As the World Burns
Athas is a desert world, but that doesn’t mean the planet is uniformly covered with sand or barren wastes. Deserts come in many forms. Some are habitable, some are brutal killing grounds, and some are wastelands that seem empty but are full of hidden life. Knowing the types of deserts one might encounter while traveling across Athas is a vital survival skill one that might mean the difference between a successful journey and a hard death in the wilds.
Boulder fields consist of broken, jagged rock. Some are old lava flows long since cooled, and others are valleys choked with rockslides or slopes of scree. They usually lie near mountains, and most are no larger than a few miles across. Boulder fields are formidable obstacles since they lack water, vegetation, and shade, and if travelers do not have sturdy boots or sandals, the sharp rocks can cut their feet to ribbons. Deep gulches and crevices crisscross boulder fields, offering plenty of hiding places.
Windblown dust, ash, and silt accumulate in depressions to form dustsinks or silt basins. The largest known example is the Sea of Silt, but smaller sinks exist in almost any low-lying terrain. Even a light wind stirs the dust into billowing clouds. On calm days, a dust sink appears to be a smooth plain of pale gray or dun powder. Appearances are deceptive. The dust is too light to support a traveler’s weight, but it is thick enough to suffocate anyone who falls in. Sometimes, the ground beneath the powder is uneven, concealing a dangerous drop. One misstep, and a traveler can disappear beneath the dust.
Large bodies of silt often extend like the rivers of old into more solid terrain, following narrow channels called estuaries. Many estuaries of silt are shallow enough for human-sized travelers to wade with care. Very tall creatures such as giants can navigate correspondingly deeper silt; a giant can wade through silt 10 feet deep without difficulty.
Many large sinks and estuaries are sprinkled with islands of high ground, isolated from the mainland by stretches of dust of varying depths. Some of these islands are rocky protrusions just large enough to accommodate a giant or two, and others can support an entire village. Miles of silt have sheltered many islands over the years from the touch of defiling magic,and those islands remain surprisingly verdant.
Low ranges such as the Mekillot Mountains, the Stormclaw Mountains, and the Black Spine Mountains dot the Tyr Region. They are daunting obstacles. Their bare, rocky peaks sometimes as tall as 6,000 feet offer little water or shelter to make the climb worthwhile. After a daytime temperature of well over 100 degrees, temperatures at night can plunge near the freezing point. Most of the exposed rock crumble under the twin hammers of heat and cold, so great slopes of broken rock and frequent rockslides make for arduous travel.
Mountain vales, on the other hand,often are watered and filled with heavy scrub, cacti, or sparse forest. Little of the land is suitable for cultivation, but savages and monsters such as goliaths, gith, and kirres make their homes in vales. Large networks of caverns lie under most of the low mountain ranges, home to all sorts of strange creatures that prefer to hide from the sun. A truly awesome mountain range marks the western border of the Tyr Region the Ringing Mountains, whose highest peaks reach 20,000 feet or more. Some of these peaks have thin but permanent snowcaps.
Little open water remains on the surface of Athas; most is buried underground. In a few places, water seeps upward, saturating the land to create mudflats. Most common near or in dustsinks (especially the shallows of the Sea of Silt), mudflats hide beneath the churning dust, revealed only when the winds clear an area and expose the soupy mess to the air. Uncovered mudflats usually dry out in short order, leaving behind hard, cracked clay that might or might not be solid enough to support a travelers weight.
A few mudflats manage to survive, sometimes through cultivation and sometimes by happenstance. These areas are lush with vegetation, including desert grasses, thorny bushes, and small trees. Where mudflats stand in silt basins, low islands of dense vegetation rise above the dust. These mudflats are rarely large; most measure only a few hundred feet across. Tangled underbrush and mucky ground make traveling through these areas difficult but not impossible. In general, mudflats offer little to travelers; there isn’t much standing water, and dangerous predators hunt creatures that subsist on the greenery.
Most hilly regions on Athas are rocky badlands: highly eroded mazes of sharp-edged ridges, winding canyons, and thorn-choked ravines. Daunting escarpments force travelers into meandering courses along the ravine floors, which often end in blind canyons or loop back on themselves. Badlands can be barren, waterless wastes, but many are filled with thorny brush that can completely clog the ravine floors.
