THE FIVE ISLES OF ELRITH
Colossal and solitary, like Gods forged in rock amidst the flat expanse of marsh and sea, rise the five islands. As natural a defence you will ever see, sheer cliff faces surge skywards from the churning ocean, waves crashing and frothing around their rocky bases. Upon four of these foreboding crags are crammed and squeezed the tightly knit buildings of Elrith, the city of power and might. Not an inch of land has been spared the hand of urban development. Buildings perch so close to the cliff edges that it would seem a single individual leaning against the wrong wall could send them toppling into the raging waters. So narrow are the cobbled streets, so closely woven are the buildings that they appear to pile one on top of the other in a desperate bid to cling to the limited land. Structures of every age create an architectural melting pot. Timber framed buildings, some many hundreds of years old, sag and lean with precarious wonder alongside palatial masterpieces, crafted from the finest yellow stone from the world’s backbone. The islands take on their own distinctive identities. Haril, with its menacing citadel claiming the high ground. Mairan, reserved for the rich and privileged. Dairan, sporting its impressive and steep sided mountain. And High Duke island, the tallest of all the islands, home to the monarch and his vast retinue. The fifth and largest island, Fovilroe, with its fields and pastureland spotted with large barns and creaking mills, is intensively farmed, constantly struggling to feed the many mouths of the city. Elrith has long held ruthless military ambitions. Its countless legions of infantry and have spread far and wide to forge the largest empire the world has ever known.
NEW AND OLD EALAY.
Founded by Drenwold of Elrith, Ealay was built long ago out of the ashes of our darkest age. It grew quickly to become a glittering city of soaring spires and elegant architecture unrivaled in the western marshes. Yet, in a time when marsh water was still drinkable and the swamps remained untamed, Ealay was overrun by a vast hoard of swamp dwellers, those primeval and scaly creatures that eek out a miserable life amidst the stinking wetlands. Such was their ferocity that the city was reduced to ruins. The inhabitants fled to the central arena. Once host to joyful games and merry festivities, it now served as a desperate refuge. The swamp dwellers could not get in and gradually, as their rage burnt out, they skulked back into the marshes. Frightful of a resurgence, the citizens took advantage of the arena’s tall, stout walls and transformed it into a fortress. They built a new city within, as graceful and majestic as the last, yet crammed into a space a fraction of the size. Many centuries passed, the Swamp Dwellers were purged and safety returned to the heart of Ealay. Some of the ruins surrounding the arena were rebuilt and lived in once more but most remained untouched. Nature crept in, wrapping and twisting its leafy fingers all over the ruins and bestowing them with a romantic beauty. Ealay progressed into our modern age, discovering the energy rich mineral Krakel and thus harnessing the power of electricity. A wide expanse of marshland surrounding the city hill was drained, using the latest technology, and used for agriculture to feed Ealay's ever growing population.
A great fear has long overshadowed this splendid city, promising to steal the very fabric of its existence. Like so many settlements in this world, its location was determined by one reason only, the hill it sat upon. Rising dramatically from the interminable swamps, it is of enormous proportions, and the city has sprawled to match its size. Most of its buildings are similar in design; tall, narrow and plainly rendered with small windows and flat, terrace roofs. Krimlin is in the grip of a very unusual affliction. It is sinking. No one, to this day, has discovered why but the rate transpired to be so slow that the citizens, who at first were alarmed, learnt to live with and ignore it. But when the Streepers suddenly appeared and ripped through the city like a plague born of the worst kind of nightmare, the people had to abandon the streets. Giant worms with soot black bodies as thick as a man’s arm, the Streepers scoured the city, dragging their unfortunate victims, kicking and screaming, into the darkness below. Their reach was finite, as if attached to something. The people fled upwards to where they could not be reached. And that is where they have remained, like rats thinking twice about abandoning a sinking ship. Forgetting the streets below, which have long since deteriorated into a wasteland of shadows and filth where unspeakable monsters now roam, the people have adapted, creating a network of shanty huts and dwellings upon the flat roofs connected by ramshackle rope bridges. Where ordered government once prevailed, merciless gangs now rule, having seized upon the chaos that gripped the city in the mass exodus to the rooftops. The city, to this day, is still sinking. How much longer can the citizens choose to ignore it?
