Three Things for the Road


As is well known, traveling roads can be dangerous. Many travelers embark upon the pathways of the world, and fewer return. Those that don’t are assumed murdered by bandits or monsters. However, they sometimes reappear after a few months or years, reporting their sudden, instant teleportation across great distances. These events are culturally attributed to a number of causes, chiefly gods of trickery and the ravings of drunken madmen. However, a few of the most well-traveled attribute it to sort of being called a roadthing, with varying degrees of seriousness. Most couriers and such seem to consider them the bogeyman of the world’s roadways, and from thence they have entered the common lexicon. But the not insignificant volume of reports and true believers means that some academic consideration has fallen on the subject. Scholars debate furiously about the veracity of accounts and physical evidence that occasionally turn up, many of the former and all of the latter having been outed as frauds. To the city scholars, the roadthing is yet another tiresome myth of the country bumpkins, and frequently bemoan the re–emergence of the discourse around their existence.

In this particular case, the scholars are wrong.

Misty Forest in Autumn – 6 years later by Michael Handt

Rumors of the roadthings reached the wizards, and they soon began their own experiments. Good conjuration magic conducted over long distances is a damned difficult ask in the best times, and teleportation is fraught with danger, so if they existed, the wizards (specifically, the blue wizards, who were best equipped to complete these studies and the most interested) could put their abilities to great use. However, this ran into a huge problem. No one, including their occasional victims, had ever actually seen a roadthing, or even signs of one. It seems they exist in the gaps of human perception; not just invisible, but imperceptible to any human sense. Even the arts of magic and science have yet to reveal them. Spells of divination fail to detect or classify them, as will all but the cleverest traps and experiments. Even the best of these have only proved that the roadthing has mass and volume, though not how much of either.

In theory, a roadthing could be sitting in the corner of your house right this moment without you ever noticing, though they are shyer than this. Claiming to see a roadthing will have your peers thinking you’re mad, and if you can see them then you probably are. The only sign of their presence, other than the instantaneous transit, is a low subsonic hum described as a purr by the blue wizards who have been doing this for the decades required to become sensitive to it. Cemtaro the Lunatic claims the ability to distinguish individual road things based on the timbre of their “voices,” and for what it’s worth, this is considered one of his less dubious claims.

They did manage to discover that the roadthing is some kind of creature with at least animal intelligence. This means that the wizards can lure the creatures to them, even if they can’t tell whether they succeed or fail until they get teleported. The process of luring them has incrementally improved over several generations of blue wizards, largely by luck or repeated semi-random alterations to their rituals. The ritual is a total black box; they don’t know why the roadthings are attracted by the rituals, only that they work. The success rate is up to about even odds, if you need it done within a week. A good wizard can guarantee teleportation in two. You can do it less than a day if its rained recently, or if you’re in an open desert. In places where lots of wizard teleport, they put out great flat slabs of stone that have been heavily pitted on the upwards facing side, since this seems to attract them.

Most of the time, the wizards have to make due with burning purple mugwort, wormwood, or various toxic salts. They also use oversized silent rattles at the vertices of various regular pentagons traced out on the ground (for clarity, the markings don’t increase the probability of success) and hum deeply for minutes on end. Highly complex, reciprocating machinery, usually water hammers without any clear usage, are erected when time allows as the motion is believed to attract them. Dancing was popular in the early days, but has fallen out of fashion somewhat. They’ve even discovered some methods to increase the mass teleported by constructing a sort of short wooden maze-like structure, though the roadthings will only teleport living beings and the things directly attached to them.

