CHAPTER 1: STORYTELLER
Gold silks and purple velvets hung above the gilded chair where Ahztja settled in to tell the princess Caiatl her nightly story. Ahztja was the emperor's mythkeeper; a talented storyteller and Psion who held all the legends and histories of the conquered worlds in her mind. Caiatl's father often said, "Ahztja is an athenaeum world in and of herself." He often retreated, either into his pleasures or his unpredictable melancholy, leaving Ahztja to fill Caiatl's mind with fantasy. Holding a toy model of a warship in her hands, Caiatl sat on the floor before Ahztja. "Ahztja," she said politely, knowing she would not receive her story otherwise, "Please tell me how the faraway peoples say the universe came to be." Ahztja considered, searching through the library of her mind, and then nodded. "Imagine the universe as swirling chaos," Ahztja said softly. Caiatl closed her eyes and saw it. "Among the chaos stands Irkyn La, the First Host, who blinks herself into existence with the First Thought: chaos must come to order." Caiatl saw a creature, tremendous beyond belief, in her mind's eye. "And so to satisfy the First Thought, which would become the First Law, Irkyn La consumes the chaos of the void and gives birth to the ordered universe." Caiatl opened her eyes, and they were bright with intrigue. "That is how the Tiiarn would say the universe began," Ahztja said. Caiatl looked at the toy in her hands, and then back at Ahztja. "Where does this giant woman live?" "The Tiiarn would say she is the very fabric of the universe. When you look to the sky, when you look out into space, you are looking into Irkyn La's mouth." Caiatl turned her toy for a little while. Then, looking up, she said fiercely, "I will challenge Irkyn La to a battle and defeat her. Then my people will own everything in the universe." Ahztja chuckled fondly. "Yes, I think you would," she said. "But the empire has already defeated the Tiiarn. None of them are left. And with no one to believe in her, Irkyn La is dead as well." "Then I will believe in her." Ahztja's lips pulled back in a curious smile. "You'll believe in her so that you can challenge her?" "Yes." Laughing again, Ahztja placed her hand on Caiatl's head. "Ah, brave Caiatl. A warrior so mighty, she wills her enemies into existence." Caiatl's chest swelled with incandescent pride.
CHAPTER 2: STAR PILOT
In a war chamber built by her father's Psion mind-sculptors, Caiatl piloted a fighter through a strange world. It twisted and turned on itself to create strange, rotting landforms all around her. She passed mountains that sprouted weeping tumors and saw fields crusted over with scabrous tissue. The exhilaration of flight made her eyes sharp; the familiarity of the controls kept her hands steady. She was so much better here than in any of her father's tedious lessons. Awake. Alive. Umun'arath's voice rumbled in her ear like a surfacing landwhale. "Imagine all of Torobatl as the putrid grave swamps of Aark," she said. "Centuries sunk in muck. A testament to someone else's conquest." Caiatl narrowed her eyes at her ship's heads-up display as a corrupted flame suddenly burned a hole in the sky itself, straight ahead… "There are monsters at the edges of our territory that would tear our world open and turn it inside out," Umun growled. "They fear nothing." Caiatl felt a jolt: the telltale rock, tilt, and drag of damage at the tail of the ship. She tried to pull up. Through the hole in the sky emerged a hag: enormous, robed, screaming. Emerald fire burst from her claws and spiraled toward Caiatl's ship, but she was too dazzled by the fireworks to avoid it. Seconds before the flames engulfed her ship, Caiatl heard: "What do you fear, Princess?" In these war chambers, simulated death felt like real death. Panic, pain, darkness. Realistic consequences for failure. The chamber left its inhabitants floating in a void after defeat—and in that emptiness, minutes could feel like hours. When the darkness finally evaporated, Caiatl stood in the blank chamber. Alone. Umun emerged and crossed the room. "You're dead," she told her. Caiatl kept her back straight and voice level, though there was a tremor in her arm—a humiliating aftereffect. "Yes." "You were distracted," Umun said. "I saw you: looking around, like you were on a sightseeing flight." She made a dismissive gesture with her left hand. "Weaned and coddled on too many stories." "I won't fail again," Caiatl said. "Wrong," said Umun'arath. "You will die many more times if you wish to live." She clapped a hand on Caiatl's shoulder. "Do it again."
