LatCF Chapter 8

They flicked the flashlights off and stashed them back into Landon’s backpack. Light streamed in through the windows providing enough light in the chamber that the light proved useless – at least for another few hours Landon though staring through the windows. An idle thought strayed back to his mother. He wondered what she was doing right now. What must she be thinking? He mentally apologized to her and hoped that she would understand whenever he got back to her.

Following the crystal’s pulse had lead them eventually to a set of spiraling stairs that climbed up and out of the underground tunnels. As soon as they stepped out through the door Kite had almost squealed with glee recognizing where they were. It appeared to be some sort of antechamber of a palace, or maybe a lobby. Landon wasn’t sure. He felt all confused and backwards. His mental compass had caught up with him yet. He wondered how Wolves normally did underground, because he didn’t feel as if he would ever enjoy it.

“Where’s the crystal pointing now, Landon?” Jasper asked.

He picked it up off his neck again and held it up trying to ascertain some sort of direction. “I think… this way…” he said starting in that direction but it gave him pause. There was a way forward which was ground level and there was a way upwards. “No,” he said turning away from the stairs, “I’m pretty sure it’s just forward.”

He followed it and the pulse felt stronger still. They walked through an inner chamber but had to stop. Landon gasped and gaped at their surroundings. “T-the floor has caved in!”

Where there had once been beautiful tile was now a dark gaping black hole that did not appear to have a bottom. He stared at the floor with dismay staring first into it and then looking over it. “We need to get on the other side somehow.”

“Not unless you start growing some feathers, dog boy,” Milo said. “Of course, though, you can’t even grow your own tail right now.”

Landon ignored the jibe, instead focusing all of his attention around him. “I’ve got another length of rope in my pack,” he mumbled, but try as he might he couldn’t think of any way that the rope might be helpful. “Damn… so close but so far.”

Kite sighed and pressed her fists into her hips. “Non-flyers are so useless! I can get over there no problem.”

“Well good for you, feather brain,” Landon snapped at her. “I wonder if we can find something to make a bridge out of.” He turned and walked back into the other chamber.

“Too bad you can’t turn into a wolf. You could jump over, probably.”

“Even if I could turn into a wolf there is no way I would chance a jump like that. Just stop. Try using your head right now.”

“Oh, Landon,” Jasper called back from the other room. “I see another door. Up above. There’s a balcony up there.”

“And how does that help, fluff-for-brains?” Milo spat. “We’d still need wings to get down.”

“No we wouldn’t,” Jasper said. “We could use another rope to climb downwards.”

Landon was glad there was someone else in their party that didn’t mind taking a moment to think about a situation first before speaking – someone who didn’t rely on wings or brawn to get out of every situation.

“I wonder how we get up there,” he said. There were several doors in this room. “For all we know to get to that balcony we would have to go all the way through a bunch of inner rooms.”

Kite clicked her fingers. “I can fly up there and go through the door. Sometimes the best way to work out a maze is to start out at the other end, you know. Pick a way to go and I call out every once in a while as I explore. Maybe we can find each other that way and I can lead you all back, you know.”

Sounded like a decent plan, he thought. “I don’t like the idea of you going by yourself, though,” he remarked. “If you run into any goblins…”

She pointed to Jasper with a wide grin. “I could take him. In my hawk form I can carry off a small rabbit.”

Jasper’s face suddenly lost a little color but for he stepped forward balling his fists at his sides. “I… I don’t mind,” he agreed.

He clapped a hand on Jasper’s shoulder. “I’d prefer it, Jasper. If something were to happen to Kite we need to know that she has somewhere there that can at least get her some help.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” Kite insisted.

Landon rolled his eyes and pointed up to the balcony. “Stop arguing and get to it, bird brain.”

She turned around in a huff and shifted her form. Wings sprouted out around her arms and for a brief moment she was caught in that curious half state of being human and animal. Then she shrunk down and all that remained in her place was a hawk that was on the small size, but still very beautiful. It was the first time that he had gotten a good look at her. Her body was composed mostly of black and brown feathers while her underbelly and legs were a creamy white spotted with black and browns. He knew next to nothing about birds but he had to admit that she looked like a very majestic.

She flapped her wings experimentally and jumped into the air. She did a full turn around the room before she swept down and picked up Jasper who had morphed into his animal form. There was a small rabbit-squeak of pure terror as they rose up into the air, but the two of them landed on the balcony without incident. Jasper transformed back laying on the ground. He shouted, “I never want to do that ever again!”

