viperous to wield.
Crown not the wounds that birth your blood.
It is not armor, havoc. It cannot shield.
You throw yourself on vainglorious blades
Always, forever, keep facing the foe.
The master of torment that lays all along.
Not the man, not the manner, but the funeral row.
In new ages, Wraths wrack us even now,
Made eternal by foolish fighters’ ill-made word
That traded truth like kine for barbs and leave
To kill, to dull the mind to edge the sword."


The presumed adventure in Hell is a slog to reach some area containing gold, claim it, and slog back. To facilitate such games, this section will go over a procedure for a light sort of hexcrawl. The exact size of the hexes, the speed they are surmounted, and the frequency of random encounters I will leave to your preference.

Generally, player characters will start in a boomtown which has recently dried up, or a company town that exists to send out expeditions. The arrow of adventure is always pointing deeper into Hell, and as a region is traversed it will tend to "settle." This means that there will be more El Doradans, more boomtowns, and more surface institution. Settlement is a chaotic process, because it tends to expel the Salamanders (who have legal traditions and an understanding of the area's ecological temperaments) and replaces it with a stateless, customless cesspool of greed.

A GM does not need to actually map the surround region, instead generating hex by hex as players come into contact with them. Each hex has a 2-in-3 chance of being a series of wastes, forests, peaks, or caves. These have a further 2-in-3 chance of having some minor feature. If it is not a basic environ, it will be something totally unique.

