A/N: Thank you very much for your review, Apollo Versaeus. I'll try to include more character detail, thanks for the tip.

The winter was cold. There was something nice about the biting chill, for Ramirez, at least. He and the rest of his tribe were slaves to the icy Sorcerers from the Eaves of the World, their once-great cities shattered and their citadels lying in ruins, all their knowledge lost, buried under mountains of rubble and arcane ice. The winds howled their dirge about the rough-hewn stone dwellings huddled under the grim fortress of the Sorcerers who kept watch over the once-great plains of Kal Maros. A prophecy existed, of course, like many others, wound about the legends of the plains, legends that told of the fact that the Sorcerers and the Marain were once one people, united in the vast Empire that stretched from the endless plains of Kal Maros to even beyond the Eaves of the World, yet the Sorcerers had retreated to the Eaves and become cold and distant from their people while the Marain had become decadent and defenceless on their plains, and so when the Sorcerers had armed for war and came ravening down from the mountains the few adepts of fire sorcery fell quickly, and the feeble defences of the plains soon crumbled before the might of the Legions of Sorcery and their cities were as ashes. The few remaining Marain were used for slaves and rewards by their new masters, and in turn were set to work destroying the remains of their own cities and cultivating the vast plains. Now, only the few greatest cities still stood, mute monument to the fall of the Marain – Kal Marain, Capital of the World, it had been called; Kal Vordas, Fortress of the World, and Kal Honel, City of Gods. These few remained, a blunt reminder of the power of the Sorcerers, and a deadly warning.

"Get working, boy!" yelled the harsh-voiced Sorcerer overseer, flicking his whip. The lash cracked in the air, the sharp sound waking all the slaves from their torpor. Wearily, they bent their backs to hauling vast chunks of the shattered masonry of the Whisper Palace in the very centre of Kal Marain. The Sorcerers on their high peaks had decreed that, though the city should remain, the royal palace should be destroyed, stone by stone, by the Marains' own hands.

The Whisper Palace had once been the most beautiful structure in the world. Built of bright white stone and rose-cream tile, its towers had soared to the skies, golden pennons snapping from tall spires in a display of flamboyant self-assuredness. Green vines had twined round the stones of the palace, and in the summer every courtyard and room had been drowned in heavenly scent. The nobles of Marain had always had time to sit and contemplate their country, speak with those of the common blood and rule well, and even when wars threatened the Empire the Whisper Palace had stood firm and unyielding, a bastion of serenity against which the tides of chaos had rolled and recoiled many times, the eternal flames of protection blazing from every dome and spire-topped tower. Priceless paintings, sculpture and all manner of precious things had been exhibited in the public hallways of the palace, and the commons of Marain defended their sanctity with their lives. Even the lowest peasant of the fields could have requested an audience with their Emperor, and they would have been received warmly in the great throne room, where simple chairs of wood and living plants formed the seat of power.

But then, the Sorcerers came, and behind them, the Legions. The walls of the city were shattered by ice, and their armies marched across the undefended countryside, killing everything they saw. Kal Vordas had held for ten years against the tide, but then had inevitably fallen beneath the pitiless ice and the bloody lances of the legions as Sorcerers came to rule the lands of the Sun and Star.

The towers had fallen to the merciless pounding of the siege engines of Sorcery, and the palace was now no more than a tumbled shell, burned and blackened from the fires set by the legions. Many wings of the sprawling edifice to the Golden Age of Imperial might had been shattered by the ice blasted from Sorcerer's hands, but still the ruined citadel stood, its central areas untouched save for fire's ravages. It was this they had been sent to destroy. Fabulous mouldings, carved with care and delicacy onto acres of the shining stone were unhesitatingly melted down, and filigree art that shone in the weakest light was shattered by the unfeeling hammers of the Sorcerers underlords.

Ramirez stooped to pick up the next block, then stopped. Gold-red light glowed on his palm. He moved it around; the glow grew stronger the nearer he brought it to the ground. Finally, the ground yawned in protest and gaped wide to receive him, sending the astonished Marain tumbling down the steps.

Ramirez swore as he clattered to a halt against an immense marble statue of a regal Emperor.

"Where…where am I?" he wondered aloud, then the thought arrived in his head from nowhere at all, "Here, in the Imperial Hall."

"Imperial Hall of what?" he asked, feeling foolish.

"Imperial Hall of Knowledge, boy, where else? Have the Marain so forgotten their legacy, despite their grand cities of Kal Marain, Kal Honel…" the voice continued, until Ramirez could bear the endless recital of names no more.

"These places no longer exist! Sun-and-Star is long forgotten, the unified lands remembered only in myth! Kal Marain lies in ruins above our heads, the rest are in similar states!"

"Then the worst has come to pass. The Sorcerers of Star, who retreated long ago to the Eaves, returned armed for war and vanquished Marain." The voice paused. "What of the powers of Marain, boy?"

"Powers? I know of no powers?"

