First off, you may have noticed some changes around here--the site is currently undergoing some growing pains, so it may radically shift and transform over the next few weeks. Try not to be alarmed.
With that out of the way, I'd like to stretch your memories back to the distant past...back, back to the haze of last month. When I promised that I would release all five of the possible rewards for 100 combined Amazon reviews on the Elder Empire books.
Well, now I'm going to continue making good on that promise, with an excerpt from Of Darkness and Dawn, featuring the Emperor...before he was the Emperor.
This is the first half, and the second half will be posted...soon? I'm not sure when the next post will be, because I'm hard in the trenches pounding out word count on ODAD, but certainly soon!
And now, without further ado, hit the jump for the origins of the Emperor!
Eighteen hundred years ago
The human crawled through the tunnel, feeling his way along in the almost-perfect darkness. His hands and knees were gouged by the bones and jagged rocks blanketing the path, and he was sure he was bleeding from a hundred cuts. Nakothi’s Children could follow him no matter how far he crawled, if they had a cause to do so.
He had to make sure they never noticed him missing.
He reached out every few seconds to feel his way forward. Any of these skulls could contain a corpse-born Child, which would kill him before he had a chance to defend himself. He had a sharpened bone stuck into the back of his pants, a makeshift dagger, but that was only useful if he ran into other slaves.
His extended fingertips hit metal. A door.
The human ran both hands over it, eagerly. It gleamed faint hues of bonze or copper in the light that filtered down here, and it fit snug against the tunnel’s walls. That meant it was Elder work, not slaves. All quality craftsmanship came from them. And the door was only big enough for the human to crawl through on his hands and knees, which was another clue. A man would have made the door big enough to walk through, but this passage was meant to permit the passage of messengers. Not workers.
But why would they build a door inside a tunnel? He had never built anything significant for Nakothi, despite having lived his whole life under her authority, but it made sense that there would be a door on either end. Not one in the middle.
Maybe this is the border, he reasoned. Or maybe…
Tentatively, he extended his left hand. He didn’t have to explore the wall for long before he found a second door. A few more moments of curiosity revealed a door on his right, as well.
So, not a single door halfway through a hall. A dead end, surrounded by three doors.
One of these would be designed for Nakothi to exchange ambassadors with the territory of her neighbor. That would be the tunnel he needed. The other two must lead elsewhere in Nakothi’s land. It might even loop back around to the corpse pits. Which he’d just escaped.
His breath came in quick gasps, as though the air in the tunnel had vanished. He couldn’t go back. If he had to shovel more severed limbs and offal into the pits, as he’d done almost every day for his whole life, he would eventually break. His soul would die, as had happened to so many before him. At least once a day, another worker would toss himself onto the pile of bodies, hoping to break his neck on impact. The human had grown numb to it.
That was what scared him. If he died on the inside, the Dead Mother would truly have won.
He calmed himself, shoving the terror off to the edges of his mind. There had to be somewhere better than this. There were six other Great Elders, according to the old legends; any one of them had to be better than Nakothi. He couldn’t imagine worse.
So, with thoughts of escape embedded firmly in his mind, he pressed both of his bleeding hands against the door. He felt its cool metal.
Then he felt more.
He got the fleeting impression of something alien and predatory, like the shadow of a shark passing underneath him. The Elderspawn who had created the door. The human ignored that sensation, waiting until his senses brought him something new.
An hour passed, but he didn’t remove his hands. He’d learned not to force this process, but to let the visions come as they would. More shadows passed through the door, though they were weaker impressions than the first, as though they’d only brushed against the bronze. Above all, he caught a sense of anticipation. Of hunger.
He peeled his palms away; his shallow cuts had partially dried to the metal, sticking his hands to the door.
This door led to the feeding pit, he was certain. Children of Nakothi passed this way every day, ready for a meal. He was fortunate no one had come up to him so far. If a hungry Elderspawn ran into him on the way to feed, his hand-made knife would not protect him.
The fear returned, images of the corpse pit filled his mind, and his heart stuttered in his chest. An Elder could come through the tunnel at any second, and he still had two more doors to check.
He’d have to be quick.
He pressed his hands against the bronze circle to his left, mentally urging the door to yield its secrets faster.
Instantly, he felt the difference.
Nakothi’s signature was an insatiable hunger paired with the putrid stench of death; all of her Children were different shades of the same color. But he got no sense of death here. Hunger, yes. But a different kind.
