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Posted on August 28, 2020, 10:10:45 AM by Leafly
My Final Fantasy by rbuxton

My Final Fantasy
By rbuxton



The Final Fantasy (FF) series is one of gaming’s best-known franchises. Each game in the main series (there are many spin-offs) is a stand-alone good vs evil story set in its own fantasy world. They are role-playing games (RPGs) in which the player takes on the role of the main protagonist and leads a team of characters. The series is synonymous with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the director of the games until about 2003. I’m going to describe my personal relationship with the games but let’s start with some facts, courtesy of Google:


Years active: 1987 to present
Games: 94 (15 in main series)
Units sold: 154.5 million
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: All of them, but traditionally consoles like the NES




Final Fantasy XII. Gameplay image, Bing.


Playing an FF game involves wandering around a fairly open world, meeting interesting characters (some of whom join the party) and gaining experience from random encounters with monsters. Characters have various combat roles – magic, melee weapons and so on – and there’s usually a small amount of customisation possible (picture Pokémon but without the animal cruelty). Certain features reappear time and again in the series: spells, races and big flightless birds you can ride on.


I first encountered the series in about 2001, when I was 9 years old. My older brother came home one day with a list of spells from FF8, which he and a schoolfriend had been pouring over. I noticed the spells were neatly categorised and used the word “party” without mentioning presents or cake. When the schoolfriend brought the game over my imagination was immediately caught by the battles, monsters and bizarre guardian angels. Since I’m being open, I’ll add that the seeds of my sexual awakening may have been planted by the game’s female characters (this was before some FF characters were forced into bikini armour. Or bikinis). My brother and his friend spent years playing and talking about FF games; they once agreed to race to complete one. I was furious – since his opponent was an only child, my brother’s only hope of victory would be to “hog” the PlayStation 2.


During my teenage years my brothers and I played FF10 and FF12, complementing them with enormous guidebooks. FF10 remains the most emotionally affecting game I’ve ever played: its story of love, loss and daddy issues had me close to tears on numerous occasions. FF12, on the other hand, had a fascinating, fluid battle system which rewarded experimentation. Somewhere between the two, perhaps, lay my perfect game. FF12, however, was cursed with a limp, maguffin-led plot; while FF10’s battle system was clunky and repetitive. I clearly remember playing through a very atmospheric FF10 scene (the aftermath of a disastrous war), wincing every time it was interrupted by the thunderous battle theme and the same boring band of monsters. My dad felt the same way: from the next room he was driven to an uncharacteristic rage. “How can you listen to the same music over and over!” he scolded, “You are all musicians!”. Eventually I stopped playing FF10 and, like every other FF game, watched my brothers complete it. I’m still haunted by its final scene.


University opened my eyes to gaming culture through my housemate’s copy of FF7, easily the most iconic of the series. Released in 1997 it represented a milestone in gameplay and 3D graphics (though I was constantly struggling to walk through doors). Its main character, Cloud, is a very popular choice for cosplayers. I enjoyed playing bits of FF7 but for me there were too many tangents to the plot and the party was soon bloated with characters. As a perfectionist I felt I had to invest in all of them, even when they were as unfathomable as a cat riding a giant marshmallow. The nail in the coffin of FF7 came when the internet spoiled its twist for me (and what a twist it is!)



Cosplayer of Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII. Used under CC license by, Rob Boudon Wikimedia.


Though my relationship with the FF games is complex, with their soundtracks it is anything but. The partnership between Sakaguchi and composer Nobuo Uematsu has been likened to that of George Lucas and John Williams (unfairly, in my opinion, since Williams’ music keeps the audience engaged for a matter of hours, Uematsu’s for days). Uematsu’s musical interpretations of the FF stories cover every known genre and more; he is surely one of the greatest composers no one’s ever heard of. I can study for hours while listening to arrangements of the scores, tactically avoiding those, like FF9, which make me cry. Through YouTube recommendations I eventually discovered the work of another contemporary Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, which led me down a different rabbit hole altogether.


As a child I learnt to play the piano and for years I viewed this hobby as separate to my other interests. Though it wasn’t Uematsu who changed this (Hans Zimmer did) it was through him that I found my go-to piece, my muse, the first thing I play on a new piano: FF10’s To Zanarkand. My fingers know it so well my brain can no longer keep up. Is it arrogant to consider To Zanarkand my “theme”? Lots of the FF characters have themes - tunes as much a part of them as their thoughts, flaws and emotions - can’t I have one too? Pieces like this bring musicians closer to composers, and to each other.


Please don’t assume that playing FF pieces is a distraction from “proper” study of the piano – they are always challenging and frequently bizarre. I once asked my mum, a music teacher, to help my interpret a musical direction in FF8’s Find Your Way. She bounced over, as I knew she would, with her mental Italian dictionary at the ready, only to find the direction was in Japanese. It remains the best joke I’ve ever made at the expense of one of my family members. Between us we fill the family home with music, though it’s quieter now that my brothers and I have flown. Last Christmas my younger brother, surprised that I had learnt FF8’s Shuffle or Boogie, picked up his base guitar and started a jam. Before long, for the first time ever, all five of us made music together.


Where is the Final Fantasy series now? I don’t know and, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to. The old creatives have gone and, it seems, taken the soul of the series with them. This impression was reinforced by the announcement, in 2015, of an FF7 remake. I don’t really play video games any more but I’ll always cherish those moments of “overkill” and “limit break”; of the three of us curled up on the sofa laughing at Yojimbo’s silly sound effects or Zell’s not-so-white teeth. Final Fantasy made me see games as an art form which could immerse its audience in a way no film, book or play ever could. I fantasise about the games a little bit every day, and will continue to do so until I, too, reach Zanarkand.

~

Since music is such a key part of this story, I recommend the following playlist:



Nobuo Uematsu, To Zanarakand:

Joe Hisaishi, Always With Me:

Nobuo Uematsu, One Winged Angel (FF7):

Hans Zimmer, Davy Jones’ Theme: 

Nobuo Uematsu, Shuffle or Boogie: 





...
Posted on July 24, 2020, 01:16:47 PM by Leafly
Chain 3 – A Chance of Tentacles Past - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story 2020

Chain 3 – A Chance of Tentacles Past
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By justatoady, Waddleflap, SLiV, Muxley, Leo, KingSingh, Nakyo, and Jubal



The centaur sees no stars when she looks up at the night sky. Bright, blue-white lamps illuminate the clean streets and the furtive population, and the sound of her hooves on the concrete is absorbed into the city's melody. The centaur's legs have a memory of their own. She lets herself be swept along by the ponderous mass, her mind preoccupied with waking from its trance. She yawns and stretches and is mildly surprised when she comes to a halt in front of her destination. Before entering, she brushes dust from her hooves and undoes the top button of her blouse. At this time of night, she can take her pick of the tables, but she chooses to stand at the bar. She lays her laptop in its large, black bag on the counter, then takes off her glasses and puts them next to the bag.

