The Setting

Hexenstein: Of Empty Thrones takes place on a planet called Haven. Haven has a diverse geography which includes environments ranging from dark forests and jagged mountains to trackless wastes and miasmic swamps. While one of the continents has been mapped by humanity, the rest of the world remains largely unexplored—and for good reason.

Long ago, humanity lived somewhere… else. A terrible place, full of vicious animals, poisonous vegetation, and constant natural disasters. The Six Gods (the Healer, the Hunter, the Weaver, the Scribe, the Smith, and the Reaper) saved those early humans and brought them to Haven. While oftentimes difficult and dangerous, life on Haven was a paradise compared to what it had been previously. As humanity progressed in knowledge of, and devotion to, the Gods, so too did the Gods grant great favor, and a golden, if simple, age of prosperity began. Those early humans quickly discovered, though, that the farther from the heart of their civilization they traveled, the more difficult life became. Early pioneers had it the hardest—without the healing, wisdom, and bounty brought by the Gods, life in the wilderness was one of bitter toil. Those who followed had a progressively easier time, as the light of the faithful burned brighter and the Gods saw fit to offer more succor. And so, humanity’s footprint on Haven went through a series of waves of expansion, eventually reaching the natural boundaries of the continent on which they found themselves. All good things come to an end, however, and the Golden Age was no exception.

Petty squabbles between rulers became affairs of honor, and affairs of honor gave way to all out war. When the dust eventually settled, the Imperial Age began in earnest with the establishment of the Ayanian Empire. With an unparalleled royal dynasty at the helm, the Empire originally consisted of the five most powerful states in the East. A disciplined and well organized military backed by an incredible infrastructure and massive logistical base saw the Empire constantly increase its holdings, first to the mountains and coasts of the East, and then steadily westwards. With the help of the Gods, the Empire brought low the Barrowfolk before them, and by the year 724, the Empire had some form of claim over the entirety of the continent.

The subjugation of the West was never quite complete, however, and deep levels of cultural divide remained despite the nominal political situation. Eventually, the underlying issues boiled over and a variety of rebellions broke out in the Westernmost provinces and, coupled with the untimely demise of Emperor Maradius the Third, the western possessions seceded from the Empire in the year 929 and came to be known as the Eilstern Demesnes (so named for the foremost dynasty of the West).

While the secular separation of the East and the West occurred relatively early on, both political alliances held fast to the same ecclesiastical organizations for quite some time. The Church remained dominant and unchallenged in both realms for several centuries after the Great Rebellion. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1473 that a series of scandals involving corruption in the Church and the ascension of an alternative religious figure finally forced the severing of ties between what are now called the Church Columnar in the East and the Diadox Church in the West. This catastrophic religious conflict, together with the wars it caused, is referred to as the Schism.

The 1500s were marked by constant interbloc tensions, with a number of border actions, civil wars, and uprisings. Even so, there was something approaching a status quo, and the situation remained more or less unchanged until near the end of the century. Then, just as the Empire prepared to invade the Demesnes to bring them to heel for once and all, an unprecedented spiral of events led to what many view as the end of the world—the Harrowing.

In 1598, something happened to the Gods. No one truly knows what, and there has never been any clear explanation from a reputable source.

In the spring of 1598, by longstanding tradition the small city of Minralburg held its annual holy day in the name of the Healer. The prayers and festivities went on as they had every year for centuries, celebrating the Healer and the Reaper and asking for a bountiful harvest and health for the community. This time, however, when the local Oridinal finished the prayers and called upon the host of heaven to show a sign of the acceptance of their entreaties and adulations, and everyone looked to the sky for the annual appearance of an angel of the Healer—nothing happened. No parting of the clouds, no haloed figure sweeping overhead. Just the wind in the trees, and a shadow passing in front of the sun.

While the Festival at Minralburg is widely considered to be the first evidence of the absence of the Gods, theologists and historians alike can point to other, more subtle indications, that may or may not precede that event. Some secular physicians involved with the Church saw an increase in calls for the services around the same time, as religious healing and cures seemed to be losing efficacy. Similarly, foresters and the like found themselves facing increased dangers in the wild places of the world, and those dying from violence or accident passed in more pain than ever before. And, as time passed, these signs became more wide spread, and more severe.

The summer of 1598 was one of ill omens and strange rumors. Stories of livestock born twisted and sickly, of children born… wrong. Juries of carrion crows spiraling through the air in such numbers as to blot out the sun. Marked decreases in rainfall, and increased numbers of vermin and pests. Things only got worse when the wheel of seasons turned to autumn. Crops suffered from blights and drought. Famine scoured the land from the mountains in the East to the ocean in the West. Monstrous creatures, some not seen in millenia, some never seen before at all, began to stalk the land. As the Imperial Legions massed in the East, plagues sprang up, horrifying fevers that liquified the flesh and turned the blood to pus.

The Harrowing had begun.

It has been a generation since the Gods turned their faces from humanity. Twenty-five years of warfare, disease, and privation. Civilization has devolved into squabbling masses of desperate people simply trying to survive. The cities and nation-states of before…most have endured in some diminished form, but more than one has fallen to the constant tribulations. The majority of smaller settlements are gone, scoured clean by the plagues and worse, or inhabited only by bandits and ragged survivors wary of outsiders.

The land itself is as decayed as the populace—thriving river valleys have flooded into vast swamps, or their rivers have dried up and left nothing but stones, twisted trees, and bloodthirsty creatures that hunt the unwary. Prairies and grasslands are now deserts and trackless wastes. Even the oceans are unsafe between massive storms and horrors crawling from the depths to attack coastal communities.

Those who remember the time before the Harrowing assume this to be the End of Days. Their efforts to preserve culture and society, to say nothing of hope, often seem misguided, or pitifully ineffective. In contrast, those born to the world as it are often ruthlessly pragmatic, or at the very least incredulous of the stories of plenty from bygone eras.

Today, in 1624, life is struggle. Venal nobles squeeze destitute commoners for every morsel of food they can. Hollow-eyed priests offer empty promises to silent gods. Demons walk the land disguised as people, and the dead do not lay quiet in their graves.

On the border between the Ayanian Empire and the Eilstern Demesnes sits the fallen kingdom of Valathia, and the broken down village of Grauhaken. Folks from all across the face of Haven, from all walks of life, have found their way to this place. Some come for commerce and trade. Others flee their pasts, seeking sanctuary or penance. Others claim that they have been called here by a blessed apparition—a faceless nun appearing to them and guiding their steps. Grauhaken sits on the banks of the Deadwind River, between the dark and twisted trees of the Grimwold and the towering peaks of the Bleakstone Mountains. And there, high in those austere and brooding peaks, perches Castle Hexenstein…