The Cortals were a group of plains warriors who descended from the Cortal Steppes of Western Arik to conquer their neighbors one thousand years ago, soon forming the mighty Cortalish Empire, the most powerful single nation on Arik. The empire has several nationalities--with the Cortals themselves in a minority--the most common being the Sylvanians in the primeval forests. The empire was ruled for two centuries by the arch-lich Vecna from the Spidered Throne in the capital Gos. Since the demigod’s fall during the Great Disjunction, the Empire is ruled by a triumvirate representing its three great factions: the military, Banite clergy, and Fire Wizards. Since the Third Cortalish War began in 1508, the Empire has remained locked in mortal combat with its traditional enemies--the kingdoms of Southold and Tara, and has lost great swaths of territory.
The Cortal Steppes from whence this warrior people were born still takes up much of the Empire, as sparsely populated today as they were then. The vegetation is mostly scrub, though it is by no means desert, and several rivers provide fertile valleys in its midst. In one region, magically given a more temperate climate, is Gos, the mighty capital city. There is rich farmland on the rich Silver Coast--so known for the silver mines in the hills just inland--as well the two great Cortalish ports, Magdenburg, capital of Seelowe province, and Kulansk, capital of Arnsk province. In the southeast is the mighty Sylvanian Forest, populated largely by the Sylvanians and the main battleground for the current war. In the northeast are the Blood Marches, the plains and rolling hills fought over so many times between the Cortals and their neighbors the Tarans.
Cortal culture is an odd mixture of the old nomad, plains ways--the traditions long-since institutionalized and in many cases meaningless--and the more modern city life which has sprung up in the empire’s five hundred years. Thus, while the Cortals value great leadership, they retain the old steppe tradition of strong ruling councils which elect their leaders from their number. The politics involved in such affairs are mind-boggling, with much maneuvering and backstabbing--figurative as well as literal.
Cortal culture places great stock in protecting the well-being of guests, and though many consider their culture selfish and “evil,” their respect for bonds of honor and hospitality is greater than in the more “good” countries such as Southold.
Cortals place great store in service to the empire, and show remarkable loyalty. Cortals put martial ability above all else, secondarily a job within the Imperial Civil Service, and no pureblood would even consider a trade such as commerce. Cortals also place great importance on their blood--purebloods, especially those whose lineages can be traced back to the great heroes of yore, have great status. Those “contaminated” with the blood of other races have lower status, though this fact is often concealed. The other races within the empire are generally lower class, and even the rich merchants among them are always reminded of their inferiority. Courts will often rule in favor of a Cortal when a non-Cortal is involved regardless of the nature of the evidence.
The Cortals have little use for the arts, save some poetry and songs which glorify the empire. Likewise, their architecture is austere, favoring sharp lines rather than curves and subtleties. They are known as heavy drinkers, preferring stout beers and whiskies.
Cortals are renowned for their ferocity in battle, with excellent heavy infantry, crossbowmen, as well as fair medium cavalry. Despite having a large portion of seacoast, theirs is not a seagoing people, with only a small navy and many smaller trading cogs.
Cortalish infantry—known as “dog soldiers”—normally wear chainmail armor, large shields, crossbows, and longswords. Line soldiers generally have Strength 14, Dexterity 14, Constitution 12.
The elite plamyasoldati are the Cortal’s famed heavy infantry, the backbone of their armies. They are specially trained and inured to flame. Their painful rituals leave them nearly fearless and fanatically devoted to the Cortal cause. Their treatments administered by the Fire Wizards give them a +2 on all fire saves, and a -1 on each die of fire damage. However, they are more susceptible to cold, with a -1 to saves.
Plamyasoldati are often defensive bulwarks against enemy cavalry, often taking the Hold the Line feat (AoO against charging attacker) in addition to its prerequisite, Combat Reflexes (make additional AoO’s up to Dexterity). Regular Plamyasoldati are the elite of the military, generally with Strength 16, Dexterity 14, Constitution 14. They use exceptional longswords, light crossbows, large shields, and full plate armor. The shields and armor are very ornate and distinctive, imbued with a reddish color evocative of flame and with many sharp edges and rims, rendering its resale value very low.
