By this point in history, the Rift had been surmounted by magic and engineering, though it remained a significant obstacle between east and west. Over a span of five years, the northern empires of Altaera and Ruen Wyn collaborated on a large construction project called the Rift Climb: a snaking, partially open tunnel that ran up the side of the Rift in switchbacks, meant to allow pedestrian and wagon-traffic between the two empires.
Previously all traffic had to travel north through the Pinch to Gejara’s port cities, where ships could circumvent the lands of the ogre raiders and dock at the ports by Ruen Wyn’s Fading Sea, or else go hand-over-hand up the few smugglers’ paths that had been hewn into the cliff’s stone. Either course was perilous, and Ruen Wyn and Altaera did not yet trust each other enough for arcane portals to be opened between their trade cities.
As a matter of fact, Ruen Wyn and Altaera had a rocky relationship extending back several centuries before the Ashkhevar Prophecy and the lunatic Owl Emperor. Because of the Rift, Ruen Wyn spent nearly a thousand years in isolation from the rest of the world, its only concerns the constant squabbles of its constituent clans and the depredations of the wraiths. Its Emperors tended to like it that way; Ruen Wyn had rich soils, productive logging and mining industries, a comfortable climate due to the warm Atharine Sea, and an intensely shamanic culture unblemished by the gods’ cults of the west. There was little need to trade, and many Emperors feared that cultural intermixing would undermine Ruen Wyn’s religious and political traditions.
Some Ruenic Emperors—and some clans—thought differently. The Fox and Crow clans of the territory near the Rift’s edge were curious about their neighbors, and encouraged western smugglers to come and trade. Through those visitors, they heard tales of arcane magic and exotic lands, and gained all sorts of interesting foreign contraptions which soon became status symbols among them.
Other clans, like the Wolf and Eagle, considered the existence of any outside empire to be a threat that required conquering. Nevermind that the logistics of waging war across the Rift would be nigh impossible; both militant clans favored opening the border so that they could send their scouts into the world to see how strong or vulnerable their neighbors might be.
Because of these competing interests, the border between Ruen Wyn and Altaera was constantly in flux. One Emperor would permit westerners entry only for the next Emperor to have them all rounded up and kicked out. One Emperor would permit the establishment of god-temples, then the next would have them burned and all the cultists executed. One would permit an arcane academy and mentalist-training facility to be built and staffed, and the next would shut it down.
Altaera weathered its neighbor’s indecision with good grace—for a while. Since the Sealing Disasters, it had suffered as an empire, with several of its territories attempting secession and its own logging and mining operations continually shut down by the Border Forest wraiths and the House of Silver. Its best farmland had fallen into the Lisalhan Sea, its coast was stormy and riddled with swamps, and it constantly had to fight off the incursions of the Yezadran Empire from the south. Squeezed between Yezadra, the Border Forest, the hostile mountain folk, Gejara and the sea, the Rift seemed a small obstacle.
After all, Altaera had mages. Not enough to be able to fight Yezadra or Gejara, but perhaps enough to take on a backwater shamanic empire.
Both thus had designs on each other when they collaborated on the Rift Climb in 1250 AE (Age of Empires).
For a while, this most recent intermixing went well. Ruen Wyn had learned from its previous missteps in letting foreigners settle in the Heartlands, and so restricted Altaeran presence to the long corridor of land between the Forest of Night and the Forest of Mists. This stretched from the Riftwatch outpost to the Fox clanhold of Kaharis, and allowed plenty of space for trade encampments, logging-leases on the Forest of Night (which had been cleared of wraiths almost a hundred years earlier) and refugee settlements without impinging upon the Heartlands. The Fox and Crow clans were delighted to play host but were also diligent watchmen, and kept the visiting Altaerans well in line.
Likewise, Ruenic citizens interested in experiencing more of the world were allowed to spill over into the Riftlands, from the outpost of Riftward to the flourishing trade city of Savinnor. Altaera encouraged their immigration for the same reason it had sheltered the wife and child of Eran Drasei, the vicious Ruenic Firehawk: it wanted to learn all it could about its neighbor so that it would be ready when the time came. The emigres it sent to Ruen Wyn were often spies as much as they were traders, and it constantly tried to slip mages and mentalists into the empire, though the Crow shamans were sharp-eyed when it came to spotting magic.
