Five thousand years ago, the world was changed through the Event. Where once man stood alone, now the world of Domak contains races of nightmarish creatures, transformed from the very humans themselves. Fire, plague, famine and war rocked every land, every nation, and every people. Through these ravages, no trace was left of its cause. The Event was a natural disaster on a global scale, or at least, that was the common belief.
Unknown to the world, forces have gathered to bring together the only link to The Great Event, the one record of the cause of untold destruction, Eliogam's Cipher. People have been silently disappearing into the night, objects stolen without a trace, all to further the strange goal of this cabal: to bring back the Event.
The power to change the world is at stake, but what does it have to do with the heir to an imperial throne, and the shadowy stranger sent to capture them?
Chapter 1 - The Jewel of the Desert
The sun had just about reached it's zenith, and below, the marketplace still buzzed with the excitement of bargains and the final preparations for the coming festival. Tomorrow would be the summer solstice, a day of celebration for the people of the desert nation of Daru. The capital city of Sotem, known as the Jewel of the Desert, with its magnificent spires and towering walls, was soon to become the center of all attention tomorrow, when the celebrations for one of the most holy of days would begin.
However, tomorrow was doubly important, for not only would there be jubilation and festivities for the worship of the sacred sun, but it was also the day that the late Emperor's first-born would reach the Age of Adulthood. The beloved princess would finally become old enough to take upon herself the mantle of Empress of the Realm, and hopefully bring about an age of stability and prosperity for the desert-nation.
The loss of the previous Emperor had been sudden and unexpected, and left the empire in a state of shock and disarray. Tensions from the aftermath of the Island Wars had not yet had time to bury themselves and emotions still ran high among those powers involved. The High Council of the Darunian Empire had every good reason to believe that a former enemy could take advantage of a lost leader and invade. Though with no living relatives to succeed him - his wife, the Empress Loya, having died due to complications while giving birth, and his newborn daughter not yet old enough to speak, much less lead - the Council was forced to appoint a Regent. General Rotan, who had remained fiercely loyal to the Emperor in life, now sat upon the throne, anxiously awaiting the coming of this day.
He had led the successful defence of Daru when the Island Wars spilled over to his homeland, and had even attained the position of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy when it was discovered that his military prowess was not limited by coastlines. He commanded the successful Northern Campaign that eliminated the last of the Treason; an immense army which had fiercely opposed the Imperial Throne for hundreds of years, and finally achieved the unification of the continent. Most impressive was the fact that he had never lost a battle, and every battle won was against impossible odds. It was he alone, whom had transformed the oft pitied and laughable Darunian Empire into a force to be reckoned with. Time and again he had been called the greatest warrior and strategist to ever tread the sands of the Dune Ocean.
But never before had Rotan been as anxious as he was today.
He decided for the third time today to double the guards around the Palace. Rotan had considered his Regency as just one more in a line of sacred duties for his Emperor. He took pride in himself for never failing his master, and he was going to make sure that his last request would be fulfilled. Lira will be crowned Empress, and he would grant her his full support. He would make sure that the new Empress was received well and above all, safe. All he had to do was wait just one more day…
He shook himself of his anxiety, and realized that he had walked into the War Room. He looked around at the familiar space. In the center of the perfectly square chamber was a large stone platform, with enough room for many commanders and advisors to gather around and obtain a clear view of the top of the platform. Various engravings of battles and warriors clad in splendid armour lined the sides of the raised platform. The platform was used to support the Maps. Painstakingly carved representations of battlefields, the Maps were a secret art of the Desert Seers. Rotan approached the platform and recognized the landmarks of Daru. From the corner of his eye he caught a specific carving; it was his own image, adorned in great, magnificent armour that he would never in actuality have worn while at war. He shook his head slightly then looked over the Map. The magically enchanted Map showed the entire continent's environment to incredible detail.
As the wizened general glanced over the intricate designs, he counted off the locations he remembered from his various campaigns. He could not fathom the methods with which the Seers could make everything so realistic and miniature. He could see little waves crashing against Daru's rocky northern shore, and small patches of green in the desert where trees grouped together around scattered oases. Ocean spray shot up the cliff faces of the mountainous west coast, and reminded Rotan of the harsh conditions he and his men faced at sea. Even the minuscule shimmering spires of Sotem gleamed in the light of a small glowing yellow orb, which floated, suspended above the Map, along with another, silvery ball. I wonder if other nations are as vain as ours when it comes to war, pondered Rotan.
