Anauroch - Part Three: Ecology of the Plain of Standing Stones
In contrast to the Sword, the Plain of Standing Stones is less a traditional desert - or, a desert in the way that outlanders think of one, all drifting sand and burning sun - and more a rocky, barren wasteland.
The native animals and beasts that dwell there are more varied than in the sandy desert, but they must make adaptations to survive the rough, rugged terrain. There are fewer refugees from the lands beyond Anauroch here. After all, even if the outlander beasts know where they are heading, in the way all beasts have to sense shelter and safety, most of those perish in the dunes, or become fodder for some cunning indigenous life along the way. It is the will of At'ar.
There are still foul, magic-tainted beasts stirring in the Plain of Standing Stones. Many of the creatures that frequent the Sword region also roam through the Plain - except for humans.
Bedine tribesmen generally believe the Plain to be more hostile to life than the Sword. In this case, my people are mistaken - it is not more dangerous; it is simply different. In fact, in some protected, secluded valleys, the land of the Plain of Standing Stones is lush beyond a Bedine nomad's dreams.
Like everywhere in Anauroch, winters in the Plain are especially cold and harsh. The winds scour the pillars and rock formations with stinging lancets of ice, and glittering crystals rime surfaces to unearthly beauty and slickness. Most creatures have caves or rock-hidden lairs to protect themselves from the death-dealing cold. Some even delve down so far as to break into the network of underground tunnels that make up Underdark Anauroch.
But the very presence of the lumps and misshapen monuments of stone means that there are lee spaces out of the force of the wind, and snug cracks where tinder can be lit and not whipped away from frozen fingers. Compared to the Sword, the Plain of Standing Stones offers a stranger the ghost of a chance of surviving the fierce winter season.
Rodents and the lively small mammals, including rats, raccoons, gophers, hedgehogs, badgers, even foxes, thrive in this rough area. Their tracks crisscross any small pockets of dust or earth, their discarded seed hulls and downy shed hairs nest in crevices and fill hollows with the litter of life. Most stay near the occasional fertile valleys, like Aerithae's Rest, but many, particularly rats, can be found in practically every ravine, cave, and crag.
Insects, spiders, and scorpions are as common here as in the Sword, but rather than digging in the endless sloughs of dunes, they crouch among the rocks waiting for prey.
Wild crag sheep herds live in the region, keeping to the greener valleys. Jackals, coyotes, lions, and even wolves, make these herds the targets of their depredations, as do giants, hobgoblins, outlaws, and the other more intelligent races of the area.
The fertile areas, with their myriad small denizens, in turn also support larger animals: boars, wild dog packs, skunks, squirrels, warthogs, goats, and a few bears. More rarely, ordinary creatures grown to giant size, including boars, badgers, porcupines, and skunks, as well as huge spiders and scorpions (discussed previously in regard to the Sword region) may be found.
Birds are more common in the Plain of Standing Stones than in any other part of Anauroch. The rocks give them resting places, nesting sites, and hunting ground where the prey below might venture to think themselves safe. How clearly a ground squirrel might follow the progress of a hawk circling the wide sky above a dune, endless blue punctuated by the naked silhouette of death. But among the narrow crenellations of stone, how safe it must think itself - a dash from shelter, a crack everywhere at hand. I have seen the hawks batter themselves with fury against a wall of stone, and heard their piercing shrieks of rage. But I have also seen them rise triumphant from a seam of rock, dinner clutched in their powerful talons, when the crevice proved too shallow, or the prey too slow.
Vultures, hawks, desert owls, ravens, eagles, and other hardy birds scour the skies. Again, some few have reached giant size. But even a Bedine can tell you that no bird spends both seasons here as a matter of course. A great number of birds of all sizes and species fly from the area to avoid the cold, windy winters - even those that are not normally considered migratory by outlanders. Some days in the Sword, the sky darkens as before a sandstorm. But it is only birds fleeing from winter in the Plain of Standing Stones.
Snakes, lizards, and tortoises are common anywhere in the Plain of Standing Stones. Cobras, rock pythons, spitting snakes, and gila monsters are the most dangerous creatures of their ilk. They have even been used as weapons.
