Nathlings

Partway through the long slow fall of the borderless Diadem of Realms that ultimately collapsed into Uud, there came from out of the thickening grey a race of people unlike any seen before.   They were alien in their manner; sharp-toothed, slim-tongued, with horns of glass and pale thick blood. All who met them were disturbed, sometimes to the point of disgust.   These creatures called themselves, or were called, "Nathlings".   They came with a warning.  
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  They said that the slow stasis and malaise of the meta-realm was the result, not of natural change, but of conspiracy. That a vast and incomprehensible force hated the Diadem of Worlds and plotted against it. They said a cosmic entity, something beyond comprehension or mortal reach, had focused its attention on this string of realities and that it would feed on, and destroy, them all. They said Her plan was already in motion, that the vacancy, vacuity, ennui, and hysteria of society were the effects of Her attention.   They said they knew this because She had made them, or warped them from some other race, to be her creatures. That they were born to lack identity, deep memory, selfhood, or names and were created to be Her servants and the agents of Her thought. However, they had tricked Her, broken free, and come to warn everyone, to warn them that Yggsrathaal was coming, and that time was running out.   Few listened. Not enough to save reality.   But some did. And those few, radicals and fanatical doom-sayers at the time, began the process which ultimately led to the founding of the Grey Cities and the preservation of what life and culture still remains on Uud.   So stands the story of the Nathlings, as they would tell it. They still live on Blackwater. A race of Cassandras and half-monsters. Their warning helped to preserve the world, but could not save it. They are creatures of Yggsrathaal, but her mortal enemies. They are born alien, strange, and palpably "other". And as they become more human, as they begin to feel more, they slowly die, such is the tragedy of their victory.     IDENTITY   The Nathlings were created, or corrupted, by Yggsrathaal to be her creatures. Made to have no names, no long-term memory, no empathy, no dreams, and no self, like grey angels of entropy.   But the Nathlings tricked their creator and escaped her clutches. One by one they improvised or invented ways to escape the prison of their natures.   Instead of names, Nathlings use 'kennings', small micro-riddles or quixotic phrases, often referring to emptiness, tears, absence, void, blankness, or colorlessness.   Since this is no name, but a symbol to nothing, it escapes the curse.   They were made to have no strong long-term interpersonal memory. To learn skills and facts easily and quickly, but to carry no recollection of the lives they have touched, or which have touched theirs.   Each Nathling learns many languages, some are only known to that race, some are entirely personal tongues known only to that one being. If a Nathling wants to remember, for instance, an emotion, or an act of friendship, a lover or an object of loyalty, they describe it to themselves verbally inside their minds, and while doing so, they translate that description, sometimes into one language, sometimes into many.   While they cannot easily recall the fact of friendship once it has settled into one image or tongue, they can recall the act of translation itself. This is not a stable memory, but a process of transformation which the curse cannot affect.   So those who were made to care for nothing can build themselves structures of selfhood, friendship, family and tribe.   Made to feel no empathy, the Nathlings can learn empathy, starting with its basic structures, first treating it as a series of rules, observing, processing, and analyzing. Then simulating and copying others. They learn empathy from the outside in.   So those who were made to feel nothing, can learn to inspire feelings in others, and since that feeling is real, it can eventually seed a kind of mirror-intuition in the Nathling’s mind, giving them an image of the heart they were born to lack.   Born to dream of nothing, young or ageless Nathlings do indeed dream of nothing more than a pale grey Waste, much like the one beyond the borders of Blackwater. They find it peaceful.   But over time, as they encounter more people in more depth, as they live deeper and richer lives and experience a greater range of life, slowly, imperceptibly, life springs in the unconscious mind.   This happens first as a pattern of vague lines of forms, only suggestive of life. Over time, night after night, these collect together into odd knotworks of shape and vigor, like storms of lines. Sometimes a whisper is heard in the mind like something from another room.   Then, often after a moment of crisis or intensity, something living springs, in full color and sound, into being inside the Nathling’s dream. Often this is a particular person known to the Nathling, someone they may be close with, or in conflict with, or even someone completely random and inconsequential.   The first time this happens the shock is often enough to make the Nathling spring awake, heart hammering. The process is known to them, and they are aware it can happen, but nothing can prepare them for the vividness, animation, or strangeness of this living sub-reality. They are often confused, not quite processing that the person in their dream is different from the living example. They suspect magic, extra-real powers, or some other trickery.   From this point on, the Nathling must make a choice, to continue down this path and become more and more "human", more and more real, or to turn away and return to what they were.   Whatever they choose the consequences are significant.     PHYSICALITY   Nathlings, unless they alter their appearance, look a little like grey humanoid demons.   