I.

Sunset bathed the city of Mirael in fiery light. The alabaster stones of the old city ruins shone like pearls from murky ocean depths. The dark stone of the new city was dust on the ancient foundations, appearing fragile enough to be wiped away in a single breath. The two cities separated at twilight, and Kameron Anton K'Cane, ruler of Dumaer and Tu'Miraet of the holy city of Mirael, had a moment of lucidity.

He stood upon a balcony that ran the length of the east wing of the Palace. It jutted above the cliff of the Imperial Isle, granting him an unequalled view. The mountains that cradled the city cut into the dying sun, and soon the shadows that stretched from their peaks would engulf the capital. The moment of illumination was brief and precious.

He reached out with the intention of stretching his aching joints. Every day his aches grew more severe and his breathing more labored. The other day he had collapsed in the middle of a council meeting. His supporters maintained that it was a temporary illness, but those closest to him knew that it was a longer form of death. Age was rapidly taking its toll.

Though the Tu'Miraetcy had not been his goal as a young man, he had adapted, and attempted to do his best for the city and the empire. As the king of a land rich in history, stretching back to the time the Ki'Doman, his duties weighed heavily on his shoulders.

No matter his aspirations for his beloved empire, the decline was unstoppable. Every day was spent trying to recreate the glories of days past, the age of Liman the Strong and the uniting of the six nations. The council members and their houses spent so much time fighting, they did not know where past conflicts ended and present fights began.

Kameron only wished he could know for sure that he was not to blame. He had been from Cane before taking the throne: a region known for impulsive judgment. At the time of his ascension, it seemed to the council that an intuitive leader was necessary. Had they judged wrong?

They were all long deceased now, far past susceptibility to questioning. He glanced down once more at his wraith-like hands. Soon he would join them.

Loraile appeared at his side. She was as silent as a ghost when she wanted to be.

"You should be in bed, sire."

"Loraile," he began. "You must call the council."

She waited patiently for an explanation.

He looked out at the city once more. The shadows had spread to obscure the entire circumference, and now ate their way to the center, to him. This was right. It needed to be done, and with all due speed.

"It's time to call for an heir."

II.

A week later

"Milord! Milord!"

Duke Edward Julian K'Lumar raised his head to look expectantly at the entry flap of his tent. He heard a torrent of words outside the stretched hide. Seconds later, the guard poked his head within.

"Messenger from the Redford encampment, sir?"

It had been weeks since the last message. Julian would damn well welcome news.

"Let him in."

The guard stood back, and a messenger dressed in the standard Dumaer browns stepped inside.

"Milord," he began, with a belated bow. "I bring news from Mirael."

Julian took the scroll from the messenger's outstretched hand and unrolled it on his traveling desk. It was a handbill, and looked as if it had been ripped from a wall.

Urgent

To the people of Mirael and representatives of the six nations:

It hath been resolved, on the third day of the fourth quarter, by the full council of Dumaer and his majesty Lord Tu'Miraet, Kameron Anton K'Cane:

The call for an heir hath been issued. Any man or woman of Dumaer blood and good standing may stand as candidate for the house of their belonging. The Tu'Miraet will be decided in less than a year's time by the full council.

Blessed be the six.

Julian paused, then crumpled the paper in his hand. Damn spies. He should have known a week before the notices were posted.

"Milord?" the messenger asked.

"Go," he murmured, motioning towards the tent-flap.

The candidacy process of the Dumaer was both complex and utterly chaotic to the untrained eye. The capital, Mirael, would come close to complete anarchy. There would be conflict within the houses, between the houses, and occasionally, between the nations they represented. Mirael itself would be ripe for the picking. The Impyran forces would be salivating. Julian had enough work as it was, keeping them away. While they had withdrawn for a period of civil war after the death of the Impyran emperor, they still posed a constant threat at the northern border, where he was stationed. The last thing he needed was for the little unity Dumaer possessed to dissolve.

Mirael, the center of the six united nations, consisted of six diplomatic houses: Rain, Wind, Flame, Land, Shadow, and Light. The Tu'Miraet was the center of the center, so to speak. A representative elected by representatives. Each of the houses would choose a candidate, who would seek the support of other houses. The Greater Council, which in turn was comprised of representatives of the six nations, would elect the Tu'Miraet from those six candidates. However, the only powers keeping each council member from simply voting for their own house was trust and the bullying of the larger houses. It never had never resulted in outright war, but it invariably came damn close.

