OK to be fair to those that are Ranger fans, I figure I should post Chapter 1 of Book 3. Working title “The Dark Paladin”, I again caveat that this is a work in progress and could change before release.
Alex Rogers awoke to the repeated strokes of a tongue against his cheek and forehead, sure the activity intended to get his attention. He was positive it was Kinsey, his dog turned wolf, looking to wake him. Likely she wanted breakfast and this was her way of making it known.
“I’m awake,” he mumbled as he raised an arm in an attempt to brush her away.
The motion sent waves of discomfort through his back and arm. Before opening his eyes, he realized he felt stiff and damp, his warm bed suddenly cold and hard against his back. Reaching out to his left, he searched for the warm body of Cassie, his new bride, only to find what felt like a fern. A sudden panic set in as he turned his head and opened just one eye, his new bride not where he had left her the night before. Rolling back, he was treated to a view of partially obstructed sky, the surrounding evergreen trees intermingling their branches against the blue sky above him.
Struggling to make sense of the message his eye was relaying to his brain, he opened the other and turned his head the other way to find a small black dog sitting patiently nearby, staring intently at him and tail flying wildly behind her.
“Kinsey?” he blurted, spurring the dog to begin her licking once more.
“Enough ok,” he added as he brushed her away, pushing her to one side while sitting up.
The motion caused him to wince once more as the cold hard ground he had been lying on had done its work on stiffening his muscles. Scanning the area around him, Alex was worried, disoriented and confused. With no Cassie in sight, he had a quick flush of fear that it had all been a coma induced dream.
Dismissing that thought as unacceptable, he pushed the rising panic aside and tried to focus on his circumstances. The dense undergrowth of the forest rose up all around him, with just him and Kinsey in the small clearing more than large enough for the two.
“Where the hell are we?” he asked the dog as he paused to consider his situation.
The last thing Alex remembered was going to bed with his beautiful wife Cassandra, in their bedroom inside Castle Windfall. As Lord Protector and regent there, representing King Ben of Great Vale, he was directing the recovery of the city. Left in shambles after Prince Renfeld’s misguided war, Alex was working to rebuild the local economy and restore its peaceful place in the world.
Looking at himself for the first time, he discovered he was no longer in the sleep attire of the Lord Protector, but instead bore the jeans and flannel button up shirt of Alex Rogers, Seattleite and forest wanderer. The attire forced him to reconsider once more that he had he dreamt the last one plus year of his life as he lay unconscious here in the forest? As he struggled to reconcile his current predicament, a weak groan to his left drew his attention.
Jumping to his feet, he was elated and relieved to discover Cassie was no more than a few feet from where he lay. A wave of relief passed through him as he knelt down beside her prone form. His touch caused her to stir and he was greeted by her confused expression as she regained consciousness and scanned her surroundings.
“Here, let me help you,” Alex said as she tried to sit up on her own.
Turning to him as he spoke, he started to ask her more questions when a second sound drew both their stares. Alex watched as first Leander appeared, still partially hidden in the plant life, followed by Abrianna. Both had supposedly been in Great Vale and were surely not expected here, wherever here was.
“Are you guys ok?” Alex asked, as he watched the two display the same looks of confusion and lack of understanding that he had seen on Cassie’s face.
A sound beside him drew his attention back to his wife, as he watched her reply to his question. The problem was, he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying.
Cassie shivered in the cold as she struggled to wake. The bed felt hard beneath her and she could hear someone nearby spouting gibberish as she tried to sleep. A slight groan escaped her lips as she tried to move, reaching out to try and find Alex, sleeping beside her. It was then that she opened her eyes to find her husband hovering over her, the greenery all around them a clear indication they were no longer in their Windfall bed-chamber.
Watching Alex as he helped her up, she struggled to shake the disorientation she felt. The strange noises he made as he spoke added to her confusion.
“Alex, what happened? Where are we?” she asked in reply after she watched Leander and Abrianna appear nearby, the tall groundcover concealing their presence earlier.
She could see a look of confusion on his face as she spoke.
“I don’t think he can understand you,” Leander commented as he crossed over to check on Abrianna and then the pair closed in on Alex and Cassie.
“Where are we?” Abrianna repeated as she looked about them.
“I have never seen these woods before,” Leander replied as they watched Alex stare at them all in confusion.
Once more they watched as Alex spoke gibberish at them, the noises he made having no meaning to any of them.
“Brie, the learning spell, did it wear off?” Cassie suddenly offered, referring to the spell Abrianna had placed on Alex when they first met.
“Possibly, let me try another,” she replied.
Approaching Alex, she gently took both of his hands in hers and closed her eyes. Evidently Alex understood what was happening as he nodded in comprehension and closed his eyes as well. Cassie watched as the two stood motionless, Abrianna chanting quietly as she worked the magical spell.
“It’s not working, I can’t feel it,” Abrianna blurted as she opened her eyes, releasing Alex’s hands as she did so.
