Welcome back to the Network, a world made of worlds connected, when not by simple geography, then by dimension-puncturing portals. We're going somewhere we haven't been before. The land is Nimisia, the year is, by our calendar, 1611. Gammon is a prosperous little city-state amidst a mess of prosperous little city-states and if rolling countryside, charming forests, and sparkling lakes are your thing, this is a peachy place. Well. If you aren't a peasant. We are in a time of serfs and lords.
If you are landed gentry however, sunny are your skies, green are your horizons, your cup floweth over. You live in a palace with colorful flags and people who take care of things and are generally free to socialize with other people who live in palaces. You know that life is for having fun and besides, you'd be bored sick lying around if you didn't fill your days with riding, hunting, chasing fashion, and partying.
Partying. There is one place which people, properly invited, cross seas for when festivities are held, the richest single household in Nimisia and host of the most notoriously over-the-top merrymaking anyone can recall even after they've sobered up: Sacher Castle, home of the Thedrial family.
The Thedrials have the perfect combination of doting agéd parents with bottomless wallets and three gregarious sons who love nothing better than a party, preferably with feasts, bonfires, performers (with chimps if possible), all kinds of musicians, oooh and fireworks, and boating, and as many ladies as we can invite, and a huge chocolate fountain, and bottomless wine, and you get the picture. And the ringleader and center of all festivities is the Thedrials' eldest, Erick.
Erick Thedrial was not a bad person. Well, not an evil person. He never meant any harm, or not to anybody who mattered. How much can you blame a noble for treating their dogs warmer than their workforce in a time-worn system which applauds them doing so (and in which they control all the soldiers)? A: Apparently a whole lot.
But if you were his friend, Erick was a pleasant fellow, laid-back to a fault, perhaps, friendly, jovial, loud, who'd ruined his figure with a bit too much fondness for his own feasts and was in good humor about pretty much everything. If you were not nobility he was inclined to make sport of your for the merriment of his friends. If he was ever an absolute asshole it was in front of his mates, heckling shabby people on the streets, at worst chasing them on his horse.
He's twenty-seven at the time we find him, in fact he's soon due to turn twenty-eight on the final night of a week-long birthday celebration in his honor where he'll be receiving at least one present no-one could ever have imagined. Because some toes had gotten trodden on what were dangerous toes to tread indeed. Unbeknownst to the Thedrials, unbeknownst to most everybody, perhaps the most powerful mage of the age had retired far back in one of the family's forests with a pair of her great-granddaughters.
She was not a bad person. Well, not an evil person. She never meant any harm, at least not to anybody who mattered, and how much can you blame a person for coming to see the nobility as inhuman leeches when you witness the draining, indeed actual starvation in cases, of the powerless in their shadow? She knew how ingrained this system was in Nimisia. Words would not do, nobles would not listen, nor care. In fact, neither would the peasants. They didn't understand what they were doing to each other.
Democracy was a vague word here, something foreigners talked about at length which was good reason for heavy skepticism so far as Nimisians were concerned. For a decade the old woman watched the Thedrials' infuriating, arrogant eldest growing rounder and more smug by the year and as she put the final touches on her masterpiece she nodded.
Someone had to be made an example of, and who was more decadent than the young Lord Thedrial? Whose fall would terrify the rich bastards most? Who would be having a very public birthday bash this weekend, wonderfully close to other inhuman leeches, many of whom she rather hoped would prove to be poor runners?
A great-granddaughter set out for the castle disguised as a servant, the basket under her arm containing a flask of one of the most potent- and delicious- unimaginably twisted curses of the age.
It's night but Gammon Castle is lit like midday by thousands of lanterns running over the lawns, through the courtyards and up giant banquet tables groaning under the weight of a zillion steaming dishes, lined by lords and ladies toasting hearty toasts. Their host finally laughs and declares the food'll go cold if they waste any more time wishing him wishes and making subtle stabs at his age (he shoots a wry smile at his cousins who do a poor job hiding their grins), and waves the feast open.
Everyone's having a good, noisy time. The servants are on the hop refilling plates and glasses. Somewhere in the bustle there is a moment when bodies part, the steam clears, and in the same way that time bends slowly around the lighting of a fuse, a serving woman reaches out of the crowd, takes Lord Thedrial's goblet, refills it, and is gone. She reappears beyond the open end of the courtyard. Her pony is saddled.
