In-World, taken from Dominic Aeson's Treatise upon the Peoples of Getae
...Devastating as it was to our nation, the war proved a boon to my own studies. There were witnesses beyond count to interview, corpses and artifacts to study, and- most wonderful of all- even living prisoners to interrogate. Seldom before has any scholar of the foul Deep Spawn- known in their own tongue as the Xivhari- been presented with such a marvelous opportunity.
Few among the people of Getae can claim ignorance of their Black Empire now, but not so long ago the Deep Spawn were more the subject of myth and legend than fact for most inhabitants of the surface. Such is their preference- as its power waxes over the ages, the Empire plots and schemes, whetting its appetite for slaves and plunder with raids and small incursions. But its lust for war and conquest is endless, and its undeserved prosperity fuelled by the stolen wealth of others. Ever and again, despite defeats in battle and the twisted and fratricidal intrigues of its princes, it rallies its legions to renew the assault.
We know little of the history of the Empire, still less of its genesis. Undoubtedly its is a long and complex tale, but records and artifacts recovered on the battlefield and in abandoned fortresses and strongholds are difficult to decipher, and few captives are willing to translate. However, we know much of its manner of government, and considerably more of its people- their physiology, their natures, and their technology. What has been gleaned from these hard studies is as morbidly fascinating as it is horrifying.
The study of the Deep Spawn must begin with their complex physiology. Strictly speaking, a Deep Spawn is a collective, parasitic organism, its consciousness formed by the coagulation of hundreds of non-sapient larvae that resemble nothing so much as extremely thick, dark slimes about a finger’s span across. They are acclimated only to damp and humid climates, but are surprisingly resilient, going into a sort of dry, torpid hibernation for years, decades, or more if left exposed to dry climes. A sentient colony mass is about two feet across, but can expand and contract, traveling as a slime or even as a spore-like sphere, floating on the air.
If left to their own devices, these “colony masses,” as they have come to be known, will continue to absorb others and eventually undergo a radical mutation, growing and hardening into a vaguely serpentine, coiling behemoth best described as a horrific combination of squid and serpent. Mottled exo-skeletal plates and supple, strong muscle extend along a long, ridged, coiling body, ending in a fierce head with an expanding four-pronged beak or maw. Several clusters of ferocious barbed tentacles serve as limbs, each glowing with fell energies, and especially ancient specimens’ fins expand to the size of vast wings. The many eyes of the abhorrent head are portals into a soulless- but dreadfully aware- abyss. Capable of marine, land, and eventually even aerial travel, these monstrosities are the stuff of legend. They possess terrible powers of body and magic, and are able to regenerate even the most dreadful wounds- not only regenerate, but multiply, as a primal Deep Spawn can only reproduce through fission.
Very few of these primeval monstrosities have darkened the skies of the Surface, but the alternative is perhaps even more horrifying. If a colony mass is placed into close contact with a larger creature- usually vertebrates, although certain shelled creatures also qualify- the mass will begin an insidious infiltration of the host. Within a short time- anywhere from a few minutes to several days- the host is, to all extents and purposes, an empty husk.
Using the body of the host as a template, the colony mass develops along similar but warped lines, first absorbing the brain and its memories, then merging with all other tissue to create an unnatural and mutated hybrid creature. The procedure usually takes between one to three days. However, no matter the result, these hybrid creatures are incapable of reproducing anything other than standard Deep Spawn larvae, necessitating the continuation of the implantation process. For the purposes of brevity this summary shall discuss only those Deep Spawn accorded actual citizenship- the humanoid-colony mass-hybrid form.
Such ‘hybrid’ Deep Spawn are strange and unnerving hybrids of the human form they took over with seemingly random and varied marine features. Soft tissue in shades of green, gray, and blue is usually dotted with patches of fishes’ scales or shell. All Deep Spawn possess gills, allowing them to traverse both water and land with ease. They are inevitably either bald or possess tentacles or shell in the place of hair. Body hair never occurs despite their semi-mammalian nature. Varying degrees of more radical traits usually intermingle with or replace human ones, such as additional prehensile tentacles, ink glands, razor-sharp or poisonous spines, unfolding beaks, additional eyes, even randomly placed fanged jaws or bloodsucking maws erupting from their flesh.
Their stolen humanoid forms allow Deep Spawn to perform most of the same tasks as normal humanoids, with many of the same requirements. They must eat, drink, and sleep like men, and are vulnerable to many of the same ailments and injuries. However, their inhuman traits make them dangerous and resourceful creatures, and their parasitic nature allows a colony mass to live considerably longer than a single host body, a single malicious intellect appearing in many guises across the ages.
Deep Spawn technology deserves its own overview mostly because of its unique nature. The Deep Spawn are cunning masons and stoneworkers, but have practically no skill in the arts of the forge. This may be because of how little fuel exists in the Interior. Instead, as disturbing as it sounds to humans, Deep Spawn tools and weapons are actually alive, the product of a cunning variant on the implantation process.
