Chapter One - The Earthquake
Dark storm clouds drifted moodily across the inky black sky, obscuring the light of the full moon and cloaking the land in shadows. The old woman crouching in the mouth of the ancient cave pulled her cloak more firmly around her trembling shoulders, closed her dark, near sighted eyes and sighed heavily.
She could feel the magic all around her, haunting the cave like a lost spirit, touching the wrinkled skin of her pale face, clinging to her thin frame and generally making its presence felt. She opened her eyes again as a gust of wind stirred her long, silver-streaked hair and watched her breath turn to vapour and drift into the fading light of the next bolt of lightening. Reaching behind her, she patted the feathered head of her griffin friend, grateful for the warmth of his body pressed against her back. He purred and stretched his long, powerful front paws; his claws leaving ten large trenches in the bare ground as he drew them back under his body.
The wind whistled eerily through the cracks in the rock walls and, somewhere in the forest surrounding the cave, something moved restlessly through the sodden foliage, breaking off twigs and branches as it went.
It was a while before the woman noticed the rapid, frightened, breathing from the back of the cave; it was barely audible over the roaring wind and bellowing thunder. She stood up, turned around and, as yet another flash of lightning illuminated the small cave, she saw the two children for the first time.
The boy, slightly younger than his female companion, was pressed up against the rock wall, covering his face with his hands and whimpering pathetically. His short blonde hair was plastered over his face; whether it was with rain, sweat caused by his fear or a combination of both, the woman couldn't tell. His eyes, when they were visible from behind his pale fingers, were dark brown and terrified.
The girl, on the other hand, didn't seem to be as frightened as he was. Her reddened eyes and trembling lower lip suggested that she had been crying; but she wasn't shaking. She was sitting perfectly still, her long, curly hair falling in dark clouds by her tearstained face as she watched the storm through the jagged cave entrance.
The griffin stood up, stretched, left the woman's side and gambolled over to the pair. The girl reached out to pat its feathered head, but the boy shrank back, pressing himself even further into the rocky wall. "It's alright; he won't bite you!" the woman said reassuringly. But the boy was unconvinced; burying his head in his hands, he began to rock slowly back and forth.
"It's alright!" she repeated, "Sokar, come here."
The griffin trotted back to her and the boy relaxed slightly, although he refused to move away from the wall.
"Who are you?" the girl asked then. The old woman paused for a moment; could she risk giving them her real name at such an early stage? Were they ready to handle the truth? No, it was better not to reveal too much until they were older and able to understand.
"I have been known as Althea," she replied, thinking of the plant with the pale pink flowers she had seen being used many times to heal wounds.
"My name's Laura," said the girl, "And this is my brother, Mike."
At this mention of his name Mike whimpered and pressed himself even further into the wall. He was frightened and 'Althea' couldn't blame him; he and his sister were trapped in a cave with a complete stranger, probably separated from their parents by the storm. Well, maybe there was something she could do to take their minds off the situation.
"How would you like to hear a story?"
"What kind of story?" Laura asked eagerly.
"It's a story about a group of heroes known as the Alpha Warriors, who fought for the freedom of mankind," even Mike was listening now, his head slightly raised from his folded arms, and he seemed to have momentarily forgotten about the griffin.
"This story is about their first adventure, the search for Retor and the Soul Crystal." Althea told the children. Then she settled back against the wall, laid one wrinkled hand on Sokar's feathered head and closed her eyes. For a moment it appeared that she had fallen asleep, but her hand continued to stroke the griffin and, eventually, she began to speak…
"Come on Maid, hurry!"
Tara gasped as the ground seemed to lurch beneath her and reached out to grab Joe's outstretched hand. He pulled her onwards, further into the farmland and further away from the village, further away from the danger of collapsing buildings. She felt the land beneath her feet rumble and lurch, as if it was alive, and saw several trees uprooted and swallowed by the crevasses that were opening up in Merranda's surface.
And then, quite suddenly, it stopped. The ground gave one final violent lurch and became still and, for a moment, stunned by the sudden absence of heaving soil; everyone sank into a tomb-like silence.
Tara dropped to her knees, panting, one hand outstretched to balance herself. Joe stopped, his breath coming out in rapid spurts, stirring strands of his long, roughly cut black hair. There was a deep gash on his forehead, narrowly missing his left eye, and both sleeves of his shirt were torn and stained by blood that was welling up from various cuts and scratches. There was a half-sorrowful, half-fearful expression in his eyes that Tara had only seen a few times before.
