GAVIN PAUL CARTER -FANTASY CHILD 2 - THE BLOODSTONE OF VORGANIA
This story has not yet been rated.
FANTASY CHILD II
Elizabeth Pearl stood at the cottage window. A plume of grey smoke drifted over the green hills. A light breeze blew across the field of Forget-Me-Not outside the window. All seemed tranquil, but the cloud of smoke began to layer itself across the sky. Something was burning. In the distance Elizabeth could see the outline of twelve dark fur clad warriors astride huge shaggy black stallions. The men were masked, their faces concealed beneath fur coated animal skulls. The warriors carried swords and shields. It was clear from their appearance that they were not men of peace. The riders drew nearer, their horses frothing at the mouth. Elizabeth had to move quickly. Leaning against the wall was a large silver sword. She leant forward and gripped the hilt in both hands. The young women opened the front door and stepped outside. Her palms began to sweat, but she stood her ground. Whatever their plan was, she intended to stand in their way. Night followed day as the warriors dismounted and approached Elizabeth across the meadow. The grey smoke blocked out the two suns as they walked slowly towards her, swords drawn, their leather shields held tightly at their sides.
Elizabeth bit into her bottom lip and raised her blade. 'Cora' ... She whispered 'Where are you when I need you?'...
The ice storm was thick, so dense that the human eye could not fracture the falling clouds of snow. Walls of white hung in the air and stung the faces of the weary travellers, and there beneath the glow of two faint red suns the weary travellers trudged, their fur covered feet immersed in layer upon layer of cold clinging snow. The party of nine had set out from Grimney one month ago, and already two of their number had died on the journey. Both men had suffocated on the endless snow plains of Vorgania. Their bodies swallowed by the ocean of snow that lay so deep beneath. The remaining five had placed their trust in Cora Pearl, the little twelve year old girl that led them, but that trust was beginning to wane. The storm had grown stronger by the hour and each step the travellers took became leaden and heavy until all but two of the party were physically and mentally exhausted. Isobel Leach and Rufus Shand had joined the expedition firmly believing that the child would lead them to great riches.
'So far from the truth’.. The narrow faced Shand muttered as he sat huddled together next to pale skinned young woman dressed in shabby black furs. The freezing wind blew snow around them, and the two began to curse the child under their breath. Cora sat wrapped in the arms of her father. She too was suffering from the effects of the icy weather. Her skin had turned blue and she was shaking uncontrollably.
Robert Pearl kissed the child gently on the forehead and hugged her tightly to his fur skinned white tunic. 'Cora' ... He said softly his voice virtually drowned by the howling gale that swirled around them. 'Don't go to sleep, it's not safe' ...
Cora's eyes opened gently, and flickered as the wind stung her face. 'Daddy is the shelter built yet?' She asked weakly.
Pearl gazed through the blanket of tumbling snow, he could see two dark fur clad snow drenched human shapes busy at work constructing a hiding place from the vicious storm. Luther Kyte frantically shovelled snow whilst his powerful companion Hugo Drax packed it tightly into the walls of the half erected igloo. Kyte threw back his hood and stared out at the makeshift shelter. The man's eyes were unusual, one blue and the other green. Kyte raised a gloved hand and wiped the sweat from his forehead, and brushed back his thick blond hair that had become damp with perspiration. 'We've nearly finished!' He shouted looking through the white smog at his companions huddled some short distance away. 'You must get inside, the storms getting worse!’
The Bugwug fluttered down from the sky his wings caked in falling snowflakes. The bird flew to Cora’s side and began to peck gently at the child's nose. 'Cora, Cora!' The bird squawked. 'Time to get up!'
Pearl lifted the child in his arms and with his legs sinking into the white crunching powder he trudged forward towards the shelter. Isobel and Shand linked arms and forced themselves out of the sinking snow, and they too made their way towards the igloo.
Inside the shelter it was cramped and intensely warm. Isobel slid out of her furs and lent back against the wall. She was a young woman in her late twenties. Her bright red hair was cut very short and she had a tattoo of a curved bloodstained sword painted on to her left cheek.
Shand sat by her side with his fur hood draped over the back of his slanting, narrow shoulders. He was a tall thin man in his thirties, his brown hair was cut very short and he had a small scar on his forehead, and his eyes were a piercing shade of light grey. Shand grinned lopsidedly, his mouth twisting into a contemptuous sneer, and he stared at Cora Pearl and her father who sat opposite. 'It seems we've been led to our deaths, I did think that it was foolish to listen to a twelve year old'.
Cora looked pale, but her skin was no longer blue, although her lips had dried and she could barely speak. Although she tried she found herself too weak. Pearl hugged her tightly, and looked daggers at the man who was taunting her.
Hugo Drax sat in the corner filling his pipe with rough brown moss weed. Drax was a giant of a man and his baldhead had melted a hole in the ceiling. The man’s skin was very dark and he had strange white irises that absorbed even the shallowest light and made them sparkle. He lit his pipe and smiled, his teeth were whiter than the snow, and his smile spread wider than any rainbow. 'Shand my boy, when I was a child I'd walk from the Three Pillars Of Garrentia to The Mountains Of The Moon in the space of an afternoon, and still climb the mountainside cliffs in the evening’ ...
Shand looked unimpressed 'I'm bored with your stories Drax’.
Hugo raised his left arm. The man was missing a hand. In its place he had a rather fancy, silver mechanical one. 'Maybe so’ He nodded, gazing proudly at his metal appendage 'But in those days, you know, I didn't have this. I climbed with just one hand’.
Shand frowned at Isobel who looked equally bored by the man's tale. 'Is this story going anywhere, or is it as stuck as we are?' The young woman asked cynically.
Hugo smiled at Cora. 'I’d stake my right hand that Cora will guide us through. If I could walk as far as I did when I was a child, then I have no doubts about Cora’s willpower’.
The Bugwug jumped from Cora' s shoulder and settled on Hugo's leg. The bird flapped his wings and twiddled his little pink fingers 'I agree ‘..He said chirpily 'Cora will get us there!’.
Luther Kyte smiled and ran his fingers through his long blond hair. He nodded in agreement, much to the annoyance of Isobel and Shand. Shand shook his head and looked genuinely disgusted 'Tell that to Farnan and Stopes. I'm sure they'd agree if we hadn't left them buried several miles back’.
Kyte looked thoughtful, and chuckled to himself 'Well nobody was forced to follow Cora, they, like you Shand chose to come on this quest' ...
Hugo puffed on his pipe and blew smoke in Shand and Isobel’s direction. 'No one will make you carry on either my boy. I'm sure I could find my way home from here, if that’s what you want, you can always go back to the camp' ...
Shand gritted his teeth and frowned 'No' ... He replied his voice quivering with anger 'I won't die out there alone. If I'm going to die, then I'd like to do it with you all alongside me' ...
THE STORM BREAKS
Our Steps are light, and always true
We know our path to see it through
Our journey through this snow swept land
Will never stop this fearless band.
Beyond the sea of snow we’re led
We have no fear, no sense of dread
For Cora Pearl is our guide
And we stand loyally by her side.
The storm raged for a day and a night, the mounting snow reinforced the walls and blocked out the light. Hugo sang his favourite songs in an attempt to raise morale. Shand and Isobel did not appreciate the man's booming voice, but Cora and the others felt comforted by the Hugo's undying enthusiasm for life. Outside the storm winds dropped and silence swept across the boundless plains of snow. A gloved fist punched upwards and pierced the smooth white blanket that had swept over the igloo. Hugo pushed his head through the hole and gasped for air. He squinted into the blazing sunshine, and looked across the flat unspoilt landscape. The igloo had been completely buried by the previous day's blizzard. Slowly the man dragged himself through the small hole, and the snow fell around him in huge lumps. Once back onto the surface he reached down and began to haul his colleagues out of the shelter. One by one they gathered by his side, each one adjusting their eyes to the bright red glare of the two suns. Cora brushed the snow from her fur coat and looked out over the endless white sea of snow that unfolded before her, her eyes watered in the blinding sunshine. Pearl reached down and gripped his daughter's gloved hand and squeezed.
Cora gazed up at her father. 'We should go north’ Cora whispered 'That's the way to the Temple of Vorgran Kressler’.
Shand shrugged and shook his head 'North, south, east or west, it all looks the same to me. Maybe we should go back to camp?’...
Kyte crouched down and scooped up some snow and melted it a little between the palms of his hands. Isobel folded her arms and nodded in agreement, Shand was right, she had no wish to be caught in another blizzard. Hugo threw back his head and laughed out loud.
'Rufus Shand!’... He said regaining his composure 'You really are a feeble fellow!’...
Kyte squeezed the white powder together and made a snowball, taking aim he threw it at Shand. The snowball burst against the man's face and the flakes broke apart and fell into the wind. Shand brushed the snow from his cheeks. He did not look amused by Kyte's behaviour.
The Bugwug hovered in midair and flew around Shandrs head. 'You'll never get rich with that attitude you know ‘..
Shand waved his hand at the Bugwug, in an attempt to brush him away. 'I am a warrior’ He said defiantly reaching beneath his fur skin tunic and drawing his sword from his scabbard. 'If I die it will be in battle, not from bad weather' ... He waved the sword over his head almost cutting the Bugwug in half.
The bird flew swiftly to Cora's side and settled on her shoulder. The Bugwug waved his wing at Shand 'You tried to hurt me!’. Cora stroked the bird beneath the chin, and glared at Shand. ‘That was unnecessary!’..
Pearl and Hugo looked equally unimpressed, whilst Kyte went back on his hands and knees and attempted to make a small snowman. Isobel moved to Shand's side and waved her finger at the small child 'Two of our party are dead. We have reason to doubt you Cora’.
Cora sighed and looked sad. ‘I am sorry about Farnan and Stopes, really I am’. There were tears in the child's eyes as she spoke ‘But we've come so far, if we go back now their lives will be worth nothing'...
Shand looked thoughtful, Cora's words had made him think, this was something he rarely had the desire to do. 'Maybe you're right’..He said sliding his sword back into his scabbard. 'Maybe I'll give you the benefit of the doubt just this once’ ...
THE TEMPLE OF VORGRAN KRESSLER
The seven travellers ploughed their way through the clinging snow. The air was still and the sky had become a patchwork of white and green. The two red suns had faded into a pale shade of pink as the air chilled inside a mesh of twisting fog. In the distance a red beam of light blazed heaven bound, it soared so high that the top could not be seen. The glowing beacon marked the travellers' destination and as the seven got closer, they could see the high walls of tightly packed snow that formed the immense structure of the temple. The building was impressive, built on three immense circular levels and fashioned from many tons of snow; it dwarfed the small group that stood below its high white walls. The beam of red light burned from a huge hole in its domed centre, the swirling maelstrom pulsating with an unearthly energy that shook the foundations of the temple. Cora and her colleagues gazed in awe at the spectacle before them. Each of them appeared transfixed and unable to speak.
The Bugwug broke the silence as he settled on Cora's shoulder and pointed his wing towards the temple. 'The temple of the long dead Vorgran Kressler, the Keeper of the second book of the Guardians’.. The bird hid nervously behind his feathers and gazed out from beneath his wing. ‘We must be careful in this place, it contains the graves of many, and many of those who dwell in them still have a life of sorts’.
Rufus Shand snorted in defiance and drew his sword 'Living or dead, it makes no odds to me. Let's just go get this book' ...
Cora gazed up at her father who stood by her side. 'Daddy?’ Cora held out her hand and Pearl took hold of it and gave the child's palm a gentle squeeze. He smiled warmly at his precious daughter. 'We'll be fine. This is what we came for. We have to take it before darker forces make their move'.
Cora's eyes began to water, and she inhaled the cold air and took a deep breath. She understood exactly what he meant. The journey had been perilous, but it was at this moment Cora realised the true nature of her fear, and it was there inside the temple that she would find it...
The entrance to the temple was constructed from solid ice, and having no other tools but swords and axes, Hugo, Kyte and the others had only one method of gaining entry, they had to hack their way inside. It took several hours before the ice began to crack, and with one, final, mighty blow from Hugo Drax's axe the doorway caved inwards. Hugo leant forward and poked his head inside. He could see a long narrow tunnel sweeping into the darkness, and on closer inspection he observed that the passageway could be traversed in single file. Hugo stepped back from the entrance and stood amongst his colleagues. Scratching his square chin with one of his metal fingers. He glanced at the nervous faces gathered around him, and spoke with caution ... 'The passageway is very narrow, and very dark. We will have to go one at a time ... If we're to go at all’.
Kyte looked unconcerned. He chuckled under his breath. He seemed bemused by the big man's nervousness. 'If it's narrow, and there are big monsters down there, should we worry?’
Isobel frowned, because cynicism and self-preservation dominated her thoughts. She had no desire to risk her life. Kyte’s jovial nature irritated her. 'I think you should go first’.. She hissed 'And when they're eating you, we can get away'...
Kyte found humour in every situation, and grinned broadly at the ill tempered woman 'Dear Isobel, let's just think about what I said shall we?' His tone was clearly mocking 'If they're big monsters they'll get stuck, and then we can simply run them through with our swords’.
Isobel crossed her arms and glared at the man 'Then if you're so confident, you can go first’.
The Bugwug flapped his wings and lifted his tiny body from Cora's shoulder and hovered in front of her face. 'Cora a few words of warning, I know about the passageway'...
Cora looked worried, licked her dry lips and sighed 'Go on’... The Bugwug continued to speak, his wings flapping up and down gently on the still air. 'There are things in that passage that must not be seen, so I advise you to cover your eyes'...
Kyte looked intrigued, he had to know more 'What type of things Bugwug?' He asked inquisitively. The Bugwug gazed across at Kyte, Hugo, Shand, and Isobel and rolling his yellow tongue back and forth, he gave a slow studied answer 'Legend tells of demons that can only see when we do. If you look, you will give them sight, and that will be the end of you’.
Isobel shook her head and gritted her teeth 'And what do we do if we stumble blindly into something else?’
Kyte chuckled 'Well it will be less frightening if we can’t see whatever it is'. He clapped his hands together in front of his face 'Anyway Isobel I'm going first. Even if you can't see me, you'll hear me scream. Make sure you're out of the passage before I stop yelling, otherwise it'll be your turn’.
Isobel crossed her arms and huffed, ‘Some help you are Kyte’..She stuck her tongue out at him, and Kyte responded with a huge grin, and once more he began to chuckle.
Cora looked up at her father for a second time 'I think we'd better go inside, we need to leave this place before nightfall’
Kyte needed no instruction. He had already elected to go first. The man stepped into the dark tunnel with a flaming torch held aloft. Kyte immediately noticed that the walls on either side glistened like glass in sunlight, and as he stumbled forward into the narrow claustrophobic passageway he watched the dancing yellow flame reflected in the mirrored walls. Kyte's face twitched, and taking a deep breath he closed his eyes and walked carefully down the corridor. The others followed behind, the blind leading the blind as they ventured onwards through the entrenched darkness. Each of them felt that something malevolent was waiting for them in the dark, and every slow footstep was placed with anxious thoughts that it would be their last. Kyte led the way forward, the flame of his torch rolling backwards. He outstretched his gloved hand, and tried vainly to feel his way. But the dark can hide secrets, and those with an inquiring mind need to know the truth. Kyte was such a man. Slowly he raised his eyelids and stared unblinking into shadow. He gazed to his right and saw his own reflection inside one of the mirrored panels upon the wall. His shape was hard to define as it was shrouded behind a wall of rolling fire. Kyte looked down the passage; his colleagues were far behind, and out of sight. All he had was the company of his own reflection, and leaning forward he gazed into the glass. Something looked wrong, his appearance appeared unnatural, although the image in the mirror copied his every gesture; he felt that it moved independently. Without thinking Kyte pressed his nose against the glass, it was an error of judgement that cost him dearly. Four pale skeletal fingers grabbed his forehead and yanked him forward until his face was drawn into the mirror. Kyte shuddered erratically as a red light enveloped his body, and threw him backwards across the passageway. Hugo who was nearest to Kyte and remained completely unaware of the scene unfolding just a short distance in front of him. By the time Hugo reached the slumped man, Kyte had already regained his composure. He picked up the flaming torch, and stood on his feet, and continued down the passageway. But something had happened to his eyes. They were no longer blue and green in colour, for their sheen had changed to a darker shade of red. This disturbing discolouring gradually faded, and by the time Kyte stepped into the tomb's vast circular antechamber both eyes had returned to normal.
The room in which the travellers now found themselves contained two giant ice sculptures. The first was that of a mighty warrior. It stood some eight feet in height, and wore a suit of armour that had been carved onto his body. A giant thimble shaped helmet covered his head, which had a slit cut horizontally across it forming a peephole. The ice warrior stood proudly with his gauntleted hands resting lightly upon the hilt of a powerful broadsword that stuck vertically out of the ground. The second sculpture portrayed a Caddaran Death Hawk. A monstrous bird with massive wings outstretched. It made even Hugo look small in comparison. The creature had a long, thick protruding beak, lined with hook shaped teeth, and huge talons that extended from its mighty ice feathered feet. Caddarans were greatly feared in Vorgania, and those unfortunate travellers that encountered them rarely survived to tell the tale. At the centre of the room there was a deep circular pit, and the red beam of pulsating light was rising from its core.
The group gathered together around the deep hole and gazed up at the phenomenally high arched white ceiling above them. The red shaft of light had penetrated the roof and melted its way through the snow. Pearl looked down at the hole in the floor. 'Well someone needs to go inside. Any volunteers?’..
Cora raised her hand ‘I’ll go Daddy, after all I am the leader of this expedition' ...
Pearl shook his head and smiled proudly at his courageous daughter 'No Cora, you guided us here, you've done enough, I get to go down. I'm the right choice'... He gazed at the nervous faces of the others who stood around him, and he could see by their guarded expressions that they were not about to disagree.
A GATHERING OF TRAITORS
Kyte lifted a thick rope from his rucksack and unravelled it across the floor. Narrowing his eyes he gazed across the room. Kyte could see Pearl, Cora, Hugo and the others huddled together by the side of the pit, they were engaged in a deep discussion about what they might find below. This gave Kyte the opportunity he had been planning for. Sliding a knife from his boot he crouched down on his knees and began to cut through the rope. The material began to fray, and separate. Kyte smiled, because he knew that Robert Pearl's weight would cause the rope to snap, and this would inevitably lead to his death. The Bugwug sat on Pearl's shoulder and licked the man’s ear affectionately with his tongue. Pearl quivered, and shook his head. He felt that the bird's behaviour was well meaning, but he also considered the Bugwug's behaviour to be quite unhygienic.
Pearl called out to Kyte. 'Have you got my rope ready?’. Kyte stood up and draped the rope around his shoulders and dragged it across the icy floor. 'Raise your arms’. He said 'I will tie it around you Robert’..
Pearl raised them and Kyte began to wrap the rope around the man's waist. He knotted the material and gave it a quick tug to make sure that it was secure.
'All safe and sound Robert' ... Kyte said with a wry smile and a steely glint in his eye. 'Hugo and Shand are the strongest, they can take the strain and lower you down’ Kyte placed his hand on Pearl's shoulder and squeezed gently 'You be careful down there’..He said quietly, not wishing to be overheard by the others 'I have a lot of respect for you Robert, we'd be lost without your guidance'.
Pearl looked touched by Kyte's words, and wrapped his gloved fingers around the man's outstretched arm 'Thanks Luther'. He patted Kyte's bicep affectionately 'I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine... Now’.. He said with a deep sigh 'Let's get me down that pit’..
Hugo lassoed the rope around his waist and Pearl tugged at the double knot around his chest. Isobel, Kyte and Shand stood in front of Hugo and held the rope tightly in their gloved hands. The Bugwug sat on Pearl's shoulder and stroked the side of the man's face with his wing. 'Perhaps I should fly down and investigate first'. The bird said nervously 'It might be wise for me to scout ahead’.
Pearl stroked the back of the creatures head 'No Bugwug, I want you to stay here with Cora. If I need you, I'll shout for you, so keep your feather's brushed away from your ears my friend’.
Cora approached her father and wrapped her arms around him. She pressed the side of her face next to his chest and closed her sad eyes. 'Daddy don't get lost, I never want to lose you again, I don't think I could suffer that kind of pain twice in my lifetime'.
Pearl placed his hand upon the child's head and stroked her hair gently. 'I won't let that happen. I'll go get that book, and be back in no time at all‘..Pearl lent forward and kissed the top of his daughter's head.
Cora lowered her arms and stepped back. She gazed into her father's face and smiled sadly 'I could ask you not to go'...
Pearl rubbed his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger ‘Yes’. He nodded, his voice heavy with emotion 'But you know how important this mission is. I know that you wouldn't stand in my way. This isn't just about my life, if that book falls into the wrong hands, everybody's life will be forfeit'.
Cora nodded solemnly, she agreed with her father's words. Robert Pearl was everything she thought he would be, noble, brave, compassionate. Whatever the outcome of his descent into the dark pit, she would never forget how lucky she was to be able to call him ‘Daddy’...
Pearl stood on the edge of the dark hole and took several deep breaths. The swirling tower of cylindrical red light rolled upwards, its relentless stream of glowing particles did not penetrate the surrounding darkness. Pearl closed his eyes and sat down upon the floor, his legs dangling into the void.
Isobel handed pearl a flaming torch, but the light barely lit the darkness beneath him. She placed her hand upon his shoulder and patted it. 'Don't hang about. In and out as fast as you can’. Leach folded her arms and stepped back into the shadows.
Pearl chuckled. 'Don't hang about' It was obviously the young woman's idea of a joke. Without waiting for further comment from the others, Pearl placed the palms of his hands upon the ground and pushed himself over the side. The rope pulled taut and Hugo, Kyte and Shand took the strain and began to lower their colleague down into the darkness. Pearl descended into the lower reaches of the antechamber. Holding his torch aloft, he gazed down into the beam of red light. It rolled upwards like water in a flowing stream. The rope began to creak as the three men edged forward and allowed it to slowly pass between their gloved fingers. Cora and the Bugwug, who was now sat upon Cora' S shoulder, looked down into the hole, and watched as the torchlight became smaller and smaller until the flame was just a mere speck in the dark.
The Bugwug raised a feathered wing to cover his eyes and nervously twiddled his little pink fingers. 'We should not have allowed him to go’... He whispered, even though he realised they had no choice.
Cora bit into her bottom lip as the tiny pinprick of yellow firelight dissolved into the blackness, and vanished inside the veil of thick shadow, and with that, Robert Pearl was gone...
The rope pulled tightly against the rim of the pit. The strain was beginning to tear at the weakened strands. One by one they began to sever. Shand was the first to notice the slight jarring effect as the rope jolted back under the strain. But it was too late to prevent what followed only seconds later ...
Hugo, Kyte and Shand fell backwards, each man landing on top of the other. The snapped rope flicked upwards through the air and settled on the floor by Cora's feet.
The Bugwug, seeing what had happened squawked loudly, flapped his wings frantically and dive bombed into the pit.
Cora reached down and picked up the end the torn rope. She held it up to her face with a look of deep horror flickering in her frightened eyes. ‘Oh God’... She muttered barely able to move her tongue as a sickening numbness filled her mouth, and her saliva turned to ice water. 'My Daddy has fallen, my Daddy is gone’...
Kyte crouched down by her side and placed his arm around Cora’s shoulder. He could see the tears filling the girl's eyes, and stroked her hair. Instinctively Cora pulled away.
Hugo, Shand and Isobel gathered beside her, and stared down into the hole. All was quiet; the pit was as silent as the grave, all that could be heard was the strange pulsating sound emanating from the beam of red light as it continued to roll upwards uninterrupted.
Four ropes were fastened around the leg of the giant Ice Warrior, and one by one the travellers descended. Cora led the way through the dark, with the Bugwug perched precariously upon her shoulder for company. The taut rope creaked and groaned under her weight. She prayed the rope would not snap like her father's had before. The journey to the bottom seemed to last forever, Cora outstretched her toes in the vain hope that they would make contact with the ground very soon. But the journey below seemed the longest of her short life, and the pit, the deepest she had ever known. Cora's every thought focused on her father, she hoped that the chamber beneath was not too deep, and that her feet would land on soft ground, soft enough to break her father's fall. Eventually Cora's knees began to bend, as she came into contact with the soft snow covered floor. Cora lit a torch and raised it above her head.
Hugo, Kyte, Isobel and Shand dropped to the ground, their feet sinking into the snow. They too lit torches and held the blazing yellow fire aloft. The four warriors gathered together for protection and gazed wide eyed around the lower chamber. In the middle of the cavernous circular room, there stood an oval alter fashioned from white marble. Four large steps led up to its centre, and the glowing shaft of red light rose from its core. Hugo drew his axe from his backpack, and approached the marble alter. Shand and Isobel followed closely behind, flanking him on either side. Cora and the Bugwug were more concerned with finding Robert Pearl. They crossed the floor and found the severed rope curled into a bundle. There appeared to be drag marks in the snow, and the trail led into the corner of the chamber. Pearl was lying face down upon the floor. His arms outstretched by his side. The man appeared to be unconscious.
The Bugwug flew from Cora’s shoulder and settled on the man's back. The bird began to nibble on his hair, biting Pearl gently on the back of the head in an attempt to wake him. Cora crouched by the side of her father and laid her hand gently upon his shoulder. The girl began to rock him gently. 'Daddy?’.. She whispered, her voice becoming choked 'Can you hear me Daddy?’..
Pearl did not respond, and Cora began to cry quietly to herself ‘Daddy?... Please hear me?’.. She said pitifully 'Please don't leave me again, I couldn't cope with that'...
There were clearly signs of life, and the colour began to return to Pearl's cheeks. The man's face twitched and slowly his eyelids flickered and opened. 'Cora' He said weakly 'I think I broke my leg'...
Cora’s face glowed, and her mouth curled upwards into a bright toothy smile. She leant forward, kissed her father's cheek, and stroked his hair. 'Thank you God. Thank you for saving my Daddy’.
Kyte helped Cora lift her father back onto his feet. Pearl wrapped his arm around his daughter, and limped into the chamber's corner and slid himself down against the wall. Pearl's face looked pale and the sweat was dripping from his forehead. He laid his trembling hands upon his right leg, his knee and thigh looked very swollen.
Cora knelt beside her father and tried to remain as calm as she could, but given the circumstances the worry in her voice was not easily disguised ‘I knew you would be OK, now we just have to get the book, and we can leave'... Cora looked across to where Hugo, Shand and Isobel were standing. All three of them stood transfixed by the light.
Hugo called out to Cora his deep booming voice echoing in the humming chamber. 'I can see the book. The red light is shining from it. Should I reach in and pull in out?'
The Bugwug flew forward and settled on the big man's powerful shoulders 'No Hugo. You mustn't, the book is sacred, protected by the mind spirits. Only a mystic of the Zoriat tribe can release it’. The bird gazed back at Cora 'Cora must do it. She is a Zoriat. It will be safe for her to do so’.
Cora smiled at her father 'I'll be right back’. She said confidently, combing her fingers through Pearl's long blond hair.
Pearl placed his hand on her arm and squeezed 'Cora'... His voice was losing its strength. 'Whatever may happen in the future. I love you, and I will always love you. You are a very special girl’... There were tears in Pearl's eyes 'I'm so proud to be able to call you my daughter'...
Cora lent forward, and kissed her father on the forehead. She stood on her feet and smiled affectionately 'Daddy, I love you too, and I'm going to get you out of here’..
Kyte stepped forward and took Cora by the hand. The young girl looked up into the man's face. 'I don't know if we're doing the right thing Cora’.. He said sternly, his forehead folding into a deep frown.
Cora nodded her head slowly 'Others. will come... If I don't take the book someone else will’..
Kyte allowed Cora's hand to slip from his fingers. 'You must do what you think is right'... He said with a smile.
‘I will’.. She said forcefully, turning her back on the man and walking across the chamber floor towards the beam of glowing light. She was unaware of Kyte's sudden change of expression. His smile quickly vanished and was replaced by a look that appeared quite cold, and malevolent.
Hugo, Isobel and Shand stepped aside to allow the young girl to walk past them.
The Bugwug flapped his wings and flew to Cora’s side. The bird perched himself upon Cora's shoulder, and stared into the shaft of flowing light. He looked frightened and placed a wing across his beak.
Cora lifted her foot and placed it upon the first alter step. She leant forward and gazed wide eyed into the rippling red beam. She could see the bound white book of the Guardians resting inside, and the red mind spirit flowing upwards from its pages. Cora climbed another step and went down upon her knees. She reached her trembling hands forward and pushed her fingers into the red light. The mind spirit rippled around her fingers like water, and sent a tingling sensation through her entire body. The sensation was not unpleasant and did not push her back.
Hugo, Pearl, Shand and the others watched with growing awe as the small child lifted the book from the core of the alter.
Once Cora had retrieved the book of the Guardians from its resting place, the red mind spirit soared upwards, and vanished through the open ceiling of the lower chamber. The mind spirit was driven by an instinct to protect the book, and the being would not allow anyone to steal it. In the upper level of the chamber the red spirit descended upon the ice sculpture of the Caddaran Death Hawk. A life giving crimson mist began to roll through the beasts icy body. Within seconds the Death Hawk began to display signs of life. Its glowing body creaked, and cracked as the sculpture slowly, and achingly began to move.
Down in the depths of the pit the small group remained blissfully unaware of what was happening above them. They gathered together around Cora and watched excitedly as she turned to the first page of the book. Written on the inside cover were the words Lectus Dectoriam Parenthia. Cora had absolutely no idea what this meant.
Hugo was eager to see more. 'Turn the page Cora’... He said, his wide eyes glowing in the torchlight. Cora did not need to be prompted. She was as keen to know what else the ancient book contained. On the next page there was a drawing of a large red ruby. Cora brushed her hand across it. The jewel almost seemed to be rising from the page.
The Bugwug glided over Cora’s head and settled on Hugo's shoulder 'We must leave now’... The Bugwug ruffled his feathers nervously. The bird sensed danger, and he rolled his eyes back and forth gazing around the shadowy chamber. But he could not see anything, at least not until it was too late...
The lower chamber began to echo with the sounds of ice cracking. Shand, Kyte and Isobel unsheathed their swords, and raised their torches high into the air.
Hugo Drax gripped his axe in both hands and prepared for combat. Robert Pearl reached for his own sword and grabbing the hilt, he drew it slowly from his scabbard. The wounded man attempted to push himself back onto his own feet, but the pain in his leg was too great, and Pearl was forced to sit back down again. Cora and the others watched as a glowing red shape began to emerge from the dark, and with its vast icy wings outstretched the Caddaran Death Hawk descended into the pit. The ice creature was a terrifying sight, but the warriors stood their ground as the creature flew towards them with its talons outstretched to seize its prey. Sword's flashed through the icy air, but the steel of their blades had little effect upon the solid ice form of the bird, they merely chipped the mighty creature. The Death Hawk soared upwards, and pieces of broken ice tumbled from its damaged body.
The bird swung itself around and dived towards the most vulnerable target it could find. Pearl had no defence against an enemy of this size. He held his sword in front of his face and pointed his blade towards the creature. Pearl gritted his teeth and looked away. The last thing he saw were two rows of sharp teeth fixed within the monsters powerful curved beak. The creature began to gurgle, and Pearl felt a jet stream of freezing water on his skin. Cora, the Bugwug and the others could only watch in horror as the Death Hawk spurted icy liquid from the depths of its throat. The water poured over Pearl and froze on contact, leaving the man wrapped inside a solid sheet of ice...
The Death Hawk selected a new target and its cold lifeless eyes fell upon the second most vulnerable member of the group. The ice creature hovered over the small child and watched malevolently as she ran across the chamber floor towards her father.
Hugo slid his axe into his backpack and lit a second torch. He ran after the child waving the rolling flames through the air in an attempt to attract the creature's attention away from Cora. Isobel, Shand and Kyte followed behind. Kyte had drawn his sword, although he had made very little effort to use it.
The Bugwug flew to Cora’s side. He had to warn her of the approaching creature, but what use is a warning when there is nowhere to hide? The huge hawk's empty red eyes flickered back and forth, and drawing its wings into its body, the ice creature swooped down towards its prey. Talons extended the hawk brushed its sharpened claws across the top of Cora's head, knocking the child to the floor. The book of the Guardians tumbled from her grip, and Cora rolled into a heap at the feet of her frozen father. Hugo ran forward and stepped over Cora’s body, placing his feet on either side of the unconscious child, he shielded the fallen girl from the giant hawk.
The Bugwug settled upon the big man's shoulders, and ruffled up his feathers in an attempt to make his frail little body appear much bigger.
Hugo raised the two flaming torches and crossed them over his chest. He watched the Death Hawk as it once more flew down to attack. The hawk opened its beak and began to screech, and once more its sharp talons extended from its icy body. Hugo stood his ground, and narrowed his eyes as the hawk drew nearer and nearer.
The Bugwug raised his wings, and stuck out his yellow tongue and squawked as loudly as he was able. The Bugwug’s desperate attempt to drive the hawk away appeared noble and brave, but inevitably failed to deter the creature, and in moments the hawk was upon them. Hugo remained calm as he stared into the hollow lifeless eyes of the Caddaran. It was at this point that the Bugwug’s bravado faded, and he hid behind his wings. The Bugwug felt a jolt and wobbled on Hugo's shoulder. He heard the sound of sizzling and peered through the narrow gaps in his feathers. The bird was surprised to see the hawk floundering in front of him. The creature's face had been partially melted away. The Bugwug observed that one of Hugo's torches had been put out. Smoke drifted through the darkness and rolled across the chamber.
Isobel Leach could see how badly wounded the hawk had become and seizing the opportunity she went down upon one knee and picked up the book. She slid the Guardian's manuscript into her fur coat and edged backwards across the floor.
