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Orzafeth – the Unspeakable Kingdom

by Geoff Gander

“What? You would have me sully the name of my empire...before a bunch of half-educated lackwits? Ridiculous!” Jarasthinimar slammed his mug onto the table to underline his anger. He took a deep breath, and continued in a more measured tone. “Alphatia may not be a perfect realm, Arundel, but we have done no worse than any other peoples of the Known World. You, of all people, know that.”

The bard leaned back in his chair and regarded his old friend. He sipped his wine, and sighed. “True, Jarasti, but I also know that history is written by the victors. This group of scholars not only knows about Mylertendal's secret diaries; they've read parts of them.” Arundel studied his friend over the top of his glass, and nodded as the Alphatian wizard's face exploded into incredulity. “Now you understand the type of people we're dealing with.”

“But...if they've read even part of the diaries,” began Jarasthinimar in trembling voice.

“They know about Orzafeth,” said Arundel, “and they've hired adventurers to look into it. They also claim to have consulted other books about what those old wizards were up to,” he added meaningfully.

“You mean the Precepts?” blurted the wizard, his eyes widening. “We accounted for every edition! If someone has secretly made a copy-”

Arundel held up his hands. “No, no, no. We'd have known. And they'd be dead by now. Or worse.” He winced after he said those words. Although it had been more than ten years since Astana's mind had been consumed by that book, Jarasthinimar had never taken another apprentice since. “Look,” he said in a gentle tone, “We know the dangers of those ancient secrets, and old Orzafeth was a hotspot for that sort of activity. Isn't it for the best that they at least arm themselves with accurate information?”

The History of Orzafeth - DM Background

A New Order in the North:

As a nation of spellcasters, the Alphatians have studied, and mastered, almost every major magical discipline. This drive to attain mastery in the magical arts has a darker side, which usually manifests as intense competition and ruthlessness among the wizardly elite. However, at one time in Alphatian history an entire royal family had succumbed to the temptation to research new magical ways to eliminate their rivals, and in doing so unleashed a menace that ultimately destroyed their kingdom. That realm was Orzafeth, and the nature of its fall so shook the Alphatian court that all references to the kingdom were purged from the empire’s historical records.

Orzafeth was established in what is now central-eastern Frisland after the fall of Argonath in AC 405 (AY 1405). The emperor at the time, Alphas III, was eager to maintain order in the north and keep the lands productive, while at the same time rewarding his most loyal field commanders. One such person, an ambitious Arogansan battle mage named Alandar, had scored several decisive victories, often at great personal risk, during the campaigns. Although Alandar was credited for winning the war against Argonath and securing the north, other generals with family ties to the emperor claimed most of the spoils. In the end, Alphas granted Alandar a swath of sparsely inhabited grassland, with only a single town of note.

Once all of the territory of Argonath had been parcelled out, three kingdoms stood in the region now occupied by Frisland and western Lower Ar – Frisland to the southwest, Orzafeth (an Old Alphatian word that meant either “unexpected reward” or “bounty”, depending on the context) in the centre, and Wyllaran in the northeast. Although Alandar was publicly grateful, he secretly seethed over what he saw as a meagre reward. Making matters worse, the kings of Frisland and Wyllaran derided him for his common Alphatian heritage, and always found ways to upstage him whenever the three kings found themselves at the Imperial Court. Alandar's advisors urged him to focus on cementing his hold over his territory, and to forget petty politics.

Once he did turn his attention to his new kingdom, Alandar found himself facing too many problems to think about his rivals – the most pressing of which was Orzafeth's low population. The region Orzafeth occupied had been sparsely inhabited to begin with, and most of the local population had fled during the conflict. Few returned to their homes – even after the king offered an amnesty to his former enemies in exchange for a pledge of fealty. In desperation, Alandar tried recruiting his Arogansan countrymen, but at that time the northern region of Alphatia was still considered a very foreign, savage land by the southerners. Only a few hundred were enticed to move north, even with offers of gold and a tax break. Frisland and Wyllaran, both blessed with richer soils and the rudiments of industry, faced fewer difficulties. Being a general first and a wizard second, Alandar needed no prompting to maintain his forces in a state of readiness, and to spy on his neighbours' defences.

