Data File Updated: Saturday, July 21, 2018


The Barsam were one of the original founders of the Interspecies Convention that eventually transformed into the modern Loroi Union, which they also had a key role in forming. The Barsam share a common but mysterious origin with the other Soia-Liron species, the Loroi and Neridi, with whom they are biochemically related. The current Barsam civilization arose on the arid planet Justa, but like the other Soia-Liron races, the true origin of the species is unknown. Though their size and fearsome physical attributes do make them formidable warriors, and in the past their ancient ancestors had a bloody history of internal conflict, today the Barsam culture is a peaceful one that follows a religion of tolerance and inclusiveness, preaching that all sentient beings are brothers and should live in peace. Barsam are renowned for their ability to successfully cooperate with others, while at the same time closely guarding their own independence from outside authority. Though they espouse peace, the Barsam are fierce, powerful fighters, some of whom do not hesitate to use force when the occasion calls for it. Barsam are famous for lacking a sense of humor, and are earnestly serious at all times.

Today, the Barsam Confederation covers most of the anti-spinward portion of the Maoren Sector, and Barsam traders and missionaries extend their influence throughout the Union. They are an important political force in the Union, sometimes at odds with the Loroi who otherwise dominate much of the Union's affairs. The Barsam actively export their culture and religion and its philosophy of brotherhood, which has at times increased friction with the militaristic, atheistic Loroi. The Barsam are an important contributor in the Union war against the Umiak, though most of their contribution is in terms of industrial, logistical and intelligence support. Together with the Pipolsid and Neridi, they are also important drivers of Union free commerce and scientific advancement.

The Barsam native languages are based on the ancient Trade Language, though the Barsam versions have diverged much more than their Loroi and Neridi counterparts, incorporating Barsam-specific vocalizations (including "j", "v" and "tch" consonants, and the vowel "u"). Although many local dialects are still practiced throughout Barsam territory, most official business is conducted in the standardized Loroi version of Trade.

How do the Barsam write their custom phonemes using the Loroi Trade script, which does not include these letters?

In several ways. Most Barsam use a custom version of the Trade script which is readable to non-Barsam but includes a number of special characters. When limited to Loroi characters, they transliterate sounds in a similar way that the Loroi do when encountering unfamiliar phonemes: (j => z, v => b, u => o, tch => sh). For example, "Shuvo" would be written in Loroi script as "Shobo."


The Barsam are large, powerfully built bipeds with thick, tough, hairless leathery blue skin with white mottling. They have small yellow eyes with horizontally-slitted pupils, and their heads and limbs are festooned with bony spikes. They have clawed four-fingered hands, four-toed digitigrade feet and a stubby vestigial tail. A healthy adult typically stands 2.3m tall, and weighs in excess of 150 kg (330 lbs). Specimens weighing more than 200 kg (440 lbs) are not uncommon. Barsam mature rapidly to adulthood as long as they are well fed, and can enter a state of torpor that increases their regenerative capabilities, allowing them to recover quickly from injury. They are extremely strong and can absorb a great deal of punishment. Although they share the efficient biochemistry of the other Soia-Liron organisms, the Barsam gain greater size and strength and improved regeneration at the cost of greater nutritional and oxygen requirements, longer maturation time and reduced lifespan compared to the Loroi and Neridi. Barsam are omnivorous and typically consume two large meals per day. Barsam traditionally prefer forested highland habitats, but they can adapt easily to a wide variety of biomes. Their powerful jaws are equipped with both narrow piercing and broad cutting teeth, suitable both for eating meat and for gnawing through the tough nagen seed pod husks that were their primary diet on Justa.

Barsam are hermaphroditic, with all adults potentially able to bear children. Lacking external genitalia, Barsam produce egg-like sacs containing isogametes; these are exchanged with other individuals and consumed orally, at which point both individuals may become pregnant and bear offspring. However, the long 16-month gestation period and the large amount of food required to properly nourish the rapidly-maturing infant mean that it was very difficult in a primitive hunter-gatherer society in a somewhat harsh environment for each adult to effectively raise its own offspring alone. Therefore, the Barsam developed a cooperative family structure, typically consisting of 4-10 individuals, only one or two of which would be impregnated during the breeding season. The selected individual consumes all of the gamete sacs produced by the others, and the offspring is raised communally by the entire group, without knowing which of them are the true biological parents. (In some of the more barbaric ancient societies, the partners fought, and the loser was force-fed the sacs.) In modern times with the abundance of food that high technology provides, modern Barsam have the resources to reproduce at will, and live as solitary individuals as often as they do in traditional family groups.

