The Reign of Dregoth
A Legend of the Beginning:
On the eve of the age of kings, the Dragon destroyed the land, sea, and the sky. The sky was filled with stars, until the dragon swallowed most of them, leaving only the brightest. The sun was a brilliant yellow fire in the sky, until the Dragon burnt it to a red ember. The sea was full of water, until the Dragon sucked it dry and breathed dust into the place of the waters. The land was full of cities, trees, wells and grass, until the Dragon began to gnaw, and it gnawed until almost none were left. Gorged, Dragon lifted its head, and saw that a few cities, fields, and wells remained in distant pockets on the land. But as it reached out its claws to devour the last city, a great slumber came over the beast. Thanks to the power of the seven Kings, it has slept for many ages, and will sleep for ages more, if you do not wake it with your crying about your hungry belly.
Here in the last cities, the weak bow before the strong. If you do not like the way of things in the city, then leave. Walk away from these city walls, and see if the eaten lands are more to your liking.
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal (a forbidden text, banned in all seven cities):
I live in a world of fire and sand. The crimson sun scorches the life from anything that crawls or flies, and storms of sand scour the foliage from the barren ground. Lightning strikes from the cloudless sky, and peals of thunder roll unexplained across the vast tablelands. Even the wind, dry and searing as a kiln, can kill a man with thirst.
This is my home, Athas. It is an arid and bleak place, a wasteland with a handful of austere cities clinging precariously to a few scattered oases. It is a brutal and savage land, beset by political strife and monstrous abominations, where life is grim and short.
Athas is a desert—sun-scorched and wind-scoured, parched and endless.
From the first moments of dawn until the last twinkling of dusk, the crimson sun shimmers in the olive-tinged sky like a fiery puddle of blood. It climbs toward its zenith and the temperature rises relentlessly: 100 degrees by midmorning, 110 at noon, 130—sometimes even 150—by late afternoon.
A man cannot drink fast enough to replentish the fluids he loses. As the days drag on, he feels sick and feeble. If he does not have enough water, he grows too weak to move. His mouth becomes dry and bitter, his lips, tongue, and throat grow swollen. Before long, his blood is thick and gummy. His heart must work hard to circulate it. Finally his system overheats, leaving him dead and alone in the sands.
Fort Inix – The Journal of Esreva, Templar of Gulg
It is with considerable wonder (and some pleasure) that I have observed the decline of House Shom, chief merchant house of the city of Nibenay. Once the most powerful trading house in all the Tyr region, House Shom has suffered from decades of apparent neglect. No where (except perhaps in Nibenay itself) is the decay of House Shom more evident than in Fort Inix. On several occasions, my master had need to visit this monument to the inefficiency and inflexibility of the once-great house. In one of my first visits to the fortress, my master was met by the new chief trader of Fort Inix, a corpulent, balding man named Veltian Asdere. To commemorate his arrival, Lord Veltian (as he wished to be called) had transplanted a cluster of velgest trees from the Crescent Forest outside Nibenay. These trees, accustomed as they were to the moisture and gentle breezes of the Crescent Forest, were suffering terribly under the direct sun and wind of the desert, and it was clear that they had no hope of survival.
Imagine my surprise when Lord Veltian informed my master that over 30 slaves had died carrying the heavy plants from the forest to the fortress, and that another 10 slaves were employed continuously just to bring water to these dying trees. The trees consumed as much water a single day as would be consumed by a contingent of men. Moreover, he explained that he had selected the sensitive velgest trees because he enjoyed eating their fruit at the end of his dinner!
Clearly, many freemen would think nothing of the death of a slave, so long as the task at hand is accomplished. However, what struck me as truly grotesque about Lord Veltian’s words was that he was proud of the deaths of those slaves. He considered his willingness to waste 30 lives and the water of another 50 men to attempt the impossible as a measure of his true power and wealth.
Truly, even Lalali-Puy, the great and terrible oba of Gulg, has more concern for her property than this.
The true tragedy is that with the decline of House Shom, there are few caravans that visit this isolated fortress any longer. Instead of being a useful element of the trading network, it is an obsolete outpost. Any other house would have closed Fort Inix decades ago.
