Prologue
The Ruler's Burden

AT 1055 (AZ 1427) - Midwinter
The Shade's Forest, The Darklands

Though the Orghim of the Shade's Forest were tree-dwellers, in times of great peril they would take refuge in underground burrows. The sick, the aged, the females and the children all huddled together in the dank and dark. The males fought for them up above. It was sad that only a crisis like this would bring their people together.
Prince Orguz had watched twelve kings come and go, from his father to his brothers to their sons and their sons' sons. Some were better than others. All of them met with bloody ends. It was a strange fortune that he had lived so long or perhaps it was a curse to watch the meaningless cycle of bloodshed repeat over and over again.
No doubt they would have continued to fight amongst themselves were it not for a greater threat that descended on them from the north. Some stories had reached them, of a mighty Death-speaker who could call upon the ghosts sleeping beneath the earth. It was not long after that they received an emissary, one of the dead who walked. After delivering his message, he turned to dust. The Orghim were offered two choices: submit and live or resist and die.
The Trolwifs foretold ruin if they did not submit, but the King would hear none of it. He marshaled the warriors of all the tribes and marched out to meet this new enemy. Would the Trolwifs' warning be proven correct? Soothsaying was an imperfect art, but rare was the occasion when the Trolwifs' predictions did not come to pass.
It was difficult to tell how much time had passed since they took refuge underground. A day, maybe two. With Prince Orguz was Urgonna, the wife of his old age. Though it was common for Orghim to take multiple wives and quickly replace those that died, Orguz never intended to remarry after losing the wife of his youth. However, all their children and their children's children died out and with so many who bore the blood of kings dying, it was decreed that Orguz must do his part to continue the line. And so he was made to marry an Urg young enough to be the daughter of his son's sons, but by now she too would soon be counted among the aged.
Besides Ugonna, there was his daughter Urgudd and her children, and Urgulul the wife of his son and her children. Surrounded by this second family, Orguz felt at peace but was also saddened by the memory of the family he had lost. He was also fearful that the threat on the surface might take this family away from him as well.
A great clamor rose up of panicked shrieks and squawks as scattered males began pouring into the tunnels. Some were wounded, almost all of them were unarmed. It was all too clear what had happened. They had been routed.
If they had not abandoned their arms in their rush to flee and regrouped to defend the tunnels against the coming enemy, they would still have some honor in defeat. Instead they fled deeper into the tunnels, that the ones taking refuge their might be a shield for them.
Orguz was sort of Org who normally kept his peace. It was no small part of the reason that he had lived so long. However, this cowardly display was too outrageous for him to remain silent.
He raised up his voice against the fleeing males, saying, "Have you no shame!? Cowering behind wives and babes!"
Some of the vanquished warriors spat curses back at him, but most ignored him entirely in their mad dash to find a place to hide from the enemy.
A chill in the air gripped Orguz's bones and the tunnels suddenly went silent and still as death itself.
A man stood in their midst, but there was a great dark power that flowed from him. Human but not human. Dead but not dead.
In one hand, he gripped a terrible black sword and in the other the severed head of an Org. It was not just any Org either but that of Orgrin the the King. The Iron Crown was split and only remained on the King's brow because it had been driven into his skull by the forceful blow that cut across his face.
There was nothing he could to stop this man, but Orguz nevertheless put himself between the man and his family. The man approached, stopping only a couple paces from Orguz.
Holding up the head of the King, the man said to Orguz, "Your blood has the same smell. You have the blood of kings. Come with me."
Orguz was not expecting the man to speak to him in the tongue of the Orghim, nor for a creature with such dull senses as a man to speak of the scent of blood. Then again, this was no common man. All the common men had perished from this land generations ago.
Orguz did not move. In all truth, he was paralyzed with fear.
Taking his hesitation for refusal, the man said, "I could just kill everyone here. Or you can come with me."
Mustering his courage, Orguz told the man, "I will follow you."
The man turned and left. Orguz took up his cane and followed. As he was taking up his cane, he exchange glances with Urgonna. Nothing needed to be said between them. He was likely going to his death, but perhaps this could buy them a little time, if not to flee then at least to die with honor.
