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The Clockwork Jungle



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The Iskites (LT: Iszkə, plural Iszkəs’) are one of the four civilized races of the Forest.



The Iskite philosopher Akusash once observed that the great success of the Iskites in a hostile world was due to the fact that they alone knew their place in it. While some sentient species believe they must act in harmony with nature, the Iskites are widely known for seeking their own harmony in opposition to their surroundings: one can respect the Forest, even be awed by it, and still consider it an adversary and a rival. It would be a mistake to define all of Iskite society based on the perceptions of outsiders and the musings of eccentric philosophers, but it can be quite informative for the initiate into Iskite culture to view it as the story of a people focused on building their own ordered reality in a place that mercilessly imposes its own wild and riotous order on all things.


Iskites are tall and lithe reptiles. They usually move as bipeds, but run fastest when on all fours. Females are generally larger than males, though the differences between the sexes are not dramatic. An adult female stands about seven feet tall and weighs around 200 pounds; an adult male is perhaps three inches shorter and 10-20 pounds lighter. Despite their thin frames, they are notoriously resilient.

Iskites have scaly skin all over their bodies. The scales on their back and legs are large and stiff, while their scales elsewhere are small and as supple as a mammal’s skin. Their scales are a pastiche of greens, ranging from very dark to very light, with no particular pattern – this is very beneficial to them in the jungle, where they can easily hide from dangerous creatures.

Iskites are renowned for their great durability and resistance to harm. They heal quickly, and given time and nourishment can recover from grievous injuries and even regrow limbs. Their bodies do not scar; not even acid can permanently disfigure them (though it hurts them like any other creature). It is virtually impossible to permanently cripple an Iskite.

Like many creatures of the understory, Iskite vision has adapted for low-light conditions, but their sight (though good) is not their strongest sense. Their hearing is above average, and their sense of smell is extremely keen. This is important not only to movement and detection, but also to basic communication; the Iskite language is vocal, but is also accompanied by a variety of pheromones – undetectable to most creatures – reflecting the Iskite’s health, emotional state, and position in society. An Iskite can discern the identity of another Iskite it has met before with a high degree of accuracy even when deaf and blind.


As mentioned, Iskite language is largely verbal, but pheromones play an important role in conveying subtle shades of meaning. An Iskite finds it difficult to convey humor, irony, sarcasm, pathos, or innuendo without these cues, which has led to the perception among other sentients that they are humorless or overly literal. A non-Iskite can certainly learn Iskite languages and achieve a high degree of fluency, but will never approach the ability of a “native speaker” for this reason. Iskites have compared speaking their language without olfactory cues to speaking in an all-verbal language in a monotone.

During the Age of Prophets (usually called the Time of Luminaries by Iskites), instant magical communication between villages led to the development of a “universal” Iskite language, known as the “Luminous Tongue.” Though the Tongue as such was spoken widely only by the magically-empowered elite of Iskite society, it influenced local Iskite languages to the point where, by the end of the era, most Iskite languages were really dialects of the same speech. Some drift has occurred since then, though there is still a great deal of shared vocabulary, especially words that were common to the old scholarly elite (terms regarding magic, philosophy, mathematics, and time, among others). Iskite leaders made a conscious effort to consolidate their worldwide culture during the Age of Prophets, and the effects of this policy remain even today, as demonstrated by their surprisingly homogenous culture (given the vast physical separation of their settlements) and the similarities in their languages.

Life Cycle

Iskites are oviparous – they lay eggs, which hatch after six months of development. Most Iskite villages raise their young communally in a system called the Allotment. Every village is centered around a Hatchery, where eggs are laid, stored, monitored, and eventually hatched. These hatcheries are built with furnaces, vents, and hollow floors (which are filled with heated air) to keep the eggs warm.

