Empress Zhyan watched the battle unfolding from her throne, up the mountainside, as her personal guard, The Crimson Shield, engaged the enemy below her. But the enemy was no mere rebel scum. These were the ghosts of Imperial Legionaries, once commanded by Lord Oda, her own father – but now they had become corrupted mockeries of their former glory. Chaos was drawn to her. Or was it to what she brought from the mainland?
She watched as the spirits emerged from the ground, only taking substance as they reached out to strangle their former comrades. Her troops were breaking under the onslaught, their artillery useless against the wraiths, their swords only able to connect for a moment before their lives were snuffed out. It was turning into a rout, her elite, red-armored troops fighting desperately as they were ambushed from below.
She raised her right hand. In it, the small gold object began to glow. And soon a vast shadow passed over her, as the Empire’s most dreaded construct entered the fray – the Drakoliche. Its roar was the sound of metal splitting from the extremest cold. Its breath lanced down, a line of burning blue, and it incinerated everything it touched, living and dead. The Empress smiled and remembered how she had come here, to Azuhl, at the end of the world.
Impatience boiled up inside her. Another heavy blow shook the palace and made the ground beneath her tremble. The red-armored legionaries turned the corner with her, and together they continued their march. The black oak door they arrived at was not locked. As the Empress set foot in the hall, Kanzilian K’tra slowly raised his reptilian skull. The ancient Drakh crouched on the floor, in the middle of the room, surrounded by slates and scrolls, like a spider in its web.
With long steps, Empress Zhyan crossed the room. K’tra only looked at her tiredly, his stooped posture unchanging, even when the Empress pulled out her midnight blade, the only blade ever to be made of pure Thiil metal. When it swung, it turned into a shimmering shadow that remained only inches away from the Kanzilian’s throat.
“You knew!” Her gaze was filled with hatred and only with difficulty could she control her features. The floor shook again and from the ceiling, fine dust crumbled down on the red legionaries who surrounded the scene.
Kt’ra closed his yellow eyes and sighed loudly, and extensively. “Aezher has gone mad, child,” he growled, slowly, taking time for each word. “It is better for this saga to come to an end, and then rewrite it, from the beginning.” He slightly tilted his head to bring his rheumy left eye closer to the blade. “And perhaps, in view of the circumstances, this applies to my very own time here as well.”
The blade vibrated in Zhyan’s hands for a moment. Then she thought better of it and hid Shadow in her robe. She made a jagged gesture, slapping the metal discs of her glove against each other. The air pressure changed slightly, and a faint thunderclap sounded. Then a clattering and scurrying could be heard on the tiles, and the line of Crimson Shield guards opened to let through a fast-moving, spider-like creature, the size of a cat, that came to a halt next to the Empress. On its back, it balanced a box of black lacquered wood.
Zhyan, Twentieth Wife of the Immortal Emperor Aezher the Divine, began to carefully open the lid of the box, which glowed faintly golden as it opened. “Your saga won’t end, Kanzilian. Not yet.”
When the Empress took her leave of Aezher, the invasion was already in its full force.
In a steady flow, the eight-legged spiders streamed down the stairs beside her, clattering, with their baggage on their backs. The stone rumbled around her. Kayn, her mute bodyguard, was already waiting at the foot of the stairs. He bowed deeply as the Empress, surrounded by her personal guard from the Crimson Shield, reached the floor of the vast cavern. It lay deep beneath the palace, and was known only to the select, but could encompass an entire Legion easily. Kayn told his mistress in sign language that the fleet was ready.
Behind him loomed the massive Seagate. It rose from the dark depths of the subterranean lake and disappeared several hundred feet above it straight into the cave ceiling. Between the two massive pillars, the first shimmering bluish lines were already beginning to form, like cracks in thin ice. The Warlocks’ incense wafted to Zhyan, and the droning of their incantations echoed as they activated the ancient portal.
Ahead of Zhyan across the water lay a fleet of heavy Imperial war galleys, in the shadow of the cave, enough to take them and the entire Legion to Azuhl. “Azuhl! It must be there! Ryvar was a failure, Yrd is destroyed – it’s the last remaining option, the only place you’ll be safe enough to bring me back.” These were Aezher’s last words before he began the great spell. Her hands clasped the small black and gold capsule that lay on a chain on her chest.
A bloodcurdling screech sounded above them and several boulders detached themselves from the cave ceiling and disappeared into the lake in high fountains. 
“We leave immediately, Kayn. There are no survivors behind us.”
He bowed again, as the legionaries streamed across the lacquered red bridges into their waiting troopships.


