THE LORE OF ARCANIUM

The Abridged Annals of Arzu

- Compiled and summarized by

Anoric Westcliff, Historian Laureate of the Kingdom of Everia -

The Dawn of Arzu

 

In the beginning, there was only Dust, the particulate matter that filled the emptiness with infinite potential, and Essence, a chaotic force that mindlessly fueled creation and destruction in unending balance. Inevitably, as all things are in an infinite time span, the Essence gathered the Dust and molded it into the land of Arzu. From Arzu, were born two moons: Illuna, who was as white and radiant as pearl, and Umbra, whose pitch black surface was like a shadow in the sky. These moons found themselves able to think and feel and most importantly, manipulate their own Essence to fulfill their newfound desires.

The moons were young and Arzu was their plaything. Over countless eons, the two powers experimented with their abilities, setting the land afire before summoning typhoons to extinguish it, sculpting mountains and then creating massive gusts to erode them away. Umbra found delight in perfecting the world’s shape, carefully drawing the coastlines and meticulously hollowing out the caves. He studied how wind and water manipulated the land and each other before setting them in motion so that Arzu would never cease evolving. Meanwhile, his celestial sister fascinated herself with the idea of life, other creatures which could create and destroy like the moons could. Illuna filled the land with seeds, but found they would not take hold. So, she created the sun, which blazed above Arzu and filled it with energy that life could use to grow. With endless creativity, she designed big creatures and small ones, wild and tame. Some swam in Arzu’s seas while others floated upon its winds. Some fed themselves with the plants of the land while others preyed on any creature smaller than them. They dug, built, befriended, fought, and far exceeded what Illuna would have thought possible. Illuna and Umbra lived together in balance watching over Arzu until one day, they had some visitors.

Simply because the two moons had been created, doesn’t mean the primordial Essence’s own nature of creating and destroying came to an end. On this day, a sudden rush of unharnessed Essence flooded the land of Arzu, filling it with power much as it had Illuna and Umbra. It seeped into the ground, the seas, the sky, and even the life that Illuna had created. This ambient energy drew itself into four new Spirits. Sirrus, the Living Mountain, was the first to wake; he rose from the earth and became the highest of all peaks, reaching far above the surrounding land. Quickly following Sirrus came Argos, Lord of the Depths, who inhabited the lowest trenches of the ocean. Third to come into being was Zakar, the Great Storm, who coalesced from thin air into a powerful, unending cyclone in the sky. Sansea was the youngest of the four and she spread her roots across the boundless forest in the center of Arzu, becoming known as the Mother Tree.

The four new Spirits began to take in the world around them, already modestly complex and developed, and began to look for guidance. Immediately, they beheld Illuna, who’s pale skin reflected all the light of Arzu’s sun. Umbra, whose own blackness camouflaged him against the blackness of the cosmos, went unnoticed. Illuna introduced the four to all the things she had created: the plants and animals, the infinite spectrum of their behavior. She taught them how to create and destroy as she did and set them forth to experiment and learn like she had alongside Umbra. Umbra, however, felt the land of Arzu they had built was already perfect and held distaste for these newcomers who wanted to mess with his creation. When he revealed themselves to the new Spirits, they were uncertain how to react. Umbra offered to teach them the existing ways of Arzu, to train them in the delicate method of design and perfection. But, to the Spirits who had just been given free reign by Illuna, this seemed like unwanted restriction, so they turned him away.

To spite Umbra, the four Spirits under Illuna’s guidance created a new kind of intelligent life, modeled after themselves, with the ability to create and destroy for themselves like no creature before. To these new, mortal denizens of Arzu, each Spirit gave a gift. Sirrus formed their bodies, making some strong, some fast, some agile. Argos imbued each body with the abilities of thought and wisdom. Zakar gave the mortals breath so that they could speak and communicate more freely than other creatures. Then Sansea filled the mortals with life and passion for whatever they set out to do. Illuna’s gift came last; with each new creature, she shared a tiny piece of her Essence, so that they had the potential to use magic and shape the land of Arzu for themselves. Umbra gave nothing. These mortals quickly set to remodelling the land for their own survival and growth, making Umbra both hurt and repulsed as they dismantled his fine work. They flattened his hillscapes to plant fields and captured the wind for their mills and their sails. All where mortals tread became their domain to do with as they please. And for their arrogance, Umbra swore that he would give these mortals a gift. He just needed to wait for the right moment to deliver.


