Chapter One


In which a disaster occurs, and a quest begins

Auryn Milshauten stared out the window at her surroundings. This was not the first time that she had been to her uncle's Ki'adu farm, but it was a beautiful day, and she was cooped up in her chambers, like some delicate bird. To her left, there was a small park, to her right, the long Ki'adu swayed in the wind, their leaves emitting a light vanilla scent. Straight ahead was an endless desert. The desert was called Taru, which meant "birthplace of demons."

She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of the Ki'adu from the window seat that she sat in. Auryn had always loved to run through the Ki'adu, letting their long, leathery leaves brush against her face. Now though, Aniline, her nursemaid, said that she was too old, at seventeen, to "be running around like a peasant."

Auryn sighed, and stood up, stretching. She checked her appearance in the mirror by the door, and went downstairs, to the grand dinning hall. All people of any importance would be here in about an hour. The room was decorated tastefully in ivory and gold, with an elegant wood table taking up most of the room. In one corner, an expensive fountain made of pearls and ebony stood six feet tall, on a marble base.

Auryn loved that fountain. When she was young, she would just sit for hours, staring at it, occasionally trying to reach up and touch one of the pearls that were scattered on the bowl. When she couldn't reach them, she would press her face and hands against the cool marble. She often fell asleep on the floor by the fountain, and somebody would come and pick her up, and tuck her into bed.

Auryn turned away from the fountain as Uncle Ranok walked in. He was tall, with messy brown hair, bright blue eyes, and pale skin that didn't darken even after hours in the sun, just like the rest of her family. She, like her brothers and parents, had dark brown hair, pale skin, was tall, and moved with an elegant grace that some whispered was unnatural.

Her eyes, though, instead of being a vivid shade of blue, were a sickly yellow-gold color that reminded her mother of "washed out amber." Her right hand too was different. It was covered with vein-like yellow-gold lines that started at her wrist, and went up the middle of her hand in a thick line, branching off in four lines that wrapped around to the sides of her palms. For as long as she could remember, Auryn had worn a glove on her "deformed" hand. She knew that some relatives feared her because she was different, and that her youngest brother, Tario, outwardly disliked her, but she really didn't care.

Her uncle didn't seem to care, either. He had taught her how to fight with a dagger at a young age, and she had just mastered the bow and arrow. Her uncle had kept up the family tradition of training the oldest child to be a warrior, and her oldest brother, Kyoi, was at Port Cayyn right now, fighting the Terrsen Navy. Port Cayyn was almost constantly under attack, but it was still a center of trade and commerce for most of Canthor.

Ranok had admired her unusual strength, which people had begun noticing when she was eight, and had caught a heavy tool, -which usually only a full grown man could hold easily- that fell off her brother Maier's worktable. At the time, he had been building her a toy.

Ranok, despite his sister's protests, had begun to train Auryn in the basics of self-defense. She adapted naturally to each weapon he gave her, be it staff, dagger, or culling ba'rousch, a sickle-shaped, serrated blade used for cutting Ki'adu that was as dangerous and unwieldy as it was sharp. She was soon a better fighter than he with almost anything but a sword.

Today he had none of the rational calm that she usually associated with him. She knew his reason, and shared some of his excitement. The Milshauten family was not a noted or terribly wealthy family, but today, that might change. Today, all of the nobles, and the governor of Temar (the second largest city in Canthor, next to Corus, the capital) would be coming for a grand banquet. If nothing went wrong, Ranok might make a few sales, and then supply some of the more important holds, or even Temar itself!

Ki'adu was used to spice up and flavor the usually bland food that people ate, and was used to scent the temples in Corus. It was largely in demand at Port Cayyn for trading. Auryn herself always kept a small bit of the white, leathery plant tucked into her hair, or her collar. She was not alone in this practice. Ki'adu was believed to bring good fortune to anyone who wore it in his or her hair, or on his or her bodies.

"Come on, Jewel!" Auryn turned towards the stairs, surprised. Aniline stood, hands on her hips. She called Auryn "Jewel" which was what her name, Auryn, meant in Aniline's language, Terrsen. Aniline was a slave captured in one of the numerous skirmishes lost in history. However, she was kind to Auryn, while most of the other captured slaves were gruff and surly.

Auryn followed Aniline up to her bedroom and waited impatiently while the old woman riffled through her closet. Aniline finally chose an elegant royal blue dress with gold trim, and a simple tiara with a single pearl that hung down on Auryn's face. Auryn fidgeted while the woman put teardrop-shaped pearls in her ears.

"All right now, let's see you." Aniline stepped back and looked Auryn over, nodding her head in satisfaction.

