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The Omega Children - The Return of the Marauders - Book 1

 

 

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The

Omega

Children

The Return of the Marauders

Book1

 

 

Shane A. Mason

 

Shane A. Mason

www.shaneamason.com

Copyright

 

All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without prior permission of the author.

 

 

Copyright © 2011 Shane A. Mason.

Cover illustration copyright © Marcel Norkia 2011

Cover illustration from original artwork by Marcel Norkia

Additional artwork copyright © Louisa Beatty 2011 from original artwork by Louisa Beatty

 

ISBN 978-0-473-19878-7

 

 

 

Coming Titles

 

The Omega Children: The Vahn & The Bold Extraction – book 2

The Omega Children: The Agent of the Diaspora – Book 3

 

Purchase series from

 

Print & eBook Copies of ‘The Omega Children’ series can be purchased from Amazon, Nook, Kobo & iBooks

 

Check out

www.shaneamason.com

for more information on the books

 

 

 

Dedication

 

For Tysyn – my best boy

For Grace – a fountain of laughter

For Maddi – what can I say

For Josie & Tarin – stay strong

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you to Jo Davey without whose tireless support and reading, these books would not have been possible. Thank you to Graeme Lay for his valuable input. Thank you to Mike MacDonald, whose teachings in Prema inspired this tale.

I wish to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and Holly Lisle, both people I have not met, but whose achievements stirred me enough to step out of the rut and write.

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Chapter 1 – The Raid

 

 

The hair on the back of Melaleuca Arrnor’s neck shot up and a shiver ran through her body. She reached for her torch and flicked it on, peering around the upper storey of the half-room, half-balcony. Her cousins, Quixote, Ari and Lexington Arrnor, slumbered away – their shadowy forms strewn across one another like a jumbled litter of kittens.

She rose up and strode to the open balcony and with a sharp stare searched the darkness of their valley and beyond – all the way to the outlines of hills and mountains against a backdrop of stars. A sweet scent of mountain-beech laced the still night air, and she smelt familiar tussock and pine aromas.

She leant out over the balcony’s edge and checked above her. The branches of an over-sized Morton Bay Fig tree stretched beyond the house. They create a gentle camouflage, her father had said, to stop prying eyes, though from whose she had never been told.

Silence came from the house, and the valley – lots of silence, in fact – too much silence.

A burst of light at the end of the valley spat out into the darkness, followed by a tremendous BOOOOOOOMMMMM! It echoed around the valley and a roaring noise rushed toward Melaleuca. She ducked, and an explosion in front of the house shook the floor and spilt dust from the ceiling. Intense heat swirled past her face.

In an instant Ari’s thickset body appeared at her side. He pushed his woolly bob of hair out of his face and focused.

‘What was that?’

‘It….It was…’ I don’t know. ‘I…’

‘It’s okay. We’ll work it out,’ Ari said and turned to the others.

She grabbed him, pulling him to face her. ‘It means danger.’

Quixote appeared and wedged his wiry body between them, trying to hog their spot at the balcony’s edge. He craned his head left and right. His bobbing disheveled head formed a silhouette against the star streaked sky.

‘What is it? Is it lightning? Volcanoes? Rockets? Maybe balls of fire from the sky? Well?’

Melaleuca stepped back, listened and tried to focus. She needed a clue, a sound, a glimpse of something, anything that would tell her what to do next. In a few seconds her cousins would turn to her for directions.

‘Ari. What do you think? Quick.’

‘Never heard anything like it.’

Quixote’s silhouetted head moved back and forth.

‘I can’t see a thing. Stinks of farts though. It’s probably just a test. Orrrr… it’s dad on the toilet again.’

Another explosion thundered in the distance, this time followed by a whistling sound that got closer and closer and closer…BOOOOMMM! The explosion knocked them off their feet and they sprawled backwards.

‘Ow,’ Lexington cried out. ‘Get off Quixote.’

Noises and fumbling as if wrestling came from where she lay. ‘Quixote give it back.’

Melaleuca shone the torch in her direction. Like a deer in headlights Quixote froze, grinning, and held a notebook and pen in his hand.

‘Give it back to her,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote offered the notebook to Lexington, snatching it back each time she reached for it.

Through Lexington’s shamble of waist-length auburn hair Melaleuca could see a hurt look on her face.

‘Now Quixote!’

Ari stepped into the torch light and cuffed him around the head, and he dropped it.

The door to the room flew open, bashing against the wall.

Their mothers rushed in, candles in hand, faces bursting with redness. Beads of sweat trickled down their face, and as they panted and struggled to talk, the flickering candle danced shadows across their worry-lined foreheads. Identical sisters, they all shared the same stricken look of panic.

Melaleuca shone her torch at them.

‘Mum – ’

Lexington leapt up and shoved past her.

‘I think it is a bomb,’ Lexington said, holding up her notebook. ‘I have never seen one but the loud noise, sulphurous smell, dust and shaking ─ ’

Quixote threw himself between the girls, tripped and fell on the floor.

‘It was Dad. He blew ─ ’

‘Listen!’ Lexington’s mother yelled. ‘…not a drill…It’s real.’

The other mothers nodded and Melaleuca saw the chilling looks they exchanged.

‘What shall we do?’ Melaleuca asked, holding her hand up to her cousins.

Her mother flashed a weak smile at her question, and longing and hurt filled her eyes. Another far-away explosion, this time louder, shook the house and jarred her back to the urgent present.

She produced a backpack and shoved it at Melaleuca and shook a piece of clothing – a bizarre looking suit of two halves and pushed it onto Melaleuca’s body. Zipping up the sides, she enveloped her in a green camouflage suit. Melaleuca faced her cousins and they too had been zipped into similar suits, though their pockets bulged with objects.

As her cousins started to fidget and explore the contents, Ari’s mother shouted at them.

‘Explore them later. Follow us. Now!’

She darted out the door and descended the stairs. Melaleuca dashed after her, following her weak candle light, her cousins and their mothers in tow.

Another explosion rocked the house and Melaleuca watched as their mothers blew the candles out, plunging them into pitch blackness. Drifts of acrid smoke wafted inside and the voices of many men converging on their house could be heard.

‘I can’t see,’ Lexington said.

‘Shhh,’ said one of the mothers.

‘Neither can I,’ Ari said in a low voice.

Melaleuca felt for her mother though her mother grabbed her first.

‘Everyone, hold on and keep up,’ Melaleuca’s mother said, and launched them through the darkness.

Through the labyrinth of corridors, twisting and turning with uncanny accuracy, they ran, somehow missing objects in the dark. Melaleuca fought the urge to duck and shield her eyes. Each time she slowed down her mother yanked her forward. Soon the many voices, the shouting, and the smell of smoke no longer penetrated deep into the house and they halted.

The noise of Lexington’s pencil scribbled in the dark.

‘Can someone explain ─ ’

‘Wait!’

Melaleuca felt for the front of her mother.

‘What is going on? I want ─ ’

‘I said wait.’

A creaking sound clawed into the silence and the sound of a body throwing itself against the wall accosted Melaleuca’s ears, and then a large “flump” burst forth followed by a rush of cool night air. As their eyes adjusted, the black and gray shapes of distant hills and nearby trees came into focus. The mothers tugged them through the secret escape door one by one.

In the moon-less night, the four mothers stood there checking their children.

‘Where’s Quixote,’ his mother said and turned back to the opening. ‘Quixote. Get out here.’

No reply came.

‘Quixote!’

The other mothers pulled the remaining cousins back, away from the house, and beheld a sight above it. Orange light danced and moved rapidly around, lightly licking the trees and the hillside, casting raw moving shadows – the sort created by a raging fire. Tendrils of smoke plumed into the air and particles like that of burnt wood and paper drifted up amongst tiny incandescent cinders.

Quixote’s mother peered into the black opening.

‘I can’t see him I ─ ’

‘How can you see anything? It’s dark,’ Lexington said.

Quixote’s mother leapt back inside.

‘Go! I will find him and meet you.’

The darkness swallowed her.

 

***

 

Excited by the explosions and curious about the smell of gun smoke Quixote snuck back through the house. He tiptoed into the large hall at the front and his eyes widened. The front half of the building sat crumpled on the ground. Clumps of broken wood and stone lay strewn everywhere and fire crept towards him. The flames danced and tantilised him, and compelled to watch, he did not see the fighting outside through the smoke and heat haze.

A loud scream, like that of a man intent on murder, shattered its way through the fiery spectacle. Oblivious to the danger Quixote rushed forward leaping through the flames and landed, singed but unhurt. He squatted behind a pile of splintered wood, awe-struck.

Out of the dark and into the orange fire-lit light, bearded men in furs and leathers barged forward hacking at his father and his uncles with swords and sticks. Shots rang out behind them and in the faint light Quixote saw the outline of a large protruding cannon.

He caught a glimpse of his father speeding past, and then his father stopped and five men dived on him from behind and another five men ran at him from the front. His father spun around and roared through his rear attackers like a charging bull. He slammed two of them to the ground and the remaining three smashed into those attacking from the front and thudded into the dirt. Screaming guttural battle cries, they stumbled and lurched to their feet readying for another attack.

Quixote’s father reached down to the unconscious body of one of them and grabbed a sword. Brandishing it, he bellowed back at them, and with blur-like speed, launched himself at them. Five of his attackers fell to the ground, bleeding and groaning, and his father carried on forward, hacking and cutting his way like a mad man into the growing crowd of attackers.

More and more men poured out from behind the cannon barrel and started to swamp his father and his uncles.

 

Quixote’s mother dived on him from behind and latched on to his hand with a vice-like grip and stood. He felt himself launch off the ground and again with uncanny accuracy she tugged him through the darkness, speeding away from the battle. He flapped behind her like a piece of paper on a string, his skinny legs and feet barely touching the ground. He imagined water-skiing felt like this, and an ear to ear grin creased his face.

They dodged and weaved amongst the massive roots of the Morton Bay Fig trees and soon the entire length of their sprawling house had flashed by. The noise and light fell behind him and he felt his mother tug him uphill and head into the forest at a punishing pace. Bushes swished past Quixote’s face, swiping at him and wiping muck on him, and undergrowth plants tugged at his legs while small twigs and bendy branches poked at him.

Excitement raced through him.

All these years he and his cousins had been trained to learn through playing – perhaps all this time they had possessed hidden powers as well. He let his mind drift imagining that he was on a safari in the deepest darkest Congo, a place he had never been, fleeing from native attackers faster than a…….

‘Where are you?’ his mother said, snapping Quixote back to the present.

‘Here,’ he said perplexed.

He listened, expecting an answer.

‘Okay, we shall be there soon. Get them ready,’ she said, sounding as if someone had replied to her question.

‘Who were you talking to mum?’

‘Your Aunties.’

‘Didn’t hear them answer.’

‘One day, soon, you will.’

Her voice sounded tired, though she picked up speed a little. As questions of mystery and intrigue filled Quixote’s mind, his legs tired and he struggled to keep up. Many questions about their fathers raced around his mind.

‘Nearly there my little one.’

He gave in to the tiredness and let his legs thrash like crazy beneath him, somehow managing to keep going. His thoughts turned to his father and his uncles, and the men they fought. A faraway explosion sounded down in the valley.

 

‘They’re here,’ Lexington said excited into Melaleuca’s ear. Melaleuca turned and saw Quixote and his mother emerge from the bush and enter the small clearing where she and the others had stopped to wait. Quixote approached her. None the worse for his escapade Melaleuca spied his sheepish grin and could tell he was bursting to boast of something. He pawed at the buttons on his pockets and opened his mouth to speak, though his mother dropped to her knees and let out a noise that sounded like a muffled cry. The other mothers rushed to her, causing a look of concern Melaleuca had never seen before to cross Quixote’s face. Unsure how to react he half smiled and half grimaced.

Lexington’s mother knelt and whispered to Quixote’s mother. Whatever the words were, they propelled her back to her feet, and another explosion, this time bigger, boomed from way below, followed by a victorious cry.

‘I saw it all!’ Quixote flapped his arms large and wide. ‘They were like supermen and ─ ’

His mother’s hand fell over his mouth and she shushed him into silence, and again Melaleuca saw him gaze puzzled at his mother’s grave face.

Ari’s mother wheeled about, faced down the valley and said, ‘Okay, we are on our way.’ She paused and in a faltering voice added, ‘I love you.’

The mothers murmured amongst themselves.

Melaleuca stepped up to her mother and her aunties.

‘What is going on?’

An eerie silence fell over them and as if wanting to hide their true feelings they hesitated, and then turned to face her, though an overwhelming sense of long-ago dread emanated from them.

Quixote’s mother broke rank and pulled Quixote close to her, and the rest of the mothers approached their children.

 

Lexington’s mother ran her hand through Lexington’s long hair. ‘Always remember your strength is your mind and your gentleness. Your gentleness is the strongest weapon you have.’

‘Weapon? What do you mean, weapon,’ Lexington said. ‘What is going on?’

‘Use “IT” only when you need to. Take care “IT” does not dominate you.’

As Lexington’s mother stood, she pulled an object from her pocket and slipped it quickly into Lexington’s hand, and closed her fingers around it and then leant into her ear.

‘Hide it from the others. You will know when it is time to show them. If you find it, come back for us.’

‘Find what?’

Her mother did not answer but turned and walked to the edge of the clearing.

Lexington hid the object in one of her pockets, curious yet confused.

 

Ari’s mother grasped her son’s thick shoulders and felt his muscles underneath his camouflage suit.

‘Your father and I have never been prouder. Not in all the years could we have foreseen a lad like you, strong as an ox, unfaltering and brave. Stay strong. Stay strong for the others,’ she said filled with admiration.

‘We…we will see you again…won’t we?….Mum?’

She stood and joined Lexington’s mother.

 

Melaleuca locked eyes on her mother and she gazed into an older version of her own face, though the eyes differed. Through the darkness she pictured those eyes in her mind – a blue fog over the irises and a subtle undertone staining the whites purple. All the mothers had them. She wondered again why it was and why only she looked like them.

Tears welled in her mother’s eyes – filling them.

‘Melaleuca. Use your instincts always. Not your mind. Remember what we taught you.’

‘That was just playing,’ Melaleuca said.

Her mother hugged her tight – tight enough to make Melaleuca feel as if she would never see her again.

‘Mum, please…what is going on?’

Her mother answered her with a kiss and then walked away.

Melaleuca fumed. She did not want to listen to her instincts. If her feelings were right, they were about to be separated from their parents and then she would be in charge, totally in charge. Dread grew inside her and she questioned whether she was ready for this.

 

‘It’s time,’ Quixote’s mother said.

A stifled cry came from one of the mothers. ‘Please tell them.’

‘No! We agreed. It must be this way,’ one of the other mothers said.

Fed up, Melaleuca marched closer to them.

‘Tell us now! Intolerable. What is going on? Is this a test or what?’

Through the dark the mothers could all feel Melaleuca’s sharp eyes bore into them – wanting, challenging, unearthing and demanding a reason for their actions. It’s what Melaleuca did best, cut away the untruths.

 

Her mother stepped forward and took her a small distance away and spoke with her alone. A silent but pensive Melaleuca returned, calmer.

‘What did she say?’ Quixote asked. ‘Giants? Are we…giants?’

‘If she knows, I want to know,’ Lexington’s soft voice said, and then added, ‘Might as well tell me. You know I will work it out.’

‘Super men,’ Quixote blurted out. ‘That’s it eh! We are supermen.’

‘And why are these men after us?’ Lexington said.

Quixote’s mother stepped forward.

‘They are not. They do not know you exist and forbid they find out.’

‘So what ─ ’

‘ENOUGH!’

 

Three of the mothers dashed off through the bush, back the way they had come, leaving Quixote’s mother behind. Melaleuca stared after them, listening to the bushes and branches being brushed and pushed aside. Soon a deep stillness descended and all noise seemed to stop. In the seconds that ticked by it seemed that forever filled the space where their mothers had been.

Melaleuca examined her cousins one by one.

They will have to listen to me now.

‘Follow me,’ Quixote’s mother said, breaking the silence. ‘Not a word, not a sound.’

‘Let’s go,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Ari, take the rear.’

She led them after Quixote’s mother, entering the cover of the forest again and headed uphill along a ridge.

Thirty minutes later Melaleuca reached a second clearing behind Quixote’s mother and turned to make sure her cousins arrived as well.

‘On the right shoulder strap is a white light,’ Quixote’s mother began. ‘On the left one is a red light. Turn the red one on.’

One by one they located the lights and pressed them. Four dim red lights came on, bathing the ground around them for a few feet in a ruby colour.

Quixote’s mother searched around on the ground, as Lexington studied her light.

‘Why red? Why not white?’

Quixote placed his red light under his chin.

‘To make things scarier.’

Melaleuca studied the furtive actions of Quixote’s mother, and again felt a rush of uneasy emotions come off her. Can’t they see she is terrified?

‘Because she said so,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari tapped his light and added, ‘Red lights don’t shine as far as white lights, so there is less chance of someone below spotting us.’

Quixote’s mother stopped searching, reached down and tugged up hard. With a slight metallic click, a section of the ground lifted up. Quixote and Ari rushed forward to see, leaping in front of Melaleuca and blocking her view. Even Lexington politely pushed past her – notebook and pen in hand.

Three more lids were opened in quick succession, until before them four underground foxholes gaped wide. Each lid had a tree stump stuck to the top of it, and a few bushes were spread around the base, making it look a little less obvious.

‘Listen carefully,’ Quixote’s mother said and paused.

The red lights cast a hazy glow across her face. Dirt and soot sat smudged into her cheeks, and lines of sweat trickled out from underneath her messed up hair.

‘You are to hide in these ‘til one of us comes back to get you. It may be two days…It may be a week. But we will come back. In case……in case we…don’t, don’t come back…’

Both Ari and Lexington opened their mouths to speak, but she shushed them harshly and carried on talking.

‘…these are your last instructions. Bide them well. Melaleuca is to make all decisions when a decision cannot be made. Melaleuca take good counsel of the others, especially Lexington. Ari, look after Lexington, protect her and the others, but especially Lexington. Melaleuca do not be afraid to use Ari’s strength, it is more than he realizes. Lexington, lover of all that is gentle, follow your mind but with your heart learn from Quixote.’ As she said her son’s name she stopped.

She faced him and grabbed him gently with both hands. ‘And you little one, dreamer of dreams, imaginer of worlds, a true imp spirit if there ever was one, never stop being you for anyone or anything, ever…ever…’ She paused and it seemed as if more words would be forthcoming though only silence and choked emotion followed. Squeezing her eyes together she fought back the tears and jumped up.

‘What,’ she cried out to the darkness and then said more softly, ‘I will be there soon.’

She turned and started to run leaving the cousins stunned by everything, especially her last words and her sudden reaction.

Stopping, she looked back at them. ‘Well, hide,’ she shouted and disappeared into the bushes.

 

 

Chapter 2 – Friend or Foe

 

 

 

Desperate to reach his destination, Argus North tripped and fell. He slid down the hill through the forest, smearing dirt along his tight-fitting, faded camouflage suit and came to a halt against a tree. Tired and sweaty, he felt glad for the rest and fought to keep his eyes open though he soon nodded off to sleep.

 

Images of hooded people in a crowded bar swept through his dreams and their eyes loomed large – foggy blue-purple irises where the whites should have been; sacks of gold; tales of faraway lands; words of a mission that may or may not happen…..

 

Argus opened his eyes and looked around and for a moment was unsure.

‘What’s…’ he said and then realised he had fallen asleep. ‘Damn.’

He hauled his body up and cursed.

‘But it’s been over twenty years!’

He couldn’t believe the strange eyed people needed him now. Why now, he wanted to scream, why now? After all, his knees hurt, his chest felt tight, his muscles ached and his mouth felt parched, and still he had a distance to go. He shook his head and surged forward, trying to remember what he once did to ignore pain. As if stubbornly hibernating, his toughness slowly stirred inside him.

Sunlight filtered through the forest causing him to curse again. His orders had been simple. Get to the cousins before daybreak. They must not be allowed to return home.

He got up and crashed through the trees toward their homestead, smelling a faint hint of spent gun powder in the breeze. The forest abruptly ended and he stopped, stunned at the sight before him.

 

***

 

Shafts of thin morning light streamed in through the fake tree stump above Lexington. Hunched over a desk beside a bed and a large stack of tinned food, she poured over several open notebooks spread around her, analysing her workings-out. Scrawled maps, calculations, distances, and past tests faced up at her from the notebook pages. Satisfied, she reached up to a small pipe which connected the foxholes, stood and whispered into it.

‘Mel?’

‘I’m awake.’

‘Shh. Not so loud.’

‘Fine. What is it?’

Lexington could almost hear her roll her eyes back.

‘When are you going to tell me what your mum said?’

‘Why?’

‘Well, for a starter, last night you said we are to wait for our parents to return, but with no explanation, and I expressed then how I needed all the information ─ ’

‘Quixote told you what he saw.’

Lexington tapped her pencil.

‘Well…Quixote is unreliable. A thousand men? Our fathers moving like lightening? No. I think I know what happened…’

‘I see.’

‘…but with the addition of your ─ ’

‘Lex, trust me.’

‘I want to. But this is what I do, ask why. You know that.’

‘We wait.’

Lexington flopped back down frustrated. She knew that stubborn tone. Why is Mel being so difficult? God I hate it when she decides her “feelings” are instantly correct.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out the object that her mother had given her and held up a medallion on a heavy chain. On one side two squares sat embossed, opposite each other, the tips of one of their points touching. On the other side sat a raised circle with two opposing sections missing. She slipped it over her head and tucked it out of sight beneath her overalls.

Melaleuca is not the only one with secrets.

She whispered through the pipe again.

‘I’m coming over.’

She peered through a slit on the side of the stump, checking the coast was clear. Movement near the edge of the clearing alarmed her. The bushes shook back and forth as if someone pushed them from beneath.

What if it was one of the attackers from last night? She glanced at her notes and knew that even now they could be scouring the hillside for them.

She lowered herself down and whispered through a different pipe.

‘Ari?’

No reply came.

‘Quixote?’

No reply came.

She whispered Ari’s name a second time, but still no reply came.

What if they have already been..

She peered once more through the slit, and the bushes no longer moved. She placed her hand on her chest to still her fright and wished Ari were here to give her courage as he normally would.

What to do, what to do, though she knew, as ever, she needed solid facts and that meant looking. Anyway, it did not make sense that the attackers would shake a bush and give away their position so carelessly.

A camouflage net lay beside the tinned food, just one of the many signs showing that their parents must have known something like this could happen. She threw it around her shoulders and pushed the lid slowly open.

Quixote lay on the ground spread out between the bushes surrounded by toy men and soldiers, his body pushed part way under his camouflage net.

‘Hey Lexington. Come and play.’

‘Oh Quixote, you’re supposed to be in your foxhole. I thought you were someone else.’

He laughed and pretended to shoot her.

‘Where’d you get those?’ She pointed at his toy men. ‘Were they in your foxhole?’

‘Nope. In all my pockets.’

She shook her head and slunk over to Melaleuca’s foxhole and placed her head close to the fake bark.

‘Mel, you realise that Quixote is out of his foxhole.’

‘Yes, hang on,’ she said with a muffled voice. ‘I told Ari to make sure he is hidden.’

‘I can’t see Ari anywhere. And he did not answer me.’

Melaleuca opened her lid, squinting as she looked up.

‘It’s all right. He’s at one of his lookouts. Why are you so worried?’

Lexington shoved the notebook at her, displaying her scribbled notes.

‘Oh.’ How long will this take. ‘Hop in,’ Melaleuca said.

Inside the foxhole, Lexington took her through all her calculations.

‘…so you see, with what they said last night, the edge in their voices, the fact that none of our fathers came out, and these foxholes, and the secret escape door, which we knew nothing about, it either means someone or something has attacked us. They were not after our parents, they were after us.’

‘We still wait.’

‘Wha….that’s not enough…look, you must see that something big is going on here. Camouflage nets, well stocked hiding holes, a well planned escape route…there ─ ’

‘What was in your pockets?’

‘My…?’ Lexington patted them as she spoke. ‘Exactly what I’d need for something like this. More proof that ─ ’

‘Pens and papers?’

‘Yes, so I can make notes.’

‘Which is what you do. What’s in Ari’s?’

Lexington shrugged her shoulders and Melaleuca saw in her eyes she did not like being outwitted.

‘I have not seen in his pockets either,’ Melaleuca said, ‘but I know what he has.’

‘And what is in your pockets?’

Melaleuca pulled a piece of card from one of her pockets, and handed it to Lexington, and then pulled more bits of card from her other pockets, handing them all to her. On each card one word lay emblazoned – “trust.”

Lexington flipped them over and back again, rubbing her finger across the word and even held it up to the light.

‘What does it mean?’

‘It means follow me,’ Melaleuca said and climbed out of the foxhole.

With Lexington behind her Melaleuca surveyed the clearing, ending where Quixote no longer lay.

‘If I work out what your mum said, will you tell me if I am right?’

Ignoring her request, Melaleuca shuffled over to where Quixote had been playing.

‘Oh nice. He has gone back.’

‘Back? Back where?’

‘To our house. Look.’ Melaleuca pointed at his toy men.

In the dirt, made out of sticks and stones, Quixote had fashioned a small valley complete with a poor replica of their house and their foxholes. Three small figures stood around the foxholes, while a lone figure stood facing oodles of small sticks. The sticks had badly drawn bearded faces on them.

‘He thinks he has powers,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Come on, we have to get Ari and stop Quixote.’ She walked back, reached into her foxhole and grabbed her camouflage net, bundling it around her shoulders. She pulled out a sharp, stout pointed stick and hauled some rope out as well. Lexington studied it puzzled.

‘Wait…why? Why rope? And why the stick? Did you make it? How come I don’t have one?’

Melaleuca brandished the stick at Lexington.

‘Take it. Go on. When we play, you detest such things.’

Lexington screwed her face up in reply.

‘What has got into you?’

Melaleuca tapped one of the cards in Lexington’s hand.

‘I feel things are about to change. And I trust that feeling. I saw the rope and felt I needed it. Now, come on.’ She turned and headed into the forest.

Muttering, Lexington trotted after her. ‘Always Quixote. Well, I have warned them. Let’s see what trouble he creates now.’

Melaleuca stopped and ran back toward Lexington.

‘On second thought, stay here in case Quixote or Ari comes back, so you can tell them where I have gone.’

 

***

 

Argus’s eyes widen in awe. More than 30 over-sized Morton-Bay Fig trees spread out before him. Large tortured roots erupted out of their base, spreading out like twisted elephant legs frozen in time. Gargantuan branches leapt from tree to tree and formed gnarled bridges between each of their massive trunks.

Despite his urgency, he walked slowly beneath them and stared up puzzled. Under one tree rested a replica of a pirate ship, and a mini stone castle sat under another reaching high into the branches. Between all the trees rope gangways were slung, with ropes and rope ladders hanging down from huts built into the upper branches. Flying foxes, wooden gangways, slides, swings, monkey bars, roughly shaped cars made out of tree logs, and toys lay scattered around, and a real plane lay wedged high up in the branches of another tree. A graveyard silence clung to them as if they had been suddenly abandoned. Argus had seen similar secret training grounds for soldiers and terrorists hidden deep in jungles though without the toys.

He pushed on and broke into a pensive trot. Why would they need such a playground? Ask them no questions, he had been instructed, tell them nothing – follow this strictly. Why? What was so special about them? An uneasy feeling curdled in him.

Gun smoke curled into his nostrils and he dreaded the worst. He picked his pace up and dashed out of the trees spying an unwelcome sight. Across a small open valley lay another copse of large Morton-Bay Fig trees, and beneath them lay the smouldering rubble of a house, faintly outlined against blackened tree trunks.

Fearing the worst and feeling exposed, he ran toward it, darting his head left and right checking for movement. He reached instinctively over his shoulder for his rifle but only felt his pack. He cursed. There had been no time to grab anything else. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and touched the hilt of his pistol, though he knew it would be of little use against whatever destroyed the house.

Shrouded in a thin haze of smoke, he finally stood under the canopy of the great trees. He crouched behind one of them and listened, gaining his breath. Like a spent volcano dying away, smoke wafted up from the remains of the demolished house. What should have been a simple extraction now became complicated. He would have to sift through the rubble and check the cousins were not dead.

Perimeter check first.

He trod wide around the crumpled house sweeping the area for signs of others. Nothing human stirred though he stayed on guard.

A half-burnt sign lay strewn on the ground, and large letters in a child’s handwriting splayed across it the words:

“Play is forever. Play never ends. True learning starts and ends with play. Fun is the key.”

 

Gibberish. Child’s words for a child’s world.

 

***

 

Covered in his camouflage net, Quixote sat high up in a tall beech tree – high enough to stare down through the gaps to where their house once stood.

A strange man appeared by the remains of their house. Quixote watched him poke and prod through the rubble. The man disappeared from sight and Quixote climbed higher to try and spot him again, though could not so he descended.

 

***

 

Argus stood amongst the small craters where the canon shells had landed and stared at the dead bodies scattered all around. He crouched and turned one of them over. A caveman looking figure with messy hair and a scraggly beard stared back at him. Pock marks and scratched-in tattoos embellished his skin and his clothing consisted of furs. One by one Argus checked them and found nothing different until he reached the last six bodies. He turned one of them over and stopped, astonished. An attractive woman’s ashen-white, dead face stared up at him,. Something deep in her death repose touched him and a long-forgotten sadness panged him.

He turned the other bodies over and discovered two more identical women and some smartly dressed men with short hair and clean shaven faces. He pulled their eyelids up. A purple haze spread across the white portion of their eyes. He grabbed their hands and pulled back their sleeves. Each wrist had old burn marks where the flesh had been melted and healed over, leaving folded smooth skin like wax on a table.

Their parents.

The cousins were not here so either they escaped or had been kidnapped. Weariness hit him and his legs buckled. He sat, producing a bar of chocolate and started chewing on it, and the sugar flooded his empty stomach, surging warmth into his aching legs.

He surveyed the damage around him and calculated that a small army had been sent here.

How did they find this place?

The journey by foot, would take at least a week. As it was his flight in and the subsequent parachute jump took six hours. And something about the dead attackers seemed familiar.

SNAP!

Something trod behind him.

Argus rolled forward and spun around, leaping to his feet ready for action. A man, identical to the dead attackers, brandishing a meat cleaver growled at him from six feet away.

 

***

 

Quixote ran to another tree in time to hide himself yet could not resist watching the two men fight. Fists, weapons and feet flew in a flurry of fury that lasted mere seconds, leaving the old man in the camouflage suit standing.

He nearly called out to him but the appearance of a second man halted him and again he watched expectant of another fight. The two men spoke though he could not hear them, and then they quarrelled, raising their voices. The second man held Quixote’s fascination. Like a character from the middle ages, he had a cloak draped off his shoulder, and the clothes under it appeared leather and ornate.

Wanting a closer view he dashed to a tree and then another tree and then to the last tree behind their burnt out home, and shimmied up it in silence. He could only see the man’s face in the camouflage suit; the caped man had his back to him.

‘Have you gone mad? He is dead,’ said the man in the cape.

The man in the camouflage suit bent over and played with the dead body.

‘Yeah. Died for your so called lord and master.’

‘He is from the southern wasteland, a man of Ori. Death is all they are good for.’

Argus pointed to all the dead bodies.

‘Cannon fodder!’

‘YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. THEY TOOK IT THIRTY YEARS AGO!’

The words echoed around the hills.

Both of the men whipped out pistols and pointed them at each other. Quixote’s heart leapt into his mouth.

A gunshot boom rang out across the valley and in his excitement Quixote lost his footing and fell out of the tree. He scrambled to his feet dazed and spun around a few times to orient himself, catching a blurry sight of someone running across the valley toward their training playground. Quixote stumbled past the dead bodies keen to see who fled, though an object caught his eye and he stopped in mid motion. With caution he scooped up the pistol and felt the heaviness of it. He had played with toy guns before but this was real.

Pistol in hand, he trotted out from under the trees’ reach – his camouflage net still on his back. Before disappearing into the trees, the man Quixote pursued stopped and spun around, and Quixote dropped to the ground, covering himself.

 

The fleeing man turned and threw his body flat to the ground. He could have sworn he heard someone following him. He peered back through the grass, raising his head higher and spied the fake mass of camouflage that had appeared out of nowhere.

He stood up with purpose so that his pursuer could see him and trotted into the training-playground.

Within seconds Quixote scampered after him.

 

***

 

From out of the woods above the cousin’s smouldering house, descending like a slow moving fog, men clad in furs appeared. Their slow deliberate pace showed no hurry, nor signs of relenting. They trudged forward in silence as if only death would stop their advance.

 

***

 

Melaleuca held Ari clear in her sight. His stronger legs moved faster through the forest toward their house and she needed not to lose him. The gunshot made her think their attackers had returned and that maybe Lexington had been right, though with Quixote on the loose, it wouldn’t have surprised her if he had something to do with it.

Ari halted and crouched, something appearing to spook him.

‘What?’ she called ahead and picked up speed to catch up to him.

‘Someone is ahead of us. Listen.’

Noises of someone pushing through the bushes came from in front of them.

‘Quixote?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Not unless he is carrying an elephant.’

‘Move forward more. Quiet and observe,’ Melaleuca said with a snap.

She inched forward with Ari in front until the person heading toward them sounded close by. She nodded to Ari and he nodded back. She crouched and threw her camouflage net over her and stepped two paces away from Ari who in turn hid under his camouflage net. She held a rope in her hand and Ari held the other end.

 

***

 

Quixote brandished the pistol, feeling potent and waved it in front of him, though his arm began to tire with the weight of it. Every time the man in front stopped, Quixote leapt behind a tree and tried hard not to giggle. He felt like he was playing hide-tag, one of his favourite games. He wondered if he should squeeze the trigger and see what happened.

 

***

 

The man stopped short of Melaleuca. A bush obscured him from sight though she could see his hand. Blood dripped from it and in it he held a pistol. She wanted to signal Ari but the man turned and ran straight toward her. As he passed her, she yanked hard on the rope and then felt Ari pull back on it. The rope went taut across the man’s shins and he tripped and nose-dived into the dirt.

 

The earth came up at Argus quicker than he could react and with what little strength he had left he tried to break his fall. Two assailants charged him and he rolled over to defend himself though pain flashed through his pistol hand. He tried to lift it off the ground but saw a foot pinning his hand. Something sharp jabbed into his throat and through blurred vision he could make out the hulking form of a young boy, stick in hand rammed at him. He swotted at it though another stick jabbed into his throat. A girl held it.

It’s them. Thank God. Found them. I need sleep.

 

Melaleuca pressed her stick into Argus’s skin.

‘Who are you? Where are our parents?’

She saw relief flash across his face and he groaned and blinked at her with blood shot eyes, moving his jaw trying to speak. At first no words came out and after swallowing a few times he said hoarsely, ‘Here to save you.’

Melaleuca sharpened her gaze on him.

‘I can tell if you are lying. Where are our parents?’

‘Alive…led attackers…away – other direction.’

He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, taking in several deep breaths until his breathing slowed to normal.

‘Someone’s tracking me. Got to get going. Ohhh man, am really too old for this.’

He pushed himself upwards and Melaleuca and Ari jabbed their sticks harder into his neck.

‘Our parents are coming back for us,’ Ari said. ‘You lie. You’re one of the attackers?’

‘Stay,’ Melaleuca said.

Argus pushed against their sticks and the sharp ends pricked deep into his flesh. Ari shifted forward an inch and pushed his stick into Argus. A small trickle of blood oozed down Argus’s neck and Melaleuca considered pulling back though her instincts told her otherwise. Tiredness and pain registered on Argus’s face but an underlying steel-will let the sticks draw blood and with no fear he pushed himself up and stood unfrightened in front of her.

‘I have not been transported thousands of miles and run all night to be told what I am and are not.’

He grabbed at Ari’s stick and clenched it in his hand. Ari gripped back and Argus yanked it hard though it barely moved. Surprise formed on Argus’s face.

Ari raised his eyebrows at Argus.

‘I am Ari Hillary Shackleton Arrnor. I have an explorer’s heart and the grit of a soldier. If I decide you go no further, you go no further.’

‘Back up Ari,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Prove what you say. Who are you?’

‘I…I am…’

Melaleuca’s crisp blue eyes met with Argus’s and she felt herself push into his mind. Argus dropped to his knees and a strange enchanted look fell across his face. Puzzled she had an urge to introduce herself.

‘I am Melaleuca Willimena Enigma Arrnor. I am in charge. Nothing happens without my command. Who are you?’

‘Argus…Argus North.’

‘What are you saving us from?’

He shook his head.

‘I…don’t know…was just sent.’

She could detect no sign of malice in him and relaxed.

‘Why did you kneel then?’

Even before he answered she saw he did not understand his reflex. He shrugged his shoulders.

Ari growled and held his stick tighter.

‘I want more proof.’

‘I am being pursued,’ Argus said. ‘Whoever attacked your parents follows me now.’

‘I say he is one of them,’ Ari said.

‘Sent by whom?’ Melaleuca said.

‘By your parents!’

She looked into Argus’s crinkled eyes again, and saw he spoke the truth. She started to see deeper and could tell there was more he was not telling, lots more. Argus pulled away.

‘Later. Danger is nearly upon you.’

She pulled her stick away and pushed Ari’s down.

‘What you say may be true. We will go and see for ourselves.’

Argus shook his head. ‘No. Wait. You can hear them coming. Look, they have been sneaking up on us the entire time.’

Ari and Melaleuca looked down hill and Argus seized the opportunity to grab their sticks off them.

 

Quixote’s arms ached and the man he chased eluded him. The pistol proved heavier than he thought though he loved the feel of it. He forged ahead toward the man’s last known direction and caught sight of his footprints and again felt excited at the prospect of catching him.

He heard someone shout out ahead and then heard a loud crash. Quixote jumped behind a tree and using two hands tried to point the pistol uphill though it kept on wobbling. Between the gaps in the trees he could see the man stand up. Quixote edged forward, imagining he closed in for the kill, ever vigilant to make no noise. With skills honed from years of sneaking up on the others he knew this prey would be his. As Argus came into sight Quixote saw him snatch the sticks out of the hands of Melaleuca and Ari and appear to threaten them.

Summoning all the strength in his wobbling arms, he jabbed the pistol in their direction and tried to aim it. The end of the barrel bounced between Argus and all the trees. He yanked hard on the trigger.

 

Like drumsticks for weapons, the sticks stuck up out of Argus’s hands and under the shadows of the trees he waved the sticks at Melaleuca and said, ‘Can you hear it?’

BLAM!!!!!

A blast thundered from downhill and a small shockwave roared toward Melaleuca, a small object zipping by, leaving a trail of splintered wood and leaf shards. She dropped to the ground surprised and Ari dived beside her. Argus hit the forest floor hard and groaning whipped his pistol out.

‘See I told you. Now get behind that tree. Get an item of clothing, stick it on these.’ He threw the sticks at Melaleuca. ‘And make it look like you are a good target.’ He cocked an eyebrow at Ari. ‘I am going to outflank them.’

‘I’ll take the left flank,’ Ari said and disappeared with ease into the undergrowth.

Argus looked at Melaleuca astonished.

‘We are more than you think,’ she said.

‘I see,’ he replied and started crawling to the right.

Melaleuca half-heartedly held out her stick and waved it. She would have preferred it if she had given the command though she could see the sense in what Argus said. As a small and unnoticed protest she did not put any clothing on it.

 

The recoil threw Quixote backwards and the gun flew out of his hand. What a noise, what a sound, what fun. The smell of gunpowder in his nostrils felt strange yet pleasing as well.

He heard people converging on him and grabbed the pistol and ducked down, giggling to himself thinking of how surprised they were going to be.

 

Ari could see the faint outline of a body through a small bush. Lagging behind, Argus caught up and together they stood up and charged toward Quixote from different angles.

Quixote leapt up and charged back. Like an unsteady man wielding an anchor he swung the pistol around.

Argus drew a bead on Quixote and prepared to fire.

‘Quixote,’ Ari cried out and dived on him.

 

Hearing Quixote’s name Melaleuca rushed toward them, arriving to see Argus lower his pistol from Quixote and holster it. Beneath Quixote’s scarecrow hair an irrepressible imp’s smile creased his face – the corners of his mouth turning up in cheek. Eyes hell bent on merriment and mirth flashed up at Argus. Even in the darkest dank hole on earth he looked like he would find something to laugh at.

‘Get up,’ Argus said unimpressed.

Ari helped Quixote to his feet and took the pistol out of his hand. He lifted it up and held it out, eyeing the end of it, focusing on an imaginary target. His aim wavered little.

‘You could have been hurt,’ Argus said.

Melaleuca shook her head at Argus and took possession of Quixote’s pistol and held it in front of him.

‘Where’d you get this?’

He giggled.

‘Back at the house. It was lying on the ground.’

‘Were you supposed to go back there alone?’

A sheepish grin crossed his face.

‘I have to always follow my heart,’ he said with fake modesty. ‘Mum said so.’

‘And our parents?’ Ari said.

‘The house is all smashed to pieces and the men that attacked us are all dead, laying everywhere.’

‘Did you see our parents?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Nah. Not there.’

Argus sneered and said, ‘You could have been killed. Sheesh! All of you let’s move.’

Melaleuca squared off with Argus.

‘I lead us. No one else.’

‘You are a little girl. Shut your mouth and follow me or you will all die.’

‘None of us fear death,’ she said refusing to concede.

‘Except Lexington,’ Quixote said.

‘That’s only because she thinks about things too much,’ Ari said.

‘ENOUGH!’ Argus roared. ‘There is no time for this. Get moving. You are in danger.’

Melaleuca could see his obvious pain, how his head hurt and how exhausted he looked and wondered what more he could reveal.

‘I will look for myself,’ she said and pushed through the bushes and started to make her way toward the valley floor.

 

Ari and Quixote both grabbed for the pistol, though Argus reached over the top of them and yanked it out of their reach.

‘Bravery may be yours, but more than that is needed to use this.’

Ari and Quixote looked disappointed, though shrugged their shoulders and tore off after Melaleuca.

 

Argus plonked himself down.

They aren’t normal. He had pictured them scared and glad to be rescued. So far they hardly seemed the rescuing sort. And one more still needed to be found.

Unable to fight off sleep any longer, the quiet of the forest seeped into his worn muscles and he nodded off. Visions of a long lost land where the men of Ori came from washed over him and the words, ‘took it thirty years ago,’ accompanied his thoughts into sleep.

 

Shouting woke him up and Melaleuca stood over him red faced, puffing and panting.

‘They’re coming across the valley, scores of them.’

‘They look mean,’ Ari said.

‘Come,’ Melaleuca commanded.

 

A long line of men almost spread the length of the valley. With no apparent hurry they trod forward at a steady pace. Furs and layers of tattered cloth hung off them. Thick hunks of rough wood adorned them for crude armour and great chunks of matted hair hung down from their heads and faces. Some bore long barrelled rifles while most brandished bladed staffs of vicious looking angles.

Quixote made a pistol shape with his hand and started shooting them.

‘These men mean to kill you,’ Argus said.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – What’s Beyond

 

 

The Harbinger stood before a large partially open granite door, lost in thought. He wondered how many years he had been coming to check the room.

Twenty maybe, or had it been thirty?

The exact number eluded him.

As tar-black darkness stared back at him from the room, he sensed something wrong. An unnatural dull glow should have emanated from it – a sure sign the objects he had guarded all these years lay active. Like a man staring far out to sea he scanned deep into the darkness and squinted, scratching his head confused until he realised that the darkness was the answer. Either the objects had disappeared or worse, those that last used them had died.

He stepped into the room and groped for the objects. He ran his hands over them, counting all 14 and breathed a sigh of relief.

 

***

 

Lexington paced back and forth. She had heard the gunshot over twenty minutes ago yet no one had returned.

She pulled out a notebook, opened it and wrote…

Why?

Then wrote…

Why us?

She sat on the lid of her foxhole and waited.

‘Yes I know I should be in the foxhole,’ she said to herself, ‘but I think better out here.’

I think your mum wanted you to work it out for yourself,’ her thoughts replied.

‘Mmm. Well she is not here, so help me work out what is going on.’

You haven’t told the others about me yet.’

‘Mum told me not to. Said the others would understand later.’

Are you ashamed of me?’

‘Don’t be absurd. You are me.’

Then tell the others.’

‘At the right time.’

The time is now.’

‘The time is time to work out what is going on. Melaleuca knows something and I want to work it out before she gets back.’

Fancy. Melaleuca gets it right every time and you have to think. Maybe you just need what she’s got.’

‘You are supposed to help me solve the things that I cannot. That’s how Mum said you came into existence.’

My birth? How does it go again?’

‘Look you can play later, time to work.’

Hmmmph. I never get to play. Maybe I just won’t work.’

Lexington sighed. The last thing she needed was her mind rebelling. With nothing in the past twenty four hours making sense, she needed its help analysing what little she knew. And Melaleuca knowing something she did not, irked her. She imagined being Melaleuca and tried to have an instant feeling.

STOP THAT!!’

‘Stop what?’

Stop doing that feeling thing, it hurts me.’

Lexington grabbed her notebook and wrote…

That’s why!

Her mind’s voice silenced itself.

Pen and notebook down, she rubbed her temples and pulled her hair back, resting her hands on her head.

Why attack us? Who could possibly want us and for what? Where to start? She thought of their library and her need to question her parents, even though they rarely answered. She knew the drill. All the cousins had done it a hundred times before. One of the parents would take them somewhere, to a book, a piece of land, hand them an object or draw a diagram for them, and they then had to work it out for themselves.

But they were not here.

She picked her pen up and wrote down……

Why

And then waited. As soon as her thoughts spoke she wrote……

That’s why

And her thoughts fell silent again.

Feeling horrible for doing so she wrote both words out several times until she felt sure that her thoughts would behave.

‘Help needed,’ she said.

State the question,’ said her thoughts meekly.

‘Why us? I want answers now. Before Melaleuca comes back.’

We need clues or the others, so we can play-act out recent events.’

‘Clues? Yes. No time for play acting. What sort of clues?’

Anything could be a clue.’

‘Yes, we need real proof, evidence. I’m going back to search for it.’

She wrote that’s why” in a hurry and stood to leave, though far off noises alerted her to approaching people chatting with excited panic. She fell to the ground and threw her camouflage net over top of her.

 

Melaleuca burst into the clearing followed by Ari and Quixote and then Argus.

Why is she hiding?

‘Lexington, get up. All of us grab our packs.’

A perplexed Lexington rose up out of her net and faced off with Melaleuca.

‘What is going on and who is this?’

Melaleuca lifted the lid to her foxhole.

‘No time.’

She glanced back over her shoulder and took in Lexington’s stance and sighed.

‘Ari. Pack her things.’

Ari jumped into Lexington’s foxhole and started stuffing her gear into her pack.

‘He says he is here to save us,’ Ari said and Melaleuca heard his softness for Lexington. He popped his head up and cast an evil eye at Argus. ‘We don’t have a choice. There are hundreds of men crossing the valley as we speak, heading this way.’

‘Men? Why? Save us from what? Where are we going?’

Melaleuca climbed out of her foxhole and pulled her pack behind her and scanned the scene. Surprised, she saw Quixote with his pack on his back, ready. Ari lifted Lexington’s pack out of her foxhole while Lexington held her ground with an expression on her face that told Melaleuca she would not move until she had answers.

‘We can talk as we run,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Have you told them what you were told last night?’

‘On the way,’ Melaleuca said. She pulled her pack onto her back and walked to the other side of the clearing though out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Lexington lifting her pen to her notebook and approaching Argus.

‘Where are you taking us?’ Lexington demanded of Argus.

‘You must be Lexington.’

‘Yes. Lexington Dodeca Varfor Arrnor to be exact. I have many questions ─ ’

‘Save it kid. I have to ─ ’

Melaleuca bore her eyes on Argus and made a loud throat clearing noise.

‘Ahem!’

She raised her eyebrows in a question.

‘Your sister says to get going. Do it,’ Argus said. ‘She is the leader.’

‘She is not my sister. She’s my cousin. Where are we going?’

Argus threw his arms up in frustrated tiredness.

‘Oh for god’s sake! Over the hill. Doesn’t matter right now. Let’s just get going.’

In unison Ari and Quixote both said, ‘Over the hill.’

‘The adventurer and the clown,’ Melaleuca said, sensing a new excitement growing inside them though she knew this information would slow Lexington down.

‘Over the hill,’ Lexington said and swiveled her head to Melaleuca. ‘And I suppose this is a right decision? Hmm? Does it feel good? Perhaps we need some facts to back it up?’

‘My orders are to take you over the hill,’ Argus said. ‘Shut the lids. Cover your tracks. Hurry. Get going now.’

‘Who gave you those orders?’

‘Lexington! Stop,’ Melaleuca said.

‘But it does not make sense. If the men were after our parents then why are they heading toward us?’

‘I don’t know Lexington.’

‘That’s right. It is not a decision. It’s a question. To answer it thinking and working out is needed.’

Whatever attitude Lexington hid in her words Melaleuca had never heard it before. It had a hint of a challenge and an undertone of jealousy.

‘What is bothering you?’ Melaleuca said.

A demure foolish expression crossed Lexington’s face.

‘You dismissed what I told you before and you are doing it again.’

‘Enough,’ Argus said in a weak voice. ‘You’re pissing me off. I’m tired, cranky and losing patience and it feels like ravenous wolves are eating me. And…’ He snarled at them. ‘…my head hurts. They’re not after you!’

‘What then?’ Lexington said.

‘I don’t know. An object of sorts.’

‘What object?’ She wrote in her notebook.

‘You want to stay here and die? Just get moving.’

Melaleuca narrowed her eyes and shot an ungrateful look at Argus.

‘What object?’ Melaleuca said.

Argus hung his head and shook it, muttering low words and then pulled himself as upright as his tired frame would allow.

‘Stay here and die then.’ He started walking off uphill.

He’s right. No time to waste.

‘Follow him. Now,’ said Melaleuca in her most commanding tone and with her eyes dared Lexington to ask more questions.

‘But we are leaving clues behind!’

‘MOVE LEXINGTON.’

 

Up the hill they sped with an ease that surprised Argus. Despite carrying packs and camouflage nets they muscled their way up through the trees higher and higher. Lexington stopped every now and then to catch her breath but still maintained the group’s pace. They chatted amongst themselves and even though Argus tried to shut them up, he noted they ignored him.

The trees got smaller and the undergrowth of bushes thinned out, giving way to patches of tussock and flax. Instead of towering fronds, gentle ferns sprouted, and the air’s crispness reddened their cheeks.

After some time they realised they had never been this far before and their normal banter finally slowed and became quieter. With each step a sense of mysterious adventure stirred in them. Even wanting to know their parents’ whereabouts diminished and only Lexington gave thought to it, pondering what little facts she had decided upon.

A few hours later Melaleuca followed Argus through the last line of thin, bent-over gnarled trees, and along with her cousins burst out onto an open hillside of scrubby tussock near the snowline. The hill soared for hundreds of metres upwards and snow sat barely visible on the tops. Large patches of rocks erupted out of the earth and though a gentle wind blew downhill, tussock bushes leant at right angles upwards, a testament to past blusters.

Ari trod forward of Melaleuca, holding his arms out wide, and she could feel his want to hold it all – still Argus continued his upward trudge.

‘Wow,’ Ari said.

Something about the hills had always called to Ari, some silent song of stolid solitude. It seemed a good sign and Melaleuca took in the others reactions. Quixote cavorted around like a lamb let loose for its last play of the day, and Lexington opened her eyes wide as if panged by a feeling of infinity.

‘Everyone okay?’ Melaleuca asked.

Ari turned to answer, a broad smile crossing his square jaw.

‘Oh yeah. This is amazing….What do you think Lex? Can you feel it? The earth spirit?’

‘I can,’ Quixote yelled.

Lexington nodded in acknowledgment.

‘The air is fresher, thinner. And there are an abundance of negative ions. This accounts for changes in light and the affect on us. I have given you my opinion on what you feel in the earth before Ari.’

Even Argus stopped and turned, looking at her incredulous.

‘Lex,’ Melaleuca said, ‘even I can feel something in the earth and I saw what you felt.’

Quixote stretched his arms up and pushed his belly out.

‘Oi, Lex! I feel where giants have been.’

Lexington rolled her eyes at his words and said to Melaleuca, ‘Do you realise you just made Ari right by making me wrong? Another decision?’

‘Ahhhhh,’ started Argus, ‘do whatever this is later. Keep moving.’

‘Sure. Are we going up and over there?’ Ari said, pointing to the top.

Argus waved his arm between two of the bare rolling mountaintops.

‘Nooo. We go over the pass, between the tops.’

A long lazy slope spread between them like a reclining arm chair.

‘Yesss. Over the Giant’s Arm Chair,’ Quixote said.

‘The what?’ Argus asked.

‘His head lays up there and his feet rest there. Giants used to live in this land and that’s where they rested.’

Argus rubbed his eyes annoyed.

‘Just…f…follow. Shut up. Follow. We need to get over the pass and under the cover of forest before sundown. If we keep stopping to admire the scenery we’ll get caught.’

Ari and Quixote took up his words and dashed through the tussock, clambering over rocks as if to prove to Argus they could beat him there. Lexington held her ground.

‘What’s wrong with her?’ Argus asked.

Facing downhill, Lexington’s eyes wandered over their small valley peeking out miles below. She could see the end of it and just make out the river that swept by. In the distance beyond it, lines of many hills faded away to lesser shades of blue.

Melaleuca walked back to her.

‘What is it now?’

‘None of this makes sense?’

‘It will all make sense.’

‘Look.’ Lexington pointed to their valley. ‘You can see our trees. They stand out from the other ones. Once we cross over this hill I think we may never see our home again.’ Sadness tinged her words.

‘Let’s just get over the hill.’

Melaleuca took her arm and gently pulled her and Lexington’s face drooped.

‘Our parents are gone,’ Lexington said. ‘You know it, I know it.’

‘Lexington. Let’s go.’

‘Why won’t you tell me what was said to you?’

Ire rose in Melaleuca. I hate that self pity tone of hers.

She knew that they needed to get going. The time for talking would be later.

‘We are being chased,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Did you touch the men? Are they real? It could be a trick. Light and mirrors can make one man look like many. I have not seen it but have read about it.’

‘Okay then! Mum said, “Go as far as you can see and then you will be able to see further.’’

Melaleuca let Lexington’s arm go with a forceful flick. ‘Okay. There. I have told you. Let’s go.’

Lexington looked at their valley once more – the largeness of it stilling her over-active mind. The gentle haze of distance called to her and like a chorus of blues they mixed with the sky making her feel a small part of something greater. She wondered if this was the earth-spirit Ari had so often spoken of.

‘Let’s go Lex,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I think if Ari stood here he would say our valley does not want us to go.’

‘They are just hills Lexington, that’s all. The world is full of them.’

‘But you said you felt ─ ’

‘Hills, Lexington. Hills.’

Argus screamed at them to get moving and his voice carried far enough to echo back.

 

Lexington faced uphill and started to walk. She needed time to think. All this action made it hard for her to sort things out in her mind. A feeling of needing to return dogged her.

 

***

 

High overhead a giant eagle-like bird, a Kockoroc circled. From its skyward vaunting view it focused its crisp eyes and spied the small party of people weaving, like disjointed dots, up to the low pass of the Giant’s Arm Chair.

 

***

 

Melaleuca grabbed Lexington’s hand, squeezed it and shot her an awkward smile. She could feel Lexington’s resistance but they had to move. Up ahead she watched Argus stumble and disappear over the low pass.

Half pulling Lexington behind her she soon crested the pass. A howling wind smacked into her with a startling suddenness. She fought for her footing, released Lexington’s hand and Lexington tumbled backwards.

Ari and Quixote stood a few feet below her and leant into the wind, arms outstretched, laughing and pretending to fly.

Dry barren hills dropped away from Melaleuca, sloping down in rough ridges and gullies to the valley floor a great distance below. A giant marshy swamp spread along the entire valley, and mushy pools and reeds stretched as far as she could see.

Argus struggled back up to the pass and shouted over the wind, ‘MOVE! WHERE THE HELL IS THE OTHER ONE?’

Melaleuca turned back. Lexington lay amongst the tussock and stared back at the tree line mesmerised.

What is she analysing now?

A lone attacker moved amongst the trees and appeared to stare up at them. Melaleuca dropped between the tussock bushes leaving Argus confused. She pointed to the trees and he dived to the ground as well, though he stood out as a strange bump against the skyline.

‘Lex. Crawl back and get the others.’

Lexington held the attacker in her gaze and said, ‘Is this what you saw? Did he kill ─ ’

‘Lex! After. Go and get the boys.’

She turned to go but before she could leave Ari and Quixote tumbled down the hill, and upon seeing Lexington’s confused appearance, Ari said, ‘We saw Argus drop and figured something was up.’

‘Well done,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Listen, here’s what we are going to do.’

 

They huddled as she explained the plan.

 

Argus’s body almost refused to stand up. Pain seemed to shoot everywhere. He didn’t care about the cousins, but he had never failed a mission. A strength of pride surged through his arms and he pushed his body part way up and blinked the sweat and gunk from his eyes.

Oh no! What are they…

Argus watched Quixote leap up and run to the right, and Melaleuca and Ari slide forward as the attacker spotted Quixote. Instead of running toward Quixote the attacker slipped into the woods and disappeared from sight.

Argus stood up and dashed down towards Melaleuca. Bloody fools.

 

Melaleuca peered through the tussock ready to attack but the attacker had gone. Before she could speak to Ari, Argus appeared above her and gripped her clothing, hauling her to her feet. Lexington appeared behind him.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ Argus yelled.

Ari launched himself into Argus and shouted, ‘Unhand her.’

Argus stumbled backwards and then slapped his own forehead in frustration.

‘That was a scout! A scout get it! Now he has gone back to tell the others. And guess what will happen then?’

Melaleuca brushed her clothes off where Argus had grabbed her.

‘You understand little of how we work.’

Argus threw his hands up. ‘Now the whole bloody army will descend upon us.’

‘Then we have to stop him,’ Ari said.

‘Stop him! How? Right now he is ripping through that forest, the same one we took our time coming up, back to his men. You want to run into them as well. Sheeessshh!’

‘Enough,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s just go then, away, the other direction. Quixote, Ari. Let’s go.’

Lexington tapped her head as they walked back uphill toward her.

‘Perhaps someone made a wrong decision?’

Everything Lexington wanted to say to Melaleuca, Melaleuca could see written on Lexington’s face, and the words, “take counsel” from Lexington came back to her. She ignored her want to put Lexington in her place, choosing instead to head back up to the pass.

Over the pass Melaleuca stopped and waited for Argus to lead the way, though he only trotted a few feet past her, halted and dropped his jaw open. He stared out over the naked hills below, worry evident on his dirt stained face and shook his head.

‘It’s gone. But that is impossible….Unless, but no, I could never.’

He threw his pack off and rummaged in it and produced a compass and a map.

‘Wait here.’ He dashed back up the slope into the wind. ‘And don’t move.’

‘Sit. Rest,’ Melaleuca said and sidled along the hillside to try and see what Argus was up to.

Quixote and Lexington flopped down and Ari joined Melaleuca.

‘I don’t often see you unsure,’ Ari said.

‘I have never had to re-check my decisions either.’

Much had changed in such a short time. Melaleuca looked out on the swamp land, emotionless and lost in thought.

‘That’s unlike you,’ Ari said.

‘This is new.’ Her hawk eyes moistened. ‘It feels like I have to learn to trust, again. I can’t…just…can’t explain it.’

The time had arrived for their playing to stop and now a realness not experienced by them before, lay ahead. Yet playing, as her mother had explained to her away from the others, was one of their best strengths.

Got to trust.

‘I know what your mum said,’ Ari said, placing his hand on her shoulder. ‘You have to unite us don’t you, especially those two.’ He pointed to Quixote and Lexington.

‘Unite…yes. Those two? Yes. And me and Lexington. She is upset that my instincts disagree with her conclusions.’

‘She thinks too much. We all know that. We all need a clearing, especially her. Too many changes too fast and she cannot think straight.’

‘She is right to suspect. Our parents have hidden a lot from us. I have known this for a number of years but told no one. I knew our parents would tell us when…’ She stopped mid sentence realising she never knew. ‘Well…they would have told us.’

A disconsolate Argus returned and sat down.

‘Something ill natured is at hand here.’

‘What is it?’ Melaleuca asked.

His steely jaw underlined his pursed lips and she could tell he was unsure about telling them.

‘Tell us if we are to trust you.’

Argus flicked his head down hill. ‘Last night there was a forest covering this entire hill. Now it’s gone.’

‘Forests don’t disappear overnight,’ Lexington said.

‘Really! This…’ He held up the compass and map. ‘…says otherwise.’

A large shadow moved over the land toward Melaleuca and then crossed over them.

‘Look,’ Ari said and jabbed his finger skyward.

The Kockoroc dived toward the ground in a beeline though spread its wings wide, breaking its dive, and brought itself to a mid-air halt, gliding down in a gentle motion. Its massive feathered body loomed above Melaleuca and her cousins, with Argus’s head barely coming up to its underbelly. Power radiated off it and a haughty arrogance swam about it. It opened and shut its beak as it clicked and cackled.

Melaleuca struggled for a feeling on it and then Quixote flashed into her mind, though too late.

He leapt forward and cried out, ‘A giant’s pet bird. Let’s ride it.’

The Kockoroc swivelled its head fast. The feathers on its neck rose and its glassy brown eyes demanded to know who dared to approach. Ari tackled Quixote to the ground and they both rolled forward, halting at its feet. Melaleuca felt Lexington huddle behind her.

‘I just know Quixote will get us killed one day,’ Lexington said.

‘Don’t move,’ Ari said to Quixote.

‘It’s not going to hurt us,’ said Melaleuca and before Lexington could hassle her she added, ‘Yes I felt it and decided it to be true.’

Argus rushed forward to protect the boys.

‘Wait Argus,’ Melaleuca said.

The Kockoroc spread it wings and arched its neck, squawking and pecking at Argus. Argus ducked like a boxer avoiding a punch and moved away.

‘Bloody menace.’

The Kockoroc clicked and bent its head down, nudging Quixote playfully, even allowing him to tousle its feathers.

‘Only to you it seems,’ Melaleuca said.

Melaleuca approached it with Lexington walking a ginger pace behind with her pen scrawling in her notebook.

‘It’s friendly Argus,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Come toward it slowly.’

He tried again, saying with a threat in his voice, ‘You don’t know where it is from. Eagles this size died out millions of years ago.’

Once again the Kockoroc spread its wings and threatened Argus. For some strange reason this pleased Melaleuca.

‘Dumb eagle,’ Argus said.

Lexington flipped through her notebook and read from it.

‘Hmm. The eagle likes us. It doesn’t like you. We are from here and the eagle must be as well and you are not. Animals are known to grasp character better. Seems maybe you are not who you say you are.’

‘Whatever.’

‘Your actions and tone threaten him,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Look I don’t know what big bird wants. It could be a trick from the enemy.’

‘My feelings say otherwise.’

‘The facts agree with her feelings,’ Lexington said.

‘Finally,’ Quixote said in a low voice, earning stares from both the girls.

Anger and weariness mixed in Argus’s face.

‘You know nothing about it. It could have come from those men, who, right now, as we speak are trekking up this hill or have we forgotten.’

Melaleuca searched Argus’s gnarled old face for the truth of his words. Thick skin like an elephant’s trunk covered his face and his eyebrows bushed out large, and deep lines crawled away from the corner of his eyes curving down the side of his cheeks. He speaks sincerely.

‘Equally our parents could have sent it.’

‘Fine. Suit yourself. Way too old for this. No gold is worth this.’

He walked away from them and headed down hill.

‘Maybe we could fly on it,’ Quixote yelled after him.

Argus held up two fingers to Quixote in a gesture none of them understood.

‘Two what?’ Lexington asked.

The Kockoroc beat its great wings and launched itself into the air, creating a powerful down draught, knocking them over. It flew higher and higher and higher until it appeared like a normal sized bird. It circled a few times and then let out a loud cry that sounded like the roar of thundering bulls, almost as if ancient memories were coming to life after being dormant for eons.

‘It’s been trapped for many years. It’s crying freedom,’ Ari said.

Lexington scrawled furiously in her notebook and her eyes started to blink rapidly, a sign Melaleuca had come to see as Lexington’s mind over analysing.

‘Lex?’

‘So much to consider. Too much. Wish I could freeze things. Why’d Ari say that? What’s he base it on?’

The Kockoroc circled tighter and tighter and tighter until the circle became a dot. The dot stayed in one place and slowly became larger and larger and larger.

‘It’s going to attack,’ Ari yelled.

‘How do you know that?’ Lexington said flummoxed.

‘LOOK!’ He cried out. ‘DUCK!’