He knew that his mind was wandering, but at the moment he decided it best to allow his worried mind a little reprieve. He drifted back to memories of impossible victories, endless glory, and the friends with which he shared both. "It'll be all right", he reassured himself, "It always is."
The sound of several sets of footsteps shattered his reverie. Rotan quickly turned around as several men in long, flowing robes stopped at the large, open doors. The general recognized the figures immediately as the High Council members. Four men and a woman entered the room, each representing one of the major provinces of the fledgling Empire.
"Rotan! There you are! We have been searching for ages." The shortest one spoke loudly in a slightly whining tone. He was the youngest of the Council members, and represented the central province, including the capital itself. Though young, he was already showing signs of balding. He carried a look of impatience on his face.
"Councilman Fayus. Council members." Rotan acknowledged curtly. The general could already feel his nerves begin to grind when he heard the voice of the young Councilman. Representing the Central Province gave the man an impressive amount of power when it came to making decisions that affected the Empire; a fact that he often liked to flaunt in the faces of anyone who opposed him. "What do you need?"
"We don't need you for anything, thank you! You have served your purpose in the wars. However, because of my foolish predecessor, who had the unfortunate thought to appoint you, the Regent's presence will be required for the final amendments to the ceremony tomorrow." Fayus said, regarding the battle hardened general with much distaste.
Rotan did not retaliate. Indeed, he did not have to, as another of the Council members spoke up for him. His face was as ragged as the Northern Province which he represented. Sparse white hair covered his head and chin, and he spoke loudly so that his voice reverberated throughout the chamber, "Watch your tongue, Fayus! Show respect for your elders." He narrowed his eyes, then added, "And betters." Councilman Alde, much like the territory he represented, was not one for eloquence.
The young man did not turn to face his older counterpart. "I will see him for what he is: a relic. As are you, Councilman Alde. As was my predecessor. With some new blood on the throne, and perhaps the Council, we can truly make Daru great."
Before the white haired Councilman could respond with his own retort, the single woman among the group interrupted, "Councilmen! We have come here with purpose." Councilwoman Velant represented the Eastern province, which encompassed some of the more fertile lands of the Empire, as well as the largest ports of the continent. Her long black hair was tied back, and her skin was tinged with a deep tan, as though she had spent much time in the sun. "And I assure you, that purpose was not to bicker amongst ourselves. General Rotan, we require your presence and input for the final preparations for the ceremony tomorrow. If you would please come with us."
Rotan breathed in deeply. Every day was filled with the infighting and arguments of this council. Though the famed military commander had been appointed Regent, the council held the real power when it came to controlling the Empire. Rotan's inexperience in politicking only made matters harder as the council often fought over every proposal he made. The general found himself missing his younger days, when he had camped out under the stars, planning with his officers his next offensive. The life of a soldier was what he knew, and even as a leader of men, he knew where his officers stood. Rotan had learned to deal with them, but these Council members seemed to constantly change their stances and positions as it suited them. It is only a day longer, he reminded himself. Rotan hoped with all his heart that the young woman he had helped raise would be able to handle this Council far better than he ever could.
In her chamber, the Princess Lira was just as anxious as her guardian. Rotan had been the only real father she had ever known, and if there was one thing she had inherited from the famous strategist, it was his strong sense of duty. For years, her teachers had stressed the importance of her future role as Empress, but it had always seemed so far away. Now, with her coronation day away, the full weight of her position had fallen down on her. Will I be strong enough to lead the entire Empire? Am I ready to become the most powerful person in Daru? These thoughts and a hundred more raced through her head, even as her handmaidens tried to keep her mind and spirits off the all-important event.
"As I was saying, I was walking through the palace grounds the other day, when lo and behold I happen across a certain young guard who a certain young handmaiden quite fancies." Henya giggled as she looked over to Mani. The gossip was not new, although Henya loved to bring it up and watch Mani turn a bright shade of red.
"Oh hush, I personally have had enough of your incessant chattering about old gossip and worthless tidbits of what can hardly be called, 'news'," The tall, thin Kinai snorted.
