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The Omega Children - The Vahn and the Bold Extraction - Book 2

 

 

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The

Omega

Children

The Vahn & The Bold Extraction

Book2

 

 

 

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 © Louisa Beatty 2011

Cover illustration from original artwork by Louisa Beatty

 

 

ISBN 978-0-473-19880-0

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Previous & Coming Titles

Previous titles in The Omega Children Series:

The Omega Children: The Return of the Marauders – Book 1

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

 

Coming titles in the Omega Children Series:

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, Grace & Maddi

For Josie and Tarin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book 3 is due out in 2016. CLICK BELOW to find out how to get Book 3 for free by leaving reviews on major eBook selling sites.

 

CLICK/PRESS HERE

www.shaneamason.com

 

Chapter 23 (continued)

 

From underneath the old dilapidated building, two small figures sprinted like mad toward them. Green painted cardboard boxes covered their bodies and heads.

‘Hurry up,’ one of them said in a squeaky voice.

With crude knives they hacked at the ropes and the belts, bursting the cousins free. Their bodies flopped forward, hitting the ground jarring them awake. They gasped huge lung fills of air, gulping it down like food.

‘No time to get your breath. Speed, hurry, before anyone comes,’ said one of the young boys.

 

Melaleuca felt hands tugging at her, though could not move her legs.

Got to check the others.

‘Wait,’ Ari said. ‘Wait…can’t move..’

He struggled to his feet, stood, and then fell to the ground again.

‘No time. Must hurry or we will be caught. Come on hurry.’ The child tugged on Melaleuca’s and Lexington’s arm, who moaned back at their would-be rescuer.

One of the rescuers reached in and pulled a small hip flask out of his box, forcing the liquid into the Melaleuca’s mouth. It rushed in like a charging stampede of wild liquid horses carrying a heat wave behind it. It leapt into her brain, like two large fly swats smacking her into alertness.

‘Give it to the others,’ she said.

 

Ari drunk it and stood, his vision clear, shaking his head, though his lips still hurt and his face smarted with sunburn. Before he could speak, the cardboard-boxed kids hauled the others up, shoving them with urgency across the field. They led them into a dank, narrow alley of the old building.

One of their rescuers knocked three times on a grate and a small face appeared at it.

‘Password?’ The small face asked.

‘It’s me.’

‘You have to say the password.’

‘Backwards fly.’

The child inside pulled the grate opened. One by one they squeezed through it until they stood on damp, musty ground underneath the floor of the old building. Cobwebbed and filled with the smell of dust, small shards of light leaked through cracks here and there illuminating hundreds of old concrete pillars, some bent, some broken.

 

 

Once through Melaleuca called, ‘Stop!’

The three boys, two in cardboard, and one clad in a combination of sackcloth and longs, halted.

Melaleuca ignored them, asking instead with a dry, strained voice, ‘Lex, are you okay.’

Lexington leant on Ari. ‘I think so. Just so thirsty. I need to sit.’

Ari helped her to the ground.

‘Do you have water?’ Melaleuca asked their rescuers.

One of them nodded and dashed off.

‘Quixote?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Yeah. Thirsty too.’

With sunburnt and chapped lips, and deep rope marks across their arms, Ari, Melaleuca and Quixote managed to stand, though Lexington started sobbing. Both Melaleuca and Ari knelt beside her, stroking her back.

Slopping water from a bucket, the child rescuer returned and gave it to them. They took deep drinks and splashed their faces.

‘Drink slow,’ one of the children said, staring at Lexington bewildered.

The water strengthened her, and composing herself, she dried her tears.

‘What was she doing?’ one of the boys asked.

‘Doing?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Those noises she made.’

‘She was crying. What did you think she was doing?’

The three of them shrugged their shoulders. ‘We have never seen a person cry like that.’

‘I can believe it. Thank you, anyway, for your help. Where are we and who are you?’

‘Come,’ the three boys said in unison.

 

They weaved through a maze of foundation piles, winding deeper into the building’s gloomy underbelly, until the sparse light petered out to a grey fuzz. At a dark dead end, one of them tapped out a secret code and another door opened. Light flooded out, as they stared into a candle-lit den.

 

‘Have you got them?’ asked an excited older voice.

‘Yes. Let us in.’

The older boy ushered them into a large underfloor room, lined with hundreds of flattened cardboard boxes.

‘Welcome to the Wolf’s Lair, headquarters of the French Resistance, home of the Gorks. My name is Con,’ pronounced the older boy.

He smiled displaying warped teeth. They matched his face of hard angles; a nose bent sideways, a chin poking in the other direction, with uneven eye sockets.

He added, ‘Well not all the Gorks. Some are not with us. Yet.’

One of the boys lifted his cardboard helmet off revealing his deformity, a missing nose.

‘Here drink,’ he said, pushing a pot of water to Lexington. ‘You still need more.’

They all drank more water, though the skin on their arms itched where the hairy rope had lashed them. It reminded them of how itchy the sackcloth was and soon they were scratching all over.

‘This is Revile,’ Con said, pointing to the boy with the missing nose.

‘This is Stench.’ Con pointed to the second cardboard-clad child.

Stench pulled his cardboard helmet off, revealing he had no neck.

‘And lastly this is Dunk,’ Con said.

Dunk smiled at them, his harelip and cleft palate now obvious.

‘I am the commander of the French Resistance and these are my troops,’ Con said.

Melaleuca, Ari, Quixote and Lexington exchanged glances, still scratching their bodies, unsure what to make of them.

‘French resistance? Like in World War Two?’ Lexington asked.

Con shuffled backwards and sat on an old chair.

‘Yes. We will resist our vicious overlords.’

‘You do realise the Wolf’s Lair was where the leader of the people whom the French Resistance fought, hid,’ Lexington said.

Con raised his eyebrows, impressed. ‘You truly are the ones come to free us. See troops, they have heard of the real French Resistance.’

His deformed crew nodded at him in the half-lit candlelight.

‘Free you from what? You hardly look captive,’ Melaleuca said.

‘We are Gorks, the lowest ranked people here, treated like scum, destined to become dirt-mongers, cleaners, because we are born deformed.’

‘Like all those other kids who have arms and eyes missing?’ Quixote asked.

‘If only,’ Revile said. ‘They were hurt during the tests. We Gorks were deformed at birth and are not allowed to sit the tests.’

‘From what I have seen that is not a bad thing,’ Lexington said.

‘Is that why you have normal boots on and no kneeless trousers?’ Ari asked.

‘Correct,’ Con said.

He eyed Lexington up and down, and then did the same to Melaleuca. ‘You are both so..so…so…your skin and eyes…it’s…nice…’

Both the girls blushed. All the Gork boys joined Con, staring at them dew eyed. Ari and Quixote rolled their eyes around.

‘We are different,’ Melaleuca said.

‘What are your names?’ Con asked.

As they told them, the Gorks could not help but touch their skin and hair.

Seeing them still itching, Dunk pulled a small paper bag from a broken shelf and handed it to them.

‘Here use this. It will stop the itching a little.’

Quixote grabbed at it, though Ari grabbed his hand, asking. ‘What is it?’

‘It’s Declaiming Mud mixed with peppermint,’ Revile said.

Lexington sniffed it. ‘Ewwwww! It stinks!’

‘Declaiming Mud removes sweet odours. The peppermint will stop the itching, but if you are caught with it on, then you get punished for not being able to discipline yourself. The Declaiming Mud takes the smell away.’

‘Where does it come from?’ Lexington said, sniffing it again.

‘It oozes up through the earth in all sorts of places,’ Revile replied. ‘Here put some on.’

Quixote scooped a handful out, slapping it on his body, instant relief showing on his face. All the cousins dug in, smearing it everywhere.

‘Doesn’t the smell affect you?’ Ari asked.

‘Anything unpleasant that can be tolerated makes you stronger and more disciplined,’ Dunk replied.

‘I’m not sure I fully understand.’ Ari said. ‘No one will tell us anything.’

‘That’s where we come in,’ Con said. ‘We are prepared. We were expecting you.’

‘Really?’ Melaleuca said ‘Exactly what do you do as the French Resistance?’

 

Con explained they had found a tattered, old book a year ago. It had spoken of the French Resistance and how they had fought off their captors without being seen or captured. As few books were allowed in New Wakefield, they knew it had to be a sign they were to form an underground resistance and keep an eye out for when it would be time to rise up. They said there had been signs about lately.

‘The Kockoroc has been spotted,’ Con said.

‘The cock?’ Melaleuca said. ‘What is a cock o rock?’

‘The Kockoroc,’ Con said again, writing it down and handing it to them. ‘It is a giant eagle that is supposed to indicate great change.’

‘Our giant eagle is called a Kockoroc!’ Quixote said.

Melaleuca elbowed him.

Con’s eyes lit up at Quixote’s words, nodding as if he already knew about their eagle.

‘And best of all, some Marauders turned up and attacked the borstal a few days ago,’ Dunk said. ‘Giant men and women Marauders.’

All the Gorks grinned at the mention of the fracas.

‘And that is chiefly what we are for, the return of the Marauders.’

The Gorks made trumpeting noises, heralding an arrival. ‘Long live the Marauders!’ They shouted and then shushed themselves back into silence.

Melaleuca shifted about on the spot, looking to Ari and Lexington for their response. Quixote’s face beamed with pride and before he could be stopped, he started to say. ‘Do you think ─ ’

Lexington reached out and placed her hand over his mouth. ‘Hush cousin.’

‘Thank you Lex,’ Melaleuca said and turned to Con. ‘We know nothing of the Marauders.’

Quixote looked perplexed at Melaleuca’s words, and she saw he trusted Con without question. Ari shook his head and Quixote nodded, understanding he should say nothing more.

Con saw this exchange, informing them, ‘It is no chance you have come to be here. No outsiders have been allowed here for thirty years, not since the Marauders ran wild destroying buildings and killing people. How long have you been in New Wakefield?’

Melaleuca ignored the question.

‘What exactly do you think we are to do?’ she asked.

‘Free us,’ Con said. ‘How did you get into New Wakefield?’

‘We are not the Marauders you speak of,’ Melaleuca said.

Frustrated, Con rapped his knuckles on the arm of the chair, chewed his bottom lip, and tried to look at Melaleuca with authority. After some thought, he smiled and carried on saying, ‘Maybe you are the Marauders, maybe not. Thirty years ago, for the first time ever, children escaped from New Wakefield to the outside world. Perhaps you are them come back.’

‘Hmmm. I should think we would look a lot older,’ Lexington said.

‘You could be in disguise,’ Revile said.

Quixote laughed. ‘Pull my skin,’ he told Revile, who did so. ‘See, just us.’

‘But we can help you,’ Con said.

Melaleuca shook her head, and Con’s eyes implored her like no other eyes ever had. In them she saw that same hollowed out look evident in so many children at the Vahn, though her gut told her to stick with her parent’s instructions.

‘I will talk with the others out of earshot,’ Melaleuca said.

Con nodded, and bade his troops follow him out of the Wolf’s Lair.

 

Alone, the cousins talked.

‘We are to trust ourselves only,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I think they could be our friends,’ Quixote said.

Ari searched the room with his eyes.

‘We would still be out there if it were not for them.’

‘Look.’ Lexington swallowed hard. ‘I still…think we should…wait until our parents arrive.’

With a heavy breath in and out, Melaleuca hung her head.

‘We don’t actually know if they are coming, Lex.’

‘All the more reason to leave this place and go find them.’

‘No Lex. It does not feel right.’

Quixote slammed his fist into his other hand.

‘The Gorks need us, and they say so.’

Ari reached over and settled his hands.

‘Do you think by attacking the Borstal we have started something?’ Ari said to Melaleuca.

‘Don’t know….don’t know.’

‘At least let’s find out what they know,’ Lexington said.

‘Oh for….Lex, we are to trust no one.’

‘Ohh, just listen to them. We can sort what is rubbish and what is truth.’ She heaved a sigh back at her. ‘Besides I can’t come back to this place.’

Ari rubbed her back.

‘Just to the end of the day. At the mansion, we shall use the bracelets.’

‘Oh? For what?’

‘Lexington!’ Melaleuca said. ‘Hold it together. Shut your eyes, imagine, play and pretend in your head. If you must, start mentally clearing yourself.’

‘Fine.’

‘We will ask the Gorks for information,’ Melaleuca decided. ‘I will then tell them that we will go away and think about it. Agreed?’

They all nodded.

Melaleuca pushed on the door. The Gorks shuffled inside, and then stood waiting to hear the news.

‘We are from the outside world. We are different,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We need to know what you know about the Marauders.’

With an eagerness to enlist their help, Con started expanding on the Marauders in great detail.

‘Thirty years ago pirates, monks, ballerinas, cowboys, jugglers, wrestlers, all sorts, plagued this area with attack after attack, at first roving around making nuisances of themselves, occasionally breaking a few buildings here and there. These mysterious people were dubbed, “Marauders.” Everyone was at a loss, as the Marauders would vanish again without a trace, like ghosts in the night. The whole area, convinced some plague had come against them, started to blame each other, and despite their strict rigid discipline, started to put each other on trial, until family warred against family.’

Con spoke as if he had recited this many times before.

‘The Marauders then started to turn up whenever children were being disciplined or severely mistreated, and so it was then that the Inquisat started to butcher the children of New Wakefield, nailing signs around leaving warnings to the Marauders that unless they stopped and gave themselves up, all the children would one by one be murdered. Some in the town said it was foolish to antagonise them, that they were supernatural and beyond threats.’

‘Then creatures started turning up, weird and wonderful, monstrous beings, unimagined before; dogs with wheels for legs, eagles that swooped with buckets underneath, fish with razor sharp gills gouging legs in rivers, stones erupting out multi-headed ostriches that flailed and shattered objects around them, and trees that hit people when they passed by.’

‘But then worse still came,’ Con said, speaking slower. ‘It still came. One day in July, all hell broke loose, like the very bowels of hell itself had spewed out onto the earth.’

Con stopped, looked at them and said no more.

‘And then what?’ Quixote said. ‘What happened?’

‘That’s just it,’ Stench said. ‘We don’t know. No one will say exactly what happened.’

‘Who told you all that stuff?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘No one. No one tells anyone anything. Only the Overlords know everything, and only then someone gets picked to join them every ten years or so. But we never will. We never can. We are the natural born deformed, we are the Gorks,’ Con said.

‘So how did you find out? What is your source?’ Lexington asked. ‘And who or what are the Overlords?’

Con tapped his ear.

‘We just listened. Questions are not allowed. The whole town knows about the Marauders, but no one talks about it, not out loud, it is forbidden. In quiet whispers bits of it are passed along, hence we know what we know.’

‘Oh, I see.’ Lexington looked deflated. ‘A myth born 30 years ago, with little basis other than people whispering amongst themselves. Interesting…….though…..where there is smoke there is fire.’

With an idea-lit up face, she faced Melaleuca. ‘This could be a real lead.’

‘Lead?’ Con asked. ‘What lead?’

Melaleuca watched as questions popped into Lexington’s mind and she started to rapid fire them at Con.

‘What are those structures on top of all the houses?’

‘What structures?’

‘The metal looking things? Have you not seen them?’

‘Eh, the roof?’

‘Interesting. Have you not noticed that the houses are made of an older material, and are of an older design than what you call a roof?’

Con shook his head.

‘We are told nothing. That’s why we need your help.’

‘How long has the Vahn been here?’

Con shrugged his shoulders. He turned to the other Gorks and asked them. They also shrugged their shoulders. ‘It’s always been here for us.’

‘Don’t you want to know?’

‘We do now,’ Stench said.

‘Who are the overlords?’

Con leapt to answer before the others. ‘New Wakefield has five Overlords. They are the supreme head of our society. They hold the great secrets, the very thing New Wakefield guards from the outside world. But at present there are only three Overlords.’

Lexington turned about muttering to herself. ‘This does not add up. This building appears no older than a hundred years or maybe two hundred at the maximum. And Harshon said something about her grandparents saying it all changed after World War I, yet that Master Carrion said a thousand year place, but the door we found, so old, so old…’

Melaleuca shoved Ari closer to Lexington. Her rambling verbal thoughts could give away more than she realised.

‘Ah Lex? Shh.’ Ari said.

‘…so that means…’ Lexington carried on staring at Ari, miles away calculating facts in her mind. ‘…hmmm…that means…’ She stamped her foot and made an ‘ohhhh,’ noise. ‘Bother. I don’t know what it means.’

‘I should think it means that the Vahn was built somewhere between the World War I and these guys being born,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ Lexington said. ‘My head hurts. I need pen and paper and my charts.’

‘I am not afraid,’ Quixote said. ‘I will go and ask someone.’

Dunk stepped forward, serious faced, rolling up his sleeve. ‘I asked once and look.’

The words, ‘Don’t ask, do,’ were carved into his upper arm, the healed scar tissue forming the words.

The sight of it shook Lexington, jarring her out of her questions. She reached out and ran her finger tips over them.

‘I wish we were here to free you……Do they hurt?’

‘I can feel nothing there. Not even your fingers touching it.’

‘Do not feel sorry for us,’ Con said, pulling Dunk back. ‘We are the Gorks. It is what we expect. We told Dunk off for asking as well. We are the French Resistance. We must stay underground and hidden.’

‘And tell me,’ Ari asked. ‘What of your plan. How are you going to overthrow the Overlords? How many troops do you have?’

Con, Revile, Stench, and Dunk looked amongst themselves, offering blank faces to the cousins.

‘Just us so far. We have to be careful when recruiting,’ Revile said.

‘Now you are here. You can help us,’ Stench said.

The other two Gorks nodded in agreement.

Melaleuca could see Ari’s face questioning how effective such a team would be, and she could see Lexington wanting to leave. However the Gorks were a valuable source of information, and despite the flaws in their tiny organisation, they were the first children that could be counted on as some sort of friends.

‘As the Marauders, you could help,’ Con said.

‘If we were the Marauders, that is,’ Melaleuca said. ‘It is time for us to go.’

She grabbed Lexington, motioning for Ari and Quixote to leave.

‘But wait. You must join us,’ Con said.

Desperate hope lined the queer angles of Con’s face and years of suffering fell from his plea. He pawed at Melaleuca’s sackcloth with his skinny knobbly hands, like an orphaned cat afraid it might be left alone again.

‘Let us think on all this,’ Melaleuca said back as soft as Lexington might have. ‘We will talk tomorrow perhaps.’

‘So you will join us then.’ Con asked.

‘Let us ponder. We must, like you, remain unknown.’

Revile, Stench and Dunk, started to pull at each other playfully celebrating what they thought was a success. ‘Alea Jacta est,’ Dunk said brushing his forehead relieved.

‘Shhh,’ Con said to Dunk. ‘Not the forbidden tongue.’

Lexington picked up on this. ‘Forbidden. Wait, guys, I want to ─ ’

‘That’s enough for today, Lex. Sort through what we know and then come back for more later,’ Melaleuca said, pushing her toward the door.

‘And what of the Kidnapper?’ Con asked.

‘What?’ Melaleuca said. ‘What of it?’

Con cast his eyes at the floor, gathering his thoughts. ‘Everyone is a little nervous about the Kidnapper. They say taking children is a bad thing. We think he is working for the Marauders, that he is capturing children and massing an army to march on the Overlords. We want to contact him.’

Lexington’s eyes widened at Melaleuca, as she shook her head. Melaleuca held her hand up. She knew Lexington thought the Gorks were a little crazy and not yet to be believed or trusted, but without yet telling the others, Melaleuca had already decided that they needed the French Resistance as their allies.

‘Let us go and we shall talk soon,’ Melaleuca said. ‘You are the commander of the Wolf’s Lair; I am the commander of my team. I have made a decision to leave, now stand aside and all will be well.’

Con stood aside as the cousins left through the door. As they shuffled into the darkness Con poked his head out and whispered, ‘I know who is kidnapping the children.’

Melaleuca stopped and turned around.

 

Chapter 24 – Innocence risked

 

 

As they headed across the now empty lawn they caught sight of Harshon walking toward them.

‘Quickly,’ Harshon said. ‘Follow me.’

‘To what? Another form of torture?’ Lexington said.

‘Hush, I am sending you home. Hurry. I am risking much. Follow and be quiet.’

She led them toward a long line of trees that grew beside the Vahn. Once through them, she stopped and said, ‘This is all the time I can buy you. After today you will come back and leave at the same time as the others. The mere fact you come back tomorrow will earn you some respect. It might just be enough to survive here.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ Lexington asked. ‘Is it that Karena lady?’

Harshon touched Lexington’s cheek.

‘There are things I should have done many years ago. Now go. I have arranged for Pembrooke to meet you on the outskirts of town.’

She pushed through the bushes and left.

 

***

 

Exhausted they arrived at the outskirts of town, low in spirit. Even Quixote had not cracked a joke or made a smart comment.

They waited for Pembrooke.

‘At least we know what the Kockoroc is,’ Lexington said.

‘And Con thinks it is stealing children.’ Quixote laughed, though not as heartily as normal.

‘I hardly think our eagle, which protected us, is going around kidnapping kids,’ Melaleuca said.

Pembrooke appeared in the distance, the horse-pulled cart trotting toward them as he gee-ed the horses along.

Arriving he asked them, ‘Masters, misses. ’Ow was ya first day?’

Groans and moans met him.

‘Oh dear.’

Climbing down from his driver’s seat he helped them onto the wagon. ‘What did they do to you?’

Quixote showed him the faint rope marks on his arm.

‘All of you?’

They nodded back, and he rolled his sleeves up, showing old rope marks scarring his arms. ‘If I made it through, I’m sure you can.’

 

They rode home in silence, glad for the day’s end, glad to be resting. As tired as Melaleuca felt, the day had been a success. Despite the sticky situations, they had got out and were mostly okay. She had after all made the right decision.

‘The lady of the house wanted me to take you via the main entrance,’ Pembrooke said, as they entered the oak trees, heading uphill. ‘She said somink about a surprise.’

‘I think this morning’s surprise was enough,’ Melaleuca said.

‘So do I. Let’s sneaks you in.’

Half way up the hill Pembrooke turned his cart toward the bushes, and the horses pushed into them. He whipped the reigns.

‘Let’s go, c’mon Jess, let’s go Bess.’

They thrashed, yanking them through into a small, narrow, overgrown track and started bumping along the ruts. A smile returned to Quixote’s face, and Melaleuca saw him perk up.

‘Where does this lead?’ He asked.

‘Around the back.’

‘Why is this here, Pembrooke?’ Melaleuca asked.

Lexington’s eyebrows shot up.

‘Isn’t it obvious cousin dear? So people can sneak in and out. I bet this area once had to defend itself from an attack.’

‘Oh?’ Ari said.

‘Ancient fortifications always had secret ways in and out,’ Lexington said.

Despite her tiredness, sun burnt face and sore lips, she sat bolt upright and said, ‘That’s it! Maybe the Cathedral-Mansion was a small castle hundreds of years old with a façade of the mansion built over it. Hence the secret way in.’

‘She’s smart that one,’ Pembrooke said.

‘Yeah, but is she right?’ Quixote asked.

‘Before my time, this whole land was crawling with tunnels, secret roads, and hiding places,’ Pembrooke said.

‘And…’ Quixote pressed towards him.

‘And that’s all,’ Pembrooke said.

Lexington beamed.

‘Let’s find the ruins of the other Cathedral-Mansions Aunty talked of. If they were castles then the remains should tell us.’

Melaleuca nodded at the idea, though she felt compelled to say, ‘Or Pembers here can tell us. You know something about Captain Wakefield and that had to be well over a hundred years ago.’

Pembrooke did not reply.

 

The track followed a lazy curve up the hillside, criss-crossing through the bush until it became denser. The horses slowed and started to heave through some bushes blocking their way, dragging the cart through them into a dark underground tunnel. They clip-clopped through the tunnel to the sound of dripping water. After a few minutes the cart headed uphill at a slow pace, the incline getting steeper and steeper.

Ari leant into Melaleuca and whispered, ‘Have you noticed how Pember’s words change? One minute he speaks normal and then the next he talks funny.’

Melaleuca whispered back, ‘Do you think he is leaving the notes?’

‘Who knows?’

‘Whoa girls,’ Pembrooke cried out, bringing the cart to a halt. They heard him jam on the hand brake. The horses snorted with effort. A chain rattled, clanging out of the dark. A crack of light appeared and a large trapdoor the size of a floor rose upwards, clanking and creaking with bits of hay falling from it.

Pembrooke commanded the horses to gee up and they moved forward, stopping in the middle of hay stacked bales and old farm equipment amidst a cobweb infested shed.

An odd sense of relief surged through Melaleuca.

‘I’m almost glad to be here,’ Lexington said.

‘I know what you mean,’ Ari replied.

‘And that’s a sad thought really,’ Quixote added, ‘that the mansion feels welcoming.’

‘Sneak in the back way,’ Pembrooke said, ‘and freshen up before your Aunt sees you. If I know her she will want to gloat over today.’

 

In the girl’s bedroom they flopped on the beds, spent and too tired even to rip off their horrid uniforms. Even the hard mattress felt cushioning to their bodies. Despite her tiredness Melaleuca pushed herself up, slid under the bed, and reached for the bracelets tucked away in their hiding place, and then handed them out.

With the bracelets on their wrists, energy poured into them. On cue they all sat upright, bright-eyed, faces gleaming, beaming at each other. A great sense of wonder fell over them and like fading ink they watched as their bruises, red marks, sun-burnt and chapped lips all disappeared. In a matter of seconds it was as if the nasty, dreary day had never taken place.

‘Like I said,’ Melaleuca said, ‘wait til we get home and put the bracelets on.’

I was right. We have the power to survive.

Lexington sidled up to her.

‘I think you just got lucky.’

Quixote bounced off the bed kicking the air, crying out, ‘If that Jerkin guy tries anything again I will boof him down. Master Saurian, eat my toes!’

He flailed his leg at an imaginary opponent.

Lexington tittered, and unlike her, she walked over to Quixote’s imaginary foe and slapped him.

‘There! Next time show some consideration.’

Melaleuca and Ari joined in, swinging their pillows, and pretending the day had played out differently. Quixote, of course, went one step further, freeing all the students, and announcing the time of the French Resistance uprising had come and that the Marauders were here to free everyone.

‘Keep your voice low,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington let her pillow droop in her hand and a pre-announcement look lit up her face.

‘When in the costumes, Pemily thought we were these so called Marauders. Even the kids at the borstal thought we were Marauders. And Con said we were Marauders and that these Marauders attacked the town thirty years ago. And Harshon mentioned it was thirty years ago our mother was banished. Do you think our parents were the Marauders?’

‘Maybe,’ Ari said. ‘But then Con described great beasts. There are no costumes like that.’

‘Well not yet,’ Quixote said.

‘True,’ Lexington said. ‘It merits further investigation and is a good hyper-thesis. Behind myth and legend lay truth. This is another good lead.’

‘Won’t you get confused with all your theories,’ Ari asked.

‘If that happens, then I will bundle them all together to make a…..make a……make a super theory…….though……how come Harshon only knew one of our mothers?’

‘Perhaps only one of them went to the Vahn,’ Melaleuca said.

‘That does not explain the photos on the wall. It’s almost as if there was only one mother.’

Quixote hulked down and narrowed his eyes to slits.

‘Maybe the others were hidden.’

‘And why exactly….’

Before they argued Melaleuca stepped between them.

‘We have the bracelets on. We can survive the Vahn. It may be we can survive anything. We carry on learning to use the costumes first, AND then it will become obvious why we are here. Do I need to go over this again?’

‘Agreed,’ Quixote said, ‘but I’ve got an idea. Ari, punch me as hard as you can.’

Ari balked.

‘It’s okay. I have an idea. With the bracelet on I shouldn’t feel it.’

Understanding, Ari pulled his hand back.

‘Yes, though…’ Lexington said seeing his logic’s flaw.

Ari unleashed a punch. WHAM!! Quixote flew back across the stone floor, smacking his head.

‘OWWW!’

‘…I would be amazed,’ Lexington carried on, ‘if these costumes were from the attic.’

‘You’re right…Ow,’ Quixote said.

He took his bracelet off, rubbed it on his forehead, though a shiny, hard lump appeared.

‘Put the bracelet on again,’ Melaleuca said.

With the bracelet on the bump shrunk.

‘The bracelet did not protect him because this is not a costume from upstairs,’ Lexington said, ‘Which means there is something else special about the costumes, though the bracelet healed him.’

‘Which means,’ Ari added, ‘we put the bracelets on at the end of the day and we are back to normal.’

‘Apparently,’ Lexington said. She faced away and took a few steps toward the window. ‘Yet I don’t think I can go back. I feel sick thinking of the Vahn. The children suffer. I can’t stand it. I vote we wait til our parents get here.’

‘Let’s go to the attic,’ Melaleuca said at Lexington, ‘and search for Vahn costumes. If they are there, they will help us at the Vahn.’

‘I don’t want to go back.’

‘Sure, okay then. Who’s coming to look with me?’

The boys followed Melaleuca though Lexington chose to stay behind.

 

***

 

Surrounded by the stillness of the cold stonewalls, feelings surfaced from Lexington’s hazy thoughts. Imerelia’s hidden grief, Jerkin’s cruelty, the Gorks and the detention centre, played through her mind.

So many threads to follow now; which ones, which clues, which direction, which hypothesis? There was no such thing as a super hypothesis. She had made it up, so the others would not know how jumbled she felt. Even now, alone, with begrudging reluctance she admitted it to herself.

She wrote “why” in the dust on the table, though her inner voice stayed silent.

‘Hello?’

What?’

‘What’s wrong with you?’

The day has been unkind to me as well.’

‘In what way?’

Your emotions and feelings hurt me. I am thought. I need to be fed thinking.’

Lexington sighed.

‘Look, my head hurts. I can’t seem to think clearly.’

Not surprised. You are not made for rough stuff.’

‘Then why did our parents let us come here?’

Perhaps they had no choice. Perhaps the bracelets only work for you and your cousins and they knew if you fell into the wrong hands it would be worse.’

‘Maybe, but I am not going back! I’m not!’

She wanted to feel defiant but her insides churned.

‘I just can’t. Those children, it’s…it’s just horrible.’

Good, that’s settled. Now where are we stuck with working things out?’

‘I don’t know.’ She plonked her head in her hands. ‘I’ve never had so many facts before. My head hurts but I can’t stop this desire to solve it. It’s what I do. I must know why!’

While it hurts when you have your feelings and emotions, it puts me outside you. At those moments, I can see things clearer than you can. There are three things you need to do.’

 

***

 

In the costume room the cousins searched all the rows finding nothing that resembled sackcloth.

‘They are here. I know so. Hard to explain. But they are here,’ Melaleuca said.

‘What if they are not hanging up?’ Ari said. ‘What if they are just lying around? I mean they are sacks.’

They foraged, poked and scrambled through every inch they could find, but still turned up nothing.

Dejected and sure her feelings were right, Melaleuca finally said, ‘Let’s go back.’

 

***

 

Lexington sat aghast at what her thoughts had just told her.

‘You still think that after all that happened today, playing and pretending is still needed.’

Your disgust for the way the children are treated stops you from rising above it. You have seen it yourself. That’s how you discovered what you did about the two giant statues.’

‘Yes, but they were not in pain, or trying to hurt me.’

Just listen. The hypothesis, hyper-thesis were a good start. But we need to find the key theory, the linking one, the one that all others fit with.’

‘With everything so far that could take ages.’

Not if you chose the right costume.’

Of course, Lexington thought.

OUT LOUD PLEASE!!!’

‘Of course, so obvious. Should have seen it. Just got cluttered so quickly. Perhaps it is time for another clearing?’

Not needed. Just pretend.’

‘You sound more excited than I do.’

In a sly sounding voice, her inner thoughts said, ‘Put a costume on and then activate me. I’ll show you how much fun it is.’

‘And the last thing?’

Somewhere in this land there must be a document, books or records written down somewhere. Find them.’

A small whumping sound, as if soft material hit the floor, came from behind her. Turning, she saw four sackcloth costumes sitting on the floor.

She quickly wrote “That’s why,” and said, ‘Mel? Is that you?’

 

***

 

Melaleuca and the boys walked back into the bedroom disappointed.

‘We could not find any,’ Melaleuca said annoyed.

Lexington pointed to the pile of sackcloth clothes on the floor and held up a note.

Melaleuca took it and read it out loud.

“Always trust your heart.”

‘Where’d they come from?’

‘I heard them hit the floor, turned and there they were.’ Lexington shrugged her shoulders. ‘Invisibility again.’

Quixote threw off his sackcloth and donned the new one.

‘No itching.’

‘Let’s test them,’ Ari said. ‘Bend over Quixote.’

Pointing his bottom at him, Quixote asked, ‘Like this?’

‘Yep.’

He smacked his rump hard, though Quixote did not flinch.

‘Hurry up!’

‘He already has,’ Lexington said. ‘Did you feel nothing?’

‘Nothing.’

Ari changed into one of them, and said, ‘Try on me, Qui.’

Quixote slapped him full force on his cheek with an open hand. Apart from the slapping noise, little else happened.

‘‘I think we will be fine,’ Melaleuca said, directing her comments at Lexington. ‘Nothing can hurt us now. Put one on Lex.’

Lexington cast her sackcloth to one side, putting the new one on. Instead of itching, it soothed her skin.

‘Try this,’ Quixote said, booting her hard in her crotch.

She flinched.

Quixote’s jaw dropped.

‘Did I hurt you?’

Lexington felt her crotch. ‘I am fine. Physically not hurt, but there is more than one way to hurt someone. You just took me by surprise.’ Calmed, an obvious thought struck her. ‘These are not from the attic. Why do they work?’

Quixote pulled his out from his body, inspecting it. ‘I think it has been used before.’ He pulled a small tooth out of it and extracted threads of hair from it.

Lexington recoiled.

‘Ewww!’

The door burst open and Aunty Gertrude, smirking from ear to ear, strode into the room with a haughty demeanour. Not looking at them and with her head jabbed high, she said, ‘Thought you could sneak in eh! Not so proud and smart mouthed now are we?’

She heard silence, mistaking it for humility.

‘Now that’s better. Little bratty children whose mouths are shut.’ She lowered her eyes, and saw them trying hard not to laugh.

‘WHAT! WHAT? Laughter, and what is this?’ She grabbed Quixote. ‘No marks, no whip stains, or anything.’

Forgetting her lady status, she dropped to her knees, clutching at their bodies searching for injuries.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Aunty Gertrude yelled as she got back to her feet. ‘You were roped. He was hit in the face. But nothing. What is going on?’

Quixote calmed himself and approached her with a serene face; his eyes filled with mirth. ‘Thanks for sending us to school. It was fun. Can we go again tomorrow?’

‘You little shit.’

She slapped him hard across the face.

Unflinching, he grinned at her.

‘Thanks, can I have another?’

Incensed beyond words, she thrust her hands around his throat, squeezing with all her might. Quixote continued to smile back at her.

Seeing suspicion and fear on Aunty Gertrude’s face at Quixote’s invulnerability, Melaleuca started crying, like one of the scared children she had seen, and threw herself at her Aunt.

‘Please, stop. You will kill him. Leave him alone.’

Aunty Gertrude relaxed her grip. ‘Foul girl.’ She spat at Melaleuca. ‘Be the best thing for all of you.’

Lexington pulled her hair back.

‘I should choose my words more carefully. You lied to us to get us to go to the Vahn. But I tell you this, I may not look much but after today I know quite a bit more about strength.’

A boney finger jabbed at her.

‘Mark these words. Today will be considered a picnic when I tell them to let loose on you.’

‘And if we should fail,’ Lexington said, ‘what of your honour?’

Like a harpoon, her words sunk into Aunty Gertrude. She tried to speak but enraged, she choked on her words.

‘You see Aunty, the Head Discipliner said your honour was at stake. And we were told that, you, being in charge of history, had decided to bring in outsiders. Now I know little of what really goes on here, but I do know that is not how we came to be here. That means you want others to know another story about us, which of course, we could keep to, if we were treated right. I would hate to see your honour dis-honoured.’

Aunty Gertrude gawped, gob-smacked at Lexington’s poisonous words, a slight look of realisation and terror on her face. Even the others looked surprised at how barbed Lexington’s words were.

Aunty Gertrude slapped Lexington’s face hard in frustration. Lexington shifted her head to one side, but then without flinching, shifted it back.

‘I think we understand each other.’

Aunty Gertrude lashed out.

‘The adults always win. Always! It may seem you have the upper hand, but you are only four children, and we are hordes of hardened people. We have withstood fire and the ravages of time, and still we stand.’

They looked back at her unimpressed.

‘Disgusting children,’ Aunty Gertrude yelled and with a flurry of her dress, swished about and stormed out of their room ranting.

‘In my day…we shall…Stricter, tougher…will talk…have become slack…’ Her voice trailed off down the corridor. ‘Little brats. I told you they would be trouble!!’ she shrieked high-pitched at someone.

‘Impressive logic Lex,’ Ari said.

With an obvious feeling of being chuffed Lexington addressed her cousins though pointed her gaze at Quixote.

‘See, logic. Logic and analysing helped me work out that little fact.’

Feet shuffled to the door and a small polite knock rapped on it. ‘May I enter? Did not want to disturb you, perhaps…ah…’ Uncle Bear-Nard pushed the door opened.

He stared at his four fresh-faced nieces and nephews. They looked no worse for wear. Behind him Jeeves appeared.

‘So…ah…how are we?’

‘We are all fine,’ Melaleuca said.

‘And…the day…how was it?’

‘Very informative,’ Lexington replied.

‘Oh and the…um…Vahn…how did…was…that found?’

‘When was the last time you went there Uncle?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘I…me…oh…before, before. Long time?’

‘Uncle, the school is brutal,’ Lexington said.

‘You all seem…chipper…fine…though?’

Lexington started to explain. Melaleuca placed her hand on Lexington’s shoulder and then spoke.

‘We are fine Uncle. Thank you for asking. We shall be fine? How was your day?’

Jeeves, who had been standing there the entire time silent, stood there some more and carried on being silent.

‘Good. Yes. Thanks.’ Uncle Bear-Nard appeared to get even more nervous.

Lexington shot another question at him. ‘Can I see your false teeth?’

The question stunned everyone, though Uncle Bear-Nard glibly smiled and muttered something about having to keep them in.

‘Just…came…to…say goodnight…that’s all.’

‘But it is early evening,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca pulled Lexington back. ‘Good night Uncle.’

They all bid Jeeves and Uncle Bear-Nard good night.

 

‘Poor Uncle. He really is in a terrible state,’ Ari said.

‘Why couldn’t he answer those questions?’ Lexington asked.

‘I think Aunty Gertrude is making life unbearable for him,’ Ari said. ‘Poor man.’

‘Let’s use the bracelets, put on a costume and go scare her,’ Quixote said.

The idea appealed though they knew the only fun they would have with it was in their minds.

‘Right,’ Melaleuca said, ‘let’s get on with it. Let’s just pick up from where we were before the Vahn? Ari you were sitting on the roof, Quixote you were trying on costumes, and Lex there must be much about today for you to write up on the wall. Let’s have fun, play, pretend. Come on let’s go.’

Lexington looked at Melaleuca with disdain. ‘How can you just ignore today? We have to face the Vahn again tomorrow. Shouldn’t we be thinking about that? How can you just play or pretend? I don’t think we should go back? I don’t think our parents ever meant for us to go there?’

‘We have the costumes. We have little to fear from the Vahn now.’

‘I want to stay here during the day.’

Quixote waded in.

‘I think we should attack the Vahn tomorrow. Look how we did against the guards at the Borstal. Lexington is right.’

‘Quixote!’ Lexington said, exasperated. ‘I meant something else, besides the children did not want to be rescued. Or did you not notice.’ She faced Melaleuca. ‘Mum said to get her if I found the sign. The sign was on the top of the head of the statues. That’s what we should also be doing. Going back for them.’

‘Lex,’ Ari said. ‘Let’s just calm down. I’m sure we, with your help, can work this out.’

‘I suppose you want to attack the Vahn as well?’ Lexington asked Ari. Hurt shone in her eyes.

‘Lex, I think we should play or pretend tonight. Move forward with the costumes, and things will become clear.’

‘I see,’ Lexington calmed herself, though from the pained expression on her gentle face, all the cousins could see she was trying to control it.

‘Make your decision then, Mel. Which is it to be? Attack the Vahn, go back to the Vahn, or let’s go back and find our parents or your idea! Oh and if you are to take counsel from me, I suggest my idea.’

Melaleuca’s natural urge was to restate again they should play and pretend and learn to use the costumes, but in Lexington’s worked-up state she needed to consider her feelings, however tiresome she was becoming. Probing beyond her eyes, Melaleuca saw in an instance where the problem lay. Lexington could not watch anything suffer. Even as a younger child Lexington could not watch animals, insects, birds or even trees, die or be in pain.

The words that her gentleness was her strength came to Melaleuca, yet right now she saw it as a weakness. She pulled her vision back and decided to do what she always did, make a decision.

Like every other time, she willed it so, expecting her feelings to pop a decision out.

Nothing turned up, no decision, no feeling.

She willed again, and again nothing turned up.

Slightly panicky, she willed one more time, but nothing came of it.

‘Well?’ Lexington demanded.

Chapter 25 – Deeper into Intrigue

 

 

Daquan sat in his new adult den, his desk awash in papers. Maps of the world covered the walls and marks and dates with the words “no,” “possibly,” “clues found here,” and “information,” were scrawled all over them; evidence of years searching for the bracelets.

Someone had them, and whoever that someone was, was using them, he thought. The Marauders had been spotted. They must be using his Bracelets. His Bracelets! His ticket out of here! His way to revenge for the years of humiliation! He needed them and he needed them now! The Kockoroc had been spotted, a sure sign that great change was a foot. Soon all New Wakefield would talk of it; the perfect time for him to go unnoticed, everyone distracted by their imprisoning myths and legends.

‘But not I!’

He smacked the papers on his desk sending them sprawling across the floor. He scratched the hair growing back on his eyebrows, and felt disturbed and edgy, more than normal. Of all the bits of news, the one that irked him the most was the presence of outside children seen behind the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. And worse was the news that Matron Gertrude Throughnight had taken outside children and sent them to the Vahn.

Was it possible that she had trained children in secret to use the Bracelets? And with a view to attacking him?

Frustrated, he grabbed a cup, hiffing it in the direction of the door. It smashed to pieces on the edge as a messenger appeared.

The messenger panicked.

‘Ahhh!’

‘WHAT?’

The messenger cowered, unable to speak.

‘Is Quesob back yet? Is that it?’

‘S..s.sir. Master B..B..Bench said he is not back yet.’

‘WHY NOT?’ Daquan screamed not expecting an answer, and then snapped. ‘Assemble the men out back.’

The messenger looked confused.

‘WELL GET ON WITH IT!’

Minutes later Daquan stood in the back of his crumbling Cathedral-Mansion, amongst the weeds and mud, staring at twenty grizzly men.

With an eye of disgust Daquan remembered former times when men of stouter heart trod proudly about his place. Now no one of any note would join him. As a recluse and a returned outcast, these were the best men he could muster.

‘Two of you are going on a spy mission for me!’

 

***

 

With no decision forth coming, Melaleuca harked back to the notes and the instructions.

‘We are to move forward. We are to follow our hearts. That’s what mum and the notes say.’

She felt panicky about the unexplained loss of her decision-making ability.

Lexington threw her arms up.

‘The notes! We have just been to the Vahn and the only note we get is about the uniforms. Don’t any of you find that strange? Surely they would say something like, well done, don’t panic, be strong. Maybe, whoever it is, thinks we ought not to have gone.’

‘We have gone. It is known we are here. This we have to deal with.’

‘Please listen to me. Don’t go back there. Let’s go and find our parents! I know the note said we were out of danger. But I think all we are doing is heading into danger.’

The word “danger,” ignited a fire inside Melaleuca. She felt the same thrill she had when fighting the guards at the borstal, and felt that same growing power she had tasted when she had looked into Master Saurian’s eyes.

‘And if we are,’ Melaleuca said, ‘then there is more urgency to learn to use the costumes properly.’

‘Girls, we can work this out,’ Ari said.

In a split second, Melaleuca saw herself leading a charge on the Vahn, freeing the students, and liberating the land. Fleeting, the vision left. Like a double-edged sword, a new ability to split asunder people’s feelings and thoughts formed. She pierced through Lexington’s words to her unrealised emotion.

Melaleuca extended her arm and unlike her, stroked Lexington’s hand. ‘You are scared. We all are. You shouldn’t be. Don’t ask me why or how. That’s your job. Mine is to trust. And I do. I so do.’

Lexington did not expect Melaleuca to cool as quickly as she did.

‘Don’t ask me to not ask why. It’s what I do!’

Still charged by the thought of danger, Melaleuca wanted to return to the Vahn. Saving the children appealed to her, but she also relished the challenge of not being caught. But her instructions had included Lexington, and she knew Lexington, though cautious, had good reason to be. She was after all the intellectual conscience of them all.

‘For tonight let us continue what we were doing before the Vahn. Then let us decide in the morning. How about that?’

 

***

 

Lexington stood before her large sheets of white paper. In only a day she felt like she had aged weeks or even months. As she penned various facts here and there, noting the comments about thirty years, jotting down the answer to the Kockoroc, putting up the possibility of their parents being the Marauders, she thought about her gentleness as a weapon.

Each time she used it, someone cried, volunteered up information or got angry. Yet no one at the Vahn was gentle, and from what the Gorks had said no one had been gentle for thirty years or more. Perhaps that was what Harshon meant.

What were her exact words again?

“You pose a threat to them. I can see it now. If this is all it takes to make people remember and feel, then things will be worse for you than I have imagined.”

She could see how Quixote could annoy them, and even Melaleuca’s fierceness must be a threat, and she supposed Ari’s strength might daunt a few of them, but her gentleness? How would it work on Master Saurian or Sah Task-Master Carrion? She shuddered imagining trying to be gentle to them, repulsed at the thought.

Harshon’s words about remembering stood out like a major clue. What was it that people were supposed to forget then? Did their hidden memories contain the key linking theory?

Another thought came to her. If her mother was right about the medallion, then perhaps the advice about being like Quixote had some merit. She entertained it for a moment but then dismissed it. Even if her mother was right, she was not ready to be like Quixote.

Quixote waltzed in, hailing Lexington. ‘Hi. Figured it all out yet?’

‘Nearly. What are you going to do?’

‘Play.’

He sauntered away from her, making sure she could not see him, and ran past the mirror into the unknown-age costumes. He knew someone was supposed to be with him, but Ari wanted to sit on the roof again and Melaleuca had the gymnast costume on, leaping around somewhere. Besides, the unknown-age ones held the most fascination.

I’ll just look.

He ran his hand up and down the rows, feeling the different materials, pawing at them. Up and down he walked, day-dreaming, until his hand slipped between two costumes and a small electrical charge zapped him.

‘Ow.’

Pulling the costumes apart, he beheld a costume that appeared as if hundreds of ballerina tutus had been sown together to make the tuftiest, billowy looking outfit he had ever seen. He brushed his hand over it. Small sparks danced and flew about in a tiny electrical storm, stopping when he stopped his hand moving.

 

***

 

Dressed as the detective, Lexington eyed the large white sheets of paper.

Key theory, key theory.

Lexington decided she needed hard evidence to prove, at least, one of her theories. So far all she had was the medallion, which she had lost. The obvious place to start seemed the mystery of their mothers and the lady named Karena. If one of their mothers was named Karena then somewhere in the Cathedral-Mansion there must be a record, writing, photo or something to connect it to her. Perhaps that would provide the key linking theory.

As she stepped out of the costume room, a ball of sparks and mini-lightening flashes erupted before her. It died away quickly, leaving a ghost image of Quixote in its wake.

Melaleuca flipped over from the other side of the attic.

‘What was that?’

Quixote walked a few paces forward; the taffeta costume spitting static electric-sparks as he did so. Blue-green hues danced around him in blobs, as the sparks died away.

‘Pretty neat huh?’

‘That’s from the unknown racks?’ Lexington asked.

‘Yeah. I think it generates power.’

‘Quixote,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We agreed someone was to watch you.’

‘Lex was in the room with me.’

‘You didn’t tell me you were picking from there.’

‘Oh…well….sorry….but hey watch this.’

He tore off as fast as he could, the costume erupting into a spectacular, electrically-noisy, light show. Shards of incandescent sparks shot out, and shafts of streaming light poured off him in lurid, scintillating colours. He slowed to a halt as the wall loomed up. The tiny electrical storm stopped, leaving a silhouetted after-image in their eyes.

Both Melaleuca and Lexington stood amazed, with even Lexington looking impressed.

‘Quixote,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Walk back slowly.

Quixote meandered back, and small static crackles and pops sounded, and tiny sparks of light danced around the costume.

As the faint changing coloured-light of Quixote approaching played across their faces, Lexington said to Melaleuca, ‘I think you know what you need to tell him.’

 

***

 

Ari sat cross legged as the Shaman, staring into the Northern Hills. Almost immediately he felt the trees teeming inside him. The sensation rushed through him, threatening to overcome him. His heart beat increased, sweat formed on his forehead, and his breathing raced to the point of losing it.

Fumbling for his bracelet, he tugged it off, and wondered what had happened. He stilled himself and waited til his breathing and heartbeat returned to normal.

He put the bracelet on again, breathed as deep as he could, and imagined himself solid inside. He opened his eyes, and hearing the trees, he tried to move into and with it. Like an unseen hand the chorus of the forest reached out, swelling his heart with the immensity of life teeming inside it. He felt the earth beneath the forest, and even the small waterways trickling down the mountains. Enraptured, he spread his feelings out further, discovering the feel of paddocks, fields, mountain tops and snow, all humming with a feeling of their own.

But this was not the voice he sought, and somehow he knew that. He knew he needed to still his mind and quieten his feelings, quieter and stiller than ever before.

 

 

***

 

Lexington made her way down to the great hallways, taking with her a candle powered lamp. The words about being like Quixote played through her mind again, and she started to consider why mimicking him could help her.

He just plunges in, yet he always comes up with something new. And let’s not forget he did not hesitate to leap into the water to save me.

Peeking out the chapel door to ensure no one walked the Great Hallway; she entered it, and started to inspect the photos, giving no more thought to Quixote.

Lexington took her time analysing each picture, using her near-photographic memory to record them. By the time she got to the 20th photo, one fact stood out. All the photos so far had been of the same mother, Melaleuca’s. She could tell because each of the sisters had slightly different noses.

Where were the other three? Locked up? Camera shy? And what of their fathers’ families? Why had Uncle Bear-Nard not mentioned them? Did their fathers even come from New Wakefield?

Too many questions crowded her mind and she could feel the costume wanting to take over. She slipped the bracelet off and felt the questions abate.

A piercing, silent din of something akin to past, quieted voices made her shiver. The night-time Cathedral-Mansion felt ill, like an old ship lurching along on its last voyage. High above her in the dark hidden reaches where light had not penetrated for years, an evil dense presence seemed to float.

Lexington suddenly felt very alone.

Something in the Cathedral-Mansion, just beyond the present dimension, seemed alive. With the bracelet back on she tried to dispel it with logic, dismissing it as Ari’s “Ethmare,” or air pressure changes, trapped stale air, even the Cathedral-Mansion decaying. Despite this, the feeling of an unseen presence stayed.

She decided now would be a good time to return to the others. Heading off down the corridor the air swirled behind her as an unseen shape lifted out of the wall.

 

***

 

Quixote stood in front of the mirror dressed as a chimney sweep. He held a long, tousled-haired brush, though could not think of anything fun to do with a chimney sweep costume. He swung the brush around, already bored, flicking it forward with enough speed to lose his grip. It sailed forward, landing behind the mirror.

He almost left it there, unimpressed, but tried reaching behind the mirror to find it anyway. Pushing his head between the mirror and the wall, he stretched for the brush, spotting another mirror on the back of the mirror. Forgetting the brush, he tried to move the mirror out from the wall to get a better look, though he could not budge it.

He dashed amongst the racks looking for a strong man costume, wondering what one would look like. Unsure, he finally put on a sumo wrestlers costume. Grabbing the mirror, he yanked it back and with little effort it spun around. Instead of his reflection, a fat, mean-looking sumo wrestler stared at him. Unnerved, Quixote stepped back, and the sumo wrestler stepped back as well.

He moved forward, side, back, forward, and to the side, and the sumo wrestler mimicked all of his moves.

‘Who are you?’ Quixote asked, watching him copy his mouth movements.