The hobgoblin tribes that dwell among the Standing Stones often capture poisonous snakes and keep them in tightly-knit baskets. Thus armed, they wait atop a high cliff for their enemies to approach, ready to drop the snakes upon their foemen to sow confusion and panic in their ranks. While the targets hop about, flinging snakes out of their midst and groaning over unfortunate bites, other hobgoblins in the tribe press forward the attack from below at the same moment. I have seen these tactics in action, and the hobgoblins were the victors of the engagement, suffering only three snakebites among their ground forces from poorly-aimed baskets.
I was also once told by the outlander wizard El'Minster - who, by great At'ar the Merciless is no friend of mine - that the eyes of a small lizard called the jer-jer-ub are valuable in the distillation of sorcerous potions which make a man extremely agile for a short time. The jer-jer-ub, whose name comes from the hobgoblin tongue and means rock-hopper, is a dexterous little beast and is quite difficult to catch as it leaps about rocks on high cliff faces and stony crags.
Never mind the dread purpose of sorcery - I have not been so undignified as to scramble among the stones, chasing lizards, since I was a small boy.
There exists in the Plain of Standing Stones a rock known as the Pillar of Tauros. This tall, crooked column of stone serves as a sacred place for dragons of all kinds. I myself have seen the great beasts flying toward the pillar, ignoring all else. Once there, dragons perch atop the rock and spend hours in what appears to be some sort of meditation.
A berrani explorer by the name of Jo'tull supposedly climbed the Pillar of Tauros, and found an inscription of magical runes. He claims that the inscription is like unto a foul sorcerer's spellbook, and from these runes, dragons can learn new spells. including, as these tales always say, many unknown to human wizards.
I do not know how greatly this rings of truth, but I do know that I intend to never find out for myself. Dragons come from the farthest realms to visit the Pillar of Tauros, and they often engage in fantastic battles over the right to "nest" on the pillar. It is magnificent and chilling to see the aerial dance of fighting dragons. Little sand lizards are but a parody of the flashing, swooping grace of the great wyrms. Whatever is on top is definitely a prize they feel is worth risking their lives.
Blue dragons are the most commonly found of their kind in the Plain of Standing Stones. They have few or no enemies there, and so they hunt without fear. One blue dragon, Ghondalaath, dwells within a rocky pinnacle known as Heroes' Helm. I give the area wide berth since I chanced across it when the beast was returning from a gorge. This great wyrm is a master of magic, and his lair is guarded by magical traps and gruesome undead which he has created.
Among the rocky convolutions of the Plain, a surprisingly large number of hill giants make their homes. They normally hunt hobgoblins, humans, sheep, and goats. Occasionally even more dangerous game takes their fancy, such as cliff-dwelling hippogriffs, giant insects, and those monstrous-sized mammals (including giant badgers and porcupines) that fit their stature. I suppose for a creature that large, it takes too many sheep skins to make a cloak.
Normally, these giants dwell in groups of ten to twenty, but occasionally they gather in even greater numbers, called together by their king, Derrnog. This Derrnog is a surprisingly intelligent warrior for a giant. He stands over twenty feet in height. I was at first mystified to see such a turn-out of monsters, but since my initial discovery of the council, I have found that the giants often wage a concentrated war against hobgoblins (who are much more numerous), or attack the much rarer but powerful fomorian giants that also lair among the rocky crags and caves.
These actions may have provocation, but I have never seen or heard tell of an instance of aggression from either foe that would account for the force of the hill giants' revenge. It could be there are feuds of long standing. But I suspect that Derrnog has some grander plan than mere retaliation.
Hill giants greatly fear both cloud and storm giants. I overheard a pair muttering darkly about these other monsters, who they believe live in secret cloud castles above the desert.
Of the sky-giants, I know nothing. I have, however, had the unfortunate mischance to encounter the foul fomorian giants. These behemoths are malformed and hideous - personally I believe their origin is the mad experimentation of some ancient sorcerer. In fact, as I have alluded to before, I believe such experimentation explains the blighted existence of many of the strange creatures in Anauroch. It is further proof why magic is to be feared and avoided.
