"It is a royal sport, Clemensa," said a dark and sunbaked man. With manicured fingers, he thumbed flechette rounds into a squat magazine. Sweat beaded on his forearms and lined brow.
Across the folding table, Clemensa, clutching a thick demitasse of coffee, nodded slackly. He peered under his pith hat out into the jungle, blinked 'gainst heavy sun amidst dark trees' fronds. Their camp, attended by two tan and pith-clad servants, lay alongside a muddy and algae-slicked path through a steaming labyrinth of trees.
He blinked away sweat. "So you keep repeating, Elizar."
Elizar pursed his lips, knowingly. "I do, I do. Those haughty Firls, for all their queerness, have discovered even in our own country the best sport."
"Yes, where it is spoiling hot."
"Drink more espresso. You will sweat better."
Clemensa harrumphed, swallowed the coffee. Foam stuck to his moustache. He curled his lip, frowned into the thicket. "And they are in there, Elizar? The storks?"
"Yes, but higher up the slopes." He took up a long gunspring, furnished in walnut and filigree, from the table, clapped the magazine into its well. "We will go to meet them after lunch."
"At siesta," whined Clemensa.
"Yes. When they soar low to hunt. The islanders sleep inside, to avoid them."
"Ai, you will not complain so, with a stone* for your mantelpiece and a great beak for your wall." He grinned. "In any case, your beau, my dear sister, will find you a more impressive husband, for it."
Clemensa's look did not improve.
Down the path, a burble of grumbling voices and sloshing boots swelled. Clemensa watched them approach, dully.
They were grim, sweated folk. Eight in all; all ragged, poor, bitten red by the sun and slicked by ceaseless jungle steam. Many had blotchy bandages round fresh wounds. Four in the lead supported something slung heavy and swaying neath two poles; a large, hidden carcass covered in tarp. Two followed, carried bundles of long clubs. And after them followed two more. They lugged a limp, brown woman in their wake, slashed through her leaking belly as if by claws.
Clemensa's eyes widened. "Lord," he said, running a thumb over his moustache. "Look, Elizar. What are they?"
Elizar turned to look, briefly. "Oh, hunters," said he, turned his eyes back to polishing his gunspring.
Rapt, Clemensa watched the small parade go by. He craned to look neath their tarp. Naught but a sliver of smooth, taut flesh showed below, smooth and matte pink as a rose petal. "Of what? What beast have they caught, there?"
"Yes, but more leopard than pixie."
"Are they maneaters, those lions?"
"They kill a few dozen farmers, yearly," said Elizar, disinterested.
Hair rose on Clemensa's arms, lifted beads of sweat. "Sounds righteous prey. Ferocious, too. Look what it did to that woman," he gestured to the passing group.
"Ferocious: Yes. Refined sport: No." Elizar blinked at him. "Do not tell me you are thinking what I think you are thinking."
"But, Elizar," said Clemensa, raising his hands. "Look at them. They are poor, they hunt with clubs, and yet they take more righteous prey than us." He opened his palms. "We aim to shoot down silly birds while they better mankind."
"Come, now. The storks are maneaters, too."
"They eat nearly no one, these years."
Elizar frowned. "Bah, the lion poppies are policed well enough."
"But not yet well enough, so you admitted. Why do we not join in hunting them, Elizar? Why do you disapprove, so?"
Elizar set down his gun, pointed a hand, palm up, at the retreating parade and their kill. "Because, Clemensa," he said. "Poppy hunters are wretches. Lowlives."
Clemensa frowned. "But, they are so brave."
"Theirs is the courage of greedy men," Elizar said, leaning forward. Clemensa frowned, listening.
Elizar walked two fingers over the tabletop. "They go to the poppy's haunts with but clubs, and they do not track; they do not stalk." He shook his head. "They play the lion's roulette."
Clemensa's lips parted. "They act as bait?"
His friend nodded. "They wait for the beast to come. All know they are bait, but all are comforted that only one will become prey."
"And when the poppy strikes?"
"They strike, too. Leap and pummel it down before it can take one of them away." Elizar crossed his arms. "Often, it works. Often, a successful hunt requires a traded life."
