It was only when she felt the slab beneath her that Llannaeia realized she was still in the palace of the Emperor of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. She must have finally dozed off, after hours of trying. Her conversation with the Chancellor had left her worked up. She’d never been so open with anyone in her whole life, and couldn’t help but wonder if it had been a good idea. She wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with someone knowing so much about her, not even the Chancellor whom, over their admittedly short time together, Llannaeia had come to consider a friend.
She’d awoken to blackness: heart racing, breathing fast, skin glazed with cold sweat. Llannaeia knew what it meant, having awoken the same way many times before. Her memory was fuzzy at first. She remembered not being able to move, not paralyzed but as if bound in place, and a weight crushing the air from her. Then she saw his face, leering down at her with the eyes of a mad dog. A wave of pain shot through her with every thrust. Every time she looked away, she received a sharp slap to the cheek. He liked to see the pain in her eyes.
Llannaeia’s heart returned to normal but she had no desire to go back to sleep. She didn’t know what to do with herself, not wishing to stay awake either. She was about to lie back down when something caught her eye. A thin strip of orange cut the dark near the corner of the room. That wasn’t there before; she was sure of it. Puzzled, Llannaeia got up and edged her way over. It was coming from the door that was now open ever so slightly.
Llannaeia peeked through the crack. She knew she shouldn’t push her luck, but something didn’t seem right. She pushed her fingers through the gap. The door turned out to be a lot lighter than she anticipated. She pulled it aside and stuck her head out. The corridor was deserted. This was getting stranger by the second. Given the caution of their hosts, it seemed unthinkable not to keep her under guard let alone leave her door unlocked and open. Something was wrong.
She wanted to step into the light though she couldn’t imagine their hosts would be happy with her leaving her room without permission. Was this a test? She wouldn’t put it past them. It wasn’t a good idea, but she couldn’t bear the thought of trying to go back to sleep. What’s more, she could feel something outside. It felt like it was calling to her, tempting her over the threshold. It was useless to resist.
Llannaeia stepped into the glow. The corridor seemed to stretch forever in both directions. She couldn’t see either end. Something beckoned to her from beyond the range of her sight. Before she could think, she was moving forward. Every sense told her to turn back but whatever was calling to her wouldn’t let her. Whenever the thought of turning around entered her mind, it was overridden. Llannaeia had no idea what was happening. What about the Chancellor and the others? Had they awoken to find their rooms unlocked and unguarded? They could be wandering the palace too. she hoped she’d come across at least one of them. There was something haunting about these halls; the silence was unnerving.
On and on she went. She might have found the quiet soothing were it not for the tension festering within her. She shouldn’t be here. The longer she stayed, the more Llannaeia felt something terrible would happen. But she had to keep going. She had to find it. She hoped she’d find her way to the Chancellor’s room. They’d have a better chance of figuring out what was happening together. That seemed easier said than done. She knew she was headed in the right direction but didn’t remember the corridor being anywhere near this long. It took only a couple minutes to get there last time. This was getting weird. What if something in the palace was messing with her head? Like on the ship, making her see things differently to how they truly were. What if she couldn’t find her way back? What if she couldn’t find anyone to help her? Would she be trapped here?
Llannaeia was more than relieved to see the end. Finally. The corridor split in two directions, each as much a riddle as the other. Now she was convinced her perceptions were being altered. This didn’t look right at all.
The eerie silence was broken by the pounding of footsteps, and Llannaeia almost jumped out of her skin when she turned to see the huge figure striding toward her. She darted out of the way, just in time before it barged into her. But, despite almost colliding with her, the figure, whom Llannaeia recognized as one of the palace staff, continued on its way. Did it even see her?
The creature kept walking. Llannaeia followed alongside and looked up to see it was none other than the Emperor of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. Even with her jogging next to him, he didn’t seem to notice her, eyes fixed on the corridor ahead.
“Excuse me? Can you hear me”? No answer.
She had to be swift to keep up. The Emperor’s long legs let him cover a lot more ground with each step. Llannaeia guessed the best (and only) way to find out what happening was to keep following. Then she got an idea. She sped back up to the match the Emperor’s pace, then jumped directly into his path. He didn’t slow down or change direction. Llannaeia stood her ground and braced herself. The corridor disappeared, then reappeared a split-second later. Llannaeia couldn’t believe her eyes. The Emperor was gone, or so she thought. She turned to see him walking away, as if nothing had happened. It was like he’d walked straight through her. She wanted to go back to bed.
