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Francor, the creation of the Dark Children, is on the march with his army raised from the dead. His destination? The second crystal that Kaleb and Shen seek. It is hidden deep within the Forests of Koreen, a forest that feeds off of pure evil from the living, and the monster carries the only other thing that can release it. The race is on to retrieve the crystal to help prevent the raising of the Dark Children.
The monster marches on
The rumble of thousands of feet pounding the ground at a trot was the first indication of the trouble to come. Then a low knocking or clicking sound. Sounds unfamiliar to the quiet village of Rouche.
Their everyday sounds were of chickens and cows and farmers ploughing the surrounding fields. The sounds that were about to fill the villagers minds stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Lives that had little time left.
The dust cloud came ever closer until finally a vision of horror came in to view. A monster so vile that the first villager to see it vomited the breakfast he had just finished.
It stood three metres tall with a pale face and a hair lip that touched its nose revealing rotting teeth and a rasping sound every time it breathed in. The nose itself was pointy as were the ears and every inch of its face was scarred from cuts made by its own knife.
It was dressed in an armour of bones that had been blessed by the Dark Children themselves, for this creature was an instrument of the Dark Children.
Following close behind the ungodly vision was an army raised from the ground. Children of the dead with fleshless bones that knocked against each other in an orchestra of sound that was the precursor to the destruction of anything that got in their way.
Some carried shields and swords pillaged from former villages that now lay in dust. Some carried spears and hammers. Each weapon sported the same decoration. The blood of its last victim.
The horde ploughed through the village like a vampire thirsting for blood. No lives were spared. A small pack from the horde peeled off and ensured there were no survivors in the fields. This was a massacre for the fun of killing. For the motivation that drove Francor had twisted his mind.
The many centuries he had in his cave to plot the downfall of the Changelings had warped his already skewed perception of the world. Now the time had come to take his revenge he wanted anything in his path to feel the rage he had inside him. A rage that could only be tempered by the ending of the Changeling race.
As the knocking sound gradually faded into the distance the village was at peace again. A peace that could not be enjoyed by a living soul as the slaughter had been finite. Every man, woman, child and animal were left to rot on the ground.
‘What do you know of the Forests of Koreen, Shen? I have not heard of them before.’
Kaleb had given up his normal communication method with Shen as she could only communicate mentally, although she could understand when people spoke to her. As Kaleb was now only in her company he spoke to her through his mind.
‘Has the Staff not explained the nature of the forests to you?’
Kaleb looked at the Staff of Xandra tucked into the saddle of his horse. He was learning its intricacies slowly, but all information about where the remaining crystals were located were restricted to just that. No explanations of the areas in which they were held was forthcoming. It was as though the Staff had only that detail and nothing else.
‘The details of the forests and the other areas that hold the crystals are missing. I only have their locations and directions.’
Shen looked up at Kaleb from her walking position with a curious look on her face. Or what Kaleb read as curious from the years that he had known her. For Shen was a Changeling. One of a small group that had inhabited Trygor for as long as any creature could remember.
They could take any form and emotions were not part of their make-up. They were at one with nature around them. But Kaleb had lived among them since he was a kid. Spending most of his time with Shen, who had picked up subtle emotional looks, from the human, and implemented them, on occasions, to emphasise the moment when she felt the time was right.
‘I find that strange.’ Shen paused as she pondered the news. ‘I have not personally been to the Forests, but the collective mind gives me all the information as though I have been there first hand. Koreen is an area of great beauty, famed for its spectacular countrysides and mountains. The peace it imbues in anyone who visits there is something that has been treasured for centuries.
This peace has been allowed to cultivate because of the Forests of Koreen. The forests seem to have captured all the evil from the surrounding areas and locked it in to the very trees themselves. There are many dangers deep within the outer forest. Dangers that my own kind have never dared to tangle with and so we are limited in knowledge of this area.