Trekking high and low over desolate and dusty mountains is a gruelling business. Imagine though, rounding a bend on a narrow mountain pass and catching your first, fleeting glimpse of the tower, set far off in the hazy distance and soaring skywards in a burst of reflected sunlight. The tiny buildings of Trembledown, nestled around its base and cast in the towers shadow, betray its magnificent size. How in the world a thing of such magnitude was constructed is left to the wildest imaginations. It is fabled that ten thousand eons ago, when our world was but a baby in the arms of mother, the ten guardian giants were tricked by Algoran, the first man, to build him a tower worthy of our greatest Gods. They chose the finest mountain and with the ease of a child scraping mud from a puddle, carved Talantra. Although just a fabulous fairy tale, the story does hold one truth. The tower is carved entirely from a single mountain, a fact that is brutally driven home as you climb the steps that spiral around its rock-hewn sides and the air grows thinner causing your breathing to become laboured and harder to catch. The tower top is a cold yet harmonious place, with green pastures spotted with untamed trees. It is home to the Tiltet monks, a religious sect who honour and worship their Gods in a most peculiar way. Swathed in green and purple robes, they ascend to the tip of Talantra, a thin spire built upon the old summit, and, using artificial wings, hurl themselves into the open sky. As they glide ground ward, they meditate and pray in diligent pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. So devoted are they that, come snow or blue skies, there will always be a steady stream of winged monks circling above, aiming for one of the many temple funnels in the city below. Aside from its unique location, Trembledown is a city like all others, abuzz with life and laughter. Traders, travellers, pilgrims and locals all mingle and jostle in its web of streets and alleys.
Defying the forces of our world with outrageous temerity, Spitolj must be seen to be believed. How and why the city was founded is an enigma resigned to history. The approach to the city is by sea only. To enter you must first pass the Match makers, a pair of fortresses so called because any vessel deemed unworthy of safe passage would be reduced to match sized splinters in minutes by their deadly cannon. Buried beneath the swollen hill and entered through the mouth of Jad, Spitolj occupies a humungous cave. Newcomers are dazzled by the pulsating sky lake that bathes the entire chamber in a soft, ethereal glow. The lake is somehow affected by the outside, its glow rising and waning in tandem with day and night, allowing the people of Spitolj to retain a certain level of normality in an otherwise unorthodox situation. All vessels seeking to enter the hanging city must now take the disorienting Mage’s passage, a rivulet so outlandish that some sailors resort to jumping over the sides of their ships in abject terror. Perseverance and a stomach of stone is required as your vessel is pulled by an artificial current up onto the cave walls, higher and higher until you suspend, upside down, from the roof. The transition is easier than expected and it takes but a moment to adjust. The city is an eerie place, spread out and spacious, climbing the steep sides of the huge central stalactite. Formed from a milky quartz, this too gently glows, casting ghostly shadows throughout the city. Stairways and steep paths connect the buildings. With tiled roofs and walls of render or bare brick and stone, the buildings are a familiar site, mirroring the styles of many other cities throughout Lanphen. Yet this serves only to heighten the surreal nature of Spitolj. It is as if a normal town has been wholly uprooted and dropped into an odd and mildly unsettling dream.