Kyte watched as the blinded hawk staggered through the shadows. He had no desire to step into the fray. Whilst his attention was focused on the ice creature, Shand and Isobel began to climb the ropes back up to the antechamber above.
Hugo slid his axe from his backpack and approached the Death Hawk. He lifted the weapon high above his shoulders and brought it crashing down heavily upon the head of the creature, chopping off its beak. The hawk flapped its wings frantically and raised itself high into the air. Blinded by Hugo's smouldering torch, the creature lost all sense of direction and slammed itself heavily into the chamber wall. The hawk's body shattered like glass and fell into the dark. The red mind spirit that had inhabited the sculpture swirled upwards and vanished through the open ceiling above.
Kyte had watched the encounter closely, and the man appeared unhappy at the outcome. However when he stepped forward to congratulate Hugo, Kyte's false smile had already returned to his dry lips. Hugo crouched down next to Cora and raised her into his arms. The girl's thick blond hair was matted with blood, but Hugo, and the bird perched upon his shoulder breathed a heavy sigh of relief when they saw that the child was still breathing. 'We have to go from here immediately’..The Bugwug squawked, gazing at Kyte who now stood just in front of them.
Kyte looked down at the frozen body of Robert Pearl. 'We'll have to leave him. There's nothing we can do’.
Hugo shook his head and stared into the cherubic face of the unconscious child. 'We can't leave Robert Pearl behind, what would Cora say?'... The question regarding who was to be left behind was about to fall into the hands of Shand and Isobel.
The two warriors had already reached the upper level and were busily cutting the ropes from the leg of the second ice statue. Once severed the ropes slid across the floor and tumbled into the pit below. Isobel gazed downwards. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Shand patted her on the back and smiled 'A job well done, they won't be getting out in a hurry’.. He began to chuckle 'In fact, I don't think they'll be getting out at all’.. Down in the depths of the pit they could hear Hugo shouting for help. Isobel looked uncomfortable and shook her head 'Let's just go’. She said quickly, not wishing to stand gloat. 'I want to get away right now’..The two turned away only to be confronted by the Bugwug hovering just in front of them.
The bird looked worried 'Did you cut the ropes?' He asked his cross-eyes rolling erratically in his head. Isobel looked away, she had no wish to speak with him.
Instead she waited for Shand to answer the bird's question, and he responded with complete indifference. 'Yes Bugwug we did. You can come with us if you like. Otherwise’.. Shand drew his sword from his scabbard 'I might just have to cut you in half’..
The Bugwug opened his beak as wide as he could and flew at Shand. Isobel stepped to one side and covered her face. She watched through the gaps in her fingers as the bird sank its small teeth into man's face.
Shand dropped his sword and grab the bird by his wing and tossed it across the chamber, the bird bounced against the wall and fell twitching to the floor. He flattened the palm of his hand over his left cheek. Blood oozed through the torn skin and dripped through his fingers onto the floor. The man crouched down and picked up his sword. Turning to Isobel he spoke through gritted teeth ‘Let's leave them. They deserve their wretched fate’.. The wounded man pushed past Isobel and closing his eyes he walked down the mirrored passageway.
Isobel hesitated, because she wanted to know if the Bugwug was still alive. She could see that the bird was still moving, but she feared that his wing might be broken. She was torn between actions of good and evil.
Sadly she knew where her allegiance lay, and with her head bowed she turned away from the wounded bird, and walked slowly from the chamber. Kyte and Hugo gazed into the darkness above them. Hoping that somehow more ropes would be lowered down to them. Cora lay upon the floor, she remained unconscious, her bleeding head wrapped in material torn from Hugo's fur tunic. Hugo shook his head sadly. He scratched the side of his face with a metal finger.
‘It seems that we have been betrayed’.. Kyte nodded solemnly, but saw an opportunity to shift the blame. 'They probably cut Pearl's rope too, that would explain why the rope snapped when he descended’.
Hugo sighed heavily, and scanned the darkness for any sign of the bird. 'I fear that they may have killed the Bugwug... If that's the case, we’ll be trapped here forever’..
‘No’. Kyte responded coldly 'Not forever. Only until we’re dead'...
Hugo had seated himself upon the floor next to Robert Pearl's frozen body. He cradled Cora's head upon his lap, and stroked her hair with his metal hand. Kyte stood by Hugo’s side, and folded his arms across his chest. It had been several hours since they had heard any sound from above, and both men feared the worst. 'I wonder who they're working for?' Kyte asked, staring at Hugo, who appeared quite relaxed given the circumstances.
Hugo smiled 'Draygon the Scar? Grimwood Scribes? Someone quite nefarious I would imagine'. He placed his hand upon Cora's forehead to feel her temperature. 'It doesn’t matter about us, but Cora and the Bugwug know the power of the Guardian books. We must stay alive for her sake’
Kyte grinned 'Noble to the end aren't you? For all the good it will do you’. The man scowled 'You're nothing more than a grave robber Hugo'. The anger in Kyte's voice began to grow. 'Upon his death Vorgran Kressler sealed the book inside this tomb. It was not supposed to be removed. Now it is lost, and its power is in the hands of evil'.
‘We all had our reasons, and you are as much to blame for this fiasco as the rest of us’. Hugo pointed a metal finger at Kyte 'Our plan was to find the three books and take them to a place where they could never be retrieved, unfortunately we chose our allies badly’ ...
‘We chose badly?’.. Kyte laughed. 'That's an understatement. We both know that Isobel and Shand have within their grasp the means to destroy us all‘..Kyte smiled and deep lines formed around his eyes. ‘And the most frightening thing is they don't even know it’..
Shand and Isobel walked back across the vast, never ending plains of glimmering snow. The two suns gave out very little warmth. They hung dead in the sky, their redness dimmed to a shallow pink. A low wind whistled around the two striding figures, ruffling their furs and causing the snow around their feet to swirl in the weak vortex of air that rolled around them. Isobel sat down in the snow. She threw back her hood, and brushed the frost from her frozen face.
Shand stopped walking and crouched down by her side. 'We can't afford to wait’ He said firmly. ‘If we do wait here we will freeze’..The snow clouds had gathered and the green sky had become pale. It would not be long before the flakes would start falling again.
'I'm tired Shand. How far are we from the rendezvous point?' The women asked, her lips growing bluer with each word spoken.
Shand placed his hand upon Isobel's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. 'Half a day's walk... Jaynus Weaver's people will be waiting for us'...
Isobel looked uneasy 'How much they paying us again?'.
'You know how much Isobel. Ten thousand Tobran, five
thousand each'... The man grinned beneath his fur hood. 'We could make more you know. Much more’..
Isobel pulled her hood back over her head. 'I heard that Draygon The Scar is offering thirty thousand for each of the three books'...
Shand stood back on his feet, the man's fur boots sinking deep into the snow 'That maybe so, but only a fool would cross Weaver and his people. Not much use having money if you're not alive to spend it. Now, let's get going before the snow falls again'.
Inside the tomb of Vorgran Kressler the Bugwug's body began to twitch more violently. The frail creature began to cough and splutter, and slowly his eyelids opened. The bird seemed dazed, but somehow the Bugwug pushed himself back onto his hoofed feet. Although he stood unsteadily, his cross eyes rolling erratically in his head. The small creature soon regained his composure. The bird slowly unfurled his wings, hoping that he would not experience any pain in his battered body. He was very relieved when he discovered that no bones had been broken. Instinct quickly took over, and stepping forward he raised himself from the floor and flew down into the dark hole.
Hugo and Kyte held their torches aloft and watched as the shadows distorted around them. Both men smiled when they saw the Bugwug descending through the dim light. The Bird settled on Hugo's shoulder and folded his wings into his body. He gazed across the chamber and saw Cora lying next to her frozen father.
The bird shook his head and squawked loudly the concern in his dried throat clear for all to hear. 'Is she dead? Please tell me that she is not’... 'The bird waited for a response from his two companions.
Hugo reached up a metal finger and stroked the bird gently beneath the chin. ‘All will be fine if we can find the means to escape’... Hugo's voice deepened, the seriousness of the situation warranted a more solemn tone. 'Bugwug, you have to fly back to the camp. You have to bring the others to the tomb. If you fail, then we will die. Our lives are in your tiny hands. Can you do this? Can you save us?' ...
The Bugwug did not hesitate. No words were needed. Flapping his wings gently he flew from Hugo's shoulder and with the knowledge of the perilous task set out before him he ascended into the antechamber above. The bird closed his eyes and swooped down through the long narrow corridor of mirrors. He did not open them again until he had reached the shattered entrance to the tomb, and with his wings opened at fall stretch he glided through the fractured fallen snow and soared outside into the cold clinging air.
Frost coated his beak and whitened his feathers, but
he ignored the searing cold, he had no choice, he had to save his friends, and nothing would prevent him from doing his duty.
Shand and Isobel were making slow progress through the wastelands. Although at times they were knee deep in snow and ice, they needed to reach their destination before nightfall. But the sky was already growing dark and banks of thick fog began to unravel through the air.
Isobel could see that even the two bright moons would not penetrate the white veil falling around them. 'It's hopeless’..She said breathlessly, the air thinning as the fog became thicker.
'What do you want to do?' Shand asked, already knowing the young woman's answer. The girl was becoming a nuisance to him. She was slowing him down. If she continued to cause him delay, he would have no other choice but to leave her behind to die.
Isobel was no fool, but Rufus Shand? Yes, he was brave, determined, but he lacked common sense. If they tried to march through the night they would not see the two suns rise. They would simply freeze to death, and the Book of the Guardians, like them, would be lost forever.
'Shand, they won't get out. It just isn't possible. We have all the time in the world. Now let's not waste our time by dying in a snowstorm like Farnan and Stopes' ...
Shand tried to lift his foot, he wanted to stamp it into the snow, but the effort was futile due to the weight of frozen moisture hanging upon his boot. 'Isobel, you'd better be right about them not getting out. Because believe me, if they do they'll kill us’.
The young woman nodded. 'We can fight against them Shand. But falling temperatures, and thinning air, are something that we can't fight against' .
Shand could detect a growing anger in the girl's voice. Her slow forceful tone irritated him, but he was wise not to interrupt. He knew that Isobel had a reputation for violence and he had no wish to provoke her.
'We stand a much better chance travelling in daylight. I don't wish to be pushed. But the decision is yours’.
Isobel folded her arms and glared at the man. Her look was unfriendly. Shand weighed up his answers, but he knew that he was not being offered a choice. 'I think, that given our circumstances, that perhaps we should build a shelter. He believed that his words would appease her, but behind his cool demeanour his blood was boiling. He was in charge of the mission, and Isobel would not stand in his way. If she did then she would do it lying down, with her face buried in the snow, his boot pressed firmly against the back of her head.
The shelter took several hours to complete, but once it was erected the enclosed walls provided perfect cover from the freezing elements. Isobel and Shand sat side by side inside the cozy surroundings. Two torches were embedded in a mound of snow at the centre of their igloo. The flames provided enough heat to warm their hands and faces, and moisture dripped from the ceiling above them. Isobel had removed her furs and she was sat partially naked in the dancing firelight.
Shand had no desire to undress. He was eager to continue the journey. He was still irritated by the fact that he had been delayed. 'This is not a good move. We should’ve taken our chances and travelled through the night’.. Shand shook his head and stared into the dancing flames. 'Jaynus Weaver will not be impressed if we don't meet them at the time we arranged’.
The young woman lifted a flask from her rucksack, unscrewed the lid and poured water into a silver cup. She offered the drink to Shand, and he took it in his gloved hands. 'I'm not going to kill myself for a measly share of ten thousand Tobran'. She smiled as she watched Shand drinking from the silver cup. 'I told you that Draygon. The Scar is offering thirty. Now that's a deal I'd risk my life for'...
Shand gulped down the water. It was very refreshing. He was about to ask for another cupful, when something strange began to happen. His vision blurred, and he started feeling dizzy. Perhaps it was the thinning air? But judging by the bemused expression on Isobel's face it soon became clear, that she had drugged his drink. 'You poisoned me? Didn't you?' Shand looked horrified ... 'You were my friend Isobel ... How could you?’..He reached for a dagger in his belt, but his eyesight failed him and the man slumped forward and rolled onto the floor.
Isobel sat silently for a moment and waited to see if he would move, but after a few twitches the man became still. 'I don't like to share, and I'm afraid that you’re just not ambitious enough for me Rufus Shand’...
Shand lay beneath a fur blanket in the corner of the igloo. He was alive, but due to his state of deep unconsciousness he posed no threat. Isobel sat by his side flicking through the pages of the book. The inscription was not the only mystery contained within the pages. On the very last page there was a drawing of a block of solid ice. There was something huge and dark inside. It had a human shape, but due to the density of the oblong block, its features were not definable.
Isobel looked intrigued 'Now what're you?'... The girl sighed, and chuckled under her breath. 'What do I care? I've got thirty thousand to collect’... Water continued to drip from the arched roof above her. She looked up at the ceiling. The snow was melting. Something was burning its way into the igloo. Isobel placed the open book upon the floor, and slid a knife from her belt. She pushed her body back against the wall and waited. A thin shaft of red light melted its way through the snow and rolled downwards towards the book. Isobel watched silently. She held her breath, not wanting to draw its attention. The mind spirit had no interest in Isobel Leach. It melted into the open page and immersed the drawing in a deep red glow. The picture pulsated eerily, and summoning every ounce of her courage Isobel crawled forward on her hands and knees and slammed the pages shut. The mind spirit's connection to the book was instantly severed and the being retreated from the igloo as quickly as it appeared. Isobel lifted the book onto her lap. She brushed her hand across the plain white cover. The pages were warm. She was tempted to look inside, but something stopped her, a feeling in the pit of her stomach that expanded into Isobel's chest, and formed an air bubble in her throat. She swallowed heavily, but the sensation continued. It grew so strong that it made her feel sick, sick with fear. Isobel would not look inside. The book had a thirty thousand price tag and that was all that mattered...
Isobel carefully placed the book into her rucksack, and slid her body back into her fur tunic. She raised her hood and pulled it down over her eyes. Taking a deep breath she crawled outside. The sky above was thick with white fog. The two suns were slowly rising on the horizon, and striding forward she ventured out across the windswept plains of snow, her boots kicking up the flaking powder as she walked slowly forward.
The Bugwug had flown through the night. His journey had been perilous. His blue feathers had become white with frost, and his rolling eyes were glazed and tired. But still he flew on. He had to save his friends, dying was not an option. Although the blood was freezing in his veins he would not give up, that would never happen, his heart burned with great intensity and kept his muscles pumping. The two red suns were high in the sky when Eliza Jade and Vin Reddel stepped out of their fur skinned tent. Stretching out her arms and yawning Jade squinted into the fractured sunlight and saw a small white speck upon the horizon. The Bugwug's body began to bounce on the wind. He was flying blind, his eyelids frozen together by his own tears.
Jade slapped Vin hard upon the back, jolting the man forward.
‘Hey! what did you do that for?' He asked, his red eyes flashing with mild annoyance. 'It's the Bugwug'. She replied, her voice quivering, not because of the cold, but due to the fear that the bird appeared to be alone.
Vin placed the flat of his palm against his head and gazed out from beneath his hand. The Bugwug's wings were dropping and he was descending rapidly towards them.
‘He's in trouble Vin, go back into the tent and gather blankets, the creatures probably got frost bite by now’. Jade watched as the bird's wings tipped and before she could say another world he fell from the sky like a bolt of splintered lightning.
Vin ducked back inside the tent, whilst Jade ran through the snow to the place where the Bugwug had fallen. The bird lay twitching, his body immersed in the scattered snow. Bending down Jade lifted the fragile creature in her arms and walked slowly back to the tent, she placed her steps carefully not wishing to shake his tiny body.
Inside the tent Vin wrapped the bird in a warm fur blanket, and sat down next to the exhausted creature. Jade knelt by the Bugwug's side and stroked his feathered face. The creature's eyes opened slowly and he gazed forlornly at his saviours. 'Eliza ... Vin. We've been betrayed'... He whispered, trying to catch his breath. 'Shand and Isobel have taken the book, and left the others to die... We must rescue them’.
Jade's face turned red with rage 'Then they're dead. I'll kill them myself. I knew we should never have trusted them’..She glared at Vin, who looked uneasy with what was being said. 'It was you that hired them, wasn't it Vin?'.
Vin sighed and looked down at his feet 'How was I to know that they'd do that?'...
'It's not your fault. I'm not blaming you’. She looked back down at the Bugwug. 'Don't worry Bugwug, we'll save Cora and the others, and when that's done. I will hunt down Shand and Leach and cut them down for the common thieves they are. They're the walking dead... They just don' t know it yet'.
Inside the tomb of Vorgran Kressler hours slipped into days. Cora had regained consciousness and she lay upon Hugo's lap. The man brushed his metal fingers through her hair in an attempt to comfort the sad child. 'Cora’... The big man spoke gently, his deep voice barely audible 'Have faith in your feathered friend. He won't let us down, that's not in his nature'...
Kyte stood behind his companions gazing down at Robert Pearl's frozen body. He seemed almost indifferent to the plight of his companions. In his mind all that mattered to him was The Book of The Guardians.
Cora smiled, but she could not control her tears and they rolled from her eyes like broken diamonds. ‘The Bugwug warned me about this place’.. She said choking with emotion 'He told me that the second book would only bring us tragedy'.
Hugo shook his head and smiled broadly 'Much of life leads to tragedy, but we have to make the best of it. I lost my arm, but the new one is better than the old'. Hugo chuckled. 'At the time I thought I was a cripple, but I'm greater for the loss. What we lose, we can gain in strength, and those that don't gain strength through weakness have only lost their heart in life’.
Kyte shook his head, and sneered behind Hugo's back. He had nothing to offer the conversation but disdain, and because of this he chose to stay silent.
Cora on the other hand was moved by Hugo's words. She wanted to know more. 'How did you lose your arm?' She asked nervously, unsure that such a question was appropriate.
Hugo thought for a moment and smiled 'I reached for something that I did not deserve. By doing so, my arm was taken’. He paused, pondering once more upon his answer 'When I was younger I discovered my greatest gift was my sword arm. I could draw my blade and bring fear to those that stood against me. Such a gift was viewed by many as a curse, and the greater my skills became, the more monstrous was my nature'.
Kyte grinned, it seemed that Hugo was not the good man that he had thought him to be, and moving closer he listened more carefully to the conversation.
'So what happened?' Cora asked, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand.
‘I killed a man’... Hugo looked solemn 'A good man. He was doing his duty, protecting the Queen's gold’... Hugo closed his eyes, and raised his metal hand and clenched his fingers into a fist 'I struck him down, and when I thought he was dead I tried to take the gold as my own‘.. The big man sighed ‘But he wasn't dead and in his dying breath, he raised his sword and cut off my arm’..
Cora reached up her arm and grabbed Hugo's metal hand and wrapped her own fingers around it. 'What you did was wrong. But you are redeeming yourself'...
Hugo nodded slowly and looked down into the young girl's glistening green eyes. 'This arm is the best part of me. The strongest part of me, I am a lesser warrior, but a better man because of it, and for that I can only be thankful’.
Kyte began to laugh and he strolled across the chamber, shaking his head and kicking the snow beneath his boots.
'What's so funny Luther?' Cora asked, staring across at the man who now stood with his back to her and Hugo.
Kyte chuckled and looked down at the floor. 'Yes ... Changing is such a good thing. Helps you open your eyes, and see things more clearly'. His tone became even more sarcastic 'Stealing... Yes... You'd never do that again would you?'... The man turned and stared through the shadows at his two companions ... 'But what have you done here? Broken into this tomb and attempted to take something that does not belong to you’.. He raised his hands into the air in exasperation 'Now correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that stealing?'...
Cora sighed and hoped that Hugo would answer, but the big man just looked dumbstruck. 'It had to be done Luther. That book had to be taken from here. Others would have come here had we not done so'...
Kyte frowned, and grinned lopsidedly... ‘What makes you special? What makes you the one to take possession? What gives you the right?’ Kyte could not conceal his anger, and he had no wish to.
'I was sent to do so. I have the first book and it is safe from those who would misuse it’. Cora rubbed her eyes and wiped away any remaining tears, she needed to be strong, because she feared she was losing an ally. 'I came from another world to collect all three books, and once I have them, I will take them to a place where they will never be found'...
Kyte lent his head to one side, placed his hands upon his hips and sneered 'I doubt you Cora, I doubt very much'.
Hugo raised his metal arm and pointed his finger at Kyte. 'You came here to steal it too, you're a hypocrite' ...
'Maybe so’ Kyte nodded 'But I too can make amends for my wrong doings' ...
'I don't wish to fight with you Luther’... Cora desperately wanted to appease the man she regarded as a good friend. 'Let's just concentrate on getting out of here. When we get the book back, then we can all decide upon its final resting place’..
Kyte considered her words carefully, but he knew that it was not just the book that needed to be buried in a forgotten place. The small child who lay before him was a Zoriat, and he had already decided upon her fate. For the moment he would bide his time, but if the opportunity presented itself he would kill her.
Above them they heard voices. Someone was calling. Ropes were lowered into the chamber and the material creaked under the strain, as Jade and Vin lowered themselves into the chamber.
Hugo laughed out loud and clapped his hands together. Even Cora looked pleased. The child closed her eyes and muttered a silent prayer as the Bugwug flew down from the upper level and settled upon the child's stomach.'I knew you'd come'... Cora said, ruffling the bird's feathers with her left hand.
'It was never in doubt'. The bird responded chirpily. 'Now, we have to lift you out of here’.
Jade and Vin stood either side of Robert Pearl's frozen body, their sad faces said it all, Pearl would not be freed by pickaxes or any other bladed instrument. They knew, as did Cora and the others that he would have to be left behind. The journey to the upper chamber was the hardest journey Cora had ever made. She watched her tears falling into the dark void below as she pulled herself to freedom. She had no choice, her father had to be left behind. The block of ice that contained him was far too heavy to be dragged across the boundless snow plains of Vorgania. All she could do was watch as the veil of darkness enveloped him, and with her sobs echoing around her, she continued her climb to the top...
THE BREAKING OF THE ICE
The Dudrassa Sea linked Vorgania to Grimney, and deep below the ocean’s frozen surface the Aquitaini Mermaids lived. They were ruled over by their Queen Onedina, and Philomena Aquitaine, her beautiful daughter. Philomena was an adventurous, and rebellious young maiden who had shunned royal protocol for a life on the land.
In the dead of winter the vast Dudrassa ocean was covered in a thick layer of solid ice, and it was at this time that explorers could make the crossing. But with the onset of summer the ice would melt, and due to the extreme weather conditions of the two great lands that lay on either side, the ocean would form great waves that would sink the largest ships, and tower higher than the Mountains of the Moon that marked the end of one land and the beginning of the other. Beneath the frozen surface where life struggled to survive, a solid block of ice lay embedded in the ocean floor. It had been hidden in the depths for centuries, its dark secret forgotten for thousands of years... Until now...
The red mind spirit flew through the snow filled sky. It arced upwards towards the twin suns, before descending into the frozen sea. Like a bolt of red lightning it struck the surface and burned a hole through the ice. It moved purposefully into the depths, causing ripples in the water. It quickly reached its destination and pierced the solid block. The mind spirit flooded through it, and the ice began to crack as the heat melted it away...
Cora and her companions trekked back across the vast snow plains. The weather raged around them, as the snow fell in white flaking sheets, and the wind blew a torrent around them. Hugo led the way back, with Jade and Vin following close behind. The big man gazed over his shoulder at Luther Kyte, and the two men made brief eye contact. It lasted for only a few moments because the clouds of falling snow were so thick about their faces. Hugo did not trust the man, his instinct had never failed him before, but he could not be sure. He would just-watch him carefully, after all, he was Cora's friend and he had never doubted her judgement.
The suns were starting to set when the small group reached the Dudrassa Sea. Hugo placed his foot upon the ice and tested its strength by digging in his heel. 'It’s too soon for a thaw!’.. He shouted, trying to make his voice heard over the howling gale. 'We'd better make the crossing. We'll make camp on the other side, where its safe!'...
The travellers walked warily forward, the ice crunching beneath their feet. Jade drew her sword from its scabbard and looked around for anything that she perceived to be a threat. Jade did not like her surroundings, it was too open, if something attacked from above she would be prepared. But there was a greater threat beneath the ice, and slowly the hideous humanoid creature that had been asleep for thousands of years began to show signs of life. The being that lurked below was clad in shabby black fur and its dark grey eyes flicked open as it heard the ice vibrating above its head. Outstretching two long powerful arms the creature propelled itself upwards through the murky water. The ice began to shudder. Hugo pulled his axe from his backpack and looked down at his boots. The vibrations made the loose grains of snow bounce upon the frozen sea. Jade crouched down upon her knees and placed her ear to the ice and listened. She could hear a dull rhythmic thud emanating from beneath.
Vin, Cora and Kyte gathered around the young woman, the Bugwug glided down and settled on Cora's shoulder. Brushing the snowflakes aside, Jade tried to gaze through the ice. She was startled to see what looked like two grey eyes staring back. Jade looked up at her colleagues. 'I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks, but I'm sure I just saw a face'.
Kyte shook his head 'I doubt that Jade, the water's too cold'... He smiled and narrowed his eyes... 'If you were to fall in... You'd freeze to death in less than a minute... No living creature can survive down there... It’s just'... The slow studied delivery of his speech was rapidly cut short as the ice beneath his feet exploded upwards.
Kyte lost his footing and fell into the water. Shards of ice flew through the air and Cora, Vin, Jade and the Bugwug were flung backwards. Kyte quickly resurfaced, gasping for breath. Hugo ran forward and grabbed the drowning man by his fur tunic, and hauled him out of the freezing water. He dragged the gasping man across the ice and threw a blanket over him. Cora and her friends clambered to their feet. Jade stepped in front of the child and raised her sword. Vin and the Bugwug moved to the woman's side. They stood motionless around the hole and gazed into the water, for a brief moment all was still, until the water erupted like a rising geyser.
The huge creature leapt from the watery depths, its giant fur clad powerful body landing heavily upon its huge booted feet. Zigzagging cracks formed beneath the monstrous warrior, as the weight of the creature fractured the ice. Cora and her companions took several steps back. Vin drew his blade, his red eyes wide with fear. In the midst of the falling snow they could see the creature's hideous face. Its skin was a rough, dark shade of green, and a large wiry black beard curled from its powerful jaw. The creature’s mouth was long and wide, and its lips had been eaten away by decay. Two rows of sharp white teeth chattered together, and formed a grotesque, unnatural smile. A huge green skinned hand reached behind its broad, powerful shoulders and the creature slid a giant silver sword from a scabbard that was strapped upon its back.
'Beast of the night!’..Hugo yelled, attempting to draw its attention away from the others. 'Turn and face me!'.
Kyte sat up beneath his blanket, and pulled the material around his body. He watched as the creature turned its huge bulk towards Hugo, and waved its sword in preparation for combat. Jade gazed over her shoulder at Cora and the Bugwug and spoke forcefully 'This is not a fight that you can undertake. Make haste across the ice and don’t look back!’...
‘No!’... Cora shouted 'I can’t do that!’.
Hugo raised his axe above his head, and the creature charged forward, its heavy footsteps cracking the ice still further. Sparks erupted as metal clashed against metal, and a ferocious battle ensued. Jade and Vin joined the fray, and the three warriors danced across the ice, waving their weapons through the misty snow filled air. The creature spun upon its mighty heels, and raising the palm of its hand, struck Vin hard against the side of his face. The man's legs buckled, and he fell clumsily onto the ice. His body rolled over several times, and came to rest at Cora's feet. The girl crouched down and shook the man's shoulder. Vin did not move. He had been knocked unconscious.
The Bugwug flapped his wings and soared into the air. Flying forward, he landed on top of the creature's head and pecked the monster on the cheek. Hugo, embedded his axe into the creature's back, whilst the Bugwug continued to tear strips of dead flesh from the monster’s face. The creature's mouth began to open, and its teeth began to bend outwards. For a moment Jade and Hugo thought it was preparing to scream. They were mistaken... Opening its jaws as wide as it could, the creature's teeth tore away from its gums, and the monster released them from its mouth. Jade flashed her sword from side to side, and attempted to deflect the grisly projectiles away. All but one fell harmlessly upon the ice. However, the last tooth embedded itself deep in her shoulder, and she fell to her knees, clutching the wound, blue blood seeping through her furs, and staining her fingers. The Bugwug, realising that his attempts to hurt the creature were futile, flapped his wings and flew away.
Cora could see how desperate the situation was becoming, but there was nothing she, or the Bugwug could do. All hope rested on Hugo Drax, and she watched helplessly as the man struck the creature again with his axe. Hugo could see that his efforts were futile. He was not fighting a living creature. Although his axe tore open the fabric of the monster's fur clothes, it did not bleed. The ripped flesh beneath was dry and leathery, and in reality the creature was nothing more than a zombie. Cora watched as the creature once more swung its sword down at Hugo. The man defended himself with great skill, parrying the blow, and deflecting the monster's clumsy blade away from his body. Hugo embedded his axe deep into the belly of the beast, but the creature opened his mouth and began to chuckle. Hugo was horrified to see that the creature's teeth were already growing back. It was at this point Hugo Drax charged forward, with his baldhead bowed down, he became a human battering ram. The creature was shoved backwards by the force of Hugo's bodyweight and losing its balance it fell over backwards and plunged head first into the pool of water.
'Hugo!' Cora shouted as she watched him disappear beneath the surface with his arms wrapped around the monster's waist. But it was too late to save him, in a matter of seconds both he, and the monster had gone from sight.
Kyte who had remained impassive throughout the fight, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and crossed the ice towards Cora. He gazed across at Vin. The man was still lying on his side unconscious. The Bugwug stood on Vin's shoulder squawking in the man’s ear, in an attempt to wake him up. Jade remained on her knees, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. The girl's blue blood had dried around the wound, but she was still in great pain.
Cora knelt down by the hole. The water rippled gently, but beyond that there was a stillness around her, and it felt like time had frozen. She did not believe that he was -gone, first her father, and now Hugo Drax. She could not find her tears, because the coldness of Cora's world had emptied her emotions. She felt two firm hands upon her shoulders 'We have to leave. That thing may only be stunned’.. Kyte spoke softly, trying to comfort the girl, and at the same time trying to inform her that the danger had not passed.
The child placed her hands on her knees and bowed her head 'I can't believe Hugo's dead... Luther we can't just leave him’...
Kyte looked solemn. 'He was a brave man... He sacrificed his life for us... But we must move on’. Kyte grabbed Cora gently by the arm and pulled the girl onto her feet.
Cora looked into Kyle’s blue and green eyes. 'What if he isn't dead?'... She said desperately hoping for reassurance. Kyte did not give any. 'He couldn’t possibly survive. No red bloodied man could. I'm sorry Cora. The spirits have taken him. We must leave’..
The child looked back at the hole, already ice was starting to form upon the water. Kyte was right, there was nothing they could do, and with a heavy heart Cora helped Jade to her feet.
‘He died like a warrior should’... Jade said attempting to swallow her own pain 'Hugo Drax was a truly great fighter, he was a great man. But we have a job to do, and he wouldn't want us to neglect that'.
THE MEN OF ICE
Droplets of icy water fell onto Shand's face. The man's skin twitched as the liquid trickled down his cheek. Slowly he opened his eyes, and 'gazed up through the dim surroundings. His mind was a haze of echoing, muddled thoughts. It took him several seconds to realise that he was still inside the melting igloo. Shand sat up and slid his body against the damp snow wall. He looked dazed, and slightly confused, but then his memory returned. 'Isobel'.. He whispered 'She must've taken the book'... Crawling on all fours, Shand gathered his equipment together. Strapping on his backpack and dragging his sword across the floor he pushed through the newly formed ice wall and ventured outside. He was met with brilliant sunshine, and it took Shand several moments to adjust his vision to the blinding daylight. After the shadows had fallen away from his eyes, he found that he was faced with a new threat.
Six giant men of ice stood around him, the sunlight shining through their huge transparent bodies. They carried long jagged spears that they pointed towards Shand. 'I have no wish to fight with you'... Shand said nervously, unsheathing his sword from his scabbard. 'But I will. If I'm given no choice'..
The tallest Iceman stepped forward 'We are Vorgranor’. He said his jaws cracking as he spoke. 'The red light led as here. We want the book returned'...
Shand look afraid. 'I haven't got the book'... He said quickly. 'But I can get it back for you, if you don't kill me'...
The Vorgranor Chieftain looked at his colleagues in disbelief, and then returned his gaze to Rufus Shand. 'Kill you?'... He said innocently 'We are a peaceful beings, we do not kill'...
'Then why carry spears?' Shand replied, gesturing his sword towards their weapons.
'These are not spears. They are staffs. We are magical beings, protected by the Guardians'... The Chieftain replied. Sliding his sword back into his scabbard, Shand smiled.
He saw an opportunity to manipulate the Vorgranor. 'I can get your book back'... Shand had gained their attention, and their light blue crystal eyes, backlit by sunlight swelled with curiosity. 'If you grant me a taste of your powers, I'll work for you’. Shand's confidence had returned. Because he knew that the book would be taken back to Grimney.
'Why would we need you to help us? We could retrieve it ourselves’. The Chieftain retorted defiantly.
Shand shook his head 'No you couldn't. The books in Grimney, and you're men of ice. The climate there is very hot. You'd melt'...
The Vorganor Chieftain nodded his head slowly 'Yes although we can only move when the sun melts our stiff joints, we cannot stay in the warm for very long... So, you can help us... What is it that you want?'
