Excerpt for Artemis Caine and the Dark Mage by , available in its entirety at Smashwords













ARTEMIS CAINE

AND

THE DARK MAGE



































To M.







































Chapter One



It was a dark cold night. The sun had since long disappeared behind the distant mountains and the moon had taken its place illuminating the small village of Mercin which lay near the southern border of the mighty nation of Faeria. There was an intimidating and surprising silence which reigned all over the place and for an unknown reason the streets were empty and all the houses were plunged into darkness.

The silence was broken by the appearance of a lone carriage which moved on the dirty track leading to the village. A boy with curly black hair led a tired looking horse which was pulled the carriage and besides him sat a richly dressed old man who constantly looked at himself in a small round mirror which he held in front of him.

The boy led them through the village where they noticed that all the houses were barricaded. This did not seem to surprise them and they continued until they arirved in front of the only lighted place which turned out to be the village inn. It was an old building which was as bland as the houses around it. It was simple but well-built and had no striking features except for an old rusty sign which had been enclosed in the wooden wall and which said: The Jacks’ Inn.

-A fitting name for a village of lumberjacks, whispered the old man as he descended from the carriage with surprising agility.

The boy followed him and they approached the large and strong looking door. They could hear several voices inside which indicated that the inn was probably not closed. The old man checked the state of his clothes and those of the boys and with a satisfied look on his face, he knocked on the door. Immediately the voices they had heard inside ceased and a sudden silence took over. This reaction did not seem to surprise the old man who knocked again with much more force this time.

-Open the door, he said. I am but an old man searching for a place to sleep tonight.

There was no movement inside and for a moment it seemed that no one would answer him. But then they heard someone move inside and there was the sound of padlocks being unlocked. The old man and the boy waited patiently as it seemed that there was more than one padlock that needed to be opened. Finally the door moved a bit and a frightened bald face appeared in the doorway.

-Who are you and what do you want? whispered the man examining them from head to toe..

The old man took a step forward.

-I’m a hunter, he whispered to the man’s ear.

The words had a strong effect on the latter and he staggered. But he recovered quickly enough and a small smile appeared on his face. The door opened a bit more and the man pressed them inside before closing it behind them. They found themselves in a large and over lighted room. There were lamps on all the walls and near all windows which made the light very uncomfortable to the eye. However the most surprising sight was that of several armed men who were seated inside and who eyed them openly.

The bald man, who had introduced them inside finished locking all the padlocks again and led them to a table near the counter. Then he turned towards his companions and said in a rather loud voice where there was a certain emotion:

-My friends… the Gods have heard our prayers. He has sent us another hunter.

The sullen faces immediately changed into unbelieving and joyful expressions. A richly dressed man stood up and walked towards the old man to whom he held a shaking hand.

-Welcome to Mercin Master Hunter, he said happily. I am the chief of this village and your coming can only be the work of the Gods for you came at a time where your help is greatly needed.

The old man smiled and shook the extended hand.

-I don’t know if it is the works of the Gods, he said hesitantly. But now that you suggest it, I must confess that it was not my initial intention to come this way. But a sudden intuition led me here. Who knows if the Gods whispered to my ears?

The boy smiled at these words but he immediately regained his dull expression as the bald man who was probably the innkeeper appeared again with two bowls of what seemed to be a delicious soup and a bottle of wine. The old man immediately opened it and filled his glass to the brim.

-The Gods are assuredly for something, said the innkeeper firmly laying the bowls before them.

The boy immediately grabbed his spoon and pulled the bowl before him but before he could taste it, he let out a cry of pain which startled the villagers.

-What happened? asked the innkeeper looking worryingly at the boy.

The old man patted the boy’s shoulder comprehensively as he carefully took his foot off the boy’s feet.

-It’s nothing, he said with some sadness in his voice. Just the effects of our last fight with a rogue mage. I managed to defeat him but unfortunately my apprentice suffered from a quite powerful spell which gives him occasional pain. My young apprentice must remember all that I have taught him, he added looking coldly at the latter who recoiled.

The villagers nodded comprehensively but their eyes shone with a new hope.

-Did you really fight a rogue mage? asked the Chief pulling his chair nearer.

-Fought and killed, replied the old man with a satisfied smile. I can say that no one will regret him.

-Indeed, said the Chief with a sudden coldness which surprised the boy. Until then he had only seen their fear but this sudden coldness was surprising.

-The world would only be better without them mages, added the innkeeper roughly. Think they are all big persons with their magic and all but I would love to see one of them fight without. Wouldn’t last a second I bet.

The old man sipped his wine slowly.

-You really hate them I see, he said putting his glass down. But forgive me for asking but I was under the impression that Mercin was part of Faeria. Is that right?

-That’s true, said the Chief. It’s just a shame though that we are not a few miles south or we would have been out of their jurisdiction.

-But I thought that Faerians loved their mages, said the old man.

The Chief let out a mirthless laugh.

-That’s a strange idea you have Master Hunter, he said. It is common knowledge that most Faerians hate mages. Or at least those who live outside of the capital. We are better off without them quite frankly. But, he added looking at the old man with suspicion, how come you don’t know about this? Could you be a mage from the city by any means?

The atmosphere changed immediately and the villagers looked at the old man with a fear and anger. But the latter, far from being deterred by this reaction continued to smile.

-You said that you fought a rogue mage, continued the Chief standing up. Now we all know that only a mage would go after a rogue one. So answer me old man, are you a mage?

