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BRINGER of BALANCE - Book II of THE LAND series

By smatusky All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 20 - Test of the T-Raiders

The peacefulness of Rhaida’s home was now behind me. It would be long days traveling, danger at every turn, an uncertain future – everything we had been accustomed to thus far. Would our path ever end?

Riley and I packed for the journey north. We would bring no carts or horses for fear of losing them to the marshes of Those traveling with us would carry supplies on their backs and be equipped with weapons. Our alliance would again be cut in half, and our search for the protectors had become subordinate to my broken magic.

“Ashelle!” I called from outside her tent. “Where are you?” There was rustling inside.

“Right here, My Lady!” Ashelle popped her head out from the opening of the tent. “We were just packing our supplies. Ally and me.”

“I must speak with you. Come here.” I directed her to the back of the tent. We sat on logs placed behind the tent, like natural furniture. I read Ashelle’s thoughts. She was certain I wanted her to stay behind while Uncle Ally traveled with us through the marshes. “It’s not what you think, Ashelle, although you’re right about me not wanting you to travel with us.”

She looked sad and discouraged. “I promise I won’t follow you this time.”

“This journey is definitely not for you,” I said. “Nor is it for Ally.” Ashelle looked up unexpectedly. “Only experienced fighters and a few magicians will travel with us. This time you and Ally must stay here, together.”

“Really? But where are you going and when will you be back?”

“We’ll be traveling through some dangerous land to find a winged Nocteen who can help me and my lovely canopy.” I gestured to my hovering cloud. It seemed to be a constant companion. “I’m not sure. It may take several weeks before we can return.”

“What about Wolfe?” She suddenly asked.

“He’ll be traveling with us. We need his talents on our journey.” Ashelle sighed and I continued. “So what happened last night between you and Wolfe? It looked like you were getting along famously.” I smiled and she blushed.

“Oh, Ms. Crystal. You were right about talking with other people. He grew up in the castle just like me. We talked most of the night and danced, too!”

“So you like him?” I asked.

“Yes, yes I do. He told me he’d show me some of the animals he’s spotted in the wild. He said that Riley taught him a lot about the animals of our world.”

“You better find him soon. We’ll be leaving this afternoon, once everyone’s packed.” I stood and Ashelle followed. “Take care of Ally. He really needs you.”

We hugged. Ashelle did not know what to say although she wished me well in her thoughts.

Soon we were headed north, clothed in armor and reduced to two hundred and fifty alliance members. Our party included a number of healers, telepaths, talented fighters, and the giants. The giants could fight beasts with their bare hands, yet I doubt any single person could kill a T-raider. I knew that my powers, even though out of control, would have to help us through the marshes of

“Did you have a chance to talk to Ashelle?” I asked Wolfe that night while flickering flames stretched toward the darkened sky. An orange glow brightened his face.

“Yeah,” he said. He smiled and scooted over on the broken tree, giving me room to sit next to him. “We had a nice time last night. I never really knew Ashelle. She’s real nice. Too bad we had such little time to get to know each other.”

“When we get back you’ll have all the time in the world. I imagine it will take a while to reach home.”

“What about the protectors?” asked Wolfe. I shook my head.

“I’m not sure of anything right now. My visions have scared me, and for the moment I’m ignoring them. My one concern is to find this winged person in the forest beyond the pass. If I don’t focus on that, the protectors will be the least of our worries.”

“But what about what Devin and Sir Edward told us, about the T-Raiders?” Wolfe was staring at me. “Do you think they exist?”

“Yes.” I said. “Although I have never known anyone who has seen one, Riley is positive they exist.” Wolfe was worried because every story written about these light-footed beasts ended in doom. They were unknown, much like our protectors – unpredictable and perhaps they would be our demise.

“Don’t think that way.” I suddenly blurted. Wolfe’s thoughts were growing heavy on my mind and I became worried that my cloud of darkness was expanding. Would the worries of others cause me to lose control again?

“I’m sorry.” Wolfe responded.

“It’s all right.” I nudged his side with my shoulder. “It’s me. I’ve been on edge for a while. Guess we better get some sleep while we can. Good night.”

Riley was lying by another glowing fire, his gaze fixed upon twinkling stars when I joined him.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“Can’t you tell?” He stared at me as I sprawled between him and the campfire.

“No. I’m shielding myself from thoughts of any kind, especially my own.”

“I doubt you really want to know what I’m thinking.” he said and propped himself on his elbow to look at me.

“I don’t have to read your mind to know what you’re thinking.” I said. “You’re thinking about those beasts, you and everyone else on this venture. But only you know what we’re up against, right?”

“Are you sure you want to talk about this?” Riley asked.

