A Light in Darkness
Cultural Level 7 (Medieval)
“Why should there always be this fear and slaughter between us?” said the Wolves to the Sheep. “Those evil-disposed Dogs have much to answer for. They always bark whenever we approach you and attack us before we have done any harm. If you would only dismiss them from your heels, there might soon be treaties of peace and reconciliation between us.” The Sheep, poor silly creatures, were easily beguiled and dismissed the Dogs, whereupon the Wolves destroyed the unguarded flock at their own pleasure.
— Aesop, The Wolves and the Sheep
The domain of Kartakass is rugged, hilly and mostly forested in the foothills of the Balinok mountains. The hills are riddled with caverns of all sizes piercing the rocky soil. The dense brush, twisty trees and rough terrain make travel on horseback slow and dangerous unless one stays on the roads. This danger is only compounded by the frequent dense fogs that move through the lowlands. The wolves of Kartakass are a constant and bold menace moving through the streets of the towns by night.
The largest town, Skald, is near the center of Kartakass. Skald is known as a source of unusually fine wool, harvested from the sheep they take pride in tending. Most homes are small thatched roof single story cottages with colorful shutters that lock up tight by night. South of Skald, the village of Harmonia is slightly smaller. Bards from Harmonia claim to have the finest singing voices in all of The Core, only the citizens of Skald dispute this.
Kartakan farmers are known for unusually large root vegetables, beets grow to more than ten pounds each and harvest festival competitions feature many much larger. The berries called meekulbern grow in wild thorny thickets throughout the hills. Natives distill these berries into meekulbrau. This bitter brew is credited with sweeting the voice, very few foreigners have acquired a taste for it.
Kartakass lies right at the southernmost Core’s center, nestled against the foothills Of the Balinoks. The hilly regions to the west are particularly rugged; it is not uncommon for a hillside to collapse into a sinkhole, creating short box canyons. Local woodsmen warn never to enter these ravines, for wolves steer their prey into them, penning them against the broken cliffs. Such sinkholes often expose entrances to the vast networks of natural limestone caverns that riddle the earth. The caves are impressive, large enough to house a bear, but some caves may open into vast, remarkable labyrinths.
Kartakans say that, not so long ago, their land was blanketed by unbroken woodlands. Generations of eager lumberjacks have done little to weaken the woods’ grip on the region. Most logging has centered on the rivers that flow through Kartakass, dividing the primordial wilderness into three vast forests. Grassy dales where herdsmen tend their flocks divide these woodlands. The dales are dotted by smaller, scattered groves where the trees have already started to reassert themselves.
The scars of extensive logging mark the edges of the three vast forests, but if one delves just a few hundred feet past that line, the woods still loom tall, dark, and pristine. Despite the Kartakans’ adventurous spirit and the relatively small size of their homeland, most folk insist that human eyes had never seen the hearts of these untamed wilds.
Travel through any of these forests quickly proves laborious. Only narrow paths that wind from one tiny settlement to another, as well as deceptively similar wild trails that lead only to lurking predators, crisscross the woods. Numerous gullies add to the traveler’s burden, carved into the rocky ground by burbling brooks and streams. Mists rise from the earth as the sun sets, settling in the gullies and other low places. Folk who dare travel by night often vanish forever. While it seems likely that these unfortunates simply become lost in the fog and darkness, Kartakans claim that wolves and other cunning beasts hide in the foggy crevices, waiting for foolish travelers to stumble over them.
Of the three great forests, Ulvskoven (“the Wolfwood”) is the largest, extending nearly unbroken across the region’s entire northern half. The Wolfwood looms similarly large in the Kartakan imagination. Virtually unpopulated by mankind, it is said to be the home of Kartakass’ largest and most fearsome beasts. According to tradition, a wide clearing, created when the roots of the massive tree at the clearing’s center choked the life from all of its neighbors marks the Wolfwood’s heart.
Kartakans call this dead tree Bedstefader Trae (“Grandfather Tree”) and claim that the great wolves of the woods gather every night beneath its branches. According to this fanciful tale, anyone brave enough to climb the great tree and eavesdrop on the wolves can learn all their secret plans. In another version of the tale, however, Grandfather Tree is actually a blood drinking, undead horror, grown so huge it has become permanently rooted to the spot and must wait for victims to wander into its clutches.
Rodskoven (“the Redwood”) climbs the foothills between Kartakass’ two rivers. Supposedly named for the ruddy tint found on the bark of its largest trees, some Kartakans suggest it earned the name for the splashes of blood often found on the roots of those trees. These woods house many natural cul-de-sacs. The wolves share these woods with logger camps and a number of hermits, who build their reinforced cabins atop the hills, where they can keep a watchful eye on the shadowed valleys below.
The last, and arguably least, of Kartakass’ great forests is Fekleskoven, “the Mistwood.” The Mistwood stretches along the southern banks of the Musarde River, separating it from the Misty Border. The Mistwood takes its name from the omnipresent fog that drifts through its trees. The region is virtually uninhabited, though occasional tales speak of insane mystics and the like. The region is further shunned due to its proximity to the Arkalias Hills, often referred to as den Livbs Bakker, the Dead Hills. The Arkalias Hills occupy Kartakass’ far southeastern corner. Until the Great Upheaval, this region of Kartakass bordered on Bluetspur, and exposure to that alien realm seems to have drained the very life from the soil. This is a remarkably barren region, with the thick forest of the Mistwood abruptly giving way to feeble shrubs and dusty gorges carved by storms from pale, sun-baked clay. All sensible Kartakans shun this region, even the wolves. Said to have once been home to a wicked mistress of the undead, reputedly the ravines are haunted still.
The caves in this region plunge unfathomable miles beneath the surface. Before the Great Upheaval, these tunnels supposedly wound their way into the heart of Bluetspur.
Bodies of Water
Two rivers divide the forests of Kartakass, both of which originate in Hazlan. The Kilovan River follows a winding, southwestern course through the hill country, separating the Wolfwood from the Redwood. After flowing past the town of Skald, it continues on its way, fed by several brooks before merging with the Musarde. The Musarde River flows westward across southern Kartakass, passing the town of Harmonia before merging with the Kilovan. Both of these rivers enter Kartakass as narrow whitewaters. Though unfit for any true river traffic, loggers use the rapid current of both rivers to transport their stripped trees to the waiting mills in Skald and Harmonia.
Down river from these two settlements, the rivers grow large and calm enough to allow for most forms of traffic. Often forgotten, the Merkendre (or “Black Heart”) sits deep in the Wolfwood, near the Barovian border. Two creeks feed this remote lake, which in turn forms the headwaters of the Nharov River. River traffic could reach this lake but does not commonly do so. There are no settlements to be found here, and as a major watering hole, the woods surrounding the lake are particularly treacherous. An old boatman claimed he sailed up the Nharov to see the lake. If his tale is true, the lake’s peat-choked waters conceal a scaly creature that attempted to slaughter his entire crew.
Roads and Trading Routes
The region maintains a handful of true highways. They turn into morasses following Kartakass’ infrequent but violent thunderstorms, however, and are often snowed in during harsh winters. The Crimson Road continues south out of Barovia, gently winding through the Wolfwood before reaching its end in Skald. This long, remote stretch of road is typically free of bandits, but only because wolves have likely eaten them. One or two ramshackle roadside inns break the monotony of the woods. Travelers with no desire to feed their horses to the wolves should use these inns’ fortified stables.
The Road to Harmony covers the short jaunt from Skald to Harmonia. The journey is too short to warrant a roadside inn; travelers seeking to reach one town by sunset should leave the other as early as possible. Lastly, the Merchant’s Way runs west from Skald to Sithicus, skirting the Wolfwood’s southern border. Seldom used, it has no inns, though farmers and herdsmen sparsely populate the grasslands to the south. As the sun sets, most travelers hasten to the nearest farmstead and haggle over use of the barn.