‘You’re me, aren’t you?’

Checking the other side, his reflection showed himself dressed in a pair of baggy, sumo wrestlers togs.

He danced between the two mirrors, marvelling at the change in his appearance. Excited Quixote started trying on other costumes at random. The chimney sweep’s clothes made him look like a tall, gaunt man of a sickly, thin build. A hobo’s outfit gave him a short stature and a stubbled unshaven chin. He threw on a butcher’s apron, finding a meat cleaver in its pocket. Brandishing it in front of the mirror reflected back a fat, angry-looking, man.

Quixote wondered what would happen if he put two costumes on at once, something none of the others had tried. He pictured a fat, mean-looking butcher in a tutu, seeing the comedy in it.

He rifled through the costumes, spying instead a ninja outfit. Surprised he had not seen it before; he reached for it, recalling a book he had once read that said they were brilliant at sneaking into places.

Yes. A sneaking butcher.

He pulled the ninja costume on and then stuck the butcher apron on over top. The image in the mirror reflected back a fat man, bulging out of a tight black, sleek ninja suit with the butcher’s apron swaying over his large front.

Titillated, he imagined how much fun it would be to sneak into one of the adult’s bedrooms.

 

***

 

Lexington found the attic empty. She duly noted her find before going to search for the others, noticing that despite a number of discoveries, no one else had written anything on her sheets. Miffed she wrote them up.

As she wrote up Quixote’s discoveries, she once again thought about being like him. Perhaps she could pretend for a short while and see if there was any merit in the instruction. After all, no harm had come of his foolishness.

She walked to the 1000 year old costumes, grabbing the first one. The tag said, “washerwoman.”

No, wait, that’s not right. That’s not how he would do it.

Instead, she headed to the unknown-age costumes, reasoning, if he can do it, then so could she.

She pushed the costumes side to side, until only one hung there. Thousands of string-like tassels, in perfect rows, hung limp off the trousers and jacket. She whipped out her notebook to start writing, but then stopped. Instead, just like Quixote, she pulled the costume off the rack, and it plummeted to the ground with a thunk. She ran her hands over it, wondering why it weighed so much.

Hard rectangular objects lay embedded in the sleeves and the legs, and her invisible bracelet vibrated when she touched them. Though knowing Quixote would not act like this, she took her bracelet off until she was ready.

She dragged the costume over to the mirror, took the detective clothes off, lay on the floor, and wriggled into the pants. The hard objects pressed deep in to her legs.

It made no sense, and she nearly backed out. She fought her desire to analyse it and rammed her feet, poking them out of the tassel woven ends. After inserting her arms in the sleeves, she pushed herself up, wobbling with the weight. With the tassels hanging off everywhere she looked like an ancient clown or a pantomime bush.

Pensive, and with the costume still making no logical sense, she slid her bracelet on. The costume bristled into life, and all the tassels suddenly flung outwards, and stuck out taut. Resembling a living hairbrush, the sudden force of it threw her about. Fighting to regain her footing, she fell forward, screwing her eyes up to shield them from the impact.

She never hit the ground. Instead the costume pushed her back up and held her there. Bemused and relieved, she tried falling backwards again. Again it pushed her upright.

She shuffled her feet about struggling to walk properly. Suspended by the taut tassels on the bottom of the trousers, her feet hovered a few inches off the ground.

A hover costume. I have discovered a hover costume.

A small pang of excitement ran through her, and she wondered if this was how Quixote felt making his discoveries.

She took a step expecting the heavy weight to require a lot of effort, but found walking easy. The tassels acted like spongy sprigs allowing her to walk softly without touching the floor. She trod out of the costume room, wanting to find Melaleuca.

In the attic her legs started to hum and vibrate like a small electric motor had been switched on. At first it tickled and then it pulled, and the humming and vibrating became more and more intense. Blue light glowed from the trousers, sending faint rings of energy surging up and down her legs in slow, wave like motions.

Panicking, she tried to turn around and go back to the costume room.

Her left foot held its grip on the floor as her right foot kicked off to step forward.

The floor beneath her broke, splintering in a massive tearing noise, and the roof overhead ripped, sending shards of roof tiles smashing around her. Windows shattered and smashed below her and the whole building and the earth shook as an earthquake from deep in the earth caused the lawns out in front to bend and fold, pushing dirt up from beneath the ground.

She tore her bracelet off, and all the tassels went limp, stopping the blue surging rings and she crashed to the ground. The far off rumble of the shaking earth went quiet.

What have I done?

For the first time in her life she wanted to hide in case she got blamed. The roof above creaked a little and small bits of debris fell to the floor. She crawled forward peering down the six inch crack she had torn. Even in the darkness it seemed to go all the way to the bottom.

Awestruck at unleashing a terrible power beyond her comprehension, she took the costume off, placed it on the ground and stared at it.

 

***

 

The rumbling and the shaking of the house tore Ari from his meditation, making him tumble backwards down the roof. Landing safely, he noted that it was now night and he had not been aware of the setting sun. His heart sunk a little. He had heard the “O” syllable and was almost about to hear another one, when the building shook. He could see the big tear in the Cathedral-Mansion. He scrambled back toward the attic.

 

***

 

Melaleuca stopped her gymnastics. The earthquake jolted the attic floor in front of her. Without thinking, she headed straight back to the costume room. The last time an earthquake hit, Quixote had pulled the key out of the statue. What had he done now?

 

***

 

Ari and Melaleuca met in the attic, in front of the costume room.

‘Did you feel it?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘How could I not? Where’s Lexington?’

‘Last saw her up here. Where’s Quixote?’

‘No idea.’

‘What’s he done now?’

 

***

 

Ari and Melaleuca arrived at the same time, racing into the costume room, finding Lexington. Assuming she had rushed there ahead of them, to find Quixote as well, Melaleuca asked, ‘Where is he?’

‘What costume has he tried on this time?’ Ari asked.

Looking guilty, Lexington said, ‘I am the only one here.’

‘Have you just got here?’ Ari asked.

She motioned to the costume on the floor.

‘It was me,’ Lexington said. ‘I tried that costume on. It’s from the unknown-age.’

Melaleuca looked annoyed.

‘I thought we had decided that someone should be here when trying those ones on?’

Lexington’s face became hot and flustered.

‘Well Quixote tries them on all the time. And you said that I should be more like him. So I tried one on. And you know what?! I think from now on, I will be like me!’

‘But look,’ Ari said, surveying the damage through the door, ‘I think this could give us away.’

Perhaps encouraging her to be like Quixote had not been the best idea, Melaleuca thought, though something about it did feel right. However, she could see Quixote writing his name on the lawn in upturned earth just for fun. Steered properly, Quixote’s bizarre way of looking at life, provided insights and flashes of inspiration into many things. So, what was Lexington to learn from Quixote?

‘I think until we understand those instructions better,’ Melaleuca said, ‘we should just be ourselves.’

She bent down, felt the costume and looked up at Lexington. ‘It’s a good discovery, anyway Lex. It’s powerful, something we may eventually need.’

Lexington snorted at Melaleuca.

‘I’m sure Quixote would love to wear this.’

‘Where is he?’ Melaleuca asked.

 

***

 

Quixote crept through the secret passages until he found himself outside his Aunt and Uncle’s room. He spied through the peephole, seeing them lying in their bed asleep, illuminated by a solitary weak candle.

The earth shook and he tumbled over, landing on the floor. He pulled himself back up and peered back through the spy hole. They had not woken.

Good. I will try them as a test.

He felt around in the darkness, discovering he could see if he willed it, as if a dull grey light had been turned on. He located the mechanism that opened the secret panel and pressed it, and then slid the panel silently to one side.

Heart pounding, he slipped into his Aunt and Uncle’s bedroom, feeling excited, yet on edge, as if he was creeping into a den of sleeping lions.

In a large four poster bed Uncle Bear-Nard and Aunty Gertrude slept. He walked right up to them, pulling faces, though the fun of it soon wore off. The ninja suit, he reasoned, would make him nearly invisible. What would happen though if he made a noise, woke them up and then tried to sneak out?

 

***

 

‘Ah guys. Come look,’ Ari said.

The girls came and stood by him, as he pointed to the mirror, now pulled out from the wall and twisted half way round.

‘What has he done?’ Lexington asked.

Melaleuca stared into the side that Quixote had exposed and saw herself as a sleek, muscled gymnast. Shocked, she stepped back and studied the person more.

‘Ari, Lex, look.’

They stared into the mirror. Staring back at them was the gymnast, and a small, ancient-looking, aged North American Indian, and Lexington merely holding her bracelet in her hand.

‘Who are they?’ Ari asked.

Lexington dashed on the detective outfit and looking in the mirror saw herself as a tall, gangly, big-nosed detective.

‘This reverse viewing apparatus shows us what other people see when we don the costumes and bracelets. Simple really. But how does it work?’

‘So Quixote discovered another thing,’ Melaleuca said without thinking.

Lexington prickled at this statement, though held her silence.

‘What I meant was…’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington shoved her hand up to block Melaleuca’s words, saying, ‘Tut. We have not found Quixote yet and look.’

She bent down and picked up two small paper labels and held them up for the others to read.

‘Ninja and Sumo,’ Ari read out. He looked at Lexington for the why.

‘Quixote wanted to go and scare Aunty Gertrude,’ Lexington replied, pulling the bracelet off so the others would understand her. ‘It is logical that somehow he discovered this mirror and upon seeing how he looked, decided to go and scare her. If anyone is going to give us away, perhaps it might be him.’

‘Right let’s go and find him,’ Melaleuca said.

 

***

 

They arrived at the peephole of their Aunt and Uncle’s room in time to see Quixote prodding the face of Aunty Gertrude.

‘What is he doing?’ Melaleuca said. ‘We have to stop him.’

Lexington pulled at her.

‘Let me see.’

Melaleuca moved aside.

Quixote kept on prodding the face of his Aunt, and her eyes blinked open, startled to see him bending over her. He pulled back into the shadows.

‘Uh oh,’ Lexington said, narrating what she saw. ‘Looks like she is awake.’

Aunty Gertrude looked around, though could see nothing. She held up the candle, sweeping the room with her eyes. Seeing nothing, she lay back down.

Lexington relayed what she saw again.

‘What does he think he is doing? Ari get in there and get him out,’ Melaleuca said.

Aunty Gertrude appeared to have fallen asleep again and Quixote approached the bed and prodded her cheek. Like lightening Aunty Gertrude threw her bony hand out and grabbed Quixote’s finger.

‘You will pay,’ Aunty Gertrude said.

Uncle Bear-Nard stirred beside her.

Quixote yanked his finger back.

Instead of moving back into the shadows, he stood there. Aunty Gertrude grabbed the candle and held it up.

Quixote leant forward and yelled at her, ‘Arrrrgggghhhh!’

‘Ahhhhhhhhhhh!’ Aunty Gertrude shrieked, throwing the candle backwards in her panic, causing it to land on Uncle Bear-Nard.

 

Chapter 26 – Day Two

 

Argus North teetered at the edge of a ravine, hearing a fast moving river way below him in the darkness, and pulled himself back in a hurry.

Great. Which way now.

By his calculations this was the second alluvial valley, and this was the first ravine. Something inside him told him he should have known about the ravine.

‘SHUT UP!’

Haunting memories had been coming back; glimpses of the men of Ori; horrid slaying of animals and eating them raw. With his old body, he had suppressed his entrenched memories, but now it seemed his young body forced the memories up from below, stirring up a burning desire for revenge.

All he could do was sit and wait for daylight, as now he needed to head west, but nightfall alongside a ravine could prove too risky.

 

***

 

The candle landed on Uncle Bear-Nard, and he yelped and thrust himself up.

Ari fumbled at the secret panel.

‘Hurry Ari,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington carried on peering through the peep hole, while Melaleuca bent down to help Ari.

Aunty Gertrude grabbed at Uncle Bear-Nard, gripping her blanket tight.

‘B…B…B…B…’

Soothing his head he peered around to see what perturbed her.

‘What is it dear?’

‘L..l…l..l…look.’

She pointed at her assailant in the shadows.

A calm Uncle Bear-Nard stared at the figure, grabbed the still burning candle, and held it up.

‘What do you want?’

‘Be nice to the kids!!!’

Ari and Melaleuca rushed into the room and grabbed Quixote, though Aunty Gertrude and Uncle Bear-Nard saw a gymnast and an Indian rushing at them.

Aunty Gertrude clambered up onto the headboard of the bed, yelling, ‘It’s them…they are…b.b.back…the m…m…m..Marauders….Bear-Nard do something.’

Uncle Bear-Nard hopped out of bed, and approached them, while Aunty Gertrude fell to her knees, screwed her face up and started pleading.

‘Please…not again…stop…it was Captain HeGood and that boy Deth…he betrayed you. Not me.’

‘Please she is upset,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, ‘go that I may calm her.’

Melaleuca and Ari pulled Quixote back, wrestling with him as his costume started to take control.

‘I’ll cut your spleen out and feed it to the dogs,’ Quixote yelled.

Once behind the panel, it took all of Ari’s strength to pin him to the ground and pull his bracelet off.

Melaleuca knelt.

‘What on earth were you thinking?’

Quixote grimaced, trying to suppress a grin. ‘Not sure. Wanted to scare her and then, there I was.’

Ari sighed.

‘You lost control again.’

‘I know….I know…sorry.’

‘A serendipitous discovery though,’ Lexington said.

‘Simple words?’ Ari said.

‘Aunty Gertrude and someone named Deth had something to do with the Marauders. And a betrayal.’

A loud sob came from the bedroom, and Lexington spied through the peephole again.

‘What’s happening?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘She is crying. For real I think.’

 

Uncle Bear-Nard had his arm around her, comforting her until her sobbing stopped.

‘I know who is to blame,’ Aunty Gertrude said. ‘Those children. Did you see them after school? Did you?’ Her voice rose in pitch. ‘Tomorrow I shall instruct the Head Discipliner to run them through the tests, all the tests, all of them, all in one day.’

Firm speech replaced Uncle Bear-Nard’s stutter.

‘Oh dear. I am greatly concerned for you now.’

‘Why?’

‘You told the council you bought in outsiders because if the appointed time arrives we must be prepared.’

‘Who told you?’

‘I may be a doddery old fool, fallen from grace, but there are those who remember the name this family once held. What happens to your plan if they fail?’

She pulled away from him.

‘You were always soft. And this mess is entirely your fault, your fault, all of it.’

‘Maybe. But now you have to help them or you will look foolish. You told the council I wanted to stop them going to the Vahn, so it’s on your head now.’

He softened his gaze in thought, adding, ‘I have asked too much of you. I am truly sorry, but events bigger than you and I are at risk here. They must not fail at the Vahn. Tomorrow you shall instruct the Head Discipliner to back off and let them undergo what all normal students get there.’

She sneered at him,

‘Why? Afraid they can’t handle a little pain?’

‘On the contrary, I fear they may overturn everything we believe in.’

She fell silent and stifled a few more sobs.

Uncle Bear-Nard touched her shoulder. She shrugged it off. Undeterred, he reached out again, placing a hand on her leg. She slapped his hand hard and he withdrew it.

 

As the cousins headed back to the attic room, it occurred to Lexington that Quixote’s recklessness once again turned up valuable clues.

I don’t know how he does it.

Half way there, and irked by Quixote’s behaviour, Lexington said, ‘Just as a reminder, Quixote. We agreed not to use the costumes until we knew more.’

His grin could not have been bigger.

‘Actually cousin, we decided not to use them to save the kids of New Wakefield until we knew more. Besides, now we know that two costumes can be combined.’

Lexington paused, shut her eyes, and rubbed them.

‘We need to know more. Lots more. Lots, lots, lots more. Does no one else get this?”

Melaleuca and Ari halted and turned to listen,

‘I mean, Uncle Bear-Nard mentioned an appointed time, and so did that Carrion Master Sah man today. We need to know what that appointed time is.’

Quixote rolled his eyes.

‘Why this, why that, blah, blah, blah.’

Lexington thrust her head at Quixote’s head, and everyone looked startled at her.

Gentleness.

With a light touch she squeezed Quixote’s mouth shut.

‘Hush cousin. Big people with big brains talking. Now I am not one for going on feelings, but if I did, I would say it feels like something really big is at stake and everyone is afraid of talking about it. A time of appointment in a society like this could only mean bad things, retribution or punishment.’

Quixote pulled her hand away and before he could speak, Melaleuca placed her hand over his mouth.

‘Oh?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘It’s logical,’ Lexington said ‘Why would a people hide themselves away from the world and then act like we have seen? Simple. They think they have a special purpose. Now, all we have to do is find that special purpose, and….and…’

It suddenly dawned on her the special purpose could be the linking theory she sought. ‘That’s it!!!’

With gusto, she ripped through an explanation of how her hyper-thesis needed a key linking theory.

‘How many theories is that now?’ Melaleuca asked.

Quixote sniggered at her, ‘I’ve got a theory.’

Ari gave him a small shove.

‘Qui, enough,’ Melaleuca said realising she needed to state what she felt as well. ‘We are part of something much larger. I’ve felt it for a while now. Our parents hid us from someone or something. Something happened thirty years ago, and yes somehow we are involved. But we are still to keep playing, pretending, moving forward. Lexington is most likely onto something. The costumes are another major key, but we must keep things fun. I think this all has something to do with our noble heritage, our bloodline.’

‘How can you just know that?’ Lexington asked.

Melaleuca let out a large breath.

‘I was defending you. I also feel we have to work better as a team. Sooner, not later. Now let’s get back to the rooms. We have more days to survive at the Vahn.’

In the dim, grey light of the candles, Lexington glared at her.

‘I told you I am not going back.’

‘You heard Uncle. The Vahn will be told to back off.’

‘But you don’t understand.’

‘Yes I do. You cannot bear to watch the children in their wretched state. You would rather stay here and help them by solving the mystery of the bracelets, the costumes, us, the land, and so on.’

Lexington dropped her mouth open, silenced. It was exactly how she felt.

‘I can see no other way.’ Melaleuca added. ‘After today, I know my feelings are correct. We will prevail.’

‘I just can’t go back Mel.’

Melaleuca felt herself getting impatient.

‘Think about not going back. Or, sure we could attack the Vahn, or run away, or just wander day and night as the so called “Marauders.” Who then is going to tell us what we need to know? How will we find this Karena? What about the door in the detention pit? Think straight. Do what you have always done. Use your logic. We have to go back. Besides we can’t be hurt like today.’

‘We don’t know that for sure.’

‘We will do tomorrow,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington felt an immense anger at Melaleuca. How dare she think she could force her into going back.

Just wait until the morning; we’ll see who goes back.

 

Ari slid between both of the girls.

‘Can I say what I think?’

‘What?’ They both replied.

‘Lex, since we have got here, it’s your head and heart that have been fighting, I have seen you do it before, but not like this. Your hate of watching things suffer comes from your gentleness; this we know, but then your need to know “why” sits awkwardly with it. I think it means if something has to suffer for you to work something out, you are very conflicted. You were told to learn from Quixote with your heart, not be like him. I think this simply means have more fun, silly playful fun. And besides, the one thing you hate doing, despite being soft by nature, is feeling what other people feel. Quixote is to blame for that.’

‘Hey!’ Quixote protested.

‘Oh Quixote stop. You have loved bugging her for years, despite adoring her.’

‘Hey,’ he said sheepishly.

Melaleuca nodded to Ari.

‘That was well said Ari.’

That put Lexington in her place.

‘And Mel,’ Ari carried on, ‘you don’t have to make all the decisions. The instructions were for you to make a decision when one cannot be made. That means only make the decision when none of us can make one or we are all arguing. Sometimes we can make decisions.’

Melaleuca shuffled back, catching a smug smile from Lexington.

‘Have you been slowly thinking this out for a while?’ Melaleuca asked him.

‘Er, yeah, I guess. I just wanted to have my say.’

Lexington folded her arms and huffed her chest out.

‘So since everyone knows me so well. How am I going to go back to the Vahn then? Mmmm?’

Melaleuca and Quixote looked to Ari for the answer. Ari hesitated, not wanting to upset her.

‘I’m not sure, but I think Quixote, Mel and me are not as affected, so ─ ’

‘Oh! So now I am to be like all three of you, am I? It’s not enough I have to be like Quixote but ─ ’

‘We cannot be hurt,’ Quixote said and kicked her shin.

Lexington yelped in pain and grabbed at her shin. ‘Why did you do that?’

‘Huh? How come it hurt?’

Melaleuca shook her head, and could see the problem. ‘Lex. This means the costumes only work when we are having fun, enjoying it, playing and pretending. You ─ ’

‘Oh terrific! So I am not protected at the Vahn then either now!’

Seeing that no amount of cajoling could shift her, Melaleuca finally said, ‘Don’t go then. Stay. We will figure something out. We’ll sleep on this and in the morning see how we feel.’

 

***

 

After waking up, Lexington stood in her bedroom while the others trundled downstairs. She hated to admit it, but she needed to go back to the Vahn, though she did not relish the idea. She needed a way to make the experience enjoyable? How though? Wear one of the costumes, perhaps? A scientist; a geographer; the archaeologist; any of them would make it more fun and interesting.

But I would be seen as a Marauder……

 

She stood in the attic staring into the mirror, checking how she looked in the new sackcloth uniform. Her face appeared to be hers, though she thought she looked a little more rugged than normal. Perhaps the sackcloth costumes would work.

Her thoughts turned to Quixote, wondering, how he made it fun, even without a costume. He just played all the time. Was that what it meant “to learn” from him? She reached for her notebook, and the idea struck her that she could use it as a shield by pretending to be a reporter. Her job would be to report as a spectator, and not get involved.

She shuddered. Jotting things down could not totally hold at bay the oppressive feeling that emanated from the Vahn, but it might be enough. Perhaps she could study Quixote and see how he copes with the day.

Tempted to talk to her inner voice, she went to write the word “why,” when she spied Pembrooke below pulling the cart and horses into place.

 

***

 

Ari, Quixote and Melaleuca stood at the bottom of the Grand Ascension Stairs. As the air had a slight chill in it, they had taken the liberty of donning the cloaks Antavahni had given them.

‘So Lex is not coming then?’ Quixote asked.

‘We’ll see,’ Melaleuca replied. ‘Could be good if she stays here. If she cannot play or pretend, or the costume stops working, she won’t make it through another day, let alone a week.’

Ari held his stomach.

‘What will we tell Aunty Gertrude?’

‘Who cares? She can’t make us feel any worse than that breakfast.’

They all nodded, feeling their bellies, as the coarse food of raw oats and who knows what else, scraped through their insides.

Footsteps approached from the west wing, though a large pillar obscured who it was. Uncle Bear-Nard popped out looking a mite nervous.

‘Ah…Pembrooke is…waiting. J.j.j.just run along.’

‘Where’s Aunty?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘She left early t.t.t.this morning…had to see…someone.’

He smiled, happy with his words.

The cousins knew where she had gone.

‘M…m…m..missing one? Where’s…?’

Before any of the others answered, Lexington called out, ‘Here Uncle.’

She strode past him, joining her surprised looking cousins. Seeing the worried look on Melaleuca’s face Lexington thought to say, ‘I have reasoned with myself and found good cause.’

Uncle Bear-Nard turned to go but then spun back around again, horrified. He strode up to the cousins and pawed at the cloaks.

‘Oh…no, no, no, no, no, no…..p..p..please, wear something else…n..n..not these.’

They all groaned in protest, with Lexington taking up the cause.

‘Why forever not? What is it about these?’

Uncle Bear-Nard rolled his head around in obvious conflict.

Melaleuca removed her cloak.

‘Qui, take them all back. Today will be interesting enough as it is without whatever these cloaks will mean for us…..Happy Uncle?’

He half nodded, still as glum as ever, but seemed satisfied.

 

Once in the back of the cart, it pulled away, and the damage from Lexington’s earthquake costume stood out. On the left hand side of the Cathedral-Mansion, a large crack ran from top to bottom, with either side of the building skewered a few inches up and down. The crack ran out onto the lawn a few hundred metres before stopping.

Lexington whipped out her notebook.

‘It’s odd that no one mentioned that.’

Pembrooke shifted his body around toward them a little.

‘Ya Aunt’s scared. Ya poor Unc ain’t much betta either.’

‘Scared of what?’

Pembrooke said nothing in reply, but returned to facing forward.

‘And the cloaks?’

Pembrooke cracked the reigns and stayed facing ahead.

Melaleuca patted her knee.

‘You will work it out.’

 

***

 

Argus headed due west, into the morning sun, trudging alongside the ravine. Tussock grew for miles and miles and nothing else. After a few hours walking, the land started descending and he could see a river gush out of the ravine into a valley below. The river became braided as it streaked away along the valley floor.

Thousands and thousands of years of water pouring across the land had rent a ravine-scar into it. All the rock and rubble from it now spread for miles along the sides of the river; appearing every now and then as small stony islands.

Way off in the distance, on the verge of the horizon, he could see a mass of gleaming yellow, almost like a small gold-plated hill.

 

***

 

Greeted with boos and hisses and a hail of thistles, the cousins marched through the wrought iron gate alongside the five and six year old students. The thistles bounced off them painlessly, while the five and six year olds winced in silence, though masses of them got tangled in their hair.

Melaleuca nudged and nodded to Lexington, motioning that they would be fine. Lexington gave her a weak smile.

Standing again by the dizzying amphitheatre, they stood out. Not only were they dressed below their age, but they still had no scars or physical deformities, and instead of sullied expressions, looked fresh faced.

Amongst the throng of students milling to classes, Master Saurian weaved toward them muttering abuse and clouting students as they hurried by.

Lexington saw him first and clasped Ari’s hand. Melaleuca felt her desire to flee, and Ari squeezed her hand back, and nudged Quixote. Melaleuca stared at Master Saurian, her facial expression not changing, while Quixote smiled at him.

Master Saurian sauntered by, ignoring them.

‘I thought for sure he was going to at least say something,’ Ari said.

‘I think these uniforms make us blend in a little easier. I looked into the mirror that Quixote discovered. I looked tougher,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca kept an eye on Master Saurian.

‘Maybe Harshon was right. We are now sort of accepted.’

‘Or Aunty Gertrude has told the Head Discipliner to treat us like normal,’ Ari said.

‘Whichever. Just stay on guard. High alert, all that,’ Melaleuca lifted Lexington’s chin to see eye to eye. ‘We can’t be hurt today. We need to blend in and well, enjoy, play.’ She swung her head up and around the massive Vahn. ‘As daunting as it may be.’

 

The students around them thinned out as they made their way to their first class of the day, leaving the cousins standing by themselves. Once again they realized they still did not know where to go.

 

Harshon appeared.

‘Follow me. You have thistles still caught in your hair. Students are to remove them before entering.’

The cousins started plucking them out.

‘What’s with these?’ Lexington asked.

‘It’s a prelude to the Thistle Ceremony,’ Harshon said. ‘Each year we celebrate our strength. The Thistle is our symbol of this.’ She looked on perplexed. ‘These thistles are painful to touch, or should be?’

Melaleuca elbowed Ari.

‘Oh, they hurt,’ he said. ‘We are controlling the pain, as we are supposed to. Are we not?’

‘Yes…yes you …are. It’s just that….Hmmm, never mind. Just take them out.’

Once finished, they trailed behind her up to her office, where they sat down.

Harshon stared at them, a little confused, and then spoke.

‘You all look different.’

None of them replied. Were the costumes and bracelets that obvious?

‘Never mind. I see Pembrooke has healed you well. It’s not allowed, but if it is not mentioned no one says anything.’ She bent down and opened a drawer at the bottom of her desk, rummaging in it.

Melaleuca winked at her cousins. ‘Yes, he’s good. Why does he pretend to be a gardener?’

Without thinking, and still searching, Harshon replied, ‘The healing arts were banned as a weakening factor years ago. The House of Asclepius fell many years ago.’

‘Houses? What houses?’ Lexington asked.

Harshon struggled to extract what she looked for, speaking as she did. ‘Twenty four great houses girded this land once, now three barely remain.’

Melaleuca felt Lexington bristle with fervour at the information.

‘Is…is the Throughnight Mansion one of the great houses?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Oh where is it…hang on…’

Harshon climbed onto her hands and knees and shoved her whole body under the desk.

‘Yes,’ she replied, and with a muffled voice. ‘Once all the land had Cathedral-Mansions. Only two remain…ah got it.’

‘Where is the other one then?’ Melaleuca and Lexington asked together.

Harshon sat on her chair, unfurling a piece of paper and waited a few moments.

‘Well?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Well?’ Harshon said back.

‘Where is the other Cathedral-Mansion?’

‘Never mind.’

Harshon handed the piece of paper to Melaleuca, which they all leant over to look at. ‘Do you recognize this person?’

On it lay a picture of Melaleuca, drawn in thick, dark pencil.

‘Is it me?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘It’s that girl I told you about yesterday, Karena. You bear a striking resemblance to her.’

Without doubt, a drawing of one of their mothers lay in front of her, though her gut feeling told her to lie to Harshon.

‘My mother was not called Karena, and she has three identical sisters. Their mother’s,’ Melaleuca said pointing to the others. ‘We are cousins.’

‘So this is not your mother, then?’

Melaleuca studied it again.

‘When was this drawn?’

‘About thirty years ago.’

‘Then it cannot be her or I, for myself and my mother look nothing alike. I am sorry.’

Disappointment sank into Harshon’s face and she sighed. It was obvious she had hoped that it would be true. She rocked back on her chair.

‘Matron Gertrude informs us that you four were found in the outside world, homeless, yet you say you knew your mother and these are your cousins. That does not seem to make sense.’

Lexington pulled the drawing closer to her.

‘Stranger still is the drawing. Thirty years ago. Why are there no photos of her, this could have been drawn last night.’

‘Photos are banned, so is most technology. All we have is drawings.’

‘At the Mansion there are photos adorning all the walls,’ Lexington said. ‘And what’s more this woman, who looks like Melaleuca, is in a lot of the photos.’

‘Shhhh!’ Harshon hushed suddenly, pushing her hand in front of her to quiet Lexington down, while looking side to side. She leant forward.

‘The walls have ears. Photos were banned after your world’s World War II. It has been years since I have been in the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. Those photos were supposed to have been destroyed years ago.’

At the mention of war, Ari’s ears pricked up.

‘Why? And why after World War II? What’s this place got to do with wars?’

Harshon held her hand up motioning for the questions to stop. Her face became a little sterner. ‘Please I told you yesterday, questions are not encouraged. Stop asking.’

Lexington flopped back in her chair, an obvious flummoxed feeling coming from her. Melaleuca saw her frustration and moved her hand to settle her, when Lexington thrust herself forward again.

‘But why? How can anyone truly learn?’

Harshon leant across her desk, and raised her head to glare down at them.

‘As I said yesterday, children die here. It is considered a high sign of intelligence to work things out for oneself. Asking questions shows weakness, weak mind, lack of analytical powers, and above all it is forbidden.’

‘Do you really believe that though?’

The question caught Harshon unaware, like a small dart had been fired through a chink in her armor.

‘Please, grasp this,’ Harshon said, desperation entering her voice. ‘It matters not what I think, but what they think. I am only one, they are many.’

She finished a little flustered, twiddling with her hair under the pretense of straightening it, but was clearly nervous. She fiddled with a quill on her desk while she thought.

‘Where were you found?’

Melaleuca matched her body language and leant back, staring around as if not to care.

‘The lady of the mansion asked us not to say. She said it would be best for all if we were considered a blank page.’

Harshon’s gentle face looked troubled.

 

Lexington sensed a great turmoil in her. Something about the picture of Melaleuca’s mother disturbed Harshon.

‘Harshon what are you thinking?’

Harshon stood, crossed to her windows and pulled the drapes, blocking the light, and came back to them, kneeling in front of them, a hushed air about her.

‘Breathe naught of this to no soul. I think this woman Karena is your mother. I think it is no accident that you bear a resemblance to her, and no accident that out of all the outsiders Matron Gertrude could have picked, she found and picked you.’

She stopped talking, her eyes wide with concern, waiting to see their reaction, though seemed surprised they said little in return.

‘This is not the first time you have heard this. Is it?’

 

Lexington looked to Melaleuca to see what she would say.

‘Why does this Karena concern you so?’ Melaleuca asked back.

Harshon pulled back, stood, and strode behind her desk, sat and looked at them, frustrated, yet tried to look disinterested.

‘Just curious, that’s all.’

Lexington nudged Melaleuca and gave her a look that asked if she could try and extract more information. Melaleuca nodded; surprised she had wanted her permission.

‘If we were related to this Karena, what would that mean?’ Lexington asked.

Harshon scribbled away with her quill.

‘You’re not. So it means nothing.’

An uncomfortable silence fell between them.

‘We have seen this lady in the outside world,’ Melaleuca said.

Harshon dropped her quill. ‘I knew it. I knew it. So she was your mother.’

‘Just a lady who visited us every now and then, that’s all we knew her as, she did not even tell us her name.’

‘She may very well have been your mother. It is more than a coincidence. I just know it. Look, what I said yesterday about you being in danger is more applicable now.’

‘Who was this woman Karena to you?’ Lexington asked.

‘A friend, a very dear and close friend, something not encouraged here in New Wakefield. She was implicated in a lot of trouble that happened a long time ago and banished to die. I never knew, but always had suspicions she had gone to the outside world.’

‘But this hardly makes sense,’ Lexington said. ‘All our mothers were Quadruplets, they all looked like that.’

‘No it does not make sense,’ Harshon agreed. ‘Karena never had any sisters. But you said that Karena used to visit you sometimes. If all your mothers looked the same, then where were they and how did you tell them apart.’

‘It seemed normal for us,’ Melaleuca said. ‘All our mothers came and went, sometimes all together, other times singularly and in twos or threes. So did these women. Being homeless we called lots of people our mother. We figured it out on our own that these four women that looked like Melaleuca must be our mothers.’

Harshon looked suspicious of their concocted tale.

‘Are you saying,’ Quixote asked, ‘that this lady Karena in the drawing was one of the Marauders?’

Quixote’s question drew Harshon’s gaze away from Melaleuca’s fabricated story, and his cousins rolled their eyes at him. Harshon raised her eyebrows, and with her lips pursed flicked her eyes amongst them.

‘That old legend. Heh heh.’

‘That old legend seems to have created quite a stir around here, we are led to believe,’ Lexington said.

‘There is a limit to how much we can say here.’ Harshon leant closer, whispering again, ‘The walls have ears. I think that will do today.’

She stood and walked to the door.

‘We will talk some more later. Go and stay out of trouble.’

Lexington filed out last, turning to Harshon, asking, ‘If you have noticed the resemblance, then others must have.’

‘Unlikely. Strong minds make for poor memories. Now run along. I will send for one of the prefects to take you to your first lesson.’

They stood outside Harshon’s office waiting.

‘That was one of our mothers,’ Lexington said.

‘Yes I know,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Do you think we should have told her?’ Ari asked.

‘Not yet,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We do a Lexington, gather information, until we know it is time to act.’

‘When’s that?’ Lexington asked.

‘When I say so,’ Melaleuca said trusting her feelings, ‘and not a moment sooner.’

A tall, official looking boy in his late teens strode toward them. Along with the dark uniform, holes in the knees, bare-footed boots and his Galeslar, he wore a red sash from shoulder to hip. He did not look at them, but as he passed by he said, ‘come,’ and carried on walking.

They trotted after him, wondering how their second day at the Vahn would turn out.

Chapter 27 – Galeslars and Pigeons

 

In a dimly-lit, musty room, with rows of shelves packed with uniforms and boxes, the cousins stood waiting, alone. Something shuffled between the rows.

‘Hello?’ Melaleuca cried out. ‘Is someone there?’

‘Someone is always here,’ a frail voice called back.

The door swung opened and Matron Henlenessy swished in. She paused, surveyed the scene, grimaced a quick smile, then threw open her cape, tossing it behind her back.

‘Old fool, get here quick.’

The owner of the frail voice rushed forward, a little shabby old man, stumps for hands. ‘Alright, alright.’

‘Shut your mouth. Where are the uniforms?’

Muttering, the old man reached up to a shelf above him, gripping a box between his two stumpy arms and throwing it down in front of them. Dust and dirt puffed up, causing him to cough, though he appeared not to mind.

‘Got nothing new – just these old things.’

Matron Henlenessy looked down her nose into the box. ‘They will do.’

‘Try them on first?’ The old man asked.

‘You dare question a Matron of the House of Knives. I said they will do.’ She spat at him, and then said to the cousins, ‘Put these on.’

‘Why are we changing clothes?’ Quixote asked.

‘Do not ask questions. Once these uniforms are on, you will report to detention!!’

Nonplussed Quixote said, ‘Can the others come too?’

Matron Henlenessy screwed her face up in astonishment. ‘Certainly not. Get these clothes on. I shall return soon,’ and she stormed out.

Eager to look semi-normal in their abnormal setting, they each pulled a set of brown trousers and shirts out of the box.

‘What if they don’t protect us?’ Lexington asked.

Looking amongst themselves, no answer immediately sprung to mind.

‘Let’s attack,’ Quixote whispered with a troublesome glint in his eye.

Melaleuca searched her feelings and found a strange peace about swapping clothes.

Trust.

‘We will think of something and prevail.’ Melaleuca said pulling her sackcloth clothes off.

‘Only one way to find out,’ Quixote said, and then said to Ari, ‘Shall we?’

Ari nodded.

They threw the new uniforms on, and started thumping each other, with no affect.

Lexington pulled on her shirt and trousers, and reached into the sackcloth, stowing her notebook in one of the many pockets on her new uniform.

Melaleuca reached across, smacking her hard on the back with a closed fist. Though she felt nothing, Lexington looked at Melaleuca drolly, saying, ‘I got it, though once again it makes no sense. I thought the bracelets only work with the costumes in the attic.

Quixote smirked and said, ‘Another theory?’

From behind, the old man coughed startling them all.

Had he heard what Lexington said, and more importantly, understood it?

‘The uniforms belonged to some of the greatest students we ever had here,’ he said. ‘Greatest. I never forget who wore what.’ He scratched his bald, flaking head, with his stump. ‘Tho’ blowed if I kin recall their names.’ He shuffled back between the rows calling out, ‘Now you will need boots!’

After much banging and crashing he returned with another box, and threw it down, revealing black calf boots; sole-less of course.

‘Worn by those who went on to join the Inquisat.’

He nodded and winked as if he shared a lesser-known secret.

The old man drew his eyes to the knee-less trousers and with a wistful stare, sighed, saying, ‘Awwwww, really great knees. They had the strong, hard knees of a champion.’

He lifted his stumpy arm up, wiping his eyes.

‘How’d you lose your hands?’ Quixote asked.

Before he could answer, the door opened again and Matron Henlenessy entered, staring long eyed at them.

‘Very good. Not as baggy as we had hoped and…’ She reached out and touched the uniforms. Annoyed, she threw a horrible look at the man.

‘I said old uniforms!’

Unperturbed, the man muttered back, ‘I did as told. Check for yourself.’

Matron Henlenessy grabbed Quixote’s shirt, examining it closer.

‘Yes. I see. Strange. Well get in a line, so I can see how disgusting you all are.’

They lined up and she examined their white, skinny, pathetic knees.

‘We shall have to start with your knees. Crash course, if everyone is to be kept happy. Follow me.’

They clattered off down the corridor.

‘Should I not be in detention?’ Quixote asked grinning.

From her cape Matron Henlenessy produced a small stick with a flat end, and smacked Quixote hard across the face. Un-maimed he looked back at her puzzled.

‘Is that a yes?’

‘Shh!’ Melaleuca said, wanting to tell him to play along.

Matron Henlenessy lashed Melaleuca’s face with the stick. Unhurt but surprised, Melaleuca stared with defiance at her.

‘Only a pedagogue and above can discipline. You will go to detention when I say. Anymore trouble and you will spend the day in there.’ She held the stick to Melaleuca’s face. ‘And wipe that look off your face.’

 

They arrived at another room, filled with work benches and tools, surrounded by cupboards. Master Phrenia entered from a rear door. With his pug nose and cleft chin, he sauntered ungainly toward them. In one arm, held tight by his massive hands, he held four leathered objects, and in the other a clipboard.

Quixote recognized him as the man with the wooden knees, a fact that all the cousins now saw on most people.

‘How’s your knees?’ Quixote asked.

Matron Henlenessy grabbed Quixote’s small body and thrust it downwards as she drove her knee up into the side of his head.

‘Take a closer look at mine. DETENTION!!!’

Quixote pulled himself upright, unaffected and asked, ‘Is that the same one, or another detention?’

Melaleuca pulled faces at Quixote, indicating that he should pretend to be dizzy and hurt. He understood, but before he could, Matron Henlenessy drove her other knee into his stomach so hard she lifted him off the floor. Quixote cried out in pain, landing hard on the ground, wincing in agony.

‘Very good,’ Master Phrenia said to Matron Henlenessy in congratulation. He booted Quixote for good measure, and then threw the leather objects on a bench. He hauled Quixote onto his feet, and said, ‘When disciplined, make no noise. Just get up again.’

 

Lexington studied the leather objects, guessing that they were some sort of Galeslar. Questions filled her mind. Without thinking she turned to Matron Henlenessy to ask a question but then stopped, realising where she was and who she spoke to.

 

Matron Henlenessy saw this. ‘Good. You are learning and fast.’ She pursed her lips in a tight smile.

Master Phrenia grabbed the leather objects again and held them up.

‘These are Galeslars…..Every student worthy of pain gets awarded one after the first great test, Bramble Park. Upon it you gather your rank, your insignia, your passes, your fails, your character, your life, your ethos, in short, this is your key to survival here. Those without one, those deemed unworthy, those like the…’ He pulled a face as he spoke the next words. ‘…like the Gorks will never wear one.’

He stopped and handed them each a Galeslar.

‘I do not agree, but it has been decided to award you one in light of surviving your first day. No first timer has ever withstood what you did yesterday and returned. I am highly suspicious of course, but there you go. You will still be required to complete Bramble Park soon. Now…’

He reached across to his own decorated Galeslar and tugging it, said, ‘Notice that it does not slide off. Yet it is not attached to anything other than…’ He stopped as the cousins had started to put their Galeslars on.

In unison and on costume-bracelet induced instinct, they flipped them over, threaded their left arm down one end of it and out the other. They reached over with the right hand and smacked the top of it hard. A sickening flesh-biting sound came from under their left shoulders. They hit them again, and this time bone cracking and breaking sounded. From under their new second-hand brown shirts, blood oozed out, staining it, though the cousins showed no sign of pain.

Surprised, both Matron Henlenessy and Master Phrenia asked, ‘How did you know to do that?’

No one spoke.

‘Well answer,’ Master Phrenia roared.

‘I thought asking questions was a sign of low intelligence,’ Melaleuca said.

Master Phrenia slapped her face. ‘Insolence. I like it. Perhaps with that attitude, the skin on your face will harden over time with every slap you will receive. And you will, no doubt, receive many.’

Ari stepped forward to answer the question. ‘It just seemed the right way to do it.’

‘Take them off,’ Matron Henlenessy barked, ‘and the shirts.’

They stripped to their waist.

Both the discipliners inspected the cousins left shoulders; great looks of surprise crossing their faces. The cousins turned to see what interested them so much.

On the front and back of their shoulders, a few centimeters across, an inch or so deep, two holes bore into their flesh. Already the blood had dried and the flesh around it had healed and mended.

Quixote fascinated by his, stuck his finger in it and moved his arm around. He could feel some of the bone and muscle pushing against his finger.

Lexington looked at hers, feeling queasy. She touched her notebook for comfort.

‘You have worn Galeslars before!!’ Matron Henlenessy said surprised.

‘It appears so,’ Master Phrenia said. ‘Though…’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Did anyone see them before?’

Matron Henlenessy still looked a little dumbstruck.

‘What?’

‘Their bodies! Can anyone confirm whether these dlup holes were here before?’

She shrugged her shoulders.

‘They bled.’

‘Dlup holes can bleed a little after inactivity.’ He turned to the cousins. ‘Kit up. Something is strange here. I am a Master Discipliner, sprung from the fallen House of Quills, the keeper of records. What few records we have left I will check. Matron Gertrude, as a Matron of Josephus’s, keeper of antiquities, may shed some light.’ He turned to Matron Henlenessy. ‘Matron, take them to the coal room. We shall start there.’

Shirts back on, Galeslars slung, they followed a disturbed Matron Henlenessy out of the room.

In the corridor she said to Quixote, ‘Detention now. Tell Mohg when finished you are to go to the coal room. The rest of you follow me.’

 

***

 

Quixote bounded in with keenness.

‘Reporting for detentionnnnn!’

Steam leaked up out of the ground, stale air hung lank around him, smells of horridness teased his nostrils and weapons of torture still sat on the wall amidst chains.

‘Alrights, alrights,’ Mohg called back.

The dim-wits turned up dragging two boys with them. They threw them on the ground. Bruised and bleeding, they lay there not daring to move.

‘Hello,’ Quixote said, and then yelled, ‘Oi! I ain’t got all day!’

‘Who dares…,’ Mohg bellowed back, starting to run. ‘I smash insolence.’

His fat body burst into the entrance cavern, face screwed up in squashed revulsion.

‘What’s for detention today?’ Quixote asked, ‘More mud sliding?’

‘Well I’ll be,’ Mohg said. ‘Look at ja. Smart. What ja do now?’

‘It’s my first time.’

‘Is it?’ Mohg looked confused and then said, ‘Ere! You being funny?’

‘Yes.’

Mohg beamed a look of pride and turned to the two beaten boys.

‘See dis. Dis ‘ere is what I’s tells you about. I’m about to freeze ‘im, an’ look! Laughing. Makes my job all da worhf it.’

The two boys looked at Quixote, who in turn winked at them.

‘Come on den,’ Mohg said.

 

***

 

Into a hushed, dark room, smelling of coal, Melaleuca, Ari and Lexington were shoved. About forty children in sack cloth, no older than seven or eight, knelt in silence on piles of coal.

A teenager, dressed in black approached.

‘Yes?’

None of them knew what to say.

‘Well?’ he asked.

Task-Master Quenlein entered the room, and a small shiver ran through the young children. He walked past the cousins, uttering, ‘kneel,’ to them, and then said to the teenager, ‘Are you the pedagogue-in-training.’

‘Yes, Task-Master.’

‘Four piles of your sharpest coal for this lot. Be quick.’

Soon the cousins knelt on the freshly delivered coal, doing so with no pain. Task-Master Quenlein pulled out a box with two small pieces of wood, each containing about thirty to forty knifes, their sharp tips pointing upward.

Knees first, Task-Master Quenlein placed his full weight on them, impaling his large protruding knees upon the knives. The tips dug deep into his flesh, though he showed no sign of pain, nor did any blood appear.

‘IF YOU THINK COAL HURTS!’ Task-Master Quenlein shouted. ‘THEN TRY THESE.’ He motioned to the knives. ‘THIS IS YOUR GOAL!’ He laughed at the shocked looks they tried to hide.

‘YOU HAVE A FEW MORE YEARS TO GO BEFORE THIS IS EXPECTED OF YOU. IN EACH NEW CLASS I ASK IF ANY AMONGST YOU IS BRAVE ENOUGH TO TRY……. WELL?’

A deathly silence fell over the class.

Lexington felt her kneecaps, discovering that they had already developed thick calluses. She motioned to the others to feel their knees. Their knees were the same as hers.

‘Bracelets,’ Ari mouthed to them.

Task-Master Quenlein pricked his head up, staring at Ari. ‘So you want to have a go. Come on then.’

All heads swiveled to stare at Ari.

‘The last student who tried this sliced one of his kneecaps off. Brave, but deformed now.’ He motioned vigorously for Ari to approach. ‘Come on then, no backing out.’

The pedagogue in training tried to haul Ari to his feet, though struggled to lift him. Ari swatted his hand away, stood, and despite Lexington whispering, ‘don’t,’ he walked toward Task-Master Quenlein.

Lexington whispered to Melaleuca. ‘If kneeling on knives is a feat beyond this uniform, he might get hurt.’

 

***

 

‘In ya hop,’ Mohg told Quixote, pointing to a hole in the ground.

Quixote climbed down into it and Mohg called for one of the dim-wits. They arrived with a hose and started filling the hole with water.

‘What’s this one?’ Quixote asked.

‘You’ll see.’

Mohg disappeared, returning once Quixote’s head bobbed above the water. Mohg held a frosted metal looking chamber. Its seams shone the same incandescent blue as silverquick.

‘Ready?’ Mohg asked. Before Quixote could answer, Mohg dropped the container into the water.

It splashed, but the droplets from the splash never landed back into the water. In a flash, with a ripping, cracking noise, all the water froze around Quixote.

 

***

 

Ari stood before Task-Master Quenlein, unafraid.

‘Well boy,’ Task-Master Quenlein said with a growl in his voice. ‘Think you’re man enough to try.’

Ari reasoned that if the costume on the sharp coals produced thick, calloused knees, then it might produce even thicker knees on the knives. If it worked, and if his knees became super hardened, then surely that would arouse too much suspicion. As much as he wanted to show Task-Master Quenlein how stout he could be, he had to decline.

‘Try boy or be branded a coward.’

Ari took a small step backward.

‘A COWARD IT IS THEN!’

Task-Master Quenlein got up off the knives, and walked to a red faced Ari.

‘You have strength, no doubt. Wise choice. They would have sliced your knees open. But wisdom pales before bravery.’ He punched Ari in his face, though Ari did not flinch.

Task-Master Quenlein walked off yelling to the Pedagogue in training, ‘Another hour. More coal. Mix some stone chips in.’

 

***

 

Like a blast from an Antarctica wind, the intense cold ripped through Quixote, robbing all warmth and breath from him. With blue lips, and icicles forming on his head, he could only move his eyes.

Mohg grinned.

‘That got ja, didn’t it.’

Frozen, Quixote started hallucinating, and he imagined that he was an iceman, made entirely of cold. In his mind he saw himself wandering the world putting out fires to cheers of, ‘Yah for Iceman.’

Enthralled, his excited imagination spread warmth through his body, dispelling the intense sapping cold of the ice.

His lips slowly turned pink and his face became flush with colour again, and he yelled out to Mohg, ‘Nice day for a swim.’

Mohg came back to find him laughing and shaking his head from side to side, singing and humming.

Amazed Mohg shook his head from side to side. ‘You’re a different one you are eh! What’s your name?’

‘Quixote Teleois Pisces Arrnor!’

 

***

 

An hour had passed and still they knelt. Though they felt no pain, the boredom started to get at Lexington.

The door opened and Quixote waltzed in. He saw what the others were doing and knelt beside them. In an instance his knees formed super calluses.

A horn sounded and all the children stood up. Some took their time, others tried not to show the pain, while others had blood trickling down their knees.

As the last ones left, Lexington said, ‘Barbaric,’ and reached for her notebook.

Like the day before they found themselves out the back, on the large grass field. In front of them sat the large, run down old building, and beyond that the place where they had been lassoed to the posts.

No one approached them, and though they could see Jerkin harassing others, he ignored them, as did everyone else. The Gorks shambled by trying to send subtle messages, though none of it made sense.

 

‘How are we all doing?’ Melaleuca asked. ‘Lex?’

‘I’m….’ She touched her notebook. ‘…surprisingly okay.’

‘Ari?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘I nearly tried the knives.’

‘You may have hurt yourself if you had,’ Lexington said.

‘I stopped myself because I did not want to give us away.’

‘Mmm. Wise then for the wrong reasons.’ Lexington tapped her notebook. ‘How do these costumes work? I mean sometimes we are protected and sometimes we aren’t. Especially these uniforms. They don’t come from the attic.’

‘But great students once wore them,’ Ari added.

‘I have a theory then. Most of the costumes in the attic are old. Maybe they were worn by real gymnasts, detectives, you know, people in that actual role. So therefore since these clothes we now have on were once worn by great students, then perhaps with the bracelets, they extract those abilities out of the clothes and bestow them upon us!’

A deep relish came over her, pleased to have stretched and exercised her mind to solve more mysteries.

‘But!’ Lexington exclaimed. ‘Why are we not seen as Marauders now? I mean we have the “you-know-whats” on, and are protected. But we are not seen as Marauders. That’s strange.’

Seeing no obvious answer, she faced the others. Equally as stumped they stared back blank-faced.

‘Perhaps it’s quite simple really,’ Ari said.

‘Oh?’