The boy looked around him nervously. The villagers were looking at them with hatred and he saw a few of them take out knives that lay on the tables. He thought for a moment about running away but then he noticed the calmness on the old man’s face. He relaxed immediately. He had forgotten for a split second with who he was and he nearly smiled.

-My dear friends, said the old man at last. I understand your suspicion and I won’t hold any grudges against you.

He grabbed his bag and started to search inside.

-What are you doing? asked the innkeeper nervously. Is that one of your tricks mage?

-Don’t let him, said another frightened.

But just as the Chief moved to strike, the old man took out something and laid it on the table. The villagers immediately fell back with fear.

-What is this devilry? asked the Chief livid.

The old man took the mask that he had laid on the table and lifted it up for everyone to see. It was black with red drawings on it and a white smile had been carved on it. There were horns and long fangs near the mouth.

-This my friend is the proof that I am not a mage and not a friend of them, said the old man. And judging by your reaction I think that some of you know what it is or at least have heard of it.

-Excids, whispered the innkeeper sweating heavily. You are an Excid.

The old man nodded and put the mask back in his bag. The tension was relieved a bit and the villagers breathed again.

-That’s right innkeeper, said the old man calmly. I am an Excid and if you don’t mind having me here I would be glad to offer you my services.

The villagers looked at each other unsure. But the chief who seemed the most courageous of them all put his knife back and sat down again.

-It’s true then? he said. You really killed one those mages?

The old man nodded modestly and finally invited the boy to eat. The latter obeyed but this time he did so with much more restraint.

-I don’t like to boast, said the old man, but I have to admit that it was rather straightforward. We, Excids, are much more powerful than mages. And let me add that I was just doing my job. You said earlier that only mages went after rogues but this is not true. Mages have done terrible damage to innocents and I was mandated by my some of them to take down this one particular mage who had killed countless of innocents. I had to take him down.

The innkeeper whistled in awe.

-And here I was thinking that all Excids were dangerous people.

-Just a bunch of lies let out by people who despise us, assured the old man. We are just servants of the people and we wander across the world to do our trade.

-Speaking of trade, said the Chief. You said that you were a hunter. Now how is that possible? I never heard of an Excid being a hunter.

The old man smiled.

-Now here in Faeria it maybe is the case but let me assure you that there are many Excids who are hunters. It is a trade like any other and we are more than capable to undertake it.

-As long as you have better luck than the last one I won’t complain, said the Chief grimly.

The old man looked at him surprised.

-There was another hunter who came here?

The Chief nodded sadly.

-Yes but I’m afraid that he was a bit too green for the job. May he rest in peace.

-You mean he died?

The faces around darkened.

-He was killed by those wretched creatures which have been terrorizing us since the past month, revealed the innkeeper shaking. It was terrible really. We only found his bloodied clothes and bits of flesh here and there. He was probably devoured.

He shivered and took the wine bottle and drank noisily from it much to the old man’s displeasure.

-It is indeed regrettable what has happened to my late colleague, said the old man hesitantly. But what is done is done. We cannot change anything alas. But now that I hear about this, I would like to know more about these creatures you talk about. What are they?

The innkeeper looked at his fellow companions clearly frightened but they encouraged him to speak.

-Well, where to begin? he said as he wiped off the sweat off his forehead with his the back of his sleeve.

-By the start dare I say? suggested the old man grabbing the bottle of wine again and pouring some in his glass.

The innkeeper nodded and breathed in heavily.

-Well as you may have noticed we live near the forest of Blime which is just nearby. We are mostly lumberjacks and honest ones we are.

The others nodded fervently around him.

-The forest is filled with valuable pine trees that we sell very well in the country and we have lived off it for several decades without any problems until one month ago when they appeared.

-Who appeared? asked the old man.

-Tr…Trolls, whispered the innkeeper as if he feared that he might be overheard.

-Are you sure?

The innkeeper nodded.

-I saw them red eyes Master hunter, he said. I was up in my room one day and as I looked out through my window at night I saw them red eyes moving in the dark out there and at a height no human could possibly attain. There were several of them.

-Red eyes you say, said the old man thoughtfully. Well that is one of the characteristics of Trolls alright. Does this mean that you did not return there since then?

-No, replied the Chief this time and it is affecting our trade terribly. We cannot afford to continue like this and this is why we paid the first hunter so generously. Unfortunately he was killed and we lost a good amount of gold for nothing.

-That’s unfortunate indeed, said the old man unconcerned.

The boy who had finished eating yawned loudly.

-It seems that my apprentice is tired, said the old man. Now I would appreciate if you could get us a room for the night. We will be off very early tomorrow morning for we have an urgent matter to settle somewhere else.

-Master Hunter, said the Chief quickly. I would understand that after what we told you that you would not want to help us but I must ask you. Will you give us your aid to kill these trolls? We will pay you good money. We know what a dangerous task it is and we will pay you accordingly.

The old man did not respond immediately and seemed to be thinking while the villagers waited breathlessly for his decision. Finally he stood up and said rather theatrically:

-Trolls? Some poor Trolls? My dear friends I will be glad to rid you of these creatures which have been terrorizing you for so long. As long as I’m able to stand, I will not refuse to help anyone who asks for my aid.

There was a loud round of applause and cheers as the villagers who surrounded the old man to thank him.

-We will pay you any amount you ask Master, said the Chief. As long as you can rid us of these creatures.