"You hush, Kinai! So, what was the handsome devil up to this time?" The anxious Jana was always eager for a bit of gossip.
"Not too much in terms of physical activity - I had missed the morning training - though I must say he has the physique of a god, to be sure!"
"Nothing new there, is that all?" A slightly disappointed Jana interjected.
"Wait, wait, because the best is yet to come! I was just passing by when I just happen to overhear a very interesting conversation."
"By accident of course," interrupted Kinai, with a grin.
"Of course. In any case, they were just happening to be discussing various topics, not the least of which was that of the love life of a certain guard-who-shall-not-be-named." Henya was having a blast with this and took note that Mani had fallen dead-silent and was listening intently, her face red as a cherry.
"Really, and what happened then?" Jana quickly asked, wanting to hear the end.
"Oh, the poor man was teased and goaded by the other men until he answered their interrogation. It turns out that he actually does fancy someone in the palace," Henya paused to add some suspense, taking note that Mani was on the edge of her seat, "he wouldn't give a name, but he did say that she works in the upper levels of the palace and that her hair was a dark as a raven's feather-" It was at this point that there was an audible thud as Mani fainted. The other handmaidens as well as Lira helped her into Lira's bed and started to fan her, all the while laughing over the love-struck young woman.
Lira was happy that she had friends like these. Even though she would be seen by most of the world as a powerful, emotionless ruler, these handmaidens would always see her as one of them. They had been friends as far back as Lira could remember, and it seemed to her that they had changed little in the years they had shared. Henya was still the short, stocky, tough woman who knew every piece of gossip that came within the walls of the palace; her fire-red hair a testament to her wild demeanour. Kinai had always been the tallest, the thinnest, and the strictest of their circle. Lira often wondered how Henya and Kinai could get along, as they were exact opposites. Kinai always kept her dark brown hair in a tight bun, and coupled along with her tall stature, made her an imposing figure, and the closest thing to a mother that Lira ever had. She often wondered if it was because she was so tall that Kinai seemed older than she actually was. Jana was about the same height as Lira, but blessed - or cursed - with boundless energy and a penchant to get into trouble when they were younger. Her short auburn hair and freckles gave her an illusion of eternal childhood. Lira then glanced at Mani. Poor Mani, an incredibly shy young woman with the darkest hair Lira had ever seen. Mani was quite short for her age, and her withdrawn behaviour made her seem even smaller. It was too bad, because Lira had always thought that Mani was very beautiful, and that her only flaw was her lack of confidence.
Lira had stopped laughing and was looking around at her friends; they were the only ones she knew, besides Rotan. It was only these maidens who would tell her the truth when a dress made her look fat, or that she looked terrible in the mornings. As she looked around the room she caught her reflection in a large mirror on the other side of the room. Had she changed at all since she had met these wonderful people? She was often told that she looked just like her mother. Her long, golden hair fell down to the small of her back. Her small nose and high cheekbones had always reminded her of the portraits of her mother that she had seen around the palace, and, like her, Lira had inherited her ice-blue eyes. In Daru, blue was a colour of luck, as it symbolized water, a rare thing in the desert. Lira was not a superstitious person, as Rotan had taught her to be cynical of such things. It seemed even blue eyes could not save her mother from her fate.
The laughter had stopped and the other girls were watching Lira, as she seemed to be lost in thought. They did not wish to interrupt the princess's reverie, so they remained silent. It was only after several minutes that Lira realized the quiet and noticed that everyone had fallen silent. She quickly became embarrassed at having made her friends wait while she stared into nothing.
"Why did you all stop talking?" She asked.
"You seemed to be having some deep thought and we did not wish to disturb you, Princess" Kinai stated.
"Drop the 'Princess', we've known each other too long and too well," she hated when her friends referred to her by her title, even if it was just proper manners. It made her feel as if she was separate and different from them, when she wanted anything but.
"That's right, and besides, after tomorrow we'll have to call you Empress, eh?" Jana chirped, then followed with an over-emphasized bow.
"I just can't believe our Lira is going to rule all of Daru! It seems just yesterday that we got caught stealing treats from the kitchen!" Henya laughed.
"If I recall, it was yesterday" said Kinai, poking her robust friend's belly.
A new round of laughter filled the room, this time at Henya's expense.
