The City of Mysteries
In Which We Learn The Nature Of Things
“New to the city? All respect and honors, gov, but you’re not. No one is. These walls have seen wonders that would turn you or me to dust, and they’ll see more after you’re gone. No sir, Kaer Maga may be new to you, but you’re nothing new to Kaer Maga. Ten thousand years she’s slept here, and still we’ve yet to wake her. Some would say as we’re her dreams, on account of our strangeness, but I don’t buy that. I say we’re her children, though a fat lot of good that does us. See, the city, she’s like a giant insect who’ll devour her young without a second thought. In here, there’s none who will so much as bother to forget you when you’re gone. You’re nothing. I’m nothing. And these warrens will be our tomb. “Why the long face, chum? This is home. And besides, you’ve got me. And for a fiver a day, I’m your new best friend.”
—Gav Nahli, freelance greeter
It begins as a rumor, a fairy tale. In the ghettos of an unforgiving city, a child of an ethnic minority—unpopular even in his homeland—hears tales of a city without judgment. In the glow of a burning palace, a disgraced noble begs his advisors for a place to disappear. In the dank mud of the forest, hiding from the guard’s hounds, thieves whisper of a city without laws, without sanctions or pursuit. This is always the way. They come, alone or in caravans, to the foot of the great cliff and stare up at the city walls above, eight stories tall and broken by a thousand doors and windows. They pass through the gateless tangle of beggars and schemers and emerge into a city of contrasts: perpetual twilight inside its hollow, sheltering walls, the endless noise of crowds and hawkers at its center. They enter—the pilgrims and refugees, fugitives and opportunists—and are seen, and are just as quickly forgotten. As one, they are enveloped and disappear, vanishing into the patchwork populace and melding with it—just a few more faces in a city that long since quit noticing them. A city of outcasts. A city of strangers. A city of Mysteries!
Welcome to Kaer Maga.
Since Avistan’s civilized races first emerged from the sea (or the blackness of space or the earth’s subterranean womb, depending on who’s telling the story), the stone ring of Kaer Maga has stood at the edge of the great rocky shelf known as the Storval Rise. Not even the long-lived elves of Kyonin or the wizened librarians of the Atheneum, with all their ancient and forbidden knowledge, can remember a time before the great structure’s existence. Yet over the centuries, a select few scholars have been able to piece together a patchwork story of the city’s checkered past.
Certainly the structure was here when Xin, an exiled Azlanti spellcaster of godlike power, first established the vast Thassilonian empire, dividing up the lands that would one day become Varisia, the Hold of Belkzen, and the Lands of the Linnorm Kings and entrusting them to his faithful governors, the fabled runelords. It was one of these, the first Runelord of Greed, who claimed to have discovered the strange hexagonal monument as he made an initial survey of his great kingdom of Shalast. Yet as with many such “discoveries,” the structure was not unoccupied. Within its walls lived a society of beings unlike anything the wizard-king had ever seen—a race of prophetic, extraplanar creatures that consumed thought as a human consumes bread, immortal and ageless beings locked forever in a hive mind that contained secrets beyond imagining. With no name for themselves (and no need of one, for all were, in their own way, merely aspects of a single telepathic whole), the eyeless creatures accepted the runelord naming them “caulborn” readily enough and made clear their desire to share information. Eager to learn what he could from the outsiders—who didn’t seem to understand or care for the distinction between partners and subjects—the runelord quickly agreed. All his new allies asked for in return was intelligent organisms on which they could feed.
It was in this initial bargain that the future of Kaer Maga was forged. Into this strange and half-ruined structure—for some disaster before his coming had left the ring smashed clean through in one corner—the runelord tossed those subjects who had outlived their usefulness. Dissidents, criminals, failed experiments, and would be usurpers—all were cast into the city to live out their lives as best they could, not in pain, but as fodder for the monstrous scholars that walked among them, drinking their secrets one memory at a time. This prison bore as many names as it had prisoners—the Asylum Stone, the Hex, the City on the Cliff—but in the end none could ever supplant the mysterious moniker which the caulborn claimed predated even their tenancy: Kaer Maga.
