We packed up camp in the early hours of the morning just before daybreak, and spent a good part of the morning trudging through the forest as the sun slowly rose in the sky. The ambush by Gude’s monks had been sobering, and cast a black pall over our small band.
While I’d known the monks were searching for us, the surprise forest attack had caught me off guard. As the morning wore on, we made our way through the forest without any words passing between us. Even Cody, who was normally bright and cheerful, seemed pensive as we pushed our way through the ground cover and underbrush of the forest. About the time early morning turned to mid-morning, and the sun was brightly streaking through the trees, we came upon an open clearing and Nic indicated it was time for a brief rest.
As soon as we entered the clearing Cody, Luc and Damian dropped their packs and sat down on the decaying trunk of a large tree that was at the edge of the open space. Nic, Charles and I moved on a bit further, and ended up on the other side of the clearing.
“Obviously we have to get out of here, but where do we go?” I asked, breaking the oppressive silence as I gave Nic and Charles a questioning look.
“Our goal must be Küronas,” Charles said, his tone clearly indicating he thought he was stating the obvious.
My mouth turned down into a frown.
“Yes that’s fine, but we still have some serious problems to deal with, the first being the monks who are continuing to hunt for us, and the second is the matter of my older brother Loran, who would very much like to see me dead.”
“Of course those things are important,” Charles said, “and while we have to consider them, it shouldn’t stop us from what I think must be our most important goal – to make our way to Küronas.” His voice had risen steadily during our conversation, and I could see by the look on his face that he was adamant.
“And of course you know the way, isn’t that right Charles?” My voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Well, not exactly.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I started at Gold Glass, but was transported to Küronas by Cryo-Suspension Unit and lived in the city, occasionally I journeyed to the Royal Academy of the Rock for extended periods of time, but that was by hov and I was only a passenger. Besides it was a long time ago and anyway, every time I traveled I wasn’t that concerned about the way since…”
“You know Charles,” I shouted. “I’m not even going to ask what you’ve just been jabbering about. Gold Glass? Academy of the Rock? Cryo-Suspension Unit? Hov? You know, a few hours ago we came within a hair of losing our lives.”
I was angry and the words poured out of my mouth as fast as they formed in my head. Charles appeared ready to respond to my outburst, but I didn’t give him the chance.
“So apparently the answer is that none of us know where Küronas is.” Then I turned my back on him, fuming. By this point I was so frustrated I was ready to deliver a flying kick to his chest, but instead walked away, heading to where Luc, Cody, and Damian were sitting in an attempt to cool down my temper. But just as I began to leave, Nic spoke up.
“I do,” he answered quietly. “Or at least I think I do.”
I stopped walking, turned, and looked.
“I think I know where Küronas is.”
“And how do you know that, my love?” I asked, making my voice softer. I wasn’t angry with Nic and there was no reason to be rude to him.
“I don’t know how, I just do. It could be that a part of my memory is returning. Maybe it’s similar to how you can do some of the unusual things you do, but don’t know exactly how you do them. It’s just that somehow I think I know where Küronas is, or at least the direction it’s in. Something inside me just senses it. I may not know the exact location, but I think I can get us headed in the right direction”
“Then that settles it.” Charles had a big smile on his face, “We can finally go home.”
“You know it’s not going to be that easy, Charles.” I said, and once again anger rose in my voice.
“Why, of course it is.”
“Charles, you have to know that it’s going to be difficult. Nothing we’ve done up to this point has been easy.”
“Will you two ever stop arguing?” Nic shouted.
I could tell that he was exasperated. I hung my head and bit my tongue, suddenly feeling bad that I’d provoked his anger.
“Sorry.” I said looking down at the ground. I knew the minute Niklas intervened that I was about to be out-voted, and while I wasn’t going to openly argue, I was determined to have my moment of pouting.
“Jamie, this is no time to act like a little child.” I knew Nic was right, but he was taking my moment away from me. I’d worked myself up to a snit and I felt I deserved to throw it.
“Jamie? Please?” Nic came over to me and put his arm around my shoulders. Then he turned me around so I was facing him and he kissed me lightly on the lips. I tried to continue the pout, but I just couldn’t. I threw my arms around him and returned his kiss full force, our lips locked in a strong, passionate kiss.
“Ahem…” Charles was clearing his throat. “I thought we were heading to Küronas?”
We continued our kiss, but finally it ended and Nic turned to Charles.
“Yes, of course we are and now Jamie is in a much better mood to accompany us. Isn’t that right, my lovely angel boy?”
I really wanted to be mad, but Nic had taken it from me. I looked at him, then shyly smiled and nodded my head.
“As long as there are a few more of those kisses along the way.”
“There are, my Jamie... and some other things as well.”
“I know of a rumor that says wizards are amorous, but I didn’t realize it was that bad.” Charles was grinning at me. I knew he was trying to make a joke, but given my mood, it was one I had no appreciation for. I narrowed my eyes and frowned at him.
“Come on, cute angel boy.” Nic called to me as he began to walk toward Cody, Luc and Damian.
“Yes, come on cute angel boy,” Charles echoed and gave me a big smile.
I waited until Nic passed us. After his back was to us, I stuck my tongue out at Charles and all of a sudden Charles made a rude gesture at me. It looked so funny coming from him that I started to laugh, and I knew I couldn’t be mad at him. Then Charles joined in my laughter and we followed Nic back to the other boys. By the time we returned to them, they were standing and ready to move out.
We resumed our journey, still relying on our legs instead of our wings. Nic maintained that the more we stayed on the ground, the better our chances were of remaining undetected. In addition, flying could only take us so far until we became exhausted, sapping us of the precious strength we would need if our journey turned into a long one.
As we moved onward, we were able to skirt the occasional bands of monks we encountered. The fact was, there really weren’t that many and the further we got from the Abbey, the less we saw or heard them. After about five days of steady hiking with only brief breaks for meals and sleeping, our sightings of any monkish hunters were reduced to naught.
As we began to feel a bit safer, the fast pace we’d initially set for ourselves slowed to one that wasn’t as frantic. And although we continued to cover a fair amount of ground every day, our slower pace meant that we weren’t as exhausted in the evenings and actually had time to sit and talk.
