The Avenan Empire
The Scourge, as it is most commonly known, is a period of history that is still – by most measures – ongoing. Accepted histories have the Scourge beginning in 1 YS, with the destruction of Aksum and the reappearance of dragons in the world. The Scourge was characterized by a drastic increase in the power of magic, with a commensurate decrease in its predictability. Many monster races experienced vast increases in size and power, placing many of the non-monster races at a great disadvantage. With the exception of the orcs and the dark elves of the far north, most civilized races retreated to vast underground cities known as “caers” for the duration of the Scourge.
The beginning of the Scourge signaled the end of the Golden Age of the Empire.
The Beginning of the Scourge
The period from the end of the Second Period of Imperial Expansion in 208 BS to the beginning of the Scourge in 1 YS has become known (to Imperial historians, at least), as the First Imperial Golden Age.
The difficulties of the Second Period of Imperial Expansion, and the death of the Emperor Kaligus left the Imperial military weakened and stretched thin as it attempted to pacify the captured elven city-states in the south; secure the Empire’s borders against orcs in the south, southeast, and northeast, and the Ta-Den warrior kingdoms in the north; and regulate a booming southern slave trade. Kaligus had neglected internal politics during his expansion, leaving the poor and middle class frustrated and suffering, even in the capital cities.
Kaligus’ son Durgo instituted policies designed to restore the internal health of the Empire, focusing on building infrastructure (especially in the most recently captured cities), enhancing education for all classes, expanding the middle class, and harnessing the power of magic for the good of society. His policies launched a Golden Age that last for 200 years, and that ended only abruptly with the destruction of Aksum.
It is important to note that no one has ever established exactly what happened at Aksum. The coastal metropolis was, at the time, the magical capital of the Empire, as well as being a gateway to the gnome and halfling homelands in the north and west. The city was the leading building of the magical airships that had become the backbone of Imperial trade, as well as the home of the largest magical and alchemical college in the Empire. Almost any technical or magical innovation – from airships to alchemical globe lighting – came from Aksum. Scores or possibly hundreds of independent magical workshops existed in the city, in which any number of arcane experiments occurred daily.
The prevailing theory of magical historians and researchers in the Empire is that the unmonitored interaction of several incompatible magical experiments tore a hole through the Great Wheel into a highly unstable (and theoretical) Outer Plane known as The Outlands. The thunderous outpouring of magical energy that resulted annihilated Aksum, turning what was once a largish deep water port into a vast bay.
The explosion was heard as far away as Belix and Faroe. A small tidal wave ripped into the halfling homelands in the Oldfur Islands. Scholars have since determined that the dust cloud thrown into the sky reduced global temperatures by as much as 6 degrees. Most importantly for the Empire, the Emperor Memnon and his entire family and retinue were in Aksum for a visit. All of them – the entire Imperial lineage – were lost in the cataclysm.
Th power vacuum threw the Empire into chaos. The elven city-states immediately erupted into rebellion. Trade froze. The military was paralyzed. Several noble families were decimated as old grudges turned into bloody vendettas over potential rights of succession. By the end of 1 YS, the Empire was on the brink of collapse.
The Return of the Dragons
The realities of the Scourge became apparent in May of 2 YS, when the first dragon in nearly a thousand years was seen high in the sky over Viti. Even though hundreds of individuals reported the sighting, it was dismissed as mass hysteria, until reports began arriving from the orc city of Os that a black dragon had set itself up as king. Shortly after that, dragons appeared to be everywhere, assaulting farming communities and trade caravans, blasting airships from the sky, and generally running rampant across the land. In September of that year, a brass dragon landed in the courtyard of the Imperial palace at Avenanhma, and demanded to speak to “the so-called Emperor.” When it was told the Emperor was dead, the dragon snorted and left.
By the end of the year what little trade had continued came to a halt as airships were grounded, and overland trade caravans suspended because of increasing attacks from all manner of new monsters. Word began to trickle in about a wing of great dragons under the command of a powerful red that had begun to organize an army of monsters. It became clear that without leadership, the Empire was doomed, and so in the early months of 3 YS, the ersatz group of merchants, officers and nobles that had led the Empire for the last two years formally organized itself into the Council of Regents.
Also during this time, much of the magical technology on which the economy and military of the Empire (and, by extension the rest of the world) relied began to behave unpredictably. Even common, low-level spells, wielded by untrained or self-taught magicians, resulted in catastrophic malfunctions nearly a quarter of the time. Dozens of people were killed in magical mishaps across the Empire.
In addition, in early 2 YS, the elven city of Wouri was whipped by bizarre magical storms that leveled part of the city, randomly summoned elementals into the streets, and dropped a bizarre (and mercifully short) hail of live komodo dragons on the city’s fashion district.
