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The Broken Council

The Broken Council

Steven R. Burke The Broken Council



    The early morning sun was streaming through the golden leaves from the surrounding black oak trees found in the ancient Renshaw Forest. The morning fog was beginning to dissipate as the inhabitants of the enchanted woodland made their presence known. Sitting at the edge of a plush green meadow taking in the serenity of the moment was Kishi, an elven princess. She was sitting on the grass with her legs crossed and her eyes closed breathing in her surroundings. She always came to this same spot to meditate and to escape the pressures of being the eldest daughter of the great elven king, Ciel Tiranidrol. As she closed her mind to the drama that had consumed her life recently, her thoughts strayed to the trivial meeting she was required to attend in a few hours. Inwardly she groaned at the thought of participating in elven politics, which her father insisted was crucial in order to keep the kingdom united.
    She had lived for six centuries in the beautiful, enchanted Black Forest where she had been able to avoid the pressures of political life until recently. She did not enjoy the restrictive nature of being royalty, which was something that she had no control over. However, today she was more troubled by the secret plan of her twin sis ter, Kira, than her preoccupation with her own fractious existence. Her sister was highly favored by their father and the people because of her pleasant nature and her desire to please others. This bothered Kishi because she was the eldest daughter and was the one the kingdom rightfully belonged to after their father's reign. She did not think the people would allow rule to pass to someone who was obstinately disinterested in the good of the people. Why do I even care? I do not need them, and they do not want me.
    Her eyes flew open at these troubling thoughts. While she cleared her mind again, her gaze was drawn to a dragonfly zooming through the grass. She was mesmerized by the insect's fluid movements, and struggled to meditate again. The sun shone brightly over the ancient black oaks, which illuminated her stationary figure with its warm rays. The light outlined her beautiful black hair and slender body as she eased back into a tranquil state.
    Her slight figure hid her physical prowess and agility. Her real power came from her innate and learned magical abilities. She had mirthless eyes that had a chilling effect on anyone who dared to look into them. She had trained for many years with the revered warlock Diikker who had taught her everything about the arcane arts. He had taught her that the source of her power was founded in the spark of magic that every living thing possessed. She had learned that magic did not require incantations except in cases where one had to focus their energies with external sources that exceeded the caster's capacity to control. Her dark mentor had also taught her how to steal the energy of sentient beings, something forbidden by the sacred laws of magic. This was something that her sister never bothered to listen to when these lessons were given. She was the only other elf aside from her mentor who learned such powerful magic.
    She had also learned to discipline her mind to not only resist magical intrusion, but to reverse the effect to penetrate an attacker or even an unsuspecting opponent. Most learned the elementary version of mental barriers where the defender mimics an animal's thoughts, which happen to be centered on basic needs. This seldom gave away any insight into what they are thinking at that moment and when an intruder is sensed, they can focus their energy to expel the foreign entity. Kishi had learned the difficult process of constantly warding her mind against infiltration by using the mirror effect. This basically reflects the mind of the aggressor for a few moments and immediately warns her of the attempt. The energy required to main this is something that is rather insignificant due to her exceptional capacity. She was almost equal to her mentor's abilities in most respects.
    The princess had developed serious trust issues over the years as she grew in power. Her father had always been wary of what he perceived to be unnatural abilities and even suspected that his eldest daughter dabbled in forbidden magic. This distrust was not hidden from the king's subjects. This only added to the distrust the elves held for Kishi. This was the primary reason she had decided to aid her sister with her secret plan for the upcoming meeting.
    The tranquil morning was quickly ebbing away when the sounds of forest life abruptly ceased. Kishi's father and his guard appeared at the edge of the clearing opposite her. She, of course, had already sensed their presence with the magical web she had set up around the clearing to detect the approach of anyone or anything that could pose a threat. She accomplished this by invoking her will on non-sentient beings to send her warning of the approach of any sentient creatures. Kishi's eyes snapped open and locked onto her father across the meadow. It was clear that he had not seen her quite yet as they looked around. King Ciel never went anywhere without his guards these days because of the schisms that threatened to tear the elves apart. Their unity had endured for nearly a thousand years under his reign and was now in serious jeopardy thanks, in part, to his youngest daughter. She had violated one of the most sacred elven laws, which was the source of the division amongst the people.
    The king finally spotted his eldest daughter meditating within the shadow of a particularly large black oak at the opposite end of the meadow. After he caught Kishi's eye, he nodded and made his way over to her.
    "Enjoying another sunrise, daughter?" King Ciel asked as he smoothed the front of his silk robes. He would not look her in the eye knowing he would see hatred in those gray, depthless eyes. It was no secret that she did not trust him or even care for him. At this point, he was beginning to feel the same way due to her lack of empathy for the elves and their plight.
    "I was enjoying the quiet tranquility of this serene morning when you and your guard so rudely interrupted," she said disdainfully.
    This contemptuous remark angered her father, and he was unable to hide his displeasure from his daughter. She could feel his ire toward her growing with each passing moment. So he is already upset, and the meeting has not even started yet. How delightful. This thought brought a quick smirk to her beautiful face.
    As her father came to a halt in front of her, she felt the pit of her stomach knot and turn as revulsion swept through her at his proximity. She knew by the look on his face that he was extremely disappointed with her aversion to side with him or to carry out her royal duties. King Ciel had been the ruler of the elves for millennia and had had peace during his reign until recently. The elves had made the enchanted woodland of Renshaw their home for the past four thousand years and had prospered considerably under his rule in particular. The people adored him and loved his temperate leadership. His singular ability to say what people wanted to hear had only increased their devotion. Kishi respected his powers of persuasion but hated him for the uses to which he applied his gift.
    The king was a powerfully built elf that towered over the slight figure of his eldest daughter as she sat on the lush grass. He was a proven master with the sword, though he was known better for his abilities as a leader. His primarily used his magic to read and manipulate unprotected minds whenever it suited his needs. His daughters had learned how to protect themselves from his unwanted intrusions. Kishi was particularly difficult for him to read. However, his gift had made him a superior orator and negotiator among his people and a leader the other races of Tuwa respected and looked to for advice.
    "I hope that you will be in attendance today at the elven High Council. We must continue our discussion about your brother-inlaw and Kira's treachery," King Ciel said in an even tone.
    "Why? So, you can publicly condemn her for following her heart? Do you honestly believe that punishing her will do any good?" she asked angrily. "You merely want to prove to the people that you will uphold the law no matter what! We share the same blood … silinde turgon elanesse aldarion!' Her eyes flared as though flames were about to shoot out of them.
    Kishi felt all the painful emotions she had been building walls against since the marriage of her sister pushing for a release. While she vehemently disagreed with Kira's marital choice, she distained their father's chosen response. She was torn as to which side she would take while in the council meeting. She, of course, blamed her father for this predicament because of his need for order and propriety. Maybe I should let Kira and father fight this out. Maybe it is about time I left Renshaw. As long as I stay here, I will not have peace and I will never be accepted.
    "You know as well as I do that my dispute with your sister is well grounded in elven law, as well as steeped in our traditions," the king replied smoothly. "No elf is permitted to mix or marry with anyone from the lesser races. Why your sister wants to bring death upon herself is truly beyond my comprehension." His face was unfathomable as he looked down at Kishi. Why must my children vex me so? What have I done to them to justify their obstinance?
    "Not to mention how your sister's illicit union diminishes the elven standing that has been respected and revered by the peoples of Tuwa for centuries! Now death will be introduced to the elven people like never before!" King Ciel raged on. He was clearly concerned that Kira's actions were part of something much bigger and more sinister in nature. He could not allow the situation to get out of his control; he would do whatever was necessary to prevent the elven nation from being ripped apart by members of his own house.
    The king's feelings were beginning to surface, and he was no longer making an effort to hide his disappointment. He was furious with the pair of them because of their purported belief that love and choice are factors in marriage. This entire situation is a front for something else; this marriage is merely a catalyst for their secret plans. If it were not for the powerful magic his daughters possessed, he would use forceful means for finding out what they were really hiding from him. However, he could not use his power on them because of their training. He simply could not afford the backlash from the people if he chose to use other means of discovering the truth. As such, he was left to use political means to uncover their real intentions.
    "Sir, I hate to interrupt, but we really must be off. The meeting is in about two hours, and it will take us almost that long to get to there," interjected one of the king's guards boldly.
    The king stood there looking at his daughter with a much deeper understanding of how she felt about him … inwardly his heart was breaking. He knew that she disagreed with Kira's choice, and he was clearly bewildered about his eldest daughter's stance in this matter. He had felt that Kishi would be on his side when Kira broke elven law, but now it was clear that she too had betrayed him. He sensed that she was somehow a part of the conspiracy against him.
    "Kishi, please be on time for the meeting. It is very important," the king asked clearly dejected about their interaction.
    "I will be on time, but do not think that you will somehow win my support in this pointless venture," she retorted. She gave him a look that was filled with both anger and sadness.
    Kishi felt her body temperature rising even though the spring morning was quite cool. Her temper was always just under the surface these days, and she was growing weary of being told what to do and how to think. Today that would all change, and nothing would ever be the same. She would do what she wanted regardless of what her sister chose to do. Her father, the king, would not have the satisfaction of using her as leverage against Kira. He would be on his own in that meeting and would be sadly disappointed in both of his daughters, though for very different reasons. The poor fool.

    Kira sat in her bedchamber staring out the balcony with a look of someone who was a keeping a secret so sweet that she would soon burst if she did not reveal it. She had a twinkle in her deep brown eyes as she thought of what would take place later at the elven High Council. Ifher father only knew ofthe plot against him … He would be livid! A smile of fierce pleasure crept across her face at the idea of finally revealing her plans.
    The princess felt happier than she had been in years as a result of her recent marriage to the man, Yukio. She had decided that now was the perfect time to unveil her true intentions to the elven leadership. She knew that the joy she was feeling was a mix of her feelings for her husband and for the plans she had been working on for months. She knew that revealing her true intentions would likely mean a revolt of some kind. While a revolution would bring tragedy and death, it would lead to the freedom they yearned for.
    Princess Kira had an elegant, slim body like her twin sister, Kishi. Her long brown hair swished slightly as she walked to the balcony and began to pace back and forth. She too was a very powerful sorceress, but she did not like to use her power to get her way or enhance her capacity with magic the way her sister did. Instead, she relied on her womanly wiles to get what she wanted, which had worked very well on her husband and several other failed suitors. However, the welfare of the elven people was desperately important to her, and that made her drastically different from Kishi, who cared only for herself.
    She sighed pleasantly as she turned to look at her husband who was resting peacefully on their bed. He was an enormously built man whose stature resembled most of the elves, though a bit more muscular. He was taller than his new wife by a few inches, which was not a common occurrence since elves were almost always taller than men. He had long reddish-brown hair dangling loosely over his silk pillow. He had several scars on his back from the many wars and battles he had fought in service to his queen. He had the look of man who had been made by difficult circumstances and one who could withstand a great deal more than most.
    General Yukio stirred at the sound of his wife's incessant pacing and sat up on one elbow to look at her. He thought that she was very beautiful and had such youthful-looking skin that it was difficult to believe that she was several hundred years old. I am truly blessed by the gods for such a treasure. She is a prize far greater than any jewel or horde of treasure. I will not allow her father to ruin our plans. If he should pose a threat, I will end his reign.
    As the general rubbed his bleary eyes, the morning light illuminated the red mixed with the brown in his eyes as he gazed up at his wife. It has been said of him that while in the throes of battle his eyes burned red as though they were on fire. The intensity of his look could pierce the most accomplished magician's magical web and penetrate any mental barrier. He was a fierce warrior and a good man to have on your side when things were going wrong. If he were against you, the gods themselves would not be able to protect you from his wrath.
    "What is vexing you this early in the morning, my love?" he inquired in his deep, husky voice.
    "I am going over our plans to make sure that what we do today plays out as we have foreseen," she replied after a long moment of thought. She was pinching her lower lip as she nervously continued to contemplate.
    She stopped pacing and stared out over the balcony's edge without seeing anything in the distance. She knew she should feel some guilt about what she was thinking, but her father's obstinance had only cultivated her aversion to his wishes. I cannot wait to see my father humbled! These were not typical feelings a daughter should have toward their father. Then again, her father was the king of the immortal race of elves and had never really been a true parent by any stretch of the imagination. He cared more for his kingdom and himself than for his own blood. If mother were still alive, things would be dfferent. I would not have to take such drastic measures against my own father. She would have made him see reason. Mother would want me to go forward; she was always able to see the big picture.
    King Ciel had lost his beloved wife five years to the very day when she was waylaid by a pack of savage wolves as she journeyed along the southern edge of Renshaw. The king had forgotten about this as a result of the current political turmoil. Kira and Kishi, on the other hand, would never be able to forget such a traumatic day. These two sorceresses blamed their father's lack of military skill and unorganized home guard for the tragic loss of their mother. Neither of them could ever feel safe again within the forest, and that was one of the reasons why they both must leave. The council convened by their father actually played into their hands without him being any the wiser.
    "Yukio, you must get ready for the meeting," she said playfully over her shoulder. "I think that this will be a day long remembered in the history of my people, so you need to look your best." She turned to look at her husband and gave him a quick smile as the sun silhouetted her slender figure.
    After several moments, General Yukio reappeared from the closest dressed in his military uniform he wore when meeting with royalty. His medals shined and glistened as he walked up to his wife on the balcony. Out with the old and in with the new. He was going to be the first king of the elves from the race of men. A male elf always ruled the kingdom, but that was going to change now that he was part of the family. He would have liked to force the change, but he could not doubt the brilliance of his wife's plan. It was going to work.
    "Well, we should not keep the aged council members waiting," he said with a sly grin. He took her arm in his, and they left Tiranidrol Castle together. They had an hour to get to the sacred Edrdne Minyatur, the sacred meeting place where the elven High Council met. That was on the other side of Tarisdell, the capital city of the elven nation. The city was located at the heart of the ancient and enchanted Black Forest, also called Renshaw, so they took their time to enjoy their last day in the remarkable woodland. They would be sad to leave such a beautiful place, but their new home would be just as breathtaking with views that could not be found anywhere else in Tuwa.
    The Earane Minyatur was silent aside from the shuffling of feet as the members of the High Council took their seats. The room had stunning vaulted ceilings made of marble with gold and silver inlaid into it. The round table the council members sat around filled the center of the spacious hall. The table itself had been hand crafted by King Nognili's dwarves as a gift for King Ciel's five hundredth anniversary as the ruler of the elven nation. At the center of this table there was a large open area that had a gold-and-silverembossed cauldron resting in the very middle. There was a silvery black substance that was simmering and turning inside the ornate pot while giving no reflection of its surroundings.
    The cauldron was used for the purpose of casting votes and for revealing glimpses of the future for those who looked into its portents. The name of this magical device was Thraalillith. Most of the predictions made by this powerful object were not to be taken as entirely serious because it showed only half-truths. There were several occasions that the council had used the mysterious power of Thraalillith to try and foresee outcomes of their decisions. Each time they acted on what they had perceived to be the truth, they ended up worse for wear. It was now believed that the magical properties of the cauldron were too powerful to be controlled by even the most potent elven magic. Hence the reason why it was no longer used for anything aside from voting.
    When the members of the council used the cauldron to cast their votes on debated issues, they would throw a piece of paper into a magically created fire that would hover above the silvery black portents of the Thraalillith. An affirmative vote would turn the fire bright blue, while a disapproving vote turned the fire crimson red. The council secretary recorded the number of votes for each side of the debated issue. The elves relished in using their magic whenever they could, and this was another frivolous way for them to use their power. They loved being reminded of their supposed superiority over the lesser races of Tuwa by using magic.
    The side door of the High Council chamber opened with a snap to admit a stoic-looking king who was followed by his guard and his daughters Kira and Kishi. They were all adorned in the finest silk and cloth made by elven seamstresses. The king wore an impressive crown that was encrusted in a wide variety of dwarven jewels and gems. This crown was another gift from the dwarves. His daughters wore simple-looking leaf crowns made of silver and gold. Everyone stopped talking and stood up at their abrupt arrival. This show of reverence was an elven custom that had been practiced for centuries and had become a requirement since King Ciel took the throne. When royalty entered a room, everyone must stop what they were doing, stand if they were not already doing so, and face them. A slight bow was also required as they passed by. In this case, everyone bowed as the royal family made their way to their seats at the head of the round table even though they did not walk by them.
    King Ciel took up his seat and nodded to the members of the council to be seated. His throne was made by some of the greatest craftsmen from Mount Carrick by the order of the dwarven king, Jarvis Dagnolir. The chair was encased in silver and gold in a magnificent swirling fashion. The high-backed chair had the crest of the Tiranidrol house carved into it. There was a depiction of a forest resembling the Black Forest with the Blaine River running parallel to it, which appeared to be moving.
    The tension was increasing and the meeting hall became as quiet as a tomb. Before King Ciel could even begin the meeting, the double doors at the main entrance opened without warning. There was a loud resounding boom as the doors hit the solid oak walls. General Yukio Ibreshri marched in as if he had been the most anticipated guest. He was the general of the armies for Queen Daria Thejar, but he had no authority here among the elves. Daria was the monarch of the Nairi Canyons to the northeast of the Black Forest and an ally of the elves. However, this alliance was always strained because men were not allowed in the forest.
    The general's enormous stature caught the eye of many of the council members. King Ciel felt uneasiness and a twinge of dread come over him at this unexpected appearance. However, the king hid his fear deep within and put on a look of contemptuous expectancy. He was not about to give an inch in the presence of this unworthy man who had besmirched his good name by stealing one of his daughters. He would take charge of this new development and leave no doubt in the council members' minds that he was still in charge.
    General Yukio's interruption was not welcomed by the majority of the council members. They gave him malevolent looks that left no doubt as to their disgust and wariness of his presence. The general had anticipated nothing less from these shortsighted traditionalists. He was equal to the impending confrontation with the council, and he knew full well what the result of this encounter would be. He smiled at the thought of knowing something that the pompous king did not and did nothing to hide his pleasure he felt because of the disruption he caused.
    "What do you mean by this intrusion?" the king demanded. He made sure to keep his tone even to hide the fear within. What are they playing at? How will his presence help his daughter's secret plans?
    "The matter you are discussing today affects me as much as your daughter, King Ciel," General Yukio replied calmly. "You certainly did not believe that I would miss an opportunity to visit my in-laws." He smiled at the astonished looks on many of the council members' faces. He could sense that his presence had caught the king off guard and that he was not prepared for what was happening. The old fool did not believe that I would dare come!
    The room filled with murmurings at this ridiculous statement about the royal family being in-laws with such an unworthy man. They could not believe that an infidel would dare address their king in this manner let alone make such outrageous claims. No one in the royal family should permit such an impure creature into their midst and spoil the sanctity of their meeting. No one in the hall had known that the man had been allowed into the forest aside from the Tiranidrols.
    The king fixed his daughters with such a piercing glare that any other elf would have withered before such a furious look. Kishi and Kira stared unblinkingly at their father in a way that made it clear that they had invited the general and that is was within their power to do so. His allowed his stern look to quickly dissolved, and he put on a reluctant smile to ward off the rage building within him. Many of the council members noticed the king's subtle slip of emotional control. Many shifted in their seats uncomfortably at the scene unfolding in front of them.
    "General Yukio, this matter does concern you, so I am glad you are here so you can hear this council's verdict regarding your crimes against the elven kingdom and its royal family," King Ciel stated coldly. "Please come and sit so that we may lay this matter to rest." He gestured to the empty chair next to his daughter Kira and then returned his attention to the council members.
    Without saying another word, the general walked up to the king and gave a brief nod to him and sat down. He looked around the table at the stunned council members and read their innermost thoughts with his unknown prodigious skill in mind penetration. They all thought that the king should kill the unworthy man and banish his daughter Kira for life. He gave a hearty smile and inclined his head toward members of the council he recognized or knew personally. I am certainly glad that I did not miss the show! This is going to be well worth the wait!
    The king waved his right hand for silence, and the murmurings immediately ceased. There was a feeling of anticipation and expectancy filling the still air. The king looked at the head of the High Council, Conary Aerasrril, and nodded slightly, which meant it was time to begin the meeting. Everyone in the room followed the king's gaze to look at the chairman, who sat opposite the king near the front entrance where General Yukio had entered.
    Conary was a very tall, slender elf who had a youthful look despite his many years of service. He had served on the High Council his entire adult life. He was made the chairman of the elven council when Ciel Tiranidrol was made king. They had been the best of friends growing up, and this matter with the king's youngest daughter was almost too much for him to bear. The chairman loved Kira like she was his own daughter. He knew that at the moment he had to be strong. Conary was used to taking care of the king since the passing of his wife five years ago. King Ciel was a good person, and everyone respected his decisions; therefore, as the chairman of the council, he would support this trial and uphold its findings.
    "The purpose of this emergency meeting is to address the violation of our laws by the Princess Kira Tiranidrol. General Yukio Ibreshri is in attendance to hear the judgments of this High Council against him," the chairman stated evenly. He had to hide his personal feelings in this matter so that the council would not question his leadership.
    General Yukio felt a pang of anger inside as he looked around the table. He could tell that the members had already made up their minds after that biased introduction. How could these council members be considered wise when they rush judgment? What a bunch of cold-hearted, ignorant fools! They will rue this day! He kept his facial expressions neutral to hide his adverse feelings.
    "The charges against the two accused, which they are guilty of, are as follows-" the chairman began to read the council's findings.
    "The charges that they are guilty of? What is the meaning of this?" Princess Kishi interjected sharply. She thought that there would be a trial at the very least, not an immediate verdict. She became so furious that her shimmering gray eyes began to smolder. Her chair flew back into the wall behind her and shattered into tiny pieces. The council members were taken aback by this unexpected outburst. They could tell that this was going to end badly no matter what the outcome of the impending votes.
    "I have called the council here for the purpose of determining the guilt of your sister and her illegitimate husband. They are here today to hear the judgment of this just council. They will accept whatever punishment we deem appropriate and acknowledge their folly," the king replied sharply. He did not think that Kishi would react with such anger. She should know that these two were doomed the moment they crossed the forbidden line and married. I cannot allow their treachery to go unpunished.
    "Dearest sister, do not be concerned with these proceedings and the inevitable fallout. We are here of our own free will and have a full knowledge of what this council plans to do," Princess Kira cut across her sister in a kind, yet airy tone. She had been secretly hoping that her elder sister would react with such intensity. Elven twins had a way of knowing what their other half would do before they would do something. They were powerful in magic and were equally rare amongst the immortals.
    Silence swept through the hall as the chairman waited for King Ciel to indicate whether or not he was finished. Princess Kishi turned to the chair she had destroyed, and, with a wave of her hand, it repaired itself. Once the chair was in place once more, she dropped down sharply into her chair with a look of utmost contempt for what she had just heard. She could not believe that her father was not going to have a trial. This meeting was about sentencing. This should have been a private matter. Why did he have to take it this far? She did not bother to hide her feelings anymore and thought, more than once, to use her magic to shake the council members from the ludicrous course of action they were taking.
    "Please continue, Chairman Aerasrril, with the reading of the charges," King Ciel said with a slight nod. He did not want to lose control of this meeting; this sensitive situation had to be cleared up today. Any more delay would destabilize the king's already weakened control over the bureaucracy. If he mishandled this politically charged issue, then he would lose all creditability with the High Council and with his loyal subjects.
    "General Yukio and Princess Kira did knowingly engage in an unlawful intimate relationship. They further violated our laws by marrying one another a fortnight ago. This was a direct violation of the marriage statute, which states that no elf shall marry a person from any of the lesser races. They did break these laws knowing full well the penalties and severity of what crimes they were committing," Conary read aloud. He was doing his best to hide his severe disapproval of how this personal matter was being handled.
    There was a buzz of excitement coming from the council members because the crimes were most egregious. They were all sitting on the edge of their seats now awaiting the opportunity to vote so they could convict these obviously guilty parties. The tension in the room was so high that it seemed like no one was going to take another breath until they voted. Many of them thought that this was truly a historic moment and a political victory for their king. The condemnation of the princess and this general of Nairi would reaffirm the supremacy of elven law and re-establish their superiority throughout all of Tuwa. They were not even taking into consideration the fallout that would occur with Queen Daria and her subjects if they executed the iconic Nairian general.
    "Members of this most noble and honorable High Council of elves, it is time," Conary Aerasrril proffered solemnly. As the High Councilman spoke these last words, a brilliant fire burst into life just above the surface of the Thraalillith.
    "If you believe that the accused should be cleared of all charges or if they should be convicted on all counts, please vote now." Every council member cast his or her vote into the cauldron of fate, and the fire burned bright blue as each piece of paper came into contact with the magical fire. There was not a single vote cast to clear either of the accused. They had been found guilty by the entire High Council. The chairman abstained from voting because of his mixed feelings. The general and the royal family were not permitted to vote because they were not members of the council.
    Princess Kishi placed her hands on the table in anticipation of what was going to happen next. She was not happy at all with what had taken place thus far. How can the entire council vote against both of them? I understand why they convicted that idiot General Yukio, but why convict my sister? Is this what it has come to? The burning in her eyes turned cold as ice as she looked around at the council members. She made it clear that she was not pleased with what they had just done. Not one council member would return her icy glare. They were all determinedly looking elsewhere; they were terrified that she might unleash her venom on them.
    "The voting has been unanimous in favor of conviction. Now we will have you cast votes to determine the appropriate punishment. If you want the punishment of lifetime banishment, your paper will burn blue. If you believe that they should be put to death, your paper will burn red. At this time, please vote for the fate of General Yukio Ibreshri." The chairman gestured toward the burning Thraalillith. The cauldron burned bright red repeatedly, condemning the general to die for his crimes. The members had rather smug looks on their faces after casting their votes against him.
    "Please vote now to determine the fate of Princess Kira Tiranidrol." The fire burned bright blue as the papers hit the flames. They had chosen banishment for their fallen princess. It was clear that they believed she deserved a break. It was obvious that the council thought she had been beguiled by the treacherous general.
    The debate was over now, and there was little that Princess Kira or General Yukio could do or say to alter the decision. This was the moment that the couple had planned for. This was what they had looked forward to for months now. While it appeared that the king had the upper hand and the council had all of the power, it would soon be clear that they were not taking one simple factor into consideration. Kira and Yukio would now have to show their hand before this perfect opportunity passed them by. Their announcement would render the decision of the council inconsequential and set things in motion that could not be stopped.
    "It appears that the vote has been unanimous for the exile of Princess Kira Tiranidrol from the Forest of Renshaw. As for General Yukio Ibreshri, all votes were in favor of the death penalty. General, you will be executed by beheading in the morning. The penalty for returning to any part of our land by the princess will result in her immediate execution," Conary explained coolly. He struggled to keep his feelings of regret in check while pronouncing the punishments. This will not benefit the elves; only death will come of this. He thought the king would have intervened and put an end to this travesty, but apparently Ciel was at the heart of this debacle.
    There was an intense look of relief on all of the council members' faces after the punishments were announced. They thought that they were rid of this evil man and the king's gullible daughter. The council did not know that the new couple had anticipated this grim outcome. There was one person who did not expect their ruling at all, and that was Princess Kishi. She was so enraged by how things had developed that she was ready to explode.
    "You imbeciles cannot be serious! You shall pay for what you have done this day! I promise you that!" Princess Kishi exclaimed. She kicked her chair out once again, and it shattered again as it hit the wall. She moved her hands in a complicated series of movements; this was the physical manifestation of her drawing power from non-sentient entities outside the hall, which shot a long dart of ice at the Thraalillith. The cauldron rocked back and forth from the force of the ice bolt hitting it. The pot quickly froze, and an instant later it exploded into tiny shards of gold and silver, which went flying off in every direction. Everyone in the room ducked in order to avoid these minuscule projectiles. She then turned toward the side door she had come in and sent a ball of fire at it. In a split second, the door burst into flames and was gone. She stormed from the room cursing each council member as she stalked past them.
    Princess Kira and General Yukio stood to make their announcement after this violent outburst. They were not thrown off by what happened; instead they saw it as a perfect lead in to what they were about to announce. They smiled at one another in a way that unnerved the council members as they sat back in their chairs looking at the council. Many of the members thought that Kira was about to lose control like her sister. They had not expected a reaction so extreme from Kishi, so they did not know what to expect from the youngest Tiranidrol.
    "We have come here to unveil our secret plans and not to hear your meaningless verdict," General Yukio said with an edge to his voice. He was no longer smiling. He had such a hypnotic look in his eyes that no one could look away. He was about to use his hidden mental powers to get his way yet again. There was no turning back once he revealed his psychic abilities on these supposedly superior elves.
    "The spirits of this ancient forest have shown us how the elves have become too entrenched in their archaic traditions and beliefs. An evolution of the elven race is the only way that the elves can be saved from utter ruin," Kira stated succinctly. She was making reference to the Seda, which are spirit creatures that reside in the Black Forest. These spirits give glimpses of the future to travelers that enter their realm. They unfog the future to those that can manipulate relevant events to bring about the future they have predicted. It is not wise to trifle with these powerful beings because they are allies to no one. They believe themselves to be vastly superior to every living thing in Tuwa.
    "It was also shown to us that this inept High Council would convict the two of us based on antiquated laws. The Seda informed us of what we would need to do to save the elven race from certain annihilation," the general said confidently. He was enjoying this feeling of knowing more than these high and mighty elves.
    At this point, it dawned on King Ciel what these conspirators were playing at. He did not like what he thought they were about to do. His ability to reads minds did not work on his daughter or the general for some reason. However, he was able to read the effect that the general was having on the minds of the council members. He was able to deduce that they were plotting treasonous acts. The elven kingdom had stood for countless millennia united in the common cause of caring for Tuwa, and he was not going to allow these two to ruin that. He realized that he would not be able to stop what was about to happen without force. He readied himself to command his guard to seize the traitors and to execute Yukio immediately while forcibly ejecting Kira once she was restrained. He, just like the council, did not think of the consequences of such rash actions.
    "You may think that we will allow you to carry out the assigned punishments, but you could not be more wrong. We have been planning to leave for some time now, and today was designated to be the day we leave the main body of the elves, as foretold by the Seda. We will not depart alone either… " Princess Kira said boldly. She could not wait another moment; she had waited too long for this day to arrive.
    "We will be accompanied by no less than one-third of the entire elven nation!" the general exclaimed triumphantly.
    The astonished looks on the faces of those seated around the table made all of their planning worthwhile. The council had had no inkling that they were so out of touch with their own people. The weighty significance of this mass dissension was beginning to sink in. No one spoke because they were all too dazed and confused with what was happening. The elves had always considered themselves above such selfish motives; the lesser races were the ones who fought among themselves, not the enlightened elves.
    With a mischievous grin, the princess cast her hand down toward the ground where an explosion of fire erupted violently and shot upward so that the flames licked the polished marble ceiling. Everyone had directed their attention toward the roof and did not notice that the rebels had vanished completely. General Yukio and Princess Kira had left the council with flare and style that would be remembered for years. The king immediately called for his guard to search for the convicts. Both of my daughters are dead to me! They will soon find out what happens to traitors! He was going to make it clear to his subjects that those who dissent and leave the magical realm of the elves would suffer the consequences.
    While the king's guard searched for the treacherous pair, a massive number of elves were leaving the Black Forest with all of their possessions. They were heading north toward Mount Konane and Mount Quang. They were making their way to their new homes in the mountains. The king would not be able to stop them in time; they were no longer his subjects, and they were out of the reach of his guard. They had established themselves a queen who was truly enlightened and did not fear change. They would follow her wherever she led them. They felt peace and happiness in their hearts about the prospect of a new life outside the woodland. They had lost that feeling many years ago when the elves turned to isolationism and their government became so corrupt that they would no longer listen to the people. Now they would have a new beginning, a new hope in the mountains of the north.


