by Chris Eisenlauer
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1. LIN SOSA
Planet 1005 - Former Root Palace
“Lin Sosa. It is your sixteenth birthday. You have been pampered since birth, have been given everything you could possibly want. I will bestow upon you one final gift before you must give something in return.” The Viscain Emperor, Samhain, paused as if to take a wheezing breath. He was a monstrous hollowed gourd, four meters across, fleshy and plump, with simple carved features—triangle eyes and nose, a jagged gash of a mouth—behind which ghostly firelight glowed and flickered.
“Yes, Lord Emperor,” the girl said. Dressed in a tight, long-sleeved charcoal turtleneck and a functional pleated skirt of the same color, she was lithe and her manner pert. Though she was bowing before him in his dark chamber with its gnarled resin walls of infinite height, she said, “What is my gift, and what is my task?” Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “Lord Emperor.”
The Emperor chuckled, and the chamber shook. “Your impertinence is as atrocious as ever. And, as ever, it both pleases and amuses me. You are what I have made you. A princess. An emissary. And, perhaps, hope expedited.
“All your studies have been for this purpose. You are to lead the Expeditionary Squad. You will set out with this, the Resonance Bell.”
An animate olive tendril issued from somewhere unseen behind the Emperor, bearing with it a bronze bell the size of a balled fist. The slender vine stretched out across the chamber, stopping before Lin Sosa’s forehead.
“Take it, Lin Sosa, and make it a part of you,” the Emperor said.
Lin raised her head to regard the bell, her straw-blond ponytail bobbing with the motion. She gently took the bell in both hands and showed no fear as she brought it to her chest, pressing it through fabric, through skin, muscle, and bone and into her being. The instant she and the Artifact became one was marked by a blinding flash, revealing to Lin Sosa for that fleeting instant, shapes and convolutions in the resin walls that would be the unknown source of troubling dreams for years to come.
“Very good,” the Emperor said. “You are going on a journey, Lin Sosa.”
“To where, Lord Emperor?”
“To The Place with Many Doors.”
“Where can this Place with Many Doors be found?”
Though the massive gourd did not move, the Emperor seemed to shake his head. “You must find it.”
“Can Eris come with me?”
“Of course. That is Eris Anandale’s purpose. She will sort and read the signs, the ripples and echoes that radiate out from the source, from The Place with Many Doors, and reveal the way. Also, though I know you would not say so, you would be lonely if deprived of her company. I would see that you are made as comfortable as possible on this journey.
“And as safe. You will have one more companion, but this one you shall choose. He or she must have the means to protect you. Additional means will be provided in the form of an Artifact so choose well.
“This is a secret mission. No one can know, so this person will not be given the luxury of a choice in the matter.” Another snaking vine issued forth, bearing a bronze circlet. “Take this, the Ouroboros Crown, and place it upon the head of your desired protector. It will make him or her beholden to you, unable to refuse your commands. Once you have made and secured your choice, return to me.
“Remember, Lin Sosa. You have ventured beyond these walls always in secret, with an escort, and under strict rules. There are those who would not understand what you are or approve of your existence. While you may feel and be superior to these, you mustn’t let your temperament overwhelm sense. When you go, be judicious and observe the rules.”
“Yes, Lord Emperor.”