“I knew you were idiotic, but this goes beyond even my expectations.” Saron said as I finished explaining what had happened.
“A fire mage that can talk to her fire…. Do you have any idea how rare that is? Most elemental mages cast their spells and then have no control over their effects after the spell has been cast.” Christopher said with wonder.
Saron ignored Christopher as he continued, his voice eerily calm, “First you challenge another Black Cat, who luckily leaves you alive. Then you decide that you will protect a woman you just met, from trained bounty hunters, at the risk of your own life.”
“I couldn’t very well leave her to die, Saron. What was I-” I began, making a calming gesture.
A voice spoke up from behind me, interrupting me. “I-I am very sorry that I put y-your friend in danger Saron. B-but if he hadn’t been there, I would be d-dead, or w-worse by now.” I turned around to find Rose in a deep bow towards Saron.
Saron studied her for a few minutes, not saying anything, before speaking slowly. “Very well. We are already a band of wanted men. What can one more person joining us do?”
As soon as Saron finished, Christopher grabbed Rose and pulled her aside excitedly. I breathed a sigh of relief and watched Rose as Christopher asked her a series of questions that she obviously didn’t know the answers to.
“I knew that you were a softy at heart Saron.” I spoke quietly, not wanting to disturb Christopher’s moment.
Saron glanced in my direction before he turned back to the two kids. “Your way of thinking is starting destroy my defences.”
“What do you mean by that exactly?” I responded with a raised eyebrow, a small smile forming on my lips.
“You still don’t get it? You saved our lives, you put your life on the line to save us. To save me. When someone with such an optimistic worldview shows you again and again that you can do the right thing, it makes you begin to wonder if, ‘maybe I can make a difference’, maybe I don’t have to give in to the terrible things that might happen.” Saron leaned against the wall of our room. He tried to hide it, but I could see pain and sorrow cross his face as he spoke.
I frowned at his pain and his words. “Thank you Saron. The truth is, I don’t know if everything will turn out alright. I have to hope it will, because what would life be like if you spent every day worrying so much about the terrible things that can happen, where you are so sure you can’t make a difference, you don’t even try.”
“That is why you are a hero, at least to us.” Christopher entered our conversation.
I jumped, a little startled. I had been so distracted, that I hadn’t noticed that him and Rose had stopped their conversation to listen to ours.
Christopher continued after giving me an apologetic smile for startling me, “You aren’t afraid to do the right thing. You don’t realize how rare that is.”
I looked up at the sky, considering my response. “I wish I could say that it was all me, but if it weren’t for the goddess Maria, I would be as scared to act as most people are.”
“I-I don’t think that that is it.” Rose spoke up, stepping around Christopher, she looked at both Saron and I shyly “T-the g-goddess Maria can’t make you do anything t-that you weren’t already willing to do.”
I wasn’t convinced, but I didn’t want to argue the point with them. So I changed the subject to something a little more important. “How are the supplies coming?”
I could tell that my change in subject didn’t fool anyone, but they let it go as Saron answered, “We should have all of the supplies we need in four days, the real question is what do we do once we get those supplies? If we do decide to leave this town, we will have to worry about passing the border guards undetected. They won’t be happy to let a large group of humans pass them by.”
“H-humans?” Rose asked.
We all flinched as we realized that Rose hadn’t seen any of the freemen without their head coverings. Christopher turned his gaze to Saron, who sighed.
Saron reached up to his head wrappings and unwound them, showing his lack of animal characteristics. “Drew is the only true beastmen amongst us.”
Rose stared at his head with an unknown expression before she nodded once. “W-well, i-it’s not like I have much choice. T-thank you for t-taking me in.” She bowed to all of us awkwardly.
Saron re-wrapped his head, “of course. Drew wouldn’t have been happy with me if I had refused.” He said, giving her a gentle smile.
I smiled, before pushing myself off of the wall and stretching “For now, I need to give Luna some exercise, feel free to join me if you wish.” I nodded to everyone there, before grabbing my scabbard and Luna’s riding tools.