Aboard the “Stormwind,” the Kapl’an’s cabin was comparable in spaciousness and luxury to a Sycalesian midnight barque. Zhyan reclined deeply in the ebony chair, and kept her eyes on the door. She did not have to wait long for her guest. After a brief knock, the Crimson Shield opened the sealed entrance at her finger’s point.
The Master of Spies was a wiry, middle-aged man. The inconspicuous clothing he wore contrasted with the golden Drakorea-style facemask he had fixed with the utmost care, as befit a meeting with royalty. He bowed low, and removed the mask to show deference to his Empress, so that she alone might read his thoughts plainly. 
His handsome face sported an artfully waxed, thin mustache, his hair was shorn short in a tight braid, and the makeup he wore befit the status of a high-ranking adept of the court. Nobu was attractive, she had to admit. But his resulting arrogance was a weakness that, fortunately, the Empress knew how to exploit. Just like his susceptibility to all kinds of worldly desires.
“Master Nobu,” Zhyan broke the silence after both had performed the ritual gestures of greeting. “How fortunate that you just happened to be at court with us. I fear we will not see most of the other adepts again in this life.”
“It was Aezher’s will and his grace, Exalted One. As it was yours to grant me a place on this ship,” her guest replied humbly, his dark eyes looking respectfully down.
“Oh, I would have missed your pretty face, Nobu.” Zhyan graced him with the hint of a smile. “But that is not the only reason for your presence. Your services have always been valuable to us. And in the moons to come, they will be of utmost importance.”
She paused. Knowledge was power and power had to be shared very carefully among her servants.
“We are on our way to Azuhl,” she said, “if I recall correctly, the place where you grew up. But please, before we proceed, sit down.” Zhyan performed the gesture of hospitality and nourishment and pointed to an armchair. Instantly, some of the master spy’s tense demeanor faded – this was not his execution. “What can you tell me about your homeland?”
“Well, I was just a child before I… entered the service of the Emperor, and the call of Aezher took me away from the islands.” Nobu tried not to let the conflicting feelings that boiled up inside him show. “It’s a… backwater, full of savages, pirates, and mercenaries, Exalted One.”
“We both know, Nobu, that there is more to Azuhl than the scribes of The Book would have us believe.”
“Exalted One, that is certainly true. Officially, the pacification of Azuhl was aimed at putting an end to the Mohyar raids on the Taurel trade route. But as you commanded, since the beginning of our journey I have been studying the passages you brought me from the archives.” Nobu paused dramatically. Power had to be shared carefully. “What must have interested my predecessors, and especially the Inquisition, much more, is the fact that there are at least six Seagates in the immediate vicinity of the islands. In the time of the ancients, Azuhl must have been an important place. What purpose it served – there is disagreement among scholars, at best.”
This time Zhyan really smiled. And Nobu’s blood froze in his veins. “We will have the opportunity to form our own opinions firsthand in the near future, Nobu.”
When Nobu had closed the door to his cabin, and double-secured and rechecked the lock, he wiped cold sweat from his brow. His makeup would be completely ruined in no time, but the master of spies had other concerns.
After all, Nobu now knew for sure why he had been granted the privilege of this trip. And he would make sure to back up his indispensability as best he could. Azuhl, then. His best chance of survival lay in the writings from the Imperial Archives – possibly the last copies in the world – that sat on his desk.
I need to find out if the Empress is in possession of any more transcripts, and if so, who else has read them. Easy, Nobu, easy…  he admonished himself. Time for a swig of Zerbash. With the artfully cut glass in hand and his pulse slowly settling from the drink, Nobu sat down at the desk opposite his bunk and began to form his plan.
Who else in our new little court knows how to decipher Drakhian glyphs? Kayn certainly didn’t. Well, his little ratlings would figure it out soon enough. That was the first task to be accomplished. In the meantime, he would have to find ways to appease the Empress.
As he swirled the Zerbash back and forth in the glass, he again looked at the parchment on his table. Possibly the key. With each sip, Nobu deepened his mind further on the symbols before him, using the arcane discipline he had mastered to open his soul to their true meanings.


