Chapter 1

*Western Forest: near Labège*

Two armies faced each other by the forest's edge. Emerging from the foliage was a collection of soldiers, each equipped with a makeshift weapon. Stones were attached to walking sticks to form cudgels. Many held short-handled scythes, the blades dulled with heavy use. Some of the soldiers had various bows and knives, but that was perhaps thirteen people.

Opposite the ragtag army stood the ranks of a much more organized group. At its head was General Daemon sitting astride his horse. Daemon was the greatest general in Tierra's history, and was said to be the child of gods. He and his troops were well-equipped with glaives, maces, battle axes, and long bows. Unlike their opponents, Daemon's soldiers were wearing armor made of chain links.

Beside Daemon's stallion stood Solomon, the Dragon Mage - the source of the legend behind General Daemon. When he narrowed his eyes, blue and green bolts of lightning seemed to flow through his body. He was surveying the battlefield, waiting to join the assault.

Their opponents were losing patience, anticipation washing through the men and women that stood, ready to die for their cause. For a moment, Solomon thought they might run away, which would have been just fine with him. It was then that the army charged forward, the soldiers running forward as fast as their feet could take them. Arrows launched from Daemon's line of archers, mowing down over a hundred oncoming troops. After two more barrages from the long bows, the archers moved back.

Roughly six hundred of the enemy remained, and they did not look ready to surrender. If they were to be given a chance to do so, something would have to slow their charge. "Destroy them," Daemon commanded his magician. That lightning was flowing through Solomon's body was now undeniable, its ferocity increasing. Balls of fire formed in the palms of the Dragon Mage's hands as he held them out, and all of the lightning streamed into the flames.

Solomon made a deliberate motion with each hand, the fireballs flying towards the approaching army. The first passed through the entire line, melting holes in the center of every person it came into contact with. Lightning shot out in all directions, felling any who were near the projectile. When the second struck, it had a similar affect. Where six hundred once were, fewer than two hundred survivors remained. The charge was halted.

Daemon finally had their attention. "People of Labège! You are alive because I am merciful." The farmers and wood-guides the Labège army was composed of quaked. From where Solomon stood, he could see several of the folk squirm in response to having lost all excretory control. Every face showed a look of horror. "You have two paths to choose from, fair people. You can die here on the battlefield, and lose your Essence to my magic." Solomon did not mind that Daemon took credit for his actions - they were nothing to be proud of. "Or, you may drop your weapons and resume your livelihoods. I will receive the fruits of your labor, but you will continue to live."

Most of Labège's surviving defenders fell to their knees, collapsing in tears and resignation. One among them, who appeared to hold authority to speak for the rest, stepped forward, his knees shaking. He glanced at the warlord's army, reminding Solomon that Daemon's forces had not yet engaged in open combat. "Great, merciful Lord Daemon," the man cried out, bowing down so that his nose touched the ground. "Please spare our town, and my people. We have done nothing - "

"Decide," Daemon commanded, his tone carrying grim threats. "Will you live in my empire, or be slaughtered?" To add dramatic effect, Solomon began to collect his Essence, and the strange-colored electricity began to flow through his body again. It had taken nearly an hour to gather the energy needed for his last attack, but these people hardly knew that. Still, even with just a fraction of a second's charge the energy could kill.

"Lord Daemon, we will serve you." The general grinned with a cruel look in his eye.

"As you wish." He said the words slowly and deliberately, almost making the Labège inhabitant wish he had made a different decision. "Now, return to your homes."

. . .

*Western Forest: General Daemon's Camp - Sunset*

The angle of the sun in the sky changed blue to a series of brilliant colors, ranging from violet to an orangey-red. Stars were already visible up above, and it looked to be a beautiful night. A chill went up Solomon's spine when he suddenly remembered the battle that took place hours before. Remorseful was not quite the word to describe how the Dragon Mage felt, but he was disturbed.

"Observing your handiwork?" said a voice that made Solomon jump. His eyes focused, and Solomon realized that he was staring at the site of the battle. Daemon stepped up, and glanced sidelong at the magician.

"They were stubborn. Though, if the people of Labège were wise, they would not have opposed you." Either that, he added silently, or these people had been desperate to be free of foreign rule.

"If they were intelligent, they would be working for me," Daemon said in agreement. "I sometimes wish my subjects were a little wiser." The warlord was making an abstract reference to a visit several days earlier, by a band of wizards who were offering their services. When they were introduced to the magician, the wizards reacted poorly. The Dragon Mage wondered if Daemon had spoken to them afterwards. "Solomon, do you ever wish you had more wisdom?"

