Middenground System

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> Foreword: Hello, dear reader!

My name is Sir Byron Shields, a renowned anthropologist and researcher hailing from the kingdom of Bodia. It is a pleasure to see you have taken interest in some of my work. Rest assured, you should find the contents ahead quite to your liking…

It has come to my attention that in recent years, the Humanoid races of the Middenground have had some… strenuous relationships with one another… specifically in regards to the ties between Humans, us who hail from Baseline Reality, and the Homunculi, those races and peoples born and raised in the Middenground. Now mind you, complications in the dealings between Human and Homunculus have always had some hiccups every now and then, but nowadays there simply seems to be a level of forgetfulness or ignorance in regards to those that share the Half-Tamed Wilds with us Homo Sapiens. I've found that the first step towards encouraging cooperation is often ensuring understanding, and no method brings this about better than information.

Which brings us to the purpose of this publication. With these novels I hope to give people a needed glimpse into the lives of the Homunculi races, offer evidence as to the lives they lead in order to let the fearful or untrusting know that they are just like you or me, and deserve the compassion we would afford each other. Each entry will explore the inner workings of one of the several races of Homunculi that live in the Half-Tamed Wilds, with their biology, culture, and societies being laid bare and explained within the confines of this text. I bid you welcome, dear reader, to the first issue of…


Volume 1: the Penumbras

> Anatomy, Biology, and Appearance


Sketch of my associate Moranoch, author of A Traveler's Guide to the Half-Tamed Wilds and a perfect example of what makes a Penumbra (in my opinion, that is).

It is quite likely that when one thinks of what makes a Penumbra they only take into account the same old surface-level information: A race of humanoid standing over 8 feet in height, with charcoal-black skin, pale white eyes, near featureless faces, and of course, a menacing set of horns. While this rather basic overview is essentially correct there's more potential variety in their appearances; as well as plenty of information about the inner workings of a Penumbra that I feel are best adressed here.


Ask any Penumbra for their full name with all honorifics, and they'll likely state the following: "I am (Penumbra name here) of the (kingdom/tribe name here), and I reside in (settlement name here), where I am employed as (occupation here). It has been (age here) since I left the Mortis Machina."

The Mortis Machina… sounds mysterious, doesn't it? But what is it exactly, and why does every Penumbra claim to have once been there?

Well, it may interest you to know that the Mortis Machina is in fact the birthplace for every known Penumbra to have ever existed. In their folklore, the Mortis Machina takes the form of a incalculably massive machine, churning and calculating endlessly on a mysterious island off the coast from Kavragost Reach. This daunting mechanical structure is said to have been in operation since the moment the Middenground came into being. The idea alone sounds impossibly intriguing, but it becomes even more curious when one learns of its many supposed functions and purposes: one of which being its job as an incubator.


A visual diagram I'd taken the liberty of putting together, for anyone confused by the process.

While Penumbra reproduction works similarly to that of Humans, the matter of pregnancy is where things start to differ. The child Penumbra will remain embryonic indefinitely until the mother is able to make the journey back to the Mortis Machina, where by unknown means, the embryo is deposited into the machine and left to grow and fully mature over the course of a year and a day. Once the incubation period is complete, the child Penumbra emerges from the Mortis Machina fully physically mature, and spends roughly the next two years developing far enough mentally in order to leave the machine's home of Architect's Isle, and make the perilous journey to find their parents.

Unsuprisingly, not many Penumbras are able to complete the task of finding the rest of their family, at least not within the first few years of looking. It's uncommon in most Penumbra societies to find united and blood-related families, even less so to find large households who can trace their lineage back several generations. More commonly, Penumbras find themselves being orphans, leading to most of the species seeing no point in adopting a last name unless they happen to later have a kid that successfully completes the trip back from the Mortis Machina.

Now that answers one part of the mystery for us, at least as much as we need to be aware of, but what of their age? Penumbras almost universally pride themselves on how long it's been since they left the Mortis Machina to brave the perilous Middenground, but just how long can they last out in the Half-Tamed Wilds?

Life and Death

There is one single word that ultimately determines how long a Penumbra lives for, a word that strikes fear in the hearts of every single member of the species, and is commonly seen as a death threat just to speak of in their presence.


For those who've never seen the substance yourself, Blackfire is an odd beast to tame. In typical everyday use, the material starts off as a fine powder with a muted blue-green color, and is found in more humid and overgrown climates like the Mire of False Men, where it can be collected from bodies of water, much like harvesting salt. When this powder comes into contact with just a speck of ash it will ignite, giving off a perfect black flame that burns cold and gives off a blue-green light despite its coloration. Any ash that ignited the blackfire will turn into a solid charcoal-like substance in a matter of moments, and be used by the fire as a fuel source.

