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Erkalion – The Dusk of an Empireby Geoff Gander from Threshold Magazine issue 12
Erkalion – The Dusk of an Empire
by Geoff Gander
“The sun has set on the empire. Let the shining beacon that is our city herald the dawning of a new day.”
- Kelaran, son of Maradan, c. BC 6990
Although records of the time before Blackmoor are scant—at least to scholars in the Known World—there is some knowledge that there was an empire of bold explorers and warriors devoted to a strange Immortal “who held up the Sky and lit the Heavens”. Little is known of this so-called “Land of the Sea”, whose works are mostly lost and whose location is a mystery, save for that it existed in the great southern seas, that it fought mightily against an even more ancient evil realm of sorcerers who trafficked in things utterly unwholesome, and that it destroyed itself in saving the world. Scholars steeped in that ancient lore who have ventured to Davania and the southern seas, and who have dug in certain sites and explored ruins overlooked by the march of time, know far more about Lhomarr and Y’hog, and their struggle. They know that the Lhomarrians were great seafarers and suspect that there may be forgotten outposts of that lost civilization that, if discovered, could shed more light. Erkalion, a remote outpost in the far south that eventually became one of the last holdouts of the Lhomarrian civilization, is just such a place.
Erkalion is located on the northern coast of the Vulcanian Peninsula, southeast of the Vulture Peninsula. In its heyday, and even today, the land surrounding it is hilly and lightly forested with mixed deciduous and coniferous trees—predominantly maples, birches, and pines in the Lhomarrian era, which have since been replaced by oaks, maples and a few walnuts as the local climate became more moderate. Coniferous forests now predominate south of what the Lhomarrians called the Ormincarith (Cold River), which is currently known by a variety of names by the barbaric human tribes who now occupy the region.1 The coasts here are rocky, and the continental shelf drops off steeply.
To the southeast lies a large swamp at the mouth of the river, which the Lhomarrians tried unsuccessfully to drain. Then, as now, the swamp was home to numerous forms of giant insects and poisonous snakes (much more common in the modern era), as well as a small population of swamp hydras which have managed to retain their position as apex predator. Some of the barbarian tribes in the modern era harvest the venom from some of the serpents to coat their blades and arrowheads—a practice their long-dead ancestors adopted from the more sinister inhabitants of Erkalion in its later days.
The sheer drop of the continental shelf along this part of the Vulcanian coast was a boon to shipping in the Lhomarrian era, but that also meant that there was nothing but open sea between Erkalion and the Lhomarrian sub-continent, save for a single island due east of Erkalion known to the Lhomarrians as the Dawn Spire, so named because the first ship sailing in the region spotted its lone peak silhouetted against the rising sun. It was lightly settled by farmers and fishermen during Erkalion's heyday. The island is currently uninhabited (none of the seafaring barbarian tribes will settle there, out of a belief that the island is cursed by restless spirits) and possesses a moderate climate to this day. It boasts a stand of walnut and apple trees in one sheltered valley that are descended from those planted by the Lhomarrians.
At the city's height there were two other settlements of note (the villages of Seressina and Akalanyos), as well as a handful of small fortresses and towers on the frontiers of the lands claimed by Erkalion. Much of the interior of the territory claimed by Lhomarr was lightly farmed; although there were several stands of deciduous forest left untouched.
Erkalion began as an outpost on the northern coast of Vulcania in BC 8350, little more than a collection point for the amber and iron Lhomarrian explorers had already found there. The rugged shores and remoteness of the place attracted few settlers (aside from those who had reasons for leaving civilization behind them), beyond the small garrison and their families – even when the empire began offering generous land grants. Matters changed in BC 8292 when Empress Trestinia34 re-designated the outpost as a penal colony for religious dissidents. Within five years, the population ballooned from roughly 600 to just under 15,000. Disease and starvation were rampant, and the garrison was ultimately forced to flee due to the turmoil. Erkalion became a de facto city-state and a ruling council was established to impose order, but it was ridden with factionalism and most of the inhabitants did what they wished. Despite the near-anarchic conditions, enough common sense prevailed that most people focused on building their community and co-operating in a remote, often hostile territory.
