The Plains of Qolor
Dividing the prosperous republics and ancient cities of the west and the sprawling kingdoms of the east, there are vast expanses of wasteland. In the east, this takes the form of the forest wildernesses that surround Lurkmoor, known only as "the Borderlands". In the south, it is the great scorching expanses of the Plains of Dust, the most inhospitable place in all of Leng. The Plains of Qolor in the north may not be quite as inhospitable as the deserts of the south - but they are close.
Legend tells that once Qolor was an empty wilderness - in those times, humans dwelt in what is now the Plains of Dust. They were a lush and verdant land of green fields and ancient forests in those days, the legends say, and men had no desire to venture into the harsh wilderness of the north. But when the plains were scorched to dust and mountains were raised to pull every drop of moisture from the south, the cracked wastelands of Qolor did not seem so inhospitable to those few who survived and fled.
The men who fled the south are the ancestors of every human civilisation of Leng - those who made the painful journey across Qolor into safer and more pleasant lands. Those who faltered and turned back, not heeding the stories of safe, wet lands in the west and east, became the Qolori of today. After the scorching heat of the Plains of Dust, they had long since learned to survive with water and shade that would bake a camel into clay. For such a hardy people, it is hard to suppose that simple cowardice is what kept them there - but if there was another reason, it is long since lost. The Qolori plainsmen have been in the waste since before the founding of the first kingdoms of Leng, and only they are equipped to survive there.
The Plains of Qolor, unlike the Plains of Dust, are not a sandy desert. Likewise, where the blazing sun beats down on the brow of those in the Plains of Dust, Qolor is relatively cold - although it is so dry that travelling without ample water in the summer months is certain death. The true danger of Qolor, however, is both the dangerous wildlife and the incredible dryness of the land - it is as arid and lifeless as the Plains of Dust, and far larger.
The size of Qolor is not always apparent on maps; Arelon, Astinus and Agatea all cling to the coast, and do not extend very far to the east. Likewise, the land south of the Sea of Flails - where the fallen kingdom of Alta can be found - is also part of the wasteland. The further south one goes, the drier and hotter Qolor becomes, until eventually it melds seamlessly into the northern reaches of the Plains of Dust.
Most of Qolor is cracked, dry earth with no water at all, with few exceptions. In some places, underground springs well up from far beneath the earth - these do not manifest as lush oases, as they do in the Plains of Dust. Even when there are springs, they are thin trickles of precious water that feed slowly into hidden basins or sheltered caves. Likewise, some places with water-bearing earth can be found by the rough, hardy plants that grow there. Some plants can be cut to produce water, while others indicate that a dug hole will slowly fill. Surviving in the wastes requires considerable lore.
Finally, there are two great and plentiful sources of water in Qolor: the great rivers. The river Astor in the north flows from the mountains and hills of Dagoth, joining together in a great stream that eventually finds its mouth on the coast of Astinus. In the south, the Lifeblood River runs through the heart of Qolori land. Though both rivers are depicted with thick blue lines on maps, they are variable. The Lifeblood River, for example, disappears beneath the earth for much of its run, becoming a subterranean river accessible only by secret caves known to the Qolori.
Whether below the ground or above, the effect of the rivers on the waste is obvious. While the rest of the wastes are bleak and dead, the wildlife that is only sporadically found elsewhere throngs at the rivers - which can make them a very dangerous place indeed. Even on the rivers, trees are rare - but thick scrubland, reeds and bushes cover the riverbanks. Hardy wasteland goats, warthogs and gazelles come to the rivers to graze, bringing with them their predators - hyenas, cougars and lions are all also native to the waste. They are also host to rhinoceri and great elephants, and the most dangerous of all wasteland predators: the dreaded wyvern.
The barbarians that live in the Plains of Dust are known as Qolori to most of Leng, but they call themselves and their language Karpathi. Though dismissed by most of Leng as mere savages, they have an intricate culture with complex rules - a brutal and harsh culture, but a culture nonetheless.
The Karpathi are divided up along strict lines: into tribes, holds and assemblies. Tribes are extended families, anywhere from 2 to 50 people. A hold is simply one of the many places scattered throughout Qolor where shade and water is to be found - an underground cave that taps the Lifeblood River or a steep-walled cliff where moisture seeps up through the ground. A hold may contain only a single tribe, or it may contain a hundred. Finally, the assembly is the largest group, a collection of holds - unified, most likely, by the leaders who brought led each group into the plain.