The poor fool thought that he was being subtle. Daemon did not realize that he had just announced his decision to hire wizards, longtime rivals of the magicians. "No," he said, slowly gathering his Essence. He had to do it carefully, so that any onlookers would not notice. "If anyone else claimed to be able to match three wizards, that man would be lying."

Daemon nodded, as if he had been expecting a similar answer. "Three, perhaps." Four forms materialized out of thin air. Only wizards were capable of such magic, which instantly revealed their identities. Solomon turned and took a step back in preparation for battle. Three more were approaching from behind tents, fire flowing between outstretched arms. "But not seven."

"So you plan on killing me?" he asked. Still he did not raise his defenses. Daemon smiled and crossed his arms. The wizards' magical attacks were slowly building to a level that would be fatal to Solomon. It would take several minutes for them to finish, so, if he wanted to continue living, he would have to strike first. In less time than Solomon's opponents had to register his acts, the Dragon Mage transformed his Essence into its purest form. Yellow flames extruded from his fingertips, both blue and green lightning flowing through it. The Essence leapt from Solomon's hands, burning holes through two of the wizards.

Panicked at the death of nearly one-third their party, the remaining magic-users attacked without waiting for full charges. Most struck Solomon, the magical forces draining him of energy instead of roasting him alive. He collapsed to his knees, struggling to remain conscious, the pain unbearable. Before being struck by a second, weaker barrage, he managed to release his Essence in one more attack. The flame-lightning caused a small explosion, and the Dragon Mage fell into a coma without knowing what he had hit.

. . .

*Marchantia: East Meylan Forest*

Robert took aim with his small bow, and loosed an arrow with a grin. Without a sound, the pheasant began its short fall to the ground. Smiling to himself, Robert headed off to collect his prize: tonight's dinner. As he walked, the foliage became more and more dense. Shouldering his bow, the young warrior drew his cutlass. Using it to clear a path, he eventually made his way to the dead bird.

Making the fire didn't take long. The tropical dry forest was typically lacking in water, and the logs burned quickly. The meat was tender, but dry - very typical of fowl. Luckily for him, he was carrying a supply of water. Taking a sip, he said a prayer of thanks to the Greater Whole. Food was bountiful, but water was something else.

The sky blanketed slowly, revealing the beautiful sparkles of light that were hidden until after the sun had fully set. As both moons rose slowly on opposite horizons, consciousness seeped away from Robert's mind. Sleep took over, and the moons began their reign of the night.

By the time the sun had risen, Robert was already up and about. He made sure that no signs of his camp remained, so that it would not further disturb the wildlife. Grand trees and plants were all around, the scenery bringing a smile to his face. Now fully awake, memories of his quest returned to him. A sense of purpose filled his soul. It was time to continue his trek to the city of Ferril.

. . .

*Marchantia: Avensan*

There was a thwip! The bolt left the crossbow with amazing velocity, striking the target with near-perfect accuracy. Lirón crossed her arms in satisfaction, her victory secured. The other contestants cursed loudly. Afterwards, all managed to put up fronts of good sportsmanship, even shaking her hand. Lirón tried to keep her attitude from becoming smug. She failed miserably.

The Queen called Lirón up to the throne to receive her medal, a ceremony the markswoman considered pointless - she already knew that she was the best archer in Marchantia; whether or not the entire kingdom new it was irrelevant. If the Queen had allowed Lirón to keep the rather expensive crossbow the contestants had been given to use, then her attitude might have been different.

A more private celebration was the first thing that came to mind, afterwards. She went to the nearest tavern, where - for some non- coincidental reason - the bartender seemed allergic to money. Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see a big, blond Northerner. "Good job," he said to her. "I've seen arrows shot into bullet holes, but what you did is the next-best thing. That's something to be proud of."

"Thank you, Cedric. I think."

"Don't turn away from free compliments. Not everyone will just go up to you and say, 'hey, you're cool.' Or, if they do, they're probably just looking to find out what's beneath your skirt. If you were wearing a skirt, that is."

Lirón cracked up. Cedric was a little strange, and oddly religious, but he was an amusing fellow. He was the only Northerner she truly liked. Most of them had an intolerable delusion of superiority. "Sit down, have a drink," she offered. "They're on the house because of the tournament."

