2018/01/13

OSR: Cholerids and the Fever City

Patrick invented the Cholerids. The version in Veins of the Earth is better because there is more of it. And art.
Rostyslav Zagornov
Anyway, above the Veins of the Earth, there is a city. An ancient, sprawling, city. Not the oldest in the world, but old enough that the city's first kings are given credit for inventing writing, laws, and agriculture. It has been inhabited for thousands of years and it is still inhabited now.

And like all cities, it has plagues. The usual summer fevers. And every two centuries, give or take, the Plague. It defines epochs. Named for kings and tyrants. A cultural constant.

There are caves in the hills and catacombs below the city. The laws are clear, and even if the laws were silent, tradition would carry the day. The living rise up to banish the dying. Families herded into caves, sealed behind iron doors and rockfalls. Tossed down dry wells. Wrapped in linen and sent on their way. The Plague fades, eventually.

The wisest scholars and shamans believe there are three kinds of diseases. The first is caused by a distemper of the body's own processes. A blockage, a failure of vitality, a malformed gland. Cured by purgative treatments, heat, cold, food, scenery, rest, and willpower. The second is caused by tiny creatures, like insects or worms, that invade the body. Cured by roots, herbs, leeches, beatings. The third is an affliction of the spirit. A disease that is closer to a curse, a ghost, an unclean thing. This type of disease can be exorcised by ritual, but it is difficult to cure.

The three categories of disease are well known... but doctors cannot agree on which disease falls into which category, or how to universally cure them. Ancient texts and foreign traditions are contradictory at best. It's a purely academic distinction. Cures are wildly variable. The current fashion calls for spiced drinks, masks, perfumes, incense, and heat.

The trapped victims of the Plague died and their souls departed to their allotted afterlife. But the Plague remained. The disease-spirits took over their host. Blindly, mindlessly, sustained by meat-memories and habit.  They have taken over several caves. They've built a mock society, a fever-dream mirror of the city that exiled them. Citizens wandering through streets made from bone, mud, and stone. They fever-city is refreshed by each new plague, bringing two centuries of accumulated history and culture in a sudden rush.
Jonathan Fisher

Encountering the Cholerids 

You have to look at them in two ways.

With your right eye, a Cholerid is a horrible, twitchy, diseased corpse. It shambles and mutters and flails. It grabs you by the throat and spews into your face. It acts out fragments of half-remembered life. There's no sentience, no real life, and yet it lives. It's the diseased echo of a once-living thing.

With your left eye, the Plague. Individual Chloerids are single cells of a vast organism. Blind, mad, hateful, and loathsome, but coherent. The Plague is riding them. They act on its direction. And it wants to feed and grow.

The Mind of the Plague

Most plague spirits live once, gloriously. They come into being, expand, consume cities, and fade forever.

But this Plague is different. By chance, it found a way to endure and grow. It rises and devours the city above. The victims, as tradition demands, are locked into caves and catacombs. The Plague, fattened and happy, retreats and waits.

With each cycle it grows a little stronger, a little wiser.

Of course, the Plague can't rise to infect the city if it's trapped in thousands upon thousands of mindless disease-ridden hosts. This is where the PCs come in. The Cholerids want to die. Or, rather, the Plague wants you to kill them. The hosts are hanging onto life with both hands in mindless animal panic. The Plague needs to be released. It doesn't have fine control. It can't march its hosts over cliffs or smash their heads in with rocks.

If the Plague has recently fed, it will keep its hosts safe and wait for the city above to rebuild. The cholerid-caves are still dangerous, but the hosts are quiet and mournful and left mostly to their own devices. But, and this is usually the case, if the city above is glutted with people, if it is ripe for the harvest, then the caves become very dangerous. The Plague will send its hosts to die; the hosts don't want to die. They fight. They lose (they are, after all, disease-riddled corpses), but they still fight. Once the Plague is strong enough, free enough, it will rise to the surface again.

Dead cholerids can be harvested. The Olm won't eat them, but they will feed them to their centipedes. The Ghouls of Illiam will happily feast. Everyone else uses them as fertilizer. When the Plague is strong, it boils upwards, infecting the upper city once more, then sinks back as the dying are entombed and banished.
Spawn of the Slithis (1978)

In My Setting...

The City Above is like... Athens. Fine traditions, fine arts, people in robes, lots of columns and stone and fish and oil. A well-respected culture, even if it goes a bit awry sometimes. It's not evil. There's no dark secret. Everyone knows about the last few plagues; every city has plagues. And the people know how to deal with them. There's no dark secret or twist because the cyclical plague is just... how things work. It's as natural as the tides or the migration of sparrows.

