The Summer Heroes
The Aljudha Desert stretches across the broad and empty heart of Orem, bordered to the west by the Alia Kara’Vesh Mountains, to the north by the great Orem plain, to the east by the Röl River, and to the south by the Great Rainforest. It is, as deserts are wont to be, largely featureless, with one significant exception.
Just south of the Aldjudha’s center is the great sand sea, the Oeroxea. Colored like pale gold, the sand of the Oeroxea is so fine that it feels like a thick, silky fluid, and it moves just as the water moves in the sea—through waves and currents, deep pools and crashing breakers. Other than its obvious physical eccentricities, the defining characteristic of the Oeroxea is its unpredictable effect on magic. For unknown reasons, all magic performed in the Oeroxea, whether divine or arcane, is wildly uncontrollable. These effects are milder on the coasts and become increasingly severe as one travels toward the sea’s center. In the milder regions, the result is simply that spells have a tendency to go benignly awry, but on the open sea, even the greatest wielders of magic cannot use their most minor powers without tremendous risk.
Cultures and Peoples
The desert’s perimeter has always been sparsely populated, but the bulk of the region is home only to scattered tribes of nomads and the occasional bandit caravan. Almost no permanent settlements exist more than a day’s travel from the perimeter. The exception to this rule is Sunhaven, a small community founded by followers of Tohilai on an island of sandstone in the Oeroxea.
A number of nomadic tribes also make their home in the Aljudha as smugglers, traders, and bandits. In the century and a half since the sacking of Soren, most of these tribes have become united under a charismatic leader known as Toma the Sandlord. Toma’s forces include almost all of the Aljudha’s human and elven tribes as well as several groups of jinn, ifrits, and even a number of sphinxes. Notably absent from Toma’s followers are the Aljudhan gnomes, who have remained steadfastly independent from central authorities.
Harsh, sparsely populated regions being a low priority for those with imperial ambitions, the Aljudha has never been conquered or ruled by an outside force, whether from the north or the south, and so it remained in a steady state of political fragmentation until Toma’s rise. For much of the Aldjudha’s history, however, and particularly at the height of the Sorian Empire, trade routes across the desert between Astir and Darrova flourished. Nomadic tribes would raid the trade caravans with some regularity, but the impact of this routine harassment on such a massive flow of trade was minimal. And when, on occasion, one tribe or another would become powerful enough to seriously impede traffic, traders would simply divert themselves around the desert’s perimeter until the tribe’s power had been sufficiently asphyxiated.
Following the collapse of the Empire, however, cross-continental trade underwent significant upheaval. The post-Imperial fragmentation of control over the desert’s perimeter routes led to an explosion of new entities willing and able to charge for the use of their small section of road. Combined with the withdrawal of Sorian authority, this vast increase in profitability drove crime and violence ever higher. The desert’s perimeter quickly became a dense gauntlet of territorial battles, banditry, and protection rackets, and most traders avoided it if they could.
In recent decades, two groups have harnessed these perimeter routes such that the bulk of cross-continental trade must pass through their hands: the Zamet Strani, a crime family based in Astir, and the Five-Flagged Fleet, a syndicate believed to have ties to the Harbormasters’ Guild in Darrova. Powerful though they may be, these groups simply cannot match the volume of trade that existed under Sorian rule. Furthermore, the perimeter routes remain expensive, particularly for higher-risk cargoes. This has created space for the rise of Toma the Sandlord and other, smaller-scale smugglers and black-market traders.