When Falls the Hammer of Night
Age of the Empire
The earliest age of history known is the time known as the Age of the Empire; of this age, only the barest scraps of information remain. It is generally accepted that during this timeframe, the vast Asirian Empire stretched across the continent, and possibly beyond. It is further generally agreed that this Empire had access to technology and magics far beyond anything that exist in the modern age; further details, however, are often subject to dispute. Only one significant work attributed to the Empire remains—the great fortress city of Thera, capital of Kharzstad—but even it has been sacked and rebuilt on several occasions since the fall of the Empire, and any lore that would have shed light on the wonders that came before has been picked over or lost.
Tales drawn from folklore and legend claim all manner of wondrous, miraculous, and terrible things occurred in the time of this Empire. It is said that in that age of wonders, the gods themselves walked alongside men, though it is generally accorded that this and many of the other tales of this age are metaphor at best; some seem to be nothing more than hyperbole or outright fabrication.
The circumstances surrounding the end of this age are lost to the sands of time; it is maintained by the Church of Logos, however, that the reason the Age of the Empire ended is due to the flowering of some great hubris within the rulers of the Empire; whatever the nature of the sin, it gave grave offense to the gods, and they retaliated by casting the Empire into chaos, thus bringing about the Age of Reckoning—a time of unfathomable madness and bloodshed.
Age of Reckoning
Records of the so-called Age of Reckoning are scarce; the tide of bloodshed and devastation that swept across the face of the continent spared nothing, knowledge least of all.
It is generally accepted that the Age of Reckoning lasted for several hundred years, and that there was a great deal of bloodshed in virtually every region of the continent. Beyond that, much of what exactly transpired during this age is unclear.
Fragmentary records of the latest years of this age do survive, giving some insight into the nature of the world towards the end of the Age of Reckoning. The forests of Cerisand and the Schwarzwald—collectively known as the Darkwild—formed an impassably lethal barrier seperating the northern and southern regions of the continent. To the east, the Jade Sands were a boiling pit of barbaric tribal warfare that occasionally spilled over the mountains and into the heartlands of the continent… which themselves had degenerated into a battlefield contested by various warlords, with the general populace supporting their favored warlord in the faint hope of eking out an existence from year to year, day to day. The southern area of the continent—including what is present-day Valna—were controlled by monstrous races, including goblinoids, ogres, giants, and kobolds. Meanwhile, the northern regions of the continent were wracked by an epidemic of undead horrors on the surface, a horde of the fearsome dark elves known as the drow, and all manner of horrors from the deeps, and many dwarven strongholds were lost entirely in the pandemonium.
Age of Iron
While the devastation of the Age of Reckoning wiped away all but the faintest traces of the Empire, after several centuries the situation began to settle, leading to the transition into the Age of Iron—an era characterized by great strides towards civilization and the restoration of order, but at tremendous costs.
In the north, the drow were finally driven completely from Cerisand’s forests; while no treaty was signed between Cerisand and the dwarves, the fact that the drow were no longer able to engage in guerilla warfare from the shadows of the forest did much to reduce strife. Now firmly in dwarven territory, the drow were dealt a series of crushing defeats; caught between the dwarven hammer and the anvil of Kharzstad’s mountains, the drow were nevertheless able to avoid extinction by escaping into into the darkness beneath Kharzstad’s mountains. While the drow menace would occasionally raise its ugly head once more, for the most part this heralded the end of open warfare in Kharzstad.
The end of the war also acted to put pressure on the undead, reducing the number of available food sources and making it more difficult for them to find safe places to hide… especially given that ongoing war no longer distracted attention from the threat they posed. These factors led to a significant culling of the undead throughout Kharzstad; only the strongest, luckiest, and most intelligent survived. In the face of this newfound pressure, the intelligent undead of Kharzstad began to stratify into something resembling a society. Ultimately, a bold and cunning vampire lord by the name of Erich Mortisson would ascend to leadership of this hierarchy, seizing the ruins of the ancient fortress city of Thera from the horrors that inhabited it; with it, he claimed the title of Viscount, and dominion over all of Kharzstad.