Kartakan buildings are massive log lodges with broad facades, though in Skald and Harmonia exterior walls may be coated in stucco with exposed timber supports. Both styles feature rows of narrow, arched windows with heavy blue or green painted shutters that can be barred from the inside. The fronts of homes and shops feature rough wooden carvings of legendary heroes, animals, or delicate floral patterns. Most buildings have steep thatched roofs. The homes and businesses of the affluent are usually covered in red tiles or slate. In Kartakass, the nickname “redcap” is applied to those who have come into money; the Kartakans seem blissfully unaware of the terror this name can evoke in the northern lands surrounding the Shadow Rift.
Natural surroundings are frequently incorporated directly into Kartakan architecture, such as a living tree used as a central support pillar for a logging camp’s dormitory. The most striking example is undoubtedly the Crystal Club in Harmonia, carved directly into a natural cavern of glittering crystals. In rural areas, wooden palisades against Kartakass’ notoriously fearless wolves typically surround buildings. Owners stable animals and livestock inside their houses in separate compartments at the back. All doors can be barred and, if the owner can afford it, locked. Interior walls are often smoothed with lathe and plaster, and most homes, inns, and taverns feature enormous central fireplaces ringed by a raised dais for musical performances and storytelling.
All Kartakan communities are built around a public amphitheater to house the annual singing contests so vital to their culture. No settlement can match the acoustical wonder of the amphitheater in Harmonia. Skald and Harmonia also feature impressive fortifications, including towering stone curtain walls, catapults, and, in Harmonia, a moat lined with crude iron spikes. The locals insisted that the so-called Invidian oppressors who once ruled here built these defenses. Kartakans today have little interest in the fortifications, maintaining them only to prevent their collapse.
Kartakass’ flora is defined by the dense, towering forests that blanket the region. The rare evergreen, particularly black pine, can be found, but hardwoods (beech, oak, ash and red birch) predominate. Grassy dales explode with wildflowers every spring and summer. Plants with bulbous roots, such as beets and radishes, thrive in the rich, black soil.
Kartakans sing the praises of one plant above all others: meekulbem, a fickle plant that thrives in some spots while refusing to take root just a few paces away. When the plant flourishes, its narrow vines cling to every upright bit of timber in reach. Several times each year, these vines produce a few small flowers, bearing a sickly-sweet odor, and numerous crimson berry clusters. These berries are distilled into a heady, bitter brew called meekulbrau. Meekulbrau supposedly relaxes the throat and calms the nerves, improving the imbiber’s singing voice. Kartakans admit that meekulbrau is an acquired taste. Meekulbrau is in great demand among the Kartakan elite and wealthy minstrels throughout the Core. As such, a single bottle of good vintage can fetch up to 400 gp.
Another plant exists in the Arkalias Hills. Only one plant still thrived in that wasteland, a small herb bearing pale blue and white blossoms. It appears to be an offshoot of wolfsbane, but locals call it nightblight. They claim that wolves are repelled by its foul stench, which only they can detect. If true, this plant would go far to explain how the Dead Hills can remain so blessedly free of wolves. Unfortunately it withers quickly once picked, and all attempts to transplant a sample have failed.
The temperate wilds are home to all manner of creatures, from field mice to badgers, deer, and bears. Wild boars are common and a staple in the diet of the fearless wolves that roam these woods. They have been known to chase carriages down the Crimson Road. In communities that lack barricades, they pad through the streets at night. Each year sees a few people dragged off, though these victims are usually children, the infirm, or travelers.
Kartakan legend tells that deep in the woods, in the untamed regions, animals grow abnormally large and powerful. The Kartakans call these fearsome creatures “grandfather animals,” an aspect of their creation myths that bleeds into the present. The three most common species are said to be the grandfather boar, the grandfather owl, and, of course, the grandfather wolf.
Of the grandfather animals, the cruel and cunning grandfather wolf represents the only true threat. The owls are rarely seen, though there are tales of great owls that had swooped down from the nighttime sky to snatch up a lamb, child, or halfling. The boars can be extremely dangerous when provoked, but prefer to keep to themselves deep in the woods, where they use their tusks to uproot trees to get at fungi. Kartakan woodsmen enjoy hunting these tusked horrors for sport, carting as much of the slain boar’s meat as they can back to their campsites to engage in boisterous feasts. As it is with their smaller kin, grandfather wolves also prey upon these massive boars.
Kartakan bards use these mythic creatures as characters in their mora, or moral tales. Three characters are particularly prominent in these old tales. Central to Kartakan legends is Bedstefader Ulv, or Grandfather Wolf, a trickster and antihero whose insatiable appetite always leads him into trouble, but whose immense charisma and cruel cunning usually see him through. He can assume any form, and his songs can charm the forests themselves. Grandfather Wolf tales invariably mention his “fickle and avaricious” nature, and his misadventures speak to the fate of deceitful, hedonistic folk, as well as predators in both the human and natural realms. Bedstefader Rdd (Grandfather Boar) is Grandfather Wolf s perennial prey. Grandfather Boar is a stubborn, lethargic, dimwitted beast, but when he is provoked, he rages like a thunderstorm. Many tales use Grandfather Boar to warn against provoking unnecessary trouble.
Bedstefader Ugle (Grandfather Owl) sees all from his high perch but seldom intervenes in the world beneath him. When Owl does deign to swoop down to assist Wolf or Boar, he is inevitably revealed to be manipulating all involved to further his own ends. The Kartakans speak of Grandfather Owl in virtually the same terms expressed to describe the Vistani. Dependable reports indicate that kobolds and goblins frequently migrate through the Wolfwood, using the natural caverns as their lairs. Bloated, spider like creatures spin vast webs between the Mistwood’s trees. The occasional odd statue found in the woods lends credence to tales of cockatrices, although it is believed that the stuffed cockatrice on display in Skald’s Fireside Feeshka Inn is a clever forgery.
Then there is the narrulve, or “trickster wolf.” Fearsome creatures of myth, they are said to be shapeshifting wolves that can assume pleasing human forms to move among their prey. Many folk believe that narrulve in human form can be detected only by their dark tresses The narrulve may appear to refer to werewolves, but locals stress that this is a distinctly different horror, a sort of animalistic shapechanger that van Richten has prosaically called a “wolfwere.”
The Kartakan people do not differentiate between myth, legend, and historical fact. They chronicle their lives in the form of songs and bard’s tales, both highly allegorical and written with an eye for the dramatic. Meistersinger Harkon Lukas of Skald once spoke on the amorphous nature of Kartakan history maddening. “What does history matter? What is done is done. Once a deed slips into the past, it affects us today only in the way that it is remembered. Many events that never happened continue to shape us today, and many events that did happen have long since been forgotten. What power has fact in the face of significance?”
Kartakan “history” begins in the timeless realm of creation myth. Kartakans speak of the “First Days,” when the sun first rose from the Mists to reveal a dark and endless forest. Humankind did not exist then, and the beasts that roamed those woods grew huge and wise. Grandfather Wolf was the master of the dark forest, and he spent his days hunting Grandfather Boar. Then, according to legend, the wolves simply entered a meadow and discovered humans already there. Kartakans claim that their ancestors lived for untold ages as simple farmers and herders, learning music from the sounds of nature. They could not live in communion with nature — the primal beasts were far too powerful and resentful of the human intrusion for that; instead, they learned to respect the wild, and soon most beasts left them alone. Humankind and Grandfather Wolf soon became enemies, for both hunted everything else in the dark forests, and each was the only creature that did not fear the other.
