Prophecy: Mysterious Places

MYSTERIOUS PLACES

This text contains information on
mysterious places in the Flanaess of eastern Oerik

Oerth’s geography is little known
because travel across the Flanaess is so dangerous to one’s health.
Only the rich and powerful can afford the armed guards, wizards,
and clerics who make long-distance travel possible. Because of
this, tales of far away lands are always sought after by those
unable to move freely. The unusual places described here are some
of the most infamous and best-known bits of topography in the lands
of Oerth.

The Pinnacles of Azor’alq

The Pinnacles of Azor’alq have
haunted Bakluni legend for upwards of 3,000 years. They have been
variously described as the ancient dwellings of the gods, the
protruding spires of a titanic drowned city, the monumental tombs
of the near-mythical First Dynasty of the Bakluni, and the nesting
place of phoenixes, rocs, or the Dramidj Ocean’s numerous dragons.
The epic hero for whom they are named is said to sleep there with
his paladins. The last royal house of the Bakluni Empire is said to
have fled here from the Invoked Devastation. The Cup and
Talisman of Al’Akbar
is rumored to reside here. Such a wealth
of speculation betokens the fact that few have seen the Pinnacles
even at a distance, and (perhaps significantly) fewer still report
any close approach or landing. Mariners regard a sighting of the
Pinnacles as an ill omen and will rarely so much as speak of them,
and then only when ashore.

It would appear from accounts that
the Pinnacles are no more than 50 leagues from the mainland,
somewhere in the angle of the Dramidj between Ekbir and Zeif. They
are less frequently found than one would think, but this is perhaps
accounted for by their being away from the regular shipping lanes,
and by the dense fogs peculiar to the Dramidj. Indeed, the
Pinnacles are often concealed by banks of fog even when those
waters are otherwise clear. Perhaps this is because of the unusual
warmth of the waters in their immediate vicinity, and the peculiar
calm that seems to envelop the region. Certainly that is what the
merchant captains believe; they stay well away from fog banks even
on the open ocean, and most vessels carry oars for the express
purpose of rapidly removing themselves from regions in which they
might be becalmed.

The Pinnacles themselves are massive
spires no less than 40 in number (some say 100), in an irregular
cluster, none more than two miles from its nearest neighbor. They
are perhaps a quarter mile in diameter at the base, circular in
cross-section, and rise steeply upward in a regular series of
cliffs. How far they extend downward into the ocean is unknown, but
their height above the water is in excess of 1,000 feet. The lower
portions are clothed in forests, including massive coniferous trees
which are themselves sometimes more than 200 feet tall. These are
mixed with lesser trees, some of which cling to the cliffs, and a
wealth of lesser ferns, mosses, and flowers. Above these is a
cloud-forest of odd fleshy-leaf plants and rare orchids. This
fragrant and silent realm contrasts with the highest levels, which
are raucous and white-stained with innumerable sea birds; puffins,
eider, albatrosses, and others less recognizable. On rare clear
days, the Pinnacles may be marked at some distance by the plume of
feathered life above them.

The Pinnacles seldom offer an easy
landing. Broad though they may be, the shelves between cliffs are
seldom conveniently near sea level. In most cases a landing party
must climb tens or hundreds of feet upwards from the sea. The
difficulty of the terrain, and the mists, numerous waterfalls, and
thick vegetation at first conceal the fact that the Pinnacles are
not natural formations, or even shaped ones, but are composed of
titanic blocks. On rare occasions one encounters openings leading
to the interior of these constructions. There is no report of what
may be found if one ascends or descends the broad stairways leading
away from these bat-haunted cave mouths, or rather doorways.

Whatever else dwells among the
pinnacles, it is certain that dragons of all sorts and sizes make
their home there, from tiny varieties that sport among the
beautiful and unique birds of the forests to huge coiled reptiles.

The Sea of Dust

No one has accurately described the
entirety of the wasteland created by the Bakluni wizards. Reports
are sometimes contradictory and always incomplete, since few have
the hardihood to penetrate the region and fewer still the will to
make a study of it. Nevertheless, certain broad regions may be
identified.

The Sea of Dust was first named for
its appearance just west of the Hellfurnaces, where volcanic ash is
spread in gray waves over a land surface now deeply buried. Each
year the Hellfurnaces add new weight to the column of fine gray
dust. What little water makes its way westward percolates through
the bedrock, which is of limestone in those regions. Unwholesome
creatures from the Hellfurnaces inhabit this sterile wasteland and
have bored pathways upward through the ash. These entrances are
sometimes disguised as protrusions of the country’s original
limestone. Whatever treasures the Suel of these parts might once
have had are deeply buried here. No ruins are reported except for
those of a few former mountain towns in what are properly
considered the western Hellfurnaces, and these must long ago have
been looted by fire newts and fire giants, which are numerous in
those parts.

The northern parts of the Sea of
Dust are less ash-clogged and therefore show clearer evidence of
the former Suel civilization. Here may be found the forts that
guarded the passes over the Sulhaut range into Bakluni lands, and
farther into the desert are the remains of walled cities. The most
accessible of these, nearest the Sulhauts, have apparently been
stripped of valuables by various bold scavengers over the past
millennium, but the sites farther into the desert are less
disturbed, in part because they are inhabited by recently arrived
harpies. It is notable that the architecture of this region shows
the characteristic high angular buildings still affected by such
people as the Sea Princes and the Lendorians.

The central part of the Sea of Dust
is the most forbidding of all and certainly the most alien. There
are dunes of a white, powdery, caustic material, and the air’s
dryness will empty an unglazed jug in a day or two, and cause those
who do not cover their mouths with damp cloth to cough up blood.

The white dunes and glassy exposed
bedrock also cause sun blindness in those who fail to protect their
eyes with slitted masks or visors. It is little wonder that the
so-called Forgotten City remains, if not forgotten, at least
undiscovered in so harsh and discouraging a region. Interestingly,
there are peculiar glassy depressions which dot the central Sea of
Dust and which some claim correspond to former Suel cities.

Paradoxically, it is the most
distant part of the Sea of Dust, the southwest, which is best
known. In part this is because some small amount of rain reaches
the Sea of Dust at this point, and the lands are inhabited by
nomads. Some of the natives show Suloise origins, but the majority
are from farther south: a tall, slender, curly haired folk with
blue-black skin and slanted eyes. Though not otherwise hostile, the
nomads guard their wells against any outsider and do not permit so
much as a drop to be stolen or sold. The water is not only
difficult to reach, but it has a tendency to dry up or grow salty
as the wells are used more frequently. The nomads therefore move
from one site to the next, searching for new supplies. When they
find a well they must apply either brute animal force or (in the
case of some tribes) windmills to pull their prize water to the
surface.

When water does reach the surface of
the southwestern Sea of Dust, either by artificial means such as
wells or during the rare spates of rain in the “wet” season, the
result is most gratifying. The dust of these parts is not alkaline
material or sterile volcanic ash but true dirt, heaped into great
hills; perhaps it is the once-fertile soils of the former Suel
Empire. It is in any case extraordinarily productive, both in wild
and cultivated plants.

