The first of several writeups (the publication of which will probably be interrupted when I get distracted by some other idea) on the World of Zu, a Strange Fantasy setting. "Strange Fantasy" is a phrase I've just invented for a style which is a bit like Weird Fantasy but isn't quite so extreme. Instead of, say, being full of astronauts, cactus men (shout-out to Planet Algol!) and Radium Pistols, it's more Sword & Sorcery with some astronauts and cactus men. (Well, not those specifically, but you get the idea.) I'm not very happy with the phrase; "Queer Fantasy" would have expressed the notion of "weird but not quite so much" a while ago, but of course these days it would mean something altogether different. Dear Reader, if you come up with a better term for the sort of thing I have in mind, post it in the comments and you'll win a prize! Anyway, Zu:
The Lowlands of the Lost lies in the centre of the known lands of the World of Zu. Also known as the Land of River, Road and Rampart, named for its three major landmarks which allow the ragtag population to maintain a semblance of coherence: the Olm River, the Sword Trail and the ruins of the Cephean Rampart.
It's called the Lowlands of the Lost for good reason: almost all known methods of navigation fail here. No one knows what ancient magical or other forces make it so, but the fact remains: trees grow moss on all sides in the forest, magnet stones spin around, the stars and constellations dance around the sky unpredictably, and even the sun always rises at a different point of the horizon. In fact, the very layout of the land itself twists and rearranges itself from time to time: you may follow a path from one point to another and make extensive notes and maps; but if you try to follow the same instructions half a year later, you'll probably end up in the middle of the wilderness, thoroughly confused about how even the mountains and lakes seem to be completely elsewhere.
Nevertheless, people do manage to get from one tiny community to the other, and even some occasional trade exists: some people - always born in the land - seem to have a good if not infallible instinct that keeps them on the true path to wherever they're going. And even if you don't have the services to such a guide, features located close enough to the Olm River, the Sword Trail and the Cephean Rampart seem to be much more 'stable' then other spots, so the routes along these three tend to remain largely unchanged for years on end. Anything beyond, however, whether they be dark and humid forests, trackless swamps or labyrinthine hills and canyons, belongs to the daring, the desperate and the foolhardy who bet their lives against the prospects of finding a new, profitable trading route, an undiscovered mine of precious gems, or a lost city of foreboding and maybe even treasure-laden tombs....
However, not all lands of Zu are as inimical to civilisation as the Lowlands. If one travels to the Sour Coast (named after the peculiar taste of the ocean water here) in the east and then heads north and through one of the many gaps in the mountains girdling the Lowlands, he comes to the southern edge of the flourishing Ankur Empire.
The mightiest force in the East, the Empire is a land of great cities protected by thick walls, tall towers and the divine guidance of the god of the land, the immortal Sultan Zuliman. It was Zuliman who armed his janissary soldiers with the divine weapons of the Empire: these closely guarded artifacts act as houses for elemental spirits of air and fire. By performing the proper incantations and gestures and placing the necessary sacrifices into these receptacles, the spirits will strike the unrighteous with lethal fury.*
*True. Contrarily to whatever metagaming assumptions players might have, they really only work with the exact prescribed prayers and gestures. If someone tries to cut out the ceremonial stuff and tries to "just load the gun", it will not work. In fact, the spirits might well get offended and "misfire".