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Hundreds of merchants and wayfarers who travel Faerun widely share tales of lawless, thriving crossroads trademoots that are wilder than most folk elsewhere will credit as truth. Surprisingly many of these tales are true, if embellished. Although one can take the view that they present only the seediest side of a place, against that must be put another truth: that the wild tales cover only what got out into public view and converse, and the daily villainy going on may well be far, far worse.
One such rough crossroads is Kormul, at the southern end of Lake Lhespen, in the Shaar. Once known as the City of Cults, it is now often describedfrom a safe distanceas the place "where bloody knives see the sun." This is a reference to the vicious alley wars fought among human factions by day; the city is quiet by night, thanks to the "slay you unhesitatingly if you disturb our doings" attitudes of local drow and yuan-ti.
So, let us tour Kormul, a magnet for certain sorts of adventurers and unscrupulous traders.
What Meets the Eye
Kormul was once far larger than it is today, and black stone pillars and the low remnants of walls stand as ruins in profusion in the northwest and southeast of the city. These remnants are fused volcanic rocks that are terrifically hard and resistant to being chipped away and carried off; all the easily salvaged stones were taken centuries ago. Inhabitants have erected shacks and shanties among these ruined walls, using them for support. Most of these abodes began as tents and wicker-woven reed walls, augmented with mud brick. Streets are without signs, and they are narrow and windingand usually teeming-crowded by day. The settled area is ringed with large and heavily guarded paddocks for the selling of livestock and for caravans to assemble, disperse, or camp in. The motley mercenaries here bristle with intimidating personal armories of weapons.
The City of Cults
Crossroads trading centers that are far from a strong central authority can attract outlaws on the run from elsewhere, and Kormul is no exception. Because of the insidious influence of the drow and the yuan-ti, Kormul has from its founding more than five centuries ago been home to worship frowned upon elsewhere, such as veneration of Lolth. This flourishing open worship has emboldened outcast clergy of many faiths to create their own cults, which consist of both heretical offshoots of established faiths and new cults. Those who venture to Kormul can seek out the House of High Runes, which holds that the literate who actively read and write shall and should inherit the Realms, whereas all others shall fade into the shadows and fall away. Those in the House of High Runes must exalt and serve Oghma and Deneir, and they should praise, reward, and heed writers. Anyone who destroys a book must themselves be destroyed, according to the followers in this particular offshoot of faith.
Kormul became known as the City of Cults even back when it was a small trading town, because of these dozens of competing cults. Many superstitious caravan merchants, forever seeking an edge over rivals in tough mercantile competition, joined one or more of these cults and made offerings whenever they were in town.
The cults, in turn, saw the benefits of throwing feasts and orgies, and they gave visiting merchants doctoring and secure places to sleep and to store valuables. By such treatment, they attracted increasing numbers of believers. Most of these created-in-Kormul cults were beast cults of various sorts, and notable among them were the Risen Eye beholder worshipers, the Sacred Scales veneration of yuan-ti leaders (as gods in the making, who would reward early supporters when they achieved full divinity), and, most importantly because of their numbers and lasting popularity, various dragon cults.
The Wyrmcults of Kormul have never worshiped draconic gods (the entities dragons themselves see as "their" gods), but rather are individuals of many races who pray to this or that specific known living dragon for protection, for good luck in seeking treasure, and for help in smiting enemies. In particular, the elder brown dragon Belathellar, the elder gray dragon Helauzatyl (of the eastern Shaar), and especially the ancient black wyrm Ahzalundelarr (of the Wyrmbones) have been venerated in Kormul for centuries, and they still are to this day.
The death of Belathellar in 1382 DR in battle with the copper dragon Velauthlusglar was interpreted by the Penitent of Belathellar as "Belathellar needing to ascend, feeling that it was time, and entering into midair battle to the death with Velauthlusglar in order to achieve rightful godhood." Since none of these cults receive answers at the altar from the creatures they worshipexcept deceiving manifestations faked by mages secretly paid from cult offeringsBelathellar's profound silence doesn't stand out as odd. Some interpret the silence as Belathellar being busy creating a new divine body and getting to know the established deities, in some cases by proving divine worth by working miracles.
Most Kormulan dragon cultists wear small necklaces bearing (as silver medallions) the badge of the dragon they worship; a rare few individuals worship more than one dragon, and they have necklaces that display multiple medallions.
All manner of goods swapping, money changing, and used goods trading goes on in Kormul, as in every caravan hub. The dealings that dominate in the city where bloody knives see the sun, however, is trading in spices, drugs, and poisons. Some have often argued that the spice trade is so large in Kormul (as opposed to other nearby centers) because shipments and the packaging of spices are so frequently used to conceal drugs and poisons among the spices. The Harlord and her Ward Swords (hired fighters and hedge wizards who patrol to keep the peace) don't care, because they tax drugs and poisons the same as spices; it's the authorities in destinations and waystops along the caravan routes that the traders are seeking to deceive.
Salt and spices are by bulk the largest trade wares flowing through Kormul, and most of the traders are loxo, wemics, outlaws and outcasts (mostly the disfigured) of all races, and nomadic humans. Kormul is one of the few places in Faerun where drow trade with surface dwellers in the hopes of gaining wine, grain, vegetables, and certain carving woods in return for gems and specific metals. Yuan-ti come to purchase some of those gems and to sell poisonsboth serpent venoms and other concoctions of their own devising.