Shand chuckled 'I'm a warrior, and in my line of work I'm always fighting for my life. If you can make me a shield that no sword can cut through, that protects my whole body from harm, I will bring back your book. If you agree to this, I'll help you'.
The Vorgranor nodded in turn, and gazed down at Shand 'We agree'... The Chieftain concluded. 'Return The Book of The Guardians to us, and we will grant you your wish'..
Kyte had bandaged Jade's shoulder. She stood by Vin's side, her left hand pressed against her wound. The Bugwug stood on the top of Cora's head gazing out over the clear horizon. Cora reached up her fingers and stroked the bird's yellow and black stomach. 'I guess we'd better go'...
The Bugwug nodded and rolled his cross-eyes. 'We have to Cora. No more time to lose’. The hole in the ice had frozen over, they had waited long enough, and Cora had to accept that Hugo was lost. Taking a deep breath, Cora closed her eyes 'Let's go' She said weakly, and turning away she walked towards the Mountains of the Moon that stood in the distance. Vin and Jade followed behind her.
Kyte smile, Hugo’s death was not something that concerned him. In fact he welcomed it. Kyte watched his colleagues, as they walked slowly from Hugo's grave. The man looked back at the frozen hole. The ice began to crack. Kyte backed away. He gazed over his shoulder at Cora and the others, but they had their backs to him, and had not heard the noise. A metal fist extended out of the water. The fingers on Hugo's hand opened, and closed very slowly. Kyte could see that Hugo was still alive. He was aware that the others did not know this, and so he made no move to save him. He just watched as Hugo's arm slid back down into the water and disappeared from sight.
Kyte smiled and shrugged his shoulders 'There's no way out for you Hugo'... He whispered. 'You've made your grave. Now stay in it'... Kyte turned away and followed his colleagues. He knew that even if Hugo managed to climb out, he would freeze to death in the bitter climate.
Isobel Leach had reached her meeting point. She stood at the top of a high mountain and gazed down into the valley beyond. Beneath her was a plush green landscape dotted with trees, and rolling hills. The Land of Grimney was such a welcoming sight, and Isobel felt tears of joy forming in her eyes. Three men in black fur and animal skull masks stood behind her. Isobel had not noticed them. She was too awestruck by the sight of her homeland, to be aware of anything else.
The largest of the three men cleared his throat. Isobel turned swiftly and drew her blade. She lowered her sword and smiled. 'Draygon'...
The man lifted his skull mask from his head, and a mop of long, matted, black, greasy hair fell forward over the man's heavily bearded face. Draygon was not a handsome man. War had left his pale white skin heavily scarred, and his eyes were small and dark, and empty of any feeling. 'You' re late Leach. We've been waiting several moons for you'... His voice was gruff, and there was bitterness in his tone. 'I hope you have the book?'...
'I do, but do you have the money?' Isobel asked, her voice free of any fear.
'Do you think I'd cross you?' Draygon reached into his fur overcoat and slid out a roll of notes tied together with string 'Thirty thousand is what you asked for. It's all here if you wish to count it'...
'I trust you. We've done business before. I don't think you'll cross me’. Isobel reached into her backpack with both hands and pulled the book from inside. She had considered many options up until this point. She had planned to double cross Draygon too, and keep the book for another bidder. However she was aware of the Scars reputation, he was a brutal man, who liked to torture his victims before killing them.
Isobel stepped forward and placed the book upon the floor. 'Throw me the money Draygon’... She demanded.
Draygon tossed the bundle of notes through the air, and Isobel caught them. She quickly slipped the money inside her fur tunic. Draygon walked forward and lifted the book from the floor. He stood up and tucked it beneath his arm. 'What happened to the others?' Draygon scowled and his small eyes shrank further back into his head. 'They won't come looking will they?'
Isobel had been instructed to eliminate her friends as far as she was concerned that job had been done. 'They're either dead or dying'.
Draygon frowned. 'Tell me then. Who were they working for?'
Licking her dry lips she pondered over her answer 'Rufus Shand was working for a wizard, the others as you know were working for Cora Pearl’.
'What wizard?' Draygon's voice became colder. 'There are many wizards, and there are only two or three that I fear'.
'Oh?' Isobel scratched the side of her nose with her finger 'And who might that be?'
'The Weaver... Jaynus Weaver. He is not someone I wish to make an enemy of'. Draygon watched Isobel's expressions carefully. He was trying to detect any sign of unease in the young woman's face. Isobel knew that this wizard had hired Rufus Shand, but she chose not to tell Draygon, instead she made the logical decision to lie.
'That's not the name he gave me, but I can't remember who it was that hired him. But I'm sure it wasn't Jaynus Weaver'...
Draygon was satisfied with Isobel's answer, but he had not finished with her yet 'How would you like to earn another thirty thousand?'
‘I like that idea even more'... She replied; grinning so much that even her eyes seemed to smile.
'We have captured Cora's mother. We want you to rescue her from our camp. You see we believe she knows where the first book is hidden. If you can befriend her, she might tell you where it is’. Draygon expected her to say yes, no was not an option, and he knew that Isobel would not decline the offer.
The young woman nodded 'Of course... I know her anyway, she already trusts me’...
'Good’. Draygon raised his black-gloved hand and indicated to his men. Turning away they walked behind their leader, and strolled down the mountainside, and disappeared from view.
High upon a mountaintop in the darkest realms of Grimney, stood a tall narrow castle built of red stone. Beyond its high wrought iron gates, lay a long narrow passageway lit by torchlight. Statues of long dead wizards stood guard along the cobbled pathway. Carved from white marble, the figures waited silently in the eerie atmosphere.
In one of the many large circular chambers, seated upon a huge stone throne sat the warlock Jaynus Weaver. He wore a long, black, hooded robe, and a silver amulet hung around his neck. There was an inscription carved into the disk, it read 'Nexus Malignus, lectus Dectorium Parenthia’. Jaynus raised his hands and pushed back his hood. The face beneath looked pale and colourless, and his skin was tattooed with strange red lettering. In the centre of his forehead he had a third eye. The eyelid began to flicker, and slowly it opened. The iris was a deep shade of red, and in complete contrast to the other two; which were dark blue in colour. Jaynus fell into a trance, as the power of second sight drew him to another place, far away from Grimney. He saw Rufus Shand crossing the frozen Dudrassa Sea, and he could sense the man's desperation, and fear as he stumbled wearily across the ocean of ice. Jaynus began to mutter under his breath. It was a strange incantation in an ancient, long forgotten dialect. Shand fell to his knees, and began to gasp desperately. The man looked in terrible pain, and gradually he began to fade from sight. Regardless of the man's physical discomfort, Jaynus continued his mantra, and his third eye blazed with images of the suffering man.
Shand began to materialize in Jaynus's throne room. First the man's hands appeared, clenching and unclenching upon the floor, and gradually his arms grew from their wrists. Shand's torso formed next, shaking uncontrollably as the incredible pain tore through the man's separated body. Feet and legs began to grow, and his head began to sprout from his hunched shoulders. The veins in Shand's neck swelled and his face burned with fire, rolling onto his side Shand began to spasm. He was whole person again, but the transition from one land to the next had been so agonizing that he had lost consciousness.
Jaynus's third eye closed slowly, and he opened his other eyes and gazed down at the prostrate man. 'I fear you have failed me Rufus Shand’. The Warlock spoke softly 'I should have watched you more closely I think'...
Shand's eyes opened, they were bloodshot, and tears trickled from them. He sat up slowly, and looked around the room. 'What happened?' His voice trembling as the aches in his body slowly ebbed away.
'I used my magic to return you here’. Jaynus replied. 'That spell normally fails, I have had several tragic deaths trying to master it. Are you sure you're not missing something?’ He smiled ‘Other than your brain although I believe that was missing in the first place'..
Shand touched several parts of his body. The man's hands were trembling... 'Everything seems to be in order. But, you could've killed me'...
'Killed you?'... Jaynus sounded bemused 'No Rufus, if I intended to kill you, you'd be dead already'..
Shand stood up, his legs shaking. 'That is not a great comfort Weaver'... He was angry, but he knew it was unwise to upset the warlock.
However Jaynus was already deeply irritated by his hireling. 'You've failed me. Haven't you? Predictable really. You’re a clumsy oaf'
'I did my best'... Shand replied humbly, 'I misjudged my colleague, and for that I am truly sorry'...
Jaynus placed the palm of his hand upon his forehead, and covered his third eye. He looked pained by Shand’s words. 'I could look at you now, and turn you to ash. But that would be wasteful. Not just that... But it would also be messy, and having disintegrated my servant, untidiness is something that I do not need'...
Shand went down on one knee and bowed his head 'I will get the book back. I won't let you down again'..
'I hope so Rufus'... The Warlock sounded disappointed. 'But I think I can dispense with your services for the moment'.
'I'd rather you didn’t’... Shand’s voice quivered. He was afraid that Jaynus would turn him into an unattractive bug of some sort. The thought of scuttling the cobbled floor at the warlock's feet was not very appealing.
'Who has claimed the Second Book of The Guardians?' Jaynus slid his hand from his forehead, and the large eyelid beneath began to twitch.
'Draygon the Scar'. Shand swallowed hard, he felt his tongue sliding down his throat. He thought he would choke with fear. 'He's a dangerous man. He leaves nothing but slaughter and death in his wake'.
'I see him for what he is’. Slowly Jaynus's third eye began to open 'He’s a revolting specimen who smells worse than a tavern privy at closing time. He should not have stood against me'... The eye burned with red fire, and Shand looked away.
'What will you do?' ...
'In Grimney I am feared. In Vorgania my powers are limited'. Jaynus raised the palm of his hand in front of his tattooed face. 'I am a disciple of Darcus Ryalls’..
Shand's face flushed white. 'I never knew that you were connected to that creature?'...
Jaynus closed his two dark blue eyes, and the warlock drifted into his thoughts. Images flashed through his mind, and a picture formed in his large red eye. A crimson cloaked being stood in a sea of blazing orange fire. Jaynus began to whisper to himself ‘Darcus Ryalls’.. He was talking to the being inside his third eye. 'Give me your gift of dark magic, so I may summon servants to perform your bidding'.
A ball of black mist rolled from Jaynus's eye, and gathered in the palm of the Warlock's hand. Jaynus watched as the dark spirit snaked around his long pale fingers. ‘I ask you, as your servant to bring me the book’..
The black mist grew in thickness and rolled from the Warlock's palm. It unravelled across the cobbled floor. Shand watched in awe, as the dark spirit drifted past him and vanished through the large wooden door behind him. Jaynus smiled at Shand, his third eye closing slowly. 'You’d better follow the spirit'...
‘Does it have the power to steal from Draygon The Scar?. Shand asked, looking over his shoulder as the dark spirit snaked its way down the throne room passageway.
Jaynus nodded 'It will destroy him'... He clenched his fist together, raised his arm, and pointed a long finger at Shand. 'Now go, and do as the spirit asks'
It was a dark night in Grimney. The green sky was overcast, thick with grey cloud. In a forest clearing beneath the skeletal white branches of a thousand dying trees. Shand sat before a raging campfire. He roasted a large Gwaile in the crackling flames. The small blue skinned bird, was not much of a meal, but Shand made the best of it, chewing his way to the bone with the enthusiasm of a starving man. The dark spirit drifted around him. 'Do you have to float around me all the time?' The man asked, spitting a piece of gristle into the fire, and listening as the fat sizzled away.
The dark spirit settled on a fallen log opposite, and formed itself into a human shape. Shand looked nervous, and he felt acid building inside his stomach.
A soft voice drifted on the air, and echoed through the dying forest 'I am Darcus Ryalls, and I will have my revenge’..
Shand looked unimpressed and rolled his grey eyes. Sliding a dagger from his leather belt, he raised the blade to his unshaven face and began to scrape away the stubble from beneath his chin. 'Ryalls ... What possible reason would you have for revenge? You're not even flesh and blood’..
The black mist began to grow denser, and particles of dark energy tumbled down from the log, and rolled around the seated man. Shand sank his teeth into the roasted bird, and the fat ran down his chin, and dripped onto his boot.
The spectral being drifted upwards and formed into a giant floating skull, the jaws moved back and forth and vapours of black fog rippled from its ghostly hollow features. ‘I will destroy Cora Pearl’..Ryalls whispered coldly 'And you destroyed your own mother’.
'What?’... Shand's grey eyes flickered with fear, and his thin lips trembled nervously. 'I don't know what you're talking about Ryalls’..
The dark being surged forwards, and wrapped itself around Shand’s body. The man could feel The being's ungodly presence merging with his mind. He closed his eyes and tried to force Ryalls from his thoughts, but the spirit was too strong, and it drew dark visions from Shand's subconscious.
A middle-aged woman, her haggard face pockmarked and pale, sat upon her knees in a position of prayer. The room around her was dark, and bare, and she sobbed pitifully, her eyes half closed, running with bitter tears. Standing behind her looking drained and distant stood Rufus Shand, his grim thoughts lost in another place. Shand watched in horror at the image of his past self raised a mighty sword behind the defenceless woman and cleaved her head from her shoulders.
'That is not how it was Ryalls’.. Shand said bitterly, shaking his head and casting his eyes to the floor in disgust. 'I know what I did, and I remember it differently'...
Ryalls separated from Shand's body and swirled around the seated man, and began to taunt him... ‘You are a murderer... You killed your mother’.
Shand shook his head once more and reached forward angrily, and tried to grab the swirling being. Unfortunately his hand past straight through the dark spirit, and it remained unharmed. In that brief moment of rashness, Shand had forgotten his own limitations. He believed that he could hurt the entity, but he was wrong.
‘Don't play with me Ryalls!’... Shand yelled... 'Or I'll find a way to send you back to the Pit from whence you came!'.
Shand tried to retrieve his hand from the swirling black mist, but he found that he was unable to free himself from the entity's grasp. A terrible pain shot through the tips of Shand's fingers, and he could only watch in horror as his fingernails turned black, and one by one they began to fall off. Shand screamed in agony as the veins on the back of his hand began to protrude, and the blood that flowed along them blackened, and burst outwards splitting the skin. 'Stop!' Shand screamed his face turning crimson, his eyes swelling from their sockets. 'Stop ... Please stop!'...
Ryalls rolled back like a retreating tide, and released the man from its malevolent grip. Shand slumped forward cradling his wounded hand 'I'm sorry’. He gasped, his whole body twisted with pain 'I never meant anything against you, please forgive me?'...
The entity released a jet of black mist from the core of its body and it wrapped itself around the man’s bleeding hand. Shand watched in astonishment as his fingernails grew back and the wound healed before his eyes.
The entity spoke harshly to the dazed man 'I could tear you limb from limb if I wished it. Choose your words carefully, before you next speak to me'...
Shand raised his hand in front of his face, and gazed bewildered through watering eyes. He could see that the wound had vanished and was relieved that Ryalls had spared him the agony. 'I won't speak ill against you again Ryalls'... He whispered, his voice nearly broken 'I promise. Trust me, I'm your servant to the end'...
Ryalls was not convinced by Shand's words, but the entity knew that if it ruled by fear alone, Shand would be obedient. 'You will help me, and you will be rewarded for your efforts'...
'How will you reward me?' Shand was ready to do business again, and blowing on his stinging fingers he smiled warily at the detestable creature.
'Simple‘..Ryalls replied, swirling around the campfire and causing the flames to sway. 'I will not eviscerate you'...
'Great'... Shand's heart sank 'Not being eviscerated is better than nothing, I guess'... Shand hoped that Ryalls could not read a person's mind, because once more he had deep nefarious thoughts that involved betrayal ...
A QUESTION OF IMMORTALITY
The mountain path was very narrow, and a deep precipice yawned below. Cora looked down. The world had fallen away at her feet. Meadows of green and blue rolled across the fertile Grimnian plains. Long winding roads cut through the lush landscape. Small towns could be seen dotted on the horizon, where the green sky met the green fields and merged together. The blue fields of Forget-Me-Not were a symbol of Cora's desire never to forget her father. The flowers grew around Robert Pearl's cottage, thoughts of home made her want to throw herself into the abyss. She had come to Grimney to find him, to be reunited with his lost soul, but her dream of a happy family was once more wrenched apart.
The Bugwug pecked her gently on the cheek ‘Cora!’... The bird spoke sharply. 'Don't drift away from us, we need you'...
The girl's eyes were tear filled and glistened in the glowing sunlight. The green sky was blanketed in a deep shade of red. There was so much beauty in the world, but no light shone bright enough to warm her heart, inside Cora it was dark and empty. ‘I've lost two men that mattered so much to me’.. She whispered, not wishing to be overheard by Jade, Vin and Kyte who were struggling down the path behind her.
The Bugwug twittered. 'Your father is not dead, merely frozen in time. We can free him. If we can take back the book, we can break the ice that has trapped him'...
Cora smiled sadly 'This is all my fault'... She said, wiping the falling tears from her damp cheeks. 'I made this place what it is, I created this world, and made the monsters that have hurt us'...
The bird sighed heavily, and his cross-eyes rolled back and forth in irritation 'You're not to blame Cora’. He said, trying to reassure the child. 'Yes you created Grimney, but the Mind Spirits that inhabit the Guardian books took your ideas and made the world the way it is’.
'What about Vorgania?' Cora asked, because she had not written about this second land. She had only visualized the place. She had perceived the landscape to be snow and ice, but she had never drawn a picture of anything that they had encountered there.
Scratching his blue feathered head, the Bugwug looked thoughtful 'I fear that we are watching evolution at work. You created Grimney, and the Mind Spirits have taken your imagination beyond its limits. They are working freely, building on the foundations of the lands you imagined to exist’...
The young girl nodded ‘It's not just creatures that these spirits are creating’. Cora looked back over her shoulder at Luther Kyte 'Many of the people in this land, I never even thought of, and the ones I did think of seem to have lives of their own'. Cora lowered her voice still further ‘But Isobel, Shand, Kyte and many others seem to have come from someone else's thoughts’..Cora looked at the side of the Bugwug's feathered head and stared into one of his yellow cross-eyes. The question is whose thoughts are they?'
The Bugwug nodded 'Yes, it is most curious. I think we should only ally ourselves to those good individuals that you created, and forsake any others for our own personal safety' ...
Draygon's camp was situated on high ground. A vast stronghold of fortified wooden shacks and leather skinned tents. As night began to fall and the two reds suns faded into the dark green sky, five huge men dressed in black fur, and carrying burning torches lit several bonfires. These were placed strategically around the campsite. Their purpose to ward of the many predators that stalked the Grimnian plains at night. Inside the camp, Draygon’s men were asleep. Apart from the small group of torchbearers and the blazing bonfires, the camp was virtually unprotected.
In the largest shack Draygon the Scar sat at a wooden table playing with his hunting knife. Seated in the corner of the room tied to a chair, Elizabeth Pearl struggled with her bonds.
The young woman looked dishevelled, her face blotchy from the tears that dripped from her moist skin. 'My daughters a shape shifter, she'll turn herself into a dragon and breath fire over you and your wretched people ‘... She wanted to spit at the man, but her mouth was dry, and spitting, even in a situation like this was not very ladylike.
The Scar embedded his knife into the table 'I’m not interested in you. I want the Book of the Guardians that Cora has. You tell me where it is, and you won't come to any harm’.. The man's small dark eyes narrowed 'If you refuse to co-operate I'll torture you'...
Elizabeth shook her head and glared at Draygon 'I don't know where the book is. If I knew, I'd tell you'...
Draygon pulled the knife from the table, splintering the wood. He pointed the blade towards Elizabeth and shook it threateningly at her. 'If you're lying to me. I'll take your tongue'. The man slid back his chair and stood up. 'I'm governed by no law in this land. I make my own'. Draygon slid his knife into his belt. I'm not even an outlaw'... He smiled 'I'm feared by the authorities, if they won't cross me, then what makes you think you can?'
Isobel Leach waited outside. She leaned against the wall of the wooden shack, and put her ear to the door and listened. She could hear the muffled sounds of Elizabeth sobbing. Isobel hoped that Draygon was not hurting the woman. She was relieved when the door handle turned and Draygon stepped outside.
‘She's all yours Leach’... The Scar said picking one of his yellow teeth with a grubby fingernail. 'Go rescue her’. The man spat in Isobel's direction. The young woman was quick to dodge a small meaty projectile that had been lodged in Draygon's teeth since lunchtime. Isobel drew her sword and ducked in through the open doorway.
Elizabeth was seated with her head slumped forward, and she was sobbing quietly to herself. Cora's Mother was so overcome with self-pity that she did not notice Isobel crossing the floor to where she was seated.
‘Elizabeth’... Isobel whispered, as she crouched down by the side of the tearful woman. 'I'm here to rescue you'.
Elizabeth sat bolt upright, the colour quickly returning to her pallid cheeks 'Thank God it's you' ...
Isobel placed her finger on Elizabeth's lips 'Quiet, there are guards outside'...
'I know, I'm sorry Isobel, you just have to hurry’... Elizabeth lolled her head back over her shoulder and pointed her nose down towards her bound hands behind her back. 'Quickly, cut me loose‘..She said excitedly almost losing her breath.
Isobel cut through the bonds around Elizabeth's ankles, and freed her legs. 'My wrists, free my wrists'.
Crawling on her knees she moved behind the trapped woman's back and pushing her sword blade against the rope she sliced her way through. 'You're free'... Isobel said excitedly ‘Now we've got to get out of here fast’...
The bonfires that surrounded the camp began to burn oddly. The flames were turning blue. The guards on duty this night watched with wide-eyed amazement. One of the men, a big man with a thick mop of red hair and a hunchback, moved forward. Drawing his sword he approached the nearest campfire. His colleagues huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, and slid their blades from their belts. They watched as the hunchback walked slowly around the dancing blue flames. The men were lost for words, but the hunchback had seen the blue flame before, he knew that it was dark magic. 'What we have here is an evil entity'... The hunchback muttered. Unfortunately his voice was so quiet that his companions did not heed the warning. But any warning would come too late...
Suddenly the flames exploded outwards and engulfed the man. He floundered backwards, his black fur clothes blazing in the dark. The man fell to the ground, the rolling blue fire searing his skin, and consuming his body. Panic scattered the other guards, and they ran.
The dark spirit of Darcus Ryalls swept forward and consumed them in a phantom mist. The men were torn limb from limb, their screams smothered by the black fog that was tearing into them. Draygon's men who had been sleeping peacefully in their tents were woken by the sounds of screaming. Grabbing their swords they gathered outside. Their fate would be no different. One by one they were cut down and torn to pieces, as the black mist wrapped around their bodies and shredded their skin from the bone. Men were flung through the air, blood flowed like a river and jets of crimson burst against the walls of the wooden shacks.
Isobel and Elizabeth ran through the screaming masses. Hand in hand they jumped over shredded bodies and discarded limbs, desperately trying to escape from the chaos in the camp. Draygon The Scar had already reached his black horse and he leapt into the saddle. He kicked in his heels and pulled on the animal's reins. The horse bolted forward. Its huge cloven hoofs pounded upon the ground and he galloped away from the terrible scenes of carnage. He looked back over his shoulder. The whole camp had been consumed inside the dark maelstrom. His men were lost, but at least he was alive. Isobel was literally dragging Elizabeth through the wasteland of open fields that surrounded them. 'Come on!' . She shouted 'Don't look back, we have to keep moving!'.
Behind them the tents were torn from the ground and hurled violently through the air. The wooden shacks creaked and groaned until their walls began to split open. The dark spirit was searching for the book, and any man who stood in its way was tossed aside in a bloodied heap. Silence fell, because death had taken all of Draygon's men. The entire encampment had been laid to waste. Only the black rolling mist moved through the ruins, crushing any man that showed the slightest sign of life. Three people had managed to escape and they fled for their lives. They did not look back, for fear that death would be at their shoulders, and drag them to a similar horrific fate.
Shand had watched them run. He had been standing in the shadows when he saw Elizabeth and Isobel fleeing into the night. He was glad that Leach had not been killed, because he had planned to kill her himself. Her time would come, but tonight he had other ambitions. The man walked into the devastated camp. His fur boots sliding in the pools of blood that squelched beneath his feet. He could see that the dark spirit had gathered itself together, and the being was swirling over a partially demolished wooden shack.
Ryalls called out to Shand... 'The book is here Shand. I need you to carry it for me’.
Shand smiled and approached the ruined building. He looked down, and saw The Second Book of the Guardians lying upon the wooden floor. Crouching down on bended knee, he gripped the book in both hands, and squeezed the pages between his fingers. ‘The books ours again’..He slid the book inside his backpack and gazed at Darcus Ryalls. 'Why can’t you lift it up yourself?'
Ryalls floated around Shand and encircled him, the creature was bemused by Shand’s insolence. 'Just do as I ask, for I must be wary of touching it’...
Shand chuckled 'Whatever you say, I guess I'm needed then’... He said knowingly.
The dark spirit brushed against Shand's face, and the coldness of the being's form made him shudder. 'You are needed, that is why you are still alive' ...
‘Really?’... Shand said with a broad smile 'But once I take the book back to Weaver, I will have no further use'.
Ryalls form began to grow darker and the wisps of darkness began to flow more violently. ‘You are concerned that I may kill you?’..
'Of course'. Shand replied confidently 'I've lived in Grimney a long time. That's because I think ahead‘.. He stood on his feet and adjusted the straps on his backpack. 'I don't have to take the book back, but if I don't, you'll kill me here and now, but if you do that, then the book stays here anyway‘.
'Do not try to gain the upper hand with me Shand’. Ryalls began to sound irritated, because this man was becoming a nuisance. 'What do you want?'...
'A guarantee that you won't kill me'... Shand had considered his situation carefully 'Give me immortality, and I will take the book back to Weaver. If not you'd better kill me now'...
Ryalls drifted slowly in front of Shand 'Weaver will see us soon and draw you back with his third eye'...
'No, he exhausted himself the last time. He might bring me back in pieces, and he couldn't risk destroying the book' ... Shand reached forward with his hand and pushed his pointed finger inside the black mist. 'I could be useful as an immortal, think about what we could do together. Think about the power we could share'...
'Immortality is a great cross to bear'. Ryalls began to pulsate with a dark glow. 'But if that is what you wish, who am I to stand in the way of such dreams?'...
Shand's arm began to shudder and his skin darkened. The man’s body shook violently and his face contorted into a look of complete agony. He fell to his knees as the energy surged through him. ‘God!’ He screamed ‘It hurts!’. He watched as the dark spirit coursed through his veins. His heart began to pump frantically, until the pain became so intense that he felt it would burst through his chest.
Ryalls mocked the man. 'You chose this destiny, but to know immortality you must first experience your own death’. Lifting Shand from the ground Ryalls spun the man inside its swirling maelstrom. He was screaming, praying that the agony would end, for every second was a marathon of pain and mental anguish.
‘Now you will die’..The dark spirit smothered the man, and with one last gasp, Shand closed his weeping eyes and his limbs became limp. Ryalls released him and allowed Shand's lifeless, blackened body to fall to the floor.
Lying on his back with his mouth gaping open. Shand appeared to be dead, but darker powers were at work. His eyes began to flicker beneath their lids and slowly he began to open them. He stood up and gazed at the dark spirit. The man's eyes were white and clouded, and his skin had turned grey. 'What have you done?' He asked his voice shaking as he spoke.
‘Granted your wish’. Ryalls hissed, its ethereal body dancing around him. ‘Use your blade, pierce your heart, for it no longer beats’.
Shand drew his dagger and raising the blade to his chest, the man plunged it into his heart. He gazed down at the hilt of his dagger, at the knife protruding from the hole in his body. 'I don't feel anything’. He remarked lifting his hands triumphantly into the air and smiling 'I don't feel anything at all!’ Shand began to chuckle, the laughter grew in volume and he clapped his hands together 'I have my wish. I am immortal. May the gods bless you Darcus Ryalls'.
Robert Pearl's cottage stood empty, the front door swinging back and forth on the wind, its hinges creaking eerily. Cora and her followers crossed the field of Forget-Me-Not and walked slowly towards the deserted building. The child bent her knees and stretching out her hand she brushed the flowers with the tips of her long slender fingers.
Vin placed his hand gently on the girl's shoulder and gazed ahead. 'Something is very wrong Cora. I think you should wait here whilst we investigate'...
The Bugwug glided overhead, and circled the abandoned building several times, before finally settling upon the roof of the cottage. Jade slid her sword from its scabbard. Despite the fact that her left arm was supported in a sling, and she did not look particularly healthy, Jade was still willing to put herself in danger to protect the child. 'I think Vin's right' ... Jade said looking back at Luther Kyte who was standing just behind her. 'We'll investigate' ...
Kyte smiled and shook his head. ‘I'll stay outside with Cora'.
'As you wish'... Jade replied, gesturing to Vin to follow her. 'Yes... You stay here' She said frostily. 'Where it's safe'...
The interior of the cottage was in disarray. Books were strewn across the floor. The table that stood in the centre of the room was lying upon its side. Shelves and cupboards had been hacked away from the walls, and the wooden floorboards had been torn away exposing the soil beneath. Vin and Jade stood amongst the debris, they both looked upset by what they were seeing.
'Do you think Elizabeth is dead?' Vin asked, hoping for an optimistic answer.
‘There's no blood’... Jade replied. 'I imagine they've taken her captive'...
'Why?' Vin looked confused. 'I mean what would they want with Elizabeth?'
'Simple answer‘.. Jade said bending down to the floor and picking up a discarded gold sovereign 'They weren't looking for money'. She rolled the coin back and forth between her fingers. 'They wanted the First Book of the Guardians, and judging by the frenzy of destruction they didn't find it'.
Vin's red eyes narrowed 'You can't be so sure'. He said nervously.
'I can be'. Jade said solemnly. 'Had they found the book they would have killed Elizabeth and left her here'.
Jade turned away and saw pinned upon the wooden panels of the door a message fastened by the blade of a dagger. She ripped it down and studied the words scrawled across the grubby piece of paper.
If Cora lives to read this, let it be told that I have taken Elizabeth Pearl captive. She will not be harmed, she will be exchanged I want two things for her safe return the first is the Book of The Guardians that Cora possesses. The second is a man named kayleb Kassell. He owes me his life and I intend to take it. Joanna Simm knows his whereabouts but we were unable to find her. Grant me this and Elizabeth will live. I will be in touch, because my spies are everywhere. Yours brutally.
Draygon The Scar
Jade scrunched the paper in the palm of her hand and dropped it to the floor. Smiling at Vin she nodded slowly 'It seems I am once more in conflict with Draygon the Scar' ...
Vin bent down and picked up the note and unravelled it. He too began to read the message. Jade paused for thought and then spoke slowly through gritted teeth. 'For many years my ambition has been to kill that man, now I have no reason not to’..
Vin's mouth twitched nervously as he slid the note into his armour-plated pocket. 'I guess, he's a bad man, and not easy to kill'.
'That maybe so’. Jade replied, her eyes glazed with a flickering inner hate 'But I will cut him down. He will pay for the murders'
'What murders?' Vin asked biting nervously into his lower lip, unsure of whether he wanted to know ...
'Draygon is a green blood, hated by my kind. In his time he butchered my people'... Jade closed her eyes, as painful memories of death and slaughter flooded through her mind 'My family, and my parents are dead because of him'. Jade sighed 'And still the bloodshed continues'.
’I’m sorry' Vin placed his red gauntleted hand upon the woman's shoulder 'I'm here for you Eliza'. He said softly 'I'm by your side, and I'll always be your friend and ally.
Jade raised her arm and brushed his hand away. Narrowing her eyes, she gazed cynically at the red-eyed man...
'You're by my side?' She said sarcastically 'When things get very dangerous, you're by my side, but several miles behind?'. She smiled coldly, shaking her head 'I'd like to believe what you say, but somehow I just can't’..
Vin looked downcast, he was hurt by Jade's remarks. Deep down he knew he was not the bravest man in Grimney but he always tried to do his best, but it was never enough in the eyes of the bravest warriors in the land. 'I'm sorry you feel that way Eliza'. He said, his voice choking with emotion 'I guess, that sometime in the future, we will just have to see if I'm a liar, as well as a coward'.
Jade looked saddened. She had not truly wished to hurt Vin's feelings, but she could not help the fact that she was fuelled by a terrible bitterness. 'I'm sorry Vin'. She said 'I have so much anger, that sometimes I don't know what I'm saying'...
'I understand'... The man responded, his voice crumbling as he spoke 'I guess I'll just try to do my best, and if I fail it won't be through lack of trying'...
Cora, and Kyte sat amongst the field of Forget-Me-Not. The Bugwug remained standing guard upon the roof of the cottage. Kyte pulled up the flowers and allowed them to slip through the gaps in his fingers. 'So easy to kill things isn't it?' He said as he watched the scattered blue petals fall to the floor 'But what happens when there's nothing left to kill? Do we kill ourselves? Or do we kill ourselves in the process of killing, because life itself loses all meaning?'
Cora brushed her fingers through the flowers, their smooth petals stroking the palm of her hand gently 'I don’t agree with killing things. I want my mother, and to bring my father back from the dead'.
'You should never have taken the book'. Kyte's strange coloured eyes blinked into the sunlight. 'We raided a grave, and you took something that did not belong to you. Now you are cursed for your crime, and in time we will all pay the price for what we have done'.
'I don't agree with you Luther'. Cora responded brushing her long blond hair away from her face 'As I have said before, the book needed to be taken by the forces of good rather than evil'.
'Evil is not so easily defined' Kyte was not prepared to let Cora justify her actions. 'Hugo was not a good man, and I have my doubts about Jade and Reddell, I think they too were plotting against you’.
Cora smiled and shook her head 'That I can't believe, but I'll keep in mind what you say, I'm not as trusting as I used to be'.
