Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Adventure  ➡  General

Witches Snared

 

Witches Snared

Book Two

The Dream Cane Series ©

 

By

Phil Armstrong

 

 

Published by

2Promises Publishing House ©

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

 

Title and Copyright Page

 

 

Witches Snared

Book Two

by Phil Armstrong

 

 

Thank you, for reading this second eBook in ‘The Dream Cane Series.’ © You’re welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete and original form, with the exception of quotes used in reviews. Your support and respect for the intellectual property of this

Author is appreciated.

 

The cover art has been licensed and purchased by the author from Dreamstime.com -

© Ateliersommerland | Dreamstime.com – The Golden Light Photo

 

This book is a work of fiction, it merges fact with fiction for your entertainment, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places and events is purely coincidental or a work of fiction and should not be taken literally. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination; all characters and associations are used fictitiously for entertainment purposes. Thank you for downloading this eBook.

 

ISBN 978-0-9877284-5-6 Witches Snared

 

Copyright 2016 Phil Armstrong. Discover other titles by Phil Armstrong at www.2promises.com

 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

Witches Snared

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 1: The Monsters Within.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

 

 

Sharp teeth ripped mercilessly through the flesh of the defensive arm thrust forward in an attempt to deflect the snapping jaws of the beast. Razor like claws slashed through Raj’s body, as he fell to the ground lifeless from the fatal blow. Crimson butterflies fluttered through the hot evening air, but it was too late to save Raj. The beast dropped to the ground resting his large heavy frame upon all fours and snarling loudly as his victim’s blood dripped from his open mouth. Ally screamed as the approaching beast caught her figure within his dark yellow eyes. Her body was frozen with fear and trapped by a steep rock face at her back; she was defenseless against this powerful adversary. Dan felt his heart thumping wildly within his chest.

 

“Ally run! Please, run Ally – now!” Dan screamed loudly, straining to convey his instructions he pumped his legs furiously, running as hard as he could and trying to reach the beast in time to distract his gaze away from Ally. The beast shook his powerful jaws, moving his prominent snout from side to side, before rising into the air and onto his hind legs. Ally screamed in pain as large claws raked across her exposed neck splattering her warm blood across the dark rocks. Ally fell to her knees, her head bowed as her body faced the powerful beast. Dan ran as fast as he could, but he failed to get close to the beast. Ally raised her fear-filled eyes but this was the end; where was Dan?

 

Dan pumped his arms furiously but he wasn’t going to make it in time. Ally finally caught his worried glance as their eyes connected for just the briefest of moments. Ally looked horrified and scared as the beast extended his claws to their maximum length. Dan watched in horror as the beast struck Ally one last time. Her lifeless body was flung to one side, now crumpled in a defeated motionless heap. Dan was too late, he’d failed; he leapt forward to attack the beast for taking everything that was dear to him.

 

He yelled “No,” as he flew through the air brandishing a large knife. “No!” he shouted again, this time throwing his arms in the air, pushing his blankets and pillows and crashing to the floor at the side of his bed.

 

Dan was shaking; covered in sweat from the nightmare he’d experienced every night for a week. It was always the same ending with the same brutal act, resulting in Ally savagely attacked by the beast. He always woke in such distress, angered that he couldn’t save Ally or Raj. His heart thumped rapidly and his strained breathing was short and shallow. Dan rubbed his eyes, exhaled loudly, and wiped the perspiration from his face with his hand. He hated this dream as it played upon his inability to save his friends – the beast was haunting him through his dreams. He was never afforded the opportunity to kill the beast and break the cycle before he woke in sheer terror.

 

Dan hated himself and his inability to be the hero within his own dreams. It scared him a little but it brought into focus his growing feelings for Ally. His Mother’s recent teasing had annoyed him because deep down he knew she was right, it was true – Ally had made him look at the world differently. He faced each day with a growing confidence and a brighter outlook on life.

 

A year and a half had passed since his last Dream Cane adventure, he was now sixteen years old and the Dream Cane had fallen silent, refusing to activate for either Dan or Raj. Raj was becoming increasingly worried that Autumn’s Ravage would be his last mission. Dan had learned how to fight and he’d seen a Karcon closer than he ever wanted to see again. Dan had grown much closer to Raj, the old Indian man living in the next apartment. Raj’s health was failing him badly and his strength was at an all time low. Dan had enjoyed his taste of adventure and the skills he was now blessed with, he wanted more but couldn’t understand the fickle nature of the Cane. Why wouldn’t it fire up again? Why wouldn’t it give them another mission? He grew impatient and resentful.

 

Dan had labored through his usual morning routine in a hazy fog that clouded his brain and his sense of time; he was now late. This was compounded by the fact that his Mother had left much earlier taking care of business in another town across the state. Liz had warned Dan about sleeping in and ignoring his alarm clock – she’d scolded him gently and predicted that he’d fall asleep again. He hated the fact that she was always right and hated rushing around in the morning even more. Now he’d have to skip breakfast, rush to school and listen to his grumbling belly all morning.

 

He dressed hurriedly, flattened his short hair with a wet brush and grabbed his black backpack before exiting into the street. The Sun had started to rise and the morning rhythm had commenced in Westtown. Birds fluttered in search of food enjoying the warm morning air, delivery people were busy driving their vans, and commuters stopped to retrieve their morning coffee as they walked with purpose. Westtown had a certain vibe in the morning it represented a typical community waking up and getting ready to have a productive day – you could feel it.

 

Dan ran with a skip in his step as he bounded over roadside curbs, grates and piles of newspapers. He ran along his route to school holding onto the straps of his backpack as it shook violently upon his back due to his awkward running motion. As he approached the school gates he glanced at his watch and let out a sigh of relief. He’d made it – but only just. Dan entered the classroom and took his seat as Ms. Claridge, his new form teacher, followed behind him. “Cutting it a bit fine this morning Mr. Allen,” she quipped.

 

“Yes Ma’am,” was all that Dan could muster. Ms. Claridge was fantastic but if she’d been the most interesting teacher in the world Dan would’ve still struggled to focus this morning. His mind wandered easily and the morning seemed to drag on so slowly. Finally the recess bell sounded – meaning he could leave the classroom and take a break. He needed to clear his mind so he grabbed his backpack and headed for a section of the cafeteria where he knew he would meet up with his friends, they were all creatures of habit and had staked out this location as their own.

 

As he approached the wall closest to the stairs that exited the cafeteria he could see Ally, Ray and some of his other friends milling around. Ally was talking with Jen, a cute red headed girl that always seemed to annoy Ally immensely as she would often flirt with Dan. Dan approached as Ally turned to greet him, “Can we have a word,” she said, steering him immediately away from their friends.

 

“What’s up?” inquired Dan, curious of her unusual actions.

 

“It’s my Mum, she was let go yesterday,” Alley’s Mother had a seemingly steady accounting job at the city’s administrative branch; she’d worked there for over ten years. Ally’s face had turned white with uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.

 

“Are you OK?” inquired Dan reaching out and gently taking her hand.

 

Tears started to well in her pretty brown eyes as Dan gave her hand a subtle but tender squeeze. Ally’s Dad had arrived home from work six month’s earlier and announced that he’d met someone and they were both moving to San Francisco. This came as a sudden shock to everyone in the family as there were no signs of trouble, no arguments, no temper tantrums or shouting matches to signal their unhappiness. Ally was heartbroken for her Mother, and clearly devastated that her Father could just walk out and leave them both this way. Her Mother had remained strong, trying to maintain a brave face and a positive outlook – she’d made every effort to keep things normal for Ally. The daily household budget had become extremely challenging, as they collectively cut back their spending and tried to live within their means. Ally started to wear different clothes to school, clothes that represented a more frugal choice. Girls can be very cruel and they seized upon this opportunity. Even though Ally still associated with the cool kids she was ridiculed and subjected to the pointing, laughter and callous remarks. Ally tried to keep her dignity and her head held high; so what if she wasn’t fashionable, she’d start her own fashion trends. She needed Dan’s support – she needed the protection that his cool kid image would offer. She had to drop out of the organized school trip to Paris. She was bitterly disappointed but took her time breaking the inevitable news to Dan who didn’t want to raise this delicate topic for discussion.

 

Ally’s Mothers’ redundancy could not have come at a worse time and Ally was starting to worry about her Mother’s resilience. Would she be able to find another job? Would this hit her fragile confidence so hard that it caused her frail state of mind to crumble? Will they be evicted and homeless?

 

Ally and Dan moved further away from their friends to get some privacy when Ally started to cry. Dan was her rock; she needed him and couldn’t stand to lose her boyfriend if she had to move away or into a home. Dan tried to assure Ally that he would always be there for her and that things would work out but she remained skeptical. He calmed her but even he was worried and it showed. Their friends had noticed them pulling away and that Ally was clearly upset. Jen shot inquisitive glances towards Ally convinced that they were going through a break up and were having difficulties. After a while the school bell rang and they knew they had to return to their separate classrooms.

 

The school day moved along slowly with Dan unable to concentrate on anything knowing that Ally was upset. He tried to locate her at the lunch break in the usual meeting places but it was Ally who decided to remove herself from school by going home at lunch to check in on her depressed Mother. Dan and Ally never did meet up that day so Dan left school at the end of the day more concerned and deeply agitated. He returned home feeling angry at the world for inflicting this type of injustice upon Ally whom he cared so much about. Dan didn’t know how to deal with his feelings; he’d seen her transition from a happy stylish popular girl to an unhappy drably dressed introvert lacking any confidence and a target for cruelest of kids. Dan recognized shades of his old self in her new demeanor and he wasn’t about to let Ally slide into the dark place that he knew only too well. Settling in to his routine at home Dan was clearly in a foul mood snapping at his cheerful Mother. He sat at their kitchen table and cradled his head within his hands, “Mum can we talk?”

 

That evening Dan and his Mother talked about Ally and how much she meant to him. They talked about how Ally must feel and how her life must have changed dramatically. Dan realized that the only stable thing left in her life was his friendship, love, and unwavering support. He realized how much she needed him to be there for her. Liz explained how Ally must feel taking Dan through his own feelings of anger, helplessness, frustration, and his protective feelings towards Ally. It was that night they both realized how much Ally meant to Dan. Dan felt better – he realized that he was angry at the situation and not at Ally, his friends, or his Mother. He felt closer to his Mother and really appreciated her perspective and advice.

 

“I have to get ready for work now, are you OK?”

 

Dan smiled, “I am. Thanks Mum, you’ve really helped.”

 

Liz squeezed Dan’s hand across the kitchen table and headed to her room to change for her night shift at the Indian restaurant in their building below. Dan started to prepare for his visit with Raj throwing on a black sweater and his favorite pair of loose blue jeans. Liz was now hurrying Dan along; she wanted to leave the apartment and start her shift, “Wait! I almost forgot,” Dan raced back into his room to retrieve a book title – Command Authority by Tom Clancy. “I need to return this to Raj – I’ve finished reading it.” Liz smiled and gently closed the apartment door behind them. She locked the door and followed Dan across the hall to apartment 2A. Dan knocked upon Raj’s door and listened for his familiar voice.

 

“I’m coming. I travel light but not at the same speed.” Liz and Dan smiled at each other for Raj had started to use this Jarod Kintz quote every time he answered the door. He probably hadn’t realized his recent quirky habit as his memory had started to deteriorate. Raj was looking after Dan but as the nights had rolled by Dan was now starting to look after Raj. The door opened slowly and there stood Raj. “Now there’s trouble if I ever I saw it,” he said, beaming down at Dan.

 

“How are you Raj?” inquired Liz.

 

“Good as Indian gold,” replied Raj in high spirits. Dan smiled and pushed his way into the apartment.

 

“See you later Mum,” he paused for the briefest moment, “and have a good shift tonight.” Liz smiled knowing this was Dan’s way of thanking her for helping him. She smiled at Raj, winked at Dan, and hurried down the stairs leading to the restaurant.

 

Raj closed the door and spun around to return to his comfy chair. Dan noticed that Raj was favoring his right leg and leaning more heavily upon his fancy Cane. Dan sat in his usual chair and watched the old man struggle to keep his balance as he moved across the room. He knew Raj was too proud to accept any help and would become irritated and annoyed if Dan offered any. Finally Raj reached his chair and fell heavily into its welcoming form. “Getting old is no fun Dan, and I’m getting worse every day.”

 

Dan acknowledged the truth with a strained smile, “Do you need anything? Water? Pills?”

 

“No thanks, I’m good, what do you have there?”

 

Dan looked at his hands clenching the book, “Oh, I brought back the book you loaned me, I’ll pop it back on the shelf for you.” Dan sprung from his chair and remembered where he’d taken the book from replacing it carefully. As he pushed the borrowed book back into a small gap his attention was diverted to the crimson lights racing across the apartment wall. He wheeled around quickly to see an elated look spreading across Raj’s face, his eyes opened wide in wonderment. Raj looked like a little child on Christmas morning about to unwrap his gifts.

 

Raj glanced at Dan, “Are you ready Dan because the Dream Cane is?” The silver ball, normally attached to the top of Raj’s walking Cane, was suspended in air shooting bright shards of crimson light from its ruby insets. The ball continued to rotate as it descended effortlessly through the air to rest upon its beveled housing at the top of the Cane. Dan didn’t respond to Raj’s question – the movement of the ball and its bright glow transfixed him. His inquisitive mind strained to understand how the light was generated? “Well?” inquired Raj impatiently. Raj hadn’t been feeling well lately, his aging body was wearing out and the blinding headaches had returned with a vengeance. The frequency of his pill consumption had increased and he knew this was probably his last chance to experience an adventure offered by the Dream Cane. It was selfish, thoughtless and perhaps dangerous, but he knew he would answer the Dream Cane’s call without a second thought for Dan’s feelings or concerns.

 

Dan suddenly felt the weight of Raj’s stare, as it seemed to impart a renewed sense of urgency. He thought about the Karcon, the beast’s snarling teeth and that night spent out on the cold rocky ledge. He recalled the chilling howl of the beast and his recent vivid nightmares. Finally he raised his eyes to meet the expectant Raj and without hesitation signaled his confirmation, “Let’s do this.”

 

Raj was holding the Cane tightly with his hands circled around the top. Its silver tipped bottom was resting on the floor between his feet as he sat motionless in his favorite chair. Dan moved towards the Cane and sat on the rug in front of Raj. He looked at the silver ball now fixed to the top of the Cane. It continued to glow with a soft ruby colored hue. He noticed Raj’s weathered hands shaking violently as he tried to grip the Cane tightly. Dan lifted his hands and paused for a brief moment, “Are you ready?”

 

Raj nodded once, “Yes.”

 

Dan grabbed the Cane tightly with both hands. The Cane was now steadied relieved from the shaking of Raj’s uncontrolled movements. This peace only lasted for a few seconds before the Cane started to buck wildly under its own volition. They held on as tightly as they could as the room began to spin around them. There was no turning back now; they were heading to another realm with the Dream Cane selecting them for another adventure.

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 2: The Temptress of Rinii Forest.

Rinii Forest, Bardonia

 

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

 

 

Many years earlier a small monkey had screamed its protest and threw a colorful gooful fruit towards a man as he crept silently through the underbrush. Ryan was a young man with the lofty ambition of becoming an Elfen Ranger. It was a dark night assisted by the canopy of the redwood trees that shielded the forest floor from the Moon’s blue light. Ryan stared at the inquisitive monkey raising his finger to his lips and his desire for silence. He’d been stalking a rare bird, a brilliantly colored wild parrot that was thought to reside in this part of the forest at night. Few had seen it but those that had talked about its plumage and sang campfire songs of its majesty and presence. Revered as a mystical bird from the old forest, the Kukumic parrot was the symbolic emblem of Ryan’s home, the village of Cressmore; an Elfen village located on the edge of the Rinii forest.

 

The monkey seemed to respond to Ryan’s request as it retreated carefully clinging to the security that the higher branches offered. His curiosity was peaked as he bent his flexible furry neck to observe Ryan’s next move. Ryan could hear a strange soft sound emanating from the bushes in front of him; it was a strange noise that prodded his interest like an unsolved riddle. Moving gently towards the rustling sound he parted two large fern leaves that blocked his view. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief as he surveyed the scene unfolding before him.

 

A beautiful Elfen girl sat on the edge of a rocky outcrop. She wore a dark colored dress with a high collar made from exquisite wispy black lace that matched her cuffs. The dress was long and shimmered with flecks of rich burgundy reflecting in the subdued light. Her dress may have been dark but in stark contrast her skin was an alabaster white accented only with the peach colored glow of her lightly freckled cheeks, soft red colored lips and piercing chestnut brown eyes. She wore little jewelry but she wore a hair ornament that rested upon her forehead with a string of small beads. The ornamental headband doubled as a hair clip for her long luxurious mane of curly auburn hair, which flowed effortlessly from her head, around her pointed ears and across her shoulders down to her lower back.

 

Ryan was transfixed, he was careful not to move or make a sound with the watching monkey perched high above. The Elfen girl seemed sad, caught in the depths of her own thoughts and unable to break free from the worries that surrounded her. She was oblivious to Ryan’s presence and seemingly alone deep within the forest. Ryan usually had no time for admiring girls for he saw them as an unnecessary distraction towards his goal of becoming an Elfen Ranger. This was the first girl that had stopped his world from turning and had paused his blinding ambition. She was unique, perfect and intriguing. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her but he couldn’t let her slip away either.

 

Ryan lay hidden beneath the ferns but decided to act, “Young lady, my name is Ryan and I mean you no harm for I’m from a reputable family based within the village of Cressmore, may I approach?”

 

The sound of Ryan’s voice snapped her to attention altering her calm, relaxed mood and placing her senses on high alert while raising her guard, “Come forward so I can see you Ryan of Cressmore. Are you alone?” she stammered.

“Fear not my lady, I travel alone.” Ryan extracted himself from the forest’s ferns and stepped out into the clearing in full view of the Elfen girl. She studied the Elfen boy who stood proudly before her. They were both seventeen summer’s old and immediately attracted to one another.

 

She studied the boy armed with a long bow, a quiver of arrows and a large knife glistening along its blade while tucked into a narrow leather belt. He wore a traditional Elfen uniform of boots, grey trousers and a light green tunic cinched at the waist by his brown leather belt. Her curious eyes could see his muscular frame underneath his loose fitting clothing. Liking what she saw she motioned to him, “Come closer, let’s talk.”

 

Ryan approached cautiously for no beauty would be left unattended this far into the forest without a Ranger or protector assigned and he didn’t want to get into any trouble. “My Lady this is not the safest part of the forest for we have wild boar and stray devlins scavenging for food yet you appear alone and unarmed.”

 

“Ryan of Cressmore, you’re so sweet to worry about my safety – but you don’t know if I’m alone or indeed unarmed.” Ryan glanced around nervously half expecting unwelcome visitors to appear at any moment. She sat upright wearing a smug satisfied smile of a girl with the upper hand. Why would she be this far into the forest alone? Why would she let herself be vulnerable and unarmed? Ryan suddenly felt nervous but as he approached the true beauty of her face stunned his sore eyes. “You’re staring at me, is there something wrong Ryan?”

 

Ryan couldn’t think, couldn’t talk, everything about her was beautiful and he’d become tongue-tied. Finally Ryan began to function, “No, nothing is wrong. I haven’t seen you around Cressmore or any of the markets, where do you live?”

 

“I like that, a boy who wants to know where I reside above knowing what my name is?” She laughed sweetly while poking at him gently with her intellect.

 

Ryan stepped closer, “I’m sorry, where are my manners? What is your name fair lady of Rinii forest?”

 

She smiled sweetly and he caught sight of her chestnut colored eyes, soft lips, and perfect nose, with a flushed face causing him to temporarily stop breathing, “My name is Wendy, and I don’t reside in Cressmore. I’m an orphan adopted by my family here in the forest. I don’t fear the forest, the wild boar, or the devlins. The birds, monkeys, snakes, insects, trees, rocks and everything else in this forest are my friends, my protection. The only thing I do fear is Elfen folk, for they seem to have complicated motivations.” She smiled as she toyed with his emotions. “There’s room for you to sit on this large rock Ryan, I trust you mean me no harm, as you could have taken advantage of me long ago. Come and sit beside me and we can talk for a while.”

 

As instructed, Ryan sat on the rock next to Wendy shaking like a forest fern in a torrential storm. They chatted, laughed, teased each other and occasionally fell silent while watching the Moon travel across the night sky as they listened to the sounds of the forest. Ryan would have stayed all night, happy to be lost in the vast curls of her hair and the welcoming deep brown sparkle of her exquisite eyes. “I have to go now, my family will start to worry if I don’t return soon. I’ll be here again, on this very rock tomorrow night as the Sun goes down and the forest comes to life. If you’ve enjoyed our visit Ryan of Cressmore than I shall be delighted to continue our conversation, but if I’ve bored you with my tedious ramblings then I shall understand. Perhaps tomorrow then…” she said, leaping off the dark rocky outcrop and disappearing into the thick dense brush.

 

Ryan shook his head as if to confirm that he was really awake and not dreaming. Who was that girl? How did he just stumble across her? Will she really be there tomorrow night? Will he return? His head began to spin with questions and the enduring image of her captivating eyes. Ryan couldn’t recall his journey through the forest back to Cressmore that night for his head was awash in auburn curls. The next day proved to be the longest day of his life; he saw her everywhere. Ryan was alive but everything he did felt like a waste of time until he could finally be with her again, it was now his only purpose in life. Chopping wood, going to the market, preparing food and repairing a broken door, were simply tasks that consumed his time. He saw her eyes in the knots of the wood, her curls in the auburn shade of a doors wood grain and the burgundy flecks within her dress from the beets prepared for lunch. Ryan could not function; this feeling forced him to set out into the forest much earlier than he needed to. He raced to the rocky outcrop and waited patiently. He knew from the fading light of the Sun that he was way too early.

 

He closed his eyes and tried to feel her presence, was she close? Was she looking forward to their next meeting with as much anticipation as he did? He breathed in deeply the clean crisp forest air filling his lungs to capacity. As he exhaled he opened his eyes to a wondrous site for sitting on a small overhanging branch to his left was the most colorful of all birds. A Kukumic parrot nibbled patiently upon a clump of small red berries. Its plumage consisted of yellow, blue, green, orange, black, white and red. The bird was striking in its appearance and much smaller than he’d expected. Ryan killed time watching the bird graze and eventually its mate joined her for a late night feast. As the Sun’s rays faded Ryan began to face the prospect of sitting alone on a rock outcrop deep within the forest feeling like a fool.

 

“A Kukumic parrot told me that Ryan of Cressmore was sat waiting for me on my rock. Of course I didn’t believe her, so I decided to go and look for myself,” her voice teased him as she emerged from the cover provided by a large clump of ferns.

 

“That’s strange because a Kukumic parrot told me that if I waited here patiently, Wendy of Rinii forest would grace me with her presence.” They looked at each other and giggled both basking in the relief that they were not alone, and left to feel stupid. They sat, laughed, and talked well into the night. Ryan and Wendy were falling for each other with an undeniable attraction that made time simply disappear. They laughed and exchanged glances both enjoying the formative part of their relationship. There was an attraction so strong that they couldn’t stand to end their conversations. Wendy ended the evening in exactly the same way as the previous night by extending an invitation to Ryan to resume the next night.

 

The following evening it was Wendy that found herself sitting alone on the rock anticipating the arrival of Ryan. The forest was alive with the sounds of birds, monkeys, insects and an assortment of creatures going about their daily activities before the light started to fade. A small rustling sound caught her attention as the ferns started to move and a figure emerged. “You’re early Ryan of Cressmore, anyone would think that your addicted to our little talks.” She smiled satisfied with her teasing ways.

 

An Elfen boy stepped from the cover of the high ferns and emerged into clear view, “Ryan of Cressmore is an honorable soul but you are clearly mistaken fair lady.” Wendy recoiled in shock as she realized the person in front of her was not Ryan. She felt exposed, foolish and suddenly alone. “You are most beautiful, a Princess of Rinii forest but surely it’s not safe for you to be here alone.”

 

“Who says I’m alone kind Sir.”

 

“I can tell by your disappointment that you’re alone.” The Elfen boy moved closer, “You are far too beautiful to be wasting your time and placing your trust in a half wit like Ryan of Cressmore, a young lady like you should aim a little higher.”

 

“A little higher you say, perhaps I should be conversing with a gentleman like yourself, a gentleman I might add who has not yet introduced himself?”

 

The young man stepped forward where he could almost touch Wendy, she tried to remain calm and conceal her distrust and her distain. “I am Eian of Cressmore and I know Ryan – the boy that you wait for. He’s a simpleton and not suited for a young woman as fair as you. I don’t make a habit of talking with strangers as I prefer to know whom I talking with.”

 

Wendy fidgeted nervously, where was Ryan? What was keeping him? Wendy smiled and Eian’s heart began to melt, “My name is Wendy, I’m an orphan and I live with my family here in the forest.”

 

“I see,” said Eian taking his place on the rock next to Wendy, “an orphan yet you wear the finest of threads with whimsical adornments in your hair. I would assume your adoptive family are well ranked to offer such indulgence?”

 

“Dear Sir, you meet an unfamiliar lady and yet you ask the rank of her family within the first few minutes of our introduction. I thought you said I should aim a little higher than the half wit Ryan of Cressmore and yet it is you that acts like a petulant half wit!”

 

Eian winced, “You’re right my lady, I….”

 

“Yes, it appears she’s right about you Eian, but describing me as a half wit could not be further from the truth. I suggest you leave now as your duty to ensure the safety of this fair lady, alone in the forest, is now relieved. I’m here now and your presence is no longer required.” Ryan walked over to the rock, stood in front of Eian and waved a hand beckoning him to leave. The mood was tense and Wendy remained seated, motionless.

 

Ryan did not intimidate Eian, as Eian was physically larger and far stronger. Eian was almost an Elfen Ranger and the patch sewn proudly onto his shirtsleeve bore the yellow head of the Hanachi bird signifying the training he’d received – it meant he needed one more step before he was fully qualified as a Ranger. Ryan had known Eian for years and had considered him a friend but Wendy seemed to surface his worst traits of jealousy, competitiveness and insecurity. Confident in his good looks, large muscular frame, and the patch showing his status, Eian posed a question, “Why don’t we let the lady decide whom should protect her in this dangerous forest. Wendy of Rinii, who would you feel most safe with, as clearly we both can’t sit here and be civil?”

 

Wendy glanced at both of the young Elfen men, “Finally a suggestion that makes sense, where I get to decide whom I would prefer to converse with.” She smiled at Eian and a momentary swell of panic swept through Ryan like a monkey swinging around in his stomach. “It’s an easy decision Eian,” Eian smiled knowing his place on the rock was obviously secure. “My decision has been made and I choose Ryan to accompany me tonight, and every night, until I change my mind.” She continued to smile at Eian content with watching the disappointment sweep across his face as her words started to register. Wendy continued to smile well after she had stopped talking never looking at Ryan while keeping her gaze fixed upon Eian as if to underscore her decision.

 

Eian was stunned, he felt angry, confused and humiliated. Eian leapt off the stone outcrop and pushed past Ryan brushing his shoulder. “Of course it’s your choice my fine lady but you’ll live to regret this day. You choose a simple fool and have spurned a future Ranger; anyone will tell you that’s a poor choice. I do have a question though; tell me orphan, tell me where you reside as I’m unfamiliar with any settlements in these parts?”

 

“I think you should leave. Our conversation must conclude for Ryan will protect my honor now,” demanded Wendy.

 

“I think it best you leave Eian,” said Ryan taking his position next to Wendy on the rock. In the trees above a curious monkey watched the scene unfold with interest as Eian shook his head, turned, and left without another word spoken.

 

Wendy exhaled loudly glad that the tense moment had passed, “Where were you? I was not happy about meeting him.”

 

“You were early, besides I know Eian he’s all mouth.”

 

“I’ve wounded his pride and that’s never a wise thing to do any young man. Do you think he’s gone?”

 

“Wendy, he’s too arrogant and yes I think he’s gone,” Ryan reached out to Wendy and lifted her chin with his fingers. He looked deeply into her chestnut eyes and said, “You chose me and I won’t let you down.” Wendy smiled; she liked resting her chin on Ryan’s hand.

 

Wendy grabbed Ryan by the hand leading him away towards the other side of the rocky outcrop where they were now well out of sight. Not trusting that Eian had left, Wendy had expertly navigated a series of interconnected paths that ended at a clearing. A beautifully carved wooden bench had been placed at one end of the clearing. Wendy led Ryan to the bench where she felt safe and confident that they would be alone. Eian would not have been able to follow them and he wouldn’t find them here.

 

Eventually they relaxed, talked and laughed as they enjoyed their company and their growing love. She’d chosen him and he felt a swell of pride and relief. They talked late into the night but Ryan had an uneasy feeling that he’d not heard the last of this from his spurned friend Eian.

 

Each night they would meet at the rock where Wendy would guide Ryan through a forest maze to the welcoming bench where they would sit and talk until it was time to go. She would guide him back to the rock before slipping back into the forest and the darkness. One night Ryan had asked about Wendy’s family and wanted to know more about them. Wendy seemed reluctant but she finally broke down and told Ryan about her family. She started with a story that described how she was discovered. Wendy had been left in the forest; her crying had attracted the attention of the monkeys and the boars. As the wild boars moved in for a certain kill the monkeys raised the alarm and tried to protect her by pelting the boars with anything that they could throw. The commotion raised the curiosity of three women who lived in the forest. They were hermits who lived off the land and made healing potions from natural plants to sell at farmers markets. Herbs, ferns, roots, bark and plants have powerful healing properties to fight infection, heal wounds and cool a fever.

 

The monkeys guided the three women to the frightened child where they flashed torches of fire to scare away the wild boar saving the crying child. They discussed the child’s plight all night swaying back and forth in their opinions. What should they do with an abandoned baby girl? Would they be falsely accused of stealing the child? Whose child was it? Would she bring them unwanted attention? It was clearly an Elfen baby belonging to a Mother from Cressmore but why was she abandoned? Why was she left for dead?

 

After examining all of their options they decided to raise the child quietly as their own with minimal fuss. They would teach her the ways of the forest. The three women remained private, elusive and recluse but always had the means to buy warm clothes and provide enough food. Wendy concluded her story, “So there you have your answer, I consider them all to be my Sisters; you could say that I’m a very fortunate girl, I have three Sisters.”

 

It was getting dark, Ryan moved closer so he could see into Wendy’s eyes illuminated by the Moon’s light and the occasional firefly fluttering by, “Do you live in a house?”

 

Wendy laughed, “Yes, of course. We all live together in a small house made from timber, moss and soil. It’s built into a hillside located near a fresh water stream. I think it used to be a hunting shack but it was abandoned years ago so my Sisters restored it. We never get visitors, we don’t usually let people know where we live – that would be foolish for four women. Occasionally one of the three will travel to Livenmore and exchange potions, ointments and treatments in exchange for supplies and clothing. Ryan shifted his attention to a noise to his right, “It’s a small spider monkey, he’s been watching us for a while now,” Wendy laughed.

 

Ryan turned to face Wendy, their noses almost touching, “I don’t…”

 

Wendy placed her finger upon his lips, “Shhhh,” she said, removing her finger and moving her face closer to his. She kissed him gently upon the lips, a bold move that signaled her intent. Ryan was stunned, he didn’t have the courage to kiss her first and he wished he had. Her eyes opened and twinkled in the Moon’s bright light. “I like our little chats and I like you,” she said flicking her eyes in a shy downward direction.

 

Ryan reached for her hand, “Thank you; I like our little chats and I like you too,” he smiled at the awkward sentence but realized that it was heartfelt. He’d never felt so strongly about another person before. Ryan didn’t know where this would lead but at that moment, sitting with Wendy in the darkened forest under the Moon, he didn’t care.

 

She beamed a satisfied smile before breaking the moment with a dose of reality, “Time to go. I’ll be your escort to the rocks as usual.” Wendy stood and offered her delicate white hand.

 

“Thank you my fairest lady,” said Ryan trying to exhibit chivalry, they both laughed.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The bright morning sunlight streamed over the hill delivering welcome warmth to the village of Cressmore. The early signs of morning activity started the day with the fires lit in the blacksmith’s workshop and the ovens operational in the bakery. The village residents began to wake performing their daily rituals like a well-rehearsed dance. The morning routine descended upon this sleepy little village but this morning would be different from the others. At the northern end of the village a pack of ominous horsemen entered the village establishing a guarded perimeter. More flooded the village square and quietly took control while the residents continued to wake. The horsemen wore Ranger uniforms of the royal guard. Their tunics were red, edged with gold decorations and embossed with the royal crest of the colorful Kukumic bird proudly displayed across their chests. The royal Rangers were securing the village prior to the arrival of the Queen. The Elfen Queen had not ventured this close to the forest’s edge for years. She would normally stay within the protection of the stronghold cities deep within Rinii forest. Ryan had never seen the Elfen Queen in person. He’d heard about her from the village elders; her father, the Elfen King, had visited Cressmore years ago before he’d taken ill and passed away.

 

He was shocked to see the horses and the Rangers camped out in his little sleepy village. Word spread quickly and the village woke with increased haste. Rumors circulated with wild speculation explaining their sudden presence. The excitement was palpable; you could feel it reverberating through each village resident. “What brings you to Cressmore?” inquired a tired and groggy Ryan with a sheepish smile. The Ranger tilted his head towards the inquisitive young man. He leaned upon his glinting sword dressed in leather, metal armor and that glorious red and gold tunic.

 

“Move along boy, it’s not for you to know. The village will be informed shortly – move along,” the Ranger looked away dismissively. Ryan took the hint and moved away quickly. Ryan tried to blend in as the village square was turned into a hive of activity. Tethered horses were being fed, fires were erected and lit, food was being prepared, Rangers cleaned their weapons and villagers tried to go about their business unsure of what was happening. For now an uneasy peace descended upon the village, it was almost as if the villagers were in denial but what else could they do? The perimeter had been secured with no one allowed in or out of Cressmore.

 

Around the mid-day mark the Rangers started to gather the villagers into the main square – each curious to learn the reason for this auspicious visit. Would the Elfen Queen venture this far out from her safety zone? Many of the villagers thought she would. The Sun was now high in the sky and shone fiercely into the assembled villagers eyes. They huddled together, three hundred Elfens waiting patiently to hear why their little village had been commandeered. Idle chatter gave way to an eerie silence as people jostled for a better position to see what would unfold. Finally a tall Ranger stepped forward to address the crowd, as he did a gasp rippled through the Elfens as a rare sight emerged, it was a Ricar followed by the tall Ranger onto a small grassy hill that lay in front of them. For many it was the first time they’d ever seen a Ricar. Ricars were hybrid creatures from a far away land – much further than the most remote forest border, further than Barden rocks, the tar pits of Noire and well into a land they called Ivany. The Ricars were magnificent creatures standing much taller than Elfens with piercing yellow reptilian eyes, pointed ears and a keen intellect. They were free to travel across all lands and were respected by all creatures. Ricars were some of the oldest inhabitants of the forest and they were tasked with protecting Ivany the oldest section of the forest. Why would a Ricar be here today? All eyes were transfixed upon the tall, muscular Ricar with his blue and green skin covered in a brilliant light blue tunic trimmed in white. He looked commanding and in charge yet he never spoke choosing to defer to the Elfen Ranger. The Ranger had a red and gold tunic over his leather and armor but he had an additional design displayed above the Kukumic parrot crest, it looked like an embroidered gold leaf. This signified rank, which designated him to be the highest-ranking Ranger.

 

He stepped forward and cleared his throat, the crowd heaved with anticipation, “Good citizens of Cressmore,” he shouted confidently, “we come in peace – and yet we have an important job to do. Your Queen has sent us here today and we expect your cooperation and your hospitality.” He stepped forward again putting some distance between himself and the motionless Ricar. “A terrible darkness has swept through the forest, it’s a plague on our civilization that if left unchecked could threaten our very existence. The forces of darkness have invaded our realm and we must work together to protect it. The devlins will wait for the time that they can rise up again and support the dark ways and we can’t let that happen.”

 

The Ranger looked at the unsuspecting faces within the crowd, they looked scared, naïve and confused, ill equipped to fight the dark forces gathering strength. “Evil has sent it’s advanced scouts to prepare this land in readiness for more to come. First came the devlins, now taking refuge and cowering in the caves of Barden scavenging for food. Now we face a new threat – pure evil in the form of witches sent to spread disease and plague. These witches will weaken our troops, our forest, our food, our defenses and our spirit by threatening our health, our loved ones and our ability to fight!” The Ranger punched his fist into the air to accentuate his point. “Once these despicable witches start to wreak havoc across the forest they’ll weaken our defenses for the arrival of a more formidable foe. A great beast will arrive from the darkness trying to expose our realm to unimaginable creatures intent on destroying our world. We’ve been searching for these witches; they’ve caused disease, plague and death. The Elfen settlements of Beldermon have all been wiped out,” a gasp echoed around the attentive Elfen crowd, “The Ricar town of Corndendale has been quarantined with many deaths from a mysterious black plague, and the Elfen village of Hasted has now been burned to the ground with no survivors.” The crowd recoiled in horror with audible gasps and mutterings. Could this happen to Cressmore? Was Cressmore another name to be added to this infamous list?

 

“Friends,” shouted the Ranger, “we have hope today for we believe we’ve located these witches and we’ll try to capture them this very afternoon while the Sun is high and they sleep. We’ll keep our camp here in the village but our bravest men will leave this afternoon to capture these evil witches. We need to contain them before they can do more harm and pave a way for more evil to come. If they follow through on their plan and join forces with the devlins then our fight will be difficult and almost impossible to win. It’s unsafe to be out in the forest; the Rangers will try to kill anything that looks odd. It’s safer for you all to stay in the village and stay within your homes.”