The Kockoroc bore down on them at incredible speed. Thin streams and wisps of vapour trailed behind its outspread wings.

‘IT’S GOING FOR ARGUS,’ Lexington screamed. ‘I KNEW HE WAS BAD.’

The Kockoroc roared by, ripping up such turbulence that Melaleuca and the others flicked up into the air. She managed to catch sight of the Kockoroc dropping over into their valley before she landed hard. Ari, Quixote and Lexington landed beside her and an earth shattering ‘BOOOMMM’ blasted from their valley. A shockwave flew over the pass blowing right over them, echoing loudly. For a few brief moments it felt as if it lodged in their chests and with stunned faces they swapped glances.

Then silence.

Quixote stood first and yelled, ‘Yaaaaaaarrrrrggghhhhh! Yeeeaaah! Do it again!’

‘Everyone else okay?’ Melaleuca said.

‘I’m fine,’ Ari replied, ‘though I’m not sure about Lex.’

Lexington stood as if frozen in time, not breathing, staring off into space. Ari shook her.

‘Lexington? Lexington!’

Melaleuca raced over to help.

‘What’s wrong with her now?’

‘She’s not breathing.’

Argus arrived on the spot and whacked Lexington hard on the back.

‘Oi!’ Ari cried out and punched Argus back.

Lexington gasped and drew in a huge breath.

‘Idiot,’ Argus said. ‘I was making her breath. She was mesmerised.’

‘Explain!’ Melaleuca said unimpressed.

‘The explosion overwhelmed her. She was stuck.’

‘Well. You could have said something before hitting her.’

Before he could reply, Quixote ran past and started circling everyone.

‘Can we see it again?’

Argus’s face showed strain and tiredness.

‘NO! ENOUGH! FOLLOW ME NOW.’

He headed down hill, yelling over his shoulder, ‘The bird attacked the men following you. I’m guessing so that you can escape. I was wrong about it.’

Melaleuca placed a hand on Lexington’s back.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded. ‘I don’t know what happened. Everything is happening to fast. I can’t get it written down. I need time to think.’ A hollow look of worry fell across her face.

‘She needs a clearing,’ Ari said.

Much mystery surrounded all the events so far and though Lexington was best suited to sort out the facts, their urgent need was to flee, not stop and analyse.

Melaleuca placed two hands on Lexington’s shoulder.

‘Lex, listen. We need to get to the bottom of this hill. I know this is asking a lot, but until we get there you need to stop thinking about this. We will clear ourselves when we get to the bottom.’

‘MOVE,’ Argus shouted. ‘YOUR PARENTS WILL MEET YOU AT THE BOTTOM.’

‘Let’s go.’

 

Down along the ridges they descended at a steady trot passing by what remained of the apparent forest – a few stunted mountain trees here and there. Down narrow goat tracks, past rocks and through scrubby tussock they trundled heading to the valley swamp-floor.

Early evening rushed up and soon darkness and chilly air wrapped around them. Half way down the moon rose and bathed the hillside in dull moonlight. Small animals leapt around in front of them, and goats brayed in the distance and even rutting pigs grunted up from one of the gullies.

Melaleuca studied Argus ahead of her and noted him trip on his own feet. He scuffed them forward unable to lift them very high.

He’s exhausted.

‘Ari. Take the lead,’ a tired sounding Argus said.

Ari ran out in front followed by Quixote who made zapping noises as he overtook Argus.

‘Slow the pace a bit as well,’ he said and looked at Melaleuca. ‘If the leader approves.’

‘Approved.’

‘Really,’ Lexington said from behind Melaleuca, and she heard Lexington flicking the pages of her notebook.

‘Argus,’ Lexington said. ‘I would like to know where you are from?’

‘Shh. Keep quiet,’ he replied.

‘I have been thinking about you. Seems I was wrong back there about the eagle going for you. I’m not surprised. It was a hasty conclusion. Not something I am at all good at.’

‘No matter. Less talk, more walk.’

‘I am better at thinking about things. Noting things. Picking up on things that others miss in their haste. Slower, yes, but thorough. You see I have been analysing you all this time and even are now as we speak.’

‘Tell me later. Shut up for now.’

‘I know things by just knowing things,’ Melaleuca added.

‘Knowing is one thing Mel, I can provide the reasons why,’ Lexington said in a slighted tone.

‘Working together we can solve anything,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Work together on this,’ Argus said. ‘Shut up!’

Melaleuca took the hint and bade Lexington to do likewise.

Argus whirled about and Melaleuca had to stop herself running into him. She felt Lexington bump into her and Argus stared uphill to some worrying sight.

‘Boys,’ she called out and they stopped a small distance ahead and headed back.

‘Drop to the ground. Now,’ Argus said.

Melaleuca fell on the ground and the others followed suit, and along with her cousins peered uphill into the cold of the moonlit land.

‘Can you hear that?’ Argus said.

Melaleuca only heard the normal noises of the land and saw the others shrug their shoulders and looking blank at each other.

‘We do not,’ Melaleuca whispered back.

Argus spoke with a smug air.

‘That is a line of silence. Only those who have spent hundreds of nights behind enemy lines being chased can hear that. Listen again and this time, listen for where the silence falls. Imagine you are sitting on a clock, and uphill is 12 o’clock. A line of silence is falling along one of the numbers. Listen for where it falls.’

They listened again, straining to hear this silence.

‘Uphill. 12 o’clock,’ Ari said.

‘Yes. Something is moving downhill. Something that is creating silence as it passes,’ Argus said.

Suddenly Melaleuca could hear it – a slow encroaching lack of noise, moving like a silent tide down the hill, spreading out like a fan.

‘Run,’ Argus said.

Quixote took the lead and threw his feather light frame with reckless abandon down the hill, thrilling in the sensation of pretend-flying. Ari thundered behind him steady footed, kicking clear a small path for the others to follow. Melaleuca nimbly stuck as close to Ari as possible while Lexington struggled to keep up.

‘Come on, pick up the pace,’ Argus yelled at Lexington.

The rest of the night they fumbled and picked their way down the hill, trying to outrun the silence. As pre-dawn light filtered over the horizon they arrived at the bottom of the hill and turned to see what had been following them.

 

 

Chapter 4 – Journey

 

‘Where did they come from?’ Lexington asked.

A forest of tall trees covered the hill so dense that little light shone through from the tops, leaving no sign of the barren ridges of tussock they had spent all night running down.

Quixote jumped up and down.

‘Magical trees. The eagle brought them.’

‘Oh Quixote, hardly,’ Lexington said and trod to the base of one of them. ‘From the looks of it, it’s been here many years.’

She kicked one of the roots protruding out of the ground.

‘Yeah – well, I bet I can find claw marks.’

‘Well,’ Melaleuca said to Argus.

Argus stood slack-jawed, bewildered by them and wobbled to and fro, slumped to the ground and then fell forward.

‘Argus!’

Melaleuca bent down and Ari helped her turn him over. He grumbled and shoo-ed them away with his hand and started snoring.

‘He’s asleep,’ Ari said.

‘He was looking exhausted. Just leave him.’

Quixote pushed past her and reached inside his jacket for his pistol.

‘Oh Quixote, enough,’ Melaleuca said.

Pistol in hand, he scampered off with it anyway.

As Melaleuca stood she saw in Ari’s face the question of, “what do they do now?” Before she could even search her feelings, Lexington said to her, ‘What do your instincts tell you now?’

Melaleuca took two hasty steps toward Lexington and Ari shifted back from her.

I’m in no mood for this.

‘To follow me. We wait here for our parents.’

Relish stirred in Lexington’s face and with brave trepidation she said, ‘Can your decisions tell us where they are? I can sort through the facts.’

‘I should think they are leading the attackers in the opposite direction,’ said a strange hollow sounding voice from the forest. A long-limbed humanoid figure over eight feet tall, clad in robes woven out of living plants, blended out of the forest. A perfectly round hairless and eyebrow-less face looked down upon Melaleuca. Colour-faded eyes sat above a shrunken nose and a thin lip-less mouth creased in a slight smile.

‘Come. I am called Antavahni in your language.’ The fingers on its hand twitched as it spoke.

No gut feeling arose in Melaleuca despite her searching its face. Confused, the words of needing to trust her instincts ran through her mind, but still her gut-feelings on it were silent. She turned to Lexington though Lexington had a stumped expression on her face, and she seemed frozen in mid note taking.

A gentle nature settled around Antavahni and the features on its face seemed to shimmer and somehow make the trees brighter and more alive. Antavahni swiveled its head about searching for something.

‘What are you?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Where are you from?’ Lexington said at the same time. She started to write.

Quixote barged forward and Ari leapt once again to him, placing a hand on his shoulder, slowing him down.

‘Are you a giant?’ Quixote said. He clasped his hands together like a little boy excited before a great prize, the pistol dangling between them. ‘Was that your eagle?’ The expression on his face told of all his imagined worlds coming true.

Antavahni ignored them and swished past a scrawling Lexington. With no gut feeling Melaleuca’s instincts said to let trust fill the void. She almost wanted to challenge Lexington to work this one out, though from the look on her face, illogical possible impossibilities marched through her logical mind and battled with one another.

‘Were you seen?’ Antavahni said and trod to Argus.

‘By who? The men coming across the valley,’ Ari said.

‘Who else?’ Antavahni snapped.

It reached over and took the pistol off Quixote and placed it by Argus, saying in a calmer voice, ‘Not yet little one.’

Almost on cue Melaleuca and Ari stood in front of Antavahni and said, ‘Who are you?’

A slender plant-clad arm reached out and touched both of their chests. ‘I mean you no harm though the men following you do.’

Antavahni snapped to full height and peered in the forest’s direction while Melaleuca tried to catch its eyes to see inside it.

‘You cannot read what does not exist. I am not of this age.’ Antavahni looked down and then said thoughtfully to Melaleuca. ‘Trust your intuition always.’

‘Are you male or female?’ said Lexington as she studied his body and made notations against a hasty sketch.

Antavahni lifted Lexington’s pen-hand off her notebook. ‘Neither, though once I was the male of my species. It matters not now, for soon I shall pass over,’ he said sounding as if he spoke to long-dead ancestors. ‘I, Antavahni, last of the Etamols.’

A wave of pity emanated from him and all the cousins felt an unexplainable deep remorse. Melaleuca checked Lexington; concerned Antavahni may have been too much for her logic, though a fresh glow sat about her. She studied him despite what he had said.

‘Don’t trouble your questioning mind with me,’ Antavahni said to Lexington. ‘Soon there will be enough chaff for your intellect to weed out.’

‘And our parents?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Trouble not about them.’

‘But where are they?’ Lexington said.

Antavahni raised his hand and chanted, ‘Naawaatha ammtennagh eoaoe.’

A sudden floating sensation fell over the cousins and their feet went numb and soon all feeling left their body. One by one their legs gave way and they fell softly to the ground, sleeping by the time their bodies lay still.

 

Antavahni lifted them with little effort, laying them beside each other and then waved his hand over Argus, chanting more strange words.

Argus stirred and his heavy eyelids opened and faltered half way, shut again, and then struggled to open fully. Blood shot eyes finally peered out from behind them.

‘Get up,’ Antavahni bade Argus.

Argus blinked, rubbed his eyes and took stock of where he was. ‘How long have I been asleep?’

‘Mere minutes. An ill chosen time to sleep.’

Argus tried to get up though each time he collapsed. A great thirst welled up in him and his lips felt dry. Argus hauled his knees up and hung his arms over them, figuring he would wait for all his aches and pains to subside.

‘Your age is a weak race,’ Antavahni said with contempt and waved his hand over Argus.

Antavahni chanted and a bolt of electric-like energy ripped through Argus. He writhed in convulsion as shock after shock surged through him. Argus gasped and struggled to breathe, feeling his brain freeze and his whole body scream in silence. And then it stopped. Vitality pumped through Argus and in an instant he felt refreshed, as if he had been asleep for hours.

‘What the…’ Argus said gathering himself enough to add, ‘Thanks. I think.’ God, I am glad this crazy mission is over.

‘A man of your discipline should have fought off sleep.’

‘What’s it matter now. Jobs done.’

He felt relieved saying those words. For twenty years this unknown mission had sat in the back of his thoughts. Now it was done. He could return home to his estate and live out the rest of his years in the luxury he had grown used to. He cast a look of satisfaction at Antavahni, yet despite the shimmering appearance of Antavahni’s face, there was no mistaking the confused look that crossed it.

‘Done,’ Antavahni said. ‘The cousins must be taken to Agorrah. They cannot stay here.’

‘What? Taken where? My deal was to get them out of harm’s way. Rescue them. There. There they are. Rescued. Finished. You take them from here.’ He stood up surprised at his nimbleness.

‘I can only travel as far as the border. It is you who must cross them over. You have to do this. You have to do this to remember.’

‘No.’

‘Remember.’

‘If I’d known this was the mission, twenty years ago, I would have said no.’

‘You took the gold. You gave your word.’

Argus chuckled and his demeanor changed to amusement.

‘Well Mac. Dunno what was up in your “age,” but welcome to the real world of this age. Gold’s gone. My word ain’t worth a thing now. I ain’t doing it.’

He curled his top lip up in a snarl.

‘Remember, you must remember.’

Argus shook his head disgusted. ‘I got paid for a job. I done the job. That’s all there is. Final.’

A sympathetic smile formed on Antavahni’s pallid face. ‘But you have nothing to go back to.’

‘Yes I do, I ─ ’

Antavahni held his arm out toward the forest and chanted and four trees slowly faded away.

‘Your laws of physics do not apply to me.’

The empty space where the trees were, spoke of a power that could take everything away from Argus.

‘Okay…okay…what’s involved?’ I should kill this freak first chance I get.

‘Good.’

‘What is involved?’

Antavahni spoke with great pronouncement.

‘Only one path ahead of you lies. No matter where you turn, it will now always lead you to it.’

‘Listen to the question freak. What do I have to do?’

‘There is land hidden in the southern reaches of what is now called the antipodes. Take the cousins there. I will help you transport them as far as the Long White Cloud Mountains, across which you must take them for it is the border I cannot cross. Or do you remember the way?’

Like a faint ember hidden in the cinders of a burnt-out fire, Antavahni’s words singed him, rekindling old smoldering memories.

‘What’s gone should be forgotten,’ Argus said.

‘I will escort you if you cannot remember the way.’

‘Are you nuts? Look at me!’ Argus pulled his top off and displayed his ageing body. ‘This mission nearly killed me.’ He grabbed the baggy skin under his arms and tugged it. ‘I don’t have the strength anymore. I am old now!’

‘Indeed.’

Antavahni held his hands over Argus and started chanting again, though this time clouds gathered, the land darkened and the earth trembled beneath Argus, his legs buckling under him. Electric-like energy tore through him again, and this time he felt his skin stretch and tear, and his bones and muscles twist, and wrench asunder from his body’s fabric. And then it stopped. Light flooded back and the earth became still.

As the pain subsided anger replaced it.

‘Enough,’ Argus cried out. ‘Stop this.’ He clenched his fists and leapt to his feet with the ease of a young man.

Antavahni’s face went blank and he swayed back and forth, falling to the ground with little noise and lay still, breathing with a gurgling sound.

Pleased, Argus reached for his pack.

Time to get out of here.

Melaleuca mumbled, and he looked at her sleeping face and something stirred inside him. He wanted to ignore the feeling though knelt to check her. Sleeping deeply all the cousins seemed peaceful. He looked again at Melaleuca, noting that even asleep her face appeared commanding and regal, almost queen like. Her face was that of a younger version of the dead woman back at the destroyed homestead.

He reached out to touch her and pulled his hand back in shock. His gnarled old skin had been replaced by youthful skin. He traced his eyes upwards. Slender arms filled with sinewy muscles met his gaze and he looked down at his torso. A young man’s body had replaced his old worn out body.

‘What the hell happened?’

Antavahni lifted his head with difficulty.

‘My powers are not of this age.’ He coughed. ‘After 50,000 years my health suffers. I’ve not long left. Get them to Agorrah. They are the last chance to save this age.’

‘You made me young again?’

‘Only in body.’

For the first time in years that Argus could recall, something resembling a sense of wonder fell over him and he considered what Antavahni had just wrought in him, and, more importantly, the power that had been unleashed.

‘What’s so special about these kids anyway?’ I want what this freak has. ‘And what’s in it for me? More gold? I don’t need gold.’

Antavahni stood, arched his back and faced the sun, concerned at the tone in Argus’s voice.

‘Come help me move them and I will divulge what they are and why you must help.’

 

***

 

The cousins slumbered for many days in their unnatural sleep and many dreams came and went. In the last dream they all met on an expansive white desert, playing and letting their imaginations soar. Even Lexington and Melaleuca laughed and danced, though as the dream wore on Melaleuca stopped playing and became suspicious.

‘Ah guys, I don’t think this is a dream.’

‘Yeah it is,’ Quixote said suspended in mid-air.

Lexington stopped.

‘I think you are right. In a dream you are not supposed to be aware you are in a dream. But I certainly am.’

Melaleuca stood on the barren landscape and realised she had never seen a white desert before or any desert at all, yet she had been happy to accept where she was. The others slowed to a halt as the same realisation struck them.

The desert floor appeared to blend into the sky and curve back upon itself, though the distance seemed so great it was hard to tell where the horizon started.

‘Where exactly are we?’ Lexington said, reaching for her notebook and discovering she had no clothes on. She yelped in surprise. ‘Where are our clothes?’

All of them were naked.

Melaleuca stared, confused at their naked bodies. ‘Have we always been naked…or……?’

The word “naked” snaked out of her mouth in big letters, split into four and then rolled around her body and moved on to Lexington.

Quixote laughed and said, ‘Hey ask this guy.’

 

A small figure trod toward them dragging something dark. He spied them and looked shocked, and with a burst of speed he ran for them and yelled, ‘Not now, too early, you should not be here.’ He swung his arms at them and their bodies disintegrated.

 

***********

 

Ari awoke from the dream first and felt icy air pressing against his skin. He could not move his legs and try as he may his eyes would not focus. He tried to rub them but his hand kept on hitting his forehead.

‘Easy fella,’ came a voice that sounded like Argus’s but different. ‘Take your time. Ya been asleep a while.’

The words made little sense. How did that explain his arms and legs not working? He relaxed and drew in a deep breath. Many new smells hit him – fresh smells, sharp smells, pungent smells and aromatic smells – all richly mixing together and suggesting they were somewhere other than where they had been put to sleep.

‘Where are we?’ Ari said still groggy.

‘You will see when you are fully awake,’ came Antavahni’s voice.

 

Melaleuca stirred and mumbled, waking to find her arms and legs did not work either. Blurry images filled her eyesight. Perturbed she tried moving her arm and managed to hit both Lexington and Quixote as they woke up.

‘Mel. It’s okay,’ said Ari, his voice sending a reassuring feeling through her. The crackle of a fire burst into life and its warmth fought the chilly air back, helping to thaw her wits out.

Over and over she repeated the word “trust” mantra-like in her head and when she felt ready, she tried to stand up though she struggled.

‘Ari help me.’

His strong hands gripped hers and he pulled her up. She leant on him and they both took in where they were.

 

A rugged expanse of land, devoid of trees and teeming with small yellow bushes and autumn coloured scrub, spread out before them, and an all-pervading dampness hung in the air so intense she could smell the wetness.

In one direction the land stretched as far as the eye could see – an empty distant horizon, semi-blending with the sky. In the opposite direction the land tilted up, gentle at first and then it climbed steeply into a mammoth mountain range, the tops of which were covered in rolling dark clouds.

 

‘Cool dream eh,’ Quixote said happy to stay lying on the ground.

‘It didn’t feel like a dream. Ari, can you work out where we are?’ Melaleuca said and cast a challenging look at Argus and Antavahni.

‘Hang on,’ he said gazing around.

‘It was too real for a dream,’ Lexington said sitting upright. ‘Which suggests we were actually there. But that cannot make sense, unless…’

‘Yes cousin,’ Melaleuca said, ‘now is the time to use your brain and work out what it was. Facts and stuff.’ She turned to Argus who stoked the fire. ‘Where are we?’

Argus bent his head toward Antavahni and nodded as if to say he had the answers.

‘Yes. I will expect a full explanation from you,’ Melaleuca said pointing at Antavahni.

Antavahni and a young looking Argus sat silent by the fire and tended it, staring into the dancing flames.

 

A disquieting sensation leached off the land into Ari. At first he could not name it and then he grasped what drove such emptiness in him. The scrubby plain had no sound. No birds, no animals, no wind, no far off cries, no water moving, nothing, but an eerie silence that hung over it like a great solitude.

‘This is a land of nothing,’ he said. ‘What time of day is it?’

Argus pointed to the sky.

‘Time does not matter here,’ said Antavahni.

The overhead sun sat hidden behind hazy grey clouds that filled the entire sky. Ari had never seen a sky as bleak and lacking in brilliance. God had erased meaning and sheen from it, and the longer his eyes supped on it, the more arid he felt. A shiver ran through him and he pulled his eyes away and stared at the ground. A stunted bush of jagged twigs and small leaves stared up at him.

‘Well?’ said Lexington lifting her head and blinking her eyes to focus on Ari.

Ari shook his head and Melaleuca knew what he felt in an instant.

‘Nothing. He feels nothing. We are nowhere.’

Antavahni pulled a large pot of steaming liquid off the fire and poured it into four wooden cups.

‘This broth will help you wake up.’

With eager hands they all cupped the broth, and warmth flooded through their fingers and down their arms. The rich mixture of spices and other unknown aromas tantalised them and they sipped it, discovering it tasted even better. The liquid flooded their bodies and filled their senses with wakefulness.

Antavahni stood.

‘Come, we still have a ways to go. There is little chance any one followed us but we must push on.’

Melaleuca shook her head at the others and then said to Antavahni, ‘We go no further until we have cleared ourselves.’

Rosy cheeked and with cold red-tipped noses, her cousins stood behind her and faced off with Antavahni.

‘Clear yourselves then, but be quick.’

Argus stood and stretched himself.

‘Look,’ Quixote said. ‘He’s lost his face.’

‘What happened to you?’ Lexington asked.

Antavahni pushed in front of Argus.

‘Discover it for yourselves. Get on with the clearing.’ Unsteady on his legs, he produced a walking stick and propped himself up.

‘What are they doing?’ Argus asked.

‘Watch and then you tell me,’ Antavahni replied.

 

The cousins play-acted out all the events they could remember since being attacked. Over some events they went back and forth until everyone could agree on what had happened. However, Quixote acted out what he wanted to do, not what had actually happened. In his version he rode the Kockoroc and whipped off thousands of miles away to discover new lands. This annoyed Lexington, and while Melaleuca and Ari were normally amused by his antics, this time they found them a little irritating also.

Half way through it, Ari turned to Melaleuca and said, ‘This used to be quick and simple.’

‘Just keep going. Much has happened.’

Over their hills they pretended to run. Questions were thrown at Argus. The forest chased them down the hill. Lexington balked at telling them about her inner voice and nearly revealed it. Instead she merely explained she needed a new way of working things out. Melaleuca acted out her feelings, sharing for the first time that doubt had crept in and that now she resolved to trust her instincts.

Quixote had more forays into his wild-west imagination. Amongst the facts he had held Argus’s pistol and had tracked down the men who had attacked them and defeated them. The other cousins persisted in the actual facts of what happened, which seemed only to fuel Quixote’s far flung ideas even more. Like a match to spilt petrol Quixote’s recounting of events got wilder and further from the truth until the force of his imagination covered all the past events with possibilities that seemed highly impossible, though amusing.

‘…and then with their pants down they couldn’t walk. They tripped up over their legs, fell, splat in the mud and rolled around like babies…’

And on he went until the cousins burst into laughter and even Lexington giggled a little though felt slighted. She normally analysed what they had done. This frivolity, as enjoyable as it was, did not answer any of her questions.

Argus cracked a bemused smile.

‘So they tried to act everything out. So what?’

‘Have you never cleared yourself?’ Ari said.

‘It looks like something groupies would do,’ he said back and earned a ‘shhh’ from Antavahni.

 

Already Melaleuca could see a shift in her cousins as if a small weight had been lifted off them. Strange, she had never thought of their “clearings” as a tool to make them feel better. She had only seen it as a…

‘Okay now let’s act out the possibilities,’ Lexington announced as she peered up from writing in her notebook.

…as a tool to re-run what they had just played.

 

Argus leant into Antavahni.

‘There’s more?’

‘By running over recent events they stop what has afflicted mankind.’

‘Uh yeah, what’s that then?’

‘Sympathetic resonance.’

‘Sympa – What?’

‘The holding on to experience. It gums up the mind, ages people. By running over recent events it helps their mind digest experience so that their soul can communicate freely with their mind.’

Argus frowned at Antavahni.

 

Armed with her notebook Lexington said to Melaleuca, ‘I should like to re-run the bit where your mum told you private things.’

‘No more re-runs,’ Melaleuca said flatly.

Confused Lexington became as cross as her gentle face could manage. ‘But we always re-run. It’s how we come up with, well, how we come up with all the stuff we come up with.’

‘Lex.’

‘Am I the only one who has forgotten our parents disappeared with no explanation?’

 

Ari grabbed Lexington’s arm and squeezed it. ‘It’s okay Lex. Just wait and listen.’

He motioned to Melaleuca.

‘It is time I tell you what Mum said. She said that if they were not back within a day that it may be months before they return and that someone would come for us and to trust.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell us?’ Lexington said exasperated.

‘Wait,’ Melaleuca motioned, ‘there’s more. She also said the key was to keep moving forward. Think as little as possible. Just keep moving forward.’

She stopped and let her words hang in the air for them to dwell on.

‘That is why today…there is no re-runs. We will follow Antavahni to where-ever he takes us.’

The boys accepted this with little questioning though Lexington looked upset.

‘But all my questions…..and…and you held this from us.’

Melaleuca shuffled across to her. Her sharp face gazed into Lexington’s soft round face.

‘Think and analyse while we move,’ she commanded and then as soft as Melaleuca could manage, added, ‘I know you can do it. If anyone has the brains to work out how to do it, then you do Lexington.’

Melaleuca stood, a commander of pre-adult years. She knew that before them lay the unknown and that wherever their parents were now they could not help them. She felt this to be true.

‘Antavahni. You will now explain,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Ahem,’ Lexington said clearing her throat. ‘I would still like some answers still.’ She directed her question at Antavahni staring past Melaleuca.

Antavahni knelt before them and with a gentle voice and a shimmering face, said, ‘No answers will be provided for you. It is for you to now work this out. Many trials will accost you. Through all this you must remain who you have been. Change for no one but yourselves. You must solve this for yourself. No one will help you. You will be on your own yet you will have each other.’

Quixote became distracted and looking at Argus said, ‘What did happen to your face?’

‘I’m just younger now, that’s all.’

Antavahni grabbed Quixote’s head and turned it back to him and said, ‘Imp. Did you hear me?’

‘Yup.’

Argus snorted in sarcasm.

‘50,000 years alive and that’s your wisdom.’

‘50,000? That’s impossible,’ Lexington said.

Antavahni stiffened and stared harshly at Argus.

Argus shrugged, caring little. ‘Won’t happen again.’

Quixote smirked and pointed at Antavahni while looking at Lexington. ‘Anything is possible.’

Lexington frowned at him.

‘In play you can imagine anything. Reality, however, is garbed with the laws of physics.’

Melaleuca squeezed the back of her own neck, making a “tsk” noise.

‘Mmm…yes. About that. Mum did say something more.’

‘What,’ Lexington asked. ‘What else did she say?’

‘She said, keep moving forward…and keep playing. That playing was most important of all.’

‘What? That makes no sense at all. This is real. We should act like it is real.’

‘I don’t understand it but I trust if we move forward it will become clear. Use your brain to work it out. But we will follow her instructions.’ Lexington put her hand to her chest, feeling the medallion under her clothes.

‘Well I have a secret as well.’

‘Oh,’ Melaleuca said, surprised.

 

Lexington so wanted to tell but the feel of the medallion reminded her it was a secret. Lexington moved her head in a slight glib nod and made a little “humph” noise, turned and walked away. What other choice lay before them? Stuck out in the middle of nowhere – even more nowhere than their home – she knew that they had to stick together. She really wanted to talk to her inner voice but she could not. Not yet anyway. Not in front of the others.

Lexington marched back to Melaleuca, standing resolute before her.

‘I will move forward but I will keep on asking questions. I will not stop until all of this makes sense.’ She cocked her head at Antavahni, moisture from the air making her long hair hang limp, and causing her skull and forehead to look larger than normal. ‘Why have you bought us here?’

‘Oh Lexington,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Isn’t it obvious? So we would have no other choice other than to follow him.’

Antavahni nodded at Argus and Argus threw back a tarpaulin, producing the cousin’s packs. He gathered four hooded cloaks and handed them to the cousins as well. The material felt rough and though it looked thin and hung light, it contained considerable loft.

‘We must move. Follow,’ said Antavahni.

He pushed himself off with his walking stick and headed toward the gentle slope.

 

They picked their way across the plain toward the mountains and by late afternoon the ground started sloping upwards, though higher up it became steeper and steeper and steeper until all the sparse vegetation gave way to dull gray rocks. Above this at a neck-craning height, the mountaintops could just be seen. Sharp, blue snow-covered rocks poked out through the swirling clouds.

With the vast plain behind them Melaleuca felt like an infinitesimal speck. She did a quick check of the others, noting how ragged Lexington looked. She was not the hardiest of them when it came to physical exertion.

‘It will be night soon. Shall we find some cover?’ Ari said.

‘Press on,’ Antavahni said in a weak voice. ‘It will be dark where we are going.’

 

Out in the lead Argus spied something off to his left and he wandered over to inspect it. Half buried and half sticking out lay a weather-worn sign, the words on it barely visible. Squinting he read it.

None return that venture these mountains. Turn back or leave a will……’

The rest of the words he could not make out.

‘What is it?’ Ari called.

Argus looked up to tell him but caught sight of Antavahni glaring at him unimpressed.

‘Nothing,’ Argus replied and returned to leading the way, although Melaleuca could tell Argus did not like what he saw.

 

As the light faded to grey they had only climbed half way up the slope. The cloud wrapped mountain loomed large and its immenseness overshadowed them like a menacing bulk. High up through the clouds, flashes of lightening hurled back and forth and thunder boomed. It sounded miles off though its foreboding bass rent an unwelcome sensation.

Ari pointed to the angry looking clouds.

‘Are we going into a storm?’ he said raising his voice.

Lexington pulled out her notebook and after scanning it said, ‘This mountain must have a route through it.’

Bedraggled scarecrow hair falling around his impish face, Quixote made scary ghost noises and then giggled.

‘A secret tunnel, but to where?’

Melaleuca patted Quixote on the back. He’s the nuttiest of us all, yet…

‘…little dampens you. Even in hell you’d make the devil laugh.’

Lexington scoffed at this. ‘No such place exists except in myth and legend. It’s a people invention. I would hardly call this the time for joking. I mean look where…where…where we are.’

‘Lexington. Easy. You know Quixote means well,’ Ari said. ‘Even you use your imagination to work things out.’

‘Yes. But for things that matter, not silly games,’ she said in great frustration. ‘Look at us! I’m freezing. We’ve never wandered this far from home before. Every game we played, no matter what the outcome we could still go home. There is no home now. It’s gone and so have our parents! And we still have no clue what is going on.’

Where Ari and Quixote seemed ready to accept, she grew frustrated. With every step and each passing moment questions nipped at her mind.

‘Where are we? Where are we going?’ Lexington said bending down to untangle her leg from a bush. ‘Does this place even have a name?’

‘In my tongue it is Arawac – the Long White Cloud Mountains,’ Antavahni said, staring up at them, his eyes filling with longing.

‘I think they’re beautiful,’ Ari said. ‘It’s like the earth is not afraid to show how it feels. In fact…’ He paused, puzzled and then nodded with certainty. ‘It hides a secret.’

Antavahni smiled pleased with Ari. ‘You are an earth-son. That was my role as well.’ He paused as if to say more, but instead carried on forward. ‘Keep moving. Nearly there.’

‘Urrggghhh,’ Lexington said in protest.

 

The ground got coarser and muddier and the temperature dropped, slowing down their rate of climb. Melaleuca let her mind go blank and concentrated on moving forward and listening to her instincts. They churned in the cold, and out of the encroaching night nagging fingers of doubt prodded her, threatening to swamp her. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced her feelings to sink deep into her mind, past all the images and feelings of fear and doubt. Like Ari she sensed this land had a deep feeling imbued into it though its evocative emptiness made her feel hollow inside. Deep in her inner vision she found the comforting sight of her parents and in an instant, she knew this was a sign they headed in the right direction. Confident once more she opened her eyes and checked on her cousins again.

Ari trudged on and a cheerful Quixote bounced alongside him. Despite the rugged terrain he still managed to defy gravity and dodge most of the bushes and holes.

Lexington struggled forward, her patience wearing thinner and thinner. ‘Is there another way?’ she said exhausted. ‘At this rate…..’ she puffed and sat down, ‘…I…won’t make it. And look!’ She wiped the perspiration off her forehead. ‘I’m sweating but I’m cold!’

Antavahni reached inside his plant cloak and produced a handful of leaves. ‘Here eat,’ he said offering it to them.

They each bit into it and warmth flooded their mouth and spread through their bodies.

‘Ari. Quixote. Walk on ahead,’ Antavahni said to them, his voice sounding thinner than before. ‘It should not be far. Follow your feelings Ari.’

Ari and Quixote nodded.

‘Hurry,’ Antavahni said. ‘The effects will only last a short time.’

 

The boys sprinted off like a fire had been lit under them and charged up-hill with Ari in the lead. They negotiated their way past the grabby plants and over runnels and slippery mud. Boulders wedged deep in the earth almost stopped them, so they started to edge around them.

Ari tried to sense what Antavahni had told him to feel for, though before he could feel anything he heard low guttural voices coming from up ahead. He ducked down, pulling Quixote with him.

‘Who else could be up here?’ Ari said.

‘Giants?’

Ari cuffed him around the head in jest.

In the faint light he could see large footsteps in the mud.

‘Oh. Maybe you are right,’ Ari said and flicked his red torch on.

Spread out footprints started from behind them and then converged into a single file and trailed forward between two large rocks.

‘Let’s see,’ Quixote said and clambered onto one of the rocks.

Ari went to yell ‘stop,’ but dared not lest whoever made the footprints hear him. Instead he followed Quixote.

They crawled on their bellies to the edge of the rock and peered over. About forty men gathered in a small hollow in front of a low cave, forming a single file.

‘Those are the same men that attacked us,’ Quixote said.

He grabbed a small stone and hurled it at them with all his might. It sailed over the single file and smacked the man waiting next to crouch down. Ari grabbed Quixote’s arm and held him down, wanting to yell at him.

 

 

Chapter 5 – Escape from the Beach

 

 

The man could not see the boys so he turned and pushed the person behind him and a scuffle broke out. They fought amongst themselves like wild dogs, and Quixote held up another rock to throw, though Ari latched onto his arm.

‘Look,’ he said.

Two men broke away from the rear and headed back downhill between the rocks.

‘We have to warn the others. Come on.’

Quixote stood to attention and placed one hand on his hip, puffing his chest out. ‘Or stop them.’

The two men emerged from between the rocks and Quixote hurled the rock in his hand at them with all his might. Ari traced the rock’s arc in the low light and his heart sunk.

 

***

 

The Kockoroc cruised high in the sky and once again stared down to the small party. High winds buffeted it, making flying difficult.

 

***

 

‘Something does not feel right,’ Melaleuca said wrapping her arms around herself to stop the gnawing cold.

Lexington shivered beside her and Melaleuca knew she wanted to question why she felt that, though luckily the cold held her tongue at bay.

‘Go Argus,’ Antavahni said. ‘Look for them.’

Argus hauled both pistols out and started up hill.

Antavahni moaned as if forgetting something. ‘Oh dear. Powers weakening. How could I have missed it?’

‘Missed what?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘The Ori are close by. We must hide you,’ he said in a panic. His hand twitched and his fingers jingled about in a rhythm as if sending a semaphore message.

‘W…w…who are the Ori?’ Lexington asked.

Out of the darkening sky Melaleuca heard the Kockoroc’s great wing beat slowing down and then saw the faint outline of it swoop over them and head uphill. Argus cried out in pain and within seconds he tumbled back down the hill and sprawled in front of the girls. The Kockoroc stood over him squawking and jabbing its beak closer and closer to his face. Argus kicked out and hit it in the head. It pulled back and uttered a whimpering sound.

‘You hurt it,’ Lexington said, rushing to the Kockoroc to check its feathered head.

‘That bloody thing could have killed me.’

Lexington inspected the Kockoroc closer. ‘There is no blood on it. What a strange thing to say. It’s not bleeding.’

Argus threw his eyes back in disgust.

The wind rippled across the Kockoroc’s feathers and Lexington nestled herself into them to warm up.

Argus hauled himself to his feet, and trying to sneak back uphill, ran into the encroaching darkness. The Kockoroc reared up, emitting a raucous cry. It spun around, spread its wings and flew up hill. Argus cried out and then cursed the Kockoroc and yelled for it to put him down. His voice trailed up into the air, along with the sound of flapping wings. He let out a cry as he fell to the ground with a splodge.

‘It’s a bloody menace,’ Argus said and fired a shot at it.

The Kockoroc swooped overhead again and soared uphill.

‘Don’t ask me how I know,’ Melaleuca said, earning an eye roll from Lexington. ‘But it has gone to get Ari and Quixote.’

Blood curdling screams like a man being torn to pieces, echoed down the slope, and apart from the distant rumbling of thunder silence followed.

Far off, Quixote’s voice yelped and whooped like he was swinging from tree to tree, and even Ari shouted with excitement. Their voices got louder and louder until out of the charcoal grey the Kockoroc swooped down with the boys clutched in its talons. With a great flapping of wings it gently placed them on the ground.

‘You should have seen it,’ Quixote said waving his arms around. ‘The eagle knocked the men over flat and then just pecked them like crazy. What a noise they made.’

Ari shoved him.

‘Yeah. Because you threw stones at them.’

‘Quixote, again,’ Lexington said.

‘So! They’re the ones that attacked our house.’

‘What? Are you sure?’ Lexington said.

‘Yes,’ Ari replied. ‘They were squeezing into a cave of some sort. Judging from the footprints I would say there were at least a hundred of them.’

Melaleuca turned on Antavahni. ‘You nearly walked us into them.’

‘They didn’t know of us,’ Ari said. ‘Except the two Quixote threw stones at. And they are now dead.’

Antavahni took in the information.

‘Must hurry. Am growing weaker. Must get you across the border. Go now, downhill. Make for the coast. Stay silent.’

Antavahni flicked his hand toward the Kockoroc. It squawked and then flew off into the night.

‘Why not get the eagle to fly us out of here?’ Quixote asked.

‘You might be spotted,’ Antavahni said.

‘By who? It’s nearly dark.’

Antavahni ignored him.

Melaleuca shivered though felt her anger rise. She needed answers. ‘Who are the Ori? Are those the men that attacked us?’

Antavahni leant in closer to her and his wide brimmed eyes gave off a dull luminescent glow. ‘Move. You will work it out in time.’

Melaleuca dug her heels in. ‘I want to know. Now!’

Lexington shook with cold and even the boys having cooled down, now felt the icy wind bite into them.

Argus shook his head. ‘It’s bloody freezing! Argue later! Let’s move!’

‘I AM IN COMMAND,’ Melaleuca shouted.

‘L..let’s move, M..M..M..Mel,’ Lexington said, ‘please.’

Antavahni spoke in a quiet voice – his tone though weak was as commanding as hers. ‘What will you do if they are the men who attacked?’

‘I will…I will…’ Her words petered out and she cursed him in her mind.

‘Exactly,’ Antavahni said. ‘Cannot pursue them, cannot capture them. What will you do? Commander?’

‘Move downhill then,’ Melaleuca said relenting on her refusal to move.

Lexington smirked though Melaleuca pretended not to see.

 

They descended in half the time and under the night sky walked in line with the mountains on flat land again. The thunder grew quieter and quieter and then became silent, though the rolling clouds on the mountain lay as a permanent fixture and occasional unseen lightening lit the clouds silently from the inside.

After the empty tedium of walking all night, the smell of the coast hit them at dawn – bracing salty air filling their lungs. Seagulls flew overhead and they could hear waves crashing, and a washing feeling of restlessness passed over them.

 

‘We are going to see the sea,’ Quixote said excited. ‘Buried treasure, pirates, adventures to faraway lands.’

If he had been a wave he would have swirled and crashed all over the place. Melaleuca knew she would eventually have to find a way to control him.

‘We are already going to a faraway place,’ Lexington said. ‘I imagine that should be enough. Though,’ she sniffed the air, ‘I do agree. There is a certain feel in the atmosphere.’

‘It’s better than the land we woke up on,’ Ari said. ‘It felt like nothing.’

‘You liked the mountains,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Yeah, but this is…is…is stirring in a different way.’ He cocked his head to the right to stare at the mountains again. The mountain range, complete with its cotton-wrap of clouds ran all the way to the coast, where they formed an almost sheer drop of thousands of metres into the sea.

Antavahni prodded them.

‘Move.’

They headed into some large sand dunes.

‘Wait here,’ Antavahni said. ‘Argus, come with me.’

No sooner had they planted their bottoms on the sand and got comfortable when Antavahni returned.

‘Listen carefully. There are two speedboats. One is on the beach and the other is moored at a disused wharf. Argus will…ah…commandeer one for our purposes. When he gives the signal we need to run to the speedboat. The coast has given me enough strength for this one last thing I must do.’

Antavahni propelled himself up with a startling suddenness and a charge of lightening flew out of him, throwing the cousins backwards. It crackled and soared high into the sky, and swollen clouds gathered around it, boiling like mad.

Antavahni let out a wild cry and his body trembled. Unintelligible words poured out of him and he carried on uttering them until it felt like the earth and the sky would split in two. The clouds exploded and a bolt of energy hurtled down hitting Antavahni with full force. A blinding flash of light erupted and the soil around him exploded into tiny fragments, coating them with dirt.

A burnt tang hung in the air, smelling like something sweet had been crisped. In the middle of a large splayed out burn mark Antavahni hunched his body over and wheezed as he made gurgling noises while blood oozed from underneath his robe.

‘Antavahni?’ Melaleuca said. What do we do now?

‘He’s hurt,’ Ari said.

Melaleuca shook the dirt off her and knelt before Antavahni.

‘What do we do to help you?’

He said nothing and Melaleuca searched the faces of her cousins. Quixote smiled wryly and she could tell he wanted to make a joke though an unknown emotion stopped him.

‘Lex?’

‘None of us have ever been this hurt. Maybe stop the bleeding, though what if his anatomy is different?’

‘Antavahni,’ Ari said louder.

‘Quixote. Go find Argus,’ Melaleuca said.

Antavahni thrust his arm out and though wincing yelled, ‘NO WAIT,’ and then said, ‘Wait, just wait.’

Under his body a weak blue glow pulsated. It grew stronger and stronger until it glowed as strong as a neon light. He pushed himself upright and his eyes seemed to spin in his sockets and blood dripped out of his mouth. In his hands he held an iridescent blue gloop. Round in shape, it looked like it had a bright light inside.

‘What is it?’ Lexington said no longer concerned for his injuries.

‘Silverquick,’ Antavahni said exhausted. ‘Help me up, help me to Argus. We are close.’

This is madness. Melaleuca lifted his head up so she could see eye to eye with him.

‘If you know us you will know I hate being left in the dark. We could have been hurt.’

A weak smiled beamed at Melaleuca. ‘Trust,’ he said and his body started to become transparent.

‘That should not be happening,’ Lexington said. ‘Bodies decompose not fade.’

From behind the sand dune Argus’s head shot up.

‘What happened to him?’

‘We don’t really know,’ Ari said.

Quixote jumped up and threw his body into the air. ‘The sky exploded and made that.’

The silverquick still lay in Antavahni’s weak grip.

Lexington growled at Quixote’s excesses and then said, ‘My guess is he caught lightening and made that or released it from something he had it stored in.’

Argus cursed. ‘That’s all we need. A body to carry.’

Melaleuca stepped forward putting her cousins behind her. ‘He is hurt and needs our help.’

Argus screwed his face up at her, though she could tell he would comply.

‘Once you’re a gonner, you’re a gonner,’ he said. ‘You Ari. Come.’

 

At the top of the dune Argus pointed to a dilapidated wharf.

‘See that?’

Churning in a gentle breeze, the wide-open sea spread out before Ari. Waves caressed the beach and to his right at the southern end larger waves smashed in to the cliffs. Like a vortex, the magic of the sea sucked on Ari’s soul and his mind peered across the ocean’s width to the horizon, a thousand adventures crying out to him.

‘Oi!’ Argus said. ‘Sight-see later. Can you see that really obvious wharf? You know, wharf? Do you know what a wharf is? The one made out of wood, falling down, sticking out to sea. The large jutting out thing?’

‘Yes. I see it,’ Ari said unsure what Argus’s tone meant.

‘Gather the others and wait here. I am going to get us one of those speedboats. From what pale face tells me this is one of the first wharves the British used when they settled in these parts, not much used these days. Rarely is there one speedboat let alone two. So wait here with the others. When I signal, run to the speedboat like crazy. Got it?’

‘Yes. What about Antavahni?’

‘Try waking him, carry him, whatever.’ With that Argus hopped over the top of the dune and Ari rolled back down to his cousins.

 

Melaleuca helped Antavahni stand. He coughed and swayed – woozy and trembling. Disoriented he said, ‘Where are we?’

‘By the sea,’ Ari replied.

‘Good. Good. Ah yes. I can smell it. For my people this was hallowed ground. Every morning the departed souls of those that died left from here.’

Antavahni toppled onto Melaleuca and her cousins pitched in to help carry him to the top of the sand dune.

Melaleuca poked her head over the top and her cousins did likewise, and although Argus sauntered onto the wharf and made his way to the speedboat, the expansive sea drew their attention away from him. The deep-green mesmerized them and its hypnotic churn swelled inside them. Quixote shouted and yelled like a wild man strapped high on a crow’s nest, and Melaleuca felt his want to dive in and feel the ocean all over him.

Argus leant over into the speedboat and a man popped his head up and hopped out. Older and stooped he watched and listened as Argus waved his arms around and pointed out to sea.

‘Who is that? Why is he here?’ Lexington said.

‘Maybe they are pirates,’ Quixote said.

The old man beckoned Argus to follow him and they walked to the end of the wharf and Argus suddenly pushed him into the sea.

‘RUNNNNN,’ Argus screamed, sprinting for the speed boat.

Melaleuca screamed at her cousins to move and as if the hounds of hell chased them, they scrambled for the speedboat carrying Antavahni. Their cloaks flapped behind them and they kicked up sand as they tried to move faster.

Argus dived into the speedboat and floundered around with the controls. The motor burst into action with a high pitch scream.

‘MOOOVVVVVEEEEE,’ Argus screamed.

They neared the wharf, though slowed down when they saw the wrecks of many ships under the water. Half hulls, broken masts, railings and propellers broke the water’s surface, giving off an eerie sensation almost similar to the plains they had woken up on. Onto the creaking wharf they trod entranced by the sunken ship graveyard. Incoming waves bashed against the loose mooring posts and shook the wharf.

The old man hauled himself halfway onto the wharf and Argus pulled his pistol out and took aim at him.

‘HURRRYYY OR I WILL HAVE TO SHOOT HIM!’

Spurred on, they ran as fast as they could, jumping over the missing planks in the wharf until they reached the speedboat, and together they lifted Antavahni up and leapt in.

The old man spluttered and pulled himself fully on to the wharf and yelled at them with a croaky voice.

‘Come back you *@#%&$.’

Argus gunned the speedboat and it smashed its way through the waves, heading out to sea, while Melaleuca watched the old man jump up and down hollering in the other direction.

‘There,’ Ari said, pointing to the far end of the beach.

Another speedboat lay moored there and another man ran down to it.

‘I think you will have to hurry Argus,’ Ari said.

Argus wrestled with the controls. He pushed the throttle to full speed. The motor screamed at him, and the speedboat tried to slice its way through the choppy water.

‘This is going as fast as it can. Tide’s against us.’

The speedboat rocked in all directions and Lexington tried to stand but ended up sprawled in the lower keel at the bottom of the cabin steps. Quixote laughed and Melaleuca held on tight while motioning to Ari to check her.

‘I’m okay,’ Lexington said from below.

Melaleuca worked her way forward to Argus

‘There’s another speedboat coming after us.’

Argus looked back. Two men sat in a similar speedboat that had just left the beach.

‘And we appear to be heading out to sea,’ she added.

Quixote yelled and screamed in ecstasy, trying to hang his head over the side but kept on being pushed back by the speed.

‘Grab that rope,’ Argus said. ‘Tie him in. We won’t have time to fish him out if he falls over board.’ He muttered to himself, ‘Can’t believe I’m doing this.’

Melaleuca tied the rope to Quixote’s body as his light frame jiggled up and down, threatening to stay airborne.

‘What about them?’ Ari yelled, pointing back to shore.

The pursuing speedboat appeared sleeker and faster.

‘All will be fine. All will be fine,’ Argus said. ‘Hope what moon face said is true or we will be caught,’ and turning to Ari said, ‘Can you steer?’

‘I will,’ came Quixote’s voice.

‘Show me,’ Ari said.

‘No other choice really,’ Argus said. ‘God I hope this works.’

Argus pulled the throttle back and told Ari to hold the wheel and steer straight ahead. Argus rummaged through his bag and pulled out a sextant and a compass. He pointed it at the sun and then took a reading off the compass.

Argus grabbed Antavahni and hauled him upright.

‘Okay paleface. Time to shine. What next?’

Antavahni stirred and though weak, peered over the side. ‘Good,’ he said and reached into his robe. He pulled out a rolled up piece of parchment and handed it to Argus. ‘It is all there.’

Argus unfurled it and ran his eyes across it.

‘This is so precise.’ He poured over the parchment. ‘Secret lands my arse. Can’t miss it by an inch my arse. What the…’ he said and then looked around and yelled at Ari, ‘Steer a little to your right.’

Argus carried on staring into the sky and barking directions to Ari while Quixote yelled out he wanted a turn at steering the speedboat.

Antavahni chuckled a little and spoke, slurring his words. ‘Just spin spin spin spin. That’s all heh heh heh. Spin spin spin. Through the photaic wall.’

‘The other speedboat is catching us,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Shut up all! I muck this up and…well, just shut up!’

Argus squinted and appeared to measure something back on land. ‘We are nearly there.’

He leant over Ari and pushed the speedboat’s accelerator to idle. The motor died away to a spluttering noise, idling and surging forward from the speedboat’s momentum. The ocean washed all around in a slow-forming, giant-green swell that rose and fell. The mountain range still looked large and foreboding, though the south side appeared to have clouds tumbling down from its obscured peaks to the sea, rendering it as hidden as the top.

‘When the two lands meet and the valley closes,’ Argus read from the parchment with doubt. ‘Then spin and travel upward.’

A resolved expression fell across his face.

‘Let me take over Ari. Okay here goes. It either works or we are sunk.’

Argus swung the speedboat’s steering wheel hard right and slammed the accelerator to full speed. The motor screamed a high-pitched whine and it started to turn a tight circle in the same spot over and over and over again, smashing and crashing through all the swells and white foam it churned up. The drone of the approaching speedboat got louder and louder, sounding as if it would soon be upon them.

The spinning halted and the speedboat lurched forward. It felt as if something yanked them out of the water with great force. They fell backwards onto each other and all at once the choppy sea flattened out, becoming still, and a sense of calm descended. Argus latched onto the steering wheel again and the front of the speedboat tilted up as if travelling up a hill.

 

Finding her trust tested, Melaleuca gripped the side of the speedboat and thrust herself up. What on earth is happening? The ocean slanted upwards for a vast distance and beyond it only the blue sky could be seen.

‘Everyone. Look,’ she said.

While Antavahni lay facing upwards lapsing in and out of consciousness, they pulled themselves off one another and gazed at the phenomena. The calm seawater behaved like normal water except it clung to the seabed at an angle, and as far as the eye could see the ocean stretched out before them like a huge sheet dropping down from between two tent poles.

‘Water runs downhill,’ Lexington said. ‘Not…not this.’ She took her notebook out to write but paused unsure what to jot down. ‘Can I see that parchment?’ She reached past Argus and grabbed it.

The pursuing speedboat cruised past the point where they had spun around in circles. It sped back and forth several times, stopped and searched all around.

‘They can’t see us,’ Ari said. ‘And look at that. That fuzzy line.’

Like a force field, a faint visible line where the sea tilted upwards appeared to stop the other speedboat from seeing them. Without questioning, Melaleuca accepted the strange nature of the sight and felt they were headed exactly where they needed to go, not that she knew for a second where that was.

Trust.

Lexington looked up from her notebook and Melaleuca saw that she did not trust at all.

Antavahni lay on the floor too helpless to tell them anything. Lexington examined him with her eyes only, dying to ask him questions but instead looked to Argus though he shrugged his shoulders at her.

‘Not supposed to tell you anything,’ he said.

‘You won’t need to. I will work it out.’

Melaleuca heard the excited sincerity in Lexington’s voice. Yes. Yes you will. You are suited to this.

Ari held the side of the speedboat, giving off the air of an explorer approaching a new land, and Quixote waved and yelled, making gestures at their fast shrinking-into-the-distance pursuers.

‘Where are we going?’ Ari asked Argus.

‘Don’t know. He said to just go up.’

They settled into waiting as the boat sped up the inclined sea water.

After pondering it, minutes later Lexington pointed to where they had started travelling upwards. ‘It’s the photaic wall he mentioned,’ indicating toward Antavahni.

‘You mean a magic wall,’ Quixote said.

‘No. Something is affecting the light and the water, and changing its behavior.’

‘Yeah. Magic.’

‘There is no such thing as magic.’

‘Then explain it.’

‘Given time, I will.’ Lexington buried her head in the parchment.

Quixote leant in close to the side of Lexington’s face.

‘Seems the impossible is possible.’

‘Quixote,’ Ari said and whacked his leg.

‘What? Lex is always telling me that what I think cannot ever be true.’

‘Anything CAN be true,’ Lexington said over her shoulder. ‘Though it must stick to the rules.’

‘Once people could not fly. And now they can,’ Quixote shot back. ‘So there. Something that was impossible was made possible.’

‘They simply discovered the laws of flight that were always there.’

‘Well then.’ Quixote folded his arms. ‘There are probably a bunch of laws doing this to the water.’

Lexington shifted her weight around and faced him squarely.

‘Yes and…’ She tapped her forehead. ‘…if you let me, I will work it out.’

Melaleuca motioned to Ari and he sat between Quixote and Lexington.

‘Enough. Both of you,’ Melaleuca said. ‘You are both right.’

‘Yes we are,’ Quixote said chuffed.

‘We both cannot be right,’ Lexington said.

Quixote stood and drew in a huge breath ready to argue again although Melaleuca placed a hand on him, pushing him back down. Despite this, Quixote hung his hands over the side and made zapping noises, pretending to chant magic words in an attempt to annoy Lexington.

‘Just ignore him Lex,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Actually he’s given me an idea.’

She reached into her pack and pulled out a compass and held it over the side.

‘The magnetic field is being warped. Look for yourselves.’

The needle of her compass spun around and around, lost as to where north lay.

‘Moon face told me,’ Argus said, ‘the whole land mass is pushed up out of the sea about a thousand feet, and the sea hugs it all around. I suspect the sea bed is pure magnetic iron ore.’

‘That would explain the compass,’ Lexington said. ‘But not the photaic wall or the water. Something else is bending light.’

Argus shrugged his shoulders again.

‘You don’t care do you? How could you not even be curious?’

He rolled his head over his shoulder and Melaleuca caught his direct gaze, grasping in an instant a flame that had long since been extinguished. He pulled away as if he sensed her and said, ‘Don’t.’

‘Leave him Lex. You will work it out. I know you will.’

Not knowing how to take it, Lexington weakly smiled back and continued writing, while Quixote tried to untie his leg. The knot held fast so he inched over to Lexington, a troublesome look on his face.

‘Quixote,’ Melaleuca said. Man, he never stops.

Eventually the pair of them would have to work out their differences, even as Lexington and she would have to. Her instincts told her little as to where they were headed or what was going on, though it was becoming clear that one of her first tasks was to get them all working together. She thought on the words “trust,” and pondered why they were to keep playing. Playing what exactly?

Trust.

None of them, except Quixote, looked in the mood for playing. Ari would take anything in his stride and Lexington? Well, at least she had found something to focus on, strange as the sea now was.

 

The speedboat burst up into mid air like it had just leapt over a ramp and flew forward, splashing down in the sea with a mighty watery crash. Again they fell on each other and sprawled all over the deck. The speedboat spluttered and surged back and forth. Argus reached out and turned the keys to off. The motor stopped and silence fell about them and the speedboat came to slow drifting halt.

 

Ari hauled himself up first and then helped the others up. Melaleuca held his shoulder to steady herself and Lexington searched on the floor for her notebook and pen. Argus lay on top of Antavahni both of whom seemed content to lay there. Quixote leapt onto the front of the boat and held his arms out wide with the rope on his leg trailing behind him.

‘Waaaaahhhhhhooooo,’ he cried and turned to Melaleuca. ‘That was so much fun.’

‘Glad you liked it,’ she said. ‘Did we hit something?’

‘Didn’t feel like anything,’ Argus said, pulling himself up and hanging his head over the side. ‘We’ve driven up over the top. Sea’s flat now.’

‘Yes. We can see that,’ Ari said.

‘Flat sea?’ Lexington said as she surfaced from the floor and joined the others in surveying their surrounds.

The sea angled down at least a thousand feet to the Photaic Wall which now looked like a small spread out curtain and in front of them, the sea flattened out for about a kilometre and stopped where sheer cliffs rose up for hundreds of metres. Above the cliffs sat the forested slopes of the south side of the Long White Cloud Mountains. No longer shrouded in clouds, blue-tipped snow peaks adorned the tops. The cliffs ran for many miles south before petering out into low lying land and hazy blue hills way off in the distance.

 

At first Melaleuca had little clue what to make of it. Her feelings ran amok inside her and trusting that they would settle down soon, she eyed the others and gauged their reactions.

Ari straddled the land with his eyes and she could feel him supping in the spirit of earth he had often spoke about.

‘What is it Ari?’

He opened his mouth, stopped and then swallowed hard.

‘It’s strong.’

‘What is?’

‘I don’t know, but it’s like the opposite of the emptiness of the plains, yet I can still feel the emptiness in the land.’

Lexington continued to examine the sea and said in a matter of fact manner, ‘The land is obviously hidden by an energy field. Perhaps you feel that.’

Her voice brimmed with contained excitement.

She’s loving this.

‘It’s blinking amazing! That’s what,’ Quixote shouted. ‘A secret land, a real secret land. I bet there are heaps of things to discover. Let’s go. What are we waiting for?’

Argus threw the anchor overboard.

‘What are you doing?’ Quixote leapt onto the deck, and tried to haul the anchor up. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Yes,’ Melaleuca said. ‘The sooner you are on land the better.’

Quixote strained and strained and managed to heave the anchor part of the way up, though red faced and puffing, he could not get it on to the deck. After dropping it a few times and making lots of noise Lexington said, ‘Oh Quixote. Be quiet. I am concentrating.’

A dozen questions churned in Lexington’s mind. ‘Antavahni, why are we being hidden again?’

The floor of the speedboat could be partially seen through him now.

‘Tell me, please. You do not look well. I can help if you tell me what to do.’

Antavahni stirred and said in a half mumble, ‘Got to stay hidden.’

‘Why?’

‘Parents. Meet your parents there.’

‘Our parents are there?’

‘Always,’ he slurred back.

‘What’s that mean? Why is this land hidden?’

‘The two powers separated,’ he said and then spoke more faint words that Lexington struggled to hear.

Antavahni drew in a huge breath and his nostrils flared. Colour tinged his skin and he threw his eyes open with a jolt and hoisted himself up, crying out, ‘Tenarthdarway. Ahhhhh.’

Reveling in an unknown aroma he said, ‘Smell it. They are all gone but their scents linger on. I am the last. I am the last Etamol. Where we failed may the others pass through. My age can now finally rest.’

Lexington crossed her legs, laid her arms on them and tried to look as if she did not care.

‘Tell me. Tell me all you know.’

Antavahni seemed not to recognize her and a baffled glaze fell across his insipid face but then his shoulders drooped and a great oldness fell over him. All at once the slow sureness, which had come to characterize him, returned.

‘Argus,’ Antavahni said his voice sounding thin again. ‘Well done.’

‘Just tell me when I can go.’

‘Stop fighting. Be as these children.’

‘I’m not wasting a second youth as a babysitter.’

Antavahni glared back at him. His colour faded again and he reached for the side of the speedboat to steady himself. A great exhaustion washed over him and he sat before he fell.

A clear gut-instinct arose in Melaleuca from Antavahni.

He’s near death.

‘Soon…be there…and then you…begin.’

‘Begin what exactly?’ Lexington said.

Quixote flapped his arms. ‘I bet we learn to have super powers.’

Lexington ignored him and again said, ‘What do we begin?’

Antavahni pointed at Quixote. ‘Looks like he starts now.’

She pushed her notebook in haste toward Antavahni’s face.

‘What starts? Tell me.’

Antavahni chuckled at Quixote’s performance and then stopped, and though worn out said with great command, ‘Go closer to the cliffs. Silence until we land. As unlikely as it is, we do not want anyone spotting us.’

 

They upped anchor and cruised to the base of the cliffs and lay anchor again. Antavahni still insisted on silence and refused to answer questions. They ate some food and waited, slumbering in and out of sleep – bellies full and appreciative of the rest after their long trek.

Before twilight Antavahni removed his robe, exposing his pale frail body. With an air of finality he produced a black case and opened it, pulling out a long hollow tube dotted with many holes. One end had a mouthpiece and the other end bulged out like a cobra’s neck. He rummaged in his robe and grabbed the silverquick. Its blue shimmering middle twinkled as if many stars lay trapped within its gelatinous mass.

A small wave rippled across the water and rocked the speedboat – the motion nearly causing Antavahni to drop the silverquick. He let out a cry of astonishment and a bead of sweat ran down his forehead.

‘Oops, mustn’t let that happen.’ He settled himself. ‘Soon it will be dark and no one will see us…..but the sea will become wilder and wilder until nothing will survive its churn…By that time you must be on land. But I, Antavahni, last of the Etamols, will offer myself to the sea. Finally.’

An air of glad sadness hovered around him.

‘Come with us,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I cannot. I am done. Should I set foot back on Tenarthdarway, Aggorah, New Wakefield, then the land would know. Not even I can second-guess the Ethmare from whence we all come.’

A three foot wave broke out of nowhere, hitting the side of the speedboat, and it lurched to one side. The sun dipped behind the mountains, and twilight blanketed them with last-light greyness.

Antavahni cried out, ‘It is time.’

He grasped the tube and squeezed the silverquick into it and an electric blue glow shone out from it. He drew in an enormous breath and then blew and blew and blew until his cheeks puffed out. A loud roar erupted from it like the sound of a hundred oceans clashing and then dissipated with a suddenness that left faint echoes lingering.

A low noise ground upwards from the watery depth below and the sea chopped and slopped back and forth yet the air stayed eerily still.

One by one, square seaweed-encrusted columns of rocks rose out of the sea, forming a crooked line to the cliffs. The sea level crept up and licked the top of the columns and fell again exposing barnacles encrusted on them.

‘Cross. Quick. Soon they will be ten foot waves,’ Antavahni said with a great foreboding.

Chapter 6 – Hidden Antipodes

 

 

The swelling sea clenched the slight tops of the columns for a second, covering them, and then dropped away leaving them towering above the lowered sea level. Lexington counted about a hundred of them and felt giddy.

Argus eyed Lexington with a look of disbelief, and Melaleuca shook her head at him. She was in command. A decision surfaced and she said to Argus, ‘You are in charge of getting us across.’

‘Thrilled,’ he said and swung his unsteady body to Antavahni. ‘Couldn’t we go ashore at a beach?’

‘No time. Move or drown.’

God, how did I get myself into this?

‘Grab your packs,’ Argus said.

The cousins pulled their packs on and readied themselves.

Weakest link in the chain first.

‘You, Miss Nosey. Up first.’

Lexington closed her eyes and swallowing, touched her secret medallion through her clothes. Argus could feel her suppressing the urge to vomit.

Wuss.

‘What are you doing? Send Ari first,’ Melaleuca said.

‘NO PACKS,’ Antavahni cried out. ‘They will unbalance you. No longer needed.’

Lexington let hers drop from her back and looked a little more confident.

Quixote threw his pack overboard.

‘Here, let me,’ he said and leapt over the side, landing square on the first column. His feet started to slip. The sea sunk away and then rose up again and his precarious balance rushed out from under him. He fired a foolish grin at the others.

