West of the Danarine Sea and south of the vast Border Forest lay the high plains, peaks and rocky hills of Death’s former domain. Though the goddess had departed for her nether realm like the other deities, her touch remained upon the land she had previously claimed, and the creatures there lived short, harsh lives–except for her chosen people.
When Death seduced and devoured the jackal-like beast spirit Kishirror, she gained power over all of his children as if she had become him. While some refused to serve her, the majority fell in line and allowed themselves to be reshaped by her influence. Thus a skinchanger race that had tended to tan, brown and tawny pelts became one of stark blacks, whites and deep reds, with caste-markings that strengthened or faded depending on the goddess’s approval.
The Deathly jackal-folk hunted their agnostic kin nearly to extinction before the gods’ pact was made, and also terrorized the other peoples of their area: the humans, bull-folk, bird-folk, great lizards, big cats, and even the elementals. No one lived unharassed, and many creatures dared to flee into the well-defended Border Forest or even Loahravi’s land to escape Death’s minions.
But Death was not the only authority. She had placed much of it in the hands of her five most favored priestesses, who ruled the ziggurat-centered cities that dominated her land. None of the priestesses liked each other, and Death in fact encouraged the rivalries between the five major tribes—whether they were played out through the slaughter of Loahravi’s and Law’s warriors or through vicious infighting. As all souls went to her, Death did not mind how they died.
When she left, the five priestesses had to hold her land together despite every instinct—and every progenitor and follower and blood-oath—that demanded they split into five nations and kill each other. With Loahravi’s servants doing just that, and Law’s thralls progressively building walls to capture more land and keep everyone else out, the priestesses came to the realization that they could do neither; the source of their authority had abandoned them, and the humans and beastfolk that they had oppressed for so long would tear at their heels if they turned on each other.
With this in mind, the five priestesses convened a council consisting of themselves and representatives of ten smaller cities to manage the demands of the empire that now fell upon their shoulders. Debates went back and forth for months as to who should be ruler now that Death was gone, but none of the five priestesses could secure enough of a majority among the others to declare herself Empress. In the end, they made the council permanent, with the five High Seats belonging to the priestesses’ cities and the ten Low Seats portioned out among the most-influential of the ‘lesser’ cities, with their Seat-suitability to be reviewed every ten years.
Under this arrangement, the newly-formed Gravelands of Kishirror—as the empire tentatively named itself—began the bureaucratic business of dividing up the spoils of Death’s wars. After all, while the goddess had been around, everything had belonged to her even if it technically resided in the coffers of a certain city. Now, claims sprang up from far and wide about slaves, looted goods, livestock and trophies that had been captured in battle but taken to the wrong city, or otherwise confiscated from a citizen without cause.
Still trying to wrangle support from the lesser cities and away from their ‘sister’ priestesses, and always threatened by new priestesses rising in the ranks within their own tribes, the five High Priestesses began to hear and decide cases pertaining to the dispensation of goods. They were not particularly suited for it, having been Death’s bloodthirsty generals before the pact, and the laws they reluctantly began codifying were haphazard and heavily biased toward their own tribes and against any of the non-jackal folk.
In fact, the situation for the non-jackals was just as bad as it had been before. With the jackal-folk settling down into their litigation, there were fewer random attacks on non-jackal settlements and far fewer blood-sacrifices, but in exchange came the new concept of ‘taxes’ and the ramping-up of the slave trade. No non-jackal within the Gravelands was considered a citizen, and new laws decreed that any unclaimed non-jackal could be taken as a slave at any time, for any reason. The jackal-folk began to enslave whole villages just to trade them to other cities, and priestesses regularly ordered the ritual abuse, mutilation and even murder of slaves to show off to their competition.
Humans in particular were singled out for abuse because of their perceived connection to the other god-lands. While the jackal-folk never tried to exterminate them, in some places they made a point to enslave every human they found while leaving the local skinchangers and beast-folk regularly untroubled. A cultural distaste for their hybrid status also existed among the jackals and was fostered into the other beastfolk and skinchangers in the area, and since the Gravelands lay in the far west where the wars of the wraiths had barely touched, there had been no heavy use of the ‘human mask’ to normalize the practice. Most humans were treated like refugees or immigrants even if they had been born to Gravelands parents, and not a single law protected them.
