Loading...
Menu

Monsters Within

Monsters Within

A Hakabanks Story

By Jennie Ann Arnold

 

Copyright 2017 Jennie Ann Arnold. Distributed by Shakespir.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

About Hakabanks

(From the Library of Valtor)

Have you ever heard of Hakabanks? There was a time when every living creature would have answered, “yes” to this question. However, when I ask people this question today, most people answer “no”. A long time ago you couldn’t go a day without seeing one. They roamed the forests and hills, mountains and the orchards. There was no way to hide from or escape them. But that is not a fair thing to say: Few people tried to hide from or escape them. Most humans were given warning when a Hakabank is near.

It is hard to miss a Hakabank. When you see one, even if you’ve never seen one before, you know that you are looking at a Hakabank. Hakabanks are covered in brown hair. The thick brown fur even grows in their ears and noses. They have claws that are good for grabbing and bend and curl like fingers. Hakabanks are giants compared to humans. They are in between seven to eight feet tall with stumpy legs, solid and thick, but no feet. Their ears are shaped like a bears’, which enables them to hear the faintest sound. These creatures also have immense strength. Unfortunately, Hakabanks use their strength to cause trouble. Because Hakabanks are taller and stronger than most men, humans are afraid and try to stay away from them. That’s why warnings are given. Yet, Hakabanks love mastiff and go out of their way to make trouble for humans. They know the humans’ fear and enjoy causing trouble in human settlements to not only frighten humans but also to take booty and treasures of all kinds. For they are greedy beasts.

 

Chapter1: Attacks

Close your eyes and imagine a lush hillside full of life and safety. Nestled on the north side of a small hill sits a gleaming castle of white stone. The castle stands 120 quarterhands high, dwarfing the small wooden houses around it. There are green hills all around and a small forest in the south. Yet, the castle stands by itself while the wooden homes are grouped together in farm settlement. The hillside is speckled with bright red tomatoes and deep purple grapes. This village is called Vator and in the gleaming castle sits the king who is not as gleaming or bright as the walls of the castle.

The king is saddened, angered, and confused.  Men and women in plain cloths came to him from the farming towns to tell the king that their fields are plentiful but that no produce is coming from them because Hakabanks are burning them down. The creatures started burning neighboring kingdoms’ crops but when farmers of Vator came to help they too were attacked. The king knew that he could not allow this to continue. The creatures would come to Vator if nothing was done. Who would remain loyal to the king if all the villagers were slaughtered? So, the king decided to do something…

He called all of his knights, saying to them: “Sir Victor, Sir Samuel, Sir John, Sir Emit, Sir Dorson, Sir Adam, Sir Bradley, Sir William, Sir Timothy, and Sir Elliot, you have all served the kingdom well. I have chosen you for this mission because you are my bravest and most loyal men. Hakabanks are destroying the city and killing our people. This has been going on long enough. I need you and my guide to find every Hakabank hole and destroy it. If you fail the kingdom will fall. These creatures have declared war on us.” The king stopped and looked each man in the eye to make sure his message was sinking in.

“As a reminder to these horrible creatures I am ordering you to bring me their treasure. A valuable stone they call ‘the heart of the sky’ is locked away in one of their holes. It is a stone, blacker than the darkest night that is cut into the shape of a heart.” The king gave a humorless laugh and explained. “The black heart is supposed to match that of their merciless leader, Ax. Take that stone and the Hakabanks will never forget what happens when they attack Valtor!”

“I know this mission will be dangerous but in time of need you must take drastic measures. No matter what the end brings you will always be Valtor’s heroes. You have risked your lives for her and her people countless times. Are you prepared to do so again?”

The knights stared at their king in shock. Being a knight and pledging to protect a kingdom was one thing. Anyone could say the words but acting on those words were different. No knight ever dreamed that he would be asked to attack numerous creatures that were stronger and a foot taller than they were. Odds were obviously in the creatures’ favor…but who said no to the king? Refusing the great king would land the offender a beheading of sure but fighting a large creature still left a chance at not only survival but glory as well.

In unison the men answered, “We accept the call”. The king gave a pleased smile and began to tell the men of their guide: “The only way to find all of the Hakabank holes is to ask a Hakabank. They know where every hole is by instinct. Of course none of them will just come out and tell you the location. We can’t capture one and make him tell. Still, we have a secret weapon that the enemy does not know about.” The king’s smile grew as a Hakabank in forest-green pants came into the throne room. The knights instinctively drew their swords, ready to defend their king. Yet, the king said to them, “Put your swords away. Can you not see that this is your guide? His name is Failbin. He was brought to the castle when he was a baby. My best professors taught him the ways and history of man. He is loyal to Valtor and has therefore agreed to guide you. He is now as human as you or me.”

Victor’s face was dark red when he spoke to the king, his words filled with rage and regret: “Your Majesty, he is one of the enemies.” At these words, Failbin walked slowly out of the room and back to his own quarters. Victor spoke all the more freely now that Failbin has left. “Why would he not lead us into an ambush?”

Samuel jumped in to defend Victor’s argument. He wanted to make sure the king knew that he didn’t trust Hakabanks and Failbin was no exception. “I see no reason to trust a creature that has turned on his own people.”   

The king said that he wanted to hear the men’s opinions but he was not prepared to be questioned so! He did not approve of his men questioning his orders. He bellowed: “I chose Failbin and I trust him. I am king. My word is final. My approval should be enough for you.” All ten of the knights looked down in shame. They knew that they could not argue.

“I apologize, Sire,” said Victor slowly. “I cannot say that I trust the guide but I know I can trust your judgment.” Victor paused and looked at the other knights. “If you trust the guide that I know that I can also trust him.”

The king smiled at hearing Victor’s response. Loyalty like Victor’s was hard to find. It was a rare trait that must be rewarded. “Victor, you have shown the enormous quality of your character. I am glad I can expect such loyalty from a veteran of your merit… You are now captain of the knights.” The king smiled at Victor as all the other knights frowned. All nine of them were thinking the same thing: Failbin was coming with them.

The next morning all the knights, Failbin, and the king went to address the people:

“People of Valtor, our kingdom have been surrounded by violence from attacking Hakabanks. The creatures attack our neighbors and when we come to their aid we too are attacked. I have tried to make peace with the creatures but none of my attempts have worked. I refuse to stand by while the kingdom suffers. Ten of our best knights and a guide will destroy every Hakabank hole.” The crowd cheered and waved their hands in the air.

The king turned and whispered to the knights. “The treasure you are searching for must remain a secret. The creatures will move it if they find out we are trying to steal it.” The knights nodded and descended the steps down the hill to begin their journey.

Failbin led them into the forest at the far side of the kingdom. The men waked in silence through the woods. Their eyes scanned each bush and tree, looking for a pair of eyes each man felt was watching him. No intruder or spy could be found.

At sundown camp was made and the knights’ distrust of Failbin grew, as the sky got darker. “Victor,” John whispered. “Should we not post a guard to make sure the creature does not call his friends to murder us in our sleep?”

Samuel nodded and turned to Victor for confirmation but Victor remembered the king’s words and said, “We do not need to fear our own guide. If he wanted to harm us he would have done so already… But being in the enemy’s territory does require a watch.

“I can take the first watch,” said John eagerly. Victor looked at Failbin and then to John.

“If anything happens wake us all. If the enemy does attack we will need all the power we have to beat them off.” Victor ordered.

With this fearsome thought trapped in their heads everyone but John lay down and slept. After about five hours John began to nod off until something rustled in the bushes and woke him!

Chapter 2: John’s Death

The side of the bush moved and rustled on the wind-less night. John walked towards the bush making as little noise as possible in his shaking boots. A tall shadow immerged from the bushes and walked up to John. John opened his mouth to yell but a large hand covered it before he could make a sound. John panicked and began to struggle but quickly stopped with a surge of relief he realized that the hand had no claws or fur. The hand could not belong to a Hakabank.

“You’re one of the knights the king sent out of Vator, are you not?” Asked a deep voice from the tall figure. John nodded his head, trying to be as cooperative as possible. He didn’t want to be killed by this towering form of a man.

“Ax, king of the Hakabanks, shows mercy to those who deserve it,” said a second shorter figure immerging from the bushes.

The tall man removed his hand from John’s mouth. “What do you want with me?” John whispered with a trembling in his voice.

Both shadow figures had their eyes fixed on John. They were testing him and measuring him in their minds. They both blinked twice as if they had silently made up their minds. The Decision had been made.

The tall one turned to John and said, “In the nearest hole there will be guards waiting for you. Make sure that your friends go in. For your loyalty we will give you your life. If one man is missing you shall have the same fate as your company.” A paragraph of warnings and threats passed between John and the shadow men as they stared at each other. The tall and short figures disappeared into blackness. John would have believed that the men were nothing more than a dream had it not been for the tingling feeling the shadow’s hand left on his face and the small bush needles still clinging to his boots.

Samuel, William and Timothy all woke well before dawn. The three of them sat in a small huddle and whispered to each other like pre-teen girls sharing the secret of their first crush.

“One of us just needs to walk next to him. That way, when the traitorous magician itches his nose as a signal we will see it first,” whispered Timothy.

“No, no!” Exclaimed William. “The creatures could use anything to signal each other. Besides, he could lead us right to them.”

“We cannot take chances,” agreed Samuel. “He wouldn’t be helping us unless he has something to gain himself. The creature will make sudden moves. We cannot wait for his actions to prove he is guilty. The fact that he exists shows that he is trying to trick us.”

A clawed hand gripped Samuel’s shoulder. William nearly screamed until the Hakabank spoke. “We had better get going. It is nearly sun-rise.”

The knights rolled up their equipment and turned to follow Failbin. “I would walk carefully. There are creatures trying to trick and mislead us,” Failbin turned to Samuel and warned, “Not all these creatures are Hakabanks.” Samuel blushed and followed Failbin silently.

There was a day’s walk before the knights, burdened with equipment, and their guide would make it to the first hole. During the whole long walk John’s thoughts raced from one terrible possibility to the next. Would the creatures kill John out of spite even if all of the men did go into the hole? What if one of the knights did somehow escape? Could the shadow men be spies from Vator to see who was loyal to the king? Thoughts went through John’s head like lightning: each quicker and more terribly freighting than the one before. John became so uncertain that he prayed they would never reach the hole just so he wouldn’t have to make a decision when the other knights stopped and Failbin said, “This is it.” Pride and excitement shone brightly in his eyes and was magnified by the pink light of sunset. Still, John could only frown.

The hole was in site.

Chapter 3: Escape!

The group slowly edged towards the first hole. John could not quiet his pounding heart. “How can I make sure they all go in?” He asked himself again and again as the seconds ticked by. “We have to go in quickly,” John blurted.

“There is no need to hurry,” said Victor thoughtfully. “Speed will have to be used in our mission but I don’t want to focus only on speed. We have to stay together. A separated knight is a lost knight.” Victor remembered the words of his old commander feeling the weight of his new position for the first time. “I will go in first. Samuel, I want you to follow me with your sword drawn. Failbin, use your good hearing. If you hear clashing swords, muffled screams, or anything suspicious signal the others by placing your hand to your ear. You must hide in the bushes and wait for us. You will be too conspicuous in a hole.” Failbin nodded and walked into the bushes.

Victor walked into the darkness of the hole slowly. The half-moon seemed to give off a light brighter than that of the sun as it clung to the top of Victor’s helmet while he descended into the hole. Samuel drew his blade and, despite the pounding of his heart, followed Victor into the hole. Failbin never heard the clank of clashing blades or even a muffled scream. The only noise Failbin’s bear ears could detect escaping the hole was a steady thump-thump. This noise didn’t tell him anything was wrong but it also revealed that something was not normal. He quickly moved his hand up to his ear to signal the remaining knights. John saw the signal and began to panic. Failbin couldn’t give him away! A smile crept onto John’s face. None of the knights really trust the hakabank. This would be easier than he had originally thought.

John turned to William and pointed to Failbin. “Look! That filthy Hakabank is trying to trick us! I haven’t heard a sound come from that hole. The treasure must be inside.” William didn’t really see the logic in what John was saying but he agreed that Failbin, and all Hakabanks for that matter, could not be trusted.

“We can just acorn him,” Timothy agreed. “I’ll go in.” All the knights continued to walk into the hole one by one. After each man went in Failbin held his breath, listening for the slightest sound that could be a clue to the men’s whereabouts. Still, the only sound he could make out was the same thumb-thumb as before. The plan seemed so good and so solid. The small group of men trusted in each other’s bravery and talents. They had all seen battle before and knew what to do. Failbin was another matter. He was not only new and inexperienced and scared. The tutors and teachers at the palace told him great tales of heroes but Failbin knew that he could never be like them. He was alone and confused. He knew that he needed to help the men but what could he do? Different scenarios from the stories he had been told went through his head. He played with them and tried to make one fit into his situation but each event made the fate of the men seem worse. Still, what could be worse than being trapped inside of a Hakabank hole?

Failbin knew that Victor was the captain and that he had said to wait but Failbin couldn’t just sit there if the men were in trouble. Failbin wasn’t sure what the thump-thump sound meant but he was sure that it wasn’t anything good. A bad feeling grew in the pit of his stomached as he thought of the men. So, after Emit, the last man went into the hole and the thump-thump sounded and was silenced, Failbin took a deep breath. He removed his green slacks and folded them neatly folded the pants to place them next to the bush. He boldly walked into the deep darkness of the hole. Failbin tried to look confident and act like he belonged here in the darkness but unfortunately the confidence was only for show. His eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness yet he still walked forward. He bumped into a muscular Hakabank in gold armor who yelled, “Watch it!” Failbin mumbled his apologies and quickly regretted doing so. For as soon as the words left Failbin’s mouth the guard turned around.

“What were you doing up there on the surface, Wretch?” The guard asked as the muscular Hakabank blocked Failbin’s way.

“I just wanted to see the knights,” he answered looking down.

“You don’t need to go up to the surface to see them! They’ll be publicly executed in two days for the water festival.” Failbin tried to look calm and fought to keep his eyes down lest he give away his identity. He just wanted to run back to Vator but he knew that running now would not help the men… He would need to free them himself. Failbin had no idea how complicated freeing the knights would be.

Hakabanks ambushed all ten of the men with leather wrapped around their swords so that the men would not hear a sound. The men were quickly bond and blindfolded upon entering the tunnel. Thick rags were tied tightly around the men’s mouths.

“Put them each into a different cage,” ordered the tall guard. “We don’t want any of them knowing where the other is.” Nine of the men were taken away and led down winding halls. John was alone with the creatures.

Clawed hands gripped John’s arms tightly and said, “Ax is ready to see you,” in an almost inaudibly deep voice. The clawed hand led a blindfolded John roughly through halls and right passed Failbin, who was cleaning uniforms as punishment for disobeying orders and going to the surface. Failbin stared at John as he passed by. He looked for the other knights but none came. Failbin was about to follow behind John when the muscular Hakabank turned the corner.

“Done with those uniforms yet?” Failbin shook his head while the guard sneered. “I’ll just stand here and keep you company until you finish.” Failbin’s hopes sunk. So much for following John – those plans were done with.

The deep-voiced Hakabank pushing John stopped suddenly. He took the blindfold off him and untied the ropes. The Hakabank left the room and shut the door, leaving John alone with Ax. John was paralyzed with fear at the realization of this thought. He was alone with the most powerful and deadly Hakabank on the planet. Yet, John’s fear was quenched out after Ax uttered one sentence. “You have done well. The knights have been lead in just as we had planned.”

“I have another treat for you,” John told the Hakabank. “There is a Hakabank, a traitor to his kind, guiding us. We left him hiding in the bushes by to entrance to this hole.” Ax was delighted to hear this news but before he could express his happiness a knock sounded on the door. “Sire,” said the deep voice, “the knights have escaped.”

Yes, Failbin found a way to free the knights. It was simple really… The guards had already mistaken Failbin as a student, so he played the part. “Sir,” he said to a Hakabank in bright gold armor, “I was hoping that I could see one of the knights before they were executed. My sister dared me to look into a live one’s eyes for five minutes without blinking. I can’t let a girl beat me in a dare you see…” Failbin ended lamely but the guard understood. He too had a sister and knew how annoying their taunts could be.

