Marcus stepped onto the creaking dock with a sigh of relief.
The brown Lupe knight truly detested ships; his stomach seemed to be completely
unable to keep up with the rest of his body with all the rocking, swaying and
tossing about that was inevitable when sailing on the ocean.
The weeks of seasickness were all worth it, when
he heard a delighted voice call his name, and a lithe pink blur launch into
him in rib-crushing hug. "Marcus!" Sephonie cried in delight. "You're finally
here." The pink Acara pulled back to look him up and down. "And you didn't even
turn into a green Lupe on the trip," she teased. "Welcome to Mystery Island."
"I think I may have turned green for about half
of it," Marcus admitted. "But seeing you makes it worth every minute. From your
letters it sounds like you've been really busy building the settlement. I hope
your father hasn't worked you too much."
"Oh, but I love it," Sephonie protested. "The
natives have been so kind, and have such a beautiful language. We're starting
to do real trade, instead of just polite gift exchanges. Another couple of years
and my father will be a real Governor of a large port town, not just the Governor
of a small trade outpost."
"I hope you haven't fallen so in love here that
you're not willing to go back home with me," Marcus said in mock alarm.
"Don't be silly." The pink Acara laughed. "Father's
sent word; I'm to act in his stead for the company back home. I'll have plenty
to do, and I've hated being so far from you."
Governor Aeneas, Sephonie's father, certainly
seemed to have accomplished much in the time since the King had sent him to
establish trade with the newly discovered Mystery Island. The docks, although
small, were filled with a flurry of people clad in both the exotic Islander
clothing and workman's garb more familiar to Marcus. Aeneas and Marcus' father
had been good friends, and the brown Lupe was considered an adopted son in the
Governor's household. Marcus was thrilled that this new venture seemed to be
doing so well so soon. As they walked up the dock onto the beach, Marcus spotted
the newly made Governor approaching, and waved cheerfully.
"Marcus," Aeneas' hearty voice sounded, "I'm
glad to see you came though in one piece, my boy." The portly green Acara gave
the lanky brown Lupe a firm clasp on the shoulder. "Sephonie's talked of nothing
but you for weeks."
"Oh, why does he have to show up today, of all
days," Sephonie muttered, looking further down the beach. Curious, Marcus looked
in the direction of her gaze. A fierce looking Kougra glared back, a regal feather
headdress on his head, with long braids of beads and feathers running down his
back. Judging from the amount of ornamentation he wore, Marcus guessed the Kougra
must be a local noble.
"That would be Ida-Ten." Aeneas made a wry face.
"His being here does not bode well for trade this week; he objects to our presence
here. Normally he's not a very big problem; his tribe lives far down river.
Most of the tribal leaders we trade with feel that he's jealous. They've prospered
by trading with us. He shows up every couple of months and gives speeches about
how evil we are, and how we'll bring ruin to the island, then disappears when
he realizes no one is listening to him."
Looking from Sephonie to Marcus, Aeneas smiled.
"But today is a happy day. Let Ida-Ten stomp around and pout at the fortune
of others. We will be snug in my house, enjoying a grand feast."
Marcus smiled. "I can honestly say I haven't
looked as forward to a meal in weeks."
"Only because you were afraid it would come right
back up," Sephonie teased. "You have no idea what you've been missing; this
island's fruit variety is amazing."
As the brown Lupe finally turned to his bed much
later that night, Marcus was forced to concede that Sephonie was right, the
fruit he'd sampled was delicious. He hoped they didn't feast like that every
day, otherwise he'd never fit back into his armor.
While he was thinking of it, he opened the wooden
chest that had been delivered from the ship shortly before dinner. Packed inside
were some presents for Sephonie and Aeneas that he'd give them later, spare
clothes, his sword, and his ringmail leather armor. He'd been worried that the
damp sea air might damage his stuff, but a careful inspection showed that the
tight seals on the chest had kept even the delicate paper wrapping from getting
damp. Convinced that all was as it should be, he curled into bed and fell into
a deep, contented sleep.
Hours later, shouting in the hallway woke him.
Hearing the alarmed tones, Marcus was awake instantly, swinging to his feet
and reaching for his sword. When his paw met empty air where he usually kept
it, he blinked stupidly and then remembered it was at the foot of his bed, in
the chest. Realizing that the shouts, although panicked, didn't sound like anyone
was attacking, he opened the door and looked down the hall.
"Master Marcus," a maid panted, running up to
his door. "He took her. Ida-Ten and some of his warriors took Miss Sephonie."
Yanking open his door the rest of the way, Marcus
pulled her into his room so he could put on his armor. "Keep talking," he barked,
fumbling with his buckles. "Where did they take her, how long ago, and how many
men do we have here?"
