(as seen in longer form in The Undercroft #3)
THE CUNNING MEN OF THE FERN COURT
Folk tales are the leavings of an irrational mind, a black pearl formed around an ill-sitting grain of truth. It is passed around the fire, each hand polishing it more so they can better see the fear on their own faces. But the grain remains and some are not so distracted by the black mirror, intent on staring deeper.
Their arrival wasn't planned. First one, then another, drawn by dreams of a dark sun rising above the primordial canopy of the Fern Court. They didn't know what it was or what would happen when it rose, but they were compelled to find answers. The forest speaks to those with an ear for it, but it talks in omen and subtle metaphor, a growing knot that the cunning can unravel. And they were cunning. They, the kindly ones, the painted folk, the cunning men.
The Fern Court is old, the woods are deep, thick and storied. The villages found there hide behind palisades choked with rose vines, closing their ears to the scratching at the door. The homesteads and charcoal burners are far and wary, the pathways to their homes littered with charms and fetishes against the night. The people on its borders share stories of children being taken from their beds to dance under its boughs.
Indeed, those who call the forest home are isolated, paranoid and prone to eccentricity, but it is not the realm of death one is lead to believe. Merchants cross it, lords claim it, and the very story tellers decrying it lived to learn and continue their tellings.
The forest men have long memories, and the cunning men loom large in them. A monolith of stability, as permanent and old as the forest, a coming and going as regular and inevitable as the seasons, roaming where their calloused feet take them. The woodsmen might not question the attention of so many magical practitioners but the cunning men do. Each of them was drawn to this place, haunted by dreams and omens until they found themselves beneath its rancorous branches. Now they spend their energies trying to understand why, what brought them here and what the black sun means.
They will answer and he will leave, satisfied but burdened.
Their covenant is both newer and more organised than it would at first seem. Though they travel widely they always return to the seasonal moot to unload their weighted minds. Unusual amongst practitioners of the cunning arts, they share knowledge freely. Every scrap and clue is kept in the hopes of leading to answers, every detail tattooed on their flesh. Volumes are inscribed in their private script, in streaks and swirls the letters abound. In there is everything that they must know, both magical and mundane, it will be preserved and never stolen like other tradition's books of spells so easily lost or destroyed. They stand before their peers, sky clad, and allow an inspection of the season's happenings.
When one of their number dies they take great pains to retrieve and prepare them for one final moot. Their skin is dried and stretched, displayed on a rack for all to come and learn from before it is destroyed utterly.
|Cunning Man illustration in issue #3 by Matthew Adams|
The caster whispers unintelligibly while staring intently at his target. While the muttering continues the fellow will be unable to get their words out, spluttering and becoming confused. Additionally the caster may force the target to say one thing, one single sentence.
This trick can be performed with subtlety, where onlookers would only see the caster muttering like one whose mind had withered roots.
The caster must have in their possession a fragment of the target: a strand of hair, seminal fluid, toenail, blood and such. With this, they must bind it in mud or clay and throw it as far as they can, out of sight. The target must save vs. magic or from then until the next morning be unable to find their way.
For that period they cannot reliably find their way anywhere without someone leading them forcefully. They will take wrong turns, leave the trail and generally wander aimlessly.
Protection from rain
The caster is immune to the effects of turbulent weather. No rain nor hail will touch him, lightning will dance around him, the wind will die at his tread. But only him, mind. The elements have no strong feelings for his companions.
The creature being used for this spell must be slaughtered especially for this purpose. Creatures stumbled upon or killed for utilitarian purposes are not suitable. For each HD of sacrifice the cunning man may find a vague detail of the answer to one question in the entrails. Hair colour, mannerisms, times, smells, directions, all delivered in as obscure a manner as possible.
Pick up sticks
Some signs are not so subtle as to require a mind awash with magic; the woodsmen mistrust the owls and know to shutter their windows on the new moon. With the knowledge of how the forest connects meanings the caster throws a pocket full of twigs, bones, furs and feathers in the air. Those viewing must save vs. magic or fall to the ground obsessively picking up the assorted debris. Can effect 2HD of sentient targets per caster level.
The cunning man must take off his clothes and arrange them neatly and deliberately in a hidden place. Naked, they must walk into the wilderness and with each step lose their mind and body until eventually taking the form of an animal. They may choose what animal to be, but it must be appropriate for the environment and they must try their hardest to imitate the creature or else the trees will notice and the spell will end.
While in animal form they cannot be found through magical means. They may maintain this form for as long as they like, but must save vs. magic every new moon or else lose their minds to the beast and stay that way forever. To return to their old ways they must find their clothes, whereupon they will be reformed.
Many cunning folk have lost their mind through the divine sublimation of the zoanthrope. They still search the forests for Old Father Aldous, whose skin was almost black with writing, who they say glimpsed the horizon of the black sun before he retreated into quietude. At every hamlet and homestead they always ask after sightings of the black hare.