'I thought you weren't coming,' the Pudding King tells her. He kisses her on both cheeks. 'How late do you work now?' he asks.

'Not as late as you,' she tells him. 'You have my reward?'

The Pudding King produces a heavy crystal chalice and offers it up to the centaur.

'Sticky Toffee Love,' he names his creation.

It smells like a freshly baked cake. She lifts a silver spoon to her lips and loses herself in the warmth and the sweetness.

The Pudding King grants the centaur this single moment of bliss. 'Vanessa is here,' he admits.

The tiniest hesitation as the centaur takes her next mouthful, which has already lost some of its sweetness out of the door the Pudding King's words have cracked ajar in her mind. Studiously unreactive, she continues eating.

The silence threatens to swell into and overflow the gaps of their conversation as the centaur teeters on the edge of memory, the Pudding King unsure of how he might help. Slowly, almost mechanically, the spoon continues on its circular journey between chalice and mouth. She knows she can't just stay silent; the emptiness of the chalice forces her hand as she looks up to meet the Pudding King's eye, one eyebrow arched sardonically.

'Sticky Toffee Love?'

He blinks, mouth slightly agape.

'I...yes. It just seemed fitting somehow.'

'Because she's here?'

'I suppose.'

She snorts. Ever clichéd, always just that one step wide of the mark, the Pudding King's obliviousness to all but the most obvious of facts would be laughable at any other moment. She knows from long experience that there is no point starting an argument over it.

'Did she say anything?'

'Anything?'

'Well, unless she's somehow managed to refrain from speaking, she must have said something. Expecting an answer as to where on earth she's been for the last three years may be a bit much, but you never know.'

The Pudding King tries to make decisions quicker than his mind can actually handle to answer the question. Before he can even open his mouth fully, though, the door behind him opens.
A familiar sense of comfort floods the room. The centaur fights it, determined not to let go of her anger. She looks down and starts playing with the spoon in front of her, hoping to appear too distracted to notice the golden-haired girl stepping through the doorway. Instead she becomes mesmerized by the crystal's cruel reflections, slowly adjusting the angle of the spoon as the inverted figure approaches her.

'I see you still have a sweet tooth,' Vanessa says with a grin.

The centaur glares at her, but says nothing.

It takes a gentle tap on his shoulder to disrupt the Pudding King from hopeful anticipation. 'I'll leave you two to it, then,' he says, before turning around and making his way to the kitchen.
'I know I hurt you,' Vanessa begins when he's gone, more serious this time, but still with an airiness that somehow doesn't feel as inappropriate as it should. 'What we had... I was foolish to think it could work.'

'You knew exactly what you were doing. It's who you are. I don't blame you for that. In your eyes I was just another nymph-head looking for a fix, and you were happy to oblige.'
'That's not true. You were special to me.'

The centaur had felt special, at the time. But then wasn't that the point? Even now, part of her wants to believe Vanessa, to forgive, to forget. She shakes it off.
'That's not what you told the police.'


~

Vanessa paused, taken aback the bluntness of the centaur’s statement.

‘I was scared.’ She said, averting her eyes and sweeping her fringe out of her face. ‘I didn’t want anyone thinking we had planned it together… it was all your idea, anyway.’

The centaur felt rage surge through her as she stared down her former lover. ‘All my idea? Was it my idea to bribe the munchkin council to get the logging rights for the gumdrop forest? Was it my idea to secretly fund teddy bear insurgents to scare the natives away? WAS IT MY BLOODY IDEA TO...!?’

The centaur stopped, peering around at the audience she had been gathering before returning to look at the quivering mass that was once the woman she loved.

‘Y-you were the o-one who started emb-bezzling from the pension f-fund’ Vanessa stammered, again adjusting the fringe of her blonde wig.

Even with all that had happened, seeing Vanessa so terrified still sent a twinge through the centaur’s hearts. She unclenched her hooves as she looked into Vanessa’s eyes, all six of them spread randomly over her grey, slimy body.

The centaur raised a hand to brush the Shoggoth’s fringe behind one of her many, many tentacles, ‘remember when I said I would love you forever?’

Vanessa lifted her gaze, giving a nervous smile through one of her churning maws of nightmare. ‘You said nothing could ever tear us apart.’
The centaur gave her a smile right back. ‘I lied.’

She couldn’t bear to tell Vanessa what she’s now been reduced to. She couldn’t imagine why an ethereal beauty like her could still have her eyes set on a disgraced centaur. After having done time for five centuries at the Booyardar Penitentiary, the centaur tried to put the failed heist behind her and went on to earn an honest living as a resurrectionist.

For the past three painful years, she had been trying to locate her former lover, but to no avail. With every cadaver she collected, she had wished that she could at least be reunited with the mass of her beloved. If not for the Pudding King, she would still have been kept in the dark. But what was three years compared to five hundred, they both meant an eternity to her.

The centaur tried to hide her bitterness, but her tender affection for the Shoggoth could not mask her true feelings. Nonetheless, she still tried.

‘So you lied? All these while?” Vanessa stammered softly, refusing to believe all her eight ears.

‘You know you asked for it,’ the centaur whispered stoically, with her eyes falling on the shimmering corner of her laptop exposed from her bag at the counter, where the Pudding King was eyeing the duo intently.

Vanessa followed her gaze towards the laptop. ‘You’re still carrying that old thing round?’ she said after a long silence. ‘I thought you would have covered up all the evidence.’

‘You’d think wouldn’t you,’ replied the centaur, still staring at the laptop. ‘But I thought I’d hold onto it just in case you wanted another crack at the job.’

Vanessa’s eyes darted towards the centaur, all twelve of her fang filled mouths twisted in shock, ‘Surely you’re joking?’ she whispered harshly, ‘They’d be expecting us, especially after how badly we biffed it last time, and don’t forget how you murdered the whole crew as soon as we got past the first gate because one of them looked at you funny!’

The centaur snorted.

“Really. You think after 503 years they’re still on high alert waiting for illegal loggers with botched permits?” The centaur said, pointedly ignoring the accusation. Vanessa shifted, her tentacles writhing around her. The centaur could read Vanessa well enough to know that meant her proposal had been rejected.

“I’ll take that as a no then.” The centaur said, starting to shove the laptop into the bag. 503 years she’d been dragging around that laptop, following any lead on Vanessa she could find. She hadn’t realised how much she’d invested in the idea of pulling one last job with Vanessa when she finally found her.

Only to find that the Shoggoth had lost her nerve.
 
