While often oversimplified, the various historical traditions linking mental illness to the influences of demons, djinn and curses sometimes contain kernels of the truth.
While many people (perhaps most and, sadly, maybe all) carry with them some experience so awful as to remain jagged and vivid, there is an invasive malignance that can change these memories into something far worse. Known as being Qarowsick, it is a malady in which psychic remnants of traumas coalesce into a toxic malevolence, something that feeds and festers and turns pain into poison. Although the basic nature and cause of this sickness remain unclear - confounding the best efforts of medicine and magic alike - it presents with symptoms that are associated with more straightforwardly psychological conditions, having the most in common with some of the parasomnias comorbid with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It begins with nightmares: Infrequent at first, but eventually becoming the preponderance. Sleep becomes something to be dreaded, with fitful rest a rare and treasured relief. People with any number of acute or chronic mental illnesses, many of which are exacerbated by the resulting insomnia and attendant exhaustion, seem particularly prone to becoming Qarowsick. They provide the perfect cover for these earliest effects, as even the onset of night terrors - though more unusual - is not enough to signal unequivocally that something stranger and more terrible is taking place. That first indication comes within the continuing nightmares, which are gradually infiltrated by insubstantial, smoke-like figures with distended, slightly inhuman silhouettes.
Observers rather than participants, these entities (The Qarow, from which the sickness takes its name) are peripheral to the specific and individual horrors that are conjured up by the roil and churn of an anguished psyche. Although they have provoked the nightmares in which they appear, they initially play only the role of onlookers, sadistic voyeurs dispassionately spying on the most raw and naked fears of their victims. Before too long, this passivity no longer meets their needs and - armed with every intimate detail they have uncovered - The Qarow begin to play a more active role. There is no respite in unconsciousness, and dreams become an endless cavalcade of horrors.
But where the harm of nightmares is, typically, limited to distress and discomfort, the psychic monstrosities of The Qarow can twist and change the very nature of their victims. They creep and crawl in and out of every recollection, souring memories and associations as they go, until a person’s whole history is rotten through and thick with bitterness and bile; until their soul is, essentially, curdled by these poisoned ministrations. Their past misremembered - if not rewritten outright over months and months of tormented and torturous nights - it is almost impossible for someone haunted by The Qarow not to become consumed by anger, embattled by the slights and injustices of reopened wounds both real and newly-created.
The Qarow attack their victims’ identity as much as their character, the retroactive traumatisation of formative experiences capable of altering aspects of a person that might have previously seemed fundamental. They inflict a moral sickness of the highest order, preying on suffering to beget suffering, and attempting to remake their victims into perpetrators of the same casual cruelties and deeper injustices they need in order to prosper. It is fortunate then that The Qarow are apparently bespoke instruments of torture, each bound to the person for and from whom they were birthed. Their noxious influence might otherwise become a series of devastating psychic pandemics, leaving monsters - physical instantiations of their ill-intent - in their wake.
It takes a certain strength and considerable good fortune, though perhaps the former is not as uncommon as we might fear, for someone to rise above the vicious impact of The Qarow; to retain any spark of the hope and humour that might keep them kind. Naturally, we are more aware of those to whom these devilish machinations make the most profound changes, who take their pain as license to inflict suffering upon others, but this focus might distract us from more encouraging findings. There are those who win their struggle, though they have to fight for the victory every single day, and there is even some anecdotal evidence that The Qarow can be expunged and destroyed.
Reports of instances where The Qarow have been killed are rare and, given that the work of rooting them out can only take place by while the infected person is sleeping, lack a certain clarity of details. Nevertheless, there seem to be repetitions and consistencies across different cultures which speak - however nebulously - to an underlying truth. They suggest that the practice involves a combination of some kind of sedative, often one with an appropriate ritual or religious significance, and lucid dreaming techniques. The latter intended to keep the subject aware of and grounded in reality as the sedative allows them to delve down into the deepest recesses of their own mind.
At this point, wresting the source of the nightmares loose from the unconscious is an act of pure will; of conceptualising and overcoming the impossibility of capturing something ephemeral and dragging it back into the waking world. The descriptions of this struggle are, necessarily, as varied as those who have attempted it, even before allowing for the distortions inherent in dreaming, and do not explain much about how they were won. Forced to take on a physical form, The Qarow are exposed. Their apparent strength revealed as a feint, their malformed bodies, pathetic and mewling tangles of little substance, wither to nothing under the glare of the sun; wounds cauterised and sanitised all at once.
The frailty that The Qarow exhibit when torn from the security of intangibility speaks to their parasitic nature, but some have posited a hypothesis that ties them even more closely to their victims. They argue that The Qarow are neither creatures nor curses, that they are not distinct entities at all: They are psychic scar tissues, the result of improperly tended traumas and imperfectly healed spiritual injuries. A consequence of defences overreacting and run amok, creating protective calluses that spread malignant callousness, to this view the removal of The Qarow is a necessary evil. Wounds abraded and reopened to let the poison out, a fresh trauma that leads, unavoidably, to more pain.
Questions as to whether any already-inflicted damage would begin to heal remain unanswered, with some believing that it is impossible to unpick the unaffected memories from those that were irredeemably damaged. Others are more hopeful, and have suggested that The Qarow are not just the architects of ruin, but that they bind the tapestry of lies and inconsistencies together. Properly and completely exorcised, the artifice that remains is fragile and, with the proper care and support, can be torn down almost in its entirety. In either case, there is no potion or panacea to repair what has been done nor, unfortunately, to address whatever pain or trauma drew The Qarow in and allowed them to gain a foothold in the first place.