‘All the costumes that make us Marauders seem to be ones that are not known here. I mean there are no cowboys, Indians, or gymnasts. So maybe they see them and assume because it is different we are one of these things from whatever happened ages ago.’

‘Whereas…,’ Lexington said, ‘…with the Vahn uniforms on it is a sight that is expected!’ She mulled it over for a few seconds and then said, ‘Does not entirely fit.’

Melaleuca turned to Quixote.

‘I dread to ask what happened in detention.’

He told them of the freezing waters and how he had overcome them. Truth and fantasy mixed as he reported shooting icicles at flying bats.

‘Did only Mohg see?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘No one else was there.’

‘Just as well Qui,’ Ari said. ‘I had to back away from a challenge today, because I did not want to risk giving us away. You need to think of others, namely us.’

‘I know. I just can’t help it.’

‘Help it,’ Melaleuca said.

 

The horn sounded and all the students started filing inside.

A prefect turned up and took them to their next class; learning how to push each other over and get up again without showing any emotion. Though fun at first, after an hour it became tedious again.

Quixote of course got sent to detention again. Racked and stretched, he made Mohg goggle in amazement, as he lay there unaffected and told Mohg that it tickled. There were more lessons on suffering, falling, being strong and hard.

 

The last lesson of the day started in a classroom where the desks sat in a large circular ring. In the middle, a small raised platform stood, with what looked like an altar on it. Several drains lay around it, and knives, swords, scissors, sharp curled pointy instruments and an assortment of other torturous tools sat.

On their desks sat a knife, a pair of scissors, and a small hammer. Lexington touched the knife with a finger.

‘I don’t like the look of this.’

The other students seemed as old as them, and at least wore the same clothes, though from the looks on their faces, they appeared as unsure as the cousins felt.

The door burst open and in marched Task-Matron Bircher followed by several black-clothed seniors, including Imerelia, Prangard, Gregand, and Jerkin. As he passed them, Jerkin smirked.

Task-Matron Bircher ushered her rotund body onto the platform. From her elevated height her hardened knees protruded out of her knee-less trousers, along with podgy squashes of fat, oozing to squeeze its way out. Her great gut pushed hard into her red shirt, and her great cape fell to the ground from her shoulders, adding even more bulk to her squat form.

‘SILENCE,’ she yelled out of her pig face, to class already hushed.

The students sucked in their breath, daring not breath again until she spoke.

‘Soon you will undergo your second tribulation, the Unforbidden Forest….’ Adding with great delight, ‘Some of you will die, some will go mad, some will survive.’

She paused, swinging her eyes around the room gauging their response, resting her cold stare on the cousins long enough for everyone else to become aware of them as well.

She threw her Galeslar-clad arm up high, and screeched, while rushing about the circle of desks.

‘TO LEARN TO SUFFER YOU MUST FIRST LEARN TO CAUSE OTHERS TO SUFFER! THAT WAY YOU WILL BE ABLE TO RISE ABOVE YOUR OWN SUFFERING!’

She pointed to an object on her thick decorated Galeslar, tugging at it and surging around the class, so they could all witness it. Between her fingers she held a small dried ear.

‘ONLY FEW ATTAIN THE RANK OF TASK-MATRON, AND FEWER THE RANK OF SAH TASK-MATRON. FOR MINE OWN RANK, I LET MY OPPONENT DIE SLOWLY AND REMAINED CENTERED, SOLID AND STRONG!’

 

Lexington looked at her cousins with dread. She felt for her notebook, shut her eyes, and in her mind tried to imagine this was a play, just a nasty horrible play, and she was a reporter, merely, reporting and watching.

 

Ari steeled himself. He wanted to protect Lexington, though after being called a coward this morning he wanted to rise to whatever challenge was about to come. He looked at Melaleuca to check if she was okay. Fire blazed in her eyes, and he could see she readied herself as well. Already she had made it black or white. Either they survive or they don’t. And they would survive.

 

Quixote heard some of Task-Matron Bircher’s babble, but became fascinated with the tools on his desk. In his mind, he had already used them to carve his name in the desk and to pretend sword fight with Ari.

Task-Matron Bircher relaxed all at once, dropping her stern voice.

‘But for most of you it will never happen or it is a long way off. Today it is quite a lot simpler.’

She snapped her fingers.

From out of their pockets the seniors produced a number of pigeons. They took them to the desks of the students and hammered them to the desk via a small leash attached to their legs.

Task-Matron Bircher beamed.

‘Kill your pigeon!’

All around them students picked up the knives, and like brain-washed robots, began cutting, stabbing, and bashing the pigeons. Feathers flew, pigeons squawked and gurgled, and sickening thumping noises filled the classroom.

Task-Matron Bircher’s eyes alighted upon the unmoving cousins. Staring at their pigeons, they waited for Melaleuca’s decision. Task-Matron Bircher flicked her eyes toward Jerkin, who snapped to attention, nodded, and strode over to them.

‘Kill it.’

 

Gregand yelled at a girl next to Quixote, ‘KILL IT! HURRY!’

The girl reached for her live pigeon.

‘But I did!’

Task-Matron Bircher swung her fat body in the direction of the girl.

‘Slap her.’

The hard slap echoed around the classroom.

 

Ari, Melaleuca and Lexington glanced at the poor girl, noticing that Quixote’s pigeon lay on his desk, its entrails hanging out. He gave them the “okay” sign, while the poor girl next to him, red cheeked, attacked her pigeon.

 

Melaleuca looked with pity on the pigeon, reasoning that thousands of them die every day, what would another one matter. Besides, her cousins came first. Melaleuca and Ari’s eyes met. She nodded at him, and he reached out, resentful, and snapped the pigeon’s neck in one swift move.

Melaleuca relaxed, imagining she was a real Vahn student used to this treatment. With little thought, her uniform and bracelet shot her arms out, and she snapped the pigeon’s neck.

As the only student with a live pigeon, cooing on her desk, all eyes sat on Lexington. She lowered her head, not wanting to kill it. Incensed by the senseless slaughtering, she decided to use her gentleness. Raising her head, she defied Task-Matron Bircher, and tried to make her face appear as gentle as possible.

Melaleuca’s heart sank. Impressed Lexington stood up for herself; she could see murderous intent on Task-Matron Bircher’s face.

‘Play along,’ Melaleuca said.

Task-Matron Bircher heaved her body before Lexington.

‘Kill it.’

‘It is a stronger person who stands alone against the crowd,’ Lexington said.

An icy expression formed on Task-Matron Bircher’s face.

‘I said I would enjoy breaking you.’

Unflinching, they stared back and forth at each other, until the tension threatened to suffocate the class.

Task-Matron Bircher snapped her fingers, pointed to Prangard and then to a boy. ‘Put him in the middle.’

Prangard shoved the boy into the middle.

‘Kill the pigeon or he dies.’

The boy’s face collapsed in a heap of worry.

Lexington hesitated. She did not want anyone to die, though she spotted a flaw in Task-Matron Bircher’s logic.

‘If he dies, it will be by your command, and on your head.’

‘Three more students, now!’

The seniors ripped three more from their desks, frog-marching them into the middle.

‘KILL IT! KILL IT SLOWLY OR THEY ALL DIE!’

Lexington held her ground, trying hard to ignore the four students in the middle.

Task-Matron Bircher snatched herself about, bellowing at the class.

‘Look at her! She is weak! She cannot even slay a pigeon to save four of her fellow Vahnites.’

Quixote thrust himself up.

‘Or maybe, she is so tough, that she wants them to die! Did you think of that?’

‘A week in detention!’

She glared at Quixote and then bent down and plucked up an ant, placing it on Lexington’s desk, saying in put-on, sweet voice, ‘Ohh, maybe you can squash da little wittle bug, ehhh! Do you think you can do that?’

Task-Matron Bircher squashed half of the ant’s body with her fat thumb, leaving the other half to flail around. She leant in close to Lexington, whispering, ‘You mistake us for brutes. We care for the land. We care for the animals. If we don’t, we do not eat. If we do not eat, we do not survive. BUT!!!!’ she roared again, ‘IF WE CANNOT STAND TO INFLICT A LITTLE SUFFERING THEN WE WILL FALL.’

Reporter, reporter. Pretend I am a reporter.

Feeling her heart pump like crazy, she wished she had never come back, yet somehow she managed to pull out an imaginary notebook and pretend to jot notes down. Task Matron Bircher drew her head back in surprise and Lexington saw this as her chance to counter her logic once again.

‘The wind has no substance, yet it wears a strong mountain down.’

‘Kill kill kill kill,’ Jerkin started chanting, encouraging the class to take up the chant.

By the time the class was in full chant, Lexington had shut her eyes and held her hands over her ears.

 

 

 

Chapter 28 – Marauders Amok

 

 

Daquan pounded his desk, screaming at the two hapless spies returned from the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion.

‘WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU SAW NOTHING?’

‘Jus’ saw them coming and going,’ the spy said, cowering.

‘THAT’S ALL? Nothing else?’

The spy looked down.

‘WHAT ELSE?’

‘M’lord. We can’t be sure.’

‘I WILL BREAK YOUR NECKS!’

The spy took a step back.

‘We saw peoples dressed likes…well…Marauders. Ain’t sure. It was nearly dark.’

His rage abated, and Daquan cheered up.

‘Brilliant, brilliant……So trained children have been sent here.’

 

***

 

Amidst all the commotion, Lexington lifted up the pigeon. It lay lifeless in her hand. Task-Matron Bircher flicked its head, making sure she had killed it.

‘That wasn’t so hard was it? Well done. You have taken your first real step.’

Task-Matron Bircher turned to the relieved students in the middle, and screamed at them.

‘You are all banished to the Borstal for one year.’ Assured of her superiority she turned back to the cousins.

‘You can defy me. You can defy every Discipliner in the Vahn, but when word gets around that your inaction led to their borstalisation, well…heh….let’s see how long you can stand alone.’

 

As she left, the eyes of the class burnt a crisp glare of disgust into the cousins.

 

***

 

At the end of the day they wandered off speechless to meet Pembrooke, alongside gaggles of students all leaving the Vahn.

Con sidled up besides Melaleuca.

‘I heard,’ he said in a low voice, looking straight ahead.

‘Heard what?’ she asked, looking at him.

‘Look straight ahead. I heard you guys put on a good show for old Bircher.’

‘Really.’

‘They are scared of you, I tell you. Join us. We need you.’

‘Later.’

She rushed ahead of him.

 

They stayed silent in the cart until the Vahn disappeared from sight. Quixote leapt up.

‘WAHHHOOOO! We showed them.’

Melaleuca tugged at him.

‘Yes. But we have to draw less attention to ourselves.’

‘Bit late,’ Ari said. ‘By tomorrow we will be hated and loved.’

Melaleuca squeezed Lexington’s arm.

‘That was very tense Lex.’

With her back to them, Lexington said, ‘I didn’t kill the pigeon. Something else did. It happened inside of a second. Something rushed up to me, killed the pigeon, and then rushed away. I felt its wind.’

Melaleuca let her arm go.

‘What were you going to do if you could not kill it?’

‘I don’t know. I got stuck.’

Quixote chuckled.

‘Didn’t kill mine either. I grabbed the dead pigeon off the girl’s desk next to me when no one was looking. She had to kill two of them.’

He placed his hands behind his head and put his feet up on the edge of the cart. ‘Yep. If Lex had been more like me, she mighta done the same.’

Lexington sat upright.

‘What? And make someone else suffer on my behalf?’

‘Hey, at least I didn’t kill my pigeon. Anyway those others are off to the borstal because ─ ’

Melaleuca flopped herself back.

‘Oh you two, enough.’

‘Yes enough Quixote. If being like you means being irresponsible, then you can…well…It’s just total fun and adventure to you.’

‘It’s what we are supposed to do.’

‘One of the things we are supposed to do! Anyway….I will…will ─ ’

‘Discover new magnetic laws of physics.’

‘Enough!’ Melaleuca said again. ‘Lex! Ignore him and he’ll stop.’

Ari prodded Quixote with his foot, shaking his head. Quixote hung his head low, and Melaleuca sensed him take it to heart.

‘Sorry, Lexington. I was just playing,’ he said.

She turned to rebuke him, but saw he really meant it. ‘Sure. Quixote….I just wish for once you would take something serious, even while having fun. Not always be silly.’

‘But that is who I am.’

‘Yes…I know. I so know.’

She beheld the rare sight of his genuine sincerity for a few seconds and then leant forward, tousling his hair, and asked, ‘Do you really adore me?’

Quixote went bright red and squirmed.

‘What?’

‘You admitted it last night.’

Quixote looked at Ari, and then at Lexington, and then became coy.

‘Of course.’

‘Then why do you do the things that you do?’

‘I don’t know. It’s fun when you get upset.’

‘I don’t find it fun.’

Quixote played with his Galeslar, still squirming. ‘Hey, let’s put flowers on our Galeslars tonight.’

Frustration crossed Lexington’s face.

‘What? Why?’

Quixote giggled.

‘Just imagine the looks on their faces.’

A light bulb went on inside Lexington’s mind.

‘It’s the reaction you like isn’t it?’

‘I guess. I like rattling people.’

‘But why? Why rattle them? Why?’

‘Lex,’ Quixote said as if it were a well-known fact, ‘something solid cannot be rattled. What I rattle needs to be tightened or removed.’

At last, she saw a glimpse into his personality.

‘You’re an iconoclast,’ Lexington announced.

The cousins looked at her bamboozled.

‘Someone who breaks through un-truths, removes lies, ahh, takes people to task over…Well, anyway, it means there is more to your silliness than meets the eye.’

She leant back and put her hands behind her head and put her feet up. Quixote patted her knees.

‘See, you can learn from me.’

‘We’ll see,’ Lexington replied.

 

Soon they sat in the darkness at the end of the tunnel waiting for the secret trap door to be opened. Pembrooke pulled on the cord, and it rose up. He gee-ed the horses along while saying, ‘I’s bet the old lady will stick youse guys in the Thistle ceremony. She don’t like youse, loved to see ya hurt. Here, don’t tell her I told ja.’

Aunty Gertrude’s icy voice crackled in the air.

‘She already knows.’

Pembrooke cringed as the horses neighed at Aunty Gertrude. He pulled the cart up to a nervous halt, and leapt off first.

‘Miss, I was just ─ ’

‘Silence. Leave. I will deal with you later!’

She booted his rump hard which seemed to affect him little, and he sauntered off.

The cousins hopped out, and she grabbed at their arms, lifted their shirts and prodded their bodies.

Melaleuca yanked her shirt back.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Looking! But I shouldn’t have to look. They should stand out like a thousand suns!! Bruises, scars, marks, welts, cuts, scrapes, signs of discipline. Not your puffy white, lily-pure, soap skin.’

She stepped back, and with closed eyes, calmed herself, saying in a mock caring voice, ‘Not that I want you to get hurt,’ adding with a sour face, as if holding vomit down, ‘Just want…you to…do well.’

She turned away from them, screaming in mid air, ‘Has everyone gone soft??’ and then turned back, refreshed for her catharsis.

‘Who gave you those clothes?’

‘Matron Henlenessy,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I see…Hmmph…and the Galeslars?’

‘Task-Master Phrenia.’

‘Do…do they…’ A weak malicious smile crossed her lips. ‘…do they hurt?’

Quixote rolled his shoulders back and forth.

‘Sort of, I guess.’

‘Really. Good. Yes, good.’

She pressed lightly on his shoulder, where the dlup holes were.

‘Does that hurt?’

‘No.’

She tapped his Galeslar with her fingers.

‘Does that hurt?’

‘No.’

She hit it softly.

‘And that?’

‘No!’

Melaleuca motioned to Quixote to pretend to be hurt.

Aunty Gertrude smashed her hand down hard onto Quixote’s Galeslar.

‘Tell me it hurts!’

Quixote collapsed to his knees, clutched his shoulder and cried out in pain. Aunty Gertrude started to grin but unable to contain himself, Quixote burst out in laughter.

She launched herself at his legs, smacking at them with her open hand.

‘Stupid boy, stupid boy, stupid boy, stupid boy…’

‘Stupid.’

Smack.

‘Stupid.’

Smack.

‘Stupid.’

Smack.

‘Stupid.’

Smack.

‘Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…’ Smack, smack, smack, smack, smack…

Quixote roared and roared with laughter, inflaming Aunty Gertrude even more. Tiring, she gave him one last hard smack; nearly toppling over backwards. Halting, she straightened up, adjusted her disheveled clothes and hair.

‘Good. Now as further punishment, straight to your rooms and there will be no dinner at all.’

 

***

 

Over the next two weeks they managed to keep a low profile, blending in as much as they could. Quixote spent at least an hour a day in detention, while the others withstood all the small, menial tasks of strength and discipline. With the pigeon-killing episode behind them, the worst had appeared to pass. Most days the greatest challenge was the boredom, though their age group was being groomed for the second tribulation test – the Unforbidden Forest. The preparation was mostly scare mongering; sitting them all down and having older students tell of their horrific experiences and of those that never made it. Not once did they get told how to survive or what exactly happened in this test.

At the Cathedral-Mansion Ari spent time listening to the land and finally heard what he thought was the word, “hom.” Though each time he heard it he got so excited, it died away again, and it took him another hour to start hearing it. He tried and tried but the excitement got him every time.

Quixote and Lexington snuck out most nights, and without venturing so far that they could not return by morning, scouted for the ruins of past Cathedral-Mansions. Within two weeks they had found five of them. Deserted, crumbled, overgrown with masses of plants, they appeared to be ancient castles. Some had their exteriors clad in a façade like the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, and some appeared so old that whoever had lived there had never attempted to disguise them. Chuffed that she was right, it did not tell them why they had been disguised or, more importantly, what had happened to the people that had once lived in them. The only clues so far had been Harshon’s words about World War I, World War II and the Marauder incident thirty years beforehand. Something else about these events had wrought changes to the fabric of New Wakefield, but what exactly they could not find out. Quixote remembered that the caped man back at their homestead had mentioned thirty years ago as well, though this offered little more clarity on the subject.

The French Resistance offered little help with this, having only myth and legend to go by. The whispers only extended so far back. Lost to the whispers were how inhabitants of New Wakefield came to be there or where they had come from. Lost also was the reason it could no longer be called Agorrah, or why the forbidden tongue was forbidden. Lexington could not be sure, but she said it sounded like Latin, but she needed books to confirm this.

Lexington looked for records, documents and anything written that her inner voice had said she should find. Without telling the others she looked also for more signs of the symbol she had been given by her mother, but to no avail.

Aided by a cartographer’s costume, Melaleuca sketched a map of all the secret passages in the Cathedral-Mansion they had found so far.

 

***

 

The door burst open, Lexington puffing.

‘Quixote hurry. Pembrooke is leaving…..It’s morning. Where were you? Why are you still in bed?’

‘Breakfast?’

She shook her head annoyed.

‘It’s finished. You missed nothing anyway, now hurry.’

As she left, he threw his blankets off, still dressed in the sleeveless karate costume he had slept in.

Out of the window he saw Pembrooke sitting in the cart waiting with Melaleuca and Ari in the back. With no thought, he pulled his brown Vahn uniform over top of the karate costume, stared out of the window, and waited for Lexington to appear. When she appeared, he took off, seconds later bursting out of the front door. He roared past Aunty Gertrude and leapt on the back of the now moving cart. He sat, hardly panting at all.

‘Anyone get me any food?’

Lexington pushed some crumbly bread into his hand, asking, ‘Were you right behind me?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Where were you?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Asleep.’

Before she could question him more, Lexington put her hand up his sleeve, tugging on the costume underneath.

‘What is this?’

‘Karate costume. I ran out of time to put it back.’

He could see they were disappointed in him.

‘I promise that I won’t do anything today. Really.’

Ari’s unbelieving eyes said otherwise.

‘Promise all you like. We know you just can’t help it.’

Lexington slapped her forehand with her hand.

‘Oh no. With two costumes on, they will see you differently. Didn’t you think of that? You will have to take the karate one off, quickly before anyone sees.’

Quixote threw all his clothes off, flattened the karate costume, and wrapped it around his skinny waist, pulling his uniform over top.

Melaleuca drew him close to her.

‘Quixote. Ari is to stick with you all day. Leave that costume around your waist!’

 

By morning break Quixote had kept his word, behaving himself. Pleased with him, the cousins sat on the fields behind the Vahn, again being ignored, when a shrill scream cut across everyone.

Task-Matron Bircher dragged a small girl down the steps by her hair, oblivious to her pain, and stopped on a small raised platform. Everyone surged forward eager to watch. Discipliners, Pedagogues and Prefects flooded out of the Vahn, and waded through the students.

Melaleuca and Ari grabbed Lexington’s hand, while Quixote tried to get a better look.

Task-Matron Bircher let the girl’s hair go, and she stopped screaming, and crumpled to the ground sobbing. Task-Matron Bircher booted her and the girl screamed again, this time clutching her sides.

‘Intolerable!’ Task-Matron Bircher bellowed from her great gut, through a loud hailer. ‘Emotions are weakness. Weakness is decay. This sniveling scum has shamed us all. Are you going to stand for this?’

‘NO!’ came the deafening roar.

The girl shrieked, shaking uncontrollably, earning yet another swift boot to her mid-rift.

Mesmerized, the cousins could not help but look, though felt sick. Lexington squeezed Melaleuca’s hand, turning her fingers purple, and biting her bottom lip, desperate not to cry.

Near the cousins, a sandy haired boy let out a whimper, and a Prefect hauled him toward the back of the students, yelling, ‘WEAKLING!’

 

Melaleuca checked her cousins. Lexington’s eyes moistened. A tense Ari held himself back, turmoil filling his face – ready to pounce like a caged leopard. Quixote rocked back and forth, and reached into his uniform. Melaleuca tapped him on his arm. Out of all of them she saw that he felt for this girl the most. Quixote closed his hand around the karate costume and Melaleuca shook her head.

‘AND SO!’ Task-Matron Bircher bellowed even louder. ‘WITH THE POWER INVESTED IN ME BY THE ANCIENT SCROLLS OF DISCIPLINE THIS GIRL SHALL BE BIRCHED UNTIL ALL WEAKNESS IS REMOVED!’

The crowd screamed in pleasure.

Task-Matron Bircher produced a long, razor-thin piece of bamboo.

‘WEED THE CHAFF FROM THE WHEAT! REMOVE THE RIFF RAFF!’

All at once the Discipliners, Pedagogues and Prefects thrashed their way through the students, hauling the weak and sniveling ones to the back.

Task-Matron Bircher thrashed the girl with loud, sickening thwacks ushering instant silence. She hit her again and again and again, as the girl screamed and screamed. After a minute the screams subsided to small cries, then to whimpers and then to nothing. Only the wet sound of the bamboo splodging against her bloody body remained.

At blinding speed, Quixote pulled the karate costume out and put it on. He jumped into the air, somersaulted backwards, and kicked a Prefect unconscious. Relish spread across his face. There, he had done it; used a costume to defend them, and to protect the children of New Wakefield.

All around him students stumbled backwards, awe struck by the sudden appearance of a 6 foot tall slim, muscled man, dressed in a karate costume.

From the outskirts of the crowd a lone voice cried out, ‘Marauder! It’s a Marauder!’ Then another voice shouted, ‘Hooray. We are saved!’

The whole field froze for a second, and then everyone’s attention swung to Quixote.

 

Then all hell broke loose.

 

Students screamed, others shouted, Discipliners yelled for control, Pedagogues waded frantically toward the epicentre, and Quixote flipped into hero mode, kicking, punching, and flattening Discipliners.

Ari and Melaleuca grabbed Lexington, who shouted amongst the bedlam, ‘Get him to save the girl!’

Quixote somersaulted high into the air, screaming a karate cry that reverberated around the field.

‘We can’t get involved yet!’ Melaleuca said.

‘Too late for that,’ Ari shouted back, ‘besides look!’

Quixote fought his way through the crowd toward Task-Matron Bircher. She stared horrified at the mass panic ripping through the fragile discipline of her prised students.

‘HOLD STILL! STOP PANICKING. HOLD TO YOUR TRAINING.’

Behind her, ancient looking Discipliners came out to observe the pandemonium, unimpressed. Task-Matron Bircher yelled for someone to get the Head Discipliner and to call the Inquisat.

Quixote landed by the body of the still breathing girl, causing Task-Matron Bircher to recoil.

‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’

Quixote giggled.

‘Helping her.’

She swung the bamboo stick at his head, though Quixote dived between her legs while somersaulting. He swung his back heel over in a high reaching arc, smashing her in the face and knocking her out.

He picked up the girl’s body and headed into the crowd of fleeing students. They parted like a giant zipper, afraid of him, though soon realised he appeared to be saving the girl, not “marauding” her as legend and whispers had warned.

 

‘Where’s he going to take her?’ Ari said.

‘Does it matter? He saved her,’ Lexington replied.

‘Oh it matters,’ Melaleuca said.

 

From the edge of the crowd, the Gorks let up a cry. ‘MARAUDERS! MARAUDERS! THEY ARE HERE TO SAVE US!’

Clapping, cheering and whistling spread throughout the students.

Quixote passed his cousins, winking at them, and then vanished from view. The crowd gasped as Quixote disappeared, though it left Melaleuca fuming, and Ari and Lexington wondering what costume had he now discovered.

 

Sah Task-Master Carrion hobbled out to Task-Matron Bircher’s body yelling out orders to the remaining Discipliners, infuriated by the adulation for the Marauder. He placed his mouth on the loud hailer, rasping out, ‘AFTER TODAY I WILL CULL THE WHOLE LOT OF YOU! INQUISAT GO!’

Silence fell amongst the students, and a chill ran through them. Horses appeared on the edge of the field out of nowhere, Captain HeGood at the lead.

‘CHHHAAAARRRRGGGGGEEEEE!’

Captain HeGood spurred his horse forward, and the rest of the Inquisat, a hundred and fifty in all, spurred their horses on behind him.

Students screamed and ran in all directions.

Like a scythe through a wheat field, the Inquisat drove their steeds hard, slicing through them, smashing them with long poles, leaving an empty swath in their wake.

 

Out of the kicked-up dust, three horses crashed down upon Melaleuca and Lexington, their hooves landing on their heads. Dazed, stars swirled about, and lights popped and blipped in front of their eyes, and a stunned, silent whistling tone filled their ears.

Ari jerked them up, yelling at them, ‘LEX, MEL, SAY SOMETHING! ARE YOU OKAY?’

The bracelets kicked in, healing them, rendering them mostly immune to the damage and pain.

Lexington tapped her ears.

‘Y..y..yes. I think so. Don’t think this uniform was totally made for horse attacks.’

Melaleuca tugged at both of them.

‘Let’s get out of here.’

‘What about Quixote?’ Lexington said.

‘He can look after himself.’

Amongst the fleeing students, they tore off in the direction of the Cathedral-Mansion.

 

A deep, brassy horn sounded from somewhere deep in the earth, grumbling like a bear waking from a deep hibernation. The earth trembled, and the students screamed in terror. Instead of fleeing, they ran around in maddening circles, confused.

The cousins stopped unaffected, bewildered at the sight.

‘Low sonic waves,’ Lexington said. ‘I’ve read about this. It induces panic in people.’

‘Look,’ Ari pointed. ‘The Inquisat can just pick them off.’

 

The Inquisat slowed to a trot, and cantered around whacking pupils at their leisure. Soon piles of students lay on the ground groaning, crying and holding their injured body parts.

 

‘Run!’ Melaleuca said. ‘Run as fast as you can and head for the mansion.’

They ran around the outskirts of the field, passing by the edge of the imposing Vahn and started to run through the town. Here and there a few escaped students ran for cover.

The horn blasted again.

An older boy running in front of them, jumped up in shock, and ran back and forth, confused. As the horn stopped, the boy turned around, and they recognised him as Gregand.

‘Hide me! Hide me! I can’t find it.’

He launched himself onto Melaleuca, clawing at her in desperation.

‘Get off. Find what?’

‘Shelter! Shelter before the mist!’

‘What mist?’

‘You don’t know! Who…what…’ He suddenly let go. ‘Outsiders. Get away from me!’ He pushed her away, and turning to run, tripped over his own feet and sprawled on to the dusty road.

Ari bent down to help him up, though Gregand struggled against him.

‘What is this mist?’

‘When the third horn blows the mist of testing will spill out of the earth, all left outdoors of an undisciplined, impure heart will die!’ Gregand shrieked like a madman, and then ran off.

 

The cousins sprinted through the town, slowing to a trot once out of it, and headed for the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. They kept up a steady pace, discovering they did not tire easily. The horn blew a third time, making them stop. They peered back, but could not see any death mist, though the distance now may have limited their view.

They took up their pace again and eventually entered the forested track leading up the hill. They passed by the bushes that led to Pembrooke’s secret entrance.

Quixote leapt out of the bushes alone.

‘You guys took your time!’

Relieved to see him, his cousins rushed to him, and hugged him.

Chapter 29 – Two Meetings

 

 

Daquan barely acknowledged Quesob, save for grumbling, ‘Took your time!’

With bloodshot eyes and darker than normal circles under them, Daquan glared at him. Hair grew on his head and face now, as did a semblance of eyebrows.

‘Five days out I checked the orb,’ Quesob said wearied and dusty. ‘It pointed back here, so I was already heading back.’

Daquan clenched his fists.

‘I must have those bracelets. It has something to do with those children at the Throughnight Mansion.’

Quesob’s confusion showed on his face.

Daquan explained events so far, adding, ‘I have decided to come out of reclusion.’

‘But…but…you…you are…’

‘Yes. A reviled man. But I need to get closer to those children without arousing suspicion.’

 

 

Iam surveyed the aftermath of the Inquisat’s charge, gazing on the writhing bodies strewn around the field. Moved, Iam knelt, feeling the earth, discovering that all lived though many held dimly to life. Yet amongst them a tiny ember of forbidden hope flared in their broken bodies. A hope, Iam thought, that meant many would die before it gave birth to something greater.

Chuffed, Iam started to slink off though turned, saddened. When the end came, would he go peacefully or fight?

 

***

 

Before they chastised him, Quixote’s sheepish grin crossed his face again.

‘Sorry guys. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.’

‘Where’s the girl?’ Lexington asked.

‘Follow me.’

Soon the four cousins knelt over the body of the battered girl, hidden in the safety of the bushes. Lying unconscious, dried blood encrusted her broken facial bones, and her breathing rattled.

Lexington took the young girl’s head, and cradling it, stroked her black, blood-matted hair. She had never seen anyone wounded so much, nor witnessed such cruelty. Nothing had prepared any of them for this, least of all, Lexington. Something deeply nurturing moved in Lexington, and she stared into the girl’s face, feeling herself enter her body, and just for a second glimpsed what she had endured. Anguish, sorrow, tears, panic, fear and dread rushed out of the girl, engulfing Lexington.

Greif stricken, Lexington wailed, uttering a wretched, desolate noise, and subsided into sobbing.

Ari tried to comfort her, while Melaleuca paced back and forth, moved by the tragedy yet concerned about what to do next.

‘It’ll be okay Lex,’ Ari said.

She gazed at him, tears pouring from her eyes, and her face covered in strands of hair.

‘Will it? How? Mel?’

‘Thinking. Need clarity,’ Melaleuca replied.

Images of the small onslaught played around in her mind, holding her decisions at bay, and her head felt filled with wool.

Quixote knelt down by the girl and chuckled to himself.

‘With a face that ugly, she could be a Marauder now.’

Lexington gave him a disgusting look, and even Ari scowled.

‘What? Well, she is not going to stay like that eh?’ Quixote replied.

Quixote could see they did not understand what he meant.

‘No problem,’ he said. ‘I’ll dash back and get a doctor’s costume.’ He bent down, took his boots off and pulled some green shaped shoes out of his pockets, and put them on his feet.

Ari knelt and felt them, fascinated by the small wings hanging off the back them.

‘What are they?’

‘Speed wings I think.’

With a flutter and hiss he vanished into thin air only to reappear seconds later holding a stethoscope, a white gown and an old fashion doctors head-light, plus a small leather bag. He handed them to Melaleuca, though she stared at him, none too impressed.

‘The unknown-age costumes?’

‘Yeah. Well, you see, I found them, before the lightening costume the other night, and well, was gonna say something, but you didn’t seem happy, and then Lex, well, you know, the little earthquake.’

He shrugged his shoulder and gave her one of his, I-can’t-be-blamed looks.

‘You really must tell Lexington all the costumes you have found and what they do. Those could have been really useful today.’

‘Oh they have been.’

Melaleuca ignored his comment, and along with Lexington concerned herself with the injured girl, though Ari picked up on what he meant.

‘You killed Lexington’s pigeon, didn’t you?’ he said.

Quixote nodded.

Kitted in the doctor’s outfit, Melaleuca bent over the girl examining her. She heard Quixote own up to the pigeon death, but had to ignore it.

She placed her hands on the girl’s body and straight away the costume took over. She poked and prodded her and then fished around in the medicine kit, removed the girl’s crusted blood and sowed her wounds together. She produced some surgical looking tools, and operated lightening quick on her shattered bones.

‘We have to cover her eyes!’ Ari said. ‘In case she recognises us.’

Quixote grabbed a bandage out of the medical kit and wrapped it around her eyes. As she came to, Lexington cheered up.

‘Where am I?’ asked the girl.

‘Safe,’ Lexington replied.

It did little to reassure her.

‘W..w…who is that?’

‘A friend.’

‘Friend? What’s that?’ she said, trying to pull the bandage off her eyes.

Ari took her hands away from it, though she recoiled.

‘Who are you?’ She felt her body and her face. ‘My head. My body. What happened?’

She jumped up, darting her head about like a frightened mouse.

‘This is the wasteland isn’t it?’

Ari came up behind her, grabbing her.

‘No one will hurt you? I will take your blind fold off and you can see for yourself.’

He motioned for the others to get out of the way, though Melaleuca stayed. With the bracelet on she would appear as a doctor. Ari pulled the blind up and the girl looked at Melaleuca.

‘See,’ Melaleuca said, ‘you are in the forest, not the wastelands. We healed you.’

The girl burst into tears sobbing that she wanted to go home.

‘We can take you home, but you must promise to tell no one about us,’ Melaleuca said.

‘I should have died. I wanted to die. I could not take it. I cannot take it. What will happen when I go back? How will I explain this? They will beat me again.’

She sobbed some more.

 

All at once it dawned on them, if they took her back there would be little to stop Task-Matron Bircher or someone else beating her again if she could not cope.

 

‘We have to hide her,’ Lexington said. ‘We can’t let her go back.’

‘I want to go home.’

Melaleuca, Ari and Quixote discussed the girl’s fate while Lexington tried to comfort her from behind.

‘What’s your name?’ Lexington asked.

Sobbing, she replied, ‘Bleph.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘It’s the noise a coward duck makes. That’s me a coward duck,’ she said with another burst of tears.

She tried comforting Bleph by placing her hand on her back.

‘Oh. Oh dear. Even I have to work at being brave.’

Melaleuca, Ari and Quixote fell silent, a decision having been made and turned to Lexington.

Bleph shook, cold and afraid, and as Lexington rubbed her back, her cousin’s quietness drew her attention. At once she saw in their faces they had decided to take her back and not hide her.

‘There must be something we can do.’

‘You are right,’ Melaleuca said.

Lexington relaxed hearing this.

‘You have been right all along. We need to wait until we know what we are dealing with. This girl ─ ’

‘Bleph. Her name is Bleph.’

‘….Bleph must go home. As you have said all along we do not know what we are dealing with.’

Lexington’s own logic caught her out and she felt torn between her gentle desire to save Bleph and the need to have all the facts before her.

‘But what will happen to her?’ Lexington asked.

‘That’s just it isn’t it. We don’t really know.’

‘It will be something horrid I bet.’

‘This decision is mine Lexington.’

‘If we take her back then… then…we should never have brought her here in the first place. This is cruel, fixing her up only to put her back in that brutal place.’

Melaleuca could now see sense in Task-Matron Bircher’s words about learning to watch others suffer, as this inability in Lexington now blinded her.

Trust, trust, trust. Trust beyond feelings and beyond emotion.

‘She must go back, Lex.’

‘Then I shall escort her back.’

‘Then we’ll all go with you.’

Wearing only their Vahn uniforms, they walked back down the forested hill toward New Wakefield, Ari and Lexington leading Bleph by her hand, blindfolded again.

As they entered the town, an eerie silence hung over it and the roads now lay damp. An unrecognisable, older teenager lay semi-conscious against a fence moaning, with his skin hanging off his face.

Ari stepped closer, peering at his disfigured flesh.

‘It’s a steam burn. Remember when Quixote tried to jump that geyser? It looks the same. And look! Steam vents.’

From tiny cracks all around the roads steam poured out in spent wisps.

Melaleuca and Lexington crouched in front of Bleph.

‘Bleph,’ Lexington said. ‘We are going to leave you here. Count to twenty then take your bandage off and go home.’

She bawled in reply.

Lexington stood and glared at Melaleuca; eyes accusing her. ‘You tell her to go. I won’t.’

Melaleuca nudged Bleph away from her.

‘Go now Bleph.’

Bleph cried and shuffled away. Melaleuca stood, refusing to catch Lexington’s eyes.

Ari leant closer to the burnt teenager.

‘It’s Gregand. We can help him!’

‘Leave him,’ Melaleuca said. ‘For all we know, the steam vent may be turned on again.’

Melaleuca urged the others to follow her back out of town, though Quixote pulled the winged shoes on again. He jogged past them, yelling out he was going to watch what happened to Bleph. Before any of them could yell back, he disappeared.

 

***

 

After learning that a town meeting had been called, Aunty Gertrude rushed to the Vahn, storming her way past the sentry on the western side, ignoring him, and marching into the large meeting hall brimming with people inside.

On a stage sat three doddery-looking Overlords with two empty chairs either side. White, wispy hair cascaded down from their pink scabby heads, past their ancient looking faces.

‘…without a doubt the scourge of the Marauders is back,’ said High Overlord Sector, with a sombre voice.

Overlord Thgact, dosed off to sleep, and beside him with beady eyes sat Overlord Collectabulus.

Seeing them, Aunty Gertrude’s anger abated, and with demure steps she walked down a small set of stairs leading into the hall.

Overlord Collectabulus squinted at Aunty Gertrude.

‘Eh? Who is that? Who’s there? Approach.’

‘Forgive my lateness, Overlords, I was not aware that such as your greatness would be in attendance.’

‘You are recognised, join the others.’

She sat in the second of row of seats behind Sah Task-Master Carrion, Captain HeGood, Harshon, Task-Matron Bircher, and Sah Task-Master Keen. Behind her a multitude of people sat gathered from the town and the surrounding countryside.

‘What are we to do about these Marauders, then, eh?’ High Overlord Sector continued.

Captain HeGood stood, decked out in his finest regalia.

‘I will turn New Wakefield upside down until I root them out.’

‘Why not just do what you did last time,’ someone shouted from behind him.

Captain HeGood whirled around.

‘Different times need different methods. I believe these Marauders have infiltrated us. Perhaps some of you here are now hiding them.’

Murmuring rippled through the audience.

A large man stood.

‘It’s those outsider kids. I hear the stories of how they are behaving. These Marauders are the spirits of our deceased Discipliners coming back to warn us to stop being soft, like last time.’

Yelling and shouting started, though none could be heard.

‘The superstitions of the past have no consideration in this matter,’ Captain HeGood yelled. ‘Force and might will out in the end.’

Aunty Gertrude thrust herself to her feet.

‘Those children merely suffer from a lack of discipline. They have no power to conjure up demons of the past.’

High Overlord Sector banged hard on his table with a wooden hammer, waking up the sleeping Overlord Thgact.

‘Enough.’

He directed his gaze on Aunty Gertrude.

‘Can you explain the very nature of these children?’

‘Oh…heh…Ahem….Exactly what would your Overlords like to know?’

He opened his red-rimmed eyelids wide, staring at her with his pale blue eyes.

‘It is said they are not responding to discipline.’

‘My Lord, these children, they have many years of silliness to remove.’

‘A damn good week’s worth of flogging will do it,’ someone else yelled out, to which the High Overlord Sector banged his hammer again.

Aunty Gertrude shrugged her shoulders.

‘They must be taken care of before the High Thistle ceremony,’ another person yelled out.

‘And the Marauders.’

More talking started again, earning another banging from the High Overlord Sector’s hammer.

‘Captain HeGood. You have the confidence of the Overlords to weed out the Marauders. Do we have your assurance?’

Captain HeGood snapped to attention.

‘As ever.’

The large wooden doors to the meeting room opened and Daquan and Quesob strode in. A quiet voice protested they were not allowed in.

‘The children are to be tribulated a week from now,’ High Overlord Sector said. ‘If they fail, they will be sent to the Southern Wastelands.’

Both Harshon and Aunty Gertrude leapt to their feet, almost saying the same thing. ‘My Lord our ways state that in a failure at this place they are to be sent to the borstal.’

They stared at each other, surprised both wanted the same outcome.

Overlord Collectabulus thumped the table.

‘Today saw lawlessness destabilise us nearly to the level of thirty years ago. The decision stands.’

Daquan stepped forward, shouting, ‘The children stay!’

He walked down the steps, looking with disdain over the eyes following him.

High Overlord Sector struggled to his feet.

‘You are not welcome here!’

‘It matters not, for I am claiming my birth right under the old lore.’

‘We will not allow it!’

The crowd gabbled, and opinions and stories were exchanged about the legendary Daquan, the only man in living history to come back from the Southern Wasteland after years in exile.

He walked up the steps and stood on the Overlord’s stage shocking them.

High Overlord Sector shook his fist at him.

‘You are tainted.’

‘Maybe. But I doubt for all our ways, there are any here that aren’t.’

High Overlord Sector banged his fists together.

‘You shall not pass.’

Daquan pushed him back in to his seat and placed his foot on his chest. He pointed at the napping Overlord Thgact.

‘The occupant of the Chair of Phroshakt, sleeping.’

He pointed at Overlord Collectabulus.

‘The Chair of Pollovish, deaf and stupid.’

He pointed at High Overlord Sector, shoving him with his foot.

‘And the occupier of the Chair of Bhramzeu. At death’s door……Now…I demand my birthright.’

High Overlord Sector tried to push his foot off him, but his strength had left him years ago.

‘WE APPOINT THE OVERLORDS!’

Daquan knelt before him, and spoke so that only the Overlords could hear him.

‘I know what hides in the hills of the Southern Wasteland. I command the Ori. With one word, I will ransack Agorrah.’

Daquan stood to his feet, flinging his arms out in a wide gesture.

‘I claim this empty chair, the Chair of Ramathor in the name of my father, Past High Overlord Gamalang, who once occupied it and bequeathed it to me.’

 

Stunned inward breath-held silence greeted him, and then a slow foment of murmuring followed. High Overlord Sector stood and whispered to the other Overlords for several minutes, while the murmuring simmered into shouting, boos and threats against Daquan. Daquan ignored the insults, snarling back and pulling faces at them, and pretending to yawn and gesturing for the Overlords to hurry up.

The Overlords fell silent, and despite the evident hatred on their face toward Daquan, an air of being bested clung to them.

Finally High Overlord Sector wobbled upright, announcing with resignation that the council of Overlords accepted his appointment to which the audience erupted into shouting and yelling.

 

‘What is your first command?’ High Overlord Sector asked, amidst the din.

‘The children stay,’ he said ignoring the boos and hisses.

‘ENOUGH!’ High Overlord Sector shouted, coughing with the strain. ‘They will still be tribulated, but stay regardless of the outcome.’

‘No tribulation either!’

Once again protests and yelling erupted, though the High Overlords stood, and silence fell. They shuffled out, saying no more.

 

After the meeting cleared, Sah Task-Master Carrion, Master Saurian and Captain HeGood hung back discussing what had just happened.

Master Saurian cracked his fingers.

‘I don’t like what Daquan is up to.’

‘Highly irregular,’ Captain HeGood said.

‘Not to worry. All things work together for the greater good. We have dealt with worse than these kids,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion said.

‘You have an idea?’ Master Saurian asked.

‘We shall give the Overlords what they requested, and especially our latest Overlord.’ He cackled. ‘We shall embrace them and simply put them out the front of other students and ask them to lead. They will crumble of their own accord.’

Both Captain HeGood and Master Saurian urged Sah Task-Master Carrion to tell them how that would happen.

He bent close to them and whispered it.

 

***

 

Argus stood before the Harbinger, seething with fury. ‘You knew about the gold!’

‘It’s a good thing you weren’t seen waltzing in here,’ the Harbinger said, gazing out the window. ‘Stay here. No one comes to the Northwest wing anymore.’

‘The gold! There’s no way out. You sent me there to see the gold.’

The Harbinger shook his head.

‘You wanted to go. Anyway, only one thing that would speak to you. Gold. Disappointing but true.’

‘So I go to the Ori, you protect the kids and I get the gold.’

‘It’s now not that simple……Perhaps if you had been here, they would have stayed hidden.

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning that instead of being here playing and learning to use the costumes and preserving their fresh innocence, they are out there.’

The Harbinger pointed to the door.

‘Where exactly?’

‘They have been sent to the Vahn. All of New Wakefield knows they are here.’

‘And that is…’

The Harbinger threw his arms up in frustration.

‘A hideous school of brutality.’

‘And those costumes and bracelets?’

‘Still hidden, though…though they used them already. Attacked some of the people here.’

Argus smiled at this idea.

‘Good. That’s the idea isn’t it? This is after all a revenge plot.’

‘What?’

‘In my line of work there are only two reasons to hire me, revenge or power. Myself, I have scores to settle back in the real world. Revenge you see.’

The Harbinger shook his head again not believing what he heard.

‘I’m suddenly not sure I want your help anymore.’

‘Why? Because I’m straight up about wanting the gold?’

‘No. Because you don’t get it! Each time force is used innocence is lost. That’s the key, defeating your enemy without force.’

‘You are right. I don’t get it.’

‘Pity. We seem to be out of time. As it is, the children need help and guidance. And we are the only two who can provide it. It must be done carefully though, they must still work it out for themselves. Come, I must now reveal myself to them.’

 

***

 

Quixote arrived back in the attic and found the others writing on Lexington’s paper sheets.

‘Well?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘She walked home. That’s all.’

‘Was she okay?’ Lexington asked.

‘I guess. She was blubbing most of the way.’

‘But you saw her go into her house?’

‘Sure.’

Melaleuca stood in front of him.

‘Starting now, you are going to tell Lexington all you have discovered. And if you object, I will make you write them up instead.’

‘Come on then Lex.’

Lexington motioned for Melaleuca to move and then stood in front of Quixote.

‘Qui. I am upset with you. You killed that bird.’

Quixote started to speak, but Lexington’s hand shot out and covered his mouth.

‘But I am also grateful….That is twice now you have saved me.’

With a spontaneous wooden motion, she leant forward to peck him, bumping his cheek hard with her lip.

‘Ewwww,’ Quixote said.

Realising what she had done, she went as red as Quixote was now turning.

‘I mean…just…you know…um…thank you….that’s all. N…n…now I realise you discover things. It would be good to do as Melaleuca says,’ she rushed out trying to cover up her clumsy kiss of appreciation.

Before she could wonder what came over her or face a surprised Melaleuca and a grinning Ari, the panel to the secret passageway clicked open and they all froze, staring amongst themselves. Someone shuffled inside it, and then Argus’s head appeared.

‘Argus!’ Melaleuca said, annoyed. ‘Where’ve you been?’

He wriggled out, stood and dusted his body.

‘Well?’ Lexington asked. ‘We thought you had abandoned us.’

Quixote held his bracelet wrist up.

‘You should see what we found! I’ll kick your tough butt.’

Ari lowered Quixote’s arm.

‘Shh Qui…….Can we trust you Argus?’

Argus shifted about on the spot, not making eye contact.

‘I needed to check some things, that’s all.’

Melaleuca took a step closer.

‘What’s wrong? I can hear it in your voice.’

‘I am to, ahh, make sure, everything is okay.’

Lexington tucked her hair behind her ears.

‘Well, it’s not. Do you know anything about what’s going on?’

‘Play. You are to play.’ He flicked his hand toward Quixote. ‘The little one’s right.’

Suspicious, Melaleuca walked up to him, and locked onto his eyes.

‘What exactly do you know?’

‘Play?’ Lexington said, and then trying her gentleness, asked, ‘Go on, tell us Argus. We need to know.’

Argus averted Melaleuca’s eyes, dropping his unsure act, and chuckled.

‘None the worse for wear, are you? In fact…’ Argus eyed Lexington. ‘Were you trying your powers of seduction on me? Sorry, Hon, you’re too young.’

‘No!’

‘Perhaps we do not need you,’ Melaleuca said.

 

Another voice spoke from out of the secret passage.

‘It may already be too late for that!’

The voice sounded familiar, though changed. Jeeves’s head appeared at the secret passage. As he entered the room, another figure shambled behind him. Pembrooke clambered out feet first. They stood there together looking at the cousins.

‘Too late for what?’ Lexington asked.

‘Too late to stay hidden for a start,’ said the voice from the secret passage.

Uncle Bear-Nard pushed himself out and without stooping, stood to his full height. Instead of a vacant expression, his face now had strength and defiance in it.

I am the Harbinger, but they shall not know that yet.

‘Perhaps you are used to seeing me like this,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, dropping his shoulders. ‘P..p..p..perhaps…more l…l…l..like this!’

‘Why is it too late Uncle?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Yes, yes, yes. Please, everyone sit. I will answer some of your questions. I apologise for staying hidden for so long. It was necessary.’

‘Why?’ Lexington asked.

‘Wait,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, and then spoke to Pembrooke. ‘Quickly, outside, stay on the lookout,’ and then to Jeeves, ‘Distract Gerty for me would you.’

Uncle Bear-Nard sat on the bed, and caressed Melaleuca’s cheeks. ‘You have your mother’s face and her fire.’

Melaleuca blushed.

Lexington had her notebook at the ready.

‘Where are they?’

‘Did giants live here once?’ Quixote asked.

‘Shh!’ Uncle Bear-Nard said. ‘Please. Listen.’ He stood, paced back and forth, and then faced them as if he had made a decision.

‘It is very, very, very important, that you work out what is going on for yourselves.’

The cousins protested immediately.

‘Please listen,’ he said, holding his hands up to calm them down. Sadness washed over him, and years of waiting for this moment and all the experiences that went with it, tumbled around in his mind.

‘You want the truth, not just any truth, not just a truth, but the real truth. This, however, you can only discover for yourself. Never listen to anything other than yourself and your heart. Make the discoveries for yourself. If other people reveal things to you, they can only do so from their own untruths.’

He pondered his words and then added, ‘This is why even I don’t trust what I say. This is proof of my truthfulness.’

He motioned to Melaleuca to come closer.

‘Come, look into my eyes.’

Melaleuca fixed her eyes on his, locking into his mind. On a boat, moored at the same beach the cousins had fled from, she saw Uncle Bear-Nard help their parents disembark and flee, and then she saw Uncle Bear-Nard hide the bracelets and brick up the costume room.

‘That will do,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, breaking eye contact. ‘Now tell the others.’

‘We trust him,’ Melaleuca said. ‘He helped our parents escape. All of them, our fathers, and our mothers.’

‘Mothers?’ Lexington said. ‘All four of them?’

Melaleuca nodded.

‘We only found evidence that Melaleuca’s mother lived here and only she went to the Vahn. Why is that?’

With tenderness, Uncle Bear-Nard said, ‘Work it out. Your mother has told me how smart you are.’

A frustrated Lexington glared at her Uncle.

‘However, to help you start, if you get something right, I will tell you. No one can teach you. I am a guide. Teach yourselves.’

‘Telepathy,’ Lexington said. ‘Our parents spoke to you with telepathy didn’t they. It makes sense. Quixote’s mother was talking into thin air like our parents were there, the night we fled. Well?’

‘Yes.’

‘Our parents were the Marauders,’ Quixote said.

‘Yes.’

‘And they wrecked havoc on New Wakefield about thirty years ago,’ Lexington said.

Uncle Bear-Nard remained silent.

‘But that hardly makes sense. We were told how the Marauders went berserk.’

Uncle Bear-Nard still stayed silent.

‘It was someone else dressed as the Marauders,’ Melaleuca said, testing him.

Still silent.

Ari said, ‘We are to save the children at the Vahn.’

Their Uncle did not reply.

‘We’re not!!!’ Ari looked at Melaleuca. ‘But I felt for sure.’

‘Then what are we to do?’ Quixote asked.

Again Uncle Bear-Nard did not reply.