"It's all going to be different after tomorrow, isn't it?" The small voice went almost unheard. The other girls looked over to see that Mani had revived. "Once Lira becomes Empress, she's not going to have time to spend with us like this." The silence seemed to affirm her statement. Each one of the girls was thinking about how everything would change. After all, Empress of the Realm is a huge responsibility, and even with Rotan's help, Lira would hardly have a moment to spare for a long while.
The time of their carefree childhood was coming to an end, and they had to face it. Lira especially had agonized over such things. These four were the only real friends she had ever known, the only family she had known, and she dreaded not being able to see them, but she had little choice in the matter. She had felt hopeless at her unalterable fate.
Jana was the first to break the silence, "Whatever comes may come, but it will come after tomorrow. We still have the rest of today. Let's go have some fun!"
"We can't, I have to meet Rotan at noon, we have to discuss the ceremony, then I have to meet with my bodyguard, then I have to go see the head Seer for who knows what. Oh, there's just so much to do."
"You could just 'forget' about your appointments."
"You must be joking! Rotan would be furious if I missed even one thing. And in the state he's in, I really don't want to agitate him further."
"Come on, this could be the last day we really have to spend time with each other!"
Lira sighed, "Even if I were to skip it all, the moment they realize I'm not there, they will scour the palace to find me, and then they will drag me back to Rotan."
After a moment of thinking, Jana's eyes narrowed and a sly grin spread across her face, "They'll scour the palace, but they'll never think to look outside the palace grounds-"
"Absolutely not!" Kinai snapped. "Lira has prior arrangements made which are of the utmost importance. I will not have you endanger Lira for some cheap thrill!"
"What danger? We could just go to the marketplace; we've been there enough times ourselves. Lira, you'll love it, there's so much to see: jewellery, trinkets, exotic clothes." The sheltered life of the only heir to the throne made certain that Lira never left the palace grounds, and she had always wondered what the city was actually like.
"There are also thieves, ruffians, and crooks abound." Kinai continued, "It isn't some game, there is real danger out there. Do you know what kind of trouble you'd get into when the General finds out?"
"What's he going to do? Forbid Lira from going to the ceremony? I believe that also goes in our favour." Jana laughed, "No crown means no Empress, and Lira gets to stay with us."
"You know how important tomorrow is, not just for Lira, but for the whole Empire! And I wasn't talking about Lira. Do you know what they'll do to you if they find out that you've taken the Princess outside the palace grounds?"
"They'll throw me in the dungeon?"
"At the very least! At this moment, you'd be lucky if you were not charged with treason!"
"Maybe it's a good idea to get her out," said Henya
"Oh not you, too!"
"Think about it Kinai, how do you expect Lira to rule all of Daru when she doesn't know anything about how the outside world really is?"
"She does know how the outside world is! I believe that was the entire point of her tutoring by Rotan and the wisest scholars in the Empire!"
"You can't expect that some old dodgers who've spent their whole lives cooped up in dusty libraries really know about the world the same way someone who's been there does."
"Besides, it's only the marketplace, it's not like we're leaving the continent." Jana added.
Knowing she was outnumbered, Kinai turned to Mani. "Surely you must be against this foolishness, Mani!"
Mani, still sitting on the bad, pulled her knees towards her chest and barely whispered, "Well-"
"You as well?!" Kinai interjected, "This is absolutely ridiculous and I forbid all of you from even thinking about leaving the palace grounds!" Kinai's face was steadily gaining a reddish hue as she tried to avert what she saw as a potential disaster.
Through the entire exchange, Lira let her mind go over the idea. Inwardly she smiled. While the palace had always provided whatever she wanted, she still had rarely ever stepped outside of its walls. The thought was exciting, to walk amongst the regular people. Since the deaths of her parents, and with no other relatives that could ascend to the throne, the High Council had been incredibly protective of Lira, and thus was even discouraged from staying outside for any extended periods. Besides the rare appearance up on the battlements, she had very little exposure to the world outside the palace walls. Rotan had always fought to give her more freedom, but like so many things, the Council fought him every step of the way. Her handmaidens brought up excellent points. Why shouldn't she have some fun before she would be forever trapped behind these palace walls? She couldn't possibly expect to rule over people when she had virtually no firsthand knowledge about how they lived, could she? It would be a disservice to her people. The young woman fought the grin that threatened to spread across her face. Lira made up her mind, "I think I would like to go." Lira said calmly.
