Chapter Six - A Gigantic Problem
Lucas and Elizabeth walked in silence as they continued on their journey to Stelipse. It had been two days since they last saw their centaur friends and in those two days, Lucas and Elizabeth both rested and practiced their powers on each other, challenging each other to contests and fights, though they were careful not to hurt one another. They also learned new facts about one another. Lucas discovered that Elizabeth had two older brothers; her mother had died when she was young, so she never really knew her and her father had raised her to be able to defend herself against any danger. Yet, Lucas could not help but feel there was something she still was not telling him.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, listened to more stories of Lucas's world. She marveled at the talk of lights, colors and food. The dancing and music were her favourite parts of his tales. Her home did not have dancing or music. The only time she could run around was when she was away from home. She wished with all her heart to be able to go to this magical land, but she knew that this was not possible.
His stories of home were just as interesting as that of the dancing and music. To think, one home that would look after orphans. Here, they were on their own. She had sadly seen too many orphans and none of them had the same privilege that Lucas had growing up and this Linda woman seemed to be the nicest person she had heard of. Who in this world would take in so many children and give them their heart and love? Who would be able to give them a proper home, give them their love and then let them go when they had to?
As the two companions walked towards the town, Lucas was talking to Elizabeth, filling her head with new thoughts and images when all of a sudden, he froze. She turned to look at him and noticed his face had turned pale white.
‘Lucas? What's wrong?' she asked in concern.
‘I'm not sure,' he replied softly. ‘I feel … weird.'
‘Lucas! You are as white as a ghost!'
‘It's just that I thought I heard - ' Without being able to finish his answer, Lucas collapsed onto his knees, his hands flying to his head as he began screaming in agony. ‘Ah!'
Images and thoughts began to flash through his head faster than he had ever thought possible. To him, he felt like a computer, downloading every piece of information possible. He could hear dangerous and inappropriate thoughts; he could see men and women; he felt life and death. His head was hurting so much he could not stand it. Elizabeth looked on, terrified, not knowing what was happening as Lucas began screaming louder from the pain.
‘I wonder if he will get me that dress I saw.'
‘When will we get there?'
‘I'm so bored.'
‘Last night was great. I hope my wife doesn't suspect anything.'
Who were these people? He could hear them as clear as he could hear Elizabeth's continuous questions. He tried to open his eyes, but he found he could not. He collapsed to the ground kneeling over in pain, his hands never leaving his head. To Elizabeth, it looked like he felt his head was splitting into two pieces.
‘What? Lucas? Stop! What's wrong?!' Elizabeth was screaming now too, on her knees, grabbing his arms, trying to get him to look at her. ‘Lucas! Tell me!'
‘I … the voices! Can't … stop … hearing …'
She looked around and noticed a large wagon moving closer. As it slowly approached, the driver of the wagon stared at Lucas and looked concerned. He stopped the wagon, hopped off and began to run over to them. As the driver came over, Elizabeth noticed people looking out of the back of the wagon. More people came running over to see what the commotion was all about.
‘That is them, the Lost Son and that girl.'
The dark, harsh voice sent a shiver down Lucas's spine. Before anyone reached them, he grabbed Elizabeth and pulled her close.
‘Don't trust any of them. One knows who we are.' Before he could say more, another sharp pain shot into his head.
‘So, you can hear my thoughts. Well, I can hear yours.'
Lucas looked back up and saw a group of four men behind the driver. One of the men had an evil smirk on his face, causing Lucas to realise this was the face of an enemy.
‘I can hear you too.'
Lucas stared at him and found his eyes were completely black. He had no pupils, not even an eyeball. It was all just black, as if Death itself was staring at him directly in the face. Small streams of black steam seemed to seep out of his eyes, but no one else seemed to notice.
‘What are you?' Lucas asked the man in his mind, the answer already dawning on him.
‘Your death,' it replied slowly.
The driver had now finally reached the pair. ‘What's wrong?' He stared at Lucas who had now curled into a little ball. He was trying not to scream, but he could not help it.
Elizabeth was still trying to help him. She turned to the man and replied, ‘I don't know, he just started screaming. He is … he is sick. He gets terrible migraines. I think that is what's happening.'
‘How do you know it's that?!' the man asked, now yelling over Lucas.
‘His father warned me it might happen!' she yelled back.
