If, whilst swimming in the balmy waters of the Scattersand Shoals, you should come across what appears to be a complex pattern of pieces of seashell, fish scales and assorted flotsam and jetsam, suspended motionless in the water as if caught in the web of an invisible spider, you would do well to keep your distance. This is simply the most visible aspect of a cradlejelly, a distant relative of the R’unorian gaspan, with considerably more sting in its tentacles.
Almost invisible in
clear water, the Cradlejelly has a transparent body, veined and touched with
straw-yellow and orange. The flesh is very watery
and rather slimy to the touch, like that of most jellyfish. If examined out of
the water, the animal can be observed to have an extraordinary body shape - most
of the body forms a large round “bell”, a little like the cap of a frent
mushroom, which seems to be strongly muscled and veined all over in dark orange,
which would appear to be the colour of the creature’s blood. This cap pulses
when the animal is in the water, providing its only means of locomotion.
Underneath the cap all the major organs are kept, with a ring of tiny bead-like
eyes looking down and around the animal in a wide circle. It is a fairly simple
creature, with no visible brain, being composed mostly of a gut which attaches
directly to the tentacles, which make up the vast majority of the animal’s
weight and size. The bell is rarely more than half a ped across, but the
tentacles, or at least the longer ones, can stretch for tens of
peds. There are two kinds -
those connected directly to the gut, which are short, strong, and highly
prehensile, and those which are attached to the inner edge of the bell, which
are very long, thin as thread, and covered with sticky mucous and stinging
cells. Both in the water and out, these
tentacles are almost impossible to see in their own right. The other kind, which
seem to function mainly as feeding tentacles, are hollow inside, with a muscle
at the tip which can close over as if pulled by a drawstring, thus trapping
water or food inside to be digested. There are up to ten of these, arranged in a
circle directly under the bell, and they are rarely any longer than two
palmspans. The ends of the
tentacles are spotted with yellow, which seems to glow faintly in the dark, as
does the orange veining on their bells, making them far easier to find at night.
A Cradlejelly seen in the wild, however, is unlikely to be recognised by any of these features, being so nearly invisible. Instead, what gives them away is usually a collection of seemingly random objects floating in a complex web in the middle of the water. On very close inspection it can be discerned that they are not floating of their own accord, but held tangled in the threadlike tentacles of the Cradlejelly, which form slowly shifting patterns with the objects they have accumulated.
The most notable ability of the Cradlejelly is its strange affinity for
collecting seemingly random objects, either floating in the
water, or found on the seabed when the jelly
happens to pass through shallower waters, and
combine them into the strange “webs” which give away their presence. Somehow,
without the apparent aid of a brain, they are able to combine objects into
complex patterns which attract the attention of the small fish which are their
prey. This characteristic is where the Cradlejelly gets its name, as the weaving
together of their tentacles is reminiscent of a game of catchcradle. Over the
years they can build up extraordinary collections. One jelly which washed up on
the shore near Strata had a collection of
over five hundred different items, including a gold earring, part of the
figurehead from a sunken ship, the skull of a selkie, and a surprisingly well
preserved item of women’s underwear. The age of such a creature, given that it
must have drifted almost the length of a continent to acquire such items, is
staggering. Strangely, they seem quite selective of their lures, often catching
items in their tentacles, passing them around for a while, and then discarding
them, though exactly what they might be checking for is a mystery.
There is a more sinister ability to go with this collection of trinkets, though. The long threadlike tentacles of the Cradlejelly are coated all over with sticky mucous, which traps any fish that stray too close, and a unique poison which acts on contact with skin, causing the victim to spasm and convulse involuntarily. This not only alerts the jelly to the presence of prey, but incapacitates the prey whilst the tentacles are slowly retracted until the feeding tentacles can reach out and claim their meal.
Territory. Cradlejellies are drifters in most of the oceans of Caelereth, rarely seen near shore, and if they are, it is usually as dead specimens washed up on beaches, where their stinging tentacles are a particular hazard to barefoot beachcombers. They have been recorded in every ocean, seemingly undeterred by freezing or balmy seas, and having in any case little control over where they go, as the propulsion offered by their pulsing bell caps is barely strong enough to overcome ocean currents. They do seem more common in the warmer oceans around Nybelmar and southern Sarvonia, however, and these are the areas in which they have been best observed.
That said, there are several variations which are found in more constricted areas. In Eight Winds Bay there are Cradlejellies, but they are noticeably smaller and more compact than their ocean going cousins, with larger, stronger bells to allow them to escape the stormy waters of the area. Among the shallow seas of the Scattersand Shoals, the Cradlejellies are far more buoyant, with visible bubbles of air under their bells which cause them to float right at the surface of the water. They anchor themselves by tangling some of their tentacles among outcrops of coral or seaweed, and lead a stationary life instead of drifting.