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
Although Athas is a wasteland, it is not an empty wasteland. The world is fairly crawling with humans, demihumans, and humanoids. Every group has found a different way to survive in this barren and harsh environment. In general, I have found that all cultures seem to fall into one of seven basic categories. There are city dwellers, villagers, merchant caravan dynasties, herdsmen, raiders, hunter-gatherers, and hermits.
The cities, surrounded by golden fields of crops, stand at sizable oases. They are bustling enclaves of humanity, stinking of garbage and ringing with the supplications of beggars. Their tawny towers of fired brick rise from behind thick stone ramparts designed to lock the residents inside as well as keep strangers out. In the center of every city, a powerful sorcerer-king lives inside a secure fortress, ruling his subjects through a sophisticated hierarchy of bureaucrats, nobles, and rapacious priests. Each city is a state unto itself, its king wielding absolute authority over every living thing inside its walls and crawling through its fields.
Villages are no more than clusters of mud-brick shelters erected at minor oases in various forlorn places, such as the edge of a salt flat or in the shelter of a rocky overhang. Depending on their nature, they are ruled by officious bureaucrats, minor despots, or, occasionally, even democratic councils. At best, they are semipermanent. Sooner or later, the dragon comes calling, the oasis dries up, or a tribe of raiders sweeps out of the wastes. Within a few years of such an event, all traces of the village are buried beneath a massive sand dune or carried away by the howling wind.
The dynastic merchant houses are sophisticated trading companies with networks extending many hundreds of miles, transcending political boundaries, and spanning all social classes. Their trading posts are found on bleak peninsulas jutting into the Sea of Silt, or in box canyons located high in the Ringing Mountains. A sporadic stream of cargo runs from these outposts to the cities, carrying the goods with which the houses stock their vast bargaining emporiums. Each house may have facilities in a number of cities. Most are owned by single families and passed on from generation to generation.
Nomadic herdsman wander the scrub plains, stony barrens, and sand dunes, pausing for a week or two wherever there is pasture enough for their flocks to graze. Their bands are usually small, consisting of five to ten extended families, for their harsh way of life will not support large populations. Most herdsmen have fiercely independent spirits, governing themselves through a council of elders.
Wherever something is worth stealing, there are raiding tribes. These bands of despicable cutthroats live by pillaging caravans, poaching nomad flocks, and plundering helpless villages. They are cowards who make their homes in desolate places protected by wide expanses of salt flats or great tracts of rocky badlands. Their warlords are ruthless and tough, traking and holding their positions through violence and treachery.
The primitive hunting and gethering clans have the most versatile cultures. You’ll encounter them anywhere: hunting snakes in the salt flats, gathering roots in the stony barrens, even stealing eggs from nests perched high atop mountainous crags. They live in small groups of three or four immediate families, usually numbering no more than twenty individuals.
Hermits have withdrawn from a society, either by choice or through coercion. They are peculiar individuals who reside at isolated oases and scratch out a meager living, either by subsistence farming or through limited hunting. Hermits live in all parts of Athas, though you won’t meet many because they avoid contact with most strangers.
Proverbs of the Dry Lands:
- “The beast snarls. The snake hisses. The stranger smiles. Take warning!”
- “Birth is painful. Life is short. Death endures.”
- “You cannot quench the hunger of a fire, the thirst of a desert, or the greed of a templar.”
- “The cut worm forgives the plow.”
- “The locusts share no king, yet the desert trembles before their bands.”
- “The spider takes hold with her hands, and spins her webs in kings’ palaces.”
- “As one who binds a stone into a sling, so is the one who gives honor to a weakling.”
- “Better to be clever than to be thought clever.”
- “Spit boldly in the slave’s face, but spit quietly into the templar’s footprints.”
- “Judge not a quarrel between your betters.”
- “The elements reclaim us all, but better you than me.”
- “An open wound invites hungry flies.”
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
Metals are rare. In my voyages I have been lucky enough to actually see the iron mines of Tyr, something few outsiders are ever permitted to do. They are grand affairs with hundreds of slaves toiling to bring scant traces of metal to the surface. I have come to the conclusion that the ancient societies would have considered this mine too worthless to operate. In our age, however, it is a treasure trove that has provided the sorcerer-king of Tyr with wealth and power almost unmatched in the world.
