Southern Sarvonian fishers empty their nets
onto the decks of their boats, they sometimes find among the wriggling fish a
creature so ugly that most can’t bear to look at it without retching. Its
boneless body is like a rotten gherkin; its lumpy, tongue-like appendices are
covered in tiny green pustules; and its mouth, a slimy, semi-transparent tube,
ceaselessly changes its position, always protruding from where you least expect
it. This creature is the Ugling, and it wouldn’t be worth writing about, if it
wasn’t for the sailor’s yarn that is spun around it: Fisherfolk believe that the
Ugling wreaks feverish daydreams that confuse seafarers’ minds. Some say that
the dreams reveal to the dreamer her true wish – and that only the wisest fail
to be surprised at finding out what their true wish is.
You may hear the Ugling referred to as the Fever Slug, after the febrile shaking of limbs that accompanies the dreams. Merfolk also know of the Ugling, and call it "Hss-tii-hhu-hng" – a name composed of the mermish words for “thirst” and “personality”; it may roughly be translated as “That which thirsts for (knowledge of) the heart”.
The Ugling appears to be made of snot, mucus, or something worse. Its body is
soft and squishy and capable of distorting itself into a variety of shapes. Most
often, it looks like a gherkin in an advanced state of decomposition, out of
which some pieces have been carelessly cut with a blunt knife, and then glued on
at other places to form irregular, lumpy outgrowths that dangle about like so
many slimy, muscle-less tongues. These outgrowths are strewn over with hundreds
of tiny green furuncles, which in more than one observer have evoked the notion
that the creature must suffer from some fatal disease. Yet all Uglings look
thus, and what our eyes deem to be signs of physical decay might well be signs
of vigorous health for the Ugling.
An Ugling has no head, and the sole discernible opening of its body – which, for want of a better word, we refer to as the mouth – does not have a fixed position, but moves around between the maze of tongue-like lumps, showing up now on the bottom of the body, now on the top, now on the right side, and now no-where – only to reappear, suddenly, on the left. Not that we claim to be able to tell which is top or bottom, left or right; we simply describe the image of the specimen that we found in a fisherwoman’s net one day and that we now, reluctantly and with the sour slops of disgust in our throat, recall before our mind’s eye for the purpose of bringing to parchment this report.
As to the size of the Ugling, there is little of certainty that we can say. Reports from fisherfolk, who have caught Uglings in their nets, suggest that Uglings may be anything from one nailsbreadth to four palmspans in length; and that the diameter of their bodies is usually about a fifth of their extension. Whether these variations represent different adult sizes, or are evidence of a continuum of growth from infancy to maturity, we are not in a position to judge.
Some sailors profess to have seen Uglings of enormous proportions. One of our informants described how such a giant had passed under his boat, and insisted that the shadowy outline beneath the waves had been “as long as a four-masted barquentine”. Having had occasion to spend many windstill days in the company of seafaring folk condemned to idleness, we advise caution in giving credence to such accounts.
Those who regularly sail the waters east off South Sarvonia’s East coast know
the phenomenon well: one of the crew is found slumped against a waterbarrel, or
idly leaning against the railing. Her eyes are open, but whatever they gaze at
is not of this world. If you look closely, you will find that her irises reflect
murky, watery images that seem to come from the depths of the sea: a dark green
world wafts inside; silver spots of light flash up; finned shadows wriggle past.
You may try and talk to the afflicted person; if she answers at all, she will do so distractedly, even irritably, like a child who is interrupted while listening to its favourite fairy tale. After a while, her limbs will start to shake, as if she was shivering, and she may mumble to herself or even shout out in her delirium. “It is best to leave that one alone,” the sailors will explain: “The Fever Slug’s got her, and there’s nothing you can do until it lets her off.”
The duration of the dreams varies. One sailor told us: “When she’ll wake up? Oh, it might take a few hours, if she’s lucky. Some mates only come free when the ship’s back in port and we carry them on land. There’s a pearl diver from Marduran who got the Ugling fever and kept dreaming for five days and nights on end. I know, because my mate told me. His grandfather’s boatswain has a second cousin, you see, who heard how it happened from his captain’s niece – and her betrothed was on the boat at the time and saw it all with his own eyes!”