-I do not ask for so much but if you are giving with good heart I will surely accept your reward for the times are hard and a little extra gold will be helpful.

He walked towards the door with the boy following him closely behind with his bag. The innkeeper ran to open the padlocks and as the door opened and the light poured outside, the old man turned and faced the villagers.

-Do not be fear brave people, he said magnificently. I will clean this forest and chase those trolls far away from here. Put your faith in me.

And then he went out under the cheers of the villagers. The old man and the boy quickly mounted the carriage and they took the road that led towards the forest which lay menacingly out there. The boy looked back a last time and saw that the door had been closed again. The villagers, it seemed, were not really as confident as they had shown.

-Let’s go hunt Trolls then, said the old man with a smile.





































Chapter Two



-Let’s move a bit more quickly now Artemis, said the old man as they moved out of the village. We can’t make him wait any longer.

Artemis obeyed and started to increase the horse pace. They quickly covered the distance that separated them from the forest. It was a pleasant night and the moon was shining upon them.

When they arrived at the edge of the forest they noticed a small path that led straight into it. Artemis stopped the carriage clearly impressed by the forest appearance. The trees were old and had a rather odd look and they were so closely entwined that the light of the moon was barely able to get through their foliage.

-Why are you stopping boy? asked the old man irritated. I thought I told you to not waste time.

The boy nodded and began to move the carriage again. They slowly followed the path which led them further inside the forest. The old man lit an old lamp and held it high above him to light their way. There was a disturbing silence and even the old man began to look around with some care.

-This place is really scary, he muttered. It would really not surprise me if there were really some trolls here.

He smiled when he saw the terror on the boy’s face.

-Well that is why we are here right? he said while looking around cautiously. I wonder where he is.

-There, said the boy then pointing suddenly to a red glow a few meters away from them.

Several others started to appear as they moved forward. They took the form of eyes which looked down upon them threateningly.

-Here are our monsters then, said the old man indicating to the boy to halt. Take what we need and join me.

He descended agilely from the carriage and walked towards the trees without any fear. The eyes then started to move and then a frightening cry was heard. The old man stopped for a moment but he then continued to advance as if nothing had happened. He stopped by a big pine tree and whistled softly. Something moved up in the tree and the leaves began to move frenetically. It was clear that whatever was up there was descending quickly. Small yellow eyes suddenly appeared in the foliage above him and something jumped from above onto the old man with amazing speed. The latter did not move and the creature landed softly on his shoulder.

-Here you are Ryok, said the old man lovingly as he caressed the strange creature which emitted a kind of meow. It had the body of a big cat with horns on its forehead and a strange arrow-like tail. It licked the old man’s face affectionately.

-And where is Rykel? asked the old man as he looked around him.

-Here, said a grumpy voice and a big muscular boy emerged from some thick bushes. He was covered with dirt and his clothes were cut her and there. He walked towards the old man clearly not happy.

-What’s the matter boy? asked the latter.

-There is that I spent a whole month in this damn forest. Do you have any idea of the amount of bugs that live here?, he said shivering.

-I know that you hate bugs, the old man laughing, but we had to ‘cook’ them a bit more.

He handed a large knife to Rykel.

-Go and bring back the crystals immediately. Artemis and I have things to do here.

-It’s always me who gets the dirty work, muttered Rykel as he started to climb on the nearby tree with the knife in between his teeth.

-Did you take care of the other task? called the old man after him.

The boy nodded and pointed towards the thick bushes before disappearing into the foliage. Artemis arrived then with a small pot which he gave to the old man who immediately sent him to retrieve the thing he wanted from the bushes. He came back a few seconds later with a big sack mottled with blood. The old man opened it and took a quick look in it. What he saw made him hiver and he quickly closed the sack.

-You did a really good job, he said looking up towards the foliage where Rykel was. This greatly resembles a troll’s head.

An incomprehensible murmur came back as a response.

-It’s our turn now, said the old man turning his gaze towards Artemis.

He cautiously opened the small pot which contained a red substance.

-It’s red dye, he said happily. Excellent to fool unseasoned eyes. Come here that I put some on you. We must look as if we just had a fight with these Trolls.

After a few minutes he closed the pot and examined the boy with a critical eye.

-You look good enough but I wander if it would not be better if you had some bruises on your face, he said thoughtful.

-No, said Artemis at once angrily. I refuse to be beaten again.

The old man smiled.

-It won’t be necessary this time, he said giving him back the pot. Go and place this back in the carriage. This paint and the crystals have cost us a small fortune and it is about time to recover some of our investment.

Just then, Rykel jumped agilely on the ground with long threads filled with small red crystals that shone feebly.

-Give, the old man ordered and the threads changed hands,

He carefully began to examine the crystals.

-They did not seem to have suffered. Did you take care of them as I said?

Rykel nodded.

-I hid them each day under the ground as you asked so that they would not be exposed to the light of the sun and at a good depth. This was not a very pleasant thing to do every day but you can be sure that I did as you asked.

-Good work, said the old man satisfied. And what about the gold they gave you?

Rykel took a pouch out of his pocket and handed it to the old man who opened it eagerly. The pouch was filled to the rim with gold coins.

-I’ll never get enough of these, said the old man as he walked back towards the carriage happily. Grab the sack then and lets’ head back towards the village.

They joined Artemis by the carriage and the old man took his place while Rykel charged the sack in the back of the carriage as well as the crystals which he put in a beautifully carved chest.

