Chapter III – The Return of the Mage-Emperor

Zacynthos twitched. Very slowly, he began to wake, feeling as if his own consciousness was seeping back into his body.

He sat up, dropping the black stone and clutching at his chest with both hands. It felt strange, hollow at first, almost too full the next, but everything returned to normal in the blink of an eye…

Except his head felt like it was going to explode.

Zac slowly reached up to grip his skull, leaning forward and taking a few more breaths before he let out a low moan. He’d never had a headache like this in his life, not even after letting himself get talked into drinking contests with Roald and Jon. The pain pulsated like his entire brain was throbbing.

The braziers still burned. Blinking a few more times and trying to get his wits back together, Zac looked around, almost unable to believe it hadn’t all been some kind of nightmare. But his gaze soon fell upon the black stone, and he looked at his hand. The cuts and the blood were all gone, but there it sat, black and still and shining in the firelight.

As he sat staring at it, he heard something – felt something. A chill ran up his spine, sending violent shivers through his body, and at the same time, he heard a voice whisper…

Tandem surgo.

Zac went rigid, looking around the room. It was empty, just like before, yet he felt sure he had heard the voice speak. He could have sworn he’d heard a whisper – but some part of him wondered if it was just some strange thought: an absurd, dream-like thought that sounded so real in his mind that it had almost passed to his ears… like the imagining of a ghostly voice whispering one’s name late on a sleepless night.

Who—? What?” he blurted hoarsely, his voice shaking. He paused, looking around again before tentatively saying, “Hello?”

And again the voice whispered, saying only: Tandem surgo.

Good gods, it was some kind of ghost or spirit. This place was haunted. He’d read about haunted places in tomes, how spirits would sometimes linger in this world instead of passing to the next as they should. An important thing to remember with hauntings was to stay calm, he’d always heard… and yet still more sweat began to collect on his face.

Where are you? And – how long have you been – dormant, or – or asleep, or – whatever you’ve been doing?” Zac said aloud as he scrambled to his feet – only to have his head throb worse. He groaned and fell sideways against a pillar, shoving the bottoms of his palms against his temples and doubling over.

Ah… You understood me, the voice said, sounding amused and pleased all at once. It was a deep, powerful, masculine voice, one that sounded rather aged without losing an ounce of its great, and somehow terrifying, dignity. At least you are an educated man.

Zac blinked a few more times, standing up straight again. The headache was starting to recede now – slowly, but at least it wasn’t as bad as before. But it finally began to dawn upon him just where the voice was coming from…

Are you inside my head?” he blurted, before he even knew he’d thought it.

The voice’s answer was simple: Yes.

Zac felt his mind come to an abrupt halt. He stood there, stock still, not realizing that he wasn’t breathing. When thoughts suddenly flooded back into his mind, he took a breath again, turning in circles before he looked back at the stone. Without thinking, he snatched it up and held it in front of his face, staring at it with wide eyes. His thoughts were such a blur even he could barely understand them.

The pain in his head had become dull, but it seemed to slither in his mind like a serpent that was stuck in his skull and was now exploring its new home.

Nolite timere, said the voice, as calmly as ever.

Somehow you aren’t helping!” Zac almost screamed. “How am I supposed to not panic!? Who are you – what are you!? Have you done something to me? Why – what the hell is going on!? Are you – are you a demon, a – a ghost, a – what’s—!?”

His thoughts stopped as if hitting a wall of bricks, and he locked up. Strange images flashed in his mind’s eye. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, and he wavered on his feet for half a second. His eyes almost rolled back into his head and his eyelids fluttered and threatened to close, but he sucked in a sharp breath. For several seconds, he was lost in his own mind.

He saw a tall man moving through a castle, then seated on a throne, then feasting in a great hall… The man was old, dressed in incredibly ornate armor: he wore a sword on his belt and a long, flowing, royal purple cape, trimmed in gold.

His dark-hued, highly decorated armor was as intricate as any Zac had ever seen, even on images of the gods themselves. His eyes were like grey steel, his gaze sharp as a falcon’s, his face aged but noble of features, his beard well trimmed but thick and silver-white… And upon his head he wore a crown of gold, set with glimmering jewels of every color, but most prominently a brilliant violet.

More images came: images of war, of leadership, of great battles, of men and women in chains, of armies of summoned demons and the reanimated dead, of magical power exploited to its greatest levels, of a land dominated by those precious few who could wield the power Arcane…

Zac gasped again when he came out of it, the images gone as suddenly as they had come. He felt as if he’d experienced several years of history in the blink of an eye. He closed his gaping mouth and swallowed hard, a tiny sound escaping his throat without his notice.

