The Provinces of Veterumterrum

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Chapter 2

Burning Emerald

Baron Von Riker

The following morning Riker poked his head out from the doorway and into the empty hall. The air was stale and humid and Riker had sweat rolling down his back and down his temple. He looked both ways before sneaking into the hall and signaling for the women to follow him. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed that Llorva was sweating too. She had put her hair up in a messy bun and open her blouse a few buttons to relieve herself of overheating. Vylasgarden on the other hand was seemingly unaffected by the climate. In fact, she seemed content from what Riker could tell. Riker lead them down the hall and each careful step they made onto the wooden floor creaked under their feet as they made their way to the stairs. Riker began descending and he carefully listened for movement or the slightest hint of a voice in the lobby, but no one spoke, nor were there sounds of any kind.

Too quiet… he thought to himself then paused and took a moment before dashing for the front door. As he sprinted he glanced over to the counter and noticed that no one was present at the station. He opened the door, but to his surprise the doorway was blocked by several human men armed with spears and scimitars. The men’s dark complexion showed that they were of the region and their chain shirts and helmets showed that they were members of the coastal guards. It looked as if they were just about to enter the inn when Riker opened the door.

“Good morrow sir,” said one of the guards.

“Good morning,” Riker replied. Vylasgarden and Llorva joined Riker at the doorway.

“My name is constable Guerra, these are my men. Are you the individual that used vitality magic on the owner of this establishment last night?”

“No sir, I know nothing of the matter,” Riker lied.

“Really? That is rather odd,” the constable said sarcastically. It was plain to see that he knew Riker’s involvement. “You fit the description that the Innkeeper gave,” The constable then took out a bit of parchment with writing on it. “Slender elf male accompanied by an elf female and a sarkany female,” he stated while reading the parchment and gesturing to Llorva and Vylasgarden.

Realizing that he had been discovered, Riker held up his hands. “Surely there has been a misunderstanding.”

“Are you aware sir that a license is required for mages to practice their craft in this territory and that the punishment for illegal and, or unauthorized use is quite server?” In the corner of his eye Riker noticed Llorva anxiously fidgeting with her skirt. “I am going to need you and your party to come with me immediately,” the constable said before grabbing Riker by the wrist. Upon contact a hue of orange washed over the constable, his eyes wide and his body still.

“Don’t you recognize me? It’s me,” Riker said putting the hand the constable held on the constable’s shoulder.

“It is you…” the constable said stepping back. He stared blankly.

“Constable Guerra. Are you alright sir?” one of the other guards said in confusion.

“There has been a mistake. Let them through,” the constable said making a path from the doorway.

“But sir.”

“Let him through… He is my friend.” The guards obeyed and made a path as Riker, Llorva, and Vylasgarden passes by them with their belongings.

Llorva caught up to Riker and whispers to him. “What did you do?”

“The three of us need to leave the port, now,” Riker said then grabbed both Vylasgarden and Llorva by the arms and when the coast was clear he moved more quickly down the cobblestone streets. It was still early in the morning so few townsfolk were out on the streets; all they saw were vagabonds in gutters and stray animals digging in last night’s garbage. “Let’s get down to the docks and hop on a ferry,” Riker insisted.

“Riker what is going on?” Vylasgarden asked irritably.

“I screwed up and we have about thirty minutes until the charm spell I put on that constable wears off. When that happens, he is going to come to his senses and realize what I did to him and I don’t want to be around when he does.”

“You have a habit of making a bad situation worse,” Llorva hissed at him.

“Would you rather have slept outside with no money?” Rikers quipped back to her. Llorva turned her head and said nothing. “That’s what I thought.” Llorva’s face blushed and she looked anywhere but directly at him. This woman thinks she’s so smart, Riker thought to himself. If anything, she is naïve and privileged at best.

“Where did Vylasgarden go?” her heard Llorva ask. Riker looked at her and together they scanned the area and found no trace of Vylasgarden among the morning crowd of travelers.

“One would think a two-meter-tall dragon woman would be easy to find,” Riker commented.

“There!” Llorva said pointing her finger to a crowd of people at the harbor. Vylasgarden stood among sailors and commoners and observed a scene at the docks. Riker and Llorva ran over to join her and saw that a small vessel had crashed into the port and was steadily sinking. Vylasgarden vaulted over the wall and ran down the stairs and onto the dock.