They walked in silence and didn’t come across anyone else. Llannaeia found it strange the Emperor would be walking his palace alone. Just something else to add to the list. They stopped at a door, and the Emperor hesitated, as if to collect himself before going through. Llannaeia followed, and then things got even stranger. A second ago, she was following the Emperor through the door, and now he was sat at the head of a stone table in a darkened room with nothing in between. Some of the white robes sat with him, taking part in a conversation that seemed to have been going on for a while. It was like time had skipped ahead, or she’d zoned out for some indeterminate period.
“Do not let the humans fool you, your eminence”. The voice didn’t come from inside her head. Llannaeia wasn’t sure but she thought she just heard one of the white robes speak the Free Language, with their own voice no less, something she’d come to think was impossible.
“I believe the humans to be sincere in their intentions”. This voice came from the Emperor. Llannaeia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Why were they suddenly able to speak her language? And why were they speaking it among themselves?
“The lives of the savages are of no concern to us, your highness”, said another.
The Emperor shook his head and sighed. “You all heard what the female warrior said. Once the Imperium has destroyed the Confederacy, it will look to war with us”.
“Our armies are more than capable of defending against any weapon possessed by the Imperium”, hissed the white robe at the other end of the table. Something told Llannaeia this one held more influence than the others. “We do not need the humans, or any other species, to help us. We can handle our own affairs”.
“I am aware of that, Kravoka! But they will still come and desecrate the lands and halls of the Creators. That much is certain”.
“It would be the ultimate heresy to side with these mongrels! It would be an affront to everything the Creators entrusted to us”!
“Would it? Would it not be a much greater heresy to allow the mongrels to come here and put their filthy hands on everything we hold sacred? What would we be then? What would the Creators think of us if we let the savages defile our worlds with their stench? How would we be any better than the mongrels then? We must consider what the Creators would want above all else. We are but their tools. They left their empire in our care. We must do everything we can to protect what is theirs, even if that means committing heresy. This is a difficult choice that the universe has presented us, and we must choose the lesser of two evils”.
The white robes seemed to be weighing up their leader’s proposed course. One by one they nodded, though their agreement seemed more reluctant than anything else. They obviously weren’t happy with the choice laid at their feet. Soon all had given their approval, except one.
The white robe shook his head. “This is not the way. You would have us bend over backwards for these primitives whose existence insults everything we hold sacred. You allow them to set foot upon this holy land and desecrate the halls of our Creators. We should not be dealing with them. We should destroy them, purify the universe of their pollution. Their Imperium and Confederacy and everything else. They are all one and the same”.
“This is my decision, Kravoka, and you will accept it”.
“Always you have undermined the traditions of our species, Jakafur. You talk of the will of the Creators but you go against them at every turn. You think this is what they want? For their children to consort with animals? I have stood by and watched you dispense with everything that made us better than beasts, but I cannot stand by as you defile the very essence of our species by aiding them in their own selfish ambitions”.
The Emperor slammed his fist upon the table top so hard the room seemed to shake. “Is that a challenge, Kravoka? You think you know the will of the Creators better than I? You are more than welcome to put their faith to the test”.
The tension was as thick as the fog that engulfed the city. Nobody dared say a word or move a muscle, Llannaeia included. The white robe then appeared to relent, giving a reluctant nod. Despite his grudging approval, Llannaeia didn’t trust the white robe called Kravoka one bit. She didn’t trust any of them as far as she could throw them but him she trusted the least. He was going to be trouble. She felt it in her bones.
Llannaeia emerged from her thought to find the room empty, except for her and the Emperor. The white robes were gone. Their leader sat in the same place, deep in contemplation. Llannaeia could see the brooding in his eyes. Clearly, he was no happier about the situation than his advisors.
After a sigh, he got up and headed for the exit, still paying her no mind as he strode by. Llannaeia followed, all the while trying to wrap her head around everything she’d seen and heard. She should have been delighted that he’d seemingly decided to accept their proposal, but there was still too much uncertainty to allow herself to get excited. The white robes seemed to hold a lot of sway. Just because they’d sided with the Emperor this time didn’t mean they wouldn’t change his mind later. Then there was that one white robe and his so-called challenge. Llannaeia didn’t like the sound of that one bit. He might have relented for now but he could still be a problem. What if he tried to sabotage the deal? Or remove the Emperor entirely?