If the blue wizards know they definitely exist, and blue wizards famously have many ties to the greater scholarly community, then why is the learned world now convinced that they in fact don’t exist? This is itself the work of the blue wizards, motivated by the apparent shyness of the roadthing. The areas around their headquarters, the Azure Spire, haven’t been visited by a roadthing in a century, despite repeated attempts at the rituals. Current theory suggests that the roadthings were permanently scared away from the region because this is where the experiments to determine their true nature took place. Circumstantial evidence also suggests that rituals repeated too frequently in one place will temporarily reduce the effectiveness of further rituals, or render them ineffective entirely. The Council has reached consensus that the roadthings go to great lengths to be unobserved, and blue wizards should aid them in accordance with their principle of studious politeness. Any probing questions – and believe me, their scholar friends have probed mightily -on the matter are met with misdirection, denial, or (polite) refusal to discuss the subject. Normally, the tenet against lying would prevent this, but the blue wizards actually modified their covenant to include roadthing ritual practice as part of their exempt secret lore, the first such modification in over six centuries. This drastic action probably resulted from embarrassment, as the blue wizards are actually responsible for starting the general awareness of roadthings, since they were some of the most ardent and credible reporters on the principles and appearances of roadthings earlier on.


Cable of Ascension

Some geography: the tower Arxact is a massive tower sprouting from the ring’s equator that reaches all the way to the center of the ring (think Bank’s Orbital). It is a constant feature in the sky of all the ring’s inhabitants, and would probably be the brightest object in the sky were it not for its inky, non-reflective surface, which only appears when you get far enough from it. The tower’s base is the size of a small country, and inconveniently situated in the highest, metaphysically unmappable, man-eating-cat-filled plateaus of Bod. The tower has been around for as long as records have existed, and is assumed to have been made by whoever made the rest of the ring.

But enough of that – what you care about is that uncountable expeditions have tried to break into the tower and steal its treasures, and almost all of them failed horrifically or simply disappeared without a trace. The least fucked expeditions focused instead on the outside of the tower. First to go was the rare metals, filigreed into the lower surface, under the freely permeable dark layer. “Filigreed” probably gave you the wrong idea there – this is a tower with a surface area comparable to a continent, and the sensual, organic veins of pure metal ran as deep and wide as rivers along its surface. Most of the platinum, half the gold and silver, and all of the iridium on the ring were actually mined out of the otherwise invincible surface. Hell, most of it is still there, just too high up or otherwise inaccessible to reach.

But the big prize of the outside was a series of twined cables that reached from the surface to various points up the tower’s height. They are comprised of smaller black wires- how many none can say, because they fractally spiral around the length of the cable. Looking into the ends just shows pure, profound, awesome blackness. Beyond their looks these cables have a number of amazing properties. The first you’ll notice is that gravity’s direction is reversed along their length, though they are affected by gravity normally. If you attached one to a roof, you could fall up the cable and shatter your ankles on the roof, as long as you held on. This also works for inclines – a thirty degree incline up becomes a thirty degree incline down. Leaving the cable on its side just makes it a regular cable with near infinite tensile strength, though you can cut straight through it. Make sure you aren’t suspended on the thing when you do this, since it will plummet back to the ground and you with it

Their utility to adventurers are hopefully obvious, and they make repeated appearances as the panoply of heroes, chosen ones, and trickster gods in mythology the world over. The shortest of the original cables were still longer than most oceans, and most were snipped only part way up due to lack atmosphere. Dozens were collected this way, and most were lost before they reached the outer world, but scholars think that the various expeditions managed to deliver 127 leagues of cable to the outside world, where it went on to cause an unprecedented period of international anarchy. Overnight, previously unassailable fortresses, capitals, and mountain kingdoms became possible targets of conquest. The minds of every king, vassal, statesmen, and revolutionary began cogitating almost at once. New methods of siege warfare were invented, turning escalade from a fringe method to the main procedure of warfare. The ensuing political violence managed to plunge half the world into a dark age, and later created several empires. After a few more political reversals, most of the cables were lost, destroyed, or hidden.

The effect of this war bears itself out on the landscape; high mountains are dotted with ramps to make their assisted ascents and descents over mountains gentler. The spread of the cables led to a “defense” race, to build the best fortifications that were most resistant to the new reality of military operations. The end result is a bunch of castles and palatial complexes built on summits only accessible by armies with cables or small groups of dedicated mountaineers. A lot of these places still have treasures within them, of course. And of course, the mountain kingdoms that became targets also became aggressors, and amongst the most successful – at least one plateau empire had its beginnings in this period.

