The Cult of the Smiling Death is less a cult and more a gang of people afflicted by the same curse that prey upon the weak to extort wealth, food, and pleasure (usually by eating them) from them.
The cult is spread across the southern corners of Unther and Mulhorand as well as in the swamps of Chessenta and the Border Kingdoms.
The cult worships a huge crocodilian creature known as Sebek or Haaashastaak (Sebek in Mulhorand and Unther, Haaashastaak in Chessenta and the Border Kingdoms) and seems inexplicably drawn to the lands around Lake Azulduth.
The Cult of the Smiling Death had its beginnings in the Church of Sebek thousands of years ago. Centred upon the Sekkar region and the settlement of Sekras, the Church of Sebek was charged with keeping the rivers of Mulhorand free flowing and clear of predators, and protecting the river barges from bandits and monsters.
The priests of Sebek served Mulhorand faithfully, fought valiantly with Sebek in the Orcgate Wars (renowned for letting no qabasen escape their sight). During the War of the Gods (-1050 DR to -1048 DR), Sebek and his followers joined forces with Set against Horus and his allies, for that mistake and for the atrocities they committed during the war, Sebek and his people were exiled by the victorious Divine Pharaoh Horus-Re.
Sebek took to plundering the many ancient ruins of the Sekkar, and discovered many fabulous treasures, but only one weapon to help him defend against the vengeful forces of Mulhorand. A potent elixir found in an ancient dungeon transformed any who drank it into powerful reptilian creatures, Sebek himself imbibed the potion and transformed into a half man, half crocodile creature which when enraged became an enormous crocodile over 40 ft in length.
Using his own blood, Sebek proliferated his newfound form among his followers, giving them all some measure of crocodilian features and the ability to transform into a crocodile. When the Legion of Dawn finally arrived to deal with Sebek in -425 DR, they found the only residents left in Sekras to be transformed half crocodiles (those who would not drink the potion became food for those who would).
The Legion of the Dawn achieved a pyrrhic victory, slaughtered most of the worshippers of Sebek, and drove Sebek into a portal to another land. The Church of Sebek was destroyed, but the Cult of the Smiling Death was born.
As Sebek wandered the Border Kingdoms and north to Chessenta, he gathered and sired more followers afflicted with the Curse of Smiling Death (named by victims who failed to transform and whose elongated maws were left in a perpetual tortured smile as their mutated bones burst through the skin). These cults are now concentrated in the swamps, marshes, and along wild rivers in those lands.
Meanwhile, in the Sekkar region, Hathaele; the daughter of Sobek, had fled into the wilderness and gathered a band of followers to her side, both human and crocodile alike (the crocodiles seemed possessed of an intelligence, could follow orders, and were loyal to Hathaele).
Hathaele, the Snarling Sorcerer (named for the curled lip result from her transformation), was supposedly slain when the Deathgrins (a military order Osiris’ church dedicated to combatting Sebek and his followers) descended upon her island lair amid Lake Azulduth, and scorched the entire island bare trying to find her, and her flaming body was seen sinking into the depths of Lake Azulduth, the magical flames still licking her flesh even beneath the water. Thus was the Cult of the Smiling Death believed expunged from Mulhorand for the first time.
From the 8th century Dalereckoning onwards, cult cells and their members have, at various times, felt an irresistible urge to wander east towards the Sekkar region, infiltrating the ruins of Sekras again and again, only to be eradicated again and again by the Mulhorandi.
Today, the Cult of the Smiling Death has a growing number of members in the ruins of Sekras, and agents in settlements throughout southern Mulhorand. Their numbers are growing and they are slowly extending their reach north into Mulhorand as though under the instructions of another. Cult cells in Chessenta, Unther and the Border Kingdoms feed a constant supply of Sebek worshipping migrants into Sekkar to grow these cults even as the Mulhorandi try to eradicate them.
Headquarters: Sekras; the River’s Maw
Members: 366 Gren-Ti (the name given by the half reptilian creatures to themselves)
Leader: Each cell has its own leader (determined by mortal combat), but all cells would automatically defer to Sebek if he were to present himself.
Secrecy: High. After millennia of persecution in Mulhorand, and given the cult’s predatory nature, all cells of this cult hide themselves away in swamps and marshes where human habitation is limited.
Symbol: A crocodile head surrounded by a plumed headdress.
The Cult of the Smiling Death has no structure to speak of. Each cell is a gathering of those afflicted by the Curse of Smiling Death, ruled over by the strongest individual, who gives himself whatever title he wants. To become the leader of a cell, one simply has to declare themselves leader and them kill anyone who disputes that claim (such as the current leader and anyone else who fancies themselves leader).
Successions are often bloody affairs that can decimate the ranks of a cell, causing the survivors to spread out and search for a new cell, or to found their own.
Sebek still wanders his old territory (between Mulhorand, Chessenta, and the Border Kingdoms), and automatically assumes the leadership role of any cell he encounters (sometimes devouring the current leader as the whim takes him). Sebek rarely leads a single cell for long though, often abandoning it within a few years.