In our race to escape, there had been no time for Charles to continue his account of our history. I was looking forward to hearing more of it, but knew that now was not the time for stories – our safety was paramount. I was finally beginning to breathe a bit easier and my moments of fear began to decrease. At first I thought that we were all weathering the stress quite well, but then an incident occurred that made me realize that the psychological effects of our battle with the monks had made a lasting impression.
About two weeks after our encounter with the monks and a long day of travel, we made camp for the night. As usual Cody and Luc prepared a simple but delicious meal. And as usual we sat around the fire eating and occasionally talking to each other. That evening there hadn’t been much conversation. Cody was amusing us with a few of his levitation tricks while Nic sat quietly and sharpened his sword and dagger, honing the blades to razor sharpness, when Luc, who had been rather silent for a few days, spoke up.
“I never meant to kill him,” Luc softly said as he looked intently into the fire.
“What, Luc?” Cody asked.
“I never meant to kill him. It was an accident.”
Nic stopped sharpening his sword. Carefully he put it down beside him and put his hands on his knees. I looked over at him, and frowned slightly. He returned my gaze with one of serious concern.
“Come here, Luc.” Nic called to Luc.
Luc just sat there staring into the bowl at the remnants of his supper. Nic got up, walked over to the boy, sat next to him, and put his arm around him.
“We all know it was an accident, Luc.”
“I could never kill anyone on purpose. It’s wrong.”
“It’s not wrong to kill in defense of your life or of the lives of those you love, Luc. Evil must be resisted,” Charles stated, to my surprise.
Luc turned and stared at Charles. At first it seemed he was going to say something, but then he turned back to the empty bowl in his hand, bowed his head, and went back to staring into it.
“Luc,” Nic continued. “We know the kind of boy you are. What happened just happened. I know you didn’t try to kill the man. It was an accident.”
“It was an accident Your Highness, I swear it.”
Luc put down the bowl and hung his head. It was then that Nic took the boy in his arms and hugged him. As he did, Luc began to cry. We all remained quiet as his sobs echoed through the dark and quiet forest. Finally after crying himself to exhaustion, he fell asleep in Nic’s arms. We carefully put him to bed and then sat around the fire without speaking. After a while it seemed that Luc’s tearful outburst had put all of us in a somber mood and so at Nic’s suggestion and without a word of protest everyone quietly went off to bed.
The next morning after a quick breakfast the day’s journey began as it usually did. We packed up, broke camp and moved on. As always, Nic led the way even though he was forced to admit that he was following a hunch more than anything else. After days of watching the sun rise and set, I guessed that we were heading in a Southeasterly direction, but I was never totally sure.
The forest was quiet except for the occasional call of a bird, or the scampering movements of one of the small forest creatures, mostly squirrels, or mice, that we would disturb as we approached their nests and hiding places. For the most part, the dense forest canopy high above our heads kept the woods shaded, dark, and cool. Every so often we would come across a small open area where the trees stood further apart and the bright light of the sun would shine through, dappling the floor of the forest with brilliant spots of light.
The present day’s trek was as uneventful as the previous one’s, and I found myself daydreaming as I followed behind Nic and Charles, who were leading the way a few feet ahead of me. Cody and Luc walked side by side and Damian, as always the last in line, brought up the rear. I was about to ask Nic to stop so that we could eat and take a rest when I heard Damian making one of his hooting sounds. Turning around I looked past Cody and Luc and saw that Damian had stopped walking and was standing a distance behind us as still as a statue. Calling out to Nic and Charles to stop, I made my way back to where the tall, thin, angel stood.
It wasn’t the first time this had occurred. Sometimes a squirrel would run across a branch, or a bird would make a loud chirping noise causing the boy to stop and stare until one of us would rouse him from his childlike curiosity. Once I found him looking down at a small anthill, fascinated with the comings and goings of the ants as they swarmed around it. But most of the time there never seemed to be any apparent reason for these moments of intense concentration. Slightly annoyed with his dawdling, I approached him with every intention of prodding him on. Before I reached him I began to call out to him.
“Damian? Don’t just stand there. Keep up with us. If you’re tired I can tell you that we’re probably going to stop and eat in a few minutes, but you can’t just stand here. If you keep doing this I’m going to make you walk in the middle instead of always letting you be the last one in line.”
As usual Damian seemed to be lost in thought and as I got closer I reached out my hand preparing to do what I always did – grab hold of his upper arm and drag him back to the group so that we could once again move forward. But just as I was about to snatch his arm above the elbow, I found myself grabbing at empty air since Damian had suddenly dropped to the ground on his knees. I looked down and saw that he was kneeling, intently studying the forest floor.
“Oh Damian,” I sighed. “What is it, another ant hill?”
By now Cody, Luc, Nic and Charles made their way back to us and like me, were looking down at Damian.
“What’s wrong?” Nic asked, giving me a frown.
“I don’t know.” I sighed once more. “I don’t see anything, and I certainly don’t know why he does this anymore than the rest of you do. You know, I’m not responsible for everything he does.”
But for some reason, it seemed that I was responsible for the tall, mute, angel boy with the oft-vacant stare and sometimes-childish smile. From the moment we found him, he’d gravitated to me. Then after our attack by the monks, Damian had attached himself to me even tighter. He followed me around wherever I went. He usually was pressed up next to me every night as we sat around the campfire. He ate whatever I ate and went wherever I went.
If I would laugh, he would smile; if I would frown so would he. If I hadn’t insisted to Nic that he sleep on the opposite side of the campfire, he would have laid next to me as I slept in Nic’s arms every night. He was always underfoot – specifically, my feet. So every time something was amiss with him, the rest of the group always looked to me for some explanation.
I attempted numerous times to read his thoughts, but no matter how hard I tried, entering his mind was just impossible. Every time I made an attempt, it was like hitting a stone wall at full force. The only two things that ever resulted from my probes were that Damian would always end up with a frown on his face and I would always end up with a headache.
“I’m tired of being his mother.” I groused to no one in particular, as they all stood around looking down at him.
Exasperated, I began to turn and walk away when Luc bent down next to Damian and spoke up.
“Damian’s found something!”
I turned back to see Luc pointing to a spot on the forest floor while Nic, Charles and Cody bent down to get a closer look.
Adding my eyes to those of the group, I looked closely at the spot where Luc was pointing. At first I only saw the dark black earth of the forest floor, but then Luc began to brush the ground with his hand and my eyes widened as something began to take shape with each swipe of the little boy’s hand.
