Thursday, 4 August 2016

"The Aral Sea... was..."



Before and after...


South of Vyrhrad, the great inland sea that once fed another empire fills slowly with sand, rustling through the dried-out cotton fields and piling in the alabaster hallways of pleasure-palaces. Along the shrunken azure coast one may still see the white domes and the drifting forms of elegant, abandoned dhows. The world of the elves, the great empire of the inland sea, has been choking to death for centuries, the most refined culture ever known foundering into isolated traditionalists and reactionary nature-worshippers and, rare and strange but ever-present in Vyrhrad itself, desperate refugees. They have black hair, dark skin and ice-blue eyes. 


Was toying with a medieval Russian-inspired setting, because as we all know (to the point of clich̩ at this stage, I suppose) medieval Russia gives good setting. But in doing so I found myself thinking about what kind of background elves in such a setting might have РI felt like having them be something other than native to the pseudo-Russian centre of the campaign world Рand found myself led out of medieval Russia/Central Asia into very recent Central Asia and the salt desert of the one-time Aral Sea. And now I can't think about anywhere else, so this is a post of pictures and scraps as an attempt at an exorcism. Mostly pictures. Many of them not even from the Aral, but you get the idea.


The title of this post scares me, taken as it is from the first sentence on Wiki. It is not at all long ago – like, a decade ago, though by then we knew what was happening - that we spoke of the Aral Sea in the present tense. Now we speak of it as a ghost sea, a waste of sand and salt and fishing hulks rusting extra-fast hundreds of miles from the last water. We did this to it, more or less on purpose.


Elves as alien and cold is a counterprogramming idea that's been around long enough to have settled down to become regular but excellent programming. But elves of the salt desert is, I submit, even better: just as dry and desolate and deathly white as elves of the Arctic but in many ways an even crueller landscape and an even more alien feeling. The heat allows better decadence too: though, the Aral is so placed that is snows there too, for horrific dissonance and the melding of snow and salt and sand. 

Golden-agey illustrators are right for this because a) they loved Russia and 'Arabia'
and b) they speak to us of a Golden Age and therefore of its passing
Elves as fallen or fading empire is also hardly a new idea, but this is a gimme because there is no starker example of a powerful, arrogant empire that messed with nature on a brutal whim and was punished so blatantly.
The palace of the Shivranshahs in Baku. The kind of high-walled,
bone-white palace cruel and fading elves enjoy.
Nothing good lives on salt pans: almost nothing at all can. It's a natural mummifier, a preserver and a killer at once. It is full of the brittle dead. A necromancer's dream. It is probably rich in the kind of nasty mineral monstrosity usually only found deep underground. It is also the ghost of a sea: there are the bleaching bones of vast monsters and the ruins of whole ecosystems here. There are shipwrecks beyond counting, full of loot, and there are alchemical compounds being created every day by the sun. It is practically the surface of the moon. It is a place to send your party.