 

Ryan could see his parents within the assembled crowd as they shot worried glances his way. He nodded to reassure them. The Ricar stepped forward to address the silent worried crowd. “Elfen brothers and sisters, my family was wiped out at Cordendale. They died a gruesome, horribly painful death, as victims of a plague spread by these evil witches. We must work together to stop them and we’ll need your vigilance. They can masquerade as Elfen folk and they may try to sneak into the village to disguise their identities and blend in. Be vigilant, report any strange folk to the Rangers.”

 

The Ranger continued, “You have a hero in your midst.” Ryan’s eyes widened as he saw the Ricar with his hand now placed upon Eian’s shoulder. Eian looked proud and strutted onto the grassy hill with the Ricar at his side. “This young Ranger has just earned his Kukumic crest, for it is Eian of Cressmore who has identified the location of the witches.” A cheer rose within the crowd and a large smile beamed across Eian’s face. It was then that the wave of panic swept across Ryan’s face as he began to realize what Eian had done.

 

“No,” Ryan muttered under his breath, “oh no…Wendy.” Eian caught Ryan’s worried gaze within the crowd and smiled with greater satisfaction. This act of diligence had now earned him full Ranger status and he couldn’t be more proud standing in front of his parents and his entire village. Panic shot through Ryan’s body, how was he going to warn Wendy? Was it too late? Rangers surrounded the village, and it was too risky for him to try to sneak out. All he could do was look at the smug look on Eian’s face. Ryan didn’t know how he knew of the three women but surely Wendy and her unusual family were not witches. They couldn’t be responsible for all of this evil, death and chaos – could they?

 

If the women were witches sent from the darkness then Wendy was just an innocent caught in the wrong place. She was an abandoned Elfen baby but she will be caught in the same net, implicated in this witch-hunt. With a wave of the Ranger’s hand the crowd started to disperse and resume their normal activities within the village. Ryan’s parents came running over to him, “No more parrot hunting for you my boy, well not until all this nonsense has died down – you hear me?”

Ryan’s Mother was quite perturbed.

 

“Leave the boy alone won’t you. It’s customary to try to see a Kukumic before you become a Ranger, it brings you luck,” his father tried to defend him. Ryan smiled at his father’s attempt to support him.

 

“Don’t worry, I won’t be out looking tonight, I heard the guard. Looks like they’re going to hunt anything that moves.”

 

It was a beautiful night with a low soft breeze, a full Moon and a clear sky. Ryan wondered if Wendy was sitting expectantly upon the rock or worse if she’d been captured and incarcerated by the Rangers. It was a worrisome night and he dreamed heavily. Each time he would wake with Wendy screaming for Ryan’s help. He was unable to save her from the Ranger’s clutches.

 

The house was quiet as his parents slept but he prepared a morning snack trying to be as quiet and considerate as possible. The sound of Wendy’s pleas and the image of Eian’s annoying smirk ran through his mind over and over again. Something caught Ryan’s attention, a faint noise that sounded unfamiliar. It happened again but this time it was clearer, louder. A Ricar horn grew in volume waking the sleeping villagers.

 

Villagers dressed in a hurry flooding into the main square summoned by the approaching horn. Eventually the Rangers cleared a path through the crowd and a procession of Rangers, a Ricar and two horse drawn wooden carts approached. People strained to see the cargo contained within the carts. As the procession drew nearer Ryan pushed to the front of the crowd to get a clearer view – he’d never seen a witch before. The Rangers filed in, some carrying heavy wooden chests, which they set down carefully. The horse drawn carts followed and the Elfen crowd started to boo, hurl insults and throw stones at the occupants. Finally Ryan could see though the wooden cage trapping two frightened figures inside. They were both standing with their backs pressed together and their wrists bound to wooden poles each side of the cart. The witches were old with flashes of long white hair but he noticed that they were both dressed in smart, expensive clothing. The witches wrists were bound, restrained using a strange looking weed that resembled seaweed dripping liquid and glistening wet in the Sun’s rising rays.

 

They fought hard to remain standing as the cart rocked violently upon the uneven road as the crowd threw objects at the accused witches. The witches bowed their heads in an attempt to protect their faces from the objects being thrown by the crowd. Ryan pushed forward eager to see the occupants of the second cart. The crowd surged towards the muddy path as the crimson pennants flapped high above in the cooling wind. The next cart emerged with two bound figures coming into view. An Elfen Ranger held the horse’s reins steady as he guided it past the jeering crowd. Ryan could see the stooped figure of a woman but this one was different, she seemed slimmer, stronger, and younger. Ryan’s fears were suddenly realized when he recognized the elegant dress with flecks of burgundy catching the Sun’s strong light. Wendy waved her head violently from side to side in a futile attempt to avoid the tomatoes, cabbages, stones, and mud hurled at her by the unsympathetic crowd.

 

She pulled at her restraints while trying to keep her balance. She supported her weight by leaning into the other woman sharing the cart. Ryan started to scream her name, “Wendy! Wendy!” he yelled, trying to get her attention above the noise of the crowd. Finally Wendy recognized her name and lifted her eyes to see Ryan’s concerned face. Elfen Rangers restrained the crowd as they lined the route. Wendy’s hopes were raised at the sight of a friendly sympathetic face.

 

“Ryan! Ryan!” she yelled. As the cart drew nearer she screamed again, “Ryan, I’m innocent, we’re all innocent, you have to help us!”

 

A large rotting cabbage hit Wendy squarely upon the jaw knocking her to her knees and delighting the crowd. She glanced up at Ryan, “Help me Ryan. Help me please!” Wendy had tears streaming from her pretty chestnut colored eyes; she looked desperate and scared. She pulled upon her wrist restraints as a Ranger threw water onto the seaweed binds.

 

When the cart pulled closer Ryan could see a large bruise forming on the side of her face and a small bleeding cut below her eye. Wendy’s elegant dress was now torn and splattered with food and mud. She raised her chin and shouted to Ryan, “Help me, I’m innocent, Ryan promise me you’ll help me.”

 

Ryan couldn’t get close to the moving cart as Elfen villagers jostled to take their aim at the evil witches. Ryan pushed to the front once again and shouted his response, “I promise Wendy. I promise I’ll never let you go. I’ll find you – I’ll find you!” he shouted as the cart rumbled slowly by. She turned to listen to his pledge pelted by the angry crowd. The Rangers assumed their position at the foot of the grassy hill. Occasionally they would open the heavy chests containing seawater and douse the drying seaweed restraints.

 

The Ricar approached the raucous crowd, “Behold for we have captured the evil witches!” The crowd cheered, “They’re bound by Larkinsfelt weed, a gift from the people of Laylilia, the sea dwellers. This seaweed will render a witch powerless and will keep us safe as long as we keep it wet with this saltwater, and we have plenty of that. We are powerless to kill them by traditional ways but these witches will now be taken to Ivany where they’ll be placed under an old forest spell and imprisoned for life.”

 

The witches were kneeling, still trying to protect themselves from the assortment of things being hurled towards them. Wendy was the only one crying; her sobs could be heard above the raucous crowd. The seaweed binding had trapped the witches securing them to the wooden poles of the cart, but one of the bindings was beginning to dry. In all of the struggles and commotion a witch had distracted the Ranger and had managed to shield one of her bindings from the seawater dousing that was supposed to occur. The Sun had dried the binding and she felt her powers temporarily emerge. She kept her head tilted as a flood of power surged through her weakened body. The whites of her eyes turned blood red and she yanked at the dried out restraint. At first it held firm but another pull and the seaweed snapped in the drying Sun. With one hand now free she pointed a bony finger at the head Ranger and unleashed everything that she had. A white-hot streak surged across the square like a lightening bolt shooting from her outstretched finger. It crackled loudly through the air and instantly silenced the noisy crowd. The bolt of power struck the Ranger in the back and blew a hole clean through his strong muscular body piercing his armor as if it didn’t exist. He fell lifeless to the ground instantly. The crowd was in shock as the witch let out a chilling laugh pleased with her work. Her face turned to the crowd as she laughed and pointed again rolling her blood red eyes back into her head. The crowd scattered deathly afraid of her next lightening bolt, but the truth was soon evident; she was drained of power.

 

Three arrows instantly pierced her leg, upper shoulder, and chest, reducing her to a slump but the damage had been done and the head Ranger lay fatally wounded. A Ranger leapt towards a heavy chest extracting more weed soaked in Laylilian seawater, he mounted the cart and quickly bound the wounded witch’s wrist to the wooden pole. Her power drained away quickly but the crowd was now left with little doubt that they had snared the evil witches. Everyone agreed except one love struck boy. He knew in his heart that Wendy was not a witch; witches had adopted her. It was not her fault, perhaps she didn’t even know, but it was clear to anyone that she was not from the dark side, far from it, for she was simply a scared innocent girl.

 

The Ricar now assumed control and ordered the stricken Ranger’s body to be quickly removed. The wooden carts were prepared by the Rangers, in preparation for their journey to Ivany. The crowd cheered as the Rangers led the witches away on route to their final resting place in Ivany. As the carts trundled away Wendy’s sobbing could be heard above everything else, she turned and shouted, “You promised me Ryan, you promised!”

 

Ryan heard her desperate pleas but there was little that he could do. Her poignant reminder would seep into his thoughts and haunt his dreams for the next eight years. Ryan never forgot Wendy; he became obsessed with her memory and would think about her every night lying under a spell in the old Ivany forest. He tried to flirt with other girls but he couldn’t get over Wendy. Ryan was hooked, for he would never give up on his promise, he became frustrated and angry as he tried to figure out a way that he could make this right.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 3: Ricars in Cressmore.

Rinii Forest, Bardonia

 

“I feel like a visitor, just about everywhere.”

 

 

The Sun forced its way through the lush tree canopy to shine brightly upon the forest floor. A colorful bird screeched excitedly overhead as a group of curious monkeys looked down upon the two strange figures lying on the woodland flora that covered Rinii forest. Raj and Dan were motionless deep within a slumber unaware of the sounds and sights of the forest realm. The Sun’s strong rays moved across Dan’s face as he squinted his eyes trying to adjust them to their new world. The intense warmth helped him wake as he shook his head, sat upright, and began to survey the incredible surroundings that stretched out before him. Beautiful mature trees, large green ferns, colorful flowers, exotic parrots and small busy monkeys racing through the limbs of the trees, surrounded him. The forest was alive, beautiful, and peaceful. Dan reached over gently to shake Raj’s shoulder in an attempt to wake him from his peaceful slumber. Dan hesitated at the sight that greeted him. A strange creature lay beside him, tall and slender dressed in a loose fitting royal blue tunic trimmed with a white border. The creature had a green skin color with veins of blue running all over his body and face. He had a long neck and a wide face with large eyes either side of a small nose. Dan’s attention was drawn to the long pointed ears resembling a Halloween costume or the character Spock from his favorite StarTrek TV show. He hesitated to wake the strange creature, unsure if it was really Raj. Dan glanced at his outstretch hand with unusually long green fingers patterned heavily in blue veins. It had to be Raj but his doubts were soon eradicated.

 

The creature flicked open its large eyes: groggy and confused its brilliant yellow eyes housed slender black pupils shaped like a reptile, “Are you OK Dan?”

 

Dan understood the words perfectly but it wasn’t English that the creature spoke, “Raj?”

 

“Yes it’s me, you look pretty different yourself.” Raj got to his feet quickly and started to gather the belongings that surrounded them, a trick he’d learned from previous adventures. Each had a large bag that looked like a backpack made from tough woven ferns. The sack contained various items but Raj was more concerned about the dangers that could be lurking. He knew they needed to move to a safe place and not remain out in the open, exposed, as they were now. He asked Dan to assess his weapons, “What weapons have you got?”

 

“A large knife and this,” he said holding up a longbow that was beautifully crafted from one piece of carved wood, the bow was very large and immensely strong. He also had arrows that were sharp, long and true, “What weapons do you have?”

 

“The same,” said Raj pointing to a long knife attached to his leather belt and nodding his head towards the longbow and quiver of arrows, “Grab your belongings, we’ll see what’s in the sacks when we get to a more secure location, we’re out in the open here and too exposed. We need to move right now, then we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”

 

“Quiet!” said Dan raising his long slender finger towards his small blue lips. They both froze and instinctively pointed their large ears towards a small rustling noise emanating from the brush ahead of them. There ears were amazingly sensitive picking up any noise with amazing precision. Dan grabbed the quiver while still holding onto the longbow. Raj gently exposed his knife from its sheath with the blade glinting in the strong sunlight. The bushes ahead started to shake as the dark shape of a large animal emerged.

 

The animal started to charge but it happened so quickly they were caught off guard and woefully unprepared. The beast was quickly upon them about to inflict serious and fatal damage. This large animal had crept up silently stalking its prey in an effort to surprise them, lying on its belly to get closer and disguised by the thick forest underbrush. Now within striking range it had decided to charge. Rising quickly and springing from its muscular hind legs it leapt towards the hapless pair. The beast was about the size of a Great Dane dog but considerably more muscular, bulky and covered in thick course dark brown hair. Its wide bulbous head resembled a Pitbull dog with powerful snapping jaws. It was quick, much faster than either of them had anticipated, and they were now clearly in trouble. Raj couldn’t raise his knife in time, Dan had no time to load an arrow and both were defenseless. The beast flew through the air with its front paws lifted exposing its deadly claws ready to inflict maximum pain. The beast’s eyes narrowed and it let out a fearsome noise.

 

Memories of the sound that the Karcon made came flooding back as Dan raised his arms in a defensive gesture. The beast crashed into Dan knocking him to the ground with the force of a powerful blow. He fell onto his back with the ravaging beast’s weight upon him pinning him to the ground, but something didn’t seem right.

 

The roar of the beast seemed wrong for it wasn’t the satisfied noise of a predator about to gorge upon his prey; Dan knew only too well what that sounded like. A sound of fear and pain had pierced the air. The beast’s considerable weight had Dan pinned but it remained still, its powerful jaws and sharp teeth remained motionless, its claws, feet, and front legs were limp. The attack happened in an instance but Dan remembered the screeching sounds of the concerned monkeys high above content within the safety of the trees. Raj grabbed at the beast rolling his considerable frame to one side and releasing Dan from his pinned state. Dan sprung to his feet confused, relieved and unharmed. The beast was still alive dripping saliva from the edge of its mouth with its chest rising and falling under its labored breath. Suddenly it exhaled loudly and its chest stopped moving as it slipped from consciousness and expired. Dan studied the dead beast; he noticed two small wooden spikes protruding from its chest and more imbedded within the side of its body. He reached in to remove one of the spikes, “No don’t! Leave them well alone, they could be dipped in poison,” blurted Raj still concerned that they could likely be the next targets. Raj and Dan turned as they directed their attention to the noises emanating from the brushes behind them. Four small figures cautiously emerged carrying blowpipes, swords and other assorted weapons. Raj recognized them as Elfen; they approached forming a semi-circle around Dan and Raj. They were smaller in stature and their appearance was markedly different from the forms that Dan and Raj had assumed. The men before them had deep rich chestnut colored eyes, pointed ears and pale skin. They each wore green and brown colored clothing to blend into the forest and their surroundings.

 

“Forgive us for intruding,” said their leader stepping forward, “I’m sure mighty Ricars such as yourselves had this situation well under control,” the men snickered at their leader’s sarcasm. He stepped forward again where he could examine their tall frame, sunken yellow eyes and pale blue skin. Something caught his attention as the light glinted upon a silver necklace hanging from Raj’s neck. The Elfen’s smug smile was immediately replaced with a look of concern as the situation suddenly became clear to the impertinent leader. He shook his head in disbelief at his own stupidity with the sight of the blue and white tunics; the long bows and the silver necklace shaped like a Brion Fern leaf. The Elfen stopped gloating immediately and fell to one knee bowing his head, “Please excuse me my lord, for we did not recognize you.” The Elfen men behind him followed his lead immediately, dropping to one knee and bowing their heads respectfully.

 

Raj and Dan glanced at each other with quizzical looks. Many years ago this land had fallen into dark times, evil had taken a strong grip upon the forest in the form of witches. It took the coalition of three brave families to rise up and fight the dark forces summoned by these evil women. Many good men were lost but a united forest force consisting of Ricars, Elfen, Wood Sprites and animals would eventually subdue the rampaging devlins. The devlins were beasts unleashed from the underworld sworn to assist the witches but the united force of the forest would capture the witches eventually breaking their evil hold upon this land. In their pivotal battle the three prominent Ricar families fought bravely to defeat the hardiest and most ferocious of beasts and reclaim the power of the forest from evils dark grip. These families suffered heavy loses and fought bravely. From that day the forest was forever in their debt and they were afforded the highest honor and respect. They wore blue and white tunics coupled with the silver Brion Fern leaf, which signified that they were direct descendants from these coveted families. The final battlefield, where sinister devlins outnumbered the remaining Ricars three to one, was covered in wild Brion Ferns. The blood soaked leafs would always be a symbolic reminder of this epic encounter.

 

On that fateful day the Ricars were highly organized using their long bows to devastating effect. Once their arrows had been exhausted they relied upon their individual bravery and their skills with long swords. This epic battle would become legendary, an example of never giving up and never giving in despite slim odds and clearly outnumbered by their approaching foe. They fought bravely wielding their long swords with adept skill. Their brilliant blue tunics would soon be soaked in red blood as the devlins were slaughtered with no mercy. Brave Ricars fell in battle amid a scene of carnage and heroism. This scene has been painted, illustrated, sang about and immortalized in the years that followed. It was the pivotal point on the war on evil; the day the momentum shifted towards the forces of good. When it was finally only a few good men survived, but the majority of the three families from the Revercan village in Ivany had been killed. The village was renown for its men, their ferocity and warrior like training and mentality. This battle elevated the three families that founded the village to cult status affording the respect of all the inhabitants across the land as a mark of gratitude for their bravery and sacrifice. The Brion Fern was now a red carpet across the fields of death that day and the necklace proudly hangs around each warrior that has graduated from the Revercan academy.

 

“Rise Elfen and state your business,” said Raj in a confident commanding voice.

 

Dan shot a confused look at Raj, ‘What’s an Elfen?’ he thought and ‘How did he know that this funny looking creature was an Elfen?’ The questions raced through Dan’s head but he was soon snapped back to reality when the men stood, obeying Raj without hesitation.

 

“My Lord, we beg your forgiveness, we didn’t mean to sound impertinent but we saw the devlin had the advantage. My name is Ryan, I’m an Elfen Ranger accompanied by my guards,” he turned to point at each Elfen, “Drake, Benjamin and Oliver.” Each guard bowed their head in a respectful manner when the Ranger pointed to them. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be in the company of two Revercan Ricars, please accept our apologies and our hospitality; our village is not far from here and darkness will soon be closing in. We would be honored to have you as our guests.”

 

Raj took the lead once again, “We accept your apology and extend our gratitude for your assistance. I am Robin and this is my friend and fellow in arms, Daniel. We’ve travelled a little too far today and I fear the exhaustion has dulled our senses allowing this cunning devlin to take advantage of us. We were indeed fortunate that our Elfen friends were here to help us. The darkness is closing in and I have to admit a warm meal and a safe place to rest does sound appealing.”

 

“Then it’s settled,” said Ryan, “Men, help them with their bags for we’ll head back to the village.” As the Elfen retrieved their poisoned darts and assisted with carrying the bags Dan moved closer to Raj.

 

“What’s going on?” he whispered.

 

“I’ve been to this realm before, back when I was a kid, I recognize these creatures,” Raj stopped abruptly as Ryan approached.

 

“Let’s go, you can follow us to our village, it’s called Cressmore and it’s a large Elfen village located on the edge of Rinii forest.” Ryan looked at Dan who had not uttered a word up until this point.

 

“Let’s go then, lead the way,” said Dan trying to sound confident.

 

The Elfen knew the area well and steered the Ricars onto a well-worn path away from the thick brush of the forest. The path led through a maze of connected routes as they navigated expertly through valleys, across hills and eventually to a wide river with a large wooden bridge.

Crossing the bridge revealed the first site of the village of Cressmore. Wispy smoke plumes rose into the darkening thick air like dancing specters. Stars filled the blackening sky as the Sun faded behind the horizon. The Elfen hastened their pace as darkness would soon rule and the night creatures would emerge to bask in their freedom. At night a tall sturdy wooden wall fortified the occupants within the village. The wall was ablaze with bright torches dipped in flammable tar. The vague outline of armed sentries could be seen walking along the top of the gantries while keeping a vigilant eye on anyone approaching or leaving the fortified village. The sentries gathered at the sight of four Elfen approaching – escorting two large Ricars dressed in glorious blue and white tunics. Ryan approached the gatehouse confidently, he was proud to be seen walking with Revercan Ricars. “Open the gates and ready the ale house, for tonight our village has the honor of receiving two Ricars from Revercan,” he shouted.

 

An Elfen sentry leaned over the barricade and waved a flaming torch. The darkness was creeping in and he could barely make out the figures before him. He recognized Ryan’s voice but was still suspicious at the unusual circumstances presented, “Ryan is that you?”

 

“Yes Thomas; open the gate.”

 

“Are you entering of your own free will?”

 

“Yes, we are not under duress, we have important visitors and the Sun’s protective glow has long gone. Are you going to leave us here for the devlins and the predators of the night?”

 

Immediately the large wooden gates swung open as a small crowd of Elfen guards gathered excitedly to welcome their exotic visitors.

 

Dan and Raj could hear shouting and the frenetic activity within the village as more Elfen streamed out onto the main road through the village to see the visiting Ricars. The village was simple in its design. A high wall concealed a long straight road leading to a central square with buildings either side. The design was easy to navigate and easy to defend. The buildings were all detached and of different designs. Each house or building was made of wood, some leaned and some were worse for wear, all were weathered. Windows opened and light streamed from each residence as the noise and activity woke the slumbering occupants. They leaned out of windows and huddled in door wells to catch a glimpse of the famed Ricars. “Has Cressmore had Ricar visitors before?” inquired Dan.

 

Ryan answered dutifully, “We’ve seen Ricars and we’ve received Ricars but never a Revercan in recent memory. During the dark days Revercan Ricars used Cressmore as a military base but it was very different back then. Cressmore was an open village, not fortified as it is today.”

 

As they walked the Elfen people bowed their heads in a mark of respect; they pointed and whispered to their children. A few of the elders clapped and a few sunk to their knees. Ryan and his guard came to an abrupt stop when they saw an elderly Elfen dressed in expensive robes standing in the middle of the main street. Ryan turned to Dan and whispered, “Chancellor Neves, our leader and our most respected official.”

 

Dan knew Raj could not hear Ryan with all of the cheering and clapping surrounding them. Dan also knew he would have to take the lead in this situation. He walked closer to the stately looking gentlemen and spoke loudly, “Chancellor Neves, it is our pleasure to be invited into your village. I am Daniel and this is my friend Robin. We were hoping to spend the night here if you’re gracious enough to condone our presence?”

 

‘Nice,’ thought Raj marveling at Dan’s flexibility and his growing sense of humility coupled with his improving ability to improvise.

 

Chancellor Neves bowed his head respectfully and stretched his arms out wide pointing his palms to the sky and raising his voice, “It’s my pleasure to welcome our esteemed guests to our humble village. I invite you to stay as long as you wish.” He moved forward and lowered his voice, “We’ll prepare rooms at our local tavern and I’m sure you’ll be comfortable. Perhaps after you have settled in you can join me for a refreshing drink of our finest ale and you can tell me what brings you to our part of the forest?”

 

Amid cheers and excitement the group made their way to the tavern where the innkeeper and his wife greeted them like royalty. They were each shown to their rooms as the Elfen carried their bags. Raj was shown to his room on the second floor at the far end of a short hallway. The floors and walls were all made from wood with embroidered tapestries covering the walls. Drake and Benjamin carried Raj’s bags to his room. Oliver and Ryan carried Dan’s bags to his room. Oliver went in first and set the heavy bag onto a woven rug spread across the floor. He exited the room quickly as if nervous and excited. Dan entered the spacious room followed by Ryan holding a smaller, lighter, bag. “I trust you’ll be comfortable here, if you need anything, it will be my honor to assist you or your friend.”

 

The room was spacious with a large bed covered in a colorful hand stitched quilt. It had a small window with open wooden shutters allowing the noise, excitement and fresh air to enter. Wooden walls were adorned with elaborate tapestries depicting scenes of great battles. Dan peered into one of the woven scenes that fascinated him. The battle depicted fierce devlins, forest creatures, Elfen and burning fires.

 

“That’s the battle of Tremimore shown in the early dark days before the Ricar had managed to forge their way through to Rinii forest. Elfen were no match to the hoards of devlin back then and they say those devlins were larger and more ferocious. The Elfen managed to win this battle using fire as a strategic weapon but soon the devlins adapted their plans and we were overrun. They say we were one day away from extinction; I’m not sure if that’s correct, but your kind will always be welcomed in these parts. You saved us and in the process, it cost you dearly; we’ll always have respect for your families. That’s why none of my men will ever mention what we saw and did back there in the forest – ever.” Ryan bowed his head and set the bag down gently upon the thick woven rug.

 

The bag’s flap fell awkwardly opening the access to the top of the bag. A heavy object rolled from the bag spilling onto the thick rug. It was a solid gold flagon, an old decorative flask housing precious contents. The base was wide and round decorated with an engraving of intertwined vines found on the forest floor. The base supported a bulbous plinth inset with a ring of precious stones clear in color like uncut diamonds. Decorative vines danced around the stones raised and set into the gold. Above the plinth was a circular bowl cupping a tear shaped glass ampoule. It was protected by an intricate web of gold forming a carved net of gold skin formed in an exquisite design that rivaled any carving in wood. The makers of this flagon were master craftsmen – the best. Above the vial was a decorated gold collar rising into the neck of the flagon. Inserted into the neck was a heavy solid stopper made from intricately engraved gold finished with a reversed teardrop to cap off a magnificent piece of craftsmanship.

 

As beautiful as the flagon was it wasn’t the stunning detail that caught Ryan’s attention, it was the contents of the flagon that caused him to draw a sharp intake of breath. He bit his lip as he stared at the glowing liquid that filled the flagon. Even in the fading light it glowed magnificently, streaming through the gaps in the intricate gold sheath that protected the glass. The liquid shone an intense lemon color, a glow that illuminated the room. Recognizing the shock on Ryan’s face Dan stooped quickly to shove the golden flask back into his open bag.

 

Ryan stood motionless stunned at what he had just seen, “Is that …”

 

“A wise thing to do – to ask a Revercan Ricar about his personal belongings,” blurted Dan finishing the terrified Elfen’s sentence. “I need some time to settle in, I’ll talk with you some more downstairs; I will call for you if I need anything.”

 

“Yes, my apologies” stammered Ryan still shocked from what he’d seen.

 

Once Ryan had left the room Dan examined the other bag. Some clothes, blankets and a knife were bundled into the bag. Dan grabbed the small bag and entered the hallway leading to Raj’s room. He startled Raj with his abrupt entry, “What’s going on? We need to have our stories straight before we go downstairs,” Dan’s voice crackled with stress and anxiety.

 

“Calm down – we’ll figure out why we’re here, we always do. The Dream Cane always leaves clues; you just have to find them. It soon becomes apparent why we were sent here – even if you have to fish a little first.”

 

Dan moved closer placing the small heavy bag upon the bed, “What’s in your bags have you looked?”

 

Raj gave him an inquisitive glance, not yet – I was checking out the room to see if I could place where we are.”

 

Dan opened the bag and pulled out the glowing flagon, “Take a look at this! It fell out of my bag, Ryan saw it – his eyes grew wide and he nearly had a heart attack. Do you know what it is?”

 

Raj took the heavy flagon from Dan and held it close to his face examining every perfect detail of the beautiful object. “Well I know it’s gold from the weight. The craftsmanship is outstanding – meaning it was made for someone or something very important. There’s some sort of liquid inside but I’ve never seen liquid glow like that before. I have no idea what it is but it’s obviously something very precious perhaps very valuable. We have to keep it safe. I suspect others may try to steal it before we can figure out how this may help us with our adventure. The Dream Cane always gives us what we need and this was given to us for a reason. Let’s go through the other bags and see what we can find.” They searched the bags thoroughly but were disappointed with their contents. Clothing, boots, blankets and other assorted items were stuffed into the bag. At the bottom of one of the bags was a leather pouch and a rolled up leather container. The container was long; its rolled shape resembled a long sausage. Dan untied the leather pouch first to find small nuggets of gold, which he held in the palm of his hand. “Good,” said Raj, “we now have some currency.”

 

Raj fiddled with the leather strap that held the rolled leather binding together. Finally the tension in the straps gave and the roll uncoiled to reveal a map. The map was elegantly drawn, decorated in the finest inks and inlaid with rare colors and gold leaf. It showed mountain ranges, forests and tar pits, caves and a rocky barren land. Lush forests were portrayed with illustrations of Ricar, Elfen, Wood Sprites, majestic trees and finally a flowing river leading to an ocean with sea creatures frolicking.

 

Raj spread the map out onto the bed so that Dan could see it. “Wow,” said Dan in amazement reacting to the quality and intricacy of the artwork. A brilliant blue ocean with horned sea creatures enveloped the top of the map with the word ‘Bardonia’ hand scribed in fancy gold italics.

 

The ocean was labeled Laylilia and showed fish tailed creatures with human torsos carrying spears and large shells. The men had dark beards and were posed in scenes where they were hunting. The women were holding shells, brushing their long blonde hair. Raj pointed to the sea dwellers, “Warlocks and Laylocks” he said, nodding at Dan. Below the ocean lay an area labeled Bellwood Snare and a village called Ivany. The illustration appeared to show trees but the roots were intertwined to form a wall or thick blanket covering the ground. Perfectly drawn figures chopped wood and hunted using longbows. It was clear that this was the land of the Ricars.

 

Dan acknowledged this by tapping his slender finger next to a perfectly illustrated miniature look-a-like. Sweeping across from the right side was a thick band of rocks, cliffs and caves shown perfectly in richly colored shades of brown and black. Scattered between the illustrations were fearsome devlins similar to the beast that had attacked them on the border of Rinii forest. This rocky inhabitable area was known as Barden. Below the caves was a brightly decorated area known as Belladonia Forests depicted in vibrant green inks showing trees, plants, birds and a stream. To the northeast of Belladonia Forests was a large settlement or city. It appeared to be the capital of Belladonia called Caister. Elegant drawings of Wood Sprites filled the forest and Caister.

 

Below the forests was a large dark band that cut across the map in a severe way. The map had been folded previously in its history and a large crease wound its way through the black ink. Raj and Dan settled their eyes upon the dark section at the same time. Dan ran a finger lightly across the crease as if to soothe the damage the crease had inflicted upon the map cracking the delicate ink illustrations. Gold leaf contrasted against the blackened parchment with the words ‘Tar Pits of Noire’ delicately scribed across the uninviting scene. The blackened area had pools of steaming tar and large columns that looked like termite hills that you see in documentaries on television.

 

At the bottom of the map illustrated in shades of green and blue was Rinii forest. A small dot located close to the border of the tar pits of Noire was labeled Cressmore. Raj pointed at the dot but the observant Dan had already taken note of their location. Other smaller villages were marked and the larger city of Elfenden was identified in the southwest. The forest was illustrated with colorful birds, monkeys, fruit and Elfen. From the quality of the map and the fancy italic writing it was obvious to anyone that the map was old. The leather bound protection looked worn and weathered but it had served its purpose well and the map had emerged from the passage of time relatively unscathed. Raj paused to look at Dan, “Well at least we know where we are now.”

 

Dan nodded in agreement; scanning the images that were so skillfully portrayed before him, “Does this all look familiar to you having been here before?”

 

Raj was caught off guard by the question, “Yes, somewhat. It was a long time ago when I last visited these lands.”

 

For the first time Dan felt that Raj was holding something back, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it but he definitely had that nagging feeling that Raj wasn’t being totally honest with him. Dan moved his attention to the small bag and quickly tucked the glowing flagon back inside. “Do you want me to put the map in here?”

 

“No,” said Raj not taking any time to think about it, “It appears that we have two useful things….”

 

“Three,” interrupted Dan, holding the pouch of gold nuggets aloft within the palm of his hand.

 

“I’ll keep the map and the gold, you take the small bag and don’t let that bottle out of your sight.” Raj tied the straps of the map to his belt and placed the heavy pouch into a pocket. Come on Dan, we’d better go downstairs and meet our hosts. I think this will be our chance to find out why we were sent here.”

 

Dan snatched at the small bag and looped the strap over his shoulder tucking the bag under his arm and safely pinning it to his body with his elbow. They walked towards the door and proceeded down the hallway to a wide set of wooden stairs. Ryan waited at the foot of the stairs his eyes tracking the bag pinned to Dan’s body, “Come with me, Chancellor Neves and his assembly are waiting to receive you.”

 

Ryan spun around quickly and headed off in the direction of the tavern. They followed dutifully as the Elfen weaved his way through narrow corridors leading to a large room full of Elfen men containing a large wooden bar stocked with barrels of ale. The room was round in shape with impressive wooden beams vaulting the ceiling that towered high above. The walls were made of mud stucco adorned with stones, weapons and robes from famous triumphs. The gray stones formed alcoves creating separate seating areas and an arch of fitted rock slabs led to a private room off to the side. Ryan led them through the stone arch to a small, secluded area, where several high-ranking officials surrounded the Chancellor waiting to speak to the visiting Ricars. “Welcome to Cressmore, please sit and have a drink with us,” Ryan pointed to two empty stools pre-arranged at the head table. Two large pewter pitchers had been filled with frothy ale awaiting the visitors. A younger Elfen leaned in and poured two goblets of ale before pushing them forward in front of Raj and Dan. Raj was worried that the inexperienced Dan would succumb to the ale’s effects and say something he shouldn’t. He shot a warning look of caution towards Dan who caught his worried look from the corner of his eye and ignored it.

 

“Welcome,” said the Chancellor holding his ample goblet aloft. Raj and Dan lifted their goblets and toasted the assembly together. Dan managed to gulp a mouthful of the frothy liquid that seemed sweet and tasted of honey, “Some introductions before we start,” said the Chancellor waving his hand at the man who poured the ale.

 

The young Elfen stood to display his taut physique clearly visible under his dark green robe cinched at his waist by a thick leather belt. He wore a large sword whose silver handle pushed its way to the front clearly visible as he stood. His chest was broad and strong, concealed by a large colorful design of a parrot with its glorious feathered head pointing to the right. Raj recognized it as the Kukumic parrot, the symbol of Rinii forest and the Elfen Rangers. “My name is Eian, I’m the head of the Elfen Rangers here at Cressmore and I’m at your service during your stay,” Eian sat taking his place at the table.

 

The Elfen next to Eian rose. He was heavier and older with his gray hair thinning and his long beard covering his elegant but plain clothes. “My name is Aderos, I am not a military man but I welcome you also. My function here is to ensure that Cressmore runs in an orderly manner and that we have enough commerce to survive. I’m the chief beaurocrat and politician, my service is to its inhabitants and I will extend my service to you for as long as you need it.” Aderos deferred to the Chancellor.

 

The Chancellor did not stand, “I am Chancellor Neves, elected leader of Cressmore and the northern part of Rinii forest. I’m curious as to your mission and anxious to assist you in your quest. Perhaps you can introduce yourselves and your reason for being in these parts as it is indeed a great honor for our humble little village to receive two Revercan Ricars.”

 

Raj placed his large hands upon the table and addressed the Elfen men. “Gentlemen – thank you for your most hospitable welcome.” Raj noticed that Ryan, the Elfen who saved them in the forest was loitering nearby close enough to hear their conversation. “My name is Robin and this is my fellow traveller Daniel, we are indeed Ricar from the village of Revercan. We’re on a quest, sanctioned by our commander yet we are sworn to secrecy.”

 

‘Good one,’ thought Dan as he held on to the heavy goblet.

 

“We seek something precious, something that was ours and something that we need to secure. I can’t tell you why or what, I’m sorry we’re following orders, as military men and politicians I’m sure you understand.” Raj was a convincing liar. He paused at the right moment to show concern and empathy as he told his lie in a most sincere way possible – It was Eian that reacted first.

 

“We understand orders, but tonight you must eat, drink and rest, for the village of Cressmore is always in your debt.”

 

Chancellor Neves turned to Dan, smiled, and rubbing his tired face with his cultured hand, “Forgive me for saying this but you look too young to have bloodied your hands in the Dark War.” He then turned to face Raj, “But you – you look a little older, hard to tell with Ricar, but you look like you would’ve fought with your brethren?”

 

Raj took a slow deliberate sip of his ale as Dan felt the panic swell up inside him; he knew Raj’s next words needed to be thoughtful and confident, as their charade would surely be found out. “I don’t like to talk about it – but yes, I’ve been to these parts before.” Raj took another drink of ale for dramatic effect carefully placing the goblet back onto the table before him. He raised his eyes and stared at the overweight inquisitive Chancellor, “I fought at the battle of Walmorden. We lost many good men that day and even more that night. The pouring rain didn’t help us and the devlins were relentless, large and mean. We’d exhausted our arrows and our long bows were useless. We were reduced to our long swords and the battle was brutal and bloody. We organized ourselves into fighting groups, enclosed circles of three men deep. We rotated the outer ring when fatigue kicked in and never broke our formations. Eventually the devlins tired and we were able to strike out. It was my uncle who killed the infamous scarred nose, the largest devlin ever seen. As I said, I’ve been here before and I never want to see those terrible things again, it changes a man, destroys his soul.” The table fell silent; Raj had done a good job; Dan secretly smiled but couldn’t help wonder if Raj was actually telling the truth.

 

Chancellor Neves and Aderos drank copious amounts of ale becoming more jovial as the evening progressed. The food was good with the table stocked with local fruits, vegetables and meat that tasted like beef. Raj and Dan sipped at the ale trying their best to limit their consumption but not appear rude and offend their gracious hosts. Eian also drank sparingly observing the Ricars closely throughout the evening. As the pair felt more relaxed they learned about life in Cressmore, the resurgence of the menacing devlins and how they’d started to encroach upon the traditional safer areas of the forest; it appeared they were not confined to the damp dark caves of Barden anymore. Nervous people were whispering in the shadows as they talked about the sudden rise in their numbers signaling an ominous return to the dark times. Some thought the sight of Ricars confirmed their ominous fears. Many were welcoming of the Ricars as they felt they would quell any uprising.

