The Gray Wastes Geographic Location in Arenia | World Anvil

The Gray Wastes

In the far north of Arenia lies a desolate volcanic wasteland known variously as the ashlands, the Gray Wastes, or, to those closest to the region, the Reivan Wastes - so named for the civilization that has thrived in this most hostile of environments, and represent its most-prolific and least-hostile inhabitants.  


  The Reivan Wasteland occupies the central northern region of the continent, bounded to the south by the Hopeless Peaks and to the north by the Heartless Waters. The eastern and western boundaries are less defined, with the ash clouds dissipating and the desolation gradually receding to yield the grasslands and forests of the Imperial lands to the west, and tundra to the east. The border regions beyond the Waste, in bands of terrain close enough to benefit from volcanic fertilization but distant enough to escape the atmospheric suffocation and ash storms, are incredibly fertile.   The ashlands are the only eastbound, overland path from the Empire of Vudon north of the mountains. Trade to the northeastern regions of Arenia must pass through the wastes, risk treacherous storms and icebergs sailing the arctic seas, or detour around the south of the continent.  

Climate and Geology

  The Reivan Waste is a center of intense geological activity that ranks among the most hostile and hazardous environments in the known world. The region’s defining feature is the presence of an omnipresent, sunlight-limiting cloud of volcanic ash. From the mountain summits overlooking the wastes, above the ash line, an observer looking down might be unable to see through the ash to the land below the foothills under the peaks. Already a frigid tundra by virtue of its northern latitude, this deprivation of sunlight renders the ashlands perhaps the coldest region on the continent. Freezing northerly winds from the mountains bring cold snaps during which temperatures can plummet to 100 degrees below freezing, and occasionally beyond.   At ground level, on some days the air can be relatively clear, but on most days there is a varying haze of blowing ash that limits visibility and breathability. During ash storms, winds blow ash with a force that can strip flesh from all but the most resilient of hides, and even grind steel to nothing.   Volcanism is a bringer of both death and life in the ashlands. Shield volcanoes in the lowlands leave it dotted with hills of obsidian and volcanic soil, while fiery cinder cones mix with snow-capped peaks in the southern mountains. Reivans know the largest of the volcanoes as Reivasa, or The Great Mother, and call the mountain range the Mother’s Shield. Any of these volcanoes can erupt at a moment’s notice. While the typical eruption is not cataclysmic, lava and pyroclastic flows are an eternal hazard within the wastes, and most ashlanders will have a close encounter at least once in life. Yet despite these volcanic hazards, they give birth to the geothermal vents, fissures, and subterranean magma chambers that are the lifeblood of an ecosystem hidden from the sun.   Despite the freezing temperatures, snow is rare beyond the foothills due to the scarcity of water and precipitation. In the lowlands, steam geysers and underground rivers are the most abundant sources of water. What little snow exists in the lowland is in the form of fine, powdered snow that mixes with the ashen topsoil, a result of underground steam rapidly crystallizing upon being vented from geysers. The presence of such snow can be an indicator that one is downwind from a steam vent. Soil in the Waste is predominantly permafrost, thawing only in proximity to geothermal vents and volcanic magma chambers. The Shield mountains and the underlying foothills are exceptionally rich in high quality iron and copper ores, and veins of the same are also widespread in the lowlands. Obsidian formations are abundant both in the foothills, and around shield volcanoes in the lowlands. Fields of obsidian spires exist - a point of some confusion to scholars, as no known natural process explains their formation.   The defining feature of the Wasteland is its layer of fine, volcanic ash that blankets the entire region. Depths of this ash layer vary from a thin layer of dust, up to several meters. In most areas, the ash layer is one to two inches thick, driven by wind into periodic dunes. In combination with an abundance of pyroclastic rock and lack of water, this results in a terrain that, to an observer that can see the land but not feel the air, might appear as a rocky, arid desert rather than a frozen arctic tundra.   The vast majority of the volcanic ash in that region is just that - mundane volcanic ash, fragments and particles of stone, mineral, and obsidian, no different from the tephra expelled by any other volcanoes. However, an appreciable fraction of the ash mass comprises faintly magical metal particles. The concentration of these particles increases with proximity to the Shield volcanoes. Veins exist in the mountains of an ore composed of a mixture of iron and this magical substance. This element is what gives the ash such dangerously abrasive properties when blown in ash storms, and makes Reivan alloys, mortars, and concrete incredibly tough. It also interferes with magic, making scrying and teleportation within the ashlands difficult and unreliable.   The volume of circulating airborne ash also contributes to one of the other great hazards of the wasteland: intense electrical storms. Lightning strikes are widespread and frequent even on calm days, with the sound of thunder an ever-present background noise. The frequency rises with both the wind speed and the degree of ash cover. During storms, the constant flash of lightning and crash of thunder has been described by outsiders as “apocalyptic.” The danger of this lightning is compounded by the conductivity of the widespread ore veins, and by the metallic properties of much of the ash itself. These combine to create an ever-shifting web of surface conduits on the ground, greatly increasing the lethal distance of a lightning strike. Most local wildlife has evolved to instinctively recognize and avoid these hazardous terrain. To the unwary explorer, any failure to recognize safely walkable terrain is to invite death from the skies.  