An Unexpected Solution:

During a tour of his kingdom in AC 413 (AY 1413), Alandar was approached by the commander of his northern district, who brought news that a tent city had sprung up in the hills south of the village of Saardel, where none had ever been observed before. Hoping to find an influx of returning Argonathians, Alandar rushed to meet these newcomers. Instead, the king found thousands of short, swarthy folk dressed in cloaks made from animal skins, accompanied by herds of goats and sheep. Using magic to decipher their harsh-sounding language, Alandar learned that these people, who called themselves the Ogam, claimed to have once lived on the plains before being exiled by the now-vanquished Yanifey. Their chieftain hailed Alandar as a great lord who had made the land safe again, and begged to return to their ancestral lands, which they would make productive. Alandar granted the Ogam permission to settle. Upon hearing this, the Ogam chieftain told the king that word would be sent to other Ogam clans living in the Kerothar Mountains, and these would also settle in Orzafeth. Over the following years 25,000 Ogam settlers filled the plains of Alandar's kingdom.

Although most Ogam kept to themselves, some migrated to the towns and villages of Orzafeth. Over time they adopted Alphatian ways and intermarried with the locals. The children of such unions always resembled their Ogam parents and, by the time Alandar III ascended the throne in AC 479 (AY 1479), the people of Orzafeth no longer closely resembled their neighbours. In the meantime, Ogam herders ranged across the plains, tending thriving livestock whose meat ended up on tables across the northlands. The mountain folk were also able to coax healthy grains and root vegetables from the meagre soils, which ensured that Orzafeth would not starve.

The kings of Frisland and Wyllaran knew of Alandar's difficulties, thanks to reports from their spies, but the sudden influx of the Ogam caught them off-guard. The king of Frisland, who claimed the southern portion of the Kerothar Mountains where many of the Ogam had been living, was so incensed by the news that he had his spymaster executed. But his anger gave way to fear once he realised how numerous the Ogam were. The king of Wyllaran grew fearful at the prospect that his largely coastal kingdom might be swamped by a now well-populated Orzafeth. Both nations forged a secret pact in AC 424 (AY 1424) to neutralise their neighbour before it could become a serious threat.

The North Ignites:

King Alandar was assassinated in AC 429 (AY 1429) while inspecting a newly-constructed fortress on the border with Frisland. His only heir, Alandar II, was recalled from his studies in Sundsvall and thrust onto the throne. The young king's advisors urged him investigate, while his generals – already certain that the act had been carried out by Frislanders – suggested retaliatory strikes all along the border. All the while, his spies reported, the people clamoured for a response. The pressure was too much for the 19-year-old king, who retreated to the royal villa in the hopes that an answer would present itself.

While en route to the estate, the young king overtook a coach belonging to the daughter of a prominent Ogam chieftain. Once it was clear that the young woman, Azadna, was a spellcaster in her own right, Alandar II engaged in polite conversation before trying to hurry onwards. Just as he was leaving, Azadna suggested that he speak with her father, who knew all about blood feuds. Alandar rode off, but became confused once he realised that he had never mentioned his predicament. Suspecting greater forces at work, and feeling very hemmed in, the young king dispatched a messenger to find Azadna's father. The old man was waiting for him.

The Ogam chieftain told Alandar II that he knew how to solve his problem, and proposed placing a special curse on the perpetrators, rather than assassinate the king of Frisland. Eager to avoid a war, the young king embraced the idea, and commanded the chieftain to see to it. Within a week, high-level officials in Frisland and Wyllaran died of a wasting disease that did not respond to any known magical treatments. Alandar, upon hearing the news, was swayed by his generals to order his army to march. The resulting raids sowed chaos on the frontiers with Orzafeth's neighbours, and netted Alandar's troops a considerable amount of loot. War returned to the north in AC 430 (AY 1430).