 

The evening’s conversation was jovial but with the skilled art of a politician the Chancellor poked at their mission a couple of times to see if the ale and the relaxed atmosphere would loosen their resolve and encourage them to talk about their quest. It was easy for the Ricar for they would state politely their oath to secrecy and they knew little as to the reason for their quest, an answer not far from the truth.

 

As with most evenings the conversation inevitably would always turn for the briefest of moments to the fairer sex. Eian was being teased by Aderos as his eyes dwelled upon a beautiful Elfen woman bringing more ale to the table. “Eian my friend, you should just tell her of your attraction. It’s obvious to the blind inhabitants of our village that she’s smitten with you as well.”

Dan turned his body to look at the object of Eian’s admiring affection and as he did he pushed out his leg to brace his weight. All evening he’d felt the heavy solid gold flagon contained within the bag laying at his feet but this time it was different. He kicked the bag but didn’t feel it’s hardy resistance. The difference was obvious and he immediately stooped to feel the bag. It was empty, lying on the floor with the flap wide open and the flagon gone. He knew Raj would be annoyed for he hadn’t paid attention – he was easily distracted by the food, the conversation and the new creatures that inhabited this realm. Someone had stolen the flagon from right under his nose and he’d not seen it. Dan glanced around and knew immediately who the thief was. All night Ryan had loitered and waited, listening to their conversation and waiting for just the right moment. Dan had felt his presence and thought he was merely curious hoping to be part of the action but denied by his lack of rank. His motives turned out to be more sinister, waiting for the opportune moment to steal the flagon.

 

“I’ll tell her when I’m good and ready Aderos, I don’t need that kind of distraction right now.”

 

Dan moved his hand to his left grabbing the Raj’s muscular forearm, “The flask, it’s gone – someone’s took it.”

 

Raj knew immediately what to do, “Chancellor Neves we’ve enjoyed your hospitality and you’ve been a most gracious host, but I fear not everyone in Cressmore is as gracious as you.”

 

The Chancellors smile corrected in an instant, “What ever do you mean kind Sir?” the Chancellor barked.

 

“As we fine men of honor were sitting introducing ourselves our common trust has been violated. It appears a thief has snuck into our midst and stolen something from my bag, from right under our noses. The bag was lying here at my feet and is now empty. I’m assuming the head of your Rangers must have some idea as to who this thief is?” Dan looked at Eian; “You have the best view at this table to see everyone approaching, or at the very least you must know how to return this object back to us. It’s a golden flask containing something very precious to us.”

 

Eian stared at the Chancellor his eyes begging for permission to respond. It was granted by a solitary nod of the head from the worried looking Chancellor, “When Reverden Ricars visit our home we don’t like to insult their honor by exposing them to thieves, please accept our sincere apologies. When the Ricars originally came to our village to round up the witches, Ryan was a much younger boy; I was the same age as Ryan. Three of the witches were old ugly evil hags except for the fourth, the beautiful one, Wendy. Many said she had cast a beauty spell for her beauty was undeniable, it could charm the monkeys from the trees. This beauty made her the most dangerous of them all and Ryan fell under her spell. She made him promise that he would never abandon her. He promised to find her and release her from her confinement. Elfen are not a naïve race, we know that Ricars have a special gift where they can use the bounty offered by the forest and make wondrous things that we can only imagine. Earlier in the evening Ryan had rushed downstairs from your room, he was bragging to everyone that he’d seen a golden flagon filled with glowing Milkenweed. We’ve heard legends and tall tales from travellers that the Ricar took the Witches to Ivany and secured them in Bellwood Snare. In the Dark War we were told that the Ricars tried to eradicate Milkenweed from the forest, they knew its powers could resurrect a spellbound witch with one single drop of its powerful liquid. The Ricars were wary that Milkenweed could start this evil sequence all over again. We were instructed to burn the Milkenweed groves around here, it would never again be crushed to create the glowing sap.” Eian rubbed his face while pondering his next words, “We burned the innocent weed into extinction so you can imagine our surprise when two Ricars visit our village with a flagon full of the freshly pressed glorious glowing liquid – it made us question your motives.”

 

“Our motives are none of your concern, you need to find our lost flagon quickly,” said Raj resting on his forearms in an aggressive way.

 

“We don’t want this flagon to fall into the wrong hands and we certainly don’t want the Witches to be revived – you Ricars, of all people, can understand our concern. We’ve heard rumors that the Ricars had protected a small patch of Milkweed in Ivany but I’d always thought that was mischievous gossip. I’m beginning to think that there’s some truth to that rumor,” said Eian leaning back in his seat.

 

Raj leaned forward even more, “The flagon?”

 

Eian backed away, “You’re right, I will summon the Rangers and we’ll find Ryan. I suspect that crazy fool has the flagon and wants to be Wendy’s hero. He knows the Milkweed will revive her and he suspects that she’s lying in Bellwood Snare deep within Ivany. I wouldn’t put it past him to try to find her. To this day he’s not convinced that Wendy was a Witch. It was obvious to me that she had him fooled; she has his heart captured deep within her big beautiful brown eyes. I’ve seen Wendy up close and she has a strong power over men, an evil power.”

 

Eian rose to his feet quietly and left the table. He walked towards an attentive guard and whispered an instruction into the guard’s ear. The guard nodded, turned, and left immediately with some haste. Eian returned to the table, “Ryan won’t get far, the village gates are sealed and the guards don’t let people in or out after the darkness curfew. I would know of any exceptions and we have none tonight, that means he’s still within the village walls and we’ll find him.” Eian stared at Dan with an assured air of confidence.

 

“Let’s reconvene in the morning after a good night’s sleep,” said the Chancellor yawning. “Why don’t you station a couple of Rangers at the door of each of our visitors rooms so that they can feel at ease from thieves tonight.” Eian nodded in agreement.

 

Raj realized they were being guarded and was the first to react to this provocative request, “Thank you Chancellor that gives us great assurance and I suspect gives you additional comfort also.”

 

The statement was polite but politically astute. Dan allowed a small smile for he knew that Raj was being clever with his words. The Chancellor knew the double meaning also, “Indeed,” said the Chancellor – too clever to engage.

 

The men rose and went their separate ways with Eian and the Chancellor huddled in discussion. Raj ascended the stairs his heart heavy with an uneasy feeling. Dan followed and waited until he was far enough away where he couldn’t be heard. Raj turned his head, “Get some rest tonight, nothing will happen to us tonight they’ll make sure of that. We’ll deal with the missing flagon in the morning.”

 

Dan leaned in, “How’d you know all that stuff? Are you bluffing or have you been here before, you know, the battle of Walmorden and all?”

 

Raj continued walking up the stairs, he glanced around to ensure his comments remained private, “I’ve been here before, when I was much younger, and I’ve seen things that will never leave me. I don’t know why we’re here but I do know we need to get that flask back – the flagon – or whatever they’re calling it.”

 

“Raj, look,” whispered Dan nodding in the direction of the hallway. Two small crimson winged butterflies were flapping their way furiously towards them. Raj turned to ensure they were both out of sight grabbing Dan’s forearm. In an instant they were gone, swallowed whole into a swirling vortex of matter, energy and nothingness.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 4: Paris Calls.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“The comfort of wealth is often fleeting.”

 

 

The shrill sound of Dan’s alarm clock shot through his head like a construction worker’s jackhammer, the heavy-duty type they use to break up concrete on city streets. Dan threw out an arm and silenced the annoying sound. He was still tired as he lay snoozing within his warm comfortable bed. His thoughts drifted to Raj and their latest adventure. He stared at his small, bare arms and smiled that they looked normal again, his skin looked normal. It was difficult getting used to being in a totally different world – it was another thing entirely to see yourself as a totally different species. It felt weird living in another creature’s body. Dan stretched his arms skywards and yawned as Liz shouted from the kitchen, “Are you getting up sleepy head?”

 

“Yes, I’m coming,” replied Dan swinging his reluctant legs over the side of the bed. He placed his feet into his slippers and forced himself to head towards the kitchen.

 

“Well good morning to you,” said Liz laughing at his lethargic state. “Looks like Raj tired you out last night, not exactly sure what you boys get up to while I’m working – cruising the town, picking up girls and partying I bet.”

 

Dan yawned again, “Yup that’s right, that’s exactly what we do, party..party..party.” Dan sat at the breakfast table and began to eat his oatmeal.

 

Liz ruffled his messy hair with her fingers and laughed. She moved her face close to his and stared at him, “Listen to me – because this is important.” She looked serious, the kind of look he’d seen before when he had to go to a home or something bad was about to happen to their living arrangements, he became concerned. “Do you know what today is?”

 

Dan thought through the question logically for he knew it wasn’t her birthday or any type of special day, “No” he said, with some uncertainty.

 

“Today is the first day of deposit week for your school trip to Paris.” Liz let that important fact seep into Dan’s foggy mind. Dan sat bolt upright as it started to register, “I want you to give the organizers your deposit today while I have the money, and I want you to get registered for this trip early. I’ve put an envelope in the rear section of your backpack, its got $250 cash in it for your deposit and a letter from me authorizing you to go. I pushed it down deep but you can’t forget to give it to your teacher. If you forget – then no Paris, do you understand?”

 

Dan nodded, he threw his arms around his Mother, “Thanks Mum, I know this is a lot of money.”

 

“You’re welcome sweetheart, just don’t let that bag out of your sight until you give your teacher the money.”

 

“I won’t Mum – I promise.”

 

Liz smiled and ruffled his unruly hair again, “Good, my boy’s growing up, now eat your oatmeal or you’re going to be late.” Dan’s walk to school was uneventful – he entered the main hallway and headed to the landing area near the staircase where the passage widened in the cafeteria. He did this every morning where he could meet up with his friends and share a few moments with Ally before the school bell rang. As Dan sauntered casually down the hallway he recognized Ally standing with her back to him and laughing with her friend Jen. Jen was a really pretty girl with long auburn hair, piercing blue eyes and a lean runner’s body. Jen was the captain of the girl’s soccer team, as well as a straight ‘A’ student. She had a great sense of humor, stylish dress sense, rich parents, and always seemed to find a way to flirt mercilessly with Dan.

 

Standing next to Jen was Ray, desperately trying to ingratiate himself to Jen. It was obvious for the world to see but Jen remained oblivious playing along unsympathetically to Ray’s often crude and childish advances. “Hey Dan,” smiled Jen – deliberately cutting Ray off in mid sentence. Dan acknowledged her welcome.

 

“Hey,” he said – immediately turning his attentions to Ally. He winked at Ally as he pushed his backpack from his shoulders and let it settle on the ground between his feet.

 

Ally’s face lit up with the most beautiful smile as she flashed her brilliantly brown eyes that seemed to always make him defenseless. Ray kicked his backpack to one side making room for Dan to join them. Ally tugged at her oversized sweater trying to conceal the hole that had appeared in her t-shirt, “Hey,” she said reaching out to hold onto Dan’s forearm. Since her Mother had fallen upon hard times she really didn’t feel like she belonged with her friends anymore; she felt like the uncool kid trying desperately to fit in. Jen twirled her pretty auburn hair and let it fall upon her perfectly fitted blue Lacoste sweater. Dan couldn’t help notice how sharp Jen looked today and how she smiled at him. Ally noticed it too – immediately withdrawing her affection and crossing her arms.

 

The boys were oblivious but Ally flashed a dirty look at Jen that was downright territorial. Jen continued to stare at Dan with her short pleated skirt, perfectly fitted leggings, tight blue sweater and immaculately styled hair. Ally’s shoulders slumped as she stared at her own worn shoes, stained baggy black pants and ill fitted over-sized knitted sweater.

 

“What were you lot talking about?” inquired Dan.

 

“How great Paris is going to be,” blurted Jen in an excited tone knowing full well that Ally would not be able to afford the trip. It was Jen’s chance to get closer to Dan without pesky Ally getting in the way. She didn’t think Ally deserved Dan – for he needed someone better, more in his league. She’d imagined Dan falling for her in the romantic city of lights and how they would tell that story for the rest of their lives. It would be devastating for Ally but she was not in their league and really didn’t deserve Dan. Dan had dated Ally in the past but to Jen it just felt like a pity play.

 

Jen indulged herself in spiteful thoughts: If Ally dressed like that on the streets of Paris then complete strangers would be coming up to her and giving her spare change. Jen flicked her hair forwards over her shoulders in defiance, “It’s going to be so romantic,” she said sarcastically.

 

Ally rolled her eyes knowing exactly what Jen was trying to say, “Yeah man – it’s going to be cool, Notre Dame and all those underground crypts,” said Ray – the excitement coursing through his voice. Dan felt uncomfortable, he really wanted to go to Paris but he didn’t want to go if Ally couldn’t share the experience with him. He knew his Mother had worked exceptionally hard to raise the deposit money, pulling all sorts of double shifts and working the tips hard. Dan had talked to her about his fondness for Ally but Ally was in a tough spot where her family could barely make ends meet. “I’m signing up today man, I’ve brought the deposit,” Ray said patting the top of his backpack proudly, “I’m all in.”

 

“I need a leak before class,” said Ray – kicking his backpack across the floor where it came to rest at Jen’s feet. “Can you keep an eye on my bag please, it’s important and I’ll be back before the bell goes – promise.” Ray didn’t let Jen answer; he was gone in an instant.

 

Dan felt awkward for he knew he was handing in his Paris deposit today but he didn’t want to mention that in front of Ally. Ally had fallen upon desperately hard times; her mother was unemployed and had turned to alcohol as her respite. He didn’t want to embarrass her, as the Paris trip seemed to be an uncomfortable subject they’d both seemed happy to avoid. Jen’s comments hadn’t helped for they seemed deliberately planted in an attempt to provoke Ally. Dan wanted to go to Paris, he wasn’t going to miss this chance of a lifetime but in his heart he would have deeply preferred to go with Ally along side of him. She must have felt awful, ashamed and deeply hurt. Dan reached out to squeeze Ally’s hand in a show of support, “I need to get to class a little early; I have to talk with Ms. Claridge.” He leaned in and kissed her tenderly upon her cheek, “I’ll see you at recess.” Ally nodded and forced a reassuring smile. As Dan turned away Jen kicked Ray’s backpack along the polished tiled floor where it now rested at Ally’s feet.

 

Jen sprung into life and chased after Dan, “Wait, I’ll come with you Dan; Ally can watch Ray’s stuff, she’s in his class anyway.”

 

Before Ally could protest Jen had caught up with Dan and was escorting him down the hallway with her Hollywood smile and bright flashing eyes. Ally was seething mad for she knew exactly what Jen was doing and she couldn’t blame Dan if Jen had turned his head. With a deep frown etched across her stoic face she saw Ray returning to retrieve his bag. His puzzled expression said it all; he was bitterly disappointed that Jen had left. “Let’s go,” said Ally in a dejected tone as they both walked to their class. In that long silent walk she didn’t feel like Ally Tucker, the hot girl from school anymore, now she felt like a frump dressed in her sensible baggy durable clothes. She shook her head in resignation as she realized she’d been relegated from the elite status of popular girl. Ally knew she hadn’t looked her best lately, she knew her mother couldn’t afford to buy her the trendy clothes that other girls were wearing. Dan had just scurried off to class, with the perky figure of Jen following him attentively, which made her self-confidence plummet to an all time low.

 

By the end of the school day Ally had whipped herself up into a foul mood so she decided to head home quickly. She had no desire to speak with Dan; she didn’t want him to see her like this for she would have only picked a fight with him. She slipped away into the steady stream of students leaving the school ground and headed home successfully evading Dan’s attention. Dan had waited patiently to talk with Ally but as time passed it became obvious that she’d left without him. Jen waited too, as she moved closer to Dan she would manufacture an opportunity to touch his shoulders and arms. Dan was starting to get annoyed with Jen’s persistence he only wanted to talk with Ally.

 

Dan was disappointed, his heart felt heavy and he knew she’d be upset. He’d been looking forward to meeting up with Ally at the end of the day – he would walk her home, tell her how beautiful she was and try to lift her spirits. He wanted to cheer her up by forcing her to laugh and smile at his silly jokes. She’d left without him and he felt empty. It was starting to become obvious that he needed her, missed her, wanted her and liked her company immensely. His mind wandered to Rinii forest and the golden flagon. Why was it stolen? Did the thief just want the gold or the glowing liquid? He managed to ditch Jen eventually and decided to walk home feeling sorry for himself while kicking loose stones and dragging his feet. The evening raced by as Dan immersed himself into his homework to temper his feelings of disappointment in missing Ally. After a dinner with his Mother, Dan was looking forward to his visit with Raj and resuming his adventure through Rinii forest. He was day dreaming when Liz knocked on his bedroom door, “Dan let’s go, it’s time to go see Raj.”

 

Dan leapt from his bed and was standing at Raj’s door before his day-dreaming fog had fully cleared, “Come in young man, have a good evening Liz,” said Raj in his usual charming way.

 

“I have to go, I don’t want to be late – thanks Raj, see you later,” Liz scurried down the stairs as if her life depended on it. Dan didn’t know if he should feel sad or immensely proud of his Mother’s haste.

 

Dan turned his attention to Raj, his gaze fell upon the Dream Cane and he smiled. “We’ll let your mother get settled into her shift before we begin. Why don’t you put the kettle on Dan, let’s have a cup of tea first and then we can talk about our plan.”

 

 

Dan knew it was the sensible thing to do for his Mother could return unexpectedly. He always felt impatient, but excited, on a Dream Cane night. He brewed up the chai tea as usual and carefully served Raj who was reclining in his favorite armchair. “OK, tell me what you know,” said Dan raising his cup of steaming hot tea to his lips.

 

Raj looked at the boy and wondered how much he should share. He was still so young but he was not that far from Raj’s age when it started for him in India. He had to tell him; he had to be honest. Raj smiled for he knew they’d come too far for him to feel cautious anymore – he had to trust him. “I’ve visited this realm before, several times, and always as a Ricar. Bardonia is the sixth realm but don’t be deceived, it’s always been a dangerous place – it seems to be under the constant threat of evil forces trying to drive a wedge of dissent between its inhabitants. Evil wants to feast off the negative energy and strive, and ultimately take over this realm. The Ricars, Elfen, Wood Sprites and other creatures of the forest try to live peacefully, harmoniously, but evil will always try to find a way to ruin this harmony.”

 

Raj shook his head resigned to the fact that this important fight would be destined to be eternal, “It appears that evil forces have found an easy way to penetrate this realm, for over the ages they’ve tried relentlessly to convert Bardonia to the dark ways. There’s a place high in the cloud-covered mountains of Haitden, deep within the third realm where enlightened monks study in the Monastery of Light – they make it their life’s work to fiercely protect this, and other realms, from the dark forces of evil.

 

The monks possess a deep spiritual sense of enlightenment; they study ancient practices and the most enlightened, armed with specific chants, can travel between realms. Our friend Kaan, in the village of Autumn, was an enlightened Haitden monk – a traveller who can shift between realms. The sixth realm has received many a visitor in an ongoing effort to thwart the violent advances of these evil forces. We’ll return to this realm shortly but it’s vital that we quickly establish why the Dream Cane summoned us to Rinii forest and why someone has stolen our flagon? I suspect the answers to these two questions are related and that’s for us to find out.”

 

“I have a suspicion too,” said Dan observing the surprised look upon Raj’s face.

 

Raj tilted his head slightly, “Oh – and what’s that?” he inquired.

 

“I’m kind of mad at you right now – if I’m being honest, because you haven’t been absolutely honest with me! We’re not acting like a partnership, because you hide things from me. In many ways you remind me of my Mum; when it suits you, you tell me things but when it doesn’t suit you, I’m kept on a need to know basis. I’ll give you some examples; three prominent Ricar families, silver Brion fern leaves, the battle of Walmorden, you mentioned them all so casually yet any knowledge of these facts were a total surprise to me.” Dan leaned back feeling satisfied with him self that he’d mustered the courage to air his feelings.

 

Raj studied the young boy’s face; a feeling of irritation spreading quickly as he quietly sipped his tea. “You’re right, I’ve not been completely honest with you. You’re a young boy and you’ve still got a lot to learn. How could I begin to tell you everything about the Dream Cane? It’s a lot to take in – with different realms, strange creatures and the real life dangers that come along with this. I’ve agonized over this – could I trust you? You could’ve bragged about this to all of your friends. I took a big risk trusting this knowledge to you but now I realize, I’ve been a fool – haven’t I?” Raj paused to see if Dan was listening. Dan nodded and looked down at the floor. “The Dream Cane selected you for a reason, it knows you’re the right person and I should never have questioned that.” Raj reached for his tea again and sipped it carefully.

 

Dan raised his eyes from the floor, “I can understand why you want to protect the Dream Cane but you have to know by now that you can trust me.”

 

“I do and I’m sorry. I’ll tell you everything I know, every detail of every adventure, but we’ll have time for that later. Tonight we have to stick together, you know, as a partnership,” Raj smiled.

 

Dan scooted onto the floor where he crouched upon his haunches in front of Raj, he raised his chin and with a determined stare met Raj’s watery tired gaze, “Let’s find that flagon and try to figure out why we’ve been sent to Bardonia.” Dan placed his hands upon the Dream Cane’s shaft as Raj gripped the top of the Cane; it started to shake violently followed by the crimson lights and the spinning globe.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 5: The Quest.

Rinii Forest, Bardonia

 

“A fox is a wolf who sends flowers.”

 

 

The pair returned to Bardonia and immediately returned to their rooms. It was well after midnight and they’d already excused themselves for the evening. Dan was frustrated at their return for he wanted to find the flagon immediately. He was excited, motivated and stoked. Instead he would have to sleep trying to contain his enthusiasm until morning.

 

As soon as the Sun’s rays breached the high walls of Cressmore, Dan sprang to his feet feeling the excitement of the day ahead. Raj was awake and dressed; he hadn’t slept much for he was thinking about the flagon, the forest, Ryan and Dan. He packed his bags and left his room – as he opened the door an Elfen guard greeted him. “I trust you are well rested?”

 

Nodding his acknowledgement Raj barged his way past the startled Elfen and walked briskly towards the guard stationed outside of Dan’s room. Dan had already packed and was opening the room door to be greeted by the sight of an Elfen guard. Dan saw Raj approaching, “Let’s go,” he said to Dan summarily dismissing the guards. They both descended the stairs where Eian, the head of the Elfen Rangers, desperately tried to intercept them.

 

“I’m glad to see that you both are eager to make an early start,” beamed Eian sarcastically with a broad smile.

 

Raj was in no mood for pleasantries or games, “I take it you’ve recovered our flagon then?”

 

The bluntness caught Eian unprepared, “Well, no, not yet. Ryan is our suspect; he was seen sneaking away from our guards under the cover of darkness. We wanted to wait until daylight before we launch a search party, and they will be leaving soon.”

 

Raj seemed to grow a foot taller as he squared up to the smaller Elfen, “Get your men assembled now and get your supplies ready, we’ll both be joining your search party and one other thing,” he said leaving an unbearably long pause.

 

“Yes,” inquired Eian?

 

Raj pushed his face close to Eian’s wide and worried eyes, “Hurry it up! We’ll be leaving soon.” Eian assembled two of his finest Rangers, an assortment of weapons, food and water. Raj and Dan grabbed what they could carry and joined the men; “This is it?” inquired Raj.

 

“We’re only tracking one man and we know he won’t get far. It’s better to have a smaller group when travelling through the forest. A larger group will attract unwanted attention; the devlins have a strong nose, they could pick up our scent and …”

 

“Enough, we understand – let’s go. I’m anxious to catch this thief,” Raj barked out the orders so forcefully that the Elfen Rangers – trained hardened soldiers – recoiled.

 

As the men set forth, crossing the tall opened gates to Cressmore, Dan smirked at the absence of either Chancellor Neves or Aderos. He knew they were still slumbering warmly in their beds with their heads still cloudy from the previous night’s frothy ale. Eian led the way as the Rangers covered the rear. The Rangers carried long bows, with swords attached to their belts and arrows protruding from quivers strapped to their backs. A well-worn pathway led into the forest as the trees, shrubs, and fern gradually enveloped the men. A guard stationed upon the ramparts watched the figures disappear into the forest.

 

Raj reached for the edge of his belt to ensure the leather pouch of gold was firmly attached. They’d walked for most of the day stopping occasionally to eat, drink from a nearby stream and occasionally rest. His Ricar body was strong and flexible; he felt as if he could walk for hours. Dan had followed Raj along the trail winding through the woods. Occasionally the trail would fork and Eian would choose the direction. There was little conversation as the men walked silently lost in their own thoughts. The sight of a curious monkey, the screech of a startled parrot, the rustle of a fleeing animal moving through the underbrush was the only signs of life. As they walked, the forest seemed to close in upon them, as the path gradually became narrower and less worn. The Sun beat down upon the men until mid afternoon when a welcome breeze swept through the forest swaying the trees. It wasn’t dark yet but the men soon reached a widening of the path as it rounded an unusual group of rounded boulders.

 

Eian pointed to the rocks as his men let their bags drop to the ground, “Gifts from the gods,” he said smiling. Legend has it that monsters attacked the gods and in retaliation they removed their eyes throwing them into the vast beyond. They fell here where they will remain forever. We call them “The eyes of Rinii forest, and they mark the border of our lands. Tonight we will make camp here, the clearing is a safe place and the rocks will provide us some shelter and protection.”

 

Eian’s men returned with wood to make a fire and large fern leaves to create a makeshift carpet. After the fern leaves were scattered the men expertly lit the fire using wooden pine needles, bark and dried weeds. They collected more wood for the evening’s supply and began to settle in as the darkness descended. The men lay in a circle around the fire absorbing its warmth as the cool night air encased the forest. As the light turned to darkness the forest sprung to life with howls, screeches, and a crescendo of noises. Dan would catch the fire’s light reflecting in an animals eyes watching from the safety of the darkened forest. Eian looked at the Ricars with suspicion coursing through his veins. The Ricars must be familiar with this popular trade route and main thoroughfare yet they act like they were seeing it for the first time. Ricars are notorious for their ability to travel and yet these two seemed unwise to the ways of the forest, its sights, sounds and smells.

 

Dan flinched visibly as a spider monkey screamed his disapproval from high above, perched upon an overhanging branch. Eian noticed Dan’s temporary discomfort at a simple monkey scream, yet his men lay upon the ferns cradling their heads oblivious to the common noises around them. “Deceit is a callous act don’t you agree my Ricar travellers?” said Eian crossing his legs and placing his hands behind his head.

 

Dan looked at Raj as if they’d been busted, “Deceit you say,” inquired Raj.

 

The fire’s warmth was seeping into the men’s bones making them sleepy and mellow. Raj knew he had to be alert, for Eian was fishing for something and he needed to be at his best.

 

“Yes deceit. Deceit is the reason why we’re shivering around this fire instead of taking comfort from our familiar place of rest,” Eian paused for a reaction but none was forthcoming.

 

“Ryan’s just a simple fool, he fell in love with a Witch, a very beautiful and cunning Witch. He’s a man possessed – he just doesn’t realize it. She flirted with him, captured his heart – enticing him into a promise to free her from her bondage. I’ve seen this firsthand and I can tell you she’s deceived him. We all know that he wants to use the Milkenweed to break the Laylilian spell. He’ll try to smear drops of Milkenweed upon her lips in an attempt to revive her from her slumber, and prove that she’s no Witch – fool.” Eian sat upright where he could see Raj and Dan. The fire’s glow danced across his face as he stoked the fire with a stick causing little embers to take flight into the dark night escaping like fireflies. “Deceit. I don’t like it,” Eian stared into the flames and paused for thoughtful reflection. The silence and the accusatory nature of his comments made Dan nervous. “I guess there’s a lesson for us all here men. When you lose your heart, when you’re totally smitten – well, it seems that you lose your ability to reason, to be objective, and to make the right decision. Women have a way of complicating a man’s mind, making him blind to the obvious. My anger is not with Ryan but with the Witch, for she manipulated him – don’t you see?”

 

Raj rubbed his hands in front of the fire, “Yes, love is blind, and lovers cannot see what petty follies they themselves commit.”

 

Dan smiled, and nodded his head in violent agreement with Raj’s comments – for who was he to disagree with William Shakespeare.

 

“When you are so in love with a woman, truly besotted with her, she’ll take advantage of you and you’ll be too blind to see that. You can never trust your own judgment when you’re so clouded by love.” Eian rested his head as he lay down upon the ferns. “Get some sleep men, we have a long day ahead of us if we’re going to make progress towards Bellwood Snare tomorrow. Dan glanced at Raj who curled his body around the gold filled pouch. Dan lay on his side pinning the map to the ground with his weight. Soon the men were asleep using the forest as their home. Later the Moon had risen to its high point in the sky, providing some additional illumination. Dan felt a small pull on the collar of his tunic. He flicked out a reactionary hand and curled up again to resume his slumber. He felt the tug again, this time it was harder which startled him, awaking him. He sat upright to see Raj also awake and sitting. Raj put his finger to his lip to indicate he wanted silence. Raj had noticed a small colorful parrot, similar to the embroidered bird on the Ranger’s tunics. The Kukumic parrot flitted its wings frantically in an attempt to capture their attention. A second parrot directed Dan in the same direction wary and fearful of the flames emanating from the fire below. The parrots flew beyond the boulders only to re-emerge on the path stomping their feet and flapping their wings.

 

Dan whispered to his perplexed looking partner, “They want us to follow them – let’s go?”

 

Raj simply nodded – fearful that words would wake the Elfen. The men rose slowly, cautious to ensure their stealthy exit – they followed the flapping Kukumic parrots past the boulders and along an overgrown path. Suddenly the scampering birds rose majestically flying in circles and gaining height before resting on a perch high above them in the branches of a tall tree. The men looked at each other clearly confused with the parrot’s intentions. A small figure approached from the darkness slinking its way slowly down the path as it approached the two men. Both struggled to define its form as the darkness provided a perfect veil. As the creature approached the shape became clear. It looked like a small thin dog, walking on all fours with large ears, glowing eyes and a large bushy tail.

 

Raj rubbed his eyes, “a fox,” he whispered.

 

The fox calmly approached to within a few feet, it stared at the Ricars standing before him. The fox stopped abruptly and in a gesture of immense respect bent its front limbs, lowered its snout to the ground and bowed before them. Dan looked inquisitively at Raj whose gaze never left the sight of the fox before him.

 

The fox then sat on its haunches, its ears were pert, upright, and its eyes twinkled in the Moon’s limited light. It was a beautiful creature with a strongly defined snout, large brown eyes, capped off with red tufts of fur, which resembled bushy eyebrows, and a slim body covered in a deep reddish brown fur. The fox had a black fur underbelly with black fur covering its front legs and paws. It also had black fur covering its rear legs but the paws were a brilliant white. He sat and stared the colorful Kukumic parrots that took flight overhead.

 

The fox continued to stare at them, studying every detail presented to him. His snout and mouth remained closed but strangely a voice seemed to register within their heads, “Let me introduce myself, I’m Brazen, leader of all foxes within Rinii forest – I’m at your service. My nose is as sensitive as any creature in this forest and, no offense, but I can smell an approaching Ricar from far away, often my life will depend upon it. Forgive me – for you two are not Ricar. The creatures of this forest were left a prophecy by the Crocodile Queen; we’ve passed it down from generation to generation. Each night the Kukumic parrots stand on guard and track the Elfen who enter the forest at night. The parrots are attracted to the smell of Milkenweed and are afraid of it. If they ever see an Elfen carrying Milkenweed they’re instructed to alert the foxes. This highly unusual, almost impossible occurrence, would signal the start of the prophecy.”

 

The fox lifted his hind end effortlessly and walked forward three deliberate paces while sniffing the air, “Your hands and clothes smell of Milkenweed, but you don’t have any with you. Our prophecy came from the Crocodile Queen, a visitor from the stars – she has the same scent as you – it’s an unfamiliar scent, not from this forest or Bardonia. The prophecy states that one day an Elfen Ranger will enter our forest carrying a flagon of Milkenweed. His intentions are foolish, as he tries to wake a Witch. If he isn’t stopped our world, our forest, everything we know will return to the dark times. Our home will rot; nothing will grow and we’ll all starve to death. Many will die and darkness will cross our land spreading disease and death. We’ve been told that two star men will be sent to assist us in our fight. Our prophecy tells of every creature helping to stop this misguided Elfen – one of you will stop this act, we can only assist you.”

 

Raj took a step forward, lowering his voice to a whisper, “How do you know that we are the star men you mentioned in your prophecy?”

 

The fox shook his snout from side to side, “You can hear my thoughts – can’t you? No other species can understand our thoughts – only the visitors from the stars. You must never mention this ability to anyone for it will place you in real danger. Listen carefully to me, the Elfen that you seek is about a half a day ahead of you and he’s carrying the Milkenweed. I’m assuming it was yours and you seek to retrieve it? We’ll track the Elfen’s every move and let you know where he is. The parrots and the monkeys are following his every step but there is a strong possibility that the devlin will find him. They can smell Milkenweed too, and they’ll protect him, help him, and we can’t let that happen. I will have to stay out of site but you will be escorted on your quest, look for the parrots to guide you, the foxes, badgers and stoats will try to ensure your safe passage to Ivany. Word of your imminent arrival is spreading and the forest will soon become your protector, but you will have to leave the forest to get to Ivany and Bellwood Snare. There will be many dangers so we’ve asked the owls to help also. They will fly through the night and inform the creatures ahead of you. The owls will stand guard tonight; they’ll protect you when the forest becomes dark. No creature can see better in the dark than the owls – go now, and return to your group, we’ll guide you in the morning.”

 

“Thank you Brazen, it’s good to have your support, we have not introduced ourselves properly, I’m Raj and this is Dan. We promise you – we’ll not let you down,” said Raj bowing his head in a mark of respect. Dan wished he possessed Raj’s refinement when it came to these situations. Raj was smooth, experienced, and polished. Dan realized – he still had a lot to learn. Dan awkwardly bowed his head just in time to see the fox scamper away into the underbrush covering the forest floor. The two men returned to their fireside positions as quietly as they could. They settled in gingerly trying not to wake the slumbering Elfen. Thoughts swirled around Dan’s head as he pretended to be asleep. He’d seen the blockbuster cinema movies featuring the talking animals but this was definitely weird. A fox was actually talking to him in his head. Then he suddenly realized that he inhabited a tall muscular blue and green skinned creature from another realm – everything was weird.

 

Raj had been right all along – the Dream Cane offered a lot, too much to take in all at once. How do you describe this bizarre experience to a total stranger? Would they even believe you? Perhaps he’d been too hard on Raj. It was that moment he decided to apologize to Raj first thing in the morning. He squeezed his eyes closed and wrapped his arms around his muscular body; his back faced the fire which warmed his spine. The noises of the forest filled his head but soon they faded into the distance as he fell into a deep sleep. Morning came quickly with the men stirring around him and Raj shaking his elbow, “Wake up, we’re going to be leaving soon.” The men had refueled the fire with fresh wood and the welcome smell of breakfast entered his nostrils. A small pot was perched on top of the burning logs, which contained a blend of fruits and grains heated into a breakfast stew. The men handed out small portions of the hot pungent smelling meal. Dan tucked into the sweet, thick substance – it was remarkably good, like oatmeal fused with hot jam. After they’d finished eating the Elfen Ranger’s began to pack up the camp and extinguished the fire. Dan exchanged glances with Raj who occasionally stared into the forest to see if he could see any owls, foxes, or parrots.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

Ryan squinted as the Sun’s vibrant rays first pierced the forest’s darkness. He’d found a rock ledge that he’d used to build a makeshift bed offering protection during the night. His Ranger training had armed him with skills making him proficient at surviving within the forest. He suspected a search party was not too far behind him and he knew in his heart he must keep ahead of them by taking advantage of the daylight hours. He fuelled up on bread taken from the supplies in Cressmore to support his plan. Ryan raced through the forest passing monkeys, parrots and other animals that scurried away. He was determined to deliver upon his promise and free Wendy from her unjust incarceration. As Ryan pressed onwards he suddenly heard the sounds of a frenetic scuffle. Crouching behind the thick trunk of a large gum tree he armed his longbow with an arrow and peered into the clearing cautiously to see what was creating so much noise. Ahead of him was an injured devlin – his hind leg appeared to be painfully wedged into a deep sharp rock crevice. He was defending himself fiercely against five badgers closing in for the kill. The badgers had fought valiantly against the devlins attempted invasion of the forest. The badgers, stoats, weasels, foxes and owls had managed to contain the devlins, forcing them back and concentrating them within their stronghold – the rock caves of Barden. They would enter the forest to hunt, scavenge and replenish their food supplies. The devlins were a throwback to the darker times when the Witches who manipulated them to serve their bidding introduced them to this realm. They were survivors; many had tried to eradicate them but they seemed to find a way to prolong their meager existence.

 

Ryan felt sorry for the stricken beast. It was clear that he was trapped in a hopeless situation and would certainly meet a painful death at the mercy of badgers who would inevitably for tear him to pieces. Ryan decided to do something out of character – something he’d never done before – he decided to save the stricken beast, or at the very least, give it a fighting chance and even the odds.

 

It was still dusk and the Sun had not fully risen, the clearing was in full shade and the rocky cliff provided a long dark shadow. Ryan shot an arrow at a large tree next to the devlin. Its flight was accurate and true, piercing the hard bark with such a loud noise that it reverberated around the clearing. The fighting stopped in an instant as the badger’s attention was immediately drawn to the arrow. The badgers were always cautious around the Elfen especially ones armed with longbows, they preferred to head for the safety of their burrows. The head badger signaled a retreat and they scampered for the safety of the brush leaving the devlin to the Elfen. Ryan grabbed the flagon from his bag and held it high above his head. Most forest animals will naturally run from a bright light source afraid that it could be fire. Ryan held the glowing flagon aloft and ran screaming into the clearing. The stricken devlin remained still, silent, cowering and confused. As the badgers made their hasty retreat the head badger caught the scent of more devlin – he ran faster, as fast as he could, diving into the nearest tunnel for safety.