The forbidden marriage

    General Yukio Ibreshri sat silently on his horse early in the morning surveying the vast golden canyons of his homeland Nairi. Today was going to be like every other day. He would lead a small group of soldiers to the mouth of the Blaine River and begin another week long patrol. They always followed the river, which ran right through the heart of the land of Tuwa and was a source of life for many of its creatures. This massive body of water had many roads running along either bank. These thoroughfares provided safe passage for travelers and merchants alike because of the military presence Yukio and his men provided. There was always a chance that the cavalry would meet someone new during their daily travels. It was truly a melting pot for the different races and varied beasts of Tuwa and was always full of surprises. That was why so many Nairians volunteered for this assignment.
    As the general sat pondering the splendor of this particularly peaceful morning, he had an ominous feeling come over him. He had the impression that today would be one to remember … he simply could not identify the source of this unusual feeling. Maybe it was another dignitary or even a member of a race he did not yet know of. This day was filled with the promise of great adventure and risk; he just knew it. As a man of war, he could hope for nothing more. Patrolling the trade routes along the Blaine River had grown mundane and wearisome over the years. Why do I keep vol- unteeringfor this assignment? Maybe my premonition will bring along some danger with it to break up the monotony. Still, this does beat sitting in the queen's throne room all day doing nothing.
    His horse began to paw at the ground nervously as the morning mist clung to them. The general could tell that the beast was anxious to begin their daily patrol. General Yukio did not like the cramped dark spaces of the canyon lands and yearned to ride in the open spaces along the Blaine River. The stunning black coat and mane shined magnificently as a few rays of sunlight broke through the swirling mist. The horse had a noble look to him that caused the other horses to keep their distance. He was, in fact, the lord of all black stallions. It had been said that he was the swiftest four-legged animal in all of Tuwa. The other horses began to scratch at the ground to show their eagerness to get moving. Both the men and their steeds were longing to be outside the confines of the canyons.
    "Men, enough of this hanging about; let's move out," the general commanded. He was anxious to get this day started. He thought that no one else in their right mind would be up this early, so they should be able to enjoy an open road. Let's see what this day brings.
    As the squad began to move out, the mist about them began to dissipate as the temperature climbed. They were only a few minutes away from the mouth of the river and the vast open spaces, so they spurred their horses into a gallop. Both man and beast thirsted for the wide-open plains and the beauty of the black oak trees of the Renshaw Forest. The main reason most of them signed on for this patrol was because they detested the mundane lifestyle of Nairi. Others just wanted to get away from the responsibilities of family life. Every single one of them silently believed that this was going to be an adventurous day, one that would help them forget what they had left behind. Then again they always felt this way when starting a week long patrol.
    The Nairian guard patrolled the trade routes along the Blaine River as part of a commerce deal between Nairi and the other friendly races of Tuwa. Queen Daria Thejar was the sovereign ruler of the Nairi Canyon lands who was both kind and just. The canyons provided plentiful resources in the way of precious ores and metals, but they lacked basic necessities of life. While the land was not particularly pleasing to the eye, the people did benefit from the vast richness of its soil through trade with their neighbors. The queen did not tax the people at all because their laws make it clear that the monarchy had to support its own through means other than taxation. So, the throne usually went to one of the rich ore or mineral mining families. As a result of this form of rule, her subjects remained fiercely loyal to Daria's leadership. They could not find such freedom under the reign of King Leroy Ishrafle or King Derek Udrugi, who were kings of the other lands of men.
    The morning fog burned off completely as the sun continued to climb in the sky. It was going to be another blistering hot day on the road. They were able to see the beautiful green plains on the east side of the river now that the mist was gone. They heard the sounds of birds singing from the forest that ran parallel to the banks of the Blaine River as they slowed to a trot. The water moved steadily south while making soft rushing sounds as it rolled over rocks and other debris. A squirrel ran across their path heading toward the cover of the nearby woods. Then that same furry rodent ran back into their path toward the river as though it were on fire. A small red fox burst out from the tree line toward the defenseless creature. The fox came up short when it caught sight of Yukio and his men. At least we were here to protect this helpless fur ball. The general was growing weary of the lack of anything exciting happening. What I wouldn tgive to have a battle or even a decent hunt. Maybe we will run into some filthy ores further south; that will help get the blood flowing.
    By midday, General Yukio and his men were ready to take a break from their arduous trek south. The travelers' earlier eagerness and anticipation was melting as the day wore on. They led their horses to the edge of the river for a refreshing drink of cool water and for a brief dip. After the horses had quenched their thirst and cooled off a bit, they grazed lazily a short distance from where the men had gathered for their lunch. The men had taken up refuge under the eaves of the Black Forest to escape the scorching-hot midday sun. They took out their daily rations and began to eat a nice, cold lunch. They could not bear the thought of eating a warm meal on such a blistering hot day. Chilled ale was passed around freely to quench the soldiers' parched mouths.
    The sound of the running water and the humming of small insects had a hypnotic effect on the men. Some of them began to doze off under the cool shade of the trees as a result. The horses edged closer to the tree line so that they could stay cool until they resumed their march. It was early in the afternoon, and the temperature was still on the rise. The men were hoping that the general would allow them to stay where they were until the heat of the day had passed. They stole furtive glances at their imperious leader to see if they could determine what he was thinking or what kind of mood he was in. Yukio looked around at the landscape and resigned himself to the fact that the weather was not going to change any time soon, so he decided not to subject his soldiers or their steeds to such excruciating heat.
    "Men, we will stay here for the remainder of the day. We can still patrol the waters and monitor traffic on either side of the river from our current locale," the general declared with a grin. "Captain, take fifteen of your men to the other side of the river. You will be in charge of that side of the bank until the heat of the day begins to cool. When the heat becomes tolerable for man and beast, we will set up camp for the night in the safety of the woods."
    "Yes, sir!" the captain replied as he snapped to attention. He gathered up the men that were to go with him, along with their horses. Once they had mounted, they took off toward the Elgore Bridge, which was big enough for war machines to cross over. It was only one mile north from their current location, and they would be able to ride in the shade for most of that distance. This was going to be a peaceful afternoon judging by the weather, and the captain could not see how anything could possibly go wrong.
    The men who remained behind with the general were thinking the same thing as their captain. This was such a beautiful day that no one noticed shadows moving in the eaves of the forest. There had heard no reports of possible orc or goblin raids in this area, so they kicked back and enjoyed the day from within the shade of the trees. As the men were daydreaming, the sounds of life abruptly stopped; however, none of the soldiers noticed the change. The only sound left was the rushing water. The men were so caught up in the beauty of their surroundings that they missed these signs of eminent danger.
    The general looked out over the water to see where the men were that he had sent to the west bank. They should be there by now. Maybe they stopped to talk with some travelers or are giving some directions. The general knew that he was merely placating himself. In that instant, he realized that there were no other sounds aside from the bustling river.
    One of the general's soldiers gave a sharp cry of warning as two massive blood-red wolves detached from the shadows of the forest. The beasts caught sight of the men and made directly for them. The two gargantuan creatures converged on one of the men. Before anyone could do anything to stop it, they ripped the unaware soldier in two. They tossed the torn man to the side and inched closer to the group of men who were now standing in front of them.
    "Get them!" shouted General Yukio. Two men were dead within seconds after Yukio ordered the attack. Roaring in rage, the general jumped in front of the rest of his men and cut off the two beasts' heads with two fluid swings. As he stood there panting, a sixth sense warned him that there were more of the massive brutes within the vicinity.
    "Ambush!" the general yelled. As he shouted his warning, a pack of enormous wolves that had sent the two scouts to their location detached from the eaves of the forest right behind them. They had blood-red fur that was standing on end as they growled menacingly. As the predators slowly approached the men hemming them in, all escape routes vanished as they closed in on their prey. As the general looked closer at these foul creatures, he noticed blood dripping from their massive maws. He knew that the detachment he had sent to the west bank never made it to the other side of the river.
    "Everyone stand back to back and form a circle! We do not want to give them an easy target!" General Yukio bellowed. There was no point in whispering now that they were surrounded. They would have to fight for their lives. They were going to show these brutes how much they had underestimated their prey. They had never lost a fight with their general in command, and he was not going to let the men down when they were fighting such an indomitable enemy.
    The red wolves crouched one by one into their attack position. The general's men shook slightly as they waited for the inevitable. A look of fierce determination came across Yukio's face as he stared back at the enormous beasts. He was probing the minds of his enemies, which required eye contact in the case of non-sentient beings. He was trying to force doubt and trepidation into their cruel and uncouth minds. If he was able to get these foul creatures to lower their guard for an instant, he and his men would stand a chance of surviving this deadly encounter.
    General Yukio reared back and flung his sword with both hands at the wolf nearest him after his failed attempts at mind control. The red-bladed sword buried itself to the hilt right between the beast's fierce eyes. His men sprang into action just as the wolves began their attack. Both sides were fighting with a fury that filled the air with fur, blood, and the piercing sounds of death. The general retrieved his bloodied blade and began such a furious assault on the wolves that they began to back away. The Nairian soldiers formed a circle again with their backs to one another as their leader went ballistic. Ten of the gigantic beasts lay dead or dying at their feet as the remaining predators continued to creep away.
    There were about twenty of the blood-red beasts left, so now there was one man for every wolf. The general looked over his shoulder at his stalwart men and gave them a devilish grin. It all happened in a blink of an eye. One minute the wolves were preparing to pounce again, and the next they were sniffing the air as though they had lost sight of their quarry. It was as though the Nairians had vanished into thin air. Their heads snapped back in the direction of where the men had been standing in a circle. They were looking in the general direction where their meal should have been.
    Move toward the water, slowly. General Yukio projected this mental command into the minds of his troops. The general could not understand what was happening. He was planning to do something much different than this. The soldiers were so focused on self-preservation that they began to move toward the water under the belief that their general had actually spoken the command audibly. As they edged away, there was an explosion of fire that incinerated three of the wolves instantly. Fire and debris began flying in every direction. The wolves were howling in pain and shock. Yukio took advantage of this unexpected opportunity.
    "Kill them all!" bellowed Yukio out loud this time. He and his men charged the confused beasts and tore them to pieces. Fire continued to come from the north, which provided the Nairians the edge they needed to finish off their enemy quickly. The smell of burnt flesh and fur permeated the now still air. The smoke swirled high up into the clear afternoon sky.
    As the smoke thinned and the flames died out, the men could see a tall, slender figure walking toward them. Dead wolves lay all around the bewildered soldiers. The general ignored the stranger and quickly sought out his troops to make sure everyone was still there and in one piece. No one had been harmed. Yukio was proud of his men and their success. They had taken on a breed of gigantic wolves and had won decisively. The big question now was who the person was that had interfered.
    As the mysterious figure continued to glide toward the exhausted group, it became clear that it was a woman, a female elf to be exact. She had a brilliant gold and silver crown on her head that glinted and shimmered as she moved into the sunlight. She seemed to float toward them because of her exceeding grace and fluid movements. She seemed to be glowing white as she approached the men, who were still huddled together in a small circle back to back. The men held their collective breath as they realized that it was this delicate being that had provided them with the perfect distraction during their battle.
    "I am glad that you are all safe," the angelic elf said softly. Her eyes were fixed on General Yukio. She swayed gently side to side as she floated to a halt right in front of them. "It was lucky for you that I was walking along the edge of the forest on this fine day." She was smiling as she said this, which had a soothing effect upon the men. It was a reassuring smile that made them forget their recent deadly battle. They did not want her to stop talking; it was like drinking water after traversing a scorching-hot desert.
    "We are indebted to you, milady," the general said with a bow. His men quickly prostrated themselves before the powerful elven princess. They did not know why their general bowed to this elf. He never bowed to anyone.
    "Please, do not bow before me. I merely provided assistance in a battle that you were going to win without my help," she said with hushed tones as she gestured for the men to stand. "I am Princess Kira, daughter of King Tiranidrol, ruler of the Renshaw elves. Please gather your horses and follow me. We are not safe out in the open." She motioned for them to hurry as she looked around furtively. She had an anxious look that clearly indicated that they were still in danger. They glanced at their general, who quickly nodded to them that they should do as she said.
    They hurriedly gathered up their horses and were off within a couple of minutes. The general picked up the princess with one of his massive arms and had her ride behind him. They sped off quickly into the interior of the forest in the opposite direction of the dead and dying wolf pack. Men were usually not permitted into the confines of the forest, but their situation was one of need. Princess Kira assured them that they were not in any immediate danger from the elves. They really needed to focus on putting some serious distance between them and their attackers before stopping for a rest. After what seemed to be hours of traveling in a northeastern course, they came upon a small clearing where the princess called for a halt. It was obvious by now that they were no longer being pursued.
    "We are truly grateful to you for the timely assistance you gave us back there," General Yukio said with a gracious smile. "Do you know what happened to the men I sent to the Elgore Bridge?"
    "They were waylaid by the very beasts you killed. None of your troops survived the ambush," she reported sadly. She had a very sincere look on her face that made it clear she had truly wanted to help their dead companions. "I am sorry that I was not able to help them. Their deaths will be avenged." The men had never witnessed an elf being nice or even polite to anyone of a different race. Their interactions with elves had always been terse at best. She looked as though she truly cared about them. That made them all very nervous.
    "We are indebted to you for your kindness. We will leave you now Milady. We do not wish to inconvenience you any further. We will report to Queen Thejar of your selfless actions and will return with a reward as a token of our gratitude," the general stated with a slight bow. He knew that they were trespassing and that their presence was being watched by unseen eyes. This forest is alive! I mustget my men out of here. I do not know what this treacherous elven princess wants with us.
    "General Yukio, send your men back to your queen to report the events that have transpired. She will need to know that the southern wolves are migrating north. I request that you stay here with me," she said without any hint of what exactly she meant by her strange request. "I have matters I need to discuss with an emissary of the race of men, and you are the perfect candidate." She waited patiently for his reply with an unfathomable look on her smooth face.
    "Commander, please lead the men back to the queen and report what has taken place. Make sure you tell her about the wolves and let her know that I will be returning shortly with a more detailed report," he said with a grin. "Let her know that I am meeting with a member of the elven royal family and that I will return as soon as our meeting has ended." He could see a smirk creep across the face of his commander and gave him a quick wink. The commander understood that political issues were not the only things these two would be discussing. The soldiers saluted their general and then spurred their horses toward the northern edge of the forest. They wanted out of the eerie woods as fast as their steeds could carry them.
    The princess and the general silently watched as the soldiers galloped off through the trees. After what seemed to be several minutes, they turned to look at one another. I do not understand it, but I know that my destiny is bound to this man. I feel that without him I will never be whole as long as Ilive. What's wrong with me?
    The general easily read her thoughts and smiled. She is just as confused as I am; maybe that is why she is not bothering to shield thoughts from me.
    "What exactly did you want to talk about, Milady?" Yukio questioned slyly. "I do not think that it is politics or the safety of trade routes along the Blaine River." He was smiling smugly now. He knew what she had in mind from reading her thoughts. He could also tell that she did not know that he had the ability to read minds, which was working to his advantage.
    "Well, you already know why I asked you to stay behind. I thought you were gifted with stealing information from people's minds," she retorted playfully. "Remember, I have magic as well. Just because I do not possess the same abilities as you does not mean I do not know when my mind is being probed. You have met my father before, haven't you?" She was toying with him now. "He told me that you were able to block his probing attempts the last time you two met."
    The general was turning slightly red with anger at what he perceived to be mocking words. He had no idea that she knew so much about him. "So, I guess there is more to this chance meeting than meets the eye?" There was no denying the attraction he had toward her. He was a man after all. She was more beautiful than any woman in Nairi, and he had never met the likes of her. Logic and reason said that what he was thinking and feeling was irrational, but he could not deny what he was beginning to feel for this elven princess.
    "Do you not sense the special bond that has formed between us already? I have known for some time now that we would meet, and I have also known that our destinies were somehow inextricably linked," she said with a sultry tone in her voice. "I know all of this because one of the guardians revealed these glimpses of the future to me. She knew that our union was vital to the future of the races." She had a lustful look in her eyes as she stared the general down. She moved closer to him as she spoke. He could smell her sweet fragrance and sense her burning desire. Our union … what is she talking about?
    "So, what do we do now?" he asked quizzically. He was taken aback by what was happening and how fast things were unfolding. He instinctively knew that they would end up together somehow, though he did not know how or why it would happen. The elven laws regarding mixing with other races were strict, and the punishments for violating them were severe. That was not what concerned him at the moment; he was too intent on what was happening. It was as if he were dreaming a dream that would vanish the second he questioned what was taking place.
    "We must go at once to meet with Mistress Kana," she said with ever-mounting anticipation. It is happening just as she had said it would. She felt a rush of wild excitement and passion surge through her body. I will get what I want and save many of the elves from the ill fate that awaits those who will not follow me. General Yukio will be by my side, and then I can go to work on changing the destiny of the elven nation.
    "Why are we meeting with an Elemental?" Yukio queried cautiously. A feeling of great trepidation coursed through his body at the prospect of meeting with a guardian face-to-face. "Have we been invited to meet with her ladyship?" He did not know what to think at this point. He had let his curiosity override his common sense. He realized that the princess was anticipating marrying him and that together they would become heavily involved in altering the elves' destiny. He had always been in control of his life and took comfort in knowing he could still use his power against this powerful princess if events got out of control. How could I have been so blind? All I had to do was delve deeper into her thoughts instead of touching so much on her feelings. I should get out of here.
    "She is expecting us and is rather anxious to meet you," she said excitedly. There was no point in blocking the mental intrusions by the general. By allowing him access into her mind, he would be more willing to follow her to Mount Quang for their meeting with the Mistress Kana. "General, there is no point in the both of us pretending that you do not have the ability to use magic to enter a person's mind. I have let down all of my defenses; feel free to probe my thoughts and feelings."
    A brief look of annoyance crossed his face. How does she know so much about me and my abilities? He quickly hid any display of emotion and closed his eyes. Once his eyes were shut, he reached out with his magic to locate Kira so he could probe her mind for the truth. He first touched the cords of her emotions. He found out right away that she needed him and that she cared more for him than for anyone else. He could also sense her deep and abiding love she had for the elven people. When he prodded these sentiments for the elves to the surface, he understood their plight and felt the desperate need to assist the princess in changing their fate. How is she doing that? Why should I care what happens to the elves?
    As he delved deeper, he came across a discussion she had had with the guardian Kana. He quickly understood why they must go to meet with her and why he had such strong feelings for this elven woman whom he had just met. He still thought it unsettling that Kira knew so much about him. Through his probing, he found that she gained most of her knowledge from this guardian. Why does a guardian choose to interfere when they have vowed to never get involved with the races? More importantly, why me?
    He lingered a few moments on these thoughts and then opened his eyes. He saw Kira looking right back at him with a sensuous grin. Her eyes did not hide her intent, and she moved closer to him. She knew that he understood now and would not turn back. Their future together was only beginning; they would become so powerful that none would dare question their union.
    As General Yukio and Princess Kira emerged from the northern end of the Black Forest, Mount Quang came into view. It was a beautiful mountain covered with trees frosted by fresh snow. There were many places that appeared to be habitable. They looked at one another with loving eyes as they took in the beauty of the moment. They had traveled together over the past few days to reach the base of Quang. The sun was beginning to disappear on another day, and the sky was beginning to turn a reddish purple color. It was a truly beautiful scene. In the morning, they would climb the mountain to the predetermined location for their meeting with the powerful Elemental, Kana. It would be a day that they would never forget.
    They used the last few moments of the waning light to set up camp within the protection of the northern trees. Kira moved her hands in waving motions as she worked her magic. Every night she threw out a magical web to protect them from attack and to warn them of any danger that was drawing near. This night was clear, and the stars were bright in the sky above. They lay together for a long while staring up at the beautiful heavens while holding one another in a tight embrace. The air from the mountain was clean and fresh after a recent snowstorm.
    They woke early the following morning with a burning desire to reach their destination as soon as possible. They were anxious to begin their new life together and to work on their plans for saving the elven race. As they sat side by side taking in the tranquil scene, they were abruptly interrupted by a sleek black raven approach ing them through the air. At first they did not know if the bird was flying at them, but as it dived down toward the earth, it was clear it was heading right for them. The fell beast came up short and landed right in front of them without being harmed by Kira's magical web. It looked directly at Yukio with great expectancy in its beady black eyes.
    The general instinctively knew that the raven was attempting to communicate with him. He had never attempted to communicate telepathically with a raven before, so he did not know what to expect. As he reached out with his magic to touch the bird's mind, he could sense the urgency of the message it was carrying. Once he had established a connection with the bird, he saw flashing images coming at him in rapid succession.
    The general winced as the images flew at him. He simply could not process that much information at the rate it was coming at him. He used his magic to slow down the images. Once they started coming at a more reasonable pace, he understood perfectly who the bird was and what it was trying to tell him. This was a messenger from Mistress Kana. He had been sent to give them precise directions to the meeting place and to bid them welcome.
    "This is a messenger from our guardian friend," the general explained. "He bids us welcome from his master and asks that we follow him to the predetermined meeting place." Yukio did not go into detail about the numerous images that he saw because it was still unclear to him what they all meant. He had no idea why he saw scenes of horrific battles and of personal betrayals. He could not comprehend their meaning at the moment, but he would discover their meaning. He was extremely adept at solving puzzles like these and would not rest until he understood everything.
    As the morning gave way to midday, the sun burned brightly in the clear sky above them. The temperature was beginning to climb already to a very uncomfortable high. They had been following the raven for a couple of hours now, and they were still no closer to the secret meeting place. Yukio had used the time to describe the meeting place in greater detail to Kira. There was a massive waterfall that fell over a hundred feet into a deep pool of green water. This place was enclosed in a veranda of beautiful trees and vegetation. That was where they were heading. The mistress would surely be waiting for them there. However, Yukio did not tell the princess that he saw the guardian in the images he was shown by the raven. The Elemental did not have a solid form, or so it seemed. Kana looked like red and grayish-white mist swirling together by the bank of the eerie pool.
    The general's thoughts were interrupted when the trees began to thin out and revealed the scene Yukio had just finished describing. They looked up at the impressive waterfall and instinctively knew that everything was going to be different. They followed the falling water to where it smashed into the clear green pool of water. Somehow they had not heard the stream that they had been following. They were even more bewildered at how they missed the raucous sound of the falling water. They had been caught up in their own thoughts that they missed all of the signs of the end of their journey.
    Princess Kira's eyes sparkled as she looked for the Elemental. She knew that no one had seen one for hundreds of years. They used to travel the lands ofTuwa without any trepidation, but something had happened centuries ago to drive them into seclusion. As Yukio looked at the place where he had seen the misty form of Kana, they both started at the appearance of a beautiful creature. She had long, fiery-red hair with eyes that pierced the soul. Being in her presence was both terrible and awe inspiring. The powerful Elemental before them gestured to them to come out from under the cover of the trees. Yukio did not like giving up his cover; it made him feel vulnerable.
    As they approached, a powerful wind came up from behind them and lifted them into the air. They hung suspended right in front of Kana. They had a brief moment of terror rush through them, and then all at once they were at peace. The guardian smiled pleasantly at her guests as though this unwanted suspension should have been expected. Once they felt comfortable again, they both carefully put up mental barriers. It was never wise to lower them for too long, regardless of whose company you were in. Yukio worried that he may have kept them down for a moment too long, so he employed his strongest barrier in the form of a mind mirror. This is basic in what it does; however, it requires vast amounts of energy and skill to employ. Basically he shields his mind by mirroring the mind of the intruder so that they see their own thoughts. He quickly searched for an alien presence in his mind and found none there. He breathed a sigh of relief. She must trust us. Yukio felt a pang of uneasiness at this thought.
    "You are here at my request," Kana stated without wasting another moment. "I have seen your destinies, and they are intertwined with one another and with the elves." Her voice was smooth and yet intense at the same time. It mesmerized the pair to the point of total submission. A glazed look came over their eyes, and their minds were blissfully at ease and defenseless once more. She told them many things and spoke, at times, in a language not familiar to them. They reached a point where they were aware again after what seemed to be hours of listening to the guardian. The Elemental had released her control over their minds so that they would remember this part of their meeting on a conscience level.
    "It is clear that you two are to be united as elf and man. Your union will be the catalyst for saving the elves from annihilation. Also, new friendships will be formed between races that were once enemies," the mistress stated confidently. She seemed to be glowing now as they looked at her. They simply could not take their eyes off her. They began to panic again at their lack of control. She spoke some more words they did not understand and cringed at the power they had when she uttered them. As she was speaking, clouds formed overhead and rain began to fall. This apparently symbolized the washing away of their previous lives and the beginning of their new ones as her servants.
    After a few minutes of rain the clouds dispersed and the heat of the day hit them with full force once more. The cold they had felt immediately vanished. They felt oddly cleansed and renewed after being chilled. They did not know that this Elemental had broken the laws of the guardians by intervening in lesser beings' lives and by commanding an element that she did not have stewardship over. She had used her command of the winds to bring the storm clouds to their location to do her bidding even though she should not command water in any form. As soon as her servants were cleansed, she commanded the wind to remove the clouds to their previous position. Then she commanded the heat of the sun to dry and solidify the change she had wrought in these two unlikely partners.
    "You two are now bound together forever. No one can break the bond that has been created here today," she said with a commanding voice. "Your mission is to bring the elves that see the truth of their plight to this place to begin building their new home. They will be blessed by the guardians for following their chosen servants."
    "We will do as you have asked," replied Yukio and Kira in unison.
    "Good. Now is the time to do the work of the guardians and to prove your loyalty to our cause," Kana said with a smile. At this point, it was unclear what she meant by this statement. The couple smiled back at their new master while peace filled their souls. They felt as though they were floating in the clouds above the cares and woes of their former lives. They just knew that their happiness would last forever, but it would be tested by the shortsighted elven High Council. They also knew that Kira's father, King Ciel, would not tolerate what they had done. He would try to make an example of them for sure.
    There was a subtle shift that could be felt throughout the different races of Tuwa. No one could explain what exactly had changed, but they all knew that something for ill or good had taken place. An elf had broken their sacred laws by marrying a man, and an Elemental had violated the laws of her order. Everyone felt a permanent change in their hearts that was unmistakably linked to the events that unfolded on Mount Quang. The guardians felt the rift more profoundly than anyone else because of the severity of the violations made by the guilty parties. They would have to wait and see what would arise from these heinous acts.


The High elves

    The sun burst brilliantly over the high peaks of Mount Quang to illuminate the new and partially completed structures. The elves, who had recently seceded from under King Ciel Tiranidrol's reign, had given themselves a new name so that they would be unique and separate from their woodland kin. They took on the moniker of high elves because of their new location on Mount Quang and also because they felt morally superior to those who remained behind in Renshaw. Mist clung to the mountainside as the light of this new day attempted to burn its way through the thick, moist barrier engulfing the entire snow-capped mountain.
    Kira had been made queen, the rightful ruler of the high elves with Yukio at her side. He was a king in title only because only an elf can be a monarch over elves. The people had decided to hold uphold elven law with only a few alterations. Her sister was still a princess and was the next in line to the throne. While the people accepted General Yukio as the spouse of their queen, they did not like him because of his constant manipulation of everyone around him. Their attitude did not sit too well with the charismatic military man. He hid his displeasure so that he may be able to win the hearts of the people over in time. An envoy was sent out with Yukio at the head to the different nations of the free lands of Tuwa. He had been asked to act as an ambassador for the queen and the newly formed nation of high elves. He was the perfect choice for the job because of his connections with the leaders of the nations of men, giants, and dwarves.
    All of the homesteads had been completed before the high elves moved from the Forest of Renshaw into their mountain home. The capital city of Alanderas encompassed much of the southern side of Mount Quang. Scaffolding surrounded many of the buildings in the central part of the city like great skeletal creatures. These structures had not been completed before the people moved in because they were for meetings and commerce. The dwelling places were the most important thing to have finished, and that was why they were all finished. Some of the residents lived outside the city while the majority lived within the protective wall around the capital.
    The city looked beautiful and decadent, but it was also fortified against any potential assaults. High walls had been erected around the perimeter to provide a certain level of protection against unwanted intrusions or most aerial attacks. The walls were three times the height of the tallest elf. The width of these walls allowed a wagon to ride easily along the top. Naturally magic had been used to speed up the construction of these solid barriers. Trebuchets lined the top of the walls as the main deterrent against a siege. There were several areas where the elven archers could be posted with a reasonable amount of shielding. The main entrance had a gate that was half as thick as the defensive walls, which required ten elves on each side of the dual doors to open and close them. Alanderas was truly a mighty fortress that could not be easily taken from any direction.
    The design used to build this enormous keep was patterned after the impenetrable dwarven strongholds. The queen and her family resided in a castle located at the very heart of the city. This building was surrounded by another massive wall that was twice as thick as the outer wall. The dimensions were double that of the first barrier in every respect. In addition to the trebuchets and archers, there are swordsmen and knights patrolling this inner perimeter atop the massive bulwark. There were catapults situated strategically behind the defensive barrier as an additional protection against intruders. The defenses were most impressive and awe inspiring to anyone who saw them. Those who did see these deterrents believed that no one would be able to penetrate the impregnable fortifications of Queen Kira's inner sanctum.
    Queen Kira felt it was vital to have protection and security this intense. She did not know how the elves would react to the division she had caused. Also, she could not predict how some of the other races like ores and goblins would react to this new power in the north. They might view the high elves as being weak and possibly vulnerable to an attack. They might take steps to destroy them before they got an opportunity to grow. She secretly wondered how the other Elementals would react to the intervention of Mistress Kana. The only time a guardian got involved was to punish or destroy lesser beings. Her confidence wavered at this thought. She did not know if Kana would be able to protect them against the other guardians if they too chose to get involved or if they wanted to rectify the situation that the high elves had instigated.
    General Yukio had a small group of high elven warriors with him to help protect the chairman of the high elven Council as they carried out their diplomatic duties. Bronwen Merindiel was the leader of the council and was a very close friend to Queen Kira. He was also a good friend the queen's father King Ciel of the elves. It had been a difficult choice for him to leave the Black Forest, but he knew that Kira's ideas and beliefs were more in line with his. He knew that the elven kingdom was headed down a path that would diminish their standing in the Tuwa over time. He could not bear the thought of such weakness when he knew that there was a better way. He truly felt that the queen was inspired in her actions. The fact that an Elemental was on their side brought him a great deal of comfort and resolution.
    Chairman Merindiel had long silver hair that glimmered softly in the early morning sun as he rode along the eaves of the northern edge of the Black Forest. He had very dark skin that contrasted this shimmering silver mane. He was so dark that many of the elves referred to him as "the dark elf." Any person who had never spoken to this wise and gentle leader would probably assume that he was evil because of his ominous appearance. There were many of the high elves that distrusted him and worried that he would betray their new queen. This line of thinking could not have been further from the truth. Next to General Yukio, Bronwen was the most faithful and loyal supporter of the new monarchy. This skewed perception of the council leader would cost him dearly in the end.
    "Where are we off to first, General Yukio?" the chairman asked airily.
    "I have been absent from my responsibilities for too long, so we are going to make our first visit to Queen Daria," Yukio replied. He had been gone for over six months without returning to Nairi since his initial report after his union. Queen Daria would want to have an update from her general. She would be very pleased to make an alliance with the high elves. King Ciel had denied an equal partnership with any race, so this was an opportunity for mutual trade and for developing a strong relationship that renewed old ties. He was confident that this first meeting would produce the best results out of all their visits.
    "That sounds like the most prudent course of action of course," Bronwen agreed. "We could definitely use a strong ally like the people of Nairi. Their proximity will allow a new nation like ours to grow quickly and safely." The chairman truly believed that this plan was a good one. I hope that Queen Daria is as accepting as the good general believes. His dark face hid his reservations while he put on a confident smile to shore up Yukio's diplomatic plan. It was still difficult for him to overcome his prejudices about men.

    Queen Kira sat in the newly constructed council chambers pondering a course of action she would need to take if diplomacy did not work. She was fairly certain that her husband and the chairman would be successful as ambassadors for the high elves; however, she was worried about their last visit. She did not think her stubborn father would want to have anything to do with her or the elves that followed her. She stood up and began to pace around the open space where the council table would soon be situated in front of her throne. I certainly hope that we are able to ally ourselves with the race of men and dwarves; that way we will be able to withstand any retaliation from the elves. She shook her head at such a dubious thought. This was going to be much more difficult than she had originally thought.
    The door to the hall opened slowly to admit a slight dark figure. After a moment, Queen Kira recognized her sister as she walked further into the light that shone through the stained glass dome. She immediately sensed something different about her sibling, but she could not attribute the change to any one thing right away. Kishi did not have a favorable look on her face as she stared at her sister. Clearly something was amiss and, from the look of it, it was not going to be a pleasant conversation.
    "Kishi, what brings you here?" Kira queried pleasantly.
    "Why you of course, my queen," Kishi replied sarcastically with an equally mocking bow. She had a wry smile on her face.
    "Kishi, there is no need for formalities between us. What is it that I can do for you?" countered the queen. She had knots forming in her stomach at this point. She had never seen her sister act like this. What is going on? What is she playing at?
    "My queen, do you truly think it wise to trust a god to help us without reciprocation?" Kishi was not going to waste time; they did not have much left. She did not trust the guardians and was even more concerned by only one of them showing any interest in them. It also was troubling that the other Elementals did not choose to involve themselves in something as trivial as a coup. Something does not add up. What is Kana doing getting involved with lesser beings? Why help my sister of all people? What makes her so special?
    "You do not believe that the guardians would help lesser beings like us. You do not believe that they help others for the purpose of doing good. You have never trusted anyone but yourself," Kira retorted angrily! "You have always looked out for yourself and cared for no one else. Why did you even bother coming with us if you did not believe in our cause?" Her face flushed red with anger. This is pointless to fight amongst ourselves. Why is she really here? What does she want?
    "I do not need your permission to do anything, dear sister. I am more capable than you in every way imaginable, and you know it." She was not going to tolerate her younger sister's idiocy. "I came here because I too believe that the elves were on the wrong path. Politics had taken place of traditions and freedom. I believed the bureaucracy had taken over and that our inept father could no longer control them or use them. I do not believe, however, that you should be the one to lead these people!" An uncomfortable silence fell between the two powerful sorceresses.
    Kira straighten up and walked toward her sister who stood in the very center of the room. "What are you saying? Do you really believe that you could lead the people? You only care for yourself and your own rapacious needs!" The words were like venomthoughtless, but lethally intentional.
    "I take what is rightfully mine, dear sister. I am the eldest and should therefore be queen. Just because you have a husband does not give you any more claim to the throne. I believe my ability to look out for myself gives this new nation the sense of direction that your miniscule mind could not possibly imagine!" She was not going to hold back her true feelings anymore. "Yukio is nothing more than an unworthy little man who wants fame and glory! He is not fit to wear a crown even though he has no real power. It is an insult to the high elves. There are many who agree with me and are willing to follow me as their leader. They recognize your weakness and do not think you are capable of leading them. Think about that!" Kishi felt all of the anger and resentment she had bottled up for the past few months leave her body in one big rush.
    "Well, dear sister," Kira said while keeping her rage in check, "you have made it crystal clear where you stand. The question now is what are you going to do? Will you stay here with us or are you leaving? I know that you are good at the latter," the queen said in icy tones.
    "Why don't we let the people decide? Or are you afraid of what they would say? The monarchy serves the people, not your own selfish desires. If I am guilty of greed and being self-centered, then a vote would help you to inventory yourself. You may find that you and I are not so different after all. The keystone in my life is that I recognize and embrace who I am. You pretend to be something you are not."
    "Now is not the time to make more changes. We will wait until the city is finished and then bring the issue up with the council where these matters should be addressed," Kira replied coolly. She turned her back to her sister to make it clear that the conversation was over. I'm the queen, not her. She is just jealous of what I have.
    "I will wait until the time you have appointed, my queen. Make no mistake; I will present this issue to the council when our fair city is complete. All I ask of you is to honor whatever decision they make," Kishi replied confidently. She has given me some rope, and I am going let her strangle herself with it!
    "I agree. We will wait until then, and I will respect the ruling of the council. Until that time, I am still your queen, and you will not openly disagree with me. Understood?" Queen Kira stated, with her back still to her sister.
    "I will wait until the appointed time to make my case. You have my word," the princess replied sardonically.


The Guardians

    Kana soared high over the sprawling Forest of Renshaw on a strong easterly wind. She smiled as she looked down at the third part of the elves moving toward their new home on Mount Quang. She thought that these inferior creatures would have been more difficult to persuade, but they seemed only too eager to do her bidding without even questioning her motives. Her plan was working perfectly thus far, but she knew better than to lure herself into believing that there would not be any hiccups along the way. She still had to keep up her guard with the other Elementals for the time being. She firmly believed that Lady Necia and Lady Hilzarie would join her when they heard her plan. As she continued to congratulate herself on her first victory, she turned with the wind to head toward the guardians' homeland. She could not be seen from the ground as she glided amongst the white clouds. She changed shapes randomly as she continued her journey so that she would not be seen by searching or wandering eyes.
    There was not much known about the race of Elementals throughout the lands. The lesser peoples of Tuwa did not know what they really looked like because they could take the form of the element they were composed of. Kana was considered an elder guardian because she was made of both fire and air. She has the ability to command these elements to do her bidding regardless of the intended use. There were limitations to what she could command however. For example, it was forbidden to command elements that they did not have stewardship over. There were four basic elements that the world was comprised of. fire, air, water, and earth. Lady Necia had command over fire, while Lady Hilzarie controlled the air. These two guardians were both accountable to Mistress Kana. These three chose to appear as human females when traveling through populated lands.
    The other two basic Elementals were Lords Keb and Neb. They chose to take on the form of a male human when they were not mimicking their respective elements. Keb commanded the earth and reported to an elder guardian, just like Hilzarie and Necia. Neb ruled water in its various forms while being subject to the same guardian as Keb. Mistress Khalida was their overseer and was much more sensible than her volatile counterpart Kana. She was made of both earth and water. She was considered to be the most patient of all the guardians and was more than a match for any of the Elementals, with the exception of their master. He was more powerful than all of the others combined.
    The guardian was made from all four elements. This unique combination gave him ultimate power and command over all the Elementals. He chose to appear in a male human form when he traveled outside his eastern realm, which he had not done for several centuries. Even among the guardians he was considered to be the rightful lord of Tuwa. His power and wisdom was matched by none other throughout the land. No one could utter his name because it had real power when spoken by someone with knowledge of the sacred language. No mortal or immortal had ever attempted to speak his sacred name out of fear of reprisal. As a result of this, the guardians simply referred to him as their master while the lesser beings called him lord. Kana did not care for him or his power over her at all, but she was wise enough to respect his immense capabilities for the moment.
    The mistress of fire and air desired the power of her master more than anything else. She worked tirelessly to hide this secret ambition from the other Elementals, and especially from him. She was gliding gracefully as she continued her journey east flying over the High Plains of Landen. Her thoughts turned to the meeting that would take place once she arrived at the council she had been summoned to. It was imperative to not give the others any ammunition to use against her at this crucial juncture in her plan. She needed to keep her indecorous deeds safely hidden and her malicious motives concealed until the right moment. She knew that the only one she had to worry about was him. He seemed to always know everything, but she had taken careful measures to act in such a way that it would not be readily apparent what her intentions were. It was as though he could read her thoughts and divine from his intrusion what a person was plotting even through her mental barriers. She wanted that power to be hers. She just had to be patient to learn all that she needed to in order to move her plans forward.

    The guardians gathered together from various parts of Tuwa for the council meeting called by their master. Only Mistress Khalida appeared to have an idea of what the purpose of this gathering was for by the knowing look on her face. They were silent as they waited for the guardian to arrive. Belatedly, Mistress Kana graced the council with her presence after her long trek from the western lands. She nodded to the others as she took her proper place in the circle. Then their master appeared suddenly in their midst. He took on his human form after his spectacular appearance. The rest of the council followed his lead and transformed themselves into similar forms. A massive circular table appeared in their midst with seven granite-looking chairs. The guardian took his seat and bade the other to sit down so that they could begin.
    No one spoke as they waited for their leader to begin the meeting. The air about them seemed to be alive with some form of raw pulsating power. Crackling noises could be heard around them as they sat patiently around the massive table. All eyes were directed toward their master in anticipation of what he would say. Clouds began to form ominously overhead, and sounds of thunder ripped through the near silence that had come over the council. An earthshattering boom rang out as he stood to address his faithful ones. Does he always have to be so dramatic? Kana thought as she rolled her eyes.
    "We are gathered here to discuss events that are past and that will come to pass," the guardian said as he began the meeting. "It has been too long since we have met together, and there has been a recent transgression by someone at this table that must be addressed." He was careful not to look at the guilty party. He was hoping that she would confess her error and make amends for the trespass. I doubt very much that she will come clean … especially in front of the others.
    "Master, tell us who has broken our law," Lord Neb pleaded. He instantly knew what was being referred to. Someone had commanded his element to do his or her bidding. He thought that it was Mistress Khalida when it happened, so he did not worry about it because she too had the command of water. Now he did not feel that this was the case because she was loyal to their leader and would never do anything to betray his trust.
    "My lord, I commanded the wind to bring storm clouds to me so that I could help care for some elf children," Mistress Kana said apologetically. "I used my power to force the rain to be unloosed from the clouds to cleanse the needy creatures." She stood and bowed herself to the council to show her humility and her willingness to accept punishment for her actions. That should catch them off guard. This new direction should work far better than what I had originally planned to do.
    "Milady, what was the purpose of your actions?" asked Lord Keb sharply. He had never trusted Kana and had a suspicious feel ing that she was hiding something. This witch is up to something. I know it.
    "While traveling amongst the archaic races of the western lands, I came across some travelers who seemed to have lost their way," she began smoothly. "They looked like they had had a nasty encounter with some wild beasts in the Black Forest and were still in danger from those foul creatures. Apparently they had picked up the scent of the two elves as they were attempting to flee. I sensed immense good in the two children and knew right away that this couple was vital to the races of Tuwa. So, I intervened in their behalf and drove the vile wolf-like predators off. It was at this time that I caused the rain to come to cleanse them of the impurity left by their encounter." She felt triumphant as she looked at the accepting looks from the council. These fools will believe anything!
    The master of the council immediately knew she was lying, but he did not understand the purpose of the lie. He knew exactly what she had done. He knew that she joined an elf and a man. He knew that by intervening she had altered the future of the lands of Tuwa. What he did not understand was why. What is she after? What does she have to gain from all of this?
    "Kana, since you have violated the law forbidding the command of an element not in your stewardship and the law prohibited inferring with the races of Tuwa, you will be banned from the West Land-" the master began to announce her punishment.
    "What? Is this a permanent banishment?" Kana asked while trying to remain calm. She knew that her lord was more than able to restrain her from going into the West Land. She could not allow this to happen. She had to think of something quick or all would be lost.
    "No, it is only for the time it will take me to undo what you have done." He had a blank look on his face that did not reveal what he was really thinking. Let's see what she thinks of that.
    "Master, I should be the one to undo the damage that I have caused. I am responsible for what has happened, and I should be the one to reverse the damage done. Please allow me to make amends for my wrongdoing. You may choose whomever you want to accompany me on this charge." She knew whom he would send and knew that she could easily control him. Hopefully he allows me to do this; otherwise all is lost.
    "Keb, you will accompany the transgressor on this task. You will report your progress to Mistress Khalida on a regular basis. It may take some time to redress the wrongs that have been committed, Kana," he admonished sternly. He gave Keb a piercing gaze that held him transfixed. It was as if he were communicating something very important through that look. I do not like the look of that silent communication, thought Kana. She hid her concern from the others so the guardian would end his lecture.
    "I will do as thou hast commanded, my master," replied the lord of the earth. He felt equal to the task with the knowledge given to him from the guardian. His lord had also given him a stern warning about the probable treachery of Kana through their wordless communication.
    "Then you agree to allow me to repent of my wrong doing?" Kana humbly asked.
    "Yes, you are right about one thing, Kana; you alone will pay for what you have done. Know this, if you attempt to deceive me again, you will feel the full extent of my displeasure. I will not tolerate disobedience and lies. I do not fully understand the purpose of your actions, but make no mistake, I will find out." He showed no emotion as he spoke. The air about crackled and snapped with immense power. He seemed to be radiating massive amounts of energy as he stood imperiously at the head of the council.
    "I will not lie or betray you again, master. I will only do what you have commanded me to do and no more. With Lord Keb at my side, you can rest assured that I will not stray again. Please forgive me, master." She bowed again and held that position awaiting his approval.
    "You are forgiven. Remember, do not fail me again. I will be watching." His eyes were fixed on Kana in a way that made it clear that he did not believe her fallacious story at all. He was allowing her to find redemption or condemnation through her actions. He would be watching her, so she must be on her guard at all times.
    "Of course you will. I will take your leave then." She stood erect now as she waited for Lord Keb to arise and join her for their immediate departure.
    Keb stood and transformed himself into a misty brown substance. He moved effortlessly to the side of Kana. She too changed her appearance to mirror the earth lord. They rose silently into the air until they reached a strong westward wind current, and then they were gone. Silence fell once more as the council sat there watching them go. All eyes returned to meet the gaze of their master. They had a feeling that these events were the beginning of hard times for everyone and everything in Tuwa. They could sense it from the elements around them. They could also see the worry in their leader's eyes.
    "Ladies Hilzarie and Necia, please monitor the border between the east and the west. I am concerned that the druids may get involved and that will only make matters worse. Do not allow any to cross into our lands," he said in a commanding voice. "Leave now. I sense the change caused by our dear Kana beginning to take hold, and it is already having an adverse affect on the western lands. We must be vigilant." They immediately transformed and took off like a bolt of lightning. They all felt a sense of urgency to reach their destination without another moment's delay.
    "Lord Neb, please patrol the Blaine River and the other major waters of the West Land. I need you to be my eyes and ears. Please report anything and everything directly to me without delay. Do not overlook anything. We must be prepared for what is to come." He did not hide his concern in his voice. He completely trusted Neb because of his immense wisdom and great power. He knew that he could rely on him to be faithful in this charge.
    "It will be my pleasure, master. I will go now to find out what I can. I will send my messages through the earth, for I do not trust the winds to remain faithful to us." He seemed to understand some of the concerns that his master had. He knew that his task was vital to maintaining the upper hand in this ever-disintegrating situation. "I will also keep in touch with brother earth while he is in harm's way. Do you wish me to assist him if the need should arise?" Neb cared deeply for his brother and knew that Keb's mission was to remain close to the enemy. He would be in constant danger and would not be able to take on the powerful Kana by himself.
    "Do not interfere. Report to me everything you see, hear, and feel using the method you prescribed," the guardian commanded. "Please, make haste now and be ready for anything. Subtly will be our undoing. We must ward against that."
    "Yes, master, I will go and do all that I can. Fear not, I will be diligent in my charge." Lord Neb rose silently and immediately dissipated into nothing.
    "Milady, the most important task has been reserved for you," he began as he turned to face Khalida. "I need you to meet with our ancient friend in his mountain home. He will be needed in the end. It will be he who will save us all. I fear that this is the beginning of an all-out war. He and his kind will be our only hope. Please tell him everything and ask him to come to me straight away. I will need to give him special instructions."
    "I understand, my lord," Khalida replied.
    "After you have finished with that task, you will be in charge of managing the West Land situation. I will be gone for some time to take care of some pressing matters. Summon our most loyal allies and urge them to prepare for war." For the first time he showed real emotion on his face. His jaw was set, and his eyes turned icy blue. "I will not let her succeed in whatever she is planning."
    "We will not fail. We cannot possibly lose with our ancient friend's support. I will, of course, do as you wish. When shall I see you again?" She looked at her master with such a tender look that he stopped plotting in his mind to really look at her.
    "You will see me again. I cannot say when. The future is too full of possibilities and dangers. With the help of our friend from the mountain, I will survive this dark tide. We all will. However, many of the peoples of Tuwa will not. This will not be an easy time for us, and it will not be brief. Evil has awoken at the bidding of a new master." A feeling of dread swept over Khalida when he said this. She finally understood that no one would escape the horrors that were about to be unleashed upon the world. Not even the powerful guardians of Tuwa would survive this war unscathed.
    "Then you must go and do that which is necessary, master. I sense the urgency of your quest. Rest assured that I will do my part to protect the peoples of the West." She walked up to her master and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "May the Almighty Kedem bless you and keep you safe," she said with a bow.
    "He will see us through these difficult times. Kedem will bless you with power and knowledge as you direct and protect the peoples of Tuwa."
    He then rose silently into the air and exploded violently into a ball of pure energy. The air was alive with electricity, and he floated momentarily in midair. He then built up enormous pressure behind him and bolted east out over the sea to his unexplained destination.
    Khalida sat down again at the council table and felt a heavy burden press down upon her shoulders. This task was more than she could bear alone. She knew that her master was wise in sending her to visit their friend in the mountain. He will be the difference in the pending war. She did not fully understand their power or even their purpose. She knew that they were more loyal to the master than anyone else. She could not explain the unbreakable bond between them, but it was one that would save them all. She still felt the dread in her heart and knew that she would not be able to shake the feeling that death and destruction would soon reign down on the races of Tuwa. She also knew that the Elementals would be in real danger somehow. She did not understand how that was possible, but she knew it to be true nonetheless.