Tyr’s army has never numbered more than ten thousand, but its elite units are composed of highly trained men, each of whom carries an iron sword and an iron-tipped javelin. Often it has destroyed an army five times its size that was armed with bone battle axes or even obsidian-edged sabers.
As I have stated earlier, it is my belief that metal was not always scarce on Athas. For the last few centuries, our main source has been debris from the ruins of ancient castles and cities. Aparently, our ancestors devoured Athas’ ore supply, leaving to us little but their scrap. Now even that meager supply is all but exhausted, and with it fades the ghost of civilization.
Still, lucky treasure hunters have been known to return from a ruin with a hoard of “steel” swords and shields, providing they are resourceful enough and brave enough to explore ruins that others have missed or been too frightened to enter.
I have heard tales that suits of clothing fashioned from metal have even been found from time to time. It is generally agreed that these were worn by warriors to protect against the blows of enemy weapons. I can only speculate that the climate must have been far cooler in those ancient days. Any fool that would wear such clothing now would die faster from heat stroke than he would have from the weapons of his foes. Still, the idea that there was once enough metal in the world to allow such a garment to have been manufactured astounds me.
Drake and Maiden
Outside Makla village stands a temple ruin, burned during one of many elven attacks. All that remains is the charred statue of the small sect’s founder. Worshippers abandoned the temple, all save one, an old man of great wisdom. When he died, his daughter continued to visit the temple daily out of respect for her father.
One day, as she visited the temple, a great sandstorm blew up. Hating to see the statue damaged further, she wrapped her own shawl around it while waiting out the storm. A drake happened by, and (as this was back in the days when drakes were quite intelligent and polite) he stopped to observe. When the storm let up, he inquired of the daughter, “Damsel, why do you give your own robes to the image, an image of simple stone, that cannot feel the sting of airborne sands?”
The daughter was startled but composed herself before replying. “If it were but stone, mighty drake, then how could it answer my prayers and those of my father?”
Never had the drake heard such wisdom, not even from the spirits that counseled it. The drake returned often to visit the daughter on her daily trips, and in time came to love her. So taken was he that he sought out a wizard to alter his form. Then he went to visit the daughter as a human. The daughter shared his love, and the two founded a village of their own beyond the mountains. Their offspring, it is said, share the wisdom of their mother and the ferocious strength of their father. To this day, any child who displays both attributes is often termed a “drake’s child.”
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
From the lowliest slave to the most powerful sorcerer-king, psionics pervade all levels of Athasian society. Virtually every individual has some mental ability, although in many the true strength of their psionic potential remains unrealized.
Each culture values its psionic members. To the raiding tribes, individuals with clairvoyance are especially useful for locating targets. The nomads, for example, value an individual who can pinpoint the band’s position in the desert.
Psionic powers are not always beneficial. They tend to be destabilizing and turbulent. There are always thieves who will use their psychokinesis to steal the property of a fellow tribesman, and power-hungry nobles who send assassins trained in psychometabolism to murder their rivals. Rebellious subjects can always find a use for nearly any psionic ability, and in seemingly peaceful villages, many sordid and disgraceful acts are carried out behind curtains of psionic deception.
Considering the potential psionic powers offer for amassing power and wealth, it should not surprise you that most cities have at least one school devoted to the Way of the Mind. These schools are run by masters of the psionic arts, often with the stated purpose of helping the individual better understand his own potential and the responsibilities it entails. In reality, they are usually expensive academies for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, designed to develop the student’s psionic powers to their full potential—with the explicit goal of gaining an advantage over their political rivals in later life. It is no wonder that, in many cities, such schools are carefully licensed by the sorcerer-king.
Psionics has often been called the great equalizer in Athas, for it gives even the most physically weak individual a chance to compete and survive. If anything can compensate for the gradual deterioration of our world’s vital energies, it will be the power of the mind.
Jurgan, the mad priest of Urik. That’s what some call him, behind his back. A screaming lunatic prattling on about days so long ago they are far beyond the years of even the most ancient elf. The templars ignore him as harmless—his ramblings too ridiculous even for the children who gather around him like awed little rasclinn. Still, his rants are ominous. And sad. And he tells one tale that will shiver the spine of any man.
