Sunday 3 September 2023

The Fires of Lost Tlarba

A dense and dusty city toils under a flickering yellow sky. None may enter, but everyone does. All may leave, but none do.

Prickly selks stand at the gates. Their halberds gleam like razors, but their eyes are dull from the heat. The crowd inches forward toward the city's mouth.

Sickly smoke rises from the burners along the high walls: a thousand fires of caylum wood, oracle grass, the narcotic feathers of the santhum bird. Travellers cover their mouths and noses, hoping to ward off the stupor that will soon take them. Others breathe it freely in the hopes they will acclimatize. None will.

The crowd moves again, and the gates loom overhead. Everyone who passes them is looking for something. Everything lost winds up in Tlarba, they say, so where better to look? This is why you came, but maybe it was a mistake.

Robed sisters push and weave through the entry line, offering marks of return. "Sixty silver and we'll fetch you out if you're in too long." Ink-black fingers tug at your skin. "Here is best," she says, jabbing at your cheek. "How long do you want? A year? Three?" She isn't joking.

The nut-seller at the side of the road laughs. "Don't waste your money, they can't get out either." He scoops roasted seeds into a folded leaf, "Buy these instead. They won't get you out, but it's best not go in wanting!"

As you reach for them, he catches your sleeve and pulls you close.

"I mean it," he hisses. The humor is gone from his face. "I went in a prince. Choose better!"

He shoves you back into the lineup, laughing once more. Stupid man. Who comes here if they have a better choice?

The crowd moves again, and you pass the gates. Pilgrims, families, warriors, nobles; their mules, horses, dogs and goats. Each enters in their own way, but the sweet smoke claims everyone who draws breath. You're still thinking of the nut-seller's words as it takes you.

* * *

d10 Where You Awaken, d20 weeks later
  A secluded garden terrace, high above the haze of the city. Succulent plants hang from rows of trellis.
  At bend in a narrow, twisting set of stairs. Fresh air somehow blows from a crack in a clay duct.
  In a large stone chamber, apparently beneath a temple. Chanting comes from above. The stone floor below you is warm to the touch.
  Crazily high up, halfway up a cathedral tower. You sit on a stone ledge barely wide enough for the birds. The squares and rectangles of the city spread beneath you endlessly.
  Sitting at the edge of a fountain in a wide, sunlit plaza. The sparking water cools your fingers and clears your mind.
  Lying in soft earth in a walled vegetable garden. Half-eaten gourds surround you; seeds are stuck to your face.
 A public bath house, at the end of a long pool of oily, fragrant water. Bright morning light comes from slats in the ceiling. Smells of cooking waft in from the street outside.
  In a dark servant's passage somewhere in a grand, stone house. A thin shaft of afternoon light comes from a tiny window.
  On a luxurious bed, somewhere in the high palace. A huge silver washing basin stands on spindles of dark wood.  Curtains billow in the cool night breeze. In the courtyard below, servants are lighting lamps along the edge of a dark, shallow pool.
  You stumble on the road leading out of the city. The yawning gates are behind you. Hundreds of people queue to enter as you once did, but they pay you no attention. Roll no more, your time in the city is over. It is d4 years after you entered the city.


 Exhausted revelers surround you. Some are sleeping, others quietly chatting or combing each other's hair. All are sweaty from dancing, running, or sex.
 You are pale and sickly. A friend mops the sweat from your brow. The sickest among you is now immune to poison.
 Damp, mildewed air blows from a hole in the ground. You have found a way into the labyrinth beneath the city, the streets and alleys of an earlier era, buried by time and new stone.
 Several families are preparing food, setting out tables with fresh bread, pots of stew, and hot, watery wine. Children light fill lanterns and musicians are assembling to begin the song. Adults speak in quiet tones about the business of the city.
 You and a woman you don't recognize hold opposite ends of a sheaf of scrolls, the collected notes of the high palace locksmith.
 You are covered in small cuts and bruises. At first they hurt terribly, then not at all, and rub off like actor's paint.
 A small gathering of students and poets was listening to what you had to say, and is waiting for you to continue.
 You have been running for your life. Your heart is pounding. In ten seconds, d6 strong youths will arrive to beat you for stealing from them. 
 A guard's knife is bloody in your hands. He lies at your feet.
 You have found whoever or whatever you came for.

