Chapter 4

*Ferril Viscounty: Ferril - Three Days Later*

Unlike Avensan, Ferril was a city constructed mostly of wood. Avensan's stone buildings and walls made the Viscount's capitol look simplistic and outdated. However Robert, who had never been to Marchantia's largest city, could not make the comparison. To him, Ferril was an impressive place.

Walls surrounded the city, towering at four or five times the height of a human. Guards lined the battlements, and did not only watch the forest surrounding the city. They also kept an eye on those within, including the multi-story buildings and hundreds of commoners that hustled about the streets. Streets, plural, Robert noted, which made Ferril considerably larger than any village he had ever seen.

None of the guards challenged the group as they entered the city until arriving at the entrance to Ferril Keep. Using Robert's name as password they were allowed entrance, and given an immediate audience with the Viscount. Viscount Ferril himself was an older man, with a long and graying beard. Though he wore armor while sitting on the throne, he did not appear very comfortable in it. The Viscount was not a warrior.

"Robert Lothair," he began. Despite his peaceful countenance, his voice was booming, and demanded both respect and obedience. "What news do you bring from Valence?"

Taking a deep breath, the messenger collected himself to recall events with crystal clarity. When he spoke, it was without preamble. "Former servants of Daemon, the warlord and general who rules Westland, fled across the continent. They came to Valence's king for sanctuary, claiming that his lands would remain safe from Daemon's armies the longest. Daemon plans to rule all of Tierra, preaching about 'manifest destiny'." Robert paused, and remembered the battle with the Fire Elementals. "The undead in the wilderness outside the city are the first wave of invasion; your lands are his next target."

The viscount nodded thoughtfully and stroked his beard, letting Robert's words soak in. "We see," he said, using the royal "we". "Who are these who accompany you?" he asked.

"Cedric the Ranger," said the Northlander in his most authoritative voice, "and Lirón Yvet, Queen Marchantia's Archery Champion."

"Hmm." Ferril adjusted himself in the throne, his face grim. "Lirón, do you have any influence with the Queen?"

Lirón looked up with a small smile. Many of the Northlanders were prejudiced against women, and, by addressing her directly, Ferril had just proven to be an exception. "Some, Lord Viscount Ferril," she said, respectfully and honestly.

"Excellent. If you wish to save my people from death and enslavement, travel with Cedric to Avensan with a letter my scribe will give you. Tell the Queen that we will be in her debt for all eternity."

"It is my honor," Lirón said politely, silently cursing her manners yet again. She and Cedric would be caught playing messenger between the two rulers for some time. At least they would be together, she thought, trying to make the best of her situation.

Ferril nodded slowly, as if accepting all that had just taken place with that single motion. "Our time is very valuable, and there is much to be done. Ranger Cedric and Archer Yvet, please exeunt so we may discus further matters with Lothair." They left after a gracious goodbye, leaving the two to converse.

. . .

There were a couple of visitors in the city; outsiders, by the look of their clothing. The tall Northlander was wearing earth-toned, loose- fitting garments, and his companion was a woman who wore the violet and brown cloth of Marchantia's military. An odd couple he normally would avoid, but they looked tired and not particularly alert. It should be a fun challenge, thought the thief.

The outlanders made their way through the city, conversing about one thing or another. When the thief was close enough, he heard them discuss weaponry. In the entire city, only one merchant was authorized to sell weaponry, and he was in the bazaar. Now that he knew where they were headed, he no longer needed to follow. After taking a shortcut through a series of alleyways, he was in the bazaar.

What he needed was a disguise of some sort. He saw a rather large family walking down the street, and moved so that he appeared to be one of them. The Northlander and Marchantian soldier arrived soon enough. They approached the weapons dealer to make their purchase. Seeing the young children in the family he was walking beside, he realized that they would not walk close enough to his prey. The thief carefully snatched the father's money pouch, and slipped amongst a group of friends that were walking towards the weapons dealer.

Once the thief was close enough to the couple, he snatched their money pouches and those of as many others as he could manage. In the bargain, he retrieved a knife off of the woman. When he departed, none of his victims had noticed that their belts were lighter.

