Janellize’s gaze was fixed upon the dragonrider standing before her as were the other four elves, if elves they really were. Mandy kept looking in disbelief back and forth between the Mistress of Direhaven and her new found friend. What secret did the teenage girl possess that was a threat to Direhaven, to the dragons, and to her family?
“I don’t know what you mean, and how do you know my name is Danijel?” She was worried. Janellize was no one to trifle with nor did she seem the sort to make a mistake, at least one of great magnitude. She searched her mind, her memories, her feelings, and all she found was who she was and always had been since she was a child of three.
The dark-haired noble known as Wynjeon stood. “I think you’ll find that there is very little we do not know about those who have entered our city.” His eyes were a deep blue, like a frozen lake, his expression impassive like those of his Queen and the other nobles, and Dani knew that he was her chief accuser.
“What must I do to prove you wrong?”
“It is not a matter of proving right or wrong. It is a matter of purging the danger within you, for the danger is great and exquisitely wicked. Now that it has been discovered, it will not long remain dormant.”
Dani heard the doors they had recently come through open behind her, but she dared not look away from Wynjeon. She saw the other children looking back and then Mandy turned toward her. “Dani?”
“Amanda,” Janellize’s voice was at once soothing and commanding. “Please do not interfere. We urge you and your siblings to remain calm. If we are successful, no harm will come to your friend, however we cannot allow her to remain as she is.”
Mandy turned to face the Queen, “But Mistress Janellize…”
The armored footfalls, which had steadily been approaching Dani from behind, ceased, and then she was surrounded by four elven soldiers armed with swords and halberds.
“Take her away. Wynjeon, accompany them.”
He nodded at his liege and walked toward Dani and her escort.
Mandy started to stand but Dani shook her head and she sat back down. Dani mouthed, “I’ll be fine,” though she didn’t believe it. Neither did the Davidson children who were all now terrified when just minutes ago, they were delighted to be guests in Direheaven.
“You may turn and walk with these soldiers. We will take you to a place where you will wait.”
“For what?” Dani tried to remain calm but could feel hot tears streaming down her cheeks.
“You will have a night to contemplate that question, for the answer awaits you at dawn.” Wynjeon nodded, this time at the guards and with two in front and two in back, Dani began walking towards the exit, the noble striding just behind and to the right of them.
The children and the remaining elves continued to watch the procession until the twin tall doors closed behind them, the sound echoing in the great library. Then they all looked back toward Janellize.
“I see you are concerned, and well should you be. Though this is no fault of your own, you do not come to us completely innocent as the dragon suggested. We have suffered the existence of Direhaven in these mountains for far too long and were promised a means to return, but now that is threatened.”
“Please, can I speak?” Mandy was still seated, trying with all her might not to cry. She could see everyone except Taylor had tears in their eyes and he was obviously stiff-lipped, like Mandy, holding in his feelings as best he could.
“Of course, Amanda.”
“What have we done wrong? What did Dani do? We don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re just children. We couldn’t hurt you even if we tried.”
“Oh, but you were far more capable as thralls to the dead in the Hall of the Mountain Kings.”
“How do you know about that? No, never mind. We didn’t ask for that to happen to us.”
Taylor suddenly stood up. “It was all my fault. If I hadn’t gone into that mine and been taken over by the spirit of the royal guard, none of this would have happened. If you’re going to punish someone, punish me, not Dani.”
“Sit down,” Mandy’s whisper sounded like a hiss.
“I agree with your sister, Taylor. You should sit down. We have no intention of punishing you and certainly we understand that your current state is not of your will. We make allowances for children, but none of you came away from the Mountain Hall unaffected.”
Taylor sat down again and his head snapped left toward his youngest sister as he heard her speak.
“You mean like I can talk to animals now?”
“The child may speak, Amanda.”
“Well it’s true.” The five year old glared at her older sister. She was scared, but not as scared as the others. Maybe it was because she could hear the friendly squeaks of tiny mice coming from the spaces in the floor stones beneath her.