Since the Great Social Reform, "mainstream" Iskites have had no concept of the “family,” and biological heredity has no expression in their society. Instead, an Iskite’s life is rigidly controlled by the village, which sets quotas on how many eggs are to be laid, what the sex ratio should be, and how many eggs will be given to each trade and occupation. The parentage of eggs is not recorded – an ancient saying of the Iskites is “Kinship is repugnant to Order” – and no Iskite knows whom its biological parents are. Hatchlings spend the first six years of their life in communal education, which teaches them the basics of speech and cultural mores. At this point, the profession that they will follow for the rest of their life is chosen, based on the village quotas and supported by observations of a hatchling’s likes, dislikes, character, and season of birth (certain seasons are thought to be auspicious for certain professions). Changing professions is very rare, though not without precedent. Young Iskites are raised by a “Guide,” an older Iskite who shares their own profession, typically of the same sex as the child.

In Iskite society, there is no age of majority, though an Iskite is physically mature at around age 20. Instead, “adulthood” is defined by one’s proficiency in one’s own profession. An Iskite produces a work of fine craftsmanship or great beauty (and/or utility), called a Flowerwork (alluding to the Iskite “blooming” into adulthood), to demonstrate his/her right to be considered an adult. If this is accepted by the other members of the Iskite’s profession, the Iskite becomes an adult member of the community, ceases to have a Guide, and becomes eligible to be a Guide to another young Iskite. Iskites do not actually use terms analogous to “child” and “adult,” but rather “pupil” and “master.”

An Iskite female who reaches adulthood gains the right to accept the duty of mating. When the village rulers call for new eggs, she may volunteer. This is considered to be a great honor, and various methods are used to determine who will bear the village’s children. These can range from athletic competitions to feats of memory, demonstrations of excellence in one’s profession, competitions of fasting and asceticism, and even games of strategy. Most of the time, some combination of intellectual, physical, and artistic challenges is used. Every village has its own customs and practices for this selection. If chosen, a volunteer has the right to mate, which she must exercise within a set period (usually several months). She may choose her mate, though a male must also be willing. Sometimes, a chosen female may leave the village entirely to find a mate in another community if the local males are not to her liking. Once a chosen female mates and bears her eggs, they are surrendered to the community hatchery. Laying eggs does not preclude a female from being chosen for mating again, so some particularly strong and intelligent females can have numerous offspring while less capable females may have few or even none. There is strong competition among females for the privilege, and equally strong competition among males to be chosen by the fortunate females.

Eggs laid outside this communal framework are usually rejected by the village. Such outcasts are shunned by most Iskites, and are usually never accepted as “real” Iskites. Raised outside the ordered Iskite community, they frequently feel little in common with their kin and may resent the Iskite people for their own rejection. So-called “rogue Iskites” can occasionally be found in Gheen dreys, Umbril colonies, or among a Tahr blood.

Iskites do not lose any mental acuity as they age, though they do become increasingly lethargic and slow-moving. When they are no longer capable of performing their craft, they become Grandmasters, who preside over their fellow craftsmen in an advisory role. Having mastered their profession, attended to their communal duties, and (hopefully) fulfilled their mating prerogative, they are happy to loaf and dispense sage wisdom between frequent naps (which become more and more frequent until their eventual death, when they fall asleep for the last time).

The oldest known Iskite was 162 years old at her death. Typical Iskite lifespan is between 100 and 140 years for females; on average, they outlive males by about 10 years. The lethargy begins to set in around 90 years of age, though Iskites have been known to occasionally live for decades past their centennial before retiring and becoming Grandmasters. In general, a peaceful death after more than a century of life is considered “natural.” Given the dangers of disease and violent death in the jungle, however, average life expectancy is significantly less than 100.


Iskite society is strictly regimented. An Iskite’s life is defined by duty to the community, and duties are dictated through a strict code of social mores and relationships. Iskites would not call their structure hierarchical, but rather “harmonious” – all know their place, and each member of society is essential to its harmonious functioning. By their very nature, Iskites seek to understand their place in any group they are in, and serve their superiors as zealously as they command their inferiors. They are very sensitive to the cues of rank, and their culture is based around a bewildering array of gestures, vocal tones, and pheromones that convey actual and perceived status. They reflexively expect outsiders to understand these cues and behave the way they do, and are sometimes put off when they do not – Iskites are considered chauvinistic, arrogant, and pigheaded by those of other races. They are, however, hard workers who judge others based on their merits and abilities. They prize thoughtful, rational action and have a sense of loyalty to their betters and compassion towards their lessers (though this compassion is often a bit patronizing).

