A brief overview of some history… A lot of specific place and person names have not been added, and this is something of a rough draft. But it should hopefully give a decent idea of where things are and how they got there!
The kingdom had slowly grown for hundreds of years. It nibbled up a neighbor here, added a colony in new lands there. For all that time, the lands had been blessed with a remarkable string of competent rulers – queens and kings who led their people with a just and fairly even hand. None were perfect – these were not some rulers out of legend, but men and women who tried their best to do well for their people.
That all ended with the First Emperor’s reign. The Last Emperor’s reign, it might be called as well.
Really, it was perhaps that announcement, the proclamation that the Kingdom would henceforth be called an Empire and the ruler an Emperor, that should have called more attention to how wrong things were about to go. But he was a young ruler, barely eighteen. Perhaps it was assumed that he would mature as he aged. Or perhaps the people were simply so used to good leadership that they were in the habit of following the monarch, regardless of how he led.
But that was just the beginning. He hired on his old tutor, an archmagus of great power and ill repute. He banished from his court any who spoke against his word. And then he proceeded on a chain of acts, each less wise than the last. After he seized control of new lands to the South by slaughtering a tenth of their people, and threatening more murder, the order of Dannan Knights had finally had enough. They had long served as personal guard and honor troop for the rulers of the land, but this leader had gone too far. In protest, Lord Halwyrd quietly but swiftly withdrew the presence of the entire Knighthood from the capitol, gathering in their citadel to the North.
Furious at this sleight, the Emperor called his bannermen to march against the Knights. The Knights were well loved, known as holy men favored by the Goddess and warriors of restraint and virtue. But as much as they were loved, the Emperor was feared more, and most of his Lords came with their armies. Three southern Dukes remained on their estates, however.
Already in a rage at the Knights, the young Emperor was driven wild by what he saw as a new attack on his authority. Guided by his archmage, he redirected his armies from the Knights – a small force and a petty threat – toward the greater enemy of these rebellious Dukes. Three years later, much of the Southern Reaches lay burned and in ruins, but the Dukes were dead, their families butchered, and new Lords placed in their stead.
As the army prepared to turn North again, the Emperor passed laws levying new taxes on the outer provinces and colonies to pay for the ongoing war. Most simply gritted their teeth and bore the immense burden. The major port cities of one island colony, however, refused. These were strong lands, colonized for scores of years. Rich with resources and trade, they represented as great a threat as the Dukes who had just been defeated. More dangerous still, they had seen how the Emperor’s madness had grown over the years, and had prepared a powerful navy for their defense.
The Emperor spent the next year building more ships to prepare an invasion. Troops were called in from all around the realm, stripping colonies of their defenses. The Knights were left largely alone; they had not been idle either, during the years of civil war, and had dug in defenses that would require a monumental siege effort. But the rebellion of the colony was a far worse blow to the treasury, and was deemed a priority by the archmagus whose voice seemed to carry more and more weight in court each year.
The first invasion was a disaster for the Empire. Hundreds of ships were launched; half never returned. The rebel navy knew their seas well, and had ample support on land. The two powers settled into a grinding war of naval battles, raids, burned rebel towns, and angry words. The Empire could not gain an advantage, and the rebels did not have the strength to invade the mainland in response. The war seemed likely to continue for many years to come.
The archmagus came to the Emperor with a suggestion. He had researched a spell, he said, that would create a terrible plague. This plague could be used as a weapon against the rebels, killing thousands of them without the need to even lift a sword. By now used to listening to his chief adviser in all matters, the Emperor readily agreed. The spell was cast – and even today, few men alive have any idea what dark rites were required for such an evil spell. For the archmagus had not revealed all that the spell would do…
It did indeed create a plague, but one which broke the chain of life in the victim. Instead of their life-essence being returned to the world, to be born again in some new state, the plague tied the essense of life to the victim’s body, even after death. Anyone who died while infected with the plague rose again soon after, a revenant or shade. An Undead life, sometimes mindless, sometimes cunning – but always filled with a hatred for all normal life. The citizens of the Empire heard reports of the colony’s plight, thousands dying to this seemingly incurable curse.
Plagues are chancy weapons at best, like as not to turn on their wielder. This one was no different, and scant weeks had passed before the first cases were noticed on the mainland. Once it hit the heavily populated cities, it spread like wildfire through the people, cutting down noble and commoner alike. The capitol became a ghost town in truth. And in a final justice, the Emperor himself was one of the last to fall sick, after seeing everyone around him turned into a wight, ghast, or other lifeless creature.
The Northern lands saw less travel than the South, and so were not hit as badly by the plague. And among tribes of Hill People to the far North there were shamans of power, healers who knew much about the balance of life and how it related to the essense of living things. These folk were the ones who found the cure for the plague through their study and effort. Immediately, they set out for every town and settlement in their reach to spread their cure. These Hill People had only ever nominally been in the Empire, even though they had been a conquered people for almost a hundred years. But they still felt an obligation to those suffering around them, and acted to stop the disease.
So all was not lost in the North. Several small lordlings had kept their estates. The Hill People villages stand strong. And the Knights’ citadel yet stands. Refugees have poured toward these safe havens, seeking both the cure and safety from the Undead creatures others had become. The South, with all its great cities, seems to have been all but completely overrun. Of the distant colonies, there was no word. But the worst was still to come.
The archmagus lived. He was in fact a student of dark necromancy, learning the powers of Unlife and Unbinding. His powers now gave him great control over the legions of Undead stalking the lands, and he had gathered to him a number of students who learned from his Dark Books. Now he reigns as a Death Mage, lord of the ashes of an Empire, king of a city that is empty of all life.
He is not content to merely sit there, though. Now, through his minions and apprentices, he reaches his claws into the outer world.