Nebulous as these creation myths are, Kartakans tell that the era came to an end roughly 250 years ago, when armies of a new human tribe swept in and conquered the simple Kartakans. Today, Kartakans allege that these invaders hailed from Invidia and thus call the century that follows the Invidian Occupation. According to Kartakan lore, the Invidians were gifted engineers who raised great walls around their settlements to shut out the ravaging wolves. The Invidians were no more kind than Grandfather Wolf had been, however, and brutally oppressed the native Kartakans, forcing them to labor as slaves and servants. The heart of Invidian control was Dargacht Keep, a dark citadel of stone and timber from which the town of Skald would grow.
Crumbling songs written near the time of the event never specifically identify the occupiers, instead commonly calling them the “Dark Men.” By all accounts, though, the Occupation ended rather spectacularly in 613 BC with the fall of Dargacht Keep. According to tales, Invidian soldiers captured a minstrel in the woods and dragged him to the keep to execute him for sedition. The Invidians regularly flexed their power by conducting brutal public executions for the benefit of the terrorized Kartakans, whose attendance was mandatory. The captured man was the bard Harkon Lukas — yes, apparently that one — and his captors made the fatal error of allowing him to deliver his “final words” to the crowd.
Rather than plead for his life, Lukas delivered a speech of such stunning power that the lowly people of Skald rose up as one to throw down their despised oppressors. By the end of the night, Dargacht Keep was collapsing in flames and all Invidian control over Skald had been broken. The uprising spread to the rest of Kartakass like wildfire, and within days the shattered Invidian Occupation was forced to retreat into the wilderness.
The fall of Dargacht Keep makes for compelling drama, and there are reliable accounts both in Kartakass and in Barovia to ensure that it did in fact exist. The tale leaves one compelling enigma, however: Harkon Lukas. Bards adhering to his exact description have been a prominent part of Kartakan culture ever since the uprising. If this Lukas is one man, he must be nearly two hundred years old. When posing the issue to various Kartakans, most supposed that “Harkon Lukas” is himself a legendary archetype like Grandfather Wolf, and a series of bards have adopted his persona over the decades to build on his reputation. When questioned himself, Lukas merely grinned and quipped that his reputation precedes him considerably.
When Kartakass first appeared, it had three neighbors: Gundarak to the northwest, Forlorn to the northeast, and Bluetspur to the east. Fortunately, all three largely ignored their new companion. The Misty Border hugged Kartakass to the south and west; Sithicus would not join the Kartakan border for more than a century, and Hazlan would not border Kartakass until after the Great Upheaval.
The remainder of the seventh century would prove relatively quiet for the young realm as the newly freed Kartakans solidified their new culture. This is not to say that nothling occurred, but none of it apparently had any lasting effect on this rustic realm. The most significant event of the century was a religious revival that briefly swept through the region in the 650s. The one surviving remnant of this passing fancy, the cult of the Ancestral Choir, sank into obscurity, kept alive for eighty years in a dilapidated temple by a handful of followers until its recent revival.
With the coming of the current century, Kartakass drew the attention of covetous foreign powers. Following his disastrous Dead Man’s Campaign, Vlad Drakov attempted to establish a number of Falkovnian “trading enclaves” in countries throughout the Core known to have weak or nonexistent central governments. These “enclaves” are ruled as tiny extensions of Falkovnian territory, and the program has proved moderately successful. When Drakov attempted to establish an enclave in Kartakass throughout the 710s, however, he met with complete failure. The citizens of Skald and then Harmonia rose up in turn to cast out his “diplomat.” Drakov’s final attempt came in 709, when he ordered a palisade fort built along the Crimson Road, intended as a chokepoint through that he could control the passage of all trade into and out of Kartakass. As the tale goes, within a few weeks of the fort’s completion, a minor gate was “accidentally” left open overnight. Wolves swarmed in and slaughtered the soldiers in their beds. Today, the fort is abandoned and overgrown.
Foreign tyrants are not the only ones to covet Kartakass. Zhone Clieous reigned as Meistersinger of Harmonia for twenty years, from 717 to 737 BC. Toward the end of his reign, it is widely held that he planned ways to expand his control to all of Kartakass. Yet in Harmonia’s fateful meistersinger contest of 737 BC, Meistersigner Clieous faced down a mysterious contender: a masked bard with a glorious singing voice who called himself only Sundered Heart. Sundered Heart mysteriously lost his voice in the final, crucial round of the contest; had this cruel fate not befallen him, it is believed that he would have won the meistersinger’s title. The very night of Clieous’s victory, Harmonia’s orphanage burned to the ground.
A week later, when Meistersinger Clieous took the stage in Harmonia’s amphitheater for his weekly public address, the scorned Sundered Heart returned and revealed a laundry list of Clieous’ crimes. Sundered Heart was a local orphan named Casimir. Zhone had killed Casimir’s mother years earlier and put the orphanage to the torch to silence his vengeful foe. Then, so every witness swears, Casimir attacked Clieous and revealed his most terrible secret: the meistersinger was a monstrous werewolf. Casimir pursued the monstrous Clieous into the Crystal Club and there singlehandedly destroyed the beast.
As the first runner-up in the singing contest, Casimir declared himself the rightful meistersinger, his claim bolstered by support from, shockingly enough, Harkon Lukas himself. Meistersinger Casimir ruled Harmonia for a nearly a year. He proved to be a capricious ruler and openly contemptuous of Harmonia’s wealthier citizens. During his reign, his most significant act revived the floundering Ancestral Choir cult, declaring it Harmonia’s state religion.
Before the year was out, though, Meistersinger Casimir was publicly exposed as a werebeast. The most common account holds that Clieous had afflicted Casimir with lycanthropy during their final confrontation and that Casimir’s increasingly erratic behavior had masked his descent into corruption. Casimir was forced to flee. Most accounts claim he died soon after, but some say he roams the wilds to this day.
The repercussions of two monstrous meistersingers in as many years rattled Harmonia. Eldon Comistev was named the interim meistersinger. A successful merchant, Meistersinger Comistev endured a short, troubled reign. In 741 BC, Eliska Vokrona won the office away from him. and in the years since has done much to restore Harmonia’s tarnished glory.
Casimir’s pet project, the cult of the Ancestral Choir, managed to survive, but it too has suffered a troubled past. The state church’s first high priest was murdered soon after temple renovations began. The elderly priest’s successor, an orphan named Thoris was pious enough, but little more than a boy. After the apparent demise of his friend Casimir, Thoris threw himself from the cliffs, his final, despairing words being, “The angels have fangs.”
Luther Bedarik reigned as the meistersinger of Skald for a full decade, from 733 to 743 BC. He gained the office in no small part due to the public support of Harkon Lukas and in some circles was rumored to be one of Harkon’s puppets. Over the years, many folk noted that power seemed to breed true ambition in Meistersinger Bedarik’s heart, and his public relationship with Lukas visibly soured; apparently, the puppet wished to cut his strings.
In the autumn of 742 BC, Luther penned and publicly performed an original ballad — performed in a local style akin to a one-man opera — that would prove extremely controversial. Berdarik’s epic tragedy, The Soulless Crown, told the tale of an elderly Grandfather Wolf who has lived as a narrulv among Mankind for so long that he has been tainted by human dreams of power. Grandfather Wolf schemes to conquer Mankind entirely, but he is blind to the fact that he has poisoned two of his own cubs with twisted ambition. First, Grandfather Wolf’s daughter conspires with the Dead Man to steal her father’s power. In the next act, Grandfather Wolf places his son in a position of power over humans, but the spiteful child simply uses all his might to strike against his sire.
