Prologue 1: The World
When the world was still in its infancy there was a vast region of extremely unstable land called the Collapsing Wilds. It is said that the land itself would shift and warp in confusing and impossible ways. Day could suddenly turn to night. A week could pass in the blink of an eye. Even time could stand still. Any known form of navigation in these lands would prove useless. Merely standing still, your orientation and position could suddenly shift hundreds of yards in any direction. The land itself was confused. One moment an area could be flat, and in the next it could suddenly become hills or even mountains or rivers, or possibly rise up in the air and hover hundreds of feet above the ground. Often people who entered this region would never return. Those who did, that could still speak, told stories of lands where believing and knowing were two very different things.
Plants and animals were either already warped beyond recognition or warped without warning. Something tiny might become massive, or single parts of the body might change, becoming larger or smaller. Soft fur might become coarse and hard as rock, or be turned into living flame, ever burning on the animal’s body. A tall tree could wrap around itself shaping into a wooden boulder, or even have its curves turn to harsh angles, forming a rectangle or cube. Herbivores and plants could suddenly viciously attack other living things, as though with a thirst for blood. Most amazing of all, things of one material could find themselves transmuted to another material. Trees turned to stone or metal, even ice or water. Boulders could become engulfed in fire or shatter and appear to vanish while still remaining a ghostly consistency where they once stood.
Harsh storms that could shift mercilessly between aspects ravaged the lands. Such storms were fairly common and could form and dissipate without warning, or have great swaths of calm space appearing randomly within them. Their precipitation could shift between not only water and ice, but also fire, earth, and crystal or metal. Tornados were not limited to wind and debris, and lightning was not constrained to just electricity, as it too could take on any other element. Even space, time and matter were not immune to the raw power of these deadly storms, and shifted sporadically when they occurred.
Settling within the Collapsing Wilds was impossible. Under these circumstances even if the fields remained stable, the plants within them could suddenly become animate and turn hostile - often eating those who harvested them for the same purpose. Any tamed beasts could randomly become vague or ghastly statues comprised of random materials or be decimated by a warped and violent member of the herd.
Attempting to retrieve natural resources was just as dangerous. The mine a group was digging in could itself become animated and consume the miners, or the air could become water, drowning them in mere moments. Even more bizarre, while digging straight down, they could suddenly find themselves hovering in the air, miles above the ground; upon exiting the mine nothing would have been visibly changed. Harvesting lumber could be as deadly as tending animals as the entire forest could suddenly become trees made purely of fire or animate, and consume those trying to cut them down.
Construction efforts in the Collapsing Wilds yielded unpredictable results. A small house could grow in size to become many stories tall, or expand over acres of land. Rooms could shift randomly, even by simply closing and reopening a door, sometimes becoming rooms not located within the building itself. Worse yet was when the buildings came to life, consuming those within and rampaging around until either being stopped or losing interest and running deeper into the wilds.
Around the borders of the Wilds the instability could suddenly become severe, likely even as much as at its center. It was as though the Wilds themselves were a living, ever moving entity, and anything it touched became as changed and warped as it was. Because of this, people avoided settling anywhere near the borders of the wilds and it became known as a no-man’s land.
The instability also created pathways to other worlds and with them people from ‘other worlds’. The Aerthians: humans, or those that they recognized as the same, soon discovered that they were not alone. Dangerous beastmen began appearing to the north and northwest. Many of these ‘people’ stood upright on humanoid legs, with humanoid torsos and arms, but their features were covered in furs and their eyes and ears were not that of a human’s.These beast people ranged from trickster fox spirits, centaurs, minotaurs, harpies and their like, to wolfmen and others with only the appearance of humans.
The animals and beasts of this region were often bizarre mixes of other animals such as griffins and chimeras, or animals with unusual parts such as unicorns or wyverns. While some of the beastmen may have the appearance of humans it had been observed that the ones that had the appearance of predators would eat the ones that looked like prey animals.
To the southwest, living elements; beings of fire, lightning, rock and even water roamed the lands. Some of these ‘people’ took on human appearances, while others remained monstrous in form. These elementals were violent and frequently clashed among one another; fire fighting against water, plant or frost; earth and air or water; lightning with most anything… They also clashed with the Aerthians as neither could understand the other, beings of energy or matter containing no mind or soul, against people of flesh and blood.
The animals in this region were often crosses between element and animal. Mammals, reptiles, birds and many other animals existed here, each existing with bodies comprised of the various elements; each a unique example of that element. These elemental beasts were sometimes similar to beasts of the other regions and sometimes looked nothing like any known animals, but instead irregular clumps of their element, animated and roaming the lands. Some of these creatures took on humanoid appearances, each representing and consisting of their element either as a physical embodiment or aethereal representations. Even the lands themselves teemed with elemental aspects as flora made of the various elements and entire plains of living fire, electricity, crystals and metals and air could be found.