When Luc was finished, we were all staring at something that looked very much like a small trap door in the forest floor. The door was square and made of metal. It wasn’t very big, but it looked like a person could pass through it without getting stuck. The metal had darkened and stained over time, but it didn’t appear to be rusty. It had a large metal ring in its center. One of its sides was hinged, and there was a clasp with a lock on the side opposite the hinge.
There was a symbol on the door that that looked something like a sunburst or an exploding light, and under the symbol were five sets of numbers. But the symbol didn’t have any significance to any of us, including Charles, who would have been the one person who might have known, and the numbers didn’t appear to be in any order that we could understand.
Nic reached down and pulled at the large heavy ring, but the door didn’t budge. He let go of the ring and it thudded back on to the metal of the door, sending a low rumbling echo through the forest, and I could tell from the sound that there was a hollow space behind the door – although how big was impossible to tell.
I looked at Nic for some explanation, but he only shrugged. Cody picked up a nearby rock and began tapping on the lock, but the metal it was made out of was so hard and dense that he wasn’t able to even make a scratch on it. I reached out my hand, and as it began to get warm I touched the lock, trying to open it just as I had the manacle on Charles foot, but instead of popping the lock open, the heat I generated bounced off the hard metal and I jerked my hand away as the sparks I created sprayed back, burning the palm of my hand.
Angry, I got up and made the others step back, then I threw a fireball at the door. The white ball hit the lock and then ricocheted off and flew past Cody’s head, almost clipping his left ear. The door and its lock didn’t look any different, and Nic gave me a reproachful frown as he shook his head. Cody got on his knees and put both hands on the door.
“I think there’s something vibrating behind this door,” he said.
I knelt beside him and added my hands to his on the door. The sensation was so slight that it would be easy to imagine that it didn’t actually exist, but the more I kept my hands on the door, the more I was convinced that Cody was right – there was something vibrating beyond the door.
“Do you sense anything?” Nic asked.
In his question, I knew that he wasn’t talking about the vibration Cody and I thought we were feeling. He was referring to the distinctive energy pulses that only came from orbs or coffins. I looked at Cody, who shook his head no.
“He’s right Nic, I don’t sense anything either.”
After a few more minutes of standing around and staring at the door, it was decided that we were wasting valuable time on something we couldn’t do anything about, so once more Nic, Charles, Luc and Cody resumed their trek as I pulled Damian to his feet and prodded him to follow the others.
The door generated quite a bit of discussion among us as we ate our midday meal. Cody was sure that it was some type of a tomb with more coffins and angels, while Luc had been reminded of a wooden trap door in a subterranean chamber of Zakaria’s provisional offices in Tardon. He told us that the one in Tardon was the entrance to an underground passageway that led under the town square and into another building.
Charles thought it might be an underground chamber – the remnant of a building that had once stood on the spot, but no longer existed. Nic, more concerned about our current situation than anything else, pointed out that all of these ideas were only guesses, and as long as the door remained locked it would continue to be a mystery. He also reminded us that while he was just as curious as the rest of us to learn more, it seemed clear to him that trying to open it had thus far ended in utter failure, and any additional time spent on it would probably only result in the loss of valuable time. So leaving the door in the forest floor behind, we journeyed on.
The rest of the day passed without incident as we continued our trek and after a few additional hours of walking we found ourselves at the end of the day and made camp as the sun dropped lower in the sky and the forest grew darker. After we ate, talk returned to the door and its significance until the topic became so thoroughly exhausted that everyone decided to give it up and prepare for bed. The fire had burned down to ashes, but the forest remained bright. The twin moons, waning over the last weeks, had once more begun to wax and were now grown large and full in the heavens. The light they cast illuminated the forest. As I lay against Nic and looked up into the night sky, my mind went back to the strange door, but didn’t remain there long, for in less than a minute after closing my eyes, I was asleep.
The next morning we all woke up later than usual. Normally we arose shortly after sunrise, but for some reason the sun was much higher in the sky when Nic’s waking movements suddenly roused me. After eating, we resumed our journey. Nic once again took the lead as Luc and Cody followed closely behind. Charles dropped back to walk beside me and as always, Damian followed at a distance.
We’d trudged through the forest for about an hour when I began to notice the sun was becoming brighter and warmer than usual. After a few more minutes of walking I suddenly realized why – we’d reached the edge of the forest. The thick dark woods suddenly and unexpectedly spilled out unto a broad expanse of flatland that was covered with a dense carpet of thick course grass no more than a few inches high. Having been surrounded by trees for so long, I’d become used to my viewpoint being restricted to only a few feet, but the area we were now walking into offered an unobstructed view, broken only by an occasional bush rising a few feet above the grassy plain.
Cody, never at a loss for words, made it quite clear that he was happy to be leaving the forest – he bounded onto the sunlit plain, with Luc joyously following behind him without the slightest need for coaxing or encouragement. Running ahead, they called for the rest of us to get moving and follow them.
I had to confess mixed feelings as we crossed into the open plains. The density of the trees and underbrush in the forest, though making travel difficult and slow, had provided protection and shelter. The plains, while promising easier travel and greater long-range visibility, offered less shelter from the elements and would allow us to be seen more easily by others. But I pushed aside my concerns and followed the others onto the open grassland while at the same time chivying Damian to move along and keep up with us.
We walked a few more hours until the sun was directly overhead. I was beginning to yearn for a much needed midday rest, due mostly to the fact that Damian had been moving even slower than usual and most of my morning consisted of urging, shouting, pleading, or encouraging him to keep up with us, when an unexpected shout from Nic roused me from my thoughts. As I looked to Nic, I could see that he’d stopped walking and was gesturing at something straight ahead. After a few seconds, Charles came up next to him and then Cody and Luc joined them about a minute later.
My initial thought was that Nic had spotted movement ahead, and I swallowed hard as the fear of another unwanted meeting with Gude’s monks bloomed in my mind, but then I noticed that his hand was casually raised, pointing out something as he spoke calmly to Charles, and it seemed apparent that for the moment he didn’t seem particularly worried or agitated. Nevertheless, I picked up my pace while at the same time snagging Damian’s left arm and pulling him along beside me. By the time I reached the group, I could see that they were all staring straight ahead and looking out across the plains in the direction of Nic’s outstretched arm.
“What is it?” I said, once I reached Nic and the others.
