The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

The Churn, Starhome, Ozbek’s Folly

The Churn is a place of ancient cataclysm and ruination, a vast crater many miles across with a still molten caldera at its heart. Called Ozbek’s Folly by some, Starhome by others, the bowl of the Churn is shrouded in endlessly circling winds that carry the dust of millions dead. These winds harry sand over bedrock, stripping down all that cannot find shelter in a safe lee. Where ridge lines of fractured rock rise above the blasted terrain, narrow ribbons of greenery thrive in their wind-shadow. So too do crevasses harbor streams, rivers of life that the knowledgable may follow into the crater’s center where oases ring the caldera in the eye of the Churn’s storm.

The stories told of the Churn say that whatever caused it still lies at its heart, wreathed in the molten rock it wrought so long ago.

There are those who live within the Churn’s ever-windy desolation, people who have grown strange over time. They have changed in their generations of clinging to the green, of braving the scouring winds to find new life or old traces of the time before. They have altered themselves in their generations of imbibing the waters which rise from the rents in the earth near the caldera’s heat. Feared by those who live beyond the Churn’s high and crumbling walls, the crater-folk mostly keep to themselves.

When people from outside the Churn venture in, they all report being watched and tracked. Some outsiders who have visited and survived tell stories of their companions being eaten; some say by crater-folk, or by other hungry things which dwell within the churn—sometimes both at the same time. Others dismiss these claims, or accuse the storytellers of covering their own desperate cannibalism. These others point to the tiny but highly profitable trade with crater-folk as proof that they are not hungry monsters: some few have managed to exchange good tools and supplies for rare herbs and rocks, or for small precious otherworldly things much sought after by the outside world.

Despite its permanent dust storm and the vicious nature of travel within the Churn, people continue to seek its heart.

Those who call it Starhome claim that a fallen star sings from the center of the caldera, its song raising the winds which circle it without cease. They wish to gaze upon its beauty, and to discover its secrets. Some few, no doubt, would take it for themselves if they could. Starhome, to hear them describe it, holds at its center a marvel from beyond this world, something so purely divine that it could make one like unto a god. In their eyes, the caldera’s molten rock is merely the final barrier to the shining glory within, while the waters of the oases around it contain the essence of that star and may share its blessings on those who drink of them.

Those who call it Ozbek’s Folly put more weight in the stories told of the land as it was before the Churn. They say that the crater obliterated the city of Ozbek, a once towering center of might and learning. According to them, the city had such power as to seek the inner mysteries of the universe, and such poor judgment as to succeed. But because of their mistakes, which cost the lives of uncountable people and their city, the remnants of their civilization are now available for any who would venture within the Churn. At the city’s dead heart, now a smoking caldera, the most precious of their artifacts may yet remain.

Those who dwell within the Churn have other stories. But beyond hints which needle at the lies the curious tell themselves, the crater-dwellers keep those stories to themselves.

Haunted Mines of Frozen Time

In the western hills, below the growing height of the volcano Tupol, ancient quarries etch the slopes and lay bare the stone beneath. Near their bases, where erosion paints runnels through the scarce remaining dirt and channels the upslope waterfalls into a well-fed river, tunnels gape like burst cysts in the quarries’ walls. These tunnels eat into the hillsides, following the thick sheet of soft, mottled blue-green glass which miners first sought ever deeper under the old, cold lava flows which buried it.

The trees which grow on the abandoned mines’ tailings twist in odd shapes, their forms uncannily human. The forests below, fed by the river which leaches those tailings, echo those uncanny forms over and over again. The forests are well-known for being haunted.

The glass those long-dead miners sought still lingers in the hills, precious and coveted by archaeologists, alchemists, and artificers. It shivers in the cold, and shimmers with a light from within that waxes with the dying of the moon. In the deepest dark of the new moon, the glass is even said to whisper, growing louder and louder as it Continue reading

Temple in the Blasted Plain

North of the mountains of The Spire lies what was once the heart of an empire. That stretch of fertile rolling plains is now untrammeled, abandoned. The capital city which once dominated that horizon, gone.

A vast temple complex stood at the core of that capital, dedicated to the god of agreements and law, ruler of his pantheon. From there the priests of the empire oversaw the rise and spread of a power few have since matched. Certainly no realm which now rules lands once claimed by the empire can rival its ancient might.

Now that city lies buried, stricken at its height. The central temple is the only building which still emerges fully intact from the land around it, crowning the city’s tallest hill, uncomfortably preserved against the passage of time.

The fall of a god is unkind, never gentle.