I could hear Saron’s footsteps as he followed me out of the inn and towards the stable.
As I entered the stable, Luna gave me a look, berating me for taking so long to give her exercise.
I smiled at her, as I reached into my inventory and handed her an apple to snack on. She daintily ate it as I placed her blanket and saddle on her. “Hello girl. I’m sorry for taking so long, things kept distracting me.” I whispered as I prepared to mount her. I still wasn’t used to riding without reins. But I had found horseback riding very fun as a kid, so i’d had a professional teach me how to guide with just my legs.
Luna stood still as I stepped in the stirrup and swung my leg over her back.
“Your horse is very smart.” Saron commented as we rode out of the stables together.
Luna huffed in agreement, while I just smiled.
I slowly got back into the rhythm of horseback riding, letting the small activity distract me from the day and my thoughts.
“I almost died again today.” I said after a few minutes. “I still don’t know how I feel about it.”
Saron looked at the road, thinking about how to respond “No one ever knows how to feel.” Saron responded.
I looked at Saron and was again reminded that this man was barely eighteen. If that.
As we left the city, we entered into a comfortable silence. To my surprise I found myself simply enjoying the beautiful sights. Farmers were working zealously in their fields as travelers of all kinds passed us by on the road. A forest stretched out endlessly a few meters past the last of the farmer’s fields. Through the forest’s leaves, I saw glimpses of animals and creatures that I had never seen before.
I leaned forward in my saddle, trying to get a better view of the creatures I could barely see.
None of the monsters in the forest ever went past a certain line, it reminded me of a game feature called wards. It was a magical item which would create a large dome that monsters couldn’t enter. Maybe there was a ward around the city of Jein?
Galloping hooves distracted me from my thoughts. Three riders galloped down the road dodging carts as they rode. Familiar laughter hit my ears, I frowned trying to remember who it reminded it me of.
The riders stopped and a young woman I recognized leaned over her horse laughing. Two red wings lay on her back, while red feathers flowed through her hair. Her ruby lips smiled at the other two riders, obviously having enjoyed the race the had just had. She turned her deep blue eyes to the road where she caught sight of me.
She simply stared, unknown thoughts passing through her mind as the other two riders caught up with her.
I turned my attention to the other riders, one of whom was a young man with wolf ears, he wore silk clothing and had a rapier at his side. I assumed he was a noble of some sort or another. The second rider had brown feathers in his hair, a short sword at his waist and wore a small shield on his back. It took me a moment, but I recognized him from the Lady’s entourage when I first met her.
The two men followed Lady Charlotte’s gaze to Saron and I. I bowed to them, Saron a second behind me.
“Hello again, Priest of Maria.” Charlotte’s musical voice still held the amusement she had gained from her race, “Forgive me, I seem to have forgotten your name.” She smiled a guilty smile at me as she spoke
“Hello again Lady Charlotte, I don’t think I ever gave you my name, I was a little distracted at the time.” I rise out of my bow with a smile. “My name is Drew.”
The wolfman noble moved his horse forward to study me, “Who is this, Charlotte?” he asked.
I noticed that Charlotte’s smile vanished for a second, before reappearing as if nothing had happened. “This man saved my life a few days ago, when the Black Cats tried to kill me.” She said, gratitude obvious in her voice.
An unknown expression crossed the Noble’s face. “You are very young for a priest. You aren’t an acolyte?”
It wasn’t a compliment, but I took it as one. “Thank you. Maria herself chose me as her priest.”
They all looked at me in shock, Charlotte spoke first, surprise evident in her voice, “You are a Champion?”
The Noble’s face burned with anger, “You dare claim yourself a Champion in front of me?” The wolfen noble unsheathed his sword.
Saron unsheathed his sword as well, while the man who hadn’t spoken yet unclipped his shield and drew his sword.
I stared at the Noble in confusion, why would that anger him? I hesitated to unsheathe my sword as well, knowing that if I did, the battle would begin and it wouldn’t stop until someone was dead.