Hurricane season in 3 YS brought with it incredibly violent storms. For nearly a month and a half, the entire island of Dacia was locked down and cut off from the world, trapped beneath a non-stop onslaught of brutal hurricanes that killed scores of people, destroyed buildings, and flattened crops. The island was nearly denuded of the tall, straight trees that had built the Empire’s navy for three centuries.
As a result of all of this, one of the first acts of the Council of Regents, in the early months of 3 YS, was to declare all magic outside of the Imperial military illegal. Magic-users were required by law to turn themselves over to local Fist representatives, where they were given a choice – enlist in the military for life or undergo Pacification: a powerful geas that renders magic users incapable of practicing their art. Those magicians that agreed to enlist were given the lightning bolt armband, and told that to remove it was a crime punishable by death.
The War Against the Monsters
By the middle of 3 YS, the Empire was once again at war. The rumors of the monster army had been true. It had gathered in the foothills of the Frostbite Mountains near Andurrial, and fought a mighty battle against the dwarves there. As usual, the dwarves had fought well, but without reinforcements from Ndango and Hayk (each facing their own problems against suddenly far more powerful beasts from the Underdark), their defeat was inevitable. The latest news from Andurrial was that the dwarves had been slaughtered and the city sacked.
From Andurrial, the monster army marched south towards Faroe. The Imperial army, spread across the southern Empire engaged in rescue operations and battles against elven insurgents, would take weeks to gather – far longer than Faroe had. Every airship available was tasked with retrieving army elements from across the Empire and dropping them in the path of the monsters in an effort to delay them while the army gathered.
As it happened, the poorly trained monsters were easily provoked, and it quickly became apparent that the scattered Imperial forces, engaging in hit and run tactics, could direct their opponents anywhere they pleased. The decision was made to engage them on the southwestern shore of Bladespring Lake, northeast of Faroe.
Skirmishers and cavalry squads continued to harry the monsters as they advanced, drawing them slowly towards the lake, while airships delivered the main force to the rolling hills of the eastern shore. In early July of 3 YS, the scattered hit-and-run forces, exhausted and depleted by constant clashes with powerful monsters, rejoined the main Imperial army. On July 16th the monsters arrived and the First Battle of Bladespring Lake began.
The monster army outnumbered Imperial forces, but their dragon commanders were nowhere to be seen. Obsessed with plunder, the dragons had left their army to attack Faroe on their own. The Imperial army, with command of the high ground and support from scores of airships and a newly swollen corps of magic-users, trapped the leaderless monsters against the shore of the lake and smashed the army to pieces.
The victory seemed hollow, however, when the destruction at Faroe was revealed. The Imperial garrison at the city had been slaughtered, and much of the city destroyed by the dragons. Despite this, Imperial commanders reckoned it a victory, as Faroe had avoided the destruction seen at Andurrial, and the monster army had been broken.
The Imperial army’s victory had been hard won however. Five airships had been lost, hundreds of soldiers killed, and more than a thousand injured too badly to fight. More than a dozen airships had to be detached to evacuate the wounded, assist in the response at Faroe, and continue retrieving distant army units. The monster army, though broken, retreated under the cover of their dragon masters. All of these factors made pursuit a dangerous impossibility.
The monster army regrouped on the western shore of Bladespring Lake, then turned north, hoping to march around the lake and take the Imperial army in the rear. Despite the danger, several troops of cavalry scouts – most notably the Gurja Riders – managed to track and report the movement of the monster army. The Imperial force moved north, farther into the rolling hills around the lake, and once again secured a favorable position – this time on a ridge overlooking a narrow saddle of land that forced the monster ground forces to approach to within bowshot in a column, rather than in line of battle.
Despite this favorable position, the Second Battle of Bladespring Lake was even more hard fought than the first. This time, the monster army had their dragons, and the steep hills limited the Imperial cavalry’s maneuverability. In the air above the armies, 18 dragons faced off against 62 Imperial airships. As much damage was inflicted on the armies on the ground by the plunging bodies of dragons and flaming wrecks of airships as by any other cause. All in all, 6 dragons were killed, 12 airships lost, and nearly 1200 Imperial soldiers killed. No count of monster casualties was ever made, but written accounts from soldiers that engaged in the pursuit that followed the battle often mentioned that cavalry had to dismount and walk their horses across the northern half of the battlefield because of how thick the bodies lay.
The monsters retreated north, seeking favorable ground for a victorious battle. On the southern border of Merchial, they thought they’d found it – a rank swamp of sucking mud punctuated by thick stands of trees – soft, uneven ground that rendered a cavalry charge impossible, trapped heavily armored men up to their knees in mud, and offered a host of water-filled pits and hidden burrows from which monster skirmishers could launch surprise attacks.