‘DON’T LOOK DOWN!’ Argus said.

Quixote plunged into the choppy sea. The rope still tied to his leg went taut and to his surprise his cloak held him buoyant in the sea. Argus and Ari hauled him back onto the boat feet first. A wet bemused Quixote laughed out some sea water.

Argus shook his head but saw that Quixote was okay.

‘Go now,’ Antavahni said. ‘Waste no more time.’

Another wave slopped against the speedboat and its white crest crashed over the side, drenching them. Argus scrambled around searching like mad until he finally reached under a plank and pulled out life jackets and some more rope.

‘Put these on. Here,’ he said to Ari throwing him a knife. ‘Cut him free.’

Ari sliced through Quixote’s rope, and as they crammed their life jackets over top of their cloaks, Argus threw the new rope around himself and threaded it through the cousin’s life jackets joining them all together.

‘I’ll go first.’ He glared at Lexington. ‘Look at the columns, not the sea. Focus on them one at a time. Concentrate and we’ll get there. Lexington, you go after me followed by Quixote then Melaleuca and then Ari.’

Antavahni struggled, pushed himself up and pulled on Argus’s pack.

‘Leave it behind.’

Argus smacked his hand away and leapt from the boat, landing on the first column. ‘OKAY. I’LL JUMP TO THE NEXT ONE AND THEN YOU JUMP LEXINGTON. THEN I’LL JUMP AGAIN AND YOU JUMP, THEN QUIXOTE JUMPS AND SO ON.’

Argus jumped to the second column and landed clean on it.

Lexington stood by the side of the speedboat. Seeing her nervousness Melaleuca clutched her hand and said, ‘You can do it. Just jump.’

She drew in a deep breath, stepped up and kicked off. A sea swell lowered the speedboat and for a fraction of a second she appeared to hang suspended in mid air. Argus yanked hard on the rope trying to pull Lexington toward the column, though he overbalanced and she plopped into the sea followed by Argus. Lexington floundered around and groped for the column catching the edge of it while Argus pulled himself back up.

Quixote tore past Ari, hurled himself onto the first column, landed and steadied himself. Toppling back and forth, he reached down and grappled with Lexington’s hands. She started slipping out of his grip, so he wrenched her collar tight – yanking it upwards with a mighty burst of adrenalin, pulling her out of the sea. Her chain-necklace snapped and the medallion flew out to sea unnoticed by either of them. They clung wet and dripping to each other and Argus jumped to the third stepping-stone, yelling for them to all start jumping. Soon the rest of the cousins all stood on the top of a column trying to find their balance.

‘KEEP LOOKING AT THE COLUMNS,’ Argus said. ‘NOT THE SEA.’

As they all teetered and steadied themselves, Lexington looked back at Antavahni. Melaleuca felt Lexington’s sadness and turned to see what she stared at, and along with Lexington witnessed Antavahni’s body become more transparent.

‘Go.’ Antavahni motioned, and as if to motivate them pulled the anchor up and the speedboat started drifting away, rising and falling amongst the swells.

 

One by one they worked their way across, combating vertigo and fighting for their balance until soaked and nauseous they reached a small lip at the base of the cliff. Climbing onto it, they lay there relieved. The lip felt cold and hard but at least it was solid. With the dark of evening now upon them they gathered their wits in silence and even Quixote had no words to share.

 

‘Who’s still got their torch?’ Melaleuca asked.

Argus sat up and said, ‘Back in command then?’

She ignored him.

‘I have,’ Quixote said. ‘I pulled them off my pack.’

He switched them both on and swept the lip with red and white light, stopping when they illuminated worn down steps cut deep into the cliff face. As he traced the steps upwards the torchlight petered out into the heights of darkness, and a decision welled up inside Melaleuca. ‘They will be fine. Ari?’

With a quick glance he smiled and said, ‘No sweat. We have climbed steeper at home.’

Argus inspected them and said, ‘Steeper than these. What? Climbed overhangs?’

A wave smashed over the lip, soaking them.

‘We have no other choice,’ Melaleuca said flicking her wet hair out of her face. ‘Besides you are going to lead the way.’

‘Torch then,’ Argus said and snatched it off Quixote. ‘If there are any overhangs then tough man Ari here can assault them.’

Torch in his mouth, Argus started up the steps and the others followed. They moved up the dark cliff face feeling their way and listening to Argus’s directions, keeping their eyes on his torchlight up in front, though Quixote held onto the red-lit torch. He insisted on stopping and shining it under his chin to make scary faces, though each time Melaleuca chided him.

Soon they could not see the lip they had sat on and the sound of distant powerful waves smashing into the cliff travelled up to them. They worked their way up and up and up. The strenuous climb abated their shivering. Their arms and legs ached, warming them up, and the sweat on their skin dragged their body heat out into the cool night air. The rope cut in to them and each time one of them complained Argus pushed on even harder.

As the climb got more arduous, Melaleuca kept on bumping into Lexington though in turn could feel her being tugged forward by Argus.

‘How much further?’ Melaleuca called out.

‘Just keep going,’ Argus called back.

He reached up and felt a carpet of grass under his hands. Elated, he scrambled over the edge and lay there as the cousins clambered onto the grass behind him collapsing, damp and exhausted but happy.

A fresh inland earthy aroma blew across them, a strangely welcoming hint of the unknown.

Argus stood and shone the torch around and it started to fade. He pointed it at the cousins checking them with haste and then relaxed.

Yes, he conceded, they are extraordinary – bold, unafraid, and hardy though he doubted Lexington. She asked too many questions, annoyed him and seemed the weakest. She managed a grim smile at him and he pulled his knife out and cut the rope between them all.

 

Lexington lifted her hand to touch the medallion, a comforting reminder of her mother’s trust and felt where it had been. Panicked, she lifted her life jacket off and threw it on the ground, rummaging inside her clothes desperate to find it. Her heart sank and she crawled back to the cliff’s edge, peering into blackness. A large wave smashed into the cliff, ferocious sounding in its power and she knew it was lost to the watery depths.

‘Come away from the edge,’ Argus said sounding almost concerned for one of them for the first time.

Lexington held her ground. A sense of letting her mother down swept over her. How could I have lost it? What will I tell the others and will they believe me now?

Agitated by her refusal Argus yelled, ‘Get over here now!’

‘Leave her,’ Melaleuca shot back at Argus. ‘What is it Lex?’

Lexington twiddled her bottom lip.

I can’t tell them, not yet.

‘What happened to Antavahni?’ Lexington said feigning concern.

‘What do you care? He’s as good as dead,’ Argus said.

‘Yes, and he had all the answers and now they’re gone.’

Argus guffawed at her words.

‘What’s so funny?’ Melaleuca said.

‘She’s only upset ‘cos she lost her book of answers. She didn’t care about him. Everyone wants something. Basic human selfishness,’ Argus said with pride.

‘She just wants to know why. That’s all,’ Ari said. ‘I guess we all do but she more than us.’

‘Passing opinions when uninformed,’ Lexington said, ‘is foolish.’

‘Stay here then and figure it out,’ Argus said. ‘I will find shelter. After that you’re on your own. Mission done.’

‘I’ll come help,’ Quixote said.

‘No. You’ll stay,’ Argus said. ‘One wrong move and you’ll plunge over the edge.’

‘We’ve climbed worse back in our valley,’ Ari said.

‘Good for you. Notice anything different. Oh yes. That’s right. You’re not in your valley now.’

Melaleuca stood and once again squared off with Argus. ‘I make the decision for us. No one else.’

‘Look honey whatever. Here take the torch. Go find shelter, go on. Playing is one thing. I’ve seen your playground. Maybe you were trained. Who knows for what? But this is real. Get it. Real. It could mean death!’

Ari shoved his way past Melaleuca and held his hand out to Argus.

‘Give me the torches. I will go.’

Melaleuca pulled Ari’s hand down.

‘Argus will go.’

Ari started to protest and before he could get half a sentence out, Quixote launched himself at Argus, grabbed the torch and tore off into the darkness.

Melaleuca spun around to see the torch jiggle and splutter off into the darkness. Sheeesshh.

‘Ari, go after him.’

‘That Quixote,’ Lexington said, ‘needs rules. I have always said it.’ She tut-tutted for effect.

‘That Quixote as you put it jumped in and pulled you out of the water.’

Despite the darkness Melaleuca could feel Lexington cringe at the truth of her words.

‘You’re in charge are you?’ Argus said in a mocking tone. ‘Being in charge while playing is one thing but this is real.’

She chose to ignore him though felt irked by his comments, and anyway, she trusted Ari to bring Quixote back.

From a small distance away Ari yelled, ‘We found something.’

‘What is it?’ Melaleuca cried back.

‘Don’t know. Some sort of wall.’

‘Wave the torch so we can see where you are,’ Melaleuca yelled.

‘It’s dead,’ Ari said.

‘Well, did you find Quixote?’

In a teasing tone that sounded faint enough to be coming from inside a building, Quixote yelled, ‘I found a doorway.’

‘Sing or hum so we can locate you,’ Melaleuca said as she started moving toward where she had heard them.

Ari hummed as loud as he could, and with Lex and Argus behind her, Melaleuca groped her way forward.

‘I think it’s the door to a house or something. No, hang on ─ ’

Quixote cried out and then started shouting.

‘Just wait!’ Melaleuca said.

‘Don’t make so much noise. It’s enough to wake the bloody dead,’ Argus said in hushed tones. ‘Who knows who’s listening.’

‘No wait.’ Quixote screamed. ‘Oh my god, it’s a trap.’ He screamed again and it died away like he had fallen in a hole.

Ari screamed out his name and Argus and Melaleuca ploughed forward, converging on each other’s voices.

Lexington surmised the facts about Quixote in her mind and suspected otherwise, and instead stared up into the sky, making her own discovery.

‘I’ve found the door,’ Ari said.

A ghost noise warbled out from it followed by giggling. Melaleuca chided herself. She should have known better with Quixote.

‘Get out here,’ she said.

Out of the darkness he jumped and shouted, ‘boo!’

‘In charge, my butt,’ Argus said.

‘We are who we are,’ Melaleuca said, ‘and for good reason.’

In light of recent events, she had yet to discover the exact reason although knew Argus spoke some truth however mean he sounded.

‘Oh yeah and what would that be?’

Melaleuca wanted to show him he was wrong and a foreign sensation of wanting to say something hurtful washed over her. Perplexed by it, she let it subside.

‘Hey,’ Lexington said. ‘Look at the sky.

Instead of stars twinkling back at them, smudges of light hung in the sky as if a translucent shield blocked the Milky Way.

In a flash Melaleuca knew that the Photaic wall must extend over the top of them.

Lexington spoke in Melaleuca’s direction. ‘I know you have already worked it out. I did too.’

‘Good.’

‘But,’ Lexington continued, ‘what creates it?’

Melaleuca thought of Quixote’s mother’s instructions and stayed silent.

‘Exactly,’ Lexington countered. ‘I suspect magnetism. But is it pertinent? Is it pertinent to us? I mean where do we start first? If we are to work things out, this is just one more unexplainable thing. Add it to the pile. The real question might be, why hide this land? But then maybe it’s a natural phenomenon……’

As she pontificated, Quixote blurted out, ‘It’s probably just a giant gas bubble from a giant’s ─ ’

‘Enough!’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s hold up in this shelter and wait ‘til morning. We can discuss things further then.’

Argus lit a small fire inside and yellow light threw itself out past their huddled shapes showing what manner of building they sat in.

Flat stone after flat stone lay in layers, forming a tumble-down stonewall. Lichens encrusted the stone surfaces while weeds embedded themselves in the gaps between the stones where aged mortar lay crumbling. The stonewall rose high into the darkness, its ceiling swallowed up by the night – the fire’s light too weak to reach far enough up. The inside smelt dry and the ground felt strangely warm and soft. With their life jackets removed they all lay around the fire, the news that they would move no more until morning allowed them to relax. The heat made them drowsy and soon, despite their hunger they all nodded off to sleep except Lexington and Argus.

 

Lexington tugged at her pocket and pulled out a soggy notebook, carefully prizing the pages apart. She noticed that the ink had not run.

So, our parent’s had foreseen that they might get damp. Interesting.

‘And the torches must have been waterproof.’ She threw a conclusive gaze at Argus though he stared at her with a blank face. ‘Where are our parents though? And why were we attacked? Why have we been hidden all these years and now are to be hidden again? What is silverquick? Who are the men that attacked us?’

Argus turned away uninterested.

She studied her notes while the flickering of the fire threatened to put her to sleep. After a while she said, ‘The foxholes were planned, and the packs and these clothes. They must have known something like this, whatever this is, could happen. And the men that attacked us? Same ones we came across on the mountain?’

‘And what about Antavahni,’ Lexington continued. ‘He said there were two powers. Is one of them us? Is that what all the fuss is about? And this hidden land and the steps all need investigation.’

Lexington turned her wide eyes on Argus. Still awake he poked at the dirt with a stick.

‘Or you could shut up and go to sleep like your chums,’ he said.

‘Maybe. But first, tell me what’s in the bag that is so valuable?’

‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘I’m not worried. Just curious. Have you remembered anything yet?’

‘What?’

‘All that stuff that Antavahni said to you after we were put to sleep.’

‘How’d you know that? You were asleep.’

‘I was asleep but I was not asleep. Ears and eyes and the other senses still work when asleep. It all gets recorded. I can recall it where the others cannot.’

‘I never would have picked you for the underhanded type.’ He laughed to himself. ‘Do the others know?’

She shook her head. ‘They have a tough enough time keeping up with me, without me letting on.’

‘Whatever. Anyway, there is nothing to remember. Wasted your breath.’

‘I think otherwise. I have seen that look in your eye. And noted words that set it off, “Ori,” “hidden land,” “Antipodes,” to name a few.’

He stood, his bag clutched in hand. ‘There is nothing to remember,’ he said and walked out.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Mission over.’

She flipped out her notebook and wrote in it;

 

WHY?

 

Lexington’s inner voice coughed and spluttered.

Finally, I thought I would suffocate.’

‘Eh?’

When you don’t talk to me I don’t just disappear. Ow, stop that!’

‘Stop what.’

Thinking! When you think it crushes me, pushes me out of the way. Talk. Use your voice.’

‘But the others might wake,’ she whispered.

Then tell them about me.’

‘Not again. Help me instead of being a pain.’

What do you need help with?’

‘I need help solving all of this. Sea wall? Sea sticking to land on an angle? Columns lifting out of the ocean?’

You have two options.’

‘Yes.’

Work it out. I’m not going to give you the answers.’

‘You are me. Now tell me what you think.’

Alright. You could spend a lot of time working out how it works, or, work out why this land is hidden?’

‘And why us? What is so special about us?’

Well that we have to find out. You are right about your parents though.’

‘Which part?’

They must have known that you might be attacked. They were well prepared. Not sure about the two powers. Perhaps Antavahni has or is the answer.’

‘I fear he is dead.’

Fear away. I mean what is he? 50,000 years old? An Etamol? Somewhere though there must be a reference to him.’

‘Where?’

Myth. All myth and legend starts with truth. If the land is old, myth and legend is the place to start. Perhaps a hypothesis is needed?’

‘Hypothesis! Yeeess.’

Instead of scrambling around with this fact here and that fact there, you could propose a theory or two, a hypothesis, and then you would have a frame work to start with.’

‘I like it. Myth, legend and hypothesis. We’ll see which is a better way – keeping on moving ahead or ours.’

Quixote stirred and made some mumbling noises in his sleep. Lexington quickly wrote, That’s why,” and lay down and pretended to be asleep.

Footsteps entered the shelter sounding as if they tried to creep along with stealth. A leaf crumpled underfoot and then a small twig cracked. The figure moved around the room and a barely audible humming sound moved with it. The unknown figure stopped and she could feel it hovering above her. The whirring sound moved a little closer.

She flicked her eyelids open and Argus stared at her with a large awkward looking object at his eye. It looked similar to pictures of cameras she had seen but bigger and bulkier.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

Argus snapped the object behind him. ‘Nothing. Go back to sleep.’

‘How can I with you sneaking around.’

He turned his back on her as he stuffed the object into his backpack, and muttering to himself said, ‘At least it still works. This should be footage enough.’

He left saying nothing more.

 

***

 

Melaleuca shuffled outside and shielded her eyes from the morning brightness. In the distance with the rising sun behind him she saw Ari peering over the cliff.

‘What do you see?’

Without turning he yelled back, ‘The sea is calm now. No sign of the boat.’ He paused and then with amazement said, ‘Man, it looks so far down.’

As he turned to face Melaleuca he stared above her in amazement. Quixote and Lexington stumbled out.

‘I think this land is old,’ Ari said. ‘Look.’ He pointed above them.

A broken down tower of some sort soared high into the air, sticking out of the shelter, and the base of it sunk into the start of a forested mountain slope.

Melaleuca inched backwards to get a better view.

Plants grew like tufts out of many gaping cracks and vines crawled all over it. Half of its outer wall had crumbled and wood-rotted stairs, like the skeletal remains of a dead animal unevenly snaked up inside the tower’s innards. An eerie gust blew through it and it moaned as if alive and small flecks of dust wafted down.

Quixote bounced up and down. ‘Yeah. You don’t scare me. Ha ha.’

The wind blew stronger and a high-pitched scream burst out of the deep moaning and then died away.

‘It’s the Ethmare talking,’ Ari said.

‘What do you mean Ethmare?’ Lexington said.

‘It’s that word Antavahni used. I’m not sure but I think he means the earth spirit.’

Lexington shook her head. ‘So little information and such a big conclusion. And based solely on your own thoughts.’

 

A small head protruded out from the corner of the tower, waved and then disappeared. It happened so quickly Melaleuca wondered if they had really seen it. The head popped out again and this time remained longer.

Lexington cried out, ‘MUM!’

She sprinted towards her mother and the others raced after her.

Melaleuca rounded the corner and found Lexington by herself perplexed – no sign of anyone else – only the rock wall, some grass and the start of the forest.

‘Where’d she go?’ Melaleuca asked puzzled.

‘Don’t know,’ Lexington said. ‘No one was here when I got here.’

‘There look,’ Quixote said and pointed at the forest.

One of their mothers stood amongst the trees waving and beckoning them to follow.

‘Let’s go,’ Quixote cried out.

Whose ever mother it was, dashed off through the trees and disappeared from sight, and Quixote and Lexington ran after her. Melaleuca held back and checked out Ari’s reaction.

‘Even if it is not her,’ Ari said. ‘We’ve got to follow.’

Keep moving forward.

‘Let’s follow them,’ she said.

 

Into the forest they ran, though they soon stopped when they came across Lexington and Quixote searching for their mother who again had disappeared. Her head popped out from behind a tree further up and she waved again. Quixote squealed with delight and ran to the trees, the others running after him. Again the tree revealed no mother and again she appeared deeper in the forest, waving and beckoning.

They tried again and again to catch her but to no avail. Her speed made it impossible, and she never stopped long enough for any of them to get close. Without fully knowing whose mother they chased, they carried on pursuing her desperate to get near her. On it went, on and on. On through the forest, through thickets, through gorse-like bushes, up small inclines, down narrow trails, under overhangs, on and on and on and on – and with a dogged determination they hounded after her. Melaleuca cried out a few times for them to stop but Quixote, set on catching whoever it was, did not relent and so they careered forward as if on forced march.

Gaps in the trees offered glimpses of the valley below. Every now and then a small house could be seen or the hint of a road or far away bare hills miles in the distance.

With no end in sight of the relentless chase Melaleuca called a halt and they brought themselves to a rapid stop, though Ari had to retrieve Quixote. With their hands on their knees they heaved large sobs of air in and out, their hearts pumping like crazy.

‘I’ve…lost my…bearings,’ Ari said in between breaths.

Their mother stood at a distance, again her body obscured by a tree, and she waved, again beckoning to them.

‘What is..she playing…at?’ Lexington asked.

The mother cried out, ‘Don’t worry. All fine. Just follow. Nearly there.’

Quixote roared off after her and the chase started again, and this time the pace increased as they climbed higher and higher into the forest. The trees became denser and the overhead canopy of plants became thicker, casting a dark dank atmosphere over the forest. After a while they started to descend until they found themselves running through a pine forest with plenty of room in-between the trees.

They ran, sprinted, slowed, stumbled and then sprinted again, losing track of time before finally bursting out onto a grass field.

Five hundred metres away lay a massive stone wall with stately well-trimmed trees springing up behind it. Their mother stood against the wall waiting for them.

 

‘How…did…she…get…there…so…fast?’ Lexington said pale and exhausted.

‘I bet she has powers like I saw our Dads’ use,’ Quixote said.

‘Push on,’ Melaleuca said.

Tired, Melaleuca walked into the grass field and headed for their mother. With no protests her cousins trod a weary path behind her, all except Quixote who ran at the mother. As he got closer she vanished right in front of their eyes.

A hundred metres to the left, the stone wall ended and their mother poked her head out, unsurprisingly waving and beckoning them.

‘Urrr, just follow her,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I think it is her dead ghost come back to lead us,’ Lexington said.

‘Or,’ Quixote said, ‘she is somewhere far away meditating and sending us her form using more of her powers.’

‘Just follow,’ Melaleuca said.

As they rounded the corner their mother had disappeared again though by now none were surprised.

A dirt road headed up a small rise, stopping in front of a large ivy-clad wrought-iron gate. The dirt road headed downhill away from the gate through English looking oak trees.

‘Oh blow, where has she gone? This is cruel and ridiculous,’ Lexington said.

Bedraggled and aching from their run, none of them seemed to care anymore.

‘Sit. Rest,’ Melaleuca said.

‘We have to find mum,’ Lexington said.

Ari sat, resting up against the wall and hung his head between his legs.

‘We don’t even know if it is her.’

‘Just wait,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Whoever it is, they are leading us somewhere. Wait until they appear again.’

‘Yes. But where?’ Lexington added.

‘Well I’m going to explore,’ Quixote said.

He ran up the small rise to the gates.

‘He’s a pain but he is indefatigable,’ Lexington said

‘Big word,’ Ari said.

‘It means not easily tired.’

Ari wiped the sweat off his brow. ‘And where did Argus go?’

‘Oh,’ Lexington said. ‘Ummm. I meant to tell you.’

She hurriedly told them what Argus had done last night, feeling a little foolish for waiting so long.

‘Come on,’ Quixote said as he neared the iron gates.

Melaleuca let the news of Argus filter through her and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. The answer on Argus will become clear. Let’s move.’

She stood and trod up the small rise.

‘How can you know that? What do you base that on?’

Melaleuca ignored her, joining Quixote at the iron gates.

‘Mum led us here,’ Melaleuca said. ‘She appears no more which means we are where she wants us to be.’ Before Lexington could say anything, she held up a determined finger in Lexington’s direction and stated, ‘I know it so.’

Ari gingerly said, ‘Then I should tell you, I don’t think it was our mother we followed. I didn’t want to say anything because I trusted you to make the right decision. But whoever it was they have left no tracks, no footprints, nothing.’

‘So we are dealing with a ghost,’ Quixote half shouted once again more excited.

‘That’s just the point Quixote. We do not know what we are dealing with,’ Lexington said.

‘I know what we are dealing with,’ Quixote said grinning, getting ready to wind Lexington up.

Melaleuca held her hands up high to silence them both. ‘Enough. In the absence of clues we press on.’

‘Mel. For logic’s sake. We have travelled this far and nothing has been answered,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca turned her hawk-eyes on Lexington and tried to stare her down. Unmoved, Lexington relaxed and took heed of the words of her mother, “your gentleness is the strongest weapon you have,” and softened her resolve.

‘Mel. I have to do this. Please.’

Melaleuca calmed down. ‘You will. In time. Trust me. For now we push on.’

Lexington could see that Melaleuca would not budge, yet despite not getting her way she felt powerful, having blunted Melaleuca’s sharpness.

‘Where do we push to?’ she said.

‘I’m climbing over the wall,’ Quixote said.

Half way up, he looked over his shoulder.

‘Look at that.’

The dirt road cut through the Oak trees, opening a small gap in the woods, large enough for them to peer into the valley below. A small town or village sat there.

‘What is that place?’

‘New Wakefield,’ came a voice from behind the gates.

 

Chapter 7 – The Cathedral Mansion

 

 

‘Idiot. They cannot see you,’ a harsh sounding woman said from behind the gate. ‘Now I will not be able to see what sort of children they are.’

‘Sorry d..d..dear,’ said the first voice.

‘Open the gate then. Come on,’ the woman said.

The gate creaked open.

A sour faced lady grimaced at them. Her old fashioned dress draped to the ground and her hair-bun had a tortoise shell comb holding it in place, matching her tortoise shell glasses. A stooped untidy old man stood next to her, bald and chubby though a lot more cheerful looking.

‘Who are you?’ Melaleuca said backing away and checking where her cousins were.

The old lady screeched back at her. ‘Silence!’ With great disdain she said, ‘I am your Aunty Gertrude and this, is your Uncle Bear-Nard.’

Surprised, and a little horrified, Melaleuca held her silence, exchanging glances with her cousins. Even Quixote found nothing to joke about and Lexington stared upon them stunned.

Pleased, Aunty Gertrude allowed her face muscles to arrange a thin-lipped weak smile.

‘Instant obedience. I like that.’

‘Really,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We were never told.’

Aunty Gertrude scrunched her wrinkled face at Melaleuca in disgust, and turning her revulsion to Uncle Bear-Nard she erupted.

‘I told you they would be trouble. Disgusting, filthy outside children with no breeding, ill manners, and a total lack of respect. Who do not even know how to not talk back!’

She shouted at them with a fierce roar. ‘DO NOT SPEAK UNLESS SPOKEN TO FIRST!’

Uncle Bear-Nard dithered beside her unsure what to do.

 

Having never seen an elderly person before, nor knowing what was expected of them when yelled at them, the cousins smirked amongst themselves as if watching something funny.

‘What if it’s an emergency?’ Lexington asked with genuine curiosity.

Aunty Gertrude gasped.

‘What if we do like bees and dance in circles,’ Quixote said from half way up the stone wall.

Aunty Gertrude gasped some more and staggered back as if hit. She composed herself, glared at Uncle Bear-Nard, shook her head at Quixote, shouting, ‘Get down before you damage that wall.’

Quixote eyed the solid wall and an incredulous look spread over his cheeky face and he burst into laughter.

Aunty Gertrude’s face steamed bright red, and enraged, she tried hollering but choked on her words. Melaleuca could tell that their Aunty was going to be a mighty handful.

‘Qui. Hop down,’ Melaleuca said.

‘What if it is an emergency?’ Lexington said again.

The curiosity in her voice was replaced with something rarely heard in Lexington – a challenge to fight.

‘You…you…you…’

Quixote leapt down, and now pleased, their Aunt’s words flowed again.

‘You…you ask for permission, you uncouth girl.’

Uncle Bear-Nard shuffled forward and with a timid cock of his head said, ‘Perhaps they just need time to understand dear.’

Aunty Gertrude sneered though Uncle Bear-Nard persisted and stepped forward, saying, ‘Perhaps some further explaining might be in order?’

He made a nervous sound and ducked away from Aunty Gertrude fearful she might hit him.

Aunty Gertrude nodded her approval.

‘Children, yes, I am your Uncle Bear-Nard and this is your Aunty Gertrude. Your mother was my younger sister by 25 years ─ ’

‘You mean mothers,’ Melaleuca said.

‘M..M..M..mothers?’ He looked puzzled.

‘Yes. We all have different mothers. They were sisters, quadruplets,’ Melaleuca said and eyed him with suspicion. ‘You should know that.’

Uncle Bear-Nard chuckled.

‘Yes yes yes, of course, slip of my tongue. Speech impediment. Keep losing my ‘S’s. False teeth not fitted well,’ he said. ‘Your mothers.’ Uneasiness fell over him as he spoke his last two words.

‘What were our mothers’ names then?’

Looking worried he rushed their names out.

‘Kar…er…no…I mean…Henna, Katie, Ursula and Eugenia.’

Melaleuca relaxed as he got them all right, though Lexington nudged her and whispered, ‘He started to say something else.’

‘Rude girl. Don’t whisper,’ Aunty Gertrude said holding a stern finger up at her.

Uncle Bear-Nard ignored her and motioned for them to introduce themselves.

Melaleuca stepped forward. Her raven-dark shoulder-length hair had knots and dirt in it, and her smudged camouflage clothes made her appear like an urchin.

‘I’m Melaleuca Willimena Enigma Arrnor,’ she said placing her hands on her hips.

‘Disgusting to say the least,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

Uncle Bear-Nard offered a simpering smile, trying to smooth her comments over.

Ari presented himself next. As equally messy, his hair resisted dirt and bobbed about like a great wool coat on a sheep.

‘And I am Ari Hillary Shackleton Arrnor,’ he said sticking his chest out. ‘I like to explore.’

‘What you will like to do,’ Aunty Gertrude said back, ‘is learn respect. What queer names.’

‘Our names,’ Lexington said, ‘were given to us based on our personality. I am Lexington Dodeca Varfor Arrnor. Varfor means ‘why’ in another language. I like to ask why, Dodeca ─ ’

Aunty Gertrude cut her short with a sharp hand gesture and Quixote, ignoring it, leapt forward with his normal boundless energy and half shouted, ‘I am Quixote Pisces Teleois Arrnor. The most fun in the whole wide wwwwooooooorrrrrrrrrllldd.’

His smug imp face beamed up at Aunty Gertrude – every inch of feature on his head a call to mischief. He winked at her several times.

‘STOP THAT! STOP THAT! STOP THAT AT ONCE,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

‘STOP THAT STOP THAT STOP THAT…’ Quixote said back amused.

Disgusted, Aunty Gertrude recoiled and marshalled her wits – her face becoming as stern as concrete.

Melaleuca pulled Quixote to her, unsure what their Aunt might do. She well knew Quixote did not have the good sense to know when to stop.

‘Where is our mother?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Your m..m..mother?’ Uncle Bear-Nard raised his eyebrows.

‘Yes. She led us here.’

‘Led you here? How odd.’

‘From the sea’s edge. All the way here.’

‘Sea’s edge?’

‘Instead of repeating my questions back, answer them.’

Infuriated, Aunty Gertrude said, ‘Don’t you get infuriated. No more questions. It’s not permitted.’

‘We did see one of our mothers,’ Lexington said, ‘here in New Wakefield, Agorrah, Tenarthdarway, or whatever you call ─ ’

‘Oh my,’ Aunty Gertrude said in gushing tones. Her face became delicate and she shook a little. She produced a dainty handkerchief and held it to her nose. ‘I told you Bear-Nard they would be too much for my sensitive sensibilities.’

Uncle Bear-Nard creased his crinkled red-skinned eyes at her, deep in sympathy.

‘We don’t say that word anymore,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said.

‘What? Tenarthdarway?’

‘No you stupid girl,’ Aunty Gertrude said snapping out of her daintiness. ‘That is not a word, the other one.’

‘Oh. Agorrah?’

‘Oh dear, the forbidden word,’ Aunty Gertrude said feigning fainting.

Melaleuca ignored all their Aunt had said. ‘I want answers.’

‘Enough!’ Aunty Gertrude said. ‘Get these brazen brats inside. Horrors and curse on you and your House Bear-Nard.’

She started shooing them inside as if herding sheep.

‘Come on come on, let’s go. Get a move on.’

Without fighting back they shuffled toward the open gate, though Quixote made it difficult on purpose for her to muster them in one clean push.

‘Oh zounds,’ Aunty Gertrude said and pinched her nose. ‘Do they not know how to bathe?’

‘Uncle,’ Melaleuca said straight-faced, ‘that is if you really are our Uncle, we have not washed since our…’ she paused not wanting to say anything about where they came from. ‘…since leaving our home many days have elapsed. We are in good spirits though we would like to bathe and eat.’

‘Children do not tell adults what they would like to do,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

Melaleuca locked eyes on her, wanting to push her away with all her might. She narrowed her gaze and stared past Aunty Gertrude’s steel-grey eyes and bore deep into her mind. For a brief moment Melaleuca felt the swirl of emotions inside her Aunt, and at an astounding rate unclear images of her Aunt poured into Melaleuca’s mind that made no sense. Aunty Gertrude staggered backwards, shifting her sight off her niece. She tried to compose herself and adjusted her hair, though Melaleuca saw she had unnerved her.

‘The harder the stick the more easy it breaks,’ Melaleuca said.

Aunty Gertrude pursed her lips tight.

‘Get these children inside.’

She turned and stormed through the gate.

‘Come children,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said and chuckled a nervous laugh. ‘Let us get y..y..y..you settled.’

 

They followed their Uncle through the gate and started walking on a dirt road that led up a small hill. Ahead Aunty Gertrude set a furious pace. At the top of the hill a large lawn sprawled out in front of the cousins, and many gigantic trees erupted out of the well-kept grass. They looked as large as the ones in their training play ground though a supernatural feeling emanated from them. Their roots protruded out of the earth, appearing like leaping dolphins frozen in wood with gaps big enough for a person to fit under.

Ari and Quixote ran to the trees and Melaleuca could tell it was as if they drew the boys.

‘Come look,’ Ari called out.

Melaleuca joined them awed by the size of the trees, and even Lexington dashed to them. A look of twisted horror lay twined into the trees flaky bark, and seams of abrupt curls and deep etched lines traced jagged furrow-patterns along it. It looked as if the trees had once been alive.

Discarding her delicateness, Aunty Gertrude ran and yelled at them to get off the lawn, trying to herd them with outstretched arms while yelling at Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘Disgusting! Uncouth! Vagabonds.’

She ushered them through the trees until they stood before an immense manor-like building.

Despite the sun shining on it, it appeared dark and ominous as if something large and unseen created a great shade over it. Five stories high, towers jutted out here and there, and small turrets traced their way around the roof’s edge. Many high-arched windows dotted the large stone-slab walls with smaller bricks and panels of wood adorning it sporadically.

‘Is it a castle or a…..’ Lexington said stumped and then added in a quieter voice, ‘It looks like nothing I have seen in any of my books.’

Aunty Gertrude smirked at their awe-struck silence.

‘Such a mighty privilege,’ she said with great pride. ‘Feast your eyes on the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. I see its grandeur is not lost on you. History and myth mix here.’ Her voice became sullen and withdrawn. ‘Once this whole land was dotted with Cathedral-Mansions. Discipline ran high and strong. Our moral fibre was bound by these great buildings. Now this is the last. It is we who hold the fibre of a past age together.’ She stared off into the distance. ‘Oh that outside children should be allowed to tread these great halls where once the mighty trod.’

Upset by her words Uncle Bear-Nard shuffled as fast as he could toward Aunty Gertrude motioning her to be quiet.

Lexington’s face lit up and she turned to Melaleuca.

‘This is perfect for my hypothesis.’ She faced Aunty Gertrude. ‘Why is this called Throughnight?’

Melaleuca lowered her eyebrows in question. Hypothesis?

‘I said…’ Aunty Gertrude said preparing again to launch into a rant. ‘..no…ques…,’ but then stopped. ‘Throughnight? You do not know your own noble bloodline. Good god!’

‘Let’s…let…them…r..r..rest,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said.

‘But I want to know it all,’ Lexington said pen and notebook ready. ‘The history and the mythology.’

Lexington implored her Aunt with a genuine intellectual want and pride rippled through Aunty Gertrude.

‘You see,’ Aunty Gertrude began, ‘our people are ─ ’

Uncle Bear-Nard ambled toward her, shaking his head tut-tutting. Melaleuca found this a strange reaction and saw Ari puzzled by their Uncle as well. Their Uncle grabbed Lexington’s hand and tugged her toward two large wooden doors at the top of a set of marble steps.

‘They need r..r…rest,’ he said to Aunty Gertrude.

‘Bear-Nard!!’ Aunty Gertrude shouted. ‘The servants’ entrance for this rabble.’

Scolded, he led them down the side of the Cathedral-Mansion passing alongside the great stone-block foundations that seemed to go on forever. Up close they appeared dreary and unmaintained though arriving at the back revealed neat gardens and trimmed hedges.

Melaleuca stopped abruptly, telling the others to do likewise. ‘We shall not go any further until we know what is happening.’

Sheer panic crossed Uncle Bear-Nard’s face and he turned in haste to Aunty Gertrude who tightened her mouth. For the second time she looked like she would choke on her words and trying to suppress her rage, said, ‘At great inconvenience to myself and the landed staff of this great estate have I allowed the tranquillity to be upset by your presence.’

Spittle frothed at the corners of her mouth.

‘It is obvious that of these things you have little understanding. Here in New Wakefield we abide by the strictest of rules AND DO NOT tolerate insolence lightly! I suggest you learn this if you are to harmoniously reside here, AND I suggest you learn it now.’

‘Maybe we shall see what our parents say about that when we see them,’ Melaleuca said.

Aunty Gertrude rushed at Melaleuca and raised her hand to strike her.

‘Your parents ─ ’

Uncle Bear-Nard heaved his rotund body into her path, cutting her short. Her livid faced screamed in silence at him.

‘Please..dear….allow me,’ he said cowering.

She glared at him even more.

‘For your sake…I mean…dear. A lady of your breeding should n..n..not be accosted by such loutishness.’

‘Fine!’ Aunty Gertrude said and strode off in a huff into the Cathedral-Mansion. She let out a put-on cry as if the whole affair had greatly upset her.

‘She is just what I imagine a witch to be like,’ Quixote said.

Uncle Bear-Nard coughed politely and said, ‘Please d..d.d.d.d.don’t let her hear you say s.s.s..such a thing.’

Lexington looked at their poor downtrodden Uncle – a pitiable sight for a man whom she guessed was supposed to be the Lord of the Cathedral-Mansion.

Melaleuca beat him with her sharp gaze. ‘I am not easily fooled Uncle. Much is not being told to us. We need rest. I will expect answers after that.’

He shied away from Melaleuca.

‘Mel. You are scaring him,’ Lexington said.

‘No. No. No. She is right. Come follow me. In good time all will be explained.’

‘We are forthright and have been taught to be so,’ Ari offered hoping to make him feel a little better.

‘Yes the little I heard from your mother…mothers, suggested you children were spirited. You…er…will find things…um…a little different around here.’

 

Inside the Cathedral-Mansion Uncle Bear-Nard led them through the largest kitchen they had ever seen, though too quick to take in much detail. He headed through some dark, narrow, old-smelling passageways to a set of stairs where he stopped and bade them to wait, and then dashed back the way they had come.

The cousins stared at each other puzzled.

Quixote started to follow after their Uncle when he appeared again and hoofed it up the passage with a wobbling trot as if someone chased him.

‘Here q..q..quick. Eat,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said and handed them each a large piece of thick bread with a rich smelling paste on it. ‘Sp…sp…sp…spiced vegetable spread. Good f..f..for you. Now hurry.’

The food felt warming inside them, somehow making them feel a little more settled.

They trotted up creaking set of stairs, ascending three levels, stopping at a dead end. Uncle Bear-Nard pushed hard on the insides of an unfinished wall, and after considerable effort it swung open spilling dust and tearing cobwebs.

‘Your Aunt thought it best to use the back stairs.’

He ushered them through the opening into a large dismal corridor. An old worn carpet ran down the middle of it with wooden floors either side. Colour-faded stripy wallpaper, tarnished with stains, adorned the walls. Uncle Bear-Nard rammed the door shut behind them and Melaleuca saw the wallpaper ran continuously over the door, blending it with the wall.

A small bell hanging off a curly strip of metal, high up on the wall, started to jingle.

‘We all have codes,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, happy to explain this, ‘to tell us when to come and where to go. That is the bell for the butler. He is needed by your Aunt in the drawing room.’

‘A butler? A real butler?’ Lexington asked.

‘I think we have stepped into olden times,’ Quixote said. ‘Are their knights and tournaments and jousting?’

He pranced up and down the corridor shouting and jabbing at the air while pretending to spur on an imaginary horse.

Uncle Bear-Nard tittered unsure. ‘Th…th…this way p..p..please.’

Along the corridor they walked following its twists and turns, passing door after door, each one as curious as the next.

‘Are all these rooms occupied?’ Melaleuca asked

‘Just follow.’

Uncle Bear-Nard stopped by a five foot high door and opened it, revealing a tight corridor, at the end of which a small window let in the barest of light. At the same end Uncle Bear-Nard led them through another door into a large bedroom with two four-poster beds and a large fireplace protruding out of the wall. Stone floors and stone walls greeted them with coldness, though a lot more light filtered in through two large bay windows constructed out of tiny lead-framed panes of glass.

‘There are only two beds,’ Melaleuca said.

‘This b..b..b..bedroom just for the boys.’

‘But we always sleep together,’ Quixote said. ‘It’s more fun.’

‘Unheard of in New Wakefield. Not allowed,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said with more firmness than any of his words so far. ‘Boys and girls after dark, unchaperoned in a room, unthinkable.’

He sounded just like Aunty Gertrude and he winked at them.

‘Why did you just wink?’ Lexington asked.

‘W..w…w..wink?’

‘Yes. Wink.’

‘D..d..d.definitely not allowed.’

He lit a small candle and placed it on a rickety table and put the matches beside it, turned and walked out the door. The cousins stood in the room unsure of what to do.

‘Come along girls. I will send up more f..f..food and a b..b..bath for the boys.’

Ari smiled at Melaleuca who hesitated.

‘We’ll be fine.’

 

The girls trotted after their Uncle passing through several more musty-smelling dimly-lit corridors of awful wallpaper. Lexington asked Uncle Bear-Nard several more questions along the way, making him more nervous and jumpier with each question. Soon he opened another door and ushered them into their room shutting the door behind them. Melaleuca yanked it back open to talk to him though he walked away at a surprising speed.

The bedroom had the addition of two writing desks under the bay windows and above the fire place sat a large ornate mirror. A thick layer of dust covered everything.

Lexington walked to her four-poster bed, leaving footprints in the dusty floor. She threw herself on it, landing hard, almost knocking the wind out of her.

‘Ow! It’s as solid as a rock! Feel it.’

Melaleuca pushed on it. ‘It feels like there are boards inside the mattress.’ She felt her bed as well.

‘The same.’

Lexington flicked her hair back over her shoulder. ‘Don’t know why I am surprised. This Cathedral-Mansion does not look like it was built for comfort.’

‘Mmm. No it certainly doesn’t.’

Melaleuca crossed to the window and stood looking out.

Lexington lowered herself onto her bed and started jotting her thoughts down.

‘Mel, what was that comment about? The harder stick breaks.’

‘Our Aunt has a tough outside but I do not think she is so tough.’

Lexington asked more questions but Melaleuca ignored them and instead let her mind drift free. It felt like months had passed since they had fled from their home under the threat of danger, followed a man sent by their parents, met a strange looking humanoid creature, only to end up here. And still with no answers. And according to Antavahni there would be no answers. The words of their parents filtered through her mind.

‘Do you remember what Mum said the day you wanted to leave and go and find other children,’ Melaleuca said.

‘You know I do. They simply said not until 16 or maybe 18.’

‘And why was that?’

‘They wouldn’t say.’ Lexington screwed her face up. ‘But you know what was strange. They didn’t say go and work it out for your selves like they always did.’

‘They hid so much,’ Melaleuca said deep in thought.

‘Hid?’ Lexington said pen in hand. ‘What are you not telling me now?’

‘I could never read our parents is all I meant,’ she said striking Lexington with her hawk-eyed stare. ‘My instincts never fail me.’

‘Well not yet.’

‘I could never get a feeling off any of them. They were closed to me. Yet since leaving I have been bombarded with different sensations and got clear messages off Argus and Aunty Gertrude. Yet right now…’

She looked back out the window, closed her eyes and dove deep inside herself, relaxing, letting her instincts talk. The same sense of adventure and dread flooded up, the same one she had felt when they first set out over the hill. Nothing clear came of searching her feelings, just images, lands, people and a flood of emotions.

‘I can’t see what to do,’ Melaleuca said. ‘What is next? I know we are to keep moving forward. But I can’t get a feeling on it. It’s all jumbled.’

Lexington breathed out heavily. This is why she had often said facts needed gathering, then arranging, analysing and investigating.

‘Of course you can’t. What data do you have to go on?’

‘Maybe our first task is to work out what our first task is but I can’t see it,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington looked annoyed yet pleased at the same time.

‘Logically what you say makes sense. You make decisions. But right now, what have you got to decide about? Trying to make a decision on everything we have seen so far, without facts, would be like sitting out in the middle of the ocean wondering which way to go.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘You keep on telling me to just move forward and now look at you. You have stopped and all the questions come up. That’s my job. Perhaps you need to move again. Besides, to make a decision you need contrasting options between which you must choose. I bet you have never analysed the basis of decision making.’

Melaleuca’s gut feelings had never been wrong, a fact Lexington knew. Yet now with their world turned upside down Lexington insisted her logic was better, even though in the past it had failed. Melaleuca fought her feelings down knowing that Lexington needed facts and logic as much as she needed to make decisions. Besides, her mother had said to take good counsel from Lexington.

‘Well,’ Lexington said. ‘Do you have contrasting options?’

A decision surged into Melaleuca. She needed to encourage and steer Lexington, not resist her. Lexington’s words about “decisions needing contrasting options” struck her as true. She had wanted to resist her, but that also meant a contrasting option of not resisting her, lay before Melaleuca.

‘You’re right,’ Melaleuca said.

She pulled one of the pieces of card from her pocket and read it again – “trust.” I should not let my thoughts get the better of me.

‘I am going to find the boys,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I am going to devise a hypothesis. It’s what all great people do at moments like this.’

‘Do what you will. Mum was clear that if they did not come back, we just keep on moving forward. I will listen when you have formulated your hypo thing.’

She crossed to the door and opened it, walking off down the corridor, leaving Lexington to pound out her hypothesis.

Lexington started furiously writing down what she thought. A few minutes into it she stopped. Did she want to stay and finish it or go after Melaleuca? If she stayed, she could end up with what she sought – a reasonable explanation behind all the events so far. Though, what if Melaleuca found a valuable clue? What if she did not know it was a clue? What if she knew it was a clue, but reported it back to her wrong? What then?

She tossed up staying or going, back and forth until she was as unsure as she was when she started. She poked her head out the door and looked both ways down the empty corridor, and then wrote, “why,” on a blank page in her notebook.

GO!’ the voice in her mind screamed.

 

***

 

Melaleuca turned another corner, passing yet another locked door for what seemed like the twentieth time. Instead of finding the boys’ room she soon found herself walking down a corridor. It got wider and wider and wider until she could see light streaming down from somewhere high, up ahead.

The wooden floor ended at a hard stone floor, and two stories above sat a massive cathedral-like ceiling, swaddled in light and dark areas. Great rafters held it up, spilling forth like giant whale ribs from five points. Scant patches of light streamed down in long narrow shafts from murky glass panels, and massive columns of chiselled marble rose – floor to ceiling – slicing through some of the light beams, and creating pockets of darkened mystery.

To her right a grand staircase, wide enough to fit 15 people across swept down three levels and ended far below in greyness – the main entrance they had been forbidden to come in faintly visible. To her left the grand staircase swept up two more levels into darkness, and a tatty carpet ran the whole length of it, evidence of better days. Ornate carved banisters curved alongside the staircase, and even with the shafts of light hitting the stairs, patches of shadows swallowed portions of it up.

Eerie church-still silence held vigil and a feeling of faded glory hung in the air, though something almost alive, hidden in the unseeable reaches, probed her, stirring her up and and andthreatening to swamp her. She pushed it back with her will and said, ‘NO!’ in her mind and the feeling slunk away.

On the other side of the staircase opposite her, another corridor started, and two figures emerged from it – Ari and Quixote. She waved at them. She knew they had not crossed this area when Uncle Bear-Nard had led her from the boys’ room to hers.

‘How did you get there?’

They both shrugged their shoulders at her and then turned, drinking in the grand sight of the staircase, the columns, and the great roof.

‘This…this…?’ Ari said in awe. ‘This…’

He could feel it as well. Melaleuca saw it in his face.

‘I think God or some of his angels live here,’ Quixote said – a sense of immenseness washing over him.

‘Dark angels maybe,’ Ari said.

‘We need Lex to see this,’ Melaleuca said. ‘I felt something.’

Ari nodded in agreement. ‘I felt it by the trees. It’s like something is alive.’

Out of the shadows at the bottom of the stairs, like an apparition Aunty Gertrude appeared with two maids behind her carrying trays. The cousins stopped and an instinct to hide took hold of them and they ran into the corridors.

‘YOU LITTLE HEATHENS!’ Aunty Gertrude bellowed, her voice echoing around.

Surprised she had fled, Melaleuca wondered why. She walked back out on to the stairs and stared down at her Aunt, Quixote and Ari following. Aunty Gertrude started up the stairs and screamed for Uncle Bear-Nard to come and help her.

‘How dare you defile the Grand Ascension Stairs,’ she said. ‘What is the meaning of this?’

‘Meaning?’ Quixote looked stumped. ‘You’re the mean one.’

Aunty Gertrude cast a vicious look at him. Seconds later Uncle Bear-Nard raced down the stairs from the upper stories as fast as he could.

‘And that comment,’ Aunty Gertrude said, ‘has cost you your supper and bath.’ She headed back downstairs shooing the maids away. ‘Bear-Nard take them to their rooms. I’ll give you one week to shape them. After that.’

Her voice stopped cold like the snap of an icicle and she chuckled in threat and left.

Uncle Bear-Nard blurted out a nervous noise and said, ‘C..c.c.c.come ch..ch..ch..children.’

Once again they trailed after their Uncle.

‘What does she mean, one week to shape us?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Not feeling herself today,’ Uncle Bear-Nard replied.

Soon they were back in their respective rooms.

 

***

 

Melaleuca could not see Lexington anywhere. Before she could give her whereabouts much thought, a piece of folded paper slipped under the door.

Thinking the boys had snuck out and done it, she rushed to the door and threw it open. The long corridor appeared empty. In a house that appeared as old as this she conjured up an image of a ghost leaving it and then vanishing. Or perhaps there were more secret staircases.

The handwriting on the note belonged to none of her cousins. It read:

 

‘Nothing is as it seems.

Follow your instincts.

Let your hearts lead you.

Listen to no one.

The walls you see are not the walls that are.

Find the unseen corridor to move without being seen.

Press the creatures in the right order.’

 

Chapter 8 – The Birth of Nap Retep

 

 

Quesob Quinfollia squeezed his body out of the hidden opening of the cave known as B’barakai’s Incognia. His smart uniform of leather and embroidery looked beaten up from escorting the Men of Ori to and from their failed mission. As he picked chunks of mud off his knees and shook dirt from his hair, he placed his hand on his shoulder and lifted up his dry blood-stained clothes. His angry-red bullet wound wept, though he ignored the pain and instead counted the men out that followed behind him.

‘1,2,3,4,5…’ he said and blew cave dust out his stuffed-up pug nose.

One by one they emerged from the cave-tunnel they had entered a night and a day before, gathering before him on the northern hills in the early evening amongst the cover of the bushes and the trees. Their gaunt bearded faces watched him blank of any emotion.

‘…195, 196, 197,’ Quesob counted expecting more men to emerge.

‘We have lost some,’ a concerned Quesob said.

They stared back unresponsive.

‘Yes,’ Quesob said to their silence. ‘You don’t care do you? It’s every man for himself where you come from. It’s the same here, mostly.’

Their leader, a thin man of wiry muscles and chipped teeth stepped forward and spat on the ground. Behind him the rest of the Ori did likewise.

‘Nice,’ Quesob said. ‘You are free to go. For now the mission is over.’

They turned and with no noise, disappeared into the bush. Quesob shivered. Their lack of basic human warmth was even too cold for him. After spending months in their uncomfortable presence a sense of relief washed over him. They had until morning to cross the valley and return to the depths of the southern wasteland, where the barren forbidden Golgotha earth let little grow. He headed after them but at a slower pace. He did not want to catch up to them at all.

 

 

***

 

Footsteps clattered toward Lexington and fearing discovery she grabbed for the nearest door, opened it and slipped inside the room. Keeping it ajar she watched Uncle Bear-Nard march her cousins past. She pushed the door shut and waited.

Big and empty with no clues to anything, her heart sank again – another empty room.

I should have stayed back and worked on my hypothesis.

More footsteps clattered outside and again she peeked. Uncle Bear-Nard shuffled past alone. She waited five more minutes before pushing open the door and slipping out. She pressed her body up against the corridor wall and tiptoeing, slid along it, noting that in places it wobbled.

That will need more investigating.

Corner after corner, she twisted her way until only one corner remained. She poked her head around, checking if the way was clear. A small naked creature knelt at their door peering through the keyhole. Its skin seemed rubbery and patterns moved under it like blobs in a lava lamp. She crept toward it, her questioning mind silencing her fears. It swung its head toward her and she gasped. Its face looked half human and half like Antavahni’s. They exchanged stares before it let out a little, ‘eekk,’ and dashed away.

‘Wait. Come back,’ Lexington said.

She watched its naked bum disappear down the corridor and around the corner. If she could capture it or at least talk to it imagine what it could tell her. The others would then have to admit that hard evidence was better. With no thought for her Aunt or Uncle or for what else might lay in the house she trotted after it.

 

***

 

Melaleuca pondered the note. What creatures? Where? She glanced around the room, seeing nothing. She tried using her instincts but nothing revealed itself. Lexington’s words of contrasting options came to mind.

A mirror hung above the fire place and a murky version of herself stared back. Thick dust lay on the mantle clinging to the wood surrounding it. She wiped some of it off and there to her wonderment were carvings of creatures. A snake, a cow and an eagle, all locked in desperate battle.

Let’s see, we saw the eagle first. She pressed it and it sunk in a little.

Which one next?

Without knowing why she pressed the snake and then the cow. At first nothing happened and then a clunking noise graunched from behind the fire place. A small opening appeared to its right and a panel slid back. Kneeling, she peered in and then pushed her head further in. She could see a wall about three feet away in the low light but dark emptiness lay to her left and right.

Excited she crawled inside it and the floor felt gritty – something tiny and round covered it. Ignoring it, she stood up, pushing through delicate cobwebs. Letting her eyes adjust to the dark she brushed them off and a faint wall lay in the direction of the corridor, similar to the one hiding the back staircase they had first come up.

So that’s how they got the note under and disappeared.

Pushing on it did not budge it.

Maybe not.

Eyes fully adjusted, she turned and faced the other way and shuffled forward moving a few paces at a time, waving her hands out in front so as to not hit any wall or overhead object. Within a few metres total blackness engulfed her. Knowing she needed something to illuminate the secret passage she headed back to the bedroom and crawled out. A torch sat on a piece of folded paper. She grabbed it and unfolded the paper which displayed hand written words.

 

“Sorry. You will need this.”

 

How absolutely puzzling. How did it get there? No one could have pushed it under the door, let alone enter and leave without her hearing, and nothing in the room had changed.

Move forward.

She flicked the torch on and dived back into the secret passage shining it before her. Mouse and rat poo littered the floor and thick dust-encrusted cobwebs clung from wall to wall. A small lever sat by the opening and as she pulled it the secret panel closed behind her.

The secret passages seemed to go on forever and it felt like it stretched along the entire outer wall of the Cathedral-Mansion. At one point she tripped and the torch fell, landed hard and turned off. A thin slit of light shone from somewhere and locating it she peered through. A small bed, much like hers sat in a plain room with a handful of candles casting light about.

The boys’ room?

Finding the torch, she searched for a way in though could find no sliding panel. Disappointed, she moved on.

One of these passages must lead to the boys.

After what seemed like ages searching a multitude of the passages, she heard a familiar voice – Quixote’s on the other side of the wall singing a song. She located the side passage, found a lever and pulled it. A panel slid open. Quixote’s silhouette moved about in a makeshift tent, formed from a bedspread hanging over chairs.

‘Quixote,’ Melaleuca said.

He stuck his head out, puzzled.

‘Over here,’ Melaleuca said.

He looked confused. Her head and half her body poked out of the fireplace.

‘Mel! What are you doing?’ He moved toward her. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Shh. Where’s Ari?’

‘Here,’ Ari said lifting his head off his pillow.

He leapt off the bed and rushed to her.

‘Well done Mel. What is it? A tunnel between our rooms?’

‘Better. Passageways to the whole house I think.’

‘Let us in,’ Quixote said.

She barely had time to move before the boys wedged themselves into the small space.

‘Easy,’ Melaleuca said, ‘single file.’

‘Where does it lead? How far does it go?’ Quixote said rapid fire. ‘Is there treasure? Did you find any torture chambers?’

‘All in good time Quixote,’ Melaleuca said. ‘First we have to find Lexington.’

They shuffled along giggling and laughing until Melaleuca pointed out they might be heard. Each time Quixote spotted a beam of light he insisted on peering in, though he saw little other than old furniture. In true Quixote style he started to become bored with it until he spied something.

‘Why’s Lexington in this room?’

Melaleuca peered through the slit, and there stood Lexington in an empty room looking perplexed.

‘Can we get in there?’ Ari said.

‘Some of the rooms have levers that open panels. Search around.’

 

Lexington swore the small creature had ducked into this room yet now it lay empty and such a thing defied the laws of physics. She looked at her footprints in the fine layer of dust on the floor and noted there were no other footprints.

Impossible.

The fireplace shook. Startled, she jumped back and watched as dust fell and the grate creaked. Expecting the creature to appear, Lexington crouched down readying herself. The back of the fireplace slowly ground open revealing a dark hole. Soot tumbled down stirring up the long-since disturbed ash into small eddies.

‘Wait,’ came Melaleuca’s voice out of it, followed by a little, ‘Oh!’

Quixote’s head appeared through the clouds of dust, rammed there in his excitement to be first. With cobwebs draped across his impish sooty face he beamed one of his typical smiles.

‘Helllllooooo!’

‘Oh you’re not it,’ Lexington said.

‘Are we playing catch?’ Quixote said and wiggled his body out, taking the brunt of most of the soot and ash.

Puffs of soot wafted toward Lexington and she waved them away.

‘What are you doing in there?’

Not as dirty, Melaleuca and Ari squeezed themselves out and Melaleuca saw the surprise on Lexington’s face. Ari started dusting Quixote down though Melaleuca grabbed his arm.

‘Wait. Look at the mess we are leaving. Someone will know we have been here.’

‘Where did you come from?’ Lexington said. ‘How did you know to hide in there? In this room.’

Melaleuca pushed the note into her hand. As Lexington read it Melaleuca explained.

‘It appears there are secret passageways along most walls.’

Fascinated, Lexington said, ‘This means we can move around without being seen. Think of what we could find out.’

‘Quite,’ Melaleuca said, ‘but whoever left this note can move invisibly.’

She quickly explained how the torch and second note had turned up.

‘But,’ Lexington said under protest, ‘…there is no such…thing…as…’ Her voice faltered and the last few words fell slowly from her mouth. ‘…as…invisibility. Is…there?’

It would explain the creature though, Lexington thought. She urgently needed to work on her hypothesis and wondered out loud, ‘If the creature exists and disappeared into thin air, so might our mother, if it was our mother.’

Melaleuca had not seen Lexington babble like this for a while.

‘What creature?’

Lexington told of what she had seen.

‘So that explains why you were in here,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I’m just saying both vanished without a trace,’ Lexington said.

‘Mum didn’t leave footprints either,’ Ari said.

Quixote sidled up to Lexington and nudged her and whispered, ‘Magic.’

Ignoring Quixote’s quip Lexington said, ‘That could be a connection as well. Take me back to our room.’

‘We too, made a discovery,’ Melaleuca said and motioned to Ari. ‘We know why this is called a Cathedral-Mansion.’ She explained what they had seen.

‘A cathedral inside this mansion,’ Lexington repeated. ‘I want to see it.’ Her mind raced with more questions. ‘Aunty Gertrude mentioned that this is the last one holding together a passing age and that creature looked like Antavahni AND Antavahni mentioned a passing age as well.’

They stared back waiting for her conclusion but none came.

‘Er…meaning?’ Ari said.

Lexington swept her eyes around them and Melaleuca could see she was unsure.

‘I will know, eventually,’ Lexington said. ‘We shall just keep……moving forward, as the instructions from our mother said so and it will become apparent to me.’

‘I know you will. Come on. Let’s go,’ Melaleuca said.

They headed off.

 

*****

 

Melaleuca pulled on the lever and the secret panel opened revealing the girls’ room. Melaleuca climbed out first. Another note lay on the floor and she grabbed it as the others climbed out.

‘Quick read it,’ Lexington said.

‘One more thing,’ Melaleuca read out loud, ‘It may not seem it, but there is great danger around you. To avoid it, keep on doing what you have done all your life, play.’

Lexington read the note for herself.

‘That’s it!’ Ari said. ‘Play? I’ve a good mind to go and find that Uncle, show him the notes and demand to know what is going on.’ He headed for the door.

‘Wait there is more,’ Lexington said and she pointed to some small writing at the bottom of the note. ‘Ps – don’t tell anyone about these notes, especially your Aunt and Uncle. I will reveal myself in time.’

Ari halted.

‘Great…so…what then?’

Melaleuca saw their frustrations, but felt unruffled.

Turmoil in the others creates calm in me.

‘We play, and we ─ ’

‘I’m not so sure,’ Lexington said. ‘We have no proof our parents were correct. They said they would return and didn’t. I want to list out everything that does not make sense and start there.’

Quixote’s face dropped. ‘You mean sit around and do writing.’

‘Figuring out. I propose a hypothesis. That’s where I put forward some theories and then we test them and see if the facts fit them.’

Melaleuca fought down her desire to scold Lexington. Was she hell bent on making her task as a leader difficult? Ari sensed this and meekly said, ‘Lexington needs to analyse Mel.’

‘Our parents were not wrong. I trust my instincts,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Then trust my need to prove this,’ Lexington replied.

‘Not without my say so.’

‘You can’t stop me.’

‘Ahh…girls…let’s just….,’ Ari said trying to intervene.

Lexington used her gentleness and said in soft sweet tones, ‘Tell us then. Make a decision. Are we to play or…’

Quixote whinged. ‘Let’s just do as our mothers said and follow what the note says.’

‘We don’t know who is leaving the notes or if they are true,’ Lexington shot back and then looked at Melaleuca. ‘Unless your decisions say something else.’

‘My decisions,’ Melaleuca repeated annoyed with her. ‘My decisions say ─ ’

She stopped and sat on the bed, shut her eyes and calmed her mind. Out of the contrasting options she only saw one path ahead though it did not make sense but then, as she reminded herself, it did not have too.

‘We are going to explore. We are going to play. We are going to pretend. This shall be just another game. We have a different adventure playground that’s all. I will take counsel from you now. I want to hear what you think, that I may consider it.’

‘But….,’ Lexington said, ‘playing now is now pointless!’

 

***

 

Quesob trudged through the forest with his aching wound and recited anti-pain mantras under his breath. Within hours he passed by the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion and crossed the valley floor until he stood near the foot of the southern hills, home at last.

Smaller than the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, another Cathedral-Mansion pointed upwards from a grassy hillock though the top storeys had long since given way and the roof had fallen in.

Quesob walked up the knoll passing deadened stumps of once grand trees. The front of the Cathedral-Mansion lay boarded up and smoke ascended from behind it. Despite it being night he found the usual hive of activity there. Men tended to horses and worked in the fields, and a small blacksmith churned out smoke and fire, hammering away on an anvil. Servants busied themselves and mucked out various stables while washerwoman scrubbed mats and clothes. A miserable looking bunch, clad in peasants’ rags, they did not notice Quesob at first. His mud encrusted uniform made him look like a local worker.

Quesob’s horse stirred in the corral, whinnying as he got closer. The workers looked up and stared a second time, recognising him. Instead of rushing to his aid, they muttered and went back to their tasks making it obvious they did not desire eye contact. Quesob knew in an instant something sinister was afoot. None of them knew where he had gone or for what – least of all that he had left New Wakefield and entered the forbidden outside world, so what then?

‘Where is the master? Lord Daquan, and why are you all out here? At this hour?’

The workers slowed their activity, staring wide-eyed at the ground, obvious to Quesob that each hoped he or she would not be asked.

Quesob heard someone utter, ‘Madness sir.’

‘It’s that Doctor Thurgood isn’t it?’

As tired as he felt, he launched himself up the steps of the dilapidated Cathedral-Mansion and raced through the back entrance. He wound his way through the labyrinth of deserted stone hallways, stopping only when he reached the northeast wing, a part of the building still intact.

But it was quiet. Too quiet.

He slid his sword out of his scabbard and held it poised above his shoulders. With a soft tread he moved down the wing. Through boarded gaps in great arched windows small streams of thin moonlight fell, mixing with the naked flames of torches lining the hall. Curious parchments of paper now lined the wall opposite the windows.

He stopped and read one.

“Please restrict sentences to no more than five words. If you must use more, please clear it first with Dr Thurgood Hofenstein.”

He relaxed his grip and read more of them.

“Words with two syllables good: words with more than two syllables bad.”