“You are correct, Danielle. Your gift was compounded, amplified by your experiences in the Hall.”
The little girl bristled at being called “Danielle” instead of “Zooey,” but she knew better not to talk back, especially when they were all in big trouble and Mom and Dad couldn’t help.
“Mistress Janellize, what do you mean?”
The Queen sighed. She nodded left and right to the remaining three nobles who continued to remain silent. Then she stood, walked over to where the Davidson’s were seated, which formed a circle, and then seated herself in what had been Dani’s chair. She leaned forward toward Mandy. “Whether you have realized it or not, each one of you possesses gifts, talents that you will one day use for good or for ill.”
“You mean like how all animals seem to love Zooey?”
“Yes, but in her case, it goes beyond that, especially here and now. Do you know why the dragon is sending you to Vovin?”
“No. Shay and Dani won’t tell us. They said we’d find out when we got there.”
“That was a wise choice so as not to burden young backs with too much weight all at once.”
“I’m sorry. I…”
“I understand. There is much you have yet to learn, all of you. Janellize looked back and forth at all four of them. With the Queen this close, Zooey, Paris, and Jake were all wide-eyed in wonder and fear. Even far away, she was so beautiful and kind of unreal, but up close, she was exquisitely lovely, supernaturally charming, drawing the children toward her in similar to that of Shay, but at the same time, projecting a powerful presence that left no question she was truly a Queen.
“What’s going to happen to us?”
“Something wonderful and something terrible. I suppose it depends on how you look at it.”
She could see the expressions on all of the children’s faces were a mixture of confusion and anxiety.
“Take Danielle for instance, or is it Zooey?”
“Very well.” Janellize’s smile became so much warmer in that instant. “Why don’t you call him? You know who I mean.”
“I don’t know his name, but he’s really curious.” Zooey looked down and at her feet was a tiny mouse, colored a light tan, except for his ears and tummy which were white. He blinked deep brown eyes and the insides of his ears and the tip of his nose were a very pale pink.
“Come up here. It’s okay. I just want to be friends.”
The mouse then scurried up the girls robes, ran along her lap, her arm, and finally nestled in the palm of her hand. Zooey gently petted his head and leaned down to listen.
“His name is Sapplehenning and he says that he really thinks you’re pretty.” Zooey looked up and smiled at Janellize.
“Tell your little friend he and his family is always welcome, but to please wait to eat until we have vacated our table.”
“He understands, Mistress. He’s a mouse.”
“Zooey, how do you know what he’s saying? Can he talk like Mr. Covingham?”
“No, Paris. Mr. Covingham could talk because he lives in Gerliliam’s magic forest. The mice the Mistress’ castle are just mice.”
“So how can you understand him?”
I don’t know. I could hear all the animals and talk to them ever since…” Zooey stopped trying to remember when it had all started.
“Since the Hall of the Mountain Kings,” Janellize prompted.
“Yes. I remember. First I could talk to the birds, and then the rats and even the bats. Everyone thinks they’re dirty and creepy, but they’re just trying to make a living.”
Mandy chuckled in spite of herself.
“Now let’s turn our attention to Taylor. The voice inside of you is most insistent, isn’t it? What is his name?”
The nine-year-old boy started sweating. “Azzorh.” He meant to say it out loud but it sounded more like a whisper.
“You remember him. You remember what he once knew.”
“Some of it. He was a soldier and fought in wars. He was good at it and they made him a special guard for the Kings.”
“Was he good with a spear?”
Taylor suddenly remembered he hadn’t seen Dani’s spear or knife since he woke up and didn’t remember what happened to her bow and arrows. “Yes. Wait. I was good with the spear. I stopped that skeleton from stabbing Dani when everything was on fire.”
“That’s right. You did. But then, you always were good at things like sports, running, jumping, being brave.”
