The Phoenix Covenant
The Empire of Nerath is hardly the first empire to rise in the area. In fact, it is the latest in a long line of states that have formed and fallen over the years, centuries, and millennia. Most recently, the ruins of Lost Arkhosia and Bael Turath to the south stand as reminders of the cycle of empires.
Before that, legends speak of the high-elven domains, including doomed Cendriane, the Anauli Empire, and the Realm of the Twin Queens, all long-since vanished into the past. The dwarven realm of Ironbones, reputedly founded just after the dwarves won their freedom after the Age of Chains, likewise has vanished, leaving behind nothing but a few mysterious ruins and artifacts.
Nerath is not even the first human empire. The nomads of the Delian Plains speak of the ancient Chariot Kings who once ruled all the flat land east of the Axefall Mountains, and from whom their chieftains claim descent. In addition, hill forts and burial mounds throughout Nerath Province, mainland Turanni Province, and Temal Province indicate an ancient human society that once governed those lands, and stories have come down through the years of a very advanced human kingdom that once ruled from an island in Cold Lake, now sunk beneath those chill waters.
There are even rumours and legends of greater empires, including a hobgoblin empire deep in the Daggermoor, and the stories of the Sea Giants, said once to have ruled from the islands of the Reavers’ Sea. Evidence of these cultures is very slim, and consists mainly of folktales.
Despite all this, the rise of the Empire of Nerath was essentially a story written on a clean page. At the time of the founding of the Empire, there were no other wide-spread cultures or nations in the area, merely isolated pockets of a few dozen or a few hundred inhabitants of whatever race, scrabbling for survival in the wilderness, or in the ruins of once-great nations. Indeed, the Kingdom of Nerath was one of these, a small fortified town that grew and collected more land, people, and power through valour, cunning, diplomacy, dedication, and no small portion of luck.
The move from the Kingdom of Nerath to the Empire of Nerath was, in fact, a desperate act intended to stave of starvation in the Kingdom. Faced with a punishing raid by goblins out of the Axefall Mountains, and suffering from crop failures and the difficulty of irrigating their farmland, King Elimys II led an army west to capture some of the lush farmland in what is now Irdath Province.
After first taking Breen’s Cove to use as a staging ground, the army of Nerath rolled west, snapping up small settlements and their surrounding farms with little in the way of armed resistance. When the city-state of Irdath saw its breadbasket being stolen away, they mounted a defense, but could not equal the strategy and cunning of the Nerath commanders.
After two years of skirmishes and indecisive battles had bled both nations dry, the heads of state of both sides met under flag of truce to end the hostilities. With assistance from skilled negotiators, the Empire of Nerath was founded, with Irdath becoming capital of its own province. The agreement, called the Gleaner’s Treaty, marked Imperial Year 1 in the new official calendar, under Emperor Elimys I.
The new Empire proved amazingly prosperous, especially with trade treaties established with the remains of the Kingdom of Turanni, the elves and eladrin of Du Rikel, and the dwarven mining towns in the Axefall Mountains. By the time of the Empire’s second centennial, Durkel Province and Turanni Province had joined the fold, and Temalport had applied for protectorate status to stem the invasions from Daggermoor.
By the time of the fifth centennial, the Empire of Nerath was seen as the true civilization of the world, occupying roughly 80% of its current land, and setting the standard of culture, magic, and art. All was not rosy, however; pirates from the Reavers’ Islands, orcs from the Daggermoor, goblins from the Bitter Mountains, and nomads from the Delian Plains all pressed the borders of the Empire, seeking to claim what gold or land they could.
Even this pressure was turned to a boon for the Empire, however, as outlying towns, cities, and nations began to clamor for admittance to the Empire, and the protection it afforded. By the time the sixth centennial rolled around, the Empire had firmly established its borders, and had incorporated most of the settlements and civilizations between the Delian Plains and the Daggermoor.
The Golden Age
In IY 641, Emperor Amadyr IV, called The Builder, embarked on the construction of the Eastern and Western Lines of defense. The project took the entirety of his reign to complete, thirty-seven years before the final stones were laid in IY 678, overseen by Amadyr’s successor, Empress Dylara I, during the second year of her reign. Historians mark this as the beginning of Nerath’s golden age.
