((And this starts my contribution to the PoChaNoWriMo. It's a big project I've had in my mind for a long time, and it is set in Ercovea. *points to the other thread* I don't have many hopes that I'll finish this, but you never know.)) Prologue The tavern was squat and ugly in the pale moonlight, filled with loud, raucous laughter and swears from spilled drinks and anything in general. Yellow light spilled from the grimy windows, giving light to the rats and streets urchins outside. A sign hung loosely above the door—meaning it was hanging by only one hinge; it read 'The Broken Sword' and had a picture of a sword snapped in half on it. Inside, the tavern was filled with sailors, merchants, homeless people, and drunks. Not terribly unusual for a tavern so close to the docks. The sailors were laughing and languishing in their time off from sailing, trying to enjoy as many drinks and girls as possible. They all seemed to be one massive crowd, all of them interconnected with the other. Two men were an exception to this however, they sat in a shadowed corner of the tavern, away from everyone else. They seemed to be watching the crowd, their drinks untouched. Suddenly one of the men tapped the other on the shoulder and nodded his head at the entrance, where two figures were just entering. They were both garbed in dark cloaks with the hoods pulled up to hide their faces. One was slightly shorter than the other and slipped easily through the ass of people towards the men's table. They sat down hurriedly, and even through the cloaks they looked tense. When they were closer, it was clear that they were not men, but women. After making sure that they were in the shadows, the women pulled off their hoods so they could see better. One of them had a round face, with tanned skin and dark auburn hair that fell all the way to her hips. Her eyes were a startling violet and burned with a sort of rigid intensity; she had a certain predatory look to her, and any men who noticed her decided not to take their chances and left her alone, no matter how pretty she looked. Her companion, while shorter and younger-looking, had a startling beauty to her. It was almost unnatural, but only to a human. Her face was angular with high cheekbones, with an almost fae-like quality to it. Her eyes and eyebrows were slanted like a cat's, and the irises were a rich dark brown. Wheat-gold hair fell straight to her elbows and the tips of two delicately pointed ears poked out of it. Many heads turned in her direction, but no one dared move closer for fear that the red-haired woman would attack them. One of the men leaned forward, squinting at them. "You're late," he growled, keeping his voice low so no one would overhear. The blond woman, the elf, looked annoyed. "It's your fault for setting a meeting up in this part of the city. Someone tried to mug us." Her voice had an almost musical quality to it, and even though she was just speaking normally she seemed to catch the men off-guard. She raised an eyebrow as if daring them to tell her that getting attacked was her fault. "And?" the man asked, not really caring about the answer. The red-haired woman examined the back of her thick gloves."The poor bastard's out cold in the gutter, passed out drunk it looks like. He must have gotten into a fight too, because he had three broken ribs and a cracked skull." She said the words carelessly, but the way she clenched her jaw told a different story. The man rolled his eyes and turned to his smaller, thinner companion. "Mr. Demar, these are the two women who responded to your ad. Their names are Gwenith Alder and Ilona." "Gwen," the red-haired woman growled in irritation. The smaller man nodded and leaned forward. "Why do you want the job?" He asked. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it sounded so serious that it grabbed the attention immediately. The women looked at each other, puzzled. People usually didn't ask that sort of question. Ilona finally shrugged. "We need the money, and your offer is quite generous, and I've seen some pretty expensive rewards. It also gives us a chance to leave Iceberry before the army recruiters come knocking down our door and drag us up north to fight the armies." The men exchanged glances. Some massage passed between them, but it was impossible to tell what. "You have to travel a long way," Demar said and waited for protest. "How long?" Gwen asked, crossing her legs. "You have to get to Srak Iessial Allenaho," Demar answered, stumbling over the long word. He watched Ilona's eyebrows dip into a frown. "Do you know this place, miss Ilona?" Ilona shook her head. "No, but I know what the name means. 