He did not think the motley crew outside would even know what a syllable was. He read on.

“When addressing Lord Daquan be sure to talk in a happy chirpy voice.”

Odd curiosity replaced his readiness for danger. Lord Daquan was eccentric. Quesob had never doubted that for a moment. Daquan had, after all, survived ten years in exile in the southern wasteland, a punishment no man in living memory had ever returned from.

What was he up to now?

Nothing stirred. Quesob sheathed his sword and strode to his master’s door, where months beforehand he and his master had planned the mission to the outside world. Faded ornate patterns matted themselves around the doorframe of a large oak door. He raised his hand to knock when another notice caught his eye.

“Here is a list of approved baby words:

Goo, gah, gribble, mama, dada, goochy goochy goo, wuverly.”

Before Quesob could knock, the doors opened and a be-speckled white-cloaked Doctor Thurgood poked his scrawny head out and shot an annoyed glance at Quesob.

‘Whatever it is you want to see HIM about you shall have to relay to me.’

‘HIM is respectfully addressed as Lord Daquan,’ Quesob shot back, already fighting the desire to punch Doctor Thurgood right smack in the face.

‘Not any more. Did you not read the notices?’ Doctor Thurgood said in his squawky voice.

‘Get out of the way you fool. I come with important news. Now move!’

Doctor Thurgood jabbed a rake-like hand into the air and pointed at a notice on the opposite wall. It read:

“Lord Daquan shall now been known as ‘Nap Retep.’ Please address him accordingly.”

What was a Nap Retep? And why did he need to be called it? And why the secrecy?

Quesob kicked the door.

‘I will bite my tongue to my master but not to you. I will not call him Nap Retep.’

Doctor Thurgood withdrew, pulling the door shut a little and shook his head at Quesob. ‘No matter. You cannot see him. He is in a very delicate stage of his treatment.’

Quesob rammed his foot in the door.

Doctor Thurgood banged the door. ‘Hsssss. Take your foot out!’

‘He would want to see me about this.’

‘No he wouldn’t!’

‘Yes he would.’

‘NO HE WOULDN’T!’ Doctor Thurgood’s weedy neck muscles strained, making it look as stringy as a lizard about to attack.

Much was at stake and so Quesob spoke in a calm measured voice. ‘Please tell him that I am here.’

Doctor Thurgood muttered something under his breath, disappeared and reappeared moments later.

‘Very well. But you must talk to him like a baby.’

‘What?’

Doctor Thurgood tapped his head and flicked his hands around.

‘With your loutish pea-brain I expect you would struggle with the complexities of an explanation.’

Quesob entered the low lit room and in an instance saw his master’s study had been converted into an oversized child’s nursery. Soft toys littered the ground, small cartoon horses frolicked on the wallpaper and bright blue thick drapes hung from the window. Even the wooden floor now had carpet patterned with roads and small houses. His master lay on his back in an oversized baby’s cot, clad in a bulky nappy and uttering baby noises. His head was shaven and even his eyebrows and normally bushy beard had gone – all plucked out.

Quesob did not know what to make of it, let alone what to say.

‘Goo,’ Quesob said feeling stupid and resenting it.

Daquan’s face strained and turned red, his cheeks puffing out as his stomach bulged in and out.

Doctor Thurgood rushed past Quesob. ‘Get out of the way. This is crucial.’

Doctor Thurgood stood over Daquan encouraging him in a sweet voice. ‘Yes, that’s good, that’s good, do a nice poopy for daddy, good boy.’

Quesob’s insides reeled and he felt sick watching the sight. A splurging sound filled the air followed by an immense stink. The red puffy look on Daquan’s face subsided and returned to its new pale hairless flesh colour. He let out a sigh of relief.

‘Wonderful,’ Doctor Thurgood cried out.

Quesob cradled his pug-nose in his hand and tried to stop the stench from hurting his nostrils. It pushed him over the edge.

‘OH MY GOD. BY ALL THAT IS HOLY AND SACRED. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIM?’

Panic screwed up Doctor Thurgood’s face and Daquan sat bolt upright, ripped from his baby-act, angry. A loud squashing sound accompanied him.

‘Tell him,’ Daquan said.

‘NO! Don’t break character,’ Doctor Thurgood yelled.

‘Then tell him,’ Daquan said again and lay back down with a squelching sound.

With great displeasure Doctor Thurgood started explaining. ‘We think we know why the bracelets stopped working.’

‘Think?’ Quesob said confused.

‘Yes. A cluttered mind you see, like yours.’ Doctor Thurgood peered down his thin nose at Quesob.

‘And that’s why Lord Daquan just shat himself.’

‘Nat Retep,’ Doctor Thurgood said.

‘This makes no sense.’ Dust fell from Quesob’s hair as he shook his head. ‘I travel for months to find the bracelets and come back to find this utter nonsense. My lord ─ ’

Daquan boomed at Doctor Thurgood, ‘Get to the point.’

He booted Doctor Thurgood in his thigh. The doctor let out a small cry, sniffed and pushed his glasses back up in a huff.

‘All right, I will explain so that the simplest of children could get it.’

Doctor Thurgood spun his head to face Quesob. His nostrils flared like a wild horse.

‘When does a child cease to be a child? Mmm, Mmmm!’

‘I don’t know,’ Quesob said staring at his twitching nostrils and finding them vulgar.

‘Of course you don’t. The dolt was never a child.’

Quesob started to reply but Doctor Thurgood stopped him with an upheld hand.

‘Try again. I shall rephrase. What happens to children in New Wakefield to make them disciplined?’

Quesob snapped to attention and said as if repeating like a robot, ‘Play and questions are the enemy of a disciplined soul,’ and then relaxed.

‘Yeeeeesssss!’

Doctor Thurgood pushed his face closer to Quesob’s and with a wide-eyed smile that bordered on insanity, said in amazement, ‘When they stop playing, when they stop pretending and start seeing what adult’s see. And what do adult’s see?’ He did not wait for an answer but with a flourish of his bony hand announced, ‘The world without imagination.’

He paused as if waiting for applause and then said with pride, ‘I have deduced the bracelets stopped working when the fun stopped.’

Quesob’s mind churned.

‘But that…that…is what we squash in childhood. Imagination prevents us from seeing what’s real.’

‘Ah ha! Spoken like the true dolt you are. I am vindicated once more.’

Quesob snarled at him clenching and unclenching his fists.

‘Ahhhh,’ Doctor Thurgood croaked with a relish, ‘violence, the last atavistic refuge of the stupid.’

Annoyed, Daquan pushed himself up.

‘No stay like a baby,’ Doctor Thurgood yelled.

Daquan whacked Doctor Thurgood around the back of the head with his hefty but hairless arm. ‘Fool. All you had to do was answer his questions.’

While Doctor Thurgood protested Daquan explained more detail in his normal gruff voice.

‘The bracelets stopped working properly when we were around 18 or 20 years of age. It seems so obvious now. That’s when things got serious. Youth is what makes the bracelets work. And the young have an uncluttered mind filled with fresh ideas that seem to make for nonsense. It’s that which we think powers the bracelets.’

‘And the…’ Quesob said pointing to the malodorous nappy.

‘I have to attain the mind of a baby if I am to use the bracelets.’

‘Yes, about the bracelets.’ Quesob looked despondent. ‘We searched the house high and low but nothing. We took care of the parents. The bracelets were nowhere.’

The news alarmed Daquan. Doctor Thurgood winched his disapproval. ‘No he should not worry about anything.’

Daquan raised himself off his undersized cot, fully releasing the stink from his nappy. He slapped Doctor Thurgood again. ‘If we don’t have the bracelets,’ he roared, ‘then all this is in vain.’

‘I found this though.’ Quesob pulled some toy figures, a doll and some drawings done by children from his jacket. ‘We also found what is called a play-ground. Are you familiar with such?’

Daquan nodded and thought about the news. ‘So they were also training to become kids again. Fascinating. You killed them all?’

‘My Lord. As commanded.’

‘Good, good.’

Silent reflection fell across Daquan’s hairless face. ‘Good.’ He looked up and his fatty jowls wobbled slightly. ‘Trust in me Quesob. I feel we are close. Doctor Thurgood will continue to transform me into a baby. I want you to prepare for what we spoke about.’

‘But without the bracelets.’

‘They are all dead, for sure?’

‘Saw to it myself.’

‘Then trust. The bracelets will turn up soon.’ Daquan caught a look on Quesob’s face that suggested there was more news. ‘What else?’

‘A giant eagle attacked us, twice. And a forest appeared in front of us out of nowhere. And the house they were living in was rigged. They blew it up soon after we attacked. And why are the workers active at this time of night?’

Daquan received the news and pondered it at length. ‘Be about what you need to do. Don’t worry about the workers. I feel the end we have sought so long for is close at hand.’

 

***

 

‘Well,’ Lexington asked again.

Melaleuca vented a sigh of frustration. Lexington had a point – this was real yet the ever-present words of her mother, “play, play-acting, move forward,” rolled around in her mind, contradicting their present reality.

Had their mothers got it wrong? How would play help them here and now? The same hand of doubt she had felt the night on the mountain stirred deep inside her again, and she could feel it wanting to pull her down. With the mantle of leadership on her shoulders she sensed the others wanting to hear how playing would help.

‘Let’s just explore the passageways,’ Melaleuca said making a snap decision.

‘Because playing is wrong?’ Lexington asked.

‘Because it’s what I decided.’

 

The secret passages had their own sets of secret stairs ascending and descending all five stories. They seemed to go on forever, like a labyrinth following every wall, every twist and every turn. Having discovered empty room after empty room, their enthusiasm waned, and tracking where they were and where they had been became near impossible, even with Lexington’s near photographic memory and Ari’s uncanny sense of direction.

As they searched for a way back they passed a room on the second level with voices coming from it, and out of a small peephole shone a beam of light.

 

Melaleuca looked through it.

Aunty Gertrude sat on a bed, her naked back covered with deep scars and violent looking pock marks.

Melaleuca gasped.

‘Let me see,’ Quixote said pushing forward.

Melaleuca hissed at him. ‘Ssssshhhh. Quiet. They will hear.’

One by one they peered through the peephole.

‘Oh my,’ Lexington said in a whisper. ‘What do you think happened to her?’

‘She’s from outer space,’ Quixote said back.

‘Shhhh. Not so loud,’ Melaleuca said. ‘It’s probably why she is so crabby.’

‘Is that what she meant when she said she would whip us into shape,’ Quixote said.

‘Shh,’ Melaleuca said again. ‘Lower your voice.’

‘What do you mean Quixote?’ Lexington asked.

‘On the stairs,’ Ari answered in a whisper. ‘She yelled if Uncle did not get us under control within two weeks, she would whip us into shape.’

‘Actually whip us?’

They heard a door open and shut and then heard Uncle Bear-Nard’s voice. As he spoke, it became clearer.

‘Here’s your cream dear,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said.

‘I’m not happy,’ Aunty Gertrude snapped.

‘Yes dear.’

‘You said those children were well behaved. They are insolent, rude, ill-mannered, wilful, obstreperous and rambunctious.’

‘Yes dear.’

‘And stop agreeing.’

‘Yes dear.’

‘BEAR-NARD!!!’

Melaleuca could almost hear him cowering.

‘I m..m..mean I will…will…will talk to them.’

‘If they cannot behave then I will send them to the borstal.’

‘I am sure they will see reason…over time.’

‘Over time! There is no time. Send them to the Unforbidden Forest or Disciple Park. Or both.’

‘Please dear, let me have a couple of weeks, that’s all it will take. Just two weeks and I am sure they will adjust, please, please, please.’

Lexington whispered, ‘Poor Uncle Bear-Nard.’

An evil tone entered Aunty Gertrude’s voice, a tone she took great relish in. ‘You know what will happen to them if they go to the borstal. I will make sure they are crushed.’

‘Just two weeks. Please.’

‘Smack them into shape or I will tell them the truth, that their parents are dead.’

 

 

Chapter 9 – Exploration

 

 

Gathered in the girl’s room, the news sat heavy upon Lexington. Weak candle light, tugged by a draught, flickered across her face.

‘Alive or dead it changes nothing,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We still keep being us, playing, working out what’s going on and not listening to anyone else.’

‘Don’t you care,’ Lexington said holding back tears.

‘Lex,’ Ari said, putting his arm around her. ‘I know you don’t want to hear this but Mel is right. Think about it.’

‘Perhaps we should go back?’ Lexington put to them.

‘Lex,’ Melaleuca said concerned.

‘I need proof.’

‘Of course,’ Melaleuca said. ‘And until we have that…’

Lexington sighed. ‘I know…I know…until then…we don’t know.’

‘Use that brain of yours Lex. What are the possibilities and probabilities?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Cheer up Lex,’ Quixote said unchanged by the news.

Lexington sniffed.

‘How can you be so happy?’

An “it’s-obvious” look passed over Quixote’s face.

‘Cos I bet Aunty just meant she would tell us that, even though it is not true. You know, like, “I ate the last one,” but I haven’t.’

‘Maybe. I guess she could not have seen the bodies? And anyway, who saw them last besides us?’

‘Argus? Our attackers,’ Quixote said.

‘Forget Argus,’ Ari reminded them. ‘He’s gone and he lied to us. He said our parents led our attackers in the opposite direction yet we saw them heading into the mountain cave.’

‘Which means…’ Lexington said with a rush. ‘They might have them. They could be here.’

Melaleuca shook her head at Ari.

‘Which means we don’t know,’ Ari said.

‘Enough,’ Melaleuca said. ‘A clearing is needed.’

After clearing themselves they all climbed into Melaleuca’s bed and slept.

 

***

 

Lexington stirred, hovering at the edges of wakefulness – her mind refusing to settle.

‘Wake up. Wake up. Wake up,’ a small voice said. ‘Wake up.’

Roused, she peered into the darkness and smelt burnt-down candle wax. Something darted across the room.

‘Who’s there?’

Startled, the figure leapt up and ran straight through the closed door and disappeared.

She lifted herself over Quixote and felt her way to the door. Finding it locked, she concluded she must have dreamt it. Living creatures can’t pass through solid matter but then she thought of the disappearing creature and their mothers’ unexplained appearance and disappearance. If her hypothesis were written, she chided herself, answers would be closer at hand.

She felt her way back to the small desk and lit another candle. She pulled one of her last notebooks out and glanced over her shoulder, checking her cousins still slept, and commenced writing.

 

“Why”

 

About time.’

‘Shh not so loud.’

No one can hear me.’

‘Okay. What do you think?’

About???’

‘Stop it you know very well.’

I think a hyper-thesis is needed.’

‘Hyperthesis?’

Yes. A hypothesis is the theory that is underneath something. We need a theory that is above everything.’

‘Sounds the same.’

Perhaps. With a hyperthesis you take the facts and see what theory fits between them. A hypothesis is where you start with a theory.’

‘I just need a framework. Melaleuca says keep moving forward. But she has no aim.’

You are not sure really, are you? If only you had Melaleuca’s gut feelings.’

‘Well I don’t. Help me or…’

She held the pen in her hand and started to write, “that’s why.”

Okay I’ll help.’

‘My hypothesis has to explain many things.’

A hyperthesis would be perfect. Arrange the facts and plot between them.’

‘Listen. Here are my starting hypotheses. I have been thinking about them.’

As she spoke them she wrote them down.

 

1. Most of the strange effects are illusions designed to fool us from the truth.

2. Something really obvious has been hidden under our noses.

3. The dinosaurs never died out, and they, and an ancient culture, have survived to this day.

4. Our parents organised this as a big test.

5. Pirates set up this land and we are descended from them.

6. We are the next step in evolution.

 

Is that it?’

‘It’s a start.’

A poor one at best. Pirates?’

‘Yes pirates. If I don’t put that one there, Quixote will get bored.’

What about all the tidbits you heard while asleep from Argus and Antavahni?’

‘I can only remember them for a few days afterwards. It was enough that I recalled that stuff about Argus. After many days it is all a jumble.’

How will those hypothesis help?’

‘Take the first one. If what we are seeing are illusions then find what is creating them and we find our answer. Or Number 6, the next step in evolution. Think about it. Our parents talked of risking something. Quixote saw our fathers with above human abilities. Already Mel has developed some trait of looking into people, and I, well, I have you.’

Not bad.’

Melaleuca stirred and pushed herself up and in a sleepy voice said, ‘Lex, who are you talking to?’

Lexington wrote “That’s why” in hurry and then turned to Melaleuca.

‘Myself. I could not s.s.s..sleep,’ she said.

‘You okay? You sound scared.’

‘You scared me. I have been sitting thinking and well, there are lots of noises.’

‘Oh. Go to sleep. Worry about it in the morning.’

Lexington doused the candle and hopped into bed.

‘The hypotheses are worked out. At least it’s a start.’

‘Good.’

 

The next morning the door swung open, and two maids holding piles of clothes and their cloaks freshly laundered, entered. Noses held high, they deported themselves with a royal air.

‘Awake now girls,’ said the fatter older one while the younger one crossed to the windows. She pulled and pulled on the latch until it flew open. Dust and insects fell out and the morning air flooded in.

Both maids gasped in shock, horrified by the sleeping cousins entwined in one another. The fat maid produced a long stick and jabbed them with it until they stirred. Quixote poked his scarecrow-haired head up first.

The fat maid gave him a hard dig in the ribs.

‘What’s the matter?’ Quixote asked, grinning.

‘Matter! Matter,’ she gushed with disgust. ‘Boys and girls in the same bed! Dirty! Out before your Aunt sees. Out!’

The others woke and met the maids with a stumped stare.

‘Get out now. She’ll have your guts for garters.’

The fat maid prodded Lexington. ‘In a bed with boys. Now get out before I beat you.’ She raised the stick in threat.

Ari grabbed it, stood and said, ‘No, you won’t.’

The maids suddenly started whimpering. ‘Oh please, get out before she comes. She will take it out on us.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’ Lexington said.

‘If she finds out what,’ Aunty Gertrude’s icy voice said as she rounded the door.

The maids froze and the cousins held their breaths.

Aunty Gertrude’s took in the immoral sight.

‘Oh, I see.’

She adjusted her high starched collar and twiddled with the whalebone buttons on the front of her waist gripping dress. She stepped out of the door and hollered un-lady like, ‘BEAR-NARDDDDD! BEAR-NARD!’

She shouted it over and over again, until they could hear him running down the corridor. He shuffled in, terror on his face.

‘You can start now,’ Aunty Gertrude said and tapped one of her pointy boots on the floor.

‘S…s…start?’

Unsure, he scanned the room while rage fumed off Aunty Gertrude and the skin on her age-marked face tightened.

‘Oh heaven’s to Murgatroid. Look you dotty, old, fool,’ Aunty Gertrude shouted.

He looked again and offered her a weak smile, crinkling his piggy fat eyes.

‘The boys and the girls slept in the same bed,’ Aunty Gertrude yelled, straining her neck with indignation.

The two maids made fainting and moaning noises, feigning shock.

Snivelling and faking hurt, Aunty Gertrude added, ‘And look what they have done to Pemily and Petruce.’

Ari and Lexington flicked their eyes between the dramatics of their Aunt and Melaleuca, and Quixote burst into laughter. Tears ran down his face as his scrawny head bobbed back and forth.

Aunty Gertrude’s face clammed up and she uttered with the utmost contempt to Uncle Bear-Nard, ‘You have two weeks.’

She wheeled about flicking her wrist at the two maids and left. Pemily and Petruce promptly followed. A forlorn Uncle Bear-Nard stood still looking like a scolded child, uncertain, in the quiet aftermath. Without warning Aunty Gertrude bustled back into the room again and grabbed one of the cousins’ cloaks. She pawed at it, turning it over and over.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ Her livid eyes danced between Uncle Bear-Nard and Melaleuca.

Melaleuca felt a dry apathy toward this stupid question.

‘It’s a cloak.’

‘Yes, I can see that. Where did you get it from?’

Melaleuca opened her mouth to whip out a smart answer, though Uncle Bear-Nard, Lexington and Quixote leapt forward and spoke.

‘Why?’ asked Lexington. ‘Is there something special about it?’

‘It’s magic?’

‘Let me handle this…d..d..dear.’

‘Shoo,’ she said to Lexington and Quixote, and turned on their uncle. ‘Handle? You’re not handling anything, are you? Are you?…….So help me, if I find out you have taken these ─ ’

‘Ahhhhhhh,’ Uncle Bear-Nard cried out, shocking Aunty Gertrude.

She stepped backward, uttering once again, ‘Two weeks,’ and left.

Lexington stepped forward. ‘We only know the way we do things Uncle. We have always slept together. Well mostly.’

With little fight to his words he said, ‘Please put those clothes on. You will look less like outsiders.’

‘Uncle. What is with the cloaks? What did Aunty mean?”

He shuffled back to the door, stooped and not answering.

‘Are you going to train us as Aunty Gertrude said,’ Melaleuca asked.

‘I think it best if you go outside. Leave your Aunt to me. She’s just proud of our heritage.’

‘Uncle Bear-Nard did you leave us the note?’ Lexington asked kindly.

He smiled, and warmth exuded from it as if Lexington’s lyrical voice penetrated his persona’s frail shell, then it faded, and confused he spoke, afraid.

‘N…n…n..note? What n..n..note?’

Melaleuca stepped in front of Lexington. ‘It’s okay Uncle. Lexington is mixing up an earlier conversation, that’s all.’

Lexington protested but was silenced by Melaleuca’s hand.

Perplexed, Uncle Bear-Nard scratched his head. ‘Grateful to your…mother…er…mothers…really truly am,’ and said with little glee, ‘Pop your new clothes on and hop out the back. Avoiding your Aunt is probably best,’ and then headed out the door.

‘Mel. I wanted to ask him questions.’

‘Did you see the way he reacted? You scared him. The note said, tell no one especially not them.’

‘We don’t know if the note is true.’

‘Exactly. So don’t. All we have is each other. Right now that’s all we can rely on.’

Lexington nodded. Melaleuca was right. She just wanted answers this instance. She picked up one of the cloaks. ‘I would ask more about why she got upset about these, yet really it’s just going to be another unanswered question.’

‘Come on. Clothes on and then let’s get out of this mansion,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I know, I know. Move forward, etcetera, etcetera. I’m sure we will find plenty to explore, and you said we could use my hypothesis.’

Knowing she never said that Melaleuca chose to ignore it.

They stripped to their undergarments and threw the new clothes on. They looked like Roman Togas with gold gilded edges though their own colourful tee shirts poked out from under them.

Together they wandered to the Grand Ascension Stairs and stopped on the top of the third set. The immensity of the pillars and the ribbed, dark-shadowed roof swept through Lexington.

‘Why would you put a stair case this size in the middle of a great hall like this?’

Like a repeat of yesterday Aunty Gertrude appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

‘Use the back stairs!’

Rankled by Aunty Gertrude’s lack of flexibility, Melaleuca decided to do as she wanted. She stepped on to the stairs and with a daring look, stepped down, one step at a time. The others emboldened by her audacity followed behind.

Aunty Gertrude latched on to the banister as if to launch herself up them.

‘Get off the stairs!’

Melaleuca trod down another one.

‘Why?’

Their voices sounded thin in the large roofed hall.

‘W…w…why?’ She spluttered, coughing up the word like a stuck fur-ball.

She screeched once again for Uncle Bear-Nard, and soon they heard the sound of him huffing and shuffling along.

Ari moaned.

‘Here we go again.’

‘Oh dear…oh dear…oh dear…’ Uncle Bear-Nard said over and over, zipping by the cousins.

‘What is this?’ Aunty Gertrude said to him.

‘T..t.t.they were s..s.s.s.s.supposed to go down the back stairs.’

‘I told you to sort them out. What then are they doing on the Grand Ascension Stairs?’

Uncle Bear-Nard swivelled between the cousins and their Aunt, unsure whom to address first.

Irked, Aunty Gertrude erupted. ‘Right enough! I’ll do it. Bring them down here into the drawing room and I will smack them into shape.’

Uncle Bear-Nard nudged them down the stairs toward the bottom.

‘THE BACK STAIRS!’

A fraught Uncle Bear-Nard hurried them back up the Grand Ascension Stairs and toward the back stairs.

 

Soon they all stood on the back porch of the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion staring out over the back yard – a mixture of well-kept gardens and well-kept weed patches.

‘And what about Aunty,’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Let me take care of her,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said trying to sound brave.

He turned and shuffled back inside.

 

Far behind the Cathedral-Mansion, massive bush clad hills cried out to Ari. Something in them yearned to be found, like they contained a secret, and Ari launched himself forward saying, ‘I am going to explore.’

‘Wait,’ Melaleuca said halting him.

Stopping he turned.

‘What?’

‘At least let’s listen to Lexington’s hypothesis.’

The hills tugged at Ari’s feelings.

‘Can we do it later? If I listen now she won’t have my full attention.’

‘It’s okay with me,’ Lexington said a little dejected. ‘Give me a bit more time to work on it.’

‘Thanks. Come on Qui, let’s go.’

As the boys ran off Melaleuca could tell Lexington felt a little rejected.

‘There will be time when they get back, ’ Melaleuca said.

‘It’s okay, really.’

‘Good, follow me.’

‘Where to?’

‘Anywhere is a good start. The walls you see are not the walls that are. It’s daylight. Let’s see what else this place turns up.’

‘Yes. And I have a hunch more is hidden in there as well.’

‘It is not a competition Lex.’

‘I know. But I have a hunch.’

‘A hunch,’ Melaleuca said surprised. ‘You mean like a feeling?’

‘No. A hunch. A feeling is different.’

‘Oh?’

‘A feeling makes no sense, lacks data, has not an iota of evidence, but can be right.’ Lexington smiled as if to placate Melaleuca. ‘As you mostly are dear cousin. Whereas a hunch is a suspicion based on the scarcest of evidence and may or may not be right.’

‘What’s that evidence then?’

‘One of the walls moved that I leant on.’

‘Then let’s go.’

 

They snuck through the kitchen and a side entranceway, standing in a large doorframe that led to a small room under the Grand Ascension Stairs.

‘What now?’ Lexington whispered.

‘We wait and see if anyone is coming.’

 

The Cathedral filled itself with a still emptiness, making their slight movements seem excessive. Melaleuca kept on waiting for the right moment to go. Every minute that went by was a minute she realised that no one had walked by and they could have gone. This went on for several minutes until Lexington said, ‘Perhaps we just need a disguise.’

‘Like what?’

‘Come, I saw something in the kitchen we can wear.’

 

Soon they had returned to the same spot dressed in oversized scullery maids’ uniforms and they set off walking along the first floor of the Great Cathedral Hall. Neither of them knew what they were looking for other than some sort of clue to anything. They strode in silence amongst the enormous pillars and columns, and headed toward the front entrance.

Melaleuca spotted long hallways to the left and the right of the entrance door. They ran parallel to the outside of the Cathedral-Mansion though their ceilings only went as high as the first floor. High arched windows clad the outside facing walls and on the stone slab walls opposite it, many ornate gilded doorways reached into the distance.

They wandered up the west hallway with the hems of their stolen maid uniforms dragging behind them on the polished stone floor. Along the wall many pictures hung, both photographs and paintings – old ones, black and white ones, sepia toned ones, line drawings and faded water colours. Every now and then a faded colour photo appeared amongst them. The images were of men and women (their forebears perhaps) clothed in smocks, vests and heavy dresses, working in fields, having picnics, standing together and generally looking stern. They seem to span many generations and be in no particular order. Further down the photos petered out and only the paintings remained, though one lone photo sat amongst them.

Lexington pointed.

‘Look it’s Mum!’

In faded colour one of their mothers stared back at them, smiling. Clothed in a black shirt and a pair of black longs, she sat on a big empty lawn with the front of the Cathedral-Mansion in the background. Her large smile and flock of full black hair dominated her face.

Lexington stepped closer, studying it.

‘Whose Mum it is then?’

‘Whose ever mother it is, she looks the happiest I have ever seen any of them look.’

‘I know. And look. She has none of those markings in her eyes.’

‘She really was pretty.’

‘Really Mel. You are the only one who looks like any of them. Bit vain.’

‘Oh hush. I wonder how old she was.’

‘13 maybe? But look.’ Lexington fingered the picture. ‘Something is not right. Yes. That’s it. Where are the trees? They’re missing.’

Melaleuca examine the photo closely as well, and could see that the lawn lacked any of the large weird trees.

‘Doesn’t make sense,’ Lexington said searching Melaleuca’s face. ‘Those trees must be hundreds of years old. Either that or our parents are…’

They both thought it at the same time – the possibility of their parents being hundreds of years old.

‘They couldn’t be,’ Lexington whispered. ‘Could they?’

‘Let’s see if there are any other photos before we age them,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I think it was right. A hyperthesis is needed,’ Lexington said out of the blue.

‘What was right?’

‘What?’

‘You said, you think “it” was right.’

‘Oh. I meant me. When a lot of facts make it hard to come up with a hypothesis then a hyperthesis is needed.’

‘Sure. Explain later. Let’s carry on.’

 

They searched and searched and found a few more photos in similar settings though each time only one of their mothers appeared.

 

Behind them a door opened and the sound of hurried footsteps striding away caused them to jump. Fear of being discovered dashed through Melaleuca and she cringed. Despite her fearless sharpness and the words of her mother, and the notes telling them to do whatever they wanted, Aunty Gertrude brought up a loathing in her she had never experienced before.

‘Don’t look,’ Melaleuca whispered. ‘Whoever it is, if they see our faces we are done for. Just keep walking.’

The footsteps stopped with a defining abruptness. Not daring to look Melaleuca and Lexington waited for the inevitable.

‘What are you girls doing?’ Aunty Gertrude’s harsh voice said from far away.

With their backs still turned they shrugged their shoulders.

‘Well don’t just stand there dawdling, get on with some work!’

Melaleuca breathed a sigh of relief, nodded at Lexington and shuffled forward, feeling thrilled at having fooled their Aunt. More far away footsteps clattered on the stone floor and they heard Aunty Gertrude gasp in surprise.

‘Oh crumbs,’ Lexington said.

‘Don’t look,’ Melaleuca said though too late. Lexington turned. Pemily and Petruce stood beside Aunty Gertrude, puzzled.

‘Right,’ Aunty Gertrude said with a great bellow and shrieked, making Pemily and Petruce cower. ‘That does it. STAND WHERE YOU ARE!’

‘Run,’ Melaleuca said.

They tore off down the hallway at what little speed they could muster in their oversized maids’ uniforms. Aunty Gertrude cackled and the sound of her sensible shoes clattered fast toward them.

‘She is going to catch us.’

‘Not if I can help it,’ Melaleuca said and laughed back. Relish of outwitting their Aunt crept over her.

‘I know this building like the back of my hands. You cannot escape,’ Aunty Gertrude yelled.

Melaleuca seized on the idea of the secret passages.

‘Quick, turn in here,’ Melaleuca said pointing to a slightly open door, trying to skid to a halt. Melaleuca shoved Lexington into the door, opened it fully, and then threw herself into the room, slamming the door shut behind them.

 

Rows and rows of church pews ended in an altar. Stained glass windows surrounded it and a large statue of Jesus crucified hung on the wall behind the altar.

‘What is this place?’ Melaleuca said puffing in and out, surprised.

Lexington studied it trying to remember where she had seen it. A surreal air of holiness transfixed them and for a few brief seconds they forgot about their stampeding Aunt.

‘Perhaps a meeting hall for the tortured,’ Melaleuca said.

‘No it’s a church or a chapel,’ Lexington replied. ‘People worship God in places like this.’

‘God? Judging from the dust in this place no one has worshipped anything for a while. Can’t blame them, that looks awful,’ Melaleuca said pointing at Jesus’ twisted body.

‘People believe he has saved them or something,’ Lexington said in thought. ‘I think we are supposed to pray to it.’

Melaleuca looked at her sideways. How many books had Lexington read?

‘Creepy. Now, look for a secret exit.’

‘A what?’

Melaleuca looked surprised. ‘We’re trapped! Look for a secret door or something.’

‘I don’t see a fireplace in here.’

‘So?’

‘The entrances to the rooms have been through or by fireplaces.’

‘Use your imagination. Play. Pretend it’s game. Where would you put a secret door? Quick before she arrives. There has to be one in here.’

 

They ran like crazy, pushing, shoving and twisting knobs on pews, touching panels on walls and yanking candles on stands. Even small smudges on the stone work and anything that looked suspiciously like a crack, they tried. After exhausting all possibilities, the once undisturbed dust now hung in the air.

Aunty Gertrude’s feet pounded the stone floors quickening until the sound loomed large. It stopped outside the door, keys jangled and clanged, and then the sound of an old lock turning, clicked.

‘Foolish little tempests. There is no escape now. The door is locked and I shall return with your Uncle. There are severe penalties for disobedience in New Wakefield.’

 

***

 

Half walking and half sprinting, Ari led the way toward the forested hills of the north. They passed through the manicured gardens and ordered rows of herbs and flowers onto a neatly mown lawn. The lawn sloped downhill to a line of thick bushes and hedgerows, stopping at a small broken-down stone fence. Beyond it a paddock of over grown grass teemed for a distance to the forest.

Into the forest they dashed, letting the thick woods envelope them. A thick blanket of cool moist air wrapped around them, and stopping they looked back. Over the hedges, the top two storeys of the Cathedral-Mansion stood out like an impressive beacon of tradition. The many towers shimmered and gave off an aura of mysterious power.

Ari sniffed the pristine air and wondered what had called to him. Birds chatted and the quiet teem of life thrummed away, yet another sound existed, a sound beyond sound.

‘What is it?’ Quixote asked.

‘Not sure. It’s ─ ’

‘Like it’s living.’

Ari cast a glance at him. Had he read his mind?

‘This hill,’ Ari said, ‘runs into the mountains that we could not cross. Something in it is alive – more than the trees and the animals. In fact it feels like it’s even in the ground. I can’t…describe…’ He lost his words and felt something inside him reach out and grope the unseen masses of energy all around.

‘I bet there are plenty of undiscovered secrets in it,’ Quixote said. ‘I get the feeling everything is waiting to wake up. Those trees at the front, boy, imagine if they came to life.’

Ari did not reply and Quixote waved his hand in front of his face.

‘What are we looking for anyway?’

Ari snapped out of it and chuckled saying, ‘Not sure, just following my heart.’ And then added, ‘Maybe where that cave-tunnel comes out.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yeah oh. The one where those men would have attacked us had it not been for the eagle.’

‘If we find it. Maybe we can track those men, if they came out.’

 

Quixote followed Ari deeper into the forest looking a little sheepish. He knew that Ari would not have thrown stones – he would have taken more care. Ari would attack after a reconnaissance and formulating a plan. Quixote wondered if that’s why Ari got on best with Lexington. In their own way they both liked to gather information first, though Ari could be prone to outbursts if the moment called for it.

 

They moved upwards, treading over ground matted with thick leaves and dead debris, up through which poked gnarled and knotted roots. Mosses and ferns poked out from between giant overhanging umbrella-like ferns, and vines hung draped between various large trees of different mottled barks.

Every hundred feet or so large outcroppings of rocks, at least 20 feet high, burst out of the side of the hill. They tore open large gaps in the forest’s canopy exposing the sky.

‘How far are we going?’ Quixote asked.

‘Not sure.’

‘These mountains look like they could go on a long way.’ He sat down near the base of one of the outcrops.

‘Yeah. We may have to go back and get supplies.’

A distressed voice cried out from somewhere in the forest. Unable to make out the words, it got closer and rose in anger and then stopped. Ari threw himself to the ground pulling Quixote after him.

‘What? It’s probably just one of the others,’ Quixote said.

‘Shh, just listen.’

It started again and sounded as if adults were shouting, though the words were still too muffled to hear. Someone ran fast, crashing through the trees. It got louder and louder and louder until they burst out through the undergrowth. A small urchin-like child, at least 8 years old, clothed in an old sack, tumbled down in front of them, stood up and looked at them bewildered. He heaved great breaths in and out as beads of sweat streamed down his face. With extreme terror on his face he spoke to them in an utter panic.

‘Get up! They will get you! Hurry!’

Ari got up, guarded and could hear more sounds of someone crashing through the forest.

Urgency drained from the little boy’s face as he stared even more confused at Ari and Quixote.

‘Who….what….your clothes…who are you? Where did you get such bright colours from?’

Ari and Quixote stared at their clothes and realised that the little boy referred to the bright coloured tee shirts they wore under their togas.

The smashing and crashing got closer. Gruffer louder adult voices snarled from the forest, along with yelling and bursts of abuse. As the noise got closer and closer, the little boy shook.

‘Run as fast as you can,’ he cried out, tearing off away from his pursuers.

‘Hide! Now,’ Ari said.

Ari had barely spoken when a rough dressed bare-footed man leapt out of the bushes in front of them.

 

Chapter 10 – Two Secrets Discovered

 

 

Hearing Aunty Gertrude head back down the hallway, Melaleuca’s panic subsided and she breathed a sigh of relief, giving Lexington a look as if to say she should have trusted her.

‘What if there is no secret passageway out of here?’

‘There has to be,’ Melaleuca said.

They carried on searching, though no matter what they touched nothing opened, shifted, or even creaked.

‘We are going about this all wrong,’ Lexington said, scanning all they had touched.

‘Oh?’

‘Think about it. If people sat in a chapel and moved about they could have easily touched or accidentally tripped the lever or button to the secret door, if it was down low. If there is a secret door here, then I bet it is up out of reach of where people don’t ordinarily go.’

‘That’s the spirit Lex. Brilliant.’

Only one spot fitted with Lexington’s idea – the altar. After feeling under it Melaleuca could not find anything to push, twist or pull and nearly giving up she suddenly shouted, ‘Come here, quick, give me a leg up, I think I’ve got it.’

She pointed to the feet of Jesus on the crucifix, about eight feet off the ground.

Struggling, Lexington hoisted her up and in one quick motion threw her as high as she could. Melaleuca threw her arms up and caught on to the feet and then yelled for Lexington to let go. As the full weight of Melaleuca bore down on the statue feet, they gave way, sending her falling to the floor. Pained she looked up in time to see the spring-loaded feet return to its normal position.

Below the crucifix, a small door opened, exposing a gap that could barely fit one person.

 

***

 

Besides his rough clothes, the man smelt bad.

‘Ah ha. I haves you now you little runt,’ the man said with saliva drooling from his mouth. ‘Hurry, here’s another one,’ he called behind him.

The man lunged for Ari and grabbed him by his collar, yanking it hard. ‘You ain’t going nowheres.’

Ari grabbed one of the man’s fingers and bent it backwards, causing the man to howl and let go. Quixote clambered up a tree and then challenged the man. ‘Do that again and I shall fly down and bang you on the head.’

The man stumbled backwards nursing his finger. Ari saw he had very little intelligence and that nearly breaking his finger had wounded his feelings.

‘What you do that for?’

A second man appeared, melding out of the bushes, unrushed and calm. A red jacket, adorned with gold braiding clad his upper torso while gold stripes ran all the way down his grey baggy trousers into his black boots where his toes stuck out. Where his trousers crossed over his knees, holes appeared so that his knees poked out. Insignia sat splashed brightly across his chest and an unknown ranking sat on his epaulettes. His face stayed in the shadows.

‘What have we here then?’ He said with a refined voice. ‘I think you two are in serious trouble.’

He pulled a tall oval hat off, releasing his long hair. The ends of it touched the start of his long cape and draped around his neck. A plume of feathers poked out from behind his hat and he stroked them saying, ‘Foiled again eh, my stupid worthless side kick.’

‘I didn’t mean to hurt him,’ Ari said. ‘He attacked me first.’

‘He’s had worse.’

He stepped out of the shadows, revealing a face of scars and pockmarks equal to those on their Aunt’s back. A sword and scabbard dangled from his side. Ornate braided rope wrapped around it and the hilt bore fancy swirls and shiny stones.

‘Get up FumpHee you fool. You are supposed to maintain the appearance of strength at all times.’

He yanked him up and then turned back to the boys, running his eyes over them, probing and assessing them.

‘Who are you and where do you come from? I’ll have you beaten to a pulp. Did you aid this boy’s escape? Answer me now and answer true. I will find out the truth!’

The boys stared at his face, and Quixote leant into Ari. ‘It looks like Aunty Gertrude’s back.’

Ari nodded but kept his eye on the man.

‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ Ari said back in defiance.

‘Insolent boy, I ask the questions here. Answer me.’ His strong-protruding hairy eyebrows lifted in anger to reveal meaty eyes set deep in his skull.

‘Our parents told us to never do anything we did not want to do.’

Ari folded his arms and cocked his head to one side and raised his eyebrows in dare. The man looked aghast.

‘Your parents! No parents would dare teach such a thing. They would surely ─ ’ He stopped mid sentence and screwed his face up, and through a grimaced smile that slid out from beneath his rigid nose, said, ‘You are not from here are you?’

‘Who was that little boy?’ Ari demanded. ‘Why was he running so scared? Are you going to harm him?’

‘You are either brave or foolish for a boy.’ The man scowled. ‘I am Captain HeGood Nexic, Chief of the Inquisat around here, charged with keeping law and order. People live or die at my behest. You don’t know me and I see no fear in your eyes. Hmmm, yet you have our clothes on.’

‘I don’t like you,’ Quixote said. ‘Blam blam blam.’

He pretended to shoot him and moved his body around in gyrating motions pretending to duck bullets.

Fump-Hee cowled at this, backing away.

‘Are you a fool?’ Captain HeGood asked.

‘He’s got a great imagination,’ Ari said chuckling at Quixote’s antics.

On the word imagination both of the grown men recoiled.

‘Master he said the forbidden word!’

‘Oh hush you feckless cretin. I heard. Scurry off and get that little tramp of a kid while I deal with these two.’

Fump-Hee looked pleased and as if to show off said, ‘I have tracked him for two days all the way from ─ ’

‘FUMP-HEE. Shut up! Go and find him,’ Captain HeGood said with a bellow, and booted him hard in his rear. Captain HeGood turned to Ari and Quixote placing his hand on the hilt of his sword and said, ‘Now, what to do with you two?’

 

***

 

The dark gap into the secret passageway gave off a cautious invitation.

‘I’ll go first,’ Melaleuca said.

She pushed her head into the gap, squirming her way through, squeezing her shoulders hard against the sides. Thick cobwebs tangled in her face, smearing her vision, and wispy dust threads tickled her nose. She coughed and drew herself out, causing the maids’ uniform to pull over her head. Spluttering, she gasped for air.

‘…Dust….I don’t…think…anyone has been in there…for years,’ Melaleuca said trying to clear her throat.

Melaleuca took her maids uniform off.

‘Don’t need these anymore.’

She brushed away the cobwebs with it and wiped up as much of the dust as she could, and then threw it on the floor by the altar.

‘Right let’s try again,’ she said.

One at a time they both squeezed in through the small hole. Melaleuca raised her head, smacking it on the low ceiling.

‘Ow! Think we shall have to crawl…..Lex, find a lever or something, so we can close it.’

Lexington fished around for some sort of lever – found it and after much straining pushed it to one side causing the secret door to shut.

‘Stick close,’ Melaleuca said. ‘With no torch I will have to feel the way carefully.’

 

***

 

Ari and Quixote eyed Captain HeGood up and down, pondering his question. What would the Captain do with them?

‘I think nothing,’ Ari said.

‘I think we should tell him who we are,’ Quixote blurted out and leapt down from the tree.

Captain HeGood pulled himself backwards unsure of Quixote.

‘And who might that be?’

‘Superheroes,’ Quixote said in a boy’s imitation man-voice, pushing his chest out. ‘Where-ever there is danger, where-ever there is adventure, where-ever we can imagine, there we will be found. Bring it on ─ ’

‘You’re mad,’ Captain HeGood said.

Fump-Hee screamed from a short distance away as if he fell over a cliff. It pulled Captain HeGood’s attention away and all at once his face became wild with anger.

‘Fool. I knew he would be more trouble than he’s worth.’

He moved off into the bush in the direction that Fump-Hee had gone. No sooner had he disappeared when he reappeared again, his face set against Ari and Quixote. They could tell he had capture on his mind.

‘RUN,’ Ari cried out.

Together they booted it and thrashed their way through the forest away from Captain HeGood. Within seconds the dense woods swallowed them up and they heard Captain HeGood yell after them, ‘We will meet again. I will get answers.’

Spurred on by the excitement of possible capture, the boys ran and ran and ran, deeper and deeper into the forest giving little thought to where they went. Eventually they stopped and fell about the ground laughing by a large rock outcrop.

‘That was intense,’ Ari said.

‘That little boy seemed really scared.’

‘And did you see that guy’s sword? I bet it feels good to hold.’

Ari pretend-swung a sword.

‘Maybe we should have rescued the boy,’ Quixote said serious faced.

‘Maybe.’ Ari nodded unsure. ‘Maybe that’s what we are here to do. Rescue kids not solve things.’

He sat down on one of the rocks at the base of the rock outcrop. ‘We should check what the girls found first. Lex may have worked out all the mysteries.’

They laughed at this, knowing that she would not have worked any of them out.

Something about the small cliff face intrigued Quixote and he started climbing it. About twenty feet up, a large outcropping of rock and dirt blocked his way. With typical Quixote fervour he let out a little monkey squeal, and tried to leap and grab on to the overhang. His hand found a grip-hold on a protruding root and the rest of his body dangled below it. Above where he hung small bits of dirt fell.

Ari glared at it sensing danger and without warning a loud crack, like the splitting of a rock, sounded from above Quixote.

‘Quixote. Get down!’

Quixote swung with all his might toward the cliff face and landed on it. He giggled oblivious to any impending danger; though he scurried to his right – out from underneath the overhang to get a better view.

‘Shuffle more to your right Quixote and work your way down.’

Quixote did not move but clung to the cliff face. At first Ari thought he might be frozen with fear, however unlikely for Quixote that might be.

‘Come down. It’s okay. You are out of harm’s way if it falls.’

Quixote looked over his shoulder and Ari recognised the same impish look he always got before doing something foolish. Before he could ask, Quixote started throwing rocks at the overhang trying to make it fall. The first rock bounced off.

‘Quixote…’

The second rock bounced off.

‘What are you doing?’

Quixote threw a third rock and the overhang started creaking again. A second loud crack followed and the heavy bulk of the rocky overhang gave way, and started sliding toward the ground. Booming, crashing and smashing erupted with dust and dirt spewing everywhere, filling the air with flying debris and plants. Splintered trees launched upwards and small rock missiles hurtled past. Ari plunged headlong downhill to escape the hurtling mass, and over top of the tumultuous noise he heard Quixote scream out shrill battle cries and laugh like an insane man.

The noise stopped and even before the dust settled Ari scrambled back up through the bushes, and peered, desperate to see his cousin.

‘Quixote! Where are you?’

Quixote stuck his dusty face up through the rubble, giggling and exclaimed, ‘What a ride.’

He giggled a few more times though Ari saw little to laugh at. He stared at him straight faced as Quixote’s giggle became a nervous titter. An uneasy silence fell about the forest and a deep yearning sense of long ago lingered, and the unseen presence once again seemed to fill the air.

A partially exposed giant door with two stone giants guarding either side, sat where the cliff face had been. The bodies had legs and arms but looked like they had been plucked from different body types. All at once they seemed fat, skinny, muscley, short, and tall. Even the heads appeared to subtly morph into different faces.

 

***

 

The girls shuffled forward on their knees through the secret passage arguing.

‘I tell you we have been this way before,’ Lexington said.

‘I don’t remember such a low ceiling.’

‘Last night we entered it but decided not to go all the way because it was getting late.’

‘Then we have not come this way.’

‘If I calculate correctly, we found where it exited because we came across a second passage just like this.’

‘Yes but we did not enter them.’ Melaleuca’s hand suddenly felt the floor disappear in front of her. ‘Hang on,’ she said bringing herself to a quick stop.… Lexington banged her head on Melaleuca’s rump.

‘What?’ Lexington said.

‘I don’t know,’ she said groping around. ‘Hang on. I think it feels like stairs. Yes, yes it is.’

Melaleuca straightened herself up, cautious not to hit her head. With great difficulty she lowered herself down, bottom first, with her legs out in front to feel when they hit the floor. Lexington followed behind making sure she could feel Melaleuca as she went. As they got lower and lower the air went from stuffy to cool and damp, and started to smell of wet ground.

Melaleuca’s feet hit something flat and wooden sounding. She placed all of her weight on it and then stood up. A small sound hissed, followed by the striking noise of a flint on a rock. In front of her a yellow flame burst forth, igniting an old style gas lamp. It flickered behind the dirty glass and she watched as scant light licked across a closed door.

Without looking at each other they knew immediately that the room had to be forbidden.

‘Perhaps this is what our parents wanted us to find,’ Lexington said and touched her chest where the medallion had been.

‘Maybe. Let’s open it and find out.’

It felt solid rock under her hands, and had no handle. She commanded Lexington to help, and they pushed and pushed but to no avail.

 

***

 

‘I think we have found something,’ Quixote said.

‘Really? What makes you think that?’

Quixote pulled a face, climbed on top of the rubble and stood by the base of the dirt-encrusted door, dwarfed by its immensity.

‘Giants lived here,’ Quixote said straining his neck to look up. With a solemn air he added, ‘I was right. Giants.’

 

Moments of silence passed between them in quiet awe and a huge feeling that the earth had just yielded up an immense secret fell over them.

 

Quixote leapt onto one of the giants’ legs and started his normal monkey-climbing act.

‘What are you doing now? You have already collapsed the rocks.’

‘Getting a souvenir to show the girls.’

Ari shook his head.

The stone giant had a strange looking object in its hand. Quixote grabbed for the hand to hoist himself up, and the object moved slightly. He climbed above it, sitting on the giant’s outstretched arm and examined it. Funnel shaped, it had crinkled edges around the top of it. Quixote pushed it and it wobbled. Without thinking he clasped it between his hands and with his two skinny arms, strained as he pulled upwards with all his might. It lifted a few inches.

Once again Ari could see how little thought Quixote put into his venture. He started to climb the giant as well in case Quixote slipped. Quixote pulled and pulled and pulled, nearly lifting the heavy funnel out of the Giant’s hand.

The earth shook and rumbled as if a creature, far under the earth, protested its removal.

 

***

 

‘It’s no use the door won’t open,’ Melaleuca said.

‘There must be a password or a key or another lever or something to push.’

She groped at the strange circle indent on the door. It had small crinkled edges to it.

‘Maybe this is the key to it.’ She fidgeted with it but to no avail.

The ground suddenly shook and they found themselves thrown from side to side, and the door started to open. Straining as it went; the shaking earth appeared to make it difficult for it to track along its groove.

 

***

 

Ari swung back and forth with the shaking earth and slipping, fell backwards into the rubble.

Quixote let the funnel go and tumbled off, and the funnel fell back into place and the earth stopped shaking.

 

***

 

The shaking subsided. Melaleuca picked herself up off the floor and helped Lexington up. The door had only opened a few inches, barely enough to peer in let alone squeeze through.

‘Did we do that?’ Lexington said.

‘If we have, now the whole mansion knows about it.’ Melaleuca let her feelings about the door swirl through her. ‘I don’t think we are going to open this door alone. Let’s go and find the others.’

 

***

 

Ari knew they needed the girls. Whatever game or play or imagination they had used previous to this, now seemed irrelevant – the giant statues and the immense doors were real. Even without Lexington’s logic, Ari could see the statues and the door had been buried under the earth for possibly hundreds, if not thousands of years.

As they hiked like mad back through the bush, a small chipping noise rang out of the head of one of the giants. A long implement pushed through one of its eyes and exposed an empty dark socket. Then an eye appeared at it and stared at the outside world.

 

Chapter 11 – Into the Dark Room

 

 

Uncle Bear-Nard cowered as Aunty Gertrude raged and raged.

‘And further more the flouting of rules deserves a punishment.’ She flapped her arms with great gusto.

He squirmed in his study, her anger making him uncomfortable. He placed his hands, palm up on his lap and tried to look caring.

‘I am not sure all the rules have been explained.’

‘NOT EXPLAINED! NOT EXPLAINED.’

Her face reddened as if uncovering a pit of festering anger and she shrieked.

Uncle Bear-Nard dropped his head down. Had he pushed his wife too far?

‘CHILDREN BY THEIR AGE SHOULD KNOW THE GOLDEN RULE.’

He could think of several golden rules. He glanced around his study, hoping that one of his many books or piles of papers or gathered knick-knacks might jog his memory.

‘The golden rule is,’ she said through clenched teeth, ‘everything is forbidden unless told so.’ She threw her arms up in despair. ‘Really. These kids have addled your head.’

He muttered inaudible words.

‘I don’t want to hear it.’ She turned to the door. ‘Girls, get in here. Tell him what those brats did!’

A timid Petruce told Uncle Bear-Nard what had happened and Pemily agreed, adding that the girls were now locked in the chapel.

 

Uncle Bear-Nard, Aunty Gertrude and the maids marched to the chapel. As they stood outside the door, Aunty Gertrude unlocked it and Uncle Bear-Nard nervously shuffled in. She expected him to punish the girls, to give them a full beating or met out something harsh but he knew he could never inflict such brutality on them.

They stepped inside and an empty chapel greeted them. Aunty Gertrude flew into another rage.

‘Who would dare defy me? Who let them out?’

The maids shook. Uncle Bear-Nard ignored her and wandered around the room looking as if he took a great interest in the whole affair. He walked behind the altar and noticed the discarded maid’s uniforms. He pushed them under the cover of the altar with his foot while Aunty Gertrude marched up and down the aisle fuming and yelling.

Footsteps hurried down the hall and Jeeves, the butler, appeared at the door neatly attired in a black and white uniform. Behind him stood Pembrooke, a stooped scruffy-looking man with dirty clothes.

‘M’lord, M’lady. Morning tea,’ Jeeves said and turned his nose away from Pembrooke.

‘Pembrooke,’ Aunty Gertrude shouted. ‘Disgusting man. I have told you before. Not inside with your boots.’

‘It’s right mam. Took ‘em off.’ He pointed to his dirt encrusted socks. ‘Thought ya might like to knows I seen them young uns run off up into Hirad’s Forest.’

Overwhelmed at the news Aunty Gertrude pretended to swoon and all the servants rushed to her aid. They fussed over her trying to look concerned. The earth suddenly shook and every one scrambled for the wall. Seconds later the earth went quiet. The maids’ faces turned white, as did Jeeves, Uncle Bear-Nard’s and Pembroke’s. Aunty Gertrude shot an accusing stare at Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘It’s been years since we’ve had an earthquake. Bear-Nard! What’s going on?’

Great. Something to finally get her mind off the children.

‘I bet those children have something to do with this,’ she said infuriated. ‘I want them found. I want them brought to me and I want them now!’

Uncle Bear-Nard groaned under his breath, while the staff scuttled to look for them.

 

***

 

The cousins met at the tumble down stone fence behind the gardens and talked like mad about their discoveries.

‘Can you remember what you did to make the door open,’ Ari said to the girls.

‘We did nothing, I think,’ Lexington said. ‘It opened when the earth shook.’

Melaleuca added, ‘We must have tripped a switch or a trigger.’

Quixote grinned at Ari.

‘What is it?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Well. We can’t be too sure,’ Ari said. ‘But it seems the earth started shaking when Quixote lifted an object out of the statue’s hands and it stopped when he dropped it.’

‘Are you telling me,’ Lexington said, ‘that the key to the door under the Cathedral-Mansion is in the hills and has been buried for hundreds of years?’

From the expression on Ari’s face Melaleuca saw Lexington’s logic made him doubt it.

‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it was coincidence then.’

‘Orrrr…’ Quixote said. ‘Or it is only one way of opening it and there are others.’

Radiating enthusiasm, he pranced around in the long grass and through laughter said, ‘How cool would it be if an ancient race of giants lived under the mountain?’

Melaleuca locked her eyes on Quixote and he, in turn, bore his own smiling eyes back at her. A rushing whirl of images flooded her brain, overwhelming her. Scenes of giants, large buildings, swirling masses of colours and shapes she had never seen before rapidly changed and darted about. Feeling queasy, she jerked her head away. So that’s what goes on in his mind.

‘Take me to these statues,’ Lexington said.

‘Wait,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Just wait…hang on…Let’s use imagination and play. Use it to work it out,’ though her confidence in her suggestion wavered a little.

 

Following their parents’ behest, they each took turns suggesting possible scenarios, though their past games and playing now felt like a clumsy pair of boots, especially in the light of the realness of their discoveries.

 

‘Mel,’ Lexington finally said. ‘Let’s just go check the statues.’

‘Sure. I was about to suggest it. What about your hyperthesis?’

‘Oh it can wait. Really, I mean, this is worth checking first.’

‘Maybe our parents sent us here to rescue the scared boy,’ Quixote said out of nowhere.

‘What scared boy?’ Melaleuca asked.

In their excitement Quixote and Ari had forgotten to tell the girls of the small boy and the men chasing him, so they rushed through an explanation of what had happened.

Lexington scratched her head. Rescuing him did not make sense.

‘If our parents wanted us to rescue anyone, then why let us go through all what we have been through?’

‘Why not,’ Quixote said. ‘Doesn’t matter how we got here.’

‘Why not? Our parents let us get attacked, disappear, transport us with an old man, who turns young, to a hidden land…’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘…just to rescue a boy?’

‘Could of had their reasons.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know but I say we are here to rescue him.’

Melaleuca stepped between them.

‘Stop it both of you.’ She raised one of her eyebrows at Ari. ‘What do you think?’

‘The kid was definitely scared and the man in charge looked like one of those soldiers from a hundred years ago. He said he was the Captain of the Inquisat, responsible for law and order.’

‘Inquisat?’ Lexington said animated by the word. ‘Like Inquisition?’

‘I guess, dunno.’

‘Oh this is so good.’ Lexington beamed at Melaleuca. ‘The Inquisition was a time when the Spanish Church tortured people. This is our first real solid clue.’

Melaleuca waited for the next pronouncement, the one that explained what she meant.

‘Don’t you get it? If that is the name of their law-people, then this land and its people are medieval European in origin.’

They looked at her with blank faces.

‘They came from Europe about 500 hundred years ago.’ Confusion crossed her face. ‘But then I distinctly heard Argus say the British colonised this land. Now that’s odd then.’

‘So are we here to rescue the kid or not?’ Quixote asked.

A decision welled up inside Melaleuca before the need to make one arose. They would go to the statues first and then back to the secret room and try as a team to make sense of the discoveries. She wondered why she had made that decision, when Lexington and Quixote started to argue.

‘Take me to the forest Ari,’ Lexington said.

‘Take me to the secret room Mel,’ Quixote said.

‘We are closer to the forest.’

‘I want to go to the secret room.’

‘Enough,’ Melaleuca said holding a hand up to each of them. ‘Lexington, well done on figuring out that Inquisat bit. Is that what your hyperthesis is about or is that a hunch?’

‘Neither. It is a fact. But I can work it in.’

‘Good. We are going to the statue first,’ Melaleuca said with one of her don’t-argue-with-me looks.

 

***

 

All four of them stood in wonderment, gazing at the giant statues guarding the giant door either side, rubble heaped at its base.

‘This is…this is…this is incredible,’ Lexington said. ‘I don’t know where to start.’

Melaleuca felt answers to the riddle of their parents lay beyond the doors though as she started to speak, another feeling told her the time for sharing it would be later.

Trust.

‘What do you think Lex?’ Melaleuca said instead.

‘I…don’t…know. Just…how did Qui…how did you find this?’

As if he had set a trap, he beamed and gloated.

‘I was just playing and mucking about and thought throwing stones would be fun. That’s all.’

‘Settle, Quixote,’ Ari said.

‘And Ari, you…sensed something?’ Lexington asked.

‘Not as he threw the rocks. I did when I entered the forest, but then I sensed something in the trees, and the mansion, and…’ He ran his eyes over the high doors.

‘And what?’

‘Well, I can’t be sure, but…’

‘It felt like,’ Quixote finished with relish, ‘someone else OR…’ He made boggle eyes. ‘…something else was here, after the dirt fell.’

Lexington flicked her eyes between them

‘Can you feel it now, either of you?’

‘It’s gone. Sorry,’ Ari said.

Lexington wrote some notes and announced to Quixote, ‘Finding it by accident was just luck, not smart.’

‘Yeah, but I found it.’

‘Enough, both of you,’ Melaleuca said and diverted their attention to the statues. ‘Why does it appear to change?’

Lexington climbed over the rubble and stood in front of the door, examining both statues from the side. They possessed many arms and legs, even though viewed from below they appeared to only have two of each.

‘Here’s why.’

As they scrambled up to Lexington, a flood of ideas raced through her head.

‘Seems that something about this plays with light, just like the Photaic Wall. Maybe the earth’s magnetic field is warped under here and…’ She darted her eyes between them and the statues. ‘…and…maybe Ari, you are sensitive to the magnetic waves? Perhaps this is the Ethmare you refer to?’

‘He didn’t feel anything on the sea-slope,’ Quixote said and again Melaleuca could see his relish at pointing this out.

‘Ignore him,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s try opening these doors.’

Quixote threw himself onto one of the statues and started to climb it. Ari started after him, moving upwards at a slower pace and searched for a door handle of sorts. Quixote reached the funnel and again gripped it in preparation to lift it out.

‘I can’t see anything like a handle,’ Ari said.

‘Break the doors down with this,’ Quixote said, lifting the funnel.

Lexington drew her eyes on Melaleuca and said, ‘You’re awfully quiet. Why?’

‘My job is to lead and make decisions. You’re all doing fine.’

‘You’ve had a feeling haven’t you? Tell.’

‘Later.’

Quixote cried out straining and sounding as if he would pop a hernia.

‘NEARLY…..TTHHHEERRREEEE….’

Red faced with his bony muscles taut, he pulled the last bit of the funnel out of the giant’s hand and fell head first with it into the rubble. Plumes of dust and dirt spewed up. From out of the settling dust he laughed and a head covered in dirt beamed out of it. ‘At least that time the earth didn’t shake.’

‘We don’t know exactly what made the earth shake,’ Lexington said examining the funnel shaped object. The main part of it lay buried in the rubble and she started to dig around it.

‘Leave it Lex. There is nothing more to do here,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s go and see if the boys are strong enough to open the secret room door.’

 

***

 

Jeeves searched the front of the Cathedral-Mansion, wandering dignified amongst the trees on the lawn. The maids strode the corridors in the west wing and Aunty Gertrude strode the corridors in the east wing, while Uncle Bear-Nard and Pembroke searched behind the Cathedral-Mansion.

Uncle Bear-Nard raced ahead and Pembrooke contented himself to amble behind, becoming distracted by some weeds peering out of the lavender bushes in his herb garden.

 

Melaleuca spotted Uncle Bear-Nard first as he stepped out from behind the hedges and faced them walking up past the stone fence.

‘Children, children. Must once to you talk at,’ he said fumbling his words.

They stopped and listened.

‘It’s your Aunt see. She’s just not used to children. It’s a bit much for her. I know you are curious but the rules must be obeyed. Please, you see, she will send you away.’

Lexington thought about this for a second.

‘Perhaps Uncle ─ ’

Uncle Bear-Nard cut her off and with a suddenness unlike him became commanding and firm. ‘Best let your Aunt calm down. Either stay outside and hide or creep up the back stairs and wait in your rooms.’ He sniffed and then in a weak tone said, ‘Please.’

‘I have a question though,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca saw a definite ripple of panic cross his face.

‘Oh?’

‘All the photos on the wall, the ones with our mothers in. Do you know which is whose mother? I mean they never show our mothers all together.’

‘Oh, oh, oh, I see. Um…um…,’ he said unhinged. ‘I shall have to think about it…old age…plays with the mind.’

With a brisk step he walked toward the Cathedral-Mansion, stopped and turned saying, ‘Hide from your Aunty for the rest of the day, there’s some good children.’

 

***

 

The gas lamp flared again, lighting up the stone door and Quixote leapt at it, pretending to kick it open though it did not move. Ari pulled on the door with all his might, and then Quixote tried helping him, and then the girls joined in but the stone door sat still.

‘Something opened it before,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We just have to do whatever it was again.’

‘Retrace your steps,’ Ari said.

‘We just walked down the steps and stood there.’

‘Do it anyway.’

The girls walked back up and walked back down.

‘Is that all?’ Ari said.

‘Oh wait, we fell on the floor here,’ Lexington said, ‘when the earth shook.’

Ari pondered this while Quixote played around with the crinkly edges of the strange circle on the door.

‘The earth shook when Quixote tried to pull something out of the giant’s hand,’ Ari said.

‘Yes,’ Lexington replied. ‘But he pulled it out before and nothing happened.’

‘True.’

Quixote yelped with excitement and said, ‘Look. The edges of the circle are the same as the edges of that thing in the giant’s hand.’

‘Well that just doesn’t make sense,’ Lexington said puzzled.

‘It will,’ Quixote said and tore off up the stairs.

‘Where are you going?’ Melaleuca yelled after him.

