The Avenan Empire
Motto: Our Will Creates the Future (pre-Scourge)
Current Head of State: Hykksmoth
Ethnic Groups: 89% human/Flesher, 11% daemon/Yugoloth
Government: Military Dictatorship
Patron Gods: Boccob (pre-Scourge)
Year Founded: 628 BS
The current Aksumi government is overseen by the Ultroloth Hykksmoth. He reigns with absolute power over the other denizens of the city. Every single one of them, from the most powerful daemon to the lowliest human, is considered his slave. His orders are obeyed without question.
This rigid hierarchy is reflected all down the chain of command, with each next most powerful individual considering all those under him to be his slaves. Violent struggles for small increments of power are common, with the losers usually meeting their end in the Ghoul Pit.
Humans have no rights within Aksum. They are considered a disposable labor force and occasionally source of amusement – the most common form of entertainment in the city is the prolonged torture of human beings. Healthy humans capable of withstanding several days of torture are considered a rare prize, and are often the central entertainment of what passes for parties in the Black Tower.
There is no court or criminal justice system. Disobedience is punished by torture and execution.
Organization within Yugoloth societies is, in general, fairly relaxed. The strong take what they wish, and serve only those with greater power than themselves. A semi-rigid caste system exists, wherein different types of Yugoloth typically rule over one another. The military structure of Aksum roughly follows these lines, with the weaker, more animalistic daemons serving as basic infantry, and increasingly powerful officer classes serving as heavy infantry, cavalry, and other specialized troops.
Advancement within the military is impossible, except by killing one’s superior, and fighting off all opposition and retribution in order to establish authority over others.
Most of the troops within Aksum are used to manage the slave population and the mines, though the Black Tower does have a small garrison intended for deployment to the Blood War, should the situation require it.
A class of human hybrids – called Fleshers – serve at the absolute bottom of the military order. They typically act as slave hunters, but they are occasionally used on the battlefields of the Blood War – though their rarity and relative fragility make them a resource that is not often tapped.
Worship of gods among the daemons is rare, and among humans it has been violently suppressed the last few hundred years. Boccob and Pelor are still occasionally invoked among humans, but other good and neutral gods have been largely forgotten.
There are shrines to a number of evil gods throughout the city, though there are no organized cults dedicated to their worship. The most prominent belong to Ertythnul, Nerull, and an obscure goddess of torture and pain known as Loviatar.
Abyssal is the only language spoken by most of the inhabitants of Aksum. The salamanders of Forlon’s Forge speak their peculiar Ignan dialect. There may be one or two creatures that still speak Avenan Common, but that language has been largely forgotten.
There is little in the way of culture as humans from outside the weather wall would recognize it in Aksum. The daemons have no art to speak of beyond torture, bizarre architecture, and weapon-making, and their entire existence is devoted to the will of Hykksmoth and the General of Gehenna. Yugoloth society is focused exclusively on manipulating the course of the Blood War through mercenary actions, weapons sales, and the introduction of discovered artifacts and technologies into the fighting.
There is a scholarly caste of Yugoloths, but there are few, if any, in Aksum. The only active scholar is Daern, and his work is obscure and obscene.
Humans are organized into slave gangs that are shuffled and reorganized regularly to prevent interpersonal relationships and collusion. Over the last three centuries, a complex oral tradition has evolved among the slaves as a means of communicating news and rumors from gang to gang. What little actual society has emerged as a result, however, is extremely rudimentary.
There are some work songs among the slave gangs, but they are only tolerated as long as no daemon views their subject matter as seditious. In any case, it is difficult to sing satisfactorily in Abyssal.
The lack of human society within the city is exasperated by the seclusion of human women within the Black Tower. Males slaves only see women when they are selected for breeding, and then only inside the Breeding Rooms. As soon as conception occurs, the men are returned to the slave gangs, and the women to their dormitory within the tower. When they are born, female babies are left with the women to be raised inside the dormitory. Male babies are taken at the age of eight to work as servants in the tower. Those that survive to the age of sixteen are then turned over to the slave gangs in the mines. The total destruction of familial bonds has crippled any ability the humans of Aksum might once have had to form a functioning culture.
Aksum exports weapons, precious metals, and magical artifacts uncovered from the ruins to the Outer Plane of Gehenna. The currency generated by this trade takes the form of an evil scrip that is used as both a storage mechanism for arcane power, as well as a means of exchange. This currency most often takes the form of fat, blind worms about a quarter of an inch long.
