Throughout untold centuries, travelers have felt themselves inexplicably drawn into the old bog-lands east of the Arnathian forest. Villagers living close to the bog watch these fools as they march off to their doom. Their warnings have ever fallen upon deaf ears. So they watch and shake their collective heads, wondering what manner of demon could possess the otherwise sane to be so foolish. None who venture in ever return.
I'm not sure why Gareth got it into his head that we'd find loot in that infernal bog. He would only mumble about some voice in his dreams and go on about riches untold locked away for millennia. If I'd known how treacherous those damn wetlands would be, I'd've walked away, plain and simple. But Gareth had never led us wrong before and we all trusted him. Maybe if I'd had the guts to question him, Selyena wouldn't have been gutted by whatever that monstrous fish thing was. And maybe Hrothma wouldn't have died his silent death, sucked beneath by some gigantic serpent before we could even blink.
Certainly Gothrawk and I considered ourselves lucky when we stepped free of the muck and onto that endless, grassy plain. What Gareth felt, I do not know. He was still hell bent on his arrow straight course. His eyes had gone all glassy and he barely responded to anything we said. I think now that I would have been better off heading back into that godawful swampland and letting its denizens have done with me. At least they just wanted to eat.
We must've spent a couple days wandering through those mist-shrouded hills. The grass looked like it had never once seen the boots of man upon it, and yet Gareth wouldn't shut up about the grand city we were heading toward. I never saw any hint of a city. Just rolling, grassy hills, permanently covered in deep fog. The air was muffled and still. Occasionally a breeze would brush past and send the fog whirling, but it never exposed anything new. And that fog was creepy. I swear I felt cold fingers brushing against my cheek and neck every time that breeze would blow by.
The end, such as it is, came quick for us all. We reached a particularly tall knoll and Gareth stopped, saying he'd found it and now we were going to be incredibly rich. He just knelt down on the ground and began pushing dirt away with his mailed hands, like he'd found the "X" on whatever map he'd dreamed up. Then, several somethings reared up on all sides of us. I say "something" because I never quite saw them in any detail. They loomed over us, each of them mist-cloaked and at least ten feet tall. And then we were down. I distinctly remember Gareth's head sliced apart with one swipe of a clawed hand, while his body fell soundlessly onto the soft green grass.
The next thing I knew I was floating in the mists, watching green tendrils rise from the dirt, wrap around my bleeding and battered body beneath me, and suck it straight down out of sight. And now I am but one of many; one of many lost souls who blundered their way here and are now nothing but shades in the mist.
Before the rending of the world, millennia gone by, there existed a grand, continent-spanning empire. At the center of the empire was a city that outshone all other cities. It was a center of art, culture, and libraries without parallel. It was the capital city of the empire and home to the emperor and his council of wizards. The city itself is gone, banished to Hell, with no visible remaining trace. Only grassy, fog-covered hills. The empire it once ruled over has been literally torn asunder into a number pocket realms floating through the ether. The one remaining link to that old city is long buried, lost among many square miles of grassy mounds.
Occasionally, a magical force makes its way through that last link, bearing a message that floats upon the air until it reaches a mortal mind. A deep suggestion is planted in that mind, a vision of untold riches, of treasures lost to time. Few have the willpower to question the thoughts, much less resist its drive. And each meets a similar fate, slain either in the bogs or upon the grassy plains.
The Empire and The Tower
Back in the days of this lost empire, successive emperors relied upon the wisdom of the wizard council. Each wizard was very powerful, having attained at least a century of mastery over the magical elements. Mastery enough to greatly extend their lives and keep the long view of the empire throughout the ages. With their guidance, the empire became quite large, spanning thousands of miles of lands, seas, forests, mountains, jungles, deserts, and all manner of races and cultures. None could stand before its awesome might and force of will.
In order to maintain control over such a large domain, the wizards built a great, dimension-spanning tower of varicolored crystal to act as a gateway between the distant lands. To tie the tower to each location, the wizards unwisely used a demon dimension as the thread. The inside of the tower was built, and lives still, inside this demon dimension. The tower has many outsides, each existing in its destination realm. There is only one tower, but it exists in many places at once, a feat which enabled the emissaries of the emperor to traverse the empire with near instantaneous speed. Yet now, with the empire no longer even a memory, the tower sits unused.
With thousands of years of confused and broken history left behind, these relics are seen as a great, unknowable mystery, impassable by any known mortal means. If any could gain the key, lost now in the original imperial city, they could unlock these crystal towers and once again tie together what has been rent asunder.