“Vylasgarden we do not have time for this,” Riker said chasing after her.

“The people on the boat may need help,” Vylasgarden insisted as she boarded the boat.

Riker ran up on the dock and said, “Whoever is here will be fine, but we should leave,” Riker’s voice was small so that he didn’t draw too much attention to them. Riker watched Vylasgarden submerge under the water and slither into the sunken ship. “Bloody banshee!” he cursed. He considered leaving Vylasgarden behind but remembered she was seen with him and had his name. If he wanted to escape, she had to go with him. Just as Riker was beginning to panic, Vylasgarden returned to the surface with a pair of bodies, two human fishermen, who looked semiconscious. Riker helped pull the men onto the dock and Vylasgarden swiftly joined Riker.

“They would have drowned,” Vylasgarden panted. Riker looked at her, this heroine. He only knew her less than twenty-four hours but gathered that she would do nearly anything to protect people she didn’t know. That was something he rarely saw in his years.

“You did the right thing,” he assured her. “But have to leave now,” Riker said as they were met by constable Guerra and his men who were coming down from the stairs.

“What happened here?” the constable asked approaching Riker.

“This boat crashed into⏤” Vylasgarden began to say but Riker interrupted her.

“We really must be going constable. I am sure that you and your men can handle the situation,” he said nervously.

“Wait friend. We should have a pint at The Salty Sea Serpent sometime,” the constable said with a friendly smile.

“Yes, but some other time. I really should be leaving. I have to… use the latrine,” Riker said awkwardly before leading Vylasgarden up the stairs and into the crowd.

“The docks are compromised,” Riker said when he and Vylasgarden met up with Llorva.

“What do we do now?” Llorva asked.

“The rainforest is our best escape,” Riker exhaled.

“I came into the port from the forest,” Vylasgarden chimed. “There is a stable on the path entering town.” Riker thought for a moment and assessed this new plan. Originally, he wanted to travel inland on a boat down a strait between the ocean and a lake in the Zion Empire; it would have been safer that way. Going through an unfamiliar rainforest that took up more than half the size of the province would be suicide, however there was little time to figure out another way. The longer they stayed there the greater their chances of being caught.

“Vylasgarden you mentioned that you came from the north?” Riker asked.

“Yes, from the northwest,” Vylasgarden replied.

“With some horses do you think you can navigate us through the forest safely?” Riker followed.

“With horses, I can get us through the forest in a few days’ time,” Vylasgarden said confidently.

“Then through the forest we go,” Riker insisted.

“What? No!” Llorva objected. “I am not going through some savage forest with you two strangers.”

“Very well, then you can spend your time avoiding the constable and convincing him that you are not a mage,” Riker bluffed with a smirk. Llorva’s fair skinned face turned red again. “It would seem that you are stuck with us.”

“Do you think this is funny?” Llorva exclaimed. “I have not known you but a handful of hours and you managed to get me into⏤”

“Quit it you two,” Vylasgarden interrupted. “We do not want to draw any more attention during our escape. Let us get out of here before your magic wears off Riker,” she said. Riker nodded in agreement and glanced at an irritated Llorva with crossed arms.

After a moment Llorva took a deep breath and said, “Very well. Let’s get on with it,” and the trio took off and away from the docks. After several minutes of avoiding numerous patrolmen and maneuvering through the outskirts of the port, Vylasgarden found the area of the outskirts with the farms and crop fields.

“We made it to the farming district. The stable cannot be too far away,”Vylasgarden announced.

“How close is the stable?” Riker asked while looking back to make sure that there were no followers.

“When I came from the forest I remembered seeing a pasture of horses near the farms. They must be here somewhere.” Vylasgarden scanned the area and took in the whole scene. She saw an enormous field of hay barrels and numerous smaller fields of crops. Chickens crossed the dirt path but not a single horse was in sight from her current position.

“Well lead the way,” Riker insisted. “Me and the Llorva are right behind you.”

They began walking down the dirt path that led into the farming district. While passing a corn field, Riker collected a few ears of corn maize from the fence and placed them in his knapsack. This should hold me for a day or two, he thought to himself. Riker had money but his funds from Unum Island was beginning to dwindle from the ferry ride to the provinces. If the opportunity presented itself, he was going to try and save money.