Primeval beliefs and rituals dredged from the murky past, this is what Ollos Doffe is built on. Everything about the city is ancient and strange. The old city is a tangled mess of squat, grey dwellings punctured with tiny windows and low doorways. There are no main streets or public squares, no urban planning of any kind. Instead the city seems to have sprawled in the complete absence of foresight. Dark and narrow alleys weave and meander without logic, many covered and enclosed with large slabs, to form a dizzying and intricate semi subterranean maze. The city wall is both solid and thick. That thickness differs dramatically, being so excessively wide in places that even a Saridat giant would need to take a dozen strides to span its top. The top is not flat, undulating for no practical reason. It was clearly not built for defence, for the wall retains no parapet, leaving its top exposed to the sheer drop on either side. Decades ago, in a clumsy attempt to modernise, the King of Ollos ordered the construction of a new city. Exploiting its wide, empty surface it was built upon the city wall. With its elevated position and spacious buildings, the natural pecking order prevailed, and the ruling elite quickly took this new city for their own. The shrine fortress is the most awesome yet oddest of all elements in this bizarre place. Older even than the ancient old city, it consumes more than half of the hilltop space yet no one lives in it. Its purpose is shrouded in mystery and access is strictly forbidden, guarded viciously by the high priests of Ollos. There are no doors or windows in its tall outer wall except for one tiny cleft at its base from which purple water flows to form the purple lagoon.
Located on the edge of a docile lake, tucked snuggly away in a wooded valley where forest and mountains unite is a humble, little island. On one side of the island are sandy beaches edged by trees, where tiny waves stroke the shore and insects flutter in gentle play. The island rises softly towards the far side, where tufts of grass and delicate flowers give way to modest cliffs. Ten bells is a delight, its people having learnt to live in comfortable harmony with nature. They do not just build their houses alongside the flora, their houses are the flora. A skill mastered through countless generations, craftsmen manipulate trees and bushes whilst they are growing to give them an immensely tough and dense foliage. The forms are moulded into all sorts of fluid and organic shapes before being hollowed out leaving a tough outer shell and living space within. Even the cities perimeter wall is made from foliage. The base is of stone and the wall walk paved with slabs, but the main bulk of the wall is a dense hedge, neatly maintained and proudly displayed. The city derives its name from the tallest of these green creations, the Bell towers. Placed randomly throughout the city, they are the meeting places for the different districts. Atop each tower is a stone domed structure housing a single bell, rung only on special occasions. The only direct route onto the island of Ten Bells is over the rolling bridges. Using an intricate system of winches and metal runners, wooden platforms are rolled back and forth like complex drawbridges.
"A heavenly place, a city of majesty and reverence, where the Trimber glows and glistens as it cascades, where the people sing to fill their hearts with eternal merriment and where the Gods are held aloft to reign glory down upon the world".
Enthusiastic words from the much venerated explorer, Daria Hazaar. There is little doubt they would resonate strongly with anyone who visits Pitovilgong. Balanced high above the trees of Bay Wood, upon a rocky outcrop jutting proudly from the Outer Barrier sit the terraces. They are lined with starkly decorated yet handsome and robust buildings. Well-kept lanes and roads occupy the back of each terrace, with the buildings constructed along the front, taking full advantage of the stupendous views. The people of Pitovilgong invest heavily in maintaining spiritual harmony and the views from every building’s lofty vantage point are integral to this. Stairways connect the different levels, which rise up to the main plateau, where beautiful parkland offer further nourishment for the soul. Upon this upper plain sit the pit terraces. Stepped on the inside as they are on the out, at the centre of each inner pit descends a single narrow well. No one is sure of their depths but those who drop offerings into them, destined for the Gods, proclaim never to hear the gifts hit the bottom. The highest plateau, the terrace of the Gods, is a deeply moving place littered with stone heads. Some knee high, others as tall as a building, they are an unsettling presence, made all the more ominous by the strong shadows that dance over their simple and heavyset features. Their purpose is described by Hazaar,
"Every once in a while a boulder falls from the Outer Barrier, smashing down upon the terrace of the Gods. A sign that a God has died, the people mourn for a day and a night. Then they rejoice for a new God must be chosen. The selection is arduous, many dream of this moment and train hard to transcend the barrier. Eventually one is divined and, to the roar of febrile cheers, the chosen one climbs the cliff and disappears beyond the clouds, never to be seen again. A likeness is carved upon the fallen boulder and placed upright in honour of the new deity".