“Listen well, my children,” Jurgan said as he sat by the well and watched the blazing sun slide toward the horizon under an olive sky. "Once there was a time when men like myself were as common as injustice is today. Men and women, pledged to the earth, or to fire, or water, or the caressing wind, roamed the green fields of Athas in large numbers. Few are left now, a desperate and scattered few vainly trying to pump the lifeblood back in to the dried-up well of our world.
“Hamanu; the others, Kalak, Nibenay, Lalali-Puy, all of them, were but sandmites compared to the real power. Compared to the power of the earth and the sky. Then one day, they discovered a terrible, dark secret. They fixed their little spells to feed from the energy of the elements, and they magnified their power a hundred-fold! The land and every living thing in the land fed their vile sorcery. And the land and its creatures were sucked dry by their defiling magic.
“Elemental clerics and the mysterious druids banded together to oppose their blasphemous power, but it was too late. The dark sorcerers and their sniveling minions slew priests by the score, and the deserts ran red with blood. It would be the last such drenching our parched world would
“A few clerics remained when the slaughter was over—they were fortunate compared to the druids. The defilers knew as little about them as we know about the thoughts of a thri-kreen. The defilers did know that druidic power was derived from the land, and they assumed the druids were in competition for the same resources. This was not entirely true (no one knows more than I), but the sorcerer-kings and the thousands who now followed them saw the druids as a threat, and they became as kirre fighting over the same herd of erdlu. That which they did not understand they had to destroy.
“Some hunters went into the wastes in search of the druids, but they met with little success. After years of fruitless searching, the sorcerer-kings began to ravage the land, knowing that the druids must come out of hiding to do battle or allow their lands to wither at the defiler’s touch. The tactic worked; the guardians emerged from their hiding
“The years of frustration wore heavily on the defilers’ brow, and the druids paid for their elusiveness in flesh and blood. When the winds of Athas no longer bore the screams of its defenders, the sorcerer-kings returned to their citadels.” Jurgan sighed and paused, a distant, sad look creeping in to his ancient eyes. Finally, he continued, his voice hoarse and troubled.
“The druids are no longer hunted in force. The kings believe there simply aren’t enough left to threaten them. But the templars, and even some elves I know, have been well rewarded for delivering the heads of wasteland druids.
“As for the elemental clerics, some say we are mad—driven insane by the chaotic beings we serve. But others see the gleam of patience in our eyes, and know that one day the clerics and druids of Athas will throw off the yoke of oppression and return the flowing rivers and the sprawling forests to our withered lands.”
A templar walked by Jurgan and his assembly. He patted the obsidian sword at his side and shot the madman a disapproving look. Jurgan suddenly screamed at the heavens, and the sorcerer-king’s watchman moved on, apparently content that the old priest was indeed a raving fool. Jurgan smiled and tiny spark of light flashed in his earthy eyes.
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
Every city is led by a king or queen. He (or she) may be addressed as “Magnate” in one place and “Vizier” in another, but is always the absolute dictator of his subjects.
Without exception, every king is a powerful, immortal Defiler and master of the psionic arts. Their origins are lost to time, partly because each sorcerer-king has outlawed the use of writing except by their own templars and, in some cities, the nobility.
The king is sometimes considered his city’s deity. His priests force the citizens to build temples to the king and lead them in pompous ceremonies of worship. Sometimes the nobles and a few wealthy citizens consider the king their benefactor. The merchants see the king as a center of political and magical power that must be appeased if they are to continue their commerce in his city. If the ranks of slaves see the king as a god, it is certainly as an evil and corrupt one that keeps them in bondage and makes a misery of their lives.
In return for his exalted position and unlimited authority, the king has a duty to administer justice, protect the citizens from famine and crime, and safeguard the city from external attack. In practice, these gluttonous monarchs spend most of their effort protecting their power base and seeing to their own comfort. Justice tends to be self-serving and arbitrary, and the king’s agents are so corrupt that they often ignore crime altogether—providing the criminal pays them a large enough bribe.
Because starting a war is the typical response to a city’s internal problems, I have never heard of a sorcerer-king who does not take the matter of security from external attack seriously. All kings maintain standing armies, they usually have some large defensive project under construction, and I have heard that they devote most of their magical research to developing spells to fend off enemy armies. In fact, most cities are so well defended that it is impossible to criticize any sorcere-king on this basis.