In the Kap’lan’s cabin, the declared headquarters of the Empress during the time of her passage, there was turmoil. The endless twilight of the Nethersea and the uncertainty about the situation of the empire after the invasion had stretched the nerves of those present to the breaking point. The murmur of the adepts’ voices died away in one fell swoop as the Empress entered the room.
Her punishing gaze wandered over the row of her highest-ranking servants. With two brief gestures, she demanded silence and their undivided attention.
“The invasion of the outsiders has failed. My husband, your Emperor, has closed the rift.” She saw a wave of relief on the make-up-covered faces and spontaneous cheers erupted. The Empress slammed her fists down, and the gloves of power she wore produced a thunderclap that shook the cabin and silenced the assembled crowd in fear.
“This is not joyful news! Aezher has sacrificed himself to stop our enemy! His body is destroyed and it may be cycles before he can return to us.” Her right hand closed around the black and golden capsule on her chest. “It is now up to us to preserve his legacy until his return.”
Her grip tightened. Now came the crucial part. Zhyan signaled the guard to let the high priestesses in. In a reverent procession, the three women entered the room, white blindfolds over their faces to disguise the deformities of their eyes. The adepts, startled, crowded into the far corners of the booth to make room for the sanctified ones. “Begin,” Zhyan instructed the high priestesses with the gesture of the Mind’s Eye.
The aetheric fog made the memories of the ceremony hazy. It had been a success, that was all that mattered. When Aezher appeared, the adepts were already in a deep trance.
The anger in his voice made them tremble and moan. And the terror the phantom instilled in his subordinates should be enough to keep the court in line and follow the Empress’s orders. His command was definite: the Empress would choose his successor.
By the time the fleet reached the Nethersea Gate to Hellhound Tower, an ever-growing flock of rhanyas had gathered in the sky above them, circling the war galleys beyond bow range. The Kap’lan of the Stormwind watched the scavengers with concern. It was not uncommon for these beasts to try to get across as they passed the Gates, but the veteran had never seen so many in one bunch. Well, it was probably better not to make a fuss about it, considering the audience that was on the upper deck with him. The Empress despised fear and doubt, and this close to their destination, he would not take any chances of bothering her with his superstitious worries.
“Give the signal to furl the sails and ready the oars.” The deep horn shattered the eerie silence of the Nethersea as it sounded three times. The entire fleet began to slowly row under steady drumbeats toward the huge gate that rose out of nowhere amid the dark waters, gliding as if in slow motion. The Kap’lan sat down on the navigator’s chair and closed his eyes. He carefully chewed the small aether crystal and at the same time brought his hands together over the amulet on his forehead. Then he made contact with the Seatower on the other side of the gate.
Zhyan watched the ritual from the railing for a moment before turning toward the Seagate. Three war galleys led the fleet, and ahead of them, the membrane of the portal was already blossoming in a faint glow. As the foremost galley was about to pass through the gate, the rhanyas above them began to emit excited cries. Unrest gripped the crew and suddenly the Stormwind was abruptly and roughly tossed aside. Zhyan was nearly jerked off her feet but just managed to grab hold of the railing before the galley swayed back. Kayn was at her side at the same moment to support her.
Below the surface of the water, she spotted a huge white shadow racing toward the sea gate at incredible speed. She caught her breath as the Netherwhale reared up briefly, broke the surface of the water, submerged, and then lunged to leap through the Seagate. The tidal wave it created hurled the galley in front harshly through the gate before the monster broke through the membrane.
It was the last time they saw the creature. The rest of the fleet made it through the gate unscathed, but the “Claw” was lost and sunk. The survivors were laboriously fished out of the water, while the Empress caught sight of Azuhl for the first time.
Hellhound Tower lay before them in the dawn – surrounded by ice! As far as her gaze could reach, the ocean around them was frozen. A rough blanket of shimmering white and blue. The cold was palpable, turning her breath into little clouds that rose in front of her face. K’tra had been right. The old Drakh, carefully tucked away in the belly of the ship, had predicted that the ritual would bring an ice age. Well, at least the aether flow of the Seatowers was strong enough to prevent the waters surrounding them from freezing completely. She kept herself imagining what fate would have befallen her fleet had they encountered a completely frozen surface on this side of the world.
On the horizon, the last rhanyas that had made it through the gate disappeared northward as Zhyan’s royal procession began crossing the pier. At the far end, the visibly nervous Imperial Magister of the Tower awaited her, head touching the ground, surrounded by his equally abased officials. 
The empress lifted her head, her mask shining in the icy air of these strange islands. She gathered herself as she walked purposefully forward. Time to find out what secret Azuhl was hiding from them!