-And me? asked Rykel as he watch Artemis turn the carriage. Can I leave this forest now?

-I thought that you wanted to stay a bit more here, joked Artemis.

Rykel looked at him threateningly and moved towards him but the old man stopped him.

-We don’t have time for your little fights, he snapped. Hop in and make yourself discreet. After all you’re supposed to be dead right?

Rykel smiled wickedly as he climbed in the back of the carriage and pulled a long piece of cloth over him.

-Let’s go and take our reward, he said as he disappeared.

-Yes, said the old man with a smile. Let’s go and take our gold. After all we just killed a troll.





Chapter Three



The carriage slowly made its way back towards the village following the lonely track. A few owls hooted from time to time and Artemis heard other noises which he did not recognized. He was glad that it was Rykel who had been chosen to stay in that forest which seemed really dangerous.

-You will stay hidden Rykel, said the old man. Is that clear? I will not tolerate any mistakes this time.

-As you wish Master, replied Rykel. But if you remember clearly, it was not my mistake the last time. Artemis ruined everything.

-It doesn’t matter, said the old man. He is just starting to learn our trade. You were supposed to take control and you failed. You cost me a great lot of money and I will not tolerate another failure.

Rykel nodded sheepishly but as soon as the old man had turned forward he looked at Artemis with murder in his eyes.

-How did he do this time? he asked with gritting teeth.

-Much better this time although he nearly unmasked us, said the old man looking at Artemis who did not match his gaze. I had the reflex to stump upon his feet to stop him from jumping on that miserable bowl of soup like a mad man.

Artemis blushed.

-We did not have a decent meal in a long time, he said defensively.

-So have I, replied the old man. But I know how to behave myself. Luckily I was able to make up a story to explain your behavior.

-You always get out of every situation Master, said Rykel fervently.

-That’s because I use my mind unlike you, replied the old man coldly. But enough talks. We will soon get out of the forest and I must think of what I will say to these fools.

The two boys immediately fell silent. They knew better than to disturb the old man. Artemis slowly led the horse on the path. He had been living with the old man for nearly three years. At first he had found it difficult to rob and he always tried to ruin any robbery if he could but he had been caught a few times and Master Leeroy had severely punished him to discourage what he called a ‘soft heart’.

He found out however that he had no remorse in robbing the rich. At first he had refused to take part in the old man’s trade but with time he began to take much pleasure in doing so. He knew that thieving was not noble but one had to survive and in this world one had to do anything to survive. It was better than to be on the streets begging or worst ending up in the trades of the thugs of Tyr.

He knew that the old man was using him and his skills but he was also grateful to him for he had saved him from an almost assured death and Master Leeroy never missed an opportunity to remind him of this. He did not hold any grudges against him though because if he had not appeared that night at the orphanage, who knows what would have happened to him.

He shivered as he thought of the orphanage where he had grown up back in Tyr. It had not particularly been a bad place but that was before he knew the real purpose that the owners had in store for them. They were fed reasonably and they had a secure place to stay even though it was more of a constraint than a choice for one never left the orphanage on his own accord.

But he only understood that when he was awaken roughly one night and brought before the owner of the orphanage. It was then that he also saw Master Leeroy for the first time and he remembered the fear he had felt when he saw him. At that time Master Leeroy was still a strong man but he did not have the scars that their future encounters would impose on him. He was quite a sight and even the owner, who was a fairly big man, had looked at him with respect and fear.

As soon as he had entered the owner’s personal room, Master Leeroy had nodded to the owner and had walked out after tossing his bag to Artemis.

-Off you go boy, had said the owner as he had started to count the gold on his table.

Artemis had realized that he had been sold to this man. He had not argued and had followed the man more shocked than anything and as they had passed through the front gates of the orphanage he had then noticed a strange carriage which he would never forget and in which lay several sleeping orphans.

Master Leeroy had grabbed his hand and they had walked away from the carriage as fast as they could and it was only when they were at a reasonable distance that he had stopped and had said the words that would haunt him for years.

-This is the fate that I have saved you from, he had said as the carriage started to move away from the orphanage led by a hooded man. I gave you life when they would give you only death.

But he had refused to say more and although Artemis pressed him on the matter several times afterwards he still never revealed what he meant.

It was not until several years later that he finally obtained the truth from Master Leeroy. It happened when they finally crossed the path of an Excid and although they managed to get away, Master Leeroy had been badly injured. As he lay down closer to death than to life, Artemis had used this opportunity to get him to talk. Master Leeroy had then whispered three words that Artemis would never forget.

-Excids…God…sacrifice.

And then he had passed out leaving Artemis to nurse him back to life and he had done so for these three words made him understand exactly what he had escaped and how much the old man was courageous for one never talked about the Excids or about their god. It was always a taboo in Tyr and those who were heard talking about it were sure to be on their way to the other world. Fortunately when they had been attacked, they had been in a neighboring country and had therefore been outside the jurisdiction of the Excids and their strange magic.

And since this incident, they had stayed clear of Tyr and had travelled in the neighboring countries where their trade had blossomed.

Artemis smiled as he remembered these last months. He was ashamed to admit it but he had grown to take a lot of pleasure from thieving. It was not the theft in itself but more the act leading to the theft that he enjoyed most. The schemes and plans of Mater Leeroy were more of a play than anything in fact and he greatly enjoyed to be a part of it although he still felt bad whenever the robbed the poor which Master Leeroy had no shame to rob.

