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.