Landon concentrated hard, staring at his hand. Shift. Presto chango. Abra cadabra? Nothing. No claws. No shifting. He shoved his hands back into the pockets of his hoodie, his footsteps falling harder.
Don’t force it, Jasper had warned him. Let it come naturally. That’s what my gram always says to young kits.
“We’re here,” Kite suddenly called over her shoulder jerking him out of his thoughts.
He scampered after her up the hill and peered over. Up until now they had traveled through open country. The sun beat down high overhead and everything looked almost peaceful. It was almost hard to believe that an evil warlock named Dubhlainn was taking over the world. Maybe these creatures were making a big deal over nothing.
But peering over the hill and down into a valley, he suddenly understood the extreme situation of this world’s inhabitants. The sun did not reach down into the valley. It felt cursed. He could see a dry river bed that snaked through the land. The ground was dried and cracked. Nothing grew except for the remains of a few trees that were gnarled and twisted, clawing up towards the sky.
He looked down at the ground where the cracking started. He could almost draw a line creating a boundary between dead and not dead. He bent down and touched the earth and was alarmed with what he felt. “It’s like stone – not a dirt stone, but like a frozen marble stone.” It was as if the earth, with its dirty rock and dry nature had been fossilized. Running his hands over it, the surface felt glossy.
“That’s Dubhlainn’s power. He can turn things to crystal,” Jasper said. “And it goes all the way through. You can’t dig through this stuff.”
“Nothing grows and nothing lives,” Kite added. She pointed downwards. “See where the river bed curves? That white structure? That’s the fairy kingdom – or what remains of it. Those are the white walls. The palace itself its carved into the rock wall. It’s really amazing looking. I can’t wait until you see it. Half of the city is inside a cave. A beautiful clear river used to flow right through it, or so I’m told.”
“What happened to the river? He couldn’t have frozen that as well?” He looked over his shoulder and observed the river in the distance that was flowing freely.
“No idea,” Kite said with a small smile. “If you go up to the river it just… disappears. It’s like it doesn’t stop flowing but just it’s there and then it’s not there. If you go to the far side it continues on.”
“How does that make any sense?”
“I dunno. I think there’s probably a reason for it, but we are just shape shifters. Advanced magic was always left to Mages and Sorcerers and other creatures of power. I was hoping when I first entered in here that maybe I could find some sort of books of magic or something that might be able to help us stop Dubhlainn.”
“But you found something else? A book that explained about a Wolf taking a fairy?”
“Yeah. It was in a log book. I’ll take it to you when we get down there.”
“Kite, it’s going to take us forever to get down there.”
“W-well… I flew. Good point. I didn’t even think about that.”
Landon slapped his face, his aggravation raging through him. Milo suddenly grabbed him, throwing an arm around his neck and shoulders. “One of the benefits of our animal forms,” he said with a laugh. “What a shame you can’t change yourself. Wolves are supposed to be mad fast. The fastest of us.”
“Yeah well – I can’t change. I’ve been trying.”
Kite sighed and started over the hill. “Nothing for it then. Come on. Let’s go. Standing here staring at it all day isn’t going to get us any closer to it.”
[maybe they run into an enemy along the way and that’s when he’s able to change. They all have to struggle with it to take it out? What can be the enemy? Not a Canis? Maybe an ogre or something? Troll? Golem? Imps.]
Landon had a sour taste in his mouth as they continued down into the valley and walked through it following after everyone. Jasper had taken out his string once again and was passing it between him and Milo. He pulled his hand out of his pocket again and concentrated on his palm.
There had to be a trick to this? Right?
They had been walking for quite a few hours when he thought he suddenly heard some sort of squeaking sound. He titled his head and concentrated hard. “What’s that sound?” he asked.
“What sound?” Milo asked over his shoulder.
“I don’t know. It sounds like… like…”
“Imps!” Jasper squeaked.
One second Jasper was standing there and then suddenly in the next second there was a tiny gray rabbit. It stood up on its hind legs, its nose twitching and its ears up on end. It suddenly dropped down to all fours and leapt away to hide behind a rock.
“Filthy coward!” Milo shouted.
Kite rushed over and grabbed Landon and pulled him behind a rock. “Get down! Maybe we can hide from them.”
