I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.
Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.
The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.
Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.
Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.
But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.
There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.
Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.
There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.
Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.
On a small mountain rising out of the rain forest, nestled in an opening amidst thick-trunked gray-brown trees wreathed in lianas, a cool dark pond bubbles up from the rock below. Barely convex with the force of its spring, the pool does not reflect the light of the sky overhead, only the undersides of trees’ leaves. When rain falls, as it does every afternoon of the wet season, the sky’s water slides off the quietly bubbling spring and seeps into the rocky earth around it. It is only in those moments, when that thin sheet of sky-water oozes away across the pool like oil, that one may see the gray clouds or spotty blues of the sky overhead reflected on the pool.
The spring’s water is uniformly cold to the touch. Soothing on a hot day, local animals sometimes swim in it, never fighting while sharing the spring’s waters. Indeed, the local wildlife is larger, healthier, and more frequently docile than others of their kind. But a careful observer will note that no animal drinks more than a single sip from the pool on any visit, preferring instead to dip themselves in the spring without drinking from it. But the trees around the spring, watered by it, grow strong and tall. And these local animals eat freely from the small fruits hanging on those thick-trunked trees, casting seeds far and wide.
The spring is reputed to belong to the jealous god of life, growth, and small beginnings, a formidable being who is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or scorned. The story goes that anyone who drinks too fully from the spring offers themselves to this god of life, Tel, and invites Tel to work through them. Often, the story ends with an incautious and thirsty person clutching at their mouth in horror as mushrooms erupt from their skin and a small fruit tree with glistening gray-brown bark roots down through their feet and branches up through their skull. So it is that the spring is held to be both sacred and dangerous, a place to be venerated and, for the most part, avoided.
There are exceptions, of course. There are stories of some few more-favored by Tel who drank deeply from the spring and were blessed without becoming trees. And the people who hold the spring as holy do visit at certain times of year, as new growth burgeons and as seeds are sown, to make offerings and perform the rituals known to be pleasing to Tel. Those who are coming of age are bid to take one sip from the spring during these rites, in hopes of long and fruitful lives, while those whose limbs have been wounded, withered, or warped may sip in hopes that Tel will guide their limbs once more. But apart from these times, the spring is left alone on its mountaintop, a world apart from its surroundings, its strange reflections and turbulence unexamined and untouched.
Beneath the kindest branches of the go-now trees, ushered on by a warm wind now at one’s back, now easing the sweat from one’s brow, the most fortunate travelers wander on the Softest Road. It is not, it’s said, a route any may find by hunting it. It is rumored to be the least helpful road of all: only those who wander without urgent need may find it, and only those who continue on their path without worry may enjoy it. The focus and drive to seek a place, to rush from here to there, will lead any traveler on the Softest Road away from the giving earth which springs beneath their feet to deposit them on the hard and rocky dirt with no way to return. Those who stumble off the Road can find no path behind them, no hint of the Road they had just trod.
In fact, the only way to seek the Softest Road or remain upon it is to lose oneself in the enjoyment of one’s journey. Those who fall into a beautiful day’s travel, who marvel at the wonders around them and give in to the enjoyment of their surroundings, may find the ground beneath their feet shifting one step at a time, the land before them coaxing itself into a more even semblance of good footing and gentle travel. Slight slopes gain even grades and good gravel. Steep ones have regular steps, seemingly natural stones set perfectly for the walker’s gait. Dust never rises from the Softest Road, never choking and cloying, never thickening to sodden mud. Traffic, such as it is, is infrequent and rarely hostile. Beautiful vistas open themselves to the viewer on either side (or both) as the Softest Road meanders through gorgeous dells and sunny copses.
Trips which should have taken weeks may only require days on the Softest Road, though any given day’s travel might see one deposited early in a new place apart from one’s final destination, if the traveler gives over to dwelling on time or anything besides the joy of the journey. And there are stories of the opposite, of those who find themselves on the Softest Road for weeks when a trip should have taken an afternoon, too entranced by the marvel and relaxation of such perfect walking to find their way out.
There are stories of those who’ve found impossible places on their journeys on the Softest Road, visions of worlds unknown, of improbable structures and fabulous landscapes and even vast star-dotted emptiness. None know whether such places might be reachable, or found again, for none who’ve left the Road in their urgency to explore such have returned—at least, none who might be believed.