‘How can I help?'
‘I don't know,' Elizabeth whispered, looking around.
As quick as it begun, the screams finally came to a stop as Lucas started to go quiet. He still stayed in a ball, but eventually after a few moments, he passed out. Elizabeth looked at him in horror, leaning down to feel his pulse. The man was staring at her, then to Lucas, then back to Elizabeth.
‘What was that?'
‘I don't know. He has never done that before,' she replied, turning back to the man.
Realisation of the strangers she was surrounded by and Lucas' warning of an enemy nearby began to flash in her mind. Quickly thinking up a story, she continued delicately, 'Passing out, I mean. Thank you for stopping. I need to get him home to his father.'
‘Where are you heading?' the man asked innocently.
‘Where is your home?'
‘In a village.'
The man frowned at her. ‘What village?'
‘One not far from here.'
‘Do you want a ride?'
She smiled at him. ‘No, thank you. I will let him rest for a few moments then try to wake him. If not, I will carry him. I am use to it.'
The creepy man looked at her and spoke to the driver. ‘Earl, we can't leave him here. We can take them with us to Stelipse.'
‘I know and agree, Alan.' He turned to Elizabeth and said, ‘I think you should come with us.'
Turning back to the man, she smiled and apologised, ‘I am sorry, but we shall not travel with you. I do not wish to burden you, nor would my friend. We will be fine here for now.'
Earl stared down at Lucas and frowned. ‘I'm just sorry I couldn't help him. I guess it's better now that he is …' He never finished his sentence. His face fell as he leapt up and started pulling Elizabeth up to her own feet.
‘Run! Come on!'
‘Wait! Why? What about my friend?'
‘What? No way! What's wrong?'
Before he would answer, Earl turned and ran off fast. The other three were on their feet and running just as quickly as Earl was. Alan ran but came to a quick stop. It was only when he looked back that Elizabeth finally noticed his black eyes. There was no white in them at all, black steam slowly rising out of them. As Alan jumped back onto the wagon, they were off.
I cannot believe it, she thought to herself. What just happened? First Lucas and then wagon man? Could that be...no, it can't have been...could it?
Elizabeth turned to the direction the man Earl was originally looking towards. She did not see anything at first and then she finally found the source of the other men’s fears. The same thing that made them all flee in horror; the thing that she assumed she would never see in her lifetime.
At first she thought it was a human's head, but it was impossible. It is as tall as the trees, she thought to herself. It would have to be countless humans standing on each other. No one was that tall.
All of a sudden, another head appeared, followed by another and another. There were now four of them and Elizabeth stayed very still, too petrified to move. She noticed they looked like they were searching for something … or someone.
She looked down at Lucas without moving her head and found he was still out cold. Slowly, she moved her body lower and put her hand to his mouth and nose and felt the small gasp of breath escaping his body. She tried shaking him, but he did not wake. She wanted to yell at him, or even slap him awake, but she was too scared to do anything.
The next minute happened so fast. One of the tall humans finally noticed Elizabeth and, smiling warmly in her direction, he began to move towards her. For the tall man it was only a few steps, though it would have taken Elizabeth at least a two minute run to keep up. The man was as tall as ten people were and as wide as at least six. She could not be exactly sure how tall he was. She looked up as he kneeled down to her. His face was now right in front of her, down on her level, a warm smile covering his face.
His voice bellowed loudly across the field as he spoke. She stared at him, petrified. So, this must be a giant, she thought. He had friendly, sky blue eyes and light brown hair with a dark brown beard that covered his chin. His face was as large as she was tall. His clothing looked very close in style and colour to what Lucas was wearing, which made Elizabeth wonder who had made it first, the giants or the centaurs? The giant had a pale, light brown shirt on with brown pants and she could instantly picture Lucas wearing the same clothes, and with the same beard.
‘Hello …' she replied, unable to stop herself from shaking as she responded.
‘Are you all right? Is he hurt?' the giant asked as he looked down at Lucas and studied the unconscious body.
‘I … I don't know.' She forgot all about her fear and turned back to Lucas. ‘He just started screaming. Something about voices. He has never done this before.'
The giant touched Lucas with his fingertip. All of a sudden, he looked up at the sky, shock taking over from the warm, welcoming gleam of his eyes.
‘Hop into my hand, little one.'