Trade also occasionally occurs in more traditional mediums like gold and jewels, but the daemons have little use for precious objects that confer no power. Imports include food, textiles, and exotic raw materials for weapon crafting.
The human population has been in a slow but steady decline since the Cataclysm destroyed Aksum and cut it off from the outside world. Hykksmoth’s current plan is to simply work the humans until the last one dies out, and then to import slaves from elsewhere.
Before the beginning of the Scourge, Aksum was a vast metropolis with a racially mixed population of more than thirty thousand. The Cataclysm killed many of those, and many more died in the months that followed. Once the daemons established a foothold there, the rate of die off surged, then stabilized. The Yugoloth breeding program has staved off the extinction of humans in Aksum for nearly three hundred years now, but unless they are freed, their eventual extermination is inevitable.
People and Location
Before the Cataclysm and Scourge, Daern was a highly respected magical engineer and explorer. His brilliance made him the jewel in the crown of Aksum, and his workshop was world famous as the finest producer of unique magical items anywhere. He was famous, respected, powerful and wealthy.
He was also deeply arrogant, selfish, and sometimes cruel. His arrogance and remorseless curiosity led him to experiment with the darker side of magic. When the Cataclysm came, he was prepared for his death – and his resurrection. The fire that consumed Aksum also took with it part of Daern’s soul, leaving him trapped between life and death, and enslaved to Hykksmoth.
Hykksmoth has ruled Aksum for more than three hundred years. He is the architect of every last bit of suffering that has occurred in the doomed city for the last three centuries. He answers to his own masters, but enjoys a measure of freedom that is unusual among Yugoloths, mostly as a result of the isolation of Aksum, both from the outside world, and from his home plane.
He is a mighty and cruel master, with an army at his command. To challenge him is to court damnation.
The Black Tower
The Black Tower was built to Hykksmoth’s design by slave labor over the course of more than eighty years. It is built mostly of stone quarried from the ruins of Aksum, which is naturally a deep red. The stone of the tower was stained black by smoke, filth and blood.
The tower is roughly twelve stories tall, and may be the tallest building currently standing in the world. It is the home to Hykksmoth and his command infrastructure, the portal to Gehenna, and the female human slaves (held in the Breeding Rooms).
Before the Scourge, Forlon’s Forge was a large weapons and armor fabricator in the northwestern quarter of the city, run by a dwarf named Forlon and his family. The centerpiece of the business was a magical forge that allowed Forlon and his sons to work almost any metal to an impossibly sharp edge, and eased the process of enchantment.
Now, it is one of the few dry places in the city, protected by large levees from the flood of chilly water that plagues the rest of the ruin. The forge itself has been taken over by a crew of salamanders, who pay tribute to Hykksmoth in the form of high-quality weapons. It is the only place in the city where no humans or Yugoloth are allowed.
The Ghoul Pit is so named because it has become infamous as the final resting place of almost every creature that dies in Aksum. Every slave, every daemon, every salamander that perishes within the city is eventually dragged to the Ghoul Pit and tossed in. Worse, slaves and others who grow too sick, elderly, or weak to work or fight are often taken to the Ghoul Pit before they die, where they are left to be torn apart and consumed by the foul creatures that call it home.
Over the centuries, the Ghoul Pit has become such a festering repository of negative energy that mindless undead creatures are spontaneously generated there. Many of those left to die in the pit quickly return to a horrifying semblance of life. The undead creatures that rise there rarely leave the pit, thriving as they do on the radiant negative energy that fills this horrid place.
Aksum was probably first settled as a mining and fishing community near the beginning of the Pre-Scourge era. The end of the Age of Mysteries scattered men across the land; there is evidence that, as with Avenanhma, a group of the old Heroes, stripped of their powers, settled there after the fall of the dragons. Originally, the settlement was called Fine Bay, in reference to the calm, deep, sheltered section of Belix Bay on which the first homes were built.
Belix Bay is an extremely productive fishing ground, and the dry, rocky land to the south of it produces a variety of gems and precious metals, including several rich veins of mithral. Both features made the area attractive for settlement, and the supply of mithral attracted the first mages to the settlement.
The potential wealth of the land drew settlers from the cities that had survived the end of the Age of Mysteries and supported larger human and dwarven populations. The original fishing and mining communities grew swiftly for a short period after their settlement, but the growth stalled as the sandy ground disrupted mining efforts. As the mines dried up, much of the population migrated back towards Andurrial and Faroe, and for several hundred years the settlement survived mostly as a trading outpost and link between the growing settlement of Belix to the north, Besiktas and Andurrial to the east, and Faroe to the south.