“Just look,” Cody said with a note of eager excitement in his voice. “His Highness has discovered something – it might be a town or city.”
And as I looked out across the open expanse of fields, I could barely catch a hint of something just beginning to rise up from the grassy plain. We were such a great distance from it that it was impossible to tell exactly what it was.
At the edge of the horizon there appeared a large, gray mass. Parts of it were clumped together, while other sections seemed separate and distinct. A few of the separate parts seemed to have square or round shapes. And while we’d come across outcroppings of stone and rock before, even at this distance, the large mass ahead of us looked too organized to just be a random outcropping of stone.
“Uhm, maybe it is a town or even a city,” I said, turning to Cody, “but I can’t really tell from here.”
“Jamie’s right,” Nic said. “It obviously has to be something big or we wouldn’t be able to see it from this distance, but at this point anything we might surmise can only be considered a guess until we get closer.”
“What if it is a city, Nic?” I said.
“Or another abbey,” Luc quietly added.
At Luc’s words I looked at Nic and frowned.
“It could be either of those things, or something entirely different,” Nic continued. “I think we should make our way towards it, but do so cautiously, and without being seen.”
“I could fly to it,” Cody said.
And as he spoke, I could hear the excitement rise in his voice.
“No,” I said. “It could be dangerous.”
“But I was the one who found and scouted around the abbey when Nic went to look for you,” he protested. “I’d be careful, and at least we’d know what it was.”
“He’s right, Jamie,” Nic said. “Cody did an excellent job of reconnaissance at the abbey.” Turning to Cody he continued, “I’ll let you scout ahead Cody, but you must promise to do exactly as I tell you. First, you have to fly low and approach whatever it is slowly to avoid being seen. Second, if you see any signs of life what so ever: people, movement, or any indication of something suspicious, you’re to return immediately and report. Under no circumstance do I want you to investigate on your own if there are people around. And I definitely don’t want them to see you. Finally, remember distance can be deceiving on an open plain. Things that appear to be a mile or two away may in reality be ten miles or more, so fly only as far as your strength will take you and keep in mind you will also need enough strength to be able to fly back as quickly as possible, especially if you discover trouble, so I don’t want you to overtax yourself to exhaustion.”
“I understand Your Highness, and I promise,” Cody answered bowing his head slightly to Nic and giving him a serious look. But as I gazed more closely at the young angel boy, he couldn’t hide the excitement that flashed in his eyes.
Nic decided that since it was midday we should all eat, Cody included, because he would need his strength for flight. The meal was simple and quick – some cold rabbit stew and berries from the previous night’s meal. And while we ate in silence, it was hard to ignore the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation that filled the air. Only Damian seemed oblivious to what was about to happen as he played with a small insect he’d found under the rock he’d been sitting on.
Within ten minutes after our meal was finished Cody was to ready embark on his mission. I gave Cody the small packet of food Charles and I’d packed. Luc gave him a small flask of water and hugged him hard as Nic once more reminded Cody of the rules he had set down for his safety and protection. Cody nodded in agreement and prepared to leave.
“Remember Cody, no heroics,” I said, giving him what I hoped was a solemn and serious look.
“I won’t do anything foolish, Your Grace.”
But I couldn’t ignore the smile he flashed as he leapt into the air and began stroking his wings. Then we all stood and watched while he flew from us, shrinking into a tiny speck in the sky and finally vanishing over the horizon. Since we were still headed in the same direction Cody had flown, Nic decided that we would continue walking, thus making Cody’s return flight a bit shorter.
We spent the rest of the day walking across the plain, making steady progress as the sun moved through the western sky, slowly heading toward the horizon. And though my thoughts had been of Cody from the moment he had left us, my worries concerning him increased as I noticed our shadows beginning to lengthen at the end of the day. That evening we had a quiet supper.
“I wonder how he’s doing?” Luc asked. “I thought he’d be back by now.”
“We’re not sure how far he had to go,” Nic said. “I expected it might take a while. I’m not worried yet, but if he doesn’t make it back by tomorrow, I’ll be quite concerned.”
That night we retired early. The morning came quickly and we resumed our journey. Our midday meal was even more somber then the previous nights dinner.”
“Where could he be?” Luc asked, exasperation coloring his voice.
“We can only guess,” Charles said in his usual clipped, cold, and matter of fact tone of voice.
An hour before sunset, Nic decided that we should prepare to make camp, and as everyone pitched in to help set up for the night, it was obvious that Cody’s fate was on all of our minds as everyone went about their assigned tasks without so much as a word passing between us. I could tell most of us weren’t in the mood to do anything, but Nic insisted we keep busy.
Luc quickly gathered some wood, and with Charles’ help, started a fire. A few minutes later, just as the last rays of light vanished from the sky, Nic strode into camp with a few fat rabbits. As Nic sat down and began to skin the rabbits, I made my way toward the light of the fire with Damian in tow and bringing along my contribution to the evening’s meal. Damian and I had been foraging for anything that might look like food, although as usual, Damian had been more hindrance than help. As I dragged him back towards the fire, I was beginning to wish for the hundredth time that someone else would take charge of him, when suddenly I heard a rustling noise come from above and looked up just in time to see Cody emerge from the darkness to land near Luc, who was adding some additional wood to the fire. I smiled as Luc immediately launched himself at his returned friend, wrapping his arms around his waist in a joyous hug. The second he landed, everyone looked to him in eager anticipation, while Cody, returning Luc’s hug, broke into a broad and happy grin.
“You’ll never believe what it is,” he said, taking in a few deep gulps of the cool night air as he tried to catch his breath.
“What?” Luc said, “Is it a city? Did you see any people? Did they see you? Are you all right?”
Cody continued to breathe heavily, but his smile never faded.
“No. It’s better than a city,” he said as his eyes twinkled. “It looks like a deserted castle, and it’s enormous.”
“And what about people, Cody?” Nic asked. “Did you see any people?”
“No. I didn’t see anyone. It’s mostly in ruins and completely deserted.”
While we were all eager to hear about Cody’s adventure, Nic insisted that we allow him some time to catch his breath. But as soon as every one was seated and began eating, one question after another flew in Cody’s direction. At first Nic wanted to give Cody time to eat his meal and regain his strength, but Cody was so full of excitement and eager to tell us of his adventure that he immediately launched into his story, between huge gulps of food. Luc only added to the excitement by attacking Cody with a barrage of ten questions to every one that any one else asked.
