Here is a piece from The Gecko's Gate, to be released Sept. 1/15!
The steamy undergrowth parted easily for the friends as they sped through the rainforest, running as though being chased by some unseen enemy. Chase was pleasantly surprised by the speed at which their young guide Otis moved as he darted through the veil of greenery with barely a sound or the sway of a branch to indicate his passing. For two days they had maintained this pace, stopping only for brief periods to drink and eat from their packs.
As he ran, Chase could barely make out Otis' green and gold markings as he disappeared in and out of the leaves ahead, speeding along the unseen path they followed. Jonas and Kiko struggled to keep up, breathing heavily as the forest growth whipped past. The canopy of trees rose high above them, casting moving shadows on the rainforest floor, and a slight mist shrouded the mossy ground. The humidity was almost smothering, the air so heavy with moisture that it was difficult to breathe. Shafts of warm sunlight pierced the canopy above, and like a hundred spotlights, it illuminated the shaded groves of palmetto and tangled vines through which they travelled. They stopped for another rest, each one panting in the humidity.
The friends were now growing weary, and beginning to wonder if they would ever reach the edges of the rainforest. Kiko and Jonas plopped down on the forest floor, while Chase sat on a small toadstool. Otis, however, had perched himself upon a boulder amongst the brush, ever watchful of his surroundings. While he surveyed the area, the others fell into a light sleep, wanting to regain some of their lost energy. Before long the light began to fade as the sun sank toward the horizon, still invisible in the dense growth. As the forest became darker, the four moved on again, three of them feeling refreshed from their naps. It was harder now to keep sight of each other as they ran, and this fact alone dramatically slowed their speed. More care had to be taken as they raced over the uneven ground. Suddenly, Chase sensed something wrong ahead, and slowed quickly to find Otis in front of him. Otis came to a halt so suddenly that the others nearly piled into him, startled by the young chameleon's abrupt stop.
"Keep quiet!" said Otis nervously. His large eyes darted in different directions, and the friends tried to bring their heavy breathing under control.
"What is it?" asked Chase, looking around from a crouched position.
Otis remained still and quiet, ignoring the gecko's question. After long moments, he crept forward, sweeping away some ferns from the path in front of him. He revealed a flat stone buried upright in the forest floor, covered in mosses. Several large hieroglyphs could be seen etched into the stone, from its top to its bottom. Jonas squinted at the ancient writing.
"What is that?" he asked.
"It is a warning, written in runes," replied Otis slowly, one eye still surveying the greenery beyond them. "It says to beware of the green guardians."
"What guardians?" asked Jonas, his eyes wide.
"I do not know, but we had best be cautious," replied the chameleon.
The friends all looked at one another with puzzled expressions, still crouching down in the brush. Minutes passed, and all they could hear were the sounds of insects and birds around them. Chase's pulse beat in his ears, and he made a conscious effort to settle down and slow his breathing. Kiko looked at Chase nervously, waiting to see what their next move would be.
Otis turned slowly to the others, and motioned them forward. On they went, hands clasped to their weapons, trying not to make a sound. The noise of the birds had become almost deafening to them, their senses now in overdrive. Chase wondered if this was such a great idea; obviously the warning had been put there for a reason. Green guardians? What could it mean? They crept forward, watching every branch and leaf, and searching for any sign of trouble. Kiko shivered slightly, her eyes wide as she gripped her bow in both hands. She didn’t like this in the least, strange warnings written on stones or not.
As they continued, a new sound slowly emerged from the forest: falling water. It grew louder as they went on, drowning out the other noises around them. They began to feel a slight mist wash over them, raining down moisture in the already stifling humidity. The undergrowth was thicker now, dripping with water, and nearly impassable. Onward through the thick growth they crept, listening to the sound of the water, which was almost like thunder.
Soon they emerged from the greenery and out into a clearing covered completely in mosses and a few strange, massive plants, with half-moon-shaped pods at their tops. The pods looked almost like flowers, but they were not quite open, and had spines resembling teeth growing off of them and forming a strange sort of smile. Beyond this clearing there was a large stream and a high waterfall that created a mist in the clearing as it thundered water down into the stream. Chase looked around, noticing green vines running here and there over the mosses, slick from the mists. Kiko and Jonas looked up at the waterfall in awe, watching as tons of water cascaded down into a pool at the top of the stream. Jonas bent down to take a drink from the cool waters and gave them all a smile, indicating that it must be clean.
