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Literature / The Elder Empire

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"The Great Elders will do anything to be free again. Don't give them that. Don't give them anything. You cannot let them win."
The Emperor

The Aurelian Empire has stood for over a thousand years under the rule of the immortal Emperor, who killed the Great Elders who had enslaved humanity. His rule is absolute and unquestioned, his authority and power unfathomable.

That is, until the Emperor dies.

Five years later, two very different people struggle in a world that is changing around them. Calder Martin, a Captain from the Navigator's Guild, takes an extremely profitable mission to escort a stuffy Imperial Witness. Meanwhile, Shera, a Gardener from the Consultant's Guild, takes a mission to assassinate an Imperial Witness.

Both Calder and Shera are being lied to, and not all their allies have their best interests at heart. They both have to fight through the still-active corpse of a Great Elder, face countless Elderspawn, and suffer through the politics of a nation that has not had to rule itself for over a thousand years.

The Elder Empire is a series written by Will Wight. It is split into two parallel series, one for Calder and one for Shera:

  • The first pair are Of Sea and Shadow (Calder) and Of Shadow and Sea (Shera). Published in 2015.
  • The second pair are Of Dawn and Darkness (Calder) and Of Darkness and Dawn (Shera). Published in 2016.
  • The third pair are Of Kings and Killers (Calder) and Of Killers and Kings (Shera). Published in 2020.

This series provides examples of:

  • Adorable Abomination: Shuffles is Calder's pet Bellowing Horror, which is basically a chibi version of Cthulhu. He repeats his favorite words he overhears in conversations, at deafening volume, usually right next to Calder's ear.
    "A Bellowing Horror," Calder repeated, still weirdly fascinated by the beast. "Why is it called-"
    "HORROR!" it bellowed, flaring its pathetic wings.
    "Oh. I see."
  • Apocalypse Cult: Various Elder cults, such as the Sleepless. Most cultists are just deluded, but a few like Jyrine take a more nuanced view of the Elders as an opportunity for human advancement, not so different from that of the Blackwatch. Of course, most people outside of the Blackwatch see them as little better than cultists...
  • Affably Evil: Kelarac, the Keeper of Souls, takes the form of a pleasant man who is willing to negotiate plainly for what he wants. He even conducts these deals in a dreamspace that looks like a pleasant sitting room. But he is still one of the Great Elders, an alien intelligence who enslaved humanity for longer than recorded memory. His domain is the sea, and the sea is a terrifying place on this world.
  • Alliterative Title: Idiosyncratic Episode Naming
  • Ancestral Weapon: Common, due to the way magic works. The older a weapon is and the more it is used, the more Intent it accumulates. This Intent will naturally make the weapon better at its job, and a skilled Reader can enhance this effect. Shera uses a pair of bronze shears that have been used as assassination tools for a thousand years, and therefore can kill nearly anything in a single blow.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Kthanikahr, the Worm Lord, and his lesser Elders. The Great Elder himself is explicitly compared to a Worm in an Apple, except instead of an apple, it's a mountain.
  • Brown Note Being: Any of the Great Elders. Even dead, Nakothi slowly drives everyone nearby completely insane. Her Handmaidens, the creatures that command her forces, have horrific faces that have the same effect, though thankfully just avoiding look at their faces is usually enough to save yourself.
    Meia: Pay attention, everyone. If you hear a mysterious voice whispering to you in your head, giving you instructions, don't listen to it. I'm shocked that I have to tell you this.
  • Cannibalism Superpower: When Lucan Awakens Shera's shear, it gains the ability to feed on kills and make Shera stronger. And because it is now intelligent, it acts like a hyperactive child demanding candy.
  • Common Tongue: Everyone on the planet speaks Imperial. It's mentioned that this was done intentionally; in the past, the Emperor forced everyone to speak the same language, and he locked up anyone who refused or had too strong an accent.
  • Covers Always Lie: A minor one, but Calder is described repeatedly as having bright red hair like his father, and the covers always depict him as brunette.
  • Damsel out of Distress: Of Shadow and Sea ends with Meia getting captured, and a ransom note being sent to her friends. Shera doesn't even bother reading it.
    Scout: Well? Will we negotiate?
    Shera: Negotiate? They let Meia onto their ship. They're already dead.
  • Deal with the Devil: Kelarac is one of the easiest Great Elders to deal with: Just throw something valuable into the sea and call out in desperation. There is no guarantee he'll answer, but if he does, he'll offer you a seemingly fair deal for what you want. While he will, inevitably, screw you over in the end, he is the least dangerous of the Great Elders, and would prefer that humanity remain mostly free.
    Kelarac: I like this world, former Watchman. Slaves do not bargain. Free men do. And they bring such treasures.
  • Dire Beast: the Kameira are giant animals with Elemental Powers. Although they can be quite dangerous and hostile, they're not fundamentally inimical to humanity like the Elders are. They are hunted for body parts, which are supernaturally potent and thus a valuable resource that humans can exploit to combat Elder influence.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Great Elders are immortal Brown Note Beings who once enslaved humanity until the Emperor killed them. But death is only temporary for such creatures, and the Empire has fought ever since to keep them dead. The Sleepless cults claim the Elders just want to share their wisdom; while Blackwatch admits that's partly true, and the Great Elders do see themselves as benevolent, they are also violently insane and will happily wipe out the entire human race for their own purposes.
    Valin: When a world dies, it starts to decay. It breaks into fragments, and these fragments float on an empty sea: splitting, changing, and merging with one another. They will fade forever, until they latch onto a healthy, inhabited world...or until there's nothing left. Living inhabitants can sometimes survive the death of their world. They're often twisted, grotesque, and powerful beings, forever altered by their exile to the void. Something very much like your Elders, in fact.
  • Extra-Dimensional Shortcut: Jerri mentions that the trip from the Grey isle to the capital, 2 days by navigator ship, took her mere minutes via void travel.
  • Fantastic Fragility: Great Elders can bond with a human, much like soulbound can with an item, possessing them. Alloying their own powerset with human intent grants them a significant power boost, but it also makes them constrained by human limitations like time and death. As such, despite The Emperor continually beating them in straight fights for centuries, they never resorted to this because Death Is Cheap in their natural state. It's a nap for a couple decades and then you fight The Emperor again. However, void travel requires human intent, and the Great Elders are willing to risk a brief stint in mortality for the chance at escape.
  • Forgotten First Meeting: Calder met Shera, Lucan, and Meia at his trial, when they were still being personally tutored by the Empire. By the time of the story proper, both sides have completely forgotten; the Guild tells Shera about this meeting when she takes the job but she still doesn't remember, and Calder only remembers when Meia points out the connection.