You know who I am.

Again he swallowed, trying to find his voice. Finally, he managed to murmur, “Y-you’re… the Mage-Emperor…”

Emperor Ildrius I. You needn’t say your thoughts aloud, Zacynthos. I can hear them.

But Zac couldn’t think straight enough to try to figure out how to communicate with something in his head. He felt sick. His thoughts a blur, he uselessly turned in a circle, looking around the room as if something would give him answers.

Again the voice said: Nolite timere.

Shut up!” Zac roared, gesturing at nothingness, his voice breaking. “You – just—shut up! This can’t be real – this can’t be happening… What’s wrong with me?”

You need to calm down. Breathe. There are ways we can resolve this, but not if you lose control of yourself.

Zac’s mind was on fire thinking of how this could possibly happen and how he could possibly fix it. Could this even be real? Was it a possession? Should he go to an exorcist? Maybe a priest would set things right…

A priest will do nothing but harm you.

Zac pinched his eyes closed, trying to shut the voice out. “Oh gods oh gods oh gods…”

You should not speak aloud. Communicate with me through your mind. If you walk about in civilization talking to yourself, you’ll be imprisoned before we can solve any of this for either one of us.

Oh-gods, please please please you aren’t real – you can’t be real, this is insane, this isn’t happening…”

Control yourself.

For Astra’s sake – you’re the ghost of the freaking Mage-Emperor! You – you enslaved and killed and experimented on people, you showed me, and—”

I can show you so much more.

Please – please don’t, I really don’t want that, I just…” Zac paused to take a deep breath. “This isn’t real, this can’t be happening, I’m going home, and I’m going to bed.” He paused. “Actually I’m – I’m probably already in bed, this is just some crazy nightmare…

Be silent and listen to me… said Ildrius. You must cease speaking aloud. I doubt anyone else is nearby, given the status of our surroundings, but this will be imperative in the future.

For a long moment, Zac didn’t respond.

Unable to help himself any longer, he suddenly let out a scream. Zac didn’t even bother trying to form it into words – he just screamed. He wasn’t even sure why he did it, but he did. And when it was over, he stood motionless in the oppressive silence that quickly seeped in to fill the void left once the last echoes of his own voice faded away.

And then that dreadful sound in his skull spoke again, asking without either sympathy or anger: Have you satisfied your craving for self-pity?

No – no, no, I really… really haven’t,” Zac choked out halfway through a swallow, but he set his jaw and took another breath. Closing his eyes, he focused and tried to think instead of speak, saying in his mind: Gods, this can’t be real… What do you want from me?

Allow me to explain, Ildrius said slowly.

Explain, yeah – explain, that’d be great…

You are not my intended host…

Host!?” Zac blurted aloud. “What are you, some kind of parasite!?”

Ildius ignored him. I imagine, from our surroundings, that my intended host is long dead, and that I now exist in an age far beyond even when my servants were planning to bind me to a new body.

New body?” Zac whimpered, his voice too high and cracking.

Yes. I am, however, now bound inside of you. You, Zacynthos, are a living soulstone. Your body now hosts a piece of my soul.

Zac stared into space.

Clearly sensing the return of rising panic in his mind, Ildrius said imploringly, Do you understand?

Yeah – yes. Yes, I understand,” he murmured. But after a second, he blurted, “Actually… actually I really don’t, but – but that’s not important—Are – are you gonna eat my brain and take over my body? Is that how this works?”

He laughed. Ildrius laughed. It was a cruel, cold, condescending laugh, one that made Zac feel a spike of anger and a shiver up his neck at the same time. He suddenly found himself wishing he hadn’t asked, and he winced.

No. I have no means of escaping, and you have no safe means of ridding yourself of me… Not at this time. But we do not have to suffer. I know of methods we can use to unbind ourselves. All I ask is that you trust me. We wish for the same thing, you and I.

Trust you?” Zac scoffed, turning in a circle again and wishing he had something to look at. “Trust you – trust the man who… Trust Ildrius! You really are crazy!” He shook his head. “This is insane…”

I see your mind. What you hope for is folly.

Zac didn’t answer, in his mind or out loud – or at least he tried not to. But after a moment of taking a few breaths and trying to calm down, he spoke again, this time as slowly and controlled as he could manage.

If you want me to trust you,” he said hesitantly, “then help me get out of here.”

You are trapped?

