The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 2

The Theban Trilogy Cover
The Theban Trilogy Cover

The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 2

By Tony DeLorger © 2011

CHAPTER TWO

‘IN THE GULLY OF TIBA’

When Desta awoke it was long into the twilight and the Morlons had made camp under the thick forest canopy near a small waterhole. A fire blazed in the centre of the camp with the roasting carcass of a small forest animal skewered and placed over it. One of the brutes was crouched on his haunches, preparing something in a round metal pot. Another sat mesmerised by the fire, sharpening the end of his spear with a square stone, while one was asleep and the last had momentarily left the camp.

Desta, bound and gagged, lay on her side on a coarsely woven fabric some ten feet from the fire. As she realised her predicament she began to tremble, her eyes wide and glazed with fear. She had never seen such creatures but had heard stories of their carnivorous appetites and cruelty. She felt sure that she would not survive the twilight hours. Then she startled as the missing Morlon came into view from behind her, still adjusting himself from ‘the call of nature’. He stepped heavily over her, his wafting stench making her gag in disgust.

‘Is that ready?’ he snapped as he passed the fire, reaching over to try the roasting meat. The other Morlon quickly slapped him on the hand in spite, the oaf growling in response and licking his fingers, drool dripping down his chin on to his hairy chest.

Desta closed her eyes, praying this was just a dream, but the pain around her wrist was real enough and she had no way to hide, except to pretend that this wasn’t happening.

She opened her eyes a little and saw her captors tearing the flesh from this once-living creature. They devoured it quickly, and without mercy. Desta could hear the crunching of bones and gristle, their greasy hands shovelling the food in as quickly as they could, so they would each get their fair share. Pieces of flesh, grease and drool continuously streamed down the front of their clothing in this irksome feeding frenzy. Then, when they were finished gorging themselves one pulled out a gourd filled with some elixir and passed it around to the others to wash down the food.

They then leant back and wiped their faces with the backs of their hands, satisfied with their short-lived feast.

‘What about her?’ asked one of them, with a sinister grin. He noticed a piece of meat on the ground, picked it up and wiped it roughly on his stitched hide vest.

‘You must be hungry,’ he said, now laughing. Kneeling down next to Desta he roughly removed her gag.

‘No! Please don’t!’ she pleaded. The Morlon just grinned and held her head, forcing the greasy flesh into her mouth.

‘Ah, that’s better!’ he growled. Desta gagged convulsively in response, trying not to vomit. The Morlon held her head tightly, not allowing her to move, then replacing the fabric over her mouth to prevent her from expelling the meat. Desta closed her eyes in terror and disgust. Struggling was pointless; she had to swallow it. If she vomited she would probably choke to death. So, trying to imagine that it was a piece of cool fruit, she swallowed it in one gulp, trying to keep the thought, knowing that if she let it go for even a second, she would heave. Perspiration began to bead on her forehead as her body shuddered in response to this abhorrent torment.

Desta dared not think of what she had just done. The Artec view of life saw all living things as a sacred gift and the thought of flesh-eating was the most repulsive of all imaginings.

Tears began to stream down her red cheeks as she quietly sobbed- immersed in self-pity and the pain of her forced captivity. Eventually, having cried herself dry, she lost consciousness, exhausted and not able to handle a moment longer.

At the end of the twilight, the creatures began to stir and Desta woke with a fright, once again confronted with this living hell. Sunlight flickered through holes in the dense canopy above and a soft trail of bluish smoke rose gently upwards from the smouldering remnants of the fire. Small animals and bird-life had begun their day scurrying and scratching among the nearby undergrowth while Desta watched it all unfold, thinking how absurd life was. In this beautiful place where life was plentiful and flourishing, these hideous creatures lived as they wished. Her own life teetered in the balance, at the whim of these merciless beings, who without qualm, would inflict suffering on any creature, purely for the sport of it.

She lay in disbelief, now feeling numb and resigned to her helplessness. Only the slightest glimmer of hope remained and she could barely hold on to a thought, let alone hope.