Bear in mind, Penumbras have been historically feared by Humans thanks in part to their legendary resistance to any and all forms of physical harm or damage. Penumbras can still feel pain, still starve, still get injured, and they can even be dealt blows that would normally kill a Human, but rather than die, they instead fall into a coma until they regenerate and return to health. You see, Penumbras are capable of healing wounds and recovering from pain or sickness in a matter of minutes, their anatomy able to quickly regenerate anything damaged or lost. This means some Penumbras could be destroyed so thouroughly that only a severed foot or a single finger is left of them, and they'd simply regrow the rest of their body within a couple short hours before climbing to their feet and getting back to business.

Blackfire, however, stops that.

When a Penumbra is exposed to light from Blackfire the pigmentation of their skin and hair quickly changes to resemble that of a human, serving as a sign that they've lost their regenerative ability. Once their damage resistance is gone there's no getting it back; which means all it takes from that point on is a single, deadly enough blow to kill them.

Until this happens, however, there's nothing stopping a Penumbra from living for hundreds… maybe even thousands of years. Given that members of the species don't physically age past their stay in the Mortis Machina they're essentially immortal until the day they happen to run into someone carrying a Blackfire torch. Granted, they still need to eat and drink on a regular basis to keep themselves functioning at optimal performance.

Eating and Drinking


Depicts an approximation of how a Penumbra's mouth works, showing how one would need to carve into its own face to open its mouth.

One has to wonder from time to time how a Penumbra stays functioning, as they don't appear to have noses to breathe through or mouths to eat with. Those who've spent enough time around a Penumbra know better, that it would seem Penumbras do in fact have mouths; perhaps being the most puzzling parts of their anatomy.

Covering their mouths is a layer of protective skin believed to serve a purpose in social interaction: dampening their voices to be more pleasing to the ears and making their physical features more simplistic and easy on the eyes. As Penumbras still need to eat, much like us Humans do, they're forced to tear this protective layer open to access the oral cavity. Due to their regenerative properties they often regrow the layer in as little as half an hour's time.

It's believed that tearing this layer open is a way to communicate aggression or intimidation. When the skin layer is torn open, their voices are no longer dampened, making their speech more gnarled, almost sounding like wretched howls or shrieks unlike anything heard in baseline reality. Not to mention the jagged and gruesome appearance of these improvised mouths is quite the grisly sight to say the least.

As for what Penumbras can eat, it seems to still perplex even myself. What I do know is that much of Penumbra cuisine consists of this odd blue plant known as Glapreseed: a grain-like material that grows in dark environments and can be used to make all manner of foods for Humans and Homunculi alike. Due to how easy it is to grow the crop and the suprisingly ample nutritional value it has for Humans, it has often been referred to as "the wheat of the Middenground".

However, there are some things Penumbras simply cannot eat. Other grains or nuts that can be found in both the Middenground and baseline reality have proven to be poisonous to these beings, such as Baseline wheat, almonds, or barley. Which means that if a Penumbra were to unknowingly consume say, a peanut butter sandwich or a glass of Human-brewed beer, they would enter a catatonic state in a matter of minutes and remain unconsious until an antidote was administered.



Some common variations in how a Penumbra's horns may grow. Some may be even wilder in appearance than these.

This may suprise you to know, but not all Penumbras actually have horns. The vast majority of the species sports these charismatic growths in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but a very small minority of the population is simply incapable of growing them. These Penumbras are often quickly spotted in a crowd given that most of them take advantage of their ability to wear hats as a result of their, well, lack of what quite often defines their people.

Those who do have horns often sport them in all manner of shapes and sizes. There is incredible variety when it comes to a Penumbra's horns, as they are one of the only parts of the individual that continuously grow much like fingernails on us humans. One Penumbra may have a pair of horns resembling the antlers of a deer or moose, while another's resemble that of a ram, or a third may have horns that almost resemble tree limbs in how they branch out. Some Penumbras' horns grow close enough together that one can decorate them by bounding them together with cloth. Other Penumbras even grow multiple sets of horns, forming a cacophany of spike-like growths atop their heads.

Like any part of the body that refuses to stop growing over one's lifetime, horns are often trimmed, groomed, or outright filed down to stumps by those who would rather decorate their heads with an article of clothing. Horns have a tendency to often get in the way of wearing headgear. Some Penumbras take another approach when it comes to keeping their horns in check, and prefer to sharpen them to a deadly point to use them for their more evolutionary purpose as a natural weapon. At the end of the day, most prefer to simply groom them every one in a while for appearance purposes.

