The Old Homes are the ruins of Vadakendanic cities which lay buried below hundreds to thousands of years of Jhoutaioan Coral growth. Their name refers to the Pheraeai word for cities, which is also their word for home.
These complexes still thrum with the echoes of the old world. Servant phantoms tend to dead gardens and empty houses. Soluma overseers, livid from abandonment, have grown hostile in their search for inhabitants. Lonely, they crave tenants.
The Old Homes want to be lived in.
Cities, sprawling, up and down and outwards in a utopic sprawl overseen by benign, loving spirits. Though they were cities of millions, they lived up to the title of Home. They made each citizen feel important — valuable, but not stressfully critical.
Homes wove their love into every detail of their sprawl. You could crawl the length of the hall, nose pressed to the baseboard, and find stories and memories engraved, one letter after another, in the bevels of its carvings. Written not by Verin by the never-idle hands of the home. Eyes may never read them, but they were there to be found.
Once, A Haven of Warmth
There's a sort of melancholic temperament which typifies the increasingly rare Verin who longs for 'The Old World'—a place which is as much buried in memory as it is buried, literally, in the land. This longing has many roots, and is rarely innocent (How many of them claim to long for 'simpler times' they usually mean 'back when we alone ruled all the world'?) but one of these roots taps into a longing for the Homes.
This does not mean Homes in an abstract sense. In their native Pheraeai tongue, Homes referred to the cities scattered over the surface of Jhoutai. Even in thousands of years of advancement, the Vadakendanic Procession had not found a method of city building that reliably accounted for the perils of their planet. Instead, they widened their cities rarely but built them upwards and downwards frequently.
This style of growth, as well as having to account for the aformentioned perils over millenia of habitation, forced the Procession to develop a keen eye for civic engineering. One of their advancements was in adopting Nictishamei Concrete as a primary building material.
Not only was this form of concrete stronger than the granite they typically used—in fact it was stronger even than metal—but it also could be enchanted to leech excess Meta from the city, preventing catastrophic buildups of Auric Echos which had plagued previous city builds. The longterm effect of this was that they could use the excess energy to automate the city, and that they could introduce eidolonic servants and Soluma Meta AI to make their lives easier.
Soon, everyone was cared for by their Homes. Beds made themselves, kitchens brimmed with the efforts of phantom hands. There was always a soft song on the breeze to those who listened for it. No matter where you were, you were home. As much as a construct could love, the Homes loved their inhabitants, and were loved in turn.
After the Procession collapsed, the Homes never recovered.
Their guest speaker, Mero Tmir Tor Saujalus, was a Shejlt-Rajh with a filigree of gold-inlaid battlescars mapping his face. He paced the stage at the front of the auditorium. His old eyes burned with a sharp wit.
"There's a metaphysical issue which comes up in civic engineering for cities. Can anyone tell me what it is?"
An Aen in the second row raised her hand. She had curly bob of a mane, and shimmering golden patterns inlaid the blond-auburn fade of her short fur. Mero nodded to her, she beamed.
"Auric Echos!" She said. "The leftover imprints of people's emotions. If too many build up within a city, they cause mayhem. They affect people's moods, and may even start acting autonomously. Soon, your city is tearing itself apart. That's why we have Auric Janitors."
"Among other measures, yes," Mero agreed, nodding. "Most cases don't get that bad, though every now and then you'll get a Shade, which is a disaster. But no, that's quite the one I'm looking for."
"Oh, are you referring to the Old Homes?" Asked Calersa, a wiry Ral-Mi with a dyed green fringe of a mane. Mero looked over at him, he leaned back in his seat, sheepish.
"Correct, Calersa," Mero said. "Old Homes may not be a daily concern, but if they're not properly handled then you are going to lose the city."
Now, Abandoned and Derelect
One of the most notable moments of the Sazashi Revolution was the instant that Vinhibrani and Euphraesthi banded together to kill the acting Sovereign of the time, Osahn Luchrei. His death which sparked rebellion in every Home—the Sazashi rose against their masters.
