Prologue: Revolution

The boy made his way hesitantly through the darkened alleys, a single step at a time, arms outstretched to make sure he did not stumble or trip over any piece of the strange, assorted junk that littered the streets. He was clad in a high-collared silvery gray coat, with fancy embroidery on the sides, a mark of his high family standing - surely an oddity in this backward area of the city of Magalia. A moan to his right drew his attention to a pile of rags, with a browned and dirt-stained area that just might have qualified as a human face.

"My lord... Have pity, my lord..."

The boy backed instinctively away from the beggar, wondering if every single street he crossed would have someone like that on it. The world was far different here than his father would have him believe. But not Hedrik. Certainly Hedrik wanted him to learn that even in a single city, there was not a single way of life. Poverty was a disease that struck the entire world - or perhaps it was wealth and luxury that was the disease. There was a lesson in this somewhere, else why would Hedrik have summoned him here? The boy went over the instructions in his head one more time - he was to meet his teacher in a shady tavern with a name that he was not supposed to understand. His father would certainly not approve.

That was part of the reason that the boy smiled as he approached the crudely drawn sign of a woman, bending over and holding an overflowing mug of beer in her hand, outstretched towards the prospective customer in the street. Alcohol and women... The boy was near ten years old - he had not yet had time to acquire the taste for either.

The air as he entered the tavern was a sudden blast of heat into the cool, but comfortable, night. The scent of sweat and hot food and beer and laughter was quick to come to him. Raucous cheers and jeers crashed out like waves from the bar stools at the bartender and the serving waitresses. A few casual glances turned in his direction, most of them staying not on the boy, but on his fine coat. Panic rising into him, the boy licked his lips and chanced another glance around, his heart beginning to beat faster and faster.

"Best watch yourself, Amros." The voice almost made him jump out of skin, but then the recognition started in, and he turned around. It was Hedrik, certainly enough, though his face was gleaming and his white hair looked even more thin and unruly. His pale eyes, shining with barely veiled drunkenness and looking for danger. "There are men here who would slit your skinny little throat just for a piece of that jacket of yours."

"Then why did you tell me to bring it, Hedrik?"

A short glance of unsteadiness, then a booming laugh. "You are learning, my boy. Your father would not be proud, but you certainly are learning. I told you to wear it because, for every man here willing to kill you for it, there are two men who are smarter and will want to ransom you to your father if something happens to me." He snorted. "Then they'd keep the jacket afterwards."

"Nothing is going to happen, is it?" Amros asked, his dark blue eyes opened wide in anticipation and excitement.

"On the contrary, my boy. Just sit down, grab a mug of whatever it is you children drink these days, and watch. And learn, of course. Make sure to keep quiet and only to speak when I introduce you. Remember everything I have taught you, for it will be used tonight."

Amros nodded, one of the first lessons that Hedrik had taught him glittering in his mind. 'Do not ask questions, for answers are often better learned later.' He pressed down the sudden urge to leap up and run away. He trusted his teacher, despite all of his unorthodox methods of imparting knowledge.

Soon enough, a man came into the tavern who was sufficiently different from any of the other street scum inside of it. He was dressed much the same as they were, in bare rags and scraps of better clothing. What distinguished him was the way he walked, with a majesty that belied his obvious low birth - that and the shining, sharp sword that hung at his waist. A cry of greeting rang out from the men at the bar, from the bartender, from the serving waitresses, and even from Hedrik. Amros looked around, nervous, but still did not join in the greeting.

"My brothers," the man exclaimed, extending his hands in a greeting that embraced all, "I come to you the bearer of good news. The men of the streets have gathered under our banners, we have armed them, prepared them for the coming fight. Magalia will fall within a week, the corruptness cleansed from our beautiful city. And those who recognize corruption have joined our cause, and we will root out all traitors from our midst." He motioned over to where Hedrik sat with Amros. "Hedrik Mersal, the greatest hero of the Fourth Great War, the High Lord of the Vardrim, has agreed to stand behind our cause in regaining Magalia. For it was taken from us, as we all agree."