“What are imps?” Landon asked, but she hissed at him to be quiet and they both squatted down and hid back, Milo ducking behind another rock, switching into a tiny tiger.
Tiny creatures danced down the way. They were barely half the size of Landon himself. They looked like miniature version of the goblins except their snouts were just mouths with tusks growing out of their mouths. They were all multicolored creatures ranging from dark purple to a bright blue. They were all carrying long spears and sharp swords. There was a group of at least ten of them, but as they waited for the creatures to pass by, even more appeared. This one looked like a much bigger group. As they walked by they were making strange squeaks and grunts. Nothing that sounded like comprehendible words.
Landon looked across to the rock where Jasper was hiding. All he could make out was a tiny pom-pom of a tail quivering. He wished he could tell him to move a little bit more back behind the rock. He stared back at Kite. She was standing on tip toes trying to look over the rock that they were standing behind.
From the corner of his eye Landon saw a streak of black and then suddenly something was attacking Kite. She screamed flailing her arms wildly to try to show it away. Landon gasped and danced back getting his first good look at the attacker. It looked like some sort of crow or raven except that its feathers were gross and greasy-looking and its beak was cracked. He had no idea where the thing he had come from. He looked back across at the imps and cursed inwardly. They had all stopped and were staring directly at him. He turned back to look at Kite but before he could two streaks of color rushed past him. A small brown hawk was flapping with all her might while being chased by the larger black bird.
Size didn’t seem to faze Kite much, though. She spun around in the air and managed to get her claws facing towards the crow and started attacking it.
“Landon! Look out.”
He looked back in time for Milo to out from behind his rock. The imps had moved fast. The entire group of them coming after him. Milo switched into tiger form and leaped at the face of the nearest one. A few other imps stopped to try to take stock of the black-and-yellow creature that was attacking them, but others surged around them still coming towards Landon.
He whipped out the pocket knife that he had stashed away earlier. Suddenly it somehow seemed much smaller and more insignificant in the face of the weapons these creatures were carrying.
Jasper suddenly whipped out from behind his hiding spot and darted between the creatures’ legs, moving with an ease that surprise Landon. Suddenly Jasper was standing in human form beside him. “Don’t try to fight them with that puny knife,” he shouted. “Just run!”
The boy grabbed the sleeve of Landon’s hoodie and yanked, taking off in a run. Landon had no choice but to follow after, but every instinct inside of him wanted to stand and fight. As they ran Jasper suddenly thrust something into Landon’s hands. “Here, if you’re going to fight, at least use a decent weapon.”
The knife Jasper handed him put his pocket knife to shame. It was nearly the size of his arm with a proper hilt and pommel. Jasper pulled out two more and flipped them through the air with amazing – and surprising – grace. He then slid to a halt and spun around. He bounced between his legs and then darted forward, a shout on his lips and Landon was sure that the kid’s eyes were closed. “Wait, Jasper!” he shouted after him.
Too late. Jasper had already went into rabbit form. Landon watched with mild amusement as the kid darted between the imps. Now a bunny here, suddenly a boy there lashing out with the knives, and just before the imps could try to attack him, he had switched back into a bunny and dart away again. Just like a ninja, he thought. So the kid did have a few skills that he kept tucked away.
Landon rushed the few imps that came towards him and easily dispatched them with the blade that Jasper had given him, even taking one of the imp’s spears and using it like a bat, slamming it into a few of the imps and taking them off of their feet.
At one point Milo was suddenly behind him, back to back. “Not bad, kid,” he said over his shoulder with a laugh. Landon had to agree. He had never imagined himself as ever being any sort of a fighter, not that he would ever have run away like Jasper did so easily, but he was more skilled than he would have given himself credit for.
If I could only turn into a Wolf. Imagine what I could do then.
Together they dispatched the full group of imps, absolutely exhausted by that time. Landon looked around suddenly anxious realizing he hadn’t seen Kite once for quite a while. He looked up in the air and found two black specks against the sky still fighting it out. Suddenly the smaller of them dived down towards the earth, squawked loudly and took off in the direction of the fairy kingdom, the other bird flying closely after.
“Curse her,” Milo growled. “Come on!”
They all took off after her, Milo and Jasper transforming. Within minutes he was significantly behind, panting hard as he tried his very best to keep up.