Another division

    Princess Kishi walked mechanically to a secluded bluff overlooking the dwellings of the high elves' new mountain home. She did not want to be in the capital for the completion ceremony, as she did not share in the supposed success many of the people had worked so hard for. She did not care for the way Queen Kira was leading the infant nation. She thought that her twin sister had started out with good intentions but had somehow lost her way over the past few months. The idea of freedom was spreading like a plague amongst the population, which meant that Kira did not have complete control over her subjects. The queen's weakness lay in giving power to the high elven Council who were elected by popular vote.
    This lack of control combined with her sister's blind trust in an Elemental was cause for Kishi's severe turmoil. A look of pain and disappointment crept across her beautifully dark face. She did not like the way she had left things with Kira three months earlier. She wished now that she could express her love for her and try to tear down the wall that had arisen between them. She had been an absolute terror the last time they had faced each other. She did not feel that her sister would be willing to forgive her after the way she behaved. She still believed what she had said but that did not give her the right to attack her sister the way she did.
    While she stood musing over these myriad of emotions and thoughts, a messenger had silently approached her from behind. This high elf was being very cautious because of the many stories of Princess Kishi's violent temper. He could not gage what her mood was from where he stood, so he thought it was a good idea to be guarded in his movements. As the messenger emerged from the shadows cast by the mountain, his long blonde hair began to sway softly from the wind rushing down the mountainside. He was dressed in the black and silver uniform that had the crest of the queen. He was obviously a member of the queen's guard and had the unfortunate task of bringing a summons for Kishi to attend a special hearing called by the queen and the high elven Council. He did not know exactly what the meeting was about, but he knew that it must be related to the rumored dispute between the siblings.
    "Milady," the messenger tentatively said. His voice shook slightly with fear as he spoke.
    Princess Kishi whirled around with her hand raised. A ball of fire had burst into life in her left hand. Anyone who knew the powerful sorceress would have known not to approach her from behind. He had not realized the extent of the princess's magic. He cowered at her flaming hand and began to tremble uncontrollably as he waited to be incinerated.
    "Please do not kill me. I have an urgent summons from your sister, Queen Kira, and the high elven Council," he said while shaking all over.
    "You have my apologies. I do not like surprises, and I am afraid you caught me unawares. Please, give me the summons," she said calmly. She lowered her hand, and the flame died out instantly. That little elf is lucky to be alive.
    He edged closer to the dark figure standing at the precipice and handed her the message with trembling hands. He then quickly asked for her leave, and she waved impatiently at him to leave without even looking up. She truly believed her sister had conveniently forgotten their agreement they had made all those months ago. She was not sure now that she should pursue the question of ascension, but the council had already been informed, and they were apparently ready to hear arguments from both sides. She carefully opened the letter and began to read the summons:
    Princess Kishi Tiranidrol,
    Your presence is required at a hearing in regards to your claim to the throne. Also, we will discuss your concerns about the direction of the political affairs of the high elven kingdom. All of the members of the High Council will be present along with the queen and king. A report will be given about the alliances we have formed to date, what our allies require from us, and what will be gained from our new partnerships. Chairman Bronwen Merindiel will conduct the meeting with Queen Kira Tiranidrol presiding. The meeting will be held in the new High Council chamber and will begin promptly at noon. Your item of business will be the first topic on the agenda.
    Respectfully Yours,
    Elgin Rinelyn
    Vice Chairman
    Kishi stared at this formal request from the council in disbelief. She had actually kept her word. Now she did not know what to think or to do for that matter. She thought that the topic would be avoided like a horde of nasty, smelly goblins. As she stood there with the letter in her left hand, she had a sinking feeling that something very similar to what happened to the elves was going to happen to the high elves. She felt sure that someone was behind all of this. Nothing about what was happening seemed to fit. She had never fought with her sister like this; she would never have said such awful and hurtful things. What is going on? Who is behind all of this? l feel like a puppet, but who is the puppeteer?
    She needed to find out some answers, and she needed to do it quickly. She had spent so much time spreading discord among the people that there very well could be another split. There were many who shared her concerns and were willing to uproot again to begin anew elsewhere. Some had even gone as far as seeking out a suitable location. A significant number of people had found the perfect place on the mountain directly west of Mount Quang. They had informed the princess of this spot and had told her that they felt they should start developing a new capital there. At the time, she had been so furious with her sister that she agreed with them. That had been two months ago. She needed to have all of the facts before entering that council room tomorrow, so she determined that she should go and visit this new settlement to see what the dissenters had completed thus far.
    She took one last moment to look down on the capital city in all of its glory. The wind had increased steadily as she had mulled this matter over in her mind. The fog that had clung to parts of the dwellings below had been dispelled by the wind and the bright sun overhead. The rooftops glimmered and shined as the sun continued across the morning sky. She then saw signs of celebration below in the castle's courtyard. There were colorful banners and confetti flying through the air. Sounds of music climbed the side of the mountain as if it were a beast clawing its way to the top. At this moment, the feelings she had had for the past three months returned with renewed vigor. Those ignorant fools! Maybe change will shake them and wake them from repeating the mistakes of my father and the obstinate woodland elves.
    Kishi began to climb a path made by carts and wagons at the base of Mount Konane. This mountain was situated directly east of Mount Quang and was a mirror image of its neighbor. She began to feel a sense of purpose and happiness envelope her as she traversed the trail. These were definite signs that the dissenters had been hard at work for some time now. She began to formulate a master plan for the meeting tomorrow. The plan was not too different from the one they had sprung on the elves. If the construction of a new capital city had progressed unhampered and undiscovered, they should at least have homes for the people who would be living there completed. She was too consumed in her thoughts to notice the buildings popping up before her eyes. It took the familiar voice of one of her most devout friends to bring her back to reality.
    "Queen Kishi! Welcome to the home of the dissenters!" shouted a distant harsh voice.
    "Diikker Aellenas? Is that really you?" Kishi queried as she trotted toward the source of the shouting.
    "Milady, I am here as your humble servant," Diikker said with a bow and a wicked smile. He was so tall that he easily dwarfed anyone who stood next to him. His long, platinum-blonde hair was tied back in a braid so he could work more freely on the new High Council room. As he stood erect once more, his starling gray eyes pierced into Kishi's mirthless eyes. They were two of a kind in almost every way imaginable. Lord Aellenas was a powerful warlock who had helped train the princess in the ways of magic. He had also taught Kira, but Kishi was much more adept at commanding the mystical forces. As a result, she had learned magical powers that no other living person knew.
    "I feel reassured now that I have seen you here working," Kishi said with an ever-increasing confidence in her voice. If there were two more of her friends here, she would be able to do what was needed at the meeting with the High Council.
    "You do have two more loyal servants here. Jaali Thrarias and Harley Tenanden are both here for the same reason. Those fools think they have changed and that they have created a new system that will avoid the pitfalls your father encountered. They are no different than those we left behind in the Black Forest," Lord Aellenas explained with an icy edge to his voice. He saw a look of bewilderment on his mistress's face and laughed tonelessly. "You have forgotten already that you cannot hide your thoughts from me, young one. I will have to teach you how to do this someday. Once you have learned that skill, you will even be a match for the Elementals."
    "You will always be the master, Lord Aellenas. I am indebted to you for your guidance and council," she said with a slight bow. She truly revered him as the most powerful magician in Tuwa. He was capable of accomplishing anything and could learn faster about an opponent than anyone else. She knew that with him at her side she would be able to lead a new nation … regardless of any potential opposition.
    "I have merely been blessed to instruct a capable student who will one day be more powerful than anyone in all the lands ofTuwa." He smiled slyly and bade her to follow him with a slight turn of his body. "Let me take you to our friends. They will be delighted that you have come. They will especially like what you have planned for the meeting you have been summoned to." Kishi always felt like a mere pupil when he read her thoughts so readily. She did not know how he did it. She had learned how to block her father's intrusions, but she did not even understand where she needed to begin to block these invasions. At this point, she did not really care to hide anything from her master. He is the most deadly ally I could possibly hope for. With his help, I will be able to succeed.
    They had quickly crossed the courtyard of a brand new castle that was still in the early stages of being built. "Have the dwellings been completed for the people?" Kishi questioned her mentor with mounting anticipation.
    "Yes, you will be able to unleash the same surprise on your sister as she did on your father. She will not suspect it or even think it possible. She truly believes she is in the right and that you are the one who has been corrupted. I believe that she will try to make you an outcast because of your defiance," Aellenas explained knowledgably. He was in the castle the previous day when her sister had made this plan against her. He had read her thoughts then and knew what would be needed, so he immediately left for the new capital he had architected on Mount Konane. He knew that Kishi would come there seeking answers, and he would be there to provide her with the support she would need.
    "Queen Kishi, over here," beckoned Harley Tenanden. Standing next to him was the powerfully built Jaali Thrarias. He was an elf that no one would ever dare to upset. His temper was only matched by his unimaginable strength.
    "Jaali, Harley, I am so glad you are here," she said as she ran up to them. She threw her arms around each of them in turn. She felt that these high elves were comrades, her equals. "I am sorry to come to you at such a late hour. I assume Lord Aellenas has explained what will take place tomorrow?"
    "Yes, we are prepared for the dissenters to arrive tomorrow. We have made arrangements with those who wish to depart to pack their belongings during the night. They will then leave when the council meeting is in session. The queen's guard will be focused around the chamber, and that will leave the soldiers at the gate for us to deal with. The departure will go unnoticed until the meeting is done," Jaali stated as if he were making a report to a superior. He was, in fact, the consummate military man and could not help such behavior. He would be the perfect leader for Kishi's army.
    "Who will lead the people?" asked Kishi.
    "I will lead the people from Alanderas while Harley watches our rear to ensure no one follows after us. Lord Diikker will wait here to receive your faithful followers," reported Jaali.
    "Excellent. We are ready to proceed then. I will return now to finish preparations for what I will say to the council and my impetuous sister. I will see you soon, my friends," she said as she reached out to embrace Jaali and Harley again.
    "Lord Aellenas, any last words of advice?" she asked.
    "Yes, I do in fact have some last-minute council to give," the warlock said gruffly. "You must remember to direct everyone's attention in the council room to your sister and her husband. Their union is not against the law of the high elves, but it was consecrated by an Elemental. They never interfere unless it is to torment or punish the peoples of Tuwa. This line of logic will persuade those that we need and plant seeds of doubt in the rest. If you do this, you will be most successful in your argument." She will be able to sway those fools! Then they will see what real power is all about.
    "That is wise council indeed. I will definitely use your approach. Be ready for my triumphant return tomorrow then," she said with a bow to her teacher. She turned around and went back down the path she had come without glancing back. She had her plan, and she would execute it without any further hesitation. At this time tomorrow, I will be the queen of the true high elven nation and I will be the one with real power.
    The sun rose high into the sky as the heat of the day increased gradually. The air was thick with moisture as storm clouds began to gather from the north. This combination made for a very humid and unpleasant feeling for anyone who decided to venture outside. Princess Kishi walked purposefully toward the council chambers in the capital city of Alanderas. The streets on this particular day were void of life. The pending storm had driven everyone into their homes for cover. As the black clouds rolled in, the sound of thunder boomed and lightning crackled all about the mountainside. The sun disappeared as the winds sped the storm with great velocity toward the city.
    As she neared the meeting hall, she could see the queen's guard in their jet-black armor surrounding the building. She looked more closely around the scene, and she noticed there were archers stationed on the rooftops. Horsemen were positioned on the opposite side of the courtyard and were armed with swords and spears. She had never seen such security for a council meeting and knew that her sister must be scared. She also knew that her friends had been right in their decision to move the people at this time. There would be a very light guard at the outer wall, which would make the evacuation of the loyal high elves relatively easy.
    "Princess Kishi, the council and her majesty are waiting for you inside. Please proceed," the guard said as he opened the door for her with a slight bow. The double doors opened inward to admit the crowned princess of the high elves. She looked around the room while carefully hiding any hint of her intentions or feelings. She smiled graciously at the council members and bowed slightly to her sister as she neared her seat at the round table. She sat directly across from the queen, which pleased her because she wanted to look her in the eye for what she was about to do. She wanted to make her mentor proud of his faithful pupil.
    As she took her seat, the doors of the domed hall slammed shut with a resounding boom. Silence engulfed the tense council room as Kishi continued to look at the members in attendance. This meeting place was very different from the elven High Council's chamber in the Black Forest. The ceiling was made of magically reinforced glass that could withstand whatever the elements could throw at it. The round table in the middle was made of solid black oak from the northern edge of the Forest of Renshaw. There were etchings of gold, silver, and precious gems inlaid in the intricate carvings in the wood. The walls had murals of elven history and in particular of the recent division of its people. It clearly outlined the rise of the high elves and displayed pictures of Queen Kira and her husband, General Yukio.
    Kishi fought hard to hide her loathing. She needed to present her case for the throne carefully as to not give away her hidden motives. She really did not care to rule over all of the high elves because she did not believe that all of them would be accepting of her. She was here to convince as many members of the council as possible. The rest merely had to have the seed of doubt planted in them.
    "Princess Kishi, welcome," Chairman Merindiel greeted her. "Now we may begin."
    "First order of business on the agenda today is the legitimacy of the right to rule the high elves as a sovereign monarch. The eldest daughter of King Ciel, Princess Kishi, has petitioned Queen Kira to hear her argument for the right to the throne. Her majesty has convened this council to definitively determine whose claim is most just." Bronwen had a friendly warm smile as he spoke to the council members. He had a particularly kind look on his face when he looked at Kishi. He respected her as a powerful sorceress and as an intelligent person. He knew that if she was making this claim there had to be something to it.
    "Milady, will you please present your argument at this time? There will be no questions until you are finished. When you have reached that point, please indicate that to me so I do not interrupt you at any point," the chairman said kindly.
    "Thank you, most noble chairman. Your kind words warm my heart and give me the courage to speak to you all this day." As Kishi was saying the last few words, an ear-piercing crackle of lightning followed by an earth-shaking boom rocked the hall. The storm was beginning to unleash its fury upon the mountainside.
    "I will keep my presentation of what I believe to be the facts as short as possible. I do not want us to be kept here while there is such a vicious storm raging outside," Princess Kishi began eloquently. "I believe that high elven tradition dictates that the heir to the throne is the spouse of the departed monarch. In the event of his or her spouse passing before them, then the eldest child is crowned to rule in his or her parents' place." Lightning streaked across the blackened sky. The frequency of the strikes was becoming more intense and frequent. They were also striking much closer to their current location. This storm can't be natural, she thought.
    "As I was saying, the tradition and the law of the high elves are that the right to rule is passed down from the parents to the eldest child. If that child is not fit to rule or is otherwise unable to take over the monarchy, then the next sibling in line would be crowned. What I perceive to be the current situation to be is either a misinterpretation of the law or a change in the law that I was not aware of." She did not want to appear to be overtly confrontational, so she continued with her polite presentation of the facts.
    "Many do not know that my sister Kira is actually younger than 1. Though we are twins, I was the first out of our dear departed mother's womb. So, according to our laws, I would be the rightful ruler of this new nation. Noble Merindiel, have I misunderstood the law? Are the laws and traditions of the high elves, in this respect, unchanged?"
    Bronwen stood from his seat next to the queen and said, "You are quite right about the law and its interpretation. Also, we have not altered or amended the law that you have brought to our attention." He nodded slightly to Kishi to show that he was done and to give her the floor back.
    "Thank you, Chairman. I believe the only possible question in anyone's mind should be why did we stray from those laws? Is it because my dear sister thought of the plan and facilitated all of the necessary elements of it? If so, then why has the law governing the right to rule not been changed or amended to allow for bravery and foresight to be requirements for the crown?" She had reached the point that she had been yearning to get to. There should be a significant number of council members who would now follow her. The others should have sufficient doubt in their minds to suit her needs.
    "Gracious Chairman, I am done with my presentation. If you please," she gestured to Bronwen to take over the proceedings. There would be questions now, but not too many. There would be a significant amount of debate over this issue, and she was not going to stick around to hear all of it.
    "You have presented a strong case for the council to consider. At this time, I would like to open the floor for questions for either myself or for Princess Kishi." He looked around the room at the bewildered looks on everyone's faces. He was caught off guard too because of their apparent oversight. He did not see how they could go on justifying Kira as their rightful queen and ruler. Kishi's presentation of the facts was too direct and to the point to be misunderstood.
    Silence fell over the room. The sounds from the storm were growing worse still and seemed to be filling the silence in the council chambers. No one had the look yet of even forming a question on their faces. However, when Kishi looked at her sister, Kira was giving her a look of mingled indignation and disbelief all at once. The princess did not need the ability to read minds to know what her younger sibling was thinking. She knew that she felt betrayed by her older sister and by the faces of those who clearly agreed with Kishi. She could not believe that she would ask for the right to rule after doing nothing on her part to secure it.
    Queen Kira could take it no longer. She was too incensed to sit quietly on her throne and say nothing after such an attack. She stood up, and as she did so her, eyes began to have blue mist coming out of her eyes. No one had ever seen her so angry before that she would use her magic unknowingly. "You traitor!" she bellowed at her sister. "What gives you the right to come here and belittle what I have done to save these people? Who are you to question my ability to rule? You are no better than those that we left behind! They were ignorant fools who wanted to do the minimum and still reap the rewards of hard work off of the backs of others!" The blue mist was now surrounding the queen and seemed to be freezing the very air about her.
    Kishi smiled at her sibling's reaction to the truth. Everything was going better than she could have wished for. She had sufficiently provoked her sister into attacking her verbally. That should give everyone sufficient doubt in her ability to rule. She just needed to egg Kira on a little more to reach her breaking point. Now she would attack the queen's illegitimate husband who was king. He will be the perfect trigger to push her over the edge.
    "Dear sister, you question my right to come here to petition this just council of high elves? What about your own violation of our laws in marrying a member of a different race? Have the laws changed for everyone in this regard, or did we bend the rules for you and this pathetic excuse for a spouse? Haven't you defiled yourself enough by marrying him? Why bring these good people down with you through your inept leadership?" She had a triumphant smile on her dark face. She had done it. Let the storm come. I am ready!
    Kira sent shards of ice hurtling toward her sister, who deflected the darts just enough to prevent major damage. She wanted it to appear that she was unprepared for this attack. Many of the icy daggers had pierced her clothing and grazed her skin. Blood began to trickle down her sides as she struggled to stand erect.
    "What did I do to deserve this treatment, Queen? I am your sister. Why do you attack me so? As a leader, you cannot allow for your passions and anger to rule your judgment. You must think outside yourself." Kishi, with the help of the queen's guard, stood all the way up now to make the declaration she had come to make this day.
    "I feel that my sister is not a competent leader, so I have taken it upon myself, the rightful heir, to start anew." The queen looked shocked for an instant, and then her countenance fell.
    "I have established the true kingdom of the high elves on Mount Konane without the help of the deceitful guardians. All those who wish to join us will be welcome on our mountain kingdom. What I have done cannot be construed as treason because I have followed the laws of our people. I have set up a monarchy that is in keeping with the right of rule established by high elven law. I vow to lead the people by their voice and limit bureaucracy to fulfill their purpose and nothing more." She winced from the pain from the cuts on her sides. She turned around and used her magic to blast open the doors of the hall and departed into the unrelenting storm.

    As the council's meeting was beginning, Jaali met with the people who had gathered together for their departure to the east. From their vantage point, they could just see the outer wall and the massive gate. There were only four guards protecting the entrance because of the high security at the council chambers. The people began to murmur amongst themselves that their escape would come off without a hitch. However, as the black storm clouds began to move in, many feared that this was an ominous sign that what they were about to do was wrong.
    Jaali immediately took control of the situation. "The clouds you see overhead were created by our friend Lord Diikker. He felt that a little darkness along with rain would assist in keeping our departure secret." He knew something of how to inspire people and how to cajole others into accepting what he said. The people seemed to understand and had a surge of new hope to move forward with their plans.
    "By the time our queen has made known to the council what her intentions are; we will be off this mountain. The rain will slow any pursuit if they choose to act so rashly." He was a natural at this kind of leadership. He knew that he would get all of the people off this mountain and not get caught in the process. "Tenanden will guard our retreat from any possible pursuit. As you can see now, the guards at the gate have been dealt with." He gestured toward the main entrance. "They have not been harmed, just rendered unconscious. The doors will be open by the time we reach them, so let's move out."
    The group that departed that day was not pursued. They made it all the way to their new home without seeing another soul. The total number of those that left the main body of the high elves under Queen Kira's rule was just a little more than half the total number of people. Many of them were traditionalists who felt that King Ciel was not bad but that he had lost control of the kingdom. They saw Queen Kishi as a powerful leader who would not allow the rule of her people to suffer the same fate as the elves. They also understood that Kira was leading them down a treacherous road with all of the rules and laws she had personally broken.



    General Yukio called a halt to his vanguard. They had just caught a glimpse of their homeland of Nairi off in the distance. He whistled three sharp blasts that sounded very near to the call of a warrior hawk. Silence was the only answer before the call was actually returned. A dark spot appeared on the horizon and appeared to be getting bigger and bigger as it neared their position. It was obvious that a bird of some kind was approaching at a very fast pace. This was the hawk that the general had apparently called to. The bird went into a steep dive as he approached the group. Yukio stuck his arm out, and his faithful servant landed lightly. He gave his trusty companion some food and stroked his chest affectionately.
    "I need you to carry a couple of important messages for me," he said to his feathered friend. He tied two messages onto each leg of the warrior hawk. The messages contained requests for a meeting with the government of the new nation of high elves. This first trip to his homeland was important for him to make not only because he had been gone from the service of Queen Daria for far too long, but also to request her presence at a summit at the capital city of Alanderas. He needed to explain what had happened and to ask for military support. He had a very difficult task in front of him. The messages on the hawk were for the kings of men.
    The hawk took off with an unexpected urgency as if Yukio had somehow communicated to him the necessity of ensuring the messages were delivered as fast as possible. The warrior hawk was heading in the direction of King Leroy Ishrafle of the realm of Landen. Yukio thought that he would get a positive reply from him regarding Queen Kira's request. When he had the king's reply, the hawk would return with it to his master before he delivered the next message. His next stop would be King Derek Udrugi of the Forest of Aran. The general was not as sure about that particular reply. He knew that the Udrugi was close with the elven king and would not be happy about the division. It remained to be seen if he would come or not.
    "What do you think will be your queen's reply to our summons?" questioned Bronwen Merindiel. He eyed the general passively as he waited for an answer.
    "Well, I would understand if she was angry with me, but I do not believe she will turn her back on the high elves in their hour of need. She will respect my judgment in this matter," General Yukio said with great confidence.
    "Are we going to visit any of the dwarven kingdoms? They would be very important allies to have if a war comes of this," said Bronwen. He continued to watch the general as they rode along the path that led down to Nairi.
    "We will visit King Edric Nognili at his island kingdom of Mount Ennis," Yukio replied. "He may not personally come to the summit, but he will likely send someone in his stead. I believe he will provide us with provisions, armor, and weapons. He does not like to get involved in other people's affairs. He has the only dwarven warriors close enough to us to do us any good, so that is why we will visit him. The mighty kings Jarvis Dagnolir and Kasim Thokrog are too far to the south for a visit. I will send my hawk to deliver messages to them once the other kings of men have had their invitations delivered." His eyes were focused on the beautiful cliffs of Nairi. He did not notice the looks that Bronwen was giving him.
    "That sounds like a prudent course of action. What of the giants? Will we visit them?" queried the chairman.
    "When the queen and I were speaking with Mistress Kana, she gave us the impression that they would side with the elves. It would not be wise to venture into their realm. We may not come out again. We should not send them any messages either because that would give away our plans. Secrecy is vital to our success where they are concerned."
    "With a guardian on our side, we will not fail. I believe that there is great wisdom in not involving the giants. They are too unpredictable and violent. They would ruin our plans even if they were on our side. Their aggressive tendencies have made them an isolated people. Even King Ciel could not deal with them for very long," Bronwen explained.
    "Well put, my good friend. Our hope lies with men and dwarves. They are powerful allies in seasons of peace and even more so in times of war. We must be persuasive in our meetings with my queen and with King Edric. Those two alone would provide us with sufficient protection and much needed supplies. When we meet with Queen Daria, please allow me to do the talking at first. I will need to explain my actions and seek her forgiveness. I will let you explain the division that has taken place. Then we will ask for her support together," Yukio explained.
    Bronwen nodded in agreement with Yukio's plan. He understood that the queen may not be too happy at first because her general had not reported back for many months. He knew that Yukio was a very persuasive man and would succeed in securing her pardon. Then he could present the case for Queen Kira and the high elves. Obtaining the military support of the Nairian army would be vital to their success. Their first meeting was the most important. His thoughts were beginning to consume him so much that he did not take notice of the immense beauty of the ragged canyon lands that the general called home. He knew that he must succeed in securing the support of the people of Nairi if their new nation was going to survive.
    The small group continued their journey into the canyon lands as the sun began to wane. Far to the west the sun was setting and the clouds overhead turned an auburn color. Mount Ennis could be barely seen, but it too looked like it was alive with the evening colors. It was truly a picturesque scene that they took in while descending the steep canyon switchbacks. Torches lined the path as they continued down to the canyon floor. They needed to reach the palace before too long, or they would have to make camp for the night and meet with the queen in the morning. They wanted to meet with her before night fell so they could have a nice place to sleep.
    As they turned another winding corner, Queen Daria's palace came into view. It was a wonder to look at because of the way it was constructed. The structure was built into the side of the canyon walls. All of the dwelling places were constructed in this manner. There were no freestanding buildings in the entire kingdom. Their construction was very similar to the dwarven mountain homes. The dwarves had a special affinity for the people of Nairi because of their many similarities. Most of the people were miners and blacksmiths, which made them very close with their dwarven neighbor on the island of Mount Ennis.
    The front of the palace was made of smooth marble, which could withstand the harsh winds that frequently assailed the canyons. There were symbols carved into the marble that represented their different gods. These carvings were filled with silver and gold to represent the various guardians. They believed that the Elementals were their personal deities. This was yet another similarity between the dwarves and this particular nation of men. As they approached the entrance, they were met by the captain of the home guard. Commander Zareh Hacus bowed slightly to General Yukio as they approached the gates outside the queen's home.
    "General, the queen has been expecting you," Commander Hacus said stoically.
    "Commander Hacus, how good it is to see you, my old friend!" barked Yukio as he slid off his beautiful steed and shook hands hardily with the commander.
    "I hope that you have been well, General. We have missed you dearly these many months. We have not heard anything aside from the troops who returned to us with the tale of an elf witch saving you all from a pack of demonic wolves," the commander said with a genuine tone of concern. He was very much the senior of the general in years and had many silver hairs to prove it. He had been the head of the queen's home guard for many years. While the commander and the general spoke pleasantly to one another, General Yukio had never fully trusted Zareh. Yukio was never able to read his thoughts or intentions. He considered this to be a sign of someone who was hiding something.
    "Dear friend, I am well. I will need to speak with her majesty tonight. I want to explain the events of the past few months right away. Is she expecting us straight away?" queried the general.
    "She is. She ordered me to take you to her as soon as you arrived. I will warn you right now that she is not entirely happy with you. She has been worried that you were killed by that elf witch. She has stopped all trade and communications with King Ciel until he answers for what had happened to you. I think you are wise in your desire to explain your actions right away," replied Commander Hacus.
    "Then let us waste no more time; please lead the way," commanded the general kindly.
    As they entered the palace gate, everyone except Yukio was in awe. They had expected tight enclosed spaces inside instead of a vaulted roof. There were murals of battles and of the Nairi canyons on the ceiling. It too had the appearance of being made of marble. There were massive pillars on both sides of the aisle that they were being led down. Torches were positioned on every pillar to provide visitors with sufficient light. The images on the ceiling had an ominous feel to them in the flickering light, which made them appear to be alive. The only sound that could be heard was the echoing of their footsteps. Everyone had the feeling that they were being watched. The home guard lay safely concealed in the shadows as they passed them by. Their unseen eyes watched the vanguard carefully for any indication of a possible assassination attempt. They no longer trusted elves, and the general was surrounded by them, so they were on edge.
    They came to another chamber, which was much brighter than the previous one. Apparently this was the receiving room for foreign dignitaries. The queen was seated on a raised platform at the opposite end of the hall. She was very fair and beautiful to look upon. She did not have a beautiful look on her face however. She was clearly displeased with her general and with his traveling mates. Her look was one of utter disgust as she looked at the elves. Clearly she blamed them for Yukio's unexplained absence. She fixated on her general as he approached. He took one knee and bowed his face to the floor in a show of reverence. The high elves followed suit hurriedly after seeing the nasty look from Queen Daria.
    "General, please stand up and explain your actions. We have been worried," the queen said with genuine concern. If these elves have done anything to Yukio, there will be bloodshed tonight!
    "Your majesty, please forgive the lateness of my return. I hope that you will understand and accept my humblest apology. I will explain, in great detail, what has transpired since the attack by the pack of wolves," the general said with another bow.
    He went into great detail explaining everything that had happened to him. She seemed to come around when he explained that the mighty Elemental Kana felt it important enough to involve herself in the affairs of the people of Tuwa. She was shocked at first when he explained that he had taken an elf to wife, but she was pleased to hear that his union was blessed by the revered deity. She was much more willing to listen to the remainder of the story after this. She was not the only one to be hanging on every word that came out of Yukio's mouth. It was as if he was commanding everyone's attention.
    The only one who was not transfixed was Commander Hacus. He knew that the general was using some kind of psychic power to manipulate the minds of everyone in the hall. He remained cautious and vigilant while everyone else seemed to shed all hatred of these elves and accepted them with open arms. He had a very bad feeling about what was taking place. What the general was reporting to the queen was good and seemed to answer all questions the queen had adequately. It was a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that had him so worried.
    Once General Yukio had presented all of the facts, Chairman Bronwen Merindiel presented the request of Queen Kira. To his surprise, Queen Daria was only too eager to provide military assistance to the high elves. She felt that all that had transpired was inspired by the gods and that they should not ignore the pleas of a blessed race. As a result of this, she was overly accommodating to the delegation. Commander Hacus was concerned by her willing acceptance of Yukio's explanation. He was shocked that they had formed an alliance with this new nation so quickly. The only person that seemed to expect this outcome was the general himself. He had a smug look of accomplishment that frightened the head of the home guard. He could not shake the feeling that there was more to this situation than what they had been told.
    "General Yukio, you will be given command of my army once more. Take all the troops you need with you to fortify the city of Alanderas and the route between us. That way we can commence in trading with our newest ally," she commanded with a pleasant smile. This has turned out much better than I had expected. I simply do not understand why Commander Hacus was so worried.
    "My queen, I ever serve thee and the people of this great nation," Yukio said with a bow. "I will give the command of the army that is to protect the road west to Alanderas to Commander Favian Drujien. The protection of the trade route along the Blain River will be given to Commander Hacus. I will lead the troops sent to protect the high elves," General Yukio stated boldly.
    "Very well; rest while the troops are being readied for their departure. You can also visit the king of Mount Ennis while the men prepare. King Edric is a good friend and will be a powerful ally. He will assist you in this time of need," said the queen confidently.
    "I share your optimism and appraisal of the situation. In the morning, we will leave to meet with King Edric and should return in time to depart with the troops," Yukio replied.
    With a bow and a smile, Yukio and the high elves left the queen and were taken to their sleeping quarters. Due to the lateness of the hour, they went straight to bed after washing the dust off their bodies from their long trek. Bronwen and the others slept peacefully that night knowing that they had overcome their biggest obstacle. They were hopeful that tomorrow's meeting with the dwarves would be equally beneficial. Commander Hacus had some of his guard keep watch over the queen's guests. He did not entirely trust any of them. He also did not believe anything that Yukio had reported. What worried him most was that the queen did a complete turnaround without even hearing a good argument.

    As the delegation from the high elves returned triumphant from their meeting with King Edric, a small bird was spotted on the horizon and seemed to be heading in their direction. Yukio's hawk had returned with a reply from the King Leroy. The general untied the message and gave the warrior hawk some food as a reward. He quickly scanned the note in utter disbelief. In essence, the king did not recognize the new nation because the elves did not do so. The people of Landen had a strong relationship with the people of King Ciel and believed, as did the elves, that the so-called "high elves" were traitors. The king had already made a pact with the elven king not to have any dealings with the dissenters. The general crumpled up the note and threw it to the ground. As he sat there musing over the bad news, his horse ate the letter as it grazed for food.
    "Well, I suppose I should have expected that reply," he said shortly. "They believe you all to be traitors and will not get involved unless it is on the side of the woodland elves."
    "That is not good news at all. Are you still planning on sending a message to King Derek?" Bronwen asked patiently.
    "No, my hawk has informed me that he saw King Ciel's messenger owl, returning from the Forest of Aran. I believe that they too have made a pack with the elves not to recognize us. Our last hope remains with the dwarves," Yukio said dejectedly. I really believed the people ofLanden would have joined with us.
    He tied two messages onto the legs of his faithful messenger. One was for King Kasim and the other was for King Jarvis. He instructed the bird to disregard delivering a letter if King Ciel's owl was seen in the vicinity of either dwarven kingdom. He did not want to give away too much to the ever-expanding alliance of the elves. The general knew that he could not waste any more time worrying about his diplomatic mission. It was clear that the elves were planning an attack on the high elves very soon. If it came to a war, he wanted to be prepared. He needed to take the troops that were waiting for his return and head straight for Mount Quang. He would need to send a couple of the high elves ahead to deliver the warning about those plotting against them.
    "Do not worry, General Ibreshri; the high elves cannot fail. We have the goddess Kana on our side. She will not allow this treachery to stand," said Bronwen consolingly.
    "I know. We will win this battle. If it is to be war, we will be victorious," said General Yukio boldly.