The Fate of the City and of the Empire
We stood there, the twelve of us, surrounding the fresh-drawn pentagram at the top of the highest hill in the city. At the northern edge of the hill loomed our greatest accomplishment, the Crystal Tower. Spread before us in every other direction lay the depth and breadth of our great city. We made eye contact, each with the others. This moment would top all of our other efforts. This moment would unlock powers we had only ever dreamed of. On some faces I saw pride, on others, trepidation. I think all of us felt a heady mixture of power and fear. If only we'd paid more attention to the latter!
The ritual went smoothly. We were masters of our craft, were we not? We knew how to provide the perfect inflection to each word and how to direct our hand motions to the smallest muscle twitch. No matter that we understood not a word of that foul creature's language, in which we must speak to cast the spell. All that mattered was getting the incantation correct, using the appropriate material components, and mastering the complicated hand gestures. Which we did.
And how masterfully we sealed our own fates! Not only our fates, but those of an entire city. As the last chant ended, the sky boiled over with dark clouds. Lightning of every conceivable shade and color lanced out from the sky, the rocks, everywhere, and landed against the tower. The air became hot. Too hot to breathe freely. The sky cleared of clouds, revealing a deep red glow and no sun. The distant mountains melted away and were replaced by reddish rock. I looked to my left, to Shathara Silverleaf, and I distinctly remember the look upon her face. We both realized simultaneously what was happening. Somehow, the entire city was being sucked into that demon dimension we had been playfully putting our toes in for centuries.
We could only look on in horror as hordes of demon-kin swept into the city. From our high vantage point we could clearly hear the screams of those dying below. Fires sprang up, buildings collapsed, blood ran freely, and the screams of the tortured filled our ears. We tried to help them. I swear it! But the ritual had drained each of us and we could do nothing but watch and wait for our own fates to catch up with us.
The demon king approached us, with his slow, regal gait, making a mockery of our once high stations. He pronounced our fates with a smile upon his pale, bony face. We were to be imprisoned here, in our beloved city, and watch for an eternity as it slowly crumbled into dust. He would entertain us daily with the lash and the knife, as well as make us live through a replay of that day from the perspective of the fallen. Which is worse, do you think?
Even though we have not been allowed to recover our old powers, we have been working together to finally end this miserable existence. By combining our efforts, we seek to lure outsiders to this forlorn place, to give them the key to freeing us and the tower. So far our efforts have all been frustrated. But, we do not give up. Eventually, someone will make it. If they can but find the old pentagram buried beneath that grassy mound, they will be brought to this place and we hand them our salvation: the key to the tower.
What happened to the city? And how was the physical world rendered so? The wizards fell prey to their own pride. Ever seeking to increase their knowledge of the mystical and the unseen, they made a pact with the lord of the demon realm. The wizards would enact a ritual designed by the demon king in order to grant greater power to the crystal tower. Power over the very nature of the world. This was to be the first of an exchange in knowledge. A deal with the devil which the wizards felt confident they could outmaneuver. But, despite their great knowledge and the combined power of their intellects, they could not ascertain the true nature of the ritual. The ritual did indeed grant great power to the tower, but the surge of energy generated upon its completion could not be contained by the mortal power of the wizards. Calamity struck. The entire city was sucked into the demon realm. Ten thousand souls were struck down by a waiting demon army. The city is left a ruin made of crumbling stone and scattered bones, baking beneath a fiery red sky.
The same surge which wiped the imperial city from the mortal world spread outward from each facade of the tower. Each land was ripped from its moorings and sent adrift in an endless void of the etheric realm. Thousands of years have passed and the old empire is forgotten. The peoples of the various pocket worlds long ago turned to managing their own little spaces in the cosmos. Each developed a different interpretation of the great cataclysm which ripped away all other lands, and have adapted to their tiny insular worlds.
The wizards are imprisoned by the demon king and made to suffer an eternity for their hubris. To save themselves, they use what little power they have left to draw mortals toward the location of the ritual which shattered the world. If any mortal makes it past the surrounding bog-land, through the grassy plains, past the demonic sentries, and to the buried pentagram, they will be pulled into the demon realm and onward to the imprisoned wizards. The wizards know of the key that will unlock the Crystal Tower and all of its mysteries.
One of the adventurers begins experiencing strange dreams and compulsions. He becomes convinced that he knows the location of an ancient buried treasure that will make everyone rich beyond their wildest dreams. As time goes on, he will become more and more obsessed. Alternatively, the party might be hired by an NPC who has been so affected.