Appearances:

Auchtermacht is a superficially normal pseudo-medieval walled city. It has a sizeable inner city, with large houses and towers, a larger middle section of guildsmen and city dwellers, and a dense surrounding shacktown outside the walls, commonly known as the de'Charg. The city is morally neutral, with both a stratified and hidebound aristocracy, old blood nobility, thriving criminal underworld, and only paying lip service to things such as gods and kings. It isn't a city of thieves, or a merchants city, more of a third tier major city, one searching for a character.

The thing that really sets Auchtermacht apart from other large cities is part of how they handle criminals, thieves, debtors, dissenters, and others who are a threat to the order and stability of the city and status quo. There are few gaols in the city, and there isn't a public square for executions. Instead, the city favors a more economical and permanent solution, gifting said people to the 'Cannibals of the Forest'. Why in the world could this work? It's bribery to the barbaric tribes of barely human creatures that live in the forest, so long as they stay fed, they don't raid farms or steal children in the twilight hours. Plus, criminals are left chained to rocks and trees, and when scouts return, there are only manacles and bloodstains remaining of their offerings.

Scheduling and Sites

Auchtermacht has a half dozen sites: Forked Pine, Two Rocks, Fallen Oak, The Stone Glade, Small Mountain, and Flowerfield. Each of these has chains and manacles enough to offer three prisoners at a time. When times are rough, and the gaols overflow, the sites are filled to capacity. When the lower class behaves itself, the officials will save dragging prisoners to the sacrifice grounds for the day before feastday. Empty cells mean the men can be off spending time with their kith and kin, instead of minding piss pots and cell bar biters.

The Forest Cannibals

There are several 'tribes' who reside in the Athasard.

The Tribe of the Wren is the largest, and the one that has given the city the impression of the forest being filled with cannibal barbarians. The leader of the tribe is a powerful Heirophant druidess of evil alignment. She believes in blood sacrifice, and most of the people left for the forest people are taken by the Wren. Most end up as slaves for the tribe, a few become members, and the most problematic or those who violate taboos of the tribe actually do end up in the cook-pots. The Wren have access to protective magics and practice the stripperific mode of armor, most wearing little more than rabbit pelt loincloths, and most women going bare chested.

The Vodgai tribe follow a leader known as the Three-Faced Man, who accordingly, wears a mask made out of three faces. The Vodgai are small, isolationist, and opposed to the Wren. They have magic adepts and specialize in fear magics, so when encountered Vodgai warriors can scream, weep blood from their faces, and generally cause normal people to fight or flight reaction, with running away being the most common, even the Wren have a healthy fear of the Vodgai. Its largely show, most of the tribe, fear and blood magics aside, are lawful neutral and favor things like vegetarianism, and tree worship.

The Gornvaiguth tribe are also known as the Bone Lords, and they run through the Athasard like animals, wearing armor and clothing decorated with bones. This makes a characteristic sound, which the other tribes like to avoid. The Gornvaiguth are few in number, and they gladly take every sacrifice they can grab, because attrition in the tribe is high. The entire organization revolves around Gornvaiguth itself, a totem of a creature most people would recognize as a Wendigo. The strong they convert and add to the tribe, the weak feed it. Gornvaiguth are driven by bloodlust and hunger, they will consume their own dead, and if alone and wounded, a Gornvaiguth warrior will consume their own flesh. It is not uncommon for mortally wounded warriors to try and pull organs out of gaping wounds to drink their own blood and consume their own flesh.

Time for the Revelation of the Big Secret

There is a big secret, almost everything known about the cannibal bands roving the Athasard is completely and totally wrong. The only thing that is right is the use of fear magics. There is a single settlement in the Athasard, and it is a rural timber and hortaculture culture based around druidic magics, with an emphasis on Fear, illusion, and dream manipulation.

