Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Elemental Evils

Friend of the blog Locheil over at The Nothic's Eye said elsewhere that he always wanted to see a post about the elemental evils. Specifically, he said he wanted to see Goblin Punch post about them. Alas that is not I, but I do have a ringing endorsement:

Are the elemental evils' names trademarked? I can't find anything confirming either way, so I'll come up with my own. The only real loss there is Yan-C-Bin. Anyways here's the post:


What's an element?

Smart, but stupid
Looking back with the benefit of modern science, we can know that Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim died DEAD and WRONG. Fire, earth, air, and water are not the four fundamental elements of matter - in fact there are quite a bit more than four, and they are none of them. Water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen. Fire is a chemical reaction (or plasma, whatever), air and earth are mixtures of various other elements and compounds. None are fundamental to reality. According to modern science.

Modern science has the privilege of existing in a relatively stable, consistent physical world - within the space of all possible worlds. Scientists don't have to worry about magic or gods or demiurgic upheaval changing the very basis of their study. But imagine if reality was vulnerable to the manipulation of higher powers, if it were closer to computer code (programmers: scream) than the old reliability of what's in physics and chemistry textbooks?

Such a universe might've started off with a roster of elements as big as ours (along with electrons and quarks and so on). Then people got to mucking about with its guts. Maybe they even did it to make the world a better place, overall. Then, because the world is complex, and past a certain point complexity is unpredictable, things started going wrong. Optimizations in one place lead to out-of-control spirals in a dozen others. Other people have to fix up the guts with patch jobs, stopgap measures, metaphysical duct tape, just to keep the sun rising in the morning instead of growing a face and devouring every firstborn. One such fix was reducing matter to just the four elements.

Even such simple parts become complex in tandem. Unintended consequences emerge. Things still go wrong, but dumb, simple solutions tend to last a whole lot longer than clever ones.

Stupid, but smart
What's an elemental?

Have you ever seen a person get sucked into industrial machinery? I can't in good conscience recommend checking it out. In only a few seconds someone can go from human being to processed meat. All it takes is a watch getting caught, a loose sleeve, a moment of inattention.

I will ask you to imagine that such machines were all around us. Imagine they've been there so long you hardly notice them anymore. Imagine if some of the people who got caught in them were spat out and immediately got up and set about fixing up the machines.

Imagine that's the only thing maintaining the world as you know it.

The elements are those machines, and elementals are the people that get caught in them. Sometimes it's not people that get caught, but animals, ghosts, demons, and stranger creatures. They're drowned or burned or crushed, their people-stuff is mostly replaced with element-stuff, and they're reprogrammed to keep the same system that destroyed them going on as it's supposed to.

Who are the elemental evils?

There's always bits of a person that can't be digested and repurposed when an elemental is made of them. Those bits lodge deep within the elemental, drive them to eccentric behaviours beyond their programming. Often these are tolerable, useful for motivation even - a water elemental might be allowed to enjoy the sunset one day in seven, so long as it keeps the current flowing in the right direction and prevents a dam from going up in the wrong spot.

When these behaviours run counter to an elemental's duties there's a real problem. Elementals are plugged in deeper to the underlying substance of reality than the divine, who pass with every apocalypse. One rogue in the wrong place at the wrong time could fuck the whole system up for eons. Eons!

So the system's enforcers take the issue of rogue elementals pretty seriously. Ideally they're found out early by their peers, and mashed into motes too dim to rebel - the stuff that maintains background stability, that a wizard might call on to form a fireball. When rogues are able to carve out a territory or niche for themselves, they are called "elemental evils". Few disagree with this moral assessment, as just about everyone is invested in the system that puts sky above and ground below. Yet elemental evils tend to last long beyond what their personal capabilities should allow with the whole universe against them, because so too do individuals seek ways to flaunt the system for their private benefit.

Of the elemental evils four stand above the rest, lords among their kind. Their names, spat in curses and whispered in blasphemies, are:

Tephranassa, Mother of Flames: Once upon a time, when the lines between god and mortal or wilderness and civilization were not so cleanly demarcated, there was an emperor who married a dryad. The center of his capital was built as a grand garden to be a comfortable palace for her. Then conquerors came to their empire, better learned in violence and viciousness. The emperor was slain, his skin nailed to the main gate, and the empress and her garden were burned.

They never stopped burning.

Fire elementals need fuel, but Tephranassa consumes herself. The tree to which she was bound is an entire forest now, snaking beyond the confines of the city which once held it, a contradiction to bio-logic that grows on grudges and suffering faster than her fire can burn it. In spite of this Tephranassa is not a creature of grudges or suffering. If you could survive her hellish surroundings you'd find her pleasant company.

