Boots splashed and sucked through mud and bracky water.
Three cutters picked through a morass, wound about tufts of swamp grass and bubbling pools scummed with algae. A yellow sky hung close overhead, bore scant light on backs bowed under backpacks strapped with blades and ammunition.
Someone sniffed. "Eugh. What's that smell?" said the middle. He pulled a grimace over blocky teeth. "Sievart, are you farting at me?"
Ahead, Sievart turned. She looked offended. "Shove off, Porkins. It's from the swamp."
"So the swamp is farting at me," said Porkins, stepping onto and over a mound of wet grass.
Sievart rolled her eyes. "There's dead things under the swamp. They ferment and make gas."
"Should we really be breathing dead things?" said the rear cutter, nasally. He held his nose with a gloved thumb and forefinger.
"Methane's nontoxic, and there's not enough to asphyxiate us," said Sievart.
The lead cutter rolled her eyes. "Think about it like this. It's in pockets, and there's plenty of oxygen in between those pockets."
"Thank you, Doctor Darling," singsonged Porkins, mockingly. He drew a pack of cigarettes from his coat, tapped one out, and attempted to strike a rope lighter for it.
"Just wish," said the third, taking a pause to breathe. "We could detect the pockets. Go around them, like. Gonna smell like bad eggs by the time we reach the roadhouse." He looked downcast. "The molls are gonna make me wash."
"Heh," mumbled Porkins, cigarette in lip, still trying at his lighter. The cheap flint grated futilely in wet air. "Send them my pity."
Ahead, Sievart frowned as she entered another sulphurous cloud. "I suppose they could be detected." She waved a hand under her nose. "It'd only require–"
At that moment, there was a whump, a fiery burst behind her. The little troupe stopped, turned in startlement to behold their middle member. Porkins stood, dazed, eyebrows quite gone, thoroughly scorched. A cigarette hung, lit, in his mouth. "Bloody oouch." He whimpered.
Sievert sighed, finished speaking:
"Good morning, Doctor Rammstein," said a woman in blue wool and brass buttons. She offered a suede-gloved hand as the Doctor undertook the threshold.
"Good morning, Sergeant," replied Rammstein, shaking it. He sniffed as he entered, waved away a fluttering cloud of dusty doxbells descended from the lintel. There was a yellow musk of aged cigarettes in the air, about the ceiling.
"And good morning to you, Master Linpell. Deepest, ah, condolences." He nodded to a teary-eyed young man who sat on a chest across the oak-paneled parlor, removed a battered black hat, held it respectfully over a pin on his coat which read Blystle County Coroners Office. The man sniffled, smiled sadly in greeting.
"I hope you've brought arms, Doctor," addressed the Sergeant, also waving away doxbells. She nodded to the clanking, sloshing bag the Coroner carried under one arm.
Rammstein frowned. "I wasn't told the honored departed had been, ah, that way for any length of time, Perkins. Was I misinformed?"
"No, you see, there's–"
At that moment, there was a terrific crash elsewhere in the house. There followed an undulating tumble, as of falling books. Something shattered. Linpell jumped, sobbed suddenly.
"Oh dear," said Rammstein, blinking up at the yellowed paint of the ceiling. It had cracked, shed dust and further minute, drifting doxbells.
"A rather bad bunch of topples about," finished the Sergeant. "The old man was a copious smoker of pepperelle."
Rammstein sniffed, frowned at the deeply sour, ashen odor of cigarettes. "I might have, ah, suspected."
Sergeant Perkins leaned close, and, glancing to the weepy Linpell, whispered behind a hand. "They did him in, see?"
"Did him in?" said Rammstein, turning, incredulous, at full volume. Linpell sobbed, buried his face in a handkerchief.
"Ah. Sorry." He, too, whispered. "What did it, ah, do? Push a lamp on him?"
"You'll see," she turned to a short hallway. Its arched ceiling swarmed with little black puffs: swarming doxbells. "Do follow."
On her way out, she turned to Linpell, who had started to rise, said sweetly: "Do stay here, young Master. You've had enough of a shock for one day."
"I've my service pistol, if need be," said the Sergeant. "We should be fine, if it shows up."
"I did bring my, ah, aspergillum,"* frowned Rammstein, following. Ahead, the Sergeant opened a door, passed through. The Coroner took the knob, said as he entered: "But what topple's so bad you need a gun t–"
He quieted abruptly. They had entered a library, lit by tall, leaded windows clouded by yellow stain. In the room's middle, near a desk covered in books and ashtrays, was an immense hickory bookshelf knocked on its front. Rammstein had shut up, for neath it, surrounded by fallen books, emerged a pair of veiny feet clad in slippers.
"That bad," said the Sergeant, nodding to the feet.
Rammstein approached the corpse, frowned at the pool of dried blood midst the crumpled books. "I've heard a toke is bad for the lungs, but not, ah, for your everything," he joked, kneeling. "Eh, Sergeant?"
The Sergeant didn't respond.
"Perkins?" Rammstein stood, jumped. Something like a spindly bear made of toenail clippings and cat hair had sped, quite large, behind a nearby shelf. Its footfalls pattered like a dog's on hard tile.
There was a creak behind him. "Perkins?"
The Coroner turned just in time to see a toppled bookcase descend atop him.
From the volcanic slopes of Illa Sicáda hails an herb of some concern: Pepperelle. A plant, comprised of scentful and leathery stands of wide leaves that some centuries ago turned the collected heads of civilization.