Notable Locations

  Reivasa, the Great Mother: The Reivan name for the largest of the active volcanoes in the Hopeless Peaks, thought to be chiefly responsible for the cataclysm that turned the once lush lands of the region into the ashlands as they exist today. It has not erupted in centuries, but remains very volcanically active. Rannock Reivasa: The largest settlement and de facto center of Reivan civilization, built atop the ruins of an ancient fortress. Rannock Reivasa occupies the mouth of a mountain pass beginning at the base of the Great Mother and leading deep into the mountains. The Reivan fortress guards this pass, known as the High Road.   Karnak Reiva: Once the second largest colony of Reivans in the ashlands, located in the foothills north of Rannock Reivasa. It was captured by the Empire of Vudon and used as an encampment and staging grounds for the siege of Rannock Reivasa in their recent attempt to annex the Reivan Wastes.   Azor Reiva: A small settlement on the western reaches of the ashlands, one of the few Reivan settlements built with a trade zone open to foreign caravans, and the closest trade settlement to Rannock Reivasa.   Sethas Reiva: Located in the far northwest of the ashlands, Karnak Reiva is the largest of the Reivan settlements with an open trade zone.  

Flora and Fauna

  Very little vegetation has adapted to survive in the Wastes. No trees or large plants can be found beyond the very fringes of the region. The most common form of plant life is known as crag root, a deep-rooted shrub which, above ground, resembles small, viney tumbleweeds. When conditions grow too extreme for these shrubs to survive, they detach to allow the much larger root structure to conserve energy and survive until conditions allow the shrub to regrow. When a shrub survives long enough to bear fruit, it produces small, fibrous berries that are safe to eat, but this can only happen in an area that has been free of storms or cold snaps for an extended period. The shrubs themselves are toxic to humans, but are edible to some other creatures. The roots, while chewy and bitter, are edible and rich with starch. The crag root is common enough for viable forage, but grows far too slowly to cultivate. Some mosses can be found, but are again toxic and grow too slowly to cultivate.   The foundation of the ashland ecosystem lies not in plant life, but in the resilient fungi that can be found throughout the waste. A fungus resembling lichen, typically buried beneath a layer of dust, can be found at least sparsely throughout most of the Wastes, and even thrives in the warm areas around thermal vents. Larger mushrooms, some human-edible, can be found near vents, especially in warmer cave systems.   Most creatures of the Wastes are fungivores, and carnivores are rarely more than two links removed from fungivores in the food chain. Wildlife can commonly be divided into three categories: burrowing creatures that can find safety and insulation by tunneling into the soil; hardy beasts that can endure the severe cold and ash storms through sheer endurance; and creatures that have found a niche in or around thermal caves. Arctic wolves and mammoths are among the most iconic beasts of the ashlands, but perhaps its most unique is the ash centipede. These horse-sized arthropods have a thick, chitinous carapace that is reinforced over time as metallic ash particles that become embedded in it, giving them a natural armour that becomes stronger and magic-resistant as the beasts grow.  

Beasts and Monsters

  The overwhelming majority of wildlife within the wastes is both dangerous, and aggressive. Sharp teeth, sharp claws, venom, or poison: most creatures have at least two. Even seemingly docile prey animals should be expected to have some strong defensive adaptations paired with a vicious temperament when approached. The creatures described below are some of the larger, more intelligent, or more prolific creatures of the Wastes.  

Bheur Hags

  Parents across the world tell their children spook stories of witches, hags, and boogiemen that will come for them in the night if they misbehave. In the arctic and especially in the ashlands, these stories carry a degree of truth in the form of bheur hags. Cruel and hideous, these immortal, magical crones are drawn to those who commit selfish acts to survive the cold. They terrorize and feed especially on the outskirts of the Wastes, preying on travelers and explorers who underestimate the dangers of the ashlands and turn on each other to survive when they are bested by the environment. Hags are typically solitary, but become more dangerous when they form covens to act in concert. When active covens are discovered, Reivans will mobilize in force to hunt and exterminate them.  