During the two centuries that followed, the Empire of Nerath shone as a beacon of light in the world. With the conflicts that had previously plagued the Empire held at the borders by the Eastern and Western Lines, the inner provinces and cities prospered and throve. Commerce, art, science, magic, scholarship, and craftsmanship all reached new heights. The cities became wonders to behold, drawing in many of the wandering dragonborn and tieflings to add a strange, cosmopolitan air to them.
Expeditions were sent south to the ruins of Bael Turath, deep into the heart of Lost Arkhosia, north past the Aerie Mountains, out past the Reavers’ Islands by sea, and even overland to the east to find what lay beyond the Daggermoor. They brought back wonders from far-scattered civilizations, and opened trade routes to strange, mysterious new lands.
But the wizards and priests reached even beyond that, making contact with nations in the Astral Sea and Feywild, and even with the Court of the Raven Queen in the Shadowfell and the City of Brass in the Elemental Chaos. The knowledge and wonders they brought back were used to enrich the entire Empire, making its light shine that much brighter.
The Reign of Emperor Elidyr
Emperor Elidyr I took the Imperial Throne in IY 883. The first decade of his reign was quite unremarkable, as the Empire continued to prosper. Then, in IY 895, rumours began to reach the outlying settlements in the northeast that something was stirring in the Howling Forest. Not one to ignore a potential threat, Emperor Elidyr began to reinforce the Eastern Line and send scouting parties out to see what might be brewing.
The answers that were brought back galvanized the Empire, leading to the largest mobilization since the Bloodspear War that broke the orc power in the east and drove them back to the Daggermoor. The Eastern Line was reinforced heavily, and reserves brought up to replenish the garrisons should the need arise.
These precautions, while sensible, proved to be an error. Instead of sweeping down from the Howling Forest and smashing into the Eastern Line, the armies that came first came pouring down out of the Bitter Mountains: goblins, orcs, and kobolds fleeing the rising tide of the Ruler of Ruin’s army to the east of their traditional homes. These creatures cut a savage path down into the heart of the Empire while generals tried to regroup and deal with this new threat. Reserve forces were turned back west, and more troops were brought in from Irdath and Durkel Provinces, as well as up from Turanni Province in the south.
The fiercest fighting took place on the plains between Imperial City and Temalport, nasty skirmishes over small villages and hamlets that split the Imperial armies into small, scattered duty units tasked with defending against a hit-and-run insurgency.
The Ruler of Ruin
With the Imperial forces thus distracted, the Eastern Line was left to bear the impact of the Ruler of Ruin without reinforcements. Armies of rabid, savage gnolls boiled out of the Howling Forest and washed down on Fort Gyrab like a plague. Though unable to breach the walls, the gnolls bottled in the defenders, allowing their army to sweep past and across the Eastern Line, falling on the beleaguered Imperial forces in Temal Province, catching them between the Ruler of Ruin and the goblinoid insurgents.
The gnolls of the Ruler of Ruin were unlike any that the Imperial army had previously faced. They seemed infected with a madness that drove them into a killing frenzy, and they spread this insanity to their victims, as well. They never retreated, never surrendered, and never took prisoners. The only way to defeat an attack was to kill every last gnoll.
The Ruler of Ruin himself remained a mystery. Some scouts reported seeing him from a distance, riding on a huge palanquin made of bone and jagged iron, carried by cyclopses and surrounded by a cavorting, dancing, frenzying sea of gnolls and their victims.
Faced with this implacable foe and collapsing defenses, the Imperial forces began falling back, trying to consolidate, and pick better defensive ground. The scholars also began seeking out powerful allies and magic from beyond this world, looking for anything that would grant them an advantage or tell them something about their foes.
And the Empire teetered on the brink of collapse.
The Phoenix Covenant
And so, in IY 897, the Phoenix Covenant formed. The members believed that the end of the Empire of Nerath was near, and that the only hope to save what they saw as the pinnacle of civilized culture lay in hiding a small group away until the war ended.
They obtained the deed to Stayyin Keep, in the mountains of Stayyin Province, and gathered together the best and the brightest to wait out the war there. The Phoenix Gate of Covenant was closed and sealed on Longnight of IY 897.