d18 Hex Generator
  1. Wastes
  2. Wastes, broken up by a minor feature.
  3. Wastes, broken up by a minor feature
  4. Forests
  5. Forests, growing around a minor feature
  6. Forests, growing around a minor feature
  7. Peaks
  8. Peaks, revealing a minor feature.
  9. Peaks, revealing a minor feature.
  10. Caves
  11. Caves, concealing a minor feature
  12. Caves, concealing a minor feature
  13. Unique Feature
  14. Unique Feature
  15. Unique Feature
  16. Unique Feature
  17. Unique Feature
  18. Unique Feature
d23 Minor Features
  1. a site where the damned are punished
  2. a site where the damned are punished
  3. a site where the damned are punished
  4. a site where the damned are punished
  5. one of the great cities of demons
  6. a boomtown in full swing
  7. a boomtown, abandoned
  8. a salamandrine stronghold
  9. an ancestral salamandrine hunting ground
  10. a salamandrine town
  11. a band of the damned
  12. a holy place, sanctuary against the demons. 50% of being a dystopian spot anyway
  13. deep ravines
  14. predatory wildlife
  15. rivers of blood
  16. rivers of lava
  17. rivers of damned souls
  18. rivers of poison
  19. rivers of misery made tangible
  20. roosts for imps
  21. a keep for infernal administration
  22. ruins of some hubristic project
  23. tears in the earth that lead to some dungeon
d72 Unique Features (if it's a repeat, just take the next one down)
  1. Coward’s Hill, where the cowards were whipped
  2. The Ministry Under Ixval-Selles. The temple underneath the spot on Earth where a terrible genocide occured. Has regular services.
  3. A cluster of several temples all claiming to be directly underneath the center of Jerusalem.
  4. A forest of evergreen trees, their undersides red and wet. Open to reveal the suicidal dead. Near the center is Saint Calumn, who chose to die in order to aid the Damned.
  5. The Last Safe Place
  6. Chateau of a sinner so terrible they made him a celebrity.
  7. Nimrod’s Preserve, where he and others are like animals, hunted by terrible beasts
  8. Salamandrine Site, a collection of stone rods of various shapes. This, they say, is where their version of a Messiah was named. They try to explain this figure’s significance, but fail.
  9. A garden tended by druids, with exotic goblin fruits and apples of discord concealing a potential entrance to Ynn.
  10. An entry room to Hell, where the victims of a Stalinesque figure eternally dismember them.
  11. Carnival with a demon in a form meant to trick mortals into thinking it is God is used as a shrine to God.
  12. The brimstone smith, whose forges are fired for bronze bulls. Her branded children go out to find others to fill the bulls.
  13. The original gates of Hell, deep in what is now its center. “Abandon Hope, a Ye Who Enter Here” is written. Inside, Adam and Eve have snake venom for blood, surrounded by the suffering multitudes who drained some of the blood into their own bodies seeking knowledge. This is a lie told by Adam to ease his suffering.
  14. Coastal shallows of pus, blood, and tears, with overgrown maggots in
  15. A vengeful river filled with the souls of those drowned by previous souls. Sated by the sacrifice of human heads.
  16. The twelfth Imam— living, not damned— trapped under a vast mountain to prevent him from fulfilling his mandate
  17. The roof of Hell is broken here, where Hell was harrowed and certain virtuous people taken up to Heaven. The devil has ordered a constant orgy of cruelty here to prevent reverence.
  18. Caves in which the barely sapient cavefolk of prehistory are scalded eternally
  19. Demons urge on the souls of the hoarders, pushing vast bags of gold up hills. Gold taken from here spoils like rotting food.
  20. The vast bars of the great gate of Tartarus, the grasps of Titans shaking them to and fro
  21. Wandering sinners, singed by the piles of lit candles they bear, whispering forgeries, lies, and heretical lore.
  22. The Hypocrite’s Synod
  23. Alexandria, a boomtown and official Kraterocracy, where might makes right. Original ruler deposed by Mordred.
  24. Ozymandium, reposing in the shade of a great toppled statue, missing one foot.
  25. The souls of Jrage, guilty of a sin that cannot be articulated. It is apparently poetic irony that their bodies lie here in semi-cohering yellow jelly, pained by their distortions.
  26. Twelve stone thrones on a hill.
  27. The field of Stocks, where those who denied the freedom of others are imprisoned. Gessler stands, his head stuck to the ground by an arrow, bowing to his own hat on a pole.
  28. The casino palaces of Xanadu
  29. The bugbear plains, cruel children hunters
  30. Forest of visions depicting happy events on the surface world
  31. No matter how you approach this place, you are climbing down a  miles-long near-vertical surface