Because of Ruen Wyn’s vigilance and Altaera’s weakened condition, the empires weathered nearly two centuries of contact before true hostilities began. The lunatic Owl Emperor was fifty years dead and the reins firmly in the hands of a no-nonsense former-general, the Eagle Emperor Finvanchir the Stern. Meanwhile, the prior Altaeran Emperor had just passed away, leaving the throne to his aggressive son Venoreth the First.
Venoreth of Altaera was not a patient man. Over the centuries, as Law’s influence faded from Altaeran life, the imperial court had become a seething hive of intrigue, incest and murder, and Venoreth had excelled in that environment. Though not the eldest son, he had managed to murder or exile all of his elder half-brothers and many of his younger, and had gained the favor of some of his father’s more influential wives by marrying several of his half-sisters and adopting his youngest half-brothers—making them subordinate to him but still protected within his household. He was rumored to have hurried the old Emperor to his grave through poison, but no one dared accuse him; he wore the Lion Crown, and his was the will of the Lion-God Athalarr.
While Law and the Trifold still had a place within Altaera, it had been increasingly marginalized by the cult of Athalarr, whose worshipers had switched from calling him King of Cats to King of Gods. As a spirit, Athalarr could interfere with the world more directly than the gods, and in that age he had become as arrogant as Emperor Venoreth on his newly-claimed throne.
Emperor Venoreth was not pleased with his limited reach into Ruen Wyn. Altaera was going through another bout of uprisings in its mountain territory, which cut off access to its mines, and the agreement between Altaera and Ruen Wyn was restricted to logging the Forest of Night and not to mining the Khaeleokiel Mountains beyond. Venoreth demanded mining rights, since no one was using them; neither the Fox nor the Crow clan mined the mountains.
Emperor Finvanchir refused.
Venoreth tapped Altaera’s network of spies and mentalists within Ruen Wyn to try to suss out why. The Fox and Crow clans considered the mountains sacred, but the Eagle clan did not; in fact, since the Firehawk incident, most of the Ruenic clans distrusted the folk of those mountains, especially Fox and Crow’s love of the central volcano. However, Eagle clan had always been staunchly conservative and isolationist, and though Emperor Finvanchir was making no move to close the border, it was clear that he would give no further rights over to outsiders.
Venoreth then attempted to influence the Ruenic Council with his mentalists. No Crow sat on the council, thus there was a better chance his mages’ work would not be spotted, and it was the Council’s job to select the Ruenic Emperors when the throne became vacant—and remove the current Emperor if he proved unsuited to the job. Emperor Finvanchir was in his seventies at the time, and though he was hale, the mentalists tried to cast aspersions on his age, his mental fitness and his obstructionist policies toward trade. They also brought up the spectre of the old Owl Emperor, who had widely been considered senile while he was being used by the Firehawk.
Some members of the council were influenced. A vote was called on Emperor Finvanchir’s suitability to the throne. The Emperor was retained.
Angry, Venoreth considered other options. He was already busy rooting out his elder brothers’ children and sympathizers from his court, and when some of them fled across the Rift, he demanded of Emperor Finvanchir that they be sent back for execution. Emperor Finvanchir refused, and Venoreth threatened to cut off trade in retaliation. Finvanchir knew that it would hurt Altaera more than Ruen Wyn and continued to refuse, instead permitting a few of the refugees to move into the Ruenic Heartland ‘for their own protection’.
Venoreth attempted to have Finvanchir assassinated, but the assassin failed. Finvanchir allowed several of Venoreth’s exiled nieces and nephews to marry into Ruenic noble families, which was taken—and which Finvanchir probably meant—as a direct threat to Venoreth’s claim to the throne. A Ruenic noble with an Altaeran royal wife or husband could press a claim upon the Altaeran throne, and Emperor Finvanchir was already tired of Venoreth; he had been in correspondence with Venoreth’s father before his death and knew more than the young Emperor would have liked.