If nothing else, it is a certainty that the Softest Road does not traverse the space between two places. Those on the road are not seen by those off of it, except perhaps as momentary glimpses of travelers in strange places: striding upon high cliffs, stepping from tree to tree, or emerging from vast waters. The longer one walks the Softest Road, the further afield one may go and the stranger the things one may see.
It is not known who made the Softest Road, or if it was ever made at all. Perhaps it is simply some diffuse spirit of the vast universe finding its way to share with those amidst it. There are stories, tall tales told of some few who learned to find the Softest Road in one step; these folk strode without a care or a worry, passing from place to place in a joyous wandering, never staying long. They brought with them bizarre myths and ancient legends, and left behind them little relics of other lands before stepping out again never to return. Some say they’ve learned the trick of it too, but even these folk may lose their way from time to time, becoming too attached to a desire to truly live the aimless, wondering, wandering way of the Softest Road.
The delicate traceries of crystalline trees rise from the glass-covered loam of an ancient forest. They glimmer, refracting sunlight until it dances across the earth around them, shimmering in their vitreous leaves. It is dangerous to walk among the trees with eyes or skin uncovered: many have been blinded by the brightness of the Stone Trees or burned when a leaf’s lens seared their flesh, and the fine-crushed debris of last year’s leaves will shred its way through any foot. On still and sunny days, the land around the Stone Trees smokes and bakes. On windy ones, the rainbows they cast dance.
Meditating in the heart of the Stone Trees’ glade is both a rite of passage and a form of augury for the wise ones of the local people. These practitioners say that the most potent prognostications are revealed beneath the sun’s brightest light, but they caution against the casual pursuit of such knowledge—the Sun-of-the-Trees can take as quickly as it gives, and more than one would-be oracle has fumbled their way out from the Stone Trees blind, bleeding from their dreadful stumbling.
The blood they leave behind soon disappears.
Near the edge of the Stone Trees, the glassine sheets of sloughed crystalline bark lie heavy and still amidst the leaf debris of the surrounding wood. The boundary there, between the old wood and the crystal trees which rise from their midst, is feathery and ill-defined. It wavers back and forth. Those few who’ve tried to track the edges of the stone tree grove within the vast and aged forest all disagree as to where the true edge lies. Sometimes, they even disagree with themselves. The only thing they can regularly agree on is that the boundary seems to move at times, replacing wooden giants of the forest with the refractive stands of the crystal trees. But the border shifts back as well, and a year after disappearing some massive trees thought lost to the stone and glass reappear as they were, fresh with their missing year’s growth. None have seen the border there shift and carried the tale of it back with them, but plenty have disappeared.
Those that disappear have never returned with the massive trees.
The center of the Stone Trees’ glade remains undisturbed, however. While the boundary may waver around the glade’s edges, the center does not shift. The locals say this is because the Sun-of-the-Trees—that refracted kindling glow that haunts the Stone Trees on even cloudy days, rising to blinding brilliance in full sunlight—lives there and holds the grove still in its presence. Those who doubt or discount local stories claim that the phenomenon is astrological and geological in nature, tied to the movement of the stars and the composition of the earth beneath the glade. While some have attempted to dig into the earth beneath the fractal crystal spires, to test their hypotheses, their expeditions have uniformly ended in disaster and failure. Digging through vast taproots harder than iron, facing frequent tunnel collapses as though the earth itself wished to smother interlopers… even the largest projects lose their workers when they hit the first crystals, breaking tools and hopes on the stone trees’ adamant foundations.
Most stories told of those digs ooze with the work’s dangerous drudgery. But some few shed the banal to speak of whispers down in the dark, or to hint at revelations seen in the gleam of a crystalline root. Few who’ve worked one mining expedition will ever sign up for another.
The Stone Trees have proven similarly resistant to attempts to remove them from their glade, though the acquisitive may sometimes depart with bark, leaves, or even a small branch. These artifacts and keepsakes are treasured by collectors of oddities, and have sparked the curiosity of many. But while plenty of the curious have attempted to enter the glade, far more stop at the edges, sit down, and simply listen to the music of the trees as they chime in the wind. It is, they say, the most enchanting sound they’ve ever heard: a portal to a space beyond, and a source of peace in the world.
