Mists of Ærth
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The World in Brief
In the early days, it was known as the groundswell, that sudden and vast outpouring of thin haze from the deep recesses of the planet. It covered the surface with a second ocean, one poisonous to any creature with an ounce of human blood, taking those races by surprise and driving them into the hills, mountains and skies. In the century since, most have come to call it the Mist, and it is no longer such an unusual phenomenon.
Though the mist is poisonous only to those of human lineage, all races of the world were stricken, and life was rapidly changed for every denizen of Ærth, no matter how lowly or well-established. For the Elves, for instance, who had long been equals with Men in thought and deeds, the human migration led to a division of the race. While some journeyed to altitude with their human allies, an equal portion stayed behind in the mist, returning to the wilds of their ancestors and deserting centuries-old cities. For the Dwarves, who had maintained a friendly rivalry with Men in times of peace and been stalwart brothers-in-arms in times of war, the natural disaster brought about opportunities in the form of vacated towns near rich mineral deposits, as well as the numerous human cities and royal houses, needlessly adorned with precious metals and gems. Within a decade of the groundswell, “Dwarf” became synonymous with “scavenger,” on the surface and in the sky.
Other races—those who held a more acrimonious view of humanity—struck while the iron was hot, swarming the surface from their scattered holes and dens, filling some vacant cities and creating vacancies in populated ones. These makeshift tribes—comprised of Kobolds and Dragonkin, Orcs, Trolls, Goblins, and other nastier beasts—clashed and killed frequently, and it was always the force with greater numbers that survived. Eventually a tenuous balance formed, though there are minor squabbles for territory that occasionally break into full-fledged war.
The Human Migration
In their movement, the humans did not take the other races living at altitude into consideration, crowding them and, in some cases, displacing them entirely. Some of these races, such as the nomadic Goliaths, whose system of honor is based primarily in boastful feats of strength, adapted well to the change and found an ally in the race of Man. Similarly, the easy-going Halflings were delighted to have additional company and taught the new settlers how to farm the land and raise livestock at such heights. Most of the races, however, were not as accommodating, and viewed the intrusion as a sign of aggression. To this day, the border outposts suffer frequent attacks from Mountain Giants and Ogres, who see the land as their own. Additionally, it has not been unheard of for a Dragon to consider a human outpost on otherwise unmarred land to be a blight against the sky, and raze it without a second thought.
Life has not been all rough for humanity. Once established above Mistline, the race of Man entered a golden age of magic and technology, spurred on by their precarious situation in the world. Within 20 years, they developed reliable mechanical technology for flight. Within 30, they discerned simple magical techniques for the same end. And within half a century, the collective thought of humanity and its allies perfected the magical means of creating and maintaining Ærthmotes—massive, mobile islands floating in the sky, either suspended in line with the rotation of the world or in free orbit. Through these breakthroughs, humanity was unified and connected in a manner never thought possible, and was very much—in every sense—atop the world.
However, an individual of human lineage could still not survive Mist exposure. In fact, with the passage of a few generations, humanity has seemed to become more susceptible to its effects—difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, slowed motor response, and within 12 hours, death. The first instances of Mist poisoning took days or weeks to kill its victims, and even then, if the individual left a Mist-affected area, he or she would recover over the course of a few days. Now, Mist poisoning is often irreversible, and—excepting those few rare individuals born with Mist tolerance or immunity—will typically proceed through its symptoms in a person exposed for more than a few hours.
Science, magic, religion—all of these have failed at curing the sickness associated with the Mist, though there are measures to delay its effects. Through expensive and often dangerous magical contraptions, a human can survive below Mistline for a few weeks—a month at the very most—without feeling its effects.
1 Illustration by William O’Connor for Dungeon Magazine 185: http://wizards.com/DnD/TOC.aspx?x=dnd/4new/dutoc/185
2 Illustration by Stephan Martiniere: http://www.spiritandflesh.com/StephanMartiniere_GulliversLaputa_fantasy_art.jpg