Though smaller than their hill giant cousins, fomorians are stronger and more cunning. Worse than that, from the point of view of all who dwell in the Plain of Standing Stones, they feed upon the same sorts of prey as hill giants do.
But fomorians also eat the flesh of their fellow giants. That hill giants are not happy either to compete for foodstuffs or to become them may well explain the occasional wars between the races.
Fomorians like to torture their prey before eating it. This barbaric custom gives rise to an occasional wail of pain that is carried on the wind, and to the Bedine mother's observation to errant children, even when it is truly the wind's whine, that "Fomorians are feasting today." The giants' large, deformed hands do not allow them to make precise or delicate movements. Therefore, torture victims are usually killed very quickly, though accidentally.
The few humans that dwell in the Plain of Standing Stones speak of the barbaric hobgoblins with hatred in their eyes and fear in their voices. These marauders tend to kill all they come across, either to steal from it, in the case of intelligent victims, to eat it, or just for pleasure. Even the giants in the region have reason to be wary of hobgoblins, as the latter have devised ingenious hunting and trapping techniques to bring down any foe.
I have seen a force of hobgoblins destroy three hill giants by the simple strategy of attacking them as they passed through a narrow gorge. The hobgoblins struck from above and below at the same time, laying about with spears, bows, and crude blades. Those above also pushed large boulders down into the gorge to strike the giants, even though this tactic resulted in harm to some of their fellow warriors.
These ruthless creatures are masters of surprise and ambush. Their encampments are always well hidden, and surrounded by skulking guards.and possibly a few crude traps. I have been told hobgoblins never fight in an open area if they can help it, and that they flee or surrender if attacked when unprepared.
There are at least a dozen tribes of hobgoblins in the Plain, each numbering a hundred or more. Each tribe splinters into smaller war parties for most of the summer months, reuniting during the winter.
It is not completely unknown for a few humans (usually thieves or brigands) to join up with a war party of hobgoblins, but such alliances are usually short, and they are always in the summer. When a tribe masses for the winter, outsiders are not welcome - the tribe carries only enough food and shelter for hobgoblins, and much of the time, they fail to collect even that.
Hobgoblins in this region capture other creatures and use them as beasts of burden, or even as weapons. One tribe, the Bonegnashers, is said to have captured a gorgon a few years ago. Apparently, the shaman of the tribe fashioned some masks from a rare plant known as huvremba that allows one to breathe the petrifying breath of a gorgon safely.
Wearing their masks, the beast's keepers herd it from its cave into a dead-end ravine. Then, the hobgoblin warriors drive their enemy's forces down the ravine - right into the gorgon.
These beasts are among my least favorite creatures of the myriad species I have encountered in my travels. They - But I can describe them better with a tale.
Once, while traveling the Plain of Standing Stones, I was in the company of a young ulugarr of little honor (a murderer and a thief, but a tolerable companion for a short time) named Tirug. We were looking for shelter, both from the wind and from a hungry band of hill giants, and darted into a ravine.
Upon descending into the darkest portion of the gully, we both heard the shrill pitch of a woman crying out in pain. Tirug wanted to ignore it, and now I see the sense in his lack of compassion. I was young, and full of noble impulses. I insisted we find the woman and save her, and so we followed the cry.
We found no trace of human passage. There were only the tracks of some sort of stag - Tirug was actually more familiar than I with such beasts. Those tracks should have alerted me to danger, as certainly they alerted him.anything mysterious in Anauroch can only be dangerous.
But I was naive. Without warning, we were attacked by three leucrotta, who had been mimicking a woman's cry to entrap us.
I escaped the foul ambush, but Tirug did not. In the fight, I saw one of the hideous beasts bite right through Tirug's shield and armor with the bony ridges that it has instead of teeth. The tales that I had heard of such beasts did nothing to prepare me for their incredible ugliness or their foul smell. I am told that their lair is even more odorous, and I have no desire to ever test the knowledge.