Nobu pulled the hood of his cloak deeper forward, covering his face. Wind and snow whipped across the frozen sea, while the Imperial Guard trudged across the ice in front of him. The situation was confusing and the master of spies was glad to spend some time undisturbed with his thoughts.
Chaos had reigned on the island near the sea tower. His landsmen had risen up against their oppressors after the Curse reached the isles. The Empress had crushed the rebels under her boot. Behind them lay the smoking ruins of the villages they had passed through on their way before their army entered the Fog Grave.
They had waited for half a moon at the Hellhound Tower while the remnants of the surviving legions gradually joined them through the Seagate, drawn like moths to the light that Zhyan was. The Nameless and the Ironclad had joined them, and together they marched through this frozen hell to Norngaard, the seat of the Imperial Governor of Azuhl. Or what was left of it.
Norngaard. Or “Tsar Hara,” if one was able to decipher the Drakh glyphs. “The World Forge.” Nobu studied the parchment in his mind. He was still unsure whether to believe the translation of Glys the Blind. Many of his critics claimed that the scholar was mad from his decades of using xyxrit. After all, the other surviving scholars agreed that the glyphs were an urgent warning, garnished with promises of torment, death and devastation. But the Empress was not the type of person who would be deterred by such threats. If she was looking for the World Forge, he would not only have to find out where it was located, but also what its masters intended to do with it. And if he could figure out how it works…
A wailing call that echoed across the ice jolted him from his thoughts. His lizard shook his head uneasily. A few miles ahead of him, the huge figure of the Magebreaker had reared up higher than a house. The spider-like beast, Zhyan’s pet that had scuttled across the leagues of frozen ice at her call, had once again devoured one of his herders. Like startled drodos, the remaining warlocks ran around the beast on the ice, trying to calm it down. Scenes of devastation flashed across his mind as Nobu recalled the terror the Magebreaker had caused among the rebels once unleashed. An almost entirely forgotten side of his soul chimed briefly in a burst of pity for his countrymen. These poor rebel devils would have nothing to oppose Zhyan and her arsenal of terror.
Xao Nai Fyr, the governor of Azuhl, leaned against the window frame, lost in thought. His gaze wandered over the roofs of Norngaard to the south. The fires in the war room had almost all burned down and slowly the night stretched its icy fingers into the hall.
The second moon, called the Eye by the citizens of Norngaard, had risen behind the clouds and its light bathed the edges of the crater in reddish moonlight. Behind the mountains, dark plumes of smoke drifted across the horizon. Azuhl was burning. Tjurfalheim and Rhun were already in the hands of the rebels, and a brutal mob ruled Fjölja. Xao’s gaze wandered over to the stone-graven map, where his remaining units, displayed by white stone figures, had gathered around Norngaard.
He had already abandoned the idea of receiving reinforcements from the Heartland. After all, he had learned, he had to assume that there was no Heartland anymore – indeed, that there was no Empire anymore! And just as preparations had begun for a rebel siege that would last for years, a messenger from Hellhound Tower reached him.
They had arrived in the morning. The governor still could not believe what had happened to him. Never would he have expected, after his banishment, to see Zhyan again. Well, how quickly things could change. Of course, she would trust him, after all he had done for the Emperor’s Foremost and Honored Wife.
Xao looked up at the figure leaning over the map. “What will happen to my gami?” asked Xao. Nobu looked up from the great carving on the floor. He gave a short, bitter laugh. “Your mindworm? It stays where it is. Just like mine.” For quite some time, the master of spies had not thought about the gruesome thing that had been planted on him when he was first promoted, as reassurance of his loyalty to the Empire. After a few weeks, the initial throbbing pain in his head faded almost completely. 
“Let’s not kid ourselves, my friend. The Empress may possibly trust us, but having control is better. I know that she brought The Register from the court, although most of the names on it should have faded by now considering the situation we’re in.”
The governor smiled painedly, mixing the gesture of surrender with the sign of irony. “Then I guess I’ll be the new Emperor on a leash. And a short one, if I know her.” Nobu rose slowly and stepped closer to the map. “If you are wise, Xao, you should show a little more gratitude. You’ve been given the tools to rebuild The Empire. Your name will be immortalized by the scribes in The History – a leash, however short or long, will certainly not be mentioned in it.”
Slowly, Nobu pushed the three large stone figures symbolizing the legions that had arrived in Norngaard this morning across the map toward Xao, who was bent over the table nodding thoughtfully. Their eyes met. “The Emperor sees you,” said Xao with a smile, and Nobu completed the ceremony with a deep bow to his new Emperor. They each restored their masks and left the room to give their orders.


