“Faster, faster,” Fiora yelled as she whipped her reins again. The horse she was riding neighed along with her, as if aware that he needed to run faster than he ever had before. Fiora was leading a group of 30 riders made up by the best adventurers and guards in the town. Their mission was to reach and escort the surviving refugees of Duran who had made it to the forest.
That had been the original mission a day ago anyway. Early that morning, however, a magic construct from Mage Guild Master Ganus had landed at their camp bearing urgent news. The refugees were under attack from Empire forces and needed help immediately. Luckily, Fiora and her party were mere hours away by normal speed.
With the persistent urging of their riders and the enchanted wind magic from the few elves who had come along, the horses were flying through the trees along the path as if gravity had no effect on their bodies. If this wasn’t an emergency, Fiora would have taken the time to admire the scenery as it flew by her at normally impossible speeds.
She could hear fighting in the closing distance, however, and thus urged her mount to move faster.
“Men,” Fiora shouted, “Prepare for battle! Save as many as you can, FOR DURAN!”
“FOR DURAN!” the men, and some women, roared out from behind her. The trees suddenly disappeared as they rode into a forest clearing. Ahead, Fiora saw waves of refugees running toward them, their clothes ripped and tattered from fleeing. Every face seemed to be devoid of hope and filled with fear as they carried belongings and wounded. At the end of the group, the few fighters were resisting a group of lesser demons and magic users in order to let the people escape.
“CLEAR A PATH, CLEAR A PATH!” Fiora cried out, raising her hand to let a stream of fire burst forth above the heads of the refugees. The sudden heat and cries of horses brought forth cheers from the people as they scrambled out of the way of the cavalry. Fiora drew her sword and let loose a battle-cry as she fell upon the enemies. The magic blade glowed with flame as it mowed down the lesser demons, inciting cries of pain and anguish as it slashed limb from body. Her fellow rescuers joined her in her charge, trampling everything in their path.
“Aim for the warlocks!” Fiora heard an older voice cry out, “the demons will disappear once their summoners are gone!”
Fiora quickly turned her horse to chase after the magic users who had begun to flee from her attack. Her right hand swung her sword and her left hand released streams of flame on the warlocks, and the horses trampled the rest. Demons began vanishing in loads as their masters were killed, and soon the battle field was free of enemies.
Fiora patted her horse’s neck as she trotted over to the surviving defenders amidst the cheers of the refugees. She dropped down off her horse and saluted the man who seemed to be leading.
“B-rank adventurer Fiora reporting,” Fiora announced with a salute, a bit more formal than she usually was, “are you Prince Kenneth?”
The prince winced as his men laughed at him, “Fiora, please be less formal with me. After all, we shared mentors for a time.”
Fiora smiled sadly, “As much as I’d like to Prince Kenneth, protocol is one of the few things I can still rely on. With all that has happened . . .” she broke off silently.
Ken nodded, “You’re right, I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath, “Reporting, I am Sir Prince Kenneth Duran of the House of Duran, Captain of the Royal Rangers and currently leader of these refugees. I thank Adventurer Fiora and her men for their timely assistance.”
His loud, booming voice carried through the clearing, once again raising cheers from the survivors. Fiora and Ken relaxed visibly and shook each other’s hand.
“We’ve been worried,” Fiora admitted, “your brother had to be restrained from coming himself to save you.”
Ken raised an eyebrow, “That would have been interesting, considering James is not the strongest fighter. I’m surprised he even offered.”
“It’s a difficult time right now,” Fiora admitted, “the news was shocking enough of the attack, let alone the complete defeat of the entire country. Many in town are unwilling to accept that we might be the only safe haven left in the entire kingdom. The idea that we may be attacked again any day has everyone on edge.”
Prince Ken nodded, “I understand; I myself am still coming to terms with what happened. I think it’s only my military training that’s keeping me from breaking down. Hells, I might actually do that once we reach safety.”
“How are your sisters?” Fiora lowered her voice to a whisper.
Prince Ken shook his head, “They were broken up enough over Diana and Marcus’s death. Now with the king and queen gone . . .” he shook his head, “Neither has said a word since we began traveling through the forest. They’re in the wagon with the supplies.” Only now did Fiora notice 5 large wagons being pulled along by deer with the refugees.
Ken followed her gaze, “The emergency tunnel led to a heavy forested area. Per a secret treaty with the elves of the forest, this path has been enchanted to never become overgrown and the deer willingly allowed themselves to be hooked to the wagons. There’s enough food to feed half the city for a month as well.”
“That’s good, because harvest season just finished and we won’t be able to grow more food till next summer,” Fiora noted, “as profitable as a slime dungeon is, it doesn’t help when it comes to food. Rationing will let us survive for a few months at least.”
