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The Staff of Xandra has been captured by the Ogres and the future of Trygor looks set to be dominated by the Dark Children. Shen calls on a familiar creature to help them, but ultimately their success depends on Kaleb’s connection to the Staff and his mental strength. Meanwhile, the Ogres are close to extracting the Okrin and time is running out for the group. If Kaleb fails to rise to the challenge, Trygor’s fate will be sealed.
Good news and not so good news
As the grey haired man sat looking out of the window he couldn’t help but feel the calm of the day. His courtyard garden was being tended by his gardeners and the serene way they went about their business was infectious.
He watched as the butterflies floated between the flowers interacting in a playful way. The scent was strong today. Jaleel would be rife with the sneezing fits today.
The brightly dressed large man caught his eye as he walked along the side path in the courtyard. A large orange hanky cupped to his mouth. His lover was coming and the way he was walking suggested to Mandrake that the news he brings was not going to be good.
In Jaleel’s haste he tripped over one of the gardeners tools. A ream of expletives fell from his mouth and Mandrake caught himself chuckling.
Mandrake turned to his guards at the door and dismissed them as Jaleel finally reached the summer room of the palatial building that he had acquired through a deal that had been one of the smoothest he had ever planned in his whole career.
“You really must discipline those gardeners of yours,” complained Jaleel as he replaced the guards at the open door. “They are untidy and a danger to everyone around them. I almost fell flat on my face because one of them doesn’t have the brains to keep his tools out of everyone’s way.”
The rant was slightly muffled by the hanky.
“My love, maybe if you didn’t have that bed sheet of a hanky rammed against your face then you’d be able to see where you were going.”
“But, Manny, you know I have the flower allergies. I must protect myself from the little mercenaries. Why you insist on keeping such a garden knowing my delicacies, I don’t know.”
“Because it calms me amongst my day to day business. Now, from your manner and short fuse I believe you bring me bad news.” Mandrakes took on an air of seriousness.
Jaleel walked over to the table, stuffed his hanky into the sleeve of his lime green shirt and poured them both a drink. Two glasses of the finest Heentar wine that was a gift from a business owner that relinquished his life recently. He handed one to Mandrake and took a sip from his own. Sitting himself down, crossed legged at Mandrake’s feet he began.
“It is good news and not so good news, lover. Our raiding party is assembled and they are ready to make the journey. Our scout has returned with news that Sabina and the man with the Staff are no longer in possession of it. We are told that an Ogre raiding party now has the Staff and are returning to the North, back to their settlement.”
Mandrake’s face dropped. This was an unexpected turn. What would have been a relatively easy raid was now turning into a possible mini war. But the Staff of Xandra was priceless and he had to have it.
“Summon Frenton. I think we will have need of his services. I fear the raiding party will not be enough against the Ogres. Frenton has the…attitude we need and he has a number of Skeggs in his unit that are more of a match for the Ogres. How long before they reach the Northern Gateway?”
“I am told they are four days away.”
Mandrake turned his attention to the garden again, contemplating.
“Arrange the meet for this afternoon. They will have an advantage if they can get to the foot of the mountains first.”
Jaleel finished his wine, gave Mandrake a kiss and returned his hanky to his face before heading back out into the courtyard. Mandrake watched as Jaleel clumsily walked by the gardeners cursing as he went. It brought a smile to his face.
It was the rustling that woke Kaleb. It wasn’t from a ferocious wind, but more a whisper that gained its voice from the movement of the leaves. The branches remained still as the parade of dancers flipped and twisted while attached.
Kaleb had awoken from a prolonged rest that had been enforced by the exertions put on him when he battled Francor’s skeleton army and the very trees in the Forests of Koreen. Now he felt it was all for nothing as the Ogres had captured the Staff. The one thing that gave them hope of preventing the rise of the Dark Children.
As the sweet smell of roasted GenGen fruit filled his nostrils he thanked mother Nature for small mercies. All the time he’d been in the Forests a smell of rotting vegetation followed him everywhere. It was something he had to mentally block out, but now that was masked he felt his mind relax even more.
Kaleb rose to see Grendal the Giant by the large fire and twenty of the fruits, some the size of his head, all skewered and laid just above the flame. His large frame blocked out half of the fire. Sabina was standing next to him.