The ballad’s themes are ancient, but in presentation it became obvious that Berdarik’s Grandfather Wolf was a thinly disguised version of Harkon Lukas himself; the two treacherous cubs were Akriel and Casimir. The ballad’s scandalous message was clear: Berdarik was claiming that all three were trickster wolves.
The resulting outrage motivated Harkon Lukas to enter the next Meistersinger Contest in the summer of 743 BC. He won the contest handily and restored his reputation. Humiliated, Luther Berdarik retreated entirely from public life, not seen since the night of Lukas’ victory.
Having toppled Skald’s rulers nearly a century and a half earlier, Harkon Lukas finally claimed the throne for himself. Meistersigner Lukas has successfully defended the title ever since, but current gossip holds that he does so purely out of a sense of territoriality.
Throughout the core Kartakans are known to have the voices of angels. They sing for every occasion, a tune for each labor and special event. Neighboring workers will harmonize and subtly intertwine their songs in chains that stretch for miles drifting through the hills. Though their music is often sorrowful, the people are generally content and fear only the wolves of the night.
Most Kartakans live in poverty, but they claim to be content and are fiercely proud of the freedoms their homeland affords them. Kartakan culture is remarkably egalitarian and incorporates regular recreation, and these folk seem to fear nothing but the wolves. All Kartakans are freemen, and most support themselves as farmers, herders, or loggers; craftsmen stay close to the larger settlements.
Kartakans comprise a homogenous ethnic group that claims to have resided in the region since the beginning of time. Kartakans are a lean and graceful people blessed with long limbs and angular, handsome features. Both men and women tend to be tall and statuesque, and most possess the sort of rich, melodious voices usually ascribed to angels or sirens. The Kartakan complexion is generally fair and creamy, sometimes dotted by a few scattered chestnut freckles. Their eyes are almost always a striking shade of blue-violet, though eyes of pure blue or violet appear on rare occasion. Wavy, flaxen blond hair is the norm, but sometimes a child is born with dark brown or black hair. Brunettes are widely assumed to have brooding natures as the common Kartakan belief is that the narrulve invariably feature raven tresses in humanoid form. Men wear their hair roguishly long and wild, often growing it past their shoulders, and favor neatly trimmed goatees and long, full moustaches. Women frequently allow their hair to hang all the way to their waists and, like the men, allow it to grow untamed.
Kartakans dress for attention, favoring comfortable but dashing fashions. Men and women alike wear blousy shirts and trousers, the latter tucked into high black riding boots — whether or not the individual could possibly afford a horse. Women tend to wear short vests over their blouses, while men prefer full coats with wide cuffs on the sleeves. Women don dresses and gowns only on highly formal occasions. As summer cools to winter, Kartakans often add half-capes to their attire, graduating to full-length, fur-lined cloaks when the snows fall. Wide-brimmed hats are popular with men year-round, particularly with woodsmen and travelers. A long plume is considered especially jaunty, particularly if plucked from a Grandfather Owl.
Rich and poor alike dress in vibrant colors. Brilliant reds, yellows, and blues are the most popular, followed by hues such as burgundy, gold, and turquoise. Delicate embroidery is frequently used for decoration, and sleek, form-fitting elven fabrics are highly sought after on the rare occasion that a shipment arrives from Sithicus. Jewelry is used only sparingly; the sparkle of a single ring or earring is considered most attractive. Further adornment usually takes the form of precious accessories such as silver or gold buttons, buckles, or clasps.
The language of Kartakass is very similar to that of Hazlan, but shares many elements with elvish creating an odd lilting accent. The natives are fond of tall tales called feeshkas (little lies) and tell them in response to even common questions. This is expected behavior and can lead to wild goose chaises ending in mild embarrassment, though rarely danger. For outsiders this can be extremely frustrating.
The people of Kartakass speak Vaasi, just as they do in Hazlan and Nova Vaasa. The Kartakan dialect, however, incorporates many more synonyms than other variations. Words are chosen as much for their sound and rhythm as their meaning.
The dominant language of Kartakass is Vaasi, but the Kartakans have assimilated a great deal of the Elven tongue of their western neighbors, resulting in a distinct dialect with a lyrical cadence that sounds best when sung. It is believed that Sithicans can often piece together the gist of a Kartakan’s words. Commonly, most merchants are at least casually conversant in Luktar and Balok.
Kartakass also possesses its own, entirely distinct language known as Old Kartakan. This difficult language was apparently the common tongue of the Kartakans prior to the Occupation, though today it is all but extinct, spoken only by the elderly or to add an air of dignity to formal affairs. In a sense, it has become the language of secrets.
|love||elske, have kaer|
|music||musik, noder, tonlist|
Though the language of the land is now Vaasi, there are many who still remember the old tongue.
|go away!||poctde stran!|
Lifestyle & Education
Young couples frequently marry for love, though many admit to a certain pressure to “trade up,” improving their own social standing by marrying into a family with better positioning. Due to this social opportunism, it is common for parents to establish nuptial “labors” that the suitor must fulfill before they will grant their blessing for marriage. The nature of these tasks varies as widely as the families that issue them. Some families simply demand dowries, but other suitors have been required to work the parents’ farmstead for a season, to complete training at a bardic hall, or in one case simply to travel abroad for a year. All of these “labors” inevitably boil down to the suitor proving his or her worth.
Couples typically marry in their late teens to early twenties. Upscale, urban couples tend to have small families, while couples in agricultural regions produce as many children as they can support. Medicine is no better in Kartakass than in Barovia, so childhood death rates remain high. Infant mortality commonly remains the work of disease, but once a child learns to walk, the odds shift considerably in favor of his doom coming in the form of a ravenous beast. Divorce and remarriage are both permitted, but are considered mildly scandalous.
Kartakass possesses no true formal schooling. Parents teach their children the rudiments of literacy in both Vaasi and musical notation. The community meistersinger provides the child’s moral and ethical education through recitals of divine songs called the mora (see below). The only structured educational system are the bardic halls of Harmonia and Skald. These halls admit children as young as ten, but only if the child possesses noteworthy vocal talent and the child’s parents can pay annual tuition fees. These halls provide a reasonably rounded education that can last up to ten years, but the focus remains on creating gifted performers, not philosophers.
Kartakass’ soil is extremely fertile, so even impoverished commoners tend to eat fairly well. The dark red bulbs and leafy green tops of the region’s oversized beets are a daily staple of the Kartakan diet, whether baked, broiled, pickled, jellied, or glazed with honey. A popular recipe is borscht, a thick soup that combines beets with cabbage, apples, onions, and molasses. Kartakans usually supplement their diet with goat or beef; dairy, fish, eggs, and poultry dishes; and tart, sourdough bread. Local wine, ale, or hard apple cider accompanies most meals. Kartakans typically sample meekulbrau only as a rare delicacy.
Folk with greater resources usually spice up their meals with lamb, beef, or pork, usually served as thick steaks or spicy sausages. Even those of lesser station can usually afford these heavier foods as an occasional treat. Sweets often come in the form of crisp gingerbread or hazelnut tortes.
The defining cultural trait of the Kartakans is their boundless love for music and stories, which forms the core of their mystical philosophies. Kartakan settlements ring with music and are usually heard before they are seen. This music is called the mora, an ever-expanding body of divine songs written by the Kartakans’ revered ancestors, called den Anen Prima, or “the Ancestral Choir.” Kartakans have songs for every occasion, ranging from simple children’s ditties to bawdy drinking songs to profoundly dramatic ballads and arias. An individual who goes to his grave without penning a single new song — that is, without contributing to the culture — is considered to have wasted his life tragically.
Most mora teach in the form of allegory, underlining cultural lessons the Kartakans deem significant. Most of these musical fables concern a regular stable of recurring, archetypical characters. Many of these characters are loosely based on famous historical figures — the bard Harkon Lukas is nearly a legend himself in this respect — but the oldest and most revered songs feature the Grandfathers as reflections of both humanity and nature.
