Prologue: The World Beyond the World
There is a world beyond the world that is seen, a dark and bodiless world where souls reside. Some call it the World of the Dead, but it is as much the World of the Unborn, where those who have yet to be on their way to be born pass those who have been on their way to the Mother’s arms. It is a quiet world without matter or strife, where the dead may rest until their hearts are at peace, where the sinners and the troubled may shed the stains of the world and reconcile themselves to the gods.
Most do, and pass stately into that repose that lies beyond the darkness. Some hesitate in fear or pain, and stay a long time in the dark. Others rage against the injustice of their own deaths, unable to return until time sees the fire in their hearts turned to ash.
A very few refuse to be reconciled at all, and remain forever in a cold hell of their own making.
Koschei—called the Deathless—hung in the blackness beyond the world with the light at his back. He would not look at it. Had not, in all the ages he had been suspended here, glanced at it once. The light had made him promises in life, and broken them. The light had forsaken his people, and did not deserve them, nor so much as an acknowledgement from him. One day he would depart its presence permanently, bursting through the surface of the world from death back into life, never to die again. One day, he would redeem his people from this place and make them eternal, supplanting the gods who had betrayed them.
Memory was his only companion in the dark. The ghosts around him existed as targets for his rage and little more; they were scarcely aware that they had died, let alone that there were others with them in the dark. Sometimes the newly dead were a source of information, wearing memory and emotion like dust on their skins. He was still táltos enough to peer dimly up through the surface of the world at the realm of the living, watching the events that played out distant and muted overhead as if through deep water; but he could touch those who had just come from life and be them for an instant, seeing all they had seen.
Any fresh influx of spirits was a chance to reconstruct the means of their dying from vivid memories, to live and die again vicariously. If his own losses had not been enough to harden his heart against the gods forever, those stolen moments would have done it: He lived out every injustice, every massacre, every horrific death from war or disease or murder. Those who had passed peacefully were of no interest to him; their presence in the dark was fleeting as they went willingly back to the Mother’s embrace.
Koschei despised them in their weakness. They loved the architect of all that was awful in the world and wanted nothing more than to be reunited with Her. He fed on that despite as he fed on the pain and horror of those who died badly, and he grew strange and tortured and mad.
He had come close to escaping many times in the past, called forth out of the dark by desperate magic or the impassioned plea of a distant descendant. He had walked the realm of the living as a ghost, or hovered in the back of a willing mind and breathed knowledge into it. But without a body of his own the world soon became as insubstantial to him as he was to it, and he slipped back into the darkness.
He could not simply take another body as his own. Though the weak-willed heard his whispering as their own thoughts, no force of will would let him displace their spirits outright. It took power he didn’t have to break a living soul in half and unseat the spirit from its flesh; whatever Her other failures, the Mother had made her children well in that regard.
The bond between spirit and body could be broken, he knew; it was severed on death, and the force as it snapped threw the dead far into the darkness. If he caught a soul in the instant of its dying, he might take the power of that death and reforge his own tie to the world. He had ridden the unfortunates who called on him down into oblivion and wrested magic from their deaths to take their flesh for his own; each time, the stolen body had turned to corruption around him without the living spirit for which it had been made. Each failure stoked his rage and drove him to new tactics.
He tried letting the spirits keep their bodies, but pushed them down below the level of conscious thought—still they fought him off, for he could set no hooks in a soul that did not invite him willingly. So he lied to them and entreated them to invite him in, and found he could not inhabit the bodies of those not of his own blood; the sympathetic magic between spirit and flesh would not permit a stranger to use it. Spirits who did not hate as strongly as he hated, who were not filled in the instant of their deaths with the same rage that burned in him, slipped from his grasp before he could make use of them.
The path back into life was hedged by so many difficulties that a lesser man would have quailed at the impossibility. Koschei did not. He overcame each obstacle methodically, watching for the next confluence of events that would deliver to him a soul he could use.
Years crept by as he hung in the blackness and watched. Decades and centuries and ages of suffering, disaster, and death sent spirits reeling into the dark, and he took memories from all of them. Despite it all, mankind multiplied and spread across the world. He watched them reclaim the cities they had been driven from, settling to the business of being nations once more.
Some of these fledgling nations died early, crushed between avaricious neighbors or destroyed by a hostile environment. Some settled in once place only to be driven to another by outside depredations. One kingdom in particular was uprooted several times, driven relentlessly north until they were in lands no other people would possibly desire: the edges of the Godfall Wastes. They settled beside those very icefields, and there struggled to make an existence from the plague-raddled hinterlands. The ruling family of this starveling kingdom claimed direct lineage to Koschei through his son, and so he watched them closely.
The kingdom was doomed, he knew. The ulven, those enemies of life who had made the Wastes, delighted in suffering and would not miss a chance to wipe a people out of existence as a man would crush an ant. A people who would not even suspect their danger, for they were a special breed of fools who worshipped the Mother and believed She would protect them.
He could warn them, but he wanted to see them fail, just as he had--and he saw that the kingdom’s rulers loved their people fiercely. When those people began to die, how quickly that love would turn to fury at anything that harmed them.
Death, blood, and rage: the pieces were in place, and it was only a matter of time before this kingdom provided a soul to be Koschei’s path out of death.
( Version one )