There's always another cave. But never have I seen something like Atharkam.Forged from the empty remnant of an ancient volcano, the Atharkam is a maze of volcanic glass and molten stone. Atharkam is an Outer Shell region beneath Aschar and lies disconnected from the rest of the Outer Shell, accessible only through the stygian pit that was once the volcano's caldera. In the time since the lava stilled and the tunnels dried out, life has taken hold in the caverns below. It spawned from the cooling pools of magma that remained, then rooted itself in the rich ash left behind. For the first time, explorers and pioneers have delved into Atharkam to witness splendors and horrors never seen before.
Atharkam is home to a sort of crystal found nowhere else, ranging in color from blue to dull black with a slimy, wet surface. While just as hard as any other, these crystals melt and reform for reasons yet unknown. Many wild things in Atharkam carry colonies of them inside their own flesh and explorers consider them cursed.Atharkam is hot and damp, with a sharp and unpleasant odor of melting rock and biting bitterness in the air. Springs of drinkable water is few and far between, with the liquid pools of crystal account for most of the moisture in the tunnels. Although caverns are relatively rare, some tunnels are large enough to comfortably hold several camps or small herds of crystal-grazing animals within them.
The GateMost travelers into Atharkam pass through the Gate, the vast and empty opening to the volcano. At least a mile wide, the Gate is a deep chasm that lead straight into the caverns below. The walls are a mix of hard stone and obsidian, with sections of the Gate being sheer drops down. Ramshackle platforms, ladders and crude elevators are scattered across the descent, with toll fares corresponding directly to the safety of the contraption. Beyond falling, the Gate is relatively safe. The flying beasts of Aschar avoid it and the magma-scarred walls hold few nests, while the volcano's slope provides sanctuary against the weather. Despite that, earthquakes and ash-storms ravage the Gate's edges and cause havoc among the structures lashed to the stone. For this reason, most travel in and out of the Gate will cease when the land is stirring.
Attempts are being made to hew a more permanent route down the Gate, but progress is slow. The stone left has resisted the flow of magma for eons, and picks fare little better.
The Black MazeThe winding tunnels below the Gate are collectively referred to as the Black Maze; a labyrinthine series of lava tubes that have since merged with tunnels, caverns and grottoes further aside. These passages are much larger than what is typically found in the Outer Shell, widened by centuries of magma and consist of a mixture of hard stones, volcanic glass and partially molten crystals. In places, the Maze lead to caverns or adjacent systems, making it a place where animals transit to or through for the purpose of hunting, grazing or mating. While the stone of the Maze itself holds no life, some of these side tunnels have benefited from the remnants of the volcano and become small pockets of verdant growth. Most of the water found in Atharkam comes from one of these side-caverns and these are fiercely contested by wild-life and explorers alike. Most explorers guess that the Maze leads directly down the Inner Shell, but no one has traveled that deep. Most of the Maze lies unexplored, with Kaia only beginning to test it in the last decade or so.
The Crystal Caves The most remarkable caves found in the Black Maze are a series of caves almost covered in the half-fluid crystals of Atharkam. Pools of still liquid dot the floor, from which the crystal spreads and then melt back into. The beasts in the cavern feed off the crystal and their aggression has deterred any substantial exploration so far.
Flora & Fauna
Explorers have brought stocks of Ahi Bug and domesticated spiders with them to Atharkam. These numbers remain small, but already escaped animals have found their way into the wilds and mixed with local wildlife. A few creatures have been encountered enough to become synonymous with Atharkam, such as a hard-shelled amphibian found throughout the Maze. Kaia are still finding which ones are dangerous, edible or both, with captured beasts selling well as exotic marvels back in the rest of Araea.
Brave New World
The ThreeThere are three major groups that operate in Atharkam, each unwilling to share the glory of discovery with the other. For most, it is not the monsters in the dark or Atharkam's natural hazards that prove the most immediate threat, but each other. Each have established a position around an oasis in the Maze, something that gives them control of the region. These three are:
The SeekersOne of the largest guilds of Kaia in Araea, the Seekers have three teams of Kaia in Atharkam. These are further reinforced by mercenaries, investors and allies, all coming to Atharkam to carve a piece of fresh fortune from this unknown territory. The Seekers' position is strong and their willingness to cooperate has made them many friends among the formerly unaligned. Some mistake the Seekers' kindness for weakness. Such perceptions are soon to be challenged with the arrival of a fourth team, the hardened Surya Hunters - Kaia renowned for their skill and prowess.
The Yashun AssociationThe Association were the first to find Atharkam. It is they who first braved the volcano's edge to find this new land and first shed sweat, blood and tears within its tunnels. It is a fact they will not allow the others to forget and they view the arrival of the other two major groups as theft of glories that are rightfully theirs. The Association is a mix of merchants, prospectors and explorers from various city-states. A great many came from or have established interests in Rakha. They are well-entrenched and frequently reinforced by slave levies from Rakha.
HevanaA splinter group of Kaia that were once part of the Seekers, the Hevana's purpose in Atharkam is twofold: to gain glory and wealth and to prevent the Seekers from doing the same. These are Kaia less motivated by adventure, exploration or discovery and more by money. They have a reputation for underhanded tactics, which they claim is little more than slander by their former comrades. Mercenaries at heart, they are willing to play for any side that will pay enough - except for the Seekers.
Fortune and glory awaits in the dark of Atharkam. It only needs to be found.
The Outer Shell Though disconnected from the rest of known Araea, Atharkam's position just beneath the skin of the Surface makes it part of the Outer Shell. From a few meters to a few miles deep, the Outer Shell lie closest to the Surface and is often harried by things like Blight and beasts. The caves here tend to be smaller and the tunnels barren, with Atharkam as a noticeable exception. Read More About The Outer Shell
Edge of UnknownAtharkam is cut off from any other part of the Outer Shell and it is only recently that explorers have made the journey. Among Kaia and scholars, there is considerable excitement to discover what things wait for them in this brave new world. Other, more superstitious minds fear that they are treading into lands forbidden, while a few still hold out hope to find other civilized life here - human or otherwise.
The only path to reach Atharkam is over the Surface and across the Aschar Region. This volatile part of the Surface is rocked by frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, making the trip a dangerous one even without the bandits and wild beasts.
The Gate is not the only way into Atharkam. Countless minor passages lead from Aschar into the unknown below, ranging from cramped tunnels to sinkholes. None are quite as secure as the Gate, but some take the road less traveled in hopes of getting ahead of their competition.
The SmolderThere are places within the Black Maze where fragments of the region's volcanic past still lingers as bubbling pools or still active vents of magma. These are called the Smolder, and act as hosts for a multitude of creatures that bask in the melting rock or feed on those that do. They are less hospitable to humans, with the noxious smoke and heat making prolonged exposure hazardous.
Between the hard stone and the spreading crystals, the traditional way of marking routes by carving stone has proven insufficient to navigate the Black Maze. Explorers are have attempting to navigate by establishing small cairns to guide them but these has proven unreliable. It is all too easy for a rival to turn or demolish way markers and leave a party fumbling in the dark.
Shortage and SupplyAtharkam is limited in how many it can sustain and the influx of explorers is beginning to test these boundaries. Water and food must be foraged from Aschar and brought below, while tools and other supplies must still be brought from elsewhere. Each camp compete with the other over what trickles into the region. While the fertile caves found within Atharkam have relieved some of the pressure, there never seem to be enough to go around. Theft and raids between groups are common, while there is a quietly agreed upon ban on poisoning the few sources of water that have been discovered.
The Seekers are one of the largest Kaia guilds today, with headquarters in many different city-states.