Status in Iskite society is generally meritocratic. The two most important selection procedures, the selection of mating individuals and the selection of the village’s elders, both rely on tests and consensus based on an individual’s skill, ability, and talent. As with most meritocracies, it is not perfectly so, and favoritism of one kind or another often rears its head. The Iskites are unique, however, in that they have totally expunged the concepts of family, kinship, and inheritance from their culture, so nepotism and status based on lineage or family are totally nonexistent. As a result, Iskites have difficulty understanding the logic behind such concepts as a hereditary aristocracy, and are contemptuous towards those who claim special status because of their birth. The hereditary monarchies of the Gheen, in particular, combine the two ideas most loathed by Iskites – heredity and nobility – and the Iskites see them as tyrannical and repulsive political throwbacks.

What is not often said is that things have not always been the way they are now. It is written that the Iskites once lived in family units and raised “Blood Lords” (LT: Ezajwə ən tzul, “ezajwuh un tzul,” “great (one) assigned by blood”) over them as semi-divine monarchs. It is uncertain what caused the transition, as it happened such a long time ago; some say it was a rebellion against such rule, others maintain it was a gradual transition towards a more harmonious way of life. The title does live on, though not among the Iskites – the despotic Gheen “World Queen,” Auk Yrta Su'u, rules through royal relatives whose title, tzulyk, is borrowed from the Iskite word for blood.

Villages are usually ruled by elder council, composed of the most revered and accomplished Grandmasters. In times of great crisis, councils may appoint an interim lord, a sort of “temporary dictator,” who is granted total authority for a preset period of time. Iskites are unique in that they were the only sentient race to ever achieve something like a unified world government – during the Time of Luminaries, there was a “Grand Authority,” a council of Grandmasters from nearly every community that used remote communication to guide the entire race. The actual power of this institution, however, was always largely theoretical, and even with magical communication it is doubtful if communities ever had any real loyalty to the Authority.

At any rate, the Authority is consigned to the history books now. It lingers on only in the formal assertions of legitimacy by various elder councils, some of whom still keep weathered scrolls of official recognition given by the Authority in that bygone age.


Iskites favor fairly simple architecture from wood and stone; they are not as austere as the Umbril, but are nowhere near the baroque ostentation of Gheen design. Their villages are carved out of the forest, arranged in rectangular, circular, or even other polygonal shapes. The Hatchery occupies the center of the typical village, surrounded in turn by public buildings and temples, residence blocks, and finally the village’s fields. Iskites do not separate their residence from their work, usually living in large one or two story blockhouses that combine living quarters, dining halls, and workshops. Typically each profession has its own buildings, though some minor professions share amongst each other.

Iskites meticulously deforest their living areas. Because the Forest grows so quickly, this is a job that must be continually performed. During the Time of Luminaries, magic was often used to accomplish this; in the present time, work shifts are utilized. Powerful Iskite villages often keep slaves, and clearing trees and brush is a common way to employ them.

Nearly every Iskite village also has a clock tower, sometimes as a part of the Hatchery, which Iskites use to meticulously plan their activities and give their days structure.

In antiquity, the Iskites were known for the creation of szalkas, monumental structures built to glorify their ruling lords. This practice, however, ended hundreds of years ago.


Iskite villages are organized to resist attack. Depending on the size and prosperity of the village, it may have timber palisades, stone walls, earthen ditches and embankments, and even towers with light artillery pieces atop them. These static defenses are complimented by a warrior “guild.” Fighting is just another profession to the Iskites, like weaving or printing, and every village has its own “barracks” just as other professions have their blockhouses.

Iskites are not especially strong and cannot climb trees with great nimbleness, so they stress armor and range when combat must be joined. Iskite warriors favor heavy arbalests and metal armor of plate and scale. In close combat, halberds are a common sight, as well as any other weapon useful in the specific situation they find themselves in. Iskites like standardization and villages often have uniform codes for armor, clothing, and weapons, which can range from specific “village colors” and symbols to identical sets of military regalia.

