Chapter 1: Report on Ezra’s Watchtower
In the Black Fortress, the leader of the Emperor’s personal Cadre Azeroth came before him in the throne room and bowed at the base of the dais. “What are you doing here, Azeroth?” the Emperor snarled icily from his throne. “I didn’t summon you. You should be overseeing the gathering of the army in Elar.”
“I have important news, my Lord Emperor,” Azeroth replied, remaining on one knee and not looking up. “There’s been an event in the Dune Sea at the ruins of Ezra Karac’s watchtower.”
Fire danced in the Emperor’s eyes as he rose from the throne, walking to the edge of the dais. “You take a great risk in speaking to me of that damnable place,” he growled. “I have not forgotten how that fucking Ezra Karac stopped me cold there. Speak, worm...why do you dare bring up that cursed place in my presence? You have twenty seconds before I rip your spine out and use it for a trophy rack for mentioning it.”
“It’s gone, my Lord Emperor,” Azeroth declared cautiously, knowing intimately how the Emperor’s moods could turn lethal in a heartbeat. “There was a massive explosion there that completely wiped out the tower and the butte it sat on.”
The news caused the Emperor to hesitate. “Did you say it exploded?” he asked, making sure he was hearing Azeroth properly.
“Yes, my Lord Emperor,” Azeroth stated, looking up but staying down on one knee, “Two hours ago, I received word from the staging ground in Elar that there was a catastrophic blast at Ezra’s Tower in the Dune Sea.”
“Who brought this report?” the Emperor asked coldly.
“Scouts who happened to be in the Pass of Zaraphath over on the Dune Sea side,” Azeroth answered. “They saw the mushroom cloud and felt a rather potent concussion wave mixed with the blistering hot sand from the Dune Sea.”
“Get up,” the Emperor ordered as he walked down to the main floor. Azeroth immediately rose and stepped back when the Emperor reached him, keeping a couple of arm lengths between them. “Did you confirm this report once you got it?” the Emperor demanded.
“Of course, your highness,” Azeroth replied. “The moment the report came to my attention, I sent a squadron of drones to recon it while I used our back-up eye to see it. Ezra’s Tower and the butte it sat on is no more. There’s a crater a league across and a quarter of a league deep with 600 cubit lava fountains filling it where the butte once stood. The blast blew the sand into six hundred cubit dunes that vitrified out a half league from the source of the blast. Pieces of the mountain were found spread out over a thirty-plus league radius from the blast; some of the pieces were rather large too.”
A sense of grim satisfaction crossed the Emperor’s face. “That is news,” he admitted, “Do you have an image I can see for myself?”
“Of course, your majesty,” Azeroth chimed, pulling a small hologram generator from the pocket in his cloak. “I thought you’d want to see it so I downloaded it. Here, see for yourself. Ezra’s cursed Tower is no more.” He pushed a couple of buttons and a light sprang from the device, showing a four-foot tall holographic image of the blast sight, including the lava fountains filling the crater and the vitrified dunes.
A smile crossed the Emperor’s face. “A fitting end for that wretched place,” he crowed, “It’s a shame I didn’t do it myself, but mountains don’t just explode for no reason, especially that one.” His mood again soured as his brow furrowed with disgust. “I sense Beowulf’s hand in this,” he declared, “Have you checked for traces of carite, because carite is capable of doing this if enough is present.”
“I have, your majesty,” Azeroth stated soberly, “...and we did find significant carite signatures at ground zero. However, we found something else that troubles me greatly, even more than the carite signatures.”
“What would that be,” the Emperor growled frigidly.
“Out at the fringe of the vitrified zone, we saw pieces of what appear to be wild Triaskus Spiders,” Azeroth stated in a worried tone. “I’m having the drones retrieve samples of these things to be sure, but I suspect there may have been a nest of wild Triaskus Spiders there. If that’s the case and Beowulf was involved in this blast, then he may have done us a favor by vaporizing it.”