"But why clubs? Have they no other weapons, they are so poor?"
Elizar shook his head, drummed his fingers over his elbows. "Clubs, for they do not wish to pierce its petal-hide."
"So they do not spill its blood?"
"What blood is worth a life?" Clemensa looked offended.
"The poppy's blood, of course. Pink blood…" said Elizar, drawling. He squinted down the path where the hunters had gone. Naught remained of them but footprints and dribbled gore. "Is worth its weight in gold."
A boot nudged Borl's midsection. He didn't respond. "Your watch, greenhorn**," mumbled an adenoidal, gruff tone, loud in the night.
On the stick-strewn forest floor, Borl's scruffy head emerged from a pile of blankets. He looked blearily up, groaned, shut his eyes again, yawned abundantly.
"Eh. Can smell your breath from here," said the boot's owner,
a pasty woman in a steel cap tugged over a woolen hat.
"Shove off, Jen." Borl blinked away sleep, frowned miserably.
"Shoosh," said Jen, pointing about. "Ye'll wake the mates." Nearby, huddled round a kettle on a fire of wavering coals, dozed more snoring piles of blankets.
She nudged him again. "Git up, yeah? Yer wasting me turn in the sack."
Borl moaned, crawled gingerly out of the nest. He tottered to the fire, hunched there. A moonlit halo of flyaway hairs ringed his dour expression. Beside, the kettle pinged and creaked, cooling.
Jen flopped atop the vacant blankets, sighed. Both her knees popped. She loosened her cap, stretched. "Yer boots," she grunted, tugged the sorry, creased things from midst the blankets.
Borl took them, wordless. Slowly, painfully, he tugged them over socks stained by the weeping of swollen feet. Wincing, he laced them loose. Jen watched, frowned.
"Yer havin' a bad time of it," she stated, some gruffness gone from her tone.
"M'fine." Borl averted his gaze.
"Got te take 'em off more often, 'specially after swamps, like yesterday," nodded Jen. "Dry 'em off 'n rub some whale grease on. Prevents gangrene." She dragged over a scuffed leather backpack, unbuttoned it. "Here, borrow some, fer now."
She rolled him a fat, oily tin. "And get ye new boots, when ye can afford it. Boots are important." She nodded, knowingly.
Borl took the tin. "Thanks," he said, began undoing his laces.
"And these, I s'ppose. Don't pay me no favors back." Jen tossed him a pair of balled socks.
Borl looked at them, askance. "Got some angle?"*** Why're you being so generous?"
"Got no angle," said Jen. She fiddled with a strap, shrugged, looked out at the woods for a spell. A coal popped in the fire.
"'Cept, there's no school for the tricks to cuttering," she said, frowning. "An' most who know'd rather eat'ye than teach ye, so there's no harm 'n teachin'."
She scratched a scar on her chin. "S'ppose I've seen too many of you green lot wasted." She nodded. "S'ppose that's my angle."
Borl nodded, slow. He took the socks and, wincing, undid his boots and putrid socks. Carefully, he propped his raw soles to dry beside the wavering coals.
"How many ventures've you been on, Jen?" he said, quiet.
"Twenty two," Jen said, flat. "Two years. Lot o' debt to pay."
Borl shivered. "This is my second."
"Yer luckier than lots, then."
"Don't feel it."
"Nor do I, meself."
They sat quiet, a moment. Jen looked out into the black and grey trees, twiggy in their autumn bareness. Borl shifted a few sticks into the coals, shifted closer, half shut his eyes.
"Any brew left in th'kettle?" muttered Jen.
Borl nudged it with a toe. It sloshed. "Aye."
"Pour me one, aye?"
He did, passed a tin cup over.
"M'thanks." Jen rummaged in her pack, removed a square, small bottle. A pink lion reclined on its stained label. Dull firelight flickered in its curves of brown glass. She bit off the cork, applied four drops of shiny fluid, so red as to be black, to the sour cup of brew.
Borl watched her, inquisitive.
Jen looked sheepish. "The old lion, for me sleep," she explained. "Twenty-two ventures, they don't afford ye rest."