The Morlons lazily broke camp and loaded what tools and possessions they had on to their backs. One of the brutes picked up Desta’s rigid body threw her over his shoulder and they all headed off. They slowly wound their way further down into the gully and as they approached its base, the canopy above lessened and the heat of the sun began to make its presence felt.

In a clearing some distance away, a stone building built into a cliff face, rose high above the gully floor. Its coarsely erected walls fitted into its surroundings, almost undetectable. At the edge of the clearing Desta began to hear voices and the sounds of a large encampment. Fires dotted the area and creatures were cooking and cleaning, going about their daily routines. She saw many Morlons as well as many other winged creatures she had never seen before. They all seemed oblivious to her arrival.

Suddenly she heard a strange growling, and lifted her head to see a small fur-covered animal hurtling towards them snarling and snapping at her hair, which was hanging down below the Morlon’s waist. She drew her head back in fright as the Morlon turned and kicked the creature with gusto.

‘Arrh!’ he screamed, waving his brutish arm in the air. The animal shrieked from the blow and retreated in a cloud of dust. With yet another shock, Desta began to cry, unable to hold back her tears.

As they approached the stone building, two Morlon guards emerged from a large archway.

‘Is he here?’ asked Desta’s captor. ‘I have a surprise for him,’ half-turning and showing off his prize.

‘An Artec!’ said the guard, obviously impressed. ‘Wait here.’ The guard momentarily left them then returned.

‘Follow me.’

Desta could only see the cold stone walls and floor beneath her. Fire torches lined the passage, and some way in she saw a large brown rat scurry along the base of the wall.

Suddenly the hallway opened out into a huge dome-like room, flooded with light. The Morlon lifted Desta off his shoulder and placed her on her feet in front of him. She hunched over, her head bowed, her matted red hair covering her delicate face.

‘Ah, what a fine creature,’ came a deep resonant voice from directly in front of her. With eyes closed, she listened intently to the fabric of his robes rustling as he slowly approached.

‘A sweet Artec maiden,’ the voice followed, a long nailed finger parting her hair to reveal her slender and delicate face. The figure walked slowly around her in deep thought. ‘A winged creature,’ he added, still evaluating her worth. ‘You are a prize, my dear.’

Abruptly he looked up at her captors. ‘Well done,’ he said in a dismissive tone, throwing a few pieces of gold to the floor in front of them.

The Morlons quickly picked up the gold and humbly backed out of the chamber. ‘Thank you, Sire.’

Mangarna stood before Desta and lifted her chin so she would look at him. Her eyes were dark and glazed with fear and she was shaking. Before her was the being that threatened life itself, not just hers, but all the inhabitants of their beloved Thebos.

He was not what she expected however. Unlike other Terra-Thebans, he was tall and slender. His face was almost delicate, his features balanced and refined. He wore a long grey beard and his hair was pulled back and tied neatly. His full-length black robes were encrusted with fine jewels that sparkled in the flickering torchlight.

He was majestic in stature but had cold unnerving eyes, lacking emotion. He stood for all that was unthinkable and his twisted, dark plans hung over Thebos like a menacing cloud.

Mangarna slowly turned and stepped up to an intricately carved throne. He arrogantly reclined into it, his legs parted and his arms outstretched over the padded armrests.

‘You may be of use to me, my dear,’ he said thoughtfully, then changed his expression.

‘Take her away! Chain her but don’t put her with the others; I have other plans.’

A Morlon guard entered the chamber and led Desta away into another dark passage. They followed it into the depths of the building until at last they reached a corridor that contained many small cells each with barred metal doors.

She was taken into one of the dank cubicles and was shackled around both ankles, leaving her wrists free to at least move to some degree. The iron door slammed shut with a thud and Desta listened to the sound of the key locking her in. She was now alone.

The cell was no more than six foot square and in it sat a pile of rags in one corner, a bucket in another and a small jug of water at its centre. A single torch sat high above the iron door attached to the stone, dimly lighting the cold damp walls that surrounded her. She slumped down into the pile of rags and closed her eyes to try to escape this living nightmare, praying it was just a dream.