With the Imperial ground forces thus weakened, the dragons turned their attention to the Imperial airships. As the Imperial army arrayed itself for the battle, the dragons took to the skies with scores of monsters clinging to their bodies. The soared above and among the Imperial ships, taking devastating close-range fire, but allowing their monstrous cargo to leap from their backs onto the decks of the airships.
On the ground, Imperial longbowmen proved invaluable, as larger, less mobile monsters slogged through the mud, and for a while it looked as if the Imperial army might once again prevail, despite their immobilized cavalry. But then the first airship feel directly on the human line, and the impenetrable wall of arrows was broken. As the dragons continued to ferry troops up to board the airships, Imperial air cover was forced to withdraw. The only thing that save the Imperial army from destruction was the arrival of a large force of dwarven infantry from Ndango. Once again, the monster army was defeated, but this time only narrowly.
For the next two years, the monster army and the combined forces of the Empire and Ndango pursued each other back and forth across the continent. Few pitched battles like those first few were fought, but losses on both sides mounted. The monsters, however, seemed to replenish their ranks faster than the Empire could conscript and train soldiers. The force of airships fielded by the Empire continued to dwindle as resources that would once have gone to building and repairing the costly devices were poured into constructing the caers. By the time the Battle of Viti Fields came in the middle of 5 YS, the Imperial air corps had dwindled to just 26 ships.
At Viti Fields, the monster army drew itself up in a slight valley, surrendering the high ground once again to Imperial forces. Hoping to outflank, encircle and finally destroy the monster army, Imperial commanders sent the Ndango dwarves and hundreds of cavalry south while the main Imperial force deployed on a low ridge overlooking the monster’s position from the west. With Shadow Lake to the north, the monsters on the ground would only be able to retreat east, towards the large garrison at Tsade. It would be a hard victory, but Imperial command had high hopes that it would also be final.
Tragedy came when the order to advance was given. Subterranean beasts, trained by the monsters, had dug a vast trench just beneath the surface of the field. Moments after the order to charge was given, the ground beneath the front line of the Imperial army gave way, and hundreds of men and horses dropped into the trench, only to have the walls collapse on them seconds later. Within the first few seconds of the battle, four hundred men were dead and the Imperial line of battle was thrown into disarray.
The melee that followed was ugly, bloody, and chaotic. By the time the Imperial flanking force was in position, the two armies were so intermingled that a cavalry charge was rendered pointless. Dozens more hidden trenches had been dug all across the valley, causing broad swaths of the melee to suddenly drop from sight, only to be buried moments later. By the time it was all over six hours later, 8000 Imperial soldiers, 2000 horses and 18 airships had been lost, and the Imperial army had been broken.
Luckily, the last of the dragon commanders had also fallen during the battle, and the monster army had been so reduced it too could no longer maintain cohesion. Two groups of monsters gathered to pursue the largest forces of fleeing humans, but the monsters would never again threaten the Empire as an organized army.
The Retreat & Isolation
As the plague of wild magic and the onslaught of more and more powerful monsters continued, it became clear to many Imperial scholars that the surface world was swiftly becoming inimical to civilized life. Farming and the raising of livestock had quickly become difficult or impossible, starvation was rampant, and outbreaks of magical disease were more and more common as the months went by.
The concept of the caers originated with a group of researchers at the Academy at Misr. A group of wizards and alchemists led by an elderly Loremaster named Nicholaos Farseer had devoted years of study to the underground kingdoms of the dwarves, examining construction methods, subterranean animal husbandry and underground farming. Their original mandate had been to make the dwarven kingdoms pleasant to Imperial colonists in the event of Imperial conquest of the dwarven kingdoms. As a result, plans already existed for the alchemical suns lodged in the roofs of most caers, and construction of a small-scale underground habitat had already begun.
It was Farseer who approached the Elder Council at the Academy to present his team’s plans for a caer, and who was then sent before the Council of Regents. The Regents at first resisted the idea of evacuating hundreds of thousands of Imperial citizens into hastily constructed underground fortresses. The expense of building the caers, the logistics of moving so many people, and the reality that only about 70% of the Imperial population would be saved all drove the Council to reject Farseer’s recommendation. At the time, the Imperial army was chasing the army of monsters north away from Faroe. A conclusive victory seemed only one or two battles away. The thought of planning for total defeat even while the army marched victorious seemed insane.
As the war dragged on, however, and more and more insidious monsters began to infiltrate the cities (doppelgangers, mind flayers, vampires and more), the Academy returned again and again to the Council of Regents with warnings that the Scourge would only worsen, and that it might last as long as fifty years. What little food was grown in the Empire went almost entirely to supplying the army, while the Academy proved the concept of the caers by supplying itself with food grown inside its experimental underground shelter. By the time the Battle of Viti Fields was fought, several cities had begun laying the foundations for their own caers independent of the Council. When news of the destruction of the Imperial army reached Avenanhma, the Council of Regents immediately summoned Farseer and demanded that work begin on the caers without delay.