Orzafeth's defenses repelled the first assaults, but with numbers on their side, Frisland and Wyllaran would ultimately prevail unless Alandar could secure a decisive victory. Azadna sought out the young king, and once again suggested he enlist her father's aid. The chieftain appeared soon after the young king agreed, and promised to defeat Orzafeth's enemies. Alandar expected the old man would summon thousands of Ogam warriors from the plains, but instead was shocked to hear reports of “great, shambling men of worms and less wholesome things arising from the soil itself to smite the enemy”. What had seemed to the kings of Frisland and Wyllaran a certain victory had become a rout, and the shattered remnants of their armies had no desire to cross the border anytime soon.

Alandar wed Azadna soon afterwards, ushering in an era during which the Ogam wielded increasing political power. Tribal shamans conducted an intricate ritual that created a magical barrier around the kingdom that deflected all attempts at scrying and teleportation. Mages in neighbouring kingdoms studied the barrier for years, but could not identify the type of magic used to create it. Queen Drydythya of Wyllaran described it as, “a spectral wall fashioned of no substance to be found on this plane, or any we know.”

A Dark Era:

As the Ogam increased in power their practices became more commonplace, and began to supplant those of the Alphatians – both at court and throughout the kingdom. Temples to the crocodile-headed Sathak (Ka), the skull-faced Takal (Thanatos), and the faceless Yuroth (Yurrgh-Thal) sprang up in towns and villages. Priests came to wield great power among the commoners, while the word of the Ogam shamans was law on the plains. By the time Alandar III ascended to the throne, Orzafeth's involvement in imperial affairs was largely limited to its contribution to the royal coffers.

Although Orzafeth rarely acted outside its own borders, its neighbours remained very concerned about what went on inside them. Commoners in Frisland and Wyllaran who lived near the border reported evidence of herds of animals where none had been seen, and the growth of strange and often dangerous plants that had begun to encroach onto their lands. At first the kings ignored the calls to act, thinking them to be rumours, but soon they could not ignore the increasing reports of destroyed farms, and villages suddenly choked with toxic plants, while a deep gloom spread across the sky. All the while, spies reported, the fields and pastures of Orzafeth grew bountiful with crops and livestock that seemed strangely “wrong”, and the people grew increasingly more like the Ogam. Senior clerics also quietly urged action, saying that they had received signs that the people of Orzafeth had begun to traffic with forces beyond the pale, and that their influence would only spread. The kings of Frisland and Wyllaran invoked their secret pact, and made plans to move against their neighbour.

The crusade against Orzafeth was launched in AC 497 (AY 1497), at a time when the empire was embroiled in conflict with the Thyatians. Fearing that battle-ready Imperial forces would be sent north to intervene before Orzafeth could be destroyed, the kings of Wyllaran and Frisland sent secret messages and hefty sums to sympathetic ears in Sundsvall, to ensure that news of the conflict never reached the emperor until it was well underway. The military campaign was successful at first, largely due to aid from sympathisers in Orzafeth, but the advance was soon halted by waves of monstrous plants and animals, and bands of swift Ogam marauders who were strangely resistant to magic. The few spies who managed to survive inside the dark kingdom reported seeing strange lights emanating from the temples in every town and city, and many people – Alphatian and Ogam – not returning from religious ceremonies.

The allied kingdoms redoubled their efforts, but began to lose ground as their enemy threw a small army of creatures unlike any they had encountered before, whose otherworldly nature so disturbed the Alphatians that many common soldiers fled the battlefield in terror. The victorious Orzafethians, when retaking a town, ferreted out those who had aided their enemies, and sacrificed them – along with any prisoners they captured. By the end of AC 505 (AY 1505), much of southern Wyllaran was controlled by Orzafeth, while the Frislanders had been pushed inside their own borders once more. The kings of Frisland and Wyllaran approached Emperor Alphas III for aid. At first the emperor was furious that a full-blown war had erupted within his territory while Thyatis continued to menace Alphatian holdings on the Isle of Dawn, but relented once the full extent of Orzafeth's activities became known.