"Has ... it ... stopped?" she panted, hardly able to get the words out over her own heavy breathing.
"There may be aftershocks," Joe replied, looking despairingly around him at the ravaged farmland, "By the gods, that's got to be the worst tremor in history!"
Just then a man hobbled over to them and sank to the ground beside Tara, panting heavily. Blood was oozing from a gash in his forehead, matting his dark brown, slightly wavy hair. There were cuts and scratches all over his pale face and a fear embedded in his deep, dark eyes. His clothes were as torn and blood stained as Joe's, and one of his boots was missing, exposing the bloody mess that was his foot.
"Jason!" Tara was rather surprised to see her twin brother, as he lived quite a distance away in another village, "What are you doing here?" she attempted to wipe the worst of the blood away from his face with the corner of her cloak, but he pushed her hand away.
"Visiting you of course ... maybe I would have been better off staying put!" He grimaced as he tried to move and was hindered by his foot.
"What happened?" Joe, who had some healing skills, crouched down and inspected the foot, "Doesn't look like you've broken anything, anyway."
"I was in the Weary Traveller," Jason replied, referring to the inn in the recently vacated village, "And the quake brought one of the walls down. Some of the timber supports splintered and one of them went straight through my foot."
"You'll need to get it cleaned, or it could get infected," Joe hastily tore a strip off the hem of his cloak and used it to bind his brother-in-law's foot.
"That's the least of my worries right now. Where's the little one?"
Tara turned slightly so that he could see the infant, sleeping soundly despite everything that was going on around him, strapped in the carry pouch on her back.
"He's ok, Luckily I still had him in the pouch ... or we mightn't have got out in time." She shuddered; she and Joe had only just arrived back at their home when the quake had started. "Which reminds me, shouldn't we go back to check for survivors?"
"I'll go," Joe said after a moment's hesitation, "Stay here with Julian in case anything else happens."
"I'll come with you," Jason added, stiffly rising to his feet.
That comment sparked an argument in which Tara protested loudly about being left alone in the middle of nowhere, and Jason, his nerves already stretched to the limit, snapped back at her that she was hardly 'in the middle of nowhere' as she had visited this farm often enough.
The dispute quickly deteriorated into one of the frequent full-blown fights that Tara and Jason had become famous for.
"Oh for goodness sake!" Joe hissed, frightened that the baby would be woken, "Jason, knock it off right now! Tara honey, we can build a fire to ward off any wild animals..."
"There are dragons in those mountains!" Tara pointed out, gesturing wildly at the dark peaks on the horizon; "They're not going to be scared off by a campfire!"
"Dragons don't hunt humans..." Jason began, then realised what he was saying and stilled his tongue. It was too late, however ... the damage had already been done.
Tara burst into tears and, for fear of waking her son, she pressed the sleeve of her gown against her mouth in an effort to smother her cries. She felt Joe's arm, warm and comforting, drop around her shoulders, heard him alternately whispering reassurances into her ear and throwing curses at Jason, but the words hardly registered meaning.
"Tara." Jason said softly, "...I'm so sorry..."
OoOoOo"Why was she upset?" Laura interrupted. A small heap of firewood had now been built in the middle of the cave; unseen by the children the griffin had been wandering in and out of their dark refuge, collecting dry wood and dead leaves. Even Mike was attentive now, listening with his head held in his hands. Althea paused; preoccupied for a moment with tending to the spark she had produced by striking two flints together over the pile. She gently blew at the glowing ember until it caught the tinder and flared, then added more wood on top of it.
"A few months before the quake a dragon did come down from the mountains," she said finally, "Many people were killed, including ... never mind, you'll find out later."
Laura thought she saw a tear glistening in the corner of the old woman's eye, but a second later Althea began to speak again, her voice as steady as it had been before...
After Tara's tears had finally dried the group decided that it would be easier if they all returned to the village together. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw; the entire village was reduced to rubble, the remains of some houses ablaze or smouldering after falling timber beams or thatching had caught household fires and caused them to spread. The signboard of 'The Weary Traveller', still hanging on to the only wall of the inn that was still standing, swung and creaked eerily in the stiff wind.