CHAPTER 3: ASSASSIN
Caiatl felt the assassin's eyes on her back before she heard their words. "Your father sends his regards," they croaked. She calmly turned. The intruder was not Cabal. They wore a strange, sleek armored suit—some off-world species unaccustomed to the atmosphere, no doubt. But her father's influence on it was obvious; he did so favor white, purple, and gold. "He can keep them," Caiatl said. The assassin's gun, pointed at her chest, glowed with a purple light that distorted the air around it. "He sent a message for you." Caiatl lunged, crashing her shoulder into the assassin. They fired their weapon, and Void energy seared through Caiatl's bicep. Undeterred, she slammed the assassin to the ground, clutching their throat in one hand and making a fist with the other. She cocked her arm back. Her reflection in the assassin's helmet stared back at her. Furious. Unblinking. Curious. "Go on then," she snarled, her fist looming. "The message." The assassin struggled. "You are a child in a general's costume," they spat. "None of the vision of your father. None of the drive or strength of the one they call Dominus." Something sharp penetrated Caiatl's pressure suit and slipped up against her ribs. "You will not be remembered." Spurred to action, Caiatl rolled to unseat the blade; the assassin followed and raised the Void weapon to her head. Caiatl slammed her hand over the barrel. Energy shot through her palm as she ripped the gun away. She grabbed the assassin's helmet with her bloody fingers and slammed their head against the ground. Once, twice, three times. The shield began to crack. Four, five, six times. She let the helmet thud against the ground. Her contorted reflection now stared back. "Is he listening?" Caiatl boomed. "My father? Tell him I will come for him. Tell him there's no distance that will save him from me." The assassin gasped and wheezed. When they recovered their voice, they hissed, "Killing me will not stop the end… from coming. My gods have foretold…" Caiatl hesitated for a brief moment before her good hand clenched into a fist and slammed into the assassin's visor, shattering her reflection as well as the assassin's skull. She sat back in the wreckage, panting, covered in strange, viscous blood. "Your gods are dead," she said to no one.
CHAPTER 4: SOLDIERS
Caiatl loathed the crawling pace of the court. She despised the tricky voices of courtiers and generals vying for attention and resources. Sorting out their tedious requests was like fetching lost scraping sticks from the bottom of a mud-wallow. But one day, a general came to her with a clear complaint. "The stench from Umun'arath's rooms permeates the entire east wing of the palace. My lovers choke on toxic fumes simply walking through the halls." Surprised she hadn't heard about it before, Caiatl dismissed him with a promise to investigate the Evocate-General's chambers. Later that day, she found that the first of Umun's rooms, usually kept tidy with military precision, was changed. Her two war tables were covered in papers and tomes unrecognizable to Caiatl. The room stank of death and poison. Strange symbols were drawn on the ground in ash. In the far corner of the room, with the restraints they used for captives aboard their prison ships, a living Hive Thrall was held in suspension, drooling and chattering. "Umun," Caiatl said, astonished. "What's happening here?" Umun turned from one of her war tables where she studied a book that looked to be bound with mottled flesh. "Princess," she said, pleased. "Good. I thought to call you, but I've been so engrossed. Come see the future of the Cabal army." Caiatl approached, intent on looking at Umun instead of the Thrall. "They don't fear pain," Umun said. Perverse admiration crept into her voice. "They don't fear death." "Soldiers who don't know pain or fear are useless," Caiatl said, eyeing the Evocate-General. "'It is the knowledge of death and the will to defy it that together breed bravery.' You taught me those texts." "We must move beyond them," Umun muttered, watching the Thrall tilt its grotesque face in response to their voices. "With each swing of the sword, the universe grows smaller, Caiatl. The competition fiercer. If we don't learn a new way, we'll be cut down with the rest." Her voice went quiet. "We must accept new gods, or we'll perish." The Thrall began to thrash, sudden and violent. Caiatl watched. "I am ordering you to step down from the council," she said after a long silence.