A resounding cheer went up from every man in attendance. Amros found it hard to go against the tide this time, and he feebly gave a small cry. Nobody noticed.

"And now, coming to our cause on the very eve of its execution, is High Lord Valyn Ratiir of the Skaelim. He has pledged to bring his men to our side. The streets will run with the blood of corruption, until our entire city is purged!"

"First our city, and then the world!" Came the uniform response from the men at the bar stools. But Hedrik's pale blue eyes, showing the drink more than they had before, became wild suddenly, and he turned to Amros, whispering.

"Valyn will betray us, my boy. Count on it - remember what I told you about the Skaelim. Poisonous vipers, the lot of them, and Lord Ratiir more than most. We'll just have to make our move before he does." With that, the General stood up and cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Loram, may I have a word with you?" The man with the regal bearing made his way towards Hedrik's table, stopping in front of it with a questioning expression on his face.

"Is this the boy you wanted me to meet? Why couldn't you tell me about...?" The man stopped, his eyes widening at the sight of the embroidery on Amros's jacket. "The age, the coloring... this is the eldest son of Zandros Eldairen, is it not?"

"None other," Hedrik said. "He has the potential to be greater than his father, and I am teaching him in my methods, but I fear that his talent has not yet completely manifested itself. All of my teachings have been imparted to him. He will be able to use all of the knowledge as soon as he reaches his full potential," he poked Amros insistently, "and if he practices, of course."

"So, the two of you are going to attempt to call in reinforcements, correct?"

"Yes, only... I find your lack of belief in my skills somewhat humbling. You know as well as I that we have no need for Valyn. He will almost certainly betray us, and even if he does not, that man lusts after power. He would throw you down as soon as you came into power. Let me kill him. We would be doing the world a favor."

Loram sighed. "I know we would. But... we need men like him once we cut the other corrupt men down to size. This boy's father, he is a good man, but must do the best he can surrounded by incompetents. He will see reason, and join us once we succeed, but the other High Lords are far too consumed within their own pride to do anything but die screaming. You will remain Protector of the Vardrim, and I will take the City. Eldairen can have the rest of his damned district if he wants it. But do you expect me to let even one of the drunks here govern the northern regions, or even the smallest and most insignificant of the islands? No, I need men like Valyn, however despicable they may be. If it makes you feel more comfortable, once our cause has succeeded, I will send him as far away from me as possible." With that, Loram stood up and left them. "Call in what help you can, but do it quickly, stealthily, and soon."

Hedrik sighed at the retreating figure, and then turned to his student. "This revolution will not succeed, Amros. I can see it now, but I will not fight it. Loram's plan will work fine enough if we have the fortune to overthrow the government, but Valyn will betray us to them, if he hasn't done it already. Be prepared, boy. Remember everything I have taught you, and practice it avidly. If you remember, you will become a force to be reckoned with if ever an enemy should threaten us."

"But you will die, and where will that leave me?"

"We will see what the future holds, Amros. Have you remembered none of my lessons? Do not question the future, for its outcomes are many and varied. Do not dwell on it. Let us finish our work here, and be gone."

Amros nodded, and followed Hedrik as the General stood up and walked through the back door of the tavern, into a moist, nondescript alley outside. He stood up straight and watched as the older man, merely a shadow in the half-light of the moon, began to make ghostly motions with his hands, muttering under his breath in a surreal tongue. Amros could understand a few of the words that his teacher spoke - had used many of them in his own spells. But the complexity of the commands he yelled, the odd placement of adjectives and nouns, and the chaotic rhythm all contributed to the skills that Hedrik must have had in order to use this spell. It was a summoning - and judging from the length and sound of the incantation, the creature that it would produce must be beyond his imagining...

Then, a humming noise filled the air, and a thousand insubstantial daggers of wind flashed past his skin, across his skin, through his skin. Soon, though he was not sure when, there were two shapes beside him in the small alley. One was human, and the other... was humanoid, at least, in that it had two arms and two legs. That was where the similarities ceased.