Templars are clergymen and women devoted to the sorcerer-king of their city. Like other priests, they are granted spells in return for their woship. Unlike true priests, who draw their power from the elemental forces of the world, Templars tap into the magical forces of their sorcerer-king. These greedy templars dominate the king’s bureaucracy. Although each city organizes its agencies differently, every bureaucracy is steeped in ancient traditions designed to promote the organization’s welfare and keep it tied closely to the monarch. Templar bureaus tend to be permeated by intradepartmental treachery and embroiled in external political intrigues with other agencies of the city’s bureaucracy.
As agents of their monarch’s will, templars are feared and despised by common city-dwellers—with good reason, if you ask me. These priests abuse their positions steadily, enforcing the king’s edicts with spiteful indifference, taking bribes, and dealing out unjust punishments to anyone who objects. Generally, complaints about the bureaucracy’s corruption fall on deaf ears, for the templars are any sorcerer-king’s best means of maintaining a stranglehold on the population.
The nobles control the farms and the water of the cities. Usually each noble family picks a senior member to sit on a parliamentary council. In theory, these councils act as advisory bodies to the monarchs, but in reality they are little more than administrative bodies through which the king passes his commands to the aristocracy.
It is not rare, however, for the interests of the nobility to be opposed to those of the templars and/or the kings. On such occasions, the advisory councils sometimes find the courage to voice their opposition. When this happens, a flurry of political assassinations usually follows. Most people assume that these assassinations are carried out by the templars on their own initiative or at the king’s request.
Like the templars, the nobles are permitted to read and write, and they are usually equally vigilant about protecting this critical secret.
Two Elven Brothers…:
Two elven brothers returned from a hunt to find that their tribe had packed up and left them stranded in the desert. The water hole had only six days of water left, so the elder, stronger brother gathered the water into skins, and gave three days worth to his younger, weaker brother. With the water, they sprinted after the tracks of their tribe. They traveled for four days, never catching up to their tribe. Each day, the younger, weaker brother drank his fill of water, while the older, stronger brother only drank half rations, looking with disapproval at his brother’s gluttony.
On the morning of the fourth day, as the younger brother drained the final drops from his water skins, the older brother finally spoke: “It may be days more until we catch up to our tribe, brother. I have saved my water, though it cost me discipline and sacrifice. You have drunk your water and have no more. Now your gluttony will be your downfall.”
“Not so, brother,” replied the younger, drawing his dagger. “My water packs have been lighter the past three days, and my body is refreshed from its fill of water. You are tired from carrying your load, and weak from deprivation. Now I am the stronger.”
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
Every city serves as the headquarters for at least half-a-dozen merchant houses, and several times that number maintain trading emporiums within the city walls. Usually these trading emporiums are located in a particular quarter of the city, where a purchaser can buy nearly anything that Athas has to offer if he knows where to look.
Merchants are not citizens, for the nature of their work dictates that they maintain contact with a wide variety of societies (which makes our sorcerer-kings distrustful). Instead, merchants are granted long-term licenses to reside in a city, and in return they donate large sums of money to public works (i.e., to the sorcerer-king).
Merchants are one of the few classes that the bureaucracy is careful not to harass. The templars have learned that if they try to intimidate or blackmail one merchant, they will find that everything they wish to buy from other merchants has inexplicably doubled in price or vanished from the market.
Technically merchants are not allowed to read or write, but they are allowed to keep accounts. I should note that most houses have highly developed methods of “keeping accounts.” For all practical purposes, most merchants can both read and write in the secret language of their houses. Not surprisingly, jealous templars spend a considerable amount of energy trying to prove to the king that the keeping of accounts is, in fact, a form of reading and writing.
Excerpt from The Wanderer’s Journal:
Though the picture I have painted so far is of a stark and rugged land, I do not mean to say that Athas is dreary or monotonous. To the contrary, it has a majestic and stark beauty. When first light casts its emerald hues over the Sea of Silt, or when sunset spreads its bloody stain over the Ringing Mountains, there is a certain feral beauty that stirs the untamed heart in all of us. It is a call to take up spear and net, to flee the city, to go and see what lurks out in the barrenness.