Talia lay still, listening to the sounds of her own breathing as her kidnappers laughed nearby, their drunken voices slurred. She shook her head in disgust, rising slowly when her guard finally nodded off, his head lolling to his side limply. Now was her chance, her one and only chance to escape. All her planning came down to this one simple moment in time and if she was not fast enough, she would be their slave forever.

          Setting her blankets at her side, she snatched her small knife from next to her sleeping mat, her hair framing her face as she narrowed her eyes, carefully moving her face to see beyond the thin sheet that separated her from the fire. The men there were too intoxicated to really notice anything but the bottles in hand and she smirked. She had always told them drinking was a bad thing to do at night. That was why she was so fortunate that they did.

          Knife in hand, she slunk back behind the sheet, ducking under a thick rope to crawl past her guard, gray eyes watching him warily for any movement. Her bare feet blended with the ground, and she held back a sigh of contentment, as it had been a long while since she had felt soil beneath her feet.

          Suddenly, as in her moment of bliss, she had forgotten to be alert, a hand swung out of nowhere, slamming her back on to her mat violently, her knife sailing through the air until it was out of sight. With a cry of dismay, she screamed, dodging another heavy blow from her right as the leader of the bandit's drew a long sword at his side, both foreign and familiar.

          " Well, well, well, look what I caught. If the mouse wasn't tryin' to escape the cat. How many times do I have to tell you, priestess? You aren't goin' nowhere." He laughed, a high, strained sound, but deep and terrifying all at once.

          She wept, tears falling hysterically, curling in to a ball as she felt her hopes fall away, dashed to the wind by a simple act. She had never felt so alone and afraid before, as she did in that moment.

          The moment she realized escape was futile.

          The handlers shouted desperately, trying to rein in the steed before them, whose flailing hooves fell dangerously close to one man's head. The giant stallion, with its rippling white coat and black eyes, refused to be tamed. Anger radiated off it in waves, and other horses in the stable shuddered, whinnying anxiously. The stallion was showing to them a feeling they had never dared feel before and that was plain defiance. They felt rebellion streak through their veins and later on, would never submit to any other human's hand.

          From the side, a woman wearing a thick black cloak rose from the bench, her fiery hair glimmering softly as it swayed with her movement. Eyes hidden behind dark glasses were full of interest and intrigue. Gliding up, one man noticed her step and ran as if to hold her back, but he paused suddenly, unsure.

          They all knew the woman was foreign and that the stallion had traveled in the herd of mares some unknown people had steered in. If she could calm the horse, then perhaps it would be better to not interfere. Yet she made no approach to the horse and instead stood beside the stable owner as he grunted out orders.

          " I will take that one," She whispered and the owner glanced at her in astonishment,  for not even the best trainers money could buy considered the stallion before him.         

          " Miss, look here. This isn't some sort of petting zoo, and that stallion there will crush your lovely bones to ash before you can even scream. Please, go look at another mount." Rolling beady eyes, he moved away but the woman glanced at him.

          " I said, I will take this one. No other horse will suffice." She hissed, voice still even and steady. The owner considered and then sneered.

          " Fine then. If you can calm him down, we'll give him to you, for free." Then he turned to his men and ordered them to back off. Uncertainly, they obeyed, still watching the stallion warily as he neighed and reared heatedly.

          The woman nodded, and removing her glasses, revealed eyes paler than a newborn babe's. So pale in fact, that they were naught but white irises surrounding an abyss of black.  Many stable hands backed up hurriedly, not willingly to endure the gaze of her for more than an instant. They knew what she was now, and feared her greatly.

          She was what they called a Downcaster, creature's not quite human and yet not quite alien. They came from the east, far over the ancient ocean called Galadiehd and were known to be fearsome things, unkind to people they hated. It was rumored that one look from a caster, and you would crumble to ash, no longer a living being, and you would burn in Hades until the end of time. It was a frightening tale and made human people despise them all the more but no hostile actions were made against them because the king had signed a treaty of peace and treaties were not to be broken at any cost. Now they had a Downcaster, alive and breathing, in their mists and the only thing they could do was watch, muted.

