The World of the Black Iron Legacy (1)

Here’s the colour version of the map in The Shadow Saint, by my wonderful friends over at Handiwork Games. Guerdon – the setting for the entirely of The Gutter Prayer, is up there a little north of the middle of the map. The Shadow Saint and The B***** G** (book 3) take place partly in Guerdon, and partly further afield.

There’s a map on the wall. It’s old and hopelessly out of date, which, as a student of history, makes it all the more fascinating to her. It’s centred on the city of Old Haith, a hundred miles north of Guerdon. The Empire of Haith – a necrotic purple – spreads out inland north and west. It arcs north-east, along the foothills of the icy mountains, into Varinth. South, the map is speckled and blotched with purple. Speckles, for trading stations and outposts. Blotches for lands conquered by Haith in centuries past, when the undead legions and magic blades of the Empire were invincible.

There are gaps in the purple. Guerdon, for one, a little spot of farmland on Haith’s southern doorstep, a vassal city state. The island of Lyrix to the east, and off its coast the smaller islands of the Ghierdana, full of dragons and thieves. And to the south, Ishmere, Mattaur, Severast, the trader cities of old. If this map were accurate, all three would be stained red, not purple, bloodied by the soldiers of Haith who died and died again on those shores in a dozen wars. 

It shows Haith at nearly its greatest extent, covering almost half the map. These days, Haith’s just a smear: the heartland, Varinth, a few outposts. Still a great power, but no longer unassailable.

If the map were accurate, it would show Guerdon in brilliant silver, with silver trade routes spiralling out to all four corners and off the map to the Archipelago, carrying wonders of the alchemical renaissance. The dead of Haith might stand vigilant in their endless ranks until the end of time, but the living folk of Guerdon don’t have time to wait. There’s always another deal to be made. 

And if the map were accurate, she reflects, it would be on fire and screaming.

The two major empires of the day are Haith and Ishmere. Haith‘s the old empire, steeped in tradition, the great power of its day – but its day is in the past. Before the Godswar, Haith’s mastery of necromancy allowed its legions to conquer or subdue much of this portion of the world, and riches and tribute flowed to the silent city of Old Haith.

Haith’s a cold land – chilly moors, endless fields and estates, ancient walls and fortresses of antique design.

There are no gods in Haith, save the nameless god of death. There are almost-divinities; the ruling Houses of Haith each have a magical phylactery that preserves worthy souls. Thus, the generals of Haith have the tactical experience of a hundred lifetimes, and their diplomats have centuries of knowledge to draw upon. To become part of such a phylactery – to die enshrined – is among the highest honours in Haithi society. The vast majority of Haithi, though, die humbly as supplicants, their souls passing through the hands of the necromancers as fuel for magic before the death-god claims them. Between these two castes is the middle way of death, vigilance – the soul is bound to the skeleton, resurrecting the deceased as an undead creature. Vigilants can survive indefinitely if properly maintained, but the process of soul-binding is expensive. The vigil is offered mostly to Haith’s military, and having legions of immortal, tireless, nigh-invincible warriors used to mean something in battle.

Haith’s also known for its infamously complex Bureau, a sprawling bureaucracy that administers the crumbling empire. The Bureau’s immortal mandarins and spymasters have a fearsome reputation; in Guerdon, for example, paranoia about Bureau infiltration means that any disasters or misfortunes get blamed on Haithi spies.

Haith’s rival Ishmere is better known as the Sacred Realm, for it is rich in gods – and now, those gods have gone to war. Ishmere’s fleets and armies now maraud through the south. They’ve conquered the trading cities of Mattaur and Severast, smashed the Western Caliphate, and are now pushing down the holy river into Ul-Taen. Ishmere’s a lurid nightmare heaven, for the gods are so close at hand that mortal reality melts under their gaze. Temple piles on temple, demigods and divine monsters walk the land, and miracles are commonplace. All of Ishmere is consumed with the war effort; their goddess of war, the Lion Queen, is worshipped with frantic devotion by Her legions.

The third power near Guerdon is the island of Lyrix. The gods of Lyrix are stern and vengeful. Long ago, they punished their worshippers, taking all their sins of wrath and green and lust and making dragons from these sins to scourge the unworthy. These dragons proved treacherous, making common cause with criminals and becoming the Ghierdana criminal families. Each Ghierdana family consists of a dragon and a dynasty of adopted children; for centuries, the Ghierdana preyed on shipping and raided the mainland, but now they’re in uneasy alliance with the government of Lyrix.

