CHAPTER SIX: IMPERIUM (3/5)

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Sol followed the Emperor along a wide hall with sunlight pouring in through a glass ceiling. Sol heard a giggle and saw two young children hiding behind a pillar at the far end, watching him from afar.

"I can see you!" said the Emperor, and the children ran off laughing. The Emperor sighed. "You would think I might have learnt to control my children by my age, but each one I have seems to be naughtier than the last."

After turning a corner and descending some stairs, they entered into a cold, dark chamber

"I can't remember the last time I came down here," said the Emperor as they entered. "It may have been ten years or a hundred. Still smells the same, though."

He clicked his fingers and a giant basin of fire ignited in the heart of the darkness, lighting a large oval room. The floor was exquisitely tiled to create a huge map depicting five continents over a blue ocean.

"These are the Five Lands that make up our world," said the Emperor. He walked to the northernmost continent and stood on top of it. "This is where we are right now: Valistila, in the North of our world. It is where we Elders hail from, in fact. It is the most beautiful place in the world.

"To the East there is Kilistila. That is where the Dwarves hail from. It is not as beautiful as this land, but if you like rocks, then it is worth a visit.

"To the South where you are standing is Taristila, home to Wizards and Centaurs, among others. The north-east tip there is where you've just come from.

"And to the West is Meristila, land of the Skalls and Giants and Dragons. If it is big, it probably came from there."

Sol looked at Meristila, but his eye was quickly drawn to the fifth land just beneath it, the one that had so far gone unmentioned by the Emperor. "What about that one?"

The Emperor's face darkened. "That is Teruntila—a land of ice and rock and perpetual darkness. Nothing grows there, nor do any creatures hail from there. But I did not bring you here to show you this." The Emperor left his place on Valistila and went instead to gaze at the far wall. Sol joined him and only then realised that the curved stone which surrounded the room was covered in paintings, creating a huge mural whose colours had faded over time.

The section of wall the two men were looking at depicted a great battle. There were armoured bulls battling Centaurs, and ugly green creatures with long arms fighting even uglier grey creatures wielding huge hammers. Enormous wolves tore at the throats of horses with long horns jutting from their heads, like those which Sol had seen drinking from the lake. And in the sky, huge winged snakes spat fire from black clouds.

"This is our world as it once was," said the Emperor. "Thousands of years ago, during the Black Age when we were in perpetual war. The world belonged to everyone and no-one then. If a race wanted more power, they simply took it from another."

"It looks like Hell," Sol remarked.

"Perhaps it was."

"Where are the Elders? I don't see them."

The Emperor smiled. "You are very observant." He gestured to the top of the painting where a mountain range overlooked the battle. Sol saw the Elders standing atop one of the mountains, watching the carnage taking place from afar.

"My race takes no pleasure in fighting," said the Emperor. "We despise bloodshed and will always avoid it if at all possible. For the longest time, we stayed away from conflict altogether. It was not difficult; our magic is very strong, second only to Dryads. Magic comes from Dryads, you see. They breathe in the air and breathe it out again as magical energy. Some beings can channel it better than others—Elders, better than any. Unfortunately... there was one race that posed a significant threat to us..."

The Emperor gestured to the bottom of the painting where Sol saw a nest of dark caves, and within them, thousands of glowing green eyes.

"What are they?" Sol asked.

"They were called the Kharul. They no longer exist, but they were once more dangerous than all the other dark creatures put together. They lived deep underground in the Black Caves of Taristila, away from life... away from death. If only they had stayed there."

The Emperor walked a little further along to take in the next part of the mural. It depicted a cherry blossom tree which Sol instantly recognised as the one in the Kirina. He saw her Dryadic form contained within one of the branches, as though she had not yet managed to leave it yet.

"Everything changed when your world was discovered," continued the Emperor. "This would have been about sixteen centuries ago when Maeyana was a relatively young Dryad. Even so, she was still more powerful than even the most ancient of trees. It was she who created the first gateway to your world."

Beside the tree, Sol saw a silver curtain suspended in the open air.

The Emperor continued.

"The Kirina is situated in the mountains of Valistila, deep in the heart of Elder territory. We guarded her discovery closely, but eventually rumour that a wealth of unconquered land existed beyond our own spread throughout the Five Lands. After that, it was only a matter of time before one of the other races summoned the courage to attack.

"The Goblins tried first, then the Giants, Trolls and Orcs. Some even forgot their own disputes and tried attacking together, but we Elders were too many and too powerful. We created a shield around the mountain that no creature could pass through. Or so we believed."

Sol followed the Emperor a little further along to where the painting showed an army of creatures dressed in black, with only their glowing green eyes showing. The Emperor regarded them with a sinister glare.

"Word reached the Kharul of this new world. Their leader at the time was a being called 'Navok'. He was their King."

At the head of the army, Sol saw a figure taller than the rest, though unlike them, he wore no helmet. His face was as white as his armour was black, and he was pointing a wand into the sky, its tip glowing as green as his eyes.

"Navok led his army of Kharul to Valistila, making allies of every dark creature along the way. By the time he reached our defences, he seemed to have brought the whole world with him. We had allies of our own in Centaurs and Wizards and others, yes, but compared to Navok's army, we were greatly outnumbered.

"Navok ordered the Elders to lower our shield and allow those who wished to enter the new world to do so. We refused."

The Emperor moved along again to perhaps the most haunting painting—one in which creatures of darkness trampled over the bodies of Elders to reach the cherry blossom tree at the top of the mountain.

"We knew the Kharul were powerful, yet Navok's power was far greater than we imagined. He brought down our shield with ease, leaving us no choice but to defend ourselves however we must.

"The devastation of the resulting war was too terrible to describe. The most ancient of Elders were slaughtered by the thousand. Entire races were wiped from existence— and we would have fallen with them, had it not been for an Elder by the name of Alyara Faernyre."

The next painting showed a female Elder of at least seventy or eighty years, kneeling on the ground with her hands clasped together.

"Who was she?" Sol asked.

"She was a very quiet and diffident woman, but she was an expert in a field of magic known as Kala'ayo. It is a rather dull area which concerns the study of rocks, primarily the fossilised remains of ancient Dryadic trees. They are often beautiful but otherwise uninteresting.

"Alyara, however, came across one particular fossil which she was convinced was utterly unique. She believed it still contained magic—powerful, highly concentrated magic. Scared of ridicule, she spent a lifetime studying its properties and refined it to its core in secret. She called it the Nempus Kala... and it is in this room with us."

Sol was about to ask where when he suddenly realised. He raised his hand and looked at the small purple stone in the band of his ring. It glowed and sparkled in the Emperor's eyes.

"What does it do?" Sol asked, his voice hardly more than a whisper.

"Nempus Kala translates as Time Stone," said the Emperor. "Quite simply, it has the power to stop time."

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