* * *
Zihan, a land of unparalleled beauty. From its majestic green mountains and flowering fields to the lakes and streams that shone like polished glass under a clear blue sky.
Where the people lived in peace and prosperity under the guidance of the emperor. Free from fear of alien enemies, their borders now safe and secure for the past few decades.
Where the people revered their emperor as more than just an earthly leader, but as someone possessing all the blessings of the heavens. And so due the respect and loyalty as such.
The rich soil and clear waters were the envy of neighboring kingdoms. Their army and men of valor were hailed and praised by many.
No one looking on could find any want or need in this flourishing kingdom. This land whose beauty was a balm to the souls of all those who beheld it.
But beneath the seeming calm and rest, there was a darkness brewing, ready to devour all in its path. Something so foul that it will shake the very foundation of the royal family and reverberate throughout the land for times to come.
And yet there was one who saw, one who knew what was to come and shuddered with dread at the hell that was about to be unleashed upon the people.
Tears formed in her eyes as she saw what would befall the innocent ones. Her heart bled and her knees trembled as the smoke rose from the censer and the pictures of her mind told their story.
The great seer was revered and feared by all, not only because of her accuracy in predicting things to come but because she also carried the power of healing in her hands.
It was said she held life and death in the palm of her hand and those who crossed her path were ever mindful. She was indeed feared more than the emperor himself, and for this reason was the one most turned to for direction.
On this day the seer sat among her many pots and vials, wrapped in the woolen shawl that had been passed down from her great-grandmother. She looked blindly into space as if in a trance as the story continued to unfold in her mind.
She saw their young lives, the hardships they will face to get to the joy that awaited them, but only if they endured ‘til the end. She knew the task ahead would be hard.
That she could only do so much to steer fate and change the planned destiny of the two, whose lives now played out vividly in her mind.
Suddenly there was a shift in the atmosphere and she pulled the shawl closer around her shoulders. With a deep sigh, she rested her head back against the chair and looked up at the ceiling.
“She’s here.” The words were little more than a whisper as she watched in her mind, the birth of the child, the one she had been dreaming of these many nights past.
Her heart raced as the child’s birthmark came into view. “The mark of the Phoenix.” Her mind traveled far and wide throughout the years to come as she watched the child’s destiny unfold.
With another deep sigh, she got to her feet as she wrapped the shawl even tighter around her shoulders to ward off the sudden chill. There was joy and sorrow in her countenance.
Joy that the child was finally here, sadness because of all that must befall her before she takes her place on the throne beside her man.
Outside the wind picked up and the sky turned a dark ominous gray as the clouds rolled in and covered the sun completely.
“How apropos.” The old seer murmured to herself as she stepped out into the chill of the night. It had been a night much as this when he was born.
The one who would sit on the throne beside her. The ‘son of the dragon’, future emperor and majestic ruler of Zihan. “The time has come, I must prepare for the days ahead.”
* * *
Fifteen Years Later
She was the only daughter of a once affluent family who now lived under the stigma, of disgrace. Many years ago, just a few years before she was born, her father angered the emperor and was expelled from the palace and the capital city, barely escaping with his life and the lives of his wives and children.
For as long as she could remember she’d heard the story told, with nary a change in the telling. It was at once a reminder of the family’s once great standing and the bitterness of their fall from grace.
Still, the men of the Morgana family, the once fierce imperial assassin guards, carried on the traditions of their fathers. It was in their blood after all, and could not be helped.
Though no longer in favor with the royal family, their services were sought by many far and wide. Their wealth and noble standing were long gone, but their pride still held firm.
Once the only men who guarded the emperor and played an integral part in keeping law and order in the land, they were now relegated to little more than mercenaries, still fighting to regain their once great standing.
The men of the line had always held this position of power and security since the founding of the dynasty centuries ago and took great pride in their fighting abilities.
Skilled in martial arts, they were also outstanding swordsmen. But their greatest feat was their lack of fear when facing the enemy.
They were trained to fight to the death no matter what, and their greatest loyalty was to the emperor and the land of Zihan.
Known for their unwavering loyalty to the throne, these men over time had built up a reputation on par with the royal family.
No one doubted their word, and they were once looked upon by all as the saviors of the land. But then Dunal Morgana found himself caught in the middle of an evil scheme of another’s making.
It was the beginning of the end for this once great family of warriors. An end, that sent shockwaves throughout the land and beyond.
The old emperor was dying back then, and after many years of refusing had been set to name a crown prince.
Everyone knew who the favorite was among his sons, the one the nation had lauded for his prowess and kindnesses over the years.
Prince Kai had been well loved by all and would make a great leader, even greater than his father who though filled with greatness, possessed a few shortcomings.
He’d been too easily led by his ministers who were more interested in feathering their nests than seeing to the needs of the people; something that he had lost control of over the years.
Prince Kai, on the other hand, spent time traveling the provinces and seeing for himself what was needed to keep the land strong and the people from abject poverty.
But his older brother, the greedy and malicious Prince Loren had his eye on the throne. And knowing that his father would most likely pass the power to his brother, had formed a coup with the help of his mother the noble consort Valeria.
You see, though Prince Loren was older, he was the son of a consort, a concubine. While Prince Kai was the beloved son of the empress, who as tradition holds, was the one true legitimate heir.
At the time Dunal Morgana had done his best to protect the young prince but in the end, he was no match for the schemes and manipulations of the court.
As a man of outstanding valor, his strength laid in his arm and not in dealing with the machinations of dark forces. Those things he had always left to others. Something he would bitterly regret for many years after.
Though the crown prince had been saved in the end, because of his loyalty, Dunal had been framed by unsavory men who blamed him for the plot against the prince’s life.
It was the only way to save their own necks, and keep this staunch supporter away from the prince, leaving him vulnerable to future plots.
The web of lies had been such that Dunal had been sent away in shame. It was only because of the Morgana family’s great standing and the outcry of the people that he’d been able to keep his life.
That and the fact that there was no real evidence to support the claims. The empress, who believed in his innocence had convinced the emperor, who had taken pity on him and his clan and hadn’t wiped them out as was the custom.
The empress had died not long after from a mysterious illness, making room for consort Valeria to take her place on the throne.
Though many had their suspicions, and speculation ran rampant, nothing could be proved and so no one dared say out loud what many were thinking. Such was the new empress’ power.
Dunal had felt the loss of the nation’s mother along with the rest of the subjects who’d benefitted from her benevolence and charity over the many years of her reign.
He’d returned to his ancestral lands in the north, far enough away from the palace not to be seen as a threat, but still close enough if needed. But he’s always wished for the day when he could clear his name and bring dignity back to his clan.