Zarash'ak: City of Stilts

Anyone arriving at Zarash'ak can see in an instant where the city gets its epithet. Though the murk oaks that hold the city above the brown waters of the Glum River are a dozen paces across, they do seem like thin stilts set against the bulk of the trading port. The city has grown with the rise of House Tharashk over the centuries and today it is the best port of call for travelers to the mysterious Shadow Marches and a settlement with powerful forces almost as tangled as the walkways that bind it together.
Most of the information here comes from the Eye on Eberron article in Dragon 191, and from the Dragon Below series by Daniel Bassingthwaite.

Chapter One: A Visitor's Guide to Zarash'ak

There are two reasons that Zarash'ak exists. The first is that it is a foothold of the Five Nations in the otherwise wild Shadow Marches, or it was before the Treaty of Thronehold made them free lands. When the kings of Galifar claimed the Shadow Marches, they needed a seat of power from which the king's law and knights could spread from. The fact that either was rarely experienced farther than a few miles from the city did not change this fact and the City of Stilts was essential to keeping the orcish tribes from rising up.
The second reason that Zarash'ak exists, and its purpose after the fall of Galifar, is as seat to House Tharashk. The House of Finding dominates the central region of the city and it is here that the triumvirate which rules the house meets. Tharashk makes its money from the dragonshard and they have many regions around the world that they gather the precious stones from. While Xen'drik, Argonessen, and even Q'barra are rich sources, they are far away and dangerous besides. There is no shortage of dangers in the Shadow Marches but it is a short sail from Zarash'ak to Sharn or Trolanport and the swamps are homeland to the half-orcs of House Tharashk. It is not only their dragonmarks that gives Tharashk heirs an advantage in the marshlands and where many in the civilized east see tangled vines and muddy death, Tharashk prospectors see familiar waterways and sympathetic cousins.


  • Calling the Light: On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the day, a circle of twelve druids gather in a square in front of the Tharashk Enclave in the Heart to call back the sun. Eight of the druids are Tharashk heirs and four are Gatekeeper initiates. They mark their faces to indicate the twelve moons and spend the day chanting and meditating together from dawn to dusk. Other citizens of Zarash'ak may spend time during the day meditating, or they may fast to cleanse themselves. Others come to watch the druids and marvel at their decorations and disciplines, but everyone in the city can feel the solemn mood of the day. Some visitors familiar with druidic ritual have commented that the practice resembles a ritual of sealing, but it's unclear what they would be trying to keep sealed.
  • Rekh'aarvash: The "Night of Masks" on Lharvion 14 is the most chaotic day to be in Zarash'ak, and that's saying something. The city puts on masks of lacquered wood, carved bone, sunbaked clay, hammered metal, or any of a thousand other materials and celebrates their city with food and drink. The celebration was originally created by House Tharashk as a way for the entire clan to celebrate together, removing the influence of wealth or station by including masks. Even race is obscured, allowing humans, orcs, and half-orcs to celebrate as one extended clan. In modern times, this celebration continues but is not universally appreciated. The masks may disguise the differences between a house-tharashk Tharashk half-orc and a Gatekeeper tribesman, but the other races of Zarash'ak still stick out. Minotaur mercenaries, harpy bodyguards, and goblin laborers all still stand out behind their masks and the racial prejudices which exist normally do not disappear just for Rekh'aarvash.

Chapter Two: Shape of Zarash'ak


The city is divided into three areas, separated mostly by chronology rather than economics. The Heart was the original settlement here, built above the swamp water by strong, supporting murk oaks. It started as a trading village but today the Heart is dominated by the central enclave of House Tharashk. Once established, the town quickly drew traders and travelers and expanded into the area known as the Ring, surrounding the Heart like a village surrounds a castle in the Five Nations. Some unimportant Tharashk heirs are forced to live in the chaos and bustle of the Ring's marketplaces but most live in the Heart. The patchwork of platforms and walkways which make up the Ring are most often home to outside traders, mercenaries, orcish tribesmen, and others who live outside the structure of the House of Finding. Beneath the Ring lie the Webs, a collection of rope nests and hanging berths between the platform walkways and the fetid waters of the Glum River. Only the most destitute or those in hiding live among the Webs and travelers are warned to avoid them unless they want trouble.
Though the major geography of the city is relatively simple, navigating can still be a challenge for visitors. To start, there are very few major avenues in the city so walking around requires winding one's way through a maze of planks and rope bridges. To get anywhere quickly a local guide is a must, especially given the language barrier most easterners encounter. The orcs and half-orcs (and even the humans) of Tharashk and the tribesmen of the Gatekeepers prefer to use the Giant tongue and this language is by far the most commonly-spoken in the city. In the Ring and the Webs, the immigrant populations of Droaamites speak Goblin among themselves and many have only of few words of Common nor Giant, and sometimes less than that. Rather than Common, one is much more likely to hear the creole known as Azhani which formed in the backwaters of the Shadow Marches from Giant and Old Common. For those who speak the orcish tongue or the language of Riedra, Azhani is generally intelligible, but locals are also known to speak quickly and use obscure metaphors to throw eavesdroppers and traders off. Local interpreters are

