Mysteries of the Amberwoad Vale
The entire breadth and scope of hyperborean ‘religion’ is tied inexorably with the concept of the Godswar. Godswar is the name given to the campaign, undertaken by the northern orcs, to overthrow and murder an unknown number of gods or powerful spirits previously worshipped by multiple peoples, the orcs included. No society south of Bloody Oaks seriously acknowledges the Godswar as anything other than local myth, but the orcs and feral elves speak of it as relatively recent history.
There is clearly some kernel of truth or basis to the myth that southern scholars must admit to, however: the universality of the myth demands that much. Piecing together or rooting out that kernel is difficult both because of the danger the north presents and, more importantly, because orcs favor the memories of their shamans over the written word and don’t see much a point in remembering exactly how long ago events happened.
To be fair, the shamans have frighteningly good memories, and generally tend to agree on certain facts across every clan and khanate. There is a reason they are trusted with overseeing trade and the satisfaction of paid tribute, after all.
To hear the shamans tell it, the Godswar started a long time ago: ‘four or five khans back’ is a common refrain, though it is impossible to say how long ago that may have been. Nobody knows how old Skogul Khan is, for example, or how long her father ruled before her, or his before him.
In any case, the Godswar supposedly began when a some god – they are never named by the orcs anymore – passed down a command to all the warlords through their shamans. In these times, it is said, the orcs were particularly strong and unified and a horde was eminent. The strongest of the warlords, the one thought most likely to lead this proto-horde, did not agree with this command, and himself slaughtered all of his clan’s shamans.
Instead of one great horde, two formed: one loyal to the gods, another opposed to their decree, whatever it was. This was the first time two hordes had formed in opposition, and contrary to what one might expect, the loyalists were by far the larger of the two. The rebel warlord, now a rebel warchief, was in a position to take key territories that were easy to defend, and his followers were, on average, the largest and most imposing orcs living at the time. The loyalist horde, believing itself unstoppable because of its greater numbers and the support of its gods, rushed into combat in a furious tide.
And it was shattered.
The rebel warchief pressed his advantage, hunting down and killing warlords and shamans and recruiting the strongest survivors of each clan into his ever-growing horde even as the loyalist warchief fell back. The rebel warchief rewarded the most successful and loyal orcs under his command, establishing them as new warlords of new clans, all made up of the displaced remnants of the old clans.
In time, the rebels came to utterly dominate the northeast, a frigid landscape of short, cruel mountains, misty highlands and moors, unpredictable geysers and hot springs, and ever-shifting glaciers. A series of particularly harsh winters killed the war’s momentum. The loyalist horde, forced into mollification, split back up into clans as all hordes had before. The rebel horde, however, remained cohesive, loyal to its warchief even without a sustained series of battles to keep them focused.
It became the first khanate, and the rebel warchief its first khan.
There were many years of relative peace, but even then things were happening that would shape history. It is said that the gods vowed to punish the heretics, and that they sent countless cruel storms and calamities north to ensure that the elements would punish the rebels where the loyal horde could not. Even today the clans speak of that time with pride: a time when all the weapons of nature were turned against them and yet they endured, thrived. If the gods truly did think of the earth as an anvil and all the beasts and storms as their hammer, all they did was forge their enemies into something greater than they were previously.
Now, there once were tribes of men that lived in the greatest northern reaches, who were said to have the blood of giants in their veins – this is known, and there is proof of it that the scholars of Two Rivers acknowledge. Now, the orcs say, and the elves agree, that the old gods of the north hated these tribes of men for having their own gods, and for being stubborn about it. So when the newly-formed khanate went on defying the gods, those tribes, one by one, began traveling northeast, and made tentative treaties with the khan.
The khan, perhaps even to his own surprise, was amenable to these treaties. As the years of hardship went on, more and more humans arrived and settled near the orcs, and soon the two races began to integrate. The harsh conditions imposed by the gods probably forced this: it is said that the other races of far-flung hyperborea were also forced to join the orcs for any hope of survival.
The shamans do not say how long this went on, but it must have been an age. The khanate must have grown exponentially, which would have taken a significant amount of time in such dire circumstances. It is suggested that the human tribes were almost entirely bred out of existence during this period as well, though some of them did flee far to the south, refugees to Two Rivers. The first khan died during this unknown period, and the shamans say there was a time of turmoil before another warlord managed to accrue enough power and prestige to declare himself khan again. And it was only this new khan’s daughter, Ornekka, that instigated what came next.
The khanate had grown too large, and food was at last becoming too scarce. Soon the khanate would turn on itself just to eat, and so Ornekka snuck south and began visiting the southern warlords, one by one. She came on like a prophet, declaring that the orcs owed no allegiance to any god, but that they were born and bred to seek out the strongest foe and best him, wherever and whoever he may be. That foe, she said, was the gods themselves. After all, did the gods not say that no force in the world was stronger than them?
Were they not thus challenging the orcs to prove themselves?
She boasted that she would form a horde, the greatest horde that had ever been, and that this horde would kill the gods and all who followed them. Not only did she survive her tour of many southern clans, it is said she did so without ever being attacked or cast out. Indeed, when the horde she promised did form, a great many southern clans flocked to it and declared their allegiance.