Cortalish cavalry usually wear chainmail armor with their horses similarly barded. They use lances and longswords, while they also have mounted crossbowmen.
Cortalish troops are always well-organized, and their field marching and discipline under fire is reputedly second only to that of the meticulous Videssian legions. Nonetheless, Cortalish generals are not know for subtlety or deception; while they pick their ground carefully and do excellent reconnaissance, they generally strike quick and directly at the enemy. Cortals are experts at fortification and siege engineering. They prefer many smaller fortifications--particularly basic three story towers--to fewer, grand large ones. They place great stock on intelligence, using their Black Sashes assassins to gather it both within the empire and beyond.
The infamous Fire Wizards of the Cortalish Empire are masters of their art, feared across all Arik. They have devoted their studies to Elemental Fire, and are also well versed in Necromancy, Abjuration, and Conjuration/Summoning. All venerate Kossuth, Elemental Lord of Fire. Only pure-blooded Cortals can become Fire Wizards; Sylvanians or half-breeds may become fire elementalists, however. Each Fire Wizard (who must be 9th level or higher), has a Circle of 2-4 Fire Apprentices (levels 1-8) attending him.
Fire Wizards believe that the only true magery is that of fire. Further, they believe that all wizards who are not either Fire Wizards or at least fire elementalists must convert - that is come under their control - or die. They play a powerful role in the politics of the Cortalish Empire, as one of the three principal power factions -- the other two being the army and the Clergy of Bane. Nearly all have estates in the Silvanian countryside, as well as manors in Gos, so they may be close to the intrigues surrounding the Whispered One. The Fire Wizards are a powerful, yet divisive group; there are essentially no other wizards, other than a handful of Silvanian elementalists, in the country.
Cortals are not known for their rogues, but their cadre of assassins, the Black Sashes, are feared across Arik. Their clerics are mainly of Bane, but some of Loviatar, Baldur, and Moloch are common. Druids are unheard of except among the Silvanians, and there they are persecuted and driven underground.
The Cortals were simple nomads, not mentioned in the annals before the Cataclysm, no doubt far from civilization’s prying eyes in the Cortal Steppes. In this respect their bloodline is unrelated to those of their neighbors--their guttural language as well is unique, difficult for other civilized peoples to learn. After the Cataclysm their oral history tells that the rivers dried up, and the people faced starvation. But the great bird, the Cortaligan, appeared and spoke to the assembled elders, saying he was the messenger of Bane, and he had chosen these peoples to be his servants on Grund, to usurp what the civilized nations had thrown away--in short, to start anew. The mighty Cortaligan led the nomads to raid the nearby frontiers of the Videssian Empire to the northeast, and the Southrond Empire to the southeast. These empires were collapsing into darkness, and the few garrisons remaining were swept aside.
The Cortals fared well during the dark ages following the Cataclysm, slowly expanding and multiplying. They assimilated small villages one-by-one, growing powerful by 500 AC. Their main enemies were the Sylvanians in the mighty primeval forests of Sylvania, There, the Cortal heavy infantry lost their ranks in the forests, and were overwhelmed by the excellent enemy archers amid the trees. Soon, the Cortals had swelled around Sylvania, practically encircling it. However, over the intervening centuries the campaign to conquer Sylvania was dashed; the reborn Videssian Empire pushed aside the Cortals, driving them back to the frontiers of their plains--though they never lost the vast, rich seacoast lands safe to the west. The Cortals trained and prayed to Bane, honing the arts of war that they would one day triumph. In 954, they began a series of wars against the Videssians, who slowly fell before them, just as they would fall a century later under the Southron uprising in 1066 which would found Southold.
The Cortals were satisfied for several centuries, though occasionally skirmishing with Tara, a third kingdom which had emerged from the corpse of the rotting Videssian Empire. Then in 1294, the Cortals decided to crush the upstart Southrons, beginning the First Cortalish War, which would last five years. The bloody conflict only ended after the Tarans joined the fray, driving the Cortals back to their frontiers and leading to an uneasy peace.