‘What?' Elizabeth asked in horror. The giant just stared into the horizon in silence and
Elizabeth turned in time to see a black dot starting to move closer very fast and getting very big.
‘It is Lord Barback's dragon. It is hunting, but not for food.' The giant held out his hand. ‘Hop on. I will take you somewhere safe.'
Elizabeth did not see she had a choice. Either she stayed and if the dragon was searching for Lucas and her, she was in trouble, or she went with the giant, but she had no idea who he was allied with.
‘What about Lucas?' She looked at his still unconscious body. She was not going to leave him until he woke up. They were both vulnerable.
The giant picked up Lucas gently and placed him in his hand. Elizabeth leaped on and sat next to Lucas's limp body. The giant raised his hand and Elizabeth watched as the ground flew away from her. In the next instant, they were across the field and the other giants were now with them. The giant holding Elizabeth nodded his head in the dragon's direction. They all nodded and moved quickly. They were not heading towards Stelipse but in the opposite direction and for every five or so steps the giants took, it was more walking distance for the smaller duo to retrace.
Eventually, they reached the edge of a small cliff and as Elizabeth looked down, all she could see was a large lake, surrounded by small rose bushes. Small lavender patches were scattered around the lake, the smell of the two flowers blending together in the air to create a beautiful fragrance. Elizabeth was confused. Why would the giants come near the water? They could not swim or breathe underwater.
As the dragon moved closer, one giant quickly descended into the water. As he went in, the water rippled, but she could not see any of the giant's body or shape in the water itself - no reflection, no dark shape. When the next went in, it was exactly the same until finally, the last giant stepped in. Only the giant holding Lucas and Elizabeth remained, who was still looking in the direction of the dragon. Staring down into his hand, he smiled and started descending into the strange water.
As they began to descend, Elizabeth started to panic. She moved to take off her shell necklace to place on Lucas, yet strangely, when the water touched her skin, it was not wet. When she was completely submerged, she found that she was in a large, beautiful valley, stretching as far as she could see. She looked up and noticed the strange, wavy water above, blending with the sunny blue sky.
It is an illusion to protect their home, she thought to herself. She looked down and staring at the valley, gasped in shock. There were tall, circular huts that were bigger than the giants themselves. It was like the buildings that housed humans of her size, yet these were big enough to house the giants. It was magnificent.
The circular homes were made from brick, different huts with different colors. Enormous red and pale brown brick huts filled the valley. Each roof was made from what she believed to be straw and as they moved closer, she realised it was in fact that on the roof. The doors were wooden, with gold, circular hoops as door handles and the windows were covered in beautiful silk fabric used as curtains that blew in the gentle wind. The green grass stretched out in front of them, moving past the village, and Elizabeth noticed a small field with a small lake just further ahead.
There were giants roaming everywhere, children of all ages, men and women. There were families; there were lovers. She had never seen anything so beautiful and peaceful.
The giant carrying Lucas and her walked to one of the smaller huts, entering and shutting the door behind him. He lowered his hand to one of the tables in his small home and Elizabeth hopped off. He gently lowered Lucas second and as Elizabeth continued to look around, she did not notice the giant gently placing the amulet back under Lucas's shirt. When she did realise Lucas was next to her, Elizabeth grabbed onto him instantly. The giant walked over to his window and pulled the curtain across, ensuring total privacy.
Elizabeth looked around at the room. On one side of the house, a bed laid, a complete mess not having been made that morning. One ruffled pillow was on the floor, the other she realised was buried under the massive brown bedsheet. On the other side of the room was the table which Elizabeth stood on and in front of her was a large chair. The giant walked over and sat down, a smile on his face.
As he spoke, it was strangely soft for such a large, powerful man. ‘I am sorry, but I had no choice. If I left you and it was you the creature was searching for, it would have ended very badly.'
‘It's okay,' Elizabeth replied, smiling back at him.
‘My name is Charles,' the giant greeted her.
‘I'm Elizabeth. And this is Lucas,' she added, placing her hand on Lucas, looking at him at the same time. ‘How did you know it was hunting for someone?'
‘Well, first I was told by some loyal friends,' he replied with a smile. 'Second, it is because Lord Barback's dragon never flies far from the castle unless it has been sent to search for someone. I don't know who it was searching for.'