Elizabeth and Isobel had walked for many miles to escape the carnage at Draygon's camp. By nightfall they had found a hiding place in the small village of Gilgara, a quiet little township inhabited by traders and travellers. Its narrow cobbled pathways wound their way around the small wooden shops and taverns that lined each isolated street. Tall lamps built of iron protruded from every corner and behind their glass canopies white fire danced in the dark. Yellow light shone from the grubby windows of 'The Troll Hole Tavern' and climbing the creaking wooden steps, Elizabeth and Isobel pushed their way through the large wooden doors. The interior was dimly lit, and sparsely decorated. Severed animal heads hung upon the high walls, and their shaggy faces stared lifelessly down into the room. Men, and women, trolls, and goblins sat quietly drinking at their tables. They did not look up from their ale as the two strangers crossed the sawdust floor to the bar.
'What you be wanting?' The huge pig faced barman asked, snorting through his round nose as he spoke.
‘Not exactly Holme’s Tavern’ Isobel lent forward and placed her elbows on the bar. She studied the many bottles that lined the shelves behind the grotesque creature, and smiled wearily 'We'd like two large Dru-Keenies, if you have them'...
The barman turned his large bulbous back to the two women and reached his fat little fingers to the shelf above, he slid down a bottle of dark blue liquid and poured the contents into two stout glasses. 'That'll be twelve Tobran ladies'. He sniffed, his pig like nose dripping with slime.
Isobel handed one of the drinks to Elizabeth, and she stared down into the glass with an expression of revulsion on her face 'I normally drink Gin and Tonic'. She said as the sickly aroma wafted into her nostrils and made her nose twitch uncomfortably.
Isobel downed her drink with one gulp and wiped her mouth upon her sleeve 'Drink it, it'll put hairs on your chest'.
'Not exactly an appealing thought'. Elizabeth replied taking a small sip and grimacing at the taste.
The barman smiled 'Can I get you anything else?'
'Perhaps a glass of water?'. Elizabeth said coyly, placing her drink down upon the bar.
Isobel shook her head with disappointment 'Ignore her' She muttered 'What we would like is a room, with one window that overlooks the street'.
'You got local trouble?' The pig man asked, sticking a finger in his large meaty ear and giving it a scratch.
Leaning forward Isobel grabbed the creature's dirty grey shirt and pulled him gently towards her. 'Let's just say that we don't want any company that we can't see first'.
The pig man wrapped his large sausage fingers around the girl's wrist and yanked her hand away. 'I understand, but if you want special treatment, you have to pay extra'.
'Fine'. Isobel responded as she picked up Elizabeth's drink and swallowed it down without even flinching 'whatever you say'...
The sign on the door read 'The Pig Sty' and turning the handle, Isobel stepped into the small room behind it. Two beds lay next to each other, their straw mattresses resting upon oblong wooden planks that were propped haphazardly above the uneven dirt stained wood floor. Cobwebbed, sackcloth curtains draped down from each corner of the room, they were empty, even the spiders did not wish to live in such grimy surroundings. A large filthy window was set into the wall, and as requested it looked out over the narrow streets below.
Elizabeth stood in the archway and folded her arms in disgust. 'What a dump... You certainly know how to show a lady a good time... I mean, just look at this room, its grotesque, I’m used to a en suite bathroom, I don’t even expect there are any towels...
Isobel placed her hands on her hips and frowned 'You want a bath I’m sure there is a trough outside'. She said with a snarl 'It's a tavern run by a pig, and the room is called The Pig Sty, you're hardly going to get a palace chamber in a place like this'.
Elizabeth turned her nose up and sniffed the stale air. 'And that smell. It's like an un-flushed toilet. It smells of dung, I owned a stable once, but I’ve never lived in one'...
'I don't care'. Isobel responded lying down upon the nearest bed and pulling a filthy sheet over her face in an attempt to hide from her irritatingly fussy companion.
'Well, I didn't think you would, I mean you smell worse than the room'. Elizabeth muttered taking a bottle of perfume from her trouser pocket and spraying the air 'I suppose it will have to do, but I am not best pleased with being here, I think you should know that'.
Isobel ruffled the sheet and pulled back the material. Staring up at the cracked yellowed ceiling she rolled her eyes 'Elizabeth, this is a rough little town, and it doesn't attract royalty. The people here are either hiding, or just passing through. Outlaws don't live well, they're lucky to live at all'...
Elizabeth's face dropped, and her jaw fell so far down it nearly bounced upon the dirty uneven floorboards 'I am not an outlaw' She said dismissively.
'Oh well, that's where you're wrong your majesty'. Isobel replied, sitting up and placing her booted feet upon the floor. 'You're with me, and therefore you have the same value as I do'...
'And what's that?' Elizabeth said closing the ill-fitting door behind her as she stepped nervously into the room.
'About ten thousand Tobran'... Isobel slid off her boots and shoved them beneath the bed. 'It's best we lie low for a spell, I'd hate to see you lose your head'...
'Marvellous' Elizabeth walked to the window and looked out into the darkness. 'So who are we running from?'.
Slipping her body from her furs, Isobel stripped down to her vest and pants, and tossed the clothes to the floor 'Just about everyone. I'm not the most popular girl in town'.
Elizabeth lent her forehead against the window and closed her eyes 'Splendid' She said despondently. 'So are you going to tell me where Cora is?'
Isobel wiggled her toes and laid back down on the bed 'I had to leave her'... She chose her words carefully, thinking it would be easier to tell an inaccurate version of the truth. 'She's not dead, but she does need our help'.
'We've got to meet up with her?' Elizabeth asked, hanging on Isobel's every word.
'Yes, but we need the First Book of The Guardians, do you know where it is?' Isobel took a deep breath, and tried to conceal her nervousness.
'Of course I do' Elizabeth opened her eyes and gazed back at her companion. 'Dhumass Shrester has it. He' s a warrior from Vorgania. He set up home in Frith, you know the place?'
Isobel nodded 'Yes, I'm familiar with it. We'll go there at first light'. The young women pulled the sheet over her shoulders and closed her eyes. 'I suggest you get some sleep, don't want you to be even more ratty in the morning'...
Elizabeth turned away from the window and looked across at her own bed. The thought of lying down on a filthy mattress held very little appeal. 'I have to sleep on that?' She complained.
'No' Isobel was already drifting into dreams. 'You can lie on the floor for all I care'... She yawned and curled herself into a ball. 'Whatever you decide, do it quietly'.
'I think I'll stand here and look out of the window for a while. Oh, by the way I am not ratty'. Elizabeth gazed back through the smeared glass. ‘I am just a little high maintenance that’s all’. Beyond the window all seemed quiet in the torch lit streets below, and wiping the smears from the windowpane she muttered a silent prayer in the hope that it would stay that way.
Holme’s Tavern had gained a notorious reputation with Grimney's roughest clientele. For many years it had served the strongest ale to some of the toughest outlaws and warriors in the land. Grimwood Scribes 'The Lord of the Mire' had tried unsuccessfully on many occasions to close the tavern down, but his men had always met with fierce resistance. Therefore when Cora and her companions arrived at the smouldering ruins of the once legendary establishment, they could do very little but stare in total bewilderment at the debris of smoking bricks and decaying dead bodies that lay scattered across the eerie open plains of scorched earth. Small groups of scruffy men and women sat amongst the devastation. Some were drunk on the barrels of ale, and spirits rescued from the carnage. Many more just stood and stared, their heads brought low as they surveyed the ruin of the alcoholic world they had once cherished from dawn until dusk.
Cora shook her head and looked from side to side at Vin and Jade who were standing at each shoulder. The Bugwug flew down and settled on an empty overturned barrel. 'What in God's name happened?' Cora asked, knowing full well that she would not like the answer. A shaven headed young man in a torn brown sackcloth tunic, black boots and baggy grey trousers stepped forward from a small group of tired looking ragged men. He had a burned face and tears welled in his dark grey eyes.
The scarred man approached the child, wiping his soot smeared battered features with the back of his shaking hand. 'You want to know?!' He yelled, his voice breaking like tearing sandpaper. 'You want to know what happened?!' The scarred man's ranting and melodramatic arm waving began to draw an audience from the downcast huddled masses. 'They came asking questions, bearing torches!' He continued the bile in his stomach rising into his mouth and causing him to spit violently.
'What questions?' Cora asked nervously sensing the tension between her and the scarred man. He pointed a sooty finger at the child 'They were looking for your father's house ... They wanted something that you have, and when they couldn't find it they burned the tavern to the ground!'...
Jade placed her hand on the hilt of her sword. She did not like the man's manner and was quite prepared to cut him down. 'I'm sorry that this happened, but please don't be angry at me' . Cora spoke passively, hoping that her gentle tone would be enough to pacify him. 'Just tell us who did this and we can bring those responsible to justice'...
Cora had not chosen her words carefully enough. Her words of comfort brought nothing but groans of dismay from the individuals huddled around the ruins, and increased the scarred man's anger. 'Justice?!' He laughed sarcastically, grinning coldly at the child and her followers. 'We've been running from justice all our lives!'.
Vin raised his gloved hand into the air. He could see that Cora's reasoning was failing her, and decided that he should attempt to calm the disaffected people. 'Cora is not your enemy, she is your friend'.
Vin was unable to finish his sentence because the scarred man had no wish to listen 'I can see by your well groomed face that you're not a man who could ever understand our plight'.
Kyte who had maintained his silence for reasons of his own personal safety decided that he needed to speak to this ill-mannered buffoon. 'I'd advise you to listen to me, and I'd also advise you not to interrupt'.
The scarred man nodded 'Say your piece traveller... We'll listen if you've got something useful to say'.
'Firstly, who am I addressing? What is your name?' Kyte's strange coloured eyes transfixed upon the man, and seemed in some way to calm him.
'My name is Quinn. I don't have a first name'... He said bitterly 'I never chose myself one'.
Kyte frowned 'I'm sorry that you and your people have suffered, but you need not be victims for the rest of your lives. If you could look at yourselves for what you are, would you like what you see? No one looks up to those that look down’...
Quinn looked back at the drunken men and women who sat despondently behind him. He understood what Kyte was saying, because his life and theirs had been viewed for many years through the bottom of a pint glass, and Kyte’s words had finally forced him to face the truth, that he was nothing but a drunken waster. 'The man that came here was Draygon the Scar'. He said viciously, spitting saliva from the down turned corners of his pencil thin lips ... 'Our mistake was that we were too drunk to defend ourselves'...
Jade drew her blade and raised it high into the air. 'You can stay here and drink this place dry. Or you can join us and hunt down and kill the villain. Have you any honour? Any courage left? Or are you just all talk and alcohol?'
Quinn gritted his yellowed teeth and smiled 'I'm a murderer, a cold bloodied killer, wanted by the authorities. I have no honour, but now the ale has dried, I do have a taste for revenge'.
Jade lowered her sword and pointed her blade towards him 'Then join us'... She said forcefully 'If you're good with a blade, we can use you’...
Cora looked uneasy. She was not keen to form an alliance with a man who was quite clearly bad. Quinn drew a filthy dagger from his leather belt and played with the blade 'I've never killed someone face to face, but I think I'd like to. I'll offer my services. In return I get Draygon's ears as a trophy’.
Jade smiled, Quinn's bloodthirsty nature appealed to the warrior woman's harsh sense of justice. 'You can take his tongue also, if it pleases you'.
'I'd offer my hand to shake'... Quinn said sarcastically 'But I've shook the hands of many, and in time I've often killed them'. He stroked the blade of his dagger with his fingers 'So a handshake is worth little, but you have my allegiance, it's not worth much, but I want to see him dead. So I'll follow you, whilst it suits me that is'...
Cora looked up at Vin. They both had the same uncomfortable expression upon their faces. Whatever they thought, it was now too late. Quinn had joined their quest...
The Bugwug settled on Cora's shoulder and raising his wing in front of his beak, he turned his head and whispered into Cora's ear. 'Recruiting him is a mistake. I can sense how evil he is'...
Cora nodded and gazed across at Luther Kyte. The man was looking down, and kicking at the loose soil beneath his feet. Kyte seemed amused by the situation, and unaware that he was being watched he began to chuckle under his breath. The girl was disturbed by Kyte's peculiar behaviour, but she was more concerned with Jade's bizarre lack of judgement.
'I just hope she knows what she's doing'... Cora said nervously, her voice barely audible.
The Bugwug ruffled his feathers 'Driven by hate she is. She is willing to join forces with evil, to fight against it. We should be wary of her and her allegiances'...
Rufus Shand gazed down at the distant fields and valleys below. The creeping sunlight streamed across the land, as the two crimson red suns inspired a bright new dawn. Shand's body was carried inside a swirling green and black vortex. He outstretched his arms like wings, and flew through the dark green sky towards Jaynus Weaver's red stone castle that stood high upon the jagged mountaintop. The being drifted through the heavens towards the highest arched window of Jaynus's fortress stronghold, and Shand could feel Ryalls energy flowing through his body as they began to descend. The dark being entered through the window and lowered the man gently to the floor. Inside the dimly lit room Jaynus Weaver sat upon his throne, with his eyes closed. The warlock appeared to be in a trance, his lips moving slowly as he muttered magical incantations under his breath.
The dark spirit swirled around Shand's body, and the green light that had meshed itself to Ryalls unravelled from the being's ethereal form, and rolled silently across the cobbled stone floor. Jaynus opened his large red eye and the green mist began to spiral hypnotically towards him. Stretching itself into a thin thread of green light, it penetrated Weaver's eye, and vanished into his red iris. The Warlock's third eye closed and his other eyes opened. They sparkled with a green glow, before gradually returning to their original dark blue.
Darcus Ryalls formed into a human shape and floated by the side of the Warlock's throne. Jaynus smiled, he could see that Shand's skin had changed colour and that the man's eyes were shrouded in death. 'It seems that you have crossed over into the world of the undead'.
Shand raised his grey fingers to his face and stroked his leathery skin proudly. 'I'm immortal'. He said enthusiastically, unaware that his eyes were unable to register such a feeling. 'I am not undead’.. He said contemptuously.
Jaynus chuckled under his breath. He knew that those individuals who embraced the power of dark magic, without understanding it, would often pay a terrible price for doing so. However, his concerns for Rufus Shand were nonexistent. The only thing that interested him was taking possession of 'The Second Book of The Guardians'. 'Have you brought me what I asked for Rufus?' He said excitedly, outstretching his long fingers towards the grey skinned man.
'I have'... The man reached into his backpack and lifted the book from inside. 'What do you want with this anyway. What's its secret?' Shand held the book in both hands and began to turn the pages.
'That is not for your hands to touch’... The warlock said sternly. Shand could feel the book vibrating as an invisible force lifted it from his grasp, and carried it through the air towards the Warlock. The pages of the book flapped like a crusty old moth, and they fell into Weaver's lap. Jaynus brushed his fingers proudly over the front cover 'The Book Of the Guardians is a pathway to another realm'.
Darcus Ryalls swirled around Jaynus's throne and drifted over his head. The being was observing the contents of the book, eager for the warlock to reveal the images contained inside.
'Lectus Dectorium Perenthia'... Jaynus read the words printed inside the book. He clasped his long fingers around the silver disk that hung around his neck. The book and the amulet both carried the same inscription.
Shand looked intrigued, he wanted to know more. 'What does that mean?' He asked, his clouded eyes flickering with blank curiosity.
Jaynus turned the page, and it fell open upon the drawing of the shattered ice block. The warlock looked up, and smiled 'You want to know what it means?' He nodded 'Of course you do... Lectus Dectoriam Parenthia... It is taken from the ancient Dellvarrian language, and when translated it simply says... Gateway... Destination... Earth'.
Cora Pearl sat outside her father's cottage. She had watched the two red suns rise. It had been a beautiful dawn, but the small child saw the coming of each new day as a further separation from her mother and beloved father. She feared that she had now lost them both, and the pain in her heart lined her face, and caused her eyes to weep. She had journeyed to Grimney to be reunited with her long lost father, she had found him, but lost him once more. Her dearest human companion Hugo Drax was dead, and she felt helpless without his wise council and reassuring words. The Bugwug as always remained by her side, but that was not enough for the child. She needed her mother, and longed for her father to hold her in his arms, and Hugo, dearest Hugo, what would be her fate without him? Cora was only twelve, too young to face her future as an orphan, and too old to accept that her life could function happily without them. It was such a bitter blow, for Cora had created Grimney, a secret that only she, the Bugwug and her parents knew, and a fact that made their loss ever more painful, because Cora felt responsible.
Inside the cottage Quinn sat quietly at the wooden table. He used his knife to slice through the skin of an apple, and cutting pieces away from the core he slid the small chunks into his mouth. Kyte gazed out of the window, he could see how lonely the child looked, but he remained silent, uninterested in Cora's plight. Jade, Vin, and the Bugwug lay sleeping on the floor. The bird snored quietly upon Vin's chest, his cross eyes covered beneath his wings.
Quinn looked over his shoulder at Kyte, and smiled 'Tell me about the child. Why do you follow her?' He said, rolling a piece of apple on his tongue, and sinking in his yellow teeth.
Kyte did not look back at the outlaw. Quinn was not a man he wanted to gaze at, because the man's appearance was so unappealing. 'I'm not a follower, I'm with her because she can lead me to what I want'...
'Oh?' Quinn said slicing away another piece of apple. 'What is it you want Kyte? He said sarcastically 'Let me guess. Money? Fame? Or something else’...
Kyte shook his head 'Cora is a baby. She has no idea what she is dealing with. My only advice to you, is to leave now, or you may die before your time'...
Quinn laughed hollowly, spraying fruit juice over the wood. 'Die before my time?' He embedded the knife into the tabletop. 'I know my time is long overdue'.
'Really?' Kyte responded coldly 'You have a death wish that you want to fulfil?'
Quinn tossed the apple core onto the floor, and licked the juice from his fingers 'I don't wish for anything'. He said angrily... 'My only home was the tavern, and the drink it served. Now that's gone, I don't care what happens to me'.
'Your life is that meaningless?' Kyte bowed his head, closed his eyes, and flattened the palm of his hand against the window.
Quinn pulled his knife from the wood and wiped the blade on his brown sackcloth tunic. 'Nobody cares about me... I'm one of the forgotten. It has its benefits, because I have no feelings for anyone. My only friends are tavern owners, and barman. That's the way it is... That's the way I like it'...
Kyte arched his fingers and dragged them down the glass. 'She'll guide you to your death. Wherever she walks, men and women fall. Your time will come very soon'...
'I've died many times Kyte'... He said reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out a silver flask. 'But I've always woken up in the morning'... He unscrewed the lid and gulped down the liquid inside. Quinn wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled 'But I'll settle for a long lie in one day, the longer the better'...
'So be it'. Kyte replied his voice flat and disinterested 'Follow your path, and fulfil your pointless destiny, no one here will stop you, because no one here will care’.
Jade's eyes opened and instinctively she reached for the hilt of her sword. Sitting up she wiped the sleep from her eyes and gazed around the room. 'All quiet I see' She said sharply, stifling a yawn and moving her body onto one knee. 'Where's Cora?'
Kyte looked out through the window, the child was still seated outside gazing up at the twin suns 'She's fine, just taking in the morning air'.
The warrior women stood on her feet and outstretched her dark muscular arms 'She shouldn't be on her own Kyte, we're here to protect her'...
'She's fine'... Kyte grinned 'But you can shield her from the Forget-Me-Knots if you think they might hurt her, but as far as I know those flowers are not poisonous'.
A huge black shadow fell across the open fields and meadows. A giant winged beast fractured the sunlight and cast its darkness upon the ground. Blood red eyes glinted and rolled in its elongated black skull like head. The creature had the wings of a giant bat and its skin was covered in thick grey fur, and long spikes protruded down its back. This hideous looking creature was a Roth, perhaps the last of its kind. It belonged to a species that had been hunted to near extinction, and although it was hungry for meat, it was also hungry for revenge. The Roth passed silently and eerily over the village of Gilgara, and glided purposefully onwards.
Down below the villagers remained blissfully unaware of the creature flying above them, they were too busy with their daily chores to even look up into the green sky. Inside their rented room, Isobel began to wake from a deep sleep. Sunlight streamed in through the grubby window and shone across her face. Placing her hand over her eyelids she tried to brush the light away. Elizabeth sat by the window, her head resting against the glass pane. She was fast asleep and snoring loudly.
In their blissful dreams, they could not imagine the nightmare that had just drifted over them. But in time, they would encounter this creature and be forced to make a fatal choice. Isobel sat up in bed, and rolled back the dirty covers. She placed her feet quietly upon the floor, and slid down onto her knees. She took a deep breath and gazed over at Elizabeth. The woman was still sound asleep.
Reaching beneath the bed Isobel slid out her rucksack, and pulled it open. Smiling she gazed down at the bundles of money contained inside. ‘I’m rich, but I could be richer'. She whispered looking across at her fur clothes lying by the side of her bed on the floor. 'First things first, I think we need new outfits'...
Elizabeth felt a hand on her shoulder, and it made her jump. 'What's going on?' She said her eyes watering as they adjusted to the daylight.
Isobel smiled... 'We have to get going. We've slept enough, and it's never wise to spend too long in one place’...
The village streets teemed with all manner of life. Large grey skinned trolls sat on street corners smoking their clay pipes. Whilst huge, shambling, fur skinned, ape like Vords in black leather armour strolled slowly past. They grunted unpleasantly at the trolls, but their guttural voices were received with polite nods from the grey skinned creatures seated upon their wooden stools.
Elizabeth and Isobel walked down a quiet side street. A signpost sticking up from the cobblestones read 'GRUFF LANE'. It was lined on each side with stalls and small shops. Human traders mingled with trolls and vords, as they bartered and exchanged Tobran for the vast selection of goods that were available for sale.
Isobel pointed her finger towards a wooden placard hanging from one of the overhanging thatched shop roofs. It displayed a painting of a yellow shirt and blue trousers.
‘This shop will do. Let’s go in there’..
Golthor the Grankin was a huge bulbous creature. His grey leathery skin hung in folds around his body, and his watery blue eyes sunk down beneath his eyelids, causing huge grey bags to layer themselves above his fat drooping cheeks. Golthor stood behind the shop counter, resting his fat, crinkly elbows next to the till. His long trunk nose twitched, as he sniffed the air around him. He curled his huge rubbery grey lips into a monstrous smile, because the Grankin had customers. Isobel and Elizabeth stepped inside the cluttered surroundings. The four walls were layered with a multitude of shelves stacked full of clothes. It surprised Elizabeth that the clothier with so many outfits to choose from would work in his shop completely in the nude.
'Can I help you?' The Grankin muttered, his throat wobbling as his spoke.
Isobel looked at the strange creature and smiled. ‘We need new clothes. Money isn't a problem'.
Golthor stepped out from behind the counter. Elizabeth covered her eyes. She was most embarrassed by the creature's lack of clothing.
'Now let me see'...He said scratching the top of his hairless grey head, and looking Isobel and Elizabeth up and down...
'Maybe something classic perhaps? We have some Faramear skin jackets, top of the range, freshly killed last week, still bloodstained, a mark of quality'.
Elizabeth looked through the cracks in her fingers as the Grankin gestured his fat arms in all directions. 'Or maybe you're looking for something a little more casual?’
Isobel was not concerned by Golthor's appearance, and therefore conducted her business without issue. 'I think we're looking for armour. Probably leather, something strong, but flexible'.
Golthor liked to scratch, and he gave his nether regions a good scraping with his fingernails. ‘I know, I have an idea’. He said and gazing up at the highest shelf 'I may have just the thing'.. The Grankin moved his huge bare bottom across the floor, and waddled like a mass of grey jelly to a tall stepladder that stretched up to the high ceiling. He placed his foot upon the first rung and began to climb upwards. Golthor hesitated, and looked down at Elizabeth 'Madam' He said politely... 'You couldn't hold the steps as I climb could you?'
Elizabeth looked horrified. She had no desire to stand beneath this foul creature. The thought of staring up at the Grankin's huge fat derriere was certainly not one that appealed to her. 'I'd rather not, if you don't mind’. Elizabeth said rather rudely.
The Grankin looked offended 'Well I never' He said rolling his eyes and jutting out his trunk. 'How very inconsiderate of you. If I fall, be it on your head'.
Elizabeth smiled 'If you fall, judging by the size of you ‘God forbid it’s on my head'. She said with a wry smile.
'That's not very nice Elizabeth'. Isobel stated, shaking her head 'Help the man. After all we don't want to offend the townsfolk around here, they might decide to lynch us’.
Elizabeth held the ladder, but the young woman did not look up. The swollen grey hairy buttocks of the Grankin were not a sight that Elizabeth wished to remember. Sliding a bottle of perfume from her jacket she sprayed the air above her.
Golthor did not care that the liquid stung his skin. He was far too excited by the fact that he had customers.
'Disgusting'. Elizabeth grimaced and looked across at Isobel who was leaning against the counter with a bemused smile on her face. 'I mean he owns a clothes shop and doesn't wear any clothes? How weird is that?’.
The Grankin looked down his trunk at Elizabeth 'I own this shop young lady. If I choose to walk around as nature intended then I shall do so'...
'There's nothing natural about it' Elizabeth scoffed, trying to avert her eyes as best she could, 'But I suppose you have a point. If you wish to conduct your business in such a way, I guess I shouldn't complain’.
'Oh no you never complain do you Elizabeth?’. Isobel folded her arms and chuckled 'It could be worse. I know some creatures that walk around without their skin. Talk about letting it all hang out. They certainly do‘...
Elizabeth frowned. 'That's just plain silly. Let's just get some clothes and leave’..
The Grankin lifted down two large boxes from the highest shelf, and began to retrace his steps down the ladder. Elizabeth closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, as the cheeks of the creature's huge bottom brushed against the side of her face. 'I have just the costumes for you both'. The Grankin said stepping heavily onto the shop floor and slouching forward on his fat hairy grey feet. 'But if you don't like these, there are several more outfits on a higher shelf that may appeal'...
Elizabeth sprayed her face with perfume, 'No, I think whatever you've got in those boxes will be adequate'.
'Yes, I've dressed many a warrior women in my time’. Said the Grankin with a twinkle in his eye. He placed the boxes on the counter and lifted the lids 'I'm sure you
will be highly delighted with my choices’.
Elizabeth placed a black booted heel through the shop doorway and stepped nervously into the sunlight. Her outfit was well suited to the warm temperatures of Grimney. In all honesty it was little more than a black, leather studded bikini, with a short leather skirt fastened tightly around her waist. Her boots reached over her knees and she wore long black gloves that stretched up to her elbows. Tucked behind a tight metal belt were three daggers, their blades concealed inside their scabbards. 'This outfit'... Elizabeth whined 'It's revenge for my comments about that creature's appearance, I look positively pornographic’...
Isobel closed the shop door behind her. She was dressed more subtlety than her companion. The Grankin had chosen a rather striking red leather body suit, gloves and knee length boots. The all in one outfit was padded with thick pieces of material that protected her shoulders, upper thighs, chest and elbows. She wore her leather belt low around her waist and Isobel's sword hung down by her ankles. ‘Well’..Isobel said winking at Elizabeth 'I think your new look will make you popular with people, and to be honest, having known you, you need it‘..
THE GATEWAY OPENS
The door to the altar room was lead lined, its black panelled exterior absorbed small particles of light that shone with a strange intensity, yet reflected nothing. A silver handle jutted from its surface, a cherub face carved into it; a screaming child, its eyes as black as ebony. They stared forward with godless malevolence, as Jaynus Weaver pushed open the door. Inside the room, a silver chandelier hung from the high glass ceiling, its black candles dripping wax into eternity. The light they gave was of the barest minimum, and dark shadows danced beneath the flame. It was the rhythmic pulsating green glow of the altar in the centre of the room that gave the surroundings definition.
Jaynus glided across the floor, his long black robes sweeping behind him. He carried the Second Book of the Guardians inside the folds of his robes, and climbing the stone steps to the altar he placed the book carefully down upon it. He opened the pages and laid them flat. Jaynus looked down at the drawing of the mystic jewel displayed within and taking several steps back the warlock raised his hands to the heavens and closed his eyes, and began to mutter the words 'Lectus Dectoriam Perenthia' over and over again... Jaynus's third eye began to open slowly, glowing with a ghostly red intensity it flickered coldly. The painting of the jewel began to emit shards of red light from the page, and sounds of cracking echoed around the chamber as the picture tore itself from the old parchment.
The Bloodstone floated upwards, its glinting crystal sides sparkling in the dim candlelight. Above Jaynus's head the glass canopy fixed into the high, arced ceiling began to fracture. A ball of red light punched its way through. Splintered glass fell like hailstones and bounced upon the cobbled floor. Jaynus continued to chant, and each word cast from his pale lips caused the ruby to spin more frantically. The ball of red light unravelled, and snaked forward through the air, penetrating the many sides of the ruby. The mind spirit swept its way into the Bloodstone and enveloped the jewel in a deep red glow, and slowly, before the third eye of the warlock the jewel began to disappear.
The Bloodstone faded from sight. Lost in shadow, the mind spirit became absorbed into the crystal and vanished alongside it. Blackthorn manor had changed very little in the two years since Cora had left. The huge white house stood eerily beneath the moonlight, its dirty grey windows overlooking the stables and cobbled forecourt below. The open fields that surrounded the manor had become overgrown, but the giant oak tree remained unchanged. Its huge bare branches displaying the signs of winter, as they swayed back and forth in the icy north wind. The night sky began to glow, and rolling grey clouds that crossed the moon began to turn red. The mind spirit burst through the moonlit sky and descended towards the roots of the giant tree. Glowing red sparks burst upwards from the soil as the ethereal being buried itself into the ground. The light was so bright that it blazed a trail through the highest window of the manor house.
Samuel Blackthorn, Cora's once hated stepfather sat up in bed. The man looked dishevelled, his face grey, lined through old age, and poor living. His long white hair and beard matted to his head and face. Blackthorn switched on a bedside lamp, and placing his bare feet on the wooden floorboards he crossed the room to the far window, and drew back the curtains. In the forecourt below, all seemed quiet, however, narrowing his grey eyes the man could see that the great oak tree was glowing red at its base. Blackthorn dressed quickly, and ventured outside. Although he carried a torch, he had no need of it. The moonbeams guided his way. He pushed open the gate and walked across the field. 'What on Earth is going on?' He muttered nervously, as he neared the glowing red light and crouched down over the hole torn into the soil. Blackthorn reached his hand inside, and felt around. His fingers instantly came into contact with something smooth, cold and solid. 'Buried treasure perhaps?' Blackthorn slowly drew his hand from the dirt, and lifting his clenched fingers in front of his glowing red face, he saw to his astonishment that he was holding a giant red ruby. 'I don't know how you got here'... Blackthorn whispered looking deep into the Bloodstone, and watching the mist inside as it rolled back and forth. 'But there's something quite magical about you I think, and if that's the case, then I'd imagine you are somehow linked to my stepdaughter'...
If Blackthorn had meant that statement as a question, then he was about to be given the answer. The jewel began to glow more intensely and Blackthorn screamed as he felt the skin of his palm burning against the crystal. He dropped the ruby to the ground and staggered to his feet, cradling his wounded hand he stumbled back across the field. A beam of red light burst from the Bloodstone, and soared upwards into the sky. Blackthorn lifted his feet and began to run for his life, but he could not match the speed of the mind spirit. It descended rapidly towards him and lifted him helplessly into the air. 'Put me down!' Blackthorn screamed flapping his arms and legs in blind panic. The mind spirit obeyed his request and hovering an inch or two above the branches of the giant oak the being released him. Blackthorn's eyes bulged in terror, as the ground beneath seemed to charge upwards to greet him, and with a sickening thud.
Blackthorn's broken body came to rest at the base of the tree. He attempted to reach out his torn fingers, but the man could barely crawl. Blackthorn managed to drag his shattered body a few inches forward, but the effort proved too much for him, and he slipped into unconsciousness. The mind spirit hovered overhead, and drifted down by Blackthorn's side. The Bloodstone lay next to the fallen man, and stretching itself into a narrow thread of energy, the mind spirit returned to its domain inside the Bloodstone ruby, and once more all seemed quiet...
Several hours passed before the pain in his legs forced Blackthorn to wake up. He looked at the shattered glass face of his watch. Fortunately the hands were still turning. It was six O'clock in the morning, and he was horrified to find that he had been lying unconscious for five hours. Blackthorn was not a very popular landowner. He had very few visitors to his estate, but one early morning caller was always guaranteed, Willie Jones, his local postman. Willie was always punctual, and he would arrive at six thirty on the dot nearly every day of the week. Blackthorn's dilemma was thus, if he failed to crawl back to his front door then he would most certainly die from his injuries, or from the bitter winter weather. So outstretching his hands he began to pull himself forward, dragging his broken legs limply behind him. The pain was so intense, that the muscles in his face fixed themselves into a permanent grimace, and his grey skin began to develop a bluish sweaty tinge. Clenching his fingers, Blackthorn tore at the long grass, and pulled it up by the roots. This action was partly due to the sharp stabbing pains tearing through his forearms, and Blackthorn's determination not to allow his injuries to sap his strength.
Time passed agonizingly slowly, but Blackthorn was not willing to give up, although he could feel the blood pumping from his lacerated knees, and the cold sensation of the liquid cooling against his fractured calves. Blackthorn had no thoughts of lying down and allowing the waves of nausea to overcome him. Blackthorn forced his mind to stay active. He would not give in to his darkening vision, or allow his body to collapse into fatal unconsciousness.
