Just outside the lamplight, there sat a man in grey. An impassive gaze, sconced neath the lip of a bowler hat. Bright specks in felted dark, and a curled lip below. "Describe them again, please," he said, unblinking.
Across, over a broad desk and sallow pool of a green-shaded lamp, there shifted another fellow. His unshaven neck bobbed as he swallowed. He straightened his worn trouser legs in timorous movement, spoke hesitantly. "Three jars, Inspector" he rasped, held up two hands; tattooed, and fishy under the nails. "L-long like so, n' a tad wider n' me head, n' tapered down at the bottoms. Like those glass fings they ship posh olive oil in, but wif no arms."
"Amphorae?" suggested the Inspector. He drew a cigarette from a pack on the desk, held it tween clean, white fingers, unlit.
"Yes, 'Nspector." The knot of his throat bobbed. "N' they were warm. L-like with a fever."
Between them, on the desk, a pen nib scratched. A blue-grey mouse sat there; ears folded under an apple cap. His whiskers twitched as he scratched rapid lines of blue ink into a notebook. He underlined three "amphorae," kept writing.
The Inspector blinked. "How would you describe the jars' construction?"
"Their material, Master Bolwell. What were they made of, and how?"
"Oh. Like, black glass," said Bolwell. "Wif no lid. Couldn't open 'em at all." He leaned forward. "If you held em up to the light, they was all smokey, wif some stuff inside like chitterlings. Kind of shifting, right?"
"And you found them in the Dungeness. In the bay," suggested the Inspector.
"Yes. Had lost a crab pot down there, n' swum down to get it back. Found all three in the eelgrass, jus' sittin' together 'neaf a rock ledge."
"Where there any other items with the jars?" The Inspector fingered his herringbone cuff, rolled a nacreous button. The cigarette wobbled, shed herby brown shreds of pepperelle from its end. He blinked, expectant.
Again, Bolwell straightened his trousers; rising and settling back into the leather cushion an inch. "Mhh," he whined noncommittally, shrugging.
"You found coins, so says your original statement to the Constable." The Inspector stated, flicking his eyes up at the squirming crabber. He tapped the cigarette's mouth-end on his left knee, fast.
"Like coins. Bu' bigger."
"Can you describe them in more detail?" Still, he tapped.
Bolwell made a circle with his thumb and pointer fingers. "Yea big, blackish, like soot, all covered n' nonsense writing. Lines of it."
Between, the mouse wrote approx. ten centimeters, paused for more.
"Writing like what?"
"Chicken scratch t' me, Master. Only know a bit o' Belviriner, and it surely weren't that."
"Fine enough. What did you do with these coins?"
"Sold 'em, too."
The inspector stopped his tapping, pursed his lips and purple eyelids. He nodded. "To the same man you sold the amphorae to?"
"Nah. Pawnshop." The prickly corners of his mouth drew in a sheepish smile. "Was fixin' for a bit o' the pink lion, you see.”
A sigh. "Which pawnshop?"
"Morley's Gun n' Pawn."
The mouse underlined Morley's.
"Thank you. And who did you sell the jars to, again?"
The crabber clasped his palms, wrung them. "Some cutters with a barrow on Moraine Road."
"A certain Letch, a ragman, and company. Gave you a gold pound each. Is that correct?"
"Oh. I suppose, yeah."
The mouse kept on scratching, flipped over a rustling page.
"According to your statement," the Inspector lifted a sheet of paper. "You sold them because they were disturbing you." In his other hand, he pinched the cigarette, crinkling the paper. "Can you elaborate?"
"Disturbin' my sleep, they were."
"Can you describe how?"
Bolwell shivered. "Havin' terrible dreams, I was. All kind of nightmares." He rubbed his elbows, hugged his arms close to his chest. "Kept wakin', all the time, n' thinkin' I could hear a heart beatin.'" At this, he looked the Inspector in his shadowed eyes. "Louder n' louder, in me ears, a'till I awoke inna sweat. N' not my own." He trailed, looked away. "Not me own heart a' all…"
In the dim office, only the mouse's pen scratched. Blued metal and bright ink in yellow lamplight. The word nightmares gleamed on the page, underlined.
Dour, Bolwell let the floor an unfixed stare, swallowing nervously. Across, the Inspector licked his lips, released the mangled cigarette to the floor. He had been crushing it, absently. He looked to the crabber.
"That will be sufficient, I think, Master Bolwell." He rose. Bolwell stood hurriedly, nodding. "You'll be glad to know," said the Inspector, producing another cigarette, sparking it with a snappy lighter. "That our evidence corroborates your story." He lodged the smoke between his lips, extended a hand to shake over the desk.
