Sunday 23 April 2017

The Blue Necropolis

One of my historical reference points for the Wicked City is late medieval and early modern Samarkand, and one of Samarkand's most famous sites is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. In reality, it consists of twenty-odd large mausoleums, spectacularly decorated with the characteristic blue-green tiles of the region, and mostly containing various Timurid-era dignitaries of the city. (Timur loved extravagant building projects almost as much as he loved large-scale atrocities against defeated populations.) But the Wicked City is much larger than Timurid Samarkand, and much more morbid; and so its equivalent is not just a single street of mausolea, but a whole wilderness of tombs. The people call it the Blue Necropolis.

Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Shah-I-Zinda necropolis, Samarkand.
In all there are several hundred grand tombs in the Blue Necropolis, although some of the oldest ones are now little more than wind-worn ruins marked with ancient and illegible names. Here, in elegant tiled mausolea, rest the great and good from past centuries of city's history: kings and queens, princes and princesses, scholars and generals, ministers and holy men. Here too, in huge and over-decorative tombs which testify to both the wealth of their builders and to their horrible lack of good taste, lie the dead members of the city's more recent dignitaries: the heads of Cobweb families, and the lucky minority of deceased ex-ministers whose careers ended with posthumous honours and state funerals rather than with midnight visits from the secret police. The building of each mausoleum can take years, and there's usually a work-gang of artisans and clockwork labourers sweating away somewhere in the Necropolis, building the latest monstrosity in honour of some recently-dead member of the city's elite. Being quieter than the Grand Bazaar district, and not subject to the bizarre curse which falls upon the Streets by night, the Necropolis also serves as a site for various forms of covert commerce, prostitution, and the sale of stolen goods.

When the Wicked King came to power, he purged most of the city's old aristocracy, killing or exiling their relatives and handing over their estates to the henchmen and sycophants who would go on to found the families of the Cobweb. In many cases these tombs are now the most substantial remaining monuments to their vanished power, and they have thus come to serve as natural meeting-points for the scattered and shattered remnants of those who still preserve some nostalgic loyalty to the old order. Distant cousins of murdered beys meet outside the mausolea of their ancestors, to clean their tiles and speak mournfully of the glory days of their family. Men and women whose great-grandparents served as officers under generals whom the Wicked King exiled, or as attendants to the holy men he martyred, meet at the tombs of their glorious predecessors and shake their heads at the doleful condition of their land.

ISLAMIC ART & ARCHITECTURE: Shah-I-Zinda Necropolis, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Mausoleum in Shah-I-Zinda, Samarkand.

These meetings seldom come to anything, of course: the Wicked King's statue network runs throughout the necropolis, ensuring that no-one there dares to express any real disloyalty or sedition. But sometimes... sometimes, as they gossip and complain, the little gatherings are joined by voices from within the mausolea. Old voices. Thin voices. Voices speaking in antique dialects.

'What has happened to our city?', they murmur, plaintively. 'What has become of us?'

Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex ~ Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Flickr - Photo by jason.risley
Shah-I-Zinda again.

The sad truth is this: under the influence of the city's miasmic spiritual corruption, more and more of the dead of the Blue Necropolis have begun to rise as Hortlaks, Those of them who return without intelligence just thump around inside their coffins, occasionally scaring passers-by with their muffled howling; but the more intelligent of them claw their way out of their graves and lurk inside their mausolea, listening at their sealed doors. The holy rites with which the mausolea were constructed prevent them from leaving their tombs; but they can and do speak through their doors, with lying, wheedling voices, cajoling the furtive groups who gather there into talking to them. Listening to them. Obeying them. And bringing them victims.

'Just let their blood run under the door', they say. 'This is old magic. It is secret. It is important. It will be the salvation of our city. You are heroes, you who are doing this. One day, your great deeds will be rewarded. Just a few more victims. Just two more. Or three more. Just let their blood run under the door...'

And so they feast, these horrible parodies of the city's long-dead dignitaries, ancient generals and princesses scrabbling around on all fours within their mausolea, licking blood from their cold stone floors with long and blacked tongues.

PCs looking for potential allies against the Wicked City's tyranny could easily end up crossing paths with the Necropolis gangs. They might well be willing - even eager - to believe the stories such gangs tell them, about great warriors and holy sages from the city's past ages lurking inside their tombs, waiting to burst out and free their nation if only they can be fed enough human blood. Some of the gangs have degenerated into mere murder cults, drunk on covert violence and misguided dreams of their own future glory; but others make a sincere effort to only kill the 'right' sort of victims (criminals, informers), and genuinely believe themselves to be working for the city's redemption. If the PCs can persuade them that no salvation worth having can really be achieved by pouring human blood into ancestral tombs, they could potentially become valuable allies. But if, on the other hand, the PCs enthusiastically join them in their endeavours, the consequences could potentially be dire.

For all of the Hortlaks of the Blue Necropolis have the same dream: that one day, glutted on blood, they will become so swollen with stolen life-force that they will be able to burst the doors of their mausolea and escape, laughing and ravenous, into the vast and victim-filled city outside...

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  1. Still one of the most unsettling bits of the Wicked City for me - this and the state religion. Fine stuff, sir!

    1. I like them, too. They're the sadder bits. Heartbreak doesn't have the same immediate impact as horror, but it can be more effective in the long run.