Jake saw Dani standing in a gorge between two cliffs holding Witherbrand in her hand. Her blade was covered with blood and she was surrounded by bodies.
“Dani, what happened?”
The seven-year-old looked around but couldn’t see his brother or sisters, that is, until he looked closer at the dead people on the ground.
She turned and stared at him, but her eyes were so different. Pale, blue orbs gazed at him with malevolence, and she grinned like a predator who had just spied fresh meat.
“What are you doing?”
She wasn’t in a hurry. The teenager strolled almost casually in his direction. Her armor wasn’t what he had given her after his dream. It was red and black, like the demon’s armor, like Sahkr’s.
“Get back! What did you do to Mandy?” Her body was the closest one to him, lying on her face in a pool of blood.
She raised her elven sword over her head, ready to strike. Jake tried to turn and run, but he stepped into a hole and tripped. His ankle raged with pain. The little boy managed to roll onto his back and see her standing over him.
Then she fell apart, like a window shattering. It reminded him of the time when he was practicing batting with Taylor in the backyard, and he hit the baseball, accidentally knocking it through the patio’s glass door.
But that glass wasn’t black and all of the little pieces didn’t have legs. It wasn’t Dani and it wasn’t glass, they were little, twittering creatures, like bugs, only each one was about the size of a gerbil. They were crawling all around him, and then they were all over his body.
“Get off me! Get off!”
There were dozens, maybe hundreds, and they were crawling inside of his clothes, biting him, pulling at his eyes and ears, opening his mouth, and scurrying down his throat.
Jake woke up choking.
“Are you alright?”
It was Dani, and for a second, he tried to slide out of his sleeping bag and get away. Then he saw Witherbrand was sheathed at her side and her eyes weren’t blue. It wasn’t the demon.
“Yeah. Bad dream, I guess.”
“Tell me about it.”
She went back to tending the fire. The sun had just risen over the horizon, but she must have checked the traps early, because she had fresh game ready to put on a spit to roast.
Everything looked normal, or whatever they had all gotten used to trekking across the Dark Hills.
Then the child saw something move quickly to his right and jumped. One of those black, crawly things? He sighed. “It’s just Sapplehenning.”
He sat up and watched the mouse zip back and forth between a berry bush at the edge of their camp and Zooey’s sleeping bag. He was piling round, blue fruit on top of his little sister’s chest.
“Getting breakfast, Sapplehenning?” He chuckled as the rodent paused and put another grape-sized morsel on his stack. For a moment, he looked like he understood Jake, but Zooey was the only one who could talk to him. Still, he was smart enough to get something to eat for his sister and him.
“Since you’re up, do you want to help me with the rabbits?”
“Sure. Just give me a second.”
Their long journey in the wilderness had caused them all to develop new skills. Before coming here, Jake could make his own scrambled eggs, a sandwich, and heat up leftovers in the microwave, but that was about it. Now, he had gotten good at cooking over an open fire, as well as finding and gathering eatable roots, berries, and nuts. The only thing is that it wasn’t always like the plants and animals back home. It was more like being stranded on an alien planet, except the planet had magic, ghosts, demons, and dragons.
Lately, their days followed a familiar pattern. Once they broke camp, they continued their march across the peaks and valleys of the Dark Hills. Dani took the lead and Taylor brought up the rear. After Dani was Zooey, Mandy, Paris, and then Jake.
They stopped for lunch, or whenever they were too tired, or the terrain was too rough and they needed a break.
Taylor was getting really good with the bow and arrow as well as his spear, and surprisingly, he was even getting better sparing with Dani using the bokken. Ever since he had helped Dani fight the demon at Orholt, it was like he was almost an expert. He wasn’t as good as Dani yet, but he had started improving super fast, and he was even teaching Mandy and Jake some archery.
Paris and Zooey still weren’t interested in learning how to hunt or fight, but his bookworm sister was tutoring them all in the dragon language they use in Vovin, and now she was singing songs in the same tongue. When the rest of them joined in, it made the time pass faster.
