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The Darkness Beneath: Ancient buried secrets in the Sea of Dreadby Francesco Defferrari from Threshold Magazine issue 3
The following is a missive written from famed Ylari scholar and explorer Aamir Ibn Saleem, a teacher at the Krakatos School of Magecraft, to his friend and colleague Leander in the year 1013 AC. Details about Aamir can be changed if the DM wishes to set the letter in 1000 AC.
I hope my letter finds you well and I pray you to give me some news about your travels and discoveries, for my part here is all I have discovered in the last two years about the buried ruins of the Sea of Dread.
It’s curious that I have now become a sort of expert on dark and forgotten places, as I was born in a nation full of sun, and it is in other nations full of sun that I search for these lost locations. It’s ironic also because I very much feared the stories of dark dungeons as a child, when my grandfather told me that the “Evil wizard in the darkness” would come one day from below the sands1. What can I say? Life always takes you on unexpected paths!
My companions, Leander Mortensen, another wizard from the northern reaches, Lidia Mariev, a young Karameikan priestess of Chardastes, Abdul Muid, a warrior who is a Ylari expatriate like myself, and Corsin Seril, a Minrothaddan elf, and I, have begun to call ourselves “The Delvers” as we are always entering some forgotten underground ruin. And we have explored several already, all of them, I believe, linked to an ancient civilization that flourished in the upper Sea of Dread. At least that’s true for the nearest layers, because there are more, in some cases... many more..
But let’s proceed with order. All began for us in Krakatos2, because I teach at the School, and the city beneath is well known to have multiple layers of ruins that in recent years have become a sort of test of courage for reckless students. It was indeed during such an occasion, when I had to rescue some irresponsible youngster from a carrion crawler, that I found in one of the deep levels the sign of a double axe. Such a sign is well known, at least among scholars, as a symbol pertaining to an ancient civilization that once flourished in the area of Karameikos, Ierendi, Minrothad, and beyond. According to the elves, this civilization called itself Taymora3 and ruled over lands that at the time were over the waves, and that are now partially at the bottom of the Sunlit Sea. That little sign led me to wonder if other cities of the area had under their streets ancient ruins of the past, like Krakatos, or even older.
I spoke of this with my friend Leander, and together we began to search for other people, who like us, might be interested in similar explorations. So we met Lidia and Abdul, a couple of adventurers quite younger than ourselves, and began our “delving” under Krakatos itself.
As the many layers of Krakatos deserve a treatise upon themselves, being the ones we explored better, I’ll leave their full description to another letter. For now let’s just say that it seems the city wasn’t a very important place in the time of Taymora, but rather some time after it, so Krakatos it’s not very interesting for the purposes of the present letter.
Under Mirros however it’s another matter, as delving beneath the city (and mind that it wasn’t easy, as we had to cross a layer of wererats, and one of nasty intelligent insects, to reach the older levels) we discovered what I believe in the remote past was a mighty fortress or castle. The time should have been around 2000 BC, at the time of Taymora’s splendor. What surprised me were the huge blocks of stones that were used to build this fortress, a thing I’ve seen in the past only in buildings raised by giants. From what I was able to study of this layer (we found also some objects and weapons) I have developed the theory that this was a hotly contested place, where Taymora and an unknown giant people fought for supremacy and control. Curiously we also found a mirror and a dagger that seem to be ancient elven, or maybe fairy objects, as they still had a faint aura of magic. Have fairy folks too, lived in the castle at some point?4 It seems, from many sources, that fairies had a relevant presence in the land. We soon found out however that the third layer was quite dangerous, as it was swept by a cold, dark wind that almost drove us mad. I think there were voices in the wind, of things dead since centuries, and yet not completely dead.
