It had taken five days for teenage Dani to guide the five children across the frozen tundra to near the base of the Dark Hills. They had all grown up in a city and were used to soft beds, a heated home in the winter, regular meals of plentiful food, and all the comforts and pleasures modern technology afforded such children.
Dad and Mom took them camping in the mountains every summer, but they drove to the State Park in Mom’s van, built a campfire near wooden picnic tables and there were public showers and bathrooms just a few yards away. They brought their food in plastic shopping bags and a big cooler and it was like barbecuing in their backyard.
Even in the winter going snow skiing was fun, but when they were through and everyone needed to get warm, they’d go into the ski lodge and order lunch or dinner in the restaurant.
This journey was nothing like that. Nearing the end of their fifth day in this icy wilderness, the Davidson children were dirty, tired, cold and miserable. Their sense of fright had been numbed so now all they felt was the relentlessness of walking one step at a time for minutes and hours, hoping their guide who was only a little older than Mandy knew how to find food, shelter, and safety before they all died.
Dani’s head, shrouded in a furry hood so her face was just a shadow, turned and she shouted excitedly, “We’ve made it. We’ll camp at the base of those hills tonight. There are caves to shelter us from the wind and I can roast the rabbits I trapped last night for dinner.”
13-year-old Mandy nodded her head, too exhausted to feel anything except the determination to get her brothers and sisters through another day. At least they were still alive, but that’s just about all they were.
Even 5-year-old little Zooey had lost her enthusiasm and remained huddled up behind her oldest sister both to stay warm and to cling to the only security she had left. The thought of eating cute little bunny rabbits made her sick to her stomach at first, but the strange girl who rode on dragons said there was no other kind of food here.
9-year-old Taylor always called himself the family’s adventurer. When all the other kids were afraid of doing something like bungee cord jumping or skydiving (neither of which Mom and Dad wouldn’t let him do), he made fun of them and called them a bunch of sissies. He was always willing to try anything new as long as it was exciting and dangerous.
When he first met the dragon Gerliliam, he had been scared, but then realizing he was in a world where magic and dragons were real and animals talked (some of them anyway), he thought they had all fallen into a perfect adventure (perfect that is except none of them knew what happened to Mom and Dad). After five days, he found out that in real life, adventures were hard, painful, and boring.
He felt the black cat Onyx stirring inside his heavily insulated fur coat. The feline slept most of the time, it being too cold to do anything else. Two nights ago, he woke up to see the cat’s green eyes glowing at him in the dark. Something about the cat made him afraid for a minute, then Onyx crawled back into his sleeping roll and started purring. Maybe it was nothing but he thought Zooey, who loved every animal she met, was right to not have anything to do with the creature they’d found in the dragon’s forest.
Taylor’s twin sister Paris kept their 7-year-old brother Jake right in front of her, often pulling him close. She knew he was just as scared of this place as she was and even though he preferred video games and she liked nothing better than reading a book, they both always wished they were living in a different world than the one they grew up in. Now they were in that different world and it wasn’t fun or interesting at all. It was at first with Gerliliam, but here there was nothing but freezing wind, ice, and bare, skeletal trees.
She wished they could have stayed under the dragon’s tree and read books while huddled around his warm, cozy fireplace, drinking tea, and eating biscuits and jam, but he said they had to go into the wilderness which he called “The Exile” if they ever wanted to see Mom and Dad again.
The sun was setting behind gray clouds and black hills, and the pleasing aroma of roasting game flowed through their tiny camp at the mouth of a shallow cave. Dani had come back with two more animals tied with strings and suspended from the end of her spear. Knowing how timid the other children were, she “prepared” them out of their sight. Zooey especially was frightened to the point of horror at what you had to do to a dead animal before you could cook it and eat it.
They had all finished their meal and were in their bedrolls sheltering against the wind and forming a half-circle around the fire. Taylor and Paris had gathered more wood after dinner and the blaze was bright and warm, but somehow not cheerful like when they camped out with their parents.
After dinner at home, sometimes Dad pulled out a book and read to them all, then they’d excitedly share their ideas about what they thought it meant or if the main character could have solved the problem better. Even Jake enthusiastically participated in these games and it was one of those times when they all felt close as a family.
