Circle of Thorns
In the 1890’s, upper class England found itself amid a tremendous upsurge of interest in the occult. Most of these dilettantes were more interested in the carnal aspects of ritual magic than in any kind of true arcane knowledge. There were, however, a few exceptions…among them the Baron Zoria. The charismatic Zoria came to England in 1890, allegedly from Russia, and quickly developed a reputation as a fanatic, outré, and decidedly unpleasant figure. Despite (or perhaps because of) this reputation, the Baron managed to acquire a small circle of devotees.
Zoria’s burgeoning cult focused most of its energies on searching for signs of the long lost city of Oranbega. Although most people believe the mythic city was “invented” by Girolamo da Verrazano in his 1529 map of his brother’s explorations, Zoria believed the ancient underground city to be a real place. Apparently he was right. Moreover, he was more right than he ever imagined in his wildest dreams. Zoria claimed that Oranbega had sunk beneath the earth tens of thousands of years ago during a war between the Sorcerer Kings of Oranbega and the Warlords of Mu. Zoria felt that if he could unlock the key to entering this lost city, untold powers would be his to control.
Rather than mounting archeological expeditions or combing through dusty archives, Zoria chose a more direct approach. He set about contacting the spirits of the dead Oranbegan Sorcerer Kings. Apparently he was successful, for in a ceremony on the winter’s solstice of 1898, the Circle of Thorns was born. Zoria and each of his followers took a strange thorn, given to Zoria by the Oranbegan spirits. They simultaneously drove the bizarre spines into their chests, sinking them straight into their own hearts. The wounds closed as quickly as they had opened, sealing the enchanted thorns deep in their bodies and imbuing each with unique magical powers beyond anything they had ever possessed.
For the next year, the cult reveled in its newfound power. They indulged every whim and quickly established themselves at the top of Europe’s secretive mystic underground. Dozens, then hundreds flocked to them, desirous of tapping into the same energies that they seemed to have mastered. Their meteoric rise drew scorn and derision from other, more established groups like the Golden Dawn and O.T.O. Aliester Crowley himself decried them as charlatans and fools. It also attracted the attention of Christian and secular groups that feared the magicians’ negative influence over the good and decent folk of Europe. Several nations passed laws banning the Circle from practicing its beliefs within their borders.
Zoria and his followers seemed largely unconcerned. They were already planning their next move. In 1914, as war broke out on the continent, the Circle of Thorns left en masse for the United States. Varrazano’s original map had located an entrance to Oranbega on the east coast of North America. Although later copies of the map showed the city in New England, Zoria believed this to be a deception. His own communion with the spirits pinpointed the location as being beneath the burgeoning metropolis that we know today as Paragon City.
Throughout the next six years the Circle of Thorns disappeared from view. Many in Europe thought that some no doubt well-deserved occult disaster had befallen them. In fact, Zoria and his core membership were busy searching for a physical entrance to Oranbega. To hear them tell it, they were successful. All of a sudden, the Circle re-emerged, this time with a decidedly public face. They formed a private but well-known gentlemen’s club that became one the most notorious speakeasies of the Prohibition era.
The Roaring ‘20’s were a golden time for the Circle of Thorns. The hedonists of the Jazz Age embraced Zoria’s dark and dangerous reputation and the Circle went on a barely concealed black magic spree. They performed human sacrifices, summoned demons, and magically manipulated events with impunity. Their mystical divinations prepared them for the coming Great Depression and the Circle and its members lived out hard economic times in relative luxury. What they didn’t divine was the rise of the masked crime fighter in American society.
In 1933, when children from poor neighborhoods started disappearing from their homes in the middle of the night, police and heroes alike were entirely baffled. There were no signs of forced entry, no clues at all. It wasn’t until the new hero known as the Dream Doctor started on the case that the true nature of the Circle of Thorns became public knowledge. A master of sorcery himself, the Dream Doctor recognized the hand of black magic in the kidnappings and traced the mystic trail back to the private club used by the Circle for its meetings.