Willie Jones stepped out of his delivery van, and slammed the red door shut. He was a short middle-aged man, with a plump face and a well-rounded belly. His light blue shirt was several sizes too small, and his lumpy pink skin swelled from the gaps between each buttonhole. The man walked in a most peculiar fashion, he seemed unable to point his feet in the direction he was stepping, and because of this Willie seemed to waddle like a penguin. The postman had a bundle of letters tucked beneath his arm, and wobbling forward, he approached the door of the manor house. He noticed that one of the letters was recorded delivery, and taking out a pen and his little blue booklet, he rang the doorbell. Willie stood on the doorstep and waited. 'What's he doing in there?' He asked himself in a squeaky country accent. Looking at his watch he noted the time, it was six thirty two. Blackthorn was always awake early, and Willie looked slightly concerned, and so, without hesitation he once more rang the doorbell, but still there was no response. 'Hmmm'... Willie pondered 'This is not like you at all Mr Blackthorn'. He stepped back and gazed up at the window above. He could see that the curtains had been pulled back, and for Willie this was a clear indication that Blackthorn was awake and not still tucked up in bed. 'OK' He said slowly, nodding his head 'I guess, I'll just have to leave it'...
Willie slid the recorded letter back into the bundle of letters and turned away. He was about to waddle back to his van when he heard what sounded like a voice calling out to him. Willie stopped and looked around. 'Now what was that?' He asked himself, scratching his chin with the corner of the booklet.
The words floated by him again, although lost on the wind, they were more distinct this time, and sounded like 'Help me... Help me please... The postman narrowed his eyes and looked across the courtyard. In the vast green field Willie could see a trail of flattened grass leading from the base of the oak tree, to the gate. Blackthorn was lying sprawled beneath the metal barrier, the man's arms hanging limply through the gaps.
A DEADLY PICTURE
Cora Pearl and her human companions were naturally oblivious to the fact that Jaynus Weaver had crossed the dreamscape to Earth. The Bugwug however was not immune to the sudden change in the delicate balance between this world and Blackthorn's. The bird's eyes began to roll unnaturally, and he wobbled on Cora's shoulder, reaching out his wing he steadied himself against Cora's neck. 'Stop'... The Bugwug squawked, as he tried to retain his balance.
Quinn, Jade, and the other members of the group held their ground. They stood quietly in the huge forest meadow that surrounded them.
'What's wrong Bugwug?' Cora asked reaching her hand to the bird's head, and stroking his feathers gently.
The Bugwug twittered nervously, ruffling his wings, and rolling his orange tongue back, and forth inside his dried beak. 'The Second Book of the Guardians has been used. I sense that it’s magic has been harnessed'. The Bugwug gazed at the concerned faces that surrounded him.
Kyte shook his head and gritted his teeth. 'So Cora's folly has allowed the book to fall into the hands of another power'... He gazed cynically at Vin and Jade 'And judging by the Bugwug's reaction it is not Draygon The Scar who has claimed it'. Kyte shook his head and sneered 'You fools'. He muttered angrily 'There are only two individuals capable of unlocking the books secrets. One is Cora Pearl, the mystic explorer of the Zoriat tribe, and the other is Jaynus Weaver'. Kyte smiled cynically 'It does not require an intellect as great as mine to work out the answer, in fact'. Kyte gestured his hand towards Vin Reddell 'Even a knight such as you could work that one out'.
Vin looked unimpressed by Kyte's insult, but he was not about to make an issue. Vin was not small minded enough to be offended by Luther Kyte. 'Then we've got to get it back at all costs' Vin said without drawing a breath.
Quinn sat down against the roots of a large tree. He slid his silver flask from his pocket and unscrewed the lid 'Now'. He said ponderously sipping his whisky. 'I don't want to be a bad sport, but I kind of joined up to kill the Scar for burning down the tavern, not to go rushing around the country in search of some damned book'.
Jade drew her sword, and waved it above her head. 'We eliminate both of them!'. She yelled 'That's what I say!' Jade slammed the sword into the ground and leant her powerful, bronzed body upon the hilt. Jade's aggressive action caused her shoulder to bleed, but she was too engaged in thoughts of bloodlust to care.
Cora sighed. 'I don't want to kill anyone' She could see by Jade's hard faced expression that her companion was not interested in her pacifist ethos. The child remained calm, for the warrior woman did not intimidate her in the slightest. 'I know we have to get the book back, and make sure that the first book is safe in our hands. But if we become killers, then what hope is there for the good people?'
Quinn gulped down more alcohol. 'Are we good people?' He sneered, wiping his mouth on his sleeve 'I wasn't aware I'd switched sides'.
Vin stared down at Quinn. 'We are what we choose to be. You should make your choice, if you have the courage to do so'...
‘Courage?' He chuckled 'I'm brave enough to admit that going after Jaynus Weaver with a cross eyed bird and a twelve year old child leading us, is simply plain stupid.
'Nobody forced you to come with us Quinn' Cora interceded 'If you want out, you can just walk away from us’.
The outlaw nodded 'I guess so, but without the tavern I've nowhere to hide from the authorities'. He chuckled shallowly 'Silly really, but I'm probably safer with you'.
Jade laughed 'Then it's agreed' She said pulling the sword from the ground. 'We take our fight to The Weaver'.
Cora nodded solemnly 'I do hope we can avoid fighting, I never really liked conflict' Her eyes glistened with tears 'But we will go after Draygon, he has my mother, and I won't allow him to keep her'.
Quinn smiled 'Good, then I'm still with you'. The man slid himself slowly up from the grass and lent his body against the tree. 'The note that Jade took from the cottage it mentioned Kayleb Kassell. I know the man, I know where he lives, and we don't need Joanna Simm to find him'.
Blackthorn injuries were severe. He lay in hospital plastered from head to foot, his feet lifted in traction, his neck fixed firmly in a brace. He had his own private room, befitting a man of his wealth and status. Two 'Get Well' cards stood on a bedside cabinet, and next to these there was a vase containing a rather basic arrangement of daffodils, these, unfortunately, were already wilting. Visitors to Blackthorn's bedside were inevitably limited, but two people remained loyal.
The first was Blackthorn's son from his first marriage. Henry was a big man, with short brown hair and large green eyes, he had a gentle, untroubled manner, and although he was a city worker he had a warm and friendly nature that could not be concealed by expensive suits, and extensive grooming.
The second was Daniel, he was Blackthorn's grandson, and at sixteen years of age the boy had already demonstrated his artistic genius. He had high ambitions, and had already won a scholarship to study Art at Oxford University. Daniel was a striking looking boy. He wore his hair short, bleached, and spiky. His skin was pale and looked almost transparent. Due to his artistic temperament, Daniel's brooding clothes reflected his troubled nature. Baggy black jeans, fastened with silver studs, and scrawled with the numbers '666'. A loose fitting black jumper emblazoned with a white skull and cross bones, and over this a studded leather biker's jacket with the words 'Go to hell' painted in white lettering on the back. Daniel had a lot to say when it came to clothing, but when adults spoke to him, he mostly responded by grunting his answers. This was due to two things, firstly he believed all adults were programmed to be stupid, and secondly if he really wanted to answer their dumb questions, his towering intellect would only confuse them. Therefore he would only speak if he had something important to say, which was quite often, because Daniel Blackthorn had opinions about everything, and anyone who did not share his views was quite simply a primate unworthy of his attention. Father and son sat quietly by Blackthorn's bedside. They had never been a close family, because Henry was more like his mother, and even though he was successful in his own right, Samuel Blackthorn could never see his son as anything more than a mother's boy.
Henry straightened his tie nervously, and subconsciously brushed the lapels of his crisp blue suit. 'What happened father? Don't you think you are a little too old to be climbing trees?'
'Don't be so stupid' Blackthorn said angrily, attempting to sit up, but finding it impossible to do so... 'Blasted body... I need to get back to that oak tree'. He said, gritting his teeth with pain and frustration.
Daniel slid a stick of chewing gum from his jacket, unwrapped it, and folding the gum in two he slid it into his mouth and chewed.
Henry looked vague, and lent towards his father 'What for?' He asked 'I don't think you're in any state to climb it again'
'I don't want to climb it‘. He snapped 'Listen‘. His voice became a whisper and Henry drew nearer to hear what his father was about to say. ‘I found a buried treasure, I injured myself trying to take possession of it’.
'What did you find?' Daniel asked, he was intrigued by his grandfather's discovery. Like many teenagers, Daniel was notoriously materialistic.
‘A jewel’. Blackthorn's eyes swelled in his head as he tried to remember the size and splendour of the ruby. 'I want you to find it, and hide it. The jewel belongs to me, I found it on my land’.
Henry looked baffled, and scratched the top of his head. 'You found this jewel in the tree? Is that how you came to fall?'
Blackthorn was not remotely interested in small talk. He laid his head flat upon the pillow and stared up at the white ceiling. 'Henry, just find it, and lock it in my safe. Just be careful, and don't handle it without gloves’.
Henry nodded. 'Whatever you say father’. He said innocently looking at his teenage son, who was slouched on a chair by his side. Daniel shrugged his shoulders and chewed noisily on his piece of gum.
Blackthorn closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his brain bouncing with a dozen different thoughts. The question that forced its way to the forefront of his mind, was simply this, should he warn his son? The answer was ‘No’... If he told them the truth they could quite possibly leave the jewel where it was, and any passerby might find the ruby. Therefore it was best that Henry and Daniel remained blissfully unaware of the dangers involved.
As the two suns of Grimney were setting over the mountains, Cora and her companions stepped out from the shadows of the tall trees in the forest. A small, white, crumbling castle stood in the distance, its turrets and battlements smashed beyond repair. This was the ruined castle of Granyon Yure, a mighty warrior who had died during the Tyrian Wars. Cora knew the history of this conflict, because she had written about it extensively.
Quinn raised a grubby hand and extended his finger. ‘Kayleb Kassell lives there’..
Jade frowned 'Preposterous, that castle has been abandoned for years, no man lives in that ruin'...
'I'm telling you Jade’... Quinn said with a knowing twinkle in his eye. 'He’s in there, and Joanna Simm is probably in there with him. They've got quite close after the last few years’.
Cora studied Quinn's face. She still did not trust the man, and feared that he could be leading them into a trap. Cora hated thinking in such a distrustful way, but the Bugwug, who as always stood upon her shoulder, had warned Cora about Quinn's nature, and she had no reason to doubt the bird’s intuition.
'Is Kayleb Kassell an outlaw?' Cora asked cautiously.
Quinn smiled 'Amongst other things’ He replied carefully, looking at the row of faces that surrounded him. In particular he was drawn to the Bugwug.
The bird narrowed his eyes and looked down his beak at Quinn. 'Kayleb Kassell has a bad reputation‘.. The Bugwug ruffled his tail feathers and linked his wings behind his back, and displayed his black and yellow belly for all to see.
Vin looked uneasy 'What kind of reputation?' He asked, squeezing the hilt of his sword in his sweaty palm.
Jade chuckled 'Getting scared Vin?' She rolled her eyes ‘Doesn't surprise me’..
Kyte remained calm, and just stared unblinkingly at the ruined castle that stood on the horizon.
The Bugwug continued. 'Nobody quite knows why Kassel's reputation is so tarnished, but he is wanted by the authorities, and he is being hunted by good and bad alike’.
Cora looked thoughtful 'Kassell might be able to help me get my mother back'...
Kyte stood with his back to the others. He looked unblinkingly into the glorious sunset. The red and green clouds had meshed together in a mesmerising montage of bright colour. Kyte felt nothing, he was completely unmoved by the splendour unfolding above him. 'Do you really think that Kayleb Kassell will exchange himself for your mother?' Kyte shook his head slowly 'The notion is absurd'...
‘Probably not’..Cora replied, stroking her feathered companions stomach. 'But at least we might gain ourselves another ally‘. She smiled at Vin, Kyte and Quinn who stood behind her. 'Shall we go? It's still a good two hours walk, and I would like to get there before midnight’.
Daniel and Henry crossed the open field towards the giant oak tree. The teenager led the way, he was eager to see the precious stone that his grandfather had described. Henry stopped briefly to put on a pair of leather gloves, and looking up he called out to his son. Henry wanted to tell the boy to slow down, but Daniel was striding though the long grass, eager to find the mysterious ruby. The teenager reached the roots of the tree, and immediately spotted the Bloodstone lying in the undergrowth. Daniel reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and took out a tissue. Crouching down on one knee, he wrapped the jewel inside the paper, and quickly concealed it inside his pocket.
Henry arrived moments later and started to brush the long grass back and forth with his shoes 'Not seen any sign of it yet son?'
Daniel lifted his knees from the ground, and climbed back on his feet. He shrugged his shoulders ‘No dad’..He replied ‘I think someone else may have found it’..
The village of Frith was situated in the North of Grimney. It was a human habitation, and consisted of a grocery shop, its white walls and thatched roof draped with ivy. 'The Sword and Shield' a small black and white stoned tavern, in fact so small that the human patrons had to gather outside to drink, and finally a cluster of wattle and daub houses. Tall white trees that blossomed with pink petals in the summer surrounded the entire village. The cool wind buffeted their branches and shook the blossom loose. Tumbling on the breeze the petals formed a soft pink carpet on the grass. Frith was a beautiful place, and a world away from dark castles, and icy tombs.
It was just before midnight when Isobel and Elizabeth arrived at the village, they had hitched a lift with a fat, bald headed blue skinned trader named Gerrell Hornflab. His means of transport across Grimney was a simple horse and cart, and the two women sat in the back of the rickety wooden vehicle surrounded by sacks containing all manner of weird exotic spices. Hornflab clenched his puffy blue fingers and pulled back on the reins of his horse. The animal reared up on his front legs and kicked at the air with its hooves. 'Easy Pollygori’. The fat trader said reassuringly, lowering his reins, and looking back at his two passengers. ‘We’re here’. He said with a smile, his big rubbery lips quivering with amusement. ‘This is your stop, it's not much of a place for two ladies such as yourselves, but this is the place you asked for’...
Elizabeth stood up, straightened her bikini and brushed the dirt from her boots. She looked at Hornflab and smiled 'what's so funny?‘...
Hornflab twiddled his fat blue fingers, and grinned 'I was just wondering how much I could sell you for, in some parts of Grimney you'd fetch quite a price’...
‘You... Mr Hornflab’... Elizabeth said frostily, placing her hands on her hips 'You are a sexist pig’.
Isobel laughed and patted Elizabeth on the shoulder 'I don't think anyone would buy you Elizabeth, you may look good in that outfit, but there's just one problem, you can talk’...
Elizabeth and Isobel climbed over the sacks of spice and stepped from the back of the cart. They said their goodbyes to Hornflab, and Elizabeth grudgingly shook the fat trader's hand.
'You take care girl‘... Hornflab said, his bug eyes nearly popping out of his head 'Do please look after that body of yours’...
In a small isolated thatched cottage beneath two rows of tall, white pink blossom trees, a bald headed man sat crossed legged upon the floor. He was dressed in loose fitting black, and red leather armour, and at the centre of his forehead he had the small tattoo of a golden moon, a symbol of his allegiance to the Gadroon Monks, a secret sect, who devoted their lives to the art of Urgo meditation. His home was a simple affair, bare floorboards; a wooden slate bed in the corner, frugally made without sheets, just a straw mattress for comfort. Shrester was not without finance, it was however the nature of the man to live a simple un-materialistic life. Dhumass Shrester had spent many years searching for the meaning of existence. He was a loyal friend to Cora Pearl, and the child respected him immensely. Shrester had not been born in Grimney. He was a nomad, a traveller, and a war mage from the icy realms of Vorgania, but Shrester believed that he had found his purpose in life. He had chosen to protect Cora Pearl from the many dangers that lurked in the badlands. Therefore it had taken much debate to decide who was to stay behind when Cora Pearl, and her friends had embarked on the quest to find the Second Book of The Guardians.
Finally it was decided that Dhumass Shrester should remain in Frith, to guard the first book from those who would try to steal it. Shrester, being a warrior of great skill and stamina, would never part with the manuscript without first fighting to the death. The door to his cottage began to rattle, and Shrester uncrossed his legs, stood on his feet and walked over to it. He put his ear to the door, and listened for voices. He could hear Elizabeth outside, her voice was high pitched and as usual she appeared to be complaining. Shrester smiled, and without hesitation he opened the door.
Shrester, Isobel, and Elizabeth sat together on the floor. The war mage lifted a silver jug by its large curved handle, and poured the contents into three pewter cups. The bubbling yellow liquid did not look particularly appetising.
'What's this Dhumass?' Elizabeth asked, turning up her nose as the sickly smelling steam wafted into her nostrils.
Shrester sipped the liquid gently 'It is Gadroon tea. A herbal mixture' He said rubbing his stomach, and giving a little belch 'Very good for the digestive system'...
Elizabeth grimaced ‘Good perhaps, if you could digest it. It’s vile’... She reached down and poured the tea back into the jug.
Shrester narrowed his eyes... 'Now’.. He said slowly 'What about Cora?' Shrester directed his question at Isobel. She seemed to be drinking the tea quite happily, although something appeared to be troubling her, Shrester could sense it ...
'We have to rendezvous with her'... Isobel said coolly, 'She sent me ahead to collect the First Book of the Guardians from you'... She licked her dried lips, and sipped another mouthful of tea 'You do still have it I take it?'
'Yes’..Shrester nodded, leaning forward and pouring himself some more Gadroon tea. ‘I do still have this book’...
Elizabeth placed her pewter cup on the floor and slid off her long leather boots. Outstretching her legs, Elizabeth wiggled the toes of her feet 'Those boots were breaking my toenails'... She yawned, placing her hand across her mouth 'Anyway, I guess tomorrow we should go and meet up with Robert and Cora. So I suggest we get some sleep before our journey’.
Isobel smiled 'I agree’..She was just about to stand up, when Shrester reached forward and grabbed Isobel by the wrist. 'What are you doing Shrester?'...
‘Sit with me for a moment Isobel. We have things to discuss’. Shrester freed the girl from his grasp.
'What things?' Isobel said, sitting back down 'What're you talking about?'
Shrester offered the girl another cup of tea, but Isobel shook her head 'If you have something to ask me, then ask me'...
Elizabeth lifted her bare knees, and hugged them into her stomach. 'What's going on, is there a problem?'
'It seems odd to me that Cora would send Isobel to retrieve the book, without first telling her where it was‘. Shrester watched Isobel's face for any hint of nervousness, but the girl maintained a calm expression. 'And to be perfectly honest, Cora would have sent Hugo, Jade or Vin back to Frith, she would not have sent you, your reputation would make you Cora's last choice, I'm sorry to say’..
Isobel shrugged 'I didn't need to be told where it was because you're here‘.. She tried to sound offended. 'And I was actually chosen because I was considered to be one of the more trustworthy members of Cora's expedition, so I don't appreciate your comments at all’ Isobel’s mind was very devious, she had told lies throughout her childhood, and was now so skilled At being dishonest, she sometimes believed what she was saying. Unfortunately for Isobel, Shrester was not a man who was easily fooled.
'No’... Shrester said, shaking his head, and looking across at Elizabeth, who looked somewhat uncomfortable with the whole conversation. 'Cora knew that I would not reveal the whereabouts of the first book to anyone. To protect her, and the book, I would die with the knowledge. Only Cora was allowed to tell others where the book was hidden’. He narrowed his eyes and smiled at Isobel 'That is why if she trusted you, she would have told you, for you may have arrived here and found me slain‘.
Isobel’s lies were beginning to unravel. If Shrester was playing a game of bluff, he was doing so with consummate skill. 'OK'... Isobel decided to try a different approach, she would tell the truth, but reshape it to suit her own ends. Therefore she needed to gain Elizabeth's trust, and believing Cora’s mother to be quite gullible she had the perfect lie. 'I didn't want to have to tell you this Elizabeth‘. Isobel spoke as slowly as she could, and tried to think of a more plausible story. 'But Cora and the others have been captured by Verran Kesh, Draygon the Scars second in command’.
Elizabeth's face became ashen, as every trace of colour rushed from her cheeks. She could feel the blood racing to her heart, and the quickening of her pulse. 'What do you mean? Why didn’t you say?‘.. Elizabeth stumbled over her words, and found that she was unable to blink.
Isobel ignored Shrester, she did not even look at him to observe his reaction. Isobel had hooked Elizabeth and she dangled helplessly like a limp fish on a rod. 'They have the second book too... But they won’t kill Cora or any of the others. This they promised me when they released me‘.
Isobel forced tears to form in her eyes, they came easy to her, she only had to think back to her childhood to find all the emotion and pain she needed. 'The deal was that I should come here and take the book, and exchange it for their safe return’, She smiled warmly at Cora’s mother 'I did however find the opportunity to, rescue you Elizabeth, when I found out that they were holding you prisoner at Draygon's camp’
'I'm very grateful for that Isobel' Elizabeth replied in a faltering voice, the young woman was close to tears herself. 'Then that’s what we should do?’. Her expression was that of a wounded animal caught in a hunter's snare. 'Dhumass we have to give up the book to save them‘..
Shrester crossed his legs and lent forward, placing his elbows on his knees. 'I am not sure of this situation'.. He said thoughtfully 'Something does not quite ring true’.
'You have to believe me. Cora’s life depends on it. We should leave at first light for Draygon's castle, and make the exchange'. Isobel said forcefully 'Now where is the book Shrester?’.
‘Well’ Shrester said ponderously, stroking his chin between his thumb and forefinger. 'It's buried outside in front of the third tree on the left'...
Isobel tried not to react, she simply nodded, and smiled subtlety. ‘Well I think we should get some sleep, and leave at first light’.. Her voice was flat, due to the fact that she was trying not to react excitedly. 'Are we agreed?'...
'I agree’ Elizabeth said eagerly, placing the palm of her hand on Isobel’s shoulder and squeezing gently.
Shrester was not quite so easily convinced, he was well aware of Isobel's unsavoury reputation, and therefore he doubted the young woman's sincerity. If she passed his test, then perhaps there was some truth in her words, but he would sleep on the question, and hope that during the night he would gather all the answers he needed.
At ten to midnight, when the two moons drifted out of sight behind a web of dark cloud, and all was silent in the village of Frith. Isobel stood outside beneath the gathering wind, and the falling blossom that brushed against her pale face. She drew her knife and crouched down before the third tree, and began to scrape at the mud with the serrated edge of the blade. Isobel's forehead glistened with sweat and gripping the hilt with two hands, she began to dig at the soil more frantically. ‘I know it’s here’. Isobel whispered, ‘It must be’.
The young outlaw was unaware that Dhumass Shrester was standing behind her, watching silently from the shadows. Isobel lent back on her knees and shook her head with annoyance. 'He lied to me. That man lied to me'.
Shrester smiled. 'I knew what you would try to do Isobel’. The war mage held his hands behind his back, his fingers gripped around Isobel's rucksack. 'What lies will you tell me now?‘.
Isobel bowed her head forward. She had no desire to look Shrester in the eyes. She had to weigh up her options. The knife stood before her, sticking out of the earth. It occurred to Isobel that she could kill the man, but three things prevented her from striking him down. Firstly he was a good man, and she did not wish to harm him. Secondly if she tried to kill him, she would probably lose the fight, and finally, were she to succeed in defeating him, she would probably never discover where the book was buried. So, sliding the blade from the soil, Isobel tucked it into her red leather armour. The plan was simple, she would wait and see what Shrester would do, and then act accordingly, to suit her best interests.
'So your plan would be to steal the book, and flee into the night, and sell it to the highest bidder?‘. Shrester did not look disappointed. His expression was blank, and unclear.
Isobel stood up, and turned to face him. She smiled and shook her head ‘That wasn't my plan’. She replied, trying to find words that she could use to mislead him 'On the contrary, if I'm honest I didn't want to involve you in the danger ahead. I simply want to rescue Cora myself, without subjecting you and Elizabeth to harm’. Isobel was pleased with her answer, but she did not smile, smiling at this point would have been totally inappropriate she thought.
'Yes‘.. Shrester sighed nodding his head 'You’re very convincing Isobel, but then most pathological liars are. Perhaps you even believe what you are saying sometimes? But, unfortunately the evidence speaks for itself’.
Isobel breathed in the cool air, and began to tremble, her icy resolve was beginning to fail her. Beads of perspiration glistened on Isobel’s forehead 'I don’t know what you're talking about'. She muttered, wiping the sweat from her skin.
Shrester did not need to speak he had spoken enough. In truth he was a man of very few words, and only spoke when he had something important to say. Instead he produced Isobel's rucksack from behind his back, and opened it.
'You're going to ask about the money I guess?' Isobel’s speech was staggered, as she stumbled over her words. 'I can explain' She continued, her voice cracking as her throat dried.
Shrester lifted a bundle of notes from inside, and held them in front of Isobel's face. 'With more lies?' He shook his head 'Why continue this charade Isobel, it's too late now' ...
Isobel finally accepted that she had lost the man's trust. Only one option was open to her now, and she looked Shrester up and down for weaponry, the war mage appeared to be unarmed. 'Well’.. She said with a cynical smile 'It seems that yet again you have drawn the wrong conclusion about me'...
‘I don't think so’... Shrester replied, dropping the money back into the rucksack... 'Now what did you do with Cora, and who bought the book from you?...
'It's a very long story'... Isobel reached her hand into her leather armour and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the dagger. 'I'm afraid I have no time to tell you’ She said slowly sliding the blade from its hiding place.
Shrester sighed 'You have plenty of time, because you're not going anywhere‘.. He could sense that Isobel was planning to attack him, but he remained calm and stood his ground.
Isobel drew her blade and pointed it towards the man. 'Give me the money Shrester, don't make me kill you’. Her eyes narrowed and she gritted her teeth.
‘That’. Shrester replied, pointing his finger at the knife, 'Is not enough to kill me. How foolish can you be?‘.. Shrester ripped open the rucksack, and shook the money from inside. The wind carried the Tobran into the air, and the notes fluttered amongst the falling blossom, and bounced upon the ground.
'No!' Isobel screamed, dropping her knife and falling to her knees in a desperate attempt to gather her money. She was so preoccupied with saving her ill-gotten gains that she did not see Shrester moving towards her with his fist clenched.
'Isobel'... He whispered. She looked up at the man, her eyes wide with panic and fear. Isobel could only watch helplessly as Shrester opened his fingers slowly, and leaned his head down to his open palm. Puckering up his lips he blew red dust into Isobel's face, and within seconds the woman was unconscious.
THE POWER OF THE BLOODSTONE
Henry and Daniel had decided to spend the night at Blackthorn manner. Henry in particular was concerned about leaving the property empty during his father's stay in hospital. Daniel had opted to sleep in Cora Pearl's old bedroom. He knew the many rumours concerning the child's disappearance. Some people believed that both mother and daughter had been murdered by Blackthorn, although, naturally Cora' s stepfather had always denied this. The explanation he had given to the police was that both Cora and Elizabeth had gone to live in another country. However the story he had told his son and grandson had been very different.
Blackthorn believed that Cora had found a magic book buried beneath the oak tree, and that she had taken her fantasy drawings and stuck them onto the pages. Somehow this had brought her mystical world to life. The final absurd piece of the puzzle had convinced Daniel that the story was merely the ramblings of a senile old man. Blackthorn alleged that Cora Pearl had taken an old picture of her dead father and placed it inside the book, and that somehow, he had been returned to life, a life that he could only live as long as he stayed in Cora's world. Daniel had been well aware of his grandfather's dislike of the child. He had loathed Cora's artistic streak, and her drawings, and poems about the magical land of Grimney.
Therefore, Daniel believed that somewhere on Blackthorn's vast estate Elizabeth and Cora were buried. Daniel had quite a ghoulish nature. He liked heavy metal music, and owned a large collection of dire nineteen seventies horror films. Daniel was also fond of wandering around graveyards, because he enjoyed the quiet, restful atmosphere. It was therefore no great surprise to Henry that his son had chosen to sleep in Cora's old bedroom. Although sleeping was the last thing on the boy's mind.
Sitting cross-legged upon Cora’s bed, Daniel slid the Bloodstone ruby from his leather jacket. Moonlight streamed in through the open window behind him, and the silk curtains billowed gently back and forth on the summer breeze. Daniel passed the gemstone from one palm to the other and then held it up into the light. The moonbeams rippled across the ruby's surface and reflected red light into Daniel's face. 'Wow‘... He muttered ... 'Some people find a ten pound note in their trousers. Me. I find a ruby. I guess I was born lucky, unlike Cora’.
Daniel placed the Bloodstone beneath his pillow, and sliding off his leather jacket he laid his head against the material, closed his eyes and went to sleep smiling. The teenager's dreams were fairly standard for a boy his age. He dreamt about being at school and the girl's in his class that he fancied. All looked real to him, and the deeper he slept the more vivid the images became.
Daniel found himself seated at his desk behind Mandy Smart, the prettiest girl in his class. He gazed at the back of her head, and counted each strand of long blonde hair that tumbled down to her slender shoulders. For many years Daniel had longed to kiss her, but in reality he had not even spoken to the girl. But this was his dream, and pushing back his chair he crossed the classroom and gently placed his hands upon Mandy's shoulders. The girl did not react, she remained motionless her head rigid. Daniel lifted his palms away, and wiped them upon his trousers. He was sweating unnaturally, and he began to feel uncomfortable. Daniel hesitated momentarily, and taking small steps he edged his way around to the front of Mandy's desk, and looked down into her face. The girl's hair was swept forward over her eyes, and her complexion was pale and lifeless. Daniel drew his hands from his trousers and reaching forward with trembling fingers he carefully brushed Mandy's hair to one side. The face beneath was not as he remembered it. The girl's skin was ashen, grey like dust, and she had three eyes, one in the centre of her forehead, and the other two beneath.
Daniel backed away, his dream rapidly descending into a nightmare. He wanted to wake up, and the shock that was about to follow would give him the fright he needed to do so. Slowly the girl's eyes began to open, and a red light flickered from inside them. It rolled back and forth like hellfire. 'What is this?' Daniel asked, his dreams no longer seeming to be his own.
Mandy began to smile, and a male voice emanated from her pale blue lips ‘Your destiny Daniel’...
Daniel's mouth dropped open, as this ghastly apparition transfixed him. 'I just want to wake up'. He pleaded. Mandy outstretched her long grey fingers and leapt from her chair. She clambered like some weird creature over the desk, scraping her long fingernails against the wood. Daniel raised his hands in front of his face, in a desperate attempt to defend himself, but this did not stop Mandy seizing him by the throat and forcing the teenager onto his knees. 'God help me!' Daniel screamed, his fear jolting his body and returning him to the real world.
It was the middle of the night when Daniel woke up in Cora’s bedroom. The bed sheets were scattered at his feet, and his clothes were soaked through with sweat. Daniel wiped his brow on the pillow and looked down at the Bloodstone that had been lying beneath it. The ruby appeared to be glowing with a strange red light. 'I must still be dreaming'... He said quietly, his pale skin bathed in a red sheen. He reached down and clasped his fingers around the jewel, and lifted it from the mattress.
Daniel brought the gemstone level with his eyes and stared into the ruby. Inside the gemstone he could see a swirling red mist, it weaved back and forth like a crimson tide. Daniel could feel the energy pulsating within, and he felt a warm tingling sensation in his hand. 'What are you?... He asked softly, his voice shaking with bewilderment. The question was met by a response that he had not asked for. A cloak of red light enveloped his hand and swept along his arm. Daniel tried to throw the Bloodstone across the room, but the jewel had merged itself into his palm. Daniel gasped in terror as the cloud of sparkling light swept through his entire body. The powerful force pushed his body backwards and Daniel found himself falling helplessly to the floor. However the floorboards did not break his fall, because Daniel vanished from Cora's bedroom in a ball of crimson light.
It was far later than midnight when Cora and her companions reached Kayleb Kassell's castle. The small child knocked upon the large arched wooden gate, and waited for a response.
Quinn frowned 'He's not likely to hear that now is he?'.
Cora glanced at the Bugwug standing upon her shoulder. 'You could get us in. Fly up to the battlements and see if you can find a window into the castle’...
The Bugwug nodded, and opening his blue wings he lifted his hooves and flew upwards into the air.
'You be careful Bugwug!' Vin shouted as he watched the bird disappearing into the night sky.
Jade stepped forward and placed her body in front of Cora.
'What are you doing?' The child asked innocently.
The warrior woman placed her hand on the hilt of her sword. 'Shielding you from whoever opens the door, may have to cut them down’... She replied aggressively.
Kyte sighed and scratched the back of his head. He was becoming increasingly irritated by Jade’s belligerence. 'This man owns a castle. He is not of royal lineage, and I doubt that he is a rich trader. Therefore one suspects that he has gained his wealth through violence and bloodshed‘..
Vin looked fascinated by Kyte’s analysis 'How can you be so sure?’.
'Simple' Kyte responded confidently ‘Rich traders do not live in castles with battlements; they live in towns and cities, where it is easier for them to sell their goods. I think, therefore it would be unwise for us to threaten the man’.
Cora nodded, she agreed with Kyte on this rare occasion. 'Perhaps I will do the greetings after all Eliza‘..
'As you wish‘. Jade said frostily stepping back behind Cora, and glaring at Kyte with angry narrowed eyes. Kyte simply smiled, and winked his green eye. Jade did not look impressed, she disliked the man, and hoped one day she would find a good reason to kill him. Suddenly the great arched door began to creak, and the heavy wooden panels began to scrape upon the stone floor beneath. A man dressed all in white stood before them.
Kayleb Kassell was tall and sharp featured, and his hair was long and blond. Kayleb would have been a very handsome man were it not for the silver half mask that covered the left hand side of his face, The man held a flaming torch in his white-gloved hand and raised it aloft, lighting the faces of his visitors. In the light from the flame Cora could see that Kayleb's eyes were a strange shade of yellow.
'I don't often have visitors'... Kayleb said in a deep dry voice.
‘Sorry to disturb you at such a late hour’... Cora said politely 'But we are looking for Kayleb Kassell'.
