About the Realms of Ash
These ancient realms are awash with the scourge of undeath. This world more closely resembles the High Middle Ages than the Early or Dark Ages depicted in the base Ironsworn game. The classic Ironsworn setting could be considered to occur centuries before the timeframe within the Realms of Ash.
The cities that survive in this dark world are massive, walled city-states with stone, brick, and timber construction abounding. They are miles upon miles of established civilization contained within walls that would make the ancient Chinese blush. In proportional respects, the Realms of Ash are a bit more advanced in architecture than medieval Europe. The size and scope of this civilized world surpasses what was built in our human history, but the technology itself is proportionate to the High Middle Ages or relative-center timeframe of medieval Europe's middle ages.
While the Sundering has brought many towns and villages to the brink of destruction, the massive cities have stood. They would be nearly impossible for ancient Earth architects to fathom in size and scope and thus are protected from the greater horrors. These cities are so fortified and massive that the peoples who exist in their central townships function as if the undead outside the city walls are a problem for the less fortunate and are merely concerns beneath their station and notice.
The smaller towns and villages that still exist, without the protective walls and fortifications of the larger hubs of civilization, are always on the verge of collapse. The stalwart souls who fight off waves of undead and ravenous bandits and cutthroats are the most vicious warriors in the land, and those hardy bastards who protect the smallest communities are among them. Wardens from the cities are regularly dispatched to help the smaller communities who exist under their banners, but the grit and toughness displayed by the people of the smaller towns is often enough to get them by without the Wardens' help.
The Old World
The sickness known as the Sundering moved like a horrible wave across the Old World, killing all in its path and causing them to be reborn as undead servants of the demigod Bruatha the Betrayer, the Prince of a Thousand Eyes.
Millions of Old Worlders fled aboard countless ships, keeping the hordes of undead at bay right up until the last. However, the plague could not be outrun. It spread through the sea like it spread on land. But on those great many ships, the Sundering was contained through ruthless measures—tossing overboard any who exhibited the slightest symptom or who became ill through natural causes and were feared to die then rise again. Too many ships were lost forever, overrun by the Sundering and turned into unmanned zombie vessels adrift at sea. In the end of their perilous journey, those who survived presumed they beat the Sundering. They found the Ironlands and made it their new home.
The few kingdoms that existed in the Ironlands prior to the arrival of these newcomers were more than happy to accept the influx of workers to expand their reach. The power bases shifted within the growing masses of civilization, and newer kingdoms sprung up amid the prosperity. It was a time of growth and a new renaissance for the people of the Ironlands who took the people of the Old World in. Villages grew into towns, and towns turned into walled cities and trade hubs beyond the wildest imaginations of the early Ironlanders.
But the Sundering returned. The plague somehow found its way to the shores of the Ironlands, ravaging its people almost as badly as the initial plague in the Old World, turning prosperous townsfolk into torch-bearing destroyers of their own communities; burning bodies for fears of their rising from the dead.
Years have passed since the first hint of the Sundering on these shores. The prosperous Ironlands have been reduced to realms of ash. And now these Realms of Ash are held together by tenuous alliances. Some kingdoms fight amongst themselves as much as they fight off the undead, with Old Worlders still blamed for the Sundering and the original Ironlander families cursing each other for being so welcoming to the foreigners all those years ago. The fragile alliances, broken towns, stalwart survivors, and a handful of walled-off city-state strongholds, are all that remain of the once great kingdoms.
Metal pillars are found throughout the Realms of Ash. They are iron gray, and smooth as river stone. No one knew their purpose prior to the arrival of the newcomers aboard their many ships, but since the arrival of the dread Sundering there’s a discovery that leads many to believe the pillars are involved in the defense of the world. Some scholars said they are as old as the world itself, and tales tell of them being wrought from divinity. Some, such as the Iron Priests, now worship them and swear vows upon them, and even build sanctuaries and monastic villages around them.
