Cauterus is a country on the eastern seaboard. It's capitol is Belgast. The River of Souls forms a natural border with Gattica to the south (which flows into Greywing Bay, where you'll find the Abominable Colossus).
|demon army VS forest cult VS chivalrous royals|
Cauterus has a long and rich history of jousts and knights and epic poetry, but none of that really matters anymore. Now, when people talk about Cauterus, they invariably talk about the Fall.
33 years ago, the decadent-but-chivalrous rulers of Cauterus were usurped in a messy, three-way meltdown between a cult and a desperate legion of devils. The cult won.
In the ensuing years, the cult of God-in-the-Woods consolidated their power and swept the two losing parties (royals and demons) under the rug. Despite the fucked up history and horror stories, Cauterus looks quite normal to a casual traveler. It has small towns, bustling markets, gossip, banter, harvests, farms, and shepherds.
The Curse of Cauterus
A great deal of heremancy (forbidden magic) is forbidden because it has the potential to permanently damage the world. It can create wounds on the world that will never heal (e.g. most of the Darklands). During the turmoil of Cauterus' revolution, a great deal of forbidden magic--thought to be destroyed--was unleashed on the nation. The original offenders are not known. Everyone blames each other.
(It's a bit analogous to nuclear weapons. Once one side uses them, the other side feels justified in using them as well.)
1. Most of those who spend more than a few days in Cauterus will sicken and die. Those who don't die, become adapted to it.
2. Adapted people who leave Cauterus for more than a few days will sicken and die. Those who don't die, lose their adaptation, and are free from the curse of Cauterus.
3. People who fall ill from the curse watch their blood turn black and thicken in their veins. They endure a fever and agonizing cramps and abdominal pain.
4. People who die from the curse split open along their bellies. After death, their now-unrecognizable organs crawl a few feet before dying in the dust. Some of these organs seem to attack each other, or attempt to devour one another. It is thought that this is the source of the great pain.
5. Those who recover from the curse live mostly normal lives (the nightmares are believed to be a incidental product of the trauma, and not an engineered malady). Their blood is once again red, and their organs no longer grow long and toothsome, nor do they pulse to their own heartbeat. However, survivors will still have a higher than normal chance (25%) to bear freakish offspring or pulpy, unrecognizable stillbirths.
6. Hallucinations are common. So is mental illness.
The curse of Cauterus covers the entire nation (except for a couple of towns on the Sea of Dendrola, such as Blackenburg) and even extends several miles off the coast.
Most other countries are content to ignore Cauterus. The citizens of that country can't leave it (not without the majority of them dying, at least) and foreigners have little incentive or ability to penetrate the cursed country.
Since Cauterus has only been sealed off from the world for 33 years, a lot of people have friends and family on the inside. Many families were cut in half by the revolution, and many royal families in other countries count Cauterus' royal family among their ancestors.
Cauterus' nearest neighbor is Gattica, a country founded on conservative, fundamentalist Hesayan beliefs. The paladins of Gattica would love to begin a crusade to purge Cauterus of its heretical cult, were it feasible.
A tiny amount of refugees enter Gattica each year from Cauterus. They are haunted, wretched people, and most of them cling to the Church with a frenzied, desperate faith. Some become street preachers, calling for Cauterus to be purged. But most cluster together in the slums, where they cling to each other and try to sleep through the night without waking up in a cold sweat. There is some prejudice the Cauterian refugees them, and few Gatticans would allow their son or daughter to marry a Cauterian (partially because of the high chance of malformed offspring).
There's little urgency when it comes to Cauterus. Every year, there are fewer and fewer lights across the river. There are fewer Cauterian ships on the lakes. Most believe that Cauterus is dying, choking on heresy and demon blood. And the world is content to let it.
Cauterus is is a theocracy, ruled by the the priests of God-in-the-Woods. They are young cult, and there is no record of them earlier than 80 years ago. Their symbol is a moon-faced wicker man (something that they build at crossroads and in fields, sort of like giant scarecrows).
The cult reveres nature, especially those aspects which are wild and coarse. Nature with sweat-drenched flanks. Nature that leaves its dead unburied. Unsympathetic nature. The cult worships thousands of gods, and none of them have names.
Nothing in Cauterus grows except by their blessing. Healthy forests. Sickly farms. Beautiful mountainsides. Neglected cities.
The cult hates cities, and all the trappings of civilization. They are sins against the world, and all that is manufactured or forged will be swept out when this era ends. Most of their clergy hide among the secret places of the woods, and are not known to their flocks.
The first thing that the priests-in-the-woods did was to render the the castles uninhabitable, although the castles still stand. They did this by planting seeds between the bricks, and praying to their gods. The castles are now ragged labyrinths of tortured masonry and thick-limbed trees. Roots wrestle beneath the flagstones, and knotted limbs thrust up from the battlements. The former castles are barely recognizable as castles anymore. They resemble square hills covered in waving branches, or perhaps a few thousand trees piled atop one another.
The trees don't seem to follow the expected rules for trees. They grow without rain and without sun. They grow in wintertime, and their branches all point towards the towns that they overlook.
