All right! Thanks to you, the two Elder Empire books now have a combined total of twenty-five reviews! Actually, at the time of writing, it's twenty-eight, but who's counting?
I am. I'm counting.
I said I would do something special at 10, 25, and 50 reviews, so now it's time for the twenty-five tier: a deleted scene from the Emperor's perspective!
This is the first draft of what could have been, in an alternate universe, the prologue for Of Shadow and Sea. It's not incredibly clean, and I cut it for good reasons, but it's still a nice look into the background of the Aurelian Empire and the history of its two most influential leaders.
Hit the jump, and enjoy! Happy Twenty-Five Review Day!
Fifteen hundred years ago
He finally thought of himself as the Emperor.
The people he saved had named him, years ago, after he cast away his old identity. They called him Emperor in the hopes that he would lead them. And he would, because he was a different man now. One who would do what was necessary.
The man he had once been could never have destroyed the world.
He hovered in the thin air above the clouds, clutching a still-beating heart in his right hand. He took a moment to survey his injuries: he was surprisingly unscathed. Only a rib that might be cracked, a few minor cuts and bruises, and a broken foot. Most humans who opposed a Great Elder left insane or in pieces.
His partner in rebellion drifted on the wind a few feet away. Estyr Six stared down through the fluffy white islands that were the clouds, a trio of hydra skulls orbiting her head like a macabre halo. It was her power that kept them aloft now, high above the churning devastation below.
A jet of steam blasted into the sky, missing Estyr by only a few yards. She didn't seem to notice. “Did Loreli make it out?”
The last the Emperor had seen of Loreli, Nakothi’s dread Handmaidens were devouring her army piece by piece. He couldn’t imagine her—or anyone—making it out alive. “If any lived, we will be reunited.”
The sheer scope of the destruction made him wonder if he and Estyr were the only living humans left for a thousand miles. The earth shook and rolled like the sea in storm, fire boiling up from below. The ocean rushed in from all sides, meeting magma in explosions of steam. Towering cathedrals toppled, crashing into fortresses and smashing homes to dust.
The death throes of Nakothi, the Dead Mother, had destroyed this land. Were still destroying it, in fact—the Great Elders did not die easily. Miles to the west, her great body heaved, cracking mountains. A single hand big enough to blot out the sun thrust into the sky, reaching up as if for salvation. Her pained screams cut through even the cracking of a shattering continent.
Estyr swept a chunk of charred blond hair out of her eyes, watching Nakothi die. Her clothes and hair were singed, her skin almost invisible beneath a layer of scrapes and slices. Toward the end, she had fought on the front lines against the Mother's dead legions. The Emperor had been more concerned with Nakothi herself.
“What will we make of the world without them?” Estyr asked.
“The war is not won yet,” he replied. “Her kind still rule.”
Through a break in the clouds, he watched a clutch of Lesser Elders gather on a rooftop. They clacked their mandibles together, waving luminous tentacles at the sky. Begging for help or for vengeance, he didn't care. They would find no satisfaction. He smiled to himself as a wave of steam washed over them, cooking them alive.
“When it is over,” Estyr continued, “when the Great Elders have all fallen, what do you have planned? Will we rule over the slaves as we were once ruled?”
She knew the answers. They had discussed this often enough. But she looked to him for reassurance, which was only natural. He could have given her what she wanted, repeating the comforting half-truths and the slogans they had practiced together for years.
Instead of assurance, he decided to give her the truth. Truth that he alone had discovered.
“The Great Elders do not die, Estyr.”
She waved to the flailing giant in the distance. “She's making a big show for nothing, then.”
“I know you must have suspected,” he continued. “They do not live as we understand it. Destroying them will give us some time in which to rebuild, but destruction alone will not save us. In one century or a hundred, the Great Elders will rise again.”
Estyr turned back to him, and the skulls around her head spun with such ferocity that they blended together into one off-white circle. “Then we will destroy them again. And again and again and again, until they learn who truly deserves to rule this world.”
The fire in her voice raised his spirits. If he could inspire all of humanity with one-tenth of her resolve, they could scour this world clean of Elderspawn inside a year.
But that would never happen. Estyr Six was one in ten million, and the common man could never rise to her level. Which was why he had devised a plan.
He lifted the heart in his right hand.
She seemed to notice it for the first time. “Is that your solution? What is it?”
He answered her simply. “A heart of the Dead Mother.”
“Is that what you were doing with her? Why you forbade us to enter her chamber until you were finished? So that you could keep a piece of her with you?” The fury in Estyr's voice burned hotter than the magma below.
“I have Read it, Estyr,” the Emperor said.
