1 Day Ago
Caleb came running into camp in the middle of the day. The sun, and thus the Mannah, was high in the sky but one thin shadow fell over all creation. He stormed into the tent, nearly knocking over a young boy who had been on guard there. He patted his apologies on the boy’s shoulder and darted past him towards the fire. “They’ve shifted!” He skidded to a halt in front of David, then fell to one knee to be eye-level with the boss. “They’ve shifted, David. The Caravan is heading around Cary Forest towards Ratliff.”
David sat on a makeshift bench near the fire, watching his lieutenant panting out of breath. “Where are they headed, for the port?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb was exasperated, “but if we’re going to catch them today, Rhonda’s group will never make it in time.”
David jumped up from his seat, “Tera, Maksim, Rajesh, gather your squads!” The other lieutenants hurried off; they knew that a group member’s life was on the line. They all met in the clearing in front of the tents, armed, supplied, and ready to go. “If we’re going to catch them, it will have to be just as they’re passing the Cary,” David began, “This will have to be even faster than usual, so grab any safes you see and get out of there. Once we have the safes, grab whatever you can and then leave. Don’t take no chances today!”
David waved his arm in a readying signal and they all began the long jog to the Cary Forest.
. . . . .
All the squads had gathered and had already met up with Caleb’s group when David sent a messenger to update Rhonda’s absent squad. They were hiding behind a small clove of hills opposite the Cary Forest. In between the two landmarks, the caravan was lined up on the side of the old road, making camp for the night. The sun was setting and Mannah fell at a predictably steady drizzle.
Attacking a caravan at this stage was always the riskiest. Everyone was up and walking around. A stealthy approach was near to impossible. Plus no one wanted to attack during the fog of the settling Mannah. If the caravan sent hunters to search for the troupe, they wouldn’t even have to get close to do damage. All they’d have to do is fire a flaming arrow into the group and the damage was done.
The group leader steeled himself for the endeavor. “OK,” David waved a hand in the air, “on my order…”
. . . . .
The first squad got surprisingly close before the alarm sounded. Not having time to plant squads in the forest, David’s targets were completely protected from that side. Two squads approached the front, one charged the rear, while the other three stormed the middle. David’s hope was to spread the caravan’s defenses as thin as possible.
The troupe at the rear was the first to charge, drawing the caravan’s attention. Once the alarm sounded, the main group charged the center. David’s best pilferers were in the last group, which waited for the main group to spread among the trucks before storming the caravan’s front.
The plan worked better than David had expected. There were only a few hard men amongst this group, and David’s squads were able to subdue them with practiced efficiency. There was only one safe and it was tucked away in a truck towards the caravan’s front. Soon David heard the sound of the retreat horn and sent the order through the ranks.
Nothing can be too easy, however; the safe was small but extraordinarily heavy. Four boys struggled to share the burden as they hurried away, but David could see that they were quickly falling behind. David squinted through the falling Mannah searching along the caravan for any sign of archers. There was one, just climbing onto a canopy and surveying the fleeing troupes. One of the hard men that had been tied up.
Several people seemed to be yelling discouraging words at the man, obviously, they didn’t want him doing what he was about to do. He pulled something out of his vest and a small fire sparked to life. He waved his hand in the air as if to avoid the falling specs and the people beneath him turned to dart away in terror. The man managed to lite the tip of an arrow on fire before the first fire suddenly went out. He quickly knocked the arrow, and David could see he was targeting the boys carrying the safe.
A small spark exploded just as he loosed the shaft. He hadn’t successfully avoided the Mannah. The man was hit in the face by orange and violent aggressors and fell unseen behind the truck’s canopy. A swirl of angry aliens crashed against the canopy and tore it loose from the truck. People were fleeing in every direction. The air hissed from the caravan’s direction but David was already running.