"Oh," said Bolwell, as if surprised. He shook. "Well, s'pose that's good."
"The Office of Small Matters thanks you," said the Inspector. He moved for the glass-paneled door, gestured for Bolwell to follow. "And suggests you do not leave the city." Under the bowler, lit orange by the burning end of herb, the eyes were piercing. "In case you were considering it."
"Ah, oh. O' course."
"Good day, Master Bolwell." The door clicked open.
Halfway out, Bolwell paused. "Master," he enquired, turning. "D'you know… Wha' did those cutters want with them jars?
The Inspector blinked, deadpanned, "Have you ever heard the phrase 'resurrection cult?'"
"Can't say I 'ave."
"Then," he gripped the door as if to shut it. "I think it best you pay it no further mind. Good day, Master Bolwell."
"Oh. Good day."
The door closed sharply behind.
"Seveau, send down the sledgehammer."
From on high, down the deep and dimlet well of stone, a long-hafted hammer crashed into the tiled floor, threw up chips and dust. "Much obliged," said the speaker, a woman wrapped in red scarves over an iron cuirass. She took it up.
"Hey, Boile. Bloody Greenleaf. Watch this," she said, pointing at a nearby wall covered in tile images of rose thorns. With a twist of the waist and a screwed-up grunt, she levered the heavy mallet into it, brought the thin stone and delicate tilework crashing down.
"Uof, there," she went, coughing at the resulting pall of acerbic, ancient dust. "Look. Knew there was pickings left in this hole. Bloody T&F corkers ain't so thorough as they say."
Boile, a long-nosed lad with copious dust plastered to his sweating face, looked on, lantern in hand. "Lot of… whatnot." He squinted. "Don't look too valuable to me, Posey."
"Valuable whatnot," said Posey, jutted her chin. "Go pick that up."
"This thing?" He stooped, ducked into the dusty, secret alcove.
"Yeah," grinned Posey. "That there torc you're holding's worth a fair three crowns, to the right buyer."
"Blimey. And what about this thing?" He plucked a small, smooth-edged casket of orange metal from a spindly metal shelf, turned it in gloved hands.
"One of them weird toolkits, I reckon. Find them a lot. Lancets, and drills, and metal spiders all covered in hooks. Sorcery stuff. Worth a lot, to a magician."
Boile waved away some dust, moved deeper. "Lots of these little shelves." He bent to examine one, piled with folded cloth, stiff and yellowed by time. "Are these clothes?" He picked up a folded, intricately scrolled blouse, watched it disintegrate in his hand.
"For the sorcerers, I reckon," said Posey. "They lived in their tombs, the Idrans."
"Shame it's all rotted." He kept looking, pulled his lantern over the floor, over the dull gleam of metal faces strewn there. Thin-eyed and carved with of stares of ire or cold indifference. Faces of steel, brass, and pearl. "Sorcerers wear these, too?"
"Yeah," Posey said, picking her way in behind him. "Once heard a professicant talk 'bout how they was always wearing masks."
"No different than our aristoes, then," scoffed Boile.
"Yeah. They buy them, too. Bag them up."
Boile shook out a burlap sack from a satchel, shook it out. Dust spilled through his fingers as he lifted disdainful veneers from the floor, sent them tumbling into the sack to sneer down each other's noses.
"Oof." Boile stopped, clutched his head. He'd bumped it against the back wall.
"Watch yourself. Could be traps."
Boile rubbed a knot. "I'm fine," he beheld the wall. "Just some bottles."
"Wine?" Posey neared, interested.
The Greenleaf shook his head, ran a hand over the smooth, curved shapes of opaque, black glass, all stacked together and interlocking in a stone alcove, pointed ends set to the offset pits of grouped, gourdlike tops. "Don't think so," he said. "Look like big tonic ampoules, kind of. But with round tops. And…" he paused, lifted his hand. "They're warm."
"Oh," said Posey, appearing beside. Her brow bore a knit of some concern. "Don't mess with those. We leave them."
"Come on. We're done, here." Posey tugged on his sleeve.
"Why? What are they?" insisted Boile.
"Sorcerers, Greenleaf. Sorcerers slumbering," said the woman as they exited the secret chamber. She turned to Boile. A fresh, anxious sweat shone on her dirty brow.
"And we leave them," she said. "Because they're bloody cursed."
The sorcerers of yore are much reduced.
Most, if not dormant in black sarcophagi, sewn into books, or simply rotted away, are abated in both power and body. Transformed by the antique catastrophe of their great and appalling cabal-empires to little more than toxic waste.