As soon as the guard reached the cells, Failbin knocked him out. Luckily the majority of the guards were preparing for the water festival and not bothering themselves with weak men who couldn’t get out of their cages anyway. No one was really paying attention to the men so Failbin opened the cell door slowly so that no one could hear the creak of rusty metal and be suspicious. “Sir Bradley!” Exclaimed Failbin excitedly. “Where are the others?”

“I don’t know. They separated us to prevent escape.”

“Bradley is that you? Failbin?” The two of them turned to face the voice. “Dorson,” said Failbin recognizing the voice. “Where are you?”

“Here!” Bradley and Failbin saw two hands wave about six cells down. Through this method six knights were found.

“We should split up to find the others,” declared William.

“No,” Samuel broke in sternly. “Victor is the captain and he told us to stay together.”

“One Hakabank took John down this hall,” said Failbin, pointing the other way. Samuel shrugged and followed Failbin down the hall. A muffled whisper cried out the names of the knights as they walked past. In a room far to the right were another three knights. Victor, Adam, and Timothy sat huddled together in a tiny cell. Failbin and the knights fumbled with the lock to let them out. After the door was finally opened the party of ten turned down the hall looking for John only to find Ax himself staring right at them.

Failbin did the only thing he could think to do. He turned and ran. He didn’t really know where he was going at first but the only goal he had at the moment was to get away from Ax. The knights run down the tunnels after Failbin. They raced down the corridors knowing that the opening was near. Even the dull senses of the humans could feel the coolness of the night air and the moist breath the wind gave off after the rain. Freedom was so close. They could literally taste the gloriousness of it. Just round one more corner and up one more hill to Hakabanks, the men knew that they were close to the opening. They could feel the coolness of the night air and the moist breath after the rain. Freedom was so close they could taste it. All they had to do was round one corner and climb up one tunnel and freedom would be theirs’! The open fields called as the group ran faster and faster.

In all the rush and excitement for freedom, the knights did not notice that the shrill chants and hackling laughter that sounded evil and cruel have stopped. Suddenly silence fell and became so deep that a thunderbolt could not have pierced it. The Hakabank’s trap had snapped on the men and Failbin. The men were easily pined still and tided to the ground. John had somehow joined the knights in the rush and now sat on the ground with his comrades. His wrists were tied and wore a new bruise and a face full of hate. All eyes – belonging to both Men and Hakabanks – follow Ax as he paced the floor.

The group fallen straight into the trap. Ax had smiled… his plan had worked perfectly. Well, almost perfectly: Failbin was a problem. Not because of his Hakabankian strength or even because of the things the tutors and professors had taught him in Vator or all that he had learned. The problem was simply that Failbin was a Hakabank and the Law stated that Hakabanks must honor other Hakabanks. The Law said that the Labyrinth must test all Hakabanks charged with an offense and the cards must judge them. As much power has Ax had, he knew that the Law had more. The cards were the judges, not Ax. He cringed in anger just thinking about a pointless object stealing his glory.

Ax’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother wrote the Law down. Centuries before her, Hakabanks were following the Law in their own -- each reign having a different version. She wrote the Law to unify all of the Hakabanks holes. Now, the entire underground world followed one Law. It was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Every Hakabank respected and abided by the Law because if someone disobeyed they would be sent to the Pit. No one wanted to go there.

Out of fear the entire Hakabank community fallowed the Law. Well, almost the entire Hakabank community. Ax always hated the Law. He swore that Granny wrote it just to annoy him. She just wanted to control the Hakabanks. Ax knew that he could not compete with the Law. Every Hakabank followed it full-heartedly. He had to submit to the Law.

When the crowd saw Failbin they screamed that the Law must be fallowed and that the Heart must test him. Ax knew that he had to follow Granny’s Law once more:

“The Law says that every Hakabank must be tried by the Heart. This humanized Hakabank will too be tried,” bellowed Ax to the crowd.

Turning to Failbin and the men he continued: “You know nothing of the rules. To make it more interesting, I will allow you to choose one member of your group to fight me.”

The ten travelers talked in a whisper but every Hakabank in the whole could hear their conversation. They came to a conclusion rather quickly: Ax was right. None of them knew the rules. Their best chance was to let Failbin play. He may have Hakabank instincts about the game.

“Failbin it is!” yelled the soldiers excitedly. “Let the humanized Hakabank play.”

“I will make it simple for your small human minds!” Yelled Ax. “All you have to do is draw a Beast Card that is stronger than the one I do twice. You can combine one Beast with one Will Card to make it stronger. All you have to do is beat me twice but be careful. I hide cards in the Labyrinth Board to make it more interesting.”

So, it began:

 

Chapter 4: The Game

A tray with three different decks of the cards was placed before Ax. “Oh, no. Let the humanized Hakabank choose first,” Ax said quickly with a motion of his clawed hand. When Ax saw the confused look on Failbin’s face he explained farther.

“There are different kinds of decks. There are Knowing Decks, Hidden Decks, and…” Ax paused with a look of disgust on his face: “Seeing Decks. Some are stronger than others. Choose.”

Failbin looked to the men for help. They seemed to be talking though their eyes without words. Finally, Victor turned to Failbin and whispered, “The one to the right”. Failbin fallowed Victor’s instructions. Ax picked up the deck in the middle and the game started.

Both Failbin and Ax stood on small hills that were just tall enough to see into a maze. The narrow walls of the labyrinth maze were wide enough for nothing but one of the cards to fit between them. Both Failbin and Ax were supposed to move their pieces to the center of the board where an “x” marked the finish line. The decks of cards Failbin and Ax had chosen sat in front of them on the hills. Ax grinned slightly as he put his cards into play. He laid three cards on the Labyrinth Board face down. It was Failbin’s turn now. He couldn’t think of anything to do. He barely understood the game! He just drew five cards, as Ax had done, and looked at them.

These cards were unlike anything Failbin had seen. They had ornate pictures on every card and each one was different than the other. One of the cards Failbin drew had a dragon with twelve heads. The next card had a fountain with gold water falling onto grapes. The third had a bright sun standing over a large castle. He knew that the three of these were Beast Cards because a small wolf silhouette sat in the corner. The next two cards were Will Cards. They both had a tendril of smoke in the corner. The first Will Card had a long twisting road. The second had a blue snake on the edge of a cliff. The pictures were so realistic. They each seemed to jump out of every card. The things that really confused and frightened Failbin were the words at the bottom of the cards. They seemed to be written in a different language. He was sure that the Hakabanks were laying a trap of some kind. Should he even play?

What kind of question was that? He had to play. What else could he do? Failbin knew that the others were relying on him. He had to do something to help them and there was nothing else to do. So, he laid down two cards. One Beast Card with 1000 points and the picture of the fountain (the highest card out of the five in his hand) and the road Will Card. It added 200 points to the Beast Card. That made 1200 points in all. Ax would have to beat all those points!

Unfortunately, Ax did. He flipped his cards up and reviled three pictured cards. The cards’ pictures illuminated an overwhelming feeling. They almost felt alive…like they could think and feel themselves. The cards in his deck looked and felt dark and cruel. Everyone in the hole could feel the hate seeping out of those cards. Each picture on the cards portrayed death and fire. One Beast Card had a rotting corps on the front. It looked powerful but Failbin would have never guessed that it had over 1500 points on its’ own. With the added points from the skull Will Cards the total came out at 2200 points. Ax was able to move 100 spaces on the Labyrinth Board. Failbin was blown away as he physically felt the loss. A force from the game itself sent his head spinning. Ax saw the surprise in Failbin’s eyes and grinned. Seeing Failbin’s pain made the win even better in Ax’s mind. Ax moved a piece closer to the center of the Labyrinth. He was in a heavy lead on Failbin.

How could anyone beat Ax? He and his cards were so strong. Failbin thought about quitting. This was just too scary but then he remembered the men behind him. Ax enjoyed causing pain and would inflict it on the knights and all the people in Vator if he had the chance. Failbin couldn’t let that happen. He had to keep going. Failbin drew another card, hoping that it would be a strong one.

This card was powerful. The Beast Card had 2500 points and a picture of a burning book by a chest in the sky. He was about to lay the card on the board when he noticed something: the words on the bottom of the card started to look like Vatorian letters. He was about to examine it closer but the letters went back to their original squiggles instantly. Eyes must be playing tricks. He put the card on the Labyrinth Board and Ax did the same.

The cards were shown. Failbin’s heart skipped a beat. Ax’s cruel, dark cards added up to 2600 but Failbin’s added up to 2700. He had won the round! Failbin moved 100 spaces on the Labyrinth Board. The game was now tied and Failbin prayed to keep winning.

Ax’s face went red from anger as he pulled out more cards and went first. He slammed down two more cards on the board and gestured to Failbin. The small Hakabank drew one Will Card. Failbin put this new Will Card with the Castle Beast Card to total to 2600 points. He was about to put them down when he noticed something strange: The cards were Vatorian again!

What was making it do that? The light or the slant or… THE EYES! Failbin knew it then: He was looking through the cards not at them. Failbin saw double and the “letters” began to blend and formed words.

The words were written in an old fashioned way of speaking. Most people in Vator would have been confused but the king’s best tutors taught Failbin the old tongue long ago. It said:

2 Cor 5 7-8

Walk in hope and do not relay on sight.

Sight can frighten a man but

Hope gives courage.

His tutors’ words came flooding back. A man who taught long ago was a prince who lived as a poor carpenter. He was really the True King’s son but He came to Earth to die for everyone. Failbin never understood what his teachers meant and he still wasn’t completely sure. There was still more to the story that he did not know. The words of the True King were on the cards and Failbin wanted to read each and every one of the cards. All he knew was that the True King was helping him. That was all he needed to know. The story of the True King was written on these cards and they would guide Failbin and save Vator and the knights.

He put the card down with peace and without worry. It didn’t matter how many points the cards he put down had. The True King was with him. He showed Ax the cards and Ax’s face paled through the fur. Failbin’s cards had 2600 points and his had 2300 points. Failbin breathed out a sigh of relief with the air he didn’t know he was holding. He had won freedom for himself and the rest of the men… or he thought he had.

 

Chapter 5: The Real Fight

“You have won your freedom, little Hakabank,” Ax told Failbin with venom in his voice, “but the men are still our enemies. Only a fool lets his enemies escape alive,” Ax paused only to pull out his sword and then continued. “So, I will have to make sure no enemies end up coming back to my hole alive!” A fight ensued: The Hakabanks had the obvious advantage… They had weapons and an advantage in numbers. The men did all they could to stay alive: They grabbed at rocks and sticks – anything they could use as a weapon. Failbin ran to the equipment room where he had been polishing armor. He had seen a storage bin full of knives, javelins, and swords. He knew that the men were without weapons and they couldn’t survive long in that condition. The first priority was to get supplies to the men. They needed weapons as soon as possible. Luckily Failbin is a Hakabank and he has Hakabankian strength. He could easily carry ten heavy broad swords and a few knives to boot to the men in the other corridor. Failbin ran as fast as he could – which was remarkably fast for a creature with such short legs! He had made it to the men in as little as a minute. Yet, the Hakabanks were already winning. The men each fought a small group of Hakabanks separately and the creatures were already backing them up into corners where it would be impossible to maneuver even the smallest weapon.

Failbin hurriedly ran through the crowd and handed broad swords to each man. Failbin handed the last two swords to John and knew that he had made it to the men while they could still maneuver a sword in their individual corners. John gripped the sword with both hands and ran towards Ax. Rage filled John’s eyes and heart. He heard Ax’s menacing laughter as the gigantic clawed fist punched John in the jaw. “Your friends won’t suspect a thing,” Ax had said as his commanding voice assented into a shrill staccato. John had felt the hate boil in him then. And now he let all that pain and emotion out. He raised the sword over his head and swung at anything and anyone that got between himself and Ax. Hakabanks fell left and right. He hacked and stabbed at nothing at times in his blind rage. John didn’t bother to turn his daze away from Ax when he heard a bellowed howl and a yell from the hole’s entrance, “In the sky!” Wind burst into the hole and blotted out the faint light. Hakabanks ran deep into the long hole, scrambling for darkness and shelter from the breeze.

The knights looked up to where Failbin was pointing. The sky was full of winged creatures. With wingspans up to sixteen feet and bodies as hard as stone and the color of blood, these monsters were terrifying. The entire party looked up in awe. They moved closer to the entrance as Hakabanks ran past them deeper into the hole.

“They almost look like humans…”John mumbled next to Failbin as they all stared out the hole. And he was right – the creatures’ bodies did resemble that of a man: they had two arms and two legs and one head. The biggest difference in the silhouette was the addition of wings. Yet, the difference seemed huge because the wings were the creatures’ most prominent feature even compared to their stony bodies.

The creatures’ wings beat strong winds that the humans had to fight against just to stay on their two feet. Failbin though, seemed to be having the hardest time adjusting to the wind the wings had brought. He used the finger-like claws to grip the earth beneath him just to keep himself from flying through the air and blowing away. Half the creatures swarmed around the group while the other half dived deeper into the hole. Samuel drew his sword and the others were about the follow suite when Victor shouted, “No!” above the roaring wind.

“They are fighting the Hakabanks. They are on our side.” The men saw the logic in Victor’s words and sheathed their swords and waited. It seemed like hours had passed under the great windstorm. The men stood silently waiting while Failbin did the best he could to hang on. Relief washed over all of them as the creatures landed and the wind stopped… That relief was short-lived.

The creature’s wind had moved them. Winged creatures and tall houses now surrounded the small party of eleven. There was nothing familiar in sight. The buildings and houses rose taller than the trees and came to a point at the tallest section of the layered roof where small feathers clung to sap and honey. Eight or ten houses sat on a row and grouped around a pole like a patch of flowers circles around a tree. Behind the houses was nothing but open fields. There were no woods in sight. “Where are we?” John wondered out loud.

“Welcome to the city of the Neggless. It is our city and we protect it,” said a gravelly voice from above them. “We attacked the hole thinking to find panicked Hakabanks and instead we find you.” Everyone stared… who and what were these things? The Neggless that flew directly above them was slightly stronger than the others. His wings seemed to have an extra layer or two of feathers making the wind from them all the more powerful. The stronger wings and outspoken manner of the Neggless made Victor believe that the one addressing them was the leader.

“We apologize if we have caused trouble, but we were also attacking that hole,” said Victor, hoping to find a common ground with the new creatures and maybe even finding a new ally.

The creature’s stony face smiled. “Do men not fear Hakabanks? Your race has never been brave enough to attack. You run whenever something stronger comes up. Why are things changing now?”

Victor tried to keep a calm expression on his face but inside his blood was boiling. “Hakabanks threatened our kind before and even stole from us but they never hurt us. Recently Hakabanks have raided homes and killed their inhabitants… Inaction was not an option. We had to do something. We had to fight them to save our home.”

“Men are braver than I had first thought,” said the winged creature slowly. The men relaxed knowing that the creature was no longer hostile or insulting. The words acted like a salve on fresh wounds. The burning sting of the old words seemed to be soothed with the cool touch of the new. “We have the same enemy, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The stony leader seemed to be considering a thousand and two thoughts in his baldhead. “Please come and rest here for the night,” the Neggless finally said with slow words and careful choices.

“That is a good offer and I am sorry we cannot accept but we still have much more to do. Our quest is to destroy every Hakabank hole not just one,” Victor explained with the same careful tone the Neggless used.

“Your kind is certainly ambitious… Please stay the night. My army is tired and needs rest. In the morning, we will bring you back to the woods where your quest can be finished.”

“Why do you attack the Hakabanks?” asked John. “Have they killed your villagers?”

“They have done a worse thing than that. The Hakabanks have stolen our most prized possession: the only real treasure we had.”

The men exchanged looks. These creatures valued something even more than their own lives? What could be so precious? The creature went on to explain, “The monsters stole more than just material things. They stole our city’s very soul!” The Neggless’s eyes filled with tears and he stopped for a moment to regain his composure. “They stole knowledge from the very heart of the city,” his voice cracked and could no longer continue.

“They stole books?” Victor asked trying to help the Neggless.

“Not just any books. They stole the book that taught our ancestors how to make inks and paper in their purist forms.” Images passed through the Neggless’s head as he spoke. He saw pages and books full of images that were so detailed they seemed to move and breath. The words soared off the pages and into the very hearts of the citizens of the city. He was broken out of his thoughts by the men softly clearing their throats. “Then, the monsters used our incredible knowledge to create more cards for their selfish game. They practically waste thousands of years of study. We would have shared the knowledge with them if they had asked. Then we would have used the knowledge for its true purpose while the monsters still made cards and built up their game. All they had to do was ask but they didn’t even do that. They just took!”