 

The Age of Expansion

 

The people of Arzu were impressively capable for creatures that just came into being, but the world was still a dangerous place populated with all the animals and hazardous plants Illuna had created over her existence. Tribes were formed for protection, which grew in size as they travelled across Arzu, learning the ways of survival. Eventually, the largest tribes began joining with others to form the six great provinces. The forest dwellers in central Arzu founded the kingdom of Anador, a peaceful land where all live in harmony with nature. Each tree was an extension of the rest and thus, sacred. To the east and west of Anador were fertile valleys, rich in nutrients, leading all the way to gentle coastlines ideal for fishing and sailing. Creatures of all origins flocked to these regions to gather their share of the prosperity. In eastern Arzu arose the kingdom of Elysia where sprawling, golden fields covered the countryside. The western coast became the birthplace of the Valorian kingdom and was dotted with countless fishing villages. To the north lay the mountains of Nova, rich in mineable resources, but not ideal for comfortable and convenient living. Only the most durable people looking for wealth or for solitude roamed Nova. Individual mining camps, forts, and academies were more plentiful than actual cities, which existed mostly for the convenience of traders visiting from the other provinces. In the north-west and the south of Arzu, temperatures were extreme and the land was only populated with those who were specifically suited for the temperatures. Cold-weather creatures braved the frigid, northern ice plains of Norsca, gathering into just a few large cities to minimize the need for travel, where anyone ill-prepared would succumb to the cold or the hostile wildlife or the deceptively safe, white fields of ice. Hot-weather folk inhabited Uzir’s desert, where getting lost was a death sentence, as only a scattering of oases were able to sustain life. Most Uzirii lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from water source to water source with the rest of their traveling pack. The southern mountains were rich in jewels, contributing to the bulk of their wealth. Uzir was also home to the skeletal remains of a massive behemoth, one of Illuna’s first designs, into which the capital city was carved. The only land left ununited in any way was the untamed jungle to the south of Elysia and west of Anador. There, tribes still roamed, taking all that they could from the wild. It was survival of the fittest and every man and woman knew it. If you entered the jungle and proved your mettle, you were respected as a fellow survivor. If you fell to the jungle, then you got your just desserts.

Where most provinces were happy to mind their own affairs, Valoria and Elysia quickly became rivals in trade. Both had access to many of the same resources—food, textiles, finely crafted tools and weaponry—so few places had reason to trade for goods with both nations. And so, their competition largely became a race to maximize convenience in trade. Elysia put out a call for all available workers and began an ambitious infrastructure project, extending and maintaining an expansive road network that extended throughout Anador, to the few major cities in Nova, and even across the inhospitable jungle. The shifting sands of Uzir made road construction an impossibility, so Valoria captured their business with the immense fleet of trading ships developed in opposition to Elysia’s caravans. With every province having a connection to the ocean, nowhere was beyond the reach of Valoria’s trade empire. Large ships with regular schedules allowed the wealthiest merchants to move lots of stock and fast. This made Valoria the favored nation to do business with, because by the time an Elysian trader pulled into a town, it was already well-stocked with Uzirii jewels, Novan ore, and Valorian food.

Fearing that their civilization would fall into obsolescence, the King Virad of Elysia decided to begin several underhanded dealings. He developed a secret intelligence unit to deploy across Arzu and become the eyes and ears of the kingdom. New technologies, discoveries of riches, the intricacies of each province’s governmental and economic precedings, and more were all under watch of the king’s spies. Virad also began to befriend the barbarians of the jungle. Well placed coin and a complementary ship was just what you needed if you wanted a Valorian trading vessel relocated to the ocean floor. The marine trade routes struggled more each year at fending off the raider ships that seemed somehow more advanced with each passing spring. Although the ships bore no provincial flags, the situation wasn’t adding up for Valorian officials who knew the jungle barbarians were too primitive and self-concerned to be designing and constructing their own navy. Suspicious that more was going on than appeared, the Valorian King Derian sent squads of scouts into the jungle depths to investigate. They arrived and beheld regular meetings taking place on the Elysian border, where the king’s emissaries provided payment and sea charts of the Valorian trading routes.

With Elysia’s treachery revealed, Valoria convinced all other provinces to shun the deceitful nation. As more and more spies were discovered and evicted from the inner circles of guilds and governments, each province eventually agreed to an embargo on Elysia. Even the jungle tribes ceased dealing with their former business partners as they found themselves in the middle of power struggle, with each tribe using their newfound wealth to unite the tribes with themselves at the top. Within a matter of years, the Elysian peoples found themselves stranded in their homeland, surrounded by closed borders with a dwindling supply of foreign goods and luxuries. It was then that Umbra knew the time was right to present his gift.


 

The Sundering of Elysia

 

For centuries now, Umbra had been observing the denizens of Arzu, seeing how they interacted in times of adversity and learning what most will do in pursuit of power. So, on the day that Elysia’s final allies turned their backs on the province, Umbra broke off a piece of himself, brimming with Void Essence, and hurled it toward the world. The Black Shard, a pillar twice as wide as a castle keep and four times as tall, impacted the center of Elysia’s capital. The city was decimated, replaced with a smouldering crater. The shockwave traveled outward, rippling the very ground and either throwing citizens into the sky or trapping them in gaping crevasses. Those who were outside the radius of its impact were not spared, however. A dark fire radiated from the angry thorn piercing the crater. It surged across the entire province, burning cities and fields to ash. Any life that it passed did not feel heat, but rather a corrupting force that twisted it unnatural ways. Water became poison, soil became tainted, and the skies were filled with unnatural clouds. Only the denizens, with the Essence that Illuna had bestowed upon them, survived.