"I don't know where. They came about thirty minutes
ago, I was brushing her hair and they burst in. She told me to run and I went
as fast as I could to Master Aeneas, and he told me to get you." Taking a deep
shaking breath, she added, "We don't have hardly any fightin' men here; we're
a trading post. Natives get nervous if we have more than to guard the ships
Just his luck, the few men they did have probably
were only trained how to protect from small groups of thugs, and not with anything
other than daggers and spears. Hold on, Sephonie, I'm coming. Strapping
on his sword, Marcus nodded. "Take me to Aeneas."
Aeneas was pacing back and forth in front of
a large map of the known parts of the island. "Marcus, you're here." The relief
in the Governor's voice was disconcerting; did he really think one knight would
make that big of a difference? "Our ally Chiefs say that Ida-Ten plans on taking
Sephonie to their sacred volcano. Our maps don't have many details that deep,
but they can't be far ahead of us." Slamming his hands against the map, Aeneas
continued, "We need to rescue her while they're still in tribal lands we have
permission to go though. If he gets her down into the deeper part of the island,
it could cause a war."
"As if kidnapping her didn't start a war in the
first place." Marcus was too angry to be diplomatic. "Do we know which way they're
planning on taking her?"
"Down the river would be the most logical choice;
it's the fastest way to his own lands -- to where we can't follow." Aeneas scowled.
"Of course, he may just walk down the hunting paths to throw us off."
"How many men do we have?"
"Fifty. Though half of them have never done more
than guard the ships."
Marcus did some quick math in his head. "If you
don't mind me taking charge, I'd like to take the twenty less experienced and
have them work the trails in groups of four. Leave the other five here to guard
the house to keep anyone from doing something stupid." At Aeneas' nod of approval,
Marcus continued, "Let's split the others into three groups, five of them to
go with the trails, one to lead each group. The others split into two groups
of ten to go down river."
"How do you do that so fast?" Aeneas asked, looking
Marcus gave a dry laugh. "Practice."
For them not having any real military training,
Marcus was impressed with how quickly the guards went about their new duties.
Sephonie, he gathered, was adored by the entire community and they'd all taken
her kidnapping personally. Marcus hoped that this meant that it wouldn't take
long to get her back.
"Lord Marcus?" Marcus turned, to see a wide eyed
native Mynci standing in the shadows. The Mynci made a hushing motion, then
beckoned Marcus closer to him. "I know where they took her," he whispered, his
accented voice urgent. "My Chieftain is angry. He thinks that by taking away
Lady Sephonie he can make you all leave the island."
Marcus gave the Mynci a startled look. "You're
from his tribe? And you're helping us?"
Looking down, the native admitted, "I am, but
the Lady was kind to me. She hasn't done anything to my Chief; he just took
her because he knew she couldn't fight like the others. Such a thing is dishonorable.
If he'd truly honored The Way like he says he does, he would have challenged
her father. He's taking her down the Shibo trail; it leads to the mountains
caverns." Looking around hastily, the Mynci said, "I must go. Too many people
here know my tribe." He stepped back into the woods, and faded from sight.
Marcus calculated this new information as fast
as he could. If the Mynci was telling the truth, then they might be able to
catch up with Ida-Ten before sunrise. But then again, the Mynci could easily
have stayed behind to set them on the wrong path; he'd even admitted to being
from the same tribe as their quarry. Marcus decided to stick with the original
plan, except instead of going with the boats like he'd meant to, he'd go with
the group exploring the Shibo trail.
Once they'd gotten past the brush at the head
of the trail, Marcus was surprised how much it widened out. This was obviously
a main road, not a small hunting path like he'd thought it was. The path had
been used recently too. Marcus' heart dropped to his stomach as he spotted a
small strip of cloth from Sephonie's dress that had ripped off and stuck to
a small bush. He'd spent enough time staring at it all evening during dinner;
he'd recognize the material anywhere now.
Convinced they were on the right path, the group
hurried. Marcus actually had a hard time holding some of his people back from
breaking out into a jog. He wanted Sephonie back as much as anyone else, if
not more, but he wasn't going to be too cocky. Ida-Ten had enough lead time
to leave behind traps to catch anyone trying to save the pink Acara.
"Look," a Ruki guard whispered, "torches."
Straining his eyes, Marcus saw it, a slight gleam
between the branches. Hardly more than the light from the stars. "I see them,
good eyes," he congratulated him.
As they hurried quietly forward, Marcus heard
the sound of wood hitting wood. "Look out!" he hissed, throwing himself forward.
It was a testament to the guards' devotion to Sephonie that none of them screamed
as the ground gave way beneath them. Crawling back to the edge of the hidden
pit, Marcus whispered, "Everybody okay?"
"We're fine," someone whispered up from the inky
depths of the pit, "but I think it's going to take us a while to dig a way out
of this; it's really deep. None of us thought to bring any rope."
Desperately, Marcus looked for vines, or anything
else that could be used to help them out of the pit. He found nothing.