High Cliff by Ninjatic

Having fifty feet of this stuff paints a target on your back for every thief, assassin, or mercenary in the same country as you and also many outside it. Having more than a hundred feet makes you a target of entire empires.

Very interesting things happen if you form circuits with these cables. The exploration of this field is limited by the scarcity of materials, but even a simple loop will cause everything within it (up to a certain mass) to float upwards. This is just one of many methods by which various cities, villas, and castles have been induced to float throughout the ring’s history, and if you want any serious length of cable, these are the best place to get them. Good luck getting up there, and good luck getting the cable without crashing the island into the ground at terminal velocity.

Space Expansion Array

Waves of apocalypse have destroyed various societies throughout histories. These apocalae were of varying severity and duration – we even have records from before some of them. Most were on the level of the Roman Empire collapsing on the less severe end to post-Columbian America on the opposite, but at least one was so serious that as far as anyone can tell humanity (or whatever species it was) went actually extinct and was later revived (or remained extinct). These fellows, whoever they were, managed to reach an industrial level of technology, although the form their technology took was vastly different from our own. The only things to survive are some of their chemical byproducts (mostly weapons so horrible that it comes as little surprise they destroyed themselves) and their megaprojects. No art, not personal tools, not even bones from this time have been found.

The Space Expansion Array is a series of helical towers, reaching two hundred feet above the ground. They are spread across the landscape to form a roughly circular border enclosing a now uninhabited Switzerland-sized region. The land around them is steeply sunken down, and trees around them point towards them. These challenges make them difficult to reach or even see from a distance – the trunks and branches are so dense as to present a near solid wall. If you do get near one, their smooth gray surfaces of unknown metal should not be touched under any circumstances. At best, nothing will happen. The most likely outcome is akin a lightning strike (this being a pre-industrial society’s only association with electrocution) but far more severe. At a worst case scenario, you’ll activate the array. You can tell this is happening because the entire tower’s surface will begin to glow purple – the strong electric field is ionizing the air around the tower. During these times you don’t even want to be near the things for the electrocution risk, and also because of what happens next.

Corona Discharge by Bart Van Overbeeke

The array changes the size of the interior region by stretching or contracting space itself. So the region is only the size of Switzerland when the array is inactive, and ranges from a few hundred yards wide to an unknown upper limit. The forest, river, plains, animals, other plants, and anything else within are likewise stretched or compressed, as long as they remain in the area. Leaving the area will cause you to revert back to your normal size, although entering the area after it activates won’t change your size. This feature is critical to the presumed military function. Make the area small so our army can go through instantly, then make it huge to slow down enemies. The region is centrally located, mostly flat, and with only one major, easily fordable river, and is easy to imagine as a crossroads for many armies.

Being inside the area is imminently survivable, but terribly inconvenient. It’s very hard to know how big the area is before you go into it – the scaling effect increases in strength as you move away from the edges, which look regular sized. The changes in size and limits of human perception mean that a stretched or compressed area is immediately noticeable, even if the dimensions would suggest otherwise. The forest in there is all old growth, so trees being more huge isn’t easy to spot. The most reliable indication is the reddish or bluish tint everything gets when you approach the center, and even that is oft mistaken for natural lighting.

The bad news is that if you try to cross it with a week’s supply of food, and find out that the region is was Siberia sized when you entered, you’re shit out of luck. The worse news is that once you are inside, the amount of time it takes you to cross can change. Any scaling applied to the region is not necessarily applied to you. Maybe you’ll scale with the region, in which case your travel time is unaffected. Maybe it’ll double, or triple, or worse. You may think that no one in their right mind would try to cut through here, but as I said, it is also centrally located, fairly easy to navigate, and free of bandits (inside the region, at least), tolls, and taxes. Many, many merchants have crossed it in a pinch, and smugglers, fugitives, and other criminals are naturally drawn to it. More than a few armies have traversed it over the years, and a couple of those have disappeared.