Out on the edge of Cape Hope, the Breakers’ Strand beckons. It is a dangerous lure, a vast and beautiful stretch of shimmering sands and tufted sea grass, marred by the ruined hulks of dead ships. Though its sands are coveted by Cymearnian glassmakers, it is a desolate place: vessels’ ribs emerge from the Strand’s shoals and sandbars like skeletal fingers, waves frothing happily around the remains of their victims. The Breakers’ Strand claims many lives every year, and sailors sing of its reach. Scared, they compose poetry, odes offered to the Strand in the fervent hope that it will accept their words… rather than clutching and dragging their hulls to their doom.
The Breakers’ Strand runs at least forty miles, but its outer windswept edge reaches even further into the sea. The currents deposit many gifts upon its beaches, and the heavy waves sometimes break through the Strand’s boundary into the brackish bogs and fens of Cape Hope on the Strand’s inland side. Here and there, amongst the Strand’s small occasional inlets, those bogs and fens form estuaries and salt marshes. Locals live in isolated villages, fishing communities sheltered by the Strand, and they sail out from the lees on either side of Cape Hope. None sail the waters along the Strand itself, unless they absolutely must.
Cape Hope straddles the only sea route between the ancient and storied vastness of Cymearn and the burgeoning wealth of the Guild-Cities. All shipping which would travel between them—as indeed most would—must tempt fate and ride the strong winds and powerful currents of Cape Hope to pass the Breakers’ Strand. The only other routes around all put so far out to sea that most journeys run afoul of flukey winds, requiring more stores and fresh water than it’s worth.
Of course, those reliable winds that scour the Breakers’ Strand make it all the more dangerous. Worse, they never seem to clear the frequent fogs which rise from Cape Hope’s marshes. Ships may believe they’ve given the Strand its proper sea room only to be driven onto its shifting sandbars, or pulled into the low fog-shrouded shoreline by the sea’s currents. If such ships are fortunate enough to come ashore in fine weather, they may manage to escape before their ship is bludgeoned to pieces. But few are so lucky: most that run aground on the Strand are broken in rushing seas, beaten apart, their sailors rendered unconscious by vast waves casting them violently, again and again, against the sand of the Strand’s shallows.
Ships’ corpses are not left unattended, of course. Salvage work is common amongst the locals of Cape Hope. Many local homes are built from ships’ timbers-turned-driftwood, and beachcombers wander the Strand after any storm to pick over whatever wrecks they might find. Most finds are small things, useful but picayune, but every so often a salvager may strike it rich: a ship’s pay-chest, or rare luxuries which survived the salty sea. More often, beachcombers are paid by shipping concerns for the slow trickle of their reports or findings—whether that means confirming the loss of a missing ship, or recovering some fraction of the ship’s lost cargo. There are even those merciful (or guilt-ridden) locals who risk their lives to rescue sailors when they may, forging out into the lethal surf to retrieve those blown ashore in terrible storms. The less adventurous or driven are sometimes employed to maintain the lights built by the Guild-Cities on either end of the Strand. Useful though they may be, those lighthouses remain insufficient to their task.
Of course, those lighthouses aren’t the only lights seen at night along the Strand. In fog, or on cloudy or stormy nights, less scrupulous beachcombers turn shipwrecker, carrying lanterns along the dunes to coax passing vessels to their doom. These scavengers would speed along their work, bringing unsuspecting ships into peril at places of their choosing. None of the small fishing villages that pepper the Cape’s coast and rise from its fens boast of these practices, but they are known.
Harder to explain are the lights seen even with no shipwrecker present, emerging from the bogs or riding across the Strand. Local lore warns that one should always flee those lights, whether they are ghost ships or simple lonely spirits. This advice is doubly true for any who’ve pulled a ship ashore to pick apart its carcass. The ire of the dead is not known for fine distinctions or discretion, and enough have died upon the Strand or in its waters to muster centuries of ghosts. For every sailor rescued from being beaten to death by the sea itself, many more are never saved. They instead have added their bones to the beautiful beaches, their last passage unknown.