‘Play?’ Melaleuca asked.

Their Uncle nodded.

 

Aunty Gertrude’s fast paced footsteps could be heard banging along the corridor.

Pembrooke dashed into the room.

‘Leg it, Jeeves must’ve mucked up.’

Both Argus and Uncle Bear-Nard dived into the secret passageway, followed by a fleet footed Pembrooke. Within seconds Aunty Gertrude barged into the room, and stood there, hands on her hips, her livid face contorting into something more caring.

‘I came as soon as I could….After today’s melee, are you…are…are you…okay?’

‘Would not have happened if that poor girl was not beaten so,’ Melaleuca said.

‘That girl got what she deserved!…..besides…..’

Aunty Gertrude stopped and tried to put on a more gentle voice. ‘…..Perhaps it might take some time to grow accustomed to our ways.’

‘What hurting people for pleasure?’ Ari said.

‘You don’t understand. It is necessary!’

‘We don’t want to understand,’ Lexington said.

‘But you have to! You must be strong to survive.’

‘Nothing here can hurt us.’ Quixote said.

‘But you must listen!…….You must listen.’

Boosted in confidence by Uncle Bear-Nard’s words Aunty Gertrude seemed a mere trifling now, and Melaleuca saw she felt it. Fed up with her Aunt’s behaviour, she bore her eyes into her.

‘The time for listening to you is fast coming to an end,’ Melaleuca said.

Aunty Gertrude felt the chill of her words, and thought of her honour, and how, if the cousins failed horribly, her name would be tarnished.

‘Fine, tuck in for the night and we shall see.’

She left.

 

The cousins ran to the secret passage entrance, pushed on the horse’s tail and clambered in, only to find it empty.

Lexington faced the others.

‘I swear I will turn over every fact, every theory until I get nothing but yeses out of Uncle Bear-Nard.’

‘Make sure you use the costumes and do it through play,’ Melaleuca said, but then corrected herself. ‘Through pretend.’

‘I can tell,’ Lexington said. ‘Perhaps I am starting to get feelings like you. But we were not meant to be attacked. We were not meant to be sent to the Vahn. I am even not sure we are meant to be here.’

Melaleuca gritted her teeth.

‘Forbid that one day we might be called on to use the costumes and we get caught in endless debates. What or wherever we were meant for, this is where we are now. Move forward.’

 

***

 

Argus slurped the warm soup. He sat in an empty room waiting for Uncle Bear-Nard. Apart from, “protect the kids,” little else had been explained.

The door opened and Uncle Bear-Nard entered and slumped on Argus’s bed, resigned.

Argus dipped his bread into the soup

‘You don’t know what to do next do you?’

‘Six years. Six years too early.’

‘Nothing in battle ever goes according to plan. You must have a plan within a plan within a plan. Overcome, adapt, and improvise.’ He leant back in his chair. ‘What was supposed to happen?’

‘Their parents used the bracelets, but became corrupted. They started fighting to save all the children.’

‘Just like these kids want to.’

‘Yes, just like. The bracelets can work forever if the wearer can just stay pure and innocent. The children were to stay sheltered in their valley until they were beyond puberty, then come here and use the bracelets.’

‘They’re using them now.’

‘Not to attack. They were to use them to play that’s all.’

‘Who left them the notes?’

‘I can’t be sure.’

‘Gotta be an inside job. Someone here who knows that the kids would use the bracelets in a way that would lead them to the same fate as their parents.’

Uncle Bear-Nard screwed his face up.

‘How could you know that?’

‘It’s the way the world works.’

‘Not this time. We must take steps to preserve their innocence.’

‘But you said they have already attacked people.’

‘Only a few. It’s not too late….It can’t be too late.’

Argus rubbed his head, burped and loosened his trousers. ‘So what do you want me to do now?’

Uncle Bear-Nard stood, angered by Argus’s relaxed attitude.

‘First of all, get this into your skull. If those children become corrupted, then, when this age closes, the next age will be one of darkness. These are the last. They are Omega Children. There will be no more after them.’

‘Oh for Pete’s sake. Asking me to wet-nurse kids is one thing. Hell, for gold I’d just about do anything. But don’t ask me to believe in that rubbish. You know, I have more respect for those kids than I do for you.’

‘Good. It’s a start. Now listen up. If the kids want the children at the Vahn protected or rescued, so be it. You are going to rescue them.’

‘Me!’

‘I will tell them to not worry about the children; you are going to take care of it.’

‘Great. Rescue snot nosed kids.’ He shook his head and thought of the gold, though one thing bothered him. ‘With those bracelets and costumes then, what were the cousins supposed to do, given the power they wield? Play until they are old people?’

‘Given your lack of faith, don’t worry about it. Just stick to the tasks I give you.’

 

Chapter 30 – Competition

 

 

As they slept, they entered their private dream worlds for a second time.

A horde of people spreading out across fields and plains, and reaching back to forests, and the edges of great seas, stood before Melaleuca. Across their stretches, many cities of past, grand ages lay in ruins – their glory faded to rubble. A low hum of expectation rose from the vastness as all the millions of people stared at her.

I am not dreaming, this is real.

She searched her eye over the throng. A broken mass lay before her, millions of scores of once proud soldiers and noble rulers, looking to her, waiting and waiting and waiting.

‘Have you waited long?’ she asked.

A tattered, shattered lady wearing a broken tiara stepped forward. ‘Aeons, ages, and epochs, we have tarried.’

 

Ari raced through forests and bounced from mountaintop to mountaintop. He followed the call of the earth, searching out the unexplored places crying out to yield up their ancient secrets. A lush relish filled his heart.

As he dived off a mountain peak into a valley, the range shook and rocks started pounding off the side, until the whole range subsided into the earth. He watched in horror as land-mass after land-mass crashed together, and forests, kingdoms and civilisations sunk into the sea. A slow foaming foment bubbled and swirled.

Out of the foment rose a flat desert landscape, any hint of plant or animal life gone. The arid parched dryness, even in his dream state, made him uncomfortable.

 

Where am I, thought Lexington, searching around her dreamscape, I know I am dreaming, but last time…

Instead of the heart of the stars and the void of blackness, before her stood a statue hundreds of feet tall with different coloured balls of shimmering light trapped inside it.

 

By morning the cousins had once again forgotten their dreams, and assembling at the base of the stairs they once again waited for Quixote.

He appeared out of nowhere.

‘Sorry guys. Back soon.’

Moments later he burst out from the underneath the Grand Ascension Stairs and joined them.

Melaleuca tapped her foot.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Looking around.’

‘Using those boots.’

‘Yep.’

She glared at him.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I listened to Uncle last night. I did nothing except looked.’

‘I want someone with you at all times Quixote. If something happens to you, how would we know?’

‘Umm…Telepathy?’

‘Take someone with you.’

Pembrooke appeared at the doors.

‘Come. The lady and the master of the house are elsewhere.’

 

****

 

The cousins passed under the iron-gate, walking alongside injured students. Bandaged and burnt, they hobbled in as if nothing brutal had occurred.

Entering the Vahn, they caught stares and strange looks, becoming aware of people whispering about them; some even pointing. Ari heard two seniors mutter how odd it was the outsiders did not have one mark or scar on them.

To their surprise, despite their injuries, students whizzed by, invigorated, hurrying more than normal. Abuzz with a new excitement, something stirred the students.

Lexington touched her invisible bracelet.

‘How can they be so happy after what happened yesterday?’

‘Perhaps they are just used to it,’ Melaleuca said.

Ari pushed his unblemished hands into his pockets.

‘What are we dealing with? The children at the Borstal didn’t want to be saved and these guys are happy.’

‘Correction,’ Lexington said. ‘One of the children at the Borstal wanted to be saved but the other kids dragged him back.’

Jerkin Bod’armor strode up to them, a malicious grin on his face. ‘I will enjoy tearing you apart fish-strengths.’

Around Jerkin students cheered and shouted, ‘Glory to the champion.’

Melaleuca sized him up and down, noting he had no burns on him.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Here victory is everything.’

He forced a laugh and walked off leaving them confused. More students filed by, hurling abuse, telling them they would drown at the bottom or that fire would consume their ship. None of the comments made any sense. It became more bamboozling when a small girl walked by, and without making eye contact, said some of the Vahn was on their side and not to despair.

Ari reached out to stop the girl but she did not turn back.

‘What has gotten into them? You don’t suppose any of them saw Quixote change yesterday, or worse, that French bunch is going around telling people we are the Marauders.’

‘Maybe they mean the Unforbidden Forest?’ Quixote said.

A voice from behind answered them.

‘You are supposed to work it out. But I don’t think they want you to.’ Con stood behind them looking as deformed as ever. ‘I just hope the Marauders can help you beat the top team.’

Melaleuca swung around to face him, and the others did likewise.

‘Team? Beat? What are you talking about? What is going on? Everyone else says we are going to lose. Lose what?’

‘Don’t look at me! Face away. We can still talk.’

She nodded and they all turned back.

‘Well?’ Melaleuca said.

‘Has no one told you?’

‘No one tells anyone anything. You told us that,’ Lexington said.

‘You have been selected to compete in the Galelain; something that only the seniors are allowed to compete in. Seems they think you lot are special, or they want you dead.’

They turned around and stared blankly at Con.

‘Don’t look at me!’

‘Oh bother that. What is this gale thing?’ Lexington asked.

‘The high point of the year where the best compete.’

‘Con. What is the Galelain?’ Melaleuca asked.

Con walked past them, pretending to ignore them and stopped in front of them, so they could still hear his words.

‘The answer lies over there.’ He pointed to a faint outline of buildings shrouded through the hazy mist across the amphitheatre.

‘Come. Follow me. I will show you.’

They crossed around the ever-illusory, deep amphitheatre to another section of the Vahn buildings, entering an area they had never been in before.

 

The entrance of the building had stark-white, roman columns either side of a large, open, square door. Placards of eagles, hammers, ships, snakes, serpents, soldiers, and other insignia of past greatness lay chiseled on the top of it.

They wandered in behind Con, entering a large, dusky, open room. Light trickled in through high-up slits, sending thin shafts of light into the room, cutting down at angles to the stands below.

‘This is the Hall of Hero’s,’ Con said. ‘We are to come here when feeling weak of mind to become strengthened by the heady might of those past and long since dead heroes.’

They moved amongst statues, murals, frescoes, paintings, and models, all depicting strong able-bodied looking men, women and children – standing strong and tall amongst other weaker inferior looking people. Wars raged around them in still-life, and great winged creatures tore across pictures with gallant looking men and women, and valiant spirited children of strong sinew, battling them.

Lexington soaked in all the detail.

‘Legends and myths. This could provide a lot of answers.’

‘Propaganda,’ Con said. ‘Cool word. It’s banned. We got it from the book of the French Resistance. It means tall-tales used to cover up the truth.’

‘What truth?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘All truth,’ Con said, adding with a sinister tone, ‘and perhaps a truth only you lot know about.’

They carried on walking, and their footsteps echoed around the hallowed empty silence.

‘Here we are,’ Con said, stopping at one of the furthest corners.

Before them lay great ships of old, captured in paint and modeled in clay, frozen still in meticulous wood, with small, angry faced figures adorning them. Galleons, Viking ships, war canoes, Roman slave attack-galleys, sloops, frigates and canon-studded, high-mast rigged ships surrounded them. In the center of the corner, higher than the other displays sat a nasty, barbed-looking pirate ship on a dais.

Quixote reached out and with his finger tips felt the sails.

‘So we are going to build model ships?’

Con gave them his widest, most garish grin.

‘Even better. You are going to command one.’

The cousins started talking and Melaleuca told them to shush.

‘Explain more Con.’

‘The legend goes,’ Con said, ‘that this land was discovered by a flotilla of ships that had battled their way across the seven seas, searching for a safe haven in which to develop strong moral character.’ He spat showing contempt for it. ‘Every year since, ships take to the water to enact the fighting and the struggle it took to get here, and to test the mettle of those ready to leave the Vahn. The lake is opened and spills into the amphitheatre and the ships set sail from there to do battle on the lake…..Seems that once upon a time everyone could compete, but now we are too numerous and only those selected, the best of course, are allowed to compete. Every seventh year is the High-Galelain, an exceptionally brutal battle, unlike the six years preceding.’

‘Why?’

A nervous edge entered his voice.

‘If you are twelve years old in the year after the High-Galelain and older you may be chosen to enter in lesser crafts, in the hope of being chosen in another six years for the High-Galelain. The honor and the prestige of winning the High-Galelain is only accorded the very few.’

‘Con. Why?’

‘Because there can only be one winner. One team left standing. One team left alive,’

‘And what is this year?’

‘The seventh, the High-Galelain.’

 

Amongst the silent statues and graphic images of past death and glory, the cousins received the solemn news, mulling over what Con had told them.

 

‘And we are expected to do this,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Command a ship and kill others to win.’

Con nodded.

‘Preposterous!’ Lexington said. ‘I will not kill anyone, let alone allow myself to be drawn into this barbaric game of slaughter. That tears it!’ She turned to Melaleuca, shaking. ‘I vote we leave this land, and go and find our parents.’

‘Leave? But you cannot,’ Con said. ‘The French Resistance has waited for you. Your mission is to free us.’

Lexington backed away from Con, feeling for the safety of Ari and Melaleuca.

‘We might be killed. What then?’

Quixote’s eyes dazzled with future glory, and his imagination ran wild at the thought of leading charge after charge after charge as a pirate.

‘Lex we could use the ─ ’

Melaleuca whacked him.

‘Sssshhhh.’

Con cackled. ‘Why not just become the Marauders?’

Lexington and Ari grabbed Quixote, assuming he would spill the beans, and Melaleuca fielded his question.

‘How would we do that?’

‘I saw Quixote turn into a Marauder yesterday.’

Lexington let out a sigh.

‘I told you Quixote would ─ ’

‘Lexington!’ Melaleuca shouted, and then said calmer, ‘I mean Lexington, it’s okay, just let me handle this.’

Con sat on the edge of one of the smaller displays.

‘Your secret is safe with me. I have told no one, not even the French Resistance.’

Melaleuca bit her bottom lip.

‘You may think you saw that….The Marauder popped up right by where he stood.’

‘Hardly. I know what I saw. We Gorks may be freaks, but we are the most intelligent bunch in New Wakefield. We always have been. I know what I saw.’

He patted his chest.

‘I would die before giving you away. I, we, the French Resistance can help.’

With his deformed head Con scrounged his features together reassuring them. ‘We can help, really.’

‘If we are the Marauders then why should we need you?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Because I doubt even the Marauders have a ship. I have contacts. I could help.’

‘What if we don’t enter?’

Con rolled this around in his mind.

‘No one has ever not entered, but I guess something gruesome. Have you…thought about what winning might bring?’

Quixote bounced forward.

‘Tell us!’

‘You will be made Prefects and your captain will become the Head Prefect. So you see, you could help a lot of people and keep your secret safe.’

‘See that you do keep our secret safe,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We shall discuss this further amongst ourselves. Thank you Con for showing us this.’

 

***

 

Everywhere they went at the Vahn, they got cheered or jeered. By lunch time they learnt that the mysterious kidnapper had struck again the night before.

They located Con and without caring what others thought, spoke directly with him.

‘Who was kidnapped last night?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Several children. It seems this time the weak and injured, the ones that could not get away when the steam was released.’

‘Who exactly?’ Lexington asked.

‘Bleph, Gregand, Tommn, Huching, Overling, whole bunch more.’

Lexington winched.

‘Poor little Bleph. All that only to be kidnapped. What do you think is happening to them?’

Con shrugged his shoulders.

‘Who knows? People are jittery about it. But then they showed weakness. No one will search for them.

Lexington sniffed, as if to cry.

‘Positively horrid.’

‘You can stop it,’ Con said. ‘You four can stop it all. I know you can. We need you. No one else will ask. Everyone else has something to lose. I have nothing; hence I can speak for them.’

Desperation in his voice played across his gormly face.

Melaleuca steeled her will against his pleas. Her first duty was to her cousins.

‘You are a girl of shutters,’ he said. ‘Even as you are, you are formidable.’

He added with all the pathetic air of a being that could not protect or save himself.

‘Enter…we need you….enter. Save us. ’

Chapter 31 – Preparation

 

 

Uncle Bear-Nard sat in his musty study, mulling over the fate of his nieces and nephews. No longer having to hide his real self from them, a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He had decided he would not tell them he was the Harbinger, even though he was the last. They would have to work that out for themselves.

Each successive Harbinger had handed the knowledge down to the next bracelet wearers, but he had concluded that this was the very reason why the bracelet’s power wore off. Knowledge, especially too much knowledge, killed innocence.

He hit the wall, and a small panel flipped open, revealing an aged parchment. Carefully removing it and unfurling it, he read the words.

 

‘Knowing more and more

About less and less

They know everything

About nothing.’

 

Work it out yourself, the Harbinger before him had said, though it only started making sense after the cousin’s parents had fled.

Putting the parchment back, he examined the key the cousins had used to unlock the bracelet room, comparing it with his key. His key had an eagle on it – the long fabled eagle of power, a symbol he only knew too well, the one used throughout history where ever power gathered. Used on the standards of the long since defunct Roman Empire, and used by Nazi Germany, New Wakefield had used the symbol ever since its founding.

Yet along with the eagle on the cousin’s key, a meek looking cow stood next to it. Where did they get it from and what did the cow mean?

Scout morphed out of the books, startling Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘Did you check to see if anyone was coming?’

‘Of course.’

Uncle Bear-Nard handed the objects to Scout.

‘What do you make of these?’

Scout pawed at them with his long glistening fingers. They changed colours as he examined them.

‘Same key, different markings.’

Uncle Bear-Nard gave Scout a friendly shove.

‘I know that. Have you seen this one before?’

He pointed to the key with the cow and the eagle.

‘Play?’ Scout asked.

Sadness filled his eyes.

‘Scout I’ve not played with you for years. I’m old now. Play is finished. Have you seen it before?’

‘Maybe, maybe not.’

Uncle Bear-Nard squeezed Scout’s hand.

‘And what is to become of you, eh?’

He turned back to the two keys. ‘They are heavy. Where did this one come from?’

‘Play with the new kids?’

‘No. Not yet. Only when I say. Alright.’

 

‘Bear-Nard,’ Aunty Gertrude called from outside his study.

 

He threw a small blanket over the two keys, and Scout morphed into the wall.

Face flushed, she burst in.

‘Bear-Nard…I..I..I am..’

‘What d..dear.’

‘They have been entered…’

She shook her head from side to side.

‘What?’

‘The Galelain! The High Galelain. They have been entered.’

A real sob fell from her mouth.

What the…

The seriousness of the words sunk in.

Not the Galelain, please, no.

‘I just thought the Vahn would be good for them,’ she said.

After all the years of secret planning, after all the suffering of the cousin’s parents, after years of waiting for children like these to turn up, to have his own wife threaten all those plans; it was too much. Even now, at what he considered a late hour, he knew that it was high time that the loyalty to his wife be put in second place.

 

His face contorted in a rage he had never shown her before. ‘You ignorant woman. You may have doomed us all!’

 

***

 

As the cousins tore into the girl’s bedroom, Aunty Gertrude sat there waiting for them.

‘You will need help to win.’

With patience worn thin, Melaleuca replied, ‘I don’t trust you. We don’t need your help.’

‘All the teams are better than you. You will lose.’

‘If I say we will win, we will win.’

The strength in her words found a resentful respect in Aunty Gertrude.

‘Good. Exactly how do you propose this?’

‘Leave us.’

Aunty Gertrude drew back, shocked at her tone.

‘What?’

‘Leave us. Leave us alone. Do I need to keep repeating it?’

‘I will do no such thing. Shut your little ungrateful mouth. I can help you win, make sure that you do not get hurt.’

Melaleuca held her Aunt’s gaze, letting her see the same smouldering fire that Argus had seen; the one that had dropped him to his knees.

‘Oh dear,’ Aunty Gertrude said, suddenly feeling all queer.

Melaleuca motioned with her head to her cousins to follow her, and they trotted out the door.

Grasping her head and reeling Aunty Gertrude called out.

‘Where are you going?’

 

Despite their Aunt’s cruelness, Lexington could not help but feel a little sorry for her. She turned and stood in the door.

‘Don’t be upset. You never had any power over us. We just allowed you to think so. Especially so that you would stop being cruel to Uncle. You really have been beastly toward him.’

 

Sensing her world crashing around her – twisted malice rent Aunty Gertrude’s face, and she turned pale. Screaming, as if her throat had been cut, she lashed out at Lexington. Unpronounceable words ranted out of her mouth about how they were pulling down all that her forebears had worked so long and hard for.

Ari stepped in-between Lexington and their Aunt, and she pummelled him like crazy to no effect until all her strength subsided, and she fell to the floor in a crumpled sobbing heap.

 

‘Ari, Lexington come,’ Melaleuca said, holding Quixote back.

Leaving their Aunt to sob, they walked off.

Melaleuca strode off down the corridor heading toward the Grand Ascension Stairs, fuming. An air of decision trailed behind her. It was high time that they stopped letting events push them around.

‘Mel?’ Ari said.

She carried on walking.

‘Mel?’ Ari said again.

Melaleuca spun around, her face a seething spread of wild determination.

‘Prepare for battle. This time the game is for real. Our hand is forced. We can no longer be hidden. We will use the costumes and the bracelets, enter this competition and win.’

 

No one dared argue.

 

***

 

Argus woke up as Uncle Bear-Nard entered the spartan room where he slept. A pall of black gloom sat over Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘What?’ Argus asked.

Uncle Bear-Nard kicked at the floor, looking older, more tired, as if several years worth of worrying had fallen on him.

‘I can’t protect them anymore.’

‘I presume you mean the kids. Why?’

‘I should have never asked it of her.’

‘Who?’

‘I thought the bracelets were a blessing as a kid, but now I see that they are a curse?’

Argus threw his blanket back.

‘Oh what’s happened now?’

Uncle Bear-Nard told him of the High Galelain, and of the mortal danger the cousins were now in. ‘And I can’t pull them out. They will be branded as cowards, a death knell here. What a choice. Risk corrupting their power or stigmatise them. Besides…,’ he shook his head, ‘..if they don’t enter, then the Council will be breathing down their necks, and that could risk the possible discovery of the bracelets.’

‘Get a grip.’

‘I think it is too late. I have failed. After all these years. Failed. Failed to keep them innocent. Failed to shield and protect them.’

Uncle Bear-Nard half cried into his old hands.

Argus swung his legs over the edge of his bed and sat up.

‘Okay. Stop. Stop feeling sorry. Nothing is over until it is over.’

‘This path was set years ago.’

Argus wanted to hit him.

‘Look at you. Your profession of innocence does not mean an absence of horrible things. You spout innocence but you don’t know what it means. I know what it means. I’ve always known, just used different words.’

Argus flexed his young body.

‘I have fought in some bloody battles and survived. Do you know how? Freshness. To survive, you must let it go. I butcher, I kill, and when the job is done, I simply let it go. Letting go preserves your sanity for the next time. If your so-called “innocence” crumbles at the first sign of danger then it was not true innocence, but naïveté. These kids are anything but naïve. So snap out of it, they probably need some sort of help.’

‘You don’t understand. Their parents, the last bracelet wearers had many years to get used to the bracelets, these children have barely had a few months and already they are being thrown in at the deep end.’

‘So! They seem to be doing fine. I’d say they are better than when I left them on the cliff top.’

‘They are the last! The Omega. They are Omega Children. After them there will be no more……no more……I thought I was, then I thought their parents were. But no, they are the last. There will be no more after them.’

‘Oh, for crying out loud, stop this! You’re doing my head in. You can’t hire me and then go soft. Go cry on your mamma’s shoulder. Sheesh.’

Uncle Bear-Nard looked up from the floor, his eyes pierced through with pain. Argus kicked the side of the bed.

‘I hate kids. But these kids ain’t kids. I don’t give praise, but those kids are hardier than some of the men I have worked alongside. You want my opinion. That Quixote does not need to let things go, he never picks them up. Melaleuca has some deep fire in her; dropped me to my knees. Ari? Fearsome and strong. All extremely resilient.’

A small bit of cheer entered Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘And Lexington?’

‘Hmmph. She’s the weak link. Every team has to have one. Not sure why, just always the way it goes. I can tell her mind chatters too much. Now get up and let’s go see them

 

***

 

The four cousins muddled around in the costume room discussing at length how they would tackle this new threat. Quixote charged around trying on different costumes. Lexington had all her notebooks out, regaling Melaleuca with how much they did not know, while Melaleuca listened, but also tried to get Quixote to sit still. Ari waited for some sort of order to descend.

 

‘Quixote. Come back here,’ Melaleuca said for the tenth time.

‘Hang on,’ he yelled, and then cried out, ‘LOOK!’

He marched out from between the rows, adorned in an old-fashioned, naval officer’s uniform. A smart blue tunic with gold edging hung over a waistcoat with large brass buttons. Tight white pantaloons stretched from his waist down to small black shoes. Finishing it off was a black captain’s hat, shaped in a half circle. His reflection in the mirror showed a large-chested man with a strong face and a huge chin.

‘Are there any more?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Bite yea tongue, scurvy dog, no land lubbery jibberish here.’

‘Is that what you were looking for all this time?’

‘I’ll thank thee to address me as captain, you maggoty worm.’

Melaleuca motioned to Ari. He came up behind Quixote and grabbed his wrist, pulling his bracelet off.

‘Awww, unfair, I was just pretending. Give it back.’

He leapt at Ari and they started to tousle about on the floor.

Melaleuca stepped over the boys and walked into the costumes.

‘Lex, help me find all the sea faring costumes. We can use them to sail this ship.’

‘Yeeah. Won’t we then appear like Marauders?’

Melaleuca poked her head out of the costumes.

‘Yes I know.’ She quickly checked her feelings. ‘I am right. We will sort something out. Find as many sea costumes as possible and see what we have.’

 

***

 

Uncle Bear-Nard and Argus crept across the attic, pausing by the door to the costume room. Seeing people other than the cousins in there, Argus burst through the door, charging toward them, ready to attack.

‘Where are the kids?’

An 18th century naval captain stood, identifying herself as Melaleuca.

‘What?’

A burly dockyard worker, swabbed out in overalls said to him, ‘It’s us Argus. It’s me, Ari.’

Argus screwed his face up puzzled. Of course, he had never seen the cousins in the costumes up close.

‘Arrrggghhhh, ya dirty cur, filthy sputum from Davy Jones locker,’ Quixote said in warbling, throaty voice.

Dressed as a pirate, menacing eyes peered out from a face lost in a mass of tangled beard-hair. Heavy clothes lay tattered in layer after layer of jackets, waistcoats, shirts and undergarments. Wild hair strands poked out from underneath a pirate’s hat, and each strand fizzed and sparked at the end like a lit fuse.

‘But you all look so…’ Up close he could see how powerful the costumes were, and he knew they did not realise the full extent of the power they could command. Some of Uncle Bear-Nard’s words started to make sense.

‘Different?’ Lexington said.

‘…not at all like children.’

Quixote rattled his sabre at him.

‘Are you scared lily liver?’

‘Not scared for ourselves,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, entering the room, ‘but concerned for your plight.’

Argus spun to face Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘Concerned? How can you say that? I mean look at them. They are….well…they are…’ His head spun as he started think what he could do with them.

‘Amazing?’ Lexington said.

‘…so real!’ Argus said. ‘They actually look like real adults, real sailors, and real sea men. This means half our problems are over. And what is this?’

He hunched over a diagram.

‘We are formulating a plan on how to win this bothersome competition,’ Melaleuca said.

Quixote rammed his sabre through the plan into the floor.

‘Plan be damned. We board ‘em. Thrash the living daylights out of ‘em.’

He pulled the sabre out, and swung it hard at his three cousins. They all ducked, though Ari sprung to his feet and tackled Quixote. Together they crashed into one of the rows of costumes knocking them over.

Fascinated, Argus knelt and touched Quixote’s burning hair. Uncle Bear-Nard hauled Argus to his feet and pushed him behind him.

‘Boys. Get up,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said.

A mite foolish, they clambered to their feet, and Uncle Bear-Nard directed himself at Melaleuca.

‘Are you thinking of entering the High Galelain?’

‘Yes we are.’

 

Melaleuca saw the doubt in Uncle Bear-Nard’s eyes.

‘We must do this Uncle. I have decided,’ Melaleuca said as the 18th century sea captain. The certainty of a commander sat about her. ‘But do not fear. We shall play and use the time to explore and discover.’

The cousins, in their costumes, nodded in unison, in support of Melaleuca’s decision.

 

Argus nodded at Uncle Bear-Nard, who could see Argus wanted to see the cousins or the costumes in action, so scowled at him, and then said to the cousins, ‘So be it. But no one is to die at your hand. You don’t have to win, just survive.’

Melaleuca nodded in agreement, her eyes telling another tale.

They will do what they will do. He could see she had other plans. He took some small comfort that none of the cousins had been raised as he or their parents had. Untarnished and strong of spirit, they just might pull it off.

‘Then be about it. Make it as playful and pretend as you can and the costumes will do the rest,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said. ‘Come Argus. Leave them to it.’

‘But ─ ’

‘Leave them. We have other things to attend to,’ said Uncle Bear-Nard half dragging him out the door.

 

Melaleuca paced back and forth, liking the feeling the captain’s uniform gave her.

‘Now, I will hear ideas.’

‘We need more facts,’ Lexington said.

‘She’s right,’ Ari said. ‘We can trust no one, not even our Gork informants. I want to reconnoitre the amphitheatre. See it up close. See what we will be fighting on.’

‘I’ll go with Ari,’ Lexington said. ‘Gather facts, record our findings.’

‘Very good. I’m going to contact Con and ask for this ship,’ Melaleuca said. ‘…And Quixote?’

With his hair still lit, he doffed his hand and bowed.

‘Whatever my captain commands. But wait.’

He dashed off, returning with his arms full of costumes. ‘These will stop you being seen at night.’

He handed Melaleuca the ninja costume, and then handed Ari some soldier’s clothes, with bedraggled bits of fake bushes and plants dangling off it, and handed Lexington some dark clothes, with an eye mask and dark woollen hat and gloves.

‘The label said cat burglar. It’s fallen off now.’

Melaleuca inspected the new costumes.

‘Really must get Lex to write the list of what you have found. Now, what are you to wear?’

Quixote tapped his winged boots. ‘Speed boots….and…’

From behind his back he pulled a poncho out and held it up. It faded slowly from sight until Quixote could be seen through it. Before they spoke Quixote shook the poncho. Everything visible through the poncho shimmered and shook, like a disturbed surface of a still lake.

Lexington poked it.

‘Is that invisible?’

Quixote threw the poncho over his head while Ari stepped up to feel the material.

‘It feels like metal only liquid.’

They watched it shimmer, and then Quixote’s body disappeared, leaving the bottom part of his legs, and his head sticking out. Quixote shuffled around. The poncho shimmered and struggled to match his background. Only when he stopped did it match what he stood against making him appear invisible.

Lexington slapped two hands to her forehead.

‘Ohhh, it’s a chameleon poncho. It changes so that whoever looks at it sees what is behind.’

Melaleuca marvelled at it.

‘You do find the most interesting and useful ones.’

‘One more thing!’

BOOMMFF. In a flash he dashed into the rows and back, appearing with a massive leather belt, thick with three layers of leather-binding and a sturdy looking buckle. He threw it around his waist and belted in up at the back, the large wide portion of it, sitting in front of his belly.

‘It said weight lifter on it.’

Melaleuca asked, ‘Are you planning to lift ─ ’ though she suddenly disappeared from sight along with Quixote.

Seconds later Quixote and Melaleuca appeared again.

‘Cool. Eh? I just thought of it,’ he said. ‘I took Mel to the edge of the Vahn and back.’

Melaleuca’s eyes watered red from the speed, and her hair stuck out at all angles. She blinked many times to un-blur her sight.

‘Could have warned me.’

Quixote vaulted up and down with excitement.

‘Who wants a ride next?’

Melaleuca righted herself, holding her hands out to steady her wobbly legs.

‘Whoever is next, shut your eyes. Lex, grab your detective’s costume. Ari, grab your Indian’s costume. They may be useful as well. Quixote, take us to the edge of town, one by one.’

Lexington ran into the rows, grabbed the detective costume and without the others seeing, scooped up the archaeologist’s outfit as well. She came back to the others and within seconds disappeared from sight.

Melaleuca disappeared and then seconds later Ari disappeared.

 

***

 

All four of them squatted behind bushes on the edge of the town, impervious to the chilly night air. No sound could be heard; no night-bird song, no crick of insects, no wind, no background noise. The silence leached into them. It had a death, life-absent chill to it, similar to the plain they had woken up on. Lexington shook a little, having also felt it in the Cathedral-Mansion.

Ari’s ear pricked up.

‘Why’s it so quiet?’

Melaleuca stared out into the night seeing further than the others.

Lexington scoped around noting the costume made her sight light up dark areas.

Sensing something, Melaleuca said, ‘Put the Indian costume on Ari. Listen to the earth.’

Ari changed, and placed his hand on the earth, picking it up straight away.

‘Something’s up. Feels like…like…’

Melaleuca stiffened, some unknown sense-like alarm, stirred by the ninja costume, going off inside her.

‘Everyone get down. Quixote, get ready to take us out of here on my command.’

From between two houses Captain HeGood appeared on horseback with at least ten Inquisat troops in tow.

Quixote disappeared and reappeared.

‘It’s that Inquisat guy and the ones that attacked the students. Let me go get them.’

Melaleuca hooked his poncho between her finger and thumb.

‘Sit down. I want to observe them undisturbed.’

‘Well, I can’t see.’

Melaleuca turned, glaring at Quixote. Though dark, he got the message and went quiet.

 

The Inquisat troops dismounted, surrounded a house, and formed a tight cordon as two of them kicked the door in. Seconds passed before they burst out of the house, dragging a female and a male clad in nightgowns out. They pushed them to their knees.

Captain HeGood lifted their heads with his horse riding crop.

‘And their offspring.’

Chapter 32 – More Discoveries

 

 

The female started to speak, but one of the Inquisat slammed his hand over her mouth.

Three young children, all under ten were escorted out by one of the Inquisat troops, and pushed onto their parents. They clung to them, neither speaking nor uttering a sound.

The mother pursed her lips, staunching herself against her attackers.

‘Why?’

Captain HeGood raised his hand to strike her. ‘SSSSSSSSSSS.’

She lifted her head high, daring him.

‘Why have we been selected?’

With an air of reluctance Captain HeGood answered.

‘You were one of the last known consorts of the banished. The Marauders are back. We are leaving no stone unturned.’

‘But that was nearly thirty years ago…they have long since gone or are dead…..and we were disciplined for that three decades ago.’

Captain HeGood squatted, wrenching her toward him.

‘So you know what become of Karena and her traitorous band.’

Melaleuca wanted to move closer, but knew that if she did so Quixote would definitely follow and who knows what he would do. She pressed her lips close to his ear.

‘Go back to the attic. See if you can find another chameleon poncho.’

He disappeared leaving behind small air currents eddying around them.

‘You go left Ari. And I will go right. I want to get closer to this. Lexington stay put. If Quixote comes back, try and detain him.’

Captain HeGood yanked the mother’s head back by her hair, and with derision she cackled at him. He smashed his knuckles across her face.

‘You dare befoul the air with the stench of your lack of discipline and dissipation.’

‘Stop it,’ her husband said and then turned to Captain HeGood. ‘On what authority is this Inquisition unleashed against us.’

‘Really, were you the only one not at the meeting. The Overlords have decreed that I am to do anything in my power to root out these Marauders from amidst us again.’

The man spat on the ground.

‘This is outside your power.’

Captain HeGood’s arm shot out and he squeezed the man’s chin until it reddened.

‘Afraid of pain? The little ones seem braver than you.’

The mother laughed again. Captain HeGood punched her square in the face. Blood trickled out of her nose, though she bared her blood stained teeth at him and managed to carry on laughing.

‘Damn you HeGood…..Only a fool and his brain are parted. You were warned that they would return one day.’

A look of great delight fell over his face.

‘Take them all away.’

One by one they bound the family with rope and threw them on their horses. At a slow pace the Inquisat led them down an alley, leading out of town.

Out of sight, the horses picked up the pace. The mother shouted out, ‘This proves you have nothing if you have come after me. Nothing! Every one, wake up, hear me, nothing! Save yourselves now, don’t believe the lies anymore.’

A dull thud sounded from the alleyway and then her voice went quiet.

Melaleuca raced back toward Lexington. Lexington sat there staggered by what had occurred.

‘Those kids will be like us. No parents.’

‘Perhaps. But these kids are nothing like us,’ Melaleuca replied.

Ari snuck into the alleyway. Seeing no horses he dashed to the end, and caught sight of them trotting off into the distant countryside. He tried to follow them, but could not keep up. He peered ahead, his eyes able to track them for quite a distance, watching as the captive kids and the adults jiggled along on the backs of the horses.

The youngest child fell from the horse, appearing to disappear before they hit the ground. A great cry went up, followed by a commotion with lots of confused yelling. Ari heard the words, ‘the kidnapper has struck again.’

Ari sprinted back to the others to report.

 

Quixote arrived in time to hear Ari relay the news.

‘Kidnapper?’ Quixote said, and then took off again, leaving steaks of dust behind.

‘He really is getting harder to control,’ Ari said.

‘Maybe,’ Melaleuca replied. ‘We just need to keep pointing him in the right direction.’

Lexington put her hand to her ear, straining to hear.

‘Listen….It’s still quiet! Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No one has come out to look. What’s wrong with these people?’

Quixote appeared out of thin air.

‘The kidnappers are gone and so are the kids as well.’

Ari squinted at him.

‘How? Surely with those boots you would have found them?’

‘I guess not,’ he laughed.

‘Guys, don’t worry about. Let’s get on,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Lexington, use your detective outfit to find Con’s house or his whereabouts.’

She put the detective costume on and started thinking how to get there. ‘Quixote take us to the back field of the Vahn, where the Inquisat attacked.’

 

One by one Quixote carried them there.

 

Lexington studied the ground around her, putting the cat burglar costume on as well, giving her the ability to see further in the dark.

‘What are you looking for?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Foots prints,’ she replied. ‘To be precise, Con’s footprints. He drags his left leg, and he has boots on, which means ─ ’

‘Look for the footprints with a heavy right foot imprint and a dragging left foot,’ Ari said, as the Indian costume’s tracking skill surged through him.

Seconds passed and Lexington shouted, excited, ‘I see it here.’

 

The others joined her, looked, but only saw a mass of footprints, though Ari could see them once Lexington pointed it out to him.

They fanned out on Ari’s suggestion, forming a perimeter around her following Lexington as she picked her way along the track that Con had left.

 

‘It’s taking too long,’ Quixote said. ‘Let me put on the detective outfit and go find his house and then come back.’

‘Or lend me your wing-boots and I will go find it and come back,’ Lexington replied.

‘Alright then.’

He bent down, pretending to take them off and reached into his pocket; drew out another pair of winged boots and threw them at her.

With the boots on Lexington disappeared, reappeared, and disappeared again. She appeared for a second time, a look of disappointment on her face.

‘These are not speed boots. If anything they are reverse-relativity boots. You run at a normal pace but everything else goes slow.’

Melaleuca eyed the boots.

‘Uh huh. When Quixote carried us, it was a blur.’

Lexington pulled them off.

‘Here. You try.’

 

Melaleuca ripped around in them, before handing them to Ari for a quick turn. With the boots on, none of them ran fast, instead the world around them appeared to slow down, and even stop. A trip back to the mansion would have still taken 30 minutes, but in that time a mere second would have passed for everyone else.

 

Ari handed them back to Quixote, who stood there in his pair of speed boots. They impatiently waited for an explanation.

‘Oh did you want the actual speed boots?’ He said.

Lexington felt like slapping him.

‘There are two pairs?’

He pulled another pair from his pocket trying not to laugh.

‘Three actually. One has the wings going forward. These ones.’ He held up the boots they had just tried on. ‘And the ones with wings sticking out the side.’

He tapped his pair saying, ‘These are the ones I’ve been wearing. They make you run fast, BAM! There in a flash.’ He mimicked a fast run, grinning.

‘And the third pair?’ Ari asked.

‘Horrible boots. They have wings that go backwards. When you try and run fast you go incredibly slow and everything speeds up.’

Melaleuca frowned at him.

‘Okay. Let’s play with the boots later. Quixote, take Lexington and find Con’s house. When you have, come back with her, then take me to Con’s house. Then carry Lexington and Ari to the Amphitheatre. Every five minutes or so I want you to run back and forth amongst us, checking on us. Got it?’

‘Aye aye captain.’

 

******

 

After being dropped off by Quixote Melaleuca finally crouched outside Con’s house. She pulled her bracelet off and knelt under his window. Reaching out to rap on it, she still had the ninja suit on. Pulling her arm back, she felt uneasy about appearing in front of him as a Marauder despite him knowing.

When Quixote returns I will get him to get my Vahn uniform.

I hope nothing distracts him.

 

*****

 

Swallowed up by its immenseness, Ari trod around the amphitheatre dressed as the soldier. He stepped down the stone steps, down and down and down and down, feeling the sides getting closer and closer and closer, until finally, after nearly ten minutes he stood on the bottom, in a small tight circle. Extending from a small gap in the circle he stood in, a large gap existed all the way to the southern top edge, ending in a massive wall, behind which the lake sat.

According to Con, the whispers said that many years ago the amphitheatre was used for public meetings and performances. But how could that be true? There was no room for anyone to stand, let alone perform.

Under foot dirt, leaves and twigs lay, though as he shuffled around an echo sounded back. Sweeping the dirt back revealed an iron grate and a drain of some sort – big enough for a person to fit down. A faint, low hum came from underneath the steps, as if machinery worked below.

If he had the detective costume and the archaeologist’s tools maybe it would make more sense.

I will poke around some more and get Quixote to bring Lexington back.

 

***

 

Quixote roared through the detention center making sure no one was there. He returned and reported it “all clear” to Lexington.

She snuck through the torture rooms, candle lantern in hand, and headed toward the cavern where she had found the door.

The wall lay before her exactly as she had left it. She put the archaeologist’s clothes on and with her trowel dug into the earth, pulling away the impacted clay.

 

***

 

Quixote materialized in front of Melaleuca.

‘Go back to the mansion and get my Vahn uniform,’ she said.

Moments later, he stood in the same spot with the brown uniform.

‘Thanks. Now check on the others.’

He left in a vapor.

Melaleuca knocked on the window several times until Con’s deformed face appeared. He opened the window, flushed with panic. ‘Get inside before you are seen.’

She clambered in, coming to rest on a rough wooden floor. In the gray light his room looked sparse; a small roll on the floor, no mattress, a small desk and a stand with clothes hanging on it.

‘How did you make it here?’ he asked, but thought better of his question. ‘I guess……that it is no challenge for a Marauder not to be spotted.’

‘I have come for your help.’

‘Aha, so you will enter and you need a ship.’

‘Yes. Will you do it?’

‘Of course. I would give my life to see the Marauders return.’

‘Deeply thankful. But let’s hope it does not come to that. Where do we get a ship from?’

‘Leave that to me. If you come by the HQ tomorrow I will tell you how to go about it. I need to talk to the others first.’

‘Not a word about our connection to the Marauders until I say so. Okay?’

 

***

 

By the time Quixote had turned up, Lexington had removed enough of the clay to reveal a door as high as she could reach, though more of the door was tucked away under the clay higher above her.

‘It looks like the one in the forest,’ Quixote said.

‘Mmmm, here is the same circle key hole too. Though, there appear to be no statues. And the eagle is just a small figure.’

‘I know!’

Quixote disappeared and appeared in a flash.

‘I can’t find the key to open the bracelet room-door. I thought we left it on the floor, but now it’s gone.’

Lexington had her small brush out, wiping away the dirt encrusted in the keyhole. She took her small trowel and hooked out a stone stuck in the engraving. The same small markings stared back up at her, a cow and an eagle, hidden from view – who knew for how long. Surrounding them lay the same markings from her lost medallion.

‘If I am not mistaken this door is thousands of years old, tens of thousands even, and I see more evidence for returning to find our parents.’

 

***

 

Quixote appeared in the room out of nowhere, causing Melaleuca to growl. His chameleon poncho kicked in, fading his body from sight, leaving his legs and head visible. He pulled his bracelet off and became normal Quixote again; wearing a shimmering cape and funny shoes.

Not batting an eyelid, Con smiled, though something disturbed Melaleuca about Con’s ease with Quixote.

‘Quixote. How’s the night’s prowling?’ Con asked.

‘Dark and quiet.’

‘Has the Kidnapper struck again?’ Con asked.

‘Yes. Yes I think he has. I did not see him though.’

‘Good.’

‘What are you two talking about?’ Melaleuca asked.

They both hid their thoughts behind smirks, annoying her further. Even Melaleuca wished Quixote could be serious just for once. The words of Quixote’s mother again drifted back into her mind, the ones about Quixote being himself. Her immense trust in her mother gave the words a value that she could not yet see. So what if Con and Quixote had a little thing going, her gut instincts told her to allow it.

 

***

 

Small metal prods protruded out from the cold stone of the steps at regular intervals, puzzling Ari. At first he thought they had been old pegs that seats once had been attached to, but they felt extremely smooth to touch; highly polished and well maintained. Metal like this did not make or polish itself, and if, as the stories went, they were here from hundreds of years ago then the metal would have been weathered and tarnished.

He needed Lexington or at least the deductive abilities of her costume.

Where is Quixote?

He worked his way back up, and his foot hit something that clanked metallically. Kneeling he could make out a metal ring embedded on a chain. He tugged at it and to his surprise the steps rattled.

A trapdoor. But to where?

High above, he heard unknown voices. Faint silhouettes of people started stepping down into the amphitheatre holding between them an object with small beams of light emanating from it.

Quixote rose up out of the darkness, startling him.

‘Didn’t even see me.’

‘Knob. How’s about putting the cape around me as well, so those guys don’t see us.’

‘Or I could take us away.’

‘Stay. I want to see what they are doing.’

As they got closer, the object the people carried glowed like the silverquick Antavahni had produced. They stopped opposite them, yanking hard on another chain. Straining, they lifted a portion of the steps away and stepped into it.

Quixote picked up Ari and whizzed to the opening. Together, wrapped in the chameleon poncho, they peered inside.

Down many steps, they could just make out rows and rows of small lights blinking on and off on a panel of a large computer. Having only seen pictures of them in books and magazines they both gasped, awed at the sight.

‘Who’s there?’ a voice called out.

Quixote opened his mouth to cry out, but Ari clamped his hand over it, shaking his head and motioning for Quixote to get them out of there. Quixote carried them to the other side, covered them both and waited.

‘So glad I know you,’ Ari whispered. ‘If they don’t know we are here then we can still learn more.’

The men reappeared again, heaving the steps back in place. Carrying nothing, they climbed up the steps and disappeared over the top.

Quixote zipped them to the trapdoor again.

‘Let’s tear it open and see what is in there.’

Ari knelt and felt around the seam, discovering what he suspected was a seal on the door.

‘Wait. That will give away that someone has been here. I vote we find Lexington and Melaleuca. Explain this and then decide what to do next.’

‘Oh alright then. I will round them up.’

 

Within minutes, whether they liked it or not Quixote had dashed around and grabbed them all, returning them to the outskirts of town. They fell to their knees as their heads reeled with the suddenness and speed.

 

Melaleuca cradled her head in her hands.

‘Must…give us…warning.’

She centered herself and then said, ‘Con will get us a ship.’

Lexington rubbed her stomach, trying to settle the queasiness from the speed.

‘Where from?’

‘He did not say. I did not ask.’

‘We are supposed to trust no-one. What if he does not?’

‘I don’t trust him. I trust my decisions.’

‘Oh I see. Then, I hope we get time to look at it.’

Quixote slapped Lexington on the back.

‘Lex, the costumes will do it all for us.’

‘We don’t ─ ’

With a tiresome look even obvious in the darkness, Melaleuca held a hand up to silence them. She turned to Ari.

‘What did you find out about the amphitheatre?’

‘I don’t think the amphitheatre is an amphitheatre.’

He explained what he had found, the lack of a platform at the bottom, the grate, the polished rods, and the humming.

‘Then Quixote and I saw two men come down and open up a door. Inside, there looked like computers, lights, all sorts.’

Lexington threw some facts together in her mind.

‘Something mechanical is under the detention center. Remember Mohg moving those rocks aside and the warm air blasting up. It must come from somewhere. The bottom of the amphitheatre is probably at the same level.’

‘You mean…?’ Quixote asked.

‘Yes…’ Lexington replied.

‘…….another world underneath this land.’

She ignored his words.

‘…whoever controls New Wakefield must do so in secret from underneath the land. Perhaps they generate the wall of invisibility with gadgets hidden there.’

‘Focus,’ Melaleuca said. ‘There will be time after the Galelain to sort that out.’

Lexington pawed at Melaleuca with her almost plate-round eyes.

‘How does that fit with what I just found in the detention center? The door is thousands of years old, has the same key hole as the one in the hills and…and has a cow and an eagle on them, and the marking Mum said to watch out for.’

‘What were you doing in the detention room?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘What we are supposed to be doing. Pretending. I was curious. I was being me, asking why. Besides, if the door has been covered for thousands of years, then that makes what you discovered Ari something different.’

Ari scratched his head. ‘What makes you think it is so old and why can’t it be just a couple of chambers?’

‘A feeling.’

Melaleuca folded her arms, unable to resist.

‘Just a feeling? Surely you must have more than that to go on.’

Lexington’s face contorted in thought.

‘It’s strange. With the costumes on, I would have thought that logical deductions would rapidly fall into my lap, yet feelings, hints, suspicions lead me this way and that.’

Her voice sounded unsure.

‘Anyway I have good logic. There was a fine layer of volcanic dust between the clay I pulled off and the door. Volcanoes have not erupted around here for thousands of years.’

‘How do you know that?’ Quixote asked.

‘The layers of dirt in the detention center showed it to be true.’

Melaleuca took her hand and squeezed it a little.

‘That’s good Lex. Now, let’s focus on the Galelain, just for now. Afterwards, I am sure you will solve most the mysteries.’

‘Well, I do concur, but then let us just hurry up and compete in this silly competition.’

 

***

 

Overlord Sector, the High Overlord, sat on his high seat, the seat of power, adorned in ornate carvings of small figurines struggling and battling with animals and wrestling with people. Darkness shrouded his audience chambers save for a small lantern above his seat.

Head hanging down, Aunty Gertrude shuffled toward him along a threadbare carpet. She stopped half way and lay flat on the floor, spreading her arms and legs out like she was dead.

‘Who approaches to confess at this late hour?’

‘A humble servant of our way.’

‘Arise, approach and confess my daughter.’

Aunty Gertrude shambled forward until she stood before his raised chair, and then knelt on a small footstool before him.

‘Speak daughter of the ancient way, harbourer of the mysteries, hoarder of the yet-unrevealed truths, matron of the histories.’

She fidgeted, her eyes downcast, her face not at all its normal sourness, but worried and filled with questions.

‘My lord, I think I may have committed a grave error. I have come to offer myself for re-tribulation or even banishment.’

‘Banishment?’ High Overlord Sector said, surprised. ‘What is this serious offence?’

‘It’s the outsider children. I think allowing them to come here was a mistake. I fear they will not learn our ways and that they will instead destabilize our discipline. I have gravely erred on this.’

‘As ever your ways of truth speak volumes for your honour. You know well the penalty for such a mistake?’

‘Yes, My Lord, I do.’

The emotion of knowing her fate, and her pride in confessing, caused weakness and strength to mix inside her.

‘Perhaps you have a suggestion to remedy this?’ High Overlord Sector asked. ‘With your years of service, it is not out of the ordinary to…ahhhh…how shall we put it…suspend certain pathways of action.’

Yes, she thought, yes. With her downcast head, a hardened, tight-lipped grin flickered across her face; pleased that like a predictable chess game, the High Overlord Sector had asked the very thing she had hoped for.

Aunty Gertrude raised her stare upwards, bringing it to bear on the Overlord.

‘Yes, my ever vigilant Lord. Banish the outsiders from New Wakefield, forever, to the southern wasteland. Order and balance will be restored.’

‘Am I to believe that you are suggesting that the Marauders are here due to the presence of these outside children?’

‘The Marauders are the spirits of our long dead ancestors risen to warn us of straying.’

From out of the darkness behind the raised seat, feet shuffled followed by a voice.