Now, few ever visit the city’s stricken corpse. Fewer still dare to enter the holy grounds of the fallen god of order. The skies above wreathe themselves every day with the same storm, an eerie and unrelenting echo of the city’s swift and brutal end. It rolls north from the mountains, the gloom-black cloud front grinding across the sky like a sarcophagus’ closing lid. By the height of midday, the ruined city’s only light flickers from cloud to cloud in dazzling arcs. The blasts, when they come, fall in endless succession; they smite the city’s ruins again, every day, exactly as they did the day the city’s god was deposed and swept, fragmentary, into the abyss.

At midnight, the storm dissolves once again.

This endless cycle has played out for centuries. It has pulverized the ancient empire’s remains. Those who dwell in the lands nearby know not to travel near that god-cursed ground.

But others—the faithful, the learned, the foolish—seek to know what has preserved the fallen god’s sacred place in the center of such destruction. Their stories are inconsistent.

Those few who arrive untouched at the center of the storm, those few who see the fallen god’s holy house, cannot agree. Some find the pediment as it was, the order of the world from top to bottom in gleaming bas relief, the god front and center and larger than life. This temple still stands, but its doors are shut with verdigris and time. Others claim that the temple still stands, yes, but has been replaced by something wrong; the god of that temple screams from his carved likeness, the rain falling from his open mouth as blood. That temple, to that overthrown god, echoes from within with sounds unsought: the voices of those you thought safely dead, the secrets you wished kept, that which will undo you. Its doors stand wide open.

Some claim that those gray-green doors sealed by ages long past have opened at their touch. Few believe them. No one claims they’ve entered the open temple, but a lie of omission is still a lie.

The adventurous speak of other temples taking pride of place in that storm-wracked necropolis, others found instead of the two most well-known. They have told tales of wooden statues brought to life, of warm and welcome darkness with a heartbeat inside, of torchlight and the endless sounds of drums. They have spread rumors of passages into the several hells ruled by the shattered lord, of ways into the precarious past before the fall, of awe-inspiring visions of the broken god’s injustices and of his all-encompassing rule.

But it is the crazed who speak the truth as to why any still venture into that land of lightning and destruction: they would have a glimpse of that old god… and seize a shard of his power for themselves.

Paradise at the Titan’s Feet

Twin buttes rise above sparsely forested foothills, close together and nearly parallel. Unlike other buttes, they broaden towards their rough tops, nearly touching. They’re known as the Titan’s Feet—their eerie resemblance of ankles and calves is made worse by the way their foothills only stretch in one direction, sloping down to end in smaller hills known by locals as The Toes. Though the resemblance isn’t perfect, no one denies it exists.

The mining town of Paradise lies nestled in the high saddle between the buttes. Everyone living there is connected with the many mines which dot the buttes, either as a miner themselves or as someone who supports the miners. Ruled by a junta of powerful locals, Paradise is beset on all sides. It has only remained under local control for so long because of the town’s natural fortifications, and through careful manipulation of its neighbors.

The products of the buttes’ mines are wildly precious and widely sought after. Reputed to have magical, mystical, and alchemical properties, the long veins of precious gems and rare metals command attention from all over. Unfortunately, that includes the attention of various warlords and pretenders to the throne. Originally a crown holding, Paradise’s independence has been tested constantly ever since the realm encompassing it fell apart in political crises and succession wars. Many say possession of Paradise is proof of legitimacy; certainly, controlling access to its resources and drawing from its wealth could sway the tides of war.

In better times, both learned folk and occult practitioners devoted their lives to studying the Titan’s Feet and their origins. The Feet rise out of a broad plain, some days’ ride from the nearest large rock formations. They are entirely distinct from the local bedrock. And though some have tried to explain the Feet as a natural phenomenon, most explanations simply cover speculation with a thin sheen of intellectual authority. Many scholars have acknowledged that they are better off collecting local folklore.

Some stories tell of a blessed woman who swore an oath to hold her ground in the face of a god’s wrath, a woman who grew in stature to match her obduracy, yet was petrified by the upset deity for having defied them. Other stories say that the Feet were built by unknown ancients, a beautiful statue of marvelous height now mostly-missing. Yet others claim that the Feet grow taller every year, bit by bit, and that one day they will finish growing the rest of their body.

Some miners who’ve spent too long underground in the Feet swear that they hear a heartbeat. Others tell of how the stone flexes around them at times, nearly like living flesh, or of how the buttes’ stone tries to close itself as flesh would a wound. These stories are shared around Paradise but often derided; few tell them while sober, or admit to believing them even when drunk. Regardless, everyone agrees that the Feet aren’t truly safe. Though they’re fabulously rich in gems and ores rarely found elsewhere (let alone in conjunction), they also contain strange things that scuttle in the darkness or which have made their own small tunnels. Much like the encroaching warlords, reports of these strange things in the mines have grown worse since the fall of the Crown.