The trees even grow inside these former castles. They crowd the halls like stubborn petitioners. Their roots pull the moisture from the pages within the library. Their rough skin rubs the gilt from the old throne.
Entry into these castles, symbols of the old aristocracy, is naturally forbidden.
The Religion of God-in-the-Woods
Ceremonies take place in the forest, naturally. All Cauterians are worshipers of God-in-the-Woods. Disbelief is illegal.
The cult believes that civilization, as it is currently practiced, is an immense step backwards. They believe that humanity has squandered their gifts. Civilization, culture, fashion, and gossip are all petty bullshit that stands in the way of true happiness, which comes from food, friends, family, sex, and joyful violence--the simple things in life. The cult does not require a complete return to nature (although it is encouraged), merely that the faithful learn to see beyond the shackles that "civilization" has cast on their mind.
Ceremonies occur at least twice a week. Worshipers enter the grove by crawling on their hands and knees. They are forbidden from standing during the service, although they may recline on their bellies or sides (though never their backs, since that is a human and unnatural posture). The sermons discuss spiritual matters (souls, humanity, civilization) but they also serve as a focal point for news and socialization.
Every sermon ends with the worshippers lapping up blessed milk from a broad bowl (6') across. About 12 people can slurp water from this broad bowl at a time, arranged around it like pigs at a trough. When the milk is completely gone, the sermon is ended. This is the Milk Sacrament.
The cult of God-in-the-Woods believes strongly in the idea of lay clergy. They believe that the priests and leaders should be elevated from among the common people.
Every spring, all of the priests-in-the-woods return to the city and conduct tests. Any citizen can take these tests, which mostly evaluate memorization of their scriptures, doctrine, and philosophy. Those who pass the test are taken to the secret temples, deep in the woods, where they are fully indoctrinated in mysteries of God-in-the-Woods. They learn the things that the commoners are not allowed to know. And since all positions of authority are appointed by the cult, these tests offer a chance for a better life, and many peasants study hard in the hopes of a better life.
To save the next generation from the oppression of the last, children are taken away from their families at the age of 5. For the next 10 years, they will live in the deep forests, among the priests-in-the-woods, where they will learn the value of hard work and the animal virtues. They will also be properly indoctrinated into the religion, that they might not suffer any misconceptions.
The young people that emerge from these deep education institutions range the gamut from doctrine-spouting adherents to damaged doubters. However, a significant percentage of the children sent away (~10%) never return to their parents, since the priests' methods are sometimes rough, and milder children have no place among the callous trees.
Day of Revelations
The Day of Revelations is an annual festival in Cauterus. News of it was first carried out by refugees. It's so famous that it is even known outside of Cauterus.
Beginning from the earliest hours of the morning, every single person in Cauterus will live like an animal, and vice versa.
Humans will walk around on their hands and knees, lap water from wagon tracks, and rut in the alleyways. They will make no human sound, but will instead grunt and smack their lips. Long-held rivalries and hatreds have a way of rising to the surface on the Day of Revelations, and occasionally fights will break out. These fights usually end with one human tearing another one's throat out with their bare teeth.
And the animals will live like men. They will enter the houses and eat food from the cupboards. They will knock books from the shelves and nose through the pages. They will shit in the outhouses.
At the end of the day, the people will lay themselves to sleep in mangers, sheepfolds, or thickets. The animals will crawl into beds and pull the sheets across themselves. And come morning, everything will be as it was.
Scholars of the world are at a loss to explain this whole thing.
Some say that it is merely a ritual that the cult expects from its followers. That "animal" is simply a role that everyone performs, like an actor in a play.
Others say that it is a form of mass hypnosis, or a hysteria. Still others say that it is a subtle madness, passed on by the milk that the faithful drink during each sermon. But none of these answers explain the strange behavior of the animals, or how they learned to use the outhouses (among all the other strange behavior).
And it certainly doesn't explain the stranger claims that people have made about the Day of Revelation. It should be impossible for a goat to walk upright. Bulls don't have the anatomy required to pronounce words, much less give blessings out from the marketplace. And pigs certainly cannot trample a farmer to death in retaliation for their mother, who was eaten last year. And toads cannot fill the pews of the old church and give prophesy.
These things cannot happen, yet people claim that they do.
It's much easier to say that these things are hallucinations, which are as common in Cauterus as nightmares and mental illness.
Law is not maintained by a town guard. Every citizen is armed with a knife, and every citizen is expected to report on any "unfaithful thoughts", "sinful behaviors", or any other outsiders. Everyone reports on everyone. Informants are given privileged treatment and food, which is valuable in a time when many people are starving. And since "unfaithful thoughts" includes criticizing the cult or doubting God-in-the-Woods, everyone has learned to guard their speech at all times.
The most common punishment that the cult gives out is a return to nature. Their property is confiscated and they are driven out into the woods, naked except for a knife. They can return from their exile after a month or a year, having learned the lessons of the wild.
Capitol punishment is also not uncommon. The accused are tied to a post in the marketplace. Through unknown magic, the person's skull is removed from their head without breaking the skin. The flaccid head-skin is then packed with peat moss, and the entire corpse is left in the marketplace for 3 days, during which it is forbidden to touch, disturb, or move the body.
