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By any name, it was an evil place. The dragonlords sent their worst criminals to the Isle of Tears to live out their lives in hard labor. In the dungeons of Gogossos, torturers devised new torments. In the flesh pits, blood sorcery of the darkest sort was practiced, as beasts were mated to slave women to bring forth twisted half-human children.
The infamy of Gogossos outlived even the Doom. During the Century of Blood, this dark city waxed rich and powerful. Some called her the Tenth Free City, but her wealth was built on slaves and sorcery. Her slave markets became as notorious as those of the old Ghiscari cities on Slaver’s Bay. Seven-and-seventy years after the Doom of Valyria, however, it is said their stink reached even the nostrils of the gods, and a terrible plague emerged from the slave pens of Gogossos. The Red Death swept across the Isle of Tears, then the rest of the Basilisk Isles. Nine men of every ten died screaming, bleeding copiously from every orifice, their skin shredding like wet parchment.
For a century thereafter, the Basilisks were shunned. It was not until the coming of the corsairs that men returned to the isles once again. The Qartheen pirate Xandarro Xhore was the first to raise his banner there, using the stones he found on Ax Isle to erect a grim black fort above his anchorage. The men of the Brotherhood of Bones soon followed, settling at the western end of the chain upon the Isle of Flies. From these bases, Xandarro and the Brotherhood were perfectly placed to prey upon merchantmen rounding the shattered, smoking remnants of the Valyrian peninsula. Within half a century, almost every one of the Basilisks was home to a nest of corsairs.
In our present day, the Brotherhood of Bones is long forgotten, and all that remains of Xandarro Xhore is the fort he left on Ax Isle, but the corsairs still haunt the Basilisks. Once every generation, it seems, fleets are sent to the islands to clear out these vermin of the seas. The V olantenes have been especially assiduous in this regard, often in alliance with one or more of the other Free Cities. Some of these raids have ended in failure when the corsairs fled, forewarned. Others, more ably led, have seen hundreds hanged and scores of ships seized or sunk or put to the torch. One ended in infamy, when the Lysene captain Saathos Saan, commanding the fleet sent to destroy the corsair strongholds, himself turned pirate and reigned as King of the Basilisk Isles for thirty years.
No matter the outcome of such efforts, the corsairs always seem to resume their depredations after a time. Their towns sprout up like toadstools, only to be abandoned the next year, or the year after, left to rot away and sink back into the mud and slime from which they rose. Port Plunder, the most famous of them, is celebrated in many a song and story, yet cannot be found on any map … for the good and sufficient reason that there have been at least a dozen Port Plunders, on as many islands.
Whenever one is destroyed, another is founded, only to be abandoned in turn. The same is true of Sty, Whore’s Gash, Black Pudding, and the other pirate lairs, each viler and more infamous than the last.
A few of the Basilisk Isles have certain unique aspects that warrant further mention:
Talon, a large claw-shaped island north of the Isle of Tears, is honeycombed with deep caves, most of them inhabited and fortified. This island serves as the slave mart for the corsairs, where captives are held until they can be sold or (less often) ransomed. It is also home to Barter Beach, where the pirates trade with one another.
On the Isle of Toads can be found an ancient idol, a greasy black stone crudely carved into the semblance of a gigantic toad of malignant aspect, some forty feet high. The people of this isle are believed by some to be descended from those who carved the Toad Stone, for there is an unpleasant fishlike aspect to their faces, and many have webbed hands and feet. If so, they are the sole surviving remnant of this forgotten race.
Many of the corsairs cling to the gruesome custom of festooning the hulls and masts of their ships with severed heads, to strike fear into their foes. The heads dangle from hempen rope until all the flesh has rotted off them, whereupon they are replaced with fresh ones.
Rather than consign the skulls to the sea, however, the corsairs will deliver them to Skull Isle, as an offering to some dark god. Thus it is that great piles of yellowed skulls can be seen lining the shores of this small, windswept, uninhabited rock.
Corsairs: the plague of the Basilisk Isles.(illustration credit 179) In summary, the Basilisk Isles are best avoided, for no good has ever come to those who journey hence.