Knowing that Thyatis would seek to take advantage of any news of instability within the empire, the emperor had a thousand veteran troops equipped with magical weaponry teleported covertly to Frisland, where they led a fresh counteroffensive. Matters were worse in Wyllaran, where Orzafeth had overrun the heartland and pushed the defenders to a handful of coastal forts and the capital city of Ydroyas – now teeming with refugees. Queen Drydythya, whose husband had died during the last major battle, begged the emperor to relieve her city. She received 50 stone golems, and a handwritten note commending her husband for his noble sacrifice. Unbeknownst to her, Alphas III had already written off Wyllaran, and decided to only provide enough assistance to keep Orzafeth's northern forces busy. Ydroyas fell within two months.

The emperor ordered news of Wyllaran's destruction be kept from the southern forces as much as possible, and by the time they did learn of it they were well inside Orzafeth's borders. The emperor's plan worked, and instead of demoralising the troops, the news galvanised them, and they fought harder. Offensive magic not used since before the destruction of Old Alphatia was unleashed upon the Orzafethians, and guided by senior clerics the invaders destroyed every holy site they could find, no matter how innocuous. Within six months, Orzafeth had been reduced to its capital city.

Fearing the retribution that they were certain awaited them, the high priests of Orzafeth begged the king for permission to conduct a special ritual to implore their otherworldly patrons for direct aid. With a royal blessing, they did so, and an eyewitness account from that time records what happened afterwards:

“From afar we heard deep, resonant chanting, and our skin prickled and our hairs stood up, so frightened we were. And then the clouds, which we always thick and dark overheard, began to circle over the city, and this swirling disk was of a width with the city itself. Then the clouds descended in a great funnel, and from within we saw the green flash of a spectral lightning. At that very tip there emerged a pulsating sphere, which stretched downwards towards the city and divided and spread like the roots of a tree. And where each root touched we saw great flashes of light, and heard faint screams. But these were no ordinary screams of fear; they were so primal that we believed that what those poor souls saw was that which spawned all other fearful things, as the mountain spring begets the rivers and streams that ultimately flow from it. The man next to me, who had slaughtered a temple full of unarmed, praying priests the day before, fell to his knees and wept at the sound. I am not a man of faith, but in that moment I opened my heart to those doomed souls and prayed, for no living being deserves the fate we knew they faced.”

None of the Alphatians dared enter the city until the clouds dissipated. The first group who entered returned to camp unable to speak and visibly aged. They died within an hour. The generals cordoned off the city and sent in more troops the following day. Those returned hours later, visibly shaken but reporting that nothing seemed to have survived the strange storm – indeed, there did not appear to be any living thing within Orzafeth's walls at all, not even insects or rats. There was evidence that some terrible explosion or burst of magical energy occurred, because the images of people cringing in terror had been blasted onto every vertical surface, like shadows frozen in time. Many buildings, too, looked as though they had been partially melted. Even more disturbing things were found inside the buildings – pieces of furniture that looked as though they had been disassembled, then reassembled, as though by someone who had no idea of how it was supposed to look, but done in such a seamless way that the warped furniture looked as though it had been built in that strange way. All of these men grew ill within a day, and were dead by the end of the week.

After reading the reports, the emperor ordered the ruins of Orzafeth to be sealed off until the danger had passed. The troops built another wall outside the old one, with no gate but engraved with the holy symbols of every faith practised in the empire. Every ten years after that an imperial official surveyed the wall, and then scaled it to look at the dead city on the other side (Orzafeth was still immune to teleportation and scrying attempts). The king of Frisland offered to watch over the ruins, and assume responsibility for exploring them, in exchange for the former land of Orzafeth. The emperor agreed, and gave Frisland the former territory of Wyllaran as well, on the condition that Ydroyas be rebuilt.

Since then, successive kings of Frisland have instituted a policy that guarantees them continued ownership over the lands of Orzafeth. Convicted criminals may win their release if they agree to survey a portion of the ruined city, and return with detailled maps and drawings. Few survive, but enough have over the decades to build the only collection of images and maps of Orzafeth on Mystara – and it rests in the king's personal art gallery.