The Emperor’s face fell into a scowl as his anger rose again. “Are you an idiot?” he asked venomously. “What do you take me for...a fool?”
“Your majesty, I’m just reporting what I’ve been made aware of,” Azeroth replied insistently. “The blast was so potent I believed you needed to be made aware, especially since it seems carite and Triaskus Spiders seem to be have involved. We cannot make any mistakes when it comes to the Spiders, especially wild ones. I didn’t believe any wild ones escaped the purge in the 1st Age. As for the carite, it very well may have been a stash left over from the 1st Age that grew unstable and finally detonated.”
“Hmmm,” the Emperor replied, his temper cooling slightly with the explanation. “That is a possibility. My enemies did use that place as an arms depot and resupply point. That’s one reason I went after it...to cut off their supply of weapons. It is possible that some twelve thousand-cycle-old carite finally just blew. When carite gets that old, it’s highly unstable and the slightest jar can set it off.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Azeroth agreed, “Beowulf may not have been involved in it after all. Besides, what would he be doing there anyway? There’s nothing there that I’m aware of besides the fortress, is there?”
A wry knowing smile crossed the Emperor’s lips. “There was a reason that fortress was placed there,” he declared, “...a profound reason, but it matters not now. Everything that was there is gone and won’t be used against us.”
Azeroth’s eyebrow rose with intrigue. “Should I ask what it was?” he ventured.
“Let’s just say that cursed tower was built on something far older than anything you’ve yet encountered,” the Emperor teased, “It was ridiculously ancient when the fortress was built over it. However, what does trouble me is this thing about the Spiders. Are you absolutely sure there were Triaskus Spiders at the Tower?”
“Seventy percent sure,” Azeroth stated, “I should know in a few hours after the samples are processed. Regardless of whether Beowulf had a hand in that mountain blowing to atoms, I believe we dodged a major plasma blast if there truly was a wild Triaskus nest there. All I knew of are the cloned ones we had in Kartoom.”
“Yes, if that’s the case,” the Emperor agreed. “The wild Triaskus became such a problem that I had to ally with Thoth just to get rid of them. I’ll not make the mistake of having wild Triaskus Spiders roaming the planet again. There’s no way to control them, either with dark magic or technology. I found that out the hard way. Only by getting FATE to assimilate them and using mechanical replicas was I able to utilize them. Knowing that a wild queen escaped my dragnet in the 1st Age is troubling. It’s hard to tell how many may have escaped. Presently, I know of only one nest of wild Triaskus and it’s in a place they cannot escape.”
“Where is that, milord?” Azeroth asked. “If you know where they are, then we can eradicate them.”
“There’s no need,” the Emperor stated icily. “The Spiders will not spread if there’s an alpha predator larger and more vicious than they are.”
“What predator could fill that role?” Azeroth asked. “From what I’ve learned about the Spiders, they’re the top of the food chain.”
“Not quite,” the Emperor stated coldly. “The Spiders have many natural enemies, not the least of which is the basilisk. Why do you think I had the Cadre engineering them in the numbers I did. The basilisks have always had an inbred hatred of the Spiders, even the cloned ones. Put the two together and they will fight to the death without a second thought.”
“I see,” Azeroth answered. “Were the original basilisks as intelligent as the ones we engineer?”
“Yes,” the Emperor declared grimly, “...and more so; the originals were as savage and unpredictable as the Spiders, intelligent as the drakens, and their strength rivaled the Old Ones. Like the wild Spiders, we were never able to control the original basilisks with any predicable success. That’s why I had them cloned and engineered...to make a controllable version of them. They’re one of our greatest successes.”
“That they are,” Azeroth agreed. “But are there any wild basilisks out there beyond our control?”