Despite its tiny size, the little fishing community gained a fairly metropolitan reputation as it adapted to serve the needs of visitors from cities all over the western part of the continent. The skills of Aksumi riggers became highly valued, and many who might once have lived quiet lives as fishermen were recruited by other cities to help outfit navies. In 799 BS, almost 200 years before the actual founding of the city, it was Aksumi riggers and sailors, along with a team of Belixian shipbuilders, who built and launched the first square-rigged sailing ship capable of crossing the open ocean to the Oldfur Islands.
The name Aksum was first applied in 664 BS by a group of dwarven prospectors from Andurrial and Hayk. “Aksum” is a dwarven term that refers to loose or sandy ground that is difficult to shore up when mining, but is potentially productive. Dwarven has a fairly complex lexicon when it comes to referring to types of earth.
This group of prospectors came to Aksum hoping to restart the mines that had been abandoned centuries ago. They believed that, using new techniques developed in the seaside and underwater mines of Hayk, they could reach deeper, previously inaccessible veins of gems and mithral. In the event, they were correct, and by 650 BS there was a mithral rush on.
By 630, the population of Aksum had doubled, and the city was on the edge of chaos. No formal infrastructure existed for the protection of property rights, the distribution of food, or the administration of justice. Claim jumping was common. The wealthiest individuals in the city were not miners, but the commanders of dwarven mine-fighting mercenary groups, who hired themselves out to “clean” mines for the highest bidder. Street fights between mercenary groups were common. In addition, so many residents had given up fishing in favor of mining that the growing city depended largely on imports from Belix and Besiktas for food – a supply that could be easily disrupted by mercenary violence, bad weather, or even just bad blood between traders. A harsh winter could starve the entire city.
As the potential for chaos grew, a group of six wealthy miners realized that the lack of organization would eventually cost them every bit of coin they’d dug from the ground. So in 631 BS, they decided to get together and elect themselves a king.
The election itself was not without violence, of course, as smaller mining concerns recognized the vast potential for abuse in a monarch elected and controlled by the richest of the rich. The mercenary companies that had sprung up throughout the city were immediately hired, co-opted, rehired, infiltrated, broken, reformed or assassinated in a paroxysm of violence that lasted a short but bloody six months, and resulted in the formation of at least sixteen different strong militias throughout the city. Business ground to a halt, and food distribution was crippled. The worst case scenario the original group of six had set out to avoid was suddenly imminent.
With starvation a real possibility, the group of six invited representatives from all of the important mining, merchant, magic, and fishery houses to a constitutional convention. Over the course of eight weeks, during which their militias continued to skirmish in the streets outside, the delegates designed an extremely progressive system that limited the power of the monarch, kept the military independent, and guaranteed an education for every child born in the city. This final provision would prove to be one of the most important political decisions in the history of the city – and indeed, in the history of the known world.
In 628 BS, every adult male in Aksum cast a ballot, and the first king of Aksum, Ricard Mallory, was elected. He proved to be a good choice; during his 26-year reign, he established well-defined property rights, a sensible system of taxation that supported education and the militia, and a justice system that endured until the day the city was annexed by the Avenan Empire 300 years later. When Mallory died in 602, his son was quickly elected, establishing a dynasty that ruled the city for another four generations.
Fifty years after the first election, the benefit of the constitutional guarantee of an education (originally insisted upon by the wizard delegates to the constitutional convention) was already apparent. Fishing and mining thrived, with corporate concerns headed by products of the Aksumi education system heading a score of businesses in both industries. The magical productivity of the city was also surging – as it turned out, educated children could be apprenticed to wizards at a much younger age, resulting in young wizards with the vitality to experiment with magic in ways never before imagined. It was in Aksum that the first human experiments with dimensional travel, time manipulation, and large-scale enchantment first occurred.
As the city grew, so did an old, nascent rivalry with Besiktas. The relatively provincial, militaristic city of Besiktas, surrounded by forest, farmland, and monster-infested mountains, was naturally suspicious of the metropolitan, magic-heavy coastal city. As both cities expanded, competition for resources and land became inevitable. Aksum controlled the most direct routes to the sea from Besiktas, and Besiktas controlled the best farmland, and the easiest routes to Ndango. Between the years of 446 BS and 322 BS, the two cities fought nine wars, three of which were incredibly devastating – the populous city of Besiktas, equipped with dwarven weapons and siege engines, sacked much of Aksum on two occasions; three times, Aksumi commandos rained magical death on their rival city, bringing plagues, meteors and fire.
