A Quest of Knowledge

by Licinia Phaedra & Dreeill

Licinia decided that it was time to take her new position as Prefect of Nova Ara a little more seriously. It was time to learn more about the king and his people. She packed her hunting things, took some rations from the Barracks, and took her horse from the stables. She watched the guards pace the city walls long enough to dare and take a run for it. She opened the gate and charged, hoping she hadn't been seen. She was headed for Cimmeria. She knew not where she was going exactly, since she’d never been there before, but she knew she must try and learn as much as she could about the King's people, so that she could lead the city well enough.

She road her horse long and hard until he refused to continue further. The only other time she’d pushed him that hard was when she was coming back home from Sukhmet. This was different though, she wasn’t running from anyone this time. Not really anyway. Neighing and nearly bucking Lici off, the horse told her it was time to rest.

The shine of the moonlight through the cracks in the lean-to kept Licinia awake. She could hear the rustling of the tall oak tree she had chosen to camp under. In all her years of hunting, this was the first time she felt nervous alone. Was the position of Prefect already taming her senses? Sleep was hard to come by this night; she lay awake for hours attentively listening to the familiar noises of the wild. Eventually she dozed off, her dagger in-hand.

After a few days of travel, the guilt of fleeing so silently got the best of her. With the sun shining low in the western sky, she stopped in a small village and found a young mercenary. She offered him coin for payment if he would deliver a message to Nova Ara for her. It read:

Dear Baron Garek and Captain Plinius,

I do apologize for not speaking with you prior to my journey’s beginning, but I am on my way to Cimmeria. I wanted to learn more about the King’s people, so that I could better lead the Cimmerian citizens we already have, and any more we may inherit over time. Please forgive me for not discussing this with you, and for not requiring protection from the guard. I have many things still to learn as Prefect of Nova Ara.

If you feel you must send some accompaniments, I’ll be headed to their mountains, the Eiglophian I believe they are called. As a hunter, you must realize I want to see the wild beasts of Cimmeria, for I know there are strange and new animals I’ve never seen. I want to stop in the villages on the way, to learn about the Cimmerian way of life. Fear not, for I am fully capable of protecting myself, but I understand if you think you must have someone escort me on the rest of my journey.

Licina Phaedra

Prefect and Scribe

Nova Ara

The mercenary took the note straight away, leaving Licinia to continue on her travels. She headed north until reaching the Shirki River. It reminded her of the Tybor where she grew up, but it was too big for her to cross. The water glistened in the sunlight, and the cool river breeze licked her cheeks as she rode along the eastern bank. She found a crossing at the city of Galparan, and decided that she must stay and show her respects to the Clergy there, on behalf of the High Priest.

The garden in front of the temple was filled with lush flowers and thick green grass. Nearby bushes were adorned with berries and even what looked like small nuts. It was quiet except for the chirping of two birds. Following the cobblestone path, Licinia walked meekly into the temple, hoping she wouldn’t be disturbing anything.

An old man saw her enter, and without looking up from his parchment, he spoke to her.

“Good day to you, stranger. What is it you seek from within these walls?”

Licinia was not much of a religious believer because of her past, but she knew she must contain her personal feelings for the time being. Clearing her throat, as if to proclaim her importance, she replied, “I am Licinia Phaedra, Prefect of Nova Ara.”

Immediately the priest looked up, his eyes softening some. “Then you must know Alchaeus of Galparan! I am High Priest Palatas Leonethes. I was Alchaeus’s teacher and trainer before he left for your land. How is the priest coming along?”

He motioned for her to sit on the wooden stool next to his desk, shifting the piles of parchments and scrolls to make room. Silently, she sat and folded her hands in her lap.

“He’s doing quite fine I suppose. Nova Ara is by no means large, so he’s getting to know everyone fairly well I believe. He has already benefited us with his presence. Some are skeptical, but such is the case with a town such as ours.”

Pouring her a cup of hot tea, Palatas listened intently as Licinia told him of Ayita’s kidnapping shortly after Alchaeus arrived, and how he’d helped heal the Baron. She told him of the small temple in Nova Ara, and how Alchaeus appeared to be comfortable, and how he had recently expressed an interest in helping with the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings in town.

Seemingly pleased with Alchaeus's accommodations, Palatas offered Licinia a room in the temple to rest. She graciously accepted, feeling more at ease after speaking with the High Priest. She gathered her things, and followed him down a narrow corridor to a corner room. Palatas opened the door, revealing a cozy looking pillowbed and hand knitted throw, a small window, and a fireplace with wood already burning.