“Shame.” The centaur flicked her mane out of her face. This time she didn’t even try to hide her bitter tone. “Why are you here then?”
Vanessa shifted again, before she finally said,

“I heard you’ve become a resurrectionist.” Three of Vanessa’s eyes were watching the centaur warily, while the other three darted around the room. They rested briefly on the Pudding King, before coming to rest on the centaur again. Confident no one important was listening, she opened just one of her mouths. “I want you to resurrect me.”

The centaur blinked, her tail starting to twitch behind her. So, Vanessa already knew about her embarrassing new profession. Shame burned through her, her tail starting to flick more violently in response.

“Well, I hate to state the obvious, but you’re not dead.”

“Not yet,” said Vanessa. “Soon.”

“What do you mean? You’re nigh invincible...” the centaur looked at the Shoggoth closely. There was something a little different, those eyes still the colour of fresh toffee, the tentacles still delicate, but somehow… oh. Oh, no…

“You think I lost my taste for adventure for nothing?” asked Vanessa. “I cut and ran because I had to, because I knew what was at stake, because…”

“…because you never needed to finish the job,” completed her erstwhile colleague, eyes closed and five hundred years of realisation crashing in. “Because you’d already found what you needed. Because it wasn’t about gumdrops, and it wasn’t about money, it…”

“Yes.” Vanessa’s voice was quiet. “It was about freedom.”

“You didn’t trust me.” The centaur’s voice was flat.

“I am trusting you now. Please.”

“And doing this… will kill you. Is killing you.”

“Yes, I ate the helix. And if I die,” said Vanessa, “what will become of them? Where will they turn?“

“I’m an ex-con with a murder record,” snorted the centaur, suddenly laughing despite herself, “and a former lover who you ditched for half a millennium, and I’m somehow the person you have in mind to help you save your entire species?”

“You wanted one last job,” smiled Vanessa with half of her mouths. “How about the biggest jailbreak in all creation?”

The centaur grinned. “I’m in.”


~

It is morning, and the Pudding King walks out onto the terrace and plucks a sugar-flower, smelling sweetness and lavender between his fingers. Somewhere below the earth, ten thousand shoggoths are writhing free of aeon-old prisons, called to life again by sacrifice and desperation. Their ends will be their own. He hopes they will forgive the sins of his ancient forefathers against them, he hopes that they will find a peace for themselves in this strange new world. But that will be up to them.

He hopes they will enjoy his chocolate implosion cake. Everyone deserves to enjoy chocolate.

The morning is cold, and wisps of his breath solidify into candyfloss in air that feels, somehow, just a little lighter today.






This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2020 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: At first you think it is a food story, maybe even a cooking battle of some kind that the centaur has come to rule on. Maybe there are a set of contestants? But you would be wrong. A tale of betrayal, nearly lost love and imprisonment. Vanessa once helped imprison the centaur but now needs the centaurs help to eventually help herself and free her people. Though their time away from one another has been great, the memory and assurances are still fresh as ever. Time the centaur spent captive has not been forgotten, as though it happened only yesterday. A story of lost love and being conflicted with many choices. 

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: What you all thought of the story of course!
 

...
Posted on July 24, 2020, 01:14:03 PM by Leafly
Chain 2 - The Sin of the Cross - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story 2020

Chain 2 - The Sin of the Cross
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By Tar-Palantir, Eleonora, Pitys, BlackZebra, Caradìlis, Spritelady, Tusky von Tuskington III, and H. E. Strachan



