Something crashed in the night.
Eloise scowled. Half past two in the morning. Another crash from downstairs, then several echoing clangs, like a kettle dropped down steps. A muffled rumble of raucous adolescent chortling.
Eloise tore away her bedclothes, stomped for the door, nightgown flapping.
She stamped barefoot down the paneled staircase, set foot on the cold hallway tile. Light flickered under the kitchen door. Muffled laughter came from within. Laughter, and some animal snuffling. Eloise scowled. She seized the knob and pushed through.
"Sagle, what in the Lord's good name is…" She trailed off. Confusion deepened the lines of her face. She rubbed her eyes, gawped at what had become of the kitchen.
At the kitchen table, strewn with cutlery, plates, and jarred goods, sat two boys in their later teenage years, mop-headed and still dressed in their coats, scarves, and boots. It was not the boys that drew Eloise's stare, however, but the three creatures seated with them.
They resembled a trio of small men unconvincingly dressed as large otters, or perhaps thin bears. Four-foot glossy-black beasts with elbow-y arms and nimble fingers capped in stout claws. One was, at that moment, passing a green and mostly empty bottle to Sagle, snuffling. Another drunkenly lapped salt peanuts from a jar with an obscenely long pink tongue. The third was gesturing complicatedly to the first, clawed fingers twisting intricate shapes in air. It grunted for emphasis, seeming to indicate that it had noticed Eloise's appearance.
"What?" sputtered Eloise. "Sagle! What are those?" She gestured, nightgown cuffs flapping.
"Ah, Mum," drawled the pimply Sagle, drunkenly. "Meet my new friends!" He patted the nearest creature on its narrow back. The furry personage turned, flared his nose, and performed some complicated series of gestures at Eloise, culminating with a stuck-out tongue and a salutatory touch of its head, as if tipping a cap.
"Friends? These are animals." Eloise swept forward, shooing. "Out, out! Out of my kitchen, you badgers!"
"Master Eloise, please!" slurred the other boy, standing and raising his dirty hands. "They are not badgers. They are traveling gentlemen!" He gestured at creatures, who had taken up cloth bags, exotically embroidered, and seemed sheepishly ready to leave. All five sets of eyes, two human and three brown-gold and watery, eyed the woman. "Look, they have luggage. They are gentlemen."
"Since when do gentlemen have fur? And where have they traveled from?" Eloise huffed, crossing her arms. "At that, where did you find them?"
"They are visitors from the sea, Mum," urged Sagle. "We met them at the docks. They came in a very nice square boat."
"Square boat? Pah! Travelers. Not travelers, then. Drunken foreigners!"
"No, no," Sagle's friend shook his head, smiling. "They're not vagrants. Not at all." He grinned. "And they were not drunk until we took them to the Eagle."
At this, there was a crash. Eloise flinched. A ceramic crock rolled into view. Yet another creature emerged, staggering quadrupedal from the larder with a pint of bock. He crawled up on a stool and yanked off the cork with a confident pop. One of his fellows gestured, claws flicking, and offered a bowl to be filled. They drank, messily, gesturing between gulps and frothy snorting.
"How many of them are there?" exclaimed Eloise.
"Just these," Sagle said. "The others went off with other crowds. They're very popular."
"I simply can't imagine how," grumbled Eloise, she glared at the rapidly growing mess of spilled drink.
"Oh, it's simple. They're rich."
"Rich in what? Acorns?"
Sagle patted the creature beside him, who turned companionably, blinking. "Show us one of those gemstones, good man," he said, and dug out a silver penny, to illustrate. The furry person made a waggle of sticky claws and, clumsily, opened the drawstring of his exotic pouch. Eloise goggled at what glittered inside.
An emerald the size of a grape clacked on the tabletop. All the furry creatures began gesturing, conspiratorially.
"See? They're rich."
"Oh." Eloise's tone changed. She stepped forward, plucked up the gemstone. The bear-otter creatures seemed not to mind. It twinkled, crystal clear, save for shining gold inclusions. "They," said Eloise, weighing it in her hand. "They wouldn't be seeking lodgings, would they?"
Piedmont stood on the embassy steps, umbrella in hand. Chilly springtime drizzle lent a grey shine to the imperial concrete grandeur of Governance Lane.