We ran away, I must confess, but in our confusion we escaped to a deeper layer, that would be the fourth. Here there were bronze plaques, or at least they seemed made of bronze, with names written in a strange alphabet, yet understandable to me as it seemed a mixture between Thyatian and Nordic. One name was recurrent, and I think it translates as Albimia. Was that the name of the city? A city even more ancient than the Taymoran, or fairy ruins above?. The fourth level too was inhabited by something, as we heard heavy steps coming toward us. I think we were still under the effect of some wicked magic from the level above, because we again ran away confusedly through the first passage going up. We were lucky enough to find a road to the surface, even if we had to fight a group of men and women going up - I think they were cultists of some sort5. We drove them away however, and came out into the more familiar sewers.
I must admit this delving wasn’t very successful, but it also must be noted that the places under Mirros seem very, very dangerous. We’ll try to return there, however, one day.
About Very Dangerous Places I have a special mention of Stronghold, in Fortress Island, Minrothad.
The home of the local dwarves has extensive tunnels beneath that are worthy exploring, and we discovered that because the dwarves invited us to do so. At the time we were already a bit famous, and the dwarven guild wanted an expert opinion of what they found under the earth. The dwarves in fact dug several levels on the long narrow sound, at the end of which there is their wonderful town. They obviously met other creatures, and told us they had some clashes with flame salamanders and other critters in the past, but the recent events were something completely different. They warned us that already two of their exploring squads had gone missing, and offered us the best equipment they had. We were a bit concerned by the situation, but curiosity won over caution, as it always does, and may it not kill us. Down we went, for quite a long time and, even if we met some usual inhabitants of the underworld, insects and worms mostly, none of them were really dangerous.
Only after going much deeper we finally found a girl6. It was indeed a strange encounter as she was a young, tiny girl, really she seemed Makai for the colour of her skin but was just a bit taller than an halfling, unharmed and with a beautiful, precious white dress. She explained she needed our help to “defeat the creatures who held captive her and her people” and disappeared into thin air. That obviously surprised us, to say the least. Had she been a sort of magical sending? We were even more curious now, and went ahead, or rather deeper and deeper. Then we met them. They were different from anything we knew and from any story we ever heard. They looked like humanoid constructs, but they weren’t normal golems.7 They had lights on their skin, and strange weapons, as burning light rays, or a sort of wands, and they spoke too. We could not understand the language at first, but later I realized it seemed similar to a Glantrian dialect I heard once. Did they come from an ancient known world civilization? They didn’t seem to be Taymoran at all, from what I know of that culture, and neither Milenians nor Alphatians. Maybe they were from something even more ancient. We managed to destroy one of the things, but the others forced us to retreat. We searched for another route to reach the place where the girl and “her people” were supposed to be held. With much caution and a very convoluted path we finally were able to reach a huge room, decorated in a style that seemed very much early Taymoran to me. But what immediately caught our attention was a big crystal sepulchre in the middle, where the girl we met before laid sleeping. Everywhere on the floor around her, there were other people, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, all pale young men and women with dark hair, who also laid strangely asleep. Just a moment after we entered the room, she, or rather her image, appeared again right over the sepulchre, saying something we couldn’t hear, but that sounded alot like a cry for help.
We moved toward her, and hell break loose, as several of the strange constructs we met before attacked us, and, even worse, there was a beholder guiding them! Only it wasn’t a regular beholder at all, as he/it had metal parts in his huge body and also looked quite dead to me. Yes, I think it was an undead beholder with strange metal implants. He was really dangerous. In a few minutes my companions and I were about to die. I had no choice but to mass teleport all of us away as quickly as possible, to a safe place prepared before in the upper levels. We went to the dwarves and told them all, and petitioned them to provide us with a stronger, armed expedition, but they refused. They were kind, and insisted to pay us handsomely, but refused to discuss the matter further, much to my frustration8. At last, we left Stronghold feeling a bit defeated and disappointed, but what could we do? It seems that the dwarves wanted to seal the levels with all those living there; the beholder and its strange constructs, the girl and her sleeping people. Probably we’ll never discover who she was and why she was here. A deep regret for me, as I often dream about the girl and her people. The same happens to the others, from time to time. I think she’s trying to call us, and one of these days we’ll return to Stronghold, if necessary without the dwarves permission, to find her.