Unfortunately, the rich southwestern
dust also supports a number of monsters which burrow through it.
Most notable of these are a nameless wormlike beast which may
exceed 50 feet in length, and an insect like creature which rather
resembles a cross between a mantis and a centipede and may be as
much as 20 feet long. These are attracted by soil moisture and by
vibrations of humans and livestock, and present a great hazard.
Fortunately they are rare and avoid the nomads’ arrows and spears.

Poor as they may be in other things,
the southwest nomads are rich in gems and gold, the accumulated
fortune of the Suel empire. They regard these treasures as minor
ornamentation and place much higher value on cattle and vegetables,
which sustain life. The way in which these nomads obtain their
baubles is most interesting, however; the young men dive for them
as part of the rites by which they pass to adulthood.

Dotted about the region are “ktosor
hep,” or dust-lakes. These are expanses anywhere from half a mile
to six miles across; here, the dust is charged with a magic that
causes it to take on the characteristics of water. The grains form
a sort of fluid which permits the passage of air between them but
retains them in a single body which supports waves, boats, and
swimmers as if it were a true lake. Unlike water, however, this
dust may be made somewhat breathable if a fine cloth mask is placed
over the mouth (although strenuous action is not possible under
such conditions). It is therefore possible to descend to the true
ground’s surface beneath the dust, and there to examine in the dim
and dust-laden atmosphere the ruins of towns and cities, for each
dust-lake seems to have been just such a site before the Rain of
Colorless Fire.

Were a descent into the dim and
choking lower reaches of a dust-lake the sole barrier to manhood
among the nomads, there would not be so many “boys” of 30 and 40
years. Unfortunately for divers, a number of other creatures also
live in the soup of particles. Among these are the aforementioned
burrowing worms, which seem to prefer these spots as lairs. Water
pools there in small amounts, and certain peculiar fungoid life
forms are also attracted. Last but not least, there are the
abhorrent “osid-mrin,” a manlike race which according to local
legend first built the cities beneath the dust-lakes, and which
(again according to hearsay) have a desire to bring recruits into
their new race through a gruesome operation or transformation.
Nevertheless, the rewards of diving are as great as the perils: not
only full manhood in the tribe, but also gems and jewelry for
decoration as well as more civilized treasures which are highly
prized tokens of a dive, such as artworks, books, or even magical
items.

The architecture of the southwestern
ruins is notable for its large domes and tall onion-topped
minarets, which occasionally protrude above the dust and provide a
channel downward.

The Pits of Azak-Zil

In mid-Flocktime of CY 198, the
Great Kingdom was astounded by a ball of fire which appeared over
the Oljatt Sea, passed over Sunndi, Idee, Ahlissa, and Onnwall, and
vanished somewhere beyond the Sea of Gearnat. It was visible as far
south as the Olman Isles and as far north as Eastfair and Rel Mord,
and it was cause for wonder and concern even in those prosperous
and confident times. Selvor the Younger, after careful
extrapolation to its origin in the constellations, declared the
shooting star to signify “wealth, strife, and a living death.” The
pronouncement caused a panic in certain of the larger cities,
particularly Rauxes, where a number of prominent nobles took the
pronouncement to be a signal for the end of the world, or at least
of an era, and created several disturbances. Accordingly, when
after several years the predicted events failed to make themselves
evident, Selvor was banished from his post and from the court, and
held by his colleagues as a laughingstock. There matters were to
lie for more than 300 years, while chaos enveloped the greater part
of the Flanaess and few had the time or patience to study the work
of a discredited astrologer.

It was in 514 that Jemrek Longsight,
a dwarf sage who as a child had been greatly impressed by the
celestial phenomenon, undertook a study entirely opposite to
Selvor’s. Using records of the falling star’s flight, she traced it
not back to its origin but downward to the Oerth. Longsight’s
calculations showed a landing along the eastern wing of the Abbor
Alz, between the Bright Desert and the Nesser River. On the basis
of previous instances of shooting stars and their tangible results,
Longsight predicted a great deposit of pure metals at the site:
certainly iron, and possibly gold and mithral as well. The
direction of Jemrek Longsight’s study has often been cited as
evidence that the habits of dwarven minds persist even in those who
choose the most un-dwarven occupations.

Longsight’s announcements resulted
in a flurry of activity on the part of all the political interests
in the region. All over the Iron League, there was a ferment of
alliance, misalliance, and reliance between the dwarven clans and
other groups preparing expeditions. The Herzog of South Province
sent forth a large group of warriors and prospectors, reportedly
with orders to return with news of the deposit or not return at
all. The Principality of Ulek took an interest, as did Almor,
Nyrond, and the Duchy of Urnst, and trading houses from the Wild
Coast and even Greyhawk and Dyvers. Even the rulers of the Pomarj,
then new to their power, sent an ill-prepared company of orcs,
goblins, and ogres. As these varied forces converged on the area
delineated by Longsight, chilling tales of murder, treachery, and
bloody massacre began to make their way back to the outside world.
Soon the weaker forces turned back for lack of supplies or
manpower. The Pomarjis were slaughtered by a temporary alliance of
dwarven interests. Nyrond and Urnst were unexpectedly impeded by
the inhabitants of Celadon Forest, who did not desire such activity
near their lands. The Herzog’s troops disappeared into the Bright
Desert and were never seen again. All parties were harassed by the
natives of the Abbor-Alz, who as always resented intrusion, and by
the Sea Princes, who were attracted to the supply ships.

After half a decade of struggle, the
house of Highforge, one of the more prominent dwarven clans in
Irongate, emerged as discoverer and holder of the starstone’s
wealth. A port was established on the waterless coasts where the
Abbor Alz touches the Bright Desert, and a secret trail was
established leading inland. Highforge and its allies maintained
thorough secrecy, and for good reason: iron, platinum, gold,
mithral, and adamantite began to pour out into the world at large
through the carefully guarded harbor. Few have reported concerning
the mine inland, but from peripheral comments it appears that the
dwarves discovered a broad depression of fused and shocked rock
marking the landing point of their prize and established themselves
in a nearby mesa from which they coordinated a well-planned mining
operation. They dug deep artesian wells and established cisterns.
The mine and settlement they called Azak-Zil, or Pureheart.

For five years, Highforge swelled
with wealth; there were disruptions in metal markets as far away as
Rauxes. Then, abruptly, the flow was cut off. The port city of
Zarak remained, but communications with the mines ceased and probes
into the interior found the roads to be erased and the dust storms
to be intolerable. Members of a powerful expeditionary force
disappeared suddenly and silently at night, even from guarded
tents. Clan Highforge, after expending much of its considerable
fortune in an attempt to find and retake the mines, took heed of
unfavorable auguries and abandoned the effort. Zarak was abandoned
as well.