“Thank you kindly for your generosity. I shall not disturb you or your clergy while I am here,” Licinia said as she looked around the room.

“Please M’lady. You are of no disturbance to us. Make yourself at home. We shall have supper in the Great Hall promptly at six o'clock shall you care to attend. I’m sure the rest of the clergy would love to know how Alchaeus is managing so far from home.”

With that, Palatas left Licinia to settle in. Smiling to herself, Licinia sat on the pillowbed soaking in her surroundings once more. Within moments, she was fast asleep, safe in the Galparan Temple.

Licinia enjoyed dinner with the clergy from Galparan, listening to the priests discuss Mitra’s lessons, arguing over the other gods, and so forth. Unfamiliar of their ways, she did not want to embarrass herself or Alchaeus, so she remained quiet unless she felt forced to speak. The temple seemed to settle down after dinner as the priests and Oblates retreated to their rooms for the evening. The halls grew dim as candles burnt themselves out.

Sitting by the fireplace in the Great Hall, Licinia listened to Palatas speak about Alchaeus growing up as an Oblate within the temple. He was always an obedient student, but there was a light in his eyes only Palatas could see. He was hoping that Alchaeus’s opportunity to come to Nova Ara would finally give him the push he needed to be the fine priest he was capable of being. Licinia assured Palatas that Alchaeus was doing a fine job. She knew more than anyone that it was quite difficult to lead the people of Nova Ara, everyone with such diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

As the fire died, embers flashing from red to grey to black, Licinia knew it was time to retire to her bedchamber. She planned on leaving early in the morning to continue on her journey and needed all the sleep she could get. After all, she didn’t expect to be treated as kindly in Gunderland as she was here, so she wanted to take advantage of her pillowbed while she could. Saying goodnight to Palatas, she quietly walked back to her quarters, trying to absorb the day’s events.

Licinia awoke to the soft chirping of birds outside her window; one single ray of sunlight forcing its way through the small opening. Almost forgetting where she was, she rubbed her eyes and stretched, trying to remember the dream she’d been having. Reluctantly, she clambered out of bed and quickly relit the fire which had turned to smoldering ash during the night.

She dressed and packed her things, anxious to continue on her quest. Licinia stopped by the kitchen for one last cup of hot tea and a small breakfast of oats and cream. Bidding farewell to Licinia, Palatas handed her a satchel of rations for her trip. Unsure of what to say, she hugged the High Priest tightly, grateful for his generosity. He also handed her a small wrapped package and asked that she give it to Alchaeus when she returned to Nova Ara. Nodding, she left the temple doors to find her horse already saddled and waiting for her. One of the younger Oblates was holding his lead, quietly watching a butterfly dance past. She patted him on the head and took the reins. The young boy smiled, saying nothing, and ran towards the temple. She mounted the horse and waved goodbye to the temple, almost sure no one could see her anyway. She rode northwest, the morning sun already blazing against her back.

The young oblate came around the corner running, grinning and giggling. Dreeill waved his hand to get the young boys attention. “Over here, kid,” Dreeill hissed in a harsh whisper. The young oblate skidded to a stop and looked. The young boy’s eyes lowered, bowing his head in reverence, he walked obediently over. “Yes Deacon Amon?” “Was that the lady I described?” “Yes Reverend Father.” Dreeill walked over to the corner of the building and looked. The rider and horse were dwindling fast to the northwest. “Did she mention anything about knowing me, boy?” “No Reverend Father. Ummm…” Dreeill turned and looked at the oblate, “You have something to add, boy?” The oblate toed a blade of grass with his bare feet, “Yes Reverend Father. Ummm… She’s pretty.” Dreeill smiled at the boy and ruffled his curly mop of hair, “Aye lad. She is at that.” He turned and watched the receding figure. “She is at that, lad.” Turning back to the boy, who was still standing there with his head lowered, “I need you to get my horse ready. Meet me back here in fifteen minutes with my horse ready for a journey.” The oblate looked up at Dreeill, “Can I go with you Reverend Father? I can cook and I like sleeping outside.” “I don’t think Father Leonethes will be happy with you leaving before you are ready. Besides, Mitra has other plans for you, young one. Now, go ready my horse. If you do a good job there will be a silver coin for your purse.” The boy’s eyes shot up and widened in amazement, “Right away Deacon!” Watching the boy run off, Dreeill sighed and looked around the temple grounds. He was getting use to living here. How long has it been, Dreeill thought? Six. No seven months! I have been here for seven months. A twinge of guilt struck him hard. He had lied to Leonethes about being a Deacon. He had told him he was a deacon from a village that had been raided and he had to run for his life. In truth, he needed a place to lie low for awhile. What better place than a temple. After thinking a moment, it wasn’t entirely a lie. He was running for his life. Stealing the chest from the pirate Amos was not the smartest thing he had done. The pirates had chased him all through Zingara. He finally lost them after taking to traveling by river boats. He found his way here to Galparan and the Temple of Mitra. Now, the last person he had ever expected to see again had popped into his life again. Dreeill smiled at the thought of seeing her again and headed off to his room to get his pack ready.

