As Torugan of the Grey People stalked through the forest’s shadowed depths, he could sense the jungle’s vibrant life all around him, enveloping him in its wary embrace. One not native to this harsh land would find the forest hostile, even lethal, but Torugan knew its hazards; the way of his primitive people was to honor the jungle’s powerful spirits, and avoid the spirit beasts that could not be placated.
Soon he would reach the village of his intended bride; he knew that he must look his best. Using one of the forest’s pools as a mirror, he paused to smear more of the shaman’s bright grey paste over his bark-like flesh and check to be sure that his hair was properly spiked. His beloved would never be able to resist such a handsome hunter as he!
Few have entered the bizarre and lethal jungles of the Kwan-Zhanalin peninsula and returned to share their tales with the men of the civilized lands. A few weeks’ voyage across the stormy Sea of Ul Pharoe, this hell of lethal plants, deadly disease, and monstrosities from a forgotten time guards the secrets of an empire that fell before men ever touched its hostile shores.
The Lay of the Land
Forbidding mountain ranges form steep cliffs and impassible ravines that cut off the peninsula of Kwan-Zhanalin from the rest of the continent. A branch of this rugged mountain chain thrusts out near the far coast of the peninsula, forming much of the land into a massive river valley. The prevailing winds from the sea ensure that rain is a constant reality in this humid valley.
Near the swampy coastal plain, the jungles are characterized by impassibly dense undergrowth. Massive tufts of resilient grasses reach as high as ten feet; their tough leaves scrape and cut the flesh of any unfortunates that become entangled in their hardy growth. Strange vines called Bhan are sometimes harvested by the tribesmen for their narcotic properties; even the vine’s tiny violet flowers can be dangerous, exuding a soporific scent that can lull those smelling the fresh blooms into a drugged slumber.
The streams and rivers of the jungle are natural highways for those villagers that dare the journey into the interior. The plant and insect life near these waterways is the most vigorous in the jungle, making it difficult to keep trails near the rivers and lakes cleared for more than a few days.
Within the depths of the jungle, the underbrush clears out considerably, as the giant trees of the forest block out almost all light. Bizarre fungi unlike anything seen in other lands thrive in the forest’s stifling, moist heat. Massive shelf fungi encrust many of the older trees, and tall thickets of strange branching fungal growths that resemble corals or sponges proliferate, glowing with disturbing phosphorescence. Many of these strange fungi are edible, yet others are so toxic that the jungle’s tribesmen distill a potent venom from them.
The Villages of the Coast
The coastline of Kwan-Zhanalin is home to numerous independent villages of traders, slavers, and pirates. This patchwork of competing trading posts and colonies, tribal villages, and pirate dens makes the politics of the coastal lands a chaotic free-for-all. Never completely dominated by any one of the neighboring civilizations, each of these small towns is fiercely competitive, acting in concert only when invaded by stronger powers. In the absence of an outside threat, they engage in constant raids, alliances, betrayals, and brushfire wars, playing one foe against another in an amoral frenzy of Machiavellian double-dealing. The troops of the great powers across the sea consider being posted to the trading towns of the peninsula a punishment for the most disliked and inept among their number, as disease, treachery, and the hazards of the jungle exact a steep toll.
Tribesmen of the Green Death
Several different tribal cultures hide within the depths of the jungle. The one most commonly encountered are the “Grey People”, who cover their umber-toned skin with a paste that causes it to grow rigid excrescences that resemble horn or stiff bark. This layer of resilient material armors them against the biting insects of the jungle and other hazards. To most foreign viewers, their appearance is quite horrific, an effect that is not improved by their tendency to lime their hair and paint themselves with layers of their greyish paste.
Less commonly encountered are the reclusive reptile folk of the jungle. These lizard-like creatures are not often friendly toward other creatures they encounter. They are quite advanced for their species, flinging lethal javelins from cunningly placed ambushes. Many of these reptilian folk are armored in the hides of the massive saurian beasts found in the heart of the jungle. Those able to overcome the reptile folk’s hostility and befriend the cold-blooded creatures may discover that they consider themselves the true masters of the valley, heirs of the ancient civilization that once ruled this land. Their lore hides great secrets of the jungle’s ancient history.
Curses of the Shamans
Foreign visitors to the peninsula often fall ill of strange maladies, fluxes and fevers that defy the best efforts of the healers. In the lore of the local traders, these illnesses are often sendings from the hostile shamans of the interior tribes, who often send forth invisible spirits to plague the coastal folk. These invisible spirits stalk those who have penetrated the forests or have taken items from the tribal lands without giving tribute to the shamans. The most dreaded is the “Bone Man”, a revolting curse that causes the victim’s flesh to literally slide off of his skeleton over the course of a few weeks. The horrified victim of the curse suffers agony as his body rips itself apart, starting with the hands and feet. The tribal shamans themselves claim that the victim is actually wrapped within the coils of a hideous, tentacled monstrosity, an aberration that mystically sucks away the body’s ability to hold itself together.