After a few minutes of examination, the human pinpointed the emotion: it was the feel of curiosity unsatisfied. The same thing he felt when he thought of the world beyond Nakothi’s reach, of the burning questions haunting him. How were these doors made? What weapons did the Elders keep for themselves? Could he find them, and if so, could he use them?
He burned for answers…and so did the thing that had made this door.
That settled it for him. It wasn’t Nakothi. The Dead Mother had a touch of dreadful creativity, as she created her Children, but not a speck of curiosity. This door was built by a creature of a different order.
The human hauled the door open and crawled through.
Instead of a rough round tunnel scattered with rocks and bones, this tunnel was perfectly square, with polished walls and a clean floor. The ceiling was high enough that the human could stand to a crouch, walking hunched over. It was a relief to his scraped knees and bleeding forearms.
This tunnel was lit by sticky, uneven bags fixed to the right-hand wall every so often. They looked like egg sacks, lit from within by a faint blue glow. Opposite each of these lights was a bronze panel on the opposite wall, carved with letters.
The first time he ran into one, the human ran his hand along the panel, feeling the words. They meant nothing to him; he couldn’t read. Rumor suggested the Elder language would drive him mad anyway. Or maybe he had to be mad to learn it.
He learned nothing new from the panel, and he passed all the rest without a look.
He walked until his feet screamed in pain and his back ached. Every few minutes, he’d encounter a branching tunnel, but he ignored those.
Any direction was better than backwards, so he might as well continue forward. At least this way he’d know how to return, if he found himself cornered.
He’d walked for so long that when something passed in front of a light up ahead, blacking it out for a moment, his first reaction was relief. If someone was coming from that direction, then there must be something up ahead. He wasn’t walking for nothing. Maybe he was even near the tunnel’s end.
Then the fear hit him, and he froze. The shifting, skittering movement of the shadow didn’t belong on an animal. It was an Elderspawn coming toward him. Of its own accord, his hand drifted behind him and gripped the end of his bone dagger.
Everything in his life as an Elder’s slave told him to run. He couldn’t hope to fight. Only running and hiding could save him now. But the same fire that had driven him to run away blazed up inside him, pulling his weapon into his hand, steadying his feet.
The Elders should fear me now!
It was ridiculous, even childish thought. The Great Elders couldn’t be opposed; fighting them was like throwing stones at the wind, or tackling the side of a mountain.
Ridiculous or not, he’d die trying to make it a reality. And maybe he’d get a chance to spit in Nakothi’s eye on his way into the corpse pit.
At the moment, it looked like he would be headed there sooner than he’d planned.
The 'spider' moved from the shadows into the light of the nearest glow-sac, and he finally saw it clearly. The creature looked less like anything natural, now that he got a good look. It stood as high as his waist on its ten legs, its hairy body a purple so dark that it looked black.
Instead of a mouth or mandibles, it had what looked like a long tongue, which brushed the ground in front of it, but that wasn't its most distinctive feature. What stood out the most were its eyes.
The creature's head was bare and smooth; all of its eyes rested on stalks positioned on its back. One of them was multifaceted, of the type you would normally see on a fly if you looked closely, but another had the vertical slit of a reptile's. Another had a blue iris, and it swiveled to look the human in the face as the creature moved closer.
There were six eyes in total, and between them, more legs. Actually, he supposed these would be arms. Another set of ten limbs on top instead of on the bottom, triple-jointed and flexible, each tipped with a grasping claw that opened and closed in the air. Some of the claws ran along the sides and ceiling of the corridor, as though keeping the creature balanced.
Once the human catalogued the monster's features, he tightened his grip on the bone dagger. Without his experience under Nakothi's rule, he might have called this thing nightmarish. But compared to some of the servants the Dead Mother could create, it almost looked natural.
It pulled closer to him, neither slowing nor speeding up when it spotted him. Its tongue whipped at the floor around his feet, and one of its arms quested up near his face, pincers snapping open and closed next to his ear.
With a shout, he drove the dagger down.
He hit nothing. The 'spider' scuttled to the side, shoving him aside with several of its limbs. He brushed against its body as it pushed him against the wall; its skin was cold and covered in bristles.
This was it. All his thoughts of grand rebellion against the Elders, and it ended halfway down the hallway. He couldn't say he was surprised.
He tried to bring his weapon back around, but a bundle of sharp limbs pricked him in the back, pushing him forward. He landed hard on his elbows and chin, filling his vision with white pain. Everything from his teeth to his wrists shivered in agony, and it took him a long moment to gather himself.