The Neggless let out a slow breath to calm himself. “Our children will never learn the traditions of our ancestors if our knowledge is not restored to us. I cannot let our children and children’s children live in ignorance! So, our army attacks the Hakabank holes and will continue to do so until the knowledge is returned to us. One day we will hold what is ours again.” The words pored out of the stony mouth with a hiss of the seriousness and severity of his promise. Failbin was amazed at the determination in the leader’s words and the emotion of his voice while men stood on the edge of something similar to shock.

Victor nodded his head in understanding, having children of his own. John also nodded though he had no idea why. The stone creature’s words were confusing to him. He had never married or had children and those events can change a person’s thinking greatly. Once any living creature becomes a parent, one thing rules their lives: children. Each generation wants the other to have things that they couldn’t get and to learn from the previous generations’ mistakes. To those parents knowledge of the past is useful because it helps their children. It can keep one generation from falling into the same traps the previous one did. The information could buy and save the lives of thousands. History and knowledge can really be valuable. Information can save a life and has as much value as the lives it saves.

Failbin pondered all this while the Neggless flew them back into the heart of the woods. He could feel the next hole calling him and it strangely felt comforting. He still was not used to the dark or the strangling coldness but the voice of the hole was cooing him with a relaxing freeing melody. The next hole would be a new story and a new adventure, like a new beginning for them all. Failbin remembered the card game and the words that had told him the truth. That is what the Hakabanks had stolen. The cards were part of the Neggless’ history… The cards were the information that was stolen! The men had asked how he won the card game and Failbin would tell them how the words at the bottom of the card guided him. The knights only shook their heads in disbelief and walked away deeper into the woods but Failbin knew the truth – the cards really were guiding him.

 

Chapter 6: Trackers

The loyal Vatorians were back on their mission. The woods were like home now. The Neggless city seemed weird and strange but the woods could almost be a village in Vator. That tall pine could be the butcher’s shop and the spruce in the back could be farmer Gibbon’s place. It felt good to be back in their element! The heroes could lay back and breathe easy. The men knew where they were, where they were going and what they were doing again. It seemed like ages sense they had so much certainty. They had just started to relax when Victor told them some bad news.

“We started this mission a short time ago with the element of surprise,” Victor stated with a serious frown on his face. “This weapon was one of the few we had and now, it is gone.” Victor let out a sigh of irritation before continuing with the second part of his plan. “We all need to be more careful and keep all the advantages we can. Our country and king are depending on us to steal the Heart of the Sky. In order to do this, we must hide and strike unseen like ambushes. We shall travel at night using the darkness as a cloak to seem invisible.”

No one could really argue because no one knew of a more logical plan. Victor knew what he was saying and knew how great of an advantage surprise could be in warfare. Everyone tried to rest in a cornfield near to the hole but sleep seemed to drift just out of their reach. The knights had been in the Hakabank’s prison and did not sleep at all during the time they were in the jail. Even though each of them was exhausted, sleep seemed to elude everyone. The wheels of their minds turned endlessly, making sleep impossible. Although each of the men had a hard time sleeping, no one had a harder time than Failbin.

The small Hakabank laded on the ground as his mind replayed the game over and over again. Failbin drifted in and out of that sleep-like state in between exhaustion and comas. The verse written on the card would appear in his head and he would feel amazed and delighted but then, it would ignite in red flames. A voice in Failbin’s mind told him it was just a card but his very heart would cry out in anguish when the voice even whispered this saddening thought. The heart knows the truth in all things and the pumping mussel could not be quiet because it knew that the cards were something more than mere pieces of paper. The words had guided him as he felt them pull at him even now as he tried to sleep. How could something so powerful be just a card? It was like magic with a power stronger than what was merely looked at in the face.

The Neggless had said that the cards were a silly waste of the knowledge the Hakabanks had acquired. The leader made it sound like the cards were nothing but a waste of the inks and papers but Failbin knew that the cards held valuable knowledge that came from the True King himself. Still, Failbin did not know what the true purpose of the knowledge or the cards really was. Everything concerning the cards seemed to be surrounded in mystery. The uncertainty of even the simplest things seemed to be magnified during this journey. Failbin was certain about nothing in life but it seemed like this was the first time any of the confusing things mattered to Failbin. What tutors and royalty had taught him had little value or use in the wilderness. Failbin’s mind reeled at the uncertainty his life the lives of every one in Vator now possessed. Still, he smiled when he remembered the certainty he felt while he was reading the cards. It was the only time he had no doubt. Even when the tutors drilled an idea into Failbin’s head the idea never felt certain. Certainty gave Failbin a feeling beyond comfort and there was no other feeling like it. The cards had a drive to them because the words were certain and Failbin was anxious to feel that drive again. He smiled, just remembering it all but then something happened.

Failbin was forced away from memory lane by the sound of a stick braking. He got up and crept towards the noise. He had to go deep into the cornfield before he could see the source of the noise. Two cloaked figures were following them.

“What have you gotten?” Asked the first one in a black cloak.

“Nothing new yet here but Ax lost them because of the Law.” The cloaked figure’s face was covered but and no emotion showed in the void where the face should be. “He’s not too happy about that.” The figure’s emotions came through in the pinched aggression that came through in his voice.

“Then you better have good news for him,” retorted the first quickly.

“They’re far from the treasure. We’ve got time,” answered the second.

“Make sure you do. You know what happens if you don’t,” hissed the figure in a sly voice.

“I just need some more information.” With the Second’s last remark the two parted. The First went towards the hole the men had just escaped. The Second headed back towards the men’s camp. Failbin followed after and mauled him from behind. Then, after memorizing every mineute detail, ran to tell Victor all that he had heard and seen.

“There are two spies following us,” he panted.

“I knew Ax would send someone but I didn’t know it would be so soon,” said Samuel with worry in his brown eyes.

“We aren’t sure Ax is the one who sent them. Vator is a great kingdom with many enemies.” Victor turned to Failbin and asked, “How long have they been following?”

“I’m not sure. They acted like they just fond out about the card game with Ax.”

“Give your best guess… You must have suspected something before you went out to look.” Emit’s face looked panicked but his voice remained calm. He just wanted to hear that the spies had not been follow sense the first day of their journey. He just wanted to know that Vator did have the advantage and that these spies were not his own countrymen. “What did they look like?” Finished Emit steadily.

Victor led Failbin away from the group and asked quietly, “Were they human or creature?”

“I think they were human.” Failbin paused for a moment, trying to remember every picture in its own frame. Had he seen even a glimpse of pale skin or a patch of fur? “They wore long black cloaks. I think saw hands and arms but I couldn’t see their feet or faces… They were not over six feet tall and I don’t think that they were Hakabanks.” Again Failbin paused trying to remember the lessons the tutors had given him on monsters from distant lands. “The spies could be Neggless or Monitors or Sheomats… there is no telling what those spies are. They could really be anything.”

Failbin looked at Victor as they both let out long sighs. “This isn’t good,” said Victor with slow measure in a voice that spoke so quietly that he himself could hardly hear it. These cloaked spies had to be more then spies… Victor felt dread rise from the pit of his gut to the top of his throat. These were not spies or soldiers. They were Trackers and Trackers were not normal scouting parties. Trackers were like assassins who were hired not to kill. Assassins would kill a man and be done with the thing quickly and almost humanly. Trackers made the thing keep going. There never seemed to be an end. A Tracker could disappear into the night without leaving a trace of evidence or just make a simple potion to cause a man to sleep for a whole month. The target would be a lot less trouble to capture and move then. Such things very rarely happened of course. With Trackers, it was usually worse than a mere potion.

Victor remembered his first encounter with the Trackers. It was years ago when Vator was helping the small village of Amnus get read of some troublemakers. The conflict ended up being more complicated than any of the soldiers could have known. The troublemakers were really princes across the sea. They had runaway from home to enjoy themselves with thievery. If the boys were caught they would have reveled their identities and gotten off with little more than a lecture. Their marvelous plan seemed foolproof but they forgot about one important thing: their father’s anger. Their father must have been very mad with them to send Trackers instead of palace guards after them. Trackers were merciless because they had no ruler. The guards would have treated the boys kindly knowing that one day the oldest would be king. Trackers had no such scruples. The boys made it home to their father welcoming his punishment. Even the punishment of an angry father was more merciful and just than the punishment of the trackers. It was sad really for such a thing to happen to young boys. Neither of them was sane enough to be king now! No one really knows what the Trackers did to them and the unknown end seemed even more terrifying than the countless stories Victor had heard about the Trackers’ tactics. He shivered just thinking about it… No one could bare such a thing alone.

Luckily, the group had each other and Victor tried to sooth away the men’s fear with that thought. The Tracker could not get them all at once. They would look out for one another and attack as a team. Every man was hand chosen by the king. Taking responsibility for a team member’s life was nothing new to them. Battle called for such responsibilities several times and every knight on the team had been battle tested. Each member could all be trusted. Victor knew that everyone on the quest had to know about the Trackers but he regretted telling them about it just the same. Each one of these men was his friend. Even Failbin had become a close companion to them all. Sure, John has been acting a little suspicious but Failbin and the others knew that the king trusted the man. There must be good in him. Still, many great men throughout history have had both bad and good in them. John must also have both just as Victor and Failbin did. For this reason, Failbin would watch him closely. Just in case.

That night the group moved with greater speed than before. Everyone was in a hurry. The fact that Trackers were among them gave a new energy and urgency to the group. The party walked from the cornfield they had rested at to a small valley in front of a deep forest they would enter the next night. The hills rose and fell with the gentle gale that blew through the corn. The thoughts of the men seemed to be taking the same road as well. Tensions seemed to be at an ever-ascending cascade of the feeling.

Suspicions became a vast mixture of anger and fear that could be manipulated only by the Trackers and those in their making. Trackers were said to have an alley at every turn but an enemy behind everyone…Victor knew that he could not take too many chances and had two people stand watch in the mornings from that night on. Victor was about to choose two men for that night’s watch when John volunteered. The words he uttered were the closest he had come to a conversation sense the capture. They wanted to include John so Emit agreed to go with him. The others went to bed and the dawn came.

The morning was warm and quiet. The bugs softly buzzed a lullaby as the crickets chirped in the early light. Emit was quickly asleep. He snored loudly next to John when a heavy hand fell on John’s shoulder. “I bring a message from Ax,” the voice said. “He is not happy that you tricked him and let the knights get away but he is willing to give you a second chance. Just answer all of my questions.” A cruel smile formed on the Tracker’s lips. His gaping black mouth opened in a rhythmic motion as he asked, “Why do you want the Heart of the Sky?”

“The king wants us to get it as a warning to all Hakabanks so that they know to leave the cities of man to Man.” John was tired and didn’t have the will or patience to describe a patriotic pull he did not fully understand. He had seen Victor and Samuel when the king asked them to make this quest for him and could see that they really were willing to risk their lives for Vator. John went on the quest for a totally different reason: He knew that saying no to a king would end badly for him. The king would behead him for sure but he might survive the quest. All the best knights were with him so there was a good chance he could survive.

“How does the king even know about the stone?” Pressed the Tracker with frustration in his voice as it crescendo into a hiss of anger. “Does he have informers among the Hakabanks?”

“How should I know? Besides you have not been completely honest with me. This situation is becoming more complicated,” retorted John rather indignantly.

“You better find out if you want to keep your second chance!” said the Tracker a little too loudly. Emit began to stir. The Trackers fled soundlessly into the trees. John looked toward camp and thought, I’ll ask Victor. He is a captain and the king shares many strategies with him. He will know.

 

Chapter 7: Silence

Emit woke and looked at John groggily. “I shouldn’t have been sleeping.” He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Victor will be upset when he sees that I wasn’t alert.”

John saw the worry in his eyes and quickly said, “I won’t tell him you fell asleep. He doesn’t need to know.”

Emit smiled for an instant and then squinted his blue eyes at John. “Why didn’t you wake me, John?” He asked with suspicion in his voice.

“I would have if I heard anything. The Trackers said that they wouldn’t do anything without information.”

Emit shook his head in confusion. “We shouldn’t talk at all. That secret is the only thing standing between the Trackers and us. One wrong word could give it away.” Emit’s eyes moved back and forth suspiciously as he spoke. He wasn’t about to give away the secret.

“That’s true. We need to watch what we say but not talking is too extreme. Victor gives us orders with words,” John said anxiously. He needed to ask Victor about the king. This was his last chance. Still if the Trackers got the answer from another source John would no longer be needed. There was no telling what the Trackers would do with him then. “Words can give us information if we ask the right questions.” John desperately needed to speak with Victor.

“Maybe you’re right. With Trackers following us, and mad Hakabanks on our tail, we’re going to need all the help we can get. Talking with villagers will give us information we can use against the Hakabanks.”

When the sun went down and the moon rose, the group woke and began to back up and set out. “Did anything happen during the watch?” Victor asked Emit.

“Nothing happened when I watched but I fell asleep for part of it.”

Victor’s face changed from one of curious interest to one of alarm. He knew that Emit was getting older and was no longer in the prime of his soldier days. He had fallen asleep more than once but someone had always been there to wake him. “You didn’t wake him up?” Victor yelled looking at John.

“I would have waked him if something happened.” John looked down trying to avert his eyes from Victor so that his true fears were not found.

“What if you didn’t have the chance? These are Trackers. They could have easily killed all of us! Because of your lack of discipline, they could have snuck into the camp and killed us in our sleep.” Victor’s face began to return to its’ original pale color as he spoke and the red of his cheeks began to fade.

“Anything could happen,” said Samuel, trying to use rational to calm Victor and help John. “Luckily, nothing did and we are all alive and well. All of us are still in the service of our king and ready to serve. Nothing has been ruined but the kingdom is still in danger. We need to hurry and go! Every second spent arguing is a second wasted.”

The party followed Samuel’s advice and walked forward and into the woods. The forest was thick and close. Still, it held a familiar terrain for the men. Even Failbin was glad to be out of the shallow cornfields and exposed open valleys. The mood of everyone seemed to be brighter but Victor and John would still occasionally send heated glances to one another. Luckily the arguing never came up again. The two men just looked at each other with those penetrating eyes. Not a sound could be heard in the dense forest: no birds singing, not wind rustling the leaves. Only the shuffled footsteps of the men could be heard. Then, it occurred to Failbin:

“Listen!” He yelled to the men behind him. They all stopped and squinted their eyes as if trying to see something far away rather than trying to hear a faint sound.

“I don’t hear anything,” admitted Victor in a confused voice. The other knights nodded in agreement with their captain.

“That’s the point,” Failbin explained and motioned to the trees with his stump-like arms. “We are in the middle of the woods. We should hear all the animals chirping and insects buzzing. I see the branches move with the wind but I cannot hear the branches rustle. I can’t hear a sound – not even a crumbling leaf or snapping twig.”

“You’re right. Something strange is going on here.”— No one could speak to agree with Victor as an odd smell filled the air with a delicious aroma. It was a citrus with a sweet and fruity mix accompanied by the tang of something unknown. John opened his mouth. His lips moved to comment on the odor but no sound could be heard. Before anyone could move an inch or even bat an eye each of the men fell to the ground in a faint with a soft thud. Surprisingly, Failbin remained on his feet. Whatever had affected the men had not bothered him.

Failbin was still in shock as he stared in confusion. He too had smelled the citrus and walked through the woods but did not faint or even feel dizzy. He kneeled down closer to his companions. They were motionless on the ground where they had landed so suddenly. Failbin believed that the men were only sleeping but he wanted to make sure that they were not in truth seriously hurt. He assumed that the citrus smell was the reason for the sudden collapse but there were many other factors at play. He had to rule out all the other possibilities before jumping to conclusions and blaming the phenomenon on the citrus. Failbin could not see any blood but that didn’t mean they weren’t bleeding. He inspected each limp and organ to make sure that nothing inside of the men was hurt or bruised. As he did this, a rustle came from the trees.

A cloaked figure stepped out into the forest where Failbin stood. The figure was tall with broad shoulders under a cloak that was blacker than the new moon. For a minute, they both stared at each other. Failbin’s eyes nearly dove into the middle of the empty blackness of the shroud. Failbin could feel the cloaked figure staring at him and weighing him in a test but Failbin struggled to find the eyes of his adversary. Humans say that eyes lead down into the very soul and Failbin knew that even if this figure did have eyes, he would never have a soul. The thing in this cloak was capable of anything. Failbin waited and waited for anything to happen. He half expected to fall to the ground like the men but still he waited. After what felt like an eternity to Failbin, the figure finally spoke:

“Do not worry about your friends. They will wake up in a day or two.”