Back in the wizard’s chamber, Mangarna was working on some plans written on large pieces of parchment rolled out across a long oak table.

‘Norbit!’ he screamed impatiently. ‘Norbit!’ The name echoed through the chamber.

‘I’m coming master!’ sounded the reply from one of the adjoining corridors, with a hurried shuffling sound.

Norbit appeared, out of breath. ‘I’m here master,’ he panted.

‘Why aren’t these components ready? Haven’t I given you enough workers?’

‘But Sire, the mouldings take time, it is a skilled task.’

‘I don’t want excuses Norbit, I want these components!’ Mangarna bellowed.

‘Yes Sire,’ said Norbit, quietly and happily leaving the chamber immediately. He knew Mangarna well and knew best of all when not to irritate him.

Norbit was also a ground creature. His kind were known as ‘Elloks’ and shared dominion with the Terra-Thebans. In stature they were slightly taller than the Terra’s but thin with long gangly limbs and rounded backs. They had rather unattractive faces, bulging eyes, long hooked noses and pointy chins. Their flesh was coarse and often pigmented in patches. Wart-like growths, with long frizzy hairs protruding from them, were common.

Being not only unattractive, Norbit also had a deformed right foot that was crushed at an early age. It had grown crooked and turned in, thus creating a dragging shuffle when he walked. Norbit also had one eye that turned outwards, which made this odd creature both difficult to look at and to talk to. But for all of his strange appearance, Norbit was a loyal subject to the wizard. As a lowly ground creature he now enjoyed the fear and respect of the gully inhabitants, being the right-hand of Mangarna. When Mangarna first experimented with his magic, he put a spell on Norbit. Under this spell, Norbit thought himself the most handsome, desirable male in all of Thebos. Each time he saw his reflection, he couldn’t believe how magnificent he was. For this and the promise of respect and power, Norbit remained loyal to his master and complied with all of Mangarna’s requests.

His task now was great. He was to oversee the construction and manufacture of all the parts necessary to create a devastating weapon that Mangarna had designed. The secret component, which would power the weapon, was the sacred crystals that had been stolen from the ‘cave of solitude’. Mangarna kept them in a small casket in his chambers, under lock and key. The most difficult of Norbit’s tasks was to procure the metals and crystals needed for completing the weapon’s outer shell.

The other Terra-Thebans, disgusted with Mangarna’s heresy, had escaped to the gully caves and now lived as renegades, deeply opposed to all of his plans. The Terras were the ground creatures who controlled the realm of metals, minerals and precious stones. Without their expertise mining was slow and difficult. Mangarna and his Morlon followers had little choice but to enslave the other creatures of the gully and force them to mine the much-needed metals and crystals. Norbit worked himself to the bone trying desperately to keep production moving, but working with Morlons was not easy. They didn't take kindly to an Ellok ordering them around.

In the mines deep inside the cliffs, Morlons, trying to keep the enslaved creatures working, would beat them to death by accident. They were cruel and brainless and did not know their own strength. Norbit simply could not maintain fresh captives to offset the deaths and as the numbers of miners fell, so did production. Mangarna became more and more impatient and Norbit became more and more in fear of his master’s retribution.

In the master’s chamber, Mangarna was adding some markings to his design, further calculations that would ensure its accuracy. He then moved over to an open fire, over which a crucible bubbled, containing a blend of molten metals. Placing thick leather gloves on his hands, he swung the crucible slowly off the fire. With the aid of metal tongs he gently poured the molten mixture into a small mould, which sat on a stone block. Sparks and smoke spat profusely from the mould as he slowly completed the pour. He waited for a moment then removed his gloves, carefully studying the hardened metal. Carefully he then lowered the mould into a pail of cool water. The water bubbled frantically, steam billowing out into the surrounding air. Mangarna picked up the moulded metal with the tongs and slowly moved over towards the sacred crystals. As he drew closer the metal began to glow until, when he was almost next to the casket, it shone so brightly he drew back and covered his eyes to protect them.