“There,” Vylasgarden said pointing to a fenced pasture on a hill with large stables behind it. The nickering of horses could be heard in the distance.

“Most wondrous work Vylasgarden!” Llorva said with glee. Riker suspected that Llorva had her doubts as to whether they would make it this far. It had been just over twenty minutes since the casting of his spell on the constable and Riker was just about to panic if they had not arrived to stables just then.

“Let’s go ladies. We do not have a lot of time,” Riker said taking the lead onto the property. As they entered the stables, numerous horses greeted them by smelling and inviting the trio to pet them.

“Who go there?” a male voice said from across the way.

“Customers good sir!” Riker replied. A middle aged human man approached them with an expression of confusion.

“Are you the cattle drivers from the east?” the man asked.

“No sir, we are travelers looking to buy horses from your establishment,” Riker said while shaking the man’s hand.

“Very good mister! Please have a look,” the man said vigorously shaking Riker’s hand in his own. The man’s mood went from tiresome to thrilled.

“That won’t be necessary. We are in a bit of a hurry. Why don’t you fetch us three of your finest?” Riker dazzled.

“Of course, mister!” the man replied. “That there will be four-hundred and fifty union coins or two-hundred and twenty-five gold coins if you have that instead.”

“Err… how about three of your worst horses?” Riker followed.

“I beg your pardon?” the man’s expression changed to confusion.

“What my friend means to say is that we are short on payment,” Llorva intercepted. The man paused for a moment and considered the trio. “You are lucky that I rarely get customers to buy actual horses instead of ridding gear,” he said while taking three horses out from the stalls. “These three have only just been broken. I got them from a traveling circus that went out of business and needed to get rid of them. How does sixty gold coins sound in total?”

“Sixty coins is perfect, good sir,” Riker said while collecting and dividing coins among himself and Vylasgarden. As they prepared to leave, the man looked them over.

“You three don’t seem to be from around here,” the man stated.

“We are travelers,” Vylasgarden replied.

“I wouldn’t recommend going through the forest then.”

“Why?” Llorva asked.

“Most people not from here don’t come back from staying an hour in that there forest,” the man replied. “Monsters and savage folk live within it.”

“We don’t have much of a choice,” Riker said putting the reins on his horse.

The man stayed quiet for a moment as if thinking of something before saying, “In that case, you should be warned about the cockatrice,” the man followed as he lit a cornpipe from his pocket.

“Don’t engage,” Riker whispered to the women.

“What is a cockatrice?” Vylasgarden asked and Riker deeply sighed.

“I thought the cockatrice was a rural myth,” Llorva followed.

“No. In these parts of the province the cockatrice is all too real,” The man replied then turned his attention to Vylasgarden. “It is a beast the size of a rooster that kills more people than all the deadly snakes you’ll find in that there forest.”

“What is so dangerous about the cockatrice?” Riker asked the man.

He looked at him sternly. “The creature possesses a poison that will paralyze a man with one peck of its beak. A moments later, the pain from the poison burning through your veins will make your heart stop and stiffen your corpse instantly.” Riker, Vylasgarden, and Llorva stared at the man intently. “But that there is not the scariest thing about the cockatrice,” the man said while trying to collect his thoughts.

“What is the scariest thing?” Vylasgarden asked and instinctively Riker had already began writing a ballad in his head: Beware the cockatrice. Beware its bite. For one measly peak, you will surly pay the price.

“The...errr scariest thing about the cockatrices is that they spawn from random chicken eggs which means they can come from within domestic civilization and within weeks turn a population of one-hundred farmers into zero. Luckily nowadays we have monster hunters to take care of things like that. But the three of you best be careful traveling through the territory.”

“Thank you kind sir, but trust when I say we are more than capable of handling your cockatrice,” Riker said.

“Speak for yourself,” Llorva squinted. “I have never been faced with anything like this.”

“Fear not. I will protect thee,” Riker jested and Llorva rolled his eyes. What was a little rooster monster to a mage like himself? Riker was sure that he could slay it with his eyes closed. He and the women left the stable with the horses. “Where did you come into the port Vylasgarden?” Riker asked.

“Over there,” Vylasgarden pointed across a field of tall grasses. “There is a bridge on the other side that will lead us into the forest.” She led them into the grasses which were as tall as the shoulders of their horses. Vylasgarden mounted her horse then looked over to the docks in the distance. “We need to disappear and fast,” she said.

