What followed the death-throes of the northern empires was a time of insularity, when all the new subdivisions that called themselves kingdoms isolated themselves from their neighbors as much as was possible. The east once again fell out of contact with the west, and the north fell out of contact with the south, as every new regime struggled to shore up its holdings against the deleterious forces of chaos.
For there were new powers at work in the shadows—ones that did not declare themselves boldly as the old gods had, but whose efforts were keenly felt all the same.
One would come to be called the Lady of Ruin, though it was centuries before enough of her exploits were pieced together for scholars to be certain that there was such a being, and not simply a succession of copycats and tricksters. Even then, they could not agree on many details—only that her presence, or her influence, or her followers were frequently found at the sites of riots, revolutions and retaliations. Sometimes they stood on the side of the authorities and incited them to put greater pressure on the common people, while other times they aided the revolutionaries and urged them toward grander acts of resistance. In any situation where they were found, though, tensions always escalated to the point of open conflict, and usually to the detriment of both sides.
What benefit this supposed Lady of Ruin saw from this behavior was unknown, but throughout the nascent Age of Kingdoms she and her followers incited many acts of violence, coups and revolutions against the unsteady new monarchies and governments. Before she was identified as a power—possibly a deity but also possibly an angry spirit—the blame for her exploits fell on many shoulders, from mages in general to necromancers or mentalists in particular, to followers of various different gods, to spirit-worshiping shamans, to ‘cultists’ of all possible descriptions.
Many of the cults blamed for her work were complete fabrications. They would set themselves up as splinter-sects of a larger faith such as the Trifold, or entirely new but fairly innocuous religions like the worship of a local place-of-power or a supposedly-Ascended individual, then garner followers from the common people who lived nearby. The converts would be indoctrinated into a vaguely logical but entirely-invented belief system that, at its center, was held together by a linchpin of distrust toward the outside world. Sometimes it was distrust of the government and the exercise of its authority; other times it was distrust of foreign lands, or old traditions, or men, or women, or the natural world. Regardless, the cult-leaders would gather followers until a real religion or government began to take notice, then they would rile up the converts and send them out to do the bidding of their made-up god. No matter what chaos erupted, the leaders would invariably vanish without a trace.
While some scholars tried to connect this cult-trend back to the cult of the Firehawk more than a century before, there was never a direct link found between the Firehawk cult and the Age of Kingdoms cults. The Trifold Temple investigated all such cults nevertheless, just in case one of them was the continuation of the unfulfilled Ashkhevar Prophecy. Perhaps because of this investigation, false Trifold cults began cropping up more and more frequently as the Age of Kingdoms went on, with women in backwater areas being drafted into matriarchal secret societies that pushed an agenda of aggression and dominance toward men.
It should be mentioned here that while a few societies in Halci were strictly patriarchal, the majority either stressed equality between the sexes or recognized matrilineal succession rather than paternity. Though different cultures had different reasons, the largest one—seen throughout the human realm—was a lack of consistent sexual dimorphism. In some clans the women were larger than the men, while in others the men were larger or they were all the same size and build; in particular, Crow folk could sometimes not be told apart even when naked. Even when the dimorphism was distinct, as with the Lion clan and its large men and small women, the women were often as prone to violence as the men and banded together with other women for mutual defense.
As for cultures, the ogres were matrilineal; the Yezadrans and Pajhrasthani considered men and women separate but equal; the mammalian beast-clans expected every member to pull his or her weight; the lizardfolk clans saw no difference between the sexes; and the elementals and wraiths only had a gender if they felt like it. In many of these cultures, women filled the ranks of the army as much as men did, or else provided the defensive backbone for the society when the men went off to war; none were coddled. Even the gods seemed to have chosen their forms for aesthetic reasons rather than physical functions.
Thus the rise of an explicitly sexist religion was a new and noteworthy thing, and offensive to the Trifolders who were being parodied. While the Brigyddian branch of the Trifold was only open to women, it was for a very specific reason: because of Brigydde’s visions, she sometimes spontaneously possessed all of her followers, and those who had never given birth—including women—could be harmed by the sudden overwhelming connection to the Great Mother. The further their physical state was from Brigydde’s, the more they were harmed.
These cults instated a ban on male followers not to protect them but because they were considered untrustworthy, or—after further indoctrination—evil. Mirror cults of fanatical male dominance also existed, but did not catch the Trifolders’ attention as much as the False Trifolders. Further muddying the waters was the fact that these False Trifolders could call upon powers very similar to those of the real Trifolders, and thus a single False Trifolder could ruin the reputation of the entire mother faith by pretending to be a real one yet misbehaving.
Likewise, it did not take long for impersonators to infiltrate almost all of the active religions, from the ranks of lay-follower to those of high priests and priestesses. Particularly infested were the Temples of the Sun and Moon, because of their continued distance from their deities and the use of arcane magic instead of god-granted gifts. Many a temple was toppled by the folly of its priests, only for it to be discovered that one of those priests—usually an advisor behind the scenes—had secretly been a follower of Ruin.