'I am he'... He said moving his torch from one face to the next 'And who might you be?'...
'I'm Cora Pearl, and these are my friends' She said gesturing her hands towards them 'We have travelled many miles and we desperately need a place to stay and something good to eat'...
The Bugwug settled on Kayleb's shoulder 'The bird has told me all about you, and your problems with Draygon The Scar‘... Kayleb smiled 'I am quite willing to help you if I can. Please, do come in'...
Jaynus Weaver knelt before the altar, and closed his eyes. He moved his lips slowly as he muttered incantations under his breath. The warlock placed the palms of his hands upon the blank pages of the open book, and the white parchment began to glow with a red light. The mind spirit flowed from his long grey fingertips, and formed into a into a swirling cloud of glinting particles above his head.
Daniel Blackthorn began to appear inside the ball of light, the teenager's body spinning in the glowing vortex. Jaynus lifted his black robed body from the stone floor and raised his arms. The mind spirit carried Daniel across the chamber and with the words 'Lectus Dectorium Parenthia' falling from the warlock's cold dry lips, he opened his three eyes and watched as the mind spirit lowered the boy to the floor. Daniel lay unconscious, his body limp like a rag dolls, and clasped in the palm of his right hand was the Bloodstone of Vorgania.
The mind spirit ascended, and moving rapidly like a rippling stream, the red light vanished through the broken window set into the ceiling. The warlock walked forward, his black robes moving like pools of ink around his feet.
Daniel began to stir, his eyes rolling beneath their lids. Jaynus Weaver stood over him, gazing down into the teenager's pale face. 'Daniel Blackthorn'. The warlock smiled ‘A mystic explorer from the Zoriat tribe, the same tribe that Cora stems from’. A dark shadow began to form in the air. A black veil swept down from the ceiling and writhed across the floor. It began to form into a human shape. The Weaver smiled 'Darcus Ryalls‘. He whispered 'We have a new guest and beyond that an ally’..
Ryalls floated by the warlock's side. ‘The boy can create life, and fashion me a new body, as soon as he is awake, put him to work’.
A glass oil lamp stood upon a wooden desk. The golden flame that danced inside burned with a low light that did little to the darkness of the small square room. Daniel Blackthorn lay slumped upon the Book of the Guardians. The ancient book rested beneath his head upon the desk. The boy's hand lay upon his knee, and a black leaded pencil was slotted between his clasped fingers.
A voice echoed in the dark. 'Daniel'... Ryalls said icily, as if the shadows were falling from its tongue. 'Wake up Daniel' ...
The teenager's body began to twitch, and the light from the lamp began to glow against his closed eyelids causing them to flicker.
‘Daniel’.. Ryalls continued, his ethereal form weaving in and out of the shadows ‘Hear my voice and wake’.
Daniel's eyes opened and he lent back in his chair and yawned. Adjusting his vision to the shallow light, he tried to make sense of his new surroundings. 'Where am I?' Daniel asked looking down at the blank pages of parchment opened out in front of him. 'I don't recognize this place? Am I still dreaming?' He placed the black lead pencil upon the desk.
Ryalls ghostly black form rolled back and forth across the floor. 'I am without a body. The book before you gives life to any image drawn upon its ancient pages'. Ryalls misty form spiralled upwards to the ceiling 'I want you to draw me an army of creatures, dark and frightening they must crawl or fly, and be willing to die for their master' ...
'I have no intention of drawing anything until I know where I am'. Daniel said defiantly, he was not going to allow anyone to tell him what to do.
'You crossed over into Grimney‘..Ryalls responded coldly 'A world that reflects your own, but is born from imagination'...
'Cora’s imagination?' Daniel looked intrigued and his grey eyes swelled to the size of saucers, like most imaginative teenagers he could embrace or dismiss the idea of parallel worlds with equal ease. 'So the stories were true, but what about you? Who are you?'
‘I am Darcus Ryalls’.. In an attempt to be seen as more human, the being formed itself into a skull like head and shoulders, and bobbed up and down in front of the teenager. 'I am a fragment of Cora Pearl’s soul, born out of her anger, hatred, and despair. Through her I was given an existence of my own'... Ryalls swirled around the seated teenager 'I know only these feelings, they are my curse, and whether Cora is dead or alive I will see her world, the land of Grimney reduced to dust'...
Daniel leaned back in his chair as the entity snaked past his face 'And you want me to draw in this book, and make more monsters?'
'You have one choice’.. Ryalls whispered 'If you do not help me, you will suffer beyond your worst nightmares. I can enter your mind and turn your brain to fire'...
It occurred to Daniel that he was too young to die, and having his brain boiled was not something any logical thinking teenager would choose.
'I draw your pictures’ He replied, and reaching forward he picked up the pencil. 'Oddly enough, I kind of like the idea of seeing my work taking on a life of its own. ‘It's the ultimate in creative illustration’ ... He said with a cocky smile, and leaning forward over the first blank page he started to sketch his first nightmare creature...
A long stone table stood in a dilapidated banqueting hall, and seven places were set for dinner. Kayleb had laid out his best silverware for his guests. The patterned plates, knives and forks glinted in the light from a large candlelit chandelier that hung from the ceiling. A lavish display of exotic fruit sat inside a giant crystal bowl and this stood at the tables centre.
Kayleb sat at the top of the table, his gloved hands resting on the arms of an ornately carved marble white throne. Seated to his left was his partner in crime, the notorious outlaw Joanna Simm. Dressed in black leather armour, she was a tough looking woman, in her late twenties. Pretty, but certainly not glamorous.
Cora sat opposite staring at Simm. 'It's good to see you again Joanna'. The child said nervously, reaching across the table and lifting a piece of round red Gramati fruit from the bowl.
Simm bit into an apple and chewed. She was not fond of the child, and bad memories gave her good reason. 'The first time we met, if I remember correctly, you recruited Max Drexler on a quest'... Simm said taking another bite 'I also recall that he was dead when you returned' ...
Vin and Jade sat further down the table they too were sampling the fresh fruit on offer. Swallowing down a piece of pear Vin jumped to Cora’s defence 'What happened to Drexler was a tragedy’. He said carefully, trying not to spit juice 'He died saving our lives'.
'Really?' Simm replied cynically, 'I think his sacrifice was in vain' ...
Kayleb reached for the handle of a silver jug and poured the contents into a tall golden goblet. 'Joanna please try not to upset our guests' He lifted the goblet to his lips and drank. 'Perhaps you would like some wine?'
Quinn was the first to accept the offer, and one by one six tall glasses were filled to the brim with sparkling wine, and Simm handed them down the table to Kayleb's guests.
Cora and Kyte politely declined. The child had never liked the taste of alcohol, and she was quite happy munching on the exquisite fruit provided.
Kyte's reasons for not drinking were very different. Ever since that day in the Corridor of Mirrors he had been a changed man, food and drink no longer ruled him. Kyte was driven by another source of power he had become part of another existence, and a protector of the sacred books.
Quinn gulped down the wine and it dripped onto his chin, as he quenched his grim thirst for alcohol. Once the goblet was empty he slammed it down upon the table and smiled. 'That was good... Another cupful would be better'.
The Bugwug flew into the banqueting hall and settled on Cora's shoulder. 'So Kayleb tell us about yourself, and the reasons why Draygon the Scar seeks to kill you?‘...
Kayleb sighed and reached his gloved hand into his long white jacket. The man lifted a silver locket on a chain from the pocket of his waistcoat. He laid the locket upon the table, and stroking the clasp with his gloved fingers he flipped open the circular lid. Inside there was a painted picture of a beautiful woman with long raven hair and a peaches and cream complexion. 'Isadora was to be my wife, but the fates transpired against us’.. Kayleb spoke with a deep sadness in his voice. 'Draygon Raynard as he was known back then, was also in love with my devoted lady’... Kayleb’s yellow eyes glistened with tears. 'But she dreamed to be with no other but myself’... He brushed his fingers across her portrait. 'This made Raynard into a very bitter man, and he sought to destroy our courtship’...
Simm reached her hand across the table and gently clasped her fingers around Kayleb's wrist to comfort him. Kayleb however was too lost in his own thoughts to register her touch. 'And one dark, empty moonless night, Raynard entered my lady's chamber whilst she slept, and raised an axe over the head of my darling Isadora’.
Cora looked uneasy with the story, and she gazed at her companion's faces to see if she could read their thoughts, all but Kyte seemed transfixed by Kayleb's words.
Slowly Kayleb closed the lid over the portrait, and the shadows fell inside. 'And with one hack of his axe he brought the blade down upon her neck, and severed her head clean from her shoulders’. He clicked the locket shut.
The banqueting hall fell silent. Kayleb lifted a Gramati fruit from the bowl and bit into its flesh. The red juice ran down his chin and dripped onto his white jacket, leaving a crimson stain. ‘Please don’t be put off by my macabre tales’. Kayleb said chewing the fruit gently inside his mouth. ‘Eat, for you may not get another chance’..
'Why not?' Asked Cora quietly, reaching for a fruit, but changing her mind, and drawing her hand back nervously, perhaps it was poisoned?...
‘It is the nature of Grimney, that those who stray too far from the path are always eating what may well be their last meal’.. Kayleb's white gloves were stained with juice, but instead of removing them, Kayleb wiped his covered fingers on a white napkin. 'So what brings you to my castle Cora? If I may ask, why is one so young the leader of your group?' Kayleb's yellow eyes flickered with curiosity. He already had his suspicions about the child, and hoped now that his beliefs would be confirmed.
Vin was the first to speak, but his eagerness often led to careless chatter 'Cora is a Zoriat'... He said proudly. Cora had not wished to disclose that information, and she stared at Vin and shook her head frantically.
The young warrior failed to notice her reaction 'We travelled to Vorgania to claim the Second Book of the Guardians, but it has fallen into enemy hands and we need to get it back’.
Kayleb poured himself another goblet of wine 'Who is your enemy?'. He asked sipping his wine gently and looking across at Cora Pearl.
The child tried not to look too irritated by Vin's careless talk. 'We think the book is in the possession of Jaynus Weaver. He may have used it to cross over from this world into the next'...
'I see, and your reasons for coming here?' Kayleb asked politely leaning forward on the marble armrests of his throne.
'My mother is being held hostage by Draygon The Scar, he has offered to return her only in exchange for you’. Cora had always believed honesty to be the best policy, and this idealism was now to be put to the test.
Kayleb gazed at his guests, they were a formidable group of individuals, but he had no fear of them. 'This book you speak of, is it one of the three Guardian manuscripts?'
Cora smiled, and the Bugwug ruffled his feathers nervously. ‘You know about the books?' She said quietly,
'What do you know of them?’...
'Only what I've read’... Kayleb replied slowly, taking another sip of wine, and dabbing his moist lips on the napkin. 'The books were created before the beginning of our world. The Guardian mind spirits appointed the Zoriat, mystical beings from another time and place to be the Keepers of the books. These individuals were the key to understanding the very nature of the old parchments. The Zoriat have the power to call us into their realm and also they have the power to enter ours'. Kayleb looked down the table, and his yellow eyes fell on each and every one of the faces that surrounded him. 'But all existence needs a balance of power. Equality if you like... A duality. As night follows day, so light and dark must be brought together, but be forever separated, neither should be greater than the other'.
Cora and her companions were drawn to his words, they sat silently, fascinated by his strange philosophising. 'What is it you're trying to say?'. Cora asked politely, stroking the Bugwug beneath the chin.
'Jaynus Weaver is part of the Nexus Malignus‘... Kayleb raised the goblet to his lips and drank. 'The twin sisters and the twin brothers. They provide the balance between light and dark'.
The Bugwug’s eyes rolled in his feathered head, and he squawked loudly to clear his throat. The bird was aware of the four twins, and the Nexus Malignus. 'Tell us more Kayleb?' The Bugwug's yellow tongue rolled back and forth in his green beak.
Kayleb placed the goblet back down on the table and picked up another piece of fruit. 'You're a messenger bird'... Kayleb said biting into his apple 'I guessed that as soon as I saw you. You're a mouthpiece of the mind spirits'...
The Bugwug ruffled his tail feathers and nodded his head. 'That is what I am... But what precisely are you?'...
Kayleb smiled, and looked thoughtful 'I am seeker of knowledge. I have studied the myths and legends of past and present. The Nexus Malignus have always intrigued me'.
Cora placed he elbows upon the table and leaned forward 'Please tell us more about them?' She asked politely.
‘The Nexus Malignus have a second sight, a third eye which permits them to see beyond what normal nature allows. Their ambition is simple, the subjugation and eventual eradication of the Zoriat mystics, so that they can claim the books of the Guardians as their own’... Kayleb's yellow eyes seemed to flicker with a strange light, and Cora could not help but wonder what the man's face was like beneath his silver half mask.
Cora's thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of flapping wings, and all eyes fell upon the tall arched stone window at the far end of the banqueting hall. 'What is that?' Cora asked.
Kayleb bowed his head and looked down into his half empty goblet. ‘That’... He said solemnly 'Is the Roth, the last of its kind‘.
Beyond the tall arched window, beneath a crimson sky, two full moons burned red with midnight fire. The Roth flew alone, its species wiped out by mindless slaughter. The Roth's huge winged body glided through the clouds and hovered eerily in the moonlight. Veils of shadow that hung coldly upon the glowing horizon silhouetted the creature's body, and there in the cool air that rippled against its long bat like wings the Roth waited. Red soulless eyes rolled in its head, and it swooped back and forth past the window. It sought the means to gain entrance to Kayleb's castle, its mind focused on one simple desire, revenge...
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
THE TIES THAT BIND
The castle at night was a cold empty place. The atmosphere was haunted by a melancholy past that made the candlelit corridors burn without warmth. The many long narrow passageways wound themselves into nowhere. Although the dry cobblestones laid upon the floor were worn down by the pacing of weary feet, they had a feeling of emptiness about them, a sense that only ghosts and lost souls had walked upon their uneven pathways. Many doors lined each corridor, silent, empty and cold to the touch. Their rotting panels, and rusted hinges were a testament to an imploded world that had lost all contact with the living.
Kayleb carried a burning torch and guided his guests down one of the long soulless passageways. He pushed open a door at the furthest end, and turning to those that were following him, he smiled with a sadness that only the darkness could disclose. 'It’s late... Later you think'. Kayleb's yellow eyes flashed in the torchlight, and the flame crackled, and hissed. 'You must all be very tired'. He passed the flame from one face to the next, his guests did look glassy eyed, and near to sleeping. Only Cora and Kyte looked wide eyed and focused.
Vin stifled a yawn with the back of his hand, 'So this Roth creature'. He asked tiredly, his eyelids beginning to close over his red eyes. 'What more do you. know about it?'
‘Tragically’. Kayleb replied in a slow studied manner, 'The Roth have been hunted to extinction’... Kayleb lowered his eyes, and sounded solemn 'I occasionally feed the creature, and give it what comfort I can’... He raised his yellow eyes and stared directly at Cora ‘I too understand the painful feelings of being alone’.
Cora found the man's stare uncomfortable, and blinked her eyes to break contact with his gaze. ‘Why do people hunt the creature?' Cora asked quietly.
Kayleb smiled 'Roth meat is a delicacy, and as their numbers dwindled so the price of their flesh increased'.
Quinn unscrewed the lid of his flask and took a drink 'The last Roth must be worth a fortune' He said wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
'Yes' Kayleb said nodding his head 'The hunter who kills the last Roth can expect to make a small fortune'...
Jade shrugged her shoulders, and looked suitably appalled 'Some people have very poor taste, but if you don’t mind Kayleb we do need to get some sleep' Jade smiled wearily at Cora 'We must start out early to Frith in the morning‘..
As the hour drew later, and a green mist descended over the land, down in the depths of the castle's dank cellar a baby Roth wept for her freedom. The fragile creature had been chained to the floor, and her movements were severely restricted. The baby Roth's eyes were dark, and glistened with tears of sorrow. For in the small square room, walled solid without windows, night followed day and passed endlessly, with no inkling of tomorrow.
Kayleb climbed the long winding stone steps to the top of the battlements. He carried a flaming torch in one gloved hand, and in the other he held an iron birdcage. 'You know what you have to do?' Kayleb asked quietly, gazing down at the creature inside the cage.
The Boltwing was unlike any ordinary bird. It was small, dark and covered in thick red fur, it had bat like wings and a long curved beak. 'I understand master’..The Boltwing hissed 'I am to fly to Jaynus Weaver's castle and tell him that you have Cora Pearl'...
Kayleb smiled, and nodded. 'Yes, and demand that he comes to my castle immediately'... Kayleb raised his white-gloved hand and pushed open the wooden trapdoor above him. He climbed out onto the battlements, and placing the cage down upon the cold stone floor, he opened the iron shutter. The Boltwing stepped forward, opened its black leathery wings and soared into the misty sky.
'Good luck my precious companion!‘.. Kayleb shouted, waving his hand through the air 'May all our god's go with you, safe journey to the Weaver’s castle!‘.. Kayleb gazed into the foggy night. For a moment all was quiet, but then he heard the flapping of wings. Had the Boltwing returned? Or perhaps the Roth was stalking its prey? Kayleb narrowed his yellow eyes and reached for a knife tucked into his belt. The man stepped back and waved the torch from left to right, trying to catch sight of the winged creature.
A loud squawking echoed around him, and a mass of ruffled blue feathers brushed against his silver mask. 'The Bugwug!' He yelled, slashing through the foggy air with his blade. His attempt to strike down the bird was futile, and the Bugwug quickly disappeared into the clinging mist.
The bird had overheard the conversation between Kayleb and the Boltwing, and without hesitation he flew through the open trapdoor and glided down the winding stone staircase. ‘Curse that bird’... Kayleb muttered, as he lifted his white booted heels, and pursued the creature. But the Bugwug moved too swiftly for the man, and was soon gliding along the long narrow passageway towards the guest room.
The Bugwug reached the closed door and hovered in front of it. He squawked as loudly as he could, hoping to wake Cora and the others. But inside the room, tucked up in their comfortable beds, Cora and her friends slept peacefully, blissfully unaware of the dangers ahead. At the far end of the passageway Kayleb stepped into view. He pointed his flaming torch towards the bird, and spoke in a chilling voice. 'You will not wake them... The wine was drugged, and their silence will last forever... There's nothing you can do to stop it'...
The Bugwug flapped his wings frantically and ascended to the ceiling. Kayleb could only watch as the bird flew overhead, and bolted through a small arched window set into the wall of dark stone, and within the blink of an eye the Bugwug had vanished into the dark.
'Damnation on you!' He screamed, his anger causing his yellow eyes to flash with a fierce shade of gold. 'You won't save them'...
The door to the guest room opened, and Cora stepped into the corridor. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and smiled at Kayleb. 'Are you OK?' She asked wearily. 'I heard you shouting’.
Kayleb's eyes quickly returned to their natural shade, and he looked down at the floor sheepishly. 'Sorry if I woke you... The castle is infested with grub mites and hortrats' He swept the flaming torch about his feet, in an attempt to convince the child that he had seen these unpleasant creatures.
'That's fine' Cora replied 'I was having trouble sleeping anyway’.. The child smiled politely at the man 'Perhaps I could ask the Bugwug to help you find them?'
Kayleb grinned 'No, Cora, that won't be necessary'. The man looked thoughtful, but his thoughts were not that of a kind host, his plans were dark, and twisted. His desires were that of a madman 'You could help me look'. He asked gently, knowing that the child's good nature would compel her to say yes.
Cora responded without the slightest hesitation. 'I would gladly help you, after all you've been very kind to us'.
Cora followed closely behind, as Kayleb descended into the depths of the castle. She was unsure how they intended to capture the creatures, as the castle was probably infested. However she had no wish to upset her host, because she believed that he held the key to freeing her mother from Draygon The Scar, so she had decided that whatever mad schemes he had, she would go along with them.
The long narrow staircase down to the lower levels, made her feel uneasy. Cora smelt the damp walls around her and the moisture in the air was cold upon her face. Liquid ran from the cracks in the uneven stone, and dripped onto the eroded steps. Cora placed her feet carefully as she walked hesitantly through the gloom. At the bottom of the steps stood a huge iron door. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and because the air was thin and shallow, the spiders that had made them had long since departed.
Kayleb raised his flaming torch and the firelight reflected itself in the ornately designed ebony door handle. 'Cora, I want you to see something’. Kayleb said, looking down at the dancing fire. 'I want to tell you the truth ‘...He lowered his eyes to the floor, and his pale lips quivered with emotion. 'One as innocent as you may be able to give me the redemption I need. I have lived a life of sickness, and perhaps, briefly, your purity can give me a moment of peace, and forgiveness'...
Cora was unsure of the man’s words, and many questions echoed through her thoughts. ‘I don't understand Kayleb? What have you done?’... The question was about to be answered.
Kayleb turned the handle and pushed back the iron door. The dust fell, and the cobwebs drifted on the dead air. Cora crossed the threshold into the dimly lit room. She could see large bulky objects protruding from the walls, and in the narrowness of light, she could not define what these objects were. Kayleb held his torch low, and dancing yellow shadows rolled across the damp, glistening floor. ‘This room holds my heart’. Kayleb said mournfully 'My life has never travelled beyond these walls'...
Cora held her nose, the stench of decay unsettled her 'It's so depressing in here. What could make you say such sad things?' Cora asked breathing through her mouth.
Kayleb smiled sadly and slowly he began to raise his torch 'Death, and loss have become everything to me. My family is all that I have left, and even they, have at present disowned me’.
In the rippling light from Kayleb's torch Cora could finally see what the objects were, and she looked horrified. The heads of dead Roth' s lined the walls on silver plaques. It reminded Cora of Samuel Blackthorn's ghastly butterfly collections.
'What is this?’ Cora asked nervously, a terrible nausea sweeping from the pit of her stomach, and hanging heavy in her throat. 'Did you kill these creatures?'
Kayleb nodded 'I am hunter, I slaughtered these beasts, I saw the profit in their flesh and killed them for it'...
Cora bowed her head. She was too ashamed to look at Kayleb's face... 'These creatures had a right to life’. She muttered with bewilderment... 'But what right did you have to take it from them?' The child regained her composure, and lifting her head, she stared defiantly at Kayleb. 'No man should take life without good reason’. Cora was angered by the man's callous disregard for other living creatures. 'It's no wonder the Roth is trying to get into your castle'... Cora’s words were harsh, and she pointed a shaking finger at Kayleb. 'If I was that creature, I would want to revenge too'...
'It seems that you have already lost your innocence Cora' Kayleb said cynically, his voice reduced to an icy whisper 'Perhaps you would understand the tragedy of love and revenge’. Kayleb raised his torch to shoulder height, and the light from the flame threw yellow veils along the wall. 'Behold! Kayleb shouted dramatically 'Isadora my one true love!'...
As the darkness lifted Cora could see a severed head fixed to a silver plaque. Shadows rolled back and forth across the face of the beautiful woman. Isadora had long raven hair that hung around her cold, pale, lifeless cheeks, and her dark sparkling eyes stared unblinking into eternity. The young maiden’s beauty forever immortalised, and her peaches and cream complexion glinted like porcelain.
Cora’s face lost all trace of colour, as her skin bleached itself into living marble. 'Why have you done this?' Cora asked breathlessly, her heart pounding in her chest, as her blood turned to ice. 'If your love was true’. She replied hesitantly her voice shaking as she spoke 'How could you disrespect her so?'
Kayleb's yellow eyes followed the chiselled contours of the woman's angelic face. Her beauty transfixed him, and his thoughts of endless unconditional love were lost in the empty gaze of the woman’s dark sparkling eyes. ‘The thought of being unable to gaze upon the face of my dearest Isadora drove me to this act of barbarism’. Kayleb's voice was heavy with emotion, and he began to recount the horrific events that had inspired him to create this grotesque display of devotion. 'Isadora betrayed my love, because she chose to go with another’. Kayleb's voice began to falter, and he took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself ‘Draygon Raynard was a common thief’. Kayleb's eyes began to flicker oddly, and his tears fell silently 'I had to stop her madness. I had to show Isadora how strong my love was, how high the price could be’.
Cora could feel cold fear rising from the pit of her stomach. It touched the base of her spine and travelled upwards into her neck, and made her shudder. 'You killed her?‘.. Cora could barely speak, and her whole body was trembling. 'You cut off her head’...
Kayleb lowered his torch and Isadora's pale face vanished back into the darkness. 'I loved her too much‘.. He whispered 'I could not allow her to fall into the arms of a man like Draygon, I would die before I could see her in the arms of another’...
‘But you murdered her’. Cora began to step backwards across the cobbled floor. It was clear to the child that she was in the company of a madman.
'Murdered her?‘. Kayleb sounded shocked 'I did not murder her‘. He turned towards Cora and waved the flaming torch back and forth in front of his face. 'She had be stopped'.
Desperate thoughts of escape spun through Cora's mind, and made her feel dizzy. She had to get out of the room. The atmosphere was poisoning her soul. Kayleb clenched his gloved hand into a fist. 'Draygon Raynard was an evil man, I saved Isadora from a life of pure misery'...
Cora continued to back away 'I don't think she's better off where she is'. Cora turned her head briefly and glanced over her left shoulder. Cora could see that she was just a mere two, or three steps away from the open door.
Kayleb watched her closely, the torchlight dancing madly inside his cold yellow eyes. 'Where are you going Cora?'. He asked, leaning his head forward threateningly and sticking out his chin.
‘I’m going to wake my friends'... She said nervously. 'And then we will ride together to Frith’.
'No' Kayleb looked bemused by her remarks ‘That will not be possible’...
Cora placed her feet together and stood her ground, she was frightened of Kayleb, but Cora knew she had to stand up to him. ‘Why? What will stop me?’...
Kayleb raised a gloved hand ‘I know that you cannot leave my castle’. He said, gripping the bottom of his silver mask with his fingers 'Your friends will not wake up until daybreak, because 'I drugged their wine’..He pulled the mask away from his face. 'You... Like them... Are my prisoner’. Kayleb was not scarred as Cora had at first assumed. The mask was not hiding some terrible injury. The truth was more terrible than that. The face beneath the mask was not entirely human. He had a third red eye that was fixed within his swollen fleshy cheek, and it watched Cora closely.
The young girl stepped back in horror. 'You're one of the Nexus Malignus’. Cora felt every ounce of air squeezed from her lungs, as if the very breath of life had been sucked from her body.
'Yes’... Kayleb nodded 'I am one of the four twins, and already my brother Jaynus Weaver may be on his way to my castle’.. His voice became more malevolent... 'Your time is ended young Cora... The Zoriat are finished in this kingdom. Give me the First book of the Guardians and I will allow you to die a merciful death'...
'Where have I heard that before? No Kayleb... I will not give you anything, and I certainly won't let you take my life'...
‘Cora, it's not your choice to make’. Kayleb said with a cold smile. 'I am afraid you have no choice in the matter’.
Cora had nothing more to say. The danger she now faced was horribly apparent. Without further hesitation she turned on her heels, lifted her feet, and ran as quickly as she could from the dark, oppressive chamber.
Kayleb raised his torch... 'You cannot escape me... Your fate is sealed... I can already see a plaque with your name upon it’.. Kayleb drew his dagger from his belt and followed Cora from the room. He raised his torch and watched as the child fled up the staircase, but he knew that she could not leave the castle. Kayleb had the only key to the gates, and Cora would not take it, unless she pried it from his cold dead fingers.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
Cora had to reach the battlements. She knew that fleeing into the depths of the castle would only result in Kayleb trapping her. Cora knew that this vile man would stalk her all night if he had to, and once he had found her, she would no doubt suffer the same grim fate as Isadora. Cora became dizzy as she ran blindly up the dimly lit staircase. The stone beneath her feet bounced against the soles of her shoes, and made her body shudder. Above her she saw a trapdoor, and raising her hands she used all her strength and lifted it above her head.
The night sky was fading into sunshine, as the two red suns began to emerge over the horizon. The thick green fog still hung in the air and Cora ran into the midst of it, hoping that the mist would conceal her presence. Cora ducked down in the furthest corner she could find, and hugged her knees tightly to her chest. She shrank into her body, praying that somehow this would make her invisible. Through the drifting fog she could see Kayleb's flaming torch, and it past from side to side as the man searched for her. Cora could feel her own pulse pounding in her head, and the heavy beats of her heart drummed so hard, that she thought it would split her rib cage. Kayleb was edging ever closer, and Cora crawled further back into the mist. She knew that it was only a matter of time before he found her.
‘Cora’.. Kayleb said gently 'You cannot hide forever’. The man's red eye moved independently from the other two, and it rolled from left to right in an unnaturally slow motion. 'Perhaps we can be friends Cora... Maybe the Nexus Malignus can share the power of the books. After all, no one should reign supreme’..
The child knew that everything Kayleb had said to her so far had been a lie, and she had no faith in the man's shallow words. Kayleb was twisted, and evil, and she could never form any kind of pact with such a monster.
‘Stay silent if you wish’.. Kayleb whispered 'But I will find you, and when I do, you will tell me where the second book is hidden, or you will perish in flames’..
Cora had no choice, she had to stand up and face him. ‘I will not die on my knees’.. She told herself. Cora was a brave girl and she would not be bullied, no matter how big and frightening the bullies were.
Kayleb saw the child rising up before him, and smiled, he knew that Cora was too courageous to hide. 'Cora I have no wish to kill you, just tell me where the first book is and I will spare you'...
'And what would you do with the book?' Cora asked already knowing the answer, and expecting another lie.
‘I will not deny that I would use it to enslave the inhabitants of Grimney, but with total control over the land through magic, Grimney would be a much more peaceful place’.. Kayleb was pleased with his answer, but he knew that nothing he said would convince the child to part with the book. Cora was a Zoriat, and throughout the ages the Nexus Malignus and the Zoriat had never agreed on any subject.
Cora considered his answer, but she knew exactly what his words meant, he would harness the power and bring Grimney to its knees, and the lush green fields would run with the blood of the defiant. ‘I'm sorry Kayleb’... Cora said boldly 'But you... Jaynus Weaver, and your two sisters can never be allowed to keep the books. They belong to the mind spirits, and should be hidden from all' Cora inhaled deeply and sighed ‘I cannot, I will not tell you where the first book is hidden, it is secret I must take to the grave’...
Kayleb and Cora stared silently at each other through the green mist, neither one was sure what the next move would be.
‘So it will be Cora’... Kayleb said coldly, sliding his dagger from his belt and stepping towards her ‘If I cannot have the book, then neither will you. I'll turn your head into an ornament, that will be some compensation I suppose’... Kayleb lifted his blade high above his head, and Cora raised her hands in front of her face, in a vain attempt to protect herself. The blade sliced through the air, and descended towards the child.
She opened her mouth to scream, but a sudden flourish of wings, and the sound of air whooshing through her ears silenced the child. Above her, diving from the sky, the Roth descended and embedded its sharp talons into Kayleb's chest. The man dropped the knife, and the flaming torch slipped from his grip. Kayleb began to struggle against the winged beast, but the more he fought the more bloodstained his white clothes became.
Cora crouched down, and shielded her face from the showers of blood that fell around her. Kayleb had no defence against the vicious onslaught and The man's torn body became limp. The Roth opened his bloodstained talons and released the man. Kayleb crumbled to his knees and fell to the floor like a puppet cut away from his strings. The Roth's huge dark red eyes blinked in the mist, and briefly the child and the creature made eye contact. Cora feared that she might be the Roth's next victim, but she was mistaken. Lifting its talons from the bloodied stone, the creature raised itself back into the sky and disappeared. Cora gazed down at Kayleb. The man lay face down upon the floor, a pool of blood swelling from his stomach.
The child breathed a deep sigh of relief. She was safe, because the Roth had saved her life. Slowly Cora approached Kayleb's body, and bending down by his side she placed her hand upon his shoulder to see if he was still breathing. It was an error of judgement that she was quickly to regret. Kayleb rolled over and grabbed the child by her wrist. She tried to pull her arm free but he gripped it like a vice. ‘I’ll kill you!' He screamed, blood oozing from his torn lips. The man reached for his dagger, and almost got his fingers on the hilt. But a booted foot descended upon his hand and crushed his palm upon the floor.
Cora looked up and saw Luther Kyte standing over them. The man smiled, reached down for the knife and embedded the blade into Kayleb's back. Kayleb’s grip went slack, and he gasped a final breath before slumping to the floor, dead...
Kyte reached down and helped Cora to her feet. 'Just as well that I am not a wine drinker’. He said smugly.
Before Cora could ask Kyte how he knew that the alcohol was drugged, a silver crossbow bolt ripped through the air. Kyte staggered backwards the bolt embedded deep in his chest. The man looked startled and fell to his knees 'What hit me?' He gasped, wrapping his fingers around the shaft. 'A bolt from the blue?'
Cora knelt by the man's side and gripped his left hand tightly. Kyte was cold, and his life was already ebbing away.
'Cora' He said squeezing her fingers ‘I was wrong about you’.. The man began to splutter, but no blood formed upon his lips. ‘I thought you wanted the second book to gain control of the mind spirits, but I was wrong’.
The child had tears in her eyes, ‘Don't talk, I'll get help’.. She looked around, she needed to know who had fired the bolt, because she feared for both their lives.
Kyte knew that it was too late, and he smiled weakly 'Cora take the book back to the tomb, the Vorgranor will know what to do‘. Slowly his eyes began to close, and he slipped forward into Cora's open arms. For a brief moment Cora held Kyte's lifeless body, before she felt his flesh crumbling, and the man dissolved into a shower of broken glass.
The child stood up and backed away in shock. Kyte had not been human at all, and she was confused by the man's true identity, but Cora had no time to establish the reasons for his existence, as a second bolt whizzed past her head and flew over the battlements. 'Please stop this!' Cora cried raising her hands above her head in surrender. 'I think enough blood has been spilled tonight'...