“Yeah. Sure, I…” He stopped and thought about what she really meant.
“Paris, you have yet to realize your special gifts, but you are in the right place to start.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mistress.” Paris was usually a little shy when she met people for the first time, like a lot of children are, but now she felt like she wanted to crawl into the cracks in the floor where Sapplehenning came from and hide with the rest of the mice.
The Queen leaned forward more in Paris’ direction and whispered in her ear. Then she sat back. “Do you think you can find it?”
“I’ll try, Mistress.” Paris stood up and walked in a wide half-circle to the right around where the three nobles were still seated. Then she headed to the bookshelves on the wall all the way to the back.
“It’s on the shelf second from the bottom, so you shouldn’t have any trouble reaching it,” Janellize called out loud enough for the nine-year-old girl to hear her.
After a few minutes, everyone could see Paris pulling a book from the shelf, checking the title on the cover, and then she rapidly walked back to them and resumed her chair.
“If you could do us a favor, child. Turn to page 139 and beginning reading the first paragraph.”
“I will if you want.” Paris opened the book and started leafing through the pages. It looked very old and very expensive. The paper was thick, a lot thicker than any of the books she used at school, the ones she had at home, or those she checked out of the library. Then she stopped, flipped back a few pages, and then put her finger on the first word in the required paragraph.
“It was the thirty-fifth year of the reign of Mattezal, the 128th King of the House of Ash, and he sat on the Amethyst Throne of his ancestors, carved from a single great jewel by the troll and master lapidary Vinchenzo, servant of the House of Ash since its inception. In that year, a herald from the Outer Kingdoms to the West appealed to the guard that he might have an audience with the King to relate…”
“That is fine, Paris. You have a very pleasant reading voice.”
“Thank you.” She blushed at the compliment and found that she didn’t want to stop reading. What news did the herald have to give to King Mattezal and what was happening in the Outer Kingdoms?
“Now I want you to look carefully at the page you were just reading and tell me if you notice anything unusual.”
Paris looked down and lightly brushed her fingers across the paper. “It feels so thick and soft. It’s like reading a story written on carpet.”
“What about the words and letters?”
She kept staring down. “I don’t think…wait.”
Mandy looked over on Paris’ lap. “I can’t read any of those words. How can you?”
“What?” She looked at her sister and then back down at the page. When the realization came to her, she turned back to Janellize. “I shouldn’t be able to read this. I don’t know what language it is.”
“Yes, that’s right. It is in an ancient dialect of my people and not many of us can master its intricacies. Yet you picked up the book and read it as if you were born to the language.”
“What about mine?” Jake raised his hand like he was in school. The children all seemed to becoming more lighthearted with the Queen sitting so close to them and acting so kind, but Mandy was still terribly worried about Dani, and when she glanced over toward Taylor, she could tell he was too.
“Your gift is especially difficult to realize and will require a great deal of discipline.”
To Jake, “discipline” sounded a lot like “hard work,” like how Mom and Dad made him practice extra on spelling and reading. All that was super easy for Paris but he didn’t like it at all, not because stories were interesting, but because he was the lousiest reader and speller in the family.
“Don’t look so glum. Once you get the hang of it, you’re really going to like it.”
“If you say so, Mistress.” He looked down at his lap, both disappointed and sad. Maybe she was just being nice and he didn’t have a gift.
“I’m going to make you a promise, Jake. I promise that when you go to bed tonight, you will sleep very soundly. Then when you wake up, you will know what your gift is.”
“Okay.” That didn’t make sense to him because how could sleeping make you have a gift?
“When will we get to see Dani again, Mistress?”
“Of your brothers and sisters, only you ask me that question, Amanda. Why do you suppose that is?”
“I’m worried about her too, Mistress.” Taylor didn’t want the Queen to think that only Mandy cared about her. He knew they all did and he felt like he especially cared about her.
“I know you are but we already know what you are good at. What about you, Amanda?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s that got to do with what’s going to happen to Dani?”
