A barren king in a barren hall,
Guarding his barren throne from all.
Three princesses shall sing no more.
Four princes blood did stain the floor.
Laid low, their father followed soon,
Beheaded ‘neath a silent moon.
In pride and hate, his final call,
"A crown for none, or doom for all."
Tarkalsys is a harsh land dominated by vast swamps, jagged peaks, and vicious monsters who stalk the wilderness in search of victims. Its people have learned to cope, eeking out what life they can from their inhospitable home. They tend to be grim and distrustful, brandishing torches and pitchforks at the barest hint of danger in their midst.
Oddly, this grim outlook has a festive side. Death is a frequent visitor among the folk of Tarkalsys, so much so that they have grown to accept and even celebrate it. Most communities hold colorful autumn celebrations called Reapings that welcome the spirit of death to share the first meal of harvest. Death is met with acknowledgement and even joviality, with toasts to the deceased and jokes of who will be next. To the folk of Tarkalsys, "smiling back at the reaper" is a way of life.
Takral is the local tongue of Tarkalsys. Cirth is a common second language for most outside the Great Marsh. The nomadic Anrimi share their own language by the same name. A scattered few speak Naastrine, Opunin, and Tceril in the eastern ports, but these languages are little heard inland. The same is true of Velysh in the northwestern villages.
Humans and uordeq make up the majority of the population in Tarkalsys. The swamps are home to a plethora of wild or tainted races that are little loved elsewhere, including shriss, cambions, revenants, riven, and other races even more exotic and monstrous. Sylvans can be found to the northwest around the villages of Junction and Halfway, but are rare elsewhere.
Except for villages within the Great Marsh and to the northwest, which are geographically isolated and independent, Tarkalsys is ruled by an assortment of Dukes, Counts, and Barons known collectively as the Nobles of the Barren Throne. By tradition, each of these nobles owes fealty to the same king who died during the Vedrischtal and was never succeeded, but in practice they rarely interact.
Istensia and Lemesin were once more prominent in the region, but their influence has diminished as the uordeq race has grown in prevalence. Darker immortals such as Etejeril, Secronus, and Tenaebrus have since taken their place. The brethren of Dhuroscht, though unwelcome in civilized lands, are a power to be feared in the region. The monsters of Goven pay homage to a variety of immortals, including Drathenix, Muralakrum, and Syflare. And the followers of Ressik once pressed as far east as Broma, but now struggle to maintain a foothold in Targas.
- Broma - Even though their cape is known for its unusually strong storms, the people of Broma make their living through trade. Near the city is the Monastery of the Ascendant Step, where monks learn to quell the storm within. Some say Drake Luminesti, an unaging servant of Istensia, frequents the monastery, though none ever seen him enter or leave.
- Goven - Surrounded on all sides by the Great Marsh, Goven was built on the ruins of a city decimated by Lemesin's battle with Dhuroscht. The village itself is a haven for monstrous humanoids, a place anyone can go for shelter and trade regardless of their nature. This makes it a good place to find rare items, but also a dangerous place for ordinary folk to venture.
- Halfway - The people of Halfway have colorful manners of speech and dress that set them apart. Their Reaping festivals are especially flamboyant, they are fond of local delicacies featuring all manner of "bayou" creature, and they openly practice a blend of dark arts and shamanism unique to the area.
- Hovenlorn - Situated near the southeastern coast and nestled within sparse woodland, Hovenlorn is picturesque compared to the rest of Tarkalsys. The Amrini people, an ancient subculture of nomads, regard it as their homeland. These colorful folk are known for music, curses, and thievery, a reputation that is as much truth as it is slander. The local nobles have attempted to expel them numerous times but met with little success.
- Junction - Junction is a small village in the northwestern forests of Tarkalsys near the border of Rastemier that once boasted a vibrant grove of Greenwardens. The druidic circle has long since been abandoned, however, and travelers who inquire about it are met with dark stares and silence. Only barred windows and howls in the night suggest the truth of the town's shame.
- Nectrum - The duchy of Nectrum is more peaceful than its neighbors, due in large part to Memnlon Academy, the only monster hunter academy in all of Orn. Run by Jovis Memnlon, an unaging servant of Istensia, the students take their lessons on patrol, guarding the night and rooting out the evils that prey upon men. Upon graduation, they venture out into Tarkalsys and beyond, continuing their quest as vigilantes and mercenaries.
- Shirelan - Wealth and decadence define the court in Shirelan, where the local Duke is fond of grand celebrations. Taxation aside, none are certain how he maintains his lifestyle. Given the lascivious nature of the company he keeps, many suspect a fiendish origin to his riches.