Arrows were whistling over Nobu’s head. First the ice, then the endless fog had descended, and now these savage cultists – this island was turning into a nightmare. The surrounding crooked forest was filled with these zealots, and although his own archers had made short work of their front ranks, they were proving damnably hard to eradicate.
Some had even covered themselves in bark and hidden in the trees, jumping down on them to kill as many legionaries as they could before being cut down themselves. The cultists came rushing at them with a mad stare and screaming in a truly alien language, and they seemed to have little fear of death. Nobu didn’t like people he couldn’t control.
So clear the island he must. At the heart of it lay the entrance to the Ancients’ secret forge, hidden all these years in plain sight, on one of the desolate islands in the giant volcanic lake that Norngaard overlooked. If he could get there first, the glory went to him.
THWACK! An arrow hit the neck of the guard standing nearby, and he dropped to his knees, gurgling, before forcing himself back up, and stumbling off to find a medic. The line closed to fill the gap. Nobu preferred to win fights without ever letting the enemy get this close, but sometimes, you had to get your sword bloody.
A messenger ran up, breathless, and kneeled before the spymaster. “My Lord! We have them surrounded. They have retreated into their valley, and we have them bottled up.”
One side of Nobu’s mouth twitched up. Not very good tacticians, he thought. He marched forward as the heavy wagons rolled through the quickly-cut path through the woods, his legionaries stopping their work to salute him as he passed. Each heavy wagon contained a giant earthenware jug, sealed with an oiled tarp bearing the Imperial crest. He watched as they were maneuvered into a circle around the forested valley before him. Legionaries lay in the dirt, injured and dead, this close to the fighting. 
Soon the devices were in position, and at Nobu’s signal, the horns signaled, and the warlocks began chanting, and then each one pulled the cloth from it. The spellweavers pointed their steepled fingers toward the darkly wooded valley, and a buzzing filled the air as millions of bright purple insects streamed angrily in the direction of the cultist stronghold. The chanting of the adepts was drowned out by the screams as the Kamikuri did their work, finding their prey and injecting them with burning poison. The wasps died in a puff of flame right after, starting numerous small fires. The valley started to glow a dull red.
Nobu eyed the captured cultist appraisingly out of the corner of his eye, the only one they had been able to capture alive. The stooping old man was held tight by two legionaries, and he still had kelp braided in his gray beard. he seemed unimpressed by Nobu’s presence. In the master of spies, this caused an unaccustomed uneasiness, for normally the victims of his questioning should tremble with fear.
It had taken him moons before he was able to locate the Cult of the Kraken. And two more moons passed before they found a way to get one of their captives to talk. Zhyan’s impatience coupled with the mounting losses the Imperials were taking everywhere had led to an unfortunate mix of death and turmoil in Norngaard. In the end, the solution had been close by, and he was able to arrive first, before the other generals even knew he was moving.
Before them lay the “deepground,” as they called it, an eerie lake filled with a black, oily liquid that didn’t seem to move. Around them, the valley was still burning, filled now with corpses of cultists and imperials alike. The lake was embraced by nine massive stone pillars, half-buried in the strange fluid. They reminded him of the Nethersea Gates, clearly remnants of the Ancients. The columns were covered in huge paintings that seemed weirdly abstract and crude. Nobu couldn’t help but think of a giant who painted those, its hands full of paint. Or blood. The tentacles depicted seemed to arch out of the water and grow into the sky all around the lake. Tentacles! His dreams had been full of them ever since he had deciphered the glyph. It had been a coincidence, graffiti on a wall in an alley of the Capital that had given him the decisive clue. And finally brought him here.
It was not only the forge of which the glyphs spoke, it was also its smith! The creator of the world. And at the same time its destroyer. He recalled the words of the cultist: “The world is round – like a fish egg. And like an egg, something grows inside it.” The confused babble was often pure madness, but he concluded that the cultists worshipped an Old God, named the Kraken. She who devoured the world and the universe over and over again. And these madmen believed that at the end of that cycle, before the Kraken died, she laid a single egg to begin the cycle of things anew.
The frightening thing was – the Drakh seemed to believe exactly the same thing. And even more frightening was the thought that in the middle of this sleeping volcano was the birthplace – and at the same time,  the grave of – the Kraken. I must tread carefully here, thought Nobu, as he ordered a search for more cultists to interrogate.
The next day, Nobu stood next to Empress Zhyan, who sat on her royal palanquin, draped in red, purple and gold. He concealed his frustration as Lord Shujori entered the portal that Zhyan had opened. Shujori! What luck for him! Nobu had never been close with Lord Shujori, who always seemed to believe he knew something secret about Nobu that he wasn’t sharing. It really irked him. Now Shujori was the highest-ranking warlock left alive, and this mission had been handed to him. He would have to count on his spy in Shujori’s following retinue of adepts to keep him informed of what happened, but it burned to lose the opportunity that he had earned to this mere warlock.
As Lord Shujori entered the glowing gate set between the pillars in the black lake, a figure detached herself from Zhyan’s entourage. Lady Shee Zin, the Inquisitor of Azuhl, walked forward with her Orgon enforcers behind her, and entered the gate too.
Shee Zin passed through the electric blue membrane, and found herself caught in a tightly packed group of Imperials. Shujori and his adepts had all halted, standing before a vast space – a whirlpool, miles wide, so wide that one could not even see the other side, in the twilight of the Nethersea. Below their feet water was caught mid-flood, the bubbles and whorls of a mighty vortex frozen in time. Shee Zin had a moment of vertigo – if the water wasn’t holding her up, she would drop into the Nethersea, and most likely never be heard from again! Shujori looked uncertain, so Shee Zin stepped up to him. “Is there a problem, Warlock?”
“I… I never imagined such a place,” he said. The air, although silent and still, was charged with energy, as though the rushing of the great maelstrom was also caught in time, vibrating just at the bottom range of hearing.
“Good thing I am here then,” replied the Inquisitor. “Our Empress demands speed, so begin.”
Far below, leagues into the vast maw of the whirlpool, a light winked, as if a star were caught there. Shujori and Shee Zin began to march down along the vast whorl of water, frozen in the timeless dark.