 

His fellow badgers followed quickly, confused by the fast pace and direction set by their leader. Reming was the leader of this badger pack; he was an experienced, cunning and clever fighter. He liked battles he could win and always played a percentage game when it came to decisions involving life and death. He had no qualms about ordering a hasty retreat from a poor situation to live to fight another day.

 

The clueless Elfen had been unwittingly useful today for the devlin had set a deliberate trap that looked like it was about to work – an ambush. The badgers had been lured into a clearing against a rock face with no easy escape route. The devlins were closing in behind them for the kill. The bait had been set and they’d all fallen for it. It would be the last time that Reming will fall for that cunning ploy, exposing the pack with no rear guard. Reming felt fortunate for today he was outwitted and that rarely happens. Today could have been his last but for an Elfen arrow. What motivation did the Elfen have? It was puzzling to Reming – perhaps they were trying to warn them? Yes that must have been the reason.

 

Ryan approached the stricken devlin slowly all the while keeping strong eye contact with the large stricken beast. He walked cautiously to the tree and retrieved his arrow. Holding the glowing flagon aloft he approached the felled beast, “I’ve saved your life – if I let you go, you have to show me the same respect – you can’t attack me, understand?” Ryan knew the beast could not understand his words but he hoped he would understand his actions. Ryan took his longbow from his body and laid it gently upon the hard ground. The next object to follow was his quiver, full of arrows followed by his sword. He did this slowly and deliberately; he kept strong deliberate eye contact with the beast to show him trust, he was now unarmed and vulnerable. Ryan set the heavy flagon down beside his bow; it illuminated the clearing like a lighthouse projects a golden beam through a foggy night. He approached the devlin with caution keeping his palms pointing towards the ground and asking the beast to remain calm. Ryan was focused on the devlin and the sharp claws contained within the beast’s front paws.

 

At his back a dozen or more devlins had approached silently through the underbrush now surrounding the clearing. The light from the flagon allowed the devlins to see the unarmed Elfen helping the trapped devlin. The largest devlin was a mean spirited beast with a piece of its right ear missing – a wound received from a particularly nasty fight with a large brave badger. He held the pack back curious to see what the Elfen would do; the pack would not attack without him leading the charge. Ryan cautiously approached the trapped beast, “Stay calm and don’t swipe those claws at me.” Ryan’s heart was thumping; he knew the devlin could inflict fatal damage at this range. The devlin lay motionless watching the foolish Elfen with his large yellow eyes. He snorted loudly but rested his snout upon the ground. The devlin stared beyond the naïve Elfen watching his pack gathering behind him. Ryan gripped the hind leg of the trapped devlin with both hands as he kneeled cautiously. He lifted the beast’s limb so it could escape the rock’s grasp with ease. He was instantly surprised for it was not wedged, trapped or jammed in tight; there was no blood and no apparent injury to his leg. Ryan thought it odd that the beast could not simply escape and defend itself.

 

The freed devlin remained crouched upon the floor – its only action was to flick its ears in gratitude. Slowly retreating Ryan headed for the center of the clearing keeping his eyes firmly locked upon the stationary devlin. Ryan retrieved his longbow, quiver, sword and the flagon. If the beast charged now Ryan would have time to launch one arrow. He would have to use his sword to finish the wounded beast. Still perplexed he tried to rationalize what he had seen – perhaps the leg was broken? Perhaps it was badly bruised and that was why he remained motionless lying on the ground?

 

Staring at the beast Ryan noticed the grounded devlin was not looking directly at him anymore. His gaze was focused upon an object located behind him. It was then that his heart skipped a beat and panic swelled up forcefully within his small frame. He stood anchored to the ground as he identified several noises closing in behind him. The devlin raised his body slowly, propping his weight onto his strong front legs. Ryan turned his head slowly, letting his mouth open in shock. He wanted to scream but no sound would emanate from his body. It was a futile situation for he couldn’t win this fight with arrows and he would lose a sword fight. The largest devlin he’d ever seen approached him slowly, backed by a snarling pack of devlins – too many for him to count. He remained still hoping that they would show pity and compassion as he had done.

 

The large devlin walked around his shaking body and planted his rear end sitting like a large dog would do. The devlin thrust its head forward and sniffed Ryan’s face. Its eyes were drawn to the glowing liquid contained within the flagon. Ryan extended his right hand carefully allowing the beast to inspect the glowing liquid. The devlin sniffed the flagon again and licked his nose to accentuate the scent. The devlin hoard knew of the power of Milkenweed recognizing its rareness. If this Elfen was sympathetic to a devlin then perhaps he was sympathetic to their cause of releasing the Witches whom they were sworn to protect. If the boy were transporting this flagon to the Witches then the devlins would help him, escort him, and encourage him. The devlins knew of Bellwood Snare and its location. The devlins alone would not be able to revive the Witches but an Elfen with armed with a flagon of Milkenweed could. The losses that they would incur trying to penetrate this heavily guarded section of Ivany would suddenly be worth it. With a sympathetic Elfen carrying a large quantity of Milkenweed the largest meanest devlin, was quickly reconsidering his options.

 

The once injured devlin laying stricken in front of a rocky cliff rose slowly and circled the frightened Elfen joining his pack unharmed. The larger devlin was expecting a badger ambush but this was far better, he gently pushed Ryan with his scarred snout towards the direction of the trees. Ryan knew the devlin pack could have killed him but for some reason they had shown mercy. The devlin leaned his considerable frame into Ryan pushing him in the direction of the trees. The pack had split leaving a path through them expecting him to walk into the gap created. Ryan looked at the large devlin who flicked his large yellow eyes in the direction he expected Ryan to take. What choice did he have? Ryan calculated his options – go with the devlin pack or be killed now.

 

The pack surrounded Ryan and led him out of the forest towards the rocky border of Barden. The beasts panted loudly as the Sun continued to rise; he was slowing them down, they would be cooling off in the comfort of their caves by now. They carefully shepherded him towards a rocky path that ascended the cliff towards their lair. What could he expect? Was he simply walking to his inevitable end?

 

A Kukumic parrot flew into a tall Rake tree situated on the very edge of Rinii forest. He landed gracefully and peered down upon the entourage below. He counted thirteen devlins and a large alpha that he recognized. It was unusual to see them retreating from the forest in daylight but the reason was obvious. In the center of the pack was the unusual sight of an Elfen boy with a longbow slung over his shoulder. This had to be the Elfen they were asked to locate. The Kukumic decided to hide, stay but his colorful wings attracted Ryan’s inquisitive gaze. He smiled, for he’d only seen this elusive parrot a few times since he’d lost Wendy that fateful day. It was the Kukumic that had led him to discover Wendy deep in the forest many years ago. He’d never seen a Kukumic during the daylight hours and he took this as a good sign, a good omen.

 

Once they’d reached the stony path the Kukumic parrot turned and flew away deep into the forest. The parrot’s instructions were clear, locate the Elfen and report back to the large den, home of Brazen, the head fox. The parrot dutifully relayed the message that Ryan had unwittingly aligned with some powerful allies that would assist him in his quest.

 

On the top of the stony ridge the devlins snaked their way deeper into a system of interlocking caves. Other devlins appeared from the shade, eager to investigate what their noses were telling them. They soon backed away when they saw a vulnerable Elfen had an escort comprising of the largest alpha devlin. A few devlins peeled away retreating into their own caves to escape the heat of the rising Sun. The larger devlin stopped, grunted loudly and flicked his snout in the direction of a large wall made from smooth dark slate. Ryan walked towards the wall to inspect it more closely. Many years ago the Ricar settlement living deep within the caves had etched a design into the dark slate, the design had faded but was still visible today. The devlins had forced the Ricar to retreat and had claimed the caves as their own but the wisdom contained in the carvings remained. Ryan ran his hands over the etched grooves trying to read the weathered wall. It was a map! The map showed Rinii forest, Barden, Ivany, the coastline and ocean of Laylilia.

 

Ryan studied the map tracing the trade routes with his fingers. Upon closer inspection the designs etched into the wall showed Ivany and a thick band of rocky cliffs outlining the passages through Barden. Etchings showed the location of the Belladonia Forests, and the tar pits of Noire. A large hole chiseled from the rock was placed where Caister would be located. Other chiseled holes showed Cressmore, Elfenden and settlements that Ryan was not familiar with.

 

The large devlin approached the wall his snout dripping with saliva, a result from the rising heat of the mid morning Sun. Panting, he licked his lips and pushed his front paws onto the dark slate wall supporting his weight by using his muscular rear legs. He placed his two front paws upon the map before falling back onto all fours. Ryan looked at the map again, “Yes,” he said, nodding his head. Ryan picked up a small stone from the rocky path. He tossed the pebble towards the same location on the map watching it bounce off the hard, darkened wall. The devlin snorted his approval licking his lips in anticipation.

 

The pebble left a small scratch upon the weathered wall in the location where he believed he would find Wendy – Bellwood Snare. Ryan nodded his appreciation – now he understood – the devlin had shown him the way to find Wendy. He turned and started to walk away but the devlin intercepted him placing his large furry body across his path and blocking his progress. The devlin pressed his snout against Ryan’s stomach and pushed him, guiding him towards the coolness of a nearby cave. Ryan obliged and stepped out of the Sun. Ryan sat while the large devlin lay across the entrance of the cave relaxing in the cool shade. “OK,” said Ryan mumbling, “we’ll wait until its cooler, and we’ll travel together – I understand now.” Ryan did not fully trust his newly found comrades. His intentions were clear, he wanted to release Wendy from her incarceration. She was wrongly convicted of being a Witch but the devlins would expect him to release the three remaining Witches. He had no intention of doing that so he would need to devise an alternate plan. If they arrived at Bellwood Snare why wouldn’t the devlins just kill him once he was of no further use? How could he and Wendy escape from the devlins, keep the witches snared, and secure the Milkenweed? Ryan lay quietly in the shade of the cave plotting his approach and his joyous reunion with Wendy.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

Eian led the group through the outer edges of Rinii forest until the pathway lead to a more barren place devoid of any foliage. Eian raised his hand to stop their advance, he turned, “Let’s wait for a short while before we enter the tar pits of Noire, drink plenty of water and try not to inhale the pungent fumes. Dan and Raj sat, as did the other Elfen. Brazen had approached the group crawling upon his belly to gain closer access to the Ricars, remaining hidden under the thinning foliage. “Ricars it's me Brazen, I bring you news from the parrots.” Dan immediately looked at Raj who nodded quickly to acknowledge the voice running through his head. “The Elfen that you seek has befriended the devlins. They travel as one- they now assist the Elfen on his journey to Ivany. You must stop him but he’ll take a different route. His route will be longer and safer for he’ll travel around the tar pits. The devlins will take him through the rocky passages of Barden. You cannot take this route; it will be crawling with devlin packs unsympathetic to your cause. You must follow the Elfen through the tar pits but it's treacherous and best navigated through the day - you must rest at night. The tar pits are a dangerous place full of opportunities to commit a fatal mistake. I have four rules that you must obey. One: do not get close to the tar pits - ever. Two: never touch a mud column - ever. Three: Don’t inhale the tar fumes from the pits; cover your nose if you have to. Four: never travel at night, stay calm on high ground and stay put. If you follow these rules then you’ll emerge safely from the pits. Dan, I will offer you some help but you must give me your word that you will keep my brave friend safe - look down at your left boot.”

 

Dan followed the instructions in his head spotting a small black mouse cautiously approaching his large boot. This mouse knows every inch of the tar pits; he will guide you and provide you with safe passage. Always follow the mouse even if the Elfen tell you differently. Try to get to the front and let him lead the way. You may have to hide him in your bag, your pocket or another warm place at night. There is nothing to eat or drink in the pits so you will need to give him some of your rations. Good luck and I will see you on the other side.”

 

The brave mouse jumped onto Dan’s boot resting at the top of his boot at the ankle. Raj had heard the instructions clearly in his head and decided upon a plan. He walked over to Eian drinking from his water flask staring at the ominous site of the tar pits that stretched out before him. “The tar pits are a dangerous place, many have entered and have never been seen again. Ricars know the way through this place; we’ve led armies across the tar pits. This is where you have to trust us, let us lead the way for we know of a fast and safe passage. We’ve crossed this many times and you must trust us now. Let us lead the way, for we can navigate the dangers of the Noire.”

 

Eian rubbed his chin while staring at the smoldering pools of hot tar surrounded by soil stained black with ash and soot. Small trails of blackened ground ran between the pools supporting large columns of black mud. The columns looked like weeds growing out of the ground perfectly formed cylindrical cones that served no purpose. There was nothing green as far as the eye could see and the smell was foul like burning flesh. Reluctantly Eian agreed. “This is as far as I’ve ever been, I’m not familiar with what lies ahead, so I’ll trust my men and my life to you – don’t let me down.”

 

Raj tapped him on his shoulder reassuringly. “Come on men,” he said loudly, “we must travel only during the day light hours. Daniel will lead the way. Keep a steady distance between us; I suggest three paces only. I will follow Daniel, Eian why don’t you bring up the rear.” The men formed a column as Dan led the way. The black mouse crawled down his leg and scampered ahead to lead the way. The mouse veered to the right ignoring the obvious path through the steaming pits.

 

“Where are we going?” shouted Eian.

 

Raj shouted his reply without turning his head or breaking his stride, “The safe way. Just follow us, it will all make sense.”

 

The mouse was clever guiding the group away from the blowing wind and the wash of poisonous fumes. He blended in with the dark ground making himself visible only to Dan. They weaved between the pits snaking their way past large columns of mud protruding from the ground. “Do not touch the columns – ever!” shouted Raj repeating Brazen’s instructions. The mouse led the group into the heart of the tar pits – once they had entered a large circular section devoid of columns and pools, the mouse ran back to Dan and snuggled into his pant leg desperate to give his sore feet a rest from the hot ash below.

 

“Why are we stopping?” inquired Raj quietly.

 

“I think we all need a rest,” said Dan glancing at the mouse nestled in his pants at his calf and licking his sore hot feet.

 

“This is a good place to rest. Grab some water and eat a small amount of food.” The Elfen Rangers didn’t need any more encouragement. They’d been walking for three hours and their feet were sore. They sat, drank and ate. Dan managed to place the water flask near his foot and screen the small black mouse that appeared to gratefully take sips of water. Dan ate some bread from his rations allowing a small piece to fall upon the heel of his boot. The mouse poked his head out from beneath his pant leg before disappearing with the bread to enjoy his well-earned meal.

 

“Time to go,” said Raj watching the Sun move across the sky. “We move during the day, never at night.” The column of men resumed their journey led by a small courageous black mouse. They’d been walking for about another two hours when the wind started to shift. The mouse pointed the group to a channel of land that parted two large lakes of bubbling tar. The wind was blowing across the lake pushing the toxic fumes towards the men. They had to push onwards and along the channel that passed between the two lakes.

 

Dan noticed the mouse had slowed down struggling to breath in the suffocating fumes spilling over onto their path. The mouse turned and skipped up onto Dan’s boot before disappearing into the safety of the top of his boot. “Cover your noses, shield yourself from the fumes,” shouted Dan.

 

Raj repeated the order loudly before covering his nose with the edge of his tunic. The men behind complied. Everyone pressed onwards crossing between the two lakes of boiling tar. The Elfen Ranger in front of Eian was getting tired and irritable. He was hot and sweaty and his feet were starting to blister. The tunic across his face felt heavy and scratched the bridge of his nose with every step. He peered around the column of men and glanced across the lakes of bubbling black tar, “What a terrible place,” he said quietly. The men were almost across the tar pits as the wind howled blowing the smoky fumes around, his nose was beginning to feel raw from the friction that the rough tunic material caused. The Elfen Ranger made a decision that would be his last; he slipped the scratchy tunic from his nose to provide some welcome relief. The strong winds continued to push the toxic fumes his way and he inhaled their toxic scent. At first there was no effect but after pushing against the wind and breathing in the fumes he started to feel light headed. His steps became heavy and labored and he staggered a little. Eian didn’t notice with his nose and chin tucked deeply into his tunic and his eyes focused on his feet and the uneven ground in front of him. Eian kept a steady pace trying to keep his rhythm and trying to cross the tar pits safely. The Elfen started to breath heavily with a burning pain rasping through his nostrils down to his lungs. He continued to feel increasingly dizzy and nauseous.

 

The Elfen staggered and finally stumbled to the ground losing his balance. As he fell he lunged forward violently falling to the left. The longbow strapped across his chest and his hand thrown out instinctively to break his fall slapped the surface of the burning tar. He let out a scream of excruciating pain as the black, hot, sticky substance adhered itself to his hand eating away at his flesh. The men raced to the Elfen’s aid trying to console the injured Ranger. The Elfen had inadvertently slapped the surface of the tar sending a small shockwave across the lake. Lurking just offshore was a Tartumal, an Octopus like creature that fed on the minute creatures that move through and skate across the tar. The tartumal have no natural predators, they stay safe in the confines of their hot tar pools and grow to be very large in size. They have long life spans and can sense minute changes in the tar’s vibrations allowing them to hunt. Occasionally they are treated to larger prey and today would be one of those days.

 

As the men tried to assist the injured Elfen a ripple broke the surface of the tar pit lake, followed by the emergence of a slick black mass rising from the shoreline alarmingly close from the men. Tar dripped from the black shape to reveal a dark formless body. Within seconds a large tentacled arm shot from the sticky shallows with great speed wrapping itself painfully around the Elfen’s leg. He screamed louder, as the hot tar scolded his flesh. Another long thick tentacle emerged this time wrapping itself around the frightened man’s waist. The men struggled to keep him rooted to the thin strip of land; they drew their swords as the Tartumal dragged its frightened prey screaming into the black abyss. Another thick tentacled arm emerged dripping with hot tar followed by another. Both arms were raised high into the air waiting to strike their next victim. The Tartumal had no eyes and relied upon its ability to sense vibrations in the tar together with any noise to locate its prey. The petrified mouse pushed itself harder and further down into the top of Dan’s boot looking for a safe place to hide. Raj knew they were all in danger and saving the half submerged Elfen was beyond them. Strong black arms dragged the screaming man into the tar but the men held on furiously to his outstretched arms. “Let go, run, save yourselves!” shouted Raj to the other men.

 

Another large black arm emerged as if to convince the men; they let go and ran along the narrow strip of land. “Just keep running!” shouted Eian brining up the rear. The men ran hard for they could see solid land on the other side and it was in reach. They were frightened that a black arm would emerge halting their path to safety. They ran – not wanting to look back. The poor Elfen’s screams subsided and all they could hear was their hearts pounding as they ran for their lives.

 

The captured Elfen was fully engulfed, now trapped by the hot tar; the Tartumal would feed for weeks. The remaining men made it across the tar lakes collapsing into a heap once they’d finally cleared the last pool of tar. The men crouched together heaving desperately for air and tired from their exertions. “Cover your noses,” shouted Raj. The men gazed at the smooth surface of the tar lake – the tartumal had left no trace of its submerged prey.

 

Eian placed a supportive arm on Diwar’s shoulder, he was the dead Elfen’s closest friend; “He was a good man, a brave Ranger and a loyal servant of Cressmore,” said Eian. Diwar was in shock; he pushed his chin down further into the safety of his tunic. The winds changed again, suddenly swirling the poisonous fumes in another direction. Streams of fresh air swirled over the welcoming men as they greedily filled their lungs. “We have to move while we can, come on, get up,” said Raj, rising to his feet. The group complied and the walking resumed. The small black mouse emerged cautiously as the men started to walk. They’d cleared the tar pits and now faced the long trek through the raised columns of mud. The mouse provided expert navigation for the men plotting a careful path through the columns. The winds continued to shift their direction and after a long day the light had now started to fade. The little mouse stopped in his tracks abruptly; he tried to assess their progress while looking for a familiar landmark. The mouse sat on his haunches peering around nervously while trying to locate to a specific path. Dan stopped and raised his hand to pause the advancing men. Finally the mouse spotted his landmark, he led the men to a large rock overhang – perfect to provide shelter and to make a camp where they could spend the night. The overhang was positioned high upon the ridge; the men were tired and trudged on wearily. As they ascended the hill the raised mud columns increased in numbers and became more tightly packed in a dense concentration. The gaps between the columns became narrower and the men had to squeeze their bodies carefully between them.

 

Diwar was tired but he managed to keep up with the Ricars ahead of him. As he squeezed between two large mud columns he made a clumsy mistake. Diwar forgot about the longbow strapped across his back. The tip of the bow banged the mud column hard as he passed; the hollow clanging noise caused the men to freeze in their tracks. The Ricars stopped and turned to see what had caused this hollow sounding noise. The black mouse immediately scampered onto Dan’s boot pushing himself deep into his protective haven. The mouse wasted no time; he was clearly petrified of the consequences associated with this unfortunate mishap. A strange dull rumbling sound started to emanate from the dried mud column. Diwar remained still, rooted to the spot and hoping his error would pass by unpunished. Eian was more proactive moving around the noisy mud column and carefully making his way to the front of the line by navigating through and avoiding the cluster of columns. The rumbling seemed to get louder followed by the emergence of a few small black insects. They looked like Ants, streaming from the top of the column. More Ants poured down the side of the column covering the ground.

 

The petrified mouse dug his back claws into the top of leather boot pushing his nose down as far as it could go deep into Dan’s boot. The mouse was clearly petrified as a stream of Ant like insects had poured from the mud column and swirled around Diwar’s feet. Instantly swarms of insects pulsed out of the column and continued to cover Diwar’s boots, legs and body. He panicked now screaming and shaking wildly as he tried to brush the swarming insects from his body. They were starting to blanket his exposed skin as they entered his tunic, pants, and boots, covering his face. They engulfed him quickly, devouring his flesh like a pack of ravenous Piranhas. He buckled and fell to his knees screaming in agony and grasping his face. The men backed away from the black carpet of approaching insects, “Walk very carefully towards that ridge, do not run, do not fall – now!” shouted Raj pointing the way forwards.

 

The men extracted themselves from the densely packed field of mud columns and made it safely to higher ground. Diwar’s screams subsided as his body was reduced to a pile of dusty clothes. The petrified mouse remained hidden as the men walked for an hour to ascend the hill and reach the stone ridge overhang. The light had now faded and they all knew it would soon be dark. They crested the rise of the hill and gratefully collapsed into the safety provided by the rocky overhang – their intended destination for the evening. Their exhaustion masked their fear but it was clear to everyone there were only three men alive now. Dan moved to the very back of the overhang while Eian sat looking over the vast wasteland of columns and steaming tar pools they’d tracked across; his thoughts turned to his men. His body slumped forward as he placed his throbbing head within his hands. Raj sat quietly next to Eian surveying the barren landscape barely visible in the encroaching darkness.

 

“They were good men you know, my best Rangers, and they didn’t deserve to die like that,” said Eian clearly distraught.

 

“This place is so dangerous, one small mistake and,” Raj stopped; he didn’t need to complete his sentence.

 

“I don’t want to die like that.”

 

Raj rubbed his dry face with his hot hands, “You won’t – if you’re careful and follow our lead.”

 

The tar pits warmed the evening air as the Sun disappeared; the men settled in for the night. Eian was stressed, exhausted, scared and tired. He was soon asleep – curled up – safely at the back of the overhang.

 

“Have you crossed these tar pits before?” inquired Dan, his voice no more than a whisper.

 

Raj glanced at the sleeping Eian before offering his response, “No, the Dream Cane had always placed me deep within the battles at Rinii or in my home village of Revercan.”

 

Dan finally felt movement deep within his boot as the small black mouse tentatively emerged from his sanctuary. Dan offered him some water, “Hello little buddy you’re safe now. You did a great job today – thank you.” The mouse greedily gulped at the cool refreshing water that Dan had poured into his cupped hand. Dan noticed how sore and blistered the little guy’s feet looked from walking over the hot soil of the tar pits of Noire.

 

“I hope we’re almost out of this hell,” lamented Raj.

 

“Yeah, me too,” said Dan, feeding the little mouse morsels of bread and offering a few seeds from his food supply.

 

Once satiated, the mouse ran to the safety of the overhang’s depths and snuggled in Dan’s canvass bag to create a makeshift bed for the evening. The winds continued to swirl alternating between fresh air and sleepy toxic gas. The Sun’s hopeful light finally disappeared – it had been threatening to do so for the last couple of hours. The stark darkness occasionally gave way to the sporadic glimpses of the Moon’s silvery light, only to be obscured by the dark thick toxic clouds emitted from the steaming tar pits.

 

“Noire,” said Raj. “Black,” he said, staring into the bleak darkness.

 

A rumbling sound could be heard below as millions of ant like creatures swarmed from every mud column to cover the floor below. The Moon’s light would break through the gaseous clouds occasionally illuminating the plain below. The frenetic movement of the Ants made the plain look like it was flooded with thick black undulating water as they swarmed and fought for territory. Each muddy column would battle the occupants of the next where they would attack in waves. Dead insects were transported into the columns to be consumed as food. The floor was alive with devouring; battling insects, “Why don’t they come up here?” questioned Dan.

 

“I don’t know – maybe we’re not that safe up here after all?” mused Raj, his concern growing.

 

“I don’t think he’d be sleeping that soundly if we weren’t,” said Dan, resting his gaze on the cloth bag containing the exhausted mouse.

 

Raj felt the gold contained within his leather pouch, “What good is Gold when you’re faced with these ravenous insects, yet I carry this extra weight?” he said shaking his head.

 

Below them, half way up the rise, the ground started to swell buckling with little mounds of soot appearing to force their way up through the dark soil. Furry creatures, about the size of a large Rat, burrowed free from the powdery soil. They looked a little like Armadillos, covered in a thick black protective shell and sporting a long ridged snout that resembled the hose of a vacuum cleaner. The creatures ambled down the hillside slowly leaving trails in the fine powdery soil as they made their way to the insects below to commence their midnight feast. The creatures approached the battling ants where they sucked up the insects protected by their hard shells. The creatures would swing their snouts from side to side catching any unfortunate insects in their path. The Tartumal patrolled the edge of their tar pits occasionally flapping a tentacled arm onshore and rolling it among the unsuspecting insects. They would stick to their tar covered limbs and provide a source of food for the mighty beasts.

 

The swarming fights would continue until the first hint of sunlight encroached upon the valley. The nocturnal Armadillo like creatures had long since waddled their way back up the ridge’s slope and burrowed into the soil to sleep through another hot day. The insects knew the higher, softer ground, belonged to the hordes of Armadillos; this was where their burrows were located. This provided the explanation of why the insects avoided the high ground and why the mouse slept soundly.

 

Dan was the first to awake in the morning as the mouse frantically scurried around his feet wanting water. Dan dutifully provided the water from his cupped hand, “Good Morning – You did well yesterday little friend, and you’re a smart one for leading us up here to spend the night.” It wasn’t long before the men gathered on the edge of the ridge to survey their journey ahead and out of Noire. As the Sun started to rise announcing a new day they could see the outline of the lush green border of Belladonia forests in the distance. What lay between them and the forest were about half a day of walking gingerly through intensely packed mud columns.

 

The men were anxious to get started but devised a careful plan to ensure no more fatalities would occur. Each secured their baggage to their backs. Each pointed their longbows skywards, secured upright, and held by two hands in front of the bodies. They used them as walking sticks to steady their balance and avoid inadvertently clipping the mud columns. The mouse rode on Dan’s boot affording his scalded feet a rest. They could see their target but their progress was slow and tedious as they sidestepped their way through the mud columns in a slow but deliberate dance. Half way through they decided to rest for water and consumed their remaining food supplies. They could not sit for there was no room. Raj provided constant motivation ensuring they remained vigilant and did not tire. It took them longer than they had imagined as the density of the mud columns was thicker than before and they had to take great care not to alert the ravenous insects within.

 

Once they had made it to the forest they were relieved – crashing to the ground and rolling around in the soft green grass. Small holes dotted the grassy border where the hard-shelled creatures would emerge at night to feed – stopping the onslaught of insects from entering the forest. Nature has a way of keeping everything in balance.

 

The men were tired but the forest surroundings of Belladonia provided a welcome respite. Dan pushed onwards into the forest trying to leave Noire as far behind him as possible. They found a large tree perched on a raised mound and decided it would make a good place to setup a camp so they could spend the remainder of the day restocking supplies as they prepared for nightfall. Eian went in search of food while Raj and Dan secured the site and collected wood to build a fire. Eian returned with fruits, berries and a weird looking purple object that resembled a banana. The men made the fire and relaxed as the night’s darkness drew closer. They didn’t speak preferring to watch the fire’s hypnotic dancing flames as it warmed their faces. The little mouse greedily gobbled at a large piece of the purple banana afterwards spending time to clean his whiskers and snout. He would settle into Dan’s bag for the evening feeling much safer to be away from those nasty devouring insects.

 

Darkness descended into the forest and the men fell asleep. Dan felt a slight tug on his pant leg and raised his head gently. It was a small Kukumic parrot perched carefully upon his ankle. Raj was asleep; he smiled and followed the bird to a small clearing away from Raj and Eian. The bird then suddenly elevated upwards high into the tall trees leaving him exposed and alone. Dan looked around quickly his attention shifting to the movement to his left. Brazen, the fox, emerged from the brush where he sat proudly accompanied by the little black mouse crouched in front of the fox’s left paw. “Thank you for looking after my friend, he’s served you well.” The mouse lowered his snout respectfully and scurried off into the underbrush relieved of his duties. “You’ve done well my friend but there is still much to do if we’re going to stop this Elfen from releasing the Witch.

 

“How did you get over the pits?” inquired Dan.

 

Brazen stared at the inquisitive Ricar, “The owls helped me last night. Listen to me now, my sources tell me the Elfen boy and a large pack of devlins are now on the move – crossing Barden and heading for Ivany. We must intercept them and be prepared to stop them. I’m making preparations but I’ll need your help again. Far from here lives the Crocodile Queen, she’s a special lady, a spiritual lady, who usually forbids visitors. Many believe that she’s here to safeguard the peace and harmony within our land. Some say she’s a star child – like you. She’s graciously agreed to meet with you; I’ve been told she wants to give you something. Very few people have ever seen the Crocodile Queen it will be a great honor. It’s a common belief that she is not real, a fanciful legend or fireside story designed to make us all feel a little safer. The elders will often talk of her and her role in fighting the dark forces. Many fear her. She lives in a far away place, far beyond the three rivers delta.” A large badger emerged from the brush gazing at the fox and the Ricar standing before him. “This is Relte, he’s the fiercest badger this side of Noire; I want you to follow him. He’ll escort you to owl’s point where you’ll be met by one of the largest owls that you’ve ever seen. You’ll need to trust them; they’ll take you to three rivers delta.” Dan nodded his agreement. “Good, follow Relte – quickly we don’t have much time.”

 

Raj was having nightmares; insects were crawling all over him as he slept. He was startled awake from his dream sitting upright and brushing off the imaginary predators. Raj squinted trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness but failing to see the outline of Dan’s sleeping body. Just then his attention was directed to a crimson butterfly that fluttered past his face.

 

Relte was about to lead the way when a sudden movement held his gaze. It was the unmistakable sight of a crimson butterfly flapping its wings and heading straight for Dan. Dan knew what this meant bracing himself for the bumpy return. A bright light appeared and his head started to swirl. Travelling through realms didn’t get any easier the more he did it – he still hated the feeling, it made him dizzy and dis-oriented.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 6: Deceit’s Veil.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“There comes a time when deceit and defiance must be seen for what they are.”

 

 

When Dan regained consciousness he was lying on the floor of Raj’s apartment looking at Raj’s slumped body enveloped by his old comfy chair. The Dream Cane was leaning between his legs. A knock at the door demanded Dan’s immediate attention and he sprang to his feet to answer the call. Raj was emerging from his dazed state as Dan unlocked the door and greeted his Mother. “Hi Mum, did you have a good shift?”

 

“Yes, but I’m really tired and my feet are sore, are you ready to go?” Liz peeked her head into the apartment, “Hi Raj – hope he was no trouble?”

 

Raj came to his senses just in time, “No trouble at all Liz, see you tomorrow night Dan, and be good!”

 

Dan slept heavily that night drifting into the occasional dream that featured devouring insects. He heard the Elfen’s screams reverberating through his mind one more time, which startled him to wake as the smell of warm toast drifted through to his nostrils. As usual Liz had risen early and was in a chirpy mood singing along quietly to the radio. Dan stumbled into the kitchen looking a little disheveled, “Your breakfast is on the counter – help yourself,” she said pouring his orange juice. “You and Raj looked pretty tired last night, everything ok with you two?”

 

Dan sat at the kitchen table, “Yeah, we talk about books and school stuff – he’s really nice, I like him a lot.” Dan reached into his pocket and brought out a folded piece of paper. He slid it across the table without looking at his Mother, “This is for you.”

 

Liz looked at the folded crumpled pamphlet; she picked it up to inspect it both sides, “What is it?”

 

“I know you have the afternoon shift off today when I’m toiling away at school and I remembered it’s your day date today. I also know you’re pathetic at planning these things and I want this to go well for you ‘cos you deserve it and I know how much you like this guy. It’s going to rain today, pretty hard I think, so I thought you could go to this really cool new coffee house that’s opened in town. It’ll give you two crazy kids a great place to go, talk and get to know each other better. The girls at school say the cookies and pie are the best in town and I also know how hard it is for you to choose off a menu, so I stopped in and got you a menu so that you can choose ahead of time – instead of looking like a dork!” Dan smiled as he playfully teased his Mother.

 

“Dan, aren’t you the sweetest thing ever,” Liz playfully tugged at his cheek, “but seriously, thank you so much – this is really thoughtful and yes, I really do like this guy.” Liz smiled at Dan, “Eat your breakfast it’s going to be a great day for both of us today despite the rain.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Dan sauntered into school taking his usual route and feeling relieved that the rain had held off until he was well inside the school’s main building. He walked down the hallway looking for the familiar sight of Ally. He located her standing in the usual spot talking to Jen and Gail. A couple of the lads were also hanging around having a chat and a laugh before school started. Dan approached Ally from behind; she was wearing the same oversized black slacks and baggy sweater. He slowed his pace and stood at her side, “Hi you.”

 

“Hi, did you get wet?” she teased.

 

“No, it just started to spit as I walked inside. I didn’t see you yesterday what happened?”

 

Ally smiled at him, “I was in a foul mood and I didn’t want to take it out on you, so I left early.”

 

Dan nodded his head, “No foul mood today then eh?”

 

Ally smiled and took his hand gently, “No foul mood today; in fact, I’m in a very happy mood today, very happy.” She looked happy, almost giddy.

 

“OK, why so happy?” inquired Dan.

 

Ally leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Because I’m going to Paris with you; I’m paying today!”

 

Dan looked at her excited face; “You’re kidding me right?”

 

“Nope, no kidding, I’m serious,” Ally’s smile was a beautiful as ever.

 

Dan smiled and squeezed her hand; he leaned in to whisper to her, “That’s fantastic, you and me in Paris. That’ll really pour cold water on Jen’s plans,” he pulled a face of mock sympathy.

 

“Too bad, so sad,” mouthed Ally – her eyes twinkling at the thought of going to Paris with Dan.

 

Dan asked the question without thinking, “How did you manage to pull that off? I mean, how did you raise the money?”

 

That’s when Ally’s mood changed, “I just did, its not important how – just be happy that I’m going.” The school bell rang and Dan rolled his eyes at its timing. “I won’t see you at break, I’m going to the science club meeting remember?”

 

Dan had forgotten, “Right – I remember you telling me, so I’ll see you at lunch then. When are you handing in your trip money?”

 

Ally started to leave, “This morning at Ms. Dubery’s class, got to go or I’ll be late. See you at lunch.”

 

“Come on Dan, we’d better get a move on,” said Jen looking as perky as ever. Dan nodded and hurried off to his form room for assembly. As they walked Dan’s thoughts turned to Jen and how she wouldn’t be smiling this much when she finds out that Ally’s coming along for the ride to Paris. He smiled again and quickened his stride.

 

The morning did not move along quickly, Mr. Henson dragged out every banal moment of a double math class where Dan actually saw a couple of students sleeping. Math was not his favorite subject but if Mr. Henson taught a class about the Dream Cane he had the expert ability to make it super boring. Dan was so relieved to hear the bell ring and headed for the break room with renewed hope. Jen was looking really good today dressed in her tight striped sweater and even tighter jeans; she wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail and she knew she looked good. She followed him around like a lost puppy and it was starting to irritate him. Fortunately Ray appeared and the drama started with Jen vying for Dan’s attention, while Ray vied for Jen’s affections. Ray didn’t seem his jovial self and for some reason didn’t pay too much attention to Jen. When Ray moved closer to Dan he spoke softly, “Dan mate, can I talk to you about something? Let’s go somewhere quiet ‘cos I need to ask you something – something sensitive.”

 

Dan was intrigued and nodded his acceptance; they pulled away from the group and turned their backs to the normal crowd, “What’s on your mind Ray?”

 

“I don’t know how to say this but I’m really ticked off. Yesterday – I had my Paris money stolen.”

 

Dan’s eye’s widened, “What? Who did it?”

 

“That’s the point. I don't know for sure but I’m 99.9% certain,” said Ray, looking around to see if anyone could hear them.

 

“Well don’t keep me hanging in suspense, tell me – who?”

 

Ray’s face flushed, “Ally!”

 

Dan’s jaw dropped, “My Ally – no way man, that can’t be right.” Dan looked at Ray to see if it was a joke, a wind up. He was serious, and this was no joke, “My Ally,” repeated Dan.

 

“Yesterday we were all talking, remember, you said that you were handing in your money that morning. I said that I was too – I was stoked. Then I had to pee and I left my backpack with you, Jen, and Ally.”

