* Midlothiac Forest *
When Wayne woke, he was alone. His head had a dull ache, and it was clear he had been out for a while. The last thing he remembered was leading a pog away from Amber to keep her safe, then protecting Ashley when it caught up to them. The pog had swung a heavy spiked club at her, and he jumped in the way, shielding his friend.
He immediately touched the spot that the ache was emanating from. He couldn’t see the dried blood that formed a small trail down the side of his head, but pressing his finger there caused a slight increase in pain, letting him know that something hit him. He quickly dismissed the idea that it had been the club. Surely if that had hit him full force, he’d be dead. The more logical assumption was that he’d somehow hit his head against the wall. In that same moment, he realized he wasn’t wearing his hat. Had it gotten knocked off?
He looked around to get his bearings and see if his hat was beside him. He was in a shallow cave with a low ceiling. It was completely different from the section of winding tunnels he was in before being knocked out. This was just a single chamber with one opening that led to the outside world. He wondered how he got there and where the others were.
From the mouth of the cave, he could feel a breeze and smell fresh air. There was enough light filtering in for him to see the ground around him. His hat was nowhere to be found. He felt a stab of annoyance at losing the heirloom, which belonged to his late father, but realized there were more pressing issues at hand.
He stood, testing his feet, and his body in general. The ceiling was just tall enough for him to stand without hitting his head. He found that, except for the slight headache, he was unhurt. His jeans and sneakers were dirty and there was a small rip in the side of the black t-shirt he was wearing, but other than that, he seemed fine. He hoped the others had made it out equally unharmed, and his thoughts immediately went to Ashley. What happened to her?
Knowing that the answers to his questions lay somewhere outside the cave, he ventured to the mouth and stuck his head out, taking in his new environment. He was in a forest. The cave was part of a large hill. Wayne thought that perhaps it was the lair of some large animal, and this made him anxious to leave, not wanting to meet whatever lived there.
None of his friends were around. The forest was quiet except for the sounds he expected to hear, those of distant birds, and the wind in the trees. He wondered for a moment if he was in the forest that surrounded Greengale, but he knew those woods, and this didn’t seem familiar at all. Still, he couldn’t rule it out. He also couldn’t rule out being somewhere on the other side of the planet or not being on Earth at all.
He took a deep breath, trying not to let panic set in. He wasn’t worried for himself; he was worried about Ashley. This situation was far too similar to one he’d experienced long ago, and it was making him uneasy.
When she was eight years old, Ashley had gotten lost in the woods surrounding Greengale and fell into a deep pit, breaking both an arm and a leg, and ended up stuck for hours until Wayne found her. The entire incident changed their relationship forever. He was supposed to go with her that day, but because they’d gotten in an argument, she ended up running off and going into the woods without him.
Though he’d been the one to raise the alarm and eventually save Ashley, Wayne still felt extremely guilty. The argument was his fault. The nine-year-old Wayne had chased Ashley away that day because he’d gotten tired of other boys teasing him for having a girl as a best friend. After that, he vowed to never push her away again.
For her part, Ashley had been severely traumatized by the accident. Far from blaming Wayne, she firmly believed that her misfortune was due to her rash decision to venture off without him. As a result, she never wanted Wayne to leave her side, and for months after the accident, she refused to go anywhere without him.
Even after almost ten years, their relationship was still affected by that incident, which was the main reason why Ashley clung to Wayne and he doted on her. Now, here he was again, searching for his lost friend who could be stuck or trapped somewhere in danger. Of course, all of his friends were missing, but he couldn’t help worrying about Ashley the most; it was ingrained in him.
As he looked around, trying to figure out where to go, something distracted him from his thoughts. With an almost exaggerated flapping of wings, a snow-white dove landed directly in front of him.
Wayne looked down, curious. The dove seemed out of place as if he wasn’t native to this forest. He realized there was no way to know if that was true, especially since he had no idea where he was. The bird looked up at Wayne, its blue eyes fixed so intently that it gave him the overwhelming sensation that it wanted something.
“What?” Wayne said to the bird. He half expected it to answer considering he just recently witnessed a talking dog.
The bird flapped its wings as if warning Wayne that it was going to fly away.
Did it want him to follow?
