The idea of subterranean civilization is a powerful one to me. The impossibility coupled with the mystery of what lies beneath the earth has always attracted me to this rather niche trope in both fantasy and outlandish conspiracy theory. Writers like HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard used it effectively, and even artists and musicians like Miles Davis referenced the ‘Hollow Earth’ in their works as a spiritual symbol.
This world setting is one that exists completely underground, in large chambers or claustrophobic tunnels. It draws inspiration from the previously mentioned authors and their peers, as well as medieval mysticism and general themes of occultism. It’s a dangerous place, with societies huddled around glowing noxious vents for life support. Rampant religiosity is the engine of civilization, with many of the city-states ruled by classes of priests who leverage their positions with hidden knowledge and wisdom. Sacrificial rites are not uncommon, and are for the most part seen as necessary to appease those that dwell beyond the light of the vents, in the untouched darkness of the deep world.
This first part will overview the setting and focus on a city-state in particular, as well as mention some of the dangers of the world. The second part later this week will talk more about the application of this setting for your role playing game. Enjoy!
Ghartha, The Tomb-World
In the world of Ghartha, people live their entire lives in the darkness of enclosed chambers of rock and earth. Huge chambers house entire cities, built upon the glowing vents that bring light and life to the cold and dark abysses. The systems that sustain such civilizations are fragile indeed, an ever present fact accorded by the innumerable dead cities that lie in the darkness beyond the light, forgotten and cold, or haunted by those that need no light to live.
Each city is a state onto itself, for large kingdoms are an impossibility left to the myths and legends of the ancient past. Many of these city-states are ruled over by a class of priests, most often with a priest-king of some sort as the figurehead. Hundreds of cults, temples, and mystery schools operate in these cities, for many seek the safety of faith or mysticism that they cannot find in the dark. Often, these priests require sacrifices to appease the ever hungry entities that exist in the below-places, things that are both monsters and gods.
Sustenance is provided by the flora that grows within the light and warmth of the vents, often tubular long stalks that can be processed multiple ways, as well as mossy clumps that grow on wet stone. This is supplemented by a huge variety of mushrooms as well as the meat of animals hunted in the tunnels, or sometimes domesticated for slaughter. The most common animal domesticated in this manner is the Orlab, a large and meaty hairless animal with blind eyes and a stumpy snout. Some opportunistic city-dwellers become tunnel hunters, seeking out larger or more exotic game in the dark, as well as rare and useful mushrooms and herbs. Such a life is a dangerous one, however.
The themes of this setting are mystery, darkness, mysticism, and liberation; the societies of the city-states are often by necessity strict, and secrets and knowledge are hoarded and valued like invisible currency. Priests and temples exploit ignorance by promising wisdom to adherents, and the darkness of the world itself envelopes every place of light like a shadowed prison. Many seek solace in secrets of the past, or in faith in any God they feel is listening. The most dangerous thing about Ghartha is the possibility that they are.
The gods of Ghartha, if they can be called such, exist in the deep black abysses down and beyond the light of the cities. These ‘deep ones’ or under gods are often referred to by the same mouth as monsters, demons, or unknowable creatures that can only be appeased with the ritualistic sacrifice of other people. These gods are depicted with fetishes and idols set up in the temples of the cities, where priests will feverishly coordinate worship.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on one city-state in particular; Holmshef, the city of vaults.
Holmshef is called such because it is a very old city built on the bones of another ancient city, so there are a great many vaults and tunnels that run and thread their way about everywhere. New ones are discovered every day, chambers filled with the debris and skeletal remains of some forgotten people. Most of Holmshef lies in a large chamber, though quite a bit of it has spread into a tunnel complex of both natural hollows and artificial.
The epicenter of Holmshef is a huge temple with seven walls, and with pillars that go straight to the unseen ceiling of the city chamber. This is the Temple of Ur-Shalammu, the first of the priest-kings, or Hierophants, that rule Holmshef. The legends of their order state that Ur-Shalammu was a priest of the nameless Deep God of Uro, and had learned such deep secrets of the below-places that he was able to bind seven hundred and seventy-seven demons to his service to build this temple. When they had finished, he blessed the stones with their screams as he sacrificed them to the nameless One. Since that time, the priesthood of Uro (Uro being the mythical place where the God dwells) had ruled the city as administrators and religious heads.
The current Hierophant is named Ur-Arahunnē, a venerable old priest who is generally seen as wise and slow to action.
Holmshef’s religious ruling class do not ban other forms of worship; rather, how it often works is people worship multiple things, supplementing their personal faith with the institutionalized faith of the city, and the wealthy citizenry often give to many different temples in an attempt to hedge their bets, so to speak. Very few cults believe that who or what they worship is all that exists. You could almost imagine it as a hodge podge pantheon of disparate entities. In Holmshef, however, the nameless One sits at the top.
Society is largely class based. At the top are the Priests of the Nameless One, followed by other priests and heads of temples. This is followed by a noble class derived from the first major merchants of the city before they cemented themselves with tribute to the priests as the heads of guilds. Everyone else are commoners; workers, hunters, scribes, laymen, etc. Perhaps even below these is one final group of dispossessed individuals: adventurers.
