An Imperfect Circle
Former Realm satrapy, now a shadowland under the reign of the deathlord Mask of Winters
Thorns That Was
"During its height, Thorns was one of the greater cities of Creation. Where Nexus had its wealth, Lookshy its military strength and Great Forks its decadent appeal, Thorns flowed with sophistication and cultural achievements. The people of Thorns valued excellence above all things, and they struggled for perfection in whatever occupation they chose, often competing fiercely with one another. While the blades of Thorns might not have had the fine quality of a Lookshy sword or the quantity of rapidly produced Nexus weaponry, the filigreed hilt and elegantly etched blade made by a master craftsman from Thorns invariably took a buyer’s breath away.
The people of the city also valued beauty, for excellence was nothing without style. Sweeping architecture decorated the skyline, garlands of white flowers hung from timber archways over the city’s wide boulevards, and the lush trees of the parks and the rich herb gardens hanging from the windows of the homes of the wealthy gave Thorns a pleasing fragrance. Thorns valued the cultural arts, and fine paintings lined the walls of wealthier residences, and even the poor had a hanging or two in their hovels, even if it was a simple, homemade quilt. Musicians sang on street corners, poets wept flowery words in restaurants, and orators boomed out their philosophies in well-appointed theaters. Tailors lavished the courtiers of the Autocrat’s palace with richly colored silks and lace, and the courtiers themselves added more color and style to the courts with a secretive language of emotion and intent expressed entirely through the use of decorative fans. Thorns’ passion for personal excellence made for poor soldiers but fine warriors, and the often-romanticized duelists of Thorns fought highly stylized battles to redeem a comrade’s stained honor or to catch the eye of a disputed lover.
Thorns often cast a wistful eye to the past, and disdained the inhabitants of many of the surrounding nations as barbarians. Its people saw the Realm as the true heir to the glories of the First Age, eagerly submitting to the Scarlet Empress’s demands for tribute. Indeed, they saw the Realm as a valued ally rather than a dangerous, imperial power. The folk of the city showered visiting Dynasts with attention and artistic endeavor in an attempt to impress them, and satraps received open-armed welcomes. The Immaculate Order achieved high popularity, and several temples lay scattered through the city. The Empress’s blatant machinations of their succession in the twilight years of the city’s history gave the citizens pause, but few spoke out against it. The shift in the city’s industry from the arts of culture to the arts of war troubled a few more, but most swallowed their complaints. Indeed, the new Autocrat promised glory as Thorns asserted itself as a rightful ruler of the Scavenger Lands, bringing civilization to lands that knew only barbarism. His repeated defeats first infuriated the people of Thorns and then disillusioned them.
The Fall of Thorns
Thorns’ legacy is gone, washed away in a wave of undead flesh and ghostly ambition. The memory of Thorns’ fall stands stark in the hearts and minds of its living residents, for it was a nightmare made real. Necromancy tore the sky open, and droplets of blood and bone rained upon the citizenry.
An impossibly massive hand rose and shook the ground with the force of its descent, its tattered flesh exposing bony claws that dug furrows into the earth as it dragged a titanic form forward into the light of the moon. A nauseating wave of shambling corpses swept forth, and the people cried out for protection. Twenty Dragon-Blooded champions of the Realm, each more glorious than the last, rode forth to slay the zombie hordes, but when the last corpse fell, the Dynasts shining brilliantly with Essence, the massive hand rose and fell again, dragging the monstrosity forward once more, and a second, more horrific wave rode forth. The exhausted Dragon-Blooded had no defense against these Anathema horrors, no way to counter their dark magic, and within moments, the dead carried the corpses of these royal scions into the fortress atop the mountain of flesh. And then, its hand rose and fell once more, and the stink of it overwhelmed the city, a low groan issuing forth from the creature, and the third and final wave issued forth. Thorns had weakened itself too much in the recent war with the Scavenger Lands to protect itself, and worse, a traitor threw open the gates and sabotaged many of the city’s defenses. It had no hope against the unliving hordes, the laughing, shrieking ghosts and the necromantic powers that soaked the city streets in foul blood. The sky darkened with clouds, and a new, everlasting night fell upon the city, never more to feel the unfiltered light of the true sun.
Thorns That Is
With its defeat so final, Thorns could never return to the city it had been. The Mask of Winters’ skeletal fist closed about the souls of Thorns’ living residents, subsuming them and their city into his will. His minions tore down the delicate palaces and refined government that ruled the city before and replaced them with monolithic structures, places of power that loomed over the citizenry. Then they erected smiling statues of their new lord in major plazas and crossroads, black iron sentinels that watch over the citizenry. They gutted ancient temples to the Immaculate Order and replaced them with self-serving shrines to the ancestor cult, demanding that living residents attend the shrines and pray, infusing their domineering masters with yet more power. Most of the living, for their part, resigned themselves to their fates, for what could they hope to accomplish against so mighty a lord? These dull-eyed slaves toil endlessly in mines, in bureaucracies or on the Mask of Winters’ frontlines. They eat what food the Mask of Winters offers them but watch the granaries slowly empty, their children’s cheeks hollow and the spark fading from their spouses’ eyes. They know the city has already died and that they are just the last vestiges of life within it.
But where most have surrendered to the idea of slavery to the dead, some hearts still burn with defi ance. Thorns was once a proud city, one that founded itself upon principles of excellence, valor and pride. These malcontents flit from house to house, huddled in the ruined portions of the old city, their bright cheeks and flashing eyes adding color to the drab undertones of the shadowland. Their laughter and conversation disrupt the otherwise complete silence of this ominous city, and they refuse to forget the glory of the city that once was. Proud parents whisper stories of the past to their children, passing on the pride of the fallen Thorns to the next generation. As though simply living in this deathly land wasn’t defiance enough, these people actively plot against their undead masters. Caravans of food fall to bandits, a state-sponsored performance on the behalf of visiting dignitaries is disrupted, and barracks of occupation soldiers flare up in brilliant, crimson fl ame that crackles and roars as it consumes the shrieking spirits within. The faith Thorns placed in the Immaculate Order has not failed the city, for while the Dynastic advisors all perished in the destruction of the city, many mortal Immaculate monks survived. These holy men hide in the rebellious underground, employing their
sacred thaumaturgy and their hard-won martial techniques against the unrighteous dead, acting as leaders and inspiration for the resistance.