Incense filled the throne room.
Strong, and bright, and clean, it rose in spirals from the four angel-winged braziers that edged the blood-crystal bridge of the Supplicant’s Path, whispering, “Holy, holy, holy!” to all who approached the golden mountain of the Celestial Throne. Vibrant, and heady, it swirled around the Altar of Atonement, covering up the scent of death which clung to the draining-grooves cut into its intricate, floral bronzework. Thick, it glowed, shot through by the beams of a thousand mirrors which brought sunlight inside and with it bathed the vast gold-scaled leviathan at the center of it all in burning radiance.
Emperor Tarshadus Vohrskrain the Third, living god and chosen successor of Nk’draks’sil the Chain Breaker, breathed the incense in from where it pooled at the peak of the throne room’s gilded vault, held it in his lungs for ten long, thoughtful heartbeats, and then blasted it out from his nostrils as jets of smoke to either side of the human messenger kneeling before him.
“Give Us the message from your commander,” the Emperor said.
The messenger quivered as that voice, like thunder in its depth yet almost musical in tone, resounded from the walls arching far above him and shook the blood-red crystal beneath. He tried not to think of the crusted altar just behind and put the words of the message in perfect order before opening his mouth to speak.
“General Ankrilus says that the p-p-Princess…” he stuttered and almost fainted, then prostrated himself even further.
The Emperor chuckled.
“Fear not, little man. We do not punish incompetent loyalty, only willful failure. Calm your nerves and continue speaking.”
The messenger nodded and gathered his wits again.
“General Ankrilus says that the Princess has escaped from the Ledesna wilderness, oh Most High.”
The shadow of a great claw passed over the man, prompting him to almost wet himself, but only settled on a bold red teacup large enough to have served him as a bath. The cup rose in the claw and vanished.
A long silence passed in which the only sound was the faintest whisper of liquid.
“Tell Us, messenger, does your commander know where the Princess escaped to?”
“He sends his utmost apologies, oh Most High. He does not.”
“Indeed.” The Emperor let out a slow, aggrieved sigh like a passing hurricane.
The messenger held himself together, barely.
“Behold Us, manling.”
The messenger shuddered, then jerked his head up and stared at his ruler and deity. The sight of those great, gold eyes looking down at him was almost too much, but the command held him fast and he waited for its purpose.
The Emperor brought the cup into the human’s view. Despite its size it was delicately curved and was not just red, but contained in its subtle surface hundreds of silvery crystals, each like a tiny explosion.
“Do you see this cup?”
The messenger nodded.
“It is my favorite cup. Just as General Ankrilus is my favorite general.”
The Emperor extended a great, black claw from his right forefinger and touched the point to the side of the cup. Then he pressed, and with a screech cut into the ceramic, carving out a circle as big as the messenger’s chest. He extracted the circle, dropped the cup with a mighty smash, and carved two symbols into its crimson surface.
He showed them to the messenger.
“Do you understand?”
The man nodded.
“Very good. Deliver this to your commander and see that he understands. You may go.”
The messenger took the circle from the outreached claw with trembling hands and clutched it to his chest, then walked out at a careful shuffle, lest he drop the message before even leaving the Emperor’s presence.
The Emperor sighed again and leaned back on his massive couch.
“Bring my diviners for a reading,” he said and a grey robed scribe jumped up from a desk on the edge of the room and ran out. Only moments passed before he returned, followed by four men in robes of gold, blue, purple and scarlet, who were themselves followed by two scale-armored guards holding a limp young woman between them. The scribe returned to his desk while the four men in colorful robes knelt before the Emperor and bowed until their foreheads touched the ground.
“What do you wish of us, oh Most High?” the one in the lead asked.
“The Princess has escaped General Ankrilus. Seek the guidance of the elder gods in finding her.”
“As you say, oh Most High.”
The men rose and the leader gestured to the guards, who carried the woman to the altar and stretched her over its top. She began to struggle at the last instant, as if the imminence of death only then dawned on her, but her fight was short. The lead robe pulled a dagger from the folds around his waist and plunged it into the woman’s heart, stilling her. He then proceeded to split her chest wide open with several smaller, sharper knives and a surgical saw, all drawn from hidden pockets in his garment.
Those behind him worked quickly as well, acquiring a table and map from another scribe and setting the map on the table before the Emperor. One carried a clear crystal on a chain to the leader, who dipped it in the blood of the dead woman’s open heart. He then carried the bloody crystal over to the map, let it drip on a cloth for a few moments until it stopped, then held the crystal, suspended by the chain, just over the late nation of Tenkreilla. The three lesser robes bowed their heads and began to mumble while the leader watched the crystal.
For a moment it hung almost still, swinging only with the faintest pendular motion, likely induced by the man’s heartbeat.
Then it went perfectly still.
A moment later it drew distinctly to one side, pulled against gravity by something else invisible.
The leader moved the crystal in the direction it was pulled, taking it North along the map until it stopped.
Right on the border of the mountain nation recorded as Salshira.
“Oh Most High,” the leader announced. “The elder gods say that the princess you seek left their sight at the border of Salshira. If she lives, she is there now, for they find her nowhere outside.”
The Emperor nodded and eyed the tiny nation, empty on his map except for its name and precisely delineated borders.
Somehow it had escaped his notice until now.