Through the combination of less-developed colony masses or even individual larvae with a variety of vertebrate or shelled animals and plants, then exposure to certain chemicals, harsh environments, and magic, Deep Spawn artisans known as Shapers breed a variety of single-purpose living tools, weapons, beasts of war and burden, and even some forms of living armor, jewelry, and clothing. This procedure is not perfect, and Shapers work constantly to improve their craft with ruthless determination and characteristic Deep Spawn disregard for other creatures. There are even dark rumors that especially unfortunate Deep Spawn who fail the Empire in some fashion are used in this process to create especially nightmarish armaments- even given their wicked nature, one can only pity those consigned to such a fate.
The domain of the Black Empire stretches across much of the Interior side of Valisia and Onidia, especially among the marshy regions, and they have several well-known outpost cities on the Surface itself- the city of Xhaki-tet in the Morass being one of the most infamous. As Deep Spawn are semi-aquatic they prefer wet or marine environments. Their greatest cities are usually built right within the ice of the oceans, and wherever they establish themselves they will attempt to divert water to construct artificial reservoirs and marshland.
The reigning leader of all Deep Spawn is an ancient monstrosity known only as the Wyrm, and is worshipped as a god incarnate by the Deep Spawn at large. Thankfully this creature has never appeared on the surface in its true form, and is rumored to have spent ages at a time in slumber, waking only to devour sacrifices. But the Wyrm’s influence is readily felt- using its powers of fission it splits off pieces of itself to serve as avatars, and the appearance of these dreadful prophets always heralds a time of great strife and destruction.
Under the Wyrm is a reigning parliamentary council of statesmen-priests known as the High Assembly, its members selected from among the Hierophants of the various Deep Spawn Houses for one cycle - essentially the life of a host body. Only members of the Assembly of great prestige and service to the Empire are permitted the glory of Ascendancy- the Deep Spawn term for being allowed to grow along their primal lifespan to full adulthood. Once Ascended they are considered lesser demigods in flesh much like the Wyrm, serving its will without question.
These Houses form the backbone of Deep Spawn regional government, usually managing cities and settlements in concert with their local rivals. No concept of filial affection as humans know it is acknowledged openly, allegiance to a House taking the place of both the nuclear family and clan affiliation. Each House possesses unique characteristic mutations that identify its adherents to others, as well as stated goals and ideologies that set it apart from the others. The smallest Houses are strictly local affairs, usually split off from larger ones by ambitious or talented offspring, but the mightiest ones control huge swathes of land easily rivaling human kingdoms through law, custom, or fear. Internal warfare is common.
A Deep Spawn House is headed by an association of Hierophants, high-blooded Deep Spawn who have been gifted with a lesser fragment of the Wyrm’s tissue and possess great secular and religious power. All members of the House are at least distantly related by blood to one or more of the Hierophants, if not necessarily to each other. (Most members will be spawned without passion for political ends, but newcomers are ‘accepted’ by the token addition of a Hierophant’s larvae to their colony mass.)
The survival of a Hierophant is taken as a House’s prime mandate, and lesser offspring are often consumed by a Hierophant’s colony mass to extend their power, lifespan, and wisdom. When one of these wicked creatures finally dies- usually through treachery or death in battle- it is a momentous event, and a disruption of all social activity. If possible, a new one is appointed from among the most promising and given a graft of the Wyrm’s sacred flesh to guide him or her. Since the Hierophant is considered the embodiment of the House’s contract with the Wyrm, a House without its Hierophants will falter, and, if unable to elect a suitable successor quickly enough, be annihilated by the Ascended for its perceived impurity.
Deep Spawn culture is deeply schizophrenic. On one hand they exhibit an amazing nationalistic fervor, ferocious in their devotion to Empire and House. Young Deep Spawn are trained from birth to regard the welfare of the Empire as the single most important and natural thing in the world, and to see themselves as the tools of the Wyrm’s judgment. This nationalism is coupled with a frightening religious fanaticism, used to justify the Deep Spawns’ exalted place in the universe as the rightful inheritors of Getae. Deep Spawn think nothing of the lives of ‘lesser’ beings such as humans and other sentient creatures, and in fact see some, such as the dragons or the Starborn, as unholy monsters to be purged from the universe with brutal abandon.
The second, contradictory strain of Deep Spawn thought is an anarchic tendency towards aggressive self-interest. Just as the Houses strive against each other for prestige and power, so too do individuals battle for power and prestige. While rationalized as elimination of the weak, treacherous, and unworthy, these savage political struggles can paralyze the Empire’s efforts even in times of crisis. Amazingly, the Deep Spawn rarely take drastic steps against this sort of infighting, seeing it as necessary to produce strong servants of the Wyrm. Confident in their divine mandate, the average Deep Spawn is concerned not with whether or not the Empire itself will succeed- that’s taken for granted- but rather which Houses and individuals will be ascendant when it eventually does.
A consequence of Deep Spawn fanaticism is that their culture, while literate and reasonably educated, is heavily controlled by ideology, prone to propaganda and revisionism. They are not taught to criticize the underlying ideals of their culture, nor even to examine them, but rather to accept them without question. Art and literature exist only to strengthen the state and the Wyrm in the Deep Spawn mind. After millennia of this philosophy, most art serves as propaganda for rival factions, noteworthy individuals, and religious causes.