Beside him stood an official in a navy suit and a black silk sash: The official mark of a Crown Parliamentarian. Under her umbrella, held by a uniformed aide beside, she bore a look of prim anticipation. Her fingers twitched. Complicated gestures.
Piedmont broached a smile. "I'd, uh, like to thank you again for arranging this opportunity, Sir."
She glanced at him. "Wallace, you know my position. Thank the envoys. They hold an… eagerness that outweighs my caution." She pursed her lips, maintained an eye on the street. It was blockaded by mounted, decoratively steel-encrusted officers, armed and stately. "As do you."
"They are simply as interested in us as we are in them. Do you distrust that?"
"Not as much."
"Then why your caution?"
"Whether their curiosity is innocent or not, humanity's certainly isn't. You recall what became of their first diplomatic mission?"
"Yes," said Piedmont, wearily. "The Alagorians put them in a zoo."
"Thus my hesitance."
"You distrust their lack of distrust."
"I am concerned by it. Concerned for them, and about them: After being robbed and treated as beasts, they come again to the shores of our world with open arms? Trusting only that a mission to the North might prove friendlier than to the South? Concerned, yes. And cautious."
"Do you think they are deceiving us?"
"No, not as much as that."
"Then surely, this is a chance to prove our Firlish exceptionalism." Piedmont enclosed Firlish exceptionalism with a parodic tone.
The MP shut her eyes briefly. "That is what I am trying to convince my colleagues of. They, however, are tempted by the possibility of immediate trade. Which I discourage, given our lack of concrete information."
"Tempted by all those flowing gemstones."
"Yes, which the bears seem equally willing to spend." She pinched her nose, wincing. "The envoys, rather."
"Do they look like bears, to you?" said Piedmont.
"Forgive my lapse, Wallace. I know they are not animals."
"I know you know." He smiled. "I was merely going to put in that I believe they're more like otters. Rather adorable."
"Their appearance is indeed, well, disarming." The MP smirked, but only briefly. She glanced past Piedmont, eyes flitting past the mounted guards and decorated rows of state buildings, to the ornate, shut gate and statued arches at the lane's end, wet with rain. Idly, she massaged her palms, ran her fingers through a mimed series of gestures, briefly touched the pate of her pinned hair. She repeated the sequence.
"Sign language coming on well?" said Piedmont, noticing.
"Well enough," she said, wearily, quit gesturing. "I will be able to greet them. Dunne will handle the rest."
"Dunne, your translator."
"Yes. Alas, the sign is another obstacle to my aims. She is good, and has learned remarkably fast, but these folk are… already so alien. Their language even more so. I feel my words will not take hold, regardless of her skill. Sometimes, I cannot tell if their ignorance is honest, due our clumsiness, or willful." She turned to Piedmont, briefly. "Even a roomful of älves would be easier, I'm sure you'd agree."
"I would." He smiled.
Down the lane, a drone of highland pipes roared to life, heralding the procession's arrival. A clatter of horseshoes gained. The gates creaked wide, admitting a glossy black carriage and an escort of towering cavalry. They bore ceremonial partizans dangling with tasseled lamps; swinging, glowing blue and diffuse in the drizzle. The MP straightened. Piedmont's eyes brightened. They watched the swaying lamps near down the vast, officious lane.
"You mean to caution, them, I suppose?" said Piedmont, loud, over the pipes.
"I do. If we are to avoid another travesty, I must convince them to wrangle up their roaming "emissaries" at once. They can explore our cities, in time. But for now, they only put themselves at risk. They will be exploited, if things continue as they are."
The carriage neared. Footmen emerged from the embassy with a stepped mounting block and placed it beneath the carriage door as the wheels stilled. Furry, indistinct shapes shifted behind the fogged, small windows. From the carriage dismounted a red-cuffed sergeant at arms, who, gripping the decorated door, announced: "The honorable delegates from far Tefelk." All bowed as the delegates emerged.
They descended, tentatively, like otters from a cave. Four of them, picking their way, shrouded by footmen's umbrellas, down to the wet flags. Some wore a smattering of Firlish clothes- small pinned hats, waistcoats, and gloves- and all clutched embroidered cloth-of-gold bags. They stood, some bipedal, others with but a single paw raised, flicking away water, appearing for all the world like a lot of confused, costumed marmots.
