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Chapter One: A Fiery Mist

Dawn slowly came after the long night. Beams of sunlight slashed through the gradually retreating smoke. The land lay scorched where the village had been. Only wooden frames and stone foundations remained to remind people that a village had stood there once. Only a few men remained, scrambling quickly through the streets. They could hardly be called streets though, almost impassable from scattered debris. Severin silently stared down at the smoldering ashes.

Unconsciously his hand gripped the hilt of his sword, hanging sheathed at his side. Many of the survivors had already left the village, heading for a friendly farm or the city of Dale to the north. Anyone left was simply scavenging for things left behind or heirlooms the fire might not have turned to ashes.

The small clasp of Severin's cloak seemed to glow as the rising sunlight struck it. Its golden frame intricately weaved around a small green gem. It had been a gift of his father as a boy. Later that same day his father had died when their house caught on fire. Ironic that the rest of the village would end as his own house had.

Footsteps echoed on the path behind him. Instinctively, Severin pivoted, meeting Byron's eyes. Severin could never guess what the man was thinking. Byron always seemed to be thinking of something other than he spoke. Years of traveling together had still not brought Severin to become used to the presence of the man. Severin's companion stood silently, surveying the remains of the village. The man didn't even seem to notice him standing there. Something flashed through the man's eyes, fury perhaps, but it was too fleeting for Severin to distinguish. Maybe he's finally decided to kill me, Severin thought wryly. He cut off the thought, wondering if after last night Byron might actually consider it.

"What do we do now?" Byron asked calmly, his voice as unreadable as his face.

Severin turned to face the village again. "North, to Dale, I suppose. We do have a commission there."

"Yes, I guess that's the right thing to do." His eyes flickered with hate for a moment, but surprisingly, it wasn't directed towards Severin.

"Get the horses, we'll leave shortly." They would have to ride all day to make up for lost time. Dale was to the north, near the Pinchot Mountains. It was guard to the only pass through the mountains that could fit merchant wagons. The pass was allegedly made hundreds of years past, when Sorcery's affects on people was still unknown. Mage's were hung on sight now, their own powers causing them to lose their sanity. Ironic that the work of madmen would be the most preciously guarded today.

Byron slowly walked back down the path towards their camp. Severin looked around. The forests all seemed familiar, vague memories of a past he thought he'd left forever. His attention was caught suddenly by a rider on horseback coming into sight. The man riding wore a bright red jacket, with gold embroidery easily seen even from Severin's distance. The horse galloped towards the hill Severin was standing upon. As the rider drew closer, a crest on his jacket caught Severin's eye. It was a bear, standing on its hind legs, with its arms outstretched. It was the crest of the Kingdom of Ekiel, a great city to the east on the edge of the Ekiel Forest.

The rider dismounted as he reached Severin. Even through the smoke-filtered light, the man's coat seemed to shine brightly. He slowly approached Severin, a slight smile on his face.

"It took me days of tracking to find you," the man exclaimed with a smile.

"I did not know there was a bounty on my head." Severin eyed the crest again, cautiously.

"Oh no," the man laughed, "There is no bounty upon your head. I was sent by the Lord of Ekiel to find you."

A messenger then, Severin thought. "What interest does the Lord have in someone such as myself?"

The messenger scanned Severin quickly, his eyes locking on the sword at his side briefly. "It is not for the Lord to tell a servant such as myself what his interest's are. I've only come to invite you to accompany me back to Ekiel."

"Accompany you? I have other matters to attend to that are more important."

The messenger still smiled his half smile. His face seemed to be a tangle of wrinkles from long service. "The Lord said you would be unwilling to come at first. He told me to tell you he has news to discuss with you about your father."

"My father?" Confusion twisted itself around Severin. His father had been a simple merchant. How could a Lord have ever known a merchant?

"Yes, your father, Jacob White." If the rider detected Severin's unease, he showed no sign of it.

Nodding slowly, Severin noticed Byron coming into sight, holding the reins of two horses. Byron gave a start when he saw the messenger, but continued to walk slowly towards the two.

Severin sighed. They didn't have any time for distractions, but he had to know how a Lord knew of his father. "I'll accompany you to Ekiel."