With his pack shouldered, he rounded the corner. His horse and the boy were standing there. Dreeill stopped. High Priest Leonethes was standing next to the boy holding the horse’s reins. Walking up to the trio, he flipped a silver coin to the oblate. The young boy smiled and ran off. “I hear you are leaving us Dreeill Amon,” the high priest said. Dreeill caught the fact that the high priest didn’t use his title of deacon. “You knew the whole time?” Father Leonethes smiled, “Father Mitra told me you are a good man. He also told me that the pirate Amos still searches for you. Be careful in your travels, young man. “ “Thank you Father.” “Dreeill, tell her how you feel.” “I don’t know what you are talking about Father.” Dreeill hopped up onto his horse. “I have to go. It will be a tough ride catching up to her.” “Safe journey, son. May Mitra be with you.”

He pressed his fingers into the track left by the trotting horse, “Maybe an hour old, Whiskey.” The grey quarter horse nickered. “Yeah, I know. I am a bit rusty from all the soft living these past months.” Standing, he reached up and scratched behind Whiskey’s ear, “I can still tell how fresh a tracks are, ya stubborn old mule!” Whiskey nickered again and nudged Dreeill in the chest. Shaking his head he reached inside his cloak and pulled out half a carrot. “You’re so spoiled. What are ya gonna do when were out here for weeks on end. You’re gonna be stuck eating grass, that’s what!” Dreeill bound atop the horse, scratched behind Whiskey’s ear and nudged him into a trot. “Let’s see if we can gain some ground, boy” It felt good to be out on the road again, the leather armor tight against his skin, the rap of the twin short swords bouncing off his sides as the horse trotted, the fresh air of the country side and the feeling of danger at every twist in the road. All these feelings made him feel alive again. I’ll never go back to the temple, Dreeill thought. How can anyone stay cooped up like that for years on end? Several times he checked the tracks. Each time they were the same, an hour to two hours ahead. “She rides like the Shemite devils are on her heels. It’ll take a miracle to catch her, at this rate.”

Riding at a steady pace, Licinia felt the warm Aquilonian wind blow past her as she continued on to Plinius’s homeland. She had some fun with her horse, jumping over fallen trees, splashing through creeks, feeling free in the wide open plane. She’d stop every once in a while, to allow the horse to drink, and to stretch her own legs, but she didn’t stop for long. Excitement was filling her body; her adventure was just beginning.

She knew that the Gunderlanders were not a formal people. In fact they were a more barbaric clan, constantly training for war. She wondered if that’s why Plinius was so quiet – he was always preparing for the next battle in his mind; going stir crazy when no battle arose. Unsure of how they would treat her, she attempted to prepare herself for what she expected to be a brutal taste of a savage life. She half expected the natives of Gunderland to treat her as an arrogant fool, with no true idea of war or struggle. What feared her most was how close she’d need to get to Pictish Territory; those were savage beasts she did not care to lay eyes upon. Something told her that the company of the Gunderlanders would keep her safe from them.

Slowing to a trot, Licinia neared a settlement just inside the Gunderland Region. Men were standing in formation, pikes raised high. War cries could be heard but it was obvious they were just training. A chill ran down her spine as she turned to see three men on horseback riding closely behind her. The grey-eyed, tawny-haired men had been following her! One had a spear in hand and the other two carried shields, but they did not charge her. All four of them knew she was no match for three Gundermen.

“What do you want, Aquilonian?” The one with the spear shouted.

“I come from Nova Ara. The Captain of my Guard is from Gunderland. I wish to find the land where he grew up.” She stated fearlessly.

“Who is your captain?” asked the one on the left.

“Gaius Plinius Marsus. His uncle was a pikeman amongst other things on the Cimmerian and Pictish Border for years. That is all I know.”

The one with the spear replied, “Come with us.”

The one on the right rode in front of Licinia while the other two stayed behind. They led her into the settlement, to a lean-to with what appeared to be a chieftain of some sort. The man, tall with a chainmail corselet and steel headpiece, turned to her without saying a word. As he looked at Licinia from head to toe, he flicked his wrist at the three men, signaling for them to leave at once.