After I escaped up the ridge, I watched as our pursuing giants entered the gully. The leucrotta interrupted their horrid feast of Tirug to hide - and commenced to imitate the cry of a giant in pain. The giants paused, and then fled. Apparently, even those dim witted fools had learned the leucrottas. tricks.
The leucrotta returned to their former feast. But my companion's death was not entirely in vain. Since that hard lesson, I too have tricked a number of giants into running from me. I hide snug in a crevice and mimic a giant in pain - or rather, a leucrotta imitating a giant in pain. It was a difficult skill to master, but it has saved my life twice.
Leucrotta seem willing to feed on anything, but in some perverse way the beasts prefer to eat the flesh of intelligent creatures they can deceive. I have heard their hide is useful in the construction of magical boots of striding and leaping, and that their spittle can be imbibed as an antidote for certain non-lethal poisons and potion-based charms, but I know little of such matters. I have fought them off once. The next time I might not be so fortunate.
Those manticores in Anauroch display traits that differ slightly from others of their kind living in the outer lands. These beasts are known as gared-guur among the hobgoblins and giants in the region, which means "slayer from the skies."
I am told that manticores outside of the Great Desert prefer human flesh to feast upon. In the Plain of Standing Stones, such meals are few and far between. Perhaps because of this lack, our manticores have taken up a new favorite prey: giant eagles. Most manticores in the region make their lairs near the high nesting areas of these huge, elegant birds.
Manticores hunt in packs of three to twelve creatures, and can bring down giant eagles in flight with their sheer numbers. Eagles are also handicapped by a manticore's tail spikes. The bird is forced to close with its attacker in order to bring to bear its sharp talons or tearing beak, but the manticore can throw its tail spikes from a distance outside the reach of the eagle's defenses.
The manticores of the Great Desert are still not able to resist the taste of humans, however, and attack all travelers that come near them. When manticores cannot find a meal of humans or eagles, they settle for hobgoblins or even small animals.
Great numbers of manticores are known to gather near a huge mountain known as the Swordpoint. The creatures are also reputed to generally hate lamias, and are known to attack them on sight. Lamias, on the other hand, often use sorcery to enslave manticores and force them to act as guardbeasts.
Rarer than hobgoblins, desert trolls are still a threat to all creatures, intelligent or otherwise. These rocky, brown-skinned cousins of the much more common troll of the outer lands are able to slightly modify their color to better blend in with their surroundings.
Desert trolls are exclusively carnivorous. In fact, they do not even drink water - only blood. Water is poison to them, and merely touching it causes them harm. No outlander's troll suffers this condition. Again, I find evidence that leads me to think our desert creatures are created or mutated by sorcery.
Any contact with water causes a desert troll 1d6 points of damage per round. The damaged flesh cannot be regenerated.
Luckily, desert trolls are usually solitary, and can be content feeding on crag sheep and small birds and mammals. A troll is not afraid to take on a creature that can fight back, however, and does not hesitate to attack a giant scorpion.or a band of men. I have heard tales that a starving troll may even attack some of the creatures from the Underdark, like beholders or illithids (though normally it would seal its fate by doing so). Desert trolls have at least learned not to bother their giant neighbors.
These creatures do not seem to keep lairs, but wander the Plain of Standing Stones, thinking only of their next meals.
Though crafty and shrewd in the ways of stalking, hiding, and hunting, they are generally not as smart as normal trolls (or so I am told. I have not encountered enough of either variety to make a careful study, nor can I see any point in seeking them out). Most desert trolls can speak only a few words, and those are hard to understand.
Very rarely, a family of up to six trolls may be found together, parents and young. These groups remain bonded for only about two years. When the young trolls are able to make their own way in the world, the group disintegrates. Each heads off in its own solitary direction.
That I know of, nothing feeds on trolls - even the foully-scented, carrion-eating leucrotta find troll flesh too distasteful to ingest.