‘Back to the statue to get it. I just know that it is the key,’ he said disappearing up the steps.

‘Follow him,’ Melaleuca said.

 

At the base of the statue Quixote dug like mad. By the time the others arrived, he had it out and had pulled it over onto its side.

‘See crinkly edges.’

Melaleuca inspected it. The crinkled edges stared up at her. Lexington peered at it, casting a harsh eye over it.

‘Crude conclusion. It might work. Do you have a feeling on it, perhaps, Mel?’

‘I feel we shall just try it.’

As they started rolling it through the forest, Lexington spotted lines on the flat surface of the funnel shaped object.

‘Wait, stop, look,’ she said and bent down, pulling the dirt off, revealing an eagle and a cow embossed into it.

‘We’ll try it on the door, then you can analyse it Lex,’ Melaleuca said.

 

***

 

It took all four of them to lift it and fit it into the circle on the stone door and even more effort to turn it. As they turned it the door carried on opening until a wide rectangular gap of darkness loomed before them.

The blackness struck Melaleuca as mysterious yet she did not know why.

‘Ari. You lead,’ she said.

He nudged his way forward and hesitated.

‘What?’ Melaleuca said.

Before he could answer Quixote launched himself forward. Expecting this Melaleuca shot her arm out and stopped him.

‘I said Ari first.’

He slunk back and Ari slipped into the darkness, disappearing from sight.

‘Well?’ Melaleuca said.

‘It’s weird.’ His voice sounded far away. ‘It almost feels…like…like what I felt in the forest and by those trees. Seems safe though…come in.’

Melaleuca entered the room and the darkness engulfed her. She felt it straight away, a presence of some sort and she wondered what it could be but nothing came to mind. Lexington’s words about contrasting options played through her mind.

‘We need light,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote and Lexington shuffled in behind her.

‘What’s in here?’ Lexington asked.

Her voice reverberated around what sounded like a large room.

Quixote turned back toward the door.

‘Hey guys look.’

Light stopped at the door and a perfect line of darkness, like a black carpet, ran from one side of the doorframe to the other side as if a force field held the light back.

‘Cool eh…..Magic or magnetism?’

‘I shall ignore that,’ Lexington said, ‘though once again light is behaving differently.’

Ari whispered, ‘Can you guys feel it? There is something in here.’

‘Ahhh like what?’ Lexington said in a nervous tone.

Despite being able to see the light in the previous room Melaleuca could not see any of the others.

‘It’s okay. We just need to find a light.’

‘I don’t think it will help Mel. This is swallowing darkness,’ Quixote said.

‘What sort of darkness?’ Lexington asked.

‘Swallowing darkness. You know the sort that you find in a black hole where light can’t escape. Thought you’d know that.’

‘Black hole? For that to be true there would have to be a little shrunken star in this room. And I don’t see one.’

‘No one can see a black hole,’ Quixote said in a quiet voice.

‘Cut it out Qui. Everyone move around slowly,’ Ari said. ‘Keep talking to each other. This room feels large.’

‘Good idea Ari,’ Melaleuca said.

Keen not to bump into any objects she scouted around in the darkness, listening to the others scrape their feet on the floor in a cautious walk, chatting nonsense. Seconds later she bumped into a wall and her cousins hit walls as well. The swallowing darkness had deceived them – the room now seemed quite small.

‘Walk toward each other’s voices and see if we find anything,’ Ari said.

Into the middle of the room they headed, aiming for the voice opposite them.

‘Ow,’ Melaleuca cried out. ‘I just smacked my shin on something.’

Ari reached forward in the direction of her voice, groping the darkness trying to feel what she had collided with.

‘Everyone slowly feel in front of you. It feels like a table.’

Four pairs of hands explored the unknown table in the dark.

‘And it’s covered in carpet,’ Lexington said.

Ari stretched his hand out across the brushed feel of the carpet, extending his arm as far as he could and touched another hand.

‘Whose hand is that?’

No one replied.

‘Lexington?’

‘No.’

Melaleuca?’

‘No.’

‘Quixote?’

‘No.’

Ari recoiled, yanking his hand back, and Quixote burst into laughter.

‘Quixote! Damn it.’

He carried on feeling the table and his hand hit a series of small bumps though how many he could not tell.

‘Reach into the middle.’

Lexington’s hand reached them next, followed by Melaleuca’s. As soon as Quixote’s hand touched the objects they started to hum. It grew in intensity until it reached a feverish pitch forcing Melaleuca to clasp her hands over her ears. Despite the shrill numbing pitch in the hum she tried to peer through the dark to check her cousins. Just when she thought she could bear it no more, it stopped and an invisible force threw them back.

Like embers in a dying campfire a soft glow spread over the table, beating back the darkness, reminiscent of a curtain being pulled aside to reveal light. Melaleuca stared in amazement and Quixote moved toward the light source first, hovering excited over the table.

‘Look at these.’

Two rows of five plain-looking thin bracelets sat in an angled container on the table. A third row of empty slits sat beneath, where five other bracelets might have once laid. The upper row glowed yellow and the bottom row glowed green, and both colours of light mixed and swirled in the air about them as if the light from the bracelets was alive.

‘No one touch them,’ Melaleuca said.

Like an insect drawn to a purple light, Quixote shouted, ‘I can’t stop myself,’ and grabbed a yellow one.

He held the bracelet aloft as if he had won a medal and stared up at it, basking in the warm yellow soft light. Melaleuca watched expectant, both waiting and awestruck by its beauty. The light changed and something in the bracelet started to swirl and small clouds of mists, like a storm trapped inside, moved and twirled.

 

Something inside the bracelets called to Ari, not in words or sounds, nor images but from somewhere deeper, somewhere primitive and language-less, somewhere that felt as if it belonged to the very beginning of time itself. He stepped forward, grabbed a bracelet and also felt compelled to hold it up high and soon realized that the bracelet had moved Quixote’s hand upward.

 

Melaleuca watched in fascination as wisps of swirls leaked out from the bracelets and started to wind their way down Quixote and Ari’s arm, exploring their bodies with wraithlike tendrils. Unable to resist any longer Melaleuca stepped forward to reach for one of the yellow bracelets though as her hand neared it she could sense great hesitancy in Lexington. She stopped in mid motion and said to Lexington, ‘It’s okay Lex. We are supposed to touch them.’

‘How do you know?’

‘How do I know any of the decisions I make are right? I just do.’

She seized one of the yellow bracelets and felt compelled to hold it up high. Wisps grew out of the bracelet and explored her body.

 

Lexington studied the faraway looks on the faces of the boys. It seemed as if they stared across a whole ocean to witness something grand. Even Melaleuca’s eyes glazed or sharpened though which Lexington could not tell. A faraway look spread across Melaleuca’s face, and she broke her gaze away from whatever the bracelet showed her, and smiling, nodded at Lexington.

Lexington grasped one and felt a surge of energy rip down her arm and course into her chest. Her arm jerked upwards and misty swirls traced a gentle arc down her arm and she felt two invisible hands alight on her head. With a slow and painless motion, they pushed into her skull and pulled left and right, renting open a shaft of light. It seemed to come from within her rather than outside and yet it opened an abyss before her – a vast shaft of wide open emptiness – that all at once filled up with light and darkness. She felt her mind pulled toward it – toward some great unknown destination.

 

 

Chapter 12 – Light Swallowed

 

 

The Harbinger’s wrist ached and throbbed with pain and his vision blurred. It grew in intensity until he struggled to breathe.

Got to get out of sight.

The cousins had drawn so much attention to themselves that he could ill afford to be seen.

He lurched along the corridor cursing his lack of speed and stumbled into a door, bursting it open. His wrist pulsated in pain and he bit his lip trying to suppress a scream. Disoriented, he fell against the wall and groped frantically for a way through. A panel slid open and he fell through, landing on the dusty floor of a secret passage. He kicked out wildly until his foot smacked a lever, shutting it behind him.

Moments passed and the pain subsided leaving his left wrist numb with no sensation.

Have to conceal that.

He rubbed his wrist trying to bring feeling back into it.

The creature Lexington had chased appeared in the passage, melding through a wall. No bigger than a five-year-old child, a myriad of colours beneath its skin rippled up and down its skinny body, changing colour as it passed over its large bulbous head.

‘Why you hurt?’ Scout said.

‘Not hurt…where are the children?’

‘In the bracelet room.’

Bracelet room? How? How did they find it so quickly?

‘Doesn’t make sense. It never hurt this much when I or their parents found the bracelets.’

Scout caressed the Harbinger’s wrist.

‘Play now…again.’

‘What? Play? No. You know that.’

He got up and started off down the passageway.

‘At least now I don’t have to worry about how to get them to find the bracelets.’

 

The incandescent light from the bracelet room glowed bright and shielding his eyes he entered, finding the cousins on the ground, unconscious. They each held a yellow bracelet, and the sweetest smile spread across their faces. Puzzled, he could not recall himself or their parents falling asleep after they discovered the bracelets. One by one he removed the bracelets and returned them to the table. The cousins stirred; the sweet look on their faces becoming troubled.

Too soon, too soon, too soon.

Scout warped out of the wall and stood by the Harbinger.

‘Why worried?’

The Harbinger looked at the innocent face of Scout and spoke knowing he would not understand.

‘They are too young, to tender to begin…supposed to wait until 18…maybe even 20, but not 12.’

‘They seem smart.’

Too soon, too soon, he despaired, and what of their parents? He had still yet to receive word about them.

‘Scout, if I find you had anything to do with them finding these…well…..let’s just say it will be the last straw.’

Scout giggled and shook his head.

Satisfied the cousins would wake up; the Harbinger shambled out of the room and stumbled over a heavy object. He bent down and examined it. A large funnel shaped object lay on the floor with the faint outline of a cow and an eagle on it.

‘Get it out of here.’

Scout lifted it up as if it were as light as a feather and left.

 

***

 

The cousins found themselves again in the same dreamscape they had been in before – a white unending desert where the sky and ground blended. Once again they were naked and the same figure appeared still dragging the black density behind him.

‘Who is he?’ Melaleuca said and wondered if she could get a feeling off him.

Lexington opened her eyes wider, and Ari and Quixote started to walk toward him though hesitated.

‘Are we dreaming again?’ Ari said.

‘I think this is real,’ Melaleuca said with a suspicious tone.

‘I know. The bracelets are a door to another world,’ Quixote said.

Lexington grabbed her belly flesh and squeezed it hard and yelped.

‘Yes. We’re actually here. Where ever here is?’

Quixote shot a cheeky grin at her and she pulled a face back at him.

‘Anything is possible,’ she said. ‘But it still must operate within proper rules and laws.’

‘Explain this.’

‘Oh…push off.’

The figure got closer and Melaleuca saw that he dragged behind him a large pitch-black area almost half the size of the white desert they stood in. Hints of dark, of deep navy-blue, and of lighter shades of black showed something existed in it.

The figure walked past them.

‘Excuse me,’ Lexington said. ‘Exactly where are we?’

The man jumped, nearly letting go of the blackness. ‘What! You lot again. Bit early.’

He looked young though eyed them with caution as if an old man with poor eyesight.

‘Why are you here again?’ His voice sounded old – ancient even.

‘Tell us where we are,’ Melaleuca said.

He scowled at her.

‘You should not be here.’ He darted his eyes around the cousins, lifted his hand, scratched his head and with an absent-minded air, ogled them. ‘Well. Not yet anyway. Way, way, way too early. Terribly, terribly too early.’

‘So where are we then, if we are not supposed to be here,’ Lexington said.

He approached them and inspected them, smiled and preened as if a proud parent.

‘Very nice. Impressive. You are getting smarter even though the world is getting dumber. I never thought you could make it here this quick.’

‘Look,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Look me in my eyes.’

Quixote leapt into the darkness and disappeared, and the man, ignoring Melaleuca, reached in – his arm consumed by the darkness.

‘Swallowing darkness,’ Lexington said.

He fished around and then yanked hard, pulling Quixote out of it.

‘Not yet little one, not yet.’

‘Please. Tell us what this place is,’ Lexington asked. ‘So much has transpired, it’s confusing.’

The man looked thoughtful and then shook his head, and his face darkened, grave thoughts troubling him. Melaleuca moved around to try and view his eyes.

‘Tell us. What is the meaning of this dream?’

‘Dream? Not a dream, lest not in the ordinary sense of it being a dream.’

‘Are we dead then?’

The man laughed.

‘You have just shifted to the left or right, I forget which. Ummm…in your language I think you call it another dimension. And that is all I will and can say.’

Quixote leered at Lexington as if to say, “I told you so.”

Ari bent down and grabbed a handful of sand.

‘Is this where the Ethmare comes from?’

‘Oh okay. I shall tell you one more thing and that is all til we meet again,’ said the man. ‘And then you have to leave.’

He let go of the dark desert and stepping part way in, half of his body disappeared. The remaining half appeared as if it balanced on one leg.

‘Everything here represents every possible thing on your plane, on earth.’

He held his arms outstretched.

‘Between the black and the white, all colours, all possible lines, all possible movements exist. Everything that ever was and is and will ever be, you can see here.’

The white featureless desert and the black light-swallowing desert sat side by side, no sign of movement, nor even a flicker of life, was visible.

‘Black and white?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Yes, just like your name,’ the man replied.

‘I hardly see any of anything,’ Lexington said disappointed.

Quixote tittered to himself. ‘I can see it – castles, lakes, roving skeletons, treasure, Black Beard the pirate.’

Lexington tut-tutted him.

The old man chuckled and reached out, placing his hand on Quixote. ‘Nearly little one, nearly. What you see is the inner hope of discovery. Your seed is planted well. We are kindred seeds, you know.’

‘Explain what you just said,’ Melaleuca said, ‘about the black and white thing.’

‘Oh really it’s quite simple. Even a child could work it out.’ With an exasperated expression he carried on. ‘Take a white piece of paper. It is blank. All light, all possible colours, all possible colour combinations are hidden within the spectrum of the white light reflecting back. Now take a black piece of paper. It’s the same but it absorbs all light. Now take the white piece of paper and draw all possible lines on it, every possible combination. Eh! What do you end up with?’

Melaleuca calculated the question as quick as Quixote and both of them blurted the answer out.

‘A black piece of paper.’

‘Well done,’ the man said. ‘Now….tell me….what does that mean?’

Puzzled by the question Melaleuca looked to Lexington though she appeared frustrated.

‘I need pen and paper,’ she said.

‘It means,’ Quixote said flashing his eyes at Lexington, ‘you have a beginning and an end.’

The man laughed, delighted. ‘Good. Great. Very yes. You will do well. Now it is time to leave.’

The desert disintegrated until they floated in limbo. A great whirlpool appeared in the nothingness and one by one they got sucked in. Soon they found themselves separated and standing on completely different landscapes.

 

***

 

Awake and awash in a fading revelry, Melaleuca stared at each of her cousins watching the yellow and green light from the bracelets play across their faces and cast shadows on the wall. The awe of what she had seen in her landscape clung to her, and in the eyes of the others she saw they felt the same way. No one wanted to talk in case the feeling wore off. The silence dragged on and Melaleuca started to feel as if she had just lost a long time friend.

‘Did everyone go somewhere after the desert?’ She finally said.

They nodded.

‘I was sailing,’ Ari said and an aching need to tell them rang out in his voice. ‘And then climbing, exploring, and I came to the mountains, my mountains. They were so large and filled with grandeur that at the highest peak I could see into space and beyond.’

Melaleuca filled her eyes with sympathy – she knew what he meant.

‘After the desert I found myself commanding millions, both armies and civilizations. My mind now seems fogged but I could see into the hearts and desires of everyone, even my enemies.’ She added with a forlorn gaze, ‘But it feels so long ago.’

Lexington shook her head, swallowed and blinked back tears. ‘The desert again. It’s a clue. It has to be…though it felt real and then the next bit? That was surely a dream. I know it must have been.’ Perplexed she added in a panic. ‘Where I went, I can feel the memory of it fading!’

‘Then tell us quickly so we remember for you,’ Melaleuca said.

‘My mind opened,’ Lexington told them, ‘and threw me across an ocean that felt like it took a thousand years to cross, until I came to a great darkness and before I could wonder at it, I was thrown into the centre of what felt like a million suns.’ Lexington choked up and held back tears. ‘I started to be shown how everything worked – life, everything, and now all I can do is remember it without actually knowing any of it.’ She screwed her face up in frustration.

Quixote giggled at the others. He still had his characteristic impish look on his face. Whatever he had seen changed him little, and he stood and grabbed one of the yellow bracelets again.

It stopped glowing.

‘Oh,’ Quixote said.

They all stood and peered into his hand – the bracelet now a cold grey circle of ordinary-looking metal. Melaleuca picked up a yellow bracelet and it became as grey as Quixote’s had, and both Lexington and Ari did likewise and their bracelets turned grey.

‘I feel sad,’ Lexington said. ‘I wanted this to take me back.’

‘Me too cousin,’ Melaleuca said twirling the bracelet on her first finger hoping it would spark up again.

It seemed unclear what the bracelets meant in the light of their instructions. It answered nothing and only posed more questions.

‘If our parents said we are to keep playing and moving forward,’ Ari said, ‘then what if these bracelets show us the future, show us where we could be if we use our imaginations to the fullest.’

‘Perhaps Lexington’s hypotheses could help us now,’ Melaleuca said taking Lexington by surprise. ‘Can they help explain the bracelets? What about the desert?’

‘These bracelets may change what I have hypothesised,’ Lexington replied despondent.

‘Then I suggest making a new thesis.’

‘I would but I cannot recall my world.’

Melaleuca tried to recall where she had been but could not. She could only recall the black and white desert.

‘Ari. Can you ─ ’

He shook his head.

‘It’s gone.’

‘Why can’t we recall them’? Lexington said frustrated. ‘I bet it’s the biggest clue to all this.’

‘The man in the desert said it was not time,’ Quixote said still with a dreamy smile on his face. ‘It was pretty cool.’

‘You said Lex,’ Ari said. ‘That you were in the heart of stars.’

‘I did, didn’t I. Yet…yet…I can’t recall it. And you said you were in the mountains, all over the world.’

‘It’s no use. It’s gone too. Mel? Armies?’

Melaleuca nodded. ‘Yes I used the word. But nothing, just the desert.’

‘Let’s try the green ones,’ Quixote said fired up. ‘They might do it.’

He plucked one of the green glowing bracelets out of the table and in an instant his arm shot upwards but this time his body convulsed as if receiving an electric shock. He slumped to his knees, yelling and screaming, writhing in pain, and then crumpled to the ground. Ari grabbed him, turning him on his back and a laughing Quixote held out the no-longer green bracelet. It now appeared a metal colour.

‘I should have known.

Melaleuca frowned. Quixote never knew when enough was enough.

‘How did you know that the green bracelet would have no effect?’ Lexington asked.

‘I didn’t.’

‘And look! It has stopped glowing.’

Lexington touched a green one and it too, stopped glowing.

Riled, Lexington tried to lash out with what little fire she could muster.

‘We cannot continue until we know more. We just don’t know what we are dealing with. Play is fine. Moving forward is one thing. But we have no idea what is going on. I am sure our mother’s did not mean to move forward blindly. That’s….that’s…that’s…’ She struggled to find the right words. ‘That’s un-sagacious and lacks perspicacity.’

‘What?’ Ari said.

‘Urrr. Unwise, not paying attention to detail.’

Quixote rolled and rolled and rolled his eyes at her.

‘Qui, this discovery is serious.’

‘Lexington calm down. We don’t need to be serious,’ Melaleuca said sounding serious. ‘We need to ─ ’

‘What! Mel! Out of all of us, you are the most serious. You hardly smile. You say little. All you love to do is make decisions.’

‘Right decisions.’

‘Since leaving home we don’t know that, do we?’

‘I play and imagine in my own way. We all do. We all know that. You know that.’

‘Oh yeah? What if the green bracelets had been bad or the yellow ones? We need to note things down, draw maps, start writing ideas, keep track of all the clues we get.’ Lexington pointed at her head. ‘Start using my thinking. Like…um…why did the yellow ones affect us but not the green ones?’

She pointed at Melaleuca. ‘Start working out your feelings.’

She then motioned to Ari. ‘Start exploring with a purpose. And…’

She looked at Quixote, stumped.

As if reading her mind he said, ‘I still remember what I saw after the desert.’

‘Really! What then?’

‘What I see every night in my dreams.’ Quixote roared with laughter.

Melaleuca and Ari could not help but laugh. Quixote had always insisted that each night he dreamt the dreams that had not yet been dreamed. Lexington tucked her hair behind her ears and lifted her nose in indignation.

‘I guess then you can just play like a child.’

Lexington stepped out of the room to clear her head and spied another note on the floor. Her heart sank, as she knew it would propel them forward instead of slowing them down long enough to take stock of their position.

‘There’s another note.’

Melaleuca moved for the door though Quixote raced by and grabbed the note first.

‘Return to the girls’ room for the next clue,’ he said reading it out loud.

Ari took the note off him, read it and handed it to Melaleuca. Melaleuca and Lexington’s eyes met.

‘We have to return to our room,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Fine.’

Melaleuca pointed to the bracelet room.

‘Bracelets back. Let’s go.’

‘Awww,’ Quixote said.

‘If the notes are to be believed,’ Ari said in defence of Melaleuca, ‘then danger is around. Probably Aunty Gertrude. Guess she does not want us here. If we are found with the bracelets Qui, who knows what she might do.’

‘Alright, alright.’

They each put their bracelet back and left, and the secret bracelet room now sat empty, though where there had been five yellow bracelets now sat four.

 

***

 

As Daquan underwent more treatment, Quesob was put in charge of everything. He pondered his tasks and stared out of a window overlooking the New Wakefield valley. The Forunza River snaked its way out of the upper valley, passing by the sprawling township and carried on past the paddocks, fields, forests and swamps, making its way out to sea. The sea glistened way off in the distance, a thin line of sparkling silver on the horizon.

Daquan’s Cathedral-Mansion commanded a view of the valley except for one area. Across the valley from it, shrouded in bushes and oak trees, sat the original site of settlement in the valley. Upon it sat the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. Quesob had long since told Daquan that it was a blind spot, a perfect place for anyone to spy on them or to attack from.

His door burst open and a nervous-looking elderly man stood there shaking. Quesob recognized him as one of the workers.

‘What is the meaning of this,’ Quesob said.

‘Excuse sir, me names Amreth and well, the master said to tell yous from now if anything changed,’ he said as though he had rehearsed those lines. ‘But sir,’ he added and then started ranting. ‘It’s happening, it’s started. It’s happening, it’s started. It’s happening, it’s started. It’s happening, it’s started.’

‘What has?’

Amreth opened his eyes so wide that he exposed the whites all the way around his pupils, and then he spoke in a voice that sounded like he had seen a ghost.

‘The black bracelet! It swallowed the light. I thought I was dying,’ he said blathering like an insane man. ‘It’s evil I tell you. EVIL!! What was he thinking putting me there?’

‘ALRIGHT ENOUGH.’

Amreth stopped talking but remained scared and shaking.

‘Show me what you are talking about.’

‘NOOO!’

‘Show me or you will spend the rest of your years at the Borstal.’

His words rocked Amreth and it was clear from the expression on his face that he now had a hard choice to make. ‘I will take you to it, but I ain’t going in!’

Amreth led him to a small passageway between two rooms on the second storey. He stood before what appeared to be a broom cupboard and opened it. They both stood there staring at the pitch-black darkness inside.

‘Well,’ Quesob said.

‘I ain’t going in. I ain’t going in. This far that’s all,’ Amreth said backing away.

‘There is nothing in there.’

Quesob peered in and could only see more darkness. Clearly Amreth had gone crazy and was seeing things.

Amreth cackled and then jeered at him, ‘Scared ain’t ja.’

‘Oh for heaven’s sake.’

Quesob sighed and then stepped into the room.

An eerie weirdness descended on him and he searched in the darkness but could see nothing. Where did the feeling come from? He turned to address Amreth and saw that no light entered the room. Light stopped square at the door, like something in the room stopped it going any further.

‘What is supposed to be in here?’

‘I ain’t alloweds to tell. The master said so.’

‘The master is no longer fit to be in charge. Now tell me what is in this room or so help me I will not hesitate to take you to Golgotha.’

Amreth bowed his head in shame and spoke.

‘It’s just an old bracelet, lest it was afore…afore…’ He stopped and would not say anymore.

Bracelet? What bracelet? Impossible. They had been looking for the bracelets for many years now. It was all that had driven Daquan on. It did not make sense.

‘How long have you known about this room?’

‘Long time. About ten years I should think. Can I goes now?’

‘Wait. What exactly is the problem here? What did you see?’

‘The bracelet started to glow black and sucked all the light out of the room. It’s evil I tell you. I ran in case it sucked out my soul.’

‘I can’t see the bracelet you old fool.’

‘In the middle of the room there is a stand. It’s on that.’

Quesob pulled out a packet of matches and struck one. The match flared up but illuminated nothing around him. Like Amreth had said – something in the room sucked up the light. He felt in front of him and his hand brushed the pedestal. He groped around and felt a small cold smooth object. As he rolled it over in his hand he could feel it was in the definite shape of bracelet.

All at once his mind crowded with questions and like Amreth he became nervous, not from fear but from the unknown. What on earth was this bracelet doing here? All these years Daquan had been looking for the bracelets and he had never told him about this one. Perhaps it had been a mere decoy or some experiment gone wrong? But that did not make sense. So far there had been no one to set up a decoy for, and as for experiments surely he would have heard something.

He grasped it and thrust it into his trouser pocket and light from outside the room flooded back in an instance. Quesob removed the bracelet slowly from his pocket and once again darkness gobbled the light up. He jabbed it into his pocket and then slowly pulled it out a little at a time, trying to get a good look at it. But again it sapped the light from the room.

 

 

Chapter 13 – The Last Clue

 

 

Standing in the girls’ bedroom, Melaleuca read out another note that they had found on the floor.

‘Go to the attic. All you ever needed is there.’

Quixote leapt up and charged for the door, crying out, ‘Let’s go!’

‘Ari,’ Melaleuca said, nodding her head toward Quixote.

Ari sprang up and blocked Quixote’s way, grabbing him by the scuff of his toga and lifting him off the ground.

‘Put me down Ari. I’ll give you a good kicking.’

‘Quixote. Settle. We are going to clear ourselves before we go to the attic,’ Melaleuca said.

Keen at last to discover what they were here for, they ran through all the events since their last clearing though the note overshadowed it. Toward the end of it Lexington made a little noise of annoyance and turned her back on them. Melaleuca dreaded to ask though Lexington spun around and spoke.

‘The point of a clearing is to come up with new ideas and suggestions on how things could have been done better…so…’

‘We can’t go back and do things we have already done,’ Quixote said. ‘It’s…,’ he giggled, ‘it’s impossible.’

Surprised at his use of the word “impossible,” Ari and Melaleuca stared at him and then at Lexington, who glowered at him.

‘We can play different possibilities,’ Quixote continued, ‘but this is real. How would we go back and do it differently? We can’t.’ He aimed his words at Lexington and waited for her incendiary response.

‘First sensible thing Quixote’s said for ages,’ Lexington said down her nose. ‘As I was about to say, we cannot go back and redo things like we did at home, so this appears pointless.’

Melaleuca started to defend their instructions when Lexington held her hand up to silence her, though she carried on.

‘…so it appears logically there is another reason why Antavahni bade us to continue doing so.’ Her whole face lit up. ‘Even with my photographic memory so much has happened in such a short time that it is too much. So I think it makes sense that the clearings are now helping us see the connections that at first are not obvious.’

At times Melaleuca’s brain tired of listening to Lexington. She knew if they could just keep moving forward, all the pieces must eventually line up.

Lost in Lexington’s explanation Ari and Quixote waited for her to add more though after a few moments of silence, Quixote said, ‘So connect something.’

‘Antavahni, his words of a past age, 50,000 years, rock columns from under the sea, statues buried for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, hidden land. What do these suggest?’

‘Tell us,’ Melaleuca said

‘This land and its inhabitants belong to a lost ancient race of people.’ She beamed happy with her conclusion.

‘Yeah. The Etamols,’ Quixote said as if it were already evident. ‘This land must have once belonged to Antavahni’s people.’

Peeved, Lexington shot back, ‘Well then why are we here?’

‘What are the bracelets for?’ Quixote said in a smart-alec voice.

Lexington huffed at Quixote and turned to Ari and Melaleuca saying, ‘Anyway, the clearing brought these more to my attention. This shall be the new hyper-thesis.’

‘That this land is ancient and once belonged to an ancient race,’ Quixote said.

Concerned, Ari asked, ‘What if they don’t fit?’

‘Then we shall re-run everything again until a new hyper-thesis comes up.’

Quixote stroked his chin.

‘What happened to the Europe hypofesis?’

Lexington folded her arms and then massaged the bridge of her nose as if releasing stress from her mind and body.

‘Ancient people came from Europe too.’

Melaleuca walked toward the open panel by the fireplace. ‘Work on it Lexington. Let’s go check out the attic. We can finish the clearing later.’

 

The secret staircase only led up to the fifth floor and not beyond where Melaleuca figured the attic would be. After a round of discussing and arguing, they decided to chance it and sneak along the fifth floor corridors to search for a way in.

The light on the fifth floor corridor fought its way through heavy curtains, streaming in through grey windows, scattering scant shafts amongst the clutter. In the grainy darkness, statues, pictures, suits of armor, old fashion weapons, stuffed animals and the sort of knick knacks found in museums cluttered it. Melaleuca tried to get a feeling off it but the sensation overwhelmed her. A lot had happened here.

‘What do you think it all is?’ Lexington whispered.

‘Stolen booty hidden by pirates,’ Quixote whispered back.

Lexington eyed the roughshod layout.

‘Look at how they are all placed. This is not in keeping with the order and discipline that Aunty Gertrude rabbits on about. It’s almost as if they were put here in a hurry.’

‘Like someone hid them.’ Quixote made “oooooohhhh” noises.

‘Not a very hidden hiding place,’ Ari said.

‘Perhaps they had little time,’ Lexington replied. ‘And look the corridor is nearly three times as wide as the ones below. Hmmmm…Perhaps these are ancient relics from their long lost civilization and they were about to be discovered, so they hid them.’

‘Maybe,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s find a way into the attic.’

As the others wandered ahead, Melaleuca stared back where they had come from. Disturbed dust flitted like small seams of soot in the few shafts of light that beamed through the curtains. She eyed the nearest statue, letting Lexington’s hypothesis drift through her mind. The male figure in the statue had heavy clothes on with military markings on them. A heavy moustache curled around his face to meet big bushy sideburns. After some rubbing, a small plaque at the bottom revealed the name, “Captain Edward Gibbon Wakefield, His Majesty’s Envoy, Re-Founder of the New Order, New Wakefield.”

Melaleuca knew that if she told Lexington she had found the man whom New Wakefield was probably named after, they would spend the rest of the day writing and noting everything in the corridor. Finding the attic was more urgent. She decided to keep it to herself for the time being.

 

After searching up and down the corridor amongst the junk they found no entrance or possible route to the attic though eventually came to the top of the Grand Ascension Stairs.

Melaleuca halted them, recalling Aunty Gertrude’s uncanny appearance last time.

‘Every time we step on this crabby pants appears but we have to get to the other side.’

‘Stick to the shadows,’ Ari said and pointed at the wall. ‘There is no light there. Shuffle along.’

With Ari in the lead, Melaleuca and the others huddled behind him and snuck into the shadows until they stood dead center on the fifth floor flight of stairs, almost even with the ceiling of the Cathedral-Mansion. At the bottom of the stairs, the entrance to the Cathedral-Mansion seemed no bigger than their thumbs.

‘It looks like we are staring down the steps of a pyramid,’ Quixote whispered. ‘It’s kind of dizzy.’

‘It’s another trick of the light,’ Lexington said. ‘Like the Photaic wall. See how the ceiling is so dark that it looks like it goes on forever. It gives the illusion we are higher than we are.’

‘Solved it,’ Quixote said with a smug grin.

‘Solved what?’

‘This building is actually an Egyptian Pyramid. That’s the ancient race this place comes from.’

Despite the darkness Melaleuca could see slight frustration quiver across Lexington’s face.

‘Focus! How do we get into the attic?’ Melaleuca said.

‘We could try that.’ Ari pointed up.

A rope hung down from a trapdoor in the ceiling, right in front of them. Ari pulled it and nothing happened. He tugged it harder – still nothing. He gripped the rope with all his might and yanked hard. The others cringed with expectation and a small creaking noise started in the ceiling above them.

Melaleuca lay on her belly and crawled to the edge of the Grand Ascension Stairs and peered down to the bottom watching for Aunty Gertrude.

Quixote tapped his foot. The attic and its secrets lay just moments away, the great revealing of their secret purpose, perhaps super powers, perhaps…….He jumped with all his might, soaring through the air and latched onto the rope adding his weight to Ari’s. The ceiling creaked louder and then with a crashing sound the trapdoor gave way, opening with such force that the boys flew through the air. The trapdoor swung back and smacked hard against the ceiling. A loud noise echoed throughout the empty space of the Cathedral-Mansion’s Grand Hall and bounced back and forth until it petered out like a far away dying echo.

Melaleuca held her breath. This time for sure, Aunty Gertrude would beat the living daylights out of them or worse, borstallise them. The silent moments after became an eternity as she waited for their Aunt’s appearance, or for that matter, anyone’s appearance. No one showed and nothing moved, and as the realisation sunk in that the noise had gone unnoticed, she started to breath. An excited intense alertness grew inside her.

The ceiling shook and rumbled, and a ladder fell rapidly out of the trapdoor, sounding as loud as a hundred chairs bashing together. Again the noise filled up the vast Grand Hall, and again it died away to a faint echo.

‘RUN UP THE LADDER,’ Melaleuca cried out.

As if chased them, they all tore up the ladder into the dark attic.

‘Hurry, shut it behind us,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari heaved the ladder up and reached for the trapdoor and with surprising ease swung it upwards, and it clicked into place. Melaleuca listened for the charge of Aunty Gertrude. From somewhere below, small footsteps clip-clopped around and a faint voice cried out for Uncle Bear-Nard but never got any louder.

Melaleuca rolled onto her back.

‘Whew! So much for sneaking.’

Her heart beat slowed and her breathing settled. Expectant of the very source of what drove the maddening notes on, she peered into the darkness along with the others. Small crevices of light and tiny holes of weak sunshine peered down from the roof into another capacious empty space – of nothing.

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

Totally bewildered and feeling let down, Quixote took off at a trot, gamboling across the attic in search of something, anything that might be what the note meant for them to find. An excited Quixote imagined all the things he might find, and thinking he saw objects that were not there, dashed in this direction and in that direction.

‘Spread out and start looking,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Lex. Stay by the trapdoor, on guard.’

Melaleuca and Ari headed in the opposite direction to Quixote though soon branched apart as the attic floor turned left and right. Melaleuca searched further and further turning this way and that way, finding dust, spiders, old cobwebs, more dust, but nothing else. Every corner she turned just delivered more emptiness.

 

Lexington sat by the trapdoor staring into the emptiness for quite some time. Unnerved at being alone, she wondered what kept her cousins so long. Obviously nothing was up here – another reason why her logic and finding the correct hyper-thesis should be taken seriously. She thought about the word “serious” and how they were instructed to carry on playing. Perhaps she could convince the others to use her hyper-thesis for some sort of “serious play.”

The emptiness started stirring around her, bringing life to the silent attic. The wind skimmed over the roof, birds ambled along the shingles and unseen rodents scurried along the floor, and every now and then she heard a gnawing noise. A shape formed in the darkness a small distance away from her. It shimmered and flashed off patterns similar to the creature she had seen and then died away, racing off in a blur. With curious caution she shuffled toward it – stopping when she hit a brick wall. Maybe she was just seeing things again, or maybe it was connected to the strange effects of light in this land.

Whichever, it resembled nothing like the hyper-thesis she had announced was the right one. Nothing in her reading of ancient Europe or the Middle Ages looked like this. She ran her hands over the wall and checked for secret doors and instead discovered a two foot high wall hidden by the lack of light where the roof sloped down and met the floor. Inspecting it revealed gaps all along, until she realised they were crenellations – the sort found on the top of castles where archers could hide behind while fending off attackers. The gaps extended downwards, below the level of the floor.

Why would they build them under the roof?

Melaleuca returned to the trapdoor having found nothing.

‘Lex? Where are you?’

‘Over here. Come look what I have found,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca shuffled over and Ari and Quixote arrived back, both a little downbeat.

‘We found nothing,’ they said half in unison.

‘Neither did I,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Lexington has.’

They crowded around Lexington as she showed them her find. Quixote screwed his face up at the castle wall.

‘Is that it? That’s what the note wanted us to find?’

‘I can’t imagine so,’ Lexington replied. ‘But maybe it is a big piece in the puzzle. I mean, why would anyone construct a building of this size and then make castle embattlements and hide them under a roof?’

Quixote mock yawned at her.

‘Maybe because it was a castle first.’

‘Ohmygosh,’ Lexington said with a start, ignoring his jibe. ‘You could be right! Ohmygosh! Then that would make the stairs the steps up to the castle.’ In the gray light she looked confused. ‘But wait, that does not make sense. Who would build a castle and put a flight of steps up to the top of the wall.’

Quixote tried to fit his head down the gap.

‘Maybe some invaders did and then just left them and then they built over top…..but where do the bracelets fit in?’

Lexington’s eyes even in the dull light reflected back intellectual hurt.

‘I don’t know…but the bracelets really should be central to…our…well……any hyper-thesis should be based on the bracelets…hmm…oh bother……nothing fits.’ She stopped and glared at Melaleuca. ‘This still proves my point. We don’t know anything. We need to collate all we know and try and make sense of it.’

‘I see,’ Melaleuca said.

A deep feeling beset Melaleuca that some major clue had been missed, that something obvious sat right under their noses. But that, she conceded was a job for Lexington’s brain, Ari’s exploration skills, and Quixote’s…? Hmmm, his what exactly?

‘I could throw some more stones and see what happens,’ Quixote said

Oh yes, Quixote’s reckless abandon at overturning everything he touches.

‘Let’s return to our rooms,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Something will turn up. Of that, I have no doubt.’

‘I found a set of stairs going down,’ Ari said. ‘It did not seem what the note referred to so I didn’t mention it.’

Minutes later they tromped down them, abruptly stopping at a wall in the dark.

Ari pushed and it budged only a few inches.

‘What if it’s boarded up because it leads somewhere it shouldn’t,’ Lexington said.

‘Let’s all push then,’ Melaleuca said. ‘It can’t be worse than where we came in.’

With a massive heave the wall gave way, tearing the wallpaper that had been plastered across it. Spilling out, they stood once again on the fifth floor.

 

***

 

That night as they slept Melaleuca tossed and turned, her thoughts churning and churning. Several times she woke up only to find herself thinking about the attic. Out of all the objects and discoveries they had made so far, the empty attic bugged her the most. The last time she woke up Melaleuca sat bolt upright and hugged her knees to her chest, waking Lexington as she did so.

‘Mel?’ Lexington said. ‘What is it?’

‘We missed something in the attic. I don’t know what but I feel it.’ She gave Lexington a serious stare. ‘I have the feeling, now your brains are needed. Ari cannot pull the whole thing apart and well, Quixote could explore forever and maybe find it by accident.’

Lexington did not know what to say. Did Melaleuca mean it was now up to her to solve it? Was she actually awake or was she talking in her sleep?

Melaleuca exhaled a sleepy breath and lay down. ‘In the morning we shall go back up there.’

With such words Lexington lay awake – the burden to solve it now sitting square on her shoulders. She grabbed the torch, switched it on and the light failed. She shook it though no more light came out. Candle and matches in hand, she slipped out and soon stood in the empty attic, eyeing the walls and the roof in the poor candlelight.

She wandered around at a slow pace turning corners, feeling vulnerable and remembering how easily scared she got. Like the others before, she traced a confusing path around the empty attic. A few windows jutted out of the roof but showed nothing extraordinary. Out of them she could see below. In front of the Cathedral-Mansion large pots containing fire steadily burnt away, and in the distance she could make out lights in the small town. Curious about both she reminded herself she had until morning to solve this.

She walked back to where she had started, disappointed. She had only found what the others had found – emptiness. But what if the emptiness is what they were supposed to find? It dawned on her that if the Cathedral-Mansion was hundreds of years old, then the likely hood of the attic being empty was surely slim. What if all the statues and paintings spread along the fifth floor which appeared to be put there in haste, had once been up here? But why take things out of the attic to hide them below in an area that is not hidden?

Thoughts, ideas, that’s all I have – she chastised herself – nothing concrete.

She had so wanted to work this out by herself without the help of anyone, even if just to prove that logic and her hypotheses could be useful. She knelt and in the dust on the floor wrote with her finger, Why?

About TIME!!!!’

‘Well, help me’

You had the answer! It stared at you right in the face.’

‘Go on.’

You saw it. Where did it go, the creature.’

‘It went nowhere. Vanished.’

Vanished into what?’

‘Thin air.’

Her inner voice made a noise that sounded like it was miffed.

Go back to the window and look out.’

‘Why?’

Just do it.’

She hurried back and stood staring out the window into the night.

‘Well?’

To your left you see the building. To your right you see the building. But look, you cannot walk as far as the building goes to the right.’

‘Ohmygosh the brick wall!’

She rushed so fast to the brick wall that her candle blew out. She traced her hands along it and the rough brick scraped her palms. Perhaps it hid a trick door and all she needed to do was touch a certain brick and it would pop open.

She groped along it in the dark, the minutes ticking by until her inner voice finally said, ‘I think you have to get one of the others to help.’

She stiffened a little.

Don’t be stupid. You found the brick wall, didn’t you?’

‘You did.’

I am you.’

‘Thanks.’

Kneeling, she scrawled, That’s why, on the floor and her inner voice went quiet. Sadly she knew it was right. She needed the others.

She snuck into the boys’ room and without waking Quixote convinced Ari to go to the attic, and soon they stood by the window peering out at the side of the attic they could not get to.

‘I think we have to climb out on the roof,’ Ari said. ‘Either that or break the brick wall down.’

Scuffling footsteps sounded behind them and then stopped.

‘Who’s there?’ Lexington called out.

‘Shh,’ Ari said pushing her behind his back. ‘We don’t know who it is. Stay here and I will check it out.’

He surged forward trying to keep as much to the side as possible and made his way toward the direction he had heard the noise come from.

 

***

 

Quixote heard Lexington’s voice though pretended to be asleep. With stealth he followed after them. When he heard the words, ‘Break the wall down,’ he decided he would break it down. With no thought for the noise he would make, he ran off, his feet clattering along the attic floor.

He heard Lexington cry out but ignored it, bounding down the stairs, making his way back to his room, and absconding off again with a candle in his hand. He worked his way down to the ground floor and then ran outside.

 

***

 

Ari returned to Lexington.

‘No one is there. Let’s go back and get Melaleuca.’

‘Let her sleep. Wake her when we find out what’s behind it.’

‘Lex. It does not matter who gets in first. You have done it. Worked it out.’

‘Maybe. I’ll know for sure when I get through it.’

Unconvinced Ari nudged her arm. ‘Come on, she’ll be happy.’

Lexington reached out, unclipped the window, opened it and the cool night air rushed in.

‘I’ll go myself.’

Struggling, she pulled herself up. Perching on the sill, she wobbled back and forth.

‘Fine. Wait there,’ Ari said. ‘I’ll help.’

Together they climbed out of the window, hoisted themselves up onto the roof, and sat on the rough stone slates. A cool clamminess hung in the air and a haze of thin fog clung to the rooftops like a mysterious cloud. A fuzzy moon overhead, threw what little light it could muster through the mysterious barrier in the sky, bathing them and their surrounds in an eerie light. Towers jutted up here and there, some dark and foreboding, some silhouetted, and others large and looming. Out in front of them where the roof ended, the ground appeared metres below, and the front lawn and the weird trees lapped up the flickering light from the lit pots on the front steps.

Ari scrambled up to the apex of the roof and stared out over the labyrinth of rooftops. Many hard-angled ridges formed slated valleys amongst the rising and dipping structures that spread out amongst the towers and turrets.

‘Lex come look at this.’

‘Ummmm…’

Lexington clung to the roof unsure of moving. Perhaps coming out here had not been the best idea.

Ari slid back down.

‘Is it the height?’

She nodded.

‘You were okay in the trees at home.’

‘I know. This just feels different.’

‘Take my hand. I will help you up to the top and there we can move along and see what we can find.’

Hand in hand Ari helped Lexington up to the ridge of the roof and they moved along until Lexington felt confident they had passed into the area beyond the brick wall. It stretched for over a hundred metres beyond where she sat, and off that were more wings in the distance – a fact that made Lexington extra confident she had found what the note had told them to find. All she needed now was a way in. Lexington and Ari slid up and down the roof searching and searching. An hour past and they reached the end of the roof having found nothing. Lexington insisted they check again.

‘Lexington. I think you are right but I say we go back and get the others. This is going to have to be teamwork.’

‘Okay. Okay. Okay. We go back. I will wait in the attic. You go get the others.’

While he got the others, she would activate her inner voice as a last chance of finding a way in.

She headed back, Ari following behind her. The morning sun peeked over the horizon miles away, and a far away sound thumped below them, sending vibrations through the roof. It got louder and louder as they approached the window. They dropped into the attic and the distinctive sound of a hammer smashing on a brick wall echoed throughout the attic.

Fuming she spun around to face Ari. Before speaking she saw that he, like her, knew who and what probably caused it. Together they ran back as fast as they could to the brick wall.

Quixote stood there in faint candle light, mallet in hand, knee deep in a pile of rubble and bricks – powdered mortar covering him. Dotted along the wall in the faded shadows, many small holes had been bashed except for one massive gapping gap.

‘Look,’ Quixote said beaming. ‘A door.’

Quixote grasped the candle and held it up to the hole.

 

Chapter 14 – What are these?

 

 

 

‘Get Melaleuca,’ Ari said to Quixote unimpressed.

Quixote hesitated and eyed Lexington.

‘Go Quixote,’ she said peeved. ‘We will wait until you get back before entering.’

Quixote tore off at top speed, returning faster than they thought possible with Melaleuca racing behind him. Puffing, she stared through the broken-down brick wall at the door.

‘Well done. Who…who…found it?’ Melaleuca asked catching her breath.

Both Quixote and Lexington said, ‘I did.’

Before a fight started Ari stepped between them and explained how the discovery had been made.

‘Alright,’ Melaleuca said dismissing any claims to first discovery, ‘let’s look inside.’

She stepped over the bricks and reached out, grabbing a rope hanging out of the wooden door. She pulled it down and the door gave a little, opening a few inches.

‘Here goes,’ Melaleuca whispered.

She pushed on the door. It resisted her. She pushed again harder and it budged a little.

‘Ari.’

He placed his beefy shoulders into the door and heaved forward with all his might. The door fell open with the sound of dry wood scraping across dry wood. Another dark room lay before them.

‘Walk in carefully,’ Melaleuca said to Ari.

Quixote roared past Melaleuca, tripping on the bricks and bashing into Ari – both of them stumbling through the door.

Overhead a light spluttered into life and then a blue light flashed and pulsed out a blinding burst. Melaleuca shielded her eyes and the light died down to normal and together with her cousins they took in the sight. Racks and racks and racks of clothes reached to a distant wall, bathed in a low blue light. Quixote raced up to the first set of clothes that caught his eye, a cowboy costume. He felt the material.

‘Look at this. It looks real.’

Lexington turned to Melaleuca, a pleading tone in her voice. ‘Please tell Quixote to wait. I suggest we scout around before we start pulling anything off.’

‘I agree,’ Ari said.

Melaleuca nodded, her instincts shooting off in all directions. What had they found?

‘Quixote put it back. Explore first,’ Ari said emphasising “explore.”

They headed deeper into the mysterious room, passing the clothes hanging on the racks. They passed by clowns’ outfits, overalls, and gentlemen’s clothes from the Victorian era – top hats, walking canes, colorful soldiers’ uniforms, horsemen’s outfits, grass skirts, lab coats, sailors’ outfits, coal miners’ clothes, hats with feathers and teeth sticking out – so many, that by the time they reached the end of the rows everyone’s head swam with wonder.

Beyond the end of the clothes racks, the attic extended for another ten metres, stopping at another brick wall, against which sat a large mirror. Another light flicked on to their left and right, exposing left and right wings which contained even more racks of clothes. Melaleuca held her arms out wide to contain her cousins behind her, although Quixote rushed forward, swiveling his head in all directions.

‘It’s a play room!’ He glared at Melaleuca all excited. ‘These are play clothes. See. It’s obvious. Mum said to keep playing. This will help us.’

‘Or maybe they are disguises for foreign missions in faraway lands,’ Lexington said.

‘YES!’

‘Oh Quixote I was kidding. We don’t know what they are for….but…I intend to find out.’

She walked off to the left wing and Quixote ran back toward the door. Melaleuca’s eyes begged a question of Ari.

‘What are you thinking?’ He asked.

This had not been what Melaleuca had expected. With no clear feelings and no decision to make, she knew she had to rely on her cousins.

‘We carry on looking. Something will become obvious.’

‘Quixote’s already doing that.’

Quixote returned with the cowboy suit gathered in his arms, flashing a broad smile as if he had just found a treasure chest full of tricks.

‘And Lex?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Over here,’ she called back. ‘These all look ancient. Roman ancient and Middle Eastern ancient, Greek even.’

She held up a toga similar to what they wore and a leather looking tunic that a Roman Soldier might have worn.

‘Good thing she read all those books,’ Ari said. ‘I could not tell the difference between Greek or Roman clothes.’

‘I wonder,’ Lexington said.

She dashed past them into the last remaining wing on the left and started rummaging around.

Quixote took his toga off, sat down and pulled the baggy cowboy trousers on, laced on the leathers and slipped on the over sized boots with spurs. He threw the shirt, vest, bandana and hat on, completing the ensemble. He stood to his feet with an awkward stumble. The clothes gathered around his arms and legs, and hung baggy and saggy. He picked the belt up and ogled the holster and pistol. The leather felt thick and tough to touch, smelling like it had old grim, sweat and oil rubbed into it. Even the stitching consisted of thick yellowed twine. He ran his hand over it. It felt real enough to have once belonged to a real cowboy.

‘These ones make no sense,’ Lexington shouted.

Melaleuca motioned for Ari to check on her.

‘What is it Lexington?’ Ari said.

‘Where we came in, at a brief look, all those clothes look like they are from the last five hundred years or so. And that lot over there.’ She pointed to the left wing. ‘Are definitely ancient. You can tell. There are no pants. Pants were not used until the last thousand years or so. But these, well these…they look like nonsense clothes, look.’

She handed him some coarse material, studded with flaky bits of other material and a tangle of cords.

‘What is it?’ Ari said turning it over and over.

Lexington shook her head. ‘Look at the others.’

Around them costumes and clothes hung with tassels, strips of leaves, bands of silver, and fluffs of puffy material. Some had multiple sleeves and others looked like dresses and pants sown together.

‘They’re not real clothes. I think they are fun ones,’ Ari said grinning.

‘Perfect for Qui then,’ she replied, standing on tip-toes to see what he was doing.

‘BLAM BLAM. Come here you dirty dogs,’ Quixote said in a fake rough voice.

He looked laughable – like a scrawny runt in over sized cowboy clothes. Melaleuca snickered. Feigning indifference, he snubbed her, and folding his arms with gusto, one of the sleeves poffed him in the face. Melaleuca laughed out loud, and Quixote snorted at her.

‘Fine. Choose a costume and let’s see how you look.’

She waved him off, calling out to Lexington.

‘Lex, check out Quixote.’

‘I have,’ she said from behind a rack of clothes. ‘If this is the secret we are supposed to find, what does it have to do with the bracelets?’ She trailed off into thought and then said, ‘Do you think our parents used these for anything?’

Melaleuca still had no feelings on them, so just made a decision and trusted it.

‘Everyone, choose a costume. Let’s just start playing and see what happens.’

Quixote picked up his clothes and put them to one side. A yellow bracelet rolled out of his toga pocket and before the others could see it, he grasped it. Without thinking he slid it onto his left wrist. It tightened and loosened a few times as if assessing the size of his wrist, and then faded from sight though he could still feel it. Stunned, he opened his mouth to tell the others but then stopped. A disappearing bracelet seemed to good a trick not to play on the others.

Quixote faced the mirror, snarled at himself and felt a strange urge to spit. With a speed even he could not make out, he reached in and pulled his pistol out, spinning it back and forth – his hands a blur.

Lexington garbed herself in a princess’s outfit. A tiara clung to her head and a dress that had seen better days, puffed its way down her body. Lace lined its edges and many tiny jewels dotted the fabric.

Ari found a faded grey-beige soldier’s uniform made of heavy serge. Worn and ripped, large pockets and official buckles adorned it, and a round tin helmet plopped on his head capped it off.

Melaleuca pulled the costumes apart looking for something that felt right. Small bits of yellowed paper fell to the ground. The first one had a drawing of a man dressed in a singlet, shorts and gumboots, and holding a shovel. Scrawled under it were the words, “Ditch-Digger.” The second piece of paper had a person in tights sporting a pair of gloves. Under it the read words, “Gymnast,” and then went on to say, “A hundred feet leap, blurring speed, ten times strength.”

Looking up to where the paper had fallen from, similar clothes to what was drawn on the paper, hung. Melaleuca pulled them on and then approached the mirror.

‘All come and look at us,’ she said.

They gathered around her and in the mirror a gymnast in worn crotch-loose tights, a soldier clad in a moth-eaten baggy uniform, a princess styled in a creased washed-out dress, and a cowboy with perfect fitting clothes, gawped back at them.

‘How did you do that Quixote?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Do what?’

‘Your clothes hung loose and now look. It’s as if it was made for your size and they look newish.’

Quixote placed his hand on the hilt of his pistol. ‘One false moves you curs and I will pump you full of hot lead.’

‘Go on I dare you,’ Ari said.

Quixote whipped out the pistol, and the empty silver barrel pointed its unblinking dark hole at Melaleuca. He squeezed the trigger.

BLAM!

Fire flashed out of the muzzle and the pistol flew out of Quixote’s hand. A bullet whizzed by Melaleuca and hit the roof by the door. They all froze and stared at Quixote, his hand still held out – a shocked look on his face.

Ari bent down and picked up the pistol.

‘Did that just shoot a real bullet?’

The metal pistol appeared hollow and so Ari pointed it away from them and pulled the trigger. It clicked a couple of times but it did not fire.

‘How jolly strange,’ Lexington said.

‘Give it back to Quixote,’ Melaleuca said, a tad suspicious.

Ari handed it back.

‘Now you try again,’ she told Quixote.

He aimed and pulled the trigger.

BLAM!

Fire flashed again and another small hole appeared in the roof. Ari grabbed the pistol off Quixote, aimed and started rapidly pulling the trigger.

Click, click, click.

Nothing.

Melaleuca clapped her hands and congratulated Quixote. ‘Very good. Very clever trick. How did you do that?’

He shook his head.

‘No trick. At least I think not,’ Quixote said sounding like he hid something.

Melaleuca picked up on it straight away. ‘But there is something isn’t there.’

Both Lexington and Melaleuca folded their arms and like unamused teachers, waited with semi-stern looks on their faces for the real explanation.

‘What?’ He said trying to feign innocence.

All at once Melaleuca realized what he hid.

‘This has something to do with the bracelets, doesn’t it?’

His grin gave it away. All together they said, ‘Quixote!’

He tugged at his wrist and the bracelet reappeared, and he slipped it off to show the others. It glowed a dull yellow for a few seconds and then returned to its grey metal colour.

‘I had it on. You could not see it as it turned invisible.’

‘Try shooting the gun now,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote aimed away and pulled the trigger. It clicked – empty.

Lexington jabbed a finger at his costume.

‘Look the cowboy suit is loose again.’

‘Now put the bracelet on,’ Melaleuca said.

He slid it on and it faded from sight.

‘And shoot.’

He fired a shot, and wood splintered far away and another hole appeared in the roof.

 

In that moment everything changed.

 

Quixote jigged up and down on the spot.

‘White to black. All possible combinations.’

‘Meaning,’ Lexington said.

‘The desert man said between black and white all combinations lie. That’s us now. We have the power to fill in the white piece of paper.’

 

Like a promise of far off greatness, glimpsed but unseen, his words filled them with possibilities. The largeness of Quixote’s heart overflowed and for a few brief seconds it became obvious to the others that his role in this mystery, though unfathomable, lay close to the source of whatever powered the bracelets and the costumes.

 

‘The bracelets make these costumes work,’ Lexington said – her mind an obvious whirl of wild ideas.

Ari grabbed the bracelet from Quixote and slipped it on his wrist though it hung limp.

‘I bet we need a bracelet each,’ Lexington said.

Ari bolted for the door. ‘There is an explorer’s outfit. I want a bracelet.’

Lexington ripped past Melaleuca as well. ‘One of these costumes can help me work out what is really going on.’

There was no stopping any of them. Melaleuca and Quixote rushed down to the bracelet room behind Ari and Lexington. They grabbed one of the yellow bracelets and slid it on to their wrists. They glowed yellow for a brief second, tightened and then disappeared.

‘Okay,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Listen, I ─ ’

‘Give me the pistol,’ Ari said and snatched it from Quixote.

He pulled the trigger though nothing happened.

‘Wear the cowboy costume,’ Lexington said.

Quixote took his costume off and naked, handed it to Ari who donned it in haste.

‘Ahh,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Let’s ─ ’

He pulled the trigger again. BOOM!!! The noise exploded, and as the bullet ricocheted around the room everyone ducked.

‘Real smart Ari,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote lay on the ground, laughing while a fascinated Ari stared at the pistol.

Lexington shook her head. ‘We have to be smart about this.’

‘Yes,’ Melaleuca said standing up. ‘Okay guys. Stop. Time to pause. We need to think about this before we alert the entire mansion that we have found these.’

‘Sorry guys. I guess I just got carried away,’ Ari said.

‘Back to the attic,’ Melaleuca said in a tone that meant no arguing.

Back at the attic they found another note. It read:

‘Well done. Your parents will be pleased. The danger is over. All will be explained shortly. For the time being, please be yourselves and play and explore the new found bracelets and the costumes. If you let your imaginations run away with you, pleasant surprises are in store for you.

Ps – best not tell that Aunty and Uncle of yours about this and try not to let anyone else see.’

***

 

Quesob stood before Daquan’s door and grabbed the handle, turning it with a vicious twist and pushed on it. Not budging, he could see that it had been sealed up tight around the edges.

‘That damn doctor.’

The light-swallowing bracelet was too important to let the door stop him. He left in a hurry and returned with a large axe and a sledgehammer. He swung them at the door, smashing, hacking and whacking his way through the solid old timber – only stopping when he had chopped a gap big enough to squeeze through.

Flaccid daylight beamed through the slits in the thick curtains and shadows from all the toys fell on the childish wallpaper. Daquan lay on his small child’s bed, his arms and legs flopping over the side, clad still in nappies and snoring loudly. Quesob threw the curtain open, lighting up the room. Pinned all around the walls, drawings done by a child faced him with the name ‘Nap Retep’ scrawled on them.

A strange looking helmet with flashing lights, dials and tiny oscillators attached to it, covered Daquan’s entire head, giving off an ominous hum. A purple visor covered his eyes and inside lights flickered on and off and changed colours, and faint voices and the sound of children playing emanated from it. With electronic devices banned in New Wakefield, Quesob fumed, wondering what the doctor had convinced his master of. Surely even he knew that they had been banned due to the danger of the outside world discovering their hidden land? He examined it closer. Suspecting it brain-washed him, he reached out to pull it off though stopped himself – Daquan’s latest plan after all, centered on him returning to a child’s mind.

A child’s mind. A child’s mind!

Never one to question his master, the plan had irked him greatly. Why? And then he saw the flaw. If Daquan became a child again, then surely he would lose the ability to make all those decisions that only adults could make. And then of course there was the discovery of the light-swallowing bracelet. Daquan had to know about it.

Daquan stirred, disturbed by the lights.

‘My lord. Wake up,’ Quesob whispered.

Nothing.

‘Wake up master.’

Still nothing.

‘Oh for pity’s sake, wake up!’

Daquan continued to stir and Quesob reached into his pocket and squeezed his hands around the bracelet. Daquan squealed and began bawling like a rudely woken baby. Distressed by the light his crying grew louder and louder, sickening Quesob. He lunged at the helmet trying to pry it off.

The splintered sealed door, opened and footsteps approached Quesob from behind. Doctor Thurgood stood there clad in his nightrobe and nightcap.

‘WHAT……’

‘Stay back,’ Quesob said. ‘You have interfered with him long enough.’

‘NOOOOOO!’ Doctor Thurgood charged toward Quesob. ‘STOP. HE WILL BE STUCK!’

Doctor Thurgood threw his frail frame on top of Quesob, clasping him around the neck with all his pathetic might. He strained and pulled, trying to wrench him backwards. Quesob choked and lost his footing, slipping. His left hand dug under the base of the helmet, and Daquan screamed, and they all toppled backwards, landing in a heap. The helmet flew through the air and smashed against the wall into small pieces. Doctor Thurgood shrieked, struggled out from underneath and crawled to the helmet. He picked up the pieces, cradling them like precious jewels. Daquan went silent and fell asleep again – his hairless, fat, nappy-clad body lying on the floor like a beanbag just dropped in one spot.

‘You meddling fool. Bumbling idiot. Miscreant. You have ruined it. Most likely your master is now stuck in some limbo world.’

Quesob raised himself up, towering over the runty doctor.

‘What damage I have done is far better than the lies you have told him. Two years ago he instructed me that should he ever look like he was losing control I was to intervene, unless he gave me the password. Which he has not.’

A sudden look of illness passed over Doctor Thurgood. ‘Password?’

‘Yes, stupid man. Are you deaf?’

Doctor Thurgood opened a drawer and pulled out a piece of paper, handing it to Quesob.

‘Is this the password?’

Quesob read it.

‘Yes it is. How did you…’

‘Ah. You see, just before placing the reversion helmet on him, he told me that he had forgotten to give you the password and so he wrote it down for me to give to you. But I, ah, forgot. Heh.’

‘FORGOT! Then this is doubly your fault fool. If I had been given this I would not have interfered. If he is affected then your head will roll.’

Daquan stirred once again. Quesob bent down, and placing his hand on his shoulder, shook him.

‘Lord Daquan, it’s Quesob. Please wake up Master.’

He opened his eyes and sat up as if nothing had happened.

‘What is it?’ Daquan said.

‘Thankfully you are alright,’ Quesob said and started pulling the bracelet out of his pocket.

Doctor Thurgood approached and said, ‘Nap Retep. You are Nap Retep.’

Daquan slumped forward and his whole body relaxed. His face unwrinkled and then creased into a large child’s smile.

‘Nap Retep, Nap Retep, Nap Retep,’ Daquan said over and over again in a child’s voice, clapping his hands together.

‘It worked,’ Doctor Thurgood shouted. ‘It worked!’

‘Master? What has happened to you?’ Quesob turned to Doctor Thurgood. ‘What have you done to him?’ And then turned to Daquan.

‘Lord Daquan.’

On the word “Lord Daquan” the transformation reversed and in a flash he became himself again.

‘Quesob, what are you doing here?’ Daquan said. ‘I am supposed to be a child again.’ He became enraged and turned to Doctor Thurgood. ‘What went wrong?’

Before Doctor Thurgood could answer, Quesob pulled the bracelet from his pocket and the room went pitch black.

‘Now what’s happened to the light?’ Daquan said.

Doctor Thurgood started to speak. ‘Nap…..’

Quesob turned around and smacked Doctor Thurgood as hard as he could, sending him sprawling against the wall, knocking him out.

‘Quesob, what is going on?’

‘The bracelet you told Amreth to guard, the one you did not tell me about has started…well…has started sucking light.’

He pocketed it and light flooded into the room. Daquan could see Doctor Thurgood dazed and groaning in the corner though the bracelet interested him more.

‘When did it start?’

‘This morning.’

‘Give me the bracelet?’

Quesob pulled it from his pocket and the light drained from the room.

‘My Lord what is this bracelet? And why was I not told of it?’

Daquan guffawed. ‘There are a lot of things you have not been told, nor will be. You should know that.’

‘Yes, but if this is one of the bracelets?’

‘It is only a beacon, that’s all. If it never went off, it would have mattered none. Now, give me the bracelet.’

Quesob reached out in the darkness and felt for Daquan’s hand.

Like a great dictator on the verge of obtaining absolute power, Daquan said with an air of malevolence, ‘So, someone has found the bracelets and activated them. Foolish fools, fool-hardly charging fool-long into a fools’ trap.’

‘Master?’

Daquan clasped his hand tight around the bracelet and light spilled into the room again.

‘With this bracelet we can trace the other bracelets,’ Daquan said. ‘But….,’ his thoughts drifted away, ‘…with those that betrayed me dead, who could be using them now?’