Nic finally got everyone under control, while making sure Cody received enough to eat and wasn’t too tired to begin telling us about his adventure. Then he joined me by the fire and put his arm around me, as I moved closer to him. Damian, as always, sat next to me on the side opposite Nic. Charles sat off by himself, both interested and amused at Cody’s excitement, while Luc remained next to the young angel, staring up into his face and eager to hear everything his friend had to say.
“Come on, tell us Cody,” Luc said, the words rapidly pouring from his mouth. “Tell us everything that happened from the minute you flew off until your got back here.”
I looked up at Nic and smiled; he winked and wrapped his arm tighter around my waist.
“Yes, go on Cody,” Nic said with a chuckle in his voice. “If you don’t start soon, Luc is going to explode.”
The little boy lowered his eyes and blushed, but he quickly recovered and eagerly looked back up to Cody with a pleading expression of anticipation.
“Ok,” Cody began. “The first thing I have to tell you,” Cody paused and looked directly at Nic, “is that while we are on an open plain, it’s not the way we first thought.”
“How so?” Nic asked, giving Cody a questioning look.
“Well, you know how we came out of the forest onto this plain and assumed that it’s a large and open expanse of flat land?”
“Yes,” Nic answered.
“Well, it’s not. It’s true that it is an open area, and it’s really big, but it’s still surrounded by forest. Think of it as a huge open clearing in the forest. It goes on for miles, but from what I can see, it’s completely surrounded by forest. As we continue on our journey, eventually we’re going to have to return to the forest. Actually, the ruins border one edge of the forest where this open space ends. And there’s something else even stranger – the open fields seem to converge into a point at the site of the castle.”
“How so?” Charles asked.
“It’s hard to describe without seeing it for yourself, but from the air you would instantly understand what I’m talking about. I’ll try to explain: imagine that you are looking at a triangle shaped like a pyramid with its base flat on the ground and one of it’s points at the top. The castle is at the top – the peak of the triangle. The plain then flows from it almost like a river, widening and growing on either side until there are miles separating the two points at the base. Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” Charles replied.
“It almost seems like it was made that way on purpose. But as I said, it’s perfectly clear from the air. Since the castle sits in the point, the forest is quite close to it.”
“What about the castle?” Luc interrupted, excitement building his voice.
“Luc,” Nic said. “I know you’re eager to learn the whole story as quickly as possible, but I want Cody to tell us everything in it’s proper order and sequence, just as it happened to him. I don’t want him skipping around and forgetting something that might be of importance to us.”
Luc nodded his head, but continued to gaze at Cody, hanging on every word and eager to learn more.
“Ok, as I was saying…I left all of you and as soon as I gained enough height and began flying, it became obvious to me that this is a great open space in the forest. It’s completely covered with grass, with an occasional tree or bush, but for the most part it’s a flat open area. Once I got over the surprise of that, I continued to fly towards what King Niklas first spotted this morning.”
“I was very careful to look for any signs of life,” Cody paused, looking directly at Nic, “but I didn’t see one thing that would indicate any humans living on this plain. Still, I was careful and took my time approaching the place that you first discovered.
“Even from the air, it was hard to figure out exactly what it was. At first I thought it was a town, but the closer I got, the more I realized I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was only when I was almost on top of it that I figured out that it had once been a great castle. It’s very big. In some ways it almost looks like a town or city, but in other ways it doesn’t.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, there aren’t the usual houses or shops that you’d associate with a town. There’s the castle surrounded by a large wall – or at least what’s left of it. There are buildings, although they don’t appear to be houses like people would normally live in. But there’s so much of it in ruin that it’s really hard to say what it all was at one time.
“But,” Cody continued, and I saw his eyes widen “there’s a great amphitheater and something else that looks like a track that people or horses would run around. And there are many other things.”
“Like what?” Luc eagerly asked.
So, carefully and deliberately, Cody relayed in great detail all that he had seen as we sat mesmerized by his words. When he was finished everyone sat quietly, just looking at him.
“You really do have to see it for yourselves,” Cody finally said.
And at those words Luc jumped to his feet.
“Yes, we should!”
Nic looked at me and frowned.
“I’m inclined to say that we should avoid it, but it might hold some answers. If we do go, we’re going to have to be very careful. We have no idea if it’s a place associated with the monks.”
“I don’t think it is,” Cody replied. “I looked everywhere and I didn’t see any sign of life. It not only looks abandoned, but also as if it’s been purposely neglected. There wasn’t one indication that anyone has been there for a very long time.”
“Maybe not,” Nic replied, “but we still have to be careful. We were attacked once and we were lucky, but we can’t rely on luck forever.”
I agreed with Nic, but admitted to myself that I was just as curious as Luc to see the place Cody so eloquently described.
“What should we do?” I asked, looking to Nic for guidance.
“First, we all get a good night’s sleep. Then we awake at dawn, eat and prepare to leave for this castle.”
“How long will it take?” Charles asked.
“Cody,” Nic said, “how long did it take you to fly there?”
“About three hours, with a half hour rest in between each hour. I was really amazed to discover just how strenuous one solid hour of flight can be. Although I was also lucky, since it was midday when I left and the sun was shining, I was able to take advantage of the warm thermal currents – it was a help. ”
“Nic?” I said, surprised at what I was now hearing. “Do you mean that we’re going to fly to it?”
“Yes, Jamie. If we’re going to go, we’re going to fly. Cody’s told us that this open plain is really nothing but an immense clearing within the forest. If we walk through it, I think that it will take at least a day – maybe more. I don’t want us to be exposed in the open that long. If the forest borders this castle as Cody says, then we can explore it, slip back into the forest, and continue on. And seeing what happened to us a few days ago, I want to lay as low as possible until we get further away from the monks.”
“If that’s even possible,” I whispered under my breath
“You’re right Jamie, it may not be possible, but we’re going to have to try.”
After that, the discussion was over and we prepared for sleep. Although I was curled up in Nic’s arms in my usual position, I was restless. During one period of what little sleep I got that night, I had a dream. In it, I was gazing into the face of a young boy. He had amazing green eyes that seemed to look right through me. He was smiling warmly as he spoke to me, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I concentrated on trying to understand him, but could only see his lips move as he spoke and smiled at me. Then suddenly, he started waving goodbye and blew me a kiss just as he once more began to speak. I was straining my ears to hear, but then I was awakened as Nic stirred from his sleep and urged me to get up.
