Kingdom of Kutub

A key for every door, a map for every journey, a coin for every palm.
Kutubi saying

The arrival of a Kutubi caravan is a singularly joyous sight. A swarm of red and gold kites appears on the horizon, riding high as if their wings are forever filled with the desert thermals. Then the wondrous gleaming Engine comes into view, its green-gold hull flashing in the sun, topped by the swaying extravagance of the Keykeeper’s plush howdah. Behind it, the train of carts, their high sides painted in bright colorful advertisements detailing the strange and exotic goods they hold. For remote villages that only see the caravans every few years, the arrival often means an impromptu festival, the locals treating the caravanners as honored guests. Every young Moduin – from the poorest mabling to a child of Queen’s Cloak nobility – has some cherished memory of a day spent at the caravan, of snacking on crunchy salted-chocolate locusts or being gifted a bright swatch of silk by a kindly Kutubi merchant.

The Kingdom of Kutub is located in the heart of the Sundrinker Sands, the vast desert that lies north of the Swaying Veld. Its population is majority-mabish, and its citizens are called Kutubi, (though they are sometimes referred to as “sundrinkers”). The capital, Yashum-Amna, is a city of clean white sandstone and gleaming metal set amongst cool oases, dominated by the great green-copper domes of the royal palace. There, the Triarchic Potentate directs the Kingdom’s course from their triple throne. These rulers – the Dynast of Signs, the Dynast of Paths, and the Dynast of Means – are advised by the Guildlords, a council of Kutub’s richest merchants, and the Cutters of Keys, a priestly order charged with maintaining the Kingdom’s most valuable asset: the Engines.

Engines of Commerce

The Engines are ancient devices created by the Artificers, mythic beings of immense power who disappeared from the world millenia ago. Engines resemble enormous beasts of burden constructed of copper, brass, and gold; each is powered by a “heart,” a black sphere of mysterious stone that rotates within a gyroscopic cradle. The nature of these stones and the inner workings of the Engines are secrets known only to the Cutters of Keys. Two Engine-Priests of this order (along with a number of their initiates) will accompany each caravan on its journey, where they will clean, oil and pray over the device nightly.

Kutubi Engine driven by Keykeeper. Credit: Nick Harran

The Cutters are a powerful, entrenched institution in Kutubi society. While few would challenge them openly, some quietly question whether the priests actually understand the fundamental principles behind the Engines’ operation, speculating that their elaborate administrations are a kind of theater done to maintain the Cutters’ power. While only seven Engines have stopped functioning in all of Kutubi history (which the Cutters cite as evidence of the effectiveness of their methods) in every instance the order was unable to fix them. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that much of this grumbling can be traced to the Guildlords, who resent the Cutters’ influence over the caravans, as well as the taxes levied to maintain their priestly order.

Life on the Road

The Engines pull caravans, trains of eight to twelve wheeled cars. These cars are huge, the size of small houses, and their interiors are ingeniously designed to maximize storage space. When the caravan stops, each car transforms into a small shop through the use of folding fixtures and hidden compartments. Each is home to a family of shopkeepers, with most being passed down within the same family for generations. A child of caravanners grows up on the move, helping her parents and grandparents run the shop and eventually taking it over, perhaps with a family of her own.

One car of every caravan is a kind of mobile kitchen. Between stops, the kitchen serves communal meals to the caravanners. When the caravan is deployed, the kitchen sells exotic Kutubi delicacies to gastronomically-adventurous locals.

Most caravans have a passenger population of around eighty individuals. This includes around thirty shopkeepers of every generation, a mobile garrison of around two-dozen soldiers to protect them (sometimes bolstered by local mercenaries), two Engine-Priests and their initiates, a master carpenter and wheelwright for maintaining the cars, the caravan cook and his staff, and a constantly changing collection of hangers-on and paying passengers. A caravan will often be followed by the smaller vehicles of local merchants and farmers, taking advantage of the train’s heightened security in order to travel dangerous roads.

Caravan car. Credit: Nick Harran

The Keykeepers

The fate of the caravan and all its passengers are in the hands of the Keykeeper (usually called a Caravan Master by non-Kutubi). Keykeepers are chosen by the Guildlords in Yashum-Amna before the caravan sets out, and are tasked with driving the Engine, coordinating the defense of the caravan, dealing with local authorities and settling any disputes that arise within the mobile community. A Keykeeper is also charged with keeping the caravan on route and on schedule by adhering to the Inviolate, Immutable and Triple-True Timetable.

Each caravan has an established route that it has made for centuries, largely without change. All of the routes begin and end in Yashum-Amna. Some are relatively short, lasting a few months and staying within the confines of the Kingdom. Others can take decades, with caravans trundling all the way south to the remote Five Claws and then back north again. All of these routes are determined by the Inviolate, Immutable and Triple-True Timetable, a document of sacred significance among Kutub’s merchant class. In theory, the Guildlords can use the Timetable to know where every caravan will be at any given moment for the next few centuries. In reality, the Timetable is constantly being revised by a legion of assessors attempting to account for disaster, death and delay. Keykeepers send detailed reports regularly via pigeon, outlining the caravan’s movements since the last report as well as its current location; estimators use these reports to update both the Timetable and Mother Map, an enormous depiction of Modui located in the All-Guildhall in Yashum-Amna.