. . .

Spears were very effective weapons for their price. Of all the pole- arms, it was one of the most common. In Ferril, the weapons dealer had one made from the locust tree and tipped with ferrous steel. Lirón found it to be perfectly balanced, and loved the weapon before long. When she attempted to pay, she found that her money was missing.

. . .

The thief had gone home in a roundabout way, smiling to himself all the while. "Ah," he said after he arrived, plopping down onto the pile of blankets that served as a bed in the one-room shack. Hidden within his home was nearly enough currency to purchase a castle of his own. Of course, he could not have gained so much money by picking pockets. No, that was only a hobby. After all, he was Boaz, the greatest thief who had ever lived (in his opinion). Most of his income came from breaking into homes and highway robbery. A master of disguise, the conceited thief had even spoken to his victims afterwards, and they never recognized him.

Speaking of disguises, he thought to himself. With the water he kept in a bucket by the door, Boaz washed the grey out of his hair. He used his newly-acquired knife to remove his beard, leaving him clean-shaven. In the bucket, he saw his reflection: a thirty year-old man with light-brown hair and sharp, green eyes. "You are handsome," he said to himself, before stepping outside.

. . .

Robert met his former traveling companions in one of Ferril Keep's halls. They had not planned to run into each other again, but Cedric and Lirón needed money and weapons if there was a good chance they were going to encounter more undead Fire Elementals. "I'm glad we have a chance to say goodbye," the tracker said to the pair. Both avoided his gaze for a moment before they recovered. Something was making the two rather uncomfortable, but they looked embarrassed to admit it. "Aw, you won't miss me that much, will you?" he asked, trying to prod them with a cheap joke.

After a moment, Lirón cracked a smile. "Not exactly." She continued before Robert could ask what happened. "We were robbed. Someone took all of our money, so we can't buy any weapons for the trip home."

The messenger decided that she was going to Avensan, which was apparently her birthplace. "Well, I'm sure the Viscount will make sure you get whatever you need. Since you'll be re-supplied soon, I need to have my bow and dagger back." The archer returned the bow and quiver, and made an apologetic gesture when he held out his hand for the dagger. "That was stolen too?" Lirón nodded. "Don't worry about it; it's not your fault." 'Besides,' he silently added, 'I have dozens of them in Valence.' "Good luck on your trip. Know that my prayers go with you. And - thank you. For coming with me. I wouldn't have made it without you."

Cedric grinned and shook his hand. "It was great meeting you. As for the thank you, if we hadn't come along then chances are Marchantia would never have heard about the invasion until it was too late. We're just as thankful to you. Lirón and I need to find someone who can give us some weapons, so goodbye for now. I'm sure we'll meet again."

The archer said her own goodbye and soon Robert was leaving the castle to begin his trip to the baronies.

. . .

*Ferril Viscounty: West Meylan Forest - The Following Day*

Newly equipped, Cedric and Lirón finally managed to leave the city. Upon hearing of their misfortune, the viscount had insisted that they spend the night. Lirón was fine with free lodging, but she knew that Cedric preferred the outdoors - probably why he traveled so much. There was plenty time left before arriving at Avensan, and the archer wondered how she might keep Cedric around after this brewing war was over.

. . .

*Ferril Viscounty: West Meylan Forest*

When Boaz had seen the lighter-skinned Southerner leaving the keep, something about him made the master thief follow. It was probably the way he walked, Boaz decided. Quietly, yet nobly - like one of the Kefir plains people. That meant he was someone special and unique. Somebody would probably pay a high ransom for the man, and the thief knew a few things about kidnapping.

Because he was the only thief in the area he could trust, Boaz decided to undertake his task alone. A master with a knife, he was convinced that the prey would not be too much of a challenge for him. Of course, there was know way he could know that his opponent was actually one of the better woodsmen on the continent. At the moment, he was tied up with his own rope against a tree trunk.

