Distant Lands: Yoth, the Pilgrim’s Path Part 1

Desert by Mattia Lau

On 9th Feverind

The boat landed at Mechol on the Coast of Masar, a beach stretching some 227 miles unbroken even as the wind crosses its length. There the caravan I traveled with traded their metals and bullion for the fish-goods, dyes, and pearls of those living on the stilt-houses, and the caravan master had a good deal, for the stilt-men have no other method of obtaining these goods.

These men are said to be the last remnants of the great kingdom of Yothian, a prosperous and well-fed land that held the sceptre of the many smaller valley kingdoms in the Shield of Yoth – now mostly dejected and ravaged by demonic invasion, refugees, and war betwixt them. The kingdom was especially known for its great quantities of gold both from the hills around Ruby Peak and from within the Valley Kingdoms. The collapse of the kingdom disrupted the flow of bullion the world over and led to the rise of the Copper Kings of the Talredi Ridges in Xul.

On 14th Feverind

The caravan reached the Pilgrim’s Marker for six days of easy going and trading with the other stilt towns. The further from Mechol one goes, the better the trades but the sparser the stilt towns. The length of the shore is marked by great pillars of stone banded in brass, and in former times gold embellishment, made by the Young King Masar at five mile intervals. Further from Mechol the pillars are worn down to nubs sitting in brazen skeletons. The last before they reduce completely unmaintained stumps is the closest to the rift of Yoth, the holiest place of the native sun worship. In times of old, many mendicants would disembark on the Marker’s shores from across the world to bathe in the holy waters of Lake Toroth, which healed them and was said to bring them great wealth.

Thence into fields of Yothian we wandered, for the obelisk marks the part of shore closest to the rift. The fine grasses covered the world as far the Shield of Yoth, the Great Golden Spire of the Capitol and Ruby Peak the only interruptions. The caravan master made note that grasses stood ankle height, for this told that the grass was a mere week old. During the slow season, the grasses grow to the height of men in the course of three weeks, before the storms press them back down to the earth and drown them in sand. The fast season has constant storms, and the grass scarce has a chance to grow to the welt before being buried again. The master determined we had two weeks to reach the Rift before certain death swallowed us, and swore at the ship captain for his tardiness in our disembarkment.

On 24th Feverind

After the second demon attack in the course of six hours, the caravan was separated and our portion was forced to pause and hope the others regrouped. Lost in the first attack was 13 pack animals and both their handlers, and their cargoes. Lost in the second attack was 5 pack animals and their handler, four guardsmen, and a travelling priest. Separated at that time was another ten pack animals, their handlers, all the serving men and maids, three guards, and all the arms and armor, save my own.

We camped up on a low tor jutting out of the ground and waved a fine rug out of Ajulia to signal our compatriots, with no apparent result for the first day. I have informed the caravan master that we should not keep the signal high long, nor still, for the demons may attack again.

The demons are like nothing I have ever seen. They seem nearly invisible at first, like pure glass – only the barest shimmer of rainbow light gives away their strange, jagged but strangely beautiful forms. Yet when they attack they turn black as pitch, and their worm bodies become holes in the world. They jet across the land like lightning, their limbs trailing behind and eviscerating all they touch. I had little chance to take in their form. Those that dead have crossed over. They had too many limbs.

26th Feverind

The majority of the water was also with the separated caravan. We resolved to move on towards the rift, for the storms were at best three days beyond us and the rift now the same distance away. We marched all day and night, and only stopped when we saw a strange conical shape in the distance and movement in the grass ahead. We took a defensive posture with what arms left to us, but our precautions proved to be in vain. We were blessed to stumble upon a herdsmen of the plains, one of those folk that somehow persist in this cursed land, and his flock of equally resilient cave sheep, black and no bigger than a herding dog.

The man was ensconced in the strange cone like dress, that covers his entire body save for a slit at eye level. The structure was held together with bent branches and perched on his head and shoulders with clever fitting to allow him to move his neck without disturbing the structure. Upon getting closer, we were assailed by a mortal scent, likewise emanating from him. Despite his strangeness and reclusiveness, we were greatly pleased to see him, for he by dint must be an expert in surviving this hell. In truth, his appearance and olfactory characteristics are a result of his good sense – the shape of his cone-dress and the scent prevents demons from seeking him out.