From there, he worked to bring Kharzstad’s remaining undead horde under his control, recruiting those in whom he saw some potential, destroying those in whom he did not; he used his undying army to protect those who would accept his rule, while leaving those who would oppose him to wither until they submitted—or, in some cases, crushing them himself. The dwarves were not keen to accept this, and they would skirmish with the Viscount’s forces for some time. This ultimately proved unprofitable for both sides, though; at length a peace accord was signed, allowing Mortisson to turn his attention back to ruling over his subjects—both the living and the dead—and forging his country.
The situation had likewise begun to improve in the central regions of the continent; by the beginning of the Age of Iron, only a handful of warlords remained, the most notable of which were Lodin Blackspear, Cyrus Dragonfang, Duol the Burned, and Vortigern Ironheart. Ultimately it would be the last who would prove the strongest and most cunning; of the warlords opposing Vortigern, only Duol the Burned would survive, and he did so only by fleeing east with the remnants of his forces, into the Jade Sands. With none remaining who could oppose him, Vortigern crowned himself as the Iron King, ruler of the Second Asirian Kingdom.
Vortigern’s rule would see many strides taken towards the re-establishment of order. Vortigern is credited with the re-establishment of an organized code of law, the construction of a network of roads throughout his kingdom, the creation of a central currency system (using an iron coin known as the lirem), nationalizing agriculture, logging, and mining, giving support to the establishment of the Church of Logos and various arcane schools, and driving the Orcish tribes and troll marauders back into the south; however, the means by which he accomplished these strides ensured that his reign was known as a time of utmost tyranny. The punishments contained within his Iron Law were brutal, and even petty offenders were often conscripted into brutal slave labor projects that would leave them crippled by the time their sentences expired.
While Vortigern’s works would ultimately reduce violence and starvation throughout his kingdom, his means would eventually generate enough discontent for an organized rebellion to form, finding a center around a pair of Vortigern’s former generals—Nemian Aurias and Varis Stroud. Ultimately, even a significant portion of Vortigern’s own army, disenchanted by his ongoing brutality, would join the rebellion; after one last brutal campaign, Vortigern met his two generals in a battle of champions, challenging them to prove their fitness to rule over that which he had created… and after an hours-long battle, Vortigern was defeated, bringing an end to the Age of Iron.
The Modern Age
Following the death of Vortigern, the two generals who now ruled over Vortigern’s empire decided to split his lands into two kingdoms—Stroud took the southern lands, while Aurias took the lands to the north. Thus were the twin nations of Albast and Valna born.
Almost immediately, however, challenges arose. With the death of the Iron Tyrant, the goblinoid races immediately mounted an offensive, seeking to reclaim the lands that Vortigern had driven them from. Valnan forces immediately took the field, but it was not until Albastian forces joined the fray that the massive invasion forces was well and truly broken; this would mark the beginning of a long alliance between the two nations.
That spirit of cooperation lasted for well over a century as Albast and Valna grew and matured… but the next crisis, some hundred and fifty years after the inception of the two countries, would strain that bond. It began with an adventurous prospecting expedition into the deserts east of the Berlias Mountains, on Albast’s eastern border; the expedition was wildly successful, returning with a wealth of jade and obsidian, setting off a rush to the east… which would eventually draw the notice of the people living there. Just as Vortigern had united the center of the continent, so his old foe, Duol the Burned, had raised an empire of his own, forging the various tribes into a single nation—that of Kormoran. When the people of Kormoran discovered Albastian prospectors robbing their land, they were furious; only a single survivor was allowed to return home, bearing a message for the ruler of his lands.