Births are almost always single infants; if the built-in safeguards against multiple zygote fertilization fail, the pregnancy will usually result in a miscarriage. Because Barsam do not give milk, the baby must be born able to eat solid food immediately, and can usually crawl within a few days of birth. If provided with sufficient food, Barsam children grow rapidly, reaching adulthood in 12 years. Individuals who suffer from malnutrition during childhood often exhibit dwarfism. Barsam age more rapidly than the other Soia-Liron species, especially if they have been subjected to a physically demanding lifestyle. Advanced deterioration typically sets in around age 150.

The Confederation of Barsam Worlds

Prior to the formation of the Union, the Barsam worlds existed in a loose confederation, which persists into the present as a member state of the modern Union. Though the Confederation includes dozens of colonies and settlements, more than half of the Barsam population lives on four key worlds: Moro, Dorlov, Armis, and the capital Justa. Several of their most important settlements (including Moro and Halli) lie outside Barsam territory proper, which itself lies in the anti-spinward half of the Union Maoren sector, between the Pipolsid worlds and the border with the Nissek Hegemony. Smaller Barsam colonies are spread throughout Union territory, including the Seren and Tinza sectors, and new colonies in the Dinnan frontier.


Justa is a small, moonless, arid world covered by great mountain ranges and numerous small lake-sized saline seas. It has no known native life, and is populated by the descendants of seeded Soia-Liron organisms, including the Barsam. The highest altitudes of the mountains are mostly barren; the foothills are covered in evergreen nagen forests. Flat plains are rare. The landscape is pocked with ancient impact craters, which form dry basins at higher elevations, and which are often filled with water at lower elevations.

Justa was home to a Soia-era colony of Barsam ancestors, and the caves and tunnels beneath the Lugei mountains preserve many Soia artifacts. After the fall of the Soia empire, the surface colony on Justa was destroyed and its survivors reverted to a hunter-gatherer culture. The ancient crypts would not be rediscovered until the late iron age, at which point the old shamanistic religion which had told of ancient ancestors experienced a resurgence. While the Barsam hill tribes frequently warred with each other and the lowland tribes, what would become the modern priestly class established temples in the mouths of the caves and proceeded to unlock the secrets of the past. Today, Lugei Temple is the holy city of the Barsam religion, and is located in the same territory as Orman, the current seat of the Barsam government.


The heartland of Barsam heavy industry resides on Dorlov, an Earth-sized world which also has a single large moon and an active metal core, but which is on the outer edge of the habitable zone of its star. Although it is volcanically active, most of the surface of the planet is well below freezing and is covered with a thick sheet of permanent ice; however, there is a band of lowland regions ringing the equator where a combination of sunlight, higher atmospheric pressure and volcanic heat have melted enough ice to expose the rocky surface. These regions are dotted with meltwater lakes, thermal springs, and extensive mats of brightly colored native fungal life. The combination of active vulcanism and regular cycles of glaciation have concentrated valuable minerals on the surface into easily accessible deposits, and the ready access to geothermal power has made it an ideal site for Barsam industry.

Dorlov is the headquarters of Shuvo Industries, one of the largest Barsam multinational corporations. Among many other products, they are the preferred suppliers of armored hull components for Union warships. The company faced some Loroi-imposed sanctions and suffered a leadership shakeup in 2140 when several high-ranking executives were convicted of war profiteering and supporting the failed attempt to overthrow the Loroi Emperor Greywind shortly after she was appointed.


Wind-sculpted, barren Armis serves as the hub of Barsam shipping and shipbuilding. Strategically located at a crossroads of 11 usable jump links, the planet would be unremarkable were it not home to the most spectacular Dreiman-era relic in known space: an orbital megastructure known as the Agumo, which forms a complete ring around the planet. Using this ruin as a skeleton, the Barsam have constructed a vast array of orbital facilities, including habitats, stations, and unparalleled shipyards. More conventional settlements have also been established on the planet's surface, including cities with soaring aerodynamic towers, but as much as one third of the population works and resides in orbit. Despite the extreme weather driven by its rapid rotation and the energetic solar wind of its F-type primary, the planet supports a unique native biome almost all of which is exclusively airborne, which while not of much practical economic benefit to the colony, has become famous for the beauty and daring flying abilities of its fauna (including the famous winged minnir).

