To the west of the black wood where the shadow fey dwell lies a great pit in the Shadow Realm’s landscape. A series of deep depressions gouge the dark earth, diving deep into thick shadows and darkened tunnels. To a shrewd scholar of Midgard geography this mighty crevasse takes on a sinister meaning, for it exists in the corresponding location of the dwarf heartland, the Ironcrag Cantons. In these Black Iron Depths thrives an exiled arm of the Ghoul Imperium known as the Twilight Empire. These darknesstouched ghouls thrive in the shadow of the Ironcrags, searching for a way to breach the barrier between darkness and light. Their undead bodies absorb the essence of Shadow through the flesh of their meals (shadow fey and other living creatures of the realm), and every ghoul of the Twilight Empire bears the mark of that shadow—their teeth appear pitch black.
Driven out of the Ghoul Empire after a failed coup, renegade ghouls fled deep into the tunnels of Midgard’s underworld. Starving and broken in the depths, they chanced upon a shadow road in a lightless cavern filled with twisted abominations. The ensuing battle shed sufficient blood to briefly activate the road, and the commander of the traitor legion led his troops into Shadow.
The road led the ragged ghouls into the shadows cast by the Ironcrag Mountains. They collapsed the tunnel behind them, sealing the shadow road and blocking any pursuers’ path. Safe from further reprisals for their treason, they set about building a new empire.
Emperor in Exile
Vilmos Marquering, called the Black Fang, once commanded the Iron Legion in the White City. His coup was well planned and brilliantly executed. He turned key conspirators to his cause, several close to the true emperor, and those he couldn’t turn he killed and replaced with loyal cat’s-paws. When he struck, Vilmos learned just how deep the emperor’s secrets ran and how woefully inadequate all those careful preparations truly were. He barely escaped, and the most powerful warriors of his legion were reduced to dust by the emperor’s magic. With what must have been Vardesain’s intervention, Vilmos and his surviving allies fled to the Shadow Realm.
The Twilight Emperor now rules from his Black Iron Throne in the heart of the Black Iron Depths. Vilmos reforged the battered remnants of his coup into a fighting force worthy of serving him. To ensure control over his budding empire, the Black Fang anointed his five most trusted lieutenants as his dukes. Each duke assumed command of a city within the Depths and took one of the Twilight legions to defend that stronghold in the Twilight Emperor’s name. The Black Fang is wary of even these trusted advisers, for he remembers that betrayal arises from those closest to power. Unknown to any but the Twilight Emperor, the commander of each legion is fanatically loyal to him. Their devotion is enforced through magic, by a black mithral bracer recovered from a strange ruin near the Depths. Should any or all of his dukes turn on him, they’ll swiftly find themselves at the points of their own legions’ weapons.
Dealings with Darkness
In the years since the ghouls’ exile, the Twilight Empire has grown swiftly. They make regular raids on living communities of fey, the Moonlit Glades, and any other breathing creatures they can find. The Twilight ghouls are extremely careful to manage their food sources efficiently, and they rarely suffer a ravenous beggar ghoul to exist among them.
Living in the Shadow Realm means greater difficulty in finding sources of living flesh, so the Twilight ghouls forged peaceful contact with the shadow fey courts. Since the shadow fey control the vast majority of shadow roads, they can arrange passage for ghoul raiding parties to Midgard and ensure their safe return with their precious cargo of “food.” In return, the Twilight Emperor assigns legionnaires to assist in the maintenance of shadow roads that pass through particularly dangerous sections of the realm, as well as those known to draw unwanted trespassers from Midgard. The Queen of Night and Magic found the sudden appearance of a ghoul empire intriguing, and amuses herself by keeping tabs on their doings. Lately, she has grown concerned at the increasing ghoul activity in and around the City Fallen into Shadow. Their activities somehow elude her most powerful magic and her canniest spies. She contents herself with the strange magical relics the ghouls unearth through trade and favor for the time being, but that situation won’t last long. Her Majesty isn’t known for patience once her curiosity is aroused.