When Venoreth declared war over the ‘unlawful’ marriages of his ‘traitor’ kin, Finvanchir was only too happy to oblige. The year was 1453 AE.
Immediately, the Fox and Crow clans were assigned to execute anyone in the Ruenic trade-zone that they considered troublesome or compromised. All innocents were to be sent back down the Rift Climb or removed into the woods. Because of a general mistrust and lack of intermingling between the town-dwelling Altaeran tradesfolk and the forest-dwelling clans, the plan of targeted assassinations and mass civilian relocation ended up with significant collateral damage—in some cases the slaughter of Altaerans who refused to move.
On the other side of the Rift, Venoreth sent his army into the Riftlands to clean out the Ruenic ‘infestation’ his predecessors had permitted. The problem he encountered was that though it was easy to identify Altaerans—they being almost entirely blond or sandy-brown—it was much more difficult to pick Ruenics out of the extremely mingled Riftlands populace. Aside from the auburn Fox clan, most Ruenics were as dark-haired as Gejarans or Yezadrans, and the intense Riftland sun tanned them all similarly. Thus Venoreth’s attempt at stamping out Ruenics on his side of the border immediately pissed off Gejara and Yezadra as their citizens were caught up in the Ruenic sweeps.
Fortunately for Venoreth, his army was large enough to give his neighbors pause. Worship of Athalarr the Lion had brought polygamy into popularity throughout the empire, creating a surge in the population of unattached males—younger brothers, extra sons and poor men unable to claim wives of their own because of the extensive harems of their superiors. Venoreth had been using them to quell the revolt in the Thundercloak Mountains, but now he turned them toward the Riftlands and extended a diplomatic hand toward the Thundercloaks, promising to cease all mining activity there if the mountain-men aided him in capturing the better mines of Ruen Wyn. The House of Silver tentatively agreed, and lent some of their skilled and nearly indestructible warriors to Venoreth’s efforts.
Meanwhile, Venoreth also mobilized the Silent Circle to his side. Though it had been founded to police mages for forbidden knowledge, the Circle had expanded over the years to become a multi-empire training and collaboration center for mages of all arcane disciplines. It had struggled to find a foothold in Ruen Wyn because of that empire’s strict and often conflicting policies on magic, but currently had a few small outposts in Ruen Wyn—including within the Heartlands—to find and train mentalists.
The main Silent Circle base, however, was in Altaera.
Venoreth convinced the Silent Circle that if they wanted full and proper access to the Ruenic Heartlands, which included incomparable access to wraith crystal-ships and ruins, they would have to help him ‘open Ruen Wyn to the world’. This involved killing, converting or otherwise neutralizing every Ruenic mage they had recruited; protecting the Altaeran army from the Ruenic shamans; and opening portals at all of their Heartland outposts to allow the Altaeran army free entry into Ruen Wyn.
The Silent Circle’s high council agreed.
Thus, the invasion began not at the Rift Climb where the Fox and Crow clans waited, but in the Ruenic Heartlands themselves. Venoreth’s first wave used stealth: assassins, mentalists and diplomats ordered to turn Ruenic lords against their emperor with promises of riches, power or just their lives. Rumors were spread to promote infighting, inter-clan suspicion and distrust toward the shamans, as well as the promotion of arcane magic’s superiority.
His second wave was strike-teams moving through the portals into the Heartlands, not just at the Silent Circle outposts but anywhere the Silent Circle mages could control long enough to open a less-permanent portal. Fortresses fell from within without anyone outside being the wiser, and when word spread and the spirits finally took note, there were already Altaeran-occupied strongholds throughout Ruen Wyn.
Last came the march of the rest of Venoreth’s army. They came up the Rift Climb because no portal was strong enough to tolerate the thousands upon thousands of men Venoreth commanded, but the Fox and Crow clans had already been distracted by the second-wave strike teams and were not in place to plug the Climb as they had meant to do. Instead, Fox and Crow and their beast-spirits were engaged in running battle with the Silent Circle through the Forest of Night, with many of the Altaeran tradesfolk they had persecuted and relocated now attacking them as well. Venoreth’s formal army washed along the trade-zone like a flooding river, destroying everything in its path, and he even sent offshoots into the Forest of Night to hunt down any Fox or Crow clansman who fled the fight.