The Homes, childish in their faculties, could not understand the violence of the Revolution, which painted their streets red and left behind countless tormented Echoes that writhed in agony and screamed without lungs. Neither did they understand the sudden abandonment which followed. Had they done something wrong? Had they let their masters down? Was it their fault, or were they simply unlovable now, unlivable?
The Sazashi did not want to live in the homes, to live in the cities of their subjagators. They left them to rot, with few exceptions.
Millenia passed, and as the cities sank deeper into the ever-growing tomb of Jhoutai's coral, so too did they sink deeper into their despair. Guests which the Homes had once spurned—those vermin wichh did not belong in spaces of comfort and solace—now found themselves allowed into the Old Homes. If the Verin no longer wanted them, then they could at least host those who did. The Homes shaped themselves for the comfort of their guests, and the machinations which had once made the Old Homes feel like home were now dedicated to the growth and comfort of vermin.
They sank. Sometimes to such depths that the surface dwellers felt comfortable building above them once more. They sank until they drifted far below the layer of earth that the meta soaked into. Desperate for the sustenance of fresh meta, and always seeking fresh inhabitants, the Old Homes began to grow, sending tendrils of fresh construction questing into the cities above.
Everyone leaned forward into their seats, ears swiveled forward in interest. They had not expected this to be the the opening topic of today's civic engineering class.
"Over this section, we're going to explore what happens when Echoes spread unchecked," their professor said. "We'll begin with the Old Homes. Mero is going to recount the Resonda Tenement Disaster for us, and we'll analyze what could have been done differently."
"I assure you," Mero said. "That my squad handled it impeccably. The local Psiolic Guild, however, made plenty of mistakes we can dissect."
"But that's why they ended up calling in the Hunters in the first place," Mero pressed, turning his attention back to the class. "This account is personal, as I was one if the Hunters tasked with finding the Soluma of the Old Home and destroying it.
He took a breath, and began to explain how the Old Homes worked.
You figure it only happens in shithole countries, like down in the territories where they can barely even cobble together a government for more than five minutes before it all goes to shit.
You think that and you're wrong.
One day there's a new door in your basement, and there's this horrible rotting scent, and you swear you hear your dead mother gently sobbing your name in the distance.
By The Wheel, never respond.
Stages of Manifestation
Old Homes reach up to the surface in several stages. First, they burrow up towards civilization in winding tendrils of hallways and towers. Then, they haunt the buildings they find there. They manifest doors to lure inhabitants down into the Old Home. The last stage is total rampancy, where the city becomes a part of the Old Home.
Rambling Halls, Dark Towers
The Old Homes do not rise through the coral as a single mass. Instead, they ramble upwards, probing through the labyrinthine passages which hollow the coral like swiss cheese. Unseen hands diligently colonize these passages with uneven tiling, thick walls, and glowing crystal lighting whose placement is stochastic, at best. Alcoves host statues which resemble people only in the barest sense, and off-kilter bookshelves along the walls host tomes which moulder in the humidity, filled with words which no mind ever conceived and which no hand ever penned.
Any attempt to appear welcoming has been corrupted by time and sorrow. Where once the Home sang soothing songs to its inhabitants it now wails in torment. If you listen closely, you will hear the gnashing of teeth echoing from the deepest gulches of these gullets.
If the Old Home finds reason to do so, such as sensing the bustle of a city above, it will draw from the reserves of its strength and burrow straight upwards, building a spiralling tower that drills through the coral until at last it breaches the surface, sups from its rich meta, and begins to colonize in earnest. It does this without respect to the structure of the coral, and is a cause of Coralquakes.
"One thing I don't understand is how this can sneak up on anyone. We know where the Verin cities were, and in the millenia since have made strides in the detection and negation of Selschaeus corruption. Why is this so hard?"
Mero responded with a wry smile. "Hubris," he said. "Those strides make us confident, but the Old Homes do not know impatience. Their tendrils are harder to detect than you would hope. By the time we notice them, it is often because they're already underfoot."
He stamped his boot on the floor for emphasis.
