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The people who lived before the Cataclysm were known as the Telosians. They were a large and prosperous society whose farms and cities spanned all four of Empyria's continents. Historians are still reconstructing the details of their language from what few documents survived the Cataclysm, so little is known about their culture. What is certain is that they were far more technologically advanced than any other civilization has been before or since; the magitech found in Telosian ruins contains impossibly complex glyphs and circuits that modern technology is unable to replicate, even a thousand years later. In fact, some sources imply that the Telosians invented magic in the first place.
About 1000 years ago, the first monster to ever exist - a creature made of light the size of a city - appeared in the Telos capital, and began attacking humans indiscriminately. Although their magical prowess was formidable, Telos did not have enough firepower to deal with this unprecedented foe. It rampaged through Telosian cities, destroying everything in its wake.
Telos's oracles elected a Chosen Hero, who set out to destroy the monster with his companions. They eventually succeeded, but it was too late; the monster had already rampaged across all four continents and irreparably destroyed every major city in its path. Worse, when it was defeated it released all the mana stored within it in an enormous explosion now known as the Cataclysm.
The mana released during the Cataclysm spread to permeate the entire planet. Climate patterns all over the world were altered, causing mass extinctions. Smaller monsters condensed out of the mana at irregular intervals, and attacked any humans they saw.
Once the next generation came, it was discovered that the mana field also distorted the shapes of humans born within them. Even the cities that remained intact became unlivable, as children born there would not survive. People abandoned their old homes and found safe places to settle through trial and error. In the chaos, human population bottlenecked, and even the ones who survived were changed forever. All of Telos's magitechnological secrets were lost.
Although things were bleak, the high concentration of mana in the atmosphere also greatly increased the power of human spellcasting. With a few half-remembered spells from the First Age, people drove back the monsters and built new cities in whatever safe zones they could find.
In 220 AC, Sylph came into existence near modern-day Valefar, followed by the other three Great Spirits. Like monsters, these beings were made of condensed mana, but they were sapient and friendly toward humans. They agreed to protect human cities in exchange for small offerings, and soon became worshipped as minor gods.
Although the knowledge of how to create magitech was lost, artifacts retrieved from First Age ruins could often be restored to working order and used. As individual cities established themselves as political entities, they began seeking these artifacts out. At first they were simply used as weapons, to conquer or defend themselves from other cities. But since the glyphs used in magitech and spellcasting are the same, people soon began reverse-engineering artifacts to expand their own spellcasting arsenals. Mage academies were established, and scholars flocked to them to help advance humanity's magic knowledge.
After the city-states of Empyria established themselves, they began to absorb and conquer each other in pursuit of more land and artifacts. Due to the difficulty in long-distance communication and travel, however, it was difficult for leaders to actually rule the cities they owned. Most "countries" were more like alliances or hegemonies, where smaller cities would pay taxes to a larger hegemon for protection and trade.
In 809 AC, an ore deposit was discovered in the mountains of Salamander's Teeth that perfectly matched the material that artifact magic circuits were made of. This metal, named magesilver, could channel mana in a similar way to human bodies. With this discovery it became possible to make new magitech devices without having to melt down valuable artifacts, and a technological revolution began.
With magitech to automate long-distance communication, the countries of Empyria could finally tighten their hold on their vassal states. They expanded and merged into two large monarchies; in present day, most cities are part of the Kingdom of Wywick or the Orlis Empire.
The past few decades have been characterized by a series of military conflicts between Orlis and Wywick, over the continent of Aurnica. As the former centre of the Telos civilization, Aurnica boasts a large number of First Age ruins filled with valuable artifacts, and both countries have staked their claim on it.
Eight years ago, the last and shortest of these wars took place. After just 11 months of hostilities, Orlis bombed the Wywish city of Barnett, reducing it and a few hundred civilians to ash. Wywick surrendered unconditionally and is currently in the process of officially ceding its Aurnican territories to Orlis.
After the end of the war, underpaid mercenaries and soldiers turned to banditry to make ends meet. For some reason, monster attacks have spiked too, especially in Ortesia. Travel is more difficult than ever, meaning professional adventurers are making even more of a killing than they usually do.
On the other hand, the end of hostilities means common civilians can finally enjoy the scientific developments made during the war. Orlis scientists discovered a new type of glyph known as keys to enhance their war machines, and the technology has since been employed to create convenient digital devices. Things like phones and video players are now common household sights across both countries.
It is now 999 AC. Between recovering and rebuilding, people across the world are gearing up for millenium celebrations, as next year will mark one thousand years of humanity's survival since the Cataclysm.