CHAPTER 5: NEW GODS
It was Taurun, one of Caiatl's advisors, that alerted her to the spectacle. "In the square," she said, her deep voice laced with concern. "I've never seen anything like it." Caiatl went immediately. In the central square of Torobatl's weaponsmith district, a bright green flame licked the air. Umun'arath stood against the blaze, naked but for a waist wrap, in the custody of two guards. Her hide was carved with strange, crude symbols. When she saw Caiatl arrive, she threw her head back and laughed. "Here comes the Princess-Imperial," she said. "To kneel before our new god."[I am Savathûn, whispering.] Caiatl strode forward. "Let her go," she told the guards. Reluctant, they did as she asked. "What god, Umun? What heresies have you invented now?" Umun grinned. "The god of war," she said, and the earth trembled beneath them. [But the god of war has planted her armies elsewhere; it is her sister, smiling, that has taken the ear of the warchild Umun'arath.] Caiatl stood before Umun in the flickering green light of the fire. "Your obsession is a weakness," she said. "And a threat to our prosperity." "You can't stop it now," Umun lilted, breathless with delight. [Xivu Arath, hear me.] Caiatl didn't break her stare. "I have no choice but to—" Umun, chuckling, raised her hands. They glowed. The fire behind her burned higher and chattered like rattling bones. "The war is all there is," she said. As the chattering reached a fevered pitch, Caiatl made a decision. With the lightning-quick reflexes Umun had taught her, she unsheathed the ceremonial sword at her side and ran it through Umun's middle. Umun laughed. [You are war, and I conjure you with war and blood.] She laughed and laughed and laughed until her mouth began to ooze. Until Caiatl, disgusted, pushed her off the sword with her foot. The body tumbled back onto the green blaze. [A gift for my favorite sister.] As the fire consumed the corpse, a gargantuan portal opened in the sky.
CHAPTER 6: BATTLE SONG
Smoke rose from the city of Torobatl. The sky was dark with Tombships and Threshers. Strange, spindly towers had sprouted from the ground, infecting the streets and alleyways Caiatl had known so well, rendering the landscape alien. Many of the creatures that poured from the tear in the sky had fallen to her missiles—like any other enemy—but their numbers never seemed to dwindle. Their will never seemed to falter. Pinned in the wreckage of a crashed single-pilot fighter, Caiatl caught her breath as gel leaked from her suit. She remembered Umun's words: They don't fear pain. They don't fear death. She wondered how she could have let this happen. How could she have been the one to open that door? Because even as she cursed Umun for starting this, Caiatl was the one who had finished it. It didn't matter that she'd done it unwillingly and unknowingly. That responsibility was still on her shoulders. She cursed Umun and the vermin Hive, but more than that, she cursed herself. She was responsible for the destruction of their home. A voice as loud as thunder spoke to her, deafening: MY HOME IS WAR. MY VOICE IS A BATTLE SONG. FOR AS LONG AS YOU HAVE WORSHIPPED WAR, YOU HAVE WORSHIPPED ME. I AM HERE TO CLAIM MY TRIBUTE. IT IS OVERDUE.
CHAPTER 7: CORONATION
At the long table of her council room on the fleeing warship Eligos Lex V, Caiatl sat with her advisors. An ugly panic gripped them. "Their war moons are too powerful," said Councilor Taurun. The tactical display, where Hive ships and war moons floated like innumerable dust specks in space, flickered. "They are not deterred by casualties," rumbled Ca'aurg. "All loss is acceptable loss to the Hive." There were murmurs of assent across the table. "Ghaul diverted some of our best generals," lamented Tha'arec. "All to the damnable Sol system, for his idiotic crusade…" "They will not return," said Ca'aurg. "And neither will Ghaul." He clenched his fist. "But this weakness didn't start with Ghaul. It started with that bloated traitor, Calus." Ca'aurg and Tha'arec glared at each other from across the table. They shared a look Caiatl knew very well; it often preceded bloodshed. She watched them for a tense moment and then raised her voice to say, "Enough." All looked to the Princess-Imperial. "My father was infatuated with the myth of his own benevolence," Caiatl said. "He gorged himself and his people on stories of what the empire could be and took half-measures to make it so. But he never succeeded. He never wished to succeed. I am not my father. "Dominus Ghaul was obsessed with his own redemption. He imagined debts owed to him and sought their fulfilment. He used the Legion as a tool to secure himself and his legacy. He saw the empire as one more thing he was owed. I am not Dominus Ghaul. "Umun'arath misled me—misled us all. Our people are not meant to flee our battles. But neither are we the Hive, throwing ourselves on the blade again and again. There is strength in tactical retreat." She studied the worried faces of her councilors and felt shame for their weakness, but responsibility as well. "We'll direct all our surviving ships to the Sol system to reclaim whatever remains of the Legion. This is my first order, as empress of the Cabal." The next day, as they fled their homeworld, a coronation was held upon the Eligos Lex V, royal flagship of Empress Caiatl, leader of the Cabal.