Old Homes may lack residents, but they are not without servants. Eidolon Keepers tend to the Home and its verminous, or unwilling, inhabitants. Most of the Keepers are incorporeal—unseen hands which flutter in the dark, diligent in their chores. Other Keepers inhabit husks cobbled together from whatever they could find—furniture, flora, the remains those consumed by the Home.
As an Old Home's halls and towers reach close to civilization, these Keepers explore the abodes of those within. They bring with them a tempermental blend of chaos and order. Hands which one moment fold and store clothes may next overturn furniture or light fires. Doors end up locked, windows become difficult to budge, and inhabitants swear they hear muffled speaking in the dark.
"The local Psiolic chapter had full investigation underway by the time I arrived. The haunting had all the markings of a Poltergeist, and so their bias blinded them to the signs which pointed towards an Old Home: bug husks laid out on the stoop, dishes being inexplicably cleaned, beds made, things like that. Chores benevolently done."
Mero eyes were distant as he relived the investigation. "Normal hauntings have a chaotic rage to them. The Old Homes feel deliberate, sad, bitter."
Once a Home has built itself right up to the edge of civilization, it will extend an invitation. This invite is shy at first, for solitude has made the Old Home wary of meeting so many potential inhabitants at once. This invite is usually in the shape of a door, a well, or some other physical portal which lures people in.
If this invitation is not lure enough, the portal will find other ways to invite you in. It will attempt to sound like a place of revelry and joy, to exude the scent of good food and sing what songs it can remember from the bygone days of its relevance.
Unfortunately, the march of time has caused the memories to fade, and the Old Home is rarely working with good materials—instead of the scent of a feast it breathes rot and must, and instead of sweet serenades all it can muster is screams and murmurs.
Soon, it becomes aggressive. The hands which built the door now begin to upend your life. They steal your belongings, your pets, your children, whisking them away into the depths so that you're tempted to chase after. Your house becomes another part of the Old Home.
Abandon it long before it consumes you.
"The first Old Door, and the first casualties, occured in the UnderCity. It was in a sump substation, where a family of Khatoumay immigrants watched monitored the output of the water filters."
Mero caught Calersa's grimacy. He knows the story.
Mero continued. "From interviewing the two remaining in the substation, we learned the Keepers had sealed the exits and kidnapped the youngest, giving the other five little choice but to brave the depths beyond the Old Door."
The two, both children, had locked themselves in a room and had spent the last three days on comms, fighting Aempian bureaucracy and the incredulity of adults to plea for help.
Left unchecked an Old Home will only continue to grow. Its desire to expand is boundless. It lurks, at first, sending shoots into whatever spaces are habitated, but not crowded. It sends tendrils into sub-basements, sewers, and undercities, inviting in those who spurn the throng above and instead prefer the isolation of their city's underbelly. These people, often drifters, druggies, and destitutes, are its first victims, but the success encourages it, and all the meta siphoned from the surface strengthens it.
Soon, it begins to grow. The Keeper hands which built the doors turn their attentions into the spaces those doors now inhabit, replacing flooring and walls until the new home resembles the Old Home. Overnight, buildings crumple and twisting structures rise in their stead, lacking any respect to the shape of a city. The growth is best described as cancerous.
Cities at this stage are best abandoned.
"In the three-day span between the arrival of the first door and our discovery of it, multiple hauntings were reported. Within two more days, we found eight more doors spread out over half-kilometer radius from the first."
By now, Mero was recalling details most of the class recalled, vaguely, from the headlines they had grown up with. The flavor of recognition which sparked in their eyes made him feel old.
"We declared a state of emergency and began evacuating the sector immediately."
Things that bump in the night
Aside from the Old Home itself, there are perils which lurk within a Home that escalate it from concerning inconvenience to threat to civilization.
Sometimes it's just vermin, but even those vermin have often become horrific exaggerations of their normal selves. Nothing leaves an Old Home quite right anymore, even if only mentally.
Abominations are remnants of those trapped in an Old Home for a prolonged period. They are so twisted by the torment of living in an Old Home that their bodies become twisted as well, turning them into nightmarish terrors.
The Keepers work fastest within the Home. Walls grow, rooms shift, and floors give out. Hordes of minor golems swarm and distract you from the many deadly pratfalls and the monsters lurking in the murk.
