Keening wails of the dying reverberated through the cooling waters of Vodalia as Galina gazed bleakly across the final battlefield of the royal city. Brave warriors and mages held back the mindless army of relentless Homarids by force of will alone.
This is the end of the empire, she thought as she absently rubbed the pearl set in the blue scales of her cheek. I am sorry my husband, may Svyelune's Light shelter you, but I can do no more. Our food is gone, our forces wasted. You were always the strong one, but even you succumbed to the horde....
"Your Serene Highness, the time has come."
Galina turned her piercing gaze on Marshall Karel Volnikov, the only merfolk who would risk disturbing her thoughts. A long silence filled only with the wail of the dying passed between them like a conversation. Karel absorbed her stare impassively until she slowly nodded.
"Gather the survivors, we go to Akoroun's portal," she said curtly.
Karel nodded solemnly, touched his forehead in deference, and jetted away in a flurry of water. Galina's gaze followed thoughtfully after the noble warrior who had led her military forces unfalteringly for so many years and who had lent such astute political savvy to her court. Her thoughts turned to the distant colony of Etlan Shiis, the only colony likely to have escaped the ravages of the Homarids. It was well past time to remind the artisan caste, who founded the distant colony, of the duty they owed to the Empire.
The cold waters swirled around her, chilling her as she made her way up the spire where the mage Akoroun would open a portal to Etlan Shiis. Akoroun was waiting above with Karel, and they both touched their foreheads as she swam up. At least four score survivors gathered about the base of the spire from throughout the royal city as the Homarids began to claim the final stronghold of Vodalia for their own.
"All is ready?"
Akoroun nodded, "Yes, your Serene Highness."
"Then let us begin."
Akoroun motioned half a dozen mages forward, and each pulled a large pearl from their robes. The mages stroked their pearls softly and crooned strangely mournful notes of deep longing. Voices embraced and danced in complex harmonies of delicate intricacy as tendrils of moonlight twisted out of the pearls. At the murmuring command of the voices, the tendrils wove a web of light. Each mage's voice slid with serpentine grace among the strands, pulling them tighter into a pool of glowing brilliance until, one-by-one, the voices slid free of the pool. At last, only Akoroun's tendril remained attached to the portal. He nodded.
"The portal is ready, but I must maintain the weave."
"Very well, let us begin," Galina said, motioning the survivors forward through the portal. With a final glance at a dying Vodalia, she swam through.
Warm currents gradually cleared the white haze obscuring Galina's vision, and she glanced around at the remarkable change of scenery. To the west, a vast rolling plain stretched endlessly, broken only by coral formations, deep sea kelp, and darting schools of fish. Rising to the east, and on whose slopes she rested, an impressive island-mountain range stretched from south to north. Further north, the range swept back to the east, hiding itself for a time before reappearing in the distance. For the first time in a long while, she began to feel warm.
Karel swam up and waited for her to speak.
"I see you, Karel."
"Your highness, I have taken the liberty of dispatching scouts to determine the exact location of the colony. They bring some disturbing news." Karel seemed troubled. Galina raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue.
Karel hesitated. "Etlan Shiis seems somewhat . . . larger than anticipated. Too large, in fact." By way of an explanation, he gestured to the group of mages who were in deep conference.
Galina frowned thoughtfully, then said, "Gather everyone. I would see this 'city' of artisans."
Karel nodded as he moved to collect the remnants of Vodalia and said, "It lies beyond the northern bend of the mountains." After a few minutes, Galina made her way northward in the shadow of the eastern island-mountains.
The Vodalians began swimming after their empress in silence, naturally falling into strict caste order with the warriors immediately behind Galina, then the mages, a few of the merchant caste, and lastly a handful of the lowly artisans--even in battle it was occasionally useful to have servants for demeaning labor.