Gossip is also a vital component of Kartakan interaction. Telling a Kartakan a juicy secret is considered a challenge for him to reveal one in turn. Kartakans gleefully swap rumors among close friends and colleagues, but try to avoid engaging in these games with strangers.
Kartakans occasionally reveal a smirking approach to their own myths and folklore, indicating that they do not take it all as seriously as it may seem. This is most clear in their tradition of telling feeshka, or “little lies.” Kartakan families gather around their hearths at night to trade these tall tales, whiling away the dark hours as wolves prowl outside. The Kartakans are fond of spinning these tales to lead gullible friends and strangers alike on wild goose chases. No reputable Kartakan would ever send anyone off on a chase that would strand him in the wilderness overnight, however.
Attitude Toward Magic
Kartakans have an extremely animistic, primal view of nature. They believe that in the heart of the forests, the First Days have never truly ended. True magic is seldom witnessed, but is held to be a primal force of nature. Magic is not seen as inherently evil, but believed to be extremely dangerous; calling upon these primal forces is to beckoning wolves to one’s doorstep.
Kartakans are not terribly religious. They pray to no gods, and marriages and funerals are usually secular affairs overseen by family members. A few true religions have surfaced in Kartakass, however, including a theological offshoot of their native mystical philosophies.
The Ancestral Choir
Symbol: A flute; clerics “present” their symbols by playing them. —
Portfolio: Wisdom, foresight, protection, truth, beauty
Domains: Knowledge, Luck, the Mora (see page 114)
Favored Weapon: Battleaxe
Clerics of the Ancestral Choir, called choirmasters, pray for their spells at sunrise and wear vestments of red and gold. They are expected to have clear, pleasant singing voices, necessary to teach the mora to the children’s choir.
A tiny congregation meets each morning in Harmonia’s Temple of Divine Song for brief services, lifting their voices in praise, singing different mora every day to demonstrate their admiration for the wisdom of their forefathers. The faithful are expected to attend services at least once a week.
The Ancestral Choir: The tiny cult of the Ancestral Choir is a local phenomenon currently enjoying a minor revival in Harmonia. Unlike most Kartakans, cult members believe in the Ancestral Choir as a tangible entity: the Kartakans’ revered ancestors not only watch over their living descendants, but can intervene on their behalf as well. The faithful believe that offering proper veneration to these ancestors can earn them divine favor in life and guarantees they will reach the eternal haven of the Ancestral Choir after death. Beyond this tenet, the cult’s beliefs closely mirror that of mainstream Kartakans, who generally view the cult with a smirk. The cult seems to appeal most strongly to Harmonia’s most desperate and disaffected citizens. In fact, many current cult members are orphans who were taken in by the temple as children after their orphanage nearly burned down.
Kartakan afterlife beliefs do not feature any concept of a hell. Instead, they speak of two rival “heavens” — one for humankind and one for animals of nature:
For humans, “heaven” means that one’s spirit joins the Ancestral Choir and adds one’s voice to its eternal music. There is no true judgment involved here, no realm of punishment for the wicked, and all human souls are free to join the Choir. Those who have led morally unacceptable lives are simply fated to have their music forever ignored, drowned out by more worthy songs. Of course, to the prideful Kartakans, to be eternally ignored is considered a form of oblivion and might as well be hell in their minds. In Kartakass, to say that someone has “joined the choir” is a pleasant euphemism for death analogous to the common “passed away.”
The second Kartakan afterlife is usually called den Merk Skov, “the Dark Forest.” This is heaven for the beasts of the wilds, where the only music is the chirping of crickets, croaking of toads, and the howling of wolves. All animal spirits come here after death to spend the rest of eternity doing whatever beasts enjoy. Unfortunately, so Kartakans assert, what wolves enjoy most is preying upon humans. Human souls are supposedly safe once they reach the Ancestral Choir, but the wolves of heaven are said to hunt the souls of the recently departed. If these engelulve — or “angel wolves” — catch a human soul, they drag it back to the Dark Forest, where the hapless spirit is stalked forever.
People who die alone are thought to be at dire risk of being found by the angel wolves. The same is true of those who do not believe in the Ancestral Choir and those who are driven to suicide by despair, for neither is likely to seek out the Choir before the wolves find them. The surest sign that a soul has been lost, however, is if wild animals feed on the corpse — wolves in particular. Kartakans have developed a handful of funereal traditions to prevent this dreadful occurrence. Kartakans bury their dead in deep graves, and instead of using headstones, they confound scavengers by covering the grave with a stone slab or occasionally a latticework of cold iron bars.
Kartakan families who cannot afford such costly measures often resort to a lengthy, esoteric ritual. Mourners gather in the deceased’s home, where the body lies on display. The mourners take turns singing odes to the dead man, lauding his life and the quality of his soul. After an hour or so of these dirges, the funereal party splits into two groups. Half fall silent, standing watch over the corpse as its physical guardians. The rest of the mourners venture out into the woods, tugging a young goat along with them. Walking a fair distance into the wilds, they tie the helpless creature to a tree and abandon it, all the time continuing to sing odes to the deceased. Although the songs have not changed, the mourners’ gestures make it clear that their high praise is now directed at the sacrificial animal, singing for the benefit of unseen wolves assumed to be listening to their every word.
After spending the night in silent vigil over the deceased, if the corpse is intact and a quick check reveals that nothing remains of the goat save a frayed rope and the coppery smell of blood, the relieved mourners bury the dead man with no further ado. As it was explained to me, the angel wolves were fooled into taking the goat’s spirit, thus buying the soul of the deceased enough time to reach the Ancestral Choir. Had the corpse been ravaged before the goat was taken, the soul would surely be doomed.
Lastly, the undead hold a particular role in Kartakan folklore as rather pitiful spirits who have either refused to join the Ancestral Choir or been expelled for unfathomable reasons. Forever hunted by the engelulve, these wretched creatures steal mortal lives to throw the angel wolves off their scent. Because the undead have no place in the Ancestral Choir, most Kartakans have developed the belief (without merit, unfortunately) that the undead cannot sing.
Ezra: The Church of Ezra has never found a strong audience in Kartakass, no doubt because it represents exactly the sort of centralized, foreign power the Kartakans abhor. The presence of Ezra’s clergy is limited to a handful of proselytizing wardens (traveling anchorites) who drift from hamlet to hamlet, catering to their scattered handful of followers.
Hala: Likewise, the Church of Hala maintains an unobtrusive profile in Kartakass. The witches keep a few humble hospices, usually located within a day’s walk of the larger settlements. Most Kartakans know virtually nothing of these veiled witches beyond their role as healers.
No one lords over Kartakass. United by a common culture, each settlement — from the major towns of Skald and Harmonia down to the handful of tiny thorps scattered across the countryside — exists as an independent city-state. Although communities frequently attempt to outshine their neighbors through prestigious performances or similar displays, none of these chest-thumping rivalries have ever escalated into violence.
Each permanent settlement in Kartakass is ruled by a meistersinger, who can be thought of as a sort of singing mayor. A meistersinger wields considerable power within his community, being largely free to rule however he sees fit. Meistersingers personally oversee nearly every aspect of government: they mete out criminal justice, adjudicate civil disputes, oversee public works, fund the town guard, and appoint lesser officials. Most importantly, to the Kartakan point of view, meistersingers are seen as cultural and moral leaders, charged with ensuring that the youngest generations learn the mora. Most meistersingers provide Primae Consularae, weekly public forums in which they entertain, dispense wisdom, and address the concerns of the crowd, offering a general review of the current state of affairs.