About a head taller than Hedrik, the creature's height was extended further by two long, thin horns that extended from its head. From where the moonlight touched its eyes, a green glow reflected inwards, towards the eye. Two immense wings stretched out behind its back, symmetrical in every detail that he could see in the night. The face was long, stretched out, as if the mouth was infinitely stretched into a scream of horror and a grin of ecstasy. The legs were muscular, as were the arms, though both seemed to be covered in a hard, chitinous exoskeleton.

"You call me from the other world, General Hedrik Mersal. Why?" The voice was grating, inhuman, and the mouthparts did not move in any semblance of the human mouth.

"I have called you to serve me, and to obey my every command until my death."

"And by what right do you do this?"

"By the right that my power is greater than yours." And the struggle began. The power all but flew out of both of the combatants, visible to Amros, but to nobody else. He realized with a start that Hedrik was masking the energy output, and in doing so drastically reducing his own strength.

Amros was so intent on the fight unfolding before him that he barely noticed the mental tug. Lend me your strength, Amros.

Amros let the magic flow through his blood, where it belonged, and released it through the mental connection into Hedrik. A sudden burst of power, and then it was near over. "I will surrender to you, General Hedrik Mersal, and your apprentice, Amros Eldairen. I am Baen. Tell me what you would have me do."

There was a short silence, in which some excess power floated through the air. Then Hedrik spoke up. "We would have you..." He was cut off with a gurgle. And then Amros realized why.

A sharply curved sword had appeared through the neck of his teacher, and carved its way down in a sea of blood and gore that drained the life from Hedrik Mersal in an instant. Behind the blade was a sweating face on a thin framed body that Amros recognized easily. "I... I claim you for my own, Baen. On the grounds that my power is greater than yours."

There was no mask this time, and the killer, though he was less strong than Hedrik had been with a mask on, must have won out easily against the tired creature. It was finished in moments. "I surrender to you, High Lord Valyn Ratiir. My will is bound to yours. What would you have me do?"

"I would have you destroy this so-called revolution. Preferably before it takes the lives of any of my associates." With a screech, the creature was off, and Valyn was alone with Amros and Hedrik's body. He kicked the corpse once. "Bloody fool. Now, I suppose, they will make me the High Lord of both the Vardrim and the Skaelim." A blood-crazed smile crossed his face as he turned to Amros, his cold green eyes shining malevolently.

"You have been a naughty boy. Whatever will your father think?"

* * *

The council of High Lords sat at a rounded table, a half-circle of thirteen faces as different as the lands they came from. Some faces old, some young, others ageless. Skin tones ranged from corpse-pale to cream to darkened copper to jet black. At the far ends of the table, as far away from each other as possible, sat the two representatives from the powerful states called Netralia and Seralia. Though its people looked and spoke the same, any man who came between them was as good as dead. The Blood Border, defined in some places by walls, others by manned towns that switched hands periodically, and still others just an imaginary line, separated the two nations from one another. The ocean separated them from the rest of Amros's world, a vast desert from the rest of the massive continent that they lay on. Two men, both middle-aged with brown hair specked with gray, one with a long mustache, looked uneasily at each other, then at the boy.

Each of the lesser islands had a representative as well. The small nation of Palia, sitting on the slope of a volcano, served as weapon smiths to every one of the states in the alliance, though their inability to expand their population or borders hindered their participation in any war. A man, skin black as jet, with broad shoulders and a pockmarked face looked at Amros with something like pity. The glacier island housed the only non- humanoid Lord on the council. The lord of the Barrians was as tall as the tallest man in the hall, and almost twice as broad. His blue-furred, feline face gave no distinguishable emotion away, though his claws dragged at the wood of the glossy table.

In stark contrast to the Barrians was the female representative from the Thousand Islands. Elected from the largest of the islands in their area, the barbaric folk of the Thousand Islands were often at war with one another, but the world did not trouble itself with their small conflicts. The woman was the youngest of the council, with a light coppery face and a figure that the table did nothing to hide. She looked at him appraisingly, with pencil-thin raised eyebrows.