The dwarves

    As Yukio's hawk soared high above the Blaine River, the wind changed directions so that the prevailing wind was from the south. The smell of war was in the air. The warrior hawk was heading south to his next quarry and had been strongly instructed to avoid the Forest of Renshaw at all costs so this head wind he was fighting was exceptionally brutal. He was also told to fly as high as possible and to hide in the clouds whenever possible. Not only was he attempting to avoid the eyes of the elves, but the men of Landen and Aran. General Yukio had suspicions that the kings of men had made alliances with the elves. This meant that they knew everything King Ciel did. He was also concerned that there may be an attack on the capital of Alanderas being planned by these conspirators. He had left Queen Daria with her blessing to go and protect their newest ally. The general was determined to reach Queen Kira and the high elves before any real threat could be posed by their neighbors to the south.
    The hawk was ordered to gather intelligence on its way to and from his destinations. The hawk's sharp eyes could see beasts and people gathering on both sides of the banks of Blaine. He could not risk descending to a lower altitude just to see exactly who it was that was preparing for war. Yukio's faithful bird knew that delivering his messages to kings Kasim and Jarvis was of the utmost importance. He needed to not only deliver Yukio's requests, but he also needed to bring back answers from the dwarven monarchs. The support of those two powerful leaders was vital to the safety of the high elves. If they had allies south of their enemies, they could crush them with relative ease. King Edric had assured General Yukio that all of the dwarves would be behind this new nation.
    After flying for many miles in a southerly direction, the warrior hawk turned west to head toward Mount Adem. King Kasim would be the stronger of the two potential allies by virtue of his location. The mountain kingdom of Adem lay to the south and a little to the west of the Black Forest. They would be able to draw the attention of the elves to their southern border if King Ciel decided to attack the high elves. Yukio was going to appeal to the strong dislike the people of Kasim had for elves in general. He knew that it was going to be difficult to persuade the dwarves to ally themselves with the new nation because of who they were, but the general knew that by appealing to what they did believe in would win them over in the end. They revered Mistress Kana as a goddess and would do whatever she asked of them, so that was the strongest point in their favor.
    The fortress of King Kasim Thokrog gleamed in the moonlight as the home guard stood at their posts. The silver and gold that was inlaid into the fine craftsmanship of the walls and towers was the source of the shimmering. The bulwarks were made of a substance that looked jet black and appeared to be as smooth as the scales of a fish. The width of these impressive barriers was equal to ten dwarves laying head to toe. There were several hidden stations where the guards hid themselves to keep watch night and day without being seen. An outsider would never be able to find them even if they were right on top of them. Commander Giles Bobrilir stood stoically on one of the parapets keeping watch on this clear cool night. He was in charge of the defenses of King Kasim and of his majesty's personal guard. He also had the sharpest eyesight of any living dwarf according to the stories told in Adem. This night was one of the first times that he proved his natural ability to his men.
    "Captain, a warrior hawk is approaching! Prepare the archers!" barked Commander Giles in his gruff voice. He had seen the bird long before any of the bowmen could even see the speck in the night sky. He had a very suspicious feeling that this bird was a messenger bringing tidings they did not want to have any part of. He was prepared to shoot it out of the sky if it dive bombed them or made any other aggressive movements. If the unknown messenger proceeded on his current course, they would let it live and see what it was brining to them. The hawk was making for the front gate. This was the appropriate approach to any dwarven dwelling according to their customs.
    "Sir, where is the beast?" asked the Captain. "I do not see anything out there, Commander." Has Bobrilir lost his mind? None of us see anything in the sky.
    The eyes of the home guard turned skyward to search for their quarry once more. After a few moments, a black dot appeared low over the plains. It was approaching rather fast and headed directly toward the main gate. The guards were impressed with their leader and his amazing eyesight. They could not believe that he could see so clearly at night.
    "Captain, keep the archers trained on that hawk while I go down to retrieve the message. If the creature takes an offensive posture, kill it. If it approaches in a peaceful manner, let it live," ordered Commander Giles.
    "Yes, sir!" said the captain as he snapped to attention. "Archers, you heard the orders. Do not lose sight of that bird."
    The dwarven captain turned to tell his commander something, but he was already gone. Not only did their leader have amazing sight, but he was also the most agile and silent dwarf. As the captain searched for Commander Giles, he caught a glimpse of him approaching the front gate. He reminded the archers of their orders again and told them to be careful to not hit their fearless leader if they had to shoot the messenger bird.
    The hawk landed lightly on the ground right in front of the main gate as instructed by General Yukio. He waited patiently for someone to come retrieve the message tied to his leg. The general had tied both messages for the dwarven kings. One was the color red to indicate that the note was for the king of the red mountain, Mount Adem. The other was colored white to indicate that this note was for King Jarvis of the snow-capped mountains of Mount Carrick. The dwarves liked to color coordinate their correspondences so that they would not get confused. King Edric had informed Yukio of this method and told him how to follow this protocol to ensure those who received the messenger bird would remove the appropriate note.
    Commander Giles opened a hidden door in the wall on the west side of the gate. He scanned the open field for any signs of a possible ambush. He did not see anything aside from the very patient bird waiting to deliver its message. Right away the commander noticed that the hawk had two letters that were color coordinated. This puzzled him because this clearly indicated that the message was from King Edric because his people were the only ones who knew the dwarven system. They had not heard from their distant ally for quite some time. A note for each dwarven king of the southern realms had a special significance. He did not know what it could be and decided to waste no more time. He walked up to the bird that then outstretched his leg to indicate to the dwarf to remove the red note.
    He removed the note, and the hawk took off immediately. The bird soared high and headed due east. The commander returned to the safety of the walls through the secret door and opened the red note immediately. It was written in the language of the men of the northern kingdom of Nairi. How did they know how to deliver a message to us? King Edric must have helped them! Why would he do that? He was lost in these troubling thoughts for a moment and then decided to read what this person had to say.
    King Kasim Thokrog,
    I, General Yukio Ibreshri, have visited King Edric Nognili with an urgent plea from Queen Kira Tiranidrol of the new nation called high elves. He has pledged his support along with Queen Darla Thejar of the Nairi Canyons. These elves have left the Black Forest at the command of the powerful Mistress Kana. She informed them that King Ciel Tiranidrol was leading the people down a dangerous path and that she would assist them in building a new and better kingdom. One of King Ciel's daughters was crowned queen, and they took the name of high elves to distinguish themselves from those they left behind.
    As they are still in their infancy, they are seeking the support of the good races of Tuwa. I am the husband of Queen Kira and her ambassador. The illustrious Kana herself blessed our union and has helped us secure the support of Queen Darla and King Edric. I have been instructed to request your support in our cause of freedom. The messenger bird that brought you this message will return in two days with the reply from King Jarvis and return to the main gate to receive King Kasim's answer. We fear that there may be an axis of evil forming against this new nation and the powerful Elemental Kana. Please reply to our humble request as soon as possible.
    Best Regards,
    General Yukio Ibreshri
    Commander Giles was stunned by the request and its boldness. No one from the race of men or elves had ever attempted such a direct approach. Dwarves traded with the other races freely, but they never got involved in their politics. This general claimed to have the support of King Edric, but the commander simply could not believe this to be the case. He wasted no more time on pondering the particulars of this matter and left immediately to visit his king. This was one message his majesty would want to hear straight away. Normally he would wait until morning, but this note contained information that would take some careful consideration and time to determine the appropriate response.
    As the commander passed his guards that he had called to attention earlier, he told them it was a message for the king and thanked them for doing their jobs. He told them that he would return shortly to fill them in because he needed to get the note to King Kasim as soon as possible. He nodded to the dwarves and continued his trek up the mountainside. He did not head to the entrance to the castle but to the east side of the interior wall. This barrier was not as thick as the outer wall, but it was twice as high. Situated atop the wall were trebuchets, catapults, and stationary arrow launchers. What were not visible to the naked eye were the numerous home guards hidden at various locations on the top of the bulwark.
    Giles headed toward the far east end of this massive barrier. He reached the point where the wall met the mountainside and moved his hands gently over the smooth surface of the wall while muttering something in his native tongue. A secret door opened abruptly to admit him. He entered quickly, and the hidden door slammed shut behind him. He was engulfed in utter darkness, but this did not dissuade him. He plunged into the dark with reckless abandon. He moved deftly as he made his way to yet another secret entrance. He did the same thing as before, and this time the door glowed red for a minute before opening. This was the private entrance to the king's bedchamber. King Kasim was already on his feet and holding out his hand for the note the commander carried.
    "Commander Giles, this had better be important," said the king imperiously. There was not a trace of tiredness on the stoic leader's face.
    "It is very important, King Kasim. I would not dare wake you in the middle of the night if I felt it could wait until morning," Commander Giles replied confidently.
    The king opened the letter and read it through quickly. His brow furrowed as he continued down the page. He had a look of disgust by the time he was done reading the note from General Yukio. He looked at both sides of the letter and read it through again to make sure he did not miss anything. He did not believe one word this supposed general said. He looked up at his head of the home guard as if to ask if King Jarvis had been sent the same drivel.
    "My king, another message was attached to the hawk that delivered this message colored after our fashion. It was white, and it was clearly intended for King Jarvis. The bird took off immediately and headed due east toward Mount Carrick," reported Commander Giles.
    "Please retrieve General Magnar and Thanos Thrargoin immediately. Have them meet me in the war room in fifteen minutes. We need to discuss this further and determine what, if anything, we will do," commanded King Kasim. He was not pleased with what he read at all, but he knew that he should ask his most trusted advisors what should be done.
    "I will return with them in fifteen minutes' time," replied Commander Bobrilir. He turned to the private door and silently slipped through.

    "General Magnar and my dear Thanos, thank you for coming on such short notice," welcomed the king. He bade them to sit down at his table so that they could discuss what would need to be done. The surface of this unique table was covered with a map of the lands of Tuwa. Commander Giles turned to leave but was hailed by the king to return and join them in the discussion. He turned about-face and marched back to the table and took a seat next to the mighty druid Thanos. He sat quietly as the king read the letter to the other two. He still had the feeling that this message was treacherous, but he wanted to hear what the others thought before expressing his concerns.
    The group discussed the letter until the sun came up. They finally decided that they would continue with their policy of not mingling in other races' politics or affairs. They would send this message back to General Yukio when his bird returned. In the meantime, they would dispatch their own messenger to go visit King Edric and find out what he was thinking. Spies would also be sent out to discover what else was taking place in Tuwa. They all agreed that something was happening, and they wanted to be prepared. They knew that the ores were on the move because they have seen a great deal of activity on Mount Tarin. Maybe they had something to do with this treachery, thought Commander Bobrilir.

    The home guard of King Jarvis watched the warrior hawk approach their main entrance. They had no idea who would be sending them a message in this manner. If it was from another dwarf, they would use one of their own to send a correspondence. However, the bird followed all of their protocols, so they did not shoot it out of the afternoon sky. The hawk landed softly on the ground just in front of the massive steel gate. The dwarves looked down at the little speck on the ground with great suspicion. The walls of King Dagnolir's fortress were as thick as King Kasim's, but it was made of steel and stone. Lord Nariko watched the bird that appeared to have a great deal of patience from outside the fortress. As a druid, he would be able to communicate with the hawk to some degree, so he felt it was up to him to greet the unexpected guest.
    The enormous brown bear that had been walking near the fortress changed at once into a dwarf. He walked calmly up to the messenger bird and retrieved the letter. He reached down again and gave the bird some of the meat he had been chewing on before he had changed shapes. The warrior hawk took the food gratefully and focused on eating. Lord Nariko uttered some unintelligible words to the hawk, and the bird replied as if he understood what the druid was saying. They did this for a few minutes, and then the hawk went back to chewing on his treat. The druid's attention returned to the letter. He opened it and read it through quickly. It was almost exactly the same as the letter to King Kasim.
    Nariko reached down and picked up the messenger bird and placed him on his left arm. He walked resolutely toward the main gate and demanded entrance. The doors opened slowly at his command, and there were onlookers all around trying to get a glimpse of this mysterious visitor. He continued to walk up the main thoroughfare until he reached the entrance to the castle. The king's guard halted him and asked him to state his purpose. He explained that he had an urgent message from Queen Daria Thejar's general. The contents of the note were intended for King Jarvis himself. They let him enter and bowed as he walked past them. The dwarves respected all shape shifters and would do whatever they asked. Lord Nariko Kromnog was revered as the most powerful and wise of the druids in Tuwa.
    King Jarvis Dagnolir stood and bowed slightly as the druid entered the king's council room. Lord Nariko stopped where he was and returned the show of respect. He was the king's most trusted friend and confidant. They would be able to decipher the truth of the message and generate the appropriate response. Reasoning together had always yielded the best result in the past, and it would not be any different this time.
    "Mighty king, this warrior hawk brought us this letter from a General Yukio Ibreshri. He is the general of Queen Daria's armies and the husband of the newly crowned queen of the high elves, Kira Tiranidrol. They say that the guardian Kana inspired the break from King Ciel's people and the formation of their new nation. They also believe that the union of this man and this elven princess was blessed by this Elemental. However, I sense that there is treachery on the part of this particular guardian," explained the master druid. Of all the Elementals, Kana is by far the worst! She is up to no good. I can feel it.!
    "You feel that this particular Elemental does not have the blessing of the other guardians in this matter? What does that mean?" wondered King Jarvis aloud. He knew that by reasoning together that they would discover what the real intent of this message was, even if the sender did not know the real intent.
    "The beasts of Tuwa have warned me that there is a rogue Elemental about. They say that the other guardians are working right now to defend themselves and the people of the different races from this dangerous threat. There is much activity across the west lands that we are not aware of," explained Nariko darkly.
    "So, you believe that Kana is the rogue Elemental. I sense that you have hit the mark in this matter. We must not ally ourselves with the wrong side if there is to be a war involving the guardians. It is clear that this intervention by the Mistress of Fire and Air was not something the guardian council consented to," the king said while stroking his long, silver beard. "We will reject the claims of this letter and decline in joining in their treachery. After I have written our response, please give the letter to the messenger bird. Once the hawk has left, I need you to gather more intelligence for me. I will prepare the fortifications of our people so that we could withstand a lengthy siege. I do not want to be caught off guard," explained King Jarvis.
    "I will go and do everything within my power to accomplish your command. I may be some time while gathering information, but I will send the usual messengers to you to give updates. I recommend gathering food, water, and other supplies to last for two years. Also, command those that live topside to come within the protective walls of the fortress."
    "You are truly wise, my friend. I will do as you have suggested. Go now; speed will be our greatest ally."
    The druid bowed as the king handed him the finished letter and departed. He took the note and tied it to the leg of the warrior hawk. The hawk had not left his arm the entire time. Nariko probed the mind of the beast to see if it had understood anything that was said. It had, so he was forced to alter the poor creature's memory. After he had done this, he released the bird into the air, and it immediately flew west toward King Kasim. After the visitor had departed, he changed back into his bear form as he exited the fortress. He knew what was required of him and that he would have to be quick in fulfilling his mission.



    General Yukio led the massive army of Queen Thejar's men at a quick pace along the trail he had established between the Nairi Canyons and Mount Quang. He had not seen his hawk for many days now and was beginning to worry. He had sent scouts ahead of the army to watch for possible traps or ambushes. So far they had discovered nothing, but they said that there was an ill wind blowing down the side of Mount Konane. There seemed to be a gloom gathering around its peaks, and strange sounds echoed down the mountainside. When Yukio continued to receive this same report from his scouts, he picked up the pace. He left a sizable force along the road as he had previously planned and instructed them to act as a rear guard while they crossed in front of the ominous mountain.
    As the main body of the army passed into the shadow of the mountain, a shriek ripped through the air. It was not an echoing sound from Konane; it was from the skies above them. Yukio's head snapped up as he recognized the call of his warrior hawk. He was descending rapidly to where his master was at the head of the cavalry units. The bird came up abruptly to land on his arm. There were two notes on its legs. He quickly removed them and read their contents. His face flushed red with anger as he finished the last note. He turned his attention to warrior hawk as if he were reading the bird's thoughts.
    "Bronwen, may I have a private word with you?" asked the general while trying to remain calm.
    "Of course you can," replied the chairman of the High Council. He spurred his horse on to catch up with Yukio as he headed off the road to the north. It was clear that the general did not want to be overheard.
    "What did the dwarven kings say?" asked Bronwen hesitantly.
    "They rejected our plea outright. King Jarvis politely reminded me that they do not interfere with other races' affairs. King Kasim vehemently refused to side with elves of any kind," Yukio explained furiously.
    "Well, it is up to us then to defend the high elves from all potential threats," replied the chairman confidently.
    "There is more to this than what was in the letter. My hawk was able to tell me more about what took place than what is in the letters," explained the general. "He informed me that there is a massive gathering of people and beasts on either side of the Blaine River as far south as the dwarves. He could not tell for sure which races were gathering, but their intent was that of war." I bet the dwarves are too afraid; that is probably why they have turned their backs on us.
    Bronwen sat on his fidgeting steed in stunned silence. He had the sinking feeling that there was more bad news to come. He simply did not believe that the dwarves would refuse to help them when the most revered guardian of the dwarves was on the high elves' side. He did not understand why they had rejected the plea. There had to be more to this than what he had heard thus far. He nodded for the general to continue his report.
    "King Kasim seemed to have no other reason than to refuse assistance based on their laws and traditions of isolationism. He does not particularly like elves, so it was not difficult to see why he took the stance that he did." Yukio was not smiling as he was explaining all of this to Chairman Bronwen. "King Jarvis, on the other hand, had a great deal more wisdom and put more thought into his answer. He really believes that there is an all-out war brewing and is investigating the buildup of armies in Tuwa. His reasoning makes a good deal more sense than King Kasim's reply."
    "So, did King Jarvis consult with Lord Kromnog? If so, we should take this information very seriously," Bronwen said while trying to sooth his mounting fears.
    "Yes, they counseled together about our request and the reports of an impending war," answered Yukio.
    "Then we must make haste back to our queen so we can prepare for the worst!" the chairman said excitedly. This trip had been much more difficult than he thought it would be. He knew that something was coming and that it was not going to be very pleasant. He just wanted it to be over so they could truly make a fresh start in their new home and build up an enlightened civilization.
    "You are right, of course. I am going to send you on ahead to pass on this information to the queen and the council. Have them convene at once to deal with the claims of Princess Kishi so we can be done with that issue. We will need absolute unity to weather the coming storm," Yukio explained. He knew that if any division occurred that his army would have to work twice as hard to protect the high elves. The cost maybe too high for him to ask of his men. They could fight a war easily in their homeland of Nairi, but in a foreign place it would be very difficult. They would be successful in the end, but many lives would be lost in the cause.
    Bronwen nodded his agreement and departed with the high elves that had accompanied them on their journey. The general then addressed the men to give them an update and to alter their orders. He knew that his army was powerful and could withstand the coming battles, but he wanted to make them aware of the difficulties that lie ahead.
    "Men, we will have to be on our guard at all times from here on out. I have received intelligence that an army is gathering in the south and will be heading this direction very soon. I take comfort in your abilities and in the support we have from the mighty Mistress Kana. She will aid us in our cause of freedom and in the defense of our ally!" bellowed the general. His voice sounded firm and reassuring.
    There was a murmuring of agreement as the general spoke. However, when he mentioned the guardian, there were shouts of disagreement and defiance. Many of the soldiers believed that they were so powerful that they did not need the help of some female god, or any other god for that matter. They firmly believed they could stand against the armies of Tuwa and beat them all. They would not yield the land they had been sent to defend.
    Yukio had never seen such pride among any of the races. He was concerned that they were overestimating their abilities and setting themselves up for a hard fall. He knew that he should squash their self-glorification, but he could not bring himself to do it. The troops would need a sense of pride and a solid belief in their abilities if they were going to successfully defend themselves and the high elves. Even though their egos may be their undoing, he believed that it would keep them safe for the time being.
    "Men, we will be victorious no matter what the enemy may throw at us. We will fight to defend the free lands of Tuwa!" exclaimed General Yukio. He was good at inspiring his men and bolstering their resolve. He wanted to focus the attention of the troops on the reason they were here so that their energies were directionally correct.
    Shouts of approval rose from the ranks, and the general raised his sword repeatedly in the air to cadence the exclamations from the army. As the chanting died out, weird echoing noises were heard coming down the mountainside at them. These unnatural sounds brought everyone back to their senses, and they hastened their march to Alanderas. They felt a renewed surge of purpose and commitment to the cause at hand. They were all afraid at the same time while in the shadow of Mount Konane. They hurried along the base of the mountain when rumblings shook the heights above and the road they were traveling. It lasted longer than a typical quake, and its source was clearly an unnatural one.
    "Steady men! Keep moving!" ordered General Yukio. What evil shakes the earth so?
    The rest of the march to the capital city of the high elves was peaceful and without incident. Many of the soldiers believed that Mount Konane was a cursed place even though there were no more rumblings. None of the troops wanted to be stationed along the road anywhere near the accursed mountain. The general had to give in to his men and not force them to guard that portion of the route. Check points were set up before and after the mountain along the road. Noises could still be heard coming down from the mountain, which only strengthened the superstition that the entire mountain was haunted by evil spirits from the cursed north lands.
    Despite the fear the men felt around the neighboring mountain, their pride and determination returned in full force once they began to fortify the city of Alanderas. The combination of the high elven home guard, their standing army, and the army of General Yukio made for an impressive defense. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that this city had become one of the most powerfully entrenched strongholds in Tuwa. After all of the preparations had been completed, there was a celebration honoring the soldiers and the builders of the fortifications. The city was now complete and other matters could be attended to.

    Queen Kira had not forgotten the last meeting with her sister, and she wanted to put an end to the dispute once and for all. She believed her sister had no real support in her claims, so she would convene the High Council tomorrow to settle the pointless dispute. She understood what Bronwen and Yukio had been saying for some time now that unity would be vital to the survival of an all-out assault on the capital.
    As the sun began to hide itself after the completion of another day, Queen Kira sat on her balcony pondering the events that would take place tomorrow at the council meeting. She wanted to be prepared for any eventuality, so she tried to think like her sister. Why was she so upset with what I have accomplished? I have saved many from a terrible fate and have garnered the support of a guardian. They would not only be a protected people but a blessed one as well. What could possibly derail our success at this point? She did not notice the long shadow of her husband as he stood looking at the sun setting in the west. He too was consumed in his own thoughts so that he did not realize his wife was right there.
    "My love, I did not see you there. What is troubling you?" asked Yukio. He was startled to find his wife had been sitting there all along. It is certainly a good thing that she cannot read minds.
    "My dear husband, I am troubled about this dispute with my sister. I have an uneasy feeling that something is wrong, and it is with me every minute of the day. I feel like something horrific is about to happen, but I cannot be certain if it involves my disagreement with Kishi or if it is something else entirely," Queen Kira explained wearily. She seemed a bit distracted as she spoke to Yukio.
    "I do not believe that you have anything to worry about when it comes to your sister. She loves you very much and is just trying to find her proper place in this new country. She will likely say hurtful things until she is comfortable with the changes that have taken place. She will come around eventually. I foresee her being your strongest ally," explained Yukio calmly.
    "Then why am I so consumed by this feeling of fear and dread? Why am I physically sick without knowing what it is that is worrying me? I do not like it, and I do not know how to shake it," she said with a pleading tone in her voice. She was trembling slightly from her discomfort.
    "My angel, you have nothing to fear as long as I am here. My army will protect you from whatever the elves or the men of Landen and Aran throw at us. These walls will protect you from whatever the outside world contrives against your people. I truly believe that you will be safe as long as you remain inside the interior walls," Yukio said confidently.
    "You are definitely my rock and the light in the darkness. I feel better already. It was as if a weight had been lifted from my shoul ders as you spoke. Let's retire for the evening. I have not slept much lately, but I think I will sleep well tonight. This whole nightmare will be over soon enough, and we can finally move on," she said while stifling a yawn.
    "Yes, let us get some rest dear. Everything will be all right. I promise," he said as they left the balcony. As long as I have breath in my lungs, I will keep you from harm.


Premeditated murder

    The queen could not believe what she had just experienced in the council room. She had no idea that Kishi was going to divide this newly created nation in two. She lay on her bed with that sick feeling ravaging her stomach. She still could not shake the ominous, dreadful sensation even though she just had the most gut-wrenching experience she could have ever imagined. She knew that she should not have attacked her sister, but she simply could not believe that her sibling would be so treacherous. Anger and disbelief coursed through her body as she sat up to look at her silent husband.
    "I thought you said she loved me and would be my biggest supporter!" she snapped hotly.
    "I know what I said. Her time for understanding has not come yet. Please be patient a little while longer. I am sure she will come around. Maybe the two of you were meant to rule the high elves together. Maybe by crowning you queen and making her a princess caused an unintentional rift between you. You know that I can read minds, so believe me when I say that your sister does love you," Yukio pleaded with his wife. She had better get a hold of herself now or all will be lost.
    Silence enveloped the room while they stared at one another. The queen's expression began to soften as she felt her husband's words bringing her a measure of peace. She did not know what she would do without the strong support of such a devoted husband. He always knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He had his flaws for sure, but he complimented her in ways no one else could. She felt the anger and frustration leave her body as though she was slowly deflating. She stood up and walked to where Yukio was standing.
    "You are right … as usual. I just do not know what to do at this point. Kishi must be furious with me. I think we will need to establish some sort of ties, but I am not sure she will be too accepting after what I did. I am sure the people who followed her will know by now what happened, so they will not support any diplomacy with such an unstable ruler," she said dejectedly.
    "That is a good point, my dear. We do need to strike some sort of accord with your sister and her people as soon as possible. Maybe I should take Bronwen with me and head over there in a few days. I do not think it would be prudent to go right now while everyone is still agitated. Also, you need to address those who remained behind to renew their support of you as their leader," Yukio said decisively.
    "Do you really think diplomacy will work with those that left?" she asked.
    "If we are to survive an outside attack, then there must be peace between the two mountain nations," explained the general. He wrapped his massive arms around his wife and held her close. He was troubled in his mind about the recent events, but he too did not know what to do. He stood there lost in his own thoughts, holding on to his beautiful wife. Where has Kana gone? Why has she not helped us?
    They held each other for a long time while looking out the window at the pouring rain. Both were consumed by their own thoughts and were not in the mood to talk anymore. They were both determined to figure out the best course of action before the day was out. They watched passively as the home guard darted this way and that across the royal courtyard. The weather got increasingly worse as the day wore on. Finally the couple decided they had to do something aside from just standing there. They both left the room heading in opposite directions. Yukio had to get back to his troops and give them their new orders while the queen returned to the council room for a follow-up meeting. A swift and decisive course of action was needed. These two would do just that in their separate responsibilities.
    The troops under General Yukio's command instantly snapped to attention at his arrival. He looked calm and in control of the evereroding situation. The master manipulator immediately sensed that the men felt a diminished sense of purpose. He could tell that there was a singular question amongst them regarding what should be done now. Do they give chase to those who departed, or do we just continue to defend the city? He would have to put an immediate stop to the questions and doubts. He would infuse purpose back into the men and inspire them to greater heights. He called for the troops to come to attention, and complete silence fell; even the rain seemed to have been silenced.
    "About half of the high elves have departed for Mount Konane while we were in that dreadful meeting," General Yukio declared solemnly. "We will leave them alone for the time being and even wish them well in their new endeavor. Our goal will be to establish diplomatic ties with them, so whenever we see one of the departed, treat them kindly." He was trying to impress upon the minds of the troops that they were not to mistreat the high elves that left Alanderas.
    "What are our orders now, General?" asked one of the captains.
    "We are going to fortify the outer and inner walls of this great city. No one will penetrate our defenses while we still have breath in our bodies! There is a very real possibility that we will be attacked very soon. The enemies of the high elves will think that this is the right time to attack since there is a division among the people. We will prove them wrong!" bellowed General Ibreshri. His eyes were blood red with intensity as he spoke.
    The whole army erupted into shouts of approval, and war chants soon drowned out the yelling. The excitement and anticipation the men were feeling was palpable. General Yukio cracked into a wide smile as he watched the enthusiasm of his soldiers. He felt reassured that the defense of this massive city was in capable hands. He knew that they would be able to defend against anything or anyone that came at them now. He had the feeling that some kind of war was brewing and that there were going to be people from the different races involved. There will be many of the powerful creatures of Tuwa who would be dragged into the conflict. Maybe even the Elementals would get involved somehow. He just knew that he had to be prepared for whatever tried to breach the walls of Alanderas.
    After talking with the men, he headed to the council chambers where he knew he could find his wife. He needed to talk with the high elven home guard to make sure they knew their role in defending the city from assault. The guard would have the queen as their charge; nothing would change that. Yukio would defend the city from external attacks, but the queen would have to be defended from traitors by her guard. He was confident that they would be equal to the task; however, he would make sure that they were properly motivated.
    As he was walking toward the council chambers lost in his thoughts, he came across the very person he had intended to talk to. General Marek Thraadinal snapped to attention when Yukio came into sight. Marek was in charge of the army of the high elves, diminished as they were in numbers. The army doubled as the high elven home guard because of their small size and because their main purpose was to defend the capital city. The two military leaders looked at one another for a moment and then threw their arms around each other in a hearty embrace. They stood back looking at one another appraisingly.
    "My dear old friend, how have you been?" queried General Marek.
    "Better than you from the looks of it," General Yukio replied with a laugh and a hearty slap on the back. "I have not lost over half my army. How are the inner wall defenses?"
    "The inner wall and the castle are impregnable. Do not worry, my friend. I will keep your wife safe at all costs. You do not hide your feelings in this matter very well. I thought you were the master of controlling your emotions while manipulating others to do your will," Marek chided knowingly.
    "If you were anyone else, I would have you locked away for such brashness, but then again, you were always good with words," Yukio joked. "I have come to talk to you about the importance of maintaining the inner wall defenses as well as to give you some vital information that will be needed to defend the queen against hidden attacks."
    "I could use all of the intelligence I can get my hands on. I fear there are some who would want to do the queen harm. I do not think these attempts will come from without; they will come from within."
    "You are very perceptive, my friend. That is my worry as well. So, let me give you some information that no one else has. There are two secret entrances to the queen's bedchambers. The entrance to one is a magically hidden door within the inner wall. The door is opened by tapping on the wall five times at the east end of the wall where it meets the mountainside. Make the sign of the star with the five taps, and you will be given admittance. This secret passage will lead to the portrait on the right side of the queen's bed. Kira does not know about the secret doors, so be careful." Ifyou surprise her, it will probably be the last thing you ever do.
    "I understand what you mean. I would not want to surprise her; I would not survive the attack."
    "No one would survive her attack. I do not worry about her ability to defend herself. However, she is a very trusting person who can be led astray by cunning words or devices. That is why I am entrusting her into your care, Marek."
    "Your trust is not misplaced, Yukio. I will make sure she is not harmed in any way."
    "Good. Now, there is a second secret entrance that is much more elaborate and goes through the entire mountain to the north face. At the base of the other side of the mountain, there is a secret door behind Gorgen Falls. Behind the waterfall is solid rock with no crevices or cracks in it. There is a jet-black mark on one part of the wall that when it is pressed opens a small entrance. The opening is only big enough for one person to walk through. The passage is very small for most of the way except for a massive cavern at the very heart of the mountain. This space is big enough to fit the royal castle within it."
    "That is very impressive. How did you find such a path?"
    "Well, the cavern was already there. I just had to create the path to and from it. I also made sure to place supplies in there in case you need to take the queen there to hide. To magically seal the entrance to this path from the queen's bedchamber, carefully shut the door and say, `Twilight Cavern.' The trap door will disappear and can only be opened from inside the tunnel. This door is located under the bed and is covered by a throw rug."
    "Why would I say, `Twilight Cavern,' to magically seal the door?"
    "The phrase `Twilight Cavern' is actually the name of the cavern at the heart of the mountain. By saying its name, the magic that protects the trap door will seal the entrance from the bedchamber so no one could follow you. I discovered the secret of the magical cavern from Mistress Kana. She knew that it might be necessary to use it at some point in the future."
    "I see great wisdom in what you have shared with me, my friend. I will do what you have asked of me. In return, I ask that you keep our city and its people safe from whatever the shortsighted people of Tuwa throw at us. I vow to keep your wife safe from any kind of harm. Promise me to protect the high elves at all costs."
    "I will. Know that if I break my oath that I must forfeit my life at your hand. If you should break this covenant, then your life belongs to me."
    "I agree. I have a feeling that desperate times ahead of us, my good friend. Let us be diligent."
    "Agreed. Now, I must be off. I need to inspect the perimeter defenses before the day is done. I will return in three days to follow up with you and to report to Kira. Keep her safe," General Yukio asked. He took Marek's hand and shook it firmly. He did an aboutface and marched back toward the front gate.
    General Marek watched him for some time as he walked confidently toward the outer wall. He had a feeling of dread come over him that left him quite disconcerted. He did not know the source of this apprehension, but he knew that something was going to transpire that would alter the high elves' future for ill. He could not explain how he knew it, but he did. He decided that he had to share this information with the queen. She would need to know about the secret passages along with everything else Yukio had discussed with him. This would make her be on guard for anything, and she would have an idea of what options were available to her if she needed to flee. He looked again at the general marching off in the distance and saw his friend turn around and wave at him.

    Yukio could see his friend still standing where he had left him. He finished waving to him and hoped that the good general would not let him down. He felt assured that Marek would defend her as well as he could. He saw the high elf turn around and march resolutely toward the castle. Good, now he will go and tell the queen everything we discussed. This way she will be prepared and will not have to rely on anyone to save her. He smiled at his own cunning and continued his march to the defenses of the outer wall.

    Kira walked resolutely toward the council chambers knowing that she would need to talk with her loyal friend Bronwen Merindiel. She had waited for a long time after her husband departed to make her way back to the meeting hall. She was consumed with the uneasy feeling that something horrible was about to happen. She did not like the feeling of not being in control and not knowing what to do in order to protect herself. She felt that by speaking with her mentor she would gain some insight and knowledge that would help her deal with what she was experiencing. He had always seemed to have excellent council to give and was vital to her success in leaving the woodland elves behind to start a new country.
    As she continued her walk, she came across General Marek, who appeared to be heading right for her. She could tell right away that he had come to find her for a very specific reason. She may not have her husband's ability to read minds, but she was a rather good judge of a person's intentions by their non-verbal communications. It was clear that the leader of her army was distressed about something and that she would soon find out what was making him so agitated.
    "My queen!" hailed General Marek as he got down on one knee with his head bowed to the ground.
    "General Marek, please rise. You do need not bow every time you see me. Especially when no one else is present," she said as she brought him up out of his prostration with one of her delicate hands.
    "May I have permission to speak with you in private, Milady?"
    "Of course, General; follow me to my private office. We will be safe from unwanted listeners. I get the feeling that what you are about to share with me should be kept secret. Am I correct in my assumption?"
    "As always, Your Majesty… if you please," he said with a bow while his left hand gestured for her to lead them to her office. He did not have any idea where it was located, and it was proper eti quette to follow royalty instead of leading them. He was grateful for the discretion Queen Kira was using in this matter. She could probably sense the importance of his impromptu visit. He never spoke to her aside from their daily meetings during which he reported to the queen any notable events regarding security.
    They walked briskly in the shade of the walkway as they neared the office of the queen. She came to an abrupt halt at a wall that had a tapestry of Alanderas. She looked at her general in such a way that made it clear he was not to see how to open this secret door. Marek did an about-face and looked out over the courtyard of the queen's castle. She muttered some unintelligible words, and an opening immediately appeared out of nowhere. She motioned for him to follow her as she walked through the magic door. He immediately followed her through the dark entry.
    Once they were within her impressive office, the door behind them disappeared. The room was dark and filled with books and scrolls. This appeared to be the private library of the queen as well as her sanctuary from the pressures of leadership. She took her seat behind a massive black oak desk and motioned for General Marek to take a seat opposite her. He bowed slightly to acknowledge the command and sat down. She then inclined her head to indicate to him that he was now free to tell her what exactly why they had come here.
    "Milady, I have just spoken with General Yukio, and he has provided me with intelligence that will prove beneficial for you to know. He did not forbid me to share the information with you, so I felt it prudent to tell you so you would be prepared for any eventuality," General Marek started confidently.
    "You are wise to share with me secrets that my husband did not choose to tell me about. He is probably testing your loyalty to me by confiding in you information that I would need in order to be prepared. He knew that if you were true to me that you would tell me everything he told you. So, go ahead and reveal to me what he told you," commanded the queen kindly.
    General Marek then related all of what General Yukio had told to him. She seemed to take the information well and knew that her husband had prepared for the worst. She only loved him more for his preparation and for his methods of revealing such information to her. She would be ready for an attack from any direction. The main difference now as that she knew of an escape if the worst should happen. She was extremely grateful for Marek's diligence and honesty.
    "Thank you, General. I believe that my husband has chosen his confidant wisely. He knew that he could trust in your loyalty to me to pass along this vital information. Now I will be prepared for anything that may take place. It is comforting to know that I have an escape plan."
    "What would you like me to do now, Your Majesty?"
    "I want you to inform the home guard that they are to report any suspicious behavior to you immediately. Tell them to have a full guard every hour, day and night. We must be vigilant if we are to survive the storm that is coming. Once you have instructed the troops, return to me. I will be in the council chambers speaking with Chairman Merindiel."
    "Milady," he said with a low bow. He then stood up with a smile and did an about-face. He marched resolutely toward the place where the door had been and was surprised to see it had reappeared. He walked through the exit quickly and headed for the barracks of the home guard. He knew that what he had done was right. He knew now that he would be able to keep the queen safe from any assassination attempt. Now it was up to Yukio to keep his end of the bargain.
    The queen watched the general march out the secret door and had a sense of peace come over her. For the first time in many days she felt that she was safe and on the right track. She knew that no attempt on her life would be successful with the new information she had. She was now prepared for any eventuality. She knew that she would feel even more comfortable when she had shared these things with her trusted friend, Bronwen. He would be able to give her additional advice about the situation. He would reinforce what she had been told and help her think of more options that were available to her.
    She continued to think over the information she had received as she walked to the meeting hall. She began to formulate different scenarios in her mind about possible assassination attempts. She then carefully thought of ways to thwart each and every attempt on her life. She was so consumed in her musing that she did not notice the clouds breaking up and the sun peaking through openings in the covering. The rain had stopped, and a fog began to form as the sun heated the drenched mountain city. Her line of sight became compromised, and she immediately had a feeling of dread come over her. She snapped back to reality and took notice of the physical changes that were taking place around her. She took a deep breath to calm herself down. There is nothing to fear. I am almost to the council chambers, and then I will be safe within its walls. She also knew that there were guards watching her as she moved along the walkway, so she really had nothing to worry about.
    As she approached the main doors to the chamber, a rush of uneasiness came over her as she reached to open the main doors. Instead, she turned about and headed for the rear entry. She did not want to be caught by surprise if there was a trap set for her in the council room. She knew that she could trust Bronwen, but she did not know for certain that he was even in there. She reached the back door and pushed against it gently. The door opened just far enough to allow her to peek inside the room. She immediately saw that Bronwen was there with a few of the other council members. She then opened the door all the way, which made a creaking noise that got everyone's attention.
    "Queen Kira, what can we do for you?" asked one of the council members with a bow.
    "You all can leave so that I may speak with Chairman Merindiel in private," she ordered the extraneous council members to depart. They did as she had commanded. They all bowed and immediately left the hall through the double doors at the front. Light began to fill the room through the glass dome.
    "Milady, what is it that I can do for you?" queried her good friend Bronwen. He whispered as though they may be overheard.
    "Is it safe for us to talk here?"
    "I cannot be entirely certain, Your Majesty."
    She nodded that she understood and then went around the room searching out any possible spies. She did not find one, so she gave up the search. She then approached each door and magically sealed them. Then she put a sound shield on the walls, the floor, and the glass ceiling. Once she had completed all of these tasks, she turned again to her friend and smiled warmly.
    "We should be safe now to speak our minds without being overheard."
    "I am certain that your magic will keep us safe and what we say a secret. What is it that you have come to speak with me about?"
    "I need to bring you up to speed on our situation. I have received information from very reliable sources that there will be attempts on my life. I want to share with you what I have been told from General Marek in particular."
    Bronwen nodded that he understood, and they each took a seat at the round table. Kira relayed to him all that General Marek had learned from her husband about the secret passageways and the hiding place within the heart of the mountain. She also told him about what she had asked Marek to do. She did not hold anything back from her faithful friend. She even told him of her different plans she had formulated to defend herself. He listened carefully to every word she said before making any reply.
    "Kira, you will need someone to watch your back. It should not be one of the home guard or even General Marek. They will protect you, but they may not be able to see the assassin before it is too late. If you have another person you trust to watch your back, then they may be able to see who it is that hunts you. They would be able to alert you of any danger," Bronwen said with a certain amount of urgency in his voice. He did not feel that her plan for protecting herself was foolproof. He felt that another fail-safe was needed in order to avoid the unthinkable.
    "Who would you recommend to do such a task?"
    "I believe that I am the only one who can be trusted to be faithful in shadowing you. You know that I have the ability to hide myself most effectively. I will be able to warn you when I sense danger. Please, allow me to do this for you. I do not want to lose you," he said pleadingly. If we lose Kira, then our cause is lost.
    "It will be as you have asked. Follow me, and watch out for unseen dangers. I feel comforted knowing that you will be watching over me. I am sure that my husband would be most grateful for your loyalty to me. It sounds like a plan he would come up with as well. Remember, you are not to be seen by anyone," she said with warning in her voice. She did not want any harm to come to him while watching out for her. He is putting himself in great danger by offering this service. 1 hope that he is kept safe. 1 could not bear to lose him.
    "You will forget that I am even there, Milady."
    "Excellent. I must undo these protective spells on the hall so General Marek will be able to enter. I told him to meet me here as soon as he was done with instructing the home guard. With him at my side and with you watching my back, I should be safe," she said with ever-increasing confidence. She then removed the spells she put on the entire room and unsealed the doors. A moment later, the general knocked at the front doors.
    "Come in, General Marek," said the queen.
    He entered the room and bowed himself to the floor. He waited for the queen's acknowledgment before raising his head. She bade him to rise, and as he did so, he noticed that she was all alone in the hall. He thought that she was going to meet with Bronwen while he was away. She could sense his confusion and decided to interrupt his thoughts.
    "Bronwen has left already. He exited through the back door on an errand for me. We had just finished our discussion before you arrived," she said calmly.
    "Very well, Your Majesty. Was it a profitable meeting?" he asked tentatively.
    "It was very productive, General Marek. Now, let us not waste any more time. I have come up with several ideas, and I wanted to talk to you about them. Let's go back to the castle and discuss them there."
    "As you wish, Milady."