“Yes, but they’re not a threat to us,” the Emperor stated. “They inhabit the Isle of the Dead with the Spiders. Nothing escapes the Isle of the Dead. The Lake of Lost Souls and the infernal marshes surrounding it are deadly, filled with many fell creatures and alpha predators. If you will remember, the lake is filled with enormous carnivorous fish, reptiles, and cephalopods of extraordinary size that will eat anything that disturbs the water. Furthermore, the marshes teem with colossal colonies of the poisonous giant Mazuri Ants, which as you know can strip its prey to the bone in swarm attacks in less than two minutes. Moreover, let’s not forget the innumerable bottomless quicksand traps, the numerous species of carnivorous plants that will eat anything within their reach, or the noxious gasses that constantly bubble up from the muck that can suffocate any living thing near it. The only safe approach to the island is from the air, and even that is tricky because of the pteronadons and Razorclaws that inhabit the island too. It’s the perfect prison. Nothing escapes the Isle of the Dead.”
“Ahh, I see,” Azeroth chimed softly, “I’d forgotten about the perils of the lake and marshes and the predators that lurk in their depths. Both the Spiders and the basilisks are highly intelligent and by now have realized there’s no way off the island without getting eaten. Knowing that, I agree that the Spiders and basilisks inhabiting that island aren’t a threat. Plus, it gives us the ability to gain fresh genetic samples of those creatures if we needed it.”
“Precisely,” the Emperor said stonily. “And now we’ll truly need that supply since that cursed Beowulf has destroyed Kartoom. We need those Spiders now if we wish to continue to turn out our Spider Xenian troops. Get started on rebuilding our Xenian processing ability, starting with the Spider Xenian line. They may not be our alpha Xenians, but their versatility makes them indispensable.”
“That’s a big order, your highness,” Azeroth replied, rubbing his chin. “It’s going to take time, maybe more than we have with the Rising closing in on us. Are you sure that you want to get this going now? I thought our primary concern was going after Beowulf and his rebels.”
The Emperor’s face contorted with rage, flushing as it starting morphing into the image of the Black Prince. He pounced on Azeroth, grabbing him by the neck and lifting him off the floor while throttling him. “You dare question me on this? Are you completely insane?” he roared, shaking Azeroth violently. “Make it happen or I’ll roast and eat you myself and find someone who can!”
Azeroth choked and gurgled, trying to pry loose the Emperor’s hand around his neck without success. The Emperor suddenly slammed him to the floor, briefly stunning him. After getting his wind back, Azeroth choked out, “Yes, milord...I obey. I’ll get on restoring our Xenian processing ability right away. It will be done. I swear it.”
“It better be,” the Emperor snarled, his eyes flaming with fury, “...or it’s your head. Now get out of my sight. I want the army ready to move on Beowulf in five days; now go!” He pointed at the door with a deadly gleam in his eye, adding, “If the army isn’t ready to go in five days, I will personally eat you! No one is going to interfere with my revenge on Beowulf this time, not even you; now get out of my eyes!”
“Yes, my Lord Emperor,” Azeroth replied after getting to his feet. “I go now to implement your will. It will be done.” With that and a bow, he fled the throne room.
The Emperor stalked back to the throne and sat down heavily on it. “Incompetence...I’m surrounded by fucking incompetent half-conscious pond-scum,” he grumbled. “No one is going to stop me this time. I will have Beowulf’s head and spine as a trophy and not even the Almighty Ancient of Days is going to stop me this time. I will be avenged and take my rightful place as ruler of the entire multiversal reality. You’ll not stop me this time!” He looked up as he spoke, literally shaking his fist at the roof of the throne room, challenging the Almighty Himself.
The challenge didn’t go unnoticed as an elite war angel witnessed it from his hiding place inside one of the throne room’s mighty pillars. Upon hearing the threat, the angel descended through the pillar into the earth itself beneath the palace without being spied by the innumerable demoniac host swarming the Black Fortress. “I must get word to Michael about this development,” the angel murmured, moving through the solid rock of the fortress with incredible stealth. “The Black Prince is about to make his move. Beowulf must be warned.”