The Camp is a small town of approximately 400 souls that exists at the edge of civilization, on the very brink of the Desolation’s southern edge. The ancient trade road, now little used, runs directly through the Camp and on into the Desolation itself. The Camp gained its name from its origins as being little more than a stopover spot near a good well to prepare for a run across the Desolation or to recover from such a run. When a permanent settlement sprang up, it retained the name since its function really hadn’t changed. The locale consists mainly of stony, hard-packed soil that barely supports the few garden plots grown by the Camp’s inhabitants. The climate is arid and warm, getting hot in the dry depths of summer. When winter winds howl down from the north, however, without any foliage to serve as windbreaks, the temperature plummets to well below freezing and can remain there for weeks at a time. It is during these months that the population of the Camp diminishes as the folk abandon the inhospitable place or die of exposure. It is also during this season that dust storms are prone to sweep in off the Desolation dropping up to two feet of sediment and forcing everyone to stay under cover as much as possible. The rainy season occurs during the late fall, though rainfall is always sporadic at best. Only occasionally do the wadis of the Desolation fill with flash floods.
The Desolation is a vast expanse of wasted, war-torn fields. They felt the tramp of countless soldiers’ feet and drank the blood of humans and other creatures beyond imagining. Mighty engines of war and works of horrific magic slammed into the armies maneuvering across the countryside and left only death in their wake. So powerful was the magic involved, so pervasive the terrors unleashed that even now, centuries later, the lands remained indelibly marked by the legacy of battle. Where once verdant plains and fertile fields stood, there are now only ashes and boiling craters of ooze. The Desolation does not bear the characteristic fires and brimstone of what many would consider in the traditional sense, but it is often likened to the Abyss nonetheless. Smoking fumaroles and burning gas vents would actually enliven this land. Instead there is only the depressingly bleak landscape of gray fading into the haze of the horizon. The Desolation stretches roughly 70 miles east and west and 50 miles north to south. Its southern boundary, marked by the tiny refuge known as the Camp, gradually rises to the stony hills that mark the northern edge of the civilized kingdoms. To the north, the trade road passes another set of hills into the Realm of the Mammoth Lords before giving way to the Crown of the World and eventually the fabled lands of Tian Xia. East the Desolation gradually enters the ravaged land of the Worldwound before finally reaching Mendev, the Estrovian Forest, and the shores of the Lake of Mists and Veils. The western edge is the Desolation’s clearest demarcation as the sheer vertical cliffs of the Tusk Mountains march along parallel to the trade road, visible as a seemingly impassible wall of gray stone. The climate of the Desolation is universally dry. A few gully-washers hit in the late fall, but otherwise it remains bone dry. In fact, the ground stays so dry that there is an almost constant haze from whitish, powder-like dust that rises with the constant breezes. This haze lends to the overall gloominess and feeling of isolation and claustrophobia that is sometimes experienced on this otherwise wide-open plain. Occasional dust storms whip up and race south, usually petering out before reaching the Camp. These billowing white clouds are called bone storms because of the general opinion that the white dust is actually the powdered remains of the fallen soldiers’ bones trampled underfoot by the armies and then left to bake in the sun for centuries. Visiting necromancers have taken samples before and tend to concur that there is some truth to these tales. In the summer the temperatures rise as high as the 90s with an extremely low humidity, but in the winter, bitterly cold winds come down off the mountains to the northwest and create conditions well below freezing for weeks at a time. The Desolation is divided into four quadrants. These are clearly marked by the two roads that cross in the Desolation’s center. The landscape even tends to change somewhat, roughly corresponding to these artificial dividers. The four quadrants are called, going counter-clockwise from southeast to southwest, The Ashen Waste, The Chaos Rift, The Boiling Lands, and The Dead Fields. Further there is a fifth section of the Desolation that corresponds to no particular quadrant. This is composed of the roads themselves that bisect the Desolation and the ruined city around which all of these lands lie and is called the Crossroads. The Desolation is somber and depressing, first and foremost an abandoned battlefield. Thousands of beings died here, good and evil, extraplanar and mundane, celestial and abyssal. It is almost as if the lands retain a memory of that time of strife and countless horrors, with the wind seeming to sing a funeral dirge, low and constant.
