Wednesday 23 May 2018

The Parakeet Plains

The plains grow cold at dusk. The sullen black cones of volcanoes slouch against the western horizon, flanks scarred by mineworks, waiting to eat the sun.

The only sheltered places to camp at night are the steel-blue glacial lakes that scar the stony dry earth. The russet-red grass is flecked with guano and the delicate rainbow feathers of parakeets, who gather each evening in the canopies of the prickly araucania pines to feast on nuts and night-insects. Their screeching is unbearable, a constant raucous thunder. It becomes impossible to sleep, speak or think. Only the Piquenche, the funniest people in the world, can tolerate it for the length of a journey without going even madder than they already are. They roam the plains on horseback, in war-troupes and nomadic bands, hunting half-deaf glyptodon and macrauchenia with their ludicrously tiny feathered spears. Their short lives are devoted to comedy and war.

The pox-priests of the Doleful God, who eternally mourns the wickedness of His children, have their missions in the mountains. Slaves from the fertile seaward lands quarry copper for their house-sized Inevitable Bells, hoisted high as possible to broadcast doom-laden peals for miles around. Knights, prospectors, gauchos, bandeirantes and inquisitors gather in shanty-towns at the mountains' edge, hoping to play their part in opening the plains up to cattle-grazing and general exploitation. So far they have had little success.

Encounters - 

1. Piquenche War-Troupe.

4d4 braves with spears, hide shields and short compound bows strung with animal sinew, plus 1d4 medicine clowns with face paint and inflated bladders on sticks. All are mounted, most on horses, some on comic animals like glyptodons and pigs. The braves compete to see who can fight in the funniest possible way, even at risk to their own safety and efficiency. They will headbutt you, hit you with the wrong end of their spears, ride backward in silly hats, try to hold you down and fart in your face. Their sense of humour is bawdy and Chaucerian. The clowns cavort around getting in everyone's way indiscriminately, though they can use healing magic in a pinch.

They're probably on their way to pillage an experimental cattle ranch, slaughter a convoy of pilgrims or raid another band of Piquenche for horses and children. They get better names as they get more status - a chief might be called White Eagle, while somebody who fucks up might be forced to take the name Dog Cunt. If they take you alive they'll torture you, and they might already have some tortured and traumatised captives with them.

Piquenche torture subtable -
  1. Cut off the soles of your feet and make you run for miles over stony ground
  2. Cut off your eyelids and bury you up to your neck in the harsh sun
  3. Wrap you with untanned leather straps that shrink in the sun and crush you
  4. Stake you out and pile hot coals on your stomach
  5. Scalp you and make you wear a crown of thorns
  6. Force-feed you horseshit until your stomach ruptures
They think all this stuff is hilarious, obviously. They consider themselves the children of the trickster spirit, who is of course the parakeet, and love stories about how she outwitted marks like the foolish pig and gullible sloth. These stories always end violently, with the mark boiled alive in its own fat while the parakeet flies away with their girlfriend. Think Itchy and Scratchy, or that episode of Southpark where Cartman makes a guy eat his own parents. It's possible that you can win the Piquenche over and get them to let you go by telling them a funny enough story, but it's also possible they will laugh and then skin you alive.

art by howard terpning
2. Piquenche Band.

10d10 braves, 5d10 children, 2d10 maltreated slaves, 2d10 useless old people, 1d10 clowns, a peace chief and a war chief. All are mounted except the old people, who straggle along behind and will die soon. Both genders fight - the Piquenche make little distinction. Children ride with their parents or on tiny ponies, constantly trying to knock each other off. Spare horses, stolen cattle, stolen wagons, captured or half-domesticated plains beasts, scavengers, merchants and the occasional holy fool or pathologically earnest missionary trail after the convoy, sometimes herded and sometimes left to wander off in any direction they wish. You'll hear them coming long before you see them, or spot their conical tents in the exact place you were going to make your own camp.

In bands, the Piquenche are not quite as horribly lethal or desperate to impress each other. They will probably only kill you if provoked, though they will go out of their way to try to provoke you into provoking them. They will probably want to trade with you - they like alcohol, guns, metalwork, mirrors and books, which they tear apart and pack in between the leather layers of their shields. The peace chief and the war chief make their decisions with total disregard for each other's long-term goals, though the chaos that results is often surprisingly productive. Both might have use for deniable outside help. The chiefdoms are held by popular acclaim, and the whole political situation can change overnight if someone brings home a valuable prize or lets loose a fart at exactly the perfect time.
art by george catlin
3. Piquencheros.

