The Bleakwind Isles
The small chain of Islands known as the Bleakwinds lies due south of a larger continental landmass known as Kagir. Until approximately 50 years ago the Bleakwinds had been little more than the final destination of every thief, thug and rapist from Kagir; they are now one of the last strongholds of sentient life in a savaged world. The eruption of the caldera Sunderius rendered much of the mainland incapable of supporting life and tilted the fundamental balance of the elements in the world. The Bleakwinds at one time supported the lords of a globe-spanning empire known as the Cold Ones. As the original homeland of this mysterious race the islands were quickly stripped of their natural resources as the power of their empire waxed. When the Cold Ones suddenly vanished several millenia ago, their slave races slowly moved into the void they left behind, utilizing what they could of their former master’s technology and buildings. As humanity and the Gorgoloths slowly built domains of their own, the depleted island chain held little interest for the races of Kagir except as a destination for their own cast-offs. Marooned with nothing and little to work with, it was assured these exiles would not return to trouble their homelands.
With the cataclysmic eruption of Sunderius, most of the kingdoms on the mainland were annihilated in a hellish storm of falling ash and pyroclastic flows. What remnants of life still exist on the mainland cling to the shores and it is from these that some refugees arrived in the hours after the conflagration. As Gorgoloth long ships slammed into the rocky beaches, they were met by the human inhabitants of the Bleakwinds; the visible destruction of the mainland coupled with the sudden arrival of the massive Gorgoloths (known on the mainland as bloodthirsty raiders) primed the situation for bloodshed and the humans charged the beaches with weapons of bone and flint as the vessels ground into the shore.
The Gorgoloths, though outnumbered, were armed with metal weapons brought from the mainland and reinforced by those of their Shamen that had survived the disaster. Initial confidence of holding off the humans quickly disappeared under their savage frontal assault and the realization that the Golgoloth sorcerers could no longer utilize the devastating flame spells that had been their trademark in raiding coastal societies. Drawing on their prodigious combat experience the Gorgoloths began a controlled exit from the field of battle; concentrating their numbers, they broke through the human line and made for the central mountains of Bastion, the isle upon which they had landed. Faced with a hostile landscape and the failure of one of their greatest sources of power, the Gorgoloths retreated into the defensible terrain of the mountains to start over in the face of a changed world. The Bleakwinds Today
The races of the Bleakwinds manage somehow to scrape out an existence in a world turned hostile. The growing season has shortened and it is not uncommon to see fires burning occasionally even in the depths of the summer months. Only the hardiest of crops and plants survive and farmsteaders will gladly aid each other in the backbreaking labor of raising enough food to feed the communities; the persistent threat of famine forges strong bonds of community.
While the farmers labor in the valleys and dells, warlords come and go amongst the towns. While they rarely manage to band together enough fighting men to hold more than one village, it doesn’t dampen their desire for greater control. Young men tend to flock to their service, it promises not only a warm bed and meals but a sense of camaraderie. In serving the most heavily handed of warlords there are other benefits as well, allowing their men to take almost whatever they want from the town they control.
The Gorgoloths warily watch the humans fighting from the mountains. Weakened after the cataclysm, they rarely raid now, doing so mostly in retaliation for thefts of their herds or simply fighting over the limited mineral resources of the isles. Occasionally, a particularly strong or talented human war-chief has conquered a tribe for a brief time, but just as often a human settlement has been razed to the ground by massive axes.
During times of quiet between the two races, they have found it mutually beneficial to trade with each other, even teaching the others skills they have been lacking. The Gorgoloths taught the humans some measure of working with the limited metals available while the humans taught the Gorgoloths which grains grow successfully and how to tend them.