Her dark skin glowed against the fire. She wore a sleeveless leather top and a leather skirt that stopped just above her knees. The strapping that held her footwear together were dangling on the floor. A result of the escape from the trees. His heart quickened slightly as he looked at her. Kaleb looked around, but couldn’t see Shen.
He got to his feet and stretched letting out a strained moan of satisfaction which made Sabina and Grendal turn.
“How are you feeling?” asked Sabina.
“Refreshed. Where’s Shen?”
“Gone for more food and strapping for Sabina’s shoes,” said Grendal. “Are you hungry.”
Kaleb nodded, adding, “And thirsty.”
“The fruit will be ready soon.” Sabina pulled a pot from a hot rock that sat in the fire. She poured out a dark liquid into a cup the size of a small bucket. “Try this. It’s Grendal’s own creation. Made from some of the plants around here.”
Kaleb had to pick up the cup with both hands. The liquid had a savoury smell to it and reminded him of the fields that his parents tended back home. His heart sank as the memories of his murdered parents came back to him. He fought back the tears by tipping the cup to his lips and gulping down the liquid. It was surprisingly refreshing. Only when the cup was empty did he lower it.
Noticing the edge of the forest for the first time he said,
“Is this your home, Grendal.”
“All of the forest is my home. I don’t like to stay in one place and when I’m out exploring I set up camp wherever I am when I’m ready to rest. The forest has everything I could ever need.”
Just then a rustling of the bushes signalled the arrival of Shen. She laid down the contents of her hands and handed Sabina the long strap replacements she had found. They were long thick strands that hung from the Bendee tree. When dried they formed a structure that mimicked leather, but with a higher strength, Shen had explained.
‘I feel your strength has returned,’ sent Shen. ‘You are ready to continue our quest?’
‘What can we do now?’ questioned Kaleb. ’The Ogres have too much of a head start on us. They will be back at their settlement before we can catch them and then we will have failed. As you have said, our numbers are too small to take on a whole settlement.’
‘Their distance is not a problem. I have made arrangements. What will be an issue is how we engage them. Sabina is a brave and skilful warrior, but even with her help our attempts at retrieving the Staff will fail.’
“I would like to help,” said Grendal. “I cannot sit back and allow the Dark Children to rise again without fighting to prevent it.”
Shen turned to Grendal. She had returned to her human form after foraging as a forest creature more suited to the terrain. She had little facial features and those that she had revealed no emotions.
‘We would be honoured to have one such as yourself fighting alongside us and it would certainly increase our chances of success a hundred fold, but the transport I have arranged would not be able to carry you the distance we have to travel.’ Shen turned back to Kaleb. ‘We require guile and a focus of your mind to Join with the Staff at a precise moment. When you have eaten and are fully nourished and your thirst quenched, I have devised a session to help you focus that mind. I must now go and prepare.’
Shen headed out towards the edge of the forest and the open plains beyond. Kaleb turned to Sabina.
“What transport has she arranged?” he asked.
Sabina and Grendal both shrugged their shoulders.
“All of the stories I have heard since I was a young girl tell of Changelings being able to fly,” said Sabina.
Kaleb shook his head.
“I’ve lived with them most of my life and I have never seen them fly.”
“How about magic?” said Grendal.
Again Kaleb shook his head.
“Changelings have no need of magic.”
Kaleb pondered the situation as he sat down with his two new friends to a sweet meal.
By the time they had finished it was mid afternoon and the breeze had picked up a little. The cloud cover had thickened overhead through the light canopy and the dark grey colour threatened rain.
Grendal had settled down for a nap beside the fire while Sabina had found a small clearing and was practising her fighting manoeuvres with her sword. Kaleb was mesmerised by the movement, not only of the sword, but of her entire body. It reminded him of the gracefulness that Shen displayed when she fought.
‘Are you ready to practice your focus, Kaleb?’
The interruption made Kaleb jump and he felt like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t have.
He followed Shen to the edge of the forest and out to the openness beyond. It was covered with ankle length moss-type plants interspersed with taller grasses. The mountain range they had travelled at the foot of could be seen in the far distance.
Shen led Kaleb to a GenGen fruit that lay on the ground nestled in amongst a clump of tall grass.