"Ekiel?" Byron asked as he neared, "We're going to Ekiel now?"

Severin turned, looking at his companion. Byron seemed almost excited at the possibility of going to the city. Perhaps he was beginning to miss the soft life as a noble. "I'll be heading for Ekiel, Byron. You should continue towards Dale. I shouldn't be too long. You can start on our commission, I'll meet you there."

Disappointment rang across Byron's face but he nodded casually, "That sounds like the best thing to do."

The messenger shifted, impatiently, eyeing the horses quietly. He looked about to gallop off from boredom. Severin mounted his horse, Lithe, and watched the messenger scramble back onto his own steed. As he looked around the clearing, smoke drifted up over the hill. The scent of flesh drifted along with the wind. His mind stretched back to another fire, when he'd first encountered that horrible stench. He would never be able to forget it.

"Shall we go?" The messenger tugged on his reins lightly.

Severin nodded, then brought Lithe to a gallop. Severin looked back to see Byron heading off in another direction.

~***~

The two horses ran side by side through the forest. Severin paid little attention to the messenger, keeping his eyes on the trees. Autumn was nearing and wolves would start to grow in numbers. When other food became scarce, humans would become their main course, so it was always good to keep your eyes open when traveling.

Slowly, as the time passed, the trees thinned. The sun began to drop towards the horizon. Before long, no trees at all could be seen on the horizon. Ekiel stood near the forest, but in the center of a great plain. Supposedly there was fertile soil in the city, which was well known for its high quality of food.

Over the horizon, two gleaming white towers reached upwards into the sky. The Towers of Ekiel had stood for centuries. It was a mystery how a prosperous city could exist when it was so far removed from the trading routes, but Ekiel proved that one could. Eventually the city walls could be seen as they neared. Also gleaming white in color, they stood high with an assortment of guard towers surrounding it. There was no doubt that they hadn't been used in generations though. No guard tower would be unscathed if it had seen troubled days.

When the two travelers reached the gate of the city, Severin watched as the messenger said something to the guards and started to leave. The man looked over his shoulder at Severin and shouted, "Just head straight into the town, the Lord is expecting you," as he disappeared in a crowd of people.

Doing as told, Severin dismounted and let the guards take his horse to a stable. Afterwards, he started walking to the palace. The streets were crowded with merchants and people. Simply walking straight ahead was impossible with carts almost blocking the entire street.

More than once, a merchant had begun to follow him, offering all sorts of 'deals' on items. With a stern look, Severin rid himself of the men quickly. Finally, the palace stood in front of him. Without speaking, a guard opened the gate to the palace. Strange that they would know whom he was without asking, Severin thought.

Slowly, Severin walked down the stone path ahead of him. The main palace doors hung open. As he entered the building, a strong sense of unease passed through him.

Severin's footsteps echoed noisily off the marble floor. The corridor ahead was empty, except for two guards standing in front of a thick wooden door. Their faces were as hard and still as rock. Each wore a silver breast plate with the picture of a bear standing on its hind legs engraved upon it.

As Severin neared, once again without speaking, the two guards swung open the thick wooden door. The first thing able to be seen as the doors opened was a large white banner. Embroidered upon the banner was a large silver ring with a golden triangle in the center. It symbolized belief in the One Source, in which all things have a purpose and are balanced. After the things Severin had seen in his life, balance seemed only a myth. It was strange though. Most kingdoms did not admit to believing in any one faith, yet here they had a banner for only one.

Ahead stood a man on a small pedestal. His eyes were an icy blue and he wore a red tunic with family sigils on the collar, gleaming in gold lace. The man looked very regal and composed, as if nothing could threaten his serenity.

"Greetings friend Severin." The Lord stepped down towards Severin, his long cloak dragging on the floor behind him.

"You have requested my presence, Lord Tamael?"

"Yes, I have." The Lord started to mumble something, but quickly turned his attention back to Severin. "Have you been informed of why you were summoned?"

Severin looked carefully at the man. "Only that it concerns my father. May I ask how you even know of him?"

"Yes, your father," Tamael continued, "and your village I might add. As for how I know your father, I have not always been the High Lord of Ekiel. I met him a few times during my own travels. Rather liked the man."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"Simple, we have a commission for you." Tamael smiled at Severin as though lost in recollection.