“Oh get up, you big baby,” Kite said, giving his body a light kick. “See you guys in a while! Don’t forget to give a shout now and again to see how close we might be to each other.”

She waved and then the two of them disappeared through the door. Landon turned to Milo. “Where should we start?”

He shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the nearest door that was in the same wall that the balcony door had disappeared through. “Seems like the best choice to me.”

Landon agreed and the two of them went through the door. On the other side was a narrow hall carpeted in thick red carpet. There were at least a half dozen doors on either side of the wall plus the door at the very end. Suits of armor lined the hall along with tapestries and expensive-looking vases that were now shattered shards.

Landon tried a few doors at the same time that Milo did on the other side of him. The first few were just small rooms but the next opened into another hall, a set of stairs leading upwards. He turned and looked over at Milo who was also in a doorway staring back at him. “Yours looks like mine,” Milo said with a tight grin.

Landon groaned inwardly, pushing his hood back off of his head. This was going to take a lot longer than he thought. They played a quick game of rock, paper, scissors to decide which door to go through. Landon won and they headed through. They both agreed going upstairs might be best and traveled upwards and to took one of the doors at random upwards. Another open door revealed that the upper level floor had been smashed and now lay in a crumbled ruins. After trying a bunch of other doors that lead nowhere they went back downstairs and tried other doors eventually going back towards the stairs that Milo had discovered himself.

After another dead end Milo slammed his foot into a door breaking it off its hinges. “So frustrating!” he growled. “I don’t get this building crap anyways.”

That comment caught him by surprise. “You’ve never lived in a building? Not even a house?”

“Me? Naw. It’s always been tents and tipis. The tribes have had to be mobile, you know. Always running and moving. Sometimes we’re able to regain lost ground, other times we lose it. It’s always a struggle to keep the little space we have. Sometimes it just feels like Dubhlainn’s messin’ with us, ya know? I mean – he’s got entire armies. He could just run us over if he really wanted to. I don’t think he really cares much about us shape shifters, though. He concentrates more on trying to take over the lands controlled by magic-users.”

“Oh? So shape shifters aren’t the only ones that still remain?” Landon asked opening another door. He poked his head in and found another set of stairs.

“Nah, there’s a few other races. I think the dwarves are still around, but they most stay underground. Dubhlainn spends most of his time trying to dig them up.” The headed up the stairs and explored this upper way. “There’s also the Sorcerers and a few Alchemists. These days there’s hardly anyone left that remembers the ‘good ole days’ before Dubhlainn.”

“Sounds rough.”

“Never known it any other way. Honestly, I’d feel like a cat in a bag if I had to live in a place like this. All caged up.”

Landon didn’t blame him. On some level he could relate. There were many times he had felt more comfortable being in the woods sleeping in a tent with his grandma. But then again there was something to be said about waking up in his own room on a school day to find his mom downstairs cooking bacon and eggs.

“Hey,” Milo said suddenly after a long moment of silence. “What’s it like living in the human realm?”

“Well… we don’t have any evil lords trying to take over,” he said. “Sometimes it’s kinda boring. I have to wake up early most of the time to get ready for school. I’m supposed to be at school right now, but the school gave me a few weeks off while mom took care of my grandma’s funeral.”

“Yeah, Kite told me that your grams died recently. Sorry about that, man. How’d it happen?”

Landon wasn’t prepared for the question nor the returning surge of emotion. It took him a moment to choke back the sorrow. Somehow he managed to answer with a level voice. “Hiking accident. I guess it was raining. She was on an unfamiliar trail. Slipped and fell.”

“Geez I’m sorry, mate.”

“You wanna know the part that keeps sticking in my head, though?” he said as he poked his head into another room and came up with another dead end. “She had a box in pocket with a couple of rocks in it. She had been thinking of me when she was out there. She would do that. Send letters and sometimes including a rock or two in them. We were always just a phone call away or even email, but she always enjoyed handwriting out a special letter just to send a rock.”

“I don’t know what a phone call or an email is, mate, but that’s still sad to hear. Sounds like she loved you as much as you loved her.”

“Yeah…” He turned to another door and started to open.

“Just think of it like this – remember the good times. Dubhlainn’s killed so many people that I’ve cared about.”