-What’s so funny? Master Leeroy asked as he tossed him an apple from his personal reserve.

Artemis took a bite from the expensive fruit. It was as savory as he remembered and he could understand why it was so rare and costly. A fruit worthy of the gods themselves.

-I was just remembering the old times, he said smiling.

Master Leeroy grinned.

-And after tonight, we will have another great adventure to remember.

-And more gold, added Rykel behind them.

But then they heard a voice somewhere around them.

-Stop right there, it said with authority.

Artemis immediately stopped the horse and they all looked around cautiously.

-Who goes there? asked the old man calmly.

-It doesn’t matter, replied the voice severely. I want you to immediately return the money you took from these villagers and get the hell out of this place.

The old man laughed.

-I am afraid that I cannot do as you say, he said nodding Rykel to get out of the carriage. But perhaps we can discuss about it like civilized persons.

There was a sudden silence as if the person was thinking and then the voice spoke again.

-Alright, But if you try anything you will regret it.

And someone appeared from behind a tree in front of them. It was a dwarf. He had dark clothes which could have made him nearly invisible to the eye except for a striking red scarf that hung around his neck.

-Come on now, said the old man relaxing after seeing that he was just a dwarf. Is that you who is tormenting us?

The dwarf walked forward confidently.

-What have you decided then? Will you return the gold?

-I’m afraid I have to refuse, replied the old man nodding subtly. Rykel who had disappeared suddenly appeared behind the dwarf with a wooden club.

-In that case you are forcing my hand, replied the dwarf turning to face Rykel who looked at him surprised that he had been discovered.

-You ugly little dwarf, roared the latter as he lifted the club to hit the dwarf.

Artemis closed his eyes. He did not want to see this massacre. He had been so many time beaten by Rykel that he knew exactly what the dwarf was about to experience. If he was not under the power of the old man he would have fled a long time ago.

However much to his surprise he heard no cry of pain or any impact. He opened his eyes quickly and saw something he had never seen before and he wondered if he was seeing correctly. The right hand of the dwarf had grown exponentially and it had the size of a giant’s arm now. He stopped the club effortlessly.

-I am not a dwarf, he screamed as his face became red. He grabbed Rykel who tried to get away and sent him crashing against some trees. Then he turned towards the old man who was shaken by this demonstration of force. He tried to run away but the dwarf was on him in an instant.

-Please, said the old man pleadingly. I’m sure we can discuss it. There is no need to use violence.

But he too suffered the same fate and was soon lying unconscious near Rykel. Artemis hastily descended from the carriage trembling all over. He knew that he was next and his brain worked hard to try to find a way out. It was then that he thought of the mask. He quickly took it out of the bag and showed it to the dwarf who stopped.

-Don’t come any closer, Artemis said trying to sound confident. Or I will put this on.

-What is this supposed to be? asked the dwarf surprised.

-Can’t you see? said Artemis threateningly. It’s an Excid mask.

The dwarf looked at him with incredulous eyes.

-So you want to tell that you are an Excid? he said calmly but Artemis felt a sudden edge in his voice.

-That’s…right, he said nevertheless. I am one and if you don’t want to die I would suggest that you leave me. You can take the other two with you if you want.

The dwarf shook his head slowly.

-I’m afraid I cannot do that lad, he said walking forward. If you are really an Excid I have no choice but to take you down right now and here for Excids are banned in Faeria. So you will perish right here.

Artemis moved back terrified and the mask slip off his hand onto the ground. He watched unable to do anything as the dwarf advanced towards him with his gigantic arm ready to crush him. He wanted to run but he felt that his legs would not answer him. He was doomed.

The dwarf then laughed loudly.

-I got you lad, he said as his arm transformed back to its original form.

-What…what do you mean? asked Artemis surprised.

-Well I was just pulling your leg lad, he said smiling as he picked the mask. I know that you are no Excid and that mask is not even close to a real one. I wonder who made this.

Artemis pointed to the old man.

-That’s really clever in fact, said the dwarf breaking it. But to those who have actually seen the real thing this is just a far-fetched copy.

He tossed it away and walked towards the carriage. He hopped inside and began to search it.

-Where did he hide the gold? he asked Artemis.

-There’s a small chest inside, replied the latter who knew that the best thing to do was to tell the truth. The dwarf emerged from the carriage a few minutes later with the small chest under his arm.

-I think that this will be enough to repay these villagers of a month’s terror. Artemis nodded still unsure of what the dwarf would do about him.

-I think that we should go now Artemis, he said then.

-How do you know my name? asked Artemis bewildered.

The dwarf winked.

-I came here for you boy, he said. Someone sent me to fetch you and you are coming with me whether you want to or not. There is no room for discussion.

-Who sent you? asked Artemis frightened. Could it be someone they had robbed in the past?

-You will know very soon, replied the dwarf. But we should get going now.

But suddenly he stopped in his tracks and he looked around.

-What happened?

The dwarf knelt down and put his ear to the ground and listened.

-Get on that tree, he said immediately after as he stood up.

-Why?

-Do not ask questions, commanded the dwarf. Just obey.

Artemis did so and no sooner had he climbed up the nearest tree that he heard a terrifying growl and through the leaves he saw something appear. He felt a shiver run down his spine. The creature was greenish and was huge. It was almost as tall as the trees and in its hands there was a massive club.