At night, after dinner, and after Dani and Taylor practiced with their bokkens, Paris opened her book and told them stories about the elves and demons, about the dragons, the trolls, as well as beings they’d never heard of before. They were always exciting adventures with happy endings, but everyone knew there were big parts of her book she never read to them out loud.
Sitting around the fire listening to the nine-year-old girl, they were reminded of the first night they arrived in Gerliliam’s forest, when he read to them about the Fall of the Dragons. The Davidson children didn’t often think of the old dragon anymore, but when they did, they found they missed him, as well as his friends, the gophers, Mr. and Mrs. Nigel, Pardal the Sparrow, and Mr. Covingham, the garter snake. If only they could have stayed in his warm and friendly house under the big oak.
“I figure it shouldn’t take more than another week for us to finish crossing the hills. Vovin is on the other side, in the northern forest bordering the sea.”
“Another week? How long has it been already?”
“Quiet, Jake.” It occurred to Mandy that she didn’t know how long it had been, either. There were no clocks or calendars here, and she hadn’t been counting the days. Had it been weeks or months since they had last seen their home?
“It’s okay. He’s right. It’s been a long trip, longer than I thought it would be.”
“That’s because of all the side trips though, right?” Taylor grabbed the hilt of his sword Celeste and grinned. He acted as if all of their adventures had been fun, like in the movies. He knew better though, so it was just an act. He liked the excitement, but in real life, adventures can get you hurt or killed, and that almost happened to all of them at least once since they’d gotten here.
Paris put her book back in her pack and unrolled her sleeping bag.
“Not staying up until midnight reading this time?” Taylor liked teasing his twin, but his attitude toward her had warmed in the time they’d been in the Exile.
“No, I’m really tired tonight, and the book will still be there in the morning.” Normally, the only thing she liked to really do was read, but walking across the rugged territory of the Hills was a lot harder than getting up for school in the morning, so she’d learned to get her rest while she could.
Zooey was already snuggled in her bag with Sapplehenning dozing next to her.
Mandy gathered more wood, and putting another log on the fire, deposited the rest nearby. “Think I’ll turn in, too.”
“We’ll be getting a break tomorrow. The trail takes us into a broad valley between two high ridges, so it will be easy walking for most of the day.”
“You going to bed, Taylor?” Jake decided to follow Mandy’s example.
“Not yet. Think I’ll watch the stars for a while.”
After Orholt, Dani, Mandy, and Taylor had taken turns standing guard in case Sahkr came back, but then Zooey decided each time they camped for the evening, she’d make friends with the local animals. Now the owls, the bats, and the foxes were their nocturnal guardians, and by day, the crows, the doves, and the starlings were their guides, letting them know of any dangers ahead. Happily, so far they only announced the occasional wolf or bobcat.
Zooey was running and dancing around them the next morning as they walked across the grassy valley. It looked like a gigantic park, sparely populated by scrubs and trees. They’d refilled their water supplies from a mountain stream at the valley’s edge and were now traveling across this high country haven.
“Come on and dance with me.” Zooey grabbed Paris by the hand and pulled her out of the line. They twirled around each other giggling, making Dani and Mandy smile. They didn’t get a chance to act like children too often anymore.
Taylor rolled his eyes, but he was smiling too. Jake tried to smile, but he couldn’t get the weird dreams out of his head. Since his special gift had to do with dreams, he kept wondering if the nightmares about little demons getting into your brain were just nightmares.
In the afternoon, the sky became more cloudy, threatening a storm which, being completely exposed, would make the rest of the day’s trip difficult if not disastrous. Fortunately, though colder, the air remained dry, but the gray billows overhead were to become harbingers of another kind of misfortune.
“Watch out, watch out, watch out.” A small group of robins flew in from ahead and started circling Zooey. “Danger, warning, don’t go that way, death.” Then they vanished upward and to the south.
“Hey! Wait! You forgot to say what kind of danger!” The little girl called after them, but they were already gone.
“What about danger?”