“I think you already know. Why were you the first one to break the spell of the Mountain Kings?”
“I don’t know.”
“Wasn’t it something your friend Danijel said?”
“All she did was remind me that I wasn’t taking care of my brothers and sisters.”
“Why is that so important?”
“Because…” She looked down at her lap and watched her fingers intertwining nervously. “Because Mom and Dad aren’t here.”
She hadn’t forgotten them, none of them had forgotten Mom and Dad, but life had been so hard, so strange, one adventure after the other, at last these past few days. Without Mom and Dad, she depended on Dani, but now Dani was gone, Shay hardly ever stayed a moment, even when she did come. Why was it always left up to her?
“It can be lonely being the responsible one.”
Mandy looked back up. Was she talking about being a Queen or something else?
The grand tall windows on the left rattled as if threatening to break, but it was only a sudden rainstorm, wind-driven droplets like bullets, peppering the glass, thousands upon thousands of them each moment. There was a flash of lightning followed all too quickly by rumbling thunder.
Sapplehenning feld Zooey’s lap where he’d been napping and zipped downward though the floor spaces toward safe haven. Zooey, Jake, and Paris were transfixed by the invading storm while Mandy and Taylor were still pondering the Queen.
“I can see it is later than I thought.”
Janellize looked at the doors just as they opened to admit Altha and Edyn. They strode over to their Queen and deeply bowed. She then stood and once again formally addressed the children. If Taylor and Jake will accompany Edyn and Amanda, Paris, and Zooey will go with Altha, you may retire to your quarters.
Zooey was about to object that it wasn’t so late, but then a yawn took her and she realized she was very tired. But they had just gotten up this afternoon. Why was she so sleepy?
Mandy looked and saw the three nobles had risen (Wynjeon had never returned). Janellize continued to look at the Davidsons.
Mandy stood first, then Taylor, and then Zooey, Paris, and Jake. Taylor touched his brother’s shoulder and they walked over to the waiting Edyn.
“What about Dani?”
“You will see her again tomorrow, I promise.”
“What’s going to happen to her tonight?”
“With the best of our efforts, nothing at all. Please don’t ask what that means, Amanda. It is too difficult to describe but at its heart, we shall endeavour to insure her safety come the trial at dawn.”
The Queen held up her hand. “Rest all of you. Tomorrow will come soon enough. Then there will be answers. Amanda?”
Mandy took Janellize’s cue and led her sister over to Altha.
“Paris, I realize this afternoon your quarters were with Danijel. Your bed has since been moved next to your two sisters in their room. You will not be alone.”
“Good night, Mistress Janellize.” Mandy waited to take Paris and Zooey with her.
“Good night, children.” The nobles each gave a slight bow to the five youths and then the children followed their escorts across the library, through the grand doors, and then back down the vast hall accompanied by the cacophony and spectacular assault of the thunderstorm held at bay by mere stone and glass.
Then the final parting, for the boys went left and the girls went right, and now that Dani was missing, they all worried that they might never see each other again, a Queen’s promises notwithstanding.
Jake didn’t remember falling asleep and he didn’t remember waking up. He looked around and he was alone in the middle of a street. There were parked cars and a bus at a bus stop, but nothing was moving. There was no traffic and no people. He looked down and saw he was back in his old clothes, jeans, a t-shirt with the logo of his Dad’s favorite baseball team, and a zip up hoodie.
He could hear the wind blowing down the street like he was in a canyon. A few leaves and a couple of pieces of paper were carried along. The last thing he remembered was a thunderstorm and it was night, but now everything was dry and it was day time.
“Hello.” He called out hoping his brothers and sisters would answer. “Where is everybody?” Only the wind replied.
The street light made its orderly procession from green to yellow to red and then back to green, though it did so in vain without cars, trucks, and pedestrians. Jake decided to get out of the street anyway and walked to the nearest corner. It’s where the bus stop was.
