On the edge of Lacsar Forest, just barely beyond the border of Harrowbeth’s last dwelling, Ian led the individual he had sought out toward the heart of the woods. It was no challenge to follow the healthy trail created by Eena where her bare feet had tread earlier that morning. Kahm Derian matched Ian’s hurried pace, scolding the young protector at every step.
“How could you let her do this? How could you walk her halfway through the woods and then abandon her to face those witches alone?”
Ian clenched his jaw, struggling to keep his silence. He was growing tired of hearing the captain berate his actions, and wondered how much longer the lambasting would go on.
“What in the world could she possibly have been thinking?” Derian complained. His arms flailed in frustration as he jogged a few steps to catch up to his guide. “I swear that woman has to be the most reckless, stubborn, unreasonable…”
“Then why do you want to marry her?” Ian snapped. He should have bit his tongue, he knew that, but to hear the captain criticize their queen in such a manner was intolerable.
Derian’s response, though defensive, was sincere. “I may find her stubbornness frustrating, I won’t deny it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the woman. I just wish she would think things through first and make it easier to help her.”
That was something they could agree on.
The captain continued trying to put his concerns into words. “It’s like she feels this need to prove something; I’m not sure what exactly. She already knows how much she’s needed. She knows I love her. She knows how genuinely I want to be there for her.”
Ian muttered a possibility the captain hadn’t mentioned. “Maybe what she wants is to know that you don’t blame her.”
“Yes, you know, ‘I told you so….this is all your fault.’ Your usual dose of criticism.” Ian didn’t look to see if he had hit a nerve, but the volume in Derian’s response attested to it.
“I never said ‘I told you so.’ She was the one who forced me to…”
“Forced you to say it?”
“No!” Derian huffed disgustedly before continuing with his defense. “She kept pushing me and pushing me to say it. ‘Derian, just say I told you so—just say it!’ Well, I didn’t. I refused! But I could only take so much of her badgering before I finally agreed with her.” The captain quickly added, “Even so, I never said the words!”
Ian couldn’t help but snicker. “You two are quite the pair, I swear.”
Something incoherent fell from the captain’s lips. Ian didn’t bother to ask him to repeat himself.
“You know, if you’d just try listening to her sometimes…”
“I do listen,” Derian snapped.
Ian groaned. “Right, I can see that. What I mean is, try actually listening without commenting on every other sentence—without blaming her or correcting her or throwing your know-it-all, two-cents worth in or anything like that. Just open your ears and hear what she’s trying to tell you. Watch what she’s trying to tell you. I guarantee she can’t argue with you if you’d keep your mouth shut.”
“And I suppose you think you’re better at communicating with her than I am.”
“Light years,” Ian mumbled as if it were a clear and plain fact.
“I see. And that’s why she listens to you so well….why she followed you home just now.”
Ian turned his head sideways to glare at the captain. “She did agree to come home. I told you, she disappeared the minute we turned back. Neither one of us had any control over it.”
The captain’s eyebrows skewed in a skeptical manner. “Right.”
Ian slowed his steps to turn more towards his accuser. “She was headed home to talk to you, even though she wasn’t very happy about it.”
“But she was more than happy to talk to you, huh? Is that why she told you all about how she planned to confront those wretched sisters today? Or were you just not listening at the time?”
Both men came to a standstill to fully face one another. Four fists balled up in response to the heightened tension.
Ian growled through clenched teeth, “I think you’re getting us confused. You’re the one who never listens, remember? That’s why she comes to me all the time. That’s why I’m her best friend and you’re not.” His jab was directed well below the belt, but Ian was too angry to care. Meeting Derian’s glower, he waited for a defensive comeback.
The captain drew in a deep breath. “I guess it’s nice to know you’re good at something……considering your family’s monumental failure as protectors.”
Ian lost it, not expecting such a ruthless retort. He charged forward and grabbed two fistfuls of shirt, forcefully shoving his antagonizer against the crumbling bark of a nearby tree. Derian simply smirked, almost arrogant in how he had caused Ian to lose his self-control. A trembling grip tightened around the captain’s collar.
“My father did everything he could to protect Sha Tashi! He wasn’t prepared for what happened to her! He would have given his life to save hers had he known what your father had planned! Eena isn’t just my queen, she’s my best friend! I’d do anything within my power to keep her safe, including lay down my life for hers.”
“As would I.”