‘This will be your target. Focus on it now and lift it into your hands.’
Simple, thought Kaleb and preceded to lift the fruit into his hands.
‘OK. Now I want you to walk past the fruit and pick it up without stopping.’
Again, Kaleb thought this a simple task and stepped back a few paces and then moved forward, collecting the fruit as he did. It almost fell from his grasp, but he held it firmly and walked round and back to Shen.
‘Now run past and do the same. Remember to focus.’
‘What are these games that you have got me doing? I can pick up fruit all day long.’
‘But can you do it at speed?’
As if to prove a point Kaleb jogged back a few metres and then turned and ran towards the fruit. As he passed it he lifted it from the ground. This time the grip was weak and the fruit fell from his grasp and rolled amongst the plants coming to a rest almost immediately. Kaleb looked sheepish at first which turned to annoyance.
‘Let me try again. I wasn’t fully prepared.’
‘You will only get one chance at connecting to the Staff and lifting it away from the Ogres. You must always be prepared.’
Kaleb nodded and returned to his starting position. This time his focus was absolute. He sprinted towards the fruit and zeroed in on it with pinpoint accuracy, concentrating on keeping it held firm. It stayed in the air, held by his mind.
He returned to Shen with a smile on his face.
‘I want you to do it twenty times.’
Kaleb’s smile disappeared and a seriousness creased his features.
He completed the tasks successfully and after a short rest Shen got him to do the same thing from the back of one of the horses She had called back.
The speed had increased and with it the difficulty in keeping the pinpoint focus. So much so that Kaleb dropped the fruit the first four times he tried. It wasn’t until the eleventh go that he started to consistently keep hold of the fruit.
On and on Shen pushed Kaleb. Each time changing the difficulty. From picking the fruit from the floor to picking it from Shen’s grip and then picking it from her grip while she was moving. Until the final test was to pick it from Shen’s grip while she was moving and still holding on to it. Kaleb tried to wrestle it from her.
He failed at the first ten attempts.
‘You must prepare for a fight to control the Staff. If you manage to Join with it while on the move there is a good chance the Ogre carrying it will fight to keep it. You must hang on with all your mental strength.’
‘But how will we get to the Ogres, Shen? They are two days away from us now. Our horses cannot make up that time before the Ogres have returned to their home.’
Shen stood motionless for a while as though listening out for something.
‘Our transport will be with us in the next two hours. Now, try again.’
The motionless response did nothing to ease Kaleb’s mental tiredness and he told Shen he needed a break.
The break turned into a three hour nap and when he woke the sun was almost down.
Through the trees he could make out a giant shape, larger than Grendal, moving from side to side. Next to it Shen, Sabina and Grendal stood as though in conversation with it. Kaleb got up and made his way towards them, rubbing his eyes. As he got closer he gradually made out the shape. It was the Dragon from the cave of the first crystal.
‘Kaleb. I can feel you have fully rested. Just in time to continue your tasks and with the transport we are to use. Meet Landorg. He has graciously agreed to fly us to our destination.’
‘My reservations still stand, human. But Shen has agreed to help me and my kind with the Ogrette problem we have. Besides, I couldn’t live with myself if I failed to help restrain the Dark Children when it was in my power to do so.’
‘Shall we begin,’ sent Shen.
Kaleb just stood there open-mouthed.
An army is hired
Frenton was a surly character. He towered over almost everyone he met. Gangly, but a body hardened from many battles for the city of Heentar, he was clean shaven with short, cropped hair that was jet black. His skin was permanently tanned, a consequence of being outdoors most of the time.
He wore a dark all in one dress suit. An unusual site for the leader of the Heentar army, known for attending weddings and funerals in his battle dress. But meetings with Mandrake, and there had been many, was a distinct occasion that Frenton wanted to keep separate from his army career.
He sat with an upright manor that had him at eye level with Jaleel who was standing. A glass of wine in his hand he was listening to Mandrakes proposition. These propositions were not only profitable to himself, but they offered essential combat training for his army, which, hadn’t seen any kind of battle in over three years. There was only so much you could do in training.
“…so the fact that you have Skeggs amongst your number gives you a better chance of succeeding.”