 

Dan nodded, “Yeah, I remember. So your money was in the backpack?”

 

“Yeah. It was inside in a sealed white envelope – I left the bag with you guys and I want to know what happened when I left?”

 

Dan rubbed the back of his head trying to recall the sequence of events, “Okay – here’s what I remember. Jen was going on about how romantic and sappy Paris was going to be, you were going on about the creepy underground crypts. Ally was getting really annoyed ‘cos she wasn’t going. That’s when you needed a leak and kicked your bag towards Jen to look after it. It was on the floor when you left and no one went in it – I swear. I wanted to get to class early ‘cos I had to give my deposit to Ms. Claridge. I was about to leave and that’s when Jen decided that she wanted to walk with me to class – you know what she’s like.”

 

“Yeah, she’s got the hots for you – but what happened to my bag?” Ray looked at Dan waiting for the inevitable answer.

 

Dan paused for he remembered only too well, “Jen kicked your bag over to Ally, it slid across the floor – then she left and followed me.”

 

Ray moved closer and lowered his voice, “When I came back the two of you had left, there was only Ally holding my backpack, the bell had gone off and she’s telling me to hurry back to the form room. Once I got back to the form room I was going to hand in the envelope and when I looked in my backpack the envelope had gone.”

 

“Could it have fallen out?” offered Dan.

 

“Dan – the backpack was zipped up, nothing was open. It had to be Ally. I know – neither of us want it to be her, but let’s face it, I hate to say this but she’s a little desperate for some cash right now.”

 

Dan thought back to her excited smile this morning, her sudden announcement that she’d found the Paris deposit money and her vagueness and irritation when asked where she’d managed to get the money. He didn’t need anymore convincing, suddenly he’d lost his appetite to go to Paris as this trip was turning out to be a nightmare and they hadn’t even boarded the plane yet!

 

“What am I going to do Dan? If I report her to the principal, that will get her into a world of trouble. She may get suspended and she doesn’t need that additional hassle right now – she’s a good friend Dan, she’s just a little desperate in her situation right now.”

 

Dan knew Ray was trying to be a good friend, and he was right but what could he do? “You have until the end of the week to submit the deposit, let me talk to her and see what I can do. You’re a good friend Ray; leave it with me, at least for a couple of days to try to sort out this misunderstanding.

 

“I’ll give you two days Dan, then I’ll have to go to the principal – you understand.”

 

“Thanks, I really appreciate it.”

 

“Why are you two boys huddled over here? Are you rehearsing your pickup lines in French?”

Jen laughed at how clever she thought she was. Ray laughed like a hyena while Dan didn’t break a smile for he had other, more serious things, upon his mind.

 

The break was over quickly and the boys returned to their class. Dan could not concentrate; he drifted in and out of the lecture – was it a mistake? Could Ally really be a thief? His eyes scanned the class and they came to rest upon the pleasing site of Jen’s long auburn hair. She sat to his left in a desk one position forward from his. Jen was making notes furiously, clearly engrossed in the lecture. The teacher droned on and walked around a lot as he delivered his class lecture. Could Ally have been driven to steal the money out of pure jealousy? He looked at Jen again; she was by far one of the prettiest girls in the school? Would Ally stoop that low as to steal from a close friend? Girls can get mean and Jen had taken every opportunity to rub Ally’s nose into her inability to go to Paris.

 

‘It’s so romantic,’ she would boast implying that she would hook up with Dan if Ally weren’t there to prevent it. Did that drive her to steal? She was really vague this morning – it had to be her. Unfortunately Dan thought less of Ally. Being a thief and untrustworthy, was not an endearing quality despite her recent hard times. He glanced at Jen again in her blue and white striped sweater, figure hugging blue jeans and stylish black runners. Jen was a very popular girl with a friendly disposition and she was crazy about Dan. The thought flashed across his mind – perhaps he should start going out with Jen. Jen took a break from scribbling her notes and as she often did, she turned her head to look at Dan.

 

This time was surprisingly different because Dan was looking back at her. She beamed that beautiful smile showing off her perfect teeth and twirled her long hair with her finger. Dan immediately looked away feeling embarrassed and stupid.

 

Dan’s thoughts swirled around his confused brain, how could I betray Ally like that? Perhaps she didn’t take the money; perhaps there’s another plausible explanation. I need to talk with her and get this thing straightened out. I’m going to simply ask her at lunch – did she take the money? No – that’s crazy. What if she had nothing to do with this and I’m basically accusing her of stealing. Dan supported his worried head within his hands. He glanced at Jen who was still smiling at him. Dan looked the other way quickly and tried to focus on the teacher.

 

Lunch break could not come quickly enough but he remembered a phrase that his Mother used a lot; Ready – Fire – Aim. It was a neat way of saying that you need to get your steps in the right order and don’t be too quick to judge before you have all of your facts supporting your conclusion. Dan had convicted Ally – guilty before he’d had a chance to prove anything. It did look like an open and shut case, but additional facts can often change the outcome significantly. Dan decided to take the two days, to go slowly and try to tease the answer out of Ally. Yes – that would be the smartest approach.

 

“Finally,” he mumbled, as the bell rang for lunch break. The class erupted into a frenetic state of activity with students trying to get out and get something to eat. Dan packed up quickly and headed for the door, Jen followed, “I saw you looking at me in class today – I like that.”

 

“Yeah, it was a boring class and I was probably looking right through you,” he raced into the hallway, Jen managed to keep up with him.

 

“Well you looked at me quite a lot,” she said smiling and knowing he was interested.

 

“I looked at Bubba Wilson too – doesn’t mean I want to go out with him,” quipped Dan.

 

“Well – I just wanted to say that it was nice, you looking at me,” Jen smiled and walked away in the direction of the cafeteria.

 

Dan was floored by her comment – yikes she was nice! Now he had to confront Ally, he remembered her being elusive, moody and full of attitude. After a while Dan managed to find Ally who seemed to be in a better mood, “Save me a seat, I’m going to get a sandwich.” Ally nodded and found a small table for two. Dan joined Ally setting down his tray, “So – did you hand in your deposit?”

 

Ally finished chewing her food, “Yup, this morning. I’m going to Paris, it’s very exciting.”

 

“Yes it is,” said Dan watching her every move. “I know that Ray’s looking forward to seeing the catacombs -that’s some real creepy stuff.”

Ally took a bite from her sandwich; she nodded her agreement with a mouth full of food clearly occupying her attention. Dan tried another angle, “I wonder who all is going?”

 

Ally continued eating, “I’m not sure, most of our friends are going. No, I’m wrong, Teresa said her parents won’t let her go for punishment over that drinking thing – you know, she’s grounded.”

 

It wasn’t working, she was either a fantastic liar or she was innocent. Could he trust her? The conversation continued in its delicate dance around the topic, it was clear that subtlety was not working. Dan decided to take a more direct route, “I’m curious, how did you ever manage to scrape together the deposit dollars because a few days ago you were so bummed out because you couldn’t make the trip?”

 

Ally stopped chewing and stared at Dan, “You’re not going to quit with that are you? Let’s just say that sometimes when you wish for something badly enough it just shows up, just be thankful that I’m going – I am.”

 

“It just shows up – wow – I wish I had that ability. A new black Maserati and a valid driver’s license hasn’t just shown up in my life yet,” Dan said – pushing her buttons a little further.

 

“Just drop it,” she snapped, clearly irritated.

 

Dan couldn’t pin her down to a confession and she didn’t exhibit any visual cues or signs of remorse. She seemed callous, cool and comfortable with lying, a real poker players demeanor. He wasn’t buying the ‘it just shows up’ thing. It was in that moment that he decided he would end his relationship with Ally and encourage Ray to file his report. Jen was starting to look like a really good trade-up option at this time. He’d wait to see what happened but in his heart he knew what he was about to do.

 

“Oh don’t wait for me after school tonight, I have to speak to Mr. Davies about a paper I’m writing,” said Dan brushing Ally off.

 

“OK,” said Ally, thankful that he’d changed the subject.

 

The rest of the lunch was really awkward talking about meaningless safe subjects. The bell saved them both from further agony and they returned to their different classrooms. Dan waited back at the end of the day to avoid bumping into Ally. The rain had subsided as Dan walked home with his thoughts constantly turning to Jen. He knew his Mother would be on a high from her date and he didn’t want to bring her down with his trivial problems. He devised a plan to listen to her over dinner, and enjoy her excitement and her positive outlook. She’d worked hard for the last couple of years establishing a home, locking down a job and creating a nice comfortable life for them both. Dan was genuinely excited and thrilled that his Mother was finally getting some happiness and starting to live a little and enjoy her life. He hoped that this nice man would stick around and make her happy. The best thing to do was to talk to her about his decision regarding Ally, but he’d leave it to another day where it wouldn’t bring her down because he knew she liked Ally a lot.

 

Liz’s date had gone well, it was obvious that she was excited and Dan was genuinely pleased to see her like this. She had a vibrant glow about her as she talked about her day and her new guy – Brian. She talked so much that she was nearly late for work and they rushed to get ready.

 

Pausing at their apartment door Liz fumbled for her keys, “You be nice to Raj tonight, we’re pretty lucky to have him around you know.”

 

Dan agreed, “Mum, I’m always good with Raj, I don’t think he’s in great shape and I really like him – I really like going over there.”

 

“That’s good Dan but I hope we’re not too much for him, he’s getting a little on the old side and I don’t think anyone thought this arrangement would go on this long, we don’t want to outstay our welcome.”

 

Liz knocked on Raj’s door; four quick knocks as she always did. “I travel light but not at the same speed,” said Raj opening the door with his usual smile.

 

Dan entered, “Hi Raj,” he said skipping past them both.

 

Raj laughed, “Hi young man,” he said knowing why he was so eager to enter.

 

“Hi Raj,” said Liz rolling her eyes. “Are you ready for another night of fun?” she said, tilting her head in Dan’s direction.

 

“Sure,” said Raj.

 

“You will let me know when he becomes an imposition won’t you? You’ve been so kind and I never meant this to go on this long.”

 

“Liz, I love having Dan over here. As long as he wants to come, then I’m only too happy to chat with him. It’s a lonely life being an old immigrant, he’s my connection to the outside world and I like to hear what’s on young people’s minds. Liz, don’t worry, I really like having him over here.”

 

“Thank you Raj, but if you ever change your mind you should talk to me right away and never feel obligated.”

 

“I will,” said Raj nodding his head.

 

Liz smiled and headed down the stairs to start her evening shift.

 

Raj closed the apartment door and slid across the bolt to lock it behind him. He leaned on his Cane and shuffled over to his favorite chair.

 

“I’m so ready,” said Dan beaming a broad smile.

 

“Let’s have a chat first, – are you OK? I mean we saw some pretty horrible things.”

 

“I’m trying to think of it like a movie, you know, not part of the real world that we live in. I know that’s not true but it helps me deal with it. We did see some pretty horrible things but we also survived the Karcon.”

 

“True. Good – ‘cos I know this is a lot to take in. When the crimson butterfly arrived I looked for you under that large tree and you were gone.” Raj rubbed his chin, “I was a bit worried.”

 

Dan smiled, “I know – but I couldn’t wake you. I was led away by a parrot that took me to see Brazen. He was there in the forest; he used the owls to cross the tar pits somehow because I swear he was there in the forest. He told me that I would be taken to meet the Crocodile Queen. She wants to give me something and she’s agreed to meet me.”

 

Raj listened to the boy intensely, he paused thinking studiously – “In Bardonia, over the years, I’ve heard many stories about the Crocodile Queen; I’ve seen paintings of her and heard Elfen songs sung in her honor. I’ve never seen her and I’ve often doubted her existence if I was totally honest with you. My Grandfather in India often spoke of her; he would refer to her as a pratibhasli – a very rare and special person. I’m surprised that she granted you an audience because she’s normally such a recluse; this must be important Dan. The legend I’ve heard tells of a small child abandoned in the snowy mountains of Haitden, deep within the Third Realm. A poor peasant family did not want another daughter, another mouth to feed, so they abandoned the helpless little girl in the hope that the monks in the Monastery of Light would take pity on her and find her another home. For some reason she stayed with the monks proving to be the most gifted student that they’ve ever educated. She excelled in their teachings, their ways, in spiritual worship, martial arts, meditation, inter-dimensional travel, and of course – fighting the powers of darkness. Some of the male monks resented her attendance and the fact that she was so gifted. She volunteered to leave the monastery and fight the encroaching powers of darkness that threatened Bardonia.

My Grandfather said that he’d never met her, I have never met her, so we came to the conclusion that this was probably one of those interesting legends laced with life lessons and fabricated fables passed down through generations to teach us all.”

Dan had been listening with interest, “So you decided that she’s not real.”

“Sounds like you’re going to find out,” Raj smiled as he held the Dream Cane forward. Dan did not need to be told what to do; he scooted onto the floor to resume his usual position. Kneeling and facing Raj, he grabbed the Cane with both hands.

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 7: The Crocodile Queen.

The Kingdom of Belladonia, Bardonia

 

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

 

 

The swirl of light and the moment of nausea soon passed as Raj was returned to the large tree overhanging their selected camp within the Belladonia forest. Dan was returned to a clearing where Relte was about to lead him to the owl.

Raj rested his head and tried to sleep, accompanied by the sight of a dancing, crackling fire, soothing his tired eyes. A group of spider monkeys slept in the branches high above with an ever-present Kukumic parrot keeping a trained eye on the sleeping pair. Raj glanced at Eian, relieved to be away from Noire and into more familiar surroundings. The stress of losing two of his closest friends had taken its toll through a couple of difficult days for he slept heavily.

Dan followed Relte, as the purposeful badger scurried away on all fours. Occasionally he would arch his neck checking to see if the large Ricar was still following behind him. Relte led Dan along a small gulley, up to the banks of a small brook, past several hills and crevices until he encountered a pack of waiting badgers. They lined a narrow strip of grass that wound its way through the raised tree roots of gigantic oversized trees. The forest was unusually quiet amplifying the sound of the running water from the nearby brook. The badgers stepped aside allowing Relte and Dan to enter a small clearing shaped like a circle. It was covered in short green grass but in its center was the stump of a dead tree. Relte headed for the stump and sat expectantly. Dan followed waiting to see what the next part of the plan was.

It was clear that Relte had specific instructions to deliver Dan to the tree stump; so they both waited. Dan could see the badgers poking their noses through the underbrush curious to see but reticent to enter the exposed clearing. Relte waited pushing his hindquarters onto the ground and straining his head and neck towards the sky.

Relte’s sharp instincts caught the movement of the tree limb above and fled for the cover provided by the tightly packed ferns leaving Dan alone. Dan spun to see a very large bird swoop down into the clearing before perching upon a damaged limb of the dead tree stump. It was a White owl. This was the largest bird Dan had ever seen. The owl stared at Dan with large piercing round yellow eyes. Its talons were large, strong and fierce looking. The owl had two raised tufts of feathers on each side of its majestic head resembling ears. The owl swiveled its head to ensure their safety. After sizing up the Ricar that stood before him a strange voice boomed through Dan’s head.

“Are you the chosen one?”

Dan glanced from side to side expecting to see Brazen, the fox. He glanced at the intimidating owl that towered above him and responded, “Chosen for what?”

“Chosen for an audience with the Crocodile Queen, chosen to fulfill our prophecy, and chosen to fight evil. Did you stop to consider that it was fate that sent you here to our world for a specific reason? I see Ricars every day and you’re not a Ricar; you might look and sound like one, but even the badgers know, they tell me you don’t smell like a Ricar. You’re something different, something special, and we’re all glad you’re here.”

Dan felt the weight of responsibility perched heavily upon his shoulders, “So what do we do now?” he inquired impatiently.

The owl slowly stretched out its massive feather covered wings displaying there impressive size, “Now - you have to trust me. Don’t move or struggle and I’ll deliver you safely to the Crocodile Queen. If you fight me or resist me - I might not be able to hold onto you and it could end badly. Stay perfectly still.” The owl flapped its mighty wings and swooped down towards Dan. He braced himself for the impact but followed his instructions and tried to stay still. The owl grabbed him with his powerful talons gripping his body tightly. He heard the sound of flapping wings and rushing air as the powerful bird lifted him high above the trees into the dark night sky. Fear gripped his senses and he tried to take it all in. ‘I can’t breathe,’ he thought, gasping for air. The powerful talons squeezed his chest tightly but it was fear that had washed over him. ‘Relax’ he told himself. Dan exhaled loudly finally allowing the crisp night air to fill his desperate lungs. He felt his body relax and started to look at the treetops moving quickly below him. He could feel the rhythmic movements of the owl’s strong body and wings as they soared high above the forest. The owl flew for a while until the shimmering sight of a large river came into view. It glowed like a silver snake winding its way through the trees below and shimmering as it reflected in the Moon’s light. As Dan relaxed he started to enjoy his journey trying to pick out landmarks and familiar shapes below him as the wind ruffled his clothing. Eventually the owl started to descend getting closer to the ground and skimming the water of a gently flowing river. Dan could see movement below the surface of the water at first he thought they were fish but quickly realized his mistake -the water was teaming with crocodiles.

They approached a crude stone arch spanning the narrow part of the river; he could see large crocodiles basking in the moonlight as they lay upon the muddy banks. They flew over the arch and veered to the right where the river widened considerably. A vast lake lay before them but he could see land and small shards of light piercing the dark center of the lake. It was an island, a crescent shaped island, with buildings and light emanating from the flames of burning torches. The owl headed for a flat section of the riverbank where the river gently lapped the shoreline. Crocodiles lined their approach as the owl swooped precariously preparing to land upon a small clearing marked with six flaming torches at the side of the river. Dan was surprised as the owl hovered above the ground gently releasing him from his grip. He landed on his feet but was alarmed when the owl pumped its magnificent wings rising high into the air leaving him alone in the center of the torched area.

When Dan steadied his balance he saw two large Ricars standing guard on the banks of the river. They were muscular, battle trained and wearing the plain brown robes of a monk but leaning on large heavy metal swords glinting in the light from the flaming torches. The swords were impressively sized with heavy sturdy handles and a handgrip topped with a metal crescent shape – the shape of the island. Dan could see a small wooden box placed upon the ground next to one of the monk’s swords. The monks turned to their side allowing Dan a clearer view of the river.

Dan could see the movement of crocodiles, these were considerably larger than the ones he’d seen earlier upstream; they were moving towards him from all sides. A surge of crocodiles cruised along the river undulating like the rolling of a carpet as they approached. These were the largest crocodiles Dan had ever seen and he started to weigh up his options; should he run?

The crocodiles gathered together and then peeled away the closer they got to the shoreline. Dan froze in fear – rooted to the spot and unable to move his heavy limbs. All Dan could do was watch, fascinated and mesmerized by the falling, rolling, twisting pile of large crocodiles as they came within reach. What happened next amazed him in a way that he would surely never forget. Emerging from a pile scales, tails, amber colored eyes, sharp teeth, and rounded snouts came forth an incredible sight. Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes a petite figure ascended from the mass of writhing crocodiles. She rose majestically, weightless, as if suspended by circus wires. Dan blinked his eyes as the golden glow supplied by the torch flames illuminated a young, exceptionally pretty girl with jet-black hair swept backwards and held in place by a headband made of crafted gold twine. She wore an ornate oriental style dress cinched at the waist with flowing pleats that shimmered down to her feet. Her ornate gold colored dress was delicately embroidered with the pattern of intertwined flowers and leaves, decorated in shimmering gold thread. Her wrists were adorned with flared cuffs revealing long white lacy sleeves that almost covered her small alabaster like hands. She held her hands down at her side to steady her balance as she rode in on the largest crocodile’s back. The Crocodile Queen was indeed real but she wasn’t what Dan was expecting for she was a small human girl! Her brown eyes came to rest upon Dan as she studied the anxious Ricar that stood before her. The large crocodile placed its front feet onto the flattened bank of the river and supported the Queen’s weight, “What’s your name Ricar?” she inquired politely.

Dan’s heart was beating wildly, “Dan,” he replied honestly.

The Queen stepped off the obedient crocodile and walked between the two large Ricar monks. She carried a slender sword different from the large heavy and unwieldy swords they held. The Crocodile Queen’s sword had a thin blade with an ornate handle that resembled a flower design. Dan thought the sword looked Chinese similar to the ones he’d seen in the movies.

“Leave us,” she said waving in the monk’s direction. For a moment they hesitated unwilling to leave her unprotected, but she waved her hand again to press the point home. The monks walked away following a path along the bank of the river leaving a small box behind. She walked a little closer to get a good look at the nervous Ricar that stood before her. The large crocodile snapped its jaws and slithered backwards disappearing into the watery depths, “You’re from the fifth realm?”

Dan shuffled nervously, “Yes.”

“And you’re a mere boy,” she smiled. “Don’t be afraid, no harm will come to you tonight. Listen carefully to me for I don’t have much time and you’ll need to return before daybreak. Look behind me Dan, look above the island – what do you see?” She waited a few seconds only, “Can you see the dark storm clouds forming; can you see them?”

Dan turned his head skywards towards the island, he could see fast moving grey shapes filling the sky. The clouds billowed in the swirling wind but occasionally he thought he could see sinister looking faces with ominous eyes looking down upon the island. “I can see them,” he said nodding his head.

“We have our sign – evil is coming. That foolish love struck Elfen will try to release the object of his misguided affections. The Witch will try to release her family from the binding spell that keeps them harmless. If she’s successful, this land will return to its dark ways; there will be blood spilled to allow the emergence of a dark Prince. We’ve fought these battles once before, but I’m not sure we have the will to fight them again.” The Crocodile Queen looked serious, her pretty face strained with concern, “I know what’ll happen, and don’t let your eyes deceive you for I am no more an innocent little girl than you are a Ricar. In this realm, I chose to take this form for it suits me.” Her voice became soft and low where Dan had to strain to hear her. “I’m a master monk of the highest order from the third realm and I’m here of my own free will to help this realm – to protect it. We’ve spilt too much blood for all of that progress to be wiped away by a well-meaning foolish Elfen boy and his quest to free his heart’s true love. His misguided actions will plunge this realm back into the hands of the Witches and plunge this realm into darkness forever. The devlins are gathering right now as the night falls, they’ll assist the boy providing him with safe passage through Ivany to Bellwood Snare.”

She turned and brushed a strand of thick black hair behind her small ear, “We can’t let this happen. I’ve lived with a strong vision, where two visitors from the fifth realm arrive to help our realm. You were sent here to stop him but you’ll undoubtedly fail without my help. The Witches and their evil allies know their time is near,” she said nodding at the angry sky above. Dark clouds had almost blotted out the Moon’s light as tortured contorted faces appeared more frequently in the billowing clouds gathered above the island. “On this island is a monastery, it’s a sacred place, a holy place and it’s my home. This special island sits on a core of Byridium – a special kind of metallic ore. You must never mention this place to anyone for it will put me and this realm in great danger.”

Dan nodded his agreement, “I will never talk about it.”

“I knew you were not a Ricar from the first time I saw you; but I can sense your ability to travel between realms. I have the same ability; I can travel between realms, dimensions and layers of time and consciousness. I’ve been trained in the deeper arts of meditation, to change my body’s vibrations and the island’s Byridium core seems to resonate with my body allowing me to move across realms. This necklace is made from Byridium; it allows me to return to this realm. You’re not the first realm traveller to visit me, and with my utmost gratitude, I suspect that you’ll not be the last. I need you to listen to me very carefully now for the future of our realm really does lie within your hands. There is a small wooden box at your side; it contains a precious cargo that you’ll need to transport with you. The box contains a metal ring made from the purest Byridium. Your job is to guard this ring, don’t lose it, for there will come a time when you’ll need it to save our world. Wear it but never take it off, soon you’ll enter the oldest part of any forest within this realm where strong magical forces await you. You’ll need to find Meswert, he’s a Wood Sprite, and he’ll help you get to Belwood Snare. Meswert will know what to do. Do you understand my instructions, for the future of our realm depends upon you?

Dan was suddenly concerned, “I’ve never met a Wood Sprite before; I don’t even know what one looks like.”

“And you never will unless they want you to see them. Just go to Bellwood Snare and Meswert will find you on your journey. Remember the creatures of the forest know you’re here, they’ll help you for they know what’s at stake.”

Dan nodded, “OK – I can do this, Meswert will tell me what to do and don’t lose this ring,” he mumbled nervously under his breath.

The Crocodile Queen smiled at Dan directing a wayward glance over her shoulder at the ominous clouds forming over her island. Dan walked towards the small box and slipped the ring onto his large finger. It was surprisingly light and slate grey colored, “You’ll need to fight, and I know you have good fighting skills, unfortunately your sword skills are modest.” Dan looked at her with a puzzled expression. “I’m more gifted and experienced than you can ever imagine,” she explained. “Show me your sword,” she demanded.

Dan reached to the side of his tunic and withdrew his sword; as he did a large crocodile bolted from the water landing upon the shore snapping its jaws to relay a timely warning.

“Easy,” she said, reassuring her diligent protector. She waved her hand downwards and backwards silently instructing the beast to retreat back into the water. He obeyed without objection. “Hold the blade of your sword out to the side for me.”

Dan raised his arm slowly raising his blade, in a flash the Crocodile Queen had spun, raised her flimsy blade and brought it down with such force that it crashed upon the thick metal of Dan’s blade. The ornate Chinese sword sliced through the metal like it was cutting through fine soft cheese. The severed blade fell to the ground making an odd thudding sound. Dan was left holding a heavy handle of a useless sword. “This sword was hand crafted for a very special monk, I had the pleasure of studying the techniques outlined in the Repostes Scroll with him at the Monastery of Light. I feel honored to call him my closest friend. The reason I asked you to come here was because I knew you were a realm traveler and that you’ve fought side by side with my friend in another realm. His name is Kaan and he was with you when you killed the Karcon.”

Dan nodded excitedly, “Yes Kaan, the monk – I do know him?”

“Kaan has been in many fights and many battles. He knew from the very start that it was not his destiny to kill the Karcon, but he made sure that he could lead the right person to kill the Karcon and in turn release their own demons. After his mission was complete he returned to his realm where he lives to fight on. This sword was made right here on Crescent Island from Byridium ore. It’s stronger than any other metal and is extremely light – this was Kaan’s. He used it in many crusades. We replaced Kaan’s sword with a larger, longer version of this, so he left this sword with me – and now it’s time to give it to you. You’ll need this for your journey ahead. The first time that you wield this sword in battle you’ll inherit swordsmanship skills that’ll make you difficult to defeat.” The Crocodile Queen pushed the sword into its protective scabbard, unbelted it from her slender figure and offered it to Dan. Dan loosened his scabbard letting it fall to the ground. He dropped the damaged remnants of his shattered sword and graciously accepted the new superior sword. It was indeed light and looked fragile but he’d witnessed how it sliced through his large, heavy, sturdy blade with ease.

“Thank you,” he said, bowing his head in gratitude.

“I have one more very important gift for you Dan.” She reached into her golden gown and pulled out a small leather bound book. It was worn and tattered showing obvious signs of age. She presented the book to Dan who seemed puzzled by her gift. As he looked at the book it had an intricate design carved into the thick leather cover. The design centered upon a heart shape pierced by two swords. One of the swords was identical in design to swords carried by the Ricar monks displaying a crescent shaped hilt. The other sword was identical to his recent gift – a Chinese sword with a flower shaped design upon its hilt.

The sound of lapping water caught their attention as a large crocodile flanked by two smaller ones emerged from the water, “That means it’s time for me to go, keep that book safe, it’s more important than you can understand for now; you will need to keep it safe within your own realm – that’s very important – your own realm. All will become clearer to you later,” she said. “It’s not safe for me to spend too much time away from the island. It was a great pleasure to meet you traveller of the fifth realm. It’s not often that I get a chance to talk with a fellow realm traveller, and a person lucky enough to have fought alongside the great Kaan, my dearest friend. We will meet again my friend, our paths are now entwined, and destiny will continue to bind our journeys. Stay safe and deliver the ring to Meswert, good luck, and may you be showered with light.”

She walked briskly onto the back of the large crocodile and disappeared into a pile of bodies, scales, heads and limbs. The collection of crocodiles made an impressive barge as she returned downstream to her island sanctuary. He would never forget the little girl who wielded so much power.

Dan heard a small sound behind him as he spun to confront the intruder. The owl had landed silently, gracefully, and with deadly stealth. He could have attacked Dan if he’d wanted too and seemed to be proving a point. Dan made sure the ring was firmly attached to his finger and the sword was secured around his waist. He touched the sword to ensure its safety and walked towards the owl before being scooped up grabbed by his large powerful talons and carried away.

Dan was returned by the owl to the clearing in the woods where Relte was waiting impatiently, “Come on, hurry,” said the concerned badger nervously. Dan followed Relte along the stream’s path and back to his original sleeping location. He crept back into the camp and nestled in quietly. Dan managed to conceal his absence but was exhausted from his extended day; he soon fell asleep as the creatures of the forest took their turn to keep a watchful eye upon the three weary travellers resigned to saving their realm. The three men woke to the sound of birds singing as the forest sprang to life with the Sun’s early morning warmth.

Raj looked at Dan inquisitively, Dan nodded and continued to pack his bags, “I’ll tell you everything when I can,” he whispered. Raj smiled and nodded. The three men readied themselves determined to journey through the forest. Dan led the way searching for guidance in the high branches of the dense forest. He caught his first glimpse of a parrot that fluttered from tree to tree helping the men navigate through the thick foliage. Other parrots would join in and take their turn to relieve the tired bird. Eian had noticed the colorful birds but he never suspected they were guiding the Ricar. They walked most of the morning stopping occasionally to feast on fruits and berries offered by the forest. Dan managed to tell Raj about the Crocodile Queen but neglected to mention the book.

After resting for a while the parrots seemed to flock to the safety of a large tree. Dan sensed this was as far as they were willing going to go. A well-worn path led the way forward but an eerie silence had descended upon the forest. All morning they’d heard the screeching parrots overhead but now they fell silent and still. The men pressed onwards entering an area of the forest that immediately felt and smelled different. The air was cooler and the silence became deafening. They walked cautiously along the path with Dan leading the way, Raj following, and Eian bringing up the rear. A cold foggy mist had started to blanket the forest floor adding to the discomfort the men felt. As they walked, the path was lined with stone graves marking the lives of fallen soldiers. The fog thickened as their footsteps caused the mist to swirl in circles around their feet. The path had disappeared, obscured by the swirling mist; the trail was made visible only by the stone tomb markers, “What is this place?” whispered Eian to Raj as he walked behind him.

“This is Seinguard, a sacred Ricar burial place, great warriors and heroes of battle line this path, a symbol to all that approach Ivany that Ricars are a formidable force.

“Why here and not in Ivany itself?” Eian’s voice was low and crackled with fear.

“We’re crossing the site of a great battle, many died here protecting our realm; the battle of Crompton was our finest hour. Just keep walking, we don’t want to offend the spirits that live here.”

Raj turned his head forwards and continued to walk along the tomb-lined path. Dan heard whispers and turned his head sharply to the left, “Keep going,” said Raj trying to assure him, “this place plays tricks with your mind, don’t let the fog distract you; keep walking.” Dan complied and forged forward with more pace and determination. The fog started to dissipate after a while and the forest surroundings changed again. The trees looked different, larger – menacing and dark. The familiar noises started to return with birds, monkeys, and various creatures curious to watch the travelling men below. Dan stopped abruptly with his hand raised ensuring the men behind him stopped in their tracks. Dan reached for his long bow and slowly loaded the stretched twine with an arrow from his quiver.

Raj had sensed the danger – loading his bow he looked for a cause of his concern. Eian withdrew his sword and waited for the all clear. Dan’s keen senses were drawn to the dense scrub ahead of them. His suspicions were soon confirmed as three large snarling devlins burst from the brush intent on killing. As they emerged from the foliage two additional devlins appeared upon their left flank in a pincer movement that caught them off guard. Dan’s arrow left his bow straight and true piercing the eye of the charging devlin. He grunted loudly in pain as he dropped to the floor in a crumpled heap. Dan reached for his sword as the charging devlins surrounded them. Raj had fired an arrow at a devlin approaching from their left, the arrow’s tip had grazed the beast’s shoulder and still he approached. Dan rushed towards the nasty scar-faced beast with his new sword raised. It looked flimsy compared to the devlin’s tough leathery skin, large head and ferocious teeth.

The sword was light and nimble it allowed Dan to quickly spin his body to one side while wounding the thick snout of a snapping devlin with ease. The sword passed through skin, bone and muscle as the injured devlin dropped instantly. Raj was facing another devlin fighting to keep him at bay. Eian distracted the second devlin by waving his sword frantically as Dan rounded the carcass of the downed devlin; he ran onto its ample body and launched himself through the air towards the last advancing devlin. He lifted his sword with ease and drove it downwards with considerable force. Dan aimed the tip of the sword towards the beast’s thick skull; it pierced the head easily, bringing the beast’s desperate charge to an instant stop. He let out his last gasp of air before falling to the ground motionless.

Dan withdrew his sword and turned his attentions to the remaining devlins who were now circling. One seemed to be getting the upper hand overpowering Eian and forcing him to retreat. Eian flailed his sword in a defensive pattern. Raj was an experienced swordsman but he couldn’t get close enough to finish his attacker off. Dan ran to assist Eian; the beast turned and snapped at him, Dan waved his thin strong blade in front of the beast taunting him. As the beast lunged forward – Dan struck quickly and without mercy. Dan sliced at the beast’s snout causing it to recoil in pain, followed by a loud chilling howl. Wounded and bleeding, Dan took advantage of the devlin’s stricken situation by lunging his blade forward. It penetrated the devlin’s thick protective hide and delivered a fatal blow. The devlin rolled away – its lifeless body falling into the underbrush.

Raj was starting to gain the upper hand finally forcing the stubborn beast to go on the defensive. His heavy sword caught his adversary upon his shoulder causing him to recoil and hunker down. He snapped and growled trying to intimidate Raj when an arrow flew through the air plunging into the neck of the frightened beast. It was over when Raj delivered the final blow with his heavy sword.

The three men looked at each other relieved they’d survived the devlin’s ambush. Eian had seen Dan in a different light for he was a supreme fighter and wielded his sword with the most deadly precision. Eian knew that Ricars were impressive in battle but with all of his training he still felt humbled. More snorting sounds wiped the relief from their faces as they turned to see eight more devlins lined up preparing to charge. They were looking at the carcasses that lay before them when they heard more noises coming from either flank as the ferns, weeds, and brush started to shake.

Dan liked his new fighting skills, he loved the power of his new sword, but surely this was it, there were too many devlin to defeat in this battle. They needed a plan and he didn’t have one. He could charge at the devlins lined up in front of him, but that would result in leaving Raj and Eian to fight alone. If he stayed with them they could protect each other but they would be surrounded from all flanks. The bushes continued to shake with the advancing devlins causing Raj’s heart to pound. The three men backed closer to each other, pointing their swords outwards, their backs touching, closing their circle like wildebeests would gather and point their horns outwards in a form of defense.

As the bushes shook their fear turned to astonishment as streams of badgers emerged from each side forming a protective guard around the men. The badgers were much smaller than the devlins who were arranged and ready for battle. The devlins seemed worried by the noise and started to snarl, growl and grunt at the badgers preparing for the fight. The devlins were outnumbered but they fancied their chances against the badgers and would not back down.

The badgers huddled together closing the distance between their bodies and bracing themselves for a charge. The ground suddenly started to shake and clouds of dust emerged from the dark thick soil. Bursting from beneath the ground like demonic snakes brown tree roots slithered their way towards the confused devlins. Behind their formidable line formation an assortment of tree roots were now grabbing at their feet, legs and bodies. The roots quickly anchored the great beasts securing them to the ground in an inescapable restraint. They struggled, ran, and jumped to evade the encroaching roots but it was of no use. The beasts had been snared, bound by the forest and the trees strong roots that had emerged beneath them.

Raj had seen this before, “The forest is on our side, as we get closer to Ivany we start to travel into the oldest part of the forest, the mystical forest. These, my friends, are slippery Elm; and you don’t threaten the existence of slippery Elm!”

Loud creaking sounds ripped through the air as the terrified devlins were dragged downwards into the dirt fighting and struggling. Small mounds of dirt were the only remaining signs as the forest consumed their bodies. The badgers waited as the final devlin disappeared; a large owl swooped down and landed on a newly formed dirt drumlin. Eian was still nervous, “So much death because of a stupid lovesick boy. You should never trust a woman that has emotionally disarmed you.” The badgers streamed away leaving behind two large badgers to guide the men forward upon their journey.

Dan lowered his sword and gawped at a crimson butterfly casually fluttering by, “No,” he muttered – grabbing his bag and holding onto the book the Crocodile Queen had given him, still unclear as to why he needed to keep it safe, before his head spun out of control.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 8: Trust and Deceit: Mortal Enemies.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“There comes a time when deceit and defiance must be seen for what they are.”

 

 

Raj and Dan were transported back to Westtown; they regained their consciousness, as their eyes quickly grew accustomed to their new surroundings. Liz knocked on the apartment door using her familiar four taps; she would often wake the pair after her long late night shift. Dan recovered quickly and scurried to the door, he unlatched the door and welcomed his Mother, “Hi Mum, you caught us snoozing again – I think.”

 

Liz peered around the door to see Raj still seated in his armchair, “Hi Liz, I’m sorry – I think I drifted off.”

 

“Hi Raj, get some rest – I’m taking Dan home now, have a good night.”

 

Dan had managed to hide the book, tucking it into his belt at the small of his back. He tugged at the ring that magically fit his finger – it had resized itself. He slipped it off and dropped it safely into his pants pocket. He grabbed at his baggy sweater and pulled it over the book, concealing it from view. Liz and Dan returned to their apartment to settle in for the evening.