The human slid around, still lying on the floor, only to see the spider-thing headed down the hallway, in the direction he had come. It hadn't even slowed to move him.
After taking a few seconds to process that he was still breathing, the human moved up to a sitting position, leaning his back against the wall.
He breathed deeply, his hands shaking. The Elderspawn hadn't cared about him at all. It had seen him, he was sure, by the way the stalk-eyes swiveled to follow him. But he was beneath notice. Nakothi's Children would have attacked him out of pure malice, but this thing was on a mission.
Which meant he was in the right place. A Great Elder that would spawn such a focused creature had to be better than the Dead Mother.
He walked through the hallway with new purpose, shoving the bone into his waistband. Another hour passed before the hallway began to open up, the ceiling and walls sloping away.
The passage led to another door, this one twice as tall as he was. It was carved with strange signs that might have been numbers, arranged in rows, columns, and occasionally loops. Was it a message? A warning? A puzzle? A map? No slave would know; this was meant for the eyes of their inhuman masters.
But here, in the domain of a new Great Elder, he might have the chance to find out.
He placed a hand against the door and closed his eyes.
It was easier to get a feel for this door's memory, but less useful. Knowledge and memories passed over him like clouds caught in a hurricane, leaving only brief impressions. He got the sense that he was trying to understand a mountain by looking very closely at a pebble.
Some sensations were more tangible than others. Curiosity was a recurring theme, as were alternating patterns of frustration and satisfaction. Like this door remembered innumerable questions, a thousand times a thousand, and the ensuing search for answers.
A sympathetic yearning for knowledge burned in the human's heart. If he could find answers to even one out of ten of his questions behind this door, he could die happy.
It took him almost another hour to figure out how to open the door, which involved rotating the symbols in a particular pattern. He tried over a hundred combinations before growing frustrated and seeking the correct method in the door's past.
He felt a sense of pride when the designs finally locked into place and the door swung open, but it was nothing compared to his awe when he saw what waited within.
It was a library.
He'd heard of the concept. Some of the humans had been ordered to construct a library, a project which took them almost ten years, though Nakothi used living brains or stretches of skin to contain her records as often as books. In fact, though the human had been ordered to haul crates full of books in the past, he had never actually seen one up close.
And here was an ocean of books. More books than he had lived days in his life. The room soared to the sky, and it was filled with towers of shelves. Each shelf was packed with books of an infinite number of sizes and descriptions. High up, shadowed by distance, the human saw metal walkways crossing from one shelf to another.
Elderspawn spiders, like the one that had crossed him in the tunnel earlier, scuttled over every surface. They ran over the floor, some carrying books or tools, and they moved up and down the towers of books, opening, removing, or reorganizing them according to some system he couldn't grasp.
As a whole, the sight was beyond him. It was like this Great Elder, whoever he, she, or it was, had constructed a city just to house books. Why? The Elders had all the knowledge their slaves didn't. Was this where they kept it all?
Finally, he noticed something indistinct about the scene that had bothered him since the door opened: there were no slaves. No servants carrying books or messages, no one chained together in labor lines, no body parts spread out for food. Nothing. No evidence humans were here, or ever had been.
Perhaps that was why the spider had ignored him in the hallway—because it didn't know what he was.
No, that doesn't fit. He had sensed nothing more strongly than curiosity since he'd come to this new Great Elder's tunnel. If it hadn't known what he was, it would have torn him apart to examine him.
So the only explanation was that they knew all about humans, and they didn't care. To them, that was a question solved.
He stepped up to a nearby spider Elderspawn. It didn't slow down, shuffling books on the bottom shelf, but it did spin one eye around to look at him.
The human waved a hand nearby. It didn't react. After a few seconds, it didn't even bother keeping the one eye on him. When it finished its task, it shuffled away.
Here, he was the next best thing to invisible.
After glancing around to make sure none of the spiders could see him, he pulled a book out of the shelf. He couldn't read it, of course, but eventually he'd be able to decode the symbols. He had the rest of his life. And maybe the memories of the book itself would help.
The room around him went silent. He hadn't realized how persistent the scuttling of the spiders' legs was until they stopped completely.
Moving slowly to avoid startling anything, the human turned his head around. Every spider was frozen in place, their eyes all swiveled to stare straight at him.
Carefully, he slid the book back in place.
The spiders kept staring at him.
Not invisible, he thought. Now I know.
Deep in the shadows, between the towers of books, something moved. Something mountainously broad that shook the floor as it shifted.
A Great Elder.
"Ow ow ow, my fingers hurt, ow."
145% of draft
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