"What?! But- What if- Do you- No! Lira, you cannot simply decide to leave the palace the day before your coronation! How would you even get into the marketplace, hmm? Just walk out the front gate?" The exasperated Kinai was fighting a losing battle.
"Exactly!" Jana answered "Well, maybe not the front gate. All we have to do is dress Lira like one of the servants here, and then just go out into the market. We can put her hair up and give her a bonnet or scarf or something."
"And what if questions are asked?"
"We just say we're running some 'errands for Princess Lira', or maybe we'll just say that we're going to go get Lira a coronation present. We can make it up as we go along! It's only a minor detail. Who is going to stop a bunch of maids going to market?"
The argument continued on, yet no matter how hard Kinai tried to reason with the other girls, their minds were already set. Lira thought about the day ahead. Sure, Rotan would be mad, but she deserved one trip to the marketplace before she would be crowned and forced to become ruler of an entire continent. Her sense of duty was becoming overwhelmed by childish fancies and reasoning, and she knew it. Surely it would be best to get these childish thoughts out of her head now rather than when she becomes Empress. She looked at her arguing friends and smiled, they needed Kinai to tell them just how stupid and reckless such a plan would be, it wouldn't be nearly as fun otherwise. Besides, the girls had gone through this song-and-dance before, eventually Kinai would go along with them, if only to make sure that 'nothing went wrong'.
The girls had gotten together a disguise for the Princess rather quickly. The disguise was made up of various clothes from the maidens' own wardrobes, with some minor alterations, as somehow everything seemed either too big or too small. In seemingly no time, Jana stated proudly that no one would have recognized the future Empress unless finely scrutinized, despite Kinai's constant worrying.
"There. Now let's get a good look at you….well, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were just another scullery maid!" Henya chimed happily.
"You must be joking, it is quite obvious that she is not 'just another scullery maid'. Just look at the way she stands, walks, moves. No one is going to be fooled." Kinai commented as she walked around her, inspecting every inch of her friend.
"So we'll just change that too. Lira, just bow your head a little, now, maybe hunch your shoulder forward a bit, don't be afraid to slouch," Jana suggested.
"Like this?" Lira did her best to follow the instructions. She hunched over, lowering her head and trying to make herself appear smaller.
"We want her to look like a servant, not some poor wretch about to be whipped. This will not fool anyone! We should stop this nonsense and make our way down to see the General. It is still not too late."
"Kinai, we are going to the marketplace." Lira stated as-a-matter-of-factly. "I'm not going to just abandon the plan now! I can either go with your help, or without it." She put her hands on her hips and smiled at her tall, worrying friend. "Though you know that I would much rather have you with me than not."
Kinai raised her hand to her head and rubbed her temples, "Honestly, you all will be the death of me someday. All right," she said begrudgingly, "Don't exaggerate so much. It makes you look like you don't belong."
After some time of adjusting poise and movement, even Kinai was satisfied that Lira could pass as a maid, if only barely. All that was left was a quick test before they would make their attempt. The girls took Lira down into the gardens, purposely walking near guards and other servants to see how they would react. When they were satisfied that no one paid any particular interest in Lira, they decided that the best way to get to the marketplace would be to go through the smaller side gates and go around the front of the palace. Once through there would be nothing between them and the market.
Lira was becoming more anxious every minute they remained in the palace grounds. The other girls had formed up around her, acting almost as a guard against prying eyes. Her own personal guard, Lira smiled, she'd not have any guards other than these four. The plan seemed to go too perfectly, no one stopped them, or spoke to them, at least not more than a passing greeting, or a whistle from one of the guards on duty, at least until they reached the last gate.
It was a small gate, normally used to receive smaller wagons carrying small loads, usually specialty or exotic items. Though it also served as the main passageway for servants and messengers to enter and leave the castle. There was a barracks located nearby, and the loud noise of drunken song could be heard from off-duty guards within. Standing before the gate were six guards, standing three to a side, their armour and helmets gleaming with the midday sun.
"Hold there!" one of the guards called out to the group. He was slightly shorter than the rest of the guards.
