Chapter 1

‘It was a dark and stormy night.’

“At least, that’s how the story might have begun,” Riana thought as she stepped out of the gate from Talanor into the dark night and driving snow of the Southern Wastes. Briefly she nodded to the gate guards as she pulled her heavy hood over her head to protect her sensitive elven ears from the icy wind. Her body was alive with tactile sensations she had never imagined before. Every move, every turn, every breath caused her skin to scream out to her as the friction of the cloth across her now very sensitive skin sent spears of discomfort and pain to her aching head. A moment to take stock of her things and she was off into the gale, headed home.

As she moved further from the city, the darkness grew oppressive. The driving snow blocked out what star light would normally be visible this time of year, which wasn’t much really. The end result was that Riana was forced to shift her vision into its alternate state, allowing her to see the heat emanating from objects. In the total darkness and extreme cold, she still couldn’t see much. She could see well enough to navigate and would know instantly if anything warmer than a snowball was near her, which was a good thing, because this frozen tundra was filled to overflowing with a nasty breed of Orc.

These particular Orcs were about Human size, two-hundred to three-hundred pounds worth of solid muscle, and a pasty grey color with random black and dark grey/brown markings. They had sharp canine teeth that protruded from their mouths like wicked daggers, and evil eyes that glared red from beneath their boney brows.

“The snow was as thick as bread pudding,” she whispered to herself, pulling her heavy cloak closer to try and shake the feeling of discomfort that always chased after her when she walked through the Wastes. The last thing she wanted was to attract the attention of an Orc scouting party, but hearing a voice, even her own, helped reassure her that she was still alive and well. Cautiously, she picked her way down the road, its edges barely visible to her keen thermal vision. Making every attempt to not shift or move too much, because it made the rough material of her heavy cloak rub against the sensitive, fresh tattoos covering most of her body. The dull ache in her head didn’t help things much either now that she gave it some thought.

She hated that she had to go to Talanor to get it done, but no other artist in the realm was better than the master there. Master Dinendal had been surprised by what she had asked him to do, even more so when she had presented him with the vials of enchanted inks that she had spent months collecting rare ingredients to distil. It had taken some time to convince him to proceed, and a good deal of coin as well. But as he worked, his confidence grew. By the time he had finished, almost three days later, he was beaming with pride in what he had created. Of course, the process had left Riana’s skin painfully sensitive. Master Dinendal had told her that normally such discomfort lasted for a week, but with the special inks and the nature of the work, he had no idea how long it would last. She hadn’t really cared at the time, but now she was beginning to regret it as the thought of a three day trudge through the southern wastes settled in on her. The prospect of what it meant in the long run was more than enough to compensate her for a few days or even weeks of discomfort. But if her skin remained this sensitive for too terribly long, she would have to seriously reconsider her wardrobe. Thinking of her closet full of the heavy robes traditionally worn by wielders of the arcane arts, their weighty fabric covering almost every inch of the body made a small groan escape her lips.

“Mom’s going to absolutely KILL me.” She whispered to herself as she continued threading her way down the snow-packed road, headed for home.

“For what?” An echo of her own voice whispered next to her, causing her to nearly fall over in surprise. Turning sharply towards the voice, her cloak shifted and twirled around her, dragging itself painfully across her freshly tattooed body. Wincing in pain, she saw her sister standing in the middle of the road, looking at her innocently. It was like looking in a mirror, which made sense, since they were twins. Katrina had the high, thin cheek bones of a royal elf, her long, pointed ears concealed beneath her own cloak’s hood. Her thin lips parted in a devilish grin, revealing slightly too sharp teeth that was a subtle indication of their mixed heritage. Her fine features were soft and attractive, even for the young Twenty years old they were. There were some differences though. Katrina’s eyes were an acidy yellow and she wore her fine, platinum hair down, in a manageable style, while Riana’s eyes were a deep violet, and her hair was pulled back into a fancy array of ‘pony tails’ at the back of her skull, with a few strands hanging down around her face. At some point she had managed to turn her hair a vibrant, royal purple in an accident at the alchemy table. It had grown that way ever since and she had finally, after more than a year of trying, given up attempting to conceal it from their mother by dying it regularly. Their mother had sighed when she saw it coming in, in all its purple glory, then looked at Riana and said, “Just like your…father.” She had then hugged her and walked away with a strange look on her face, the memory of the father they had never known clearly haunting her.