‘Yes!’ he said victorious, as he moved away from the crystals. Immediately the glowing lessened and he rested the metal back down on to the stone slab. Mangarna began to laugh loudly, almost maniacally, pleased with his progress. It echoed ominously throughout the stone building and all that heard it immediately stopped what they were doing. Understanding its dark and threatening intent, they just listened without emotion and without reaction.

Most of Mangarna’s followers remained with him out of fear rather than loyalty and of course should there be any spoils of war...That would be worth waiting for.

In the encampment lived fifty or so creatures. Most were Morlon, some Ellok and some sylph-like creatures that Mangarna used for scouting and delivering messages to the Morlon bands out looking for more slaves. To the left of the main building were the holding caves, home to the entire slave workforce. In each cage-like pen, sixty to one hundred souls were chained together. At the end of the twilight they were led deep into the mines, where they worked until the next twilight. Then they returned exhausted, to a small bowl of food and a cup of water. Many died after a week or so of this treatment. Most were water creatures and therefore suffered in the heat of the mines, and with the lack of their precious water. The Morlon guards treated them all with contempt, as they did all life, and there was no attention or mercy given under any circumstance.

So many of the undines or water creatures had been captured or killed in the gully that much of the waterholes and creeks were beginning to die. Without their attention, the reeds and grasses were also dying, the banks collapsing and all water life was slowly perishing. Rotting creatures and vegetation created deadly algae that slowly devoured the remaining waters, turning them into stagnant, poison ponds. Without the life-giving water, all life would eventually die. Until the balance could be restored, the gully was in pain and all life was in danger.

Deep in the northern cliff face, lay the caves of the Terra-Thebans. On this particular twilight there was to be a gathering of the elders. Otis, their leader, sat at the head of a large circle. A small fire sat in the centre to light up the meeting cave and twelve others were seated, silently waiting for Otis to speak.

The Terras were a stout race, short limbed and thickset. The males almost always wore beards and they seldom cut their hair. Their faces were round and ruddy and although they were short in stature, they were strong and fierce warriors. Their clothing consisted of simple loincloths and vests made from animal skins roughly sewn together. Often bags were slung over their shoulders to carry personal belongings. The most important being a metal knife, leather sling and most importantly a cup and wooden food bowl. The Terras had insatiable appetites and never needed an excuse to eat; they were always ready for a feast.

The crackling of the fire cut through the silence of the cave and outside a gale whistled across the cliff face. Otis spoke in a soft, controlled voice.

‘This day I have received word from the king. He is much angered, as we are, with Mangarna’s action against all of Thebos. But he has denied our request for more warriors, fearing the loss of too many creatures if full combat follows.’ Otis took a deep breath and the elders mumbled to one another in disapproval.

‘Silence!’ demanded Otis. ‘Gob is our King, we will comply with his wishes,.’

‘But Otis, we are few and the Morlons are many. How can we stop Mangarna with a few spears and arrows? Soon the gully will be a wasteland,’ pleaded Garan, sitting to his leader’s right. The elders loudly voiced their agreement and Otis rose to his feet, raising his hand to bring them to order.

‘You are right my friends, the gully is dying. This madness cannot continue. But face to face combat with Mangarna is not the answer, the sacred crystals are. As we speak, Mangarna builds a weapon that could control all life, as we know it. Without the crystals it would be useless,’ he said thoughtfully, now wandering around the circle.

‘The crystals must be returned to the cave of solitude’

‘But how? How are we few going to take the source of Mangarna’s power away from him, and from the fortress?’ said another, his comrades echoing their agreement. Otis resumed his position at the head of the circle.

‘The King has requested an envoy to travel from the gully to the great mountain. There, these chosen few will enlist the help of the mountain creatures and climb to the cave of solitude. Once there they must, as no others have ever done, ask the great Diva himself to help them on their quest to return the crystals. This is the only way.’ Otis finished, seating himself in the circle and gazing into the fire.