The girls stopped short of the guards, waiting to see if perhaps they had been found out. Jana spoke first, "And what seems to be wrong?".
"Nothing really wrong, except perhaps that you lovely ladies seem to be all alone on such a lovely day."
Lira quietly breathed a sigh of relief, they had not been found out. The guard continued, "Why not stay a while with us here ladies?"
"Aren't you on duty, soldier?" Kinai narrowed her eyes.
"Aye, that's true, but it's just so rare to come across such loveliness. So come, stay a while."
"We really shouldn't…" Mani managed to say.
"But where are my manners, of course you wouldn't stay with an unknown, shadowy stranger such as me! Allow me to introduce myself, I am Lieutenant Khasieu, my fellow guards and I have been assigned to this gate for the better part of the afternoon, and it would mean the world itself if we could have your wonderful company for the afternoon…and possibly further on."
The other guards chuckled at their Lieutenant's attempts. The girls were quite amused at the Lieutenant's flirtatious manner, but they had to get going.
"Well, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Khasieu, but unfortunately, we really must be going, we have quite a few errands to run in the marketplace and we are already late" Jana said, using her best impression of Kinai.
"I'm sure that your errands are not too great so as to be put in danger by the loss of at least one, how about you young lady? Would you be so kind as to keep a lonely soldier company during his assignment?"
Lira was caught off guard by the question, and was unsure of how to react, but luckily Henya stepped in.
"What's the matter, guard-boy, am I not woman enough for you?"
"My dear, I believe you are more woman than any of us can handle" One of the other guards began to laugh loudly.
"Well, I do believe that we should be on our way." Kinai interrupted the conversation.
"Come now, all we ask is for a little innocent female companionship. Surely you can indulge us with your lovely presence for a short while" persisted the Lieutenant.
"I don't think the General would be very pleased to know his soldiers were shirking their duties to chase a few skirts" Kinai replied harshly.
"I wouldn't call it shirking our duties if we all stay here; besides, the General isn't here, now is he?" Khasieu leaned in closer to Kinai.
"We have errands to run, and we don't have time to spend gallivanting off with a sorry collection of ruttish layabouts such as yourselves. Good day Lieutenant!" Kinai snapped. And with that, the conversation was closed as she strutted first past the Lieutenant, then the other guards and through the gate, only pausing to wait for the other girls as they hurried to follow her example. The guards said nothing as the maids walked past, though each had a huge grin on his face behind their helmets. As soon as the girls were out of earshot, they quickly burst into laughter at the fruitless efforts of their Lieutenant.
"And just what seems to be so funny, men?" came a voice from behind the gate.
Khasieu turned his head to try and settle his men, but saw that they were already at attention. He glanced at the voice's owner, and nearly tripped over himself trying to turn his body around to salute. "C-Captain Pace, what brings you here? Shouldn't you be out on patrol in the Outlands?"
The man who stood before him hardly seemed to warrant the respect that his position afforded. His short and thin stature coupled with his greasy hair and scarred face gave him the appearance of a hired thug. When he smiled, his face contorted into a wild grin which looked more at home in an insane asylum than in the military. The only thing that distinguished his rank was the captain's badge that he wore buttoned to his poncho. The pistols he wore at his sides were slung low, partly to accommodate his longer arms, but also to make sure that everyone knew he was ready for a fight. "I've been reassigned; apparently the higher-ups have found something more important for me to do." Pace replied nonchalantly. "Oh yeah, at ease." he added. "Always feels strange to have to do that."
"If I may ask, sir, what is your new assignment?" Khasieu asked.
"It looks as if I'm to be the personal bodyguard to the soon-to-be Empress."
"Well, that is a relief. I know the Princess will be safe with a hero such as yourself protecting her. Have you met with her yet?"
"Not today, though I have seen her several times in years past. Speaking of which, the young ladies who've just left through the gate, weren't they the Princess' handmaidens?"
Khasieu looked a little surprised, "I'm not too sure exactly, all they said was that they had some errands to run in the marketplace. Is it really of any importance if they were?"
"Probably not. Still, it just seems strange to me that they would leave the Princess' side the day before her coronation. They seemed very close when I saw them together before." He trailed off and looked at the gate.
"I'm going to go for a little walk before I meet with the General."
"Where are you going, sir?"
"To the marketplace, I think." No harm in just checking.