Many skirmishes followed, but the Second Cortalish War did not erupt until 1391. This time, the Cortals streamed across the mighty Greyflood and overwhelmed the Southron defenders--fighting a holding action against Tara to the north. The Southrons would have been able to hold off for much longer, but the foul Cortals used their diplomacy to sign a treaty with the desert nation of Hule, whose troops poured through the Great Pass and struck Southold from the rear. The Cortals concentrated their forces against Southold, laid siege to, and seized, Dunthrane in 1393. There followed a ten-year occupation of Southold, the most bloody in its history, where Cortal overlords came. Resistance never ceased, led by the Southron nobility, and often the Cortals controlled only the main cities, forced to travel with small armies merely to resupply their garrisons. Now Tara was besieged, and in danger of falling, when the dwarven and elven nations of Rockhome and the Galathiene finally decided to become involved in human affairs. It is said Tyr himself--or his avatar--descended to Grund in the form of St. Cuthbert in 1402, and rallied the demihumans to the cause.
Wherever St. Cuthbert traveled in Southold, the people rose up en masse, easily driving the Cortal hordes back across the Greyflood--the old frontier. The following year, the Southron forces reorganized and trained. Finally, a massive army--the White Coalition--consisting of Tarans, Southrons, elves, dwarves, and even the halflings of the Five Shires, marched against the Cortals. They met at the Battle of the Drentmoors, the most fearsome swamps of Arik. There the two great armies clashed repeatedly, for the better part of the year. Finally, the great culminating battle took place between the two divine avatars--Vecna of Bane and Cuthbert of Tyr. As the two fought, the fog closed around them, and both armies lost sight of their champions. The battle began at noon, and the clash of arms and flashes of magic were seen and heard until sunset, when a quiet descended on the field. Though both armies searched, neither of the champions was found. After a day's mourning, the two sides renewed the fight and within a month, the Cortals had been vanquished.
In the century since, the Cortals gradually recovered, putting down rebellion after rebellion from subject people’s who had briefly won their independence after the war. The Sylvanians were granted nominal autonomy after the Second Cortalish War, but within 10 years the dog soldiers again marched on the forest and put it down. There were threats from Southold, but the army had demobilized, and there was little stomach for another fight, not over the Sylvanians which many considered the Cortals’ legitimate subjects.
Vecna returned to the Spidered Throne openly in 1470, after the empire’s armies were again feared across Arik. The Cortals watched closely as the Civil War broke out in Southold in 1504. An army from the Cortalish Empire invaded Southold and took Woburn soon after it began, knowing Dunthrane could not spare the troops to defend the frontier. Arch-Lich Vecna proclaimed that he was reclaiming lands that once belonged to the Empire. However, soon after, Vecna appeared to lose all interest in political affairs, focusing on some great, secret plot of his own.
At the final ceremony celebrating Southolder Royalist victory, King Edmund gave his great Victory Address of 1508. He declared war on the Cortalish Empire, stating that Southold would attack come spring. The Cortals’ seizure of Woburn in 1504 was not forgotten, nor were the rumors of some great plot by the Emperor, Arch-Lich Vecna, and Edmund decided he would end the evil of that land once and for all.
The Third Cortalish War went well initially, as the massive, battle-hardened Southron army pushed forward, though their Taran allies on their northern front did not do as well. Nonetheless, both sides had mobilized so many troops, a decisive victory was impossible--more came to plug the gaps. The war soon became positional, fought over ridges and rivers and forest defense lines. At one point during the Great Disjunction, a great mass of Banite reinforcements held in reserve struck, driving the Southrons back, but that was reversed once Vecna’s great plot was foiled, and for a week the Cortals were in full retreat. Nonetheless, by 1512 the battle lines had again hardened, with little chance for decisive victory.
Despite a rare advance when the Silver Legion mercenary company seized Radzeksky Pass, the war looked to remain a long-term stalemate, with neither side ready to yield.