Speaking of Stronghold reminds me of another buried city we explored in the guilds, that is right under the capital of the island nation, the City of Minrothad. The city itself has a long history and, that means for a start, several layers of dungeons beneath it. After the modern sewers, the ancient Alphatian city is the first level we encountered, a creepy place dotted with old remains and that, according to local legends, is still inhabited by hidden werecreatures. We didn’t encounter any however, but went below to an older city with the great stone buildings that I’ve learnt to associate with Taymoran architecture. Now that I have seen several ruins of those ancient times I can distinguish between different traditions within that culture. If the symbols of the double axe and the bull’s horns are widespread in all the Taymoran region, i.e I think all the modern Ierendi, Minrothad and southern Karameikos, some decorative elements are particular of certain areas only. For example, we’ve often found the symbol of the deer and the swan in the area of modern Minrothad and up to Safari Island in Ierendi, but not more west than that. This area also always has rounded stone structures that could have a ceremonial use, or maybe were the houses of their chiefs, or rather priestess, as it seems that ancient Taymora was dominated by a mostly female religious hierarchy.
In the particular case of Minrothad City we began to find other strange decorative elements, previously unknown to me. It took us some time to realize they were engravings of a Thanatos cult. There were indeed many wall reliefs and writings narrating the endeavours, or rather a string of heinous acts and massacres that made us sick, perpetrated by a “conqueror” identified as “The Dread Lord”9. I wondered if that is the reason why in the past Trader’s Island was called Dread Island? The name maybe isn’t due to the legend of the Behemoth, but to this cruel follower of Thanatos, or maybe to both10. I also wondered if the Dread Lord was somehow linked to the immortal Orcus. We discovered in Krakatos (where we fought some of his cultists) that in the latter Taymoran age Orcus was a feared warleader in the service of Thanatos in the region of modern Karameikos. But The Dread Lord mentioned under Minrothad city seemed to be another person entirely.
The question wasn’t purely academic as we soon met some shady people in that level, and from the magic they used and the undead they had in their service I can affirm they were indeed Thanatos’ and not Orcus’ followers. We managed to defeat them and move on. The level had been a huge city once. I believe it’s the one named Salkish in ancient sources. At some point in its history, the city clearly fell to the forces of this "Dread Lord", but before that it was apparently dominated by a female immortal, often associated with the moon, that I believe to be Nyx.
The most ancient parts of the city, indeed had several symbols of her. In one of the rounded stone towers we also found a row of tombs, but we didn't dare to open them, as we feared several undead could emerge. In the room however, we found a hatch that lead us to an even deeper level. The area we found had architecture similar to the ruins of Salkish above, but it was even more ancient. It had huge signs of devastation, and I wondered if that wasn't one of the cities destroyed during the Great Rain of Fire itself! We also found some headstones that often bore the same name. It was in that strange alphabet that I already mentioned, and I think it said Albisaska. Maybe that was the name of the first city. Unfortunately here too our exploration was cut short by the presence of some people, or creatures, we weren't really sure, hideously deformed and hostile11. Were they once humans, mutated by some hideous, ancient magic? We may never know, because they had light rays as the golems of Stronghold, and we had to run for our lives...
Those described above are only two of the mysterious places buried deep in Minrothad but I can assure you, my friend, that there are many more, not only on the islands, but also in the sea around them, as once told me by a friendly mermaid. She is as beautiful as well as educated in magic and lore of the Undersea, and she said that in the waters inhabited by the secretive sea elves around Alfeisle there are many circles and lines of big stones planted in the seafloor that often discharge strange lights and magical energy. In the sea many miles south of Utter Island and Stronghold lay a ruined elven city, and even more to the south another big and ancient city once inhabited by the powerful undersea race of the kopru. Another story says that the ancient capital of lost Taymora lies under the waves many miles south of Roister and Aloysius island, in Ierendi, once inhabited by the race of shark-kin and now by the feared devil fish.