The situation did not go unnoticed by Erkalion’s neighbors. Communities of garls and treants, which had been driven away by the population explosion began to move back, and the remnants of the Gok'ket5, driven into the region by sis'thik and other races, also competed for land. Ultimately, the beleaguered people of Erkalion appealed to the empire for aid, and a force was sent in BC 8220 to occupy the port. The settlement remained under military administration until the Sinking, but the administrator's position evolved over time into a virtual lordship. As the empire's position in Vulcania strengthened, the lands surrounding Erkalion were secured, and by BC 7900 a stretch of coastline on either side of the city and roughly 50-100 miles inland was claimed, if not completely controlled. After the repeal of Tristinia's laws the population declined, and the remoteness of the location deterred all but the most enthusiastic colonists. However, Erkalion did grow, and by the time of the Sinking in BC 7022 it was home to roughly 35,000 people, with another 5,000 in neighboring coastal villages. The interior remained largely wild and unsettled, save for a handful of fortresses. A final influx of almost 10,000 people arrived shortly before and after the Sinking itself.
During the centuries leading up to the Sinking, Erkalion enjoyed a period of relative peace. Far removed from the intense fighting in central and northern Davania, as well as the politics and maneuvering in the imperial court at Regemnon, the atmosphere of the city was deceptively calm. Food was plentiful, and trade with Lhomarr proper and other southern dominions such as Thallios was lucrative. The only reminder of war with the Carnifex was the routine conscription of young men for the legions.6 But it was in the midst of this period of calm that the fateful end of the port city was set in motion.
The religious persecution instituted by Trestinia that led to the deportation of thousands of people to Erkalion was also used as a smokescreen for various Outer Being sects to spread their influence to all of Lhomarr's territories. Some cultists willingly gave themselves away—even to the point of openly summoning unwholesome creatures—in order to whip up even more hysteria. The authorities took the bait and came down hard, executing many and sweeping entire neighborhoods clear. Followers made sure to be among those sent away7, and once at their destination would use their magic to aid the deportees, and win over some converts in the process. With a secure foothold, the Outer Being cults insinuated themselves into every level of society in Erkalion, with some masquerading as clerics of Xeron. Such a feat would have been nearly impossible in Lhomarr, but on the fringes of the empire clerical magic was rarer and always in demand—and people were less likely to notice or care if the rituals weren't quite how they remembered them. In later years, with war distant and prosperity seemingly everywhere, the Outer Being cults had become so prevalent that some priests began bringing some of their practices into the open. And then Lhomarr sank.
Erkalion's seaward fortifications, and most of the immediate neighborhoods, were devastated by the tidal waves produced by Lhomarr's sinking, and roughly one-fourth of the population died (again, the Outer Being cults used their magic to ease the effects of the disaster, with the population none the wiser). Reconstruction was swift, but once the truth of the empire's destruction became known a pall of fear descended over the city. The administrator of Erkalion, Maradan, son of Ardalos, citing the need to maintain Lhomarrian civilization, made his powers permanent. No one opposed, and Erkalion became a kingdom in its own right. Borders were reinforced and the city adopted a more aggressive posture towards neighboring peoples, demanding tribute in exchange for protection. The newly-crowned king sent ships to other former territories of the empire to see what remained—little did, aside from a handful of outposts and Erkalion's sister city, Thallios, which itself was trying to rebuild. The two cities formed an alliance, and between them managed to keep the northern coast of the Vulcanian Peninsula relatively stable for several decades, while all else had descended into anarchy. With the region secure for the moment, Maradan appointed his son, Kelaran, to govern in his stead while he led some of Lhomarr's remaining legions to northern Davania, where he led a vengeance-fuelled, but ultimately fruitless, campaign to eradicate the remaining Carnifex strongholds. He and many of his soldiers met their end in the ruined city of Yath-Khe. When Maradan failed to return after many years, Kelaran assumed the worst and appointed himself king.