Before the Sundering, most would make the warding sign and hurry along their way when they happened across a pillar, never getting close enough to discover their unusual qualities, but now that the dead are tormenting the living there’s a new appreciation for the power that resides within the iron of these sacred lands. The pillars do not tarnish, and even the sharpest blade cannot mark them. They exhibit a faint hum when the ear is very close, and the priests say this is the song of the goddess Neazarin, Lady of Light and the Dawn. Something is unique about these magnificent pillars, to be sure, but their indestructible nature and odd qualities aren’t the only strange facet of detail amongst the iron of these lands.
While the iron used to forge weapons and armor within the Realms of Ash - the former Ironlands – does not give off this strange faint hum or resist breakage like the pillars, it does offer one important benefit that seems to stem from the same source. The iron of the Old World would slice a zombie in two and the foul thing would simply keep coming. The iron of these lands will slice a zombie in two and the rotten corpse will cease to animate. There is a divine magic within the iron of these lands, not just within these marvelous pillars, and it’s the only saving grace amid this dark era.
The men and women who fight to protect the living are armed with the iron of the Realms of Ash, fighting an endless war against the forces of undeath. They wield the iron power of the goddess Neazarin, or so they assume, and they will stay and fight for this dying world rather than run.
Before the Old Worlders, before the Ironlanders, and before even the firstborn, another people lived here. Their ancient ruins are found throughout the Realms of Ash alongside the ruins of firstborn villages and ancient traces of civilization. These ruins give clues as to the creation of the indestructible metal pillars, or so the Iron Priests say. The ruins contain carvings related to the Lady of Light and Dawn, Neazarin. The priests believe she was once a mortal among the original peoples of the Old Ironlands, previous to the elves and other firstborn coming to be, and that this living goddess gave birth to the firstborn through divine power and her never-ending connection to the new day and the powers of creation.
The Iron Priests have studied the markings within these ruins since before this new Sundering came to these shores, and they have determined the original peoples and the firstborn were wiped out by some cataclysmic event. They weren’t wise to what that event would be until this new Sundering took hold. There’s a broken timeline in the carvings within the many ruins that did not make sense to scholars given the prosperous eras of the distant past, but now that the Sundering has arrived the speculation is rampant. Most of the current Iron Priests now attribute this ending of the timeline to be a result of a prior Sundering and the odd pillars and divine iron of this land a result of Neazarin’s magic bestowed upon the land itself in a failed effort to protect her people. It took this new Sundering to reach that conclusion, and fill in the gaps in historical record, but most are sure this plague has fouled their lands before. There are still some scholars who dispute this finding.
The Old Worlders forged the Old Ironlands into a vast series of kingdoms, along with the help of the Ironlanders who preceded them. Villages and towns within the area they called the Havens are still connected by well-trod roads, but they aren’t as busy as they once were. The Realms of Ash are plagued by the undead and the evil in the hearts of men.
Trade caravans travel between kingdoms and cities in the Havens’ kingdoms of Ruvanthal and Alunasria, and those remaining kingdoms and pockets of civilization in outlying regions. But this land is dark and twisted. The undead are numerous outside of city walls, and villages are under constant threat of attack from zombies and the chaotically reborn. Because of this, the people of the Realms of Ash require Wardens to travel with their caravans whenever the road beckons.
The most prominent of the roadways is known as the Hadrofair. It was built by the Hadronus and Fairfax families of the Kingdom of Ruvanthal and the Kingdom of Keldenvolk, respectively. The Hadrofair stretches from the gates of the Golden City of Caldus in the middle of the Havens, within the Kingdom of Ruvanthal, down to the coastal city of Illvasriad, in the former Kingdom of Keldenvolk. It’s the most well-traveled road in all of the Realms of Ash, but it’s also the most notorious. The Kingdom of Keldenvolk was the first to be hit by the Sundering, and it fell within months. The grand old kingdom was torn apart from within as the Sundering took hold. The dead now cross the heart of Hadrofair in the darkest regions of the south.