No one wanted to talk tonight. They just wanted to be warm again. Even Dani who seemed used to the harshness said little except to tell them once they started going up, the weather would change and they’d all feel better.
There was a light behind the clouds and the clouds themselves stretched in fearsome magnificence across the vastness of the ebony sky. No city lights or anything civilized marred the awesome beauty of the darkness. Then that awesomeness began to take a different shape coming from the direction of the hills ahead. Something that looked like a giant out of one of Paris’s fantasy books loomed high, walking through the billows and the shadows of midnight.
“The Great Grey God.” Dani sat up in her bedroll and looked past the firelight.
“What is it?” Mandy had Zooey lying to one side of her and Jake on the other. Both were trembling.
“The guardian of the Dark Hills. This is his realm. I didn’t expect to see him.”
“Will he hurt us?” Paris was barely peeking out of her hood so her muffled voice was hard to hear.
“I think we’re safe as long as he doesn’t believe we’re a threat.”
“How could we threaten him?” Taylor felt Onyz suddenly scurry into the foot of the bedroll as if trying to hide from the enormous apparition.
“The Grey God is unpredictable, He can be benevolent or threatening to travelers, there’s no way to know which one.”
“I wish Shay were here.”
Dani silently shared Zooey’s wish. The God rarely appeared to humans though to be fair, humans rarely breached his domain. Even the dragons knew not to anger the God and they did not pass this way except in flight and high above the clouds as Shay and Dani did on their way to meet with Gerliliam’s charges.
“He’s coming this way.” Jake was terrified along with the rest of them. “I want to go home. Where’s Mom and Dad? Why won’t they come to take us home?” He was crying now and Zooey started to join him.
Taylor looked at Dani’s spear and her bow and quiver of arrows thinking maybe he could do something. He started to get out of his bedroll when he felt a pain in his ankle and heard vile hissing. “Onyx!” The boy pulled his right leg up and saw by the light of the fire that the cat had bitten right through his boot. He barely drew blood and it surprised more than hurt him.
“The cat is right. You can’t fight the God.” Dani had been watching him eye her weapons.
A large hand of mist and smoke extended from the sky toward them over water and trees.
“Go….back…” The voice was a whisper in the wind and the hand now threatened to envelop them.
Then a high-pitched shriek like that of a bird of prey cried out from above.
“Shay!” Dani was up on her knees as a column of amber and scarlet flames roared from the dragon’s maw turning the God’s hand into a towering cloud of steam.
Zooey yelled, “Watch out, Shay.”
The God bellowed like an injured behemoth and the wind carrying his outrage sent the dragon tumbling through the air out of control. She barely recovered and pulled up from her dive scant yards above the lake’s frothing surface, and then she climbed high and away. The God was lured after her and the heavens ignited with lightning and fire as God and dragon engaged in epic battle.
There were explosions, bursts of eldritch energies, the dragon vomiting white-hot plasma, the God hurling lightning and thunder. The Grey God moved like a ponderous saurian while Shay soared and sped like a dragonfly, staying just out of reach of death while dealing powerful but ultimately futile blows.
“Go Back or die,” declared the God.
“The children must go home,” screeched the dragon. The children could see she was tiring. The battle couldn’t last much longer and none of Shay’s kind had ever survived a direct encounter with the God.
Shay suddenly turned away from her adversary, dove toward the peaks of the low hills and when soared upward, high into the dark grey sky until she was only a pinpoint of golden light against the darkness. Then that light began to grow and get brighter. She was diving down, down straight for the center of the God.
“Shay! No!” Dani was on her feet, helpless to do anything to save her dearest friend, terrified of how she would protect the children without her. Mandy held her brothers and sisters close around her, seeing even Taylor’s eyes full of tears. She tried to remember what Mom and Dad told her about praying.
An enormous and brilliant fireball, like an exploding sun, flared above them lighting up the entire sky as if it were day. They all closed their eyes tight, blinded by the conflagration. Then it grew dim and went from white, to yellow, to grey, and then black.
Then the black shattered like glass and fell like rain, pelting the ground, and vanishing. A dying wave of ebony washed up toward the children. Dani rushed forward to block it and felt herself drowning.
The six children all woke up with a start just as the sun was rising over the eastern horizon.