> Language, Culture, and Society

Newcomers from Baseline Reality may not be aware just yet, but the Penumbra population is vast. Out of all the races of Homunculi Penumbras are pretty easily the most common, making up over 46% of all Homunculi in the Middenground. Given that there's only 6 species of humanoids formally recognized as Homunculi at the moment, this means that Penumbras nearly outnumber all 5 other races combined. A large and spread-out population like this can lead to some heavy cultural detail and variation, so let's go ahead and take a look at that next.



A few examples of the popular styles of clothing often found in Penumbra society. Note the Protectorates of origin, from left to right: Fehrgit Kohimoor, Old Kavragost, Alost, and Garaxorn.

Those with a keen eye may notice a striking similarity between much of Penumbra clothing and some articles of clothing found during the 17-19th centuries back in Baseline. It's quite likely that Humans are actually responsible for this. Many older Penumbras have cited that this popular clothing style is a more modern occurrence, having been influenced by Human wanderers who arrived in the Half-Tamed Wilds wearing similar outfits.

Most Penumbra outfits have muted color schemes to them, fitting the more black-and-white natural coloration of the wearer. While any colors in these outfits are often faded and have gray undercurrents they tend to dabble more in colder or unassuming colors; such as blue, purple, brown, and green. These colors are often used on less outstanding parts of the outfit, like undershirts, accent fabrics, or decorative lining. The more gray or black elements of the outfit often take root in the prominent layers of garments; which take the form of high-collared vests, long trenchcoats, or flowing hooded cloaks.

Depending on what Penumbra civilization you're dealing with there may be even further variation. Wilder societies are fond of incorporating camoflauge into their day-to-day attire, like keeping their outfits purposefully unkempt or dirty to stand out less, incorporating elements of nature like tree branches tied to the back, or sometimes even fashioning clothes to resemble the environment - such as cloaks that look as if they're made of leaves. To contrast, kingdom societies often have any soldiers or otherwise members of a defense or military wear an outfit comprised of a vibrant color scheme, usually focusing on 1-3 colors that make up the kingdom's coat of arms.

Potentates and Their Citizens


Depicts the Crimson Potentate of Alost entering Castle Brenna's throne room, while the royal audience looks on. Following behind the Potentate is his chief advisor, the mysterious Bronze Mask of Crey.

Ever asked a Penumbra about their home kingdom? Chances are the first thing they'll tell you about is who the currently ruling "Potentate" is there. A Potentate is the title almost all Penumbra societies use for their ruler, essentially what they call the reigning monarch. Often the Potentate is referred to by an honorific title instead of their real name, such as the current Crimson Potentate of the Kingdom of Alost, or the nebulous Potentate of Rot: an almost mythological figure who supposedly rules the Sephredell Protectorate. It's also worth noting that these Potentates don't tend to be Penumbras themselves, often members of other Homunculi races that the local citizenry see as invaluable, wise, powerful, or otherwise better fit to rule than a typical Penumbra.

The rules as to how a new Potentate is crowned can vary wildly from kingdom to kingdom, so let's use the Kingdom of Alost as an example, as it is both most familiar to me out of the known settlements, and where I happen to live. According to tradition, the title of Potentate in Alost is meant to pass between members of a small group of anonymous Homunculi (almost certainly Changelings given my visits to the Capital), and this position rotates amongst them exactly every 150 years. However, this seems to have fallen out of fashion as of the Crimson Potentate, who gained the throne through revolution and has ruled for over double the proper length of time.

As for how their courts work, that too seems to vary depending on where you are, though most seem to follow a similar system of organization. The Crimson Potentate's court is organized into a council of representatives from each of Alost's fields of work and commerce, such as smithing, carpentry, and agriculture. These representatives help the Potentate keep track of commercial affairs in the kingdom. Meanwhile, a much larger royal audience, selected from honored or imortant members of society all throughout the kingdom, serves as witness to all court proceedings as well as representatives for other matters worth the Potentate's time and attention.

Now, a monarch implies a Monarchy, and that usually means a societal system to keep things in check. Penumbra society often mirrors Medieval feudalism, but with a few interesting adjustments. For starters, most Penumbras in this system don't make up the upper or lower classes, rather staying firmly in the middle-class caste. Oftentimes these individuals work in specialized fields of craftsmanship or merchantile affairs, serve as town guardsmen or soldiers, or fill management positions overseeing those that make up the lower class. But who are those that work beneath this race?