“Who are you?” Failbin asked with more courage than he felt.

The figure laughed in loud billows that shook not only his massive shoulders but also the whole forest. The laugh was full of glee but that happiness seemed to be a shield and cover for the worse type of mocking. “You do not know?” He asked whipping away a joyous tear of happiness as the blackness of the cloak began to seep into the woods and beyond. “Why, I am the Tracker.”

The dark figure said it simply and acted as if his profession was his identity or that the concept of a name was foreign to him. Failbin shuddered as he came to the realization that the Tracker didn’t ask who he was because he all ready knew. The mysterious shadow figure knew everything about Failbin and the knights. He knew more than Failbin even expected to know himself. “I hear you beat Ax…a commendable victory. Your strategy must be complex and winning.” The figure’s teeth showed through the darkness of the black hood but it quickly vanished as he yelled, “Don’t get cocky, boy. Your wins were luck and never count on luck twice. You won’t win again when you play against me. The next hole will show you no mercy.”

“You almost sound like you care about us. Why would you do that?”

“You and these knights are my job. If I let you die, my money is gone.”

A light came to Failbin’s eyes. The Heart of the Sky was there in the hole! Why else would the Tracker reveal himself and his objective? Failbin itched as he continued to feel the pull of the hole as a near presence.

“Still I thank you for the sentiment and care,” Failbin said cautiously.

“Come with me,” demanded another Tracker from out of nowhere. Failbin unsheathed his sword with startling accuracy. The small Hakabank looked like an experienced fighter with strength not to be reckoned with in battle. Unfortunately, the image the quick move drew was far from the truth. Though Failbin drew the rusty blade quickly he was not in a hurry to use it. The only time Failbin had actually fought using the blade was in the palace courtyard and that was only against trained teachers. He knew nothing of battle and was unsure if he wanted to become acquainted with it but Failbin had little choice. A world of uncertainty was closing in around Failbin and nothing seemed sure but there was one thing he knew for certain: He wasn’t going anywhere.

The second tracker drew his sword and walked towards Failbin. He had a determined look in his eyes. Failbin looked right back. Their swords were about to meet when the other Tracker moved his sword to intersect his comrade’s blade. They each pointed a sword at the other threatening to strike but neither daring to do so. For a while both Trackers argued with each other until finally the first one said, “Don’t do anything rash. We need them alive.” The first Tracker seemed to be the leader and his words seemed to have more weight. The second figure sheathed his sword and both Trackers began walking closer to Failbin. Failbin backed up deeper into the woods but he knew that soon he would have nowhere to go. Failbin stopped moving at a brush patch where he could see the men, knowing that he could not leave them with the Trackers. There was no telling what their enemies would do with the knights once they had them.

Trackers had their own set of rules. Nothing would be off-limits for them as long as the job was not sacrificed. The rules that Trackers lived by were not strict or harsh but no tracker could go against the rules without forfeiting his life and work. “It’s the boy and me,” demanded the second Tracker in a deep voice as he silently challenged the first Tracker with his eyes. The first Tracker nodded and the decks were brought into the woods. The Tracker chose first and grabbed the one on the right. When the tray was brought to Failbin he refused to pick up a deck. “I don’t know what you are planning but I’m not playing your game,” he said with more boldness than he felt. Why would the Tracker just want to play? Was he following some kind of ancient tradition or a code or a distraction? There must be some trick to what he was planning…

“Than you will have to be knocked out while we carry your friends away,” said the first Tracker with a malicious smile. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the torment of others. Failbin felt defeated as his heart sank and simply chose the same deck on the right, hoping that the True King would guide him again. A new battle had begun and Failbin prayed that more than luck was on his side because he knew he would need it.

 

Chapter 8: The Right

Both of them drew five cards with the flick of their wrists. It was Failbin’s turn to go first. He looked through the cards to read the words. It was hard to force his eyes not to focus but he tried with all his might. Hakabank eyes were naturally sharper than humans’ so it took more time for Failbin’s eyes to focus than it would have taken any man. He could sense that the Trackers were getting impatient waiting for him to make a move but he continued to unfocused his eyes because knew he had been able to accomplish the task before when he had played against Ax. Finally after what seemed like hours, Failbin was ready to read the cards and begin his own turn in the game.

The first Beast Card had a picture of a blue sphere surrounded by a swirling red back round. A small silhouette of a lion sat in the bottom left corner. It said:

J3 16:

The True King loves his people

He gives them the gifts

Of Life and Love Forever

For trusting in him.

It was a strong card and it had 2000 points. The next three cards were Will Cards. All together the three of them added up to 1000 points. One card had 500 points and a picture of a pure white unicorn jumping over the red sun. The next had 300 points and a picture of a winding staircase that traveled up into the darkness of the ceiling. The last card had 200 points with a picture of the sun shining through an icy glacier.

Failbin didn’t want to use all of his Will Cards on the first round with such a powerful Beast Card. Especially when he knew he would need all of those Will Cards later. Still, he needed to win two rounds to get the game and wanted a sure win. So, to make the game more even and hopefully take the Tracker by surprise, Failbin added the 500 point Will Card to the 2000-point Beast Card.

The Tracker put down three of his cards quickly. He looked perfectly calm while sweat ran down Failbin’s fur. They both flipped their cards over in a fast motion as if in a race. Failbin sighed with relief as he spied the Tracker’s cards. He had won the game: 2500 points to 1500 points. The Tracker looked at Failbin in shock as the piece on the Labyrinth Board moved one hundred spaces towards the center. Then, his eyes got hard as he and Failbin drew the next cards.

The cloaked eyes barely looked at the cards in his gloved hand. The Tracker just stared at Failbin. The cold black eyes never moved from Failbin’s face. The Tracker’s fingers on the other hand were in continuous motion. The fingers attached to the dark man’s hand were as thick as fat sausages but their size did not stop them from drumming on the table in rhythm. The fingers seemed steady and skilled even though they were large. With a quick, fat hand the tracker placed two cards in the Labyrinth with a sly grin.

Failbin drew his card and looked at the most beautiful picture he had ever seen. The center of the magnificent card had a golden city floating in the sky drawn with startling detail. Failbin could make out each subtle crack and every burning candle in the windows of lingering image. The flames were highlighted by the darkening sky but this sky was not the traditional picture of a cloudless blue background or a full moon glowing in the purple of the night. It was as dark a blue as midnight with galaxies and worlds turning and dancing within. Failbin could not even dream of being that far into space but he imagined that the deepest debts of space would be as glorious as that… The words hidden in this Beast Card must be full of hope, thought Failbin. He strained his eyes and looked:

Gal1 4:

He gave Himself to right our wrongs

And rescued us from evil.

These words told Failbin that this was the card he needed without even looking at the points. Still, not all the answers to the questions in Failbin’s head were given in the short verse. Who was the he the verse spoke of? Failbin pushed all the thoughts and questions from his mind and put all of his cards down. Both the Hakabank and the Tracker flipped their cards to reveal the points. The Tracker’s cards had a high number of points. Failbin felt his stomach tighten with fear as he did the quick math in his head. The tracker had 3500 points! Failbin looked down at his own cards and was relieved as he smiled and looked down. He saw that his cards added up to 4300 points. This battle was over and Failbin had won.

A loud crash came from where the men still lay. Failbin ran to the forest glade with his sword drawn but all he found in the valley were the men. He turned to the right just to make sure no one was behind him. All he found in that place behind the men was darkness and night. Twigs snapped and leaves crunched to the right and left. Failbin turned quickly and tried to focus on his senses as he relied on them to tell him where the potential attacker came from. Even with his accelerated senses, Failbin could not be sure as to the location of the sounds’ origin. He went into a small panic and tried to run. He did not get far before… a sharp pain hit the side of his head and he gave into blackness.

Victor was the first to awaken feeling dizzy and confused. He looked around and was surprised to find that he did not recognize the terrine. This was the exact opposite setting of where the group had fainted in the middle of the forest. There were no trees around and all the men were out of the woods. The tall trees at the edge of the forest stood far off on the end of the horizon. Victor panicked for a short moment as he came to the realization that he and all the knights had been moved. He looked at the silhouettes of Failbin and the knights’ sleeping lying next to him in full armor. The Trackers must be strong indeed.

“How was this done? Why would they go to so much trouble?” Victor murmured as the others began to stir from their unnatural sleep. Samuel turned to Victor with a foggy look identical to that of every other living thing in the valley from the woods. He turned to them and said in what would have been a clear voice if the drug had not affected the men’s hearing, “Someone moved us.”

“Maybe the movers came to help us. Ax has a lot of enemies you know. It could have been the Neggless again or something else like them,” said John.

“If they wanted to help us they would have spoken to us instead of leaving us in the valley,” Victor stated with a worried look on his face.

“We should go back. They’re probably trying to hide something,” said Failbin with a determined look on his face as he explained the events of the past two days to the men.

“We can’t go back into the woods. They must be trying to trick us into a trap. They wouldn’t have just left us here at the edge if it wasn’t!” John almost screamed.

Even with John’s raging screams the other men agreed with Failbin. The group went back into the forest, not knowing what awaited them in the debts of the hole and the shadows of the dark.

 

Chapter 9: Ax’s Allies

The party moved sluggishly from the open field to the deep forest as they fought with the effects of the citrus drug. They were not fully awake until night fell with the waning moon. After forty-eight hours of sleeping, none of them really felt tired in the least so they kept walking through the dense woods. John looked up and saw the bright moon through the branches.

He instantly remembered the Trackers’ promise: They would both meet him again on the full moon. That time was coming closer and closer and the shadowed figures would want the answers to their questions. John looked back ahead and saw Victor right behind Failbin. He walked up and dramatically turned to Victor. Hoping that the scene would attract the attention of the other party members and gain more leverage on Victor and may cause the truth to come tumbling out of the captain under the pressure and stares.

“We almost died back there. Those Trackers could have easily stuck all of us with knives. You have known the king for a long time and have fought for him more times than the rest of us combined. You would die and rest in peace and pride knowing what you died for. The rest of us would not be able to find that peace. We would not know what we fought and died for. ”

“Is it not an honor to die for your country, protecting your families?” Asked Victor as he gave John a suspicious look and stopped his trek following Failbin. The others had stopped walking and gathered around where John and Victor stood in a circle.

“I don’t even know why the king sent us here. I do not want to die believing I failed my country when, in fact, she is safe,” John countered. “I do not want my last thoughts on this Earth to be about my wife being in captivity and suffering with my children!”

The other knights began to nod as Victor sighed and tried to answer the complicated question. “We are here to get the Heart of the Sky.”

“Why does he want another stone?” John asked feeling hope surge through him. One question often led to another and if Victor answered one so readily John was sure the answers would continue to pure from his lips.

“The Heart of the Sky is not just another stone.”—Before Victor could explain farther, voices were heard underneath the group. They searched frantically for the hole but it could not be found before the smell of citrus came to the air. The men all recognized the scent and could only think of one thing: getting away. Victor jumped up and ran deeper into the forest. The rest followed him through the trees. They had nearly fallen into a second trap but the men only became more determined. The traps only made them more certain that this was the hole they needed to search in order to get the stone.

As the forest got thicker and the heat began to rise, the group began to think about what had happened in the short time they had been on their mission. They had all been sent on a quest from the king to steal the enemy’s most prized possession. The mission would be complete soon if they only looted this hole. This had to be the one they were after. At least two traps protected the hole. What else could be so precious to the creatures that so much would be done to protect it?

“Can you sense the hole?” Victor asked Failbin.

“It is close. We should reach it in less than a day of travel.”

“Will we reach it before sunrise?” Asked John anxiously.

“If we hurry we can be there in dawn’s light.”

The party traveled on with light spirits believing it would all be over in less than a day! “…in dawn’s light.” The words echoed in their heads with each step. Even John seemed excited to be free of the weight and responsibility of the mission. The group trudged on in the darkness of night, waiting for the time of action.

Dawn lit the east horizon with pink light. The men came to a deep creek. They bent down to drink when shadow caught Failbin’s eye. It was the hole he knew it at that second. He was about to tell the men but he was interrupted by voices coming from it.

John knew immediately that they were the trackers. They spoke in hushed voices with Ax.

“Did you do as I commanded?” Asked Ax in an almost pleading voice.

“Yes, mighty Ax. The humans will not find this hole’s real entrance,” answered a tracker.

With a breath of relief, Ax said, “Our allies remain hidden.”

The conversation ended as warriors walked nearer to the small shadow of a hole. The party hid. They ran behind bushes and trees and held their breath, doing their best not to make a sound. Luckily, the Hakabank army never came to the men. Without a pause their footsteps were heard retreating.

The group’s only choice was to go down into the hole. They walked as silently as they could. Victor peeked over the corner but saw neither Ax nor the tracker. He had Failbin move in front of him. If the enemy saw Failbin first, he could pretend to be another member of the hole. Yet, no one was in sight and luck was finally on Vator’s side. Victor motioned for the others to follow him inside. They walked deeper into the tunnel until they came to a small alcove.

The room was bare. The floor was nothing but packed dirt. The ceiling was only eight feet tall but the walls were unique. As I said, they were rounded with nothing on three sides. The fourth side had a crudely drawn map. It had a small purple “X” on a mounded hill with another “X” only a few inches away. This X was blue. About a foot away stood a large red “X” next to a tree. Victor thought that the large one must be the Heart of the Sky. Samuel made a rough sketch of the map and the group headed back towards the exit.

A surprise was waiting for them when they arrived at the entrance of the hole. Ax and the army they had heard before were right in front of the exit. Ax knew he could not let these men survive. They had all seen the map so all of them must die and that included the humanized Hakabank with them. Failbin had won his freedom once but he would not do so again. The first time was mere luck and luck does not save twice! They wanted to fight but the Law forbade them from attacking the Hakabank before his trial. That was a simple matter: just capture the Hakabank and place him in the brig where he could await trial. No law would be broken and the men would be dead. The Hakabanks had almost had the men before the Neggless showed up and now the men would have no chance. The Neggless would not save them this time!

Victor was the first to get over his shock and draw his sword. He went into the wall of Hakabanks with his sword flying. He had fought Hakabanks before but he had forgotten how strong they were. The first swing nearly knocked the sword from his hand. Claws came at Victor from all directions. Samuel jumped in to the battle and sprinted to Victor. They stood back-to-back and hacked ruthlessly at the Hakabank claws. Shrieks came from the back of the room as Hakabanks moved to create a path. Victor took one look at what was approaching and realized one thing: they could never win.

 

Chapter 10: Captive Truth

The giant creature ran towards the men with his ball and chain swinging over his head. The creature had to be twelve feet tall. Luckily the tunnel was small and the creature had to dip his head. Black hair covered the creature’s body so thickly that the men could only make out two things: the black eyes and the long snout. Failbin dived behind the creature and tried to stab him cleanly through the head but the fur was too thick! Samuel stood directly in front of the strange creature and aimed his sword directly at the creature’s dipped chin at angle so that the sword would go through the mouth for a killing blow. The creature’s wiry arms reached out and easily knocked the sword from Samuel’s hands. He stood in front of the monstrous creature defenseless. The other men jumped into action. They all ran at the monster with swords pointed out. That is…all the men except Victor. He stared straight ahead like he longed to move but could not. Victor wanted nothing more than to run but he just stood in shock. He had seen this creature before.

Years ago, before the Great War, Victor was a young private on his first mission. He was afraid and nervous. Knowing that all young privates were nervous during their first battle, the commander had placed Victor and the other privates in the last wave. The veterans of the battle were in front so that the new soldiers could see how the battle was to be preformed and come in prepared next time. Yet, the creature that immerged from the woods was too much for even the veterans to handle. Victor shuddered at the memory. The creature had nearly killed them all…until the commander stabbed it in the back. Victor gripped the sword in his shaking hand. He needed to calm down. Victor took a deep breath and his heartbeat seemed to slow. His hand was still enough to go in for the last strike. He dove behind the creature and pushed the blade in. The creature roared and fell to the ground. Victor savored this small victory but then realized the battle had just begun.

