Welcome to Castorhage—the Blight. (Gotham) It is a city-state of its own standing, with its own laws and rulers and peculiarities. There are thirteen districts detailed herein, and each is home to an eclectic, unwholesome mob of selfish, sometimes frightened individuals who walk or stagger the streets and parishes of their home district. Yet deep below this odious skin lurk a few decent souls; those who wish the city to rise as a benevolent power, a guiding hand, not a monstrous tyrant. They are few in number.
Few who visit it leave unscarred; many never leave at all, some even of their own volition. Castorhage is the official name for the city, although most of the Lowfolk call it the Blight (and a great many of the higher castes as well), a seemingly unending confusion that marches endlessly into the surrounding cloying countryside, a cancer that thrives in the sickness of the city streets— feasting and expanding with each day.
It has other names too, many other names. Some call it the Canker, the Rot, City of Secrets and Lies, others the City of Golems, some refer to it as Gotham City, and still more names haunt the slums and streets… many more names.
So what is Castorhage? It is a homage to great writers of great cities; imagine the fog-shrouded streets of Conan Doyle, the dislocated horror of Clive Barker, the grime of Dickens, the corruption of Jeff Vandermeer and the misery and magic of China Miéville. It is Alice meets Frankenstein.
In her soul, the Blight is a dark urban horror fantasy setting dealing with mature themes, but in an adult way. You’ll meet dubious characters and those who it is difficult to know whether to trust or not, nothing is clear in this dark place, particularly not the long nights.
Now, please join us in on the 8th hour Treadmill Ferry across Sister Lyme via Town Bridge; the Farnham Theatre in the Artists’ Quarter is open and the night is young…
City of Secrets and Lies
The Blight is vast; it is mad and random and teeming with life—and unlife. Each doorway conceals a secret, every window a longing, every roof a hope and fear. More than three million faces stare from its broken soul. Each face hides a story.
Orders seep down from the twisted rulers in the Capitol who use the Royal Family like puppets—giving credence and power to their empty promises and lies. Simple orders are carried out by the City Watch— the police of the Blight—but everyone knows the Watch earn little and many are open to bribes. Important orders are carried out by the Knockers (a.k.a. the Faceless, the Undertakers, the Midnight Men), the Secret Police of the Blight, brutal, single-minded thugs who carry out orders to the letter. It’s said that if you hear a knock at your door in the night you should put on your best clothes and get ready for your funeral. The Knockers work for the Illuminati. Allegedly the true rulers of this city, the faceless Illuminati slither like a rotting sickness in body of Castorhage, unseen, but always there just below the surface. Three Crown Justices are in theory answerable only to Queen Alice herself, however, these three supposed “pillars of society”, are in fact rumoured to be the leading members of the Illuminati, their fingers seeping into every dark dealing in the city, their eyes open day and night and their ears hearing all whispers.
The Illuminati, they say, operates through hundreds of intermediaries and clubs, lodges, guilds, trading corporations and companies. They hold vast reserves of wealth, and with wealth comes power. However, the Illuminati is also rumoured to be a constantly festering mass of backstabbing and betrayal, murder, blackmail and ruin, and whilst it is rare for a Crown Justice to be removed, the Justices and Under-Justices and Streetclerks change constantly, playing an endless game of bluff and strength in the hope of rising to the top.
There are those who perceive this and look upon the Illuminati with hate. These so called Anarchists and Revolutionaries (two very different groups it should be noted) weave their own plots to bring down the Illuminati, plotting and murdering in their own brutal way to topple the rulers. Many claim to work for Queen Alice herself, and indeed many Royals are said secretly to pay or be part of the Anarchists. Some say the Queen’s squabbling daughters (she had no sons) use everyone they can to bring about each other’s demise, but each shares one fear—what will happen if the Queen’s recently named heir apparent, the frightful *Alicia*— the “Little Queen”—gets her hands on the crown.
However, even the Anarchist and rebel groups are fractious; opium-addled artists hold furtive conversations with manufactury overseers and Lowfolk, level-headed merchants plant alchemical fire bombs in crowded market places in the hope of killing a single Under-Justice, and poets scream from street corners about the latest innocent victims of the Knockers.
How the aristocrats hate these rebels; how the great families of Borxia and Tredici and others would love to slowly punish each and everyone one of them and perhaps, just perhaps, prove that their own claim to the Crown is better than that of the family Castorhage.
Beneath, the merchants and traders, guildsmen and artisans earn enough to feed their family, but the taxes and Lodge Tithes, Guild-Dues and bribes make life hard. Making money is not hard in so vast a city; keeping it is.