Ian stared at the truth smoldering in the captain’s eyes and then pushed himself away. He turned to trudge further into the forest, not bothering to wait.
Derian took a moment to breathe before following at a distance. It would require no special tracking skills to keep on the trail. His weak victory faded soon enough, and he felt an appropriate regret for his harsh words. Of course Ian’s father had done all he could to protect Sha Tashi and Shen Laynn. The man had been unjustly criticized by many Harrowbethians for the deaths of their king and queen, but it was hard not to bring up that unfortunate error now and then when Ian’s closeness to Eena threatened the captain’s confidence.
As boys, Derian had developed a strong loathing for the young protector from the day he had appeared at Lacsar Castle as her personal guard. That wasn’t Ian’s fault; he had been born into the calling. But it was hard not to feel a bitter envy toward the guy and his position in her life. After years of hiding, Eena had returned to them, but who had successfully wriggled his way in as her best friend?
Derian grumbled in his throat, recalling his strict order to his entire crew, insisting they not speak to Eena while looking after her on Earth. Those sent as watchmen were to observe from a distance until the time was right to bring her aboard the Kemeniroc. Ian, however, had “accidentally” caught her attention and within a day had attached himself at her hip as chums. The captain could have recalled him to the ship then, but it seemed convenient to have someone keeping an extra close eye on her. The man was her protector, after all. In hindsight, the decision smelled of regret. Derian had failed to foresee how over time Eena might fall in love with Ian—with the wrong guy! She was promised to Derian, a fact Ian knew well, yet the conniver had allowed himself to grow overly attached to her. Consequently, she had developed improper feelings for her best friend.
Derian combed his fingers over his scalp. It didn’t matter that she was past those feelings now. The fact that it had ever happened was unacceptable, and it made him angry every time he thought about it. None of the mix-up was her fault; Eena had known nothing about their promise. But her protector had been well aware and once again had stepped in where Derian belonged.
It’s true that after a good fist fight over the matter Ian had backed down. And yes, he had done his best to gently push Eena away from their forbidden love. Ultimately, he had done the right thing. And once Angelle, Ian’s promised one, had entered the picture, winning Eena’s heart had proved easier. In spite of everything, those initial trials may actually have strengthened their love.
Derian smiled feebly to himself, thinking of the previous evening. A perfect evening. After weeks of courting his love, Eena had finally agreed to wear his promise pendant. He had vowed not to rush her, wanting to give her time to make up her own mind, wanting it to be her decision to accept the pendant willingly. It had felt like a dream when she asked him to attach the gold chain around her neck. Seeing that symbol of commitment dangling over her chest had meant more to him than life itself. And then later that evening when she whispered those precious words to him for the first time….I love you. It gave him hope that her feelings for Ian were truly changed. Not nonexistent, but not a real threat anymore either.
The only threat he felt now was Ian’s constant reminders of how the two were, as he put it, best friends. It seemed like a childish notion—a way for them to continue their closeness under an acceptable label. Worse still was how Ian visited her dreams every night. On one hand he understood the necessity of it. Ian was the only one able to keep her from suffering horrendous nightmares. But on the other hand, it was disconcerting knowing another man existed in her dreams. The fact that it was Ian—the guy whom she had wept anguished tears over not so long ago—really stung. Derian wasn’t sure there would ever be a time he would not envy Ian’s relationship with Eena. All he knew was that he was the one promised to marry her. She loved him now. They would be Shen and Sha of Harrowbeth soon, and Ian’s dreamy, puerile friendship wasn’t going to stand in the way.
The captain sighed at his own petty jealousy. Of course he should apologize for his harsh words; it was the mature, honorable thing to do.
But he knew he wouldn’t.
The two men walked on quietly for almost half a mile, well into the thick of the withered forest. Dead, dry underbrush crunched beneath their footsteps, loudly protesting the bitter silence. Derian continued to mull over his emotions. Between his resentment toward Ian, his concern for Eena, and the guilt he felt for both, he was quickly sinking into a foul mood. He nearly walked right into his guide when Ian stopped short in front of him.
“This is it,” Ian announced at the end of the trail of green footsteps. “This is the place.”
“Where she disappeared?”
“Yes—no warning at all.” Ian turned to point at the surrounding graveyard of tree stumps. “I searched all around this spot, but I couldn’t find anything. Not her, not the cave…”
“You mean Wanyaka Cave.”
Derian scanned the bare trees as he spoke, avoiding eye contact. “You still think that’s where she is?”