But their most famous punishment involves the production of bagsaints.
A bag saint appears to be a human whose skin has been completely replaced with fabric, most frequently good quality wool. The fabric is usually dyed in specific colors, usually a combination of plaids and tartans, moons, polka dots, etc.
Bagsaints do not speak. Their tongues have been cut off. Males are castrated, and sterility is likewise chemically induced in the females. Their fingers are bound together, giving them permanent mitten-hands. Their teeth are also removed.
Beneath their woolen skin, bagsaints do not think much, because they have been lobotomized. The top of their skull is also removed and replaced with a wooden cap. The inside of this wooden skullcap is carved with phrases from God-in-the-Woods' scriptures and naturalistic iconography. They communicate with each other via shuffling dances.
They tend to be smelly, since their woolen skin can't perform many of the functions that biologic skin can. They have their woolen skin replaced every month or so. If their woolen skin is removed, they are as vulnerable as a flayed person would normally be, and will invariably die soon after. Not that they live very long anyway.
Although bagsaints are former members of the community, it is forbidden to refer to them by their old name. Even if it were your mother who was taken away and made into a bagsaint, the cult does not allow anyone to treat them differently based on who they were before. Bagsaints are assumed to have forgotten all of their former lives, anyway.
Bagsaints are touted as the embodiment of civilization. The end point of modernization. The first man who wrapped his body in woven cloth committed a sin, and that sin is magnified and extrapolated in the form of the bagsaint.
Just as humans have hidden their sexuality beneath chiffon and lace, so has the bagsaint been neutered. Just as humans have forgotten the succor of violence and self-reliance, so has the bagsaint been made harmless, lacking teeth or claws. And just as humans have allowed their voices to become meaningless babble full of gossip, lies, and politeness, so has the bagsaint been rendered mute.
"Look at the bagsaint!" cries the cult. "Is it not disgusting? This is what your so-called civilization would have brought you! To worship the bagsaint is to worship cheap kings, crass materialism, and filthy lucre! But now we have shown you what it truly is, you have been enlightened!"
Despite their idiotic appearance, the church employs bagsaints for their own purposes (although the exact mechanism of control is not quite known). They are used as spies, messengers, and--occasionally--assassins. A bag saint has no problem hiding under a bed for 18 hours, only to creep out at 3am and strangle the room's occupant.
People often ascribe uncanny powers to bagsaints, as well as unusual knowledge or communication abilities.
Although the demons who attempted to overthrow the Cauterian king 33 years ago are no longer alive (presumably), their legacy lives on.
In life, the 453rd legion of Nalaclypse recruited heavily from the local populace, but many humans joined out of ambition or desperation. These people, and their apprentices, meet secretly across Cauterus and plan the overthrow of the cult. They preach a gestalt of individualism and ubermensh mentality. They name-drop human philosophers and demon warlords with equal aplomb.
They have spooky powers involving horses and numbers. They drink a lot of black coffee. They treasure knowledge, and have been trying to save books and scrolls even as the cult has been trying to destroy them. They have a few demonic portals, but lack the expertise to open them. They've been summoning things, but their results have been mixed.
There's more, but honestly, this post is already long enough.
I've already written a full article about them. But in a nutshell. . .
When the royal family was overthrown, most of them escaped into the inland hills. They still persist, living in their secret tunnels beneath the ground. Their subterranean society has been made in imitation of the courtly lifestyle they once enjoyed, and they refer to themselves as princes, princesses, knights, barons, etc. All this despite (or because) they live in dirty holes in the ground.
In order to ensure greater stability and fertility, they have used alchemy to give themselves the physiologies of ants. A single, enormous queen constantly gives birth, while sterile men go hunting for food (often sheep or human) while sterile women care for the royal apartments. Rarely, the queen will choose to birth a fertile princess and several fertile princess for her to marry, and they will go found a new colony.
A Gattican bishop hires you to go into Cauterus. You only have a few days before you succumb to the Curse of Cauterus. Quickly, you must . . .
A Darklands wizard has invented a potion that will postpone the effects of the curse of Cauterus. Sneak into the place and . . .
You have been marooned on the coast of Cauterus. A ship's captain agrees to take you back to whence you came, but first you must . . .
. . . explore a tree-raped castle and find return with a hidden book (containing powerful and forbidden magic).
. . . blend in with a town during the Day of Revelations. Watch out for bagsaints. They can smell your lies.
. . . steal an old artifact during the chaos of the Day of Revelations. It's solid gold and buried in a midden heap.
. . . find a long-lost family member and escape Cauterus with them.
. . . work with the (cult/ demon fetishists/royal cannibals) to assassinate the leaders of the (cult/demon fetishists/royal cannibals) in order to make Cauterus less of a shit-hole.
. . . find the hidden indoctrination camps of the cult and rescue a specific child from it. (May or may not feature hesitant 13-year-old attacking the PCs with crossbows.)
. . . find the source of the curse and end it, thereby opening the door for Gattica to launch a crusade, and finally purge this place of its heresy.