Frenton looked at Mandrake. He didn’t despise the old man. After all it took a lot of work to get to where he was today. Him and his little man friend. But there was an underlying distrust that he was always wary of. A distrust that kept him on his toes and sharp and another reason he didn’t mind doing business with Mandrake.
“Is it a standard Ogre raiding party?” he asked.
“Of course. Do they travel any other way?”
Frenton nodded slowly.
“I will need at least double the number of that raiding party.” He thought for a moment. “Three times my normal price.”
Jaleel almost spat his mouthful of wine out at the demand.
Mandrake held his hand up and Jaleel immediately fell silent.
“If you bring me two Ogre heads back for me to display at the front gate I will pay you three times your normal fee. If not I will pay twice your usual fee.”
Frenton stared into Mandrakes eyes. Even though he was past his peak and cavorted with his male lover in public, he was not a weak man. There were many contacts he had that could make life difficult for Frenton. Something that was always at the back of his mind when dealing with the trade master.
“For three times my usual I could bring you all of the Ogres heads.”
“That won’t be necessary. Two will be enough. Then we have a deal?” he said raising his glass.
“We have a deal,” said Frenton doing the same.
They both took a sip.
“You are more of a tactician than I, but The Ogres are four days away which gives you plenty of time to get to the foot of the mountains to set up your attack.”
“You belittle your tactics, Mandrake. That is exactly my thoughts. We will be ready by sunset and travel by night. There are many places to base our attack from. The sooner we get there the better advantage we will have.”
“Then I wish you a speedy journey and a successful raid.”
The sound of thunder preceded their arrival. Birds scattered from the trees. Reptiles and mammals alike darted for cover before the clawed hooves of the Rocksaurs reached them. There was a new scent around and it was the scent of fear.
Baran headed the Ogre raiding party. They had been riding hard, as is standard of all Ogre raiding parties. The Rocksaurs were renowned for their stamina and to anyone foolish enough to get close to them, their ferocity. But Ogres thrived on taming anything wild. Not that the Rocksaurs being ridden were tame, but the Ogres aggression more than matched the Rocksaurs ferociousness and it was the latter that eventually backed down.
Although Baran was annoyed he and his party had fled from a battle, he was pleased that he finally had the Staff of Xandra. All throughout the chase for the Staff, and now the returning journey, his mind was full of visions of the psychic assassins at his feet, pleading for mercy. Especially Dango. Oh Dango! How you will pay for all of the humiliating times you put me through. You will know pain like you have never known before.
They had been riding without a stop since high sun and it was now getting close to the edge of the horizon. Their trail took them close to the edge of a light wood with the river that ran all the way to Heentar running through it which would provide a perfect hunting ground for the Rocksaurs. If nothing else they would have fish for their meal.
Baran began to slow the pace and kept an eye out for a suitable place to pitch camp. They travelled for another fifteen minutes before he was happy and they stopped and removed the saddles and harnesses from their rides. As soon as they were free from their shackles, the Rocksaurs lifted their teeth ridden snouts into the air and chorused a blood curdling roar to signify the beginning of the hunt. They leapt into action and disappeared into the wood.
Baran placed the Staff next to his saddle. It’s sight gave him no pleasure as a lover of art would have, but what it was capable of did. He thought he could feel its power with every touch he made. Sometimes he even thought it was touching his mind, but that kind of thinking led to madness.
“Steron, take four Ogres and bring us back our meal for the night. I want to be eating in one hour.”
Steron acknowledged the order and quickly picked four Ogres to go with him.
Baran caught sight of Paros settling down next to his saddle. The outcast psychic assassin was always an outsider in his group, forced upon him by Langard, but he had done his job and led them to the Staff quicker than they would have otherwise. But it was he who set the fleeing from battle in motion and it gnawed on Baran’s soul.
He walked up to him and stood over him glaring into his dark hood where he thought his eyes would have been.
“If word of our retreat from the fight with the humans, Changeling and Giant gets out I will find you and peal back your grey skin while you are still alive while letting my rocksaur chew on your feet.”
Paros made no outward signs of being afraid and simply replied,
“I have no intention of belittling your raiders.”
Baran snarled and shouted out to no one in particular,
“Get a fire going!”