The humans living on the Bleakwinds come from a great many cultures and ethnicities. Nearly any appearance can be found: skin of the darkest brown to palest ivory and any hair and eye color imaginable. The genetic lines on the islands are young yet and haven’t converged into one homogeneous appearance. Despite the great variety of ethnic groups there is very little animosity between peoples of differing descent; the small populations of the coastal towns realize that greater threats lie without their walls than within. Children of Winter
Perhaps no more than one out of every thousand births is what is known as a Child of Winter. While many consider them corrupted by Winter, the nature of their upbringing will determine where this being is a harbinger of weal or woe. The Children of Winter are obviously marked by the forces of cold: mostly human in appearance, they nonetheless harbor some stigmata of supernatural influence: bone white hair, a freezing mist that clings to their flesh, etc. Magic in the Isles
The Gorgoloth Shamen weren’t the only ones to discover the rift in their abilities. More than one human sorcerer, stranded for being a danger to their society, discovered that they too were able to contact the spirits of fire and earth only with great difficulty. When they could understand the muffled, incoherent speech of the powers behind the veil at all, they discovered that they could do no more than light candles with the minute amounts of power they were able to tap. In time, through their limited ability to converse with the powers of flame and rock, these sorcerers learned that the eruption of the caldera had marked the tipping point in some war between the elemental courts. Sunderius had been a failed last gasp effort to avoid defeat and those powers were greatly scattered and weakened, unable to influence the world as they had before and Winte’s corruption can now be seen in all corners of the Isles.
The Bleakwinds are rife with the intrusion of the supernatural: sorcerers, particularly those of experience and years are rightly feared agents of the power of Winter, ancient artifacts of the Cold Empire lie hidden in festering ruins, and deadly emanations from the realm of Dreams make the inhospitable isles all that much more dangerous.
Practitioners of the Winter art have flourished here, in this sere land. They find positions of power readily at the hand of each warlord looking to place his mark on the Bleakwinds rocky soil; in some cases, such as the Flayer of Nolder, they even seek rule of their own. While powerful, sorcerers are few, they jealously guard their crafts, rarely passing on their talents. They exercise caution with their abilities as well, they are ill liked amongst the folk of the isles. More than one practitioner has been burned out of his home or staked as the result of incaution.
Few can manipulate the forces of Winter, it’s not well understood from where the talent to understand the puissant words of Ice and Darkness arises. Sometimes, the ability becomes apparent after a close brush with some monstrous beast, or eating the flesh of some creature itself contaminated by winter. In other circumstances, the ability has appeared overnight with no known root cause; some seem to be born with it. Wary villagers have been known to turn on their own who suddenly exhibit preternatural ability; wary witches always keep an eye out for upcoming threats to their power.
The ruins of the enigmatic Cold Empire are scattered all over the Bleakwinds; their sinister reputation means they have been largely unexplored. In some circumstances great wealth and powerful magic has come from these sepulchers, however. For every remarkable item retrieved, however, many lives are lost.
While the Bleakwinds became undisputedly more frigid and harsh after the cataclysm; small, isolated portions of the atoll have become mirror images of the violent areas of the realm of dreams where all the elements originate. One excellent example of this phenomena stands at the north end of Bathys, the frozen school known as broken hall. An apparent well into the realm of dreams opened directly beneath the building; instantly freezing all within to death then re-animating the remains into frozen, malevolent, marionette-like puppets.
Rule of the Strong
The Bleakwinds historical record is still very short; the islands had been uninhabited for millennia. Only in the last two hundred years has there been a sapient presence on the islands and until recently, this only existed in rough gangs of people surviving only by hunting and raiding each other. Shortly after the cataclysm and the Gorgoloth arrival the first central government was formed.
Cro was the leader of one of the largest human enclaves in the Bleakwinds; his village marked the beach where the Gorgoloth long ships beached following the destruction of Sunderius. With the frightening skirmishes quelled after the Gorgoloth retreat to the central mountains, Cro set about solidifying not only the rule of his village, but his neighbors as well. Several smaller villages quickly agreed to join forces with Cro, unnerved by the massive destruction on the mainland and the sudden arrival of the bloodthirsty raiders, they were easily convinced of their peril and need of protection by Cro’s forces.
Those nearby villages that refused were quickly overrun by Cro’s men, now armed with looted metal weapons from the Gorgoloths and some of the surviving long ships; they quickly became terrors of the coastal villages. In time, most of the human population of the Bleakwinds had been subjugated under the rule of Cro Duvin, his right hand men became governors of the towns; for a time, the Bleakwinds was a peaceful, if not happy place.
