Part V - The Conquest of the Emperor
“You founded the Restoration?” Dante asks.
“Aye, lad,” Jerek answers as he gets to his feet. “Do you remember what things were like before the Emperor took control?”
Dante shakes his head. He has heard stories from some of the villagers back home, but he was too young to remember anything prior to the Emperor. “No, but I’ve heard stories. It is hard to believe they were true.”
“About how there was peace and prosperity?” Jerek asks, turning to gaze out the window.
“Yeah,” Dante says. “Are they true?”
“They are true. Twenty years ago we were enjoying the longest stretch of peace and prosperity that the seven kingdoms had ever seen. Roads were being built to connect us all, speeding along commerce and boosting the economies of all the kingdoms. Soldiers were fighting together as one unit to fend off the barbarian hordes landing on the coast. The seven kings came together regularly to discuss the future of our land.
“The peace had lasted so long that people became lax in their security. Young men wanted to become soldiers because it had become an easy job, requiring no training or skill. The kings stopped traveling with fully armed escorts. It became common to see foreigners in every major city and kingdom across the land. City defenses became neglected as everyone poured their gold into other profitable ventures.
“No one expected things to change.”
Jerek looks down at his feet, a beam of moonlight splashing across his face. He licks his lips and turns toward Dante, a look of anger in his eyes. “The Emperor conquered the kingdoms, one by one. He timed it when a massive barbarian fleet landed on the shores, drawing away the only real army we had. He met minimal resistance. Those who did stand in his way were either untrained or out-of-practice.
“He allowed no survivors to escape to warn the other kingdoms. The roads that we had poured so much gold into allowed him to move from one to the next with incredible speed. With each victory his army grew larger, and soon even the trained army wouldn’t have stood a chance against him. Yet we tried to stop him, outnumbered and weary from the battle with the barbarians.
“That day we learned that the Emperor had discovered a dark magic that hadn’t been around for a thousand years. He had learned the art of Necromancy, commanding an army of the undead. Every soldier that died in battle that day became one of his army. Brother fought against brother, and many found they could not strike a fatal blow against a loved one, even one they knew to be dead.”
Jerek kicks the bucket across the room. The water remaining in the bottom splashes onto the stone wall, trickling down to the floor. Dante remains seated, trying to process what he is hearing. If the Emperor commands the dead then there is no chance of defeating him. There can be no war waged against him. The Emperor would want a war, increasing his own army while diminishing the opposition.
“A few of us managed to escape from the slaughter with our lives,” Jerek continues. “We hid ourselves among the other six kingdoms, continuing to hang onto the hope that someday we’d be able to strike back. Over the past twenty years we have trained ourselves, and others, in the ancient warrior arts. While the Emperor has gotten lax in his own defenses, entertaining himself with diversions like this coliseum, we have been honing our skills and building our own force.
“We’ve watched family and friends get killed or taken away for no reason. We’ve seen our people struggle to survive as the Emperor’s minions have caused our fields and our forests to wither and die. We have stood by and watched the hope of life get sucked out of every city and kingdom. We live our lives as slaves to a tyrant who values no life beyond his own. But the time to strike back is coming.”
“So how did you end up in here?” Dante asks. Jerek sighs heavily and sits back down across from his cellmate.
“I was part of an espionage troupe scouting the capital. One of my men turned on us and raised an alarm. My horse was shot as we were making our escape two weeks ago. I’ve been down here ever since.”
Both men fall silent. Dante’s mind races as he considers everything Jerek told him. Some of the story fits with the rumors he had heard in his village, but a lot of it was new information. He falls asleep and his dreams are filled with hordes of undead chasing after him.