Dogma / Motivation / Goals
The Cult of the Smiling Death is all about survival of the strongest (or more correctly, survival of the biggest and most vicious). Cult cells prey upon any dangerous creatures in an area they inhabit, preferring intelligent humanoids most of all. Once established in an area, the cultists establish “shrines” (mud and reed huts) along the edges of their territory and near to humanoid settlements, so that their prey can leave wealth and goods at the “shrine” in an effort to placate the cultists.
Additional requirements within each cult cell are determined by the leader and usually involve the cell leader getting more wealth, food, and respect than other members.
Membership / Recruiting
Cells acquire new members in one of three ways. The first and most usual method is for a victim of the Curse of Smiling Death to have children (who will also suffer from the same curse).
The second method of acquiring new members is for a cultist from another cell to separate from his current cell (usually after a bloody succession reduces the number of cultists to such a level that the cult cannot survive anymore), and attempt to join the new cell. Such a method of recruitment is not always allowed and is usually at the whim of the leader (who may order the wanderer devoured as often as admit him into the cell).
The final method of acquiring new members is for the cell to inflict the Curse of Smiling Death upon an unafflicted individual. The Curse of Smiling Death can be passed on to others by imbibing bodily fluids fresh, this usually involves a prospective member sucking blood from a freshly opened wound.
Prospective members are usually attracted to the cult by the promise of physical power it can provide (especially for weak individuals that are put upon by others). Very occasionally the cult will kidnap humans and force them to undergo the Curse of Smiling Death in an effort to boost their numbers (usually following a brutal succession).
The Cult of Smiling Death has no allies, not even other cells from the same cult. Each cell preys upon everything within its territory until it is the dominant force so everyone else that knows of a cult likely desires it’s destruction.
Unbeknownst to the cultists, they are all under the influence of those that created the curse originally (sarrukh and their offshoots who once lived around Lake Azulduth), the sarrukh of Okoth are using their accidental creations to remove the Mulhorandi from their former territory. It is possible that the sarrukh may direct some of their other agents to assist the cultists if needed.
Due to cultists having an aversion to reptilian flesh, they are most likely to converse with lizardmen and other intelligent reptiles for several minutes (a human or elf they will probably consume instantly) before attacking. These non predatory interactions occasionally result in short lived alliances where the two groups cooperate to perform raids on larger targets.
Gbahali: Named by the followers of Sebek after a scaled water demon from Mulan mythology, but known otherwise as the Thael in Mulhorand. Those under the Curse of Smiling Death are able to pass on that curse to other humans by exchanging fresh body fluids; such as blood. Humanoids that come into contact with the Curse undergo a change that makes them at least partly reptilian, elongating the maw to varying degrees (at its weakest the Curse causes a slight jutting jaw), scaling the skin, and clawing the extremities. This transformation can leave a humanoid with a jutting jaw, the appearance of cracked skin, and elongated fingers with sharp nails, or it can result in part (usually the torso) or all of the body resembling a large crocodile. Not all creatures undergo the transformation, at least half of them perish before or during the process.
The effects of other creatures coming into contact with the Curse is usually fatal, except for crocodiles. When a crocodile comes into contact with the Curse it does not change physically (except maybe for increasing in size and enhancing its physical abilities), but is instead mentally enhanced. The crocodile acquires intelligence enough to understand speech and expands their base motivations beyond a desire to eat and mate, allowing them to form social groups and hunt as a pack.
The Gbahali still hunt humans rather than conversing with them, but; like all those who suffer the Curse, find reptilian flesh nauseating and so more than a few Gbahali have cooperated with cells of the Cult of the Smiling Death. If cultists could determine a way to get crocodiles to consume fresh blood without devouring the bleeding recipient then there would likely be hundreds or thousands more Gbahali, but so far normal crocodiles have only ever undergone the Curse by consuming a cultist of the Smiling Death which is not something most cultists will volunteer for.
A significant proportion of crocodiles along the River of Spears are now Gbahali, and are following the last instructions they ever received; to devour Mulan humans whenever encountered.
The Cult of Smiling Death can count the entire Mulhorandi and every religious organization of that region as their enemies.
Although the members of the Cult of Smiling Death are renowned for devouring just about any creature they encounter, they find the flesh of any reptile to be nauseating and will not consume it under any circumstances. This often leads the cultists to be indifferent towards reptilians (instead of the predatory and hostile that they are towards most humanoids).
Netheris Ket (Evil, Human – Mulan, Expert 6): A former priestess of Isis, now transformed by the Curse of the Smiling Death. Netheris Ket has embraced her new life and new abilities, and is leading a cell of cultists operating out of the Asanabis region.
Sipari (Evil, Human – Turami, Magic User 5): Sipari the Black Witch is the leader of the cultists of the Smiling Death operating out of the River’s Maw in Sekras. She uses her knowledge of magic and herblore to weaken enemies and aid allies.