“Why?” Riker asked before mounting his horse, but already knew the answer.

Vylasgarden’s draconic eyes bestowed her with superior eyesight which allowed her to see the glistening metal armor of a small militia marching toward them from nearly two kilometers away. “Because of that,” Vylasgarden said pointing back at the port.

“What is it?” Llorva asked.

“Surely the guards on our tale,” Riker answered. “The spell must have worn off.”

Then let us not dilly-dally in the open,” Llorva nervously suggested.

“Right,” Riker agreed. “We have a good lead ahead of them and if we make it to the forest then we are sure to lose them in the trees.”

The trio rode hard through the grasses and after a while of riding through the field, a flock of ravens flew overhead from the rainforest’s canopy. The black birds reminded Riker of his beloved Raven Ralohana. They were her favorite birds because she shared the same name as them, Riker remembered as he watched them fly away in the distance. The trio soon approached the rainforest’s edge. Despite generally able to see well in obscure areas, Riker only got the impression that the forest’s greenery was vast, dark, and haunting. Its entrance from the bridge looked like a welcome for isolation and misery. Riker’s psyche made it very clear to him that to go into the belly of this beast meant escaping the port’s guards. He did not want to find out what they would do to him if he was caught.

The wooden bridge leading into the forest was not very large. In fact, it was built to make way over a shallow creek. The trio crossed into the forest and for a while the path was straight and defined but eventually eroded away to the wild. They soon reached an area where the canopies above blocked the sun and their surroundings were darkened. The road ended when it met a large plateau that stood in their way. Perhaps some time ago the area was a mountain range but from years of rainfall and erosion, two wide valleys formed and became densely populated with foliage, Riker considered to himself.

“What should we do?” Llorva asked.

Riker took a moment to examine the incline of the plateau and said, “We’re going to need to find some way around this.”

“Are you sure about that? It seems like it will take a while to find a way with the horses.” Llorva commented.

“You are right,” Vylasgarden agreed. “The forest is too dense for us to take our horses through another direction and we can’t go back. Perhaps going up it is our best option.”

“Well no time to further discuss about it. Let’s get up there,” Riker replied encouraging his horse to move ahead and climb a slope at the base of the plateau. For a while they spiraled up the small mountain and along the way they had to back track to find another way up because of loose soil and erosion making the path difficult. They dodged tall trees and crouched under dangling vines to eventually reach the top. The humidity from the surrounding air made Riker, Llorva, and the horses sweat profusely. It was not until they reached the top that they drank a decent amount of water from their waterskins and shared the rest with the horses. They then turned their attention to the overview of the forest. There was a sea of short green foliage that covered the forest floor. The canopy stretched out as far as Riker’s eye could see in every direction. In the far distance, He noticed the tops of ancient temples built by native humanoids. He looked over and noticed Vylasgarden’s nostrils flaring in the air. “What is it Vylasgarden?” Riker asked.

“I think… I think I smell something strange,” Vylasgarden replied.

“Strange?” Llorva panicked. “Strange how?” The grasses and ferns nearby began to rustle a few meters away. “Riker don’t move,” Vylasgarden said notching an arrow in her bow. Riker slowly glanced over to the right and saw nothing but did hear rustling nearby. Vylasgarden released the arrow in the direction of the rustling grass that moved toward Riker’s horse, but the arrow must not have struck true because the arrow only seemed to put the creature on alert. It squawked and redirected its course toward Vylasgarden’s horse. She reached for a third arrow but the hidden beast jumped up at her from the grass. It moved quickly but once Riker got a good look of it, it was clear that this was the cockatrice the stableman described. It looked like a cross of a chicken and a lizard with bat wings. The monster flew into Vylasgarden’s face but she used her bow to shield herself from the creature’s attack.

“Vylasgarden!” Riker jumped from his horse and came over with rapier in hand. The creature flapped its wings and whipped its reptilian tail at Vylasgarden’s bow. Vylasgarden’s horse neighed and bucked its head, which knocked into Vylasgarden and made her drop her bow in the grass. She attempted to strike the creature with her other hand but the creature dodged and bit Vylasgarden on the finger with its razor-sharp beak. Her arm slumped, she fell off her horse, and disappeared in the grass. Llorva dismounted her horse and dived in after her. The creature then directed its attention to Riker. IT squawked and flew toward him. Riker took his rapier and fearlessly stabbed the cockatrice through its small fleshy body. He then flung it to the side as he rushed over to Vylasgarden’s side.