Men have known of the existence of the vast, savage land to the south since the first of them took to the sea in ships, for only the width of the Summer Sea separates Sothoryos from the ancient civilizations and great cities of Essos and Westeros. The Ghiscari established outposts on its northern shores in the days of the Old Empire. They raised the walled city Zamettar at the mouth of the river Zamoyos, and built the grim penal colony Gorosh on Wyvern Point. Qartheen adventurers hungry for profit sought gold, gems, and ivory along the eastern coasts of Sothoryos. Summer Islanders did the same in the west. The Freehold of Valyria thrice established colonies on Basilisk Point: the first was destroyed by the Brindled Men, the second lost to plague, and the third was abandoned when the dragonlords captured Zamettar in the Fourth Ghiscari War.
Yet we cannot claim to know Sothoryos well. Its interior remains a mystery to us, covered by impenetrable jungle, where ancient cities full of ghosts lie in ruins beside great, sluggish rivers. Only a few days’ sail south of Basilisk Point, even the shape of its coasts remains unknown (it may be that the Summer Islanders have explored and mapped these shorelines, but they guard their charts jealously and do not share such knowledge).
Colonies planted here wither and die; only Zamettar endured for more than a generation, and today even that once-great city is a haunted ruin, slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. Slavers, traders, and treasure hunters have visited Sothoryos over the centuries, but only the boldest ever venture far from their coastal garrisons and enclaves to explore the mysteries of the continent’s vast interior. Those that dare more oft than not set forth into the green never to be seen again.
We do not even know the true size of Sothoryos. Qartheen maps once showed it as an island, twice the size of Great Moraq, but their trading ships, venturing farther and farther down the eastern coats, were never able to find the bottom of it. The Ghiscari who settled Zamettar and Gorosh believed Sothoryos to be as large as Westeros. Jaenara Belaerys flew her dragon, Terrax, farther south than any man or woman had ever gone before, seeking the boiling seas and steaming rivers of legend, but found only endless jungle, deserts, and mountains. She returned to the Freehold after three years to declare that Sothoryos was as large as Essos, “a land without end.” Whatever its true extent, the southern continent is an unhealthy place, its very air full of foul humors and miasmas. We have already seen how Nymeria fared on its shores, when she attempted to settle her people there. Blood boils, green fever, sweetrot, bronze pate, the Red Death, greyscale, brownleg, wormbone, sailor’s bane, pus-eye, and yellowgum are only a few of the diseases found here, many so virulent that they have been known to wipe out whole settlements. Archmaester Ebrose’s study of centuries of travelers’ accounts suggests that nine of every ten men visiting Sothoryos from Westeros will suffer one or more of these afflictions, and that almost half will die.
Nor is disease the only danger that those who seek to know this wet, green land must face. Huge crocodiles lurk beneath the surface of the Zamoyos and have been known to overturn boats, swimming up from below so they might devour their occupants as they struggle in the water. Other streams are infested by swarms of carnivorous fish capable of stripping the flesh from a man’s bones in minutes.
There are stinging flies, venomous snakes, wasps and worms that lay their eggs beneath the skins of horses, hogs, and men alike. Basilisks both great and small are found in great numbers on Basilisk Point, some twice the size of lions. In the forests south of Yeen, there are said to be apes that dwarf the largest giants, so powerful they can slay elephants with a single blow.
Farther south lie the regions known as the Green Hell, where beasts even more fearsome are said to dwell. There, if the tales are to be trusted, are caverns full of pale white vampire bats who can drain the blood from a man in minutes. Tattooed lizards stalk the jungles, running down their prey and ripping them apart with the long curved claws on their powerful hind legs. Snakes fifty feet long slither through the underbrush, and spotted spiders weave their webs amongst the great trees.
Most terrible of all are the wyverns, those tyrants of the southern skies, with their great leathery wings, cruel beaks, and insatiable hunger. Close kin to dragons, wyverns cannot breathe fire, but they exceed their cousins in ferocity and are a match for them in all other respects save size.
Brindled wyverns, with their distinctive jade-and-white scales, grow up to thirty feet long. Swamp wyverns have been known to attain even greater size, though they are sluggish by nature and seldom fly far from their lairs. Brownbellies, no larger than monkeys, are even more dangerous than their larger kin, for they hunt in packs of a hundred or more. But most dreaded of all is the shadow-wing, a nocturnal monster whose black scales and wings make him all but invisible … until he descends out of the darkness to tear apart his prey.