The Athasi predated the settlement and growth of Auchtermucht, and were initially friendly to the soil turners with their plows and oxen, and scattered family groups. They even went so far as to help them during some of the early harsh winters. More and more of them came, and they reproduced at a staggering rate. There was consternation among the Athasi, because greenskins behaved like this, coming in numbers, having many offspring, but they were nomadic, and when there was no game to hunt, they would leave. These newcomers, human as they were, forced plants to grow from the soil to feed themselves, and kept animals and built walls and felled trees for building and burning. It was decided that the elders of the Athasi would speak with the elders of the Auchter and come up with a truce, they would stay out of the forest, and the Athasi would stay away from the grass.

This was met with knives and bows and many Athasi elders were wounded or slain.

This lead to the lean times, when there was open war between both sides. The forest suffered damage, but it was quickly turned back and repaired, as the Athasi could call forth treefolk, dryads, and the green women of the woods, the Loru Valshariss. The Green Wall was planted, a great hedge of dangerous trees and carnivorous plantlife, and it was warded with illusion magics, and spells of protection. Entire swaths of the Athasard were turned into illusionary traps, places that turned in on themselves so that the trespasser would become lost. Others lead to deep ravines, or old sinkholes in the forest, where many hapless fell to their deaths.

Athasi rangers still patrol the Green Wall and the forest beyond it, keeping the Auchter people afraid of the green. They use fear magics to make themselves appear horrific. Auchter beliefs that the Athasi are multiple tribes of murderous cannibals comes from the regular use of these spells. Skin masks, bone masks, these are natural helms and armors twisted by illusion and fear, and the Athasi weeping and drooling blood is more of the same. Among the Athasi it is something of a game, who can craft the most garish and ghoulish fear mask, almost gleeful in the amount of imaginary blood or barbaric gag they can create. The current champion of this game is the group that found a way to apply fear magic to their own carried rations, so when they stick their hand in a pouch at their side, instead of looking like they're eating some dried meat, it looks like they are pulling out their own organs and eating them.

What of the Cannibal Sacrifices?

The people left for the Athasi are generally left for at least a day in their shackles. The Athasi call this the judgement of the Forest, because while shackled, humans make for easy meat for the actual predators that live in the forest. There are bears and wolves, and other things that know an easy meal for what it is. This is also something of a grace period for the cunning to free themselves, or those with friends in the city to have their daring rescues.

Those who aren't eaten, or rescued, are evaluated by the Athasi, usually through their dreamwalkers. The unworthy are given horrific nightmares of being chased by the nightmarish monster cannibals of the forest, barely managing an escape, before passing out from injury and exhaustion, when they wake they are often nowhere near the place they were chained, and effect their own escape, fleeing back to the city to spread more of the fear tale, or to the trade roads where they again, spread the story of the cursed woods. The worthy are given a chance to join the tribe, and become one of the Athasi themselves. The city is fairly good at deciding have different opinions from the Council of Elders is on par with being a murderer or thief, so many a person opposed to the city and its leadership has joined the tribe and become one of them.

But Those Specific Cannibal Killers?

The Tribe of the Wren actually is Rhenn, a female ranger/druid archer who is the Fist of the Forest and makes sure that the Green Wall remains unseen and unknown. She likes to shoot for abdominal wounds with her arrows, so that the interlopers have to carry their wounded out for long and painful recoveries, or a lingering death, she doesn't care which.

The Three-Faced Man is Vod, or that Vod guy, or Vodgai. He is one of the Athasi dreamwalkers and the three faced mask is part of his nightmare shtick to upset those he chases through their own dreams. He is also a competent archer, and uses arrows dipped in a potent hallucinogen.

The Bone-Eaters are the Nightmare patrols, mostly teenage boys and girls, and young adults. They like to patrol further out than Rhenn and the other rangers, mostly so that they can be seen by farmers and crofters close to the edge of the forest. When a new farm is starting to be put up, the Bone Eaters will start harassing it, until either the people trying to fell new forest and break new soil decide to go elsewhere, or the city guard sends out a force to drive them back. These reprisal raids from the city are welcomed by the Bone Eaters, because it lets them draw cityfolk into the trees where they can be hit with hallucination arrows, poison needles, and their numbers reduced while reminding those in charge that sending large numbers of men into the Athasard is a really bad idea.

How Has This Remained a Secret?

