The massive City of Aaiun has but one surviving bridge linking its two halves over the salty and corrosive river that divides them. It is located west of the point where even the hardiest metal boats will rapidly deteriorate, and was therefore used by Le Aaiun herself to travel between the two shores. On the bridge, roughly a quarter of the way across, she found what appeared to be a steam locomotive, stopped forever.

While such machines are not unheard of in the dreamlands, their uses are rare and certainly none was so ancient as the City of Aaiun appears to be. Stranger still, there were no tracks to be found on the hard, onyxian stone from which the bridge was made, not even under the vehicle’s wheels. Le asserted that, either the machine had its tracks torn from beneath it, or been deposited there by some unknown force. “I do not know which possibility disturbs me more,” she wrote.

The river moves underground not far beyond this bridge, while the precipitous cliffs of the Holzoff Range loom to the west. The city was built before, and straddles, the only known pass through the rocky maze.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements

One of the first to return unharmed from the great dead city at the head of the great dead river was a woman named Le Aaiun, and as a result of her account, many have taken to calling the city ‘Aaiun’s City’ or even simply ‘Aaiun.’

This is as fitting an appellation as any, as none who now live know–or are willing to speak–the name of this place.

At its most extreme end, the dead river occupies the bottom of a large canyon carved over millennia, with major parts of the city separated by a yawning chasm. Le, in her account, describes the difficulty in traversing this barrier, with a very short and abortive journey to the far side requiring two days’ march and consuming many of her valuable untainted provisions. She did note that the two shores were connected by ‘spiderwebs’ of rope so ancient and fragile that they crumbled at a touch.

Whatever the method used to bind the two sides of Aaiun’s City together once, it is clear that the north shore was quite different from the south. The south shore was residences, apartment blocks seemingly grown rather than built out of dream substrate. The north shore consisted of what Le described as ‘laboratories,’ with many seeming to be used for various sorts of research that the explorer herself was too traumatized to relay.

Le herself only writes: “What I saw in that blasted and cursed place convinced me not only that the knowledge gleaned there had been terrible and unforgivably vile but that it was now lost and should remain so. I have no proof, but I suspect that the great sandstorm that birthed the Dreamsand Sea and the poisonous and fuming condition of the Dead River can both be traced here.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The southernmost border of the Dreamsand Sea is marked by the Dead River, so called because the same cataclysm that turned the verdant plains to sand also caused its mighty waters to run salty. The water is far saltier than any other body known to the dreaming or waking world, and thus its name. No creatures live in it, and parched travelers from across the sands who succumb to the urge to drink are typically dead within a day.

At its far end, the Dead River drains into the Silver Sea by means of a great, parched delta full of treacherous quagmires and gigantic crystals of pure salt. Most travelers cross the river either at the great bridge just before the delta or wade through it at the Crystal Fords. Few venture further upriver than the Fords.

Westward, the river gradually heats up until it is visibly smoking—a caustic, smoldering brew that is high not only in salt but in sulfur and acids. The water never reaches a boil though, for all its fuming.

Follow the river even further, near its headwaters, and one will find a vast and abandoned city occupying both banks. This place, which has no name that any now living remember, is larger than the City of Bronze, Korton, and any other city one would care to name combined.

It is also incredibly dangerous. The water near the city is corrosive enough to eat through the hull of nearly any vessel, and causes horrific chemical burns to any who touch it. There is no water and no food to be had for many leagues in any direction, as the city is buried in sand on its north shore and overgrown with poisonous plant life on its south. Worse still are the angry shades of the place’s former residents, always keen to expand their numbers.

Nevertheless, many have sought this nameless and dead city on a nameless and dead river. Its mysteries are compelling, as are the persistent rumors of treasures to be found there, and it has claimed twice as many souls as have ever returned from it.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Long ago, the dreamlands were far more malleable and unpredictable than their current state. Once, a vast and temperate plain was destroyed and turned to roiling sand in the course of a massive sandstorm that lasted nearly a year; this region became the great Dreamsand Sea, with its only real city, the City of Bronze, near its center.

It happened that a vision of the cataclysm to come had introduced itself, nightly, to each sultan of the city from the first day of their reign. Many disregarded the persistent visions, but the last few sultans took them seriously, and it was they who began girding their city with bronze, a metal long known to be all but impervious to dreamsand. Much of the city’s wealth was traded away for vast stores of metal, and artisans came from as far away as Korton to help gird every building with bronze.