Ken shook his head, “These are things to be discussed later. Allow me to introduce you to Mage Ganus while my men prepare everyone to move forward.”
Fiora followed the prince over to an older looking man who was resting on one of the wagons. The elder raised his hand in greeting and offered her a weak smile.
“I’m pleased to finally meet you Adventurer Fiora,” Ganus said, “I’ve only heard good things about you from Master Mary’s reports.”
Fiora blinked, “You’re the one who shouted about killing the warlocks.”
“Aye, I am indeed,” Ganus nodded, “I would have taken care of the deed myself except I’m the only experienced mage here and had to focus on casting defensive spells to counter their curses and hexes. Thank you for the help, by the way.”
Fiora waved him off, “Think nothing of it sir, I was merely doing my duty. Er, you’ve read reports on me from the Adventurer’s Guild?”
Ganus chuckled, “I know what you’re thinking: how did a Mage Guild representative get hold of Adventurer Guild reports? Well, besides the limelight that fell on you following both attacks on your dungeon town, the mage guild has always pursued a high level of cooperation with the adventurer’s guild.”
“I’m sorry to say, but there was a third attack,” Fiora reported, “luckily for us we were able to contain it, but it was still a tragedy.”
Ganus and Ken bowed their heads and muttered a quick prayer for the dead.
“Between Representative Ganus of the council and my status as prince, we are all that exists for leadership here,” Ken said, “What’s the current situation in town?”
“Not great,” Fiora admitted, “the attack shook things up for everyone, but the news of the fall of Duran and Nehatra has everyone concerned The elves have completely moved into their conclave after fleeing their forest home, and some of the adventurers have taken to using the elves as an outlet for their fear and anger. The guards are hard-pressed keeping the peace. The priests are all massed in their head temple for prayer, and Father Jonas was entrusted with breaking the blockade and reaching help from the other countries.”
“I hope he makes it,” Ganus sighed, “the Empire has gone too far this time, using corruption magic and demonic sacrifice. In addition to the church, this will ignite the ire of the guilds and countries.”
Fiora nodded, “For the moment, our only hope is that Father Jonas makes it and brings reinforcements. Your provisions will help us wait out the months, but if we are attacked in force soon we likely won’t survive.”
“Can’t the elves help with food?” Ken asked.
“We cannot,” an elf seemingly materialized next to Ken, “our magic could in theory raise crops out of season, but this would destroy the fertility of the ground and nothing would be able to grow for years. It would be against our nature to harm the land as such.”
“Apologies Leo, I forgot to call you over,” Ken bowed his head.
Leo waved it off, “Do not fret commander, I understand. Adventurer Fiora, how is my cousin Gran?”
“He lives and works hard as the elvish representative to the newly formed town council,” Fiora said to Leo, “he is a dear friend to me.”
Leo smiled softly before turning back to Ken, “Commander, the men are almost done with their preparations. Shall I ready the convoy for departure?”
“Yes Leo, we leave in five minutes,” Ken ordered, “Fiora, I have to go now. We’ll speak more later.” Ken left with Leo as they began to move the men into positions alongside the refugees.
Ganus sighed quietly, “He’s come a long way. I only hope the burdens of command do not drive him into the ground. We need men like him.”
“Indeed,” Fiora agreed, “that also includes men like you as well.”
Ganus glanced sideways at her, “Oh, what makes you say that?”
Fiora turned to face him, “I know about you Mage Ganus. My mentor has had only good things to say about you before. If you are here, it’s because some greater duty is carrying you than loyalty. Someone of your strength could have easily fled a long time ago.”
Ganus did not speak as he watched the people prepare to move, “I had planned to stay behind. King Duran ordered me to help save the people, so I shall. After that, perhaps I will leave and try to break the blockade or die trying. Everything I worked for is gone now, I suppose . . .”
“In that case, I have a proposition for you,” Fiora stated bluntly. Ganus raised an eyebrow at the fiery haired adventurer.
“Before the attack, we identified a boy with outstanding magic potential, but little control. In fact, he assisted in the attack and played a major role against the enemy. Master Mary originally had planned to send a letter to you requesting aid as a teacher for this boy before all this turmoil occurred.”
Ganus rubbed his small beard, “Where does the boy’s talent lie?”
“Darkness and control,” Fiora answered.
“A necromancer? How interesting,” Ganus mused. “One who could raise armies of the dead would undoubtedly be useful during these troubling times. How old is he?”
“He claims to be 10, and yet holds a mature air at times. His story is that he’s a war orphan.”
Ganus frowned, “I doubt that. It’s more likely that he’s a deep spy from the Empire. As we’ve seen, their methods are not merciful.”
“The test showed no signs of magical tampering beyond the normal dungeon magic that already pervades the town,” Ganus continued. “As to anymore proof, there is none. As such, it’s a gamble to see whether we can acquire his loyalty.”