Neither city commanded enough manpower to conquer and occupy the other, however, and so the wars tended to simmer along laconic front lines that shifted only slightly, and rarely impacted business in either city. Even as they warred, smugglers and traders did brisk business that kept both cities flush with gold.
Those wars stopped for good when news from the south brought word that the Avenan Empire – before then content to be an empire of the sea only – was on the march northward, conquering territory almost as fast as its army could move. Both Aksum and Besiktas retired from their internecine skirmishes, choosing instead to concentrate on fortifications intended to withstand an Imperial assault.
Despite the magical superiority of Aksum, they had never developed a practical application as overwhelming as the flying ships of the Empire. Against such an assault, city walls were rendered moot, as troops could be delivered anywhere. Work began immediately on defensive works intended to counter Imperial air power.
When the Imperial advance stalled at Anglesey, the Aksumi king and his council assumed that the Empire would spend its strength there. But only a few months later – even as the siege at Anglesey continued – a vast Imperial force appeared at the walls of Besiktas, and conquered the city in less than a month.
Even as smoke still rose from the crumbled walls of their rival, Aksum found itself surrounded by land, blockaded by sea, and cringing beneath the shadows of the flying ships of the Empire.
Still, the early days of the siege were fairly easy on the town. The Empire was bogged down in Anglesey, and struggling to establish order in Besiktas. Gaps were left in the blockade of the city that gave the friendly merchants of Belix more than enough time to establish protected smuggling routes, which promised to keep the city supplied. Even as the Imperial investment of Aksum solidified, more and more units were pulled east by the fight in the mountains. The Imperial forces left at Aksum were too weak to assault the walls.
The harsh desert winter around Aksum ended the campaign season, and the siege was relaxed as much of the Imperial force retired to Besiktas. Aksum was able to use the reprieve to shore up its defenses, but what little work they were able to do in the freezing air would prove not to be enough.
The spring of 293 BS saw a newly determined Imperial force that launched constant assaults on the city, and even mounted a disastrous punitive expedition against Belix. Aksum was able to last the year, but rather than bringing another reprieve, the second winter of the siege brought famine and hardship. The Imperial navy had finally managed to interdict a significant proportion of smuggled supplies, and shortages of food, oil and wood led to a hungry, dark, and cold winter. By the time spring came in 292, the city of Aksum was on its last legs. By summer, the city was in Imperial hands.
The conquest could not have happened at a better time, however. The struggle against Anglesey had broken the momentum of the Imperial army, and expansion was abandoned in favor of consolidation. Money, people, and resources flooded into the conquered territories of the Empire.
The early years of the Pax Imperium – as the 120 years between the First and Second Periods of Imperial Expansion was known inside the Empire – were overseen by a talented and efficient beauraucracy. Imperial leadership recognized the unique advantages of their conquered territories, and leveraged those advantages to the fullest extent. Within five years, Aksum was mostly rebuilt, her walls repaired, her markets expanded, and her many private wizards and alchemists back at work – funded by Imperial grants.
The Empire continued the practice of free education for all children, and even built specialized colleges of Magic, Engineering, and Art. The city once again thrived, and expanded, buoyed on the money brought in by expanding Imperial trade and the arrival of the Fleet of the West. Under the leadership of the colleges of Aksum, magic flourished across the western half of the continent.
The violent second period of Imperial Expansion left Aksum mostly untouched – removed as it was from the battles between the elves and Ta-Den on one side and the Empire on another. While most cities were drained of able-bodied men to be fed into the Imperial war machine, Aksum was mostly left alone. Some of the more talented wizards and researchers were recruited away to the Imperial college at Misr, but most chose to remain in their home rather than travel south.
The two generations of the Golden Age were even more prosperous for Aksum, and the city grew into a vast metropolis that dominated the Imperial West. Magic was once again pushed to new levels. Entire castles floated in the air above the city, wondrous displays lit the sky over Belix Bay at night, and gold flowed through the city like water. Life in Aksum seemed like a dream that would never end, until it all came crashing down in the disaster that began the Scourge and plunged Aksum into the evil nightmare it lives to this day.