The moment the thought hit him, the bird took flight and landed about ten feet ahead of him on the low branch of a tree. It was staring at Wayne again, as if waiting.
Wayne walked toward the bird to see what it would do. As soon as he was within a foot of the tree, the bird took flight and landed another ten feet ahead of him. Again, it turned and stared at him.
“Okay…” Wayne said hesitantly. Either the bird was playing a game with its newfound human friend, or it was trying to lead him somewhere.
Making up his mind, Wayne decided to see where the dove would take him. After all, he had nothing to lose. He started toward the bird again, and it seemed to sense his resolution and took off again, flying deeper into the woods, its snow-white body a beacon for him to follow.
Wayne encountered no other animals or birds as he followed the low-flying dove who was moving at a steady pace now. The longer he followed, the more it seemed clear that it was leading him somewhere. The path seemed purposeful, and it was clearly flying at a speed and height designed to allow its human companion to keep up.
After fifteen minutes of walking, the dove seemed to reach its destination: a small clearing that allowed a wide beam of sunlight to reach the forest floor unimpeded. Upon reaching the clearing, the dove landed on a high branch of one of the surrounding trees and looked down at Wayne, seeming satisfied.
Wayne looked around but found nothing remarkable about the area except for the sunlight. Looking up into the clear blue sky he spotted the sun’s position which indicated that it was late afternoon, assuming he was on Earth or a planet whose sun operated like Earth.
He then looked to the white dove. “Well?” he said, almost convinced that the bird could understand him. “What now?”
The dove flapped its wings but did not move.
Wayne was beginning to think it was stupid that he’d followed this bird, but just when he decided to leave the clearing, there was a swell of bright yellow light on the ground in front of him.
He shielded his eyes reflexively but quickly realized there was no need. Despite the intensity, the light was not blinding. When it dissipated, he saw Ashley lying unconscious in front of him, curled up in an almost fetal position.
“Ash!” Wayne yelped as he knelt beside her. He carefully rolled her onto her back to see that her eyes were closed, and she had an untroubled look on her face, framed by her long, thick blonde hair. She was still dressed the same as before, wearing a knee-length, navy blue sundress, which was now filthy due to their adventures in the cave, and a simple pair of sandals.
He had no idea how she’d appeared there, but that thought was secondary to reviving her. He quickly felt for a pulse and was relieved to find that it was strong. He checked to see if there were any injuries, but before he could really examine her, Ashley’s eyes fluttered open.
“Wayne!” She smiled as she sat up and threw her arms around his neck hugging him tightly.
Wayne returned the hug, grateful that she seemed okay. He glanced up at the treetops to give the small white dove a smile of gratitude for leading him to his best friend, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Ashley finally released him, and Wayne helped her to her feet. “Are you okay?” he asked, realizing he hadn’t really checked her for injuries.
“I’m fine,” she assured, “just confused. I don’t know how I got here.”
“You just appeared out of nowhere,” Wayne told her. “Last thing I remember was that pig thing attacking us. Then I woke up in some cave.”
“I was somewhere else,” Ashley said, still looking a bit shaken. “At least, I think I was; it was so weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“I remember the pig thing attacking us, and then, maybe I was knocked out.” She sounded uncertain and started to pace back and forth as she talked. “I woke up someplace else, it was a circular cavern that had those blue fire torches. There was a blonde girl there talking to me, but I don’t remember what she said. There was also a large yellow pearl floating above a pedestal. It was like it was calling to me, like literally calling my name, so I walked toward it. It said something about it not being my time and sending me back to my guard. Anyway, I touched it and then I just ended up here somehow. It’s really fuzzy.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?” Wayne put out a hand to stop her from pacing.
“It seemed real. Everything is so crazy.” Ashley looked around. “Where is everyone?”
Wayne shrugged. “Like I said, I woke up in a small cave and then you appeared out here.”
“Where’s the cave?” Ashley looked around as if she expected to see it.
Wayne pointed a thumb behind him. “It’s about twenty minutes from here.”
“Twenty minutes? How did you even find me?”
“Well actually…a dove led me here,” Wayne admitted, though rather hesitantly.
Ashley blinked, clearly stunned. “No, seriously.”