"Don't worry about us, Sir." Marcus recognized
the voice of the Ruki who'd spotted the torches. "We'll be just fine. Go save
One knight against who knows how many native
warriors; how good did these guys think he was? On the other hand, if he didn't
try, there wouldn't be any rescue for her at all. Marcus had no clue how far
into the jungle he could travel in without going into an enemy's territory.
As quietly as he could, he crept closer to the light of the torches.
Ida-Ten seemed to have set up camp for the night.
There were bedrolls scattered about, and a small cooking fire. The Kougra himself
sat eating from a wooden bowl. His relaxed position was confident; perhaps they'd
already crossed into territory where he thought no one would follow him. Marcus
counted seven warriors with him, all hard eyed and armed with an assortment
of weapons. Sephonie lay to the side of the camp, her pink Acara body limp and
her blue eyes closed. Sweet Fortunes, let her be sleeping, Marcus thought
With her close to the edge of the camp like she
was, there was a good chance he could sneak up and pull her away without fighting
at all. He highly doubted he could take on all eight Islanders on his own. Crawling
around to the far side of camp close to Sephonie, Marcus inched his way forward,
listening intently for the sounds of anyone approaching. Nearly there.
Marcus froze at the sound of rough laughter, then relaxed as he realized it
was on the other side of the camp. His nerves were strung like violin strings,
ready to fight at any moment.
An angry growl behind him was his only warning.
Somehow he managed to roll over and pull out his sword to block before a giant
mace came crashing at his head. Caught. Leaping to his feet, Marcus flung dirt
in his opponent's eyes while he tried to figure out how many of Ida-Ten's men
were coming from each way. Dancing back, he parried them as they came, working
his way deeper into the forest, drawing them away from Sephonie. Hopefully he'd
be able to lose a couple of them here. He didn't let himself wonder just how
much of an advantage they had by knowing the terrain better. He counted seven
opponents in the dark; where was the eighth?
A sharp pain in the back of his head sent him
to his knees, and Marcus' last coherent thought before the blackness swallowed
him seemed to linger forever in his mind. Sephonie...
"Mama, look at this one!" The tiny pink Acara
held up the shell proudly. "I should add it to my collection."
"It's very nice, dear," the red Acara praised
her, looking up from her book. "Please don't go too far out on the rocks, though;
being able to breathe underwater doesn't help you if that current takes you
to close to the rocks."
"I know." Having heard this line a dozen times
already today, the young girl rolled her eyes at her mother's warning. The rocks
weren't that slippery, and she was the top swimmer in her school class. She
was loving her time at Mystery Island, though any place with pretty shells ranked
high in her book. This was the best fifth birthday present ever, she decided.
Climbing out further into the rocks, she spotted
the prettiest shell yet. It sparkled like a gem under the water. Reaching down,
she strained to grab it. It sparkled just under her reach, taunting her and
her short arms. Getting a more secure grip, she gritted her teeth and reached
down as far as she could. Her fingers could just brush the surface of it. With
a surprised gasp, she lost her grip and fell into the water. Sucked into the
current, she was swept away from the sight of her mother, and towards the sharp
rocks at the mouth where the river met the ocean. Shrieking in terror, she desperately
tried to grab something to anchor herself on.
Strong arms grabbed her, hoisting her out of
the water and setting her firmly onto the safety of the beach. Panting, she
turned to thank her rescuer, only to gape at the sight of a ghostly Lupe tail
disappearing into the island's dense forest and the flash of glowing red eyes
looking back, then vanishing.
"Miss Katie!" The sophisticated Island Zafara
guide her mother had hired to show them around came running around the bend
of the beach into sight. "Miss Katie, are you alright?" Seeing her young charge
unhurt, sitting calmly on the beach, the Zafara heaved a sigh of relief. "What
happened?" Several other natives had also come running behind the guide. Katie
felt slightly embarrassed about how much attention her little slip had gotten.
"I'm okay," she told the group. "I slipped, but
someone grabbed me and set me on the rock."
The group looked around in confusion. "Who rescued
you?" a Pteri asked. "There was no one here."
"It was a ghost painted pet, but he disappeared
into the forest before I could thank him. A Lupe, I think."
Her answer only served to cause more whispers
amongst the group, as several of them stared wide eyed at the forest, and made
an odd gesture Katie didn't recognize. "What?" she asked, confused.
No one answered; they only scattered back to
where they had been before. Several of them cast back strange, almost scared,
looks to the pink Acara. "Marcus," she heard several of them whisper
to each other as the Zafara walked Katie back to her mother.
"What does that word mean?" she asked as she
heard it again; it wasn't one of the Island words she'd heard before.
"Some of the people out here are very superstitious,"
the Zafara explained. "Marcus is a very old Islander word for the Ghost
Lupe." She gave a comforting smile. "But we all know he's just a myth."
Turning back to look at the forest, Katie paused.
"Thank you, Marcus," she mouthed. Deep in the forest, she saw the flash of a
pair of red eyes. Smiling, Katie ran back to her mother. "Look at the shells