Sunday 10 June 2018

East of Kambyra Town: The Dustlands

If, after visiting the chaos that is Kambyra Town, there is further proof needed of the somewhat fragile nature of colonial control, one need look no further than the Dustlands. This inimical region of dust, gravel and quicksand begins after half an hour’s slow ride east of Kambyra Town, and almost immediately conjures in the traveller a sentimental appreciation of the hovels and sickly masses of the settlement one has so recently departed. I have never felt, so swiftly, so great a revulsion for a region and its inhabitants – for yes, folk dwell here, and they are truly contemptible.
An excerpt from the Earl of Zastenuto’s “The Empire Abroad: An Exile’s Travels Throughout The Colonies”

Yes, well, the Dustlands...there’s a reason that the colonial government granted the task of defending the only road out of Kambyra Town to the Leagues. Only the Leagues can afford the high price in soldiers and equipment to keep the road open. I’ve traversed the Dustlands more times than I can recall – it’s a great source for raw material – and every time, I’ve shed blood for the privilege.
            Calvid Rhoak, the Wandering Scrimshander

When leaving Kambyra, the only road to the interior passes through increasingly marginal farmland until it reaches the aptly-named Dustlands. Essentially a great sandbar accumulated over millennia, it links the old volcanic crater that Kambyra Town occupies with the mainland. Here and there the remnants of old islands (a heavily eroded lava flow from the long-dead volcano) thrust above the dunes and quicksands, marked by spare trees and thin grasses. There are only eleven of these large enough to support settlement. Six are found on or near the colonial road, and each of these are home to small Keeps where soldiers of the Gilbhur Trading Leagues retain troops to patrol the road. Three of the remaining five are highly contested: the various small clans of humans that dwell in the Dustlands are constantly warring over them as sources of water and pasturage, whilst one other is held tightly under the control of a family of Gnolls. The other is seldom spoken of, although it is said to be the largest. It was, at one time, a sacred site for the native Tavarawans, but they have long since abandoned it, although the reasons for doing so remain a mystery.


Outside of the Six Keeps and the small hamlets that serve them, there is little organised settlement – and certainly none that acknowledges the colonial administration!  On the southern shores of the sandbank, the land is marshy and dangerous. Small Tavarawan clanholds occupy the best areas for gathering shellfish and hunting the rich birdlife. They supplement this by making occasional forays to one of the Keeps where they sell shell-jewellery and bird-feather cloaks (often these may possess minor magical powers, having been created using the old Tavarawan practices of Charmcraft). These clans are under considerable pressure from the Marsh Goblins and Boggards that dwell in the vast swamps south and east of the Dustlands.

The central Dustlands – the high dunes and rocky outcrops that are the ‘backbone’ of the region – is, nominally at least, under colonial control. This control, such as it is, is exercised by proxy through the Gilbhur Trading Leagues, who,  in return for vast commercial concessions, have taken on the burden of keeping the road open and the barbarian clans under control. In this last, they have met with minimal success, but the road is almost completely free of banditry, and thus safe for the flow of goods and people. However, the Leagues’ mastery only extends for a few miles north and south of the colonial road. Beyond their reach, small and sickly clans prey upon one another and anyone foolish enough to leave the road. These ‘clans’ are composed of escaped slaves, shipwrecked pirates, runaway criminals, peasants driven from their lands by the colonial policies of enclosure, a few native Tavarawans and various human-goblinoid hybrids driven out of colonial lands. Each clan numbers no more than one hundred members, and they are all, without exception, desperate, undernourished and brutal. They skirmish ceaselessly for control of the various ‘islands’ not under League control and the brief and brackish watercourses that are infrequently scattered across the central ridge (most are so marginal they seldom reach the sea, except in the rainy season).

The northern part of the Dustlands, representing almost half of the whole, is the most inimical portion of an inimical land. Here is a sea of dunes interspersed with salt pans that runs without interruption to the ocean, where the long, unbroken sweep of the coast is home to a few Tavarawan fisherfolk too poor for anyone to be concerned with. In fact, this region would be altogether ignored were it not for the fact that the beaches are a remarkable source of ivory. In earlier times, when the climate was less hostile and the sea level lower, many small islands could be found here, supporting a remnant population of plesiosaurs along with many cetaceans, who used the area as a mating-ground. It is surmised that a great eruption from the volcano that is now Kambyra Town caused the wholesale destruction of all life on and around these former islands. Now, most years, the stormy season washes up vast quantities of bones on this inhospitable shore. Ivory raiders take ship every year to sweep the beaches (whilst culling the native population, apparently without remorse) of the sea’s remarkable bounty. However, despite the richness of the trade, it is generally deemed a pointless expense to operate permanent stations here (although there have been several attempts, all horrific failures). It should be mentioned here that at least one highly eccentric nobleman and ivory merchant, Sir Kolster Ruhani (domiciled in Kambyra Town during the gathering season, but usually found in Dylaro) is looking into the establishment of a ‘floating’ station – basically a large boat magically moored offshore – but his ideas are regarded as impratical and indeed, rather risible.