This gave the Lady of Ruin one of her other names: Queen of Masks. Her followers were sometimes called Maskers. It was suspected that she was the one to grant her followers their powers to match those of their supposed deity, or else that she had a way of subverting the normal connection between a god and its priest to empower a false worshiper.
Regardless, her work went a long way toward undermining the trust between the people and their gods and governments. Some worshiped her because of that, as it was said that she never caused a person to become corrupt or delusional—she merely teased out the corruption or madness that had already been festering inside. Her followers thus believed that they were cleansing these faiths and institutions of the corrupt by revealing them in all their ugliness, and that the damage done to the public and the peace was worth the price of the revelation.
Partly because of these machinations, and partly because of the general atmosphere of unrest in the wake of the wars and imperial collapses, the Age of Kingdoms became an age of backsliding. The Silent Circle and the Trifold Temple stepped up their persecution of unlawful magic, and expanded that definition to include several types of hedge-magic—peasants’ accidental use of small or natural magics without formal Circle training. Many kingdoms cracked down on magical and scientific experimentation due to fears that battle-magic would be rediscovered or that the Silent Circle would turn against another government like it had in the War of the Lion and Eagle. Many others expelled faiths whose reputations had been tainted by the Maskers, and closed down their projects for fear that their insidious ideas might linger within hospitals or schools or libraries or shelters. Books were burned, temples dismantled, statues defaced, until it seemed sometimes that the Maskers were playing all sides against each other and would not stop until everything burned.
It was then, about a century into the Age of Kingdoms, that the plagues began.
There had certainly been plagues before; they raced through the varied populaces regularly, sometimes striking skinchangers or ogres, sometimes humans, sometimes everyone. The Trifolders did what they could to keep disease in check, but they could not be everywhere.
The difference was that the Slow Plague, also called the Ashen Plague—so-called because it seemed to drain the blood from the skin, leaving its victims pale as death—did not kill its victims so much as it changed them. It started out in the backwater baronies of the swampy Kingdom of Daecia, and as its early symptoms were just pallor and cough, it was not considered dangerous. Initial victims were advised to keep about their jobs and try not to cough on anyone.
But the disease must have been airborne, for it spread rapidly through the first city it infected—Kerori—until almost the entire populace was infected. The city’s gates were closed to prevent the spread, even though the disease still seemed innocuous.
The city would remain closed for two years.
When it reopened, the inhabitants had changed. They were paler—though not as grey-pallid as they had been while ill—and many seemed to have undergone personality changes or memory loss. Merchants visiting the city found that their old contacts no longer remembered them, though they were happy to try to reestablish business; relatives coming to visit family members that had been trapped in the city found that their kin likewise barely remembered them and no longer behaved as they once had. Even the most ornery individual was now pleasant, polite and a bit dreamy—not all there. And while the population of the city had dropped significantly, there was no corresponding increase in cemetery area or plague pits, and no one in the city could say where the dead had gone.
The merchants invariably returned to their home cities with a slight cough and a bit of pallor.
Over the next forty years, the plague infected every city in the Kingdom of Daecia with the same results. The gates would be sealed for a year or two, then reopened with everyone changed and many people simply gone—most notably all priests, mages and spirit-speakers. After the Daecian capital was infected, the entire kingdom closed itself off from the rest of the Heartlands, and for another forty years no outsider was allowed in. Mages who attempted to teleport over the border never returned.
When Daecia finally emerged from its isolation, it sent envoys to all of the other Heartland kingdoms. Many were rebuffed; Trivestes and Riddian had been embroiled in war with each other and both were angry that Daecia had ignored the many requests for aid, and the other kingdoms were leery of this sudden reemergence. No matter the response, none of the envoys were ever seen leaving the council-houses.
What followed over the next ten years were regular spates of assassinations of mages within the Heartlands kingdoms. The Silent Circle had regained a foothold in the east only recently and was still looked upon with suspicion because of its aid to Altaera during the war, and so as the assassinations rose in frequency it began withdrawing its civilian members from the Heartlands cities and sending in its inquisitors to hunt the perpetrators. Evidence began pointing to ‘shamanic extremists’, specifically skinchangers and spiritists who still held a vendetta against the Circle, and while the Heartlands governments were largely on the spiritists’ side, they did have a commitment to law and order and thus reluctantly aided the Circle in hunting these shamans.
Then cities in Riddian began catching the plague and closing their gates. Then cities in Darronwy started doing the same.
At the same time, ‘monstrous dark beasts’ began attacking towns in the north, near the border with the ogres. They were blamed on the same shamanic extremists as the mage murders, and Daecia sent many of its knights to assist the northern Darronwayn and Riddish settlements, thus ingratiating themselves with their neighbors. More monsters were soon sighted in the Garnet Mountains, and when Trivestes accused the people who dwelt in the Garnets of harboring those monsters, the Garnet Mountain Territory became hostile. Trivestes declared war upon it, not for the first time.
Then, on the new-year’s morning of 240 Age of Kingdoms, the sun failed to rise.