[falls through into the kingdom? And meets them later on?]
I’m alone again, he thought with a lot of despair. I’m alone and someone I know is in trouble. I’m so useless. Kite had thanked him for coming alone and saying that they didn’t think they could do this without him… he wasn’t sure what sort of help that he could be.
He heard some strange sounds again. Fearing another group of imps he quickly found another rock and ducked behind it. Or at least he thought it was a rock. Looking at it closer he realized suddenly that what he thought was a rock was actually some sort of stone construction. It was a dome and on all four sides there were arches that he could peer into. Bending down he was startled to see the branches of a tree.
Kite had said the Fairy Kingdom was partly underground in a cliff. He stood up and looked around. What if Kite had underestimated the scope of the Fairy Kingdom. Were they… walking on the Kingdom right now? Was what he looking into maybe a sun roof or some sort for an underground…. Garden?
His curiosity burning, he pulled his rope out of his backpack and tied it off, skillfully using the knots his grandmother had taught him. He threw the rope inside and squeaked his tiny body under the arch. Even on his stomach the arch scraped his back. There was just the tiniest bit of a ledge that he was able to hang onto once he was under. He grabbed at his rope and let himself slide in. He crawled down the rope until he reached the bottom and let go. The tree that he had seen was actually an enormous oak tree – and it was perfectly living! Its limbs sprawled out in several different directions. The leaves were dark and the tree looked like it was just barely hanging on, but it was still not the frozen, warped things he had seen so far. He looked around and realized he wasn’t in a garden but some sort of pathway. He found another tree over on the other side, the branches arched over it. Further along the path at perfect intervals were another two trees along with more of the ‘sun roofs’.
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what this place might have once looked like with the sun filtering down through the trees. He could see what looked like old box-shaped lanterns with half-melted candles that lined the way. He could see it now, lighted by sun and candles, making bright colored lights that bedazzled the eyes of anyone that walked through.
He started down the pathway, curious to know where the path lead. The pathway of trees ended at a high archway. He stepped through and entered some other portion of the structure. The sunlight failed to reach through into this room, though. He reached into his backpack and started to pull out his flashlight when he noticed something else in his pack. Frowning he reached in deeper and pulled out an object that he realized was his grandma’s crystal. It was glowing. A soft white light emanated from it pulsing with what seemed to him like a heartbeat.
He held it up and stared inside. For a moment he thought that the crystal had cleared. The milky whiteness had dimmed into something more clear. A charge of excitement swept through him. Was this crystal reacting to the place?
He tied a knot in the leather thong where Kite had cut it and pulled it back over his head. He pulled out his flashlight and shined it around the room. He was startled to see that it looked like he was in some sort of underground palace. The walls were stones that were perfectly cut and lain together so that there was barely a crack to be a seen. On the wall before him there was a mural. The colors were washed out and the entire thing was covered by dirt, but it was still vibrant and beautiful. It depicted a wolf, on his of his paws tucked under and his head lowered with flattened ears. A woman was bent over the animal, wings sprouting from her back.
“The strength of a man is the strength of his courage.” Landon read aloud the words that were chiseled into the work. Something about them made his whole body tingle.
He pointed the flashlight down the halls wanting desperately to go exploring, but in the back of his mind he was thinking of Kite and the others. Eventually they would notice he was missing and go looking for him. Grandma’s #1 rule: “If you get lost or separated, stay where you are. I can’t find you if you go wandering at the same time I’m searching. If that’s not possible, leave a breadcrumb.” The last thing he wanted his friends to do was panic and think he had gotten captured.
He turned back around and returned back up through the sunroof, going hand over hand up the rope. There was a moment of panic when he had trouble slipping back out of the sunroof, but he finally managed it.
Barely ten minutes later he heard a loud bird squawk. He looked up and waved at the now-familiar hawk flying through the air. It circled around and lowered and then suddenly Kite dropped out of the air and landed neatly on her feet. “I was so worried about you!” she all but screamed. Already he could hear running feet in the distance. “I can’t believe they just left you.”
“You were in trouble. I don’t blame them.”
She stomped her foot, pursing her lips. “I was not in trouble. It just took me a little longer than normal to defeat that stupid bird.”
“Whatever,” he said with a roll of his eyes. At this time Milo and Jasper showed up, shifting back into their human selves.