"What is it?"
Fast, Jen swallowed the doctored brew. Its astringence drew a grimace from her lips. "A trick te cuttering I'd not recommend." She set down the bottle, laid stiffly to ground, rolled a blanket over hunched shoulders. "Enjoy yer watch, greenhorn."
Borl grunted in return. He remained at the fire, attended to his sorrowful feet with a slather of grease and a new pull of socks. He replaced his boots, and then he sat, listening to the wind, the clicking of dry branches, the mumbling of surrounding sleepers. Soon, Jen, too, began to snore.
Nearby, the little bottle lay on its side. Borl watched the sparse glow of breathing embers swell and fade in its surface, warm. He shivered. Slow, quiet, he crawled over, picked it up. Under the lion, stained in brown, were a few typeset phrases: "Buschmacher's No.1 Laudanum: 11% Tincture of coquelicot."
Chary, he pulled out the tiny cork, sniffed it, frowned at the smell of raw alcohol and spoiled spices. Shivering, glancing frequently at the sleepers around, he poured the last of the kettle's brew, dropped four gleaming dots of red-black laudanum into the cup.
Borl replaced the cork, returned the bottle to where he'd found it. He returned to the fire, sipped his drugged brew. He coughed, looked at it, swallowed the rest hurriedly.
And there he sat, intent, at first, looking dully into the surrounding woods. He turned his head to listen to the sounds of the night; for the wind, the rustling branches, the snoring of his fellows. In short order, he quit his swiveling, tucked his chin, looked dull into the dying coals. The watcher nodded, lolled into a listless slumber.
The wind hissed, brushed brittle boughs. Blanketed mounds of cutters mumbled in sleepy torpor.
Not far off, hungry and shrill, a wolf spider called in the unheard night.
In the deep and steaming jungles of Illa Corvoy, there roam pink lions.
Not cats, but flowers: Queer pixies given large and predatory form. They have not fur, but rosé flesh. Not tails, but trailing stems. Not eyes, but rippling petal-manes and stamen-whiskers girdling tooth-rung mouths. They are lion poppies, and they are the jungle's direst hunters.
A lion poppy walks with solitary purpose. It requires neither mate nor pride. Within mere hours of unfurling from its mother-stem, it institutes a hunt. Its purpose: Bring down a single quarry for use as fertile ground.
Like its namesake, a lion poppy will seek out its target, prepare an ambush, then lead an assault with abandon. Unlike its mammalian counterpart, however, the poppy possesses no mortal fear, only a singular drive. It would rather die with its prey than take no prey at all.
After slaying its target, a lion poppy curls up, sleeps atop it. Quickly, it withers away, leaves naught but black seeds and a husk of dried flower petals. This continues the lion poppy's life cycle, provides its seeds a fertile carcass on which to sprout a fresh crop of mother-stems.
Yearly, lion poppies slay scores of Illa Corvoy's poor bluet† farmers, seize them from their orchards and drag them to great charnel-beds of mother stems deep midst jungle vales. They take many enough travelers, too, and countless fool cutters delved too deep in the ruin-choked interior of that swallowing isle.
And despite this, many seek willingly the ferocious poppies. They go trepid into the hot and dripping woods, armed with but hickory clubs, deign to hunt a hunter. They use their own warm bodies as bait, aim to lure a single-minded poppy into a brawl it cannot best. Once beset, they beat the beast, crush the simple drive out of its rude plant-ganglia. They club it down even as it draws the throats from their ambushed fellows with rings of thorn-teeth.
The hunters club their poppy 'til its toothy bulb-maw no longer bites, 'til its capacity to stalk and kill is extinguished. They bundle up the creature, then, along with whatever number of casualties it inflicted, take them jealously home. There, in the hidden cellar-facilities of the guarded underbelly of Port Corvoy, they hang the beast for a long and torturous processing.
For months will a good lion poppy live, bereft of will, dangled by its limbs with its stem-tail fed into barrels of nutrient rot. There, it will have its pink flesh slit, cut just right so the pink latex blood comes clotting out. This precious spill, the ichor of the poppy, is worth its weight in silver. It is scraped, scabbed and sticky, from countless incisions in the lion's hide, allowed to run out and clot again for further collection. In the Coast's most prolific poppy-houses, trained preparators tend dozens of hanging, bleeding lions, draw months of fresh pink juice from their ever-thinning husks.