Diplomacy was undertaken by Albast; the Kormorani emissary spoke of an agreement between Duol and Vortigern—that Duol and his forces would march east and never return, and in turn Vortigern would never raise a hand against Duol’s conquests there. Kormoran wanted Albast to stay out of their lands, but Albast, greedy for the wealth to be found there, refused; diplomacy soured swiftly. Within a week of his arrival, the Kormorani emissary left the table. A week after that, Kormoran’s army swept across the Berlias mountains and into Albast, marking the beginning of one of the most savage and violent wars the nation had seen since its inception.
Albast lost nearly a third of its eastern territory in a week, with the invading army crushing the forces of the eastern march and blazing a trail towards the heart of Albast; as the Kormorani supply lines began to lengthen, though, Albast’s routed armies managed to recover, staging a rally and stalling the Kormorani advance. Albast immediately called to Valna for aid, but the southern nation was caught in a brutal war of its own, as the goblinoid races had begun another massive invasion of Valna’s southern border; the Valnan army, fighting a desperate battle simply to keep from being overrun, was able to send only a token force… a fact which would begin a slow souring of relations between the two countries.
The war between Albast and Kormoran would rage on for over a decade; while the line of conflict between Albast and Kormoran would move back and forth, a gradual trend of Albast reclaiming its territory would emerge, in part due to brilliant tactical maneuvering by the newly appointed Earl of the Eastern March. Every victory, though, was bought at a price paid in blood, as the Kormorani “Army of Fire” fought fiercely… and, true to their name, left little behind them but scorched earth. However, as time passed and it became increasingly apparent that drawn out warfare was ultimately not profitable, enthusiasm for the war began to wane in Kormoran. Tentative efforts at opening diplomatic backchannels bore fruit, and through delicate diplomatic maneuvering—and perhaps some skullduggery—a delicate peace was forged between the two nations. Kormoran’s Army of Fire withdrew as swiftly as it had come, leaving Albast to rebuild in peace.
With the Jade Sands off-limits, Albast would eventually turn its attention to a different frontier—this time to the north, and the forbidding forests of the Darkwild. Eventually Albast’s explorations began to yield fruit, as survivors began to bring back reports of beings living in the western forest; so did the humans of the south first learn of the existence of elves. Albast immediately began trying to open diplomatic channels with the elves, perhaps out of a desire to avoid repeating the fiasco of Kormoran’s invasion. While the elves initially wanted nothing to do with humanity in any way, shape, or form, the determination of Albast’s envoys—combined with the realization that things had changed in the south—eventually led to the elves reluctantly coming to the negotiation table, in what would later become known as the Albast-Cerisand Accords.
The negotiations were not as successful as Albast had hoped; Cerisand stated its borders, and that trespassers would not be tolerated. Albast did, however, make some gains; the elves of Cerisand recognized Albast’s existence, and agreed to a cease fire—thus ending a war that, for them, had been going on since the Reckoning! Additionally, Albast gained vital intelligence about the other forest that was part of the ‘Darkwild’—the Schwarzwald—and gained some intelligence about the lands that lay beyond.
With this intelligence, Albast turned to their next project—crossing the Schwarzwald. Arcane efforts to teleport or scry across the forest failed miserably, and more physical efforts were met with active resistance; the horrors of the Schwarzwald are manifold, and the forest has never suffered intruders gladly. Albast sunk tremendous amounts of resources into the construction of this road; however, the tide did not truly begin to turn until Valna joined the fray, offering military aid and engineering expertise, and even then it was not until the Church of Logos intervened that the Gemstone Road project would begin to show real results. Even so, it took five years before the Gemstone Road emerged from the northern border of the Schwarzwald, into the shadow of the Kharzstadian capital of Thera. First contact went smoothly for once; while initially Albast was wary of the undead, the largely amiable welcome offered by Viscount Mortisson—combined with the potential for tremendous wealth—overcame Albast’s reluctance fairly quickly. Trade between Kharzstad and Albast brought wealth to both sides… Valna, however, received a much more limited return despite their aid, something that would further sour relations between Albast and Valna.