Rude and filthy indigents from the civilised west who make their living by trading, or attempting to trade, with the Piquenche. The pox-priests and the governor of the Gilded Coast (a profoundly inbred, chinless third cousin of the Queen) have outlawed any attempt to supply the natives with booze and guns, so the Piquencheros tend to be paranoid and twitchy. They have no desire to end up crucified, enslaved or buried alive, and if they suspect you of being a religious man or a Queen's Agent they will shoot first and ask questions later. 2d10 of them on horseback, carrying second-hand weapons, guarding a couple of heavy wagons that are loaded with suspiciously plain packages. Basically indistinguishable from your standard murderhobo PC, and each one has some kind of horrible story to tell.

4. Horrible Birds.

In some of the Piquenche's stories this is the parakeet's insane elder brother, who she tricks some unfortunate foe into angering. Three-metre predatory flightless birds with huge round macaw-beaks that can crack a skull like an eggshell. Beady hate-filled eyes and long greasy feathers in nauseating neon shades of red, grey and green. No two have the same pattern of colours. Their down is soft enough to stuff the pillow of a king and worth its weight in gold, though it doesn't weigh much.

The Horrible Birds eat anything, but they prefer to take human prey alive. They crack your arms and legs and drag you screaming back to their nests, big scraped-out craters in the bare dirt, for their chicks to practice hunting on. Then they strut back and forth around the nest, daring your friends to come and rescue you. They are almost as smart as people and their feathers are thick enough to blunt the force of arrows. They hate priests and wizards and will go to great lengths to kill anything in a pointy hat. They can outrun a horse but prefer slower targets like wagons and cattle herds. Sometimes they'll raid an outlying farm and drag the farmer's crying children away into the night.

Stealing a Horrible Egg is a classic Piquenche initiation rite. If you're captured they might dress you in a suit of raw meat, tie your thumbs together and tell you they'll let your friends go if you get back here with an egg within the hour.

5. Idiotherium.

Cross between a ground sloth and a giant anteater. Long probing snout, wormlike tongue, shaggy grey hide and huge strong claws. Elephant-sized. Stands on hind legs when threatened. The idiotherium, also called the king sloth and an expression in Piquenche that translates to "cuddle monster", is capable of eating nothing but insects, and its terrible claws are adapted for tearing apart termite mounds to get at the juicy bugs and larva within.

Half-blind and tragically optimistic, it has an unfortunate tendency to assume that anything of about the right size is a termite mound. It has been known to attack rocks, trees and buildings, but something about their colouration makes humans irresistible to it. It is slow but single-minded and almost unstoppable once it gets going, protected by a layer of osteoderms beneath its hide and willing to follow you across the plain for days. When it catches you it will pin you down and tear you apart, questing with its tongue through your shredded organs, wondering where the termites are. If it does this too many times it will starve to death.

The Piquenche capture these guys and bait them like bears. At festivals they tether them in makeshift arenas, torture them with fire, set agile children and terrified captives to aggravate them with sharpened sticks. Sometimes the idiotherium gets free and goes on a panicked, maddened rampage, which they consider a wholly acceptable outcome.

art from
he also has some extraordinary glyptodons
6. Pride of Smylocine.

Striped, sabre-tootheds, snub-nosed mongrels, four feet long, with tufted caracal ears and a curious lumpy jaw. Also called the tiger-dog and, in Piquenche, the "unwanted child". Patient and crafty. Deaf to high frequencies - they can hear the low thrum of their prey's footsteps for miles across the plain, and are unfazed by the chatter of the parakeets. Like to attack campfires at sunset, during dinner, when everyone's angry and distracted and the noise makes it hard for you to communicate. Hunt in packs. Suffer badly from mange and facial cancers - generally unhealthy creatures. Attracted to bass notes - have been known to break into churches to get at the bells. Show up at the edge of Piquenche festivals, just beyond the firelight, called by the sound of huge hide drums.