Employing Other Creatures

It's no secret that the Middenground is home to an extensive number of Beasts, creatures native to the Half-Tamed Wilds but not intelligent enough to be considered a sapient race of Homunculi. Quite a few of these Beasts share some big similarities with animals found in Baseline Reality, and according to the written history of the Middenground, it would seem Penumbras were the first to start using such creatures the way Humans do back on Earth: by taming these Beasts and using them for labor, transportation, and food.

One of the first innovations in this regard seem to have been taming and training Firedarts, a species of raven-like bird with orange plumage, which the Penumbras realized make excellent carrier birds and messengers. From here, the Penumbra invention of Postal Towers started to spring up all across the kingdoms of the Middenground, where clerks and aviary-keepers sort through mail brought to and from the settlement by Firedart messengers. In these towers, Firedarts are bred, trained, and left to roost in between deliveries, each one having been taught to remember routes between Fiefdoms as well as the names of kingdoms and settlements.

Of course, the list doesn't end there, and it doesn't just include Beasts either. Many societies additionally offer work and shelter to Blurrs of all ages, with Juveniles playing major roles as teachers or scientific advisors, Adults often helping with heavy manual labor, and Elders serving as battle mounts or general transportation. Changelings are offered sanctuary where they can be put to use as expert diplomats and spies, with Penumbras having little concern of them due to the race's notorious trick of identity-stealing seemingly not applicable to Penumbras whatsoever. Black Shucks are sometimes kept as war dogs and used by guardsmen to help enforce the law of Penumbra settlements. The list goes on…

Rather infamously, the Protectorate of Sephredell is quite fond of enslaving and herding captive Humans. Now, don't let that paint a bad picture of these people, most Penumbra kingdoms are above this practice, and Sephredell is shunned by other kindgoms of the same species for this exact reason. While you may find no welcome in such a place regardless of your species, rest assured that the other Penumbras of the Half-Tamed Wilds are far friendlier.

Music and Celebrations

Time and time again, Penumbra society has produced some of the finest bards and storytellers throughout the Middenground. Much of this species' culture has adored entertainment and the arts throughout recorded history, and those among them who take up the bard's craft are quite prideful of their talent. Visitors to Penumbra Protectorates such as Garaxorn or Kavragost can expect the sound of music and merriment to echo around them upon reaching a settlement.

Penumbra music often has a certain style to it. Most who've heard folk songs or orchestral pieces composed by a Penumbra say their music feels haunting and downtrodden, yet whimsical in a way. Most Penumbra pieces are written in the minor chord, composed primarily of strings, woodwinds, and chimes. Little precusion is ever used, and choirs are often incorporated in more orchestral pieces.

As a result of key choice and instruments, the tone of a Penumbra composition may ultimately depend on the tempo. At anywhere from grave to adagio tempo, one will find pieces soft and melancholy, yet almost universally beautiful (this style seems to be where Penumbra composers most excel). Closer to moderato, compositions become eerie and ominous, with pianos and violins usually taking precedence in these kinds of songs. Once past allegro tempo, however, these dark and dreary melodies take on an energetic and jovial tone despite the key they're played in (this is where you get many songs one would hear at a tavern or festival anywhere in the Middenground).

Music is all well and good, but it often serves as a backdrop for grander spectacles during times of celebration or competition. One such event often observed by Penumbra kingdoms is the Festivals of Ichor, a week-long celebration in honor of the brave heroes and great conquests throughout Penumbra history. During the Festivals of Ichor, Penumbras far and wide celebrate however they can with traditions big and small. Those who live in tribal communities or in kingdoms not Penumbra in origin usually celebrate with quaint feasts, festive games, colorful decorations, and other small traditions.

In the case of Protectorates or non-Penumbra kingdoms that observe the Festivals, one will find the streets transformed by vibrant decorations and magical lights, with bands and magicians around every corner. Younger Penumbras run about dressed in masks and costumes, loading up on food and drink without a care in the world, while many older Penumbras celebrate with grand feasts in dining halls, singing songs and telling tales of the Penumbra heroes of old. The last three days of the Festivals are celebrated with a gladiatorial contest known as The Crowning of Champions, where talented warriors and spellcasters from far and wide compete to win this spectacle of a tournament. Whoever comes out on top is crowned the annual Champion of the Realm, with the festivities of that year named after them in the history books.

Language and Names


The Daxerese script is very similar in style to that of several runic alphabets found in Baseline, with the main exception being that Penumbras have recently scrapped the Daxerese counting system in favor of Human numbers.