Since the failure of Azak-Zil, most
southern dwarven clans have declared the folly of meddling with
“things from the sky.” Not a few suppose that the mine was visited
by a curse, either by something imported from the heavens or by
something wakened by the shooting star or the activities of the
miners. Many have cited nomad legends that an ancient nonhuman
people dwelt in the mesas of the southern Abbor Alz and still guard
them.

Only one individual has claimed to
have found the site of the mines since their abandonment: one Pont
Sandmorg of Narwell. Sandmorg’s account places the mesa on the
eastern slopes of the hills, facing the Bright Desert, about a
hundred or more miles inland. Pont recalled there was a poisonous
salt lake filling part of the nearby depression, and there were
hills of tailings from extensive mining operations. Plain evidence
of a dwarven cliff-city could be seen on the south face of the
mesa. However, Sandmorg and his men were content to raid a few
ingots from a former roadside depot. Their number had been depleted
by native tribes and by packs of unusually ferocious and cunning
ghouls; they turned back after “hearing a most horrible howling,
like a thousand jackals, which emanated from the city that night,
and a foul apparition appeared to the men on watch.” Attempts to
duplicate Sandmorg’s route have either resulted in failure to find
the mines or failure for those parties to return at
all. 

Skrellingshald

It is commonly held that the Flan
peoples of eastern Oerik were simple tribesmen before the events
that led to the Suel and Oeridian migrations. If so, there remain
to be explained certain ruins found in the Griff and Corusk
Mountains. The massive stone foundations, straight level roads, and
flattened or terraced areas of mountainside seem from the
proportions of the rarely preserved doorways to be intended for
creatures of human size, and it seems unlikely that elves or
humanoids would have had the inclination to produce such works.
What is more, the occasional jade carvings and green ceramic
figurines found both at these sites and occasionally in rivers
flowing out of the mountains show a people of Flannish features and
dress, and there remain in the Duchy of Tenh and among the Coltens
stories of a powerful mountain state of Flannish race. Perhaps the
dwarves of the region know more, but if so they show the typical
reticence of demihuman races concerning prehistoric events. One of
the greatest works of this ancient people, whoever they were, is
the mountain known in Flan as Tostenhca, but more commonly known by
the name the Suel barbarians gave it, Skrellingshald. It is a place
which has been discovered many times, and as often lost again from
human knowledge.

Skrellingshald is among the Griff
Mountains, but unlike the untamed crags surrounding it, its peak is
entirely leveled. Perched on this plateau is a city of heroic
proportions carved from the rock itself. It holds many noble
houses, as well as large pyramids and ramps of unknown purpose.
There are large water-storage tanks, and evidently water was once
piped through the entire city. The broad avenues are lined with
tall statues of the same greenish-black rock as the mountain and
city, all of them showing typical Flannish features (from which
trait the name of the city is derived). Some of the dwellings may
be three or more stories high, and the interiors contain among
other things murals with pigments that are still fresh and scenes
that depict the lives of the inhabitants. One block covered with
such work was brought to the town of Calbut in the Duchy of Tenh,
and exhibited as an example of ancient Flan excellence, but it is
regarded by some as a clever forgery. Beneath the city and leading
downward to various openings on the lower mountain is a series of
tunnels. Most of these terminate in terraced regions that must once
have been farmers’ fields. The climate of the region must surely
have been more pleasant in its heyday, for much of the year the
city is wreathed in snow.

For all its enigmatic glory,
Skrellingshald might remain relatively obscure were it not for the
stories that great treasure might be found there. Indeed, it bears
some passing resemblance to a land placed by popular legend in the
Griff Mountains, where the buildings are “roofed in gold.” However,
the citadel of Skrellingshald is most certainly not inhabited by
any human race and does not flaunt whatever treasure it may have.
Its inhabitants are reported to be particularly malevolent and
cunning kobolds, and perhaps certain diabolic allies, who haunt the
tunnels beneath the mountain. The skies of the region are the
hunting ground of griffons and gigantic eagles. The city itself is
supposedly guarded by its statues. If the city ever had gold
roofing, it has long since been looted. What remains is a wealth of
jade jewelry and statuary scattered throughout the region, and a
great store of gold in most unusual form: it is in spheres about
the size of a double fist. The troves of gold spheres are to be
found somewhere within the pyramids, but it is supposedly unhealthy
to meddle with them. Stories have it that those who carry away the
spheres contract a horrible wasting and rotting disease.

The citadel is protected not only by
its remote position and the ferocious inhabitants. It is surrounded
on all sides by deep gorges or high mountains, and the high
altitude saps the strength of lowlanders. The weather is chilly and
windy in all seasons, and often so cloudy that vision is obscured
over distances of more than a few hundred yards. The precise
location of the place is not known. Few have sought it out, and
those who have returned after finding it are generally reticent.
Typical is the case of Hradji Beartooth, a chieftain of the Frost
Barbarians, who took a band of men in search of the marvel in 520.

Hradji returned later that year with
a diminished following and with a greatly increased wealth which
consisted largely of the aforementioned golden spheres. He quite
naturally refused to disclose the location of the mountain, as he
planned to gather a stronger force for the next season and return
with still greater booty. Unfortunately Hradji and the majority of
his men died within the year, some of them as soon as they arrived
home. What is more, all those who had any prolonged contact with
the gold similarly sickened and died. Hradji’s heir disposed of the
hoard by trading it to merchant interests in the Great Kingdom, and
reputedly the curse still circulates as the coin of that shattered
land, although this last may be a tale originally fabricated to
weaken the emperor’s currency.

In confirmation of Hradji’s story
that he had reached Skrellingshald, it is noteworthy that he also
brought with him two young griffons and a shield of a pebbly,
fire-resistant hide which has since been identified as that of a
diabolical creature.

It is rumored that certain of the
dwarven clans of the Griff Mountains know the location of the
citadel. Certainly they make use of the roads supposedly produced
by Skrellingshald’s constructors, as well as their tunnels and
roadside fountains. It would not be surprising to find that they
had discovered something of Skrellingshald’s whereabouts.

The Sinking Isle

The Sinking Isle has haunted the
waters near the Isles of the Sea Barons from time immemorial. The
earliest Oeridian tribes to fish the Solnor there knew of it; the
Flan before them had legends of it; the seagoing elves of Lendore
Isle have tales yet more ancient. Neither the current civilization
nor even that of the elves was the first in the Flanaess; there
were others in times so far past that the very shape of the lands
has since changed. The Sinking Isle is a reminder of them.

The region about Asperd Isle, the
northernmost held by the Sea Barons, is prone to infrequent if
powerful quakes. Perhaps it was one of these which in the distant
past carried an island city to the sea bottom, and perhaps it is
the same restlessness that on occasion raises it again into the
air. Local mariners hold that while these movements are never
predictable, they are at times presaged by tremors and a boiling
and bubbling that stirs dark mud from the bottom and releases
bubbles of foul-smelling gas. It is also said that the rise of the
Sinking Isle is most likely in storms or fog. At such times,
coastal traders and pirates, who normally seek the protected inner
passage between Asperd Island and the Solnor’s unpredictable waves,
either go the long way ’round or stay in port. Many northern
captains raiding southward will not attempt the strait at all, for
lack of friendly informants.