“I am being serious.”
Ashley looked around. “Okay, well can it lead us out of here?”
“I wish; it’s gone though.”
“Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?” Ashley asked with a chuckle. Her tone was playful despite the hint of concern. She knew they were lost, and their friends were nowhere to be found.
Wayne could tell she was getting nervous. “Well anyway, at least we have each other. I’m sure we’ll figure out what happened and find the others. Let’s go.”
He started in the same direction the mysterious dove had been leading him before he reached the clearing, feeling it was as good a direction as any.
Ashley hesitated only a moment but followed, trusting her friend’s lead. “At least we can’t get more lost than we already are,” she quipped.
* Pocket Lake *
When Fantasma disappeared, Jandor spent about five minutes looking for him before he decided it was futile. He’d actually seen the man vanish before his eyes, and though it had been jarring, he wasn’t really all that concerned. He already knew Fantasma could take care of himself and that people in this world disappeared and appeared out of nowhere without any rhyme or reason. He figured Fantasma would appear again at some later time and decided that the more important thing was getting out of the cave and finding his friends.
He managed the first part easily. They were already close to the exit of the winding tunnel when Fantasma disappeared. It only took him a few minutes to exit the cavern and he found himself on the shore of a crystal blue lake.
Jandor took stock of his surroundings. The small beach that ran along the lake was very rocky. It wasn’t the type of beach that vacationers would venture to, and a large rock shelf made it hard to walk around the lake. The cave he had walked out of seemed to go underground, only the mouth was visible. Behind it was a massive, unfriendly looking forest. It looked dark and dense, and he saw no visible path.
He decided to navigate the rocky beach. Perhaps if he could make his way over the rock shelf, he might find someone lounging or fishing on a smoother section of the shore. Surely someone had to be around.
Just as he had mentally committed to this plan, he heard a shrill scream from behind him and without thinking, he turned and took off into the dense forest. Brambles, thorns, and limbs scraped over his exposed arms and legs and tore at his shirt as he rampaged through the woods. He didn’t care that he was getting cut up and used the staff he was carrying to beat his way through the bushes and foliage.
The scream was from a woman, and it was clear she was in danger, perhaps under attack. At first, he had no idea who it was, but when another panicked yell punctuated the air, he heard something familiar in the tone. It sounded like Terri, but he couldn’t be sure.
Maybe his mind was just playing tricks on him. Perhaps it was just wistful thinking or guilt. He remembered what happened in the mysterious cave when Davron unleashed the hoard of pogs on them. He tried to protect Terri from a group of the pig-faced creatures, but the last thing he recalled was taking a blow to the chest from a heavy mace, hitting the rock wall hard, and then passing out just as the pog was going for his sister. The knowledge that she could have been hurt or even killed was still fresh on his mind as he pushed himself to move faster.
“No, no! Danny help!” came another high-pitched cry and he knew he was getting closer to whoever was calling out for help.
He stumbled onto a wide dirt path and was met with a terrifying scene. There was a woman dressed in a long, green, hooded robe, sprawled out on the ground, her dark-blonde hair covering her face. She wasn’t moving, and two bags were on either side of her, their contents flung about on the dirt path. Stalking toward her was a large, menacing, pig-faced creatures holding a heavy mace.
Without a second thought, Jandor sprang into action, wielding the bo staff, and flinging himself between the pog and its would-be victim. The situation was eerily familiar to him since the creature wielded a weapon nearly identical to the one that had incapacitated him earlier, but this pog was almost twice as big, towering over Jandor.
The monster immediately took a swipe at him with the spiked mace. Jandor was quick to react though, prepared this time for the pog’s unnatural speed, but one of the spikes still tore through his shirt, reminding him how truly unprotected he was in just a pair of black cargo shorts and a thin, black, tank top. The pog already had him on the defense and he sought to change that. With surprising nimbleness, he leapt in the air and cracked the length of the staff against the creature’s skull. It yelped in pain as its head was unprotected, but the blow was not enough to make it go down, only stun it momentarily, allowing Jandor time to regroup and draw the fight away from the woman still lying on the ground.
