"In this land of Abkhasia there is a great marvel. There is a country there nearly three days' march in circumference, called Hamson. That country is quite covered by darkness, so that the people outside cannot see anything in it; and no one dares go in for fear of the darkness. Nevertheless men who live in the country round about say that they can sometimes hear the voices of men, and horses neighing, and cocks crowing, and know thereby that some kind of folk live there, but they do not known what kind of folk they are"
~ The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
In the mountains of Northern Iraq, there is a cave with several names in the local folklore, usually referred to as فم الموت—the Mouth of Death. It is regarded by the various people inhabiting the region as the gateway to the underworld or as the place where Alexander the Great sealed up the monstrous nations of Gog and Magog in the Land of Darkness.
فم الموت - "The Mouth of Death"
In recent years, improved medical services in the region led doctors to observe that its inhabitants had an almost impossibly high occurrence of several rare cancers. Further investigation by state medical teams led to the discovery of dangerously high levels of radiation in the area surrounding the cave. Taking this as an indication that the mountain was a rich source of uranium, the people were relocated away from the site and the land sold to a private mining enterprise.
However, when a prospecting team was sent in to discover the best place to begin extraction, they discovered not uranium, but an enormous disk of meteor metal. The object was hidden at the end of a narrow passage that prevented it from being removed and also implied that it had been constructed inside the cave. Its surface was decorated with concentric rings of unrecognizable characters. Experts were subsequently able to identify the glyphs with those found on a handful of scattered tablets at nearby archaeological sites, but philological analysis showed the language to be highly unusual and likely of artificial construction, since it bore no resemblance to any known human language.
The tablets allowed a small vocabulary to be formulated, but the most complete source of the characters—the disk—didn’t seem to have any semantic value at all, at least not one that is consistent with any of the other known fragments containing the script. Further research has revealed that this is because the letters on the disk are organized according to the positions of planets and constellations, perhaps implying a calendrical function. Because of the exactness of the alignment between the disk and the night sky, even a slight change in the position of the stars is capable of producing a different “page” of text. Though many questions still remain about how the object would have been used in ancient times, lists of the characters pointed to by astrologically alignment do seem to have semantic values, if only because the name of the time deity “Yugura” (attested on a few of the readable fragments from other sites) frequently occurs. Like Greek or Hebrew, the alphabet on the disk does not have a number system separate from its letter system. The team of linguists and mathematicians working on the project theorize that Yugura may not actually be a name, but rather a cipher that will give them insight into the formulas produced by the disk.
The Time Goddess - "Yugura"
“Yugura’s Key” is a computer program designed to detect patterns in the data generated by matching the disk’s characters with the position of the stars. It was developed by an unknown coalition of backers in Malaysia and Indonesia, countries that presently act as proxy states for international corporations with an interest in geopolitics. These backers largely act through an international think tank called “Nauticus,” which consults for big data from their home base in Singapore.
Since the discovery of the disk, Nauticus has developed a very simple business plan: hire experts to develop the data produced by Yugura’s Key, and then sell whatever they come up with to the highest bidder. The linguistic aspects of the code are still not well understood, but the numerical formulas generated by the characters have proved to be of particular interest in the field of particle physics.
At present, Nauticus has devoted its considerable resources to analysis of the many unusual qualities of the radiation produced by the metal of the disk. With the information on the object’s surface already fully recorded for analysis, the interior of the cave has been built into a research installation intended to harness the object itself as fuel for a highly unusual fusion reactor dubbed Thanatos, after the Greek dæmon of death. The ancient mountain to which the cave gives entrance has been hollowed out and rebuilt as a high-tech subterranean fortress known as the “The Maw of Thanatos.”
From their home base in Singapore, the shadowy think tank known as Nauticus acts as a major power behind the throne for a coalition of international corporations, which has infiltrated and overtaken the governments of Southeast Asia. The chaos and controversy caused by this economic coup has lead world leaders to recognize the statehood of large corporations in an attempt to hold the unelected oligarchies of international business responsible for the regions where they have displaced the official state. Known as the “West Pacific powers” or “free-market territories,” this union of pirate republics has completely deregulated commerce, and in doing so attracted ambitious and unscrupulous profiteers from around the globe.
A Thanatos Reactor Engineer
When a mining company connected with Nauticus stumbled upon the disk of strange metal deep in the bowels of a remote mountain, a chain of events was set into motion that would leverage the immense resources of the mysterious think tank to develop a wide range of new technologies, including the Thanatos reactor. Although there are many strange things about this monstrous machine, one of the most unexpected is its ability provide entirely clean nuclear fuel, which appears to vanish from existence, rather than producing waste. Although every new day of experimentation seems to produce another shocking leap forward, the greatest shock of all came when the vanished matter began rebounding to its source.