    As they walked in the shade of the mountain, Bronwen watched. He had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could not tell what it was exactly, but it was there nonetheless. He watched over her from a distance as a chameleon would its prey over the next two days. The feeling of impending doom still pressed on him to keep vigilant in his duty. He saw no signs of danger and could see no one else watching the queen's movements. He thought that this should comfort him, but it did not. The only person that interacted with Kira was General Marek. The general appeared to be watching her every movement as a parent watches a newborn taking their first steps. He looked like he was very anxious as well. Maybe they were sensing the same unseen danger.

    On the third day, both of Kira's protectors sensed eminent danger. General Marek acted at once, knowing that if he took too much time the queen would be at risk. A shadow flitted pass a window and seemed to land somewhere on the queen's balcony to her bedchamber. Bronwen immediately went to where he thought the intruder was, but there was no one there. He could sense a presence but could not see anything with his eyes. General Marek shoved the bed out of the way and opened the trap door. He hurried the queen down the passage below and hurried in after her. Bronwen ran across the floor to reach the door before it closed. He barely slipped past the door before it shut. He heard Marek utter the words "Twilight Cavern", and the trap door disappeared.
    "My queen, we need to head to the heart of the mountain now! We need to put distance between you and that intruder. I do not think that the assassin is made of flesh and blood, so I am not so sure the entrance disappearing will stop it from following. It will be easier for us to make a stand, if need be, in the cavern," General Marek said emphatically.
    "You are right, Marek. Let's go," she ordered. She glanced behind to see if Bronwen had been able to make it into the tunnel with them. She saw a quick glimpse of her trusted spy and felt reassured that everything would be all right. She started down the tunnel as fast as she could manage without falling. General Marek and Bronwen Merindiel followed suit.
    The journey to the center of the mountain took much longer than anyone expected. After many hours, the narrow tunnel opened into a broad cavern. The ceiling was very high, and sounds of water dripping echoed through the massive open space. Their eyes scanned the heights at first before they even realized that General Yukio had outfitted the floor with everything they would need if they were to stay here for an extended period of time. There were beds, a well of fresh water, food storage, weapons, clothes, medical supplies, and books. There was enough provisions that they would be able to last for a year if need be.
    "Your husband certainly knows how to plan ahead," said Marek in utter disbelief. He could scarcely believe what he was seeing. He took comfort in their surroundings and felt reassured that they would be able to defend themselves against any threat that may present itself. Little did he know that he was about to face the assassin in a way he had not accounted for.
    As they settled themselves in to their new surroundings, they found some lanterns and lit them so they could try to see their shadow friend. As soon as the light filled the cavern, the shadowy assassin appeared. The queen and the general immediately took defensive postures as they waited for their mysterious tracker to attack. The shadowy figure began to shrink in size until it disappeared. Bronwen had been watching from behind a barrel of ale and noticed right away that the thing that had been pursuing the queen had entered Marek. He immediately sprang from his hiding place and undid his cloaking magic he had been using.
    "Kira, that thing has possessed General Marek! Look out!" Bronwen shouted frantically. He had sacrificed the few fleeting moments that he could have protected himself to warn his queen.
    Marek turned to face the revealed protector with an evil grin as he sent forth a strong gust of wind at the defenseless chairman. Bronwen was lifted high into the air where he hit the northern wall with a sickening thud. Kira immediately sprang to action by throwing up a protective shield that sent the blistering winds toward the ceiling. It hit the roof with an extreme amount of velocity, which caused the whole mountain to shake. Rocks began to fall from the area hit by the assassin's diverted attack. Kira quickly threw up another protective barrier around herself and her friend as the ceiling began to collapse. She hunched over her bloodied friend while projectiles bounced harmlessly off the shield around them.
    After long moments of quaking, the mountain went still again. Marek's eyes were burning bright red as he stared down his queen. Kira bent over Bronwen face to see if he was still alive. His body was broken from the attack, and he lay motionless. As she sat up, the vacant eyes of her most trusted friend stared back at her. She cried softly as the truth sunk in. She didn't have time to indulge in her sorrow. The protective barrier had weakened as she had lost concentration and was consequently hit by several fiery missiles. Burn marks from the vicious attack appeared all over her body while smoke rose from her wounds. Her resolve and desire for revenge gave her new strength as she stood to face her attacker.
    She straightened herself as she faced Bronwen's murderer and knew that she would have to kill one of her other trusted friends if she were to destroy this assassin. She did not hesitate a moment longer and sent a gust of wind of her own at the assailant who did not attempt to deflect the attack. The general was sent flying through the air some fifty feet backwards. Marek landed with a deafening thud and did not move. Kira sent balls of fire and rained down blocks of ice on the crumpled form of her loyal general. She then sent pieces of the cavern's ceiling crashing down on top of the motionless would be assassin. After the dust settled from the assault, no movement could be seen from the pile of rubble.
    "Marek, are you still there? Are you still alive? Have I driven that demon from your body?" asked the queen with tears streaking down her scorched face. She felt sick to her stomach because she was sure she had just killed her friend. She hoped that she had killed whatever it was that possessed him; however, she got the feeling that it might still be there.
    Suddenly the pile of debris exploded in every direction, and Marek stood up unscathed. The shadowy figure started to separate itself from its host. The general's body went limp, and he appeared to be unconscious. The figure started to take on a familiar form as it rose higher into the air. Before she realized fully who it was, the assassin sent a fatal mix of hailstones the size of an elf along with a powerful mixture of wind, fire, and parts of the ceiling at Kira. The queen was much faster than her attacker thought, and she sent fire out to destroy the hailstones. Sadly, she could not fend off all of the deadly projectiles. She was struck hard in the head by one of the burning chunks from the roof, which crushed her skull. She flew back through the air gracefully as she reeled from the blow. She landed on the ground by the exit to the waterfalls. Blood flowed freely from the head trauma.
    As she lay their struggling to make sense to what had just happened, she could just barely make out who her attacker was. Her vision was blurry and her mind could not make sense of who she had just seen. Tears mixed with blood ran down her cheeks as her vision finally gave way. As the breath of life left her body, her mind finally registered who had killed her. This realization was too painful to bear and only lasted a few moments before her spirit left her body and she knew no more. The queen of the high elves had been murdered, and no one was left who knew what really happened except for General Marek.
    The general's memory of the events was incomplete, and the parts where he was possessed he could not remember. As he regained his consciousness, he saw that he was alone and that Bronwen and Kira had been killed. There was no sign of the assassin anywhere. He cried out in vain for help that would not come. His hoarse voice echoed dismally off of the still cavern walls. He silently knelt down and retched. What have I done?

    General Yukio had been organizing his army to maximize the defense of the city for the past three days when on the third day an unnatural rumbling sound came from the heart of Mount Quang. His men all cowered at the sound thinking that this mountain was now possessed by the same demons that haunted Mount Konane. Yukio knew immediately that something had gone horribly wrong. He called for his horse to be brought to him as well as his armor. Once his horse was prepared and he was ready for combat, he took off out through the main gate. The troops stared after him in disbelief. They were wondering where he was going. All he had instructed them to do was to protect against an attack. In a matter of a few seconds, he was out of sight.
    He pushed his steed hard as he circumnavigated the mountain. He was heading to the Gorgen Falls. His horse would have to be left behind because of the narrow passageway once he arrived. He made it to the other side of the mountain unbelievably fast and jumped off his horse as soon as he was at the falls. He tied his companion to a sturdy tree, jumped into the pool and leapt through the wall of water. Once behind the falls he pressed the secret button, and the hidden door opened to admit him.
    As he raced through the winding passageway, his thoughts were on General Marek. How could he let something happen to Kira? He promised to keep her safe! His anger and suspicion grew as he drew closer to his destination. The distance between the falls and the Twilight Cavern was much shorter than the path leading from the castle. When he had reached the cavern, he immediately noticed the immense devastation. He was sickened by the sight of Bronwen's broken body and turned his head in disgust. He bent down to check his friend for a pulse and found none. He stood up to survey the rest of the battlefield. Immediately he saw a figure hunched over another body he instantly knew was his wife's.
    He roared in rage at the sight, and Marek stood to see General Yukio charging at him. His sword was drawn and anger consumed his face. General Marek stood defenseless as his friend approached. He tried to shout at Yukio to wait a moment so he could explain what he thought had happened, but his pleas went unheard. In Yukio's mind, he believed that high elven general had betrayed him. He began to draw his sword back as he neared the scene of the disaster. His friend did not flinch and stood tall to face the bringer of perceived justice.
    Yukio twirled his long sword in his right hand as he swung down hard on Marek's drawn blade. The clash of steel shook the air for a moment and then the battle was on. General Marek was an accomplished swordsman, but he was no match to Nairian general. After a flurry of parries and wild slashes, the fight reached its apex. After a feint to the left that unbalanced the high elf, a dagger appeared in Yukio's hand. The small blade was quickly buried in Marek's side. This move proved to be the prelude to the fatal blow to follow.
    Yukio gripped his sword with both hands and raised it at an angle over his left shoulder. As the general twisted a little more to gain leverage, he looked into the eyes of the person who had destroyed all he cared about in life and saw something that did not register immediately. The Nairian general roared in rage and with one fluid stroke removed general Marek's head. As he turned away from the headless corpse that was falling to the ground, he dropped his sword and knelt by the mangled body of his wife.
    Her eyes were cold and distant as he looked at her face. He placed his hands on her deformed head so that he could read her final thoughts and see her untimely death. He immediately saw Marek attacking his wife with magic and saw everything else that transpired. In his mind, he believed he was justified in executing his friend who turned out to be the assassin. While looking through his wife's memory, the events of what happened had been altered somehow to show the general acting of his own volition. There was no recollection of a shadowy assassin.
    Yukio laid his wife's head back down to the earth and picked up his sword again. He walked over to Marek's body and spat into his lifeless face. After a few moments of muttering curses over his friend's corpse, General Yukio stopped long enough to shout out in absolute rage. His yell was so loud that the walls began to shake and tremble. He then came to his senses and realized that the cavern had been destabilized by the various battles. The ceiling was coming down, and he had to act fast to get out of there. He picked up his wife and started toward the exit. As he neared it, he reached down and picked up Bronwen's body. He had a dead body over either shoulder as he reached the exit. As he entered the tight tunnel, the cavern collapsed on itself. Small rocks hit Yukio in the back as he continued to run.
    He quickly reached the falls and the pool of water that his horse was drinking out of. As the disheveled general emerged from the tunnel, his body began to weaken rapidly. He threw the dead to one side and fell unconscious to the ground. As he awoke sometime later, he could feel hot breath as well as a moist thing caressing his face. As his vision cleared, he saw that it was his horse licking him. He slowly sat up and saw that there was a thick fog surrounding him. This made it difficult to see what lay around him at first. What he did know was that something deep inside him had broken and that he would never be the same again.
    As he stood up, he felt pain both physical and mental like he had never felt before. He walked gingerly over to the pool and looked at his reflection. He was covered in blood and dust from his ordeal in the cavern. He cleaned off the blood and dirt from his body and armor by jumping into the water. After a few moments he returned to where he had cast the bodies of Bronwen and Kira. He spent the rest of the morning digging graves for his friend and his wife. Before he laid them to rest, he took his wife's crown off her head and Bronwen's badge off his dress robes. He would use this tattered badge and contorted crown as proof of the treachery of General Marek. He covered the bodies with dirt and then a massive mound of rocks. He then stood on top of his wife's grave and pulled out his knife. He swore a blood oath then and there to avenge his wife's murder. He held the high elves, all of them, responsible for his wife's demise. They will pay for this unforgivable treachery!


The deceived

    The sky was clear as the sun rose steadily higher as the morning progressed. General Yukio's army watched anxiously for their leader's return. He had left so quickly that he did not say when or if he would return. His men caught sight of something in the distance heading toward them at a steady pace. They immediately sprang into action and closed the main gate. The archers prepared to fire while the catapults were readied behind the wall. They were not going to let down their general by allowing anyone into Alanderas. The figure glinted as it continued up the path to the entrance.
    As the visitor came closer, they could tell that it was a person who was heavily armored riding on a massive war horse. One of the archers, who had excellent vision, yelled out that it was their leader and to open the gate. As the rider approached, the gigantic doors swung open to admit him. General Yukio had a fierce look on his face and did not look at any of his men as he passed through the entrance. He brought his horse to a halt behind the walls and dismounted. He rummaged through his saddlebags for something while his men closed the massive gates and gathered around their leader.
    "Men, we have been deceived," General Yukio said dejectedly. "Queen Kira, my wife, was murdered by General Marek!" He lifted the head of his former friend into the air for all to see. In his rage, he had picked up the severed head of the traitor Marek and carried it out of the cavern before its collapse. Consciously he did not remember doing this.
    Silence fell over the troops; everyone was trying to get a look at the traitor's head. They simply could not believe that Kira's general could do such a terrible thing. Some noticed that he had something else in his other hand. They started whispering to one another to pass this new information along. They all tried to get a better look at what he was holding in his left hand.
    "I have here the mangled crown of my dear departed wife as proof of this treachery. Also, I have the badge of the chairman of the High Council, Bronwen Merindiel, as a token of their deaths," he said sadly. He did not think it would have been this hard to tell his men what had happened. He had been numbed by shock and from the melancholy he was experiencing. He had not yet grieved for his wife or his good friend Bronwen. This was not the time for grieving either. That would have to wait.
    "I believe that we have all been lied to and deceived from the very start. The high elves knew that the men of Nairi would pose a threat to their plans to dominate the other races. They believe that they were better than anyone in Tuwa. They even blasphemy the gods by killing their chosen leader because she would not go along with their treachery!" blasted Yukio. He was so angry that he could barely contain his rage. He cast down the evidence in utter disgust. I cannot believe she is gone. I will not rest until justice is served!
    The stunned looks on the faces in the crowd of soldiers around Yukio flushed red with anger at this betrayal. The people of Nairi had had dealings with the elves for centuries without any conflict or deception. They could not accept the fact that they were protecting a people that would kill their own leader. To make matters worse, they killed their own queen for not wanting to be a part of their ludicrous plan for domination. Why did they choose to rebel against the mighty Kana and her plan for saving the elves?
    "What do we do now, General?" asked one of his captains gruffly.
    "We prepare for a surprise attack on these fiendish high elves. I doubt that the people of Queen Kishi had anything to do with this plot, so we will leave them out of this unpleasant affair. I believe she had an idea all along that many of the people were plotting to take over the lands of Tuwa and that is why she left," explained Yukio confidently.
    "What do we need to do first, sir?" asked the same captain.
    "First, send a messenger to Commander Drujien. Tell him what has happened, and have him make haste to the base of Mount Quang. We will not attack until we have their numbers added to ours. The inner wall is defended too well for the troops we have stationed at the outer wall," instructed Yukio. "Second, we prepare for a direct assault of the inner wall. After we breach that barrier, we will then direct our efforts toward the castle and the council chambers. Our element of surprise will be realized when the high elves recognize that we are inside and outside their wall at the same time."
    Immediately the men sprang into action knowing that the tasks before them were urgent. A messenger was sent on one of the fastest horses to retrieve the soldiers under the command of Favian Drujien. The rest of the troops returned to their stations as if nothing had happened. They were to make their preparations while performing their other duties. They high elves needed to be lulled into a false sense of security. This would give them the edge in the fighting ahead.
    Meanwhile, their general went to the high elves to report a slightly altered version of what occurred in the mountain. He would assemble the High Council in one week from today in order to officially report his findings from his investigation into the deaths of Queen Kira, Chairman Bronwen, and General Marek. Little did they know that this was a stall tactic to allow for Commander Favian to arrive and to make his final preparations for the siege of Alanderas.
    General Yukio rode slowly toward the main gate of the castle. His mannerisms clearly indicated to the home guard that something horrible had happened. They had not heard anything from general Marek since the rumblings from Mount Quang and the mysterious disappearance of her majesty the day before. The guards on the wall bowed their heads solemnly in acknowledgment of the general and in response to his now apparent sullen demeanor. No one dared to look him in the eyes because they were afraid that the horrible truth would be realized if they gazed into them. Yukio brought his valiant steed to a halt in front of the doors that had opened at his appearance. He waved for one of the high elves stationed at the gate to come to him. As the beckoned soldier saluted the general, the dejected leader of the army of Nairi bent down and whispered something in the ear of the guard.
    After a brief moment of silent instruction, the guard snapped to attention and saluted the general before he did an about-face. He took off toward the living quarters of the High Council members. He had been told to summon the members for an unofficial report regarding what had happened to the queen. Yukio then continued on his horse through the gates of the inner wall and headed to the castle. Once he was directly outside the double doors to the royal house, he dismounted slowly and removed several objects from his saddlebags. He then opened the doors and disappeared into the shadows. He felt sadness and loss for the first time since the horrific events of the previous day. Tears streamed down his face as he neared the bedchamber.
    As the general looked around the disheveled bedroom, he tried to envision exactly what happened. He seated himself on the floor where he crossed his legs, closes his eyes and opened his mind in an effort to sense traces of magic if there were any. There was a powerful vestige of magic all over the room, much like a spider web. As he touched on the magical cords he understood quickly that there were two different people using their magic to hide their presence. One of them in particular was using an unnatural psychic power to control the minds of everyone in the room. He felt certain that this person was the one responsible for the tragic deaths. The identity of the assassin was not yet clear to him, so he decided to do some tracking by retracing their footsteps.
    He looked around the room to where the trap door should be. He stomped his foot on the door to get it to open, but nothing happened. He went to his weapons cabinet and retrieved a few items he thought might do the trick. He hefted an enormous war hammer over his should and set down his other options on the floor. He did not have much time to do his investigating because of his meeting with the council, so he was quick to try his new idea of breaking the door open. Down came the war hammer with a deafening thud as it smashed into the floor. He made an indentation in the floor, but it would not give way. For the moment, he left it alone so he could go and meet with the people who were likely responsible for his wife's murder. He looked forward to this opportunity very much.
    He went back to his closet to change out his armor. He walked toward his kingly armor that was displayed in the very back. It seemed appropriate to wear this special suit when he addressed the treacherous villains. Even though the queen was gone, he was technically still the king. He did not like the idea of being a royal figure, but it would work for him in this instance. His mere appearance should instill fear in those responsible for this tragedy.
    After he finished dressing, he began his march to the council chambers. As he made his way to the hall, he saw a flurry of activity around his destination. He immediately knew that they were making preparations for the meeting and were beefing up security as best they could. The security would be enough for today, but the official meeting would be something else entirely. He knew that he would be able to manipulate the situation to his advantage as he always had before. He would prove to himself all over again that he was the consummate master of persuasion. He would not have to raise his hand at all to get what he wanted in this case.
    He had reached the back door to the chamber hall before he knew it. He had been so consumed in his own thoughts that he did not realize how much time and distance had passed. He set his jaw and renewed his resolve to do what was needed as he entered the council room. He saw the worried looks on the faces of the council members as he entered the hall. He walked resolutely toward his wife's throne and sat in the chair to make a point to the people at the round table. This gesture answered their fears about their queen and at the same time infuriated them. How could this man sit on the throne as if it were his right to do so?
    The council members began to whisper to one another about what was really going on. They were all thinking that Yukio had killed their queen so that he would be king. General Yukio looked at each member in the council and was wondering when they would realize that someone else was missing from their group. It appeared that everyone was concerned about Queen Kira's absence and not their beloved chairman. He believed this fixation on the queen was further evidence of their treachery in this matter. This helped to stiffen his resolve to stick to his plan.
    "Where is the queen, General Yukio?" asked one of the members of the council boldly.
    The general stood slowly from his seat and set a bag on the table in front of him. There were more whisperings among the group at the sight of this mysterious parcel. Yukio's face fell slightly as he worked up the courage to relate the events of the previous day. He did not think it would be this hard, but the death of his wife and good friend had left him scarred. He knew then that he would never be the same again. He knew that his actions would lead to a war if he was not careful in his dealings with the council this day. If he did not give way his intentions or his real beliefs on the matter, then he would be able to crush them all in one swift stroke. If he was unable to control himself and give something away, there would be no avoiding an all-out war. Either way, he would have his revenge.
    "Dear council members, I have called you here to give you ill news," Yukio said heavily. "It appears that an assassination attempt on my wife's life was successful yesterday."
    There were shouts of anger and dismay when he made this declaration. People stood up and waved their fingers threateningly at General Yukio. It was clear they believed that he murdered his own wife in order to take over the kingdom. He had expected this reaction and knew that he had to get his evidence out before they stoned him. He raised his hands in an effort to calm them down and also to have them sit down. That did not work at all.
    "Sit down!" he bellowed loudly. His eyes were gleaming red with anger. He would not allow this situation to get out of control.
    "You murdered our queen!" yelled one member indignantly.
    "She was my wife, you fool! I loved her more than life itself! Why would I kill her?" he blasted back angrily.
    "You thought by killing her that you would be our king. You have committed high treason and should be put to death immediately," continued that same member.
    "What you are doing now, dear friend, is treason. I am the only one who can tell you the truth about yesterday's events. Mistress Kana has revealed the whole truth to me of the tragic events, so sit down and shut your mouth! If I have to ask you again, you will never utter another word!" Yukio threatened the belligerent councilman.
    The obstinate council member sat down with a look of pure loathing on his face. He did not want to take his seat, but he valued his life very much and knew that the general was capable of horrible deeds. He thought it wise to appease this traitor and hear what lies he had to share. He nodded slightly to the rest of the council members to take their seats and to listen to what Yukio had to say.
    "Now that I have your undivided attention, let me tell you what happened. I want the truth to be known because once you hear what I have to say, you will not be so quick to point your fingers in my direction," he said smoothly as he regained control of the meeting.
    "Please continue, General," said the council member closest to him.
    "Thank you. Yesterday there were rumblings coming from Mount Quang that continued far too long to be an earthquake. The instant I sensed the tremors, I knew that something was wrong. In the very center of our mountain lies a cavern that was established as an escape root for the queen. I knew of this secret and shared it with General Marek. He then passed the information along to my wife. They knew that if an assassin was sighted that they would have to flee at once to the hiding place. It appears that there was an attempt on her life in her bedchamber. Thankfully the trap door to this cavern was hidden in the room, so General Marek and Queen Kira were able to make it into the door before either of them were assaulted," Yukio explained carefully. He was using his psychic power to convince the members of the truth of what he was saying. He was forcing the image of what he was describing into their minds, though some were having measured success in keeping him out.
    "Unfortunately, Bronwen Merindiel also followed them into the passageway somehow. He inadvertently allowed the assassin to follow him through the trap door. Once in the chamber, the traitor slew the chairman and your general before turning on the queen. She defended herself valiantly, but the killer used magic far more powerful than her own. She could not fend off the attack and died in the battle. By the time I reached the cavern, the murderer had fled, leaving no evidence of who they were. He had also set a trap for anyone who came into the cavern, which I unwittingly walked right into. I was able to retrieve the queen's crown, Bronwen's badge, and General Marek's sword before the ceiling collapsed entirely," he said sadly. He had opened the package he had brought with him to display the articles he had just described. He allowed the council members to examine the evidence he had brought to convince them of his story. The sword was not really Marek's, but Yukio made it appear to be so in the council members' minds. Those who were mentally blocking the general were uneducated in weaponry, so they could not tell the difference.
    "After seeing this grisly scene, I passed out and did not wake until this morning. I went to my troops at the outer wall first to give them this horrific news and to instill in them the importance of being ready for an impending assault from whomever the assassin worked for. I then came here to report to you. However, I would like to continue to investigate what went on and then present my final findings to you in a week's time," he stated flatly.
    Silence fell over the council. His report was not what they were expecting at all. Their initial beliefs did not fit what he had told them. There would be no reason for Yukio to kill his good friends, Bronwen and Marek. They believed what he had told them about the events he described to them in detail. They would support him in his request to continue to investigate the murders.
    "General, I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we are deeply sorry for your losses. We know how much you loved our queen and that you were very close to both Marek and Bronwen. We will do what is needed to find the killer responsible for these heinous crimes. We will need to send a message to Queen Kishi right away," said the council member on his right.
    "It brings me comfort to hear you say that. Please, do not delay in sending a message to Kira's sister. We need to prepare for three funerals for three fallen heroes. I will be in the castle where this all began if I am needed," he said quietly. I cannot believe the fools are so easily manipulated.
    "Do not worry about the arrangements or the messages that will need to be delivered. Use your unique abilities to unravel the mystery behind these cruel acts. We will convene officially one week from today at high noon," the council member to his right said.
    The council members stood up and left the hall at once. They needed to work on the arrangements for the funerals, sending messages to Queen Kishi and King Ciel, and notifying the home guard about the tragic events. They would need to be better prepared for follow-up attacks. This preparation would be the undoing of General Yukio's secret plans. Yukio thought that he had convinced all of the council, but he was gravely mistaken in his assumption. This too would end up costing him dearly in the end.


General Yukio's assault

    General Yukio filled the remainder of the week with secret meetings with his troops where he explained in detail his plan of attack. He also worked feverishly on investigating the events leading up to the brutal murders. He spent the day after the council meeting trying to discover the magic that had been employed in the bedchambers. He knew that magic leaves its mark for only three days, so he only had that day to figure out what happened. The only thing he discerned was that Bronwen was using his magic to conceal himself, which confirmed his suspicions that his wife knew Marek was up to no good. What puzzled him was the presence of magic so powerful that he could not begin to guess who it was or what their purpose for being there was.
    After the first day of investigation, Yukio concluded that Bronwen and Kira had an understanding that General Marek was the assassin. This realization only infuriated him more when he thought of his last conversation with his former friend before the tragic event occurred. He had given Marek specific information that he then used for his own evil designs. He had assisted the scum by giving him the perfect secret location to commit the murder of his wife without the possibility of being discovered. The poor chairman was an innocent bystander who merely got in the way. At least there was swift justice for that treacherous villain.
    On the fourth day after Yukio's meeting with the council, Commander Favian arrived with the remainder of the army sanctioned by Queen Daria for the protection the high elves. The united troops began their final preparations for the siege during the cover of night. The newly arrived men had to hide themselves during the day because General Yukio did not want to raise any suspicion among the home guard or cause the people to panic at the sight of reinforcements. They may worry that they are going to be attacked and react in a way to threaten their plans. The general also wanted to keep the element of surprise as one of his weapons in this tactical strike. The members of the army who were hiding during the day had the task of setting traps for anyone who would try to escape during the attack. They also set up a perimeter around the southern and eastern sides of the mountain to protect against an attack from the elves or Queen Kishi.
    The day before General Yukio's army was to lay siege to Alanderas, a last-minute meeting was called to make final preparations. The general gathered together outside the western outer wall with his commander and captains. This would be his final meeting with them before their plans were put into action. He wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page as far as the assault was concerned, and he also wanted the captains to ask any questions the troops may have brought to their attention. This would show that he genuinely cared about everyone in the army and that he also valued their insights.
    "Men, thank you for coming," Yukio welcomed them.
    "Thank you for calling us together, General," Commander Favian replied.
    "Right, let us get down to business then. Behind you is a secret entrance that will take the troops into the courtyard of the royal palace. It is placed to the left of where the wall meets the mountain. This passage is large enough to take horses and some heavy equipment, so that is exactly what we are going to do. Commander Favian will lead his men tonight through this hidden path so he can spring the trap at high noon tomorrow," explained Yukio.
    "Will we be able to take the large siege weapons?" asked Commander Drujien.
    "You will be able to take the arrow launchers but not the catapults," replied Yukio.
    "Is there a room large enough within the mountainside to hide us until wait to spring our trap?" queried Favian.
    "Yes, there is enough room to gather within the mountain. There is an area that I had created for a different purpose that will suit our need now. During the night, I will need to have you lay out some traps and drag some oil lines. This way we will maximize the amount of confusion when we set the oil ablaze. The smoke will lead many of the high elves to the traps you laid and allow us to gain the upper hand in the battle and enable us to crush them swiftly," Yukio said as he slammed his fist into his other hand.
    "What will be the signal to attack, and who will lead the men from the outer wall?" asked Commander Favian.
    "I will have Master Aiden send a volley of arrows at the home guards protecting the main entrance. He will lead the main body of the army into battle while I take care of the council members," he explained. At the mention of Master Igrol's name, a collective intake of breath was heard from the group gathered together around General Yukio. They did not understand how this master of the sword could do such a thing since he was back in Nairi. They all feared and revered the master and were excited at the possibility of his help in the fight.
    "How will Master Aiden reach us in time to lead the army?" asked one of the captains. Aiden walked out of the rock wall where the secret entrance was supposed to be as if the question was his queue to appear. More gasps of amazement came from Yukio's leaders. It was clear that some of the captains were having trouble processing the ever-changing situation.
    "General Yukio, I have come as fast as I could. I take it from your councils thus far that I am in time to fulfill your request," Master Aiden said solemnly.
    Yukio bowed before the master, recognizing his abilities as a swordsman and as a warrior. The rest of the group quickly bowed themselves following their general's example. Many were too surprised still to say anything. They simply stood there with their mouths open in awe. Aiden had a long, violent-red goatee that was braided with gems. His bald head shone brilliantly in the sun as he stood before them. He was shorter than the general, but not by much. He had a much more muscular physique than any other warrior and was as powerful as Yukio himself. His legendary sword, Keahi, was strapped across his back in the custom of master swordsmen. The blade had been imbued with the power of fire by dwarves and was of such fine craftsmanship that it looked as if it had never been used.
    "As Aiden just demonstrated for us, the passageway is not sealed and does not have to be opened. It is camouflaged with a concealment charm to make it look like the rock around it. The opening is actually ten feet high and is thirty feet across. All you have to do is walk straight at it, and you will gain access to the secret path," explained the general.
    "It should be noted that it is very cold in the passageway and chamber our general created, so dress warm," added Commander Favian.
    "Good point, Commander. I had almost forgotten to bring that up. Thank you," said General Yukio graciously. "Now, Master Aiden, you must keep the attack on the homes at the south end of the city as quiet as possible. Our goal is to wipe out the residents before we even engage the home guard."
    "Do you want me to begin the attack tonight?" asked Aiden.
    "Yes, that sounds like a good idea. That way you will be able to use the darkness of the night to give you additional cover. I can guarantee a night of black cloud cover. I have spoken with the goddess Kana, and she has informed me that she will cause a thunder and lightning storm that will drive everyone into their homes," Yukio said with a sly smile. The men in the circle all smiled with great delight at the news that the Elemental was backing them in this campaign. These men will believe anything I tell them.
    "What else did the goddess of wind and fire say?" asked one of the captains eagerly.
    "She informed me that my assumptions about the murders were correct and that she would back our attack as long as we wipe them all out. She feels betrayed by this treachery and the high elves' high-mindedness. She will assist us in any way needed to punish the fools properly," said the general confidently.
    "It would appear that the immortal elves are no longer favored by the guardians. It is the time for man to lead the lands of Tuwa," said Master Aiden darkly. His bejeweled goatee sparkled in the afternoon sun as he spoke.
    "You are right, Aiden. Kana feels that it is the time for man to rule the lands. The defeat of the high elves will be a sign to the rest of the races that it is our time, and the people of Nairi will lead the way into a new era," Yukio continued.
    "Now, let us get to work. There is much to do before the sun sets. I need to get ready for my performance in the council chambers tomorrow, and you all have preparations to make in order for us to be successful. If we follow our plan perfectly, we will not fail!" exclaimed General Yukio.

    As the sun hid itself once again below the horizon, a wicked storm swept in from the north. Cold winds came rushing down the mountainside, sending many people running for cover. Then there was a flash of lightning that struck a building near the inner wall, and a deafening boom followed the strike. There was a brief pause before the black clouds dumped so much rain on the city that there were ankle-high streams running down the roads within minutes. The only light that could be seen was the lightning and the brief fires the strikes caused. It was so wet that nothing could burn for longer than a few minutes. The sounds and darkness were the perfect cover for the attacks led by Master Aiden.
    Aiden started his house-to-house hunt after the first loud boom of thunder. Mistress Kana was doing her part to give them cover, and now it was his turn to show his resolve by quietly eliminating the wicked high elves before the home guard knew what was happening. He divided up the troops into groups of twelve and sent them down each block. Each street would have two groups attacking from opposite ends so that they would meet in the middle. This tactic would help to distract the residents if they heard anything other than the rain and thunder just long enough to have one of the teams neutralize the potential threat.
    The army swarmed over the southern half of the city like locusts. No one in their path survived, and no alarms were sent up as the troops executed the plan. In the history of Tuwa, there had never been an assault by any of the good races where both male and female, young and old, were slaughtered. Blood ran down the streets, turning the rivers of water caused by the violent storm red. The wind howled like an angry pack of wolves as the soldiers finished phase one of their gruesome campaign. No fires were set as the men went from house to house, so their secret was kept safe from the eyes of the home guard. The high elves guarding the inner wall and castle did not see the army of General Yukio waiting in the shadows of the homes. Aiden and his men now had to wait until noon to complete phase three of the operation.

    Commander Favian looked up at the ominous clouds forming overhead and knew that Mistress Kana was providing the cover that she had promised General Yukio. After the first loud boom of thunder was heard, the troops gathered up into a formation that would allow them easy passage into the secret cavern. When the rain began to hail down upon them, they began their silent march into the cavity in the mountainside. The men listened carefully as they walked toward the entrance to see if they could hear anything from Aiden and his men who were carrying out phase one. They heard nothing as they walked into the pitch-black tunnel. Torches were lit, and the massive number of troops and siege weapons crept slowly toward their destination inside the mountain. The men who were in charge of carrying out phase two were at the front of the formation alongside their commander.
    As the facilitators of the second phase gathered in the cavern near the hidden exit, they went over their plans again to make sure they set the traps in the proper places. This particular part of the plan actually had two parts to it. The first part was the trap setting, which would be carried out immediately. The second part would be to move the siege weapons into position in the courtyard. They would be set up with their backs to the castle in such a way that would lead the home guard to believe that they were there as an extra precaution for tomorrow's important meeting. General Yukio would be helping out with this part of the plan. He had informed the guards surrounding the castle to allow the siege weapons to be stationed in the royal courtyard as an additional defensive measure. They would not argue, considering that they had allowed the queen and the head of the council to be assassinated on their watch. The rain was coming down so hard that the high elves could not tell which direction they were coming from, so there would not be any questions about their sudden appearance.
    The first part was completed without incident. The ironic thing about the placing of the siege weapons was that the home guard helped to position the weapons so that the inner wall was covered from every angle, basically ensuring their own destruction. Once all the artillery was in place, the guards who had helped Yukio's men were executed and replaced with Commander Favian's men. General Yukio wanted to take this extra precaution even though he knew that if the rain subsided before the meeting, their plans could be discovered. He felt that even if this happened that they would prevail in a fight. At the end of phase two, there was still no sign from the high elves that they knew what had taken place. It was nearly dawn by now, and the rains showed no signs of halting. Phase three was only six hours away now, and the men were anxious to finish this bloody campaign. They all felt like heroes and that they were invincible. They really believed that not one soldier would fall in this violent campaign.
    As the morning wore on, the home guard was having difficulties seeing anything through the deluge of rain. They sent a messenger to General Yukio to give him a warning about the terrible weather and the feeling they were having about a possible surprise attack. Yukio had the messenger return with the instructions to be on their guard and to watch for any suspicious behavior. He also said to make sure that no one approached the hall once the council meeting had begun. He believed that additional assassination attempts would be directed at members of the High Council, so the council chambers must be protected at all costs. He thought that this message would open some gaps in the inner wall's defenses, but he was sadly mistaken. While the guards did not know of the plan thus far, they had taken extra steps to ensure the meeting would not be interrupted. Yukio did not know about the archers stationed on the mountainside above the city. This would be the undoing of the general's hope that none of his men would be lost.