  32. Tyrant’s Folly, where the ground is made up of the faces of those who supported tyrants. Periodically dotted with T-Rex heads. Terrifying carrion-eater ecology.
  33. Limbo for those who, while noble, restricted themselves in life and made of Earth a personal Hell. They continue their self-imposed sentence here.
  34. The great theater oracular. Truly prophetic performances with Cassandra as a prima donna are drowned out by the talkative audience
  35. Shoals and small islands fought over by internecine and anachronistic nationalist groups
  36. The City of Witches, a vast waste. Literally everything is poisoned, except for the gibbets.
  37. Really-quite-badlands. Spiders with faces of those you’ve abandoned.
  38. A quiet place, with people in orderly lines as far as the eye can see. All are totally terrified. One demon with a pitchfork, executing them all in turn, reborn tomorrow to wait again.
  39. Frozen over by the gasps of those who feign. Icy stretches seem safe until an arctic weeping crocodile bursts up to consume you.
  40. A great and snowy mountain weeping crude oil. At the top, a bust of a Soviet leader 
  41. Great lakes of blood, killers submerged to their degree of guilt. Some stand on the backs of those who enabled them, completely drowned.
  42. Dogs eating effete nobility in piles.
  43. Grass that cuts through skin and leather. Occasional sights of the self-destructive running at full speed, leaving red trails.
  44. Foul bog. Any who touch its fetid waters will have that part of their body forever stained red
  45. Shaded riverbed where humanity began. Imprisoned in Hell for the crime of humanity
  46. A great giant, said to be God, trapped in a mountain as souls crawl along it and abuse it.
  47. Witchhunter-hunters, acting precisely like the most careless witchhunters.
  48. The Red Moon, an abused bastard of Ares and Persephone. The sight of it urges violence that distracts even demons. Only allowed into the night sky when the infernal bureaucracy needs to be totally focused.
  49. Milton tied to a post, forced to take in all the ugliness he made to seem noble. Others like him crucified in a great forest.
  50. Red rocs carry those who abused children, or whoever really, to their nests to be devoured by their young.
  51. Wastes dotted with villages. Sickly serfs drink from wells poisoned by carcasses.
  52. Harpyshaft! It is said that at the bottom is a portal to the surface world.
  53. A desert, where deserters must drink their own blood to survive
  54. A city, burning, pillagers frollicking.
  55. Ham, son of Noah, fighting an endless doomed crusade against Hell from these barren caves. His only assets are his mastery of kabbalah and the assistance of Edith, Lot’s wife.
  56. The killers of Cain, avenged against sevenfold.
  57. The trail of golden merchants, where paranoid misers build underground bunkers. They are hunted because they are literally made of gold and hunted for the substance of their flesh.
  58. Slaver’s Bay, where there is constant baying of slavers as they are keel-hauled on upside-down ships. Their guts are sold as delicacies in other parts of Hell.
  59. Crazed torturers, their flesh hanging in loose flaps, guard this mountain pass.
  60. The angel Nahamiel guards a pilgrim meditating atop a hill overlooking carnage.
  61. A great stele that on all five sides states “Nothing happens without the will of your GOD.” At the base is a web of graffiti. Any who deface the stele are cursed.
  62. Bladefields, war criminals trapped under tons of rusting steel.
  63. Fields of salt, pools of acid. Those who had their servants killed to expand their coterie in the afterlife are desecrated here.
  64. Soup kitchen. The main ingredient is the flesh of the usurper Cao Cao, and everyone is sort of fine with that.
  65. Cold plains. Bullies constantly trampled by buffalo, torn apart by giants.
  66. Red-hot bronze bulls graze peacefully, screams heard from within them.
  67. Field of self-impaled penitents.
  68. Barbiturates gently floating through the air of this thin alpine span.
  69. Sunken fleet of pirates, ever-drowning, laden down by booty.
  70. The Buddha, hunted by his own misguided followers.
  71. Ruins of an ancient village. Priesthood of Lilith, who say it was here that the sex act was created.
  72. A glimpse through a portal of a frantic demiurge, trying desperately to end the world.
Whenever the party meets a random encounter, roll 2d6. On a roll of 7, they encounter one or more demons. On any other roll, add that number to region's settlement score. The settlement score is determined by the area from which the party set out, with a ghost town starting at 0, a boomtown starting at 5, and a company town starting at 8. Every month or so of in-game time, increase the settlement of the region by 1d4.. A region is as big as it needs to be. Most adventures take place in only one or two regions.