While many Penumbras are bilingual, what with widespread languages like English being a valuable tounge to know and speak, the given language of most Penumbras is Daxerese. For those who've yet to hear it, Daxerese is a tounge known for being elegant when spoken, yet harsh when written. Given the strange rules of pronunciation, the fact that tone and meaning can shift if a Penumbra speaker has slashed open their mouth, and the variations in dialect depending on which Protectorate the speaker is from, calling Daxerese a tough language to learn is quite an understatement.

Likely the language's only saving grace is that most modern dialects have some similarity to English once written in the Roman Alphabet. This is especially evident in place names, for example, the Protectorate of Old Kavragost. The name has gone through plenty of etymological evolution over time, evolving from the now impossible to translate Kyrness'ryn Agronh. Nowadays however, the name is fairly easy to translate from the Daxerese "Kavragost", to the English name of "Caveghost" or "Deadcave". With the name translated, we can assume it's meant to reference the fact that modern-day Kavragost is steeped in all manner of ancient history and littered with the ruins of past underground kingdoms.

Then there's the matter of Penumbra names, which apparently have become quite popular in the Middenground for reasons that entirely escape me. The only explanation I can deduce is that some of these names do have a rather interesting sound to them, but I'm no expert on such conventions. I'll be listing some example names here for anyone thinking of using them. While using these names for children is the obvious reason, there may be all kinds of situations where knowing one or two of these off the top of your head might come in handy.

Popular Male Names: Aggod, Alrek, As'ulles, Bogges, Brenuth, Das'ran, Gurnal, Irthrir, Kalmer, Makan, Ollmores, Ors'os, Regol, Talmarith, Terrin, M'errol, Xanes

Popular Female Names: Aes'elin, Bris'ienne, Catney, Dhysarah, Fynnore, Grynyra, Jynith, Kelney, Lyudmila, Meridelle, Nymem'era, Penneth, Tyllewin, Winthine, S'elleth

Wilder Society

Much of the information previously discussed in this section relates to those Penumbras living in Protectorates, the civilized kingdoms and societies they built up over centuries and oversee themselves. But these are far from the only parts of Penumbra society. Outside the borders of any recognized kingdom, tucked away in the deep forests or craggy mountains of the Half-Tamed Wilds, one can stumble upon tribes of Penumbras known as Wilders, groups of outlanders and nomads who maintain closely-knit communities and live off the lands. One would do well to remember the difference between civilized Penumbras and Wilders, as the two could not be more different.

For starters, Wilder Penumbras are much more wary of outsiders, even other Penumbras. Members of Wilder tribes tend to take all manner of precautions to make sure the tribe stays connected to one another, most commonly in the form of maintaining families, a practice rarely seen in Protectorates. Many Wilder tribes have periods in time where they will migrate to Kavragost Reach and camp along the coast, where they wait for the tribe's young to incubate and mature on Architect's Isle before welcoming them into the tribe and returning to their homeland. This is one of the very few ways in which the tribe can comfortably expand, so most tribes make the journey every couple of decades so as to strengthen their numbers.

Due to their fear of outsiders, these tribes are often highly xenophobic and territorial. Most are at best uncomfortable when they encounter someone from outside the community, remaining cautious and keeping any weapons at the ready in case their initial fear is proven correct. A few notable tribes, like the False March clan of Dolorous Snarl, are more welcoming than others and encourage regular trade and adopting members from outside the community, but often these tribes do not stay Wilder communities for long as most of these tribes quickly grow into city-states or even fully-fleged Protectorates, much like the origins of the Protectorate of Garaxorn.

When dealing with Wilder communities, even if precautions are taken and you're armed to the teeth, I urge you to practice caution and avoid confrontation. Societies like these are not to be underestimated, as most often these tradition-centric tribes have been fixtures in the Middenground for hundreds of years, and their members have the experience and combat prowess to prove it. Unless one of these tribes is welcoming of outsiders and greets you with open arms, it's probably best to leave these communities alone, as that's what many of them want in the first place.

> Closing Note

Penumbras are an abundant race in the Middenground, making up almost 40% of the population, so it's pretty useful to know what they're like and how they live. The everyday person is going to find themselves interacting with, working with, and even living with these folks on a daily basis. I hope by detailing these key points of information for you, and giving you a glimpse into the life of a typical Penumbra, I have given you all you need to cooperate with these peoples and understand that they're just like any other person you'll meet, be it Human, or Blurr, or whatever else comes your way.

In our next volume, we'll take an in-depth look into Blurrs, those centaur-like peoples hailing from a mysterious land across the Rethian Sea. Until then, dear reader.

Yours truly,
Sir Byron Shields

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