The tallest and best buildings in Kormul are owned and occupied by the yuan-ti, known locally as the Scaly Ones (this is not a term that angers the yuan-ti who hear it). The Kormul "slitherers" (a neutral term, whereas "scalies" and "shedders" are hostile names and will be received as such) bask in the sunlight by day on the high balconies and roofs of their sunwell towers, which are three- and four-story structures whose roofs are broken by wells so sunlight can bake the stones and retain heat.
By night, the yuan-ti slither forth to make trade deals with each other in particular establishments, which are mainly clubs that have stone floors heated by fires beneath them. Most slitherers employ large networks of human (and other race) spies to watch what happens in the city by day for them, and they travel about Kormul with bodyguards of their own race and a wide variety of hired swords.
The Dark Ones from Below
Drow, known locally as "the Darkfolk" (polite) or "the Dark Ones" (neutral) or "Night Ears" (a term of derision that irks drow who hear it), come up to the surface from the Underdark below in at least seven places among the cellars of Kormul. They take care to keep firm control of the buildings that stand above their access tunnels, so no one can restrict their trading and their entry into the Realm Above (the surface of Faerun), or cut them off from any retreat back down into the Underdark.
In Kormul, drow trade in poisons, and they are known to carry copious darts and other smaller missile weapons to fire them with. They have also developed their own poison that's swiftly fatal to yuan-tiwhich is one of the reasons that the Scaly Ones and the Darkfolk long ago reached an uneasy peace in Kormul.
The yuan-ti and the drow both prefer to trade in the dark hours, but they don't want their wares or hard work to be stolen or slighted by daylight. So early on, they both hit upon the notion of making the closest thing Kormul has to a ruler be "their" proxy. For some time, this resulted in an almost comicalto an outsider, but to very few Kormulanssequence of "accidents" and public assassinations befalling whoever was Harlord (more than a few Harlords of Kormul ruled for about an hour), but at length both the Scaly Ones and the Darkfolk tired of the waste of good (that is, intelligent, calculating, controlled, and ruthless, not good-aligned) candidates for the Harlhouse, and they agreed on an office-holder beholden to both of them.
The Harlord of Kormul has been loyal to them, and he or she remains mindful of the watchful presence of an official, trained-by-the-Scalies-and-Darks successor waiting in the wings, ever since.
The first of these "twice-approved" Harlords was the much-scarred, one-eyed Laskelor Marouth ("LASS-kell-or Mar-OOth"), who took the gilded breastplate of office (marked with a magnificent relief molding of the hatching winged dragon of Kormul) on 1426 DR, and he lasted for eleven years before succumbing to poison in 1437 DR. He's remembered as tough but fair, and he is rumored to have hidden caches of magic items in walls, floors, and ceilings all over Kormul.
Marouth was followed in office by Irdraskyn Taltreth ("Ur-DRASK-in TALL-treth"), a gentler Harlord who lasted until a wall fell on him during a wizards' spell duel he was trying to quell in 1456 DR. Taltreth was succeeded by the female half-orc Vespraele Irontusk ("Vess-PRAY-ull").
The Irontusk (sometimes called "Lady Irontusk" by visiting traders, who've learned that she likes being addressed so) is seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, and very strong, yet astonishingly beautiful (despite her visible tusks). She's also a ruthless keeper-of-the-lax-laws who is increasingly popular in the city, because she works to prevent brawling and murder, lops off the hands of all who can be caught in barefaced snatch-thievery, exiles extortionists, and otherwise lets "the damned of Kormul be the damned of Kormul" (in other words, lets citizens and visitors live their lives largely unhindered).
The Harlhouse is a "slatternly mansion," as locals describe it, built atop the city's large and sturdy jail, and the Harlord lives there amid her personal bodyguard of ten (usually seven or so, due to losses) warriors personally chosen by the drow and the yuan-ti (and beholden to them first). From this base, the Harlord commands and inspects Kormul's police force, the Ward Swords.
Kormul has no gates, no curfew, and no services to speak of beyond keeping law. Trade in spices, drugs, and poisons are taxed, 4 gp per transaction, and that's the sole source of income for the Harlordexcept for sideline investments the drow and yuan-ti scrutinize closely. Making piles of coin is fine; showing favoritism in running the Ward Swords to benefit these investments is not.
City of Danger
As long as you don't publicly do any of the things the Irontusk will "get you for," as some inhabitants say, anything goes in Kormul. No one will be publicly scorned on moral or ethical grounds, because it's understood that such matters are purely personal and not a matter of public policy in the city. This is where anything can be hador at least the name of an entity elsewhere that deals in your desired anythingbe it contraband or just a rare substance or a service or activity that would be considered shocking, disgusting, and highly illegal in most other places in Faerun. This is one of the places that outlaws on the run make for, so it's home to many traitors, pretenders, dethroned former rulers, and individuals who have fallen from their faithsand all have their own axes to grind and schemes for revenge.
Kormul is a city of dark opportunities, but it's not a place to let your guard downor sleep with your door unlocked or unbolted.
"A lively place," Elminster termed it.