She's set against the universe by love. Her children were still within her when she was transformed, and they transformed with her, yet became much stranger in their burning and their yearning: the Creeping Smarag, the Gasper of Nashzambol, Rust-fire, Fishclog, and Blistersworl are among their number, and ten-thousand more came before and are yet to be born. What she wants most of all is for her beloved children to be given a chance to live in this world, no matter how monstrous they may be, or become.

Some tea, served in the ancient manner to which Tephranassa was accustomed, would go a long way to winning her friendship.

Enoch, Sire of Cities: It's said there's nothing new under the sun - maybe that's true nowadays, but at some point someone had to sit down and invent the wheel ex nihilo, before its many reinventions. Surely that's a testament to the creativity of humanity, and of that one someone in particular. Even so, a wheel seems intuitive as inventions go - see a round thing roll and improve on it from there.

How much greater still then would have been the invention of murder, in contravention of God and Nature: the work of Cain, a genius who towered without the shoulders of past giants to stand on.

While in exile in the Land of Nod Cain put this genius to more constructive use. Lacking shelter, he sat and spoke with a stone. He told it of the new things which waited in potential's womb - wonderful, terrible, unimaginable, and of the glorious role of enabler and witness the stone could play in events to come. The stone listened, and considered, and after a thousand days and nights it moved, and the earth moved with it. Its first act as something more than a stone was to create the first city by Cain's direction.

Since then that stone (which took the name Enoch, and took Cain as its father) has only grown in size and ambitions. Enoch was there when the Tower of Babel was raised, straining to keep its foundations from collapsing under its unholy height. He's there when a dungeon's dug deep enough to brush its fingers against the underworld, smoothing the progress along against the protests of architecture and geology. He is proud of his role as a stepping stone between hubris and the impossible.

The King of Birds: To the owls he is called Our Silence. To the ostriches he is Lion-Stomper. Peacocks know him as Ba'al Viridiamasc. To each kind of bird he came in turn, usurped their rulers and stole their crowns, in order to unite them under one king, one language, one nation. Few remain who resist him, perhaps now only the ravens (who still mourn their missing master) and pigeons (who love humanity unrequited).

The King is a chauvinist. He believes that the triple airs of the sub-lunary realm are the birthright of birds. Wind-catching sails are poaching their property. There's a place for humans and other animals, but it is well below. His power is checked by his wars with the winds and the storms (who are not all, or even mostly air elementals). Far from his throne on the seven-times-seventh peak of the God of Mountains the King's agents must act sweetly, diplomatically, sneakily, sewing discord, in preparation for the conquest that he's promised.

He appears in a feathered cloak and beaked mask. Was he a bird before he was an elemental? Who can say. His knights are the aarakocra, pirate-elementals uplifted by his hand. Those who covet his secret way of making them are the best poised to bring about the King's overthrow.

Izunanib, Mouth of the Abyss: If asked, Izunanib would deny that she is an elemental evil. Rather, she is the most loyal of all elementals, because she is following their system to its natural conclusion.

As the pressures of the deep earth can transmute coal into diamonds, so too do the pressures of the deepest depths transmute water into something more. It becomes a lens, or a catalyst, which blurs the divisions in space and time, mind and matter.

Elementals are tasked with maintenance and repairs. They are fighting a losing battle against entropy, though the loss is measured on the scale of Armageddons and geneses. In the deep waters Izunanib sees a victory snatched from entropy's jaws, flipping the game-board to reveal a game with more favourable rules set up underneath.

Izunanib has made herself the mouth of these deep waters, to speak for them and to devour for them. She swims through dreams and the collective unconscious, her song luring in sensitive, poetic minds. She dances in the tails of hurtling ice-comets, snatching leviathans from the void. She lurks within the jelly of your eyes.


  1. I am normally opposed to the four elements as a matter of principle, but these are very good. They're interesting characters that are also suggestive of a dungeon or micro-setting, they can fit into probably most settings, they're evocative both in terms of the text itself and in what it all suggests about the setting, and it subverts expectations on multiple levels.

  2. I am with maxcan7 above, these are very much better than many elemental ideas I saw.

  3. Very happy to see you getting discord rep from AK. Serious powertools to get that text formatting on discord, must have nitro?

    1. I made this comment about ten minutes ago and already it looks weird. Unrelated, my keyboard just moved by itself.