Robert walked up to him, and saw the thief trying to cut free from his bonds with a hidden dagger. His prisoner feigned embarrassment, and Robert wrenched the weapon from his hand. "This is my knife. I leant it to a friend of mine . so you're the one who robbed them." Boaz swallowed. The man obviously meant the Northerner and Marchantian. He knew he should have stayed away from them (so the thief convinced himself then and there) . he would have been able to come up with a feasible cover story, but now he was done for.

"Still, if I had been almost anyone else, you would have snuck up on me - that means you're really good at moving through the woods - and you were in Ferril, so you know how to get around a city." Robert considered silently. This thief might be a big help to him. If he could convince the man. "What's your name?"

The thief's eyes narrowed. "It won't matter if I tell you. You'll either kill me or turn me over to city guards . who will kill me."

A smile crossed Robert's face. "Fair enough." He opted to try a different approach. "Tell me, what do you know about General Daemon?"

"You mean Emperor Daemon?" laughed out Boaz. "The son of a god with immortal lieutenants?" What Boaz said was just rumor, but more than Robert had heard. He doubted that Daemon was that deadly, but a part of him feared. "It doesn't affect me much . thieves thrive in any kingdom." Now the thief was bluffing. Daemon ruled his empire with swords and magic. Anyone who broke Imperial Law was executed on the spot - no trial, no questions asked. "No stealing" was definitely an Imperial Law.

That did not give the tracker much to work with, but at least it was something. "Then look at it this way. If Daemon's armies are allowed to sweep through unopposed, they'll destroy all of Tierra's economy. Less money means a harder life for you." The thief looked at him indifferently. "If you help me get to the baronies and convince them to mobilize their armies, you'll be ensuring a good future." Boaz saw through his speech in a second. "Okay, how about this: you go with me as an advisor, and I'll arrange for you to get paid a reward for helping out."

Boaz grinned. "I need 600,000." Half of that price, combined with his current savings, would be enough to buy him that castle he was saving up for. "No bargaining - match my price or you don't get my help."

"You get 10,000 when we reach the baronies, and 340,000 when the war's over. If you don't like it, I'll leave you here." Robert was not disillusioned. He knew that the thief would free himself . eventually. Probably before any wild animals happened upon him, too. Probably.

After several minutes, the thief decided to introduce himself. "My name's Boaz. Master of All That Is." Robert smirked. "Chief Thief of Tierra," he elaborated. The tracker nodded, understanding. Apparently the thieves worked through some kind of guild, and owed allegiance to this Boaz . or he was a braggart. Either way, 350,000 was a lot of money. He untied the thief and gave him the dagger.

"Robert Lothair," the tracker said. "It's a long trip, so we should start moving right away." Boaz nodded in agreement, thinking that a "companion" was easier to transport than a prisoner. Well, maybe he would stick around for the reward . and a kidnapping could make him some more money; a castle needed many servants to run smoothly.

. . .

*Western Forest: Baronies/Westland Border - Mid-Afternoon*

Owen the Dragon stretched his arms and neck along the side of the road, successfully stifling a yawn in the process. The dragon Nuriel chuckled behind him, but his brother ignored the laughter. Real dragons did not tire as easily as humans, even when they assumed human shape. They were the only creatures that Essence sustained indefinitely, even without food or water.

A group of horseback riders was passing them at the moment, probably thinking they were safe. Perhaps a day away was a city known for its large amount of sorcerers - not Owen's first choice in locations, but it was a relatively safe place to hear news. The riders looked like they'd had a fairly uneventful journey so far, judging by the slack expressions they wore. Owen, Dragon Mage that he was, sensed that their luck was going to run out soon.

Now came the time for decisions. Nuriel, he knew, was well aware of what was approaching. The question was should Owen and Nuriel help? They looked capable of defending themselves, but a dragon and the Dragon Mage would ensure their safety. He began to summon his Essence when Nuriel placed a hand on his shoulder. "If we're going to help, they can't know where we came from." Owen noticed that Nur-Gideon chose his words carefully in case the riders overheard.