In return, the meistersinger is comfortably housed and treats the community’s coffers as his own. Kartakan communities derive most of their revenue from various taxes and entry tolls. The more prosperous the community, the more prosperous its leader.
Meistersingers are chosen in an annual singing contest, starting on Midsummer’s Day. This amusingly quaint system is remarkably egalitarian, at least in theory. Anyone is free to enter the contest, be they man or woman, rich or poor, Kartakan or outlander. Winners are chosen by audience response, however, and in practice, Kartakan audiences tend to be conservative. Political outsiders definitely start with a strike against.
Festivities begin at midday, when lesser performers — commonly apprentices, talented amateurs, and the like — play for the gathering crowds throughout the afternoon. As the sun touches the horizon, the reigning meistersinger takes the stage. Hushing the crowds, he opens the proceedings by reciting a ritual greeting in Old Kartakan. The meistersinger switches to Vaasi to offer a brief introduction, then calls for the contest to begin. The contest is divided into three rounds, split over two nights. The first round is called One Voice Among Many, and is a contest of both pure singing talent and vocal stamina. As this round begins, the contenders take the stage one at a time, each one performing any song he wishes. Each contender’s goal in this round is simply to win as much of the audience’s attention as possible through the power and clarity of his voice.
This round can last up to an hour. Contenders who are clearly outclassed are expected to leave the stage and join the audience. When the herd has been sufficiently thinned, so to speak, the meistersinger retakes the stage and declares the round over. He uses audience applause to select the five most popular contenders, who proceed to the second round.
After a brief intermission to allow the contenders to rest their voices, the second round begins: the War of Words. The five contenders retake the stage for a duel of insults, intended to test the contenders’ rhetoric, creativity, and ability to weather abuse. The meistersinger opens the round by addressing a contender by name and asking the question, “What makes you fit to rule.?” The addressed contender must justify his claim to the office, defending his justification against the barbs — hopefully witty, often cruel — of the other four contenders with witty repartee of his own. Whenever the pace sags, the meistersinger steps back in and asks the same question of a new contender. The round continues in this manner until all five contenders get their chance to promote themselves and belittle the others.
At the end of the round, the meistersinger again calls for the audience to select the contender who has demonstrated the most cunning, poise, and civic pride. As the crowds applaud their favorites, the meistersinger declares a winner, bringing an end to the second round and the night’s festivities.
The third and final round begins at sunset the following night. This time, just two performers take the stage: the surviving contender and the reigning meistersinger, who must at last actively defend his title. The final round is quite simple. Each performs a single song of his choosing, drawn from any source and performed in any style. The meistersinger goes first, followed by the contender. In his one song, each performer must express the depth of his emotions, wisdom, and knowledge, as well as demonstrating his strengths while pointing out his opponent’s flaws.
As always, the audience decides the winner with their applause. Whoever takes the contest leaves the stage as the community’s new meistersinger.
Obviously, the system favors the incumbent. Once in office, most meistersingers enjoy a reign that lasts for many years before they peacefully choose to retire. Aberrations do occur, but meistersingers who prove themselves to be truly incompetent or corrupt seldom last more than a year.
Supernatural forms of enhancing one’s performance are strictly forbidden, but many accounts are told of contenders who tried covertly to utilize such deceit anyway. On the other hand, all contenders are traditionally offered a complimentary goblet of meekulbrau before each round.
An untested meistersinger’s power is not absolute. Meistersingers typically rely on the counsel of a handful of advisors, civil servants who swear an oath of loyalty to their community, not their meistersinger. Well versed in the realities of power, they often outlast the meistersingers they advise. In fact, during the tumultuous 730s, three advisors in Harmonia managed to serve four successive meistersingers, including the two publicly unveiled as monsters.
Meistersingers also assign a captain to oversee the town guard and maintain order. Regrettably, town guardsmen, like the meistersingers they serve, are often motivated primarily by self-interest. The average guardsman can be counted to protect the citizenry, but he is not above a bit of bribery or minor extortion. The guardsmen manning the toll bridges leading into Skald and Harmonia proved to be the worst in this regard. Bridge guards typically treat their own citizens fairly, but an obviously foreign traveler such as myself can expect to be presented with all manner of imaginary tolls and fees. The most egregious of these, reserved only for the wealthy, is the “Allegiance Tax,” in which a traveler is charged anywhere up to 5 gp if he cannot sing the community anthem.
A typical Kartakan guardsman works under a captain of the guard to enforce laws and keep the peace. The captain reports to the meistersinger in turn.
Like most of the countries of the southern Core, Kartakass’ economy is overwhelmingly agricultural, with most of its natural resources tied into the region’s dense woodlands. Kartakass has no aristocracy, so most true power here falls to the mercantile elite. Kartakan merchants are a cunning lot, known to conceal their nearly predatory greed behind a smiling, amiable demeanor. Within settlements, these merchants’ taxes fill most of the town coffers, so meistersingers must be careful to keep their wealthy citizens appeased. Outside these settlements, loggers and trappers are policed only by the capricious cruelties of nature. Kartakan merchants conduct most of their commerce with Barovian and Invidian traders.
Timber is Kartakass’ most significant export. Logging is physically demanding and dangerous work, but lumberjacks seem to enjoy what is often called “logger’s luck.” Simply put, it is extremely rare for a lumberjack to be attacked by wolves while on the job. Logging camps scattered at the edges of the great forests may have been thoroughly infiltrated by the narrulve. The wolfweres may protect their human colleagues to ensure that their preferred source of income does not falter. Lumberjacks are not immune to tragedy, however. Loggers die every year in accidents while sawing trees or floating them downriver, and the stereotypical logger — be he wolf or man — is a lawless, temperamental sort, who lives in the wilds because civilization has proven a poor fit. Once cleared for farming, the soil produces lush crops. During the warmer months, farmers grow rye, barley, oats, cabbages, beets, radishes, and potatoes.
Herdsmen raise hogs, sheep, or cattle, particularly in the grassy dales that surround Skald and Harmonia and follow the Merchant’s Way. Many maintain flocks of teksel, a long-tailed breed of sheep that produces particularly fine wool. Children are never sent out to watch over the flocks alone; herdsmen watch for wolves in teams, often with the assistance of sheepdogs. Some herdsmen bring along a mastiff or two for additional protection. Livestock is always herded into secure shelters by nightfall. The rivers in Kartakass teem with fish, and one commonly sees fishermen and children along the Kilovan or Musarde, rod fishing for trout or salmon.
Kartakass is poor in mineral resources, and mining is rare. Although the occasional vein of iron ore or natural crystals may be found, the caverns beneath Kartakass are prone to collapse, turning mining into a particularly dangerous pursuit for meager rewards.
Kartakass’ major settlements house secondary industries such as wood and grain mills, slaughterhouses, and distilleries. They are also home to skilled craftsmen and artisans. Although a niche industry at best, the musical instruments produced in Kartakass are widely regarded to be without peer. A performer who comes to Kartakass is likely to find a craftsman skilled in creating a musical instrument of any stripe, no matter how exotic — so long as he is willing to pay the master craftsman’s price.
Skald and Harmonia have occasionally minted their own currency, usually to mark the election of a new meistersinger, but Kartakan merchants routinely accept foreign currency. Most Kartakan coins are foreign coins that have been re-stamped. As a gesture of cultural unity, both settlements share the same design for their currency. The head sides of Kartakan coins feature a lyre, while the tail sides feature musical notations of increasing complexity. The Canticle is the copper piece, the Dirge is the silver, and the Ballad is the gold. Barter remains common in lesser settlements but is seldom accepted by the prestigious establishments in the big towns.
