I. The Sea of Fire: Geography, Flora, and Fauna
The Sea of Fire is bordered by Mestanir and Jantalar to the north, Mensyl Keep and Nydds to the east, New Myssar to the south, and Solhaven and Vornavis to the west. It is a vast wasteland surrounded by mountains and verdant wood except in the south-southwest portion, which is primarily rolling hills leading to Brisker's Cove and the sea.
Predominantly a desert, the Sea of Fire is sparsely dotted with oases fed by underground springs. There are areas of massive sand dunes that shift with the frequent sandstorms, making it difficult to plot a map. Generalizations are made by triangulating (with crude navigational instruments) stars either by using objects on the horizon -- peaks of distant mountains, for example -- or with the great ancient monoliths found in the expanse. A system utilizing the position of the constellations at night during the various seasonal skies is also favored.
Much of the dune sand is a deep tawny hue overall, a result of the iron ore and feldspar content contributed from eons of weathering and ancient river deposits. A handful examined closely reveals grains that are milky, clear, and black. The area gets its name from the desert wind effect that occurs twice a day. Because of the angle of the light at those hours, and the translucence of the sand grains as they capture and intensify the sun's rays, a fiery aura is created. The shifting wisps of sand appear like dancing flames, hence the name "Sea of Fire."
Another phenomenon of the sand dune area is the "singing" sands. They produce a low, thrumming "boom" sound -- not caused by the wind, but due to the lighter and more uniform grains of sand rubbing against heavier grains beneath them as they drift.
Aside from the crumbling ruins rumored to be found near the center of the region, there are a handful of Imperial outposts near oases in the desert, established to support the Imperial copper mines. The only other buildings found in the desert consist of ceilingless walls of sun-baked mud bricks surrounding smaller oases. Built to provide communal shelter for traveling caravans, each corner or point (as some compounds are polygons) features a watchtower. Inside, a variety of colorful tents and lean-tos take up much of the available space, and as permitting, anywhere else will be filled with livestock.
Ringing the vast expanse in those areas where the mountains kneel at the edge of the Sea of Fire, stand cliffs of pale limestone and earthy sandstone. Wind erosion has carved deep, horizontal gashes, creating natural ledges. Within some of these recesses, earth and stone box-shaped shelters attach to each other like cells in a hive, open at the top and fashioned with crude doorways and windows. Rock overhangs serve as a roof for the entire community. The complexes are accessed by a series of tree-branch or rope ladders that zigzag from one outcropping to the next, alighting at the common areas frequently used for cooking and ceremonial activities. Cliff dwellers enjoy some protection from the harsh winds, sand storms, and heat at this protected elevation, and ladders can be removed as one climbs up, to thwart enemies.
In general, snakes, reptiles, scorpions, and other scaled or hard-carapaced creatures fare well in the desert climate. Rodents, arachnids, moths, butterflies, worms, kangaroo rats, and birds of prey also populate the area. Their ability to camouflage themselves in the desert is key for survival.
Though not an exhaustive guide by any means, the following information is provided mainly to shed some light upon the more noteworthy creatures that share the Sea of Fire with the Tehir. These brief accountings relate information passed down through myth and legend about some of the creatures unique to this inhospitable region.
Surely first and foremost among the fauna of the Sea of Fire is the morduska. Known by outlanders as the dune glider or sand ray, the morduska is a reptilian carnivore that lives strictly within the part of the Sea of Fire that is filled with vast, windswept dunes. Strongly resembling the aquatic manta ray or stingray, the morduska ranges in size from a mere handspan to the length and breadth of a large cottage or even a barn. Markedly dissimilar from its aquatic namesake, the sand ray's mouth is positioned in almost the very center of its dorsal surface. Hiding beneath the sand, the ray waits unmoving until its prey has wandered across its surface and near to its hidden maw. Then, with a strong, concentric rippling of its muscles, it pushes its victim into its suddenly yawning mouth, filled with inward-curving fangs. Once the morduska has chosen to reveal itself, the luckless victim stands little chance of escape. The "ground" beneath becomes unstable and the struggle to remain upright causes the prey's brief progress towards the morduska's maw to go unnoticed until it is much too late.