Back in the steam and noise Erick is feeling great. Surrounded by friends, family, and food, life doesn't get better than this. His best mate Michael is beside him, he claps Erick on the shoulder as the latter drains his goblet in one go, telling him to take it easy or he'll choke. Erick catches his breath, blinks, laughs, and apologizes. It was the best thing he'd ever tasted!
But then so was this glazed ham. Actually, it's remarkable! He'll have to commend his chefs for this, and for this fruity sauce, delicious! He isn't even a fan of salad but this salad is so ridiculously good he nearly forgets to breathe, and this bread studded with crushed nuts and spread with honey butter thick as a finger, yes, he might just have another, and another, so damn good, it makes him want to cry, and dripping hot chicken, and thick creamy soup, and all kinds of meaty pies, and ripe juicy melons so good he wonders why he's never downed one in a single bite before now!
Colors and sounds become a heady swirl of tastes and he doesn't hear the first screams go up, chairs topple, doesn't notice the table is shrinking crazily, or that he's on the table, howling, drooling, huge, the food so fantastic he's got a few extra maws to gulp it down, and thank goodness for that as he's so cripplingly hungry it feels like a dozen swords in his side!
And it is a dozen swords in his side. Everything is madness, guests are trampling each other, screaming as a slobbering nightmare sprouting eyeless dragon heads is devouring the courtyard with terrible determination. Most escape but many of the lords and soldiers have returned with weapons and are dodging the multitude of jaws as they whip around high and low over the tables snapping up everything in their paths. The one giant head is more than large enough to swallow a man whole. The abomination doesn't respond to arrows and steel in its soft flesh, the heads only turn and follow the sweet scent of hot meat.
One man is cornered between a fangy head and an upturned table. He vaults the table in time to hear the head pound drunkenly into the other side then tumbles 'round the corner and stabs the contorting maw again and again until it lays still and oozing. Then something huge and dark descends just before him that drains all his courage. It is the master head and it takes a terrible dripping bite out of the dead neck. Unlike the others this one has eyes, mad eyes which lift to him through the smoke, long black jaw hanging open.
Fang-rimmed blackness and heat engulfs the man and we won't follow him to his unimaginable death. That final scream will echo miserably down through the years, hundreds of years, hundreds of nights tumbling Eric Thedrial out of bed in a cold sobbing sweat as he relives Michael's death.
What did we do to deserve this?
What happens next? Well, in the immediate future, the monster passes a few more hours lazily swallowing what it can reach of the kitchens and anyone who gets near it, eventually conks out, and the guests-turned-mob rip it to pieces and burn those pieces and bury the particulate under large rocks. Erick Thedrial is announced to be among the victims of the thing and is mourned. His brothers fight a lot of duels for their fallen sibling's honor when a number of guests dare insist Lord Thedrial somehow was the monster.
Not four days later all hell breaks loose when another multi-headed creature attacks a nearby village killing nearly all the precious livestock and a few residents before it is killed in turn.
Two servants in Sacher Castle nearly have heart attacks when they claim to have seen Erick's ghost, pale, ragged, and mad, rushing around the stables. It is later mused on why a ghost would feel the need to steal a horse.
When a third creature shows up many miles away and makes lunch of Lord Bronmann's herds, he orders the slain monster's carcass not be burned so that this new plague might be inspected. But in the middle of the night guards said the body burst into smoking embers and blew into nothing.
The monsters never attacked Gammon again. One was spotted in southern Nimisia but cowered from witnesses and fled. There was a period of years one did not go into a certain chain of forested valleys because of regular sightings of enormous black heads weaving between the trees. Every now and then testosterone levels would go critical in a pub somewhere and a mob would parade into the trees to rid their country of the lurking nightmares and sometimes they would. For a while. Bounty hunters began to frequent the area and shortly after that the monsters seemed to have moved on for good.
There ends Nimisia's strange and terrible run of monsters. (Well, that decade's run of monsters, anyway. This is the Network.) A black-hided jumble of jaws wasn't seen again anywhere in the Network for nearly four hundred years and by then the Thedrial family, indeed Gammon, was so much dust between the pages of a history book.
Of course, Eric tells a different story.
Waking up on the floor of his room in Sacher Castle feeling thoroughly thrashed and terrified, Erick can only figure he's had the king of all nightmares. He pulls on some clothes and shakily makes his way through the sleeping castle down to the kitchens for a strong drink and a snack.