Some people think that the problems are related.

The Wreck of the Lucius

Crystalline waves break on the shores of a large cove, water cool and deep green lapping up on white sands beneath the palm trees that mark the land’s edge. This cove once served a bustling merchant fleet; the old wooden docks have rotted and been blown away by vast storms, and only their piers remain. The city that stretched from the hinterland to the cove’s prominent hook lies abandoned, decaying and buried by time and tide. Only a few inhabitants yet remain.

A strange metal sight rises from the heart of the cove, recognizable to any sailor as a ship set prow-first into the cove’s depths. Its hull still gleams, metal untarnished but for bizarre scorched gouges that have opened its sides, and its masts jut proud and perpendicular from the brilliant brass of the deck. The ship dwarfs any galleon which once called this harbor home, its stern rising high above the waves. Letters in indelible white proclaim the ship “Lucius,” written in large script beneath the chromed gunwales.

The water around around the Lucius holds a strange consistency, gradually thickening from liquid to slime to gel as one approaches. The learned scholars of the dead coastal city once proposed that this oddity, brought by the ship’s arrival, was to blame for the sudden waves of plague and deformity which wracked the city’s populace. But rigorous avoidance of the cove’s water did nothing to slow the death which rolled through the city. This, on top of the destruction wrought when the metal ship plummeted from a clear sky into the harbor’s center, sealed the city’s end.

No life has stirred from within the metal ship—none that any nearby can see. Of the adventurous souls who have attempted to board the shining vessel, only two have returned. The first died within weeks of a terrible wasting disease, raving about the oceans between stars, the brave folk who dare to sail them, and the terrible things which stalk those sailors through the darkness. The other adventurer, perhaps more obdurate and dull, merely showed several small golden statues they’d retrieved and noted that the ship was filled with marvels beyond compare. That second adventurer disappeared soon thereafter. Many of those who heard their story died of ague.

The few fisherfolk that still make this cove their home claim that the Lucius sings on some nights, a keening dirge that washes from one end of the harbor to the other. On those nights, they say, lights and figures can be seen moving about aboard the ship, above and below the water. They claim it’s worst on the nights with no moon, and that the Lucius has been changing slowly over the years: that there are new scorch marks, that the “ghosts” struggle harder, and that the ship’s song has grown harsher. The oldest among the fisherfolk says she’s worried for the ship’s crew.

The Arena of Galch

Mad Galch, the wizard-architect of Jous, was commissioned to construct an arena for the Imperial City at the height of the Jousian Empire’s second peak. He did so, after laboring for a year and a day without rest, finishing it with a crack of thunder that shattered the heavens. All who saw the Arena of Galch praised it, once they had recovered their senses.

It was a towering stadium, the deep bowl of its structure revealing a marvelous field at its heart. The field was widely recognized as a triumph in itself; no gladiator who fought upon it could call it anything else, and even the audience marveled at the way it shed blood and stains into gutters around its edges. Every whisper from the dying-ground could be heard anywhere in the stadium, and the structure quickly became a favorite venue for things besides blood sport—much to Mad Galch’s consternation.

By Mad Galch’s sternest warning, no one was permitted to dig below the stadium for any reason. This caused some trouble several years into the next Emperox’s reign, delaying the implementation of a comprehensive sewer system in the neighborhood surrounding the Arena. Mad Galch did not care, and refused to assist or permit any bending of his rules. His threats as to what would happen should anyone dig below were fierce enough to etch themselves in citizen’s minds for centuries after his death.

In accordance with his will, upon Mad Galch’s death he was laid in state in the center of his Arena’s field. The gathered audience of dignitaries, potentates, and commoners watched in shock as the field enveloped him, leaving only his shroud behind. Though many now regarded the Arena with fear, it was still constantly put to use.

After the Jousian Empire’s third decline, the Arena no longer held death matches of any kind. The gutters’ thirst was not slaked, and the Arena began to lose its sheen. Increasingly, attendees felt that the Arena’s doorways held themselves open as a matter of tightly bound restraint, a considerable exercise of will. It was not until the sack of Jous (and the execution of the imperial court on the Arena’s field) that the Arena was restored to its former glory. Those who took the city declared it a holy place, feeding it blood according to their sacred calendar.

These nights, though the sacrifices have not been made regularly for some time, the field illuminates the entire building from within. Its light pulses. The few miserable or crazed enough to still live nearby swear that they have heard whispers in the night air; some of them swear that Mad Galch visits their dreams, promising greatness soon to come.