So many places to explore, so many legends that for sure my lifetime will not be enough to study all this. But that's exactly the reason why, my friend, I'm writing you this letter. After I die, be of delving or old age, you and others will be able to continue my work... that's the beautiful and sad story of frail humankind. I want to write to you something more about the deep ruins we found in Ierendi, but before that, indulge me for two more important digressions that will have to remain just notes for now.
The first one is Shireton. The capital of the Shires has extensive ruins beneath it that we explored only partially, and could well date back to the dawn of the world. The hin live there, and elves before them, and a culture of fairies and giants similar to the traces we found under Mirros, as well as humans who apparently had some cultural elements in common with the modern Atruaghin, and other humans that had elaborate underground tombs, and ivory figurines, and harps. A lost culture completely unknown to me12. Add to that the fact that the levels under Shireton are homes to wererats, unique monsters and undead, and you can realize that it’s quite an interesting place...
The second digression I must mention is the underground of Thyatis and the seas around it, as we found the remains of at least three unknown human cultures under Tel Akbir13, one that existed slightly after Taymora, I suppose, one contemporary to it, and another before the Great Rain of Fire! I read a book that says that under Thyatis City, deeper than the oldest Thyatian ruins, there are at least four levels of identifiable, lost cultures. And, according to my merrow friend, south of Hattias, near the Verdant isles, there would be a huge underwater city, still guarded by a powerful construct, and several other ruins lay on dry land on the islands. Unfortunately the area is extremely dangerous as it is infested with nasty, sailing orcs and plagued by strange, dangerous seastorms14.
Alas, I could write of this topic for ages, as you may have noticed by now, but let's move to Ierendi. I cannot mention the mysteries of Honour Island, White Island, and Elegy Island as these places deserve a treatise on their own, I'll just mention that is well known among the undersea races that there are pyramids under the sea, in a vast area that goes from the west of Roister island all the way to the Atruaghin and the Sindian seas - an ancient culture that could be the Oltec empire mentioned in the west by many books and sages before and after the Great Rain of Fire. It seems indeed that a kind of Oltec culture existed to the western borders of Taymora in its age, around 3,000 years ago, probably the ancestors of the Atruaghin15.
But for now I'll only write to you about the ruins under Ierendi City. A very old elven chronicle confirmed to me that a Taymoran city existed there, known as Soleclea16 and, according to the elves, it was built over an even more ancient city, known as Mahalea. From many studies and discoveries I'll eventually detail to you, I've developed a theory that almost all the area of modern Ierendi, in particular Ierendi Island, Utter Island, Fletcher Island, Alcove Island and Safari Island, and all the lands around them now under the waves, were the home of an ancient human culture called the Mahakians, or the Maharians, that preceded Taymora and influenced it very much. A culture that indeed, I believe, has left many cultural traces even in the modern known world. I know the spiral was an important symbol for them and they worshipped female immortals of nature, probably Ordana. They made exquisite objects of amber, copper and silver and were apparently ruled by priestesses. Bovines were sacred animals to them, and they are shown riding bulls in their beautiful wall paintings.
All that and much more we discovered under Ierendi City, speaking with the ghost of an ancient priestess17. Anyone that could wish to do the same however, be advised, and beware, that ancient Soleclea and Mahalea hosts many dangers, from undead pirates of Ierendi’s recent past, to vampires created by the church of Thanatos at the time of Taymora, to vile monsters spawned from magical poisoning in more ancient times. And those are just some of the inhabitants of the ruins, as others we encountered just briefly, as some strange lizardmen, and many others we didn't see at all because the ruins are much larger than the small part we thoroughly explored.
