Author's Note: This story was written at the behest of a friend of mine, who is compiling art, poetry and fiction for her fantasy page: Shadrain. This story represents the beginning of a world where multiple writers can make their own addditions.

This story is © 1998-1999, Michael R. Vickery

The sun shone bright and strong overhead, and the thing, wispy clouds never obscured its powerful rays. Sunlight poured down over the world below filling it with light, warmth and joy. Birds sang from bush and tree, animals scampered about in search of food and insects buzzed contentedly in their paths. The trees, bushes and flowers themselves displayed their bright colors or towering strengths in celebration of the day. Nature welcomed the sun in a symphony of life and power.

A single man walked through the forest, heedless of the glory and beauty around him. His mind was focused on matters of great import far away, and only a fraction of his energies were spent on his surroundings to keep him on his path. Animals skittered away from his approach and flowers were trampled in his wake; they never stood a chance of catching his attention. He was tall for a human, and dark. His long, flowing hair billowed out behind him as did the dark cloak clasped about his shoulders by a silver broach. The broach was fashioned in a way long forgotten by any of the Races. The great sword at his back was securely held by the harness fashioned to keep it out of the way when he didn't need it, but to keep it available when he did. It had been a long time since he had needed to rely on the thing, but he kept it anyway.

Far off in the distance, just to the limit of vision he could see the mighty rise of towers representing the greatest cooperative effort ever known among the Five Great Races: Cat, Dragon, Dwarf, Elf and Human. Five towers for five Races, built by blood, sweat and magic. They were the focus of his attention, and had been for a long, long time. Thousands of years ago, the Races engaged in bloody, terrible wars sparked by the slightest of offenses. Other Races, such as the M'Zanti, Orcs and Trolls participated in those wars, and still do. Most of the Fae races (with the exception of the M'Zanti) stay away from the others and hide from sight. He rarely thought about them, except when they annoyed him as they are wont to do with any passerby they catch.

Great engines of war ravaged the land in those days past, offset by terrible magics that stripped flesh from bone and soul from body. Powerful warriors and sorcerers carved empires and battled each other with mighty armies: Kotesh the Strong for Humans, Brrith the Sly for Cats, Uruta the Mighty for Dragons, Daar the Fierce for Dwarves, Ora the Wise for Elves, Kataan the Powerful for the other faction of Humans, N'ba the Swift for M'Zanti, S'nar the Cruel for Orcs and Grath the Angry for Trolls. Each of the Races had powerful leaders to lead them in glorious battle and vie for control of the land. Above all, the mighty struggled for control of the Ahne, the cornerstone of the world.

The legends say that the Ahne was a fragment of the power that created the world. The great God (or Goddess, as maintained by the Cats, Elves and M'Zanti) used his/her power to create the world, but some of that power escaped and went wild. This, the legend insists, is why there is magic. The most powerful concentration of that wild power took the form of the Ahne, and it is the Ahne that gives the Races free will and mind. When the God/Goddess saw this, he/she first thought to destroy the Ahne or subsume its power. Then he/she realized that the Ahne was necessary for the completion of his/her plan, and placed it in a holy sanctuary far from the greedy hands of the Races they had created. In his/her wisdom and foresight, he/she knew the free will granted the Races would not only provide them the means to rise above themselves for great good, but also to drop to great depths of evil and depravity. This too, he/she knew, was for the greater good. The Races needed a reason to grow.

Over a millennia ago, a Council of Five from the Five Races gathered to propose peace. Most people thought them fools, and refused to listen to them. The Five went on a great Quest to prove to the world that the Five Races could indeed live together peacefully. In the end they approached the Ahne, and through it petitioned the God/Goddess. It is said that the God/Goddess appeared to each of them in the manner of their Race, so the issue of the God/Goddess' gender and identity is still under debate. The God/Goddess gave them sanction to build the Five Towers at the base of the mountain where the Ahne stood, and in this way they gathered followers.

The rise of the Towers and the city of Han Ilba heralded a new age of peace in the world. The Races of M'Zanti, Orc and Troll were invited to join but refused (not without some sentiments of relief among the Five). The Five Races then moved to ally so that the three dissenting Races could not effectively threaten them. No other alliance has stood so long or remained so powerful, particularly not for 1500 years. The great leaders were unable to stand against this alliance, and fell each in turn.

The man leaped easily over a fallen tree stump and kicked a rock out of the way with his solid leather boots. Yes, the Five Races had accomplished a remarkable feat, and the peace and prosperity they achieved had gone unmatched in all of history.

It would all have to go.

Kataan brought himself to a halt and paused to take in his surroundings for the first time. Two thousand years ago the land he stood on had been his, and he had used it to his whim. There had been no forest here, no animals to fool his senses and mask incoming trespassers. His great city had stood to the west, but it was long gone; he was the first of the great leaders to fall. Now he was the last of the great leaders to survive. Not even Brrith had outlasted him. To most he was a legend and a memory from the far past, not even a consideration in their day to day tasks. That, most of all, was about to change.

After a moment, he found what he was looking for. He walked up to a tall, strong oak and drew his sword. He made as if to strike, and as expected the dryad appeared to beg him to stop. More swiftly than she could have imagined, he caught her hand and pulled her close. She let out a squeak of protest, but she thought he wanted her body for the mere act of sex, and didn't protest too hard. He covered her mouth with his and sucked the essence from her. In a moment, she was no more than a dry, dead twig lying on the ground.

He closed his eyes and savored the rush of power that swept through his body. In a moment he would bring it under control, but for now he wanted to enjoy the sensation. Dryads and other Fae weren't satisfying, but the initial rush was sweeter than anything he had ever known. The problem was that he'd be hungry again in less than an hour. So be it. In less than an hour he'd cover more than half the distance to the Towers and be among civilization (hah!) where he could feed on more substantial souls.

By winter, Kataan would again rule his empire. Without the other great leaders to hold him in check, he would expand his empire to rule the world. Still under the influence of the rush of power, he threw his head back and laughed. The forest grew silent and still around him, and didn't resume until he was far, far away.

On the ground next to the oak, the remains of the dryad turned to dust.