For such a remote province, Volchok is surprisingly populous. Villages and towns line the huge deltas that wind northwards and eventually spill into the Sealed Sea. Along these waterways, timber, livestock and weapons are transported and delivered across the province, from the southlands to the north. In the far north of the province lies the capital, Zimny Dvor, a city whose population of one million makes it the largest in Volchok.
Zimny Dvor is a jewel in an otherwise ruined region of northern Volchok, which has always borne the worst of the arctic weather and the ravages of economic neglect. The small towns and villages that populate this far northern coastline fell into poverty and disrepair long ago. With each passing year, the contrast between the growing decrepitude of these coastal regions and the lavish grandiosity of the capital increased until the city and its surrounding boroughs bore nothing in common save the language spoken in both. At one point in their history, long before Volchok decided to invade the southern lands of the Sakr, these towns had been important cultural and economic hubs in their own right, entire industries of whale oil production that were full of life and important trading centres, now desolate and childless, as those who come of age make for the bright lights of one of the major cities further inland. These coastal towns and villages have only themselves to rely on these days, since the network of roads and tracks have long since broken apart from exposure and their maintenance long since forgotten. Those who live here are the left behind, unacknowledged and overlooked by the capital, which has, for the past three hundred years at least, had more pressing matters to attend to. It was in these lifeless places that the Obshina came into existence and rose to prominence, and it was these same wind-battered, ice-locked hamlets and boroughs that offered rebels of that outlawed group a place to lay low, to regain their number and strength, and take on the might of the capital. These northern, decrepit outposts of the Neprev empire were the birthplace of domestic resistance to that dynasty, and to this day their remote and overlooked presence on the periphery of Volchok continues to be a major boon to the Obshina, who deliver and store their weapons, their money and their contraband here.
The other major cities are to be found further south, within the frozen wastes of Volchok’s interior. Dudka. Norska. Sidurovka. Olyanka. Metropolitan centres that lack the splendour and imperial ambition of Zimny Dvor but are nevertheless of that stamp, their wide roads and neoclassical buildings constructed to convey the power and dominion of Blood Neprev. These are cities of industry and effort; from Dudka the warships were built, from Norska the textiles industries clothed a national army, and from Norska the smelting plants that wrought the steel and turned the sky black.
To the south, the Zapovedni mountain range stretches across the border Volchok shares with the Nur-dal and Tal’dor. It would take a lifetime to explore each of the paths, trails and steep passes that wind their way around the mountains or bury themselves deep within its gorges and canyons, and another lifetime to discover its secrets. Some paths were made by intrepid Volchokians, others already etched into the rocky ground when they arrived. With the completion of the Wolf’s Pass in 200 BU, more paths appeared, designed, sanctioned and recorded by the Imperial Engineer Institute. Some were created incidentally, by workers who helped build the mountainside villas and valley retreats in which high ranking officials within the Neprev administration would take time away from the capital and come here to holiday. Others were deliberate, created by the regime as emergency entrances into and out of Volchok in case the Wolf’s Pass ever became the site of military contest or siege.
But other paths too emerged across the Zapovedni, ones of a less official nature, along which contraband – including weapons and explosives – found their way into Volchok and distributed across the country. The ‘Shield of Volchok’ might offer Blood Neprev protection against external aggressors, but it offers impressive cover for those looking to travel into and out of the province unmonitored and unmolested. Given the extent of the Zapovedni, it is quite impossible to close all these routes down, and whenever attempts have been made to do precisely this, others have cropped up in the meantime. The area is simply too big to control. To make matters worse, ancient tombs and barrows of the Elder giants enter into the mountainside at almost every turn, if one knows where to look. For over two hundred years they have offered the Ved’ma vital safehouses in which they can store their caches and rest themselves before setting off on their journeys again.
A number of towns can be found within the artic forest of Preporozh, a sweeping green-land that touches both the east and west coast of Volchok and thickens to an impassable artic woodland in its centre, roughly half way between the Wolf’s Pass in the far south and Zimny Dvor in the far north. Within this forest, which is a world unto itself, the old traditions are maintained, and the old superstitions persist. In the Preporozh, we are a long way from the enlightened, more civilised centres of culture that Zimny Dvor represents. Time has not moved here since the first settlers arrived, humbled by the civilisation whose land they occupied. Folk in the Preporozh are defenders of the old, placing their faith not in their political masters in the north of Volchok, but in the old ways, that have remained unchanged since the first explorers came here thousands of years ago. A pagan belief in the elements and their divine powers underpins these communities, in which water and fire are considered living forces, and in which air and earth are seen as breathing, sentient properties. Forest spirits are feared and respected in equal measure, whose favour is to be sought through the presenting of gifts. The land of the Preporozh is ploughed as much to release evil spirits residing within the soil as it is for farming purposes. Water-mills that sit on the river banks within the Preporozh must be blessed regularly to keep at bay the phantasms that infest their silty depths.
Here it is the dark ages all over again. Witchcraft is a science. It was within the safety of Preporozh that necromancers chose to hide during those years of terror, when the Empire sought their total destruction. Beneath the mulch and leaves they found entrances to subterranean cave systems made by the Elder Giants, and within their strangely warm walls they built their communities anew.
To the north west, the archipelago of Kachatki dominates, some of its islands the size of small provinces, others no more than a modest imperial garden. Nothing but legend lives here, and nothing but ice grows. In the winter, the Kachatki becomes welded to the Sealed Sea, the rocky cliffs of their coastlines reduced to small bumps within a continuous sheet of continental ice that grips thousands of miles of water in a solid, frozen vice until the late spring. The ice recedes, cracks and separates, and the Kachatki once again emerge like beads on a god’s necklace, innumerable and without end. Even here, in the most remote, most northern region of Bratsk, the Elder Giants left their mark, constructing huge ice sculptures of marbled glass that doubled up as shelters from the arctic storms blowing in from across the whitewashed seas. Within these sculptures huge halls, high-ceiling rooms and rotundas resembling places of worship are hued into the ice, utterly still and silent, save the winds whose persistent cries penetrate the thick walls and the slow, steady drip of water from icicles hanging like swords from their domes.