Shujori chewed on the piece of Aether, lost in thought. And as the borders between his body, spirit, and the world became more and more blurred, the tremendous power, the adventurous potential of the egg unfolded before him. If this really was the work of one of the Old Gods, the Empire now held the key to its reconstruction.
A shout interrupted the strangely vibrating silence here at the bottom of the Maelstrom. “Cold! Mist! Follow me!” The Inquisitor had drawn her double blade and was already running up the watery slope that surrounded the shining nest. Two of her orgons started moving heavily, the rest forming protectively around the warlock and his adepts. Shujori tried to focus on his surroundings, but the Aether rush that had put him in touch with the egg distorted his perception of time and space. Part of his consciousness remembered the cultists lying dead all over the island up there. Was it they who were coming now from above, trying to sabotage their expedition?
He drifted. He could feel his breath in time with the pulsing of the egg now. An image of Shee Zin flickered through his consciousness, but he couldn’t quite place the scene. He saw the Inquisitor whirling her blade above him and two figures tumbling over the water’s edge of the whirlpool, frozen in time.
The sheer power of the egg tugged at his thoughts and demanded his attention. Shujori realized that it was not a single egg, but rather a myriad of smaller eggs, stuck together. He felt desire. He grew warmer and warmer with it. He watched his hands dip into the gooey white of their own accord, and began to scoop handful after handful of shiny pearls into the iron container before him.
Then he saw the Krowh and the blood froze in his veins. Its face seemed to be only a few inches away from his own. It was a massive figure, clad in animal skins, and around its neck dangled the slave ring of a gladiator. Still caught in the dream state of Aether Rush, the warlock staggered back. They had to get out of here!
Shee Zin cleaned her blade of the rebel blood. She smiled grimly. They probably hadn’t counted on her. She didn’t care how these scum had found out where they were, or even how they had gained access to the Maelstrom. The only thing that mattered was that their plan had failed. She would have loved to cross blades with their leader, but the Krowh was nowhere to be found. A target for later, she thought.
Some distance away, Shujori stood, his mask off, surrounded by his adepts. The warlock was still a little unsteady on his feet, and he was panting. “Cold, you stay here along with Wind and Rain. If that Krowh barbarian is still hiding somewhere close, bring him to me alive. Return to me after your search.” The Orgon nodded.
Their ascent was arduous. The Maelstrom seemed to have changed, the waters had lost substance, and in places their feet sank deep into the dark liquid of the Nethersea. And in the darkness outside the whirlpool, shadows had appeared in the water. Huge shadows that slowly circled them. Shee Zin did not like this at all. “Hurry up, warlock. We need to get out of here as soon as possible…” The word died on her tongue as the watery wall of the path that wrapped around the vortex was pierced by the tip of a grey-green tentacle. With terrifying slowness, the nubby thing pushed its way out onto the path, squirming briefly to the left and to the right as if searching for something. It towered above their heads, questing.
Shee Zin held her breath and looked around. Instinctively, her companions had paused in place, as had she. The tentacle had been so huge, she didn’t dare imagine who or what it belonged to. It was some time before it disappeared silently, and only then did the small group dare to continue their ascent, anxiously scanning the surroundings.