Each kingdom or province is represented by a king, queen, or, in the case of Torbahgs Hold and the Heights of Suffering, a fatekeeper. The kingdoms have varied forms of areas of control within their borders, with some land divided into duchies controlled by dukes and duchesses and others divided into counties controlled by counts and countesses.
There were, in prior eras, other designations of royal power and titles of grandeur prior to the Sundering, but they have been discarded due to less available zones of control in the present day. There are now hollowed-out castles in former counties that are crawling with the undead, and some kingdoms only patrol half of the territory within their borders.
Each city-state contains its own unique defense force, but the kingdoms and provinces have one thing in common: they all employ men and women who serve as what are called Wardens. Wardens are considered the experts on all things undead and are chosen for their knowledge and skill regarding the destruction of the foul horrors that plague the world. While mercenaries of all shades and stripes can be found within every gathered culture, the Wardens serve a distinct purpose in the protection of trade caravans, smaller towns and villages, and any person or place of interest that is known to be at risk of being overrun by the walking dead.
The various kingdoms also employ standing armies at the ready to invade or defend against neighboring kingdoms and traditional threats. While the armies also function as a way to rid a county or duchy of the undead, they are seldom employed for that purpose. The cost of losing men, who then rise again to fight and kill more men, becomes a cycle too risky for most of the resource-strapped civilizations of the realms. The one exception to this is the Kingdom of Ruvanthal. The armies of Ruvanthal have cleared away the undead from their borders on several occasions, and most of their lands still remain under the watch of their patrols. But they’re able to accomplish this feat by being the most resource rich and power heavy kingdom in all the Realms of Ash.
The vast majority of the defensive measures utilized by the royal families and the powers who sit atop thrones are undertaken by solitary individuals working lonesome jobs. Lone adventurers and small parties are given tasks that gently shift the balance of power within the realms, allowing royalty to play their deadly games with expendable pawns on the chess table, while not consuming the manpower for all-out war. Proxy wars, covert assassinations, and bloody trade disputes are common within the shadows of otherwise normal times within these forsaken lands. And now that the Sundering has taken hold and the undead are the primary focus for many kingdoms, it only adds to the potential for the shadows to hide the workings of the unseen pawns.
Magic has long been utilized within the realms, since before the days of the firstborn. With the latest Sundering and the loss of land to the undead hordes, the peoples of the kingdoms and provinces have embraced it further; for fear of leaving behind any available tool to defend their remaining homelands.
While magic is prevalent everywhere, it’s always been a mainstay of the Talnassa Empire. Talnassians utilize magic for metalwork production, agriculture, schooling, and virtually every major function of their society. While not always visible, there’s magic at work within the borders of Talnassa. The famed Tower of Jenfario rests within the grand old city of Parabreum. It houses the most powerful relics the Ironlanders ever came across; a few of which are firstborn in design and remain a mystery to this day. It’s rumored there’s never been an Old Worlder able to set foot within the tower.
Traveling caravans often employ what’s called a Keeper. Keepers are scholars of the old ways and masters of the arts of magic. In the same way a Warden will watch over travelers, towns, caravans, and villages, Keepers tag along with travelers in order to provide their specific forms of defense and security. Most keepers are quiet, reclusive types who travel alone until a group with need comes forth, but some are among the most boisterous individuals in the Realms of Ash, and regularly speak of their benefit to travelers and the supposed ineffectiveness of Wardens.
In the northern provinces of Torbahgs Hold and the Heights of Suffering, their leadership consists of councils of Keepers. And the primary figurehead and leader of each province is called a Fatekeeper. Both northern regions are under constant danger from classic foes in the mountains, so the Sundering is just another layer of dread to add to their troubles. The Fatekeeper in each region watches the lands and scouts for danger using magical means, to aid in the daily patrols they set forth around their zones of control.