The Fox clanhold of Kaharis was wiped off the map. The next city in line, Cantorin, had its western half burned to the ground and its eastern half sacked. The Altaeran army continued inward along the path of greatest resistance—the line of mid-Heartlands cities that led to the capital at Valent—while the strike-teams continued to hit weak-points behind Ruenic lines. The Ruenic spirits, who had only ever fought each other before, could not adapt quickly enough to compensate, and almost all of them fled the field once the Silent Circle started sending arcane nets at them.
Without their spirits to aid them, the shamans fell easily to Altaera’s mages. Likewise, though Ruen Wyn’s soldiers were more skilled and hardened than Altaera’s mobs of ‘extra’ men, they had no experience of fighting mages and precious little time to learn. Additionally, Ruen Wyn had adopted an almost-ritualized method of warfare over its centuries of isolation which served the Ruenics ill. Too late did they discover that the Altaerans were exquisitely vulnerable to guerrilla warfare—especially because Altaera and the Riftlands were largely flat, while Ruen Wyn was hilly and wooded and full of hiding-places.
Emperor Finvanchir, pinned down in the capital at Valent by Venoreth’s main army, acknowledged that he and his predecessors had been arrogant in believing they could keep the world and its ways at bay without trying to understand or compensate for them. He attempted to parley for peace, but Venoreth would hear none of it. Venoreth razed Valent, executed Emperor Finvanchir and the Ruenic Council, then sent his soldiers out to find his wayward nieces and nephews and their new Ruenic families and kill them too.
The Ruenic Heartlands disintegrated before the continuing invasion. Cities were abandoned as all occupants fled for rugged terrain. Venoreth ordered Altaeran settlers to be moved into the empty cities as soon as they could be secured, using the opportunity to lighten his own Empire’s load of malcontents, and had his army officers assure their men that they would be allowed to claim portions of this conquered land—and its populace—for their own once the war was done. Rape and slavery became widespread, creating what would come to be called the Great Yellow Streak in the otherwise dark-haired Ruenic bloodline. The old trade-zone suffered in particular, with the Fox and Crow-folk all either captive or banished into the mountains.
Emperor Venoreth declared total victory over Ruen Wyn.
Then the attacks began. First on his military commanders in the Riftlands, then on military and civilian enclaves deeper in Altaera—and then suddenly what seemed like everywhere, as the Riftlands Ruenics and agents from Yezadra and Gejara decided that enough was enough. Yezadra and Gejara could not move against Venoreth officially because of the Silent Circle’s backing, but they supplied the Riftlands insurgency with money and intelligence and also put pressure on the minority faiths to resist Venoreth’s cruelty.
Soon the Shadow God’s agents were reporting on conditions in Ruen Wyn, and the Trifold and Law’s Knights were speaking out against the ongoing extermination of the Heartlanders. The House of Silver withdrew its support from Altaera, and rivals within the imperial court began plotting behind Venoreth’s back again.
Venoreth realized he was losing his grip on the throne, so pulled a good portion of his troops back to quell the sudden unrest in Altaera. Fresh off the anything-goes battlefields of Ruen Wyn, though, his men were too harsh with their Altaeran maneuvers, and soon many of the Altaeran lords were calling Venoreth a tyrant and a monster. A segment of the Empire called Lagurnath, situated between the Pinch and the Rift Climb, even seceded, and when Venoreth was too occupied with suppressing dissent around the capital at Ruyen Tairdren to retaliate, more territories threatened to do the same.
Meanwhile, the Ruenics left in the Heartlands were experiencing a resurgence of resistance due to the shrinking of the Altaeran presence. Retaliation against Altaeran settlers and soldiers was widespread, and the army was slowly forced back toward the Great Yellow Streak area that it had first traversed: the straight line from Riftwatch, through Kaharis and Cantorin, to Valent. With the Silent Circle reconsidering its support of the war, that line became the only conduit for supplies between the Altaeran outposts, and soon even it was broken by the encroaching, enraged clans.
By the time Emperor Venoreth was overthrown in the Yearfrost Revolution of 1467, both empires were in shambles.