Friday, March 5, 2010

T'zarak: Sites of Interest

There are few places in Valtyr as mysterious as the desert kingdom of T’zarak. A land of scorching sands and star-filled nights, T’zarak is as inhospitable to the untrained traveler as they come. And yet, this kingdom of dunes and desert wildlife holds a great many secrets.

Adventurers have spread stories of the buried treasure from forgotten Ages that lies beneath the shifting sands of T’zarak’s borders. Bards have immortalized the kingdom's vast beauty and deadly denizens. Nowhere else (save perhaps those that brave the Wildlands) is the fight for survival between man and nature as fierce as in the Kingdom of the Burning Sands. And perhaps here, of all places, are the links to the past vibrant enough that they can help scholars and mystics alike divine the secrets to the truth behind the Age of Myths. Within T’zarak, the saying goes that “between each grain of sand, history and wealth are joined in eternal secrecy”. It is no wonder then that thrill-seekers, treasure-hunters and obsessed scholars pay this kingdom homage with hopes of riches and knowledge beyond their wildest imaginations.

Within the rocky canyons, burning dunes and hidden oasis of the nation of T’zatak lay several sites of importance. The most notable are as follows:

Alhazan’s Stair:
Up in the northwestern area of T’zarak, near the peninsula known as the Fahir’s Crown, stands a shattered circle of great, blue stones. The stones form a ring that measures more than 30 feet in diameter and is completely filled with rough slabs of lapis and tourmaline. Although the stones show great signs of aging, the circle has persisted for over 2,500 years of recorded history. A great swell of white sand surrounds the circular platform, creating the impression of a giant blue coin atop a bed of white silks.

As if this were not impressive enough, the true allure of Alhazan’s Stair comes at night, when the hundreds of knife-bright stars are lit across a sky of deepest black. When the moon is dark, a strange occurrence happens at the site: a band of twisting, ethereal lights forms on the blue stone platform, creating the impression of three giant staircases ascending into the night sky. The site was first discovered by the ruling Fahir of the time, a man named Alhazan ib Jahafir. So taken aback was Fahir Alhazan that he had the sighting recorded down in the epic poem entitled “Kalem ab Halistir”, which translates into the “gods’ staircase”.

It is said that Alhazan tempted fate and dared to climb the blue stones and walk to the foot of the astral staircase before him. He marveled at the beauty of the sight and dared to touch the firmament that formed the banister before him. To his surprise, the starry railing was solid to his touch and those in his entourage that had traveled with him gasped as he placed his feet upon the lowest steps of the staircase, testing his fate as he attempted to climb it.

A voice is recorded in the Kalem ab Halistir, an inhuman and intelligible voice, that seemed to come from all directions at once. The Fahir seemed oblivious to the sound and began his ascent, growing more and more spectral as he did. He ignored the cries of his company and continued his climb, shouting down to his followers that he heard the most beautiful music and smelled fragrances he had never known before. Then, in a flash, he disappeared, and his followers wailed in their fear for their ruler.

They waited out the night, but the Fahir never returned.

In the morning, the stairs disappeared with dawn’s light and the company was forced to return to their home city of Aril-a-Vec. To their great astonishment, they found that Fahir Alhazan was already there, and what was more, he seemed to possess a fire within him that consumed his waking days, leading him to draw up new plans for roads, locations for deep wells to be dug, and an excavation which garnered much wealth for his kingdom. Although he was often questioned of the strange stair of stars, he refused to speak of what had happened, saying only that “he had been blessed”.

Today the location known as Alhazan’s Stair is a preciously guarded site that has been handed down from Fahir to Fahir ever since Alhazan’s time. If there is truth to the tales of ascending the astral stairs and gaining great wisdom, none can offer proof, as the Izulk-hai warriors of T’zarak’s elite rigorously guard the site from outsiders.

The Black Temple:
Very few places arecas reviled as the Black Temple of T’zarak. A place of roving shadows, foul curses and superstitious omens, the Black Temple is a nightmare made real. Those who have traveled close enough to the site all report the same thing: a giant temple made of shifting black sands and yawning shadows is nestled in the crook of the eastern side of the Dantroth Peaks. The place has an air of evil about it and those who get close feel their skin crawl from an unseen presence. Bands of roving scorpions, millipedes and other poisonous insects are said to swarm the land around the foul place. The wind is stale with the scent of death and water seems to dry up if exposed to the unnaturally dry air outside the temple’s grounds.

If rumors are believed to be true, then the temple vacillates between forms, constantly swirling away in eddies of black dust devils only to reform new wings and openings as the day drags on. At night, the entire structure is said to fall away, leaving mounds of black sand and ash amidst the desert floor. It is at these times when the swarms of insects come out and seem to gather amidst the obsidian grains.

Speculation runs high as to the nature of such a strange and ominous place. Some believe it to be a cursed temple dedicated to the Black Matron, Vegra. Others say it predates the dark goddess by centuries and belongs to creatures from before the Age of Myths. Still others argue that a rogue sorcerer created the temple in the Age of Wonders as a place of study, only to have it destroyed later by a rogue djinn who battled the mage with vile sorcery.

Whatever the truth of the Black Temple, none tend to go too near it. If it holds riches within its ashen halls, they have remained hidden thus far and may continue to do so for all time beyond.

Ruins of Ultark:
A couple of hours out of the town of Jatri lays a series of ruins. The locals refer to the place as the Ruins of Ultark. They say the ruins got their name from a mad merchant who proclaimed he could offer anyone any ware they desired, for the right price. According to the locals, Ultark was once a prominent businessman who made a fortune off selling silks and spices to travelers from Syr in the south. In time, he grew so wealthy that he commissioned a great palace to be built just outside of town and Ultark entertained many guests as his fame grew.

His palace was a thing of beauty in the harsh desert. Lush gardens, running water, beautiful handmaidens with sweet dates and wine, and wondrous beasts adorned his halls. Travelers from all over came to visit the merchant who offered excellent prices for some of the finest silks and exotic spices in the land. Then one night Ultark had a dream of a great woman wearing a gold and red gown that promised him even greater wealth if he would heed her call. Ultark followed her sultry voice out of his palace and into a small cave nearby where he discovered a miniature box of rosewood inlaid with tiger’s eye.

The merchant took the box back to his palace and found that it contained the ability to offer more than just his silks and spices to those who traveled to his shops. In fact, the box allowed him to offer anyone his or her heart’s desire…for the right price. It is unclear from the stories what “the right price” was, but before long people starting whispering gossip about the eccentric and mad habits that Ultark began engaging in. Less and less people traveled to the merchant’s palace and before too long the beautiful hand maidens left him and his waterways and gardens dried up and died.

Then one day, Ultark’s body was found lying beside the road just outside of Jatri. A dagger of polished ivory jutted from his heart, but the strangest thing was the look of contentment and peace that was frozen onto the dead man’s face. Most believed it to be the work of a killer and an over-indulgence in drugs, which Ultark was rumored to have partaken in, but few could shake the odd state of the merchant’s demeanor given his ghastly end.

Without the wealth and staff to support it, the palace fell into ruin and the years stripped the silk curtains and painted murals from the stone walls, leaving nothing but the sandy ghost of a once-prominent home. Today, the Ruins of Ultark serve as a chaste reminder of the corrupting power of wealth for the more frugal citizens of Jatri. Now and then though, travelers to this part of T’zarak claim to see lights in the far off distance and hear laughter from a party of merry folk out near Ultark’s palace. Some even claim that Ultark himself is not dead; that he faked his own death and still offers those who seek him out the chance to claim their hearts’ desire…for the right price.

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