The Empress looked at the small, harmless-looking egg with fascination. They had left the Maelstrom and that accursed island behind, and had brought this treasure safely into the depths of the Imperial bastion in Norngaard. The egg was semi-translucent, the size of a large grape, and within it could be seen slow, writhing movement. It was cold in her hand, and she could feel the motion within on her fingertips.
“The cultists we captured are panicking, Exalted One,” Nobu said. The master of spies once again wore the full array of Imperial regalia, as befitted an official audience. “The cultists believe that bringing the eggs here could be deadly,” he said.
“Well, they’ve had plenty of experience with death lately,” Zhyan said. She waved the gesture of farewell.
The master of spies hesitated for a moment. It was a bold gamble, but he had decided to make his truth known. “I would like to ask for the grace of intimacy.” Zhyan raised both eyebrows. It was an almost offensive request, but her assent to it would save him from death for what he was about to suggest – if she granted him that mercy. 
Zhyan stared at him, her dark eyes measuring him. “Speak free of fear, Lord Nobu.”
Nobu swallowed. “The glyphs worry me, Empress. The cult may be a collection of madmen, but the Drakh themselves feared the Smith. I see no harm in allowing the worshipers of the Kraken to appease their god.”
Zhyan herself had already considered this option. They would have to drain the quintessence from many of the eggs to kindle the Drakoliche. And this process was well underway. The entrails of the sacrificed Warlizards were already being stewed, while Shujori and his adepts sewed the massive wings together. The Kraken would certainly not be pleased with the destruction of its children. The Old Gods were dangerous. Not as dangerous as Aezher, but still, she did not want to attract the Kraken’s wrath if there was an alternative. “It is good counsel, Lord Nobu. What do their leaders need?”
“They say… that their god will be appeased by feeding it… knowledge.”
“That monster? Knowledge? Explain.”
“They say that its reason for existence is to collect all the knowledge of the world, and of every world it has destroyed. They say.”
Zhyan frowned. “Go on.”
“They say that.. the minds of scholars are its preferred meal. And that if we give them one scholar for every egg, that it might prevent their god from awakening too early.”
“Scholars are not something we have many of, nowadays. What of the Library at Trollward? There must be some there.”
“Exalted One, it appears they have fled. Perhaps they, too, knew of this possibility.”
Zhyan drummed her perfectly manicured fingernails of her free hand against the armrest of her ornate chair. Nobu watched them, each nail painted Imperial purple, each engraved in gold with a magic rune, that flashed in the lamplight. Tikkity-Tak. Tikkity-Tak.
The silence stretched on. Nobu felt sweat forming on his neck. He truly hoped Empress Zhyan wouldn’t nominate him for the pleasure of being fed to the Kraken.
“I have a solution,” she said after her long deliberation. “I kept a scholar on hand for just such an occasion. Bring me Kanzilian K’tra.” 
Nobu’s eyes widened at the suggestion. “K’tra? Is that wise, Exalted One? He is the oldest living Drakh. He has served the Empire for centuries. He -”
“He will serve the Empire one final time,” said Zhyan, her mouth pressed into a thin line, her stare merciless. She waved Nobu’s dismissal again, and returned to contemplating the small orb in her hand. Nobu left gladly.


