It was that horrible time of winter when the charm of snow was long gone leaving nothing but gray hazards and bone-rattling cold. In the outer reaches of the kingdom of Peh, on the tip of land where the Ancients first took to shore, sat the grand city of Suem. The city was old. Older than snow, older than the Kingdom, and even older than the humanoid race that currently ruled it. The oldest frescos displayed in the great library depict Suem as an ocean front settlement on the edge of a tropical rain forest.
Now it sat, miles inland, on a peninsula between Lomarg and Salkon rivers. The breezy homes of the first peoples clustered on the tip of the peninsula and faced the wild rapids where the two rivers met. The rest of the city emanated from that point in a predictable grid of streets, with each new ruling race building a new part of the city. Through evolution, climate change, wars and even nation building, the city remained a revered place for all inhabitants of the world of Ehca.
The current nobility were a hardy humanoid group called the Pehen that had wandered down from the Peh Mountains just as the world was beginning to cool. Their sheer numbers had shifted the power balance permanently and soon they were issuing orders from a hulking palace in what was now the center of the city. They ruled for over three million years until others of their own kind had come to make war and folded the City into a thing called a kingdom. The capital of this kingdom was far to the west, so life went on without much change for another two million years. Then snow came.
Not only did snow make everything more scarce, it caused the crown of Peh to fear the great city in the east. Tariffs and embargos were created to rob the city of its great wealth, but the ancient tides of commerce could not be stemmed. Codes and purges were declared to clear out the non-Pehen, but they were not enforced. Siege engines were brought to the gates time and again only to roll away when the spring floods took the camps. Ten million years later, the city was finally ready to fall. It was being done in, for the most part, by its own secrets and betrayals.
A bronze woman with a large cloud of raven hair raced through the grid of streets heading out of the city’s heart toward the western wards. The long cloak flapping in her wake was made of heavy green velvet and her leather-shod feet took every turn with confidence and determination. A year earlier, her dash might have caused a stir, but in this tumultuous time, she was just another figure trying to get home before the city’s new sunset curfew.
Except she was not just any woman, she was princess Kilandra of the house of Kaitin and she was betraying her family and the crown. The woman’s eyes stayed fixed on the setting sun as she crossed the Lomarg river into West Suem. She could already hear the screams of those behind her who had been caught in the encroaching dark by the darkness itself. Such were the nights since a careless word spoken by her own brother, Prince Kaimarg XXXIV, had revived long forgotten evil.
Kilandra slipped on a patch of hardened snow and slid into the wide boulevard. There was no need to fear being trampled; the large swath of limestone was empty save for a few stray animals. She looked back at the palace sitting at the end of the rod-straight street. How many times had she ridden down this very way waving to the throngs of her father’s subjects? Kilandra hopped up and continued her mad dash down the center of the street. She felt a bit safer since these wards had long been the realm of wizards, but she did not want to test her suspicions just yet.
She darted off the main boulevard and found her destination just as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. She gave a quick series of knocks then squeezed through the cautiously cracked door. The pale-faced servant eyed her suspiciously, but did not speak.
“I am here to see the master of Willowford Hall,” the princess said and fixed her fingers in a position to indicate that she was a student of the Willow Wand. The servant nodded and led her to a small room off the entryway. Kilandra sat in a careworn chair and eyed the sigils swirling across the walls. She strained to remember her old lessons, but could only decipher a few of the carvings. As she waited, she got the distinct feeling that she was being spied upon. She did not bristle, in these dire times, even the royal palace took extra precautions with unannounced visitors. A short while later, a young man with wide, soft Pehan features and the airy, silver mane of the first peoples stepped into the room. He waited for her to show her respects to his position, but Kilandra simply stared.
“You aren’t Onid,” she finally blurted. Suddenly, the great plan that drove her whole journey shattered.
“Onid is no longer master of this hall,” the man said solemnly and continued to wait for her bows and incantations.
“What I have must be given only to Onid,” Kilandra huffed and moved to leave. She realized her mistake a moment too late.
“Boc erul!” he cried, declaring a challenge, and drew his wand. The long spike of willow wood was thick and stained dark with the blood of individuals with greater magical abilities than Kilandra. The woman debated weather or not to identity herself or even to state that she was unarmed. Unfortunately, her silence was seen as acceptance and the room began to buzz as the wizard drew on the energy to blast her to tiny bits.
“Ko Ahniva,” she said calmly and the room filled with a cool blue glow. A line of the ghosts of her immediate ancestors stood between her and the wrath of the offended master.
“Princess Kilandra!” a voice just on the other side of the carved walls called. Onid, the former royal tutor and the greatest wizard ever to rule any of the magical halls, dashed into the small space a moment later prompting the younger wizard to lower his wand.