Iskite medicine and surgery are not terribly advanced, primarily because Iskites themselves are so durable. Iskites use poisons and disease-contaminated weapons when available, taking advantage of their superior constitutions to protect them from accidents. As Iskites can regrow limbs and rarely succumb to their wounds, they prefer to retreat rather than fight a close battle; they would rather suffer a tactical defeat with few deaths than a hard-fought victory with high losses, as even badly wounded Iskites will eventually be fit for duty again. Though Iskite tactics tend to be straightforward and sometimes rather unimaginative, they will use trickery when the situation allows; they scoff at the idea of “honor” in battle, as to them it is an irrational impediment in the way of the objective (destroying the enemy).

Art and Music

The Iskite sensitivity to subtle social cues makes them very perceptive observers (or perhaps it’s the other way around), and Iskites have a vast and rich artistic culture. They are capable of appreciating the subtle gradations of color in a painting or the sublime mathematical progressions of a piece of music for hours – but only when there’s no work to be done.

Iskite art is not always very imaginative, but it is usually colorful and expertly done. The Iskites value art that reflects order and harmoniousness, and dislike pieces that are chaotic or confusing. Nuance is fine and appreciated; purposeful vagueness is not. Iskites do not view art casually and like to have time to really examine and “experience” a work of art. Painting is the most common kind of Iskite art, and the Iskites eagerly trade with outsiders for paints and pigments that aren’t normally available to them. The Iskites find excessive displays of wealth distasteful but do like to share things they like with others, and will put up valued paintings or other pieces of art where they can be enjoyed by many.

Of all the civilized races, the Iskites have the widest variety of musical instruments. They enjoy and will play almost anything, but are especially fond of strings and percussion. It should not come as any surprise that Iskites prefer their music to be ordered and harmonious. Their desire for harmony, however, should not be interpreted as a desire for simplicity; the Iskites greatly enjoy complex art and music and aren’t afraid to challenge themselves. The Iskites use multiple tonal scales and complex polyphonies, and utilize a system of written musical notation distinct from their alphabet. They usually enjoy music in stillness, but some villages have dances with defined, ordered steps to be performed with musical accompaniment. Some dances are bipedal, some are quadrupedal, and some alternate between the two "stances."

To an Iskite, fine smells are also an art, and they can enjoy tastefully crafted incenses like others enjoy a melodious song. Males and females both use perfumes and like to accent particular rooms, objects, or spaces with scents they deem appropriate. Smells they deem rich and complex are usually thought of as overwhelming by others, for though their sense of smell is very keen, they also have a very high threshold of what they consider to be “too strong.”


Iskites grow most of their food. The chief staple is sallowroot (similar to cassava), which is used rather like potatoes. Other staples include pipevine (ground to make flour), sugar cane, and bask melon (a pulpy, slightly sour multipurpose fruit). This is supplemented by a wide array of fruit, nuts, and herbs. Iskites greatly enjoy complex aromas, and consider spices to be staples, not luxuries. Iskite food is heavily spiced, to the point where other races tend to find it oppressively strong or even inedible. The Iskites themselves are quick to point out that there is a difference between a properly spiced dish and one carelessly enhanced, but that only they can appreciate the difference. Iskites tend to find foreign food bland.

Iskites supplement their diets with wild game, as well as the meat and eggs of a domesticated flightless bird called a Saszih (LT: (s’)aszI, derived from (s’)ass, meaning “feather”). Hunting expeditions are carried out by a village’s warriors when they are not otherwise engaged.

The Iskites consider excessive drinking to be a vice, but as long as alcohol does not obstruct one’s communal duties it is permitted. One of the most well-known Iskite products is “Iskite Rum” (also called “spice rum” or “pepperwine”), a strong beverage distilled from sugar cane and – as one might expect from the Iskites – heavily spiced. It is not the only strong drink made by Iskite villages, but it is the most common and well known.


Laziness is anathema to the Iskites, and they have a culturally inculcated aversion to idleness. They approach their recreation like they do their profession, with dedication and a desire for excellence. Many Iskites learn to master an instrument (or more than one), and play with others during their free time or on days of worship or celebration.