The outer forest surrounds the inner forest, of which I have only hear-say of its make-up. The vilest of creatures to be found on Trygor are found here, or so it is said. Even the very earth that you step on is corrupted with the evil and can rise up in any form to devour its victim.’
‘As good a place as any to hide a crystal, I suppose,’ said Kaleb. ‘Why has such a place grown?’
Again, Shen looked over to Kaleb with a subtle look of confusion as if he had questioned something so fundamentally obvious.
‘Nature is nature. Its reasons are wide and varied and the way things are.’
Kaleb left it at that. He had learned many things from the Changelings in his time with them, but to understand nature the way they do would take him ten lifetimes.
In the distance Kaleb spotted signs of habitation close by.
‘Let’s make for that village ahead. The sun will be down in an hour or so. It will be good to sleep in a soft bed for a change.’
‘Very well,’ replied Shen.
The two made a slight change in their course and headed for the settlement.
As the two passed by the semi ploughed fields, Kaleb was filled with a sense of foreboding. He looked around him and spotted something in the middle of one of the fields.
‘Do you see that, Shen?’
Shen had the same feeling as Kaleb and had already spotted the same scene in two other fields. In her form as half human, half horse, she galloped in to the nearest field to investigate. When she returned she sent,
‘We must be on our guard. Something terrible has happened here. Let us get to the village quickly.’
Kaleb didn’t hesitate and kicked at the side of his horse and they both set off at a sprint.
The village had no defined boundaries. It was a sprawl of small dwellings arranged in no particular order. Single story high and made from mud and wood. Each dwelling was intact and complete as the day they were built. But the human carnage was brutal.
Mutilated corpses lay everywhere. Limbs were hacked off, eyes were gouged out, skin was flayed from bones and left hanging from its owners. Kaleb had never witnessed such a sight before.
He’d spent many years fighting the Skeggs and more recently Ogres and Ogrettes, but they never took the same pleasure in the killing as was on display in this village.
The two slowed to a walk as they picked their way through, hoping to find survivors, but deep down knowing there would be none.
‘Who could have done such a thing?’
Shen had stopped to examine some of the corpses.
‘It was neither the Skeggs nor the Ogres. Apart from the fact that these killings are crude, the cuts have not been made with sharpened blades, something the Skeggs and Ogres pride themselves on.’
As they continued they rounded a corner and almost bumped into a pack of scavenger dogs picking at some bodies. Kaleb chased them off, but they just moved on to a different part of the village.
‘Is this to do with the Dark Children? Have they already been released?’
‘They have not been released yet, but this kind of evil hasn’t been seen on Trygor since they were roaming the lands. It looks like there was an army here. I would say it is connected and it will be something that we must face and overcome to complete our journey.’
A chill ran down Kaleb’s spine.
‘How do we defeat an army?’
Shen looked at Kaleb with a blank expression.
‘We will be facing many obstacles on our path to reunite the crystals with the Staff. I am confident the Staff can show us the way, not only to the crystals, but also ways to overcome these obstacles.’
‘I’m sure you’re right, my friend. I just don’t see how after seeing what has happened here.’
‘Kaleb, do not falter in your belief in the Staff. It holds many powers that it has decided to share with you. That you don’t see those powers only means you have yet to merge fully with it.’
‘Then let us hope that I merge enough before we come across the evil that caused this devastation.’
‘This, I too, hope,’ sent Shen.
Deep in the Caves of Lorthorn the captured Changelings toiled. Scrapping away at the rock, getting ever closer to the Okrin. For the Ogres, they weren’t getting there fast enough.
The heat stifling the air in the caves wasn’t being generated by the Changelings or their Ogre slave masters. The stink of sweat and blood was coming from the human slaves milling around the feet of the Changelings, collecting the loose rocks from the ground and carrying them away from the worked area.
They were half the size of the Changelings and Ogres and were beaten with sticks by the Ogres to get them to work harder. Something that usually ended in death for about ten per cent of the human workers.