The workers form the lowest acknowledged caste in the city. Toiling at manufacturies and sweatshops their lot is a miserable one, toil and food and maybe a night in the sweaty, stench-ridden alehouses in the common-quarters. The workers are slowly coming to the boil however, as their jobs are taken by the Lowest of the Low, the Anarchists feed on this fear of hunger and poverty, and many workers raise their fists in anger against a dark future. The Lowest of the Low are not even acknowledged as people—they are the undead, the golems and homuncules and alchymic unliving; workers that toil without food and drink day and night. They are soulless creatures without hopes or fears, but even in death they are exploited by the mill owners and ship captains and merchants who can afford them. This new class is growing, some say growing unnaturally fast, and with the passing of the Corpse [laying to rest] Act of 1770 only those who can afford the Death Duty can be assured that when they die, they will truly rest in peace.
Others lurk in the shadows of the city—*the Fetch* is the undead population of the city—and whilst they revel in the sight of so many undead walking in the city, they are angered. Many of their brethren are taken in the night and broken, others are burned as an example of the intolerance of the living to the Fetch. Ruled by a great vampire known as Xan Beltane, the Fetch have become remarkably organized of late, and the marked increase in the sale of shutters and bolts and locks has not gone unnoticed. Their own caste is strict; from the cattle-like ghouls to the great vampires and liches, each knows her station in unlife.
Almost as numerous as the Fetch is the Great Coven, a group of witches and warlocks who worship and seek to bring the Devil to the world. Some say that 1 in every 13 women in the city is a witch, and witch hunting is so profitable that fully 280 witchhunters are registered in the Capitol. The head and hands of a witch command high prices both from golem-stitchers, cabalists and alchemists, and the witchhunters can be assured of a purse of 100 gold shekels if they capture a witch who is subsequently burned alive.
The Thieves’ Guild (a.k.a. The Guild) is the largest guild in the city, and in itself it is a splintered wreckage of families and agreements, stand-offs and battles. The tattoos of the guild members are as numerous as blindingcrows on gables, and it seems that every street has its own thieves’ guild.
As numbers lessen for these groups, so they become more furtive. A wererat population known as The Family is said to rule Festival, acres of piers filled with freakshows, corner-doxies and false smiles. Skin-wearing horrors from *Between*—a land between mirrors that touches the Blight in so many places the two sometimes seem one—walk the clubs and marbled corridors of the Capitol, whilst hated briny—skum-sired men and women—loiter furtively at the water’s edge. The list grows and becomes uncountable, golem-stitchers who seek to create living gods, a guild of clockmakers try to make an iron chariot, an inventor called Gallileus is toiling to make a fire that thinks.
Stories, always more stories.
The Lay of the Land
The streets have never been counted, although maps of the Capitol and other areas come to light. Many based upon the works of noted dwarf cartographer and geographer Cord Gryme (1187–1501) who devoted his lifetime to mapping the various parts of the city. Some scurrilous individuals have actually suggested that such maps were part of an Illuminati driven plot to find a focal point to bring the Devil into the world, though such was never proven even after Master Gryme was “put to the question” for 8 days by certain unnamed parties. That Gryme did not survive the ordeal is but a footnote in the greater story of the Blight.
The city is bisected by the Great River Lyme (a.k.a. Sister Lyme) a tortuous, sickly black estuary that is dragged phlegmatically about by the tides. Everything flows into the Lyme; perhaps that is why it is so sick. Boats drag themselves through the waters and under treadmill ferries— suspended iron cages that criss-cross the city. Bodies float to the water’s surface occasionally, and despite its filth the river is teeming with life— if life is the correct word for it. Pale things slip momentarily into view, discarded Made occasionally emerge from the deeps and pull themselves onto rusting piers in order to carry out programmed tasks, and other things appear as well but always at night—things wearing different forms and bodies walk the narrow alleys at night. Under the Gyre and Midden, things slide through inky waters.
Piers, sometimes the size of towns stab across the waters of the Lyme,*Festival*—the pleasure town—is the greatest of these; a towering hill of iron and timber and joy that hides a frown. Town Bridge crosses the Lyme near the Artists’ Quarter and is a huge bridge of limpet buildings clustered onto buildings—towers spike the air and boats ply the numerous gaps caused by fires and Anarchists’ bombs.
The docks run for miles, many little more than jagged timber teeth jutting from the waters, but the Great Docks of the Trading Companies Collective are different—sheer brick rising from the river, pierced by iron cranes and ladders and huge doorways giving access to the trade life of the city. Within rise two of the few stable exits into the cornucopian lands of Between; but a boat journey away yet teeming with resources waiting to be harvested.
Sweatshops and manufacturies belch caustic fumes that spread along with the stench of broken animals and creatures all across the city, but Toiltown and the Jumble is where they gather—a place of toil and misery that answers to East Ending’s Great BlackBell hanging in the WorkClock like a black iron sword plunged through the heart of the city.
Beyond this, other smaller districts such as the Sinks and the Hollow and Broken Hills run, aristocratic places of refuge (or exile) and worship accordingly. Within the Hollow and Broken Hills lurks the city-state within a city-state known as Sanctuary, the holiest of holies in Castorhage.