The search for survivors was fruitless, despite Joe's determined and dangerous expeditions into unsafe houses and hours of sifting through piles of debris.
In the end Joe called a halt to the search, rescued three horses from a stable that had miraculously survived the tremor, and suggested they rode to a nearby cave network to seek refuge until the morning.
"We're not gong to get to any of the villages before nightfall," he added, looking up at the already dark sky, "And we need some time to decide which direction we're going to go in."
Tara nodded agreement, to tired to argue, and swung herself up onto the bare back of the palomino mare, holding tightly to the makeshift rope halter.
Jason grimaced and swung himself rather awkwardly onto his own mount; he had never been very good at riding and, evidently, the horse sensed this as it snorted and backed up slightly.
"Let's go then." Joe mounted with all the ease of an accomplished rider, turned the head of his piebald towards the south and led them on.
They reached the 'Griffin Caves' just as the final rays of the setting sun faded beneath the horizon. Tara sank gratefully onto the hard rocky floor of their chosen cavern, oblivious to the coolness of the stone, and lifted Julian from her back. Jason sank down beside her and was snoring within minutes. Only Joe remained active, insuring that the horses were safely tethered to a convenient rocky outcrop at the back of the cave and building a campfire before sitting down to rest himself.
"I don't think that quake was natural," he said quietly after a while. Tara looked at him over the fire. Even without the dancing shadows contorting his features his face looked uncharacteristically sombre, his eyes oddly sad and tired. He looked drained ... as he had a right to be after today. The dreary drizzle of the rain outside seemed to add to the melancholy atmosphere, as did the wail of the wind and the shadows cast by the fire, dancing like spectres across the cold grey cave walls.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know, I just have a feeling that it wasn't natural..." he broke off and shuddered involuntarily, "I spoke to a friend of mine a few moments ago when I went back to get the horses. He'd just arrived, having travelled from Lutra Village to visit friends..."
"So, the quake never hit Lutra. It's not all that far away Maid ... a few hours, if that." He shuddered again, "And just as he told me that his village was safe I got this weird feeling, like there was something evil in the air, watching us."
Tara didn't answer, not quite sure what she could say in response. Outside a clap of thunder and a vibrant flash of lightning heralded the arrival of what promised to be a terrible storm.
And then she felt it. A cold shiver ran down her spine, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and she felt eyes watching her; evil eyes, cold and hard as marble. She stifled a cry of terror as a face ... no; a skull ... loomed up in the shadows.
The skull raced towards her at a terrifying speed, jaws opened wide, screaming loudly. The cavernous eye sockets flashing wildly with a blinding, blood red light. Tara gave way to her terror and screamed, causing Joe to jump up and rush to her side, one hand making a reflex action towards the hilt of a sword that wasn't there. Swearing at the absence of the weapon, he glanced out of the cave entrance, evidently expecting to see something dangerous outside.
"What is it?" he asked at length, unable to spot anything hazardous.
"What's going on?" Jason woke with a start. Tara was unable to answer either of them. The skull vanished as swiftly as it had appeared, leaving her trembling with fear and oblivious to her husband's urgent and worried voice.
"Take Julian, will you." Joe pushed the baby into his brother-in-law's arms and hurried to his wife's side. He dropped to his knees beside her, moved the hands that were clawing despairingly at her face and clutched them in his own, disturbed by their coldness. Her dark eyes were dilated, staring into the distance almost as if they no longer possessed a soul.
"Tara." Joe shook her gently. She didn't reply, but her eyes, although they still seemed lost, shifted and focused on him, "Tara, honey ... tell me what you saw."
It was obvious to him now that, somehow, Tara shared his mother's strange telepathic ability to see events in the past and future. He knew that it took a while for young, untrained 'Seers' to become used to the gift and guessed that was what was happening to his wife.
He listened quietly whilst she rattled off the tale of the screaming skull in a high pitched, terrified voice; then he took her in his arms and tried to comfort her, whispering reassuringly into her ear.
Jason, unsure of what was happening and unsure of himself, remained quiet and worried, silently to himself. He'd heard tales of Seers dying when their powers became too much for them to bear and there was a part of him that was afraid that his sister's new-found ability might, some day, claim her life.
Sighing he settled himself as comfortably as possible against the rock wall and wrapped his cloak firmly around himself and his sleeping nephew. He felt helpless, knowing, somehow, That they would soon have something more than an earthquake to contend with ... and that if something happened to his sister he would never be able to forgive himself for not being able to help her.