The Sinking Isle is not always so
kind as to give warning of its reemergence. Neither does it always
show itself entirely above the waters. Often only the highest
extremities jut upwards, as if they were lying in wait for unwary
ships. Indeed seamen credit the isle or its manipulators with a
malign will, and attribute any disappearance in the strait to its
action. More than one will tell tales of a near-grounding, a
suspicious darkness in the water on a clear fair day, or the sight
of breakers where none ought to be. A very few claim to have
watched the island, or even landed on it. They do so in whispers,
as it is said that foolhardy boasters are apt to vanish from their
homes on some dark and rainy night thereafter. So it is that for
the most part only a faint rumor reaches the outside world of the
Sinking Isle and its twisted ruins.

In the past one notable man was far
less circumspect than modern adventurers: Atirr Aedorich, a hero of
the Great Kingdom in the days of its youth. In 155, as a young man,
he was sent southward by his father to the university at Rel Astra,
then a great center of learning in the magical arts. The Sinking
Isle was less active in those days, but as the fates would have it
Atirr’s ship was caught in a sudden squall and driven onto the
hidden claws of the Isle itself. Atirr was fascinated rather than
terrified (such were the Great Kingdom’s nobles in those days). For
a full hour, while the crew sweated at the pumps and strained to
place a patch over the hull’s single rent, the young man gazed at
the strange phosphorescent landscape, and prepared several
sketches, until one of the Solnor’s strange and unpredictable great
waves came questing into the strait and lifted the wounded vessel
clear. Atirr vowed to return and discover the island’s secrets.

Atirr did return northward some
years later, but as Herzog of North Province. Not until his middle
years did he have the leisure to take up his study. Through the
examination of certain ancient Suel tomes, and the exercise of the
arts he learned at Rel Astra, he devised a way to either predict or
command the vagaries of the Sinking Isle. This knowledge, like much
else, was lost in the Turmoil Between the Crowns, but several
different descriptions survive of what he found when he drew
alongside the risen city.

In the short time before the island
sank once again beneath the waves, Atirr and his fellows were able
to recover and record information about a great many artifacts from
among the spiky and highly decorated ruins. Among these were many
panes of fine stained glass, some still intact, and some in tints
never yet achieved by modern artists. Besides these were a number
of twisted ornaments of gold and lead, later discovered to be of
sahuagin manufacture. Attir also discovered a book sealed against
the water in a lead casket. All of these were returned to the court
at Rauxes in honor of the Overking. The patient Atirr hoped to
study them further in his retirement. He declared the book in
particular to be most interesting, being among other things a
recording in a lost language of “an ancient history together with
magical secrets.”

Tragically, Atirr was never to
attain his goal. Two years after his discoveries, he and all hands
went down in a storm off the coast of North Province in a storm
which apparently even the Herzog’s powers could not quell. The book
has since disappeared, though it may yet be found somewhere in the
catacombs at Rauxes; it is difficult to be sure, as so little word
now reaches the outside world of the doings at that insane court.
It is known that Atirr was convinced from a preliminary study that
the city itself was not primarily of sahuagin construction but must
have been built by a terrestrial race, though sahuagin-like
creatures and other sea life are depicted frequently in the
architecture.

Later observers have examined the
coasts and sea near the site of the Sinking Isle, and have on a
dark evening seen what may have been its upper towers. The region
is chill and forbidding for such a southern latitude. Fishermen say
that the catch in those parts is extraordinarily good, but that
nets are often fouled. Those attempting the water find it dark and
chill. Most are content to leave the Sinking Isle to the sahuagin
or whatever race of the deeps now holds it.

The Twisted Forest

The Drachensgrabs have always been a
peculiar land, an anomaly among the more settled regions of the
Flanaess. Legends persist that some powerful being sleeps there,
and that some unclean air is about certain of the hills. The
retaking of the Pomarj by humanoid forces is just such an event as
might be expected of this region. Rumors aside, there is at least
one sleeping and dangerous power in these superficially pleasant
lands: the misnamed “Twisted Forest.”

The Twisted Forest is no forest at
all, but rather a collection of stony pillars; these pitted gray
shapes have as much the aspect of humanoid shapes as of trees. They
are scattered over the hillside meadows like so many leafless olive
trees, but it would be difficult to mistake them for vegetation.
They range in size from that of a very small goblin to that of a
very large ogre, but their twisted upper extensions are as
suggestive of upraised arms as of branches. They have overall an
unwholesome and unnerving aspect. One has the feeling of being
watched. The patterns on the trunks are suggestive of tormented
faces, and it is notable that despite their great age they do not
bear the abundant mosses, lichens, and birds’ nests that the local
outcroppings of native rock display in such abundance.

An examination of the ground between
the “trees,” which is rich in flowers, shows a surprising number of
bones and many weathered remains of weapons and equipment. One
might at first suppose these to be the relics of a battle, but they
are of varying ages–some old enough to have crumbled entirely and
be evident only as strains in the soil, while others are much more
recent. Where they have not been disarrayed by scavengers the bones
and equipment are still whole. The source of this carnage is not
any danger in the hills round about, but the forest itself. Those
who touch the stone shapes often die or go mad.

The goblins of the Pomarj are now
well aware of the dangers of the Twisted Forest. Early during their
influx, a large company of goblins scouting for new lands
ascertained from the local herdsmen that the Forest might contain
treasures somehow locked within the stone shapes. Precisely what
occurred on the day they entered the Forest is not known, but it
seems to have been something beyond even the traditional danger, of
which the goblins and their allies might have been aware had they
not, in their eagerness to push onward, hastily slaughtered their
informants. Later observers have since examined this field of stone
shapes, and it seems that there are rather more of them than is
implied in earlier accounts. There is moreover something which was
surely not present in past centuries–a contorted river of stone
among the pillars, more than 30 feet long, tapered at either end.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to compare past and present
eyewitness accounts directly, as former natives of the region are
now dead or dispersed.

The Twisted Forest would be entirely
mysterious were it not for records of the Keoish Court at Niole
Dra. An ancient and much recopied manuscript there purports to be a
history of the Suel peoples immediately after the last disaster of
the Suloise empire, penned by one Uhas of Neheli. In this history
is the tale of a particularly wicked band of Suloise who fled with
all their treasures eastward along the northern coast of the Azure
Sea, seeking a new land in which to build a powerful new nation.
They were as learned and powerful as they were cruel, and met with
success in all their evil ventures until at last they slaughtered a
band of innocent Flan tribesmen in a particularly vile manner in
the Suenha Hills. By so doing, they brought on themselves a most
terrible curse from certain of the Flannish gods the tribe had
worshiped: that neither they nor any of their kind should leave the
valley in which the massacre occurred, and that they should be
monuments to their own wicked behavior, “pillars of tortured stone
for all the world to see.” This would seem to be a clear reference
to the Twisted Forest, and it is commonly accepted among historians
that the Suenha Hills were the Drachensgrab as known to early Suel
colonists. The malevolent effect of the stone figures themselves
remains to be explained, since it would surely not have been a part
of the original curse; perhaps the powerful Suel wizards contrived
somehow to see that their malice would continue to wound the world,
at least within a limited area. As additional evidence that the
stone figures are former Suel, the flowers peculiar to the Twisted
Forest are of types seen only in the far western parts of the Sea
of Dust.