I gazed up at the stars, but my cloud blocked most of them. He was right; I did not want to talk about our inevitable future. It was clear that if we did not learn about our enemy than we would be at a disadvantage and Riley knew something about the T-Raiders from his expression in Teshalah’s yurt. His thoughts told me they were real, not just legend.

“You might be our only source of information,” I said. “Tell me Riley. Help me understand what we’re up against.”

Riley nodded then began to shed light on our impending encounter with the T-raiders.

“Ridge feral: the protectors gave them the name based on their distinctive feature above their bright yellow eyes. A protruding brow makes a ridge that darkens most of its face. The snout stretches out farther past this ridge exposing its keen nose and large fangs almost three inches long. I’m not sure how humans got the name Twill-Raider, but I’m sure you know why protectors attached ‘feral’ to the end of their name.

“My experience with these beasts happened long ago. I changed into one, hoping to follow them by reading their thoughts and I trailed the pack. But Ridge feral are smart, much smarter than any other animal. There had never been a creature who suspected a protector, so I thought I was safe. I was certain they spoke telepathically to each other, but I could not understand their thoughts.

“The pack closed in on a flock of Boshlite,” Riley caught my curious stare, so he explained. “Boshlite is a tall bird too heavy to fly. They are not very smart, but fast and light enough to glide over the marsh. The T-Raiders, as you call them, had planned an attack. They hid in different areas of the marsh until the birds were in an open area. T-Raiders sprang from the shadows from every direction, causing the birds to form a tight circle. They were herding the birds like sheep to a sticky part of the marsh, one that would surely trap them. Gradually the Boshlite ran in circles and their long legs sank into the churned mud.

“I followed for hours. Watching and waiting for their strategy to unfold. They were fascinating and the plan was perfect, except the actual target was not the Boshlite.”

“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I watched them form the birds into a circle and the next thing I remember, a dozen pair of yellow eyes surrounded me. I was their target. They let me follow them and watch, but they tricked me, a protector that had been around since the dawn of time. That’s when the lead T-raider attacked. He lunged at me and I transformed. They knew what I was doing, . They fooled me and I never attempted to study Ridge ferals after that. Even though I could never be harmed as a protector, I had never known fear from any animal before. It was scary for a protector and must be worse for a human. We have to be cautious, extremely cautious.”

Riley saw the terror in my eyes. He kissed me on the forehead and lay back down, examining the stars.

This was bad news. No wonder my husband was so terrified at the thought of T-raiders. One thing I was now aware of was that the beasts could communicate subtly and they would likely trick us. We would have to be smarter. I would have to be smarter.

After another three days of travel we were close to the marshes. Luckily, T-raiders traveled at night, stalking their prey in darkness, so we would be safe until twilight. Various plans were set forth by a team of us, hoping to stay ahead of the scary beasts.

Before we had marched even fifty yards into the mucky marshes, Wolfe picked up a faint but distinct scent different from any smell he had yet encountered. We were sure it was the T-raiders. Traveling around the wet veins streaming south in our path became tiresome. We twisted back and forth while trying to stay on solid ground. It would take us days to make it out of the marsh and into the . I told myself to be patient. We needed to wait for the T-raiders to make their move. Only then could we devise a plan of defense.

That afternoon we found a large patch of trees surrounding solid ground and set up camp in the middle of T-raider territory. I did not have to rely on foresight to know the beasts would come for us that evening. Their scent was strong enough for most of us to smell, mixed with the stink of the wet marsh. Some of our communicators warned me of passing animals telling our group to run out of the marsh. They knew we were in danger, yet we had no other way to go. It would be up to others to help me understand these beasts, and Lester, a communicator and telepath, would be the most helpful that evening.

“If we get the chance to speak with one of them, I want you to pose as our leader,” I said while Lester nodded. “It’ll be dangerous. The T-raiders will believe you are the most important human among us, but I need time to work my magic. You’ll be able to help us understand them better. That’s if we even get close enough to speak.”

“What do you want me to say,” Lester asked, “if given the chance, My Lady?”

“Ask for a name and see if it responds. Tell the T-raider our plans to cross the Pass. My telepaths will be reading your thoughts. Anything you get, even vague, will be useful. You’ll be safe. My shield will protect you from an attack.” Lester showed little confidence in my shield and even less in his ability to talk with a T-raider. An hour later we gathered in a tight circle and watched the sun slide behind the trees. Long, dark shadows spread across our camp, so we started three campfires. The distinct smell from earlier lingered in the sparse fog and our party quietly ate while waiting for the inevitable. The hours passed until someone called out.

“It’s there! I saw it.” A man pointed to a patch of fog close to one of the campfires and then we heard a dreadful cry.

“It has taken someone!” Gullane yelled.