Joanna Simm walked through the mist towards her. She loaded another bolt into her crossbow and pointed it at the child's head. 'Wherever you go you bring death and destruction'... Simm said angrily 'First you guided Max Drexler to an early grave, and now Kayleb lies dead at your feet, you need to be stopped Cora, before more people die‘.
Cora lowered her hands an raised her palms in an attempt to pacify the young woman 'Joanna I never meant for any of this to happen‘.. She looked down at the blood soaked body of Kayleb that lay next to her ‘But that man was a monster... You should go look in the cellar if you don't believe me’..
Simm lowered her crossbow level with Cora's chest 'Why?' She asked 'What's in the cellar?’
The child was relieved that Simm did not seem to know, and taking a deep breath she began to tell her 'Kayleb killed Isadora, her head is fixed to a plaque on the wall. If you don't believe me, all you have to do is go and look for yourself'.
‘I see’. Simm replied slowly 'I find that story hard to believe, but I have no wish to kill a child without first knowing the truth’. Simm lifted the bolt from the crossbow. 'So I will give you the benefit of the doubt, and go down to the cellar and look for myself' The woman smiled 'But you can lead the way, try any tricks and you'll be dead' She patted the crossbow 'I rarely miss, and I can load this thing in the blink of an eye'.
Cora carried Kayleb's torch, and descended down the stone steps to the cellar. Simm followed closely behind. The Young outlaw was instinctively distrustful of the small child, and held her crossbow tightly in her right hand. Even though Simm disliked Cora, she hoped that she would not be compelled to use it. At the bottom of the stairs the huge iron door stood open.
Cora turned her head and gazed over her shoulder at Simm. 'Take my torch Joanna' Cora said, her hand shaking as she spoke, and causing the flame to flicker. 'But take my word for it, Kayleb Kassell was a very bad man'...
‘Just give me that’. Simm snatched the torch from Cora’s grip, and pushed past the child. Stepping through the doorway, she strolled cautiously into the chamber. Simm could see the illuminated heads of the Roth creatures hanging from the walls. The sight of those poor, dead animals did not bother Simm in the slightest. She turned to Cora, and shrugged... ‘So what? I don't care about a few dumb birds’...
Cora tried not to look too appalled by Simm's ignorance. Instead she smiled sweetly and pointed her finger up towards the ceiling 'Up there Joanna... Maybe you have no love for other living things, but Isadora's fate you can surely not agree with'...
The yellow torchlight swept across Isadora’s lifeless face, and Simm's turned white as snow. The horrific display was too much for the young woman. 'You’re right'. Simm nodded, looking down at the floor 'Kayleb was a monster'.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
Isobel Leach had been unconscious for seven hours. She woke to find herself bound to the arms and legs of a chair. Shrester and Elizabeth were standing in front of her, arms folded over their chests, the expressions on their faces stern and unwelcoming. Isobel's eyes watered, as the sunlight shone in through the window and bathed her face in a warm glow. 'What did do you do to me Shrester?' Isobel asked, pulling at the ropes fastened around her wrists 'Is this really necessary?'
Shrester did not smile, he just glared at the young woman and gritted his teeth together. ‘What has happened to Cora and the others? It is time for you to tell the truth’.
Isobel looked upset, she felt extremely sorry for herself, and was afraid that Shrester would hurt her. 'It was Rufus Shand, he stole the book and traded it for thirty thousand Tobran’. Isobel looked around the room. ‘Where is the money by the way?’..
Elizabeth wanted to slap Isobel, but she took several deep breaths instead. This helped Elizabeth, but only a little. 'Isobel, tell me where my daughter is, and what has happened to my husband Robert?'...
‘We had to leave them’.. Isobel said nervously, knowing that only the truth could save her now. 'They're alive. We left them in Vorgran Kressler’s tomb, they're perfectly safe’.
Shrester shook his head with disappointment 'Safe from the cold? I don't think so'...
Elizabeth wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and moist tears glistened on the woman's skin. 'You left my daughter in an icy wasteland, and then you came and rescued me'... Elizabeth looked confused... ‘Why would you do that?’...
Isobel bowed her head, and closed her eyes. She could not bring herself to tell Elizabeth the whole truth, and once more lent her words to another lie. 'I was feeling guilty'... She said uneasily 'Shand double crossed me, and stole the book whilst I was sleeping, I guess he didn't want to share the money‘...
Shrester looked gloomy, and brushed the palm of his hand back and forth across his baldhead. 'So Rufus Shand stole the book from you, but who did he sell it to?'...
There was a flutter of wings behind him, and the Bugwug flew in through the open window and settled on Shrester's shoulder. 'Good lord!' Shrester said excitedly 'The Bugwug is back!’
Isobel did not look up at the bird. She was too ashamed to look the creature in the face. 'Glad you made it'... Isobel said half-heartedly 'I hope Cora and the others are with you'.
Elizabeth bit into her bottom lip, and drummed her booted foot upon the floor impatiently 'Bugwug where is Cora?' She asked.
The Bugwug's cross eyes rolled back and forth in his head 'She is alive, but trapped in Raven Rock castle'.
Shrester stroked the bird under the chin ‘That castle has been deserted for years’.
'Not anymore, it’s the home of Kayleb Kassell, and he intends to give Cora to Jaynus Weaver’... The Bugwug's feathers ruffled uncomfortably about his body 'The Weaver is on his way to the castle, we need to rescue the child'.
Shrester nodded 'Jaynus Weaver is a powerful magician, we will need warriors to fight against him. The War Mage looked down at Isobel 'You could redeem yourself, if you wished'...
'How?' Isobel said sadly 'What can I do?'
The Bugwug squawked loudly to gain Isobel's attention 'Simple, find Draygon the Scar and tell him that we know the whereabouts of Kayleb Kassell that should bring him running'.
Isobel looked sheepishly at Shrester and Elizabeth 'I have made a mess of things, I admit, and I would like to help you if I can’.
Shrester slid a blade from his boot and approached the bound woman. 'Isobel I believe that you are finally telling the truth'. He cut through the ropes.
'What makes you say that?' Isobel rubbed her sore wrists, because they were red from rope burn.
‘Simply because’. Shrester smiled and handed Isobel the knife 'You have no choice'.
Elizabeth looked agitated and started to rock back and forth on the heels of her boots. 'Let's get going!'...
Shrester raised the palm of his hand 'Not all of us should ride to the castle. Just you and I should go Elizabeth... Bugwug?'. He said turning his head towards the bird 'You must fly to the Queen's castle, and enlist the help of Calaman Kade. He and his knights are the finest warriors in the land, with their skills we can conquer Jaynus Weaver before the two moons rise again'.
The Bugwug flapped his wings 'So be it'... The bird squawked as he lifted his hooves from Shrester's shoulder 'See you at the castle, and don't forget to bring the First Book of the Guardians, Cora will need the book's magic if we are to be victorious'...
Joanna Simm could not think of anything more to say. She sat upon the bottom stone step of the winding staircase and gazed back into the dark chamber. Cora crouched down in front of her, and shook the outlaw’s knee. 'Joanna you have to help us'. Cora patted Simm's leg. 'We need you, and you owe us your help'...
Simm was not inclined to agree, and brushed Cora's hand away 'Oh?' She said dismissively 'I can't remember ever being in debt to anyone Cora, and I certainly don't owe you a thing’...
‘You killed Kyte’... Cora replied wiping her runny nose upon the back of her hand, as emotion started to swell inside her. 'You didn't need to do that'...
'Oh really?' Simm looked irritated 'Well at that time Kyte had just killed a very close friend of mine'. Simm gazed over Cora's shoulder into the room beyond 'Admittedly I didn't know what a sick monster Kayleb was, and had I known then, what I know now, of course I wouldn't have put a bolt in him'...
'Then you'll help me?' Cora had the most beautiful blue green eyes, and Simm was almost drawn into their sadness. Simm never made decisions based on emotion, and therefore she held back. It was not in Simm's nature to care about children, after all what where they worth financially? 'I will do the best I can, but it won't be much. I'll ride out to Frith and contact your friends. I can do no more than that’.. Simm closed her eyes and turned her head away, she had no desire to stare into Cora’s sad face.
‘You could do so much more Joanna’.. Cora could not muster a smile and her face sagged. 'But it is up to you’. She sighed 'I will have to stay. I need to defeat Jaynus Weaver, and reclaim the book. If I don't then God knows what will happen to Grimney’...
Simm stared down at the floor, and shook her head 'I don't care Cora. It's your fight not mine. Tomorrow morning I want to be able to give my opinion about how stupid it was to stay here. But you won't, because you'll be dead'...
Cora looked uncomfortable and raising her thumb to her lips she started to chew nervously upon her fingernail. 'That's your choice, but remember this. You can ride from here as fast as you like, but one day the land will be gone, and the hoof prints left in the dust will just blow away, and be forgotten’. Cora stared coldly at Simm 'When that day comes no horse will carry you to safety’.
Dawn shadows rolled across the land. The darkness of the fog bound night began to roll away, and sunlight crept across the plains. It was to be a glorious day, and for many it would be their last. The Boltwing folded its wings into its belly and glided down through the sky.
Jaynus Weaver's castle stood precariously upon the mountaintop, its high tower buffeted by a thundering wind. The Boltwing extended its talons and settled upon the windowsill, its long black nails clicking against the stone as it paraded up and down outside the window. Jaynus lifted the glass frame, and lowered his robed arm, and the Boltwing hooked its talons to the warlock's wrist. 'Do you have news from my brother?' Weaver asked, lifting the Boltwing to eye level. 'I have not heard from him in centuries'...
The Boltwing hissed, it sounded more like a snake than a bird ‘Your brother has captured Cora Pearl, and he holds her prisoner at Raven Rock castle’.
'Excellent’. The warlock said, his eyes flickering with excitement 'Does she have the first book in her possession?'
‘No master warlock’..The Boltwing replied nervously 'But I am sure if you use a little physical persuasion she will reveal where she has hidden it'.
Jaynus patted the bird on the head, and the Boltwing flinched. 'It seems that we are on the threshold of a new beginning'... The warlock said proudly 'The Zoriat will soon no longer control the Guardian Mind Spirits. For when I have all three books in my possession, the Nexus Malignus will be the Kings and Queens of this world and the next'...
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
MY NAME IS GLARNE
Daniel Blackthorn sat upon a huge jewel encrusted throne in the middle of a large circular chamber. Painted upon the floor in front of him was a large ruby mosaic, and the Second Book of the Guardians lay open at its centre. The Bloodstone of Vorgania was suspended in midair above the book, and it revolved slowly. Daniel appeared to be in trance. His eyes stared lazily at the rotating jewel. The crystal flickered with fragments of broken white light.
Darcus Ryalls drifted across the chamber floor, formless like a dark thundercloud. It rolled eerily through the chamber. 'The mind spirit is coming ‘Ryalls whispered 'New life is about to be born’.
An arched window set high in the chamber wall began to fill with a glowing red light. The glass pane cracked, and fell from the frame, as the mind spirit surged purposefully inside. Daniel's eyes closed as the beam of red light struck his forehead. It lit his face with a red glow, and forced his eyes to open. The mind spirit separated into two shafts of light and struck the sides of the bloodstone. The jewel began to spin more frantically and a jet of light shot from beneath its base, and entered the pages of the book. Clouds of glowing atoms rolled across a series of grotesque illustrations that Daniel had drawn upon the old parchment. Slowly these pictures began to rise from the pages.
Darcus Ryalls rolled forward, as seven huge black winged beetles began to hover amidst the swirling mind spirit. Their hideous white eyes flicking back and forth beneath their shiny black eyelids. Their huge transparent wings vibrated upon the air, and they opened their powerful jaws. The ghastly creatures displayed three rows of unnaturally long white, curved teeth.
Ryalls began to laugh 'Our servants have arrived. Now make me a body, and give life to the three winged beasts and your task will be complete'.
Cora could only watch as Simm saddled her horse and fastened the straps beneath the animal's belly.
Simm turned to the child and smiled sadly. 'I'll ride to Frith if it helps, and tell Shrester what's happening'.
Cora folded her arms and looked upset. She had no intention of crying. Simm was not worth her tears 'It's about as much as I could expect from you Joanna'. The child said despondently.
'Well' Simm said ignoring the child's obvious discomfort 'I don't think I'll ever see you again’. She reached into her saddle, and slid out a powerful crossbow. 'This used to be my brother's favourite method of killing’.. Simm said proudly, running her fingers across the varnished wood. 'I want you to have it' ...
Cora took the crossbow from Simm, and raised a slight smile 'You're too kind'... The child replied, trying not to sound too sarcastic.
'It isn't much, but it's got a good range'... Simm replied climbing into the saddle, and lifting the reins. 'If you had any sense, you'd come with me'.
Cora shook her head 'The others are still unconscious, and I won’t leave them'... She lowered the crossbow, and rested it against her leg. 'Besides, I'm sure Weaver has the second book... I need to get it back and return it to Vorgania. Whilst he has that book, nowhere in Grimney is safe, it won't matter where you ride'...
Simm shrugged her shoulders 'Your choice Cora’... She pulled at the reins and dug her heels into the horses side 'My brother was like you... Very brave, may that crossbow serve you better than it did him... God rest his soul'...
Cora had nothing more to say, and she watched unhappily as horse and rider trotted slowly forward and faded into the glorious sunrise.
At midday the two suns were at their hottest. Jade, Quinn and Vin sat around the long table. They shared a large jug of water between them. Cora sat quietly at the head of the table, and drummed her fingers nervously, much to the irritation of Jade who looked quite sick. 'Do you have to do that!?' She snapped.
Cora placed her hands upon her knees and sat stiffly in the chair. 'Sorry Eliza, I'm just a little worried that's all’..
Jade chuckled 'Worried?' She scoffed 'Jaynus Weaver should be worried, by the end of the day he'll be dead, and we will have taken back the book'...
Quinn looked bemused. 'It's not going to be quite so easy’. He poured himself a glass of water, and gulped it down. 'But I've nowhere else to go, and I guess I'm happy to fight for a roof over my head, or a coffin lid'...
Vin was unimpressed by Quinn's total lack of vision, and endless pessimism 'This is not just about your living or dying arrangements Quinn, this is about the survival of Grimney. With or without you, although we need your help now Kyte is lost'...
'Well really'... Quinn sneered 'I don't care about Grimney... My plan is to cut off Draygon's ears as a trophy, that's all I want to do’..
Cora looked down the table at the tired faces of her companions, and she could see that the drugged wine was still affecting them. 'We could have done with Simm and Kyte's help'. She said quietly. 'I just hope help arrives from Frith before the enemy gets here‘.. Cora could hear the flapping of wings, and she bit into her bottom lip. The Bugwug had gone missing, and she prayed that he was now returning to them. She pushed back her chair and approached the narrow window and gazed out. It was not Bugwug who was making his presence known; it was the Roth, and the creature hovered in mid air outside the walls of the dilapidated castle. She stared into the dark red eyes of the creature, Cora was unsure of what it wanted.
The Roth glided forward and pushed its long beak through the window frame. The Roth's eyes rolled back and forth, and its dark elongated jaws began to open slowly. 'My name is Glarne‘.. The creature said in a deep gurgling voice... 'I am the last of the Roth'...
Vin, Jade and Quinn sat in silence, stunned by the fact that the creature could talk. Somehow it made the mindless slaughter of the species all the more horrible, not that Quinn was bothered he saw the Roth as an opportunity to get rich.
Cora stepped back, and folded her arms across her chest. She was afraid that it would squeeze its body through the narrow window and try to eat her. 'Kayleb is dead’.. Cora said sharply 'If you want revenge, it has already been satisfied'...
The Roth's green tongue rolled inside its mouth 'I do not want revenge, I want my baby‘.. It said sadly, its red eyes watering.
'Your baby?' Cora was confused 'We don't have your baby?' Cora's mouth felt dry 'Please explain, we might be able to help you'...
The creature gazed at the occupants in the room. It did not trust Grimnians, and feared any creature that walked on two legs. 'Kayleb captured my baby and locked her in the lower levels'...
Cora smiled 'If that is so, then we shall release her'.
The Roth drew its long skull like head back through the window 'I will meet you on the roof, I hope your word is true' And flapping its bat like wings it soared up to the battlements.
‘Well’... Cora said, looking back at her three friends 'I guess we'd better go down to the cellar again'...
The baby Roth pulled at her chains. The darkness in the small square chamber was blinding her. The creature began to whine pitifully, hunger and thirst was taking its toll on the Roth's fragile body. It seemed that all hope was lost, but a shaft of light began to form in the wall in front of her, and slowly the iron door was pushed open. Jade and Cora stood amidst the dancing shadows, and the child raised her torch above her head. The baby Roth cowered beneath her wings, as the yellow light from the fire danced across the creature's body.
Cora lowered her flame, realizing that the brightness of the blazing fire was hurting the Roth's eyesight.
‘I'm sorry’... Cora said softly 'I didn't mean to blind you, but you're safe now, we are here to rescue you'...
Cora and Jade guided the creature up the long stone staircase to the trapdoor that led to the battlements. The creature's chains had already been removed, and Cora was horrified at the Roth' s malnourished appearance, had the creature been left any longer in that dark chamber, she surely would have died.
Jade lifted the trapdoor, and climbed outside. The two suns blazed down upon her and she squinted into the sunlight. Cora held the baby Roth by her wing and gently raised her through the open trapdoor. The creature shuffled across the stone floor and cowered in corner. The high walls of the battlements bathed her in shadow. Jade and Cora stood side by side and gazed into the green sky.
'Where is the Roth?' Cora asked shielding her eyes with the palm of her hand. 'I can't see it anywhere'. The question was swiftly answered as the creature descended from the sky and settled in front of its baby.
The Roth approached its offspring and draped its wings around the baby creature 'You're safe now' It said 'We can go home'... The Roth turned its elongated head towards Jade and Cora 'I owe you a life, and I will repay you, in any way you ask'...
Cora smiled ‘We will need your help... In a few hours this castle will be under siege’.. Cora linked her hands together in prayer, and held them in front of her face 'Please... When you have taken your baby to safety, do come back and protect us if you can'.
Dark shadows fell across the land, as the l servants of Jaynus Weaver gathered and took flight. The seven giant beetles hovered menacingly in the sky; their shiny black shells tinted white against the sunlight. They flapped their transparent wings frantically, as they waited for their orders to move forward. A huge green lizard, with its wings outstretched, and its long armour plated neck curling back and forth like an uncoiling serpent circled the creatures below. Jaynus Weaver sat upon the lizard's back, his legs strapped into a red leather saddle. He pulled on the beast's reins and descended. Behind him, rising up before the two glowing suns, there were two more hideous winged beasts. The first appeared to be a giant red bee, its huge blue compound eyes flickered with light, and I its long green legs curved into its furry body. Rufus Shand and Daniel Blackthorn were the creature's riders. Daniel's head hung forward, and his eyes were glazed. The boy was still in a trance, and his wrists and ankles were bound to the saddle for safety.
Darcus Ryalls was the master of the final winged creature. The dark swirling entity had once again taken physical form. Daniel's drawings in the Second book of the Guardians were as twisted as Ryalls had desired. The physical form that the entity had taken was that of phantom knight. Thick black and silver armour covered the being's body, and a large helmet hid any sign of a face. Deep slits cut into the metal allowed two dark I red eyes to shine through the arched visor. The phantom warrior sat astride a monstrous winged beast, and this creature was the most terrifying of all. It had a huge black armour plated skeletal body, and it dwarfed those of its companions. Its long grey leathery wings seemed to stretch into eternity and a bulbous skull like head with six circular black eyes glinted in its bony forehead. Thick spikes rolled down the monster's spine; and a huge tale covered in razor sharp spikes swished back and forth through the air.
The Weaver waved his gloved hand above his head, and with a flourish he drew his fingers through the air 'Today we either triumph or die!' The warlock shouted, gazing at the grisly ranks gathering behind him. 'Whatever our fate, may we claim our right to live or die with honour!’.. He pointed his finger towards the horizon 'Now onwards to Raven Rock Castle!’..
The mighty hooves of Sparks pounded upon the scorched earth. The horse's long white mane bouncing against the wind, the air gushed rapidly along the snow-white sinewy body of the animal. Dhumass Shrester held tightly upon the horse's reins, and shaking the leather straps aggressively, he encouraged the animal to gallop faster.
Elizabeth bounced uncomfortably in the saddle and wrapped her arms tightly around the war mage's waist. 'Dhumass!' She gasped, clasping him more tightly 'Slow down, you' ll kill us!’.. Shrester had no intention of lessening the pace. Time was short, and Cora was in danger. His duty was to stand by the child's side and fight for her life, even if it meant sacrificing his own in the process.
Inside the walls of Raven Rock castle, Cora Pearl sat quietly at the long stone table. She placed her thumb in her mouth for comfort, and began to suck.
Vin entered the banqueting hall through a doorway behind the child, and approached her silently. The young knight sat down upon a chair beside Cora. 'Are you nervous?' Vin asked, trying to conceal the fact that his own hands were shaking, by placing them beneath the table.
Cora slipped her thumb from her mouth and smiled 'Very nervous’.... She chuckled 'I just hope that Joanna Simm has gone for help'... She sighed, and shook her head sadly 'I only wish that I knew where the Bugwug was‘..
Vin took hold of the child's trembling fingers and gripped them gently in the palm of his sweating hand 'I think you'll see that bird again... He's never let you down‘..
The young man's eyes flickered with fear 'I wish I was as reliable as the Bugwug‘. He whispered 'I only hope that I can do you proud when the fighting starts'.
The child smiled, and reached across with her other hand and stroked Vin’s pale face 'Vin, you're noble knight, and I know that you will not let me down'...
Jade stood upon the battlements, and watched the skies. She hoped that the Roth would soon return to fight alongside them. Gazing down to the ground below, Jade could see a single horse galloping across the plains, and as the animal drew nearer, the warrior woman could clearly see the sunlit faces of the two riders. Jade smiled through gritted teeth ‘Dhumass Shrester’. She said 'Now we can really spill some blood'...
Quinn opened the great arched door that led into the castle hallway. Shrester and Elizabeth dismounted from their horse, and guided the animal inside. 'So’.. Shrester said quietly, looking the dishevelled man up and down 'Who might you be?' ...
'I'm Quinn, I don’t have a first name‘.. The man replied gruffly 'I guess Joanna Simm sent you?'...
Elizabeth gently stroked the horses white mane, and smiled 'No, she didn’t, but Cora, is she here?' ...
'Yes'... The scruffy outlaw nodded 'Follow me, she's in the banqueting hall'...
Cora and Vin were not aware of the two new arrivals at the castle. They sat quietly together contemplating the day ahead. Time was drifting by, and in a few hours night would set in once again, and bathe Grimney in darkness. Vin looked into Cora’s eyes. No more words needed to be spoken. In that brief moment they both shared the same thoughts about the future. Cora smiled, and Vin knew exactly what his response should be. He grinned and winked his eye at the little girl.
The door at the far end of the banqueting hall opened, and Cora’s eyes lit up like the two twins suns of Grimney.
'Mother!' She screamed excitedly, pushing back her chair and running across the room towards the young woman. Elizabeth reached out her arms and Cora jumped into them. Mother and daughter embraced, and Elizabeth stroked the little child's hair, relieved as any mother would be that their child was safe.
Cora closed her eyes, although she had never felt very close to her mother, it was a moment of honest affection that Cora had long been waiting for. 'Mother, I've missed you‘... Cora’s voice was choked with emotion 'I'm so happy that you're here'...
Shrester patted the child on the back, and waved the palm of his hand at Vin 'Good to see you both again'.
Vin gave Shrester a thumbs up ‘I'm happy you made it, I just hope we will all be happy tomorrow’...
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
THE SIEGE BEGINS
Nightfall crept slowly across the land. Dark clouds gathered over the castle battlements, and the two moons fell beneath a veil of green mist that swept in from the east. Dark riders dressed in animal skull masks, and shabby black fur clothing galloped towards the crumbling ruin of Raven Rock castle. Isobel Leach, and Verran Kesh flanked Draygon the Scar’s horse on either side. The trio's mighty steeds frothed at the mouth as they charged boldly onwards through the night. Kesh was Draygon's right hand man. He was a powerfully built warrior, dressed in red and black armour. His skin was leathery and very dark, and his hair was blood red, and shaped into spikes. The man's left eye was covered with a red leather eye patch, and a jagged scar jutted from beneath, and tore down through his unshaven cheek.
Kesh smiled and revealed his teeth; each one was plated with polished silver. 'So Kayleb Kassell is hiding in this place?' Kesh said licking his teeth with his gold studded tongue. 'How the mighty have fallen'...
Draygon narrowed his eyes, and curled his top lip into a snarl 'When I have him by the throat’.. The man clenched his leather gloves around the horse's reins and tugged sharply. The animal shuddered with pain 'I'll rend his flesh from his body'...
Jade, Cora, Vin and Quinn watched from the battlements. The new arrivals numbered about fifty. 'What a motley lot’... Vin commented, as Draygon and his men trotted their dishevelled horses up to the castle walls. Cora handed her crossbow to Quinn, and the outlaw smiled and loaded a bolt into the shaft. Leaning over the side of the battlements, Cora picked out Isobel Leach from the mass of black shapes.
'Isobel!' Cora shouted, on seeing that the young red headed woman was seated amongst the many riders gathered below. 'You've brought help!' ...
'Yes!' Isobel replied proudly 'But they will only help you in exchange for Kayleb Kassell!'...
Cora was quick to give her answer 'Kassell is dead!’. She said firmly 'His body is lying up here upon the battlements‘.
Draygon looked pleased, but he was not a man who trusted others easily. 'If that is so child!'. He said cynically 'Throw down his head so we may know the truth!'.
‘With pleasure’ Jade drew her sword, and looked across at a bloodied sheet that covered the dead man's corpse. Jade was about to step forward, when Cora pressed the palm of her hand against the woman's chest and held her back.
'No Eliza’. Cora said solemnly 'No more heads should be cut off, let the dead rest in peace'.
Jade was not keen on negotiating with the child ‘As much as I despise that man’.. She said frostily, the memories of her murdered family still sharp in her mind 'We need his help’.
Jade pushed the child's hand away. 'And when the Weaver is slain, I intend to kill Draygon myself'...
Quinn, however, had his own agenda, and the man's nature remained thoroughly selfish. Quinn's only concern was the loss of his precious alehouse. Grimney and its people had no meaning to him. Holme’s Tavern had been the centre of his world, and its destruction had made him vengeful.
Draygon chatted quietly to Kesh and Isobel. He sat patiently in the saddle, waiting to receive the head of his enemy. But it was not to be...
A silver bolt launched at very high speed zipped through the air. Travelling downwards the metal shaft struck Draygon in the throat.
The Scar's men watched in stunned silence as their leader toppled from his horse, and fell lifeless to the ground.
'No'... Kesh muttered... 'Why have they done this?'... The man dismounted, and falling to his knees he cradled Draygon's head in his arms.
Draygon's eyes flickered, and rolled back beneath his eyelids... The man was dead, and Kesh dipped his fingers into his leader's blood. 'Draygon's blood is on my hands!' Kesh wailed. ‘Let their blood be on our swords!’... Kesh stood on his feet and drew his sword from his horse's saddle. The dark skinned warrior pointed the blade towards the battlements and shouted at the top of his lungs. 'Death to Kayleb Kassell!... Death to the castle killers!'
Isobel was aware of her dangerous predicament. She had guided Draygon to the castle, and indirectly she was now responsible for the warlord's untimely death. Isobel had to think fast, and so she slid her sword from her scabbard and joined in with Kesh's bloodthirsty chant 'Death to Kayleb Kassell!... Death to the castle killers!'... The fur-clad warriors were quick to follow, and soon all of Draygon's warriors were waving their swords and axes and baying for blood...
Watching from the safety of the battlements, Quinn stood smiling. The man had achieved his revenge, and he turned to his colleagues who had gathered silently behind him.
Cora bowed her head, and Vin looked very unhappy.
‘Now all I need is his ears’.. Quinn quipped, tossing the crossbow to the floor. 'Once I have those, I'll die happy’... His smile began to fade from his grubby face.
Eliza Jade was not in the line of work that brought happiness. Quinn was a man that she had recruited. This vile murderer was in her care, and therefore his actions were Jade's responsibility.
Quinn could see the anger in Jade’s face. ‘He got what he deserved’.
‘So should we all’ Jade's blade sliced through the air, and severed the man's head from his shoulders.
Cora looked away in horror, and Vin paced his arm around the child’s shoulder and drew her to his chest to shield her from the sight. Quinn's decapitated body flopped downwards, and his head bounced over the battlements. 'At least the miserable swine died happy‘... Jade said coldly, sliding her sword back into its scabbard.
Quinn's head fell a short distance from Kesh’s feet, and the man crouched down and lifted it from the ground. He gazed into its lifeless eyes. 'This isn't Kayleb'... He muttered with annoyance, hurling the head through the air, and staring angrily up at the battlements. 'I want Kayleb Kassell!‘..
One of Draygon’s men, a big man with a grey beard and long greasy dreadlocks, could hear the sound of horse's hooves pounding towards him. The man gazed over his shoulder, and saw twelve knights on horseback dressed in shining black armour. The Queen's Elite carried crossbows, and white and yellow flags with two criss-crossing flaming red and blue swords imprinted upon them. The man who led these impressive warriors was Calaman Kade a legendary knight who had served his Queen loyally for forty years. Kade wore a cloak of flowing purple that was clasped around his neck with a diamond brooch. The man's armour was plated with gold and silver, and his huge jewel encrusted shield was inscribed with the words 'Varlus Dectorious Porfinious'... which translated meant, 'Valour, honour, and pride'. Kade was not a young man, and his long white hair, and flowing grey beard defined his age.
The Bugwug flew above him, and pointed a purple wing towards the castle. 'Draygon’s men are here!' The bird squawked 'we must prepare for the battle to come, we must unite!‘..
Kade was not interested in forming an allegiance with these wretched outlaws. He had hunted Draygon's rabble for many years and an opportunity to eliminate them was now in his grasp. 'Strike them down!’.. Kade shouted, drawing his sword from his saddle 'Wipe the villains from our land!'...
The Bugwug screeched 'No!’... We have a greater evil to fight!'
Kade's men did not heed the bird's warning, and they raised their crossbows at the enemy. Arrows flew, and the sound of horse's hooves pounded behind Draygon's men. Panic spread through the scruffy ranks, as horses tossed their riders and were trampled by flailing hooves.
Kesh jumped back into the saddle and his horse reared upon its hind legs. He turned the animal around and was confronted by a black knight wielding a mighty battleaxe. Metal clashed against metal, and orange sparks flew as Kesh fought frantically for his life. Draygon's men appeared to be no match for the highly trained soldiers and one by one the ragged warriors fell bloodied from their startled horses.
Cora and Vin were unable to watch. As the Queen's Elite ruthlessly decimated the disorganised rabble. Three black knights on horseback surrounded Isobel, and throwing down her sword, she raised her arms. 'I'm obviously not one of Draygon's men'... Isobel said quickly 'I surrender my weapon... I have no wish to fight with you'...
The Bugwug settled on Isobel's shoulder and his cross-eyes rolled upwards. 'Look!’ He squawked.
Dark shadows were forming in the mist, and strange winged shapes were descending upon the battlefield. The three knights tilted their black plumed helmets, and gazed through their visors into the night sky above. Before they had time to react, the knights were grabbed from their saddles and whisked skyward. Three giant winged creatures had snatched them from their mounts, and the doomed knights were carried helplessly away. Isobel reached down to her saddle and drew another sword from its leather bindings.
A winged beetle descended upon her, its little legs wriggling beneath its body, its sharp claws opening and closing in an attempt to snatch her. The sword sliced through the bug's shell and cut the creature in half, showering her red leather armour in yellow blood. More shiny black beetles fell upon their prey, and Draygon's men, and the Queen's Elite found themselves fighting alongside each other.
Cora wasted no time in issuing orders to Vin. ‘Tell Shrester to bring me my book, I have no choice, I must change shape’...
'I shall!'... Vin descended through the trapdoor and slammed it shut. Cora shook her head at Jade, who stood opposite 'You shouldn't have killed Quinn. It wasn't right‘... She said bitterly.
‘Sometimes’... Jade replied solemnly 'Doing the wrong thing is right'... Jade was not interested in Cora’s opinion, the only thing that concerned her now was the sight of a giant red bee circling overhead. The creature swooped down, and Jade could see the grey lifeless face of Rufus Shand grinning at her.
Daniel, who remained strapped to the bee's saddle lolled back and forth, the teenager was still in a deep trance.
'Cora!' Jade shouted, her sword raised high above her head 'Duck!’...
Cora, who stood with her back to the giant insect, had only seconds to react, and she threw herself down onto the stone flooring. The giant bee curled its abdomen into its stomach and pointed a huge red stinger towards Jade. Her reactions were like lightning and she severed the stinger with one chop of her sword. The bee’s green blood spurted from the wound, and the insect spun erratically through the air. Shand toppled from the creature's mount and scrambled to his feet. The man drew his sword and charged towards Jade, his white eyes filled with rage.
Cora dragged herself into the corner to hide, and watched as Jade, and Shand battled against each other. Swords clashing, and sparks flying, as blade scraped against blade and showered shards of molten metal through the air. The bee's compound eyes fractured Cora into a thousand images. It saw that the child was helpless, and with its wings vibrating viciously, the insect hovered menacingly over the defenceless girl.