As for the treasures which some
insist are buried in the stone figures, it is perhaps best not to
seek them since the Twisted Forest has so dire an effect, but it is
doubtless a great treasure indeed if these stone figures are in
fact a host of transformed Suloise. What if anything could be
gained from what may be the more recent additions to the collection
of pillars is unknown, even in rumor.

The Burning Cliffs

The stretch of land facing the Icy
Sea between the Cold Marshes and the Forlorn Forest is one of the
least trodden regions of the Flanaess. Not even the Rovers of the
Barrens see much profit in it; they generally keep to the
grasslands farther south, and even these hardy folk refer to these
parts as “The Wastes.” Even the poorest parts of the Flanaess have
their wonders, however–in this case, the famous Burning Cliffs.

The Burning Cliffs were named for
their northern border with the Icy Sea. Ships traveling along that
coast may see them for distances of a hundred miles or more on a
clear day, where the smoking rocks drop sharply to meet the water.
The region of burning extends a good distance inland. It consists
largely of oily shales and a black flammable rock which release
smoke and steam from a process of burning which has been continuous
since the earliest histories. It may even have spread in recent
centuries.

It might be thought that a fire
would make the local climate more bearable, but in fact the
smoldering and steaming rubble gives rather more heat than is
comfortable, and in places is actually in flames. In any event, it
would be necessary in most seasons to stand amidst the
conflagration for warmth, since the fierce northern winds soon
carry away the heat. Standing within the lands of the Burning
Cliffs would in any case be a dubious comfort, being accompanied by
sooty fumes and steam. Ships sailing downwind of the Cliffs are apt
to leave with darker sails than those they set out with. Neither
would the warmed traveler have anything to eat in those desolate
regions, with the exception of a few scrawny northern deer which
feed on the sparse lichens and willows upwind of the Burning Cliffs
region. The Rovers seldom bother to visit the place and regard it
as simply another obstacle in their rare trips through the Wastes.

The character of the Burning Cliffs
has apparently changed somewhat over the past century or so.
Mariners remark that the clouds billowing upwards from them contain
rather more soot than steam, and that by night a dull glow enfolds
the entire region as if there were higher flames nearer the center.
Both the Rovers and the seamen have noted that the area of burning
has spread by up to several hundred yards a year (it is already
nearly 30 miles across), though in cold winters it retreats
somewhat. On occasion, shapes are reported moving about behind the
barrier of cloud and soot. Perhaps most significantly, the forests,
marshes, and grasslands at the edge of the Wastes, hundreds of
miles away, have begun to sicken and die, supporting the claims of
some scholars that the Burning Cliffs are in fact responsible for
the Wastes to begin with. This is of little concern to most
northerners, however; the lands are wide there and apparently
inexhaustible.

None of these more recent reports
has been sufficient to spur the practical northern peoples into any
sort of action or investigation, and it was quite by accident that
anything more was discovered. In 523, one Storrich of the Hold of
Stonefist failed in an attempt to advance himself politically by
less than traditional methods. Poisoners are not highly regarded
even in that grim country, and so Storrich and his followers were
obliged to flee. Since the season was summer and the Ice Barbarians
would not be likely to let his ship pass unmolested, Storrich and
his Stonefist pursuers turned westward. Unfortunately for Storrich
and his men, the pilot of the ship ran it aground offshore the
Wastes, and Storrich’s company was obliged to take to the land, the
pursuit still hot on their heels. As a last desperate measure
Storrich attempted entry into the Burning Cliffs region, risking a
stone path that he and his men found leading into the smolder.
Storrich’s pursuers turned back at this point well satisfied, and
informed the Master of the Hold that they had driven Storrich to
his death, having waited some days for him to attempt a return and
having seen nothing. The report proved to be untrue.

Two years later, Storrich appeared
in Dyvers, and being a rather loquacious individual he soon
disclosed his story–several stories, in fact, some of them
mutually contradictory, but it is possible to piece together a
relatively plausible scenario from his boasting. The general
outline of the story was that Storrich’s company happened on a city
of fire-loving creatures and there managed to steal some valuable
gold and jewelry. The subsequent conflict, and the flight southward
through the flames and fumes claimed all of Storrich’s followers,
as only he was protected from the full effect of the Burning
Cliffs, apparently by magical effects of certain of his
possessions. The identity of the creatures which Storrich robbed is
uncertain; his claims gradually grew more diverse. At various times
they were elementals, baatezu, tanar’ri, and harginn, and even
efreeti. Unfortunately these discrepancies were never resolved.
Within a month of his arrival, Storrich died of a choking fit at a
banquet. There were no other survivors to corroborate Storrich’s
story, but it is clear that he had somehow acquired a great wealth
of jacinths and gold. He spent liberally in his last weeks of life
and still left behind a considerable trove.

Since Storrich’s death, a number of
individuals have attempted the Burning Cliffs. Some have entered by
the paths which are now occasionally evident throughout the region,
while others have attempted aerial surveillance or have relied on
magical protections against the heat and set out cross country.
None who penetrated deeply into the land of the Burning Cliffs have
returned. A number of reports indicate that Iuz and the Horned
Society have taken an interest, and have sent large companies
northward. What the purpose of this may be is unknown save to the
rulers of Dorakaa and Molag. Some unknown persons have erected an
altar to Pyremius along the northern coast of the Burning Cliffs;
whether for purposes of propitiation or worship remains unknown.
Members of that cult have on occasion been linked to the region,
but they fiercely deny it.

Csipros Erd – The Geysers of
Death

In 510 CY the last of the Euroz and
Jebli tribes were driven forth from the Lortmil Mountains. One
particularly large horde made the ill-advised attempt to reach the
Yatil Mountains by crossing the gap from the Lorridges.
Unfortunately for these creatures, they had been preceded by lesser
bands, and the combined cavalry of Bissel and Veluna stood ready to
stem the tide. A large part of the humanoid force was destroyed,
but the remainder survived by dint of a ferocious counterattack and
entered the southern Yatils. There they were harassed by halfling,
human, and elven forces raised by the locals, who were not at all
of a mind to allow such prolific and ferocious creatures a
foothold. The horde finally turned southward in an attempt to reach
the Barrier Peaks region by passing through the Bramblewood Forest.
Here they met their final and fatal opponent, one Sandor the
Headstrong, the young lord of Polvar province in eastern Ket.