Tara must have dropped into an exhausted sleep, because the next thing she remembered was being woken by the early morning sunlight playing on her face. Gently she removed Joe's arm from around her shoulder and, careful not to wake anybody, she tiptoed from the cave and made her way down to the nearby coast to think things over.
The sea tumbled like a whale; exited by the powerful wind it sent spry and foam flying many feet into the air and hurled waves far up the beach.
Tara seated herself on the sand, just close enough to the sea for the waves to wash over her feet. Her mind was tumbling too, question after question chasing each other around in her head until they became a muddled blur.
Then the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end again and she screamed in frustration and fear, clamping her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut as the skull materialised again.
The skull seemed to burn its image on the back of her closed lids; she could see it clearer than ever and the anguished wail it was emitting was not in the slightest bit deterred by her hands on her ears. The bony jaws were moving, almost as though they were trying to form words.
Tara found herself looking reluctantly at the strange apparition as the wail changed suddenly to a faint, rasping voice. She caught the word 'beware' before someone shook her shoulder violently and the skull vanished once again.
"Tara!" Joe shouted again, a hint of panic in his voice. Tara jumped up quickly; the hem of her dress was heavy with water and she could taste salt from the spray on her lips. Her long, straight brown hair was drenched and clinging to her face and shoulders.
"Are you mad?" Joe cried, his voice full of concern as he pulled her out of the path of the next wave, "You'll catch your..."
Seeing the terrified expression on her face he allowed his voice to trail away and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. Consternation showed in his eyes as she collapsed, like a rag doll, against him.
"Mother! Are you here?" Joe yelled, banging on the wooden door of the brightly painted caravan for the fifth time since he had arrived at the campsite. At long last it swung open and an old woman with aquamarine eyes exactly the same shade as his own squinted up at him. Strands of her thick, grey hair escaped the band it was tied back with and floated around her tanned, wrinkled face. She was wearing a white, long sleeved blouse and a long red skirt that rustled around her ankles and small, gold loop earrings glittered in each ear.
"Joe?" she grinned and the lines around her eyes deepened, "What brings you here?"
"Concern," he replied, "Tara's..."
"Is she ill?" there was an edge to Cass Baker's voice; it was common knowledge that she, just like Tara's father, didn't approve of the marriage.
"Not exactly," he said awkwardly, "I suppose you heard about the tremor last night?"
"Who hasn't? The news is sweeping through the kingdom like wildfire at the moment...a lot of people are frightened..." Cass descended the steps of her caravan and motioned to her son to seat himself on the makeshift log bench by her own campfire, "What's that got to do with Tara?"
"Maybe nothing, but it seems all too big a coincidence to me." Joe took the pro-offered seat and began to poke at the fire with a branch, sending sparks leaping and dancing around the kettle suspended from a spit over the flickering flames. "Last night we camped in the Griffin Caves, and I think Tara...well, I think she had a vision of some sort. Then again this morning I found her down by the coast, drenched to the bone, apparently in a trance."
Cass had remained silent whilst he spoke, and remained silent for quite a while after he had finished, staring without really seeing into the fire.
"The Sight is not a common gift..." she said eventually, "...And not a very easy one to become accustomed to. Tara's going to need all the help she can get to get used to her power..."
"Help? From whom?"
"You." Cass replied simply.
"You." She repeated.
"But I'm not a seer!" Joe protested.
"No," Cass agreed, suddenly looking much older. Joe sensed that she was about to tell him something that she would rather have kept a secret, something that she had concealed for many years. "I was hoping that I'd never have to tell you this, Joe. But after the quake, and Tara's vision, I think the time has come..." she sighed, "Wait here for a moment."
She rose and returned to the caravan. Joe watched curiously as the caravan door swung closed behind his mother, then open again as she reappeared with something in her hands.
The object appeared at first to be no more than a wooden pole. But then, as Cass stepped out into the bright sunlight, Joe made out the details of the long, carved, jewel-eyed, wooden snake entwining the rod and the large, blood red jewel that capped it. His eyes widened in amazement as Cass pressed it into his hands and he felt a strange tingling sensation all through his body. Somehow the sceptre seemed very familiar...
"It's yours Joe," Cass seated herself once again, "Don't ask me for more explanations. Maybe you'd better go now..."