Cora closed her eyes, and raised her hands in front of her face. She wanted to scream for help, but Jade was still fighting against Shand, and there would be little she could do. The bee's long green legs brushed against Cora's face, and the child flapped her hands in panic. Shrester climbed through the trapdoor, and Vin followed closely behind. The young man was carrying the First book of the Guardians under his arm. 'Dhumass!' Vin shouted on seeing that Cora was in danger. 'We must save Cora!'
The war mage slid a dagger from his belt and hurled it through the air. The blade pierced the furry body of the bee, and the creature lost the power of flight and dived headfirst into Cora. The little girl lay trapped beneath the dead bug, and Daniel Blackthorn was still strapped into the creature's saddle. His weight pressing down upon the child, and making it difficult for her to breathe. Vin and Shrester lifted the bee's lifeless body, and dragged Cora from beneath. The child looked pale, the weight of the bee had squeezed the colour from her cheeks. She looked down at Daniel who remained unconscious on the floor.
‘Dhumass, please cut the boy free’ She said breathlessly.
Shrester pulled his bloodstained knife from the bee's belly and wiped the blade clean against his body armour. He crouched down by Daniel's side and sliced away the tethers. Vin handed the child the book, and nodded his head towards the unconscious teenager 'Do you know the boy?' Vin asked inquisitively, stroking Cora' s hair.
'Yes'... Cora said, turning the pages, and gazing down at the poems and pictures painted inside. The many creatures that inhabited Grimney stood larger the life, for it was Cora's drawings in this first book that had given birth to the imaginative world around her. She smiled uneasily at Vin, and placed the flat of her palm on a blank page in the book 'That boy is the son of my stepfather's son’...
Jade and Shand continued their fight to the death, and the wound in the warrior woman's shoulder was beginning to bleed once more. Shand could see the strain in Jade's face as she continued to defend herself against the heavy blows from the grey man's sword. Jade could feel her knees buckling under the relentless assault. The sweat was pouring from her brow, and she was becoming weaker. Jade began to falter, her blade tilted and she lost the power to fight back. Shand's blade fell against her shoulder, and the metal cut deep. The blood poured from her wound, and falling upon one knee, Jade struggled, but she could not prevent Shand from forcing her into submission.
Vin drew his blade and ran to help the young warrior. Jade dropped her sword, and Shand raised his blade high above his shoulders, his white eyes became bloodshot, and flickered with hate. Before he could strike the final blow, Vin's blade sliced through the air, and cut deep into the man's side. Shand dropped his sword and staggered backwards. The man felt no pain, and his dried grey skin flaked from the savage hole carved into his side. Shrester stepped forward and grabbed the dazed man by his shoulders and hauled him towards the battlements, and with one mighty heave, threw him over the top. The man fell helplessly, bouncing against the stone walls of the castle, until, finally, his body smashed upon the dried ground beneath. The battle at ground level was ferocious.
Kesh and Isobel stood back to back, battling against the flying insects that swooped relentlessly down upon them. Despite his age Calaman Kade moved with great agility, his blade laced with blood as he defended himself against the violent onslaught that descended from above.
The knights that had followed him into to battle lay dead about his feet, their black armour torn open by savage pincers and heavy axes. Draygon's men had fought to the last man, and that last man struggled to stay alive. He fell to his knees and gripped his head to his chest as a beetle fell upon him, and embedded its pincers into his throat. Shand was not dead, because death was not an option for an immortal. Although his body was broken, and his skin hung torn from his carcass like willow leaves, he managed to crawl across the ground. The man had no wish to live anymore, the pain inside welled up like a fountain of blood, and memories of his mother flooded his thoughts like fire blazing over hot oil.
‘Mother’. Shand gasped 'I wanted you to live forever, I never wanted you to suffer‘. Inside his mind he could see his mother smiling. It was the way she always smiled before the illness took her, and forced him to end her pain. Shand had been merciful, and as he crawled across the bloodied ground, he prayed that someone would end his own swelling agony. Shand could see Isobel in the distance, and he wanted to kill her. Driven by pure hate the grey man dragged his broken bones towards her. Isobel was too focused on the last two beetles, as they began to circle above.
'Kesh!'... Isobel shouted 'They're coming for us!'
Kesh was aware of their presence already, but his focus was drawn to the giant dark armour plated winged skeletal creature, and he could see the dark form of Darcus Ryalls seated astride. The faceless armour plated entity seemed to be waiting from an opportune moment to reign hell down upon them.
'Oh god’.. Isobel muttered feeling the sweat forming upon her palms and seeping into her red leather gloves. 'Kesh. If he swoops down, you concentrate your attack on the winged rider... I'll deal with the bugs‘.. Isobel's sword flashed through the air, and she dispatched the first bug without even blinking. The creature fell at her booted feet, its green blood oozing around its butchered carcass. The second beetle fared no better, and with a swift movement of her blade she sent the creature spiraling into oblivion. 'Disgusting bug’. Isobel muttered, unaware that Shand was crawling up behind her. ‘Kesh’... She said pointing her blade skyward, 'That is our main problem'...
Darcus Ryalls was not interested in Isobel and Kesh. Mere mortals were not a threat to a being of Ryalls power, and pulling at the reins of the winged skeleton, Ryalls directed the creature down towards the castle battlements. Cora knelt with the First book of the Guardians upon her lap. She placed the flat of her palm against a blank page in the book and closed her eyes. A blue light began to emanate from the tips of her fingers as the mind spirit that Cora carried in her heart flooded onto the paper. An image began to take shape in Cora's thoughts. She began to visualize herself as a giant scaly blue dragon. The mind spirit spiralled down Cora's arm and consumed her body in a veil of flowing energy.
Vin and Shrester who were tending to Jade's wounds covered their eyes as the bright blue light burst skyward, and Cora, transformed into a mythical dragon unfurled her wings and soared into the air. Darcus Ryalls seated astride the serpent was startled by Cora's sudden transformation and pulled on the reins of the skeletal creature's bony neck. The beast uttered a hideous cry as Cora raised her sharp talons and flew forward towards her mortal enemy. From the saddle of the skeletal beast Ryalls drew a flaming sword and waved it through the air. The dark warrior dug its metal booted heels into the creature's side and surged forward to attack the blue dragon.
Isobel, and Kesh watched from the ground, their swords held tightly by their sides. In the distance they could see Jaynus Weaver astride his giant serpent. The warlock had not involved himself in the conflict so far. He remained passive, watching from a distance, like a general.
The Bugwug flew down from the sky 'Isobel!' The bird shouted 'Isobel behind you!' Isobel turned swiftly to find Rufus Shand on his knees. The man had a knife in his hand and it was raised ready to strike the woman in the back.
'Leach, I'm going to kill you!‘.. Shand shouted his grey skin flaking away from his face like a cracking eggshell. Shand did not feel pain. His death and rebirth through the powers of dark magic had left him without such feelings, and as Isobel's blade cut through the man's arm, Shand could only watch with despair as the appendage fell into the grass. 'Kill me Isobel‘.. Shand's voice was clouded with emotion. 'End my immortality'...
Isobel could see that the man was already dead, and closing her eyes she swung the blade of her sword sideways and severed Shand's head from his shoulders. In the sky above Ryalls and Cora fought for possession of the sky. Cora breathed fire upon the skeletal beast, causing the monster's ribs to crack and break away from its body. Ryalls tried to strike the dragon with the flaming sword, but Cora danced swiftly upon the air and dodged the fiery blade.
'Give me the books!' Ryalls yelled 'Curse you Cora, you made me, and I will make you suffer for my existence!' The skeletal beast retracted its wings and dived towards Cora, the monster's huge jaws opening wide in preparation to bite its scaly blue assailant. A shadow fell across the flying beasts and Ryalls craned back his armoured head and gazed up into the sky above. The Roth descended and lifted the armoured warrior from his mount. Ryalls dropped the flaming sword and it tumbled to the ground, and embedded itself in the earth. The skeletal creature, confused by the sudden loss of its rider, dived forward in panic and crashed its bony body into the castle walls. The impact shattered the creature's fragile frame and the beast, broken into fragments, spun through the air and crashed at the base of the buildings foundations.
Calaman Kade, who was the last surviving knight, reached down and grabbed the hilt of the sword, and attempted to wrench it from the soil, but the heat from the burning blade seared into his gauntlet, and without hesitation he withdrew his hand and left the sword alone. Kade gazed skyward and watched as Ryalls was hoisted higher and higher into the sky, until at last the Roth released the dark warrior, and Ryalls fell helplessly into the emptiness of oblivion. On impact with the ground the armour surrounding Ryalls spectral form shattered into a thousand pieces and the dark energy that had been contained within soared skyward and vanished into the heavens.
Jaynus Weaver who had been watching from a distance, shook his head in despair. He had lost this battle, and pulling on the reins of his serpent, he turned away and flew to safety. The victors standing on the ground and those who were watching from the battlements cheered with delight as they watched Jaynus Weaver and his serpent fade into a small dark speck on the horizon.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
The conflict had claimed many lives. The battlefield was littered with broken bodies, and the carcasses of slaughtered horses. Dhumass Shrester, Kesh, Kade and Isobel Leach dug the dry soil with shovels. The dead needed to be buried, and the loss was felt by all, issues between outlaws and heroes was momentarily forgotten as the solemn task of internment was undertaken by the small group of survivors.
Cora Pearl sat at the long table in the banqueting hall. She had transformed herself back into her original form. Both books lay before her on the table and the Bugwug sat upon the children's shoulder. Elizabeth and Daniel sat either side of the girl. They were quiet, lost in their thoughts, waiting on the child to speak, and offer a solution.
The Bugwug wrapped its wings around its small feathery body and rolled its eyes 'The books need to be returned from whence they came‘.. He squawked 'The First book should return to your world Cora, and be buried back beneath the great tree. As for the Second book of the Guardians that must be returned to Vorgania‘..
Cora sighed 'But others will find them... Bad people will search them out and use their powers against the good people of Grimney'....
Daniel who still looked half asleep rubbed his bleary eyes with his thumb and forefinger 'Cora, I don't know how I can help, I'm sorry, I just don’t know what to say’.
'I don't blame you Daniel, I created this world, in the end it is my responsibility to repair the mess I have made'. Cora smiled at the young boy 'You were sucked into this unknowingly, it must have made your head spin. So please don't torment yourself'...
‘But Jaynus Weaver is still alive, and the Bloodstone is still in his possession’.. Daniel looked sick, and his complexion had turned grey with worry.
The Bugwug ruffled his feathers and twiddled his tiny fingers 'The Bloodstone has no power without the second book, so we have nothing to fear in that respect'...
Elizabeth who had remained quiet throughout the conversation, and who had stayed inside the castle throughout the battle felt that she had to say something, even if it was of little consequence. 'Return both books. It is the best thing to do, and perhaps if we do so we might be able to free Robert from the ice cave‘..
All those gathered at the table were in agreement with this. The books would not be safe in Cora's possession, and should be returned to their original hiding places and if possible buried forever.
Eliza Jade had been wounded during the conflict. She lay on a wooden bed, the mattress beneath, stained in her blood. Jade's shoulder was heavily bandaged and her dark skin had become paler, and perspiration dotted across her forehead.
Vin sat on a stool next to the wounded woman, he could' see the pain etched on her face, the lines in her forehead deep, and furrowed. 'Eliza' The young knight whispered 'You will be OK’...
Jade's eyes flashed with rage 'Do I look OK to you?' She gritted her teeth, and tried to swallow back the pain 'I am in agony, I have never lost a fight, and I've never needed someone to rescue me in battle‘.
'I had to save you’.. Vin's voice was quiet, passive, he could not understand the young woman' s anger 'Shand would have killed you, if I had not have stepped in you'd be dead' ...
‘Dead?' Jade laughed hollowly 'Dead, but not dishonoured' ...
'Great‘..Vin chuckled, shaking his head in dismay 'I save your life, I tried to help you and all I get is grief'.
The wounded warrior reached a shaking hand to her shoulder and pressed the palm of her hand against the bloodstained bandage. 'You and I are very different Vin'. She groaned, breathing heavily as the pain seeped through her body 'I thank you for saving me, but I should have defeated the man myself'.
Vin looked saddened 'I did what I thought was best‘..The warrior pushed back the stool and stood up, he bowed his head forward and looked tearful. 'Next time, perhaps I will allow you to die a hero's death, if that is what would have made you happy'...
Jade reached her hand towards Vin and grabbed him tightly by the wrist. 'Don't leave‘. She said softly 'Sit with me’.
'Why?' Vin asked, confused by the woman's behaviour.
'My reactions have obviously upset you. Just sit with me for a while’. She replied pulling on the young man's arm. 'I don't hate you, I just don't like to fail myself’.
Vin smiled and sat back down on the stool, he gripped Jade's fingers in the palm of his hand 'We all fail sometimes. I'm not the bravest man alive and I struck Shand from behind‘..He smiled sadly ‘But I'm a good man, and I care. Had I let you die, I could not have lived with myself’..
Jade's bitterness melted away. Vin was a noble knight, and she had judged him as a coward, but this was a man who was honest and true, and 'she knew that the man seated by her side was a loyal friend and far more heroic than she had ever imagined him to be. Sadly, however Jade could not disclose her feelings for him. So they just sat quietly together holding one another's hand, a comfort to both, even though no more words were spoken.
It had been decided that Cora, Isobel, and Shrester would return the second book to Vorgania. The Bugwug and the remaining survivors would stay at the castle and wait for their return. The Roth had agreed to fly Isobel Leach to the ice tomb, and Cora, once more transformed into the blue dragon would allow Dhumass Shrester to be her passenger.
The small group gathered upon the battlements. Elizabeth kissed the blue dragon gently. 'Cora’ She said tearfully 'Take care and come back safely‘..
The dragon smiled, and teardrops formed in its large blue eyes. 'I love you mother’. She said 'I will return, and if I can bring daddy back from the dead’...
No more words needed to be said, and the Roth and Cora flapped their huge wings and soared into the sky. The Bugwug flew alongside them, and chirped 'Remember that Weaver is still out there somewhere, beware of him, he may not allow you safe passage to Vorgania’. The bird stopped and hovered in mid air, and watched as the two winged creatures flew onwards into a burning red sunset.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
RETURN TO VORGANIA
The journey was long and arduous, and the great Dudrassa Sea raged beneath, as the ice broke and huge waves rolled high into the sky. Storms battered Cora’s scaly wings and Shrester held tight to the reins, his legs tied into the saddle for safety. Hailstones pounded down around them, and the Roth struggled against the mighty winds that blew in from the north. Isobel struggled to stay in her saddle. She knew that were she to fall, the mighty ocean beneath would swallow her down, and death would follow quickly in the dark icy waters. It took several more hours before they completed their safe passage across the raging sea, and the endless landscape of snow and ice swept out silently in the distance before them. Below in the nothingness of snow stood the mighty circular tomb. The Roth lowered its wings and descended onto the snowbound plains. Cora followed swiftly behind and extending her talons gripped the white powder and came to rest at the tomb's entrance. Shrester, and Isobel dismounted, and jumped down from their saddles. 'I never thought I'd come back here'... The outlaw said with a wry smile 'I have travelled an awful long way to be back in exactly the same place‘..
'Yes‘. Shrester replied, straightening the rucksack on his back, the two books of the Guardians protruding from beneath the leather coverings. 'But perhaps your journey is not about travelling at all.Perhaps Isobel your journey has been one in which you have learned to be honest and do the right thing’.
Isobel laughed ‘Well I guess I was wise to join back up with you Shrester’. She ran her fingers through her short red hair and brushed away the frost 'After, all, I lost my money, but at least I'm on the winning side'.
Cora’s huge scaly body became immersed in blue light, as the mind spirit transformed her back into a little child. The Roth stood quietly by her side, its wings folded around its body in an attempt to keep out the cold.
'Isobel‘..Cora said, dismayed by the young outlaw's mercenary ideals 'It seems to me that you have no loyalty to anyone’.
‘Well’..Isobel replied, drawing her sword from its scabbard 'Noble ideals, and loyalty to one cause, as far as I'm concerned leads to only one thing'.
'Oh?' Cora said shaking her long hair free of falling snow 'And what is that?’
‘Death and misfortune’. Isobel replied firmly 'And I won't give up my life for anyone, or any cause, simply because dying defeats the whole issue of caring. Because you can't care when you're dead.
'Like you care?' Shrester sighed 'Shall we go'. He said gesturing towards the entrance to the tomb.
'Yes’ Cora responded ... 'But remember, shield your eyes in the great hall of mirrors'...
Shrester reached into the saddle strapped to the Roth’s back and slid out two wooden torches and lit them. He handed the first to Isobel, and the second to Cora, and drawing his sword he stepped forward, and with the flames held aloft behind him, he ventured into the tunnel of glistening ice, and closed his eyes.
The three colleagues walked warily onwards, the feeling of claustrophobia increasing the depth of shadow behind their eyelids. Cora could feel an icy breath on her cheeks, and waved her torch from side to side, hoping that whatever lurked in the dark would not touch her. Fear was welling in the child's stomach, as she felt her way through the black void. The temptation to open her eyes increased with every shallow step, and she held her breath, hoping that whatever creatures lurked in the dark would think she was dead and leave her be.
Shrester was the first to open his eyes, and sighed with great relief when he realised that he was standing inside the vast upper chamber, beneath the statue of the giant ice warrior. Behind him he could see Cora and Isobel, walking blindly beneath their fiery torches. Shrester squinted into the blackness, and thought he could see strange dark wraith like figures shuffling solemnly down the passage behind them.
'Cora‘.. He called out calmly 'Isobel... A few more steps and you will be free of the tunnel. But please'. He said as a matter of urgency 'Move more quickly’...
Isobel and Cora picked up the pace and with several bold strides both Cora and Isobel fell into Shrester's open arms, and he embraced them. 'Careful with the torches’. Shrester replied with a smile, stepping back from the flames that were dancing around him.
Shrester knelt down and lifted the rucksack from his back, and placed it down upon the icy floor. He reached inside and lifted out three rolls of rope, and unravelled them through the snow. Fastening each one to the mighty legs of the ice statue he lowered them down into the huge dark precipice before him.
‘Well’. Shrester said, fastening the rucksack back over his shoulders 'Let's go down and put the book back in its rightful place’. Without need for further conversation, Shrester stepped off the ledge and wrapped his fingers around the rope and began to descend.
Isobel and Cora watched as he disappeared into the blanket of shadow. 'Well?' Isobel said with a nervous smile 'Shall we wait here until he comes back?‘..
Cora sighed 'Isobel, do what you wish, but I want my father back‘..The child stepped forward, crouched down, and gripping the rope, she slid down into the pit.
Isobel watched the child descend. Cora’s torchlight became fainter and fainter until all light was extinguished, and only Isobel’s torch threw shadows against the snow bound walls. 'Yes‘..She nodded 'I think I’ll stay here‘..
Down in the depths of the lower chamber Cora's feet touched the soft white floor, and she let the rope slip from her fingers.
Shrester had already reached the bottom, and he stood gazing at the frozen form of Cora’s father shrouded beneath a thick coating of frosted ice. The child sighed, and waved her torch in the direction of the altar. 'I need to put the book back where it belongs'.
Shrester nodded and reached into the rucksack and lifted the Second book of the Guardians from inside. 'If that is your calling Cora, you must do it'...
Cora took the book from Shrester and walked slowly towards the altar. Climbing the four steps, and opening the manuscript on a blank page she laid the book back in its original place. The child stepped back slowly and stood next to Shrester. 'So'... She said nervously 'What happens now?'...
Above them, through the vast hole in the ceiling came the rumbling sound of pulsating energy, and a shaft of red light descended down, and struck the open pages of the book. Cora and Shrester covered their eyes and watched as the Bloodstone of Vorgania appeared from nowhere and descended through the glowing shaft and embedded itself back into the book. A beam of glowing light shot outwards and struck the block of ice in which Robert Pearl was encased. Slowly the ice thawed, and fell away from Pearl's body. Cora's eyes began to swell with tears as she watched the cooling water trickling from her father's lifeless face. The ice melted away from Pearl's body, and the water rolled beneath him, and carved moist trenches into the snow. The red mind spirit wrapped itself around the man, and slowly Pearl's heart began to beat once more, as the breath of life was returned to his body. The shaft of light swept back towards the altar and returned to the glowing beam that spiralled upwards through the open ceiling. Pearl's eyes opened, and his pale cheeks swept with crimson colour, as a life lost, became a life regained.
'Daddy‘.. Cora whispered, dropping the flaming torch to the ground and running forward to wrap her arms around him. Father and daughter knelt upon the floor together and embraced. It was a moment that Cora wanted to last for an eternity. Lost in time and frozen in her mind forever. The land of Grimney was a forgotten world, all that had ever mattered to Cora, was this man, and she had found true heaven once more in her father's arms.
Shrester picked up the flaming torch and held it aloft, bathing Cora and her father in a comforting yellow light. He was so relieved to see the child happy again, and as he stood beneath the dancing flame, he felt honoured to witness the obvious affection between the two.
Isobel’s voice echoed from above 'Are you OK down there? Can you please hurry up, I'm catching a chill up here!’.
Shrester laughed 'I think we'd better get moving, no time for feeling when Isobel is with us’.
Cora helped her father to his feet, and took him by the hand, and she led him unsteadily to the ropes. ‘We've got to climb out’.
Pearl gazed into the glowing red light and his eyes followed the beam up to the hole in the ceiling. 'Cora' He whispered 'What happened to the hawk that attacked us? Where's Hugo?'...
The child took a deep breath and squeezed her father's hand 'Hugo Drax is dead'...
'How?' Pearl looked confused, he had no concept of lost time 'Where's his body?'
Shrester nudged Pearl in the ribs. 'We have to go, we will talk about this later‘..
Cora placed her father's shaking hands upon the nearest rope, and placed her palm against the man's back and gave him a gentle push. Pearl began to ascend, and soon Isobel Leach, who had been waiting impatiently at the entrance to the lower chamber, was hauling him to safety. Cora and Shrester followed behind, and lifted themselves to safety. As they reached the upper chamber Pearl and Isobel helped them back onto their feet.
'Now remember cover your eyes'... Shrester said commandingly, holding the torch before him, and lighting the hall of mirrors beyond. 'Dark spirits lurk within those walls... Those that look, may never see again'...
Shrester once more led the way down the passage, and all those who followed heeded his advice, and emerged safely on the other side. They passed through the entrance without incident, but they were not expecting to encounter any other creature except the Roth. However, the Vorgranor had once more gathered around the tomb. The giant men of ice gazed down at the small gathering. The Roth circled overhead, watching the icemen carefully. The creature was unsure of their intentions, and glided back, and forth through the dark sky, waiting upon the Vorgranor's actions. Isobel began to slide her sword from her scabbard, but Shrester placed his hand firmly on the women's shoulder 'Not yet Isobel... Know your enemy is your enemy, before you strike the first fatal blow’.
Isobel hated Shrester's ways, she did not like the fact that he was right, and she grudgingly slid her blade back into its casing 'If they kill us... I'll kill you'... She snarled.
Shrester patted the outlaw on the back 'Not sure that will work somehow‘..
The leader of the Vorgranor stepped forward, his icy limbs cracking and creaking as he moved. 'You have returned the book to our tomb'... His voice was deep and booming.
Cora gazed up at the giant iceman. ‘We have put the book back in its rightful place. Luther Kyte was right. We should never have taken it’.
The Vorgranor leader raised a long icy finger and scratched the side of its face, and flakes of ice fell away. 'Luther Kyte?‘. The iceman pondered 'No matter. What you have done has restored order... We will guard the tomb ... No one shall enter here again’...
Cora smiled nervously 'May we go in peace?'... She said clutching tightly to her father's clammy hand. 'We are good people’ ...
Isobel chuckled under her breath 'Speak for yourself’.. She said quietly.
The Vorgranor leader raised his shoulders and they cracked inside like breaking glass. 'You may leave this tomb, and warn any others that may come. For any who try to take the sacred book from its rightful place will be destroyed’...
‘I'm happy with that’... Isobel muttered ‘I didn't want to come here in the first place’..
'Yes’. Cora replied nodding her head forward dramatically ‘We will do as you ask’...
The Vorgranor moved slowly to one side, their bodies creaking like ice breaking on a spring tide. Cora and her companions were to be allowed safe passage from the sacred land. The Roth descended from the sky and settled down upon the ice plains. The creature enclosed its body beneath its wings and waited for Cora and the others to approach.
The Vorgranor stood motionless in the background. Snow began to fall, and a white mist rolled down from the dark green sky. Cora slid the First book of the Guardians from Shrester’s rucksack and placed it down upon the floor. She closed her eyes and flattened the palm of her hand against a blank page inside. The child closed her eyes, and allowed her imagination to roam free within the realms of fantasy. Isobel, Pearl and Shrester stood back as the blue mind spirit enveloped the child in a swirling vortex of light, and once more a transformation began to take place. The huge wings of a scaly red dragon burst outwards through the glowing blue light. Its piercing yellow eyes glared through the tumbling grey mist.
The mind spirit faded from sight and a giant red dragon stood tall against the biting wind that rolled in from the north. Shrester stepped forward and lifted the Guardian book from the snow. Sliding it back into his rucksack, he gazed upwards into Cora’s bright yellow eyes. ‘I think my young friend. That our journey is at an end’... Shrester said, looking over his shoulder at Pearl and Isobel. 'It's time for us to go home'.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
THE DUDRASSA SEA
The sky grew darker, and the four winds howled. The two moons blurred into shadow, as the rolling mists covered their glow. The raging sea that swirled below, battered the sky, and the snow fell in flakes the size of human fists.
The two winged creatures carried their passengers across the vast Dudrassa Sea. The depths of the dark ocean, swirled in thunderous torrents beneath them.
Shrester sat astride the red dragon, and Cora’s vast, webbed, scaly wings were buffeted by the howling gale.
The Roth swooped down behind them. Isobel held the creature's reins, whilst Pearl wrapped his arms around the young woman's waist.
Loose ropes attached both riders to the saddle. Knotted clumsily, they provided little support from the howling wind. The dark sky, however, had a secret to share with the travellers. A deadly secret, that menaced them from above. Fuelled by hate, and a desire for vengeance, Jaynus Weaver seated astride his reptilian mount, watched with cold, staring eyes as the two winged creatures passed below him. Hate had driven his mind to extremes. He would destroy Cora Pearl if he could. She was no longer a child, she was a curse, and even if it meant his own destruction, he would see her dead, in sacrifice of his own worthless life. Pulling on the reins of the winged serpent, Weaver descended rapidly through the mist. His only thoughts were of the child's destruction, for this night, he believed that she would die.
Cora did not see the creature swooping down from above, its icy jaws dripping with globules of frozen saliva. Weaver drew a sword from the saddle of the beast and raised it above his head. Shrester’s eyes were focused straight ahead. He was unaware of the danger approaching rapidly from behind him. The war mage felt a sharp pain in the shoulder, as Weaver's blade cut through the man's light battle armour. 'We're under attack!' ... Shrester screamed drawing his own blade from its scabbard. 'It's Weaver!‘..
The reptile and its rider flew over them, and pulling at the reins Weaver turned the long necked beast around to face its mortal enemy. The Roth remained impassive. Isobel held the beast back by almost strangling the creature with the leather straps fastened around its throat. Pearl dug his fingernails into Isobel's side. 'We have to help them!‘. He yelled 'You have to attack! ‘..
Isobel hesitated, and the Roth gasped for breath. The creature wanted to fly forward and help Cora, but it found its movement restricted by Isobel's vice like grip. 'Shrester can handle him!’... She retorted 'He's a better warrior than I am!'.
The snow continued to fall, and Cora and the reptile glared at each other through the mist. Shrester's shoulder ran with blood, and quickly froze on the icy wind, sealing the wound. Weaver pointed his blade towards the red dragon and once more surged forward into battle. Swords clashed as the two great beasts passed each other on either side.
Cora flapped her huge red wings and descended. She could feel the cold surf of the mountainous waves spraying against her scaly red belly, and the sounds of the sea roared in her ears. Pearl grabbed Isobel by the shoulder and squeezed as tightly as he could 'You have to help them, she is just a child'.
Isobel could see that Shrester was wounded, and that the man was struggling with his balance 'She's not just a child ... She's a dragon, she can fight him off ' .
Pearl dug his heels into the Roth's side, urging the beast to move, but Isobel would not loosen her grip on the creature's reins. Shrester's face contorted with pain, as the snow turned to rain and stung the man's face. 'Isobel!' He yelled 'You have to help us!'. But his words were lost on the wind, as the storm continued to rage about them.
Jaynus Weaver was closing in for the kill. He could see that Shrester was floundering in the saddle, and his chance to destroy the child was within his grasp. The huge reptile rammed its body into the red dragon's side. Cora spun through the air and a huge wave engulfed Shrester and the dragon, and dragged them down into the Dudrassa Sea. Weaver and his mount hovered over the ocean, and watched as the giant waves rolled back and forth. 'You should not have fought against me'. He said, sliding his sword back into the saddle. Weaver began to smile, for a brief moment the warlock enjoyed his triumph. Behind him he heard the flapping of mighty wings, and turning his head he saw the Roth flying aggressively towards him. Once more he tried to draw his sword, but Isobel slashed him across the chest, her blade cutting him virtually in half. The Warlock gasped and fell from the saddle, his lifeless body swept away by the monstrous waves. Isobel and Pearl hacked at the reptile and severed the creature's left wing, and it too tumbled into the ocean. Pearl looked down into the tumbling waves. He could see the red dragon and Shrester being buffeted by the tons of rolling water. 'Isobel!' Pearl shouted 'We have to rescue them!'...
Isobel could feel that the ropes around her legs were loose. ‘I can't!’ She screamed desperately 'We'll drown!'.
The Roth snorted angrily, and Isobel knew that she had no choice. 'God help us’. She whispered, slackening her fingers on the leather straps, and pushing the Roth down into the raging ocean, Isobel closed her eyes, as the ropes fell away from her feet. Diving beneath the waves the Roth could see Shrester rolling beneath the water and opening its jaws hooked its curved teeth into the dazed man’s armour. Surging upwards, the Roth burst through the water's surface and soared back into the air. The First book of the Guardians fell from the leather rucksack strapped to Shrester's back, and its white pages flapped against the wind, as it splashed into the water below. The ropes that bound Isobel to the saddle had snapped, and the outlaw was no longer seated in the saddle, the ocean had taken her to a watery grave.
Pearl gripped tightly to the Roth's back, and Shrester dangled helplessly in the creature's jaws. Straightening his back against the wind, Pearl gazed down into the dark sea. The red dragon, his beautiful, magical daughter had vanished. ‘Cora!’.. He screamed, tears forming in his eyes... 'Don' t leave me... Please don' t leave me!'...
Silence was not welcomed, and the light of his life had been extinguished.
Cora was lost... The red dragon floated beneath the waves, drifting on a currant of swirling bubbles. Her wings swinging against her body lifelessly as the vast ocean swept beneath them. In the darkest depths, a blue light emerged from the ripples of shadowy water, and inside that light, clutching the First book of the Guardians to his belly swam the glowing ethereal form of Hugo Drax. The blue mind spirit swept forward and enveloped the dragon. Slowly the creature began to shrink, as the mystical entity changed the dragon back into a little girl. She was sinking deeper now, and was saved from the endless abyss by the metal digits of Hugo's hand as he snatched her from her grim descent. The blue mind spirit engulfed both the child and the man, and in a ball of bright blue light they vanished from the dark Dudrassa Sea.
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
THE FINAL JOURNEY
Cora drifted in a restless sleep. Her eyes watered, and she dreamed that she was still falling. The child woke in her old bedroom, and the sheets beneath her were soaked with water. It was dark outside and silver moonlight streamed in through the open window. Seated next to her was the glowing spirit form of Hugo Drax. He sat quietly in the chair with the First book of the Guardians lying open upon his lap.
'What happened?' Cora asked, sitting up in bed and leaning her sodden back against the wall. ‘Am I dead?'
Hugo looked saddened, the big man's rainbow smile was not present on his face. ‘The child in you has died Cora, lost in the great ocean’.
'I don't understand'... Cora replied, brushing her long damp hair away from her face. ‘But I'm alive’.. She looked around the dimly lit room. 'I am alive and back in my room at Blackthorn manor'...
Hugo shook his head 'You died in Grimney, and as a child you can no longer return to that place’...
Tears welled in Cora's eyes and ran down her cheeks ‘That's not possible’... She whispered 'My mum and dad are there, I want to go back to them' ...
'No Cora' ... Hugo said solemnly 'You have been sent back by the mind spirits. 'You are to replace the book where you found it' ...
Cora looked horrified, and the tears dripped from her chin, but she was too dumbstruck to wipe them away. ‘But Grimney is my life ... That was my whole life... It can't just be taken away’...
Hugo placed the book upon the bed and stood up. 'Life always has a price to pay, ultimately, you have paid the ultimate price. You can never return to Grimney as a child. The world remains, and you will grow older’. The man began to fade away, and Cora could only watch helplessly as Hugo Drax drifted into a ball of blue light and floated out through the open window ...
Cora was alone, all she had was the book, and she lifted it to her chest and cried like a baby. Cora knew that she had to let go, and the old world must give way to the new, even though reality was cold and empty now, Cora had to accept her fate and move on. That night Cora crossed the field to the Great Oak and using a shovel she dug down to the roots, and solemnly placed the book inside. She sobbed heavily as she buried the book once more beneath the tree. It was painful burden to know that as a child she could never return to the home she had made her own, and that her parents, who she loved dearly were gone from her, and with a heavy heart, she turned and walked back to the manor. As a child in Grimney, she no longer existed, but perhaps, as an adult, there was just a slight chance that one day she could return to Grimney and be reunited with her family again...
© GavinPaulCarter 2011