- Targas - The followers of Ressik once attempted to conquer Tarkalsys. They were pressed back to Targas, where the mountains worked in their defense. The Duke of Targas and his family have since remained in captivity, kept as figureheads to legitimize the rule of the king of Mavredor to the west. Meanwhile, the agents of Ressik plot to place an ally on the Barren Throne.
- Trinsburrow - Trinsburrow was once the thriving capital of Tarkalsys, but fell out of favor after King Arqveil's beheading. Travelers and traders avoid it now for fear of its curse, and none dare enter the Barren Hall where Arqveil's mad ghost still rules the land.
- Vlostoc - Clinging to the Stregosa Mountains amidst treacherous cliffs spanned by rickety bridges, the town of Vlostoc lies in the shadow of Stursgraad Manor. Once the impregnable seat of an ancient king, the once proud Stursgraad sits crumbling atop its lonely peak and plays host to a Duke who is rarely seen. If local stories are to be believed, the manor is also home to moving statues, giant bats, and other horrors.
- Barren King - During the Vedrischtal, a civil war divided the kingdom of Tarkalsys. The ruling king, Sorin Arqveil, went mad, proclaiming himself to be ruler for all time and ordering the public execution of his seven children. The rebels were eventually victorious and Arqveil was beheaded. With his dying breath, he cursed any who would sit the throne after him. Not wanting to invite ruin, either from the curse or from another mad king, the nobles elected to leave the throne absent. So it has remained, though it is said Arqveil's ghost haunts his old palace in Trinsburrow, vigilant for the day someone tries to usurp him.
- Eclipse - Some time after the Shattering, a coterie of vampire warlocks used dark magic to veil Tarkalsys from sunlight. Ever since, days have been dimmer and vampires have been able to walk beneath the sun without pain. The Eclipse has also had the side effect of producing the uordeq race. Humans mothers intermittently give birth to uordeq children, so much so that the population is slowly being replaced by them.
- Gentleman's Carriage - Stories tell of a black carriage that appears to those traveling on dangerous roads after nightfall. A pale gentleman offers a ride to the stranded traveler. The gentleman never gives specific details about himself, but always insists on a story as payment for his help. Those who treat him politely and share a compelling story of their lives arrive at their destination unharmed. Those who do not are never seen again.
- Honor's Stand - In the center of the Great Marsh is the site where Lemesin smote Dhuroscht and cleaved his wicked heart from his chest. Some say a humble temple was built there, little more than an altar, as proof that hope lives even in the darkest of places.
- Howling Canyon - Somewhere in the Stregosa Mountains is the valley where Dhuroscht first appeared before men. The dark brethren in his service congregate in this most unholy place, bringing victims to either kill or initiate into their cult. The valley earns its name from the screams of these poor souls as they are tortured, slain, or have their eyes plucked out as a devotion to the Prince of Fiends.
- Swamp Manglers - Unlike ordinary swampland, the Great Marsh was created from Dhuroscht's blood. This tainted the wildlife just as it despoiled the earth, creating fiendish monsters not normally native to the mortal realm. One such monster is the swamp mangler, a mass of vegetation that drags its victims beneath the murky waters of its home. Sometimes it appears as a hulking humanoid, others as a giant wormlike creature, but it is always hostile to those who intrude upon its domain.
- Vampires - Despite the best efforts of monster hunters, vampires have always been prevalent in Tarkalsys. The Eclipse has only exaggerated this problem, making it all the more difficult to identify vampires. Some whisper that members of the nobility are vampires, that the true king of Tarkalsys is their ancient progenitor, and that he orchestrated the Barren King's fall to rule from the shadows.
- Will o' Wisps - The Great Marsh is known for its many dangers, but few as subtle or sinister as will o' wisps. Believed to be hateful spirits of those who died in the swamp, these floating torchlike beings appear at a distance, leading hopeful travelers into danger.
- "Mind the moon." - A warning to be cautious, particularly when traveling or venturing out at night.
- "Reaping" - A harvest festival in honor of death. The timing of the festival varies from one community to the next, but always falls some time in autumn. Celebrants invite death to the first harvest meal and dress in horrifying costumes so he will feel welcome. This is done in the hopes that death will be kind in the coming year, and that he may bring dearly departed loved ones along to the feast.
- "Seeing an old friend." - A colloquialism for dying. The folk of Tarkalsys treat death as an old friend, so when someone dies, they lighten the news by saying that person, "went to see an old friend."