My dear friend, that's all for now, forgive me if I abused your time and patience, but there would be much more to write on the many secrets, items, people, and cities we discovered in our "delvings". If you are interested I'll be happy to write you again, and if one day you and your friends wish to join one of our little explorations, be assured that you'll always be well accepted, as the dangers of the Sea of Dread and its islands are many and its mysteries and lost secrets are even more...
Yours sincerely, Aamir Ibn Saleem
This article started from this thread on the Piazza http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=2566&p=131344#p131344
But also used some information from this thread:
from my article “New Blackmoor, The Known World in 3050BC” in issue 2 of Threshold magazine and from the Mystara 2300 BC Campaign Setting by John Calvin: http://pandius.com/kworld_h.html that has also its own dedicated forum on The Piazza here: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewforum.php?f=63, where you can ask anything you might want to know about this fascinating setting!
1 A reference to Barimoor, see Gazetteer 02, The Emirates of Ylauruam.
2 In 1000 AC Krakatos is still an abandoned ruin that will be cleared only in 1010 AC to build the Karameikan School of Magecraft. All the layers beneath the city however do exist in both times.
4 Aamir doesn’t know that, but the castle was a contested place between Taymora and the fairy folks/giants nation of Grondheim according to the Mystara 2300 BC setting, see here for more details http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewforum.php?f=63&sid=e2c656cc2916ebe90ff05d50d1c8c727 and here: http://pandius.com/history.html.
8 There could be several reasons behind the dwarves behaviour, as the DM prefers. They could wish to exploit the golems secretly or they could wish to strike a deal with the Undead Beholder to know his secrets. The desire of secrecy of the dwarves could be another adventure seed.
9 Extensive research on half forgotten books could give the PC’s more details about the Dread Lord, maybe even his burial place, or legends about his return. he could be a very powerful vampire in the service of Thanatos or even an avatar of Thantos himself. He could also be somehow related to The Last One, the powerful vampire that has occupied the ruins of Koskatep (see the articles about this megadungeon in this and past issues of Threshold magazine.
10 More details about the different legends about this name can be found in the article “The History of Ierendi and Minrothad”, by Simone Neri, in this same issue of Threshold magazine.
11 The true nature and origin of these people is left to each DM’s choice. They could be the degenerate descendants of an Albai people, a Neathar culture that lived in the area in Taymora’s time and before (see also New Blackmoor, the Known World in 3050 BC article in issue 2 of Threshold magazine), who were subjected to radiance poisoning after the Great Rain of Fire or after the 1750 BC disaster that destroyed Taymora, or even deformed Shadow elves.
12 They would be the Eokai neathar culture, mentioned here: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=63&t=3933 and also in the article History of Ierendi and Minrothad by Simone Neri, in this same issue of Threshold magazine.
13 These three cultures would be: the first, lower and most ancient one, Tjeset and the Blackmoorian colony of Dawncity, mentioned in New Blackmoor 3050 BC article in issue 2 of Threshold magazine, the middle one the Frontierlands culture, mentioned in Mystara 2300 BC Campaign Setting: http://pandius.com/kworld_h.html, the third, upper and more recent one could be the Doulakki culture http://pandius.com/doulakki.html or other fan created cultures that existed in the thyatian area before the Thyatians immigration.
14 That’s a reference to the Kara-kara orcs, mentioned in the canon adventure X8 Drums on Fire Mountain, and also in the article The Minor Islands of the Sea of Dread by Simone Neri in this same issue of Threshold magazine.
15 A reference to Intua, mentioned in Mystara 2300 BC Campaign Setting here: http://pandius.com/kworld_h.html and to the Oteino, an oltec culture mentioned here: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=63&t=3933 and also by Simone Neri in his article The History of Ierendi and Minrothad in this same issue of Threshold magazine.
17 The origin of the priestess could be left to each DM’s decision. She could be a Maharian Priestess predating Taymora, see here for more info about the Maharian culture: http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=63&t=3933 and also here: http://pandius.com/neathare.html or even a Taymoran priestess of Nyx with her hidden agenda.