Unlike the other harriers of the
goblin/orc horde, the lord of Polvar was not particularly concerned
that they would settle in his lands; clearly they did not desire to
do so. He was motivated instead by rumors that had filtered into
Ket after the earlier engagements: that the cartloads so fiercely
protected by the horde’s leader (the half-orc Urgush) represented a
great store of gems and precious metals garnered during the horde’s
years in the Lortmils. Sandor was determined that such a prize
should not escape, and he pursued the host in a series of forced
marches which unfortunately exhausted his foot soldiers to the
extent that many fell behind and the remainder could not bring
about a decisive attack against Urgush’s resistance. The chase led
through the Bramblewood and into the hills, Sandor’s force
gradually regaining strength and Urgush’s growing fewer. In
desperation, Urgush turned up an unknown valley, determined to make
a final stand. Here disaster met both sides.

There are numerous hot springs in
the northern Barrier Peaks and in the Yatils, and they are widely
known and generally appreciated by the Ketites, so Sandor was not
surprised or particularly worried when he began to pass through the
outlying regions of a system of geysers, full of white frothy stone
and colored pools and pits. He only slowed his cavalry over the
difficult terrain. A supremely confident man, he was not much
disturbed either when scouts reported a number of nearby lakes of a
blood-red color said to be unlucky by Ketite peasants. The wains of
the humanoid horde were in sight and obviously bogged down. Sandor
prepared his men for a hard-pressing attack, hoping to disperse the
horde and take their prize, when the ground began to tremble.

With terrible swiftness, a powerful
wind swept down the valley, tumbling the orcs on their faces and
upsetting the precious carts. A wealth of gems could be seen to
spill from them. Sandor’s force had barely begun to comprehend this
when they too were bowled over. Only those on the upper slopes,
where Sandor had been organizing the crossbowmen, were spared. None
of the others rose again, even so far as their knees. Farther down
the valley, trees were snapped at the base by the strange wind.
Geysers triggered by the earlier tremors spouted into the air.

Sandor sent a cautious group of
scouts into the ruined valley, but they fainted well before they
had descended to the floor. He himself attempted the descent, but
had to be dragged back out of the area by a rope which he had the
foresight to attach to himself beforehand. Sandor and some of the
scouts recovered, as did some of those who had been on the valley’s
middle slopes. But all others were lost, and an invisible poison in
the air barred further entry. After two fruitless days, Sandor
yielded to the demands of his much reduced force and made his way
back to Polvar, swearing each of his men to secrecy concerning the
location of the treasure and vowing to return.

No sooner had Sandor recovered at
Polvar than he set out again, being careful to put under his
command all those who had first seen the valley. The sight of the
wealth of the Euroz and Jebli tribes had inflamed his desires, and
he was certain that with certain magical treasures he had acquired,
he and his force would return with wealth sufficient to make Polvar
a nation in its own right. He never returned.

Many have since sought Csipros Erd,
the Geysers of Death, but none have returned to report of them. The
maze of hills and valleys about the northern Barrier Peaks is
large, and not a few have geysers and hot springs. Of the “blood
red lakes” mentioned in Sandor’s account, there has been not a
trace. To common knowledge, Urgush’s wealth, along with what must
be a considerable quantity of human and humanoid bone, remains
undiscovered.

Tovag Baragu – The Stone
Circles

More than one scholar has remarked
that whereas the destruction wrought by the Bakluni wizards on the
Suloise has been the longer lasting, having persisted to the
present day as the Sea of Dust, the Invoked Devastation which the
Suloise first unleashed against the Bakluni must have been the more
thorough. Even a thousand years later, ruins of Suel cities may be
found in the desolate Sea of Dust, whereas the Dry Steppes, which
are far more habitable, seem to contain no remnants of the Bakluni
cities at all. A notable exception is Tovag Baragu, known in the
East as the Stone Circles. This large feature still stands near the
salt lake of Udrukankar at the western edge of the Flanaess.

Tovag Baragu (“Navel of the Oerth”
in Bakluni) is a set of five broad circles composed of huge, smooth
pillars of an extremely hard white rock. The pillars are sometimes
fluted but more often entirely featureless, and they are set in a
broad pavement of blocks made from the same material. The entire
structure is circular and more than a mile across. It is perfectly
level, though the land about it slopes westward towards Udrukankar.
On its western border, one may descend from the platform in a
series of broad shallow steps that ends rather abruptly some 20 or
30 feet above the salt flats. The eastern border of Tovag Baragu is
of a height with the surrounding terrain, and dust and vegetation
have invaded its margin.

It must have been a great work to
transport the pillars, which are some 40 feet high each, to their
present site. There is not rock of that sort within 200 miles, and
indeed the origin of the stone is not known. Perhaps the blocks
could have been transported on barges if the large rivers that once
flowed across the steppe were present when Tovag Baragu was built.
Also surprising, especially since so little else survived the
Invoked Devastation, is the pristine condition of Tovag Baragu.
There is no erosion, and not so much as a tilted pillar or canted
paving stone. The local tribes make no claim that their ancestors
ever constructed Tovag Baragu. This is most unusual given the
nature of the locals and the undoubted accomplishments of their
ancestors. For instance, nomads will solemnly aver that the rocky
pinnacles north of Lake Udrukankar were once a vast lighthouse
constructed for the lakeside city which stood there a millennium
ago! Perhaps they are correct. Tovag Baragu does bear some fleeting
resemblance to the badly eroded ruins one may encounter in the
Jotens and Crystalmists, which have been attributed to an ancient
civilization of stone giants. In the absence of evidence, however,
Tovag Baragu cannot be said to have any certain origin, though the
most obvious one is that of Bakluni construction.

Local human and centaur nomads hold
Tovag Baragu to be holy, and many of the Dry Steppe tribes make it
the subject of a yearly pilgrimage and festival, where they trade,
contract marriages, and meet in ceremonial commemoration of the
Suels’ destruction while their priests call down further curses on
that land. The entire event lasts two weeks, and those attending it
or traveling to or from it must abstain from feuds or warfare and
are themselves immune from the same. For much of the rest of the
year, the site is abandoned and it is considered ill fortune to see
it even on the horizon. This is readily understandable; some of the
phenomena that may be encountered there are disturbing even to the
civilized mind.

One effect which is frequently
observed by those who wander among the circles is that distant
objects seen between them are sometimes magnified. Similar
augmentations of the other senses may occur as well. In this manner
it is possible to learn some astounding things, as in the case of
Celene–but that is a topic for another account than this one. With
concentration, it is sometimes possible to sharpen the focus, or
choose one’s target. However, on occasion things may be seen
through the pillars which are almost surely distant in time or
planes rather than in space. One of the most frequent is a glimpse
of a great lakeside city, usually at night. Another is of a verdant
plain crowded with the peculiar mammalian life which may be found
on occasion near the Sulhauts. More rarely one may see or hear
regions which must surely be those of the Outer Planes.

These views would be entertaining
rather than unnerving were it not that on occasion a connection is
formed, and objects may pass between Tovag Baragu and the area
depicted. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, these openings are
rather fleeting. They may however account for some of the unusual
creatures in the southern part of the Dry Steppe.