‘Philip, I have a very special mission for you. As my personal physician, I know you will carry it out faithfully’
‘Your Holiness is too kind. How may I be of service to you and the Church?’
‘As you know, the pagan Saracens threaten the Holy Land. I intend to resolve this. You have heard of the great Christian Eastern king, Prester John?’
‘I and all of Christendom. Did he not write recently to the Greek Emperor?’
‘Indeed he did, proving that he exists and is most eager to assist the Church in our efforts to save Jerusalem for the true faith. I intend to reply to secure a great Christian alliance of East and West against the Saracens. And you must deliver it.’
‘I am not worthy to be the instrument of Your Holiness in this great undertaking, but I will do my best.’
‘I know you will, my son.’
‘Before I depart, may I ask one question, Your Holiness?’
‘Of course, Philip.’
‘Whither should I go in the search for Prester John?’
‘I know not rightly where he lives, but seek for the land of the Armenians; we know them to be Christians of a kind and they may have surer knowledge. Godspeed!’
And so I found myself leaving Rome for God knew where. All I had to do was somehow circumvent the Saracen kingdoms of Asia and possibly fight dog-headed men and Blemmyes to reach the Armenian lands. And beyond that, who knew what I would find?
Arranging the departure took me months. The sunset surprised me often as I sat in my library way after Vespers, with the sole company of the feeble light of a dying candle. The cool evening breeze was slowly invading the halls of the palace while I was still sitting at my desk, making my way through old charters. None of those obscure geographers indicated an accessible way to enter the land of the Armenians. The maps were seemingly unclear. Studying them, I came across traces of ancient cities, settlements whose names had been erased and became illegible. And was that an oasis there, possibly an old merchant base in the shade of the Anatolian mountains?
Although my aim was to secure an ally, I knew that I should have been extremely careful in venturing into Byzantium and moving forward to the East, up to the Great Wall that Alexander the Great built to stop the giants Gog and Magog.
One evening, shortly before my departure, my apprentice Mercutius came looking for me. He was not alone: Cardinal de Grimoard was sending an embassy. His layman lieutenant, Jaufrè Malebranche, was there to escort me, as His Highness requested to have a private conversation.
“And you, Doctor of Medicine, might use the help of someone well-versed in tracking down who’s very good at hiding, don’t you?” so sneered at me Malebranche, with a snarling laugh that proved me that he sensed how appalled I was by his presence. Indeed, he was right.
The sky was growing light but it was still before dawn when I first caught sight of our destination on the horizon. The finally calm sea and early morning quiet was soothing to my nerves. There had been little chance for sleep last night and even less inclination. I had long chased tales and rumours of a pious, Christian King of the Indians, was this finally my chance to find him?  My revelry was rudely interrupted, Malebranche had emerged from below deck and was coarsely addressing the captain much to his displeasure.
What had I got myself into by bringing him here? What was in it for him, or for the cardinal? The woman was probably little more than a wild goose chase. A royal princess, even a widowed princess past her breeding years, would surely not have been risked with such a desperate mission. And yet... I thought about the small, dark skinned woman who accompanied us. Her clothes did something to diminish the exoticism of her appearance; plain, and her hair covered not unlike any good sister who might be found in Rome. But she did not hold herself in the same subservient way. And how could I ignore the significance of the token she bore? The three magi, the gifts they bore had been replaced with three small emeralds. My hands had shook when the cardinal had triumphantly revealed it to me that night in his quarters. I could not simply dismiss it.
Finally, our ship arrived in the magnificent city of Constantinople. While sailing through Sea of Marmara my gaze fell upon the magnificent Theodosian Walls protecting the city for centuries. I wondered if these Greeks, despite their declining power, would be a better bet against the Saracens instead of this mythical king in the east. As we anchored at the pier and left the merchant vessel, which brought us over the Mediterranean, to our surprise a group of soldiers and a man in ceremonial clothing awaited us. Beside him a small figure emerged clothed in the simple robes of a monk. He addressed me in pristine Latin:
‘My lord sends you greetings and wishes to inquire about your journey. What brings the personal physician of the Pope to these lands?’
Surprised about the man knowing my identity, thoughts about possible betrayal crossed my mind. Was there an intrigue by the cardinal? Who was this man in ceremonial robes? It seemed as if the monk had read my mind.
‘You seem to be puzzled. May I introduce Katastaseos Arkadios. He is the ceremonial master of his majesty the Basileus. I am his humble servant and translator Konstantinos. Cardinal de Grimoard informed us about your impending arrival. Nevertheless, my lord wishes to hear himself what the purpose of you journey is.’
‘His holiness the Pope sent me on this journey in a secret mission. I cannot tell your lord.’
After translating and receiving an order from Arkadios, Konstantinos replied:
‘You must be tired from the long journey so please enjoy the hospitality of his majesty.’
I nodded and conveyed my thanks. Arkadios waved a hand and a young man appeared by my side almost instantly, beckoning me to follow. And so, I let myself be led away through several corridors and a small courtyard.
We walked quickly and in silence, only stopping, when my guide halted at a small wooden door. He opened it and gestured for me to enter. Behind the door was a small, but comfortable room. Light entered only sparely through small windows near the ceiling. There was a simple bed at the far side, a washbasin and a wooden chest next to it and near the door, a small table with a single chair and a candlestick holder with a nearly burnt down candle stuck within. My guide remained silent, as I looked around the room, but it was made quite obvious even through his silence, that these would be my quarters for the duration of my stay. It would do. Having done his job of leading me here, my guide turned and disappeared.
I sighed, sat down on the chair. This place, I was beginning to get a bad feeling about it. Hopefully, I would be able to complete my mission here soon and return home. I had an inkling that I was not wanted here.
The following day, I was summoned to the private chambers of Katastaseos. I had not informed Malebranch of this invitation; I was keen not to spend any more time with the man than absolutely necessary.
‘My lord would like to ask you to reconsider the secrecy of your mission. He and His Majesty are keen to aid the Pope in whatever way they can, especially if your mission concerns securing the Holy Land.’ As Konstantinos spoke, his hands twitched slightly, in anxiety perhaps?
‘I can only say that my mission is in the best interests of His Holiness and his goal to secure Jerusalem. I am forbidden to speak further and must decline your offer. We are prepared to proceed with our journey. But we thank you for your hospitality.’
Konstantinos appeared to pale at my response, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this was so important. Was he set to receive some punishment if I declined to reveal the information his lord sought? Or perhaps was it something more, an issue concerning Master Arkadios’ own standing with his Majesty? Whatever the answer, Konstantinos delivered my response and the reply came swiftly.
‘We would be grateful if you would stay another night and consider this request. Your ship has not yet been fully resupplied for the continuation of your journey. In fact, it may be some time before this can be completed’. Arkadios’ message was clear to me. He would not permit us to leave until we had revealed the nature of our mission.
The next day I enquired as to the readiness of the vessel, but I was told there was an issue with the ship’s rudder. My suspicions were confirmed. I was furious. My path was guided by God and I would not have it imperilled here.
With this in mind I decided to venture out into the city. Whilst I was free to move around as I pleased, some figure always followed me, probably hired by Arkadios. So, this time I headed out in the company of Malebranche. Whilst I did not like the man, I had thought of a use for him.
As we passed through a bustling market I had him start an argument with a vendor over something trivial. It was a ruse. The ensuing commotion distracted our tail, and I was able to slip away. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly made some enquiries about moving east. As luck would have it, I happened across a merchant from Ani, a city in the Bagratid Armenian kingdom. He told me his caravan would be heading there by land the next day, so in exchange for gold he agreed to escort us.
The merchant had given me a map, detailing the route we would be taking through the western Anatolian mountains, so I spent the afternoon familiarising myself with it.
I was reluctant to move on in this clandestine way. The Basileus himself might get wind of it and brand us fugitives, but what other choice did I have?
The next day I rose at Lauds for prayer, asking forgiveness for my coming deception and the certain missing of my more usual Prime prayers. In the pre-dawn, I, the despicable Malebranche, and our mysterious female companion, escaped our separate lodgings and hurried to the merchant’s caravan. God was with us: the man had not left and, facing the rising sun, we escaped Constantinople.
Or so I thought. Barely a mile from the ancient city’s wall, the camels and donkeys halted, my own included. Malebranche dismounted and approached the caravan’s leader, a wrinkled fellow different to the man I had paid. He turned his head so it was in profile and I almost fell off my mule: it was the face of Byzantine’s coins, the Basileus!
Malebranche, addressed the ruler boldly, “Cardinal de Grimoard sends his greetings.”
The Basileus made no answer. My merchant, a servant or a spy I now realised, acted as a translator to the Basileus and the grey man nodded once in response.
I thought of the map I had been given to study: was it fake or genuine? could I ride without a guide? did I have enough supplies on my mule? My indecision denied any of these questions being answered. The other men in the caravan, openly armed, took my donkey’s reins from me and hope left my breast.
We did not return by the same route. The dark woman who had courted my curiosity so long rode beside the Basileus, silent as ever. Malebranche on the other hand delighted in goading me with the details of his cleverness and double-dealing on behalf of his patron. He made jest of the tortures lined up for me in the eternal imprisonment which was my due.
“Why is it my due? I am innocent! You have betrayed the Holy Pope, the agent of the Almighty God. Hell awaits thee Malebranche!”
“Not if I’m serving the next Pope who will absolve me it won’t,” Malebranche countered. My jaw dropped at the audaciousness of Cardinal de Grimoard. Then my consciousness was taken from me and I knew no more.






This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2020 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.

Editor's Note: A rich story with a winding subversion. Philip is sent on a dedicated mission, accompanied by someone who he would have preferred was not there at all, but what could Philip rightfully do? Even so, Philip continued on and complied with the requests of the royals, with a whiff that something just was not right. To get so far in his escape plan from the palace, only to be brought right back to where he was, how really very unornate.