‘My Lord as I said a few days ago, we found evidence of a playground. Possibly they had children. I could find little evidence of them though. They were careful to leave no photos, names or anything. There was lots of evidence of kids’ drawings, toys and ─ ’

‘So they were trying to return to their youth as well. And you are sure they are all dead?’

‘Yes M’lord. What does this ─ ’

‘Don’t worry. Whoever activated the bracelets must eventually head here.’

Doctor Thurgood groaned and Daquan looked at his slumped body.

‘He was not much use.’

‘Perhaps.’

Quesob explained that the words “Nap Retep” made him childlike and the words “Daquan” made him revert to his normal self. However when Quesob said the word “Nap Retep,” nothing happened, a fact that Daquan pointed out.

‘It appears then M’Lord that only this frail idiot can change you into the child state.’

‘This has worked even better,’ Daquan said, concocting as he spoke. ‘This means that I can go between the two states. As a child I shall wield the bracelets, and as myself, I shall plot my future plans.’

‘From what I have seen you have little recall or control when you are this Nap Retep.’

Daquan roared with laughter. ‘Don’t fret. This is a great step forward. If we have got this far, we shall work it out further.’ He slapped Quesob hard on the back.

‘And what shall I do with this piece of refuse?’ Quesob pointed at Doctor Thurgood.

‘Keep him under house arrest. He will be needed.’

 

***

 

Melaleuca let the note’s words drift through her while Lexington quizzed the note once more with her studious eye.

‘I don’t like this one bit,’ Lexington said.

‘I like it,’ Quixote said.

‘Of course you do. Mel. What do you feel? Something is missing.’

‘Lex,’ Melaleuca said, trying to see it from her point of view. ‘You hate this because you still don’t know why any of this is happening.’

‘Yes, only the most important piece of information. So far it’s been like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, only to find no picture has been revealed.’

‘Then solve it. Do what you do. Work it out.’

Unimpressed by her command Lexington’s eyes jerked toward Quixote and Ari. ‘And them?’

‘Will do what they have to do.’

Quixote spoke, drawling in a cowboy accent.

‘Why ya dirty mangy dog, dang nab it. I’s gonna rustle me some rescuing.’ He spat on the ground, snarled and strode off toward the door.

Melaleuca looked to Ari for an explanation.

‘He thinks he is going to rescue Uncle Bear-Nard from the clutches of Aunty Gertrude.’

‘Well stop him!’

Powered by the soldier’s uniform, Ari snapped to attention, saluted and said, ‘Yes ma’m. Get right on it.’ He double-timed toward the door, stopped and swung around in a crisp movement. ‘Wow, did you see that. I acted like a soldier.’

‘Good. Hurry and get him,’ Melaleuca said.

He snapped to attention again and double-timed with purpose toward the door.

‘Urrrrr,’ Melaleuca growled at Ari’s speed.

She ran two paces and then somersaulted over the clothes racks and executed an adroit landing, ending in a forward roll before the door, just in time to beat Ari. His eyes widened with amazement.

‘Do that again,’ he said.

Stunned by her sudden feat, she replied, ‘I don’t know how I did that?’

With her dress no longer looking ragged, Lexington glided forward, giving off a regal glow.

‘I decree I should offer an opinion,’ she said in a proper voice. ‘It would seem logical that the bracelets and the costumes bequeath upon us facilitating qualities,’ and then sensing her words were too highbrow, added, ‘The bracelets make the costumes come true.’

‘We know that. Get a costume on that can help us and follow,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Hmmmppph,’ Lexington replied.

Ari marched himself through the door and scrambled for the open trap door. Melaleuca somersaulted again and landed by the trapdoor and together they went down. Pistol in hand Quixote stalked down the Grand Ascension Stairs, having made it as far as the second floor.

‘We have to catch him,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari booted it down the stairs, leaping three steps at time. Melaleuca jumped on the banister and held a perfect balance despite the dizzying height. In five gigantic leaps she flipped from one storey to another, until she landed at the bottom of the stairs, right in front of Quixote.

‘Let’s go play outside. Come on, we’ll go and round up some baddies. I think I saw some out back.’

Quixote whipped his pistol out.

‘I’ll pump ‘em full o lead.’

As Quixote took her lead she relaxed and Ari joined them at the bottom of the stairs.

Pemily rushed out from behind the Grand Ascension Stairs and started walking toward them, her arms full of linen. Half way toward them she stopped and dropped the linen. The colour drained from her face and her mouth opened and shut like she had lost the power of speech. She let rip an ear-piercing scream and then yelled at the top of her tiny voice, ‘MARAUDERS! MARAUDERS! MARAUDERS,’ over and over and over again.

 

Chapter 15 – A new kind of playing

 

The material of the princess’s dress caressed Lexington’s skin, elevating the feeling of her status. Unable to describe it she had a strong desire to rule over people in a caring fashion. As she started to analyse the sensation, it left, though the mirror still reflected an ornate dress. She turned away and waltzed up and down pretending to be a princess and the feeling returned. Her mind raced with impossible questions and again the sensation fled. After several attempts to analyse it and no success, she turned to the clothes rack.

Maybe another costume could help her.

She rummaged her way through the costumes, examining them one by one. The same scrawled-on yellowed bits of paper that Melaleuca had found fell out here and there though not all of them had notes. Attached to a pair of overalls with a helmet and light affixed, a note read – ‘Coal-mining. Useful for underground tunneling.’ She carried on searching for the bits of paper and found the next one clipped to a small vest and shirt, and a pair of jodhpurs with riding boots. The note read – ‘Horseman – able to make horse perform tricks.’

Unsatisfied, she carried on pawing her way through them and found a lemon shaped checkered hat. Its sides sat tied at the top with a ribbon, and two visors peaked out over the front and back. She reached for it, and feeling the crumple of paper lifted it off the checkered cloak it sat on. It read – ‘Victorian detective – helps put facts together quicker.’ Her eyes lit up and her hands trembled. A more perfect costume could not have been found.

 

***

 

‘MARAUDERS! MARAUDERS! MARAUDERS,’ Pemily cried over and over and over again. She stared with intensity past Melaleuca, Ari and Quixote. From the look on her horrified face something deadly lurked behind them. Ari and Quixote searched up and down though remained confused as only the vastness of the empty air surrounded them.

Melaleuca heard Uncle Bear-Nard’s run-shuffle-canter trotting toward them from somewhere, and out of nowhere Pembrooke arrived, shambling passed them, oblivious to the shouting. Dropping crumbs of dirt from his motley clothes, he looked sideways and spied the cousins. At first he did not react but after he trained his eyes on Pemily shrieking, he began to shout as well.

‘Arrggggh! MARAUDERS!’

He grabbed the frozen Pemily and turned her around, shoving her back the way she had come.

‘Quick as you can,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Lose the bracelets.’

Uncle Bear-Nard burst out of a door, right in front of the slow fleeing Pemily and Pembrooke. Together Pemily and Pembrooke yelled, ‘Marauders!’ at Uncle Bear-Nard and pointed in the direction of the cousins. Confused, Uncle Bear-Nard stared at the cousins and then at Pemily and Pembrooke, looked a little wistful and then became amused.

‘Tut tut tut,’ he said. ‘Really..y.y.y.you two. Take another l..l..look.’

Pemily and Pembrooke turned back toward their assailants, befuddling their expressions.

Uncle Bear-Nard chuckled, his round body vibrating along with it.

‘You see. It’s just the children dressed up. Must have found that old trunk their mother used to use. No more poking around okay,’ he said to them.

Pemily stormed toward them, the white ribbons from her maid’s hat and apron streaming behind her. ‘But they were…I mean…huge…and…’

Confounded, she eyed the cousins up and down.

Uncle Bear-Nard snapped an order out. ‘Be about your business. Quick. Not a word of this to Gertrude. I mean that or….well…or else!’

Pembrooke nodded as if he knew exactly what Uncle Bear-Nard spoke of, though Pemily looked just as frightened but nodded in obedience. Uncle Bear-Nard heaved a large breath in and out and bore his eyes on Melaleuca.

‘I am not sorry,’ Melaleuca said. ‘No one will tell us anything, so what do you expect.’ Something about the costumes had increased her bravado.

A wistful smile crossed his face.

‘Not to w..w..worry. Folks a bit spooked a..a.a.around here,’ he said and then as if a sudden thought tugged at him, an absent look crossed his face. ‘The Kockoroc’s been sighted. Much flurry of panic.’

‘Cock O rock? What’s a cock O rock?’

‘What? Who told you of the Kockoroc? There is no Kockoroc.’ He bent closer. ‘Hurry back to your rooms to play. Lest your Aunt see you.’

‘But we were going outside,’ Quixote said.

Melaleuca tapped her nose and winked at him. ‘Come on Quixote, let’s go back up stairs.’

Quixote nodded, understanding what she meant, and along with Ari they headed back upstairs.

‘Ahem,’ Uncle Bear-Nard coughed and then pointed at the back stairs. They disappeared half way up the back stairs and stopped.

‘Listen for anyone,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We shall sneak out through the kitchen.

‘Um, where’s Lex?’ Ari said.

‘Probably reducing the costumes to math,’ Quixote said.

Melaleuca laughed at the truth of his words and said with a certain resignation, ‘Come on, let’s get her. All of us.’ She gazed at Quixote. ‘And between you and Lex…well…just stick together.’

 

In the attic Lexington preened herself in the mirror admiring her Victorian detective costume. Quixote dashed up to her first, earning a stern stare from Melaleuca.

‘What are you?’ Quixote asked.

‘A detective,’ Lexington replied.

‘Good choice Lex,’ Melaleuca said impressed.

Lexington’s long hair flowed out from the weird hat to a checkered cape she wore around her shoulders. The cape reached to her knees and a second, shorter cape that came off the shoulders fell to her elbows. She reached in and pulled out a large curved pipe.

‘Good,’ Quixote said trying not to snigger. ‘You can work out what a cock is doing in a rock.’

Lexington screwed her face up at him.

‘Uncle just said that a cock in a rock has been spotted,’ Quixote said.

‘Curious,’ Lexington said, having little clue of what he spoke about. She took a few puffs on the pipe. ‘Arrgh! Ptuuueeh,’ she gasped and then half spat. ‘It tastes horrible.’

Quixote tugged on the shoulder cape and poked Lexington’s hat.

‘What exactly does your costume do then?’

‘Elementary,’ she said and gave him a strange look. ‘It provides enhanced cerebral observation.’ She peered down her nose at Quixote and Ari. ‘Why have your bracelets been removed?’

Melaleuca reported what had happened while Ari searched through the costumes for something better to wear. Lexington’s mind whizzed through the details in super quick time.

‘I deduce to non-bracelet wearers we must appear different than how we appear to each other. Therefore Pemily and Pembrooke saw, not yourselves accoutred roughly, but whatever these costumes represent.’

‘What about the word “Marauders” though?’ Ari asked.

‘Quite,’ Lexington said.

‘Quite.’ Quixote imitated her, an annoyance she ignored.

‘A marauder is a ruffian, a veritable cad, a low-life, someone who would steal from his own mother,’ Lexington said. ‘I need to hunt for clues.’

‘What about your hippopotamus-thesis?’ Quixote said.

What about it? For some reason its urgency had diminished. She pulled her bracelet off and realised that, unlike the princess’s dress, she had stayed in character and not once had she dropped out of it.

‘I think perhaps we should experience what these outfits offer Mel. My hyper-thesis shall have to be…changed…again.’

Melaleuca could see Lexington’s brain over-thinking.

‘Lex, keep moving forward.’

‘Hey, get this,’ Ari yelled and raced back to them.

He held up a loincloth, feathered headgear, and a quiver of arrows, a tomahawk and some moccasins.

‘A North American Indian. I bet this will help me feel the Ethmare.’

‘We don’t quite know if the Ethmare is real Ari,’ Lexington said. ‘And besides ─ ’

‘If you must,’ Melaleuca said, ‘get a costume to work it out but Ari will do as he must.’

‘Oh. I see.’

An obvious peeved expression flashed back at Melaleuca, and Lexington twiddled with the pipe.

‘How do we even know we are supposed to use these costumes?’

‘We were sent here to find these. How can you deny that?’

‘I don’t, though I neither know why?’

‘Keep…moving…forward, and we will find out if it is relevant.’

Lexington pushed her bracelet back on with a sharp haughtiness and Melaleuca could tell that many questions still filled her mind. The feeling, go out the back now, flashed through Melaleuca and she saw why.

‘Quixote has gone. Quick. We’d better find him.’

They headed out of the attic and two eyes appeared behind two small peepholes in the ceiling of the roof. The Harbinger watched them as they left – gladdened they had discovered the bracelets and costumes, yet perplexed how they found them so quickly.

 

***

 

Uncle Bear-Nard’s afternoon walks had stopped since the cousins had arrived. They had proved more troublesome than he had thought. Perhaps a short wander in the forest and some fresh bracing mountain air would help clear his head. He did, after all have many things to ponder. For one, what was going to happen to the cousins? How would they take to life here in New Wakefield? They could not stay at the Cathedral-Mansion forever. What to do, What to do?

‘Where do you think you are going?’ Aunty Gertrude said from behind him.

It took him by surprise. ‘Nothing, dear, nothing.’

‘I did not ask what you were doing, merely where you are going?’

‘Oh. I see. Just for a walk.’

She eyed him with suspicion which really meant nothing. It was just her way – everything was suspicious until proved otherwise. He waited for a stern opinion or a harsh roasting but instead she spoke calmly.

‘Good. Perhaps barefooted might be more suitable.’

With little thought of answering back he bent down and started to pull his shoes off. ‘Pray may I ask as to why this time?’

She smiled as much as she could smile these days.

‘A memory filled with holes. Tut tut. The Thistle Ceremony is only weeks away. Since the brats arrived, you have lost your edge. The pain should be good for you. Pembrooke has planted an extra special crop of Norwegian Thistle’s this year. I suggest you walk through them, and…’ One of her nasty glints shone in her eyes. ‘…and see if you can withstand a Forest Thistle. To prove it bring one back for me.’

His face registered shock.

‘Well don’t look so alarmed. We do this every year.’

He nodded and saying nothing, left, barefooted.

‘Tell Jeeves to go and get supplies today not tomorrow,’ Aunty Gertrude yelled out after him, ‘and watch out for Pembrooke as well. He seemed upset before and said he was going into the forest to un-muddle his head. And tell the brats to keep quiet. Heavens to Murgatroid, I heard such a din before. Lucky for them I did not catch them.’

 

***

 

Outside Ari could hear Quixote kicking up a rumpus way off in the distance and headed for the fields beyond the stone wall. There close to the forest’s edge Quixote rambled around pretending to be a cowboy, firing off his pistol. Ari placed his hand over his mouth and pretended to make an Indian battle cry and an immense noise filled the air, sounding as chilling as a hundred men yelling in full battle charge. Ari stopped, amazed at what had just poured forth from him. Quixote spun about and yelled, ‘INJJUUNNN,’ and drawing a bead on Ari charged at him, firing bullet after bullet into his body though the hot lead bullets disappeared into nowhere. Ari blinked and shielded his eyes from the gun-flash bursting out of the muzzle, and then ran at Quixote and kicked the pistol out of his hand. Quixote stared at his empty hands and at the smoking pistol on the ground, and then at the others rushing up to meet him.

Melaleuca surveyed the scene, throwing an unpleasant look at Quixote.

‘I shudder to ask,’ Lexington said. ‘Pray tell how you knew Ari would remain unharmed.’

Quixote looked the closest he had ever come to shame. ‘I didn’t. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry.’

‘I do not think we should continue to underestimate these accoutrements of great, seemingly accomplished power hence forth,’ Lexington said in a rush. ‘Elementary logic dictates circumspection and may I be as forward as to suggest that in due consideration of forethought and sagacity that a caveat be imposed until further illumination.’

‘What?’ Melaleuca said.

‘It’s blastingly clear, dash it all. These bracelets should be treated with caution lest it not be a window smashed but a wall bashed, and as my auricular apparatus still smarts from Ari’s bellicose lung inflated bellowing.’

‘Take the bracelet off and then speak again,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington tugged at her bracelet and then spoke. ‘We need to be careful. We know nothing about what these are capable of.’ She motioned toward Quixote. ‘He had no control of himself.’

‘No nor did you,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Did you hear the big words you just used?

Lexington looked puzzled.

‘Exactly. Now…’

Quixote picked up the pistol and took off again yelling, ‘Sorry. Won’t happen again. Notes said play and use imagination.’

He started to pretend to ride a horse fast and then slow and then galloped until he became lost again in his imagination.

‘You need to stop him,’ Lexington said.

‘Let him go,’ Melaleuca replied. ‘The notes said to follow our hearts and even though we aren’t sure who is leaving them, it will be okay.’

‘Lex. Relax,’ Ari said trying to reassure her. ‘These costumes give us the power to find out what’s going on,’

She slipped her bracelet on and thought.

‘That’s just the problem. We don’t know how much power or what that power is capable of.’

Quixote ran around flipping his pistol in and out at lightning speed and started ducking, bobbing and weaving behind bushes, and leaping on and off small mounds of grass-covered earth.

‘Well, let’s see then,’ Melaleuca said.

She leapt into the air and somersaulted. With a sense of freedom she cavorted through the air, leaping and bounding like a lamb in spring time.

‘We will be fine out here Lex,’ Ari said before taking off.

He pranced around in circles letting out great whooping sounds, dancing up a storm of savage energy.

 

A swelling feeling of excitement swirled amongst them as if the dams holding in the mystery broke loose. Nothing seemed to hold them back and an utter sense of freedom overtook them. Invincible and invulnerable they all let the costumes take them over. As Quixote rode his horse, Ari strode the land feeling it beneath him, and Melaleuca delighted in the feel of flying through the air. Even Lexington felt her mind sharpen though she impatiently waited for them to finish so she could start her investigation.

Lexington stood in one spot, her mind whirling with ideas while watching the others in action, trying to calculate what it all meant. She quelled her mind and tried to relax her fears. She could feel her intellect warring with a desire to play.

While Melaleuca felt alive and buzzing with energy, Lexington’s words stirred in her. As thrilling as the costumes were, many questions had yet to be answered – especially around their parents. The note said that soon all would be revealed but had said nothing of their parents’ whereabouts. And she could see Lexington waiting to talk to her. She somersaulted over to Lexington.

‘Okay. Grab the boys and let’s start planning how we are going to move forward. Your brains, our energy.’

Lexington beamed bright at this suggestion.

They turned to look in the boys’ direction – they were nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 16 – The Borstal

 

 

The Harbinger watched the cousins from one of his many hiding places though instead of the children he saw four Marauders. Lexington appeared as a gaunt-looking lady, clad in detective clothes, while Melaleuca twisted and turned – a sleek gymnast cart-wheeling gracefully. A tanned muscley North American Indian chatted freely to an unshaven cowboy who looked as if he had never bathed. Confused how they found them so quick, though pleased they had, the Harbinger walked toward the forest with stealth. He headed uphill until he reached a large tree, similar to the trees on the front lawn. He sat in-between a pair of roots and hid himself. Rough bark pressed into his skin as he peered through the cover of the trees. A gentle wind blew, breaking open a gap large enough just to make out the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion in the distance.

Without warning someone loomed over him and yanked him to his feet, spun him around and stuck a knife under his throat.

‘Don’t move,’ Argus North rasped and tightened his arm under the Harbinger’s throat.

The Harbinger stiffened.

‘Do you hear?’ Argus said.

‘Yes.’

‘I ask the questions and you answer right away. If you hesitate, I’ll know you’re lying. Understand?’

Argus squeezed his throat a little more.

‘Y…y..yes.’ The Harbinger tilted his head back to keep his breathing clear.

‘Where am I?’ Argus asked.

‘New Wakefield.’

‘Why is it called Agorrah?’

‘Named that before the British arrived.’

‘How do I get out of here?’

‘B’barakai’s Incognia, mountain cave, or one of the great rivers of Golgotha.’

‘Do you know the way?’

The Harbinger hesitated.

‘Answer!’

Argus pressed the knife in.

‘It’s…it’s been too many years,’ the Harbinger said.

Argus felt the tension melt from the Harbinger’s body, as if the memory weakened him. He let him go and spun him around.

‘Take me to one of them.’

‘Perhaps, Argus,’ the Harbinger said, glaring at him with an inner strength. ‘But if you remember, you will know the way.’

Argus brandished his knife close to the Harbinger’s face.

‘How’d you know my name? Talk!’

The Harbinger reached up and pushed the blade to one side, backing away unafraid. He sat on the tree root, relaxed and calm.

‘It was hoped that being bought back, you would remember. The outside world has made you such a fighter.’

Understanding flashed across Argus’s face.

‘You’re with that bloody Antavahni.’

‘What of Antavahni? Tell me. Did he make it?’

‘Nah. He died and you will too if I don’t get out of this place.’

The Harbinger lifted his arms up, extending them out wide. ‘Then do it. Take your blade and perform it quickly.’

Argus jabbed his knife forward and snarled. ‘Don’t mess with me. I have killed greater than you.’

‘Argus – that might be true if you knew who I were.’

‘Last chance granddad. Tell me why I should let you live.’

‘I found you as a child wandering amongst the Great Southern Wasteland, Golgotha as it has become known over the ages. After months of observation I selected you. It was I who put you on the raft and set you afloat down the river.’

‘LIAR! LIAR! LIAR! YOU LIE!’

‘Then explain this land?’

Argus screamed and fell to his knees, grabbing his hair. ‘I CAN’T!!’

He pulled his backpack off and pulled out a video camera.

‘I’m not crazy,’ Argus said with a maniac expression. ‘Not crazy. See I’ve got it all on this. I have to get out of here to prove it to them.’

The Harbinger looked on him with pity.

‘You want revenge don’t you?’

Argus’s rage abated.

‘What do you care, anyway?’

The Harbinger rose up and an ominous air developed around him.

‘The whole world is about to suffer greatly. You have been groomed in secret…though….’ He looked away, doubtful. ‘Perhaps…..perhaps we were wrong.’

‘Oh god, let me guess. You want me to babysit those kids.’

‘Your job is simple. You came from the Men of Ori. You are to go back to the Men of Ori. You are to tame them and to lead them.’

Incredulous, Argus sneered at him.

‘None of that makes sense. Look at me. I’m young again. I have wealth waiting for me. I don’t want to be here!’

‘None of us ever do, especially not at the end. We are a somewhere-else-age. Everyone dreams of somewhere else, never where they are. You are here now. That will not change.’

Still suspicious, Argus conceded he needed information to get out of the land, and so far the Harbinger seemed the only one that knew anything.

‘What’s with those kids anyway?’

The Harbinger smiled, pleased at the question.

‘Good. Now you’re thinking. Questions. Questions lead to answers. Answers you need,’ the Harbinger said in a chirpy tone. ‘Follow me and I will show you.’

‘Wait! Who the hell are you?’

The Harbinger grinned. ‘As I am now, I am the Harbinger. I am the last one to carry the complete knowledge. Come, follow.’

 

Argus and the Harbinger sat hidden behind a tree, peering out. A cowboy and an Indian tore across the fields behind the Cathedral-Mansion, and then a Gymnast and a Victorian sleuth ran after them.

‘Who are they?’ Argus asked.

‘The children.’

‘They look nothing like them.’ Argus snorted in anger. ‘This explains nothing.’

‘Those are the children. They are wearing Pangean Bracelets that bestow upon them powers. Powers that only work when they wear the costumes hidden in the Mansion and when the person is an innocent.’

‘Innocent.’ Argus scoffed. ‘Everyone is guilty of something.’

‘In the mind of the innocent all the possibilities in the world sit before them. They can do anything as they do not yet know what cannot be done. It is an uncorrupted mind.’

‘What a pile of ─ ’

‘Their parents taught them through play, and taught them to teach themselves. They are perfect.’

Enraged, Argus turned on the Harbinger, pinning him against the tree. ‘So you’re manipulating them like you did me! What the hell are you up to? What do you have planned for them?’

The Harbinger sighed. ‘You have no choice, Argus. You simply cannot leave, as I suspect you have already found out. By day the sea border is patrolled. Why, I don’t know, as no one can find this land. By night the seas swell and any attempt to cross them would smash you to pieces. The land to the west is impassable, and the deep reaches of the southern wasteland would freeze you to death. The mountain cave cannot be navigated alone. You are trapped. You only have one choice. Do the job you are here to do.’

Argus fumed and eyeballed him before releasing him.

‘Why I would want to do this? Being trapped is not reason enough.’

‘Good. Another question. Follow me and I will show you the bracelets and the clothes room.’

Reaching out, the Harbinger pressed a crease in the bark and the tree shook and its side fell into it, revealing a dark hole and some stone steps leading down.

‘We can’t have the Mansion staff seeing you.’ The Harbinger chuckled and stepped down with great care. ‘This will take us into the dungeons. From there…oh look, just follow, easier to show you than to explain.’

 

***

 

Ari and Quixote tore through the forest, bursting with energy, stopping when they reached the spot where they had seen the scared boy.

‘Mighty impressed,’ Quixote said. ‘You injuns sure track good.’

Ari crouched down, eyeing the blades of grass, and caressed broken twigs and snapped ends of leaves. The trees above them shook as if something solid hit it.

‘Hold up guys,’ Melaleuca’s voice said from above.

‘Tarnation girl,’ Quixote said. ‘How-ja get up there?’

She leapt to another tree and grabbed a branch, flipping herself around it, and then shot off to the next tree. She somersaulted with perfect grace and landed on the ground. Quixote dropped out of his cowboy character, applauding and lauding her with several, ‘Oooo’s.’

‘I have to have a go of that costume as well,’ Quixote said approaching Melaleuca.

‘Now?’

He nodded. She laughed.

‘I will stand naked in the woods another day. I am sure there will be plenty of time to try them all out. Now, boys – what exactly are you doing?’

‘I just wanted to see if I could track the scared kid we met,’ Ari said.

‘We are going to rescue him and shoot us some bad guys,’ Quixote added.

Both Melaleuca and Ari looked surprised.

‘I was just going to track him Qui,’ Ari said.

‘Exactly the problem,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We need a plan. We need to think, and we need to work out what is going on.’ Her sharp featured face assumed an “I’ve-made-a-decision” look.

Ari started to say something but Melaleuca looked at him and he thought better of it. And just to make sure, she laid her eyes on Quixote and saw he realised not to argue the point with her.

‘Good. As much as I don’t like sounding like Lexington – I think it may be time to take stock.’

Ari’s nose twitched and then twitched again and then again. He grabbed it and tried to stop it though the twitching grew out of control. He caught a whiff of a scent, and in his mind’s eye he saw Captain HeGood and FumpHee. A smell trail too tantalising to resist appeared before him and he scrambled after it, saying, ‘Sorry.’

Garbed in her heavy detective cloak, Lexington stumbled up the hill, puffing and panting in time to see an annoyed Melaleuca watch Ari and Quixote charge off once again through the bush.

‘Where are they going?’ she asked.

Melaleuca shrugged her shoulders. ‘They think they are tracking that boy Ari told us about.’

She somersaulted off at speed, leaping from tree to tree to keep up with them. Sweating, Lexington took off her cloak. She had wanted something with intellectual power though did not think it too intelligent for this type of adventure. She folded it as best as she could and ran off after them.

Ari followed the smell trail, stopping at a steep drop. He could see bushes smashed at the bottom and a trail leading off. It carried on back toward where he had come from, though now he could see three different smell trails. With Quixote following, he headed back and came across Melaleuca soaring from tree to tree. He flashed a hand sign at her, meaning for her to follow. An out-of-breath Lexington appeared out of the trees and looked puzzled when he gestured at her to follow them as well.

‘Where to?’ Lexington said.

‘Follow,’ Melaleuca shouted back from high in one of the trees. ‘Move forward.’

‘But…’

 

Ari stuck to the smell trail with a dogged determination and the others followed him at a steady pace. They crossed the forest for quite some distance and headed west away from the sea. Despite her own instruction, Melaleuca wanted to explore and Ari’s foray was the perfect reason to do so, and besides in truth, her feelings agreed with their mothers’ words – “move forward.”

By midday they burst out of the forest and on to a scrubby clear opening. They dropped down through some rocks and crossed a small scree face before coming out into an open field. The field appeared out of place as if someone had mown a section of rough earth, flattened it and planted crops. Square in shape, it spread out over a vast area, though beyond it to the south and west, patches of forest and scrubby slopes carried on into the hills.

Melaleuca took the time to assess where they were. Ari paused and along with Lexington and Quixote gazed out over the field. Ari and Quixote walked a few feet into the field and Lexington shuffled behind them puzzling over the crops.

‘Ow,’ Lexington cried out and grabbed for her calf muscle.

Melaleuca leapt through the air and landed beside her, winching in pain as something sharp dug into her calf as well.

‘What are these?’

Being careful not to move, Lexington bent down and pulled a long-pronged thistle out of her sock and then prodded the sharp end with her finger.

‘Ow. What a most malicious plant. Some type of thistle I think.’

Quixote turned and walked back through the thistles, his boots protecting him. Ari strode through them as well, unaffected despite his moccasins being thinner than Quixote’s boots. Ari stretched his eyes over the whole field as far as he could see.

‘It’s all thistles.’

Lexington put the detective costume back on.

‘Exactly what I was cogitating. They look like someone planted them, so logically they must have a purpose. Plants are either food or medicine, or have another use, perhaps even ceremonial or a symbol like the Scottish thistle.’

‘Perhaps,’ Ari said.

The smell trail drifted across the field and veered to the right, heading west toward a far off line of Poplar trees.

‘I must cross field,’ Ari said walking amongst the thistles pain free. ‘My feet not feel them. Boy must have tough feet.’

Quixote squinted, snagging up one corner of his mouth. ‘I thinks youse ain’t man enuff. These here sort out whose tuff and who ain’t.’

A chilly wind blew from the west and some of the grass fronds poking through the thistles leant over. A few spots of rain fell – a threat to wash away the smell trail.

‘Must hurry,’ Ari said.

Quixote screamed a rooting-tooting noise, yeeehaaa-ing and then sprinted off across the paddock.

‘I go,’ Ari said. ‘You girls work way round field. When I at other side, I wait for you.’

‘Ari,’ Melaleuca called to him though he dashed off after Quixote.

‘It seems likely these costumes may not have an altogether entirely positive effect,’ Lexington said. ‘I mean take Ari. His voice is changing and Quixote has led him off with little or no directions. Seems we don’t know where we are heading.’

‘We haven’t since we were attacked,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Hence we are now following Ari. My instincts say to follow. If they did not, I would have stopped it. Now come on.’

Ari reached the line of tall Poplar trees first and felt some essence in them swell inside him. The smell-trail led to a small gap where two of the Poplar trees grew close together, forming a natural wooden arch. Quixote strode behind him and the dark denseness through the gap silenced him. They passed under it and walked amongst what seemed like a thick maze of intertwined fruit trees with sparse light eking through the leaves. Wrinkled and blackened mottled thick trunks and old knobbly branches attested to its great age. It looked as if someone had planted the trees with little thought and had left them to grow. They trod through it following a dirt path and soon neared the other side of it, though Ari dropped to the ground.

‘Shh – people are close – nearby. Quixote go back – signal girls, so they know where we are.’

‘Sounds mighty fine,’ Quixote said, taking off.

Ari proceeded forward and the hackles on the back of his neck went up. A confused mass of other smell trails mixed in front of him. Many people had recently trod this way. He carried on following the trails, until the fruit trees ended and the trail traced a well worn path through waist-deep grass. He trod along the path, reaching an embankment, and pushed his way into the long grass, crawling to the top.

 

Quixote stood by the Poplar trees. The girls were nowhere in sight. He pushed his hat forward, scratched his chin, grabbed a piece of grass to chew and then squinted as if staring into the full sun. He imagined standing in a blazing desert while facing down a horde of bandits. He scooted his eyes in a lazy arc around the edge of the field and a twig snapped behind him. He whirled about lightning fast, drew his pistol and pulled the trigger. A bullet zipped over the heads of Melaleuca and Lexington.

 

From the top of the embankment Ari peered out across a large concrete courtyard to a dull grey-looking prison-like building. It had castle battlements on the top and rough stone walls. Hundreds of limp-haired children clad in sackcloth, milled around miserable faced. Some just walked around while others appeared to be…they appeared to be…

‘Can they be…,’ Ari muttered to himself and tried to crane his neck high enough to see without being spotted.

A handful of children placed what looked like thistles and prickles on their bodies, pushing them into their skin. Older children barked words at them he could not hear, but he could tell they were not words of kindness. If only he could see further. In an instant his eyes acted like telescopes, magnifying what he saw at least twice its normal size. It happened so quick it took him by surprise – making it feel as if he had been propelled forward into the courtyard. He lost his balance and tumbled down the embankment.

What was that?

He pushed his way back up the embankment and stared out again, wishing for the same telescopic vision. His vision zoomed forward and despite feeling unsteady, he held his ground and took in the close-up view. He fixed his sight on a child, startled to see it was the boy who he had seen being chased. The child knelt slumped forward, clad in ripped sackcloth. A rope sat tied about his waist and his upper body had a mass of thorns, prickles and thistles jabbed into his skin. Streams of blood streaked down his body and his face showed intense pain.

Ari scanned the other children who appeared to be having the same thing done to them. Mixed in ages and all on their knees, none of them seemed older than sixteen.

I wonder if I can hear them as well. Their voices rose in volume and his hearing became more acute. He heard silent gasps mix with low droning sounds and he focused on the boy, hearing him suppressing tears. An older child stood over him talking; sounding like his spirit had been drained from him.

‘No noise. Keep quiet. Don’t let it out. Keep it on the inside. Focus. There is no pain. Pain is our friend. It keeps us sharp. Suffer now so that we don’t have to suffer later.’

The droning became louder in pitch and then dropped away again. Ari tried to focus on what the other milling-about children said, but a gun shot rang out loud, shattering the air with its booming sound.

 

******

 

Argus examined each bracelet, threading them through his fingers.

‘Metals not valuable, though it does feel strange. What’s the green glow?’

The Harbinger coughed in admonishment and yanked the bracelet off Argus, returning it to the table.

‘Uranium to the untrained eye looks useless. These Pangean Bracelets power the costumes.’

‘Pangean? What the hell is that?’

‘The name of the bracelets.’

Argus growled. ‘You’re telling me I left my home for bracelets.’

‘Would you stop doubting and fighting. Just follow me.’

Up in the attic they entered the costume room.

‘Well, what do you think?’ the Harbinger said beaming at all the costumes.

‘What do you mean? It’s a bunch of old clothes.’

Argus’s expression became fierce.

‘Tut-tut. Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. Let me demonstrate.’

They walked along the rows of costumes and stopped before the mirror.

‘Pick a costume or a set of clothes,’ the Harbinger challenged him. ‘Something intriguing.’

‘If I wanted to play dress-ups, I would have worn your mother’s skirt.’

‘Pick!’

Argus reluctantly reached out and grabbed the first costume his hand brushed against. He tore it off the hanger and threw it at the Harbinger, and a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. The words “strong man” lay facing up from it. The Harbinger disrobed and put the tights on and pulled the singlet over his aged body. He reached under the rack and put a gut-belt around him.

‘Now you see me,’ the Harbinger said.

He knelt and produced a barely visible bracelet. It glowed black and he slipped it onto his wrist, and closing his eyes he started to calm his mind. Argus shifted his weight from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching his fists.

‘Well!’

‘Shut up and watch.’

Looking serene, the Harbinger’s shoulders drooped forward and his breathing slowed. His arms and legs began bulging, and rippled muscles formed on his body, pushing against the singlet and tights. He stood, his face now square-jawed, and with a gnarled arm and massive hand, clasped Argus’s neck. Argus struggled and tried to pry open the grip.

‘…let…go…can’t…’

The large hand vanished and Argus threw the Harbinger off him. The Harbinger lay panting, and his body once again became aged and wrinkled, and the costume for a second time hung off him.

Argus gazed down at him.

‘The bracelets make the costumes work?’

The Harbinger coughed.

‘Yes.’

‘Let me try.’

‘Can’t work for you…’

‘Let me try!’

Argus tugged the black bracelet off the Harbinger and pushed it on his arm. He threw his clothes off and grabbed a costume, a butcher’s apron and clad himself in it.

Nothing happened.

‘Make it work!’

Such power would surely get him out of this land.

‘It doesn’t work. That’s the point. I cleared my mind for a brief few seconds. That’s all I can manage.’ He started pulling his clothes back on. ‘Listen! Only the truly innocent can wield the bracelets.’

‘What use is this to me then if it does not work?’

The Harbinger drew in a huge breath as if he was about to lambast him but stopped and composed himself. ‘Won’t work for you. You are to fight on behalf of the children. You have no choice.’

‘Why?’

‘You must sense it.’

‘Sense what?’

‘The world. The outside world is troubled deeply, deeper even than the end of the last age when the Etamols’ empire collapsed. When ─ ’

‘Wait. Wait. Wait. Are you telling me you believe that Antavahni freak?’

Stunned, the Harbinger shook his head. ‘How can you not believe or be curious?’

‘I just don’t buy it?’

‘Don’t or won’t.’

Argus squinted at the Harbinger. ‘No one does anything for nothing. What do you want out of this?’

‘So suspicious.’ Disappointment rang out in his words. ‘You were the toughest child.’ He started pacing back and forth, remiss that Argus’s years away had only hardened him even more. ‘I want you to remember and go to the land of Ori. Go to the Southern Wasteland, wrestle with the Thar Mountain Goat men, embrace your Golgothic roots and take possession of your birth right, tame the Ori and lead them.’

‘What?’

‘They will be needed to protect the children.’

‘From what? With those costumes and bracelets they won’t need protection.’

Angered, the Harbinger bit his lip and held back for a few seconds and then spoke.

‘All power corrupts. Only innocence stops corruption. The children are innocent. They have spent their life without rules and have developed their own boundaries. They set their own questions and work out answers for themselves.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘These children have inside them the seeds of the next age. But first they must learn to wield great power and stay innocent. If they do not, the next age will be given to Kali – darkness.’

Argus shook his fist.

‘This is not convincing me.’

‘You must see it, feel it. Even those lost to the deception of this age sense an end is near. Uneasiness sits amongst them. Despite being warned repeatedly they carry on as if life will carry on forever. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing.’

The Harbinger could tell Argus did not know what he talked of.

‘Whatever then,’ said Argus. ‘And what’s your job?’

‘My job is to protect the children from themselves. Keep them playing, while you make sure no harm comes to them. Together we shall make sure they are kept hidden, until it is time…’

‘Time for what…oh God, no wait…let me guess…time for the great revealing where they will save the world.’

‘The world is already ending. It is not to be saved. They are the last children – Omega Children. After them there will be no more.’ He added with a heavy heart, ‘They were not supposed to be here until they were at least 18. Glad we had you ready…shouldn’t have been attacked…bit of a worry.’

‘And yet you want me to tame the very people who attacked them. Better still why not find out whoever is behind the attack. The guy I shot at, at the kids’ home wanted an object of great value, something of the parents’.’

The colour drained from the Harbinger’s face and he stared at Argus dumbstruck. ‘It was the Ori that attacked their parent’s? Are you sure?’

Argus shrugged his shoulders. ‘No. It’s what Antavahni said. Besides Ari and Quixote saw them and said they were.’

The Harbinger stumbled backwards and held on to the wall to steady himself.

‘Only one other knew of the bracelets, Daquan. But he is a madman, a recluse – holed up in his crumbling mansion, passing into decay – crept from the Southern Wasteland where he was banished too. No, there is something else afoot. Someone else has pieced the puzzle together. Someone tracked their parents down thinking they had the bracelets, little knowing they were hidden here.’

‘I still want to leave. That’s final.’

‘So be it. Leave then,’ the Harbinger said with little fight left. ‘Go through Herod’s Pass to the south. You can’t miss it. It’s the only natural valley that leads south. Keep traveling until the roads run out and then follow the ridges until you come to the second alluvial valley. When you reach the ravine turn west and follow the river to the sea. The river creates a current strong enough to get through the Sedgemere.’

The Harbinger pushed himself off the mirror, feeling all his effort had been for nothing.

‘Sedgemere?’

‘The wall, ah…the invisible barrier…you must have passed through it. It stops outsiders getting in or seeing in. Now please just go.’

Argus squinted at the Harbinger. Maybe he was right, hell the world might be ending – good riddance. And so what if the cousins had powers? If they were to stay innocent then they would not use those powers and besides, he had seen plenty of innocent people devastated by the strong and corrupt. His only reason for staying would be to help, something he had never done. So why start now?

‘Are you setting me up?’

‘JUST GO,’ the Harbinger said.

 

***

 

As the gunshot rang out, all the children on the courtyard froze and appeared to hold their breath, and then as if a blanket of panic fell on them, became alive and animated. Ari knew he should go back and see why Quixote had fired a shot but the mass of thronging children mesmerized him. He had never seen so many people gathered together, let alone the acts of cruelty. Another thought crossed his mind. What if it was not Quixote but someone shooting at them? He inched his way back down the embankment and Melaleuca landed by him.

Ari raised his eyebrows.

‘Quixote?’

Unimpressed, Melaleuca nodded.

‘We spooked him and he fired at us.’

Quixote dashed along the path through the long grass toward them, and a bedraggled Lexington followed after him. They joined the others, and despite Quixote jiggling around Melaleuca focused on Ari. From the expression on his face she could see he had found something.

‘What is it?’

Ari motioned for them to lie down and together they crawled up through the long grass. The children on the concrete courtyard talked amongst themselves and stared toward where the cousins lay.

‘Why are they looking this way?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘They heard the gunshot,’ Ari said.

Lexington stroked her chin.

‘Do you think they never heard a gun before?’

‘Could be many things,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Maybe this is the Borstal. It looks hideous enough.’

‘One of those kids is the one Quixote and I saw,’ Ari said. ‘He had thistles rammed onto his body and was bleeding.’

Lexington winched.

‘Ow. How can you see that from here?’

‘Costume increased my sight.’

Lexington threw an “I-told-you-so” look at Melaleuca.

‘Just note it down in your head,’ Melaleuca said and felt annoyed with her though did not know why.

The massed children parted and four grown men dressed in leather tunics and puffy pants emerged carrying thick sticks and whips. Quixote leapt up and started snarling.

‘These here are nothing but dirty rotten scum and I’s intend to whop them a good.’

He charged toward them, screaming and crying out obscenities. The children screamed and ran in all directions and the four grown men stood their ground for a brief second and then started stepping backwards. They looked at each other, unsure what to do.

Lexington studied the scene and announced, ‘The advantage is ours. Never before hath these crude sentinels been loutishly accosted as such,’ and then mindful that her language sounded cryptic followed it with, ‘What the blighty, they are scared, let’s go.’

She jumped out of the bushes and started running after Quixote.

‘What’s got into her?’ Ari said.

‘The bracelets and the costume,’ Melaleuca said, unimpressed no one had waited for her to make a decision. ‘Come on. We had better stick with them. At least to protect whoever they are from Quixote.’

Ari and Melaleuca launched themselves after them, joining Quixote and Lexington in their reckless charge towards the screaming children. Quixote fired round after round and shrieked obscenities into the air. Ari ran around making his ear shattering whooping noises, and Melaleuca somersaulted between the children as they scattered.

Lexington grabbed one of the children, a small fleeing girl, and felt her tiny body go limp as she fainted. Lexington lay her on the ground and felt guilty for scaring her into passing out. Grey hair hung limp around the girl’s dirty face though a gentleness and fairness rested about her. Scars marked her face, and her arms hung out of a crumpled threadbare sack that barely covered her body. Cuts, bruises, welts and small bleeding pricks covered her. No more than eight years old, she opened her eyes and said in a whimpering tone, ‘Please don’t kidnap me. I have no mother or father, please don’t take me away.’

‘Kidnap?’

Lexington reached for the girl to comfort her but the girl shook with fear and screamed so loud that Lexington flinched. The girl launched herself to her feet and sprinted off.

Melaleuca somersaulted several times, landed and surveyed the bedlam raging around her. Quixote laughed derisively as he pumped hot lead over the heads of the frightened throng, and Ari chased the men and the older boys, yet Lexington had a slight shocked look on her face. She cart wheeled over to her.

‘These children are very frightened of us, like they have seen us before,’ Lexington said.

‘Can’t blame them. Look at Quixote.’

The “bad-men” Quixote had gone after had retreated to the building, leaving swathes of children between them and the cousins. Quixote roared and shot over the children’s head to chase them away. Some of the screaming children fled into the building, while others ran into the bushes either side of the courtyard leaving the four men standing with their backs to the building. Doors to their left and their right swung open and twenty more men, dressed in the same leather tunics and puffy pants trotted out to join their four comrades. On their gnarled faces they had expressions of intense anger with eyebrows knotted in fury. Scars filled their faces and lumps of badly set, broken bones jutted out under their skin, giving them devilish appearances, and heavy truncheons and maces swung loose in their hands.

Quixote held his ground, standing 50 metres out from them. Ari joined him. Seeing more men, a feeling came over him that he needed his Tomahawk. He reached behind and unhooked it, swinging it around in front and brandishing it in full view. The newly arrived guards eyed Ari and Quixote, and the anger left their faces, replaced by stunned surprise and nervous murmuring. Quixote snarled at them, cursing them with threats of mayhem.

Lexington and Melaleuca joined the boys.

‘Now what?’ Melaleuca asked.

Someone appeared on top of the building and surveyed the scene as if a commander viewing his battlefield.

‘Why have you returned here? You were banished.’

The guards assumed a pose that suggested they were readying to attack.

 

Chapter 17 – Engage, Evade, Escape

 

 

Quixote lifted his pistol and shot at the man standing on top of the building – Captain HeGood. The bullet whizzed past him though he did not flinch.

Melaleuca nudged Ari. ‘Stop him.’

He yanked Quixote’s arm down, and Lexington shook her head though looked steadfast at the Captain. She cupped her hands around her mouth.

‘What do you mean return?’

Captain HeGood folded his arms and rocked forward on his feet, raising his right eyebrow.

‘The cowboy gave me his word he would not return here ever again.’

Quixote snarled, thrashed against Ari, and shook his fists at the Captain.

‘Balderdash. You bare-fisted brainless gump of a stump.’

Captain HeGood swished his cloak aside and held aloft a baton, crying out, ‘ADVVAANNNCCCEEE!’

The guards held their ground not moving; a hushed silence falling over them. In an audible whisper one of the guards said, ‘Marauders. They’re back.’

Captain HeGood picked up a brick, and hurled it at the guard, knocking him senseless.

‘I’ll banish the lot of you to Golgotha. NOW MOVEEEEE!!!!’

Swallowing hard, the front line trudged forward, gripping their batons with white knuckles, while uncurling whips and whipping the air with a great menace. The guards behind them surged forward at an unsure pace, swinging razor-thin bamboo sticks – a crisp whistling whisk harmonising with the cracks of the whips.

Lexington stepped backward. ‘Perhaps a hasty retreat is in order.’

Melaleuca looked at the boys readying themselves to fight.

‘I know we should, but something about these men just makes me mad. Besides, they look scared.’

Lexington squinted out from under her cap, putting all the clues together: Children huddling in the bushes; Guards approaching unsure; The small girl asking not to be kidnapped; Even Pemily seeing them as Marauders:

‘Well, I do concur, but ─ ’

Quixote screamed and ran toward the guards yelling. Ari charged off to the left, swinging his tomahawk, and even Melaleuca leapt up and somersaulted right, splitting the guards in three directions.

Captain HeGood thrashed his arms about in the air. ‘GET THEM! I’LL BANISH THE LOT OF YOU IF THEY ESCAPE!’

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Three guards’ whips shot out of their hands, and a laughing Quixote fired at their feet. They turned, high-tailing it, and tripped over each other and Quixote roared with more laughter.

Lexington gritted her teeth and shuffled backwards.

‘Don’t hurt them!’

Melaleuca somersaulted back and forth with little effort, soaring over the guards as they lashed out with their whips. They dashed back and forth at a tiring pace trying to catch her with little success. Melaleuca leapt over one of the guards, grabbed their whip, and cracked it back at him, smacking him square in the face. A piece of flesh fell away, though the guard stood there unflinching.

‘Didn’t feel it.’

She crouched, sprung high into the air and came down on top of the guard, sending him sprawling to the concrete and knocking him out. She leapt again, landing on top of another guard, her crotch smacking the back of his neck. Her legs came to rest dangling over his shoulders. Surprised, the guard flailed his arms above him, though Melaleuca spun her legs out from underneath her, wrenching the guard off his feet.

 

A small cheer erupted out of the bushes and Lexington edged over to the children hiding there. As she got closer she heard the older ones telling all the children to pipe down, that cheering would certainly lead to banishment or death.

 

Melaleuca glanced at Lexington, meaning to check her but a wild cry from Ari drew her attention. He swung his tomahawk, thrashing at the air in front of him, charging at the guards again and again. Quixote hovered behind him, firing round after round after round as the desperate-faced guards inched backwards.

‘FIGGHHHTTT!’ Captain HeGood yelled. ‘FIIIIGGGGGHGHHHHHTTTT!’

Spurred on, several of the tired guards tried again for Melaleuca. She sped up, leaping back and forth egging the guards on until exhausted, they half collapsed. Captain HeGood screamed death threats at them again, and they turned their attention toward Lexington.

The remaining guards clumped together and advanced on Ari and Quixote. Quixote walked toward them, wrenching their whips out of their hands. They pounced on him, bringing him down to the ground. With a mighty cry, Quixote threw them off and started lashing them with their whips.

Bit-by-bit Ari and Quixote forced them backwards.

 

Melaleuca beamed, chuffed the guards had given up pursuing her. She watched them saunter off, though her smile did not last long. Lexington gave a little shriek as the wearied guards now honed in on her. Melaleuca ran toward Lexington, cart wheeling through the ragged line of guards, knocking them over.

‘We have to get out of here,’ Lexington said.

‘Yeah. This is fun, but I am not sure what we are achieving.’

Lexington threw her arms up.

‘They wanted to rescue the little boy remember.’

‘Quite. Grab the boy if you can. I am going to pull the boys back.

Melaleuca ran across the courtyard, somersaulting around some of the bedraggled guards and kicking them. She felt buoyant and exhilarated; a veritable defender of the weak.

 

Lexington approached the children in the bushes. ‘Come on. I won’t hurt. Follow and we can help.’

A small girl popped her head out and yelled, ‘Go away. We don’t want to be maraudered.’

Another girl hushed her, while an older boy pulled her back. All along the bushes, barefaced, scared eyes stared out.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Lexington asked. ‘We can take you away from here.’

A frail looking boy with hollow cheeks stepped out, and as if he had no soul, said, ‘We seek the way of discipline. The only way to leave here is through a hard mind and hard body.’

‘You want to stay here? Why?’

The same boy Ari and Quixote had seen chased came forward. ‘I’m not scared of you, even if you are a Marauder. My parents told me that you would return to help.’

Several children rushed out of the bush, and grabbed him, pleading with him to be quiet, and dragged him back. Lexington looked over her shoulder for support, though Melaleuca seemed more distracted by the boys who had managed to herd the guards against the building.

 

Captain HeGood peered over the side.

‘CEASE FIGHTING!’

Having already stopped fighting, the guards hung their heads in shame. Captain HeGood sniffed back a noisy spit ball into his throat, gurgled in into his mouth, and spat on the cowering guards – following it with a sneer. He turned his steel stare to the cousins.

‘You may have bested these useless guards, who are now banished. But you won’t best my guard, the Inquisat. They said you would never return, but I said in case you do I shall be ready. AND I AM READY. I HAVE BEEN READY FOR THIRTY YEARS!’

Quixote snarled back at him.

Melaleuca leant in close to Ari. ‘Get Quixote out of here.’

Ari grabbed him, and struggling, started to drag Quixote backwards.

‘Let me go, you flea-bitten miser.’

Lexington walked to Melaleuca.

‘None of the children want to come. This proves my point. We do not know what is going on.’

‘I know.’

Melaleuca kept her eyes on Captain HeGood, and he turned as if to go, though turned back.

‘Why have you returned? What do you want?’

‘To leave,’ Melaleuca said. She grabbed Lexington and together they dashed back across the courtyard, pausing to help Ari drag a struggling Quixote over the embankment.

‘What’s got into him?’ Lexington asked.

‘Dirty snivelling curs. Mangy half-breed mutts. Downright low-lifes. Yella bellies.’

Melaleuca pulled his head upright by his hair.

‘Stop it Quixote.’

He carried on cursing the air blue.

‘Grab his bracelet,’ Lexington said.

With great difficulty Ari pinned Quixote’s wrist hard against the ground, and worked the bracelet free. Quixote stopped in an instant and stared up at them stunned. Melaleuca tilted her head back, sighed, and then flopped it forward – her eyes demanding an explanation. Quixote screwed his face up and for a brief moment looked as if he might cry, but then he started spouting, ‘Did you see us? Wow! We were unstoppable. And those children! How many? A thousand? A hundred thousand? Do you think we can go back and play with them?’

‘You scared them,’ Lexington said.

‘We could show them the bracelets, share our costumes with them, perhaps ─ ’

Melaleuca pulled his hair again.

‘Stop. Listen!’

‘Even the adults ran. We were the coolest. Did you guys see me?’

Ari put his face close to Quixote’s face.

‘QUIXOTE LISTEN!’

Quixote halted his rambling.

‘Control yourself Quixote,’ Melaleuca said

‘Sorry.’ He looked sheepish. ‘I don’t know what came over me. One minute I was just me and then I wasn’t. It’s almost like I became a real cowboy.’

‘Another reason why I need to analyse the costumes,’ Lexington said, taking off her detective cloak. ‘Now we should go. I hope that man on the top of the building will not chase us.’

‘Good point. Me cover our tracks. No one follow us.’ Ari said, the vowels in his word-sounds becoming shorter. Ari sped around the trees ripping branches off. He bundled them together, squashing dirt and grass into them.

‘We pull this behind us. Make good hide our tracks and smells.’

‘Why are you talking like that?’ Lexington asked.

Melaleuca thought of the weird speech she had used since donning the detective costume and laughed at her.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘Tell you later,’ Melaleuca said.

They all made sure their bracelets were on tight and high-tailed it out of there, dashing back the way they had come.

 

***

 

Captain HeGood sprinted out the back to a boy barely in his teens.

‘Well, where is she?’

The youth cowered.

‘Who sir?’

‘Bloody fool,’ Captain HeGood shouted, smacking him hard across his face. ‘My steed!!! What else!!!! Do you think I am going to chase them on foot?’

The youth fell to his knees and with two upheld hands cried out, ‘Who sir? I did as I was tolds. She’s in the pasture!’

Captain HeGood kicked him. ‘Are you blind and deaf? Did you miss entirely what happened? You should have run to the pastures and got my horse ready. And you wonder why you are still here. Cretin. I’ll do it myself.’

 

***

 

Ari insisted they zigzag across the land, weaving through and around trees, and walking in streams. He said it would make it harder for anyone to track them. Just before twilight they had made it back to the hills.

 

‘Okay stop, please,’ Lexington panted, her legs giving out on her.

They stopped and she fell to the ground, sweating.

‘Bracelets off,’ Melaleuca commanded.

They slid their bracelets off, and Quixote giggled at Lexington. ‘Next time choose a less smart costume.’

Lexington pushed herself up and threw the detective costume on the ground.

Melaleuca moved toward Lexington.

Oh no – here she goes.

‘How can you still laugh?’ Lexington said. ‘Those kids back there are suffering.’

‘I had lots of fun and so did Mel and Ari. Eh guys?’ He looked at them for support.

‘Yes. I enjoyed this costume.’ Ari said, though he knew what Lexington meant. ‘However ─ ’

‘The costumes are a lot of fun,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington swung her head around them aghast and clenched her hands.

‘What happened back there cannot happen again!’

‘Lex. You charged in after Quixote,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Exactly. Hardly like me! These costumes ─ ’

‘Are fun,’ Quixote said. ‘Anyway, we are supposed to play and have fun.’

‘Mel?’ Lexington appealed to her. ‘Our mothers must have meant something more when they said keep on playing. Those children…they…..they…’ She choked on her words. ‘They…..it’s horrible….what they were doing to them……how can we play……’

Melaleuca remained unaffected. ‘We will work it out.’

‘I think we are here to rescue the kids,’ Quixote said.

‘Makes sense.’ Ari nodded. ‘I could make a raiding plan.’

Lexington tried to stamp her foot hard.

‘NO! That’s just the point. We don’t know anything about this land and who lives here. The children did not want to be freed. If we just keep on charging around without being smart then who knows what is going to happen.’

Quixote sauntered up to her.

‘I’ll do what I want.’

‘Oh really. And what’s that then?’

‘Whatever I want!’

Melaleuca placed a hand on Lexington’s shoulder, sensing her need for them to listen to her. Lexington calmed herself, shrugged Melaleuca’s hand off and pulled on the detective cloak.

‘What if?’ She tapped her chin. ‘We map the land out? Find the best area to attack?’ She eyed Ari. ‘Note our finds, perhaps even rank them in importance.’

Quixote put his bracelet back on, booming at her in a raspy voice. ‘Sissy! What say we round us up a posse and storm that town over yonder.’

‘No,’ Lexington said, shaking her head. ‘Mel?’

‘I’ll explore,’ Ari said.

‘Sensible,’ Lexington said. ‘Let’s find explorer’s costumes, a geologist perhaps, maybe even an archaeologist, hmmm?’ She adjusted her hat with a smug air.

Ari slipped his bracelet back on and an idea lit up his face.

‘Need a shaman.’

‘Now look here!’ Lexington said. ‘We need facts. Facts backed by hard evidence.’

‘Tarnation,’ Quixote said. ‘We need a damn good raiding party.’

 

As the tension rose and their opinions clashed, the costumes took over, until they argued in character.

‘I’s blow holes in all of youse.’

‘It heap no good. You listen to earth spirit.’

‘What utter poppycock. Drivel such as this belongs in a mad house.’

 

Melaleuca stepped toward them to intervene. Instead of walking, her body flipped up in the air, pirouetted, and landed behind them. She tried walking again, though her arms and legs flipped all over the place. She fought for control, though the more she tightened her muscles, the more she wobbled and shook. Her mother’s instructions flashed into her mind and she tried pretending to be a gymnast. Relaxed, she went with it, trying to out-leap her body’s jerking and jostling, and as she did so, she brought her limbs under control.

Oh my God, the instruction to play was right.

She imagined being back home, feeling the thrill and safety of pretending to be something she was not, and launched into a series of back flips, stopping 30 metres up the hill, exhilarated and in control. Now she had to trust her trust, the very lesson she was to learn since embarking on this adventure.

Behind her bickering cousins, the setting sun touched the low hills in the distance, and a sense of purpose stirred in her. Clearly they needed to learn to use the costumes before anything else; hypotheses, exploration, rescuing – anything. Her inner resolve toughened, and pulling her bracelet off, she walked to the others, grabbing the bracelets off Lexington and Ari. Surprised, they stopped fighting.

‘Ari. Take Quixote’s bracelet off.’

Pouncing on him, Ari wrestled him to the ground, eventually yanking it off. Grime streaked down Quixote’s face, though a smile of great enjoyment travelled from one ear to the other.

‘That was so much fun,’ he said.

Her mind clear, Melaleuca suddenly saw Quixote’s role. Out of all of them, only Quixote had a permanently irrepressible spirit that nothing could stop. If any of them could teach them how to play seriously, without being serious, it was Quixote.

‘Sit,’ Melaleuca beckoned them.

‘But…..’ Lexington protested.

‘SIT!’

They sat – their faces grainy in the fading light of the day.

‘I have decided,’ Melaleuca said, ‘where we are to start. The costumes are not as simple as they seem. Each of us in our own way has lost control. We need to learn to use them before we use them again like we just did. If we are to rescue those boys, if we are to use them for anything, then we need to know how to use them, and…’

She paused and held their gaze. The last rays of the sun struck at her hawk eyes, dark shadows falling below her neck. The sun flamed her dishevelled hair, the wispy bits appearing to catch fire. Like a warrior princess from another time and another place she held their gaze and the reigns of her small command tight.

‘……it is more important now, more than ever, that we play.’

Quixote looked happily amongst the others. Ari puzzled at her words, while Lexington’s face showed she did not agree.

‘Lexington put your bracelet and Quixote’s costume on,’ Melaleuca said.

With a begrudging willingness Lexington clad herself in the cowboy clothes. Quixote grabbed the detective hat, plonking it on his head.

‘Now what?’ Lexington asked.

‘Run up the hill and back,’ Melaleuca told her.

Lexington shook her head, but trotted off, a surge of energy pumping through her. As her legs dashed across the landscape, she felt an ease of movement denied her by the detective costume. Her right hand twitched as it brushed the pistol, and she rapidly drew it out, spun around and shot at Quixote’s head, knocking his hat off. Elated she hollered out and dashed back.

‘Did you see that?’

She spat on the ground.

‘Kind of fun?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Yes. I guess.’

 

Lexington’s logic fought within her. It was fun. She felt different holding the pistol, and the cowboy clothes made her stronger, tougher and more resilient. Though her mind wanted to know why and how they worked.

 

‘Our parents told us to play and play we shall,’ Melaleuca carried on. ‘Play is fun, not serious. Play is imagination. I know where we start – the costumes work best when playing.’

Once again Lexington started to protest, but Melaleuca stopped her.

‘Please,’ Melaleuca said. ‘All you have to do is choose brainy costumes and then go play being brainy.’

‘It’s not that simple.’

Ari understood and to help Lexington he said, ‘I want to explore this land, so I will select costumes that will help me do that, playing exploring.’

‘Good,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Make sure they are fun ones.’

‘And me?’ Quixote asked.

Melaleuca cocked an eyebrow at him. ‘Pick the most fun ones. Ones that make you laugh and entertain you.’

‘YEEESSS!’

‘What?’ Lexington sized Melaleuca up and down. ‘I get Ari’s, even mine, but surely Quixote needs a…a…a…strait jacket costume!’

Quixote chortled at the idea, and Melaleuca felt tiresome toward Lexington.

And I thought Quixote would be the hardest to control.

‘Lex,’ Melaleuca said.

‘And what about the children at that horrid place?’ Lexington asked.

‘Costumes first,’ Melaleuca replied. ‘I am correct in this decision.’

‘We need to know what we are dealing with.’

‘Do you have all the answers?’

‘Of course not! It’s what I seek.’

‘When you have all the answers, then and only then will I give you command. Until then I say we play. Play is how we are to discover what is next.’

‘But ─ ’

Melaleuca’s face steamed up.

‘My gut feeling on this is right!’

‘I think ─ ’

‘Do what I said and when you see it is right, then use your logic to work it out. Lexington my job is to make this as simple as possible.’

Melaleuca tried staring into her, attempting to find a handle to calm her down, but something blocked her. She reminded Lexington of an instruction she would not like.

‘Lexington, gentle one, follow your mind, but use your heart to learn from Quixote.’

Lexington’s face registered hurt, but then hardened a little bit.

‘Lexington, lover of all that is gentle, follow your mind but with your heart learn from Quixote. I think you will find are the exact words.’

‘Then learn!’

‘Learn from……why he should……we’ll see…,’ Lexington spluttered, and appeared to run out of words. She flashed her eyes toward Quixote. ‘What about him?’

‘What about him?’

A momentary impasse formed between them.

Melaleuca relented and said, ‘Lex, just take some time out to cool down.’

Lexington threw her hands up and stormed off toward the forest.

Ari and Quixote ran over to Melaleuca.

‘Where’s she going?’ they both asked.

Lexington turned, and in a gentle voice, snarled cowboy-like. ‘Following my mind to solve this mystery using my methods.’

‘I’ll go get her,’ Ari said starting to run.

‘Leave her,’ Melaleuca said. ‘She’ll cool down and come back.’

 

***

 

Lexington stormed her way through the forest, trail blazing her rage forward.

‘Tell me what to do. I have the brains.’

Unable to resist, her hand drew to the pistol. She caressed it, feeling wild sensations shoot up and down her arm. She flipped it in and out, surprised at her skill despite knowing she had the costume on. The frustration at Melaleuca cooled off, and the stillness of the forest chimed her gentle nature back in time with her again, yet something else inside her felt strong.

She knelt on the ground and scribed the letters, ‘why?’ in the dirt.

About time!!!!!’

‘Stuff it.’

That’s a bit off.’

Lexington whipped the pistol out and pointed it at her head.

‘Behave or I’ll drill you full of holes.’

The costume is dominating you; take it off.’

‘I will be heard!’

Feel it. You are still you, but the costume is stamping itself on to you.’

Lexington turned right, then left, and then right again. The logic made sense but something else controlled her.

‘Laugh’

‘What?’

‘Laugh’

‘Why?’

‘JUST DO IT! I WILL EXPLAIN AFTER.’