When he regains consciousness he is again confronted with the soul-shattering sight of collapsed shelves, broken barrels, missing walls, mounds of bricks, and absolutely nothing edible. He can't bring himself to touch any of the thousands of gouges where steak-knife teeth tried to sample the foundations. Michael. Cristofer. Connelly. That guy from Redland who wears too much perfume. His mind collapses and he runs. And runs.
And runs. As far as he can, which is not far at all, just to the outskirts of the nearby village where he pitches himself, wheezing, behind a farmhouse. Which is cooking dinner. Sweet, meaty steam rolls from the window. It's crackling bacon and doughy bread and something pumpkin-y and Erick feels like he hasn't eaten in four days- which was exactly right. He clutches his head and stumbles away but his last human memory is falling backwards off the garden fence before rising impossibly high with too many long jaws pointing with terrible interest at the farmhouse.
Waking up on the floor of his room in Sacher Castle with the memory of ripping apart lots of tiny houses like a bear cracks open hives, and the subsequent memory of being stabbed and stoned to death (again?), Erick, feeling like a man in a trance, shoves some belongings in a sack, ties a cloth over his mouth and nose, and stumbles to the stables where he rides off on a horse he hates but has a damn good set of legs.
He is riding to the nearest Guild of Magick for help. He thinks everyone knows he has become a monster and shuns the main roads. The route takes him near Lord Bronmann's where he has another relapse. For the third time in eight days he watches in unspeakable fear as his zombified body takes chomps out of outlying buildings and livestock and the people who show up to defend them. This time they pull back and let him take his fill. Again his body becomes heavy and his heads drowsy, again too sluggish to struggle when the people close in, stabbing him everywhere and breaking his necks.
The next time he wakes it is under a nondescript tree some miles away. Here Erick's mind goes on a much-needed vacation somewhere tropical and he spends over two weeks running around completely mad in the forest, regularly transforming into the monster and then back into himself in a disorienting snap of light. Sometimes hunters come looking for him, sometimes they don't go home. It rains a lot. Slowly he finds some semblance of control, like a drunk who finds he's thrown up everything possible and more and is now faced with the long haul to sobriety. This was the blackest chapter of Eric's life.
He finds he can assert an influence over the master head. The umpteen smaller maws which split disgustingly from his body continue to gnaw trees and snatch birds and drain ponds but at least he can smack them around a bit for it. If he thinks happy thoughts he can sometimes distract himself from becoming the monster in the first place. Sometimes. But there's little for a man to eat in the forest, that he can catch with his hands, anyways, and hunger seems to force out his inner demon no matter what, which had yet to find anything it could get itself around unpalatable. His mind returns, shakes the sand out of its shorts, and tells him it's time to move on.
He has a merry time trying to find some clothes and this day he makes it to the Guild. A lady there about screams when she sees him (presumably not just because he looks like a man who's just been mad in a forest for weeks) and pushes him promptly down an alley and out of town where she reveals she knows who he is and what is happening to him. She tells him about the ancient mage and about her loathing of the nobility. She tells him of the curse that was brewed, which the mage intended be her final piece de resistance and lesson to the upper crust.
She tells him she has terrible news. He says if it's worse than what he's been through he'll eat his hat. Or the city. Whichever she likes. She smiles then looks grim. See, she says, I knew you weren't half bad.
She reveals that the mage is her great-grandmother and that she herself had been against the idea from the start but her sister sided with her great-grandmother and was the one who slipped him the fateful drink. She looks suddenly hunted. My late great-grandmother, she corrects herself. Like a woman hugging a time bomb she gingerly puts her hands on his shoulders and looks him in the eyes.
We can't find the countercurse.
So Erick came to live in the forested valley decently distant from the two great-granddaughters.
Jessabelle, the woman who hadn't especially wished to turn the countryside into a bloodbath as part of some kind of misled humanitarian scheme, teamed up with Erick and tried her very best to crack his curse. The nightmare that ended his former life left Erick with a haunted streak he will never shake, but slowly his friendly, goofy side returned and even Aidan, the other sister, grudgingly came to not mind his presence quite so much like a kick in the knee. They never did warm up especially to one another but out of fierce devotion to all that is sacred in magic, Aidan did what she could to search out the countercurse as well. You cannot have a curse without a counter. It just isn't done.
But at best those three years in the valley mainly gave Erick time to mentally and physically adjust to his new state of existence. He no longer lost control while in monster shape, and his monster shape had become quite a lot less monstrous- quite a few less heads and quite a lot smaller. The sight and smell of food no longer sent his humanity packing... usually.