The arrow skimmed the leg of one of the boys carrying the safe and he crashed to the ground in pain. The safe crashed to the ground, causing the other three to crash forward. David wrenched the hurt boy to his feet and shouted for him to run on. Others stomped the fire out with frantic speed while someone ran in to help carry the safe. David noticed buzzing swirls of Mannah, but none of them struck his comrades as they hurried away. Maybe none of them near us were hit, he thought as he half carried the limping boy by the shoulder.
Not one to take small blessings for granted, David gave the thought no more mind as the squads hurried towards their secondary hideout.
. . . . .
The ruins were a place the troupes could rest if they wouldn’t be able to make it to camp by nightfall. They had chosen a place a couple of stories up and with no practical means of reaching it. They’d made ladders and ropes for their own use and, fortunately, someone had had the good sense to build a small elevator for their cargo. Even so, it took five of them to pull the safe up to the hideout, and three of their strongest to hoist the thing into the room.
David counted the exhausted squads finding places to collapse and share rations. They were all here: no casualties. David counted them again. They’d hauled the chest into the furthest corner of the room, hoping to keep it safe. David made sure that all ladders, ropes, and lifts were rescinded before seating himself at the battered desk. Tomorrow evening they would have to exchange the safe for their comrade. David hoped she was safe.
Caleb chose to sit by the safe, one arm draped around it before he succumbed to his exhaustion. Poor guy, David thought, he’s been running around all day. No longer had the thought left his mind than slumber claimed David too. His thoughts, and his surroundings, fell into darkness.
. . . . .
Rajesh woke David with gentle shaking, “David? David, wake up.”
The room was alight with the mid-morning sun, “What?… Is everything?…”
Rajesh put his hand on him again, “David, we have visitors.”
As the fog cleared from David’s mind, he noticed a stranger in the room with them. A slightly tanned man with short-cut blonde hair. He wore a sharp, navy blue suit and wore a white shirt. The Mannah were just over the tree line and still rising. In the morning light, David could see that gray streaks decorated the visitor’s golden hair. It seemed the man’s attire hadn’t been affected at all by the dust and debris smothering the ruins. This time he sat atop a skinny, griffin-like quattour complete with broad eagle-like wings. He sipped his tea while staring into David’s eyes expectantly.
“Where’s Sora?” David’s voice came out as a murmur.
The man glanced slowly down at his tea, “You’ve got the order of things all wrong, David. First, give me what is mine. He looked up and regarded David with a look like a disappointed father. David motioned to have the others bring forth the safe but stopped short when he saw that it was open. Caleb lay next to the safe, scimitar in hand and mouth lulling open.
“David,” Mitch stepped up to the desk, “Caleb won’t wake up.”
“What …happened?” David couldn’t make sense of what was happening, but it looked like their situation had turned disastrous.
“Someone came into your hideout at night and stole my stone.” The man hopped down from the skinny griffin and pointed towards Caleb, “It seems they used a sleeping poison on your man, there. Usually harmless stuff but maybe he had too strong a dose.”
“Who could’ve…? What?” David could feel his terror rising. “You!” he pointed at their visitor accusingly, “Did you harm…”
David’s was cut off by a nonchalant chuckle, “Oh, I would’ve let you sleep, David. When I arrived I found him like that so I had your boys open the safe.” He walked over to the desk and leaned over to stare into David’s eyes, “I found nothing of importance inside. You children let yourselves be robbed.” he shook his head, “Thieves robbing thieves. Tsk, tsk.”
“You said you wanted the safe…”
“I wanted what was inside the safe, fool” The man’s outburst caused several of them to jump in surprise, “I want the stone!” He stood and straightened his tie, “You will complete this job for me, David. If you don’t, I know some people who can make good use of your friend. Sora, right?”
David shot up from the desk, “You’re outnumbered, you arrogant SNOB!” David’s anger brought him fully awake. He screamed the words in the man’s face, “If you think you can push us aroun-”
The man had stepped back from the desk and didn’t give any indication he’d been listening to the group’s boss. “Master Seppe, let’s hear from our friend please,” he called casually over the hideout’s ruined portal.