The city bus’ doors were open, so he walked up the steps and looked inside. There wasn’t a driver and not even a single waiting passenger. The engine was silent and it might have been sitting here a few minutes or even a few years.
Jake walked back outside. He didn’t recognize the neighborhood, but it looked like the downtown of a small city.
Wait. He wasn’t in a forest anymore, or a castle, or a city full of elves. He was in a city like where he lived, dressed in his regular clothes. Home! He was home!
“Mom! Dad! It’s me, Jake! Help me. We’ve got to find Mandy and Taylor and Paris and Zooey. They’re still lost and some elves have them, and they’re going to do something to Dani. Mom! Dad! Where are you?”
He ran down the sidewalk looking and calling out. Then he rushed across the street and did the same thing. Jake opened the door to a frozen yogurt shop, but it was empty so he ran next door and looked into a place that sold sandwiches, but it was empty, too. Every place he looked, the streets, the buildings, the cars, everything was empty and no matter how much or how loud he yelled, no one answered and no one was there.
He got to an open space and saw three boys playing. “Hey! Help me! Where am I?” Jake ran up to them but when he got closer, he saw they were just statues. There was a sign saying something about playing marbles, whatever that was. Then he clenched his fists and yelled out as loud as he could, “Where is everybody? Why won’t you answer?”
“Hee hee hee hee hee.”
One time after all the kids were supposed to be in bed, Mom and Dad watched a scary movie about a creepy clown. Jake had been looking at people playing horror games on YouTube and didn’t think he would get scared if she snuck down and watched, but after a few minutes, the clown totally freaked him out and he went back to his room. He had nightmares for days afterward hearing that creepy clown and that’s what he heard right now.
He turned slowly around toward the sound of the laughing. Just a building, some kind of restaurant in the middle of the open square.
“Yah!” The clown popped up from behind the statue of the boys and made a grab for him. Jake took off as fast as he could and only got away because the clown tripped over the statue.
“Hide. Got to hide.” He ducked into a darkened doorway while trying to catch his breath. He could feel his heart pounding really hard in his chest and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so scared. Maybe when they were running from the skeletons in the Hall of the Kings, or when the black cat Onyx, who was really a demon, gave everybody the nightmare that the Great Gray God was going to get them all.
No, it was the creepy clown that scared him the most. But what was he doing here when Jake didn’t even know how he’d gotten here?
“Come here, little Jakey. Uncle Boffo has a surprise for you.” The clown was talking in a sing-songy kind of voice like how some grown-ups talk to babies, and the boy knew he didn’t want any sort of surprise “Uncle Boffo” was going to give him.
The clown was still talking, but his voice was getting further away. Jake snuck a peek out and saw he was going in the wrong direction, which was alright to him. He could breathe regularly again so he tip-toed out of the doorway and started walking in the opposite direction of the clown, trying to make as little noise as possible.
Jake turned and saw the clown had just been faking, waiting for him to stop hiding. The second-grader ran, and ran, and ran as he heard the clown’s big, floppy shoes go “flap, flap, flap” faster and faster behind him. He was catching up.
He turned street corners, went down alleys, scrambled over to a different block, trying anything to get away. Then he saw the bus at the bus stop and jumped inside the open doors. He hid behind a seat halfway down the bus back behind where the driver sits, and tried with all his might to slow down his breathing so the clown wouldn’t hear him.
It seemed like a minute must have gone by, then two, and the longer Jake waited, the more he thought the clown wouldn’t find him.
Then just outside on the sidewalk he heard, “flap.” Then he heard another “flap.” The clown was getting closer. He heard a footstep “flap” on the lowest step of the bus’ door.
“I know you’re in here, Jakey. I’m going to get you.”
Jake closed his eyes hoping the clown would go away, but then he couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to see him coming, so he opened them. The clown was almost all the way on the bus.