Otis had taken up a spot to one side, still cautiously eyeing his surroundings. The friends were tired now, and Chase sank against a moss-covered rock for a rest, pulling a dried beetle from his pack to munch on. Kiko shouldered her bow and came to sit beside him, while Jonas continued to examine the stream, looking for fish. He could barely see the bottom since the water was moving fairly quickly, which made it hard to see through even though the waters were clear. Suddenly, he caught movement in the corner of his eye, not in the stream, but on the mosses. He turned slowly, and squinted his vertically slit eyes. Had he seen one of the vines move? He took a step forward, looking at the tangle of green vines in front of him. Pulling his short sword from its sheath, he poked at the nearest vine. It seemed soft, and the sword tip pierced it easily, almost like... flesh.
Jonas had no time to react. As soon as his sword jabbed the vine's soft skin, it whipped up and encircled his sword arm, wrapping tightly and writhing upward from the ground. It flipped him onto the moss, and hoisted him right off the ground, kicking and screaming.
"Whoa! What the - " exclaimed Kiko.
"Help him!" yelled Chase.
Kiko and Chase immediately sprang up from their resting place, rushing forward to help their friend. Otis shouted at them to stay put, but before they realized it, more vines had come to life and were snaking out to grab them. One wrapped around Kiko's waist, and she screeched in surprise. Chase was attacked by two more, one grabbing his arm, and another his leg. Otis stood back out of harm’s way, a spear in his hands now, and both eyes focused on the vines that had ensnared the others.
Chase struggled against the vines, which were tightening their grip on. He fought to draw his sword, but no sooner had he pulled it out of its scabbard than his free arm was wrapped by another vine. The friends were now all in the air except for Otis, and as they fought against the vines, they could see something else beginning to move: the plants. The pods at the tops of the plants turned toward them like large mouths, and Otis could see that these vines were actually attached to them at their bases, like arms. The pods opened and closed, the spines coming together like horrible, sharp teeth. One of the plants thrust its mouth-like pods toward Kiko, snapping at her as she struggled in the vines. Clear liquid drooled out of the pods, as if it were salivating.
Otis wasted no time and threw his spear, knowing that he was in just as much peril as the others. It hit its target dead on, and lodged deep inside the thick part of the plant. It gurgled and screeched, dropping Kiko to the ground. She jumped away and in a flash her bow was drawn. She fired at one of the plants, and her arrow sliced through one of its mouths, sealing it shut. She notched another arrow and fired again, cutting the vine around Chase's sword arm. It fell away, and he was able to chop at the others securing him. Kiko fired again, and this time lodged an arrow deep into the plant that held Jonas. It dropped him heavily, and he rushed back, away from the attack.
Chase freed himself, finally dodging the snapping pods. Instead of retreating, he lunged ahead, driving his sword through the plant's soft midsection. It reared back, and as it did, Chase wrenched his sword free and swung it again in a high arc, cutting two of the pods clean off. The large plant writhed and gurgled as it died, falling into a mass on the mosses. The friends gathered together, breathing heavily and looking around, nervously waiting to see if there were more of these horrible plants in their vicinity. The clearing was silent, however, and the companions relaxed slightly.
“Let’s not do that again!” said Kiko.
“Yeah. I agree. Do you suppose that was what the writing on the stone was for?” asked Chase, turning to their guide.
“Most likely. The runes were in an ancient language, but I have no idea who would have written them there. Let’s hope there are no more of them!” replied Otis, his orbital eyes still scanning the clearing.
"I don't feel like becoming plant food!" said Jonas.
“You can say that again,” Chase agreed. “Let’s keep moving.”
Cyrus stalked out into the scorching sun that blazed down on the outer courtyard where the armies were assembling. Sand blew in all directions, swirling into every crevice in the flagstone that made up the floor of the yard, and he squinted to keep the wind-blown debris out of his eyes. Lizards moved in every direction as well, scurrying into formations to be inspected by their commanders. As he strode forward out of the gates that led from the keep, he eyed the masses of soldiers standing at the ready with a slight grin on his scaled lips. Armour clanked and swords, spears, and other weapons clattered as the troops moved, coming to full attention as they lined up.