The new world, a place to start a fresh and find your true purpose in life. In reality it is as wretched and stench ridden as the old world. Numerous settlements have sprouted up all along the eastern fringe of Punga Foot Lake but Newrith stands out as the capital of this young and wild land. If those who choose to travel to Newrith survive the hellishly long and treacherous journey, they will be sorely disappointed with trading old for new. The climate requires a strong constitution, being unbearably warm and humid night and day. Everything wants to kill you, from the venomous plants and animals that inhabit both land and water to the native populace; swamp dwellers who distantly resemble those back home but are bigger, stronger and meaner in every way. They were beaten back beyond the edges of Crankwood into the uncharted swamps, every step paid for in blood and misery. The marsh-guard lines succeed, for now, in thwarting their attacks by land but do little to prevent the numerous water born raids that reach out over Punga Foot Lake to attack Newrith. But if the natives give cause for concern, spare a thought for the infighting and backbiting citizens a weary traveller must share their new home with. Newrith was co-founded by people from the Rival Hills, Fidley and Far, the most spiteful and grudge beholden of all towns in the old world. They wished to settle their differences and start again, but with old enmities just too hard to bury, the two camps soon fell apart and built separate settlements at either end of Newrith Island. As the largest and most powerful of all the 'clusters', they vie for supremacy over the island in a perpetual tug of war, indiscriminately pulling settlers into their petty feuds and forcing them to swear allegiance to one side or another.
At one end is castle Gog, sat upon a hook shaped, rocky outcrop, guarding the only route onto Baroland’s upper plain. At the other end is the old walled town of Gog, conventionally shaped and nestled alongside the serene lake Addle. What lies in the miles between is rather unusual. Two roads leave Gog, converging into one before heading straight for castle Gog. Over the years a single row of terraced houses has sprung up and grown along both sides of the roads, so joining the castle and the town to create the city of Longog. The roads are sunken with raised walkways for pedestrians either side. The houses are tall, three or four stories high and built of red stone, found as boulders lying naturally throughout the plains of Baroland. Each house has its own narrow stretch of land to the rear, used mostly to grow crops and rear livestock. Up here at the top of the Giant’s steps, the climate is cold and bleak for most of the year. The disadvantages of such harsh weather are outweighed by the almost guaranteed safety the Giant’s steps offer from the unpredictable world below. This has led the people of Baroland and Longog to form a somewhat isolated mentality, keeping themselves to themselves. Although trade still exists with the wider world, it is strictly controlled, with heavy taxes being levied in castle Gog for any goods passing in or out.
In the cold grip of the Howling Mountains, hanging high above the perilous plains of the Frozen wastelands, snakes a deep and lonely valley. Wrapped in perpetual tundra, ravaged by frequent blizzards and imprisoned all around by the dark and brooding peaks, it would be a forlorn and desperate home for many. Yet where most would not tread, others forge a path and for one particular race of creatures, the valley is a welcoming site. Adapted perfectly for the harsh and desolate climate, the Odnods are tenacious and stubborn beings. Small and furry with large, yellow eyes and long snouts, they have quick and cunning minds. Their homes can be found under the stone trees, natural formations that grow very slowly and which are unique to this small and isolated part of the world. The largest of all the trees is Straythorn itself. Found at the end of the valley, its enormous bulk of a canopy would long since have crumbled and collapsed were it not for the supporting arched lintels that the Odnods have built. Between these are found their dwellings. Hive like in appearance, the clustered buildings are cylindrical columns of varying heights packed tightly together. Circular apertures on their tops allow the Odnods to descend down ladders into the spaces within. Heavy ice clouds frequently stray into the valley and fall upon Straythorn’s canopy. The ice accumulates but as it slides down the tree to its warmer edges, it melts and precipitates as a constant waterfall around the cities perimeter. The climate under the canopy is thus warmer and clammy. The city can only be reached through tunnels. No one, not even the wily Odnods, will venture over ground beyond the rubble boundary, for fear of being crushed by an ice cloud.