d10A bit later, you suddenly remember
 Living with a family for a time, learning their skills, working as part of the family business. When you touch your callused hands, you remember that they loved you.
 Squatting in a temple for months. You learned the names of many animals who lived there. If you see them again, they will remember you.
 Wading through a foul-smelling canal. A youth you had made friends with dallied, and that was the last you saw of them.
 Watching a pack of feral people eating a man who had stumbled in the gutter. They tore at him while he groaned. You remember the taste of him; perhaps you joined them.
 Exchanging clothes with a princeling, who then slipped away into the crowds. You still wear his ring, which marks your station in the city.
 Studying with a monstrous, toad-like philosopher who swore off tools of any kind—not just hand tools, but clothes, dwellings, weapons, books. 'Convenience softens the mind,' it would croak. It is right, and its teachings have unlocked something strange and new within you.
 Fighting your way through a riot in the Plaza of Jewelers. Many had fallen, and the flagstones were slippery with blood of citizens and palace guards. The shouting still rings in your ears. Many enemies were made that day; some on each side will remember you.
 Plotting against an order of priests who jealously protect a magical way out of the city. Your fellow conspirators plan to strike tonight, coming up through the servers. They're relying on you find an open the sewer grate in the Plaza of Tears, or they will all drown as they try to escape.
 Riding with the nut-seller in a royal palanquin. He was dressed like a prince, and proudly pointed out the sights as you passed. A location you sought is now known to you.
 You remember an age passing, lifetimes, the end of the world—or at least, the city. An eternity of wind gnawed the stone blocks of the walls and palaces down to nothing. For aeons, you knew only blowing sand and a lifeless sky. Then, one day, a traveller came and planted his staff here. Then another. Slowly, you began to take shape again. Streets, walls, gardens, plazas, alleyways, palaces, canals, and of course: people. Seething crowds of millions, the blood of the city. Your blood.

Whatever your circumstances when you awaken, your relief from the mind-addling haze of the city is temporary. In 2d6 hours, you succumb again.


  1. Who lights the fires on the walls? Surely *someone* must know what is going on in there... right?

    (Feels like a metaphor for daily life, hmm)

  2. Interesting but I kind of don't understand the point of people going into Tlarba. What people intend to find there? Lets assume it isn't for sake of people who are already lost there, then what would it be - knowledge, insight?

    1. This isn't a self-contained adventure, think of it more like a unusual problem terrain type. Except, instead of a forest or lava swamp, it's a massive city with a million people in it; anything at all could be in there. The sage you need to speak to, your long lost love, the maguffin, the leadership of the snake cult who you are trying to destroy, the nine-fingered man who murdered your lord, the entrance to the dust king's treasure labyrinth, the only source of food and resupply within a hundred leagues, etc.

    2. So it is a usual city then? I got an impression of a more eldritch location from the tables and how they are structured.

    3. No, it's not remotely a usual city, it's a city where everyone who lives there is in a perpetual haze because of the braziers—but somehow the city still functions, with everyone on autopilot. There are artisans, laborers, rulers, all the usual stuff, but doing something specific is really challenging. Perhaps there are beings who live there who aren't affected, or who are less affected, who knows!

    4. I do like the eldritch sense I am getting from the tables, but if this is a real city, unavoidably the question is going to be answered "what do they eat?" i.e. how do they have their infrastructure running if everybody is dazed and how do they feed 1 million people in such conditions. I don't mean it as a criticism of your work, but if I am to run Lost Tlarba I'd lean more into eldritch location sense, more like Zelazny's Tir-na Nóg'th, a liminal place with only a veneer of actual city.

    5. Yes, that's a legit way to go for sure.

      As I see it, dazed doesn't mean incapable of action; there are laborers who maintain things, foremen ordering them around, people frequenting the markets and so on--but they are missing a layer of conscious choice about it. Or so it seems to outsiders. Some mixture of the choices they would normally make, the normal When In Rome effects, and perhaps other things beyond draw people along unconsciously. But in those occasional moments where they become lucid, they remember conversations, meals, all sorts of fragments of a normal life, just not one they remember choosing.

      One option for the logistics is that it's supplied the normal way, by traders and farmers bringing goods to market, but getting out is tough. Hah, perhaps you get a mixture of markets just outside the city walls so visiting farmers don't have to go in; meanwhile "last mile" traders make the uncertain journey in and out. Then, every few decades, someone inside orders the walls expanded and the market is enclosed; the city grows and the pattern repeats.

  3. This is brilliant!
    Somehow gives me the same vibes as Kalpa Imperial from Angelica Gorodischer has.
    The feeling of the city towering behind the blind spots in the haze infected memory. Ever stranger, ever changing, dying and returning.
    Good stuff!
    I will find a way to use this

  4. The city cold be an outer space half-plane. May be a god - or a dragon il the "hidden lord" of the place. Making "walking on" the residents by it' will.

  5. This is really cool and vibey. I dig it.