“Geez, man,” Milo panted, “I thought you were right behind us.”
“It’s fine,” he said wanting to push the issue aside quickly. That feeling of inadequacy was returning again. He pointed a finger to the sun roof that he had found. “Look what I found,” he said unable to suppress a tiny smile.
Jasper bent down, his nose twitching as if he were still in rabbit form. “Oh! That’s a tree under there.”
“More than a tree,” Landon said. “I think it’s the Fairy Kingdom.” He pulled out the crystal from his shirt. “I went down there and this thing started shining.”
Kite’s eyes widened and suddenly she was down on the ground on her belly. “That’s incredible!” she shouted. “I had no idea that it snaked all the way through here.”
“I’ve got a rope over there at the corner to get down. Certainly can’t be any less safe than traveling above ground.”
Milo threw his arm over Landon’s neck nearly toppling him over. “I like the way this guy thinks. Hide, sneak, strike!”
The four of them crawled under. Only Milo had a moment of difficulty. As the largest of them his shoulders got stuck. He wriggled and wiggled trying to get his bulk under until finally he shifted into tiger form. He squeaked under easily and with expert skill leapt onto the tree’s branches and climbed his way down in perfect cat fashion.
“Show off,” he murmured in his breath, leaping down the last few feet and landing neatly.
“It’s already glowing,” Kite said. She pointed to his necklace and Landon looked down at it. “I wonder what it’s reacting to?”
He pulled it off and handed it over to her. “Look at it closely. I swear I can see something in it.”
All three of them stared in. A smile grew on Kite’s face. “Not something. Someone.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him down the path. “Come on! We have to get it to the middle of the castle.”
“How do you know where the middle even is?” he asked. He pulled away and dug into his pack as he ran after her, grabbing out both of his flashlights.
“Well, duh, it’s in this direction somewhere since that’s the way we had to travel.”
“Kite, it would be an intricate maze of tunnels. We can’t just run in there willy-nilly.”
She rolled her eyes and snapped one of the flashlights out of his hands. “Use your natural instincts. They will lead you through towards the general point that we need. If we hit a dead end we’ll just turn around and try another path. Stop being such a coward.”
The words stung him. As they walked through the doorway that he went through earlier he allowed his flashlight to graze over the words etched into the stone. The strength of a man is the strength of his courage. ‘I’m not very strong,’ he thought.
They traveled in the darkness for what felt like hours. The darkness was starting to grate on his nerves. He couldn’t help feeling nervous about every little sound. Even Jasper himself seemed to start at every single noise. The idea that they were all buried in the earth was more than unnerving. Landon tried several times to close his eyes and just imagine that he was in a regular building, but each time he would reopen his eyes and the image would vanish. The halls were just too dark and there was an almost impenetrable silence.
Instead he tried to imagine what the place was like back in its hay day. Obviously there were fairies and maybe Wolves. Then an idea made him pause and stop at another stone relief on which was emblazoned a fairy. This one pictured a young maiden with wings standing beneath a tree carrying a basket that was filled with some sort of round fruit. Preserve the Earth and the Earth will preserve you, the emblazoned letters read.
“Kite? How much do you know about fairies?” he asked picking the necklace up from around his neck and staring into it.
“A little bit, why?” answered without stopping. She was shining the flashlight this way and that. Landon got the impression that sometimes she was just playing with the beam – like a toddler who had just discovered a toy that did an interesting thing.
“How… big are they? I mean, in my world when you hear about fairy tales and things we imagine tiny inch-tall people.” Like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan he thought.
“Because when fairies have wandered into your side of the world that’s all they’ve ever let humans accidentally see them as. We magic creatures try to be careful when we wander into your world but, you know, accidents happen and all that.”
“No stealth plan is ever perfect,” Jasper said with a sage nod.
“Just like we transform, the fairies can, too,” Kite explained. “They can’t fly when they are in full form, but I hear they were very beautiful. Their wings are what gives them power. I hear that you tear off a fairy’s wings that it makes them lose all their magic.”
Landon wrinkled his nose. “Maybe someone should try that with Dubhlainn.”
Milo busted out laughing. “They did. Didn’t you see Dubbie’s broken wing?”
“It happened during the last great rise against Dubhlainn,” Kite said.
