After many days' travel through the dry, grueling desert--what the traders back in Drydock called the Silent Barrens - your party spots something amid the orange dunes. At first, it seems like a mirage, like many you've seen along the way. Yellow stone walls rise high, stopping the brutal winds. Stalls and shops dot the nearby landscape, most of them hugging the rough fortifications for protection against the dust.
Guards appear atop the wall: a pair of skeletons. Sun-bleached skulls grin back at you, shortbows trained and unmoving. More guards appear - all undead, all similarly armed. As you pause, uncertain, you see another figure appear on the wall. This one is human.
The bald man studies you all with beady black eyes. He pulls the white cloth down from his face, the edges of his lips curling upward. He flashes teeth as white as the bones around him. "Welcome to Valhar."
Valhar, also known as the City of Bones, is an oasis city buried deep within the brutal deserts of the Khasod Lands. Isolated and sun-drenched, the inhabitants of Valhar continue to survive through careful planning, protection from the beasts of the desert, and through alliances with the lizardfolk tribes in the surrounding area. Perhaps the biggest contributor to their flourishing civilization, however, is their use of the undead who roam the streets.
When warm-blooded humanoids first arrived in the deserts of Valhar, they flailed about. Unable to grow crops, weather the harsh sun, or survive the roving bands tlincalli and ankhegs, several early settlements were completely slaughtered. It was the lizardfolk tribes, long since adapted to survival in the nearby deserts, who finally took pity on the flesh-people and aided the newcomers. They offered nearby hot springs, teaching the smooth-skins how to till the land and conserve their resources--including making use of the dead. Mortal arcanists, following these traditions, took such recycling one step further.
Necromancy is the wizarding school of choice in Valhar, but it isn't frowned upon— on the contrary, undead are the chief source of labor, a natural evolution from life to ultimately serving your family. Those who follow Valhari religious traditions believe that the soul entirely leaves the body upon death; thus, the remains are a resource that ought not be squandered.
Upon death, bodies are ritually stripped of valuables and flesh, leaving behind their skeletons. Trusted Necromancers and Death Clerics cast Animate Dead upon these skeletons, providing them to the family of the dead (or to the highest bidder).
During the day, the streets of Valhar are almost exclusively populated by roving skeletons running errands under the hot sun; they carry palanquins, serve as armed guards, and work in the farmland while their masters dwell in the shade of the city’s low, flat buildings. Bazaars are filled with skeletons silently haggling, while others guard the walls and carry water from the Oasis. The living inhabitants of Valhar only come out during dawn and dusk, when the balance between heat and cold is bearable enough to survive.
Bone decorates many of the buildings, weapons, and holy sites. Murder is difficult in the city because it is standard practice (for those rich enough to afford it) to have clerics cast Speak with Dead to learn information of the killer and to receive the dead's last wishes.
An Economy of Bodies
Often, the skeletons carrying a nobleman's palanquin and serving as bodyguards will be the ancestors of their current servants and guards; nobles encourage their retinues to bear many children so that families can accrue numbers quickly. With these armies, each family is a force to be reckoned with.
Poor families who cannot afford necromancy have more limited options. More often than not, the bodies of dead commoners are sold to merchants and noble houses to be reanimated as soldiers, farmers, and miners. In this way, the forces of Valhar are always growing--only to be counteracted by the constant external threat of nearby nations and the dangerous creatures and tribes that inhabit the deserts.
Hierarchy of Undead (lowest to highest)
- Ghoul/Ghast. The bodies of criminals, spies, and those who displeased the city rulers are transformed into ghouls and ghasts--powerful, mindless, flesh-hungry creatures kept in cages, to be released in case of emergency in wars against outsiders.
- Zombie. The base-level undead, zombies are created for those who managed to scrape together enough money to raise a body, but not enough to undergo the ritual cleansing required to create a skeleton. Zombies are a shameful secret, and are fair game to be destroyed in the streets of Valhar to prevent disease from spreading.
- Skeleton. The most common type of undead in Valhar, skeletons roam the city as everyday servants, soldiers, and farmers. They are intelligent enough to follow orders, dextrous enough to perform most tasks, and clean enough to avoid spreading disease. The prevalence of skeletons gives rise to Valhar’s nickname, the City of Bones.
- Wight. The most skilled warriors of Valhar may be raised as wights, preserving their enhanced combat prowess and maintaining their mental abilities. Wights have a significant weakness in their sunlight sensitivity, and so they tend to guard indoors or walk around at night.
- Mummy. The most powerful scholars and nobles of Valhar may be mummified and raised instead, to dwell within the Ziggurat and guard Valhar's greatest treasures. They also serve as repositories of knowledge spanning hundreds of years.