Kelaran was very much his father's son, and built upon Maradan's achievements. He ordered his armies to abandon imperial doctrine and adopt successful tactics used by hostile neighbors, and he withdrew from outposts that were too remote or difficult to maintain. This consolidation allowed Lhomarrian civilization to endure longer in southern Davania than would otherwise have been the case, but other factors sealed the doom of Erkalion. Lhomarr's sinking altered the flow of ocean currents along the Vulcanian coast, bringing more storms. Agricultural yields fell, which, coupled with migrations as neighboring peoples sought better food sources, led Erkalion to become more hostile as it tried to protect what it had. It even began pressuring Thallios, and the former colonies in what is now the Lost Valley region—which were not suffering the same scarcities as Erkalion—for more support. Aid was at first freely given, but when the effects of the worsening climate spread further the other Lhomarrian territories became more reticent. By BC 6600 the city's fleet began blockading, then raiding, the other territories. Erkalion's hostility led the other Lhomarrian territories to form an alliance against it, culminating in the Battle of Gilcarith in BC 6594, a naval confrontation by the wide mouth of that river, near Thallios. The Erkalian fleet, outmaneuvered by the smaller and more numerous vessels of the Thallian Alliance, was soundly defeated.
While the people of the region maintained their freedom, the battle sparked decades of skirmishing and intermittent warfare that sapped the resources of what remained of Lhomarr, and hastened the final decline. Some in the region migrated north in search of better lands, and when Thallios was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in BC 6415 the settlements of what is now the Lost Valley descended into a new dark age. Erkalion, completely isolated and fending off increasingly desperate neighbors while seeing its population dwindle, withdrew from its borders. A growing portion of the populace turned to nihilism and darker beliefs, and those who venerated the Outer Beings, who had been operating behind the scenes for centuries, finally proclaimed themselves as the true saviors of the people. More people fled, preferring to take their chances in the open world, while the remainder placed their trust in the cultists. But the cultists had other aims than the salvation of the people. Knowing that Erkalion was doomed, they had already decided that their masters’ cause would be best served if the populace was consumed. Some cultists stealthily approached the encroaching barbarians and persuaded enough of the chieftains that not only was Erkalion weak; vast amounts of plunder were waiting to be taken. Their greed stoked, the barbarians attacked in force, terrifying the remaining citizenry. The pall of fear and anxiety that hung over the city, combined with the strength of the rituals performed in the catacombs underneath the citadel, was enough to draw the attention of some of the Outer Beings. The souls of thousands were literally sucked into oblivion, leaving behind withered husks frozen in poses of terror. Although many cultists voluntarily shared the fate of their victims, those performing the ritual were not so lucky. Once the barbarians forced their way into the city and beheld what had happened to the populace, they quickly concluded that the cultists were responsible, and that whatever power they possessed could not be allowed to exist if they could not control it themselves. The cultists refused to be enslaved, and met their ends through more painful and mundane means. The barbarians took the most portable treasures they could find and left the rest, deciding that the empty city was an evil place.
The City – Then and Now
Map of Erkalion
Erkalion was situated on a natural harbor, which was protected from the worst of sea storms by the construction of a heavily-fortified breakwater with a lighthouse. Stone piers encompassed berths capable of accommodating some of the largest cargo vessels8, and a wharf and open space that doubled as a market and meeting place ran along much of the length of the harbor. The city was laid out in the typical Lhomarrian style: A couple of broad avenues, connected by narrower streets, radiated from the port to the city walls. Alongside the streets, most of the buildings were private homes—single-storey affairs whose outer walls were graced with colorful murals. A courtyard was often located at the centre of each home, where family members could eat and socialize. Taller buildings, up to three storeys, lined the major roads, and these were equally colorful, and often had epic tales depicted on their façades. Each of the main avenues ended at a heavily-fortified tower, which in turn housed the exterior gates. The crenellated walls were 20 feet high, with heavily-built watchtowers situated at regular intervals. Integrated as part of the walls was Erkalion’s citadel, which served as the seat of government as well as a shelter (in the extensive catacombs underneath) for the populace, should the city have been in danger of being overrun. The Lhomarrians also cleared away all of the trees and bushes within 150 feet of the walls. Unpaved roads connected Erkalion to the other communities of the territory, as well as the fortifications further inland.