As the sailors say: it is one pot of fishtail soup to witness the effects of an Ugling dream on someone else – and quite another to be in the grip of the Ugling yourself. When it begins, you realize that you are in a place where you shouldn’t be. A blink ago you were standing on board a ship, leaning against the railing, maybe looking out at sea trying to spot the fluke of a first-singer. Now you find yourself walking through a forest, sitting at a dining table in a twilight hall, or sweeping out a butterfly rover’s cart. The colours are so bright, the smells so fragrant, the birdsong so chirpy and high that you cannot quite convince yourself that you’re dreaming. You look around, investigating this place, whatever it happens to be, and wonder when, oh when it was that you were here before – for it all seems oddly familiar.
Much later, when the Ugling will have let you go, you may think back to this sensation and remember that, long before you ever knew of Uglings, you had seen this fever-dream place in one of your regular, night-time dreams. For now, however, you don’t have time to reflect on your confusion, as you soon notice that you are not alone.
It is usually a female, and usually she looks as if she was of the tribe that you yourself belong to, though it is not unheard that humans have met a male orc, an animal, or a monster. Yet even on the rare occasions when the creature, if seen by your waking eyes, would repulse or terrify you, it doesn’t do so in the dream.
You can talk to her (or him, or it – even if it be a hollup frog, an arshir or a coa’coa bird). In fact, you want to. She will listen, say little, and smile at you, while you speak. Every Ugling dreamer has this conversation with a dream person or creature; but none ever remembers what they talked about. It is at this point, though, that the similarities between different dreamers’ visions appear to end. The conversation with the dream creature is but a prelude to the real Ugling dream – of which it is said that no two are the same.
Not everyone who has experienced an Ugling dream is willing to talk about it. But it is generally agreed that the dream itself is always a pleasant experience. Like the “prelude dream” described above, the visions that the Ugling confers seem so profoundly and colourfully real that the dreamers remember them for the rest of their lives, with the intensity that is usually reserved for formative experiences like the first kiss, the birth of a child, or a narrow escape from death. Indeed, some victims of the Ugling, when thinking back on their time in its grip, find themselves wondering whether they might not be dreaming right now, while what they remember as the Ugling fever was their real life.
The dreams, or what is remembered of them, often appear to revolve around a central pleasant experience, in which the dreamer performs an act he has never yet dared, or even thought of, in real life. Some say that this action represents a wish that the dreamer has held for a long time, but that has eluded his own consciousness until the Ugling revealed it. Others assert that the Ugling is not so much a discoverer of truth, but a deceitful conjurer of illusions that grafts febrile desires into the minds of its victims, who then mistake these fancies for their own will.
Be that as it may, it is clear that many who have dreamt an Ugling dream are profoundly affected by the experience, and change the courses of their lives, pursuing the happiness that the Ugling dream has allowed them a glimpse of. In the “Myth and Lore” section of this report, we shall recount some famous Ugling dreams, as well as the consequences they have had on the dreamers’ lives. But before we do that, we must inform the reader of a number of other crucial facts about Uglings.
It is very rare that there is more than one Ugling dreamer on a ship. Uglings don’t impart their dreams on more than one person at a time, and they appear to be, for the most part, solitary creatures (a hypothesis supported by the fact that no fisher has ever caught two Uglings in one net).
Whenever an Ugling is caught, you can be sure that one of the crew has already started to dream. It is this observation, confirmed by all fishers that we have consulted, which establishes beyond doubt that the Ugling is indeed the origin of the fever-dreams.
When they spot an Ugling amid their catch, fishers try to rid themselves of it as quickly as possible – partly because they do not like to look at the ugly thing, but mostly because they hope thus to shorten the feverdream of their mate. (For sailors mistrust the Ugling, and regard the reports of pleasant wish-revealing dreams as the foolish notions of those whose minds have been twisted by the Ugling’s evil magic.) Many fishing crews on larger boats in the Southern seas will appoint an “ugling piercer”. The honour of this post is usually bestowed on the ship’s boy, or else the youngest sailor on board. His job is to try and pick out the Ugling from among the thrashing mass of fish, and to pierce it with a long wooden stick, whose end has been sharpened. This stick is called the “Ugling spit”. Once pierced, the ugling is lifted into the air and hurled back into the sea.
It is considered a bad omen if the Ugling slips from the spit and falls on deck. If this happens, the piercer will avert his eyes, because he hopes to avoid the repulsive sight when the Ugling’s slimy body wriggles and closes the wound that the spit has opened. The creatures never bleed; it is as if their bodies are made out of a single substance that is merely reshaped by the point of the spit. After a while, the Ugling piercer will repeat his attempt, again using the spit. Thus he will persist until he has removed the slug from his and his companions’ sight. No sailor would ever voluntarily touch an Ugling. It is a reticence that nobody can fail to feel sympathy for.