As the girl left, she heard Aniline murmur "Che'koska, sweet Jewel" under her breath. Auryn frowned. Che'koska wasn't a term that she had ever heard before, and her languages tutor had never mentioned such a word. She almost turned back to ask what Aniline meant, but decided against it.

The banquet was merry, and Auryn joined in the fun. Several of the lords had brought their wives and children, adding to the noise and fun.

"Why, hello, dear… you are…Arian, right?" Auryn turned to see a young woman, just a few years older than herself, standing near her.

"Auryn, and you…"

"Oh! I am dreadfully sorry for my mistake, I mean not the mistake itself, but for my mistaking your name…Arian!" The woman laughed, her voice rising merrily.

"That's all right, Miss… what did you say your name was, again?"

"I didn't say my name, dear… Eileen, Eileen Harnesea! Oh, haven't you heard? Lord Tyer… that man over there, was accused… "

Auryn smiled, blocking out Eileen's rambling. This woman was very nice, and funny, in her own way…. Auryn hadn't had anyone to talk to, since her friend Dailia had left, married to a Terrsen duke in an attempted peace treaty. The poor thing… Dailia had sent notes, but one day, they had just stopped….

" Why, what peculiar eyes, dear! Quite lovely in their own way, of course. Just so odd!"

Auryn blinked. Eileen's outburst had broken her train of thought. She nodded blankly, trying to remember what the woman had been talking about, then gave up. She glanced at the large carved doors that lead to the main parlor. They were wide open, and there was a small group of men standing in the threshold. The were all armed to the teeth, and wearing black silk tunics and pants, with an odd symbol in red on their over tunics, which were also black silk.

She wasn't sure who started screaming first, her or Eileen. All of the men pulled out swords, and Auryn blindly pushed Eileen behind her, wishing to Dieros, the high god, that she had worn her leather fighting outfit. All was silent.

Then Auryn grabbed a knife off of the table and hurled it at one of the men. He fell slowly. When his body hit the ground with a dull thud, it was like a signal. The men in black surged forward. Though the men in black were greatly outnumbered by the lords, Auryn knew that the guests were in danger. Somehow, through the chaos, she rounded up the women, and those who couldn't fight, and led them outside.

A while later, after calming them down as best she could, she plunged back into the fray. Inside of the dining room, the battle had finished. The men in black had disappeared. She saw almost as many lords had fallen as she did men in black. She tripped over a body as she was running towards a wounded man, and looked down.

Auryn covered her mouth, feeling like she was going to throw up, as tears filled her eyes. Ranok's corpse stared at her. Her uncle's usually warm eyes were cold, and dull. She swallowed, and gingerly pulled his sword out of his hands, by the blade. She barley felt it cutting into her palms.

"Ranok… " Auryn felt a numbness creep over her. She looked up from her uncle's body, at the carnage that surrounded her. The elegant curtains were shredded, and blood was everywhere. Auryn turned around, looking outside, at the tall crystal windows behind her. They were shattered. Beyond them, she saw a small fire starting in the west Ki'adu field. She numbly noted that everyone who she had led outside was gone, but she couldn't care anymore.

Auryn knew that she was going into shock, but she didn't care if she lived or died. Eyes wandering, she looked lazily at the fire in the Ka'adu. It had spread now, licking at the porch a few feet away.

The acrid smell of smoke filled her nostrils and she wrinkled her nose. Suddenly pain cut through her reverie. She looked down at her hands, slightly surprised to see her uncle's sword cutting into to her hands. The blood off her hands had dripped onto her dress. She dropped the sword, and stared at the diagonal lines cut across each hand. Then she finally noticed the fire that was destroying her uncle's farm, and her senses returned.

She looked regretfully at Ranok, but did not cry. He had always taught her that there was a time for everything. This was not the time to cry, or linger. She turned, with a decisive spring in her step, and ran, as best she could, towards the stairs.

A little later, she burst through one of the numerous side doors in her uncle's mansion, and turned back. Tears filled her eyes as she watched the majestic building burn down. She wiped away a rebellious teardrop that rolled down her cheek.

She had run upstairs, racing the fire, and hurriedly changed into her fighting outfit. Ranok had ordered it for her when she was sixteen, from Port Cayyn. It was light brown, made of woven strips of leather that allowed ventilation. The outfit consisted of a tunic, and pants made of softer, beaten leather, of the same light brown as her top. She wore knee-high, sturdy boots that were made of darker leather, with thin gold leaf around the rims.

Her weapons consisted of a dagger, her uncle's sword, and a Ba'rousch that a slave had left in the burnt-out fields. She also carried a small sack of coins, and a water-jug.

Without thinking, she whirled and ran, as panic took over. Straight to Taru.