Rocky badlands are difficult to cross, no matter which way a traveler means to go. Sticking to a canyon’s floor is easy enough, but a canyon rarely leads in the direction one desires, and the thick, prickly brush makes for very hard going. Climbing up the walls to crest a badland ridge usually involves a dangerous scramble of several hundred feet, and travel along the top ofa knife-edged ridge is equally challenging.
Great flat plains encrusted with salt that is white, brown, or black, salt flats can extend for miles. Some are dotted with briny marshland, but most are barren and lifeless. Any water is usually too brackish to drink and might be poisonous. Salt flats offer no shelter, and the temperatures reach more brutal extremes than anywhere else on Athas. Sunsickness can kill an unprotected traveler caught in a salt flat.
If the salt flats have one asset, it’s that no creatures linger in them for long. A prepared traveler can cross a flat without risking an encounter with a wild beastor roving band.
Salt marshes and shallow, ephemeral lakes can form in and near salt flats, dust sinks, and sandy wastes. Most are only a mile or two across, but a few such as the Salt Meres or the Maze of Draj extend for as much as hundreds of miles. The water, too salty or alkaline to sustain life, is undrinkable. Many salt marshes dry out completely in the months of High Sun, and some remain dry year-round if the following Lowsun comes and goes without rain.
A salt marsh contains low grasses, reeds, or brush. Ankle-deep channels of briny water encrusted with caked salt wind through the marsh, sometimes opening out into large, shallow lakes. Here and there, tough stands of scrub or the occasional tree stand above the grasses. Few creatures can digest the tough vegetation, but the marshes buzz with tiny insects that can drive a traveler half mad.
Vast stretches of yellow sand, sandy wastes are the most identifiable deserts of Athas. Some wastes are plains where the air is still and no winds disturb the trackless land. In other wastes, the landscape takes on a rumpled appearance as winds pile up sand to form great dunes. The topography of such wastes changes endlessly; old dunes slowly erode under the wind, and new ones form when deadly sandstorms whip up with little warning. Travelers caught in a storm hear the wind howl in a deafening scream while stinging sand bites their skin. The worst storms can scour flesh from bones.
In the flat areas of Athas, sandy wastes do not hinder travel. Oases, wells, and stands of tough scrub can sustain desert-dwelling creatures and people indefinitely. Flat sand is easy for travelers, although a lack of landmarks increases the risk of becoming lost. In areas that have dunes, travel is more challenging. Mekillot dunes, named for their passing resemblance to the huge drakes, can be hundreds of feet tall, but most dunes rise no higher than a hundred feet. In wastes where the winds shift or collide, star dunes might form. The ridges of these mounds extend away from the main mass, forming arms that spread out like tentacles in all directions.
Scrub plains are savanna, prairie, or chaparral with just enough water to support extensive vegetation. Tough, dry grass punctuated by creosote bushes and tumbleweed dominates the ground. One can even find a few small trees scattered across the landscape. By Athasian standards, scrub plains are almost lush, supporting a high concentration of wildlife. Excessive grazing and the use of defiling magic have reduced some scrub plains in the Tyr Region to ruin. Only a few such areas survive in the wild lands between the city-states, protected by primal guardians who use ancient magic to destroy intruders and safeguard their homes. However, beyond the Ringing Mountains stretch vast scrub plains such as the Crimson Savanna.
Stony barrens dominate the Tablelands. Most barrens are bedrock shelves exposed by windstorms. These weathered plains are covered with rocks that range in size from pebbles and gritty dust to huge piles of standing boulders. In places, the bare rock gives way to hard-packed red earth, and yellow sand collects in crevices, forming dunes or drifts. Huge mesas and pointed buttes dot the plains, a testimony to the erosive power of the elements.
Cacti proliferate in stony barrens. Hundreds of species grow throughout, appearing in all shapes and sizes, from small, thorny buttons to towering saguaros. Some cacti are edible, making suitable fare for travelers low on supplies. Others are stealthy predators that can kill careless travelers; in the Athasian wilderness, one can never be certain who is the hunter and who is the hunted.