    As the time neared for the meeting to commence, General Yukio got dressed in his kingly armor and armed himself to the teeth. No one would question what he was doing considering his beloved wife's recent demise. He smiled grimly at his reflection in a mirror as he surveyed his armor to make sure there were no weak points. I will be remembered as the right hand of thegods. There will be none who will dare question our deeds! All the peoples ofTuwa will all fall down and worship us as the true advocates of the guardians.
    He continued to contemplate exactly what he would say and do once in the chambers. He needed to make sure that all of the members were there before starting the meeting. He wanted to ensure that they would be leaderless before the assault began on the inner wall. He would have to be quick in his execution; otherwise a warning would be sent to the home guard. The plan had appeared to work perfectly thus far, so it was up to him now to make sure it ended according to their designs. His men had not let him down, so he would do his best not to disappoint them.
    He was at the back entrance to the council chambers before he knew it. If he had not been lost in his thoughts, he would have noticed the archers stationed on the mountainside. He would have also noticed a vanguard heading toward Queen Kishi's domain. Many of the high elves had actually escaped before the assault had taken place. A third of the main body had left before the nighttime slaughter began because of their misgivings they had toward Yukio. The general walked through the entrance full of confidence and with a smile on his face. The entire council had already taken their seats and was waiting for him to get the meeting started. The general walked purposefully to his seat but did not sit down. He had a wicked gleam in his eye that made the council shudder at his gaze.
    "I have discovered who the culprit was that killed the queen and Chairman Merindiel," he began coldly. "It was the work of an entire council. It was all of you!" At this bold declaration, Yukio sent several daggers flying across the round table into several of the council members' heads. Chaos erupted in the chambers as hidden guards attacked General Yukio. Many of the council members escaped out the front door, and they immediately warned the home guard.
    Yukio was being assaulted by six of the finest swordsmen that the high elves had. First, he reached out with his magic to infiltrate their minds of those around him. He felt their mental barriers and saw the animalistic thoughts they used to shield their thoughts. He chuckled to himself at the basic defense measures they employed. He exerted his force of will like a battering ram against these barriers and they splintered like a wooden door. He forced the high elves to turn on each other, and within seconds four of them lay dead on the floor, and the remaining pair were fighting one another with such ferocity that the general had to get out of the way. Their blades were a blur of precision and years of training. They fought as though the thought of stopping was unconscionable. He immediately left the hall in pursuit of the council members who had escaped. As soon as he left the chamber the two guards fighting one another came to their senses. Apparently the general was conserving his energy for the battle so he did not force the pair to kill one another.
    As he stepped out into the open, he was blinded by the sun. The rain had not only stopped; the clouds were gone. As his mind caught up with reality, he heard the sounds of a heated battle taking place. He then heard several whooshing sounds as objects flew past his head. Before he could turn around, he had been struck twice in the back with arrows from the hidden archers on the mountainside. His effort to conserve energy had left him open to this surprise attack.
    He dropped to his knees and reached back to remove the arrows that were lodged in his lower back. Amazingly, each hit had missed anything vital, so he was able to remove the arrows without doing further damage. Raged burned through him as he stood erect and saw that his plans had been foiled. His eyes literally burned red like fire, and he quickly began to use his mind-controlling ability to turn the home guard on one another. He directed his silent assault on the archers stationed on the mountainside first. He had them attack the high elves protecting the wall. He continued to survey the battle around him and was shocked to see many of his men were dead or dying. This only fueled his thirst for revenge. His break in focus allowed the bowmen to come back to their senses and redirect their assault at Yukio's men.
    He whistled for his stallion to come to him and then made a different noise that called his faithful war hawk. His horse appeared suddenly from behind the castle and ran at top speed to aid his master. Yukio did a running jump to get on his steed without the beast breaking stride. Shortly after mounting his horse, the hawk appeared out of the clear sky. The bird landed roughly on the general's outstretched arm. Yukio quickly spoke to his hawk words of command, and the bird took off immediately. The fowl flew west out over the wall where there was no fighting and then turned north. Yukio had sent his messenger to report to Queen Daria of what had transpired. He knew that the high elves would unify under Queen Kishi and that they would want revenge for what they would perceive to be an unwarranted attack. He needed help as soon as possible. He knew that he would win this day, but he did not know how he would survive an attack from Queen Kishi.
    The battle continued to rage on around him, but the tide was steadily shifting in the general's favor. Yukio returned his attention to the archers on the mountainside. They had thinned out the numbers on the wall enough to allow for the army outside the wall to finally gain the edge they needed to capture the inner wall. The general focused his power on them again and forced them to face one another. Many of the archers resisted his commands to shoot one. After several moments of mental conflict, which drained the general of a significant amount of energy, the archers let fly their arrows. Within minutes all the archers lay dead or dying at one another's hands. Now he had the advantage, and his battle cry inspired his men to finish the bloody conflict.
    As the men under Commander Favian swept across the courtyard, Master Aiden was cleaning the walls off by himself. His blade, Keahi, flashed in the light of the noonday sun as he tore through the heavily armored high elves. The blade burned red and sent massive fireballs into crowds of guards. He cleared the entire wall alone while his men stood there and watched the finest swordsmen in the world annihilate at least fifty soldiers.
    Within minutes, the remaining high elves had been killed and the battle came to abrupt end. A third of Yukio's men had fallen in the confrontation, but they had won the day. As the general stood panting from the physical and mental exertion, it dawned on him that Mistress Kana had not kept her end of the bargain. He had the feeling that the other guardians were involved somehow and they were fighting against her and her allies. He was overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal and loss. He did not think this day would cost so much in blood. He walked slowly to the wall to speak with his men and his faithful commander. Everyone had gathered together at the wall to discuss what had happened and were trying to figure out what went wrong. They all came to attention when they saw the general approaching.
    "Men, we have won this day, but the cost of our victory was too high," Yukio said solemnly. "There is one among us who saved us all. Master Aiden, I thank you." General Yukio bowed to recognize the true hero of the battle for Alanderas. Aiden had single-handedly saved the army of Yukio, and the general was not too proud to recognize such greatness. IfAiden had not been here, we would have been destroyed.
    "Thank you, General Yukio," replied Master Aiden. The rest of the army had bowed like their general. Aiden motioned for everyone to rise. They all did as he asked and looked on him as if he were more than just a man.
    "Men, we need to prepare for retaliation from Queen Kishi. Several of the council members escaped along with a third of the host of the high elves. My warrior hawk told me this when I had summoned him from hiding. I have sent him on to deliver a message to Queen Daria explaining the situation. I believe the army of the high elves will not strike us, but they will attack the Nairi Canyons," he said confidently. "We must be ready to head them off or cut off their retreat." He was beginning to regain his composure and put on a look of defiance in order to inspire his men.
    The men shouted their approval and quickly divided up into small groups to clean up the bloody battlefield. The troops would spend the remainder of the day cleaning, and by the next morning, they would be on the move to head off the high elves. They would not leave anyone behind in the city because of the importance of stopping the high elves before they reached the canyons. It was also imperative to not leave any clues behind that would reveal what had happened and where the entire host of Yukio's army was heading. They needed secrecy now more than ever to catch the high elves off guard. The men were tense while they finished their cleaning because of the task that lay ahead of them. They did not fully understand how they had been found out. They would make the remaining high elves pay for the deaths of their comrades.



    Lord Diikker watched as a massive body of high elves approach the city's outer wall. They were coming from Alanderas in quite a hurry, which led him to believe that something had gone terribly wrong. Queen Kishi had received a message from one of General Yukio's messengers about the suspicious nature of Kira's death and the chairman of the High Council just days before this event. The funeral was not for a few more days, so the sorcerer thought that this appearance of so many of their brethren was not a good sign. He decided to make for the outer wall to command the guards to give the people admittance into the city. He felt sure that once the people were inside that this mystery would be quickly solved.
    As he approached the front gate, the clear star-filled sky overhead clouded up immediately with black clouds. A loud echoing boom was heard after a brilliant flash of lightning that lit the darkened sky. In an instant, everyone and everything was soaked through as the heavens dumped heaps of rain on them. Furious winds howled down the mountainside sending everyone not on guard running to their homes or barracks. Diikker had to get much closer to the guards in order to be heard over the tumultuous noises of the sudden storm.
    "Captain, you must allow those high elves in when they reach the gate. I sense that something has gone horribly wrong in Alanderas, which means that these people will need our assistance," he said with great intensity.
    "Yes, my lord," replied the captain. He turned about and began to bellow out orders to his men. The gate began to open, and archers scurried up the stairs to the tops of the wall to give covering fire if need be to the refugees.
    Dukker called a guard over to him that was not positioned on the wall. He instructed him to go and tell Commander Tenanden to prepare the defenses of the city right away. Then he was to take a different message to General Thrarias. He was to inform the general of what was happening and to prepare the army for departure at a moment's notice. Finally the messenger was to go to Queen Kishi, Chairman Rinelyn, and the druid Krysanal. He was to inform them of what was happening at the gate, what Commander Harley was doing, what General Jaali was preparing for, and what they must do. Lord Dukker knew that an emergency session of the High Council was needed in order to act swiftly.

    A knock came on the door of the council chamber's front door. Kishi looked at Elgin and Nita with a look of surprise. Who knew that we were here? She stood up slowly from the table where they had been discussing plans for unifying the high elves by force. She walked slowly to the door, bewildered at this sudden disruption. A ball of fire burst into life in her hand as she prepared to defend against what lay behind the doors. She used her other hand to open the door magically. At the sight of the soaked messenger, she extinguished the fire in her hand and rushed to usher the ragged-looking guard into the hall. She directed him to the fire that was lit in the middle of the council room. The fire was burning bright blue and had obviously been created by magic.
    "Guard, what are you doing here and why in the name of all that is holy were you out in this storm?" asked the queen genuinely. She was concerned for his welfare, something that she had not felt in hundreds of years. Ever since she became queen, she had had these feelings and felt more complete and whole now that she cared for others. Her responsibilities of leading a nation had helped her rise to the occasion and become a better person. Her people loved her all the more because of it. Still, there were many who feared her powerful magic.
    "Milady, Lord Aellenas commanded me to deliver several messages at once to various people. First, I was instructed to find Commander Harley and tell him to prepare to defend the city. Second, I was told to find General Jaali and inform him that he needed to prepare the entire army for departure. They would need to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Finally, I was told to come find you all here in the council chambers and relay what I had told the others," said the guard, shaking violently from the cold that he had been exposed to outside.
    "You have done well in your errands. Let me help you warm up a bit," said Kishi kindly. She reached for his hands and took them in hers. She sent warmth and some cleansing magic through his hands into his body. He immediately stopped shaking and looked at the queen with gratitude in his eyes.
    "Thank you, my mistress," he said breathlessly. "You are too kind."
    "Nonsense, it is the least I can do. Now, continue with the rest of your message," she said soothingly.
    "Yes, Milady. I was instructed to tell all of you that a massive number of high elves are heading toward our front gate and are coming from the direction of Alanderas. Lord Diikker is allowing them entrance into the city. He has is under the impression that something has gone awry and that the people approaching are actually refugees. He also said that this storm was magically created by a power far greater than any one person could manage with their own strength. He wants you, Chairman Rinelyn, to call an emergency session of the High Council. Queen Kishi, he asks that you meet him at the outer wall as soon as we are done here. Finally, he asked that I accompany you and the druid Nita," reported the guard.
    "You have done well. Elgin, call for the council members to meet in the hall within the hour. Prepare extra seats for our guests. I believe that some of the council from Alanderas will be joining us," she instructed quickly. "Nita, please join us as we go to the outer wall to find out more about these strange events. Your healing ability may be needed, I fear."
    "As you command," replied Nita dryly. She did not fully trust the queen because of her immense power and her willingness to use it. She believed that Kishi wanted to unify the high elves for her own reasons and not for the greater good. She thought it laughable that this sorceress cared for other people, let alone their welfare. She had the feeling that something was amiss and that she needed to keep an eye on things or they would quickly spiral out of control.
    Kishi looked sideways at the druid but did not say anything more. She knew that Nita did not approve of uniting the high elves through force. She also knew that the only reason the healer left the woodland elves was because of Kira. With her sister gone, Nita did not see why she should remain with Queen Kishi and her people. There were other healers in Kishi's army, but none were as skilled as the shape-shifting druid. They were going to need her, and it was up to the queen to give her a reason to stay. That would not prove to be an easy task.
    The threesome walked quietly toward the front gate as the rain pounded on them relentlessly. Kishi used her magic to keep them dry as they walked, but she could not soften the blow of the enormous raindrops as she needed to conserve some energy in order to be prepared for the unknown. No one spoke as they came around the final bend and saw a massive body of people huddled together just inside the gate. It appeared that they had arrived just in time. Queen Kishi looked around to try and find Lord Diikker, and she finally caught sight of him listening intently to a small group of people by the main gate. She ran up to him so that she could join in the conversation right away.
    "Excuse me, Lord Dukker. I apologize for being late. What has happened here?" queried the queen. She was shocked to see that the small group of people was in fact members of the High Council of Alanderas. What in the name of the gods are they doing here? This cannot be good.
    "Kishi, I am glad you are here. These good people have been telling me a rather distressing tale that I think you should hear," he said in welcome. "Please, tell Queen Kishi what you have told me."
    "Of course, we will begin with the treachery of General Yukio then," one of the council members stated. He then related their escape and the surprise attack by the army of General Yukio. He also explained how Yukio blamed the council for the murders of Chairman Merindiel and Queen Kira. He then described how the general tried to wipe out the entire council all at once.
    "This is outrageous!" exclaimed Kishi, now full of rage. "My worst fears have been confirmed. I knew that if Yukio tried something like this that I would then know for sure that he was the one responsible for my sister's death. Kana warned me of such treachery, and she was right. He must be stopped at all costs!"
    "You are right of course. I would suggest a different strategy than what you are thinking," said Dukker knowingly to Kishi. She is so easy to manipulate.
    "What did you have in mind?" asked Kishi earnestly. Hopefully he has a plan already.
    "I believe the best way to put an end to this madness of General Yukio's is to destroy his homeland. That way we will outnumber him ten to one. If we only have to face Yukio's small numbers, then we will be successful in ending his bloody campaign and shield ourselves against retaliation," explained Dukker darkly.
    "So, you are suggesting that we lay siege to the Nairi Canyons and cut off any reinforcements? I like that plan every much. We must prepare right away. We will leave some forces here to defend the city while the remainder of the army will head straight for the canyons," said the queen decisively.
    "I will oversee the defense of the city and while our good General Jaali gets retribution against those vile men. " said Lord Aellenas, full of rage. He had a wicked gleam in his eyes as he stood there, anger coursing through his body.
    "I share your feelings in this matter, Diikker. I will deal with our guests while you shore up the defenses," Kishi said confidently.
    As they both sprang into action, the rain ceased and the clouds dispersed in an unnatural fashion. Kishi sensed a higher power at work and knew immediately that it was Mistress Kana helping them during their time of need. She knew that the Elemental had been angered by Yukio's lies and murders. This gave her the courage and inspiration she needed as she climbed the outer wall to make a speech to the huddled mass. As she turned to face the refugees, she saw that they were shivering from the penetrating rain and harsh winds that had accosted them. She smiled warmly as she raised both of her hands, sending out a hot, dry wind that eased the peoples' discomfort instantly. Though this gesture drained her energy considerably, it was worth it. A cheer of gratitude sprang up immediately and was quickly drowned out by a louder call for Kishi to be their queen.
    "People of Alanderas, I bid you welcome. I know that a tragedy has befallen you, and I would like to assist you. Who will speak for you?" she asked kindly. Warmth was still radiating from her as she spoke. Immediately a small group approached the wall and bowed themselves before the queen.
    "Oh powerful and wise Queen Kishi Tiranidrol, we will speak for the masses," one of the council members said humbly.
    "Rise, noble council members. Why are there only eight of you? What happened to the other three?" she queried.
    "Milady, yesterday we were to have a meeting with General Yukio regarding the mysterious deaths of your sister, our chairman, and our good general. We prepared for the worse by having the home guard stationed in new places because we feared we had a spy among us," said one of the shaking council members. They were still in shock at the carnage they had witnessed, and they were afraid of the awesome power of Queen Kishi.
    "Please continue, you have nothing to fear here," she said soothingly.
    "When in the council chambers for the meeting, we hid several guards in the shadows to protect us against a surprise attack. When the general walked in the back door for the meeting, we knew that we were betrayed. He came dressed in his full body armor and was armed to the teeth. Many of us felt that we should have had the guards seize him at that moment, but we hesitated. That is why three of our number did not make it," the council member said with a look of horror on his lined face.
    "It is all right. I will take it from here," said the council member standing on the right of the trembling speaker, the spokesman for the council. He stopped shaking and looked dejectedly down at the ground as if he were envisioning what had happened all over again in his mind.
    "Please forgive him, Milady; we have seen such horrors that none of us had ever witnessed before," the new speaker said pleadingly.
    "It is all right. Please tell me what happened to the rest of the people. Why are only a third of you here? Where are the rest?" she asked with great concern. She was still getting used to the idea of being kind and concerned for the welfare of others. Her dark elven face looked hard and resolute as she looked out over the crowd. She always had this look, but now it was even more terrifying to look upon since the death of her twin sister. Something had been taken from her that day, and she wanted revenge on Yukio for taking a part of her when he killed Kira.
    "Your Majesty, when we escaped the surprise attack in the council chambers, we were given cover by our archers stationed on the mountainside. This gave us time to use the secret exit that your sister had created for escape. Yukio apparently did not know about this or was too enraged to remember. The entire courtyard was covered in blood and was occupied by elf and man struggling to the death. Body parts were strewn throughout the yard, on the inner wall, and in the castle. We feared that all were lost, so we left through the exit to find a third of the people had escaped as well," he explained with a grievous look on his face. He looked like he was going to be sick to his stomach, but he was determined to continue the tale.
    "You mean to tell me that Yukio's army slaughtered everyone else?" Kishi said in utter disbelief. She thought he would dispose of the council and make the rest of the high elves his slaves. She did not believe that he was capable of such egregious acts.
    "Yes, he killed them all. During the night, he had half of his army creep from house to house killing all in their path. A mysterious stranger appeared by the inner wall and approached one of the homes and informed them of what was taking place. If it was not for her, we would have all died. I do not know how this woman knew what was happening or how we were able to escape without being noticed. Nevertheless, we are here and alive; now we will serve Queen Kishi as servants and not subjects," he said, prostrating himself before her.
    "Rise, my friend. You are one of us now. We are all in this together. The only one who will be our servants will be the people of Nairi, and that is if they survive!" she declared boldly. She was a queen of action and not diplomacy. Even her sister would agree with what she was planning to do.
    "What shall we do, Milady? If you plan to fight our enemies, we will join the ranks of your army," offered one of the high elves in the crowd.
    "That is well. Anyone who desires revenge for the unforgivable crimes committed against you, join the army that will be sent to destroy or enslave the people of Nairi. The rest may stay here and make their new home here. If you have skills that would help in finishing the construction of the remaining buildings, please stay here. If you want to stay here and fight, please see Lord Diikker about joining the elite home guard," she said confidently. Even if half of the refugees joined the army, she would have the largest standing army outside the people of Landen.
    Cheers of approval rang through the air, and the crowd slowly dispersed as they searched out their new homes. Lord Diikker had made the plans for the city and had built enough homes to house the combined body of high elves. Kishi was in awe of her mentor's ability to foresee future events and his ability to prepare for any eventualities. I need to find him as soon as possible. She would leave the city with the army and wanted to make some additional plans that would need to be carried out while she is gone. As she walked down the stairs from her perch on the wall, the sun burned brightly overhead. She had a feeling of purpose come over her as she continued to ponder her plans. They would need allies if they were to survive the long years of war that lie ahead. She knew that elves and men would unite, but the dwarves might be able to be persuaded to join them. If not, she would have to make a pack with the devils of the southern land.



    Lord Dukker called together the captains of the home guard in the council chambers. This was the only meeting hall that was completed, and it provided them with sufficient privacy for the topics they would discuss. Once they had gathered together, Dukker explained to them that he was taking the command of the home guard because General Jaali was going to the lands of Nairi while Commander Tenanden was leading a special assault team to retake the city of Alanderas. He wanted them to understand that he was taking over because their commander was the only person who could reclaim the birth city of the high elves. He lavished praise upon the captains as well, who then cheered their approval of Duk- ker's plans.
    "I want to make it known to you that Mistress Kana has not left our side. She wants us to punish the wicked Nairians and to avenge the blood of her chosen people upon all the kingdoms of men!" Lord Aellenas said boldly. Cold furry and rage coursed through him. His eyes were full of malice and hatred. His fierce gaze inspired the desired reaction from the captains of the home guard. They all stood up and saluted their new leader. They stood at attention waiting for Dukker to dismiss them.
    "I believe I speak for all of us Lord Aellenas when I say that we will crush the infidels. The city will not fall under your command, and we will reclaim the land that is rightfully ours," Commander Harley said stoically. He swelled with pride as he spoke while a wicked gleam flickered in his eyes. He was anxious to kill as many Nairians as possible once they had retaken Alanderas. He felt a burning desire to depart immediately to Mount Quang, but he knew he needed to be patient. He sensed that Lord Diikker had some special instructions for him.
    "Commander, please stay for a moment. We need to decide who you will take with you and what you will need to do to be successful," Dukker said with a dark look.
    After all the captains had left, Commander Harley took a seat next to Dukker. Lying on the table in front of Aellenas was a map of Mounts Quang and Konane. This was no ordinary map, however; there were little objects moving on the map. The commander looked at Aellenas in disbelief. He had witnessed many kinds of magic in his day, but he had not seen anything like this. There was a large group of people that were armed for battle with siege weapons, knights, archers, and swordsmen gathering together in the courtyard of Alanderas. On the edge of the map were a few giants that were camped near Mount Quang. The capital city of the high elves on Mount Konane was filled with so many people that it looked like a mass of ants moving about. He noticed a name appear that seemed to be the name of their capital city. It said Tiranidrol, named after the surname of their mighty Queen Kishi.
    "I have never seen anything like this, my lord," said the commander. He was amazed at the detail and the accuracy of its depictions. He was simply impressed that it was a moving map.
    "I show you this map because it will tell us exactly what we will need to do in order to retake Alanderas," Dukker explained with a sideways look at his commander.
    "When do we attack?" asked Harley.
    "Tomorrow morning; after our army has departed, we will look at this map again. I believe that Yukio will not stay put long, so the number you will need to take with you will be very small. However, we will not do anything until we see what moves they make first. I believe they have spies watching us, so they will know when our army leaves the mountain. I will instruct the home guard to be as invisible as possible while at their stations. Their spies do not have magic, so we may be able to trick them into thinking that we emptied the city. This should be the edge that we will need. As for who you should take, I recommend only those that you completely trust," Lord Aellenas explained confidently.
    "It sounds like an excellent plan to me," the commander said with a bow. He turned about and left the council room so Aellenas could continue to formulate defensive strategies.
    Dtikker stood in silence in the massive dome-shaped council room. The evening sun was setting, and the white clouds in the sky above turned red as the sun set in the west. He was waiting for the queen to arrive so that they could discuss their plans together and decide what would be the most prudent course of action. His apprentice had become more powerful as a result of recent events, and he knew that she would continue to grow stronger. She was his equal now and would be far superior to him very soon. He knew that she would take the Nairi Canyons and that by doing so she would spark a kind of war that had not been seen in the lands of Tuwa for nearly a thousand years. She would become the most powerful sorceress and would rival even the guardians in most respects. He had taught her well.
    He was so consumed in his thoughts that he did not sense the approach of his pupil. Kishi entered through the front doors of the hall and bowed as she looked at her mentor. He smiled at her in a way that a proud father would, but his dark demeanor made his smile look sinister and wicked. She smiled back at him as she walked resolutely to his side at the head of the council table. She looked down at the moving map and was impressed by this use of magic. She still had much to learn from her master and she knew that she did not have any time left for further lessons. Her eyes scanned the portents of the moving map quickly. She noticed that there were giants very near Mount Quang, and this disturbed her.
    "My queen, I have met with the captains of the home guard and with Commander Tenanden. I explained what the army was planning to do in the morning, and they were overjoyed at the prospect of retribution. I then informed our good friend Harley that he would be leading a special unit of troops tomorrow to recapture the city of Alanderas. I believe that General Yukio has spies watching us, so it is safe to assume that he will pursue our army as it leaves the mountain heading east. Retaking the city will be rather easy for Commander Harley. I do have one concern, however," he said, pointing to the giants camped out near Mount Quang. He had sensed the surprise Kishi had about the giants and their proximity to Alanderas.
    "What in the name of all that's holy are they doing there?" asked Kishi in an uneven voice to her master. She hid nothing from him, including her emotions because he would be able to sense them anyway. She also knew that she could trust him and that he would share in her concern about the giants.
    "They may be curious about what has been going on in the mountains. They do not ally themselves with anyone, so I do not believe that we need to worry about them siding with any of our enemies. I am more concerned about their innate curiosity," explained Dtikker with a sigh. He thought that the giants were rather dull creatures and that he could handle the whole lot of them by himself. They had no magic and no way to defend against his particular powers, so he could take them out with a rather small force without a second thought. However, he knew that the queen would not approve of such a course of action. She did not share the same idea of power quite yet, and she was not ready to embrace his position on the matter.
    "How big of a force do you think we need to send as a result of this possible threat?" she asked patiently. She was thinking that the mad general had gone and allied himself to the giants somehow. This would not bode well for the high elves if that were the case. The giants could resist elemental magic and could take on all of her people and win with a considerably smaller force.
    "I believe that Commander Harley will be able to retake the city without any losses or interference from these brutes. I will, of course, inform him that there are to be no prisoners taken when he sacks the city," he said darkly. "I think that if we send a fourth of our archers to defend the outer wall and a small number of cavalry to run down spies, we should be able to defend against an assault by the giants if they should try to surprise us." He knew that Kishi did not believe this, but she would trust his judgment in the matter. He had never led her astray.
    "I think we should send spies of our own with Commander Harley. How about one or more of your steed's offspring? They should be able to find out what we need to know about the true intentions of these giants. Plus, they could set some pretty sticky traps for our intellectually challenged friends," said Kishi with a derisive snort. She thought that the giants were slow and would easily fall into a massive spider web. She knew that the easiest course of action to take with the giants would be to confuse and outsmart them. The later should not prove too difficult.
    "I agree with your suggestion. We should send in spies of our own to learn all that we can. I do believe that Razi's spawn can do what is needed while providing the necessary effect we are looking for. I will have him send his spies into the camp of these giants first. We should have a report within a few days during which time we will have already retaken Alanderas. Kishi, we should not delay taking action any longer; time will be our most formidable ally or our greatest enemy. We must move swiftly," he said wisely.
    "You are right … as usual. Have your spies set as many traps as possible while gathering intelligence from our unwanted guests. Instruct them to find out what they can and to send someone back to report right away. Also, prepare the defenses of Tiranidrol for surprise attacks. Make sure there are enough provisions to outlast a long siege if it should come to that," said the queen in anticipa tion of the worst. She did not want to be caught off guard like her sister. She knew that this meant being on guard at all times. Unlike her sister, however, she was not afraid to use her magic to protect herself. Her sister had always been very reluctant to use her powers, fearing that they would eventually control her.
    "Do not worry yourself about the defense of the city or the reclaiming of Alanderas. I know that these ventures will be successful and without loss. My worry is for you, Kishi," he said kindly. He was so much like the father she had wished for all her life. He understood that it was bitter sweet to get revenge and that it would be a difficult feat. He knew that the Nairians would not be caught off guard and would fight like a wild beast backed into a corner. The queen needed to anticipate a long siege while attempting to capture the canyon lands. He had the feeling that she thought her task would be rather easy to manage.
    "So, you think that my task is more difficult than I feel it is?" she asked without equivocation. "You are probably right; you always are. All I know is that this is where my course lay and that Kana is on our side. We will take the Nairi Canyons and repay our debt to those who died at the treacherous hands of General Yukio!" Cold furry rushed through her body, and she rose a little into the air as her anger built. The people ofNairi will learn what the true meaning ofrevenge.! Her eyes had turned red as if fire were about to burst out of them.
    "I will leave you to your thoughts then, Milady," Lord Diikker said with a bow. As he stood to leave, he had a triumphant look on his face. She may not want power by any means necessary yet, but she is now on the right path.
    Kishi walked out of the council chambers even more determined and resolute in the course of action she was about to undertake. As she looked around the square, she caught sight of her faithful general and good friend, Jaali Thrarias. When he noticed the queen, he immediately left the conversation he was having with one of the siege commanders and walked toward her. He smiled as he approached the beautiful, yet deadly, high elven queen. He bowed in greeting once he had reached Kishi, and she took hold of his chin to bring him out of his prostration. She smiled warmly at him once they were looking one another in the eye.
    "General Jaali, we have much work to do. We need to make preparations for a long siege. We will need archers, swordsmen, siege weapons of every kind, scouts, spies, and anything else you can come up with. I do not want to leave anything to chance," explained the queen earnestly. Her resolve always gave her great strength, and she knew that the army needed to see that fierce determination from their leader at this critical juncture.
    "We have provisions ready that will last us for a year, and we have devised a route that should be relatively easy to keep safe from attacks. No one knows about the north land, and that is where we will make our base. We will store our food and spare equipment there. From a secret base I have found, we will be able to outlast the Nairians," said General Jaali gruffly.
    "You have done well. Do we have any cavalry to send with the army?" she asked.
    "I have taken the liberty to round up some of the finest horses found in the north lands and have sent the knights ahead on their steeds to our northern home base. They should be finished with the defensive preparations by the time the army reaches them. We will be ready in the morning to head out," he said to his queen as if he knew the next question. He knew her all too well to not know what she would want done and what her expectations were.
    "Thank you, Jaali. You always know what I am thinking and what I want. That is not typical of a male from any race … but especially for an elf," she chided. She loved him as if he were the brother she never had. He treated her as a little sister even though she was his leader. She liked this very much because it made her feel secure and cared for.
    "The day is waning, and the army will need a good night's rest before the trek to the secret base. I will leave you now, Milady," he said with an edge of friendly sarcasm. He bowed slightly and took her hand in his and kissed it gently. He rose with a wry smile and turned about-face and marched back toward the barracks. The queen watched him leave, and the sky above burned red as the sun set in the west. She eventually turned around and walked to the partially finished castle. She, too, would need plenty of rest for the journey ahead. She would wake early so that she could set some special magical protections of her own on various places within the city. It never hurts to be prepared.
    Kishi felt that she also needed to meditate in the morning to clear her mind of all thought so that she could use her magic with greater precision and without any distortion from her emotions. She had learned that when she used her power through her feelings or aided by them, she could not control its destructive or constructive power. She needed to keep everything in check because if she let her resentment gain control, her enemies would then have a weapon to use against her. She cared too much for her people to submit them to great danger because of her ill disposition. She would protect them at all costs.
    The morning air was crisp and cold as the queen meditated on her balcony. She could sense her surroundings and could feel her anxiety ebbing away as she became at one with her environment. She always kept her cool when she took time to focus herself and to ponder on the beauty of the world in which she lived. She immediately felt the presence of a powerful being, but she could not tell where it was precisely. It had the feeling of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
    As she opened her eyes and turned around to look into her bedchamber, she saw a shadowy figure glide toward her. She immediately knew who it was that stood or floated before her. It was the mighty Mistress Kana, one of the most powerful Elementals and who happened to also be the most temperamental guardian. She would need to be cautious in this surprise exchange. She bowed only slightly to recognize her but did not want her to think that she felt she was a lesser being. Kishi stood up straight and looked into the fiery eyes of her unbidden guest.
    "Queen Kishi, you need to understand exactly what happened to your sister before you take action against Nairi," Kana explained plainly but with great power in her voice. "Kira was murdered by General Marek, but the good general was not right in his mind. General Yukio has the ability to control and manipulate minds, and he used this power to eliminate your sister and the Chairman. He then killed Marek to make the whole situation look like he was too late to save his wife and his friend from his best friend's madness. I arrived too late to stop the bloodshed, and he is even now preparing his army to hunt you down."
    "Why would Yukio do such a thing?" Kishi asked quietly. She is not telling me everything.
    "He is an ambitious man who wants power over others. His ability to control minds has given him a taste of something he wants more than anything which is limitless power. That is why he has done what he has. That is why you must not underestimate him or his abilities. He may be a mad man, but he is a very dangerous one. He is an enemy that could rally support to his side with relative ease. If he does this, then all out war would be brought upon the races ofTuwa," Kana explained with a great deal of emphasis on the insanity of the general.
    "We may need help to take the canyons if Yukio rejoins Queen Daria and her people," she said, consumed in her own thoughts.
    "I will work with your mentor to garner support from some of the other races. They will not be able to provide you with direct support, but they will cut off any support from elves, dwarves, or men," the powerful guardian declared.
    "Why are you helping us?" Kishi asked impulsively. She did not entirely trust the temperamental goddess, and she knew that she was on thin ice questioning her the way she was. But she needed to be sure that she was not making a mistake by siding with her.
    "You are a bold one; that is why I like you so much. I have been prompted by what I have foreseen to join with you and the high elves. You are the future, and I will help you usher in a new world order. I will provide you with an axis of powerful allies and with direct aid from me when possible. For instance, I will create a windstorm so violent that the army of Yukio will not be able to follow for a few days. This will allow you to get to your secret base and to make your first assault on the canyon lands. I will then assist Lord Dukker in retaking Alanderas. Finally, I will have him create the alliances that you will need to be victorious," the guardian explained coolly.
    "Very well then, I will go to the army now and get everything ready so that we can depart at sunrise. It will probably take us until midday to get all the troops out of the city, so how can we make sure that Yukio does not follow right away?" she pressed Kana. She did not want to fight the first battle on their doorstep.
    "Leave that detail to myself and Lord Dukker. We will kill any spy or pursuer from Yukio. I will inundate him with powerful winds from the mountaintop that he will be unable to gather his men for some time. He may be mad, but he would not expose his men to unnecessary injury from my gale force winds," Kana explained.
    "All right then. I will go and get ready for our journey. I will leave you so you can meet with Lord Aellenas," the queen replied. She bowed slightly and went to her closet to gather what she would need for the battles ahead. She would take her staff with her because she felt that this would help her channel her power better while providing a measure of control over her magic. It would also enhance her destructive power while bolstering personal protective spells she had in place.
    Kana said nothing in reply and simply vanished. Kishi was too consumed in her preparations to notice the guardian's departure. The sun was beginning to peak over the horizon, and she could already hear the sounds of the army making their own preparations. When she had gathered together her staff and other magical items, she left the bedchambers to begin her last task before leaving Tiranidrol. She quickened her pace so that she would be done by the time the army was ready to depart.
    As she went about casting her protective spells, General Jaali was making his final preparations for departure. He divided up the men into a very specific formation that would help protect against ambush. The exterior had pike men to guard against horses, and behind them were a row of swordsmen. Behind the swordsmen were archers who could attack enemies at a distance while being protected by the first two rows. In the very center were the siege weapons. He was proud of this ideal formation and knew that they would not likely need to protect against much, but it is better to be safe than dead. That was his motto and everyone knew it. His desire to keep his troops from unnecessary harm made him the ideal leader. His army was fiercely loyal to him as a result.
    As the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon, the army was ready to move out. Queen Kishi appeared out of the shadows and walked slowly to stand at the side of General Jaali. He turned to her and smiled confidently at her. She smiled back briefly and then put on a determined look. Everything went still as she looked over the thousands of troops standing at attention before her. There were nearly five hundred thousand soldiers in the army, with five thousand knights waiting for them at the secret camp. She felt a surge of confidence rush through her body, and she began to glow an eerie red color as she began to lift off the ground slightly. Outside the walls of the city several plants wilted as their life force was stolen from them for her purposes.
    As she stretched out her arms toward the heavens, she bellowed, "Let it begin!" As she said this, a series of twisters formed just outside the western wall and picked up strength as they headed toward Mount Quang. She continued to hover in the air, and her eyes were a milky white color. She then slowly began to float down toward the ground, and her arms lowered a bit. From out of nowhere, a staff flew into her right hand, and she shot straight up into the air some fifty feet. She pointed the staff directly at Alanderas and muttered something unintelligible while holding aloft her war staff. Bright blue light engulfed her momentarily and then seemed to consolidate into the staff. She then sent the built-up charge of magic into the sky over Mount Quang. Lightning began to strike the moun tainside repeatedly. Booms of thunder rang out, waking every living thing within miles of the sudden storm.
    Kishi returned to the ground and looked herself once more. She eyed the soldiers as they looked at her in awe and wonder. She smiled wickedly and said, "Move out!" She motioned with her staff toward the front gate of the outer wall. The army acknowledged her command immediately and began to file out of the city. She walked at the very front as a sign that she would take the lead with General Jaali as they headed to war. The troops began to shout and chant as they marched. Within a few hours, they had emptied the city and left only the citizens and the home guard behind.
    Kishi did not want to leave anything to chance, so she thought that her actions would work well with what Kana was planning to do. The exhilaration she felt from using such powerful magic stayed with her throughout their uncontested march to the secret base in the north lands. Magic had never lingered for so long after using it. She began to crave it even more with each passing moment. She felt like she could single-handedly take on the army of Yukio and the defenses of Queen Daria. She was so wrapped up in the moment that she did not recognize the warning signs of sacrificing other living things to use their life force to bolster your own magic. This was a slippery slope she would have normally known not to trifle with.