Habitat/Behaviour. As mentioned above, Cradlejellies are apparently brainless creatures with a propensity for the open ocean. They spend the vast majority of their lives drifting, doing little but eating and adding to the collection of lures which allows them to go on eating. With the exception of the Eight Winds Bay and Scattersand Shoals varieties, they seem to have little control over where they drift, and little way of sensing where they are going. Their eyes are tiny and probably barely useful for anything other than telling if something large is approaching, whereupon they may try to steer themselves away, though rarely to much use. All this points to a vegetable lack of intelligence, and yet the discernment and apparent sense of aesthetics which seems to go into the construction of their lure nets seems indicative of a far greater intelligence. The objects tend to be arranged in patterns so that they are equidistant from each other, and those of similar shape arranged to create very pleasing effects. Some create scintillating, starlike patterns from shards of gnacker shell, pointed leaves and rusted old nails. Some make blossoming moon-shaped orbs of round pebbles, pearls and old coins. They will often seem to consider an object for hours before deciding to reject or accept it, and carefully looping it in place amid the existing web, without disturbing the position of the others takes considerable finesse and judgement. The reason behind this remains an utter mystery to scholars, though myth and folklore has put forward some explanations, which I will detail later.
Diet. Cradlejellies are carnivores of wide-ranging tastes. They will try to eat anything they can catch, and will catch anything that happens to brush against their tentacles and succumb to their venom. The gentle pulsing of their bell causes the collection of “lures” to dance and shift rhythmically, often glinting in the light, if the jelly has had the good fortune to catch something reflective. This, combined with the shelter any such objects provide in the vast exposure of the ocean, attracts small fish, which soon brush against the tentacles when they try to pass between objects. The mucous sticks them to the tentacles while the poison gets to work, causing them to shiver and twitch all over. This sends tremors up the tentacles to the sensitive bell of the Cradlejelly, and it begins to wind them back in, coiling them like the tendrils of a sweet bean until the still-quivering prey is within reach. Then the feeding tentacles start feeling around the web (the creature seems to be entirely immune to its own venom) until one touches upon the convulsing prey, and opens its siphon-like mouth to consume it. Often half-digested prey can be clearly seen inside the feeding tentacles of Cradlejellies.
Occasionally, a Cradlejelly will accidentally catch something too large to eat. Usually the greater force of such an animal’s convulsive movements will tear the tentacles, freeing it with some injury to the jelly, but nothing it cannot regrow. If, however, it succeeds in reeling a very large fish, pinnip or similarly oversized creature up to its bell, then either the damage caused by its thrashing amidst the cradlejelly’s vital organs, or the futile attempt to digest something that cannot fit into any of its feeding tentacles will almost invariably kill the jelly. This is of course small consolation to the trapped animal, which may well die if the convulsions interfere with its breathing.
Mating. Breeding is a rather opportunistic affair with Cradlejellies, happening whenever two find themselves within sight of each other. It seems their eyes can make out the faint glow of their caps and tentacles in the night, and on seeing this they will approach each other as best they can. Taking care to keep their webs from entangling, they will get to within touching distance with their shorter, feeding tentacles. There seems to be no distinction between the sexes among Cradlejellies, each possessing both elements of procreation, and so a simple exchange takes place, with each jelly reaching under its cap with a feeding tentacle, and extracting a blob of sperm from some transparent secreter of such. They stick the blob under their partners’ bell, and then drift away. A few days later it seems that a foam of eggs will grow under the cap, until they are big enough to release, where they are set to drift on the ocean currents. The eggs are smaller than khmeen seeds and pale orange in colour. Exactly what sort of larval or fry form they might hatch into is unknown, as attempts to catch and raise a Cradlejelly from an egg have been unsuccessful.
Usages. As with most jellyfish, there are hardly any profitable uses for Cradlejellies. In an emergency they can be eaten, but have to be washed and dried else they contain so much salt water they will make the eater ill, and of course great care must be taken to remove all traces of the stinging tentacles. Accidentally swallowing the venom causes debilitating stomach cramps and vomiting, or worse still, if the inside of the throat was stung, the windpipe can go into spasms, making it impossible to breathe properly.
The anchored variety that lives in the shallows of the Scattersand Shoals has proved a useful landmark for small boats in the area. Fishermen navigate by the different web patterns, and in some cases, even leave messages for each other in little bottles. Dropped into the water so that they are sure to drift into the Cradlejelly’s reach, they are almost always incorporated into the web, whereupon the next fisherman to pass by can remove the bottle with the aid of a boathook, carefully wipe it clean of any stinging cells, and read the message inside, which may contain useful information on fish movements, warnings of pirates sighted nearby, or other key information.