Looking deeply into her sister’s eyes through the driving snow, Riana smiled weakly, “I’ll tell you when we get home. I need to get out of these clothes and into something lighter. This is definitely not the weather for it.”

Katrina admonished her with a parental look and then asked, “Why are you walking home? Didn’t you buy a portal ring while you were in Talanor?”

Riana sighed the sigh of sisterly defeat. “No,” she finally admitted, “I spent all my money on…” She took a deep breath before continuing, “well, you’ll see when we get home.” Her voice trailed off.

Katrina smiled, grinned rather, from ear to ear. “Then let’s get home, and out of this weather, so I can see what you did! C’mere sis!” At that, a slender hand emerged from beneath her cloak, in its delicate fingers she held a portal ring. Its shiny gold band adorned with the vibrant, almost glowing ruby that was the symbol of their home city of Rathalon. She placed the ring on her finger and with a grin at Riana, turned it one-hundred eighty degrees, so the ruby was facing down.

The ring began to glow brightly for a moment, and an instant later, the light was gone. Between the girls appeared a series of red rings of magical energy floating in a column. They appeared to be composed of pure light, bobbing up and down lazily like a buoy might while floating in a calm harbor. Riana looked at her sister and saw the ring on her finger crumble away into nothingness.

Katrina smiled and shrugged, “I still can’t afford a rechargeable one, but these are pretty reasonable.” Then she stepped into the column of glowing rings and disappeared in a dull flash of red light.

With a sigh of resignation and a brief wish that her head would stop its aching, Riana stepped into the column of rings and instantly found herself in a large, stone room, surrounded on all sides by armed guards. All of whom were looking at her expectantly.

“Ssstate your name and bussinesss.” An imposing reptilian hissed at her from directly ahead. She looked at the guard. An impressive creature, standing some eight feet tall and heavy with strong, sinuous muscles, he towered over her lithe six foot frame. The deep emerald-green of his scales was accentuated by the golden plate armor of the Rathalon guard. In one hand he bore the signature weapon of the Rathalon Defenders, a short metal staff with a wickedly pointed blade jutting out of each end. The weapon was easily as tall as the creature holding it and was known throughout Kalijor as a vicious weapon that required a great deal of skill to use effectively. The weapon hung in his hand like a toy, despite its mass. His bright amber eyes stared at her unblinking from beneath the helmet that had been custom fit to his reptilian head. Although Riana had seen and talked with Captain Sselina on many occasions, she was still caught off guard every time she used the portal system and found him staring at her expectantly.

“Riana Thorindal, daughter of Ezrina Thorindal. My sister Katrina and I are on our way home.” Indicating Katrina, who stood behind the captain, speaking in hushed tones to a merchant near the exit of the arrival area. Riana pushed her hood off her head revealing herself to the guards and causing a brief surge of pain. Her long ears perked up in the warmth and the presence of friends.

The Captain eyed her for a moment, before he nodded ever so slightly in her direction. “Welcome home Lady Thorindal.” Then he made a barely perceptible gesture and the rest of the guards stood down and went about checking other arrivals.

“Good to see you again Captain,” Riana said, feeling much more at ease now. She moved out of the inbound portal area where other people were arriving in brief red flashes. Rathalon was the center of Kalijor. As the mecca of commerce and travel, it was the largest city in the world. Everyone came through Rathalon at one point or another in their lives. A great many of those arrivals simply appeared here in the cavernous portal chamber. Looking around the room as she moved away from the arrival area, Riana felt the enormity of the chamber. It was a gigantic room designed with security in mind, with numerous large columns arranged in rows that would allow defenders to take cover from any invading force, firing arrows, bolts and spell missiles from positions of cover at the central area of the building where all arrivals appeared. Twenty steps led down into the arrival area, which was a giant octagon, some one-hundred feet across, giving the defenders a tactical advantage in the event of an attack through the portal system, by placing any would-be attackers well below the city defenders.

