Exalted: The Sun Also Rises
Blood and Ice
Near the shores of the Inland Sea, the climate of this region is chilly grasslands and pine scrub. As one goes farther north, the cold becomes increasingly bitter, and the wind grows in strength, until the taiga stops and the tundra begins. Winters here are long and cruel, and the short summer barely gives the surface of the tundra time to thaw before the ice closes in again. Even in the summer, this is a frigid and windy land, where freezing rain lashes the herds of elk, mammoth and reindeer that eke out a marginal existence in the bleak landscape. The tundra eventually gives way to a permanently frozen waste that runs to the foothills of the northernmost mountains. It is said that in the farthest North, past the mountains, there is nothing but a great expanse of snow and wind. Beyond even that lies the Elemental Pole of Air.
The North is sparsely peopled, with city-states and wandering tribes scattered piecemeal across its vast expanse of land and snow. Civilizations in the North have accreted like nacre on pearls, with populations slowly gathering around defensible positions that have the food and shelter to provide for them. The nomadic icewalker tribes sweep across the plains in a constant wash of death and hunger, tending their herds and seeking war and plunder on their way. Wars between the city-states are rare, as it is difficult to support a standing army on the scarce supplies that the North provides. It’s easier to bribe the tribes to do the work for you and then attempt to pick over what’s left if they succeed.
When the First Age ended and the Solar wonders crumbled, many of the glories of the North fell with them. No longer could chariots transport riders thousands of miles in bare hours, and no longer could enchanted gardens grow fruit that would feed hungry cities. While some of the Solar roads remain, such as the Traveler’s Road to Whitewall, most have been shattered by enemy armies or fallen to the corrosion of time. Cities drew in on themselves to survive, or they were lost to the snows, and the icewalker tribes picked over their bones.
A large number of petty kingdoms and city-states fringes the coastlines of the Inland Sea and the more northerly White Sea. The southward areas are tributaries and puppets of the Realm. Some are ruled by scion families, such as the city-state of Cherak, under the patrician Jerem family, but the cities become progressively more independent as one travels north. Northern states are often rude affairs, usually consisting of an enthroned strongman propped up by a table full of well-fed thugs with swords and axes.
Only Whitewall, the Haslanti League and Gethamane are states of truly notable power. In the barren spaces between the seas, the kingdoms shrink to towns and the city-states to isolated hamlets, and people band together to scratch out a living as shabby democracies. Hunting and gathering is the rule, and elk and mammoth herders follow the yearly migration of the herds from east to west and back again. Exiles from across the rest of Creation hide in the North, finding havens in manses too dangerous for the Realm to claim, lands too harsh for others to survive in and hiding places where no other human may set foot for years.
Most Northerners are pale skinned, with hair ranging from jet black to platinum blond. Given the extreme conditions, the people are hale and hearty, with large frames and heavy builds predominating. Even in the cities, Northerners primarily make offerings to their ancestor cults and to the dark spirits of snow and frost and hunger. Herders and hunters offer sacrifices to the herd animal spirits and the spirits of the hunt, respectively, but the vast majority of devotions go to the ghosts of the dead. In turn, their ancestors’ spirits protect them and guide them across the trackless snows, driving away evil spirits and bringing warnings of plagues and blizzards. Hidden tomb-mounds and cemeteries are guarded by the tribes’ finest warriors, and chieftains are buried with their weapons to use in the Underworld and are sacrificed beasts to serve as their herds there.
There are no fixed customs for marriage in the North. Life is hard, and if the ghosts of one’s ancestors do not signal their disapproval, then the marriage is blessed and deserves prosperity. Given the lack of spare food and resources, Northerners typically abandon unwanted or deformed children.
Roaming across the North, the icewalkers are nomadic bands of hunters and herders who follow vast herds of mammoth, elk and reindeer from the lush taiga to the frozen northernmost mountains. They travel all year round, walking, skiing and using the tamer herd animals as riding beasts or pack animals. During the warmer months, the icewalkers live in collapsible huts made of intricately carved wood and ivory frames covered with hide. When it grows colder, they cover the huts with packed snow, creating temporary encampments that are often mistaken as mere features of the landscape.
Each tribe of icewalkers pursues a particular type of animal. Some follow the migrations of reindeer or elk, while others accompany vast herds of mammoth. Each group regards its chosen animal as a totem and a source of identity, venerating and identifying with the spirits of the herd. All those who follow a particular spirit are brothers and sisters and will support each other in times of famine or war. Those who follow a different spirit are kin when times are prosperous but bitter rivals when the herds are thin and full winter drags its net of snow across the Northern plains.