“Vylasgarden are you alright?” Llorva cried as she held Vylasgarden by the head. Vylasgarden struggled for breath as she seized violently on the ground, foaming from the mouth.

Llorva looked up to Riker. “Do something! Don’t you have a healing spell?”

“No, no. I don’t. I can’t do anything like that,” Riker said helplessly. Usually he found his magic to be the answer for tough situations like this but he had no training in reguvination.

“She’s going to die if we don’t do something Riker!” Llorva yelled at him but all either of them could do was watch their new companion die in front of them. Riker watched Vylasgarden muster enough strength to clinch her fist against the paralysis. She shook violently as her entire arm began to glow; it illuminated like a star’s light and it grew so intense, it was like being blinded by a lightning strike. Then all at once the glow slowly faded away.

“What is happening?” Riker questioned. He may have been skilled in the mystic arts but he had never seen anything like that before. Vylasgarden suddenly gasped and sat up as the glow gradually disappeared. Llorva stood to her feet and backed away slowly. “What in this realm!” she exclaimed as Vylasgarden’s reptilian blue eyes flickered to life. “Vylasgarden? Are you a mage?” Llorva asked.

“I… should be fine now,” Vylasgarden’s voice was groggy.

“What did you?” Riker asked.

“The cockatrice bit me… I felt its poison enter my body,” she said passively.

“But how did you survive it? Riker asked. “You are some kind of healer. Aren’t you?”

“I concentrated my qi to the source of the poisoning.” Vylasgarden replied.

“What is qi?” Llorva followed. It was as if every answer needed its own answers.

Vylasgarden took a deep breath and said, “Qi is one’s energy life force. It is in all of us. Think of it as your adhessive. Without it your mind, body, and soul will become divided and life as you know it will cease to exist. Vylasgarden’s breaths were deep and slow.

And that cured you?” Llorva asked.

“Yes,” Vylasgarden said before slowly getting to her feet. The tear in her skin from the cockatrice’s bite slowly closed, leaving behind a deep scar.

“You are going to have to teach me that,” Riker said smiling. “Do you think you can continue on?” he asked Vylasgarden.

“Yes. I am fine now. Thank you,” she said standing up and slowly walked over to her horse.

“What do we do now Riker? It’s so vast down there, we would surely get lost. There may be more of those things in there too,” Llorva said wiping her sweaty face with her cloak.

“You’re right. I would hate to run into another cockatrice. Turning around may be our best odds after all,” Riker answered.

“Wait what is that?” Vylasgarden said pointing at what looked like colorful light signals coming from the trees not far from their current position. “Maybe they can help us.”

“Maybe. Or it could be a trap, or the plot of some more dangerous beast” Riker claimed. “Either way it is worth checking out, but quietly. It may not have spotted us yet.” The trio and their horses made their way down the mountain and followed the distant lights through the trees. To Riker’s surprise, going down proved to be more difficult than spiraling up the plateau. The newly loose soil made it hard for the horses to find good footing and by the time they reached the base, the riders had to be vigilant so that they did not fall into the several sink holes that laid in their path.

Llorva

Llorva had never seen a forest so green and saturated before. Though she found her surroundings beautiful, the humidity and the aurora of heat made her feel uncomfortable. It was the beauty and the noises of the rainforest, however, that overshadowed her grief. She tried to focus but the forest overloaded her senses with detail. She saw everything from the beautifully colored birds in the trees, to the tiny ants collecting leaves from low hanging branches. She thought to herself, “What odd creatures,” and she stopped for a moment to observe the perching birds whose songs rung majestically in her ears. She took a second moment to stick her tongue out. She tasted the water vapors in the air but also noticed overwhelming different scents of fruits that hung from the trees around her.

“Llorva,” Riker called out. “We have to keep moving.”

Llorva rejoined them. Her once misery had turned into excitement and awe. She heard the life breathing and teeming all around her but she had a hard time singling out the songs and calls of the various animals. Her elf ears identified over a dozen different birds and amphibians. Many of which she had never heard of before. Ahead of them they saw what looked like a collection of bobbing lights over at a pond across the way. Their brilliance shimmered and reflected from the water’s surface. Llorva stopped her horse behind Riker’s whose stopped his horse near a tree.