Devastated at the loss of their homeland, the Elysians appealed to the surrounding provinces for refuge. Those who entered the jungles were captured and became slaves. Many tried to live in the Novan mountains, but the land was too treacherous to navigate and too stony to cultivate. Anador, taking a shred of pity on them, allowed a single party to pass through and request aid from Valoria, but Valoria’s king gave the harshest response of all. To King Derian, this travesty was their rightful punishment for their actions. The diplomatic party was paraded back to their own borders in shame. The Elysians were trapped in what could no longer be identified as Elysia; there were only the Scorched Lands.

For generations, the Black Shard remained in the heart of the Scorched Lands like a poisoned arrow. Countless attempts to purify the province failed. The tainted animals would not be tamed and sprawling fields of crops provided barely enough edible food for the population to stay alive. Impoverished citizens prayed to the Spirits, but even though they were displeased by Umbra’s aggressive action, they had long ago sworn to no longer interfere in Arzu’s affairs. The future leaders of the other provinces—even the recently founded jungle province of Zennegar—were raised to fear and hate the Scorched Landers and followed in the steps of those before them, keeping the borders closed. As desperation grew, the spark each citizen had inherited from Illuna which made them who they were began to weaken and the Shard’s corruption was able to work its way into the hearts and minds of the people. Hostility was commonplace as simple folk fought each other for food. Children began being born with strange, crooked features, gray skin, and unnatural abilities.

Looking for the power to reclaim their land, the bravest adventurers approached the former location of the capital. Massive, warped creatures patrolled here and picked off most. Those who managed to breach the crater rim and gaze upon the Black Shard itself returned stronger and healthier, but possessed by mad ravings about shadows and death. Nightmares filled their days as much as their nights, and whispers would urge them to return to Umbra’s gift. It wasn’t long after this that the Cult of Umbra was founded; its inner circle was filled with those who heard the voices, while the rest of its members comprised malformed and disowned children as well as the Scorched Landers most enraged by their situation. They and their followers returned to the Shard and erected a massive fortress around it which they named the Shadowhold. They lived and breathed in the ambient Void Essence, which only strengthened them. They began training with their newfound powers. Some were able to reanimate the dead, others learned to distill potions and poisons from the corrupted plants, and a few found themselves able to command and control the monstrous beasts inhabiting the crater. Not everyone could withstand this environment, however; the weak-willed found their bodies mutating into hideous, twisted creatures that could no longer think for themselves. Nonetheless, the cult found a use for them as the front line soldiers for their new army. As word of their power spread across the Scorched Lands, more and more recruits began arriving at the stronghold, looking for personal power or vengeance upon Arzu. And as the black moon reached its zenith one summer night, the Scorched Army marched to war.


 

The Great War

 

While history had been dotted with internal struggles and minor disputes between two provinces, the Scorched Army’s intentions and numbers trivialized any combat from the past. Centuries of calm had passed after the collapse of Elysia, so no province had a large standing army, but ever peaceful Anador was particularly unprepared for the fight that began at its border. The former Elysians had never made any form of aggression against the other provinces before, so there were no fortifications separating Anador from the Scorched Lands. The Army marched directly across the border without challenge and began taking over every city en route to the capital, Verdania. Most civilians fled to the west as the front lines approached, staying out of reach of the Scorched Army. Those who stayed were either slain or enslaved and forced to turn their beloved forests into weapons of war. Sorcerors and witches were able to corrupt the forest’s ambient Nature Essence into concentrated Void Essence for their spells and enchantments. Necromancers revived fallen comrades in the form of subservient wraiths. Anador was eventually able to assemble a formidable fighting force, but nearly all buildings in the province were wooden and unsuited for defense against the encroaching wielders of fire. Valoria, knowing that they were the Scorched Army’s eventual target, came to Anador’s aid with armed knights and expert masons, but nonetheless, the capital of Anador was taken by the Scorched Army within the year.

It was the fall of Verdania that led Sansea to beseech the other Spirits to take action. The Mother Tree herself lay at the core of the capital, where she sheltered it with her branches and nourished it with her roots. None of the Army’s strongest magic wielders were capable of corrupting or destroying such a pure source of Nature Essence, but Sansea was otherwise drowning in a sea of corruption as Verdania became the new home for the thousands of twisted souls that served Umbra. The other Spirits all pitied Sansea’s plight, so it was put to a vote whether direct intervention was required to save the people they had worked so hard to create long ago. Sirrus spoke in Sansea’s favor, pointing out that Umbra clearly had no intentions of staying removed from the world and that because a Spirit had caused this tragedy, it was up to the Spirits to set things right. Zakar and Argos felt differently, however. They felt that disputes of this scale were a part of the natural order and intervening would leave Arzu dependent upon the Spirits after so long forging their own path in the world. Arzu’s denizens would never thrive until they learned how to overcome the challenges they are presented. Illuna, ever the mediator, devised a compromise. Only in self-defense would the Spirits be allowed to intervene.

As soon as the agreement was struck, Sansea began expelling the intruders from her city. Countless roots rose from the ground pinning Scorched Landers in place and tearing down all the newly constructed fortifications defiling the capital. Sansea, normally an embodiment of nurture found herself devoid of mercy as she pulled witches and deformed soldiers underground to become entombed. All who had taken residence in Verdania began to flee for the city walls as Sansea’s branches began to extend downward to form a protective dome around the heart of Anador. The Army suffered major losses from Sansea’s act of self-defense, including a third of the Cult’s inner circle. It was made clear that the Spirits are not to be messed with and despite their attempts, no one could make a dent in Verdania’s newfound protective dome.

After this setback, the Scorched Army found itself without direction. It no longer had the men nor the resources required to lay siege to Valoria as they had planned, especially with the aid that Uzir and Norsca would doubtless provide. They needed more fighters and while recruitment efforts were going strong in the Scorched Lands after success in Anador, the land was too desolate to provide what they needed. So, they turned to their former allies in Zennegar. The political landscape of the jungle wilderness had been completely overhauled since the fall of Elysia, but the people who lived there were much the same at heart. What they could take by force was rightfully theirs and when it came to business arrangements, if someone had the gold, they had the manpower. The Scorched Army scoured occupied Anador for all the wealth they could find and delivered it to the doorstep of the Grand Temple of Zennegar, home to the True Chief. Needless to say, he was enticed by the gold spread before him and assembled a council of all his best raiders. It was agreed that Zennegar would keep Uzir occupied while the Scorched Army secured Nova, at which point they would converge on the lands of Valoria.

 With few natural barriers, Uzir fell quickly at the hands of the Zennegarians. The jungle inhabitants were used to warm temperatures and unfriendly environments and so acclimated quickly to the desert sands. Sea raiders hit every seaside town along the coast as they sailed, disrupting supply chains and forcing desert dwellers inland, into the endless and unforgiving dunes. Meanwhile, the rest of Zennegar’s fighters rode in to central Uzir on the corrupted beasts given to them by the Scorched Army. They spread out and hit every oasis on the map, leaving any survivors to die of thirst. After their initial success however, the Uzirii turned to a different sort of combat. Their nomadic lifestyles made them particularly adept at guerilla warfare, striking Zennegarian camps quickly and ruthlessly before fading into the sandy horizon. Additionally, Arrakesh, the capital of Uzir which was built into the bones of the ancient behemoth, was completely unassailable. Springs within the city and underground tunnels leading to the southern mountains meant it could outlast any siege. Nonetheless, the Zennegarians grew fat and rich preying off those who roamed the province over the next several years.

The Scorched Army however, was having much less luck at conquering Nova. The rugged terrain was even less hospitable to the massive army than it had been to the fleeing Elysians centuries earlier. While the cities on the Anadorian border fell quickly, the bulk of the province lived deep in the mountains in expansive, ever growing tunnel systems and on mountain peaks where the height advantage was to the Novans. Narrow passes could easily be filled with artificial rockslides and the mountain trails that remained wound a labyrinthine path through the province. After a decade of only claiming small mining camps and the rare secluded university, the Cult decided the only route to success was by taking the capital of Nova, Stonewall. More of a stronghold than an actual city, Stonewall existed underground and acted as a vault for all of Nova’s most valuable resources. The Scorched Army commanders and tacticians had planned to avoid the capital, believing it not to be worth the effort, but their stalemate had left them with no alternatives. Stonewall had to fall if the Army were to obtain the resources to destroy Valoria.

The wisest among the Scorched Landers set to work scouring both their own texts and those lifted from the Novan academies, seeking to build a weapon that would topple the stronghold. And eventually, they found it. Designs for a Novan energy cannon and a Void Essence amplifier were combined into a twisted weapon of mass destruction, powered by a fragment of the Black Shard itself. But on the day of the assault, the Scorched Army made one fatal error. The Void Cannon, hidden in a secretly mined passage to Stonewall, was aimed at the center of capital, but just beyond lay the foothills of Sirrus himself. Through this last decade of war, Sirrus had become more and more enraged by the intruders in the province that he watched over and now the capital before which he stood was in danger. Freed to take action by the threat posed by the cannon, Sirrus took the form of a towering stone giant and strode toward Stonewall, shaking the ground with each step. The Scorched Army felt his approach and many panicked at the thought of facing another Spirit like they had Sansea. Sirrus lifted the top off the mountain in which they lurked, revealing the Army to the Spirit. Thousands of Scorched Landers were destroyed by his massive, sweeping arms and by the stony debris which fell from his body with every motion. Sorcerors and witches lobbed flaming boulders and orbs of dark, explosive fire with little effect. After a seemingly endless bloodbath, the Army’s general made a grave decision. He pointed the Void Cannon up into the sky toward the rocky heart of Sirrus… and fired.

Sirrus' body crumbled into thousands of shards which scattered across the province in a blast that knocked every last Scorched Lander and Novan to their knees. The Living Mountain’s death left all who witnessed it stunned, including the other Spirits. Finally moved to action by this attack, it became unanimous that something needed to be done about the Scorched Army. The world was gradually shifting into chaos and if events were left to play out naturally, Umbra would doubtlessly be the only remaining Spirit watching over Arzu. The four remaining Spirits who opposed the black moon each offered up a portion of their own Essence to create a device of immense power. Illuna herself molded a beautiful globe with a golden sheen and delicate design to house the combined Essence and christened it the Apex. If they were to step in and use it directly upon his army however, Umbra would certainly retaliate and the resulting war between Spirits would be the end of Arzu. The Spirits needed a champion, someone proven in combat and bravery, but also one pure of heart who would only use the Apex to defend the people of the land from danger. One such hero would soon arise.

In the aftermath of Sirrus’ demise, the Scorched Army once again foundselves too few in number to continue their assault on Stonewall. They were forced to retreat from the capital’s premices. What’s more, the scholars of Nova discovered a way to defend their province from further intrusion—a magical barrier, powered by Lithic Essence from the fragments of Sirrus, to surround their border and repel all who are corrupted by void magic. This was of no concern to the Army anymore, however. They had gotten what they came for; with the Sirrus fragments they had collected during their retreat, they now possessed the strength to wipe Valoria from the map.

The final chapter of the Great War had arrived. Warriors from the Scorched Army and the hired Zennegarian tribes lined the border between conquered Anador and the rolling green plains of Valoria. Among them were hundreds of behemoths empowered by a perverted blend of Sirrus’ Lithic Essence and the Black Shard’s Void Essence. Their skin was hardened steel and they had bodies like miniature, angry volcanoes come to life. Many rode atop giant boars with too many tusks and buffalo with spikes instead of fur. Across the border however, stood not a single soldier to oppose them. The fields were ripe for the taking, for the Valorian king had decided their best chance at victory would be to consolidate their forces at a few key locations, surrendering the rest of the province to the forces of Umbra.

Only one of the king’s knights refused to accept this strategy. The courageous paladin lioness, Talyana of Lisbrook, pleaded with the king and his top advisors to rethink their tactics and save the small cities of Valoria, just as she had pleaded with him to send greater aid to Nova and Uzir for the past two decades. When these pleas fell on deaf ears, she felt she had no choice but to assemble her own battalion and take the fight to the Scorched Army. Her recruits included anyone who could swing a sword or cast a spell. They may not have been the most experienced bunch, but each of her fighters had a heart filled with compassion for their fellow Valorians and was quickly developed into an expert at their weapon of choice. Across several years, Talyana, with no support from the crown, led her little army into battle to save whomever she could, even when defeat seemed inevitable. The king’s plan held the Scorched Army back for a short while, but each of his key strong points eventually fell with time.

At long last, the Scorched Army arrived at the walls of the gleaming capital city. Standing upon the ramparts, a spectator could see the surrounding hills all dotted with Scorched Army tents like a pox. The Scorched Army, after several years forcing its way into the heart of Valoria, was a shadow of its former self, but still Valoria’s defenders were outnumbered and the Scorched Landers would never retreat to nurse their wounds after reaching so near to the final prize. The king’s top forces lined the perimeter of the castle, forming a wall of shields against any threat. Only Talyana’s battalion stood between the Scorched Army and the city proper. It was here, as the paladin stood admiring her crowd of passionate defenders mere days before battle, that Illuna appeared before her. Talyana, whose courage, surety, and compassion had been proven time and time again, was the champion that the light Spirit had been seeking. The Apex was offered up to the paladin and, after a few modifications from a master weaponsmith, was fitted into the center of her mighty Stormhammer. Having been singled out by Illuna herself, even the king found himself kneeling to her. And so, as the white moon reached its zenith one night, Talyana led both her own and the king’s knights, mages, and marksmen into battle against the corrupted soldiers at the threshold.

What followed was the hardest fought battle of the Great War. The Valorian Army exemplified the valor after which their kingdom was named, fighting in the hills, on the walls, and through the streets. The Scorched Army showed no mercy as they tore apart those who had left them stranded in the wasteland they called home. Buildings crumbled beneath lobbed boulders, tens of thousands of lives perished at the ends of blades and claws, and the dark fire that once swept across Elysia now did the same across the Valorian capital thanks to the corrupted sorcerers. The corrupted fiends from the Scorched Lands fell endlessly to Valorian steel, but necromancers kept Valoria from making a dent in the enemy’s numbers. Only Talyana, with her radiant warhammer could destroy anyone thoroughly enough that they couldn’t be resurrected, but she alone could not fend off this assault. As the sun set on the following day, the Scorched Army marched up the steps to the king’s marble castle.

Talyana knew she was now the only one who stood between Umbra and the destruction of Arzu. She stepped out the front doors of the castle where she’d been forced to retreat. Before her stood the inner circle of the Cult of Umbra, a collection of generals, sorcerers, and necromancers whose eyes all burned violet with a fiery rage. The paladin unsocketed the Apex from her Stormhammer and tossed the weapon aside. She knelt before the Scorched Army, Apex held against her chest, and whispered a prayer to Illuna. Then she did what no other had known to be possible. She fed her own Essence into the Apex’s inner mechanism, sacrificing herself for her people.

What happened next is not known for certain, as each telling of Talyana’s sacrifice spoke a different story. Some claim a blast of white light swept across the city incinerating every last Scorched Lander and corrupted Zennegarian where they stood. Others believe Talyana temporarily became a Spirit herself and personally slew each of her foes. All that is known is that when the survivors wandered the broken streets of the capital the next morning, not a single member of the Scorched Army remained. The camps beyond the city were fields of tattered tents and fallen weapons. Umbra’s Scorched Army had been defeated.


 

The Golden Era

 

Though the war was over, the land of Arzu would never be the same. For three days after Talyana’s sacrifice, her kingdom both mourned and celebrated her. She was buried in her homeland and a mighty statue of her was placed in the center of the capital. What remained of the Valorian Army then began the arduous task of pushing the Scorched Army back within their own borders. Stripped of their top leaders and strongest fighters, the corrupted forces offered little resistance as they were herded out of Valoria and Uzir, through the ruins of Anador, and back into the Scorched Lands. The Zennegarian mercenaries were allowed to return to their own province, but were forced to return all they had looted or been paid by the Army as a condition of surrender. It was made clear that any further dealings with Scorched Landers would result in retribution from the rest of Arzu. The Valorian Army would have loved nothing more than to wipe the Scorched Lands off the face of Arzu, but were in no condition to do so. Instead, the provinces worked together to erect a massive wall separating the Scorched Lands from their neighbors. Magically strengthened, it would take a stronger mage than had ever been born to bring another army out of the corrupted province.

Meanwhile, the Spirits had their own agenda. The Apex was far too powerful to leave in the hands of anyone, even a Spirit, in case the power should get to their head. Far from civilization, they rose from the ground the Arcanium, a towering spire dressed in silver. In a vault in the highest chamber they placed the Apex, where the tower could amplify the golden globe's power to keep Arzu in a state of balance. Inspired by the shield raised over Nova and sensing that Umbra was far from finished with his plans, they created the Spirit Barrier, an iridescent dome which drew from the Apex's power to separate the world from Umbra's treachery. The Arcanium's location was cloaked and a small order of the most trustworthy denizens of Arzu were assigned to guard the relic for as long as they lived. And so the Apex's existence fell into legend.

With the artifact hidden away, the Spirits vowed to help rebuild and protect Arzu. Sansea, from her untarnished body in Verdania, spread her Nature Essence across the Anador to make it once more lush and verdant. Argos and Zakar watched the seas and skies for any encroaching danger. And Illuna kept an eye on the younger Spirits as well as her brother, so that the denizens of Arzu could live out their lives without further interference.

Over the centuries that followed, the world grew up. Valoria unseated its king for his complete failure to protect his kingdom from near destruction. In his place, they installed the commander who fought alongside Talyana for most of the war. The new king renamed the ruined land to Everia for its resilience in the face of annihilation. The province was rebuilt even stronger than before, and while their trade route never returned to its former glory, it was still the widest spread throughout Arzu. Swearing to never be caught off-guard again, it developed and now boasts the largest standing army, helping to keep peace wherever aid is needed.

Nova, filled with the brightest minds of Arzu, took full advantage of the new power source scattered across the province. Technological marvels began appearing left and right. Metal extraction became automated as did food production. Gizmos to comfort, fascinate, or augment their users were distributed across the mountains. Novans were tired of living uncomfortably in deep caves and lonely towers, so they founded a new capital, Turbine, in a sprawling mountain valley. It became a superpower of innovation, led by the Council of Steel, a technocratic governing body in which the brightest minds lead the province into the future and anyone can earn their rightful place by proving their merit. Today, Novan inventors’ blueprints and industry secrets are the best kept secrets in Arzu, but their products are sought from all over the land.

The people of Anador, their province having been decimated by the Great War, had little desire to return to their old, pacifist ways. They established a military in which three years of participation is mandatory for every citizen of the province. The scouts of the Pathfinders kept watch over the province to ensure they would never again be taken by surprise. The Woodland Wardens wandered the forest keeping peace among its residents and interprovincial visitors. Lastly, the Caretakers were the spiritual protectors of Anador, who purified the land and encouraged growth with the blessing of Sansea. Standing at the center of the continent, Anador found itself involved in most affairs between other nations, both beneficial such as trade and negative such as the occasional arms race. As a result, they took on a role of diplomacy and mediation, keeping the peace across Arzu, much as they do within their own borders. Despite their focus on purity, pockets of corruption continue to blemish the vast forest centuries after its reclamation and the Nature Spirit’s druids fight a never ending tug of war with the void-riddled sickness.

Uzir and Zennegar largely returned to their old ways after the Great War ended, but both had difficulty fully purging the supporters of Umbra from their lands. Spread across the Uzirii Desert still hide the members of the Crimson Hand, a cult that worships the black moon and envies the power that seeps from the Black Shard to the north. Its members lead normal lives and mingle with the other desert dwellers, keeping their true loyalty a secret. Void relics and dark tomes from the Scorched Lands are smuggled between hidden meeting places in everyday caravans. Power hungry above all else, its members would like nothing more than to peel back the Spirit Barrier and entreat Umbra for a Black Shard of their own. Traitorous Zennegarians, however, are less subtle in their pursuits. Dealings with the Scorched Landers resumed as soon as the forces of Valoria and Anador turned their back on the mercenary tribes. The rare True Chief who outlawed these interactions rarely lasted beyond the next turn of the season, while the more accommodating leaders found their coffers slightly heavier. Though many from beyond the jungle borders both suspected and objected, no one particularly wanted their head to join the many on pikes that line the main roads.

While all the other provinces prospered, the Scorched Landers returned to their suffering. Having grown used to the constant supply of food and luxuries sent home from towns captured by the Army, the villagers of the Scorched Lands were not inclined to resume tilling their own lifeless soil. The province as a whole resolved to return the desolate plains to the grandeur and prosperity that it held in its time as Elysia. Umbra is a Spirit of creation as much as he is of destruction and if the Scorched Landers had the power to nearly collapse all of civilization, they surely had enough to create a great and lasting empire to dwarf the rest. And so, the corrupted people turned their attention inward. New infrastructure turned dangerous volcanoes into workhorses that bring up nutrients from deep inside Arzu and unending lava streams to heat the sunless surface. Farms bred evolved grains and vegetables that tasted foul but were healthy beyond compare. The Shadowhold become home to expansive research campuses and governing structures in addition to its massive barracks. The Cult of Umbra’s seat of power found a stronger Alpha with every generation, all the while being guided by the whispers that filled the halls around the Black Shard.

Yet, the Scorched Landers never forgot about the outside world and how close it had been to being theirs to rule. Their military grew stronger than it was before the Great War began, with the children of the strongest warriors and witches being born within the Black Shard’s chamber so that they might inherit a piece of its dark power. These gifted children bred together for generations and the black moon murmured to them in their dreams, attached to them like a second conscious. Trade with Zennegar kept the province informed of current affairs and allowed the transfer of corrupted relics and powerful technologies both directions across the border. Meanwhile, the rest of Arzu grew complacent and the terrors of war faded from memory. Eventually, it was time for Umbra to enact his carefully constructed design for the world. If one shard of his lunar body turned an entire province to worship him and began the greatest war in history, hundreds of shards would remove any influence the other Spirits claim to possess over the world. Arzu would become a second black moon. Still, the Spirit Barrier stood between him and his perfect vision. Umbra needed to select a champion of his own.


 

Calamity’s Rise

 

The black moon was full on the night that Akhan was welcomed to the Shadowhold. Within the chamber of the Black Shard, he was born to a powerful witch and a fearless warrior of the inner circle. A panther so black that he could have been chiseled from the Shard itself, one thing set the child apart from the rest. Instead of through whispers or dreams like all the rest, Umbra spoke directly to Akhan’s mind, acting not just as a subtle influence, but as a mentor and advisor. With the dark Spirit’s guiding hand, Akhan quickly surpassed the rest as the most powerful warlock in the Scorched Lands. His body developed into a sleek mass of muscle and fang and claw, while conjuring Void magic became like breathing to him.

Though he was silent, never boastful, his allies knew he was dangerous. This made him a threat to some and an opportunity to others. The challenges came in an unending stream of fools believing to be his better. Their beliefs were silenced as soon as the challenges left their lips, falling to either his strength or his spells. He had no desire to prove his superiority, only to serve Umbra, yet with each duel, Akhan’s name increased in renown. The day inevitably came when Akhan was summoned to the throne of the Alpha, ruler over the Scorched Lands. Since the position was devised in the years after the Great War, tradition mandated that the role always be filled by the strongest in the province, and the current Alpha felt his people’s confidence in his right to rule begin to falter. The contest was held before the Black Shard and before the eyes of all who wished to bear witness to the occasion. It was the most brutal battle this dark arena had ever seen, with both contenders drawing near to the brink of death again and again, but when the ring finally held only one living warrior, it was Akhan who rose from the red-stained floor.

Victory over the Alpha awarded Akhan with the title of rightful ruler, but life on the throne was of no interest to either the warlock, nor his patron, Umbra. They had far bigger aspirations. Akhan bequeathed the crown to the Cult of Umbra whose inner circle would rule the land as a senate until his return. They were told to prepare themselves, for the winds would soon shift in their favor. With that, clad in his shapeless black cloak as though dressed in his own shadow, the mighty panther left the Scorched Lands behind in pursuit of a much worthier prize, the Apex.

It is unknown how Akhan crossed the border without being detained by Anador’s Wardens, but most surmise it was related to the arcane wildfires scouring the forests in the weeks before the warlock’s first appearance. The year that followed saw the immolation of several great libraries, the disappearance of notable scholars, and the raiding of reliquaries. There was seemingly no pattern to the destruction; anyone and anywhere with connection to the Great War was at risk. No witnesses to Akhan’s identity or true intentions were ever left breathing, and so he become known just as the Calamity, a dark force that roamed Arzu, took what he wanted, and then razed everything to the ground in his wake. Akhan grew in knowledge and power, discovering all that Arzu knew about the Apex and its protections. At last, there was but one thing he required. Hidden in the frozen tundra of Norsca resided the Ferryman of the Guard, the ancient soul who brought newly chosen defenders on a one-way trip to the Arcanium, and his prized possession, the sole map to the Invisible Isle, the mythical island on which the Arcanium is hidden.

 

Norsca, with its inhospitable climate, had remained largely separate from the rest of Arzu’s affairs since its founding. Travelling to and from the province was a task fit only for the hardiest of Norscans, so trade with the bordering provinces was minimized to once per year, at the close of harvest season. Each candidate guard chosen by Illuna faced their final challenge in traversing the ice plains to reach the Ferryman’s door. So, Akhan forged his way through the frigid tundra to present the boatman with his Sigil of the Apex, proof that he had been chosen to join the guard, or rather, that one of his victims had been chosen. The Ferryman and his crew cast off from the coast of Norsca with Akhan comfortably aboard their vessel. Only when the seas turned violent did they realize their mistake. The ship, blessed with safe passage on all trips to the Arcanium by Zakar and Argos themselves, could only be subject to waves and weather on one condition: their passenger was an imposter. The crew drew their axes as Akhan conjured a black, choking fog bringing the rest to their knees with their lungs empty of air. Weapons clanged to the deck as each of the sailors greeted their end. The deaths were short-lived however, because Akhan summoned each of them back to their bodies so they could finish the journey to the Isle.

The guards of the Arcanium met him at the gates, but so close to the raw, radiating power of the Apex, Akhan found himself more powerful than he’d been since he left the Black Shard behind. Decades of standing guard with no foes to defend against left the Apex sorely exposed. The warlock mutated the tower’s ambient Essence into towering, material shadows that picked off the few fighters Akhan didn’t personally dispatch with his claws. The traps lining the stairs and the garrison in the Apex Vault faced no more success than the welcome party as Akhan grew more powerful with every step upwards. After a lifetime of preparations, the Apex was finally within Akhan’s grasp and the world could be made anew, just as Umbra had envisioned since the other Spirits first scorned him.


 

Beneath Falling Skies

 

Akhan held the Apex in the crook of his staff and with just a thought, the Spirit Barrier vanished over all of Arzu. With no warning, Umbra released a barrage of smaller Black Shards across the continent, bringing with them a corrupting, dark power. All living creatures that came near became twisted into a viscous facsimile of themselves unless they held within them the spark that Illuna had bestowed upon the world’s denizens. Thousands fled their homes in search of safety that was not to be found. Seeing that Akhan had delivered upon his promise, the Cult of Umbra restored the Scorched Army to its former glory and lined the hills adjoining Anador, preparing to strike. The Spirits had been fooled by their own confidence in the safety of the Arcanium and it now posed ready to bring about their downfall. If Akhan was powerful before, he was nigh unstoppable with the Apex in hand. The world needed more than an army to wrest control of the Arcanium away from this harbinger of Umbra’s wrath. Arzu needed Heroes.

~ The remaining pages of this manuscript are missing. ~

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