Behind exited the flyaway Dunne, who, acquiring the delegates' attention and directing it towards the MP, made introductions.
Rapt, Piedmont watched the official's signed greeting, which finished with a touch of the pate. He did so, as well, smiling. The delegates returned the gesture, somewhat absently.
"Gentlemen, if you would follow me," she smiled thinly, signing.
The delegates burst with activity. Snuffling, signing, tugging the tired Dunne's trouser leg for attention, they followed up the embassy steps.
Back down the lane echoed the hoofbeats of a single rider. The MP, consumed in helping Dunne with the fumbling, possibly drunken, furry delegates over the tall steps, did not notice.
Piedmont frowned, broke from the lot at a brisk pace to intercept the arriving rider. He stopped at the road, motioned for her, as she, rain-drenched, reined to a halt amidst the idling cavalry. The rider, an embassy attaché, dismounted and thrust a wet-spotted letter at Piedmont, speaking. "Urgent, from the Port Authority."
Piedmont tore it open, read. His face slackened, then hardened. His heels clattered up the embassy steps, stopped, stumbling, to walk beside the henpecked MP. "From the port authority," he indicated the letter. The MP frowned, glancing, irritated, away from the clamoring delegates. "Ships are launching for Tefelk," summarised Piedmont.
"No," mouthed the MP. She stopped, glanced at the creatures, who continued without her, deep in conversation with flustered Dunne. She frowned, lip curled.
Piedmont goggled at her. "So they have given themselves away? Are they so incautious?"
"Worse. I believe they are desperate." She stepped as if to rejoin them.
"Wait," said Piedmont, hurriedly. "Desperate for what? What haven't you mentioned?"
She looked back at him. "They are more like us than you know, Wallace."
Piedmont blinked at her. "How? They're not in a position to loot our world. We are, for theirs."
Fast, she spoke, glancing back at the departing entourage. "That's because we suspect their world is ruined, Wallace."
Beckoning for her umbrella, she spoke once more before departing.
"We suspect they are not foolish animals, but hopeless ones."
In the mild autumn of 3.444, aliens landed on the balmy shore of peninsular Alagór.
Aliens in boxy arks with sails battened like webbed fingers. Furry, wet-eyed, long-tongued creatures, reminiscent of otters or long-bodied bears. Mostly starved, they fell upon the cypress-scented olive towns in an excited gaggle, driven to root and scavenge like the animals they so resembled. And in little time, they encountered Littoran* kind.
The fortunate were allowed to trade. Trade great, inexplicable pawfulls of gemstones, brought with them on their arks in bags of gold thread, for meager supper. Silently, clumsily, they traded, for the aliens spoke not words, but queer gestures unrecognized by the Alagóran countryfolk as anything more intelligent than the pawing and grooming of cats. The trade proceeded only briefly; only as long as the alien bear-things could be extorted of their gems, whose value they seemed not to understand.
The misfortunate met sorrowful ends. The lucky among them were caught, robbed, and caged in national zoos, where they lived as miserable specimens of another world a short while before expiring. The unlucky were, appearing to simple humankind as mere beasts, simply shot as curious game.
Those few that remained gathered what goods they could aboard two arks, and struck off again across the trackless sea.
To this day, there remain alien arks of foreign timber moldering on the shores of Alagór. The few scholars to have analyzed them found writings there. Scrolls, that, once deciphered over many arduous years of translation, told of a once-proud and artful people. A mute species reduced to desperate indigence by a disaster of their own creation, driven to find a new home on the shores of other worlds. Refugees, come from a wondrous ruin of a land.
A land the translators named Tefelk.**
For long years, scholars, explorers, and banks Coastwide sought eagerly that alien, gem-filled land. Even as the arks faded from public memory, even as all forgot what foreboding words they deciphered from the Tefelkan's scrolls, the rich and the greedsome sought Tefelk.
And, after half a decade of fruitless speculation and lost expeditions past the seas of the world, the Tefelkans returned.
In the spring of 3.449, they came upon the docks of cold and dreary Firlund. Still weary, still starved. Still, with their stomachs hollow and the lustre faded from their silken otters'-fur, they plunged into Northern cities with a gusto to trade, eat, and socialize undiminished by the failures and horror of half a decade ago.