It seemed hopeless: scores of Hakabank warriors fighting against ten men. The Hakabanks not only outnumbered the small party, they had more strength. The hairy creatures were taller and stronger than the men but that didn’t stop Samuel and Emit from stabbing anything that came near them. John and Timothy hacked at claws and ducked away from chains. All the men were just trying to survive. Then, an idea came to Victor with the sound of metal on rock.

The map in the alcove said that an “X” was on the right of the mound. What the “X” led to, no one knew but what other choice did they have? Only death waited back there. Victor ran to the right and the others followed. The ten-man army had to fight their way to the right wall. It was not easy. They swung and hacked and groaned. Yet, when they got there, the men were not satisfied with a seeming victory. They were terrified because they knew that another onslaught was on its way.

The wall was blank. There was no door, no secret code, and no hint. The wall was nothing but packed dirt. Emit and Victor continued to hold off the Hakabank army while the others felt and hit the wall. There had to be a trap door. There had to be something.

“Look!” Shouted Samuel pointing to the corner of the wall where a small tunnel stood behind a pillar. The tunnel was well hidden. If you looked at it from any angle other than straight on, you would think it was just the pillar’s shadow. The men ran into the darkness with Failbin fallowing behind them. The group ran and ran so long that John thought they would be trapped in the dark forever. Hopelessness hit John with full force until he literally found light at the end of the tunnel. Failbin and all the men are safe. Now we look back to Ax and his army:

“You rotten slaves will lead the army into your secret passages.” Ax gestured to each person in the mob with a threatening claw. His tone and body language changed with the next sentence. “No one will be punished if you are loyal. Now go!” Ax yelled to the crowd with his arms raised into the air.

The mob moved as one through the trees of the forest and into the secret tunnels. The slaves had dug them in secret to escape through the woods themselves but the missing tools were quickly found along with the tunnels themselves. The slaves wanted nothing more than to be free but they feared their masters and rightly so. Each slave knew what would happen if the men were not caught and each knew that he could not let that happen. The men would not escape. They were out numbered and trapped – even out smarted… what would know the tunnels better than their makers? Things seemed hopeless but Emit had a plan.

The whole elaborate thing could be summed up in one word, ambush. Everyone knew that Ax was sending an army and slaves to find the group. The men didn’t want to hurt the innocent slaves who were forced into this. Only the guilty party would die. The plan had to be carried out with grace and precision. Unfortunately, plans rarely go that way.

The trap was set off too quickly. Emit gave the signal to start but the army was moving slower than he calculated. The small group of men had to use every weapon they had to fight their way out.

I cannot describe the violence and trickery in this battle. All you need to know is that in the end, the men made it out alive on a miracle. Yet, they were not alone. A hostage came with them. He never tried to escape but would never answer questions. Not even simple ones like his name.

“This man is a slave,” said Victor plainly.

 

Chapter 11: The Trick

Victor looked at the prisoner with pity in his eyes. The poor thing had been forced into hurting others. He was an enemy of the Hakabanks just like the men were. The slave would betray his cruel master in a heartbeat. All the men had to do was start asking questions.

“The trackers were down in your hole. Who are they? Do you know their names?” Victor asked the slave with desperation in his gentle voice.

“This lowly slave could never call a Master by his name. This lowly slave called him ‘Sir’.” The slave seemed eager to please Victor but afraid of angering the Hakabanks at the same time. He could not be convinced that the creatures were no longer his masters and the idea of being free from them seemed like a trick to him. It was not that he did not trust Victor. It was simply that he could not imagine that Ax the Hakabanks were not around with them.

“Why was the tracker talking to Ax? Did Ax hire him?”

“This lowly slave” – he stopped and shouted, “No! You’ll trick me just like they did!”

“You are no longer a slave or a prisoner. There is nothing to fear. We are here to help you,” soothed Victor, explaining the new situation to the slave again.

Even with Victor’s gentle words and no ‘Master’ in sight, the slave would not say a word. When the group lay down for the night, the slave was given a makeshift bed. For a long time, he just stared at the sky. The slave was so tense that he could not truly lie down. His head could never touch the ground. The slave began to tire and almost relax but when sleep came, it brought no hope or protection. The prisoner tossed and turned, dreaming of something so terrible that he would cry out.

In the dream, slave number 557 stood in a cold, tall room. Ax stood at the other end with a strange, almost charming smile on his face. Yet, nothing seemed right. The whole room was just off. The floor did not seem quite square and the smile did not seem friendly.

“You could have it all you know,” said Ax in a triumphant voice. “All you have to do is tell me.”

Ax would fade away and the slave would see Victor. “We are here to help you.” Victor would say in that gentile voice. Ax’s malicious voice would come from behind Victor’s and say, “Tell him anything and your head is mine. You think that they can protect you? They don’t even know who we are, who you are. They barely know what they themselves are.”

Slave 557 was no longer under Ax. In the dream he would start to feel brave and tell Victor, “This slave knows the Master. He is…” Before he could finish, Ax would pop up out of nowhere and kill him.

The slave always woke screaming.

Failbin tried to block out the noise but nothing even dulled the sound. He felt sorry for the poor creature and wanted to help but Failbin’s mere presence reminded the slave of his Masters. The small body would quake in fear as Failbin walked by. Victor explained to the slave many times that Failbin was a friend and would not hurt him like the other Masters did. Yet, trust came slowly.

One night, after the others went to bed, Failbin and Emmett began their watch. They sat and stared into the darkness and everything seemed calm. The insects hummed from the tall grass and the wind rustled the trees. Failbin heard a noise behind him and turned quickly. He expected to see an enemy behind him when he drew the sword but instead he saw the slave. Failbin put the sword away and the slave walked slowly to him, almost timidly. The slave lay down at Failbin’s feet. At first, this troubled Failbin but then he heard three soft words come from the slave’s mouth.

“You’re a friend.”

Emit helped Faibin carry the slave to the makeshift bed and lay his down. He looked so peaceful. This was the longest he had slept without crying out sense he joined the men. Emmett and Failbin both smiled as they looked down at him. They walked back to their post with thoughts of hope. Maybe the slave could start a new life after all…

The slave was in the odd room in his dreams once more. Victor would offer help and Ax would mock Victor and threaten the slave. Yet, Victor’s voice would grow louder and louder. Ax’s sounded like a whisper in comparison. With the dream Victor’s encouragement, the slave finally yelled out “I know his name!” Yet, the words never left his mouth before he died. The next morning the other men got up. Victor went to wake the slave only to find him dead.

 

Chapter 12: The Second Part

Victor and the others buried the slave with a formal military service. Failbin recited the words of Recollection in a loud, clear voice so that everyone could hear. Yet, Victor was not listening to the comforting words. He sat there, thinking the troubling questions in his mind: How did the slave die and who killed him?

The Battle from Ax’s view

“Charge!” Ax yelled over the clamor. All of the Hakabanks ran towards the men. This is it, thought Ax we have them. The army ran forward in a serge only to find that the men were not anywhere in sight. The army looked this way and that but could find nothing. Then they came: all the men emerged from crevasses and clefts. The surprise attack had changed. The Hakabank army was now on the defensive. The Hakabankian army fell before Ax’s eyes in a rush of furry. Ax ran towards the men’s leader. Even through rage Ax had a respect of this man. He was a warrior and a swordsman. Yet, he would die. Ax turned in for the finishing blow but as he did his right side was fatally open. Victor’s sword cut threw the air and hit Ax’s side. As the blade cut flesh Ax fell…

“Ohhhh,” Ax moaned as he opened his eyes. He still lay where he had fallen: right in the middle of the battlefield. Memories of the battle came flooding back to him. The troops were gone but the cowardly slaves were still hiding. Ax stood up and yelled, “Come out, worthless filth!” The slaves did as they were told. After a short round of questioning Ax knew that the men had taken a slave captive. He ran into the night to hunt him down.

“The yellow-bellied coward will tell,” murmured Ax to the darkness. “We can’t let those revolting humans have what is ours’.”

With a shout to the small Hakabankian Calvary, Ax ran after the men. This was too uncertain to leave to foot soldiers and slaves. This situation called for the sithy riders. The sithy snakes were fast and caught up to the men without a problem. The men could go left but the men could also go right. Ax needed to make sure they went where he wanted them. No matter what, they couldn’t go right.

Ax ran into the north, although his wounds were great, seeking the men. Surprisingly, when he came to a fork in the road, someone else stood waiting for him.

“Didn’t expect to run into me, Ax? You are an old friend and it has been too long. Why it seems only yesterday that you left me thinking that you could take Valtor’s men by yourself.” The Tracker stepped out from behind a bush and smiled mischievously at Ax.

“What do you want, Scum?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I want to play a game of cards with you. If I win I get to take control of your slave army. If you win you get to take the slave’s life… That is what you were planning to do isn’t it? The poor fool just knows too much,” The Tracker smiled as he spoke and laughed at jokes that not even Ax could hear.

“You think you can stop me, Tracker?”

“I know I can. Those wounds will make it easy. I don’t even have to fight. All I have to do is wait for the blood to pour out of you.”

Ax charged at the tracker. He ran at the tracker as forcefully as he could but a punch in the stomach stopped him. Ax breathed hard as the tracker smiled his malice smile. Ax knew that he would have to go along with the tracker. He hated to admit it but at his present state of injury, the tracker was stronger than Ax.

“Are we going to have the trial or what?”

The game begun:

The tracker and Ax each looked down at the cards. Then, they looked up at one another. “Pick,” said Ax with a smile. The tracker had seen Ax duel on many occasions. He knew Ax’s moves. He would choose the Knowing Deck in the middle. Of course, the tracker chose this deck. Ax would not be playing with his favorite deck. That would surly give the tracker an advantage.

Ax saw what the tracker had done. “If that weasel thinks he can beat me that easily, he has another thing coming,” Ax thought in frustration. “I’ll use his own plan against him!”

Ax grabbed the deck on the left quickly and both sides drew. Ax’s five were weak but the tracker’s puzzled looked proved that he was not fairing well ether. The tracker put down three cards and watched Ax make his move.

“I know what you are playing: Helena the witch Beast Card with Troy and Oma Will Cards. It won’t work,” Ax said with a sneer. Sure enough, the tracker had played the cards Ax had named. He turned his cards over to revile a golden haired woman in a blue dress, a floating city surrounded by monsters, and a scroll with music written on it in orange letters. The tracker’s face went white.

“How can I play against a man who knows all of my moves? I forfeit!” Cried the tracker. He had lost and so had the slave.

Chapter 13: The Green X

Now, in the Vatorians’ camp a fire flickers in the moon light as Failbin and the men make camp. It has been a hard day and they are ready to rest. They all gather around the fire to decide who takes which watch. Little did they know someone is already watching them. Two men sit out of the ring to watch the Vatorians talk.

“Is that a Hakabank?” asks one Watcher in a squeaky voice.

“It looks like it,” answered another. “Jabwel will not be happy to hear this.” With that, the two young Watchers left and went south.

Victor walked around the camp slowly. Something seemed to click in his brain. He had been here before. Had it been a previous battle? That must be it why else would this place seem so familiar? Footsteps ran towards Victor, breaking his thoughts. “Hakabanks have been spotted coming from the north,” stammered Samuel.

“Sharpen your swords and get ready for battle,” Victor replied immediately. He turned his back and got ready to sharpen his own sword when Samuel interrupted him again.

“That’s the problem. John is missing.” All the men gaped at each other. Hakabanks were on the loose and John was missing! Of all the times to get separated! The men broke into four search parties and went out in each direction. Failbin and Emit went south.

Failbin’s Tale:

When Failbin had heard that John was missing summersaults twirled in his stomach. Who would just walk away from camp like that? The men had barely survived the battle and the dangers of the wilderness seemed more real now than they ever had been before. John had been strange from the beginning but he was never that stupid. Failbin had not known the men long but he knew that they were all experienced war veterans. Wandering off without telling anyone didn’t seem like something a veteran would do. Veterans would know the dangers with even more severity a man who had not been through war.

“Something is behind us,” whispered Emit. Failbin stopped and listened. He heard soft steps. Emit and Failbin drew their swords and turned around quickly. Four Hankabanks stood behind them with weapons at the ready. Emit rushed forward but a Hakabank just knocked it out of his hand. Failbin rushed forward but the Hakabanks fallowed the Law and merely brought the decks forth.

“We are Hakabanks and we uphold the Law. The decks were drawn when Civilization began and so they are drawn now,” said an older Hakabank ceremoniously. Another Hakabank reached down for Emit but Failbin got to him first.

“The rules need to change. If I win we both go free,” Failbin demanded.

“If you loose you both die. It will be even then.” Failbin only nodded.

So it began:

Failbin reached for the deck on the right while his adversary, a Hakabank with a black stripe running down his chin, grabbed the deck on the left. The decks were shuffled but neither player moved. The two stared at each other for what seemed like hours. No one lifted a finger until Emit coughed and broke the hanging silence. At that exact moment both Hakabanks jumped to draw out five cards as fast as they could, as if just realizing that time had pasted in the beginning. The reach for cards almost became a race for the finish although neither Hakabank really knew where the finishing line truly was. Ax’s minion went through his cards first:

He looked at his cards with a blank face, expressing no emotion and laid down three cards. The Hakabank turned to Failbin and stared at him with a mocking smile on his face and said in a clear, audible voice, “Your turn.”

Failbin looked at his cards and saw three Beast Cards and two Will Cards. What luck! Failbin looked at the cards with joy. One had 30,000 points and a picture of a unicorn behind a knight in gold armor that held a broken sword. The one with a dark, starless sky and shining ground had 50,000 points. The last had 28,000 points and a falcon carrying a blank flag in its’ mouth flying over the sea. The two Will Cards also had high numbers. They all had pictures of flames. The first was red with 500 points. The other was yellow and had 800 points to be added. The most powerful was green with 1200 points.

Failbin chose the Beast Card with the unicorn and knight and 30,000 points. His hand was half way between the Labyrinth and the rest of his deck. His hand stopped there because the colorful image of the unicorn caught his eye. The unicorn’s head shifted from side to side in an annoyed motion as if it was upset that the knight was in front of it. The unicorn didn’t like to be ignored but what could it do with a golden knight in front of it? Failbin felt sorry for the poor creature.

Emit stood behind Failbin and saw the moving picture in the card and whispered to Failbin, “Does that normally happen?”

“No. I have never seen this before.” Failbin’s eyes scrunched as he thought hard. He seemed to be considering his words hard as he finally came to a conclusion. “The unicorn is jealous,” answered Failbin slowly. Emit looked at with pity in his eyes and spoke to Failbin in a slow voice as if not to upset him.

“The cards aren’t alive. So, why is this one moving?”

Failbin knew that Emit was right. There had to be reason that this card could feel an emotion like jealousy and move. It was then that he remembered the verses. The answer must be written in them. All answers seemed to be found there. Failbin made his eyes go out of focus. Letters appeared in flowing but slanted handwriting.

1 Pet2 6:

Trust and Hope are the

Cornerstones that support the building.

Failbin thought about this verse. It was comforting but it did not explain why the unicorn moved. So, Failbin read on. The answer had to be in the next verse. It would make the other verse make sense. He grasped the card with the black night and prayed he would know what to do.

1Cors16 13:

Be on your guard by waiting in Hope

Be strong and

Courageous.

He heaved a sigh of frustration. The duel needed to continue but he needed to know which card to put down. “Be watchful”? Maybe it was encouraging him to read the third card. He took the last one in his hand slowly and looked at the eagle’s flag before he let his eyes go out of focus.

J20 29:

All who have Hope

In a world full of troubles

Are worthy of happiness.

Failbin looked down at the cards and read their verses. They all spoke of hope and faith. Failbin looked over at his sly-faced opponent and felt his confidence move to new lows. Yet, at the same time, his determination went up. He prayed for courage and faith and played the knight and unicorn with 30,000 points.

 

Chapter 14: Extra Battles

Failbin placed his unicorn card on the field. Both Hakabanks flipped their cards over. Gasps erupted from the pair as they stared down at their cards. The cards had the same number of points. Both looked at the other. Neither was willing to admit that they did not know what to do. After several seconds of unsettling silence, both Hakabanks reached for their decks. The two were about to draw again when the pictures on the cards came to life!

The knight jumped unto the unicorn’s back and charged at the snake-like creature that had immerged out of the Hakabank’s card. The two just stood amazed and watched the battle. Who would have expected the cards to do this? The snake’s strike moved as quickly as it was deadly. Luckily, the unicorn was quick and slick. The horse and rider narrowly missed the deadly strike each of the three times.