The words were simple but Landon could tell the intensity that Milo meant in them. He gave the boy a small forced smile to show that he appreciated the words. At the same instant Milo’s eyes widened at something beyond Landon. Landon whirled around and a scream got stuck in his throat. A massive ten foot spider was on the other side of the door. He watched in what seemed like slow motion as the spider raised a leg towards him. Suddenly something rammed into his shoulder. He had a brief glimpse of Milo taking his place for he slammed into a pile of rubble and the world snapped off like a television set.

***

“Wake up, Landon!”

Landon opened his eyes slowly. He felt almost as if he were out of his body. He felt pain but then he didn’t. He could see the spider wrapping up Milo’s body, the boy had half transformed so that he had cat ears, a claws, and even a cat tail that was sticking out of the cocoon that the spider was creating him. Half of Milo’s body was wrapped up in white gauze as the spider spun him around and around.

I don’t want to. If I do, I have to face that.

“Yes you will. You have to save yourself and you have to save your friend.”

I don’t have that sort of strength. Not to take on a beast like that.

“Yes, you do. Landon, the strength of a person is measured by the strength of their courage. And you have a lot of courage, Landon.”

No. I’m a coward. That thing horrifies me. So many scary things have been happening. I’m too frightened.

“Of course you’re frightened. Landon, no one is brave if they weren’t afraid first. Bravery is what they call the act of getting up to face your fears. The worst the fear, the greater the bravery.”

But what if I die first.

“You’ll die if you do nothing. But you want to know the worst part? Your friend will die, too.”

Milo… Milo had saved him. He had taken the blow that was meant for him. Now he was lying on the floor arguing with himself about whether to get up and fight. He felt so ashamed. No, I can’t let that happen. I can’t let something happen to someone else – not while there’s breath left in my body. He got up to his hands and knees, trying to pull the world together around him.

“Exactly, Landon. Now – transform!”

Transform? No. I can’t. It’s never worked.

“It will work. Courage. You know that’s your trigger. You’ve felt it since you saw that mural in the underground garden.”

Courage. The voice was right. Now he understood why those words had rung so strongly inside of him. Courage. I want to be brave. I… I am brave!

There on his hands and knees he felt a shiver travel through his body. It started from his head and went down through his feet. He felt something inside of him click and shift. Suddenly being on hands and knees like this did not seem so odd. It felt natural. It felt perfect.

He threw back his head and howled. The sound trembled through the halls sounding perfect even in his own ears. A beautiful and deep bass echo. He lowered his head and narrowed his eyes bracing himself. The spider had turned away from Milo. He couldn’t make out any eyes on the oversize insect. All he could see was a set of pincers.

Suddenly the spider arched its abdomen and a webbing of white thread shot at him. He bounded forward and leapt. He passed over the sticky webbing with ease, sailing over it and the spider until he landed on its back. Opening his jaw he bit down with all his might. Green slime filled his mouth but he ignored it instead turning to the head and biting again.

The spider released a shriek of pain. Suddenly it lurched and Landon was thrown off. He twisted his body around midair using his tail as leverage. He landed neatly on his paws and leapt back towards the spider with waiting a second. He captured one of the spider’s legs between his mouth. He chomped hard and jerked his head trying to rip it off. It held but more green slime filled his mouth and the spider squealed in pain and kicked him off. He slammed up against the wall. He stumbled a moment before he could shake it off.

From out of the corner of his eye he could see Milo starting to shift and move. The spider caught the movement, too, and started towards its victim again. Landon pounced and landing just over Milo, his head lowered, his tail high in the air. He growled feeling the blood pump through his body. Every fiber of his being cried out for this creature’s death. The spider paused. Green smile was dripping from its wounds. For a moment the two of them stared each other down before the spider started scrambling backwards. The movement emboldened him. This creature was going to die.

He leapt and attacked, grabbing ahold of the spider just behind its pincers. The spider’s scream broke through his ears. It spun around trying to throw him off, but he clung on, chomping down even harder. He worked with his legs ripping at the creature. He missed a lot but the few blows that he got as he dangled there weakened the creature, spilling more of its green slime.

Finally the spider managed to shake him free. He slid across the floor falling hard. He got up but was not fast enough. The spider struck him with a pincer. He took the blow in his side. Fiery pain passed through him and for a horrified moment he worried about poison. He should have been more careful, he chided himself. He looked up in time to see another leg coming down at him.