Portions of the dream remained in my mind, and recalling it disturbed me as we ate breakfast, which consisted of some sour, dried berries that were a remnant of a previous meal, and a few mushrooms that Luc had found in the forest the day before.
The boy’s face had been etched in my memory. There was an androgynous quality to him, and something about the way he smiled and blew me his kiss that seemed almost familiar and expected. And there was something else about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I remember being surprised by it in the dream, but after awakening couldn’t remember it. I could only recall that it had to do with something about the way he looked, and even though I concentrated as hard as I could and tried replaying the dream over and over again as I sat eating, I found that its clarity had faded and I was left with only shadows and pale, colorless images. But I couldn’t deny that I was troubled, as it co-mingled in my head with worries and fears over Gude and his monks.
While sitting with the others and eating in silence, I decided to keep the dream to myself. Since I couldn’t recall enough of it to make sense, I wasn’t going to bring up something that might stir up the group any more than they already were, since the level of excitement and anticipation at the thought of once more flying had infected everyone – even the one person who was wingless, Luc, was bubbling with delight. Nic had told him that he would carry him as he had when we escaped Tardon and this time Luc, instead of being afraid, was overjoyed to have the opportunity to look down on the world from above.
Pushing the dream and my troubled thoughts from my mind, I popped the last berry into my mouth and chewed. It was even sourer than the others I’d eaten. I grimaced, swallowed hard, and then joined the group in preparing to break camp and take to the air.
Finally, all of our preparations were complete. Nic made sure that we were each carrying an equal amount of items so that the weight distributed among us was fair and wouldn’t hamper any one of us from keeping up. And then without warning, fanfare or emotion, he grabbed Luc by the waist, stroked his wings and jumped into the air; before I could even blink, they were off into the heavens. Everyone, myself included, had been surprised by Nic’s speed in getting airborne, but it didn’t take any coaxing for the rest of us to follow: with an explosion of wings, we all leapt into the air, and soon all of us were winging our way toward the strange castle complex in the distance.
Just as Cody had done, we flew for approximately an hour at a time with half hour breaks in between so that we could rest and regain our strength. The day grew hot, and we too took advantage of the thermal currents generated by the warmth of the sun
Four hours after we’d taken to the air, the ruins had gotten closer and I was just beginning to make out some distinct shapes emerging from them when Nic called to us and slowly began to descend. Everyone followed, and within less than a minute we were once more on the ground. We rested for an hour, using the time to drink some water and eat a few nuts from amongst our meager food stores. During that time, our conversation crackled with excitement as we eagerly discussed what we’d find.
After our rest, Nic once again hoisted Luc onto his hip and began to stroke his wings. Luc wrapped his arms around Nic’s neck, and his legs around Nic’s waist, and gave me a huge smile as they took off. I stood for a few seconds smiling to myself as I watched them race into the sky.
Over the next hour, as we got ever nearer, the castle complex grew in shape and size. At first all that was visible was a large mound of what looked like rocks or boulders, but the closer we got the more the ruins appeared to rise up from the earth. And the closer I looked, the more I marveled at what I was seeing. The most obvious thing I immediately noticed was that all of the great stones that made up the entire complex were a dark reddish color. The buildings in Tardon, along with the abbey, were constructed from dark gray granite. But the stones that made up the castle complex looked to be some type of sandstone, with a deep reddish brown cast. In fact, in the bright light of the sun, they appeared to almost glow from within.
The castle itself was huge. Even in it’s decayed state, it was still a thing of immense size and grandeur. Much of it had fallen to the ground, and although some sections of its walls remained standing, the courtyards surrounding them were littered with stones and large pieces of the castle structure that had long ago crumbled and fallen to the earth. Many of the towers and battlements were nothing more than large mounds of reddish-brown rubble. A few towers remained, their roofs long gone with some of the stones from their spires fallen inward, creating a ghostly although impressive sight.
I could see what was left of a great curtain wall surrounding the castle complex. But it too had suffered the effects of time. Large sections had collapsed and fallen inward or outward, littering the surrounding ground with huge boulder-like stones. Cody’s description had been quite accurate, for as I looked closer at the entire complex I could see that there were many other structures within its crumbling walls. Some of the buildings and their functions seemed obvious – barracks, to house soldiers or troops to defend the castle, and stables to keep animals, but for the most part the decay was so advanced it was hard to guess what many of the structures had once been.
Flying lower and closer, I caught a glimpse of the large oval area that Cody had described and then caught a brief glimpse of something even larger, off in the distance behind it. Because of my altitude, the angle at which I was approaching the castle, and it’s distance, I wasn’t quite able to see what it was. Lost in thought and my own curiosity, I was unaware of how close we’d come to the castle until once more Nic shouted for every one to land and we all descended back onto the plain.
Once our feet were on the ground, we stood together and looked at the sight before us. From the air, the castle complex was spectacular and breathtaking; from the ground, it towered over us. It was then that I realized I was gazing upon something that wasn’t just old – it was ancient. The very stones that made up the place were cracked, and crumbling to dust as only something eons old could be. A few sections of wall remained, but most of it had toppled, forming large mountains of rubble and crumbling stone. In some places, trees grew out of the rubble – and not just saplings, but fully mature trees, their large roots burrowing through and cracking the very stones they grew in. Looking beyond the wall, I could see the remaining towers of the castle. Those still standing had enough height that one could imagine their former grandeur. It was then that I turned to Nic, and he to me. There was a strange look of surprised recognition in his eyes.
“What is it Nic, what do you remember?”
He didn’t answer but nodded his head in the way he usually did when he was giving me permission to enter his mind. I began my probe, preparing to casually sift through his thoughts, then stumbled back a few steps and blinked, wide eyed at the memory that had come bubbling to the surface of his consciousness. The sight before my eyes, though still partially veiled, was enough to stir memories of my own deep inside me. Leaving Nic’s mind, I stood silent next to him, speechless.
“Castle Rood,” Nic finally said aloud, and I could hear the slightest quiver in his voice.
“Yes Nic, the Red Castle,” I said, softly adding, “I remember now.”
I heard a quick intake of breath from behind and turned in its direction, although I was sure without guessing from just whom it had come. Charles was standing behind us, his mouth agape.