People flowed in and out of the building through the gigantic, intricately-carved main doors. Some headed toward the smaller, raised octagonal platforms that held glowing portals similar to the one that had brought Katrina and herself here to Rathalon, but these portals were a shimmering yellow, and always very busy. There were six such platforms in the portal chamber of Rathalon, but only five of them had portals atop them. One platform in the far back corner of the room, stood empty. There had not been a portal there for so long that no one remembered where it had gone when it had been active.

Making her way up the short stair way, she nodded to the Captain, and offered him a wry smile. He offered her the reptilian equivalent, baring rows of small, deadly sharp teeth. Then he moved further down the stairs to intervene in some dispute that had started up with one of the arrivals.

Riana wove her way through a few small groups of people that were milling about, causing her heavy cloak to drag across her skin. Gritting her teeth and forcing back the pain, she made her way to her sister’s side.

“Hey Ree.” Kat said at her sister’s approach, “One sec and I’ll be done here.” Then she went back to haggling with the merchant about something or other.

Riana took a moment to pull off her heavy cloak, careful to cause as little friction with her body as possible. The silk skirt and blouse she wore underneath helped some, but she was still painfully aware of what she had done to her body. The garments she had picked for the trip had been chosen with two thoughts in mind, reducing friction against her sensitive skin and to cover her up as much as possible.

Carefully holding her cloak in her hands, out away from her body so as to keep it from bumping into her, she turned back to her sister just as Katrina concluded whatever negotiation she had been involved in.

Katrina grinned at her, stifling a laugh at the sight of her sister. “WHAT?!” Riana howled indignantly.

“Nothing.” Katrina said, almost unable to hold back the laughter. “You just look like…”

“Like what?!” Riana asked, raising an eyebrow, her ears straight back from her head in annoyance.

“Like…an old maid…” Katrina finished, and finally burst into laughter, unable to contain it any longer.

Riana’s skin flushed red in embarrassment, her ears drooping down. “I guess I do.” She said, sounding upset.

The blouse had long, billowing sleeves that came to a buttoned cuff at each wrist, and ended at the neck in a fancy collar that she didn’t care for, but it served its purpose very effectively. Her skirt was long, ruffled, and of the same fine silk. Ending below her ankles, it almost completely covered her traveling boots, which were soft brown leather, and came up to her knees beneath the skirt. She knew it was not the best traveling attire, but she had other concerns to worry about on this particular trip. She wasn’t even wearing her normal belt with her short sword, knife and pouches on it.

Suddenly Katrina grew very serious, the laughter gone, but still audible in her words, “C’mon Ree, let’s go home so you can show me.”

At that, the two of them were off. Weaving in and out of the throngs of travelers. Deftly avoiding traffic jams, as only two children could. The pain of moving nearly floored her, but Riana resolved to get home before giving up her secret. Her head hurt and her body ached, as she pushed herself to keep up with her sister. In an instant they were at the massive doors to the portal chamber. Then they were outside, in the full light of day. The momentary transition from night to day had taken place while they were inside the portal chamber, and now people were beginning to come out of their homes and add to the volume of travelers already thronging through the smooth, stone streets of the city. They wove their way through the crowds -down a back alley here, through someone’s yard there, under a street merchant’s awning, between two horse-drawn carts- making and taking every shortcut they could. As she strained the limits of her body to force it to keep up with her sister’s pace, Riana began to realize just how far away home was. Every step she took caused her clothing, as well chosen as it was, to light up her nerve endings like a bonfire. Every time they dodged around someone or ducked under a clothesline, her body screamed out at her to stop. Slowly, she began to fall behind, even though she was pushing herself well past her pain threshold.

Rathalon was a gigantic city. The largest in Kalijor by far. Its population was in the millions, if you included all of the transients that were there at any time, although its actual residents numbered only five or six hundred thousand people. It had been carved from the head of the Uraval Mountains over the course of centuries. The spot was perfect as travelers had to round the head of the mountain range on their way from one side to the other. The mountains themselves were impassable. Not so much because of the treacherous terrain, which there was plenty of, but because something lived up there. Something less than friendly to travelers. And no one was known to have ever made it over the range. So all travelers had long ago taken to rounding the head of the range. And before too long, a great undertaking was begun. Some of the best stone cutters in the world had banded together and drawn up plans for something amazing. They decided to build a city at the head of the mountains in order to capitalize on the traffic that passed there, but their city would be nothing short of spectacular. So they began removing stone from the face of the mountain, and for generations they carried on removing stone from the mountain. Their children toiled away at it, and their children’s children.