“What do you mean, you can’t feel it?” Leander asked.
“I mean, there is no magic here, we aren’t in A’nland.”
Alex recognized Abrianna’s attempt to work magic. Unable to understand any of his three companions, it was clear he had lost the ability to communicate with them. Now, he could tell she was repeating the learning spell that had enabled him to quickly come up to speed last time.
Previously, as she had performed this action, he had blasted both of them with an unintended, but instinctive, protective spell. In order to not repeat the event, Alex tried to relax, closing his eyes and reaching out to her with his senses as he had been taught. As he did so, he noticed that there was something different about the experience. Where he normally felt the rush of power as he opened himself to the world around him, now it was only the slightest trickle, no more than a gentle tingling at best.
Hearing Abrianna speak, he opened his eyes to see the frustration on her face, and he was still unable to understand the words. Scanning the woods about them, the familiarity forced Alex to come to the conclusion that they were, in fact, back in his world. That realization made him reassess each of his companions standing before him.
All were dressed in typical Pacific Northwest fashion, he and Leander in T-shirts with flannel long sleeve shirts over them. Both women had light jackets over fashion T-shirts and all four were in jeans and hiking boots. He now confirmed that these woods were the very same that he had wandered many times just outside of Seattle.
Standing there watching his three companions discuss what he presumed was the same conclusion of where, he started running the explanation of who through his head. For some unknown reason the four had been transported back to Alex’s home realm. Likely an action by the elves, he had to assume it was a Dark Elf reaction to his success in squashing both Prince Renfeld and Tantalus’s attempted rise to power.
His Earth, abandoned by both races of Elves long ago, or so he had been told, had seen the rise of technology replace magic and that was why Abrianna’s spell had failed. Alex didn’t even bother to try one of his own as he could feel the lack of the free energy that fueled his efforts in Cassie’s realm. It was a sudden bark from Kinsey that drew all their attention back to the present.
All four watched as the little black dog dove for the underbrush, chasing after some unseen critter. Just as quickly, she returned, reaching Cassie first, who knelt and stroked the dog affectionately while speaking unintelligibly.
“Look, I know you won’t understand a word of this, but follow me,” Alex said as he motioned to the other three.
Before departing, he then gave Cassie a quick kiss of reassurance, as much for himself as for her. While unhappy at their circumstances, he was delighted she was still by his side. Indicating they should follow, all three nodded in understanding as they headed in the direction Alex indicated. Taking the lead with Kinsey at his side, he retraced the steps that would take them back to the primitive dirt road that brought him to this place so long ago.
Walking along the barely discernable path, he could hear his three companions talking quietly amongst themselves. Likely giving voice to all the questions running through his own head, Alex had to wonder what they would find ahead. Doing the math, as he had learned from King Ben, the time he had spent away from here likely equated to sometime between five and six years. That time difference had allowed a former Confederate Officer from his world to reign as King in Cassie home realm over 150 years later.
Alex had no hope whatsoever that anything he had left behind was still around. His Jeep would have either been stolen, vandalized or simply towed off years ago. His home would have fallen into foreclosure and his job filled by another after his disappearance. All in all, he had no idea what he was going to do once they cleared the trees ahead.
Eventually stepping out onto the dirt road, Alex waited for the other three to join him before turning left and heading back to the spot where he had left his Jeep. The others had stopped talking as they studied the forest roadway cut between the trees. While rough by Alex’s standards, it was wider and flatter than most of the routes they had traveled in A’nland.
Following the road, Alex began to pick up his pace as he became anxious about their situation. It was a very long walk back to Seattle. His only hope was they could hitch a ride once they reached where this trail intersected I-90.
Rounding a bend in the road, Alex stopped dead in his tracks. There before him on the side of the road, sat his black Jeep, nosed into the woods and still where he had left it, apparently untouched.
“What do you mean no magic?” Cassie asked when Abrianna ceased her efforts with Alex.
“Just what I said. I can’t feel anything,” she replied in frustration.
“How can that be?” Leander asked.
“We aren’t in our world any more. I think we are in the realm where Alex comes from,” she said while indicating the trees around them
“Don’t you recall his descriptions of the forest,” she added.
“How did we get here?” Cassie asked while glancing at her husband, frustrated at her inability to talk to him.
To her, the language barrier felt like an invisible wall, keeping the pair apart.
“Dark Elves?” Leander stated more than asked.
“Maybe,” was all Abrianna would say.
It was then that Kinsey let out a bark and darted for the underbrush. Cassie hadn’t really noticed the little black dog, but instantly recognized her face as she reappeared once more.
“Can you understand me little one?” she asked as she knelt and stroked the dog.
It was then that Alex began speaking, motioning in a fashion that made Cassie understand he wanted them to follow. Accepting the kiss, her heart ached with desire to hear his words once more instead of the rambling nonsense.
Turning to follow her husband and the little black dog, Cassie scanned the area as she walked.
“I wonder what dangers lie in these woods? We are unarmed and without magic,” she commented to her companions.