          The caster stepped up to the stallion, eyes propelling and blind, both bold and shy. No emotion was etched on her face and no thoughts bore the truth of her as it should in her eyes, when humans wore their souls always present. She appeared dead, pale skin transparent in the sunlight as she reached out of her cloak slowly, fingers long and frail, a gold ring glinting off her thumb as she reached up.

          The stallion was nearly back on his rear legs when he caught eyes with the woman below him and all will to resist fled with the speed of a rabbit on the run. He lowered himself carefully, all too aware of the small not-quite human creature beside him, pale eyes glimmering with a ring of red flames.  He grew tame and gentle but protective and fierce all at once. Satisfied, the woman nodded her head once, barely, and turned back to the shocked men as they gaped in awe.

          " I have tamed this stallion, who shall be called Winter's Flame. Now, we shall depart, and bother you no more. Have a good day." Then, throwing her glasses over her eyes once again, she snapped the halter from the stallion's head and left without another word, her presence sending cold chills down the men's back as the horses in the stable all react wildly, their true nature's shining through.

          " Well, men. Take that as a lesson. Never challenge the authority of a Downcaster and never try and tame their horses. Now, get back to work!"

          Talia Dreamseer walked down the trails of the barren forest, her newly found mount trailing behind her faithfully, gently questioning her. For that was another trait she shared with her fathers people. The ability to speak all languages, even that of an animals.

          ~You bought me for a purpose, a purpose I cannot see. For I cannot be saddled and I will not do slave's work. So, tell me dreamer of dreams, why have you taken me?~  The stallion spoke aloud with gestures and signals, like the flickering of his ears, but mentally his words flowed swiftly, with only the hint of an accent stallion's possessed.

          She considered not answering, for the answer would soon present itself, but decided against it. She did not want to surprise him, for he was a prey animal and she found them easily spooked.

          You, Winter's Flame, are to be my mount when I enter the realm of King Fariden ruler of the lands east of here. He has summoned me to interpret a dream that has plagued him for many moons and I needed the fastest steed in all these lands. So I have found him.

          With that, the stallion's curiosity was sated and they walked on in silence, the moon shining full and bright. Yet as they passed the mountains of the Illremas, she mounted and they galloped over the water, as swift as the bird flies, for many strange things happen when involved with a Downcaster.

          The next day, they had arrived in Norriden, capital of Fariden's lands. Men and women in rags that had either once been breeches or dresses walked about, eager to go somewhere. Women ran about trailing children behind them whilst men sold valuables behind rotted booths. Homes were collapsing under the weight of age and the roads were filled with muck and trash. Many people with no homes filled alleys and building floors, their face sunken from hunger and despair. The stench was mind numbing and Talia had to stop Winter's Flame from panicking many times.

          ~This place stinks of decay and hunger. Many starve side by side yet food is sold not but a foot away. I am beginning to despise this king you call Fariden.~ He snorted and Talia said nothing, sitting back as they maneuvered through throngs of people. Silently, the pair made their way to the entrance of the castle, and entered through open gates, the guards not noticing their arrival. She was slightly disappointed, as her elders had once whispered tales of this never grand city and its flea infested glory. She had pictured something more.

          Dismounting, she stared hard up at the castle, where stone's eroded and banners were beaten and dirty. She recoiled in horror but showed no emotion and only her mind rebelled. I despise this king as well, my friend.

          From the stable, a young boy ran out, black hair dusty and pale skin mud-coated. He smile, a gap-toothed smile and Talia wondered how could manage any pretense of happiness or welcome in such a horrid place.

          " Hello, miss. My name be Ereek. May I perhaps stable your mount for you?" He bowed, rather sloppily, and Winter's Flame rolled his eyes. Talia nodded, and spun, deserting Flame without further thought as she strode to the doors of the castle, stopping before a servant as she was halted.

          " Miss, are you the one called Dreamseer?" His tone was low but snobbish.

          " I am."

          " Then come. The king is in conference but will want his dream known to him. Please, follow me."

                                      .         .         .