Kartakass engages in lively trade with its neighbors to the north, but lacks the strong, centralized power base necessary to exert any real influence. Historically speaking, Kartakass’ neighbors have been of two stripes: those that ignore Kartakass and those that covet its natural resources.
Barovia: Gundarak was the only land route into Kartakass for decades, but the stiff levies Duke Gundar imposed on all goods passing through his realm greatly stifled trade. Relations with Gundarak might have deteriorated further had the Kartakans learned of the plot to conquer them before its apparent instigator was assassinated. Kartakans celebrated when Gundar met his doom, and they consider it a great tragedy that the Gundarakites have again fallen under a tyrant’s shadow.
Forlorn: As with all of Forlorn’s other neighbors, Kartakans consider it a haunted wilderness, overrun with corrupted savages and best shunned and forgotten. For once, the Kartakan view of reality strikes close to the truth.
Hazlan: The border between Kartakass and Hazlan is marked by rugged foothills and nearly closed off by the twin barriers of Forlorn and the Dead Hills. The two countries have virtually no formal interaction. Kartakans imagine that the Hazlani must live much as they do: huddled in their villages, hiding from the twisted creations of foul magic said to roam the wilds.
Invidia: Although Kartakass and Invidia have never shared a common border, I consider the two realms relationship to be suitably complex to warrant inclusion. Due to the Kartakan belief in the so-called Invidian Occupation, Kartakan reactions toward Invidia were understandably frosty for more than a century. When the tyrant Bakholis was killed and his militaristic regime overthrown in 729 BC, however, the Kartakans were quick to embrace the newly liberated people of Invidia, viewing the Invidian uprising as a mirror of their own. In the years that followed, opportunistic Kartakan traders established informal mercantile allegiances with Invidia’s communities, and each fall eager bards and the idle rich would charter riverboats to take them to the famed harvest festival in Karina.
The sudden ascendance of Malocchio Aderre nearly a decade ago put a damper on this exuberance. Relations have not been improved by the widespread acceptance of Vistani legends that paint Aderre as a literal demon. Trade continues for now, but the Kartakan mood has turned tentative. For Kartakans, the burning question is whether the Invidians will rise to strike down this tyrant as they did Bakholis, or whether they will revert to their ancient, warlike ways.
Sithicus: When Sithicus appeared on Kartakass’ border thirty-six years ago, curious Kartakans were quick to explore its forests, hoping to use its rivers as an alternate trade route. A few of these explorers settled down, and to this day most of the humans in Sithicus are of Kartakan descent. Kartakans commonly believe the reticent elves to be immortal, fey creatures, and their fascination with the alien culture was great enough to rival their fear of the wailing ghosts said to blanket the countryside. Within a decade, Sithicans had absorbed many Elven turns of phrase into their language.
Sites of Interest
The Ambrose Compound
Located in the foothills of the eastern Wolfwood, the compound is composed of a two-story lodge house and a few outbuildings, including stables and the small, drafty cabin. A crude looking but solid palisade keeps the wildlife at bay.
The master of the compound is an elderly widower with a frosty demeanor named Jonathan Ambrose. From the man’s simple brown robe, one may judge him to be some manner of scholarly monk, but the tightly knit family of servants working for suggest that in his younger days, Ambrose was a swordsman of remarkable skill. Ambrose is a member — perhaps even a leader — of an organization called “the brotherhood.” The goal of this “brotherhood” is to hunt down and destroy all who wield magic. They claim to hunt only “evil” spellcasters, but it is unlikely that these ignorant vigilantes would distinguish between true villainy and, say, scholarly research techniques.
Adding to the confusion, Ambrose’s adopted daughter of sorts, a woman in her mid-thirties named Elaine Claim, possesses notable sorcerous talents of her own. Ambrose has explained this discrepancy; he claimed that not all magic is inherently evil, and that Elaine uses her gifts for good.
Skald is the largest and in many ways most powerful settlement in Kartakass, though in cultural matters it is widely considered to fall in Harmonia’s shadow. Skald is a crossroads: to the north, the Crimson Road stretches to Barovia and beyond: to the south, the Merchant’s Way cuts west to Sithicus, and the Road to Harmony leads to Harmonia.
Skald is bordered to the east by overhanging cliffs and to the north and west by the Kilovan River (or Sing-Song River, or Afsyngesang Floden) as it curves southward. The Sing-Song plunges sixty feet off the cliffs into a churning basin that throws up a fine curtain of mist year round. Locals call this basin the Cauldron, due to its boiling appearance. The Sing-Song flows out of the Cauldron into a stretch of white water, but quickly settles into a smooth, rapid, current.
Curtain walls 25 feet tall mark Skald’s southern border. Built by the so-called Invidian occupiers, they once radiated out from Dargacht Keep. Today, this razed citadel and its outer curtain wall are little more than a shattered outline of rubble surrounding a wide gravel plaza. Locals maintain that ghostly soldiers still patrol the keep’s walls. Skald’s annual meistersinger contest is held in Dargacht Plaza, where the picturesque ruins and their eerie shadows greatly enrich the ambiance. Intriguingly, despite the lack of outer walls, the locals insist that no meistersinger contest has ever been marred by a wolf attack.
The southeastern curtain wall runs to the cliffs, where it meets a tower built into the cliff face itself. This Great Tower runs up to the Meistersinger’s Keep atop the cliffs. Another relic of the Invidian occupation, the keep is a dark, ominous structure, though its glowering atmosphere is blunted each night when flocks of sheep shelter between its curtain walls. The keep serves as the official home and offices of the meistersinger and town guard, but Meistersinger Lukas is rumored to spend most of his evenings elsewhere.
Another wall runs north through the heart of the town, dividing it into two quarters: Upper Skald to the east and Lower Skald to the west. Upper Skald is an affluent neighborhood, with cobblestone streets and frequent patrols by the town guard. It is home to the town’s most prominent establishments, most of which are clustered around the Cauldron. The Grand Hall of Song and Dance, led by an affected minstrel named Vadick Trillingway, is the largest standing structure in Skald after the Meistersinger’s Keep. The locals consider it a failed attempt to rival Harmonia’s Harmonic Hall. One of the Grand Hall’s close neighbors is the Clock Tower Mill, a grain mill owned by Madam Lupapus, an aging matron long held to be hopelessly smitten with Harkon Lukas. A waterwheel powers the mill’s eponymous clock tower, which engenders great civic pride.
Lower Skald radiates from an attractive park, but the surrounding neighborhoods are largely slums. The streets here are narrow, winding, and poorly patrolled by the watch. The quarter’s only major business is the Skald Saw Mill , which bustles with activity from spring through fall. Most river traffic moors at Lower Skald’s wharves, though the neighborhood often floods during the spring overflow.
Two shantytowns that lie beyond the safety of its fortifications abut Skald. The larger of the two, known as Out Town, hugs the roads leading out of Dargacht Plaza. This is a dangerous place at night: crime-ridden; stalked by wolves; and inhabited only by eccentrics, criminals, and those too poor to move into the town proper. The smaller shantytown sits just north of the Cauldron. Its shacks have been vacant for decades, and the whole area is positively overrun with meekulbern vines.
Where to Stay in Skald
Skald’s most illustrious accommodations are undoubtedly the Old Kartakan Inn (good quality rooms, good quality meals), which sits on its own island in the middle of the Cauldron. Many prestige-minded Kartakans save their coppers to indulge in a fine luncheon in the inn’s spacious dining halls. Most locals avoid the inn at night, however, when it is said to draw a rougher crowd: assorted woodsmen who trek down from the north to partake of drinking contests and debauchery.