The Hakabank’s snake was not the only card attacking. While the horse lunged and jumped, the rider used his sword to smite the creature. The sword never broke the snake’s skin. It was covered in rough armor but the knight was smart. He poked the creature’s eye as it shrieked.

Thanks to the cards, Failbin had won that round. Or so he thought. “You cursed the cards! They have never acted so life-like even when Ax himself plays!” Yelled the enemy Hakabank pointing at Failbin. “The only way the cards could have moved and attacked like that was if you changed them. You cheated but that won’t help you win this time. No matter what you draw it can’t beat this card. Nothing can stop us!” He placed his card on the labyrinth with one forceful movement of his arm to emphasize his strength.

Failbin reached into the deck and pulled out a plain Beast Card. It was just black and white. The words on it were also plain and simple with out an address to call their own.

Feed my sheep.

It was too complex to be so simple. It said exactly what it needed to. These three words told every one what needed to be done. There were no pictures because nothing more needed to be said. The words gave Failbin the boldness he needed. It was almost laughable to have something so meaningful on such a plain card but its’ points made up for the lack of color. The card had 600,000 points. Failbin never knew it could go that high. He placed the card on the field and waited for the right words to come. Before he even had time to think, words poured out of him:

“I am not worried about how many points your card has. No matter what, I will win because of the help I have. It is not chance or fate but hope.”

Then Failbin lifted his card and was pleased to see the superior smirk sink off the Hakabank’s face. Failbin was surprise to feel guilt at his pleasure but he reminded himself that it was not this one Hakabank that he was fighting but the violent culture that killed innocent people. The Hakabank he was fighting was part of that culture. Failbin tried to keep his face blank as the other Hakabank turned his cards over to reveal their value but he could not hide his surprise. The other Hakabank’s card also had 600,000 points. Doubt nudged at Failbin in the back of his head but then the images began to come alive again and the majesty and superiority of Failbin’s cards could not be doubted.

The enemy’s card came up first, reviling the monstrous tiger within. Failbin looked at his own card. Nothing was coming from it. Could the card not have a monster or warrior within? The enemy began to laugh but was cut off when a blinding rainbow of light soared through the labyrinth. Both Hakabanks closed their eyes. When they opened them again, only one card remained, Failbin’s. The True King had helped Failbin again. He just wished he knew who the man helping him was. No teacher in Vator had taught him that. No matter what happened, in the end, he would find out who this being was.

The other Hakabank looked at Failbin with a confused glaze over his eyes. He looked down at his deck and suddenly; the bewildered look turned into one of anger.

“There is no one helping you! You are alone and you cannot defeat an enemy as strong as us. You will not win this last round!” The enemy Hakabank yelled shaking with rage. His eyes turned red as his teeth clinched in anger and hatred.

“What last round?” Emit asked. “Failbin already beat you two times.”

“He cheated and I aim to prove it.”

“You would break the Law?” asked Failbin in a voice framed with warning.

Hearing this, one of the Hakabanks left the field. He didn’t get far before the remaining Hakabank with the stripped chin yelled, “This is no longer a duel but a trial. The other two rounds were questionable wins. This is now a Sudden Death Round. We will duel one more round and I, Amion, will defeat you once and for all, Human!” The Hakabank’s voice rose with determination that was surrounded in anger.

Failbin knew that the game was over. The young Hakabank didn’t even draw a new card. Failbin just wanted the trial to end but he saw that the other Hakabank would not give up so easily. Failbin sighed and knew that he had to continue. Failbin wanted to keep things simple and just set down his four remaining cards. The other Hakabank, who called himself Amion, set down three of his cards.

The cards were turned over. Color drained from the other Hakabank’s face. All of his points had turned into zeros! He didn’t even wait for Failbin to reveal his cards before running after the first older Hakabank.

Failbin turned around to face Emit and said, “We need to go tell Victor about the Hakabanks.” They began to walk towards camp when Emit turned back:

“Don’t you want to look at your last cards?” Failbin slowly turned them over and saw that all of Amion’s points had been added to his cards! There was someone watching over them all. Failbin and Emit had seen it with their own eyes.

 

Chapter 15: Jabwel

Failbin and Emit made their way back to camp where Victor and William waited for them. Failbin and Emit walked to the fire in order to tell their story but soon found that they were not the only ones with stories to tell.

Victor and William walked through the long grass in the west. Neither man spoke because both were so deep in thought. William stared ahead, thought of his family in Valtor, and hoped they were safer than he. The Hakabanks were following them. Was a spy among the knights? These thoughts raced through William’s head but Victor, on the other hand, tried to place the memory tied with this place. No matter where he walked, Victor knew that he had been here before.

The pair heard the swish of grass behind them. Victor and William drew their swords and counted slowly to three. They went to turn and saw a simple man next to them.

“Please don’t hurt me! I am just a servant!” He yelled in an ammonic tone.

Victor looked at the man with gentle eyes and said, “We are not here to hurt peasants. We are here to warn you. The Hakabank army is out in these hills. Watch yourself.”

When Victor and William put away their swords the man ran away from them. William and Victor watched him go and went around to the rim of the forests. They felt that the area was searched and made their way back to camp. They had not gotten far when the same simple servant came and said, “Jabwel thanks you and wishes for you, your men and your guide to dine with him. Your comrade John awaits you there.”

Knowing little about the land and needing shelter the two men accepted. Victor of course, thought about the simpleton’s message for a long time. Either the man was a great actor who knew how to read small subtleties or a local man named Jabwel was getting his information from an outside source. It would not be safe in the house of Jabwel. Yet, if Jabwel was one of their enemies why not leave the knights outside for the Hakabanks to find? They headed back to camp to tell the others and warn them of what could come. They told the rest of the party about the strange greeting and the invitation for Jabwel. The most surprising aspect was that John was already there. Each man ran different scenarios through his head. Very few possibilities seemed pleasant but what other choice did they have? Staying in the open was practically a death sentence.

The men of Vator walked through the tall grass as William and Victor had done. Soon they had gone far enough to the west to see a large house on a small hill. It was not the biggest house the men had ever seen but the elegance of it surpassed the palace. Statues of angels and cherubs surrounded the roof. Stain-glass windows brought a splash of color to the west side of the house. The building would have reminded Victor of a church if it had not been for the dark gray stone used to create the art. The fine stone did not fade with the sun. It stayed the same pure, blank shade of gray. There was not a blemish on the stone – or on any part of the house. What stone could have made this? There was no time for silly questions about stone when there were important ones about Vator to be answered!

Victor walked slowly to the door ahead of the others. He knew that he needed to be first in case of trouble so that the others would have time to run and hopefully finish the mission. Victor was about to knock when the door opened. The servant who had delivered Jabwel’s message stood still there leaning against the door frame and holding onto the handle with a small smile playing on his lips like the knights were old friends whom he had invited to tea. The servant silently straightened and walked through the long, darkened hall motioning for the men to follow him. They passed through the entryway, which was just as elegant as the outside of the house. Pictures and oil paintings of breathtaking scenery and dignified portraits hung on nearly every inch of the wall. The decoration would have been overdone if the art itself were not so beautiful. Victor was lost in thought but quickly found himself again as he entered a low-lying room. The group went across side of the front room and into the living room next to a cozy fireplace. The servant motioned for the men to sit. They did so and the servant left the room.

The men were alone. They looked at one another and silently agreed to let their host make the first move. They would sit by the fire until he came. No one would make a sound or move a muscle. After half an hour of time, Samuel and Failbin had the feeling that they should do something. Why was this Jabwel making them wait so long? An honest man would have at least shown some sign by now. Yet, he had John. Jepel had the upper hand. They could not leave no matter what their instincts said. Shortly after this thought the door to the front room opened slowly.

“Ah!” Exclaimed Jabwel as if we had been lost. “Welcome, my friends. You must be tired after your trip. I have food prepared for you. Please come with me.”

The group followed Jabwel into a cold, stone room. Red carpet and a dark-wood table sat on the floor with a roaring fire only a few feet away. John sat on one side of the table next to the fire, with a content look on his face.

“John!” Yelled Samuel in excitement and relief.

“Your friend has been a guest in my home for two days. I did not think it wise for him to travel alone in these woods. So, I brought you to him. Honest men like John and yourselves will find nothing but courtesy here. I hope you will all stay.” Jepel smiled at the newcomers and waited for their response.

Victor sat thinking over Jabwel’s proposition carefully. If they stayed, Jepel could turn on them but leaving meant facing the Hakabank army. Victor saw that he was caught between a rock and a hard place but there was little he could do. “You are generous indeed,” Victor said carefully. “We accept your offer.”

“Wonderful! Let me have the servants bring out the food.”

Chapter 16: Truth and Traitors

A young woman came into the room carrying a large tray of food. She was in her early teens. Failbin was amazed at how someone so young could have such dark eyes. The girl’s petite face and features made her look almost like a child but her eyes told the men and Failbin alike that she had intelligence beyond her years. The girl walked to the table, set the tray down, curtsied and left. Victor looked at the food. How could Jabwel get all this food when he lived in the middle of nowhere? There were no farms around yet there was food everywhere.

There were meats of all kinds and fruits. The hungry knights dug in with Failbin. Every morsel of meat was tender. The meat was browned the whole way through. The dark meat fell apart inside of each man’s mouth. Failbin’s mouth watered. The food was perfect. This roused Victor’s suspicion even more. Yet, he ate with the other men. After half the meat was gone, a sudden urge to sleep befell the men. It was a large dinner, and all the men were still tired from battle. The men just slumped in their chairs and sleep over came them before desert was brought.

Victor had a thousand questions running through his mind. Why was John there and where had he been going before was at the top of Victor’s list. He was ready to demand that John answer every one of these questions after dinner but he just felt so comfortable on these pillows and warm in the blankets.

I can’t just get up and demand that John be questioned, Victor thought angrily. Everyone’s asleep anyway. What a good idea…sleep.

After what seemed like a second of sleep, the servant girl awoke the men. She shook Victor and whispered quickly: “You must wake up.” Victor opened his eyes to the haze of sleep.

“What is it?” He asked, still half asleep.

“There are many things you do not know.” The rest of the girl’s explanation was spoken in a breathless whisper. “My master, Jabwel is working with the Hakabank Ax. Jabwel helps trap men and allow Ax to capture them. You are in such a trap.”

The men sat in stunned silence. Victor expected treachery but not like this. He knew that Jepel needed money and would rat them out for some but who would have believed that he had given hundreds of lives to Ax in exchange for money. The revelation hit them like a stonewall: They were next.

“Come! Quickly, I know the way.” The girl grasped one of the men by the hand and led him down a flight of stairs. Still half asleep and confused, the others followed close behind. The girl ran down the stairs and up ladders.

How can one so small be so fast? Thought John tiredly. Jabwel had spoiled him. The old man had brought fresh cloths and food to John after Ax had commanded him to do so. Yet, John really wanted information: Where was he? Why did Ax care what happened to him? John always suspected the answers to be about Victor and the others.

On that night, John went to rest but before he could fall asleep, a Hakabankian hand covered his mouth. A knife was at John’s throat.

“Shh, we don’t want to wake anyone up do we?” The hand was slowly removed but the blade remained.

“What do you want?” John asked cautiously. After several long minutes with no reply, John looked for hope. “Are you with Ax?”

“Ax? My master is ten times stronger than Ax!” John looked at the Hakabank with disbelief. What was this?

“Who is stronger than Ax?”

“This is of no matter to you. I have a blade at your throat. I could cut you at anytime but my master wants me to be fair. And for him I will be.” The creature paused and looked at John thoughtfully. “In the custom of my kind, I challenge you to a card game on the Labyrinth.”

 

Chapter 17: John’s Game

The Tracker wanted John to play against him. The very idea made John pale. This had to be a trick with Ax waiting on the next corner. If John didn’t play he was a coward but if he did play he would loose. Then again, there was a knife at John’s throat. With his very life at stake, John knew it was best to play safe. He would just have to play the game.

“Your Hakabankian traveling companion is making quite a name for himself. He has beaten some of my kinds’ strongest players. But the real question is, do you know how to play?” The creature’s lips turned up in a smile. It was a small smile. It was a mocking smile. Normally, John would have lashed out at such a crude thing with either word or sword but self-preservation kicked in and John stood still seething.

“I know the rules,” John grunted behind clinched teeth. He saw nothing but red. He didn’t calm down until decks were brought out. It was then that he truly concentrated on the game. “Seeing as you have never actually played,” the Tracker said. “I will allow you to choose a deck first.” The small trays of decks were brought to John. He knew that Failbin always chose the one on the right and Failbin had always won. John reached for the deck but then he remembered that this could be a test from Ax. No one was more powerful than him. So, the messenger was a fake. Ax’s captains always chose the deck in the middle. If John chose the middle, it would prove his loyalty.

“I’ll take the middle deck.” John took hold of the deck as the words left his mouth. The hooded Tracker nodded, satisfied with the choice.

“You have been paying attention but we’ll have to see if that’s all you learned.” The dark figure of the Tracker reached out and took the deck on the left. “This deck is the hardest to use. It requires years of study to truly understand yet, once it is understood, no one can match the decks’ power, not even Ax himself!”

“I don’t know who you think you are…” The Tracker’s confidence had made John so mad that he couldn’t even finish the sentence.

The Tracker saw John’s distress and smiled. “You’re right. We must stop talking and get onto the game. I shall enjoy beating you.”

“You won’t beat me! I may be new but I’ve got tricks up my sleeve.”

“Tricks!” The figure repeated. “I’ve never heard that before,” he sneered.

“You can bet all your gold. I’ll beat you!” John put in.

“You want to wager do you? Well, we shall make one on something even more valuable than gold!” The Tracker paused, creating a dramatic effect. “The stakes of this game shall be higher than you ever imagined: your body. If I win, your soul will leave your body. The empty vessel that is left will not be empty long. My master’s soul will fill your body and your soul will wonder the earth, forgotten and alone. Yet, you are sure you will win, so the cost of losing shall not matter to you.” The figure smiled knowingly.

“If you are trying to scare me it’s not working. I see through your tricks.”

John clinched his deck and drew out five cards as Failbin had done. The cloaked Tracker quickly followed John in the draw. “You go first, knight!” beckoned the figure. John looked at his cards:

The first was a Beast Card. It had a picture of an island surrounded by dark water and 3000 points. Then came another Beast Card was swirling pillars and blue flowers. It had 1500 points. After that came three Will Cards. None of them allowed John to have a big advantage. One was for 200 points and the other two were for 100 each. John put all the Will Cards on the field next to his largest Beat Card. It was the best chance he had at winning.

Unfortunately, the figure had a bigger chance. John’s point total came out to be 3400. The Tracker had over 5000 using only one Will Card. The Tracker won round one of the card game along with rounds two and three. The figure had no problem giving John more chances and knew that John just couldn’t get any real cards. The knight’s problem was that the Tracker had no problem getting Beast Cards worth over 5000 and even 10000 points. John knew that he was doomed.

He saw a shadow coming for him and ran. He remembered the bet and knew what was coming. He knew that his body would lie in wait, soulless. Only to have the Tracker’s master invade it. He ran and ran but he could not go on forever. A dead end would come and he would be trapped. Doubt and shadows filled his mind while a mysterious voice laughed as he ran and then, darkness took him…

John woke in a bed at Jabwel’s house. For one quick second he panicked, remembering the game. Then, he saw that he was in his body and that his soul was still there. It must have just been a dream, he thought. Some crazy dream…answered the same mysterious voice from before.

Now he runs again. Zettia the servant girl leads the men and Hakabank to the hide away door. John was bone tired and more confused than ever. Still, he could not complain. He was warm and safe. The night before Jabwel came to dine with him. John couldn’t even asked the question that plagued his mind before the answer escaped Jabwel’s lips: “You’re our bait. The men will cooperate.” He said it as plainly as that. Failbin would lead them to the house and they would cooperate. Of course, he was right.