Charles looked at Elizabeth and understood. ‘You are safe here, Elizabeth.'
She smiled up at him. ‘Thank you. Your home … your land … it's beautiful. I could not believe the sky.'
‘Yes, it is a present from the king of the merpeople. Long ago, he gave it to us for our protection. You can only enter if you are a friend of the giants. If not, you will just fall into water. It was an ancient magic they used, from the time when the merpeople and elves were friends, before they parted ways over the fight for reign over magical folk.'
Elizabeth went quiet and Charles stared at her with curiosity. ‘Young one, you seem to know the tale?'
‘Yes, I have heard of it though I do not believe it. I know … an elf of sorts. He is the nicest person I have ever met. I couldn't imagine why anyone would hate him.'
‘That may be, but whatever differences between your two species do not involve us. How is your friend?'
Elizabeth looked at Lucas. He was still unconscious, but at least he was still breathing. She could not understand what had happened, but she had a slight guess.
‘I think … I think he may have discovered a new ability. See, Lucas and I … well, we are not like others. We have powers, though they are different for both of us.'
‘Ah …' Charles whispered, looking down at Lucas. ‘It seems that this boy may be something more.'
‘I think he is. He has already shown two different powers I know of. He seems to have telekinesis and fire manipulation. I think he may have showed he has a new ability - telepathy.'
‘The ability to listen to others thoughts?' Charles looked at her with curiosity and awe.
‘Yes. He was saying he could hear voices in his head. I have … I know that merpeople can communicate under the water through telepathy. I have never seen it above water.'
‘You merpeople do not see what you do not wish to see.'
Elizabeth looked at him quietly. ‘When did you realise what I am?'
‘I figured it out when you flinched when we were entering the water. I noticed your necklace and saw you move to take it off. I would assume you were giving it to your friend?'
‘Yes.' She looked down at Lucas. She brushed away the hair covering his face and she looked up at Charles, her eyes filled with determination as she whispered, ‘He can never know.'
‘He will not hear it from me. However, I will give you some advice. The truth always comes out and it is better from you than someone else.' He looked down towards Lucas. ‘So, you believe he has telepathy as well as telekinesis. That would make sense as those two powers are both connected to the mind. The fire manipulation though? I have never heard of an elf with more than one power.'
Elizabeth looked at Charles in awe again. ‘You assume he is an elf?'
He smiled at her. ‘You mentioned knowing an elf, and then you spoke of the boy's powers. It was not that difficult to put together. I just wonder …'
‘What your fascination is with the young one.' Elizabeth blushed as he continued, ‘Once again, your secret is safe. You know the law, however. Merpeople and elves cannot be together.'
‘He is not an elf - well, not fully. He is half elf, half human. We can be.' She stopped and stared at him. ‘Hang on a second. Why am I telling you all of this?' She was shocked to realise she had been revealing too much information.
‘I have that type of personality.' Charles smiled at her, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Honestly, I have no idea. You seem to trust me, which is quite understandable. We giants are not a dangerous kind. We are a caring and loving group. What you talk about between these walls stays between us.' He turned to Lucas. ‘If your friend is half elf, then that may be why he has more than one power. He may even have more than you have seen.'
With that, Lucas started to murmur and move. Elizabeth turned to him.
‘Lucas?' she whispered, rubbing his arm gently as he stirred. ‘Can you hear me?'
Charles stood up and moved to grab a small saucer. He put five drops of water on it and walked over to them. Elizabeth looked into it and saw for her that it was like a small bath. She ripped a piece of the bottom of Lucas's shirt off and dipped it into the water, slowly patting his head with it.
Lucas opened his eyes slowly and stared at her. His eyes looked tired, heavy purple bags sitting under them, making him look like he had not slept in days. ‘Hey.' He spoke softly and slowly, his eyes constantly closing as if he was awaken from a deep sleep. ‘What happened?'
‘You tell me. You started freaking out and screaming about voices.'
‘I … I don't remember.' He had started to drift off again but fought to stay awake. ‘I can't …'
‘It's okay. I think you were starting to discover another talent. I think you may have telepathy. You picked up the thoughts of the people. You told me to watch out for one of the people in the wagon.'
‘In the what?' he asked in confusion. He looked around the room, trying to understand where he was and how he had arrived there.