“Alex once told me there wasn’t much to fear in his world outside of the cities. It was the villains not the creatures that presented the greatest dangers,” Leander replied.
“Why do you think we were all sent here?” Abrianna asked, changing the subject.
“It is quite odd that we were in Windfall and you in Great Vale, yet we all awoke here together?” Cassie offered up for consideration.
“I would have thought the Dark Elves would want Alex alone removed from power, and not all of us. What is to be gained by moving us all to a place of no magic?” Leander stated.
“It’s not just about magic, my love, or they need not include you. There is something greater afoot here,” Abrianna said softly, trying not to insult her intended.
“In Gundor Stronghold, the dragon warned Alex that the elves were not his friend. Do you think King Elion had something to do with this?” Cassie asked out of the blue.
“It is one of the possibilities,” Abrianna replied with a nod.
The three then traveled in silence until Cassie watched Alex step out onto an open area ahead of them. Following suit, they found themselves on a wide, relatively flat dirt road. Cassie was surprised at how consistently wide the path was cut through the trees in both directions. There was hardly any rutting in the roadway where the cartwheels should have pressed their way into the earth. She suspected it was not well traveled.
She watched Alex turn left and so they followed he and Kinsey as they worked their way down the road. Soon enough Alex stopped before them, staring at the way ahead.
“By all the gods, what is that?” they heard Leander say as they halted behind a stationary Alex.
Moving up to the driver’s door of the Wrangler, Alex found it locked. Inside, he saw several items on the driver’s seat, one of which was his keys. With the hardtop on rather than the canvas soft-top, he wasn’t going to simply slide a hand inside. Pausing for a moment to consider his optoins, he thought through the situation.
There was no way his jeep had set here for eight plus years like this, so it had been set up for him to find. As such, the locked vehicle had been provided specifically for him alone and recently or some opportunist would have smashed the window and taken it long ago. Stepping back as the others watched him, he slowly began circling the vehicle, checking the wheel wells and bumpers.
He found what he was looking for behind the spare tire mounted to the back of the vehicle. A magnetic hide a key box was secreted inside the tire carrier, up underneath the top of the hollow mount. Removing the key from the box, he opened the door and retrieved the loose items on the driver’s seat.
The keyring held not only the ignition key for the Jeep, but also several others he recognized, including his house key. In addition he found his wallet, holding a valid driver’s license and a considerable amount of cash. There were several credit cards as well, all current and in his name.
Finally, there was an envelope with a note inside, handwritten and addressed to him.
Alex, your service to A’nland can never be repaid. Remember all that you have learned there and we hope that it will serve you well in the challenges to come.
There was no signature, but the cryptic nature of the message confirmed to Alex that the elves had to be behind the whole thing. The most disturbing part was the gentle tone indicated it was the Woodland Elves, not the Dark Elves behind this.
Remembering those around him, Alex passed the page to Cassie, who in turn passed it to Abrianna. From their looks he could see the scribbles meant nothing to either of them. Moving to the passenger side of the Jeep, he unlocked the door and then motioned for Leander.
Sliding the passenger seat forward to allow access to the rear seat, he pointed to the opening. Indicating Leander should climb inside, Kinsey brushed passed both men and quickly leaped in first, demonstrating how it’s done.
Leander quickly followed suit with Abrianna a hesitant third. Placing the seat in its upright position, he then assisted Cassie into the front passenger seat. Before closing the door, he grabbed the seatbelt and started to buckle his wife into her seat. He could see the hesitancy in her eyes as she watched his motions, but made no move to stop him. Waving for Leander and Abrianna to repeat the action, he had to point out the buckle receivers next to Kinsey as each pulled the belts from the retractors.
Satisfied all were securely belted in, while noting the looks of confusion on all three faces, he closed Cassie’s door firmly. Rounding the front of the vehicle, he quickly climbed inside and inserted the key into the ignition. Belting himself in as well, he gave everyone a weak smile.
“Well, here goes nothing,” he declared as he turned the key.
The engine fired right up, the action startling all three passengers while Kinsey sat happily between Leander and Abrianna, familiar with the sound and its meaning. Alex did a quick check of his passengers, putting on his best smiling face before he put the Jeep in reverse and backed out. Turning tightly as he backed the vehicle out of its notch in the woods and onto the road, he easily cleared the trees.
Putting it in first gear, he started off down the road, doing his best not to jar his passengers as he picked up speed. Moving into second gear, he set a steady pace as he traveled the dirt path, slowing for the occasional washout or rut. He could hear his passengers passing comments back and forth as they made their way steadily through the trees.
At long last, they emerged onto asphalt, indicating they were nearing the I-90 freeway. Alex glanced at Cassie as she stared wide eyed at the broad concrete curve in the road that led them onto the freeway, heading west. Shifting as he gained speed, he soon had them westbound at 70 miles per hour. From the looks on their faces, he was sure all three with him were terrified as they made their way toward the city.