Cedric shrugged, almost imperceptibly. "All right, if you're going to twist my arm.." When he sat down, the barmaid handed him a stein. He downed it quickly, and then finished his second. "These people should be careful about who they offer free drinks to." Lirón grinned. "I'd better slow down - don't want this place to go out of business after all. Tell me, what are you doing in Avensan? Everywhere in Marchantia is a nice place, but there are better places to go than the capital."

"Better?" she asked, wondering what he meant. The two had met on the road a few months before, and shared some adventures involving various bands of brigands and highwaymen. "I was born here; this is my home. Why are you here?"

"Oh, I see how it goes. Just throw my question right back at me? Okay, I'll play your game . for now." Despite herself, Lirón could not keep from laughing. "Seriously?" he asked. She nodded. "I'm headed north, and Avensan happened to be on the way. And, lucky you, look who I bumped into. Hey, how would you like to come with me?" he added as an afterthought.

Lirón was genuinely surprised. The pale-skinned inhabitants of the northern half of the Tierran continent were very prideful, and tended to think of themselves as the superior beings on the planet. Southerners had a rather hypocritical saying: only a dragon can silence the racism of the north. She had a feeling that if anything could do the work of a dragon, it was Cedric. With a crooked smile, she asked, "You're off looking for another adventure?"

"Sure," he answered immediately, shrugging. "If that's what you want to call it." The smile didn't leave her face. "So that's a 'yes'."

. . .

*Bréhémont*

Light was his vision. First it was blinding, then slowly it dimmed. More colors began to appear, these mostly earth tones. Eventually, the world came into focus. He was inside a wooden room, the place unpainted. A pleasant, faint woody smell somehow relaxed him, which was perhaps the only thing keeping him from panic - his only waking memory being of a battle.

Eventually he turned his head to look around. On a small table beside the bed he appeared to be resting in sat a candle and bowl of water. A chair was placed nearby, apparently by the person who must have been taking care of him. The door leading to the room was ajar, and sounds of conversation could be heard on the other side. The noise sounded like nothing but gibberish, which he assumed was because of the distance.

Calling upon his limited strength, the recovering man tried to sit up - or at least prop himself up against the bed's headboard. Failing miserably, he collapsed to the bed after only lifting himself up a few inches. The back of his throat itched, and his mouth was dry, but the man's arms were too weak for him to reach out for the bowl.

Frustrated with himself, the man groaned, and rolled over. Instantly he felt the soreness of his wounds. A scream escaped him as memories came unbidden, the pain greater than he thought was possible to endure. No human could make such a growl, frightening the man lying in the bed.

Three people rushed into the room. One was older than the other two, but all were women. The youngest of them knelt by the side of the bed, and tried to help their patient onto his back. Reflexively, he called upon the little magic he commanded. Yellow flames, flowing with blue-green lightning, shot from his finger tips, forming a shield around him. If the girl did not jump back when she did, her hands would have been disintegrated into nothing.

The second girl summoned an identical Essence to her fingertips. Her companions spoke to her in warning, but she ignored them. She sat down on the bed beside the fearful patient, touching her hand to his magical field. The yellow/blue-green barrier was absorbed into her fingertips, his defenses dispelled. She helped him onto his back, where there were only bruises, speaking all the while in a soothing tone. The patient locked his eyes with hers, and the scream died down.

"Everything's going to be alright," she said with a smile. "You're safe here." He looked towards the water bowl, longingly. Understanding, the healer assisted the man to a sitting position. Carefully lifting the bowl, she tilted it ever-so-slightly, and the water poured slowly into his mouth. After a moment, he grunted for her to stop. She set the bowl back on the nightstand, and dipped into it a cloth that was handed to her by the elder woman.

Finally he felt he had the energy to speak. Thousands of questions flooded into his mind, and he sorted them all out in order of importance. "Where am I?" he asked. The woman stared at him blankly, not comprehending. After asking a second and third time, he remembered how her words to him had sounded. Her intent was clear, but it only now occurred to him that the woman spoke a different language. Testing his lingual skills, the patient tried asking in each of the five languages he fluently knew.

None of the women recognized the words he spoke. In fact, they thought that the same question in five languages was a series of questions spoken in one tongue. The woman sitting beside him silenced his inquiry by brushing a few stray strands of hair away from his face. Odd, he thought. When he was last awake, his head had been shaven bald. He wondered for the first time how long he had been unconscious.

The woman spoke for a while, and her peer walked out of the room. Before the patient could try to speak again, darkness engulfed him.