The Slumbering Tsar
The northern wall of Bard’s Gate looks out over a vast river valley disappearing into purple hills in the hazy distance. The mighty gates fixed in that wall rarely open anymore. On the few occasions when the north gates do open to allow entrance to the occasional merchant caravan or especially daring traveller, they reveal a wide road, paved with great stone flags forming a smooth and level travelling surface striking due north for the hills. However, closer inspection reveals the signs of a lack of maintenance, and after a few miles the road deteriorates into little more than a wide dirt track, overgrown with weeds and with only the occasional stone paver visible in the hard soil. It obviously sees little travel and even less care.
Few stand atop Bard’s Gate north wall and gaze out upon that hazy vista or care to think about what lies beyond those distant highlands. Fewer still are brave or foolish enough to make the journey in that direction. Bard’s Gate relies on its commerce from other roads in other directions and pays no mind to the north, for to the north, beyond the village of Taverlan and the distant purple hills and across many leagues, lies the reminder of one of the most tragic moments in the history of the civilised kingdoms. To those who even care to remember, the north gate leads only to bad memories or mournful legend. To the rest it leads to where only madmen would dare to go—the ruined city of Tsar and the great Desolation that surrounds it.
Tsar, the great temple-city to Orcus the Demon Prince of the Undead, stood for centuries as a bastion of evil and hate. Foul beings of all kinds flocked to its mighty walls and found succor and purpose within. At its heart stood the great Citadel of Orcus, the black heart of Orcus worship on earth. Countless evils were perpetuated in those corrupt precincts, and equally countless wicked plots were hatched and carried out therein.
Finally the goodly kingdoms could stand the presence of this festering boil in their midst no longer. The churches of Thyr and Muir led a delegation of good and neutral faiths to Graeltor, the last overking. Only with the backing of the nations’ secular armies would the holy churches be able to erase such a blight. In his last major pronouncement before the overthrow and fracturing of the kingdoms into the independent nations they are today. Overking Graeltor called for a mighty crusade to tear down the walls of Tsar and forever end the presence of Orcus worship in the world.
This crusader army, raised from all nations and almost every non-evil faith, became known as the Army of Light and marched for Tsar. In command of this army Graeltor placed his most trusted advisor, the archmage Zelkor. Supported by innumerable knight commanders, wizards, church patriarchs and scores of heroes of renown, Zelkor quickly advanced his army from its staging ground of Bard’s Gate, through Tsar’s outermost defensive positions and into the great plain that surrounded the temple-city itself. Flush with their many quick victories, the Army of Light suddenly found arrayed against itself seemingly endless legions of every sort of vile warrior-race and fell outsider imaginable called up from all over the multiverse and lining the battlements and fields before their redoubt—one of the greatest fortresses and citadels ever erected in that time. The beginnings of doubt seeped into the ranks of the Army of Light.
However, hope was not lost as the heavens opened up and flight upon flight of angels and celestial beings descended from on high to swell the ranks of the Army of Light. With grim determination in both camps, battle was joined on the plain before the gates of Tsar. The war raged for over a year, the Army of Light advancing to the very foot of the walls and then being pushed back by a new surge of demonic power. The disciples of Orcus led by the Grand Cornu, Orcus’s single highest-ranking priest on the mortal planes, threw every vile attack they could at the Army of Light in defense of their city. Rains of horrific fire and acid fell from the skies or belched from fissures in the ground, great constructs crushed their foes before them, terrible clouds of poisonous gas choked entire regiments, and heretofore unknown plagues swept through the troops causing thousands of horrible deaths among the Army of Light. Nevertheless the forces of good persevered and fought on.
Finally, though the battle seemed no closer to victory, the fates seemed to smile on the Army of Light. Unexpectedly the city fell. In a single night the entire city virtually emptied of defenders as they all were magically transported to a point several miles outside the city’s walls, complete with baggage train and mounts for many. The magical expenditure necessary to complete this miraculous maneuver cost the Grand Cornu his very life in sacrifice to Orcus, but the legions of the demon prince had broken free from the Army of Light’s cordon. They immediately took flight before the stunned Army of Light, heading south.