Some random encounters permanently "fill" a hex, changing it indefinitely and preventing other random encounters there. If the encounter is somehow dislodged, roll encounters again as normal, and undo any effect it has had on settlement.

Whenever the party arrives at a settlement, roll a d4 for the condition of the local economy. 1=terrible depression. 4=we will never go hungry again.

Random Encounter Table (2d6+settlement)
  1. A safe exit from Hell.
  2. El Doradan surveyors show up with mercenaries to kick everyone out of this here as they plan constructions here, indefinitely. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing. 
  3. camp of 2d6 bandits, fugitives from mining companies or Salamanders.
  4. A Salamandrine village permanently takes up residence in this hex. Roll no more encounters here. -1 settlement ongoing.
  5. A sudden volcanic eruption blankets everything in ash, then lava. 1d4 fatigue, then run or die.
  6. Extrajudicial hanging.
  7. A farmstead, troubling brimstone, permanently takes up residence in this hex. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  8. The devil at the crossroads makes a lifechanging offer.
  9. A mine starts up, permanently filling this hex. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  10. Hunting salamander nomads. Don't want you to scare the hellbeasts.
  11. Cold snap/heatwave. 1d4 fatigue.
  12. 1d6 El Doradan bounty hunters astride Nightmares, with only a vague idea of who they're looking for and only a vague sense of propriety.
  13. Chased by 1d4 hellhounds. Cannot be killed. Persistence hunters.
  14. Random character's shadow is replaced with a hateful replica, waiting to attack when the time is right.
  15. A boomtown forms around the discovery of natural gold vein. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  16. A Salamandrine honor guard has set up a fortress here to defend infringed hunting grounds. Roll no more encounters here. -1 settlement ongoing.
  17. Travelling merchant. Roll a d6: 1. leatherwork. 2. tinker. 3. alchemist. 4. excavator. 5. retired adventurer. 6. snake oil-- the oil of the snake of Eden. Makes you as flexible as a snake and cures goiters.
  18. A solitary church or gambling den springs up here. Roll all future encounters as normal.
  19. Treaty signing between Salamandrine nation and local mining company. Neither side intends to follow through.
  20. Necromancer who commands the ash that covers this barren land, returning it to human form or whipping it into a mournful cloud.
  21. El Doradan wizards begin construction on a permanent magitech message tower here. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  22. stampede of demonic beasts of burden.
  23. A tribe of starving Salamanders languish indefinitely here, spreading disease. Roll no more encounters here. -1 settlement ongoing.
  24. 1d20 drug-addled moonshiners, distracted by frequent demonic "revels".
  25. In your dreams, a nightmarish civilization struggling to be born. 1d4 fatigue.
  26. Someone you don't remember has assembled a crew to pay you back for a slight.
  27. Refugees. Wandering, bleeding, shoeless.
  28. A grand series of ranches has taken root here, using the damned as chattle. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  29. Hate-filled mob, drunk with slander.
  30. Thick clouds of smog and anguished faces. 1d4 fatigue.
  31. Someone you recognize who has died. They have moved on. Why didn't you?
  32. Surface-world invasive species, e.g. owlbears, mimics, elves. When travelling through this hex in the future, 50% of recurring.
  33. Travelling professional. Roll a d6: 1. mail carrier. 2. blade runner (surgeon). 3. teacher. 4. smith. 5. hedge mage. 6. priest (whatever denomination you need, baby)
  34. A vast El Doradan golem plants telegraph wires and goes beserk if you approach. Roll no more encounters here. +1 settlement ongoing.
  35. Messiah Claimant plus 2d20 followers. Roll a d4: 1. hatemonger. 2. workhouse operator. 3. suicide cult. 4. True messiah, roll again.
  36. Punitive expedition of angels.
  37. An El Doradan settlement, or perhaps company expedition, lead by a greater demon. No one seems to think this is strange.
  38. A Salamandrine warband, the last remnants of their state, is permanently displaced into this hex. Roll no more encounters here. -1 settlement ongoing. When traveling through adjacent hexes, 50% chance of raid.
  39. A damned pope or king or antipope or pretender is crowned.
  40. Satan, in his impiety.
If you somehow get lower than 1, the player characters discover some miraculous boon. If you somehow get higher than 40, a massive Satan-fueled cataclysm threatens to reduce the settlement score of the whole region by 4d10.

Dungeons can more or less be used in the usual way, with one proviso. Multiply the amount of gold and valuables in a dungeon by ten, then set it so far away that the player characters will have a hell of time getting it somewhere they can spend it.

"I do not think of you often
Though in such nights as I do
I marvel at missteps I managed
And wander through every missed cue

You feast not on flesh of the slaughter
One wonders, could it remind you
That evil inundates all essence
Your veins choked and sin-wisted through

The evil your lungs breath in softly
The evil your eyes fast pursue
Such evil that seeds in your fingers
Where you clutched when your evil was new

And only your heart hanging battered
Exhales in dying review
'I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
What could you expect me to do?'