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: Why Philip did not try to flee the moment he suspected his company of plotting and preparing to outmanoeuvre him, it’s a shame.

...
Posted on July 24, 2020, 01:10:31 PM by Leafly
Chain 1 - The Brigs of Boredom - An Exilian Chain-Writing Story 2020

The Brigs of Boredom
An Exilian Chain-Writing Story

By Spritelady, Andrew Conway, Beebug_Nic, Bigosaur, Arthcymro, Dan Shaw, rbuxton, Irina Rempt, and Phoenixguard



When Lucia had made her deal, this had not been the outcome she expected. 100 years of servitude on Davy Jones’ ship in exchange for her life had sounded like it could be a lot of things–frightening, thrilling, shocking, enlightening–all these had crossed her mind. But, as she’d briefly debated whether or not to accept the offer, the possibility of boredom had been far from her mind. And yet, sitting atop the mast, bored was exactly how she felt.

As she watched the crew scurry about their usual, strenuous activity, she couldn’t help but sigh. It wasn’t as though she was anxious to toil for the sake of a ship and a crew that, for the most part, wanted nothing to do with her, but being left alone day after day was torturous.

When Davy Jones had taken her on, half of the crew had clearly been outraged. There had been more than a few outcries of ‘cursed’ and ‘bad luck’ in response to taking a woman in. These were the crew members that ignored her presence so completely she may as well have been invisible. The other half of the crew had been obviously elated to have a lady among them. So much so, that they insisted she did none of her share of the work and left her to wander the ship, lonely and bored.

She hadn’t seen Davy Jones since she had come aboard the ship ten days ago.

She looked from her perch on the mizzen mast to the main t’gallant top, where the lookout, Blind Jenkins, glared blankly at the horizon. In the distance a kraken waved a friendly tentacle. There was nothing else to see, not even a mermaid frolicking in the wake. Though the mermaids’ chatter was mostly of hair conditioner and scale polish they were at least more talkative than the crew.
Perhaps she could borrow the cook’s Bible. She swung onto the futtock shrouds, and descended to the ratlines. It had been two years before she had ventured into the rigging, but now she was as agile as any jack-before-the-mast.
There were only three books on board: a King James Bible, complete except for Leviticus, which had been burned by the cook who disagreed with its edict on ferrets; The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor, used as a pillow by Marlowe, the junior midshipman, in the hope that soporific proximity would educate where earnest study had failed; and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which she had cordially hated even before it was set to music.
In the galley, the cook was pounding an amorphous blob of meat with his ceremonial peg leg.
“It’s a mistranslation,” she said for the thousandth time. “Leviticus 11:30. Where it says you can’t eat ferrets. It’s supposed to be lizards.”
“No, young Missy. God changed His mind. It used to be lizards, now it’s ferrets. But He’s wrong, He is. They’re delicious. My dad had the biggest ferret ranch in north Lincolnshire, till he was struck by lightning.”
The ship's rat, a well dressed and grizzled creature spat in disgust at this statement.
“It's disgusting that you eat flesh like that – just because the ferrets can't talk. I remember the Cat Wars when you lot first found out about the black liquid on our islands. Scared the bejesus out of you lot, finding creatures that could talk and fight. You two leggers with your mechanical cats invading us. But we fought you back well enough.”
She sighed – conversations often went this way. Out of all the crew the ship's rat seemed the most intelligent even if a torrent of racism about a war a hundred years ago would spew forth out of his mouth after a glass of cognac.
It was only a matter of time (and another glass) before he would start rambling about how his father had led the counter attack on Cornwall, heroically avoiding gunfire and delivering his load of pestilence filled fleas to an orphanage.
She sighed and got up, leaving the rat to his disjointed and incoherent rant. The ship shook softly as she left the galley. She could feel the ennui building up inside her as she went to her sparsely decorated cabin. Her duties on board were pretty light, so she spent a lot of time here in the dark.  Contemplating what she now thought of as her “past life” and knowing that this was going to be the routine for a horribly long number of years.
She decided it was time to do something about this. Maybe she couldn’t change the way the things are currently, but there were those who could. At least, she thought that Davy Jones could cancel the contract if he wanted. She wasn’t sure of this, but it was her only hope. So she convinced herself that it has to be. But how to make him do that? And more importantly, how to have fun while doing it?
They won’t let her do anything? Well then, idle hands do devil’s work. Her first thought was to become so obnoxious, so irritating, so annoying that all the crew gets upset and complain to the captain. It would go on for weeks if needed, until he gets fed up with it and lets her go. He can’t really kill her, can he? She wasn’t sure of that either, but it didn’t sound possible.
Without any duties, she was free to roam around the ship. In the following days, she watched the crew carefully. Who liked what, where would everyone go during the day. Things that would annoy someone, items that someone was attached to.
Soon she realized that every path leads to the food. Everyone has a favourite meal, everyone dislikes something. If she really wanted to mess with them, she had to get access to kitchen. She needed to be able to mess with the ingredients. And the ferrets. Oh, the ideas were overwhelming.
The time had come to cook the cook.
--
The Captain continued to stare down at the maps. He’d been studying them for almost four hours and was getting nowhere. Usually, the Gods guided him to his next assignments, meaning his navigational skills were never really put to use. Now, with the Gods ‘occupied’, he was forced to put these waning skills to the test. Frustrated, he tossed the yellowing papers into the air and lent back in his chair, removing his hat to rub his temples. What he wouldn’t give for some ale. And not the vile, slush they had on board. Proper, mortal ale.
Someone knocked. “Cap’n?” He ignored it. “Cap’n Jones, it’s me.” “For Gods’ sake, McCladding, what is it!” The minotaur, entered the study, bowing slightly as he approached. “We’ve found our trickster sir.” “Let me guess. Lucia” asked the captain, rubbing his eyes. “’Ow did yo—yes, sir. We found her put’n somethin’ in the pie” replied McCladding, a little deflated.
“What was she going to use?” McCladding withdrew a weathered, corked bottle from his sash and placed it into the captain’s open hand. Davy, examined the bottle lazily. “How unoriginal” he signed before throwing the bottle on to the table. “What have you done with her?” “She’s in the lazarette. We ‘ad to chain her up ‘cause she was causin’ such a fuss” Davy, groaning, got up from his seat and pulled on his coat. He then snapped his gloved fingers and the maps instantly tidied themselves away. “Take me to her.”
--
The shackles hurt her wrists, but that wasn’t the worst part, nor was the stench of salt and half rotten food. It was the boredom! Lucia’s recent hijinks had worked in stirring up the crew but she hadn’t figured they would just chain her up in the bowels of the ship and forget about her.
Footsteps, McCladding’s unmistakable hooves and a second softer set behind them, the door creaked and two figures stepped inside. Lucia pulled against the cahin strining her neck to see her visitors, it was McCladding followed by Davy himself. She’d done it! She had his attention. The pair came to stand in front of her with Davy taking no time in starting his tirade, his voice bellowed as he listed off her deeds and insulting her for being a child. 
Finally he said “McCladding, leave us!” The minotaur waited a moment then bowed, leaving them alone. Lucia waited until the door was closed, now was her chance “I suppose you won’t be-”
“I’m sorry” he cut her off “It was for the good of the crew, you understand. I have to been seen to be disciplining you.” What? “But playing up, won’t get you kicked off my ship. Lucia, there has never been a woman on my ship. Do you think I changed this on a whim? Do you think I have risked the possibility of a mutiny for nothing?” It hadn’t occurred to her until now that the pirate may have had ulterior motives. He was looking her up and down, nodding to himself.
“Lucia,” he began, “The newest member of our crew. Nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on board. Tell me, have you any feedback on your experience so far?”
“Well, umm…”
“Your cabin is satisfactory?”
“Yes”
“Your duties, manageable?” She nodded. “So can you explain the mischief?”
Lucia felt herself slumping lower against the wall. “Bored.”
“Pardon?”
“I’m bored.”
“Yes,” Davy nodded again, “You had to see it for yourself.” Without warning he flung himself against the bars of her cell. “Bored? You? After a few weeks? Try eight hundred years! I don’t understand, the crew, they were all so talented, fun, there’s actors, gamers – take Rat!”
“Rat?”
“A celebrated comedian in his own country, renowned. Yet one deal, one soul bartered, and it’s all gone. Honestly, what passes for fun on this ship! If I hear one more rendition of Heave, Ho I’m taking us straight to Hell where we belong! No Lucia, we need you, it had to be you. You’re our new Social Secretary.”
The silence which followed was broken only by Davy’s heavy breathing. He was asking a lot of her, but she could think only of her comfortable perch up on the mizzen mast.
“Lucia,” he said, in response to her blank gaze, “I need your help. What should we do?”
Lucia smiled. Time for some fun after all. “Captain,” she said, “Set course for the Isles!"
"The Rat Islands?" The captain's face radiated incomprehension.
"No, the Hidden Isles of Adventure! Bring me a map! Oh, and while you're at it, please get me out of this dungeon."
"It's not a dungeon, there are no dungeons on a ship. Not even on this ship. It's called the brig."
"Brig, dungeon, lockup, jail, clink, it's all the same to me. I can't think properly in here, let alone do magic on maps."
The captain's face became even more puzzled. "Magic?"
"Of course. How else can I show you the Hidden Isles?"
Davy wielded the heavy key to unlock the barred door, and a smaller key to free her from the chains. He didn't so much bring her a map as bring her to the map: the one hanging on the wall in his own quarters, which showed all the known seas in the world. Clusters of pins adorned it, some shiny new, some old and with a ring of rust around the business end.
"Show me your isles," he said.
Lucia could have done it with much less fuss, but people wouldn't believe magic if it didn't look spectacular. She recited the spells aloud, ponderously, in Latin, and let light stream from her hands to the map and reveal faint outlines that became more definite by the second. Brown and green patches appeared.
Davy Jones stood gaping at the sight. "We sailed there countless times. I never saw any islands!"
"Well, they're hidden," Lucia said smugly.
“Hidden in what way?” Captain Jones asked, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“Have you ever been out at sea, weeks away from the nearest spit of land and seen what looks like a coastline or island where you know there can be nothing? And as you approach it, the land disappears behind some waves or swell, and you do not see it again?”