“You dare to ride alone in these parts, Aquilonian?” he questioned, seemingly disturbed by her presence.

“I have come in search of my Guard Captain’s family, or someone who may know his uncle. He is from Gunderland, and I seek knowledge about your people. Nothing more.”

“Bah. All you need to know is that we are fine warriors that will stand up to anyone daring enough to fight us! The Gunderland Army rises tall above all else!” He shouted. The nearby infantry hollered in support of their chieftain’s remarks.

The echo of the men reverberated through Licinia’s ears. They sounded as one loud voice, barking the cry of war, and it rather frightened the girl. She knew not what to say, in fear of insulting the chieftain, or worse yet, the rest of the army.

Dreeill rode Whiskey hard to make up the time lost. Feeling the horse’s flanks heave and the snorts bursting from its flaring nostrils, Dreeill decided it was time to give the horse a rest before it dropped dead. Reining in Whiskey, he jumped off the exhausted horse and examined the ground. “The tracks are getting fresher, Whisk.” Following the tracks that Licina’s horse made, Dreeill shook his head in amazement, “What is she doing? She rides like she has not a care in the world. Look here Whiskey. She guides her horse to places she need not go.” Following the tracks to a fallen log, again shaking his head in amazement, “She guides her mount to places it has to jump over. See here Whiskey, her mount made a clean leap over this. It goes again to the other side of the road and she leapt over that boulder. I see no other tracks. So she is not being pursued.” Scratching his head, he followed the track down the road with his eyes. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure standing in the road. The day was wearing on and the sky was clouding over. It was difficult to make out what it was standing there. It seemed to be looking away from Dreeill. He followed its gaze farther down the road. The road meandered on up a hill and crested atop a long ridge. I figure on a horse walked along the ridge. “Licinia! Whiskey, we are so close. She’s there, up on the ridge!” The horse nickered and nodded his head. Dreeill looked at Whiskey. His broad body glistened with sweat in the late day light. “You’ve done well today, my friend. I’m afraid you’re done for the day. We must find a place for you to rest.” He looked down the road once more the dark figure was still there. Looking harder now, he could tell that it was tall, far taller than any human should be. The figure leapt forward and disappeared into the wooded area. He looked to the top of the ridge where Licina rode. She was gone now. A feeling of urgency hit him. Licinia is in trouble! His mind screamed! He looked at Whiskey. If he rode him anymore it would kill the horse. He had to find a spot for the horse to rest and eat. Back tracking down the road and moving into the woods, he found a small clearing. He quickly bedded down the horse and set up a quick camp. “I’m gonna go out and see if I can find that black thing that was on the road.” The horsed whinnied. Dreeill chuckled, “Keep an eye on the camp. Don’t let anyone in.”

Slipping into the shadows, Dreeill move quickly and quietly to the spot where the tall, dark figure stood. Kneeling down he searched the ground for the tell tale tracks. His eyes widened in amazement. A giant three toed talon bird track was imbedded into the soft earth. Following the tracks and working hard to not make a noise, Dreeill slipped silently into the woods. "Whatever was making the tracks it made no effort to hide its passage," he whispered to himself. "It's making its way in the general direction of the ridge." Sounds of footfalls made Dreeill stop and lower himself to a crouch. Listening hard he waited. Nothing approached but he could still hear whatever it was walking about. Come on Dree, he thought. Best not to stay in one spot too long. Walking in a low crouch he made his way in the direction of the noise. Trees gave way to a small clearing. Slipping into deeper shadows, he stopped and stared at the site within the clearing. Three tall, skinny bird creatures walked around a large mass lying on the ground. The bird creatures walked upright like a man. When they reached down towards the mass on the ground, Dreeill could make out a thin membrane attached to each arm, like that of a bat. What amazed Dreeill even more was the creature’s heads. Their heads were as long as a mans outstretched arms. The majority of the head was beak, as long as a broad sword. When the creature opened its mouth several small teeth could be seen. Without warning all three creatures threw their heads back and screeched. The noise was deafening. The noise went on for several seconds and abruptly stopped and they started walking about the small clearing. Whatever these creatures were, they're not natural, Dreeill thought. Grabbing the pommels of each of his twin short swords, he prepared to launch himself into the clearing. His corded leg muscles were about to spring into action when the largest raven Dreeill had ever saw landed atop the large mass. It cawed once and hopped to the ground. The bird creatures attacked the mass, their large sword like beaks stabbing into the flesh and pulling back large bloody chunks. He looked closer at the now bloody mass on the ground. It was a large brown bear. What could have brought that down for them to feed, Dreeill thought? The raven hopped around the bird creatures cawing to each. It stopped, spread its wings and started shaking. The raven’s wings started stretching, its feathers sucking back into the wing. The ends of each wing remained five feathers, each feather began rolling in and created fingers. The wings stretched out into arms. Popping and odd stretching noises, like leather was being stretched tight, could be heard now as the raven transformed. Within a few moments the figure of a man was sitting on the ground, a black cloak with a high collar was wrapped around his form. “Eat my babies,” the man croaked. Dreeill jumped at the unexpected words. The bird creatures stopped feeding and glared in Dreeill’s direction. “It would seem we have a visitor,” the man croaked. “Flee my children!” The bird creatures screeched and ran gangly into the woods.

