Empire grew in blood and greed, but the exuberance of its youth soon gave way to a colder cruelty.

The history of Empire—there is only ever one, and only one who did not grow in the shadow cast by its death would claim not to know it—is fraught with danger. Even the most theoretical study of its contours risks stumbling upon an old taboo, a deadly truth wrapped in undying chains by ghoul-kings who feared the touch of sunlight upon their sins. Attrition in the ranks of historians is often unclear, being clouded by the secrecy with which their work is traditionally conducted, but we've all heard rumors about distant enclaves burnt to ash after one of their members stumbled upon a truth that still lived enough to hunt.

Practical historians are perhaps no better off, no matter how tightly they gird their loins or what protective trinkets they carry with them. It is often said that there is no such thing as a brave archaeologist, for bravery begets carelessness, but the most successful expeditions are always flush with brave youngsters eager to prove themselves. Just kids, really, the lucky ones who grew up without learning the taste of death and the unlucky ones who were taught to long for it.

Their expeditions always return depleted.

It's lucky for us that the first discovery, back in the days when Empire was still falling, was how to make our blood unsuitable for their foul magics. If not for that little bit of cruelty who knows how many of the old monsters would have been woken by the scent of fresh young blood marking out the paths to their doors?

Truly, we're the lucky ones.

When Empire's bloodline—the first bloodline, the accursed blue, that only became the hated purple after centuries of sin—first clawed its way out of the misty lake of Hali that cradled its growth in sunken Demhe, it was full of burning passion. It wanted to be known, to mark the world, to leave nothing unchanged by its presence. It succeeded.

Few true records remain of that time.

Even what we tell you now—the names, the blood, the barest outline—is likely a lie, a myth wrought by some fading king to coax forth the power that they once had. "The World Was Made For Empire To Rule", that's one of the truths they tried to etch into the world, defanged enough that it's safe to hear. A late vintage, from the days when it was already starting to fall apart. It was for themselves as much as for their wayward vassals, a balm for the doubt that festered with every rebellion that they couldn't find the power to crush.

Probably they could have been eternal if they weren't what they were, and that's a truth we don't relish. If each new generation hadn't eaten the ones before, if their hunger and cunning hadn't become entitlement and arrogance, if they hadn't made a thousand tiny mistakes that added up to their final fall ...

Here's a true story, a story that we know is true, because we've spoken to people who were there. This is a story of long after Demhe fell beneath the waves, a story from the days when Empire's dead felt the power draining out of their cities' veins and corpse-forges began to slow. We won't tell you where this was, because some things aren't meant to be known and that place cannot be allowed to become part of history again, but it was a place where Empire's waste flowed back upon itself and no living thing could enter without consigning themselves to a fate alike that which awaited each blood carnival's anointed sacrifices.

When Empire was young it would have burnt out the houses of any who dared undermine their reign, but by then it could ill-afford to risk its vassals' lineages, for the bloodline ran thin and tenuous. Perhaps it still had the strength to induct new vassals, just as our own thaumaturges learned to taint eelworms' blood mere decades ago, but it was not something that was done.

So when a prince of the isles refused to incubate a fresh generation in his corrupted womb, Empire did not cast his kingdom down into the depths or set a plague of crab-born monsters upon its shores but merely summoned him to appear before the throne. Knowing what awaited him—knowing that obedience would be thrust upon him where nature had not seen fit for it to grow—he did what would once have been unthinkable: he refused.

This was quite unwise, but he was proud and loved to gamble, and for a time it seemed that he had called Empire's bluff. He had not truly rebelled, after all; he still sent the tithes, still offered every other obeisance, still visited Empire's cruelty upon every family beneath him. Perhaps the emissaries to his shores were colder than before, and perhaps the demands they brought him were less reasonable than before, but the balance of the tithes always shifted and in those days the empire craved fresh bodies. He felt none of his people's pain, and his womb was empty.

He had lovers, as princes do, chosen for his table and his bed, and of those his favorite was Sara (sometimes called Sahra, a corruption of her name which was carried forward in sailor's stories). She was an accomplished storyteller and accountant even before his eye fell upon her, and in his court she had blossomed from youthful beauty into polished maturity. The prince loved and trusted her implicitly.

In those days certain marital arts were unknown—except, of course, to the old ghouls, to whom living bodies were little more than willful clay—and no one truly expected the prince's couplings to result in issue, though the problem of succession did not weigh heavily. He had cousins, after all, and some of his nephews were so close that they might have been his own. No one except Empire cared about his specific branch of the bloodline.

So when it became clear that Sara was with child no one was as shocked as he was (except for her), and no one felt more betrayed than he did (except for her). Everyone knew that it was not his; everyone knew that Sara had strayed. Empire hardly had to expend effort to create that truth; it grew naturally from the night one of their emissaries released a slick-skinned horror to slip into her bed, swelling undeniably as its unnatural life grew inside her, resisting every attempt to drive it out.

Nearly a year later a perfectly formed babe—the mirror of Sara in every respect except its teeth, which ringed its mouth as thickly and sharply as any shark's—gnawed its way out of her swollen belly as the last spark of life left her behind and escaped into the walls of the prince's palace. He was not there to witness this, though whether his heart burned with betrayal or sank with the knowledge that his own choice had consigned her to this fate is lost to time. Probably it was both.

It lived in his palace's walls for seventeen dark years, evading every attempt to kill it or drive it out, of which there were many. When the prince burned his palace and moved to another isle it was there waiting; when he spent a year at sea it lived in his ship's bilges and dragged sleeping sailors down to drink their blood and rip out their livers. It took his lovers and then his servants, and his palace's windows darkened with sea-slime and his carpets stank of salt and offal. When it finally came for him, looking just as Sara had when he first met her, he followed it without protest to a beach piled high with the corpses of every untainted youth he had offered to Empire to avert the day his womb would be filled, and together with it he boarded a lithe, dark-sailed cutter and passed out of the knowledge of his people.

Or so it's said.

It is doubtful that Empire would have set aside twenty-five years of his tithes (that being the amount of time separating his first refusal and his final departure) simply to crush his spirits or to teach a lesson about the price of disobedience. Perhaps it would have once, and the story was definitely meant to play upon memories of that time, but it simply could not have afforded to set aside so many bodies. More likely some sort of trickery was at play.

Other versions of the story also persist across the world. In one, the prince only met Sara after he refused Empire, and she consumed his other lovers and servants herself while he refused to doubt her up until the moment when she broke his will by revealing her true self to him—an assassin-emissary, reclining on the rotting cancer-throne she had constructed at his palace's heart. Another posits that the child was born from the prince, and he refused to accept its nature until it killed Sara, who had stayed with him until the very end.

The least common version tells of how Empire "awakened his blood", transforming him into an unwitting monster who inflicted sins upon his people. Only Sara's death at his hands (or claws, by that point) brought him back to his senses, upon which he killed himself. We know that at least some parts of that story are untrue (he was alive when he was brought to Empire's heart afterward, because he was still alive enough to beg for death when Empire finally fell), and the rest is simply unsupported by any other part of the historical record. Empire's bloodline carried monsters, but it never could make a man into a monster. Its power to twist and change always ended with childhood.