-So there really was a troll in this forest, said the dwarf unnerved. The professor was right it seemed.

Artemis watched as the troll and the dwarf observed each other. He wanted to climb down to try and help the dwarf but he knew that he would stand no chance against such a monster. He did not even know if the dwarf could. The troll was terrifying.

-Go back from where you come, shouted the dwarf but the troll ignored him and growled louder.

-You are a stubborn one I see, said the dwarf. I met some like you before and let me tell you that it did not suit them to face me.

The troll did not seem too impressed and neither was Artemis. It would certainly take more than a giant hand to stop that creature he thought as he watched the troll wave his club threateningly.

It marched forward then and tried to hit the dwarf with its club. But as against Rykel the latter’s arm grew and he stopped the club again with ease.

-I told you to leave, he roared.

And then before Artemis stunned eyes, his whole body transformed and a second later he was standing face to face with the troll. He was now a giant. The troll moved back surprised.

The dwarf let go of the club and marched on towards the troll with a smile.

-I have always preferred hand to hand combat. Let’s see what you got and you better not disappoint me.

The fight was brief. The dwarf outmatched the troll both by strength and by skill and it lay down unconscious a few minutes later much to the dwarf disappointment.

-Such a letdown, said the dwarf recovering his original form.

-How did you do that? asked Artemis as he climbed down the tree and joined the dwarf down.

-My transformation? Oh that was nothing really, said the dwarf awkwardly, clearly pleased by the compliment.

-I think that this was the most incredible thing I have ever see, said Artemis impressed. Are you some kind mage?

The dwarf laughed.

-A mage? No…I’m not a mage and I’m glad I’m not. No… I’m just a shifter.

-A what? asked Artemis who had never heard this word before.

The dwarf looked at him with surprise.

-A shifter, he repeated. I thought that everyone knew about us, at least here in Faeria.

Artemis did not reply. He did know whether he should reveal to the dwarf that he had lived all his life in the south. Fortunately the latter did not pursue on this subject and said:

-Anyway, it’s true that shifters do not really come this close to the border. Those whom I know would not venture anywhere near Tyr.

-There are others like you? asked Artemis.

The dwarf nodded.

-Yes and they are very powerful in their own way.

-More powerful than mages?

-Some are as powerful as mages if not more, said the dwarf as he started to walk out of the forest. But we talk more about it later. However I must confess that it is always good to have someone ask about us, shifters.

-Why? asked Artemis as he walked by his side.

The dwarf seemed embarrassed.

-Well it’s just that usually people don’t like us. We are feared because of our appearance.

-I don’t think you are dangerous, said Artemis sincerely.

-I appreciate that, replied the dwarf kindly. And now that I think of it I have not introduce myself yet.

He extended a hand towards Artemis and said in a friendly tone.

-I am Arod. Arod Harbringer, he said as they shook hands. We should get going now. We are already late.

They came out of the forest and Arod whistled sharply. Artemis then heard a noise from above. Looking up he saw a dark form descending down quickly. A great brown eagle appeared and started to land down. It would have been quite a sight if the eagle had not stumbled at the last moment and crashed on the ground before them.

-Can’t you land well once in a while? laughed Arod.

The eagle emitted a cry of dignity and stood up.

-Let’s go lad, said Arod climbing on the eagle’s back. We have a long journey ahead of us and the sooner we leave the better it would be.

-We are going to travel on its back? asked Artemis far from being convinced. What if we fall?

Arod sighed.

-Well that is a possibility with such an idiot, he said indicating the eagle but we have to cover a great distance and that’s the only way we can do it quickly. So come on.

Artemis reluctantly climbed behind Arod and as soon as he had taken position, the eagle began to flap its wings and started to fly. However it diverted strongly to its left and narrowly missed crashing against a big pine tree. But it succeeded to recover and flew up high in the sky.

-I really wonder why we brought him, said Arod angrily. I should have asked someone else.

At these words the eagle began to swirl dangerously in the air and the two passenger shad to hold its feathers with all their force to not be thrown off it.

-Will you stop you fool, shouted Arod grabbing its neck.

But the eagle ignored him and continued to swirl. He then suddenly dived down at full speed and at the last moment before crashing to the ground it moved up with extreme agility.

-I get it, stuttered Arod. I apologize. Please stop.

The eagle emitted a cry of triumph and resumed its normal flight. Artemis hesitantly released his hold and breathed again. It was certainly the most dangerous thing he had done in his life but he had liked it. He casted a look down and saw the magnificent scenery below. Everything seemed so small and far. The village soon appeared below them.

-We don’t have time to descend and explain, said Arod who had recovered his spirits. Get as close as possible to the inn.

The eagle obeyed and as they approached the inn where the lights were still on, Arod threw the small chest which landed heavily on the ground spilling its contents.

-They will have to divide it between them, he said and nodded the eagle to move on.

The eagle flew higher than ever and turned north while increasing its speed significantly. Artemis had to hang on as tight as he could. He did not deem it wise to look down again. In front of him he could hear Arod muttering curses in his beard. A smile appeared on his face then. He did not know where he was going but he was sure of one thing. He would never forget this night. He was at least free of Master Leeroy. Free of this thieving life.

Chapter Four



The sun was just beginning to appear in the horizon when the eagle began to initiate its descent. Artemis opened his half closed eyes and looked down. The night had been long and he had no idea where he was. He was tired and could barely hold on to the eagle.