Zelkor and his fellow commanders were immediately suspicious of this sudden retreat but could not afford to allow the combined followers of Orcus concentrated in one place to escape and spread their insidious evil again. A cursory sweep of the city by scouts proved that the withdrawal was no ruse, so Zelkor left one of his most powerful knights, the paladin Lord Bishu, with a company of knights to secure the citadel and hold it until the Army of Light could return and properly destroy it. Then, still with a seed of doubt niggling in his mind, Zelkor ordered the Army of Light in pursuit of the fleeing legions.
The tale of that long pursuit is an epic in and of itself. Finally the Army of Light cornered the forces of darkness in a forest near a rugged coastline. In anticipation of a great victory, the forest was prematurely named the Forest of Hope. The naming proved to be a cruel irony, for in the forest the followers of Orcus had been preparing a great trap for years in case just such an occasion ever arose. Both armies disappeared into the forest. Neither ever emerged. The Army of Light was lost to a man.
The shock of the loss of so many heroes, nobles, and leaders of renown reverberated throughout the kingdoms. The overking was overthrown in the unrest that followed. Minor wars erupted as new factions took over old power bases bereft of their leadership. When all was done and a semblance of peace returned, the lands looked much more like they do today. Some said the loss of so many was worth it for the eradication of the foul cult of Orcus. Others said it had been a scheme concocted by the demon prince all along to destroy his most powerful enemies and sow hate and dissension throughout the civilised nations.
Years later when a terrible graveyard and thriving dungeon complex devoted to Orcus was discovered in the Forest of Hope, popular opinion agreed with the latter theory. It seemed Orcus had not been eradicated after all, just relocated, and once again his insidious evil began to spread throughout the lands.
For the past century some attention has been turned to delving into the so-called Dungeon of Graves and rooting out the evil now entrenched there. However, what remained of the temple-city of Tsar was a vast, abandoned ruin surrounded by miles and miles of poisoned and scarred wasteland left behind by the battling armies. It was all but forgotten as a bad memory of despair with no value save as an eyesore and wilderness home for strange and fearsome beasts that moved into the desolate area. The knights of Lord Bishu, left behind at Tsar, were likewise forgotten as they, too, were never heard from again. In the wake of the great tragedy at the Forest of Hope, no one thought to check into the ruins themselves, and all who knew about this relatively small group that had been sent to the city had perished in Orcus’s trap. The people of the civilised nations went on with their lives with, perhaps, a little less hope and optimism than before. Tsar was forgotten, and the land around it shunned and remembered only as the Desolation.
While the rest of the world looked southwards for the future, some few remembered the distant exotic markets of the far north. Those brave or foolish enough to try reopened the trade road that passed through the Desolation to once again reach those far lands. Those that survived such treks and were able to trade the rare items they brought back made fortunes, but most who attempted the dangerous passage died—lost to the hazards of the Desolation. Eventually a small settlement of cutthroats and the worst kind of profiteering entrepreneurs sprang up on the southern fringe of the Desolation. This hole-in-the-wall known simply as The Camp serves as a staging ground for travellers to hire mercenary guards or fast mounts for the perilous run through The Desolation. Likewise it serves as a point of relative safety for those few managing to make it through from the north with or without goods in tow, often with denizens of the Desolation in hot pursuit. There is little to this unruly, fringe settlement, and many meet their fates on its dirty streets without ever making it to the Desolation. Regardless, it manages to just barely eke out an existence serving as a stopping point for those few travellers who dare to make the run.
Now no one but these miscreants and fortune-seekers pay any attention to the area and then only so they can pass through The Desolation as quickly and safely as possible. The temple-city’s ruins are universally avoided and little thought of. Why would anyone wish to go to almost certain death? What could still exist in the unknown holes and broken towers of Orcus’s greatest earthly bastion? What could lie undisturbed, awaiting some possibly preordained time to awake in the ruins of slumbering Tsar?