He circled around the pog and started swinging wildly with the staff in an attempt to distract and overwhelm it. The patchwork leather armor did not completely protect it from the jabs and strikes of the sturdy staff. Still, Jandor wished he had a sword or blade of some kind as the staff was just not enough to do much damage.
With a roar of frustration, the pog raised its mace high above its head and swung down hard, causing Jandor to leap backward again. But the pog was clever and fast, changing the direction of its swing halfway to catch Jandor in his side and send him flying into a nearby tree.
Jandor hit the tree hard, and he was certain that he felt one of his ribs crack from the force of it. He was bleeding and had double vision from the smack to his head, but he was determined to keep fighting. He staggered to his feet as the pog drew closer, prepared to give a finishing blow.
Jandor thought about the woman on the ground; thought about his sister, who he hadn’t been able to protect; thought about his friends, their fate a complete unknown; and he rallied himself. He would not fail; he would not be defeated; he would not die.
As if in response to his frantic thoughts, the pog raised the mace again and roared, “Die, seal bearer!”
Jandor held up the staff with both hands and the mace hit it dead center, but it held against the force of the swing. Jandor pushed back with all he had, fueled only by adrenaline at this point. He felt his strength waning with every second, but his determination held. He could not lose; it wasn’t an option.
Suddenly the staff in his hands began to glow bright blue and it felt warm to the touch. Jandor had no idea what was going on, but he sensed that whatever was happening, it was to his advantage. He continued to push back with all his might and the pog was losing ground. It became easier to hold off the attack, and he knew it wasn’t because he had somehow gained a second wind. The staff was helping him.
Not caring how this was possible. Jandor redoubled his effort, gave every last bit of strength that he could muster, and with a guttural roar he thrust upward against the mace and the pog staggered backward just as the staff shot out a blast of blue energy, knocking it on its back.
Jandor was panting as the glow of the staff dissipated. He was spent. He had nothing left to give, and with his adrenaline fading, he felt unconsciousness slowly overtaking him. He tried to fight it, but he had lost a lot of blood from the cuts in his side and his body was badly beaten.
The pog, however, had not been defeated and as Jandor sank to his knees, the beast came charging toward him. Jandor knew he didn’t have the strength to stand up to another heavy swing from the mace, but just as the creature reached him, he heard the sound of something whizzing through the air. Suddenly, a circular blade sliced its way through the unsuspecting creature’s abdomen, causing it to squeal in surprise and pain as it was all but sliced in half.
Just as Jandor was losing consciousness, he saw the pog disappear, its mace hitting the ground at the same time the injured teen did.
* Halls of Glorandor *
“Mrs. Guardman!” Becky called, panic clear in her voice. “Mrs. Guardman!”
She shouted for several minutes as she walked around in a large circle, the dim beam of her flashlight waving all around.
“Great, first we get chased by monsters, then we get zapped to some weird place, now I’ve lost Mrs. Guardman,” Becky lamented aloud. “Can this day get any worse?”
As if in response to this question, her flashlight gave a feeble flicker and went out.
Becky swore, thought of Mrs. Guardman’s reprimand had she heard it, and then apologized to no one in particular before tucking the light into the bag on her back.
Without the flashlight, she could barely see where she was, but decided to continue forward, one hand on the rough wall for guidance, the other clutching the cream-colored staff.
Dread was creeping in with each step. Before, she was too distracted to really feel fear. Between the adrenaline of escaping the pogs, and the desire to keep a level and mature front up for Mrs. Guardman, there wasn’t room to process fear, but now, in this oppressively dark cave with nothing but the sound of her own footsteps, a sense of panic was rising.
Where was she? Where were her friends? What if those monsters found her? What if she never found her way out and died of starvation, or fell and injured herself? The possibilities were endless and none of them seemed positive as the thoughts raced through her head in rapid succession.
After walking in darkness for around fifteen minutes, she heard something in the distance. It was voices, several of them.
She couldn’t make out what the distant voices were saying, how many there were, or if they were speaking English. Was it her friends? Even if they were strangers, perhaps they were helpful strangers. It was also possible they could be enemies or more of those creatures.
The voices were steadily getting closer, and she could see a flicker of light ahead.
Becky decided to risk revealing herself. “Hello!”