We do not know whether the sting of the spit seriously injures the beast. Even Uglings that have been pierced two or three times do not appear to die. Nonetheless, the spit is not without effect: when pierced, the Ugling releases its victim, who awakes from her dream as startled as someone who is suddenly torn from her sleep by a splash of cold seawater.
Most dreamers, however, experience a gentler end: for it is rare that Uglings are caught, and usually their presence is betrayed only when the sailors notice that one of them is caught in one of the tell-tale feverdreams. Fishers believe that Uglings use their never-resting mouths to attach themselves to the bottoms of ships – thus contriving to remain in close proximity to their victims. Whether this is true we do not know. All we can say with confidence is that most fever-dreams last many hours without interruption, and end as suddenly as they have begun.
Territory. Uglings are found in the Adanian Sea, particularly in the waters east of the Santharian provinces of Manthria, Sanguia and Enthronia in Southern Sarvonia. Those who fish in the Straight of Kharamm, or between the Nightfog Cliffs and the Cliffs of Alonnog, are particularly likely to catch one in their nets, or to experience the fever dreams. Yet evidence of Uglings has been reported from as far North as the seas off Carmalad, and from as far South as the Yanthian Gulf.
Habitat/Behaviour. The deep seas are as mysterious to us as the stars. Most of our knowledge of Uglings derives from the specimens caught in fishers’ nets. An Ugling is often first discovered when a fisher notices a slow movement among the frenzied mass of wriggling fish they have caught. Dragged into the air, the slug will writhe in a ponderous sort of way. It will distort its body into various shapes, and pout its repulsive mouth in all directions. Some observers have remarked that in contrast to the frightened, frantic fish, a captured Ugling gives the distinct impression of enjoying the experience. It stretches its body and lets the thrashing fish-tails glide upon its slippery skin, much like a lady reclining in a warm and sweetly scented bath may enjoy the prickle of cold water a servant maid pours down her back.
Whether Uglings actively look for ships, or whether they only chose to invade a seafarer’s mind when they happen to meet one by chance – this question, too, we cannot answer. What we do know is that Uglings swim in the open ocean in mid-water. How else would they get caught in fishers’ nets? Besides, testimonies from merfolk suggest the same. “Hss~tii~hhu~hng~bi~taafoowii~chachiioh,” a mermaid told us: “The Uglings love moving water”, which we take to imply that Uglings let themselves be swept along by currents.
Diet. Sailors believe that Uglings eat nothing, or that their nourishment is the salt of the sea. We asked the mermaid for confirmation or refutation of this idea: but she was not interested in answering our question. Infuriatingly, merfolk care little about the advancement of knowledge!
Mating. Marduranian pearl divers, who moor their boats near the Nightfog Cliffs and disembark onto the islands, have developed a strong conviction regarding the origins of Uglings. After a storm, they say, you can find on the Nightfog Cliffs small rockpools that have been filled with water by the whipped-up sea. In the course of a hot day, these rockpools may gradually lose all their water, until only a salty, slimy residue is left behind. Uglings, our informants believe, are born of this residue. When then the winds pick up again and once more thrust high waves over the dried-out rocks, the tiny Uglings are swept away to sea and thus begin their oceanic lives. As adults, they are rumoured to regularly return to the Nightfog Cliffs and haunt the underwater caves, which are famous among pearl divers for the peculiar creatures dwelling within.
Usages. There is no known practical use for Uglings. Wise men and women disagree whether the Ugling dreams may help a person to deepen the knowledge of her own mind, and mayhap to acquire an insight that may change her life for the better – or whether the dreams are like will’o’wisps of the sea, who lure straight-thinking men and women into the pursuit of wild fancies and treacherous hopes.
Myth/Lore. Although Ugling dreams are often experienced as pleasant by the dreamers themselves, most sailors fear them. It is easy to appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with the idea that his mind might be held in thrall by a slimy dweller of the deep seas. Yet there is a more important reason to be wary of the Ugling: for if the dreams be delightful, and provide a tantalizing vision of happiness, not everyone finds that her life changes for the better when she pursues her dreams. Prevalent folk wisdom is well summarized by the remark of an old sailor, who, when we asked her about Uglings, fixed us with a sharp eye and growled: “Sometimes it’s better not to know yourself.”