For travelers looking to avoid the inn’s unsavory nocturnal reputation, or who simply need to conserve their coppers, the Fireside Feeshka Inn (common quality rooms, common quality meals), which faces Lower Skald’s large open-air market. It is recommended for those who seek to socialize, but less so for those who simply seek quiet. The patrons’ ale soaked revelry grew louder as the hour grew late, usually forcing one to wrap a pillow around their head as they try to sleep upstairs.
A third inn, the Split Boar (poor quality rooms, poor quality meals), can be found along the Road to Harmony in Out Town. This hovel is not recommended for any guest who intends to wake up in the morning. Someone who wishes to ensure that someone else never wakes up may find its clientele amenable, however.
South from Skald, the Road to Harmony soon delivers you to Harmonia, the only other Kartakan settlement of note. Although Harmonia is relatively isolated, it is widely considered the cultural center of Kartakass and features several impressive feats of engineering.
The road crosses the Musarde River via the Whirling Bridge, which consists of a stone tower that uses twin drawbridges to span the river. In times of trouble, or when affluent-looking travelers balk at the stiff tolls, the guards manning the Whirling Bridge can raise both drawbridges, then pivot the tower itself a full 90 degrees to block all access. The bridge is closed at night, so travelers must signal the guards and convince them to send a boat across.
Cliffs 45 feet tall border Harmonia to the northeast. The town guard lights a series of bonfires along the cliff tops during festivals. A handful of guard towers watch the town, accessed by a handwinched lift. A huge catapult that overlooks the Whirling Bridge and can also swivel to fire upon the town itself joins the towers in Skald’s defense. More relics of the Invidian Occupation, the current town guards staff these structures with a skeleton crew whose primary task is to prevent unauthorized access. A moat and 15-foot-high curtain wall protects Harmonia to the south and west. The small South Gate opens out into farmland, while West Gate opens directly into a large paddock where the town’s sheep are sheltered at night.
The Meistersinger’s Mansion sits atop a low hill at the center of Harmonia, looking over the town’s rooftops. This fortified manor serves as the home and offices of Meistersinger Eliska Vokrona, an alumnus of Harmonic Hall whose fifteen-year reign has been competent and blessedly uncontroversial. Harmonia’s main street circles around the manor and is dubbed “the Loop.”
The streets grow ever more affluent as one moves east, culminating with South Hill , home to the manors of the elite. Next to South Hill stands Harmonia’s greatest source of civic pride, the outdoor amphitheater. The amphitheater is carved into the living rock of the cliff face, and its acoustics are superb. A performer who sings on this stage can be clearly heard halfway across town. The stage is ringed by a series of four tiers, with patrons expected to pay a donation for the honor of sitting in each tier: 1 cp for the fourth, outer tier; 1 sp for the third; 1 gp for the second; and 5 gp for the first. The tiers are always packed during the weekly performances, with audiences spilling out onto the grassy lawn, where seating is free. Harmonic Hall, widely regarded as the finest musical academy in the Core, earns most of its income from these performances and sits at the far end of the amphitheater’s lawn. The entrance to the prestigious Crystal Club is located on the fourth tier; patrons must pay 5 gp to enter, but within all drinks are free.
The western end of Harmonia is a poor neighborhood dedicated to agricultural industries, including a wind- and water-powered grain mill V that sits on its own island. West Harmonia also houses the Temple of Divine Song, the only active temple of the Ancestral Choir cult. Although the temple is in poor repair, its pipe organ has been lovingly restored, and the mora of the congregation float out over the town every morning. The current First Voice, or high priest, of the Ancestral Choir is Tibor Bellock, a thirty-year-old man with a resonating, baritone singing voice. Taken in by the cult when just an orphan, Bellock struggles daily to keep the fledgling faith alive, and the stress shows.
Where to Stay in Harmonia
The only establishment of note in Harmonia is the Longhorn Inn (common quality rooms, good quality food), located at the western end of the Loop within earshot of the temple of the Ancestral Choir. The food is heavy, but surprisingly delectable, with thick steaks garnished with minted beets served as the nightly meal.
The Catacombs of Kartakass
As if the Arkalias Hills were not desolate enough, roughly forty years ago they became home to a woman named Radaga, supposedly a terrible priestess who drew her power directly from the undead. She was apparently also the descendant of a mythical necromancer named Daglan Daegon, and the guardian of his most terrible creation, the Crown of Souls, which could turn men into her monstrous slaves.
Radaga was supposedly slain in 736 BC, but many tales claim she soon rose from the dead and led her fleshless army into the Misty Border, where the new realm of Daglan suddenly appeared. Daglan soon dissolved back into the Mists, seemingly destroyed along with its spiritual master.
Twenty years later, the Dead Hills are still littered with signs of Rodaga’s occupation: mummified corpses laid to rest in numerous small, outlying caves, and upright stakes driven into the ground along the tops of many ridges. Bleached human skeletons are shackled to each post, apparently those of victims left to die. Each stake lies planted in the ribcage of a skeleton buried just a few inches below the surface. If the stake is jostled, this minor guardian attacks.
Radaga made a warren of caves now known as the Catacombs of Kartakass into her center of power. From the surface, only a squat ziggurat topped by the weathered statue of a great raven marks the catacombs’ entrances. Bards’ tales hold that Radaga retreated from the catacombs with such haste that many of her grim treasures were left behind. The same logic would suggest that the supernatural traps said to guard those treasures also remain intact. Venturing far enough into one cavern one can see a passageway still guarded by a pair of 12-foot tall burning skeletons.
The catacombs were long considered to be uninhabited by any creatures save the dregs of Radaga’s mindless retinue, but trappers in the bordering Redwood and Mistwood claim that a new tenant appeared about three years ago. They dub this creature the Beast of the Hills. It has only been glimpsed from afar, and many locals fear that Radaga has returned. She would not be the first ruler to defeat death twice. That said, the accounts describe a rather different threat entirely. They say the creature has black, scaly skin and hair as thick and knotted as tree roots. Some accounts claim the Beast is female; others say it has wings.
Humans are by far the dominant race in Kartakass. Half-elves are usually the product of the Kartakans’ limited interaction with their Sithican neighbors, and as such display their elven parent’s silvery hair. Other races are extremely rare. Kartakans are quick to believe even the wildest tales told about nonhumans, though they are somewhat accustomed to Sithican elves.
Bards, fighters, rangers, and rogues are the most common classes encountered in Kartakass. Unsurprisingly, bards form the backbone of Kartakan culture; bards throughout the Core dream of performing at Harmonia’s amphitheater. Rangers are considered the defenders of Kartakan settlements against nature and are generally well regarded. Rogues are also respected for their resourceful cunning, a trait common to the heroes of Kartakan mora. Kartakans are notably noncommittal toward fighters; while they recognize the need for brawn, they see nothing particularly praiseworthy in it. Barbarians are uncommon and usually appear as wild men, shunning the larger settlements.
With the exception of the handful of followers in the Ancestral Choir cult, Kartakans have little respect for organized religion; clerics are rare and are sure to face frequent good-natured ribbing. Druids and sorcerers are also rarely encountered and poorly understood, having been entangled in many wildly inaccurate tales, though the Kartakans (with a few exceptions) are not overtly hostile toward them. Wizards and monks are virtually unknown, and the former are frequently confused with sorcerers. Any that appear will be the students of an isolated, secretive teacher. Paladins are seen as figures of legend, the archetypical doomed hero.
Kartakan Male Names: Akil , Castor, Erik, Joshua, Kyros, Laszlo, Petros, Sandor, Theon, Zev.
Kartakan Female Names: Akrynna, Aleris, Henrika, Julianna, Katalyn, Kolette, Lelia, Meleda, Odelle, Zeta.
Realm Magic Rating
Kartakass has a rating of 3 overall. Bards may find that they are able to cast their spells as if in a rating 4 realm.