But how did the clown get here? How did the bus get here? The last thing Jake remembered was being in Janellize’s library. No, that wasn’t the last thing. He and Taylor went with Edyn while his sisters all went with Altha. After they left the dining room, they went through different doors. Edyn took them back to the room where they woke up that afternoon.
He didn’t think he’d be able to sleep after all the excitement and Dani being captured and everything, but he laid down in his bed and…
“I’m here, Jake. You can’t get away.”
He’d fallen asleep in Direhaven and woke up here. No, he hadn’t woken up. He had to still be asleep. This was all a dream.
What did the Mistress say to him?
“I’m going to make you a promise, Jake. I promise that when you go to bed tonight, you will sleep very soundly. Then when you wake up, you will know what your gift is.”
Was he supposed to get his gift in the dream or learn what it was? Zooey knew how to talk to animals after the Hall of Kings, but animals already liked her. Same with Paris. She loved to read tons of books before, but now her gift was being able to read elf books. Maybe that meant she could any kind of book no matter what.
What was in this dream that told him about his gift? What could he do?
“I’m getting closer, Jake.”
The clown sounded different and he wasn’t calling him “Jakey” anymore. He decided to peek out. He wasn’t a clown anymore, not exactly anyway. He was getting smaller. His bright red, yellow, and blue make up and costume were looking more gray. He was getting smaller still and now he was almost completely black, just like…
“Onyx.” Jake crawled into the aisle and stood up. “You’re Taylor’s cat, but you’re not a cat.”
“Well, I admit you caught me. I’m not a clown and I’m not a cat. I’m what you call an Alp.”
I’m a kind of demon, an imp really. I sneak into dreams and turn them into nightmares, deadly ones.”
“I’m not scared of you anymore, Alp. Actually, I think you’re pretty funny looking and you’re small enough for me to step on.”
“Really? Watch this.” The Alp jumped up at Jake and grabbed him by the throat. Then small but steely fingers started to squeeze, and the seven-year-old had a hard time breathing. He grabbed and pulled, but he couldn’t get the demon loose. They rolled around the inside of the bus, bouncing down the aisle and back and forth between the seats. If only he had something to hurt the imp with like a sword or a knife.
They got to the back of the bus and Jake rocked hard forward and back banging the imp’s head on the hard plastic bench.
“Hey! Ouch! Cut it out! That really hurts! Knock it off.” The imp kept on complaining and finally let go of Jake to protect his head.
Jake was really scared and really mad and he used his fists to hit and pound on the imp who kept yelling and complaining how he was getting hurt. Then there was blood and the imp stopped yelling and talking. The boy stopped hitting only he wasn’t using his fists. He had Dani’s knife in his hand and the imp was a total mess and…
Jake woke up in his bed next to his brother Taylor. It was still dark out. It really had been a dream.
The boy sat up in head, breathing hard and his heart beating fast like he had been fighting the imp. It had been a dream. It had just been a dream.
His arms were still under the covers and he was holding tight onto something with his right hand. He pulled it out and stared in astonishment at the knife he had in his dream. It was real and it was Dani’s knife, the one she have to Taylor. He hadn’t seen it since they woke up in Direhaven the first time but now he had it. But how?
His gift. The imp was disguised as a clown, and then a cat, but he’d been able to see what it really was and it couldn’t make him afraid. He wished for something to stop the demon with and then he had a knife in his hand. The knife wasn’t just a dream though, it was real. Did that mean part of his gift was to make things up so that they’d be real?
Altha and Edyn escorted the Davidson children to a place outside the city near a tunnel opening in the opposite direction from the one they’d exited yesterday. There were four soldiers waiting, and there were the three nobles they had seen last night, and then there was Janellize.
The five children were dressed in their usual traveling clothes, the ones they had gotten at Gerliliam’s. Jake showed Taylor Dani’s knife when he woke up. The scabbard was in bed with the little boy too, so his older brother took them both and now the knife was strapped to his thigh and concealed by his cloak. Neither one of them told their sisters about it.