Panic gripped the group when we saw Barry, a telepath, trapped in the jaws of a hairy beast. The T-raider paced back and forth about a hundred feet as Barry wailed, his leg clamped in the jaws of the monster. Archers shot their arrows, but even in darkness the agile beast dodged each one while continuing to display its prize. It was coaxing us to commence a chase and separate our group. His plan was quite effective, and if it were not for my powers, the beast would have succeeded.

“Gullane, stop!” I shouted as he raced after the beast with his ax. I used my powers to freeze him and five other men in pursuit of their fallen comrade. “No one else leave the circle! Stay here.” The men protested but followed my command. The T-raiders were testing us to see how smart we were. Would we be tempted to run after our lost man only to get trapped in the mud?

I called Gullane over when the T- raider hid in some trees. The man was screaming, losing the battle. Surely he would bleed to death or be eaten. I hated losing anyone, but we would all be lost if the group separated. Once everyone stood together I enclosed us in my shield. It was invisible so the T-raiders were unaware that we were protected.

“Lester,” I called to my decoy. “Head out in front of the group and I will keep my shield over you. See if one of them will come to you.”

Lester was very distracted by the man’s muffled screams coming from the darkness. It was a hair-raising nightmare, and I shook him by the arms until he focused on me.

Lester nodded. He slowly walked out in front of the circle toward dark trees to our south. “Hello?” he called. “Hello. My name is Lester.” He gradually edged out, then looked back at me. I telepathically told him to try again.

“Please, release him.” We heard his plea in the darkness. He peered into the trees, looking left and right until finally giving up and turning back.

A curious growl made Lester stop and turn around. Once he turned the sound ceased, and the hovering fog made it hard to see anything. A mass of darkness hit my shield and Lester fell on his back. He scooted away from a T-raider that stood a few feet from him, breathing heavy on my invisible barrier. The beast was bigger than the first one, five times the size of an ox, with a wide rib cage, short thick legs, and a compact backside of pure muscle. Its yellow eyes glowed in the darkness while its protruding ridge gave it a hellish appearance. I told Lester to slowly get up and speak with the T-raider by using his mind rather than talking aloud.

Lester asked for a name again but it did not respond. It growled in a deep tone. My decoy did as I asked, telling the T-raider about our plans to travel through the Pass. Still, it did not respond.

“Will you speak with me?” Lester asked aloud. The T-raider let out a terrible snarl once again and stepped a foot closer toward him. It bumped my shield and met my gaze. Probing Lester’s mind I gathered one sentence from the beast. You will hurt them.

The T-raider ran south around our circle, snapping its mouth and flinging drool into the air. Other T-raiders followed, and the pack of twenty or more headed toward the man still trapped by the first animal. We stood silent, looking around at each other. Then the man gave one last horrifying scream as the ravenous beasts tore into him. They wanted us to hear, watch, and fear them. I sacrificed one of our alliance members to save the others, but I could not do that again. We had to beat these beasts. I was determined and reflected upon the T-raider’s words…you will hurt them.

There could be no fooling these shrewd animals. They knew I was the leader and they seemed certain I would hurt my own kind. I would not disappoint them and they would get exactly what was expected. But could they be fooled?

Nights passed as the creatures intimidated us, trying to make us turn on each other out of fear, just as I remembered in the story I read. That was their plan, to drive us mad, but instead the T-raiders were getting angry, thanks to my magic. They were infuriated each time they bounced off my energy shield while attempting to snatch a man from our circle. Luckily my reactions were quick and the planned strategy had not worked thus far.

It was a very dangerous game we were playing, gambling with evil beasts, and my magic could not last the entire trip through the marsh. Short naps during the day were not enough to keep me prepared for each evening. Considering my state of mind, I had to rest. We had to make a stand.

On the seventh night in the marsh we found a clearing and settled there early in the day, preparing for the inevitable attack. We were close to exiting the marshes, and the T-raiders did not want us to leave alive. They would fight in daylight if they had to. I knew we had to act at night if our plan was to work. We could not wait for them to take us during the daylight hours; I could not shield the alliance day and night during our travels.

Everyone was tense and we worked frantically during the day so the T-raiders would not suspect what we were doing and I used my powers to open huge gaps of earth around our circular island of earth – the only refuge for us. The gap around us was twenty feet wide and it took many uprooted trees in the area to cover it. The space was loosely covered with brush and we hoped the animals would not notice the pit in the darkness. Could we trap them, or were they trapping us?

The game commenced that night and my cloud of evil had grown since our first encounter with the T-raiders. Darkness fell and two campfires lit our circle. We were trapped on our island, aside from a thin walkway of earth that led west toward the forest.