Milo leaned in to Landon and winked. “Uh oh, here it comes. You got her goin’ now.”
Kite whirled around holding the flashlight up suddenly as if were a sword or something else dramatic. “[tribes listed. Might need changed later on for flow of story] The shape shifters rose up against that vile warlock. Hawks, Squirrels, Tigers, Rabbits, Rats, and even Pig tribes rose up against Dubhlainn’s evil rule. It was an epic battle against goblins, trolls, and golems. Unfortunately the war ended in a loss for the shape shifters, but not before a young boy from the Hawk tribe, no more than a teenager, managed to launch a magnificent attack again the evil half-fairy. His comrades were killed in the assault but he managed to rip apart a single wing of Dubhlainn before he, too, went down. It was only a miracle that a the Chieftain of the Rats managed to save the youngster.”
Suddenly she pointed the flashlight directly at Landon blinding him. “That hawk was my father. He survived where the current chieftain did not. As a reward our tribe made my father the chieftain instead.” Pride practically dripped from Kite’s voice. Landon couldn’t blame her. With a story like that, who wouldn’t have been an honored to have that sort of father.
“Did it help?” he asked.
Kite sighed dramatically letting her arm fall. “No. At least we’re not sure. That was just thirty years ago. If it’s made a change in his magic we’ve not seen it yet. At least that’s what my folks tell me. Obviously I’m only thirteen. So this was back before I was born.”
She turned back around and started back down the halls. Landon scampered after her. “So all those people that I met earlier today – they were all part of that war?”
“Experienced warriors all of them,” Kite confirmed.
The image of Derrick and Jeff jumped back into his mind. Brave men, he thought now more impressed with them than ever. He now wished that he had shown them a little bit more respect than he had.
“Hey, I think the rock just started to glow even brighter,” Jasper said pointing.
Landon looked down and had to agree with Jasper. The soft glow had now become a match for their flashlights. He pulled it off from around his neck and stared deep inside of it.
The image inside was more clear. It was definitely a little person inside. A female dressed in a long flowing dress with wings pressed against her back. Long hair flowed over her shoulders. She was tiny and she looked very serene. She didn’t look maybe more than a few years older than themselves. A teenager.
“S-she’s so young looking.”
All four of them had bunched together shoulder to shoulder to stare into the tiny crystal. Kite looked up at him and frowned. “She does, but remember, fairies live eternally. There’s no telling how old she really is. She might just be locked at that age.”
Oh, that’s right. Kite had mentioned that before. “Do you think we’re getting close, then? If it’s now starting to glow this bright.”
“Must be. We’ve been walking for hours.”
“Where are we going anyways? I mean, all you’ve told me is towards the palace, but where do we take her and what do we do with her?”
“Umm…” Kite fidgeted but no answer ever came.
“You have no idea.”
“Not really. The book didn’t say, but I didn’t get much of a chance to read the book. I had to hide it. I just came across it. I had been searching for stuff for over a few hours last time I was here. When I heard the goblins I had to leave – and I still got caught.”
“What is this book exactly anyways?”
“It was a journal. I think it was a journal from the Queen of the Fairies, but I’m not really sure. I was going to take you there to show it to you and maybe we could figure out the rest, you know.”
“I see,” Landon said pulling it back over his neck. “I say we follow the glow of this thing, wherever it leads us. If we hit a dead end or can’t figure something out we can try to find your journal.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she agreed. “Here, you take point,” she said stepping behind him. “You’re the one wearing it. Maybe if you hold it up it will lead you in some way. Its magic. I’m sure the fairy had to think about some sort of guidance system, you know.”
That sounded like a fair idea. He held the rock up first pointing it one way and then another. At first he didn’t feel anything different and almost felt a little silly trying to do this, but after a while he did finally pick up something. “The light doesn’t seem to change, but… I think the pulse is. The rock is vibrating a little bit.”
He concentrated on it hard and started to follow it in the direction that he felt the pulsing the strongest. The other three fell in behind him. He was nervous walking along like this. He suddenly felt responsible for everyone. If he didn’t pay attention or took a wrong turn it could potentially get them into a lot of trouble. Memories of his grandmother fled back to him. He had always envied her talent for leading the both of them through any scary situation. He prayed that he had at least a tenth of his grandmother in him.