No one but the kindergartener had understood the small birds, so Mandy didn’t realize there was a problem until her sister said something.
“They didn’t tell me. They just said to watch out and not go that way.”
“It’s the only way out of this valley, unless we want to go back.” Dani scanned the far side where the hills once again rose high above. “I think I see the problem.”
Everyone had stopped by this time and were looking ahead.
“Vultures. Something must be dying.” Dani knew this was the way of things, just as the rest of them were learning, but there must be more to it if Zooey’s avian friends were so upset.
“I guess we don’t have a choice. We have to keep going.” Mandy used to let Dani make all these decisions, but by now, she was figuring out what they had to do without the dragonrider always leading the way.
“I agree. We’ll just have to be careful.” Dani started pacing ahead, but she readied her bow just in case. Behind the others, Taylor took his spear in hand.
What had begun as a lighthearted stroll across verdant fields under a sunny sky, was fast becoming like the more grim parts of their journey. Thunder rumbled through the clouds overhead, and the sky became the color of shale.
“I can hear them. There’s only one of them left alive. The other vultures are…” Zooey paused for a second. “Oh, gross.” The little girl’s face went pale.
“What is it?” Mandy put her hand on her sister’s shoulder.
“There are three dead somethings. The vultures are…eating.”
“That’s not good for the dead, but I don’t know why that’s dangerous to us.” The carrion feeders were unlikely to be a bother to them, but Dani still kept an arrow handy.
The trail was beginning to climb again as they reached the valley’s edge. There had been a small landslide and two slate-colored boulders were resting at haphazard angles amid the underbrush. There were several scavenger birds just on the other side. Dani got there first.
“No! Get out of here! Get away from him!” She was screaming and waving, then she raised her bow and nocked an arrow, but by then, the vultures had fled.
Mandy and Taylor were the next to arrive. They’d waved their other siblings back until she found out what was going on, but then they already knew. Both Paris and Zooey could understand the dragon’s dying words.
Dani was kneeling beside the creature she called Icarus. The dragon was much smaller than Shay, about the size of a pony, and more resembled the paintings of dragons from England or Europe rather than Asian dragons like the fifteen-year-old’s friend.
“Icarus. How did this happen? Who did this to you?”
The silver skinned dragon was on its back, both wings in tatters, a great claw had raked his torso from throat to abdomen. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and pink bubbles dribbled from his mouth and snout.
“They came. We thought it was…”
“Who? Who came?”
The dragon coughed up blood as the dragonrider tenderly held his head.
Dani frantically looked around, started to take off her pack and then stopped. She was desperate to save the dragon, but it was hopeless.
“Danger. Beware.” His voice was weaker. Then he let out a sigh and perished, his limp form somehow almost shrinking into the ground.
The girl’s body shook as she cried. Then they all heard the call of a vulture from its perch on a low tree several yards up the hill. Dani rose in a blur of motion and fired an arrow, piercing the buzzard’s heart and sending its now lifeless carcass to the ground. “Let your friends eat you!”
She collapsed down to her knees and sobbed. Mandy sat next to her and embraced her friend while the rest stood around them. Taylor kept watch, the insistent little voice inside reminding him that this was no time to become careless.
They buried Icarus where he fell, the deceased vulture’s companions no longer giving them any trouble. By the time Dani found the other three, there wasn’t enough left to bury. The scavengers had done their job all too well.
The sun was low in the west and there wasn’t any point in going on. The six of them built their camp near the valiant dragon’s grave.
“They always traveled together. The four of them were best friends. I remember the first time I saw them. I was littler than Zooey. Icarus, Daedalus, Minos, and Theseus were practicing formation flying. It was like watching them dance in mid-air.”
“Why do you think they were out here?” Mandy was sitting close to Dani by the fire.
“Looking for us, maybe?”
“But why wouldn’t Shay do that?” Zooey had Sapplehenning sitting in her lap. He loved having her stroke is furry head with her fingers.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense, unless something happened to Shay.”
“We just saw her at Direhaven.”