CHAPTER 8: EMPRESS
//A MESSAGE FROM EMPRESS CAIATL OF THE CABAL, TO ALL HER FLEET// I speak to you as crowned empress of the Cabal Empire, your new leader. As I speak, we flee our home. Some of you lament our loss. Some of you whisper about the weakness of retreat. I assure you, we do not flee out of weakness. We march toward strength. We have found ourselves in a battle with war itself. And I have come to see that the face of war is ugly and poisonous. We are not the same as our enemies. We fight for a reason. For a purpose. Not for pointless luxury, nor the approval of false gods. Unlike our predecessors, we fight to pay homage to our past and make strides towards our future. A future where all glory is not for vanity but for our people. We fight for the empire. We now chart toward the Sol system, to recover the soldiers stranded there by Ghaul's hubris. We will rebuild our army and return to reclaim our home. Our future will not look the same as our past. With your trust, I will usher us into a new age, and I will not default on my promises, as my father did before me. From this moment forward, all Psions of the Cabal Empire are released from the bonds of servitude and granted full citizenship. You are free to remain or leave as you please. You will be granted reasonable supplies for your departure, if you choose to go. If you stay, I must warn you: the battle ahead will be long and arduous. Many of us will fight, bleed, and die to preserve our collective freedoms. But together, we will build an army where warriors fight not for themselves, or for their grasping leaders, but for each other. There will be no mercy for false gods. The Cabal Empire will rise from this challenge victorious. United. We will draw from our past to give strength to our future. As one Cabal. //END MESSAGE//
CHAPTER 9: TRUCE
Caiatl was sitting alone in her private quarters. She glanced up, awoken from her reverie when Taurun arrived. "Empress," Taurun said, bowing. She was a stickler for formality. "The other councilors are awaiting a decision regarding our arrival in Sol." Caiatl gave her a wry look. As if she didn't know. Taurun waited. When Caiatl didn't answer, she pressed further. "Have you made a decision?" Caiatl sighed and shifted in her seat. "Not yet," she said. "There is much still to consider. Sit down." Taurun hesitated, caught between her dedication to formality and a direct order from her empress. She gingerly lowered herself into a chair. "The Guardians killed Ghaul," Caiatl said. "Yes," said Taurun. "Stories say they've killed greater enemies too." "Other deities of the Hive. One of the great worms." "And a sibling of Xivu Arath," Caiatl added. "Perhaps then, the costs of this venture do not outweigh the benefits," Taurun mused. "We need every resource at our disposal," Caiatl said. Taurun was quiet. Caiatl leaned forward abruptly in her seat. "Do we need to make war to regain the Legion?" Once more, Taurun was silent. Eventually, she said carefully, "You don't believe we would win?" Caiatl saw the blade hidden in Taurun's question. "We would win," she said. "After a long, grueling war. We'd sustain huge losses. And we'd leave ourselves open to further devastation at the war god's hands." Taurun's gaze turned thoughtful. "Yes, probably." She studied Caiatl's face. "So what do you suggest?" "We… negotiate," Caiatl said quietly. "With the Guardians." Taurun observed her customary moment of silence. "Some of the councilors won't like it." "I know," Caiatl said. She stared past Taurun, her jaw set. "I don't either." "You'll have to make a gesture for them. A nod to our legacy as conquerors. If they see it as a true, equal negotiation…" Taurun trailed off. "They'll call it weakness," Caiatl finished. Taurun nodded. "Especially after fleeing Torobatl." They shared another silence. The ache of mounting stress began to push at Caiatl's temples. Her voice was weary when she spoke again. "Then we will demand that the Guardians kneel."