It is perhaps fortunate that most of the Demons are sleeping or dead, along with the Gods, but it likely doesn't help the Nathlings much as they look like something much worse than any Devil of the Diadem of Worlds, they look like Yggsrathaal.   They are bipeds with weight and mass roughly equivalent to Somon, but they have a gracile tail running from their spine, which makes their limbs and body seem more slender. Bones are a little thinner and more flexible than Somon, giving them a similar proportionate tensile strength overall.   The tail and hip arrangement alters their walk, their movement is slightly more efficient than Somon when accelerating or maintaining a high speed, but less so over long distances, and much less so when carrying a load. This efficiency of movement makes them effectively quick and especially quiet.   Nathling skin is grey, though many dye it, and textured. Each texture is different. Nathlings can be patterned like frost, like rippling waves, cracks in glass, radial spiderwebs, brush-strokes or sine waves, like waving long-stemmed grass in wind.   Nathlings have horns and claws of glass, translucent or opalescent, more tough and flexible than any manufactured glass. The horns grow throughout the Nathling’s life, in some cases becoming remarkable antler-like displays.   The Nathling eye is equally strange. Instead of an iris, the pupil is surrounded by a kind of liquid pool, like a stain of black fluid. This liquid shifts like a trailing flag inside the eye, tied to the movement of the pupil, but a moment or two behind or ahead of it. This effect creates an appearance like irregular pools of iridescent black flowing across the eye, much like ink in water.   Even when the gaze is fixed, the edges of these pools flex and shift a little.   This lends the Nathling gaze a curious indeterminacy. You can never quite be certain where they are looking, your eye is drawn to theirs, almost compulsively, but cannot intuit the meaning it needs. It is hard to look away and take the speech, tone, head movement, and body position of the Nathling as indicative of their focus, as you would with someone wearing dark glasses or a blindfold for instance.   And they can sleep with these eyes open, their breathing soundless, and pulse indistinguishable, smelling of nothing.   They are primarily carnivores, which keeps the population low, but have grinding teeth at the back of the jaw and can subsist as omnivores with some loss of health and vigor. They can survive on very little water, find it hard to learn how to swim, instinctually adopting a sinuous lizard motion, dislike rain, always have an umbrella, and tend to skip quickly across river-bridges in a rapid mincing gait.   They have three directly magical, otherworldly or reality-shifted aspects; The Nathling’s Kiss, The Size Insanity, and their Entropic Touch.     THE NATHLING’S KISS   Not truly a kiss, that name comes from story and rumor. The pale, thick blood of a young Nathling, if ingested by a mortal, can strip them of memory in the same way as the cursed Memory Eaters of Yggsrathaal.   The phrase 'The Nathlings Kiss' comes from fable and accusatory tales in which the innocent young Somon or Aeth is tricked into falling in love with the heartless Nathling, who kisses them, biting their slender tongue with their sharp teeth and invisibly feeding their blood to the poor victim, stripping them of identity and self.   It’s a popular motif in fiction.     THE SIZE INSANITY   Like many of the Children of Yggsrathaal, Nathlings can become both very large and very small. This is thought to be a combination of actual direct physical change and a kind of "re-scaling" ability shared by some Fey, and employed in some magics, in which the relation of the individual to the world is altered.   Like a person in sight becoming small or large the further or closer they are to the eye, the subject is taken further or closer from or to "the eye of the world", causing them to seem to become very big or very small.   Amongst Nathlings, going insane and growing very big or small are considered to be the same thing. Whether only the mad change size or whether changing size leads Nathlings to madness is unknown. They are incredibly strict about policing the "correct" size and scale amongst each other.   When extremely small they become very fey, hunting ladybugs from the backs of grasshoppers, prancing around on the leaves of roses, etc. When very large they become crook-backed, massively horned, pale, and silent giants, more like Her creatures then than at any other time.     THE ENTROPIC TOUCH   Nathlings can instinctually wield the Entropic magics typical of Yggsrathaal and her children. This is a massively and systemically suppressed capacity amongst all "civilized" Nathlings. They hate to use it and the cultural and psychological stress of doing so is so traumatic that it can lead to a complete nervous breakdown or, in times of exceptional stress, even worse changes.     THE NATHLING AESTHETIC   It is very common for them to stain their skin a vibrant color, wear bright clothes and bedazzlements, to paint their horns, or adorn them with golden bells or silver spiderwebs strung between them. A handful radically chop off and grind down the horns, some, after losing a horn to battle or mischance, will cut the other even with it.   They wear necklaces or decorations of flowers, fresh fruit, leaves or vulnerable origami - to make a point. By keeping these very-perishable things in close proximity, and in perfect condition, they are definitely NOT using entropic magics that everyone knows they have.   In what began as a statement and evolved into a fashion, their tools and weapons are often of "fragile" materials, either made cunningly or enchanted; swords of glass, ceramic, crystal, paper or the slenderest steel, stalks of grass or whips of thorn. Bags of thin silk, belts of the slightest chain. Fine slippers and gossamer scarfs.     THE CULTURE OF THE NATHLINGS   Almost no "tolerated" group is less easily tolerated than the Nathlings. Not only are they carnivores who are clearly and obviously far too close to Yggsrathaal, but they are also strange.   