The alway-present spectre of the Triple-True Timetable makes Keykeepers singularly time-conscious individuals; you can always spot one by the collection of hourglasses she wears for luck, as well as her constant checking of a Lodosi-made springwound timepiece. However, a Keykeeper’s most recognizable accessory is the Engine Key she wears at her belt. These are oversized cross-lock keys with blades the size of a large dagger. Each is a kind of puzzle-box, with hundreds of teeth along its four blades. Sections of teeth are hinged so they can be folded down against the blade, and the Key will only start the Engine when the correct teeth are folded up. What’s more, certain sections can only be folded up when other sections are folded down, so the Keys must be “solved” in a specific order.

Before they take over the caravan, both the Keykeeper and her Quartermaster must be able to perform this task from memory. The steps for solving the puzzle is a carefully guarded secret, with the only written records of it kept in the archives of the All-Guildhall. Keykeepers drill the process relentlessly, until most can do it with their eyes closed. Anytime the Engine is shut down, the Keykeeper is expected to return the Key to its “unsolved” configuration – that way, even if the Key is stolen, the thieves would still have no way of hijacking the Engine. If the Keykeeper is killed or otherwise unable to perform her duties, her Quartermaster takes charge of the Key, and with it, the caravan.

Defending the Caravan

Beyond the incalculable value of the wondrous Engine itself, each caravan is worth a not-insignificant fortune in goods and currency. Considering this, attacks by bandits, raiders and thieves are fairly common. Successful attacks, however, are extremely rare, as the Kingdom has developed a number of countermeasures and strategies that make the caravans remarkably secure.

The first is simply utilizing a small portion of their great wealth to protect the lion’s share. Caravans will send outriders ahead to parlay with bandits, offering them remuneration for safe passage through their territory. At the same time, caravans offer exorbitant bounties for the heads of prominent bandits, incentivizing rival gangs to hunt each other and creating an entire class of bounty hunters that makes their living riding ahead of caravans and competing for these payouts.

If a caravan is forced to stop and fight, the Keykeeper will circle the carts into a defensive position, placing the Engine at its center. While the Engines may seem like natural war machines, they are considered too valuable to risk damaging, and are only utilized against attackers as a final recourse. Once circled, reinforced panels are dropped to the ground or slid between the cars — in moments, the caravan has transformed into a small fortressThe wood of the cars is treated with chemicals to make them fire-resistant, and they are reinforced in places with armor plating. Each cart is built with hidden arrow slits in its walls, and some can deploy Lodos-made repeater-ballistae on their roofs. The entire caravan community fights with the zeal of those defending their homes, families and friends.

The caravan’s greatest defensive asset, however, is its mobile garrison. This cohort of two-dozen highly-trained Kutubi soldiers is led by one of the Exhumed, the most feared warriors produced by the Kingdom’s impressive military.

Kutubi Exhumed. Credit: Thomas Dimitriou

The Exhumed

The ranks of the Exhumed are filled by Kutub’s orphans, snatched from the streets of her oasis-cradled cities or from among the tent-houses of her poor outlying settlements. They are given to the Shedders of Skin, a secret society within the Kutubi military who are tasked with molding them into terrifying warriors.

Most of the young initiates won’t survive the brutal training. They are drilled to exhaustion almost every day, made to fight each for scraps of food or sips of water. Groups of them are sent into the desert to survive for weeks on their wits and woodcraft alone, feeding on sand vipers and locusts and bringing down wild dromeds with improvised slings so they can suck the moisture from their fat-stores. The few free hours not spent on combat training or sleep are used for studying tactics and war, as well as for meditative mental exercises meant to teach control over fear, hunger, exhaustion and pain.

An initiate who survives to the end of training must undergo a final harrowing test before she can graduate: the Molting Maze. First, the initiate drinks a concoction that includes fermented viperfruit nectar, catacomb mushrooms and scorpion venom, among other ingredients. Then she is buried deep beneath the desert, with only a tube run from her mouth to the surface allowing her to breathe. In the darkness and silence under the ancient sands, the substance she has ingested projects her consciousness into the Molting Maze, a place of awful nightmares and indescribable visions.

When she is dug up a week later, there are only three possible outcomes. She could be dead, her lungs filled with sand or her heart burst from the strain of the experience. She could be mad, trapped forever in the flickering shadows and warped mirrors of the Molting Maze. Or, she could have become an Exhumed.

According to the Shedders of Skin, the Exhumed are no longer mab. Rather, they are something akin to the desert’s will, given form. Like the desert, they are patient, indomitable, unrelenting, and deadly. They move with the fluidity of its sand-slides and the speed of its whirlwinds. 

Of course, there is nothing ultimately supernatural about an Exhumed: cut one and you’ll find blood, not sand. Still, an entire mythos has developed around them, engendering fear in the superstitious and credulous. People whisper that the Exhumed no longer have to eat or drink, surviving instead on fistfuls of desert sand. They say the Maze shows an Exhumed where and how he will die, so he no longer fears death. It is said that if an Exhumed is killed outside Kutub, on the next new moon her body will be appear miraculously in the grave where he underwent the ceremony.

An Exhumed is easy to spot. She will be wearing black robes over chainmail armor, as well as a simple gold mask that covers the entire face. Around her neck she wears a single small hourglass, filled with sand taken from the grave where she underwent the Maze. Atop the sand sits a final symbol of her transformation: the delicate skin left behind after a scorpion’s molt.