 

The night drifted by with Dan’s dreams filled with snarling devlins, huge crocodiles and fluttering colorful parrots. When Dan finally arrived at school the following day, he was dreading any conversation with Ally. His feelings towards her had changed dramatically and he now felt irritated by her very presence. Ally tried to act friendly but she would need to have been a blind fool not to notice the cool reception she received from Dan. Dan knew instinctively that his girlfriend had stolen the money needed for the Paris trip and it sickened him to see her acting so innocent. He liked her a lot but how could he trust her? How could he respect her?

 

She tried to communicate with him grabbing him by the arm, “What’s up? Is there something wrong?” she inquired.

 

Dan was too angry to respond, he simply pulled away and walked to his class leaving her in his wake. Dan tried to make it through the day without thinking about Ally. The odd time that his mind wandered to her he felt sickened and betrayed by her dishonesty. If she would lie about this then what else would she lie about? He hated himself when he thought about her, so out of spite; he would turn and stare at the vivacious Jen. He managed to avoid Ally throughout the morning break and at lunch – sneaking out of school at the end of the day to return home. On the short walk home he thought carefully about their relationship and decided he was going to end it – how could it continue? He kicked at an innocent pebble lying upon the sidewalk and felt sad that it needed to end. He liked Ally, maybe even loved her, but he had to end it. Her actions sickened him and he’d never get over it, never forgive her. He knew she was desperate but stealing from a friend was bad enough, the way she’d acted afterwards being innocent and irritable when asked about the money was deplorable and the last straw. He had to end it.

 

As he passed Smith’s drug store on Main Street he stopped dead in his tracks and chuckled to himself at the irony of his situation. In many ways he was like Ryan – the lovesick Elfen. They say that love is blind and now he understood the meaning behind this truism for he didn’t want to believe that Ally was a thief. When you have strong feelings for a girl your judgment becomes clouded and you make irrational decisions. You use your heart and not your brain; logic is beaten down by emotions. He had decided – he was not going to be used; he was not going to act like a lovesick Elfen. Suddenly he heard Eian’s voice rattling around in his head, ‘You should never trust a women who has emotionally disarmed you’ – that was it; he was going to end it.

 

He tried to remain calm at dinner and act normal, Liz would be upset, as she knew how much Ally meant to him and she knew what a difference Ally had made to his confidence and general outlook on life when they first settled in Westtown. He couldn’t stand the interrogation so he wanted to break it off first then there would be no going back. Liz was in a cheery mood – that afternoon with Brian, her new man, made all things right in the world. Who knows, maybe Jen, with her beautiful smile and consistently positive attitude would make him just as happy.

 

Dinner was over quickly and a trip to Raj’s place was in order. After the usual four knocks Raj answered the door, “I travel light but not at the same speed,” Liz and Dan looked at each other and smiled at the corny familiarity of his greeting. After the door opened and pleasantries had been exchanged Liz scurried down the stairs leaving Dan behind as she hurried to start her shift. She hoped Brian would dine at the restaurant tonight but she knew he must have been getting tired of Indian food.

 

“What’s the matter with you looking all glum tonight?” inquired Raj suspecting a trivial spat.

 

“Women trouble,” blurted out Dan.

 

Raj almost laughed out loud but knowing that would be hurtful and disrespectful he swallowed his amusement, for a young man such as Dan had no appreciation of the joys and pain that women will bring to him over his hopefully long life. “I see, want to talk about it?”

 

Dan paused, wondering if it was all worth it. He explained his situation to Raj who listened patiently, “So that’s it. I’m afraid she’s a lying manipulative thief who will turn over her friends to get what she wants and then she acts all innocent. I can’t trust her and right now I can’t bare to look at her.”

 

“Strong words indeed. I feel that cooler heads make better decisions. I would wait a few days to let your feelings percolate, I’ve had many women in my life but only a few have meant anything to me where it’s developed into a relationship. In fact I’ve only married twice. Each time I’ve trusted my wife with my life – trust and deceit will always be mortal enemies. If you don’t trust her then you must move on but please take my advice, this is a big decision and it should not be made in the heat of the moment.”

 

“Ok,” said Dan, hoping to change the subject, delay the inevitable discussion with Ally and eager to start their next adventure. Dan had told Raj about the Crocodile Queen, but he never mentioned the book he’d hidden in his room sliding it under a pull out drawer where it would be safe. It was a leather bound book full of poems, chants and incantations. He was still unsure why she’d trusted this important artifact to him.

 

Raj sensed Dan was trying to move off the subject, “OK, remember we’re going to be travelling through the mystical forest. These trees are the some of the oldest in any realm, they’re not just trees, they contain ancient spirits, now grab hold of the Cane and let’s do this.”

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 9: The Tomb Effigy of Jean d’Alluye.

The Kingdom of Belladonia, Bardonia

 

“Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.”

 

 

The swirl of light blinded them temporarily as the nausea and disorientation swept over them both. It soon passed and they came to their senses in the clearing surrounded by dead devlins and strange dirt mounds within the Belladonia forest. Dan was facing the two badgers trying to lead Eian and Raj on a path to safety. The badgers escorted the men through the forest for two days and nights leading them to water, fruit and shelter. Other animals tracked the group’s progress acting as advanced scouts alert to any danger of rampaging devlins. Darkness was moving in when they made camp for the night. In the morning when they would start their journey they would enter Ivany and be close to the Witches at Bellwood Snare. The devlins had taken an alternate route leading Ryan through the dangerous rocky crevices of Barden that led to Ivany. As the group settled in for the night Dan moved over to Raj who’d been unusually quiet, “You okay?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Raj rubbing his chin and letting the words hang, “I just hope we get there in time – ahead of Ryan.

Dan had entertained similar thoughts and had questioned the wisdom of the badgers to let the darkness halt their impending advancement towards Ivany. A small rustling noise caught their attention to their left, Dan instinctively reached for his sword leaving it sheathed in his scabbard but gripping its handle just in case he needed it. As the ferns parted in front of them the familiar frame of a stocky badger emerged – it was Relte.

“I suggest you both get some rest, we’ve surrounded the camp tonight and have lookouts in every tree branch, gulley and trail for miles.”

Dan seized his opportunity, “Why can’t we go to Ivany now?”

Relte shoved his furry behind into the ground propping himself up defiantly with his front paws, “The path into Ivany that leads to the Witches Snare will be treacherous, it is littered with devlins now and they are fierce night fighters. The Elfen and the other devlins will travel onwards tonight using the coolness of the evening air to aid their journey. They will arrive in Ivany at daybreak just as we’ll be arriving. We’ll be well rested and they will be tired. At present we don’t have sufficient numbers to defeat our enemy but reinforcements are streaming in as we speak from all over the forest and plain lands, but they too will travel through the night; bear, cougar, tiger, wolf, badger, ferret, stoat, stags, eagles, owls and any creature that can fight, on land or in the air; they will be here to help. The morning will bring bloodshed, many of us will die and the devlins will fight to the death and exact a large toll to get that boy into a position where he can awake the Witch. The devlins were bred for one single purpose – to fight to secure a way to get the dark Prince into this realm. The Witches are now powerful enough to cast a spell to open the door for the dark Prince, and we must all fight to stop them. Animals of the forest will put aside their deep rooted differences for one night, to fight shoulder to shoulder, for the preservation of our forest and our realm.” Relte paused, letting the importance of his statement sink in, “Tomorrow will be an epic struggle and many of us will not be returning home – our goal is to keep you three safe, so you can stop the Elfen boy. Don’t let us down.”

Dan turned and looked at Raj who simply nodded to acknowledge the challenge set out before them. Despite the rousing speech, Dan managed to sleep well – tired from the previous day’s exertions. As the early rays of light crept through the darkness, an army that had travelled through the night joined the men. Relte had stirred the camp but was trying to hurry the men into leaving.

Raj could smell the excitement in his nostrils, he knew his human life was nearing its end and the finality of death did not scare him. Existing in a younger man’s body, full of strength and vitality excited him, and if he were to die fighting for a noble cause, he could not think of a more honorable way to leave this world. Eian was agitated and wanted to leave for Ivany but Relte pressed his stocky shaped furry body against him to block his impatience. Finally Relte’s patience snapped, “You Ricar!” shouted Relte resonating with Raj’s head, “tell this Elfen to remain here now; tell him you’ll be back for him shortly,” Relte looked annoyed and was circling with increased urgency.

Raj nodded, “Eian, I want you to wait here for us – we have something we must do and it’s important that you remain here – understand?”

Eian was confused but nodded his head offering no resistance.

Relte approached the Ricars, “You two follow me quickly,” he scurried away ignoring any response. Dan shot a worried glance at Raj as he lifted his body off the ground and followed recognizing the urgency. The two men trailed the badger around a large rock, across a stream and deeper into the forest. Shards of light from the rising Sun streaked around the thick tree trunks blinding the men as monkeys screeched loudly in the branches above when suddenly the badger stopped to face the men. “Here’s where I stop, you have to trust the creatures of the forest, they’re here to help and protect you. Do not harm any of them out of fear – they will help you. We are counting on you two to save our world, we know the prophecy and we know how important a role you both will play in saving our way of life. Don’t let us down, we’ll never let you down – now go, lay down your arms and follow the monkeys above.” Relte disappeared into the forest, swallowed by the green growth that covered the forest floor. One monkey was very vocal jumping up and down shaking his branch in an attempt to get the men’s attention. The men decided to follow the animated primate.

The monkey led the men deeper into the forest to a clearing where the trees thinned out revealing blue sky and a circular raised stone ledge. The monkey perched high in the tree and pointed to the ledge encouraging the men to step onto the stone platform. Raj glanced at Dan wondering if this was a wise thing to do. Raj stood frozen looking at the ledge knowing they would be exposed, Relte’s voice entered his head, ‘You have to trust the creatures of the forest.’

Without waiting any longer Raj led the way and moved forward onto the circular stone quickly followed by the apprehensive Dan.

Black shadows moved in the underbrush surrounding them – shapes shifted and moved stealthily to surround their position. Had they been fooled? Had they been tricked into a simple ambush? Dan could hear his own heart beating loudly within his chest. Had they been stupid to trust Relte?

Glowing bright yellow eyes emerged from the dark shadows graciously provided by the dense green ferns below the forest canopy. The sleek black bodies of large muscular cats slinked their way up onto the rock ledge effortlessly. At least six large male panthers surrounded the frightened defenseless Ricars – Raj snatched at Dan’s sleeve, “Steady boy – be still.”

The panther’s circled around the two men before turning their heads away from the men to form a protective guard. They sat in unison, the Sun’s bright light glistening on their sleek black fur with their long tails flicking against the rough stone floor. Two of the panthers diverted their ears and attention to a noise emerging from the forest as a large sandy yellow figure emerged. It was a lion, a huge lion with a shaggy mane and large amber colored eyes. It moved towards the stone platform glancing from side to side inspecting the scene for imminent danger. It stopped short of joining the panthers and moved to one side. Following the lion was the hooded figure of a man, dressed in the plain brown robe of a monk. His face was concealed still deep within the dark confines of his hood. Dan could see the handle of his sword; it was shaped with the insignia of the crescent island of the Crocodile Queen. Was this one of her guards?

The monk entered the stone platform; he turned to face away from the men concealing his face. The lion followed but he squared up to the men providing protection for the monk’s back. The monk stared into the rising Sun his brown robe casting a long dark shadow across the stone. He exhaled loudly, “Tell me visitors, who are you and where do you come from? – For its clear to me you are definitely not Ricars.”

Dan shot a look of panic at Raj hoping he would take the lead on this one. The monk turned to listen to their answer keeping his head bowed and his face concealed within his hood. The lion opened his jaw in anticipation revealing large white teeth.

“We’re from Earth – the fifth realm; we were sent here to help. Our quest is to retrieve a golden flagon stolen from us by a misguided Ranger who intends to revive a Witch. My name is Raj and my friend here is Dan – who are we speaking with?”

The monk remained motionless and the lion remained ready to pounce, “Earth,” he said letting the word hang in the air like the morning mist, “the prophecy states that we will receive two visitors to our realm from Earth disguised as Ricar. They will help us defeat evil and save our world.” He paused again lowering a hand to his sword. In one swift movement he extracted his heavy sword and had it pointed at Raj’s throat before either of them could move – his speed and accuracy were unparalleled. “You, boy,” he said nodding at Dan, “have you ever been in a fight?” he inquired with some disdain. “That’s a man’s sword you carry – a very special sword that you are not yet worthy to wear. Tell me, where did you get it?”

Dan had to think fast, he couldn’t trust this monk and he was not going to reveal the existence of the Crocodile Queen, “I found it in the forest.”

The monk thrust the heavy blade forward into Raj’s neck just stopping short of impaling him. The thrust was far enough to nick a small amount of blood, “Now tell me the truth – where did you get that sword.”

Dan had to keep his word – “As I said, I found it.”

The monk lowered his sword, “So you two are tasked with saving our world? How do I know you are capable? Devlin’s are miserable creatures but they’re dumb and easy to kill – you two don’t look like fighters to me. I bet you’ve never seen a real dangerous beast,” he scoffed. “Killing a Karcon, now that’s much harder than fighting these dumb brutes,” he laughed sarcastically. “You two wouldn’t stand a chance against a Karcon, I would wager you’ve never even seen one!”

He couldn’t keep his cool any longer, Dan snapped, “That’s not true – we’ve seen one and we’ve killed one.” As soon as the words fell from his mouth he knew he’d made a mistake and shot a worried glance towards Raj. The look of disappointment was obvious on Raj’s face.

“That so,” said the monk knowing he had them where he needed them, “next thing you’re going to tell me your Barnes & Colder or something fanciful like that.”

Dan’s heart was pounding, how could this guy know so much?

“Stop teasing the boy,” said Raj sternly.

The monk flipped his hood back to reveal a familiar face.

Raj laughed, “Master monk of the highest order, from the mountains of Haitden, and the majestic Monastery of Light, deep within the Third Realm – Kaan! It’s good to see you again old friend!”

Dan let out a sigh of relief – “Kaan,” he screeched running towards him. The lion moved forwards and growled loudly crinkling his snout and baring his teeth.

“Easy boy,” said Kaan moving his heavy blade downwards, “these are friends of mine.” The lion reluctantly backed down. The men hugged each other like long lost friends as the lion continued to watch them with suspicion. “Don’t worry about him, he’s a pussy cat once you get to know him. Actually he’s the fiercest lion across all of the prides and he’s here to protect me and get me to this point where I can tell you of our goal. I need you to listen very carefully because what I need to tell you will ultimately save this realm.” Kaan shifted his gaze to the forest, “Let’s get out of the clearing and find the safety of some cover, follow me.” Kaan returned his hood, slid his crescent handled sword into his scabbard and led the way off the flat rock ledge. The panthers sprung into life leading the way as the lion stayed close to Kaan. The big cats escorted them to a felled tree where Kaan sat on its thick trunk surrounded by his feline guard. Raj and Dan sat on small boulders facing the tree.

“This realm depends upon you, I can’t tell you how important this is, the forest, the animals – all of these cats, birds, monkeys, everything will go. This world will be overrun with beasts, abhorrent creations from the underworld. Darkness will consume this realm and the darkest Prince of all will visit here and turn this world into pure evil. That can’t happen.” Kaan paused and looked away taking in the beauty of the panther’s form as the Sun glistened upon their black fur. “Ok – we have to save this realm together but we’re only the facilitators for none of us can kill a Witch.” Kaan watched Dan’s face fill with disappointment, “we have to find the one man who can. This is a special man gifted with special powers.” Kaan’s gaze fell upon Dan’s hand, “I see you wear the ring of Salome,” said Kaan his eyes widening at the dull metallic ring Dan was quickly trying to conceal. “Answer me honestly, did the Crocodile Queen give you this?”

“Well, answer the man,” said Raj giving Dan the direction he desperately needed.

Dan’s mouth felt dry but he managed to get the words out, “Yes, I met her.”

“Think carefully, what did she look like?” inquired Kaan.

Dan thought hard trying to recreate her image in his mind, “She was a little girl with long dark flowing hair, held in place with a gold hair clasp. She wore a long gold colored shimmering dress with white lace cuffs. The largest crocodiles I’ve ever seen surrounded her, and she gave me this ring and this sword. The sword is light but extremely strong; she told me it was made from Byridium, a special kind of metal. The ring is also made of Byridium but she wouldn’t tell me why I needed this ring only that I should keep it safe and its vitally important to saving this realm, she didn’t mention anything about Saloma.”

Kaan smiled, “Salome,” he corrected, “you’ve done well my young warrior.” A panther yawned behind him tiring in the heat of the rising Sun. “You’re in possession of a special ring, a sacred object and a powerful spiritual artifact that will save this realm. The ring you naively wear is an alloy ring made from a blend of two powerful metals, Byridium for strength – making this ring virtually indestructible, but the other metal is special, powerful and mystical. Silver is found within this ring, but not just any old silver. You are wearing a piece of the silver platter used to serve the severed head of John the Baptist at King Herod’s birthday celebrations. Salome asked for his head on a platter and was granted her wish after she’d danced provocatively for the King. Legend says that a drop of John’s blood is contained within this ring. Something born out of evil has emerged as a strong symbol of light, of good, and a weapon against the power of evil. The Salome ring will help us defeat these Witches so you must keep it very safe.”

Raj was curious, “Tell me Kaan, you described us as facilitators – what does that mean and why ask the boy to describe the Crocodile Queen?”

Kaan smiled again removing his hood, and exposing his earnest face, “The Crocodile Queen is not who she seems, so I wanted, no – I needed, to be sure that you’d seen her. She only shows herself to the people who need to see her. Legends describe her as a tall warrior woman; some say she has a crocodile face! I know she’s a small child, a young girl. What you don’t know is that she’s my friend, my very close friend. Her name is Rose and she was the most gifted monk we have ever seen, her powers as a young girl have never been repeated – stronger than the most gifted master. She could travel to any realm, fight evil and use her mystical forces. As she matured into a young woman her powers faded a little, but she was still the most gifted monk in the monastery. She exists in time, she can move forwards, backwards and between the spiritual realms and the physical realms. I trained with her; I am privileged to call her my friend. The dark forces would love to find her and kill her.”

Dan rested his chin upon his large hand, “Why did she take the form of a little girl?”

Kaan straightened his legs and leaned inwards, “In this realm her powers are much stronger as a little girl. She has a unique gift – the gift of foresight. She has visions, clear insights into the future that she calls prophecies. She foretold the arrival of the fifth realm Ricars, she foretold of the lovesick Ranger and the beguiling Witch with the face of an angel. She knows how to defeat evil but she also knows what will happen to this land – and to her – if we fail. The crocodiles provide her safety on the crescent island, but she has sent word to other realms that the dark forces grow in power.”

“I’ve seen the tortured faces in the dark clouds moving in above the island,” said Dan with a touch of panic resonating through his voice. “They will kill her won’t they? You have the crescent sword, you’re sworn to protect her – am I right?”

“We are friends, I’ll do everything that I can to protect her. She’s a powerful force but she needs help and this is why we’ve been summoned.”

Raj interrupted, “Facilitators?”

“Yes,” said Kaan. “Once the beguiled Elfen releases the Witch with the Milkenweed, she will need to be killed. Eian, the brave Ranger back in the woods will not be capable of such a feat, neither will any of us I’m afraid. No animal in this realm is a match for her cunning, trickery and evil. We snared the Witches just as their power had started to grow, but they have continued to grow despite their incarceration. If unleashed they will kill us all by introducing the Prince of Darkness to this realm. No bear, lion, panther or tiger is strong enough to kill these Witches.”

“Then what are we to facilitate?” stuttered Raj impatiently.

As Kaan was about to explain a small but distinguishable noise caught their attention to their left. The cats moved their ears and turned their heads in perfect unison. The lion stood and cautiously moved closer to Kaan. The lion flicked his furry mane covered head towards the noise as three panthers rose quickly slinking off to investigate.

Kaan continued, “We were never meant to kill the Witch, but the three of us will help find the one man who can – our job is to find him and bring him here. We have to facilitate his safe passage. That is our destiny and our role as facilitators. The ring you wear is made partly of Byridium – it will help him travel to this realm. The silver and blood also contained in the ring will give him the power he needs to defeat this type of evil.”

“So we’re not going to Ivany and the Witches Snare? I was told to find a Wood Sprite named Meswert. He would know what to do, it was part of the Crocodile Queen’s explicit instructions.”

“You’re a good man Dan, a brave man for such a short number of years amassed in your life. Remember time is not linear in many realms – only in your world. There are many things you don’t yet understand with many opportunities to learn new things and new lessons. One of the first things you will learn is to never, ever, trust your eyes. I’m looking at a muscular adult Ricar, but a human, a young boy, inhabits it. The last time I saw you – remember – well – you were a large strapping muscular man in a mining village.”

The panthers emerged with the source of the noise – Eian had grown impatient and set out to find the two Ricars. He was flanked by two large black cats with one pushing him forward with his nose, the other with his sword clasped within his mouth. “Sorry, I couldn’t wait any longer. I wanted to avenge my friend’s deaths and save our world.” Eian saw the other large cats with a monk perched high upon the fallen tree trunk, and a ferocious lion flanking him. The lion snarled a warning as Raj shouted at him.

“Stay still you fool – if you want to live.”

Eian complied reluctantly though he didn’t fancy his odds in a fight surrounded by large wild cats. “Who’s this guy?” inquired Eian in a shaky voice, “are they on our side?”

“Yes,” snapped Dan, “you’d be dead by now if they weren’t.”

“Are you talking to these animals? I heard a man once, he said that Ricars can talk to animals, is this true?” inquired an expectant Eian.

Raj took over, “Silence fool, this is our friend Kaan, he’s here to help us but you’re in deep, very deep. Eian you’re a brave fool but you’re way out of your depths, if you want to live to tell the tale of how you helped save your world then you better listen, learn and obey.”

Eian – surrounded by ferocious large cats just nodded without protest.

Kaan resumed his instructions, “Never trust your eyes, our eyes are not as sharp as a cat’s eyes,” he said leaning down and pulling the ear of the reluctant lion. “Our vision is not as wide as other creatures, we can only see the things our eyes allow us to, yet other animals can see in the dark or from miles away. Some creatures depend upon this extra sight or lack of sight for their very survival. They blend in and confuse the mind of the hunter into seeing what they want you to see. This Meswert that you seek, he’s a Wood Sprite. They are one of the oldest and wisest creatures in the old forest. Wood Sprites have lived for thousands of years cleverly avoiding detection and living harmoniously within the forest and its creatures within. The old trees protect them and they earn this protection by maintaining the forest, making it healthy and keeping it in balance. They will divert streams to provide water, plant flowers for the bees and trim the invasive weeds that choke out the forest floor. They will rid the trees of vines that kill their hosts. You will never find Meswert unless he wants you to find him. I know Meswert, he’s been travelling with me the whole time.”

The fallen tree’s rough bark started to move, a section of bark peeled away as the outline of a figure stretched his arms and rose upon two legs that resembled thick twisted twigs. The cats never flinched as if they’d known he was there the whole time.

Eian, Dan and Raj all jumped backwards startled at how close this creature had been to them yet remaining undetectable. “Never trust your eyes,” repeated Kaan. “Wood Sprites never talk – they communicate using a form of language that sounds like high pitched clicks, like branches and twigs moving in the wind.”

“But I can talk to you, travellers of the Fifth Realm.”

Dan looked at Raj whose face erupted with a large grin. “Did you hear that?” inquired Raj.

“Yes,” said Dan excitedly.

“Here what?” said the hapless Eian.

Raj responded to Eian curtly, “We can communicate with him, stay silent and stay patient, we’ll explain everything to you when the time is right.”

“Tell them what they need to know, I think they’re ready,” said Kaan leaning his hand on the heavy crescent shaped handle of his sword.

Meswert sat on the trunk of the tree his legs blending into the patterned bark, “The Crocodile Queen is indeed a talented monk and she will save our realm for it is her destiny but she can’t do it alone. She will fight the gathering forces of evil as the storm clouds gather over Crescent Island. The Prince of Darkness would arrive through a gateway on the island; she will do everything in her considerable power to prevent the gateway to the dark world being opened. She will be attacked by hoards of devlins – the owls; Ricars and the crocodiles will fight to their death to protect her. Eventually she will succumb, the gateway will be opened and he will arrive. She needs to stay on the island, which means someone else will need to kill the Witch and prevent this from happening. Her vision shows the foolish Elfen will awaken the pretty Witch. Only one man has enough power to kill a Witch in our realm and he has been placed under a spell in another realm. A powerful Witch found him, knocked him out with a potion then turned him into stone – so we will need to release him.”

“Which realm is he in?” inquired Dan impatiently.

Raj slapped Dan’s arm in annoyance, “Shut up and listen – this is important!” snapped Raj, eager not to miss a single detail.

Meswert resumed, “The Crocodile Queen has travelled to many realms and has fought valiantly but on one fateful mission she met a handsome knight, a brave crusader. They fell in love and their bond has transcended time, distance, realms, battles and worlds. His name is Jean d’Alluye; he’s a brave French crusader. Rose and Jean are very much in love but as darkness knows love can be a weakness to exploit and it provides a way to get to Rose. Jean was asked to fight evil in the fifth realm – in your realm, Earth. He needed to kill a Witch back in your 13th century. The Witch had taken residence in a secluded wood in the French countryside. Jean had fought evil across numerous crusades and was a sacred knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece – a secretive society that still exists on Earth today. In 1248 Jean was armed with a mystical sword made of pure Byridium and presented to him by Rose herself. She’d originally made the sword for an oriental emperor who was fighting demons in China. The emperor had been overpowered before the sword could be delivered. Jean d’Alluye tracked the Witch to a wood outside of Tours, in France. The sword was strange looking for that time with a very un-European blade and an Asian flowering handle. Jean traced the Witch to a cabin and pierced the strong blade deep into her heart. Billowing winds and white-hot flames shot from her body, as her screams seemed to heat the blade. Insects and snakes spewed from her body securing his feet to the ground and rendering him motionless. His chainmail armor protected his feet and legs. Her screams confirmed she was a Witch but he’d miscalculated for at the back of the cabin was another Witch – an identical twin.

To this day the Crocodile Queen blames herself and will not forgive her error in judgment, as she did not see a different Witch in her visions. The second Witch cast a spell over the defenseless Jean d’Alluye freezing his muscles and turning him into a more rigid version of himself like a man becomes rigid after death.

Infuriated by her sister’s death she wheeled him out to the yard placed him upon a stone slab and arranged his body into a death pose with his sword and shield. She bent his arms at the elbow and folded his hands across his chest praying in piety. She placed a small lion cub at his feet – a symbol of courage in those days and turned him, the lion and the pillow his head rested upon into stone. The result was a block of carved stone that looked like a tomb effigy. The Witch found a young man picking berries in the forest and exacted her revenge. She killed the young man, boiled his bones and put them in a stone casket sealed with the effigy. She arranged for the stone tomb to be shipped to the Abbey of La Clarte-Dieu near Tours. There he lay as a hero presumably killed in battle on the crusades, one of their own, a fallen son and knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

We don’t know where he is today but that’s why we need you to find him. His hands are placed in the praying position, that’s how the Witch posed him so the locals would think he’s simply a carved stone effigy consistent with the 13th century. But that would be her mistake – that ring can be slipped onto the tip of one of those fingers and the curse will be instantly broken. All you have to do is find him.”

“All we have to do is find him,” repeated Dan.

“You can do this,” said Kaan reassuringly, “you have to, we’re all depending on you.”

“So let me get this straight, you’re asking us to find a stone statue from 1247,” said Raj.

“1248,” corrected Dan.

“1248 then; if this statue is even still in existence. What if his nose has been broken off or he’s missing and arm or his fingers?” asked Raj.

Meswert stomped his foot, “The Crocodile Queen can feel him, he’s alive and in one piece – you have to hurry but you can break this spell and save him. Just slip that ring on one of his fingers”.

Raj shifted his weight, “And if we do this – then what?”

Meswert fumed with irritancy, “Jean d’Alluye is a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He carries a mystical sword required for killing Witches and he will wear a ring hand crafted from the blood of John the Baptist. That ring will transport him here, back to our realm, his skills and that sword will do the rest – but none of this will happen if you can’t find him and release him.”

Raj stood, “It’s a long shot, our realm is massive, he could be anywhere – France, in a private collection, buried underground, in pieces, in a church, another country, who knows. It could take us years to find him if we ever do.”

“You will never find him,” said Meswert, “if you don’t try. We are all trying to fight evil, it often seems an impossible task but if you were harmed in any way, wouldn’t you like to think that help was on its way?”

The lion roared at Kaan, “My friend senses your time here is drawing to a close – don’t let us down. The Crocodile Queen is much smarter and more powerful than any of us can imagine, there’s a reason she’s picked you, now go and find Jean d’Alluye for he alone can save this realm.”

A crimson butterfly fluttered past the nose of an alert panther that swatted at him using his large black paw. The spinning of their heads followed a flash of brilliant blinding light, as they were transported back to earth and the fifth realm.

It was Dan who moved to the door the quickest, “Hi Mum,” he said opening it.

“Hi love, Hi Raj, I trust he was no bother?” asked Liz as she always did.

Raj waved at Liz while clutching onto his cane, “No bother at all Liz, you know how much I like his company.”

Dan was a clever kid and he recovered quickly to seize the moment brushing away the swirling crimson fog dissipating within his brain, “Mum, tomorrow’s Saturday and Raj has offered to help me with my school project – I have to write a paper about another country in another time. What better way to write about India in the 1940’s with Raj as my source, he actually lived there, so if its ok I’ll pop round to see him at ten tomorrow morning while you go out on your date with Brian – ok Mum?”

Liz wasn’t expecting this, “Err it’s ok with me but what about you Raj, just say if he’s wearing you out and over staying his welcome – we won’t be offended at all.”

“Nonsense. I’d love to go on about the old days and if it helps young Dan get through his school paper then I’m happy to help. I’d only be walking around the park on my own.”

Dan winked at Raj with his head turned away from his Mother’s face, “Ok it’s settled then, see you tomorrow at ten Raj, I’ll bring my laptop – I should still be in range of my router from here and be able to surf.”

“Sure,” said Raj not understanding a word Dan had just said.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 10: The Power of Google.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“Finding a needle in a haystack is easy with the right tools – just bring a magnet.”

 

 

It was going to be a glorious day in Westtown, it was almost ten o’clock in the morning and the Sun was already high in the sky and warming the town. It would get hotter providing a perfect day for Liz and Brian to go visit the small towns around the area and grab a romantic lunch in one of the scenic villages. Liz was pacing around their small apartment anxious that the day would go perfect. Dan looked at his Mother, she wore wedge shaped sandals and a really pretty summer dress with a small flowered pattern. Liz had gone with a gold chain and a simple cross. Her hair was freshly washed and she’d left it flowing naturally. Liz was wearing makeup, which accentuated her pretty eyes. Dan was ready to leave, “Mum.”

 

“What,” snapped Liz nervously.

 

“You look great, really pretty Mum.”

 

Liz stopped in her tracks, “Awww thanks Dan, and I really needed that today. I want to look my best for Brian; I really like him.”

 

“Mum, he’s the one that has to impress you, he’s the one that’s getting a catch.”

 

Liz moved towards Dan and kissed him on the top of his head, “Thanks love, and you’re a good kid.”

 

Dan was holding his laptop and getting ready to visit Raj, “Everything will be fine today Mum, the weather’s going to be great, you look awesome, so just relax, laugh, and have fun. He’ll love you. I’m heading over to Raj’s and yes I have my keys, see you when you get home ok?”

 

“Ok,” said Liz watching him skip through the door heading over the hallway to Raj’s place; “I look awesome,” she said softly, smiling to herself.

 

Dan knocked on Raj’s door and waited for Raj to unhook the chain and open the latch. He heard familiar noises, “Is that you Dan?”

 

“Yup, it’s me,” he said through the door.

 

The door opened and Dan bounded through excited about the challenge that lay before them. Raj shuffled over to his favorite chair, “I’ve made some inquiries and the library across town opens at 10.30am but we can catch the 45 bus and be there for 10.45am.”

 

“Why do we need to go to a library?” said Dan resting his laptop on his thighs, as he sat in the adjacent chair, “I have access to the largest library in the world right here at my fingertips – it’s called the library of Google!”

 

“What’s Google?” echoed Raj, trying to get the pronunciation of this strange word right.

 

Dan shook his head, “What’s Google? Geez Raj, you know all these things about different realms and strange creatures and cultures but you’ve never heard of Google? Seriously Raj!”

 

“Dan, when you moved to Westtown you’d never heard of a Ricar,” replied Raj with a mischievous smile.

 

“Ok, I’ll give you that one, I suppose we get an opportunity to learn something new every day. Let me introduce you to my friend Google – this will blow your mind.” Dan double clicked on the Safari browser icon that opened his Internet session to his pre-set Google search engine homepage and angled his screen so Raj could see it better.

 

“Let me get my reading glasses,” said Raj reaching to his side table and pushing a pair of reading glasses up the bridge of his nose, “OK – let’s do this Google thing.”

 

“Alright, here we go – let’s just try a complete shot in the dark and see what’s out there for Jean d’Alluye.” Dan typed in the name into the Google search bar and within seconds the response started to display.

 

Dan’s mouth opened wide as he stared at the screen, “Are you seeing this Raj, we have a hit straight away! I was expecting no results found and we have pages of hits on this guy. Wow!”

 

"What's this? Tomb Effigy of Jean d'Alluye | 25.120.201| Work of Art | the met museum," the link proudly displayed; Raj read the link heading of the first hit aloud again. Below were several links to web pages and images of a knight lying as described on his back, his feet resting on a sleeping lion cub, his sword visible and his shield resting upon his body. His hands positioned in the praying position with his head resting upon a pillow.

 

“This is incredible, let’s click on this and see what we have,” It was a page from the Metropolitan museum, Heilbrunn timeline of Art History. Dan read the title: “Tomb Effigy of Jean d’Alluye. Mid-Century made in Touraine, Loire Valley of French Limestone. It’s in the cloisters collection at the Met museum, where’s the Met museum?” Dan asked innocently.

 

Raj stared at the page – the image of the knight was clear, “It’s the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it’s not far from here, that’s why the Dream Cane selected us. What else does it say, this Google thing is amazing.”

 

Dan started to read the contents for Raj; after a few more reviewed web pages they’d learned more than they thought they would. Jean d’Alluye was positioned and preserved via a carved limestone effigy originally produced in 1248. This type of effigy is known as a gisant – with his hands held in prayer and wearing the full regalia of a French crusading knight. Within this sculpture are symbols of piety, loyalty and honor; the hood of his long-sleeved chain-mail shirt is draped around his neck with his mittens attached to his sleeves. His feet were resting upon a sleeping lion cub, a symbol of courage and strength, wearing spurs only worn by knights. The effigy was placed in the abbey of La Clarte-Dieu as one of the many symbols of French greatness and aristocracy.

 

These symbols were eventually reviled and destroyed in the French Revolution; the effigy was erased from history with the sale of the abbey in 1791 when the tomb and effigy were subsequently removed. No one knows what happened to the tomb or the poor innocent man’s bones, but the stone effigy resurfaced later and was repurposed. A farmhouse was built on the original abbey site in 1850 next to a narrow but deep fast moving stream. For over fifty years the effigy was turned over with the carving facing downwards towards the water and the smooth side providing a stone bridge across the narrow stream. Jean d’Alluye had the indignity of facing the running water and listening to people walk over him for fifty Earth years. When the stream was eventually cleaned of the silt, the bridge was removed and the stone effigy was then sold to an art dealer in Paris in the early 1900’s.

 

Through a series of transactions the stone effigy made its way to its current location where it rests in the cloisters collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1925. The articles and stories presented by Google described the history of the effigy but each excerpt had a common theme and centered upon an anomaly, a mystery that could not be solved, introducing an element of intrigue to the piece. The garments worn by the knight matched the period except for one glaring detail. The knight’s sword is clearly not European and alarmingly was not of this time period, so where did this sword come from? The style is clearly Asian, perhaps Chinese in its design and construction, but China would have been so far away from France it would have been incomprehensible for a French knight. Jean d’Alluye had fought and travelled throughout the holy land pilgrimage but no other Crusaders were shown with Chinese swords decorated with a flowering handle and Asian blade shape. No paintings, portraits, etchings or tapestries, showed a sword like this from this period – this anomaly had fascinated historians and scholars making the effigy a point of interest and intrigue.

 

“Well, we know the answer to this mystery don’t we – we know where he got that sword from don’t we?” said Raj, still astounded by the power of Google, “I have a request; I want you to look up something else for me.”

 

Dan cleared the screen and waited for instructions, “What do you want me to find?”

 

“The Order of the Golden Fleece,” said Raj inquisitively.

 

Dan typed in the words dutifully and clicked on Wikipedia, the first presented link. Wikipedia described the Order of the Golden Fleece as a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges, Belgium, by Philip III the Good, Duke of Burgundy in 1430. It became the most prestigious Order in Europe. Today two Orders still exist after the War of the Spanish Succession resulting in a division of the Order namely the Spanish and Austrian Fleece. Felipe VI, King of Spain and Karl von Habsburg, grandson of Emperor Charles I of Austria now run the Orders.

 

“Wow that’s interesting did you catch that?” inquired Dan.

 

Raj shook his head – “No?”

 

“The Order of the Fleece was founded in 1430, yet our knight was frozen in 1248 before the Order even existed.”

 

Raj thought for a moment, “Interesting, so our knight was a time traveller, a realm traveller like us, he came from the future and was called to fight evil in the past.”

 

Or,” offered Dan, “he existed in another realm and time for him is not linear.”

 

"Wow that's deep -you learn quickly kid - I'll give you that," said Raj smiling.

 

Dan tilted the laptop screen towards Raj to show him a photograph, “Look at this necklace, it’s made from solid gold and displayed in the Schatzkammer, the imperial treasury at the Hofburg Palace, in Vienna, Austria. Can you see the Golden Fleece? – this symbol is everywhere. This is a list of the Spanish Order’s living members: Kings and Queens of Europe, the Emperor of Japan and the King of Thailand. In the Austrian Order, the living knights are a mixture of Kings, Dukes, Archdukes, Counts, Princes, Barons, and religious leaders. Our knight did not wear the emblem of the Golden Fleece, he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that he was a knight from this Order hundreds of years before they’d been established.”