Unsurprisingly, Sothoryos is thinly peopled when compared to Westeros or Essos. A score of small trade towns cling to the northern coast—towns of mud and blood, as some say: wet and humid and full of misery, where adventurers, rogues, exiles, and whores from the Free Cities and the Seven Kingdoms come to make their fortunes.
In Septon Barth’s Dragons, Wyrms, and Wyverns, he speculated that the bloodmages of Valyria used wyvern stock to create dragons. Though the bloodmages were alleged to have experimented mightily with their unnatural arts, this claim is considered far-fetched by most maesters, among them Maester Vanyon’s Against the Unnatural contains certain proofs of dragons having existed in Westeros even in the earliest of days, before Valyria rose to be a power.
There are riches hidden amongst the jungles and swamps and sullen, sun-baked rivers of the south, beyond a doubt, but for every man who finds gold or pearls or precious spices, there are a hundred who find only death. The corsairs of the Basilisk Isles prey upon these settlements, carrying off captives to holding pens on Talon and the Isle of Tears before selling them to the flesh markets of Slaver’s Bay, or the pillow houses and pleasure gardens of Lys. And the native races grow ever more savage and primitive the farther one travels from the coasts.
The Sothoryi are big-boned creatures, massively muscled, with long arms, sloped foreheads, huge square teeth, heavy jaws, and coarse black hair. Their broad, flat noses suggest snouts, and their thick skins are brindled in patterns of brown and white that seem more hoglike than human. Sothoryi women cannot breed with any save their own males; when mated with men from Essos or Westeros, they bring forth only stillbirths, many hideously malformed.
The Sothoryi that dwell closest to the sea have learned to speak the trade talk. The Ghiscari consider them too slow of wit to make good slaves, but they are fierce fighters. Farther south, the trappings of civilization fall away, and the Brindled Men become ever more savage and barbaric.
These Sothoryi worship dark gods with obscene rites. Many are cannibals, and more are ghouls;
when they cannot feast upon the flesh of foes and strangers, they eat their own dead.
Some say that there were other races here once—forgotten peoples destroyed, devoured, or driven out by the Brindled Men. Tales of lizard men, lost cities, and eyeless cave-dwellers are commonplace. No proof exists for any of these.
Maesters and other scholars alike have puzzled over the greatest of the engimas of Sothoryos, the ancient city of Yeen. A ruin older than time, built of oily black stone, in massive blocks so heavy that it would require a dozen elephants to move them, Yeen has remained a desolation for many thousands of years, yet the jungle that surrounds it on every side has scarce touched it. (“A city so evil that even the jungle will not enter, ” Nymeria is supposed to have said when she laid eyes on it, if the tales are true). Every attempt to rebuild or resettle Yeen has ended in horror.
Ruins on Sothoryos.(illustration credit 180)
THE GRASSLANDSBeyond the Forest of Qohor, Essos opens up upon a vast expanse of windswept plains, gentle rolling hills, fertile river valleys, great blue lakes, and endless steppes where the grass grows as high as a horse’s head. From the Forest of Qohor in the west to the towering mountains known as the Bones, the grasslands stretch more than seven hundred leagues.
It was here amidst these grasses that civilization was born in the Dawn Age. Ten thousand years ago or more, when Westeros was yet a howling wilderness inhabited only by the giants and children of the forest, the first true towns arose beside the banks of the river Sarne and beside the myriad vassal streams that fed her on her meandering course northward to the Shivering Sea.
The histories of those days are lost to us, sad to say, for the kingdoms of the grass came and went in large measure before the race of man became literate. Only the legends persist. From such we know of the Fisher Queens, who ruled the lands adjoining the Silver Sea—the great inland sea at the heart of the grasslands—from a floating palace that made its way endlessly around its shores.
Sufficient tales survive to convince most maesters of the past existence of the Silver Sea, though because of diminishing rainfall over the centuries, it has shrunk so severely that today only three great lakes remain where once its waters glistened in the sun.