The man led Orguz out of the tunnel and out of the forest. It was difficult for him to walk so far, but he could not allow himself to falter.
Waiting just outside of the forest was a great host of the dead who walked. Slain Orghim were piled up in heaps. It was a terrible sight to behold, but more terrible still were the two men at the head of the formation. Men but not men. Dead but not dead. One was like a floating shadow, the other like the corpse of a king of old with a tall black crown upon his head. Both of them were even more powerful than the man carrying Orgrin's head. Such power was not meant to exist in this world.
"Kneel," the swordsman commanded.
Orguz could no longer stand even if he wished to. He was exhausted from the long walk and bowed by the overwhelming dark power around him. As Orguz fell to his knees, the swordsman told the dead king, "I have brought the eldest of their bloodline, my King."
The dead king, who Orguz realized must be the Death-speaker from the north, asked him, "How are you called?"
"I am Orguz, son of Orgmar."
"Do you know who I am?"
"I do not, but I know that you are powerful."
Something close to a smile crossed the Death-speaker's lips and he replied, "You speak rightly. As you can see, the strength of your people is but a trifle to one such as I. Because of this, I showed your people mercy and offered you the chance to surrender and serve me to save your lives. Yet your King rejected my kindness and made war against me. You see his fate and the fate of so many of your warriors. Now all your people face extinction at my hands for having opposed me. The blood of kings flows in your veins, Orguz, son of Orgmar. Tell me, what would you have done if you were King?"
It was tempting to denounce Orgrin as a bloodthirsty fool who led his people to ruin, but it was not his place. To speak against the King, even after his death, was treason. Orguz would do no such thing.
"We are bound to follow the will of the King," he said. "I am no one to question him."
"Your King is dead," the Death-speaker replied. "Indulge me. The fate of your people may rest on your answer. Answer truthfully, though. I will know if you lie to me."
The threat was unnecessary. Orguz despised falsehood, whether to gain some advantage or to save your own skin.
"For good or ill, I would have treated with you as offered," Orguz said.
"And witnessing my power as you have now, would you still lead your people to war?"
"I doubt you would have allowed me to return to lead an army against you."
Again the Death-speaker gave a faint hint of a smile at Orguz's answer, then asked in turn, "If given the opportunity, would you?"
"Were you sincere when you guaranteed the lives of my people?"
"One of my power has no need for deception. Deception is the crutch of the weak."
Orguz bowed his head.
"In that case, it is better to submit and live than to fight and die."
"You have answered well, Orguz, son of Orgmar," the Death-speaker said. He turned to the swordsman. "Sir Caligo."
The swordsman--Sir Caligo--pried the Iron Crown off Orgrin's head and offered it to the Death-speaker. The crown hovered above his outstretched hand and the rent mended, making it whole once more. The Death-speaker then placed the Iron Crown on Orguz's head, saying, "You shall be King, Orguz, son of Orgmar, but know that I am King of Kings."
"I am advanced in years," Orguz replied. "I do not know how many winters I will yet see."
The Death-speaker stretched out his hand and closed his eyes. Orguz could feel the strength leaving his already frail bones, then flowing back into him.
Opening his eyes, the Death-speaker said, "Your lifeforce is strong yet within you. Should no ill turn befall you, you will serve long enough to raise an heir wise enough to know his place and not repeat the folly of this day. The fate of your people rests on your shoulders, Khrom Orghim.
"Tend to your dead as you will. My armies march west. There will come a time when you will be called to serve. Until that day, I withdraw my hand."
The Death-speaker, the floating shadow, the dark swordsmen and the army of the dead who walk withdrew, leaving Orguz alone amidst the heaps of bodies of Orghim warriors. Orgrin's head was left lying in the dust.
The first Khrom Orghim was called Orguz, as was the one who restored the kingdom after a generation was lost in the War Beyond the Sea. Now a third Orguz was named King to herald a new age of slavery for their people. The shame was enough to break his heart, but Orguz had little choice but to bear it, for even though they be the Death-speaker's slaves, they would yet live.