Scora had been Maronir’s guardian from the moment he was born. Not a minute had passed in the prince’s life where the massive veteran was more than a few yards away. Now the man had sacrificed himself for a mission that he had not even agreed with. He had given his life out of pure loyalty to Maronir, and the young elven monarch had a hard time not blaming himself for the man’s death.

From the beginning his tutors had taught him that he was the prince, that he would be king, and that any and all should be glad for the opportunity to sacrifice themselves for him. It never sank in, though. Maronir always felt he owed his subjects loyalty in return for the loyalty they gave him. Honor for honor, and respect for respect. Accordingly, he did not know how to repay the men who had now given him their lives. For that matter, he certainly did not know how to repay the men who had in fact saved his life.

They called themselves Luca and Garron, and even for humans, they looked rough. Maronir’s tutors had also instructed him to be weary of those nomadic human tribes that survived in the forests to the South. They explained the logic of Elven dominance, since they had more powerful magic, and the logic of Dwarven industry, since they were skilled with machines. The humans, by contrast, had no advantage. They were not nearly the mages the elves were, and not nearly the engineers the dwarves were. Their only strength was a primal determination, an ingenuity, which could not be quantified or explained, and thus could not be predicted or defended against. There were stories of individual humans, wounded and driven near mad with bloodlust, slaughtering entire companies of elves with their bare hands.

Maronir had always dismissed such legends as exaggeration at best, and fabrication at worst, but looking at the carnage in the road, and the two unscathed humans before him, he wondered if he had misjudged them.

“You two saved my life,” the monarch said once he was composed enough to speak, “I cannot thank you enough.”

The mage answered him, he was taller than his comrade, but thinner and more wiry, with short dark hair and deeply bronzed skin, “You might start to thank us by telling us who you are, and why these people were trying to kill you.”

The prince had to decide whether or not he trusted these mysterious nomads. Whatever he was going to do, he would need help, and if he lied to them about his identity now, there would be no turning back. “I am Maronir, Prince of Sarin, son of King Rimoar. These rouges are members of a group known as the Gal’Areau, which in my language means ‘Free Elves’ they are opposed to the monarchy, and believe that killing me will pave the way for a world where all elves are equal.”

“All elves equal,” Luca laughed, “humans and dwarves can sit out and rot, I suppose?”

A sad smile spread across Maronir’s face. “There are differing opinions on how best to deal with the other races among all elves, including the rebels.”

“Where do you come down on the issue,” Garron asked, eyebrows raised.

Maronir looked at him carefully. “The first two humans I ever met saved my life from a group of my own kind, who would have killed me without a thought, so I guess your race can’t be as bad as they say.”

“Well show me who said we’re bad,” Luca grinned, “and I’ll kill him without a thought.” Garron and Maronir both laughed cynically, Luca spoke in jest, but his words still had some truth.

“I thought the royal family never left the capital,” Garron wondered, “where were you headed?”

Scora’s advice from days earlier rang loud in Maronir’s mind. No one must learn that the demons were masquerading as elves. “I am on my way to a fighting tournament, called the Aetherstorm. My father organized it, and I intend to participate and prove my mettle along with the rest.” Both humans looked up sharply when he said the word “Aetherstorm”.

“We’re heading that way, too,” Luca said suspiciously, “somebody killed a good friend of ours and left an invitation to the fights beside his body. Not sure if it was one of your messengers or a participant, but either way, we aim to go up there and set things right.”

Maronir stared at them for a moment, stunned. Their friend had almost certainly been killed by a demon. He already regretted lying to his new companions, but the integrity of the throne couldn’t be undermined by the demon’s activities. It was imperative that all of his subjects believe in their ability to maintain order, or even the dwarves might turn against him, and he would soon find himself without a kingdom to protect.

“Well,” the prince offered, “you two certainly seem to be able to handle yourselves, but in a test of the finest warriors in Sarin, I don’t think your gear will quite hold up. Since I seem to be in need of new bodyguards, why don’t you accompany me to the Aetherstorm? In exchange I will see to it that you are outfitted properly as soon as we reach Galgol. What say you?”

The humans looked down at their shabby attire, then at each other. They turned to the monarch and nodded as one, “you got yourself a deal, mister.”

“It’s your…” the monarch started, but thought better of it. These men were ignorant of palace custom, and frankly he didn’t care much for it either. “Please,” he said at last, “just call me Maronir.”