The Old Ones
Long ago, druids attempted to save the world by destroying it. They grew a giant tree that would pulverize all the cities of the world between its roots. It would take a hundred years—it almost lasted a hundred years—but in the end, even the god-tree, Aglabendis, fell.
Aglabendis was over a mile tall. It’s bark was thicker than city blocks. It’s leaves never turned brown or fell. Instead, a constant rain of petals fell, tumbling from the billions of flowers that covered it. Each flower was unique, like a snowflake. Aglabendis produced all possible flowers because it was all possible trees.
It was not a tree of wood and sap. While your axe could bite into its grain, and your fingers become sticky from its sap, the deity was not composed of these things, in the same way that a human is not composed of their clothing. The poet Khazan Ul Mayud claimed that “all we perceive is paint upon the veil, when the Immortal is merely air and scent”.
It was a god. Not because it was worshiped (it wasn’t) or that it granted prayers (it didn’t). It lacked an agenda. It even lacked anything we’d recognize as a mind. It was a god because it was a piece of a higher reality. It was a thousand times more real than the world around it. If the world was a book printed on rice paper, Aglabendis was an iron spike that nailed it to the table.
So it was all the more surprising when the tree was killed. Poisoned. By forces of Civilization.
But the tree couldn’t die. It was, almost literally, a Platonic ideal of Life. But it couldn’t live, either, not with poison filling its phloem.
Removing a god of Life by killing it is a bit like removing a water fountain by drinking from it. It’s possible, but you need to empty the reservoir that the fountain is connected to. This isn’t to say that there are any parts of Aglabendis that are extra-dimensional (none are), simply that its definition was too big for our world. That’s sort of what transcendent means.
When it was alive-alive, it grew constantly and impossibly. Now that it is dead-alive, things grow upon it, constantly and impossibly. And this will continue for as long as it takes for the reservoir to run out—sometime between 50 and 500 years, according to scholars.
And so now, the great trunk of Aglabendis rots, but does not vanish. It is eaten, but it is not consumed. This is the Great Rot, thousands square miles of mildewed hills, stretching from the frontiers to the borders of Emir’s Folly.
This is not some untamed wilderness. 55 miles of the Rumhoney Road passes through it, itself part of a major trade route. Vornheim maintains a fort on the northern boundary, and claims the whole Rot as part of its domain (a completely pointless and untested claim). And the client-state of Tzekely maintains a much smaller fort at the southern boundary. The Rumhoney Road runs along the eastern boundary, along the shores of the Saltsea, while squinty-eyed mountains mark the western boundary.
The road has wardens who maintain it, drawn from Vornheim’s exiles, criminals, and lepers. The Rotsmen, as the wardens have come to be called, are a severe, penitent group. The work is dangerous and brutal, and any recruit who does not adopt a strict code of honor and brotherhood is quickly swallowed up by the hills.
The Rotsmen wear thick leather cloaks and blue-painted horsehide capes. They always travel masked, to protect themselves from the miasma and to hide their oftentimes hideous appearance.
The Rotsmen work to keep the road open. The obvious problem is that the Great Rot grows too damn fast. 10’ tall mushrooms sprout, grow, and die all in the space of a month. Any path that is cleared is overgrown in less than a day.
So the road is not a road. It’s a series of tall posts that run along the hilltops and ridges. They have long top-beams pointing to the next post in the series. Usually the next hilltop post is visible enough to keep navigation simple, but if posts all eventually become overgrown and must be replaced. And of course, when the fungi are sporulating, you might as well be in a thick fog.
The posts nearer to the border forts have been replaced with metal, which is much more durable. But iron is extremely expensive, while labor is cheap. So not many posts, not many at all.
The pointing top-beams of the posts are so long that they resemble gallows. (They were made this long so that they would remain recognizable, even when they were covered with fungi 2’ thick.) And that’s what the Rotsmen call them. “There are 122 gallows along my section of road,” a Rotsman might say, “and I love each one more than the last.”
There is an alternative to Rumhoney Road. You could always go underground.
When Aglabendis was trying to turn the cities into gravel, it sent out its roots throughout the world. Each root was wide enough for a grizzly bear to travel through it. (This is how a stationary tree conducts ambushes.) Those root tunnels persist, and the Rotsmen sometimes travel through them.
Compared to the above-ground, the root tunnels are somewhat safer. Or at least, they are more consistent, compared to the strange seasons of the mushrooms, or the pulses of rot that sweep the bacterial prairies.
It is sometimes difficult to find the entrance to the root tunnels, even for experienced Rotsmen. And it is easy to get lost once you are within them. There’s a lot of terrible things down there—the ruins of the druids’ machinations, unquiet hives, jelly nests, restless spirits and all sorts of things that go bump in the dark.
From border to border, the Great Rot is filled with oozes. There are far too many to kill. Rotsmen often joke that as soon as you leave one behind you’ll come across another. It is absolutely true. Oozes, jellies, and slimes of all kind thrive within the Great Rot. On days when the visibility is good, a traveler can stand on a hilltop and see dozens or hundreds of glistening gobs of color, squirming down below them, like watching traffic lights change from your hotel room balcony.
Surviving in this land of oozes depends on (a) not attracting their attention, and (b) not lingering in one place once you have it. Since oozes are attracted by smells and vibrations, travelers are advised to carry as few rations as possible and walk lightly. Rotsmen are experienced with oozes, and can confidently walk past them, just outside of pseudopod range. Or at least they can when an ooze is busy eating a mushroom instead of just drying itself out atop of one (and it takes years of practice to tell the difference).
There is much else to fear in the Great Rot, but the Rotsmen themselves tell fearsome tales of the dead hands of the October King, and death through a litany of scratches.