Unsurprisingly, Armis is the capital of the Barsam shipping industries, and is home to the Agumo Conference, a coalition of private starship operating firms that could be described as the closest thing the Barsam have to a mercenary network. Agumo Conference contractors are available for a variety of work, from the transportation of high-value cargoes, to deep space exploration, to dangerous search and rescue or salvage operations, to contract police and patrol duties. During the current war, Agumo contractors have provided valuable services to the Union (Loroi) military in courier, scouting, and intelligence gathering roles.


Moro is a temperate world with large oceans, and is the seat of the Union Assembly. While the system is in Pipolsid territory and the colony was first founded by the Pipolsid, the planet sustains a large Barsam settlement that covers most of the surface continents (the Pipolsid living mainly in submarine habitats) and is the most populous Barsam colony outside Justa. Owing to the presence of the Union Assembly, the idyllic oceanside capital city of Josetchi is home to a diverse population of different species from across the Union.

Moro was originally colonized in the distant pre-Soia past by the Fenrias, who were the ancestors of the modern Delrias. The rich flora and fauna that proliferate across the planet are descended from transplanted organisms imported from Kabel, the Fenrias homeworld. Although these organisms have diversified greatly in the more than half a million years since the end of Fenrias habitation, the biome is a more complete example of Kabel life than can be currently found on Kabel itself, which was mostly destroyed in the ancient internecine Fenrias wars that predate the Soia era. The ancient Fenrias colony was destroyed with the arrival of the Soia, and ironically proto-Barsam remains from that time period can be found here, evidence that the Barsam ancestors fought directly against the Fenrias to take the planet. The discovery of these remains served as an important point of contact between the Pipolsid and Barsam, which later resulted in the close partnership which led to the joint colony and, eventually, the formation of the Union.


A small temperate world supporting a complex biome of native life, Halli was surveyed by Loroi colonial teams during their expansion into the Seren sector in the 1700's CE, and it eventually became an important logistical base. Loroi plans to more fully colonize the planet were put on hold when they found that it was already populated by an intelligent pre-industrial civilization, which became known as the Nibiren. Though their tribal stone age culture was not especially remarkable, their similarity in appearance to the Barsam certainly was. The Nibiren were smaller than the Barsam and had different coloration (earth tones instead of Soia blue), and they were of a very different (local) biochemistry, but they were otherwise nearly identical in form and appearance. Barsam scientific and religious entities took an immediate and intense interest in the planet and its inhabitants. Halli is still under Loroi jurisdiction (and technically under Loroi occupation), but Loroi presence is minimal, and aside from the native Nibiren, the largest foreign settlements on the planet are operated by Barsam anthropologists and missionaries.

There is ample evidence that show the Nibiren to be a local evolutionary development of Halli, from the distinct local biochemistry to the existence of local animals with obvious shared ancestors (in particular, the smaller, longer-tailed plains-running Diidadi). This discovery was of great religious import to the Barsam, since it supported the narrative of what has become the most dominant sect of the Barsam church: that the Barsam were a created rather than evolved people.

The development plans for Halli have been a point of contention between the Loroi and Barsam. The Loroi position is that the Nibiren should be left alone to develop in their own way. The Barsam feel a duty to help improve the harsh lives that the Nibiren live, by introducing medicine and agricultural techniques, and encouraging social and technological innovation. This has proved easier said than done, as the Nibiren have significant behavioral differences from the Barsam; they are more solitary and cope with the rigorous demands of pregnancy through hibernation rather than cooperative families, and so have been slow to adopt the more complex social systems that the Barsam try to teach them. The Loroi have mostly let the Barsam have their own way in this matter, and the planet is largely administrated by Barsam agents. Though the permanent Barsam settlements on Halli are kept small by rule, they are busy hubs of activity by visiting Barsam scientists, clerics and pilgrims.