It reminded Julian of pampered hounds fighting over a bread crumb; the Tu'Miraet only had an equal vote with the council in most matters. While Julian spent every day beating away the Impyr curs, his work was undone by the quarrelsome fools in the capital. Julian felt something drive into the soft skin of his palm. He opened his fist to reveal a cracked quill. Coldly, he withdrew the point from his flesh and silently chastised himself for his clumsiness.

While the Impyr were a godless bunch, they understood leadership. One, strong emperor was what Dumaer needed. The six nations had to embrace unity in truth as well as spirit, or it was only a matter of time before they fell. Julian had no intention of letting that occur.

He crumbled part of the quill between two fingers. The ascension would be a time of change, of doubt and rivalry. The Impyr would attempt to use it to their advantage. So would Julian.

III.

In the depths of Mirael, another man read the fateful handbill. Attached was a letter in flowing script:

It is time for the plan to be set in motion. Make the first move.

The note finished with an H, just as his employer always signed these secret missives. As he read the choppy lines for the hundredth time, he began to chuckle. He was blessed to live in this time! To repeat the glorious past and to be the hand that opened the gateā€¦ it was what his due, but pleasing none the less.

He tucked the letter into his cloak and strode through the sepulchral catacombs, torch in hand. The city was riddled by ancient tunnels. He explored sometimes, for the thrill of climbing up into someone's wine cellar. Sometimes he surprised people in their beds. He began to smile as he walked, a savage grin.

Kennick, for that was sometimes his name, gathered his cloak and ducked into the small passageway. It opened into a dome-roofed cavern, already lit by the flickering tongues of torches. As he emerged, several robed figures turned to meet him. All shared a look of eager anticipation.

"Is it time?" a smaller man asked him.

"Patience," Kennick responded. He stepped around the man and towards the center of the room. As he approached, robed figures moved away to reveal the captive.

It was a boy, tied and gagged. A lordling from the House of Light. Kennick would have liked to have the father rather than the boy, but orders were orders, and his employer wanted the son. He reached down and ran a finger through the boy's perfectly trimmed curls. A pair of terrified blue eyes looked up to meet his. Kennick slipped a finger beneath the boy's chin, tilting his face upwards.

He could feel the room draw a collective breath. Kennick smirked. Fools, all of them. They could not understand the magnitude of what was to occur any more than an ant could understand a thunderstorm. The boy continued to tremble in his hands.

"Shh," he murmured. "Shh. Would you like to go home, pretty?"

The boy nodded, a panicked convulsion.

Kennick released him and straightened.

"Gather, brethren," he spoke. There was a slight shifting of position, and the robed figures formed a circle around him.

"Has the gate been drawn?" he asked of the room.

There was a collective "Yes."

"The ritual words said?"

"Yes."

"The pure blood given?"

The group shifted, not knowing where he proceeded with this line of inquiry.

"No," answered a lone female voice.

"Well then," Kennick concluded, turning back to the boy. He drew his knife, a decadent gesture. "I'm afraid we must detain you, pretty, and most likely, you won't be going home at all."

Three hours later, as the boy took his last, gurgling breath, Kennick wiped his knife clean on the silken cloth of his tunic.

"Sir, all is ready," the same female voice told him. He looked up but could not distinguish the speaker from the crowd.

"Very well," he responded as he sat up from the red-stained floor. He picked up an equally crimson bottle and turned towards the chalk circle. His smile grew wider as he paced the outside, pouring out the bottle's contents. The blood mingled with the chalk, blurring the rings and soaking into the dirt floor. As he came to the end of the circle, the tension in the room was a tangible weight. He paused, laughing at the fools who doubted in the power of the old. Soon, soon, the loyal would be distinguished from the sheep.

And with that consoling thought, he tipped the bottle to release the last two drops upon the floor. As the second touched, a wave of energy burst forth from the circle like a ripple in a pond.

When Kennick opened his eyes he lay upon the floor, some distance from where he had been standing. He scrambled up immediately, madly giggling. As he half-ran, half-crawled to the circle, he saw that the dust of the floor had begun to turgidly churn. It was not all that was needed, but it was a beginning. Oh yes, it was a beginning.