The last of a string of islands, its land rises from a pebbled shingle beach on the windward side up to a rocky set of cliff faces on the leeward. Three small ruins sit atop the cliff’s heights, each a collection of collapsing fieldstone walls, but the isle’s largest ruin rises in a series of mounds from the isle’s central span. The mounds are crowned by rising stonework which pierces upwards through the earth, a spear of stone for each small hill crest. A few of these rising structures still hold some remnants of roof, but most have been stripped bare down to their narrow stone skeletons. Most notably, however, each mound and each spear of stone runs in a straight line pointing just off windward, aligning perfectly with the smaller islands in the string that runs to windward.
With the exception of large storms’ gusts, the wind always blows from the same direction.
The last people to live on the island might best be described as a dwindling cult, a series of occupants too devoted to their obsession with the ruins and the island chain to care for their own basic needs. The wreckage of their settlement rests near the windward base of the isle’s central valley, weatherbeaten wood and bits of fieldstone foundation. Most houses were constructed from the wooden ships of those who’d sailed to the island, hulls dragged ashore and broken down for shelter from the elements. Perhaps the greatest mystery of the cult was how and why any joined in the first place, with an alarming rate of conversion among those who visited the little colony which died there.
The dead settlement’s small fields have been long neglected, disappearing into the turf while a few volunteer crops persist. The goats brought to the island dot the green slopes, staring at newcomers so bold as to land ashore, watching any who pass nearby through the island’s waters. The goats avoid the central valley. Once cleared for easy passage, it now lies overgrown with long grasses and burgeoning brush.
It is unclear why any who visited this desolate place would have chosen to remain, let alone settle and devote the rest of their lives to tending it. The fact that so many did, that so many set themselves down in a place where the very consistency of the wind might drive one mad, baffles those who’re cursorily familiar with the island’s history. But some few observations made from the sea, or from the pebbled shingle at the islands windward edge, point to a deeper mystery.
The foundations of the old settlement houses, like the ruins atop the leeward cliffs, are fieldstone-built. Such stones are easy enough to find on the island, similar enough to the larger rocks on the pebble shingle as to be easily imagined elsewhere ashore. But the stone spears which rise from the mounds are worked, their stonework well cut and cunningly joined. Moreover, none of those stones come from anywhere nearby. The closest similar known source would require delivery over hundreds of miles, much of that open water.
Finally, each of the stone protrusions is large enough to fit several people inside, and most accounts from those who’ve visited them swear that they are hollow. No one has been down inside them in years, to the best knowledge of the outside world. If any have, they have not shared their discoveries with anyone else… though that is certainly possible, especially given the occasional fresh shipwreck found in the waters near the Isle of Lyn, or beached upon its shore.
The few old accounts of the stone spears’ interiors do not agree with each other, often in such open disagreement as to suggest that the writers were hiding something. This is often argued by those who’ve studied the Isle of Lyn, especially by those who’ve traced how many of the old writers ended their lives on the island as part of that dwindling obsessive cult. Until someone else ventures there, all that remains is quiet speculation about these strange ruins so isolated from the rest of the world.
Blythe’s Keep rests atop a precipice, other stonework peeking through the tall grass beneath the fortified tower, the rugged slope giving way to a half-broken cliff. The cliff descends steeply to the well-traveled road below, giving anyone at its crest a commanding view of the lowland. The road holds traces of ancient highways, massive paving stones laid snugly together, broad leafy trees spaced alongside to shade the path.
Some distance past the cliff, a tributary of those paving stones wend away from the highway, climbing the gentle slopes which rise to the keep’s cliff face. Their old course now lies buried by landslide and overgrowth, and whatever they led to—older than the keep, without a doubt—remains hidden as well. The main highway continues on, undisturbed.
The keep is recent, in the comparative ages of laid stone. Built under the direction of the warrior called Blythe, it rises about five stories from the clifftop and is still broad at its tapered peak. The remains of its sloped roof peek above the weary crenelations of the roof’s edge. From its position at the top of the cliff, any occupant of the keep could interdict traffic along the road as they wished. They could, similarly, prevent anyone from interfering with travelers upon that road.