There was no hiding the fact that I was the human keeping the T-raiders from executing their plan. My cloud gave me away. Hours later, during the dark of the night, their scent grew strong and Wolfe warned us that they were south, hiding in trees. In the bluish moonlight five of them stepped closer to us, shadows trailed behind them creating an illusion of alien monsters.

Another one jumped from the darkness toward us. It was the leader and I walked to the edge of the circle along our small walkway of earth.

“What are you doing?” asked Riley while grabbing my arm.

“Riley,” I said. My mind was fixed on this one T-raider and I did not offer it any of my thoughts. “Trust me. Keep the others in the circle and don’t let anyone out.”

“Be careful!” Riley gasped when I left the group, walking closer to the leader of the beasts.

The T-raider lunged at me and bounced off of my shield. I stood without flinching, waiting for it to come back to me. The beast stood snarling, its eyes gleaming at me. The T-raider was a male and he was surprised to see my eyes glow. I had forgotten that my eyes glowed and they were probably as bright as the beasts.

Let us pass through the marsh into the forest,” I spoke telepathically to the leader. “Leave us alone to travel and we will spare your life.” A type of weird cough came from the T-raider and I noticed its rapid breath. Its eyes gleamed brighter. Other T-raiders emerged from the woods and circled the alliance.

The leader knew that I was the one shielding the group and he planned on distracting me while his pack attacked. I turned away to see what the beasts were doing or if they had noticed our trap. It was true that I did not have a shield around my alliance and I turned back to the leader. A fit of rage took me and I ignited the leader. The T-raider’s backside burst into flames and sent him into his own fit of rage. He was scraping, snarling, and he attacked my shield, ferociously trying to kill me. The beast’s feral rage pulsed through me and I became a screaming wild woman. Lightning shot out from my cloud as I flattened my hands against my shield, just a thin barrier keeping me from the burning beast. This smart leader was distracting me, building my broken mind to turn against my own kind, using his rage to attack the helpless alliance.

I turned to the humans trapped by the T-raiders and instantly the leader was extinguished. My eyes must have glowed brightly and lightning struck close to the circle, scaring the people. Their fear gave me more energy. It was what my father and great grandfather, Sabastian Elderbee, had felt when they did something evil. A surge of energy pulsed through me, and the leader of the T-raiders watched me turn on my own kind. He was sure I would kill them.

To my left a T-raider stepped on our covered trap with its light foot and sniffed. It tested it, discovering the setup, then howled, warning the group. Some beasts jumped the gap and landed onto the island of dirt while others fell into the trap. There was a commotion within the circle as men and women fought them. My thoughts rang out to telepaths to have my magicians set the T-raiders on fire. The light hurt the T-raiders eyes, blinding them, and they would be easier for us to see. A gust of wind spiraled from my cloud and pushed in toward my alliance, knocking every T-raider outside the trap into the deep gap.

Behind me I read the leader’s thoughts. He was sure I would turn on my alliance because we shared the same rage, an evil lust for killing and trickery. He sensed my spewing destructive magic and I was counting on his keen telepathic abilities. I turned to him, my eyes glowing brighter than ever and he burst into flames, howling and yelping. All my rage focused on the leader. A burning stench lifted from the beast as I charred him to the bone.

“That’s for taking one of mine.” I spoke aloud while staring at the charred carcass. There was still a battle among three T-raiders now set ablaze within the circle. I went running over to my alliance. To strike the beasts with a bolt of lightning would surely hurt anyone close, so I called my telepaths, commanding everyone to lie down. They began lying flat while others fought, obviously not hearing the shouting. This effort would be harder because I would have to work one at a time. Not only that, the T-raiders in the gap were trying to escape. They were so strong and smart that they were forming a bridge of their own bodies. Soon they would jump out of the gap.

The T-raiders fighting in the circle froze in place by my power, the same as I had done to Gullane. People were still shouting for the others to lie down and finally everyone heard the call. The wild sounds of snarls and snapping froze with them. One by one a strong gust of wind blew each T-raider into the gap. I tossed back a number of beasts ready to jump out of our trap before closing the gap with my powers. It happened so fast there was no time for any of them to escape. Mounds of muddy dirt pushed in from the sides, perhaps suffocating or crushing them. We could not be sure, so the alliance left quickly.

We knew it would take a great deal to kill these angry hunters, and our plan merely allowed us safe passage into the forest. More likely, the T-raiders would dig themselves out, although it would take a long time considering that their light three-toed feet were not meant for digging.

We traveled during the night non-stop until reaching a safe wooded area far from the marshes. Two days later we rested on the edge of the . Our party had made it through except for our lost alliance member. The men dug a shallow grave and placed his belongings in the ground. We stood in silence to remember Barry, our fallen comrade.

I hoped we would have an easier path to travel. Nothing could compare with our experience in the marsh.

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