  • Giant Corpse World: Nakothi, the Dead Mother, slowly transformed the island where she was buried into a massive corpse, with flesh for ground, a recognizable rib cage, and even tendons stretching throughout the structure. One person theorizes that she was trying to build herself a new body.
  • God-Emperor: The Emperor ruled for over a thousand years and was so incredibly powerful that anything he so much as touched became a dangerous artifact. In Shera's story, he is a magnanimous and fatherly ruler who constantly tries to make his subjects more comfortable. In Calder's story, he is a ruthless tyrant who kills a man for the crime of escaping from horrific experiments. There is one thing both stories agree on: His immortality came from binding a heart of the Dead Mother, which was not a good thing. The few people who knew him estimated he only had a few years before he would go completely insane, but he was killed first.
  • God of Evil: The Great Elders, most obviously Nakothi, the Dead Mother. She is a queen of the undead, who wishes for nothing more than to kill everyone and remake them as her "children." Even the Sleepless, the cult dedicated to worshiping the Elders, is very careful when dealing with anything related to Nakothi.
  • Hero of Another Story: The whole point of splitting the universe into two parallel stories. Of Sea and Shadow is about Calder Martin, Captain of the Navigator's Guild, trying to raise up a new God-Emperor after the old one died, in order to help unite humanity and protect the species from the predations of the Elders; he is opposed by anarchic assassins who want to see the thousand-year Empire fractured since it will be more profitable for them. Of Shadow and Sea is about Shera, Gardener of the Consultant's Guild, trying to stop a Great Elder from resurrecting herself and destroying humanity, and to keep the Empire split so that humanity does not have a single point of failure in a God-Emperor; she is opposed by insane cultists and tyrants who think they can handle the power themselves.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Calder's ready to do this a few times in Kings and Killers: his backup plan in the battle of Elders is to give himself up to be Kellarac's vessel, then allow Shera to kill him, as killing an Elder while it's in a human vessel is the only way to permanently be rid of them. Later, when he realizes the cracks in the sky are going to cause Ozriel to destroy the world, he teams up with the Emperor's echo and uses the Optasia to stave off the elders and repair the world's barrier, even though he knows it will kill him.
  • Legendary Weapon: The nature of Intent means anything can become legendary given time. If an axe is used for splitting wood, eventually it will become even better at splitting wood. Shera has weapons that were forged a thousand years ago before the Empire was born, and they can cut through nearly anything. Especially the blade she used to destroy a heart of Nakothi, and kill the Emperor. At the start of the novel, she has trouble even drawing that weapon at all.
  • Language Drift: To be expected with the amount of ageless characters running around. Jorin frequently uses archaic idioms no one else understands, and Kelarac's name drifts between Kelarac and Kell'arrack depending on who's speaking. Kelarac, for his part, is moderately amused to learn that his name among men has changed again when Calder reflexively corrects him on the pronunciation of his own name.
  • Living Shadow: Minions of Urg'naut are described this way, and Urg'naut themself is a massive tide of shadow. As one would expect, they're essentially immune to physical weapons, only being harmed by the intent inside them. Light, however, is immensely painful to Urg'naut and their spawn, only Urg'naut themself can go out during the day.
  • Living Weapon: Any object invested with enough Intent can be "Awakened," given a rudimentary mind based on how it has been used in the past. This is typically only done when the Reader has a very strong understanding of the object in question, otherwise the Awakened intelligence might have very different abilities and goals than expected.
  • Lovecraft Lite: Or at least lite-ish. Yes, the Great Elders are a vast and ever-present threat to humanity. But on the other hand, humanity has already won the war to overthrow them, and has thwarted their return for a millennium, thanks in no small part to the steady advancement of the science of Reading and investment.
  • Mother of a Thousand Young: Nakothi, the Dead Mother, is known for her "children," twisted undead monstrosities made from random parts of dead humans and animals.
    The Emperor: She had little use for living humans, so we scraped out our lives as best we could. What she did need were human corpses. By the thousands. She reforged them, you see. Stitched them together, brain and body, remade them into monsters. Her Handmaidens called it rebirth.
  • No Name Given: Everyone simply calls The Emperor "The Emperor". Before that he was known as The Liberator, his actual birth name is a matter of speculation. He doesn't have one. Names weren't a luxury humans had in Nakothi's domain. He usually was referred to contextually, being called "dumper" while dumping corpses into the pits, etc. His mother called him "Clean", since he was usually cleaner than her other children
  • "Not So Different" Remark: In Kings and Killers, Calder is horrified to learn from the memory-echo of the Emperor that he and Calder have essentially the same personality, and that the philosopher Sadesthenes that Calder has revered since childhood was actually the Emperor writing under a pen name. When Calder reads the Emperor's intent, he realizes that the Emperor's looks like his own, only far older and more powerful.
