Wretched Hive of Scum & Villainy
You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.
The Tolosa Islands are clearly a continuation of the mountain range that runs north-south through the continent, and the inner sea does little to disguise the unity of those ranges. North of the Mezzovian Sea, they are called the Garriga Mountains, south they are called the Romeu Mountains, and smack dab in the middle of the Mezzovian, their feet are submerged and only their craggy tops protrude as warm-water islands.
The Tolosas are rocky, and cliffs and fjords dot their shores, but a number of small fishing towns, villages and trading or stopping points ring the shoreline where geography permits. The interiors of the islands are a mixture of farmland—olives, grapes and more grow abundantly here—and subtropical mountain rainforest.
While the Tolosas are not heavily populated, and much of the population is rural or small fishing, or transitory mercantile in nature, the Tolosa Islands are still considered an integral part of the Terrasan heartland, and prior to their spread northwards and the foundation of the Terrasan Empire, the ancient Terrasans plied their fishing craft in and around the Tolosa Islands and the shores of the Mezzovian Sea immediately to the south.
A growing recent threat is that of piracy. The isolated, sheltered and hidden fjords and coves on many of the tiny, mostly uncharted islands that make up the Tolosa chain are the perfect hiding places for pirate ships, and as the once formidable power of the Terrasan navy gradually fades, pirates have become emboldened and more commonplace. On the long island Gandesa, an independent city that is harbor to many pirates and privateers, Porto Liure, has grown up and managed to get grudging recognition and acceptance from the Empire as an independent city-state.
Gandesa is a long, thin island with a generally north-south orientation that serves as the “breakwater” for the Tolosa Isles; the easternmost major island, and the first one that one comes to if one were to sail directly west from the eastern edges of the Mezzovian Sea. Gandesa is sparsely populated, and is in fact made up of low, mountainous wilderness. There are few large-bodied creatures on Gandesa, with the exception of deer, peccaries, and a strain of feral dogs, but strange rumors and ghost stories about cryptic inhabitants of the island are numerous.
As part of the Tolosa Isles, Gandesa was long considered an integral part of the Terrasan Empire, and in fact part of the original Terrasan homeland. However, as its population gradually declined, its small fishing villages and rural farming communities were abandoned and over-run by the subtropical forest, the Terrasan presence faded as well. More recently, it became a haven for pirates, smugglers and other ne’er-do-wells, and a city of sorts grew in a sheltered bay to the north that accomodated this illegal traffic. As the city grew, it became powerful enough to actually challenge the navy of Terrasa with its pirate hit and run tactics, guerilla warfare and other “dirty tricks” to the point where the Empire was losing money in attempting to control it.
When Jacobo Bernat, a pirate captain and all ’round Rennaissance man stepped into power in Porto Liure with an offer for semi-legitimacy and a cessation of hostilities if the Empire recognized the city as an independent city-state and Bernat himself as the Lord of the City, they were only too happy to acquiece and put an end to the costly conflict.
Today, the Lord (or Lady, as the case happens to be) of Porto Liure is Damiata Aldonça Bernat, a descendent via twisted family tree, of Jacobo Bernat himself. The Bernat family has managed to maintain leadership over Porto Liure for a hundred and fifty years, in the face of incredible pressure from the humiliated and wary Terrasan navy, but as Terrasan sea power fades, her role there has become easier. Today, her plan is to stoke the fires of resentment and independence between the various cities that make up what remains of the Terrasan Empire, and encourage portegnos (as the locals are called) into privateership with Letters of Marque. As such, she’s also extremely careful of which suitors she entertains, as giving up Porto Liure’s independence as part of a dynastic union is the last thing that she wants.
Despite this rough around the edges background, Porto Liure remains a destination for nobles from Terrasa and elsewhere seeking titillation, illicit pleasures, or simply duty and tax free shipping of profitable goods around the Mezzovian Sea. While it has a seedy underbelly that threatens at all times to spill out, there is still a veneer of civilization and civility that encourages immigrants. As the Terrasan cities fade, Porto Liure’s fortunes continue to grow.
The population of Porto Liure is mostly made up of ethnic Terrasans—the dregs of Terrasan society to be sure, but Terrasans nonetheless. Despite this, it is certainly not a Terrasan colony by any means, and is perhaps the most cosmopolitan population in the entire region. Great numbers of balshatoi, qizmiri (jann and human both), hamazi (hellspawn and human both), kurushi, cavusti, vucari and more exotic ethnic groups yet roam the narrow streets of Porto Liure. While, naturally, many of these people are those who were in some way unfit to continue living in the society of their birth, more and more they are legitimate and even honored citizens of Porto Liure, and after more than 150 years, many of them consider themselves native portegnos, having been part of Porto Liure for generations now.