And the Northerners, themselves a strange and often furry lot, hailed them as foreign gentlemen. Hailed them with a worrisomely uninhibited conviviality. Unmitigated by cultural, linguistic, and anatomical barriers, they took the Tefelkans among them, and, as guides, quickly found commonality in quickly-realised and much-desired unities: Food, strong drink, and music. Lots of it. Enjoyed while parting the aliens all the while from their glittering, high-carat money. It was a welcome made warm, doubtless due to these gemstones, which flowed aplenty from the newcomer's cloth-of-gold purses.
And even as they were subtly robbed, the Tefelkans pursued their exploration with animal fervor. Interested not in establishing cogent communication, but with expanding their furry emissaries experience into all facets of Northern society. They were there to explore, to investigate, to survey new lands.
Only after two months of explorative carousing, after multiple emissaries' deaths and several arks suddenly departed again from Firlish shores, did the Tefelkans make any attempt at formal, diplomatic relations. They somewhat distractedly began to cooperate with Firlish Academy linguists' attempts at decoding their curious sign language.
As dialogues with Tefelkan delegates grew fruitful, several points of information became clear. First, the Tefelkans owned some opaque reason for their nearly-suicidal exploration, a reason they either willingly or innocently refused to disclose. Second, the delegates' foremost goal was to obtain possibly retroactive permission to land several more waves of arks. Third, they enquired ceaselessly about other Coastal territories and nations, seemingly in an attempt to recruit more allies, or possible landing zones.
For all three points, the Firls could gain no elaborate detail from the Tefelkan delegates, who reliably lapsed into a sort of faux good-natured linguistic ineptitude when questioned further.
The Firlish Crown held no trust for this ruse. Given knowledge of the ominous scrolls left by the first, failed wave of arks, Firlish diplomatic policy settled on a sort of polite stalemate: Pending further communication, they would host the Tefelkan's indefinitely, but would sanction neither further refugee landings nor facilitate introductions to allied nations.
This ultimatum was made under the good-faith guise of protecting the Tefelkans from neighboring nations, whose comparative greed the Firls emphasized to no end.
Faced with an intransigent and cautious Firlish Crown, the Tefelkans made new allies: Banks, trade commissions, and private investors.
They sold the priceless route to legendary Tefelk to any and all who could promise transport to and from that vaunted land of supposed riches. The gave up their world, seemingly without care for the likely influence of voracious, eagerly colonial powers. They cared only for the possibility of escape for their countrymen left behind.
Now, countless expeditions launch for Tefelk, bearing with them furry alien navigators strangely eager to betray their hidden world.
Only the Tefelkans know the whole truth.
They are altogether more like Littoran folk than they let on. In their furry heads, they are aware of their necessary deception, of their willful camouflage of idiocy and alienness.
They proceed with their nigh self-destructive exploration, for they are desperate. They are the faithful few, chosen by a waning civilization and sent, expending precious dwindling resources, to acquire, by any means, deliverance.
For Tefelk— wondrous, gem-filled Tefelk— is a ruin.
A world somehow destroyed. Burnt to near nothing, adrift between wilder worlds by the same means and in the same fashion as the Coast was, in antique days, by the Ancient Nor. Hence, the poor bear-like Tefelkans are more like mankind than mankind can yet know.
And, thus far, they have succeeded. They have lured ships by the dozens along the hidden oceanic gaps between worlds. Lured ships' that will find not a land of plenty ripe for exploitation, but a barely-extant wreck of coastline and a starving populace clung to a dying, vanishing land.
The concept of Tefelk is one I have kicked around for quite a while (and it is, mainly, a concept; one I will continue to edit and tweak.) Sadly, it's one I won't be able to subject my players to, as they will have read it here in due time.
It's sort of a continuation of the idea of a negadungeon (nega-expedition?) Players may be lured to Tefelk either by greed, or by a moral imperative to prevent rampant colonial greed. Either way, as they find more info, it will become increasingly clear that nothing good will ever come of contact with Tefelk. It's a trap:
Something will end up horrible or morally reprehensible, at the end. Enjoy.
** Tefelkans, of course, do not refer to themselves or their land by this word, as they have no spoken language.