They stood within a cloud of flies, stared at the stinking bulk before them.
It was the carrion wreck of a cow, prone on the browning pasture and surrounded by gore-stained scrub. Flies spiraled to and fro from the hollow of its ribs and belly, torn open and bereft of innards.
A summer's breeze slipped through the kitchen window, through hanging pans and swaying sheafs of basil. Heady, sedative, laden with sea salt and the sweetness of orange groves in full fruit. Neath the window, sprawled on a countertop, dozed a fat ginger cat. By the hearth, in a crooked chair, slept a plump old woman. Nary a hint of black remained midst the grey of her nodding head.
In the warm, seaside hills of Alagór's southern countryside, where ancient spiritualism still mingles in equal measure with Avethan faith, folk believe in spirits.
Lemures, they are called. * Shades of the restless dead. Revenants, clad in cobbled flesh and coiled organs, who come at night from their chthonic sea-cave haunts** to demand food at the doors they knew in life. They mill and they moan, banging on walls, lowing wetly for succor. If they find what they want, a simple offering of spare offal, they will depart. If they are denied, they'll take their meal another way: Violently, from the bellies of selfish folk and their livestock.
To placate the lemures, village folk practice a modest ritual offering: They leave a portion of spare entrails, saved from the week's meat, in a bowl on the doorstep on sabbath-night. By morning, it will be gone; taken by the lemures. This offering is known as lemuria.
The smallfolk of the south have practiced lemuria since years immemorial. They hold it among the central tenants of their faith. To feed the departed is less a burden, less an action taken under threat, than it is an act of charity. To them, the spirits are pitiable things; wretches who suffer in a cursed afterlife and know no better than to beg and to hurt. To offer them a spare chicken liver once a week is the smallest, the only possible gift. Charity to humankind is among the requisite dictates of Aveth, and, to those who believe, lemures are still human.
The Southerner's Lemuria is not unlike the traditions of the superstitious Awnish of the far North, who leave gifts in respect to local älves. Though, unlike älves, who may provide good fortune in the form of surreptitious favors, offerings to lemures offer no benefit sans freedom from harassment and predation. Also, unlike Lemuria, the traditions of Awn are viewed by outsiders as harmless idiosyncrasies, bereft of spiritual meaning. *** Offerings to the lemures, however, are viewed rather differently by the wider Coast.
To visitors from other lands, lemuria seems a bizarre practice indeed. The countryfolk's charity to miserable spirits looks, to the wider Coast, like the willful feeding of bonafide monsters.
To them, lemures look appear as departed ancestors, but parasitic, shambling organisms that both consume and construct their bodies from entrails and assorted carrion. † The Southerner's ancient, charitable tradition occurs as a perverted solution to the problem of a millennia-long monster infestation. A solution not for humanity's favor, but for the benefit and nourishment of lemures.
As scholars would define it, lemures are a sort of parasitic scavenger. Vague, headless skeletons of cartilage and weak muscle which depend on surrogate tissues to function. Driven by rude instinct, lemures cloak their weak frames in found tissue; cobble together a rude, personal anatomy.
By what physiological power lemures fuse offal into a functioning, gross whole, none can say. What can be said is that it doesn't work for very long, as lemures hunt constantly to replace their decaying body of organs. Only a lemure's soft, headless skeleton remains and grows. That, and its long claws, attached to both hands and feet, suitable for handling and harvesting flesh. To delay their decay, lemures hide from daylight, most often in the depths of sea caves, where the salt soothes them, or in the dark of abandoned structures.
Much to the dismay of the countryfolk who fed them, lemures have become a popular target for errant cutters in recent years. The sea caves where the squelshy spirits make their hives, having been revered and undisturbed for millennia, are quite full of treasure from both modern days and ages past. The lemures, who often drag bodies back home in order to break down their organs, have inadvertently collected a wealth of pocketed gold. Smugglers and pirates, long ago wise to the shades' spiritual falsity, have also made caches there for centuries by luring the monsters out with piles of cow intestine, then depositing their swag behind for the beasts to inadvertently guard. For the temptation of gold, cutters would certainly drive lemures to extinction.
In response to sudden predation after comfortable ages of hand-feeding, the lemures of the placid Alagóran countryside have begun to adapt their behavior. In some villages, rather than quietly accept lemuria every week, the monsters are instead hunting. Slaying and gobbling villagers and beasts alike, and, on the nourishment and strength of their entrails, growing terrifyingly large. Hulking lemures, trailed by coveys of smaller kin, are now rumored to wander the hills and olive groves even in daylight, militant and hungry. Cutter gangs, town militiae, and monsters slayers face them with equal surety, though their losses are higher than ever before. Despite losses, few long for peace with the lemures.
Few, save the countryfolk and their modest charity.
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† Sir Gemus of Ire, among the first biologists to address lemures as an object of study, describes the creatures as being primarily composed of a substance like piled, raw liver and coiled gut.