Adventurers are usually driven by poverty, or sometimes with an unusual curiosity, to explore the tunnels of the dark world in search of the treasures of the dead cities. A single good haul could set a man or woman for a long time, and despite their unwillingness to find it themselves, nobles and priests are often keen on getting ahold of some remnants of civilizations past. Quite a few cults, in fact, were created when some explorers brought back forgotten idols from the dark and people decided to start worshipping them.
The rarest thing, and the most sought after, are books and scrolls. The mysteries of the past written on page are worth fortunes that could set an adventurer for life… or cause him or her to lose it if they can’t unload it fast enough.
The dark places are inhabited, however. The dead cities will often house new denizens, dark and monstrous. Mindless beasts or cunning semi-humanoids that worship or blaspheme (or both) the deep gods of the below-places. Many adventurers never live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Temples and Cults
Other than the cult of the nameless one of Uro, many temples exist in Holmshef.
One popular cult is dedicated to Yiggishuf of Amarethene, also called the cult of the Worm. This priestly order is dedicated to an entity known as Yiggishuf the worm, which is described as a corpulent mass of pale flesh that eats away at the core of the world. The worm sucks the secrets of the world from the rock like moisture, and the adherents to the worm promise that his chosen followers will, at the end of times, be able to feast upon the papule-marked flesh to gain the wisdom and become his children, transforming into worms themselves to eat away at the new world. This cult is rather known for its fatalistic world view. Amarethene is itself a dead city where the creators of the cult found an ancient shrine to the worm god, and adopted it and the scrolls and tomes they found for themselves.
The newest movement is considered strange by many of the adherents of other temples; the Cult of Light. They claim to worship light itself, saying that all light is part of a metaphysical being that seeks to free the people from the darkness of the world. This cult denies other worship, claiming all other entities to be demons and monsters only. They are most prevalent among the very poor due to it’s liberation dogma. The fast spread of this cult is gaining the attention of powerful priests of other cults, and not in a good way.
Magic exists and is utilized when it can be, but most of the mysteries of magic are locked behind mystery cults that tend to not reveal themselves publicly. Those who can really use magic tend to keep themselves secret as a necessity of their craft, for many priests and faiths consider practitioners as irreverent abusers of divine power or in the employ of demons.
Many of the secrets of magic are passed down through grimoires, and apprentices are meant to undergo various levels of training where more truths are revealed with each level. These various levels and the truths revealed can often be contradictory until the big picture is revealed at the zenith of their training. Much of the early work is non magical in nature, instead focusing on ritual concentration to cleanse their mind and setting before magical work can begin.
Magicians themselves consider what they are doing as similar to the religious workings of priests, but on a deeper more fundamental level. Divine working without the need for dogma, if you will. They even claim that legendary figures such as Ur-Shalammu were magicians themselves, and his binding of the demons a real example of magic power. Some of the more recent additions to ‘living’ grimoires passed from magician to magician refer to themselves taking the ‘left-hand’ path, whereas the more public cults and temples are on the ‘right-hand’ path.
There is one thing above all that they who dwell in light fear: the Maturka, the tribe of deep creatures also called troglodytes. These beastly humanoids live in black abysses far from the light of the cities, some say in hollows that connect directly to the below-places where gods and demons dwell. They wage constant war on the city dwellers, however, with deadly proficiency and psychotic joy.
The first sign of an impending Maturka raid, usually on a caravan traveling the tunnels between cities, is a flickering of the glow rods they use for light. For a few minutes they will flicker, then finally go out. Then, just moments later, a horrible smell with permeate throughout the area. The stench of the Maturka is said to be a mixture of the noxious fumes from deep within the glowing vents and the putrid smell of necrotic flesh. They almost always only attack in pitch darkness, and in near silence. When someone, perhaps another caravan, comes across the scene of the raid, they will find only the broken carts and dead orlabs if they are lucky. However, if any children or feeble old people were in the raided caravan, they will find two piles; one of broken glistening corpses, and another of simply skin.
Why the Maturka hate the city dwellers is a mystery. Where they take who they capture is another. Many believe slavery or sacrifice is the answer, but for what purpose, or to the worship of who, is unanswerable. In the very rare occurrence of a pitched battle with the troglodytes, they will fight to death, and none have ever been captured alive. The bodies, due to the horrible stench, often need to be burned right away.
The Levels of Ghartha
Many divide up the world of Ghartha into multiple levels. These levels can be thought of in a allegorical or cosmological way, or in a literal way.
The first level is where mortals live, and where the cities are. Here the vents grant light and warmth for life to thrive.
The second level is the place of dead cities, which is perceived as on the same level or sometimes lower than the first level. Here is where exists the dead cities of ages past, the dark tunnels that lead to them, and here is where dwells the creatures that haunt these dark place. The Maturka are said to live on the edge of the this place, and the lower one…
The third level is also referred to as the below-places, as it is thought of as truly below where people exist. These are very deep places of perpetual blackness wherein dwells the unknowable beings that are gods, demons, monsters, and more. They are ever hungry for worship, and often more.
The fourth and final level below this one is called the cauldron, and it is spoken of only in vague philosophical terms. It is where, they say, the vents cleave to, and draw up the lifeblood of the world to keep the cities alive.
Some cults and some ancient tomes speak of a world above the first level, but knowledge of the subject is extremely rare and many who speak of such are considered mad or foolish.
(to be continued…) (sorry I keep editing to add on to it)
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