In the years following the completion of the Gemstone Road, a significant change took hold in Albast’s society; artisans and merchants gained significant prestige and wealth, essentially spurring the rapid development of a middle class; some of the most cunning and ruthless of these merchants began to amass political influence and wealth on par with the nobility. Reluctantly, King Augustus Aurias made the decision to try to integrate some of the wealthiest and most powerful of these merchant princes into the nobility, hoping both to keep them close so that he could keep an eye on their dealings, and also to use their financial acumen to further benefit the country; the result of this was the ennoblement of several dukes, a new rank in Albast’s royal court. While initially intended to be a rank slightly below that of baron, the dukes’ political influence grew tremendously once they had been ennobled.
While the dukes’ financial expertise did significantly benefit Albast’s treasury, their ennoblement would pose problems for Albast as well. When Valna appealed for aid to fend off yet another assault on their southern border, the mercantile dukes, who saw no profit in aiding their southern neighbor, were loudly outspoken against it. Vocal counter-arguments by the marquises and those of Albast’s nobility who lived near the country’s southern border were enough to overrule them, but they were able to use their connections and wealth to indirectly stir public sentiments against the significant cost—in both money and lives—of aiding Valna. This public outcry would mark the beginning of a slow decline in the military’s political influence, as well as souring relations between Albast and Valna still further.
The King of Albast likely would have called the dukes to heel once the clamor had settled down, but circumstances did not afford him the opportunity; not long afterwards he was thrown from a horse and died, leaving his six year old grandson as heir to the throne. The dukes, utilizing their political influence and riding the unpopularity of military intervention in Valna, were able to orchestrate the creation of an organized body to serve as regent—the Crown Council, an organization which would wind up entirely comprised of the dukes and their catspaws. Making good on their promises, the Crown Council almost immediately implemented a plan calling for a staged withdraw of Albastian forces from Valna—a move that would gain approval from the people, but was the bitterest insult yet to Valna.
But though relations had been thoroughly soured between the two nations, it would still require one more push to trigger the war that was to ensue. Two years later, that push happened.
In the fertile lands on the Lodis River, straddling the border between Albast and Valna, a dangerous heretic rose to power, preaching blasphemies against the gods and gaining a cult following with his unnatural charisma. Fearing what could happen if this deranged madman’s cult should spread, the Church of Logos issued a condemnation, calling for this man and his followers to be apprehended or slain; an Albastian unit was dispatched to rout the heretic… unfortunately, Valna had sent men as well, and havoc ensued.
The furor that arose on both sides was tremendous, but for the Valnans this was finally one insult too many. Both sides demanded reparations of the other, which only further stoked the rage on both sides, and within a month the two nation were at war.
At first it went well for Valna, but the Valnan advance began to flounder quickly as the richer Albast began to throw more resources into the fray. Seasoned divisions under the command of the Eastern and Northern Marquises were brought to bear, armed with dwarf-forged weaponry; to make matters worse for Valna, the goblinoids, sensing weakness, chose this moment to mount a renewed assault, forcing Valna to fight a war on two fronts. Matters grew worse still when a Valnan field marshal’s entire command structure was struck down by an assault from dwarven siege weapons, breaking the Valnan line and allowing Albastian forces to drive the Valnans back.
Ultimately Valna, badly battered by Albast and besieged by goblinoids from the south, would carry on the conflict for six months, but when the King of Valna was gravely wounded while attempting to rally the troops by heading to the frontline, enough was enough. Valna, desperate to put the war behind them so they could focus on putting a stop to the goblinoid raids and assaults that were plaguing their southern border, sued for peace. The cost demanded by Albast—mainly at the behest of the Crown Council—was ruinous, but Valna had no choice but to pay; the border between the two nations was redrawn, moving from the Lodis River to the South Berlias mountains, and giving Albast a huge chunk of Valna’s total arable land.