If you understand how the array works without having had any experience with it, it’s actually a pretty tempting proposition. If you have had experience with it, you know that it isn’t worth it – that the inside of the region is littered with corpses. There are a few guides and scavengers who specialize in exploring the array-zone, and they all universally hate and fear the zone. The array is mostly unpredictable in the sense that you can’t attach any long-term pattern to the shrinking or contracting. It is entirely predictable in the sense that it will fuck you over, in a manner suggestive of malice. Assume that if the array activates while you are inside it, whether you scale with the region or not is decided by which one will fuck you over more.

by Ivan Rastrigin

Every single one the scavengers (and most of the people living near the edge – the precise borders of the region aren’t well known) have a story about being trapped inside for weeks longer than they expected by a sudden, rapid expansion, emerging bearded and hungry. Every one of them knew someone who died because of this. Usually, the array doesn’t change the area faster than once a week, but sometimes it changes size multiple times an hour. Sometimes it seems to regularly expand and contract, but with random contractions spread over the periodic changes. Sometimes, the periodic changes just stop and it becomes completely random for a while. The one thing the scavengers hate the most is when the array becomes inactive. Call it superstition, but none of them will enter the region when this is the case. Even though this seems like the safest times, idiomatic knowledge suggests that this is bait – they treat the whole area almost like a vicious, evil god that has to placated by occasional sacrifice.

The local religion considers the land and themselves cursed, and that idea has spread to the outside. The borders are certainly less populated than they could be – it’s prime agricultural land, but no one wants to move there. The land hates them – it does not provide, it does not protect. This rather contradicts the usual attitudes of people towards the land they live on, and the traditions of the borderers are considered strange and off-putting. There’s the obsession with wearing metal – they believe this helps their odds of being scaled with the interior region. So a lot of them wear nothing on their upper bodies but a big rectangular iron pendant. Then there’s the hunting. The curse on the land is believed to extend to the plants and animals grown on it. When they hunt, they usually just leave the animals where they lie – all the joy was in killing them. This is considered pious and correct, in their mind. They hate all animals in general – none of their villages, hamlets, or occasional towns have pets, only livestock. And while many towns in other places keep a lot of animals inside their walls for protection, they always leave theirs outside. Their farming techniques are outdated, and all farmers are looked down on with disdain, even by the farmers that make up the majority of society. A lot of them turn to banditry, though there are so few of them that the region is frequently still pretty safe. None of their rituals are relieving or regenerating, at least to outsiders, and their ideal of authority includes enacting random acts of cruelty on underlings. Despite their apparent self-hatred and love for imports, they are unfriendly to outsiders, who believe them cursed and hate them because of the aforementioned banditry. They are skilled in violence, but don’t consider martial exploits worthwhile for its own sake, like some knights – they are just inured to murder, which isn’t surprising given the type of people who pass through here.

Beserker by Tomas Duchek. Pendant not pictured.

Most believe that the scavengers are incredibly desperate, and would be doing anything else if they could, or so they claim. And indeed, some of them are criminals and exiles who can never return to polite society, but just as many of them are addicted to the money. The issue is that scavenging inside the area is lucrative – there are lots of dead caravans to pick apart slowly, and you don’t have to do much more than walk around inside a bit. The borderers love to adorn themselves with things from the outside. Metal from the outside, tools, clothes below the waist, jewelry, but being poor farmers they don’t usually have money for this. Some of them turn to banditry, but the more pious option is to turn towards the array-region. To travel inside the region and bring treasure out is seen as heroic act. It’s the equivalent of walking up to god and robbing his house, in their mind. So a lot of them do it for the money and the fame. A lot of their leaders and warlords are successful scavengers, and every once in awhile one of them manages to unite one side of the border region. They usually go on to spread grief through the surrounding polities, requiring a coalition to put them down. Yet any attempts to control the region long-term inevitably fail after a few years – the region is just too sparse to rule for outsiders. Sure, a kingdom can control an arc of the border regions, but the areas abutting other kingdoms are hard to govern, and those on the other side of the array may as well be on the other side of the continent.

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