‘One of the people in the wagon. He had black eyes - cold, dead, black eyes.'
Lucas tried to think back on what had happened. Slowly the memories of the day begun to return him: the walk to Stelipse, the voices in his head, the arrival of the wagon and the man with the cold, dead eyes.
‘Yeah, I think I remember something …' Lucas mumbled, rubbing his eyes as he slowly sat up.
‘What man are you two talking about?'
Lucas jumped at the voice. He turned around, looking at his surroundings and realising where he was. He stared wide-eyed and white faced at the massive house he was in. Leaning in to Elizabeth, he whispered, ‘Did we shrink?'
‘No, you have not,' came a soft chuckle. Charles had sat back down in the chair and Lucas turned to look at him, his eyes widening with shock. ‘Do not fret little one. I am a friend. You are safe and you must rest.'
‘I hit my head harder than I thought,' Lucas mumbled to himself, rubbing his head.
‘Lucas …' Elizabeth began as Lucas turned back to face her. His face was pale white again.
‘Lucas, if this is telepathy, then we have to leave until you control this. First rest and then we can leave tomorrow.'
‘You needn't have to,' Charles smiled down at the pair. ‘We giants can block our thoughts from telepaths. We can help Lucas adapt. I can also try to help him unlock his other powers. He will need them.'
‘Okay.' Elizabeth smiled and she looked back at Lucas. ‘You just rest. You need to sleep. Trust me, you look like hell. Please.'
Lucas nodded very slowly and as he lay back down and drifted off, he grabbed her hand. She squeezed it back until he fell asleep and let go.
Charles rose from the chair and walked over to a chest of drawers near his bed. From the top shelf, he took out two massive handkerchiefs. He folded one up so that Elizabeth and Lucas could use it as a bed and, walking back to the table, Charles gently lifted Lucas and placed him on the homemade bed as Elizabeth hopped on as well. The second handkerchief was used as a blanket, covering both of them nice and warmly. Elizabeth looked towards the window and out of a small gap in between the curtains, she found that the sun had set.
‘Sleep now, little one,' Charles whispered warmly. ‘Rest up and tomorrow we shall talk some more.'
And with that, Elizabeth lay back, shut her eyes and drifted off.
* * *
When Lucas awoke a short time later, Elizabeth was still fast asleep. Charles the giant was sitting on his bed, reading a large brown, leather book. He raised his head up, staring at the window before turning to look at Lucas, seemingly analysing him. Lucas only stared back at him with the same expression.
Lucas sat up straight and asked the giant in a polite voice, ‘I'm sorry about before. Can I ask who you are?'
‘My name is Charles,' the giant nodded at him in reply. ‘I am the voice of the giants. I assume you are the Lost Son.'
‘How did you know that?' Lucas looked at him, untrusting of the man in front of him.
‘Your amulet,' the giant answered. ‘When I carried you, it fell out. I placed it back under your shirt.'
Lucas felt underneath his clothes for the amulet before pulling back the top of his shirt and looking inside. It is still there. He sighed in relief. He looked back to Charles and nodded, his eyes filled with suspicion. ‘Why did you help us?'
‘I had my reasons.'
‘And they are?'
‘Your safety for one,' the giant answered in the same cool tone. ‘You are the one destined to free Bomcard from Lord Barback's evil. I will teach you to harness your powers and then you can continue to the elves.'
‘How did you …?' He looked at Elizabeth in shock, finding his answer at the sleeping figure.
‘Do not blame her. She said nothing of your destination. You are the Lost Son and thus I realised that is where you are heading. The elves will help you find your course to take.'
‘How did you know where we were?'
‘I'm sorry?' Charles asked in confusion.
‘You heard me.'
‘You can trust me.'
Lucas stared at him. ‘I don't know you.'
‘Very well then,' Charles replied sadly. ‘I will be honest with you, if you only give me the same courtesy. I did not know exactly where you two were at that moment, but I was informed by my friends, Marrett and Neomi, the fairies, of your visit with the centaurs. They informed me that you were on your way to Stelipse and our valley is on the way to the town. We were waiting for you.'
Lucas only sat there, quietly staring at him, his arms folded across his chest, as Charles continued, ‘I only knew that the guards were searching for a boy and girl travelling together, not of your importance. The fairies told me nothing about the situation except that you had to be protected at all costs, as a favour to them. When Lord Barback unleashed his dragon, I knew time was running out.'