The man directed us to a tor upon which we could watch the surrounds for our compatriots and the demons, in exchange for a bundle of iron tools which he eyed hungrily. The caravan master asked of him the location of his cave, him having made this journey previous and being familiar with the herdsmen of Yothian, but the man, called Goba, would say naught of that and seemed generally recalcitrant with the tradesmen. Nonetheless, during the hike and proceeding night, I made my camp with him and used my empathic talents – which he had never before seen and was not aware of – to probe him for the history of his land and people. He had no regular empathic language, a rarity in the world today, but not unexpected for such a secluded part of the world. My own travels have made me skilled at the decipherment of pure empathic communication, and I have assembled his history as thus.

The Fold by Mitchell Stuart

Three hundred years ago, the kingdom was struck by an unusual sandy tempest, wreaking much havoc. The storm subsided, but the next year it came back. Again, the men of Yoth rebuilt. The next year the storm came back, less than half a year after the last. Another storm struck within a month, and two months after, a sandstorm struck catastrophically, and unexpectedly, as the land of Yoth in that time was no desert. The sand choked the streets, the habitats, and very throats of the inhabitants of the kingdom. The skin was ripped from flesh, fires started by the lightning and also the mere abrasive force of the sand whipping past the once proud facades of the city. While the Yothians were blinded to the outside world, the fell demons moved through the turbid air, and men disappeared screaming, never to be seen again. The lightning storms grew worse, cursed dervishes of lightning gliding across the ground, vaporizing all in their path. The kingdom fell into chaos, and the men of Yoth scattered to the winds, clogging the mountain passes of the Shield, and grew to burden or menace, the adjacent lands. Even the deified royal line abandoned their kingdom and fled overseas and intermarried with the line of Colofina, who to this day uselessly claim dominion over the area. For the past two hundred and forty three years, the land has been nearly deserted, harried by storms and haunted by demons.

However, three sorts of men remained in the land of Yoth. The first are the herdsmen, who graze their vast hoards of cave sheep on the rich grasses, and return to their deep caves during storms.

The second are the madmen of Yoth, men of unparalleled savagery. They live alone, and hollow their homes from the shells of Great Lined Tortoises, one of the few creatures that can survive the open air. They bury the shells in the sand, and when men or animal walks over them, they spring out and stab them to death with scavenged weapons, sharp rocks, or their bare, sharp fingernails. They live alone, as animals, save to mate, and attack any but their own kind.

The last are the men of the cities of the Azure Rift, the expedition’s goal. The rift runs with the wind, deep enough to protect the inhabitants from storms and demons alike, with a wide, calm river to grow their food. The herdsmen knew little else than that, since he and his tribe have little to do with them, and are occasionally attacked, though other tribes have better relations with them. They live in four city-fortresses nestled within the great rift. The highest of the cities is Altol, the entry point for travelers and interface for the other people of the desert, and a place the shepherd knew to avoid his life. He directed us towards a faster path to the canyon edge, but slower to Altol, so we could from there follow the canyon sides to our destination.

Market by Calder Moore

6th Temas

Camped below the canyon edge. Storm has yet to abate.

8th Temas

While we waited for the storm to abate, I asked of the caravan master what he knew of these lands and what his travels had let him learn. The master corroborated that the men of the Rift live in the four cities. The men hold that the river’s path was once the road of pilgrimage and only those that sought the water’s holy protection survived the great storm. Interestingly, the men of the canyon hold universally that the further along the route towards the lake of Toroth the city is, the holier it is. Consequently the citizens of the deeper and more westerly towns are of a higher class than those upstream, and are favored by the law which is decided by the deepest city, Pagol. From there to Altol is a span of fifteen miles as the river flows. In addition to the river and the pilgrim’s old path hewn into the stone, the towns can each contact each other using their great bell, or bells in the case of Emgol. Besides danger, the bells tell of convoys leaving or arriving, festivals, or verdicts of the courts in Pagol. As in other lands, the bells also signify time, starting with the dawn peal of Altol and proceeding downward till the final ringing at dusk in Pagol. The walls of the canyon and gentle waters below conspire to carry their sound through almost 50-miles of canyon length in each direction, as it well should, for the bells were first devised as a warning system against the glass demons and desert spirits that descend from the badlands above the rift to harry the settlements.

Indeed, the caravan master told me that the walls are dotted with the remains of settlements so undone. The so-called Four Cities of the Rift were at various times in history the Twelve, Six, Ten, Eight, or Nine Cities instead. And though the records do not attest this, it is commonly held that once 31 cities spanned 50 miles of river. Their people and sometimes even their names are lost now.

Indeed, of the cities that yet remain, they can be said to be the meanest of them, a turning away from the excess of the other towns. Only the most defensible of the fastnesses survive, and each is practically impregnable from above. In times of old, the cities were divvied between the inner and outer districts, with the latter being built along the canyon walls and the former dug out of the rock. The older cities have extensive development of both their outer and inner cities, but those that persist are almost entirely subterranean.