They came to an area that seemed very familiar. Llannaeia recognized the round pillars and the archway, and realized they were outside the throne room. The Emperor approached the big rock at the centre. Llannaeia hoped she wouldn’t have to climb all those steps, already tired and not sure what she was meant to do up there.
But the Emperor didn’t begin the climb to his throne, instead headed around to the other side of the rock. Llannaeia watched as he waved his hand over a random spot, causing the rock to fade to reveal the entrance to a passageway. Of course; why wouldn’t it? The Emperor stepped through and so did she. The opening disappeared and they were left in total darkness. Then came what sounded like the turning of gears. Then Llannaeia realized: It was an elevator.
They were going down, deep beneath the palace. Llannaeia couldn’t see the Emperor but she could hear him. He was making a weird clicking sound that quickly got on her nerves. She wasn’t dreaming; it was all too clear for that. She was being shown this for a reason. But why her? Surely the Chancellor needed to see this far more than she did. And what exactly was making her see such visions, and how? Thinking about it made Llannaeia’s head hurt. She resolved to wait and see where they ended up next.
The sounds ceased and the opening reappeared. The tunnel that followed wasn’t much brighter. It felt like they’d stepped into a freezer. The atmosphere in the palace was eerie, but this was ominous. Something told Llannaeia this was a place few ever got to see.
They stopped at another door. The carvings that decorated its wet surface looked older than the ones above, the stone considerably eroded. In fact, the whole place looked older than the rest of the palace, as if part of another building that the palace was built on top of. Stone scraped upon stone as the door split and receded into the walls. It looked like there was another atrium beyond though Llannaeia couldn’t be sure. Pearly lights on the ends of poles lit the way but did nothing to illuminate the rest of the chamber. Beyond their reach was only black. The path sloped before stretching between two rows of fat columns Llannaeia could barely make out. The Emperor seemed unperturbed but she couldn’t help but stare at the darkness, wondering what might be lurking within.
The path ended at a circular platform, and Llannaeia guessed they’d arrived at their destination. There was nowhere else to go as far as she could tell, nor anything else of note. When she looked to the ceiling, it was like staring at the night’s sky, one devoid of stars. The columns only reached so high before vanishing. Llannaeia watched as the Emperor went to the centre of the platform, and lowered himself to one knee.
“Please speak to me, holy one”.
Llannaeia couldn’t help but scoff. Now he’s talking to his “gods”. He was even more deluded than she thought. Surely he didn’t expect to receive a reply.
“Why have you come”? The voice didn’t belong to the Emperor, and instead seemed to come from above.
“I have come to seek your divine wisdom and guidance, holy one, in a matter of great urgency for our people”.
“What is it that you brings you to me”? the voice whispered. It was like the wind itself was talking.
The Emperor hesitated. “The savages have reached out to us. They ask for help in battling a force that seeks to destroy everything you have entrusted us”.
“Why did you allow them to come here? You know the savages are not to be trusted. They destroy all they touch”.
“They risked their lives to come here, Holy One. They came here despite the dangers. I believed it was wise to learn why”.
“Their presence here is blasphemy. The savages poison everything they touch. They seek only to destroy everything that we have built”.
The Emperor raised his head a little. “I do not believe these savages mean us harm, Holy One. But they speak of another group, one that calls itself the Imperium Siderum Et Caeli. We know of this group. They seek only to dominate and will do so by bringing destruction to everything that stands in its way”.
“Do you not have faith in the strength we bestowed upon you, child? Are you not strong enough to overcome the threat of this Imperium”?
“I have and always will have faith in the gifts you provided us, holy one. But if the Imperium comes here, much will be lost. In the coming war, so much of what you bestowed upon us will be destroyed: your sacred artefacts, your scriptures. But if we side with the Confederacy, we may be able to prevent this. Perhaps it is time for a change. We have barricaded ourselves from the galaxy for so long and it has moved on without us. Perhaps it is time for us to finally open ourselves to the cosmos before we are left behind completely”.
“We opened ourselves once to the cosmos, and it brought a destruction unlike any that came before or after. If you repeat our gravest error then history will repeat itself, as it has done many times before”.
“You told us to safeguard your empire by any means necessary, Holy One. We have always done that. But what if to do that now we must go against the traditions of old? What if to protect your empire we must begin a new age for its people”?