The biggest culprits protecting the secret of the Athasi are arrogance and the passage of time. The records in Auchtermucht detail a good bit about the Athasi, even the location of their settlements, though the maps are several centuries out of date. Those on the city council who know the history of the Athasi make no connection between those woods dwellers who helped the Auchter so long ago, and the monsters who live in the forest now. Most couldnt care less about that aspect of history, and those that consider it generally assume that the cannibal tribes wiped out the Athasi before reaching them. That it is sad, but forest people are forest people.

On the Athasi side, many of the people sacrificed to them, or who come toe to toe with them are influenced by fear and illusion magics, harried by nightmares, and hit with hallucinogens and toxins from the forest. They become very unreliable witnesses and aren't even sure of what they saw or remember. Between the missing bodies, the blood, and the actual animal chewed corpses, it makes a believable story. The Athasi also have a strong border policy, so if someone wants to leave, they can, but they have to go to Not Auchtermucht. With the forest open on the other sides, its easy for those who want to leave the forest to do so without endangering the secret. Those who seem insistent on going to the city, there are dreamseekers, dream quests, and ways to convince them otherwise.

Athasard, the Five Room Dungeon

Entrance - go into the Forest where you've been told to not go, ever, because you'll get lost, or be eaten, probably both. The Entrance Guardians are the Bone-Eaters as well as random forest encounter monsters.

Puzzle/RP challenge - navigating Athasard is like a forest map in an RPG, there are trails, open areas, and so forth, and many of these are difficult to navigate. The forest has few landmarks, and there are many illusions, with some trails actually nothing more than a cul-de-sac that just keeps turning on itself. Explorers can become trapped walking in a half mile circle, everything looking the same and not finding the narrow path that dropped them into the loop. Some paths have dead-falls, or slippery spots that plunge over ravines. The PCs will need Survival, Tracking, and other wilderness skills to make it through this mess. 

Trick/Setback - Sometimes an Athasi ranger will adopt the garb and manner of an Auchter woodsman, and offer to guide a wayward group out of the forest, or, knowing their destination, to that. Instead, the ranger either leads them out of the forest well away from where they entered, or will lead them to a place where it is even easier to get lost, and abandon them. You were looking for the Forest Road? Sure. Oh, you meant the forest road that is safe passage through the northeast part of the Athasard, not the forest road that leads to a nest of green wyrms? My mistake, and an easy mistake, honestly.

Climax - the PCs actually reach the Green Wall, a castle like growth of wood studded with dangerous plants, sentient trees, and guarded by archers, rangers, druids, and wild animals being controlled by the Athasi. Without siege engines, an army, epic level magic, or heroes who are demigods, this is a one sided battle, or a chance for the PCs to attempt diplomacy with the Athasi.

Reward/revelation/plot twist - the PCs succeed and find a way to ally with the Athasi, they aren't unreasonable and they really only hold grudges against the leadership of Auchtermucht (they believe the city council is composed of something horrific like liches, vampires, part humans with demonic blood, etc). Or, they wake up on the edge of the forest, clutching the prize they sought, but have been liberated of most everything else and the vague feeling that everything that happened after X moment might have been a poison needle dream.

Plot Hooks

The Prize is in the Forest - the contract for the PCs requires them to go into the forest to find something that was lost years ago, maybe a farm abandoned and overgrown with something very important in the cellar, or in the ruins of a city from another age that is rumored to be the Athasard. The Athasi aren't keen on city-folk rummaging through ruins and oppose them.

Culling - the City Council has put out a bounty on Bone-Eaters, and the PCs have been tasked with finding these miscreants and killing them. Its can be an ugly fight, and it gets even uglier the first time they bring down a Bone Eater and find out they've been fighting teenagers, boys and girls.

Bounty - the Council has put a hefty price in gold on Rhenn's head. Enough to make player's dreams come true.

Rescue - a local family beseeches the PCs to rescue their family member who was taken to the sacrifice zone, they aren't bad, they just dont know when to not talk about opposing the direction the council takes. The person in question has already been taken by the Athasi and if the PCs manage to get close, they are much happier with the people of the forest and refuse to go back.

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