“Last night you asked about your friend Danijel. You will be happy to learn that she survived the night, though through no small effort of Wynjeon and the Mages of Direhaven. We will go to meet them now for the trial at Sakhr.”
They all wanted to ask a thousand questions but last night’s experience told them it would probably be a waste of time. If they kept quiet, they’d see Dani that much sooner, though no one knew what was going to happen after that.
Two guards entered the tunnel first, then a pair of nobles, and then the third noble accompanied the Queen. The children went next and finally the last two guards followed.
This tunnel was much like the other, dim, rock-hewn, irregular, illumination provided by bioluminescent lichen, a cross between the mundane and the fantastic.
The children had been fed an adequate breakfast in their rooms, but nothing like the opulent meal they had shared with Janellize and her court last evening. No one was feeling particularly hungry though, due to the soberness of what they thought they were facing, but the weeks since they’d entered this strange realm taught them never to skip a meal. You never knew when you would be able to eat again.
The eastern horizon had barely begun to lighten when they entered the tunnel, and when the emerged, the clouds were white and pink and there was a pale blue where they parted.
Dani was in the middle of some rough brush and grass surrounded by a crude depression of sand and dirt. There were elves, two in the front and two in the rear who they assumed were the Mages Mistress Janellize had mentioned, the ones who had somehow made Dani safe last night. Standing next to the front left elf, a woman with shockingly white hair and piercing emerald eyes, stood the noble Wynjeon. He bowed and then so did the Mages as the Queen appeared.
“We are ready, Mistress,” the noble uttered as he rose from his bow.
“Thank you. Return to your station. You have acquitted yourself with valor, my Prince.” She gently caressed his face and then brushed back his hair to lovingly touch the tip of his ear, giving Mandy the definite impression they had a relationship that went beyond Royal Vizer to Queen.
The guards and nobles parted giving the Davidsons a clearer look at their friend who was standing in chains, bound wrists and ankles to a stone platform beneath her.
Taylor started forward reaching under his cloak for the knife.
“No, stay where you are, all of you. I understand now. It has to be this way. Last night, Wynjeon saved me from death or worse with the aid of these Mages. Please. I love you all and no matter what happens, remember this is for the best.”
“Dani,” Mandy whispered.
“We stand as witnesses,” the Queen formally declared. “You may proceed.”
The Mages formed a circle around Dani but did not join hands for they were too far apart. They extended open palms to their partners, left and right, bowed their heads and began murmuring. Dani pulled her limbs taught against the chains, closed her eyes, and turned her face to the sky.
As the murmuring, or likely the weaving of spells continued, light expanded from the palms of the Mages linking them one to another and forming a barrier around the dragonrider. Then Dani went into convulsions. Mandy and Taylor started forward but the two guards nearest them placed their hands on the hilts of their swords and warned them off.
Dani’s seizures became more violent and she twisted and contorted in her restraints, moving so fast that it almost seemed there were two of her.
And then there were, but not quite. There was Dani, and then there was a dark and shadowy version of her, her face revealing a gleeful malevolence. In place of the chains there were swords, but not like those they’d seen so far. These were long and curved, with the blade wider at the tip than at the hilt.
The evil one screeched horribly and struck down and Dani defended with her own blade just in time. They knew their friend was very good with archery and the spear, but they’d never seen her fight with a sword before.
The blades moved so fast it was like they left light trails behind, and they clashed so hard and frequently, it was almost like the rain hitting the windows during last night’s storm, the sounds even sometimes mimicking the thunder.
It was getting harder to see them because the light the Mages were shining kept getting brighter and their murmurings were becoming shouts. There was screaming inside the light, but no one could tell if it were the good Dani, the evil one, or both.