Silence. To Llannaeia, every second was like an hour. “Speak my name”, the voice then commanded.
The Emperor lowered his head again. “Anthropologist”. Anthropologist? What the fuck kind of name is that for a god?
“Your faith has always been strong and your judgement unquestionable, and, in turn, we have faith in you. You of all should know that our faith does not come easily. Everything you have done has been to safeguard the holy legacy of your creators as will everything you will ever do. If you believe truly that this is the best course to take, then do as you must”.
“Then you approve the alliance”?
“We trust in you to make the correct decision. If you believe this is the way then we approve”.
“Thank you, Holy One. Your faith is not misplaced. My only desire is to protect what is yours and it always will be”.
Llannaeia breathed a sigh of relief. She had no idea what she just witnessed. Was it even real? Regardless, the Emperor certainly seemed to be believe it. She didn’t care what it was. God or not, as long as it was on their side, she was happy.
Llannaeia felt a chill travel down her spine. Something had changed. The Emperor knelt in the same spot but was completely still, unnaturally so. Llannaeia edged over to him. Even kneeling, he was taller than her. She stared into his eyes but saw nothing looking back, as if the life had been drained from them. She wanted to go back to her room, having had enough for one day (or night). But then she felt it again, the call that led her from her room in the first place. It was coming from the dark. Something was waiting there for her, beckoning.
Llannaeia stepped off the platform. Her foot travelled down before stopping at stone with a splash of what sounded like water. She moved tentatively, one hand raised out in front as fear took her in its grip. She could be about to step into a chasm for all she knew. She looked over her shoulder to see how far she’d gone. The Emperor was still frozen in place, only a few inches tall from where she stood. She kept going. The punctuation of water splashing with every step made the silence all the more haunting. Fear soon gave in to frustration; the silent walk was becoming tedious. But she couldn’t turn back. It was there. She felt it. It wanted her to find it.
Her fingertips met something cold and hard, stone from the feel of it. That couldn’t be right. There was supposed to be something here. She felt it willing her forward. What was she supposed to do now? Walk through the wall? But then Llannaeia felt around and discovered that it wasn’t a wall before her, but a door. She traced the outer edges with her fingertips, wondering how to get it open. There didn’t seem to be any buttons or panels. Then she found a piece of cold metal: a handle. This place was older than she thought. No doors used handles anymore. They all had holo-panels or were just automatic. You only saw doors with handles in history books and old movies.
Llannaeia wrapped her fingers around the handle and pushed down. It felt stiff, probably having not been turned in a long time. She pushed harder. She wouldn’t be defeated by a door handle. It turned with a screech that went right through her. The door itself was just as stubborn. Llannaeia rammed it with her shoulder until it was free of its frame. Even open, it took of most of her strength to move. It felt like she was pushing a boulder. There was nothing beyond, or so she thought. Her eyes adjusted and she found a room not quite as dark as the atrium outside it. The feeling was stronger than ever. The storm inside her had evolved into a hurricane. It was here.
Llannaeia could just make out a shape at the end. A rectangle: tall and thin, and with a surface so black it was darker than the dark itself. It called to her, and, as she stared at it, it felt like it was staring back. She couldn’t help but be drawn in despite her fear. A feeling came over that she couldn’t explain. It was like it was inside her, gazing into her mind, and learning everything. Every thought, feeling and memory. All of her pain and hate. It knew everything. It was alive and it was watching.
She had to touch it. It compelled her and she was powerless to refuse. Something inside told her not to be afraid. She moved closer, until it was looming over her, filling her sight with its ominous form. She was so close.
Llannaeia sat up to a world of blackness. She looked around, confused. She couldn’t see a thing. Then she felt the slab beneath her, and realized where she was. What happened? How did she get back here? The strip of light was gone, and she found the door closed up with no way to open it. Was it a dream? No, she was awake. That much she was sure of. It was like no dream she’d ever woken from. She remembered everything perfectly. It was real. It had to be. Did the palace staff find her? Did they bring her back? That didn’t make sense. They wouldn’t just bring her back without saying anything, not after finding her where she was. And why couldn’t she remember any of that? One second she was reaching for that thing and the next she was back on the slab.
Llannaeia’s head was spinning. A sadness filled her. She was sure something incredible would happen when she touched that thing. Now she’d never know. Typical; just when it seemed something good was about to happen, the universe comes along and fucks it up. Just another to add to the list.