Today, Erkalion resembles a series of heavily forested, rocky hills rising above a shallow bay. The breakwater has survived, as well as the foundations of the lighthouse, but both are now covered with grasses and hardy shrubs. Nevertheless, the line of the breakwater is too straight to be natural. The stone piers have also survived; although only one is remotely usable now as most of the berths have long since silted up. The main avenues are still vaguely discernible as shallow valleys running between low ridges, but in most places the side streets have been entirely obliterated. Erkalion’s formidable walls remain intact in several places, at some points being up to 15 feet tall. The citadel now resembles a steep, tree-covered hill, but the catacombs underneath are partly intact, encompassing a two-level network of tunnels and chambers. The ruins are visited by all sorts of mundane wildlife, such as giant anteaters, peccaries, tapirs, turtles, tortoises, predatory large cats, and numerous species of birds and insects. Local barbarian tribes visit the old harbor to fish on occasion, but do not suspect that there anything special about the site. The catacombs are home to a variety of giant insects, and certain portions are inhabited by lower-level undead.
Lost Treasures of Erkalion
Those who fled the city over the years did not take all of their valuables with them, nor were the Outer Beings interested in trinkets when they consumed those who remained. A veritable treasure trove awaits anyone persistent enough to find the ruins. Mixed with Lhomarrian coinage and other artifacts, however, are items that were sacred to the cults that held sway here in Erkalion’s final days. Some of these are listed below, but the reader is welcome to devise more:
The Sword of Maradan: For reasons long forgotten, General Maradan left his sword behind when he set out on his ultimately fatal campaign to eradicate the last of the Carnifex strongholds. His sword was made at the same time as his helm [http://www.pandius.com/yathkhe.html], and in fact the two were meant to be used together. This is a normal sword +2 made of bronze, and grants the wielder immunity against all illusions (from spells, drugs and/or poisons, and natural abilities). When the wielder is also wearing the Helm of Maradan, all saving throws also have a +1 bonus.
Gauntlets of Flame: These red leather gauntlets, originally worn by a battle-priest of Xeron, are fastened about the wrists by leather cords and bear the bronze engraved image of a flame (with a small ruby in the centre) on their backs. When worn, the gauntlets allow the wearer to produce normal flames in the palms of their hands, the intensity of which can be controlled by thought. A candle-sized flame can be kept alight indefinitely, but once it becomes larger than torchlight there is a limit:
A flame equal in size to a torch’s light can be maintained for 30 minutes per point of Intelligence of the wearer. Striking with this flame (roll as an unarmed combat attack) does 1d4 damage, as per a torch.
A flame the size of a campfire can be maintained for one turn per point of Intelligence of the wearer. Striking with this flame is awkward (roll -2 to hit for an unarmed combat attack), and each hit does 2d4 damage.
A flame the size of a fireball can be produced three times per day, but it must be thrown at an opponent (roll to hit) immediately, or it winks out of existence in the next round. If hit, an opponent takes 3d6 damage.
For all attacks, an opponent may save vs. Dragon’s Breath to take half damage.
The Shield Star of Galhossian: This is a palm-sized, seven-pointed star made of gold and inlaid with a silvery flame pattern extending down the arms. The Lhomarrian word “Senda” (“shield”) is etched in the centre. This is one of five magical stars crafted in BC 8390 for the mad Emperor Galhossian’s use, to enhance his own power. He used it, and the others, during the Lhomarrian Civil War (BC 8389-8377), during which he personally slayed many powerful opponents and seemed to overcome injuries that would have killed most warriors. After his assassination, imperial powers were curtailed and the Stars were hidden in separate locations. The shield star acts as a ring of protection +5, and creates an anti-magic shield (10’ radius, 50% chance of nullifying any incoming spell, unless willed otherwise) around its owner, that moves with him or her.