10th Temas

We moved at last when the storm abated midday. We moved further towards the city of Altol on the high cliffs of the canyon, well above the pilgrim’s path and the river. While we made our progress I saw just above the glittering waters the ruins of one town previously inhabited, and saw then it was greater than any of the towns currently extant, the sun’s rays gleaming past the galleries and halls carved into the riftwall, the light fading into depths further than my eye could see. Fine leonine statues, scarred and pitted by time, stood watch over the great entrance archway. The caravan master told me that the city lies closest to Altol, and was lost a century ago, and that its name is forgotten.

11th Temas

At three hours past midday, we arrived at Altol at last, and set eyes upon the strange city streets.

Altol is the highest of the cities on the rift, and thereby the least able to retreat into the bosom of the earth owing to the stone’s instability. In an effort to ward away attacks from the air above, the city has grown strange and malformed. It is made to kill at every intersection, the streets are dotted with defensive structures and laid out to tie down attackers and hem them in. Every corner bristles with protrusions of meanly wrought iron and copper, jabbing up into the sky, supposedly to catch the falling devils and lightning dervishes. No flat ceiling exists – each one is spiked and sloped to deny footholds to the interlopers above. The streets are uncharacteristically wide for a town its size, no more than ten thousand souls, yet the thoroughfares would be the envy of the greatest mercantile centers. They are covered with stiff, thick cloth that sags beneath the weight of men, and which can easily be removed and replaced. Beneath are even more spikes, to impale demons in times of attack. For this reason, the people of the city are renowned for their light treads, which incidentally serves them well in their exploration of the world above. For the duration of my stay, I elected to hew to the small ledges that hang off buildings, and from which the cloth is usually suspended.

The rule of Altol is in the hands of a singular tyrant, whose accession is usually decided by a period of intense violence. This is because the Tyrant is almost always taken from the upper ranks of the explorers, adventurers, and gangsters which venture out into the desert and maintain contacts with the outer world. The tyrant is nominally master of them, and uses them as his army to enforce his will, though again civil war and internecine conflict are not at all uncommon, and even in good times, the three usual territories of the city operate relatively clean of each other. Of the five previous visits the caravan master made to the rift, all but one of them had him pay his tribute to a different tyrant – though on this visit the tyrant was the same as his last, the enigmatic fellow known by a moniker that translates roughly to “Vellum Man.” Supposedly he has earned this appellation by dint of his obsession with books and has supposedly assembled the only accessible library in the rift.

The tyrant’s rule, such as it is, is made by their ownership of the armory, which doubles as the citadel from which the tyrant leads. The paucity of metal in the canyon means that access to arms and armor confers significant power, especially to the violent and venturesome folk of Altol.

The tyrant’s primary responsibility is maintaining good relations with Pagol, as all the metal for the city’s forges come thither, and making sure the explorers only attack the caravans that are passing through Yoth, as a shortcut and not coming to trade. The merchants of the outer world have some secret way of signaling their intent, should a patrol come across them. This sign is supposedly unique to the merchant, and passed from father to son, creating, in effect a hereditary class of traders with the outer world. In theory the tyrant could extend the trading rights to any one at any time, but they require the special dispensation of the judges of the city of Pagol, who only rarely grant it. This is a source of immense conflict between the two cities, but usually the friction gives way to their common benefit, as the men of Pagol need the men of Altol to sell their silver, and to acquire the goods of the outside world they so necessarily crave.

12th Temas

I gained access to the Vellum Man’s library by way of his connection with the caravan master, and by the donation of some of of my books, including my own copy of Olbede’s Priests of the Road and Mataram’s Thousand Waters which he was very eager to have. For though the man is well educated compared to his compatriots and supposedly one of the ten men in all of Altol that can read, he is sorely strained by his lack of knowledge of the outer world. For these journals of travel he granted me the boon of freedom of his own collection.

13th Temas

As expected, the Vellum Man’s library was constituted mostly of manuscripts recovered from the rift cities and the cities above. A fascinating history of the construction of the capitol’s Golden Spire, and a catalog of the dignitaries of the valley kingdoms in the Shield of Yoth and their families made near 800 years previous, and also of the War of Peroth, in which the current royal family came to hold the crown of the land from the previous, were all amongst the books. Also there was a document describing and depicting in rich colors all the birds of the land previous the great storms, and a treatise on the habits and lifespan of the Great Line Tortoises, then called Geren’s Torotoises after a natural philosopher and spiritual guru that supposedly lived on the back of a specimen of great size. Also on a piece of holed and worn parchment was a report detailing the annual trade volume of gold leaving Yoth in its heyday. Once converted to units I could understand, I calculated that the volume was nearly equal to the copper removed from the all the islands of the Talredi Ridges combined* – a staggering source of gold.