“That was weeks ago, Paris. Anything could have happened since then, except…I don’t understand it. The dragons fly over this part of the hills all the time. There’s never been trouble before, not since…”
“You mean the demons. When the dragons were first exiled, the demons were here and there was war.” Everyone turned to Paris.
“It’s in my book. A lot of stuff is in there.”
“Yes, but once the demons found out how powerful the dragons were, they backed off. We haven’t heard from them in a long time.”
“I was wondering about that.” Mandy kept her voice soft knowing how much hurt Dani was experiencing. “Neither you or Shay expected all of the trouble we’ve gone through. Why are the demons being such a problem now?”
Dani blinked and turned her face from the fire to Mandy. “That’s a good point. I don’t know. They’d have to be crazy to attack one dragon, let alone four.”
“Crazy and strong.” Taylor was sitting opposite her across the fire. “Maybe its us. Seems like everything is trying to keep us from getting to Vovin.”
“Why are we so important?” Taylor looked at his sister and she could read the question on his face. “No, my book doesn’t tell me that part.”
No one noticed the badger until it was right beside Zooey. Her mouse quickly dashed inside her shirt and she giggled when it tickled.
“It’s okay, Sapplehenning. She’s just delivering a message.” The child listened for a minute, and then said, “Thanks. You can go back now. Good night.”
“What is it?” Dani’s eyes reflected the flames like a funeral pyre.
“She says that we should be okay tonight, but there’s something weird going on. Even the night hunters aren’t out like usual. It’s kind of like something bigger and badder is in the dark, but not too near here. The animals are afraid.”
“Then we should be, too.”
“It’s okay, Mandy. She said nothing bad is near us, but none of the animals knows exactly where it is or even what it is. There is a fox family close to us who’s keeping watch just in case.”
“Then we should be safe for the night. I’ll stay up for a while anyway.” The voice only Taylor could hear was still a soldier, though many centuries dead, and it was a voice he continued to keep a secret.
Taylor sat at the edge of the camp near the dragon’s grave while the rest of them slept. Jake hated going to sleep. He didn’t have the dreams every night, but when he did, they were terrible. If he was going to dream, he really wanted it to be different this time.
Tonight, it was different.
It could have been a cave, or maybe a really dark forest. He could see deep green, dark gray, and black shadows. There was a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time, the noise of chains rattling. Then there was her cry. It wasn’t sharp and high-pitched like before. She was moaning in anguish, sorrow, and hopelessness.
They could come back at any moment to torment her again. They cut and poked her wings and sides with spears and razors. She was covered with scabs and welts. She didn’t remember how long she had been their prisoner, but guilt tortured her every time she remembered that her children were alone and she couldn’t protect them.
Jake walked forward one slow step at a time. He could see her massive frame bound to the rock wall on the far side. Even like this, her power scared him. Given the chance, he knew she would take terrible vengeance on those who had victimized her.
“Where are you? Where can we find you?”
Golden eyes began to gleam in the darkness. Somehow, she could hear him, even though he wasn’t really there.
“Please show me. Then I can tell the others. We can save you.”
There was a light coming from somewhere above. Maybe it was moonlight filtering through the trees, or shining down a hole into an underground prison.
“I can’t stay here much longer. Tell me where you are.”
Jake was screaming at her. If she could hear him, then why didn’t she answer.
Then she threw her body against the chains with a frenetic burst of energy, and a roar replaced her faint mewings. Her face came into view for just a second.
He was right. It was Shay. She had been a prisoner of the demons for weeks, and there was something else out in the world pretending to be her.
The terrified little boy had to find a way to wake up and tell everyone else that the next time they saw the dragonrider’s companion, it was going to kill them, or do something a lot worse.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt: Fallen #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Each Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photographs to be used by any one participating as a prompt for a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I’ve been using them week by week to build my novel. Last week, I took us back to the beginning of the saga of the Davidson children, and today, I’m continuing with the sixteenth chapter in their adventure.
The Table of Contents so far is: