TRAVELLING THE GREAT WALL

When compared with the bleak blue sands of the Interior, the Great Wall of Vaarn presents an entirely different challenge to those who seek to traverse it. Where the Interior is arid and dry, the recesses of the Wall abound with moisture: ceilings sweating with rivulets of ikor, moss growing on all surfaces, inverted forests of hanging vines and dripping creepers choking the passageways, slender trees reaching for the red light of the sun. Where the Interior is flat and without boundaries, the rolling blue dunes extending to greet every horizon, the Wall is towering and claustrophobically cramped, a titanic decaying wreck whose internal geometry is starved of all logic and whose canted service-ways and ventilation tunnels form a labyrinth that extends from the shadowed base ten leagues into the airless heights. To travel such a landscape is no small feat. The skiffs and wind-barges that sail the blue ergs of the Interior are no use here; the wallborn make use of different craft.

Needle Ships

Although the exact purpose of the Wall is debatable, it seems certain that one of its functions was providing supercoolant to the Titan AIs’ general-syntax drivers. To this end the structure extracts gallons of seawater from the Sea of Songs each hour, transporting the water through enormous artificial arteries to processing nodes, where the water is subjected to arcane alchemical techniques that produce sacred ikor, the blood of the machine gods. This network of conduits and nodes still functions, although it has been damaged over the millennia, and the maze of 3D waterways has long been used by the citizens of the Wall for transportation.

Needle Ships are submarines, named for their long, slender shape and piercing prows. These craft sail inside the great arteries that carry seawater and ikor through the Wall, surfacing in ‘harbours’ that have been carved into the Wall’s conduits. Needle Ships have sailed the Wall for centuries, and are a time-honored method of trade, migration, and communication inside the superstructure.

To be a Needlesman takes no small degree of courage. You must crew your ship through gruelling, days-long dives through an airless, lightless labyrinth of pipes, navigating with sonar and prayers, using your grapple-anchor to dock at harbours, using your sharpened ram to breach blockages in the stream, the roil of the ikor turning your ship upside down. The flow of fluids through the Wall is uni-directional, so missing a turning requires an agonising, fuel-burning push against the current in order to regain course.

To be a Navigator is to train for years, memorising the three-dimensional maps of the Wall’s waterways until you can see them in dreams, and even this is not enough to prevent capable crews losing their way, if a pipe has sprung a new breach or a new blockage has formed.Small wonder that Needle Ship crews form intense camaraderie, and are known for their courage and their lunacy in equal measure. Theirs is a hard-won art, and a Needle Ship with a skilled Navigator is able to reach locales within the Wall faster than any other mode of transport.

The major disadvantage of travelling by Needle Ship is that one is forced to move with the local current, rather than against it, and that sailing to a region that does not already have a harbour is challenging. One must either hope there is a suitable pre-existing breach in the conduit, or hire a Needle Ship with breaching capacity, usually consisting of a specialised docking rig with drills capable of penetrating Titan-era ferrosteel. Naturally the crews of such craft do not work for cheap.

Beetles of Burden

Sargattean pack-beetles are amongst the Narrow City’s most prestigious exports, and are famed throughout Vaarn for their obedience and loyalty. As large and strong as an ox, pack-beetles are quite capable of climbing sheer surfaces while carrying both a rider and a substantial quantity of baggage, making the creatures far superior to mules or horses for exploring the vertiginous inner regions of the Wall. They are docile herbivores, easily pleased by the promise of honeyed apples and other sugared treats.

Pack-beetles are ubiquitous amongst the wallborn, with the exception of the Ostrielese, who disdain beetle husbandry not for any practical reason but because it is a Sargattean habit. The beetles have only one drawback: they are the favourite food of many of the Wall’s vicious predators, including winged centipedes, glider-spiders, and goliath geckos. Parties who travel in the company of pack-beetles must be extremely wary, especially as they traverse the hanging jungles that house many of these predators.

For those who seek added security, Sargattean beetle chevaliers may be hired for a daily rate. These mahouts are trained in the handling of vicious Sargattean war-beetles. Unlike the docile and defenceless pack-beetle, a war-beetle is bred for violence. They vary in size, from the hound-sized ‘jadejackets’ that are used to guard Sargattean estates, to the colossal Myrmidon Beetle, a rust-hued butcher with a pincher-grip that can shear an armoured warrior in two. Such merciless creatures are more than capable of holding their own against the denizens of the Wall’s jungle.

Zeppelins

Ornithopter technology was not widespread prior to the re-emergence of the true-kin and the establishment of the New Hegemony. For generations of wallborn, heavier-than-air flying machines were considered a curious myth. Airships, filled with the gas generated as a by-product of ikor refineries, were the preferred method of travelling the exterior regions of the Great Wall.

Airship production is a mature technology upon the Wall, and the heavily armed zeppelin armadas maintained by the rival cities are formidable in design. A single Ostrielese war-balloon, crewed by air hussars and a flock of Harpies, can easily subjugate a rebellious town or plantation. Civilian model zeppelins carry traders from the Wall to destinations as far-flung as Gnomon, the Freekeeps of the Mooncradle Mountains, and even the northern foothills of the Lazul mountain range, the ashen edge of Golgotha. Perhaps most beautiful are the gilded house-balloons that are operated by the itinerant wind-peoples of the upper Wall, who are born and die aboard the ornate wooden gondolas of their ancestral airships.

Although perhaps less nail-biting than the voyages of Needle Ships, travel across the Wall by zeppelin is not without hazards. One is of course at the mercy of the winds, which blow with equal ardor from the ocean and the desert. Many an airship has been dashed against the imposing blankness of the Wall, and lost along with all hands. There is also the threat of ogre hawks, the colossal predatory birds that haunt the Wall’s exteriors and are quite capable of attacking a zeppelin in flight. Airmen tell harrowing tales of their close encounters with these birds, as well as even stranger stories of the monsters that are said to lurk in the utmost reaches of the Wall, the spires that brush the skirts of Urth’s stratosphere. Rumours abound concerning the drinkers of sable ikor, reclusive synthetic life-forms that inhabit the Wall’s frozen pinnacles and toil there for unknown purposes, who do not suffer witnesses to their rituals to live.

Climbing

Last but not least, the cheapest (and therefore most common) method of traversing the Great Wall is on foot, with a climbing axe, coils of rope, and a hammock-tent that may be hung from any suitable pair of protrusions. The Wall has existed for millennia, and common climbing routes between settlements are well-established, their handholds worn smooth by generations of questing digits, their dizzying gaps bridged by venerable bridges of wood and dried vine. Way-stations exist to refresh the weary traveller, and patrols of Sargattean or Ostrielese soldiers keep the route clear of bandits and roving monsters. This is not to say such journeys are without risk: the interiors of the Great Wall were never intended for human habitation, and we exist within its indifferent bulk like rodents that nest within the eaves of a dilapidated house. Even the ‘safe’ routes through the Wall are marred by narrow squeezes; exhausting vertical scrambles; monotonous trudges through echoing ventilation ducts, each larger than a cathedral; and prayer-inducing jaunts across chasms so deep that men are said to die of thirst while falling before they hit the ground.

This is to mention nothing of the ‘weeps’, both of seawater and pale ikor, that burst from the Wall’s structures at unpredictable intervals and rush forth in torrential outpourings that can last for minutes or days. The danger to the climber can hardly be overstated: flash flooding can transform an already treacherous route across an unstable gantry into an impossible task; can sweep travellers from their feet and dash them against the unforgiving ferrosteel or else fling them screaming into the abyss; can fill the Wall’s inner cavities with water and drown whole troupes of climbers. If one is especially unlucky, a weep of seawater may contain living beings that were extracted from the Sea of Songs along with their habitat; the agitation of such creatures when they are deposited into an unfamiliar world is considerable. There can be few more bitter ironies than being mauled to death by a horned shark ten leagues above sea level.

To venture off-route is more dangerous still, for the landscape is by definition unmapped and the climber can rely only on their wits, their strength, and their ability to endure disappointments and hardships. Forging a new path through the decaying superstructure of the Wall is a high-mortality occupation, between the treacherous terrain underfoot, the weeps that emanate from unknown spouts and fissures, and the carnivorous fauna and flora that roost within the Great Wall and are quite at home hunting amongst the wind-swept labyrinths that seem to vault the very ceilings of the Urth. To trailblaze in the Great Wall is a job for the reckless or the mad, but those who can find a quicker climb between two trading ports, or locate a new gap through the Wall in which an airship toll can be erected, can find themselves overwhelmed by accolades and riches. The Great Wall has stood for countless lifetimes, and there are surely forgotten prizes of great value hidden amongst the endless dripping vines and mould-speckled tunnels. A worthy destination, no doubt, for restless vault-raiders.


Beetle Stats

Pack Beetle (Biological)
HD 1, Armour 18, Morale 1, Appearing d10
Attack: Butt (d4)

Jadejacket Guard-Beetle (Biological)
HD 2, Armour 18, Morale 3, Appearing d8
Attack: Pincers (d8)

Myrmidon Beetle (Biological)
HD 6, Armour 22, Morale 8, Appearing 1
Attack: Crushing Pincers (d12), followed by Shear (Special)
Shear: When the Myrmidon Beetle grabs a foe in its pincers, after rolling damage the Beetle can declare a Shear. If the Beetle rolls higher than the grabbed target’s Armour Defense, they are sheared in half and killed with no save possible. If the Beetle fails the Shear, it takes damage equal to the number shown on the D20.


This post originally appeared in January on the Vaults of Vaarn Patreon page. Consider subscribing if you’d like to get early access to posts like this one, download Patron-exclusive PDF dungeons, and get previews of the Vaults of Vaarn zine before each issue is released. My Patrons also help support the creation of the setting.

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