Marius now fell in behind his leader, quickening his pace to keep up. It had been a long time since he had seen this many reptiles preparing for battle, and he knew that this war would claim many lives and sweep the entire continent into bloody chaos. The sun boiled down, causing even the sandstone walls that surrounded the courtyard to shimmer in the heat. Clouds of sand rose as the soldiers stomped along, covering their copper armour in fine layers of dust. Row upon row of troops now lined the huge yard, resembling a sea of armour and glistening spear tips almost as far as the eye could see. Cyrus and his captain continued to walk, scanning the assembled army and its equipment. Giant tortoises were chained to rolling siege towers, and catapults stood amongst the throng, ready to unleash their deadly ordinances. Cyrus now stopped and faced the vast assembly, with Marius at his side.
"Today will mark a great day in the history of the Stigian Empire!” he shouted. Cheers erupted, and swords clanged against shields. Cyrus raised his arms to command silence as he continued, and a hush fell over the crowd.
"We will conquer all who stand before us and be remembered as heroes in our homeland!"
The sound of cheering now became deafening, and Cyrus' eyes burned bright and cruel. He waited a moment for a lull in the noise before he spoke again.
"I have brought forth a great gift to Stigia, one that, combined with our vast forces, will ensure our victory!"
He reached beneath his billowing cape and withdrew the glistening gold octagon. Holding it high above his head, he shouted once again, and every eye gazed in awe at the gleaming gold-and-jewel-encrusted artifact held in their leader’s claws. Spears were raised as the cheers reached a thunderous level. Cyrus grinned cruelly, looking out upon his vast army. They were in a frenzy, mesmerized by the golden treasure that he held high. Their leader drank it all in deeply, feeling the familiar rush of energy that these moments always brought to him.
Marius now saluted to the gathered throng before them, and the thunderous clump and clank of the army coming to full attention was heard like an explosion. The crowd became silent, eagerly anticipating their next order, as though the thousands assembled had melted into one attentive being. The hot, swirling desert winds were the only sound now, as Cyrus slowly lowered his prize and hid it safely back under his flowing cloak. With a quick movement of his clawed hand, he withdrew his sword from its scabbard, and the shriek of its steel emitted an evil scream. He levelled his blade at the crowd before him.
"I know the secrets that will lead us to victory!" he shouted, to many cheers.
Unknown to them, the throng had an additional audience watching from one of the spires of the dark keep above. The Emperor silently regarded the gathered forces and the Lord of Stigia himself from a large window in the throne room. He knew very well that Cyrus was a powerful leader, with great skill at harnessing the morale of his troops. He was definitely accomplished in battle, and a fierce opponent to any who opposed him. But as the Emperor watched, the ancient reptile could not help but wonder if his lord's ambition would eventually spell ruin for the empire that he had built over an age. For long moments he stared down into the outer courtyard, thinking of the Prophecy of the Three, and wondering if it might unravel his great kingdom. Stigia was well protected from any force in the realm, lying in the centre of the Sand Sea. The Emperor sometimes wondered if his own thirst for conquest in these last days might be better served in securing his beloved empire for an eternity of prosperity instead of in battle.
The Emperor's thoughts turned to rumours of the Chameleon King, once believed to be dead. The people of Stigia whispered to each other that the great King from the Caverns of Andoria may still live. If it were true, then the Prophecy may still live as well, and it could bring Stigia much trouble. There was already discontent within the city, with lizards starving to death, and complaints of high taxes. It was only the fear of the armies, and of the brutal lord who led them, that kept chaos from erupting.
Cyrus’ possession of the Gate did not alleviate the Emperor's worry, either; it was an event foretold in the Prophecy, and gave further cause for the leader of Stigia to be concerned. The theft would only prompt the other races to rise up against the empire in their own defenses. The only thing preventing an assault on their homeland was the Sand Sea, and the fear of Stigia's large armies. If they left to conquer other areas of the realm, what would stop the other races from launching some kind of attack on the city while she was at her weakest? Especially if the rumours of the Chameleon King being alive and well were true. The other races of the realm would have their own powerful leader to flock to. These thoughts and scenarios continued to roll through the Emperor's mind as he watched the troops being rallied. His musings were interrupted by the approach of one of his tall royal guardsmen.
"Orders, your Highness?"
"Ensure that at least one battalion of the armies remains behind," he replied slowly. "We may need them here."
The guardsman bowed slightly, stalking off to carry out his instructions. The Emperor resumed his silent vigil of the army below, and of Cyrus. It was clear that events were already set in motion, and that if the Prophecy was indeed true, there was nothing he could do to stop it from unfolding. He had placed his trust, and the future of the empire, in the reptile leading the throng in the courtyard below, and time would tell if that decision had been the right one.