The Old Ones
Not surprisingly for a man who founded an Empire and became a god, Vorn’s origins are shrouded in myth, though the Vornish cult itself accepts that all the stories are accurate and accepted dogma, even those that contradict.
Vorn was a young man born in obscurity but rose to fame using his many legendary talents. Vorn forged an Empire by uniting the twelve human tribes of the central basin through conquest, diplomacy, treachery, and sheer unbridled ambition. Vorn himself was a worshipper of the Holy Light, an entity of divine energy.
Exalted Vorn, founder of the Empire
At the end of almost fifty years of rule, Vorn announced his abdication of the throne, claiming his work was done. With that, the Emperor placed his crown upon a table, picked up a rucksack, shouldered his greatsword, and walked out into an unknown fate. Thus did Vorn depart the lands of his Empire, to the bewilderment and grieving of his peers.
The gathered lords faced a crisis – Vorn had never married and as far as anyone knew had produced no bastard heirs, nor had he left any document or will designating a successor. The council soon turned to bickering as ambitious nobles each claimed the throne, until it was decided that the ruler of each tribe would be known as an Elector Count. All Elector Counts could state their claim to the throne or throw in their support to another, and the first to receive a majority would become Emperor. After weeks of deliberation, Emperor Wulf of Stirland took the crown.
The Vornish Cult
Many years later, a mendicant friar named Johan Helstrum had a vision of the Holy Light itself placing a crown on Vorn’s head, proclaiming him a god to rule all lesser gods. With wild enthusiasm and strength of conviction, Johan preached the word of Divine Vorn to all who would listen, gaining power and converts much to the jealousy and emnity of other religious cults. Johan’s veneration of the Emperor and calls to loyalty and worship of Empire itself were useful to the nascent Elector Counts, and the cult was supported and allowed to begin construction on the Eminent Cathedral, around which grew the great capitol city of Vornheim. Over time it came to dominate theological life in the Empire and suppress the original Lightbringer cult into obscurity. Money from gifts and rents from donated lands flowed into the Vornish Cult’s coffers, until the Grand Theogonists rivaled the wealth and power of the Elector Counts and the Cult began to clamor for their own electoral vote in Imperial elections. The Vornish cult in the modern Empire is the favored religion of the ruling class – an immensely powerful entity in its own right known as The Church of Vorn, complete with its own Inquisition.
The modern Empire
Over centuries of expansion, the 12 tribes became the 10 Imperial Great Provinces, after Solland was absorbed by Stirland during the Cleansing of the Nameless Queen and Drakwald became absorbed by the Cacotropic Stain at Cauterus.
10 of the current Elector Counts each rule one of the following Great Provinces, while the remaining two seats go to the Halfling Moot and the Vornish Church itself.
The provinces have expanded beyond their original borders, bringing nonhuman tribes into submission, though with the exception of the halfling Felltergrubbs of Emir’s Folly, all Elector Counts remain strictly human. The Empire has subjugated many other independent city-states and kingdoms, yet its borders are amorphous and subject to the ever changing flow of centuries of good and ill fortune.
At its heart, the Empire is a confederation of provinces, with the electoral system underpinning many of its vices and virtues. The independence of the Elector Counts would serve as a counterweight to a tyrannical Emperor, while their ambitions would keep each other in check. This did lead to issues, however. Successive electoral councils would often make demands of candidates for the throne, who would then often grant privileges and weaken the power of the office to win. The interests of the Electors were such that they would rarely coalesce around a strong candidate, for fear that a vigorous Emperor would curtail their independence. Even when the throne passes to an heir, the Electors are swift to remind the Emperor-Elect of the promises of his forbears and to have them reconfirmed. Though the Empire has produced strong Emperors from time to time, more often than not “congenial nothings” occupy the throne and Electors are often free to do what they wish, even so far as to ignore inconvenient Imperial Edicts.
Emperor Sigismund the Regicide, last surviving claimant to the throne during the Crisis of the Five Emperors.
The lands of the Great Provinces are themselves a patchwork of smaller provinces, holdings belonging to religious orders, minor lordlings, chartered towns and cities, and lands held by nobles and even Electors of other provinces! This patchwork is the result of centuries of feudalism, inheritance, war, religious conversion, and purchase. It has led to such oddities as the Elector Count of Reikland, who is the Emperor, also being the vassal of the Elector Count of Midderland because he rules some small Midderlander fiefs directly, as well as a Lightbringer cult holding the rights to a Vornish monastery in Wissenland.
Each noble, from the smallest to the greatest, is theoretically beholden to the one above him, all the way up to the Emperor. In turn, the noble owes protection to his own vassals. Thus, if the Emperor has a problem with Duke Nieberwald, he has to make his complaint through the Elector Count of Averland, who Nieberwald owes direct fealty to.
To complicate matters, the rise of cities and towns and their commercial power has lead to some receiving rights and charters that free them from most of their feudal obligations in return for favors granted. Thus, the town of Kemperbad received a charter from Emperor Borwik the Incompetent, removing its feudal obligations to Reikland in return for a gift of rare Elvish wines. Nobles hate this, as it means loss of revenue and prestige for them, and they will often work to undermine a chartered town’s privileges. Thus, when Streisen suffered bread riots in the year of Karl-Franz’s accession, the Elector Countess Ludmilla of Averland demanded the surrender of the town’s charter before sending in soldiers to keep order.
The military might of the Empire is also something of a patchwork – though the official arm of the Emperor himself is the The Imperial Legion, there also exist the personal armies of each Elector Count, along with their assorted (and often competing) vassals. In addition to mercenary free companies, men of arms organize into military brotherhoods such as the The Order of Kites, as well as militarized arms of the Church like The Knights of the Conduit and less organized yet aggressively fervent bands such as the Rusted Flagellants.