Ian sighed in an agitated manner before repeating what he had already explained more than once. “Anesidora told her to go to the heart of Lacsar Forest. That has to be where she is; it’s where she was headed. Somehow the cave found her like the ghost said it would.”
Derian started forward again, moving into a wide cluster of knarred tree trunks that had been cut low years ago. Ian followed, grumbling behind the captain’s back.
“We should’ve brought help so we could cover ground faster.”
“I told you, Ian, I don’t want anyone to know about this. Not yet. After all we went through to get her home, can you imagine how the council would react if we told them we lost her in one day?”
Ian grimaced, allowing a low groan to cross his lips.
As if he felt the need to defend his decision, Derian assured his guide, “She’ll be alright. They need her alive, they won’t hurt her.”
The dry plant life seemed to multiply as they progressed past the cluster of stumps and on deeper into the woods. Bare limbs didn’t prevent darkness from closing in on them as tall, lanky branches mingled high above their heads. Each footstep seemed extra loud, broadcasted by the sound of brittle scrub collapsing under their weight.
Ian took off to the right when Derian veered left. They could easily hear one another as the echo of crackling twigs bounced from tree to tree. Progress slowed the further in they hiked, the fragile forest giving the illusion of huddling to keep out trespassers. Even the underbrush appeared to thicken at their advance, growing taller and more prickled as they progressed. When neither seeker had found a cavern or even a hint of an entrance to one, both men circled around and met up.
Ian wiped the sweat from his brow, letting out a deep, discouraged sigh. He was growing more worried and impatient by the minute. Derian stood tall and still, his usual commanding stance. His jaw stiffened and his dark eyes narrowed below a low line of furrowed eyebrows. He focused on a hollow stump up ahead and questioned Ian again.
“Are you certain there wasn’t something more Anesidora told her? Some other clue as to how to find them?”
Ian pursed his lips, irritated. He had already gone over this. “She told Eena to come here and the cave would find her. Maybe that’s the problem—maybe it was just meant for her.”
“Come here,” the captain repeated. “What do you mean by here? What exactly did she say?”
“Criminy, Derian, do you think I’m lying to you? You think I’m trying to hide her from you? I already told you everything I know.”
The captain didn’t react to Ian’s defensive outburst but restated the same request. “Tell me exactly what Anesidora said, word for word. What instructions did she give Eena?”
Ian hung his head, letting it sway back and forth as he thought. “Okay. She told Eena to come see her so they could talk more. Eena said something about not knowing where to go, and Anesidora said to head into the heart of Lacsar Forest. Ohhh…” Ian looked up remembering something. “She mentioned the heart of the forest near Iccarus Circle. I’ve never heard of it. I assumed she meant some open grove in the woods.”
Derian frowned deeply. “I’ve heard of the place.”
Ian dared to appear hopeful. The captain met his gaze for a second before turning his attention back to the trees.
“When I was a kid my father told my brother and me about a spot in the woods he had stumbled across. He talked of a circle of red bushes tucked in a narrow passage. He instructed us never to go there—said it wasn’t a safe place.” A quick glance at Ian caught a silent appeal for more details. “Of course we tried to find the place; we were young and curious. But we never did come across anything like what my father described.”
“A circle of red bushes?” Ian repeated.
“Yes. My father said….” Derian paused as if unsure about sharing his thought.
“Said what?” Ian prodded.
“Well, he said, uh.…he said it was the forest bleeding for the treasure it held captive there.” Derian caught the way Ian’s eyebrows arched with skepticism.
“The words of a foolish old man,” the captain muttered. “But he swore he’d found the place. And he called it Iccarus Circle. You think….perhaps?”
“Maybe,” Ian shrugged. “But where is it? How do we get to it?”
Derian ran his fingers over his scalp and then down the back of his neck. He squinted, staring forward, recalling a long-ago conversation.
“I remember him explaining how he happened upon it—that it wasn’t a traveled area. He told us the circle rested in a perfect hiding place because no one would ever think to step there.”
“So what do we do? Wander blindly around until we trip over a bleeding log?”
“Ian,” the captain grumbled.
“What? You’re not giving me anything to go on here, and Eena’s still missing!”
The captain groaned with frustration. He wasn’t certain what they were looking for. “Just keep searching.”