Strange, in a world where multiple parallel species of humanity encounter and work alongside each other almost continuously, means more than just form, Nathlings act strange, they feel off, and not in a fey or magical way, in a creepy way.   It has been argued by some, and never convincingly argued against, that Nathlings have no instinctual moral core - no primate-sourced morality. For them, good and evil, cruelty and kindness, even love and duty, are simply a matter of decision, not intuition. They have no feeling to do the right thing, they feel no intense shame over doing the wrong thing.   The counter-argument is that, because Nathlings choose good, and choose to be pro-social, loyal, and kind, that the fundamental meaning of their actions are the same, or possibly even better. How many mortals can say that, if all things were even, they would coldly choose the right path?   That might make sense intellectually, but it doesn't help much when dealing with them face-to-face.   They are uncanny and strangely distant, even with each other. Everything they do has a feeling of performance. They have no immediate disgust instinct, no strong fear instinct, and no very strong desire instinct.   Their laughter sounds arch, even fake.   They are extremely fair and even-handed, totally unprejudiced to any particular group. They make their decisions based on facts only and would make really good judges, if anyone fully trusted them. Which is really aggravating if you've known them for years and they don't instinctually support you. But there is no instinct for group loyalty, only decision.   Careful observers and brilliant mimics of others, they are disturbingly good actors and exceptional liars and manipulators. Once you see one lie, even if it were to save your life, it’s hard to fully trust them ever again, you feel as if you can't really 'know' them - even after a long time.   If you want to stop one doing something arguably immoral, or to persuade them to do something that seems immoral, though you do it for the right reasons, you must often explain why, sometimes from first principals. "Trust me" isn't always going to cut it, and even if they do trust you now, they will want an explanation later.     IN SOCIETY   Nathlings are adaptable to any social situation, but not accepted in most of them.   They are often itinerant single wanderers. They are unofficially banned from some Cities and Queendoms. Legally, no such ban can exist, but in practice, they know the places that it is dangerous for them to step. They rarely gather in large groups in public for fear of mobs, but there are underground networks in most cities.   It is rumored Nathlings often walk about under glamours, seeming to be other than they are, though this is dangerous and semi-legal in most governed lands.   When integrated into social structures, they are eager and effective members of organizations that will give them visible protection and allow them to move around. They often take on unpopular but useful jobs like tax collector, executioner, ombudsman, investigator, translator, entertainer to semi-legal subcultures, and of course, criminal. They make exceptionally good criminals, except that everyone always suspects the Nathling. Though they rarely seem very religious, they are curious, knowledgeable and of course, tolerant. When they do commit to a faith, they learn it all, chapter and verse, down to the smallest detail.   They raise their children in private, they are rarely seen out in public until they are around ten years old.   Outside settled society, Nathlings often get on quite well with "wild" Aeth out in the forests. They are gracile, precise, independent aesthetes, and rather "fey" in manner, literally in the case of the Aeth.   They can survive in the Wastes, possibly better than any other mortal being, though this ability has not improved their reputation. They can find, fight, and kill the Children of Yggsrathaal better than anything on Uud.     AGING   Nathlings, as designed by Her, are immortal, or at least, ageless.   Feeling ages them.   The more "real", "alive" and "felt" they become, the older they physically get. Their altered flesh was made to pass through the world of mortal minds like mist, placeless, featureless, and untouchable. It cannot tolerate attachment, affection, integration, or meaning.   This is why the first vivid dream of a Nathling is so important. It is a Rubicon. There is still time for them to turn back to remain immortal, untouchable. Some Nathlings remain "young" forever. Neither evil nor good, passionless, they drift through the world, barely touching it.   But the deeper and more meaningful their interaction with the world, the more people they trust, and are trusted by, the more feeling they inspire and absorb, the deeper and more vivid their dreams, the stronger and deeper their soul, the harder they age.   And this aging changes the sense of them. The disturbing alienation of their behavior fades away. The effect of their amnesiac blood disappears. Old, or old-looking, Nathlings are often well-liked, with acceptable social positions, circles of friends, familiarity, trust, easy banter, and a sense of weight and simple vigor. They are also astoundingly ugly and horned, they look like old knotted wood or dried out demons. They laugh and feel and live and exist deeply and intuitively, though from their looks they would seem to be devils.   These "old" Nathlings are looked on with awe, horror, and envy by the young. This is what they could be, should they choose.   This is their final victory and their great tragedy. Made to be murderous ghosts of entropy, like leaves blown before an annihilating storm, they trick fate and defy their creator. They are finally, irrevocably, immediately and intuitively Human.   They pay for it with their lives. But don't we all?

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