There’s no way out – the staircase, or whatever, something destroyed part of it, I think… somehow.”

Magic, I’m sure.

Zac swallowed. Ildrius threw around the word ‘magic’ like it… Well, like it was real. Which, clearly, it was, and yet it still seemed so impossible, even after hearing a voice in his own mind – and even after hearing it from a voice in his own mind.

My followers always have at least one other means of escape, Ildrius went on. Look around the room. Search for this…

For only a second, his own vision seemed to disappear, as if reality was pushed to the back of his head so his mind’s eye could take over. Zac saw an image, but it was burned into his brain: a strange symbol, unlike any he’d seen in his life.

Blinking and shaking his head as he came out of it, Zac asked hesitantly, “What… What was that?”

It is your means of escape. You could spend half your life searching these walls for a way out, but only that symbol marks the…

No, I meant – I meant—what was that?” he asked again, gesturing vaguely up at his head. “You… y-you—you did something.”

I shared my knowledge with you, yes. Go and use it.

He blinked again, looking around. The walls were covered in symbols and shapes, none of which made a whole lot of sense, even to someone as educated as Zacynthos. But while some were gibberish to confuse the uneducated or traditionally educated, he somehow knew now: some of these were runes, ancient markings that held untold magic when properly written.

Setting his jaw, Zac took a step toward one of the walls, halfway expecting some otherworldly force to take him over from within and stop him in his tracks. But that didn’t happen, and he felt remarkably steady on his feet – steadier than he’d expected to be. The pain in his head was almost gone, and he felt relatively fine, physically, if somehow… very different.

Running his hand along the dusty stones, his fingers brushing by a few cobwebs in the process, he started to do as Ildrius had told him and search for the symbol. With something specific to look for, it almost seemed to take even longer, but eventually his hand rested on the rune in question.

Look at the bottom of the wall and find an uneven stone, said Ildrius. Press it inward.

Swallowing nervously, Zac looked straight down – and found what he guessed was the errant stone. It was only barely uneven compared to the others, especially considering many of the other stones weren’t terribly evenly shaped. But when Zac pushed against it with his foot, it slid into the wall, followed by a sharp click.

And then the wall opened.

Visibly, it fell slightly inwards, and Zac started the moment it did. The air filled with the sound of stone against stone, and a portion of the scrawled-upon wall slid away, revealing a passage. It opened wide where he stood, but then tapered into a dark corridor, like some hellish throat. He would have to duck just to fit.

Oh…” Zac breathed, narrowing his eyes at it and making a face. “Oh, this… this probably hasn’t been used in ages. It’s probably collapsed or something, and—”

Go, or else waste away in this chamber forever, Ildrius ordered flatly.

The Arcadian swallowed. He set his jaw and inched forward into the darkness, feeling his way around. The walls were slightly moist, and his hands occasionally slid over slick mold.

But he shuddered as he felt his way through the darkness, hunching as the space became smaller. His breathing became notably labored once it did.

I-I-I don’t like small spaces,” he blurted in a whimper. “Or… dark places, or especially dark, small places, full of corpses and spiders and skeletons and…”

I am beginning to understand how pathetic you are, if that is what you desire to come of your whining.

But he saw a light ahead that made him suddenly block out the voice whispering in his skull. Whatever opening lay at the other end of the tunnel was shaped strangely. It was a sort of flat rectangle, but through it, he could see the warm orange glow of a torch.

That spurred him on, and Zac scrambled forward. The walls around him seemed to be closing in, and more than once, he wanted to fly into a mad panic when he thought he’d gotten stuck. Even without claustrophobia, the space was simply too small for him.

Finally, he reached the end of it, crawling on his belly. Grabbing the edge of the opening, he hauled himself out with almost a sob of relief – but that came too soon, as he realized just how awkward it was trying to escape the slot in the wall.

As he tumbled out on his head, Zac yelped and landed in a heap on the floor of the catacombs. Scrambling to his feet, he brushed himself off as best he could, though there was little to be done about his now very filthy outfit. Looking around, he realized…

Oh gods,” he moaned, sounding almost sick.

His means of escape had been one of the slots in the wall to hold a skeleton. That meant he had just come struggling out of it like some resurrected corpse – and it meant all those crazy Hidden cultists used to do the same thing. That was disgusting.

Zac was, however, back in the catacombs proper, with the torch he had left hanging from the wall nearby. Trying in vain to calm his violent shaking, Zac wrenched his old torch off the mount and set off toward the exit.