“You will stop that this instant, Tamen.” Charlotte spoke up with a commanding voice, stopping me as I reached for my sword and dagger. She turned to me as she spoke, “Forgive him, he is a devout follower of Troi. Being a priest of Maria was bad enough for him, but being a champion would make you an even larger target.” She turned to Tamen, who still hadn’t put away his sword. “Tamen, this man saved my life, if you don’t put that sword away this instant, I will have my father destroy your family until they are nothing more than servants, that is if Drew and his bodyman don’t kill you first.” Her voice fluctuated with some kind of magical power.
The power made me know that her word is law, I wouldn’t dare disobey her. A burning sensation on my chest distracted me. My pendant had gotten red hot. After a moment, the magic seemed to wash away from my brain, allowing me to resist her words.
It only took a second before the man named Tamen put his sword away. Saron followed suit a moment later. The bodyguard waited a few more seconds before he put his sword away.
Once all of the weapons were sheathed, Charlotte turned her gaze to me and smiled a contemplative smile, “You didn’t look very worried, even when swords were drawn.” She remarked
I stopped my instinct to laugh. Yes I had been worried, but there was no reason for me to tell the Wolfen Noble that. So I responded with “I have had a lot of interesting experiences lately. They have made everything else look rather tame in all honesty.”
“Mmm. Well Drew, this has been quite an interesting meeting. Please do visit me and my father at our estate. I believe that we have tomorrow morning free. Do visit us then.” She spoke with command in her voice, making it clear that she wasn’t offering me a choice. She nodded at both Saron and I, before she turned her horse around and left us, her entourage following a moment later.
“There is never a dull moment with you around.” Saron said from beside me.
“I would be fine with a couple of dull moments, actually.” I said in response, “All of this action is exhausting me.”
Saron chuckled, but I hadn’t been joking. I really needed some rest.
“Saron, who is the god Troi and why does his follower want to kill me?” I said with irritation.
Saron looked at me in surprise, “You don’t know who Troi is? Sometimes you still surprise me Drew.” Saron scratched the beginnings of a beard on his face. “I am not exactly an expert, but from what I understand, Troi is the god of law. He believes that the god’s shouldn’t have champions amongst the mortal population, from what I understand, he only keeps champions himself, because that is the only way to keep some semblance of power in the games that the gods play.”
“Okay. So he doesn’t believe that the gods should have champions. Why would that make someone I just met want to kill me?” I asked, turning Luna around and heading back towards the town.
Saron shrugged, “I have never read the Scriptures Of Troi myself, but I have been told that while they don’t expressly say it. They suggest over and over again that his representatives should kill any other champions that they meet.”
I scoff. “What a stupid god of law. Suggesting to his followers that they should kill indiscriminately simply because he doesn’t like the fact that other gods have champions.”
A small smile appears on Saron’s face as he nods.
The rest of my ride on Luna was filled with speculation on what Charlotte wanted with me. Unfortunately, that meant that I didn’t get the relaxation I had been hoping the ride would give me.
We arrived back at the inn at dusk. I quickly took care of Luna, before I hurried up to my cot, excited at the prospect of some sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep, because waiting for me in my room were James, the man who could work with monster materials, Anna, our merchant, Christopher, Leon, Timon and surprisingly Shay, the woman who had scouted the prison for us.
They stood up as we entered the room. Saron looked surprised to see them as well, so I assumed that he didn’t know what this was about either.
“Good evening Drew, Saron.” Anna spoke up, obviously leading the conversation.
“Good evening.” I responded as I took off my sword and dagger sheath,
Saron simply nodded in response.
Anna took a deep breath before she continued, obviously nervous about something “There have been a lot of discussions going around amongst the freemen lately. One of the more important conversations is about what we should do once we are back in our home kingdom.” She paused as she thought about how she wanted to phrase what she was saying “Most of us have lost our livelihoods and will be unable to find any kind of work once we get back. So we have discussed it and we have almost unanimously reached a decision. Drew, Priest of Maria, will you take us in to your service?”