The voices stopped immediately; it was clear that they heard her. It also seemed that whoever was heading toward her had stopped moving, as if also being hesitant.
This emboldened Becky. Whoever it was, they weren’t expecting to hear an unfamiliar voice which meant they probably weren’t looking for her. So, it couldn’t be her friends, but hopefully this meant they weren’t creatures trying to hunt her down either.
“Hello!” she called again, this time stepping forward a few paces.
The light in the distance started to move again, and as Becky drew closer, she realized that it was actually several blue-flamed torches being held aloft. It only took a few minutes to bridge the gap between her and the soft blue flames and she soon found herself facing a group of stout men, each bearing a torch.
They were all shorter than Becky by a few inches, but it was clear they were significantly older. They had grizzled beards in various shades of brown and orange that matched the long wild hair atop their heads. They wore leathery looking clothing, all of it some shade of brown, which clashed magnificently with their pale skin. Each of the stout men looked muscular, as if they spent their days doing nothing but hard labor, and their faces had wide squashed noses and small beady eyes. In addition, almost all of these strange looking men held a weapon of some kind.
Becky saw an assortment of overly large maces, axes, and swords. She began to wonder if getting their attention was a good idea after all. These men looked more than capable of wielding the weapons they held, and their beady stares weren’t friendly.
One of them stepped forward to confront her. “Juf, causic menar kapash kel Glorandor.”
“I’m sorry?” Becky said, internally frustrated that there was yet another language barrier.
“She doesn’t understand you, Limdar,” another said, pushing his way to the front of the pack. He was the only one of the short men who was wearing a robe over his normal clothes. It was purple with a silver belt tied around the waist and reminded Becky of the robe Fantasma wore.
“She doesn’t speak our language,” the mediator continued. The one named Limdar looked mildly annoyed at this. “She’s human, she only knows the Common language and whatever dialect she’s speaking. But you can understand me, now can’t you,” he added turning to Becky.
“Uh, yeah. Yes, I can.” Becky said, relieved that someone spoke English among them.
“Good, well that’s solved then,” he stepped forward to take Limdar’s place in addressing her. “Now, who might you be, and how did you find your way down here to our lands, human.”
It was clear that he was sizing her up and was not altogether convinced that she wasn’t an enemy of some kind.
“Um, my name is Becky Gabbie,” Becky said, trying to sound as polite as possible. “I don’t know how I ended up down here. It’s really strange. I was someplace else, being chased, and then, I just sort of ended up here.”
His brown eyes widened as she spoke. “Did you say Becky Gabbie?”
“Yeah?” Becky gave him a curious look.
“Ah, well that makes sense then.” He turned to his companions. “We need to take her to see Findler. She’s one of the off-worlders.”
The one named Limdar said something Becky couldn’t understand but he seemed even more agitated.
“Yes, I’m aware it’s been ten years, but that’s how rifts work apparently,” the purple-robed one responded before turning to Becky again. “Is there anyone else with you?”
Becky’s confusion only grew. “There was, but I lost her somehow. She was there but then she…disappeared?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Lost or disappeared?”
“I’m not sure,” Becky admitted.
“We’ll see if we can find her.” He turned to the others again. “Check the halls and see if you can find the other one. Quarin, check the translifts and the area around them, that’s where the last rift formed. See if you spot any traveler quartz. If so, try to track the transport before you destroy it. I’ll walk this one back to Kepra.”
Limdar once again expressed his displeasure in several harsh incomprehensible words.
“Just do as I ask. We know Chief Findler would want this.” His tone was firm but not abrasive.
No one else argued after that and they all started past Becky, continuing down the tunnel.
Becky soon realized that they were taking the torchlight with them, and it was rapidly retreating, leaving her and her new companion in increasing darkness.
Just as she was thinking this, the purple-robed man held out his hand expectantly and said, in a deep commanding tone, “Mittius Mentenus Light.”
Instantly a small ball of light appeared above his hand and then slowly ascended until it was floating above both of them like a tiny sun.
“That’s better,” he said with a small smile.
Becky stared up in amazement. “How did you do that?”