The icewalkers are dangerous and uncivilized. They view the inhabitants of towns and cities with mingled pity and disdain, and they raid towns along their migration route if they feel the need. Such raids are often forestalled with a “spontaneous offering of gifts,” which has become an accepted form of tribute in many places. The greatest taboo the icewalkers observe is cannibalism, and any among their number found guilty of this deed is condemned to a slow and painful death. They extend their abhorrence to anything not fully human—the Wyld barbarians, beastmen, Fair Folk, Ravagers, deathknights and the undead—and will go out of their way to slay such creatures. This is the icewalkers’ true virtue, in the eyes of the Northern states. They serve as a convenient barrier against the worst things that prowl the Northern night.
For uncounted years, it has been prophesied that a great warlord among the icewalkers would someday rise to unify the tribes and go forth to conquer the entire North. Some fear that this prophecy has been fulfilled with the arrival of the mysterious Bull of the North, an icewalker leader who has arisen within the past decade and gathered a following among the disparate icewalker tribes. Both the Haslanti Oligarchs and the lords of Gethamane are offering large rewards to any spies willing to gather information about the Bull and his plans.
Directly north from the Blessed Isle lies Whitewall, one of the largest settlements in the Northlands. Located on rocky taiga, it lies several hundred miles north of the coast of the Inland Sea. This prosperous metropolis of more than quarter million inhabitants is a trade hub for the region. While it was originally founded in the First Age as a center of religious study, it has become a powerful city-state in its own right. The end of the First Age left Whitewall isolated and without regular support. Three powerful beings of ice and silver, the Syndics, took control and hammered out a treaty of nonaggression with the local fae and the dead of the nearby shadowland. They still rule the city with a grip of frozen steel. While Whitewall is a nominal ally of the Realm, the city has never paid it tribute thanks to a combination of factors: the Syndics’ puissance, the city’s isolation, and its usefulness as a trade partner and jade producer.
By the conditions of the Syndics’ treaty, the road to Whitewall is inviolate, and no walking dead, ghost or fae may enter the city without permission from someone inside the walls. The road itself dates from the First Age and is built of virtually indestructible white stone. Ancient enchantments on the road keep it clear of ice and snow in all but the worst weather. Anyone—living, dead or fae—may use the road, and none may harm any other on the road. For the living, the penalty for breaking the peace of the road is death, and stone pillars flank the road every 40 yards to mark it and to serve as gibbets for the bodies of those who violate the peace. By the terms of the treaty, the Syndics must set two dozen living people outside the walls each year as sacrifices. In the past, these have ranged from notorious criminals to reformers or revolutionaries.
The city of Whitewall is a crowded place that breeds suspicion. Its buildings are constructed of heavy white stone, plain on the outside but decorated inside with bright colors, rich tapestries and vivid rugs. While the city’s inhabitants will trust and befriend a stranger once they are sure of her intentions, they will be grim and taciturn until then, watching for signs of betrayal and stratagems. Just as nobody is invited inside the city without proof of humanity, no one is ever invited into a house casually. Any such invitation is a clear sign that the host considers the guest a long-term friend and ally.
The land surrounding Whitewall is rich and fertile, but heavy winters sweep down from the mountains. From late fall until late spring, blizzards make travel to Whitewall almost impossible. The winter’s long nights breed fear, paranoia and suspicion. Every few years, some fool or madman lets in a fae or undead intruder, and the city guard must hunt it down in the city’s narrow streets. On occasion, the Syndics are even forced to hire Exalted monster-hunters.
Justice in Whitewall is harsh, and penalties range from heavy fines to indentured servitude to mutilation. Individuals convicted of capital crimes (murder, treason, consorting with the fae or undead) are put outside the walls to face whatever calamity comes to them. They are given no supplies and are dressed in clothing to mark their status as convicts, so that no caravan will give them aid. In many ways, a death sentence would be kinder.
A number of other city-states of varying size lie around Whitewall, spokes to its central hub. While traders can journey to them directly, Whitewall serves as a convenient staging post and base, and many caravans would rather plot their trek via Whitewall and take the extra days that such a journey requires, rather than risk the Fair Folk and the walking dead on lesser roads and across the snow. To the southeast lies Cherak, affiliated with the Jerem scion family but haunted by infestations of the undead. While House Jerem has appealed to its Imperial connections, none of the Great Houses have the spare forces to cleanse the lands once and for all, and the state grows weaker with every passing month.
Northeast is Shanarinara, a would-be expansionist democracy hemmed in by the Haslanti League and Gethamane and by Whitewall’s own interests but without the strength to go further. Southwest of Whitewall, scattered along the mountain peaks, are the tiny but independent silverholds, a collection of forts, mining camps and goat-herding villages that barely survive from year to year but have done so for centuries. Some of them are said to leave sacrifices for airborne demons or to make candles that have the power to summon and control spirits. Northwest on the tundra lies Fella, the City of Broken Walls, where no stone will remain atop another for more than an hour before casting itself down. All of its standing buildings are wood or ivory, and the inhabitants have cruel laws controlling where fires may be lit.