I’ve feasted on beasts of the slaughter
Internalized failure of you,
Contrasting a care-taking essence,
The venture I couldn’t see through.

The kindness my lungs choke out softly
The rightness my eyes fast pursue
But what evil that caught in your fingers
Where you clutched when my evil was new

My evil heart hangs, bloated, tearing
Exhaling in bitter review
'I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
What could you expect me to do?'"

Grumman's Claim

It was past the sleeping hours in Hades when old Grumman stepped in the saloon. His face was wild as ever I’d seen it— the last of all my old friends to keep that lusting blush. He stepped up to the counter and ordered the highest-shelf Clear Conscience (though the jerk had only one bottle of so fine a feeling) and it was another in the saloon who asked Grumman what I, too wondered.

“You old damned so-and-so,” called Handsy from the card table where he sat alone. “What you been up to this past season, that you’re throwing around such gold?”

“In a minute,” answered Grumman, who watched impatiently as the jerk poured an exact shot of Clear. Grumman was as eager to get it as the Salamandrine barman was reticent. The way I heard it was that the Salamander resented the stuff, only kept it around to pour out to fools with more sins than sense. In time, the drink was offered, and Grumman threw it back, the Clear Conscience clearing his conscience clear. “Hoo-wee!” the old man called, and I wondered if there weren’t some Dwarfish blood in him, though he’d told me years before that it was Dwarfs he’d fled on the surface.

Handsy leaned forward, half-standing, to whiff the air of the drink. “Come back and play a few hands, and tell me all you happened on.” He piled up his tarot, the Devil card in its traditional place on the top, and began to shuffle.

“Ain’t no use. Two man ante’s no game. And anyway, I’m not making my money to spend it playing with marked cards.” Grumman rested a brimstone-covered boot on a chair and ignored the jerk’s growl. “It was gold I went out there seeking, by that hill where they used to thresh cowards. And it was gold I found. This ain’t a ‘cent of it,” he said, hefting his purse. “I’m of a mind to hear a song. Do they still got a cantor in this town?”

“I’m a priest,” said a pile of rags, leaping up from the end of the bar. I started, having forgotten it were more than me, Handsy, and Grumman, and the Salamandrine man in the bar. “I know the songs. What’s your denomination?”

“Jegnalian,” Grumman said, tossing him a red-gold coin.

The drunk grabbed it easily. “Hm. I know a few of their liturgicals. ‘The God of Passages,’ maybe?”

“Never did care for it,” said Grumman, sitting beside Handsy. “A Unitarian tune would suit me fine.”

“Them I know aplenty. ‘The Old Church Bell?’”

“That’d do.” And so the drunk began his singing, which weren’t half as bad as I feared, and no matter how he stumbled over his feet, he never did stumble over his words. Grumman called me to the table silently as Handsy shuffled his deck, flipping the Devil card to the bottom, drawing it from the top, and shuffling again. 

As the drunk finished the third devotional chorus, he stopped abruptly. “That’s all I’ll do for the first coin.” 

Grumman gave a “Praise be!” to signal that the second coin was too dear to him, and Handsy echoed with his own “Praise be!” I was of a higher faith, so I offered a quiet “Glory.” It was around this point that the jerk returned, looking surly, and I realized he must have stepped out for the song. The drunk sat down, uninvited, to the table, and before anyone agreed to it Handsy was dealing us all in, the Devil discarded for fairness’s sake.

It was two or three rounds later— a sacramental white for me, cockwag for Handsy and the drunk, and some kind of fruity Elfen port for the new-made Grumman— that the old man felt like talking on about his score. “It was farther on than I’d figured it,” he said, talking about the coward’s hill. “Or else my legs don’t carry me as far as they used to. Anyhow, I nearly faded, and I spent days eating ashes to keep my stomach tamed. Probably more coward in me then than when I made the run to Hell.” He laughed then, a high and dry and almost sticky sound. Perhaps it was the port. “But I found a Salamandrine village, put me to work clearing rocks for days, but they fed me when they remembered to.” Grumman settled hateful eyes on the bartender, who fumed and pretended to clean a glass. “But I charmed a little young miss—”

“Bullshit,” said the drunk, a little loud.