Garan turned to Otis ‘But how will we choose this envoy, Otis? Who will we entrust with this, our day of reckoning?’ Otis stood once more and silenced the gathering.

‘It can only be the cave of fire,’ he said sadly. ‘It is the only way.’

Deep in the caves far beyond where the Terra-Thebans lived and worked, there lived a feared and horrid creature. It occupied an area known to the Terras as the ‘Cave of Fire’. Here the depths of the planet joined the surface. The fires of hell slipped through the cracks in the rocks, with bursts of flame and the hissing of escaping gas. Here, amid incredible temperatures and with little air to breathe lived the ‘Gerf’, a hideous scaled creature that preyed on any life that happened by. For centuries, this creature had taken Terras who were working in the caves and who had strayed too far from the safety of their domain.

The Gerf stood ten feet tall at a standing position, but moved mostly on all fours. Its triangular brown, shiny scales glowed in the darkness of the caves and its head displayed four pointed, curved horns. Two small horns protruded from the sides of its head and curved around level with its eyes. The two larger horns grew from the top of its head and curved downwards over its brow. The Gerf’s face was flat, with large bulbous eyes that enabled sight in almost virtual darkness. The creature’s mouth was broad and packed with several rows of razor-sharp teeth. It drooled constantly, a thick green substance, which acted like an acid. This creature could breathe fire, but although this was an unbeatable defence, it preferred to tear its prey to pieces with its long talons and teeth. It was a hideous creature; its lizard-like body could move so swiftly through its environment that most that had seen it had not lived to relay the story.

This test was only ever used in the direst of circumstances, so Terra warriors would pit their skills against the Gerf to prove their worth as a member of the envoy to the mountain. Otis and the other elders made a list of their twelve most fearless warriors. From this list, those who would volunteer for the quest would then face the cave of fire. Four warriors only would be chosen out of those who survived. After the list was drawn Otis safely placed it in his pouch and officially broke up the gathering.

As was tradition, at the end of almost any meeting, the Terras adjourned to the main caves for feasting. They, as a race, loved to indulge themselves in culinary pursuits. It wasn’t so much the quality or presentation of food that attracted them, but simply the fact of gorging themselves that gave them so much pleasure. They were a fun-loving people, they worked hard and although they were great and fearless warriors, they adored their families and protected them fiercely.

As the elders entered the main cave the inhabitants silenced and immediately stopped what they were doing. Realising that no announcement would be made, they resumed their food preparation and began to set out the long feasting tables. The cave was vast, dotted with many fires and the Terras were busy attending them. Children ran amuck, playing happily around the family groups, chasing one another, squealing and laughing with delight.

Most of them wore simple clothing. Wrap-around fabrics, vests or loincloths often made from animal skins, were worn. Their stout little bodies with their uncut, wild hair flowing behind them made their antics even more amusing.

The Terra-Thebans rarely cut their hair and some of the elders had gained a length of more than ten feet. At this length the hair was carefully wound around a hair spindle, a simple wood clip that secured the wound hair just below shoulder level. The women were not as thickset and were smaller than the males. They wore simple fabric covers with belts of leather and strapped leather sandal-like footwear called ‘besha’ were worn and cross-strapped up to the knee.

The gender roles in Terra society were strict and adhered to without question. The male was the head of the family; they worked, hunted and provided everything. The females cooked, cleaned and tended all of their children’s needs including education. The hierarchy of elders prevailed in all matters, respect being an all-important Terra trait.

At all of their feasts and whenever the males could find an excuse, they enjoyed their most favourite treat, a strong elixir they called ‘carna’. It was made from a root vegetable of the same name that grew plentifully in the gully. Once pealed, chopped and cooked, it was fermented in barrels for many months with various herbs and of course ‘ji’, the sweet elixir of the river cane the secret to the strength of the brew. On special occasions the fermentation barrels were rolled out and tapped. Most of the males loved the liquor and once drunk, had a wonderful time dancing and singing long into the twilight. But this twilight, that was not to be.