History: Origins and Pre-Starflight

Archaeological evidence of modern Barsam habitation on Justa dates back to the time of the fall of the Soia empire c.275,000 BCE, and there is some evidence of proto-Barsam in the depths of the Soia-era tunnels beneath the Lugei mountains that are earlier, but difficult to date precisely. Earlier proto-Barsam remains have been found on other planets, including Moro, which date to almost half a million years ago.

After the collapse of the Soia interstellar order, the Barsam survivors on Justa lost most of their high technology, but began to recover in good order. Unlike the Loroi, whose post-Fall civilization collapsed entirely into barbarism due to lack of population controls, the Barsam developed an effective control with their cooperative family system fairly early on, and proceeded to advance their culture at a steady pace. However, the early Barsam were less able to master their own aggressive nature, and this began a long cycle of the rise and fall of great civilizations, some reaching almost to the industrial level before collapsing and reverting to tribalism. These failures had as much to do with over-exploitation as they did with warfare, as the substantial Barsam need for sustenance could easily outpace the capacity of the somewhat fragile and unproductive Justa ecosystem to provide. Flat lands and ample fresh water required for the farming of nutritious misesa grain were scarce on Justa. The nagen seed pods (similar to pine cones, as tough to eat and about as nutritious) that formed the staple of the Barsam diet were high in bulk fiber and relatively low in protein and carbohydrates; it took a huge mass of such poor foodstuffs to feed a single Barsam, and the nagen are large trees that could not efficiently be farmed.

The earliest recorded evidence that the Justa Barsam were aware of the existence of Soia relics in the Lugei Crypts dates to around 10,000 BCE, which marks the beginning of the Barsam priestly class as it is currently known. Earlier shamanistic clerics who had maintained an oral tradition of their creation story began to study the ancient relics, establish hermitages in the caves and tunnels, and preserve and build on this knowledge using the ancient Soia writing forms (instead of the newer writing systems developed by the secular civilizations that rose and fell). For a long time, this clerical society progressed independently from the rest of Barsam civilization, at times actively isolating themselves from the exploitation and destruction of the lowland and hill tribes. At other times, missionaries from the mountain temples were sent into the lowlands to attempt to convert their brothers to the ways of peace and break the cycle of rise and collapse. During one such cusp, when the hill tribes had again developed into a near-industrial civilization, the preachments finally took hold. Following a final titanic series of wars, the survivors became converts and accepted the leadership of the clerics, who used their not inconsiderable stored knowledge to rapidly restore order. One of these clerical leaders was the prophet Onzir Eutuno, considered the founder of the modern Barsam church.

With a new ethic of peaceful cooperation and careful management of resources, aside from a few further bumps along the road, the Barsam began a slow but steady path of technological improvement. They developed terraced farming techniques that allowed productive grains like misesa to be efficiently farmed even in the foothills. Once their expertise had advanced to the point where they could more readily comprehend the implications of the Soia examples that they had studied for so long, the Barsam were eager to explore the universe. It was a religious as much as a scientific imperative.

History: Starflight to Union

The Justa Barsam methodically tested unmanned jump-capable probe ships for many decades prior to their first manned jump in 1067 CE. Not finding any advanced neighbors nearby, they began to set up outposts to explore more deeply into the unknown, and a few minor colonies sprang up, the most successful of which was on Dorlov. The availability of viable jump links mostly led their exploration efforts anti-spinward, to the edge of the Great Wasteland and the border of the Nissek Hegemony.

Initial contact with the Nissek was cordial, but before long the expansionist Nissek were pressuring the Barsam to pay them regular tribute in return for not expanding into Barsam territory. The Barsam reluctantly agreed, but began to build up their own defenses. Through the Nissek, the Barsam learned of the existence of the Mannadi and other nearby races, including some who were said to have blue skin and questionable origins. The Barsam concentrated their explorations toward the spinward direction, located and claimed the Armis Crossroads, and shortly thereafter made contact with the Pipolsid, and through them their allies the Mannadi, Neridi, and Loroi. The Mannadi and Loroi at that time were at war with the Nissek, and there were increasing tensions between the various alliance members over colonial settlement rights. The Barsam and Pipolsid found common ground in their mutual desire for peaceful cooperation and became fast friends, and together hosted the First Interspecies Convention on Moro in 1311 CE in the hopes of preventing future conflict. This marked the first formal meeting between Loroi and Barsam officials. Though both were intrigued to learn of their shared heritage, there was immediate friction between the two cultures. The Barsam were as alarmed by the naked militarism of the Loroi as the Loroi were disdainful of the Barsam willingness to pay tribute to their enemies.