At midnight on the anniversary of the Circle’s founding, The Dream Doctor burst in upon the foul cultists just as they prepared to sacrifice the poor children. As preternatural night engulfed the ritual chamber, the hero moved among them, his mystic blasts and spirit allies smashing through the cultists and freeing the children before Baron Zoria and his cronies knew what had happened. While the Circle’s highest-ranking members escaped, The Dream Doctor managed to capture most of the rest of the cult and bring them to justice.
That night in 1933 was the end of the Circle of Thorn’s existence as a public organization. Baron Zoria and his followers literally fled into the underground, allegedly taking up quarters in the dank and dangerous ruins of Oranbega. Their first order of business was taking vengeance upon the man who had ruined them: The Dream Doctor. Knowing full well what would happen to him, the Doctor gathered about him a group of civic-minded magicians, occultists, and scholars to help protect the city against future threats from the Circle of Thorns. He called this group the Midnight Squad, and the organization persists to this day as one of the premiere superhero organizations in Paragon City.
Over the next few decades, the Circle of Thorns and the Midnight Squad continued to skirmish back and forth. Unfortunately, since only the Circle knew how to enter the lost city of Oranbega, they always had a safe and secure base to retreat in when matters grew desperate. Try as they might, the Midnight Squad could not crack the mystery of the sunken city. By the 1990’s the Circle of Thorns seemed to have dwindled to a mere shadow of its former might. Except for the occasional museum theft or kidnapped antiquarian, the villains seldom seemed to rise from their chthonic chambers.
What no one could have expected is that it would be an alien invasion that both opened the way to Oranbega and simultaneously reinvigorated the Circle of Thorns. During the Rikti War, the extra-dimensional attackers used the subway tunnels and other underground chambers as bases of operation. They excavated more rooms as they needed them, using a variation on their portal technology. Apparently, the magical runes and protection spells hiding Oranbega from the rest of the world had no effect on technology from another dimension. The Rikti had accidentally discovered the vast underground lair of the Circle of Thorns.
Although most of the city’s heroes are loathe to admit it, this unintended revelation may well have played a key role in turning the tide of the Rikti War. The Circle, long dormant, was not nearly as dead as many had imagined. The aliens found themselves not only fighting super powered heroes on the surface, but magic wielding, demon summoning fanatics down below. The now quite aged Baron Zoria himself led the charge at the head of his elite Thorn Wielders against the aliens, pushing them out of Oranbega and the surrounding caves.
No paper ever reported the Circle of Thorns’ role, nor did any of the hero organizations acknowledge the existence of Oranbega. Indeed, few of them knew for certain what exactly had happened to the Rikti underground. Nevertheless, after the war, rumors told of ancient, gold encrusted ruins beneath the streets of Paragon City. Fortune hunters, amateur archeologists, and even some heroes went down into the depths in search of fame and fortune. As might be predicted, none of them returned. At least, none of them returned as they were when they went down.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. With their impenetrable magic cloak destroyed by the Rikti, the Circle of Thorns knew it was only a matter of time before the Midnight Squad or some other noisome hero group would get curious and start causing trouble. And so Baron Zoria and his followers decided to take a more proactive approach in their own defense. They began with those initial explorers, capturing the trespassers and then supplanting their souls with the long-dead spirits of the original Oranbegans. When folks learned better than to go looking in dark caves for lost cities, the Circle of Thorns began to more actively “recruit” new members. They sent expeditions to the surface to snatch more innocents for Oranbegan supplantation. In the meantime…they sought new — if less effective — ways, to hide their secret city from interlopers.
Today the Circle of Thorns has swelled in membership because of their press gang practices. Now, for the first time in decades, Baron Zoria’s ambition seems to be stirring. With the city in such a chaotic state, the Midnight Squad believes that The Circle is preparing to make a play for real power in the surface world. Robe-clad cult members have been seen on the surface in several locations. Strange new social clubs and cults have popped up in many neighborhoods, espousing beliefs very similar to those of the Circle, and many of these have turned overnight from simple spiritual movements to murderous cabals. Now the Midnight Squad is busy trying to put a stop to this burgeoning occult threat, but the more problems they encounter in Paragon City, the harder it is to find time to search out entrances to lost Oranbega. Which is, no doubt, just as Baron Zoria intends…¨