The hunt continued, both men scanning their surroundings for any sign of a place no one would think to trespass. Their present conditions—in the center of a congested mass of trees, trying to avoid the prickly twigs accumulated there—seemed like a perfect description of such a place to Ian. Derian could hear his companion’s exasperation in louder, more frequent sighs. Neither stopped searching, however. After another good hour of pressing through the thickening forest, Ian stopped Derian in his tracks, yanking him back by the collar.
“Let go! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Look at your feet,” Ian explained. “There’s a cliff two strides away from you.”
The captain’s eyes fell, making out an abrupt ledge. He might have walked right off had he not been stopped. Crowded by trees, he had been completely focused on maneuvering around them. Those growing up from below the cliff were tall enough not to give away a lowered point of origin.
Derian backed up and stared at the ledge. It appeared they had hit a dead end. Or perhaps not.
“You know, this sure looks like a place you might stumble across and yet never purposefully step.”
“No way. You have no idea how far down…”
But the captain wasn’t listening. He marched determinedly forward.
“Derian, stop!” Ian cried.
The captain hesitated for only a second. “Just think of it this way—if it kills me, she’s all yours.” Then he stepped out over the brink and vanished.
Ian rushed forward. “Derian! Derian!” His knees hit the ground and he peered beyond the cliff, desperate to glimpse any sign of the captain. His head leaned this way and that way, but the mass of trees growing up from the ravine below blocked any decent view.
“Derian are you alright? Captain? Captain!” Ian stood up and took a quick look around, wondering what he should do. Then a voice rose up from a distance.
“Ian, I’m okay! You aren’t going to believe this—Iccarus Circle is real! I found it!”
Relieved and angry at the same time, Ian called back, “Criminy, Derian! That was a really stupid move!”
“Just get down here!”
Ian decided against the captain’s way down, instead taking a running leap for the nearest tree extending its limbs from the ravine below. On the climb down he estimated the descent to be about sixty feet. It was hard to believe Derian hadn’t broken a bone with his fall until Ian spied the curved ledge. Loose gravel and fresh, dark soil outlined his skidded slide down.
Lucky bastard, Ian thought.
When he reached a point about three feet from the ground, Ian jumped out of the tree. Derian turned at the loud thud, a crooked grin on his face.
“Took you long enough.”
“You’re fortunate to be alive. You had no idea what you were stepping into.”
“I had a gut feeling.”
“And what if you’d been wrong?”
The captain chuckled in a derisive way. “Like you wouldn’t have appreciated my early demise.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Ian insisted, adding with an adamant rise in his voice, “And Eena especially wouldn’t have.” Derian appreciated the thought.
“Anyway, I think we found what we’re looking for. This definitely resembles a red, bloody circle, and that looks like either an awfully big pile of rocks…..or a cave perhaps?”
Ian’s attention shifted to a heightened mound of jagged stone that rose from within a surrounding hedge of crimson. The hedge curved around the mound like an extended horseshoe moreso than an actual circle, lost on either side as it merged with cliffs on the opposite flank of the gorge. Every red twig was covered in healthy foliage, strangely unaffected by Eena’s years of absence. No obvious entrance into the cave was visible. The captain pressed forward through the barrier, but his guide hesitated.
“Your father was right.”
Derian scoffed. “I guess, about one thing anyway.” He turned to look at his companion. “Are you coming?”
“Sure, sure,” Ian muttered, still not budging. “I was just wondering…”
“If your father was right about this place being here, then he’s probably right about it being dangerous too.”
The captain cast him a harsh look that conveyed how little their safety mattered while Eena’s was at stake.
Ian quit hesitating and pushed forward through the fence of bushes, on up to the mound of jagged stone. The cave’s exterior wore spots of moss here and there—not the usual green moss, but a burgundy fuzz that blended with the black rock. Ian reached out to touch this odd-looking fur and felt a layer of beaded moisture. He followed a trickle of water up the rock and further on over the mound behind. Then his ear moved in to listen. His eyes closed at the same time, amplifying his sense of hearing.
“Anything?” Derian asked, wondering if Ian had tuned in to some unusual sound.
“Just water. Dripping water.”
The captain made his way around to the left side of the cave, feeling at protruding edges of stone for some sign of entry. Ian began calling out for their queen, feeling sure this was indeed Wanyaka Cave and that she was somewhere inside its walls.
“Eena, can you hear me? Eena, are you in there?”
He continued around to the right. “Eena? Can you give me a sign you’re in there? Yell or pound on the walls—anything!”