A Manthrian saying reflects the popular scepticism about Ugling dreams: “to chase an Ugling” means to strive for something that will fail to satisfy once it is attained. A man who woos a charming young beauty, recognized as hollow-hearted and vain by everyone but himself; a lady of Marduran who wishes she could move to Ciosa, because she believes that the men are more gallant there; and a Ciosan who thinks that the sea is bluer when viewed from Marduran: all these are chasers of Uglings.
Yet the wariness and cynicism that the Ugling evokes are matched by equal doses of curiosity and fascination. (In this respect, Uglings have something in common with illicit sexual relations, with Butterfly Rovers, and indeed with ordinary night-time dreams.) In any case, tales about Ugling dreams are the subject of many a tavern conversation in South-East Sarvonia’s coastal towns and cities. Interestingly, the focus of these tales are not necessarily the dreams themselves, but rather the actions and destinies of the dreamers after the Ugling has released them.
It is such tales that the remainder of our report shall be devoted to. Although we cannot claim to present a comprehensive overview, we are able to offer a colourful selection. In doing so, we are indebted to Hildula Hauntwell, a reputed witch, whose book “The Ugly Thing and the Beautiful Dreams” (Lorehaven, 823 a. S.) is still the single most valuable source for anyone who seeks knowledge about Uglings and the visions they confer.
Hauntwell had apparently developed an interest in animal magic, and was convinced that Ugling dreams do indeed reveal the dreamer’s true wish. She notes the confusion and disturbance that often linger in dreamers’ minds long after the Ugling has released them. This confusion, Hauntwell claims, comes about because most people are ignorant of their true wishes. The fever dreams, she says, cause the dreamers to realize that up to then they did not know who they truly were.
Whether we accept Hauntwell’s theory or not, we certainly have to admit that dreamers themselves often strive to attain, in real life, the happiness they glimpsed during their Ugling-induced visions. A cogent example is the Dream of the Hobbit Gardener, one of the most famous stories documented in Hauntwell’s collection. We shall cite her report in full:
The Dream of the Hobbit Gardener. A hobbit who had gone out to sea near Carmalad came into the Ugling’s thrall, and dreamt of a curlykail so round-headed, juicy-leafed, and sturdy-stalked that it seemed to him the most beautiful thing in the world. Now, this hobbit had hitherto been a breeder of hob-hounds. Yet after his encounter with the Ugling (and therefore with himself), he abandoned his trade, sold his dogs, and devoted himself to gardening. He became a celebrated grower of greens and flowers, and won many prizes for his vegetables, which were widely regarded as the largest and finest in his native Helmonds Shire. Yet at each prize ceremony, when he was called to the podium to hold up his winning pompion or redneep, and to acknowledge the applause and admiration of his fellow hobbits, he would click his tongue just so, and wriggle his toes. His smile would be wistful and bitter, and he would mumble: “Don’t clap, please. You don’t know what beauty is. This rotten piece of fruit – it is nothing. Nothing at all, compared to the curlykail I saw growing right before my eyes on board a ship.”
The case of the Hobbit gardener demonstrates the attraction that the images of Ugling dreams possess for the dreamer – often for the rest of the dreamer’s life. Yet some dreamers are repulsed by the memory of their vision, and choose not to fulfil the wish revealed to them, as Hauntwell illustrates with the following, poignant case:
The Patricide. A young fisher from
Marduran was sent a dream by an Ugling, and found himself taking great
pleasure in killing his father. No-one suspected him of the murder.
The most curious piece in Hauntwell’s collection, however, must surely be the Experience of the Genteel Ciosans.
The Experience of the Genteel Ciosans. Among youthful
daughters and sons of rich Avennorians, it is fashionable to go
Ugling-seeking as a sort of test of courage, and to defy one’s parents,
who invariably advise against it. And wouldn’t it be just exhilirating to
discover one’s innermost wish? Thus it comes that every once in a while,
puzzled fishers find themselves approached by a small party of genteel
young ladies, and bachelors carrying gold-plated walking sticks, who offer
to pay the fishers a few sans for the pleasure of joining them on their
boat during the day’s fishing. An extra coin in the pocket has never hurt
a fisher, and the gentlefolk are helped on board.