It remains to be mentioned that the
locals believe Tovag Baragu has an effect on the weather. This is
well substantiated, since those few outsiders allowed to observe
the yearly ceremonies may see that the weather-summoning powers of
the nomads’ priests are greatly augmented. Whether in fact Tovag
Baragu operates unguided is an open question.

Rigodruok– The Rainbow
Vale

It is clear to any student of the
natural world that the ebony fields of ice which cover the
northernmost tip of the Oerik continent are no natural phenomenon,
but are almost certainly magically produced and sustained, much as
is the Sea of Dust. Quite simply, the towering wall of blackened
ice that greets the northbound traveler ought not to persist. Even
ordinary snows and ices do not remain on land over summer at such
latitudes, as may be clearly seen in the case of the Icy Sea, which
breaks up each spring. What is more, dark ice is particularly
vulnerable to melting since it gathers heat. It is a common
practice in northern cities for merchants to scatter ashes on their
doorsteps to melt ice, a tactic that works well even in the weak
winter sun. Given such a magical nature, it is hardly surprising
that strange tales abound from such a region. Of these one of the
odder but more reliable is that of the Rainbow Vale, Rigodruok.

Some years ago a fragmentary
document was recovered from Blackmoor Castle which gave substance
to the widespread accounts of a land “beyond the black ice where
the sun never sets.” While a firm description of the land itself
was lacking, the parchment gave explicit directions for finding it
among the wastes of the Black Ice. This information fell into the
hands of one Sormod, a merchant and adventurer from Perrenland who
was visiting Eru-Tovar, where the parchment surfaced for sale at
the bazaar. The romantic Sormod mounted an expedition as soon as he
could gather the backing, and departed from Dantredun in Richfest
of CY 453.

In CY 460 there surfaced in the city
of Greyhawk a volume purporting to be the personal journal of one
Henriki Ardand, the expedition’s magician. Whether true or false,
it is a most marvelous tale. Henriki tells of the difficult passage
over the sooty ice, where the expedition was endangered by
subterranean hot springs of the same sort that underlie Blackmoor.
These apparently weaken the ice and make passage over it a risky
business, apt to result in a sudden downward drop as a cavern
collapses under the weight of travelers. In places, too, there are
small volcanoes which blacken the snows newly fallen on the ice.
Between these dangers and the jumbled areas of collapsed ice, as
well as certain “ice worms” (most probably remorhaz) and the
hostile blue-furred bugbears of the region, the progress of the
expedition was rather slow, and several members were lost or
refused to go on. At last, however, they reached a range of low
peaks jutting just above the ice as their directions had described.
What greeted them on the other side must first have appeared to the
surviving members to be a paradise. Henriki calls it the Rainbow
Vale.

After a region of mists, the
explorers saw before them a green and fertile bowl of land, warmed
and lighted by a sunlike body floating half a mile above its
center. Several large islands of land likewise drifted about it,
some of them large enough to hold small rivers whose cascades of
droplets caused Henriki to name the valley as he did. Below the
miniature sun was a central lake, beside which the members of
Sormod’s group could see several clumps of broken reddish towers.

Sormod and his band descended the
steep cliffs into the valley’s forests, passing first through
birch, fir, and sablewood, then through oak and beech woodlands
where they stopped to gather uskfruit and yarpik nuts, then past
magnolias and fig trees, and down to the shores of the lake where
they found palm and deklo trees flourishing in the steamy heat.
Curls of vapor could be seen rising from the area of the lake
beneath the valley’s illuminator. They camped beside one of the
skyborn waterfalls near the ruins they had seen from the valley’s
rim, and discovered to their surprise that the buildings were of
deeply rusted iron. Finally they pitched camp. Perhaps exhausted by
the long journey, or drowsy in the unaccustomed heat, the watchmen
slept.

Sormod’s party was neither
particularly weak nor poorly equipped, but they had little chance
unwarned against the sudden onslaught that overtook them: goblins,
bugbears, and giant spiders, some of the latter of astounding size
and speed and fiendish intelligence. The camp was scattered, and
Sormod, Henriki, and the other survivors watched in horror as their
companions were bundled away and hauled up on ropes of spider-silk
to the nearest of the floating islands.

Henriki and the others managed to
regroup, and for some weeks they cautiously explored their
surroundings. They discovered a group of human primitives who
evidently worship the spiders and their humanoid henchmen, and they
also found many inexplicable constructions of metal and glass in
the ruins. Without their equipment they did not wish to risk an
overland journey, but they discovered from conversations with one
of the friendly cavemen that there was a tunnel leading southward
which eventually would reach the surface. Assured of an escape
route, they mounted a raid on the sky-island to which their
companions had been taken, using Henriki’s remaining powers. They
discovered no sign of their comrades, but they did find some very
large statues of spiders in a grove beside the spider-village, each
decorated with large diamond eyes. They took these and fled.

The long passage southward through
the tunnels claimed yet more members of the group, in some cases to
heat exhaustion as they passed the warm springs. Eventually,
however, they emerged south of the Black Ice at the headwaters of
the Fler. From there they passed through the Burneal Forest, where
Sormod was lost to a poisoned arrow in a dispute with forest
tribesmen. The survivors (including Henriki, a priest of Fharlanghn
from Schwartzenbruin, and two Wolf Nomads) divided the treasure
between themselves and dispersed, none willing again to risk the
terrors of the land beyond the Black Ice.

Esmerin

The Lortmils have always been famous
for their gems and precious metals, and stories abound of hidden
settlements in which the dwarves, gnomes, or halflings are as rich
as kings. Some of these have a firm basis, though in fact the
wealth of the inhabitants is greatly exaggerated. Gems and gold are
worth a good deal less near their source of supply, and the expense
of safe export is high, even since the Hateful Wars of CY 520.
Nevertheless, one of the more extravagant tales may have been true
after all.

In Growfest of 556, the simple river
folk of a river that flows into the Jewel south of Courwood
discovered a bronzewood casket of exquisite workmanship lying on a
sandbar. When they opened it, they found the body of a young
halfling of the tallfellow race, with unusually handsome and noble
features, preserved in a sweet-smelling resinous liquid. He was
clad in silks and gold brocade worked with emeralds, and he wore
armlets, rings, and necklaces of gold and emerald, together with
much other treasure. Perhaps because of elven influence, the
rivermen of that region are not as other men. They took each a
single ornament, as it is their custom that pallbearers are
entitled to an item from the grave goods, and buried the casket in
a secret place, each swearing never to reveal its location.
Nevertheless, the story spread up and down the river like wildfire,
and soon listeners as far away as Gradsul and Highport were
speculating as to the casket’s origin.