The city was still not completed to this day, but it was the most amazing thing Riana had ever laid eyes upon. A city capable of housing millions of people, carved from the head of the mountains. All of the buildings they ran past on their way home, the streets that they had learned so well in their youth, the walking paths where they used to play tag among the pedestrians of the city, the fountains Riana and Katrina had learned to swim in, all of it carved from the rock. Not a single piece had been brought in, or added to, any feature of the city. Even the massive stone gates of the thick outer wall, were hewn from the mountain’s mass, hinges and all; Riana waved at the gate guards as they darted past the one-hundred foot tall gates, the action sending lines of fire up the nerves in her arm and chest, she staggered momentarily, but forced herself up and on after her sister.

The great wall that surrounded the city was one-hundred fifty feet high, and twenty five feet thick. Leaving the vertical face at the southern edge of the city, it extended northward and curved around to the west and back south to reconnect with the same vertical face. The girls ran along the base of the wall, towards their house. In her hyper-sensitive state, Riana was relieved by the realization that the glossy surface of the city’s wall was actually as smooth as it looked. For years she had been amazed at how its near mirror surface would dimly reflect its surroundings, but now she was in heaven as she leaned against its cool surface and slid painlessly down the road.

There were fewer merchants on this road, but it was still a high traffic area and a great many people bought and sold, and just moved from place to place here. As they dodged through a crowd at the edge of the street, Riana brushed against a large man in heavy plate armor. He barely touched her svelte form, but the result was instant and startling to those in the area. Her skin sang its discomfort out to her nerves, sending her sprawling to the ground at the foot of one of the city’s freestanding buildings. People stopped what they where doing and looked at the young elf, sprawled across the ground in a tangled mess. Tears of pain forming in her eyes at some unknown and unseen torture. Riana looked up at the man as he was staring down at her in confusion, trying to stammer an apology, “Miss, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

“She’s fine! Just had a rough day!” Katrina was next to her, hoisting her off the ground, not realizing that her embrace was adding to her sister’s pain.

Riana focused her thoughts on shutting out the pain and tried to get her body to obey her commands, wincing as her sister dragged her away from the crowd.

Once they rounded a corner, Katrina braced her sister against a wall to let her catch her breath. “Wow Ree. What was THAT all about?” Her face was distorted with worry for her sister, ears drooping low in concern.

“I’ll be okay Kat. I just need a minute.” Riana said, wiping tears from her eyes. Finally she willed her body back into her control and stood up. “Let’s get home.” She added weakly.

Almost home now, Riana gazed southward at the sheer rock face that stood thousands of feet high, towering over the rest of the city. In the face were carved balconies and windows, from top to bottom. Tens of thousands of people lived in the apartments carved into the cliff. In the center of the city, visible to the sisters as they crossed the last major intersection before reaching their building, was the palace where the governing party of Rathalon presided over the day-to-day activities of the city. It was a series of buildings in a square, interspersed with a few fountains, a few gardens and some grassy knolls. It was only called the palace because of its appearance however, as there was no actual royalty governing the city; rather, a group of elected citizens that served a term and then went back to their lives.

The streets teemed with life day and night. All civilized species were welcomed with open arms here, and most could be seen on any given day. As was evidenced by the mixed group the sisters wove through, their final destination in sight. Katrina sidestepped around a felinoid and then ducked between an Ogre’s legs as Riana barely managed to get her complaining body out of the way of the wildly gesticulating arms of a Troll that was excitedly telling the crowd about some amazing point of interest or other in his last journey to the far reaches. Those of Riana and Katrina’s race, the Elves, were in the minority by far with maybe a dozen families living within the city. Most of the elves tended to live closer to nature, in Pandoria, or even in one of the world’s forests in unofficial cities that most sentients didn’t even suspect existed.