Directly north of Whitewall, and another frequent stop in northward journeys for traders, lies the mountain-city of Gethamane, set like a gem among the Northern peaks. While the city dates back to the First Age, no one knows the origins of this ancient fastness. The inhabitants tell stories of how their distant ancestors came here a century after the Contagion, fleeing plague and starvation and beset by raiders. They named the place Gethamane—"Sanctuary" in the tongue of the Old Realm. Its large halls are covered in intricate and beautiful carvings of unknown plants and beasts, strangely designed pictures that haunt the memories of visitors. The entire city is lit with glowing crystals that brighten during the day and dim at night, so that a man can live happily within for years and never see the sun. Fortunately for its inhabitants, Gethamane is distant enough that the Realm has never demanded that it pay tribute or attempted to make it a satrapy.
Gethamane consists of hundreds of twisting corridors that connect countless rooms. The only remaining traces of the prior inhabitants are the three strange temples, carved with ancient depictions of flying creatures, and the sunken gardens of mosses and fungi that feed the city. The temples are served by priests who are called in their dreams, answering a message that they cannot refuse. Those who make the attempt go stark mad and flee the city, seeking the snow-bound silences of the mountains instead. Beneath the city lie endless tunnels that delve into the darkness far below. These delvings riddle the foundations of the city like wormholes, black and slick to the touch. Guards watch the dozens of entrances and bar the way against the things that, occasionally attempt to force entrance. Those who enter Gethamane’s underways to seek long-lost treasures do so at their own risk.
On the edges of recognized civilization lies the Haslanti League. Few travelers dare go beyond it, into the lands where the endless snows howl across the ice and where ancient ruins are buried and the Fair Folk wait to steal the breath and warm blood from those foolish enough to venture so far into the wilderness. The Haslanti League is a loose confederacy of nine city-states located along the shore of the frozen White Sea, centered on the capital city of Icehome. The League owes its success to the White Sea itself, building iceships with complex sails and finely made steel runners that travel across the ice to carry trade goods and communications. The Haslanti also produce air boats, huge hot-air dirigibles heated by kerosene, which are capable of acting as mobile supply depots and troop transports during war or supplying the League’s remoter settlements in times of peace.
Throughout the nation’s history, the Haslanti Council of Oligarchs has proven willing to change with every passing wind, and the League’s future has been harnessed to its ability to catch each moment’s opportunity. When the nascent League warred with the Guild and was cut off from convenient food or travel to the South, the Haslanti built their first iceships. While pitiful when compared to the ancient air chariots that have long since fallen into disuse or been destroyed, the hot-air dirigibles of the League were made by mortals with mortal tools. And during the Wyldfog War, while simultaneously hunkering down to resist Fair Folk attacks, the Haslanti established the high-speed communication system that now links its cities.
Since its inception, the League has withheld tribute from the distant Realm, presenting suitable excuses coupled with polite refusals to the Imperial representatives who manage to reach the capital of Icehome. Similarly, the Haslanti have treaties with a number of Northern tribes, and they frequently cooperate to drive back the Wyld barbarians. The League cities themselves are designed with the region’s harsh winters in mind. All buildings stand at least two stories tall. In the winter, people use a dwelling’s lower doors, which lead to a warren of tunnel-like covered streets. In the summer, they use the upper doors and walk on the roofs of the covered streets. While reindeer meat, fish, trapped game, cheese, lichen and mosses serve as base sustenance for the nation, it is the frequent mammoth hunts that provide the ivory that is used to raise the Haslanti cities and build their foundations.
While practicality rules the League, the Haslanti themselves worship spirits of ice, dream and fate and are guided by their dreams. A typical Haslanti regards his dreams as vitally important to his future and will discuss them with everyone he knows. In fact, lying about dreams is considered more unacceptable than lying about waking life, and concealing one’s dreams is socially improper and likely to induce distrust in all Haslanti who know the tight-lipped dreamer.
The Haslanti League is currently in a state of controlled but vigorous activity. With the alliance with the Outwall tribes currently diverting to the north the Wyld barbarians who are the principal threat to the city-states, the League has the capacity to pursue its own projects. These projects are rumored to range from excavating the ruins of a First Age metropolis near the city of Crystal (where it is buried deep in a glacier) to general expansion and planning war against Whitewall. The importance of Whitewall’s jade mines to the Realm is one of the main factors protecting it, and the Realm’s activities in the North in the near future will doubtless affect the League’s decisions.
Down the northwest coast toward the West, the frozen White Sea becomes true water, with open sea breaking through the ice. Cormorants hunt up and down the coast between the fishing villages and small towns, where the sailors go out in longboats to hunt narwhals and whales, and where divers swim with trained dolphins to bring back fragments of First Age treasures from the seabed. One town along the coast, Liriel-Anneth, is said to house an entire First Age artifact, but it is full of shadows by day and snakes by night, and no sane man sets anchor in its docks.