By now, it was almost certainly nighttime, given he’d been working all day… and he still had no idea how long he’d been out after touching that black stone. Someone had been thoughtful enough to leave the trapdoor open, at least, as Zac found when he approached the way back up to the temple of Zeus. Even from here, he could see a slit of light peeking through the open trapdoor ahead.

At first, Zac tried to stay calm and walk slowly, but he abruptly sped up when he had the odd feeling he was being chased. He didn’t even look over his shoulder to see it was all imaginary before he hauled himself up the ladder and dropped the trapdoor shut behind him.

The Arcadian headed back into the temple of Zeus, which was now empty for the night, and he hung his torch on an empty mount on the wall. He took long-legged strides across the barren room in an eager effort to get home, his mind still racing with all that had happened. Rain pattered quietly upon the roof, a bit more peacefully than before. The storm was finally dying down… unless this was a different one.

As he passed by a column, Zac glanced over to see a holy lighting bolt of Zeus carved there. Murmuring another prayer under his breath, he reached out and lightly pressed his palm against the symbol as a sign of faith… And to ask for some mercy, given his current situation.

Fire flooded into his skin. He may as well have rested his hand upon a red-hot iron, or something even worse. His own flesh sizzled, and he could smell it in the air, a thin veil of smoke rising from the palm of his hand. The stench alone was enough to make him feel sick.

Zac screamed, pulling his hand away and staggering back, his head spinning. He fell to one knee, clutching his wrist, tears welling up in his eyes from the pain. Blinking, he tried to clear his vision enough to look at his palm.

It was burnt. If he’d left it there, it probably would have caught fire. As it was, it didn’t seem too bad, but it hurt more than anything he had felt.

Ildrius spoke again at last, his voice quiet: As I said, a priest would do nothing but harm you.

Zac stared at his hand, gasping for breath. “You – you cursed me—! Wh-what is this – why would this happen!?” He sobbed once, curling his hand into a fist as the pain finally started to recede. “Gods, it hurts…” he whimpered, his voice cracking.

Get to your feet and go home.

What’ve you done to me?” he hissed, frozen in fear.

I sense your piety. I will explain it all in due time. For now, have no fear of the gods. But if a priest or Templar finds you here with even a minor burn wound, you won’t ever come to learn why this has happened to you.

Zac said nothing. He wasn’t sure he could even speak through the knot of fear in his throat. He whimpered as he quickly got to his feet and scrambled outside, all but slamming himself into the doors to get out and almost falling on his face out into the rain.

For a moment, Zac stood there, staring into the shadows of the streets. He began to think strange thoughts, wondering what was going on and what this meant – and with strange thoughts came stranger feelings. In that moment, it seemed as if he could physically feel Ildrius’s soul trapped in his body, lingering, writhing, slithering about deep within him and moving all through his insides.

As he lost himself to horrors both rational and irrational, real and imaginary, Zac felt it again, stronger than ever before: panic. Pure, unbridled panic from the very depths of his soul – it rose to overtake him completely. This couldn’t be real. This was crazy. All of it was crazy.

Before Ildrius could direct a single thought to him, Zac ran. He ran like his life depended on it, charging as hard as he could into the night. The cold rain felt refreshing on his face, on his skin, even sinking into his clothing. It felt real when nothing else did.

He ran harder than he ever had before, moving faster than he could remember…

You cannot run from me, Zac, Ildrius said calmly, with something like amused pity at Zac’s desperation. Zac’s chest heaved, his feet pounding against the cobblestone street and splashing through puddles, eating the ground in massive strides as he practically flew toward his home. I am a part of you… For now.


 

When at last Zac reached his house, he stopped in front of the door, panting, trying to catch his breath. Ildrius hadn’t spoken for a good while now – almost half an hour or so. Zac looked behind him, a terrifying feeling of being chased, haunted, or stalked still lingering in his mind. Even now, he could almost feel some kind of eyes upon him…

The door to his house opened several inches. He hadn’t even unlocked it yet. Out reached a great, shadowy, muscle-bound arm, grabbing Zac by the collar and hauling him inside at an awkward angle as he let out a yell and struggled.

An enormous figure shoved him against the wall, slamming the door to Zac’s home shut with a heavy foot. Even though he was the same height as Zac, he gave the impression of being a giant of man. His muscle-bound build and barbaric attire made all the difference, his arms enormous, his chest broad – and on his great, wide shoulders he wore the fur of a massive, brown bear.

The animal’s head remained attached as a cowl, resting over his own like a helmet, its false eyes gleaming in the dim starlight coming in through a nearby window. But the man’s eyes gleamed even brighter – and Zac stared straight into the blue orbs that locked onto him.