The black cloaked man sat on the corpse of the partially devoured bear and cocked his head to one side, like a bird watching for the worm to pop from the ground. “I have all night. Shall we wait and see who flinches first?” Watching the man cocking his head side to side, Dreeill studied his target more closely in the fast dimming light of the twilight sky. The man’s face was hawkish, long and skinny with a big hooked nose, very bird like. His body was thin and lean. Remembering some of his teaching from his old master, he realized that this was a wizard and he was wearing a magical cloak. He had heard rumors that the wearer of such items soon took on the features and characteristics of whatever the item was intended to mimic; in this case, that of a raven. Outstretching his arms, the wizard threw back his head and mumbled words in a strange tongue. Expecting the worst, Dreeill tensed his muscles and readied himself for action. Nothing happened. The wizard just sat there, his arms outstretched. Realization struck him like a hammer blow! The wizard was summoning something, his mind screamed! RUN! Images of huge burning devils flashed through his head as he ran headlong through the woods. All thoughts of stealth vanished as he made his escape. A tingle ran up the back of his neck, a warning signal he had learned a long time ago not to ignore. Diving to the ground, he felt a breeze whisk above his head. Completing the dive with a roll he drew his twin short swords and came to his feet in a fighting stance. Crashing through the trees was a large version of the skinny black bird creatures that were feeding in the clearing. This one’s head was double the size of the smaller version. It walked on all fours. Its huge wings folded back, making it look as it were walking on its elbows. Its huge beak snapped close, crushing branches in its way. Its wings swept trees aside as though they were twigs. The massive corded muscles flexed as it stood on its hind legs, stretched its wings and screamed into the night sky. Knowing hesitation meant death, Dreeill sprang into action. Sprinting the short distance that separated the two, he slipped into the killer instinct. Ducking a swipe of the huge beast’s wing, he drove his left hand up. The blade sliced a thin line through the membrane of the nightmare’s wing. Coming in behind the now off balanced beast, slashing down with his right he carved a deep cut into the beast's hind leg. The demon screamed! Whirling around on its one good leg, it faced Dreeill. The beast opened its mouth wide. Two jets of black, vile liquid streamed forth. Instinct again saved Dreeill’s life. Diving forward, the streaming bile barely missing his back, he rolled, came up and buried his twin swords deep into the belly of the vile creature. The beast screamed in agony and shock! It flapped its huge wings trying desperately to take flight but its ruined wing kept in earthbound. Dreeill held tight to his swords as the beast jerked about trying to free itself. It screamed again as Dreeill twisted the swords. With an effort of strength and determination, Dreeill sliced the swords outward, cutting through the side of the creature, slicing through muscle, bone and entrails. The beast took a step back, black blood sprayed outward as the creature made its attempt to escape. Flapping its wings weakly, it looked into the night sky. Its body began to quiver, it wavered and crumpled lifeless to the forest floor. Standing ready for another attack, Dreeill listened. All that could be heard was his heavy breathing and a soft hissing, popping noise. He could smell rotting eggs now. Remembering the jet of bile the creature spat, he turned to examine the ground. The black bile was bubbling as it dissolved the grass and small undergrowth around the area it touched. Making a quick survey of the area and ensuring the beast was truly dead he breathed a sigh of relief. "I must find Licinia!" He turned and dissappeared into the shadows, heading back to his camp.

Before the sound of the Gunderland army silenced, four men appeared from the same direction Licinia had come. Their horses were breathing very heavily, yet running steady. The men approached the chieftain with no regard to Licinia. They ignored the shouting of the army, which obviously displeased their leader.