Empress Zhyan watched the battle unfolding from her throne, up the mountainside, as her personal guard, The Crimson Shield, engaged the enemy below her. But the enemy was no mere rebel scum. These were the ghosts of Imperial Legionaries, once commanded by Lord Oda, her own father – but now they had become corrupted mockeries of their former glory. Chaos was drawn to her. Or was it to what she brought from the mainland?

She watched as the spirits emerged from the ground, only taking substance as they reached out to strangle their former comrades. Her troops were breaking under the onslaught, their artillery useless against the wraiths, their swords only able to connect for a moment before their lives were snuffed out. It was turning into a rout, her elite, red-armored troops fighting desperately as they were ambushed from below.

She raised her right hand. In it, the small gold object began to glow. And soon a vast shadow passed over her, as the Empire’s most dreaded construct entered the fray – the Drakoliche. Its roar was the sound of metal splitting from the extremest cold. Its breath lanced down, a line of burning blue, and it incinerated everything it touched, living and dead. The Drakoliche turned, a huge and lumbering mass of darkness in the sky, its wings larger than galleons, its claws big enough to kill a Koloth herd with a single stab. It swooped, burned a line of blue fire, turned, and did it again, and again.

Odd, thought Zhyan, Oda always fought from the front line in life. She looked about, wondering if this was not his horde of specters after all. The Empress stood and descended from her throne, which had been placed on a massive platform in the middle of the command camp. Her servants and guards bowed to the ground as she walked forward, to get a bit closer to the battlefield.

“Father! I am here!” she screamed. 

Then she saw her servant Kayn, his face frozen in surprise, as translucent hands reached out from the dirt below him, holding him in place. He pulled his blade free to fight, but the ground was now erupting with a flood of the ghosts, each clawing their way to the throat of her bodyguard. Kayn went down in a swirl of pale translucent forms, his own skin losing color as his life was drained by the devils. The Crimson Shield, too, was being attacked around her, and the terrified servants began shrieking as the wraiths emerged to drink their life.

Zhyan clutched the golden phylactery close, with her other hand drew Shadow from her robe, the blade a dark shimmer in the air. As the ghosts clamored their way towards her, the blade passed through them, and they dissolved in a wisp of shadow and fog. She was slashing left, right, whirling to meet them. Then she felt the air crackle behind her, and put up her blade just in time as Oda’s massive greatsword, Ender, came swinging down at her head. It caught on her shortsword Shadow, and the sound around Zhyan grew fainter and fainter as the Thill metal blade drank in the energy of raw Chaos.

“VILE TRAITOR.” Oda’s voice was omnidirectional, more a vibration in her bones than a sound. “YOU DID THIS. YOU DOOMED US ALL. YOU WILL JOIN ME NOW, MY DAUGHTER!”

Zhyan was being pressed down by the blade. The force of his will was tremendous. She dropped to one knee, one hand holding Shadow, the other clutching the Drakoliche’s phylactery to her heart. She could not see Oda’s face behind his greathelm – all that was left of the man was gone, except his desire for vengeance, the burning remnant of a once-noble warrior.

“No, father!! It… wasn’t… me!” Every word was an effort. “It was Aezher! He did this to you!” she shouted. She had to play for time.


She dropped to her second knee, crumbling under the weight of his malice. The air around her completely dark now, and she could see and hear nothing clearly except Oda’s ghost, trying to kill her and undo the last hope of The Empire. 

“I can bring you back! Listen… to me… father. I can bring you back!”

The force slackened on Shadow for a fraction of a moment, and she called on her personal demon, long dormant, for a burst of speed and strength, and dodged aside as smooth as a shadow.

The earth split when the blade hit where she was standing, and Oda lifted the sword to parry her counterattack – but Zhyan was not attacking him. She was running, faster than she ever thought possible, the demon in her soul on fire with the pleasure of being allowed to master her again, as it once did during her concubinage. Then a flash of blue, and the Drakoliche’s breath consumed all it touched, where her father stood.