Sparks were flying upward as the battle continued, becoming a tornado if fire rising about the two fierce combatants. The screaming of the fighters and the cries of the Mages got so loud, the children had to cover their ears, and then it got louder still until with one last shout, the spell was over and there was a final blinding flash.
Mandy was seeing spots in front of her eyes and her ears were ringing. She thought she could hear talking, but it sounded like it was coming from far away and echoing down a tunnel. When she could see better, she witnessed the four Mages walking back toward Janellize and Wynjeon, bowing to them, bowing to the other three nobles, and then going back down the tunnel. Everyone else remained.
She looked, and where Dani had once stood, there was now a giant, stone bowl. It was irregular, like a failed pottery project, with one side dipping below the others, and in the center was a hole.
“Dani!” Mandy rushed forward and this time no one tried to stop her, but when Taylor went to follow, Wynjeon took him by the shoulder saying, “Let her discover this for herself.”
Taylor hadn’t intended to stop but for some reason he didn’t understand, he did.
The teenager was looking down the hole in the center of the rock and crying out the dragonrider’s name. Then she spun around, anger written dramatically on her face. “She said Wynjeon saved her life and for what, for this? She was our friend and we came here in peace. What have you done with her and what will happen to my brothers and sisters now?
“If you would be worthy to lead, you must also follow. Who needs you the most now, Amanda?”
The question caught her off guard. If only there were some way to help Dani, to bring her back, but both versions of her had vanished.
The voice came from behind her, from the bowl.
“Dani!” She whirled again and saw a hand reaching up. “Taylor, Paris, help me.”
The twins rushed forward but as one of the guards started to accompany them, Janellize shook her head, but she was smiling. So were Wynjeon and the others.
Together, the three oldest Davidsons pulled Dani out of the depression and onto the sand.
Jake and Zooey rushed forward and they all laughed and cried and hugged Dani and each other.
“What happened? We thought you were dead. What was that thing you were fighting.”
“It is a long story, children. One that has taken Danijel to the depths of the underworld and then brought her back. The danger that possessed her is now gone and she is safe as are you all.”
Dani stood up and walked over to the Queen. She bowed to her and then to Wynjeon. “Thank you for my life and for everything that I am. I apologize for ever doubting you.”
“You had reason enough to, child. But come now. We must return to Direhaven for food, rest, and afterward, to plan for the future.”
Dani looked back. “He’s gone for good?”
“The minion of Asmodeus will trouble you no more, though he will haunt these barren lands throughout the long centuries.”
It was then that they heard something else coming from the stone, a wailing. It sounded like the wind at first but it grew louder, like someone in torment, a soul on fire, the demon Sakhr in chains, incased in stone, locked in granite awaiting only drowning in the coming flood.
Danijel shivered at the thought that if she had lost, she would be the soul in the stone, and a demon would be free to menace Direhaven and her five dearest friends.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Carved #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. As always, every Thursday, Sue posts one of her photos and asks that any participants use it as a prompt to craft a short story, poem, or other creative work.
I’m using Sue’s weekly prompts to continue writing the adventures of the Davidson children with their friend Dani and the dragon Shay. Each story is a chapter in what I hope will eventually become a book. I’m having fun authoring it so far, and I hope it will be good enough to one day become a published work.
I loosely based the demon possessing Dani on Asmodeus but given the creature’s lewd reputation, I had to access the character sparingly.
There is a reference to Asmodeus in the Quran referring to him as “Sakhr” which means rock, and references his fate in Islamic lore as being imprisoned inside a box of rock, chained with iron, and then thrown into the sea. I thought the object in Sue’s photo depicted the rock rather well, especially when you think of it as an open mouth wailing and crying for all eternity.
The swords I mentioned are called Kilij.
In the meantime, here’s a partial list of what I’ve written about the Davidson childrens’ adventures with Dani and Shay so far:
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
I’ll flesh it out as time allows.
Let me know what you think of this story and the very uncertain future of the five Davidson kids. Thanks. The next chapter is What Secrets We Keep.