To the west, beyond the Wilds, were demonoids that fed directly upon human flesh and blood, or their souls.. These vile demons, such as vampires, succubi and incubi, devils and imps to name but a few, sought little more than to hunt, harm and terrorize humanity. The demonoids were the first to appear in Aerthian lands, and it is unknown whether they passed through the Wilds or circumnavigated it. Some would possess or charm humans to do their bidding, and fed off of the resulting strife and malice. The Aerthian Church of the Divine Light worked to rid Aerthian lands of the vile darkness that was demons and spread Holy Light to its people. Whenever they discovered demonic activity the church persecuted and removed the threat. Aerthians, being the divine species, were tasked with ridding the world of the darkness brought to it, and the Church acted in this interest.
And still, the demonoids were not the worst. No one knows when the greatest evil of all appeared, but He has been a plague upon the world for as long as any but the most ancient of beings can remember. As soon as any of the intelligent, or mostly intelligent, beings began to form civilizations or permanent settlements - even simple villages rather than kingdoms and empires - an evil presence that came to be known as the Demon Lord began to oppress the people. Even to this day the Demon Lord demands tribute, slaves and human sacrifices.
Along with the Demon Lord’s appearance the Wilds began to change. What was once an undeniably dangerous and hostile environment began to corrupt even more so; and the already monstrous beings that existed there befouled and mutated further into death bringing monsters. This corruption spread through the Wilds and overflowed its original borders onto once stable lands. Settlements that were overtaken by this corruption were never heard from again, but for a few maddened survivors and the monstrous beings that spilled forth from them.
Eventually kingdoms, nations and empires began attempting to construct massive, towering walls to surround and cut off the corrupt lands and try to stop the Demon Lord’s passage. Even the beastmen to the north and the elementals to the south worked to block its spread and influence, but it did not take long for the Demon Lord’s armies to take control of the walls that had already been built and the construction sites where it had yet to be finished. The workers and those who were there to defend them - who had survived anyway - had retreated to safety and no pursuit beyond the edges of the walls were made by the Demon Lord’s armies.
With the Demon Lord in control of the walls and construction sites the Human kingdoms finally realized that they had to do something drastic to end the Demon Lord’s terror, so they began raising an army to attack the Demon Lord. Strong adventurers had already been appearing as the original instability had created small, somewhat contained, regions of strong monsters and beasts. These dungeons, labyrinths or otherwise hostile environments often contained material goods that could sell quite nicely, or be used personally to improve one's status or equipment. Guilds for the adventurers appeared just like any other profession, but as an inn or meeting place, and location to post or find requests.
After ten years, the first expedition of hundreds of warriors and adventurers was prepared and they set out to the walls of the Corrupt Wilds. The Demon Lord had finished the walls fairly quickly after taking them over. It had been assumed that, since neither the workers had been pursued nor had any armies marched past the walls, they were finished for some purpose other than containing the corruption or keeping people out. Yet massive gates, gates that would otherwise weaken the wall’s integrity, gates larger than any known creature of this realm, were built into the wall. These gates appeared to be made of stone, wood and… what could only be assumed to be flesh.
It was within sight of one of these gates that the expedition set up camp and braced themselves for their first fight in this war, the siege of the wall. However, the next morning the expedition awoke to find that the gates had been opened and appeared abandoned. No guards could be seen from the distance the expedition set up camp. Not only that, no movement could be seen, no lights, no signs of life or any indication that anyone had even been there since the wall’s completion.
Prepared for a trap the expedition cautiously entered the gates, and found no one waiting for them. They continued in farther, constantly prepared for the obvious attack. Yet, still none came. Even when the gate was enough of a distance away that the ever present miasma of this region was beginning to obscure sight of it, there was no attack. Odder still, there were no signs of a military presence at all, no fortresses, no bunkers, not even any roads save the sole road leading from the gate.
For nearly half a day the expedition didn’t see any signs of life. The lands were empty, devoid of anything but sparse pockets of half-dead grass, the occasional tree, and strange shapes that seemed to flit in and out at the edges of one’s peripheral vision. It was as though the corruption hadn’t reached this far, but it was known that the walls were built no more than a stone's throw from its edge. Had the corruption receded since the wall was built? Did the Demon Lord see no purpose in maintaining the corruption with the wall in place? If so then what was the purpose of the corruption or the wall?
It wasn’t until the second day, and once they had passed the first set of hills, that they met with any resistance. On the second day, as the sun rose, so too did a giant worm. As it emerged from the ground beneath the hill the land disappeared entirely within its mouth, and its body blocked out the sky. The expedition immediately turned to chaos and people scattered in random directions. No one, even for a second, thought of fighting. How could one fight a mountain, if the mountain had teeth and moved?
Miraculously, there were very few casualties and the expedition members met again on the other side of the wall. When they retreated, not all of the members needed to present themselves to the leaders who had sent them; these people merely returned home. Those who were responsible, such as national soldiers and the like, returned to their respective nations to report about the… little snag they had hit. The nations were not pleased, but no punishment was given. The expedition had served one purpose at least; some of the land behind the walls could be claimed. The remnants of the expedition were turned into guards as settlers were formed to be sent beyond the walls.