‘The children will stay.’

Daquan stepped forward. On his fat body he wore a new cloak. It slunk off his shoulders and fell to the floor in aged, ancient glory of times past. As an Overlord now and Occupier of the chair of Ramathor, he bristled in the moment.

Shaken, it took Aunty Gertrude a few moments to wipe the nervousness off her face.

‘My Lord, what is he doing here?’

‘He is the new Overlord of Ramathor. The mantle of destruction is laid upon on him.’

Daquan smirked at her, casually leaning on the High Overlord’s chair with a contemptuous air.

She clasped her hands to her chest and bowed lower.

‘These matters, my Lord are best handled by yourself.’

Daquan roared with laughter.

‘All these years you old conniving witch and you have not changed a bit. Still trying to manipulate people.’

‘So what do you call what you are doing?’

‘You should have mated with a snake. I don’t hide what I want.’

 

High Overlord Sector shuffled in his chair. Strange, thought Aunty Gertrude, how the he tolerates such insolence and utter disregard. She knew in an instance that Daquan must know something that only the Overlords knew.

 

‘What do you really want?’ she asked.

Daquan cast a longing glance on the High Overlord, licking his eyes over his embellished chair.

‘Power.’ He roared with laughter again. ‘This decrepit old fool won’t last much longer, nor will the others. Times are about to change and they, in all their wisdom have not foreseen it, but I have. And I shall reap this reward, harvest this crop.’

He grabbed the arm rests of the High Overlord’s chair and pushed his face closer.

‘Your stupidity, your punishment against me has turned on you, fool. You tried to squash the head of the scorpion, but now the tail is swinging over your head, bearing down to thrust its poison stake through your stupid heart.’

No emotion registered on the High Overlord’s face.

‘Perhaps, we shall see.’

Noting their exchange, she thought that maybe she should not totally run afoul of Daquan, at least not for the moment.

‘My Lord, my Lords, then perhaps it is time to adhere to our time honored customs.’

‘To which do you refer?’ asked the High Overlord Sector.

‘It has also occurred to me that it is an insult to all the students that have spent years suffering and overcoming and training for the High Galelain, to allow the outside children to enter.’

Daquan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

‘Are you suggesting they might actually have a chance at winning?’

Aunty Gertrude shrugged her shoulders, feigning innocence.

‘It is our ways that need to be followed.’

‘Really. What are you up to? Are you trying to protect these children? What are you hiding?’

A face with years of faking sincerity, stared back up at Daquan. ‘They just need to be tribulated immediately.’

‘There is not time for them to be tribulated,’ High Overlord Sector replied. ‘It could take weeks and the High Galelain is due in just over a week. This will not do.’

Aunty Gertrude’s face reddened.

‘My Lord, the other children! They will see this as a license to flaunt our ways.’

Daquan kicked dust at her.

‘Don’t trust her. She is up to something.’

High Overlord Sector cleared his throat, a sure sign he was about to utter his final word.

‘The children shall enter the High Galelain. In this matter I trust the Head Discipliner, Sah-Task-Master Carrion. But should they fail, should they live, should they flee like cowards, should they not show up; then I will allow them to be banished to the Southern Wastelands. There will be no tribulation for them.’

Daquan spat on the floor, and kicked more dust.

‘Very well crone. You have got your way. But if they shall die their bodies are mine.’

She blinked her eyes, trying not to show the dust bothered her.

Got my way? Hardly. I want the children gone.

‘Agreed.’

She bowed her head, turned and left.

 

Curse that Bear-nard. This was entirely his fault, though at least now she could work out a way to save face; possibly even blame her husband. But she would have to suffer whatever fate befell the bratty cousins in the High Galelain.

And what was Daquan up to? At the last meeting he had opposed their banishment and even tribulation for them. But now he did not mind they had been entered into the High Galelain nor did he object to banishment. And why want their bodies?

 

 

Chapter 33 – A Warning

 

 

Threading through the passages at least an hour later, the cousins passed by their Aunt and Uncle’s room. Hearing murmuring, Melaleuca peered through the small peephole, the others joining her, taking turns. Aunty Gertrude sat on the bed in her flannel nightie berating Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘And besides now they have to win, or else. What if they do not win?’

Uncle Bear-Nard dropped his head forward.

‘They have to.’

‘Yes they do! If they fail, then it is my name that will be mud. ME! After all my years of service.’

‘Stop it Gerty! I will never allow that to happen.’

‘You! Not allow it. What can you do, you toothless old fool. If you had listened to me, then it would be you in the Ramathor Overlord chair and not that reclusive retard Daquan.’

The news caught Uncle Bear-Nard by surprise.

‘Daquan? Since when?’

‘What do you mean, since when? Have you so completely absorbed yourself in those brats that you have lost touch?’

He launched himself up off the bed and whacked one of the four posts of it.

‘When did he get the chair?’

She told him of the meeting a few days earlier.

Uncle Bear-Nard paced back and forth, fretting.

‘Well it’s no use getting upset now,’ Aunty Gertrude said. ‘You only had thirty years to claim it.’ She turned from him in disgust. ‘I married a fool. I could have helped you. That could have been us.’ Malice dripped from her words, ‘I still have your secret.’

Uncle Bear-Nard spun around and jabbed a finger toward her throat.

‘AND I YOURS…….So…we are even and always have been. Now be quiet so I can think. Do you think you are the only one who has plans?’

This news shocked Aunty Gertrude. Plans? Secret plans? Plans unknown to her?

‘Since when? Tell me. You must.’

‘Daquan is up to something.’

‘Of course he is. He’s a madman.’

‘How could I have missed it?’

She searched Uncle Bear-Nard’s face, but his face became a closed book.

‘You are hiding things from me.’

‘As are you.’

‘For your own good.’

Ignoring the words he plunged his brow into deep thought, knotting it up in tension, and Aunty Gertrude huffed at him.

‘Anyway should the children fail, I shall say they are impostors, and have them banished to the southern wasteland. Maybe they can go mad there like your sister Karena’s friend Daquan.’

Uncle Bear-Nard batted her away.

‘Behave or soon I will not need you.’

‘Not need me, by the founders of this great mansion, look at what these children have done to you. Never before would you talk to me like this.’

Uncle Bear-Nard reached down and stroked her hair as she sat trying to feign hurt. Thirty years of waiting tumbled through his heart, and he spoke feeling the weight of all those years.

‘You were the prettiest girl in all of New Wakefield. In all my days in the Borstal I thought only of you. I was glad when your husband died, because then you were mine, even though it was only desperateness that made you agree to this union.’

Her face softened and he lifted her chin up and said, ‘But not a union of love, for such is forbidden, but a union of strength.’

Her face filled with pride.

‘But you are beautiful no more. Just iron for a heart.’

She swotted his hand off her chin.

‘You are weak. You are infected. But maybe you can still ─ ’

‘It’s too late now, Gerty, too too late. This die was set a long time ago.’

Tense silence fell between them.

 

***

 

Back at the girl’s room, they removed their costumes, and Melaleuca ran them through a long overdue clearing. As they acted out previous events, it became apparent how much had happened in such a short time.

The boys left, returning to their room to sleep.

 

Lexington hovered about the window, writing in her notebook. Despite the clearing, her mind sifted through a wad of information, a fact only to clear to Melaleuca.

‘Lexington. This Galelain is only a week away. We do it, and then, I promise I will make the others help you.’

Lexington cast an “I-did-not-think-you-cared” look at Melaleuca.

‘Lex. You have a super brain. Asking why is good, but not when it causes you to stumble.’

Lexington sighed, her emotion-filled eyes widening as she said, ‘It’s like we have been following a small trail, and now, what was a few trails has become many. Too many. Even with the costumes, playing and pretending, trying to solve what is going on and fitting it all together, it’s overwhelming.’

Melaleuca bore into her, racing past all her questions, theories, and postulations, until she hit a locked decaying door. Something trapped behind it struggled to get out.

Melaleuca bit her top lip as she spoke the truth she had seen. ‘There’s something inside you that must be removed. It shouldn’t be there.’

Lexington turned away, thinking of her inner voice. Was that what Melaleuca meant?

‘Why me? Why not Quixote or Ari or even you?’

‘I don’t know though if we keep moving forward ─ ’

‘It’s moving forward that is making me feel like this!’

‘After the Galelain, Lex….after…..promise…..’

 

***

 

As they left for the Vahn the next morning, Aunty Gertrude stood on the lawn staring at the torn-up earth and the large tear through the west wing of the Cathedral-Mansion. Broken windows, shattered stones and bricks lay on the ground.

As Pembrooke rode them away she screamed at them, ‘This is all your fault. Come back with shattered bodies, you worms.’

‘Nice,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Took her a while to notice that.’

 

Just before the cart left the woods on the hill leading down to the valley floor, a hooded figure stepped out of the bush, holding their hand up. Pembrooke slowed the horses down, pulling the cart to a halt.

‘Thank you Pembrooke,’ said the familiar pleasant voice. ‘Now get us off this track before anyone comes.’

‘Right you are Matron,’ Pembrooke said.

Harshon threw back her hood, as Pembrooke steered the cart into a small bunch of bushes.

‘Listen, you are in danger. Late last night someone went to the High Overlord Sector and requested that you be tribulated before the High Galelain. It’s one of New Wakefield’s many traditions. All children are tribulated.’ She looked away. ‘It’s another brutal method of weeding out the weak. There are four levels. They are normally done over a ten-year period. He refused, but said if you fail to win, and survive, then you will be banished to the southern wasteland.’

Melaleuca could hear her genuine concern.

If only she knew about the costumes.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Not matter? Surely you may die.’

‘I doubt it. We were entered because it would humiliate us. Now, if someone has asked to tribulate us, then perhaps they fear that we might just win.’

‘Or they just want you dead quicker.’

‘I thought that only one ship survived and that everyone else died,’ Ari said. ‘If we lose how can we be sent to the Southern Wasteland?’

‘There are survivors. They are as good as dead. They are all sent to the Southern Wasteland.’

Harshon started to irk Melaleuca.

‘I have already said Harshon that we will not lose.’

‘Your confidence is surprising, admirable even, but listen, entering the High Galelain means certain death. I can get you out of here. It is not the first time I have smuggled someone from New Wakefield. I smuggled a girl out once, named Karena. And her four male friends. You see they were all involved with the Marauders about thirty years ago.’

Melaleuca knew exactly what Harshon was up to, trying to flush information out of them. Lexington’s face lit up as Harshon said this, though she held her word and said nothing in return.

Melaleuca chuckled. She liked Harshon, but they were to be true to themselves first.

‘Nice try. Our mothers were identical sisters, all born at the same time, all four of them.’

‘Perhaps, but I only grew up with one Karena, who bore a striking resemblance to you and your mother or mothers. I am here to get you out before something happens to you.’

‘What is this tribulating thing then?’ Ari asked.

‘It’s horrible. All of us, apart from the Gorks and the banished, bear scars from it. There are four tribulations, they represent the two births and the two deaths we are all required to undergo. The birth into pain and long-suffering, and the death of the body and emotions. Disciple Track is where 7-year-old children go to become tested by the trial of pain. It’s a track through brambles, blackberry bushes, thorns, rose bushes, matagouri, gorse, thistles, stinging nettle and poison ivy. They bind to everything; ladders, swing ropes, climbing bars, and poles. As you walk the track, there are sheer walls on both sides, and only one way forward. Everything is covered with something that rips or cuts your skin. It is also known as the first great clearing as the weak and unwilling to withstand pain are weeded out.’

The looks on the cousin’s face soured as they listened. It went a great way to explaining why the children of New Wakefield acted the way they did.

‘What happens to them then?’ Lexington asked.

‘If they fail, they get sent to the borstal for three years hard labour and pain education. Believe me, completing Disciple Park is a lot quicker and easier than a three year stint in the borstal.’

‘Those poor children,’ Lexington said.

‘You all looked horrified, but that is only the first trial,’ Harshon said, pleased her words affected them. ‘Come you need not hear more. I can take you away from this.’

‘I want to hear more,’ Melaleuca said, thinking that perhaps her parents had gone through such tests.

Harshon sighed heavily, the pain of these trials still with her all these years later.

‘Very well. But I must say you display the same verve that Karena did. She had little regard for our ways, nor did she fear them. She really seemed immune to them in fact.’

She paused, looking to them as if wanting to reveal something.

Melaleuca’s impatience grew.

‘Harshon, the next trial?’

‘The next test is the Unforbidden Forest. It is the second great command of discipline, to endure suffering.’

Harshon shook.

‘The Unforbidden Forest?’ Quixote said. ‘That’s the one all the kids our age are getting ready for?’ He made spooky noises to go with his sentence.

‘Yes. 11 to 13 year olds go through it. They are forced to go in to the forest, travelling from one side to the other, with nothing, no food, no water, no shelter, no warmth, nothing. Nothing at all.’

‘Doesn’t sound too bad,’ Ari said. ‘We have stayed out in the bush.’

‘Not a bush like this,’ Harshon said. ‘Nothing grows there except Burglen Trees and it is said of them they feed off rotting human meat and vile emotions. The whole area is full of deep craters. Some of them once you fall in, you never get out of. It is a most disorienting place, where everything is grey and barren, save for the trunks of the trees, and even then acid-moss grows on the side of them. It all looks the same, one thing blends into another. Up feels like down, down feels like up. Left and right, north, south, west and east get confused; line and circles blur, and some never get out. The cold there is a gnawing cold, and insects that dig and burrow and crawl over you every minute. And worse this is where the bodies of those that fail are tossed.’

She finished with a shiver.

Even Pembrooke appeared upset by Harshon’s words. He tilted his head down and tried to suppress a sigh. The cousins responded in silence, Harshon again pleased with the effect. Perhaps now she had convinced them to leave.

‘Now come, I will smuggle you out.’

Harshon grabbed the side of the cart to pull herself up. Melaleuca halted her with her hand.

‘We stay Harshon, Thank you for telling us this. We have to stay.’

‘ Stay?? But why?? Have you heard nothing I have said? You will not survive. Most don’t. You are too gentle in spirit to even think about attempting it.’

‘The other tests. What are they?’

‘Surely those two are enough,’ Harshon said.

Melaleuca peered into her eyes and saw that Harshon held a bewildered admiration for the cousins that she did not want to feel. She locked on deeper and dove into her mind. Within a second, she sensed a deep secret that Harshon desired to tell them.

‘What are you hiding from us?’

A surge of regal power burst into Harshon from Melaleuca’s hawk eyes, and as if she stood humbled before a Queen, Harshon gabbled, ‘Before I smuggled Karena out, she said that she would return one day, that she would bring a power back with her to free everyone.’

Harshon stopped. Surprised she had uttered the words with so little resistance, she decided to press her point a little more. ‘Are you sent by Karena?’

Melaleuca sensed desperateness in her voice.

‘We have told you where we came from.’

‘I know it is all lies. I know Matron Gertrude is up to something, I know the signs that something is afoot. Tell me. I can help you. You cannot stand four against hundreds or thousands. I am on your side.’

Melaleuca grew aghast. Did Harshon mean to tell the whole valley of what she suspected?

‘What are the other two tests?’

Harshon looked away, staring through the forest.

‘You need not know.’ She turned back eyeing them with sadness. ‘I fear this Galelain will mean certain death for you. So sure you want to end it this way? Unless…’

She trailed off, her silence begging the cousins to ask something more.

‘We can handle anything.’

Harshon stepped down and spoke, hardness entering her voice, sounding more like one of the Discipliners and Pedagogues.

‘So be it. Understand children that more is at stake here than you can grasp. When you lie dying, remember that I offered you a way out. Strength be yours.’

 

***

 

Harshon watched as they rode off, waiting until they could no longer see her, and then disappeared into the bushes, pushing through a small thick section. She came out onto a disused, over-grown track and headed down it. At the bottom of the forest she waded through a meadow, stopping when she met Captain HeGood, who had been waiting there all this time.

‘Well?’

‘Nothing. They are just children. If Karena is their mother then something odd is about. They insist that their mothers were identical quadruplets. Karena had no sisters.’

‘All you sure.’

‘Of course I am not sure. I am not sure of anything.’

Captain HeGood snapped her head about to face him.

‘Karena was involved with the Marauders last time. She threatened to return and create havoc.’

‘These are four children, not Karena.’

‘The Marauders are back. That is all I know. If I think you are hiding anything, well…heh…we all know where that will lead.’

She eyeballed him back, shaking inside, feeling the time of throwing all caution to the wind fast approaching, and smirked.

‘How did you rid New Wakefield of them last time?’

‘I hope you are not slighting the office of the Inquisat. While you sleep and nursemaid the wet-heads, I take the brunt of the dirty work. And for that I will have respect?’

‘It is said M’Lord,’ Harshon said back, addressing him with a title higher than his rank, ‘that Lord Daquan, sorry, Overlord Ramathor now, assisted you and for that was banished.’

Captain HeGood whipped his sword out, pricking the tip of it into her throat.

‘Watch your tongue. Should I run you through now, no one will question me. I was not the one banished to the great Golgotha-Land of the southern reaches. I was not the one who went mad and became a recluse.’

He lifted the sword higher causing blood to trickle, forcing Harshon to stand on her tiptoes. Her face strained red. Through gritted teeth she displayed the hardness that New Wakefield had beaten into her.

‘If the Marauders are back…,’ she gasped.

‘AND THEY ARE!’ Captain HeGood bellowed at her, then more softly, ‘Really they are. I insist.’

‘If they are back,’ she gasped, trying to stand higher to stop the blade cutting deeper, ‘then this time…they won’t…stop until…’

She coughed and started to choke.

Captain HeGood dropped the sword, letting her fall to the ground.

‘Until what?’

Harshon did not reply. She rubbed her throat and got her breath back.

He sheathed his sword.

‘The outside world has weakened you. Both you and Matron Gertrude are up to something. I have my eye on both of you.’

Harshon stared up at him with defiance, her eyes soft with a cultured compassion, rare in New Wakefield, yet strong in confidence. ‘Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.’

Captain HeGood mounted his horse, spitting at the ground near her.

‘Those who die by my sword, stay dead. Yeeeaarrrrgh!’ he shouted, and spurred his horse away.

Harshon laid herself flat in the grass, and cried for the second time in her life, thinking how foolish the cousins were not to take her offer, yet glad that had told her little. Should she be tortured for information, she had nothing to tell.

Nearby her horse neighed, bringing her back to her senses. She got up and mounted it, and rode off at a furious pace.

 

 

Chapter 34 – Guns

 

 

Crowds gathered around the edge of the amphitheatre, hundreds, if not thousands of them, waiting with great expectation for something to happen.

‘What’s going on, Pembrooke?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Today marks the start of the Thistle Ceremony.’

‘So why are all the people?’

‘To witness the first waters.’

‘And they are?’

‘Water falls from the sky into the amphitheatre. It marks the start. It will take about a week to fill up, then there will be the High Galelain, followed by the Thistle Ceremony. Now hop down and go and watch.’

The four of them stood on the edge of the crowd, their view blocked by the hordes of people in front of them.

Harshon appeared out of the crowd, with two older boys. ‘Come you are expected on the dais.’

Under the Head Discipliner’s jutting-out office, a platform had been erected over the amphitheatre. Twenty mixed groups of boys and girls stood crammed onto it. As the cousins approached, the groups scowled at them.

‘Up here children,’ Harshon said. ‘You are the last entrants in the High Galelain.’

The crowd started murmuring as they stepped onto the platform.

Sah Task-Master Carrion along with the frail High Overlord Sector appeared on a small balcony in the Head Discipliner’s office. The High Overlord held his hands up to silence every one, stabled himself and then spoke.

‘I give you this year’s entrants,’ he cried out, his voice echoing from the amphitheatre.

The crowd roared.

 

Jerkin Bod’armor stepped forward, raising two fists in the air, and out of the corner of his mouth taunted those on the platform. ‘Pity you will all die, though at least we know who will be the first to go.’

All the competitors looked at the four cousins and smirked.

 

‘By the power conferred on me,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion cried out, ‘and handed down since the great departure, I command the forces of nature to declare this harvest festival started. Let the great filling begin.’

A loud crackle rent the air, sounding like the sky itself split in two, followed by lightening bursting up from the Amphitheatre, arcing great bolts of light into the sky. The sky darkened as clouds rushed overhead and all at once gloom fell over the land. Moisture sucked out of the air and the cousin’s eyes became dry, and their mouths became parched and sandpaper like, and their bodies starting to feel hot and itchy. With the smell of water close, their bodies carried on getting dryer and dryer until a great thirst fell over them.

 

‘By Jupiter, by Titan, by Saturn, by Mars, by all the forces of nature,’ cried out Sah Task-Master Carrion, ‘let our water mingle with that from the heavens,’ and then spat into the amphitheatre.

The crowd pushed forward, each in turn spitting into the amphitheatre offering their saliva in obedience. Soon, a fine mist gathered, swirling over the Amphitheatre turning gradually into delicate drizzle.

‘Those rods Ari saw,’ Lexington whispered, ‘I bet they are gathering water from the atmosphere and even us. Magnetic ionisation.’

Jerkin Bod’armor snarled at them and said, ‘Shh!’

Quixote pulled a face back.

‘Shush yourself.’

‘You won’t be so smart when I crush you to pieces.’

Melaleuca threw her hand over Quixote’s mouth. He rolled his eyes and jiggled his head at Jerkin despite being muffled.

 

As the crowd dispersed, the normal Vahn day began, though coughs, gasps and throat-clearings could be heard as the air continued to dehydrate them.

‘At this rate we will be sucked dry,’ Lexington said.

‘Get harder,’ said a grizzly looking boy no older than themselves. ‘Worse is yet to come.’

 

***

 

 

As they headed outside on a break, the dryness had gone out of the air, replaced by a rich, sweet, heavy smell of moisture, and to their surprise, the drizzle had turned to heavy rain, though it mainly fell into the amphitheatre.

They walked across the field toward the Gork’s headquarters. Students of all ages encouraged them, by telling them to slaughter the others, or derisively mocked them, yelling at them to be slaughtered.

Without being seen, they slipped into the run-down building and trod passed the crumbling piles, making their way to the “Wolf’s Lair.” Pushing on the sheet of tin, it gave way to an empty dark hole.

‘Con?’ Melaleuca asked, sensing something amiss.

‘They’re not here,’ Lexington said. ‘You don’t think that…?’

Ari moved into the grey darkness.

‘It’s empty. Everything has been taken.’

‘Maybe they have been found out,’ Lexington said.

Quiet footsteps thudded toward them and the tin graunched open. Revile stood there, huffing a little, waving at them.

‘Come with me.’

 

They followed him deeper into the underbelly, stopping by a metal trap door in the ground. Revile pulled on it, and then shimmied down a ladder toward faint yellow candlelight.

Soon they stood in a small rotting-smelling, moss-infested chamber, deep enough in the ground that the outside noise hardly made it in. Con sat on his broken down chair. A large cloth hung behind it with the words, ‘resistance’ badly scrawled on it.

Con beamed at them.

‘Ah, welcome.’

‘You have moved,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Is necessary. We regularly change our headquarters around to prevent discovery.’

Ari asked, impressed, ‘How many hide-outs do you have?’

Con pulled his lips back expressing a horridly deformed smile.

‘You want our trust, but will not tell us!’ Melaleuca said.

‘If you are captured and tortured, what you do not know, you cannot tell.’

Ari nodded in agreement. It made sense.

‘The ships? Where and when?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘We Gorks are the plaything for the others,’ Con began. ‘They pay us little attention. Our destiny is to become the dirt mongers of New Wakefield.’

‘We know. You have told us before. The ship!’

‘Because of this, we are left alone, viewed as harmless. If we build a weapon, no matter how deadly, no one cares, for all know that we have neither the physical strength amongst us, nor the courage to wield it. Those that have tried have been struck down.’

‘The ship!’

‘On the coast lies the deserted marina. No ships come and no ships go. Legend has it that the great fleeing fleet laid anchor there thousands of years ago. There must be some truth in it, as it is a ship’s graveyard. Every year ships are assembled there. Every seven years extra special ships are built there.’

‘And you have one for us?’

‘Made by the blood of many taunted and brutalised Gorks. We have worked on it for many years, ridiculed but allowed to continue just for the humour of making us feel as stupid as possible.’

His words became dark and rare forbidden emotions crept in. ‘But they did not know that one day we would fight back. Yes there is a ship ready, waiting, longing for such as yourselves to set sail in the High Galelain and to upset the High Command that tyrannises us.’

He received a round of applause from the other pathetic looking French Resistance members.

‘So how do we get this ship? We want to try her out,’ Lexington said.

‘Like everyone else. On the day. They are floated up the Forunza River the day before hand and positioned on the Amphitheatre ready for sail.’

Lexington pulled Melaleuca closer.

‘The day beforehand! We have one day to learn to sail a ship and fight on it.’

‘They just float on the lake. That’s all,’ Dunk said. ‘You are not supposed to see the ship until just before the competition.’

Con looked annoyed at Dunk, and then said, ‘I am sure you will find a way to sail the ship.’ He smiled, winked and raised his eyebrows in a knowing gesture. ‘Besides you have other things to consider. It is rumoured that Jerkin is planning something big, something devastating, something that will make him unstoppable. He has to. This is his one and only chance to win the High Galelain. After this he leaves the Vahn for good.’

‘Then we need to find out,’ Lexington said.

‘I will find out,’ Quixote said.

‘I thought you might,’ Con said.

From behind his chair, the sound of a muffled crying child came. Quixote leapt to Con, engaging him in a loud, animated conversation. The crying remained and each time it rose in volume, Quixote talked even louder. The crying became a whimper, and Dunk pulled the cloth on the wall back a little, yelling behind it, ‘Shut your mouths. Are you stupid? We have told you. Be quiet or you will be discovered.’

A small voice cried back, ‘I’m scared and it’s dark in here, and the others keep on touching me.’

An adult voice said, ‘I will try and calm her.’

Con leant over the back of his chair, yelling, ‘Quiet or I will butcher the lot of you.’

Silence fell over the voices.

Quixote looked up at the ceiling, and then looked at the rough-shod door they had come through, then at the floor, then at the bric-a-brac generally lying around; anywhere but Melaleuca and the others.

Melaleuca shuffled to her guilty faced cousin.

‘Quixote, can you add anything to this?’

Bleph poked her head out.

‘We really are hungry,’ she said, and then burst out toward Quixote. ‘Qweety! Have you come to play again? Everyone, Qweety is here.’

Soon a small rabble of about twenty children appeared, their heads poking out of the curtain.

Bleph’s parents appeared as well, though they tried to usher the children back behind the cloth.

‘These are the recent kidnapped kids,’ Ari said. ‘Quixote? You are the kidnapper?’

‘Well…no…I mean…sort of.’

Melaleuca and Lexington both shook their heads. Melaleuca rubbed her forehead, paced away to calm herself down. This…this…this is almost unforgivable.

‘And when were you going to tell us?’

Quixote’s face paled and his normal cheekiness flickered, unsure whether to stay or go.

‘Ah…after the boat fight?’

Melaleuca grabbed Quixote and hauled him outside the door. With a ferocious glare and a quiet voice that threatened him not to lie, she said, ‘Tell me everyone in there does not know you are a Marauder!’

Quixote shook his head, his cheeky smile crumbling under Melaleuca’s intense gaze.

‘As a Marauder I saved them and left them with Con. It was he who brought them here. I visited as me.’

She looked deep into his eyes and could see he told the truth.

‘Good for thinking smart then,’ she said relaxing. ‘You need to tell us what you are doing, have done. Even if you think we might not like it.’

He nodded.

Back inside, Lexington knelt before the children. She pawed through their faces in the poor light, exploring them with her eyes. Little older than five or eight, most of them appeared like scared kittens, and some had scars, burn marks, grazes, and all smelt bad.

Melaleuca felt Lexington’s horror at the suffering before her. Despite the children’s harsh training at the Vahn, their fragile body’s suffered now under their abject isolation. The children knew they were alone and in a worse place than even the Gorks.

Their faces alone told their story; Melaleuca not needing to delve into their minds. She placed her hand on Lexington’s back.

The children looked at the girls fascinated by their unblemished, soft appearance. Bleph reached out, and using her fingertips, she touched Lexington, feeling how soft her skin felt.

‘We will help you, eventually,’ Lexington said. ‘But for now, you must remain here. If you are found out, you will most likely be killed and worse we will be discovered as well.’

‘Better to die, than to remain in hiding like a coward,’ came a voice still hidden in the darkness.

Several voices, belonging to older children and teenagers, intoned their agreement from the darkness as well, though Bleph’s parents said, ‘You don’t know what you are saying.’

‘Who are? Show yourself,’ Lexington said.

Gregand shuffled forward, his shadowy face a mass of healed steam burns. He looked bitterly into the pretty face of Lexington, disdainful of her gentleness. ‘I should have been left to die. A Marauder bewitched me, healed me, but I stopped him before he could complete it.’

‘No one is stopping you leaving,’ Melaleuca said incensed.

Panic ran across Con’s face, and he moved forward to block the door. Ari held Con back, assuring him with a knowing look not to over react.

Gregand stood his ground, the conflict of wanting to leave warring with some other emotion holding him back. His eyes blazed forth the glazed look of a hardened spirit. With his will he pushed against Lexington and Melaleuca, expecting, like all other girls, they would give way, though his face became gripped by a deeper emotion clawing to be let out.

Lexington could see beyond his mask, into his conflict, into the shame that mixed with his lidded pain.

‘It’s okay,’ Lexington said. ‘You don’t have to die. None of you do anymore.’

She reached out to Gregand. His desire to flee to his doom, gave way to a small, soft spot, thinly covered by his shame at being rescued. The sweet scent of flowers wafted off Lexington’s hand tantalising Gregand with forbidden feelings.

Tears leaked from the corner of his eyes, as his guilt brimmed up.

‘I am ashamed,’ Gregand said through gritted teeth. ‘I have shamed all my forebears, forsaken our ways. I should be dead or in the Wastelands.’

‘Your ways?’ Ari said. ‘Exactly what are your ways?’

‘The way of hardness, of strength.’ He choked on his words.

‘And for what? For what? Explain the logic behind killing the weak.’

Gregand broke down and cried.

Melaleuca felt an urge to kick him over.

‘As I thought. Your strength is a hollow shell of weakness. Go if you want, but I think the others will spurn you and believe little of what you say.’

She turned from him, leaving him crying as the others gawked at him. Lexington patted him on his back, a gesture he shrugged off, so she joined the others.

Bleph’s mother came forward and said to Melaleuca, ‘I am Ineer and this is Swarth, my mate. We knew you would come. We knew Karena would never let us down.’

‘I ─ ’ Melaleuca started to say.

‘Say little. You have a task to complete. We will do all we can to look after the children, and stop anyone leaving.’

They both had heavy lined expressions, and spoke from years of suffering, though hope shone out of their faces like she had never seen before.

‘Thank you,’ Melaleuca said humbled by their words.

Lexington had questions she wanted to ask them.

‘Did you know ─ ’

Melaleuca held her hand up to Lexington, emotions in check, and focusing as a commander, said, ‘After, Lex, after. Time to leave.’

Once out of earshot, Melaleuca turned to Ari and Quixote.

‘Go home, get the chameleon poncho and whatever else you need. Follow Jerkin until you find out what his secret is. Lex and I will make up some story about you being beaten up or in detention. Go.’

Quixote whipped the speed boots on and disappeared. Seconds later, with the strong man costume on he appeared, grabbed Ari and disappeared again.

 

***

 

Jerkin Bod’armor stood in the Head Discipliner’s office, daunted by it. Ghosts of their glorious past seemed to hide in its dark recesses waiting to expose unknown weaknesses in him.

Without looking up, Sah Task-Master Carrion asked, ‘Tell me Bod’armor, what is your preference, winning or eternal glory?’

Suspicious, Jerkin thought he was trying to trap him.

‘Our way is the only way sir. Winning or eternal glory are nothing next to them.’ He stiffened like a soldier repeating a mantra.

Sah Task-Master Carrion chuckled, looking up. ‘So well learned, so well trained.’

He rose from his chair and hobbled through the shadows surrounding his desk, emerging into the dull light with his limp; dragging his gamy leg across the mosaic-etched floor. Little emotion crossed his face.

‘Do you know what I mean by winning versus eternal glory?’

Jerkin nodded unsure.

Sah Task-Master Carrion opened a cabinet, pulled a book out, and threw it onto a small table. ‘Pick it up and look at it. Tell me what it is.’

Jerkin leafed his way through it.

‘It is a list of past winners of the Galelain, going back centuries.’

His eye caught something about love and courage as being traits of a warrior.

Sah Task-Master Carrion snatched it back. ‘Enough. Enough. Tell me. What of the past winners of the Galelains.’

‘What of them, sir?’

‘Exactly, What of them? Who were they? Do you remember their names?’

Jerkin could recount a few of those spoken about in the Whispers.

‘More importantly, do you remember all their names?’ Sah Task-Master Carrion asked and then said, ‘No, of course not. Tell me the ones you do recall?’

‘KronForth,’ Jerkin Answered.

‘Why?’

‘He started the Galelain.’

‘Next.’

‘CrookSent.’

‘Why?’

‘He introduced the High Galelain.’

‘Next.’

‘Jact-Rah.’

‘Why?’

‘He defeated everyone despite his ship being sunk at the start.’

‘And?’

‘And proved that a smart, disciplined mind is a strength unto itself.’

‘And tell me Master Bod’armor. Did these people win or attain eternal glory?’

‘If by eternal glory, you mean their names lived on, then eternal glory.’

‘Very good. Would you like your name to still be spoken of in centuries to come, or would you like to merely win.’

Jerkin knew the right answer; it was the answer he wanted as well.

‘To live on.’

‘Good. Follow me.’

 

They left and walked down to a waiting horse cart where they journeyed to a large building partially hidden by trees, at the edge of the Southern Hills. Inside a small team of men put the finishing touches on the most impressive floating ship he had ever seen. The ship looked new, not fashioned out of old gathered bits of wood. The sails rose high into the ceiling, and the railings and webbings gleamed with a pristine shine.

‘Sir, where did this come from?’ Jerkin asked.

‘What matters is the eternal glory waiting for you.’

Jerkin walked around it ogling it, sniffing the air. ‘What is that smell?’

‘Paint and glue, I am told.’

Dotted along the side, square gaps revealed narrow, metal tubes protruding out. They drew an intense stare from Jerkin.

‘Are those??’

‘Yesss?’

‘Are those guns?’ Jerkin asked in amazement.

‘Well done.’

‘They were banned over fifty years ago when they used them and the houses and everything else around got damaged.’ He said parroting the phrase that he had been forced to accept without thinking.

‘Jerkin Bod’armor,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion announced. ‘Annihilator of the outsiders, challenger of outmoded ideas, winner of the High Galelain, disqualified for breaking the rules, but a hero for his time and forever.’

Jerkin wandered around the ship a few more times, boggling at the damage he could inflict on the other ships.

 

In the corner, behind some boxes, Ari and Quixote sat still, hidden by their chameleon poncho, watching and listen. Having heard enough, they sped back to the Cathedral-Mansion to tell the others what they had found out.

 

***

 

‘How are we going to defeat a ship with guns, when we have none?’ Lexington asked her cousins, gathered in the costume room.

Uncle Bear-Nard and Argus stood there silent; Uncle Bear-Nard having already re-explained the importance, once again, of the cousins working it out for themselves.

‘Ideas,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We consider them all, including yours Qui.’

Quixote leapt up and down hooting.

‘Make our ship move real fast so the guns cannot hit us, and then gather the bits of smashed ships, make a real big shield and then use it to charge Jerky’s ship.’

Ari laughed at Quixote’s boisterous idea, while Melaleuca considered it.

‘For that to work,’ Lexington said, ‘we would need to have a carpenter’s costume on board. We would need to work out a way to smuggle extra costumes onto the ship. And still how are we going to hide our faces?’

‘Masks,’ Quixote said. ‘Once on the water, we slap masks on.’

Ari snapped his fingers.

‘What if we break into four boats and attack from four positions. We could get Con to make four small dinghies and that way Jerkin would not be able to target us all at once.’

‘Or create a diversion,’ Melaleuca said, ‘and then take over his ship.’

Lexington flicked her long hair back.

‘His is not the only ship. If we only concentrate on him, then one of the others might get us. What weapons will we have?’ She looked upset at the thought of wielding a weapon. ‘I truly want people to remain unhurt.’

‘I will find out!’ Quixote said and VAMOOSH, disappeared.

A rare smile of relish licked Melaleuca’s face.

‘Giant catapult. Shoot rocks and sink the others.’

Lexington sauntered back and forth; an altogether odd expression enveloping her.

‘How about fighting without fighting.’

‘How would that work?’ Ari asked.

‘Remember when we played the attack and pull-back game at home…..We retreat and draw them into us. Once following us then we can manoeuvre them to where we want.’

‘Well…yes…Lex.’ Ari sucked a breath in through clenched teeth. ‘But there are so many weapons here and cool costumes. There must be a way of using them and strategies, tactics and the like to outsmart them.’

Lexington approached Uncle Bear-Nard.

‘How long does the competition go for?’

‘Until it is finished.’

‘What is the longest it has ever gone for? Come on, that must be common knowledge.’

‘I know one time it went on for weeks. Two ships had packed supplies of food and hung around trying to outsmart each other. The crowd were none too impressed. The hope is that it is over within a day. But still they impose no time limit on it.’

Lexington looked chuffed; her idea seemed the right way to go.

Quixote appeared again.

‘Weapons are bow and arrows, spears, sticks, catapults, slingshots, and um, swords. Con just told me.’

‘Please tell me you were not seen,’ Melaleuca said.

‘Of course not. Man, we have so many things here that could blatt everyone to pieces.’

‘Why not then just steal his gun?’ Lexington asked.

‘Let us see how brave he is when a Marauder attacks him.’ Melaleuca said, smirking.

‘We could board his ship, and perhaps just tie them up,’ Ari said.

‘Make balloons to float in the lake,’ Quixote said. ‘Then when he fires his guns, they will explode when they hit the balloons instead of our boat.’

Lexington zusshed her arms around.

‘Can we make clouds or mist, fog or something? We could create confusion and then sneak up on the others.’

‘Heyyyy. What if we turned our ship into a submarine and attack them from below.’ Quixote liked this idea best.

 

They threw idea after idea at each other, making them bigger and bolder; the boundaries of the impossible becoming steadily eroded by the endless possibilities. By the time they had painted their twentieth winning plan, Melaleuca held her arms up and cried out, ‘Enough! Okay everyone go and choose the costume they think best suits them for this. We will start there.’

 

Ari soon stood there proud, wearing the Naval Captain’s uniform that Melaleuca had tried on before. Quixote snarled at everyone in his pirate outfit, and Lexington garbed herself in Chinese robes, the sort that belonged to a philosopher, puzzling Melaleuca.

‘Tell me Lexington, why this one?’

‘The side that wins is the one with the right philosophy. In fact why do we really need to enter at all? Why not just lose?’

‘Lose?’ Ari said surprised at her.

‘Win, lose, they are merely different edges of the same sword,’ she said, philosophically. ‘What does it matter? We will not die. Worst is us being sent to the Southern Wasteland, where the bracelets will afford great protection, and humble thoughts.’

She bowed low to them all.

Uncle Bear-Nard stepped forward.

‘Enter for fun, and to explore the boundless energies of the costumes. Don’t enter to win, or to lose. Enter to explore and experience; and winning will be the by-product. Enter to help those around see that your view is a better way. Do it having fun and no matter what the outcome you will win. Trust me. This is how it should happen.’

Argus motioned to speak, but Uncle Bear-Nard grabbed his sleeve and tugged him away. ‘Myself and Argus will leave you to prepare.’

Argus protested, though Uncle Bear-Nard pushed him through the door.

‘Right, let us begin,’ Melaleuca said.

 

Chapter 35 – Let the Battle Commence

 

Daquan poked the body of Doctor Thurgood as he lay sleeping with a chain around his leg.

‘Wake up.’

Doctor Thurgood poked his head up. A large bandage wound its way around his neck and mouth. Daquan slowly removed the bandage.

‘Let us try again, shall we.’

Relief spread across Doctor Thurgood’s face. His lips moved, uttering hoarse words.

‘Yessss,’ Daquan said putting his head closer. ‘Go on tell me.’

In a small whisper, Doctor Thurgood managed to say, ‘Nap Retep.’

 

***

 

Not finding him in all his normal places, Quesob started searching for Daquan.

He approached the prison, hearing childish noises drifting out of the open door. Rushing in, he found Daquan lying on the floor writhing and kicking like a baby.

‘Lord Daquan,’ Quesob said, and waited though nothing happened. He uttered his master’s name again.

‘Daquan. Lord Daquan!!’

Doctor Thurgood chuckled, choked, coughed, cleared his throat and then chuckled some more.

Enraged, Quesob drew his sword out, and lowered it on Doctor Thurgood.

‘What have you done?’

‘F..f..f..fail…,’ the Doctor started. ‘Fail..s..safe. You need m..m..me.’

Quesob grabbed him by his neck. ‘Say the word. Turn him back.’

Doctor Thurgood gurgled a weak laugh.

‘If I should die now,’ he said in a faint whisper, ‘shall he stay a baby forever?’

Angered, Quesob shook him.

‘Say the words.’

Doctor Thurgood shivered and coughed, and Quesob could see he had become fragile, perhaps even near death.

‘Wait here.’

He returned with a warm broth, a blanket and a pillow, and he comforted the Doctor. He handed him the broth. Gratefully Doctor Thurgood accepted it, sipping at the broth and enjoying the blanket.

‘Your master is a cruel man,’ Doctor Thurgood said feeling stronger.

Quesob agreed.

‘It would be peaceful with him like this.’ Quesob sighed, the events of the last few months seemed to be catching up with him. ‘But for all this man’s gruffness, he will be a savior. Of this much he has told you little I expect.’

He adjusted the Doctor’s pillow.

‘Once we have the bracelets, you may find he will have no more use for you. Never fear. For your services in helping us free the enslaved of New Wakefield, I swear to eternally protect you.’

The dingy lit walls of the small room added a deep seriousness to his oath, the shadows and spiders playing witness to it.

‘Very well,’ Doctor Thurgood said. ‘(cough cough)…If you do not, then I will leave him as a baby.’ He coughed again. ‘There is another word I have programmed into him, that once said, cannot be unsaid. Urrrrhhhheeeem…’ He coughed, turned red and spat out a large globular mass of spit. ‘…and he will remain as a baby forever…and not even I will be able to undo it.’

Quesob sprang to his feet.

‘You lie…You wouldn’t dare.’

‘Just assure me you will be good to your word.’

‘As it shall be,’ Quesob said, striking his chest in pledge.

He released Doctor Thurgood from his chains and unbound his legs, and then watched as he stretched his scrawny body out.

‘Olly on garchi,’ the Doctor said.

In an instant Daquan changed back, blinking his eyes and roaring with anger.

‘What is he doing untied?’

‘M’lord, he has sworn an oath to me, that if I should protect him, then he shall follow our bidding,’ Quesob said bending one knee. ‘If we treat him proper.’

‘You have my word,’ Doctor Thurgood said.

‘Quesob, follow me,’ Daquan said, ignoring the Doctor.

 

In the corridor Quesob walked behind his tall master trying to keep up with him.

‘My lord I thought it prudent to win him rather than punish him. Should he have not spoken the words then you might have remained as baby forever.’

They turned a corridor, stopping before a large window, a wistful look falling across Daquan’s face.

‘The time is close. I feel it. Soon the bracelets will be ours. I am convinced those outside children have it.’

The news surprised Quesob.

‘How can you be sure?’

‘Having once worn the bracelet gives me a feel for this. Quesob, it is high time you knew. I am the kidnapper.’

‘You my lord, but ─ ’

‘Yes.’

‘But I thought you wanted the bracelets to protect the children not hurt them.’

‘I needed their youthfulness, their unblemished character to help open the secret vault in the southern wilderness.’

‘What secret vault?’ He did not like what he heard.

Daquan roared at him. ‘Don’t you even know your own fables?’

‘Myths? You mean the fabled hidden treasure guarded by a beast?’

‘Yesss.’

‘That’s a kids’ story. It’s from the Whispers, made up.’

‘I found it! All my years wandering in that forsaken place, I found it. There is no beast though. Only the one every man carries inside him. But the inner reaches I cannot get to.’

‘But…but…’ Quesob stuttered. Children? Treasure? Wilderness? ‘We are supposed to be protecting them, not stealing them. Where are they?’

‘Like any war, the blood of the innocent must sometimes be shed for the greater good of all. These children will be martyrs, remembered long after all have been brought to justice.’

For the first time Quesob felt the hand of doubt squeeze around his heart. After being found in the Wasteland, he had followed Daquan, survived the extremes of heat and cold, lived amongst the wild, untamed hordes of Ori, all in the name of freedom and liberating those left behind.

‘Come,’ Daquan said. ‘I have a plan, which will, once and for all, get us those bracelets back.’

 

***

 

The dawn of the High Galelain broke over an excited New Wakefield. Not even in the memories of the Whispers could anyone recall outsiders being entered, nor pegged with a chance of winning.

Arriving at the Vahn in Pembrooke’s horse drawn cart, the cousins ogled the hundreds of people crowding through the main gate, trying to herd themselves inside. A senior student spied them and dashed out to meet them.

‘Follow me!’

The senior student shoved into the crowd, producing a stick out of his belt, and prodded people with glee. The cousins passed through the narrow gap of parting people amidst stares and glares. Some flashed secret smiles at them, and here and there subtle gestures of encouragement, appeared and disappeared quickly, lest the person doing it get spotted. Equally on display for all too see, others gave them signs of death and doom; slit throats, thumbs down, fists and barrages of abuse.

Pushing through, the cousins reached the amphitheatre. A vast sheen of green-tinged water, rippled by a small breeze from the south, spread before them. In the distance they could see a narrow passage out onto the lake, its waters mingling with the water in the amphitheatre.

Twenty four large, old-fashioned, sailing ships floated underneath the Head Discipliner’s office. Badly made out of scraps of wood, with poorly erected masts, they bobbed up and down lacking stability. Above the noise of the teeming crowd, wood rubbed against wood, groaning and creaking. Ropes slapped against the sides of the ships, adding a haphazard beat to the sound of the sails fluttering in the zephyr, bullying their buoyancy.

They looked as if they might fall to pieces any minute, except for one; a sleek, black, ship, the likes of which had never been seen in New Wakefield for time beyond memory. It sat at the end of the row, gleaming. Its mast held straight, and webbings and coloured flags streamed off it. A large banner fluttered from it, bearing Jerkin Bod’armor’s family crest, four acorns.

‘Please tell us that is our ship,’ Ari said, eyeing it with mouth-watering envy.

‘I think that is Jerky’s ship,’ Quixote said.

The senior student stopped by the most dilapidated ship on the water. The wood nailed on the side of it looked rough and still had bark on it in places. The rope ladder leading to its deck was tied on by tape, and had string and nails hanging off it. The mast had hundreds of ropes hanging off it with a single bed sheet tacked along it. It swayed in the light breeze, causing some of the ropes to tighten, and the opposing ones to slacken. It rocked the boat in the light rippling water, making it bob side to side more than the other boats.

‘This is a piece of junk,’ Lexington said.

Melaleuca grabbed her hand. ‘Yes but no one else has the bracelets.’

Lexington shook her head. Up close the ships all looked like tormented creatures, creaking and aching, patched up and ready to scream in pain.

 

Sah Task-Master Carrion appeared at his jutting out office, raising his arms, and hushing the crowd. Beside him the High Overlord Sector stood, as did the new Overlord Ramathor, Daquan.

‘Competitors, board your ships,’ he cried out. ‘You have five minutes to take up your positions. At the first horn you shall move your ship into the middle of the lake. At the sound of the second horn you shall commence battling. May the best ship…ah I mean, crew win.’

The crowd replied with a thunderous roar and a deafening cheer, followed by cries for blood.

 

As the cousins climbed aboard their unsteady ship, one of the competitors, a solid looking girl, sprinted from ship to ship yelling something to the crews. When she got to the ship next to them they heard her yell, ‘Let’s all immediately attack Jerkin’s ship. It is the only chance any of us will have at winning. If we don’t, then we will all die for certain.’

The solid looking girl ran to the cousins’ ship and started to yell the same message to them, but upon seeing who they were, shook her head at them, making a cutting of the throat gesture, and ran on to the next ship.

‘Ignore her,’ Melaleuca said.

 

The four cousins roamed over the deck of the ship checking it out and tripping over the poor workmanship. Planks had been butted together unevenly, some even stuck up. Large chunks of timber had been nailed down, creating a lip over which feet could trip. At the front of the ship, and the aft where raised decks should have been, boxes were nailed down with slats of timber thrown across them and lashed loosely on.

Melaleuca tilted to her left to maintain her balance as the mast toppled back and forth.

‘Go below Ari and see what there is.’

Ari dropped below deck and saw nothing other than the hull of the ship and gallons of tar poured everywhere sealing it off, though great gaps were evident.

‘Well? How is it?’ Melaleuca yelled out. She held on to one of the loose ropes, and in her other hand she steadied Lexington.

‘Ahh perfect, great, all fine,’ Ari called back. ‘Nothing really down here. Just empty space.’

‘Look what I found,’ Quixote cried out, his voice nearly drowned by another roar from the crowd. He held up an arm full of swords, clubs and some bows. ‘These will work in well.’

‘Good,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Put them on the deck where we can get them. Go below and do what you have to do. Quickly now before we have to set sail.’

He leapt down below, landing with a loud thunk, making the ship roll a little more, and then disappeared all together.

‘I’m back,’ Quixote yelled out.

Melaleuca poked her head down below. Quixote had four rucksacks packed tight with costumes.

‘Okay. Leave them there until we get out into the middle of the lake.’

Melaleuca pulled her head up, but then put it back down straight away. ‘Now Quixote, you have left the pirate costume behind eh?’

‘Yeahhhh,’ he said disappointed.

‘And you are happy wearing a ship builder’s costume and repairing the ship when it gets damaged?’

‘Yessss!’ he said sounding unhappy.

On top Melaleuca nodded at Ari, who then slipped below deck as well.

‘Quixote. I have forgotten something. Lend me the wing boots so I can race back and get it.’

‘Tell me what it is. I’ll get it.’

‘Would take too long for me to explain.’

Quixote handed him the boots and Ari disappeared.

 

The horn blew and the ships released their moorings. They all floated and bobbed about as crew after crew fluffed around with their sails trying to catch some wind. All except Jerkin’s ship, which seemed to catch the wind immediately and head out into the middle of the lake. Watching his ship surge forward made the crowd gasp and the other crews panic.

 

The cousins tugged on the ropes but found none of them moved the sail. They only moved the mast, though the sail did jiggle somewhat. Melaleuca rolled the massive steering wheel from side to side, though the ship still sat there.

Lexington leant against the mast, deflated.

‘What now? If we don’t join them we shall be sitting ducks when the horn blows!’

‘Where’s Ari?’ Melaleuca said to herself.

‘Down here,’ he yelled back. ‘All set when you are.’

‘Okay. Now we just need to make this ship move,’ she yelled back.

 

Howls of scornful laughter poured out from the crowd as the unmoving ship of the cousins, looking like a bath-tub crossed with a barge, sat there, going nowhere, confirming in the crowd’s minds that the cousins were, in fact, a joke.

 

***

 

Aunty Gertrude sat hidden in one of the offices of the Vahn, staring out the window, her heart sinking, thinking of her fate as the ship she really wanted destroyed sat not moving. Her twin desires for them to both win and lose ravaged her. She knew either way she would feel a deep sense of loss.

 

***

 

Against Uncle Bear-Nard’s advice Argus snuck into town. Hidden by the sheer number of people, he wended his way through the crowd, watching after the cousins, wanting to be aboard the ship as well. He reached into a bag slung over his shoulder, and fiddled with the video recording device he had in it. He needed to get somewhere where he could film the event.

 

***

 

Quixote dived into the open hatch and threw on his speed boots and the acrobatic costume, then pulled a small black pennant out of his bag. At speed faster than the human eye, but at normal speed to Quixote, he scaled the mast and attached the black pennant, unfurling it, and then dropped down into the hatch again. Unnoticed by the crowd, a black flag appeared on the top of the mast, complete with skull and cross bones on it.

‘That was not in the plan, Quixote,’ Melaleuca said gritting her teeth. She pulled on the wheel hoping the rudder would catch one of the other ships outgoing wakes. Nothing happened. She turned the wheel again, tugged it, pushed it; still nothing happened.

