- Part I -

The Irelian Kingdom was a union of sixteen different States, each governed by a Duke and his court, each Duke subject to one crown – one king, Pyros.

King Pyros was a just ruler, a wise ruler, one who could manage sixteen bickering Dukes and their opposing factions while still maintaining control and no small amount of absolute power. He had inherited his throne from his father, and had from the beginning of his rule shown himself to be more just, more wise, than even his beloved predecessor.

But the Irelian King was no young man anymore. His black hair had long since faded to white, his eyes had grown weak, his once-dexterous swordsman hands now tremored when he wrote. In his refusal to practice the Magic Arts, his life had run out of time much more quickly than that of his court advisor, the only magician in his court. Timor, this advisor, was said to be even wiser than the good king; rumors abounded that he could even see the future.

His vision was bleak.

Thus the King wasted away his years ruling a peaceful kingdom, watching his daughter grow into a woman, presiding over petty disputes, and awaiting the day that Timor had foretold – when the Irelian Kingdom would be little more than another ruler's province, when his people would be killed and his cities destroyed.

And for all the King's justice and wisdom, he carried a deep sadness – the knowledge that there would be no son to carry the strength of his line through these harsh times he knew lay ahead. For the good, dead Queen had never birthed an heir; only a princess occupied the palace with him.

The daughter of King Pyros was the most beautiful woman in the world. Suitors came from the farthest reaches of the sixteen states to woo her, and some foreign princes from the Sur Desert or even the Faerean clans had haunted Pyros's hall for her hand.

But Pyros loved his daughter, and he had resolved never to force an unsuitable husband on her. She was just as wise as she was beautiful – the cunning woman could tell a man's character just from one conversation, and she was often harsh in her judgment. No one could accuse Princess Syla of haughtiness, only regality. She knew her place in the world, and it was not on the level of any of these princes.

And the King was content to let her find her own match, because he knew that she deserved nothing less than happiness.

In their isolated Irelian mountain refuge, the royal family paid no heed to the intermittent rumors from the southern provinces – a Faerean king had been murdered, the kingdom was in turmoil, the son had raised an army to take the throne from the uncle. The tales were often exaggerated, of thousands dead and savage cruelties committed, so the wise Irelians knew that it did not benefit them to listen too closely. Besides, they thought, there were so many other worries, more pressing issues, like this latest suitor or the spat between Duke Larska and Duke Kilhon over trading privileges. Pyros and Syla and their entire court did not pay any attention to these rumors for decades, not even when they told of an army turning north after half a century of peace in the Faerean Kingdom.

Until the rumors coming north turned to refugees coming north, bloody and starving and terrified, babbling about a terrible King with the power to kill with one glance and an army of ice soldiers that burned their homes to the ground.

The good, wise, just King Pyros knew that this was the disaster Timor had warned him of. His rule of the Irelian Kingdom was drawing to an end, and it was his choice whether he would go peacefully or leaving much death in his wake.

The King did not make a decision quickly, preferring instead to wait and see what the attacker's intentions were; by the time the invading army had occupied most of the southernmost state, Pyros had resolved to make the best for his surviving people.

The entire Irelian army was dispatched to the southern border, evacuating homes and meeting the invading Faereans at the gentle slopes of the foothills to the towering Irelian mountains. There they held their line, not pushing forward and not moving back, only defending – never attacking. The soldiers were the country's defense, a stalling point to convince the invading King that the Irelian Kingdom would not acquiesce without a fight.

Three months and innumerable deaths into the war, both armies were still stalemated at the foothills, and Timor took a message to the opposing ruler, offering a truce, for it was deemed proper that only a fellow magician should approach this reclusive king.

The leader of the invaders had not been seen since the defending army had appeared, and Timor would be the first Irelian to meet him – and to offer terms, no less.

King Pyros's trusted advisor did not return until three weeks later, when he escorted the invading king with a small guard of both Faerean and Irelian soldiers – white and blue and green and gold, mingling like the ribbon of souls in the Irelian sky – to the capital to meet with the rulers.

His manner of appearance in court described the man more than any description could have ever hoped.

He came with a guard, not with attendants – as a conqueror, not as a king.

His cloak was pristine white, as was his armor, though his sword was gold – the only metal that can burn Irelian magicians like acid.

A helm, not a crown, decorated his delicate face, and though the Faerean bowed to the King on his throne, the look he gave the royals on the dais conveyed only a twisted form of amusement at the entire situation. They all knew that he was not here to perform obeisance to the Irelian rulers, but to take their realm away from them.

Timor hurried to the side of King Pyros, a look of fear halfway between his heart and his eyes as he avoided glancing at the other king in the hall. He cleared his throat, announcing,

"King Ilken of the House of Ven, Ruler of Faere."