indefatigably inquisitive Hildula Hauntwell did not fail to propose a cause for
the gentlefolks' collective dream. She writes: “We believe the most likely
explanation for the genteel Ciosans’
experience is that their true wish was to remain ignorant of their wishes. Think
of their existence: they lacked none of the necessities of life, commanded the
money and the means to afford ample luxuries, and had few worries. We must
assume that it was their innermost desire to feel the gentle warmth of
self-satisfaction, to experience the certainty that they were, indeed, as happy
as they could be, and that none of their whims and cravings remained
unfulfilled. The Uglings, paradoxically and shrewdly, chose to reveal this wish
by not revealing it. Thus the gentlefolk went home none the wiser, but
The Merfolk View. We cannot conclude our report without a few remarks on the merfolk’s view of Uglings. Although their speech is frequently unintelligible, their testimony unreliable, and their lack of concern with systematic inquiry exasperating, mermaids have the privilege of sharing their habitat with the Ugling, and for this reason alone constitute invaluable witnesses. More significantly, however, mermaids do not appear to be affected by the Uglings in the way that land-dwelling humanoids are.
Our mermish informant sat on a flat rock that protruded from shallow coastal water. She called the Ugling “Hss~tii~hhu~hng”, which may roughly be translated as “That which desires knowledge of the heart”. This name is composed of the mermish words “Hss~tii”, which signifies thirst for freshwater (which merfolk do not experience, but know of from their conversations with humans) and “Hhu~hng”, which means personality, or an emotional state.
An Ugling, the mermaid said in between two thrashes of her tail that thoroughly drenched your humble chronicler, can “sing without sound”, and its song “flows around the hhu~hng and back again”. I asked whether merfolk and Uglings can speak with one another, and she answered that singing to a “Hyuuman” (that is, a human) was like swimming against the current, but singing with an Ugling was like blowing bubbles and watching them rise up and burst at the surface of the water.
If we have understood the mermaid correctly, this means that merfolk, rather than being helplessly held in thrall by a fever dream, are able to engage in a dreamlike communication with the Ugling, and enjoy the experience in full possession of their consciousness and will. And did she know why the Ugling sings its soundless song? Was it a way to gather information about the whereabouts of prey, perhaps?
The mermaid replied: “Llo~bi~hss~tii~hhu~hng”: “It is thirsty for the heart”. Then she wriggled and glided back into the water. Instead of a farewell, she sighed: “Affehoo” – “bored” – and disappeared beneath the waves. At first, we thought she meant to say that she had lost interest in our conversation. Yet on reflection, there remains another possibility: maybe the mermaid believed that Uglings communicate with merfolk and invade land-dwelling seafarers’ minds because they have nothing better to do? In other words, are fever dreamers the victims of a slimy sea slug’s boredom? Like the sea itself, the motives of its denizens remain unfathomable.
Researchers. Hildula Hauntwell, a reputed witch, has made the largest single contribution to our knowledge about Uglings. She collected many fever dreams, as well as narrations of their consequences for the dreamers’ lives. Her book “The Ugly Thing and the Beautiful Dreams” resolutely defends her theory that Uglings reveal the dreamers’ innermost wish.
The eminent but eccentric scholar of molluscs, Friddriv Alav, has likewise attempted to study Uglings. His interest was specifically directed at the slug’s peculiar anatomy. Countless times, the intrepid Alav went out to sea in a fisher boat, and countless times he returned without success – until finally Seyella granted him the sight of an Ugling wriggling in the fishing net. Unfortunately, Alav was a better researcher than diplomat. When he tried to grab the slug, the horrified fishers held him back; and when explained that he intended to take the creature home in a bucket of salt water, they declared him to be of unsound mind, and locked him in the cargo room. Thus imprisoned, Alav lost his sole chance of studying Ugling anatomy. It was little consolation for our luckless hero of science that he was at least spared the sight of his priceless specimen being pierced with the Ugling spit and hurled back into the sea.
Despite this mishap, Alav’s Ugling-seeking expeditions were not without reward. He may not have succeeded in catching an Ugling – but one day an Ugling succeeded in catching him. In his fever dream, Alav reputedly enjoyed the fascinating experience of having his blood sucked by a type of blade-toothed, conical shellfish hitherto unknown to his eyes. Inspired by this vision, Alav went on to look for this creature, found it, and thus became the first to systematically describe the parasitic limpet. His “Philosophie of the Molluske Race” famously relates how he repeated the scene of his dream by letting the limpet burrow into his leg, while he studied its behaviour and the effects of its secretions on his body. If Santharia only had more researchers of Alav’s commitment and courage, our knowledge of Uglings would no doubt long ago have moved beyond the sorry state of fragment and conjecture that we have presented in this report.