The Old Empire
There’s a common saying in Catarina – “The Old Empire will never die”. The ancient dominion of the Elves once stretched across all the known world. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, though it is purported that it existed before the first human was ever born, before the first dwarf broke the surface – a realm of high sorcery and fabulous wealth.
Though the Empire eventually fell to bickering and war, the remnants of its influence are hard to escape. The common language, once standardised across the land, is still shared by almost every race. Coins of gold and silver are still accepted as currency regardless of whose face is stamped on them. Fabulous architecture (much now fallen to ruin or disrepair), ancient roads, the marks of great engineering projects still mark the landscape.
Rarer still are magical artefacts left over from before the Sundering, the great magical war which eventually split the Empire. Though modern mages still practice the ancient arts, few spend the time and dedication to the art of crafting such wonderous items, much less have the skill for it.
Once, Catarina was a jewel of the Empire, bright and sparkling. Like the wilderness, parts of the City too are reminders of its Imperial past. The Broken Throne still bears the mark of the magical assault that slew its last true occupant. The city walls rise true and strong thanks to ancient magic bound into the stones. Some of the City’s oldest buildings bear the hallmarks of Imperial architecture. Some rumour that there is still more, forgotten and unremembered, buried deep beneath the City like gold beneath a veneer of grime.
Arguably, Catarina never stopped being Imperial, but this is considered academic at best. When the first Seneschal took power it was over a city struggling to hold itself together without support from the outside world. No independence was declared, no elaborate coup enacted – it wasn’t necessary. The Empire was gone. All that remained was the City, standing alone.
Only once in all its history has Catarina come close to falling to an outside force. Some several hundred years ago the city broke into a bitter and divisive Civil War which grew from a spat between two noble families, House Gwenyrost and House Ceredir. A rivalry turned to insults, which turned to a death, and from there it got personal.
Eventually the conflict drew in the rest of the City, as inevitably as night follows day. Favours were called in and promised, alliances drawn up and feuds given perfect opportunity to flourish. The fighting in the streets led to so much bloodshed that burials within the City have forever since been banned, graveyards beyond the walls now serving to carry the City’s dead.
But as the fighting reached a fever pitch, word reached those few left looking outward that an army of Orcs marched on the City, seeking to capitalise on the weakened state of the guard and the lack of cooperation between the Noble Families by sieging the city until it crumbled from within. Unfortunately they underestimated the willingness and ability of the Catarinans to put aside their differences to face their invaders. With great determination they were forced back from the walls and the siege was lifted by an alliance of two forces previously willing to cut each others’ throats in broad daylight.
It is long suspected but never proved that the incident where an assassin broke into the Catarinan command post and attempted to slay everyone inside was a fraud designed to foster cooperation between the two families, staged by a third. Still, after the war was over an uneasy peace returned to the City once more, favours and willingness to fight exhausted. The two houses apparently agreed to put aside their grievances in light of their common triumph, and if the grudges remain they are buried under a mask of civility.
The Breaking of the Circle
If Caterina was a jewel in the crown of the Old Empire, the Arcane University was its brightest facet. Housing the best and brightest scholars and sages in service of the city, and packed with arcane secrets and a wealth of knowledge, the University and its ruling Circle of Mages were a force to be reckoned with.
Tales of the Breaking of the Circle are unsurprisingly light on detail, and tell of the hubris of the Circle Mages, experiments with ancient artefacts gone wrong, an ancient evil unleashed upon the world, and a great sacrifice that was made to seal it away once more.
To the outside world the Breaking of the Circle was heralded by earthquakes that rocked the City, destroying buildings, and killing and injuring countless numbers. Then, the rare appearance of the entire Circle at once constructing a great arcane ward over the entire University and its grounds. The tremors grew until the last of the wards was put in place; eyewitnesses told of seeing the Circle Mages, the most powerful Wizards and Sorcerers in living memory, pouring untold arcane power into a spell that drew upon their very life essence, a twist in reality itself, and then a huge reverberation in the fabric of the world that levelled the entire quarter surrounding the University and turned it into an ashen, magically-twisted wasteland.
Those mages who escaped found nothing of the once-mighty University, nor any trace of its leaders. A wall was built to isolate the district now known as the Blasted Quarter, and guards set to patrol for magically-twisted creatures escaping its confines, though after decades of quarantine urban reclamation (particularly from criminals and the destitute) has slowly begun.
What remains of Catarina’s magical heritage is scattered across the City in the form of isolated Wizards, Sorcerers, and other mages; feared and respected as powerful and dangerous they are shunned by society but rarely disturbed. Some are taken in and given patronage by the Noble Families as tutors or sages, and many nobles have at least the rudiments of magic as a result, but still more live isolated in high towers or forboding mansions, or even outside the City proper, pursuing strange and inscrutable purposes of their own.