“The Battle of Tsar, the Army of Light, and Rappan Athuk,” as excerpted from A History of Orcus on Golarion by Strebor Retlaw, Professor and Gregorius Vaughn Chair of Ancient History at the University of Oppara
“Tsar the Evil, Temple-City of Orcus, the Black Gates of the Pit: all this and more has this vast center of evil been aptly named. However, known to few is the original name of this bastion of wickedness—St. Harul’s Hold, shrine of a sainted patriarch of the Three Gods. Who these deities were and what their relevance may have been has been lost to obscurity, but it was their followers who first broke ground for a small fortified chapel on the edge of the Tusk Mountains just north of modern Ustalav. In the ages since, memory of these humble beginnings was lost to mortal man, and over time the name of the hold’s name was shortened to just St. Harul’s. A thousand years ago agents of Orcus began infiltrating the order at St. Harul’s and the small settlement that had sprung up around it, appearing first as mendicant monks seeking freedom from religious persecution. Why they chose to corrupt this obscure shrine none would know, but because of its obscurity no one suspected the foul influence slowly growing in the community. Subtly the corruption took hold first as town leaders—secretly in league with Orcus—increased trade to the city and began the establishment and upkeep of a north-south trade road. Then as the town prospered and grew in wealth from the plans of these leaders, the agents of Orcus gained greater political power and influence in the development of the hold and the shrine. These corrupt leaders were able to use their pull to get their own petitioners accepted as acolytes of the shrine to slowly and systematically continue their corruption from within. Within decades the last true clerics of the Three Gods had packed up and left St. Harul’s (now shortened to Tsarul’s or just Tsar among the citizenry) leaving it in the hands of politically powerful clerics who had no true faith in those benign deities. Some, in fact, truly worshipped Orcus in secret. Within a century the small shrine and settlement had grown into a full temple-city dedicated to the vile demon prince. Led by the terrible Grand Cornu, highest disciple of Orcus on the mortal planes, and now called simply Tsar (for which the goodly churches were duly thankful, fearing the shame that would have been theirs had the name of one of their saints been used in conjunction with such a festering boil of evil), this fortified city placed a stranglehold on the lucrative trade between the great southern kingdom and the exotic northern lands. The city grew fat and rich on its prohibitive tariffs. Men and creatures of evil mien came from all over, attracted to this growing center of organized Orcus worship in the world. A road was cut through the tribal lands of Sarkoris to the east, which linked Tsar to the port city of Egede on the western coast of the Lake of Mists and Veils in hopes of further expanding Tsar’s sphere of influence.
It was at this time, about nine centuries ago, that the churches of Aroden and Iomedae could stand this affront no longer and called for a Crusade to eradicate the evil city of Tsar. The impetus for this crusade came from an alliance formed by the patriarchs of the holy churches of Aroden and Iomedae and the kingdoms of Sarkoris and Lastwall in 3850 AR [the current year is 4717 AR]. Led by the aged Overking of Sarkoris, this alliance put all the civilized kingdoms of Avistan behind it as well as almost all of the good faiths. To remove any suspicion of divisive religious zealotry or hidden agendas, the entire force was placed under the secular command of Graeltor’s most trusted advisor and strategist, the archmage Zelkor. Though the religious stamp was left off of the overall crusade, the troops certainly welcomed the addition of celestial allies when the battle was finally joined. Immediately below Zelkor were his own advisors and aides de camp, a who’s who of the greatest heroes, generals, and war captains of that day. They each commanded a section of the army and did much of the day-to-day planning and tactics while Zelkor, with their assistance, created and implemented the overall strategies and maneuvering of the Army of Light. The patriarchs Grennell of Aroden and Phestus of Iomedae stood high among the officers of the army, for it was they who originally petitioned the Overking and led to the army’s muster. Strangely, equal to them in influence within the Army of Light was the church of Pharasma, goddess of birth, death, fate, and prophecy, and her high priestess Akbeth. Many within the Army of Light opposed the addition of this neutral faith to their ranks, but the followers of Pharasma despised the followers of Orcus as much as did the goodly faiths because of Orcus’ role as Lord of the Undead. Because the legions were under the secular control of Zelkor the patriarchs of the good churches were forced to grudgingly accept the services offered by Pharasma and her followers. It proved much to their benefit when the Battle of Tsar entered its most deadly stage as magical attacks and plagues rained down from the priests and wizards of Orcus. Then the powerful clerics and sorcerers of Pharasma were able to respond with attacks against the foe of a kind the goodly-aligned spell-casters were unable or unwilling to make. One other reason existed that Zelkor willingly allowed the seemingly incongruent followers of Pharasma to join in the crusade. That reason was Akbeth’s lover, the peerless archmage Agamemnon, who joined in the fight and served as a wild card on the battlefield that the followers of Orcus had neither expected nor prepared for. The patriarchs and matriarchs of other faiths held prominent positions as well over their crusader followers: Kirba of Sarenrae, Tondallah of Abadar, Virrikus of Desna, and Dawncry of Shelyn to name a few. Other commanders of the forces of light included the heroic paladin-lords Navarre and Bishu, the Justicars of Iomedae Alaric of Egede and Gerrant of Absalom, the knight commanders Saracek, Brandt Dracobane, Argos the aasimar-knight, and Carileus Grezell the incomparable swordsman, and the elven warrior-maiden Shelfaer. Augmenting these martial heroes were other personages of renown including the powerful cleric and wizard twins Plethor and Xillin, the wizardess Deserach, consort of Lord Navarre, the priest-mages of Pharasma Nemethiar and the elf Phalen, the sorceress Itara, and the mysterious wizard Me’Nak. Of the dwarves came King Kroma leading his doughty warriors from the Sky Citadel of Jormurdun. The elven lords Ulo and Tarrazal brought archers and spearmen from Kyonin. The storm giant Thraestos brought a troop of his brethren and lesser kin. Even Queen Tyrissta of Cheliax brought contingents of gnomish and halfling skirmishers. But the non-human forces were not limited to the mortal realms. From the heavenly planes, leading legions of celestial allies, were the empyreal angel Naphrathoth, the leonal agathian Lord Karask, the hound archon Amaleal, and the planetar general Nimrod. In all over 140,000 soldiers, wizards, clerics, and knights—human, elven, dwarven, giant, gnome, halfling, and celestial—stood on the fields before the stained walls of Tsar. Most controversial of all those allied with the Army of Light was the sorcerer Slavish. A powerful spell-caster—some said the equal of Zelkor or Agamemnon even—Slavish was also a devoted follower of Asmodeus. Slavish’s devil-liege was also lawfully aligned and therefore opposed to the demonic chaos of Orcus, but the forces of good were unwilling to admit him into their ranks. Allowing a follower of an Archduke of Hell, the opposite end of the evil spectrum from the demons of Orcus, was considered anathema to their cause by many of the goodly host. However, Zelkor’s judgment to admit him finally prevailed in light of what Slavish had to offer to the cause. For Slavish was not only a powerful sorcerer but also bore the sword Demonbane, an artifact so powerful it was said to be capable of slaying Orcus himself. In fact, it was forged by the hands of Asmodeus for that very purpose. With such a potent weapon in their midst, Zelkor felt the Army of Light could not afford to turn away the help offered by Slavish. Thus, the servant of an arch-devil was the last member admitted into the Army of Light before the march for Tsar.