He could never make it more than a week without shifting. Jessabelle explained this was because the immortality side of his curse, an exceptionally masterful bit of spellwork on her great-grandmother's part- intended to let him get murdered a few times for maximum effect- took an extraordinary amount of magic to keep going. When the store in Erick's body ran low he'd be forced into monster shape no matter what, as at the moment his monster self flashes back to human all that it devoured is transmuted into pure magical energy and tucked away to keep him perpetually alive.
She also confirmed his suspicions that his location of regeneration after being killed was home, wherever he might consider that in his heart of hearts to be.
After mobs stopped stoning him to death and he had a chance to, he found his immortality did not stop him from aging. (It'd be quite some decades until he'd next wind up dead, at which point he found to his shock that he regenerates as his twenty eight year-old self, all two hundred twenty pounds of him, fiddly beard, gold teefs and everything.)
He nicknames his monster self Tony, short for Gluttony, because it makes him smile.
To put a great many decades in summary, Erick and Jessabelle went a' travelling seeking advice of wiser magical minds. Then came the year Jessabelle grew too old to travel, and then she was gone. Worlds turned, nations fell and rose, swamps were drained for cities, cities were connected by road, then rail, then planes, the world became lit by the electric light and then everyone had a computer in their pocket. Eric lived dozens of lives in hundreds of places, worked hundreds of jobs, met legions of people, fell in love, outlived his lovers, learned things, forgot things, forgot so many, many things.
He's nearly four hundred now but beyond the last fifty years and whatever bits of memory old photos conjure up (he may own the most interesting photo album in existence), it's all a little foggy. His life before his curse, however, has always ridden in the back of his mind like a dream a bit too vivid for comfort. And one particular birthday will never stop jangling around in his head, particularly the moment of Michael's death.
Eric's pretty much unrecognizable as himself these days, take that either way you wish. Lord Thedrial was kind of a smug, self-indulgent elitist with an innertube 'round his middle and a mane of shaggy hair. Eric today is a wildly friendly, goofy little stick of a guy who wears hiply-tinted shades (because he has light-sensitivity issues but as a digital artist regularly fries his eyeballs out on his monitor), and whose heart has outgrown his stomach by a million zillion miles.
However, he's still cursed. Maybe once every other month or two he has a brief transformation to rekindle his curse. He describes himself as 'like some sort of werewolf with bingeing issues.' It's really not a huge deal anymore and hasn't been for hundreds of years. He just keeps a well-stocked pantry, and basement, several fridges, and some extra nibbles in the garage against what he calls his snack-attacks. Very little otherwise makes him transform although he has sometimes been able to coax himself into a shift, which is not very useful as, although he hasn't hurt a living thing in years, for the first couple hours he's like Scooby-Doo sniffing out snacks. A one-track mind.
His monster shape is stupendously un-monstrous anymore. Jessabelle suggested the changes in his shape might reflect the changes in his character, although Eric is not sure what his soft and fluffy body is suppose to say about him as a person now. He is some kind of wolverine-cat-bear-rat-canine-person thing. In short, he is large and furry and can eat a few times his weight. Oh wait--- no, he can't. Silly me:
Eric is a sizeshifter. He only ever gets so round about the middle before growing proportionally on all fronts. This is fantastic and stuff because things could get awkward real fast if it didn't. On the other hand, it means he's never really satisfied. It's almost like a metaphor for something.
On that note, Eric could write volumes on the concept of gluttony and of greed and of waste, maybe that old mage would have clicked her gums in satisfaction at how well her little morality curse delivered on the morality bit. For his part, Eric can only stare hollowly at walls as he thinks about the nations that could have been fed on the tons of food wasted on him and his damn stupid curse. He knows what this was supposed to teach him, he just feels it was kind of a giant step backwards in the grand scheme of things. Not to mention the people he killed. He will never let that go, it really sickens him.
Final note, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Over the decades it's gradually taken longer for Eric to regenerate after his body gets whacked, these days it can mean an absence of several weeks and is becoming exponentially longer. (His curse is finally wearing thin.) He feels certain that one time very soon (in Eric's calendar 'very soon' is relative) he will just not come back, ending his very, very long life.
And he's sort of ambivalent about death. He loves life but the whole Network, billions and billions of people, have died several times over during his lifespan and he feels it would be odd for him of all people to fuss about passing on.