‘Ha ha?’ she said imitating a giggle.

‘Do better than that.’

And on it went, her inner voice goading her to laugh, until finally Lexington chortled as much as she could, and the costume released its control on her. Feeling rational again, she pulled the bracelet off.

‘The same thing happened to me as happened to Quixote. It must be the costume.’

Perhaps the costume needs to get used to you.’

‘Or the bracelets need to be tamed like a wild horse.’

Whichever, you are right to be cautious. They need testing and investigating. You are better suited to the detective costume. Melaleuca is sort of right.’

‘What do you mean?’

The play thing. Before you react, think of it this way. The costumes appear to work when a person is fully enthusiastic.’

‘You don’t just need play for that ─ ’

A figure suddenly burst out of the forest with no warning and knocked her down. Dazed she tried to get up, but her head spun. A great stink, unlike anything else she had ever smelt before accosted her nostrils, just as she fell unconscious.

Chapter 18 – Iam

 

 

 

A hint of autumn hung in the air and the night would soon reflect it. Ari shivered in his loin cloth and rubbed his hands together.

‘I guess even Indians get cold.’

‘We had better find Lex and head back,’ Melaleuca said, ‘before it gets too dark.’

‘Let’s camp here,’ Quixote said. ‘It’ll be just like back at home.’ He pulled the detective cloak around him more.

‘Is that what your costume tells you?’ Ari asked.

Quixote held up his bracelet in his hand.

‘Nah. This costume’s boring. I just wanna do it.’

Melaleuca nodded, liking the idea.

Ari built a small bivouac using the natural cover of a large rock protruding from the hill, insulating it with tussock and leafy branches. He dug up Bracken Fern roots and lit a fire to roast them on, while Quixote and Melaleuca picked berries from a nearby bush skirting the forest.

In the darkness on the hillside, comforted by the glow of the small fire, snug in their shelter, they feasted on juicy berries and roasted roots.

‘What about Lexington?’ Ari asked. ‘Should we go find her?’

Melaleuca paused before answering. Lexington needed to follow orders. Perhaps some more time alone would do her good.

‘What if she is lost?’ Ari asked.

‘Unlikely,’ Quixote said. ‘The cowboy suit would help her.’

‘Still, I bet she would like some of this.’ Ari motioned to the berries and roasted roots.

‘Alright,’ Melaleuca said, ‘Go and track her and bring her back. Play with her and get her to play as well.’

 

Ari poured his way through the forest following her tracks. After nearly 30 minutes a large figure leapt out of nowhere and knocked him over. Stunned but still conscious, he raised his groggy head up. A vague, out of focus figure stood with Lexington in its arms. He thought of Lexington’s words about finding out all the facts first, and smelt an incredible stink and fell unconscious.

 

***

 

As Daquan handed the object to Quesob, he rolled it around, examining it.

‘What is it?’ Quesob asked.

‘With it you shall track down the bracelets, especially now they are being used.’

The small clear opening on the bottom of its spherical shape looked like polished see-through stone. It sloshed as he handled it, so he shook it gently, feeling the weight of the liquid inside.

‘How does it work?’

‘Look into the opening and place the bracelet under it. A small arrow points the way. It is a compass for the bracelets.’

Quesob stared at Daquan. Sparse hair stubble matted his eyebrows, his head and his face, a sign of a return to normalcy.

‘Where did you get such an object, my Lord?’

‘Does it matter? Hmm?’

‘W…where m’lord, please.’

‘If you must. Found years ago in the north hills.’

‘The North Hills have been forbidden for years. I don’t like going there,’ Quesob said. He shuddered, thinking about the Ori and B’barakai’s Incognia.

‘You will go where I tell you,’ Daquan said with a great flourish of his arm. ‘Do you know why they are forbidden?’

Quesob shook his head.

‘Neither do I, and nor does anyone else. That can only mean one of two things. There is something hidden up there or it is just silly superstition.’

Quesob would think about such things later. He pulled the light-swallowing bracelet out and tried to put it under the bracelet-compass, but all the light disappeared.

‘Idiot,’ Daquan said, wrenching the bracelet out of Quesob’s hand.

Pain shot into Quesob’s shoulder, and Daquan’s large hand closed around the bracelet and light rushed back into the room. Quesob muttered an anti-pain mantra under his breath, calmed himself and retaliated.

‘I would have worked it out!’

Daquan’s fat face glared at him, and he furrowed his stubbly eyebrows in anger, nodding his jowly head in approval of Quesob’s pain control. Daquan placed his closed fist under the compass and the arrow swung from side to side, and then stopped.

‘It’s pointing to the Throughnight place,’ Quesob said with amazement.

‘Really. Perhaps the bracelets are there, or could it be that thousands of miles past it in the same direction is the place where you found my one-time traitorous friends?’

‘Yes, that is also it. I will leave at once,’ Quesob said dreading the thought of having to clamber back through B’barakai’s Incognia.

‘Good. Once you are out of the district, use something faster than horseback. If someone is using the bracelets I want them dead yesterday. I must have them.’

‘Yes. I understand. I will leave this very night.’

Scratching his face and eyebrows, Daquan watched Quesob leave.

 

***

 

Hours later, Daquan sat on his balcony, facing out over the valley. The lights of New Wakefield flickered in the darkness below, although he stared in the direction of the southern barren hills. Beyond them lay the fabled wilderness; an inhospitable terrain leading to an ocean near the bottom of the world. Few who ventured there ever came back. Exhaustion and starvation killed most people, or they got lost, wandering for years, and of course there were the Ori to contend with.

He swirled a beverage congratulating himself that after all these years he was close to finding the bracelets. Maybe within a few weeks he would have them and then he could start the next step in his master plan.

An arrow whooshed through the air, embedding itself just by his head. A red string dangled from it. Despite the late hour, he went downstairs, and crossed the courtyard to the stables, mounted one of the many horses and rode off into the night.

Sometime later he arrived at the base of the southern hills and headed for a small copse of willow trees overhanging a small creek.

Daquan growled.

‘This better be important.’

Captain HeGood Nexic stepped forward, shocked at Daquan’s appearance.

‘Your hair…and…beard…???’

Daquan snarled.

‘You call me out in the middle of the night to comment on my grooming!!!! Get on with it! Better be bloody important.’

‘Of course it is. Why else would I risk my neck?’

Daquan forced a laugh.

‘Because you think you will get something greater than you have now.’

‘Quite. Today while at the borstal we were treated to a visit from someone who was never to come back.’

‘Who?’

‘The cowboy, and with him were three friends, an Indian, a ballerina I think and an intellectual. They burst out of the orchard and charged down the guards before retreating.’

Daquan’s eyes widened and he let out a roaring noise.

‘Impossible!’

‘I saw the whole thing with my eyes. The very same cowboy. Why? Do you think I would lie?’

Daquan turned away and spoke in a soft voice.

‘But they are all dead.’

‘Who? All? The cowboy? How do you think that?’

Daquan whipped his gaze back toward him and saw him go from puzzled to suspicious. Captain HeGood shuffled his body to face off with Daquan.

‘You knew where they went all those years ago?’

Daquan held his tongue.

‘The memory of them, I meant, heh.’ Daquan laughed to hide his slip of the tongue. ‘I thought the memory was dead?’

‘The memory of the Marauders gone? I do not think it will ever go. It is almost a legend now. Yes, people are forbidden from speaking about it, but I hear whispers, I get reports. Those events have taken on a proportion way beyond what happened.’

 

Captain HeGood eyed him, wondering if all these years as a recluse had put him out of touch with life in New Wakefield.

 

‘I know what the council are hiding,’ Daquan said, slyly changing the subject.

‘What?’

‘You heard.’

‘And it made little sense.’

‘Let me put it this way. I know the secret they guard hidden in Golgotha.’

‘Hidden in the southern wasteland?’ Captain HeGood shook his head. ‘Are you mad? Many state that they know the secret. Children tease each other with such.’

‘Don’t underestimate the depth of my knowledge.’

‘Don’t underestimate my usefulness. I came here to share with you the news you asked for, to return a favour. Consider the favour returned.’

Daquan relaxed.

‘Okay. Okay. We spar with words, which is pointless. I thank you for the news.’

Captain HeGood mounted his horse.

‘You never did tell me why you wanted to know if the cowboy and the others ever turned up again.’

‘I removed them once before on your behalf, and let you take the credit. Your promotion was your reward. All I asked in return was the simple news you now bring me. Call it pride if you will. I like to see a job when done, stays done.’

 

Captain HeGood got the message loud and clear, keep his nose out – he was not going to be told.

 

‘Very well then. As Chief of the Inquisat I am charged with maintaining law and order. If you think this may escalate to the level of last time, I expect to be kept informed. You can count on me for discretion; I believe I can count on you?’

‘Count on you?’ Daquan paused, held the captain in an ice cool gaze. ‘You betrayed me last time.’

Captain HeGood’s horse snorted at this, and jostled back and forward.

‘Oh for pity’s sake, I did nothing of the sort. We have been over this many times. I have said all I would say on that subject.’

Daquan nodded and shooed him away with a gesture of his hand.

‘One other thing,’ Captain HeGood said, ‘probably not connected in anyway. But two days ago FumpHee and I came across some odd children in Hirad’s forest.’

‘Odd? In what way?’

‘I’m not sure. One of the boys seemed loopy, the other unafraid.’

‘You didn’t apprehend them?’

‘Couldn’t. Was tracking another boy.’

Daquan chewed the news of the boys over in his mind and then said, ‘Send a tracker out and see if you can find them.’

‘Really. Send a tracker out. Glad I have you here to tell me what to do. And what will I get in return?’

‘If the Marauders are back, then you will need lots of favours from me.’

He smacked Captain HeGood’s horse hard on the rump, making it totter about.

‘Go do your job, law order man.’

Captain HeGood glared at him, and kicked his horse into a trot and left.

 

As Daquan rode back his mind steamed with maddening thoughts of past resentments and betrayals. Someone who knew his murky past had the bracelets and was now in New Wakefield. It seemed the only possible explanation. How else could the Marauders return? But why? Why bring the bracelets back here? Did whomever it was know that he had no more than three months earlier ordered the killing of the last known bracelet wearers? Impossible. But then if they had the bracelets, anything was possible. But then they would have to be a child or child-like. His heart sank. Maybe he was too late. Maybe they had taught an adult to attain an innocent-mind like Doctor Thurgood had with him, and that an adult now wielded the bracelets. But why come back here?

He thought about what Quesob had told him, of the possibility of children, and, of course, Captain HeGood’s news of strange children in the forbidden forest. He could see the connection. Children trained to exact revenge on him for the murder. But they could not have been trained within a few months. No. Whoever, or whatever had the bracelets, must have had them a long time.

Curses that Quesob had left this night. He would have to send a rider after him. Quesob was essential to this plan. He would stop at nothing to get the bracelets, even if it meant betraying his friends.

Yes, thought Daquan, yes the cowboy is the major clue. An evil glow of smug satisfaction enveloped him. He chuckled to himself how easy it had been last time to get rid of the cowboy. He had simply taken the cowboy suit off.

 

***

 

Yanked from his sleep by the image of a something crashing into him, Ari rolled over ready to fight. Pensive, he looked across his sleeping cousins huddled in the makeshift bivouac. Morning light filtered in and he peered outside and could see no sign of anyone. Muddled, he relaxed, trying to recall how he got back. The image of Lexington draped across the figure filled his mind. He prodded her. She stirred, opened her eyes, and looking refreshed from her sleep, smiled at him.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

‘Mmm.’

‘How did you get back?’

‘Back? What?’ She pushed herself up from snuggling between Quixote and Melaleuca. ‘It’s a bit fuzzy. But that thing, whatever it was bought us back here.’ Lexington looked up and around, searching her memory. ‘You took quite a hard knock.’

‘It’s the last thing I recall,’ Ari said puzzled. ‘Not clear after that.’

‘I could see, though not clearly. It held on to you and me.’

‘Were you conscious? You looked asleep or something.’

‘Yes,’ she said without thinking, then realised what she had said. ‘I mean no, um, I must have come to or something.’

Melaleuca sat up, and asked in a sleepy voice, ‘Who was unconscious?’

Ari explained what he remembered and prompted Lexington to tell what she had seen.

Melaleuca shook her head. ‘I only remember falling asleep. Quixote?’

Quixote shook his head. ‘Probably got brought here by the eagle, or some silverquick, or a stream of magic powder.’

Lexington looked at him unamused. ‘The sooner we get back the sooner I will pick costumes to solve this as well as the other mysteries.’

A gust of wind swirled outside sending a hint of chill into the bivouac.

‘Why wait?’ said an unknown voice from outside. It sounded like a human’s voice crossed with some sort of animal.

Silenced, they remained still, a learned caution from all the events so far falling over them, except Quixote. With a flurry, he hurtled outside slipping on his bracelet and hurling the detective-costume on. The hillside looked the same as the day before, though some extra bushes appeared to have sprung up over night.

‘There’s nothing here.’

Bracelets on, the others followed behind him. Quixote sniffed the air. A stinky odour teased his nostrils.

‘Phew. What is that smell?’ Ari asked as the others started to smell it.

The voice spoke again. ‘ME!’

Ari jumped up and faced off in the direction of the voice. ‘Look here, whoever or whatever you are, reveal yourself.’

‘Blind, blind, cannot see before your face,’ the voice said again.

To the cousin’s surprise a small portion of the side of the hill, covered in bushes, tussock, rocks and plants, started to rise up before them, until, six feet high, stood a humanoid shape.

Lexington’s jaw drooped.

‘What are you?’

Not liking it Ari looked to Melaleuca for an order. With her sharp eyes she studied it trying to get a feeling off it. Her gut told her it might be trusted. She opened her mouth to tell Ari, but last night’s argument with Lexington shot into her mind. She turned to Lexington, saying, ‘I feel it is harmless. What do you think?’

Lexington hesitated.

‘To confirm my feeling,’ Melaleuca added.

‘Little children play dressing up,’ it said.

Lexington quickly swapped outfits with Quixote, once again becoming the detective.

‘What are you?’ Lexington asked again, searching it for clues. ‘You don’t make sense.’

‘I am Iam, the Listener of the land,’ it said, sounding happy and male.

‘Yes but what are you? Animal, vegetable, mineral?’

‘All of that. You are lost.’

‘We know exactly where we are,’ Ari said.

‘But not what you are.’ Iam giggled.

‘We know what we are,’ Quixote said. ‘Do you know what you are? You really smell bad.’

‘I am all,’ it said.

‘What do you listen for?’ Lexington asked.

‘You tell me.’ It pointed at Lexington’s detective cloak. ‘What is the basis of all observation?’

 

Even before she started to think about it, she felt her mind run through several logical possibilities, and the answer came to her.

‘Change.’

 

‘Delightful!’ Iam squealed. ‘The wind blew differently, the animals moved differently, even the blades of grass sensed you were being revealed.’

‘Can you really read the animals and plants?’ Quixote asked, approaching Iam.

‘Yes, like the Indian.’ It pointed at Ari. ‘Must sit and listen, spend many months, sitting, listening, and watching.’

The smell settled and the same sensation that Ari had dubbed the “Ethmare,” emanated from Iam, and though it acted childish, an ancient air hovered around it.

Quixote reached out. ‘Can I touch you?’

Iam squealed in delight. ‘Ah, little dreamers-heart. Most certainly.’

Quixote placed his hands on it.

‘I bet you wear a bracelet too and this is another cool costume.’

Ari placed his hands on Quixote’s arms.

‘Be careful Quixote.’

‘Warrior-heart speaks good words. No harm shall I do you though.’

‘Harm?’ Ari said. ‘Was that you that knocked us over?’

‘Heh heh. Yes. Oops. Sorry. Knew you would be fine.’

Melaleuca stepped forward but the smell of it pushed her back. ‘Quixote what do you see?’

Quixote dug his fingers into the back of Iam.

‘Oh,’ Iam said, ‘curious little boy. What find you?’

‘Dirt and plants?’

Iam laughed hyena like.

Not to be outdone, Lexington walked up to Iam and sunk her fingers in.

‘Ew. Dirt. You’re some form of sentient plant life,’ she said surprised, and turned to Melaleuca. ‘I need the outfit of a scientist.’

‘I think I will trust you for the time being, whatever you are. You seem harmless. Crazy but harmless,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Crooked stick straightener. By you all things shall be made right,’ Iam said.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Lexington asked.

‘She-who-would-know asks that which she can work out.’

‘Is there actually something you want to tell us that will help us?’ Ari said.

Iam laughed some more and ran around, leaping and whooping like a child gone mad on sugar.

‘Could tell you. Better to show you how to know.’ Iam’s face blared wide open, showing that at least it had a mouth with teeth and a tongue, and its eyes looked human.

‘I will say this.

Life linked forged from beginning of time

Hand, paw, plant and dirt.

Though one has forgot the others remember.

Servants we all of the higher realm,

The invisible visible through forgotten lines of old.

Will the earth move or stay the same.”

Melaleuca offered Iam a blank stare. ‘That’s it? Our big clue?’

‘Karena would have worked it out,’ Iam said

‘Who’s Karena?’ Lexington asked. ‘Uncle said it before.’

‘Work that out, and many pieces fall into place.’

Melaleuca grew irate. ‘What a pesky thing you are. A simple straight answer would mightily help us about now.’

‘This is just the beginning,’ Iam said in a taunt, and though no clouds crossed the sky, all around them the light dimmed. ‘At the end no one will give you answers. You all will stand alone, very alone indeed.’

 

A chilled silence intensified its words.

 

‘End? What end? End of what?’ Lexington asked. ‘What are you? What do you mean? So far all I have is doubts that anything makes sense.’

‘No no no no no. No doubt. Trust…..’

‘Ohh, trust what exactly?’

‘Feelings! Yours, his, hers, his.’

‘Feelings! Blow feelings. I want information. I want facts. I want to work out what is going on? Where are our parents? How can a giant eagle still exist? The dinosaurs died out millions of years ago? The British colonised this land 200 years ago, but this is much older. Why? What is silverquick? Where did all the costumes come from? What happened to Antavahni?’

Iam jabbed his leafy arm at Melaleuca. ‘She is right, the crooked-stick-straightener girl. Follow her instructions.’

The detective costume took Lexington over. She whipped out notebook after notebook and started jotting notes down and screaming out the word, ‘WHY?’ at Iam.

Ari grabbed the bracelet off her and she tottered about for a few seconds before regaining herself. An unimpressed Melaleuca presented herself in front of Lexington.

‘I am not the smart one. But I now know this much for sure. The costumes work best when having fun. We shall return, learn to use the costumes and do so by playing and imagining.’

Lexington composed herself, and softened her eyes to meet Melaleuca’s sharp eyes. ‘If you stay that serious then your bracelet won’t work.’

A delighted Iam banged its arms together making a leafy clapping noise. ‘Excellent, it’s settled then,’ and started prancing around like a gleeful child.

‘And you!’ Melaleuca said, turning on Iam. ‘Have you any more to add, or like the rest of the people in this land, have only silence and cryptic messages to give us.’

‘You know what you have to do.’ Iam laughed.

Melaleuca stared with intent into Iam trying to fathom out what was inside its thoughts. But nothing came forth except a faint feeling.

‘Not on this one,’ Iam said to her. ‘I am beyond human ken.’

‘And time,’ she said puzzled, almost glimpsing where she went in her private dream world.

‘Not yet, too early,’ Iam said. ‘Too early to be there.’

Iam giggled, scooped up some dirt and threw it at them, and then skipped off, yelling over its shoulder, ‘Good bye Warrior-Way, goodbye Dreamer-heart, goodbye Straightener, goodbye Knows-it. When it is time, come ask me.’

It rushed into the forest blending with the trees and disappearing, leaving the cousins speechless.

Lexington felt another piece of the puzzle had been presented to them, but she could not see where it would fit. She desperately needed to start making sense of all this.

 

‘When we get back,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We will do as already said. Pick costumes and go and have fun while exploring the different things of this land.’

‘What about Iam?’ Lexington asked. ‘A being made entirely of plants and dirt, yet intelligent. The strangest find so far. It warrants exploration.’

‘You can pick a costume when we get back and return if you please and solve it. Let us go.’

 

They followed Ari home as he traced their steps back again. As they walked past the two giant statues, the hollow eye of one of them seemed to come alive. Someone from the other side pressed themselves up against it. The eyeball moved around following the cousins until they were out of view.

Chapter 19 – Aunt’s Wrath

 

 

With their skirts hiked up, the maids clattered toward the large drawing room off the Grand Ascension-Stairs Hall. Aunty Gertrude munched her breakfast while Uncle Bear-Nard slurped his tea. Astonished, they glared up at the un-rung for maids.

Uncle Bear-Nard’s face dropped.

Oh no, not the children again.

Aunty Gertrude’s face appeared unimpressed at their rushed entrance.

‘What?’

‘It’s the children,’ Pemily said.

‘They are gone,’ Petruce added.

‘GONE! Gone where?’

Petruce stilled her timid face.

‘We went to wake them and their beds were empty.’

‘Unslept in,’ Pemily said.

‘There there dear,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, trying to make good of it. He stood up, flustered, knocking his tea over.

Aunty Gertrude whacked him.

‘Clumsy oaf.’

He carried on talking to the maids as he floundered around the slopped tea, dabbing everywhere other than the fast staining liquid. ‘Prob…probably they popped out early for some f..f..f..fresh air..’

Aunty Gertrude pushed her chair back and rose up, taut and straight.

‘Oooh!’

Like a general adjusting their helmet, she pulled on the pins in her hair-bun to make it tighter.

‘Get all the staff and find them.’

The maids dashed off like frightened puppies.

Uncle Bear-Nard wobbled over to Aunty Gertrude. ‘Now, now. I’ll go find them. I think they must just be p..p..p..playing.’

Aunty Gertrude whacked him again with her open hand.

‘You know better than to utter that word. You disgust me!’ She kicked her chair sending it sprawling backwards.

‘Those children will learn discipline. Dead parents or not, I will send them to the Southern Wasteland.’

She huffed back and forth.

‘And you still haven’t told me exactly how they got here or how you found out their parents died.’ She stopped pacing, and pushed her face into his. ‘Your sister was never to communicate with anyone in this land, ever again.’

Uncle Bear-Nard froze. Even for her, this rage-filled display had an intensity he did not know how to handle.

‘But dear, It was the only thing I ever asked of you. You knew it before we married.’

‘Bear-Nard! We are harbouring outside children! What if we are found out? Eh? Did you think of that? And what exactly did you think you would do with them once they got here?’ She screeched. ‘I don’t like this at all.’

She whimpered and feigned a mock cry, falling forwards as if to faint, clutching the table to support her weakened legs. Uncle Bear-Nard caught her, feeling sick inside.

‘It is not good they are here.’ She fake-cried, trying to generate tears. ‘They bring with them bad omens. The Kockoroc has been seen, and worse the Marauders appeared again yesterday. The whispers brought news of it last night.’

‘What?’

‘The Marauders. Yes.’

‘Marauders? Impossible.’ Uncle Bear-Nard let her go and she fell against the table. ‘They were defeated years ago.’ His eyes filled with past emotions. ‘How can this be?’

He jerked his head toward Aunty Gertrude, feeling angry. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course I am sure. You stupid man! They have caused the spirits of the Marauders to return. It forebodes bad!’

Without announcing why he hastened toward the door.

‘Where do you think you are going?’ Asked Aunty Gertrude.

He swiveled on the spot, his face full of anger. His normally calm features became strong and sure, though as he spoke, they returned to his every-day dottery, aged face.

‘To help find them dear.’

‘I see.’ She composed herself and sat back down. ‘You must know that I took the liberty of informing the council that we have taken in outside children.’ She did not meet his eyes but took a sip of her tea.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Exactly what I said. I shall not repeat myself.’

His head spun and his mind whirled with the implications of what she said.

‘B..b..b.but, they were supposed to be h..h.h.hidden.’

Aunty Gertrude’s cold, lead eyes met his. A faint smile straightened out her normally down-turned mouth.

‘Fool. Did you really think you could hide children here, especially those children?’ She motioned for him to sit down. ‘I have only told them that I am considering selecting a handful of outside children to train in our ways. I have allowed time for you to instill our ways into them, or….I could send them somewhere to be trained.’

‘But how?’

‘You forget that I am a Past Matron of Histories. I still have some clout. I should thank me if I were you. I bought you some insurance.’ She smiled baring her teeth in a grimace. ‘Judging by those kids I was wise to do so. If they are discovered, we can simply say they escaped.’ On the word, “escaped,” she chuckled.

Nervousness flooded over him.

‘I will go help find them.’

He shuffled to the door, turning as he got there and said, ‘I promised my sister I would protect them.’

She chuckled again and then shouted at him.

‘Then you should not have brought them here. This house is the last of the great houses. I will not have the name of the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion tarnished by those little muck-rakers you have sullied us with.’

***

 

As they crossed the field behind the Cathedral-Mansion, the cousins heard their Aunt screeching, and hurried voices replying.

‘Do you think they know we attacked that place,’ Quixote asked.

‘Highly unlikely,’ Lexington said, ‘though maybe…maybe…we have alerted them to something.’

‘Like Marauders,’ Ari added.

Lexington tapped Melaleuca’s shoulder.

‘See, I said. Charging around. Not a good idea.’

Quixote tapped Lexington on her shoulder.

‘Our parents and the notes said ─ ’

‘Enough. Both of you. Crouch down,’ Melaleuca said. She pointed ahead and said to Ari, ‘Go. See what is going on.’

As he ran off, Melaleuca moved her cousins toward the hedgerow that separated the field from Pembrooke’s garden. Nearing it she heard voices calling out their names.

Ari returned.

‘The maids and Pembrooke are looking for us.’

‘Fine. Let’s just wait until they stop searching then.’

Uncle Bear-Nard shouted out from somewhere high up, ‘Go round the back, search the fields, be quick.’

Making an instant decision, Melaleuca said, ‘Okay, now we have to sneak in. Costumes off. We can hide them in the hedge.’

‘Oh,’ Lexington said. ‘We have no undergarments on.’

Quixote started pulling his costume off.

‘So?’

‘So what if Aunty sees us naked?’

He snickered at the thought of running naked past her.

‘Highly improper,’ Ari said imitating her.

Melaleuca held her hand up to silence them.

‘If we are caught with the costumes on, someone will eventually work out it was us that attacked that place. If we get caught naked, well, they will think us…well…who knows…and who cares.’

 

Naked, costumes hidden, bracelets in hand, they peered through a gap in the Hedgerow. Pembrooke and the maids fanned out through the garden.

 

Ari sized up the terrain. ‘We have to be careful not to be spotted from upstairs. I think we can out manoeuvre ─ ’

Quixote up and thrust his skinny, naked, body through the gap, laughing. His scrawny head bobbed up and down as he zigzagged along the garden paths, and then dashed across the lawn to the base of the Cathedral-Mansion. He waved at his cousins, and ducked down behind a small bush, though it provided little cover for him.

Lexington scowled, while Ari looked impressed.

‘Change of plans,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Run for it.’

 

With Ari leading, they thrashed through the garden.

Pembrooke wandered into sight and stared slack-jawed at them. Ari skidded to a halt, and the girls banged into him, pushing him forward.

 

‘Bracelets on,’ Melaleuca whispered, fearing their discovery.

‘Little blighters,’ Pembrooke said with anger, and then in a caring tone added, ‘Theys won’t tell yous, but yous are really needed. They ain’t got any heirs, and can’t show much love. Not allowed really.’ He smiled showing his missing teeth.

‘Quite,’ Lexington said.

‘Ere where’s ya clothes. And where’s the other little one?’

‘Um…errr…we often run naked,’ Melaleuca said offering a lame explanation. ‘It’s….it’s good for the skin.’

‘Getja inside befores ya spotted,’ he whispered, trying to herd them with stealth.

With little dignity, Jeeves half walked and half sprinted towards them from the back of the Cathedral-Mansion. He looked worried and elated.

‘My goodness, I, we thought you had been lost or kidnapped…I mean were….’ He spluttered, and then as if remembering who he was, stood taut. ‘Miss and Masters. Your absence has caused great concern, least of all to us staff.’

He bent down on one knee, looking at them square on instead of down his nose, and dropped the whole butler act.

‘No one will show you around here that they care. We just cannot show it. Not yet. All of this will be yours one day. This is your inheritance. Don’t wander off again, not until you are ready. There are those who would rob you of your birthright.’

‘Are you leaving the notes?’ Lexington asked.

‘Notes?’ Jeeves looked puzzled at her, and then suddenly said alarmed, ‘Where are your accoutrements? Has some ill befallen you?’

Uncle Bear-Nard burst out from the house, huffing and puffing, his round face, red.

‘Where have you been? Your Aunt is killing herself with worry.’

‘Worry? We thought no one would miss us,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Nor cared,’ Lexington added.

‘M..m…m…missed? Not cared? Let’s get you out of sight. Before your Aunt vents her wrath at you.’

Like a trapped dinosaur roaring from its cage, Aunty Gertrude shrieked out their names from somewhere inside the Cathedral-Mansion. A great commotion, pots and pans banging with the words ‘Get out of the way silly women,’ boomed from inside.

Uncle Bear-Nard cowered and Jeeves became as stiff as a plank.

Aunty Gertrude emerged a fuming fit of ire, rolling out her vexatious stride with measured determination.

‘You little brats. You have done it this time. When I think of the extent of my gratitude. Having to waste the time of my staff and…and…’

She advanced until she stood, towering over them with her gaunt head. Her face pitted itself with red splotches, and tiny blood vessels burst like spider webs on her cheeks.

‘Where are your clothes? I hope for your sake a wild animal tore them off. Disgusting! Cover yourself with your hands, instantly.’

Not understanding her, the cousins covered everywhere except where she meant.

‘We are all naked under our clothes, Aunty,’ Lexington said.

‘Really. Oh I see, really.’ She stepped around the cousins inspecting their bodies. ‘Tut tut. Pathetic. Call those bodies. Lilly-white puffs of soft flesh laid over bones of weak-willed, frail soppiness.’

She pulled her sleeves up, exposing the underside of her toughened leathered forearms. Something in the past had melted her flesh, and it now appeared as a mass of solidified scars. Horrified they could not stop ogling her arms.

Aunty Gertrude noted their mute reaction. ‘Good. Now maybe you might glimpse what it is to have discipline.’

Quixote emerged from his hiding place, yelling, ‘Let me see.’ He bounded across the lawn, his penis slapping on his body as he ran, shocking his Aunt and the maids. He poked her forearms and cried out, ‘Ewww!’

Instant rage flooded her face.

‘Prepare for discipline, moral rectitude, sacrifice, duty and above all pain!’

Uncle Bear-Nard raised his hand in feeble protest.

‘NO BEAR-NARD! IT IS TOO LATE!……There can only be one course of action, one course of action. I just won’t have this wonton, willy-nilly care free behaviour, this dissolute flaunting of rules. That is it. Final.’

Uncle Bear-Nard’s face soured and beads of perspiration frosted his bald head. Even Jeeves dry-swallowed and his fingers twitched.

Quixote held out his hand, palm up, as if asking for something, and dropped his head, though the girls could see him smirking. As his arm rose higher, all the fingers on his hand closed into an awkward fist. Melaleuca moved toward Quixote, though too late. He yanked his head up revealing a grin that a leprechaun would be jealous of, and blurted out, ‘This wrist says, I don’t think so!’

Aunty Gertrude rushed at Quixote drawing her hand back to strike him. Ari leapt forward blocking her way, while Quixote ducked. Pembrooke, Uncle Bear-Nard, and Jeeves all gasped in surprise and yelled out, ‘Quixote!’

With his body shielding a sniggering Quixote, Ari said, ‘You’ll have to come through me first.’

Aunty Gertrude halted, composed herself and backed away, still glaring at them; her face poker-hot red with great distaste.

Melaleuca stepped up beside Ari.

‘We decide what’s best for us.’

Aunty Gertrude mocked her words with a sneer, giving her a dirty look. She pondered the moment.

‘Have this round if you must,’ and one by one she looked them up and down.

She froze her eyes on Lexington and said, ‘When the full flock of your cascading hair has become matted with the mud of Disciple Park…,’ and then glared at Ari, saying, ‘…and when your strength has failed you in the Unforbidden Forest…,’ and then to Melaleuca, ‘…when your forthrightness has been tucked away as a distant memory…And…’ She saved the most disdainful look for Quixote, glaring at him with great repugnance, ‘…when your stupidity has been smashed from your bony frame by the deep reaches of the southern hills, then we will see who laughs, who plays, who comes, who stays.’

Quixote played with his bracelet. Pembrooke reached down and grabbed Quixote’s wrist with the invisible bracelet on, steadied him, and said, ‘Choose your battles carefully with this one.’

Aunty Gertrude took a step back. All emotion left her face and she said, ‘Bear-Nard, these children will fall under our ways, or go to the borstal, or to the southern reaches.’

Unfazed Melaleuca shot back at her, ‘Perhaps we should like to leave, in that case.’

Aunty Gertrude smiled as if she had caught Melaleuca in a trap.

‘How unfortunate. Those few that come to New Wakefield never leave. Sorry, I guess someone forgot to tell you.’

She walked away happy at the displeasure she thought she had created.

‘Please children,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said in a beaten down voice, ‘Go to your rooms and rest. Some food shall be sent up. Please, we will talk soon.’

None of them wanted to hurt him anymore and so they wandered to their rooms.

 

***

 

The cousins gathered in the girls’ bedroom, discovering that both their clothes and their costumes they had hidden sat on the floor. A note sat next to them.

Quixote grabbed it, reading it out loud.

 

‘By all means keep your identities secret. Let no one know that you have the costumes. For the time being keep away from other people. Learn to use the costumes. By the time your parents get here you should be skilful enough for the next stage.’

 

‘See,’ Melaleuca said, ‘as I said. First learn to use the costumes.’

Lexington put her detective costume on, letting its deductive powers augment her need to know why. As she flitted through the facts, thinking about Iam, the Borstal, the statues, the bracelets, and the costumes – one overriding conclusion occurred to her.

‘I bet our parent’s were attacked for the bracelets!’

The looks of her cousins demanded an explanation.

‘The Captain guy said we, or the Marauders had been here 30 years ago. We know our parents lived here, or at least one of our mothers; makes sense our fathers did as well, but I bet our parents used the bracelets, and…’

Quixote leapt in and said, ‘Yeah. That explains Dad’s powers eh!’

‘…er…no. They did not have the bracelets.’

Ari pulled his toga on.

‘I’m not sure that makes sense, Lex. The bracelets were here, not in our valley. Surely if they had used them once, they would have kept them on.’

‘Or the bracelets only work here, or with the costumes,’ Lexington said.

‘Or,’ Melaleuca said, ‘it could be one of many reasons. These we will discover as we move forward, playing.’

Lexington placed her hands on her hips.

‘And I suppose you already knew this?’

‘It had occurred to me, yes.’

‘I won’t play. I will pretend instead.’

‘Good,’ Melaleuca said ignoring her dig. ‘One more thing though. We make contact with people only when I say so. Quixote? Is that clear?’

He nodded.

‘Rest and clear ourselves. We start tomorrow morning.’

‘But why not start now,’ Lexington said. ‘The note said to give regard to no others.’

‘I feel it,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Besides I think it wise to make our Aunt think we have calmed down.’

‘You know that whatever it is we have to do,’ Ari said, ‘will probably involve taking her on.’

 

Aunty Gertrude burst into the room, throwing the door open. A little freaked at the timing, they waited for the inevitable scolding. She shooed the boys out of the room, while Pemily gave the girls bowls of gruel. Petruce escorted the boys to their rooms, serving them with similar muck. Within minutes of her leaving, the boys climbed into the secret passage and wound their way to the girls’ room, finding them staring at the disgusting slop.

 

‘She said it would make us hard from the inside,’ Lexington said. ‘It smells like vomit.’

The door creaked open again, and Uncle Bear-Nard’s nervous head appeared around the edge checking who occupied the room. He beckoned them to follow him. Trundling behind, the cousins followed him through the wall-door and down the back stairs. Just before the bottom of the stairs he pushed on the wall and it flipped outwards, hinged on an angle.

‘Come through,’ he said.

They squeezed through into another staircase.

Before they could ask, Uncle Bear-Nard explained, ‘Some of the interior staircases have flip sides to them.’

‘Why?’ Lexington asked.

‘Not really sure.’

After walking up two flights of stairs, they came to a narrow corridor leading left and right.

‘Not all the floors have them,’ Uncle Bear-Nard further explained. ‘M..m..most puzzling. Corridors l..l..leading nowhere, but some rooms. Follow.’

They trotted off down the narrow corridor to a small door. Inside, a small table had been spread with a cloth, and dishes containing hot food, and sweet looking ale sat. Around it four, old, rickety chairs sat. Plain walls faced them with four small candles hanging off the wall, burning away and emitting a weak yellow light.

‘I do a..a.a.apologise. Your Aunt has a good heart, a strong heart though. I had Mrs Whibberry chuck t..t.t.this together.’

‘Yum,’ Quixote said

Both he and Ari tucked in without question.

‘Who is Mrs Whibberry?’ Lexington asked.

‘Our cook,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said back. ‘Best not m..m..mention this feast to anyone.’

He scurried out the door before any more questions could be asked.

The cousins did not hold back. They engorged themselves, stuffing food into their mouths and tasting its delectable sumptuousness; chomping and chewing until their bellies could fit no more. They ate so much that weariness came over them. Once finished, they clomped back to their respective rooms, a need to lie down befalling all of them.

 

***

 

Quixote flopped around on his bed feeling frustrated. After all he had a bracelet that could bring his imagination to life. He jumped up and looked out the smeary window. Like small dots, the rooftops of the town could be seen down on the valley floor. Maybe there were some children like him down there.

Ari lay on his bed, too full to worry about Quixote’s restlessness, though he too felt restless. Now that he lay still, the silent sensation he had dubbed the “Ethmare” called to him again, though every time he moved or focused on it, it disappeared. Only stillness of his mind and body brought it back. What was it? What around here could command such a feeling inside him?

Lexington’s mind felt too crammed with questions and possibilities to even contemplate trying to sort them out. Stuffed from eating too much, she lay on her bed. Without letting Melaleuca know, she took her advice; relaxed and tried to think of something fun and enjoyable.

As the food gurgled through her intestines, demanding more energy from her body to help digest it, her thoughts slowed down, helping her to relax. Smiling, she pictured herself in an archaeologist’s costume examining the statues in Hirad’s Forest. She thought of Argus videotaping them, the photaic wall, silverquick and Antavahni, and of course the odd creature Iam. She thought of the words that Aunty Gertrude spoke a few days before, about them being descended from Throughnight nobility and wondered if it was connected to what Jeeves said about them inheriting the Cathedral-Mansion. If it were true, then Aunty Gertrude would probably want to stop them. Was the end of age Antavahni spoke of, and the end Iam mentioned, one and the same thing?

As sleep tugged at her, she felt a pang of excitement, realising she would need many different costumes to solve all of these mysteries.

Melaleuca lay on her bed, looking up at the ceiling. In her grew two gardens of thoughts. One was heavily fertilized by the exhilaration of the bracelets and costumes. They had separated her from the earth’s gravity, giving her a great sense of lightness and freedom. Even now as she lay down, her body could still feel the sensation, like stepping off a boat on to flat land and still feeling it swaying.

Yet in the other garden of her thoughts, grew a sinking feeling; a feeling that what they had seen and experienced so far, was only a taste of events to come. She felt the edges of seriousness way off in the distance, held back for the time being. Shapeless and making little sense, she knew eventually they would have to face this thing, whatever it was. On her own instructions she tried not to think about it, but needed to find something to laugh about.

Keep moving forward and play.

As ever she resolved to steel herself to follow these instructions no matter what.

 

***

 

‘You have two weeks,’ Aunty Gertrude said in another rant. ‘Two weeks to prove to me I should let those brats stay. Or I will alert the high council that my plan to bring outside children to New Wakefield is starting.’

Uncle Bear-Nard looked as defiant as his meek, round face could muster. ‘They need more time to adjust. Children from the outside world are different.’

‘They are weak!’

‘They could be strong.’

‘They should be sent to the Southern Wasteland. I do not want them leaving here until they can act like they should. I forbid it. Hence forth they are house bound.’

‘But ─ ’

‘No BUTS! Do you realise how precarious this is? Do you? With the sighting of the Marauders and your sisters association with them last time, we will be lucky if these children do not finish this great house off.’

He went to speak, but she hushed him, and stormed out through the bedroom door, her hard soled shoes clattering down the corridor.

‘Two weeks,’ she yelled back.

Lost, Uncle Bear-Nard sat on the edge of the bed; the large castle-like room swallowing up his thoughts.

The small creature with changing skin colour appeared in the corridor, morphing into a dirty urchin boy, before stepping into the doorway.

‘What’s wrong?’ Scout asked.

‘That I should be the last of my forebears to witness how empty and forlorn this house has become.’

‘Every great civilisation falls,’ Scout said, offering cold comfort.

‘Perhaps, but if we fall, history shall never know us and any of our past greatness.’

Scout scratched its head, flaky skin falling from it like snow. ‘Is that why you let the children come here?’

‘Someone has to be left behind to remember us. I only hope it was not a mistake.’ He looked at Scout. ‘You have kept away from them, haven’t you?’

Scout nodded.

‘Good. Keep it that way until I say otherwise. And why are you dressed as a tramp?’

Scout darted its eyes left and right, looking guilty.

‘I think the Harbinger might have something to say about this,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said. ‘Didn’t the Harbinger tell you to stay out of the costume room?’

 

***

 

The Harbinger watched the cousins fall asleep. He felt bad. He had slipped sleeping potion into their food while no one watched. The cousins rapid discovery of the costumes and the ease at which they took to them both pleased and disturbed him. Pleased because the cousins were everything he had hoped for, but disturbed because events were moving faster than he could control.

 

***

 

That night Aunty Gertrude heard dogs barking and baying from a distance. At first she tried to ignore them, but then they got closer and closer. The last time she had heard them, the Inquisat had tracked some escaped children to one of the sheds at the back of the Cathedral-Mansion. That’s all she needed now, was another bothersome child.

Lamp in hand, she strode outside to investigate. From across the fields heading toward the Cathedral-Mansion she could see the yellow lights of lanterns and hear the din of tracking dogs. Within minutes Captain HeGood and ten of his Inquisat soldiers came rushing toward her, all on horseback.

Seeing her, he cried out, ‘Halt!’ and trotted over to her.

‘Matron Gertrude. My apologies for the disturbance.’

‘I see. What is your business? Escaped children?’

‘Not exactly. I came across two strange boys a day or so ago in the Northern Hills while tracking an escaped child. I think these boys were outsiders. Have you seen them?’

‘S…s…s..seen them? S…s…s..seen them?’ She bit her lip to hide the anger she felt rise toward Uncle Bear-Nard. Those damn children had got themselves spotted. Just as well she had forewarned the council behind his back.

‘Aye. Seen them. Two strange boys.’

‘Have you told the council of this?’ Aunty Gertrude asked.

‘Not yet.’

‘Pity. It might have saved you a trip. You see I have four children here under my care. The council knows of it. We are seeing if outside children can adapt to our ways.’

Captain HeGood stared back puzzled. ‘What would be the purpose of this?’

‘I bid you good night Captain HeGood and remind you of your rank. The children will be starting their disciplining in a few days. There will be no more incidences.’

‘I know my rank and I shall be checking with the council.’

He turned his steed and bade the others follow and rode off.

 

Chapter 20 – Experiments, Tests and Theories.

 

 

Lexington woke up first, determined to get a head start. In the attic, after conversing with her inner voice, she found sheets of white paper, and pinned them up. She wrote on them:

 

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Costumes identified

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Costumes tried

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Costume principles

-Need to relax and enjoy

-Play (unconfirmed), perhaps only enthusiasm is needed. Or pretend.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Costumes strengths/weaknesses

– Can take the person over and control them

 

She pinned the last sheet of paper up and started writing out unanswered questions.

 

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who attacked us? Why? What were they after?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Where did the bracelets and costumes come from?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What powers them?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How does this land work? Magnetism?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Where are our parents?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Why only one photo of mother?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What’s so special about us?

 

Under this question, she jotted, We are from a noble bloodline and are to inherit this house. Are we being trained for something?

 

She carried on writing more questions down.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What is a cock-a-rock?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. How old is this land?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What is the creature I keep seeing?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. What is a Marauder?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Who is KARENA?

 

Gazing at her handiwork she realised she needed a pattern to glue it all together. She wrote up, “Myth and Legend,” paused then scrawled underneath it, “Hyper-thesis.”

She scrawled her original five hyper-theses under the heading, and lastly, after pinning up one more sheet, she wrote on it, “Leads,” then raised the pen to write more questions.

The others arrived, passing by the sheets and reading them.

‘I intend to gather all the facts we discover,’ Lexington said. ‘Write up what you find under the right heading. Each day I shall include them in my hyper-thesis.’

Lexington beamed.

‘Make sure you have fun,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari read over the sheets, while Quixote screwed his face up

‘That’s not fun,’

Melaleuca spoke before Lexington could answer back.

‘I’ll write up what he discovers….Happy?’

‘Yeeeaahh. I guess.’

‘Good. Lexington. What else are you doing today?’

‘You approve of this, then?’

‘Of course. It is clear you are enjoying it, having fun. So, today?’

Lexington cocked her head at Ari, asking, ‘Are you following your Ethmare feeling today?’

He nodded.

‘I may follow then.’

‘With the Indian costume, I’m going to sit on the roof and listen and look, just like Iam said.’

Melaleuca nodded her approval.

‘Oh,’ Lexington said. ‘In that case, I may…’

She produced a pair of khaki pants with a safari shirt and a tatty, leather bag with metal implements sticking out.

‘This is an archaeologist’s outfit. I am going to investigate the statue and then…’ She looked up and down, suddenly puzzled. ‘…though I really want to work out who Karena is. Was it our mums’ friend? Or even a nickname for one of them? And you know what? That bush creature Iam bugs me. I mean what is it?’

Melaleuca felt the fabric of the khaki shorts. Of course she confuses herself with her own questions. ‘Just follow one lead. Your heart or your head but have fun.’

‘Hey Lex, why not find a decision making outfit.’ Quixote said.

‘Perhaps I will.’

‘And Quixote,’ Melaleuca said tugging him away from Lexington, ‘you are going to do, what?’

He drummed his fingers on his chest and placed one under his bottom lip, humming away.

‘Ummm…mmmm, um, I want to try on lots of costumes. Find the most fun ones.’

‘And where are you going to do this?’

‘In the attic?’

Melaleuca lifted his chin up so he could see her face, saying, ‘Stay away from people, all people. Come and find one of us if the need arises.’

He nodded.

‘And what are you to do?’ Lexington asked Melaleuca.

‘Keep an eye on you all,’ she replied with a mysterious air, and then announced, ‘Now, treat this as a game. Play. Every five minutes take your bracelets off, to stop the costumes taking over. Are we clear?’

They all nodded in agreement.

 

***

 

From the rooftop Ari nearly saw to the sea down the valley. He tried using his telescopic vision to see into the township, discovering it had a limited range. The houses had strange roofs but he could not make them out fully. He swept his eyes across the landscape. A sense of vastness leaked off the southern dry hills, hinting at the thousands of miles that lay beyond. Relaxing into it, many sensations licked at his developing insight, though one stood out. The northern forested hills seethed with a lush, silent richness, reminiscent of the Ethmare.

He traced his way to the northern end of the Cathedral-Mansion, passing by many out-of-place odd towers, turrets and steeples. Sitting, he folded his legs and stared into the forest, closing his eyes. Iam had said it would take weeks, even months to hear the plants and animals. Perhaps with the costumes he could do it quicker; perhaps minutes, or hours, at best no more than a day.

 

***

 

As Lexington stood, brush in hand, at the base of the strewn trees and dirt piles, she looked up at the statues and an impulse to begin with the doors struck her. She questioned why, and considered activating her inner voice to analyse it, though the impulse suddenly left.

Strange. That never happened with the detective costume.

Putting the brush down, she wrote, “why,” in the ground with her finger.

I don’t like being kept silent for too long.

‘Did you just observe what happened?’

Yesss!

‘Well?’

Well what!

‘Well what do you think?’

Melaleuca is right. Play. Stop thinking. That way you won’t need me.

‘Meaning?’

I am not made for play. I think, I analyse, I ─

‘I meant what do you mean, “Play, stop thinking.” It didn’t happen with the detective costume.’

Oh, I see how it is going to be. Very well then. The detective costume’s function was to think and analyse, something you do naturally. So it was not against your natural impulse.

‘So that means…’

Relax and pretend and you shall become as the costume. But I shouldn’t worry about it. You would have worked it out.

‘So to be an archaeologist, I just purely pretend, not think.’

Duhhh! That’s what I said.

‘What’s bugging you?’

When you stop analysing I switch off. It means I can’t be what you are pretending to be unless you are thinking and analysing.

‘You’re not a separate personality.’

I can’t help what I am, what I become, anymore than you can.

Hmmm, thought Lexington. That does not sound right.

Stop! It hurts and anyway I can hear what you feel.

Lexington bent down and scrawled, “that’s why,” in the dirt. Her inner voice seemed to be getting more and more unruly, something she would have to analyse later.

She picked up the brush again, paused, and imagined ancient ruins and herself as an archaeologist exploring them. The doors stood out once again as the place to start, and without realising it she clambered up to them, and became aware she had lost control. She whipped the bracelet off.

I wonder.

With no bracelet on, she flicked the brush over the door. Dirt fell away, revealing deep grooves, though what it was she could not tell; maybe a hinge of some sort. Shutting her eyes, she put the bracelet on again, imagined an archaeological dig and then opened them. The deep grooves appeared as a door handle of sorts. Excited, she whipped out her trowel, digging the dirt out, until an enormous door handle, recessed into the door sat before her.

A dozen images of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Minoan and even Sumerian door handles flooded her mind; none of which matched the design in front of her. Grabbing it, she tried pulling and twisting but it would not budge.

Excited, she took the bracelet off again, to see what she recalled. She could remember that it was possibly older than anything known, but none of the ancient designs. Back on went the bracelet, and the ancient designs swirled through her mind.

More details stood out. The shimmering, shape changing nature came from intricate stonework. Whoever had made the statues had, millimetre-by-millimetre, chiselled tiny dents in many directions, and as Lexington moved around they formed different images.

Amazing.

Once again the knowledge from the archaeologist’s costume filled her mind with past images, comparing all sorts of ancient structures, concluding that nothing like this had ever been seen.

But this almost suggests a civilisation more ancient and older than whoever settled here before the British and even older than known history.

 

***

 

Melaleuca hung back, watching Quixote for a time. He had found clown suits, juggler’s outfits, a trapeze artist costume, a pickpocket, a chimney sweep, a Morris dancer, and a ringside announcer at a circus. By the time he came back wearing an executioner’s outfit Melaleuca was ready to try some costumes of her own on.

‘Be careful with that one, eh?’ Melaleuca said. ‘See if you can find…’ What would be useful but fun? ‘…I know. Find a costume that will distract people should we ever need to create a diversion.’

‘Okay,’ he said excited at the prospect.

Quixote headed back into the costumes and Melaleuca started looking as well. As she looked and pondered which she would try, another thought hit her. Why not just use her power of staring into people?

‘Mel?’ Quixote asked. ‘Can I try on something from the weird corner?’

‘Sure…ah..hang on. What? Weird corner?’

‘The ones that Lexington said made no sense.’

Melaleuca eyed him up and down. ‘You’re not just doing it to rile her?’

‘I only want to see what they do,’ and then said in his most harmless tone, ‘You said I am in charge of fun. They look fun.’

Melaleuca’s feelings told her to be cautious about them; however Quixote’s keenness needed directing as well.

‘Stay up here. If you find anything, write it up or I will when I get back.’

‘Fantastic. What are you going to do?’

‘There are a few people that I need to look at,’ Melaleuca said and watched, making sure Quixote went where he said.

She climbed down the secret passageway and snuck out through the chapel. She waited and waited and waited and waited, but no one came by. Thinking Pembrooke might be in the garden, she strolled along the empty, sapping corridor, past the photos. Still no sound of anyone. She turned into the large entrance hall with the Grand Ascension Stairs and headed past it toward the kitchens.

Pemily appeared, startled to see her.

‘Well, what are you doing here?’ she asked, flapping her podgy arms. ‘TUT! Don’t speak. Best you head up to your room.’

Melaleuca blocked Pemily’s path, trying to catch her eyes. A little shocked, Pemily stepped backwards and gushed.

‘What is it girl?’

Finally Pemily looked at Melaleuca, and instantly, like sharp daggers, Melaleuca’s hawk-eyes bore deep into Pemily.

Images flashed fast. She saw Pemily doing her daily chores, hitting herself, going off into a strange looking town, and attending a meeting of people hurting themselves. Keeping eye contact, Melaleuca wanted to see deeper, and the images came faster, blurring as they went. Large people crushed houses, fires burnt, and animals of great ferocity ran rampant through crowds of people. Out of the murky images one of their mothers leapt into view, blood stained and tattered. Shocked, Melaleuca pulled back, breaking the connection with Pemily.

Pemily tottered back and forth, giddy, grabbing for the wall.

‘Here…what…oh dear…I feel…’

Footsteps approached, and not wanting to be caught, Melaleuca slipped out through the kitchen and in to the garden, finding a large asparagus patch to hide in. She thought about the visions, letting her feelings explore them. So much hidden for them to discover, she decided it best to run it by Lexington.

Pembrooke appeared pushing a wheelbarrow and mumbling to himself. Melaleuca snuck behind him. Trying to take him by surprise she said, ‘Hello.’

‘Arrgggh!’ Pembrooke shrieked, dropping the wheelbarrow and turning. ‘Oh my words, tis only you.’ His leathered, old face wrinkled up. ‘Exploring, eh?’

With little time to bandy words, she locked eyes on him, boring deep into him. Images of soldiers in smart red uniforms marching off a ship and being greeted by villagers and peasants flashed through her mind. Some guy with a loud voice announced he was Captain Wakefield of Her Majesty’s Service and that a golden age had arrived.

Pembrooke yanked his head backwards.

‘Ohhh, you the sharp one, eh. Got some sort of powers, eh? Whassit? Vision eyes? Minds readers? Teleport-kinesis? Go on tells. I won’t say nufink.’

‘Tell me everything you know.’

He chuckled in return.

‘An old fella like me. What do I know?’

‘You were there when Captain Wakefield arrived. I just saw it.’

Pembrooke said nothing but scowled a little.

‘Who is this Captain Wakefield?’ Melaleuca asked.

With eyes fixed fast on the upper story windows, Pembrooke said, ‘Better a pound earned than a pound given.’

‘Meaning?’

Pembrooke turned away from her. ‘Shoo, I’ves work to do.’

He ambled away.

Maybe she could solve everything if she could make people freeze in one position and stare into them. It would help she thought, but then she would have to sift through a bewildering array of information, or at least, Lexington would.

She decided to inspect the statue of Captain Wakefield once more, and then, perhaps find a costume to augment her new gift.

 

***

 

After climbing up and down the statue and brushing all the dirt off it she could reach, Lexington became intrigued by the layers of dirt around it. They could tell her how long it had been buried, though how it became buried for so long was more intriguing.

Focusing on the layers, she relaxed, trying to let the costume work. Some facts of the alluvial past and different dirt types wandered through her mind, but nothing like the flood of images before. She needed another costume for that, but which?

Of course, a geologist’s costume.

She pulled the bracelet off, and climbed down, packing her tools away to head back. She glanced in triumphant at the statue, smug she would solve it. Something about the head caught her eye.

How did I miss that?

One of the eyes had been removed. She snapped the bracelet back on and climbed up to it, her curiosity outdoing any fear of falling. She pushed her fingers into the eye socket. It felt empty. Unable to peer in, but desperate to look, she worked her way down, and started scrambling up the hill to get above it. On a steep edge above the statue, she peered over, realising she needed the help of the others.

But there on the top of both statues lay the unmistakable patterns from her lost medallion. Again she felt foolish for losing it, and now she would have to tell the others about it, but would they believe her, and more importantly, would they follow the words of her mother? Her mother’s instructions had been to return if she found…..what, she thought?

How could her mother have known of this statue, which she had already surmised had been covered for thousands of years? She must have meant something else.

With unanswered questions she headed back, dreading suggesting they return to Lone Valley to find their parents.

 

***

 

Ari drifted in and out of sleep, finding it challenging to stay awake. He could feel the same force he had felt in the bracelet room, though each time he detected it, and focused on it, it disappeared.

As the sun crawled across the fudgy sky, furtive questions nipped at his mind as he battled sleep. Why could he not see any clouds on this side of the mountain? Who were the men they saw going through the tunnel?

He shut his eyes once again, trying to block the questions, and placed his hands on his crossed legs, determined to stay awake. Bird song chatted all around him and a distant wind tugged at the trees. And then another sound, a sound beneath sound that had no sound, thrummed around him. It seemed to be coming from inside his ear or from a source deep in the earth, which he could not tell. Excited and unsure, he started to think about it and the no-sound disappeared.

He relaxed again and this time the costume tuned his ears to the variances in everyday sounds. The wind through the large trees on the front lawn chuffed as it passed through its leaves and branches, sounding like soft-muted cotton-wool rubbing together. Beyond them the wind charged through the tall thin trees guarding the fence-row sounding thinner, with a high pitch scream barely audible to it. The wind in the squat bushes blasted through them so quickly that it gave off a rattle sound, and the wind in the forest had an edge of largeness to it, like it swallowed it, channelled it and then ejected it with more gusto.

Even the birdsong had differences. Some squawked, some chirped, some chatted and others seem to have a playful tune.

Relaxing more he heard a rhythm between the wind and the birdsong. Losing himself deep in mediation, time began to slow down, and the wind and birdsong at last seemed to form the barest of a rudimentary syllable.

‘Ooooooooo.’

He heard the wind and birdsong speak like it had actually spoken.

 

***

 

Melaleuca inspected the statue of Captain Wakefield, though it yielded little clue as to who he was and more importantly why Pembrooke had him in his memory.

How much simpler would it be if she could find someone that could just tell them the history of this land. But that was not going to happen.

She looked again at the statue, wondering if Captain Wakefield had anything to do with the Marauders or worse – the bloody image of her mother?

She searched her feelings, finding only a jumble of thoughts and images, nothing on which to make a decision. She knew though, that the information needed to be passed on to Lexington.

She headed back to the attic, figuring Quixote needed checking as well.

 

***

 

In the low grey light of the attic, a small figure darted in front of Melaleuca, running deep into the bowels of the attic.

‘Quixote?’ she shouted in a soft voice. ‘Is that you?’

No one replied.

She walked toward where she had seen it go.

‘Quixote?’

Noises, as if someone searched fast through the costumes came from the attic, and the blue light from the costume room cast its light-stream out in the empty attic, making it very obvious that an open door sat in the smashed up brick wall.

Melaleuca found Ari, standing in the middle of the costumes from the last thousand years, searching through them.

‘What are looking for?’

‘What! Oh it’s you. I heard it, I actually heard it,’ Ari said.

‘Heard what?’

Lexington rushed through the door, flushed with excitement. ‘It’s older than anything known to history, and ─ ’

‘I heard the earth speak!’ Ari half shouted. ‘I need an Indian medicine man outfit. What do you call them?’

‘A shaman,’ Lexington said. ‘Did you really hear the earth? What did it say?’ Lexington looked puzzled. ‘And how?’

As he started to tell them, something small exploded from a corner, sending billows of orange smoke into the room. Ari ducked and headed toward it, then stopped, stood and exchanged knowing glances with Melaleuca, both saying, ‘Quixote.’

‘Over here,’ Quixote said from the opposite corner.

They turned, heard another small explosion, and more orange clouds billowed up to the roof.

‘No over here!’

Two more orange smoke-bomb clouds erupted by the mirror at the other end of the costume rows.

‘Quixote. Very good,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Come and show us.’ She turned to Ari and Lexington.

‘I asked him to find a costume that would be good for causing distractions.’

Quixote leapt out from behind a row of costumes.

‘Cool eh!’

A snug fitting suit clung to Quixote’s body, mottled in different colours and hues. Small tubes appeared under the surface of the material and ran from the legs up over the torso and converged on his arms, ending at the cuffs.

‘What is it?’ Melaleuca asked.

Quixote shrugged his shoulders.

‘Whatever it is,’ Ari said, ‘it distracted us. How does it work?’ He touched the fabric, feeling the tubes underneath.

Quixote shook his arms.

‘Watch.’

He lifted an arm, closed his hand and then threw it toward a corner.

POOOOF! Another cloud appeared.

Lexington narrowed her eyes on the suit with suspicion.

‘It’s obvious which section you got this from. How did you work it out?’

‘Just put it on and jumped about.’

‘I see. And what if cannon balls had shot out of the sleeves.’

‘Well it didn’t.’

‘If it did?’

A sneaky smile crossed Quixote’s face.

‘What about your laws of physics?’

‘Oh really.’ Lexington flicked a dismissive hand at him. ‘That is so old. It’s obvious a new set of laws operate here. Anyway, I have discovered that the statue is older than known history.’

‘Boring!’

‘Enough,’ Melaleuca said to Quixote.

Lexington turned to Melaleuca, saying, ‘I suggest once again that the mysterious costumes be treated with caution. They seem, well, different. If this costume does this, what might the others do? They need to be carefully investigated.’

Melaleuca could see sense in Lexington’s words; however Quixote had discovered a costume that might prove useful.

‘We keep on doing what we are doing,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington started to protest, but was hushed by Melaleuca.

‘We keep on exploring. Stay out of people’s way. Have fun. Use your imagination. From now on Quixote, if you want to select a costume from that section then let’s make sure myself or Ari is with you. That goes for us all. Okay?’

They all nodded.

Lexington pulled Melaleuca to one side out of earshot of the others. Lexington tried to make her eyes as big and round as possible.

‘I have discovered something.’

Melaleuca breathed in and out.

‘What?’

‘I found something that makes me think that our parents are needed to solve this mystery.’ She proceeded to tell her about the medallion and what she had found at the statue. ‘…so you see Mum said to come get her if I found it. I think I have found it.’

‘You should have told us way before this. It matters not anyway. My decision is we wait until we know what it is we have to find?’

‘Your instincts?’

‘Yes.’

As Lexington started to protest, Ari yelled out, ‘I found it!’

Ari held up a costume made of tanned yellow leather with faded paintings and bird feathers hanging off it.

‘A shaman outfit.’

‘Very good,’ Melaleuca said. ‘All of us write up what we found out today.’ With a serious tone she carried on talking. ‘We rely on no others, except ourselves. Even if someone told us all we need to know, it is ultimately us who must decide whether we believe them and what we do with the information.’

As they wrote up their finds, Lexington ran her eye over it. Quixote’s costumes, plus Ari’s earth-speak she could not immediately fit into what she had found. But Melaleuca’s discovery gave rise to questions.

‘How did you find this out?’ Lexington asked. ‘What costume did you use?’

Melaleuca explained her newly discovered powers, adding, ‘I think I have always had them but never a use for them until now.’

‘Perhaps we all have powers,’ Quixote said.

 

Lexington felt heat pickles crawl over her skin. Was this the time to reveal her inner voice? She did not know why but she thought they might think less of her, and so coughed and said, ‘Perhaps…n.n.n.not all of us d…do.’

The others looked at her strange, so she drew their focus to Melaleuca’s finds.

‘So one of our mothers was involved in a fight and the man in the statue has something to do with a discovery of this land.’

‘I guess,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Well, it is still not enough to go on.’

‘Lex, it’s only been one day,’ Ari said.

‘Then I’ll find a costume that speeds up time,’ Quixote said.

‘Ahem,’ Melaleuca said, prodding Lexington. ‘Isn’t there something more you should be writing?’

With reluctance Lexington wrote up what she had found and then told the others of the medallion and what her mother had said.

‘You should have told us after you lost it, Lex,’ Ari said.

‘But Mum said ─ ’

‘Yes, but losing it was not part of her plan, I bet.’

Like a sheen deep beneath her skin, Melaleuca saw frustration creep across Lexington’s face.

‘Lexington, relax,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We are doing fine. Stop thinking so much.’

‘But it is what I do!’ And anyway I loved today. There is much to solve in this land, to which I am suited. As for our parents – going back to find them, you will see I am right.’

Lexington read over the sheets of paper in detail. Upon completion her face lit up.

‘So at least we know why this place is called New Wakefield. It was probably named after the statue on the fifth floor.’

Outside the costume room, in the attic, a loud crash sounded, like someone falling over. Altogether they rushed toward the open door, peering into the darkness.

‘Can’t see anything,’ Ari whispered.

‘The door needs to stay shut all the time,’ Melaleuca said.

They waited and waited in silence, but no more noises came from the attic. On Melaleuca’s instruction they shut the door and headed for their rooms.