They are slumbers; little more than jarred remains.
A slumber is a person. Or was one, at least; depending on your politics on the relative disenfranchisement of its disembodied contents.
It is composed of a vessel. An approximate half meter teardrop of dark, chemical glass. Roughly amphora-shaped, though handleless, neckless, and sometimes variably gourdlike. Sealed lidless like an ampoule the width of a large human skull, at its widest.
It contains organs. A brain sleeved in the bare skull and triplicate mater of its meninges. A fibrous cord and long bundle of nerves, trailing that. And a spare collection of vital organs, wired further to even that. All scarcely visible through the smokey glass, and only if viewed, as a rugated lump, through very bright light. These are the remains of an ancient sorcerer, or sorcerer's kin, resected and preserved in expectation of eventual resurrection. Whether any life worth considering still resides in these entrail meats is debatable.
Amidst those organs, wired by strange proxies and umbilicals to grey flesh, there resides a warm alloy core. The slumber's warm, eternal fuel. The organs rely on it alone, consuming and producing naught but a feverish, radiant heat. By what sorcery the practitioners of old managed this conversion, none have yet discovered, despite thousands of slumber dissections undertaken by academia.
And thousands indeed have been disinterred. And many more remain.
As evinced by their numeriety, certain empires of later sorcery, such as awful, fleshly Idra, were fond of transforming themselves and theirs, either on the brink of death or disaster, into eternal, jarred sleepers; living relics to be hidden away for millennia. These queer beings, for beings they are, and not burials, have been unearthed from tomb and ancient ruin alike by the thousands. By cutters, archeologists, and stray diggers of deep cellars.
Upon their first discovery, slumbers were sold off as curios and hastily hoarded. Auctioned for their dark beauty, used for decoration or amusement by the modern elite, and used for simple warmth by the simple folk and cutters who unearthed them. Aristocrats, returned from travels to exotic lands rife with hidden slumbers, would bring a curiosity or two back, hold a party in which to fascinatedly crack and examine them. Museums, glad at the chance at a new and interesting study to exhibit, would display halls of the things, often darkly ornate. Cutters, so frequently close to vaults of the things, would keep a slumber or two in their backpacks for warmth,* unaware of the jars' hazardous nature.
Quickly, though, this curiosity faded, for proximity to slumbers proved dangerous. The mildest of the danger came in the form of disrupted dreams. An aura of uneasy sleep and queerly uniform nightmares seemed to radiate from the things. Dreams of rapid, proximal heartbeats and strange whispers in forgotten tongues. Many have attempted to discern these whispers, but all have failed; succumbed to the slumber's more dire effect.
In addition to dreams, slumbers emit a slow, biological curse. A gnawing ague that burdens the body with sores, regurgitation, and fever. And later, as it compounds, begins to corrupt the flesh, tempting it to redden, blacken, and slough rotting from the bone. It is an effect that only grows if a slumber is shattered, spilling with its gory contents a deathly wave of invisible sorcery.
Only very slowly does this curse fade, and many, namely those to first welcome warm slumbers into their homes, never escaped it.
To most, slumbers are merely toxic waste. The last, dreadful echoes of empires well enjoyed as dead. Now mere hindrances in the looting or analysis of ancient realms, doomed for careful disposal in dumping sites far from notice.
But there remain a few who maintain a committed interest in the queer jar's original intent: seekers of the sorcerers' return to awful life.
Driven in equal part by reconstructed texts and the slumbers' own dream whispers, there exist ambitious scholars and enclaves devoted to the reconstruction of preserved sorcerers. Little exists to define these strange neosorcerors, save rumors of swaddled, curse-riddled workers and tales of folk stolen from the streets for purpose of dissection.
They are no rumor, though, however hidden. These resurrectionists labor without cease, fast and concernedly, before the dire curse of their own, jarred masters brings them to a hideous end. They labor with dire conviction, ensorcelled by the prospect of a new, ancient order.
Of the return of old sorcery.
Nuclear jar mummies. That's it.
Functionally, for purposes the Incunabuli playtest, which continues to develop nicely, slumbers provide +2 to any checks against cold when carried, but bestow the carrier with 1 Hex stress at intervals of 6-12 hours.
There's been some delay in writing this, as I've been working on a full map of the Coast. It is large, and detailed, and quite time consuming. It will soon serve as the base of a likely Gazetteer section of the site.
If you like what you've read, r/Incunabuli and @Incunabuli are very fine ways to get updates served directly to you.
* Sometimes, for limited periods, they still do, wary of the slumber's dire effects.