“You know this place?” he said
“Yes,” Nic quietly said. “Castle Rood. Jamie and I have been here before.”
He looked down at me. My eyes met his and I nodded my head every so slightly. Without another word passing between us, Nic and I slowly and carefully entered the ruins through a part of the wall that had collapsed, leaving enough space to walk through without forcing us to climb over piles of the great red stones that lay scattered about. The others followed quietly behind us.
Little by little, we made our way slowly around and between the piles of stone and mountains of rubble. More than once I had to climb up and over rocks in areas where the debris was so heavy we couldn’t get around it. Occasionally we found ourselves crawling through openings in buildings. After a few minutes of picking my way through a particularly crowded debris field, I began to wish I were back in the air. Every step taken had to be carefully planned. More than once, loose pieces of rock from large piles fell around us. At one point, Luc almost fell off a large stone that crumbled as soon as he stepped on it. Eventually, we reached a place where the rubble formed a barrier that so effectively blocked our way it made it impossible to climb over or walk around.
Nic took the lead, beating his wings. I followed close behind. Gently, we rose into the air. Once we were above the barrier, he carefully alighted on the highest peak of one of the great stone piles, making sure the stone he landed on was stable. I did the same, landing on a large square stone that was next to the one on which Nic stood. Once I was sure that I was safe and the stone wouldn’t move, I got my bearings and looked around, only to take in a sharp breath at what I was seeing.
Below us lay a great, oval-shaped track. Rows of seats and benches surrounded it and reached upwards row upon row on all sides. A portion of the right side of the track was reduced to rubble consisting of stones, rock and earth where a large section of seats had succumbed to time and the elements and collapsed, sliding in one massive avalanche onto the track. The remaining sections of seats were covered with moss and grass, with an occasional tree or bush pushing their way skyward.
Seconds after I landed the others followed, each gently perching on a stone, taking care to make sure their footing was stable. Cody and Charles had each taken one of Luc’s arms and carefully set him down on a large boulder.
“This is one of the places I told you about,” Cody said, excitement ringing in his voice.
“The Hippodrome,” Nic said.
Staring down into the ring, I envisioned richly costumed riders astride magnificent horses shouting and jostling their mounts for position, striking them with whips and driving them forward in one final charge to the finish line. I could almost see splendid chariots, expertly crafted with fanciful designs and gilded carvings, carrying a driver and an archer dressed in elaborate warrior costumes and pulled by teams of matching horses. I could imagine drivers gripping the reigns of their powerful teams of horses, whips in hand, shouting them onward while the archers nocked arrows and took aim at targets set up in the center of the great oval track. And I could even hear the deafening shouts of the crowd when an archer’s arrow would successfully strike its target.
I was brought back to reality when Nic once again stroked his wings and launched back into the air. He headed to the large space behind the Hippodrome that had been obscured from the air when we first approached Castle Rood. Once he’d flown past the Hippodrome, he continued on for another few seconds before landing. Following closely behind, I landed beside him. As soon as I was on the ground my heart pounded in my chest as I gazed upon the scene before my eyes. The large structure that been obscured by the Hippodrome was now directly in front of me, but I didn’t have to wonder what it was. Nic began walking towards it at a brisk pace. I’d been lost in thought; when I realized he’d left my side, I quickly jogged across the open space to catch up with him.
Just like the other structures in the castle complex, this one was largely in ruins. But there was still enough remaining of the enormous stone walls with their towers and endless rows of seats and benches that I recognized the great arena of Castle Rood.
Since we were on the same level with the floor of the arena, the great gate that formed its entrance stood before us. Its archway had long fallen to dust, and was rubble at our feet. Carved into the right side of the gate were the remains of a large figure, but it was too damaged to recognize. On the left side of the gate was a similar figure; the face had been broken away along with its arms and legs but part of the body remained, along with one gracefully arched wing that attached to its torso.
Stepping over the debris, we continued through the gate and paused just inside the entrance. I looked up at the rows of seats that wrapped around the circular floor of the arena. Most of them were now crumbled stone and rock. The emperor’s box, long fallen from its perch, lay smashed to rubble, scattered onto the stone seats it had once stood above. Six large stone towers, or what was left of them, stood at equal intervals around the upper most seats of the arena. Four had been reduced to great piles of stone. A fifth was now only half as high as it had once been. The remaining tower, although still standing, was badly worn by the forces of nature, and large gaping cracks ran up its sides. A strange sense of deja vu crept into my mind, but refused to reveal any strong or concrete memories.
I stood for a few minutes, looking at the spot where the emperor’s box had been. In my mind I could hear great shouts and cheers rumbling up from the crowd in the arena, cheering those seated in the royal box. And for some reason, it suddenly became easy for me to imagine myself sitting there, looking out over the great arena and the cheering crowd.
After a few minutes of silent reflection, I turned and looked at Nic who, like me, seemed lost in thought. Then I lifted my left arm and extended my hand. A second later, a warm and strong hand clasped it gently yet firmly, and together Niklas and I walked hand in hand into the center of the arena.
Not a word passed between us – none had to. The two of us had trod these stones before, on a bright sunny day so long ago that it now seemed a dream – maybe it was. But the longer I stood there with his hand firmly in mine, the more certain I grew that it wasn’t. It had been real. I could feel it in my bones.
“What happened here?” I said, breaking the silence.
“I don’t remember,” Nic said. “But I know it was something amazing.”
“Is it really true that we were here before?”
“Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
“But when? And what happened here?” I asked for a second time.
Nic continued to grip my hand and shrugged eloquently. “If I remembered that Jamie, maybe I’d remember everything.”
While we’d been standing there, the others gradually approached and gathered around us, silently studying the arena.
“What a place,” Cody finally said.
“Do either of you remember this place?” I asked, turning to Cody and Charles. “Do you have any memory of being here?”
They both shook their heads.
“I think I’d remember this place for sure.” Cody said.
I frowned. His remark had been quick and certain, but I wasn’t convinced. The truth was, I knew I’d stood in this very spot, but couldn’t remember one thing regarding the circumstances surrounding it.
Once more I stood staring up into the seats. There was something about the large imperial box, for somehow I know that’s what it was, laying in ruins that stirred up feeling in me. Slowly I rotated as my gaze swept around the entire arena, finally stopping when my eyes rested again on Cody. I was about to ask him a question when suddenly Charles got a shocked and surprised look on his face and began to shout.