The sisters approached their home, causing Riana to breathe a sigh of relief at the thought that she could soon shed the clothing that was causing her so much discomfort. Her relief was short lived however, as two things occurred to her. First, she was going to have to show her body to her mother soon. Secondly, they lived at the top of a three story building on the western edge of the city, which meant she still had three flights of stairs to get up. Living in the building with their own family were two other elven families, each fairly wealthy, either by heritage, or by enterprise. They burst through the front door and charged up the stairs to the door of their home. The spacious apartment consisted of four bed chambers, a living area, a study, a kitchen, two bath rooms, and had running water, both hot and cold, provided by the city’s talented architects and designers.

The door to their apartment opened as soon as one of them touched it then closed again behind them. Katrina grabbed Riana by the hand and gently pulled her toward Riana’s room.

Katrina moved Riana to the center of the elegantly appointed room, stripped her cloak out of her hands, and tossed it on the king size four-poster bed made of a dark, hard-wood with silk and chiffon hangings draped down at the corners as she spun around. Knocking the door closed and flopping down on a large pile of satin and velvet throw-pillows, she pulled her knees up to her chest and planted her feet in the plush rug that covered the stone floor. Katrina steepled her fingers together and set her chin on her finger tips, staring calmly at her sister.

“Ok,” she said, “show me.”

Riana looked at her, her eyes glazed over in something approaching abject terror. “I don’t know Kat. I’m kind of scared.” She would have wrapped her arms tightly about her body and rolled up into a ball, but she feared the pain it caused might be worse than her feelings about what her sister would think.

“It CAN’T be that bad Ree. Seriously. Show me?” Katrina was sincere.

“Just you wait.” Riana said as she began to unbutton her blouse, hands trembling, “You may yet change your tune.”

Katrina bit her lower lip as she watched her sister slowly open her blouse. She was stunned, her mouth having fallen open as she stared at the slowly revealed intricate pattern of dark lines weaving around, serpent-like on her sister’s alabaster skin. They covered most of her upper body. From her wrists up to her shoulders and down her torso. The markings were not so tightly packed as to cover all of her skin, in fact, most of her skin was untouched, but the spacing of the patterns was such that very little of her body was far from some type of mark.

Her back was covered as well, Katrina noticed as Riana slowly turned around, her ears drooping down in an obvious display of her uncertainty and concern for her sister’s reaction.

Finally Katrina realized Riana was staring at her expectantly. “Ree… I had no idea…” Slowly she stood up and approached her sister, inspecting the complex patterns more closely.

“Are these Draconic?” She wondered aloud, reaching out to touch one of the marks on Riana’s stomach. As she touched it, Riana flinched away, almost falling over. Katrina grabbed her sister’s outstretched hand, stabilizing her before she completely lost her balance. “I’m sorry Ree, I imagine they are still sensitive uh?”

Riana nodded her agreement. “It’s ok Kat. And yes, they are Draconic. It was the only language I could find in my research that would effectively do what I needed in single symbols.”

Katrina nodded gravely, pretending to understand. She could recognize Draconic, but not actually read it. “Why did you do this?” was all she could think to ask as she reached out and stopped short of touching another of the vibrant marks.

Riana sighed, a full confession approaching her lips. “I was doing some research. Trying to find a way around the limitations of our mages. They, all of them, even you, can only cast so many spells at any given time. They require you to memorize them, and you can only memorize so many. They take concentration to cast, and time to speak the incantations. I was trying to find a way around all of that. And eventually I did.” She sighed again, still unsure of herself.

“Go on.” Katrina said reassuringly as she moved around her sister, inspecting each and every line with intense scrutiny.

“I found an ancient tome in the academy library. Back in the restricted section…”

Katrina stood bolt upright, almost knocking Riana over again. Her eyes as big as saucers, and ears standing straight up in amazement. The restricted section of the academy library was one of the most attentively guarded areas in all of Kalijor. Some of the books there were written before the great war, and contained spells and incantations so powerful that they could, and in fact had, leveled whole cities. Sneaking into the restricted area was not unheard of, Katrina had done it herself on more than one occasion just to see if she could; But to remain there undetected, for long enough to do real research, was something indeed!