“Chief Riddyon, the beasts came back. Well sort of. We didn’t see where they came from or how they got here but…”

Looking at all the men that had just approached, a scowl on his face, the chieftain roared, “Why did you run from them, fools? Have you not trained for war? Do you not know how to use your weapons and kill those filthy creatures?”

“But sir, they were bigger this time, and there were more of them. And they were closer to camp than before. They were feeding on what looked to be the one we call Colossal Spirit.” At this time, the one who spoke noticed Licinia and continued, “Then their leader started to attack a man that looked like this one here, and that’s when we came back. The beast was twice the size of the man, maybe bigger. And the thing’s wings were…I’ve never seen a bird-creature like that. The man must be dead now. But the bear won’t be enough food to last them. He was already half devoured. They’ll surly come for us next.”

After hearing the full report, the chieftain bellowed to the army, “Prepare for war! We will leave immediately to fight the beasts of the south! They’ve returned! Bori protect us all!"

The ground started to rumble as all the men put on their armor, prepared and their weapons and mounted their horses with such speed and determination. This was a well trained army, of which Licinia never wanted to oppose. They moved into formation, one solid mass of men. One large creature themselves, they marched in the direction of the beasts, shouting war cries and bellowing for Bori's aid in war.

The chieftain grabbed Licinia roughly by the arm, mounted his horse and then demanded that Licinia get on behind him. “If there’s an Aquilonian man out there, maybe you’ll be useful. Now shut up and get on!”

Following the chieftain’s orders, she quickly mounted his horse, keeping silent. A swelling lump rose in her throat as she realized that if she were just an hour or two later on her journey she may have been the one attacked by these winged beasts. She feared it was Captain Plinius or one of his men that had been attacked before they could catch up to her on this journey. She was foolish to have left Nova Ara the way she did, with no escort in the middle of the night. All she could think about on the ride was how another man’s life may have ended because of her.

Coming up to the small clearing, Dreeill studied the scene. Whiskey was standing in the middle of the clearing, his tether hanging loosely. The only other item out of place was the black lump lying next to Whiskey. Slipping into the clearing and whispering the horses name so not to spook him, he crept up to the dark lump. Lying on the ground, very dead, was one of the bird creatures. The creature’s chest was crushed into a black bloody pulp. In the dim starlight, Dreeill could see bloody hoof tracks all around the camp. A quick inspection of the horse’s hooves solved the mystery of the dead bird demon. “Good boy,” Dreeill exclaimed! “I knew I could trust you to protect the camp. Now let’s get some rest. It’s going to be dawn soon. We will have a hard ride again to make up for the lost time.”

High up in the trees and sitting completely motionless Xibriti sat and studied the human. She watched as he buried the youngling the horse had killed. The thought crossed her mind to swoop down and kill the human. It was just a momentary thought, there was more to this human that meets the eye, she thought. She felt the death of her mate and knew that this was the human that had killed him. Ragzoth was always too headstrong. He never thought, just barreled in and killed. She shook her head; no matter she would have the wizard bring another male to this plane. It has been too long since the Pazuzu have ruled the lands of men. In a few weeks the younglings will be strong enough and no one will stop us from taking the lands. She spread her huge wings and lifted silently into the predawn morning.

Dreeill jumped to his feet, his twin swords out and ready. “Did you feel that? The ground! It shakes! Come on Whiskey, I think we have company coming. Let’s hope that it’s not a legion of those demon birds.” Riding hard down the road, they crested the ridge and stopped. The thundering vibration was a legion. Heading up the hill was a legion of Guderland men.