Limping between streets so cramped that only a child could walk upright in them are other parishes and places, becoming lost in a maze of nameless paths and alleys until they begin to rise into the better quarters. BookTown and the Seminary taste clean air as they stare upwards at the Capitol and are serve as the city’s seats of learning.
Finally comes the greatest monument of Castorhage: The Capitol is insane; it is a thousand spires and raised walkways, treadmill ferries, churches and domes in one mad place. It is the child of a thousand dreams and the product of endless lives of toil. Its face is pitted with a million windows and ten thousand gargoyles. And it is one building.
The Royals and the Upper Class call the Capitol home, many never leave the building to walk the streets beyond—they have no need to. Balconies, parks and terraces abound, doorways lead into spiral stairs that rise and fall a thousand feet, corridors echo on for hundreds of feet, pathways cling to the sides of cathedrals and lead to secret gardens. The Capitol is a city unto itself. It has its own rules and etiquettes, carved stone street names lie at every corner and traders ply their wares. From Royal Palace to Fairy Cathedral, from the dreaded Purgatory to the minute Borxia Summer Palace this place has thousands of facets all contained within a single building.
There are places spoken of in quiet corners by those who claim them to be real or are whispered as fairy stories to the young to keep them quiet. Between, a land behind mirrors, a place discovered by accident and whose accessibility by certain Illuminati-sponsored mages has, some say, opened up a dangerous way between places that should not be joined. The things of Between are often called the Dark Fey or Between People, but they are not people. They are the essence of all that has passed in their lives in that weird land where everything thinks and sees. Between creatures like Jack of Iron, the Woodwose and the Stag King are things of flesh and thorns and hate that exist beyond and who see the city dwellers as invaders. All acknowledge that serendipity has drawn Castorhage to her subject and that she should exploit her…and what harvests she brings to the city-state, a harvest that brings her greater wealth and power by the hour.
Yet one mortal place remains in the city to be described, Underneath. Underneath is everything below the city—and it is vast. They say a king who lived a hundred years had an army toiling in the dark and that these men and dwarves never saw day in their lives, working ceaselessly on tunnels, hidden routes, stores and subterranean canals. Beyond paranoia no one quite knows why this king had these tunnels built. Many have fallen into disrepair, some have become lairs for things that like dark places. Others however are still active: The Grand Tunnel Canal links Sister Lyme to the countryside some 6 miles away and exiting at King’s Lock without ever emerging into daylight anywhere along its length; great sunken libraries pierce the depths, brink veins that spiral down hundreds of feet; walkways link the Capitol to streets used by spies and guilds and lodges. Occasionally huge holes open up in the ground, plunging whoever or whatever happens to be above them into the blackness beneath. These holes are unpredictable in size and location but all share some things in common: they are huge and cold and deep.
Just one more story in a place with a million tales…
Sickened walls jut from the green waters like jagged teeth, their brickwork haemorrhaging from the strain of the towering load above. Centuries of rebuilding, repairing, shoring and praying teetering on the edge of ruin above a poison ink bay of arsenic-toxic waters. Brick walls rise from the dead waters of the Great Lyme River—Sister Lyme as they call her—lying in a bay seemingly bereft of natural life where slurry licks the footings of this failing domain. Timbers rise and jut across streets—joists shore up walls and iron bars lash whole avenues together—the endless sinking decay and toil making the city a giant endless building site. Bamboo scaffolding lashes around every structure, walls are propped against others by vast beams crossing rivers and the whole place is like a house of cards—waiting for the fall to commence. Nothing is still, and everything will one day collapse.
This city continues to rise from its vile depths—buildings lashed on other buildings, with a lace of piers and ladders, rope bridges and stone structures heaved between its various confusing levels. It is a cat’s cradle of interwoven wood and stone and hemp where a trip of fifty feet can take an hour on foot. Older buildings are crushed under the foundations of their children and gaze up weakly, senile structures being trampled to death in the struggle for air.
Bright boats of all sizes ply the sluggish bays and streams between the houses offering a quick but costly way of getting from one street to the next avoiding the perilous crossings and drops below. These boats compete for garishness, whilst their owners compete for attention—shouting, crying and even singing the safety and pleasure of their wares. Above their heads, a treadmill ferry creaks by, lumbering on despite the abuse from the boatmen, hateful of yet another invention in this city of renaissance.
The city is also alive with birdsong—the singing of canaries, which seem to be as populace as the people, who throng the streets and bay and bridges in their tens of thousands. And outwards and upwards the city spreads, like a blighting mass of architecture—towers rise in distant BookTown, the garish lights dance over Festival, and the echo of sounds and life in a dozen districts drifts lazily towards you. And high, high above all towers the grey ramparts of the Capital—a schizophrenic mass of tastes and styles, decrees, orders and tyranny.
Welcome to the greatest city in the World: Castorhage—“the Blight” to many of its inhabitants, a metropolis dancing on its own grave… – Volo, the traveling scholar, on visiting the Blight