The Piquenche tame them ironically. They can't actually be domesticated, only conditioned with pain not to attack every single thing they see, but it's considered very funny to treat one as a beloved pet and pretend it's adorable.

7. Marching Mound.

A vaguely man-shaped pillar of desiccated clay, clomping around the plains on two or three stubby legs, bustling with small white termites whose bites cause terrible convulsive acidic pain. Sometimes crowned with white dinnerplate mushrooms or small purple orchids that the termites fertilise and farm. Powered by temperature differentials - must walk towards the sun, staggering east in the morning and westward in the afternoon. The Piquenche steal jewelry, attach it to their arrows and fire the arrows into the mounds, hoping you'll get bitten trying to retrieve it. They also tether captives to the mounds, forcing them to march back and forth until they pass out from exhaustion and get dragged to death.

A particular species of yellow-kneed tarantula preys on the termites, and can force them to abandon a mound. It is insanely poisonous to the touch and screams like a dying woman.

8. Funeral Golem.

The Piquenche expect to die young, and they value spontaneity and impermanence. They generally eat their dead. If someone notable dies, like a well-respected chief or famous clown, they marinade the gutted corpse for a few days in a secret mixture of honey, peppers and pine nuts, grill it over coals and invite all the neighbouring bands over for a riotous week-long feast and wake. Once the food has gone and the last stories of the dead person have been told, they tend not to speak of them again. The pox-priests like to make a big deal out of how shocking this is, but the Piquenche don't care what those guys think and neither should you.

The only people who get memorialised are people nobody likes. Traitors, cowards, deserters and dullards are remembered in the form of giant ugly two-faced wooden statues, roughly carved into vicious caricatures of the shithead they represent. They are imbued with a semblance of life - possessed, say the Piquenche, by the spirits of the dead, who are thus taken out of the natural cycle of reincarnation - and cast out of the band to wander the plains alone and in misery. Wanting only to be reintegrated into society, they will hobble painfully up to you and do anything they can think of to make you laugh. They cannot speak and are painfully unfunny. If you don't produce convincingly honest laughter they will attack, swinging their heavy fists, hoping to provoke you into burning or destroying them and liberating them from the agony of their existence.

these are mapuche chemamull
unlike funeral golems they are neither an insult nor ugly
9. Holy Fool.

Solitary, incompetent eccentrics who wander the plains at will, unmolested by man or beast. The Piquenche have decided it's funnier to keep these people alive than it would be to kill them. It's not clear why the animals leave them alone, or how they always manage to find food. Maybe the medicine clowns have blessed them, maybe they're favoured by the Doleful God or maybe the plain itself likes having them around. Dressed in rags and mad with loneliness - they're only impervious to harm as long as they're isolated from humanity, and the Piquenche will kill any friends they happen to make. They preach their half-baked philosophies to the birds, the moon and the stars.

Half-baked philosophy subtable -
  1. I am the King of Hell and you are all my devils, we must lay siege to Heaven
  2. This land is mine by right of inheritance, we must find lawyers and press my suit in court
  3. The trees are my daughters, God cursed them for my insolence, I must make amends
  4. I have established a republic of Pure Reason where all men may live free, you may join me
  5. There is gold in the earth but it fears noise, we must be silent as we dig for it
  6. We are all characters in a book of comic tales by an ideologically objectionable author
If they're forced to leave the plains, and offered a quiet place to sleep, the holy fools will often recover from their madness with surprising speed. They sometimes have wealthy families or profitable connections in the civilised lands.

10. Rattling Revenant.

The soft static hiss of bone scraping against bone. Sometimes mistaken for rain by greenhorns who don't yet know how rarely it rains here. During the day it keeps its distance - no more than a hill on the horizon, conical and pale, that comes no closer as you ride toward it. Once the sun has set it comes surging out of the darkness - a sepia-toned pyramid of cattle skulls, tumbling toward you like a sand-dune before an invisible wind, grinding up hide and flesh to leave nothing but bones in its wake. They will never admit it, keeping up a cheerful front at all costs, but the revenant is the only thing that can sober a Piquenche brave. It's new to the plains, and the wisest of the clowns believe it is a kind of reversed ghost - not the remnant of a tragedy, but the animated omen of a terrible future to come.

Bonus glyptodons for reading so far:

also by rodrigo vega
i told you he was good

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