Even the fallen can fall still further...
In the realm of Umbraltide, there are no such things as truth or goodness, valor or justice. There is only darkness, and how far you rise depends on how far you're willing to fall. Honor is only found among the strong; the weak, being disgraced, either serve them or die. All people, whether noble or common, follow one of the gods of the Dark Triad: Neinav, the Harbinger of Hate; Corvanus, the Nameless Dread; or Vysoldat, the Consummate Warlord. Life in Umbraltide is one of struggle, battle, conquest, slavery, violence, and passion. It is not for the squeamish or faint of heart...
Even villains can crumble beneath mightier ones...
Even dark cities have their dark times.
Mages, called witches and warlocks by ignorant folk, are burned at the stake if found out. So are traitors to the one Emperor of Umbraltide, Ilthuul. All seems lost for mortal beings, whether they be Men or of the more exotic sort, such as Elves. However, the people of Umbraltide find out that there is far worse evil afoot than the atrocities of their Emperor...
Diktat, a fearsome presence who claims no god and pays respect to no one but himself, is marshalling a vast army to the east in the barren wastelands of Hrauk, where few live and fewer survive. Priests and prophets claim that Diktat is either possessed by a demon or of the infernal regions himself. Others scoff at this and say Diktat is a mere mortal, driven by the same lust for power and glory that all mortals have, to some degree.
The truth is that Diktat knows how to awaken the dead from their sleep, but why does he seek to do so? If he conquers, why will he turn Umbraltide from a land of the living into a land of the dead?
Prologue: The Stake Awaits
Ah, the sweet and scorching bliss of summer! I dash through the fields, with my brother and sister chasing me a few steps behind. They laugh, and I laugh, inhaling the sweet, dry scent of new-mown grass. We suddenly tumble and fall in a heap, and I laugh even harder, sneezing at the slight tickle in my nose. We are happy, and we always were...until Ilthuul came.
"Iyadwen? Iyadwen Vtorym?" I heard an old woman's soft voice. "It's time."
I sat up slowly, rubbing my eyes and feeling a twinge of pain in my back. No wonder I had been dreaming of new-mown grass: I was lying on a bed of straw, with nothing to cradle my head save my arms. I sighed and looked at the crone.
"Is it the twentieth hour already?" I moaned softly. The gray matron nodded.
"Don't worry, my lady," she said. "It won't hurt as badly as some of the Emperor's guards and lackeys say it will. Just breathe deeply, inhale the smoke, and don't try to fight the flames. Relax." It was my turn to nod. I had betrayed the one and only Lord of Umbraltide, Ilthuul, the man that the hag had called Emperor. Usually, we common folk had no chance to, even though we had no more sense than pigs and would betray him if we could. However, I was one of an elite team of berserker fighters called the Secundanti.
We were the lieutenants of the Emperor's Guard, called upon to fight if the closest men to the Emperor fell in battle. I had seen my best comrade slain before my very eyes, impaled clean through upon Ilthuul's famous sword: Strakh, the Blade of the Nameless Dread. My brother-in-arms had failed an important mission, and this was the price of his mistake. Though I had seen much in battle, witnessing his death was more than I could bear. I hissed:
"Lord Vysoldat will come, you coward, and then he shall bury
Twelve words branded me as a traitor, and in twelve minutes I would burn.
"Would you like to pray to the Warlord before your execution, my lady?"
I nodded, knelt down in the straw, and then pressed my face and body to the ground. Nothing but the utmost humility and respect would do now, at the hour of my death, before the Consummate Warlord. Weeping, I cried:
"Master! Let me not die in ignominy, becoming the Thousandth One! You yourself have said that the warrior who dies the most cowardly of cowards' deaths will be last in your Realm of War, your slave for a thousand years! You will teach him or her the ways of battle once again, but the Thousandth One will gain no honor in it. After his or her sentence has passed, this thrall of yours may be redeemed, but never before then. Ah, Vysoldat! Spare your servant, who wishes to be true to her namesake and become Vtorym, your eternal lieutenant! Let me burn if I must, but only for your glory! Let it be!"
The old crone helped me to rise and brushed the straw from my coarse gown, made out of an old cloth sack. It was as fitting a garment as any in which to die. She clasped my hands, pressed them tenderly, and then escorted me over to two chainmail-armored men who would deliver me to the stake. One of them carried a whip, and he bound my hands with the black leather cord while the other one helped me to keep my balance as I walked forward.
A large crowd had gathered to watch the execution, which was to be held in the grassy courtyard of Ilthuul's Keep. Shouts of "Traitor!" and "Time to die!" filled my ears. I closed my eyes and ignored this, preferring to focus on the fate that lay ahead instead of the abuse and ridicule of the people. If any one of them ever dared to speak out against Ilthuul and the corroded soul that lay at his very core, they would be burned as well, so they did not.
We stopped before the stake, I and the two armed guards who brought me to the execution platform, and looked up. The scaffolding and stake were built on top of a high, wooden spiral staircase that wound eerily up to the platform itself--I would get to watch the flames snake up towards my body before I was consumed. "Burn, wench!" they sneered, throwing me before the executioner so that I landed flat on my face, as I had been before Vysoldat. I kissed the helm of his long black robe, and he helped me to stand up again. His strong arms were surprisingly gentle as they held me fast, guiding me up the spiral staircase toward the platform. "Fear not," I heard him whisper in my ear as the stake drew nearer and nearer. "I follow the Consummate Warlord as well, and I will not let one of his fellow warriors die in shame. I know how to be merciful and to make your death quick. Come. The stake awaits."
The executioner flattened my back against the wood of the stake, wrapping the leather whip-cord around both the pole and my hands. He then took some heavy iron chains from five burly guards who were standing nearby and fastened them around my body. The links encircled my bosom, waist, knees and ankles. Unless the Warlord intervened, I would not escape. The chains were securely locked, and then the guards fetched a large grease-bucket.
Just as if I were a house or a tavern-sign, the guards painted me with the rancid lard, laughing and leering at my body clothed in nothing more than a poor peasant girl would have worn on her wedding night! It would make me burn faster, although I wish the executioner himself would have greased me.
At last, I heard a deep and booming voice ring out, that of Ilthuul himself:
"Hear ye! Citizens of Umbraltide, the time has come to punish this traitor to the throne of our realm, our gods, and our exalted way of life! Iyadwen Vtorym, once one of my faithful Secundanti, has dared to betray the very master she swore to serve! For this, she has been found guilty, and for this she shall die. The verdict is clear, and so is the sentence: to burn at the stake until death. In her native tongue, she knows it by one word: sozhenie!"
shouted the crowd, not prolonging the zh
as they should. They all raised their torches, which were mirrors of the larger one that the executioner would use to light my pyre. First the wood around the steps would burn, then the steps themselves, then the wood upon the platform, and then finally my stake. The sequence was beautiful, yet lethal.
The executioner saluted by clasping his hand to his heart and then climbed down the fourteen spiral steps from the platform. It might take quite a while for me to die. I closed my eyes and vowed to remember the crone's advice.
"Any last words?" called the voice of Ilthuul, at least giving me some credit.
"Vysoldat will still come and bury you," I said, "and as his lieutentant, his Vtorym,
I will assist him!" The crowd hurled insults and scorn at me.
I heard an angry shout before something else began to roar: "Light her!"
The fire engulfed the kindling-wood around the steps in no time at all. The steps began to burn, a bit more slowly. How long would it be before the flames licked their way up toward my platform, my own kindling-pile, my stake? Acrid smoke began to rise toward my nostrils, and I breathed deeply...