And because it's my setting, the people are fishlings. Fish-like people who have adapted to life on the surface. Scaly, with gill-flaps and large eyes and wide mouths.

The Cholerids smell like a fish market but without the purifying sea air. Rotten, slimy, cloying. Notes of bile and pus.

Catching the Plague

Chance Per Hour of Exposure:
Fishling: 10% (1-in-10)
Lizardlings, Eellings, Other Scaly Things: 1% (1-in-100)
Humans, Mammals, Olm, Antlings: 0.1% (1-in-1000)
Sufficiently Magical Creatures, Drow, Powerful Wizards: 0%

Even a momentary encounter counts as 1 hour. Doing something really gross, like eating a dead cholerid, counts as 6 hours of exposure (at minimum). If you eat 2 rations worth, 12 hours of exposure, etc.

Once the Plague makes the jump to another species, it spreads among that species at Fishling rates (10% chance per hour of exposure).

The Plague is a mix of diseases, a viral and bacteriological and spiritual ecosystem. It causes weakness, black buboes in the armpits and groin, shakes, blood in the lungs, fever, delerium, and death. If you are infected, every 24 hours, or after 2hrs of strenuous activity, Save. If you fail, take 1d6 Constitution damage until you are cured or die. If you pass 3 consecutive Saves, you are cured, and are forever immune. Your Constitution damage recovers at a rate of 1 point every 24 hours, provided you are not Starving.

E.g. Starting Con is 10. Patient is resting.
Day 1, failed Save, take 1d6 (2) Con damage.
Day 2.  Con is 8. Heal 1 Con, then Save. Fail. Take 1d6 (5) Con damage.
Day 3: Con is 4. Heal 1 Con, then Save. Pass.
Day 4. Con is 5. Heal 1 Con, then Save. Fail. Take 1d6 (3) Con Damage.
And so on, until either you die or are cured. 

If you die in the dark, in hatred and misery, your body rises as a Cholerid. Your soul is gone but your mind, or part of it, remains. It's like waking up with severe brain damage. The disease lives through you.

Agnes Hvalstad

Passing Through Cholerid Territory

You need to carry the Plague with you.

Luckily, this is not difficult. The Ghouls sell cave fish infected with the plague. Carry one (and smear yourself in filth, if you haven't already), and the Cholerids will ignore you. Lose the fish and they'll tear you apart. Infected Fish costs 10gp and last 1d6+1 days.

The Illithids make plague body-suits. Captured cholerids, teased into hollow frames, stretched and folded and reinforced like a barrel. You can step inside and zip them up and wander around, seeing through their mouth. They fold into a convenient sealed bag. The Illithids won't sell one to you of course, but you can steal one.

Why Visit the Cholerid Caves At All?

Treasure
The dying sometimes cling to wealth. There are gold and gems in the caves, death-masks and offerings, dried medicines and a thousand other trinkets clutched by dying exiles. They don't need it anymore. It's yours for the taking.

A Cure

The disease-pressure in the heart of the Plague is so great that lesser diseases will flee the body. If you can surround yourself with Cholerids on all sides - above, below, around, in the dark, in huge numbers - anything you've got will run. Curses, diseases, parasites, madness; the Cholerids will cure anything by predatory pressure. Anything except the Plague, of course.

Wisdom

The wisdom of soulless crowds. All passions experienced at approximately equal rates cancel each other out when aggregated. The mad, eternal muttering of the Cholerids means nothing individually. In a chorus ten thousand strong, it speaks pure truth. Mob truth. Who to kill to become king. What to say to rule a crowd. How to make a thousand people love you. Whisper any question into the mass and get an answer back. It might not be the right answer, but it will be an answer, and sometimes that's enough.

Meat
The Cholerids are easy enough to kill and the Plague wants them to die. If you are desperate and starving, or if you need to trade in vast quantities of nutrients, meat, and bone, then the Cholerid caves are a way to satisfy your need.

Safety

You can avoid pursuit or lure your enemies into a trap. Very few creatures will wander into the stinking caves of the Cholerids if they can help it.
Agnes Hvalstad

The Fever City

Not really a city at all. Just buildings made of mud and slime and desperation. A painted set, dressed for the insane. The same public square repeated over and over, changing each century, rebuilt and edited by intermingled generations of plague-addled minds. There is shelter here, but no commerce, no life. It isn't a necropolis. It's just a memory. The ghost of a city.

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