If he hadn’t seen human eyes staring at him from underneath the bear’s maw and great teeth hanging down before the man’s face, Zac would’ve thought he had just been grabbed by some beastman from legend. In the lighting so meager it was hardly different from darkness, he couldn’t make out much else about the figure—

But, clearly, Ildrius didn’t have to. Zac felt his mind overwhelmed again as a rush of memories flooded his consciousness, almost stunning him for a moment or two as he couldn’t even focus on the world around him. He saw images in his mind’s eye, heard Ildrius whispering…

The man before him was a berserker. Berserkers were warriors of Odin who underwent strange rituals to bind themselves to an animal skin and animal spirit – the bravest bound themselves to wolves, the most powerful spirit of all. This ritual imbued them with the chosen beast’s ferocity, so long as they wore their enchanted and soul-bound skin – but such power came at a potential price.

Having one’s soul so closely bound with a beast, the berserker ran the risk of becoming one with that animal spirit. In battle, when angered, a berserker could begin to transform into a monster. Unless they calmed down, they would transform permanently into a beastman of their chosen animal… or, perhaps still worse, a dreaded werewolf.

Yes, I know what a berserker is, Zac thought angrily.

Almost forgetting that Ildrius could ‘hear’ his thoughts, Zac was startled when the long-dead Emperor replied: Ah. I thought so, but you seemed so shocked that I wasn’t sure, so I thought I would provide more information. My advice is: Do not anger him, and perhaps you will never have to see what his kind are capable of.

Zac was still terrified to be this close to one. He might be a man now, but he growled like a bear, his huge hand shoving Zac harder against the wall and lifting him straight up off the floor. His knuckles dug into Zac’s throat. Zac yelped and showed his hands, as if he needed to.

I didn’t do anything – I’m a nobody!” Zac immediately blurted with what voice he could get out.

Don’t move,” ordered the berserker, and Zac froze at the sound of his voice – even if it did sound perfectly human.

Not moving,” he answered. After a second, however, he swallowed and said in a trembling voice, “What do you want?

The figure just grunted as if in something between amusement and annoyance, hauling Zac along as he stepped up into the meager starlight filtering through the clouds. As he set Zac back on his feet, the clerk got a better look at his attacker – and, all at once, he realized how stupid he had been in his panic…

This wasn’t just a berserker, it was the berserker, at least in his mind. Zac had seen him only once or twice and only ever very briefly and in passing, but he’d heard stories about him stalking around the castle late at night.

And yet, despite his distinctly Nordling nature and attire, the berserker’s face was perfectly clean-shaven, revealing a strong, chiseled jaw and rather sharp features. His blue eyes seemed even brighter than they had in the shadow, even in light this dismal, particularly as they were set against a face blackened by war-paint.

You’re – you’re Björn, aren’t you?” Zac breathed. “The berserker…”

I’m not the only berserker in the world, idiot,” Björn answered in a growl. “I’m surprised you can even pronounce my damn name, with your backwards-ass culture. Now,” the berserker crossed his enormous arms, “I want something you took from the castle.”

But Zac furrowed his brow – and not at the berserker’s words. “Your accent sounds… sounds Imperial,” he murmured. “From the mainland…”

The berserker’s upper lip twitched. “Yeah, so does yours. Now shut up and answer my question, Arcadian.”

Zac’s jaw opened and shut, but nothing came out – and then he heard it again… Ildrius.

So you are from Arcadia? whispered the voice inside him. How intriguing…

Zac blinked and tried to focus, sucking in a sharp breath before talking fast. “I really don’t know what you could want that I took from the castle – I mean, I only took this one really old book, and it was just part of that shipment, and I really don’t know what that has to do with all this crazy stuff like these Templars and Inquisitors and—”

Björn looked increasingly irritated as he rambled on, until he finally snarled: “Shut up!”

Zac instantly snapped his mouth closed.

You mentioned a ‘really old book,’” said the berserker. “Show it to me.”

Yeah absolutely,” Zac blurted as he turned and headed over to his desk. Björn followed after him, watching his every move. Zac glanced at him again and saw knives strapped to the man’s legs, a bearded axe hanging from his belt, and a bow and quiver on his back, along with massive sword…

Björn grunted something that might have been a short laugh, accompanied by a smile that pulled only one corner of his lips up, looking almost like a snarl. “Never seen a weapon before, Arcadian?”

Not… like any of those,” Zac murmured, almost to himself, as he revealed the tome, throwing it open on his desk – but not opening it to the blank pages. “And how is me being an Arcadian important, anyway? I mean that’s totally unrelated, but—” He cleared his throat. “Is – is this it?”

Björn looked at the tome, furrowing his brow. He stepped up to it and looked it over, flipping a page or two and then slamming it shut, examining the spine. He growled something in his throat, but Zac wasn’t sure it was actually words.

The berserker then looked at him, his eyes gleaming again. “You tell anyone I was here,” he said in a low, threatening, yet somehow factual tone, “and I’ll give you one of these daggers.” He paused half a second for emphasis. “In the throat.”

Right – understood,” Zac replied instantly, holding his hands up slightly again. He swallowed. “Have a nice night…?”

Björn just grunted and picked up the tome, hefting it under one arm and striding out, slamming the door behind him. Zac stared after him for what felt like minutes.

You may lower your hands now, Ildrius said flatly.

Zac dropped his hands. “Sorry – sorry…” he murmured, almost not even realizing he was doing it. He rubbed his temples and sighed, feeling more overwhelmed than ever. As if Ildrius and this soul insanity wasn’t enough, now a berserker had broken into his home and taken that weird book.

What do you know of that berserker? the voice in his head suddenly asked. How would he know of that tome? And that tome, is it—?

But Zac groaned, balling his hands into fists and trying in vain to shut Ildrius out. “I’m tired, and I’m going to bed,” he declared, his voice cracking under all the stress and confusion. “So, please, just – just be quiet.”

He locked the door to his home – for all the good it did – and angrily shoved a chair under the latch for good measure, though he knew that berserker could barrel right through it if he wanted to. It was far from the greatest door ever constructed. Zac absently thought to himself that he needed to finish the more elaborate lock he had been working on…

And again he heard Ildrius. You are an engineer, or at least have some knowledge in this field? Interesting.

Zac tried not to acknowledge that he even heard him. He just paused a moment and took a breath, setting his jaw as he trudged down a short hall and into his bedroom. The night was so hot – and still humid, in spite of the storm – that he hardly needed to bother trying to stay warm.

So, doing his very best not to think about anything at all, he pulled most of his sweaty clothing off, peeling his shirt away from his skin after all of the night’s events had left it stuck there. He heaved a huge sigh and collapsed onto his bed, his feet hanging off the end; he never could afford a bed that was actually made to fit his height.

Sprawling out and trying again to just shut out every thought in his mind, Zac’s eyes fell shut like weights. As he began to drift into an uneasy sleep, everything he had experienced just this past night started to feel even more like an absurd nightmare.


 

Deep in the catacombs below the temple of Zeus, six figures strode through the darkness. They wore cloaks and hoods, and some even wore masks, or at least cloths over the lower half of their face. None of them spoke as they walked together through the skeleton-lined halls. At length, their leader held up a hand… and that hand began to let off a soft, white-purple glow.

Their leader was a woman clad in a simple robe, her hood up, but the shadows of her cowl concealed a beautiful face – even if that face was just an illusion.

The Hidden One who called herself Vae Victis, a true mage born with the Gift of arcane magic, halted before the open passage to the ritual chamber. Behind her, the other figures froze in concern. She descended into the hall without a word, and upon reaching the end, she outstretched a hand.

From her fingertips burst forth a stream of magma, which she willed to cool almost instantly to create a bridge by which to descend safely to the ritual chamber itself. As her followers entered after her, she gestured for them to spread out and search the area.

I could not find the other tome… but I received no word that anyone had opened the chamber,” said one of their number, his accent indicating he was a local, an Artorian by birth. “And why would they not seal it?”

Perhaps they knew not what they had found,” another hooded man rasped, sounding so old he could barely stand on his own feet. Indeed, when he walked, he wobbled precariously, but he always hissed and waved off any help.

Vae Victis ignored them all. She knelt and picked up something from the floor… a perfectly cut piece of solid black obsidian.

Blood on the altar,” said the hooded Artorian. “It doesn’t seem very old.”

No,” said Vae Victis, “it is not.”

Standing, she held the stone up for all to see. The figures gathered around it in awe, some throwing back their hoods as if to get a better look at the glistening rock.

Is that it?” one asked breathlessly. “One of the soulstones…?”

This is an intact soulstone of Emperor Ildrius. It has waited in this chamber for many years,” Vae Victis answered in a low voice. “But…” She turned it over in her hands.

At length, she hissed, “It’s empty.”