          Darien yawned, rubbing his tired eyes as he struggled to remain awake through the rest of the meeting. His father glared at him from across the hall but Darien ignored him, paying more attention to a small pebble than the king' slow, sluggish words. He found more liveliness in a graveyard.

          He had been up for nearly two days, the first spent galloping halfway across the country to witness the council meeting his father had demanded he see. If he king had warned them ahead of time then perhaps the ride would have been more agreeable, but it was last minute and had been rushed. He never remembered being more exhausted in all his life but said nothing, focusing on keeping his eyes open. If only something interesting would happen, then I wouldn't need to worry about staying awake, he mused.

          As if his wish was granted, the door swung open, admitting the servant that had met them at the door, his crisp, clean black overcoat crinkled and limp. Behind him from the hall, a woman with black glasses stepped in, pale skin glimmering like silver in the dim light. She appeared that of an angel, a dream made to reality.

          " My lords and my king, may I present the Dreamseer, Talia." With that, he stepped aside and she walked up, her strides long and easy while the servant exited, closing the doors soundly behind him.

          " Welcome, interpreter. I have waited for your arrival and while it could have come at a more convenient time, this will do well enough. I assume you would like to read my dream immediately. Very well then." the king stopped and waited, while Darien raised his eyebrows, glancing between the two with interest, sleep already forgotten. Whispers had broken out in the council members, as they all knew that only a witch or a Downcaster could interpret a dream to its fullest, and with king Fariden, they could only hope it wasn't the second option. Caster's weren't always loyal to people who hire them and were known to be back-stabbers.

          Silence was greeted when the woman on the floor waited and the king grew impatient.

          " Well, tell me my dream! Unless, of course, there is a problem." He demanded and she tilted her head slightly, shifting gently.

          " My lord, while I can determine dreams, I am not psychic. Please, tell me your dream or let it remain mystery. I cannot read minds. It is not in my ability." She spoke with a voice that was the call of the wind on a warm summer day and a chill permeated the air, causing slivers of expectation to fly over Darien's spine.

          The king seemed baffled for a moment, before he collected himself.

          " Yes, of course. Very well. Listen well, Dreamseer, for I shall leave nothing out.

          " My dream begins with a darkness that is deeper than night and that no light can pierce. It surrounds me, is a part of me and affects all that is inside me. From the darkness, a red light spreads up and out, like the rising of an eagle from its nest, wing spread wide in some unnamable emotion. From it extends a stench of rotting meat, filling me with fear and helplessness, much like a plague rising around me.

          " Suddenly, the darkness is pierced and from it I see my kingdom but it is hardly recognizable. It burns, with flames like blood and crimson water fills my precious streets. Bones clutter the ground and I see armor from my knights. Faces of the dead rise up, faces I have never seen before and they taunt me wickedly. I feel a sense of foreboding and turn my back to them, where the sight I see terrifies me. There, on my throne, is something akin to a man, but not so human. Red eyes glow beneath a helmet of black armor and a sword bathed in blood lies at his side. Surrounding this man is an army of ghost men who stare with blank, dead eyes and live with bones for their flesh. A blanket of darkness, from the beginning of my dream, rests upon their shoulders, my crown lying at their feet, crushed and broken.

          " The leader of this army, the one with the red eyes, rises from my throne and I watch it dissolve as he steps towards me, the scent of death and decay falling off him like a torrent of biting hounds.  Then it is just him and me and that terrible sword of his, waiting to feel my blood on its steel.

          " As I stand there, rooted to the spot, a yell sounds behind me, and from the carnage of my village, a man gleaming with a white light, his face unknown to me, stands up, a sword with blue fire sparking its movement. The army behind the red-eyed man disappear and the leader turns from me, going to battle with the strange man. They fight for some time, sparks flying from their blades as the echo of crashing steel fills the graveyard I stand in.  I forget how long they struggled with each other but suddenly it is over and the enemy has turned to brittle bones and thin ash, covering the earth where he once lay.

          The stranger pauses and I go to thank him or ask who he is when he turns on me, his eyes as brown as the dirt beneath me, my crown upon his head, and I feel a terrible pain in my breast, before light fades.