The Army of Light and Lord Bishu’s Knights of Fifty-and-One
No description of the Desolation would be complete without an explanation of those who once fought here. No one knows for sure what all and how many fought from within the stained walls of Tsar, unless Orcus keeps such a tally somewhere on his own abysmal plane, but the forces arrayed against the Demon Prince are well-documented in the dusty archives of Lastwall. The impetus for the crusade came from an alliance formed by the patriarchs of the holy churches of Aroden and Iomedae and the kingdoms of Sarkoris and Lastwall in 3850 AR. Led by the aged Overking of Sarkoris, Graeltor, this alliance put all the civilized kingdoms behind it as well as almost all of the good and neutral faiths. To remove any suspicion of divisive religious zealotry or hidden agendas, the entire force was placed under the secular command of Graeltor’s most trusted advisor and strategist, the archmage Zelkor. Though the religious stamp was left off of the overall crusade, the troops certainly welcomed the addition of celestial allies when the battle was finally joined. Immediately below Zelkor were his own advisors and aides de camp, a who’s who of the greatest heroes, generals, and war captains of that day. They each commanded a section of the army and did much of the day-to-day planning and tactics while Zelkor, with their assistance, created and implemented the overall strategies and maneuvering of the Army of Light. The patriarchs Grennell of Aroden and Phestus of Iomedae stood high among the officers of the army, for it was they who originally petitioned the overking and led to the army’s muster. Strangely, equal to them in influence within the Army of Light was the church of Pharasma, goddess of birth, death, fate, and prophecy, and her high priestess Akbeth. Many within the Army of Light opposed the addition of this neutral faith to their ranks, but the followers of Pharasma despised the followers of Orcus as much as did the goodly faiths because of Orcus’ role as Lord of the Undead. Because the legions were under the secular control of Zelkor the patriarchs of the good churches were forced to grudgingly accept the services offered by Pharasma and her followers. It proved much to their benefit when the Battle of Tsar entered its most deadly stage as magical attacks and plagues rained down from the priests and wizards of Orcus. Then the powerful clerics and sorcerers of Pharasma were able to respond with attacks against the foe of a kind the goodly-aligned spell-casters were unable or unwilling to make. One other reason existed that Zelkor willingly allowed the seemingly incongruent followers of Pharasma to join in the crusade. That reason was Akbeth’s lover, the peerless archmage Agamemnon, who joined in the fight and served as a wild card on the battlefield that the followers of Orcus had neither expected nor prepared for. The patriarchs and matriarchs of other faiths held prominent positions as well over their crusader followers: Kirba of Sarenrae, Tondallah of Abadar, Virrikus of Desna, and Dawncry of Shelyn to name a few. Other commanders of the forces of light included the heroic paladin-lords Navarre and Bishu, the Justicars of Iomedae Alaric of Egede and Gerrant of Absalom, the knight commanders Saracek. Brandt Dracobane, Argos the aasimar-knight, and Carileus Grezell the incomparable swordsman, and the elven warrior-maiden Shelfaer. Augmenting these martial heroes were other personages of renown including the powerful cleric and wizard twins Plethor and Xillin, the wizardess Deserach, consort of Lord Navarre, the priest-mages of Pharasma Nemethiar and the elf Phalen, the sorceress Itara, and the mysterious wizard Me’Nak. Of the dwarves came King Kroma leading his doughty warriors from the Sky Citadel of Jormurdun. The elven lords Ulo and Tarrazal brought archers and spearmen from Kyonin. The storm giant Thraestos brought a troop of his brethren and lesser kin. Even Queen Tyrissta of Cheliax brought contingents of gnomish and halfling skirmishers. But the nonhuman forces were not limited to the mortal realms. From the heavenly planes, leading legions of celestial allies, were the empyreal angel Naphrathoth, the leonal agathian Lord Karask, the hound archon Amaleal, and the planetar general Nimrod. In all over 140,000 soldiers, wizards, clerics, and knights—human, elven, dwarven, giantish, gnomish, halfling, and celestial—stood on the fields before the stained walls of Tsar. Most controversial of all those allied with the Army of Light was the sorcerer Slavish. A powerful spell-caster—some said the equal of Zelkor or Agamemnon even—Slavish was also a devoted follower of Asmodeus. Slavish’s devil-liege was also lawfully aligned and therefore opposed to the demonic chaos of Orcus, but the forces of good were unwilling to admit him into their ranks. Allowing a follower of an Archduke of Hell, the opposite end of the evil spectrum from the demons of Orcus, was considered anathema to their cause by many of the goodly host. However, Zelkor’s judgment to admit him finally prevailed in light of what Slavish had to offer to the cause. For Slavish was not only a powerful sorcerer but also bore the sword Demonbane, an artifact so powerful it was said to be capable of slaying Orcus himself. In fact, it was forged by the hands of Asmodeus for that very purpose. With such a potent weapon in their midst, Zelkor felt the Army of Light could not afford to turn away the help offered by Slavish. Thus, the servant of an arch-devil was the last member admitted into the Army of Light before the march for Tsar. For more than a year, the Army of Light bivouacked on the plains surrounding the city of Tsar. While the battles raged around the city’s walls, these camps stood as veritable cities in their own right, only occasionally moving due to the depletion of resources or in response to counterattacks. The soldiers of this army lived, built, ate, and died, in these vast camp-cities as the war raged around them, and more than one burial mound and war monument was raised among them to commemorate some lost hero or valorous deed. Eventually the forces of Tsar retreated and the city was abandoned—a victory for the Army of Light, or so the historians say. Yet when the triumphant armies packed up and departed in pursuit of their foes, they left behind a necropolis of elaborate tombs and simple graves, as well as the scarred remains of one of the most horrific attacks in the war, spread out over hundreds of square miles. What had been a victorious armed camp became a desolate, depleted plain, still haunted by its ghosts of victory.
Sister Sarah has located in the temple archives a set of orders issued by Zelkor during the Battle of Tsar that somehow survived and were transported back to Lastwall. These orders detail the assignment of the paladin lord Bishu and his company, the Fifty and One, adherents to the faith of Iomedae, to hold the city of Tsar and await relief from the Army of Light. Lord Bishu was always thought lost in the Dungeon of Graves like the rest of the Army of Light. The fact that he never returned and the possibility that he or some of his command may have survived for some time at Tsar holding to their duty has ignited the church hierarchy. What did Bishu accomplish during his time in the city? Do his bones, surely now sacred relics of the church, still rest there awaiting repatriation? Could he or any of his knights somehow by the grace of the gods have survived all the intervening span of years and man their posts still awaiting relief? The church cannot afford to send any of its own on a possibly foolhardy mission into unknown danger with only a small hope of success, but adventuring parties are often to known to undertake such assignments.