South of Ela Cartaz

I’m away Thursday, so here’s a little setting-seed to tide you over:

There is an island on the southern coast of Ela Cartaz, where the winds bluster chill and wet. Under the moss and rot and the hanging vines, beneath the old trees whose roots eat older mortar and clutch at broken foundation-stones like pearls, there is a warm light. This is the light sought by many, the light for which thousands died before the fall of the first Ela Cartaz. It waits in darkness, while around it the remnants of a lost past whir and click and hum.

The Theater of the Moon

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Chapel of Weeping.

There was once a theater on a small island set in the river’s delta. Some of it remains. The city it was part of fell ages ago; after the city was sacked by a victorious army its people fled, were captured, or were put to the sword. The theater escaped the initial destruction, and was protected from the fires that raged through the city by its watery border. As such, it is one of the few places in the ruined city which still bears the clear marks of its builders. Unlike most other places in the destroyed city, none of the theater has been scavenged for building stones.

The theater’s finery was stripped by more organized looters after the sack. No surviving city folk or other locals participated in looting that theater, however, for it was said to be holy. Indeed, the vessel used by the looters sank in a freak storm several days after reaching port.

Rumor has it that the people who took the theater’s riches each suffered exquisitely awful deaths, and each family of theirs which did not dispose of the treasure soon fell to similarly terrible fates: slow wasting disease, all-consuming madness, cruelly ill luck. Whether or not this is true is widely debated, but these stories are favored by those who still live near the fallen city. They’re also popular as ghoulish legends amongst the descendants of those whose forces ruined the city so long ago.

The queendom which sacked the city, and whose people looted the temple, has since fallen into decline.

The theater, when it still stood wholly intact, was said to have a very particular ceiling. Intended to magnify moonlight, it captured the moon’s beams to light the floor of its amphitheater, at its brightest on the most holy nights of the moon’s phases. It is said that the theater could transport its audiences to unknown heights when the sacred plays were performed on the proper nights, but it is not known what those plays were, which nights those were, or whether the “heights” referenced were emotional or literal.

There are no publicly known survivors of the theater’s cult. It is a puzzle which has intrigued many for centuries.

The Chapel of Weeping

This is intended to be a setting seed for some future story or game, like The Knife Tree or The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Chapel of Weeping is a series of seven spaces, one large central one and six smaller ones surrounding it, connected by paths like spokes. These spaces are set into a cliff face so that the central space is cut into it, forming a massive alcove. Two of the small spaces are thus wholly inside the cliff, two are chambers with windows and doors that open to the outside, and two are outside the cliff and entirely open to the elements.

The central space is mostly filled by a massive statue, a figure paused in a moment of benediction. It towers up, several stories tall, and dwarfs any who set foot in the space. Through some strange miracle, the figure weeps endlessly. Its tears run down the figure’s face and leave the flagstones before the figure slick. There is enough room in the space to walk two abreast all around the statue, and passages have ben cut through stone to reach the four spaces partially or entirely inside the cliff.

The two spaces outside the cliff are simple flagstoned circles, outlined with pieces of unfamiliar rock. People who live nearby have many stories about the purpose of those areas, though few of them agree. Some have called them gathering places for the holy or the faithful, some have said that they are where sacrifices must be made, and others claim that they were only added to give the rest of the chapel a feeling of balance. They are undeniably of the same style and construction as the rest of the chapel, however, and apart from the unfamiliar stone used to outline them the circles are paved in stone carved from the cliff.

The two spaces to either side of the central space and its giant statue, the spaces which are partially open to the outside, hold altars which have been worn by ages of use. Some still pray in these spaces, and the altars may be covered in the wax of votive candles or the dusty ash of burnt incense. These spaces are used by lay folk and travelers, despite the rest of the chapel being largely abandoned. Some have reported receiving miracles in these places, when praying in a spirit of repentance, contrition, or love. There is a great deal of carved ornamentation on the walls of these spaces, though some has clearly been damaged.

The two inner chambers of the chapel complex are not used by anyone who lives nearby: while locals describe the rest of the chapel complex in reverent tones, these chambers are believed to be better left alone. Entirely unlit, they are rumored to be tied to the more dangerous sides of grief, and it’s said that only those in the throes of deepest loss may spend time in them safely. Others claim that they’re safe so long as they are lit by flame. Everyone agrees that foolish people have disappeared in them, and that strange noises can sometimes be heard echoing from them on starry nights. It is well known that the inner chambers were used extensively by the order of clerics that once maintained the chapel, but since the order’s dissolution the inner chambers have been left largely untouched.