Over the course of generations, Kaer Maga grew in size, still receiving a steady influx of political prisoners and other individuals the runelord found too valuable to kill but now also harboring countless citizens born into the strange, enforced isolation of the city. Their numbers soon dwarfed those of the caulborn. In seeking an easy way to staff his prison city, the runelord hit upon the idea of employing undead. Eternal, powerful, easily capable of controlling the rabble within the walls, and dependent on their continued husbandry for survival, the vampires he created were as trapped as the prisoners were within the confines of the city, bound by oaths stronger than iron, but were set above them. These vampires became his wardens, and with the caulborn, his historians and record-keepers, they ruled the city, content to let those under their control self-organize so long as their food supply was never endangered. For uncounted years this arrangement continued. The runelord and his successors grew wise off secrets gleaned from his mysterious advisors and from those treasures dredged from the caverns beneath the city, tunnels whose origins and extent were opaque even to the caulborn. With their powers of prophecy, the caulborn kept the masters of Shalast ever one step ahead of their enemies. Yet in the end, it was this same power that proved the runelord’s undoing. In a vision of unsurpassed vividness, the caulborn foresaw the coming of the Starstone and the holocaust of burning trees and blackened skies that would ensue. They knew that the world of men would be broken for an age—and that Thassilon’s time was past. Without warning the current runelord, an archmage named Karzoug, they retreated deep into the tunnels beneath the city, placing thousands of feet of stone between themselves and the ruin to come. With them they took only those slaves they needed for their own survival, plus the vampires with whom they had formed a close bond—for though the magical law of their Thassilonian masters kept them bound to the city, it did not specify the city’s surface. The enraged runelord quickly uncovered the motives behind their betrayal, but by then there was only enough time to make his own hasty arrangements before the sky fell.
During the Age of Darkness, Kaer Maga underwent great upheaval. Bereft of leadership in a time when the sky rained fire and crops withered in the ground, the citizens looked to each other. Some braved the broken wards of lost Shalast and left, striking out to join the world outside. Others delved into the city beneath for shelter, only to be rebuffed by their former wardens and other horrors that haunted the deeps. In the end, most survived as they always had—by huddling together around the resources set in place by their masters and the city’s unknown architects, retreating into the shelter of the ring walls to wait for better days. Throughout the ages that followed, this sense of isolation and self-reliance came to define Kaer Maga as a city, allowing it to survive and even thrive as the world outside slowly rebuilt itself from the ashes. No matter what wars were fought outside its walls or what borders were theoretically drawn through the surrounding lands, the ancient prison-city kept to itself, asking no favors but suffering no outside masters. In time, this attitude became common knowledge, and those seeking to disappear began showing up on its doorstep, begging for sanctuary. As word spread, outcasts and persecuted minorities from across Avistan and the lands beyond began making the trek to the promised city, determined to start anew somewhere that would neither judge them nor turn them over to their enemies. Thousands of years after its founding, the Asylum Stone was at last living up to its mocking nickname.
Today, Kaer Maga is a bustling hub of trade. As the magical resources of previous millennia slowly failed, its residents learned much of agriculture, yet the lands around the city are harsh, and trade is far easier for most than attempting to work the soil. Just as their ancestors—many of whom were themselves criminals and agitators with wildly different philosophies managed to overcome their differences in order to survive, so too do modern Kaer Magans believe in keeping their opinions to themselves and allowing nearly all ethnicities, cultures, and practices a place within their walls, giving rise to the standoffish adage that “your business is your business.” Indeed, this tolerance has only helped the city, making it a milling hodgepodge of cultures as its reputation draws merchants and emigrants from all over, eager to live and work in a city without boundaries. Also in accordance with their ancestors’ desire to never be imprisoned again is the residents’ staunch rejection of any authority beyond the immediate—the family, the gang, or the contract. In the constantly shifting power dynamics of Kaer Maga, money and favors are the only dependable factors, and while most residents bear nominal allegiance to one faction or another, none of them are eager to see their city united. It’s been 10,000 years since Kaer Maga bowed to any king, and it shows no signs of changing.