Ganus grunted, “How high is his magic potential then for all this risk?”
“Right now, he holds the same amount of magic as a typical Magus,” Fiora explained.
Ganus twitched visibly and would have spat out his drink if he had one, “What?”
Fiora nodded her head, “I mean it, a 10 year old boy has the same magic capacity as a Magus. All he lacks is training, a guide, and control. His magic pathways are severely scrambled, typical for anyone without proper training, but still he was even able to create a ball of light that burned flesh.”
“Fine, I’ll teach him. Even if it could possibly be the wrong thing to do,” Ganus agreed reluctantly, but with a flash of excitement in his eyes, “I look forward to meeting this . . . boy. What’s his name?”
“His name is Rowen,” Fiora said.
Ganus stroked his beard in thought, “Well, you’ve attracted my attention. I will teach the boy for a time and we shall see what happens after. If he fails to prove himself, I will follow my original plan and follow my liege.” With that said, Ganus walked away back to the wagons to resume casting spells for the wounded.
“Fiora, hey Fiora!” a perky voice called from behind her. Fiora turned to see a shorter woman running toward her. Frowning, Fiora crossed her arms as the newcomer stopped in front of her, breathing hard from the run.
“Hello Annabelle,” Fiora said cautiously, “I see you were able to escape.”
The woman in front of her was small, a little over 5 feet in height, with glossy brown hair down her back and a beautiful smile. Her face, however, ruined any chance of making any impression beyond ‘cute’. Annabelle pouted as she beheld Fiora.
“Hey, what’s with that tone? Aren’t you pleased an old friend survived? Come on, aren’t you? Also, it’s Anny, remember?”
“I haven’t called you that in years, or have you forgotten our last meeting?” Fiora glared down at the smaller woman.
Contrary to how she appeared and acted, a gleam of cunning and pride could be seen in Annabelle’s eyes. She giggled cutely, “Oh please Fiora, do you still have a little anger from the teeny little issue? It wasn’t a big deal, we were kids and you know how kids . . .”
With startling agility, Annabelle dodged the slash from Fiora’s sword and grinned at her. Fiora’s glared, twisting her face.
“My life could have been completely ruined with what you three did to me,” she hissed, “I told you I would cut you down the next time I saw you.”
“Uh uh ah,” Annabelle wiggled her finger at Fiora, “You wouldn’t cut down a poor young lady in front of all these people who just escaped a horrible fate would you? Or, is that red hair of yours driving you to chaos again?”
As she inwardly scorned Annabelle, Fiora noticed the many eyes watching her from all around. The survivors were scrutinizing her warily, as if she could turn into an enemy at any moment. Reluctantly, Fiora stowed her blade.
“That’s better,” Annabelle giggled, “Wouldn’t want to hurt one of Prince James’ three advisers would you? That would cause so much trouble.”
“Enough Annabelle,” a gruff voice startled the two ladies, “Go back to the wagons. You’re causing a scene.”
Annabelle pouted again, “Stop ruining things for me Joshy; I just wanted to say hello.”
“I heard you do that already, now go.” The voice’s owner revealed itself to be a tall man of muscle with short black hair. Annabelle stuck her tongue at him before hurrying away.
“You’d think she’d act her age instead of her appearance,” the man said softly as he looked down at Fiora, “I’m sorry for her actions.”
“Hello to you too Josh,” Fiora said softly, her rage melting into disappointment, “I see you’ve grown.”
Josh grunted and chuckled, “Yeah, no more shortness for me. I could probably lift you now.”
“Very likely, now if you excuse me,” Fiora said as she moved to leave. Josh gently grabbed her hand and she stopped.
“Fiora, if you would listen to me,” Josh pleaded, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for years and . . .”
“No,” Fiora said without turning to look at him, “I will not forgive you. Alfred always aimed for something bigger, and Annabelle always hung on to whatever he said. But you, I never thought you would sell me out.”
“We were kids,” Josh muttered, “I was a weakling with no background. He was the prince; what could I have done?”
“You could have said ‘no’,” Fiora growled as she wrenched her arm free of his grasp, “Framing me for stealing from the orphanage, just so he could have the pleasure of throwing the ‘demon witch’ out on the streets? I could believe the others for siding with him, but not you. No, you chose your path Josh.”
“Fine, fine, fine then,” Josh spat out angrily, “You know James also feels regret right? That guy didn’t really mean for it to go so far and once back in the castle he couldn’t make amends. He told me that . . .”
“And you believe him? Judge the action and the result Josh! There is no room for desired outcomes if they don’t happen,” Fiora snapped, “now leave me be, I have to get my men together to escort you all back.”
Fiora left the large man behind, his fists curled in anger.