Without any forewarning, a strong wind swept through the ravine, behaving like a sudden tsunami of air flooding the narrow valley. Ian was knocked onto his back, somewhat sheltered by the cave outcropping. Derian, however, experienced the entire force of the gust, tossed like a rag doll away from the cave. He landed a couple yards beyond Ian’s location. His fingers grabbed for the base of a nearby bush to anchor himself. The harsh wind subsided for only a moment before a second, violent burst of air pushed through.
The captain tried to call for his companion, but his voice was drowned out by a fierce crack of thunder. Both men followed the boom upwards and watched fretfully as a dark mass of rolling clouds gathered overhead threatening a violent storm. At the next break in the wind’s fury, Derian jumped up and raced for Ian’s side of the cave. He hunched against the rock, seeking protection from nature’s fury. Ian quickly scuttled to his side, shouting above the roar of the storm.
“I’d say Vaughndorin was right about a couple things! I swear, Derian, if the ground starts bleeding…”
Hunkering down to keep from being blown away, Derian hollered, “How are we supposed to get inside this thing?”
“It finds you, remember? That’s what Anesidora said, the cave finds you!”
“So what happens when you find it first?”
“What?” A sudden crash of thunder made it impossible to hear.
“What the hell do we do now?”
No response followed the captain’s question. He did a double-take at his side where Ian had been crouched a second ago. The man was gone. Nothing but a tiny swirl of red leaves flicked against the black stone in his stead.
Derian tucked in his head, raising his shoulders protectively against the battering storm. “Great,” he murmured. “What next?”
Overhead, the clouds burst open releasing an ample supply of rain.
Darkness blinded him for the first few seconds. Ian rose from a hunched position beside a wall of cold stone, his hand shoving him away from wet rock. His back was drenched. The wetness chilled him like a river’s icy touch. His eyes blinked a few times before limited beams of light allowed him to focus on new surroundings. He immediately understood where he was. The cave had found him.
“Derian?” he uttered without a reply. He could only assume the captain remained outside.
A faint patter of rain was accompanied by a shrill hiss from wind that squeezed through tiny fractures in the stone. The sound resembled a ghostly howl—too ideal for what he knew lived imprisoned here. Ian was aware that Derian faced the storm alone now, but his top priority was their queen. He squinted, scanning the cave for her. She had to be inside somewhere.
“Eena? Eena where are you?”
He swallowed at the lack of response. Silence couldn’t be a good sign. With cautious steps he moved toward two columns positioned in the middle of the room. He understood that the bodies trapped inside were lifeless, but this knowledge didn’t ease his hesitance to approach. He fell short of the first tomb when he froze at a soft cooing in his ear. A cold shiver crawled up his spine. Had he not recognized the voice from Eena’s dream, he might have been seduced by its velvety sweetness.
“Protector,” the air seemed to breathe, “you are persistent. Amora is lucky to have such a courageous and dedicated young man watching over her.”
Ian gave the voice a name. “Ishtura.”
He turned his head to look for the ghostly sister. No presence was visible even though her words seemed to originate from beside him. A soft sigh warmed his neck, and he stepped away, finding the sensation unnerving.
“Where is Eena?” he demanded to know. “What have you done with her?”
“She’s fine. Don’t fear for your queen, brave one. We’ve no intention of harming her.”
“Give her back to me then.”
Ian turned in a complete circle, baffled by how the seductive utterances seemed to travel around him with no apparent source. “I’m not leaving here without her, Ishtura. Let her come home.”
The voice chuckled softly, ending in a purr. “She is home, protector. More so than you realize.”
Another delicate laugh. “Come, young man. Come forward and look upon the beauty behind the voice that soothes you. I am much to be desired.”
“No.” He turned his back on the black columns, refusing to even face them.
“As stubborn as your queen are you?”
Ian jumped when the next words sounded in his ear as if the seductress were leaning over his shoulder. “Be warned, Protector, your interference will not be tolerated….no matter how desirable I find you to be.”
He quickly whirled about to face nothing again, staggering a few steps in the process. The two stone columns stood before him now. He stared at the glassy tombs. They seemed to draw him forward.
“That’s right,” Ishtura encouraged. “Come closer. Look upon me. Tell me if I’m not the fairest you’ve ever laid eyes on. Just….one….glance, Protector.”