“What do you think? They don’t look exactly like lanterns,” Vylasgarden whispered. “Could it be magic?”

“I don’t know, but there is only one way to find out,” Riker replied then carefully moved his horse forward. Eventually the three of them entered a region that seemed much more vibrant in contrast to the rest of the rainforest. The area smelt of sweet honey, fruits, and flowers. The pond itself had frogs sitting upon lilies surrounded by a plethora of beautiful pink orchids.

“I think that this place is magic,” Riker said in awe. Llorva cranked her head up so to look up toward the canopies. The sun shone beams of light through the ceiling; its golden light seemed to have fueled the vibrancy of the area. This area of the rainforest was quieter too; only the sound of trickling water from an elevated creek entering the pond could be heard and it was then that the trio finally noticed that the colorful bobbing lights were nowhere to be seen.

“They are gone,” Llorva said while looking about the pond. She then noticed Riker had dismounted from his horse and was whistling a strange tune. It was like that of a canary’s song, though he whistled ritualistically and for the first time she noticed the flute tied around his neck. She noticed it because it was glowing a blue light that dimmed and brightened to Riker’s pitch. Maybe he was serious when he said it was music that gave him his power. She had read many stories about mages in the past but none were about magical bards. Llorva watched Riker walk over to the pond and because he was distracted, he fell over a fallen tree.

“Are you all right?” Vylasgarden asked then she and Llorva noticed that Riker’s foot had a vine wrapped around it. The vine stretched over behind them and suddenly a snap from the trees brought the vine up into the trees above taking Riker with it.

“Riker!” Llorva and Vylasgarden shouted as they watched Riker disappear into the canopy. Small giggles were heard from all around them.

“Did you hear that?” Llorva asked.

“Yes. I do not think we are alone here,” Vylasgarden replied.

“Do you think they’re travelers?” A small voice whispered.

“Maybe they are lost,” another voice replied.

“Come out. We do not mean you any harm,” Vylasgarden said to the voices.

“We seek thy help,” Llorva chimed.

After a moment, the ferns and lower vegetation illuminated as bobbing lights emerge from them. Some lights flew high into the canopy above and others congregated around tree stumps and mushroom patches. Upon a closer look the women saw that the floating lights were flying little people emitting bioluminescence. They were no more than ten centimeters tall and they possessed wings that resembled butterfly or moth wings.

“Sprites?” Vylasgarden announced.

“We are not sprites!” One of the little people yelled while flying into Vylasgarden’s face. She emitted blue light and her wings resembled those of a beautiful black moth. The creature’s voice was high but small. She said, “We are pixies! We are nothing like those dreadful and unbearable sprites!”

Llorva smiled, leaned over and said to Vylasgarden, “Pixies and sprites do not like being confused for one another,” Llorva said obviously amused by Vylasgarden’s misfortune.

“My apologies uhh … umm,” Vylasgarden stuttered.

“My name is Moondance, and all is forgiven. One cannot blame the meek for their ignorance.”

Llorva giggled uncontrollably and noticed Vylasgarden’s face flashed an expression of emotional hurt. Pixies swarmed their horses which seemed to have calmed the horses rather than cause anxiety. The pixies joyfully played in their manes and tails. Llorva took a second to compose herself before asking, “Where did our friend go?”

“Oh, he should be⏤” Moondance began to say but was interrupted by the sound of branches breaking and crashing from above. Riker emerged from the canopy ceiling and splashed into the pond.

“Riker!” Llorva and Vylasgarden rushed over and waded into the pond after him. She pulled him up and dragged him to land.

“Are you okay?” Vylasgarden asked.

Riker looked roughed up and the women spent a moment peeling off leaves and twigs that had stuck onto his body. “Vylasgarden I think I’m going to need you to help me focus my qi to my back… and my head… and my legs,” Riker said while sprawled on the ground as if he was about to wallow in the mud. Llorva thought he looked ridiculous but at least he wasn’t dead. Some distance away a group of pixies held pieces of vine and pointed fingers at Riker while giggling.

“Very funny,” Riker said then reached for his flute and played a high-pitched note. A bolt of fire sprung from his instrument and landed on the pieces of vine the pixies were carrying. The vines magically combusted into flame and the frightened pixies flew away. Riker turned his attention to Moondance and said, “We are in a bit of a hurry. Can you or someone here tell us how we can navigate out of the forest?”