The Herbim were human, though they were the closest to a different species in the Great Alliance besides the Barrians. Their representative had dull green hair, long, pointed ears, and his face was wrinkled with signs of extreme aging. Deep in the creases, Amros thought he saw traces of bright green. The man looked at him with something like pity, then Amros moved on. The Thunderian representative, one of the order of Mystics who were born, lived, trained, and died in the Tower of Meksa, was even older than the Herbim. What was left of his hair was stringy and white, and his skin was speckled with age. Unlike the other old man, however, he looked at Amros as if he were a hardened criminal who should be killed for his crimes.

Closest to the center of the table were the six seats for the two main continents. The seat for the central north, the Selons, was occupied by a woman whose age was indeterminate - in fact, she was so pale that she looked almost like a corpse. Her dead, ashen eyes missed nothing. Amros shivered, and looked to the chair two seats from the center, and caught his breath at the sight of the Naeon chair. Where the attractiveness of the lady from the Thousand Islands was flaunted with little care, the Naeon looked more like a pure and beautiful angel. A cold-eyed angel, though. General Jeska e'Ara had probably killed more men than he could count. He gazed at her pure white wings, rising several feet above her head, and shut his eyes tightly, hoping to keep the image ingrained in his head. The chair for the northwest was occupied by a short man past just past his middle years - his hair was steel gray, and numerous scars were present on his face. The number of scars, both on his face and on his hands, showed that he must be of high standing among his people, the Graelim. Their struggles were waged in the mountain range and deep caves that housed numerous beasts. Their valiant defense had only failed once, and the Third Great War had resulted from it - lessons in history from his father and Hedrik flew through his mind, and although they were useless to him directly, indirectly they helped him keep calm, stop him from crying.

The two seats bordering the central chair, those of the Vardrim and the Skaelim, were empty, for completely different reasons. The Vardrim were the men of the Southeast, whom Hedrik had led until his death. The Skaelim lived in the northeast, and it was said that they were often affected by the presence of the Spires of Doom on their eastern border... Amros thought about Valyn with a shiver. The man was his prosecutor - he would do his best to get Amros killed for what he had seen. And nobody would believe him, that was certain, judging by the man in the central chair, who showed no emotion at all. Representing the Magalians was Zandros Eldairen, a father whose resemblance to his son was overlooked by none of the council. Amros wondered how horribly he had disappointed the old man. Their eyes met for a single moment, and his father turned away.

"I bring forth charges against the boy, Amros Eldairen, whose foolishness and involvement with the wrong men almost caused our demises. I accuse him of treason, collaborating with traitors, and his highly untrained use of unsanctioned magic in a summoning of a dangerous creature," Valyn began.

Amros interjected swiftly, angrily. "You were collaborating with them as well as I was! And I was trained by Hedrik Mersal, who did all of the summoning himself. The creature was not dangerous until you stabbed him in the back and almost let it loose!"

He could almost sense his father's stern gaze on him. The yelling that would follow would be something to hear, for certain. Valyn raised his voice. "How dare you accuse me of your treachery, boy? I killed Hedrik Eldairen, I admit, but it was due to circumstances that were out of my control. You were the one who spoke with him, aided him in his attempt to overthrow our government."

"Circumstances out of your control? Did your sword just fall out of its scabbard and through his throat?"

"I will ask the questions here!" The man fumed, his face reddening. "I..."

"You killed High Lord Hedrik Eldairen," came a voice that Amros had never heard before. From behind the Naeon's chair in the shadows came a figure, not of a Naeon, but of a human. "Therefore I charge you with high treason, High Lord Valyn."

"Jales? What are you doing?" There was genuine shock on the man's face. "You... you cannot..."

"You should have brought him for a fair trial, Valyn. All three of us fought together once, and I would have no qualms about killing either of you after a fair trial, but you stabbed him from behind! Where is your honor?"

"This is not my trial!" Valyn screeched. "It is the boy's! Sentence him, and then move on to me."

Amros's father, his face devoid of all emotion, spoke quietly with the man who had accused Valyn for a few moments, then nodded. His eyes were cold, as they had to be in this proclamation. "Amros Eldairen, I hereby pronounce you guilty of unwitting conspiracy. The sentence is five years of exile from Magalia. Accommodations will be made for you due to your high birth, and when the sentence is complete you may return to the city."