The stories about Blythe generally agree that he was an affable bandit who rose to prominence by winning over the people living in the lowlands around the cliff and its hills. With their allegiance, he levied tolls on any who passed along the highway that ran below his cliffs, while also running off his more violent or less restrained competitors. The money he gathered with the support of the local folk went into maintaining the road, buying better tools for the locals, and building the beginnings of the watchtower which would become his keep.
It’s also well known that Blythe had an acquaintance, Insuza, with an interest in the old, dead, and arcane. Her particular expertise varies by the retelling, but it’s always considerable. Stories vary on the nature of their relationship: lovers in some tales, comrades in arms in others, sometimes both, sometimes merely professionally connected. Regardless, in every story about his keep, Insuza was consulted early and often during its construction. Something about the keep, something about where it was built—and perhaps what lay beneath it—drew her like a moth to the flame.
At some point, however, she disappeared. The keep was finished, and only Blythe remained. Blythe died a petty lordling, with his own fortified tower that he rarely left, but without any heirs to his name. All agree that he was lonely, that he slept poorly, and that it was best not to mention Insuza in his presence.
Antiquarians argue about what could possibly have driven the involvement of Insuza, and collectors of old tales disagree about what happened to her. Some point to the ancient stones which stick out like jutting teeth from beneath the tower’s feet, and say that Blythe found ruins when he laid the foundations of his keep. According to them, Insuza’s expertise was requested to know where it might be safe to build. When her knowledge was no longer needed, they say, she departed.
Others agree that ruins were found, but say that Blythe and Insuza ventured down into them only to find something horrid. Here the tales diverge once more; one branch believes Insuza emerged from the ruins, while the other claims she was lost below. Regardless, all agree that Blythe blocked off access to the ruins and set himself to guard them with his keep, perhaps patiently waiting for Insuza’s return from her research elsewhere… or dreading the moment when she’d come knocking from below, in some more horrible form.
High in the windswept hills, where rain and fog shroud the grassy slopes and leave dew on brambles and gorse, a vast pile of boulders rises from between the slopes. As tall as the hills around it, taller even, the pile is known as the Cairn of Morag, and it is large enough to bury a giant. Should an intrepid explorer choose to risk themselves, it would be possible to squeeze in through the gaps between the stones, where wet trickles down and the darkness echoes with the quiet rattles of shifting pebbles and small skittering feet.
Mosses and lichens sheathe the outer stones, a green-and-gray coat that hides the cairn from distant eyes amongst the surrounding hills. The cairn is home to birds, snakes, rabbits and other small creatures, but travelers in the area speak of something far stranger: near dawn and dusk, stories say, a red fox prowls the stones with eyes that glow like the sun. Rumor has it that those who’ve seen the lights on the cairn come down with fevers, beset by visions, haunted by the dead. This illness is, perhaps, a judgement; those who’ve killed find themselves hunted in their dreams by the beings whose blood they’ve shed. Those who’ve lost loved ones speak of reconnecting, with all the touching love and horror such a meeting may bring.
The people who live below Morag’s Hills, farmers and shepherds, masons and miners, leave out small offerings to the fox and avoid looking towards the cairn. Some of their stories say Morag was a giantess, a shapeshifting witch who blessed the land around her hills and taught the first smallfolk there to farm. Those stories say that she was struck down by a jealous god, or perhaps a demon, but was too strong to be truly slain. Stuck in the realm between life and death, her old body buried by the smallfolk she had cared for, she took on the form of a red fox with sunlit eyes to watch over her hills until the moon fell from the sky.
Other tales claim that Morag was once human, a sorceress who ruled the nearby land from her hill-keep and drew down the light of the moon to feed her growing hungers. In these stories, Morag feasted on the flesh of her subjects, simmering them in her twelve cauldrons until the meat fell from the bone, reducing the blood-broth to jelly. When the stars could finally watch no more of her profane rites, they sent down servants and maledictions, burying the hungry Morag—and all her treasures—beneath her own tower. These stories say that the red fox, Hale, is the last surviving servant of the stars, and that he continues his watch over Morag’s cairn to be sure she never rises again.
Whatever truly happened, whether those stones cover a giantess, a sorceress, or some legacy more banal, few these days approach the cairn. Only those greedy or desperate enough to seek the truth, or willing to risk their lives to see the dead, travel high into those hills near dawn or dusk.