The scars of harsh weather, poor land, and a history of both political and geographic upheaval mar the Venmarr Coast which is stretched north/south along a thin strip of land often less than forty miles wide between the deep and turbulent Siren Sea to the east and jagged, looming mountains to the west.
There are few safe harbours to be found along the rocky and treacherous shores, and a few small city-states hold sway in the region by controlling access to those ports. Despite being the closest ports to the markets and exotic goods of the far east across the sea, the isolated location of these cities and difficulty of transporting goods overland through the mountains once they have arrived means most legitimate merchants prefer the longer but safer route to the south. This has led to a tumultuous existence for the Venmarr Coast as they are frequented by less reputable ships including smugglers, pirates, raiders, and slavers.
Though the soil is thin, the rolling hills and boggy swamps are dotted with hamlets and small villages that scrape out a living through farming and herding, supplying food to their nearest city-state.
The Smoking Peak
The mountain range on the western edge of the Venmarr Reach present an intimidating border, their jagged peaks and long knife-edge ridges rising ten thousand feet and more above sea level. To continental folk these mountains have been dubbed the East Rim, but to the denizens of the Venmarr Coast they are simply The Peaks, the most famous of which is known as the Smoking Peak that lies thirty miles due west of Nalvarde, the largest of the three city-states in the Coast.
From Nalvarde, the Smoking Peak is a broad smooth-sided slab of a mountain with a peak chipped and fissured appearing very much like slate paving slab that has been forcefully chiseled out of place with a heavy mining pick and propped up at a steep angle with its shattered corner in the air. Had any of the city’s citizens given the matter serious thought, none would be able to say with certainty where its name comes from.
(Scratched into the margin of the journal page, a note has been added to this entry: At least, not until very recently. For the first time in any known recorded history, thick streams of dark black smoke stream upward from the cracks and crevices of the Smoking Peak, rising high before prevailing winds take hold and drive them further westward into the mountains and away from the city.)
The peak is also known to be a destination for pilgrims. Several times each year a small cluster arrive in Nalvarde from some distant place and set out on a journey to climb the mountain and visit the ruins within. Whether any find what they seek is a matter of some debate, but it is widely known that there is a crevasse high up on the side of the peak that leads deep into the mountain interior where a small ancient ruin resides. Some claim the ruin is the oldest known temple to the six gods to still exist, others claim it to be a shrine to demonic forces. In the interest of authenticity, I have transcribed the account of one such pilgrim below.
“From the village of Pulka the rough road meant for farm carts narrows into a rough footpath that follows the course of the river. The hills grow higher and with them the banks of the river steeper, mud gives way to stone, and slopes give way to sheer cliffs. We continue to climb and in no time at all even the treetops of the thick impenetrable swamp on the opposite shore are hundreds of feet below. Eventually the path diverges from the precipice to the base of a narrow and treacherous stony defile that is cut through by a small stream.
The climb is mercifully short, but even still we are drenched in sweat from the exertion. Upon emerging once more from the shade the sun beats down upon our backs with renewed vigor transforming what had been a cool and pleasant day into the depths of summer, the heat and humidity wrapping us in its embrace. Ahead and to the north lay the vale at the base of the mountain whose ridge line rises dramatically to our left, its face broad and smooth though cleft from the peak as a log split by an axe.
We plunged ahead into the dense woods, the route forward could only be described as the path a child’s spinning toy might make set upon the deck of a ship mired in a terrible squall. We follow wildly around rock and rubble, dodging ancient trees and narrow streams baffling our sense of direction. The woods press close there, dripping with moisture, the air heavy and hot with vines seeming to reach out and try to trap the unwary step. I trust you find my description of this environment as baffling as we did to traverse. In a place where the air should be thin and chilled, the plant life small and stunted, we found ourselves seemingly transported into the depths of a jungle that could only exist a thousand miles further south.
Nevertheless, we eventually emerged high upon the slope of the Smoking Peak, the path continuing ahead worn by generations of feet and carved by hand it climbed a narrow switchback up the exposed rock. The pinnacle of which ends at the base of a cleft that forms a narrow passage between walls that rise hundred of feet more. The way forward can only be traveled in single-file as we proceeded into the darkness of the mountain’s heart.
Deep within a lurid red glow drew us forward. Growing stronger it washed all colour away save a burnt umber and we were submerged in sulphurous fumes. Eventually we reached an archway that spanned the width of the cleft and there we found the ruins of a small temple.
The stones of the eight-sided room were ancient, rent by fissures that glimmered ever so faintly with a deep red. Only a small section of a domed roof remained over the entrance, and opposite stood another archway leading onto a wide balcony overlooking the deep heart of the earth. Below there we caught a glimpse of the black mass streaked through by veins of red and ever so faintly pulsating and churning of its own accord. We could not stay long upon the balcony for the heat was comparable to stepping into an open forge. By some trick the temple itself remained cool and comfortable the moment we stepped back from the edge, protected from the inferno below.
The temple itself was small and bare, there was no furniture or altar to be found, and to the left and the right upon each of the remaining walls there were three relief carvings to either side. Fifteen feet across and thirty high it was difficult to grasp the entirety of what we were observing but I will do my best to describe them.
To the left of the entrance the first was a cloaked figure with face hidden and skeletal hands, one holding a long hooked polearm and the other leashes entwined with rays from the moon. At the end of those leashes a pack of sharp-toothed hounds hidden by billowing clouds. The carving itself was cracked, a split running vertically where some of the stone had crumbled. Peeking into the crack revealed some kind of void behind the wall, but it could not be reached without destroying the wall.
The second was a woman, twisted of limb and a harelip draped in long folds of flowing cloth. An enormous snake entwines her body, shoulders, and arms with no apparent head nor tail. Her hair is long and thickly matted into a mane of tails in which dozens of smaller serpents wrapped within.
The third a hunched grotesque possessing three arms and crouching atop a prominence. Its lumpy and lopsided head gives the appearance of half-melted wax with a mouth too wide to be well proportioned. To one side of the figure, bodies are piled and spilling from broken crypts. The creature raises a stone mallet above its head in preparation to strike dead limbs held by its other two arms. To the other side, a parade of ill-shapen and monstrous beings march away.
To the right the first engraving was of an ancient and thick tree with spreading branches, seven of which ended not in leaves but the heads of serpents.
The second was a massive bull standing upon its rear hooves and clutching a lightning bolt amid the spray of water and the wreckage of a ship.
The last and most disturbing to the mind were complex geometric shapes, engraved in ways that twisted the eye and the mind, shapes that seemed to move of their own accord the longer one examined them. In the center of a swirling vortex of immobile stone, an insect-like head possessing great fanged mandibles and a multitude of alien eyes.”