- Mummy Lord. There is only one Mummy Lord of Valhar; a creature with an unknown name that resides in the Ziggurat. Once an ancient emperor of the land, he was overthrown and mummified, replaced by the triumvirate system. Now he guards the central chambers of the Ziggurat, protecting some unknown treasure and the lost secrets of Valhar itself.
A dozen noble families live in Valhar and operate many of the large farms around the city, earning revenue by controlling the price of grain and vegetables. Several of these families maintain monopolies on one or more resources; salt, grain, oil, gold, livestock, etc.
Each noble family has at least one necromancer or clergy member who controls the undead, maintaining a personal guard force in addition to the city's own standing army. The line between arcane Necromancers and divine Death Clerics often ignored in Valhari society. Manipulation of death energy is respected and put to use.
The Circle of Amon-kiir. When nobility or scholars die, their bones are interred in the Ziggurat, and a select few may even be mummified. When information needs to be accessed, the Bonekeeper (Cleric) casts Speak with Dead to seek information.
Merchants and Artisans
With much of the labor covered by undead, the majority of the city's living inhabitants work indoors; many are skilled craftsmen responsible for creating complex goods that skeletons cannot, while others trade amongst themselves. There are very few guilds in Valhar, and so most businesses fend for themselves. Households of this class tend to own somewhere between one and five undead servants.
Miners Farmers, Laborers
The majority of this class are, of course, skeletons and undead. They work the salt mines, farms, and wall guards, serving as the vast majority of unskilled labor in and around the city.
Some humanoids, however, must still oversee the undead. Guard captains and mining supervisors are often paid handsomely for their choice to brave the heat, though some poorer humans are still forced to join these labor forces to make ends meet.
Worship and History
The primary deities worshipped are Kord (Endurance) and Melora (Cultivation). The Lizardfolk refer to these gods as Rider of the Sands, and the Bringer of Water respectively. They believe that these gods form a mated warpair who together guide those who require strength. Thus, they say a prayer to the Sands at dawn and a prayer to the Water at dusk. This practice has passed on to the humanoids in the city as well, though some of these humans recognize these gods as the more commonly-known Kord and Melora.
Some cults are dedicated to the mythic elemental creatures that are said to live in the deserts--the djinn, efreeti, marids, and dao.
Demographics and Factions
Humans, tieflings, and genasi make up the majority of living inhabitants. Lizardfolk from the surrounding tribes also sometimes take up residence, while the remainder of the city are goblinoids, halflings, orcs, and dwarves. The population of skeletons is roughly double the number of humanoids present at any given time.
Around the city, Lizardfolk and Thri-kreen are the primary tribesmen that interact with the city. Though viewed as outsiders, the lizard and mantis-people are respected allies who are given free shelter and communication whenever they are in Valhar.
The Travelers. This group of wandering halfling people live in wagons and pass through the city with some regularity. They are not beloved, but not hated, either, and they often tell tall tales of their adventures through the deserts.
The Khasod Lands, meanwhile, are full of terrifying threats. Tlincalli, Yuan-ti, Bulettes, Lamia, Ankhegs, Kruthik Hives, Elementals, and Kobolds, roam the deserts and have little sympathy for travelers in the land.
City Districts and Notable Locations
The main thoroughfare of Valhar, this district contains most of the businesses and craftsmen in the city.
One of the few well-known dwarves in the city is Thorin Emberhead, who runs a reputable blacksmith with several local apprentices. Despite constantly complaining about the heat and lack of good dwarvish women, Thorin is capable of making fire-resistant armor using little-known runestones, as well as other specialty orders.
Passing Hands Bazaar.
If the party comes during the day, they will see almost exclusively skeletons bargaining with each other according to prewritten silent instructions. During the morning and evening, however, the bazaar comes alive with all manner of living things haggling, selling, and enjoying themselves
City Heart District
The heart of government lies at the center of the city, in the circle of ancient structures that surround the central Oasis.
The central religious and political structure of Valhar is a massive terraced structure in the center of the city. Important public functions are performed by clerics on the lower levels, while government functions and noble residences are on the higher levels. At the top of the Ziggurat is a ceremonial offering place where powerful mummies overlook the city, and a colored fire is lit on special holidays or announcements of war. Deep within the Ziggurat is the lost Mummy Lord, an ancient emperor of Valhar with secrets that go back thousands of years.
The ruling Nahn family maintains sovereignty of Valhar by keeping control of the Oasis, which is, in fact, a portal to the Elemental Plane of Water. They have a deal with a marid to protect the Oasis, and in return gain some water to be sold to the populace. Guarded by Nahn guards, living and dead, this deal is closely defended.
, the Bone Naga guards the Oasis on behalf of the Nahn family, though the Oasis itself belongs to Inqe the Humble, a powerful marid.