John didn’t really regret not warning the others. He was just along for the ride. As long as it’s not me, he thought silently. Self-preservation was one of the strongest human instincts. One-by-one, the instincts people had when they lived in the wild were annihilated. By the Neolithic Age, most humans thought none remained. Yet few people can deny that they want to live. Some of our natural instincts must still be intact. John himself was living proof. Self-preservation would never die out. And on John ran…

 

Chapter 18: The Exodus

Victor and his comrades followed the girl deeper and deeper into the palace-like home. At the beginning of the trek, the walls were covered with breathtaking tapestries and furnished with gold and silver armchairs and desks. Even the bookshelves had gold labels. The grandeur of the house disappeared as the group traveled deeper. The walls became plain gray stone on the interior of the center rooms and there was not a piece of wood to be found in any room after that. Victor wasn’t sure if these halls and rooms were simply never used or if guests of a different value occupied them not only in the past but also in the present. The rooms had a kind of feeling to them that spoke of entrapment and a kind of fear: the fear a prisoner had of never seeing sunlight again.

The stone floor was cold and damp beneath the men’s feet. They seemed enamored not only by the distance but by the shear run. The building seemed to go on and on in loneliness. Jabwel and his servants lived here but no one should be down left here in the damp, soulless dark. Samuel couldn’t help imagining getting trapped in this dark, dank place but he continued to walk into the gloom with the rest of the knights who walked in front of him with stealthy speed.

The girl they followed moved swiftly as if she had walked this rout many times before. She stopped abruptly at one of the cells. She pushed the door open gently and bent down to gaze at the stones. The knights too looked at the stones, trying to look for whatever it was the girl saw. After a moment or two of staring, she gripped the sides of a cracked stone and lifted it up. The stone looked heavy but she was able to move it without assistance. Her actions revealed a long staircase. It spiraled down into the deep darkness below the prison. Victor was hesitant to go in but he was willing to take the mystery of the deeps for the fact of what came for them. The girl and her stairs were their only hope.

Before Victor could start down the stairs, the girl started to climb down the latter. “Follow me,” was all she said. The men and Hakabank could do nothing but obey the girl. The tunnel was surprisingly smooth and made from nothing but shear rock. Yet, it was not like the dungeon where the rock was cold and gray. The stone didn’t have the lifeless stillness or desolate feel in any of the substances in it. The rocks were not cut smooth into squares. They were round and varied greatly in size like someone had just found them in the woods and stuck them into a wall. The plaster was like mud in both color and texture. The people who made this tunnel were obviously skilled workers to make the tunnel so smooth but they had only the most primitive tools and supplies to complete it with. Who could these builders have been?

Finally, Victor spoke up. “Where are we?” As he asked the tone of his voice said he was in charge although the question clearly stated otherwise. Even with the authoritive tone, the girl did not answer his question. She barely looked back at the men. Victor breathed a frustrated sigh at this but continued on. If the girl would not talk there was nothing he could do. The group was practically at a run when the girl suddenly stopped. “We are away from Jepel’s now,” the girl said as if “away from Jabwel’s” was a place.

She climbed up the ladder and the men followed. They were under the cover of dense trees and thick leaves. Victor looked around. Even in his vast travels he had not been here before. This senery was new but he could not complain about the sudden strangeness. They were off course but they were all alive. “Thank you, child. You have done the kingdom of Valtor a great service. Now my men and I must continue serving the people by chasing down the Hakabanks.”

Victor turned to go when he heard the girl’s small voice say firmly, “I’m coming with you.” The men looked at her blankly. The words that had come from her mouth were unbelievable.

“We are not on a simple trip. This is an important mission. Young ladies, like yourself would be better off going to that town on the edge of the forest.” Victor pointed over to the small town. He felt sorry for the girl but Vator and the people in it were more important than the feelings of a lone girl.

He turned around when the girl’s voice said, “Is there no way I can convince you to take me with you?” No one turned. Failbin and the men just kept walking. “Will not even the Heart of the Sky stop you?” It was then the rustle and crinkle of parchment sounded from the girl’s hand. Victor saw it and his mouth dropped open.

“What is on that piece of paper?” asked Failbin in awe.

“It is the map to the Heart of the Sky.” All of the men’s’ mouths were open as the words left the girl’s lips. She smiled and said in the same quiet voice, “I am Zettia, your new traveling companion.”

John reached out and quickly whipped it out of Zettia’s fingers. He unrolled the scroll and frowned. Victor and the other knights walked over and looked at the map. They saw a river, which Victor recognized as the Hafid but the names of the underground cities were written in a language that none of the men recognized. Zettia saw their confusion and smiled.

“It is written in a tongue older than time…a language older than Vator itself. I will read it for you if you promise to take me to Vator.”

So it was set. Zettia could come to Valtor on one condition and one condition only: That the stone she had brought with her would be given to the king. Zettia agreed. The stone did not belong to her and neither did the map. She merely stole it from Jabwel, who had stolen it from Ax. The scroll was his hostage. Jabal told the Hakabanks that he could use the map to steal the stone. He would only give the stone back once he had all the grain in the Northern countryside. The Hakabanks had been attacking men to get grain. It seemed innocent enough but when a farmer’s livelihood was attacked he was prepared to defend it. The attacks often ended in violence.

Zettia explained all this to Failbin as they made the long journey first to the warm beaches of Valsee and then to the mountains of Gains. All in all the journey took about two weeks. Two seems like such a small number but two weeks of constantly being with someone can amount to more than you would expect. The two misfits had quickly become more than just friends on the long walk. It seemed as if they were meant for each other from the moment they met. Although the knights had traveled with Failbin for a longer period of time, they could not imagine the bond that Zettia and Failbin shared. Their own people and the so-called friends that they had lived with all their lives did not accept Failbin and Zettia. The knights were the first people to really accept Failbin and even that took time and Zettia had had an equally hard time making friends.

Zettia remembered her first day in Jabwel’s home. Her grandmother had sent her there to find her brother. He usually traveled from place to place but lately all of his letters were post –marked from Jabwel’s mansion. The harvest season was fast-aproaching and the farm needed Jevith’s strong arms. Zettia figured that Jevith was doing odd jobs for Jabwel and that he would need her to wait for a short time so that he could finish the project he was working on but she had no idea that the nearly ten years of her life would be spent there.

Zettia walked up to Jabwel’s house with confidance in her young heart. She stood in the entry way and glanced at her surroundings in awe. Beautiful tapestries and life-like paintings covered almost every inch of the walls next to the stair well. Zettia was still taking in the splender when a man came into the room. “How may I help you?” Came his draul voice in lessthan inthusiastic tones. Zettia answered him in a cheery voice with a smile and told him about her brother. The child’s smile was contagious and soon the draul man was also smiling.

“What is his name?” Asked the man when she had finished.

“Jevith.” Zettia knew that something was terribly wrong when the man’s face turned as white as a sheet. Had he done something wrong?

“You cannot see him,” the man said quickly.

“I’ll come back tomorrow then,” the girl continued to smile as she turned around to begin the trek home but she stopped dead in her tracks as the man continued. “You will not be able to see him tomorrow either… or the day after that.”

“Well, when can I see him?”

The man sighed and shook his head. He had tried to explain it gently but he could see that the child just wouldn’t understand unless he told her bluntly. “I doubt you will ever be able to see him again.” The child let out a gasp of surprise and horror. What could he have done that was so horrible? The man explained that Jevith had bet a large sum against Jabwel. He had thought the bet was a sure thing but he ended up losing. The girl ran home in tears. She knew that her family was not rich and doubted they would be able to pay the dept but she continued to run, hoping that her mother would know what to do.

Zettia was sent to Jabwel’s house once a week with a portion of money. After about five weeks of doing this she finally got a glimps of her brother. His eyes were sunken into his skull and his arms were balck and blue from bruising. Before even thinking, Zettia ran up to the wide doors of the mansion and up the steps. She saw a man dressed in rich cloths and assumed that he was Jabwel. She begged him to let her bring her brother home and promised to continue to pay the money but Jabwel offered another solution. In the end she agreed to sell herself as an indentured servant to Jabwel so that her brother could be free. She was not beaten as her brother had been but she never saw her family sense the day her brother was set free. She prayed that she would see them again. Unfortunately Jabwel had no intention of allowing that to happen and planed on making the indenture last Zettia’s whole life.

Failbin silently vowed to help Zettia find her family. He knew how hard life culd be without one. He and Zettia had both had hard lives but they continued to hope that it would get better. They both understood what it ment to be alone and they found comfort and companionship in each other. They started to believe that they were a family on their own but as the group made their way closer to Vator, Failbin and Zettia had no idea how much their relationship and their courage would be tested on both land and sea.

 

Chapter 19: The Octopus

William and Victor smiled as the ship came up the coast towards their group. They were glad to finally have wood under them for they had come from a long legacy of shipmen. It seemed like the seawater was in their blood as the Clover pushed further and further into the ocean. The sea wind rushed through Victor and William with more force than a mighty typhoon and the seawater blood’s strength was further proven with every knot that was tied in the main line and every stitch added to the canvas. Both soldiers knew what they were doing and seemed to be at home on the ship like they were at home in the forest and in their own hometown. William joked with the sailors while Victor discussed the wind with the ship’s captain. Every member if the party felt at ease. Even Samuel who usually complained of seasickness when riding in a boat was enjoying himself. Failbin could not swim but he was never worried about drowning with such capable hands controlling the ship.

The ship began the journey when the wind was with her and the spirits of all aboard were high. The waters were smooth and the sun shined brightly in the clear sky. It seemed like the day was smiling on their voyage. Yet by evening the skies began to see clouds and the waves started to roll. The storm came on so suddenly that the ship was not prepared. All the sheets were loose to catch the winds but in a storm the weight if the canvas would pull the ship down. The captain yelled orders and the sailors scurried to follow them. William and Victor ran with the sailors to tie knots and lower the canvas. William tied a square knot with sure hands that he never knew he possessed as a knight. He had often dropped the rapier in swordplay but here on the ocean he was in his element. William seemed more than capable and comfortable but the rest of the knights and Zettia just tried to stay out of the way while Failbin went below deck to help the shipmen bail water. His strong arms moved quickly in desperation as the hull began to fill. The seamen were not unfamiliar with bailing but they could still not match Failbin’s speed even with the adrenaline and experience they had learned. Unfortunately, they were not fast enough… Even with the bailers’ best efforts the ship continued to sink. The captain steered the ship with accuracy but the ship still wouldn’t move. The ruder moved but the bow never turned. Could there be a mechanical problem or was it something more?

Questions surged through every mind on the ship and each of them seemed unanswerable. Still, answers were not far at hand when the ocean swirled over an ever-teaming void. Failbin ran forward and stood at the edge of the dock and looked over the portside. Failbin gasped in disbelief at what he saw over the edge. A giant …thing had hold of the ship! Ten tentacles grasped the ship firmly. The wood creaked and the nails sighed under the strain of the bone-crushing grip.

“The temtolphin! I knew it was real,” said a sailor standing next to Failbin, in awe. Failbin looked at the man in astonishment because he also had heard the story and believed it was legend.

“You knew about this creature?”

“No one believed that it was real. No one but me and old Percy,” said the old sailor as he pointed over his soldier to a tall man that Failbin assumed was Percy. The Hakabank was launched into the side of the ship. His head hit the main mast as the temtolphin threw the ship back and forth. Failbin was about to give into the darkness when he remembered the version of the old sea chantey his tutors used to tell him.

“Centuries ago men did not have the knowledge and were lost and cold in the wilderness. They could not step out and rule the Earth because terrible creatures roamed the lands and frightened the humans. The people were so afraid that they refused to leave their settlements. Each settlement was self-reliant and had do need to trade with the surrounding settlements. The world went on like this for generations. Men hid behind walls while the world went on around them. One day a curious boy asked all the elders what was out side of the walls. Of course, no one really knew what was on the other side. They could only guess. ‘A sea of beasts is on the other side,’ said one elder. ‘He’s right, my lad,’ another man agreed. ‘There is nothing in that world that a boy like you should be interested in.’ All the men smiled at the boy hoping he would go to play and leave them in peace. They were all saddened when they saw that such would not be the case. The child continued to stand before them and they knew what his next question would be: Why has no one gone to look? The elders could not answer this question so the boy went out and looked for himself.

“He climbed to the tallest tree he could find and looked out over the wall. The child was surprised to find nothing but rolling hills and long fields of wild flowers. The view made the outside world seem beautiful and peaceful. The boy vowed to see the outside world at that very second as he looked out at the peaceful valley outside of the wall. The boy went to his small house to tell his parents that he was going on a trip. ‘The land outside of this city is magnificent! Anything is possible out there.’ The boy’s father was a rational man and asked, ‘How will you survive out in the wild?’ ‘Nature will provide for me.’ His mother begged him not to go but the boy was not listening. He had made up his mind long ago. In his excitement, he ran to the squared center of the walled city and stopped random townspeople on the street telling them that there were splendid things outside of the wall but no one believed him. After all the elders had told the townspeople of the dangers in the outside world for years and years. It would take more than the word of a mere boy to persuade them that their beliefs have been wrong all that time. The very sight of the boy insulted the people in the square because his small face reminded them of the atrocious words that sprang fro his lips. The people spoke of hanging the boy in the square only the next morning. The boy’s father heard their angry words and knew that he had to warn his son. The boy was in a far away field turning wheat but the father went to his son despite the long journey.

“He traveled as fast as he knowing that the villagers he had heard that morning were on their way to that very field. The father avoided the roads so that the mob of angry men would not see him as he went to warn the boy. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the boy at work. The townspeople were not there yet but he knew he had to hurry to get the boy away in time. He ran to the boy and hugged him as he told his son, ‘It’s time to go on your journey.’ The boy smiled and walked right to the gate. He walked with purpose and determination. His father marveled at how adult his small son looked at that moment and was proud of the boy. The mob yelled to open the gate, believing that monsters in the wild would kill the boy they despised. He left the village that hated him and enjoyed his many travels.

“One day, when the boy was no longer a boy but an old man, he came to a giant sycamore tree. It was a beautiful, strong tree and the man enjoyed just being next to it because the pull of beauty is so strong in humans. He began to speak to the tree like it was a real person – the spell of deception was cast so strongly around the tree that the man became confused. The man spoke to the tree and told him stories he had learned long ago in the walled settlement. Memories brought on anger from the past and the anger was fed into the tree. The tree became the beast and the branches morphed into its tentacles as more and more hate and anger was given to the tree. That beast still roams the seas as the temtolphin.”

Failbin had always believed that the story was legend… after all it left so many questions unanswered: Who cast a spell on the tree to make men fall into the trap of beauty? Yet, none of that mattered now. The beast was obviously real and the only concern Failbin had now was getting read of it. The knights and sailors swung swords, hooks and sticks at the tentacles hoping to loosen the beast’s grip on the ship. Failbin began stabbing at the slimy appendages himself but it only made the long tentacles hold on tighter. The ship was being pulled deeper and deeper into the black water and Failbin suddenly stopped stabbing.

The story said that the beast got its power from hate and anger. Stabbing would only make it stronger! “You’re really a beautiful creature.” The men looked at Failbin like he had lost his mind but the gray sailor who knew the tail joined him. “Yes, the most beautiful creature in all the land.” The beast’s grip slackened just a little and the other sailors joined in complementing the temtolphin.

“Think of someone you love,” Failbin told the knights and each man thought hard. The beast began to shriek in rage so loudly that everyone had to cover their ears.

“More will come like me!” The tentacled monster swore in roaring shrieks as it plunged deeper into the depths of the ocean.

 

Chapter 20: Intipo Spirit

The ship made it to the port in the small harbor city of Manit. The sailors went straight to the inn where seamen rested after a long trip. They did not go only to rest though. The sailors often shared stories and the crew of the Clover knew that they would win this contest because they had the best story. The knights breathed the thick forest air and relaxed now that the beast was far behind them. Even Victor and William seemed glad to be away from the monster although they loved the oceans and seas. Vator was in sight and they all thought the battle was over and that they would be home soon but this was far from the truth. A monster was still among them.

The time had come for Intipo. His servant had won the card game against John and now John’s soul was gone. Intipo was there instead. He saw the girl show the men the way to the jewel and knew that the stone should be his. Intipo knew what the magic gem could do and unlike the girl, he had plans for it. The owner of the stone could rule the Earth. The Hakabanks had hidden the stone centuries ago. Yet, Jabwel had found the map and used it for his own silly reasons. All Jabwel thought of was money but the world’s ruler owned its money and something even stronger: power. Jabwel had never thought of power. He was a narrow minded human with no real ambition! Intipo smiled to himself. He had ambition and saw the real vision of things. Intipo took John’s body and went to work. It was time he ruled the world.