Near the turn of the Fourth Millennium, explorer Lastimo Corero Enscenza Nicocera,‡ on a voyage to prospect exploitable resources mongst the Trackless Isles, first encountered on rainy Sicáda that curious weed. His published journal recounts how the native folk of that island, who wore stone for their clothing, habitually put to their lips and inhaled the smoke of a particular herb burned in stemmed, granite bowls and seashells. Nicocera's men, fond of cultural exchange with the hospitable Sicádeens, quickly adopted the habit, found the peppery smoke apt to brighten the mind and temper the nerves. They enjoyed it immensely, returned several specimens of the plant, which they dubbed pimienterello, for its pepper flavor, to their sunny homeland.
Typical of Alagóran expeditionary ventures, later visits to Sicáda were less cordial. Pimienterello had proven extremely popular on the Coast, where folk smoked it through wooden pipes and tubes rolled of whole leaves. ** The island was quickly annexed, the islanders abused, plagued by diseases carried by the later wave of Alagórans, and forced to flee on stone canoes to lands deeper in the Isles.
Sicáda became the first of many islands to host sprawling plantations; to host rich and unstable cultivator-republics devoted to the growing and selling of what would later be known Coastwide as pepperelle. † On these plantations, the herb is brought up on balmy hillside trellises, air-cured, and fired over smoldering fires of hickory, sage, balsam, and savory ash. It is exported as sheets and grains for the manufacture of cigarettes and for pipe smoking.
In modern times, the smoking of pepperelle is enjoyed throughout the Coast. In the South, where the herb was first popularized, cigarettes rolled from paper and leaf are overwhelmingly the favored means of pepperelle consumption. †† In the North, long-stemmed pipes are equally popular. They are enjoyed by all sorts, even mice. In the wilderness, pepperelle is obtained and smoked however possible, to provide some comfort to offset the oppression of the horrible wilds.
When smoked, pepperelle acts as a warming stimulant. Its smoke indeed carries a peppery flavor. Habitually smoking it eventually stains one's teeth, and surrounding walls, an opalescent yellow, and also leads to a nagging, intense dependence.
Of all the sorts of folk fond of pepperelle, it is perhaps the venturesome cutter who finds it has most use. In addition to adding small, civilized comfort to the awful climes in which cutters typically operate, the herb finds a host of uncommon uses:
For most, pepperelle dependence is usually a nonissue, so long as the smoker can afford the mildly steep price of more leaf. And, of course, so long as they don't mind being surrounded by a cloud of pesky doxbells.
Doxbells, known as "dustbunnies" to children, are a species of dusty, grey, moth-like pest. They lay their eggs within the thick veins of pepperelle leaves. Said eggs hatch when lit on fire, as both doxbells and pepperelle are native to the excitingly-volcanic slopes of Sicáda.
Smokers of pepperelle tend to amass a cloud of juvenile, flying doxbells about their clothes, home, and person. They fly about on minute wings, eating dust and mould, gradually growing in size. Eventually, they become marble-sized motes of dirt, lint, toenail clippings, and other such detritus before being swatted and slain. Harmless, if annoying.
Doxbells, though they rarely survive to grow large, become quite a nuisance when fully grown, for adults of the species are possessed of hands and enjoy tipping things over. At this stage of growth, they are called topples, and they are a nuisance indeed.
Topples bring woe to civilization. Namely, a penchant for tipping over lamps, salt shakers, and vases. At exceptionally large sizes, they are deeply malicious. They may seek out opportunities to drop items accurately on people, or even sneak up on and topple people. Additionally, faced with a lack of living pepperelle plants in which to lay their eggs, topples are prone to deposit their ovums in utterly annoying places; such as peoples' ears.
Though doxbells and topples are regarded as a necessary evil of civilized life, some find they are a sign of something more worrisome. Some philosophical minds of the Coast view doxbells as an anthropogenic form of entropy; as a self-induced destruction of society by way of its own vices. Such are the same philosophers who promote älf diplomacy, frown upon overuse of grisodate salt, hate laudanum, claim smoking promotes plague,††† and sneer at any other substance they view as destructive to the good biological and social constitution of Humanity.
Of course, no one much listens to them. No one stops smoking, either, so doxbells keep maturing into topples, and topples keep tipping over peoples' grandmothers.
The world goes on, minus a few lamps, and it likely will continue so. So long, that is, as it has enough pepperelle.
This is a rewrite and expansion on a previous piece, which is now depreciated.
I've also been asked how I handle topples in gameplay. They are quite functionally a reskin of what most might call gremlins.As always, Incunabuli is made possible by Jacob Kent and fellow Patrons. To join them and read exclusive articles, support Incunabuli on Patreon.
* Coroners carry a variety of holey cudgel known as aspergillums. These weapons, inspired by similar holy water dispensers innovated by the Avethan church, are capable of breaking bones and seeding wounds with purifying grisodate salt simultaneously. The are among the most effective weapons for killing grues.
** These would later become the first cigars.
*** They have sworn vengeance.
† The word 'pepperelle' was dubbed by some unknown Firlish importer centuries ago. Its Emperoussin phonetics are in complete alignment with the Firls' obsession with that language as the mark of class and sophistication.
†† The cigarette rolling engine, invented 150 years ago, massively lowered the price of available cigarette brands, spiking their popularity commensurately. Before its arrival, hand rolled cigarillos were for the rich, and most smoked pipes.
††† Indeed, after a selection of studies struck pepperelle cigarettes with a stern affirmation of their sporogenic effect, pepperelle companies were thrown into quite a panic. Due to their extremely successful counter-advertising campaigns, the most enduring effect of said studies exists as a mere monicker: "Coffin's nails;" assigned to cigarettes in reference to the nails driven through corpses in an effort to prevent their rising as grues. Cutters, fond of a bit of black humor, love this term especially.
‡ It is for him the word "nicotine" was formed.