    After marching for the space of three days, they reached the secret northern base and were greeted by the knights who had made all of the necessary preparations. Farms had been set up to provide a renewable food source, and the forests north of the base were full of wild animals and fruits. There was also a well from which water could be drawn, and a river ran through a part of the woodland nearest the base. They could survive indefinitely, if need be, off the land surrounding them. There was a natural mote around the massive fort, which required the knights to build a series of bridges that could be retracted when needed. The walls of the natural barrier went down into the depths of the earth endlessly. The breadth of the mote was equal to five giants laying head to toe.
    The main bridge to the base had been made centuries ago and had a section in the middle that could retract slightly, which left a ten-foot gap that made it impossible for big equipment to move across. The other bridges made by the knights were considerably less stable and could only handle so much weight at a time. There was existing living quarters which had been prepared for the army's habitation. An ancient army must have built this impregnable fortress during one of the north land wars. Queen Kishi looked around appraisingly and smiled slyly at her good friend, General Jaali. She was very pleased with this outpost and knew that after only a day of rest that she would be able to begin her attack.
    "General Jaali, have the troops find their rooms immediately so that they can get some rest. In the morning, we attack!" she said savagely.
    "Yes, my queen," he said, with a rueful smile at Kishi's enthusiasm. He could see that she was full of purpose and that she actually cared for the troops and their well-being. It gladdened his heart to see such devotion in his best friend. She had been lost for so many years and had wasted a lot of time searching fruitlessly for meaning in her life. Now, she had found what she was looking for. It was rather tragic that she found it after losing her sister.
    "After you have carried out my orders, please get some rest. I am going to put up some of my own protection around our new base. There is some innate magic already protecting this place, but it never hurts to put our own layer of magical protection," she said confidently. "I will see you just before dawn. We will attack as the sun rises, so make sure the soldiers get plenty of sleep and that they have a substantial breakfast for the long day ahead of them."
    "I will. I would also like to say that it is good to see that you have found purpose in your life and that you care so much for the welfare of others. As your friend, I will do what is necessary to keep you from harm. As your general, I will keep you safe," he said with an appraising look at his oldest friend.
    "Thank you, Jaali. I could ask for nothing more and would expect nothing less from you. Now, let us get on with our tasks so that we can get some good rest. Good night, my friend," she said warmly as she wrapped her arms around her massive friend. They held one another for a few minutes and then she kissed him lightly on his forehead before departing.

    As the sun crested over the edge of the canyon walls outside the castle of Queen Daria, the home guard noticed an eerie glimmering along the northwestern rim. It was as if there was a long line of metal objects standing along the rim of the canyon. They had never seen anything like it before and could not understand exactly what they were seeing. Then they saw a dust ball heading toward them at a great pace. As they looked closer, they could tell that it was one of the guards from the outer defenses. As he neared them, a ball of fire came down out of the cliff and instantly incinerated the poor soldier. Then clouds began to form overhead, quickly blocking out the sun.
    The shining objects along the cliff could no longer be seen as a huge dust storm seemed to have risen out of nowhere and was heading directly for the queen Daria's castle. Lightning began to strike randomly all about them, and the loud echoing thunder ripped through the canyons so violently that rocks began to fall to the canyon floors. Commander Zareh Hacus came out of the front gates at a dead run at the sudden disturbances. He knew almost at once that they were under attack. He had no idea who it was, but he could not mistake the fact that they were being assailed by a powerful sorcerer. He barked orders at the guards to alert the rest of the home guard and to have everyone get to their stations at once. He ran back into the castle to warn the queen about what was taking place.
    Before the army of Queen Kishi reached the first real defenses of the canyon lands, the guards had been alerted. They were stationed in cavities of the rock walls and began to shoot at will when the army came into their line of sight. The battle for the Nairi Can yons had begun. The Nairians entrenched themselves and would prove to be very difficult to kill. The high elves were not detoured by the superior defenses. They had the most powerful sorceress in all of Tuwa on their side, and Mistress Kana would be sending aid to them. With a queen as powerful as a guardian and a goddess who was more powerful than most of the Elementals, they could simply not lose the battle.



    Lord Diikker watched his former pupil leave with the army and felt a sense of immense pride come over him. He could clearly teach the sorceress nothing more as she marched toward her destiny. Now that she had gone, it was left to him to protect Tiranidrol from invasion, recapture Alanderas, and to deal with the giants. Queen Kishi may not approve of how he was going to accomplish these tasks, but she would be pleased with the end result. He felt that the experiences that Kishi was going to have while fighting the people of Nairi would help her understand his dark wisdom and cruel tactics. There is no such thing as a nice or polite war. She will understand this soon and will do what is required to capture those cursed canyon lands.
    He turned to face Commander Harley and saw the look of utter amazement on his face. It was clear that he had no idea that Kishi was so powerful. Even though he had an astonished look on his face, Diikker could tell that he was feeling even more confident about his task ahead of him. It was unsettling to be standing under the hot sun looking at Mount Quang engulfed in black rain clouds. Loud echoing booms continued to rock the neighboring mountain while flashes of lightning lit up the blackened sky. Noises that accompany utter chaos were carried on the wind from Alanderas to Mount Konane. The residents of Tiranidrol cheered at the apparent misery of General Yukio's army.
    "Commander Harley, do you have your team selected for the retaking of Alanderas?" Dukker asked. He smiled at the look that the commander gave him. Apparently he had not noticed Lord Aellenas standing there.
    "My lord," Harley said with a bow. "I did not see you there. I … I do have a group selected to go with me. When shall we attack?" It is unnerving how Dukker can appear out of nowhere.
    "That will not be for three more days. In the meantime, I want you to call another meeting of the captains. We need to select someone who will lead the home guard of Tiranidrol. You will be in charge of the guard at Alanderas, so we will need someone to take over in your absence," explained Aellenas.
    "I thought that you were in charge here; has that changed?" queried the commander. He was puzzled by what the warlock was saying. Is he leaving us?
    "No, I am not leaving you, Commander-not for good, that is. I do have a couple of special missions of my own to carry out. I will explain what I will be doing in our meeting. Now, will you go and call the captains together? We need to get our plans firmed up so that we are all on the same page. Gather the captains and meet me in the council chambers within the hour," Dukker said sternly. He had a dark, determined look on his face as he finished speaking. It was clear to the commander that Lord Dukker meant business and that it was time to get on with things. Harley bowed quickly and departed. Lord Dukker smiled darkly as he watched the good commander running as he did the warlock's bidding.
    He turned around to watch the atmospheric assault on Alanderas and laughed softly. You may escape the mountain, dear Yukio, but you will not survive what Kishi has in store for you and your army! He continued to laugh louder as he thought of the destruction awaiting their canyon neighbors. His revelry was cut short by the appearance of a mysterious creature that was walking resolutely toward him. Lord Dukker knew at once that Kana had arrived to give him some further instructions before his meeting.
    "Mistress Kana… " Diikker said with only a slight bow. "To what do I owe this distinct pleasure?" He respected the powerful guardian, but he was not afraid of her. He knew that he could hold his own against her in combat and that he could block her mental intrusions. This gave him equal footing when dealing with the temperamental guardian.
    "What? You cannot read my thoughts, Dukker?" she said with great sarcasm.
    "Let us not play games, Kana; time is against us," said Aellenas sharply.
    "You are right. Time is something we are both running out of. That is precisely why I am here," she replied pointedly. "You do not have time to garner support from the other races, so I will do that for you."
    "So, who will you recruit to our noble cause?"
    "I will get the ores and goblins to help us. I will also obtain the support of the most deadly creatures in all of Tuwa. I will send a certain number of ores to assist Kishi in her assault on Nairi while the rest focus on the dwarves and, more importantly, the elves."
    "What of the giants? What shall we do about them? Do you want me to track them all down, or just the curious bunch near Mount Quang?" I am not at all surprised by her choice of allies. Hopefully this decision does not come back to haunt us.
    "Kill the oafs nearest Alanderas after you extract any relevant information from them. The giants are so divided that they will never unite let alone ally with any other race that might oppose us. Our concern will be the kingdoms of men and dwarves. I believe that the latter will prove more difficult to deal with than the former."
    "After I take care of the curious giants, what then?"
    "After you have dealt with the brutes, your good Commander Tenanden will have already taken Alanderas back from Yukio without a single casualty. At that point, I want you to build up a small army from the home guards of Alanderas and Tiranidrol. Supple ment the ranks with the seed of your spider, Razi. Prepare for an attack on the elves; as you move in from the north, the ores will be attacking from the south." She had a wicked look on her face as she outlined her plans. She had been looking forward to this moment for a long time.
    "Will you send any of the beasts to help Queen Kishi?"
    "I have already sent her Rolon to be her steed. He will aid her plenty in their battle with the armies of Nairi."
    "So, the wolves will be one of our allies; that is excellent. How will we communicate between the different armies?" He knew that having the most infamous wolf aiding Kishi was more than he could possibly ask for, but if they could not effectively relay messages to one another, they would be finished.
    "The ravens will carry the messages between the armies. The bats will relay messages to me, and I will use them to carry instructions to you. They will also act as nighttime spies and saboteurs. I will alter the bats to have poison so potent that even the druids will not be able to heal an infected person."
    "I have only one concern about the plan so far, and it has to do with our non-bestial allies. I do not believe that ores and goblins will be able to uproot the stubborn dwarves. What do we do when that happens?"
    "Do not worry about that. I have already garnered the support of the powerful rock trolls. They will supplement the armies of goblins. The ores have grown powerful over the years and are a much greater threat than anyone realizes. I will be able to properly motivate them so that they will be equal to the tasks ahead of them. Their siege weapons and tactics are far superior to anything that the elves, men, or dwarves have. Even the dwarven strongholds will not be able to stand against the might of the ores."
    "Will you fight alongside us? I believe that your presence periodically would bolster our armies' courage and strengthen their resolve." He wanted to find out exactly how involved Kana was going to be. He felt that if she did not openly participate in their cause that it would be lost. She could not keep her intentions secret forever, and sharing them with those fighting for her would inspire them to greater heights.
    "Look to the skies when you begin your siege of the Black Forest. I will be there. I will bring justice down upon the elves for their prolonged piety and shortsighted ways." She smiled with great satisfaction as she said this. She did not care one bit for the elves, and she would make that clear in a major way when the time was right.
    "Then it is settled. I will go and deal with our dim-witted friends while you create an axis of allies for us. Once everything is in place on our end, we will prepare for our attack on the elves. Send us a message when the ores are ready. We will attack simultaneously to catch them off guard." Aellenas was looking forward to using his powers openly for a change. He would show the elves what using magic was all about.
    Kana nodded her agreement and vanished before his eyes. Aellenas stood for a moment longer watching the black clouds swarm the mountainside of Mount Quang. He thought about what he had discussed with the Elemental and felt reassured about the course of action he was taking. Her plan made sense and provided him with several opportunities to use his power the way he had always wanted to. After all, what good was it to have magic and not use it? Those who have the power should use it to gain more and to control those who are weak. That is the nature of the mystical force; it controls those too weak to possess or embrace its true power. He noticed that he had been standing in the open square for much longer than he had intended when he saw Commander Tenanden heading toward the council chambers with a company of captains.
    He snapped out of his revelry and started toward the council chambers to meet with his leaders. He could sense a measure of anxiety from the captains as they approached the hall. He would have to dispel their fear and give them enough information so that they would do what was necessary. He would need to explain how Kana was backing them and how she was going to ally them with the ores, rock trolls, and goblins. They would not be thrilled about her choices, but when they understood the big picture, they would welcome the support.
    By the time he reached the hall, the captains had already taken their seats, and Commander Tenanden stood at the head of the table awaiting the arrival of Lord Aellenas. When he entered the room, everyone stood up and bowed before their leader. Once Diikker had taken his seat, everyone took theirs and looked intently at the warlock. They did not know what to expect, but they had a hopeful look in their eyes. They knew that he was stronger and more powerful than Queen Kishi, so they were expecting great things from this mystical high elf.
    "Captains, I thank you for coming together again so that we can firm up our plans. I have met with Mistress Kana just now, and we have come up with the following plan," began Aellenas. "Commander Tenanden will lead a special force of soldiers in three days' time to Alanderas to retake the city. He will experience no resistance because Yukio will empty the city and follow after our queen right before we attack the capital."
    "How do you know this, my lord?" asked one of the captains tentatively.
    "I have foreseen it," he explained as he opened the same map he had shown the commander previously. This time the map showed them all the kingdoms of men, dwarves, and elves. It was clear from the movements on the map that the races of men and dwarves were preparing for war. The elves did not appear to be doing anything. Then one of the captains noticed the giants at the foot of Mount Quang.
    "What are the giants doing?" asked another captain. He was shaking slightly with fear at the apparent prospect that the giants would ally themselves with General Yukio.
    "You need not worry about them. I have been asked by Kana to deal with them personally. I will make sure that they do not interfere in our affairs," he said boldly. As he said this, the map changed. It appeared to show future events now instead of the present. A miniature Aellenas was seen wiping out the giants who were near Mount Quang. Queen Kishi was clearly attacking the people of Nairi on what looked like the notorious white wolf, Rolon. A massive number of ores were lining up at the southern end of the Black Forest. The people of Aran and of Landen were sending messengers back and forth. Their armies were organizing and preparing their defenses. The dwarves were doing the same … except for King Edric in the north. His defenses were light, and his people seemed to be unconcerned about what was taking place elsewhere.
    The captains sat there speechless as the map continued to morph and change. They were in awe of what they were seeing. Diikker could sense that their fears were subsiding and that they were gaining the necessary confidence to do what would be needed. Then the map changed once more to show an army of high elves and spiders assembling at the foot of Mount Konane. After a time, the ores on the south end of the forest attacked, and then their army attacked from the north. Then the map went black, and the warlock rolled it up slowly and took it in his hands. As he held it firmly in his grip, it vanished.
    "Now, dear friends, our guardian leader will join us in our battle with the elves when our army meets the army of ores," he said coolly. "Then you will know for sure that you are on the right side. You all know that the Elementals have only taken the side of good throughout the known history of Tuwa. She has offered to join us in our fight as a token of her true intent." He smiled slightly as he felt the emotions of the captains soar at this news. They would do whatever was necessary now because they knew that they were on the side of the gods.
    "Who will be in charge of the guard here in Tiranidrol?" asked Commander Harley.
    "Captain Belos, you are now the commander of the home guard ofTiranidrol. You will need to ensure that this city is protected and that the structures are completed by the time we have finished with the elves. You will also need to have the third of the host of Queen Kira return to their home once the Alanderas is retaken," Diikker instructed firmly.
    "Yes, my lord. I will not let you or the people down," he replied boldly. Belos was a fierce warrior and great leader. He was not someone to be trifled with, and his troops were very loyal to him. He would protect the city and the people better than anyone else. I will prove to Lord Diikker that I am equal to the task and that his faith in me is well placed.
    "I will set up a series of special protections around the outer wall. I will also create a magical barrier around the inner wall so that no one aside from those you accompany will be able to enter. Now, I believe we all need some rest. I leave tonight to carry out my errand, so you will need to be prepared to carry out the tasks and duties assigned to you. Take this time to inform the guard about our plans and then explain to the citizens what they will need to do," finished Dtikker. He stood up and left the table without another word.
    "Commander Harley, what equipment, if any, will you need to take with you?" asked Commander Belos.
    "I will need a fourth of the archers and a fourth of the swordsmen," he replied.
    "Then I will leave you to your charges. I will go and speak with the remainder of the home guard. I will explain what our plans are to the people in the morning. Three days should be plenty of time for them to prepare for departure," Belos thought aloud as he stood up to leave.
    As the group filed out of the chambers, clouds had darkened the sky as far as the eye could see to the west. The temperature had dropped several degrees in the time that they had been in their meeting, and the wind had picked up slightly as the storm that had been assailing Mount Quang moved their direction. There was no thunder or lightning in the clouds, so they knew that it was a typical storm and not the magically created one. The air became thick with moisture as lower rain clouds approached the city. People were heading for their homes at the signs of an impending done pour. As the commanders and captains looked over at Mount Quang, flashes of lightning could still be seen, but the booming thunder could not be heard any more over the sounds of the approaching gale.


The advocate

    The guardian rushed to his secluded meditation chamber located on his private island in the eastern sea. He had always enjoyed riding the watery currents to his personal escape, but this visit was much too urgent to take in the beauty around him. He was going to meet with his master about the current crisis in Tuwa. He had not met with this all-powerful god for many centuries. As he climbed out of the icy waters onto the sandy beach, he felt an immense amount of pressure bearing down on his shoulders. This meeting is pivotal to the fate of the western lands. Hopefully this time things will be different.
    As he walked toward the trees that grew a short distance from the water's edge, he dried his body with a warm breeze he conjured. There were a few puffy white clouds overhead that periodically blocked the bright midday sun. As he entered the green canopy of the dense forest, the temperature dropped significantly as he continued his trek to the meeting place. He was the only one who had ever seen the god of this world in person. The transformation that was required of him in order to speak with his master was not only painful, but it left him drained of all energy for almost a day after their meeting.
    After hiking through the woods for several hours, he reached a clearing that opened into a wide meadow. At the far end of a grassy field were the beginnings of an enormous mountain. It raised high above the ancient forest and disappeared into the cloudy sky above. At the base, there was a small stream that was fed by an impossibly tall water fall that started so far up that its birth could not be seen from his position. As he stood there in the clearing, he felt his body go suddenly rigid as an unseen force gripped him. He began the forced transformation that always occurred right before his master's arrival. His body shook violently as this invisible power coursed through him. After a few more moments of pain, the change was complete. Life around him seemed to stop or cease to exist. Time did not matter anymore. A glowing figure appeared out of nowhere and approached him from the shadows of the forest. He was actually floating in the air as he approached the translucent guardian.
    "Lord Adair, it is good to see you again. It has been entirely too long since we last met. What is it that I can do for you?" asked the shimmering being. His voice had a deep, soothing tone to it. He was so bright that is was hard to tell if he was made of flesh and bone or if he was merely a spirit.
    "I have come to seek your guidance and counsel, almighty Kedem," Adair said with a bow. His feet were touching the ground while his master floated above the ground in front of him. He felt the powerful being enter his mind and probe his thoughts and feelings. He did not fight this intrusion and allowed Kedem access to everything he knew or felt. This lasted for only a few moments, and then Adair was inundated with vital information. Images flashed through his mind in rapid succession. I must… hold… on. Then his mind was free from external control, and his body lurched back at the abrupt end to the forced contact. He ached from his head down to his feet as a result of the additional drain on his person.
    "I understand what must be done. I will first meet with Master Mahdi about his role in the war and also about what his kind must do before the end. I will then call on the bears and the druids to aid us in the fight. I will instruct Lord Keb that he must protect the knowledge of the orb at all costs. I will have Mistress Khalida track Kana's movements while I garner further support," replied Adair weakly. I do not think it is wise to call the druids to reform their council; they will work against us out of mere spite. They may consider all the Elementals to be enemies since one of our own is attacking the races that the druids have stewardship over.
    "It is well," said Kedem as he began to rise steadily into the air. "Do not concern yourself with the druids; they will fulfill their purpose before the end of these dark days. They will help balance the awesome power of the Elementals so that the peoples of Tuwa will have a fighting chance."
    As Adair watched his master depart, the island around him began to disappear. He was losing consciousness as his strength was finally giving out. Kedem slowly rose into the air higher and higher as he headed toward the clouds that shrouded the invisible mountain peak. The guardian's meeting with his master did not last very long, but the after affects stayed with him for days. He always felt reassured and more driven after speaking with Kedem. Even though he had created the world, Adair was still not as powerful as his maker. The lord of the Elementals had been given the means by which he created the world, and now he had to protect the inhabitants of Tuwa from themselves. He would not fail, but it would not be easy. Then, everything went dark.

    Mount Lamont towered over the northwestern corner of Tuwa as though it was a guardian of sorts. The mountainsides were covered with huge trees and thick foliage. There were massive boulders near the snowline that were just too big to fit in with their surroundings. The air was cold as ice even though it was very warm in the valleys and plains below. None of the races made their home on or near the mysterious heights. Everyone believed that it was a cursed place and that anyone who traversed its slopes would never be seen again. They had good reason to believe that this was the case. Anyone who had set foot on the snowline had never returned. People fled before the shadow of its peak as it stretched across the lands. It was believed that even its shadow was deadly to the touch.
    The mountain was actually very beautiful to look at, and that was why so many travelers had fallen prey to its treacherous slopes over the years. Many dwarves had tried to mine Lamont, but they were all killed in mysterious landslides or earthquakes. Men had learned very early on to leave the cursed place alone. As a result of this wicked reputation, the people of Landen never had to defend the northwestern entrance to their lands. Rock trolls would go nowhere near the place because they believed that an ancient evil from the ancient races lived there. They believed that it was guarded by powerful magic that could destroy even an Elemental.
    The sky over Mount Lamont on this day was clear, and the air was especially crisp. A bright ball of fire was seen in the east heading directly toward the mountaintop. It looked like a fiery missile, which was heading directly at the snow line. An instant later, the ball of fire hit the ground but did not explode. The people of Landen who saw the projectile expected a loud boom or at the very least a landslide. The people who had witnessed the collision merely shrugged their shoulders and went about their business. Weird things always happened around the cursed mountain, and they accepted that this unexpected event was one of those instances.

    Adair transformed into his human form as he stood near the snow line. He looked around as if searching out something or someone. After a few minutes, he began to walk toward the snow and then turned along the line toward the east. After a long time, he came across one of the legendary boulders that seemed so out of place. He closed his eyes and began to slowly float above the ground. He changed into his ethereal form as he hovered above the section of land he had walked to. He began to glow an eerie green color as his essence began to swirl.
    Master Mahdi, I must speak with you.
    Lord Adair, I am here. Please tell me why you are here and what you desire. The voice was deep and penetrating. It had a ponderous quality to it and could only be heard in the mind of the guardian. There was a rough edge to the tone as the mysterious creature spoke to Adair's mind.
    I have need of you and your kind. I have a very special task for you in particular. Will you hear me out?
    Speak. I will do as you command, my lord.
    Thank you, my faithful friend. I wish we had time to just talk, but there is a war brewing in the land. I need you to guard the border between Tuwa and the east. Do not stop anyone from crossing the line; merely notify me when someone does cross it.
    I will personally see to it that you know everything as soon as someone or something crosses the barrier.
    I require the rest of your kind to spread out over the lands of Tuwa so that I can have eyes and ears everywhere. This war will involve all of the races, and even the guardians cannot avoid becoming involved. One of our own has betrayed us, and only with your help will we be able to defeat this traitor.
    I understand what you have said and what you have not. I will make sure that we are vigilant in our watch. Know this: we will destroy any who defile the earth or any of our kind. Make sure you warn those you choose to support. We will not tolerate any abuses even during a time of war.
    I will warn our allies. Imustgo now to attend to other matters. You can reach me through the usual way. I will probably not see you again until these dark times have passed. Good luck to you, my friend.
    I will make you proud… Father.
    After Adair had said all that he had to say, he began to rise slowly into the air. As he rose higher and higher over the peaks of the mountains, he turned slightly in order to see Mount Lamont. Without warning, he sent a flash of bright light at the snow-capped portion of the mountain. There was a loud boom and a resulting quake that had not been felt throughout the land of Tuwa since the beginning. Eventually the guardian stopped his sudden attack, and the quaking stopped abruptly. The wind began to pick up around the mountain. As the winds swirled, he continued his ascent until he disappeared into the clear blue sky.
    The wind became increasingly fierce and unrelenting as soon as Adair disappeared. Foul voices and whisperings could be heard in the air. There was a feeling of dread that swept through the lands. As the gusts continued, the source appeared to be coming directly from the forbidden east lands. Dark clouds appeared on the horizon and grew larger as they moved closer to the High Plains of Landen. An unexplainable feeling of despair and fear developed in the stomachs of the different races of Tuwa on this day. Nothing would ever be the same. War was coming.

    Somewhere in the snowy regions of the north land Adair stood patiently outside an eerie-looking cave. He made a series of weird grunting noises as he peered inside the dark opening. There was an answer to his unusual call, which was followed by some growls that were immediately followed by something massive moving his way. He stood back a few paces to allow whatever it was to come out into the open. A huge white outline could be seen in the darkness of the icy cave. Just out of the light, the creature made some more peculiar noises. Adair nodded his head as a sign that he understood what the beast had said to him. A gigantic white bear stuck its head out of his home to look around the clearing that the Elemental was standing in. It was obvious that he wanted to be cautious.
    "There is no one else here; come on out," said the guardian with a warm smile.
    The bear looked at him for a moment longer and then entered the open. He was so huge that it was clear that he was the largest of his kind. His eyes were crystal blue and had a hypnotic effect on those that looked into them. There was also an edge in his gaze that would freeze the very heart of a lesser being, but Adair did not seem to be affected in any way by this monstrous beast.
    "What do you want, my lord?" the beast asked plainly. The bear could speak like the peoples of the different races.
    "You look like you have put on some weight, my old friend," he cajoled the bear. He smiled slyly as he said this, knowing full well that the weight was in muscle and not fat. He liked to give his faithful companion grief.
    "You look like you have aged finally," replied the bear with a snort.
    "I fear that before long that I will look and feel much older. I have need of you once again. War is coming. We must have the assistance of you and your fellows."
    "Why should we come out of the north to save the people of Tuwa? They do not even know about us. We like it that way." He shook his fur to shake loose some debris that had attached itself to him as he was coming out of his cave.
    "I need you to convince the others to help. This war, if unchecked, will enter your territory. Then you will no longer have a choice in the matter. You will be forced to fight or flee." There was a sardonic tone in the guardian's voice as he said this.
    "We never flee or retreat! We are the most valiant creatures in this world, and you know it! What is it exactly that you would like us to do?" His hair stood up on end as he spoke. He did not understand sarcasm and did not like being told that he or his kind was weak.
    "I would like you to personally accompany me as I join the battle. As for your friends, I would request their assistance where needed. Men, dwarves, elves, and even giants will need your help in this fight. You must realize that what happens to them will have a positive or negative result on your kind."
    "Why don't you tell me exactly what has happened and then I will see if we can be of any assistance to you."
    Adair told the story about the intervention of Kana and of the split of the elves. He also related the tale of the man marrying an elven princess. When he had finished speaking, silence engulfed the small cove. The white bear looked off to the north as if lost in thought. He did not say anything about what had just heard. He simply stood there and stared off into space. After a long moment, he turned his head to look at Adair. He fixed his friend with an icy stare that clearly indicated his displeasure with what he was being asked to do.
    "I will help you deal with this nightmare. There is wisdom in what you say, and I cannot overlook that. I will try to persuade the others to help out. For now, at least, you have me," he said with a slight bow. This was the first time that the creature recognized the guardian with a bow.
    "Good. I will leave you to discuss this matter with the others. I will return in a few days to see what they have decided," Adair said. He petted his furry friend gently on the head and vanished.



    As Kana flew through the air over the Black Forest, she felt surges of excitement and an ever-mounting anticipation. She looked forward to crushing King Ciel Tiranidrol and his dilatory elves. She knew that the good king would do everything in his power to avoid a conflict and that this reluctance would give her the time she needed to surround the forest kingdom. She laughed softly as she continued to think about her plans and what she was going to do next. She knew that garnering support from the ores and goblins would be rather easy. The rock trolls would be somewhat difficult to cajole into action, but she would find their weakness or give them something that they had longed for.
    The thick forest below gave way to an open plain that had rolling hills and tall grass that swayed with the wind. The sun shone brightly overhead as she continued her journey to meetwith the first nation that would aid her high elves in exterminating the woodland elves. Two massive mountains came into view on the horizon. She altered her course slightly to head to a mountain on the east side of the Blaine River. The mountain to the west was Mount Adem, home of the dwarven king, Kasim. The mountain she was heading for was much taller and did not look like its neighbor at all. There were two jagged peaks that rose high into the air on the west and east sides. In the middle appeared to be a vast body of water that was shimmering slightly as the sun reflected off of its calm surface. Kana was heading to Mount Tarin, the home of the ores of middle Tuwa. She knew that these creatures would be some of the fiercest warriors she would have in her army.
    As she neared the lake at the summit, she saw several ores running about on the shores of Lake Tarn preparing to defend their camp against her intrusion. These creatures did not trust anyone; they even fought amongst themselves because of their ill temperament. Kana dived suddenly toward these stout defenders, which caught them completely off guard. She came up abruptly and lighted on the lake's shore. She walked resolutely toward the ores who had taken up their posts at the massive arrow launchers. They had trained the weapons on her but did not fire. They had changed their minds about killing the intruder once they had seen who it was. They instantly knew that it was an Elemental and that she was very powerful.
    She had forced these thoughts into her would-be attackers' minds so that she would not have to kill them unnecessarily. She had no problem with this as ores do not know how to shield their minds. She smiled slyly at the small group of defenders and then came to a halt a dozen paces in front of the nearest defensive weapon that was aimed at her. She waited calmly for them to speak or to make some kind of indication as to what they were planning to do.
    The ores looked at one another uneasily as silence enveloped the standoff. They were all thinking the same thing, and that was who had the great displeasure of reporting to their general that an Elemental had arrived. Their leader would not be happy that they had not even fired once at her, especially since she was one of the wretched guardians who had always kept their kind in check. Slowly one of them in the back of the formation slid down off his seat on his launcher and began to walk toward a small camp at the base of the mountain peak on the eastern side. Once he felt he was out of firing distance, he broke into a dead run. He began shouting something quite unintelligible in his native tongue as he ran toward the encampment.
    As the orc neared the biggest tent in the camp, guards came out of nowhere and tackled the frantic messenger. They could tell by the color of his clothing that he was one of their tribe, but they did not know why he acting so crazy. As the guards wrestled with the poor soldier, the tent door swung open abruptly. General Akuji Tadok K'K stepped out into the sunlight with a look of suppressed rage at the sight of the fight taking place at his entry. He was a towering figure that was as tall as or taller than most elves. His long silver hair swayed in the breeze while the sun glistened off of his hard gray and black hide. He had a bulky muscular frame that made his stature overbearing to anyone who was in his presence. He was the leader of the largest and most feared orc army in Tuwa. His hard, cold, gray eyes fixed on the struggling figure that went still once he felt his leader's gaze.
    "General Tadok K'K, you have an unexpected guest," the messenger stuttered frantically. He was shaking all over as he spoke to his general.
    "Stand up, you filthy scum!" blasted General Akuji. He looked even harder at the trembling orc. "Who is it that you let live? This person had better be very important since you disobeyed my standing order to kill anyone or anything that nears our camp!" The threat sent chills down the spines of everyone that had gathered around this impromptu meeting.
    "My lord, it is an Elemental. She … she did something to us in our minds so that we would not shoot her out of the sky. She is holding the others hostage and sent me to tell you that she has business to discuss with you," the poor orc explained. He shuttered at the hard look General Akuji gave him. He was so scared that he soiled himself as he stood in front of his leader. The guards that had been holding him moved away from the shaking orc because they could sense that their general was about to do something to the messenger. The smell of feces and sweat filled the air around the antsy soldier as he shook uncontrollably in front of his general.
    "I do not care if it were the guardian himself… you still try your best to kill him, you maggot!" yelled the general as he wrapped his hands around the messenger's head. In one swift motion, he ripped the poor creature's head clean off and threw it aside. He stormed off, screaming profanities in his own tongue into the air as he marched toward the shoreline. He would deal with this unwanted visitor himself.
    As he neared the massive arrow launchers, he could see that the ores manning the weapons were in a transfixed state. This only enraged him more, and his cursing became even more offensive. He walked right up to the Elemental and drew his massive silver war hammer and swung it back for a deathblow on this intruder.
    Kana smiled slightly at this gesture and allowed him to swing away. His blow missed the guardian somehow, and he went spinning past his target from the force of his errant attack. She immediately turned about and seized him with her mind. He rose slowly into the air as she approached him. His face was full of rage and disbelief as his struggled to break free of his invisible bounds.
    "General Tadok K'K, it is a pleasure to meet you at last. I have heard stories of your power and greatness from the peoples ofTuwa. I must say that I am not at all impressed by what I see in front of me," she said nastily. "You were purported to be this fearsome leader that took no prisoners and that trusted no one. Yet, your guards did not kill me, as is your custom. Why is that?" She was taunting the captive general just to prove her superiority and power over him.
    "Why are you here, you filthy witch? Why bother us when we have kept our pack with you and your wretched council?" queried the general hotly. He was trying his best to not be afraid, but that was rather difficult when a powerful being like Kana had you in her clutches. Still, he managed to give her baleful looks that clearly told her that she was not welcome in his camp.
    "I am here on personal business, Akuji. I have need of you and your kind. I want you to join me in a cause that will cleanse Tuwa of lesser beings like the elves." She was baiting him with what every orc wanted: revenge on their neighbor to the north. It was the residents of the Forest of Renshaw that had acted as the guardians' tool in punishing them so many years ago. Revenge would be sweet and was long overdue for the ores. General Akuji's fear subsided, and he looked hard at Kana as if trying to ascertain whether or not she was being truthful.
    "You want us to attack the light footed elves? What's in it for us?"
    "Your chance at revenge is one of the obvious benefits. The opportunity to help me take over the rest of the Tuwa is another reward. I plan on cleansing Tuwa of elves, men, and dwarves. Ores, goblins, and rock trolls will then rule these lands once again with me as your leader."
    "You plan to conquer Tuwa and make it your own? Why?" He knew that he was in no position to argue with the powerful guardian, so he decided to play along. Maybe there was something in her offer that would benefit him personally.
    "The ultimate form of power is dominion over others, my witless general. The Elementals command the elements of this world in which you live, and I want to rule the people who live in Tuwa. To have control over the elements and the races would make me invincible." She desired to have absolute power, and she was willing to do whatever it took to achieve this goal; even if it meant having to deal with these unintelligent brutes. She would be able to control them much easier than any of the other races because of their lusts for blood and revenge.
    "As long as you share your power with those that help you capture it, we will work with you. Agreed?"
    "You are very shrewd, general; we are agreed then." She lowered him back to the ground slowly. As the general touched down, he quickly realized that she had risen slightly above the ground and was hovering a few feet in the air. It was clear that Kana wanted him to understand that she was in charge and that he was beneath her in every way. However, they would both benefit from this arrange ment and would tolerate the uneasy truce they had just established for the sake of exacting revenge and gaining power.
    "What is it that you want us to do now?" General Akuji bowed slightly as he addressed Kana. The ores that were standing around this spectacle immediately bowed as well. They knew that if their leader bowed to someone else that it meant they were all in that person's service even if they all thought she was nothing more than filthy scum.
    "I want you to get Generals Maurizio G'Dang, Nero Oggoa- mak, Synan Thrudak, and Tomo Bruguk Tak," she listed off the other leaders of the orc tribes. "They will be needed in order to win this war. I will be off to invite our little goblins friends next. Then I will visit the rock trolls to help shore up the weak parts of their armies. By that time, I expect you and the others to be ready to make war upon those accursed elves. Do not attack them before I return. I will need to split the army up so that we do not put all of our eggs into one basket. You will have help in your assault on the people of the Black Forest."
    "Who is it that will help us in our attack on the elves? Will it be the rock trolls or the goblins … or will it be both of them?" Not that we need help from scum like them.
    "In order to answer your question effectively, I will need to explain what has happened to the nation of the elves. Many months ago the two daughters of the elven king fled with a third of the elven nation to escape their father's tyrannical rule. They now dwell in Mount Quang and Mount Konane in the north. They no longer associate with their fair brothers and sisters of the woodland. Their main army has already begun my campaign with an assault on your arch nemesis."
    "You mean to tell me that they are attacking those vile Nairians?" The elves had always gotten along fabulously with the men of Nairi. General Akuji had had many run-ins with Nairian patrols along the Blaine River during his lifetime. He could not believe that the elves, someone he thought to be a long-standing enemy, were now their allies. He stood there with a skeptical look on his face.
    "Yes, General Akuji, the high elves, which is what this separatist group is known as, was betrayed by the Nairian general and his army. They attacked their capital city in the night and slew everyone in their path while they slept. I have allied myself with Queen Kishi Tiranidrol, the eldest daughter of the elven king. She is a powerful sorceress and will be able to annihilate the people of Nairi. She has powerful motives to carry out my commands. Her twin sister was murdered by the villainous General Yukio of Nairi."
    "Can you guarantee me that these high elves are different from the others? How will we be able to tell them apart from the ones we are supposed to attack?"
    "I personally guarantee their loyalty. If they should waver in their charges, I will allow you to destroy them on sight. In answer to your second question, the high elves have much darker skin than their fair cousins of the woods unbeknownst to them. I have also added a special symbol that represents fire and air on their armor and weapons. The symbol will glow when two of my soldiers should cross paths. This way you will not kill any of those that are on our side."
    "What a wicked and cunning move. We will serve with you." He lowered his head slightly again as a show of respect.
    "General Tadok K'K, go and do all that I have asked. I will return to you by week's end. Be ready to move out when I arrive." She then rose higher into the air until she was nothing more than a speck in the sky. Then she burst into a ball of fire and dashed off toward the goblins in the east.
    General Tadok K'K stood there for a moment while he watched the flaming Elemental fly out of view. He quickly turned about and stared coldly at the sentries who had not done their duty when Kana had arrived. The ores that had failed their general walked dejectedly toward their leader and bowed before him. Each lowered their heads as if they were praying to a god that would somehow help them in their precarious situation. The fear was palpable in the air around the soldiers.
    "You vermin failed me! You know the penalty for such insubordination," the general declared menacingly.
    "General, why are you going to punish us for not attacking our new leader?" asked one of the ores timidly. As soon as the words had left his mouth, he knew he was dead. Tadok K'K took two swift steps to reach the idiot who dared to question his authority. He reached out with his right hand and ripped his throat from his body. Black blood gushed everywhere as the helpless soldier fell to the ground soundlessly.
    "Does anyone else feel that I am being unreasonable?" General Tadok K'K asked imperiously. "Good; the rest of you will be spared for the war's sake. However, you will be on the front line to help us determine just how far the elves' arrows can fly." He laughed hard and loud as he marched off toward his tent. The rest of the ores joined in the laughter as they went back to their respective duties.