In the province of Havasre, the Grand College of Eldwich Thorne is another primary hub of mysticism and magical teachings. While the Talnassa Empire has magic oozing from every corner of its borders, Havasre contains the school where the scholars of the world debate the powers of Neazarin, the legends of Bruatha the Betrayer, the pros and cons of pantheons across the known world, and all forms of traditions, legends, folklore, and historical magic as it pertains to the world. Since the Sundering, the Grand College of Eldwich Thorne has become almost a Switzerland of sorts for those who need to deposit findings, lore, and knowledge obtained within this dark era. No foreign power dares attack it or steal from it, for each kingdom has an equal amount invested and each province and kingdom would stand to lose more than they would gain in such an endeavor .
The gods and demigods of the Old Worlders have blended into the pantheons of the Ironlanders, in most communities. Polytheism is the norm among the sprawling city-states in every kingdom and province, but it’s not uncommon to find men and women who have abandoned the gods and carve their own path in the world. And it’s not uncommon to find Ironlanders who refuse to accept the gods of the Old World.
The primary pantheon of the Old World stems from the Albraiel people native to an ancient series of mountain ranges within the Kingdom of Dremonve. This series of gods and demigods vaguely resembles the Greek pantheon of ancient Earth, but with a more melancholy history and dark series of tales surrounding them that more closely resemble Norse mythology. The Albraiel were a nomadic people who traveled the mountains of the Old World and spoke of prophecies and the end of days. They worshipped the god Xaldres above all others. Xaldres was and is the god of the storm and the violent sky. He was the chaos that unfolded within the world. When all was calm and prosperous, it was said that Xaldres slept and the heavens would await his rise. These days, the disciples and followers of Xaldres consist of Old Worlders and Ironlanders alike, as they try to make sense of the foul evil that has engulfed their world.
The dark demigod Bruatha the Betrayer is one of the five sons of Xaldres. Bruatha was born of a human mother in the village of Tranvere in the Old World. His story is long and twisted, and leads to the eventual discovery of his godlike powers and the change of heart that began his fall from grace. Bruatha created the Sundering that afflicts the world, and he’s widely considered to be the reason the Old World no longer exists. He is called the Prince of a Thousand Eyes by those who worship the pantheon of the Old World because of his ability to take over the minds of those around him and control every aspect of their being. He was said to see every advance against him before it manifested. Bruatha was a danger to all living souls well before he began dabbling in the powers of darkness and unlocked the Sundering. Now, in the Realms of Ash, there isn’t a believer alive who wishes to call his name let alone see him.
The primary pantheon of the Ironlanders stems from the duality of day and night, and would seem more druidic and natural to an outsider. Most Ironlanders adhere to the idea that the goddess Neazarin created the dawn and every new day, and that all forms of life in existence are in some way derived from her divinity. Legends state the existence of Neazarin in the flesh, many generations ago. She created the firstborn and the creatures of the Ironlands as a way to augment and supply the early humans of the land with aid and resources. The interpretation of Neazarin’s deeds is evolving unto this current era, as the writings and carvings of old have been reinterpreted by the coming of the Sundering.
Since the amalgamation of the pantheons and the combining of belief structures occurred within the first few decades of the arrival of the Old Worlders to the shores of the now Realms of Ash, there were those who disagreed with the concept of deities altogether. While it was rare to have atheists and agnostics within the Old Ironlands, the acceptance of these gods from the Old World as a part of the Ironlanders’ supposed “new understanding” became an easy way for traditionalists to back out of the combined faith structure. Adherents to the ancient practices and rigid families who wanted nothing to do with the combining of pantheons bore offspring who found their parents to be overbearing and unreasonable. Within two generations of Old Worlders on the shores of the then Ironlands, there were hundreds upon hundreds of citizens who wanted nothing to do with any belief system and vocally disavowed their allegiance to any gods. The current Realms of Ash are a mixture of believers and non-believers, but the vast majority of the humans within the kingdoms worship at least some mixture of the gods from the two primary cultures.