Quixote came up beside Melaleuca.

‘We have to name her,’ he said.

‘Name who?’

‘The ship! I read it in a book once. Every ship needs a name.’

Hearing the conversation, Lexington shouted out, ‘Karena. The ships name is Karena.’

‘Done,’ Melaleuca said and with urgency added, ‘Karena, let’s go.’

Like a tow cable had been attached, the front part of the ship turned, dragging itself around. Not questioning why, Melaleuca yelled out, ‘Full steam ahead.’

Despite its clumsy design, Karena ploughed through the water at the same speed as Jerkin’s ship.

 

The crowd hushed, stunned by this sudden change of events, all laughter ebbing away. Sah Task-Master Carrion’s jaws dropped, as did Aunty Gertrude’s.

 

Lexington gripped the side of one of the slip-shod railings.

‘Whoa! How are you doing that?’

‘Don’t know, but I think with that flag and the name she responds to my thoughts and commands…..Quixote, where’d you get it?’

‘From the attic. I thought it would look fancy.’

 

They closed in on the other ships and despite looking like a floating brick stopped smoothly and quickly besides them. The other crews stared at them in wonderment.

The crowd surged out from around the Amphitheatre to take up viewing positions around the lake.

Tension mounted in the crowd and even Daquan’s face held a pensive look as he, like everyone else, realized that Jerkin’s ship seemed goliath-like compared to the others, but that some strange power had befallen the cousin’s ship.

The horn sounded and everything swung into action.

 

‘Go!’ Melaleuca yelled.

All the other ships started to head for Jerkin’s ship, which fled fast to the other side of the lake. The four cousins dived into the hull and pulled on their various costumes. Melaleuca emerged, dressed as a naval captain with a cloth bag over her head disguising her face. Holes for the eyes and nose and mouth had been cut out of it. Over top she wore her brown Vahn uniform. Lexington hopped back on deck dressed as a Chinese philosopher, though sported a sea faring jacket over it, and of course a cloth bag over her head with holes and with her brown Vahn uniform over top. Both Ari and Quixote emerged dressed in ship builders’ clothes, heads bagged and all, though Quixote’s body language suggested he was none too happy about the choice. Over top they had their Vahn clothes.

Melaleuca positioned herself at the wheel.

‘Man your stations. Evasive action until we and Jerkin are the last ships left on this lake.’

The crowd, still able to see the lone Karena, could barely make out the cousins on the deck. Just in case they could, Lexington, Ari and Quixote quickly erected a fine mesh net around the ship’s sail, attaching it front to back.

On the far side of the lake, nearest the Southern Hills, Jerkin’s ship halted and swung side on. The hatches on the side opened and ten, thick, metal tubes protruded out. Though the sailing ships heading for him struggled to catch up, the competitors froze at the sight of the canons. Shouting, screaming, and yelling sounded out, evaporating their teamwork and they scrambled to turn their ships around.

BOOOOOMM!! BOOOOMM!!! BOOOOOMM!! BOOOOMM!!! BOOOOOMM!! BOOOOMM!!! BOOOOOMM!! BOOOOMM!!! BOOOOOMM!! BOOOOMM!!!

Jerkin’s ten cannons roared ear splitting explosions into the air, one after the other, sending cannon balls hurtling toward the panicking ships. Five of them bore the brunt of the volley; their masts falling and the sides of the ships shattering into shards of splintered wood. The rest fled left and right, scattering like startled pigeons.

The crowd screamed foul while others cheered. A massive uproar followed, with people yelling out to the High Overlord to stop the competition. He ignored the cries and continued watching.

‘Hold steady,’ Melaleuca cried. She had discovered that Karena responded to her slightest thought.

Lexington sat on the fore deck, while the two boys hung by the sides.

From the middle of the lake they watched as the remaining 17 ships scattered and headed toward them.

Quixote picked up a sword.

‘Shall we try taking out some of the other ships?’

‘Stick to the plan,’ Melaleuca cried back. ‘Evade, evade, evade.’

Ari studied the gleaming cannons.

‘Those canons look real challenging to evade.’

Another volley ripped out from Jerkin’s ship and two more ships broke in half.

‘Use the other ships as cover,’ Ari yelled out.

Melaleuca turned the Karena toward the fleeing vessels and headed toward them.

The fleeing ships regrouped and yelled to one another. Five of them broke away and tried to out flank Jerkin from both sides, while the others carried on fleeing toward the Karena. Within minutes, three ships bore down on Jerkin from his starboard side while two more ships sailed at him from his port side.

‘Idiots,’ Ari said. ‘They are sailing straight onto his guns.’

Both sides of Jerkin’s ship roared with the sound of twenty cannons firing at once. Smoke emanated, lifting a large cloud into the air and covered the scene in thin wisps, making it hard to see. Wood smashing and creaking, bending and splintering followed by yelling and screaming could be heard coming from the smoke.

Melaleuca steered the Karena at a fleeing boat, turning at the last minute to bring them up alongside it. Scared looking seniors confused by all the gunfire huddled aboard it. Seeing the cousins they panicked, and started trying to sail away but could not shake the Karena off them. Frustrated, the scared crew stopped their ship.

Jerkins guns fired again, followed by more smoke and more smashing-crashing sounds and yelling. The guns fired again and again and again, aiming at nothing in particular, followed by no smashing sound, though the lake started to fill up with the smell of acrid gun smoke and dense clouds, reducing visibility.

‘Get away from us,’ yelled someone from the other ship Melaleuca stuck to. It was the voice of the solid girl that had incited the other ships to attack Jerkin.

‘All’s fair,’ Ari cried back.

Someone else on the ship yelled out, ‘If you have a secret weapon, use it now and save us all.’

They could hear the crew talking amongst themselves, something about sailing to the other side of the lake and fleeing.

Like a wound up toy dying to let rip, Quixote bounced up and down in one spot.

Two more ships appeared out of the smoke haze screaming death chants. ‘Let us sink one before we go down. Glory and death! Yaaaaaa!’ The two ships headed for the Karena from different sides.

‘Prepare for impact,’ Ari yelled.

The Karena shuddered as the two ships smashed into it, jarring the ship and sending the cousins sprawling on to the deck. Both attacking ships brow’s caused little damage to the Karena.

Melaleuca swept her eyes over her cousins and then at the two ships smashed up beside them. At both foredecks of the attacking ships menacing looking seniors gathered, clubs and swords in hands.

‘Prepare to be boarded,’ Melaleuca yelled.

Quixote dived into the hatch.

A noise like a growling bear boomed out of the hull of the Karena, menacing enough for both of the attacking crews to stop dead in their tracks.

A large pirate leapt out of the Karena’s hatch, hair aflame with fire, face contorted in an evil scowl, and eyes a blazing with murderous intent.

‘OOOOHHH YYYEEEEAAAARRRGGHHHH. CALL THAT A BOARDING PARTY!!’

In one wild leap he cleared their deck, and landed on the port side behind the invading crew, and stood towering over them.

Quixote pulled two rusty-looking swords out from his ripped swathes of jackets. ‘This ‘ere ain’t rust! It’s crusted blood. I’m gonna add yours to it.’

The seniors screamed as Quixote lashed out with both blades, swinging wildly like a madman. They all jumped into the water.

‘Come back you cowards and fight.’

The other crew stood, stunned, looking across the Karena through the wafting smoke to the hideous pirate.

Quixote yanked a piece of fire off his hair and threw it down on the deck. The deck exploded, blasting him flying over the Karena and landing on the deck of the second attacking ship. He threw the crew off, kicking each one in the backside and yelling out a loud victorious battle cry.

Ari waved frantically to Quixote to come back, fearing that if he yelled out Quixote’s name, others would know for sure who the pirate was.

‘Stand ye ground,’ Quixote yelled to them, ‘I am commandeering this ship.’

Before his cousins could intervene, Quixote hauled the captured ship about and sailed it into the middle of the billowing clouds of smoke.

‘Now?’ Lexington asked.

‘Yes now,’ Melaleuca said.

Both Ari and Lexington raced below and soon appeared with a dummy dressed in Quixote’s clothes and with a face fashioned like his. They stuck it next to Melaleuca to make it look like all the cousins were still there.

‘That was brilliant planning on your part Mel,’ Ari said.

‘It really was obvious,’ Lexington said. ‘There was just no way Quixote would be able to control himself for this long.’

A cry of “Marauder,” shrieked from the crowd as Quixote broke out of the cloudy haze, and sailed his ship close to the perimeter of the lake, waving his sword and threatening everyone. He threw bits of his flaming hair into the crowd sending bursts of light flashing and fireworks screeching into the sky.

From his balcony, an apoplectic look of panic spread across Sah Task-Master Carrion’s face. Incensed with outrage, he screamed out, ‘INQUISAT TAKE UP POSITIONS!!!!’

 

Amongst the wafting smoke and confusion the Inquisat appeared on horses, beating their way through the crowd to stand at the edge of the lake. The horses seemed filled with unbridled energy, holding an unsteady ground, moving and snorting with a pent up nervous fervor.

Captain HeGood trotted up and down before his troops.

‘SPREAD AROUND THE LAKE. I WANT THIS MARAUDER CAUGHT. IF HE ESCAPES I WILL PERSONALLY BUTCHER ALL OF YOU.’

Quixote threw a handful of his hair-plucked-thunder flashes at Captain HeGood and his men, and then sailed back into the middle of the lake, disappearing into the misty smoke. Now a hundred plus in numbers, the Inquisat charged off in separate directions around the lake.

 

The fighting on the lake intensified. The ships that had fled from Jerkin had regrouped, and accepting they were all likely to die, were determined to go out in a blaze of glory, hopefully damaging Jerkin’s ship enough to rattle him.

Through the haze, the remaining 12 ships weaved their way through the water trying to land a hit on Jerkin. Time and time again, Jerkin fired his guns, their boom echoing out loud. The thick smoke prevented Jerkin from seeing clearly and so he fired his guns at random, sometimes hitting a ship and most times not.

As the battle raged Quixote burst out of the haze and smashed his ship into Jerkin’s ship, shattering his own ship’s brow. Jerkin’s ship remained unscathed, and the front Quixote’s ship started to sink lower in the water.

Quixote scurried to the back of the ship and loomed himself up large, yelling at Jerkin.

‘YA DIRTY MANGY CUR, SEA STRUCK SPUTUM, FLEA INFESTED LAND GRUB! I’LL RIP YOUR LIVER OUT AND FEAST ON IT. ARRRRRRGGGGGH!’

The fire braids of his hair flared out and stood up on end.

Jerkin and his crew froze, gob-smacked at the sight of the fiery-headed pirate lunging for them.

Jerkin swallowed a few times and then spoke quietly.

‘Fire the canons.’

His spellbound crew watched the smoke twirl around Quixote’s head. Finally one of Jerkin’s crew said, ‘W…w..what?’

‘The canons,’ Jerkin said, still in a quiet voice but through clenched teethed. ‘Fire them.’

His crew still drew a stunned bead on the pirate.

Jerkin turned and bellowed out them, ‘FIRE THE BLOODY CANNONS!!!!!!’

His yelling snapped them out of their visual stupor and the canons roared. Quixote shot them a raucous laugh and sliced the speeding canons balls in half. Shivers ran down the spines of Jerkin’s crew.

‘It is a Marauder,’ yelled one of his crew.

The back of Quixote’s ship remained above water, and he stood proud on its deck.

‘PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!!’

Using Quixote as a distraction, two ships rammed Jerkin from the other side, one of them breaking up and the other one remaining intact. Quixote leapt clear across Jerkin’s ship, landing on the intact ship and once again threw the crew off, and sailed away.

The crowd could only see smoke haze where Jerkin’s ship floated, though they could hear yelling and booming. From out of the smoke Quixote sailed on a different ship and headed toward them. Behind him, the sickening sound of Jerkin’s crew killing the other crew in the water carried across the lake to the crowd.

 

Quixote chased the remaining ships down, sinking each of them until all that remained were Jerkin’s ship, the Karena, Quixote’s ship, and survivors clinging to floating bits of wood. Quixote sailed close to the lake’s edge, egging the Inquisat on and throwing thunder flashes at them.

‘YOUR JERKIN IS A COWARD!! I RULE!!’

The crowd cried out a loud, ‘BOOOOOOOOO!’

Jerkin broke out of the haze and headed for Quixote. The crowd cheered him on.

The three cousins poked the Karena out of the haze, drew it to stop, and held their waters near the edge of the smoke-mist hoping to draw Jerkin’s attention from Quixote. Jerkin ignored them and carried on pursuing Quixote. Desperate to get his ship broad side to unleash a mighty volley of cannon balls, he relentlessly chased Quixote.

Quixote placed his ship between the Vahn side of the lake and Jerkin’s ship, and pulled his ship to a halt, waiting until Jerkin closed in on him. As Jerkin cried out to fire, Quixote threw thunder-flashes to blind them and sped away. Jerkin’s cannon balls roared over head of the crowd hitting the Vahn.

 

Time and time and time again, Quixote drew him in and sped off.

 

Lexington shook her head.

‘He’s playing with him. At this rate, he’ll go on forever!’

Ari placed a hand on Lexington’s shoulder.

‘I have an idea.’

Ari pulled on an archer’s cap and costume, grabbed a bow and arrow and despite the distance, shot an arrow into the shin of Jerkin. Jerkin howled with pain, diverting his gaze away from Quixote and onto the cousin’s ship.

‘Hard a starboard!’ Jerkin yelled.

Jerkin’s ship swung toward the Karena.

Seeing this, Quixote swung his ship toward Jerkin and made full speed toward him.

 

Everyone held their breath and watched in tension-ridden silence, as the ships headed full speed toward each other, the result of which would decide who would win.

 

‘Kit up!’ Melaleuca yelled out.

Ari reached into the hull, pulling out new costumes and handed them to the others. They pulled them on and stood their looking at each other dressed as Vikings of old. Smirking, Melaleuca nodded to Ari, ‘Ready with our thunder-flashes.’

Lexington’s sword hand shook, and Melaleuca stilled it.

‘It’s okay Lex. Relax. Pretend to be a Viking. Feel it.’

Quixote’s ship hit Jerkin’s first, plowing into it at full speed, shattering Quixote’s hull into smithereens. The impact caused him to fly over Jerkin’s ship and land in the sea metres away.

‘Lower the cannons,’ Jerkin yelled.

Ten metal cannons lowered their muzzles and pointed at the water by Quixote.

‘Angle on target and fire when ready!’ Jerkin commanded.

The cannons roared and spat out their canon-balls, though unable to lower the canon enough they flew over Quixote’s head.

Melaleuca cried out to light the fuses. Seconds later, light, explosions, and smoke filled the air all around the three ships as the thunder-flashes erupted like a factory of fireworks blowing up.

The Karena smacked hard into the side of Jerkin’s ship, halting it, and Ari reached into the water and fished Quixote out, dumping him on the deck. Lexington grabbed Quixote’s arm, and removed his bracelet. Quixote looked up. ‘Sorry, I got carried away again.’

‘Never mind,’ Ari replied. ‘Get these on. Quickly.’ He handed him Viking clothes. ‘And then throw the pirate costume overboard so that it looks like the pirate Marauder drowned.’

Lexington smashed up the fake Quixote dummy, handed his bracelet back, and along with the others readied herself for the last final attack.

 

***

 

Through the dense smoke the crowd heard the thud of the two ships hit each other. A brief silence followed, and then yelling and screaming, heightened by the din and clash of metal rang out loud. Jerkin’s crew and the four cousins battled hand to hand for their dear life.

 

The haze-hidden fight seemed to rage on forever.

 

Never had such an end to any High Galelain ever been seen in anyone’s lifetime, or spoken of from their veiled history. With one common breath they waited, their hearts in their mouths. Some longed for the outsider children to win, and beyond a hope prayed a forbidden, silent utterance that the lone Marauder pirate would herald their salvation. Others, filled of discipline, held out the high hope of seeing Jerkin win, knowing that he must be disqualified, but that for now, and for all time, he would be a hero.

 

The fighting ceased.

 

As if creation honoured the battle and the lives just lost, the small wind died away, bringing an eerie quiet and conclusion to the battle; the shortest and most intense High Galelain ever.

No one breathed, no one moved, no one dared say a thing lest it jinx their longing for victory.

Chapter 36 – Victory or Defeat

 

Needing to get his mind off the High Galelain and all that could be lost, Uncle Bear-Nard sought solace in the bracelet room.

He ran his fingers over where the yellow bracelets had been, and touched the remaining ones; glad they had not yet experimented with the green bracelets. His fingers probed below them feeling the near invisible bracelets the cousins had failed to see. Made of a substance that absorbed all light, their activation warned the bracelet-wearer their innocence was in danger of diminishing; at least that was what he had worked out. At full warning they could swallow light for miles around.

When the yellow and green bracelets had dimmed a few months ago, the obsidian black bracelets had hurled their light swallowing powers out into the room telling Uncle Bear-Nard that the cousins’ parents were either dead or near death.

He felt where one of the black bracelets was missing, though worried little about it knowing where it had been all this time. Corrupted years beforehand, scant chance existed of Daquan ever using the black-as-night bracelet again.

He pulled his hand away and noticed three of the black bracelets had a faint glow around them. He plucked them out one by one, scrutinizing them, confirming their activation. His heart sank. It meant three of cousin’s innocence was at risk.

He ran out of the bracelet room in a panic and headed upstairs thinking he should get to them quickly, but then stopped halfway, realising he could not just waltz into the High Galelain and remove them.

Argus! I will contact him.

He moved off again, this time stopping in the large cathedral entrance hall, realising that Argus was at the High Galelain and could not respond.

Now he knew that all he could do was sit and wait.

 

***

 

From out of the clearing smoke, Jerkin Bod’armor’s ship appeared, tattered and damaged, but still floating; the winner.

The crowd roared and cheered; conclusive proof of the superiority of discipline. Others cried foul and yelled for the ship to be disqualified.

Daquan searched through the wafting smoke for the cousins’ bodies, but could not see them for the debris.

Instead of a victory lap, Jerkin’s ship headed straight toward the amphitheatre; the tumultuous crowd rushing back to the starting platforms. As the ship passed through the gap in the Vahn and entered the amphitheatre waters, the cheering died away, stopping abruptly.

The four cousins stood on the deck dressed in their brown uniforms; the pirate flag fluttering lightly off the mast.

Out on the lake cries for help and moans could be heard, and a few floundering arms waved about amongst the debris of wood and smoke.

A speechless and livid Sah Task-Master Carrion gawked at them. Even the High Overlord Sector stood up, shaking and reeling in disgust. In contrast, Daquan gazed wild eyed at them, and turned to leave.

High Overlord Sector turned to Daquan, saying, ‘As a new Overlord, you must present these winners with the shield,’ adding, ‘however distasteful it might be giving as such to outsiders.’

‘My Lord,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion said, ‘it seems this ship they are sailing has banned weapons on it. I suggest we disqualify and disgrace Jerkin Bod’armor for sailing it, and disqualify and ban the outsiders.’

The High Overlord Sector reflected momentarily on it, troubled, and then said in his aged voice, ‘Perhaps the new Overlord Ramathor is right. The winds do indicate change.’ He raised his eyebrows and searched Sah Task-Master Carrion’s face, though saw little understanding. ‘I am not long for this world, and do not envy whoever takes my place.’

‘But they are ─ ’

‘The winners!’ High Overlord Sector said back. ‘I am Overlord of more than New Wakefield. My eyes reach beyond these seas. You cannot suppress a catalyst once it has started. We can only slow the inevitable.’

He reached up, grabbing Daquan’s arm and steadied his legs. ‘Come we have a shield to award.’

 

From the back of the crowd Con and the other Gorks threw all caution to the wind, crying out, ‘THREE CHEERS FOR OUR NEW CHAMPIONS!’

Suddenly those that had been holding back yelled their approval with great gusto, shouting and cheering. Booing, followed by screams of “traitors” spread like wild fire, and pushing and shoving surged through the crowd.

A chorus of young voices started chanting, ‘UPRISING, UPRISING, UPRISING…,’ that got louder and louder and louder, until it drowned out all other voices.

 

Like a broth of soup just before boiling, undercurrents of hate simmered, and outright violence teetered on the edge of erupting into pandemonium.

 

The cousins shifted about on the ship, unsure if any minute they would be swamped under a tidal wave of protest.

‘Do not dock until I say so,’ Melaleuca said.

 

Fights broke out; people shoved and hit each other, and scuffles turned nasty. The whole crowd, a vast number the cousins could not count began shouting for their blood.

 

Captain HeGood commanded his flagman to signal the Inquisat to return, though told some of them to stay patrolling the lake looking for the Marauder pirate who had seemed to disappear. With the thundering of hooves, the Inquisat surrounded the crowd and charged through it, ushering an uneasy calm.

High Overlord Sector, Sah Task-Master Carrion and Daquan made their way to the first platform, signaling for the cousins to come in, and then faced the crowd. Discipliners and Pedagogues approached the base of the platform, and formed up in an orderly fashion and turned haughtily to face the crowd.

Docking the ship, the four cousins stepped off and stood before three of the weirdest looking people in New Wakefield. Within a split second Quixote disappeared, returning the bag and the costumes to the attic and then reappeared.

 

Melaleuca ran her unsure eyes over Daquan. A large wide man, hair filled his face like a wild bush out of control, and the hair on his head seemed black and dense like an impenetrable forest. A permanent sneer distorted his face and great black bags of dark skin gathered under bloodshot eyes.

The High Overlord Sector fascinated her the most; so old and ancient looking as if cobwebs had been spun and soaked in dust to form his skin. Even his hair looked frail and brittle like delicate wisps of glass fibers.

 

Daquan grabbed Lexington by her bracelet arm, and all the cousins drew in a breath.

‘Move forward a little,’ Daquan said, and then let go of her arm.

 

Daquan felt the bracelet on her arm, realizing they sat right under his nose. His pulse quickened and his mouth became dry. Years of suffering from desiring them, threatened to erupt. With all his strength he subdued himself.

 

The disapproving crowd turned their back on them, though some tried to resist and stay facing them but peer pressure made them turn as well.

High Overlord Sector took the shield and shoved it at them. Ari went to take it but Lexington stood in the way, pushing the shield back.

‘We don’t want your silly shield. Keep it.’

A shocked gasp ran through the crowd, and unable to resist, people started turning back.

Melaleuca eyed the three figures of authority, unleashing her inner resolve on them. Daquan’s insides curled as he could see the haunting memory of Karena in her face. Even Sah Task-Master Carrion stepped back as Melaleuca’s daring and guts-filled-look hit him.

High Overlord Sector took her stare, and without flinching said back so that the crowd could not see nor hear. ‘This one is dangerous. Perhaps it would be better if you all left and went back to the outside world again.’

Sah Task-Master Carrion protested.

High Overlord Sector replied. ‘I know a fight that we will lose when I see it. Heed my warning as I shall soon be gone. Leave these ones alone and all will be well in New Wakefield.’

Shivering and wet, Lexington addressed the crowd.

‘There we did it. We won your silly competition. Your ways of hate and strength have failed, and our ways of fun and play have worked. Let that be your champion, a lesson learned.’

Boos and hisses spat at her, though a lot of young voices cheered her. Captain HeGood raised his arm again to signal the Inquisat to attack, though the High Overlord waved him off.

‘Listen!’ Lexington yelled. ‘Some of your children still cry out from the lake. Is it braver to let them die or admit how cowardly it is not to save them?’

Roars of protest and screams drowned out Lexington’s voice. Some in the crowd started spitting and throwing objects at her.

Ari shielded her.

High Overlord Sector ambled forward. Standing unsteadily, he held up his arms, invoking silence. As the noise died down, the High Overlord turned to the cousins.

‘You are free to go.’

The four cousins stepped down from the platform, hesitating before the angry crowd.

‘Leave them,’ High Overlord Sector croaked as loud as he could. ‘Let their path not afflict you. Let us prepare for the Thistle Ceremony as are our ways. Return home and practice your discipline for tomorrow we shall begin.’

Out of fierce loyalty to the High Overlord, the crowd parted and let the four cousins through.

Daquan grabbed Quesob and whispered instructions to him. Quesob jumped into the crowd and started to push his way through.

 

********

 

The cousins walked home, relieved that the High Galelain was over, and joked about their exploits. Led by Quixote and Ari they ran through them time and time again.

‘Did you see the look on Jerkin’s face?’ Ari said. ‘I almost felt sorry for him.’

‘Sorry?’ Quixote said. ‘He deserved it. He not only cheated, but he killed all those kids.’

‘I read somewhere,’ Lexington said, ‘that you should not rejoice in a fallen enemy lest you should fall.’

The boys stared at her aghast.

‘Okay, yes, there was something pleasant about watching him lose,’ she admitted.

‘Beating him meant beating New Wakefield,’ Melaleuca said. ‘He was the Vahn’s finest. We may now have their respect…though…,’ she looked sideways, pulling a funny face. ‘…somehow I think that the opposite is true. We have earned their ire.’

Lexington dismissed all the worry with a flourish of her hand.

‘Does not matter. We have the power to defend ourselves, and anyway now, we shall start answering some of my questions. And besides aren’t we now to be prefects and in charge?’

‘Whether they will or not,’ Melaleuca said, ‘remains to be seen. Tomorrow we will start solving things. Today we just enjoy our victory.’

‘You know what is strange though?’ Lexington said. ‘How the power of the bracelets transferred to the ship. This suggests that we can control inanimate objects.’

‘Tomorrow Lex. Let’s just relax,’ Melaleuca said again.

 

As they chatted and joked, they ran themselves through a clumsy clearing. By the time they reached the forest on the foothills, the High Galelain seemed a great distance in time behind them. So relieved was Lexington that not even the dead competitors bothered her much.

 

Quesob appeared from out of the bushes, rushing at them with his sword drawn. Stunned, the cousins turned too late. Quesob smashed into Ari, thrusting his shoulder into him and kicking his legs out. Ari hit the ground hard, whacking his head. Quesob slammed his foot across Ari’s wrist pinning his bracelet arm down. He whipped his sword across Ari’s neck, trying to draw blood, though Ari’s skin would not slice. Instead Quesob edged the tip of the blade into the soft flesh covering his windpipe.

‘No one move and he will live.’ Quesob flicked his eyes amongst them. ‘Move where I can see you.’

Lexington and Quixote looked to Melaleuca. She nodded and they shuffled into Quesob’s view.

Quesob pushed the sword into Ari’s throat a little more

‘Remove the bracelet slowly and all will be well.’

Unfazed and protected by the bracelet Ari eyeballed Quesob.

‘What bracelet?’

‘I know what you wear. Undo it and hand it to me. I swear by all the suffering in New Wakefield I will run you through with this sword. Your death means nothing to me.’

‘It is you who is in danger,’ Ari replied.

Lexington edged toward Quesob and spoke with a firm gentleness.

‘Let him up and we might let you live.’

She plucked a small flower from a bush and handed it toward Quesob. ‘This is my promise of peace.’

 

Quesob had seen the fire in Melaleuca’s eyes from behind Daquan and had steeled himself to withstand them, but in Lexington’s eyes he saw something he had never seen before, gentle concern and beauty; softness and tenderness.

 

‘You are bewitching me.’

‘Let him go,’ Lexington said again.

Ari moved his hand, earning a shaking head from Melaleuca.

‘I cannot leave without the bracelet,’ Quesob cried out in desperation. His voice lost its tough, raw edge. ‘I have been bidden so to get it.’

‘You have been warned,’ Lexington said, withdrawing the offered flower and stepping back. Melaleuca nodded at Quixote.

A mini hurricane blurred toward Quesob at dead neck speed, throwing him high in the air. He flailed in midair, surprised at the speed of the attack and then fell hard, slamming his whole body onto the road. Winded and stunned, he gasped for breath. He tried to turn over but found his head spun and his legs would not work properly.

Ari got to his feet and dusted himself off, watching Quesob struggle on the ground.

Quesob pushed himself on to his knees, wobbled and through gasps of breath half-yelled at the cousins, ‘Ssstop..you d..d..d..don’t under..stand. Need them..t..t..to save the children.’ Speaking became too much and he collapsed. Again he half struggled to his knees.

Ari picked up Quesob’s sword feeling the heavy realness of it caress his palm. It sat well in his hand. He plonked his foot on Quesob’s shoulder, pushing him back down to the ground and pressed the sword into Quesob’s neck.

Lexington scowled at Ari, while Quixote placed his foot on Quesob’s rump.

Melaleuca approached.

‘Who are you?’

Quesob held his silence.

‘Take him prisoner?’ Ari asked.

Quixote giggled.

‘Yeah take him prisoner.’

‘No such thing of the sort!’ Lexington said. ‘This man knows of the bracelets. He can help us. Treat him nicely.’

Melaleuca shot a glance at Lexington.

‘Lex! Ssssh!’

‘Nicely?’ Ari said. ‘He would have killed me.’

‘So!’ Lexington said. ‘I think most of New Wakefield might want us dead now for showing them up. Are we going to kill them all?’

 

Quesob’s years of hardened discipline kicked in. Despite the pain in his body, his injured hand, his spinning head and want to give in, he pushed up against the sword pricking into his flesh.

 

‘Stay down!’ Ari said.

Quesob uttered a loud guttural roar and with one mighty push, thrust himself upwards and knocked the sword out of Ari’s hand, embedding it into the back of his shoulder. He stood, blood trickling out of his nose and ears, and with dusted eyes and a pained expression, swayed as if the road buckled beneath him, and said, ‘I, Quesob, first adjutant to the great Lord Daquan will die before I submit.’

Ari fixed his gaze on his impressive stalwartness. Lexington shook her head tut-tutting him. Unafraid, she stepped close to Quesob. Through his tough endured pain, she sensed in him a great want that had never been fulfilled.

‘Everyone is…is so keen to die. Perhaps, it’s stronger to want to live.’

Her words flew into Quesob, carried on the delicate tones of her lilting voice, touching something deep in him, deep and buried, long forgotten and repressed.

‘Stop it,’ he said, though he could feel himself already wanting to give in to something unfamiliar.

The sound of thundering hooves pounding the ground came from down below the hill. They heard Pembrooke crack a whip and Aunty Gertrude scream unintelligible words at him.

Melaleuca leapt toward the bushes.

‘Time to disappear.’

Ari pointed at Quesob.

‘What about ─ ’

‘Leave him,’ Melaleuca said, and then in a quiet voice said to Quixote, ‘Mmm. Don’t want to be followed. Speed boots. Take his clothes.’

Quixote let rip with one his loudest laughs yet, tearing into the task. A second later, Quesob stood butt-naked, displaying his years of scars, callouses, gnarled skin, scratches and mottled gray flesh. He dropped to the ground shamed by his failure. The pain in his shoulder gnawed up into his head.

The cousins headed into the bushes searching for the secret track home.

‘Who do you think that was?’ Ari asked.

‘He stood by that new Ramathor man,’ Melaleuca said. ‘This is a cause for concern. If he knows of the bracelets, then Ramathor, Daquan, or whatever he is called now, knows about us. That means it is possible that everyone on the platform could know.’

Quixote drew an imaginary sword.

‘Avast ye unbelievers. Who cares? We won! We proved that we could beat them. And we did not just rely on the bracelets. Well, I mean I did, but you guys, you used your brains. We are unbeatable.’ He thrust and parried with the bushes, jiggling his tiny frame along.

He carried on entertaining them with a constant replay of his antics, glad that he had done the right thing.

 

***

 

In the horse drawn cart with Pembrooke gee-ing the horses along, Aunty Gertrude sat staring as they trotted toward Quesob writhing on the ground. Pembrooke slowed down upon seeing him. Aunty Gertrude reached over and plucked the horse whip out of his hand, telling him to get a move on, whipping Quesob as they passed by and yelling at him to get out of the way.

 

***

 

By the time the cousins had wandered through the barn where the secret track came out, Aunty Gertrude had stormed through the house yelling at everyone, and had sent herself to her room with strict orders not to be disturbed.

 

In the girl’s room the cousins found Argus and Uncle Bear-Nard waiting for them. Elated, Argus ran to them, congratulating them all.

‘Brilliant, amazing. I saw the whole thing.’

‘I hope no one saw you,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said.

‘No one saw me. Any way these kids are heroes.’

Quixote acted out his exploits for the hundredth time, while Melaleuca and Lexington flopped on the bed.

Ari stood proud.

‘You now need to withdraw,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said. ‘If you want the bracelets to carry on working, then you will have to stay away from New Wakefield for the next few months. All you need do is play. That is it. Get back to what you used to do when you were in your valley. Don’t worry about the Vahn coming to drag you back. I will take care of that.’

‘Why?’ Lexington asked

‘Please just do it and all will become clear,’ Uncle Bear-Nard answered back.

‘I must understand Uncle. It is what I do,’ Lexington replied back.

‘Yes. Let me tell you when it is time for that understanding. I have the knowledge that will keep you and the bracelets safe. Please, for now, just forget the last few months and return to your former state. You need to get to a point with the bracelets where all you can see is the play and fun options, even if a thousand should die.’

‘I have had enough of killing and dying today,’ Lexington said. ‘I am going outside to pick flowers.’

‘Good,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said. ‘You should all do something to enjoy yourself. You have earned it.’

 

***

 

Lexington found the costume she had wanted to try for quite some time, that of a 19th century botanist. She donned it and took herself to the fields around the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. At least there, wild flowers still grew.

Ari climbed onto the roof, feasting his soul on the mountains and forest, listening again to the earth. Quixote celebrated by finding a craftsman costume and started figuring out how to make a model pirate ship.

Melaleuca did not relax, deciding instead to track Uncle Bear-Nard down and question him further. She knocked on the door of his study, though no reply came. The door sat ajar. She pushed on it a little, calling her Uncle’s name. Seeing it empty, she entered. Their bracelet room key sat next to their Uncle’s bracelet room key on his desk. She saw that one had an eagle on it, and the other one had an eagle and a cow.

More mysteries, she thought, wearied by it.

Tomorrow we shall start sorting through all we know.

She turned away, thinking she must write it on the sheets of white paper in the costume room or tell Lexington.

 

***

 

Aunty Gertrude felt soured by the turn of events. She fumed inside, looking out the window to the far reaches of the western fields, longing for the cousins to be hurt now more than ever. Fearing their success would only go to their heads, she had to think of something else to bring them to heel. At least her name stood intact, though what repercussions would come from this, she could not tell.

‘Urrgh!’

Either way, win or lose, she lost.

Far away in the field she could see someone that looked like Lexington picking flowers and studying them, an all together deplorably slack past time, totally useless for hardening the spirit. She looked somewhat different, yet despite this anomaly, Aunty Gertrude wished someone would just turn up and take her away.

To her surprise she watched as a large man pounced on Lexington and held her down. Out from behind him another man appeared, bound Lexington and together carried her away. The large man looked suspiciously like the newly appointed Overlord Ramathor and his assistant.

Miffed that someone dare trespass on their estate, she nearly roared off outside to castigate them, but of course stopped, glad that someone had answered her desires. Curiosity intrigued her and she went to investigate anyway.

 

***

 

Jerkin Bod’armor held tight to the floating debris, hidden under a collapsed sail. Numb with cold, his mind seethed with failure. He had listened as the crowd had cheered and boo-ed, listened as the outsider children received and rejected the shield, and then waited for the Inquisat, or any one to stop the ceremony and kill the outsiders, or at the very least banish them.

But none of that had happened. Instead he heard the sound of the crowd clearing, and then the Inquisat searching around the water’s edge and a few surviving competitors die. All the while he knew he should have been dead, and that if he had been found, then he too, would have been killed. But he wasn’t and far from shame filling him, thoughts of hate and revenge plagued him. Perhaps he would wait until dark and then sneak out, find the outsiders and have his revenge, have his chance to get into the history books.

By late afternoon the Inquisat had gone and he had kicked his way over to the southern end of the lake. He poked his head out getting the shock of his life. The Overlord Ramathor stood there grinning at him.

‘I’m not here to run you through with my sword.’ Daquan said with great majesty. ‘If I hear correctly, you are a hard, bloodthirsty brute, worthy of the cruelest in your year. Then you will be looking for revenge. Here.’ He offered him his hand. ‘I can deliver the outsiders into your hands this very night.’

 

*****

 

By late afternoon the cousins could not find Lexington.

 

Melaleuca stood dressed as the detective, while the Ari clad himself as the North American Indian. Together with Quixote wearing the speed boots, they tracked Lexington to the last spot she had sat on before being kidnapped.

‘Look,’ Melaleuca said. ‘There are tracks, two men judging by the depth of their prints and they must be carrying her, look.’ She bent down and parted the grass a little. ‘Lexington’s footprints disappear and their prints get a little deeper.’

Ari tracked the footprints from the field across the lawn, right up to the base of one of the giant trees where the prints vanished into thin air.

‘They just disappear,’ he said, searching up in the tree in the unlikely chance that Lexington and the kidnapper had climbed up there.

‘And look what we have here!’ Ari shouted. He pointed to some smaller daintier footprints, heading toward the spot and then back to the Cathedral-Mansion.

‘These are Aunty Gertrude’s footprints. She had something to do with this.’

‘Right!’ Quixote said.

With his speed boots on, he raced back to the Cathedral-Mansion searching for her whereabouts. Locating her, he tore back and forth, until he had transported all of them to outside the room she sat in.

Together they barged in, finding Aunty Gertrude sitting there, smirking to herself and looking down.

‘My my, if it isn’t the heroes. Not so smart now,’ she said, and then slowly looked up expecting to see the cousins. She froze with fear.

‘Where is she?’ Melaleuca said.

Aunty Gertrude saw and heard a large, sleek, detective figure demand the whereabouts of Lexington. Next to it, a ruddy-skinned, half naked, muscled, North American Indian stood, and beside him, a shimmering figure of a winged man, hovered.

‘W..w..wait…I had..n..n.n.nothing to do w..w..with it.’

She stumbled up and backed away from them, fumbling in her pockets.

‘Here see for yourselves.’

She shrieked and threw a piece of paper on the floor.

As their eyes drew to the paper, Aunty Gertrude made a dash for the door screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘MARAUDERS!’

Melaleuca bent down, picked the note up, and read it out loud.

 

‘….you may have fooled the others. If you are so clever and struck in the same mold of your parents, then you have until noon tomorrow to meet me in the forbidden place where your parents used to meet, or the girl dies…You know I know what you have and will trade her life for them…’

Signed Nap Retep.

Chapter 37 – What to do??

 

 

‘Who’s Nap Retep?’ Ari asked.

Melaleuca faced the doorway.

‘Let’s find Uncle. Answers to questions or not. He will answer my ones.’

All three ran to find Uncle Bear-Nard. After checking his study and his bedroom, and not finding him, they set Quixote and his speed boots to the task.

‘Tell him to meet us in the barn, out the back, away from Aunty,’ Melaleuca told him before he set off.

 

Within the hour Uncle Bear-Nard and Argus had joined the cousins, coming up to speed on what had happened. They stood in a darkened part of the barn, a handful of candles illuminating them – Uncle Bear-Nard looking old and tired.

 

Melaleuca handed him the note. Reading it wearied him even more.

‘The note Uncle. What does it mean?’

He slumped onto a bale of hay shaking his head.

‘No, not yet. This is too soon.’

‘What is Uncle?’

‘How could he know? He’s merely a madman and what use would the bracelets be to him. His time is over.’

Melaleuca kicked the bale he sat on.

‘Uncle!’

 

With an intense worry, he stared individually at the cousins.

All at once it hit Uncle Bear-Nard; kidnapped kids; Daquan out of reclusion; Daquan now the Overlord Ramathor; a meeting by the secret place. It seemed so obvious now. Daquan had kidnapped the children of New Wakefield for their innocence, and now he wanted to reclaim the bracelets to use on them.

But why take so many.

He glanced between the cousins, and saw the answer in them. There were no innocent children left in New Wakefield, not since the events of thirty years ago. Before him stood the only three children with any possibility of staying uncorrupted, even despite the black glowing bracelets.

Melaleuca stepped closer to her Uncle trying to look into his eyes, though he cast them down, but not before she caught sight of the answer flash across his face. She lifted his chin with a single finger, and tried to soften her eyes.

‘Uncle? You must tell us.’

How can I tell them?

If they tried to rescue Lexington, Daquan could take possession of the bracelets. What then, he muttered over and over in his mind. A near-crushing weight of past bad decisions pushed down on him.

Quixote turned the piece of paper up-side-down.

‘Who is this Nap Retep?’

Uncle Bear-Nard wrote the name backwards in the dirt.

‘It’s like a code you see. He is trying to revert to a youthful boy again by going backwards in time. Such a thing is impossible, there is no way he could have achieved it.’

‘With the bracelets I bet anything is possible,’ Quixote said.

‘Yes, but he does not have a bracelet,’ Melaleuca said.

Uncle Bear-Nard’s eyes looked down and to the left, a subtle flick of the eyes that Melaleuca read correctly.

‘Or does he?’

Uncle Bear-Nard did not answer at first, but then said, ‘Not exactly.’

Melaleuca felt her patience begin to stretch.

‘What does ‘not exactly’ mean?’

 

Uncle Bear-Nard stood to his full height, stretched, paced back and forth and then turned to face Melaleuca. He knew he would have to divulge something about the past so they could face this new threat, though he would need to do so with care.

 

‘Your parents were part of a gang of six. Your mother and your fathers, and one other.’

‘You mean Daquan.’

‘The very same.’

‘You mean the one you said was no threat,’ Argus said.

‘Oh… for f…Yes, the very same.’

Melaleuca motioned to Argus to back off.

‘So how do we get Lexington back? Where is this forbidden place?’

Uncle Bear-Nard quickened his pacing and started muttering, almost in an apoplectic panic.

What of the black bracelets glowing again. Perhaps three fully innocent children are enough to complete what their parents never finished. Why risk the three safe ones for one in danger. What a dilemma. If they rescue Lexington, then they could corrupt themselves further. But if they stay, their grief at losing Lexington might also corrupt their innocence.

He stopped pacing, calmed himself and with a great weight in his heart, said, ‘But for reasons you will not understand for years to come we may just have to leave Lexington to the fates and let the gods be her guide now.’

Ari and Quixote protested, though Melaleuca indicated for them to be silent.

‘Then Uncle, you still do not know us. Look at me!’

Uncle Bear-Nard kept his eyes averted.

‘LOOK AT ME!’

 

Like a crane lifting a great heaviness, Uncle Bear-Nard raised his face to behold her. Fire blazed in her eyes; defiance for all ages and all time; of all things and ideals and thoughts. Seeded in her spark of want, he could see the cinder that would burn the world of all its dross as the age he had spoken of to Argus came to its end. They would go with or without his help; forbidding it was futile.

 

Uncle Bear-Nard stood, resolved, decision made.

‘Your parents never really accepted Daquan. He wanted power right from the start. It got to a point where your parents hid the bracelets, though he found them, eventually, and tried to…Well, your parents stopped him anyway. They had no loyalty toward authority, but he was going to kill everyone, women and children included, the very people your parents protected……but they paid a terrible price.’

Deep emotions curled through his words, as if wisps of past, trapped ghosts fought to be released.

‘I wanted you to discover this for yourselves, but he may divulge it. Your mothers were really only one person – Karena. Desperate to stop him, she loosed energy she could not…she could not control, and doing so created three exact replicas of herself; identical in every way, but separate, and…she…and your fathers became blind.’

A great welling of tears curdled up through his words and Uncle Bear-Nard fought them back as he choked out his last few sentences.

‘Yes, blind. Daquan in turn betrayed them….your parents had fled…though were declared banished…..along with Daquan to the…to the..the..Southern Wasteland.’

He stopped talking and started crying. Guarded precious memories, regarded as weakness in New Wakefield, burst through his now fragile shield of thirty years.

Ari fiddled with his bracelet.

‘Imagine what that day must have looked like.’

Quixote pointed both arms out in front as if casting a spell.

‘Power…yyeeesss….zzzzzrrrrgggghhhhh….’

Through Uncle Bear-Nard’s words Melaleuca saw the danger of the bracelets and the importance of playing. She had glimpsed it in his eyes, and the rest had just come to her – another confirmation her gut feelings were always right.

‘Quixote, Ari. Go to the attic. Select costumes to disguise us and help track Lexington. Find fighting costumes and playful costumes, ones that will make us laugh if things get too serious.’

 

As they left, Uncle Bear-Nard saw she grasped fully what he had meant. In her dwelt the dual nature sought by her parents, maturity of understanding but uncorrupted, still a heart of discovery and innocence. Moved by such a lightening quick mind, he howled feeling relief he had not experienced in years.

 

Melaleuca knelt and drew a large circle in the dirt, scrawled some hills and a valley and marked their position.

‘Argus we are going into an area unknown to us, have little time to check it out and we do not know what we are up against. Advice?’

‘Perhaps if I tagged along behind you? I could offer more help and assistance?’

‘No. I know what you want. I hear it in your voice. The bracelets are for us and us alone. I suggest you make peace with your role in this.’

She could feel his affront at her piercing lashing.

‘Besides, Quixote is the one that needs directing. I will make him a runner. You will stay here and he shall bring reports back to you.’

She turned back to Uncle Bear-Nard still sobbing.

‘Uncle where is this forbidden place?’

He tried to talk but his tears choked him up. She pointed to the circle in the dirt.

‘Uncle draw us a map.’

He stopped crying and tried again to talk but nothing seemed to come out. He stood and walked across to some old coloured cloths hanging from the barn, and tugged one of them. Soon Jeeves appeared unsurprised as ever by the gathering in the barn.

‘You called?’

Uncle Bear-Nard managed to whisper, ‘The map.’

Jeeves understood, and left at once returning soon with a leather tube. He handed it to Melaleuca.

‘Take care with this little miss, maps are dangerous here.’

Uncle Bear-Nard pulled the map out, spreading it on a hay bale. It showed an area vaster than the large valley of New Wakefield. Beyond the barren hills to the south lay two more large valleys, and beyond that lay a mass of hills and mountains, lakes, creeks, rivers and more mountains and hills. The map indicated they nearly extended all the way to the South Pole; a geographical feat that even Melaleuca knew seemed impossible.

Uncle Bear-Nard pointed to a small cross barely visible in the Southern Wastelands.

Melaleuca tapped the map, asking Argus what he thought.

‘Not the best map,’ Argus replied. ‘Says nothing about the terrain. There could be cliffs, rock faces, impasses, swamps, and quicksand. You name it.’

‘We have to be ready for all that.’

She told Argus of Quixote’s speed boots and how he could ferry information back and forth, grabbing relevant costumes to overcome obstacles.

Another thought struck her.

‘If we have until noon tomorrow to get there, then there must be a quick way, one that Nap Retep knew.’

‘Not necessarily,’ Argus said. ‘It could, after all, be a trap – perfect setting for a trap.’

They asked Uncle Bear-Nard to trace a route on the map. He shrugged his shoulders.

‘Have you ever been there?’ Melaleuca asked.

He shook his head, calmer now.

‘Whoever this Nap Retep is,’ Argus said, ‘he obviously knows how to get in and out without being spotted. Which means caution and definitely not to underestimate him. Thirty years searching for an object makes for a desperate man.’

Melaleuca felt she could do with Lexington right now. Ari had his physical strength and Quixote poured out his constant ideas, but it was to Lexington that making sure all the questions were asked. She tried thinking about what questions she would want answered. Two popped into her mind.

Where did the footprints go that had led to the tree?

Where did this Nap Retep person live?

 

Ari and Quixote arrived back carrying the North American Indian costume, the soldier, and detective outfits as normal, and had also brought with them three clown suits and three Roman soldier’s outfits.

‘Perfect,’ Melaleuca said ‘Quixote, go back and get another Roman and clown costume for Lexington. Oh, and get the doctor’s outfit. We are going to start healing those we hurt. There has been enough killing.’

Quixote shot off, returning with her request plus a small ruck-sac to carry them in.

At Melaleuca’s behest they put the clown suits on first, feeling a surge of merriment, and started laughing at each other. Quixote juggled four bits of wood, while Ari ran at Quixote, falling over in a silly manner. Melaleuca laughed raucous and loud; quite unlike her. Soon they were all cavorting around performing various acts of stupidity.

Minutes later Melaleuca stopped and pulled her bracelet off and rubbed her watering eyes. It felt as if she had laughed for hours, and her mind felt clearer, refreshed, charged to tackle their search for Lexington.

Still with the clown suit on, she donned the detective costume, and slipped the bracelet back on. She picked up the North American Indian costume and helped a laughing Ari put it on as well, and then did the same to Quixote with the soldier costume. Their silliness abated, though did not completely disappear.

‘We need to check Lexington’s last known tracks,’ Melaleuca said performing a back flip.

She turned to Argus saying, ‘Take care of Uncle. Go to the attic and wait. I will send Quixote back and forth as we need advice.’

She picked up the ruck-sac, handing it to Quixote.

‘Let’s check the tracks by the trees,’ Melaleuca said. ‘This Daquan clearly wants us to walk into a trap. We shall do a Lexington, something she has wanted us to do all along, and gather the facts.’

Quixote’s face dropped. He wanted to rip into saving Lexington as fast as they could.

‘But,’ Melaleuca said, ‘not to the degree that Lexington would.’

 

They headed to the front lawn where Lexington’s tracks ended, leaping, cart-wheeling and somersaulting all the way.

The two heavy tracks stopped dead against the tree.

‘Check them for compression,’ Ari said. ‘If they jumped up, then the imprints in the dirt should be deeper as they pushed off.’

Quixote and Ari bent down humming silly tunes while Melaleuca tried to put herself in the mind of the kidnapper, deducing she would try to fool anyone following her if she had been the kidnapper.

Perhaps they walked along one of the roots or dangled and shimmed along one of the branches until they got to the edge of the tree and then leapt down. She looked along the many roots spreading out from the base and examined the branches, which seemed to spread just as far.

‘These foot prints lead straight to the tree,’ Quixote said, flicking dirt at Ari. ‘It’s almost as if they walked straight into tree, or climbed up.’

They fanned out searching for clues along the roots, anything that would indicate which direction they had gone.

Nothing turned up.

‘It is possible,’ Quixote said, ‘that they walked forward to the tree and then walked backwards over their footsteps.’

‘Which would mean,’ Ari added, ‘that if we traced them back to where Lexington was taken from, and traced the footprints back further, then we could find out at least where they came from?’

They ran off back to the spot where the tracks indicated that Lexington had been taken from. Though they searched all around, no tracks could be seen leading to the spot. No signs, no bent bushes, no bits of material, hair or anything. As an Indian Ari let all his bracelet-induced powers scope the area. Melaleuca gazed thoughtfully around, thinking about why no other clues showed up; her detective mind flooding with possibilities, trying to pare them back to the most logical one.

‘There seems only one explanation,’ Melaleuca said. ‘They walked backwards from the tree and then walked forward toward the tree back along their same footprints.’

‘How’d they get from the tree out of the grounds?’ Quixote asked.

‘Maybe we should forget all this and just go straight to where she is,’ Ari said. ‘Whoever it is, is no match for us and the bracelets.’

‘Perhaps,’ Melaleuca said. ‘But this person knows we have the bracelets and has used them before and knows what they are capable of. They must have something in store for us. Argus is right, it sounds like a trap. Anyway, my instincts tell me to check these things out.’

Ari chuckled.

‘You sound like Lexington. Melaleuca would just make a decision.’

She turned square on to him.

‘I did. I decided to think like Lexington. We need her here to be complete. As fusty as she can be, her incessant questioning is needed.’

‘What then, they went into the tree?’ Quixote said, finding the unlikely thought hilarious.

‘Or they scaled from the tree to another tree on the other side of the fence using a rope.’

‘I know!’ Quixote cried out in his tone that suggested a crazy idea coming. ‘I bet there is a secret tunnel under the tree.’

He tore back to the tree, with the others in tow.

 

Uncle Bear-Nard and Argus stood next to it. A small door jutted out from the tree. Melaleuca swung the door.

‘How did you open it?’

A haggard Uncle Bear-Nard said, ‘Only a handful of people know how to open tree doors. Myself, your parents and the only other past bracelet wearer.’

‘Nap Retep. Nice. How do we open them then?’ Melaleuca asked feeling miffed at not being told.

‘What else are we not being told?’ Argus asked. ‘You say no one else has the ability? You said Daquan was no threat, and yet he appears to be.’