Further experiments with particle acceleration of this material showed that bombardment with particles of the metal can cause other matter to temporarily take on its characteristics, much in the way that a piece of iron can be temporarily magnetized through contact with a magnet. Lacking a more precise term for this strange object, the researchers have dubbed it “the Lodestone.” Beyond rendering the Thanatos reactor inexhaustible, the strange tendency of particles with the Lodestone charge to blink out of existence prompted the higher-ups to start talking about “sending” live animals—if indeed the negative existence that the vanished matter was subjected to could be described as having been “sent” anywhere at all.
With research escalating in this manner toward completely unknown realms, Nauticus has begun to draw upon a widening number of experts in diverse fields … especially those with reason to seek political asylum in the free-market territories of Southeast Asia.
Life the free-market territories can be treacherous, especially because the grip that Nauticus and the other unelected groups that control these lawless zones is always being challenged. Although the influence they wield is vast, their power is not without limits—and these are always being tested. A substantial coalition of anti-Nauticus insurgents in Micronesia has halted (for the moment) the attempts of the West Pacific powers to expand into Oceania. Dealing with cyber attacks, kidnappings, and armed uprisings are all in a day’s work for the nomadic entrepreneurs who have come to the corporate states in hopes of climbing the rungs of power toward the shadowy realm of deep state activities where Nauticus conducts its business.
After successfully retrieving instruments from the negative state induced by the Thanatos reactor, and Nauticus decided to move on to human test subjects. Their first step in doing this was to find a way of safely exposing them to the conditions created inside the reactor. Until such technology could be developed, unmanned exploration would provide an important preliminary step.
Emily Ansel - the "Alpha Return"
Several of the directors at Nauticus began to develop an interest the work of Dr. Emily Ansel, mechanical engineer and computer scientist who had recently created something of a stir in the robotics community by developing technologies capable of highly accurate interfaces with the human nervous system. Although the idea was not completely new, Ansel was able to achieve this through simple contact plates, rather than surgical implants.
When Nauticus found that Dr. Ansel was already engaged in a project to create diving suits for underwater mining, they circumvented this obstacle by buying the company and requesting that Ansel’s team begin work on an anti-radiation coating. The successful creation to the “Glowfog” meant that the engineers at the reactor could begin experiments with animal subjects.
A Squad of Cryptonauts
Nauticus assembled a group of hand-picked researchers to go for a jaunt “down the dark hole.” They became “Cryptonauts”: explorers of the strange and unknown.
Emily Ansel led the initial squad of Cryptonauts, and what they found was horrifying beyond imagination. Only one of them made it back, but Dr. Ansel—“the Alpha Return” as she became known—never really talked much or left the medical bay after the trip.
As Nauticus grew more adept at sending people and objects for controlled durations, those who were able to escape after a brief glimpse reported such a wide variety of unlikely and contradictory stories that it made their superiors wonder if the process itself didn’t invariably have the effect of driving people mad. Some told tales of a world ruled by mold and fungi, or made entirely of unidentifiable bones. Others spoke of hoary statues that froze Cryptonauts in their steps, temples with massive burning pyres, and terrifying creatures from the beyond. It wasn’t merely a world different from our own that they were describing, but a whole range of worlds that seemed to contradict not only each other but themselves. It was a dark, shifting multiverse that seemed to operate on rules so random that—if they even existed—they simply couldn’t be called science.
And so Nauticus widened its net, drawing in a crowd that stood in uneasy alliance with the first wave of the Maw’s residents. Philosophers, fringe scientists, theologians and occultists: sometimes unassuming men and women who went about their business quietly in universities, other times obvious misfits and crackpots, separated already from the rest of society by misanthropy, mental illness, paranoid political theories, or drugs. Perhaps it was the familiarity these people had with states approaching madness, but whatever the reason, they seemed to fair better on the other end of “the hole” than straightforward researchers or professional soldiers.
From the second wave of Cryptonautic exploration,Nauticus saw its first gains in objects and information from the other place, including strange artifacts with amazing properties, and reports of an odd kind of organization underlying the seemingly chaotic realms they had visited.