What would Hedrik have wanted him to do? Certainly not to suffer the disease of the rich. Amros weighed his words carefully. "I do not want your pity," Amros's voice was almost as dead as Zandros's, but it cracked halfway through. "I will make my own accommodations if it please you, father. And if five years pass and I do not return... With your leave," he bowed slowly, "High Lord Zandros."

He stood and left.

In a week, he would be ten years old.

***

"The time has come, Valyn. Your time is up."

"Was it an even trade, Zandros?" The pale man asked, brushing a strand of well-oiled black hair behind his ear. "The life of your son for my own?"

Zandros Eldairen picked up Valyn and hurled him bodily against a wall. "Treason was his crime, as was yours. Yours simply ranked higher than his."

Valyn laughed. "It is a sad system of government where conspiring to overthrow a government is less of a crime than killing one of its members - one of the conspirators himself."

"He is a child, you heartless corpse! And you know that you could easily have taken Hedrik in for trial, just as you did Amros. Did you enjoy killing him, was that why you chose to do it, even at the cost of your own life?"

"He was summoning a Blood Dragon! And the creature would have succeeded in destroying Hedrik were it not for your precious son, so innocent, so childish. So strong, like his father. Your son would have played a part in your death, for the creature summoned was half..." Valyn's eyes widened. "Half his..."

"Something you did not foresee, High Lord? I must send a message to the Skaelim, for they will be needing a new representative soon. I am afraid you will not live to see how your errors play out. I wish you the best of luck in the world beyond - you will certainly need it."

Valyn Ratiir's last words came with a twisted grin. "I hope your son feels the same way."

A single scream of rage rang through Valyn's chambers. Then there was a sudden spike of golden energy out of Zandros's hand, and it was over.

* * *

Jales Lairises made his way through the alleyways where the short-lived revolution had thrived for less than a month before it was snuffed out by Valyn Ratiir. Perhaps there were still some embers to be stamped out in the nights to come...

His attention was distracted by two keening wails from a gutter nearby. One was mournful and pain-filled, the other soft and innocent. Both came from the same spot, and though Jales would normally never stoop so low as to speak with peasants, this was an important job, and every little piece of information would count. The louder of the two voices belonged to a woman, old beyond her years, with hair streaked with white and gray that belied the youth of her face. Almost half of her teeth were missing, and the gaps in her smile at his approach were terrible to behold.

"Do you... do you come to aid me, my lord? You left me before, but I have borne you a lovely daughter. See? Do you see her?"

Jales looked into her feverish eyes and sighed. This woman would die soon, and her child soon after. He gazed at the young girl of eight or nine years, clad only in small rags that matched the torn fabric of the mother's clothes, and surprisingly intelligent green eyes matched his. The soft, downy black hair invited him to run a finger past it. And Jales Lairises, despite all of the tales that were told about his hard-heartedness, felt a strong pity. The child stopped crying.

"Do you see her, my lord? Is she not beautiful? And she has the potential to be powerful, as you are. The gift is hereditary, you know."

"Yes, I see her... But... I am not your lord."

"I know." Clarity overrode the fever for a moment, and the woman threw a hand to her daughter's neck and drew out a pendant, handing it to Jales. "You are not as terrible as he was. Take this, take the girl. Everything will be right with the world, soon. We will cleanse... we will cleanse the streets with the blood of corruption... My child was born of the flames of the revolution, the fires of liberation. She..." Jales felt something pressed into his hand, and he looked at it slowly, even as the hand that gave it to him became cold and limp and the child began to cry again. He stood up, turned away into better light, then thought better of it, pocketed the necklace the woman had given him.

The cries of the girl stirred his heart of stone yet again, and he trembled. He pulled the necklace out of his pocket, and looked at something that had to be a gift from the dead woman's terrible lord. Only a rich man could afford this little trinket...

The name inscribed on the back of the fiery red ruby said 'Erin Fale.' Jales closed his eyes, and turned around.

As he left the alleyway, an unforeseen weight - though not nearly as heavy as it should have been - in his arms, he sighed. "Well, Erin," he said, looking back at the alleyway, "I suppose we have a lot of work to do."