 

***

 

The sun had barely risen the next morning when Pemily and Petruce came separately to their rooms, waking them and ushering them out into the corridor. They shooed them along in a great hurry, until they met at the top of the Grand Ascension Stairs. Still bleary eyed and waking up, they asked what was happening.

Pemily whispered to them, ‘Shhh. Tis a great honour indeed.’ Pride rang out from her tones. ‘The Lady of the Mansion said you could use these stairs today.’

‘Shh,’ Petruce said. ‘Here they come. Follow me.’

Voices chattered five stories below. Harsh inaudible words rose up, echoing faintly in the Cathedral-Mansion roof. Pemily and Petruce trotted down the Grand Ascension Stairs, arms clasped in front, an air of importance about them. The cousins wandered behind them.

At the third storey set of stairs, Pemily and Petruce turned around to the cousins. Dismayed at their meandering, they hissed at them to get into a line. The cousins formed a line across the stairs.

‘No. Behind each other,’ Petruce said.

‘Why?’ Lexington asked.

Before Petruce could reply, people shuffled into sight and gathered at the foot of the stairs. Three men and two women stood alongside Aunty Gertrude.

Unsure, the cousins slowed their pace, studying the strange people. Deep, blue capes draped off them and they all wore uniforms of red, tough-looking wool. Gold and silver stripes traced lines across the chests of their uniforms, and a belt strapped itself tight across their waists, with another belt slung over their left shoulder which attached to their waist belt. Gnarled, naked knees protruded through holes cut into their black trousers, and out from under their high, calf boots, naked feet poked. Each of their left arms had what looked like a leather glove extending all the way up to their shoulder. Covered in belts, buckles, barbed wire, bamboo, and strips of thin leather, it looked like the arm of a suit of twisted armour.

‘What are they?’ Quixote said.

Pemily and Petruce shot looks of horror at the cousins and then at Aunty Gertrude and the gathered people.

Aunty Gertrude swung around to face them, and the gathered people looked up. Aunty Gertrude raised her left arm to calm the maids. The same weird looking leather glove clad her entire arm as well.

‘It’s alright girls I expect better manners from a dog. Leave them.’

The maids rushed back up stairs.

The lines on the faces of the caped people seemed deeply etched, adding a heavy, graven weight to them. They appeared as if they had never laughed or smiled.

Melaleuca did not like them. An ill feeling came off them.

‘Who are these people?’ Melaleuca asked.

With a smile full of vengeful relish, Aunty Gertrude replied, ‘These people are to be your pedagogues and discipliners.’

The words meant little to the cousins, though Lexington picked up on the word Pedagogues.

‘You mean teachers? Of what?’

‘I am sending you to the Vahn.’

With blank expressions the cousins gawped at her, none the wiser.

‘Ohhh ignoramuses. I am sending you to New Wakefield’s school of discipline!!!! And believe me when I say discipline, I mean suffering, pain, and hardship.’

 

 

Chapter 21 – The Vahn

 

 

‘School? Really?’ Quixote jumped up and down on the spot. ‘Are you for real?’

The stern group eyed Quixote’s questions with great disgust.

‘See their impertinence,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

The tallest of them, a skinny man with a face like crumbling bricks, stepped forward with an awkward gait.

‘I am Sah Task-Master Keen. DO not speak unless spoken too.’

‘Not this again,’ Lexington said.

He looked at her, then at Melaleuca, a flash of recognition crossing his face.

‘You look familiar…’ He turned his grey eyes to Aunty Gertrude.

‘My Lord, none of these children have ever been here before.’

‘Hummph,’ he replied.

A short, rotund lady surged forward, with a face like a pig’s head on a neck-less shoulder.

‘I am Task-Matron Bircher. Don’t talk back.’

She raised her podgy arms to hit them. Ari leapt in front of his cousins, blocking her. Shocked, Task-Matron Bircher recoiled. From behind her Task-Master Quenlein, a thickset man, with a scabby, sun-burnt looking face leapt out, swinging his right arm at Ari. Ari blocked the blow, surprising all the adults. Eyes ablaze with defiance, Ari gritted his teeth, uttering in a deep voice, ‘No one touches us.’

Task-Master Quenlein roared like an animal in his face.

‘Had I used my Galeslar-clad left arm, you would not be standing.’

Ari held his gaze though Task-Master Quenlein’s eyes reflected back his steel will.

‘Task-Master Quenlein, desist,’ Sah Task-Master Keen said.

He backed off growling at Ari, shaking his left arm at him. The leather-metalled armour that clad it covered his arm like an outer shield.

With its bits of belts, buckles, barbed wire, bamboo and other paraphernalia, Ari felt glad Task-Master Quenlein had used his right arm.

‘You have strength boy,’ Sah Task-Master Keen said to Ari. ‘It might hold you in good stead.’

He turned to the remaining man, a younger version of himself, though a face full of scars, as if barbed wire had been raked across it. ‘Master Phrenia, note all this down.’

Master Phrenia nodded.

‘These were the best that could be found?’ Sah Task-Master Keen asked.

Aunty Gertrude arranged a smug smile.

‘Sadly these are the best.’

The cousins prodded Melaleuca, asking her what to do in a whisper. Her instincts said to do nothing, but wait.

Alarmed, Lexington whispered to Melaleuca, ‘I want to stay here.’

‘SILENCE!’ Aunty Gertrude shrieked.

‘Matron Henlenessy, are they suitable?’ Sah Task-Master Keen asked.

Matron Henlenessy moved forward, a younger looking version of Aunty Gertrude with fuller lips. She eyed them up and down with a cold eye, and pronounced, ‘A few days or weeks will soon answer that.’

Sah Task-Master Keen chortled, explaining, ‘She is a Matron of the House of Knives. Given to her order is the gift of judgment and decision making. Seems she is on your side.’

Quixote broke away from his cousins, falling at the feet of Task-Master Quenlein. He grabbed his knees and protruding toes, laughed and said, ‘I can see your toes, and ya pants have holes in them.’

Task-Master Quenlein reached down and with his meat-cleaver sized hand, picked up a smirking Quixote and drew his other hand back to hit him. Sah Task-Master Keen held his hand up, stopping him.

‘The imp has no fear. Admirable.’ He turned to Aunty Gertrude. ‘They may be suitable, yes. I shall inform the Head Discipliner.’

Task-Master Quenlein put Quixote down. With an out of place gentleness, Master Phrenia grabbed slowly for Quixote’s hands, guiding them to his protruding kneecaps.

‘Feel them boy, feel them good.’

Quixote slapped both his hands on his knees. A puzzled look crossed Quixote’s face.

‘What do you feel boy?’

Quixote looked up at him and then his cousins. He knocked on a single kneecap.

‘It feels like hard wood.’

Master Phrenia pulled bits of barbed wire out of his pocket and threw them on the floor, standing with all his weight on them. After jumping up and down a few times, he lifted his boot, showing it had no underside. Despite the barbed wired, neither puncture wounds nor blood could be seen.

‘Do that one day and you’ll prove worthy enough to stand with the best of us.’

 

Despite his ugliness and gruffness, Ari responded to his admonition feeling he could be that tough.

 

Incensed, Lexington said, ‘How disgusting. What about the intellect, great books, literature, science ─ ’

‘SSSSSS,’ Aunty Gertrude hissed, making a throat cutting gesture. ‘My lord, I ─ ’

Sah Task-Master Keen held his hand up.

‘Say no more. They will buckle under.’ He looked at the other discipliners. ‘Come, leave. Matron Gertrude, ready them for their first day.’

They tossed their capes over their shoulders and walked out of the grand hall, the cousin’s watching after them, especially at the way Sah Task-Master Keen walked; spastic, like his legs were broken in many places.

‘Only few ever attain the rank Sah Task-Master,’ Aunty Gertrude said. ‘Despite falling to his near-death, he dragged himself back injured and he walked months later. Only the hardest dream of his sort of pain.’

An air of admiration hung around Aunty Gertrude. After a few moments lost in thought she faced the cousins. A cruel victor’s wry smile spread across her face. She clapped her hands together, and the maid-servants came running, carrying grey cloth.

‘Put these on.’

‘And if we decide not to go?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Oh but you will,’ Aunty Gertrude replied with an uncomfortable ease. ‘How can you not? Aren’t you curious to see where your parents went?’

Before they could answer, Aunty Gertrude rushed toward them, pushing through them, and sat, lady like, on the stairs. She patted the stairs beside her.

‘Sit.’

They looked amongst each other, confused.

‘Come. Sit. Let me explain.’

Lexington sat first with the others following. Aunty Gertrude reached out and semi-hugged them.

‘Our ways seem harsh, but we are the hardiest people on earth. None are tougher. You children are more special than you can ever imagine.’

Melaleuca opened her mouth to speak, though Aunty Gertrude placed one of her bony fingers onto Melaleuca’s lips with an out of place gentleness.

‘Do be good children. Put the uniforms on. At the Vahn you will find answers to your questions.’

A genuine smile exposed her yellow-stained teeth, and her mottled grey gums.

Melaleuca stood.

‘I don’t trust you.’

‘Then you must flee, because they will come for you. They know you are here. It is an offence to not attend. Either that or be banished to the Southern Wasteland.’

Melaleuca sensed her cousins thinking of the costumes.

And if we use the costumes, you old crow.

Melaleuca braved a smile at their Aunt. ‘We shall go to this Vahn, only to investigate.’

‘Good. Now put these on.’

‘They look like sacks,’ Lexington said.

‘They are your Vahn uniforms,’ she said and clapped her hands, laughing.

Browny-gray and coarse, they looked like a sack with holes cut in it for the head and arms. The only one excited about wearing it was Quixote, who threw it over his head.

‘Take your clothes off first,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

Quixote stripped down naked.

‘BUT LEAVE YOUR UNDERGARMENTS ON!’

He put them back on and then hauled the sack-like uniform over top, dancing about laughing.

The others put their uniforms on; discomfort showing on their faces. No matter where they moved it, or what they did, the sackcloth penetrated their undergarments and irritated their skin.

Aunty Gertrude gloated at their discomfort.

Lexington’s skin reddened more than the others. Scratching made it worse so she tried rubbing her skin with the ends of her fingers. She placed her head by Melaleuca’s ear. ‘We need the bracelets.’

She walked up the stairs a few steps.

‘I must return to my room. I have for ─ ’

‘You are already late. It is time to go,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

Pembrooke wandered in, saying, ‘The cart is ready, m’lady.’

‘Get them out of here. NOW!’

The cousins trotted behind him, scratching. Aunty Gertrude called out, ‘Best not mention you are related to me or your Uncle.’

Lexington whirled about.

‘What are you not telling us?’

‘All your questions will be answered at the Vahn.’

‘But we are not allowed to ask questions.’

‘Oh for heaven’s sake girl, use your brain, eyes and ears, look and listen. If anyone asks, I found you homeless wandering the street of a town.’

Outside, Pemily stood before a small cart with two horses attached to it, waiting for them.

‘Do you suppose we have to spend the whole day in these?’ Ari asked scratching.

‘Hop aboard,’ Pemily called, dead-pan.

‘I say we grab the bracelets, the costumes and flee,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca screwed her face up with intense itching.

‘My decision is correct. We go.’

‘Let’s hope so,’ Lexington said.

In the back of the cart, dry, scratchy, hay-dust lay littered about the deck. They climbed up, and headed off at a slow pace, trundling down the driveway, with flecks of hay lodging in their eyes, ears, noses and in their sack cloth.

‘If only we could go back and get the bracelets,’ Lexington said, breaking out in red blotches.

‘We’d need costumes too,’ Ari added

He stood and grabbed the back of Pemily’s seat, and despite the swaying of the cart, yelled, ‘How about stopping so we can run back and get something we forgot.’

Pemily cackled.

‘Not worth it. I would be flogged.’

The wheel of the cart bounced over a small rock, sending hay flying into Ari’s face, making him cough and splutter.

‘At least stop so that we get rid of the hay!’

Ignoring him she yelled, ‘Yeee haa!’ to the horses.

 

***

 

From a warped, ground floor window, Aunty Gertrude watched the cart head away, satisfied; hoping the worst would befall them. She chuckled to herself. Her disgusting nieces and nephews would be like lambs slaughtered by ferocious bulls. Supremely confident they would not last the day, she turned to leave the window to resume her daily activities.

From out of the darkness the Harbinger said, ‘What have you done?’

Aunty Gertrude spun about facing him.

‘I suggest you remember where you belong. It’s no longer any business of yours.’

‘You witch. Where have they gone?’

She turned back to the window.

‘Gone?…..They have gone to the Vahn.’

‘To the Vahn? They were supposed to stay here!’

She spun back around.

‘Stay here!! Until what? Until they were discovered and this…’ She held her arms out indicating the building they stood in. ‘…this great house, the last remaining of the 24 great houses that once girdled this land, until they bring this house down, destroy it.’

‘Crone…I should ─ ’

‘I have the power to ─ ’

‘To witness and that’s all.’ The Harbinger held a fist to her and then dropped it. ‘This is not the last house. There is the house of Varkinell. Given to them is ─ ’

‘Are you mad as well as decrepit? You mean the tomb of Varkinell? Daquan Varkinell is a recluse, a madman; weak and frail. His great house crumbles around his ears.’

‘You have no idea what you are dealing with.’

‘Pray I do not turn you in. I suggest you address me correctly and be about your duties.’

She stormed off in anger.

The Harbinger shuffled to the window, peering through it. Lost in a haze of thoughts and fears, a feeling of powerlessness washed over him. All these years, all the careful plans they had laid down could be sunk in one day, all because of a woman with a heart of stone. His only strength lay in trusting that the cousins were ready.

 

***

 

Ari motioned for the others to look at Quixote, who hung his head as far over the side of the cart and sang.

‘Are you not itchy Qui?’ Ari asked.

‘Yes. But I’m more excited about where we are going.’

The girls smiled, their spirits lifted by his bravado.

The cart came out of the oak forest and carried on speeding down the hill, the New Wakefield Valley spreading out before them. In the distance over the rows of hedges and patches of fields, and lazy spires of smoke, they could see the strange roof tops of a small town.

‘Hey look.’ Quixote laughed. ‘Someone’s watching us.’ He pointed to the sky.

Looking up, they saw the faint outline of a young boy or girl’s face, blended into the whole sky. It appeared to be studying them.

‘Pemily,’ Melaleuca asked. ‘What is that in the sky?’

Pemily looked and said, ‘I see nothing. Better not play silly games where you are going.’

The face disappeared.

Quixote prodded Lexington, ‘That’s one for you to work out.’

She sighed. ‘Just add it to the list.’

As they headed toward the town, a large building appeared out of nowhere, springing up in the direction of the town.

‘Look! Where’d it come from?’ Ari asked.

Square shaped, almost black, and looking like night forever fell on it – it cast a pall of oppression over the land, like a shadow from an evil giant.

‘I don’t like the look of that,’ Lexington said.

‘It’s not what it appears,’ Melaleuca said, sensing danger and discovery.

‘Meaning?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Oh. Well perhaps it’s the invisibility thing again,’ Lexington said. ‘The same mechanism must be at work? I wish I had a costume.’

The dirt roads became a little wider and the trees and paddocks thinned out until they found themselves slowing to a trot. They could see the small township ahead of them. On the roofs of the houses and huts and small buildings sat over-sized, grey-black, metal paper-darts.

‘Small space ships,’ Quixote said. ‘Work that into a theory.’

‘That’s the Vahn,’ Pemily said, pointing at the large behemoth black building.

Though it looked foreboding, Quixote said, ‘At least there will be others to play with.’

It suddenly occurred to Melaleuca, that Quixote could present a big challenge. He had never been let loose before with other children, except for the borstal. At least this time, he had no costume or bracelet.

‘Stick close to me or Ari, Qui. We’ll see what they are like first.’

 

As they entered the edge of the town, on the side of the road a man in tattered clothes was bent over. He ripped and tore at the vast array of colourful, wild flowers growing there.

‘What’s he doing?’ Quixote asked.

‘Tearing out the flowers,’ Pemily said.

‘Why?’

‘Flowers weaken people.’

The man turned and snarled.

‘LOOK AWAY!!!’

The horses slowed to a walk, moving through the town toward the large building. The dowdy houses had narrow windows and tiny doors, and were all coloured grey, brown, and black, a lifeless contrast to the wild flowers. No playgrounds, no slides, see-saws, bikes, balls or any such paraphernalia could be seen on any front yard; just grass and what looked like gallows and child and man sized hitching posts.

As the large building loomed closer, it looked less rectangular and more circular. Instead of just black, the surface appeared reflective and metallic. By the time they had reached the southern end of the town they could see that it reared up from behind a curved stone wall and sat on an expansive flat lawn.

Hundreds of children gathered on the lawn, some of them wearing sackcloth similar to the cousins. Rows and rows of them bent over, as older children clad in grey, ill-fitting shirts and trousers hit them in sickening unison.

‘What are they doing?’ Lexington asked.

‘Strengthening repentance,’ Pemily said, bringing the cart to a halt.

‘We are expected to do that?’

Pemily remained silent, though an almost human look of compassion fell over her.

‘Time to get down,’ she said.

Melaleuca’s gut feelings went haywire, and she questioned why her instincts had told her to come to this place.

‘Mel,’ Ari whispered. ‘I don’t like this.’

I am right to trust myself, Melaleuca thought. This is just fear of the unknown.

‘Let us not let fear take grip. Stick together whatever happens. Do not let us be separated.’

‘Here’s where you get off, youngsters,’ Pemily said pointing to some open, tall iron gates.

Through them they could see a gap in the Vahn. At least twelve stories high, the flat wall of the Vahn seemed made of an unearthly material. Black and shiny, it had a reflective look about it, yet it reflected nothing.

Quixote stood up, waving at the children, though none saw him.

A large horn sounded and like robots, the children from the lawn started filing in through the gate. A metal banner stretched over it. The words, ‘Penitence and suffering make you strong,’ were emblazoned across it in rusted metal, though the word “Penitence,” had been crossed out.

Students trudged by, and soon, inside the gate, hundreds of them milled forward to where ever they were going.

Quixote waved and waved and yelled to all the passing students. Like refugees trudging away from a war zone, scantily clad in basic clothing, they shuffled past. Scores of hollow-faced students looked at him blankly.

One young boy and girl waved back, baring their teeth in a weak smile. Quixote hooted and hollered at them, stopping when he saw an older boy hit them in the head.

‘Now you must get off. I can go no further,’ Pemily said. ‘Pembrooke will pick you up on the outskirts of town.’

They got out of the cart and she rode off.

The cousins stood in the middle of the road looking both ways, daunted by the large number of students.

Feeling Lexington’s nervousness, Melaleuca grabbed her hand. Ari followed her example and grabbed Quixote’s.

‘Stick together. We will be fine.’

Several of the students, stared at them, whispering as they passed by, and an older boy, in his late teens approached the cousins. Close cropped hair, a face with two scars, tight fitting black clothes and a lesser looking Galeslar on his left arm; he leaned over them. His knees poked out of his trousers, and his feet protruded out from under his boots.

‘What do you think you are doing?’ he screamed at them, and then realised they were not who he thought they were.

‘Outsiders,’ he whispered. ‘Outsiders. So it is true.’

‘How do you do?’ Lexington asked, offering her hand. ‘My name is Lexington.’

He looked at her lily-white hand, a rare sight in New Wakefield. Entranced, he stared at her pretty face.

‘Do what?’ he asked.

‘Do people not shake hands when they meet? I have read that it is so.’

Still surprised, he took her hand as if it were the reigns of a horse. Against her skin Lexington could feel the rough calluses of his gnarled hand.

 

A female and male adult, clad in grey gowns and wearing red tunics and black pants, strode out of the gate toward them.

‘Gregand, you weak fool,’ Task-Master Quenlein said. ‘Let her hand go.’

Gregand dropped it, hardening his glare, though his skin tinged red.

Task-Master Quenlein slapped him hard on the back.

‘Anyone would think you have never seen a girl before. Leave them. I doubt they will survive a week.’

He shoved Gregand back into the lines of children.

The lady that strode behind Task-Master Quenlein stood there. Elegantly tall, despite the knee-less trousers, protruding toes and military uniform of red, she knelt down. She held their gaze as the cousins scratched their skin once again.

‘I am Harshon.’

Like a dove in the middle of a battlefield, the smooth, silky white skin of her face showed no sign of hardship.

‘I am assigned to you. Please follow me. Try not scratch, it only makes it worse.’

Harshon smiled at Melaleuca, showing off clean, white, almost perfect teeth. ‘It’s okay. Trust.’ She held out a hand.

Quixote reached for it, grinning. She seemed motherly and he liked that.

Melaleuca nodded to the others and they followed. Harshon hand in hand with Quixote went through the gates and into the Vahn.

They passed through the gates dwarfed by the immensity of the Vahn and walked alongside the other shuffling students, who divided into two groups either side of them. The left group had limbs missing, patches of baldness, limps, bandages, even eyes missing, ashen grey skin, sunken in eyes and a general appearance of malaise.

The right group seemed smarter – more ordered. The girls and boys looked stronger. Their clothes fitted better, and all their body parts seemed intact, though scant signs of injury showed on their faces. They wore black uniforms, and Galeslars decorated their left arms, while the left group wore sackcloth and grey clothes, though most had knee-less trousers and sole-less boots.

‘What happened to them?’ Lexington asked.

‘They did not do so well in their tests,’ Harshon replied in a cheery tone, hurrying between the buildings.

 

Soon they stood on the inside of the Vahn. Four black, sleek buildings towered above them arranged in a circular pattern around a large amphitheatre sunk into the ground.

The cousins pushed through the teeming students, and gazed across the amphitheatre from its edge. Deceptive light and hazy shadows made it look bottomless, and though the buildings on the far side could be seen, the distance across it seemed further than it appeared.

With her head reeling from it, Lexington toppled forward, losing her footing. Ari pulled her back, despite feeling giddy as well. Melaleuca and Quixote moved back from the edge, though Quixote itched to climb down the steps and explore.

‘Let me help,’ Harshon said. ‘I remember my first time.’ She held Lexington, steadying her.

Lexington composed herself marvelling at the surroundings. ‘Why does everything appear uneven?’

Shaking her head, Harshon tut-tutted her. ‘A word to the wise. Do not use the word why?’

‘Why? That breeds ignorance.’

Harshon smiled. ‘Ignorance can be strength. Come. The Head-Discipliner wants to meet you.’

Unable to resist Quixote stepped off the edge, jumping a few steps down into the amphitheatre.

Harshon frowned at him, though seemed to understand, and with sadness said, ‘They will discipline that one.’

‘Exactly explain discipline,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Our Aun…I mean the lady that keeps us, uses that word. What does it mean here?’

Harshon frowned more. ‘Oh I see. Well then there is much for you to learn. Who put you in first year clothes?’

‘The lady that keeps us,’ Ari said.

‘I would not have dressed you in such,’ Harshon replied. ‘Now follow me, please.’

They passed under a large protrusion a few storeys up. It jutted out over the amphitheatre and had a door on the outside of it.

‘What is that?’ Quixote asked.

‘That is the Head-Discipliners office.’

‘Who is the bottom discipliner then?’

Ari sniggered, Harshon looked at him worried.

‘Why is that door up there?’ Ari asked.

‘In former times, students that did not make the grade were pushed from it.’

Disbelief crossed their faces.

Quixote snorted with confidence and said, ‘Then it’s a good thing we have the ─ ’

Melaleuca slapped her hand over his mouth.

‘Shhh.’

Lexington halted and stared up at the office.

‘How can such a thing be?’

Still walking Harshon cast a glance back at her, disapproving of her question.

‘It just is.’

‘Just is? This is disgusting. How can you treat people this way, and seem so…so…so calm?’

Harshon glided to a halt, and cast a harsh eye over them, but then softened her gaze.

‘Life in New Wakefield is tough at the best of times and from there it just gets worse. People here all have big families, 6 or 10 children, as most die before they reach adulthood. The training here, well, here it has a high death toll.’

It took a few seconds for it to register. Melaleuca rechecked her feelings. Despite dreading what she had heard and seen so far, she knew she had made the right decision.

‘Most of them?’ Lexington asked. ‘But how and for what?’

Melaleuca tried to lock eyes with Harshon but she kept looking away.

‘Look at the outside world,’ Harshon replied. ‘People die all the time, and for nothing at all. Some people die for a lack of water. To die for no purpose now that is a real shame.’

Melaleuca tried to look into Lexington’s eye, though could feel her offended nervousness without doing so.

What if?

‘What would happen if we turned around now and walked out?’ Melaleuca asked.

Harshon’s face lit up amused.

‘The local Inquisat would be alerted and you would be hunted down, and then…hmmmmm….let’s say….things would be worse.’

‘What could be worse?’ Ari said

‘It can always get worse here. It’s about character. Strong character is not developed in paradise. You will see. Come, follow me now.’

 

They entered one of the buildings, speeding along a dim corridor. Embossed drawings covered the walls depicting past students, floating ships, battles, sea journeys, students being whipped, stars, the moon, emblems, and people and figures performing heroic deeds.

Upstairs they eventually stopped before a huge circular bulge in the corridor wall. A featureless lady sat at a stone desk with thin, moss like hair; her eyes, nose and mouth little more than dots and lines.

‘The new entrants to see the head,’ Harshon said.

‘Little old are they not,’ said the lady.

‘These are the outsiders.’

A hint of surprise creased the lady’s face. ‘Go straight in. He is expecting you.’

Respectfully Harshon knocked on the doors.

‘HURRY UP THEN!’ a voice yelled. ‘COME IN!’

She pushed on the door revealing a musty smelling den filled with piles of paper, cupboards, and walls covered with weapons both ancient and modern. A faded, chipped mosaic emblem mottled the floor, of an eagle battling a snake, with rivers pouring out of them, and a faded cow over looking them.

Harshon pushed them onto the mosaic floor.

On a raised platform, behind a large stone desk, with the back of his large bald head visible, a little man sat dwarfed by his surroundings. Legs dangled off his seat, and he stared out of bulging windows as if seated in the cockpit of a spaceship.

‘Take a good look. This shall be your making or your breaking,’ he said cruel and cold without looking at the cousins. ‘I am Sah Task-Master Carrion, the Head-Discipliner. I care for one thing. That you become strong, mentally and physically. That’s all.’

He lowered his voice, saying with evil relish, ‘Some once sought to make students emotionally and spiritually strong. Pah! We stamped these out……totally! My rank is Sah Task-Master. Do you know what that means?….Of course you don’t.’

Harshon cleared her throat and said, ‘These are the outsiders.’

He wheeled about on his chair, staring at them, his oversized head wobbling on his skinny neck.

‘The outsiders!’

He jumped down from his chair, and limped toward them, one arm dangling useless at his side. Cruel in appearance, deformed and smaller than them, the cousins gawped at him spellbound.

As if he read their thoughts, he said, ‘Diminished in size I may be, but large in the things that make men strong am I. There is none crueller than myself, none more prepared to sacrifice a hundred weak, pathetic students for one ennobled in strength and moral rightness.’

Lexington gripped Ari’s arm hard, while Ari looked sideways at Melaleuca, noting that she too stared in amazement.

Quixote, almost overcome with laughter, said, ‘How come your head is so large? Did you get stung by a super-bee?’

Harshon hushed him.

‘Yeah, I know,’ Quixote said, sounding bored. ‘Everyone keeps on saying don’t do this, don’t do that. But how come his head does not snap off. It looks like an apple hanging off a tree only the other way up.’ He bent over and peered at Sah Task-Master Carrion through his legs. ‘Yep, apple on a tree.’

‘Stop it!’ Harshon said. ‘Stop it at once.’

‘Tut-tut. Harshon,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion said. ‘The boy cannot be a mere 2, 3 years old in terms of discipline and moral character. Sad, but to be expected. Frivolous and filled with the world’s decay. I expected little else, though I will indeed enjoy smacking the stupidity out of this one.’

He limped back to his desk and stood behind it on a dais of some sort, staring into the distance out of the windows. Puffing his small chest out, he said, ‘It fills me with a sense of rightness. That at the appointed time we shall be ready. Indeed we shall be ready.’

‘Ready for what?’ Melaleuca said.

He stepped down and with great pomp, half-marched, half-limped around to face them again.

‘It is only because of Matron Gertrude that I agreed to allow you into this thousand year old institution, which for you will be one of pain. You little ingrates little realize what a great favour she has done for you. And besides she has her honour at stake, her HONOUR!!! Eh! Did you know that? No I bet not. Do you know her position here? She is a Matron of the House of Josephus and a Matron of the House of Keys. It is given to her to know what has passed, so that the future can be shaped. She also holds the knowledge of the passages in and out of New Wakefield. It is to her and to her alone this has been decreed, that we should take selected youngsters from the outside world, a world that knows not of us, nor cares little, and bestow on them the high benefits of a disciplined education.’

He ranted so fast that none of the cousins could get a word in.

‘She has asked that I ride you the hardest I have ever pushed any child. I was going to give you a days reprieve, but seeing how filled with yourselves you are it shall all start now.’

He dismissed them with a flick of his rake-like fingers, adding. ‘Take them to Master Saurian’s class, he is expecting them.’

Harshon ushered them out before they could say anymore, though Lexington tried to study the mosaic as they left. It seemed too coincidental that an eagle and cow, the same symbols she had seen before, should be on the floor.

Flushed with worry, Harshon hurried them down the corridor.

‘If you want to last through today, then stay silent, say little, answer few questions, and by all means keep your ways to yourself.’ She looked at Quixote. ‘And keep this one under control.’

He grinned, imp-like back at her.

‘Your Head-Discipliner is also very interesting,’ Melaleuca said.

Her insides churned as her feelings could not settle on how she felt about this place, even though she knew she had made the right decision. The words of their mothers burnt through her confusion; just keep moving forward. She needed to stay strong and focused, especially for her cousins. Through all the churning inside her she could feel the faintest seed of something growing, something big, the same thing she had felt lying on her bed, not more than a day ago.

‘We are all a bit nervy here of late,’ Harshon said.

Melaleuca scoffed.

‘I would say a lot nervy.’

Harshon beckoned them to speed up.

‘Someone has been kidnapping our children.’

‘Who would want them?’ Ari asked.

‘At first no one minded, just another way to build character,’ Harshon replied, ‘but then a few more went missing and then a whole lot, and then it started to annoy the council. They control the amount and level of discipline and development. We can’t have people charging off doing their own thing.’

‘Why are you telling us this?’ Melaleuca asked.

Harshon stopped, spun around and knelt, gathering them close, searching their faces. She looked as if she wanted to divulge a secret, though as she caught eyes with Melaleuca, she pulled away, an air of resignation about her. She stood.

‘Move.’

‘What were you going to tell us?’ Melaleuca said

‘Just follow.’

 

They trod on through the austere corridors following her, intrigued by Harshon’s behaviour and pensive about what was to come.

Melaleuca called her cousins to her and as they walked, said, ‘I do not know what to expect, but we shall not bend to their ways. From what little we have seen we will do well to follow the advice we have been given and just be ourselves.’

‘Is that wise?’ Lexington said. ‘Surely we should gather our facts first.’

Harshon stopped.

‘Well here we are. Master Saurian’s class. It’s for 17-18 year olds. Matron Gertrude said you children were exceptionally bright, so Sah-Task-Master Carrion has put you with the worst, most feared, Discipliner.’

She knocked on the door and waited, listening to someone heavy walk to it.

The figure that opened the door blocked it out entirely. A wide man with no neck and no hair stood there. His skin looked scaled and reptilian, and he had cold grey eyes. His head sat like an oversized swollen bump atop his lump of a body.

‘Acid,’ he spoke in a deep voice.

 

 

Chapter 22 – Detention

 

 

‘Acid what?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘My skin is like this due to acid. That’s the last question you will ever ask until spoken to.’

‘Enjoy,’ Harshon said walking off.

Master Saurian stepped away from the door revealing a class of smart-dressed, hard-faced boys and girls in their late teens. All of them had Galeslars on their left arms – some short, some long, some decorated with bits of metal and badges, others bare and empty.

As they moved into the bare classroom a cold welcome greeted them. Four empty desks sat in the front row awaiting them. They sat and the class whispered, ‘Outsiders.’

‘Enough,’ Master Saurian said. ‘For the four new ones Gregand, stand and recite the four creeds.’

He stood, snapping to attention.

‘Only the fit survive. Character triumphs over all. Pain and suffering is your friend. A high moral stand is the only right stand.’

Master Saurian motioned for him to sit.

‘Prangard. Explain the first creed.’

Another boy stood, strong looking with a face full of anger, and said, ‘It means that a person must find ways to overcome the obstacles placed before them, that life, true life swamps those unsuited to survive.’

 

And on it went. One by one Master Saurian pulled up male students, getting them to recite creed after creed.

 

Quixote sat still at his desk, hands out in front. Melaleuca thought there was no way he would last a day of this. She raised her hand in the air.

Master Saurian glared at her.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I have a question.’

‘Not allowed.’

The class looked on shocked.

‘Why are none of the girls being asked?’

One of Master Saurian’s eyes twitched and he snagged up the corner of his mouth in a snarl.

‘Because they know their place.’

‘And where is that then?’

Master Saurian stood over her using his wide girth to intimidate her.

‘Be quiet. Stop asking questions! Listen to what they say and learn or ELSE.’

Much to Melaleuca’s surprise, Lexington fluttered her eyelids and raised her hand as well, saying, ‘If I may sir, I see a simple misunderstanding. You see where we are from education is an entirely different matter.’

Master Saurian half turned his neck-less head toward her. ‘Shut up. It matters not where you are from.’

‘I can explain really. Our parents taught us to use imagination. Not this mindless ─ ’

‘STOP THAT FILTHY LANGAUGE NOW!’

‘Which part?’

‘The “I” word,’ he replied back. He turned to the black board, and said, ‘Most disgusting students ever. Can’t believe I have been ordered to tolerate you.’

Ari rose to his feet. ‘The only truly disgusting person here is you and the way you treat people. This is horrid.’

In one swift move, Master Saurian grabbed Ari by his sackcloth and hauled him off his feet. ‘Look out that window, boy. Beyond that lays the southern wastelands. If I send you there, you never come back.’

Ari eyeballed him.

‘If you are trying to scare me I do not even know what is in this wasteland.’

‘And besides you are wrong,’ Lexington said. ‘We are strong. We went through much to be here.’

‘And once Ari stopped a charging wild boar,’ Quixote said.

Ari flicked him.

‘Yeah, because you thought it would be a cool idea to try and ride it.’

Lexington puffed herself up.

‘He was only five. The boar charged him and he stood his ground with a stick in his hand to poke it. Funny thing was the boar ran onto the stick pushing Ari over, but managed to stab itself by doing so. So you see he was awfully brave.’

Master Saurian bent down, straining to do so.

‘SHUT UP! Whatever you survived, your pathetic little body will not survive here.’

Ari reached up and bent Master Saurian’s thumb back, releasing his grip. ‘We decide for ourselves.’

‘That shall be smacked out of you.’

Master Saurian swung at Ari, though he ducked in time, and Master Saurian blinked in surprise.

‘What are you doing?’ Master Saurian yelled.

‘Getting out of the way.’

‘Insolence!’

He again swung for him, this time with his Galeslar arm and again Ari ducked. He bobbed and weaved as Master Saurian carried on swinging wildly; ploughing forward with all his might, knocking desks and students aside. Ari rolled away from him, dodging behind desks and fallen students.

Quixote leapt on top of a desk

‘Go Ari, go.’

Fearing Ari could be seriously hurt, Melaleuca jumped up, snapping to attention, just like she had seen the other students do. ‘Master Saurian sir! This is our first day. We have much to learn.’

Master Saurian turned about incredulous.

Quixote danced on his desk and yelled, ‘You tell ‘em Mel!’

Grabbing the chance, Ari tried to sneak past. Without looking Master Saurian swung his Galeslar arm, smacking Ari square in the face and sending him sprawling into the wall.

Master Saurian smiled, crinkling his scaled face – satisfied.

Ari sprung to his feet, blood dripping from his nose.

‘May I ask a question then…sir.’ He smiled showing off fresh blood stained teeth.

Quixote threw his arms up.

‘Yeehaa! Go Ari, he is still standing.’

Master Saurian swung his Galeslar arm at Quixote. Lighter and faster, he leapt over Master Saurian’s arm and tried to somersaulted forward, crashing to the floor, though he stood and paused for a performer’s applause.

Master Saurian charged at Quixote like a stampeding rhino, slamming his foot into the side of his desk, splintering it to pieces. Quixote leapt backwards, narrowly missing being squashed, as Master Saurian stumbled into the wall. He rose to his feet, fierce anger on his face, ready to explode.

‘I think he is going to kill us,’ Quixote said.

‘DETENTION!!!’

Puzzled the cousins looked at him.

‘GO TO DETENTION! GET OUT NOW!’

‘What’s a detention?’ Quixote asked.

‘I don’t……You will….This shall…….’ Master Saurian choked, and then his expression seemed to freeze, as if he had run out of words.

 

Melaleuca peered into his eyes, willing to see what lay beyond his tough exterior. Pain shot through her head, as intense images of blood coursed through her. She broke away and felt her gut feelings swirl about, undecided which way to go. She saw inside her, an undiscovered path. A small path that said, if she fought Master Saurian she could easily become tougher than he could ever dream of. But that was not the path her gut feelings willed her to follow. Theirs was the path of play and pretend and imagination. In an instant she blocked the newly discovered path, trusting all their parents had said to them.

 

Master Saurian signalled to a mousy girl with thin grey hair, and she came as commanded. He wrote a note, and shoved it into her hand, holding his throat unable to talk. She read it, and said to them, ‘Come with me.’

 

The cousins followed her out into the corridor only too glad to be out of there.

The girl marched off not waiting for them.

‘You are lucky you were not thrown out the window,’ she said with little emotion. ‘I have seen greater than you fall.’

‘I’m Quixote. What’s your name?’ He jogged up beside her.

‘Imerelia. What an odd name you have.’

‘You saw a teacher throw someone out a window?’ Lexington asked.

‘Teacher?’

‘A discipliner.’

‘Yes. My younger brother, Stantwoine,’ she said, again unaffected.

‘Did he die?’ Quixote asked.

‘I was told later when they removed his body that he could still move.’

‘Body? Didn’t someone take care of him? Infirmary? Medicine? Help him,’ Lexington said.

Imerelia halted.

‘He was done a favour. To grow up weak in this land is to die anyway.’

‘If my brother died I’d show a lot more feeling than that,’ Lexington said.

Imerelia’s face softened hearing this, and Lexington reached out touching her. ‘So you do have feelings on this.’

She brushed Lexington’s hand away.

‘What you speak of is weakness.’

‘Lex,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Don’t let it get to you. You didn’t know this boy. As Harshon said, people die all the time.’

Lexington faced her, and Melaleuca saw her words hurt her.

‘Lexington. You carry the human soul for all of us, but trust me, switch off, please. Once back at the mansion we will be fine.’

Imerelia perked up at hearing this.

‘Well spoken. Maybe there is hope for you yet.’

‘And perhaps,’ Melaleuca said, ‘there is hope for you. See, your eyes are moistening.’

Imerelia swiped the solitary tear onto her hand, inspected it and glared, shocked at the cousins.

‘We were warned you would weaken our resolve. Now follow. Detention should dent your weakness.’

 

They descended down four levels into a basement.

‘Go in there and report for detention,’ Imerelia said, pointing to a cave entrance.

Dull, yellow lights shone, and the musty air smelt of dirt. Together they shuffled inside, and another small light spluttered into life revealing an iron barred gate. It creaked and groaned, rising upwards.

‘Okay whose next,’ said a hooded, half naked man; a large hairy belly hanging over dirty leather pants.

‘ ‘urry up! Youse knows the drill.’

‘We don’t. We are the outsiders,’ Ari said.

‘Well I’ll be. In that case we’s shall go gentle on ya. Right dis way.’

‘First-timers,’ the man yelled out as they emerged into a large underground cavern. Many pools of water were spread amongst stalagmites and stalactites. Steam rose off some of them, while others appeared frozen.

‘What ja do then, eh?’ he asked happy sounding even though he looked like a medieval executioner.

‘They didn’t exactly tell us,’ Lexington said.

He roared with laughter.

‘Dat’s what dey all say!’

 

The appearance of two dim-witted looking assistants, bearing ropes, worried them. The cousins stepped back toward the iron gate. It rumbled and creaked again, rolling down.

 

‘ ‘ere, wheres you going? Do ya fink Mohg is born a yesterday?’

‘Whose Mohg?’

The man laughed out loud.

‘ME!! Now come along, do youse part, come on. COME ON THEN!’

‘Run!’ Quixote yelled, tearing off deeper into the cave, his cousins in tow.

‘No ways out,’ Mohg yelled. ‘C’mon boys we’s got some fun-runners.’

Mohg and the two dim-wits legged it after them, though they moved a lot slower.

 

The cousins ran deeper and deeper into the cavern passing many pools, metal beds, chains dangling from the ceiling, whips, and grotesque looking weapons leaning against the cavern sides. The cavern narrowed becoming a tunnel for a short distance and then broke into five different tunnels.

 

‘Which one?’ Lexington shouted.

‘Who cares, just run!’ Quixote said laughing, bursting forward for the first tunnel he reached.

‘Oh shoot,’ Melaleuca said, ‘after him.’

They ran like mad screaming to each other.

‘One of them has to be a way out?’ Lexington said.

‘Pretend,’ Melaleuca said.

‘How? This is real. And we don’t have ─ ’

‘Start thinking, imagining. Okay!’

Running, Ari shouted, ‘How about we charge back the way we came. I attack. Quixote distracts and divides them, and you girls find the switch for the gate.’

‘Or find an air hole to climb out,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Ohhh, ah, um,’ Lexington started, sounding useless without information to go on.

The tunnel started darkening, and up ahead Quixote disappeared into the darkness.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Lexington yelled unsure. ‘Find an aquifer or underground creek and swim out.’

Behind them they heard Mohg and the dim-wits shuffling fast after them.

Ari took up the lead, though fleeing into pitch black darkness disoriented him. They could feel the tunnel get larger as the sounds they made travelled further. He stumbled forward, his legs hitting something soft. Quixote let out a cry. Melaleuca and Lexington then crashed into Ari’s prostrate body.

Ari groped for Quixote and whacked him.

‘What are you doing?’ Ari asked.

‘I didn’t want to smack my head on something, so I crawled.’

High above, a cover squeaked open, revealing a square grate. Daylight flooded in illuminating the large cavern they stood in, showing it only had one entrance.

Mohg appeared at the entrance.

‘Boo,’ he said grinning. ‘No wheres to run. Only ‘ere to stay. Okay boys let em ‘ave it.’

Mohg’s two dim-witted cronies appeared holding hoses. With bony, protruding eyebrows, they smiled; drooling at Mohg’s command, clearly unintelligent. They turned their hoses on full bore, and rushing water gushed out smacking into Melaleuca’s and Lexington’s face.

Ari and Quixote dived to one side, rolling away. They sprung to their feet in time to see the girls sprawling in the mud, sliding backwards, only stopping when the pressure pinned them against the wall.

Ari charged at the dim-wits letting forth a roaring sound to give him more courage. Mohg screamed with delight, slapping his belly with laughter. The dim-wits turned both their hoses onto Ari, knocking him clear off his feet. Lexington, dazed, clawed at the cavern’s rocky wall trying to stand up. Melaleuca shook her head trying to clear her now red eyes. She squinted through them, watching Ari take another watery pasting. Quixote pushed his body hard against a dark area of the wall, moving cat-like around the outside. Melaleuca knew she had to distract the dim-wits from discovering him.

‘AAAAAAAHHHH!’ Melaleuca screamed, and ran splodging through the mud.

They turned the hose on Melaleuca again. Ari caught his balance, stood, and charged again.

‘Both of them, watch, c’mon,’ Mohg yelled.

Quixote crept ever closer.

‘ ‘Ere. Where’d da little one go.’

Lexington stood, bedraggled, holding the cavern wall. Seeing the other two providing distraction for Quixote, and Mohg searching for him, she stretched her arms out and made a soft growling noise, trying to look threatening.

‘Get ‘er,’ Mohg yelled.

Again a torrent of water threw Lexington against the wall. She fell and the stream of water ripped away some of the side. She threw her arms up to protect herself and saw colours flash in the wall, but then disappeared as more water hit it.

‘Eh. What’s dat?’ Mohg said, spying something out of the corner of his eye. He swivelled his head, staring into the darkness.

‘Ahhh, fink I wouldn’t see ya. I lives in darkness, I can see in darkness.’ He grabbed one of the dim-wits by the scuff of his neck and turned him to face Quixote. ‘Let em ‘ave it. ‘Let em all ‘ave it.’

 

The hoses danced between them, spraying watery machine-gun bullets. Again and again the cousins launched themselves at their attackers only to have their frontal assaults devastated.

Minutes later Mohg called a halt to the hoses.

‘ ‘ow was dat for ya first time?’ Mohg asked with a genuine concern.

Like mud creatures rising from a muddy earth-womb, the four of them shloped their bodies up out of the muddy cavern floor.

‘Is everyone okay?’ Ari asked, first to his feet.

Lexington said, ‘I’m fine. I think’

‘I’m good,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote said nothing. He wiggled his feet about realising how much fun he could have. He ran a short way, slid on to his feet, and then on to his backside.

Melaleuca scraped the mud out of her eyes.

‘For a first time! What happens on the second?’

‘Gets worse,’ Mohg said. ‘C’mon. Just a bit o fun. No ones ‘urt. And believes me ‘urts ‘appens ‘ere lots.’

Quixote squealed with delight as he started throwing his body around in the mud.

‘Mud fight!’

Mohg cried out in enjoyment.

‘Dat’s it, da little ones got the idea, get right into it. As me old man used to say, don’t do nuffink by ‘alves.’

‘If no one is hurt, then fine,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Comes out and I wills get a nice ‘ot tub of water to cleans ya.’ Mohg and the dim wits trotted back the way they had come.

Lexington wiped the mud off the back of the cavern, exposing soft clay. She started pulling at it, clawing it away, like a rabbit ripping into the ground.

‘What is it Lex?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘I saw something before…and yes…look.’ Her tone suggested another discovery.

Faded colours, like those on a comic left out in the rain, sat on a hard flat surface. They all joined in, ripping the clay away, until they revealed a heavy metal ring, the sort used on old heavy doors.

‘It’s a door,’ Lexington said.

‘OI!’ Mohg’s voice yelled from the tunnel. ‘Urry up. Maybe ya want another hosing. Ah ha ha ha ha.’

‘Dig faster,’ Ari said.

‘Leave it,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Stop before Mohg comes back.’

‘It’s an eagle,’ Quixote said. ‘Look, that’s its head and that’s its body.’

‘Cover it up,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We can come back another day. I bet there are deeper mysteries here than even these people know.’

Above them the grate started to slide shut.

‘Dis will get ja out!’

Darkness engulfed them.

 

They walked out through the tunnel, finding Mohg waiting for them, holding what could be loosely labelled as towels. His fat, flabby body glistened with perspiration.

‘Ere just to show ya dere’s no ‘ard feelings.’

He led them back through the caves, passing little grottos and all the barbaric instruments they had seen when running through here.

A warm cauldron of water had been prepared for them. Mohg let them strip and wash the mud off. As they did so, he told them it bought back memories of when he was younger. Soon they were mudless and warm, though wet.

Mohg directed them through to another little cave, where a small boulder sat in the middle. Grunting, he shoved it to one side revealing a deep dark hole. Hot air rushed up from it, filling the cave with warm air currents.

‘Don’t falls in. Some boy did and dat was dat.’

‘Where does it lead?’ Lexington asked.

Mohg shrugged his shoulders.

Within minutes their sack-cloth clothes and their undergarments dried. Quixote tried to peer into the hole but the air rushed by too quickly to see anything.

Lexington’s mind raced with ideas, her round eyes filling with questions and possibilities, though she felt frustrated as she needed a pen and paper to start writing things down.

 

As they headed back upstairs, none the worse for their detention, they saw a familiar figure coming towards them, Harshon. She shook her head and tut-tutted them.

‘Detention so soon. I think we need to chat.’

They followed her at a brisk pace, passing by several notices, hammered onto a large wooden board. A large white piece of paper with blood red letters emblazoned across it, stood out. Quixote paused and read it.

 

‘All children are hereby warned. Anyone caught being kidnapped will be severely punished. Anyone spotting anyone acting suspiciously near young children must report it or they will be severely punished. Any information provided that leads to the apprehension of the perpetrator will stand that student or students in good stead.’

 

Quixote motioned to Lexington.

‘Hey, check it out. Let’s use the costumes to solve this?’

Lexington pulled back and ran her eyes over it.

It would need logic and accurate note-taking, though she reminded herself she had lots of other places and things to investigate, and that yesterday’s finds had hardly been collated.

Quixote prodded her.

‘Well?’

They both heard Harshon say, ‘Ahem.’

‘Later,’ Lexington said.

 

They carried on following her to her office, a rather warm feeling room on the second level. It had some soft chairs and looked like something out of England in the 1800s.

‘Master Saurian told me what happened.’

‘That man is a butcher,’ Ari said

‘He is our top Discipliner.’

‘For what?’ Lexington said. ‘Whipping little boys.’

‘There is much to be done here for the sake of the world,’ Harshon said.

‘The world? How do you mean?’

She ignored the question, gazing out the window.

‘My role here is simple, to make sure all students fit in and know the rules and obey them. I am the first, last and only point of understanding. Beyond me there is nothing.’

‘We have never had such strict rules,’ Ari said.

‘They are simple.’ She rattled them off robot-like, losing her soft human tone. ‘Never speak unless spoken to. Do all that is asked of you. Never complain. Suffer and learn from it. Become morally strong. Stifle emotions.’

‘We made a promise to our mothers, that we would always be ourselves. These rules are rubbish,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Your mothers,’ Harshon said, miles away in thought. ‘I have been wondering.’ She pointed her question at Melaleuca. An uneasy edge crept into Harshon’s tone. ‘Your mother. Where was she from?’

‘From?’

‘Yes. Where was she born and raised?’

‘They never said. Why?’

‘They?’

‘My mother and their mothers were sisters, quadruplets.’

‘You look so much like a girl I used to know,’ Harshon said. ‘One that attended the Vahn.’

She knew Harshon referred to one of their mothers, especially as she was the only cousin to look similar.

‘Was your mother’s name Karena?’ Harshon asked.

Melaleuca shook her head.

‘Anyway,’ Harshon said. ‘You need to obey the rules.’

‘What happened to her? Karena?’ Lexington asked. This could be the key needed to solve everything.

Harshon’s eyes glistened and she appeared to struggle against rising sadness. She rose and looked out the window, hiding her attempts to regain her composure.

‘She did not make it,’ Harshon said.

‘Is she dead?’ Quixote asked.

‘She was sent to the southern wastelands I bet,’ Ari said.

Harshon nodded. ‘Yes. I’ve not seen her since.’

‘And you think she may have escaped to the outside world.’ Lexington added, intrigued, staring at the quill and paper on her desk wanting them.

Harshon shook her entire body, chanted some low words, and then turned. ‘Of course not, besides it was nearly thirty years ago.’

‘We may not understand your ways, but we are not stupid,’ Lexington said in a serene voice. ‘You are hiding something.’

Again the sadness surfaced on Harshon’s face.

‘What is it?’ Melaleuca asked.

The clean soft faces of the cousins possessed of an innocence no longer seen in the children of New Wakefield, beamed at Harshon.

‘You are in danger,’ Harshon said trying to control herself. ‘You threaten them. I can see it now. If this is all it takes to make people feel, then things will be worse for you than I have imagined.’

‘How are we in danger?’ Melaleuca said.

A look of great reluctance passed over her. After considering her thoughts she leaned forward and said, ‘New Wakefield people are very suspicious, especially of outsiders. A few days ago a local re-disciplining house in the upper valley was raided. Some say it was outsiders.’

‘What did these outsiders look like?’ Lexington asked.

‘Never mind. I am sure it is a coincidence. Just unfortunate that Matron Gertrude cleared the way for you to come to the Vahn at the same time.’

She stood, still struggling to regain her tranquil composure.

‘It was not always like this. New Wakefield has always been strict and enforced moral codes. But not this. It’s like the sun shines, but no heat gets through. My grandparents said it started changing after the outside world had a large, prolonged battle called World War I. But they would say no more til I was older. They died before telling me. It got worse when ─ ’

The horn that had sounded to let all the children in bellowed once again, shaking Harshon out of thinking about the past.

‘It’s break time, out into the Vahn yard. I will talk to you later.’

She crossed her office floor to open the door, and ushered them out.

***

The corridors filled up with children of various ages, and the cousins followed them outside. The throng led them to the far south gap of the Vahn. There the amphitheatre split open into a deep ravine about ten metres across. The ravine ran south for two hundred metres, stopping at a small dam. Beyond it lay a great lake, easily a mile across and a mile in length. A large field with well kept lawns ran beside it, and in the distance sat a three-storey, rundown building that looked like a college from Victorian England. Testifying to its vacant emptiness, smashed windows, missing chunks of roof, broken plaster, faded paint, and crumpled walls adorned it.

The cousins stood on a parapet on the edge of the field watching as the students filed onto the field. The older ones gathered to talk, while some took younger children into small huddles. Some of the groups marched around with an older student yelling at them, while others no older than five got handed small leather straps and were shown how to whack themselves.

‘What are you waiting for? Go down and mix,’ said Master Saurian from behind.

They turned and looked, though were unsure.

‘Afraid,’ Master Saurian asked.

‘I’m not afraid,’ Quixote said bounding off into a crowd of children. ‘There must be someone in here that will play.’

‘I’m not afraid either,’ Ari said, following Quixote.

From behind Master Saurian, Discipliners started appearing. Melaleuca recognized some of them as those that had visited Aunty Gertrude that morning.

‘We have to get down there,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari caught up with Quixote in time to see him talking to a group of older teenagers who were backing away and staring at him. Once the girls joined them, a small ring of students started to close around them, though they kept their distance and just stared. A commotion broke out and a disturbance shoved its way forward through the crowd. Suddenly a male student ejected himself from amidst the crowd and approached them. He looked like a smaller version of Master Saurian, but without the scales on his face.

‘So you are the outsiders,’ he said with a brash, cocky manner.

‘I am Ari and these are my cousins Melaleuca, Lexington and Quixote.’ Ari said.

‘I am Jerkin Bod’armor. I hail from the oldest house here, the House of Steel.’

The crowd cheered him.

Unsure what to say in return, the cousins offered a moments silence.

Jerkin drew in a deep breath.

‘WELLL!’

‘Oh great another person who yells,’ Quixote said.

‘WHAT?’

‘You’re yelling,’ Quixote said. ‘That’s all anyone ever does here. Not very intelligent.’.

‘Troublemakers. We know how to take care of your sort,’ Jerkin yelled to the crowd.

‘Take care!’ Lexington said. ‘Take care,’ and trying to use her gentleness on him, added, ‘No one is taking care of us.’

The lilt of her sweet voice puzzled Jerkin, unsure how to respond. But then like the man ripping out flowers, he snarled back and said, ‘We’ll take care of you all right.’

Ari and Quixote tried to form a cordon around Lexington and Melaleuca.

‘Save your breath,’ Melaleuca said. ‘They want our blood.’

Jerkin muscled up to them, folding his scarred and gnarled arms.

‘How did you do in your tests? What was your score in Bramble Spread? Tell me how you mastered Disciples Park, and please tell the whole crowd how well you did in the Unforbidden Forest.’

Jerkin grabbed Quixote’s hands.

‘Look,’ he yelled to the crowd, ‘The hands of a child, white and without blemish.’

A horde of boys rushed forward, knocking the cousins off their feet. Within seconds they lay on the ground with yards of rope wrapped so tight around them they could not move.

‘What shall we do?’ Ari yelled to Melaleuca.

‘Think.’

‘Of what? All the possibilities. A little late isn’t it,’ Lexington said.

Ari pushed with all his might against the ropes to no avail, while Quixote rolled over and over and over, bashing in to the legs of some of the onlookers. Melaleuca and Ari started rolling into the crowd as well.

‘Stop them or I will crack skulls,’ Jerkin shouted.

The vast array of boys and girls overwhelmed their valiant effort to escape. The crowd carried them back to Jerkin. Jerkin led them behind the old, run-down building to an area that looked like gallows from an ancient culture. Posts stood erect out of black concrete like decaying crucifixes that had lost their crossbars.

‘Strap them in!’

Still bound tight, they were pushed onto the posts, and strapped against them with large leather belts.

‘Stay calm,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Just relax. Say nothing.’

Jerkin strode up to her, stared her in the eye and said, ‘After the Discipliners, I am in charge. This area all around here is mine. I am in control.’

In her coldest tone Melaleuca spoke back.

‘We know little of these animosities. Let us go now and all will be well with you. I may even spare you future embarrassment.’

The cheering crowd fell silent. No one had spoken to Jerkin like that before; no one ever spoke back to any one older than them. No one dared threaten Jerkin. It was just the rules.

At first Jerkin did not reply; he seemed disturbed by Melaleuca’s words, and then with his rough hand he seized her chin, squeezing it.

‘We shall see how defiant you are after this.’

He snapped his fingers and stood back.

More children came running carrying buckets of water. Carefully they poured the water over the ropes, soaking them fully until they were waterlogged. Large teenage boys with low foreheads and squinty unintelligent eyes stepped forward and yanked hard on the ropes, forcing air out of them.

‘As the sun rises and the ropes dry they will tighten even more,’ Jerkin said. ‘I have seen arms drop off, legs wither away to purple, and even heads explode with this exquisite form of discipline. Pass this, and I shall hate you still of course, but will allow you to step foot on my territory.’

The crowd cheered and hurled abuse after abuse at the cousins before dissipating.

In bleak desolation the ropes hugged them to the poles.

Chapter 23 – Le Resistance

 

 

The ropes tightened, millimetre by millimetre squeezing their body at a snail’s pace.

Melaleuca pushed against the ropes and gasped.

‘Don’t give up. Imagine, play, pretend.’

Ari grunted and pushed with all his might, though he ran out of strength for the first time ever.

Lexington let out a desolate cry.

‘Should have gathered facts….run away….searched for parents…fine mess Mel.’

Doubt gnawed at Melaleuca. How could they pretend now? In mild shock, she cast her eyes around, searching for ideas. An empty field of wild grasses lay behind them, leading to the hills of the southern wasteland. Uninviting, eroded and yellowed, and possessing great grey patches of rock, it offered little hope. Even the run down building before them gave off an air of defeat; its empty, broken windows appearing like hollowed out eyes on a skull. And, of course, rearing up behind it stood the Vahn.

Quixote strained his head as far forward as possible, craning to look toward Melaleuca.

‘Hey… Lex, Mel…..guess what I am.’

‘What?’ Lexington asked.

He craned further.

‘Look.’

Melaleuca pushed her head forward, catching sight of his scrawny head jutting out past Ari and Lexington’s head.

Quixote put his head to one side and hung his tongue out.

‘I don’t get it,’ Lexington said.

‘A mummy. Get it. A mummy. These ropes are my bandages.’

Lexington broke a weak smile, and Quixote laughed but then gurgled in pain as the ropes tightened more.

‘Hey Lex,’ he said, straining in pain.

‘Oh what!’

‘It’s too much, too much, they are stopping me breathing, ahhhhh.’

Quixote screamed.

‘Quixote. Quixote. Mel, Ari, Quixote can’t breathe.’ She struggled with her ropes, and they tightened more.

Quixote contorted his face in great pain.

‘Got to…..let some……air out.’

He screamed again. A loud “whoooooommmpping” noise erupted, followed by the sound of air squeezing through a narrow gap. Quixote roared with laughter, gasping for breath, yelling out, ‘We…should….call ….these…fart….machines….’

‘You bloody rotter. I thought you were gone for.’

What an idiot. Yet felt gladdened by his stupidity and for his happiness in the face of adversity.

The ropes tightened more, creaking against the post they were tied too. They tightened across Lexington’s bladder creating a desperate urge to pee. The pressure increased until she could no longer hold it. Instead of running down her legs it spread throughout the ropes, loosening them slightly.

‘Pee…on…the…ropes,’ Lexington shouted. ‘It will…loosen them!’

Melaleuca, Ari and Quixote concentrated on peeing as much as they could. Quixote went first.

‘Push against the wet ropes, Qui!’ Ari said. ‘See if you can prize a hand loose.’

Quixote tried, but he laughed so hard, he could not control himself.

Ari managed to soak the ropes from his waist down and started kicking and struggling, using his immense strength to loosen the ropes. Soon a considerable gap opened between his legs and the ropes. Enraged, he kicked and kicked, starting to break through the ropes. His leg ropes loosened, though the ones binding his torso tightened suddenly, squeezing more air out of him.

‘It’s…no…good…differ…rent…ropes.’

The minutes raced by, and the sun circled in front of them drying the ropes out, tightening its grip on them even more. The ropes across their chest hampered their breathing, so much they could only take little gulps of air. Lexington’s lips turned blue and Melaleuca started to feel faint-headed, while Quixote, lacking of oxygen, started to see flashing lights about his head.

The minutes soon turned to an hour, and then another hour and then another. The black concrete gathered heat, radiating it at them. Their lips dried out and cracked, and their vision blurred, and their throats parched.

By the time students had spilt out again onto the fields for another break, the cousins felt too faint and light-headed to care. Even Quixote failed to respond to the few students that came to jeer and taunt them.

The fields emptied again.

 

Continued in book 2 – The Omega Children: The Vahn & The Bold Extraction.

 

 

 

See over for details………

 

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Book 2

The adventure and mystery continue in book 2, “The Vahn & The Bold Extraction,” as the Omega Children carry on trying to solve what they are embroiled in, despite no one telling them anything.

 

The Cousins endure more extremities of the Vahn in book 2 yet have to find a way to survive and stay true to their great instructions. The unknown fate of their parents starts to pale away as they are thrust even deeper into the workings of the hidden land of “New Wakefield.”

Their Aunt continues to try and get rid of them, finally flipping and against the wishes of their Uncle commits them to a course of action they cannot turn back from, no matter how powerful they think they have become. She has one desire, and that is to destroy them.

Lord Daquan discovers that they have the bracelets and stops at nothing to retrieve them, while the Vahn puts intense pressure on them to conform to the Vahn’s ways – even to the point of entering them into a life and death struggle.

The cousins must pit their cultured “innocence” against the Vahn’s dark, foreboding presence, and once again remain unchanged.

 

 

Where to Purchase

Shane A. Mason’s Amazon author page

 

Shane A. Mason’s Goodreads author page

 

Be sure to check out the website

www.shaneamason.com

 

 

Contact Shane at [email protected]

 

Twitter @shaneamasoncom

 

Check out Shane’s Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/shanea.mason001/

 

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Shane A. Mason lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

 

He was raised in the wilds in a small valley that has both green bush clad northern hills and southern mountains ranges extending for hundreds of miles.

 

The setting for the book was a natural choice. As a teenager he spent time in New Zealand’s vast South Island High Country – scenery the world has come to equate with the mythical land of Rohan from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. It was here that he first glimpsed the possibility of setting an adventure in a civilization hidden from man.

 

His further studies into the psychology of how the mind affects illness or health led him to realize that a loss of “innocence” and a loss of the sense of “discovery” were pathways to ill health. Instead of writing a text book he chose to imbed the concepts in a mythological adventure.

26 Nov 2015

 

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The Omega Children - The Return of the Marauders - Book 1

Four Cousins Melaleuca (pronounced “mel – la – luke – ka’) is a serious minded girl with spot-on gut instincts – always making the right decision. It drives her cousin Lexington batty as Lexington needs facts, lives in her mind and will not do anything without knowing why. Ari loves to roam the land and often says he can feel it inside him, and Quixote lives to annoy them all with his constant jokes and pranks much to the disapproval of Lexington. Attacked When their peaceful valley is attacked one night by a horde of unknown men, the cousins are rescued and sent on a torturous argumentative journey to the remote land of their parent’s birth – a veiled land hidden at the bottom of the world. Lost Kingdom An ancient civilisation, its roots lost to the whispers of time, steeped in brutal rites and dogma, flourishes there and only the strong survive and the weak are cast out. Costumes of Great Power Melaleuca is put in charge and given the preposterous task of uniting her cousin’s to fight and free the oppressed, though when they find a room full of thousands of unexplained costumes that give them power to follow their wildest dreams, pandemonium follows. Thousands With danger and the threat of death around every corner Melaleuca begins to understand why she was told to trust herself more than she ever has, after all how can four stand against thousands? Inescapable With incomprehensible events set in motion from ancient times, myriad deep mysteries lie in wait at every turn embroiling them in escapades out of their control.

  • Author: shane mason
  • Published: 2015-12-13 01:05:27
  • Words: 101077
The Omega Children - The Return of the Marauders - Book 1 The Omega Children - The Return of the Marauders - Book 1