This dearth of protection and the relative rarity of humans made an uprising like the ones that had broken the ogre empire impossible. Instead, upheaval within the Gravelands came from another much-abused source: the bull-folk. Szarnos the Horned Wanderer was infuriated by the treatment of his people, and though the majority of them dwelt within Law’s borders, enough lived in the Gravelands to draw him personally into the situation.
His attempts to foment revolution among those skinchangers and beast-folk who did not follow him, though, met with wariness or indifference. Szarnos was an aggressive beast with no concept of subtlety, and most of the downtrodden folk of the Gravelands—while they would have followed in his shadow—were not brave enough to stand by his side when he had so few of his children to help them. Though the bull-folk and their allies eventually rose up with Szarnos at their head, they were outnumbered from without and betrayed from within, and the High Priestesses used their Death-given magic to trap Szarnos and sacrifice him to their dire goddess.
Unfortunately for the Gravelands, this drew the attention of the Guardian and Ravager.
With the gods and demigods banned from interfering with the affairs of mortals and the six primal elementals sleeping, the Guardian and Ravager were the most powerful entities on Halci. Death had already infuriated them by consuming Kishirror, and with the sacrifice of Szarnos they decided that the jackal-folk had gone too far. With fire, quake and storm, the two Great Spirits assaulted the ziggurat-cities of the Gravelands, torching one in entirety and nearly burying another with a combination of avalanches and sinkholes. The lesser elementals rose to their aid to flood a third city, and when the fourth High Priestess ascended her ziggurat to try to protect her city from a storm brewed by the Ravager, a cloud of stone and wood and metal debris tore her apart.
Guardian and Ravager advanced together upon the fifth city, where Szarnos’ sacrifice had taken place. Instead of trying to defend it though, the people of the city—jackal-folk and others alike—overthrew their High Priestess and presented her, the contents of the temple and Szarnos’ few physical remains to the Great Spirits in the hope of being spared.
Though neither Great Spirit wished to forego its revenge, they recognized that the jackal-folk had once been their kin, and that the dire goddess who drove them to such acts was their real enemy. The Guardian was the angrier of the two, having had a prey-blood connection to Szarnos, but the Ravager eventually convinced it to accept the city’s offerings and consider the matter closed. The Ravager personally executed the High Priestess and temple staff, and the Guardian claimed its child’s remains, then the pair left the rest of the city in peace.
On that day, the Gravelands died. What rose in its place was Xiroacer, named after and ruled over by the ziggurat-city that did not fall, and characterized by a more cautious approach toward the creatures that shared its land. The jackal-folk still controlled everything and made no attempt to be fair, but they restrained their abuses of power, and the priesthood fell out of favor among many of the tribes. Few dared abandon the worship of Death outright, but punishment for agnosticism declined to nothing, and those jackals who had been driven into the mountains and rainforests because of their unwillingness to worship Death were cautiously readmitted into society.
The bull-folk never truly recovered. Most had been living in a bipedal form when Szarnos fell, and thus were caught forever in that shape, no longer able to shift. While this was better than the situation with their kin in Law’s land—who, due to the wide-open plains, had more often taken a quadruped form and were now trapped like that, handless—they had lost their connection to each other and, in essence, their soul. Many went mad, turning on the other races in rage for Szarnos’ murder and the weak uprising that had allowed it to come about. The jackal-folk were leery of punishing them, fearing a return-visit from the Great Spirits, so they were more often exiled to the wilderness or quietly snubbed depending on their level of violence.
Xiroacer continued to rebuild and to refurbish its old cities and ways, keeping a newly wary eye on everything around it. Death was not pleased with her empire’s generalized lapse of faith but was not inclined to press the point yet; the wolves and wraiths of the Border Forest watched with measuring eyes; and in Lisalhan, with Daenivar’s reign just recently imploded, the necromancers and nightmare-mages shifted restlessly and considered new lands to conquer. In the northeast, the Divine Protectorate of Altaera had finally coalesced and was ready to expand its borders again.
War loomed heavy on the horizon, just waiting for a spark.
Next: The Great War of Empires