Chapter Three: Forces in Zarash'ak

House Tharashk

The House of Finding founded Zarash'ak and they continue to take an active interest in it, not least because the triumvirate that rules the house is located here. Like House Vadalis, Tharashk found it advantageous to move its interests out of the war-torn Five Kingdoms during the worst decades of the Last War and many house resources were moved to Zarash'ak and Graywall where they couldn't be sacked or sabotaged easily. Once out in the Marches, Tharashk realized the other advantages of conducting business far from "civilized" lands and the prying eyes of tax collectors and inspections. Tharashk goods still need to pass inspection entering any port in the Five Kingdoms but the actual searching and collecting can be done however the triumvirate sees fit.
House Tharashk has three main clans which form the backbone of the house, almost as well known as the Tharashk surname itself so that many heirs use only their clan title. Clan Torrn is the clan with the strongest ties to the traditionalist orc clans that live in the Marches. The leaders of this clan have strong ties to the Gatekeepers, but also to the Cults of the Dragon Below that live in the most fetid parts of the marshes. The Torrn druids maintain the area around Zarash'ak and make sure that the foundational murk oaks keep their strength as well with the extra weight of the city's walkways pressing on them. On the other hand, the humans and half-orcs of Clan Velderan are the most mercantile-minded of the Three Clans and the one most likely to meet with outsiders. They are gruff and blunt on average but far smoother than their cousins and they understand the world outside of the Shadow Marches and Droaam well. The other clans mutter that this comes at the steep price of losing touch with their ancestors and that most Velderan heirs would be lost and drowned within hours of leaving Zarash'ak for the backwaters. Among the Velderan, the minor Clan Orgaal is a particularly ambitious element that pushes for Tharashk dominance of Khorvairian markets and Velderan dominance of Tharashk itself. The third clan, Clan Aashta stands between, being most representative of the orcs and half-orcs who live among the races of the Five Nations but separate. They are the strong backs of the clan, the work force that mines and refines the resources that House Tharashk finds. They are a relatively weak clan in most of the world, following the lead of Torrn or Velderan in most situations, but in Zarash'ak they are both the most numerous and the most respected clan. Here in the City of Stilts, the mudlayers and builders of Clan Aashta live as high lords.

The Gatekeepers

The traditional religious sect of the Gatekeeper orcs has a strong presence in Zarash'ak. The muddy waters of the Shadow Marches lie atop the prisons of many dangerous daelkyr lords, sealed away in Khyber by the Gatekeeper druids of the past. The Gatekeepers live outside the city, in the marshes and forests, but they also frequently come to trade in the city. The Ring occasionally hosts large meetings of several different Gatekeeper tribes at once, but the orcs generally trade with the city-folk and any truly important business they conduct at their holy sites out in the wilds. The Gatekeepers do work closely with the druids of House Tharashk, particularly the triumvir Maagrim Torrn d'Tharashk, when their objectives overlap. In particular, the two groups work together against sinister elements of the Cult of the Dragon Below and foreign domination of the city. Other times, the Tharashk prospectors and the Gatekeeper wardens are at each others throats and alliance or enmity between them depends on the tribe and even the month.

Cult of the Dragon Below

The Cults of the Dragon Below have been a cancer infecting the Shadow Marches since long before House Tharashk even existed. Whether worshiping demons of Khyber or Mabar, dealkyr lords in Gatekeeper prisons, or other foul things haunting the swamplands, these cultists are dangerous and predatory. There is no doubt that they have infiltrated the city and exist here in large numbers and House Tharashk has a group of a dozen dragonmarked warriors in the city which constantly hunts down and destroys cultist cells within Zarash'ak. These warriors, called the Spiders because their hunts primarily lead them to the Webs, are devoted and very effective, though the death rate among them remains high and the entire corps of Spiders is replaced about every ten years.

Goblin Tribes

The goblins of Zarash'ak are a hard-pressed people, making up the lowest rungs of an already-crude society. They arrived in the City of Stilts as part of waves of immigrants from Droaam, but they have neither the flight of the harpies or gargoyles nor the powers of hags or medusae. They are fit for labor and other menial tasks and make up a large but relatively silent work force in the Ring and Webs. Many of these laborers speak only Goblin or the bastardized Azhani tongue and shrines to Dhakaani ancestors and the druidic Kurmaac can be seen tucked into corners and into pilings. The goblin tribes in Zarash'ak are a disenfranchised people, making them easy targets for agents of Daask and of the Redcaps of Graywall.

Riedran Enclave

Ambassador Sosharani of Riedra is a newcomer to the City of Stilts but he has made a strong influence in his short tenure. The Riedran enclave itself is new, its swamp pine planks still smelling of resin. The architecture is a mixture of Riedran and orcish design, blending into the cityscape artfully until one stands before it to appreciate its foreign elements. The Riedran enclave of Zarash'ak has strong ties to Lord Katanavash of Stormreach, the ambassador to the Storm Lords, and both ambassadors benefit from lax attention from local authorities. Lord Katanavash has developed a strong influence for his Inspired lords in the pirate port and Sosharani hopes to do the same in the Shadow Marches with support from his counterpart to the south. To the Riedrans' advantage, mercenaries from Xen'drik blend easily into the savage population of Zarash'ak and there's no telling just how many soldiers they have in the city.

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