Sobek Bizdamen (Evil, Human – Mulan, Warrior 15): The godking of Mulhorand known now as Sebek is believed to still haunt the lands of Chessenta, Mulhorand, Unther, and the Border Kingdoms. He resembles a well muscled, slightly reptilian warrior of huge stature wielding his fabled bone Sorrowful Spear, or a 40 ft crocodile into which he can transform and swallow people whole.
The Mottled Hag (Evil, Human – Mulan, Magic User 7): A once burned, now scarred witch living on the marshy shore of Lake Azulduth, the Mottled Hag offers predictions and potions to those who come seeking her assistance (and who can pay the price). Her help is often double edged, for what aids them one day will surely come back to haunt them another.
Sphere of Influence
Mulhorand: The Cult of the Smiling Death considers the Sekkar region of Mulhorand to be its ancestral home, and each cell is always considering ways to journey back and to retake this homeland and drive out the Mulhorandi.
Sekras: This ruin was once one of the great fortresses of Unther built during the first age of that great empire. It was jointly defended by both Mulhorandi and Untheric troops who lived in the fortress and their families in the castle town built around it. The fortress was ignored by both Unther and Mulhorand following the Orcgate Wars and the few soldiers that remained here eventually disbanded and Sekras became a fortified city settlement rather than a border fortress.
Sekras was raised twice in its history, first in -425 DR and again in 1183 DR after it became home to the outcast godking Sebek and his band of rebels. Now the once great fortress is a burned ruin filled with ghosts, exiles, and monsters.
The settlement was once home to a marvel of Mulhorandi technology which pumped water from the River of Swords into a desalination tank that provided drinking water for the entire population. It is unknown if this is still functioning, but if it could be made to work again it would do much to ease the hardships for the people living on the frontier of Unther and Mulhorand.
The River’s Maw: The ruins of Sekras were once a city, home to Sobek and his family in a modest palace known as the River’s Maw. Before the Mulan arrival, Sekras was a series of river caves that were home to reptilian humanoids known as the sarrukh. Sobek found these caves beneath the river just outside the walls of Sekras, and in their depths he discovered a new existence as Sebek the Devourer.
After blessing much of his family with the Curse of the Smiling Death, Sebek turned these caves into a shrine to the reptilian gods he now worshipped (and of which he claimed to have become). This shrine was never discovered by the Deathgrins and is now a huge underground temple complex known as the River’s Maw (in honour of the destroyed palace in Sekras).
Cultists of the Smiling Death make pilgrimages to the River’s Maw seeking sanctuary and enlightenment, for those not subject to the Curse find it difficult to reach here. The River’s Maw extends for miles and new discoveries are made frequently by the cultists, for here is the largest concentration of cultists of the Smiling Death in all Faerun (some 50 followers or more) under the command of Sipari the Black Witch (Evil, Human – Turami, Magic User 5).
Chessenta: The Cult of the Smiling Death is strongest in the Adder Swamp, where Sebek has spent much of his time since exile from Sekras. Here the cultists constantly strive to be the dominant force in the region, often putting them at odds with caravans that skirt to close to the edge of the swamp, and with other groups that dwell in the swamp.
Curse of Smiling Death: The Curse of the Smiling Death is the major resource available to a cell of the Cult of the Smiling Death which usually have to scrape together whatever resources they can extort from nearby humanoids.
With the Curse of Smiling Death a cult cell can expand its membership by feeding blood or other freshly produced body fluids to another humanoid. Assuming the recipient is not poisoned and slain within moments, it will undergo a transformation of varying degrees that makes them partly reptilian, elongates the maw, scales the skin, and claws the extremities. Those at the extreme end of the transformation resemble large crocodiles or humanoid crocodiles, while those at the weaker end of the transformation may have a jutting jaw, skin that looks cracked, and elongated fingers with sharp nails.
Non-humanoids that suffer the Curse usually perish immediately, but crocodiles are known to be affected and increase their intelligence, becoming monsters known as Gbahali.
Crown of the Horned Crocodile: This feathered headdress bears two elaborate horns and a long ridged tail that drapes down the back of the wearer to resemble the ridged back of a crocodile. Wearers of the headdress are able to summon nearby crocodiles to aid them three times per day.
The Sorrowful Spear: This great spear is made from the fused spine of a reptilian creature with one of it’s teeth mounted atop it as the blade. It is capable of delivering deadly blows as well as transforming organic matter into crocodilian creatures once per day.
Sebek’s Spear: Modeled after Sebek’s own weapon (the Sorrowful Spear), this weapon has been enchanted to deliver severe wouds. Wielders of these spears have a greater chance than normal of dealing a Critical Hit. A number of these weapons were fashioned for Sebek’s children (notably Sebekhar and Sebeth) and for a few of his favoured followers ere the fall of Sekras in -425 DR.