Above ground, at the caves entrance, Dango stood. The leader of the psychic assassins, an order amongst the Ogres that possessed psychic abilities that made them stand out from the rest of their kind. He was an imposing figure, dressed in the customary dark human skinned cloak with a deep hood. The hood covered the markings of a psychic assassin. No eyes.
Next to him the Shaman was relaying the latest on the location of the Okrin. His last communication with the Dark Children had sunken his Ogre features even more and the skin on his face was beginning to flake off. What colour he had in his skin had all but gone leaving a pallid complexion befitting a rock.
“The direction is still good, my Lord, but still there are many days before the Okrin is reached.”
“Have the Changelings deviated at any point in their excavation?”
“No. Their course has remained the same, but from what I understand from the Dark Children, its as though the Okrin moves as the Changelings get closer. They cannot tell if this is natural or a trick by the Changelings.”
Dango remained silent, deep in thought.
“Then we must find a way to determine which it is.”
A time of reflection
Kaleb didn’t get his night in a soft bed. They thought it best to camp outside the village, away from the ever increasing vultures that were descending on the sudden increase in food supply.
His night was restless. Not because of the creatures that were now taking refuge in the village, but because he felt a pressure on him that he hadn’t felt before. A questioning of his ability.
This had never crossed his mind before. Once he had Joined with the Staff he had accepted his responsibilities without question. Accepted the burden of preventing the Dark Children from escaping their prison. But seeing the brutality of the attack on the innocent and realising the enormity of his task and the forces that were out there to try and stop him, he began to waiver in his mind. Doubting he was the right person.
He tried repeating to himself what Shen had said to him in the Dragon’s cave. The Staff had chosen him and no one else. It was the Staff who truly believed that he was the one. But the realities that he had witnessed that day played on his conscience.
The two were on the road early the next day. Over the last week they had covered the open planes of the Trygor Expanse and were now coming up to a more rugged terrain. A thoroughfare had been paved through it known as the Northern Gateway to connect the Expanse with the more densely populated area of Heentar.
‘How long is the journey through here to Heentar?’ asked Kaleb as they passed by the three wrinkled old trees that marked the beginning of the Northern Gateway.
‘We have five days travel. The road is known for harbouring many thieves and murderers and we must be alert at all times.’
‘What brings them to this road?’
‘This is the main trade route to the Expanse and on to the larger kingdoms further north. There is no other way. The northern kingdoms rely on it.’
‘Why have they not set up forces to protect the travellers?’
‘There are three other races that use the thoroughfare and they refuse to allow the humans to deploy forces along the route. Instead, protection has to be paid for and they ride with the travellers.’
‘Then let us hope our party is too small for them to notice us.’
Baran kicked hard into his Rocksaur’s ribcage and the beast responded with a snarl and leapt forward to continue their chase of the human and the Changeling. He was closely followed by twenty four other Ogres and their growling Rocksaurs, one of whom, Paros, now rode just behind him.
Paros had the gift of the psychic assassins, but was a pariah amongst his own kind. Even when he first joined Baran’s party he was looked down upon. He was forced upon Baran by Langard as a guide. He could see through the eyes of a bird that was following the Staff. Now he had knowledge of directions to all of the crystals and Baran wanted to keep him close.
Their destination was the Portuse Caves deep in the heart of Trygor. Paros was able to determine the order in which the human and the Changeling were visiting the crystals. They were too far behind to get to the Forests of Koreen to set their trap, but once through the Northern Gateway they could get to the caves first.
No Ogre had travelled the Northern Gateway since the Ogre migration just over a century ago. A migration enforced by the Great War. A war between Ogres and Trolls that almost wiped out the Ogre hierarchy.
The migration had happened while Baran was a young Ogre and he remembered well the hardships he and his family went through. Revenge on the Trolls was infused into their culture from an early age and capturing the Staff and then raising the Dark Children was their best way of obtaining it.
Baran knew the dangers of travelling in Troll territory, but he had a well trained fighting team and they didn’t fear the path that lay ahead.
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