“I bet that is rather impressive to you,” he chuckled. “My comrades hate it of course; reminds them of what I am. Anyway, I’m sure that’s not the most important question you’ll have, all things considered, so let’s get you back to Kepra. Oh, I’m Hamen by the way, Barbidious Hamen.” He started to walk, and the ball of light followed above. “I assume you go by Becky?”
“Yes, Becky’s fine.” She fell in step beside him. “So, um, Hamen, where am I?”
“You are in the Halls of Glorandor,” Hamen explained, “near the city of Kepra.”
“Okay...” Becky realized she should have known the answer wouldn’t have yielded much usable information, so she tabled that train of thought. “So, Hamen, how come I can understand you but not your friends.”
“I speak the Common language fluently. I had to learn it to become a guardian, but most Glorandorians only speak our language.”
“Oh, okay.” Becky said, her head reeling at the answer, which made no sense. As if trying to grasp something of what was going on, she pressed further. “But they understood you.”
“Of course they did, why wouldn’t they?” Hamen said as if this wasn’t unusual.
“Well, because you’re speaking English.”
He stared up at her as if confused, then after a moment his eyes widened with realization. “Oh, that’s right. I can understand how it might seem that way to you, but I assure you that is not the case.”
Becky’s frustration was growing. Every time she asked a question, the answers left her more confused. It had been like this ever since she met Fantasma. This thought raised another question.
“I met another man today, he was dressed just like you, with a purple robe. He said his name was Fantasma. Are you related to him?”
Hamen chuckled. “No, but I do work for him.”
This at least seemed to click for Becky. The robe was some sort of uniform. “So, do you know where he is then? He was with my friends.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t. Down here in Glorandor we’re quite cut off from the rest of the world.”
“Okay.” Becky was struggling to understand but kept hitting roadblocks with her new companion. “So, I know this is going to sound weird, but am I still on Earth or am I really on another planet?”
“The world you are on now is known as Mendala.” Hamen said succinctly.
“So, my being from another planet doesn’t faze you at all?” Becky asked with a tone of exasperation. “Just an everyday occurrence?”
“More like an every decade occurrence.” He chuckled again. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s always surprising to see any human down here in Glorandor. There are only a few entrances from the surface world, and they are carefully hidden. At first, we didn’t know what to make of the odd human girl armed with an elfish bacilla of all things.”
“A bacilla,” he repeated as if she should know what he was saying. He gave her another confused look and then said, “Perhaps they don’t call them that where you’re from. I’m talking about the weapon you’re carrying.”
Becky stared at the cream-colored staff that had now been given a name. “Wait, did you say this was elfish?”
“Yes, which begs the question: how did you get one? That particular weapon is useless to humans, and it’s unlikely an elf would give one away.”
“There are elves here?” Becky asked in disbelief.
“Well no, not here in Glorandor, of course not.”
“But elves exist?” Becky pressed.
Hamen laughed quite openly now. “I should think so.”
“No way!” Becky said shaking her head. Then something occurred to her. “Wait does that mean…are you a dwarf?”
“Indeed, though I thought that was obvious.” Hamen said.
“Obvious? Obvious!” Becky laughed despite the absurdity of the moment. “How is that even possible?”
Hamen looked confused again. “I don’t understand.”
“Dwarves and elves don’t exist. It’s fairy tale and fantasy. And even if dwarves did exist, they wouldn’t look how you expect them to look. They’d be different because…” Becky started to lose her thread. At first, she was confident in her assertion, but as she tried to follow her own logic, she got stuck. There had to be a reason why dwarves couldn’t be short, bearded, muscular, pale-skinned people who lived underground, but she couldn’t think of one.
“You’re an odd one,” Hamen said with another light chuckle. “I suppose there are many humans on the surface who might think us a fairy tale since we tend not to mingle with your kind, but I assure you, we’re not.”
Becky nodded, dumbfounded. It took her a minute to find her voice again. “So, where are you taking me?”
“Kepra,” Hamen answered. “I’m taking you to see Chief Findler. He will be very interested in you.”
“Really? I hope that’s a good thing.”
“Don’t worry, Findler will be able to answer your questions,” he assured. “And it’s only about a thirty-minute walk to the city.”
“So Kepra is an underground city?” Becky asked in awe. “How does that even work?”
Hamen smiled slyly. “You’ll see.”