The work was not quite complete when the storms began, and many buildings were annihilated by the sands as a result. It seemed to move in waves, not unlike the sea, and as each wave of sand rose up above the city, it crashed down with dreadful force. The very last wave looms over the city still, frozen in place as the storms that created the desert ended as mysteriously as they began.

As a result, the city survived, and was gifted with an eternal reminder of what it had endured, and might yet endure again. To this day, none are allowed into the city without paying a set amount of bronze as tribute.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The City of Bronze is the last outpost for civilized travelers intent on heading southward to the most dangerous and darkest of the dream wilds. Many balk at the price asked for admission, and still others feel that the great frozen sand wave may yet crash over the city. Those travelers tend to gravitate toward the Great Tree of Llem.

Camps ring its base, mostly temporary migrants or desert nomads, and some have even built into its ancient boughs. Unique and the last of its kind, the Great Tree towers even over the Sepulcher of Korton far to the north in height; it alone seems to have stumbled upon the secrets to finding water deep in the desert sands with impossibly deep taproots. It offers the only shade for miles, and its vast leaves collect dewy water for parched travelers.

However, not everyone comes merely for rest and succor or to avoid the City of Bronze. Some arrive intent on walking the Bough Steps.

In the time before the fertile lands that were turned to dust and sand, some brilliant or mad ancients carved steps spiraling around the outer circumference of the trunk, within the hard, dead bark. These stairs go to the top of the tree, but those who live or regularly visit never venture beyond the very lowest of the branches.

Higher than that, few have ever seen. Tales of a great treasure of the ancients spur many to try. Those who return from the Second Bough tend to be weary and irritable, often complaining of strange sounds. Nearly half of them die within the week, succumbing in their beds or suddenly taking their own lives. Travelers returning from the Third Bough are nearly always insane.

Only a handful have ever returned from the Fourth Bough, and they have all been not only insane but badly wounded. A memorial near the start of the Bough Steps records the names of the four who have made it to the Fifth Bough–still some distance below the crown, but the highest from which any living being has ever returned. All of them were terribly maimed, missing major limbs and covered with a pattern of scars not unlike the folds of tree bark. Two were all but catatonic, moving as if in a dream, and two were manic, raving for hours in strange tongues. And all four had brought back some sort of tainted gift from the boughs. One could turn any liquid they touched to sand, if they wished; they perished by plunging their hands into their own body.

Rumors persist of a man–or woman–who reached the crown and returned. They are said to resemble the city of Korton, entirely devoid of light but for a bubbling white inferno of radiance shining out from their gaping eyes and mouth and a network of barklike lines in their surface.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

In great, dark Korton, it is well-advised to hire a guide that can deal with the perpetual blackness. One who was born in the city, or lived there many years, has had time to not only develop their other senses but also their knowledge of the metropolis.

Those who do not follow this advice often find their way to the so-called Alley of Laughing Children.

Children in Korton laugh as do any others, of course, from splashing games in the River Kor to a game known only there that the little ones call “The Echoes.” The latter involves shouting back and forth in a way that is intended to confuse and lead fellows astray; if a designated ‘seeker’ can find their fellowsdespite the cacophony of echoes, they are reckoned by their peers to be well-accomplished.

In the Alley, a game of “The Echoes” is almost always going on. It is distracting, even unnerving, to those who pass through to hear so many voices. But for those who pass though—is indeed they do so safely—the most unnerving thing is this:

None have lived in the Alley since a great conflagration centuries ago. And for every travel that goes missing, an new and childlike voice is added to the chorus.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Revil Fen stretches for miles along the coast of the Silver Sea, a trackless marshland with few solid paths and fewer inhabitants. North lie the withering, deadly plains of Laïs, and proud, dark Korton on the River Kor; south, the only succor before the City of Bronze is the Chateau of Staeye in all its maddening infinity.

Those who would pass through Revil Fen on their way north or south would do well to hire a guide, perhaps a roper from Staeye. For there are far older and far more dangerous things in the swamps than the burbling horror of a drowning death.

Chief among these are the feared ‘treemen,’ trees that stretch above the mire on thick strong roots. When they sense an unwary traveler—or, better yet, a struggling one—they silently creep forward on their roots, causing nary more than ripples and rustling. With a speed surprising for their bulk, they will pounce on travelers and hold them under until the last breaths escape.

A year later, from that spot, a multitude of small mobile saplings will grow. Only one in a hundred lives to be the size of its sire, naturally.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!