          " My dream ends there." The king stopped, weakened by the telling, and the councilors turn back from the man as they observe the Dreamseer, still standing still and stiff.

          " Tell me my fate, seer. Whether it is ill or bliss." The king demanded, some of his strength returning to him and the woman takes two steps forward before removing her hand from her cloak, bringing her hand close to her face as she grasps her glasses.

          " This is a dreadful thing to dream and I shall regret ever knowing its meaning but I will do as you command. It is something I believe all should hear and know. For your fate is not a kind one, Fariden.

          " First, the darkness you encountered is the darkness that accompanies evil and doubt, foreshadowing a bigger meaning of war. Simply put, your kingdom will soon go to war. The phoenix, an ancient relic to my people," She removed her glasses and everyone flinched, their eyes catching the white in her stare and recognizing her instantly. The king made no move. " Is known to harbor either triumph or defeat, but coupled with the darkness of Hades, it shall mean you will face a war larger than life and your kingdom shall not prevail. You shall lose.

          " The stench is simple. It shall be the smell you come across when battle has been fought and lost, for you shall live deep beneath the earth for many years and have only the dead for companions. That explains the sense of fear, and helplessness. Then, for one reason or another, you will be freed, and set foot in this very place once again, but nothing will be the same. The bodies are not remnants of war but rather of the newest rulers of your kingdom, for they shall be both cruel and brutal. You feel them taunting you for you feel guilt at betraying your kingdom and turning your back to its ghastly doom.

          " The man on your throne stands for the newest ruler, and his eyes, red as flames I would say, as you fear them so, are both the meaning of the next piece. You see, you say his army was ghost like and dreaming as such means you are seeing what has long since passed away. They are memoirs of the army he lost too, and haunt you, for you have gone mad in grief, no longer knowing yourself. That is why you felt rooted to the earth. In any case the red eyes stand for the hatred this enemy feels for you, because it is you who started the war and you who slaughtered his people. It is my knowledge that this war began from a mistake you made and did not unmake.

          " When he rises to you, he means clearly to kill you and that tells me that there is more to simple hatred. For hatred is spawned of anger and anger from irritation, irritation from annoyance, and on. Yet, he decides to kill you and not torture you. This enemy of yours will be one you know, perhaps one of your most trusted allies and he shall have greed as well as hate.

          " This warrior covered by light is harder to interpret. He could have been your heir, protecting you and your legacy, or he could be the enemy, for later he himself kills you. It could simply be a commoner's last strike and does not see his king but instead another enemy before him. It is my belief though, that this is a boy barely in manhood and has trained for many years under the art of sorcery. Sorcery of my people, because only my kind can wield the mythical blue flames of the gods, but he will not be a Downcaster, yet instead human. The white light that surrounds him he cannot wield, so he shall have to have a Downcaster companion nearby to shield his identity. The struggle means that the fight between the two has been happening for longer than that day and has a deeper meaning than protection and defense. In the end, the white fighter shall win and the ashes from the enemy means that your kingdom shall begin anew and shall be breathtaking and free for once.

          " When the stranger turns to you, the crown upon his head as he shall be the king in you place, and kills you, that means that your life was ended for another reason, for you explained to me you felt pain. Pain stands for treachery or offense and he did neither. Something that was not meant to be killed you. For brown eyes in a dream means something is intervening with fate.

          " My lord, you dream has so many intricate twist and surprises that my reading cannot be anymore accurate, but I assure you, that while your fate will follow those guidelines, events will become jumbled and turn away from my reading." She paused and threw her glasses back on. " I pity you, my lord."

          Spinning, she made to leave, hurrying even and the door creaked open as they watched in alarm, but before she left she glanced back.

          " I shall be here until next dawn, and then I shall depart. If you have another dream, send someone to find me in the stables or around the village. I shall be waiting. If you do not call, I then wish you luck, my lord. I wish you luck and cannot stop pitying you."

          Then she left and Darien found he could focus on nothing but the white eyes he found so enchanting. For they were anything but fearsome. They were beautiful. With a determined resolve, he made up his mind.

          He had to meet her.