While Porto Liure retains a veneer of civilization and order, in the lower class neighborhoods in particular, this is not readily apparent. Organized crime is a major part of life in Porto Liure, and the cynical say that Lady Bernat herself is only the most prominent and powerful of many warlords, and the City Watch is her cadre of troops.
Porto Liure is infamous as a haven for pirates and privateers, but in truth, its infamy is even deeper still. Known as particularly—and even peculiarly—picturesque, it has drawn artists, poets, the idle rich and other “sensitive” types for generations, who wander—hopefully carefully, given the towns’ somewhat exaggerated (but not entirely) lawless reputation—its cramped narrow streets, and its sultry seaside views.
While the Mezzovian is warm, particularly the smaller Chistau Sea which makes up the shores of the port city, cool sighing winds blowing off the hills west of the sea, and when the cool air from the heights meets the warmer air of the harbor, it coalesces into a drizzling rain or persistant fog. Strange voices are often heard in this fog. Skeptics say that that’s just what happens in a busy city when you can’t see and sound is either muffled or curiously amplified and carried in turns, but the locals who live in the poorer parts of town are not skeptics. People disappear, or are found dead and curiously bloated, mummified, slashed or drained of blood or otherwise mutilated and desecrated. Again; sceptics point to the lawless nature of the town and find explanations for these bizarre murders in gang warfare or other more mundance solutions. And soon enough, the murders are officially closed and forgotten; there is enough mundane murder done in Porto Liure as it is, and few miss folks from the poor neighborhoods anyway. But the locals know that Porto Liure’s infamy as a nest of pirates is secondary to its less well-known but eternal nature as a haunted place, ruled in secret by ghosts, spectres and other supernatural entities. This had led to the nickname many locals give to Porto Liure; Port of Ghosts, or Ghostport. Anyone who uses this nickname is almost certainly a local from one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but as a picaresque nickname in literature, folklore and stories told abroad, it is also gaining popularity.
One of the most famous of these in old tavern tales, beside that of Dog, is Black Maria. Although her original identity is unclear and there are many claims, most see her as the today unrecognized first daughter-in-law of Jacobo Bernat himself, the architect of Porto Liure’s free city-state status. Maria, the fifth daughter of an ancient Terrasan house, was as decadent as they came, and the story goes that she kidnapped, tortured and killed up to 500 young girls, drinking (or even bathing in) their blood. When the hue and outcry came to be more than old Bernat could ignore, she was put on trial, hanged, drawn and quartered, and her spiked head was put on the city gates—her “quarters” thrown to sharks in the harbor. Nonetheless, the story of Black Maria doesn’t end there.
Claims of sightings of Black Maria’s ghost were intermittant throughout the next decades, and a few deaths were even ascribed to her—especially young, female victims who died without apparent cause or motive, especially if they complained before their deaths about being unnaturally frightened or disturbed in some way—usually by advance sightings of the ghost, it is presumed. But twenty years ago, when the face of the moon became a skull, things changed. Now, whenever the moon is full and passes directly through the triangular configuration of the legs of the constellation Herne, Black Maria is said to make a much more substantial revival. In whispered voices, the locals will say that once the legs of Herne were another constellation known as the Black Pharoah’s Crown, and when the moon is thus “crowned” the brides of the Black Pharoah—the ghosts of witches and worse the world over—walk the earth to kill again.
It is unclear if this supersition has any basis in reality or not. True, nights when the full moon is in the crown (which happens on average three times every two years) a number of girls go missing. But since they are usually unreported, only those who have eyes to see and pay attention to the signs believe there to be any pattern. Associate lecturer Enrico Sançez at Porto Liure’s small Academy is the foremost expert on local folklore. He’s a taciturn, bookish fellow—suspicious and uncommunicative, and prone to easy frights. But when drunk, he occasionally talks in private of his suspicions, theories and speculations about many of the supernatural goings-on in Porto Liure. His pet theory about Black Maria is that the torture and murder of all those girls wasn’t just to satisfy her sadistic urges, but was a ritual designed to grant her eternal life. It wasn’t ever completed before she was put to death, but it had been sufficiently advanced that the grave had only a tenuous hold on her, and when the moon died, as the expression goes, she was able to transcend her death at certain times. Her goal now is to finish the ritual as quickly as possible and return in full to horrible unlife as an eternal predator on the lives of mankind.