Small dune gliders can often be observed devouring insects or desert rodents, while the largest of morduska have been witnessed enveloping a full-grown yierka or even a Tehir rider and his mount. Indeed, Tehir legends tell of morduska which span several banks of sand dunes, but go unseen by all but their victims, because they only change location during sand storms. The largest of all morduska is named Tosak'dusalla, which means Father of Storms. It is claimed that the beast not only masks its movements within sand storms, but also is able to trigger them by the undulations of its vast breadth. Because the Tehir are quite capable of weathering sand storms of all but the fiercest intensity, the infrequent disappearances of entire groups of Tehir warriors during sand storms are often attributed to the gargantuan appetite and inescapable breadth of Tosak'dusalla.
Another reptilian carnivore of the sand dunes is the sand slider, known as the selshis. The sand slider is a quite conventional serpent, its body emulating the side-winding action of some of its serpentine cousins but in a vertical orientation, hence its name. The other noteworthy aspect of the creature's chosen form of locomotion is that it appears able to reach surprising rates of speed due to the minimized amount of contact it makes with the surface it is traveling over. The combination of its coloring, which closely resembles that of the sand in which it lives, its deceptive speed, and powerful venom makes the selshis a serpent to be taken seriously by any who travel the dunes of the Sea of Fire. Moreover, those who have survived an encounter with this foe often point out that their own survival hinged upon their ability to spot the second and often third sliders. Those which were poised on other quarters when the first slider openly attacked, enabling the survivor to limit their wounds to a single dose of venom, rather than perishing to two or even three bites.
Allegedly as large as a halfling’s fist, the sand flea is destructive due to its numbers and relative size. If caught while still well fed, a sand flea is often drowned in spirits and later sun-dried with a sticky rum or brandy glaze. Some Tehir tribes regard candied sand fleas an expected cornerstone of any sumptuous repast. It should be noted that the civilized diner will invariably remove the sand flea's barbed legs, mandibles, and thick wing casings before biting into the sizable spirit-soaked morsel that remains, whereas a Tehir warrior intent upon signaling his rise above his peers will consume it whole or "dine upon a tangle of brambles washed down with his own mouth's blood," as it was once likened by an outland observer. The degree to which a warrior foregoes peeling a sand flea before he eats it, therefore, signals the warrior's "kiete bukazd," or "robustness." Following the successful devouring, he may yell out "euliemomgi," or "dominance!"
These arachnids, rumored to originate from Bir Mahallah, somewhat resemble scorpions and whiptails found in other Elanthian locales. Unlike those two, however, the qahzumar is unique in that in place of claws it exhibits suckered tentacles, completely at odds with the rest of its anatomy. Due to this aberrant admixture of bodily forms, the qahzumar's origin is unnatural and doubtlessly entwined with the legends of dark magic that are part and parcel of Bir Mahallah's doom.
Sikuust/ Desert Earwig
The sikuust is in many ways similar to the several species of giant earwigs found in other terrain types. The sikuust differs in that while its length is often equivalent to the height of a giantman, its ventral-to-dorsal thickness is rarely more than a handspan, making it the flattest species of giant earwig yet documented. Also unique to the desert earwig is its ability to bite and inject its acidic venom from either its anterior or posterior mandibles. The subsequently liquefied innards of its victim are then drawn into the earwig through the same hollow portions of the mandibles that conducted the acid to the victim in the first place. Although this liquefaction and extraction method appears intended to function primarily upon insectoid prey, the process can produce quite painful and debilitating effects upon mammalian victims as well. Commonly encountered along the edges of the dunes and among the rockier expanses of the Sea of Fire, the sikuust appears more sinister than its cousins due to its uniformly ebon coloring and the extreme flatness of the creature.
Ridgeweavers are small spiders that travel from one dune ridge to another by casting out gauzy strands of gossamer silk that catch the predawn breezes and waft the dainty creatures aloft. A source of sustenance for many of the larger desert insects, rodents and birds, the ridgeweavers are considered good luck by some of the Tehir tribes. They are also rumored to be "herded" and protected by an underground society of craftsmen, who harvest the silk for use in weaving cloth and braiding rope. Tales have been told of the Tasig-heqi, or "weaver witches," who wield such control over these herds that they rise high within the ranking of their tribe - if not for the substantial resources which they control, then out of local fear that the mass of silk-spinners could descend upon and enshroud the Tasig-heq's enemy within a matter of heartbeats. Whether or not a Tasig-heq will eventually be assumed a sorcerer is a matter of debate.