There are several instances of romantic souls adrift on the oceans and fearing they would not return to their loved ones on land dropping messages to Cradlejellies, but sadly the unpredictable routes they take means such a message would be astronomically unlikely to ever find its intended destination.
The venom of Cradlejellies remains potent long after the animal is dead, meaning it is easily collected from specimens washed on the shore. In some communities, most notably Stratanian coastal people, a paste of Cradlejelly venom is used to relieve stiffness, withering, and paralysis of muscles, the principle being that the tremors caused “wake the muscle back up.” The truth of this is doubtful, and it certainly seems unlikely it can do anything for muscles which are entirely paralysed, whatever some healers may claim. There is also the danger of applying the paste too close to the lungs or throat, which can cause suffocation even out of the water, and so this is a remedy that does not seem likely to ever be widespread.
Myth/Lore. The Cradlejelly is well known to fishermen and sailors as a nuisance, sometimes a dangerous hazard to anybody who happens to blunder into the tentacles. The poison acts quickly on whatever muscles it comes into contact with, and if these include the chest, throat, or a large enough portion of the limbs to prevent the swimmer resurfacing, then the convulsive reaction can cause drowning in moments. To fishermen who find them tangled in their nets they are a painful nuisance, as the twitching they cause in the hands causes cramps, and in some cases persists for several hours as a faint tremor. The fact that they are often found to be dragging debris from foundered ships in their tentacles adds to the fear they inspire, with a common maritime belief being that they are drowned sailors’ prayers, uttered as they sunk below the waves and anchored from ever quite returning to the air by the weight of debris that catches in their tentacles. The shivering effect of their venom is said to be a memory of the desperate fear felt by drowning seafarers.
The merfolk seem to regard cradlejellies with appropriate caution and respect, calling them "shiihuurmhaawhoo", which seems roughly to translate as “don’t go that way” or “swim away”.
There is a myth among some of the more seafaring Ice tribes in Northern Sarvonia, which tells how the cradlejelly is the spirit of a boy whose father went across the sea to fight in a great war. Eager to follow his father into battle, the boy started work on a boat to take him across the sea. Unfortunately, being young, he was impatient and careless, and before he got out of sight of the shore his boat foundered, and started to break apart. The boy swam back ashore, dejected and downcast, and tried again.
Months went by, and the war raged on over the seas, and the boy kept building his boats, and every time he tried and failed he learned something, and grew stronger and more skilled. Before long people began to ask for his help in repairing their own boats, and building new ones, and soon he forgot his task as he built sleek, strong fishing boats and became well known as a master boatbuilder in those parts.
Then one day, as he was starting the framework for yet another fishing dinghy, he looked up and saw sails on the horizon – the soldiers were returning at last. The boy’s father was not among them. Devastated, the boy threw aside his tools and stormed away, to where he had sunk his first boat, and braved the freezing swim back to shore. He wept, heavy with guilt at forgetting his quest to go and fight with his father, and wished there was some way to get him back.
Aleshnir heard his wailing and wishing, and rose out of the sea like a white island to speak to the boy. “Boy,” she said, “Stop your wailing, it achieves nothing. I can help you to build a boat which will carry you to Necteref’s house, where you can find your father and bring him back among the living. Would this please you?”
The boy nodded, wiping his eyes. “Yes! Please, tell me how to build such a ship!”
Aleshnir reared her head out of the water and regarded the boy with his great black eyes. “It can never be an easy thing, to sail to Necteref’s house. The only boat that can reach there is one that has already been sunk. Collect every piece of the boat you built those years ago, only and exactly the pieces of that boat, and put them together again, and you will have the ship to take your father home again.”
The boy was daunted; it was years since he sunk that first boat, and the pieces must have been scattered across every ocean by then, if not rotted to nothing at all. He hesitated, and Aleshnir gaped her great mouth and showed her hundreds of teeth, one for every sea creature you will hunt in your lifetime, and she said “Will you do this, or will you give up and leave your father to live forever in the house of Necteref?” Her breath was the weight and coldness of the ocean and it thundered on the boy’s ears like breaking waves. He shook his head, and said “No, I will fetch him, but I cannot travel underwater to search for the pieces.”
Aleshnir nodded, and before he could rest, lunged out of the water and caught the boy in her mouth, and pulled him down into the sea. Her spit turned the boy’s flesh to water and made him into an underwater spirit, changeless and ageless, so that he could search forever for the pieces of his long-lost ship. He is searching still.
 Aleshnir: an ice tribe goddess of the sea and all that lives in it, usually taking the form of a great white whale. [back]
 Necteref: ice tribe god of death. [back]