Our story starts in an ancient world, long torn apart by war and disaster. The powerful Old Gods of Calabria cared only for their ancient wars, seeking to destroy each other with no concern for their subjects. Their fury had battered the world for centuries, but now their crusade was coming to an end, and with it, their world. The people’s pleas for mercy went unheeded as the gods assembled for their final standoff. In this ultimate, cataclysmic battle, the gods tore down the sky and destroyed all they had created.
Or so they thought. But their people had studied the portals, these strange pathways that had existed long before god or man set foot on their world, and they used their hard won knowledge to find a way to escape.
As the stars went out they left their world, stepping into the unknown together.
Far away, another group of war-torn exiles sought shelter, but they could not be more different from the fleeing refugees of Calabria. They were powerful creatures, cast out of the distant realm of Elysia, where their power had corrupted them and made them greedy. Driven from their ancient world for their crimes, they wandered through the darkness, looking for a new world to conquer and new slaves to command. With them came the monsters that served them, creeping into the nether to serve their dark masters once more.
Fortune favoured the people of Calabria, and as they made their way out of the portals they found themselves in a new world. This fertile, uninhabited land became their home, and they spread themselves among its many continents to start new lives. They called this land Aschendal, and, for a while, all was good.
Meanwhile, the banished gods of Elysia trudged on, bickering amongst themselves, staying together only because any company in the netherworld is better than silence. As they travelled they searched for a crack in the fabric of reality that would let them pass through. Their demonic companions sniffed the air for the scent of life, searching the grey for a way out. Finally they found it, a fissure in the universe, a tiny crack in space and time. Together they tore at it, shoving and squeezing and fighting to reach the light.
In the skies above Aschendal, thunderheads gathered. The people turned their gaze to the heavens, old fears resurfacing as strangely coloured lightning pounded the land. At the height of the storm a screeching laugh split the air, sending shivers down the spines of everyone below. The clouds broke apart in a burst of brilliant light.
From the sky poured thousands of creatures, some flocking to the seas, others to the mountains, forests and open hillsides. The air was filled with dark, misshapen beings seeking warmth and prey. As they descended the people ran for cover, fleeing in terror from the monsters that had found their world.
Far above them, the gods of Aschendal looked down upon their new world. This was a realm they could thrive in, full of people to serve them and rich lands to exploit. They created a palace high up in the heavens, where they could look down upon the land below and meddle in the affairs of men. The people of Aschendal were wise enough to appease them with offerings, shrines and servants, and for a little while they were placated.
Unfortunately, gods get bored rather easily, and soon they were back to their old ways. They caused chaos wherever their influence was felt, cultivating religions that worshipped them and pitting nations against each other. Before a year had passed Aschendal was in a state of all-out war...
Once they had sufficiently terrified the population, the gods plundered enough to feast for several weeks and pored over their new domain. They were pleased with what they saw; the people of this world were industrious and skillful and the land itself had much to offer. In Elysia they had been but lesser deities with modest followings and delusions of grandeur, but here they could let their ambitions run wild and rule the world as they wished. As their collective hangovers started to clear the more ambitious gods began to plot their paths towards ultimate domination of this realm, and soon the gloves were off.
The gods wasted no time in asserting their power over the people of Aschendal, flaunting their strength and demanding offerings of whatever suited their tastes. Ever greedy for adulation they cultivated their new found supplicants, blessing the faithful with better fortunes while punishing those who refused to fall in line. As each of them grew in wealth and power the people of Aschendal started to split into factions, some seeking to avoid the wars that always came about when gods were involved, others hoping to win the favour of these powerful overlords and better their own positions.
Evara the Abundant’s lack of savagery inspired more loyalty than the more barbaric cults, and she was the first to create a significant following. Despite her love of mischief she was not inherently evil - just selfish, vain and narcissistic, and she knew that it was always easier to attract flies with honey. Her early tactic of blessing the crops of those who brought her tributes led to mass conversions of farmers, who sated her endless appetite with their finest meat and produce in exchange for bountiful harvests and fair weather. Unfortunately this bounty quickly turned her followers into targets, and before long her peasants were fending off attacks from the more militant cults. She astutely sided with Merius the Wealthy early on, relying on his gift for commerce to move her increasing inventory of tradeable goods.