Within minutes after making camp, Victor and his men were knocked out. There was no sense killing something that could be of use. Intipo chuckled; this would truly be a night to remember. The girl and Failbin still lay, pretending to be asleep. “There is no sense pretending,” said John’s voice. “I know that you are awake. No one could have slept threw that. You are right not to run. I have a proposition for you: give me the stone and I’ll spare your friends.”

Failbin and Zettia slowly got to their feet. He couldn’t just give the stone to him but he couldn’t let the men die either. “Play a game of Labyrinth cards with me. The winner wins everything and the looser looses everything.”

Intipo smiled. “When I win I get to kill the men and get the stone?”

Failbin nodded and added, “If you win. If I win the men go free and you let us into Vator with the stone.”

Intipo simply smiled and agreed. The game had begun! The tray of cards was brought out. Intipo shook his head slowly. “I cannot play with such meaningless, pointless decks,” the spirit said, pointing to the tray. “In order to truly play, I must use my own deck.” Failbin nodded, knowing that he had little choice in the matter. The tray was brought to him.

Failbin thought for a moment. Intipo probably knew that he used the right deck. He would have equipped his special deck to deal with cards from the deck on the right so that he could easily beat Failbin. The Hakabank was about to reach a clawed hand for the middle deck when Zettia almost whispered, “No. Use the one on the right as you have done before. They gave you messages from God. How can you save the men without His guidance?” She had said her message a little too loud in her haste but Failbin still agreed with the girl.

He knew she was right and that he needed all the help he could get. Failbin reached for the right deck and drew his five cards. He looked at each card individually and hoped that one of them would be high or have good advice. Three were Beast Cards and two were Wills. One had a picture of a dark straight path dividing into hundreds of multicolor roads that curved and looped. The card was worth 15000 points. The second Beast Card had a picture of a golden sun. It shined radiantly and made the present wrapped in sparkling paper pale in comparison. It was worth 12000 points. The last Beast Card was worth a whopping 50000 points. Failbin silently thanked God for the perfect card. The verses told him not to worry about the card game. God was watching him. The first card with paths on the front said a short verse:

Pro16 9:

All things plan out a

Course of Fate

But only the True King can

Determine the Steps.

The next card had a golden sun on it and said:

L11 13:

Even the poorest of the poor

Has something:

For the True king gives Love that

Provides for All!

The last Beast Card (the strongest Beast Card) really showed where its’ strength came from threw the verse that was written on it:

Ps84 11:

All those who

Hope have a shield in the

True King.

This verse practically told Failbin that he would win. He had to win to save the men. The words brought hope that nothing else could have shown. He was so excited that he almost forgot to look at the Will Cards in his hand.

One was a white dove on a dark red field. Failbin was not comforted at the thought of a bloody field but the card’s points settled those quickly. It added 10000 points to the total. The other Will Card was covered in vines. When Failbin held it up, he could barely see the blue background against the dense green vines. Yet, the card did add 2000 points to the Beast Card. Failbin’s confidence rose higher than he ever thought that it could. He had the perfect verse with the perfect Beast Card and two strong Will Cards to match! Everything seemed to be going his way.

Intipo placed his cards face down on the labyrinth. Failbin did the same with his own cards. He didn’t want to use his strongest cards during the first round. The perfect card should not be wasted. He laid down the card with 15000 points. Intipo flipped his cards over first. The Beast Card had a solitary silhouette surrounded by light and 10000 points. The Will Card he attached to the card only added 100 points. Failbin’s cards easily beat Intipo. Yet, he smiled at Failbin with a gleam in his eye. It was the gleam a spider gave to a fly that had gotten caught in his web.

“See that Will Card?” Failbin nodded his head. “It only has 100 points because another bonus comes with it. We must dispose of the cards in our hands, shuffle them back into the deck, and draw out five more cards.” Failbin was shocked at Intipo’s words. The perfect card had to be shuffled back into the deck! He couldn’t do that. The card was his only sure hope but what choice did he have? Failbin shuffled the three remaining cards into his deck and withdrew five new ones. He looked at his cards hoping the perfect one would be there.

He was disappointed to find that it was not in his new hand. The card was gone. At first, he felt a rush of hopelessness and loss. Then, he noticed his new cards. Two were Beast Cards and three were Will Cards. The Beast Cards had amazing pictures on them. One of them had a picture of a sun eating the moon and 10000 points. The sun glowed with radiance over the flowered background. The second Beast Card had a cross on a red field with dark clouds overhead but a sun in the background. The card had 25000 points. Failbin knew that this was the card to use. He just felt the verse speaking to him:

J12 46:

He came to the world as

Light so that no one

Could find Darkness in

Hope

The 10000-point Beast Card also had a verse:

Isa58 10:

Do what is right

And spread Hope

So that no one will know Darkness.

Although both verses came from God’s word and both gave guidance and hope, Failbin felt drawn to the verse from John. He knew that Jesus was the Light of the World and that He took away the darkness of sin. There was no greater love than that of Jesus. The card would not fail him. Failbin placed the Beast card on the Labyrinth next to a Will Card that added 10000 points. Intipo flipped his cards. They added up to be 30000 points. Failbin breathed a sigh of relief. His added up to equal 35000 points. Failbin had won!

Intipo jumped up, knowing that he had lost. He turned to run but stopped mid-way. He turned to Failbin and yelled, “You may have the jewel and your friends but you haven’t seen the last of me!” Intipo blinked his eyes twice and suddenly Failbin was spinning into purple darkness. He left his head spin and his eyes cross. He closed his eyes against the dizziness and let himself drift in and out of consciousness. Failbin lost himself in his own head but he could not stay there for long. A voice broke his deep thoughts.

 

Chapter 21: The Real Story

“Well, well. What have we here?” The voice sounded smoky and rich. Failbin tried to imagine what the creature looked like before he opened his eyes but he knew no matter what he did he would have a shock coming. The only descriptive thing Failbin could think of was big. Failbin delayed opening his eyes hoping to stall the unknown. He didn’t know where he was or what had happened to anyone back with John or even what the monster next to him looked like. This is silly, thought Failbin. It would be better to know what he was to face. Slowly Failbin opened his eyes.

The creature laughed. “You are a slow riser.” The strange monster had green eyes and twelve long tentacles. Even with tentacles the monster looked more like a dolphin than an octopus or squid. The things long mouth spread into an even longer smile when he saw Failbin’s face contort in confusion.

“Where am I?” Asked Failbin as he examined this strange new world in which he now inhabited. There was color and light everywhere but no real sign of life. “Where’s John hiding?”

Again the creature laughed. “You silly Hakabank! John is not here and neither are your friends. John still has them… You and I are the only ones here.”

Failbin turned in panic, looking everywhere. There were no tunnels or doorways and he was trapped. There was no way out!

“John has all of your friends and no one is there to save them now.” The monster grinned in delight as Failbin tried to run. He could only think about one thing: The men and Zettia. They were all far away now. He felt his heart rising into his throat. He had to help them! Desperation filled his thoughts and poured into his heart and soul. The heart-wrenching feeling seemed unbreakable but break they did. The purposefulness of Failbin’s thoughts were broken by a blood-curling scream.

Failbin realized that the scream was escaping from the monster’s mouth still Failbin could not see why the creature was shrieking. Then he felt a warm tingle at his hip. Failbin looked down and saw that the pocket of his green pants was glowing. There were cards inside! He saw three Beast cards. Each one had words around the edge etched in gold. The pictures all had a silver rim and a story. The words around the cards were not short snippets anymore. The card itself spoke volumes! The pictures even moved as he read the surrounding letters. Horses galloped and knights ran. Neggless even flew! Failbin brought the cards closer to his face, desperate for more information.

The pictures started once again at the running horses. The animals ran to a large city where criminals stood at the entrance dressed in priestly clothes. A man came by riding a donkey. His eyes were wise and gentle and his clothes were simple. He called all the people in the monstrously large city his children and the people respected him. The thieves in fine clothes were jealous of the kind man. They plotted to murder him yet; they could not because the town’s people loved him so much. Suddenly, a brilliant idea came to them: allow the law to kill him. They paid men to lie and say that the man had broken laws. The gentle man didn’t even try to defend himself. He was silent as the judge past the verdict: Death! Failbin’s heart wrenched as the next card showed the man dying. Failbin felt tears sting in his eyes and he brushed them away as people in the picture did the same. The kind man shouted out one sentence before he died: “Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”

The sun rose three times before the next scene was shown. Three days had passed. Women were going to the tomb to anoint the body for burial but when they go to the tomb the body was gone? The women began to cry but a hand touched her soldier and she realized that the gentle man was alive! He had defeated death! Failbin closed his eyes. The gentle man was not just a man. He was God’s only Son. Only God could defeat death! He came down from his throne to die for us all so that everyone could be forgiven. The last card showed all the people who had cried at the Son’s execution being lifted up in to a paradise. The cards had taught Failbin that no one is perfect, still God can forgive everyone because of the sacrifice his Son made in love. Everyone has done wrong but anyone can be forgiven. All we have to do is believe and he will allow us to be given hope in the Son’s return. The hope is so great everyone could share it. Tell others about the hope in the Son and that hope will be shared and spread. Hope filled him and it all seemed so easy.

Failbin placed his hope in the Son and asked for Him to protect the men. No sooner had the thought left Failbin’s head than the cards began to glow! The light engulfed him and carried him back to the clearing where John still stood. His back was to Failbin and his sword was drawn as he faced the unconscious men. He raised the weapon over his head and was about to strike when Failbin came running at him with a roar.

Their swords met and John used all the strength Intipo gave him. John become power hungry and hacked at Failbin just to feel power rising from his chest to his hands. Failbin parried as best he could. His sword training was harsh but it had not prepared him for this fight. In the court yard Failbin had fought humans, now he fought pure evil. Fear rose in Failbin and delayed his strike. Seeing the opening, John dove and knocked Failbin’s sword away. “You were always afraid of your most powerful weapon, your strength! You are a foolish child who knows nothing but fear,” John shouted at the defenseless Failbin.

“I am not afraid of you because I don’t need my Hakabankian strength because I can use something stronger. The True King has given me strength through my hope.”

“You don’t expect that foolish king to help you, do you boy? He is all the way back at Vator!”

“The Vatorian king sits in Vator but the True King never leaves my side. He lives in my heart and I will show you his power!” Failbin pulled the cards from his pocket and tossed them down to John’s feet. John could only stair. The pictures moved and showed the same story Failbin had seen. “Your picture show is impressive but it won’t save you,” he stopped and sneared in an evil smile. “Nothing can!”

“Hope can save everyone,” Failbin reminded John. John shook his head and ran at Failbin with his broad sword gleaming in his fist. Suddenly, light flashed from the cards and grasped at John. “NO! NO!” He screamed but it was too late. The light carried him away. Seeing that John was no longer a problem, Failbin ran to the men. He inspected them carefully. They were all alive but drugged or asleep. He could not see any bloody gashes or wounds. Failbin moved on to check on Zettia. She had a new bump on her head but that seemed to be all. Failbin breathed a sigh of relief. No one was hurt! With his mind at ease, Failbin realized how tired he was. He lie down and promptly fell asleep.

A few hours later, it seemed more like seconds to Failbin, a hand gripped Failbin’s arm, gently shaking him awake. Failbin opened his eyes to see ten worried faces looking down at him. He got to his feet and summed up all that had happened while they were drugged. All the humans shook their heads. It all seemed impossible but then again everything that had happened on their quest seemed impossible. All of Failbin’s words soaked in as they reached the hill where the little village was nestled. Zettia turned to the men of Valtor. She smiled up at them and took Failbin’s hand as she ran towards the sparkling city. Now the time had come for the party to go home, for Vator was home now… for all of them.

 

Chapter 22: The King and His Kingdom

News of the knights’ return traveled quickly as people rushed to the main roads to greet them. Men in the heavy brown pants of a manual laborer yelled their thanks. Women in blue wool threw handkerchiefs to the knights while their young daughters tossed flowers and their sons waved. Victor smiled at the warm welcome. Even after a tiring battle where half his men had been lost the cheers of the people and the smiling children could always lift his spirits… His mind wondered back to the battle that still haunted him… the battle that had killed all those men. Victor’s eyes strayed back into his nightmare. If he had been less focused on the past, Victor might have noticed that something was amiss in the here and now.

The group had made their way to the castle and the king himself stepped towards them. They kneeled down before him and anxiously awaited his thanks. Yet, a word of thanks never escapes his lips. The palace doors slam shut. The startled men jump to their feet. Failbin runs to the door and tries to move it but even his Hakabankian strength cannot open it.

“Welcome back my knights,” boomed the king’s voice. “I had not expected you back so soon.” Victor took the jewel out of his pocket and was about to hand it to the king when the king reproached him. “Do you really think I ever wanted some silly trinket? I am the king of a prosperous kingdom! Why would I need such a thing?”

“Is that not why you sent us on that mission?” Asked Samuel with slow words and a sheen of shock in his eyes.

“The mission was a decoy you fool! I let those greedy Hakabanks raid the land to distract you. They agreed to keep you busy while I used the new chaos to declare a time of crisis! I now have unlimited power! As soon as the people hear that Hakabanks tunneled to the castle and killed all my best knights who bravely defended me, they will be even more scared and willing to give me anything!” The king smiled cruelly and drew a knife from deep with in his sleeve. “Now all that is left is to tie up all the loose ends.” The king was about to stab Failbin. He stood over the Hakabank and started to thrust the blade down but he stopped midway and fell to the ground in agony. Zettia stood over the ruler with a knife in her hand. The blade gleamed red with the king’s blood. Victor stared at the girl in shock.

“You killed the king!”

“He was about to kill us!” Failbin reminded Victor. The other knights nodded but Victor still looked troubled.

“The commoners will not just accept that answer. We need proof.”

“The king had to have some form of communicated with the Hakabanks. If we look around I am sure we will find it,” said Timothy with vigor.

The knights searched high and low for any evidence but none could be found. No papers or tablets or even gold pieces with etchings, words, or symbols. They were about to give up hope when Victor ran up from the vault.

“I found it! The answer was so obvious!” All of them clamored for an answer. “What do Hakabanks value more than anything?” Victor asked and paused to wait for an answer. “Stones.” Victor held up a giant ruby with a carving of stick figures and more of the card’s writing. Failbin looked through and saw that the stone was indeed telling the Hakabanks of the knights and told of the whole plan in detail.

Zettia and her evidence were brought before the villages’ judges. They stared at her with scrutiny. One judge would ask a simple question like,” Where are you from?” And before she could answer another question would be asked. After a dozen or so of these questions, Zettia stopped trying to answer. Finally the questions stopped as the judge with a long grey beard asked for the evidence to be brought up. The judges nodded and murmured amongst themselves. At the end of the day a decision was reached. With no doubt of the authenticity of the evidence she was found innocent.

The entire kingdom heard the story of the king’s betrayal. They retold it boldly in market places and squares as well as in the quiet of their homes. The citizens told the story with reverence at dinners and as jokes to the children. The story became more than a story because it was true. The knights who completed the mission were just men. They could have been anyone! The knights never outsmarted the king. They just happened to be in the right place. Still, the knights taught the citizens of Vator a valuable lesson: any one can be a hero!

The party didn’t just reveal a tyrannical ruler; they brought hope to the kingdom. The citizens wanted to express their thankfulness to the knights, Zettia, and Failbin. The villagers wanted each of the group members to feel appreciated. All farmers know that no part is too small. The kingdom was forever grateful and the citizens wanted to express just that. The first step was declaring a new king. The heroes were given the honor of choosing the future ruler. The courts even gave Zettia citizenship, made Failbin his own statue and declared a holiday on each of the knights’ birthdays! Hakabanks never bothered the kingdom under the reign of their new king: Samuel!

Samuel used his reason and patients to become a good ruler. Under his guidance, a trading rout was set up with the Hakabanks. The creatures valued gold and jewels and Vator had plenty of those things. The Hakabanks quickly traded weapons… and even warriors. The Hakabankian warriors became the greatest mercenaries ever known. Yet, not all Hakabanks loved war. Some were farmers and others started families. Failbin and Zettia started their own family and helped set up Hakabankian farming communities above the holes. The two cultures became one and lived life peacefully together… For the time being any way.

 

 

 


Monsters Within

  • Author: Jennie Ann Arnold
  • Published: 2017-02-01 04:20:12
  • Words: 30445
Monsters Within Monsters Within