Davy Jones nodded, his thoughts drifting back to past instances of the phenomenon Lucia had described.

“Look at the map more closely, Cap’n, and tell me what you see.”

The captain leaned in closer to the vast map upon the cabin wall and was amazed to see the small brown and green patches he had taken for islands were actually slowly moving, drifting upon the surface of the map. Lucia’s slender finger reached across in front of his gaze and traced a loose circle around a small group of ‘islands’, drifting slowly across the oceans.

“This is a family of island turtles, the fabled Hidden Islands of Adventure. All up, five turtles, a breeding pair and their three offspring, wandering the southern seas. Who can say what we might find upon their shells?”

And thus did the Flying Dutchman, the dreaded ship of the mighty pirate captain, Davy Jones, set sail for the south, and then for the west a little, following in the wake of the Hidden Isles of Adventure. Within a month of setting course for the islands’ general location, five great rocky outcrops in the distance were espied from the crow’s nest. The festivities which occurred once the ships finally caught up to the island turtles proper is worthy of record, but sadly, the telling of that tale must wait for another time.

 






This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2020 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.


Editor's Note: A tale of mischief and uncertainty! What a great ending though, the ship may have been mundane and the daily schedule monotonous, but Lucia took a big risk. Boredom was her sole driver, with an idea to stir up mischief and get kicked off the ship, all to free her from her life with Davy Jones. Her plan did backfire, but in doing so Lucia had no idea that it would become an adventure. Now they are preparing to visit places previously visited, to make new discoveries that Davy Jones had not seen or known about before. 
Of course, this could have ended in a completely different way. Fortunately, Davy Jones saw past the obvious mischief and wanted to help make Lucia%u2019s time better

The Editor Is Now Concerned About: What sorts of things can get everyone around the world escaping their fleeting brigs of boredom? Any ideas?

...
Posted on May 27, 2020, 10:21:48 AM by Jubal
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment

An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
By Jubal



Here’s the overdue part four of my series “An Unexpected Bestiary”, in which I look at the natural history and narrative potential of seven more animals you might well never have heard of before. From the less humble than expected Dunnock to the tiny Honey possum and the bizarrely beautiful Sea swallow, there’s hopefully plenty of interest here! You can find the other parts of this series here, here, and here.

Seriema

You may have seen a video circulating around the internet a while back of a bird apparently bouncing discarded balls on the hard surfaces around a golf course. The captions often suggested it was playing, or having fun – but there’s a bit more to the story. The bird was a Red-legged Seriema, a bipedal hunting bird from South America. Their strategy for hunting isn’t based on having especially strong legs or talons, or being able to fly especially well – rather, they have very powerful beaks and necks, and throw their prey down on the ground hard or shake it about to break it, eating a mix of smaller mammals, eggs, lizards and snakes. In other words, that bird was probably trying to break the golf balls in the hope that they were eggs it could eat, and was getting baffled by the weird devil eggs that just bounced instead of breaking!

Fast runners at up to fifteen miles an hour – quicker than a human – the Seriemas only fly when there’s a particular need to escape predators. They will nest a metre or two up, and can be both in conflict with and trained by farmers, who will keep them at times as guard animals to warn predators off chicken flocks and other small farm animals.