Lucas continued to stare at him in silence. Charles looked at him, confused. ‘Is being honest not good enough?'
Lucas did not reply and Charles shot him an uncharacteristic dark look, ‘You need to be more trusting.'
‘I don't know you,' Lucas repeated, unable to help himself. ‘I don't know anyone here and people want to kill me. How am I supposed to trust strangers?' He looked over at Elizabeth. ‘Within a few hours of knowing Elizabeth, something felt … different. I could trust her. I have never trusted anyone as much as I trust her, not even my friends or even Linda back home.'
‘Who is …?' Charles started.
Lucas did not hear him and continued, oblivious to the interruption. ‘And people want me to trust them? How can I? How do I know that people will not continue to try to kill me? How do I know she will not make an attempt? I just came here and I do not understand why people want to kill me. You all want this Barback person dead, yet everyone seems to want me dead too. I do not want to be any lost person. I don't know why … why I'm …'
He could not go on anymore. He placed his head on his knees and covered his head with his arms. He hated what was happening. A few days ago, he was … well, he was human. Now, he had people wanting to kill him as he ran around in a strange, new world to prevent evil from spreading. How am I supposed to be king, he thought, when I can't even believe in myself?
‘Young one …' Charles spoke softly.
‘Lucas,' he mumbled from underneath his arms, remaining completely still.
‘Lucas,' Charles corrected himself, ‘you are a weird child.'
Lucas could not help but let out a little chuckle. He looked up and saw Charles smiling down at him. His warm smile made Lucas feel calm and at home. There was no evil or hate in his kind eyes - only love, forgiveness and peace.
‘Firstly, you trusted Elizabeth because you found a kindred spirit. Someone who feels like they do not belong in this world any more than you do. You do not belong in Bomcard either. I will not be surprised if you return one day to your real home world.
‘Secondly, you are one of a kind. People and magical folk are both terrified and inspired by you. There has never been a half-blood in any species at all. Humans and other creatures are best known to destroy what they are most afraid of.
‘Thirdly, Lord Barback knows you are the only one who will be able to stand against him. He will send men to harm you, to attempt to stop you by any means necessary. You must also remember that you have powerful allies on your side as well, those who would fight with you to the death, like young Elizabeth here. They will protect you as best as they can, laying down their lives for your own.
‘You do have the power and the strength to defeat Lord Barback inside you. You need only to learn.'
Lucas smiled and Charles smiled back warmly at him.
‘There is work to do before you are ready. It is not something that people can expect you to be able to do already. Your powers will need to be learned, to be controlled; your fighting abilities as well. You will reach your destiny. You need only time.'
‘Do you know who that man was? The one with the black eyes?'
‘I did not see him. Describe him.'
‘Well, he looked human, but his eyes were … well, pure black. I didn't see any white or other colour in them.'
‘Did this man have black steam seeping out of his eyes?'
‘I believe that you met a spirit,' Charles answered.
‘Yes, a spirit. A spirit is a dead human or creature's soul. It had possessed the body of the man you met. Their eyes change when they have been caught off guard. They mostly keep to themselves.'
‘I could hear it. It was looking for me.'
Charles looked at him in shock. ‘Looking for you?' He went quiet, staring out towards the window, lost in his own thoughts. ‘It seems he has plans involving some spirits.'
‘I thought they were supposed to work for him?'
Charles shook his head, turning back to Lucas. ‘No, not for him but with him and only when he needs them. Every other time he keeps most of them locked up. They are his slaves.'
‘They're dead though, so can't they like, escape or something? Float through the walls?'
‘Barback is a sorcerer. He has them locked in a dungeon where they cannot escape. Spirits stick together. They will work with him to ensure the safety of the rest.'
‘So, what do we do now?'
‘Now you go back to sleep. You will need all your rest. Tomorrow, we shall discover what powers you have.'
‘I'm sorry about the way I spoke,' Lucas apologised to the giant. 'About breaking down.'
‘It is quite fine,' Charles replied warmly. 'I do not mind.'
Lucas turned to go back to sleep and could continue to feel Charles's eyes on him, even as he finally drifted off. Even as he fell asleep, the giant stared at him, pain in his eyes as he realised the burden Lucas was under was slowly becoming heavier.