This pink stuff, the precious blood of the lion poppy, is the source of the Coast's most heady narcotic: Coquelicot.
In its traditional form, coquelicot is a dark pink gum; the product of dehydrating raw lion poppy blood. It is smoked in shaded, pillowed dens throughout the South, and even by the rarely-luxuriant in the Northlands. Small beads, tarry and bitter, are set to smolder in chimneyed pipes a meter long. They burn incredibly hot, are held at arm's length by reclining, delirious users who draw mouthful after mouthful of hot, foamy pink smoke into resin-coated lungs.
Sticky, sweetly-bitter coquelicot, whether smoke or otherwise, induces a torpid, euphoric sedation. In new users, its effects are incredible. Even slightly too-high doses may induce a permanent sleep. In tolerant users, the stuff brings on a perennial, elated dream-high so long as it is continually used. Those who do not use it continually suffer greatly and frequently the drug's after effects: Somnolence, stained lips, and terrible nightmares. They are doomed to experience these frequently, for coquelicot is handily addictive.
The ragmen of Southern and mid-Coastal climes are the Coast's best-known users of altered coquelicot. They have learned to roll the stuff, in an old Mapolitan custom, into a sugared, low-percent gum which they hold under the lower lip. They call this gun coquelicish, and they enjoy it plentifully. It causes them to spit profuse and colorful saliva, even drooling, for its analgesic effects, earning them the nickname "pinkspitters."
Coquelicot's analgesic and sedative effects, coupled with its relative ease of pharmaceutical obtainment, make it a popular ingredient in modern medicine. While its production is nowhere wholly without secrecy and criminality, it is only vaguely controlled by Coastal governments. As a result, it is readily incorporated in moderate or even high doses in a multitude of drugs, elixirs, and tinctures. Sleeping draughts, cough suppressants, even special bittersweet salt tonics advertised to uplift the mood and calm the senses.
Most commonly, medical coquelicot occurs in the form of laudanum. An alcoholic, bitter tincture of highly-distilled poppy blood. A woefully powerful concoction sold in little brown bottles for merely more than a shilling. Advertised as an ameliorating ally against the woes of anything from backache to flu, the tincture is commonly known and unconditionally habit-forming.
This laudanum, often pejoratively or fondly known as "pink lion" by its beneficiaries and dependents, for its printed label, is among the common cutter's most favorite vices.
A venturing life, regarded as among the most perilous of all professions, tempts fast those who lead it to tamp down their rapidly flaring smoulder of nightmares and things best forgot. For this, laudanum is many a cutter's friend. Delves time and again into the unspeakable and ancient are made, for a short while, more bearable by the company of a little brown bottle.
But coquelicot tincture, for however long it works, does always in the end wear down the mind or the coffers.
Nagging foes' faces and remembered monsters, once ameliorated, will find themselves eventually stronger, more frightful, in the company of the pink lion.
This article is the spawn of two idiations. Firstly: To devote an article each vice in the old drug article. Secondly: To provide supporting lore for one facet of the opt-in horror and nightmares system in the Incunabuli System playtest. The former, horror, is present in the document. The latter comes later, and will find as company rules for the pink lion.
This article was made possible by Incunabuli's generous supporters on Patreon. To join them and read articles available only to supporters, support Incunabuli on Patreon.
* The gizzard stones of giant storks, large, round and marble, are valued as trophies and items of display. Made popular after their presentation by renowned hunter Gemma Doza at a soiree some decades ago.
** "Greenhorn" numbers among the variety of names cutters hold for new, inexperienced, and woefully naive fellows in their deadly trade.
*** "Angle," like the word "cutter," has its origin in nautical terminology. A person's "angle of approach" is their motive, their goal.
† The bluet is a sort of plump, blue pear with frosted, semitranslucent flesh. It has a honeyed, sticky flavor. It is cultivated only on the jungle isles south of Alagór.