“I know,” Riana said narrowing her eyes. “That was almost the most difficult part of this whole ordeal. Next to having to tell mom.”

Katrina giggled at that, and then crouched down again, resuming her inspection.

“So I found a book that detailed the research of a mage from before the war who sought very much the same thing.” Riana paused before continuing, “he found that if he used the correct ingredients in his inks, and had them enchanted in just the right way, then he could have certain magical symbols permanently applied to his skin. It let him use the associated spells with little concentration, and no time memorizing them. The only problem he encountered was that he could only make it work with a single symbol for each spell, and he lacked the knowledge to divine appropriate symbols for all of his spells.”

Katrina blurted out, “The Dragons have symbols for EVERYTHING! They invented most of our magics!!”

“Exactly,” Riana replied. “So all I had to do was learn their written language. No small task, to be sure, but very possible. After that, it was merely about setting up my spell books, and convincing the Master in Talanor to do it.”

“Do they…” Katrina gestured randomly about Riana’s body, “…work?”

“Watch,” Riana said with a touch of pride in her voice. She held out her hand and closed her eyes for an instant before a small ball of fire appeared in her outstretched hand. Katrina inspected the mark that had glowed as if in response to her sister’s thoughts. The intricate pattern had glowed vividly for an instant in vibrant color before fading back to black. The flame hovered there in her hand, exactly as it would if she had conjured it through the normal, accepted means.

Katrina held her hand over the flame, as if to verify that it was real and not some kind of illusion or trick. Feeling the heat from it, she closed her hand around it as she recited a quelling incantation. Several seconds later the flame disappeared with a flicker.

Looking at her sister, eyes wide again, then to the rest of the intricate pattern spreading across her body. “Your legs as well?” She queried, amazement in her voice.

“Yes.” Riana said flatly. “Both legs, from the lower calf up to the waist.” At that, she lifted the hem of her skirt and showed one of her legs to her sister. The marks were there as well, standing out in stark contrast to her light skin.

Katrina was in awe. “I didn’t know you could CAST this many spells!”

“I can’t yet.” Riana said. Now she was almost glowing with pride. “I included all of the arcane spells that I could find in the library. You see this?” She pointed to a symbol on her forearm.

“Yeah.” Kat said with an eyebrow quirked.

“This is a spell I know how to cast. It’s a sphere of light cantrip. But this one here…” Riana pointed to another, more elaborate image on the bicep of the same arm. “This is a fire ball spell that I have never cast before. Most mages can’t for years. But as soon as I am able to channel the appropriate level of power, I will be able to use this one. I just need to keep practicing my focus and channeling abilities.”

“Ree… This is…” Riana winced as she waited for her sister to finish her thought, to tell her she was insane, or stupid, anything but what came next. “This is AMAZING!”

Riana sighed heavily, relief flowing through her body. If Katrina could accept it that well, then their mother may just go mildly crazy, rather than kill her outright. Gently, she sat down on the edge of the bed and held her head.

“What’s the matter Ree?” Katrina asked with a tone of concern, sitting down beside her sister on the edge of the bed.

“My head has been aching for a while. Nothing major. Just kind of a constant, dull pain.” She said, as she massaged her temples with her finger tips.

“Since the tattoos?” Katrina said, obviously thinking there was some kind of connection.

“No,” Riana came back quickly. “Since a week or so before that. Somewhere in the middle of studying up for the tattoos. I don’t know what brought it on.”

“Over a week?! Have you taken something?” Katrina was looking more worried by the moment.

“No, silly!” Now it was Riana’s turn to admonish her sister, “I’ve been saying nice things to it in hopes it will get a confidence boost and move on to greener pastures!” Grinning wickedly at her sister, Riana punched her lightly on the shoulder. “Anyway, it isn’t as bad as all that. Just kind of inconvenient. I need to find something to wear before mom gets home from Cohai. Help me pick something out Kat?”

“Of course!” Katrina said as she jumped off the edge of the bed. The headache temporarily forgotten in favor of a trip to the bazaar. “What did you have in mind?”

“Something… rather more daring than usual I think…” Riana said as a mischievous grin formed on her lips.

On to Chapter 2