Geography, Climate, and Character
I tracked the poachers for two days. Then they entered Lizardfolk territory. I heard Dorian’s voice in my head, ordering me to turn back. But I could not. This chase was personal now.
The sweat poured down my face, my hair matted slick against my head. The patches of sunlight breaking through the trees set the air on fire. My path took me from hot to hotter, and I expected no relief until nightfall.
Near midday I halted for a rest. After lunch I sensed that something had changed. There was no line of demarcation, just a sudden realization that my surroundings were…different. Now the sweat that coated my skin had a vague itch, as if the dirt of the swamp was burrowing into my flesh.
I noticed other changes. The wind seemed to whisper like a garbled voice on the edge of my hearing. The sunlight appeared brighter, with an odd orange tint that rendered everything more clear and sharp. The swamp was oddly quiet. No, that is not quite right. Rather, my hearing was muted, and the birds, insects, and other creatures sounded far away.
I knew that I was being watched. Wherever I turned, I saw no threats, yet an unaccustomed dread gripped my insides. I continued walking in silence.
For no reason I could comprehend, I suddenly halted and examined the ground near my feet. Nothing stood out against the deep green plants. I bent closer. Then I saw it: a scrap of flesh. One end was jagged as if the skin had been ripped from some larger piece. After a few seconds, understanding struck me like a hammer blow.
The scrap of flesh was a pointed elven ear. The Lizardfolk were giving me a warning. It was time to go home.
—Entry from the journal of Dothar Barkan, Order of the Jade Leaf scout.
As the Whitecliff River wanders through the lands west of Kith’takharos, its banks become a shallow marsh of tall grasses. Further from the river, the marsh transforms into a dense swamp. The swamp serves as natural flood control for the river: when the river level rises, the water disperses into the swamp, where it slowly seeps into the ground. The increase in water level is most dramatic in the spring, when the snows melt in the Endworld Mountains. Then more land becomes submerged, and the high ground breaks up into islets. Should the swamp disappear, the water would have no outlet besides flooding the land upstream and downstream.
The swamp resembles a morphing collage of water and land. Larger landmasses remain relatively stable, with only their edges expanding and contracting with the passing of the seasons. The smaller islands recede and grow in concert with the water level. Landmarks can shift from one year to the next. Even outsiders with extensive experience navigating the swamp will find a considerable portion of their knowledge rendered obsolete after only a few years.
Boats provide the best method of traversing the swamp, since all locations are linked by water. Ponds and narrow channels separate the sections of land, interspersed with open water that spreads out into lakes. Deep in the swamp, the water seems still, clogged with mud, leaves, grasses, and trees. Dead plants settle to the bottom and accumulate a thick layer of muck. The murky water often appears shallow enough for wading, although even a careful step will sink into the morass.
Travel by land presents its own difficulties. The meandering high ground formed by the crests of hills offers the best footpath through the swamp, although no continuous route exists. Trees and brush fight for the meager light, and where they cannot grow, mold and moss claim the unoccupied space. Branches and needles claw at passersby. Trails must be cut through the dense foliage, only to close again within a few days. Barely above the water table, most high ground remains damp, not quite mud and seldom wet enough that boots sink above their soles.
Heat and water dominate the climate of the swamp. While the rainfall is no greater than in bordering lands, water often hangs above the swamp in a thick mist that obscures vision beyond a few yards. The fog is most dense in the mornings, when the water is still warmer than the air. The swamp defies the sun, and on some days the mist never retreats before its heat. The days are usually warm, and the abundant water retains the heat of the day well into the night. The air temperature varies little from winter to summer, except that the summers are a bit more humid. Very rare is the winter day where the temperature nears the freezing point of water.
The sweet odors of decay and the perfumes of strange plants hang in the water-laden air. The smells hint at disease, reminiscent of a pungent battlefield many days after a conflict. Eventually, the nose becomes deadened and smells hardly anything at all. Few travelers leave the swamp as healthy as they arrived. Poisonous plants await the careless brush of a bare arm; wounds attract infection in the moist conditions. Food spoils quickly and the only fresh water lay hidden in scattered springs. Survival skills learned outside the swamp often seem useless; the environment is so foreign that even the most accomplished hunter may have trouble gathering wholesome food.
Humidity and waterlogged vegetation simultaneously dampen sounds and distort their origin. This muted cacophony drowns all thoughts: the murmur of disturbed water, the shrill cries of birds, the incessant, high-pitched calling of insects. At irregular intervals the noise increases to a roar. A disturbance heard not ten feet behind might actually be a hundred yards away. The swamp fosters a paranoia that is difficult to ignore or dismiss.
Most travelers shun the swamp if they do not have business in Kith’takharos. A few become lost while navigating the Whitecliff River, then die in the opaque waters, eaten by the swamp denizens, remembered only as they contribute to the legends of the impenetrable depths.
The insects are ubiquitous, hopping, flying, and crawling over everything. They buzz in clouds or march in strange, purposeful formations, always underfoot or gnawing at a traveler’s ear. Uncovered skin is an invitation to a meal, and their feathery landings are sometimes mistaken for drops of sweat. Little can dissuade the more determined bugs, but some bites can be avoided by wearing additional clothing or by applying the salves and lotions concocted by the natives.
Exotic creatures both plant and animal also share the swamp. Many remain unknown to the merchants and other travelers that ply the river only a few miles away. Fierce beasts prowl from behind cover, unseen except for the occasional traces of their passage. A ripple propagates across an open stretch of water, the mark of a hungry swamp dragon. The chattering birds become silent. Then, suddenly, a bundle of feathers burst upward from a nearby bush. Flushed out by a predator, perhaps? The muddy water holds its own surprises for careless legs. A traveler should count himself lucky if the only marks he finds are bloody streaks from oversize swamp leeches.
Some swamp inhabitants are extinct. The ancient reptilian civilization of Harlass Orn collapsed thousands of years ago, and its submerged and overgrown ruins are scattered across the swamp. Most remain undiscovered, although the village of Kith’takharos has been built atop the foundations of a Harlass Orn city.