“What happened? Where’s Shay?” Dani felt momentary nausea, and when it passed, she looked around. The campfire contained only faint embers and the five others were looking out of their bedrolls with the same perplexed expressions.
“Was Shay here last night?” Mandy wasn’t sure of what had happened. One moment there was a bright light and then…
“Yah!” Taylor cried out and scampered hurriedly out of his sleeping roll. “Something…something’s in there.” The rest of the children were surprised that he was so scared.
“Let me see.” Their guide crawled out of her own bag, dragged Taylor’s outside into the clearing in front of the cave, held it upside down, and shook. Something dark, gooey, and disgusting fell out.
“Ew. Gross.” Jake huddled next to Zooey.
“What the heck is that?” Taylor couldn’t believe what had been curled around his feet.
Dani bent down to get a better look at the remains. “An imp.”
“A what?” Zooey’s eyes grew wide at the sight.
“A kind of demon. A trickster. It tries to…Hey, wait a second. It’s your cat.”
“It was sleeping in your bag with you last night, right?”
“Well, yeah but…” The boy quickly examined his right boot at the ankle. He remembered being bitten but now there was nothing.
“What does it mean?” Paris was half out of her sleeping roll and on her knees trying to get a better look.”
“It means we were all tricked.”
“The warning to go back.” Sudden realization struck Mandy.
“Yes. The Grey God was never here. It was the imp. The demons don’t want you to get to Vovin, to the sanctuary. It’s where I’m supposed to take you.”
“You mean I was sleeping with that thing? It wasn’t a cat?”
“No. The demons exiled the dragons from their world, killed most of them in the war and sent the survivors here. Shay and the others built Vovin when the children started to arrive, others like you and me. They know you’re here and they don’t want you to get to the other side of the Dark Hills.”
“I don’t know, Mandy. I think Shay does, though.”
“Cant you tell us what’s going on? What war? Where are we?”
“Shay said she wanted to explain everything to you. It will be easier for you to understand once you see Vovin for yourself.”
“Wait. Are you saying that the battle between the Grey God and Shay was a dream made up by the demon?” Paris was sitting up on the ground with her bedroll wrapped around her.
“Yes. That’s a good point. If the imp created the dream to scare us away, why did we dream of Shay and the battle?”
“What would have happened to us if Shay hadn’t saved us in the dream?”
Dani had a good idea of how to answer Mandy’s question, but should she share the fatal reality of what can occur in a demonic nightmare?
The children kept talking about what had happened to them, but then they had to rebuild the fire and roast the remaining game for breakfast, then get ready to move on. Dani disposed of the offensive imp by burying it well away from the camp.
Through an otherworldly haze in-between the clouds and the world of dreams the golden dragon soared as she watched over them. In a dream, even a large and imposing dragon may be slain by a tiny impetuous imp. Last night, the battle had been won in their favor, but it was only the first of many.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Dark #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Each Thursday, Sue posts one of her photos as the inspiration for participating authors to craft a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
The mystery of their journey deepens as they discover sinister demonic forces are attempting to prevent Dani from leading the five siblings across the Dark Hills to safety in the dragon sanctuary called Vovin. This battle was fought in the dream world but in that otherworldly realm, even dreams can kill.
I very loosely based “The Great Grey God” on some of the lyrics found in the song God Walks the Dark Hills performed by Iris DeMent and written by Audra Czarnikow. This is actually supposed to be a comforting and spiritual song, but I leveraged it to create something darker.
I’m actually trying to write a novel involving the adventures of the Davidson children, first with Gerliliam and then with Shay and Dani. I’ve posted bits as pieces of it, including “after tales” on this blog.
The story most related to this one is Mr. Covingham’s Secret, however you can find other “clues” to this universe in stories such as Where Did Our Home Go?, The Whisperer Expanded, and Adventure’s Bitter Memories. To find out about some of the other children mentioned in this story, read She Treats Us Like Her Children.
If you’re curious about Gerliliam, here’s a sketch I made of him some months ago.
Originally, I had intended the wilderness the Davidson’s had to transverse with Dani to be a high desert, but when I saw Sue’s photo, I decided to change that (assuming this story makes it into “canon” in some form). Let me know what you think.
The next chapter is Hall of the Mountain Kings.