When this orcish prophet returned home to the khanate, she spoke the same declaration she had spread in the south. The shamans say that when her father heard her boasts, he nodded once, slowly, rose from his throne, and drew both his swords. He declared her Ornekka Khan before all the assembled warlords, and then with one sword he slit his own throat while, with the other, he disemboweled himself. No one dissented when Ornekka stepped over her father’s body, the breath yet in it, and took the throne for herself.
The horde was declared, and the Godswar began.
In those days, the shamans say, there were a number of sacred places in the north: enchanted groves, valleys, craters, caves, summits, trees, burrows, and so on. Here the holiest men and women came from every race and people to attend to their gods directly. Here, it was said, were the foundational altars, the fonts of each gods’ considerable power. It was an orcish shaman who first revealed the existence of one such place to Ornekka, though not in true betrayal of his faith. The shaman thought it would please his god, for this holy place belonged to his god’s rival, and it was a haven of the elves.
The shamans say that everyone had forgotten that the khanate existed, or had thought it too seriously diminished by the gods’ wrath to be any true threat. Thus, Ornekka’s horde swept southwest virtually unopposed, and did the unthinkable: they slaughtered every holy man, desecrated the altar there with the blood of its staunchest followers, and then shattered it. It is said that terrified screaming could be heard even after everyone was dead, but that it abruptly ceased when Ornekka’s champion brought his axe down on the wooden altar and split it in twain.
The first god of the north had died.
The shamans do not remember how many gods died, or even where every altar was. They were forgotten intentionally, perhaps to add insult to injury. There is another theory, of course: there was a fear that the gods could be called back if they were remembered, their altars reestablished, and only by slaughtering the truly faithful and striking the gods’ name from memory could such a being truly be snuffed out.
In any case, the campaign was terrifyingly successful in those early days. The attacks came faster than news could travel, and the news strained all belief so that even when it did arrive it spurred chaos instead of action. The orc clans laughed it off, the elves scoffed and brooded, and the nearest settlements of man thought events too far to be of interest.
Then the priests and shamans began to report that their gods were silent where once they had spoken, that their gifts had been revoked, their boons apparently forgotten. Those that still heard the celestial call reported fear and panic in the heavens, as had never been sensed before, and that their divinations and benedictions became erratic, tinged, corrupt.
And then reports came of the horde sweeping across the north like a tide, the most fearsome horde ever conceived, and now the warlords acted. A new loyalist horde was mustered at the panicked behest of the gods, with goblins and kobolds driven before it, and gods that had traditionally been rivals no longer called for their counterparts to be undermined. Tribes of opposing faiths were suddenly working side-by-side, and even sometimes with elven aid.
It wasn’t enough.
As with her early predecessor, Ornekka crushed every warlord who defied her and scattered his clan, and from the remnants of many clans she crafted new clans loyal to her, led by her staunchest friends – clever and physically imposing orcs all, each viewed her with reverential awe and demanded the same from their newly-forged families. Where any old-style horde would have petered out, hers only grew stronger in purpose and number, each dead god elevating Ornekka’s status among her followers.
It was the elves that realized her importance, and they who engineered her downfall.
It happened when Ornekka’s clan rushed into a complex cave system, carved out by some long-forgotten empire. She came to deal the final blow against a god’s altar, supported by a trio of her most trusted warlords and the elite guard of their clans. They found the altar, but it was a trap. The cave tunnels were collapsed behind them, and Ornekka’s supposed allies turned on her with the support of an elven strike force laying in wait. What should have been a slaughter was instead a brutal fight for survival, and it ended only when the elves set fire to an elaborate trap they’d prepared throughout the cave system. An entire mountain burned with heat enough to melt stone, and Ornekka died in the altar chamber, betrayed but triumphant. The altar burned with her.
Ornekka’s death had the desired effect: the horde splintered, not one khanate anymore, but many. This was not, however, the end the elves had hoped for. That the gods had resorted to treachery, and that orcs had betrayed the immutable demands of the horde, was unthinkable. The tide turned, and it did so with unbelievable speed. Only a few clans still stood in support of the gods, and those few were those that had been the betrayers, or those clans that were closest or beholden to them. Anyone who stood with the gods was hunted down, scattered, and crushed wherever they hid.
There was no longer a single horde, but instead over a dozen khanates, each one devoted to the gods’ extinction. There was a sort of race to destroy every altar that remained, to claim the glory and honor of having done it, and the successful khanates usually settled around the altar they destroyed. They named themselves for the deed, or after godly avatars felled, or the location of the altar, or for the champions that led them to victory. The orcs no longer had gods.
And neither, as a result, did the elves.
Now, human scholars that have managed to safely communicate with the modern elves, so-called ‘feral,’ say that the elves still hold their faiths, and pay homage to gods, but that they say the gods are silent in return. One must never suggest that this means the gods are dead, for the elves violently disbelieve this. Instead, these scholars surmise, the elves believe they have been abandoned for their failures during the Godswar, and only by proving themselves and avenging these incredible insults against the divine can the elves regain their lost status.
The orcs laugh at the notion.
The gods, the orcs say, are dead, so dead that even the elves have forgotten their names.
One should be troubled at either possibility, and at any other truth yet unimagined. The north is a troubling place.