Her persistence sent warning signs churning in his gut. Ian forced himself to step away, feeling for the nearest wall. He struggled against temptation, battling an intense curiosity to see the immortal beauty for himself. But something told him doing so would prove detrimental. He remembered what Shanks had said about the Viiduns being seduced by these women. It was hard to believe, given the hideous appearance of their spirits in Eena’s nightmare. That’s probably why Ishtura wasn’t showing her ghostly self to him presently. She didn’t know Ian had witnessed her gruesomeness in Eena’s dream.
“I don’t need to look at you because I already know what you look like, witch. You’re an ugly, repulsive creature!”
Ian realized too late that his insolent remark was a serious mistake. He shrank at Ishtura’s howl—a pained and bitter cry.
“How dare you insult me, you puny mortal!” she screeched.
From out of the blackness her spirit appeared, looming above. Hers was a nasty, angry face glowering down. She curled her fingers and swiped at Ian’s head. He ducked, but not low enough to escape the vaporous nails that appeared to claw right through him. Luckily, there was no physical consequence to endure. Ian scrambled to put distance between himself and the apparition.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she hissed, her sweet voice vanished entirely.
“I’m not going anywhere without Eena,” Ian bravely replied. “You can’t harm me; you have no physical body.”
Ishtura floated slowly toward him. “You miss her, do you? Is it just too difficult for you—a protector with no one to protect? Is that your problem?”
“Where is she? Tell me!” Ian took a wider stance as if cementing his feet to the ground, determined not to move.
The spirit rolled her disproportionate eyes at his obstinance but answered the question. “Your little queen was sent away. Anesidora thought the girl needed a time out. My sister has little patience for you mortals and your insolent tongues. But not to worry. Your queen will be returned to you……eventually.”
“That’s not good enough. Bring her back now.”
“Anesidora is punishing her. She’ll be back after she learns her lesson.”
The ghostly spirit dropped down directly before Ian, invading his personal space with her ugly face. He wondered how it was possible for this woman’s body to be so irresistible with such a revolting spirit possessing it. He tried to imagine her actual physical features, those only Eena had been close enough to see in her dream.
The words he had spoken earlier to Derian echoed in his mind: I would gladly die for her. It was this determination that fueled his actions. Ian stood his ground, knowing Ishtura couldn’t physically touch him, but not knowing for sure what kind of limited powers she possessed.
“I want to see Eena now,” he demanded. “Right now!”
A sly smile inched across the spirit’s face. One green eye narrowed, making it appear to sink drastically lower than the other. Ian squinted, wanting to look away from the foul expression but not daring.
“Very well, Protector, if that is what you wish. Go see your precious queen. I hope you can tolerate the cold.”
Ian heard an awful cackle resonate in his mind as the blackness withdrew. In a flash, everything glared bright white.
His eyes closed protectively against the unexpected brilliance. At the same time, he wrapped his arms tightly around himself, feeling a drastic drop in temperature. A blistery wind attacked his back and he realized his wet shirt was already frozen over, sheeted in ice. He was at once afraid. These subzero temperatures wouldn’t allow him to survive for long; however, concern for himself was overshadowed by honest fear for his best friend. If this really was the place she had been sent—if Anesidora had left her here….
“Eena!” Ian shouted into the arctic air. He could tell his voice wouldn’t carry far drowned out by the howling wind, but that didn’t stop him from trying. He searched in every direction, catching no sign of life. White flurries made it difficult to see far ahead. Stepping with the wind, he called out repeatedly for his best friend. “Eena! Eena!” He could think of nothing else to do but walk. Walk, hope, and pray.
Outside Wanyaka Cave, Derian contemplated the wisest course of action. Two people had disappeared from sight now, both Eena and Ian. If he stayed long enough he might be the third. In the process he might find his queen. Possibly. Of course, that would leave no one to explain what had happened—no witness to the awful powers hidden in the heart of their own forest.
Drenched in the downpour of a thunderous rainstorm, Derian made the decision to retreat.
He took off running for a tall, twisted tree closest to the ledge on which he had originally slid down into the ravine. The rain made it difficult to maintain a good grip, but he managed to pull himself into the branches. The wind seemed bent on shaking him loose, threatening to break the overgrown twig in half. With great effort he climbed up far enough to reach ledge-height. He managed a few more feet and waited for one powerful gust of wind before jumping. Reaching out, he grabbed onto the rocky cliff and pulled himself up out of the gorge, helped along by a forceful blast of air that wailed as it shoved him violently away. As suddenly as it had started, the storm came to an unnaturally abrupt halt as if to emphasize its wordless command: “Don’t come back—ever!”
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich