In the aftermath of the cult wars and the gods’ nonintervention pact, humankind was left to its own devices. The god-empowered leaders of the previous age had all fallen or stepped down to serve their deities in other ways. This power-vacuum sparked conflicts throughout the world, as warlords of all lands struggled to claim and fortify territory against their neighbors, and expand into whatever empty land they could.
However, some of that land was empty for a reason. The excesses of the cult wars had poisoned or desiccated vast swaths of land, particularly at the borders between the gods’ old territories. Desertification was already well underway between Loahravi’s and the Lady of Knowledge’s lands, and between Loahravi’s and Death’s the ground had been so thoroughly burned that more bare stone showed than fertile earth, and very little could grow.
The least-damaged areas were in the far northwest, a broad swath of plainsland and hills between the Border Forest and the Forest of Night; the far northeast, isolated from most of the world by its own forests and mountain ranges; and the furthest south, where the hot savannah gave way to cooler tableland and the cloud forests of the lizardfolk. These three places saw the quickest cessation of infighting and the gestation of the first human empires.
The northwestern lands had been under the control of Law since the beginning, and the borders he defined had barely wavered throughout the centuries of godswar. When he withdrew from the world along with the rest of the gods, he left behind an exhaustive codex of laws, patterned off the best of human rulership that he had seen while in command of the north. He also left suggestions as to the methods of selecting a new ruler—or rulers, should his people decide that they wanted a non-monarchic system.
In deference to the god, the first controllers of the northwest followed his plan. There were already subdivisions within the realm—fortresses with commanders, civilian land guarded by military governors, trade-cities and their more mercantile governors on the border with Knowledge’s territory. Each subdivision sent a representative to take part in a ruling council, from which a Lord (or Lady) Protector was selected each year. The realm unimaginatively named itself the Divine Protectorate of Law, then set about claiming every piece of disputed land that it could reach, building walls around everything, and preparing for any possible attack.
However, Loahravi’s lands—which had been Law’s staunchest enemy—were in such upheaval that no coordinated attacks came against the Divine Protectorate for decades. The Protectorate extended its borders in measured, regular steps, seeing little more than spotty retaliation even when it passed and claimed the Danarine Sea. It liberated and assimilated the people it found there and began to fortify the sea’s fishing villages as a new frontier.
Unfortunately, all this peace had begun to chafe the more northern lords, especially those military commanders who controlled the fortresses that watched the Pinch and the Border Forest. While both places were considered dangerous, the ogres and tribesfolk beyond the Pinch had not caused trouble in ages, and the wraiths and skinchangers of the Border Forest likewise just held the line, meaning that the fortress commanders had to keep their men trained but were not allowed to fight. Political power had begun to concentrate in the Protectorate’s center—the bread-basket of civilian cities—and along the southern frontier, depriving the northerners of recognition as well as glory.
In addition, though the Thundercloak Mountain Range north of the Protectorate was known to be rich with metals and minerals, the God of Law had made a pact with the metal elementals who lived there—that his people would never mine the mountains. A minimal amount of stone could be quarried yearly, and the rivers and forests harvested as needed, but no metals, precious or otherwise, could be removed from the Thundercloaks. This put the northern lords, already stuck with rocky soil and cold conditions, in a state of increasing frustration as import-sources of metals and minerals raised their prices to try to curb the Protectorate’s expansion.
Several northern councilors thus conspired to secede from the Protectorate. They paid lip-service to the God of Law but were desperate to escape the confining pacts that he had made. When the rest of the council refused to permit them a peaceful exit, civil war broke out, and the central civilian territories pulled upon the might of the frontier to try to suppress the mountain revolution.
As if the mountain lords’ rebellion had been a trigger, though, other parts of the Protectorate began to secede from the center. Some were likewise tired of being restrained by Law’s rules and pacts; others decided that they were more akin to the people on the other side of the border than they were to the rest of the Protectorate. The council fractured into bickering sects, several Lord Protectors were assassinated, and the civil war degenerated into a grand melee. Border lords raided the interior, struck alliances and broke them, traded territory and plotted murder, and thoroughly dismantled the Law-inspired bureaucracy that had restrained them.
Those on the frontier tried hard to pretend that nothing was wrong, that the Protectorate was operating smoothly; with all in chaos, they could not risk the Loahravi warlords learning of the civil war. The lands around the Danarine Sea became strictly regimented refugee camps—and then haphazard cities–as civilians fled the battlefields in the central plains.
The tense atmosphere was heightened when lords began accusing each other of worshiping Loahravi or Death. There were certainly cultists of both within the Protectorate, sowing chaos and panic where they could, and the civil war gave them fertile ground for their antics, but most lords were attended by a Knight of Law whether they wanted it or not. The Knights—who owed loyalty only to their god and upheld his rules wherever they traveled—could not be deceived at close range, and were often called in to judge disputes between lords. Time and again, they reported that accused lords had not fallen prey to another cult, but the lords’ vitriol toward each other only grew, and soon drowned out the Knights’ voices.
The shards of the Protectorate were still encapsulated by the walls it had built around itself. As the wars progressed, more walls began to be built internally, cutting the Protectorate into bite-sized pieces, each ruled by a petty lord until his neighbor knocked down a wall and took over. No self-declared dynasty seemed capable of holding enough of the Protectorate to ever declare itself a kingdom, and often the rulers fought about overlapping territorial claims, back and forth for years at a time.
Finally, after too many years of trying to broker peace and reestablish the council, and after too many forays by the border lords into the Thundercloak Mountains, the Knights—with the help of a mountain man named Aloyan Erosei–contacted the Muriae. Also known as the House of Silver, they were the children of Brancir, one of the spirits of metal, and ruled the subterranean realm beneath the Thundercloaks. Law had made his no-mining pact with Brancir, and the Muriae were quietly furious that the Protectorate had broken it; thus, when the Knights requested aid from them, they sent their own soldiers and drafted more from the other Houses of Metal to aid Law’s servants in ending this travesty.
The March of the Silver Ones, as it would be called later, swiftly and effectively broke the backs of the mountain lords, who had considered the metal elementals to be merely myths. With those lords and their men chased from the mountain bastions into the conflict-riven grasslands, the lords on the eastern and western borders consolidated their power and hunkered down behind their walls to watch.
The Knights forced the lords to convene a new council and discuss reintegration. Few were interested; all had fierce grievances against each other after nearly a century of internal war. The biggest sticking-point was the constant cycling of the role of Lord Protector; having had a taste of dynastic rule, most of the lords refused to relinquish absolute power over their smaller lands for the promise of time-limited power over the whole realm.
With negotiations fast dissolving, the Knights proposed their final option: that the God of Law select one person to rule the realm for life. No one liked the idea—not least because most of the lords had lost their personal faith in Law, even if they paid him lip-service—but equally none could allow themselves to be seen dismissing the god’s word. Too much vitriol had been flung back and forth about cult membership for any lord to give his opponents that kind of an opening.
And so the God of Law was consulted, and he selected the first Divine Protector. The lords’ council would be permitted to advise the Divine Protector, and the Knights—and for a while a representative of the Muriae—would oversee all important decisions to make sure they were in line with the god’s will. And when one Divine Protector died or was deemed unfit to rule, the people would beseech Law again, and the god would select them a new ruler.
And the first Divine Protector, who was a bit more creative than the old rulers, named the realm Altaera.
Next: The First Empires, Part 2: Lisalhan