The Terras sat rather sedately, eating their food and drinking only moderately of the strong carna. They hardly felt like celebrating, they were now renegades, exiled from their own gully homes. They dared not venture out into the light for fear of Morlon attack, and the Morlons would not venture into the caves knowing they would perish. This stalemate was a source of great frustration and a feeling of helplessness was not a pleasant or accepted state of mind for the Terras.

Their meal ended early, most retiring with their children. Morale was low and Otis wondered how much longer his people could hold on, being cooped up like this and above all, not being able to fight.

The following morning Otis gathered his clan and announced his plans. The people came to life with the news; finally there was a purpose, a direction, something was going to happen.

The list containing the twelve proposed warriors was read out. Each one, as his name was announced, stepped forward and stood before their leader. Otis held his arms up and the cheering crowd settled and eventually silenced. He then addressed his people.

‘Each of you who volunteer for this quest must first face the cave of fire, and the creature Gerf,’ announced Otis . The gathering rumbled with their collective murmuring in response to the announcement.

‘Do you so agree?’

All of them moved a step forward. ‘We agree!’

The crowd broke into a thunderous roar, in celebration of their bravery and true warrior nature. Otis smiled in approval, the other Terras swarming around the warriors, cheering and singing. Hope had suddenly returned to every Terra, but also an apprehension about the test that would choose the final envoy. The families of the chosen twelve were proud of their loved ones but knew well the great danger in facing the Gerf.

The following day just as twilight approached, the elders with torches led the warriors down into the depths of the caves toward the ‘cave of fire’. Each warrior was armed with only a spear and a knife. The object was to enter on one side, pass through the cave and exit to a tunnel on the opposite side. Then in early twilight, the Gerf would probably be asleep, and it was their intent to keep it that way. The first problem would be the floor of the cave itself. It was covered with cracks through which flames and hot gasses continually leapt into the air, exhausting the oxygen levels and making their task even more difficult.

Their greatest difficulty was going to know from which crack the fires would appear; it was impossible to know. This was their challenge. Each warrior must create a path through the cave, avoid the flames and not disturb the sleeping Gerf. If accidentally burnt by the flames or steaming gasses, the warrior would have to endure his pain in silence, as any sound could alert the Gerf to their presence. It was a test of incredible bravery and each warrior, although fearless, understood the possible result of failure.

The first Terra stepped forward. His name was Toran and he was young and muscular. He placed his knife between his teeth and with spear in hand carefully made his way into the cave. Flashes of flames and gasses broke the silence intermittently, lighting up the cave’s interior. He peered down at the jagged cracks and openings below him, stepping gingerly over them, trying to anticipate their fury. They appeared like red glowing lightning bolts under him. As he moved, a flash exploded behind him. He could feel the heat singe his skin vest and perspiration was dripping from his chin and sizzling on the hot stones below. The gasses and lack of oxygen were stifling and with difficulty he held back the urge to cough. As he moved further into the cave he looked up to his left. There sat the Gerf, glowing softly in the darkness, snorting and snuffling, but luckily still sleeping. Suddenly a burst of hot gas rose next to Toran’s right leg, burning his calf. The searing pain ripped through his body, leaving him writhing from its intensity. The perspiration was now pouring down his face yet he held himself together, made no sound and moved forward carefully, but with a little more urgency. He was now gasping for breath and the pain in his leg was agonising. He stopped for a moment to steady himself and then looked down to a large hole that loomed before him, the last in a narrow passage to the exit tunnel. Toran waited for it to fire and to get some indication of timing. When he felt it was safe, he prayed then with all his strength leapt over it, just before it flashed. He then slowly limped his way around to the others in terrible pain, yet jubilant that he had survived.

The next warrior was not so lucky. An older Terra named Rod thought a quicker assault would be safer, and he took a deep breath then fearlessly strode into the cave. At first he was lucky, but some twelve feet in he was struck in the face with a huge flash of burning gas, knocking him off his feet to fall heavily over a large cavity. A sudden and violent blast from within it killed him instantly, his body turned into a charred mess. Ironically, he now shielded the others from several large flares, making their path easier.