After the day's dissection of the mistakes the Guild had made during the investigation, professor Imovai took Mero into his office—his ears were red with frustration.
"I understand that the college paid good money to bring you in to speak, but there are better ways to spend your time than listing all of the shortcomings of the Guild. My uncle was one of the officers leading the initial investigation. He did his best."
"Your uncle was an idiot who got the job thanks to nepotism," Mero said flatly. "His mistakes cost lives. If I had made the same mistakes as him, I would have been stripped of my title and exiled from Valuser'rh."
Imovai blinked. Clearly he was not used to being addressed as such. His expression screwed up and heat billowed from him as meta crackled in his hand. "In case you've forgotten," he said, voice rising, "The Psiolics' Guild helped end the Valuser'ran Supremacy. You are in Aempis now, know your place."
Mero did not raise his voice but his words rattled the windows all the same as his power surged through him. The light of Grace burned in his eyes. "It took a ratio of ten-to-one for the Guild to even balk the Rajhskalakeshi, twice that to secure a victory. And for what? War seems to be all you're good for."
Imovai's heat shrinked but Mero's grew as he closed the space between himself and the professor, pushing him back against his desk. Papers curled from the scorching warmth radiating from the Hunter. Despite the heat, Imovai shivered, fearful now.
"Do you even know what else lurks down there, down in the Old Homes?" Mero's voice was hardly above a whisper, but Imovai's ears reverberated with each syllable. "Have you ever felt your mind unraveling as a Shade preyed upon your innermost sorrows? Have you ever been shredded by the embrace of the Roses of Ank'khaiso?" Mero drew his fingers over the scars in his face.
Mero's heat receded, his voice returned to normal, the glow left his eyes. He was once more just a wizened, scarred man.
"I will stop listing the shortcomings of the Guild when I run out of shortcomings to list. But mistakes are how we learn, and it is important that your students hear them if this country ever hopes to stand a chance of lasting more than a few hundred years."
Imovai didn't respond. He just stood there, frozen.
Mero snorted. "One compliment to the Guild: you all certainly know how to swing at someone above your weight class, even if you have no idea what to do when they swing back."
Beginning with the affected floors and working out, at least 3 floors in either direction must be evacuated. If anyone is within haunting range of an Old Door, they are at risk of being lured into it. It is not enough to exert self-control when the Keepers tend to target pets, children, and the infirm.
Once everyone is out of the area, minimize the number of access points by blocking up any which aren't essential, allowing access only to anyone who absolutely needs to pass through. Each victim the Old Home lures in makes it more cognizant and powerful, so if anyone needs passage they should move through in groups to protect each other.
"The first step to handling this situation is to evacuate and quarantine the area," Mero explained. "The Guild denied this, claiming it was to prevent panic."
The professor made a sour face, but did not comment.
"This, of course, made the panic worse when the Old Home captured several more people and began to rapidly spread through the levels."
While it may be tempting to attack the Old Doors and drive them all back, more tact that that is needed. If all the doors are destroyed, not only will they rebuild but they will also multiply. The best tactic is to trim and collapse some of the passages that are more astray than the others, narrowing the access points to just a couple.
Not only does this help with Quarantine, but it also helps keep the Old Home distracted with the chaos on the surface while a chosen crew of powerful specialists infiltrate the depths of the old home in search of its Soluma.
"Most of you hate Rajhlakeshi, especially back then, so on top of having to prep to go down into the Old Home we had Aempian citizens and officials resisting our help."
"In the end, we geared up with all we had, told the Guild which Doors to close, and went in. We prayed to The Wheel that the Doors we needed would still be opened when we returned."
Demolishing is a step which few ever complete. It is a titanic undertaking which not only threatens the lives of those who undertake it, but which may cause the Old Home to lash out, or unleash Abominations into the infected city.
The most infamous slayers of Abominations—the Rajhlakeshi of the Valuser'ran Supremacy—were the first to tackle the issue. They penned books on slaying that remain a foundation for all slayers to refer to.