 

Raj rubbed his head in a puzzled manner, “Tell me why this powerful Order, that still exists today, some 500 years later, was originally established? What is it meant to do? What purpose does it serve?”

 

Dan typed furiously until he stumbled across the answer, “Here it is, get a load of this. The Order of the Golden Fleece was defended from possible accusations of prideful pomp by the Bulgarian court poet Michault Taillevent, who asserted that it was instituted: Not for amusement or recreation, But for the purpose that praise shall be given to God, In the very first place, And to good, glory and high renown.”

 

“What do you think that means?” said Raj, slumping back thoughtfully into his cozy chair. “What have we got ourselves mixed up with Dan?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t like reading four sentences of its purpose and still not understanding a word they’re saying. I think this Order was established with knights to fight for good against evil – like us – what do you think?”

 

Raj rubbed his forehead, “Yes, that sounds about right – the Order of the Golden Fleece protecting our world and other worlds from the dark forces. I’m going to go with that.”

 

They had no clue as to the deep history and powerful influence of the Order but they felt satisfied with their conclusion, “Let’s find out exactly where in New York this cloisters Met Museum is,” whispered Raj anxious to find the knight.

 

Dan obliged typing in the words, and finding an address, “99 Margaret Corbin Drive.” Dan entered the address into Google Maps; Raj was amazed. “There it is, medieval art in a rebuilt monastery situated in Fort Tryon Park on the north end of Manhattan Island off highway 9A.” With a few more keystrokes Dan had established the museum was open Sunday, tomorrow, between 10am and 4.45pm. “How are we going to get there?” Dan looked despondent.

 

“Leave that up to me,” said Raj confidently, “ You’ll need to figure out a way to convince your Mum.”

 

“A supervised field trip to a museum in New York to finish off my school assignment.” Dan thought about his statement, “Its not that far off the truth!”

 

“Will she buy it?” Raj looked skeptical.

 

Dan typed furiously into his laptop; he suddenly stopped and smiled at Raj. “Look at this, Exhibition at the Met. Its about Tibet and India – perfect. This is where I’ll tell my Mum that we’re going; this just might work. But I’m still not sure how we’re going to get there – do you want me to Google the train schedules?”

 

“No, that’s not required, leave it up to me,” answered Raj with his creative brain mulling over a solution.

 

“You can’t drive though – right?” Dan was puzzled.

 

“I won’t be driving, but we’ll go by car – just leave it up to me,” insisted Raj.

 

Dan typed furiously into Google maps, “Says here, it will take us about two and a half hours to reach the cloisters in Manhattan by car.”

 

“Be ready to leave at 8am tomorrow morning, I’ll arrange for the transportation and make sure to tell your Mother that it wont be me doing the driving.”

 

The rest of the day was spent researching the cloisters, the deeply rich history of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Austrian Habsburg’s legacy, Vienna and its many museums, cool paintings and artifacts within its treasury, and of course, Jean d’Alluye’s history and linkage to the crusades.

 

When Liz finally returned home from her date she seemed so happy and in a buoyant mood, calm and relaxed. Dan seized upon this opportunity to pitch his field trip to the Metropolitan Museum under the guise of researching Indian life and antiquities. Once Liz had established Raj would not be driving and a car had been ordered for them, she felt a lot more comfortable with the proposition. Raj would accompany Dan the whole time. Dan told Liz that they’d visit the Met only with no detours or side trips; they’d likely eat at the Met and then return home. It was almost the truth; so he didn’t feel too guilty about the deception. Raj had agreed generously to pay for the transportation and Liz would normally be working the busy afternoon shift anyway. Liz reluctantly agreed, finding it encouraging that Dan was finally taking his schoolwork so seriously. She reconciled her decision because it would give the two of them something productive to do together instead of yapping on and then falling asleep in his apartment each night.

 

The next morning Dan was raring to go brimming with anticipation and a sense of adventure. He found himself at Raj’s apartment door at 7.59am as instructed. Dan tapped on the door, “It’s me are you up yet Raj?”

 

The door started to open, “I’ve been up for hours; I can’t sleep. Come in,” he said sweeping his shaking hand into the apartment.

 

Dan was eager, irritated by the delay, “Are you ready to go yet?”

 

Raj heard the boy but didn’t respond immediately, “I’m ready, but remember in this world, I’m an old man – I don’t have the body of a strong Ricar.”

 

“We’re going to a museum, we’re not fighting devlins!” Dan made a noise somewhere between a snicker and a snort; it was meant to signal his disdain.

 

Raj was attuned to his attitude and impatience, “Come here for a second,” he said sternly, “sit, down here and listen to me boy.” He pointed to one of his comfy chairs but remained standing supporting his weight by leaning upon his trusty Dream Cane. Dan knew he was going to be lectured but he certainly didn’t expect what happened next. Raj shuffled over to his chair and towered above the seated boy. “You have to start to think. I mean really think, and I’m serious. We’ve been sent on a mission to save this knight and potentially save a whole realm. While that’s exciting, perhaps even fun, there are dark dangerous forces out there that don’t want us to succeed. Think about that.” He paused for effect letting his words linger, “What do you think they would they do to stop us? Cast a spell, freeze us, turn us to stone or even kill us. This is not one of our adventures – this is happening right here at home, in our realm. I’ve been thinking about our situation overnight, and if the dark forces can enter into our realm to turn a noble knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece into a stone effigy for a few hundred years think what they could do to us if they find us? This is really dangerous. I’m coming with you but I’m old and weak, certainly in no condition to fight evil forces or protect this,” he shook his Dream Cane, “an artifact that any evil force would love to have or destroy. If this Cane is destroyed then that means we have less ability to fight these dark forces across the realms. Let’s face it – we’re a target and that’s why it’s important that we do this with the minimal amount of fuss and we stay low key – you understand?”

 

Raj was right, Dan hadn’t thought through the dangers associated with this challenge, to him it was nothing more than an exciting field trip but now he realized this could be fatal. He didn’t want to leave his Mother alone, with her never knowing what happened to her son. “Sorry, I didn’t think,” was all that he could muster with so many thoughts streaming through his scrambled brain.

 

“Dan, I’m an old man and one day – I won’t be around. The Dream Cane chose you to be its next guardian but with that comes a great burden, a great responsibility, and great danger. You’ll always have to look over your shoulder and live your life with a high degree of suspicion, being careful with who you trust. The Dream Cane will expose you to adventures beyond your wildest imagination and you’ve had a small taste of that already, but that comes with a price. From now on the dark forces are your enemy; even at home, right here in Westtown they will try to find you and.”

 

“Kill me,” finished Dan looking straight into Raj’s eyes.

 

“You can walk away from this now, if you wish, but if you come with me today – there’ll be no going back. I’m at the end of my long life Dan, but you’re just starting yours.” Raj shook a little, steadying himself with the Cane.

 

“I know too much, if I quit now, how would I spend the rest of my life craving that type of adventure that only the Dream Cane can provide? How could I live knowing there are other worlds, other realms and other creatures out there, with no way of reaching them, or helping them? Raj, you’re right – there’s no turning back because I’ve already passed the point of no return,” his words hung heavily in the air causing a deafening silence in the room and a long defiant stare between the two friends.

 

Raj said nothing, but he knew in that moment the burden of responsibility had been passed. Like generations before him the Dream Cane had selected its successor and it had chosen well.

 

Dan was thinking about his life having a higher meaning with the prospect of facing constant danger that had now seeped into his world, his realm, and here on Earth. His loved ones, his Mum, future wife and children, they would all be drawn into this and one day he’d have to face this without Raj at his side to guide him.

 

Raj was thinking about his life and how far he’d come on his personal journey, recognizing a warm, subtle, yet ever present tingling feeling inside his chest that meant he was in his final mile.

 

“Let’s do this,” said Raj suddenly full of energy, “the car’s waiting downstairs.”

 

“Ok,” responded Dan looking serious and remaining seated, “but thanks for talking to me, I was treating this a bit like a game, and it’s far more serious than that – I won’t let you down.”

 

Raj smiled, “I know, I’ve known that ever since I met you! Let’s go.” They locked the apartment door and headed outside to the street where a large Lincoln Continental sedan was parked against the curb, it’s black paint and chrome accents reflected the morning Sun. A short portly man opened his car door and leapt to attention. The driver was a stubby balding man with a large oversized head, he was dressed in dark blue ill fitting and badly creased pants, scuffed black shoes, a light blue shirt that strained to hold his oversized belly in, with a dark blue jacket and navy colored tie.

 

“Good Morning,” he rasped with a thick accent lacing his two words greeting; he opened the rear passenger door noticing that neither of his passengers had luggage.

 

“Good Morning,” responded Raj waving at Dan and inviting him into the open door. Dan entered the large car and scooted over the armrest into the huge rear leather bound seat on the far side. He’d never seen a car like this before; it smelled clean, fresh, with dark black leather, grey carpets on the floor and accents of bright rosewood throughout. Two small bottles of water were clasped within the armrest as Raj struggled to enter the car gracefully with his Cane. The rear leather seat comfortably cushioned Raj when the driver closed the heavy rear door making a dull clunking noise.

 

“Seat belts,” said Raj, nodding at Dan’s unused restraint.

 

They both attached their seat belts and settled in for the journey. The rear windows were tinted shielding them from the Sun’s early light. While standing on the sidewalk the driver removed his jacket and folded it carefully. He leaned into the car and placed it upon the unoccupied passenger’s seat as he had done thousands of times before. He slid into the driver’s seat, which seemed to envelope him with the leather forming a tight contour around his legs, back and rear. The driver had the body of a man who spent most of his days sitting and the car seemed to hug his stocky frame. He flicked his gaze into the mirror as he closed the driver’s door and started the engine.

 

Raj responded to the quiet hum of the idling engine, “Driver, do you know our destination?”

 

Dan smiled, he thought Raj’s question sounded old fashioned.

 

“Yeah, I have satellite navigation,” he said pointing to a little square monitor affixed to his dashboard illuminating a small map and a highlighted road. His accent was very thick with some of his words lacking the correct pronunciation. English was not this man’s native language; Dan amused himself by trying to figure out where the driver may have originated from; was it Russia, Serbia or perhaps the Ukraine?

 

“Good – Thank you,” Raj sank back into his seat with one hand on the Cane and his other resting flat upon the wide leathered arm rest.

 

The driver was clearly not a talkative man, he was not comfortable speaking English and preferred to focus on his driving. The car wound its way through the familiar streets until it found its way onto the highway. The steady drone of the engine and the smoothness of the ride contributed to Raj falling asleep quickly. Dan took the opportunity to study his old friend looking at Raj’s tired weathered face and drooping skin. He didn’t look well, his hands were full of brown Sunspots and his neck was flabby. His mouth had opened and his breathing was heavy. Dan sensed that Raj would not be around to help him much longer and he decided right there to enjoy every minute he could with him. He needed to listen and learn from him while he could. Dan’s eyes came to rest on the Dream Cane leaning against Raj’s leg; one day he would need to protect and guard that Cane that so many people spent so much time creating. To some it would look like a fancy walking stick but Dan knew of its power and of its storied origins. Dan moved his eyes to the front of the car examining the instruments on the dashboard, his eyes moved to the mirror where he saw the driver’s narrow eyes looking back at him.

 

“You comfortable?” the driver barked, “you need air conditioning?”

 

Dan responded quietly, trying not to wake Raj, “No, it’s good – thanks.”

 

“Good,” said the driver using one of the few words he knew in his limited English repertoire.

 

The car continued to speed towards its intended destination, Dan watched shrubs, trees, houses and billboards all flash by. He studied the cars, trucks and the occasional motorbike as they passed by, their occupants proceeding with their busy day. Dan had counted every button and knob in the back seat and was starting to get bored. The constant low drone of the engine was now starting to have the same effect on him; his eyelids grew heavy and within minutes he’d slipped away and was gone, fast asleep – sinking into the vastness of the oversized rear passenger seat.

 

Dan felt a soft tapping on his shoulder waking him from his comfortable slumber, “Hey, wake up sleepy head we’re almost there.”

 

Dan rubbed his eyes and stared at the park like setting with trees and grass surrounding the car. “Driver how far away are we?”

 

The driver glanced into the rear mirror, “There,” he pointed to an upcoming fork in the road, “Ten minute walk.”

 

“Pull over here and let us out, we’ll walk the rest of the way – thanks.” Dan seemed agitated.

 

Raj looked worried, “I can’t walk that far.”

 

“Stay here,” said Dan to the driver who complied by pulling over to the side of the quiet road under the shade of a mature tree.

 

The pair got out of the car. They could see a sandy colored building with a tower looming large upon a hill; Dan stretched his legs and tried to breathe in the clean air to awaken his unresponsive body. “Hold on, wait,” said Dan pulling Raj’s sleeve, “so what’s the plan here? We can’t just arrive together in the car, security cameras will catch that, and we can’t just walk in, free the knight, and walk right out of there.”

 

Raj looked at the young man quizzically, “Why not, you do have the ring don’t you.”

 

Dan shook his head as the two stood on the driveway to the entrance of the museum, “It’s a museum, full of important and expensive things. It’s going to have security cameras and security guards. As soon as we walk in and buy tickets our images, our faces, will be recorded. Let’s think this through, we also don’t want to be on tape as we free the knight, otherwise we’ll have a lot of explaining to do.”

 

“What do you suggest?” Raj was irritated, “why didn’t we think about this before we travelled all this way?”

 

“Relax,” Dan said trying to diffuse the situation, “I brought these,” he said waving a small pair of wire cutters in his hand.

 

Raj rubbed his face, “What are you gong to do with those?”

 

“We’ll enter the museum separately you go on up in the car, I’ll walk up separately. We’ll buy our tickets separately. I need you to walk through all of the museum exhibits – like you were a tourist, so as not to raise suspicion. Look at the exhibits and read the descriptions, don’t head straight to the cloisters, that’s too obvious. As we make our way to the cloisters I’ll try to locate the security cameras. When we get very close I’m going to try to disable the camera by snipping the cord or the power. We’ll only have a short window to free the knight and it’s important that we monitor the people in the museum – timing will be crucial. We need to do this when no one is around and the cameras have been disabled.”

 

Raj looked at the young man standing before him, “You figured this all out yourself?”

 

“Yeah, I watch a lot of movies, I saw online that the cloisters has a bunch of stone effigies and other things too heavy to steal. They’re not worried about theft, they’re worried about vandalism – so it’s not like they’re protecting jewels or valuable paintings. That’s why I think the camera system will be pretty basic, you know, just for monitoring. I went on Google last night and virtually toured the room with its stone effigies and stained glass windows.”

 

Raj shook his head, a smile indicated his pleasure, “You’re a smart kid, people will always underestimate you and you can use that to your advantage. Here take this,” Raj offered him a twenty-dollar note, “You’ll need that to get in. I’ll go first, but with this Cane it may take me a while to get to the cloisters and you should be able to catch me up. You’re right – we’ll stumble through the museum separately and look at different things but try to coordinate our timing at the cloisters.”

 

“When we free the knight, I don’t know if he will disappear into the next realm? We’ll be able to walk out of the museum separately and it’ll be obvious to anyone that neither you, with that Cane, or I, as a small kid, are able to steal and carry a stone effigy. If they review the security tapes we’re not going to be top of their suspects list.”

 

“A final thought,” offered Raj trying to be helpful, “once we free the knight, we should separate and continue to look at things in the museum like we are oblivious to what has happened.”

 

“Good, settled. You go first and I’m going to follow you in ten minutes.” Dan watched Raj disappear into the car as it pulled away.

 

Dan followed on foot cutting across the grass and avoiding the car on its way out. He retrieved the twenty-dollar bill from his trouser pocket and headed to the entrance. It took about forty-five minutes for Dan and Raj to traverse through the museum and approach the cloisters section. They stopped to look at medieval artifacts and read the informative descriptions. Dan would try to observe the security set up and had seen numerous cameras pointed at guests and usually located above the entrance to various rooms and exhibits. Each camera had a solitary black cord emerging from the wall and feeding the back of the unit. Dan knew if he severed this cord the camera would be rendered useless.

 

Dan was a smart kid, he knew he could use the frame of the door to shimmy his way up to the height of the camera and if he got his angle right, he could cut the cord without entering into the camera’s field of view. He was feeling confident and encouraged by the quietness within the museum. Dan and Raj had come perilously close to each other a couple of times but had not acknowledged each other’s presence and had calmly and quietly moved away from each other feigning interest in other exhibits within the museum. An old man and a young boy seemed an unlikely pairing – Raj felt good about the plan and it seemed to be working. The only unknown was the part where they woke the knight.

 

Raj and Dan shuffled their way towards the entrance of the cloisters, there was a small room leading to a short corridor and the entrance to the cloisters. Stone archways with three descending slate stairs lead to an oblong shaped room – the cloisters. Dan moved to Raj’s side and stared at a tapestry hanging upon the wall, he whispered, “Stay,” turning his head from the camera mounted within the room.

 

Dan moved towards the corridor and stopped. He used the doorjamb to shield himself from the camera. He reached into his pocket and retrieved the wire cutters. He peered up the side of the wall and could see the camera pointing to the hallway with a single black cord protruding from the door surround feeding the camera. Dan placed his foot into the door’s molding and launched himself upwards towards the camera’s mounting. In one smooth movement he leapt forward extending his right arm and severing the black cord in one slick movement. The red LED light at the back of the camera extinguished as the cord dangled free and his weight fell back to the ground quickly. Dan stumbled, unable to land his weight gracefully upon his feet. Picking himself up he approached the door being careful to avoid his image being captured by the camera in the previous room, “Now Raj – come,” he whispered. Raj obeyed and calmly walked towards the corridor.

 

Dan didn’t wait for him, he’d moved down the corridor to the stone entrance leading into the cloisters. He poked his head through the opening without descending the slate entrance steps. As he suspected he could see the camera mounted above the entrance offering the best view of the entire room. The room was styled as a 13th century Gothic chapel with four large windows containing stained glass, royal burial effigies and a vaulted arched ceiling. The walls and floor were all made of solid slabs of stone. This camera was mounted higher and Dan knew he would only get one attempt at rendering it inoperable. He looked at the wall and found a stone that protruded more than the others; he could use it as a step to launch himself. He could hear Raj approaching when he lunged forward and wedged his right foot onto the stone ledge. Dan leapt as high as he could while straining his right arm as high above his head as he could. He could see the cord and managed to get the blades of the cutters in place. He suddenly felt his weight start to drop. Dan thrust his arm skywards with all of his might; the curved ends of the cutters blades managed to snip the cord in time before he crashed down unceremoniously onto the hard stone floor. This was their chance and they had to act now; Raj descended the stone steps and entered the large oblong shaped sunken room with tall stone covered walls and an impressive high arched stone ceiling. Placed along each side of the chapel were numerous carved stone effigies of soldiers and priests representing a bygone age. The far end of the room was a wall of stained glass panels beautifully placed under a vaulted roof with a small circular skylight allowing a shaft of light to illuminate the effigy of Jean d’Alluye.

 

The morning sunlight streamed in through the colored glass windows accentuating the yellow, blue and green glass arranged to show religious scenes. In the center of the room were two stone sarcophagus displays topped with unique effigies. The one closest to the windows was the effigy of Jean d’Alluye, lying on his back with his hands praying as portrayed in the pictures. In this setting he looked at peace, resting in the surroundings of the cloisters without a hint of impropriety.

 

Dan wasted no time in locating the knight; he didn’t wait for Raj before he slipped the ring from his finger carefully and walking to the side of the knight. He quickly leaned over the effigy and slipped the ring onto a stone finger of the trapped knight. A shock wave immediately pulsed through the room knocking both Dan and Raj off of their feet and onto the floor; a searing blinding flash of light, caused them to cover their eyes with their hands. When they’d recovered, Jean d’Alluye was standing there exactly as he’d been portrayed in full battle gear. Raj remained on one knee while resting his weight on the Dream Cane. Dan stood and faced the knight, gawping at his magnificent chainmail and robes. Behind the knight remained a flat stone effigy, a simple slab of stone decorated only with a stone pillow and a carved sleeping lion cub where the knight’s feet had once rested.

 

Jean looked at the two figures that cowered in front of him; he held onto his heavy shield and rested his other hand upon the handle of his controversial sword. Jean had a thin face, a well-defined chin with a long narrow nose, striking blue eyes and flowing blonde hair, “Merci,” was all he said as he seemed to regain his faculties.

 

“You have to get out of here, quickly,” implored Raj still kneeling.

 

“Take this with you, so we don’t get caught,” said Dan thinking quickly and thrusting the wire cutters into the knight’s hand.

 

Confused, the knight graciously accepted the strange gift, he smiled at the two liberating figures before him deciding to seize the moment and taking advantage of his newly found freedom. Jean d’Alluye reached across to his other hand and twisted the ring around his index finger in a circular motion. Another flash of blinding light and the knight was gone, disappeared without a trace.

 

Raj was still kneeling when he heard Dan’s panicked voice, “Let’s get out of here quickly, remember to loiter around the museum a little, and don’t make it too obvious.”

 

They left the cloisters escaping into another part of the museum – frantic activity followed with attendants, staff, and guards all descending upon the cloisters and the adjoining rooms to investigate the camera failures. It was obvious the cameras had been tampered with but one particularly observant attendant noticed the effigy of Jean d’Alluye had been stolen and swapped out with a crude fake, perhaps it was a joke for it only showed a pillow and the sleeping lion cub. A group gathered quickly to try to establish a forced point of entry or breach point. How did they get in and more puzzling how did they get a very heavy carved stone slab out? Why did they replace it with an obviously poor fake – was this their attempt at humor – making it look like the knight had got up and walked away?

 

The museum was quickly placed upon lock down and all of the exits were sealed. Dan and Raj continued with their visit, heading in different directions and fascinated by different artifacts within the museum. One of the security guards politely asked Dan to turn out his pockets, with a perfect rendition of a puzzled and bemused face he duly obliged knowing the wire cutters were in a different realm – good luck finding those. Raj avoided the obvious suspicion as he could barely walk never mind scale a wall or carry a heavy stone tablet. They searched the museum frantically and although Dan and Raj seemed like their only leads the suspicion seemed to fall upon two men in their thirties being detained for further questioning.

 

The roof and skylight were still in place, the stained glass windows were still intact, and the security cameras still operating had confirmed the effigy had not left the room via the corridor. Dan and Raj could be seen walking away separately on the tape yet neither could transport the heavy stone effigy. It was an elaborate robbery, where the most experienced theft expert was left baffled – why would someone go to all of this trouble and expense to steal an artifact that quite simply wasn’t that valuable? Other artifacts in the museum and even the cloisters room itself were more expensive and sought after on the antiquities market. So – why steal this one?

 

From the tapes, the staff members at the museum that day were highly suspicious of Raj and Dan, but they couldn’t prove anything for they had no evidence, no clues, no motive and no association. Dan was passed over very quickly with a simple pocket search. Raj gave a false name and address playing up his Indian heritage, poor English verbal skills and lack of English comprehension.

 

When Dan and Raj regrouped far away from the museum’s grounds and the prying eyes of the security cameras they fell into the back of the town car and smiled excitedly at each other. No words were exchanged in front of the driver on their ride home – none were needed.

 

For weeks the mystery surrounding the stolen effigy of Jean d’Alluye irritated the museum staff and they hired a private investigative team to try to figure out what had happened. The museum had cameras installed on the outside walls, roof and all entrance and exits. Something this large and this heavy would need a vehicle to transport it. The stained glass windows had not been tampered with, the roof and skylight together with the walls of the cloisters were in pristine shape showing no signs of alterations of any kind. Only one route could have been used to transport such a large effigy out of the cloisters and that was through the corridor and back into the museum itself where security cameras and museum staff would have intercepted its path. Then there was the mystery of how did this team transport the obvious fake into the room and why?

 

Karen Hackett was an enterprising investigator who studied all of the available security tapes from that day. She saw Raj arriving in a car and Dan arriving separately upon foot. She saw the two men arriving together in a car being driven by one of them. She studied all of the frames from both the internal and external tapes and took photographs of the crime scene both inside and outside of the cloisters. She was frankly baffled and it was eating away at her, destroying her normally restful sleep patterns. After reviewing all of the tapes for a final time her suspicion fell upon Dan and Raj, but logic dictated the other two men were the most likely perpetrators. Sloppy investigative work had allowed the boy to slip away with no name given or identification check. The older disabled Indian man had given a name and an address both of which had not checked out. The notes on the file stated his English was very poor; he had an exceptionally thick Indian accent so was this a case of deliberate deceit or a simple misinterpretation on behalf of the person taking the details?

 

The other two men were questioned extensively; it was discovered that they were visiting from France with an obvious connection to Jean d’Alluye. Was it coincidence that one of the men had worked as a clerk at an antiquities dealer specializing in medieval antiquities? The anecdotal evidence seemed to point to the two young men as the obvious link to this crime. There still remain insufficient hard evidence to concretely implicate anyone and it was eating away at Karen Hackett.

 

Karen’s boss was a hard driving old school guy who didn’t believe in her abilities. He was riding her hard to find the perpetrators or at least a clue. Solving the ‘how they did it’ was her top priority. Frustratingly she was drawing a blank. As she studied the obvious fake replica effigy she couldn’t understand why anyone would use real stone and carve it so intricately for the pillow and the lion cub but not add the knight. One afternoon she studied photos of the original effigy and compared them to the replica – what she found left her stunned and confused.

 

The poor quality obvious fake effigy was either a very expensive elaborate fake or there was a deeper mystery at play here. Each line, vein, crack, chip, stain or imperfection shown in the weathered aged limestone had been meticulously duplicated to perfection. This was a masterful piece of work and a very expensive replica of the original. If it was the original how did they grind away the knight to a flat smooth surface of rock in under two minutes? That would be impossible? Why would they do that and why leave the pillow and the lion? If the knight was literally ground away the cloisters would have be covered in limestone dust residue and wet coolant; it would have been exceptionally loud in that resonating chamber and it would have taken them hours.

 

So this remaining effigy had to be a fake, but the effigy was so accurate in every single minute detail including patches our color through the rock, small chips and distress marks from wear, everything replicated exactly. The wear marks on the lion’s figure was matched exactly. Karen had to see this for herself. After spending an hour examining the fake effigy and stone slab she came to the only conclusion she could but she was not about to reveal her thoughts. She concluded that nobody would spend so much money creating a hoax replica to this amount of precision and leave out the knight, an obvious and noticeable omission. The knight could not have been easily removed from the original effigy as it was carved from one solid piece of medieval limestone.

 

This effigy now lying in the cloisters had to be the original stone effigy, of that she was certain, but she had absolutely no explanation for how the knight had simply removed himself from the stone slab; it was as if he’d simply woke up, risen and walked away. That was the only explanation she could viably accept but it was not a theory she wanted to advance to her boss.

 

Karen knew it sounded totally ridiculous and improbable, perhaps the fakers were banking upon that, but it was the only theory that fit the evidence. The stone knight had simply vanished into thin air; yet he was not caught on any security camera. She had to admit – it sounded mighty ridiculous and she’d never live it down if she decided to talk openly about her thoughts. Karen continued to examine the remaining stone slab treating it as a fake effigy. Suddenly the press became curious and a few articles made it into the press until the public lost interest in this boring story all together.

 

The bizarre cloisters heist mystery was never solved and to this day Karen secretly believes there was something supernatural surrounding this knight and the mystery surrounding him had now deepened. She always felt that she was missing something, a fact, a small clue and it was likely something very banal. For the sake of her promising career and reputation she kept those feelings buried and unheard.

 

Raj and Dan rode home that afternoon in total silence feeling proud and pleased with their days work. They’d arranged to meet that night – both were excited about returning to the fray and to help the brave Ranger Eian in his quest to stop Ryan from freeing the Witch and plunging Bardonia into evil’s dark veil.

  • * * * *

 

 

The Sixth Realm – Bardonia

 

 

Chapter 11: The Return of the Knight

The Kingdom of Belladonia, Bardonia

 

“A true knight is fuller of bravery in the midst, than in the beginning of danger.”

 

 

 

Emerging from the confusion, disorientation and swirling blinding light the Dream Cane uses to transport and transform people through to another realm both Dan and Raj quickly surveyed their surroundings. They were placed safely back into the Bardonia forest with Meswert, Eian, and Kaan.

Kaan approached them as the crimson butterflies fluttered away into the distance. Kaan was an experienced realm traveller and he recognized the slight anomaly as the pair returned. “Welcome back my friends,” he said quietly with a knowing grin, “were you successful?”

Dan nodded vigorously, “Yes.”

Raj was more measured in his response. Raj took Kaan by the arm and turned their backs to the others, “We managed to find your knight, Dan placed the ring on his finger as instructed and he vanished into thin air; we assume he was transported here, but we can’t say that with any degree of certainty. The boy’s in danger now Kaan, we’ve placed him in danger in his home realm.”

“Understood,” said Kaan, he turned to face the others, “today will be a big day, a glorious day in our history. Our friends in the forest have informed us of a massive gathering of devlins north of here. The devlins are streaming into the forest, they are organizing and leaving the sanctuary and safety of their caves, its clear that they intend to protect the foolish Ranger – Ryan. Today we begin our offense; today we’ll start our journey to break through their defenses and stop this misguided boy. We have to stop him,” he said rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “many lives will be lost this day but we all know the part we must play, protect the knight against all threats. We have to make sure that we get the knight within range of the Witches and the Elfen boy as soon as we can. The creatures of the forest will fight together to the death, I am confident of that, for they know what they’re fighting for – their freedom and their way of life. Today you’ll see life long adversaries standing shoulder to shoulder united against a common enemy and fighting for a common cause.”

A steely determination filled Kaan’s narrowed eyes as the importance of this day swept over Dan and Raj. Animals of all shapes and sizes had been gathering in the forest; they were organizing and grouping into units organized by the owls and readying for their trek north into the Witches snare. Raj and Dan grew restless, the waiting was hard and they were starting to get irritable; finally the signal sounded and a collection of animals started to move out beginning their journey to deliver their destiny. It was a truly magnificent sight; the trees teamed with life supporting monkeys and birds all keen to provide assistance, direction and advanced intelligence. All races and breeds of animals moved in the most unusual procession through the forest trails; Kaan, Eian and the two Ricars were surrounded and protected deep within the procession and safe from any marauding devlin attacks. They proceeded through Ivany and the old forest; large established trees uprooted to created wide paths through the forest to support the journey of the animal army. Dan marveled at the spiritual trees and their ability to suddenly part and clear a path to their destination. The devlin pack would not attack the procession as it moved through the old forest; the trees were a formidable foe and the devlins were too smart; they would be far too exposed and tactically disadvantaged in a fight within this hallowed area. The devlins had deliberately skirted the old forest and forged their path further north travelling to a location that narrowed between two jagged rock rises; they blocked the narrow passage in a formation dozens of lines deep. This was ideal and a tactically strong position to defend making it a tough passage to breach. The devlins stood arranged within their lines standing shoulder to shoulder patiently waiting for their battle to commence. Standing in the cool shade offered by the tall rock, the largest devlin in the forest, and self appointed leader, swaggered into the area surrounded by the rock rise; he was flanked by two battle hardy and heavily scarred pack members escorting an unusual sight – a skinny Elfen boy holding a glowing golden flagon filled with liberating Milkenweed. Ryan was allowed to approach the pass as the devlin leader forced the tightly packed formation to break and separate for the hesitant Ryan.

Ryan walked nervously through the pass, large devlins reluctantly moved aside. Ryan felt tense and nervous, casting worried glances at the snorting rough haired beasts for he knew that on another day he would have been torn to shreds. He continued to walk through them unsure of his escape plan once he’d managed to free his love. A large devlin pushing his wet, sloppy nose aggressively into the small of his back nudged Ryan forward. If Ryan was to survive this he needed to stay close to the devlin leader and follow him closely for protection as he walked through the ranks of his loyal beasts patiently awaiting their fate. The lead devlin could not believe how easy this was, he’d expected a battle, to encounter hundreds of animals, a huge fight and dogged, determined resistance. Instead they simply walked through and had beaten his adversaries to the pass – this was going to be easy. They’d cleared the pass and the Witches snare was only two hours away and still no sign of the forest animals. They must have miscalculated, for what would have been their most celebrated day will soon be remembered as a no show.

When the animals finally arrived in numbers the first to engage the devlins in battle were the badgers. It probably wasn’t the smartest of battle strategies but try telling the badgers that they had to hold back and be patient. After years of merciless persecution by the devlin the badgers were hell bent on revenge and retribution. The badgers attacked the devlin formation fighting in fierce packs snarling their teeth and flashing their claws. The devlin responded with an equal amount of aggression. The fight continued for about fifteen minutes with the badgers attacking then falling back to regroup, flashes of black and white fur soon turned to red. The devlin were getting tired but they were winning the fight. Heavy causalities were inflicted with dead badger’s lying bravely in the field of battle. Dead or wounded devlin were quickly pushed to the back of the pack by the other resolute devlins. The badgers would not give up; it was clear they would never give in as their pride was on the line for all of the other animals to see. The badgers were tenacious but out-sized and out-numbered. The devlin took heart from the battle, growing in confidence and standing firm. Many badger’s limped away from the fray lucky to still be alive.

Something needed to change for the badger’s bravery would have driven them to fight to the last brave badger fell. The badgers had killed a number of devlin, they’d wounded and tired the most battle ready front line but this small victory had come at a great loss. The signal to retreat was given and they reluctantly made way for the lions. The devlin regrouped growing in confidence that they would be able to repel any onslaught as they had demonstrated with the badgers. An uneasy feeling spread among the animals and the lions knew they needed to turn the battle around in their favor.

The lions lined up in a spear shaped formation knowing that their bravery could be met with death. The lions charged inflicting a lot of damage but the sheer number of devlins coupled with their tactically clever location meant the devlins would ultimately prevail no matter how brave the lions were. The animals however possessed a few clever tactics of their own now the battle had commenced. The lions charged initially swiping their vicious claws at their enemy, the noise of the big cats could be heard from the center of the procession that stretched miles back into the forest; the noise of battle heightened their senses. The big cats attacked but were smart for as quickly as they would inflict damage they would pull back escaping death. They attacked in short bursts, inflicting waves of injury and terror. Confident in their abilities to defeat any animal no matter how fierce the lions inflicted significant damage and the devlins sustained serious casualties but felt buoyed by their ability to hold the line and not yield.

The devlins tightly packed ranks had been temporarily broken with their formation scattered by the tenacity of the lions. Once the lions pulled back, large brown bears moved in to resume the onslaught. The bears were fast across the ground coming into view as much needed back up to the retreating lions. The devlins had no time to celebrate their short-lived victory or catch their breath as their next formidable opponent gave them a different challenge to survive. The bears approached the devlin pack by rearing up onto their hind legs and swinging their sharp razor like claws like fatal windmills causing damage and pain. The growls of the bears were deafening but the tortured screams of the wounded devlin could be heard for miles. The devlins positioned at the front tried to raised their weight up onto their haunches to match the cunning bears. As they elevated their heads they were surprised to see thick dense clouds of bees swarming in to attack the snouts and faces of the devlins. The devlins shook their heads furiously trying to avoid the bees but they were tightly packed and trapped within their formations, still the bears continued to attack. Severely distracted by the stinging bees while trying to avoid the fatal blows raining in from above them delivered by the bears, the devlins were again caught off guard. The tightly packed formation that was their advantage was now being used as a weapon against them limiting their mobility and adaptability. The badgers were more than eager to join the battle; they were desperately disappointed not to be selected to join the lions in the first onslaught. Badgers streamed into the pass catching the devlins unprepared again as their legs, paws, tails, and thick hides were now under attack from smaller enemies as they continued to be bitten, stung and slashed.

The bees regrouped and swarmed again – this time they created a black and yellow cloud of insects that annoyed and blinded the hapless devlins. The bears eased up on their assault falling back to provide the devlin pack a temporary reprieve. Foxes and stoats joined the battle by streaming in covering the ground quickly and joining the fight from all sides. The devlin pack was in shock as their reprieve lasted seconds before they were fighting a different animal and different challenges. This tactic was designed to wear out the enemy by having them fight constantly with no rest. The animals would attack in waves and then retreat, rest, or make way for another worthy adversary. The smaller ground based animals were ferocious and lightening quick but it took many successful attacks to bring a large beast to the ground ready for the kill. The bees continued to attack swirling in a stinging cloudy blanket providing a necessary distraction as the foxes attacked the confused devlins. Suddenly the badgers, foxes and stoats started to retreat in a well-choreographed maneuver with the bees providing a buzzing fog. When the bees cleared the devlins raised their badly stung snouts to see a sight of sheer terror; charging bulls and oxen with their horns lowered heading straight for them.

It was clear the battle was starting to turn in favor of the animals as a few startled devlins broke rank in terror, while others absorbed the full force of the charging bulls. Oxen followed swinging their horns wildly and throwing the large fallen devlins to one side clearing a path for the next charge. The bulls would charge again and quickly retreat allowing another fresh wave of bulls to charge. The devlins stood bravely absorbing the fatal blows unable to fight the bulls or match their raw power. Eventually the bulls tired but there was no reprieve for the poor loyal devlins. Eagles and owls swooped in from the sky to attack the heads and backs of the assembled devlin ranks. The devlins tried to regroup and arranged themselves into fighting patterns as they had agreed. The owls carried large boulders, which, when dropped from above, caused fatal wounds spreading fear, and confusion. The eagles with their oversized talons mercilessly attacked the devlins heads, eyes and necks. A few majestic eagles were killed, knocked out of the sky and unable to complete their swooping motion intercepted by snapping devlins that bit and trampled the brave birds to death.