One hundred years passed and, as the worm was never seen again, settlements had pushed quite far into the unclaimed territory. For all of this time no sign of the Demon Lord was seen. Those towns that had previously been harassed by threats of monsters, plague and famine were left alone. The Aerthians expanded their territories not only into the unclaimed lands beyond the walls but also to the north and south. During these hundred years some petty fights broke out between the Aerthians and the beastmen or elementals. This was nothing so grand as wars, but these fights were to be expected of such savages.
If not for the wall, people would have begun to think that the Demon Lord had been but a myth. A story that parents told children to make them behave, or kings or emperors told the people to keep them in line… or that was told to slaves to keep them from rebelling. In this time the corruption had withdrawn far enough that a person could travel for days in the unclaimed wilds without seeing any sign of it. And this left plenty of room to expand, which also created a massive need for workforce.
Slavery had always existed, for as long as anyone could remember. However, it had mostly consisted of criminals, the conquered, and those unlucky enough to lose everything and be forced to sell themselves into slavery. Now, with the need for workers in the unclaimed lands, this changed. Those brave enough to venture into beastmen territory to capture those unlucky enough to cross their paths made profit in selling beastmen slaves. A magic was discovered that allowed the elementals to be bound and controlled. Even collateral damage in petty feuds between two nations sometimes resulted in entire villages turned into slave labor, either as it was taken over by the other nation, or as tribute for peace.
Not all, but most of the slaves were taken beyond the walls. Life in the initial settlements was not too difficult. However, as more and more settlements appeared farther and farther into unclaimed territory life became far more demanding, and it was in these places that the majority of the slave labor was seen. Farms, mines, quarries, and even deforestation efforts when forests were found; slaves were used to transfer the resources from the wilds back to the nations that created the colony. This time of peace, only marred by petty disagreements and feuds between nations, lasted more than fifty years, beyond the first five decades, before the Demon Lord made his return.
In one fell swoop all of the frontier colonies were wiped out. Very few survivors managed to return to the walls and they brought with them stories of monstrous beings the likes of which had never before been imagined. One such beast tore through flesh and magic like a knife through air, scattering flesh, waves of blood and bits of bone in its wake. The first to be attacked were the slave workers and almost immediately after were the owners who could only watch in horror.
The bodies of the ravaged colonists began to rise and attack the settlements at the wall. With what little warning they were afforded the remaining colonists evacuated through the gates to the villages and towns on the other side. Yet, even here, they were confronted by the Demon Lord’s evil as the towns directly outside of the gates had already been overrun. WIth nothing left to do the colonists scattered in fear, seeking refuge from near certain death.
It was now that the nations realized their mistake. They had grown complacent in the Demon Lord’s absence and assumed it had meant his death. Now it appeared that either the Demon Lord was immortal, having apparently lived thousands of years, or that a new and more evil being had taken his place. Once again the towns nearest the wall were accosted with demands of tribute, slaves and sacrifices or the threat of elimination. Those that attempted to ignore the demands or thought to fight back were eradicated, the lands pillaged and settlements razed to the ground.
In less than two years the one hundred and fifty year, from the first expedition to the present, of advancement the Aerthians had made into the Dark Lord’s territory was returned to its original place. Now, both enraged and afraid, the leaders and nobles of the Aerthian nations sought retribution. They began raising armies the size of the first expedition to fight back and reclaim their territory but the corruption had spread far beyond the wall and mutated into something new. Something terrifying.
Previously tame beasts and even things became corrupted and mutated into impossibly grotesque Terrors that shook the very souls of even the bravest men sent to fight them. The corpses of those lost during the encroachment were placed in positions to be easily seen when attempting to advance to where the villages and towns use to be, and these corpses were reanimated… but not merely undead, they screamed in agony and pleaded to be put out of their misery as though they still lived and breathed. Anyone who attempted to help them was either caught and consumed by the dead or driven mad upon approaching them.
True terror spread through the Aerthian kingdoms. These Grim Totems even began appearing in settlements previously untouched and unthreatened. The Church was barely able to deal with the totems when and where they appeared, but the totems did seem susceptible to fire which could be deployed from a distance. Demons, who had been in hiding and were barely ever seen, made their reappearance almost always accompanied by the appearance of a Grim Totem.
Finally, fed up with the actions of the Demon Lord, five of the great nations and most of the territories came together to form a coalition, a mass army to truly end the Demon King, once and for all. The Great Aerthian Coalition recruited an army vastly larger than the original expedition and far larger than those attempts since. They balanced physical might with magical wit and this time they had a trump card. A special girl had been born, one who, even at the age of four, had exceptional skill both with military arms, and powerful magic. She was, for lack of a better term, a hero.