Seriemas are fantastic possibilities for a certain aesthetic of fantasy fiction. They’re bright enough to learn, so the idea of a fantasy South American ruler or noble heading out to hunt with a pack of Seriemas to keep the snakes away and run out to finish off smaller prey is definitely a workable image. The red-legged Seriema’s distinctive crest positioned at the top of its beak particularly helps the aesthetic. Simply reflecting their actual usage works well too, however, with them being one of the less well known species to have a trained relationship with humans.


Noble Pen Shells


Pinna nobilis, the Noble Pen Shell, is a large and increasingly rare bivalve mollusc living in the Mediterranean Sea. They have attractive, large shells with beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl inside, and require clean, warm waters to live in, and – a fatal combination, as overfishing for the tourist shell market combined with pollution and habitat destruction has led to the population crashing to a critically endangered fraction of its former glory. This isn’t just a tale of a pretty but otherwise unprepossessing big shellfish and the loss of its habitat though – Noble Pen Shells have a fascinating property that’s made them the heart of an ancient craft industry dating back millennia.

Bivalves have little threads, the Byssus, that anchor them to rocks on the sea floor to stop them floating away. On most of them, the threads are far too small to be of any interest to humans – but the mighty size of Pinna Nobilis, up to a metre in size, can have Byssus filaments up to six centimetres in length – just enough, in fact, that if collected in sufficient numbers they can be woven into cloth.

Sea silk, as the resulting fabric is today known, is a miraculous material, highly sought after since the ancient world. The Byssus threads are exceptionally fine and can be woven more finely than silk can, creating an exceptionally light and warm fabric. The tendency for it to be a favoured target of clothes moths, rarely being passed down for generations, has probably only added to its rarity and value over time. Procopius records a set of sea silk cloaks being an exceptionally fine gift from the Emperor to the highest nobility of Armenia, while a ninth century Persian writer recorded over a thousand gold pieces as the price of a robe (only affordable by society’s greatest elites: a slave could probably be purchased for under forty gold pieces at the time). Middle Eastern writers recorded stories of strange sheep-like animals that emerged from the sea, no doubt influenced by the practice of calling Byssus cloth “sea wool”. More recently, the uniforms of Jules Verne’s Nautilus crew had to come from somewhere, and what better place than the sea floor?


Sea industries that aren’t fishing are perhaps particularly interesting narratively because there are relatively few of them. If you want to get some sea-shore interest into your campaign, threats that keep weavers away from harvesting their immensely valuable, time consuming crop might well be worth a protagonist’s time to go and investigate, with the shallow sea diving involved allowing for narrative interest without the need to shoehorn scuba gear or underwater breathing herbs into your tale. And there’s something about the end product, sea silk, which is immediately captivating: we dream of kingdoms under the sea, lost arts and treasures of the deeps, and this gives sea silk a mystique that even regular silk, which might once have attracted the same feelings, now lacks due to our general familiarity with it.

The art of sea silk weaving is now in the process of being lost forever: Pinna nobilis is now so endangered that its last practitioners in Sicily and Sardinia, most of them very elderly, are unable in any case to obtain the raw materials for their craft. I write this, almost undoubtedly, in the age of the last generation of sea silk craftspeople. We sometimes find it odd when narrative worlds fixate on the crafts that ancient versions of a culture were once able to do, and the idea of lost secrets – but, without many people even remembering that the secret was there to be lost, some of our own are disappearing beneath now-empty seas.


Dunnocks


Small, common birds tend to be pretty overlooked in most literature, and it’s not that hard to see why. They can’t be trained for many useful purposes, they’re too small to make a good meal, so it’s not obvious that the characters have a good way to interact with them. The occasional princess might find herself surrounded by generic songbirds, some mage might send small birds with messages, but in neither case do the differences between types of small bird tend to matter a great deal. I think that’s a pity, however. Past people’s understandings of the world almost certainly included a lot more detail on small birds than ours do, simply because in the wild they’re a completely everyday occurrence – although people’s past understandings of those animals of course often also had gaps.

Dunnocks, a small brown bird that visually looks a bit similar to a Sparrow, are a good example of both.

“Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other”, proclaimed the naturalist Reverend Frederick Morris to his parishioners in the 1850s. These small, drab birds seemed like the perfect emulation of an idealised humble, protestant ethic. Morris couldn’t have been more wrong: Dunnocks have an exceptionally loose and fluid sexual structure, with multiple males around a single female often sharing the work in raising a brood that mixes young from all of them (and some of those males may be visiting and helping with other females and nests too). Capable of copulating in a tenth of a second, and doing so over a hundred times a day, the assumptions people made about these birds traditionally were rather different from the reality.

Dunnocks were historically often simply known as hedge-sparrows, Chaucer’s heyesugge (indeed one mid twentieth century folklorist bemoaned the popularisation of “dunnock”, previously a more localised dialect word, by ornithologists). In Irish they are Bráthair an Dreoilín, the wren’s brothers. The Celtic fringes of Britain seem to have a particular range of folklore on them: Ada Goodrich-Freer’s 1902 compilation of Hebridean folklore records them as “blessed, but not lucky”, and suggests that Dunnocks gathering around a door are the harbinger of a child’s death. In Ireland, too, their sad little songs are said to be the voices of children who have passed away. These sorts of connections to specific facts or emotions can help bring the differences between otherwise less plot-central animals into view in narrative terms too, and can also point to specific uses for them: too much of the time, we assume that because an animal can’t be eaten or trained it can’t have plot relevance, but there are far more options than that: in Irish tradition the Dunnock’s distinctive blueish-green eggs were used as charms against witches, especially placed on the hob to stop them coming down the chimney. Rather than the tendency in some games to gut and use different parts of larger creatures, there’s no reason why magical ingredients shouldn’t come from specific smaller ones. Add a couple of challenges to overcome to reach and find the Dunnock’s nest, as part of a wider method of dealing with a local hag problem, and we find that a decent side adventure is starting to emerge from the humble – or not so humble – Dunnock already.


Maras


The Mara is a distinctive South American rodent from the southern grasslands of the continent. Looking more or less like what happens when a Guinea-pig decides to change careers and become a Hare, they’re some of the largest rodents (fourth after Capybaras, Beavers, and the larger Porcupines). They don’t tend to interact with humans much, and around areas with too much human activity will often switch to nocturnal behaviour patterns to avoid contact, though they live well in captivity as good pets and can be hunted both for meat and furs.