There are a number of ways an adventuring party could find themselves in Erkalion:
Castaways: The easiest way is to have the party’s vessel be caught in a storm or blown off-course. In such a case, the ruins could become a shelter and place to explore, and the focus of subsequent adventures would be the party figuring out where they are, what happened to the city, and how they can get back to civilization. Their arrival would not go unnoticed by local barbarian tribes…
Expedition: Some scholars know about Lhomarr and Y’hog, and one or more of them might have learned about the existence of Erkalion. The adventuring party could be hired as guards, or (depending on their skills) they might even be hired to conduct the investigations themselves. This would be a voyage of discovery, with the objective of recovering artifacts and bringing them back to their patron. In addition, the players could contend with pirates, rival academics, and even Outer Being cults. Assuming the voyage is a success, Erkalion could be put on the map (literally), which could lead to more complications as other expeditions to the region are mounted. Competition could become fierce…and violent.
The Rise of an Ancient Menace: The evil acts committed by the Outer Being cultists may have faint echoes in the modern era, and it is possible that the sacrifices summoned one or more servitors of the Outer Beings. If so, it is likely that the otherworldly creatures have been biding their time in the catacombs and, if intelligent, they may be concocting plots to further their masters’ aims. The arrival of the party might be seen as a sign. Powerful servitors would likely try to corrupt or control some or all of the party members, which could provide opportunities for intense roleplaying and lay the foundations for a series of high-stakes adventures.
1At the height of Lhomarrian power in the region, the Ormincarith was bordered by extensive wheat fields, which, combined with berries and root vegetables such as beets, formed the basis of a large part of local cuisine. Dishes from Erkalion were referred to as “animal feed” by culinary snobs in Lhomarr proper.
3Trestinia, daughter of Marissa, was also known as the “Shadow Empress” in mockery of the symbolic light of Xeron she purportedly represented, as well as the implication that her occupation of the throne was accidental or otherwise illegitimate. She was the fourth child of Emperor Karathas II, and under the traditions of Lhomarrian imperial succession would never have left the clergy. However, the loss of her three elder brothers in battle (the first two) and at sea elevated her to the throne. In many ways Trestinia – a brash, imperious woman who did not suffer fools - was cut from the same cloth as her boldest forebears and under other circumstances she could have been remembered as a legendary empress in her own right, but her fanaticism alienated all but her most sycophantic followers. Her reign (BC 8298 – 8254) was marked by frequent purges, mass deportations of heretics, coercion to adopt the faith, and brutal expansionism.
4From the time of the founding of the empire until the present day in the Hollow World, Lhomarrian dynastic succession has been based on the principle of primogeniture (the crown is passed to the eldest child). Initially male children of an heir-apparent would ascend to the throne before a female sibling, but the tendency of male heirs of fighting age to die in battle brought this practice to an end. By tradition, the eldest child (male or female) is the heir-apparent, while the second and third male children pursue military careers (the second child understands that his career will be cut short should he ascend to the throne). Females, and any children born after the third, traditionally entered the clerical orders of Xeron.
5The Gok'ket [http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=325&start=25#p6575] were an intelligent race of primates who were distantly related to the indigenous humans of Mystara. They predated the Carnifex by many millennia, and co-existed with the frogfolk of Y'ruth. Originally they lived in the far north, but a remnant of that race survived the sweeping changes of history and made its way south. They were a Stone Age people, and it is possible that some of them were transported to the Hollow World before they went extinct.
6Lhomarrian practice was to form “home regiments” (i.e., military units would be formed of people who came from the same city, town, or village) in the belief that soldiers would fight harder to protect their fellow troopers if they were the people they grew up with. For the most part this was true, and an unexpected side effect was that rivalries between units were not uncommon. Troops from Erkalion had a reputation for bravery, and it was widely believed that this was because they wanted to prove that they were just as willing to die for the empire, despite being so far removed from the action. They suffered some of the highest losses – almost as high, proportionally, as the fatality rate for male heirs to the imperial throne, which reached two-thirds during the most intense years of fighting against the Carnifex of Y'hog.
7Under Trestinia's rule, a person who voluntarily went to Erkalion would have been considered suspicious, since only a troublemaker would ever consider settling anywhere near a penal colony populated by heretics. The result would have been a lengthy interrogation, at best.
8By Known World standards, Erkalion would have a Port Class of “C” (2,000 to 4,999 hull points’ worth of vessels may be moored there).