This Army of Light, as it was called, gathered out on the Plain of Tsar for a horrific year-long siege that resulted in the creation of an ecological wasteland that became known as the Desolation. After a year of exhaustive battle where it seemed the Army of Light grew no closer to victory, the tide of war suddenly changed. In a single night, the precincts of the city emptied of defenders. This was accomplished by powerful magic unleashed by the reigning Grand Cornu of Orcus himself in conjunction with his entire hierarchy of priests. A dimensional gate was opened within the city through which the entire populace of the city marched only to reappear several miles to the south beyond the encircling Army of Light. The exertion necessary for this harnessing of magic drained the very life from the Grand Cornu but enabled his entire force to escape the siege intact. The Army of Light quickly scrambled to pursue the fleeing disciples of Orcus. Suspicious of some sort of ploy, Zelkor left a company of veteran knights under the command of the paladin-lord, Bishu, to enter and secure the abandoned city. Then Zelkor led his crusader army in pursuit of the fleeing army of Orcus. Both armies disappeared into the distant Estrovian Forest far to the east, and neither ever emerged. It wasn’t until a century later that adventurers discovered the Dungeon of Graves and the ultimate fate of the Army Light, seemingly led into a trap and destroyed to a man.
Bishu and his knights likewise followed their last orders and thundered through the now-open Black Gates of Tsar. Meeting no organized resistance, they swept up through the terraces of the city to the Plateau of the Demon Prince where they entered the very Citadel of Orcus. Not long after that, the entire citadel disappeared from the city, ripped from the mortal plane by powerful magic set to activate at a preordained time, taking the knights inside with it. Decades later when a single knight did emerge somehow from the lost citadel he rode his broken nag out into the Desolation, which he continued to roam and haunt until the present day. Now the city remains empty save for the scavengers and creatures that have wandered in over the years to lair among the crumbling buildings and broken streets. Occasionally even these new denizens run afoul of ancient guardians left behind by the disciples of Orcus that continue to follow their last orders in defense of the temple-city. What defenses could still remain among the desolate ruins? Why did the seemingly victorious followers of Orcus never return to reclaim their sacred city? Why did the Citadel of Orcus suddenly disappear after the city and been abandoned, and what other latent magic may remain waiting some preordained time to unleash its insidious influence? All of these secrets lie sleeping within the Temple-City of Orcus.
The evil cult, however, had not been destroyed. The surviving priests and their followers instead settled on a hill near the Estrovian Forest, a sylvan woodland on the western shores of the Lake of Mist and Veils in Mendev. There they found a vast underground complex of caverns and mazes, carving out a volcanic intrusion beneath the hill. The priests of Orcus had found
the perfect lair to continue their vile rituals. For many centuries, they carried on in secret, hidden from the light and from the knowledge of men. About a century ago, their underground delving completed, the evil priests erected a hideous mausoleum and a sunken graveyard atop the hill. It is believed that these graves are in fact the final resting place of the Army of Light, which had been destroyed to a man. Soon after the mausoleum was erected the peaceful creatures of the wood began to disappear. Though many rangers and druids investigated these happenings, the cause of the creatures’ disappearance was not immediately determined. A powerful group of adventurers, led by Bofred, a high priest of Aroden, investigated the evil happenings and found the sunken graveyard leading to a labyrinthine complex. Bofred and his companions found great hordes of evil creatures in the complex. Though some of his companions returned from their expedition, telling tales of fantastic treasure and ferocious monsters, Bofred was never seen again—lost in the catacombs beneath the cursed mausoleum.
For the last one hundred and eleven years, ranks of adventurers have ventured to the newfound dungeon called Rappan Athuk, or more simply “The Dungeon of Graves.” Many fell prey to bandits and monsters in the surrounding wilderness. Rumors suggest that of those who survived to reach the mausoleum and sunken graveyard, most were slain by guardians of green stone or perished on the very first level. Those rare few who return from deeper treks speak of horrible undead and creatures that cannot be slain. All who have explored Rappan Athuk offer this one universal piece of advice: 'Don’t go down the Well.'”