Riding hard down the road, they crested the ridge and stopped. The thundering vibration was a legion. Heading up the hill towards him was a legion of Gunderman. A dozen men broke ranks and charged up the hill. Each rider carried a pike and sword, ready to kill. They surrounded Dreeill, all with pikes lowered. A large man with long black hair bound tight to the back roared, “Ho rider! Prepare to meet whatever god it is that you worship!” “I have no quarrel with the men of the Gunderlands! I am a traveler seeking a friend that has come this way!” The Gundermen stepped in closer, his pike point close to Dreeill’s chest, “Dismount and throw your weapons to the ground. I will not ask again.” Slipping off the horse and drawing each sword slowly, he thought options through. A close quarter fight would find him a quick death. The surrounding woodlands were too far away to make a break; the archers would cut him down long before he made it. He sighed deep and dropped the weapons to the ground. Two men stepped in and grabbed his weapons and forced him back onto his horse. “You are Aquilionian?” Dreeill stared hard at his captor. “Speak or not, it makes no difference. Chief Riddyon wishes to speak with you.” The group of men rode down to the main body. The pike men broke away and melded back into the ranks of the massive army. At the head of the legion was the biggest man Dreeill had ever seen. His hair hung loosely to his bulging shoulders. Thick studded leather armor wrapped his massive chest and arms. At his waist hung a huge two handed sword, its hilt glinted off the morning sun but its blade was notched in several places. This man was no stranger to battle. Dreeill’s captor pulled up in front of the huge man, “Chief Riddyon, this is the man we spoke of.” Riddyon looked down at Dreeill, “This small man killed a Pazuzu twice the size of himself,” he asked sarcastically. A cry came from behind Chief Riddyon, “Dreeill!?!” From the behind the chief Licinia stepped forward. “Lici,” Leaping forward Dreeill wrapped her in a crushing embrace! “I thought I would never catch up to you.” After a few heartbeats he realized he was still clutching her tightly. A warning flash erupted in is mind, You’re not supposed to have feelings for this woman anymore, his brain screamed! He released her from his embrace and took a step back, “I… I… Um…,” he stammered. “Dreeill you…,” she stepped forward and slapped him hard across the face. A chuckle erupted from the men around the area. “Where have you been?” Her stern glare warned him not to give any smart ass answers. “It’s a long story,” he said rubbing his stinging cheek. “I was with the temple of Mitra back in Galparan. I saw you there with Leonethes.” Licinia wrapped him in a warm embrace, “We thought you were dead.” The smell of her hair brought all the feelings rushing back. He closed his eyes and returned the embrace. In his mind’s eye he saw Kallikrates’ warning glare. Then something odd, Kallikrates turned, drew his sword and attacked an unseen foe. Dreeill opened his eyes at the sound of Whiskey snorts. The horse was stamping his fore-hooves and his eyes rolled in fear. Roiling black clouds blotted out the morning sun. Black lightning forked from the roiling clouds striking the ground. Gushing spouts of earth and rock erupted from where each lightning strike blasted the ground. The thunder rolled on from each strike. Then the devastation struck. Black lightning blasted deep into the ranks of the Gunderland troops, scattering men and horses. “What black magic is this,” shouted Chief Riddyon! “It has to be the black caped wizard I saw,” Dreeill shouted over the thunder and screams of men and beasts. Riddyon glared at Dreeill, “Black caped wizard? Did this wizard have a high collared black cape with a gait that of a bird?” Dreeill shook his head. “Malta,” Riddyon growled! He turned to his captains, “Get those men back in ranks! Ready the bows, pike men to the front!” Riddyon continued to shout orders. Then turning sharply to Licinia and Dreeill Riddyon said, “This is not your fight. I can not guarantee your safety. You are free to go.” He turned and rode to his captains. An unearthly scream cut through the thunder and screams. A black silhouette streaked across the black clouds. More eerie screams echoed the first. What seemed like thousands of black Pazuzu broke from the tree line, all running hard and fast. Their wings extended enabling them to move faster, gliding over boulders with graceful ease. The Gunderland army roared a war cry to Bori and charged. “Come on! We’ve got to get outta here!” Grabbing Licinia by the arm he pulled her to a horse. “We have to help them,” Licinia yelled over the screams of injured and dying men and beasts. The black lightning struck close to Dreeill and Licinia knocking them both to the ground. Shaking his head to clear the buzzing in his ears he stood and helped Licinia to her feet. “You okay?” She shook her head. “Come on. They can handle themselves! Let’s go get your horse and find somewhere safe to hide out for a bit.” He jumped up on Whiskey, pulling Licinia up behind him. He ribbed the horse into a gallop and they shot down the road.

Licinia wrapped her arms tightly around Dreeill’s torso as Whiskey started to gallop. Her mind was in a daze, not from the giant bird-like beasts, but from seeing Dreeill alive. She didn’t even mind his extra long embrace, or the way he gazed at her unknowingly. In fact she got flushed when she heard Dreeill yell her name. As the horse tramped on, Licinia caught herself relaxing a bit, and loosening her grip around Dreeill.

The two friends arrived back at the camp where Licinia’s horse was grazing. It amazed her how calm and quiet that horse was, and how obedient she was. Coming from Stygia, her trainers must’ve given her the same tolerance as they did their slaves - none. With one short whistle, the horse came straight to Licinia and lowered her head, as if she were bowing to her master. Still not used to such motions from an animal, she laughed nervously as she mounted the horse.