A loud roar ripped through the air and suddenly something crashed into the spider, grabbing one of its legs. There was a flurry of orange and black as the spider whipped around trying to shake free of its new attacker. Landon stood up forcing the pain to the back of his mind. He rushed, going under the spider and spun around, practically bouncing of the wall as he took another flying leap onto the spider’s back. He raced back to the spider’s head and chomped down again.

The spider’s body jerked and then stiffened. Landon knew immediately that he had delivered the final death blow. He jumped off the spider’s back even as the spider crashed down to the floor. In mid-fall he was already shifting his body back to normal. The transformation rippling through him with a strange electric charge. He landed neatly on his feet – and immediately screamed in pain. Pain shot up from where his shoes had connected with ground and tore through into his side where the spider had struck him.

He toppled over and collapsed on the floor, clutching at the wound. He could feel hot blood leaking through his clothes.

“Landon!” Milo shouted, his voice cat at first and turning into human in just that one word. Suddenly Milo was over him his hands already grabbing at Landon’s clothes. He grabbed the hem of Landon’s shirt and hoodie, pulling them both up to expose his skin.

“How bad does it look?” Landon hissed through his teeth. “It burns so bad. You don’t think it was poisoned, do you?”

“It’s not turning any other color,” Milo said. “But I don’t know. We need to get this cleaned.”

“My first aid kit, in my pack,” Landon said. Confused, Milo worked the pack off of Landon’s shoulders and started to sift through it until he came up with the pack. Milo opened up the tiny white can and his eyes widened as the corners of his mouth turned upward.

“Man, Jasper’d go ga-ga over this.”

Using the saline solution and following Landon’s advice, Milo cleaned up the wound and looked at it. As time passed so did a great deal of the pain which was an encouraging sign. “I don’t think it’s poisoned,” Milo said biting off a scrap of adhesive tape and pressing it over a patch of gauze. “Still, I recommend having Jasper take a look at it when we find him. He might know better than me.” He looked over at the spider as Landon slowly sat up. “Heh – wanna talk about your sweet moves, man?”

Landon looked over at the spider himself. “Nothing sweet about it. I just attacked it. I had no idea what I was doing.”

“You were incredible – the parts that I saw anyways. Man, I thought my tail was fried when that spider knocked me out. And when I come to you’re a wolf, clinging to that spider. Haha, you had that spider scared! It was running home for its mommy but you just couldn’t let it go. Nuh uh, gotta finish the job, right?”

Landon winced and paused at a flash of pain from moving too fast. “I should have let it go. I wouldn’t have been hurt. But all I could see was red.”

“The Wolf curse, man. The stories said many of them were berserkers.”

“Berserkers?”

“Yeah. They would totally lose their minds in the heat of battle. They were beasts on a battlefield. Sometimes they couldn’t even distinguish friend from foe when you got them riled up enough. You might have a bit of that running through you, too.”

Dear lord he hoped not.

“How’d you transform?” Milo asked.

“Courage,” Landon said. The word felt thick and awkward in his mouth. Heat rose into his cheeks. Spoken out loud it didn’t seem such an incredible thing. “I guess it’s some sort of trigger.”

Milo slapped a fist into the palm of his other hand. “Oh! That makes sense. You know I change so instinctively that I don’t even think about it, but yeah – I guess we all sorta do have our triggers.”

“Yeah? What’s yours?”

“Tigers like things to be thrilling. Excitement is what does it for me. The excitement of a battlefield – that promise of a fight.”

This intrigued him. “And Jasper and… and Kite?”

“I don’t know honestly. You’d have to ask them, but Rabbits tend to like stealth and sneaking. Hawks are into the pride thing. Probably around those lines for them.”

Wolves were guardians, Kite had told him once. Did they all value courage, then? Brave creatures who kept fighting right up until the end until Dubhlainn had to wipe them out of existence.

Landon pulled the crystal out of his shirt. “But you want to know the weird part? This spoke to me when I got knocked out. I heard it in my head telling me to get up and telling me that’s how I had to transform.”

Milo’s eyes were as round as saucers. “Look at it. You can clearly see the fairy trapped inside now. You know, a part of me thought Kite was full of it.”

“How do you think I felt? Come on. We’ve got to get this fairy freed. We’ve got to find Jasper and Kite.”

“If they were within ear shot they would have heard our fight just now and come running. I hope nothing has attacked them, you know.”

Landon mentally agreed as they returned back to their searching.

Landon and the Crystal Fairy: < Previous | Next >

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