“There is a human settlement south from here,” a different pixie said.

“No, we just came from there. We are trying to find the next closest settlement away from the south,” Riker replied.

“Other than the coast, the pixies from this pond do not venture far into the Emerald Forest. Numerous creatures within it will prey on creatures like us and likely you if the opportunity presented itself.”

“You are declaring that you cannot help us,” Llorva said sternly to Moondance.

“I am saying that the forest ahead is much more dangerous than you think. Few larger people make it as far as a full day before something in the forest or the forest itself consumes them. I am sorry but the three of you should turn back before nightfall,” Moondance replied.

“What dangers lurk in this forest Moondance?” Vylasgarden asked.

“Wild beasts, fiery hobgoblins, and other humanoids constantly prey on us and will certainly kill you if you are caught out there. Consider yourselves lucky that you found us first,” Moondance said.

“Where? Where are these tribes?” Riker impatiently asked.

“There is a small group of orcs northwest of here. But they do not welcome strangers, and that is if something else does not kill you first,” Moondance replied.

“Thank you. Keep the horses,” Riker said ignoring and waving his hand at the last parts of Moondance’s warning.

“Riker what are you doing? we cannot go deeper into the forest.” Llorva said grabbing him by the arm.

“It is our best option Llorva. If we turn back we are going to be persecuted for what I did.”

“You cannot know that for sure,” Llorva replied.

“Worse things have happened to mages like myself,” Riker followed.

“There has to be another way,” Vylasgaarden insisted.

“I agree with Vylasgarden,” Llorva followed. There has to be a way we can get around the militia or completely avoid them and head back into the ports,” Llorva said.

Riker took a long moment to consider and Llorva waited patiently. There was no way he was going to come up with a better plan than venturing into a hostile rainforest; and after a minute Riker looked up at them and said, “Okay I have a plan.”

Baron Von Riker

The sun began to set low. Its orange glow made Riker think of a great ball of fire that hung in the sky every passing day.

“Are you ready?” Llorva asked him as she handed him his lute. They stood together in a small circular clearing not far from the small mountain from which they came.

“I am,” Riker answered, not breaking his staring gaze.

“Do you enjoy sunsets?” Llorva asked joining his gaze.

“I enjoy beauty,” Riker said before finally looking at her. “But not just any beauty. I enjoy beauty that is rare and unexpected like a full moon hanging over the night atmosphere, or a shower of a million stars. No, I do not enjoy the everlasting beauty of flowers or jewelry. I have a taste for the finer things the world has to offer.”

“You plaited yourself a poet, or thou art flirting with me.” she replied with a chuckle.

Riker laughed. “On the contrary. But speaking of poetry, it is the same thing as music. I have been taught that words are no less powerful than an instrument.” Llorva looked at him and after a moment, she nodded agreeing then began to walk away.

“I know your secret,” Riker said to her. It was so abrupt, it blindsided her. She looked back at him and stared into his eyes with disbelief. Before either of them could speak, though, Vylasgarden ran into the clearing from the trees.

“They are coming this way,” She quietly announced.

Both Vylasgarden and Llorva left Riker in the clearing and into the northern trees. Llorva kept Riker’s gaze as she ran with Vylasgarden into the forest. Riker then took a seat on a tall stone that protruded from the ground and waited with his lute in hand. As the sound of nearly a dozen men got closer and closer, Riker patiently tuned his instrument. After a moment or two he noticed their silhouettes surrounding him. They emerged from the trees and closed Riker’s surroundings. “There! There be the bewitching elf!” one of them called out. The men pointed their crossbows and glaives at Riker. Riker, while calm, acted as if the men were not there and continued to tune his instrument.

“Listen to me heathen boy. You will surrender yourself and your friends to the order of the Green Province,” constable Guerra said with hostility in his voice.

“Or what constable? You will kill me where I sit?” Riker said not breaking his focus on his lute.

“Precisely!” Guerra said then looked around in confusion. “Where are the other two?”

“Gone. I let them free from my ‘bewitching’ influence,” the men looked among themselves and it seemed that Guerra bought his claim. “Let’s go! On your feet elf!” Guerra commanded, clearly not amused. Riker stood up and every man startled around him with fear.