"I am sorry, my Lord, but I already have a commission to handle in Dale."

Tamael chuckled slightly, "Hear me out at least. A man recently stole some...items from here. They were very valuable relics from ages ago. We were just starting to understand their importance. You may wonder what this has to do with you, however. The man who stole these items is also the man connected to the destruction of your village, and your father's death."

A dark chill ran through Severin. "I cannot simply go chasing revenge when I have been hired elsewhere."

"I am quite aware of that. However, reports are that the man who is responsible, Damon Kearse, is in Dale at the moment."

Silence hung in the room briefly. Severin thought carefully of what to do. If both his commissions were in the same place, maybe he could exact revenge upon - no, it was nonsense, he couldn't go chasing after the man carelessly. "If I come across the man, I will restrain him, otherwise, I cannot abandon a commission."

Tamael nodded slowly. "If that is what you wish. Since you have traveled all this way, please let me arrange a room for you here in the palace."

Severin nodded slowly. He watched as Tamael called in a guard to escort him to his room. The room wasn't far from the Audience Chamber, it was just a little ways down the hall. The elegantly furnished room was of little matter to Severin, though. Quickly moving to the bed, he laid upon it, giving a long sigh of relief.

Slipping off his boots and cloak, careful to keep the clasp around his neck with a string, Severin crawled into the covers and closed his eyes. Sleeping fully clothed could be uncomfortable at times, but it had proven useful at others, and so now it was merely a habit of Severin's. Quickly, blackness came.

~*~

Severin stood in the middle of a grassy field. The stars shone, but seemed blurred by unseen clouds. It was a dream, Severin realized, one of those few that a person realized was a dream and could control. Somehow thought, control did not seem to belong to Severin. The grassy plain melted away, replaced by a rocky pathway. Ahead burned a bright fire. A small cottage stood, ablaze, its thatched roof scorched to a deep black color. Men stood around the cottage, heaving buckets of water at it to no effect.

As Severin looked down, he saw his hands, but they were far too young to be his own. No calluses lined his palms, only smooth skin. It was impossible, he thought. The urge to wake surged through Severin, yet he couldn't escape the nightmare. His home stood burning in front of him. He muttered unconsciously, "It isn't real, it can't be real. I have to do something!"

Rushing forward, Severin shoved his way through the crowd of people. One after another tried grabbing him, but he escaped their grips. Smoke filled his lungs as he neared. He could smell a horrible stench. It almost seemed like something out of his memories, the scent of flesh, a smell impossible to forget. Pushing aside all thoughts, Severin rushed through the doorway. As soon as he stepped inside, a wave of heat rolled over him, nearly bringing Severin to his knees. Sweat poured down his face, but he knew he had to continue.

"Father!" Severin looked around hurriedly. "Father, say something!" His cries went unanswered except by the crackling of the wooden walls. It seemed so real, but it had to be a dream.

As he kicked open the door to his father's room, the scent of flesh became stronger, causing him to nearly fall over. On the floor lay a body, although it was hard to tell it had even been a human. The flesh was charred black, its clothes were tattered beyond recognition.

"Father!" Severin cried out as he ran to kneel next to the body.

A voice came from the charred figure, even if its lips seemed to burnt to even move. "You must guard the Gate."

"Gate? Father, can you move? I have to get you out of here."

"It's far too late for me, my son," A black hand seemed to reach out as if to touch Severin's face, "Far too late."

Severin gripped the hand tightly, it seemed to burn as hot as fire, but he continued to hold it, "It can't be too late."

The figure looked up with blank eyes, "You hold the key to the Gate's. You must protect it at all costs."

"What do you mean?"

The charred figure, his father, gripped Severin's hand tightly, "You must leave now. The past is gone, it is too dangerous to be here."

The walls of the house seemed to disappear, replaced by walls of fire. "I won't leave you father!" Even as Severin spoke, a cold chill ran through the air.

A low voice spoke loud enough to shatter the house, "I've found you."

The ceiling collapsed. Pain shot through Severin's body uncontrollably. Blackness came once again.