"Alright," said Owen, drawing a new long sword. His brother held a cane nonchalantly, already prepared for the Fire Elementals that were about to appear. The Dragon poured a blue liquid onto his blade from a vial he kept in his money pouch, and the weapon was instantly coated with a thin sheet of ice. Nur-Gideon's current "identity" was that of a cleric, so it would not seem out of the ordinary if he managed to kill a few of the undead with his cane.

With his rare connection to the planet's Essence, Owen was able to sense great amounts of Fire Element Essence surrounding the riders. He and his brother broke into a sudden sprint to bring them into the midst of the horses and shout warning. The horses moved into a circle around the two to keep away from the drawn weapons, bringing them to a defensible formation. Before any of the riders could question the swordsman, a large group of undead warriors emerged from the trees.

Owen and Nuriel were both surprised to see sheets of ice surround the circle of horses. "Sorcerers," Nuriel muttered. Of course, the undeads' fire spells broke through the defenses rather quickly, but the riders were now prepared for combat. Weapons were drawn and ice spells were flying. Owen and Nuriel managed to get into the fight, and even slay as many undead as any two of the sorcerers. It was a very one-sided fight. If there were only half as many sorcerers the undead might have had a chance at victory, but it would have been slim.

"I have a new respect for your kind," Owen said to the foremost rider, at least pretending to mean it.

The rider smiled smugly and leaned forward on his mount. "You're impressive, swordsman. Most people don't know the weaknesses of the undead. Those that do are usually magic-users or hunters ... not even Daemon's soldiers would have known how to defeat them." Then these Fire Elementals were wild - spawned from one whose creator was long ago killed. "Have you ever considered becoming a sorcerer?" he asked. Owen tried not to look surprised. "I have a feeling that you'd be able to pass the entrance exam."

It was all Owen could do not to laugh in his face. He was one of the most dangerous magicians the world had seen in a long time, and this little man on a pony was offering him a chance to learn parlor tricks. Then again, even he was mortal. New ways to defend himself might come in handy. Nuriel slapped him on the back. "Owen the Dragon learn magic? That'll be the day!"

The sorcerer started. "The Dragon?" Memories of rumors about the now- dead Dragon Mage surfaced. Anyone whose name had the word "dragon" attached to it was almost guaranteed to be dangerous. Or an inept braggart, but he had just proven otherwise. "Why do they call you that?"

"Because when his hometown was attacked by a dragon, they say he stared it in the eye and scared the beast away!" Their audience laughed, but none so hard as Nuriel. "Well, that's the way the story goes. I'm sure if you asked anyone in that little town what happened, they'd tell you a dragon flew overhead one day."

Owen found himself grinning. Now that he was in high spirits, he could think of no excuses. "Before you condemn me, I will never admit or deny the tale of my encounter." He glanced back at Nuriel.

« "Don't forget; you're in Daemon's lands. When your sword fails you, having another way to defend yourself will be very helpful."»

The swordsman nodded in agreement. "I think I'll take you up on that offer. Maybe sorcery is my hidden calling."

The lead rider dismounted and shook Owen's hand. "I'm Sorcerer Yosheeya, in charge of admissions at the University of the Element of Fire." Fire was the element representing life and birth, which meant that Owen might actually learn healing magic. Despite many misgivings, he resolved at that point to become a sorcerer.

« "Sorcerer Owen Solomon the Dragon Mage? That's a bit of a mouthful."» The magician laughed as the sorcerers began to prepare camp for the night. "You're future is going to be very interesting," said Nuriel, aloud instead of telepathically.

Owen frowned. His brother meant something by that. "You know, but you can't tell me." He sighed out of frustration. Nuriel probably wanted to tell him, but there were a lot of rules that went along with the power to see the future. "This is another step in, what? A journey of revenge? My spirit is leaving me . maybe I'll find new purpose here."

"Here's one thing I can tell you." The human sibling gave the dragon his full attention. "You'll meet your next Guide in the city - a human guide. Before you get there, I'll be gone. I have other 'adventures' to run off on." The brothers stood in silence as the sun sank from sight.