“A bit anxious, are we?” Riker asked curiously. Constable Guerra wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “On thy knees. Now!” Riker placed his hands on the strings of his lute. “Stop! Do not play a single note fey! Or else!” Riker smirked at Guerra and began to strum. A loud clap of sound was forced out of the instrument, throwing the men back. The sound wave even bent nearby trees backward. Most of the men were stunned by the attack but three had quickly gotten up on their feet and charged Riker who continued standing and playing music. Everything and everyone vibrated violently, so much so that the surrounding human men held their heads to try to protect themselves from the trauma. Some bled from their noses, others screamed in agony as Riker performed a spell that shook the vary air around him. Suddenly Riker felt two sharp pains in his back. He was shot twice by a couple of crossbowmen who recovered from the spell. Once Riker fell on the ground Guerra came up from behind and struck Riker in the head with his metal boot. The remaining men began to beat Riker. A few used his own instruments to beat him with while others kicked and stomped on him.

Llorva

Vylasgarden and Llorva ran quickly through the trees and eventually made it back to the pixie pond.

“Now … we wait,” Vylasgarden said, trying to catch her breath.

“Moondance did your people set up the traps in the right spots?” Llorva asked.

“Traps are set!” Moondance said as she zipped by with a legion of other pixies who volunteered to help the trio with their plan to escape the militia.

Llorva faced the way they had come. This forest, with trees taller than any other tree she had ever seen before now felt like a great beast that had swallowed them up. Today had been the first time she felt danger like that ever and a part of her liked it, though she quickly dismissed the thought as it came to her. She began to fidget with her clothing again. She was nervous, afraid, and somehow, she knew she would feel better once Riker came running through those trees. As she waited she thought to herself, Alright Riker, now you just need to lead them this way.

Baron Von Riker

The first thing Riker noticed when he woke was the chirping of crickets in the distance and the pain surging through his body. He opened his eyes and saw tall grass surrounding him but his view was askew. Confusion flooded his mind as he tried to grasp the shaky image of his body being dragged on the ground. He looked up and saw that his hands were chained together and were being dragged by a pair of constable Guerra’s men. The shifting of his head caused warm blood to run down his bleeding face. Lastly Riker felt his wrists chaffing against iron shackles. Riker groaned and looked up at the stars. One last look at something beautiful before I die, he thought to himself as he starred at the moon. He reflected for a moment then decided that he should have stayed in Unum Island and kept his job as an evening performer at that popular inn. The pay was not bad and the owner was hospitable. Still, even now facing death Riker could not argue with attempting to find her, his beloved. After all this time, he just wanted to see her face again and tell her how much he loved her. He wished that he could tell her now in his last moments. Perhaps the constable would allow him to write her a letter. But would they send it for me? he thought.

After the ordeal, he had just gone through, Riker did not think that the town guards would honor his wishes. Especially since he used magic to manipulate two innocent people. As he continued to gaze up at the moon, Riker came across a shooting star flying across the night sky. He followed its path until it disappeared in front of a constellation he recognized. A solution, he thought to himself as he identified the constellation as the Phoenix, the demigod who governed and judged the lives in Veterumterrum. The Phoenix was also the champion of the ljosalfar elves, Llorva’s race. Riker never was a religious man nor did he felt welcomed by the ljosalfar community, but for his beloved, he would have done anything to see her again. He bowed his bleeding head and began to pray: Holy phoenix hear my prayer. I have failed the ones I love and the ones that relied on me. Please give me another chance at life and I shall be your humble servant. Please aid me in finding her and I shall praise your name to every man, woman, and child I meet. Please give me another opportunity to make things right and to see her again.

Riker shed a tear on his swollen face and began to feel a warmness take over his body. That warmness turned into a scorching heat he felt rise to the surface of his skin. As the heat continued to rise Riker began to cry out in pain and the remains of his clothing began to burn up. His skin glowed orange like hot embers and eventually the heat radiating from him became too intense for the guards to hold him, so they dropped him on the ground as the iron chains around his forearms melted away. Riker’s flesh and bone quickly reduced to nothing as the surrounding grass caught fire and spread radially in the field. The flame that caught the surrounding grass on fire also consumed the men and the field itself. The fire then spread to the forest and the port where trees, building, and ships burned till there was nothing left. The fire carried on to spread across the region and eventually, in a matter of seconds, consumed the entire planet in a great ball of fire.

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