*per the estimate of one master Guildsman Orvoght, whom I chanced to meet in Star Home

However, of interest to this account is those documents dealing with the city of Nacan, second highest on the rift, though oldest if the record is to be believed, its wide dome nestled on a promontory supposedly the oldest extant structure in the rift. The men of Nacan are intensely xenophobic, and entrance to their city is nigh impossible to outsiders for which reason we did not intend to stop and thence why I chose to report its nature here. Those texts that do exist describe a notoriously dark, cramped city, in comparison to wide hallways and sightlines used by most other cities. Every affair in the city is decided by the casting of votes. Every man, woman, and even children of sufficient height may cast a lot. The votes are decided by a simple majority, with the exact matter of governance carried out by a caste of dwarfs and ordinary men that gave up their legs to gain membership in this vaunted organization, or otherwise by the mass action of the voters led by the Bellowers, named so for their ability to shout their commands over the tumult of the masses. In war also this ability is well-employed, though the people of Nacan rarely ever see sunlight.

Supposedly Nacan once was the fulcrum of an attempt to overthrow the priests of Toroth, the now flooded city beneath the lake of the same name situated at the terminus of the Azure Rift’s channel. The men of Nacan loaded themselves onto the barges and flew down river, liberating the slaves of Emgol, sacking the towns of Renefol and Atacan, taking Soltol, and bypassing thorugh trickery the bridge of Pagol. There on lake Toroth, the loyal men of Emgol, Pagol, Soltol, and the sacked towns met them. It is said that so many barges and rafts crowded into the lake that the water was hidden completely beneath them. Indeed, a tapestry recovered from the burnt remains of Soltol depicts the great density of the mayhem. The battle raged for a day, as weapons broke and men resorted to fists and, notably, the gouging of eyes. The men of Nacan were butchered near to a man, except for their commander and his personal guard, who so enthusiastically took up the method of blinding described above that their arms were covered with blood to the elbow.

The city of Nacan was spared, but the commander and his followers were cast out and never allowed to return, cursed to wander the rift. Even now, travelers between the cities report spectres with red phalanges, and the bloody handprint is seen as an omen and curse of unparalleled ill-will.

Nachan further had to give up all their weapons of metal, and sink their docks into river. They further had to allow the men of Toroth to search their city and its ways for violations of the treaty. In these searches, the inhabitants were greatly abused and frequently killed arbitrarily, as a form of retribution. The outer portions of the city, save their prized dome, were reduced to rubble.

A curious tale also arises from this period of Nacan’s history, namely that is a city entirely of women. Supposedly the great share of the men died in the battle, such that women came to rule the city, and that any new men were killed by the enforcers out of Toroth. Eventually when this period of enforcement ended, the city’s voters and rulers decreed that men would be expelled from the city at the age of 6, to find a place in the world or else perish. No reason is given for this decision, and indeed some accounts mention it not all, lending some doubt to its veracity.

The city of Nacan does little trade with the outside world, growing its own variety of wheat that requires no light. The people of that city produce no goods worth trading, save a form of blackish brown, incredibly sweet wine using unknown processes and stock. The men (women?) of the city are said to be excellent slingers and users of the quarterstaff, this being the only weapons they are allowed to wield in any number. The people of the city are also renowned practitioners of stealth. Smugglers and bandits from the city pass goods stolen from the surface, traders of Altol, and other cities to Pagol without paying a custom’s fee, using a series of tunnels and, some claim, cleverly designed boats that pass silently over the water.

14th Temas

The caravan master concluded his business within Altol, and we departed the city at dawn, following the pilgrim’s path. The master elected to wait no longer for the rest of the caravan, and presumed it lost. He nonetheless assured me that the money made from the trip would more than make up the losses incurred. On my way out of the city, I asked the porters we had taken on what the meaning of the blue streaming zig-zag flags hanging from many of the city’s spires, and similar patterns often seen adorning walls, blankets, and plates, and if it stood for lightning that frequently rocked their skies. They informed me that the azure line was a common symbol of all the cities, and that it resembled the view of the open sky, looking up from the bottom of the winding rift.

Author’s Note: Surprise bitch! I’m back. Rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated etc, etc. Anyways, I’m hoping to update this blog once a week from now on, a promise I wholly expect to break almost immediately. But hey, it’s nice to have something to aspire to.

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