“I did. You never heard those wrathmaids like their lovers long in the beard? And handsome? Well I put my moves on her and she sprung me from their field and set us up with some food, but when we was a few miles out I slashed at her and cut her loose. I’m divorced, father, so you know I couldn’t make an honest go with her. 

The drunk blinked. “That ain’t how the Jegnalian Temple does it.”

“Sure is.”

“It ain’t. Are you Reformed Jegnal Sanctist?” Grumman considered this, and scowled.

“What company’d you sell the claim to?” Handsy asked, with deliberate casual ease.

But Grumman’s dander was up. “Why do you care, you old ‘shark? Your wife sweet on some company man?”

“No. Just curious is all.”

“...It was Jemmer Mining, I think.”

At this, old Handsy’s mouth shocked into a grin. His cards tipped into view, the game forgotten. “And you just sold the claim?”

"Yeah, tonight. I got the contract—”

“Yeah tonight!” Handsy leaned farther forward, his easy voice winnowing to a whisper. “Their closest party just got sent out to Dacen’s Folly, out towards the heresiarch tombs south of Dys— two weeks away, easy— enough that no one’s gonna be working your claim for a month.”

Grumman frowned. “So?”

Now the drunk shook with excitement “So we can head out there, sieves and chutes and picks, and work your claim easy, get the good loot after you already sold it on to Jemmer.”

“We?” Handsy gathered up his cards. “Ain’t no we.”

“We?” Grumman said. “I ain’t said alright to anything.”

“You don’t gotta.” Handsy said. “I know how to work a chute, same as any man.”

“If you’re going, I’m coming along,” said the drunk. “Won’t have you heading into high water without a priest to look after your soul.”

“Nobody’s working my claim,” Grumman said. “Not without me as watch captain and me to split the shares. If you two want to come, you better be ready to work a full day and mind my words.”

“Fine,” said smiling Handsy, joined in assent by the drunk.

Grumman called for another round of drinks. “And we’ll want Salonia,” he said, pointing to me, the other two quite surprised to see I was still there. “She swings a pick just as good again’ rocks as Salamandrine skulls, and besides I owe her for an indulgence or two.”

Handsy knew me well enough, and the drunk knew he had no say in the matter. I really didn’t want to go out into the wild, in wastes of Hell, empty but for trials and horrors and sweat. I knew the price would be measured not in the ragged remains of soul I counted as something mere, but in risk and torment. But no one rides down the long runs to Hell, not by Styx or by tunnel, by blade or by bluster, if they can bear to pass up the promise of some dead man’s gold.

"I have seen death. Death I forgo
and do not heed its glister-glow.
You say surrender proves the key
to capture care and mastery.
Don’t lead me where I cannot call.
I am not Ereshkigal.

Light pretends to thwart the pall
and life brocades the bacchanal.
You crown my brow in indigo,
and draught to parch, and vim veto.
Don’t lead me where I cannot see.
I am not Persephone.

Murmuring priests the faith defray.
As night descends, they offer day.
You say the void Autumn appalls;
we’re, more than atoms, Adams all.
Don’t lead me where I cannot go.
I am not Abednego.

I know living from dying call.
I am not Ereshkigal.
I have been blind; I swear I see.
I am not Persephone.
I smell the snare where I won’t go
I am not Abednego.

I am not Abednego.
I know where ash and fires blow.
I am not Persephone.
My fate is mine. My way is free.
I am not Ereshkigal.
No god, no gate, no Kuthan hall."


  1. The road to gold is a murky trench, carved from flesh ridden stone.

  2. I love all of this, but the Idolator in particular.