The Iskites do play games of strategy, and such games sometimes form part of their process of mating selection. The origins of many of these games can be traced to the Umbril, though Iskites prefer to play games in serious, focused silence (unlike the Umbril practice of ruthlessly mocking one’s opponent). Games are only considered worthwhile if they demonstrate some skill of cunning or intellect; otherwise, they are just a waste of time – though some still indulge in idle games of chance, especially older Iskites, who tend to have a more flexible view of what is “worthwhile” as they approach the end of their lives. Grandmasters in particular, having retired from their profession, are permitted to do many things that society would frown upon a mere Master (or pupil) doing.

Many Iskites also enjoy tinkering with technology in their free time, even if they aren’t atillators or clockmakers by trade. Iskites have embraced technology and actively seek to promote the efficiency of their village through its use.

The Iskites invented the printing press and they remain its most common users, though the majority of writing is still done by hand. The Iskites enjoy the highest rate of literacy of any race, and may print notices and thought-provoking excerpts from their greatest works of philosophy to circulate among a village’s population. Most villages keep small libraries of poetry, speeches, and philosophic texts for general perusal.

An Iskite may occasionally use drugs, but the Iskite world view is generally that harmony is to be found in the real world, not in transcending the real or achieving a higher state of consciousness. Again, this is something that is more common among Grandmasters than among younger Iskites.


The Iskites approach religion in a practical manner – they expect reciprocity from their gods, and look for omens to ascertain whether their gods are favoring them. If a village feels that its patrons do not bestow their power in exchange for the rites and offerings they are due, they often will switch to other powers or pantheons. The Iskite culture generally leaves the question of “How should I live?” to philosophy rather than religion, which deals with the ritual acquisition of supernatural power for the community. There is no “Iskite Pantheon,” and Iskite villages tend to fall under a wide and diverse array of cults, monster-worship, and even the worship of other races’ deities – after all, if the god makes the harvest good, who cares where it’s from?

The priesthood is a respected Iskite profession, but Iskite priests are “priests of the village” rather than priests of a specific god or power. They act as intermediaries between the divine and the village, as a sort of “sacred negotiating team” that lets the rest of the village know what rites, sacrifices, rituals, feasts, and so on should be conducted to ensure the village’s prosperity and strength. Participation in these rituals is a civic obligation, as failure to do so endangers the livelihood of the village. Those that refuse to take part in the exercise of civil religion are branded as apostates and usually exiled.

The worship of Ishengetz (LT: IshEngetz, “ISH-eng-ayts,” “the one who will know”) was once extremely widespread throughout the Iskite world. As the goddess of time, divination, rulership, foresight, and planning, she was the principal deity of Iskite diviners and a much admired and respected figure among Iskites throughout the known world. The Orange Strife annihilated her following, with the ruling classes being slain or driven insane and the rest of the Iskite people abandoning her worship afterwards. Some maintain that she was a puppet of the Peril all along, or even a face of the Peril itself. Most Iskites do not speak of her any more.


Iskite communities frown on their members striking out on their own. The village is a finely-balanced machine, and the loss of any component may adversely affect everyone.

The elders attempt to keep the population of the village to manageable levels, but a crop blight or disaster can easily threaten the village’s food supply. In such cases, sometimes a group of Iskites volunteers (or, failing that, is selected) to leave the village and find their fortunes elsewhere. This is always a hard decision to make, but those who volunteer to leave are honored as heroes of the community. They are welcome to come back once the situation has stabilized, usually in a few years, but some choose to stay out in the Jungle or visit other lands.

Though the Iskites are naturally inclined towards order, they are not drones and have varying levels of commitment to their society and its rules. Some simply find their communities too stifling, and may decide to leave despite the stigma given to those who abandon their villages. They will likely not be allowed to return.

Finally, some Iskite adventurers are proper “rogue Iskites,” those who were born outside the normal mating structure and the sanction of the elders. They are not welcome in their communities and, if they survive, often find another people to live among, or become wanderers. They may take a rather dim view of Iskite society. Rogue Iskites are not very common, but one tends to remember them.


The Iskites have a rather paradoxical view of others. On the one hand, they view themselves as superior beings with a uniquely enlightened culture; on the other, they are strongly inclined towards practical and level-headed judgment, and a desire to measure others by their worth. They prefer to keep other peoples at arm’s length, fearing that they could become corrupted by the chaos and barbarity of other societies, but deal openly and honestly with those that wish to trade with them.