Despite providing a meeting place for all of the known sentient civilizations of the region, the Interspecies Convention failed in its aim to prevent war. After the Mannadi frustrated Nissek attempts to expand into their territory, the Nissek eventually attacked Barsam colonies near the border, in spite of the tribute they were being paid. Though the Barsam were reluctant to fight, they were well-prepared. In what would be a series of wars fought over the next century, the Barsam mostly thwarted the Nissek attempts at spinward expansion. The Barsam colony at Gaivet near the Nissek border was a flashpoint during several of these conflicts.

The Interspecies Convention also failed to prevent the ensuing Loroi-Mannadi wars, but that didn't stop them from continuing to meet regularly. Like most such international organizations, the Convention had no real independent authority, because the most powerful nations were not willing to cede their individual sovereignty. The Barsam used the Convention as a forum to express their continual displeasure at the Loroi over their conduct of the war, and to rally public support against the Loroi to end the war. In 1555 after the Enok incident and Loroi reprisals against Mannadi civilians, some of the Barsam delegates began to call aggressively for war crimes tribunals. Loroi Azerein Loremark did not respond positively to this pressure, and it looked for a moment as if there might be a general war. After several years of intense diplomacy, in 1557 all sides agreed to end the war and to form a mutual Union government. The Nissek declined to join the Union, but agreed to a treaty of non-aggression and mutual defense, to respect Union territorial integrity and to renounce all existing tribute and claims within the new Union borders. The Loroi required significant concessions in return for their agreement to join, which left them as the sole de facto military power in the Union. The Convention was dissolved and replaced by the Union Assembly.

The discovery of Halli and the Nibiren c.1700 CE drew the Barsam to establish a presence in the Seren sector. Contact with the Historians was especially gratifying to the Barsam, to be able to converse (if perhaps in a limited fashion) with a culture that seemed so closely connected to the time of their own "divinely" anointed ancestors. (Indeed, some sects of the Barsam religion cannot shake the concept that the Historians must be somehow related to the Gatherers themselves.) The Barsam Armis shipping magnates and the Agumo Conference established regular trade routes through the Seren sector and the Steppes; Barsam traders based at Ukko were among the first Union members to venture into Umiak ports, and Barsam intelligence agents still have more prewar experience dealing with the Umiak and their client states than their Loroi counterparts.

Since the start of the war with the Umiak, the Barsam have been stalwart supporters of the Union and the war effort. With the notable exception of some misplaced loyalties at the time of Emperor Greywind's accession, the Loroi and Barsam have coordinated closely and successfully. Agumo Conference armed couriers are active at the front, and joint Loroi-Barsam colonies in the Dinnan sector have been established in an attempt to expand Union territory and resources in a direction away from the Umiak front.

The Barsam Church

The Barsam follow one of the few centralized state-sponsored religions in the Union, the tenets of which govern much of Barsam philosophy and everyday life. It is an inclusive, pluralistic faith which advocates peace and brotherhood between all forms of intelligent life. It has many names and different sects, and so is often referred to by outsiders simply as the "Barsam Church." It is actively preached to Barsam and non-Barsam alike by an order of evangelical troubadour-clerics, who sing sermons of virtue and cooperation. While the priests themselves do not traditionally take a direct role in Barsam government, there is no clear dividing line between church and state, and most Barsam individuals of authority or influence are followers of this religion.

At the core of the Barsam religion is an ancient creation myth that dates back to Barsam prehistory. It goes something like this: the world is eternal, but is one of many worlds managed by an order of angelic beings of light known as the "Gatherers" who dwell in some otherworldly plane of existence that is roughly analogous to Heaven, connected to our world via a radiant portal called the Well of Souls. All forms of intelligent life are just varied manifestations of the same universal soul; all intelligent life is connected. Over the ages, the world became corrupted, its peoples living in squalor and strife, and so to remedy this the immortal Gatherers (who could not speak with or physically interact with mortal creatures) created mortal servants, in the idealized image of native peoples, to remedy these ills and bring the message of truth: that all beings are brothers, and part of the same holy web of consciousness, meant to live in peace and cooperation. To this end, the mortal servants of the Gatherers were armed with great powers, and peace and order were restored to the world. However, it seems that Gatherers' servants were too accurate a reproduction, retaining the flaws of the original peoples. As the ages passed, some of the servants abused the power they had been given for mortal gain, and at length the world was again plunged into war and chaos. Dismayed, the Gatherers withdrew to heaven and closed the portal, cutting off the means by which the spirits of mortals could reach ascension. The Well of Souls turned black and became a maw of all-consuming hunger instead of a font of life-affirming radiance.