Ever since the chance discovery of the Twilight Emperor’s magical bracer within a splinter of the City Fallen into Shadow, the Black Fang’s ambitions have kindled anew. He hasn’t forgotten his humiliating defeat and still dreams of one day striking the White City to claim the throne. The umbral vampires and their city suggest a means that he might use to level the playing field against Emperor Nicoforus. The Black Fang charged his necrophages to learn everything they could about the umbral vampires. The cost has been steep, for gleaning secrets from the vampires has cost ghoul wizards their sanity, but it has been worthwhile. The Twilight Emperor now knows of an artifact orrery hidden deep within the City Fallen into Shadow that can give its wielder mastery over time and space. He currently lacks the forces to strike into the city, so he sends scouting parties to search for signs of the so-called eye of Veles.
Zhurakh, City of Bone and Iron
The deepest city of the Black Iron Depths, Zhurakh serves as the seat of the Twilight Emperor and the unbeating heart of the empire. The Twilight Emperor learned from his failed coup, and his secret police saturate every level of the city, ever watchful for signs of dissent. For this reason, would-be conspirators avoid the City of Bone and Iron completely.
Nearby, the Endless Falls drain a tributary of the River Styx in a seemingly endless plunge into the black depths of the Shadow Realm. This is the Twilight Emperor’s favorite place to deal with traitors and criminals, personally casting them into the depths. The most elite Twilight soldiers, the Blackmaw Legion, stands ready to enforce the emperor’s will.
Home to the Twilight Empire’s shock troops, the Ravenous Legion, Blackstone broods over one of the few roads into the Black Iron Depths, guarded by the gate fortress Gloomhold. The Warden of Blackstone, Duke Wierdunn Bonehand, scours the populace for ghouls of sufficient strength and viciousness to join the Ravenous Legion. Bonehand and his lieutenants mercilessly hone the legionnaires into fanatic brutes, willing to dive headlong into the jaws of Veles and take a pound of flesh with them as they’re devoured.
The largest settlement on the surface, just on the edge of the Black Iron Depths, Chaingard stands as the foreboding main gateway into the Twilight Empire. This city serves as the receiving point for all slave traffic into the Twilight Empire. Duchess Angvyr Ssetha, the Lady of Chains, oversees the slave supply with meticulous efficiency. She enjoys greeting high-ranking emissaries to the empire, manner. The Shackled Legion guards the walls and gates, directing the flow of slaves with brutal efficiency.
Hewn from the black stone and iron ore of the depths, Evernight sits on the edge of a dark lake. Ruled by Duke Eloghar Vorghesht, high priest of Vardesain, Evernight is the center of faith for the empire. A grand cathedral to the ghoul god dominates the city’s center, its black altar stained darker with the blood and flesh of countless sacrifices. The Midnight Legion defends the city, boasting warrior clerics and dark reflections of paladins among its ranks.
Whereas Blackstone produces terrifying shock troops, Gallwheor provides the finest tactical minds in the Twilight Empire. Duke Borag the Executioner, Warlord of Gallwheor, never lost a battle during his time in the Ghoul Imperium or since their exile into Shadow. The Headsman Legion, known for its deadly efficient strikes to the heart of any opposing force, topples resistance from on high, displaying the heads of enemy commanders to break the ranks of its terrified foes.
The first stop after the steep and perilous Clanking Descent from Chaingard down the sheer cliffs of the Black Iron Depths, Ossean receives first pick of any new shipment of slaves. Amid the bone-clad buildings, the Twilight Empire’s necrophages labor and study under the direction of Duchess Mikalea Soulreaper, Lorekeeper of Ossean. Her apprentices and loyal necrophages hone their practice and ply the secrets from the flesh and souls of captives, guarded by the Bone Legion’s arcane and martial might. Its ranks swell with legionnaires who blend dark arcane magic with the strength of steel…
But this is where we must stop for now, my friend. My mind, it wanders so at times. Do come see me again, though, for more of the wonders and surprises of Midgard. (OGL)