She suddenly looked rather weary and Joe's immediate concern was quickly replaced by the realisation that she wasn't ill, but worried. There was obviously something else that she knew that he didn't.
"Something's going to happen, isn't it?" he chose to ignore her warning not to question her further, suddenly very anxious for his families safety, "And Tara and I are involved in some way!"
"I don't know exactly what's going to happen. I suspect you know that the quake was no natural occurrence?" she paused as Joe slowly nodded his head, his face ashen, "There are dark clouds gathering all over the world ... something terrible will plague man kind before much more time has passed."
She raised her head to look at the sky, which was streaked with the crimson light of the setting sun. "Go now..this valley is difficult to get out of in the dark."
Knowing that she couldn't help him any further, Joe turned and left, suddenly very apprehensive about the future.
The following day was blustery; the silvery mane of Tara's palomino mount flowed gracefully in the wind like sea foam on a summer's day. Julian squirmed in his carry pouch and, unused as she was to riding bare back, she nearly lost her balance. Clutching tightly at the rope halter she urged the stallion forward with a gentle tap of her feet against its ribs, giggling slightly at Jason's attempts to stay upright on his own horse. For a while the trio rode in silence through countryside that seemed altogether too peaceful, considering the great evil that was growing and becoming more obvious.
They were half way to their destination in a nearby village when it happened again. At first Tara thought it was a wild animal moving through the undergrowth, but suddenly the ghastly skull shot out at her so rapidly that she screamed, spooking her horse so much that it reared and bolted into the nearby pine forest. Tara clutched at its mane instinctively to prevent herself from falling. She heard Joe shouting something over the thunder of the horses' hooves and instantly he was beside her, reaching for the rope halter from his own Bavarian mount.
The palomino shied away from his outstretched hand and leaped a nearby stream with ease.
By the time Joe finally caught up and succeeded in halting the terrified animal they were completely lost and Jason was nowhere to be seen.
Tara dismounted, comforted Julian and reassured the anxious Joe that she was all right. She looked around her; they had stumbled into open moorland covered by a thick blanket of fog that sank straight into her bones.
"It couldn't have rolled in that fast!" she exclaimed, remembering that the sky had been clear a few moments ago. A twig snapped in the distance and both she and Joe jumped; the moor was unusually quiet and the sound echoed around them like a whip cracking.
Suddenly Tara gasped, clutched her head and screamed once more in frustration as not just one but thousands of skulls loomed up out of the fog. The high pitched wails were almost deafening as the spoken word 'beware' echoed around her over and over again.
"Beware of what?" she was barely aware of Joe's anxious voice begging her to wake up, or of her own voice crying out in the darkness that enveloped her. The skulls began to close in, suffocating her, tearing her soul from her body. With a sudden rush of air she was floating effortlessly in mid air, looking down on her own unconscious form on the ground.
"Beware ... of ... death!" a thousand rasping voices warned. Tara could see Joe many feet below her desperately shaking her senseless body and pleading with her to wake up. And there was someone else ... someone she had never thought she would see again ... standing beside him...
"Beware of death! Beware of Death!" the skulls chanted, spinning around her until she grew dizzy and screamed again. The next thing she knew she was lying in Joe's arms.
"Thank the gods!" he exclaimed, tears running down his face, relief evident in his eyes.
"Beware of death..." Tara said weakly, "What do they mean ... beware of death?"
Joe picked her up and carried her to the shelter of the trees; the strange fog seemed to play tricks on the mind. More than once he had thought he had seen...
Shaking his head to banish the impossible image, he helped Tara onto her horse and led the two horses through the forest in the direction of Jason's worried voice.
Tara woke up hours later in a strange room. Jason was sitting on a stool beside the bed and smiled when he saw that her eyes were open.
Tara burst into tears.
"I saw her!" she sobbed, "I know I saw her!"
"Saw who?" Jason was alarmed to see his usually calm and sensible sister trembling violently, tears streaming from her eyes.
"Lauren!" she cried, "I saw Lauren!"
Jason fought hard to hide his surprise, convincing himself that Tara was just distraught after the days' events.
"Tara, that's not possible, Lauren's dead!"
"I know..." she wailed, "...But I saw her!"
Jason shook his head, unable to take the impossibility of Tara's statement.
Lauren, Tara and Joe's oldest child had died a few months ago, aged only three years.