“Dre, you’ve been hiding in a …temple? This whole time? I can’t believe it’s really you…” Her voice drifted off as she felt her heart thump through her chest. She’d never been nervous around the man before. Her face flushed, and she turned away, praying to the gods that he didn’t notice. She then remembered her blood oath to Kallikrates, and guilt came over her. Oh how she missed him. But she had no idea if she'd ever see him again. Trying to ignore her heart, she looked up at Dreeill, waiting for his response.

He slipped off of Whiskey and felt the horse’s side. It was breathing heavy. Not surprising, the hard ride with two on his back surely couldn’t have been an easy task. Watching Licinia, he pulled out a stiff bristled brush from the saddle bag and began brushing down the horse. He could still feel her arms around his waist as they rode to this place. He smiled and thought of how it would be if he and she were alone in a bed. His thoughts roamed further as he watched her. Her armor was askew from the hard ride, revealing more than was meant to be showing. He could feel his pulse quicken as he watched. Thoughts of how he held her, the softness of her skin, and the smell of her hair. Realization struck him hard. Mitra’s mighty hammer blow shattering the walls he worked so hard to keep around his heart! He loved this woman! Yes, that explained everything, the constant thinking of her, and the emotions as he got close to her. Her face redden as she turned away from his gaze. His thoughts were spinning now. She knows! Closing his eyes he laid his forehead on Whiskey’s flank. His thoughts raced, What should I do? I shouldn’t have hugged her. How stupid I must’ve looked. He sighed frustration and concentrated on a steady brush down of the horse, trying desperately to push the emotions he was feeling down. Hearing her soft musical laughter, he turned to see her swing into the saddle. She must think me a fool, he thought. He slipped the brush away, sighed and legged himself onto Whiskey’s back. Cantering up to him she asked, “Dre, you’ve been hiding in a …temple, this whole time? I can’t believe it’s really you…” Her voice drifted off and her expression changed from a look of relief to concern in a heartbeat. He looked back to the road from where they had come. Unable to look into her eyes for fear he would leap off his horse and go to her. “Leonethes gave me a place to stay. I was in bad shape and there were other circumstances. I will explain all when we are a bit safer,” he said. He chanced a look at her, willing his expression to remain neutral, he hoped. “We should ride, and ride hard. I can still hear the battle raging. I don’t wish to battle another one of those Pazuzu things.” Spurring Whiskey’s flanks he shot down the road away from the screams of death and battle. He couldn’t out ride the battle within his heart. The thoughts and emotions raged on like the battle off in the distance.

Dreeill sped off before Licinia could ask him anything else. There were so many questions going through her head, some she couldn’t even believe she was thinking. Why didn’t you say goodbye? Why didn’t you find me in Galparan? Were you planning on coming back?

With a click of her tongue her horse went right into a gallop chasing after Dreeill. Usually a fast ride allowed her to escape all thought and emotion other than feeling free from all binds of life. However, on this ride, she only felt restrained by silence. She couldn’t speak to the man riding beside her. She couldn’t get the answers to her questions. She had to wait. She wasn’t focused on riding, so many times she almost ran her horse right into Whiskey, causing both animals to neigh loudly, taking her from her thoughts into the real world again. She didn’t want to venture too far behind him, in case the Pazuzu beasts or Gunderlanders were nearby. The Pictish Wilderness was closing in on them as well. She had to focus on the ride! The more she thought the more confused she got, and it would only hurt them both if they ran into trouble.

After crossing a large hill, the rushing sound of water boomed louder and louder as they rode. Licinia whistled for Dreeill to stop. The horses needed rest, and she needed to find her bearings again. The priests of Galparan told her of the Thunder River and its beautiful yet deathly raging waters. She knew she must see it for herself, and expected it to be close. She felt as if the river itself were pounding her blood through her veins, flushing her with a warmth she hadn’t felt in so long. Was it the powerful ride, or being alone with a man she knew cared so deeply for her, she dared not know. Kallikrates kept entering her mind, the passionate intimacy they had shared only once, the oath they made to each other, and the way he left her twice. She could excuse his absence for war, but not for the situation with Blur. She thought she meant enough to him to keep him from leaving, but now she was not so sure. The way she caught Dreeill staring at her, the way his heart raced through his armor when she rode behind him on Whiskey - she knew this was a man that wanted her. Even though he had left the city, he never left her. And she didn’t think he ever would. But Kallikrates...

The horses came to a stop at the bank of the river. It was obvious anyone that attempted to enter the water, even just a foot, was putting their life in danger. She dismounted her horse, dropped the reigns, and stared into the violent waves, all without a word. Her horse wandered a few feet away to graze on a small patch of grass, yet Licinia didn’t move. She couldn’t. She didn’t know what to say or do, so she just stood there, silent.

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