Every man in the room got to their knees and to my surprise, Saron followed them. Then they said as one, “Drew, Priest of Maria, we offer to fight for you, to die with you, to follow you wherever you go. Please accept our oaths.”
I stared at them utterly flabbergasted. Never, in my wildest dreams had I expected this. Then I realized that they were all patiently waiting for something. I cleared my throat a couple of times before I spoke, “W-why do you wish to serve me...?”
I could see smiles from everyone in the room. Leon and Timon were barely holding back laughter.
“Just accept our oathes already.” Saron spoke from below me.
I stared at him in confusion. Clearing my throat again, I said, “Very well, I-I accept.”
Leon and Timon finally burst into laughter. Some of the others joining them.
I leaned towards Saron, still confused by the whole ceremony, “What is so funny?”
Saron smiled at me, his eyes dancing with laughter. “You should have seen your expression. Secretly healing slaves, under the watchful eyes of twenty men, and you barely blinked. But just now, I have never seen someone so shocked and nervous.”
I chuckle good naturedly at his answer, imagining how I must have looked. After a moment, I ask in a more serious tone “Why did you swear to me? Saron?”
“Anna was not joking when she said that we won’t be able to find any work once we get back. Most of us were warriors or guards before we were captured as slaves. Now, no one will accept our work for fear that we are being controlled by Beastmen mind mages, or some other kind of mind control. Most of us will be forced to banditry or mercenary work. Those who aren’t warriors, will have steep competition with others of their craft. But serving a priest of Maria? That is an honorable and prestigious occupation, even if that priest is a Beastman. Maria is highly respected in our country” He ended his monologue by pointing at the other freemen in the room, “Look at how happy they are. You have done the right thing in accepting their oaths.”
I woke up early the next morning in preparation of my meeting with Baron Luthor. Quickly, I got myself cleaned and dressed. I stopped to look at the men and women who had sworn fealty to me the night before. Most of them were lazing around in bed, but a few were getting ready for the day.
It was all still so surreal. And yet, at the same time, it was more real than anything I had ever experienced. I felt more alive in this world than I had ever felt in my old world.
It didn’t take me long to get Luna ready, she was obviously excited for what was likely to be a short ride.
Once I was outside of the stables, I found a guard and asked him for directions to Baron Luthor’s manor.
The young guard looked me up and down, before smiling at me, “Aye, I know where the baron’s manor is. It’s in the noble district, on the other side of town.” He directed me there, before waiving me off with a smile.
He was obviously in a good mood, which I had thought unusual for the guards around here.
It didn’t take me long to find the manor, mostly because at the manor’s front gates lay a flag bearing the figure of a flaming phoenix mid-flight.
Outside the gate stood two guards, they both stood to attention as I rode up to them on Luna.
“Good morning, Mr.Drew, we were told to expect you. You may walk in, we will stable your horse for you.” The guard said, respect evident in his voice.
As I was dismounting, I looked at the guard’s outstretched hand and realized that I didn’t have any reins to hand over to him.
I reached into one of the mare’s saddlebags, hiding the fact that I was accessing my inventory. Pulling out an apple, I handed it to the guardsman. “I don’t use reins with Luna, so you will have to lead her around with this.” I said cheekily as I walked by him.
The other guard opened the gate for me as I walked in. They must have notified the house somehow that I was here, because a butler waited for me on the other side of the gate.
“If you would follow me, Mr.Drew?” The butler bowed to me as he spoke.
“Lead the way.” I responded.
Inside the gates, the manor was rather beautiful. A small stream flowed through a beautiful garden. Flowers bloomed all along the path to a mansion built of brick. Two large double doors greeted me as we walked up to the mansion.
“Lady Luthor didn’t happen to tell you what this meeting was about did she?” I asked as we entered the extravagant house.
“Lady Luthor doesn’t share her personal conversations with a lowly servant such as myself.” He responded with a smooth elegance.
The butler lead me up a set of stairs to a meeting room with a breathtaking view looking out upon the whole city.
“It is quite beautiful, isn’t it?” A musical voice said from behind me.