As the birds attacked the cowering devlin pack the next animal wave prepared – this time it was more cats. Pumas, mountain lions, bobcats, panthers and tigers all lined up waiting for the signal to charge. A white owl streaked across the cats placing his trust and his life in the temporary accord. The owl was the signal as the cats surged into battle. Shioden was the largest and most feared tiger in Bardonia; he was selected to lead the cats into battle. Distracted by the falling boulders the devlins eyes grew wider with fear when faced by the bullet fast cats. Significant damage was inflicted in this attack as the ferocious cats faced the worn out, injured and morally beat devlin ranks; many fell screaming in agony. The large cats; hunters by trade executed ruthlessly.

The Elfen boy Ryan was again nudged in the back urging him to walk faster, he turned to glance backwards listening and aware of the screeches, howls and cries of pain emanating from the rocky pass. He was encouraged to keep walking, striving towards their goal as they followed a narrowing path previously cut through the trees and the brush. The mystical trees had passed and the rooted tree offered no resistance to the group intending to free the Witches. A parrot tracked their progress with worried concern unable to halt their progress. When this group had entered the rocky pass the lead devlin appeared extremely confident walking with a defiant swagger, with the desperate sounds that filled the crisp air, fatal screams of pain he didn’t seem as confident.

Ryan would occasionally glance at the large devlin as he turned his worried head to sneak a furtive glance over his shoulders to assess the approaching danger at his back. Another more urgent prod in the back confirmed how worried the devlins demeanor were, as screams, snarls, growls and the horrendous sounds of a torrid battle filled the crisp afternoon air.

The animals had planned their battle to perfection attacking the devlin ranks in waves and distracting them with bees as the animals switched their offensive. The devlins became mentally and physically tired and wounded, some lost faith, broke rank, and fled in fear. The devlins were now scared and hesitant, as wounded, mutilated and dead devlins littered the battle scene giving more confidence of a victory to the animals. Injured animals were quickly removed, dragged away for treatment under the cover of swarms of bees, by the ever-vigilant packs of monkeys.

In the heat of the battle the devlins had not time to notice the injured animals and to them it looked like they were the only side sustaining heavy losses, with the animals having relatively light casualties. This added to their lack of confidence and commitment to their cause, the faith in their battle plan had faded quickly for the beleaguered devlins. A few more broke rank and charged forward in one last desperate ploy to go out with honor, but this panic induced reaction allowed their tight formation to open up encouraging more frightened and trapped devlins to stream forward. Wasps and hornets swarmed together in a thick yellow cloud blocking their view and providing the necessary cover to mask the inevitable; the swarming insects eventually cleared to reveal hundreds of organized waiting cats. The larger cats attacked first marauding into the shocked devlins; the smaller cats pounced upon the fallen and the wounded to finish them off by attacking their throats.

The devlins were losing this fight badly, and as brave as they had fought, they had delayed the advancing animals by about an hour; this would buy their advancing group travelling ahead some time but would it be enough? The animals would emerge victorious today. Raj and Dan had been progressing steadily towards the noise and the rocky pass. They crested a small hill littered with the dead, wounded and still eager where they could now see the full extent of the carnage that lay before them. Meswert held his twig like arm aloft to slow the chasing group to a halt.

Packs of cats hunted the remaining devlins teaming up on the hapless beasts. Bulls would charge in forcing the devlins to scatter and break their formation; packs of lions and tigers would pounce in teams attacking the legs, backs, and throats of the wounded devlins. Oxen would clear the fallen carcasses protected by badgers, stoats and weasels all forming an impenetrable guard. Elk, and deer waited in reserve, in case their sharp antlers were needed. These animals would be no matches for the sheer bulk of a devlin, yet they waited – eager to contribute.

Waiting patiently at the back of the attacking forces was a colorful collection of tigers; they circled and snarled in pure frustration itching to join in the fight and help their comrades. Raj had noticed the large sleek tigers, all fine specimens, “Why don’t they unleash those tigers?” he said impatiently.

Kaan pointed to a dead tree, its stump and branches stripped bare by a white-hot lightening bolt strike, “Look over there.” They shifted their gaze away from the battle to a tree strategically placed across the battlefield looking down into the rocky pass. Perched high upon a blackened branch surrounded by numerous large eagles was the largest white owl in Bardonia. The owl was gigantic; it was majestic and considerably larger than the owl that had transported Dan to Crescent Island to receive an audience with the Crocodile Queen. “That’s Wist; she’s the oldest and wisest creature in the forest. Looks like she’s calling the shots and planning the battle; she’ll decide when to use the largest of the tigers.”

Above their heads their attention was drawn to the cackling sound of a thousand crows as they swooped into the battle creating a black wall of feathered confusion. Occasionally a frustrated devlin would lash out aimlessly and wound a bird knocking it clean out of the air. They would tear it from wing to limb mercilessly. A young impetuous devlin charged the swirling birds penetrating the black blanket of feathers. As the devlin burst through to the other side it was met by a pride of ferocious lions that showed no mercy to the defiant beast.

The wounded and dead were quickly and efficiently cleared away as the next attack was readied. The devlin ranks were now growing thin leaving them exposed; the last remaining fighters were injured, cornered, scared and mentally broken. A cloud of black crows scattered and instantly large black paws armed with razor sharp ripping claws emerged from the sea of scattered feathers. Panthers had been ordered to attack unleashing their power and striking fear into the frightened and vulnerable devlins. The panther’s intense speed and agility occupied the remaining few in what would be a final fatal fight, as the lions attacked from their flanks to deliver throat crushing bites.

The pass had now been breached with a couple of severely injured devlins turning to flee; the speedy panthers would deliver the final blow tracking down the remaining devlins with their keen sense of smell, acute hearing and motion sensitive eyes.

The oxen continued to remove the fallen beasts to one side creating a clear path for the chasing group to enter. An eagle flew gracefully from the blackened tree and landed nervously yards away from the largest agitated tiger still pacing with pent up aggression. A dozen hand-selected tigers were held back from the fray, in perfect condition and unharmed in any way they lined up at the entrance to the pass, “Yeah, shouted Kaan punching the air with his fist.”

Raj tried to find the source of Kaan’s obvious excitement. It took him a while to see the large white owl had glided from her branch, opened up her considerable wingspan and flew to escort a lone horse sprinting from the cover provided by the woods. A white dappled stallion leapt around the fallen carcasses of bloodied devlins. Majestically riding the stallion was a knight wearing flowing robes, chainmail and protective armor plates; he carried a shield painted with the Golden Fleece portrayed against a brilliant blue background. The blue and white tunic of the Order of the Golden Fleece flapped in the wind as he steadied his horse. Jean d’Alluye raised his sword high into the air in salute to the brave animals as he entered the rocky pass followed by the impressive sight of a pack of black and orange striped tigers.

Raj, Eian and Dan did not require further encouragement; simultaneously they punched the air shouting as loudly as they could until their voices failed and their throats were sore. A flock of majestic eagles flew by overhead to lend their advanced vision to the chasing group and accompany them to the scene of the final battle.

“I so wish we were going with them,” said Eian wistfully.

“Don’t feel bad, you’ve done your part admirably, and the animals can feel proud of their accomplishments today,” whispered Kaan, his throat feeling dry from the shouting. “When the history books are written, we visitors from other realms are rarely mentioned, but you, my young Elfen Ranger friend will be a hero for the part you’ve played. You’ve helped us and in turn you’ve helped find and liberate Jean d’Alluye, the one knight powerful enough to slay the Witches. Only he could do this but history will show a different story for it will tell the part you played; it will tell how you managed to locate this mysterious knight right here in Bardonia and how you worked together in battle to save your realm.”

“But I didn’t,” said Eian looking confused and embarrassed, he glanced at the Ricar hunching his shoulders.

Both Dan and Raj smiled, “Yes you did,” affirmed Raj. “You just didn’t know it.”

The victor will always write history, and one has to wonder if any of the fabled stories that you here in song, paintings, tapestries or tall tales are indeed fact or embellished and fabricated for popular consumption. Eian had shown great courage to follow Raj and Dan on their initial quest. He’d lost Elfen comrades along the way watching them die horrible deaths right in front of his eyes. He deserved to be recognized as the local hero who gave this realm a fighting chance of survival. Bardonia’s fate now rested with a mounted knight from another realm, a speedy stallion and a dozen large tigers, all in hot pursuit.

The tigers cut through the jungle with sublime ease guided by the monkeys, parrots and eagles soaring above; birds screamed directions from the safety of their branches above. The stallion had to follow a longer path but his speed over the ground was considerable. Two tigers remained as the knight’s escort to ensure safe passage while the other tigers forged on ahead. It wasn’t long before the chasing group had caught the advanced group that included Ryan carrying a golden flagon full of glowing Milkenweed.

The worried devlins could sense the approaching pack from the noise generated by the excited monkeys high in the canopy. A little way back, birds scattered indicating the trailing group were close now; around the next bend in the muddy path was the location where the Witches were ensnared. The famous snare was a hollowed out bank of lush grass that surrounded the three Witches. The Witches were secured in place with their arms, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles all bound by thick strands of Larkinsfelt weed. A mystical spell had been cast upon them all where the Witches were placed in a form of resting sleep, suspended in time and rendered harmless. This was the best that anyone could do for only certain people are strong enough, powerful enough, to kill a Witch. Three badgers were permanently assigned to guard and watch over the Witches, they lived in a burrow at the foot of the snare. Once the devlins approached they stood their ground and fought gallantly; it was not an even fight and they knew they were unevenly matched in a fight with a much larger, more battle hardy group of devlins. The badger’s tenacity accomplished one important thing that would prove to be pivotal; they bought some time – not much, but enough. The larger devlin unceremoniously shoved Ryan forward encouraging him to approach the sleeping Wendy as he struggled to figure out his escape plan.

She looked so beautiful, peaceful and fresh as the day she’d been spellbound in this obvious case of mistaken identity – they didn’t know her story like he did. Ryan looked at her beautiful face now ashen and drained of the blush that normally illuminated her cheekbones. Her auburn hair fell gracefully around her face and her arms were folded across her chest. It was there again; another urgent push in the back, this time accompanied by a grunt that signaled the urgency. The forest had gone eerily quiet as if the animals were all watching him and holding their collective breath. He could see the three Witches sleeping and arranged next to Wendy with their hooked noses, warts and puckered faces protruding from their grass shrouds. How could Wendy be one of them? She wasn’t, he told himself and he was here to prove them all wrong by righting this injustice.

Ryan fell to his knees and reached for the heavy golden flagon, he gazed into Wendy’s innocent eyes as he gripped the flagon’s gold cap. A commotion behind him temporarily commanded his attention as a large muscular tiger sprang from the bushes and attacked a large devlin protecting Ryan. The other devlins rushed to his assistance but more tigers arrived to join the fight. A badly wounded badger caught a glimpse of the impressive tigers as the last spark of his spirit ebbed away from his lifeless body.

The battle was fierce as the devlins fought to protect Ryan and protect his mission. Ryan hurriedly opened the cap dipping his finger into the neck of the flagon trying to ignore the chaos behind him. The thick wetness of the Milkenweed glowed upon his finger as he reached inwards towards Wendy’s lips. He wiped his dripping finger across her lifeless lips allowing the glowing liquid to penetrate and fall into her mouth. For an instant nothing happened and he was stricken with fear – was all of this for nothing?

Suddenly Wendy gasped deeply for air bucking wildly, uncontrollably with her body writhing in pain; one final spasm subsided as her eyes finally opened. She immediately sat upright quickly surveying her surroundings for immediate danger. Dark clouds gathered quickly overhead with billowing tortured faces appearing in the swirling folds. Jean d’Alluye looked skywards and encouraged his stallion to run faster. The tigers were starting to overpower the devlins in an epic battle of speed, strength, cunning and power. Wendy gazed upon the love-struck Ranger trying to keep his promise to her. Her situation and her surroundings finally becoming clear she realized and seized upon the opportunity now presented to her.

While snared within their protective restraints the Witches power continued to grow, frustrated by their incarceration and unable to break free from the powerful spell. They’d tried to live their lives quietly hidden in the woods, until their powers grew from feeding upon the negative energies of war, strife, prejudice, disease, hatred and the growing levels of evil within the realm.

The Witches experimented with more powerful spells where they brought disease and death to the surrounding villagers. They’d advanced to a point where they could change the formation of matter and change form. Left unchecked they would soon have the ability to open inter-dimensional portals designed to invite more evil into the realm. Their ultimate goal would be to open a portal into the dark realms and invite the Dark Prince to step through into this realm. A flood of beasts, gargoyles, demons and unimaginable evil would pour through to convert Bardonia and the sixth realm over to the dark side completely. All good would be eradicated and the forest would burn leaving a charred smoking world full of death, disease and evil.

The Witches had been secured by a spell rendering them helpless yet despite their growing powers only one thing could break their incarceration – Milkenweed.

Ryan had unwittingly supplied the key to their escape; he placed a few Milkenweed drops onto Wendy’s lips. She rose effortlessly, the rosy color of her complexion came flooding back to her cheeks and the sparkle immediately returned to her once vacant eyes. She had Ryan completely besotted staring at her face while a dangerous frantic bloody battle surrounded him. The tigers were about to break through by removing the last devlin who offered resistance. Ryan noticed a small path leading away from the snare, “Quickly, let’s go this way,” he urged grabbing Wendy’s cold hand.

Wendy resisted flicking her hand towards the heavy golden flagon that Ryan gripped tightly. An invisible force wrenched the flagon away from Ryan’s grip; it rose and flew through the air as if possessed. To Ryan’s utter astonishment the heavy flagon landed gracefully upon Wendy’s upturned palm. With her other hand Wendy pointed to Ryan’s feet; instantly the ground started to rumble with a strange noise and clouds of dust shot from the ground in strange patterns; tree roots emerged rapidly from the forest floor and began to wrap themselves around Ryan’s feet coiling their way up his legs while binding him in place. Ryan was trapped, immobile and rooted to the ground – literally.

Ryan looked up desperately at Wendy’s smiling face, “Foolish boy,” she sneered her voice growing grotesquely deeper and sinister sounding. Ryan’s face said it all, he was deeply hurt, betrayed and felt like the village fool, how could he have not seen this when everyone else did? She waved her hand again and pointed over his shoulder towards the brave tigers destined to be her next victims. They tried to run, writhed and struggled to break free from the surging roots that grabbed them from the ground beneath. Despite the snarling, growling, hissing and yelps of pain, all of the tigers were forcefully restrained, trapped by the binding roots that wound around the tiger’s limbs, paws, tails and bodies.

Wendy casually walked over to Ryan paralyzed with fear and immobilized by the restrictive tightening of the roots wrapping his legs and arms. Wendy ran her long finger nails down Ryan’s flushed cheek, “Foolish, foolish boy – Of course I’m a Witch, thank you for bringing me this,” she said thrusting the flagon against his face, “I’ll be happy to use this to release my sisters, they can decide how you’ll die.” Wendy laughed an evil sinister laugh that Ryan would never forget. Ryan shook his head reflecting upon how stupid he had been. Why didn’t he listen to Eian who told him repeatedly that she was a Witch? Why had his heart overruled his head? How could he be such an idiot – a love struck blind fool? Why is it that a woman can easily manipulate a man who falls in love?

As Ryan lamented his gullible nature a white flashing blur caught the attention of his eye. Wendy had crouched upon one knee turning her back momentarily to feed the Milkenweed to one of her sisters. A large dappled stallion flashed by Ryan at great speed allowing Jean d’Alluye with his blade drawn to slash at the unsuspecting Witch with a brutal downwards blow. The sword caught Wendy cleanly at the shoulder severing her arm in one vicious strike. The arm detached instantly and with it fell the golden flagon spilling Milkenweed onto the grass. Wendy let out a blood-curdling scream, so loud it made the trapped tiger’s recoil in horror. She turned her injured body, blood still streaming from her open wound to face her attacker, the brave knight. With her other arm she pointed her finger at her wound and a flash of light temporarily blinded all who were near. A scaly shell wrapped itself around her shoulder sealing her wound and preserving her powers. She glared at the knight, revenge flashing in fiery callous eyes. She pointed at the knight’s stallion with devastating effect. A broad blinding beam of white-hot light shot straight into the horse’s side puncturing his skin, ripping a wide hole into his stomach and causing the horse to drop instantly to the floor writhing in pain from the fatal wound.

Jean managed to leap from the horse and break the force of his fall with his shield. As he tried to regain his footing, Wendy pointed at Jean where a white beam of intense light streamed unsympathetically towards him. Jean managed to raise his shield in a defensive maneuver to deflect the beam skywards saving his torso from being ripped to shreds. The Byzantium metal shield held strong thwarting the evil force that was directed towards the knight by the angry Witch.

The Witch spun creating a swirling wind that pulled dirt from the ground into a blinding cloud. Jean could feel roots surging around his feet and shooting up his armored legs. He hacked at them frantically slashing the roots with his sword. The Witch stuck her hand into her mouth and tore at one of her long fingernails. She pulled it out of her hand spitting it at the frantic knight. The nail flew through the air turning into the shape of a large black bat. It flapped its wings and attacked the knight. The bat’s teeth were large and sharp but the bat had sharp pointed talons on its wings that it used to slash at the knight. The roots surged relentlessly trying to restrain the knight as the large bat swirled above attacking the distracted knight. The Witch unleashed her power but his thick shield again repelled her ray of light. The knight was distracted and the Witch had the power to finish him off but inexplicably she made a decision that would ultimately change the course of history for this realm.

Wounded and angry, Wendy decided to turn her full attention to her snared sisters – perhaps she could awaken them, retrieve the spilled Milkenweed and together they could defeat this pesky irritable knight. Jean anticipated Wendy’s next move but she surprised him. As she spun around to face her sisters, her dress drenched in blood, she flung out her arm and pointed it towards Ryan. Instantly the roots that secured him to the ground started to climb the remainder of his body muffling his screams as they tightened choking the last breath from his lifeless body. Wendy showed no remorse or sympathy for the young man that had fallen in love with her. Wendy had flirted with Ryan but it was now clear for all he was to her was a temporary distraction on a couple of hot summer evenings within the forest, a poor soul to help pass the time and relieve the boredom. Wendy kneeled again attempting to retrieve the golden flagon and its spilled contents from the ground. It still contained some of the glowing liquid within its glass flask.

Jean realized his mistake and his heart felt like it flew into his throat – he was too far away to prevent her from using the Milkenweed. The bat swooped in for the kill but Jean had wriggled his arm free and swiped quickly at the ferocious bat. The blade whipped through the air catching the approaching bat on the neck severing its head in one efficient blow. The body of the bat crashed into Jean knocking him to the ground. This turned out to be a seminal moment in Bardonian history; it was the moment that would be immortalized, sung about in ballads, painted and weaved into tapestries that would hang in the great halls of Elfen and Ricar castles forever. Jean knew he couldn’t reach the deceptive Witch in time to prevent her from waking her sister. He also knew he would not be able to overpower the combined forces of many Witches, but what could he do?

The roots surged taking advantage of his fallen position. He tilted his head skywards and watched the white head of an eagle fly by contrasted against the swirling black clouds that were starting to blot out the light. That’s the moment the idea came to him – like a vision from the stars; his hand rested upon the handle of his Byridium metal sword. He discarded his heavy shield stripping himself from his only protection. As if they knew, the tigers stopped their struggling and remained still, silent and calm, as the shield hit the ground with an audible thud. Jean raised his unusual sword high above his shoulders and contorted his body to throw the sword like a javelin. He would be afforded one opportunity; one shot, one important shot to save the realm and succeed in his mission. His armor was bulky and heavy, under which he wore chain mail and a flowing tunic – could he do this?

As he raised the sword he noticed how deceptively light it was but combined with his armor he had to strain summoning all of his strength and determination to launch the sword through the air and direct it towards the Witches’ turned back. He watched in horror as the light weight blade wobbled through the air in an ungainly arc. The tigers followed the unlikely blade as their heads moved together and their eyes widened at the sight. The sword flew awkwardly through the air but it penetrated Wendy’s shoulder blade with ease, slicing through skin, muscle and bone. It landed with a heavy thud causing Wendy to exhale loudly before slumping to one side in a fatal heap.

Upon her death the roots fell away allowing Jean to pick up his shield and run towards Wendy still unsure if he needed to finish the job. The remarkable blade had penetrated Wendy’s back passing clean through her ribs, and heart, killing her instantly. As the sword entered her upper back she’d managed to dip her finger into the Milkenweed and was about to wipe it onto the lips of one of the Witches. As she slumped forward in her last defiant act she wanted desperately to release her sister to exact revenge. Wendy slumped into a crumpled heap skewered by a sharp unforgiving Byridium sword, as she fell forward she managed to direct her finger to the mouth of the sleeping Witch.

When Wendy expired the restraints provided by her spell allowed the tigers to wriggle free; the lead tiger charged towards the remaining Witches ahead of the charging knight. The Larkinsfelt weed that provided the restraints unraveled and fell away releasing the Witch closest to Wendy’s body. Her eyes opened and she sat upright trying to orient herself quickly to her surroundings. A tiger had noticed the movement and immediately pounced upon the newly released Witch. The Witch reacted quickly by flicking her palm and powerfully pushing the tiger’s heavy leaping body aside like it was a rag doll – slamming him into the thick trunk of a nearby tree. The tiger was brave and fearless – but no match for the older, and more powerful Witch. While the tiger was not successful in his attack he’d provided a necessary distraction to provide time for Jean to arrive at the scene in a position to take action. The Witch, still shaken by her awakening, swiped her hand towards the approaching knight, but as he had done before his shield deflected the powerful force. In one quick movement the knight lunged to his side, deflecting the fatal white beam of light. He withdrew the sword from Wendy’s slumped dead body and using his shield to block her powers he disguised his actions until he was close enough to the Witch.

Jean thrust his strong arm forward ramming the sword’s sharp tip through the Witch’s breast with as much force as he could muster instantly piercing her heart. A fierce burning sensation coursed through her body as she screamed her obvious displeasure. The injured tiger lifted his head to watch the Witch die a painful death. Jean withdrew his arm quickly extracting the blade that so expertly administered the fatal wound. He quickly moved to the other Witches resting in their snared slumber and without mercy or compassion performed the same action eliminating the threat of these evil powerful Witches from Bardonia and the sixth realm. The knight retrieved the Golden Flagon acutely aware of its mystical healing properties. He walked over to the badly injured tiger lying bravely at the base of a thick tree. The tiger had blood seeping from its mouth, several broken ribs and a broken back making his hind legs unusable. In this state the tiger would surely die. The worried tiger had barely enough strength to raise his sad amber colored eyes expecting Jean to administer a blow from the mighty sword to relieve him of his misery. It would have been the humane thing to do; the other tigers offered little resistance as they expected the same fate, they were saddened by the crippled state of their leader. One tiger turned away not wanting to see the final blow to this proud animal that fought valiantly.

Instead, the knight kneeled at the tiger’s motionless head and poured a little of the glowing Milkenweed into the palm of his hand offering it to the brave tiger. The tiger summoned every ounce of energy he had left to lap at the sweet liquid unsure of its origin and unfamiliar with its odor. Instantly his pain ebbed away and he clambered back onto all fours standing and feeling strong and rejuvenated. The tiger hunched down aggressively and growled at movement in the bushes behind the knight; two Ricars, a monk and an Elfen Ranger emerged.

Kaan, the monk, was the first to speak, “The Witches?”

Jean answered, “All dead,” he spoke with a familiarity, as if he knew Kaan well.

Eian’s gaze was transfixed upon the broken crumpled body to his right, still ensnared and suffocated by a mass of thick dusty dirt covered roots, “Ryan?”

“I’m afraid he’s gone, she killed him for fun – I think it was just out of spite.” Jean pushed his unusual but mighty sword back into its scabbard, “The devlins?” he inquired.

“All gone, the tigers and panthers are rounding up the remaining strays,” Kaan rubbed his face and he walked towards the knight extending his hand, “It’s good to see you old friend, I know she’s waiting for you.”

“It’s good to see you too,” said Jean, shaking the monk’s hand. Jean turned to face Eian and the Ricars, “Forgive me for saying this but you’re not Ricars, are you the two who freed me from the suspension spell back at the museum?”

Dan and Raj both nodded, a little awestruck at the sight of the majestic knight.

The knight knelt upon his knee and bowed his head in reverence, “I thank you for your bravery kind Sirs, you were mentioned in the prophecy and the whole realm thanks you for your actions.” It was a mark of respect rooted in another time but for Dan and Raj it was a moment they would treasure for the rest of their lives. They knew they’d helped the knight get to Bardonia but they couldn’t help but question the price they would have to pay for their actions.

Earth had been their home, their crimson butterfly escape, and their sanctuary – where they could return to normalcy when they took a break in their adventure. It seemed their world had changed becoming more sinister. If the dark forces could penetrate and invade their realm, Earth, then they would need to be vigilant at all times. A Witch had cast a vile spell upon the crusader knight while in Earth’s realm and the dark forces will be seeking an answer to the question – who released him? Who on Earth has this ability in modern times? They unwittingly had become targets.

Dan and Raj smiled and nodded at the brave knight, Jean stood and slowly walked towards Eian, “A small Elfen Ranger with a heart larger than all of us. Armed with a small sword, a bow, and unwavering determination – you’ve managed to keep us all together, to keep us moving towards this glorious conclusion and we thank you and salute you brave Ranger. You’re a credit to your colors. We all know what the prophecy said, but we cannot have this realm believing that its fate depended upon the intervention of creatures from another time and another realm. Do you see how that would be disruptive to your society and its belief system?”

Eian nodded, not fully understanding the ramifications of the knight’s point.

“We have to tell your people a small white lie, they don’t need to know about this sword or the power invested within this ring, that will draw attention to me and feed the evil forces needing to find and eradicate me. The Ricars standing here and the monk will be hunted for their part in this and we need to protect their identities. I’m sorry young Elfen, we have to do this, but we’ll need to change the sequence of events that occurred on this fateful day and you will have to bare a great burden my friend – for the common good. If we have earned your respect today then you have an opportunity to help us, by taking the bravest step of them all. We need you to take responsibility for this, we need you to be known as the one who stood tall and fought bravely and defeated the Witches. You killed the young Witch and you killed the older more powerful Witches.” Eian recoiled shaking his head, “You fought valiantly alongside the knight, the monk and the Ricars,” his story was quickly interrupted by a loud aggressive growl. “My sincere apologies to my majestic friends,” said the knight bowing his head in respect, “and, of course, the tigers and the animals of the realm. But, it will have to be you, young Elfen Ranger that goes into the history books as the vanquisher and the savior, for we can’t draw any more attention to our very existence – do you understand and are you willing to shoulder this burden?”

Eian just stared letting the gravity of the request wash over him, “I don’t feel good about living a lie; I would be taking credit for your actions and that’s not honorable – but yet I understand why you ask, and reluctantly accept your challenge to me.”

“The tigers will tell the animals what happened here today for they already know of our kind but you will be lauded as a hero and we will quietly slip away into the shadows – it’s what we want.”

Eian puffed out his chest and glanced at Ryan’s crumpled remains, “My friend, he was really deceived but he was a good man, a man of honor – I don’t want history to think he was evil, he was seduced by her beauty and deceived.”

Raj glanced at the sky, the once dark swirling clouds with ominous tortured faces appearing within their shapes had started to dissipate leaving a welcome blue sky, he stepped forward, “A man will always follow his head and the stronger traits of logic will always prevail, but a good man will always follow his heart when it comes to decisions he must make about a woman. Ryan paid the ultimate price but he was deceived, he didn’t want to believe she was a Witch and, in the end, she turned on him. There is a lesson here, to see through your heart and use your head.”

The words had just left his mouth when crimson winged butterflies fluttered across the clearing catching the attention of the vigilant tiger guard. Raj raced over to Eian thrusting a leather pouch full of golden nuggets into Eian’s hand. “This is yours now my boy,” a swirl of light flooded Raj and Dan’s heads as they were instantly transported back to their realm.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

The Fifth Realm – Earth

 

 

Chapter 12: A Good Friend.

Westtown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

 

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient of communication.”

 

 

Feeling satisfied and exhausted, both Dan and Raj were transported back to the safety of Raj’s apartment where it all began that fateful evening when the Dream Cane sprung into life selecting Dan as Raj’s travel partner and successor. The inevitable knock at the door snapped them back to reality as Liz impatiently waited for a response. Dan leapt for the door as Raj winced from the searing pain shooting down his leg, the tightness across his chest, and the numbness in his left arm. Raj loved being a Ricar, or any other creature on an adventure the Dream Cane wanted to send him on. Raj loved having an avatar, another person or creature’s body, for it was usually strong and vibrant. When he returned home he was always shocked at how bad he felt, how old and tired his body really was.

 

“I’m coming Mum, hold on,” shouted Dan as he slid open the latch to the door.

 

“Ok love, hi Raj,” said Liz peering around the door but not wanting to enter. She was tired after her shift and while she was eternally grateful for Raj she really didn’t feel like getting dragged into a long conversation.

 

“Hi,” responded Raj with a simple wave of the hand, his head was still spinning as a result of the journey from Bardonia, it seemed that Dan always managed to bounce back and recover quickly – it was taking Raj a little longer each time.

  • * * * *

 

 

The following day was a school day and it started like every other dreary Monday morning except this day was going to be different – Dan would insist upon it. Dan had finally won his ongoing battle with himself around his feelings of guilt and sensibility. He’d decided to finally send a very clear, but different, message to two girls at his school today. His intentions were to set Ally straight; she was clearly a liar and a thief, and he had no time for such an immoral character in his life or his circle of friends. Jen would receive a kinder message and hopefully one that would be reciprocated. After all of her outrageous flirting and suggestive remarks Dan was finally ready to take their burgeoning romance to the next level. He was at ease with his decision to officially dump Ally and get serious with Jen. The fact that Jen would be Dan’s girlfriend would spread like a wild fire through the schools rumor mill; it was going to be an eventful day.

 

The walk into school went surprisingly quick, Dan had procrastinated by dragging his feet but rehearsing his lines and thinking about how he would handle various scenarios, conversations and individuals was a welcome distraction that had occupied his time. He’d arrived at the school almost on autopilot, as he couldn’t remember details about his journey or passing any of the familiar landmarks upon his route. Upon arrival at his school and the creature of habit that he was, he headed for the same morning meeting area that he always did. He saw the usual group of kids and walked over to them in a determined mood.

 

“Look what the cat dragged in from the weekend!” laughed Ray, teasing Dan about his disheveled look.

 

“I think it’s hot,” smiled Jen – even though she preferred Dan to look neat, rather than his rugged appearance today; she knew she could work on his appearance once she had him to herself.

 

Ally was a bit more hesitant, “Hi, how are you?” she said looping her arm around his forearm and sending a strong signal to Jen.

 

“I’m fine thanks,” snapped Dan, moving his arm away abruptly and sending a completely different signal to Jen. Jen noticed Dan’s cool reaction and liked the way he had rebuffed Ally’s show of affection. Dan flicked his unruly hair back out of his eyes and tried to smooth it out. He barged past Ally and stood closer to Jen, very close. Ray’s initial laughter quickly subsided as his confused look turned to shock when he realized Dan was moving in on his girl.

 

“What are you doing?” he barked.

 

“Using my head,” said Dan, “I find when it comes to women you often have to see past your heart and use your head.” Dan remembered the broken twisted lifeless body of Ryan, betrayed for following his heart. Ally’s face crinkled in disgust, she was angry, confused, embarrassed and hurt. Ally’s face flushed a bright crimson color; she could feel the heat of her embarrassment in her cheeks. She stared at her feet, hanging her head in shame before turning quickly and deciding to just walk away. She headed to the far end of the cafeteria before exiting to get some fresh air trying to conceal her tears.

 

“That was intense and totally deep dude,” said Ray breaking the awkward silence. Jen was delighted to shuffle a little closer to Dan where her arm touched his. Ray was not pleased but tried to distract them, “I have some good news to share with you both – I’m going to Paris, yeah!” Ray’s ‘yeah’ was not as enthusiastic as he’d wanted it to be, the sight before him confirmed his chances of getting with Jen had fallen to zero. “Did either of you hear me? I’m going to Paris.”

 

“What, say that again – you’re going?” said Dan, finally listening and pretending to care, “I thought your money was stolen?”

 

“Here’s the funny thing dude, I put it in an envelope and shoved it into my backpack right. A few days later I flung my backpack on my bed at home and the envelope peeked out from a tear in the inside lining. It was in there the whole time, in my backpack – isn’t that great news, so I didn’t lose it at all.”

 

Dan’s eyes widened as the truthful words hung in the air to remind him what a colossal fool he’d been. Ray was excited and pleased; Dan was not.

 

There was a look of horror on Dan’s face, “Oh no,” Dan reached for his backpack laying on the floor at his feet, snatched it up with one hand and ran after Ally leaving Jen with her mouth wide open.

 

What a fool he’d been, what an idiot. Luckily for Dan he remembered where Ally always went when she wanted to be alone at school. He caught her crying, angry and alone; Dan decided that honesty was his best defense and came clean around his feelings of suspicion. He begged for forgiveness and to his surprise Ally fell relieved into his arms and cried even harder. He leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips staring at her beautiful eyes, “I’ve been such a fool, I’m so sorry I ever doubted you, but I couldn’t see how you could ever get the money and every time I asked you wouldn’t tell me.”

 

“It’s partly my fault,” said Ally through her tears.

 

“No, no, it’s not your fault at all, it’s all my fault, my mess up and I’m sorry.”

 

“Just listen to me Dan, just be quiet for a second and listen.” Ally had never spoken this directly to Dan before so he immediately complied. “I was sworn to secrecy and I made a promise. I promised I would never, ever, reveal where I got the money from for this trip; but I’m going to break my promise for you. Here goes,” she said taking a deep breath, “I got the money from your Mum, Liz.”

 

Dan’s eyes widened, “What? – I don’t understand.”

 

Ally interrupted, “She showed up at my house one night and talked with my Mum, she asked me how I felt about you and told me that you really liked me.”

 

“Awww man,” Dan rubbed his face in embarrassment and anger.

 

“Don’t be mad at her, she said that you’d been a different person, a better person, since you met me. So she really wanted me to go on this trip with you and that’s when she gave us an envelope containing enough money to send me to Paris – she insisted. My Mum was embarrassed, we both tried to refuse and give it back but your Mum, but she was so insistent, I mean really insistent.”

 

“That’s my Mum,” Dan said rolling his eyes.

 

“She wants us to be together, she said she had a feeling about me and the positive influence I had on you, I liked that, and I want us to be together. She said she’d worked really hard for this money and she couldn’t think of any better way to spend it than bringing you happiness.”

 

Dan and Ally patched up their fractious relationship and eventually agreed that Liz had done a wonderful thing. Liz didn’t have a lot of money to spare and she’d sacrificed to enable Ally to be with Dan in Paris. She wanted them to be together because she knew how much it meant to Dan. Perhaps her struggles to find the right partner in her own life weighed heavily into her decision.

 

For once the school day flew by with interesting classes and a long walk with Ally at the lunch break to talk through the past week’s events. Ally had stopped walking at one point, she’d squeezed Dan’s hand and turned to face him, “Let’s make a promise; let’s never keep secrets from each other again – it only causes problems and I don’t want problems between us ever again. Here’s to no secrets.”

 

“No secrets,” said Dan, thinking about the Dream Cane, Raj, and his new adventuresome life. Dan paused, reflected, and opened his mouth as if he were about to speak, feeling ashamed he closed his mouth again and just smiled.

 

Once the day was drawing to a close, Dan had walked home feeling relieved and confident in his renewed feelings for Ally. He was extremely proud of his Mother’s intervention and overwhelmed by her generosity. He thought carefully about how he would address this topic with his Mother that night at dinner. Dan was rehearsing his words, thoughts and responses; he was so much in his head that he walked right past the makeshift sign taped to the restaurant window informing patrons that they would be closed tonight.

 

Dan bounded up the stairs leading to his apartment; he entered announcing his arrival, “Hi Mum, I’m home.” Dan moved quickly to his bedroom where he stored his heavy backpack and joined his Mother in the living room.”

 

She looked nervous, concerned and was quiet, “I have something to talk with you about, come, sit here,” she said, patting the couch cushion next to her.

 

Dan thought he’d put her at ease right away so she didn’t have to fret, “I know Mum. I know what you did for Ally and I just wanted to say I’m really proud of you – thank you so much. Mum, I’m not mad at you, I love you.”

 

Liz stared at Dan; she was taken aback and surprised she was having this conversation, “Thank you love, and I love you too – but that’s not what I want to talk to you about.” She looked downwards and grabbed his hands cupping them tenderly. Tears welled up in her eyes, “It’s Raj, I’m so sorry love, this afternoon he suffered a massive heart attack. I was out shopping but when I got home I got a call from the hospital from my boss. She told me not to come in to work tonight; I’m so sorry love but Raj has passed away. I’m so sorry love, I know you were so close.”

 

Too many thoughts battered there way into Dan’s head as he sat there silent and in shock.

 

 

 

The End …

 

 

“The moment you stop believing in fanciful things, the world stops being fanciful.”

- Phil Armstrong

 

 

Author’s note: Jean d’Alluye was a real crusader knight but his exploits and association with the order of the Golden Fleece are fictional and written for entertainment purposes only.


Witches Snared

Raj and Dan are again summoned by the Dream Cane to a strange new realm. Danger awaits as evil witches grow in power casting spells that will plunge this world into a shroud of evil and eternal darkness. A collection of Elfen creatures, a brave crusader knight, and gifted monks are asked to combine forces with the forest animals in an unlikely alliance to save their world. A fascinating read that spans time and worldly realms culminating in an epic battle that unites the forest’s inhabitants against the most powerful and evil force they have ever encountered. An intelligent read that teases the reader with the concepts of trust, loyalty, betrayal, and of course love. Witches Snared will trap you deep within the adventure, leaving you eager to see where it ends and where the Dream Cane will lead you next.

  • ISBN: 9780987728456
  • Author: Phil Armstrong
  • Published: 2016-09-13 03:35:15
  • Words: 66402
Witches Snared Witches Snared