The Imperial treasury, as well as the treasuries of a number of great lords, were emptied to build the caers. The plans were sold to the independent elven kingdoms, the Ta-Den tribes, and the halflings, gnomes and dwarves, raising more funds for the continuing construction.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the tight control of the Council of Regents, the construction process was riddled with corruption. Most Imperial caers ended up only three-quarters as large as planned. With the exception of the caer at Viti, all had largely unfinished lower floors, with poor light, low ceilings, and unreliable support pillars. Accommodations on the coveted top floors were sold to line the pockets of guildsmen, merchants and nobles associated with the Council, and eventually even the cramped spots in the lower floors went up for bid. By and large, those left locked outside the doors of the caers were the individuals too poor even to afford the exorbitant cost of moving into a subterranean slum.
By 10 YS, the cities were effectively isolated. The last of the Imperial airships had been brought down, and sea and land travel were made impossible by monsters and weather. The only means of communication between cities were magical systems established during the Golden Age, and those were often unreliable or interrupted by the wild magic of the Scourge.
That year, Faroe was lost when the caer being dug beneath it collapsed, dropping almost the entire city into the vast cave below its foundations.
In 12 YS, the Retreat began. The first city to empty was the eastern metropolis of Estia – long plagued by hordes of zombies and animated skeletons. The evacuation of that city was a horror as thousands of citizens crowded the docks hoping for a spot on the boats departing for the caer island. As the boats filled and departed, the hopeful crowd turned into an angry mob, and then a full-blown riot. As the last of the boats sailed, the walls of the city fell before the undead, dooming those left behind to a horrible fate.
Even as the Retreat began in Tsade, the northern wall of the caer collapsed, flooding the cavern and turning the city into a sinkhole. The survivors fled overland to the Viti caer, causing overpopulation and starvation. Other cities evacuated without trouble, but those lucky enough to make it into their caers were often plagued for days or weeks by the sound of hundreds of screaming people left outside – though many reported that the silence that eventually came was far worse.
Farseer’s team had estimated that the Scourge would by over by 62 YS. Their assumption was based on a careful analysis of the rate of increase in magical energy in the world, a theoretical maximum level, and an assumption that the level of magic would decrease at the same rate it had increased. They had developed a gauge, built into a pedestal near the door of most caers, that would indicate to the inhabitants when the surface world was once again safe.
Farseer did not live to see how mistaken his team was, as he passed away only a year after the doors to the Misr caer were sealed. The caers, intended to sustain the civilized population of the world for only fifty or sixty years, were forced to serve for more than 350 years. Magical lines of communication, already erratic, functioned only rarely, or broke down entirely. Alchemical suns burned lower and lower.
Despite their problems, the caers persisted. Strict population control, rationing, and heroic excursions into the surface world for supplies or to carry messages from one caer to another kept the Empire – and its citizens – alive.
376 years after the beginning of the Scourge, the first hardy adventurers left the protection of the Imperial caers. Military encampments were established on the surface in the ruins of the old cities. Shipbuilding resumed at Talassa. Trade slowly began to move between the three capital cities of the Empire.
By 378, the first Imperial ship to sail the seas in more than three centuries set sail from Talassa with several teams of emissaries aboard, bound for the other far flung Imperial caers.
Outside the Empire
The experience of the Scourge outside the Empire was much like that within. The gnomes and dwarves, already living in extensive underground complexes, found the construction of caers much simpler, and the evacuation of their population far easier. The dwarves were the only race outside the Empire to lose an entire city as a direct result of the Scourge.
The halflings built only two caers – one in the branches and trunk of a magically enlarged tree, and the other as a floating artificial atoll east of the Oldfur Islands. The atoll fell out of contact in 246 YS, and most assume that it sank into the sea, though others believe it simply drifted south and west into the Great Deep Ocean.
The independent elven city-states of the southeast spent the Scourge at war with their orcish enemies. The orcs, operating from primitive caers at Os and Moros, assaulted and captured the elven caer at Tadjoura, and the elves at Mapudunga and Khita have spent the last 300 years trying to retake the city and free their enslaved brothers.
No one is quite sure what happened to the dark elves of the Broken Lands in the north, but they never purchased the plans for caers from the Empire, and they fell out of contact with the rest of the world before the Isolation.
The Ta-Den humans built, in addition to the two large caers at Ta-Tenan and Ta-Djed, several smaller tribal caers scattered across the Valley of Fire and along the coast of Finger Reach.