These events reawakened a tale long
dormant, set down by Pontus Hardiggin, a halfling traveler who
ranged widely about the world between the years 350 and 390 before
retiring to write his memoirs. Among other stories, some obviously
fabricated, Hardiggin described a visit to an idyllic land in which
halflings and giants lived in peaceful cooperation. They were
blessed with fertile soil, health, a great deposit of gold,
emeralds, and useful metals, and most of all with concealment from
the outside world. Hardiggin placed this land in the Yatils, but
this may have been intended as a joke or simply to protect the
inhabitants of that happy land. There are a number of surprising
coincidences between his account and the story of the casket: the
nature of the halflings (tallfellows, unusually handsome), the
nature of the land’s treasures (silk, gold, emeralds, resins), and
even funeral customs (placement in a cave in a bronzewood casket).
It seems unlikely that simple river folk could perpetrate so
elaborate a hoax as to duplicate an old tale no longer widely
known, or so expensive a hoax–two of the emerald ornaments have
since surfaced in jewelers’ shops on the Wild Coast, and they are
flawless and of distinctive design.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see
how the land and people Hardiggin described could go so long
undetected. His descriptions make the entire valley at least 10
miles across, and in any case a large settlement including giants
is hardly inconspicuous. There may be, however, a number of
contributing factors. The slopes of the nearby mountains as
Hardiggin describes them are foggy and thickly clad in dense
forest, and the only passes require one to scale sheer cliffs or
seek out secret passages hollowed into the rock. In either case,
the high altitude is debilitating, and the entire way is guarded.
The only other means of entry to the land of Esmerin is by means of
a river which flows through underground caverns after disappearing
near a whirlpool in Esmerin’s eastern quarter. This is certainly a
route even more difficult. As for views from the air, only the
giant eagles and the aarakocra are likely to gain such, and these
were described by Hardiggin as allies. Last but not least, the land
of Esmerin is described as protected by the magical power of a huge
emerald “as big as a giant’s head,” which stands in a pavilion at
the center of the chief settlement. Hardiggin described this
emerald as having the power to alter the appearance of a land as
seen from the distance. He also attributes powers to control the
weather and various other matters to this agency.

According to Hardiggin, those who
somehow stray into Esmerin are compelled by the inhabitants to
remain; if they are evil, they are simply killed. The former is
accomplished in cases of apparent recalcitrance by means of a
geas
placed on the intruder never to leave. The charming
Hardiggin narrowly escaped this imposition, fleeing by a perilous
route down the caverns running alongside the underground river that
leaves Esmerin, past the burial chambers, and through several
siphons. (One wonders why so foolhardy an individual lived to write
his memoirs.) It is possible that, with the exception of Hardiggin,
all outsiders have been deterred or detained.

Whatever protections Esmerin may
have, it most surely has need of them. Hundreds of fortune seekers
have traversed the Lortmils in search of it over the past two
decades, and many hunters are of a dire and evil nature. Certain
well-equipped expeditions from the Pomarj have made incursions into
the Lortmils through the Suss forests, for instance. So far none
have returned with any report, but this may well be only a matter
of time given the hard evidence of the emerald ornaments. One
hopes, too, that the casket will not be discovered and its contents
(and possibly the spirit of the corpse) examined.

Turucambi

The Oljatt Sea is largely unexplored
owing to the hazard of the predatory sea creatures that dwell
there, but nonetheless the intrepid Sea Lords have trade routes
along the shallower portions well down the Hepmonaland coast. One
of the primary reasons for taking such a difficult journey is the
lacework of islands, reefs, lagoons, and lakes known as Turucambi.

Turucambi is a maze of limestone
jutting up from the sea bottom some 20 leagues from the mainland of
Hepmonaland’s easternmost extremes. Generally, sea captains
approach along the coastline rather than across the deeps, as
native attacks are preferred to sea beasts the size of ships. What
the captains seek there is a wealth of precious coral, as well as
the occasional odd relic traded by the locals.

The complex interpenetration of land
and water that is Turucambi is rich in life, both above and below
the surface–indeed, rather too much so for the tastes of most
merchants. The region is some 30 miles across, roughly oval, and
has numerous small islands which consists almost entirely of steep
ridges. The vegetation is dense, and much of it is saw-edged or
contains a poisonous sap that raises blisters wherever it touches
skin. These branching islands are riddled with lakes and lagoons,
many connected to the sea through subterranean passages which run
through the entire region. All the rock is limestone, and riddled
with large and small caves; the footing is extremely difficult, and
the chief land fauna seems to consist of venomous and ill-tempered
snakes, and a few crocodiles. Turucambi’s wealth, however, is in
the water.

The Turucambi reefs are among the
most complex known, and present surprises at every turn. The tidal
range is great, and there are shallows regularly exposed by the
tides, deep unfathomed sinkholes, and complex and powerful tidal
races which can toss a ship like a toy. There are white coral
plains, expanses of sea grasses, mangrove swamps, and complex
rookeries of bright coral, all swarming with life from microscopic
to gigantic. The waters teem with mermen, sahuagin, water nagas,
sea elves, koalinth, saltwater trolls, ixitxachitl, and even a
tribe of seagoing lizard men. These fight constantly with one
another to maintain their territories, and to exclude uninvited
land folk. Nor are these the only hazards. Many of the corals and
sea jellies carry poison stings that may raise painful or deadly
welts, and a number of the mollusks and fishes are similarly armed.
Plesiosaurs roam the shallows, sculling about in search of food
both large and small.

The attraction of Turucambi to the
aquatic races is twofold: first, it is one of the richest in sea
life of the Oljatt’s reefs, and second it attracts human trade.
Precious corals can be harvested from the deeper parts of the reef:
not only the familiar red and black corals, but the rarer golden
coral. There are also certain ancient treasures such as small
figurines of precious stone or delicately colored bowls, apparently
of terrestrial manufacture, in some of the darker and less well
explored corners of Turucambi. These are highly prized. In return,
the sea folk gain goods not easily made in the water; glass,
copper, or bronze (they have little desire for iron, which rusts
too readily), and silver or gold jewelry, as well as mundane items
such as wood and stone, particularly obsidian. Most sea folk have
treaties with merchants from civilized lands or with Hepmonaland
natives, allowing safe passage and free trade.

Indeed, it is possible that the sea
folk trade yet more widely. A Duxchaner vessel blown out to sea and
unsure of its bearings once approached from the east, and observed
a huge sunken hulk more than a hundred feet long, with many masts
and a slender, shallow body. She appeared to be holed and to have a
cargo clearly visible through the six fathoms of water over her,
but the practical and incurious Duxchaners turned away. It is
hazardous to approach an unfamiliar part of Turucambi, not merely
because of the natural hazards but because of the locals, who are
more than willing to attempt piracy rather than trading and who are
resentful of possible coral poachers.

It has been suggested that Turucambi
might be artificial in whole or in part. Such convoluted islands
are found nowhere else in such numbers. Certainly this would
explain the odd trade goods occasionally taken, but the size of the
structures strains belief. The hardheaded traders who visit are not
eager to spend time searching out the answer to the problem, and
the residents, even the friendly ones, do not seem anxious to
answer the questions of the idly curious.