  • Older Is Better: Whenever a human uses an object, they imbue it with "Intent," and the object works just a little better for its intended purpose. An axe might get better at cutting wood, a coat might get better at keeping its wearer warm. Therefore, objects that have been in use for centuries and have accumulated massive stores of Intent are far more powerful than newer ones that haven't had a chance to be used as much.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The central conflict. On the Of Sea and Shadow side, the heroes are mostly fighting for Order, as they know that letting the Empire fracture into countless mini-empires will result in nothing but war and bloodshed. On the Of Shadow and Sea side, the heroes are mostly fighting for Chaos, as they believe that the species has evolved past the need for a single omnipotent authority. The problems with both sides are discussed; if there's a single Empire that means there's a single point of failure that can be exploited, while if there are multiple empires there will be no way to force them to cooperate in the face of a major threat.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: When Loreli needs to hire a Navigator ship she gives a false name because they are part of the opposing faction in the Guild War. She doesn't change her extremely famous appearance or demeanor at all, though, and the Navigators figure out who she is within hours. They play along though because she is The Paragon.
    "For I am Loreli, Regent of the West and first of the Luminian Order."
    Captain Marstrom gave an awkward cough. "...yes, madam, we know."
  • Play-Along Prisoner: Lucan could easily break himself out of prison, and Shera could break him out even easier. The only reason they don't is because going on the run would be a pain.
  • Power of the Void: The Great Elders are survivors from other worlds who were mutated and empowered by their trip through the void. The Sleepless have a few minor abilities related to the void, such as void-messages and summoning.
  • Prison Dimension: Aurelia is a prison dimension for the Great Elders. For millennia they've been trying to escape, and while the Great Elders jockey for power and influence constantly, all the Great Elders pool their powers and resources towards that goal.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The other guilds know very little about the Consultants. Only that if you hire them, you win. The Consultants actively cultivate this reputation (one person notes that there are no stories of the Consultants failing, even though it must have happened before), and rely on stealth and espionage to perform seeming magic.
  • Smug Snake: Naberius Clayborn has managed to put himself in a position where he'll be the next Emperor of the world, and is very smug about it. However, as the book wears on, the "smug" part fades in favor of the "snake" part, as he starts betraying people left and right. Nakothi's heart corrupting him certainly didn't help, but nobody really liked him even before that.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Even before he was The Emperor, he was The Liberator.
  • Stepford Smiler: Nearly everyone at Candle Bay Imperial Prison, from prisoners to staff. At first, the smiling receptionist is kind of funny, as she is always perfectly professional and Calder always frustrated. Then he sees what's been going on in the prison, and realizes she literally has no choice but to smile.
  • Stupid Criminals: The reason Calder and his father were caught when Calder was a child is because the criminal who they were dealing with (and planning to rob) filed a bill of sale for the stolen goods he was fencing. Absolutely everyone involved facepalmed at that.
  • Super-Senses: As part of her alchemical upgrades, Meia can see and hear far better than an ordinary human.
    Meia: [to Shera] I hear everything that happens on the ship.
    Mason: Uh...everything, Gardener?
    Meia: Everything.
    Mason: [hides, embarrassed]
  • This Is My Human: In a chapter from Shuffles' perspective, we find out that the Bellowing Horror considers Calder his pet human.
  • Transhuman: The Imperial Guard are improved by the Alchemist's Guild, given Kameira parts to enhance their capabilities. Meia is a far more extreme example; under the Emperor's orders, the guild used horrific and painful procedures to turn her into an amalgam of a dozen different Kameira, making her strong enough to fight a Champion.
    The Emperor: Since this body cannot do the job, we will have to build you a new one.
  • Undead Abomination: The Children of Nakothi, corpses "reborn" in a twisted mockery of life. Some are recognizably human, but most are so distorted their original shapes are hard to spot. Things like centipedes made out of spines and tentacles made out of arms are not uncommon.
  • Villains Never Lie:
    • The Emperor has a reputation for never lying. After all, why would he need to? He doesn't even obfuscate the truth, really; if he doesn't want people to know something, he'll flatly tell them they're not allowed to know. Or kill them.
    • Kelarac has a similar reputation, which is part of how he has a relatively good reputation for his deals. As it turns out, he's more of the "never lie unless you really have to" sort. In Killers and Kings, he tells Shera that he's possessed her in order to trick her into killing herself, but really it's a last-ditch effort to get rid of her.
  • Weird Trade Union: Imperial government and society is organized around ten semi-independent Guilds, each with its own areas of expertise and closely-guarded trade secrets.
  • You Are Number 6: Estyr Six comes from a tribe where your number determined your place on the mountain they inhabited. Lower numbers could live closer to the base, where food was more plentiful, but monster attacks were more common. You could challenge someone and take their number, and Estyr Six did, going from Estyr Fourteen to Estyr Six in a single battle. She planned to become Estyr One, but Kthanikahr's worms destroyed her tribe before she got the chance. Estyr Six later fought Kthanikahr on her home mountain and buried him in the resulting canyon.