Galina led the silent entourage, gliding over deep chasms in the slopes of the island-mountains, through coral formations and vast schools of brightly colored fish. She skirted the hot waters surrounding a column of bubbles rising from a steam vent and eventually came to the final mountain separating her from Etlan Shiis. As she crested the last ridge, she suddenly halted in a turmoil of warm waters, gazing at the city below.
Rolling plains sprawled to the north and west until they reached the mountains in the far distance. Unlike the western flats, however, this plain was filled with far more than just coral and kelp. Etlan Shiis began at the base of the island-mountains below her and stretched to the north and west. A slow anger began seeping through her eyes as they traveled the vast expanse of sweeping arches and artistic spires and towers that were so different from the royal city so recently lost to the Homarids. The city stretched on and on to the west until it vanished from sight. Her eyes picked out five enormous spires linked by arches on the far horizon, and her anger erupted.
"How dare they mock the Imperial Towers!" she thundered in rage as her followers cringed in their awe. The city rivaled the Vodalian royal city in size, and exceeded it in grandeur.
"Your most serene highness, if you please, all may not be as it seems," Akoroun touched her lightly on the arm. He was about to continue when he realized what he had done and his eyes widened with alarm.
Galina slowly turned to face the mage who had defiled her by his touch and suddenly gripped his neck with a darting hand. She gazed at him in the calmness of rage as he began to convulse beneath her hand. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began keening as steam bubbled from his skin. He thrashed on briefly after his keening died away; when he grew still, she released him to float upward to Svyelune's Light above the sea.
Her fury abated, she located another mage and calmly demanded, "Explain Akoroun's statement."
Startled, the mage stammered, "Ah, he was saying, ah, that we seem to have arrived in Etlan Shiis some years after we left Vodalia."
Galina absorbed the news impassively and said, "How many years?"
The mage swallowed and said, "About, ah ... we think it may be as much as three thousand years later." He braced himself and closed his eyes and prepared to receive treatment similar to his predecessor's.
Galina glared at the mage for a long moment, then nodded and said, "Very well. We must re-acquaint this city of artisans with their duty to the Empire." She turned and made her way downward, leaving her entourage to gradually recover from their shock. They followed her.
It was almost too easy. She had led the Vodalians into the city of Etlan Shiis without a single challenge and on to the new Imperial Towers. The chamber containing the group of artisans that styled themselves the "Council of Etlan Shiis" was not difficult to find. They had been initially startled by the appearance of their brethren, then outraged at being disturbed. They had reluctantly listened to Karel's introduction, which they found unnerving even as they doubted it. In the end, what decided the matter was one of the councilors' comments.
"Toss this garish riffraff out and let us get on with our business." Oblivious to the effect his words were having on his visitors, he continued. "After all, even if they are who they say, didn't our ancestors leave Vodalia because the caste system put the most violent and unfit to rule in charge of the nation?" Several of his fellow councilors nodded in agreement.
Karel calmly turned to this most vocal of the council, swam forward, and with fluid grace, broke his neck. The council chamber erupted with cries of outrage that became panic as Karel seized the next councilor and dispatched him with equal ease. The council members began scattering in all directions. Within moments, a scythe of energy from a Vodalian battle mage cut the councilors down as they fled. Only one escaped. At Karel's signal, a warrior quietly slipped out of the chamber to apprehend him. Galina gave the order to those remaining to subdue the city immediately and inform the residents that she would be assuming her throne once again. Her lords touched their foreheads and departed in all directions with small bands of warriors and mages. For the next several hours, she heard the occasional sounds of short-lived battle as each objection was squashed and those who objected were brought into line.
Galina gazed thoughtfully across the silent council chamber through the floating bodies of the ex-councilors. In her solitude, she began laying plans for the defense of the city, for the marshaling of military forces, and for the future.
Some day, my husband, may Svyelune's Light shelter you, I will return with hundreds of thousands of warriors to reclaim your Empire. We will utterly destroy the Homarids and dedicate the victory to the memory of your glory. From this day forward, a new Vodalian Empire is born....