The reptilian skulls spinning above her froze. Her eyes widened. “How? The others lost their sanity.”
“Indirectly. I Read the ground on which it sat, the wind that surrounded it, the men and women it had driven insane. Finally, when I had acclimated myself to its nature, I was able to Read Nakothi's heart.”
It had taken him days, during which the injured Mother had raged, her armies spilling out over the land like a plague. All of his concentration had to go into preserving his mind; he had to forget the thousands dying in his name all over the continent.
Until, at last, he found the secret.
“One question haunted me. How can we oppose the Great Ones as mortals? Do we leave the truth to our children? To our children's children? When the terror of the Elders fades to myth, and our enslavement is nothing but a legend?”
The gray-green heart pulsed in his fist, slowly weakening.
“With this, I will become timeless as they are timeless. I will rule over an undying Empire. And when the Elders return, they will find that the children they once bound have grown into warriors.”
Estyr slipped her hands into the pockets of her jacket. She was careful to keep her expression from her face, but he could read her Intent radiating into the air: shock, exhaustion, awe, and horror bled off of her in waves.
“How will you do it?” she asked.
“I will bind myself to the heart,” he said. “When it is my Soulbound Vessel, Nakothi's life will be my own.”
She waved that answer away. “No, I understand that. I mean your Empire. If you intend to build an eternal Empire, then it must be stronger than that which came before. How will you outdo all the Elders?”
His vision burned inside of him, desperate to be spoken. Until now, he had never understood how much he had yearned to tell Estyr his plans. To share the Empire with her. “The greatest weapon of the Elders is human ignorance. When we first began to observe the world around us, we discovered Reading. We created the Soulbound. We crafted instruments of deadly Intent that can bring down even the Dead Mother herself. To know the universe is to control it, and by the time Nakothi and her brood awaken, they will discover that humanity rules even them.”
“You sound like Jorin,” she said. “He always believed that scholarship would save us all.”
“He is a wise man,” the Emperor replied. Then he gave her time to think.
Estyr Six bobbed up and down in midair as she thought, letting her power take her in circles like a kite on a string. The Emperor waited in anticipation, Reading her feelings through her Intent. No other Reader was capable of working so subtly, of picking up such tenuous signals through such an unreliable medium as air.
But he was not like any other Reader.
Finally, Estyr gathered her resolve: her Intent sharpened like a well-honed knife. “I will trust you,” she said. “I decided that ten years ago, in the mines. I will fight for you, I will help you gather humanity, and I will unite them under your banner.” She smiled, crooked and playful, a remnant of the Estyr before years of rebellion. “And on the day I die in battle, I hope to see you still young, still healthy, and still ruling. I don't believe in this plan of yours...but I believe in you.”
Dropping down to one knee on top of a cloud, Estyr Six knelt before her Emperor.
Never had the Emperor felt such relief. He had made himself more vulnerable here than he had before any other human, and she had not turned aside.
But there was one more thing he had yet to share.
“I can offer you more than that,” he said. He shook his fist, letting drops of Nakothi's greenish blood dribble down into the burning sea. “This is not the Dead Mother's only heart.”
Estyr looked up, her smile frozen.
“I am the Emperor now, but I need not rule alone. You can stand with me, and Jorin, and Dell, and Loreli if she still lives. And any others we choose, throughout the centuries. We can unlock the secrets of the Elders together!”
To his surprise, her Intent softened. He had expected an aura of excitement, or even anger and disgust. But she laughed.
“What would I be in a world without a war? Can you picture me lifting crates of food? Building houses? I wouldn't even know what to do with myself. And Dell is more likely to burn everything you've built to the ground. No. Maybe Jorin will take you up on this offer, but for me, I will live out my span of days and be done. Perhaps I will find new battles the world to come.”
She flew off to the east, in the opposite direction of Nakothi's mountainous death, away from the Elder’s grievous howls. Caught up as he was in her power, he was dragged along behind Estyr like a raft behind a ship.
For an instant, irritation and rejection seared him like he’d swallowed acid. He could break the binding of her Intent with his own, snap her power's hold on him. He might be able to rob her of her powers entirely, turn her Vessel into a trio of ordinary skulls.
He shook the thought away, sickened that he had even thought of it. Not only would he instantly plummet to his death if he tried anything of the sort, but Estyr had remained loyal for years. She was as much a part of this rebellion as he was; some would say more so.
No, he would stay quiet on this heart business for now, but he had no intention of allowing her to remain mortal. There were other Elders. Other opportunities to change her mind. Other secrets of the universe that might yield new and exciting possibilities that she would open up to. He could wait until she agreed.
After all, he had plenty of time.
"...it slipped from the ship, splashing into the water below."
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