Frost Giants

  These towering humanoids are not fond of the ashen conditions of the Wastes, and as such have not established any major strongholds. Nevertheless, as one of the rare races that can comfortably survive such extreme cold temperatures, some have made a home of the wasteland. They can be found anywhere in the ashlands, alone or in groups, often with mammoths in tow.  


  Other than the Reivan settlements, gnolls are the closest thing in the wastes to a civilized race. Though they have not adapted well enough to thrive in great numbers, gnolls have proven capable of surviving in small tribes in sheltered areas. Gnoll raiding parties can pose a hazard to travelers, and very rarely, to Reivan settlements.  


  Myconids and warm, damp cave systems are an inseparable pairing, and the ashlands are no exception in this regard. Unlike those found elsewhere in the world, myconids found in ashland caves are rarely peaceful. Any explorer venturing into an unknown cave system that is home to a geothermal vent should expect myconid infestations as a minimum level of danger, for the only such cave systems not infested with myconids are those that have been claimed by something more dangerous that has pushed the hostile fungi out.  

Old Blue

  Following the High Road from Rannock Reivasa into the mountains will bring one under the great peak known as The Sister, its summit towering high above the ash line and any mountains within many miles. Since before any ashlander can remember, this summit has been claimed as the home of an ancient blue dragon that the locals call Old Blue. A solitary creature, Old Blue pays no mind to the locals below, nor has any living ashlander ever attempted to contact the great wyrm. Living and flying out of sight, high above the ash clouds, Old Blue is only encountered when one happens to be nearby when the dragon swoops down through the ash to carry off some unsuspecting prey. Usually, that prey is a mammoth, yeti, or other great beast. Sometimes, it is an unlucky ashlander. On unusually clear days, when the ash is thin, one might dimly see a great draconic silhouette weaving through the ash high above - though most claims to have seen this are dismissed as tall tales.  

Orcs, Orogs, and Oni

  Although no Orcish tribes have established themselves within the ashland, marauders from tribes in the east and the mountains often send raids into the ashlands. Settlements deep in the lowlands are safe from orcish attacks, but orcish raids are a constant danger to settlements and travelers in the foothills and the eastern reach.  


  Hulking monstrosities of teeth and claws, these arctic ambush predators are among the most feared hazards lurking in the Wastes. “Burned to death” may not be an expected cause of death in a frozen wasteland, but it is the likely outcome for any unwary traveler that stumbles upon a remorhaz - though swallowed whole and digested alive are also possibilities. They rarely catch Reivans off guard, finding gnolls to be much easier prey. Reivans have learned to recognize the telltale rise in temperature that remorhaz cause, but a fully-grown remorhaz is a danger to even a well-prepared and experienced party when they do collide. Reivans aggressively hunt any young remorhaz that they find, even if it means loss of life, in the hopes of eliminating their danger before they mature to full strength.  

Subterranean Races

  Duergar, svirfneblin (deep gnomes in the common tongue), and troglodytes have no permanent surface presence in the ashlands, but they make their presence known with frequent raids to the surface. The Shield mountains are home to sprawling, labyrinthine cave systems that these races call home. Duergar and deep gnomes have relatively civilized societies in the depths below the surface, but will come pouring from the mountains to pillage and raid for resources when their own resources are short. Troglodytes, as abundant in numbers as they are lacking in intelligence, are less self-sufficient than their subterranean brethren and constantly attack the surface in search of food and supplies. Compared to the more dangerous beasts of the Wastes, troglodytes are regarded as more of an invasive pest, but a constant pest requiring steady vigilance in the settlements most exposed to their tunnels.  


  Yeti are abundant in the mountains above the ash line. They can withstand ash storms nearly as well as they do blizzards, allowing many to wander below the ash line, some roaming deep into the lowlands. When food becomes scarce in the mountains, hunger drives them to rampage and they can attack settlements in the foothills in larger numbers. Time spent below the ash line toughens the yeti’s hides. While yeti are most commonly encountered in the foothills, the less common lowland yeti are particularly dangerous, with thicker hides and mottled silver-gray fur that blends in with the terrain. Reivans actively hunt these lowland yeti, as their tough hides and thick fur are prized for their durability and resilience to the environment. Almost all Reivan men wear a distinctive silver-gray cloak of yeti fur when venturing outside.
Alternative Name(s)
The Reivan Wastes, the Ashlands
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