The final point of interest in the north is the rumoured existence of the largest and most bountiful of the ‘islands’. This location was once a sacred meeting-ground for the Tavarawans, but they abandoned it for unknown reasons nearly a thousand years earlier (colonial scholars surmise that this occurred shortly after Shroudfall). It is said that the native shamans worked considerable wonders there, but that the power or mana that infused the place became ‘uncouth’ (this is the closest translation Imperial linguists have made for the Tavarawan word kapoa). Occasionally, daring and foolish individuals attempt to locate this fabled location, but none have found it, and most have died trying to do so.

Flora and Fauna

Despite its general hostility to settlement, the Dustlands region actually supports a considerable amount of both plant and animal life. Spindletrees grow throughout the central and southern areas, particularly along the – usually dry – watercourses. There are also many succulents and water-hoarding mosses in these riverbeds, whilst the ‘islands’ are home to larger trees and rather tenuous grasslands (none of which exceeds a few square miles in area). In addition, the strange opania plant or ‘Sand-fan’ grows – seemingly at random – throughout the whole region. This odd plant – most of which is actually underground – is noticeable from some distance as it thrusts large fronds up out of the sand to a height of nearly twenty feet. These sway in the near-constant winds that blow across the Dustlands, sending a strong, sickly-sweet fragrance that carries up to a mile or more when the wind is strong enough.

The Opania plant represents both a boon and deadly danger to those crossing the Dustlands. On the one hand, it is known that the extensive root system of the plant is full of water-storing nodules, sufficient to keep up to five individuals adequately watered for two or three days (depending on rainfall over the preceding months). In addition, the scented spores, when burned in a censer, have the advantageous property of making certain enchantments affect those breathing in the smoke with greater power. The fronds themselves, if chewed, will afflict the one ingesting them with acute nausea and brief but powerful abilities to use divination magic.

However, the Opania is also a carnivorous plant: its mighty fronds and powerful scent – and its ability to survive the Dustlands – all act to draw in the curious, the unwary and the desperate. The plant is sensitive to the vibrations created by those drawing near. Once a creature is within 3’ of the fronds, the barbed roots concealed below the sand will suddenly lash out, ensnaring the victim in a tough, thorny web, from which escape is unlikely, especially given that the barbs secrete a potent paralytic poison. The captured being is then drawn down into the sand, where it swiftly suffocates and is then consumed.

It is noted that some efforts have been made to cultivate Opania plants, but these have met with failure: it is simply too dangerous in the absence of powerful magic to try and grow the plant. Further to this, the Leagues pay a small group of horticulturalists to comb the colonial road and surrounds in order to remove any immature Sand-fans that appear too close to the highway.

The Dustlands also support much birdlife: the marshy south is a breeding ground for many birds, whilst the rocky ‘islands’ and sand-dunes are home to a native species of goat that is notably hardy. Most of the ‘clans’ that haunt the Dustlands rely on these goats for milk, cheese, clothing and occasionally, when times are extremely good, meat. Most protein is sourced from birds, snakes and supplemented by occasional raids of neighbouring farmlands (usually in the east rather than so close to Kambyra Town, where retribution is swift and often final). Birds are a staple – even in the Leagues strongholds and associated hamlets, due to the fact that veritable armadas of migratory species pass over the Dustlands. There is a small but significant industry based around the Keeps gathering guano for use as spell components and spell catalysts, as well as in various alchemical compounds.  

The Dustlands are also home to many species of vermin: large scorpions and spiders can be found wherever they may gain purchase, whilst after the rainy season, hordes of oversized centipedes and mosquitoes plague the southern and central regions.

The Eastern Fringe

The Dustlands are separated from the mainland by a narrow region of old lava flows. Aside from where the colonial road bashes its way through a tight maze of fractured gullies and rifts, this area is waterless and mostly lifeless. The porous volcanic rock absorbs all moisture it receives, leaving the surface very dry. Only insects and moss find a hold here. Where the colonial road disgorges into the low plains around Little Vastroy is a small fortress, occupied by colonial troops. At this place, Fort Vigil, the jurisdiction of the Leagues ends, and the much less professional and less thorough colonial army takes over. It is thus prone to serious raiding from the clans to the west, and is the source of much dispute between the Leagues and the colonial military, each of whom blame the other for failing to suppress the raiders.

The region also serves as a vital defense for Kambyra Town in the event of revolt in the interior. Here is where the last desperate assault of the Great Insurrection was stalled. A motley force of Kambyra’s militia, a few marines and a peasant levy stalled an Elven assault long enough for the colonial army to regather and rout the Elves. Since that ill-fated moment, not one of the native Elves of Kambyra has passed Fort Vigil, even though there has been a tenuous peace for generations.  

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