The River of Gems and the surrounding valley it creates are home to many strange and sometimes terrifying creatures. This river forms at the southern border of the High Ice and runs with the frigid temperatures of melting snow into the Plain of Standing Stones. Fierce At'ar's gaze warms the surface water as the river travels to the edge of the Sword, where it disappears into a large sinkhole called the Throat. The river remains narrow throughout its course, and in places depths of 50 feet or more are not uncommon. In the bottoms, the water is still as cold and clear as the ice from which it came.
Both merrow and scrags lair in caves under the surface of the river, and form one of its hidden threats. These creatures live and hunt together, cooperating very well. They spend much of their time gathering gemstones found on the river bottom. They also hunt fish, and those animals that come to drink at the shore. Merrow and scrags most enjoy attacking groups of intelligent beings.humans, hobgoblins, and even giants.for these beings provide both food and the treasure they love.
Though interbreeding appears to be impossible, the two races intermingle in every other manner. and on equal terms. Both decorate their bodies with tattoos and scars to show age, prowess and position in their dual society. I once spoke with a woman who claimed to have actually spent time with the merrow and scrags, and who apparently understood the tattoos. As a general rule, she said, the more markings on an individual's body, the older and more skillful he or she is.
Merrow use primitive spears, while scrags rely on their natural weaponry. Both are adept at setting crude traps along the river's edge to aid them in catching prey. Though both races can survive out of water for an hour or more, they prefer not to leave their element, especially during the day when At'ar the Merciless beats down upon the Great Desert.
The river is also home to many sorts of fish - small remnants, mute reminders of a time when Anauroch was a fertile land filled with lakes, streams, forests and life. Though most of my people find it hard to accept this history, after all I have seen in the Realms and in my own land, I know it to be true.
The River of Gems is full of what my merrow-loving acquaintance calls river fish, amphibians, and reptiles. These may be the normal inhabitants of a liquid environment, but they are creatures of which I really know very little. Oasis species are altogether different. I have seen as well animals even a dune-dwelling Bedine would recognize as unusual: giant frogs, huge water beetles, giant gar, and a ferocious fish called a quipper which, when found in groups, can devour a man in just a few short minutes.
Perhaps it is just a Bedine's natural fear of so much water in one place, but I find the River of Gems to be a deadly locale, and one that should be avoided.
No better example for my distrust exists than the creature called the morkoth. I have been told by reliable, honorable men that these creatures are only found in deep parts of the sea. Once again, the Mother Desert disproves the shallow knowledge of the berrani.
There are numerous tunnels, both above and below the water's surface, that open within the ravine carved out by the river. Many of these passages lead to the Underdark, an area of subterranean horrors deep below Anauroch (and, I am told, under many other parts of the world as well).
Unwary explorers attempting to access the Underdark through these routes often end up becoming lost within a series of identical, winding tunnels. Some strange effect of these underground passages draws them ever deeper in until they reach a large, central chamber which is their doom. In this chamber lives a morkoth.
Morkoth somehow hypnotize their victims as they stumble through the labyrinthine twists above, and devour them once they reach the central chamber. When not luring human adventurers, they probably feast upon the more plentiful merrow, scrags, and perhaps even the larger of the river fish.
One legend says that once every ten years, all morkoth leave their lairs to find mates. During this time, great ill is inflicted upon all those dwelling near the river through blights, disease, and misfortune. Dead fish float up to the surface of the river and are washed away.
At the Throat, a three-mile-wide sinkhole in which morkoth are even more common, there are said to be creatures called water nagas, supposedly related to dark nagas, which I will describe to you later. Unfortunately, I know little of these water creatures. I know merely that they are not necessarily evil beings, and are better off left alone.
Rumor has it that directly below the Throat, at a depth of water I cannot conceive of, there is a hidden city of aboleth, creatures in league with the other foul subterranean horrors. These also will I detail later, when I finally reveal the secrets found in the Underdark...
- A Great Man's Journeys
- Part One: The Lands of Anauroch
- Part Two: Ecology of the Sword
- Part Three: Ecology of the Plain of Standing Stones
- Part Four: Ecology of the High Ice
- Part Five: The Underdark of Anauroch
- Part Six: Legends and Rumors