Miscellany On The Magic and Stuff:
-- While not really dangerous during his attacks Eric mostly avoids being around people just in case and also because he's a bit embarrassed to be seen in the state. Morphologically, while his curse is in full swing he sports several feet of sticky tongue, large nostrils, wide pure-white eyes, longer claws and teeth, and a drooling habit that would put a St. Bernard to shame. He can still speak and is generally in control of his actions but sniffing out everything organic (he's got a ridiculously keen sense of smell) and swallowing it is overwhelmingly what's on his frazzled brain. He hasn't taken so much as a snap at a living critter in decades but once again his friends mostly leave him be for dignity's sake.
-- Not just during the initial attack but during transformations as a whole he's been cursed with an extremely well-developed sense of taste and the world's broadest palate; he will eat anything, and he will LOVE it. Since this is the case the most economical way of satisfying his outer inner monster has become buying up cheap animal feed and filling his basement with it. (Also, dumpster-diving. Don't judge.) After his hunger dies down a bit he'll move on to nicer, more-conventional people food.
-- During transformations what's essentially going on is he's recharging his curse; it drives him to consume things, most everything he consumes it combusts immediately into magical energy, and when he returns to his normal shape all that energy is packed away and powers his very taxing immortality curse and dormant shifting ability. When that store runs low his curse kicks him into monster mode to replenish it. Rinse, lather, repeat. This is how he's existed for so long, this self propelling, inescapable loop.
- (A question: If he wanted out of this loop couldn't he find some way to lock up his monster shape so it couldn't get to any foodstuffs and therefore exhaust the curse (and almost certainly kill him for good)? Well, this is how he first found out chains and bricks are edible. Eric's curse is something exceptional; a warlock once held his monster form immobile with magic alone and that got REALLY messy as local laws of physics started to bend and Eric himself to devolve back into his nightmarish original monster. Er, so the answer is, yes, probably, but have fun besting one very obstinate piece of spellwork.)
-- Monster Eric's stomach acid has been replaced with an extremely corrosive magical emulsion. The rule is if he can get it down his throat it's edible. He certainly won't seek them out first thing but if nothing else is around this means he can digest things like rocks, wood, plastic, metal, glass, etc.. Yes, he has been known to completely lacerate his throat and mouth on some of these and lose handfuls of teeth and be a bloody mess but at least during the initial attack he'll be too lost in gastronomic euphoria to notice pain.
-- It's become his favorite party trick (with prior consent from the host of course) to finish a meal by casually licking down the plate, then crunching it up like a Dorito, swallowing the cup, and washing it down with the spoon. (The looks on people's faces are priceless.) It's this potent magical acid that also lets him get away with chowing down on some of the more rotten things he does without getting sick.
-- Eric's shapeshifting varies some. His transformations from monster to human are of the explosive sort, abrupt and accompanied by a flash and quite the shower of (harmless) sparks. From human to monster has bright sparks racing along his body reorganizing his anatomy and leaving long fur in their wake. Both transformations are wildly disorienting but not painful. The signs of an imminent attack are the whitening of his eyes and glowing seams that make their crooked way from the corners of his lips to his temples which will open into his long monster mouth. There are no outward signs of a shift back to human approaching but he can feel it coming on like a sneeze. (And it is, in fact, sometimes a sneeze.)
-- Otherwise, Eric is more notably a sizeshifter as during his transformations his monster shape begins at a modest 5' 10" and increases vertically as well as circumference-wise as he munches. (Therefore he never appears more than x ft around while his overall dimensions can range from tiger-sized to truck-sized (rarely larger). This is mostly so he can walk and doesn't look like a bloated whale and stuff.)
-- Because he's brimming with magical energy, and especially towards the ends of his shifts, it's common to see monster Eric exhaling a lightly glowing copper mist, especially when winded, laughing, or sneezing. (Copper and teal being his character colors.)
-- Shifts are uncommon- typically two months apart but can be radically closer together or further apart depending on how replenishing the last was- and the duration varies without apparent cause (he's had shifts come and go on the same day, others last more than two weeks).
-- Fun fact: By the end of a decent transformation the amount of magical energy in Eric's body is enough to power Elarg for a few days (think New York). Oh, quite some many enterprising people would just LURVE to catch him and take him apart and find out how they might harness, recreate, or otherwise pull this unheard of scale of transmutative magic from him for their own uses. For this reason Eric prefers to lie low and move around and make up all kinds of stories explaining his monster shift. If I ever get a story up and running for him it'd very likely center around being targeted by some group who find out exactly what, who, and where he is and develop a very unhealthy interesting in exploiting this morality curse, with or without him attached to it