Another malady inflicted by the wrathful shamans is the curse of the “Southern Ague”, which lays men low with fever and delirium. In the depths of the fever, the victims have sometimes reported being able to see the foul spirits tormenting them as they flit around their bodies like vile, twisted wasps with innumerable legs. A tribal medicine made from the powdered horn of the Compall Fowle mixed with the ground roots of a common local tree can repel these tormenting spirits, ameliorating the symptoms and sparing the victim from the lethal fever.
Spirits of Walking Thunder
Many bizarre creatures haunt the Kwan-Zhanalin jungle. The most fearsome denizens are draconic creatures that the tribesmen call “Qweserich o Daach Vaah”, the Spirits of Walking Thunder. These massive saurians may loom over 22 feet tall, hunting through the jungle on their rear legs. Their massive jaw is easily able to bite a man in half. Multiple ridges of spines run down their backs, with flesh stretched between the spines used to help the creature regulate its internal temperature. The acute senses of these massive beasts allow them to smell spilled blood from over 1/2 mile away; although they are fearsome predators, they prefer to scavenge, “running off” lesser predators so that they can devour their kill. The trumpeting roar of these creatures can be heard for miles through the forest, chilling the blood of any who hear. The tribesmen consider these creatures gods, and avoid them whenever possible. They keep massive horns within their villages, which they blow whenever one of their carnivorous “gods” is sighted. The horns emit a gut-twisting blast of deep sound that seems to discourage marauding “gods” from devouring their terrified worshippers.
Although they are more easily overlooked, the lesser predators found in the jungle can also pose a hazard. The jungle tribes consider the ground-dwelling birds known as Compall Fowle to be sacred, and only allow hunters chosen by the tribal shamans to slay them. Strangers carelessly killing the fowle may discover that entire tribes are prepared to punish them for their arrogance. In areas close to the trade villages of the coast, these birds are very rare, as they have been overhunted by tribesmen seeking their crests, but away from the coast, massive flocks of these aggressive fowl may be encountered.
Even the herbivores of the jungle can be formidable. As well as the relatively minor creatures that dwell there, such as wild pigs, monkeys, goats, tunneling sloth, and the like, the jungle is home to the formidable “Fire Kine”, foul tempered brutes known for their incendiary breath weapon.
Dwellers in the Canopy
Deep within the jungle, the trees hide a deadly threat within their leafy canopies. Even legend speaks little of the dreaded leaping spiders, massive hunting predators the size of horses. Unnaturally fast, these solitary creatures leap down from high above, ambushing their prey and striking with their deadly poison. They appear to be gaudy creatures, their grey bodies adorned with bright splotches of bright green and yellow, but their colors blend well with the foliage that they hide in, enabling them to hide with surprising efficiency. While they normally prey on the deer, wild pigs, and other creatures found in the jungle, they will readily attack other creatures of similar size.
Secrets Beneath the Earth
Under the muddy ground of the jungle, massive wormlike creatures tunnel and delve. Known to the tribesmen as “Wath Almat”, the Soul Eaters, these massive abominations slowly bore through the depths, occasionally surfacing for reasons known only to them. The alien secretions of these creatures keep their tunnels sealed against the omnipresent water found in the jungle, as they explore far beneath the surface of the soil. The “Soul Eaters” are known to devour those that they encounter in their travels, grasping them with rows of massive twitching tendrils that project along either flank and then engulfing them whole. The tunnels of these behemoths tend to lead to ancient sites hidden beneath the jungle’s floor. Some few rash souls that have dared explore the hidden tunnels of these giant creatures have reported strange and alien patterns to their delving. Supposedly, they are drawn to subterranean ruins of immeasurable age, bizarre labyrinths excavated by the great worms’ tireless tunneling. These primordial ruins of black basalt conform to no architectural pattern ever devised by man; they seemingly should collapse, yet they remain solid.
Lore of the Ancients
Hidden deep within the jungle are strange ruins, often mysteriously clear of plants and vines after millennia of neglect. Spacious courtyards are flanked by stepped pyramids, topped by grim altars of sacrifice. Empty arenas remain as legacies of bizarre ritual games, storage rooms stand ready to serve their absent masters’ needs, and their workshops wait for inhuman craftsmen to return to their work tables of carven stone. The tribes of the jungles avoid these eerie places, believing them to be haunted by the “Saak Veleiss”, the “People of the Snake”. These legendary creatures were masters of an ancient civilization that dominated the region, bending all nature to their inhuman whims. The tribal shamans tell how their wickedness drove them to challenge the gods themselves and they were destroyed for their hubris. Whatever became of these ancient creatures, the strange magics they devised to protect their cities still remain, preventing the jungle from reclaiming the ruins and sheltering the stones’ delicate carvings of serpents and alien gods from time’s vagaries. Strange lights and sounds occasionally echo forth through the empty streets, giving mute testimony to the tribes’ belief that the People of the Snake left more potent guardians hidden within the ruins of their homes, guardians that horribly slay those who dare to intrude in their ancient domain.