"You must, boy! You used them to open the door to the Hall!"

"The only power I know of is the ice-magic of the Sorcerers, that so shattered our cities."

"Has Marain sunk so low? Even sorcery is not known any more? What of the airships, the shipyards of Kal Camas, the war-machines of Kal Algos, the great defences of Kal Vordas, the knowledge and birthright of all Marain?"

"Gone, all of it," replied Ramirez, morosely. The voice and strange lassitude-inducting atmosphere of the Hall had made him too keenly aware of the loss. "We number three thousand, now. The Sorcerers and Legions number in the millions, and we are as slaves beneath them."

"No!" exclaimed the impartial voice. "This cannot be! Boy, you-"

"My name is Ramirez. Yours?"

"My name is Mara, Ramirez. What power conspired to call you here?"

"The lash of the overseer, Mara, what else?"


"We are to tear down with our own hands the Whisper Palace that still stands in ruins above our heads."

"How dare they destroy that which took my people a thousand years to build! Ramirez-" the voice paused. "Your overseer is searching for you. I shall return you to the top of the palace. We will meet again…Ramirez."

A burst of purple light took him from the room. Slowly, eternal sconces brightened, illuminating an opulent, elegant room furnished with white marble and yellow gold. Ebony wood glowed against the simple floors, and the twin thrones of Marain stood at the top of a flight of stairs. One was occupied with a figure of ancient aspect whose purple robe was dulled with age and the dust of the Hall, while the other was empty. The Sun and Star emblems above the thrones were dusty and faded, fitting in with the washed-out grandeur of the Hall that was a monument to a civilisation long reduced to slaves.

Yet there was hope. Ramirez had found the Hall, and Mara's long imprisonment and neglect of his peoples was at an end. Ramirez showed signs of promise, and soon the boy would be Mara's avatar in the world; the Bright God's child, for Ramirez was the ultimate fruit of Mara's loins, though the lady he'd loved was long comatose; the family lived on through the Golden Age and the Great Freeze imposed by the Sorcerers. Mara frowned, and thought.

"Boy! Come down from there!"

A crash echoed off the ruined walls, and seven more blocks shattered on the square as Ramirez pulled them down with him. He landed on his feet with the grace of a cat. The overseer peered cautiously over a pile of rubble littering the plaza, then swaggered over to Ramirez, confident that the stony pyrotechnics were over. The lash came out, and caught the boy on his alabaster cheek.

Ramirez ignored the pain and levelled his gaze at the overseer, who suddenly saw his death in those eyes.

Ramirez was not like the other Marain in his tribe; his hair was as black as a raven's wing, and his skin, instead of tanning, became whiter and more bleached the longer he stayed in the sun. Green eyes, as vibrant as leaves or hard and cold as emeralds, stared out from under almost-invisible patrician eyebrows, and lips so pale as to be almost white were pursed ever so slightly in ire. The lash left a very slowly reddening weal on his cheek, and very slowly he raised his hand to the wound, and touched it carefully.

Then he turned and strode to the head of the dispirited column of Marain heading back for the Grim Fortress that brooded over the plains of Kal Maros.

Lying ramrod-straight on his Spartan pallet, he dreamed of the strange-voiced Mara. He saw the rise and fall of the Empire, wept in his dreams when the stone-faced Legions marched across Kal Maros and destroyed Kal Marain, and waited with bated breath for the outcome of the siege of Kal Vordas, then wept once more as he relived the pain that Mara felt for his neglect. As he dreamed, fire streamed from the lashmark on his cheek, flaming vigorously and forming an oily, boiling slick of gold-red fire on the floor.

Ramirez awoke warm, surrounded in a fiery cocoon. As soon as he awoke, the flames that boiled from his cheek died and the sea of seething fire that was the floor fell away into the harsh ground. The lash cracked outside the hovel, the overseer's call to work, and expressionlessly Ramirez joined the miserable column of Marain heading with dead-eyed hopelessness once more to the Whisper Palace.

The ground yawned and cracked once more as soon as Ramirez had moved from under the overseer's all-seeing eye, and he hit his head once more on the great burnished shield of the Emperor.

"Damn," he swore, then got to his feet.

"Ah, Ramirez. I've been expecting you," said the voice of Mara, yet it was slightly different. It took him a moment to realise he'd heard it with his ears, not his mind.


"Who else would lurk down here among the dusty relics of Marain? Yes, it's me."

"What does the Hall look like?"

There was a heavy, pregnant pause, then a click and a subliminal hum. Sconces on the wall brightened, then erupted into searing incandescence that glittered on gold and shining jewels. Ramirez gasped.

"Who-whose is this?"

"It belonged to the Emperor of the Sun, Ramirez. Ruler of Marain. The statue whose shield you keep hitting is the first Emperor. This is only a very small portion of their wealth."

"Oh. Who, exactly, are you?"

"Mara. Just Mara, Guardian of the Imperial Hall of Knowledge."