-Look, said Arod then in front of him. Here is the city of Faeria.

Artemis followed his pointed finger and a few miles in front of them stood the most majestic place he had ever seen. The city of Faeria was huge and the first thing which struck him was the color of its walls. Everything was white from its huge walls to the houses and buildings. The only building which was different was a high tower near the center of the city and which was a contrasting dark colour.

-Isn’t it beautiful? asked Arod. The biggest city of the north and the capital of our nation.

-It is, whispered Artemis awed by its beauty. Here were so many things that attracted his eyes that he nearly wanted to ask the eagle to stop so that he could admire this extraordinary architectural beauty.

However the eagle turned to its left then and began to move away from the city much to Artemis surprised.

-Are we not going to the city? he asked Arod.

-No…but we will not be very far. You see the forest that dwell on this side. This is where we are awaited.

The eagle began to flew quickly over the huge forest that lay on the left and that covered all the land on this side. Artemis could not even see its end. A small clearing appeared and the eagle began its descent.

-Slowly, said Arod tensed. Go slowly.

But this time too, the eagle stumbled and crashed down sending its two passengers to the ground with it. Artemis stood up painfully and watched amused as Arod began to curse the eagle loudly which was trying to fly way but Arod had grabbed its left wing tightly with his enormous hand. It was then that he heard a voice behind him and he turned.

-Welcome my boy, said an old man who came out of the mist.

Artemis knew immediately that he was not an ordinary man. There was a kind of aura emanating from him and even Arod stopped and released the eagle which even forgot to fly away.

-I have been waiting for you, said the old man smiling.

He wore a long golden uniform and had a long white beard which gave him a mysterious look.

-We had a bit of a delay professor, said Arod looking angrily at the eagle.

-I guessed so Arod, replied the old man, his eyes twinkling. Did you encounter any problems to bring him back here?

-Aye. There was indeed a troll there as you suggested but nothing too dangerous.

The old man nodded and turned towards Artemis.

-I have been waiting a long time to meet you, he said calmly. I am sure that you have many questions you want to ask but I think it can wait until you have had a bath and a good meal. I shall wait for you in my study room.

And then he turned on himself and was gone. Artemis blinked and looked all around but there was no sight of the old man.

-Surprised huh? said Arod as he arrived at his side.

-Where is he? Asked Artemis stunned.

Arod grinned.

-You just witnessed the magic of professor Solaris, he said as the eagle flew up again behind them.

-Magic? You mean he is a…

-A mage, finished Arod. Come with me. You shall know everything once inside.

Artemis followed him though the mist which was already beginning to diminish. He had heard of mages before and about their magic but what he witnessed was really unbelievable and surprising to say the least. How had he disappeared? Magic was prohibited in Tyr and even if he had heard bits of stories here and there, he had always thought it to be stories and lies. But after what he had just witnessed he was not so sure anymore.

As they walked he wondered if the old man was dangerous. From what he had heard in Tyr, mages were ruthless killers who were too dangerous to be left alive. This was why Excids hunted them and why there was none in Tyr. He shivered as he wondered what the old man had in store for him and why he had fetched him from so far. Did he want to kill him? He shook his head. No…that was not plausible. He would not have bothered to bring him here and why would he even want to do so? He did not know him.

He was half tempted to run away but looking around at the forest he changed his mind. He had been to so many dangerous places in Tyr that he knew when a place was dangerous and this forest smelled of danger. And even if he ran away where would he go? He was deep in the north and he knew no one. He glanced at Arod. Could he even get away from him?

-Who is he? He asked as they walked through the trees which curiously seemed to move out of their way as they advanced.

-The professor? You don’t know him?

He shook his head and Arod raised his eyebrows.

-I thought every Faerians had heard of professor Solaris, he said surprised.

Artemis was saved from answering when Arod finally stopped at the edge of a clearing. An ancient looking cottage stood before them.

-Welcome to professor Solaris cottage lad, said Arod leading him towards it.

The cottage was as the old man, Artemis thought as he stood on the porch and examined the wood that had been used to build it. It was ancient and yet strong. He had no doubt that it was several decades old, perhaps more but yet the wood seemed as solid as ever.

-It is Evergreen pine, said Arod as if reading his mind. It doesn’t age.

-I have heard about it, replied Artemis amazed. It must have cost a fortune to build this cottage with it.

-I think so, replied Arod smiling. But the professor is a very rich man and he likes his comfort.

-What do you mean? Asked Artemis but he got his answer as the latter opened the cottage door and let him inside.

He found himself in perhaps the most richly decorated room he had ever been into and he had been in some of Tyr’s richest households. The walls were covered with ancient tapestries which must have each cost a small fortune and there were golden torches illuminating the room and the delicate furniture. He immediately and instinctively assessed the room’s security and to his surprise, he found that there was none. One could easily enter the place and he wondered how long this lace would remain in Tyr before it was sacked.

But then his eyes fell upon a broom which was moving on its own. He watched with awe when he saw the broom beginning to kick a chair which refused to move.

Arod beckoned him forward but no sooner had they done so that the broom rushed towards them and began assaulting them.

-Dammit, shouted Arod quickly. I forgot again. Take your shoes off lad.

Artemis hurried to do so and as soon as his and Arod’s shoes had been thrown outside, the broom left them alone and resumed its work.

-Damn broom, said Arod. Each time I come here I forget about its maniacal lust for cleanliness.