Brittle Twigs & Bird Song
The caster takes a dry twig and snaps it across his knee in full view of his foe. They must save vs. magic or take 1d8 damage and suffer the effects of a broken appendage (caster’s choice).
Path of Guilt
The caster makes a poultice of thorns, rags and soil, with this they scrub the soles of the feet until they bleed freely (1d4 damage). While the blood flows they count as having 6 in 6 stealth and the evidence of their passing is invisible to the mundane eye. Once the bleeding stops the spell wears off and the bloody footprints appear for all to see.
- The sorcerer is always covered in moss and small insects. They scutter in and out of his clothes and beard. If he was to sit still for long enough he would eventually look like a rotten tree trunk.
1 in 6 chance a rare and highly toxic hallucinatory mushroom grows in his armpit. He eats them constantly.
- A flash of insight into the meaning of things! The sorcerer must immediately go to a certain place and do a certain thing. This thing will be seemingly mundane and meaningless, such as placing a sandal half way up a certain mountain, or standing under a certain waterfall while reciting the Strictures of Merrywell. If the party do not join him at the next free moment he will disappear on his own for 2d6 weeks and do it himself. 1 in 6 chance he never comes back.
- The sorcerer is overwhelmed by implied meaning and endless connections. Before him is a vast conspiracy between the squirrels and the daffodils, they hide their nuts in the pattern of the constellation of the Bull and only remove his eye on Wednesdays, the oak leaves fall but spin only counter clockwise... They are paralysed with the truth and can only be forcibly lead around for 1d4 days. They may memorise twice the normal spells during this period, since the sideways logic comes more naturally.
- For one random fellow close to this catastrophe the veil of lies is ripped and the black sun replaces our own. It will bleed, thick puss dripping down the sky. The trees will buckle, the walls will fester and boil and they will fall to their knees as their sanity leaves them in a boiling puddle of filth.
Save vs. magic or die. If it dies, then the caster must save vs. magic or die as he sees the light in the burst flesh bag that got caught up in this mess. If he dies then everyone within sight of him must save or die. Closing your eyes won’t help, you won’t need eyes when the dark sun rises.
- The cunning man learns that his life is linked to another in the vast web. This can be an object or place. His health and theirs is linked from this day on. Think like a Dryad and their tree, but potentially with a weasel, blueberry bush or toothbrush.
- Caster loses their mind. Believe themselves to be an animal or tree. This lasts for 1d6 days, reroll 6's and add it to the total. Players may control the PC as long as they play along convincingly. Spellcasting ability is lost.
- Rose vines burst out of the cunning man in a huge plasmic sneeze. Everyone within 20 metres of him must save vs. device or be impaled by the foliage for 1d6 damage. The plants are ferocious weeds and will continue to grow. Very pretty, but in a few weeks everything will be covered in spikey rose vines. The cunning man is unharmed, but must disentangle himself from the vines now growing out of him.
- The cunning eye sees the purest empyreal fire, suffusing the darkness with a light so far from the prosaic rays that struggle through the canopy as to be an insult to name it as such. That beauty is seen by few but holds an indescribable fascination for those that have. A feeling beyond words or any other tawdry attempts at communication. It can only be shown.
The caster will emanate light with no fixed point of origin while babbling incoherently. Anyone viewing the light must save vs. magic or grow uncontrollably as the light fills them. They will spontaneously sprout new limbs, their flesh will flow like a flood and they will grow exponentially until the light fades. Their flesh will remain forever malleable and readily absorb more. From here on they are considered horrifying monsters by all, and are very likely blind, deaf, and insane (2 in 3 chance of each).
If you know to do so and are prepared, looking away will avoid this unpleasant fate. However, anyone caught in the area of an individual glutting on emyreal light will be absorbed into the target, dealing 1d10 damage per turn as they are melted into their loving embrace. If they are cut free they will suffer d6 permanent damage from missing flesh and skin.
- The caster mutters constantly, with occasional outbursts. It resembles Tourettes, but instead of obscenities he blurts out cutting truths.
- The recipient of this curse is dragged under the earth by thick roots, whereupon he is stored in a small encystment. He will not starve and cannot escape through normal means, though he can be dug up. Those recovering his encystment will find a sack of flesh, inside of which the poor fellow will be held.
After a time a tree grows on the spot, the fruit of which will fall and split into animals of some local variety. They will speak of the trapped individual, but only to the young and the lonely. After 2d6 years the tree will split like a lily to reveal the sorcerous sufferer, naked and new.
- The sorcerer casts off his clothes and equipment. His takes a sharp stick and ash and inscribes his magical knowledge into his flesh. This takes 1 day per level, during which he will refuse to be disturbed. He will never again wear clothes or bags of anything else that separates him from an intimate connection with the world. Can memorise 2 extra spells.
- The cunning man can talk with animals and plants. However, they all talk like the Cheshire cat and bad lsd dreams. Constantly.