The world of men trembles when the Xivhari go to war. Disciplined House hoplites clad in living armor march in tight formation, questing for glory, slaves, and plunder. Heavily armed Berserkers seeking to absolve some past dishonor in blood lead the charge. Handlers drive terrible monsters into the thick of the fray, creatures of horn and hide, dark magic and terrible hunger.
All this might be expected of any raiding band, but with a true war-host come still more monstrous aspects of the Xivhari military. War Shapers direct vast living siege engines and supervise the use of their most demented creations, while dark arch-sorcerers pour forth their deadly magic into the enemies' ranks. All such horrors pale, however, to any Ascended that may gift the host with their presence, nightmare leviathans whose presence blackens the skies and whose wrath shatters keeps and towers and men alike.
Slavery and Slaveholding
The foundation of Deep Spawn society is institutionalized slavery. Every Deep Spawn settlement has a significant population of slaves, mostly humanoids of mixed ancestry but also including hapless inhabitants of the Surface captured in battle. The fortunes of Deep Spawn slaves vary. In times of relative leniency they may be valued as skilled labor and possibly even treated like favored pets until eventual implantation, while in times of fanaticism or expansionistic fervor slaves can expect only short, tortured lives before their eventual fate. In fact, some radical Deep Spawn reject the notion of slaves having any purpose beyond implantation, and accuse mainstream Imperial society of heresy for benefiting from impure
At all times, however, the Deep Spawn treat their slaves as livestock- in fact they seem genuinely unable to conceive of their slaves as themselves sapient. Slaves are seen as status symbols and tools, punished harshly, and never granted any rights of their own. Occasionally they are even consumed as food. Even more insidiously, they are selectively bred, much as humans breed dogs or cattle. There is, in fact, a twisted Deep Spawn science to slave breeding, and it is my suspicion that many slave raids are conducted not to acquire new slaves but rather new and interesting bloodlines for breeders. While slave revolts are common, tragically they almost never succeed- rebels usually take up arms not in hope of victory but rather out of determination to at least die free.
…One of the most interesting and mysterious questions dealing with the study of the Deep Spawn is the subject of the legendary Razkh-Al-Sviatch, or, rendered imperfectly in the common tongue of Daines, the Traitors-to-Blood. The name itself appears rarely in Deep Spawn communiqués and records, and much of what scholars know is based on explorers’ and adventurers’ tales rather than fact. These rumors name the Traitors-to-Blood as a rebel movement among the Deep Spawn, rejecting most of their fundamental beliefs- the divinity of the Wyrm, the non-personhood of non-Deep Spawn, and the Empire’s legitimacy.
Even more monstrous to Deep Spawn sensibilities, the Traitors-To-Blood are rumored to enter into a symbiotic relationship with their hosts, forming a joined consciousness rather than usurping the body and mind. This is viewed by Imperial citizens as blackest heresy and defilement of the natural order- roughly akin to bestiality or self-abasement.
There are few confirmed facts about the Traitors-To-Blood, and indeed their existence has been judged by some to be mythical- a straw man invoked by ambitious or paranoid houses to accuse rivals and sniff out troublesome slaves. While Deep Spawn have been observed warring between each other, or, rarely, even assisting human troops, many suspected not alliance in common enmity, but political infighting. Nonetheless, the tantalizing possibility remains that the Razkh-Al-Sviatch exist- perhaps the only movement among the fearsome and inhuman Deep Spawn interested in sharing Getae with others.
Which hero founded this movement? What are their goals? What are their numbers and domains? Is theirs a war of open arms, or shadows and attrition? As of yet the knowledge eludes my studies. For now, one can only speculate.
Much of this article is accurate, and most of the conjectures of the scholar are correct. A few clarifications about the Razkh-Al-Sviatch and human-Deep Spawn relations and kinships.
The Empire has attacked multiple times on a large scale in history, but large-scale wars come with long intervals in between. In the period between, the Deep Spawn fade into myth for many people of the Surface, those who don’t live near them and know better than to assume they aren’t real. Then, eventually, the Empire invades again, people remember again, and the cycle starts all over again.
The Razkh-Al-Sviatch were first formed in the Second Era, by idealistic slaves and Deep Spawn who had come to the conclusion that institutionalized mass-murder was unjust and wrong. In doing so they eventually created a procedure that preserved the life and sentience of the host, who shared the body with the Deep Spawn symbiote for the benefit of both. Otherwise, their technology is similar to Empire technology. While they have repeatedly sought to aid the enemies of the Empire, they too are all-too-often forgotten or not even noticed. Unfortunately at the time of writing, they are not a major power, usually unable to do more than ferment unrest and carry out a war of attrition.
Hybrid Deep Spawns’ anatomy is relatively similar to humans, especially on external viewing. Most of the fundamental differences between the two result from Deep Spawn mutations and the necessary support systems. The greatest differences lie in the respiratory system, adapted to include gills, and the reproductive system.