The others stood in shock for a moment, the reality of this challenge brought home to every one of them. But they were Terra’s and this was the cost of such a trial, a cost that they were all prepared to pay if they did not prove themselves. One after another they went through the cave, some were burnt, others miraculously spared from any injury.

Nolt was the eleventh warrior and he stepped up to take his turn. He was one of the tallest of the Terras and was slim and agile. He silently moved through the cave, pausing then edging forward with perfect timing. When he reached the charred body of his friend, he looked down and hesitated momentarily. Then out of instinct looked up toward the Gerf, which to his surprise was now awake, sitting and staring at him. He swallowed nervously, the sweat now pouring down his face. Unsure if in fact it had seen him at all, he remained motionless, hoping that it would go back to sleep. But it was waking fast and had seen him clearly. It got to its feet and let out a loud squeal, slowly moving forward and revealing many rows of pointed teeth.

Nolt immediately dropped to one knee, holding out his spear in front of him, its base propped up against a large rock. The Gerf leapt from the ledge above him snarling and drooling on to the cave floor. Nolt braced himself.

As it drew closer Jaff, the last of the warriors, jumped into the cave and with great force threw his spear towards the creature. The Gerf saw him immediately and turned toward him, revealing every one of its razor-like teeth. The spear, as if in slow-motion, hurtled through the air, striking the Gerf just above its huge thigh. Raising its head, it screamed in pain, as blood oozed from the wound. This diversion gave Nolt a split-second opportunity. He quickly got to his feet and with all of his might ran full pelt toward the creature and thrust his spear deep into the Gerf’s chest. Blood poured down its huge belly on to the hot rocks below and it drew back, throwing back its head and screaming even louder with the most ear-piercing and baleful cry as it writhed in pain. With his eyes still fixed on the creature, Nolt stepped quietly backwards out of the cave being careful not to cross the many fissures underfoot. The Gerf, bleeding and sorry for itself, awkwardly ripped the spear from its body, turned and limped away, retreating further into the cave to lick its wounds.

The test was done, and the elders, proud of their clan, helped the injured and quietly left the cave of fire. They limped back through the intricate network of caves to their loved ones, tired but not beaten. On arrival they were cheered and congratulated. For the family of Rod, it was a tragedy, but in Terra tradition he had died with great honour and therefore his passing would be celebrated with pride.

After some time, and after all the warriors had rested, Otis met with the other elders. After much deliberation they announced the successful candidates. The envoy would consist of Toran, the youngest of the group, Nolt and Jaff, for their bravery and successful escape from the Gerf, and Orla, one of the oldest and most experienced of the warriors.

A basic plan was drawn up and considering the urgency, they agreed the envoy should leave on their quest the following twilight. So they all retired early to be with their families, to rest and to make ready for their journey.

High up on the cliff face, was the main entrance to the Terra caves. At the base of the cliff was a Morlon camp site, there to contain the rebels in their cave environment. It was the following twilight and all was quiet, not a soul stirred. A few embers glowed in the smouldering campfire and a fine stream of smoke wound its way upward into the cold damp air. Otis silently wished the envoy good luck on their quest and one by one they lowered themselves down the vines to the base of the cliff and into the Morlon camp. Once they were all safely on the ground, Orla led the way and step by step they silently moved through the camp, carefully stepping over the sleeping Morlons.

As Toran stepped over the last of them, his legs still astride the hulk, it snorted loudly and rolled over with a jerking movement. Toran’s heart almost stopped, but he didn’t move, just stood frozen, praying the brute would not wake. He nervously waited until the Morlon settled down, then gently raised his leg over him and moved away into the bushes. With a deep sigh and a relieved expression on his face, Toran and the others slowly made their way from the cliff. From there they went down to the water and then up the other side of the gully into the dense forest beyond.

They all moved with great purpose and determination. The fate of all their kind and the other creatures of Thebos rested squarely on their shoulders, and they weren’t about to let any of them down. Failure was not an alternative; they would succeed or die trying.

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