These three family ties define a Karpathi - a man might describe himself to outsiders as "Kala of the Severin Assembly". To other Severins, however, he would say that he is "Kala, of the Black Rock Hold". Only in a dispute with another member of his hold would he pay much heed to his membership of the Almsivi Tribe. Karpathi of the same society are forbidden from killing each other unless there is a blood feud to be settled; even then, there are complicated rules governing when spears can and cannot be bared.
The Karpathi are amongst the few that can live and thrive in Qolor; they know the plants that indicate water, the location of secret wellsprings, and how to avoid both the dangerous predators and the poisonous creatures of the wasteland. Almost all Karpathi are at least level 1 rangers; these rangers never receive druidic spells or fey followers, but are not bound to a good alignment - a consequence of living and thriving in such an inhospitable land. The warriors that roam the wastes to feed their tribes, seek out water, and protect the hold are always some combination of ranger and thief, never less than level 3. Though they may have a reputation for barbarism, Karpathi warriors are not Norse berserkers: they are careful, stealthy hunters.
The Karpathi are a jealous and warlike people. Even amongst themselves, the different assemblies are almost always raiding and killing each other. Different tribes and holds within an assembly are forbidden from combat, but in the case of blood feud even this restriction can be cast aside. Those who are not Karpathi at all can expect to face little mercy at the spears of the plainsmen.
Strangely, however, the Karpathi offer a sort of patronage to certain people and organisations. The Plains of Qolor divide the west and east of Leng from each other, and being able to cross from Astinus or Arelon into Lorknir safely is a massive and desirable boon to any trader. The Karpathi freely allow certain groups, especially those dedicated to peace. They are said to allow caravans accompanied by a Bard of the Collegiate to cross the wastes, and will actively chaperone and safeguard anyone fool enough to come to Qolor bearing neither weapons nor armor.
The Lifeblood River & the Wisdom
Throughout the dry wastes of Qolor, the Karpathi can be found ranging far from their isolated and desolate holds. If there is anywhere in this blasted land that is a center for the Karpathi, however, it is the Lifeblood River. Lush and verdant by comparison with the rest of the land, the poor soil of its banks bristle with hardy shrubs and thorny bushes. It is here that the greatest of Karpathi holds can be found. Although the Karpathi are at peace with the wild elephants found throughout Qolor, along the Lifeblood River they have a symbiotic relationship - with elephants used as mounts, beasts of burden and friends.
Of all the great "river holds", the oldest and most revered is that of Bluestone. Located in the very center of the Lifeblood's run, in one of the rare places where the river surfaces and sparkles beneath the pitiless sun, Bluestone is a natural enclosure formed by three rough, low mountains. In the sides of those mountains are hundreds of carved balconies that look down into the valley - not just decorative, these balconies can be manned so that a hail of spears greets any invader. The "city" itself is built into the mountains, with the valley used to hold sheep and goats. The summits of the Bluestone Mountains are a holy place to the Karpathi, and are known as Var Sedim.
Var Sedim is an elephant's graveyard, and is the bastion of the Wisdom. The Wisdom is an order of Karpathi priests and priestesses that dwell in Bluestone and throughout Qolor. They are very similar to Druids and connected to the same power, and occupy the absolute pinnacle of Karpathi society. They keep and enforce the ancient traditions and strict, complex laws of the Karpathi people. Although they are more occupied with the keeping of old laws than the enforcement of new ones, they are also the keepers of prophecies - and when they make a proclamation or call the Great Assembly to Bluestone, every hold must obey or lose their honor.
Wisdoms revere and respect elephants above all else as the guardians of the river and the keepers of the natural world. They have the power to communicate with them, a relationship that is almost akin to that of a witch and her familiar, and wandering Wisdoms are often accompanied by an elephant bull. Besides the keeping of Karpathi rules and customs, the most important duty of the Wisdom is the keeping of Var Sedim, where old elephants come to die.
Every Wisdom, before they are elevated (at level 5), must go to Var Sedim and see through the eyes of the dead elephants. The relationship between tribe, hold and assembly is very similar to that of elephants, with their families, bond-groups and clans. Karpathi lore holds that the elephants taught them how to work together after the breaking of the south, instead of squabbling for water and shade.