Sunday, November 9, 2008

Godtouched Races: Skull Imps

The skull imp was considered a Camarian myth until quite recently. In all fairness to scholars who scoffed at the concept, skull imps are an entire race of creatures who are born death channelers. Because death channelers become unliving creatures over time, it was thought that a race of such creatures, if they ever did exist, would go extinct very quickly as they would have no ability to reproduce.

The paradox of the skull imp's biology lies in the fact that, unlike death dragons, skull imps have a functional society where individuals not only “live” and “die,” but also create new generations of offspring. No skull imp has ever been demonstrated to have any physical life processes, even at birth. They eat, but only to grow, reproduce and heal, and they do not defecate or urinate. A skull imp has no blood, and its mind, soul and body's animate nature are sustained only by its own magical power. Experimentation has shown that if a skull imp's magic is dispelled or blocked, it enters a state of suspended animation from which it will recover slowly. This works similarly to how a channeler's abilities or runecrafted effects will return over time if dispelled.

Skull imps are usually three feet tall, with diminutive, child-like proportions. They have been known to weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. The most common variety of skull imp appears female. These individuals have a skull-shaped carapace that forms over their face and scalp giving them the appearance of four eyes and two noses. This makes their already large head appear even larger. Their “skull eyes” usually glow a powerful red and provide illumination in the dark caves of their habitat, while their lower eyes and mouth glow a pale yellow.

This variety of skull imp has long and pointed ears, with a bent crook halfway up the shaft of their ears. On their bodies, their skin is taught over their bones. Vertebra, collar bones, ribs, shoulder blades and hips all protrude in unnatural ways. Their bodies however are not thin or emaciated, and in many cases they could be accurately described as “plump.” Their skeletal structures are simply exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. These skull imps also seem to have a short upwards pointing spike at the base of their spine, which resembles a short dog's tail.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing features of this type of skull imp is their thighs and biceps. These muscles have an odd shape to them, as if someone had literally butchered their arms and legs, pulling out 3-4 inch deep strips of flesh. This gives the impression that they are wearing long, ornate gloves along with thigh-high boots. The recessed area in these parts of their bodies are colored more red than the rest of their skin, which is usually dark purple, blue, white or black.

The hands and legs of skull imps in general tend to vary from individual to individual. Legs and arms are almost always colored red, as if to evoke the color of blood, but their shapes do not conform to any one particular style. Human-like hands and feet, scythe-like claws, bird-like toes, and even bone-shaped stilts have all been reported on the ends of skull imp limbs. In fact skull imps individuals are often named after the distinguishing characteristics of their limbs, examples being “Long-toe,” “Bent-claw,” or “Sharp-thumb.”

A less common variety of skull imp appears male and tends to be colored more brown than the cooler blues and purples of the “female” type. This skull imp has narrow shoulders and hips, a stooped posture, a prominent pot belly, and its head has only one “face.” Its entire head is shaped like a skull, and it has such a severe underbite that its lower jaw is hidden from view

Skull imp reproduction is poorly understood, but both the female-appearing and male-appearing skull imps have been observed to be “pregnant.” A skull imp who wishes to reproduce will usually find a partner to “help” with the shaping of the child, but this seems to be optional as their reproduction cannot truly be considered sexual. Parent-to-be skull imps will gorge themselves on on vegetative matter and the corpses of animals, and the new individual will spontaneously grow inside one of the two “parents.” Both the role played by the “helper” and the actual birth of the child are better left undescribed. The child that is “born” is biologically dead, and like its parents, is sustained only by its natural death channeling magic. It will grow over time, consuming only enough material to add to its body mass, until it becomes a fully-formed adult after a period of four years.

Skull imps have no known lifespan, though they have been observed to “die” of their own free will. Like any other godtouched they have been shown to have souls. These souls do in fact travel to the afterlife upon the “death” of an individual as well. Asides from their strange form of suicide, skull imps are also known for viciously killing one another when they wish to reproduce, in order to weed out the weakest members of the society. Perversely, they find these acts of violence both fun and socially acceptable. Death in skull imp society is seen as a natural progression from one world to the next, and those who wind up being killed seem to accept their loss in combat with dignity and in some cases even pleasure. Acts of cannibalism have also been observed when their cavernous societies are too far from the surface to reliably escape into the night to hunt for prey when one of them is injured or wants to reproduce. Such hunts are quite rare, but skull imps do require the occasional drink of water. They must keep their bodies supple to prevent mummification. Skull imps prefer moist environments, and do not tolerate desert heat well.

When skull imps wish to cast magic other than their natural channeling, they usually rely on divine magic. For being such insular subterranean creatures, the imagination and willpower of a skull imp is quite strong, which lends well to divine magic. Skull imps have reported that they worship Corsova, the Camarian god of disgust. Corsova is analogous to Western Zenninfal's god of perversion and undeath, Nektos. It is unknown how long ago skull imps were created, but it is possible that they are slightly older than humans, and served as a sort of prototype race for Nektos's plague of undeath. Skull imp myths report that Corsova sought to create a race of creatures of mischief and mirth, who would nevertheless disgust the and repulse godtouched races who already existed. If that was indeed His intent, it went brilliantly. It did not take long for the skull imps to be banished to “the bowels of the earth” in order to spare the locals of the area (predominately naga, valdrex, and ghorma at the time) from their perversions of nature.

Other than the violence, cannibalism and repulsive methods of reproduction, skull imps do seem to be a race of mischief and mirth as they claim. They have been observed to be so light hearted that they are almost schizophrenic. They revel in observing the expressions of disgust or repulsion in living creatures, especially when the living creatures are attempting to be diplomatic or dignified. They enjoy acting evil and playing up to the expectations of those who would judge them by appearance, but for the most part skull imps seem to have compassion. If a joke or spectacle has gone too far, they will usually attempt to coax their guests back into being comfortable, if only because they can then play another one of their jokes, or reveal more socially unacceptable things about themselves. It seems to be the transition between comfort and discomfort that they enjoy observing. It is the rare skull imp who finds raw fear, terror, pain, sorrow or desperation to be entertaining.

When interacting with one another, skull imps are quite expressive. To some researchers' shock and disbelief, they were seen to be singing, reciting poetry, creating macabre sculpture, making staggeringly provocative paintings on their cave walls, or waxing philosophic on the nature of life, death, undeath and unlife. At first it was thought that this behavior was another one of their practical jokes, but some works of art and subterranean architecture were shown to predate first contact with modern researchers. The researchers were forced to conclude that Corsova's sense of sophisticated humor should never be underestimated.

Since the skull imp's discovery, many individuals have ceased to see the point in hiding away underground. It seems that the contact with cultural researchers has rekindled their love of making other creatures profoundly uncomfortable, and many have left their caves in order to interact with the world. Skull imps are often mistaken for undead creatures (which they are not) and in many locations have been hunted and killed mercilessly because of their appearance and antisocial behavior. Still, skull imps who have traveled to the surface seem to take this hatred in stride. If they find a society hostile, they will simply leave to find the next one without holding a serious grudge. There have not yet been any reports of skull imp settlements outside of Camaria, but skull imp barmaids and singers have been observed as far west as Treddis, and as far north as the port city of Frejord in Habruk. This author humbly questions the wisdom of anyone who would hire a skull imp for a job that requires interacting with the public.

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