Though most of the early Barsam believed some version of this tale, they (not unlike the Loroi) were a warrior culture that was locked in an endless cycle of violence, stagnated in a late medieval technological era. Then a rebirth occurred, driven by the spread of a new form of this religion, the most enduring sect of which was led by the prophet Onzir Eutuno. The prophet taught that though the gate to heaven was closed and the connection to the Gatherers broken, it could be restored by embracing the Gatherers' principles of peace and brotherhood and living by reason and love instead of anger and hatred. This new faith swept across Justa, spread by its wandering troubadour-clerics (sometimes peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully), and became dominant in almost every Barsam subculture. In subsequent generations it became codified as a formal church.

As the Barsam advanced technologically and discovered evidence of the ancient precursor empires of the Fenrias, Dreiman and Soia, and learned of their biological connection to the Loroi and Neridi, everything seemed to reinforce the truth of their faith. Modern church scholars have expanded the core myth to a galactic scale, identifying the Gatherers with the Soia, and their servants with the Soia-Liron and Dreiman. Even the telepathy of the Loroi seemed to confirm the tenet that all intelligent minds share the same soul, and are connected with each other on a fundamental level. The discovery of the mysterious supermassive stellar remnant spinward of Historian territory was quickly identified with the mythical Well of Souls, the point of entry and egress of the Gatherers to and from their angelic dimension.

Barsam religion forbids killing and capital punishment, but (as with most Christian nations) this hasn't stopped them from fighting in their own defense when they feel it's necessary. Some sects forbid the taking of any life and promote vegetarianism, but the mainstream denominations mostly accept that the Soia provided domestic food animals for a reason. There is no "hellish" underworld nor any personification of evil; most Barsam believe that evil is the failure of good people to live up to their potential and obligations.

The Barsam have many religious texts, but their preachings are mainly vocal and musical; sermons and prayers are sung. The traditional instrument of the wandering troubadour-cleric is the stringed getch, which resembles a large cross between a banjo and a koto. Clerics can be easily identified by noting the spikes on their heads which have been ritually filed down to remove the dangerous points.

Is it unified or is it split up on several variants that hate each other and throw blasphemer and infidel accusations around? Are there militant variants? Are there those that only use it as a source of philosophy and actually ignore the religious part? And how popular is it, in any variant among non barsam? Is it open for non Soia-Liroin species and if so do template species have special place in the faith?

There is an orthodox version of the church that is centralized and state-sanctioned; however, there are numerous alternate sects. Some lean towards the fundamentalist and extreme, and some lean toward the casual and philosophical. The official doctrine of the orthodox church (in the modern era) is to promote its own canonical doctrines, but to be as inclusive of variant interpretations as much as is possible. The church aims to gain alien converts, and so it must try to be flexible. Doctrinal disputes are vigorously argued, but violence in the modern church is excessively rare.

The church is open to all sentients, regardless of origin. There is only one known "template" species, being the Barsam themselves. The Barsam do view themselves and other Soia-Liron species as "special," but only in a sense of increased responsibility to be an example and spread the word of peace and brotherhood. (Even in Judeo-Christian theology, "angels" are servile creatures, despite being powerful and immortal, and are of lower status than the mortals who they are charged with watching over and protecting.)

The Barsam church has some adherents among the other Union races, but they are a minority.

Has the Barsam religion encountered any other religions that conflict with it? And if so how have they been met?

Similar in some ways to early Christian and Buddhist missionaries, the Barsam church tries earnestly to reinterpret foreign belief systems in ways that are compatible with the Prophet's narrative. They try to ignore conflicts and find common points of agreement. In many starfaring cultures, religion and superstition are waning, rather than waxing. The Barsam religion is one of the few that seems to gain strength with new discoveries, rather than being threatened by them.

See also: Races of the Loroi Union and Allies, Precursor Empires