Lore Spotlight: The Red Desert
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North of Sunbleak stretches a desolate region from the coastline of the Gilded Sea to the Dragon’s Spine mountains. It is a forsaken hellscape that makes the rest of the wastes look inviting by comparison. Fine crimson powder coats the dunes as far as the horizon stretches. The powder sticks to the lungs when inhaled, almost impossible to scrub out of unprotected eyes or clothing. The calamity that it would take for such a region to be coated entirely in the red dust is a mystery in and of itself.
Those who experience the Red Desert firsthand are quick to believe the theories that the horrifying creatures skulking above the scorched land are the powder’s origin, more dangerous than many of Dema's most vicious monsters. Known as “strigoi”, this diverse class of monsters share a life cycle that preys off those foolish enough to wander into their sight. Generating most of their sustenance from the sun, to procreate, strigoi swoop down and assault passersby with fangs the size of daggers, enveloping the sentients in their leathery wings to stick ovipositors into the victims.
In a process of rapid growth that withers the host, a new strigoi gestates inside, sapping nutrients from the blood and rendering bone and muscle into the red tinted dust. New strigoi take on characteristics of the host that they incubate in, with the six strigoi-types derived from the sentient peoples of Dema being the most dangerous. A strigoi’s only known weakness is to be kept in darkness for an extended period of time. Pity the traveler who is not heavily-armed enough with pikes and Usundi armor to ward them away otherwise. Advanced equipment like anti-strigoi net launchers and Eldertech flamethrowers may be provided to gain a precious few extra minutes in battle.
The Red Desert has crept steadily south for generations. Only a few scattered, heavily fortified settlements exist at the fringe of the Red Desert, with those living at the waystations in the interior considered brave to the point of irrational. Smugglers attempting to send goods in and out of Deonar to the north via Ka'Bar Port on the Ka'Bar Run, dueling agents between the Light Plains and the Gilded States, and hermits on the fringes of sanity will rarely spend more than a week in the cratered desolation itself.
All must travel in feather-light land ships called skifters, or "shiseli" in Featherfolk/Usundi. Shiseli are built to harness the high winds unique to the region. They are powered through a combination of sail and Eldertech levitation generators with a rudder for steering. The Eldertech generators must be discovered and looted from ruins in the desert in order to construct more shiseli. Riding the powerful lightning windstorms in the region may get one to their destination faster, as long as the shiseli doesn't shake itself apart from the strain. Captains are known to plan journeys when the conditions are at their most treacherous. After reaching a certain speed, the only surefire way to slow down from riding a storm is to throw weighted anchors behind the hull. If not riding in one of the stronger ballista frigates, there is always the option for unarmed shiseli to to ram an obstacle - often rival shiseli.
The lure of especially rare Eldertech and vast vaults of gold hidden in the lost cities beneath the blooded dust draws in a steady stream of adventurers. A hero's entire reserve of skill, willpower and luck is needed to allow for a mere chance to outrun the strigoi. The few who have tried to cleanse the strigoi roosts in the jagged mountains and buried shrines have rarely returned, though calls for new expeditions circulate the civilized corners of Dema.
The Red Desert's borders were kept relatively far away from the cities of the Light Plains for most of the three earlier Eras. By the Redsky Era, an apocalyptic migration of strigoi descended on the southern territories of Deonar, triggering a massive refugee crisis as towns of marble faced fang and claw. To the south, Sunbleak's Featherfolk mounted a noble defense against the migration, but combined with the coming of the Overseers, the Red Desert brought on a second cataclysm in the region.
Those final struggles are stories for another time -- perhaps stories of your own. Does your character survive in and defend one of the walled outposts where weary desert runners rest for an evening in the Exodus Era? Maybe they'll point a band of heroes towards a forgotten city carved from the mountains, where rumors of a way to combat the strigoi echo in the throne rooms of empires long abandoned.
Or how much mayhem can you sow as one of the Jebalken, insane marauders who ambush shiseli in breakneck convoy chases and worship the strigoi as the apex of life? Your party will never forget their harrowing journey through one of the most treacherous locations in Dema.
This is one entry of multiple lore posts covering some of the cultures and locations of Dema. Even more lore on each featured topic will be in the 5E Conversion Book. Read a short story set in The Red Desert here. Check out our previous spotlights on topics like the vast Aether-based empire of the Solar Hegemony, or the epic struggle of the underground Earth Sporespawn of Tohol.
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