Naera the Stonehearted had no particular desire for ultimate dominion over Aschendal - power meant time away from doing the things she loved most, like gleefully removing body parts from any unfortunate she happened to encounter. The other gods were too busy vying for power and carrying out their grand plans to pay her much attention, and that suited her just fine. This world was large enough to provide her with the kind of diversions she desired, and her only objection to it so far was that it had too many people in it and not enough of them were screaming.
Her plans to rectify this situation started subtly. She sought out and cultivated followers who shared her sadism and taste for causing misery, encouraging them to vie for her attention with acts of cruelty and barbarism. She sent them out across the lands to indulge their proclivities and seek out more twisted souls, protecting them from detection when angry mobs sought them out and gifting the most devout with riches and dark pleasures. Those with a natural disposition for the magical arts begged her to share her mysteries, and some of these she chose to teach.
As her students’ magical abilities increased, so did Naera’s boldness. Protected by powerful sorcerers and druids her followers did as they pleased, and before long she had seeded a darkness that spread across Aschendal. By the time the other gods had started to notice an increase in missing virgins and farm animals it was too late to root out the rot.
Of all the gods expelled from Elysia, Cyndros the Mighty was the only one with a true moral compass. His journey through the netherworld had sobered him, and something of a change had come over the enormous deity. His vocal disgust at Naera’s actions attracted a following of equally indignant men and women, all of whom sought the destruction of Naera’s cult. In exchange for supplies and weaponry they banded together to protect Evara’s growing farming communities and guarded Merius’s many trade carts and outposts.
Before long, a stable alliance had formed between Evara, Merius and Cyndros, which grew in strength despite attacks from other cults. Between them they set up a trade network that satisfied Evara and Merius’s taste for luxury, and with the help of Cyndros’s armies they generally managed to resist any major incursions into their territory. Their followers mixed and made peace, forming fortified city states who named themselves the Allied Cities and traded with each other via land and sea. Despite growing threats from Vexemis and Naera their decadent and liberal society grew and prospered.
Safe within the Allied Cities Merius the Wealthy was hard at work. While Evara spent her time among the farmlands and Cyndros commanded his armies, the cities were governed by rulers Merius selected. Those he advanced were worthy of their positions; wise men and women on whose shoulders the running of their empire could safely rest, but each of them had a hunger for power and wealth that made them ruthless, and each had a personal vice for him to exploit.
Unlike his allies he had only a small following, but it was highly exclusive and starting to grow. Merius didn’t deal in volume - fine wines and tender meats were well and good, but power, riches, little gold statues with rubies in them and secrets that could bring down governments - these were the things he craved. He sat in his fortified nest like a fat little spider as his followers courted the corrupt and wealthy, bringing him precious offerings and juicy nuggets of information. Those loyal to him were rewarded with great riches and positions of power, and those who displeased him, well, they were the most fun of all. DIspleasing Merius was not a fatal mistake, but any who were foolhardy enough to risk his wrath might well wish it were. Corruption breeds both secrets and enemies, and, bereft of the protection of their god, many powerful people found their darkest deeds were public knowledge. Those they had angered on their way to the top were all too ready to help them return to the bottom.
Vexemis the Angry was the next god to openly call his followers to arms. His humiliation in Elysia was still fresh, and no matter how he threatened and raged, the goat jokes that haunted him were alive and well. He vowed vengeance on all who angered him, which included practically everyone at this point, and stormed off alone to build his new empire. Intolerant and barbaric as always, he raided farms when he wanted to eat and appropriated new horses whenever his current mount collapsed from exhaustion. When he was bored he stopped at wayside taverns and got into fights, leaving a trail of broken furniture and satisfied tavern maids in his wake.
His journey across the continents left a trail of destruction and violence that attracted hoards of angry and impressionable young men, many of them seeking an escape from lives of farming or other such drudgery. Vexemis embraced his bloodthirsty followers, named them the Crimson Horde and trained them relentlessly, weeding out the weak and rewarding those who fought hardest. As his army grew he turned his attention to the Allied Cities, attacking at random to carry off resources. Together they scoured the continents, constantly moving in a caravan of soldiers, women and wagons of plundered supplies, attacking with terrifying force whenever they needed food or entertainment and generally causing anyone who crossed their path to have an extremely bad day.
As Naera’s fires burned and Vexemis’s hordes raged, the people of the Allied Cities looked to their gods for protection and reassurance. Merius and Cyndros kept a close eye on Vexemis’s army, knowing that one day soon they would have to do something about it. In the meantime they sent out spies to join his numbers and pondered their next move. War was coming, but they would not show their hand just yet.
To be continued...