Otherworldly Artifact C-442 - Codenamed the "Psychic Horns"
This ecology was one which was not “alive” in the sense that earthly things are: rather than a limited mortal existence, the beings there seemed to exist in permanent stasis, an ultimate entropy and absolute cessation incompatible with our own being, and ruled by immensely old creatures with no perception of time other than in its most undifferentiated and eternal sense. The second wave of explorers called these ageless beings the “Goddesses of Death.” For reasons unknown, all accounts of their comprehensible anatomy give them as female.
A Macabre Structure Within the Realms of Death
The Realms of Death are highly dangerous environments for the Cryptonauts, but the monsters they encounter there are right at home in these horrific planes. Despite the hazards, a few brave souls have faced down terrible, temple-dwelling lizard daemons and mind-melting fogs to piece together some knowledge of these unspeakable places and their inhabitants. Expanding this record of discoveries to unravel the dark mysteries of the Goddesses is the goal of every Cryptonautic mission.
The Goddesses are the cryptic forces that rule over the chaotic Realms of Death, wherein they guard Its secrets eternally. They have no sway over the world of the living, but within their own Realms they reign supreme as overlords able to summon monsters, casts spells, and slay the Cryptonauts before they can escape with knowledge of the Realms of Death. Although there are signs that they had human worshipers in ancient times, their story has been forgotten … until now.
Little is understood about these mysterious beings, but surviving fragments of the Lodestone script tell of an ancient battle between the Goddesses. The earliest attestations describe how—for reasons unknown—the time deity Yugura was betrayed by a goddess of sleep and charmed into a magical trance. When Yugura was helpless, she was murdered by the battle goddess Gor’kuk, who cut her body into pieces.
"Gor'Kuk" - Goddess of Murder, Warfare, and Blood
Gor’Kuk is well attested as a deity of savagery, bloodshed, massacres and murder. She glories in combat and is ever seeking to fill her legendary blood chalice, which she drinks to cast powerful spells. Her monsters are ferocious beasts that cause chaos and panic in the Cryptonauts’ ranks.
The name of the sleep charmer is not present in the oldest recensions, but one of the latest surviving records makes reference to “Somnosa,” whose name is probably related to the Latin somnus, meaning sleep. Somnosa presides over witchcraft, nightmares, and dreams, and her influence has trapped some unlucky Cryptonauts in the same hypnotic torpor as Yugura.
"Somnosa" - Goddess of Nightmares, Witchcraft, and Comas
In the same late version that names Somnosa, we find a record of Yugura’s daughter Mycothis, who is described as being born from her mother’s dismembered body. Little is known of this young goddess, perhaps because she still hides from her progenitor’s assassins. Those who have felt her influence report entering a world of decay and entropy. When a Cryptonaut is dragged down by rotten roots or lost in a toxic miasma of fungal spores, they say that Mycothis is near. Studies of the unearthly diseases that affect those who trespass in her realm are particularly incomplete, as the bodies of those overcome by them have a disturbing tendency to go missing.
"Mycothis" - Goddess of Rotting, Decay, and Miasma
When Gor’Kuk had finished her bloody deed, the crypt goddess Sk’zaak entombed defeated Yugura’s strength within a stone, and sealed it up in an inaccessible place. Having completed this function, she quietly returned to the city of ossuaries, mounds, and pyramids where she has her domain. Cryptonauts have confirmed that the monsters one encounters in that place are generally slow moving, allowing for good documentation of their characteristics. The most important of these for would-be tomb robbers to note is their impenetrable armor, which makes them a fearsome threat in close combat. Explorers of Sk’zaak’s realm should be aware that more than one careless researcher has been lost to the sudden attacks of Crypt Hounds, which seem to haunt these eerie necropolises. Those who would pilfer secrets from Sk’zaak must keep their wits about them, because any wall or monolith might suddenly become a portal through which an enemy may emerge.
"Sk'Zaak" - Goddess of Crypts, Burial, and Bone
One interesting variant of the Yugura murder-narrative seems to describe two stones, with the other one containing something called “Xhatra.” This might be some other aspect of Yugura, or perhaps another deity for which we have no additional record. The fragment upon which this putative theonym is attested simply calls it a “Presence” before breaking off. Cryptonauts who claim to have encountered Xhatra report struggles against disgusting Ectoplasmic Oozes, and have an inexplicable tendency to develop a fear of mirrors. The director at the Maw of Thanatos is rumored to have a special interest in bringing one of Xhatra’s Haunted Idols to the land of the living, but this is easier said than done.
"Xhatra" - Goddess of Phantasms, Possession, and Reflections
Yugura might be dead, but the Thanatos Reactor isn’t, and with so many new visitors to the Realms of Death, all sorts of things are beginning to stir...