'Icy castle of ghosts,' or 'icy ghost castle' to be more literal." "It's inside Icewood," the other man explained. Ilona's eyes grew huge and Gwen raised an eyebrow. "The Ice Palace!" She hissed, then looked around to see if anyone had heard. She leaned in closer. "You can't be serious!" Demar expression clearly said that he was. "I assure you Ilona, I'm being completely serious." "Okay, hold on for a second," Gwen said, holding up a hand. Demar noticed that she wore the same thick gloves that warriors usually wore. "When you say Icewood, do you mean that frozen forest in the middle of the dwarf kingdoms?" "The same," Ilona replied. "We need you to retrieve something from the palace inside the forest." Demar said, interlocking his fingers on the table. Ilona shook her head again, more violently this time. "We can't," she stated simply. "You mean you won't," the larger man said with a glare. "No, we can't!" Ilona glared right back at him. "The dwarven kingdoms are almost impossible to get into now! And if we do manage to get in, we can never enter the Ice Palace. Do you know why no one goes in there? Not because it's haunted, but because those doors are cursed to stay shut forever." This seemed to be news to the men. They exchanged uneasy glances. "Cursed by magic?" Demar asked, a tinge of worry in his voice. "Well of course," Ilona answered, just stopping herself from rolling her eyes. "You're an elf, are you not? You can use magic to open the gates." Demar said easily. Ilona bit her tongue. When she was certain she wouldn't start yelling, she said, "I can't do any of those complicated spells. My people dabble with magic, we're born with magic so we don't take it as seriously as you humans do. I couldn't unravel such a complicated spell." "Then get a mage to remove it," the other man said quickly. "If it was a mage who cast a spell then a mage can remove it." Gwen rolled her eyes this time. "Look, that place had been closed for years. If no one's gotten into it now, no one ever will. Besides, we don't even know any mages." The men looked ready to say something, but were interrupted by Ilona. "Well. . ." the elf said, somehow thoughtful, mischievous, and doubtful at the same time. "I do know this one guy who might be able to do it." "Yes?" Demar asked impatiently. "He's a Magus, and he's really good," Ilona went on. The rest of the table gasped. "He's one of the Magi?" The larger man said. "He would be perfect!" Ilona nodded, smug and smiling. "Not only that, but he's the youngest Magi ever, or so they say." Demar's eyebrows rose in astonishment. "Cinder Maere?" He asked in surprise. Ilona smiled even wider. "You heard of him?" "Of course I've heard of him," Demar snapped. "He's rumored to be so powerful that he was made into a Magi when he was twenty-two; that's about half the age of your regular Magus." He regarded Ilona with a cool gaze. "So you know him?" Ilona nodded slowly, fighting back a smile from the memory. "Yes, I do. If anyone can remove the magic around the palace, he can. The only problem is getting him here." "Let me guess, he's in Taersis?" Gen asked, knowing where all the mages and Magi gathered. Ilona nodded once more. "Then tell him you need him here." Ilona snickered, "It's a bit more complicated than that. Cinder is practically the law unto himself, and if he doesn't want to come then not even wild horses could drag him down here." "Find a way," Demar said shortly. "So that's a thief to steal the rod, a mage to open the gates, and a warrior to protect them. Sounds good." "Two warriors," Ilona corrected. At Demar's look she went on, "Cinder has a twin brother who's a warrior. They hardly ever separate." "More's the better," the other said. Gwen rapped her knuckles on the table for attention. "Hey, Demar," she said. "You said we had to steal a what?" Demar gave her a wary glance. "A rod," he said after a moment. "A blue one, it shouldn't be too hard to find." "Is it magical?" Ilona demanded, narrowing her eyes. "No," Demar answered, too quickly. Ilona knew he was lying. She quickly stepped on Gwen's foot to stop her from saying anything. "Okay then, I'll have to send a message. What time do we meet back?" "Two weeks," Demar said immediately. "Same time, right here." He stood up quickly, shook their hands, and left. After they disappeared, Gwen whirled upon her friend. "Why did you stop me?" She demanded. "We need the money," Ilona replied. "Look, it's not terribly important. Magical things are locked inside haunted castles all the time. Besides, if we have a Magus with us he'll be able to tell us if it's dangerous." She pulled her hood up and left, Gwen following behind her. The moons lighted their way as they slipped into the street, silent as shadows.