“David!” Sora’s voice came from below. It was clear that she was terrified and frantic. “Somebody help me ple… please…” her sob-ridden voice choked off suddenly. David rushed to the edge of the hideout. Looking down, he saw the lioness their visitor had rode several days before. In front of it was a muscular hulk of a man as finely dressed as their casual oppressor. He held Sora’s wiry frame up by her neck and she seemed to hover several inches off the ground in front of him. One of his hands was clamped over her mouth and blood trickled down her face from one of her eyes.
Seeing David, Sora began to squirm wildly as she emitted muffled screams of appeal. One of the hulk’s hands moved away from her mouth just for a moment.
“David! David!” she screamed, “Help me… Oof!…” The hulk straightened his hand and chopped her sharply on her side before returning it to her mouth. David’s fury was nearly complete. He spun towards the others in the group, intent on giving them orders of attack. He stopped short when he saw their resigned expressions. All of them already knew about Sora, he’d run alone to the edge of the hideout.
The snobby man was smirking at him knowingly, “She’d be dead before you could dream of doing anything, boy.” The man’s gaze panned the exiled raiders, “Everyone here knows it.” He clapped his hands suddenly and his smirk grew into a wide smile, “But you’re in luck! Go to Koster City and retrieve my stone. You have two days.” he strolled back over to his quattour.
One of the raiders charged at the man while his back was turned. For a middle-aged man, he could move terrifyingly fast. His foot spun and swept the boy up with a kick that sent him flying to the back of the hideout. Two more raiders were charging him but stopped short in confusion. How could he move like that? The man climbed up onto his griffin and called sown to the other, “Master Seppe, you’ll be lending that quattour to these fellows.”
“But, Master McNab… I have appointments today,” the hulking man was clearly distraught, “I’ll never get back int time without…”
“Would you rather disappoint them or disappoint me?” Master McNab peered down at him, “Release her.” The griffin’s wide wings expanded and Master McNab exited the hideout in a graceful glide. Looking dejected, Master Seppe dropped Sora to the ground. She grunted as she righted herself. Seeing she was free, Sora ran toward the hideout. Mitch, who had saddled up beside David, immediately through the rope over the edge. Sora gripped the rope as David waved for more of them to grip the other end and get ready to pull.
They heaved as Sora held on for dear life. When she was nearly half of the way up, the griffin reappeared beating its massive wings so quickly that a harsh breeze buffeted the group. Two talon-like appendages had appeared beneath the thing and it plucked Sora from the rope. Those hauling her up were nearly pulled out the opening before Sora’s hands were ripped from their grasp. master McNab seemed to hover for a moment.
“You can probably fit three of you on it,” he called to David as he motioned to the lioness, “Koster City is directly that way,” now he pointed to the east. “I’ll have people to receive the quattour and let you into the city. You’d better move quickly,” and then they flew away; Sora screaming in terror and hanging in the air.
David glanced down, but Master Seppe was nowhere to be seen. He trudged back into the hideout and made his way to Caleb’s body. Chris was kneeling near his brother with tears in his eyes. “He had bad lungs,” Chris said, “he, he struggled…” Chris descended into a heap of sobs.
“He spoke to us before he died,” Mitch said, “he said it was some red-headed girl with green eyes.”
Everyone knew about Caleb’s breathing problem. That’s why he was a scout and healer instead of a fighter. He was an excellent scout, David thought, and an even better healer. He remembered the lives that could’ve been lost if it weren’t for Caleb, including his own. Even with his dying breaths, he was trying to save someone.
. . . . .
Special Author’s Note
This is the last descriptive chapter before the story really begins to take off. There’s a lot of subtle world-building here with a paragraph about people’s relationship with the Mannah, a little about the relationship of the local authorities with people, and subtle clues about details that will be important later.
I like how Gizmo’s behavior continues to raise questions that Leah seems to be actively ignoring. Imaginge if your 1998 Camry was sitting outside waiting at the curb for you when you left the grocery store. But you’d walked to the store. How would you explain this to your friends? Gizmo was easily the most fun character for me to write.