Maras are useful because they are a big clear klaxon horn of “we’re not in pseudo-Europe any more”, whilst also, I think equally importantly, giving a sense of cuteness and familiarity. Far too often, non-Euro settings especially in fantasy feel the need to emphasise power in the cultures and landscapes they focus on, to give an idea of the appropriate majesty and strength that those places can have and make them feel equal to the dragons and castles fantasy fans are used to. But I think it’s equally important for settings to have homely elements to avoid othering them – a setting that just seems to contain giant god-serpents and terror birds is a place you can adventure in, but a setting that has those and also has cute little Maras bouncing around is the sort of place you can start empathising with and wanting to be protected from its more terrifying and powerful forces, and that’s narratively a very important tool. They’re also emphatically the sort of thing a certain sort of rather cavalier pixie would absolutely love to ride around on, too, so there’s that going for them.


Sea Swallow


In a previous Unexpected Bestiary, we covered the Sea Sheep, a sea slug with the clever trick of stealing Choloroplasts from algae it eats. Well, the sea swallow is another Sea slug – more streamlined, and with its own far more deadly clever metabolic quirk.

You see, Sea swallows specialise in eating dangerous jellyfish and similar creatures, especially the Portugese Man O’ War. Not much wants to eat a Man O’ War – it’s a powerful predator and its sting is utterly debilitating to most creatures, known at times to kill humans. But for the little Sea slug, just a tenth as long as the Man O’ War’s swim bladder, that just seems to mean less competition in the food queue. The Sea swallow is immune to the stinging whips that hang down from the floating creature which is a key part of the feeding strategy… but not only that, the Sea swallow actively chooses to eat the stinging, venomous parts of its prey. Taking the most deadly of the little explosive cells, called Nematocysts, that deliver the Man O’ War’s sting, they store them and keep them active in specialised sacs at the end of their Cerata, the feathery fingers that extend from the Swallow’s body. Indeed their sacs can concentrate the venom better than the original nematocyst structure, meaning the Sea swallow’s sting can be more dangerous than the creature it got it from.

Or to cut the long description short – this tiny, beautiful Sea slug steals Jellyfish stings powerful enough to kill humans, and can and will sting you with them.

This is one of those creatures that’s somehow got a strong sci-fi feel despite being very much real. I think that they’re tricky in some ways to use narratively: they’re hard for humans/terrestrial humanoids to encounter for the most part, and if you do encounter one you’re either having bad luck or are going to be in a very dominant position – it’s an “if you get bad luck it will do you huge damage, otherwise you’ll be fine” creature when put in an antagonistic position, and its aquatic nature means it’s hard to see any sort of intent involved (being dumped into a tank of Sea swallows by an archvillain might be incredibly dangerous, but it’d have to be a very particular villain to pull that off in a satisfying way). However, creatures based on them and their behaviours could work better – the concept of a creature that has evolved to steal and re-use another creature’s killing or defense mechanism is definitely good – and the look would work broadly very well in a sci-fi setting.



Honey possum


Pollination, the movement of pollen grains between flowers, is one of the keys to life on earth as we know it. Required for the survival of many flowering plants, many insects and small flying vertebrates are key to carrying pollen around, usually lured into the plant by the sweet nectar available there. But there are almost no non-flying species that specialise in nectar drinking – to do so requires an area with flowers available most of the year, to allow such an animal to survive the winter. There is an exception though – the ngoolboongoor to give its proper name in the native Noongar language, or the Honey Possum to English speakers.

This tiny creature (six to nine centimetres combined head and body length) clambers around flowers in southwestern Australia, drinking nectar and moving pollen around between the flower heads, especially the huge candlestick-like flowers of the Biara tree Banksia attenuata. They can go into torpid states for some days at a time if food is short, but their body mass is too small to do this for an extended period.

Honey possums importantly play with people’s expectations about how an ecosystem works – terrestrial mammals doing a role we expect to be performed by flying insects. They do also have spiritual significance to the Noongar, who have traditions of personal and family totem animals among which the little marsupials may feature. They’re more an animal that can create colour and depth in the background of a setting than one that is going to be placed foremost, though somewhere with a lot of flowers could have that emphasised quite effectively by the presence of Honey possums as pollinators – given our mental associations, it gives a much better calm and relaxing feel to say “and his garden of a thousand flowers has tiny furry possums jumping between the to carry the pollen” than “you reach the garden of a thousand flowers and it is FULL OF BEES”.


Wryneck


If you’ve ever read a fantasy book with much magic in it, there’s a good chance someone has cast a jinx as a type of spell. Indeed if you grew up in an English-speaking environment, there’s a good chance calls like “jinx – touch wood!” or the idea of “being jinxed” as a curse or after saying a word simultaneously will trigger something in your memory. But the name doesn’t just arise from a strange big of magic related terminology - the Jinx, Jynx in Latin, or iunx in Ancient Greek, is the name of the wryneck, a smallish, well camouflaged brown bird closely related to Woodpeckers. So what connects these two things? Why did the name of an apparently normal bird become a byword for curses?

The Wryneck, it turns out, has a particular trick which has fascinated humans for all of recorded history and beyond. When threatened, it sticks its head up, and mimics a Snake with it. Its English name is based on the incredibly eerie twisting and turning motions that its head can undergo, contorting and wiggling at strange angles that along with strange hissing noises make the predator convinced that what they’re facing is a much more formidable and more reptilian opponent than they’d bargained for. This incredible behaviour has been observed throughout human history and led to the continuous association of wrynecks with magic and witchcraft. Indeed, the “wry neck” gives them their English name, and their scientific name Jynx torquillalikewise references the torque of their twisting motions.

Iunx was also a nymph in Greek myth – a daughter of Pan and Echo, cursed by Hera to turn into the Wryneck after she cast a spell that caused Zeus to fall in love with Io, making her quite literally the wingman responsible for a lineage containing about half the major Greek classical heroes. Another tale suggests that instead she was the daughter of Pireus and the curse came after she and her sisters challenged the muses to a musical contest. Either way, the magical associations came early and continued. The Wryneck seems to have been especially associated with love magic at times, with particularly unfortunate birds apparently being captured and whirled around on a string as a charm to bring back an errant lover; the Greek poet Pindar has Jason (of Argonauts fame) using a Wryneck in magic to win the heart of Medea, too. The idea of “jinxing” someone seems to appear in English in the early modern period, maintaining some of its connections: a 1903 “Encyclopaedia of Superstitions” suggested that a young woman who sees a Wryneck on the morning of February 14th will remain eternally unmarried. I don’t think I really need to go heavily into “how do I use the weird snake mimic magic bird that might be a transformed Nymph and can be used in witchcraft” from a narrative perspective beyond all that... there’s just so much there!




Thank you for reading, as ever – I’m intrigued to know what you think, or if you have any good stories or folklore I’ve missed about any of these wonderful creatures. Do leave a comment below, and I’ll see you for part five of the series at some point in the future!