The Succession and Warring Cities Period
Cro’s reign as Warlord lasted for about 25 years until his assassination by unknown assailants in the depths of Winter in the year 973. His sons: Rorik and Dune fought savagely over his succession with Cro’s former henchman in the cities throwing in their lot with one faction or the other.
The Succession War lasted another five years; with battles taking place on nearly every island and rock in the chain. To fund the every widening conflict, both brothers found it necessary to increase taxes on their populations, ultimately fueling unrest among the commoners and in some cases insurrections and riots. With the death of both brothers at the battle at Tritan Gulf, the conflict fell into the hands of local warlords who now fought for a larger share of power and glory for themselves, not just some far flung warlord in the south. The conflict would drag on and scar the land for another ten years until finally, with their resources exhausted; the warlords began an unmarked truce that continues to this day, leaving scores of ex-patriated soldiers without work or purpose for their skills.
The Mercenary Culture
The Bleakwinds Isles are a treacherous place for anyone with the need to travel between its handful of hamlets and villages. For every man, woman and child who lives in a town or a farmhold one lives on the fringes, in caves, sparse pines forests or a rude hut. Some are exiles, others hermits, rogue witches, The Broken or fanatics. Others form crude communities of their own, small, and forced together for survival, they take by force what they need from others on the cart trails, then skulk back to their own strongholds, fearing the dangers of night…
Rogue humans aren’t the only threats; the hulking Gorgoloths will raid as well, most often in retribution for some perceived slight but occasionally out of desperate need themselves. There are more malevolent threats, also: Derro, the under-folk, will slaughter entire villages and caravans at night, carting off the survivors as slaves. Mindless horrors such as the majestic and evil N’gren threaten travelers and more ancient horrors from the Cold Empire still stalk the land, preying on the unprotected.
The constant threat of depredation has facilitated the evolution of a distinctive class of folk amongst the Bleakwinders, the mercenary. The title isn’t claimed only by the skilled soldier: Witches, Warlocks, Thieves and Trackers alike have something to contribute to the trade. These men and women are respected, even if not revered; from the ranks of this maelstrom are drawn the warlords, in each his own mind the one to unite the isles under his own rule. For many, their ambition knows no restriction or boundary. They have been forged in a crucible of violence with the most bloodthirsty and skilled of their peers.
A mercenary’s successful reputation and skill are the single most important measures of his prestige amongst his kind. Rivalries are common, whether of ribald camaraderie or contempt, these men who sell their services go out of their way to impress patrons and embarrass their competitors. Hunters will seek out the most dangerous of game, exulting in the cheers received when they drag some remarkable beast of the wild into the nearest hamlet. Duels, lethal and otherwise are fought with impunity, a warrior’s comitatus exists ensuring duels are uninterrupted and unprosecuted.
Economics of the Isles
The ancient empire of the Cold Ones stripped most of the valuable resources from the Isles and the cataclysm made growing crops all the more difficult. What metal is left today is found in small, widely scattered veins of ore. Precious salt mines are rare, and sparse forests provide little in the way of ready building material. What few resources can be found are either jealously guarded or excessively remote. As a result, Bleakwinders have had to develop unique, new trades and crafts to fill niches that would have been filled by other materials.
Bonecrafters have utilized the hard durable bones from sea serpents and Isle rhinos to replace smiths and their forges, crafting weapons, armor, furniture and other implements from shoulder blades and ribs. With few carpenters and even less lumber, masons and stonecutters have taken on a more central role in building and public works, stone is plentiful in the Isles and durable in the face of the great storms. Where the storms are too severe, the tents of the canvaseers can be found, ready to be broken down and stashed when lightning and black storms loom. Made from durable hemp, canvas finds its way into clothes, packs and other cloth gear. The hardy men who harvest the great creatures of the sea provide oil for waterproofing and lamps provide raw materials for the bonecrafters and pickled meats for the long winters. The harsh climate allows for raising only a few hardy crops such as beans, barley, potatoes and rye. Smaller local plots will grow carrots, onions and other table vegetables which are inevitably small with the short growing cycle.