In the foothills of the Seressian Mountains, there lies a valley that has seen too much death, too much struggle: A grim place where eroded gullies meander among blasted fields of withered scrub growth; a land where fragments of bone and shattered weapons litter the ground; a cursed valley where even the peace of the grave is denied its victims.
This is Bleak Vale: The Field of Ten Thousand Skulls.
Clutch Elder Ssithiliss tied the reins of her canthysaur to one of the ancient forest's gnarled trees, for it would be foolish to let the injured beast wander. The agony of a dozen wounds filled her as she inspected her battered reptile's rough hide, yet she was fortunate: All around her, the corpses of her people's enemies lay heaped in death. Entire tribes of the hideous mammals sprawled upon the field of slaughter, their dead eyes staring at nothingness, their battle fury stilled forever.
The Gate to the Mountains
Betwixt the dominions of the Hegemon and the Land of the Free Cities, few routes offer easy passage. A land of rugged mountains and swift rivers, the handful of passes that allow easy access to the rich mines of the Seressian Mountains and clear routes to the Lachulian Sea have been the object of countless grim battles. The worst and most brutal of these fights have invariably revolved over control of one ill-omened valley: Bleak Vale.
Since men first walked in the shadows of the forest, every generation has seen battle and death within this infamous valley: Decadent reptilian empires struggled here before the coming of the warm races; ancient tribes armed with stone-tipped spears battled over what they called the Strath Blaosca (The Valley of Skulls); the High Kings of Tir Earrach chose this place to oppose the mighty Legions of the Empire; even the relentless fighting of the Koblyn wars somehow found Bleak Vale.
The Bard Lonán found the remains of his war band, tired and beaten, hidden within the shade of the valley's ancient groves. "Warriors of Clan Abelmair, the Lowland Clans would steal our women and cattle! They would seize our children as slaves! Rise up and fight again! We must make a stand! Even if we must all die, we must stop them!"
Rising wearily, the warriors answered the bard's call, their eyes filled with the resignation of the doomed. The clan's last stand was a battle worthy of the sagas.
The Torn Land
Long centuries ago, the land now known as Bleak Vale was part of a mighty forest. Before the coming of humanity, ancient races fought for survival in the midst of timeless oaks.
Over the millennia, the unceasing warfare that claimed the place gradually took its toll. Ancient trees fell to fire and gruesome enchantments of death and pestilence. The once-abundant game vanished. Erosion carried off the forest's fertile soil, leaving winding gullies and patchy scrub growth behind.
The residue of scores or hundreds of battles litters the land. Ancient bones and fragments of shattered weapons are seen everywhere, exhumed by wind and weather. The scars of strange battle enchantments can be observed on half-melted stone and poisoned soil. Here and there, the skeletons of bizarre monstrosities or shattered devices of war can be found, some dating back thousands of years. The earth itself is discolored with the blood of thousands of deaths.
The small river that winds along the valley's heart no longer bears life; instead, it is a foul-smelling morass of mud, red with eroded soil. Clear and lovely before it comes to this fell place, where it leaves the valley, it is contaminated and dead.
Few animals visit this accursed place. Harsh-voiced birds and scavenger beasts occasionally appear, but most creatures instinctively avoid the grim valley. The most common living things found within are clumsy black beetles, foul-smelling vermin that bear ominous eye spots on their carapaces. While they generally remain hidden during the day, thousands of the noxious beetles can be heard creeping about each night, endless hordes of tiny insects scuttling in the darkness.
A relentless barrage of arrows and javelins plummeted down on the Gryphon Knights as they huddled around Count Grallor's banner, shields locked tight against the deadly rain. Many of the horses had gone down, but most of the knights had survived the initial assault. The heavily-armored men watched as hordes of Koblyn raiders descended upon the wagons they had been escorting, lusting after the loot within. All happened as the divinations of the Count had predicted: Hundreds of misshapen creatures surrounded the wagons, squabbling over their precious cargo.
Before entering the valley, Count Grallor had bound the fire spirit Galvisharush to his will; he now uttered the rune of command. A massive sheet of flame engulfed the enemy, as the potent spirit unleashed its power on the oil that the Count's men had spilled around the wagons. Agonized shrieks filled the air as the enemy's high-pitched voices screeched their dying terror.
Visions of the Restless Dead
An oppressive sense of doom and despair fills the accursed valley. The scattered bones and rusted armor of generations of warriors litter the ground, crunching underfoot and rattling in the wind. The memories of ancient battles haunt many of these items: Those picking up these shattered remnants may be briefly touched by the memories of the dead, shaken by vistas of forgotten battles or filled with stabbing agony as they relive an ancient death blow.
Few are able to rest within the Vale of 10,000 Skulls. Those attempting to sleep in this death-haunted place suffer horrifying visions of death and suffering, nightmares of dying slowly, impaled by primitive spears, or helplessly watching as vultures eagerly tear at their exposed entrails.
The Dead of the Valley
Throngs of restless dead haunt the valley, and few travelers pass through it without encountering the uncanny spirits that linger there. Strangely, these spirits are seldom encountered when the armies of hostile powers gather here: It is as if the spirit of the place holds its breath, waiting for another crop of slaughter to grow ripe and be harvested.
Some of these spirits are lethal opponents, creatures of frenzied battle. Others are strangely helpful or eerily touching, spirits of sorrow or pathos. In some ways, the nature of the traveler determines what sort of undead are roused at his presence: Those armed for battle will often face grim spirits of carnage, while less bellicose travelers seem less interesting to the valley's warlike undead.