    Kana continued to streak across the sky toward the Sheldon Mountains where the goblins of Tuwa made their aphetic home. They lived so deep under the ground that no sunlight had ever touched the cavernous halls of the goblin nations. They simply cannot stand natural light, which made them use artificial means. They loved to make fire and to use it against their perennial enemy the dwarves. They hated those bearded midgets and their intrusive nature. The stout people of Carrick were always driving their western neighbors out of their perfectly dark and dank dwellings within the mountains so that they could get more of their precious ores. They loathed these intruders completely, but they were no match for their power and military tactics.
    As the rogue guardian approached the mountain range that was home to her little friends, the sun had set and the day was drawing to a close. She could see the night post arriving at their stations just outside the main secret entrance on the western end of Sheldon. She burned white hot now to make an even stronger impression on the goblins that stood watch. They would be very impressed by the display and would send for their leader immediately. They were a superstitious bunch that would hail her as their god. Her task here would not be nearly as difficult as her visit was with the ores. The most difficult part would be when she explained that they would be fighting on the same side as the brutes of Tarin.
    Kana knew that the ores had the nasty habit of eating their little goblin friends, but she would be able to persuade them to join her cause in spite of this risk. When she explained that the rock trolls would be fighting with them, their fears would subside. She knew that this visit would not take long and that she would have the time she needed to persuade the rock trolls to join her. They would be the most difficult by far to convince, but they should prove to be the deciding factor in the overthrow of the dwarves and men.
    She went into a dive so steep that it looked like a star falling from the night sky. The goblins that were on guard began to tremble and shake before this awesome display. One of the guards had enough sense to run back into the tunnels to report the spectacle to their leader. Kana stopped just above the ground and hovered there while she waited for the lords of the five tribes to arrive. She continued to be illuminated as she remained suspended in the air. She smiled to herself at how easy this task was going to be. She knew that in order to unite the different tribes they would all have to witness this grand display. She stayed where she was for only a few minutes before one of the lords appeared with his entourage.
    Within minutes of one another, the remaining three lords appeared followed by the only ruling lady. They were all transfixed by this powerful display and were in awe that such a visit would be made to them. No one said anything for a long time; they just stood there looking at the Elemental. They could not tell exactly what the creature was or from where it came. More importantly, they did not know its intent toward them. Maybe the being was there to destroy them. Kana read these nervous thoughts and decided to end the prolonged silence.
    "My friends, I am Mistress Kana, master of fire and air. I am here to discuss a cause that requires your special talents and abili ties," she said with a warm smile. "Will Lords Daray Krumok, Kieran Magurth, Rothrock Momurth, Pirro Thadak, and Lady Kiara Sodok please come forward?"
    The five leaders came forward slowly and stopped several yards before the stunningly beautiful apparition. They kept a respectful distance from the guardian and dropped to one knee as they awaited further instructions. Kana smiled at this display of total obedience and submission from her newest subjects. They apparently revered her as a god, so she would make use this to further her cause. This is going to be even easier than I thought.
    "Noble leaders of the great nation of goblins, I have come to ask your aid in cleansing the lands of Tuwa of its rebel races. Men, dwarves, elves, and even giants have plagued these lands for too long. As a guardian, it is my duty to protect the elements from these thoughtless creatures, and I require your help to cleanse Tuwa of one of the vilest among them. Will you join me?" she asked in a booming voice.
    "We will, Mistress Kana," said Lady Kiara with a sanctimonious nod.
    "Excellent. As my first act, I will form a unified army of the goblin nations. I will then bolster your ranks with your neighbors to the north of your beautiful mountain homes," she explained.
    "Who are you referring to exactly?" asked Lord Daray cautiously.
    "I will meet with the rock trolls tomorrow morning to persuade them to join your ranks. Once you have joined together, your first mission will be to wipe out King Jarvis and his pretentious dwarves," she said with a venomous hiss. Stunned silence greeted this declaration. The leaders of the tribes looked at one another uneasily as they took in what they were being commanded to do.
    "How will we be able to uproot the bearded miners?" asked Lord Pirro tentatively.
    "With the aid of the rock trolls, you will be able to remove your foes from their strongholds," she replied coolly. All five of the leaders nodded their acceptance of this answer while harboring a sense of dread in their hearts. They did not believe they could do what was asked of them.
    "I sense that you still do not believe that you can overthrow stunted dwarves. Bring Yuki Togok to me," she commanded imperiously.
    "I am already here, mistress," Yuki said with a slight bow. She was a fearsome-looking goblin that had silver hair that glimmered in the moonlight.
    "You will be my general of the armies of the goblin nations," Kana said resolutely. The tribal leaders looked at Yuki in shock as they backed away to allow their new general to approach their mistress.
    "I will wreak havoc on our stunted foes until they are no more!" she shrieked vehemently.
    "Very well, General Yuki. Now, prepare the armies for attack, and I will return to you with the rock trolls to fill your ranks. They will have two commanders that will answer to you, and they will keep their soldiers in line," Kana said succinctly.
    "We will be ready," replied General Yuki. She bowed to one knee this time. The host of goblins that had gathered together outside the gate bowed like their general.
    Kana smiled warmly at their acceptance as she rose steadily into the night air. She began to glow crimson red as she turned into a ball of fire again. When she was nothing more than a red dot in the sky, she bolted in a northeastern direction toward the home of the rock trolls. The goblins went into a frenzy of work after her departure. They were excited and scared all at once. They were afraid of the dwarves and their brutish ally from the north, but they felt a new level of confidence after their meeting with the powerful Elemental. They had never seen one before and were in awe that she would choose to reveal herself to them in person.
    As the land below Kana changed from mountains to open and desolate plains, she began to think about the task that lied before her. The rock trolls did not revere the guardians as gods and would have to be persuaded in a different manner altogether. They would not be willing to accept her as their leader simply because of who she was. They would not be impressed by her magic, and she could not use it on them. Their tough hides made them impervious to her powerful offensive magic. The only exception to this rule was her ability to control minds. The only problem with this is that they can break a mind-controlling spell after only a few minutes. They did not use the same mental defense mechanisms that Kana was used to. She did not fully understand how they ejected mental intrusions. She would have to persuade the brutes to do her bidding without resorting to coercive measures. She would have to appeal to their destructive and distrusting nature.
    She had another problem to address first, and that was finding the rock trolls. They did not have camps or homes that were visible to the naked eye. Their dwellings were hidden within the rocky and forbidding terrain of the Land of Nodin. Even if a person could navigate the windy and unrelenting landscaped of the brutes' homeland, you would not be able to actually find them. Their rough skin had the ability to mimic their surroundings so perfectly that sometimes they cannot even see one another. Kana would have to use her mental powers to track them down.
    As she continued to fly high in the night's sky, she began to be buffeted by the winds of Nodin. She immediately changed into her ethereal form so that she could fly with greater ease and also to disguise her approach. She could already sense the presence of a large number of rock trolls directly below her. She did not think she would find them so quickly. It was her understanding that there were not that many of them and that they lived deep within their barren land. Why are there so many of them and why are they so close to their southern border?
    Her thoughts were interrupted by a massive boulder narrowly missing her ethereal head. She quickly changed back into her human form and threw up firewalls in the air to protect her from the numerous projectiles heading toward her. How did they see me? She was stunned for several seconds by this surprise attack. She had gotten careless in her approach and had waited too long to disguise herself. Her task had become even more difficult than she had anticipated. She would have to make examples of some of her attackers to gain control of the situation.
    She concentrated on the minds of three of the closest brutes. She immediately turned them on one another. One of the rock trolls in her control grabbed the head of one of the attackers and pulled with all of his might. The ensuing brawl filled the air with dust as debris flew in every direction as it escalated. The sun began to crest over the eastern horizon and helped to illuminate the fight in progress. Kana extinguished her flaming walls and descended rapidly toward the center of the action. She turned into a mix of flames and fierce wind as she approached her target. Some of the projectiles became trapped in her vortex and followed her speedy descent.
    A sickening thud was heard as she hit the ground bodily. The purpose of this tactic was immediately apparent. A massive shock wave went out in all directions. The brawling rock trolls were reduced to pebbles within seconds. The earth continued to shake and rumble for minutes afterwards. She had landed in the very center of the entire nation. Her attack had woken every single one of them, and the quaking was the sound of their approach. She did not fear them because they could not kill her. However, they could beat her incessantly, which would rob her of valuable time. She would have to kill every single antagonizer if this situation escalated into an all out battle. Their loss would be significant to her. She would have to try diplomacy.
    "Lord Trahern, I must speak with you," she said in the most commanding voice she could muster. As she said this, the ground shook violently. A massive figure landed directly in front of her and began to laugh mirthlessly.
    "Little witch! Why you trespass here?" bellowed Lord Trahern. His red and yellow eyes narrowed in dislike as he looked down at her. He did not believe the guardians were gods; rather, he believed them to be devils or demons. He fixed her with a deadly gaze that would have killed a lesser being.
    "Lord Trahern, I am here to enlist your help," she began coolly. She stared fixedly back at the massive leader who was twice her height. "I believe that the races of men, dwarves, elves, and giants have made a pack to conquer the lands of Tuwa. I learned of their treachery firsthand when the men of Nairi attack a separatist group of elves without provocation. These elves, which now go by the name of high elves, have allied with me and have struck back at the people of Nairi. They have also joined forces with the ores in the south. Together they will attack the elves of the Black Forest by week's end."
    "Why should care?" he bellowed back. Rock trolls did not speak much, which was why the races of Tuwa believed that they were mute. Kana knew this was untrue and that they could definitely communicate when the need arose.
    "I need you to help the goblins in their assault on your neighbor to the south. You do remember them?" she asked slyly. King Jarvis regularly attacked the rock trolls to try and thin out their numbers. The king's trade routes were constantly under attack by the brutes even though they carried nothing of value that the mindless oafs would want.
    "I kill little beards?" asked Lord Trahern. It was clear that he did not speak much because his actions did the speaking for him. Kana knew better than to be deceived by his broken speech. He was very intelligent in spite of his verbal handicap.
    "Yes, Lord Trahern. You will kill the dwarves. You will also kill men, elves, and giants as well. Does this please you?" she asked.
    "Me happy," replied the massive leader. He had a grim, satisfied look on his face as he looked at Kana.
    "Good; then we are agreed. The goblins are organizing as we speak for the assault on Mount Carrick. After you have gathered your people together, head to the western end of the Sheldon Mountains. General Yuki Togok will be expecting you. She will lead the combined army, but your commanders will lead the siege battalions," she explained with an air of command.
    "Me agreed," he said sanctimoniously. He then began to laugh raucously as Kana shot up into the air. She felt reassured in her plans now that she had sorted out the finer points of her plan. Now she had one more visit to make before returning to the ores. She must visit her captive friend, Lord Keb.



    General Yuki continued to bark out orders at her newly formed army of goblins as they made preparations for their attack against their bearded neighbors. The main body of this new military group had congregated in the largest cavern underneath the Sheldon Mountain range to make their final preparations. The air was filled with smoke from the numerous torches lighting the stone hall. There was so much noise that is was impossible for the general to hear her own thoughts. She was beginning to lose her cool and was just about to lay into her boisterous soldiers when the cavern walls began to shake. It felt as though the mountainside was being pulverized by boulders. Then the shaking stopped just as abruptly as it had begun. Silence enveloped the room as they all waited for something else to happen.
    The massive crowd of goblins was looking around the vast cavern with fear and trepidation. They were mainly looking up at the ceiling because that was where the rumblings had come from, and they worried that a second round of shaking would bring down the roof. Screams of sheer terror filled the silence as several of the goblins on the south end of the gathering place caught sight of the rock trolls who had been standing there since the rumblings had stopped. The massive brutes had mimicked their surroundings to hide their presence until after the rumblings. They did not know what made the mountain shake so violently, but they felt it was prudent to wait a few minutes before revealing their proximity to the huddle masses.
    Several of the screaming goblins fainted from the surprise appearance of the larger-than-life guests. General Yuki ran quickly to greet the expected visitors and to calm the now-hysterical army. She reached the stoic brutes in no time and bowed before them in greeting. As the general stood up, she could hear a voice in her mind telling her that she did not need to fear them. The voice continued by explaining that Kana had bade them to come and join the army of the goblins. They were also supposed to report to General Yuki and no one else. Then there was silence again in her head, and she looked around as if someone had been whispering to her. The three rock trolls that stood in front of her nodded to indicate that it was they who had been speaking to her. I had no idea that they could communicate with their minds.
    "Welcome. We have been expecting you," Yuki said with another bow. This time the entire army bowed with her. They had stopped screaming and yelling once their general had bowed the first time.
    "Me Lord Trahern. Commander Vahe and Commander Jabari," Lord Trahern said as he gestured to his two commanders.
    "We are grateful for your willingness to help us in our fight with the stunted thieves of Mount Carrick," she said edgily. "Continue with the preparations while I speak with our guests." She turned around to face the rock trolls and gestured for them to lead the way out of the cavern. As they departed, the goblins began to speak quickly and quietly to one another about the turn of events. There was a feeling of great anticipation and excitement that was generated by the appearance of their massive friends from the north.
    As General Yuki emerged from the underground lair, the night sky clouded over to hide the stars and the moon. The three rock trolls followed her lead without saying another word orally or telepathically. They continued down the grassy slope on the southern side of the central part of the Sheldon Mountains. As they neared the base of the mountain, they came upon a small forest of trees that was thick with vegetation. As they entered the canopy of trees, darkness engulfed them completely. There was no light and no sound as they continued walking toward some secret destination. The four unlikely companions did not have need of light to find their way in their pitch-black surroundings. It was as if the rock trolls instinctively knew where they were heading even though the general had not communicated to them where or when they would be stopping.
    Suddenly the forest gave way to a lush meadow that had an eerie green color to it. There were several small ponds in the clearing. The sky above had become even darker than before, which made the space look stranger than it would in the daylight. General Yuki came to an abrupt halt and turned about to face the leaders of the rock trolls. She stared at them for a few minutes trying to figure out how to best communicate with them. Their verbal skills were not the best, and she did not know how to speak telepathically. Maybe they could read my thoughts like they did before.
    "You speak with mouth; we speak with mind," offered Lord Trahern. He had read her thoughts and offered this solution in answer to her quandary.
    "Very well then, I will begin by saying that we have a great deal to discuss before we even attempt our assault on King Jarvis and his midgets," began the general. The rock trolls nodded in agreement. "First, we need to discuss what your people will do to bolster our ranks."
    Our talents lie in siege tactics and in hand-to-hand combat. Maybe we could be spread out amongst your ranks to strengthen the foot soldiers and to protect your archers, suggested Commander Jabari. His face remained impassive as he spoke to the general through his thoughts.
    "That would work; we could also have your siege warriors be surrounded by our archers so that they too would be protected," offered the general thoughtfully.
    That would work best. So, now we need to discuss actual numbers so that we can have a good idea how to divide up our forces. How many foot soldiers and archers do you have? asked Commander Vahe.
    "Now that the armies of my people are united, we have two hundred and fifty thousand foot soldiers with one hundred thousand archers. There are an additional one hundred and fifty thousand foot soldiers and fifty thousand archers that will remain in place to guard our home," explained General Togok. She had a ponderous look upon her face as she threw out their numbers.
    We have fifteen thousand warriors all together. Ten thousand of those are siege warriors, and the remain ingfive thousand use their brute strength as their weapon of choice. So, the five thousand could be scattered throughout your two hundred and fifty thousand foot soldiers, explained Commander Vahe.
    We will divide up the siege warriors into ten groups of one thousand each. We should surround each group with one thousand archers. That will leave you with ninety thousand archers to divide UP amongst the foot soldiers, continued Commander Jabari. It was as if the rock trolls shared a collective conscience. They appeared to be on the same page at all times.
    "I will divide up my foot soldiers into ten battalions so that there are twenty-five thousand in each. There will be seven thousand five hundred archers per battalion, which will leave us with fifteen thousand back up archers. Agreed?" asked General Yuki.
    We agree. We should make sure that we completely surround King Jarvis before we begin our assault. I would recommend that we send five battalions on the surface and the other five under the mountain. Five siege battalions will accompany the above ground assault while the remaining five siege battalions join the underground attack, Lord Trahern suggested mechanically.
    "Excellent strategy, Lord Trahern," replied General Yuki. "How long will these formations and divisions take to be implemented?"
    She was very pleased with the numbers they were sporting and with the strategy they had came up with thus far.
    Three days; no more, said Commander Jabari in reply.
    "It is settled then; we will begin preparations straight away. We will need to meet with our commanders and captains to make sure they understand the strategy. I do have one final question. How will we communicate between the battalions?" asked the general.
    Each battalion will have a rock troll designated to be the communications specialist. They will communicate with one another through the earth using one of our special abilities. This way there will be no chance for our enemies to intercept our intelligence or orders. The initial attack can be synchronized perfectly using this method, answered Commander Jabari.
    "All that is left now is to put our plans into action. Three days from now we will make our march on Mount Carrick and have it surrounded by dawn both above and below ground. We will attack them from below at that point and then assault them from above at dusk. We take no prisoners and will not stop until they are all dead!" said General Yuki with wicked delight.
    She began to cackle menacingly as she stood in the lush clearing. The rock trolls looked at one another at this unnecessary display of elation. They collectively thought that their little goblin leader was a bit touched in the head but did not say anything out loud or even in their minds about it.
    On the third day after the secret meeting, the combined armies prepared to move out. They had been integrated thoroughly and prepared for a relentless siege of King Jarvis and his people. They had established a series of secure supply routes from each of the five goblin dwellings. The rock trolls did not need any sustenance because they received their nourishment and power from the earth. The runs they established would provide sufficient means if the battle should take months or even years. There was excitement in the air that was tangible as the army waited for things to get started. They had waited centuries for revenge against the dwarves, and they were just days from initiating a war that would secure them pay back and dominion over their stunted foes.
    The army had split in two and gone to their designated gathering places. The goblin's armor was thick in all the right places, which allowed them to still move swiftly. The captains and commanders had much more cumbersome full body armor, but they were definitely better protected. The rock trolls were covered in immensely dense armor that covered nearly every inch of their bodies. The only way a dwarf would be able to take them down was with a lucky shot with a poisoned arrow or dagger. Yuki's troops would be much easier to kill, but their massive numbers would make up for their lack of adequate protection. They would swarm their enemies and overpower them by sheer force.
    As the sun began to set in the west, the goblins became less apprehensive and more excited about the task that lay ahead. They did not venture out into the light unless it was absolutely necessary while they prepared for their assault. They decided to wear special helmets that would shield their eyes from the brilliant glare of the sun for those who traveled topside. They also covered themselves with protective balms and clothing so that they would not be burned alive in the unrelenting radiance of the daylight. As a result of this sensitivity, the army traveling above ground would take twice as long to reach Mount Carrick. The underground troops would arrive first and would begin their campaign immediately. They would do their best to encourage the whole army of the dwarves to defend against the surprise attack underneath the mountain.

    Darkness consumed the mountainside of the southwestern slope of the Sheldon Mountain range. General Yuki had decided to accompany the above ground troops because they would need her support and encouragement the most. Her tactical abilities were far superior to any other commander in the goblin armies and much sounder than the rock trolls tactics of brute force. The night sky began to fill with stars, and the moon shone brightly in the clear sky. The mounting anticipation was so intense that it was palpable in the air. The general smiled at the fierce looks on her troops' faces. As she surveyed the sea of green and gray, her heart leapt for joy at the massive pillars spread evenly throughout the gigantic formation. She found a small boulder and climbed on top of it. As she stood above the crowd, silence fell and every ear was turned toward her to hear what she had to say.
    "Fellow outcasts, we are ready!" she declared boldly. "We will march over the next three days, and then we will surround our unsuspecting neighbors." Cheers and shouts of goblin vulgarity filled the air as she finished her second sentence. The soldiers were ready for payback, and they were eager to move out toward their destiny.
    "Crush dwarves!" bellowed one of the rock trolls. The ground shook slightly as he yelled into the cool night's air.
    "Indeed you will. We will go by night so that we give our brethren below us ample time to arrive and begin the assault. By the time we reach the towering fortress of King Jarvis, their guard should have been lessened. We will take the topside quickly and kill everyone and anything that breaths on the surface!" she screeched. More shouts of profanity rose from the goblin ranks. The rock trolls merely smiled at the prospect. Anyone who had ever seen a rock troll smile had never been able to tell another soul about how chilling the sight truly was.
    "Crush … Smash … Bash… " began the chant of the rock trolls. They began to cadence their chant, and the rest of the army responded by beginning to march in place. They were all waiting for the order to move out.
    General Yuki raised her arms into the air and screamed, "Move out!" With that chilling declaration, the army began to march in beat with the rhythm of the rock trolls' chants. The army below the mountain had instigated their march at the same time, and the effect this had of the areas surrounding the Sheldon Mountains was significant. The ground shook violently like a natural quaking of the earth. The only difference was that this continued for days, not minutes. Kana's war machine rumbled toward the dwarves while she prepared the ores and high elves for their siege of the Black Forest.

    As a messenger hurtled toward his king, he could tell that his majesty already knew what the problem was. The unusually tall dwarf came to a halt right in front of King Jarvis and bowed down to the ground. Jarvis looked at the prostrate soldier and impatiently kicked him to rise and give his report on the prolonged quakes. As the messenger stood erect, sweat and dirt obscured the part of his face not covered by his beard. He had the look of someone who had run all the way from the deepest reaches of the mountain kingdom without stopping. The dwarven leader tried to keep this in mind as he waited for the panting figure to speak.
    "My lord, the quakes … are … not … naturally … created," stammered the spent dwarf. He was shaking uncontrollably from the effort of running the extreme distance coupled with the fact that his trek had been entirely uphill.
    "Obviously these quakes are not natural; continue," he urged the messenger a little impatiently. He motioned for water to be brought to help calm the overexerted dwarf. The poor soldier took the water gratefully with his shaking hands and downed it instantly.
    "Thank you. My lord, our spies have determined that the noises that started a day ago are being made by an army," he explained. Chills ran down the spine of the stout leader as he stood there silently. "We have been able to catch a glimpse of a massive army of goblins and rock trolls heading directly for us. We estimate that they will arrive in two days' time."
    "What is the reason for the rumblings being less intense during the daylight hours?" asked the king in a forced calm.
    "We have determined that the goblins and rock trolls above the ground are traveling by night only."
    "What do you mean by the goblins and rock trolls above the ground?" The king felt his heart sink down to his nether regions.
    "We sent several spies through the tunnels leading from Mount Carrick into the Sheldon Mountains. They ran into an innumerable army of goblins and rock trolls making their way through the escape tunnels we had created. They appeared to be making no effort to hide their approach. Only one of the spies returned to report their findings. The rest were pulverized by rocks."
    "Summon General Havrak at once. Also, fetch Lord Kromnog to join the general and me in my quarters. After you have completed these tasks, you may rest for a while. I will have further need of you in a few hours. That is all." King Jarvis smiled to show his appreciation for the information and the diligence his soldier had shown.
    "Yes, my king," snapped the dwarf as he came to attention and did an about-face. He bolted as soon as he had turned away. He knew that haste was of the utmost importance in this situation. His body screamed at him to stop, but he would not slow until the tasks were completed.
    As the messenger ran off to find their general and the warrior druid, the king turned to look to the west from his secluded balcony that was on the highest point in the mountain city. He had placed his hands behind his back as he stared out across the green slopes of the Sheldon Mountains. Smoke filled the air where the king knew that this above-ground army was camped. What have we done to provoke this attack? Their banishment came from the gods, not us. We have tried to make peace with them over the years and have had an unspoken agreement not to interfere with one another's affairs. What changed this?
    As the king stood on the balcony, his thoughts continued to whirl with unanswerable questions. He shook his head sternly to stop this barrage; he needed to focus on what his people would need to do to be prepared for the impending assaults from above and below ground. As he cleared his mind of all thoughts, General Gideon hailed him. His general was panting slightly from running from the lower levels to this impromptu meeting. As he stood there attempting to catch his breath, Lord Nariko walked calmly toward Jarvis as if he had been expecting the summons. He did not appear out of breath, but that was not unusual considering his magical abilities. The warrior druid smiled knowingly at the king and gave a slight nod. The druids did not believe that they were subject to any ruler, so he did not prostrate himself before Jarvis. They believed that the guardians were responsible for nature and his kin were the protectors of the peoples of Tuwa.
    "King Jarvis, I see that you have finally figured out what the unnatural rumblings are," Lord Nariko said knowingly. The general laughed heartedly at the coolness the druid displayed as he spoke to the king.
    "You must forgive my druid friend; they have no sense of propriety," said the general ruefully. "He probably could have told you what the sounds were the instant they began." He gave the secretive magician a sideways glance and a quick smile as he said this.
    "So, it was you that spied out the army above ground," replied King Jarvis with a widening smile. He enjoyed the playful banter with his best warrior and the most feared druid in all of Tuwa. They were old friends, which made the circumstances feel less insurmountable. Between the three of them, they would be able to devise a plan that would protect his people against this invasion. They would outlast their enemies and would restore the proper order of things in the end.
    "Of course I did," replied the druid. "There is something you do not know yet, however. The army below the ground is moving day and night. They will be here tomorrow at midday unless we delay them. Their plan is a simple one: attack from below to distract us from the army above. They do not care that we know they are coming; they believe that the assault below would draw the majority of our army's attention and leave our topside defenses weakened."
    "So you believe that they will surround us above the ground while they attack us from below?" queried General Gideon.
    "Yes, that is my contention. I also believe the army above and below the ground are equal in strength. As a result, we will not be able to leave our defensive posture for quite some time. If we hold our defensive positions, we will win this war by attrition," explained Nariko.
    "Your suggestion is to hunker down for the long haul and outlast these vermin? How will that be accomplished?" asked the king. He agreed with the druid's assessment of the situation and thought his ideas were spot on. However, the implementation of such a plan would require extraordinary communication between the ranks.
    "We will have our oldest and most reliable friend, Mason Bardomli, set numerous underground traps for our unwanted guests below. This should slow the approach just enough so that we could set traps above ground as well. By doing this, we should be able to delay the assault for a couple of days, which would allow us to be better prepared. My only concern is with the channels of communication. How will we coordinate our efforts so that we shore up the appropriate weak points?" asked General Gideon. He was a brilliant strategist and knew that if they could not communicate well that a weak spot would be found by their enemies.
    "I share your concern. I believe that we can use sparrow hawks for the most urgent communications, and the rest of the correspondences will have to be run by messengers. We need to organize a team of runners who do not tire easily and can run fast," the king explained. "The hawks can also be used to eliminate enemy spies."
    "So, your sparrow hawk will carry the most vital messages while runners handle the less-urgent reports? I think that is the best we can hope for," replied General Gideon.
    "I will send an envoy to brown bears and their army. They will assist us in defending our home," said Lord Nariko.
    "Hopefully your furry friends arrive in time to help us. How will you relay your request? We will need you here, so you cannot go in person," the king said.
    "You are correct. I have a reliable friend that will convey the message for me. He will be able to deliver the message faster and with greater persuasive powers than I could. He will not fail us," said the warrior druid confidently.
    "A guardian would never fail us," replied the king confidently. His druid friend smiled slyly at his friend's ability to read his mind.
    "I always forget that it does not do any good to try and hide something from you, King Jarvis. You always know," the druid said with sagacious smile. The king was able to break through any mental barrier without much effort. The trick was to simply mirror the mind of the attacker and use the mental chink in the defense to enter their mind.
    "Then it is agreed; we must move quickly now if we are to avoid losing any of our land or people. We must be ready for those foul beasts to crash upon us like a wave against a reef. I will go at once to meet with our friend Mason to begin the laying of traps, and then I will instruct the commanders and captains about what we are planning to do. I will not hold any information back from them so that they are totally prepared," General Gideon said determinedly.
    "I will take leave of you as well to meet with Lord Neb, and then I will return to help finish the traps and other preparations," said the druid quickly.
    "This mountain fortress has never fallen into enemy hands and has never even allowed a foe to set foot inside these walls. Mason has already improved the integrity of our defenses, so we must not let him down by allowing any of these vile creatures to break down our walls. We owe it to him and to our people. We must be vigilant," declared the king boldly.
    "May the Maker protect us and bless us in our time of need," said Lord Nariko solemnly. He bowed slightly and transformed into a massive brown bear. He stood up on his hind legs and raised one paw in farewell. He roared loudly as he stood there, which inspired the king and the general to shout in unison a deafening war cry. The bear then came down on all fours and lumbered off to an unknown destination.
    "We are going to need him more than anyone else in this battle," said King Jarvis.
    "I know. We will not be able to win the day without him. He will lead us to victory; of that I am certain. However, we cannot let him have all the fun," said General Gideon with an infectious grin.
    "Too right you are. Let's get on with it then; our unwanted guests approach," replied the king as his face took on a look of fierce determination.
    Mason Bardomli stood in the dark and damp entrance on the east side of one of the main halls in the dwarven underground kingdom. He was pondering how the traps should be set and how many there should be. He was methodical in his planning, which meant he never did anything out of haste or urgency. He had already organized his usual team of dwarves to assist him with this project. They knew that he would take time to think things out in his head first, and they knew better than to rush him. His plans had never failed them, and he had never put them in any danger by taking time to orchestrate a complex defensive and offensive stratagem. He was totally lost in his own thoughts as he stood rooted to the spot while he tried to find all possible weak points in his thinking. He was going over several different scenarios in his mind so that when they did begin to work they would not have to stop or undo any of their traps.
    He turned around slowly to face his crew with a look of someone who had come to a definite conclusion. He looked at each member of the group in front of him without revealing what he was thinking. "We will have to be swift in laying these traps. We will divide into two groups so that the traps on the topside will be finished at the same time as the ones we lay here," said Mason gruffly.
    "Which team will you lead?" asked one of the dwarves.
    "I will lead the group who stays here below. Captain Barak, you will lead the above ground team. Select who you want to go with you topside after you meet with me so that I can tell you what we will do and when it will need to be completed by," said Mason in his raspy voice.
    "Yes, sir!" replied the captain.
    Barak quickly selected twelve dwarves to assist him in laying traps and sent them topside. He then returned to where Mason was still standing so that they could discuss the strategies that would be employed. He noticed that the stout dwarf was lost in his thoughts again, so he waited patiently for him to recognize his return before speaking. He waited for several minutes before the statuesque figure in front of him realized that he had returned from selecting his team.
    "Captain Barak, I am glad to see that you have not wasted time. You will need to be that dutiful in the task that lies before you. Time is of the utmost importance," he said wryly.
    "Of course, Master Mason; what is your plan?" asked the captain patiently. He did not want to rush him out of respect for who he was.
    "We do not have time to dig pits, so we will have to disguise existing pits, or cliffs in your case, so we can send our enemies plunging to their deaths," Mason began. "What we will spend most of our time doing is setting up traps that will be triggered by the hordes heading our way." He went on to explain in greater detail exactly what that meant. After nearly an hour of detailing his plans, they parted ways and went to work.
    All of the traps had been set and tested by the end of the next day. The underground army would arrive in about six hours and would then be led carefully to their premature deaths. Mason estimated that his creations would delay the attackers at least five days. The army approaching on the mountainside would be slowed so that they would arrive two days late. This would have both forces reaching the real dwarven defenses at the same time. For the time being, they would simply have to wait and see what would transpire. While these preparations were being made, General Gideon had finished his defenses for a long-term siege. Lord Nariko had sent his message to the bears and had already returned. He was in meetings with the general and King Jarvis while Master Mason remained below to ensure that the approaching army was sufficiently delayed.

    The goblins had disposed of their torches hours ago so the dwarves would not see them before they attacked. The goblin captains were under the direction of Commander Jabari of the rock trolls. He had sent one of the little soldiers ahead to determine what path would conceal their approach the best. They had not returned, and some thought they heard a distant cry and then nothing. While the trolls waited patiently, the rest of the army began to worry and fret that they had been discovered and that the dwarves had used some sort of demon to destroy their comrades. Their jitters worsened when Jabari sent more scouts ahead and they too did not return. This time a sickening thud was heard as though there had been an avalanche of some sort. What they did not understand was that the commander was sending the scouts ahead to clear the traps that he knew the dwarves would have laid in anticipation of their underground approach.
    Commander Jabari continued to send scouts ahead to spring the traps for nearly three hours. Finally, he determined that it was safe to continue forward and commanded the army to move out. As they resumed their march, more traps were sprung that sent many goblins falling to their deaths. Many of the already skittish soldiers turned tail to run away from their duties. The commander sensed this cowardice immediately and put a swift end to it. Anyone who turned around to leave was grabbed immediately by a rock troll and ripped in two. This created the desired effect so that the commander did not have to deal with any more deserters for the time being. Many of the artifices were comprised of the roof caving in, which meant that the massive army had to narrow their approach to avoid further losses.
    As the army continued to approach their quarry, Commander Jabari realized what the dwarves were attempting to do. They were not only trying to delay their approach, but they were also trying to herd them like lambs to the slaughter. At that precise moment, the massive rock troll leader triggered the grand finale of traps by brush ing a secret trigger on the cavern wall, which released so many rocks from the ceiling so that every path they were on was now blocked completely. He wisely called for a complete halt and stood back to survey the damage that had been done and began to formulate a plan to get through this new barrier. The thing that perplexed him the most was the reasoning for the elaborate traps. Why did they waste so much time in preparing these diversions when they should have been preparing their defenses? Did they really think that rocks could stop us?
    Jabari then used his special link to the earth to determine what path contained the weakest point in the newly created rock wall. After a few minutes of probing, it became clear to him and the other rock trolls that the path directly in front of the main body of the army had the least amount of debris in their path. He immediately decided that they would open this path up and continue their journey on this path of least resistance. They did not realize that on the other side of the temporary wall was a pit so vast that it would delay them several days while they tried to create a bridge to cross it. In fact, it would take the hybrid army four days to construct a makeshift bridge that would allow the entire army to cross over to the other side. By the time they accomplished this, five thousand goblins and two trolls would have been lost as a result of the traps laid by the dwarves. Instead of taking a day and an half to reach Mount Carrick, it would take the underground army five days.

    General Yuki and her army had made considerable progress during their night marches, which put them a full day ahead of schedule. They would actually reach Mount Carrick in two days instead of three. As the sun began to set on another day, she decided to send scouts ahead to find out how much farther they had to go. When the scouts returned to report, they had a frantic looks upon their faces. They informed their general that the dwarves had prepared a series of deadly traps that would trigger an avalanche if they continued on the road they were on. They could not determine what would spring the artifices, but they knew that it would be too dan gerous to continue on this high road. They suggested a safer route along the base of the mountains. They offered this suggestion cautiously because it would add at least one to two days to their march. The general did not take the news well at all.
    "What are those bearded idiots playing at?" she raged rhetorically. "Commander Vahe, Lord Trahern, we need to talk right now!"
    No need to scream, Yuki. We can read your thoughts. This is merely a diversionary tactic. It appears that Commander Jabari has run into some traps below us, and he has been forced to work feverishly to pass through the lethal setbacks, explained Lord Trahern patiently. He could also sense the anger welling up within their general and knew that if she could be persuaded to remain calm that she would devise a new plan that would lead them safely around the obstacles that lay ahead.
    "You are right; we do need to remain calm. I think that it would be best to follow the advice of the scouts and take the low road. It would be better to arrive intact than in disarray," she said as she gained control of her temper. There is no point in wasting time and soldiers in trying to overcome the treacherous barriers ahead. The dwarves merely want to delay us, and we will oblige them. If it takes us three more days to reach them, then so be it.
    I agree with your thinking, General Yuki. Let us take the low road and take our time so that we retain our numbers, which will be the deciding factor in the end, replied Commander Vahe placidly.
    "Let's move out then," replied the general coolly.
    As the army made their way down to the base of the mountains, the sky above became dark and did not give any light. The sky had clouded over with black threatening clouds, and the soldiers could sense the change in the atmosphere about them. This storm would slow their progress and force them to stop. There was rumbling overhead that was a precursor of the dazzling display of lightning. Loud booms followed the strikes immediately after the flashes. General Yuki had a sinking feeling that this storm was not natural. It appeared to follow them as they finally reached the plain below the mountains.
    The ferocity of the storm masked the feverish work taking place high above them on the cliffs. The dwarves were busy setting the last series of traps as the storm continued to build in intensity. As the army far below continued their implacable march, all of the artifices had been set and were ready for the unsuspecting army to trigger them. There was actually no real threat on the high road following the cliff line, so the unwitting general was leading her troops directly into harm's way. The scouts had been fooled by what they had seen and had given Yuki false information that would end up costing her army time and a significant number of casualties.
    The rumblings overhead masked the landslides that had been triggered by several different goblins. Rocks and debris were released and tumbled down the sides of the cliff like water rushing down a rapid. The army was hit in seven different places as the massive projectiles smashed into the sopping-wet troops. Thousands of goblins were killed instantly, and all at once there was utter chaos. Soldiers were running every which direction, and the stormy air was filled with shrieks of terror and rage. The rock trolls remained in place and protected all those that were around them. General Yuki acted as quickly as she could to regain control. She bellowed at her captains to maintain order. She then ordered Lord Trahern and Commander Vahe to ensure that there were no deserters. Immediately the rock trolls acted by grabbing several fleeing goblins and smashing them into the muddied ground. Order was quickly restored after several goblin soldiers had been used as examples.
    Both armies overcame the obstacles put in place by the dwarves. Each army arrived after a six-day journey and attacked at the exact same time. The sky above remained clouded and rain continued to pour down. The mountainside had become muddied and impassible. As General Yuki approached the fortress of King Jarvis, the rain turned into snow. Immediately the temperature dropped and everything around them turned to ice. Within an hour of this change, there was more than a foot of snow accumulated on the slippery slopes of Mount Carrick. While the encumbered army tried to make headway, the dwarves bombarded them with a volley of arrows that struck the foremost soldiers, including several rock trolls. Commander Vahe ordered his siege warriors to retaliate with a cannonade of their own. The air was full of rocks, arrows, and chucks of ice as the battle commenced against the upper portion of Dagnolir's fortress.
    As the underground army funneled toward the defenses of dwarves, they were hit with arrows and spears that tore through them like paper. The rock trolls were unaffected by this initial attack and moved toward the front so that they could begin their assault. As they did this, they had come into an open cavern that had an empty floorwith dwarves littering the walls. As they grabbed chunks of rock and other debris, a scolding-hot substance was poured on them from above. Their toughen hide burnt only for a few seconds before they acclimated to the rise in temperature. This distracted them long enough for the dwarven archers to send a fiery volley of arrowed into their massive attackers setting them ablaze. Shrieks of excruciating pain filled the air as the trolls thrashed about trying to put out the fires that were consuming them.
    As the rock trolls flailed about, they inadvertently smashed several goblin soldiers into the ground and had set the entire cavern floor ablaze. Commander Jabari bellowed the order to retreat back the way they had come. He commanded several of his siege warriors who had not been set on fire to kill the soldiers who were spreading the fire. He did not want the fire to spread into the main body of the army and knew that he had to sacrifice his brave warriors to salvage the rest. His rage and fury began to consume him as he watched many of friends die at his command. He reared back his head so that he was staring straight up and roared as loud as he could. The cavern walls shook, and there was complete silence. The battle for Mount Carrick had begun.