The advice of the Rajhlakeshi is to never try to find and kill an Old Home's Soluma. To try is a suicide mission. No matter how powerful a Monolith might be, they need only make one little mistake and they would falter, and in faltering they could die some dozen ways, and get their team killed in a dozen more.
The best way, instead, is to get into the Old Home and find whichever Divinoriums down there are providing meta to the power section of the Old Home closest to the infected city. At that point, either purify or extract the Divinorium, or destroy it. Extract or kill any survivors, escape, and collapse and wall off the tunnels behind yourself.
"Getting down into the Old Home was a two-day caving expedition on its own. We had to sleep in shifts, usually under dosage to help tune out the constant noise within the Home."
"Immediately upon arrival, we were beset by Roses of Ank'khaiso—half-abomination, half-sathiid vines. Dragged my cousin into the dark by ribbons of his own flesh and gave me these scars." Mero traced his fingers across the gilded scars on his face.
"For twenty-three sleepless hours we trekked and fought. We covered several kilometers and found my cousin alive with a couple of other survivors. They were in bad shape, we had to carry them out, but not until we found and destroyed several Divinoriums."
Prevention of an Old Home is, ideally, the main and only interaction anyone ever has with it. It takes effort, resources, and skilled labor, and the job is never truly done, but it's worth it to not lose a city to an Old Home. Prvention primarily consists of walling off the corallums between the Old Home and a city and maintaining containment outposts in The Under.
Walling off the corralums is a challenge because it's ideal to put the walls closer to the Old Home rather than farther, so as to longer delay its encroachment. It is better to not carve these walls from the local environment an take unnecessary risks with the coral integrity, so these materials must br brought in, sometimes through miles of tunnel that in some places is so small you have to crawl through. Additionally, the slow contraction and dilation regularly causes the walls to become unmoored.
Maintaining outposts is challenging because it requires finding applicants. Historically, this is a job that often falls on brave immigrants, especially the Luea. Maintaining an outpost means regularly running supplies to them through the aformentioned tumultuous (and often infested) corralums.
"The way home wasn't any easier. We were all exhausted, strung out on stims and lost because we didn't even go out the same way we came in. It took five days for us to come back, and we ended up somewhere on the surface instead of back in the city."
"Why did you go out a different way?" Nisenya asked.
"Because the way we came in had been collapsed behind us," Mero said. A pregnant silence hung in the air, and everyone avoided the Professors gaze.
"But I'm sure it was an accident," he added, waving the silence off. "They wouldn't trap their own citizens in a place like that."
It was the last day of Mero's lectures. The Professor seemed relieved by the fact, and sat off to the side as students asked their final questions.
"The real reason that we struggle to avoid the Old Homes is because we need to build above them," Mero said, watching the drizzle from through the open window. The ember in his pipe glowed brightly. He exaled a lungful of smoke. There was a sorrow in his voice.
"With how little bare landmass there is on Jhoutai, especially on the mainland, it's hard to find good ground to build a city on. Most of us are building right on the coral, praying to The Wheel that the land beneath us isn't going to cave in at any moment. The Procession did a lot of that trial and error for us, they found the stable places to build. So we often built near there, too."
Calersa asked the question that had been burning in his mind for days. "So we know where they are, why didn't we go in and handle them?"
"People don't go to try and destroy the Old Homes because all the times we've tried have come with grevious lostt. People die down there. Painful, pitiful deaths, Calersa. The Verin weren't just making Sazashi, you know? When the Procession fell those cities were full of all sorts of meta tech, tech the Old Homes have taken, consumed, weaponized. There's some consistencies, but every time you go down there it's to discover some fresh hell. Most of the time we go down there and destroy one Divinorium or Soluma, but a lot of the Old Homes have backups, or they just grew beyond even working like that anymore."
The class was silent, a shiver ran through them.
"What I'm getting at," he said. "Is that you need to look at them not as cities, but as creatures. They're predators that feed on us, predators that are very hard to kill. We live above them, we drive them back when we can, and we hope they stay die of starvation before we ever have to deal with them."
The deceased will be commemorated this fall with a plaque listing their names, as well as the name of the Rajhlakeshi who died in the rescue attempts.