The Tree of Shields
One of the more commonly encountered spectres within the valley is that of a grizzled centurion, Septimus. He sits quietly at the base of a gnarled and ancient oak, from which hang dozens of shields. These range from the wicker and hide protections of ancient tribesmen to ornately-worked bucklers still in common use. Septimus gestures to passerby, encouraging them to place a shield upon the tree and thus win the approval of his ancient war gods. Those leaving their shield upon the tree receive a dark blessing from these half-forgotten gods: While in the valley, they may draw upon a battle fury, striking with more strength and power, but are also more vulnerable to strikes from their enemies.
Those attempting to seize one of the tree's shields discover that many of the shields' forgotten owners still haunt this place; these warriors will rise to offer battle to those who steal their offerings.
The Warriors of the Clans
Victims of ancient tribal battles, these wool-clad barbarians sometimes appear to offer their challenge to warriors that enter the haunted valley. Flesh pale with death, their faces painted with blue woad and rusty blood, their hair white with lime, they are a vision both gruesome and terrifying.
When they first appear, their leader, the bard Lonán, will chant his challenge, as was the custom of his ancient people. Those who fail to respond appropriately, proving their friendship with the ancient mountain clans, will be attacked by his host of wrathful undead.
In the twilight, a frightening apparition sometimes thunders across the broken ground: A chariot of antique design, its horses are spattered with clotted blood, and blood and gore splash freely from the railing running around it. Golmus, the chariot's driver, is a massive figure clad in the armor of millennia earlier. His nightmarish visage appears to have been flayed, with flesh hanging in bloody ribbons from his chin. From each joint in his armor, blood oozes in an endless stream as he mercilessly lashes his ghostly team.
This figure of battle fury often seems unaware of those around him, but those attacking the terrible apparition may be in for the fight of their lives, as he draws a bow of awesome strength and sends lethal bronze-tipped arrows at his foes. If pressed, he is equally skilled with his brazen short sword.
These unfortunate undead are the spirits of a lost legion of children, children of political foes marched into this terrible place by one of the deranged emperors in the old Empire's death throes. They can be seen marching at twilight, mute and white-faced spectres of innocents, their pale features filled with horror as unseen foes cut them down.
The Night Hunters
Occasionally, travelers in the valley discover the remains of unfortunates who lingered too long in the valley, for after nightfall, an even more dangerous haunting occasionally appears. Blackened and scorched horrors that reek of burnt flesh, these stealthy undead are the remains of a tribe of goblin-kin, creatures of nightmare spoken of as night hunters. Fast and silent, these small humanoids stalk in the darkness, preferring to strike from surprise, slitting throats and garroting any who resemble the foes of their tribe.
Numerous other ghosts and visions haunt the valley. While they may be frightening, these other spectres seldom do more than accost travelers in archaic tongues. When the mists of evening fill the valley, visions of ancient battles can be made out, with legions of phantoms fighting and dying there. It is as if the valley itself longs for battle and replays its ancient struggles endlessly.
Despite the numerous undead haunting the valley, not every danger within the valley is undead. A handful of people dwell near the accursed place, strangely gifted folk of gypsy descent, yet reserved, callous and cruel. These people visit the strange valley to sift through the debris of ages, seeking treasures and relics buried by the dust of centuries. Many of these odd folk carry the gypsy gift of second sight, yet they use it for little more that determining which items can be safely taken from among the weapons and gear that litter the valley. Although many of them can sense when the valley's undead are restless and likely to manifest, they seldom share this information with strangers, instead letting them march on to their doom.
After all, once they're dead, their gear will be free for the taking
The Fane of Carnage
At the heart of the blasted valley is a strange sight. Massive slabs of bare stone loom up near the fouled stream, forming a natural amphitheatre. Within, the stains of bloody sacrifice cover an altar of rough stone.
Never built by human hands, this shrine is a bloodstained temple to antediluvian spirits of war and slaughter. The stones nearby have crudely scratched pictures of battle and carnage: Warriors hip deep in fallen foemen, pitched battles, and demonic figures striking down armored knights all appear in this sinister place.
Within this hall of warfare and slaughter, the spirits of the place are almost palpable: Things of battle and carnage, they long to seize the will of the living. Those stepping within can feel the power of bloodlust: The rage of battle pressing at their minds, like a living thing seeking entrance.
Within this ancient fane lie many treasures, sacrifices and tribute brought here over the ages, offerings to the grim spirits of massacre that rule this place. Hidden carefully beneath slabs of stone and deposited in secret chambers in the living rock itself, some of these treasures have remained here for thousands of years. Many of these items are dedicated to the grim gods of the place: Weapons and armor engraved with ancient runes of battle rage and bloodlust. Other items are rare treasures gathered as the spoils of victory: Rare jewels and treasures long thought lost, forgotten works of magic and artistry.
Those who seek to loot this grim place discover that these treasures are not unguarded: Ssithiliss, an ancient champion of the Serpent Folk, still haunts the temple, and will be summoned as its defender.
Ssithiliss is a figure of stark horror, an emaciated, skeletal form with bits of dried flesh clinging to its mummified limbs, a looming menace mounted upon an undead saurian monstrosity nearly thirty feet long from head to tail. Looming nearly fifteen feet above the ground, cold flame dances in the empty eye sockets of the mummified reptile. Astride its monstrous steed, the undead guardian urges the lethal creature to leap upon and rend all who would desecrate the temple.
Whether the ancient guardian emerges victorious or falls beneath invaders’ swords, the ancient spirits of battle will be pleased.
I would like to thank everyone who offered suggestions about this place, especially Manfred and Murometz, who contributed several evocative ideas.