The Iskites find in the Gheen much that they despise, and treat the race as a whole with scorn even if they see some worth in individual Gheen. The aesthetics, politics, society, and personality of the Gheen offend them on a visceral level. It would be impossible to list all the ways in which the Iskite and Gheen ways of life are antithetical to each other. Though they often engage in trade with the Gheen, they see this as a regrettable necessity, and would prefer to never see them again. Except for the material goods they offer, most Iskites see nothing valuable or worth preserving in Gheen culture, and see the Gheen themselves as little more than shiftless primitives whose “civilization” is a pretentious façade over fundamental barbarism. Often the Iskites will admit only grudgingly that the khauta was a Gheen invention. Iskite-Gheen wars are the most common flavor of inter-species conflicts in the Clockwork Jungle (keeping in mind that wars in general are fairly rare), especially those between the World-Queen and the various Iskite leagues that opposed or continue to oppose her.

The Iskites view the Umbril with some suspicion; they respect their culture and its noted similarities to their own, but think of the Umbril and their civilization as inherently corrupted by the chaotic taint of the Forest in which they dwell. The Iskites find the Umbril to be conniving, greedy, grasping, and deceitful, constantly desirous of whatever they don’t have and retaining few scruples when it comes to getting it. The Iskites have confidence in their ability to restrain these unfortunate aspects when dealing with them, however, and often maintain good trading relations with Umbril colonies. The Fishers (see “Ussik,” below) are especially close with the Umbril colonies of the Wash, and the region has resisted the armies of the World-Queen in large part because of an enduring Umbril-Ussik military alliance called the League of the Waterfall. Only in Netai, home of the more expansionist Evne-Umbril, do the Iskites and Umbril come into regular armed conflict. Rogue Iskites seem to prefer to join Umbril colonies over dreys or bloods.

The Iskites are rather dismissive of the Tahro; they do not find their culture offensive as they do the Gheen, but do not consider them to have a “civilization” as such – to the Iskites, civilization means sedentary settlement and life in opposition to nature, the victory of reason and technology over instinct and environment. The Tahro seek to live in the Forest rather than against it, which leads the Iskites to conclude that they are either weak-willed or simply not that smart (or both). The Iskites are happy to trade with Tahr bloods that roam near their villages, but the two races sometimes come into conflict when the Iskites settle inadvertently upon a blood’s seasonal camp. What the Iskites call “settling” the Tahro call “destroying,” and wars have erupted as a result. The Iskites argue that no land can said to be truly owned if the owner only camps there temporarily, and in any case believe that they make more “use” of the land than the Tahro do, which entitles them to it as a matter of course. Some Iskite villages, finding Tahr slaves to be particularly valuable, raid bloods for captives. Where such conflicts are avoided, the two races usually coexist peaceably and bother each other very little.

As their society even throws out native-born Iskites who were born outside the traditions of the village, it is very rare for an outsider to ever be accepted into Iskite society. Occasionally an exiled Umbril or wandering Tahr will be allowed to settle in a village, but they are expected to provide for themselves and are treated like permanent guests rather than a part of the village. Iskites are not unkind to their guests, but they are always suspicious that outsiders are only interested in leeching off the village’s prosperity.


The Iskites differ slightly in coloration and stature depending on what region they are from, but in general they are a rather homogenous people.

The Ussik (LT: əssIkIszkəs’, “Ussik-iskites,” literally “tail Iskites,” but also called s’wEjə, “S’wejuh,” meaning “fishers”), are a semi-aquatic branch of the Iskite race almost entirely restricted to the Wash. They have significant physical and social differences from the rest of their kin. “Proper” Iskites treat them like primitives, which they greatly resent, and as a result the Fishers tend to get along better with their Umbril neighbors.

Though everyone knows about “rogue Iskites,” there are rumors of bands or even entire villages of Iskite exiles who live in forgotten ruins or isolated mountain ranges, far from their common kinsmen, with societies radically different from the Iskite norm. The Iskites prefer to believe that such rumors are just nonsense or lies spread by outsiders to make them look bad.