Uncle Bear-Nard glared at him, and then replied to Melaleuca. ‘All these type of trees are hollow. It is peculiar to them. Years before I was born someone used them to make a series of interconnecting tunnels. One of them runs under the valley floor and comes up under all the Cathedral-Mansions, though only one other Cathedral-Mansion is still lived in now.’

Melaleuca thrummed her fingers on the tree.

‘Daquan’s?’

‘Yes. I never thought he had any fire or threat left in him,’ Uncle Bear-Nard said, upset at his weak point being exposed. ‘The way to his place I blocked up many years ago.’

Argus slapped his hand to his head, rubbing it.

‘Do you know this could have been averted had I known most of this?’

Melaleuca agreed in silence with him, but now was time for action.

‘Argus, you and Uncle go back and wait in the attic. We are going in here and will track this Nap Retep. When in doubt, I will send Quixote back for your input.’

With his old and wearied face, Uncle Bear-Nard said, ‘Take great care. You are of vital importance, beyond what you can imagine. Keep having fun.’

Melaleuca blazed her eyes at him saying, ‘We shall prevail. I can see clearer than ever.’ She motioned to the boys. ‘Come, speed is needed.’

 

***

 

Captain HeGood swore. His men had surrounded the lake but no Marauder had been found. He had sent them onto the lake in makeshift rafts and apart from killing some of the survivors, had only found the pirate clothes. He suspected one of the outsider children, but had been denied permission to pursue them because of the warning the High Overlord had given. For the first time ever he had decided to ignore the orders. He had just prepared his men to start marching toward the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, when one of Daquan’s runners delivered him a note, telling him to come immediately.

 

Captain HeGood, flushed with frustration, galloped into Daquan’s rundown courtyard, dismounted and threw the reigns to one of the stable hands, kicking him as he did so.

Quesob met him at the door. ‘My master says the Marauders will try this night to escape into the Southern Wasteland. He begs to remind you that this is the second time he has delivered them into your hands and not to underestimate them this time.’

Quesob walked away.

‘Is that it?’ Captain HeGood yelled after him. ‘Where is he? I want to talk with him’

But Quesob had disappeared.

 

***

 

Harshon strode her way through the fields in the upper valley, walking quickly, stopping often to pick thistles and brambles and other thorny plants, pretending that she prepared for the upcoming Thistle Ceremony, though, with stealth, she stole her way toward the northern hills where the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion lay.

Her thoughts turned to the cousins, wonderment at how they had achieved their victory. She had never seen anything like it for over thirty years. It was the final piece of evidence that let her know they were in some way related to her old friend Karena, more than they had let on, and that they possessed the bracelets.

Great danger surrounded them now, as she knew a handful of others had known the secret of the bracelets. It would not take long before Captain HeGood would torture someone into talking.

She had decided to plead with the cousins, risk everything and tell them the truth of what really happened to their parents thirty years ago. Maybe then they would see that New Wakefield was a place, fit only to forsake.

Chapter 38 – Into the wasteland

 

Aunty Gertrude stormed around the silent corridors of the vast Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, filling herself with its past glory, and letting the histories she had committed to memory filter through her.

Corridor after corridor, portrait after portrait, statue upon relic upon symbol, she feasted upon it all, making her heart strong for what she knew she must do next – a regretful betrayal needed for the survival of New Wakefield; her New Wakefield.

 

***

 

With a cautious swiftness, Melaleuca headed down the earth smelling tunnel, Ari and Quixote treading behind, silenced by their dark surroundings. Melaleuca slowed to a crawl, sensing a change ahead, and reached out and felt a wall.

‘Dead end? Quixote, go back and get the ninja costume so I can see in the dark.’

He was back in a flash, and costumed up, she could see the tunnel diverged to the left and to the right, though the tracks headed right. Trailing after them, they came across where Uncle Bear-Nard had blocked up the tunnel, though rubble lay around where it had been smashed to pieces.

A dull glow illuminated some of the way beyond it, and a paved floor and lined walls appeared in the tunnel. Faint bursts of misty light spluttered out from tiny tubes on the roof. Melaleuca stopped, and with the others spend a few seconds examining it. The lit section only stretched for about a hundred metres, and had a gentle upwards curve, dropping away again at the other end.

Ari kicked at the dirt where the ground and the paved floor met unevenly.

‘Look. It goes deeper. This floor is part of something else.’

‘Yes I can see that,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Note it and let us carry on. We shall return with Lexington and work it out.’

They passed through it and carried on, though Melaleuca noted those they pursued must have been in a hurry. A flurry of tracks had been left, and they had not bothered to hide them nor disguise them.

Leading us into a trap, I bet.

Ahead of them they could see the start of a ladder curling upwards, and two sets of dirty foot prints trod upwards into the trunk of another large hollowed out tree.

A thrill ran through Melaleuca.

‘This is it. Put the Roman soldier outfits on, draw swords, and shields at the ready.’

They stilled themselves, readying to climb up and jump out, though found it hard to stop sniggering. Every time one of them stopped, one of them set them off again. With the clown costumes on, it seemed impossible.

‘Oh to heck with it,’ Melaleuca finally said.

She raced up the spiral steps and bashed on the inside of the tree.

The side of the tree fell open, and dirty footprints led out onto a large, branch about four metres above the ground. She crept about 20 metres along the branch, hidden from view by the thick leaves, and crouched down, the unknown environment settling her silliness. She indicated for Ari to come forward and signaled for Quixote to remain where he crouched.

‘Check the area for traps. It seems too convenient and quiet,’ she whispered.

The cousins stared out on a building similar to the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, though it gave off a feeling of desolation, as if it had been forsaken long ago. Large chunks of plaster and wood had long since fallen from the walls, revealing the castle walls hidden underneath, and even some of those had crumbled in places.

Smashed windows let the wind whistle through it and the third storey had bird’s nests and bits of the roof missing, like it had been bombed or burnt. Even the grounds around it yielded faint hints of past gardens amidst the weeds and the debris of wood and junk. The only building that looked half cared for was a set of stables. Behind them wild fields and overgrown paddocks ran right up to the southern barren hills.

‘Well?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘It’s a trap,’ Ari said. ‘Not a well thought out one, but a trap. See.’ He pointed to a stable door, where a rough looking head could be seen slightly jutting out. ‘And up there.’ In the third storey, a face could be seen appearing and disappearing, looking down on the tree.

‘Not too clever,’ Quixote said. ‘They must have known with the bracelets, we would spot it.’

‘Maybe it is not a trap,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Maybe they are just the lookout for the trap.’

‘Or they are a diversion,’ Ari said.

‘Only one way to find out,’ Quixote said.

He leapt to the ground, screamed, and charged toward the Cathedral-Mansion.

 

***

 

A tied up Lexington lay slung over a horse, dosing as it ambled forward. The horse stumbled and Lexington woke with a start, but then remembered she had been kidnapped. With a bag over her head and still wearing the botanist costume, she smelt a change in the vegetation – wet-earth, plant scents; the sort surrounding stagnant waters or muddy dirt, plus far off tinder, dry patches. It seemed a sure sign they rode through hilly country or a land of rough terrain where the water did not flow or spill evenly along its course.

‘We are in the southern hills, aren’t we?’

The horse came to a stop and someone not as rough as the hands that had dragged her away, lifted her to the ground, laying her up against a rock.

‘Keep an eye on her,’ said a gruff voice.

It belonged to the Overlord Ramathor.

She listened to him walk away, hearing his heavy footsteps kick the dirt. He yelled out more instructions, though his voice did not seem directed toward whoever stood guard over her.

‘Don’t worry. He only wants the bracelet. Give it to him and all will be well.’

She recognized the voice of Quesob as the man that had tried to rob Ari of his bracelet. In his voice she heard a nervous quiver, like he was unsure of what he was doing. For some reason she felt pity for him.

‘I remember you,’ Lexington said.

Quesob held his silence, and Lexington sensed in him a similar reaction as before.

‘Tell me your name again,’ Lexington said.

‘Please. You are not from here, I know. Roughness does not sit well with you. Please. The bracelet.’

‘I should like to see you.’

She could feel his mix of emotions, and so she goaded him a little more.

‘I saw you look at me. My mother said my beauty could stop a rampaging rhino.’

 

Melaleuca had the look of a warrior queen and Lexington possessed a breathless charm. Both of them had seared permanent images in Quesob’s mind, and struck a deep chord. His hand shook as he fumbled with the string on the bag, trying to tell himself to leave the bag over her head.

 

‘Did you know your mother?’ Lexington asked.

‘W..w..what? M..m.mother is dead.’

As he tugged the bag off, a flood of relief hit him. Her large brown eyes, and her tender face moved him. Trembling, he moved his hand toward her face.

Horses whinnied in the background followed by someone crying ‘Yeaargh.’ Turning her head, Lexington saw Daquan riding a horse, with someone else on another horse and a third horse in tow.

Daquan snorted at Quesob, who now looked foolish. He dismounted and slapped Quesob on the back.

‘We should have sired you with a mare years ago. Don’t let this filly fool you.’

Daquan knelt, placing his ugly face close to Lexington’s.

‘Your tricks may work on the weak, but on me they have no effect.’ He grabbed for the cloth bag that had covered her head.

Lexington grimaced at him.

‘My cousins will come after me and they will bring with them hellfire the likes of which you have never seen.’

‘Ho ho,’ Daquan said, pulling the cloth bag back over her head. ‘That’s exactly what I want. You are the bait you see.’

He threw her over his horse and mounted up, trotting off deeper into the Southern Wasteland, Quesob and Doctor Thurgood in tow.

They seemed to ride on forever, and the jiggling of her horse made her drowsy. Sleep came and went and she lost track of time, though the air chilled and she smelt snow far off. When they eventually dropped down a steep gravel slope, the descent bashed her around enough to keep her awake.

The horses finally leveled out on to flat land and a sound of far off rushing waters, got louder and louder, and she smelt fresh icy water.

A snow fed river?

As they carried on moving she smelt something rotting and stagnant. A decaying stench built up becoming as putrid as a hundred dead animals. Her insides retched with disgust.

Something unnerved the horses, and they jostled about not wanting to go forward.

‘Move you bucket of pus,’ Daquan roared.

His horse whinnied in protest, clomping slowly forward.

‘Even the horses know vile death when they see and smell it,’ Doctor Thurgood said.

‘Then they shall join the dammed,’ Daquan replied.

Out of nowhere, Lexington heard children whimper from a small distance away, and then plead for help and food.

‘Kill them,’ Daquan commanded Quesob.

‘Master, I…,’

‘DON’T FALTER NOW……..Oh give it here.’

Four swift arrows whistled forward in quick succession followed by four sickening “thwack” noises. Lexington had never heard an arrow hit a human body before, but somehow she knew what had just happened.

‘Who are those children?’ she asked.

No one answered her.

‘Are they dead? Did you kill them?’

She felt sick.

Before anyone could answer, high above the screech of the Kockoroc burst out of the air. Daquan looked up momentarily confused by it. It screeched and squawked battle cries, warbling high-pitched threatening noises.

Lexington recognized its cry and yelled, ‘The Kockoroc! You’re done for now. It’s come to save me!’

Daquan whacked his horse’s rump hard.

‘MOVE! Get inside.’

Quesob cried out, ‘Yearrgh,’ smacking the horses.

They lurched into motion, jostling Lexington forward at a rough, rapid pace. She heard the giant wings beating down on them and the Kockoroc’s cries and screams getting louder.

A noise, like the shaking of many trees rustled and then they dropped out of the sunshine into a shadowy, chilled place. The rustling noise sounded again and Lexington heard the Kockoroc screech, but its voice now sounded far away.

‘Take her hood off,’ Daquan said.

Quesob pulled it off, averted his eyes and untied her. Lexington blinked, adjusting her eyes to the sudden low-lit area. Overhead a tangle of thorny bushes grew. Ancient, thick trunks intertwined a great arcing roof across them through which small shafts of light twinkled. Nearby a vast, deep, clear pool lay.

Lexington crawled to the edge of it.

The pristine spring waters bubbled up from the middle of it, and three rivers flowed out of the pool, crawling toward the outside under the cover of the bushes.

The horses stood hoofing the ground, disturbed by the place. Behind them lay a great menacing cave; its dark, unlit innards silent and cold.

‘What is this place?’ Lexington asked.

The great plants overhead caught her attention; especially as the botanist costume still clad her body.

‘These plants, are they of the species vagaria? I mean the trunks have an almost extinct cretaceous look about them.’

‘Plants are the last things you need worry about,’ Daquan said.

He drew out a long sword from the saddle of his horse. The muscles in his forearms knotted as he griped the hilt of it with both hands. Around his wrist, Lexington noted a bracelet that looked similar to the ones they wore, though his was visible.

‘No time to lose,’ he shouted, and swung the sword high, descending it toward her head.

 

Adrenalin pumped through her body, and time appeared to slow down. Her pupils dilated and she watched the light reflect with scintillating beauty off the blade as sailed by her head narrowly missing her ears. The tip of the blade thudded into the dirt beside her.

‘I will ask you once. Give me the bracelet and your end shall be swift.’

She thought of Melaleuca’s trust and of her own gentleness, and then lay down, spreading her arms out.

‘Come and take it. If you can.’

Daquan screamed and leapt on top of her, pounding and pounding her, years of pent up desperation raging out of control. He kicked and kicked and kicked her body until he lathered himself into a senseless rage, tossing her body around like a rag doll. Like a madman he ripped and tore at the invisible bracelet on her wrist that he could feel but not see, digging his fingers in with all his might, shrieking and shouting profanities.

Quesob vomited, and Doctor Thurgood stood silent, white with fright at Daquan’s brute rage.

Daquan stopped, sweat drenching his body, frothing at his mouth, breathing wildly, and stared maniacally at Lexington’s now limp body.

Lexington lifted her head up and stood up.

‘That was truly wild,’ she said.

Daquan flopped to his knees limp, trying to regain his breath. Confused and hurt, he suddenly as impotent as a venomous spider empty of poison. A twisted wretched look rent his face.

‘Please give it to me,’ he asked.

She shook her head, and dusted dirt off her body.

I can’t be hurt.

He started to whimper a little and spoke in a simpering voice.

‘I bet your parents never spoke about me. Your mother Karena and I were betrothed.’

Lexington raised one eyebrow.

‘I was once as handsome as a prince. But your mother,’ he spat her name, ‘Karena reneged, betraying me, choosing a freak instead.’

‘My mother’s name was Eugenia. Are you sure you have the right person?’

‘You have the BRACELET! They wore the bracelet. I have the right person.’

He pulled a strained face and then calmed himself.

‘Perhaps now?’ Doctor Thurgood asked.

‘Soon. I think…,’ Daquan said eyeing Lexington’s clothes, ‘…if the bracelet cannot come off then remove anything that powers it. QUESOB! Remove her clothes.’

‘Master?’

‘All of them, now. It’s the clothes that are powered by the bracelet. Remove them and let’s see how protected she is.’

Under silent protest and quietly apologizing to her, Quesob removed Lexington’s clothes.

Daquan crashed his sword down upon her arms, shattering his blade. He dropped to his knees once more, a hurt look crossing his face as if he was about to cry.

‘By the transplanted, only a truly innocent child could enlist the bracelet’s protection.’ He shook his head, staring at the ground with a vacuous want. ‘None of the children from New Wakefield could ever have found their way in, ever.’

He threw his head back, and laughed so loud that saliva flew out of his insane mouth. ‘So like the bracelets to pick one who could open the way, but won’t. Purity of heart unlocks the way, but purity of heart does nothing with it.’

 

Confused, Quesob squeezed his bottom lip. He had lost track of anything, of where they were, and of what they were trying to achieve. Since the High Galelain Daquan had become drunk with an insatiable desire for power more than the bracelets, and all the talk of freedom had vanished, replaced by some new babble about the hidden truth in the Southern Wasteland. None of it made any sense.

Heart pounding and with a dry mouth, Quesob swallowed, and stepped up to his master.

‘Master. What are we doing here? This is the trap to get the bracelets back?’

Daquan spun about glaring, as if he had betrayed him.

‘What are we doing here? Doing here? Am I the only one who knows our legends? In there. Look!’ he shrieked at Quesob, pointing to the dark, wide-mouthed cave. ‘In there is the real treasure. Power! Power without end. Power beyond all. It’s what New Wakefield guards you fool. All that babble about discipline is bunkum. New Wakefield exists to protect this. And I intend to get it.’

‘What are you talking about?’

This was not the man he had followed most of his life.

‘I need those bracelets to enter the inner reaches of the cave, without them I cannot. For 1600 years the secret of power has lain dormant in there and now I want it.’

‘Excuse me!’ Lexington said. ‘Perhaps I could go in and get this thing for you and end this silly game.’

Daquan dashed to her, sticking his face right in hers.

‘You think me a fool. Then you would have it and not me. No we wait for the prey to arrive and then we spring the trap. But first one more thing.’

 

Daquan snapped his fingers and Doctor Thurgood appeared at his side. Grabbing some rope, Daquan commanded Quesob to tie Lexington up.

Quesob wrapped rope around her body, binding her loosely so she could move if she chose to. He bunched the loose rope up and tucked it under her body, then smiled and apologised under his breath to her.

Daquan sat next to Lexington and then nodded at Doctor Thurgood, who uttered the name, “Nap Retep.”

Daquan fell backwards, and “goo-ed” and “gaa-ed” much to the wonderment of Lexington. The flesh on his face lost all wrinkles and his permanent snarl gave way to a look of smooth innocence. Even his fat, hairy body seemed younger and more docile looking.

Fascinated, Lexington pushed some of her fingers through the rope, touching him. His skin felt young and as smooth as freshly spun silk.

‘What has happened to him?’

Doctor Thurgood came forward kneeling beside both of them. ‘His mind has become a young baby, and so his body is responding to his limbic impulses.’

‘But he looks so…kind of…gross yet harmless.’

‘Hmm.’

Quesob stood behind the Doctor. ‘Just hurry up. This has already gone too far.’

Doctor Thurgood glared at Quesob. ‘Relax, give it a few minutes to take full hold. We possibly only have one shot at this.’

The minutes passed slowly, Lexington noting a certain tension rising that did not make sense.

‘Okay now,’ Doctor Thurgood said. ‘Come on.’ He encouraged Nap Retep. ‘Come on, you can do it, yes you can, just like we practiced, come on.’

Nap Retep gurgled and after a little more encouragement reached out and placed his hands on Lexington’s bracelet. Doctor Thurgood clapped his hands, and patted Nap Retep on his head.

‘Good boy, now just stay.’

Quesob fidgeted.

‘Well, now what!’

‘Shh. Just wait!’

Yellow light burst from Lexington’s bracelet. It lasted a split second and then her bracelet became visible, and hung loose on her wrist.

As the Doctor tugged it off Quesob could not help but look at Lexington with sadness as he now knew what would happen to her.

Doctor Thurgood shook with excitement, mumbling and then said, ‘Oh my, oh my, I was right, I was right. Yes I shall be famous.’ He held the bracelet up. ‘And Now,’ and slipped it on to Nap Retep’s wrist, and then moved back.

Everything stayed the same, nothing altered. Nap Retep peeled off a few squeals of delight and then goo-ed some more.

Quesob stated panicking.

‘Nothing is happening.’

Doctor Thurgood craned his neck.

‘Yes I can see that. Thank you very much. Be sure to point out anything else obvious just in case it escapes my attention.’

‘Turn him back.’

‘Wait!’ Doctor Thurgood said. He bent down close to Nap Retep handing him a smaller sword. ‘Come on little one, just like we practiced, come on, you can do it.’

Nap Retep burbled some more nonsense words. Nothing spectacular happened.

Quesob paced.

‘Well!’

Doctor Thurgood drew in a breath to berate him, but paused. Nap Retep’s face shimmered and shook like light waves melting around it.

‘Look,’ Doctor Thurgood directed Quesob.

Lexington threw her head back and twisted it to the side to watch.

Nap Retep’s hair faded from his entire head, leaving a hairless, ugly, baby-faced man-child. He uttered more gibberish.

‘Great,’ Quesob said. ‘You’ve discovered a rapid hair removal system.’

Doctor Thurgood wheeled about. A crazed madman look of a determination crossed his face. With an upturned fist and his first finger poking out, he threatened Quesob.

‘Just wait!’

He turned back, gushing at Nap Retep.

‘Come on little one, just like we practiced, come on, you can do it.’

Nap Retep grabbed the sword and swung it around using the strength of his man body, but still with the clumsy inaccuracy of a baby. The sword hit the ground all around and apart from digging into the dirt, nothing spectacular happened.

Doctor Thurgood scratched his head and took the sword off him. He lifted the sword up and then chopped at Nap Retep.

Quesob cried out in protest, though the sword fell, blade first across Nap Retep’s face.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Don’t get in the way of science!’

Nap Retep laughed unhurt by the attack.

‘As I thought,’ Doctor Thurgood said, again proud of his achievements. ‘The bracelet has protected him.’

‘Great! What now. We use him as a shield. Look at him. He is a baby. A baby. As useless as a baby!’

‘Damn fool. Knower of little and even less. This is a giant leap forward. An adult has been stripped of all their conditioning so that the bracelet fits and works on them.’

‘Works? Go on make it work. Make it work!’

‘It is working.’

‘Oh wow, now what?’

Doctor Thurgood looked over Nap Retep as if he examined a patient.

‘More tests I guess.’

‘Excuse me,’ Lexington said, shivering and trying to huddle her bound body together to get a little warmer. ‘The bracelets need a costume. Without it they will do little.’

Quesob fetched her a blanket from one of the horses and put it around her. Doctor Thurgood relished this new information and tugged Nap Retep’s clothes from him, and pulled the botanists costume over his soft, podgy body, struggling to get them on.

A soft circular light with hazy edges appeared above Nap Retep. Colours and forms danced around inside it as if radiant electricity had zapped the developing insides of an egg. It grew bigger and bigger. The shapes inside slowly became seed like and then plant like. What were a few became many until the sides of the circle pushed out and formed into a sphere with a rippled water-like outer. It grew to the size of a house, touching on the roof of knotted plants and started to push outwards, sucking air from around them. Inside it plants reproduced rapidly.

Awe struck, Quesob froze. Doctor Thurgood panicked, realising they were about to be crushed to death should it get any larger. Laying flat he tried to scoot along the ground to Nap Retep to pull the clothes off him but could not reach.

‘The Bracelet,’ Doctor Thurgood cried out. ‘The Bracelet, pull it off.’

So enamored by it, Lexington lost any sense of danger. For the first time she understood Ari’s desire to become one with the land. There was something so virgin pure about the new plant life forming that she felt she could have given up her life to become enveloped in it.

‘THE BRACELET! PULL IT OFF!’ both Quesob and Doctor Thurgood screamed.

She reached out from between the ropes and pulled the bracelet off.

The sphere disappeared, and a handful of plants fell to the ground.

‘And tell me science man. What was that?’ Quesob asked.

Doctor Thurgood shook his head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Then wake him up and let us leave this place.’

Doctor Thurgood’s mind whirled around trying to calculate the significance of what had transpired. Quesob shook him.

‘Change him back?’

‘Y…yes…yes.’

‘Give me the power to change him back,’ Quesob said, seeing the Doctor looking lost.

Doctor Thurgood, nodded blank-faced, though clapped his hands, whistled and snapped his fingers.

‘Now you can change him at will.’

Quesob dropped to his knee by Nap Retep, hesitated, and thought that perhaps it should all stop now. Perhaps if he left Daquan, as Nap Retep, whatever madness accosted him would stop. He sighed. If there was a chance the children of New Wakefield could be freed, he needed to take it.

‘Daquan,’ he said.

Daquan blinked his eyes, and pushed his body up. He looked at Quesob and Doctor Thurgood, noting they stared at him with dismay.

‘WELL?’

Horrified, they gawped at him, stunned.

‘What? What is it?’

‘You…you still look like a baby!’ Quesob said, worried.

Daquan walked to the side of the waters and stared in. A fresh-faced young-looking Daquan about the age of three reflected back at him in the crystal clear waters. No hair could be seen anywhere on his face.

‘What happened?’

Between them Doctor Thurgood and Quesob explained.

‘…Though why you are still looking like a baby, I’m not sure,’ Doctor Thurgood finished, sounding the most timid he ever had.

A faint noise behind Daquan made him spin around. Lexington held the bracelet in one hand and tried to reach across to slip it on her wrist without making a noise. Daquan reached down and plucked the bracelet from her.

‘Quesob, time to set the trap.’

Chapter 39 – deadly peril

 

Quixote sprinted towards the dilapidated Cathedral-Mansion, charging at his unseen foes, shrieking and sweeping his sword back and forth.

Ari readied to jump after him, although Melaleuca’s hand held him back.

‘Let him flush them out.’

Jerkin appeared at the stable door.

‘ATTACK!!!!’

A line of large teenage boys rushed at Quixote out of the stable, swords and axes flailing for him. Quixote slowed to a halt, swishing his sword in a figure of eight, speeding it up until it became a humming blur, and then ran at them. The line stopped and fled.

‘NOW!’ Jerkin cried out.

From behind Quixote, a stream of arrows flew at him, though he spun in time and hacked them in half, grabbing the last one and holding it high in triumph.

‘Next Volley!’ Jerkin shouted.

From out of the window more boys fired slingshots of fist-sized rocks.

Quixote whipped the shield off his back, fended them off, and then somersaulted left and then right. He soon bored of the attack and picked up the rocks, juggled them, and using his sword as a bat, hit them back at Jerkin and his attackers.

‘This is not much of an attack,’ Ari said.

‘That’s what is worrying,’ Melaleuca replied, her feelings indicating something else was a foot here.

‘Are they trying to flush us out as well?’ Ari asked.

‘Cover Quixote, watch him, help him, just do whatever is needed. I am going to head toward the Southern Hills and see if there is any sign of Lexington being taken there.’

Ari ran to the end of the branch jumping from it and crying out a battle cry. He hit the ground hard and rolled to lessen his impact.

‘Cover me Quixote. I will take out the archers.’

Quixote fired the rocks at the attackers sending them running in all directions.

‘ARCHERS HOLD!’ Jerkin cried out.

Ari grabbed the first archer, who fainted in his hands. He snapped the bow and lumbered to the next one.

 

Melaleuca leapt from the tree, trekking southwards across the fields using the detective costume to look for clues. Recent swathes where at least four horses had run, parted the grass, and deep imprints of hooves, where horses had galloped spread out. More importantly, her instincts confirmed Lexington and her captors had gone this way.

She ran back to get the others.

 

A large wheeled battering-ram rolled out of the stable while more archers on the roof fired flaming arrows behind Ari and Quixote to stop them retreating. A wall of flame erupted halting Melaleuca’s advance and trapping the boys. A large spear with an oversized arrowhead, lay pulled back on a king-sized cross bow attached to the battering ram.

‘YOU TOOK MY PLACE IN HISTORY,’ Jerkin screamed. ‘TAKE THIS.’

The spear shot forth at high velocity, smashing into Ari and Quixote’s shields, and threw them through the wall of flames sending them sprawling for several meters.

Melaleuca rushed to their side, though found them laughing and buzzing with the rush of the attack.

‘Nothing could hurt you two,’ she said. ‘Forget Jerkin. Come on we need to track Lexington.’

Horses panicked in the stable, fretting as smoke wafted over them. Quixote brushed dirt off himself and took the horses as a cue.

‘Or we could defeat them anyway and grab the horses to speed us up.’

‘We don’t need horses,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We can just use your speed boots.’

Quixote’s face dropped.

‘I’m sorry. I should have told you.’

‘What? Exactly what?’

‘They only work over ground that you have already trod over,’ he said realising his omission may cost them time. ‘They can only move fast over a small distance without treading it first.’

Melaleuca shook her head. ‘If you and Lexington had worked together, then I ─ ’

‘Lecture him later,’ Ari said. ‘We need to finish Jerkin off. Look!’

Con, Revile, Dunk, Stench and a handful of equally deformed Gorks walked slowly toward Jerkin’s small army. They had blankets and cardboard wrapped around them for protection and wooden swords in their hands.

Con yelled out to the cousins, ‘Go do whatever you have to. We will hold them off.’

Howls of laughter rang out from Jerkin and his band, and then one of them shot an arrow into the shoulder of Dunk. Dunk screamed, and collapsed in pain. Jerkin and his gang laughed even louder at the sight of Dunk squirming on the ground flailing at the arrow.

Without hesitating all three cousins raced to defend their wayward rescuers. Ari and Melaleuca placed themselves between Jerkin and the Gorks while Quixote speed-booted around disarming everyone. He roared into the barn, spotted some rope and then at dead neck speed roped as many of them as he could together, while the rest fled.

‘DEATH BEFORE DEFEAT,’ Jerkin cried, standing strong.

The cousins waltzed up to him. Jerkin stared up at the towering figures approaching him. He swung his sword at them striking them here and there, raining vicious blows down on them. The cousins rocked back and forth with the force of Jerkin’s blows, but remained uninjured.

‘Why didn’t you just rope them all together to start with?’ Melaleuca asked Quixote amidst Jerkin’s attack.

 

Being ignored infuriated Jerkin. He could feel his strength waning. He dug his toes in and uttered a great cry, smashing his last blow down on the cousins with all his spent might.

 

‘More fun,’ Quixote replied. ‘I was playing.’

Jerkin finally collapsed to his knees, exhausted. Quixote crouched and bound him tight.

‘Kill me,’ Jerkin said gritting his teeth. ‘Have some honour and kill me!’

Quixote giggled at him, and said, ‘Nope. You can live.’

A stream of profane words poured out of Jerkin’s mouth.

Melaleuca looked over to Dunk. The ground around him soaked red and his face became pale.

‘Doctor’s outfit. Quickly,’ Melaleuca said to Quixote.

Ari rushed to the side of Dunk. Con stood there looking at his fallen comrade along with Stench and Revile and the other Gorks.

‘Why aren’t you helping him?’ Ari questioned Con.

‘I don’t know,’ Con replied. ‘It’s just…that…well…we are not..supposed to.’

Ari bent down, applying pressure to the area around the arrow.

Quixote rummaged in the ruck-sac and handed the doctor’s outfit to Melaleuca who quickly threw it on.

Con leant down and grabbed the arrow, yanking it out of Dunk. Dunk screamed in pain.

‘Arggh!’ Ari shouted. ‘What….should have left in.’ Blood bubbled and squirted out. ‘It was stopping the bleeding.’

Melaleuca knelt by him. Within a matter of minutes she healed the wound, though Dunk’s face lost all colour. He looked up at Melaleuca forming a big smile out of his grotesque harelip and said, ‘I….the..the resistance..I…made..a…difference..eh?’ and then slipped into unconsciousness.

Ari shook Melaleuca’s arm.

‘Mel! Doctor him.’

‘Shh.’

She checked him again.

‘I did, I mean I was….I am…..’

Her hands poked and prodded. She put her hand on his abdomen and laid her ear on his chest.

‘He’s lost too much blood. His descending aorta from his heart barely has movement in it.’ She ran her hands up and down him again despairing.

Dunk smiled, breathed his last, and his head went limp.

Melaleuca stood up and backed away a few steps.

‘It’s as Lexington said. We assumed the costume’s power was unlimited. But it’s not.’

She looked to Ari and Quixote, both moved by Dunk’s pathetic but valiant death in trying to help them. ‘I can’t bring people back if they are too far gone. I healed him, but I could not make blood.’

For the first time in his life, Quixote felt all silliness drain out of him as he gazed at the lifeless corpse of Dunk.

‘Perhaps or perhaps we have not yet found that costume.’

Con saw how much Dunk’s death moved them.

‘Do not mourn for him. I have never seen him smile. Odds are he would have died before he reached 14 and probably for something pointless. He has died a hero’s death, something that would never happen to a Gork in their entire life. Be proud of that.’

Melaleuca went to speak, but Con stopped her. ‘Go and do what it is you are doing. We shall hold the tied up ones prisoners.’

In a flash the commander in her fired up and without anymore thought for Dunk, she said, ‘Boys! Lexington needs us,’ and then with a curling fire, hinting at that smoldering spark others had glimpsed behind her eyes, said, ‘Before this day is out more may die. We stay fresh, we play. We need to be above this.’

They both snapped to attention.

‘We need horse riding outfits,’ Melaleuca said to Quixote, and he sped off.

Melaleuca turned to Con. ‘Do as you say. Hold these kids prisoner. We will return and give Dunk a hero’s send off’

Con nodded, and Melaleuca saw a sense of honour flooding through him. She could see it was a feeling he never thought he would have ever experienced.

Quixote returned with horse riding outfits for them, and the cowboy costume for him.

 

Horses saddled and wearing only the clown costumes and the riding and cowboy outfits, they set out across the fields heading for the Great Southern Wasteland. Despite Dunk’s death, Quixote’s natural silliness and the clown costumes made them laugh soon after.

Mile after mile they followed along a narrow ravine, every so often stopping to check the poorly drawn map and check for hoof prints. The light started to fade as evening threatened to fall.

On through barren scrubby hills they trotted. Nothing grew there other than moss and lichen and the occasional patch of tussock grass. Rocks and cracked earth padded out their trail ahead, and even the hills looked scarred with massive scree-gravel slopes ripping down the side of them. It was as if a giant with a sword had stabbed them and torn asunder the hills, spilling their insides out. No trees or shade or any soft thing of comfort could be seen.

Night fell, and apart from the stars above no light shone anywhere. The silence got even more silent and despite the costumes and their stout hearts, they all felt the total desolation of this land in their souls. Melaleuca donned the Ninja suit and they pushed on into the darkness.

They followed a small animal track winding its way up to a small pass over some of the hills. At the top Melaleuca could see many more hills in the distance and a valley off to the left, eastward toward the sea.

Pausing they each surveyed the scene in the Ninja costume, drinking in the faraway-ness of their position. They could all sense it, though Ari could sense it more; hills after hills after hills, mountains and valleys after valleys, all too countless to number, filling their souls with a long-ago, long since passed, lost grandeur that had once dwelt in this land.

They carried on trailing along several hilltops connected by a line of ridges that made moving easier. Short of being called mountains they now traversed large hills. They traveled the entire night until, by morning, they arrived at a steep slope.

Below them lay a small flat plain with three valleys off it. In the middle of it sat a matted thicket of thorny plants growing over the out-spill of three small rivers. Each river headed down one of the valleys. Melaleuca’s hairs stood up on the back of her neck.

‘Down there,’ she said, consulting the map, and handing it to Ari to confirm.

‘Looks right,’ Ari said. ‘And look! There’s our eagle.’

The Kockoroc sat guard-like beside the thorny bushes ignoring them.

‘Approach quietly,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Everyone be on guard. Quixote be ready with your speed boots. In fact I want you to race to the mansion and back to check they are working.’

He saluted and vanished. This time he did not reappear for over a minute.

‘All fine,’ Quixote said. ‘But it is further.’

‘It will do.’ Melaleuca said.

They nudged the horses forward, picking their way down the slope until they reached the bottom. Hoof marks led to the barbed thicket, and they passed amongst the bodies of scattered dead children.

‘Ignore them,’ Melaleuca said looking ahead. ‘We will feel for them after we have Lexington.’

They dismounted before the giant wall of barbed vines, and the Kockoroc flicked its eyes at them, scratched in the dirt and then backed away.

‘Hello boy,’ Quixote said approaching it. ‘Where’ve you been?’ He reached up and stroked its neck feathers.

‘According to the map we are here.’ Melaleuca said.

‘Look where it scratched,’ Quixote said jabbing his finger at the ground.

Horse tracks led right up to the bramble wall, disappearing into it.

‘There must be a secret way in,’ Ari said.

Melaleuca started to disrobe.

‘Fighting clothes on only.’

Kitted in the Roman soldier costumes, they tip-toed toward the edge of the massive brambly wall. Vines as thick as their bodies blocked their way, and the barbs on the vines stood out several inches. Everywhere they looked, hundreds of them pointed outwards like shark’s teeth.

Ari pushed his arm into the mass, searching for a way forward, though winced in pain as the sharp barbs cut into him. He pulled his arm back, lacerating his skin deeply, and then dropped to his knees holding his bloody forearm, pain and surprise writhing about in his face.

Melaleuca yanked the doctor’s clothes on.

Got to stop it before he loses too much blood.

In no time, she had mended and stitched his injuries, rapidly healing and repairing the damage.

‘Let’s be careful Ari.’

Ari stood and flexed his arm. It felt as if it had never been hurt. ‘Let me try something else.’

He drew his sword, instructing Quixote to do the same. Together they hacked at it several times though left few marks.

‘It is no use,’ Ari said. ‘The swords need to be heavier to get through this.’

‘Ah ha!’ Quixote cried. ‘I know just the thing.’

He disappeared and appeared a minute later dressed as a lumberjack wielding an axe with a massive head.

‘Stand back. I’m a going in.’

He strode into it, swinging the axe with a deft blow. It sunk through the vine as if it was butter. Quixote chopped and chopped, hacking out large chunks of vines, creating a slight dent.

Quixote stepped into the gap, readying to continue chopping. The vines shook and grew back, closing up around his feet and the axe, entangling them in the thorny vines. In a matter of seconds it was as if nothing had been chopped out.

‘Argghhh!’ Quixote yelped grabbing at his leg, as thorns and barbs sliced into it.

‘Pull him out,’ Melaleuca shouted.

With one great wrench they yanked him free, tearing up his lower leg.

Screwing his eyes up in pain, Quixote tried to suppress his tears, though blood drained from his face as shock started to set in.

Melaleuca set to work on him with great pace. Within seconds she had stopped the bleeding and within a minute she had healed the skin with minimal blood loss. She ran her hands over his leg, healing it, colour returning to his face.

Melaleuca shook her head.

‘I don’t get it. I could make blood in Quixote and even in you, Ari, but not Dunk.’

‘That’s something for Lexington to work out,’ Ari said.

‘Or,’ Quixote said, getting back on his feet. ‘The bracelets protected us and meant we could be healed quicker.’

Ari stared at the enigmatic wall before them. ‘Sure, but what now?’ he asked looking toward Quixote. Perhaps he could come up with one of his wayward ideas.

‘Quixote,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Go back and feed this information to Argus and Uncle Bear-Nard. Tell them of this and ask how to get through.’

 

The Kockoroc stood motionless as if still on guard waiting. Waiting for what, the cousins did not know.

 

***

 

Quixote shot off at speed. He raced back like mad along the same route they had taken, everything a blur. He moved so fast that he did not see Captain HeGood and about 200 hundred of his finest mounted Inquisat troops descending down to the Forbidden Place.

Quixote stopped inside the barn where an agitated and worried Argus sat.

‘You call this sending back regular reports!’

‘Later,’ Quixote said, and then rushed through an explanation of the bush, finishing by asking for ideas.

Argus’s face worried itself even more.

‘Where is Uncle? He must know,’ Quixote asked.

‘He left hours ago. He did not say where he was going.’

‘Think about the bush,’ Quixote said. ‘I will check the house for him and then be back.’

 

While Quixote roared off, Argus tried to imagine what costume, trick or strategy could help the cousins. He thought about the battles he had been in and the times when he had come up against insurmountable obstacles.

 

Quixote reappeared. ‘He’s not on the grounds, and I don’t think we have time to track him. Any ideas??’

‘Two. If this is the Forbidden Place, then check to see if Lexington and the others are there.’

‘They are. Their tracks lead right into the bush.’

‘Okay. Go back and tell the others. When meeting an obstacle the choices are, go around it, through it, over it or under it. Failing that, retreat and draw the enemy out.’

The last option excited Quixote.

‘Yeah. We could firebomb them and starve them out, just like laying siege to a castle.’

‘Yes, but we do not want Lexington to get hurt do we.’

‘She has the bracelet. Nothing can hurt her.’

Quixote was gone in a flash, leaving Argus frustrated so far from the action.

 

***

 

The horses Melaleuca, Ari and Quixote had ridden snorted and started fretting. Spooked, they jolted and ran off. Surprised Melaleuca and Ari looked around to see what unnerved them, but could see nothing.

Then they heard a far off thunder of many horse hooves pounding the ground, and saw the Inquisat spill over the top of the hill picking their way down. Weaving slowly along the single file track, the Inquisat tried to move faster but the narrow path abated their speed.

‘You go left,’ Melaleuca said, ‘I go right. We divide their attack. Wait until they actually attack, then try and get up the hill above them, that way we will have the advantage.’

‘It is a great warrior that can defeat a hundred men in battle, but an even greater warrior that can defeat a hundred men without battle,’ Ari replied.

‘Meaning?’

‘We don’t tire, but these men and horses do. We could run in separate directions and then turn about and get them charging into each other. Do it time and time again until they are worn out.’

‘Done,’ Melaleuca said. ‘If it doesn’t work, head for the high ground.’

Melaleuca threw her Roman soldier costume on again, and pushed the rest of the costumes and the ruck-sac under a bush.

 

Elite and emotionless, the Inquisat formed up in two lines as they rode one by one off the hillside. Clad in thick leather, shields on their backs; swords, knives, bows and cross-bows dangling from their saddles – they looked hell-bent on war.

At Captain HeGood’s command the double row broke into a single line forming a half circle, while four riders cantered off to take up corner positions. Captain HeGood galloped forward holding up a white flag, slowing his approach as he neared Ari and Lexington. He stopped several feet shy of them settling his horse, whose flanks frothed with sweat and mouth foamed.

‘Lay down your arms and leave New Wakefield as you did last time.’

‘Now!’ Melaleuca yelled.

Ari sprinted left toward the river away from the thicket of thorns, and Melaleuca sprinted right toward the hills. Captain HeGood wheeled his horse about and thundered back to the lines, screaming, ‘ATTACK CLOSING FORMATION!!!! DEMI BREAK HALF WAY.’

Two hundred Inquisat spurred their horses forward. Like precision clockwork after a hundred metres they broke into two half circles, and rode hard toward the fleeing Marauders, heading left and right chasing Ari and Lexington.

Half way across the small flat Ari yelled out, ‘NOW!’

They wheeled about and ran, aiming to meet in the middle of the flat.

Captain HeGood rode to high ground, waving his arms at the flag men. They shook their flags backwards and forwards. The Inquisat wheeled about, bringing their half circles around to become two lines facing toward Ari and Melaleuca. Spurred on, the horses pounded the earth, heading at high speed toward each other.

Ari and Melaleuca stopped in the middle of the flat, the horses seconds away from them. Lightening adrenalin and excitement flooded their body.

‘Evade,’ Ari shouted. ‘Get them to mix up their lines of attack.’

Hooves flew toward them, and as they passed by Ari instinctively reached up and toppled two of the Inquisat though the rest passed neatly through each other’s lines. With another signal from Captain HeGood they spun about in a tight turn, readying for another charge.

Melaleuca could see their horse-riding battle skills would make them a formidable match.

‘Head for the hills,’ she shouted.

‘Go!’ Ari shouted back.

They dashed, bobbed and weaved amongst the dirt and dust being kicked up by the horses hoofing past. Their swords and shields in hand, they deflected blow after blow, parried and thrust their swords at their attackers. Spurred on by the danger – the bracelets and the costumes took over and despite the intensity of the attack they fought back mightily. In blurred action, Melaleuca and Ari used the Inquisat’s spears and swords to battle their way through the horses, their advantage being that only five horses and their Inquisat riders could attack them at any one time.

As they neared the base of the hill Ari spied Captain HeGood trotting over to where they had left their costumes, pull them from the bush and inspect them.

 

***

 

Inside, Lexington listened as the battle raged on. Gagged and without a bracelet, she struggled, powerless to do anything other than watch Daquan and Quesob erect a medieval gallows with hooks, barbs and ropes dangling from it. Ropes studded with small hooks hung from some of the struts, and on the side of the upright posts, spring loaded blades sat.

Doctor Thurgood sat muttering to himself jotting notes down in a notebook, cackling away; every now and then turning to Daquan and yelling out another unintelligible idea, boasting of his success.

The fighting outside raged on and on, and battle cries, orders to form this way, that way, and then another way filtered through the dense plant matter.

‘That fool HeGood is not doing what I told you to tell him to do,’ Daquan said growing annoyed.

‘Master, I only gave him the message to meet us here.’

Daquan’s backhand struck Quesob knocking him off his feet. ‘IDIOT!’.

He glared at Quesob, shaking his head. ‘I expected more from you.’ He rummaged in one of the saddlebags, handing a small case to Quesob. ‘Take the light swallowing bracelet and go out there and put a halt to all this.’

Quesob pulled himself up off the ground. ‘Please don’t hurt the girl. Let me talk to them.’

‘THE TIME FOR TALKING IS OVER! GET OUT THERE YOU TRAITOR.’

 

***

 

A great, bellowing animal sound boomed across the small valley causing the Inquisat and the cousins to look up. Charging down the hill, 12 feet tall, amour shining in the sun, fire snorting out of the visor, Quixote clad as a vicious knight, ran toward them.

The horses of the Inquisat whinnied and neighed, balking against their training. As the riders tried to settle their steeds, archers rained arrows down upon Quixote to no affect. Quixote crashed into the middle of the battlefield smashing the Inquisat troops and laughing. His amour deflected their blows, and their sword strikes and spear thrusts.

Melaleuca and Ari dashed through an opening created by Quixote’s entrance and scrambled uphill. From there they used their combined strength to roll rocks and boulders down.

The Inquisat ran left and right scrambling to avoid them. Horses and men fell as rocks and boulders rumbled forth like spinning missiles of death, smashing and crushing them.

 

***

 

Quesob sprinkled water from the icy pool on the thick mass of vines. Shriveling, a small exit opened, and he strode outside. Many of Captain HeGood’s men lay battered on the ground with as many horses thrashing around in pain.

The Kockoroc swooped around and came screaming toward Quesob, knocking him back in through the entrance. He tumbled backwards, grabbing for his sword, expecting the Kockoroc to attack. It stood in the doorway eyeballing him, daring him to try and leave again.

He dug his hand into his pocket, pulling out the bracelet. Holding it up, he ran at the Kockoroc.

Pitch-black darkness fell over the small plain and the hillsides; silence following. Even the Kockoroc whimpered a few low-key unsure clucks and clicks.

‘I am Quesob, Master of Arms and Master of Horses for his high lordship the Overlord of Ramathor. He bids the Marauders to stop fighting.’

Captain HeGood yelled back. ‘And I am the captain of the guard. These Marauders are to be my prisoners. NIGHT MANOEVURES!!!’

The Inquisat took up the command, chanting low sounds to locate each other. In little time they had formed up despite the pitch-blackness. Commanded by pre-arranged leaders the Inquisat trod to the last spot where they had last seen the Marauders.

‘STOP! MY MASTER COMMANDS IT!’ Quesob cried out.

With no light, Quixote could not aim his attack. He swung with no aim but found himself knocked back and forth from every side, realising the Inquisat knew how to fight in the darkness. He yelled to Ari and Melaleuca.

In the blackness they picked their way down onto the battlefield, creeping toward the fighting. Thinking they had not heard him, Quixote unleashed everything, swinging as wildly as possible, thrashing anyone he contacted. Another great Quixote-idea struck him; a way to bring light to the darkness. He shut his eyes, imagined himself running toward the costume room and started running. The speed boots carried him at lightning speed back to the costume room despite not being able to see. Light returned somewhere over the second pass though it appeared as a blur. In the costume room he threw off the knight’s amour and pulled on the static electricity costume and roared back, a scintillating ball of sparks and lightening.

 

Failing to find Quixote in the darkness, Ari and Melaleuca tried to sneak past the Inquisat. They brushed past one of them who felt their clothes to be different and started the low humming chanting that bought the rest of the surviving Inquisat closing in on them.

‘Oh poo,’ Ari whispered to Melaleuca, as they listened to the heavy breathing of the Inquisat nearly upon them.

 

Within seconds Quixote appeared over the low pass, and like a star falling to earth, descended down the slope. Lightening zapped off him, and light shafts flared up and died down, as did a constant stream of thousands of sparks shooting off him. He ran around using the speed boots trying to create light, though the light-swallowing bracelet proved too powerful; he could only illuminate a few feet around him.

Quesob held his ground unsure what to do. Beside him a rustle of leaves sounded, and footsteps as if someone walking on dry leaves, approached.

The Kockoroc clicked a happy sound.

‘Hush,’ came a squelchy voice, and then it said right in Quesob’s ear, ‘I’ll take that.’

Something grabbed the bracelet out of Quesob’s hand, and light rushed back with a blinding flash, making everyone grab for their eyes.

Bodies and horses lay dead everywhere, but the cousins dressed as Marauders still stood, much to the frustration of Captain HeGood.

Iam stood in front of Quesob, his leaf-covered body looking like a man-shaped bush. Beside him the Kockoroc stood waiting for instructions from Iam.

Iam shoo-ed the Kockoroc away.

‘Stay out of the way. Just make sure Daquan does not leave until I say so.’

Quesob stared bewildered at him, saying, ‘What……?’

The leafy thing spoke, its face moving amongst the leaves.

‘I have watched you for many years. You are nobler than this. It is time to leave your master.’

‘GET THAT ONE?’ Captain HeGood boomed across the battlefield spying Iam.

The Inquisat wheeled on his command, charging toward the strange looking leaf creature. Volleys and volleys of arrows rained down on Iam. The arrows and spears hit his body, but crumbled to dust.

‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from earth you came, back there to go you must.’

Captain HeGood rode his horse hard toward Iam crying out for his men to capture him. Several Inquisat grabbed nets and threw them over Iam only to have the nets crumble to powder.

‘GRAB ITTTTT!’ Captain HeGood yelled in desperation.

Four Inquisat rode on to Iam and leapt from their horses crushing him to the ground, though they stood up empty handed.

‘Here I am,’ Iam squelched behind them.

They whirled about drawing their swords and hacked into Iam with all their might only to witness their swords powder to nothing.

Iam walked around them while they attacked him to no avail, touching various parts of their clothes. Each time he touched something on them it crumbled until soon the four Inquisat attacking him stood their naked and weaponless.

‘Hurry children,’ Iam yelled across to the cousins. He turned and pointed at the opening in the thorny bush.

Seizing the opportunity all three cousins ran like crazy toward the open gap. Quesob stepped out to block them, but now unsure of his actions, he offered weak resistance. The Kockoroc hung its head over the side of the bush and screeched at him, knocking Quesob off his feet.

Quixote in his scintillating suit burst through the entrance ahead of the others, entering as a sparking ball of light. Ari and Melaleuca ran after him.

Daquan and Lexington hung upside down, bound tight together by thick ropes. They swung from precarious gallows, and knives and sharp arrowheads pricked against Lexington’s body.

Despite Lexington’s predicament, the upside-down baby face of Daquan drew their attention straight away. What was a baby’s head doing on an adult’s body? As they each wondered who the baby-headed person was, Daquan creased his face in an evil looking smile.

Ari drew his sword out and raced toward them.

‘Ari wait!’ Melaleuca cried out.

Ari stopped, poised and ready to spring. Quixote strode up beside him, his costume spitting small balls of light.

‘It’s a good thing you stopped,’ Daquan said. ‘You see, any slight movement and she will die. Observe the knives and spears millimeters away from her body. They are poison tipped. Attack me and she gets pushed on to them. Try to cut her free and she falls on to them. Try to smash the machine and the springs release them killing her. She is trapped!’

‘Back away,’ Melaleuca said to Ari and Quixote.

‘We will do as you say,’ Melaleuca said nodding to Quixote, who took the cue to use the speed boots.

In the few nanoseconds it took for Quixote to check out the gallows, he saw thick ropes suspending both Lexington and Daquan from wooden beams placed across four upright poles. All around Lexington’s sides spring-loaded knives and spears sat – milimetres from her naked body. They hung from above her and stuck up from beneath her.

Quixote materialised by Melaleuca’s side whispering, ‘I don’t know. She looks trapped, but there is more, look.’

He pointed to a small thread attached to Daquan’s toes and fingers that trailed behind him upwards to a higher erected frame, closer to the roof up in the darkness. Thin shafts of light revealed two, large logs latched on to swing ropes, waiting to crash down on to Lexington. The pin stopping the logs from moving looked fragile.

‘Yes feast your eyes. One tug on me and the logs crash into her. Oh and don’t worry about me, it is perfectly aimed to hit her and her alone.’

‘What do you want?’ Melaleuca asked.

‘Want? Want? I want the power that was denied me thirty years ago. I, Daquan, descendant of the original transplanted, demand power.’

‘You cannot hurt her. You must know she has the protection of the bracelet.’