A yierka is an omnivorous reptilian quadruped with the manners of a camel and the attitude of a perpetually angry feline. Considered to be the mount of choice by most desert warriors, lesser specimens are commonly used as beasts of burden by those Tehir who frequent areas of the Sea of Fire that are too inhospitable for camels. It should be noted that dominance over the yierka by its handler is key to its prolonged use within the waterless regions of the Sea of Fire. Unless dominance is clearly and repeatedly demonstrated, a protracted sojourn across an arid and lifeless tract may result in the yierka completing the journey with only bloodied tatters of boots tangled in the stirrups as mute evidence of a momentary lapse in the rider's domination over his mount. It goes without saying that, among the Tehir, you can gauge a warrior by his mount, for the fiercer the yierka, the fiercer the rider.
Extinct. Thin and small, no longer than a halfling's thighbone, each had a distinctive hump on the back and was sand-hued in color, often with rosy or purple blushes. Hunting the bessho lizard was considered a men's ritual among certain tribes of the Tehir. Women were left to skin and dissect the small lizard, which was especially prized for the small spurs on its hind legs.
Cactus, groundcover plants, and scrubby brush are the most common forms of vegetation found in the Sea of Fire desert -- more prevalent in areas where water sources are closer to the surface, such as oases. This includes vines that sprout small, round melons and wild cucumbers, gathered for their water or liquid content. As the land transitions to verdant (oasis), grasses and trees (date palm, yucca, pepper trees, mesquite, cassia, olive trees, creosote, bur sage) transform the landscape and provide a little shelter from the sun and heat.
Non-Native & Cultivated
Once land has become arable, the Tehir can use seeds from other regions and cultures to grow small patches of bulgar wheat, millet, corn, legumes, squashes, and pumpkins to augment their food stores. The grains and corn can be ground down into meal or flour for breads and cakes, although most breads are flatbreads due to a lack of yeast. Beans can be dried for travel, and the same can be done to chunks or slices of squash, which can be reconstituted in stews.
Due to the mountains along the periphery, the resulting convection zone contributes to the extraordinarily hot, dry weather experienced in this part of the continent, and little rainfall is seen throughout the year. For three months of the year (Eoantos, Eorgaen, and Lormesta), rare, light rains can sweep the area in the afternoon, but they are short-lived and leave very little moisture behind as they rapidly evaporate.
Actual weather is somewhat non-existent, in the sense that the only seasons are "dry" and "less dry". The water table is predominantly deep below the surface and inaccessible for sustaining life. Even in the sparse locations where the water table does come near the surface, life will only flourish if the water is fresh. In many cases, the water is too salty to be drinkable. The oases where fresh water can be found, though, are the gathering places of the desert. These rest stops along travel routes provide help with mapping, as once firmly established these outposts are no longer prone to being buried in sandstorms. The Tehir have dug shallow wells at most of the oases to ensure water is accessible even in drier years.
Sandstorms bring a two-fold hardship -- blinding, stinging sand that drives along the flesh, abrading it, and a fierce, heated wind that scalds the skin. This is why dressing in layers is important for the nomads. Yierkas and other beasts of transportation have thick, protective hides, and as part of their "dress" they have faceguards -- highly decorative -- but very protective for the sudden elements.
In general, any remaining winds are gentle breezes, except for the phenomenon occurring twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, when for a period of an hour the winds increase in strength.
In the morning, the sunrise casts mostly deep golden hues, chasing away the dusky blue of dawn, paling out as it climbs to a mid-day peak. The washed-out sky changes again with sunset, which is much more colorful as the rose-gold tone deepens to carmine streaked with wisps of orange and purple. Seldom is there a cloud in the sky, except during monsoon season, when towering clouds build up with the threat of impending rain.
Nights initially provide a welcome relief from the extremely high temperature, but quickly become unbearably cold and uncomfortable. Any radiant heat bleeds off into the atmosphere soon after nightfall, and it remains downright chilly until dawn's first light. Within half an hour of the sun climbing up from the horizon, the desert grows hot again.