He walked off towards a door win the corner.

-This is the bathroom. Take a bath and then join me in the kitchen which is found at the end of this corridor.

Artemis nodded and for the first time in days he was able to take a worthy bath. He was surprised to find new clothes of his size waiting for him and feeling clean, he joined Arod in the small kitchen from which a delicious perfume was coming from. Artemis noticed that here too the objects were moving by themselves. A ladle was lazily moving the stew in a big cauldron on the fire.

Arod invited him to sit at the small table. As he moved near the table the nearest chair moved back. He sat down on it and the chair moved back towards the table.

-You will get used to it, chuckled Arod. At first it can be intimidating.

As he said this, two bowls moved out of the cupboard and lay down before them. A second later the cauldron followed them and the ladle poured generous amount of stew in them.

-Who cooked all this? asked Artemis as he looked around for the cook.

-The house did, said Arod as he laid back comfortable in his chair and took out his pipe. The whole house has been enchanted and it is autonomous.

-How is that even possible?

-Well nothing is impossible to a talented mage I guess. To tell you the truth there are very few houses like this one. But you should eat now if you do not want that spoon to continue to harass you.

True enough, there was a spoon that had appeared and was levitating in front of Artemis mouth. He opened his mouth and the spoon entered and poured the hot stew inside. While the stew was very delicious Artemis could not help but feel uncomfortable. He did not fancy that way of eating.

-Can I eat without magic? he asked Arod as the spoon plunged into the bowl again.

The latter who was opening his mouth lazily to let the spoon feed him nodded. He snapped his fingers and the spoon immediately fell into the bowl lifelessly. Artemis sighed with relief and started to eat normally. He had not eaten since the last meal at the inn and he quickly emptied the contents of the bowl. The ladle once again refilled his bowl and he ate until he was full.

-If you have finished eating I would suggest that we go and see the professor, said Arod then getting up lazily.

Artemis nodded his approval and he followed Arod feeling a bit tense at the prospect of meeting the mage. Arod introduced him a room found near the front door and which was dimly lit. The walls of the room were covered with all sorts of books and in the center of the room lay a large round table where lay a map. Artemis could not believe his eyes as he saw the clouds moving above the map and some rivers overflow with water. It all looked so real. The professor was standing behind the table thoughtfully.

-Professor?, said Arod tentatively as if not wanting to interrupt him.

The professor lifted his head and nodded indicating the only chair in front of him. Arod pushed Artemis forward and the latter approached intimidated. The professor idly snapped his fingers and the map disappeared immediately and the table became a normal one with several curious objects which Artemis had never seen.

-I guess that you are wondering what you are doing here? said the professor as he sat down in his comfortable armchair.

Artemis nodded. He had been waiting for an answer since Arod had fetched him and he could barely wait to finally know why.

- There is no need to be afraid, said the professor reassuringly as watched him with piercing blue eyes.

He paused for a moment as if wanting to choose his words well.

-I am a mage, he said slowly. And I think I am right in saying that I am the first one you openly see.

Artemis nodded.

-I don’t know what you think about us mages but judging from your apprehensions, I would say that people in Tyr don’t carry us in their heart as well as those in Mercin.

-How do you know that? asked Artemis surprised.

The professor smiled.

-Now I know that you grew up in Tyr but…

Before the professor could continue there was a loud bang on the table. He turned and saw Arod whose hand had grown and who had destroyed the table.

-He is a Tyrian? asked Arod angrily.

Artemis moved back instantly, his heart beating fiercely.

-Calm down Arod, continued the professor as if nothing had happened.

-You asked me to fetch a Tyrian? roared Arod looking at Artemis with disgust.

-For the last time Arod, will you calm down? said the professor with a sigh.

The dwarf looked mutinous but it seemed that he did not want to oppose the professor.

-It is true that Artemis has grown up in Tyr, said the professor. But that does not mean that he is a Tyrian. A simple look at his appearance will show you that he is a Faerian and once more I will tell that you are blinded by hatred Arod and that you should put it behind you.

-Aye professor, simply said Arod as his arm transformed back to his normal size.

-I think that you owe our little friend an apology, suggested the professor tactfully.

Arod nodded and handed a hand to Artemis who was shaken by his sudden reaction. He had not thought that the dwarf was capable of such a thing.

-I’m sorry lad, said Arod uncomfortably. I just thought that you were one of ‘em Tyrians.

Artemis shook his hand without any hesitation. He did not know why Rod hated Tyrians but he was definitely not a bad person.

-Why do you hate them so much? he asked.

Arod looked at the professor not knowing what to reply. The latter luckily came to his rescue.

-That is not really important for now Artemis, he said. But you should just know that our countries have been at war in the past and that several people have been maimed by these wars.

Arod nodded sadly and some tears even appeared in his eyes. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and began to blow his nose noisily.

-Well now that this is behind us I would suggest that we return to where we were, said the professor crossing his fingers together. Do you have any idea as to why you are here?

Artemis did not. He just prayed that it was not because of something that he had stolen in the past. When he was at the service of Leeroy he had encountered several Faerians and he wondered if they had made a warrant for him. But that could not be the reason because the mage would not have given him such a warm welcome.

-I have no idea.

The professor smiled and said casually.

-You are a mage.

-What? said Artemis shocked. I’m no mage Sir.

-I understand your incredulity but that is just the undeniable truth, said the professor comprehensively. Why do you think I would send Arod to bring you back here?


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