A cackling laugh like a nervous chicken chuckled from the entrance to the cave. Doctor Thurgood moved out of the darkness into the shafts of light, holding in his hand the yellow bracelet that Lexington had worn.

Chapter 40 – Crunch Time

 

Around Quesob, decaying bodies of kidnapped children lay. Shame filled him as he thought of how little fight he had put up, though he could not bear the thought of one more child dying. He walked into the forbidden place determined to save the cousins.

Iam strolled around turning weapons into dirt, laughing and reciting limericks and short poems. Captain HeGood screamed and screamed, trying different attacking formations but to no avail.

Inside the Forbidden Place, Daquan ranted, rocking Lexington’s body toward the sharp, poison-tipped knives.

‘IT SHALL BE MINE. IT WAS ALWAYS MINE!!’

‘We need to calm him down,’ Ari said eyeing the blades.

Quixote made his hand into a gun and hid it behind his back.

‘Let me get the cowboy outfit and shoot him.’

Melaleuca gripped a piece of his clothing.

‘Too risky.’

‘I’ll use the speed boots then. Someone shoot him and someone grab Lex.’

‘Maybe, but any movement on that string and….Look…I am going to do a Lexington philosopher idea.’

Melaleuca stepped forward, kneeling, and with a lowered head, said, ‘Our parents sent us here to locate you. Their death revealed to us a map and information telling us to find the last bracelet wielder so that he could instruct us in the way.’

‘LIES!!’

She made eye contact with Daquan and despite him being upside down, a rush of images burst into her mind, stopping at one scene alone.

A young in-love Daquan stared at her mother, Karena, as she told him she loved another and not him. Heartbroken, wild confused hurt engulfed him, and he slunk back angered.

‘You loved her.’

‘AND NOW I HATE HER!’

‘I am my mother. I offer myself in her place, take me. Learn to love me.’

Lexington, with her only possible movement, opened her eyes wide in protest, anguish marring her eyebrows.

‘Mel, no,’ Ari whispered.

She dismissed him with a flick of her hand.

Daquan considered her words with disgust.

‘If you want her to live, enter the cave and retrieve for me the power source that New Wakefield protects, and then take off your bracelets and reveal to me the whereabouts of the other bracelets and the costumes.’

Ari grabbed Melaleuca and turned her around.

‘What are you thinking?’

‘Please tell me you have a plan,’ Quixote said.

Melaleuca moved them out of earshot of Daquan.

‘Yes. We humor him and then enter the cave to buy some more time. Quixote races back and reports to Argus. Any other ideas? Think, fun, weird, the impossible.’

Quixote poured forth a heap of ideas, giving the others no time to suggest any.

‘Freeze them so they cannot move. Slow time down. Teleport her out. Give her an antidote, or, or or…grab the bracelet off that guy and stick it back on Lexington.’

He zipped off and back, checking out his last idea.

‘No can do. Her arms and hands are wrapped tight. Could cause movement and then spluck she is dead.’

Melaleuca placed two hands on Quixote to settle him.

‘Okay. Let’s move into the cave and then when out of sight, Quixote, you go and tell Argus what it is happening.’

Agreeing to Daquan’s demands, they walked into the cave, pitch-gray darkness swaddling them as they did so. Quixote ripped back and forth using the scintillating light costume to illuminate the tunnel, though he found that if he timed his speed right, he could imitate a strobe light, which very soon became annoying.

Melaleuca could see sense in some of Lexington’s words about Quixote.

‘Quixote, take that costume off so you will not be seen. Go and get the ninja costume so I can see in the dark. Then go back to the mansion.’

He roared away from them in a burst of light, though returned seconds later with the Ninja costume and without the scintillating light costume on. Melaleuca put the ninja costume on, and the grey light became clearer. Up ahead, the rocky cave walls ended and a brick lined tunnel branched left and right.

‘Okay Quixote, go now.’ Melaleuca said.

‘I think I will just have a quick look down here first.’

‘Quixote, go back,’ Melaleuca said her in most commanding tone, though he had already trotted off down the left tunnel.

‘Go and get him,’ she said to Ari. ‘I am going right. Come find me if anything turns up.’

 

Melaleuca walked at a fast pace, hoping to quickly find whatever Daquan referred to. Twenty minutes passed and Melaleuca started thinking the tunnel would never end when she saw a faint light source up ahead and two figures heading toward her. She pushed herself against the wall, placed her hand on her sword, and snuck forward, though soon relaxed, recognising the figures as Ari and Quixote. Their side of the tunnel must have been a shorter route to this spot. They saw her and waved.

Annoyed Quixote had not done as she asked, she at least felt gladdened by their presence. No doubt they would be helpful in retrieving the power source – whatever it turned out to be.

‘Once we get this thing,’ Melaleuca said to Quixote, ‘go back to the mansion.’

The light source came from the end of a tunnel and it appeared similar to where they had left Lexington. As they trod forward they soon realized they were back where they had started.

Daquan’s baby face screwed up at them.

‘WELLLLL. WHERE IS IT?’

All three cousins appeared stumped.

A derisive laugh poured out of Daquan, scorning them.

‘That’s the puzzle. You go in and then you come out.’

‘What do you want us to do?’ Melaleuca asked. ‘There is nothing in there!’

‘Last chance. It’s in there. Solve it or she dies.’

He wiggled, and one of the blade tips pressed into the flesh on Lexington’s thigh, reddening the skin.

Melaleuca took a bold step forward, closer than she had been before, standing within an arm’s reach of Daquan.

‘If she dies, then we will die with her rather than do any more for you.’

Daquan relaxed.

‘Of course. So like your mother. But she does not have to die, just go in, that’s all.’

‘And if we don’t?’

‘There are worse fates than death, little girl. You may have the bracelets, but I am black-hearted and evil in every sense of the word. Bide them well. Do not do as I bid, and you will all beg for death as a release for what I can unleash on you.’

 

The three cousins stood there unsure, although one thing sounded certain – the chilling tone of truth in his words.

 

‘This puzzle,’ Melaleuca replied, ‘requires the brains of Lexington. Give her to us and I give my word we shall do as you ask.’

‘YOU TAKE ME FOR A FOOL! I TOO WOULD DIE ALSO BEFORE LETTING THESE BRACELETS GO!’ Spittle flew out of his mouth. ‘BRING ME THE POWER! BRING THE SECRET OF NEW WAKEFIELD! BRING ME MY BRACELETS!’

Without warning Quixote disappeared and did not reappear. Worried, Melaleuca searched the torture-frame for signs of Quixote trying to free her. Nothing moved. Wherever he was, he did not appear to be there. Fearing Quixote might anger Daquan further, she said, ‘We shall go back in.’

As Ari and Melaleuca walked toward the cave entrance, smashing and crashing noises sounded from deep within. They hurried forward, listening as the noises carried on.

From deep within Quixote cried out in a faint voice, ‘Did it!’

They picked up the pace and ran and ran and ran, deeper and deeper into the tunnel, passing many piles of smashed bricks and holes in the wall. After leaping over several of them, the last pile had Quixote standing by it, a large mallet in his hand.

‘Look,’ Quixote beamed, pointing into the last hole he had smashed.

Inside a small alcove, a door of stone with engravings on it sat closed.

‘How did you know?’ Ari asked.

‘Remembered this hammer, so I raced back and got it and figured these must be trick tunnels. Have to be because we did not pass each other. I was looking for where they joined or crossed over. And I found this.’

On the stone door sat the same pattern that was on Lexington’s medallion.

Ari pushed on the door, though it would not budge and it had no handle. Quixote stepped up and let swing a mighty crack with his hammer, though it bounced off and sent him flying backwards.

 

***

 

Uncle Bear-Nard entered the Forbidden Place, staring wild-eyed at Lexington tied up next to Daquan. Quesob approached him, drew his sword and held it out.

‘No further old man. Your time is gone,’ though the strength in Quesob’s voice faltered as he struggled to believe anymore in their purpose.

‘I have not come here to live.’

Great resolve rang out in Uncle Bear-Nard’s words, and he walked forward onto Quesob’s sword. The tip pushed through his jacket and into his skin. Blood seeped out, staining his clothes.

‘Let me pass that I may do one final act and then if the desire so besets you, you shall have my head.’

Quesob dropped the sword, his whole world filled with doubt. He could see love for the cousins burning in Uncle Bear-Nard’s eyes, and he could not stand the thought of Lexington dying. Some bug or sickness of her had fallen over him.

Daquan squirmed in panic, rocking Lexington onto the blades.

‘KILL HIM YOU FOOL! RUN HIM THROUGH! STICK THAT PATHETIC BLADE OF YOURS INTO HIS GULLET!’

Uncle Bear-Nard came within a few feet of the creaking gallows.

‘Let her down and you shall live.’

Daquan started to protest, but stopped when Uncle Bear-Nard lifted his arms high above his head and let his sleeves fall down. Wrapped around both wrists were all the remaining bracelets, green glowing and darkly fuzzed.

Daquan widened his glare.

‘You wouldn’t dare!’

Doctor Thurgood slunk toward the opening in the vines. Quesob held his sword to him, blocking his exit.

Uncle Bear-Nard spat on the ground.

‘You were there when Karena used the incantations, the ones she had discovered. You were the one who caused her to recite them. Now, let her go or I will recite them again, and you will never see the bracelets, New Wakefield, Agorrah, or anything else you value ever again.’

Daquan laughed, then stopped.

‘You old fool. You still reject the truth. All those years ago it was I who stopped her destroying New Wakefield. I have nothing else to live for either.’ He rocked his body and a small blade pushed deep into Lexington’s skin, but failed to break the skin. ‘Perhaps my last act of enjoyment will be seeing the last of the line of the originals wiped out.’ He gritted his teeth and snarled. ‘If I can’t have them then no one will!!’

Uncle Bear-Nard held his arms up once again.

‘Lexington can you hear me?’

She nodded as much as she could.

‘Understand this. A tree gives fruit to eat. Left untended it will still give fruit to eat. To enjoy it, you just have to let it grow, not understand how it works. Quixote is the key.’

He crossed his held-up arms, joining all the bracelets; grunting and moaning and making noises that sounded more like a factory working than any language that might have been used for incantations.

Daquan screamed with delight, yelling out that all could die. Doctor Thurgood tried to make a run for it, but Quesob knocked him to the ground.

‘If we are all going to die, then you can too.’

 

***

 

Sounds of fighting echoed down the tunnel and Daquan screamed but the cousins could not make out the words. A terrible screech rent the air as if thousands of crows died at once in horrific pain. Deep, throaty bellows boomed like a hundred mutant cows had been unleashed. The cave shook, and vibrations rumbled through their hearts, curdling their insides.

High pitched whines and jabbering as if screaming banshees from an evil place thrashed about. The sound of attacking bears, rampaging rhinos, mad elephants and wild dinosaurs brought the noises to a deafening level.

They crouched down holding their ears and screwed their eyes shut tight. Dust and dirt fell around them as the ground shook.

 

 

 

 

The noise died away leaving their hearing dazed and their hearts clamouring for calm. An eerie silence followed…………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blood-curdling scream soon shattered the silence.

Melaleuca recognized it first.

‘Lexington!’

Ari and Melaleuca took off at a sprint.

In the blink of an eyelid Quixote stood at the entrance of the cave surveying the scene. Lexington lay on the ground unconscious. Where she had been tied up Uncle Bear-Nard hung trapped between the two logs, his body crushed and pierced through with swords and knives, blood seeping out of him. Daquan sat on the ground stunned along with Doctor Thurgood, who held Lexington’s bracelet in his hand, while Quesob had dropped to his knees, praying.

Unable to decide what to do first, he zipped to Lexington, touched her and thought about the doctor’s outfit. She breathed deep and regular and a look of peace emanated from her face. He looked up at Uncle Bear-Nard bleeding, and went to move toward him, but caught sight of Daquan, and thought he better not let him escape, so moved toward him. Lexington let out a large contented sigh, followed by a groan from Uncle Bear-Nard. Quesob cried out, and threw more vigor into his praying.

Quixote raced between them all, until confused, he wished someone would make a decision for him. He needed Melaleuca and Ari but did not have the strong man costume to carry them with. He knew that events had gone beyond them and that Argus would be needed. Thinking of Lexington and Uncle Bear-nard, Quixote thrashed his legs so fast, he felt as if he might leave the earth, and raced back to the Cathedral-Mansion to grab it.

Zap!

He appeared in the costume room, and threw on the strong man costume.

Zap!

He appeared at Argus’s side in the barn.

‘You are needed. Hold on.’

For the next thirty seconds both he and Argus soared over the land, Quixote hammering his legs as fast as he could go, breaking his previous speed record. Argus clung on for his dear life as the trip blurred and frazzled him with speed he never dreamt possible.

In the Forbidden Place, Quixote placed Argus by his Lexington.

‘Attend to her.’

 

Argus could not see anything. His wind-chaffed eyes blurred and only made out fuzzy images. Blobby figures hovered around his sight in a hazy mist. He squeezed his eyes open and shut, rubbing them with his fingers.

 

By the time Argus had his eyes focusing, Melaleuca and Ari appeared at Argus’s side.

‘Lexington!’

Melaleuca threw herself at her, grabbing her hand. Argus checked her pulse and her breathing, and tried to shake her awake, and squeezed her finger.

‘She is unconscious,’ Argus said, ‘but okay, I think.’

‘Get the doctor’s outfit,’ Ari shouted to Quixote.

Quixote flew out and back, handing it to Melaleuca. She performed a thorough examination, and then relaxed.

‘This is beyond this costume. Her mind has shut down as a protective mechanism.’

The news calmed them all, especially Quixote, whose tears brimmed in his eyes at the sight of his dearly loved cousin lying inert on the earth. Ari placed his hand on Quixote’s shoulder.

‘I’m sure she will be fine.’

Quixote nodded, and said, ‘She could pretend to be a sleeping princess,’ and half laughed.

 

With Lexington safe, they looked around.

 

‘What happened here? What was all that noise?’ Ari asked.

Uncle Bear-Nard groaned, his crushed body close to death. As they looked up at him, Quesob stood and cried out, ‘I am sorry.’

 

Conflicting emotions tore through Quesob, and forbidden tears filled his eyes. He tried to fight them back, but his white knuckles and death-grip on his sword’s hilt belied his desperation. Before him the baby-faced Daquan still sat, stunned. Quesob shoved his sword-tip into Daquan’s throat, though his past loyalty stopped it going all the way in. Tiny trickles of blood oozed out around the pinprick wound.

‘He betrayed me! He betrayed us all!’

 

Argus stared at Quesob recognizing him as the man he had shot in the cousin’s valley, though he knew to keep quiet about it. The last thing the cousin’s needed to hear was the true fate of their parents. Instead he ignored him, as did the others, choosing to lower Uncle Bear-Nard’s crushed and bloodied body to the ground. His breathing came fast and shallow and all colour had drained from his face.

‘Hold on Uncle, I will save you,’ Melaleuca said, starting to examine him, working out what needed to be done.

Uncle Bear-Nard mouthed a few silent words, before saying, ‘Happy to die……sacrifice…no revenge…’

‘Save your breath Uncle,’ Melaleuca said feeling his body, her hands bloodied, realising most of his internal organs were crushed and that he had lost too much blood.

‘No…’ Uncle Bear-Nard gasped. ‘Take the bracelets…innocence…innocence….’

His body went limp, and his breathing stopped.

‘NOOO! Not again,’ Melaleuca cried out. She turned to Quixote. ‘Think of all weird costumes you have tried on. Could any of them bring him back?’

Nothing came to mind. He shrugged his shoulders, a forlorn expression on his face.

Argus took Melaleuca’s bloody hands, tugging her toward him. Despite all her courage and all her wisdom beyond her years, this brief moment of loss reminded him that she was after all only a youth, as they all were.

‘He is gone, Melaleuca. Gone. Perhaps there is a costume that could help, but by the time you find it, it will be too late.’

Melaleuca sobbed into her hands.

Enraged, Ari drew his sword and stomped over to Quesob and Daquan. Doctor Thurgood sat with his back to the wall, legs scrunched up to his chest cowering and blathering. Ari held his blade out in front.

‘This is your doing!’

Quesob sunk to his knees, removing his sword from Daquan’s throat and laid it down in front of him.

‘Yes. You are right.’ He bowed his head low. ‘None of the events today I knew would happen. I only wanted to free the children of New Wakefield.’

‘Free them! You call all those bodies out there freeing them!’

‘I didn’t know!’

Quesob seemed an altogether pitiable creature now, nothing like the warrior who had accosted them after the High Galelain. Ari’s rage subdued.

‘What happened to my cousin then?’

‘I didn’t see. None of us did. The noise…the noise…so loud…We all hid.’

Argus came and stood by Ari, while Quixote stayed with Melaleuca.

‘Ari. No more killing. Lower your sword. Let him be. We have won this battle. Let us concentrate on getting Lexington back safely.’

‘We shall take Uncle’s body with us, as well,’ Melaleuca said.

‘The bracelet!’ Quixote suddenly burst out. ‘Put the bracelet on Lexington!’

The word “bracelet” shook Daquan from his stunned stupor. He blinked his baby-fat eyes, took stock of all his ruined plans, leapt up, and grabbed Lexington’s yellow bracelet. He hurled Doctor Thurgood onto a horse, jumping on it as well and galloped off out the opening.

The Kockoroc could be heard screeching after Daquan. Daquan’s screaming shattered the air as he uttered a battle cry. Profanity after profanity fell from his mouth, his swearing trailing off into the distance.

Quesob leapt onto a horse and took off after him.

Ari made to go after them, though Argus’s hand on his shoulder held him back.

‘Let them go. If need be when all this is sorted, we can come back and track him down.’

‘I’ll get her bracelet,’ Quixote said. In a flash he had speed-booted it to Daquan and back, returning with the bracelet in his hand.

Ari took it, looking at it and handed it back to Quixote.

‘It’s not a bracelet. Look at it again,’ Ari said.

Quixote inspected it and saw that it looked like a bracelet but was an inferior copy.

‘I’ll be back,’ Quixote said, and again flashed away once more.

 

Melaleuca’s head hurt, and she ran her hand through Lexington’s hair, feeling a pang of guilt.

Should I have listened to her more?

 

Seconds passed and Quixote returned.

‘They don’t have it?’

His words reminded Melaleuca she still needed to lead.

‘Enough Quixote. We will find another way.’

‘But Lex will need her bracelet.’

He strode to Uncle Bear-Nard’s body and unclipped one of the green bracelets. Before he could even move toward Lexington’s body with it, Melaleuca blocked his way and held her hand out.

‘Enough. Your ideas always lead somewhere. Right now I need you to be here and doing as I say. If this bracelet does not work, or if it does something else to her, I want to be back at the mansion, not here in this pit of despair.’

‘Okay! You sound like Lexington.’

‘Perhaps if we had done a little bit more of what Lexington had said, this may not have happened.’

Before he could feel slighted by her words, she reached out and tousled his hair.

‘We are a team. Time to start working as one. Let’s just get her back, and then we can search for her bracelet.’

 

Sounds of shouting and intense yelling drifted in.

 

‘Wait here,’ Argus said to Melaleuca and Quixote. ‘Ari come with me. I need to get a better idea of our situation.’

For the first time, Melaleuca seemed happy to let Argus be in charge.

 

Outside Argus beheld a bewildering scene. Hordes of men, a few clad in leather amour, and the rest naked and scarred, chased a strange looking bush creature in a weird game of tag. The creature chased the men in clothes and the naked men chased the leaf creature. Bodies of horses and men lay strewn around on the field, a sight he had seen many times before in battle, though the sight of a pile of dead children sickened even him.

‘Who are they? What happened here?’ Argus called to the cousins, his eyes whipping open in surprise as he witnessed the leaf creature catch up with the last, clothed Inquisat and disintegrate their clothes.

Ari took him through the main highlights, explaining everything that had happened since leaving to find Lexington.

 

With Uncle Bear-Nard dead, Argus knew he now must take over the mentorship, leading and guiding the cousins. A task he knew that without Bear-Nard he was ill equipped for. But then, he thought to himself, perhaps he could learn to wield the bracelets.

 

Heading south, further into the reaches of the southern wilderness, Daquan fled, with Quesob in tow. Both Ari and Argus watched them dash across a shallow part of the river and head into a southwest valley.

‘I want to pursue them,’ Ari said, a hint of revenge in his voice.

‘Yes you could though your Uncle asked you not too. Daquan has lost his battle, perhaps even his war. He is, as your Uncle said, a madman. The best revenge is too leave him too his madness. It will eventually eat him out……Besides, they will have them to contend with.’

He pointed to a far off mountain covered in snow.

At first Ari could not see them, but then he made out a long line of small black dots moving down from the mountaintop.

‘Who…are…?’

‘Golgotherites. Thar Mountain Men. Men of Ori.’

‘You know them?’

‘Possibly? And look up there. The Kockoroc.’

The Kockoroc dive-bombed Daquan, swung around, caught an updraft and then dive-bombed him again.

‘It looks like he is chasing him into the path of them.’

Argus said with much thought, ‘All along I think I have been a chess piece in a much larger game.’

Ari sensed a real change in Argus. ‘You do remember.’

‘Maybe……but I still have scores to settle.’

Together they went back inside. Melaleuca and Quixote had rigged up two makeshift horse-drawn sleds. Lexington’s body lay on one and their Uncle’s lay on the other. They gathered around them in silent respect.

‘Let’s take them back,’ Melaleuca said eventually. ‘We’ll find away to fix Lexington and then, well, then I guess….’ She sighed, looked around, saying, ‘Then we…carry on…fun n stuff.’

It hardly seemed likely that fun was possible now.

‘Let’s speed boot back,’ Quixote said.

‘Soon,’ Melaleuca said. ‘We will walk for a little.’

Argus could see wisdom in this. ‘Allow yourselves time to process this. Get Lexington better and we can go through what has happened. The fun will come naturally.’

Melaleuca looked at Argus, her sharp eyes piercing him, a keenness of mind trying to slice away the unnecessary.

‘You’ve changed.’

‘I’ll help you for a time.’

‘Good, because we still need to know what this is really all about.’

 

So much had happened since winning the High Galelain, that the triumph of winning it now seemed soured by Uncle Bear-Nard’s death.

 

Quixote jigged the horses forward, stopping them again, when Melaleuca said, ‘Wait.’

She put the detective costume on. ‘We still don’t know what really happened here.’

She examined the scene, with Ari and Quixote joining her, trying to piece together what had happened.

 

The biggest clue lay in the bracelets on Uncle Bear-Nard’s arm and the strange plants growing in a semi circle. No evidence of what created the sound or what the fighting was turned up, nor was it obvious how Uncle Bear-Nard had become crushed in between the logs and not Lexington.

The cave and its mysteries held a haunting invitation toward Quixote, his mind, as ever, churning over adventure and excitement. He shuffled to the entrance. Power, mystery, something secret, something hidden in the cave for hundreds of years, tugged on his imagination.

‘I am going to check on something.’

 

Through the opening to the Forbidden Place Iam entered, his leafy body curling the vines back even more. Rustling, he walked over to them.

‘Another time, young Quixote. When the time is right you will be ready.’

Fascinated by the creature, Argus could not hold his tongue. ‘What are you?’

‘Many things, all things, and none some things.’

‘Are you animal? Vegetable? Er…human or other?’

‘Seeker of a title, needer of a label, eh? A box is needed to contain me. Let’s see, which one…which one.’ Iam thought, his leaf face scrunching and twisting, his dark chocolate brown eyes twinkling in a shaft of light and then announced, ‘I am a reader of the earth.’

Argus was none the wiser.

‘If you have answers you must tell us,’ Melaleuca said. ‘After everything that has happened, we deserve to know.’

‘What is the question?’ Iam asked.

‘The question! The question is all this needs explaining.’

‘Our Uncle is dead,’ Ari said.

Iam laughed.

‘You have the answers. You just need the help of a reader. Your Uncle is only dead to here and now, but not to there and next.’

Iam reached his leafy arm out and patted Ari. As he did, Ari saw flashes of his previous dream-visions of him and the earth being one. Iam touched the others and they also in turn saw glimpses of their dream-visions. It answered no questions but it somehow it comforted them.

Argus noted the change in them and became suspicious.

‘What have you done?’

‘Reminded them of that which they did not know they knew.’

The cousins all smiled at Argus, nodding queer looks of satisfaction. With his brief touch Iam had stirred in them a deep groundswell of hope. Their dream-visions seemed to plant trust firmly back in their young innocent hearts.

‘You’re just like that bloody Antavahni. I didn’t trust him. I don’t trust you,’ Argus said.

Melaleuca saw the change in Argus, though he pulled his eyes away from her. She noted it, knowing that at the first opportunity she would drill him until she knew what had altered in him.

Lexington stirred, making a small noise.

‘Can you fix Lexington?’ Quixote asked Iam.

Iam chortled some more and went to speak.

‘Wait,’ Quixote said, ‘let me guess. We have the answers. She is hurt, just appears it, something about a dimension, blah, blah, blah.’

Iam squealed with delight and clapped his leafy hands together.

‘Come Argus,’ Melaleuca said grabbing his arm, sensing it was time to ignore Iam. ‘We shall head back now.’

Ari and Quixote each grabbed a horse and led them out of the Forbidden Place onto the battlefield. Argus walked with them, feeling altered but powerless, his mind trying to get a fix on all that had happened.

The battlefield had bodies and dead horses strewn everywhere. The last of the naked Inquisat could be seen fleeing over the pass they had descended down. Captain HeGood was nowhere to be seen.

‘What happened to them?’ Ari asked.

Iam sniggered.

‘I haven’t had this much fun since teaching cavemen how to use bronze and then watching them scrap it out.’

 

Outside on the battlefield amongst the dead, the cousins could see blue lines of energy flowing across the land. It looked as if mist floated a few inches above the earth. It ran in crooked lines up the hills and some of them headed down the valleys heading west and east, and some of them flowed up the hills toward the south.

‘What are those blue floating streams?’ Melaleuca asked, putting her hand into one close by. ‘They were not there before.’

She could not feel them, though small eddies whirled about where she stuck her hand in.

Ari and Quixote stared fascinated by them, but Argus unable to see them asked what they were talking about.

‘Very good!’ Iam said. ‘Such fast progress. Not even your parents saw them. Yes, you see the earth’s energy lines. Your first sight is starting to develop. No turning back now. I must warn you inaction will cost you – all that is left for you is right action.’

Melaleuca went to ask a question, though Iam held a leafy arm up to her, stopping her. ‘All in good time. Take these home, and ah…perhaps the kidnapped children might do with some help.’

Drawn by an unknown tugging, thirty children surfaced from their hiding places. They climbed up from the riverbank and crawled out from under bushes. Young boys and girls, badly malnourished with long, drawn faces, hesitantly started walking back toward the township of New Wakefield.

Weariness washed over Melaleuca.

‘Ari, Quixote, go and round up them. Argus and I will walk with the horses. Use the speed boots and take them to Daquan’s Cathedral-Mansion. Come back when you have transported them all.’

Iam headed in the direction that Daquan had fled, crying out, ‘Do not worry about Lexington.’

Melaleuca picked up the ruck-sac, stuffed the costumes she had left by the bush into it, noting that the horse riding costumes were gone.

 

Chapter 41 – An Unwelcome Return

 

 

Argus and Melaleuca led the horses across the battlefield and up the slope, stopping at the top to check Lexington and mount the horses. Overwhelmed and not wanting to talk, she dropped her guard, letting the events of the past few days tug remorselessly at her. She nudged her horse forward and gazed at the blue, misty lines trying to still her mind. They ran in all directions, adding a strange beauty to the barren earth.

Argus plodded beside her, recognizing the land around him, and feeling uncomfortable for it.

‘Why not get Quixote to speed Lexington back?’

‘A gut feeling. She needs time to process whatever she saw.’

‘Maybe he could speed me back.’

Pulling her horse to a halt, she focused on him, and then said, ‘And so do you.’

‘You see too much for a youth.’

 

Every now and then, Quixote appeared with a startled child in his arms, and would toss an inane comment or two and roar off again.

 

***

 

As the sun became a thin orange arc on the distant bush-clad hills, losing the battle with the encroaching night, Melaleuca and Argus entered the courtyard of Daquan’s Cathedral-Mansion, having ridden all day.

A raging bonfire pumped out heat; orange light from it dancing across the hollowed faces of the rescued children. With blankets wrapped around them, they stared, scared at Quixote. He wore a chef’s outfit, and stirred a soupy broth with an oversized ladle. Con and his French Resistance, plus a whole gaggle of Gorks fed the fire, chopped vegetables, and buzzed with excited conversation. Quixote tasted the soup and puckered his lips for joy.

‘Come get it.’

Bowls in hands some of the children shuffled up, their aching, hunger pains overriding any fear of the Marauders. The most malnourished struggled to hold their bowls, and Bleph, her parents and a few other children helped them.

Ari strode to Daquan’s horrified servants, drew his sword, prodding each one of them forward, stopping them at the line of children.

‘Help the weak.’

The most timid children sat in a huddle still too frightened and confused. A proud Gregand sat amongst them pouting, while Bleph’s parents helped out. One by one Ari took them bowls, placing them on the ground before them. He placed the last one before Gregand, though he kicked it over.

Ari squatted beside him.

‘What’s the use in being a hero when no one will ever know. After today everything will change for the children. Eat and think about it.’

‘Mel! Argus!’ Quixote yelled out. ‘Come have some food to eat.’

Ari stood, forgetting Gregand, and rushed to meet them.

‘I’d rather die,’ Gregand muttered.

Ari ushered them to a table set away from the rescued children.

‘How is Lexington?’

‘She is good. Still in a coma, but okay,’ Melaleuca said taking her bracelet off. ‘I put the doctor’s outfit on a few times and checked her. She will be fine til we find a costume to help her.’

‘I trust you,’ Ari said pushing two bowls of soupy broth at them.

Argus grabbed his bowl with both hands and gulped it down, then let a great belch rip.

‘You kids are something else.’

‘Thank you,’ Ari replied and then looked to Melaleuca. ‘What’s the plan from here?’

Quixote let out a whoop of joy and started dancing a jig around the fire with the French Resistance joining him. With their deformed bodies they tried to dance, though only managed spasms and fits. Daquan’s servants, miffed at being forced to serve coward children, looked on disgusted, muttering, and shaking their heads wondering what New Wakefield was coming too.

‘Enjoy this for a bit,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Return the children and then take Lex home and tell Aunty, of course about Uncle.’

Quixote danced amongst the rescued children, with the French Resistance and the Gorks following him.

‘You’re free! You’re free!’

None of the kidnapped children laughed nor smiled. The word, “free,” had no meaning for them. Dread sat on their faces; dread of returning, dread of the Marauders, dread of the unknown.

Bleph filed amongst them and despite her tiny voice, she exhorted them.

‘Listen. The Marauder’s are our friends. We have been lied to all this time. They rescued me, helped me, made me strong.’

‘Our parents and discipliners would not lie,’ a voice cried out.

‘They fed you just now. How can you say that?’

‘Cut out your eyes, don’t trust your flesh,’ a robot-toned boy recited.

‘No. The truth is something else,’ Bleph replied.

Argus shook his head.

‘Brainwashed. For some of them it is too late.’

‘Perhaps,’ Melaleuca replied, motioning to Lexington’s body.

Gregand stood over her body, a fathomless look on his face. Melaleuca walked to him.

‘Is she dead?’ Gregand asked.

‘Why? Do you feel something?’

‘No….I….she…I…’

Even in repose Lexington’s flawless skin and gentle beauty reached through his tough layers. Melaleuca saw a longing in his face for something he had never had, something it seemed he thought she had given him; gentleness and a glimpse of something far better.

They all need this, she thought, suddenly realising that between Lexington and Quixote they could teach the children, and perhaps even the adults of New Wakefield, to laugh and love.

‘NO!’ Gregand shouted, fighting against his feelings. He screwed his face up, snarling at Melaleuca.

‘This is weakness.’ He turned and ran off.

Argus tapped his head.

‘It’s a start,’ Melaleuca said.

As the dancing mood wore off Melaleuca told Quixote to take the children back to New Wakefield town.

‘I’ve got just the thing.’

Arriving back from the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion within seconds, he stood there dressed as a circus ringside announcer, a black top hat adorning his head and a long red evening jacket with tails flowing behind him. Under his nose a small handle bar moustache had appeared. And of course he had managed to fit the scintillating static electricity costume on as well.

‘All righty then, step right up one and all. Prepare to be returned most haste,’ he boomed in a large cheerful voice. ‘Don’t be frightened. Fear not. I shall accompany you and make the way smooth. I will herald the dawn of a new age. Freedom for all.’

He pranced back and forth filled with pompous gusto, sparks flying off him. He pulled a whip out from a pocket, slicing at the air pretending to fight an animal back.

‘In the circus you will see lions tamed, but tonight I promise you I shall tame the lion in your parents. Never fear.’

Argus said to Melaleuca and Ari, ‘Never quietly is it?’

‘It’s okay,’ Melaleuca said, glad to see Quixote unafraid to be himself despite all that had transpired. ‘It will give us some cover to get back to the mansion. We still have to tell Aunty Gertrude about Uncle.’

‘Perhaps Ari,’ Argus said. ‘You should go with Quixote to safe guard him and the others.’

‘Yes good idea. What about Jerkin though? He’s still tied up in the barn.’

Without thinking Melaleuca said straight back, ‘Leave him there for the night. If he is so tough another night won’t kill him. We’ll work out what to do with him tomorrow.’

As Quixote led the children away, Con, Revile, and Stench approached Melaleuca. Behind them a small score of Gorks followed, at least a hundred in number. Con carried the body of Dunk.

‘We have many wanting to join the resistance. Dunk was well liked. They feel it is time to fight back, even if we all die. Better to die fighting than to walk willingly to our deaths.’

‘Let’s hope it does not come to that,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Where are you to bury him?’

‘Bury?’

‘Yes, his grave. Where will it be?’

‘Bodies of cowards and Gorks are thrown into the Unforbidden Forest. The bodies of all others are cast of Glory’s Cliff. No one is buried.’

‘Then bring him with us. We shall bury him at the Mansion. We shall make a remembrance to him.’

‘And the others,’ Con said a sheepish look creeping across his face. ‘We now have nowhere to go.’

‘Oh. I see. Well…then…tell them to keep quiet. Follow us to the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion. Stay for the night and we shall figure something out.’

 

***

 

Another idea flashed through Quixote’s head; a costume that he had been dying to try on ever since he had found it. He ran to the costume room in less than half a second, grabbed the costume and dashed back again in under half a second; three blinks of the eye and all the children saw was Quixote as the ring master produce out of nowhere a bunch of musical instruments all over his body. A large bass drum sat on his back, and wrapped around his neck a harmonica sat opposite his mouth. On his shoulder clanging castanets sat and between his knees crashing cymbals were tied. And in his hand he held a trumpet.

He boomed, banged, trumpeted, honked, clanked and rang, all the way down the valley, marching and crying out at the top of his voice that the children had returned. As he bashed out raucous tune after cacophonic tune, he sent shafts of incandescent light soaring into the sky.

By the time they had reached New Wakefield, the town had turned out in numbers to witness the spectacle.

Quixote came marching through telling everyone to gather at the amphitheatre. There he announced that the Marauders were back and for good, and that their children were returned. He told them that the Inquisat had been defeated and that now they no longer had to fear the establishment. After minutes of regaling them he stopped, waiting for a hero’s applause.

An angry, bewildered silence greeted him.

‘Well what are you waiting for? Your children are returned.’

‘Who will keep order now the Inquisat are gone?’ Asked Sah Task-Master Carrion, standing on his balcony. ‘Who will patrol and maintain discipline?’

‘Ask the High Overlord!’ someone shouted.

‘He is dead,’ Sah Task-Master Carrion said. ‘He passed away but an hour ago.’

Quixote banged on his drum.

‘And your children?’

Silence answered him again.

Sah Task-Master Carrion cackled.

‘For Marauders you are naïve. Children rescued are tainted. Now if they had fought back and made their way back here that would have been recognized. But this! This rescue! Is weakness!’

Quixote had seen it going differently in his mind and he now searched Ari’s face seeking what to do next. Sah Task-Master Carrion picked up on this moment of uncertainty.

‘Even their weakness shows through,’ he said, addressing the crowd. ‘This Marauder has released your children into weakness. Will you stand for that?’

The crowd answered back with a cry of allegiance to the ways of discipline, though some in the crowd that did not.

 

Huddled in the darkness and still wrapped in blankets, the freed children exchanged nervous glances. Daquan had been careful only to choose the soft looking ones, ones that he thought might be as innocent as he could get, so none of them had ever shone as being disciplined or brave. Intimidated by the crowd’s hostility, they felt unwanted, even through some of the freed children could see their parents.

 

A lone Captain HeGood trotted in on horseback. Dehydrated, exhausted, his mouth pursed shut, he stared hard at Quixote.

‘The Inquisat are not vanquished. We shall regroup and we shall hunt you down. I would rather die than ever give up. I don’t know how many of you there are? I don’t care if you have the power to destroy the earth – I will not rest.’

Having spoken his words, his strength gave out, and he slid off his horse, falling crumpled to the ground. The crowd reacted, pulling back, it being forbidden to touch someone who had let weakness overcome them. Sah Task-Master Carrion approved of Captain HeGood.

‘Pick him up. He is not weakened, but has traversed the realms of inner strength – the small death.’

Fump-Hee burst out of the crowd, running to help his master.

The crowd muttered low tones of approval. “Small Death” – the state one gets into when the strength beyond no strength has been reached, followed by complete exhaustion. It was the stuff heroes were made of.

Sah Task-Master Carrion lifted the limp head of Captain HeGood up.

‘This is discipline. You see, you do not have the consent of the people. We have always withstood you and the outside world, and always will.’

Ari leapt onto the small platform, joining Quixote.

‘Harm these children and I promise you I will wipe this town off the face of the earth.’

‘THEN TAKE THEM AWAY!’ Sah Task-Master Carrion yelled. ‘IF YOU ARE SO MIGHTY THEN YOU TRAIN THEM! DO WITH THEM WHAT YOU WILL!’

Ari could see Quixote’s mind ticking over, could almost see him thinking of some grand practical joke.

‘Let’s just take the kids and go,’ Ari said. ‘We can deal with these people later.’

‘Liberated children of New Wakefield, follow us to freedom,’ Quixote cried out in his finest circus performer’s voice. He leapt down off the platform, striding right into the middle of the crowd. The static electricity costume showered them with sparks forcing them to part. He banged and honked all his instruments and pulled faces at everyone. The children followed, with Ari bringing up the rear.

The children murmured fearful words but followed anyway; they had nowhere else to go. Half way up the road to the Cathedral-Mansion they caught up with Argus and Melaleuca, and the Gorks. They explained how the rescued children had been rejected.

Ari and Quixote looked to Melaleuca to decide what to do. She cast her eyes over the desperate and wanting eyes peering at her from the gray, grainy night.

Argus whispered in her ear, ‘It looks like you have your first army.’

She whirled on him incensed.

‘Do you think I am going to use these to attack?’

‘Mark my words wise one. You will need an army.’

‘For now we shall protect them. Sneak them in the back way, through the tunnel. Hide them in the barn. The last thing we need is Aunty Gertrude to see them.’

 

***

 

After tucking the children in the barn and leaving Bleph’s parents in charge, Ari and Quixote joined Melaleuca and Argus at the front of the mansion.

Great torches had been lit on top of the statues and thistles hung off them. Banners of past heraldry hung from the windows and for the first time ever they could hear Aunty Gertrude singing a happy song.

‘Bracelets off,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Put your normal clothes on. This may be tough enough as it is without explaining why we are dressed as Marauders.’

Leaving the horses with Lexington and their Uncles bodies on for Argus to guard, they walked up the steps and pushed on the large doors. They creaked open slightly into the Cathedral-Mansion. Thousands of lit candles illuminated a dancing Aunty Gertrude. At first she appeared too ecstatic to notice them, whirling around and around.

But then she noticed them. The singing stopped and her happiness vanished. A great startled look crossed her face and then a shade of horror came across it as if she stared at a ghost.

‘Get away. How dare you come to haunt me.’

The cousins exchanged puzzled looks. Had their Aunty gone mad as well?

‘Only ghosts can haunt,’ Melaleuca said. ‘And we are very much alive.’

Aunty Gertrude’s face changed again. This time suspicion crawled into her eyebrows.

‘What do you mean? You are still alive?’

She raced over to them, her shoes echoing high into the roof. She grabbed at Ari’s arm feeling it, confirming he was real.

Incensed, Melaleuca swatted her off Ari.

‘So you would have us dead!’

‘I would have you dealt with once and for all. It’s your presence here that has bought the Kockoroc back and the Marauders. Dead. Banished. Gone. Whichever.’

‘It’s a pity Uncle did not share his secrets with you when he was alive. I should think you would want us around now. If you are the Matron of Histories, then you know the secret power source that lies hidden in the Southern Wasteland.’

‘I am Matron of Histories. For that you want the master of mythologies…….What?…….What do you mean when he was alive? He is about to be banished. And all this…’ She motioned upwards to the Cathedral-Mansion. ‘All this shall be mine! Is mine!’

Melaleuca pulled the great entrance doors open all the way. Framed by the entranceway, Uncle Bear-Nard’s body lay dead on the back of the make shift sled.

‘NOOOOO!’ Aunty Gertrude screamed, and then paused, trying to take in all his death meant. ‘He can’t be. That is not supposed to happen. They were supposed to keep him alive. They gave me their word.’

She rushed outside and in the light of the naked burning torches, bent down, felt his chest and touched his face. The cold from his dead flesh shot into her hands, and she pulled them back.

‘Who did this?’

‘He did it to himself,’ Quixote said, ‘saving Lexington.’

He motioned to her lying on the other horse drawn sled, breath-vapour coming out her nose.

‘Her!’ Waves of disgust emanated from Aunty Gertrude. ‘He gave his life for her.’

She stood and kicked his lifeless body hard. ‘You stupid old fool. Stupid old fool. Look what you have done. Lost! All is lost now because of you.’

She started wailing and crying out loud noises. The maids and Pembrooke and Jeeves came running to see what the noise was about. The cousins told them as much as they had told Aunty Gertrude. Jeeves and Pembrooke received the news with a strange peace, though Pemily and Petruce both looked shocked and stunned. Aunty Gertrude threw herself onto her knees and pounded Uncle Bear-Nard’s body with her fists.

‘She is really upset,’ Melaleuca said. ‘I guess she really did love him.’

‘Perhaps,’ Jeeves said and snorted a rare emotional scoff. ‘But I fear she is more upset because you children now inherit the Mansion and any titles that go with it, and she gets none. Had he been banished then she would retain all of this and the titles until 7 years passed when it would automatically be hers forever.’

Aunty Gertrude overheard and threw herself off Uncle Bear-Nard and with venom in her voice raged at the cousins.

‘That’s right. Until you brats turned up all this was mine. Now it’s ruined. Ruined I say, ruined!’

She screeched and ranted so much that she looked and sounded like a female version of Daquan.

‘But wait!’ The words rushed out of her mouth. ‘No one knows. There is still time. KILL THEM! QUICK KILL THEM!’

She ran around, pushing the servants toward the cousins.

Argus stepped out into full view from behind the horses, though Melaleuca motioned for him to stay where he stood. None of the servants seemed keen to follow her orders.

Jeeves grabbed Aunty Gertrude and pushed her backwards. ‘Your time here is finished. The mansion is now theirs and we are in service to the young masters and mistresses.’

Aunty Gertrude shrieked at him, lashing out with her hand trying to scratch his face. She grabbed the decorative thistles, and threw them at Jeeves.

Across the lawn, walking out of the shadows Harshon appeared calling out, ‘I too witness this and will back the children.’

‘Harshon!’ Melaleuca called out. ‘What are you doing here?’

Aunty Gertrude spat.

‘Come to rob me no doubt!’

‘I have been waiting here since the end of the Galelain. I came to warn you of the danger, but I see I may have been too late.’ She pointed to Lexington.

‘She will be fine,’ Melaleuca said. ‘She is overcome with exhaustion. We will tend to her soon enough.’

Aunty Gertrude threw her head back emitting a long evil laugh; evil enough to suggest she knew something they did not. Everyone stopped. Melaleuca wanted to punch her so bad.

‘Aunty?’

‘Not any more, wench. I know the truth of your parents!’

She spat and stuck her nose up in the air.

Lexington’s body jerked at this, but then went still.

Ari stepped forward, intent on grabbing their Aunt and forcing her to tell them. She hissed at him and shrieked a high pitched shrill noise.

‘THEY ARE DEAD! DEAD YOU HEAR! ALL DEAD!’

Melaleuca held her arm out to stop Ari. ‘She is mad. Leave her.’

‘You will never see them again, ever, ever!’

Pembrooke stepped down the steps and trod towards Aunty Gertrude, stopping close to her.

‘Perhaps Madam should leave, given her opinion and state of mind.’

‘NO!’ Harshon shouted. ‘She is no friend of the cause. Consider her an enemy. Lock her away somewhere. Quickly. Kill her even.’

Melaleuca stepped forward.

 

She now understood that her and her cousins must have fun, that their sweet enjoyment of whatever presented itself to them, powered the bracelets. There was still much to know, still many mysteries, myths and fables to unwind before the truth of this land revealed itself. She paused for a moment and let Uncle Bear-Nard’s words drift through her feelings. She thought about what he wanted them to know and discover without being told.

Fun despite hate.

Play despite seriousness.

Enjoyment despite death.

Enthusiasm despite darkness.

‘Pembrooke? It is true?’ Melaleuca asked. ‘All this is now ours?’

Pembrooke nodded, a pleasing look falling over his face.

‘And all titles?’

He nodded again.

‘Then I decree, all harm, hurting, hate and discipline at this Cathedral-Mansion shall stop.’

Aunty Gertrude sniggered.

‘DEAAADD! YOUR PARENTS ARE DEEEEADDDDD!’ She took great relish in saying it.

‘Yes so you keep on saying,’ Quixote said unaffected by the news. ‘So what if they are. People only die to this body, not to this world.’

‘Anyway,’ Ari added. ‘They are actually most likely in Egypt or somewhere, leading our attackers on a wild goose chase. Else we would have been told.’

‘Fools! It was I! Me who organised the attack on you and your parents. I goaded that fat sack of bloated regret out of his complacency. I controlled Daquan. I ordered your parents death and die they did exquisitely. But I made a mistake. I did not tell him about you kids, because I knew he would want you alive, and I wanted you dead.’

Melaleuca took stock of her trust.

But I really want to hold her head under water.

‘Is there somewhere here where we can lock her away for the time being?’

Jeeves and Pembrooke rushed forward, volunteering places to incarcerate her. Seeing this Aunty Gertrude abused them all. ‘COWARDS, TRAITORS, RENEGERS!!!’

‘Do it Jeeves,’ Melaleuca said.

With great relish Jeeves clasped Aunty Gertrude and started frog-marching her away.

‘I’LL KILL YOU ALL!’ she screamed.

‘Wait,’ Quixote said.

He threw on his clown costume and his bracelet, and approached their Aunt. She stared boggle-eyed at him and her mouth dropped. Whatever she saw did not appear pleasant. He tickled and tickled her and performed numerous silly stunts in front of her teasing her, then pulled his bracelet off.

‘Tah duh! It’s us. We are the Marauders.’

‘N…n..no…..It’s a trick.’

‘Leave her,’ Melaleuca called out to Quixote. ‘We have other more important things to attend to.’

‘That was not wise, Qui,’ Ari said..

‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘But did you see the look on her face?’

Jeeves dragged a subdued Aunty Gertrude inside.

Harshon swept her long hair back, smiling, pleased.

‘I knew you were Karena’s offspring. And I had hoped you were the Marauders returned.’ Her voice cracked with emotion. ‘I have waited all my life. She said she would never forsake us.’

‘Yes we are,’ Melaleuca said. ‘Bidden to trust no one but ourselves. There is much we need to know and much I think to do. You may aid us if you want. Your help is needed.’

Harshon nodded, tears in her eyes.

‘I thought it was weakness to cry,’ Quixote said.

‘I never believed it.’ Harshon sniffed. ‘These are tears of happiness.’

Melaleuca nodded.

‘Yes we do indeed have a pronounced affect on people. Come, let us get Lexington inside. First we need to find a costume to help her. Then we prepare to give Uncle and Dunk a burial. Ari, Quixote, grab Lexington. Pembrooke take Uncle’s body around the back. Harshon come with me. Pemily, Petruce, we might like a hot bath.’

They departed to their various assignments, with Pemily and Petruce wandering off as commanded, though still in shock and stunned by everything.

‘You must tell me everything you know,’ Melaleuca said to Harshon.

 

Epilogue

 

As morning dawned, Scout appeared out of nowhere. Standing in the fields behind the Throughnight Cathedral-Mansion, colours swirled around under its skin. Its small, pale body took on the shapes and colours of the grasses it stood amongst, making it nearly invisible. The death of Uncle Bear-Nard had left it alone. So many of its past companions had died that another one should not have mattered, but this time it felt different. Everything felt different. In only one day the smells, sounds and sights had altered enough for it to feel a change in the air. Hearing Quixote approach, it froze and watched him.

 

***

 

Quixote frolicked in and out of the blue, misty lines floating above the earth around his feet. He did not care why they were there, they just seemed fun and that was enough for him. One of the lines shone a little brighter and had more swirls in it than the others. It led off into the fields behind the Cathedral-Mansion. Fancy free and feeling exhilarated by their string of wins, he dashed across the field following it toward Hirad’s Forest in the northern hills.

Dressed as a traveling minstrel, lute in hand, he could not have imagined a better life, or a better outcome to their recent battles. Even Lexington in her coma did not perturb him. Confident they would find a costume or something to bring her round, all that remained was to explore and discover.

With tassels trailing behind and puffy, slit, sleeves making him look more round-shouldered than he was, he slipped into the trees, grabbing his lop-sided pudding hat, seeking the whim that drew him there.

Darting amongst the trees and the bushes he arrived at the giant statues. They stood as unchanged as ever guarding the oversized doorway that he knew must have once belonged to a giant.

Except this time the doors swung inwards, opening a great dark expanse. Just like the cave inside the Forbidden Place in the Southern Wasteland, its dark innards begged to be explored. Many of the misty, blue lines converged on the open door, the speed of the mist increasing as they entered it.

To tempting to not investigate, Quixote trod inside

 

***

 

Scout stood before the doors, stunned and excited. Great tears welled in its eyes. It followed after Quixote, racing through the doors. After 50,000 years the doors to his ancient home were now finally open.

To be continued in…..

 

The Omega Children: The Agent of the Diaspora.

 

With Lexington in a coma, and a horde of rejected children to look after Melaleuca feels the challenge of leadership. The Vahn begrudgingly bestows on her the title of prefect, but behind the scenes Sah Task-Master Carrion plots the cousin’s demise.

Nap Retep no longer seems a threat, yet Argus is compelled to search for him, and makes a discovery that will challenge their innocence to their very core. Quixote’s discovery takes the unsolved mysteries to a whole new depth. Exploring it starts to help them make sense of everything though a strange man turns up with hundreds of new costumes. He declares himself the last surviving Agent of the Diaspora, and accuses them of being imposters.

 

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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.

 

 

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The Omega Children - The Vahn and the Bold Extraction - Book 2

The Adventure Continues The cousins carry on where they left off, hopelessly trapped and wanting of allies. They plunge head long into the next pit arranged for them, though impending warning signs alert the Harbinger their “innocence” is at risk. How will the cousins cope and react? Fight The gloves are off, no more mucking around. Melaleuca finally has had enough, despite what anyone says – this time she is taking the fight to them. Plans Amok Uncle Bear-Nard is in a mad panic as he must still abide by his rules, though all his plans are going horribly wrong and it seems as if the very thing he has worked for all his life is in vast danger of failing. Dropped in it Aunty Gertrude drops the cousins in the deepest end she can muster and then stands back in horror as she realises what she has done. Unleash Nothing is what it seems anymore, and with so many clues, information, mis-information and the Gorks crying out for their help, the cousins are bamboozled – all that makes sense is the great instructions they have been given. They have to unleash their powers in a climatic ending which risks everything and forever changes their path into the future.

  • ISBN: 9780473198800
  • Author: Shane A. Mason
  • Published: 2016-04-03 04:50:27
  • Words: 81013
The Omega Children - The Vahn and the Bold Extraction - Book 2 The Omega Children - The Vahn and the Bold Extraction - Book 2