While ending the war with Albast did have the desired effect for Valna in the short run—namely, allowing them to drive the goblinoids back—the long term effects would prove disastrous. The Valnan economy would begin a long slump as food prices began to climb, spurred by the lack of arable land and higher food tariffs from Albast.
Then, ten years after the war with Albast came the Great Famine. Crops all across the continent began to fail disastrously, sparing only Kormoran and Albast. In Kharzstad and Cerisand, food shortages became problematic… in Valna, they became disastrous. For the next three years, starvation, hunger, plague, and poverty would haunt Valna; the sole bit of good luck Valna had was that the goblinoids seemed to be suffering just as badly, meaning that raids were minimal. Refugees would flee Valna in droves, trying to escape the misery… though they found little compassion in Albast.
While Albast would send some aid to Valna, the amount offered was nowhere near enough; instead, at the direction of the Crown Council, Albast would focus their food surpluses on providing aid to Cerisand and Kharzstad… a policy that would have undeniable benefits for Albast. In the aftermath of the Famine, Cerisand would open its borders to Albast and begins limited trade—something that would have been unthinkable even ten years before—while Kharzstad would significantly reduce tariffs and excise taxes in gratitude, thus enhancing northern trade even further.
After three years, the Great Famine ended with as little fanfare as it had begun; crop growth simply returned to normal. A great many theories were discussed as to reasons for the famine—a shift of ley lines, some sort of disturbance in the field of magic-distorting energy that permeates the Schwarzwald, an offense given to the gods, all of the above—but nothing of any real substance was discovered. The end of the famine, though, did remove some of the pressure from Valna, allowing conditions to return to a state that was at least livable.
In the twenty years following the famine, Valna would begin to recover. The first milestone was the undertaking of various ‘reclamation projects’—a bold strategy devised by the elder of Valna’s two princes to boost Valna’s food production by converting the wetlands of the Slough into arable farmland. Naturally the various tribes of orcs, goblins, trolls, and occasional giants who dwelled there opposed this violently, as it was their land that was being ‘reclaimed’… however, the younger of Valna’s princes would prove to be a shrewd tactician, a charismatic leader, and a skilled warrior, equal to the challenge of driving the natives of the Slough back. Valna has also begun investing in mechanical and arcane research; their Arminius School of Ars Academia is renowned as the foremost school on the continent in terms of technology, and a close second to Albast’s own College of the Arcane in pure arcane arts. Valna has also quietly secured diplomatic ties and trade agreements with Kormoran. While Valna may not yet be able to challenge Albast’s economic supremacy, the people of Valna have weathered the worst and grown stronger for it.
In the north, the halflings look to the stars and to the bones of their ancestors, as they have for centuries now; the shining south left them long ago, but still they wait. Even if that which was lost should never return, they will wait.
Beneath the mountains, the dwarves mine and craft and experiment; they still vigilantly watch the tunnels of the underdark, longrifles and battleaxes and hammers at the ready. The drow have been silent for over seventy-five years; some of the youngest to doubt that they still live, but the eldest know differently, know it in their very bones. Above, the undead tirelessly patrol the roads of Kharzstad, keeping the peace, keeping order.
In the forests of Cerisand, the elves, bemused, warily greet the world that they turned from a thousand years ago; what turn will their neatly ordered lives take, now that they are ever-so-cautiously stepping back into the currents of the world once more? To the east, the Schwarzwald broods, as it has for time immemorial.
To the east, the masters of Kormoran seek the pinnacles of their thousand arts, proud and untouchable.
In the heartlands, the people of Albast live their golden lives and count their golden coins and bask in the golden sun, while their neighbors in Valna build and innovate and grow strong; most cannot see the storm that brews on the horizon, nor the hungry lion that lies in wait, hidden among the grass.
The spectre of the Hammer of Night rises, unseen and unfelt. The same will not be said should it fall.