North-east of Lyrix is the icy realm of Varinth. Centuries ago, a bitter age of ice forced the ancestors of the Guerdonese and Haithi to flee across the ocean from Varinth. Their distant cousins remained behind, and today, Varinth is a wild land of thickly forested hills. Here, the tribes worship ancient, feral gods, deities of thorn and ice, boar and wolf, sorrow and harvest – but these gods were suppressed when Varinth was conquered by returning legions of Haith.

The forests of Varinth, in time, give way to more settled lands around Paravos. These regions were conquered by Haith long ago, and remain tributaries to the northern Empire. Paravos of the fountains is a crossroads of the world, gateway to the eastern realms.

Crossing the sea brings us to the Eastern Caliphate, which has yet to fall to Ishmere’s ravening armadas – partly due to aid from Haith. The Caliphates – the splintered halves of an ancient empire riven by civil war – control much of the territory around the region called Firesea. This area bears the scans of an even older cataclysm. Of note here is the isle of Ilbarin, an island nation famed as a home for sailors and merchants, the brick city of Gissa, and the fabled city of sorcery, Khebesh, where the most skilled practitioners of the arcane art dwell.

West, we come to Ul-Taen, another land where ancestors are worshipped as gods. The sorcerer-kings of Ul-Taen were mighty indeed, and committed blasphemous acts of child sacrifice to ward off the ill effects of their spells. The sorcerer-kings turned on each other, and one by one they retreated into great tombs to plot and prepare terrible magics. The people of Ul-Taen, it is said, walled up these tombs, and now worship the sorcerers from a safe distance.

The Sunset Lands are a patchwork of minor kingdoms and cults, insular even in the days of the Godswar. West of the Sunset Lands is a wild ocean of storms, believed impossible to cross until recent times, when Guerdon-built alchemy-ships were able to brave the maelstrom and reach the lands of the Archipelago on the far side. Guerdon has begun to settle these empty lands.

The five trading cities lie north of the Sunset. For centuries, these five cities have fenced and fought, alliances shifting with the tide. The cities are famed for their subtlety and their mastery of wonders; when the godswar reached them, though, their wonders became bloated and sour. These cities were excellent customers for Guerdon’s alchemical weapons.

Sullen, stoic Mattaur of the Eyeless stood awkwardly with the rest, always befuddled by the quick wits of its rivals, but always it endured – until Ishmere came. Severast was closely allied with Ishmere, and shared many gods with the eastern land – but this old alliance did not save it from devastation and occupation by Ishmere. Jashan was mostly destroyed by an alchemical weapon called a dragon bomb, and little remains save bitterness and scorched rubble. Jashan’s gods went mad when their temples burned, and crazed war-saints still roam the blighted hinterlands nearby, attacking anyone they counter. Ulbishe is known for its poisoners and its glass-witches; its gods are hidden behind mirrored screens, and have no saints. Belligerent Khenth is the mightiest of the five, and fancies itself the heir to vanished Aseria.

Aseria, you ask? Why, once great Aseria was queen of the plains, equal in majesty to Old Haith, a city of philosophers and artisans. When the Godswar drew close, however, the gods of Aseria caused an impenetrable forest to spring up around the city, and transformed themselves into titanic monstrosities. Aseria fell by its own hand before the godswar could ravage it.

North of Aseria, the land grows mountainous and is only lightly inhabited. The Hordinger barbarians of the cold north worship their cruel gods and hunt sea-monsters, as they have done since the world was young. They sometimes fight as mercenaries, although these days their swords and spears are of little use, so they outfit themselves with Guerdonese rifles and alchemical weapons before going to war. Beyond the Hordinger lands is the endless ice. 

How much of all that was in place before I started writing the series? Very little. I’m a big fan of forward references – you drop a name and an evocative detail (“Haith, land of necromancers”), and only later do you work out what it actually all means. Effectively, you’re dropping writing prompts for your future self, which can work very well (I always write better under constraints – anything to get away from the horror of the blank page.)

I do have a big bag of plot elements I want to use at some point, but they’re not necessarily connected to any of those names yet. For example, I’ve got an idea for a civilisation divided between night and day that I want to use at some point, in this series or another – but rather than saying “oh, that’s the twin caliphates” right now, I’ll leave things untethered until it’s absolutely necessary to connect them. It’s just-in-time lazy world building.

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