“Damian, no! Come back here!”
I snapped my head around in the direction of Charles gaze and was shocked to see Damian flying over the rows of damaged seats heading toward the taller of the two remaining towers.
“Damian!” I shouted as my voice joined that of Charles. “Get down here!”
But he ignored me. And I watched as he landed in front of a gaping hole where the door of the tower had been and without a moment’s hesitation walked inside.
“Feather rot, Nic!” I cursed. “He’ll be killed! That tower looks like it’s barely standing.”
I could feel my temper flair and as it did, I stroked my wings and pushed off from the ground. Seeing Damian once more put himself in danger made my blood boil, and my flight to the tower was made more in reflexive anger than careful thought. Once I was near the tower entrance where I’d seen Damian enter, I landed. One of the large stones I alighted on was loose and the instant I put my weight on it, it shifted and began to slide. Quickly jumping off, I hopped to another near by rock and watched as the large stone began first to slide, then tumbled dangerously down to the arena floor. I watched as it bounced down the concentric rows of seats like a child’s ball, occasionally smashing and breaking the seats in its path.
“Watch out!” I shouted to the others standing on the arena floor.
But they’d seen it coming and everyone jumped into the air, while Nic grabbed Luc. The large stone, now an out-of-control boulder, continued to bounce and crash as it made it’s way down the inclined seats until it finally crashed onto the arena floor, bouncing with a loud thud and sending shock waves vibrating through the ground. It rolled across the arena floor and finally came to a crashing stop as it hit the remains of the rubble that had once been the imperial box.
After the stone finally come to rest and I knew that no one had been hurt by it, I turned my attention back to the tower. While I wasn’t a stonemason or builder, it didn’t take much observation for me to realize that the tower Damian had run into was dangerously unstable.
“Damian! DAMIAN!” I shouted with all my might as I stood at the tower’s entrance.
But then I realized that a boy without a tongue couldn’t very well answer me, even if he were in trouble.
I took a deep breath and slowly walked through the open hole that had long ago been a doorway. Once I was inside the tower I looked up. I could see holes in the stone ceiling above me. Around the inside wall of the tower a stone circular stairway wound its way to the higher floors. Everything, from the crumbled stone that had fallen inward to the floor, to the large cracks running vertically up the sides of tower that were so wide they let in the sunlight, indicated just how dangerous this place was.
I continued to call out to Damian over and over, but each time I was met with silence. Looking at the circular stairway built into the wall of the tower, I shook my head. Some of the stones that made up the steps were missing, and while that fact didn’t exactly worry me since I could easily breach any gaps by becoming airborne, I knew that if the tower began to crumble around me, I couldn’t rely on flying to save me if the massive and heavy stones which the tower had been constructed from began to rain down on me.
Once again I called out to Damian, and once more was answered with silence. I walked over to the stairway and looked up. Then I slowly and carefully lifted my leg and put my right foot on the first step. It didn’t move, or shake or vibrate. So I lifted my other leg and soon was standing firmly on the first step. Looking up I muttered under my breath.
“Well, you only have two hundred more or so to go, Jamie.” The prospect made me shiver.
By the time I’d reached the tenth step, I could hear shouts coming from the doorway. The others had flown up and were now outside the tower. Nic was calling out to me and by the sound of his voice I could tell that he wasn’t very pleased with what I’d done.
“Jamie, get out of there. You’re as bad as Damian. You tell him not to go in and then you do the same.”
I turned toward the door and shouted back:
“Nic, I know he’s in here. I don’t see him, so I think he went up to one of the higher levels. He can’t call out if he’s in trouble. I have to get him.”
“That may be true Jamie, but you don’t have to appoint yourself his savior.”
“Well, what was I supposed to do Nic, let the tower fall and kill him?”
“No, but we could have devised a better plan. It’s bad enough he went in, but now two are in danger instead of one. We can’t afford to lose both of you.”
“But we can afford to lose one? Nic, if any of you have a better plan, let me know. I’m listening.”
I was met with silence.
“That’s what I thought. And besides, I’m already in here now and a quarter of the way up these stairs,” For as I’d been talking to Nic, I’d continued my slow and careful climb. “I’ll be careful.”
“Jamie, if there’s even the slightest bit of movement anywhere in that tower, I want you to get out immediately. Do you understand me?”
“Yes Nic. I don’t have any great desire to be crushed like a bug by a flying boulder.”
“Well, just keep talking to us so we know you’re ok. If I don’t hear anything, I’m going to assume the worst and come in after you.”
So I slowly continued climbing, talking to Nic and the others with each and every step. A few times I had to gently stroke my wings to fly over a break in the stone steps, but gradually, step by careful step, I made my way to the top. Once I was at the top landing, I was standing in a small vestibule looking into three openings that led to three different rooms. I moved forward and peered into the first room, but saw nothing. Backing out, I looked into the second room and discovered it too was empty. Finally I peeked into the third room and saw Damian. He was on his hands and knees near one of the walls, looking down at the stone floor. Calling down to the others, I told them what I’d found.
“I’m going to go in and get him,” I shouted as loudly as I could.
“All right Jamie, but do it quickly and get out of there,” Nic’s muffled voice answered back.
Each of the three rooms was of similar size and shape. I noticed that none of them had a window or large hole we could get through. One of my initial hopes had been that if there were some kind of an opening, we could fly out and land a safe distance from the unstable structure. Now it appeared that we would have to make our way back down the same painstaking way we’d come up.
I’d put one foot across the threshold into the room when I felt the tower shudder slightly. I paused, took a breath and listened. As I waited, I remembered the giant stone that had crashed to the floor of the arena. The shock of its fall had shaken the ground and probably made the tower even more unstable. After about a minute of waiting, listening to the sound of my own breathing, nothing happened.
“Jamie? Get out of there now!” I could barely hear Nic’s voice, but I could sense the fear in it.
I knew I’d promised Nic that the moment something happened I would leave, but now that I’d found Damian I was determined to get him out.
Turning back in the direction I had come, I shouted “He’s right here Nic, I’m going to get him and bring him out with me.”
There was no response from outside the tower and I wondered if Nic had heard me. I turned back to the third room were Damian crouched and stepped further into it.
“Damian, it’s too dangerous in here. This tower is unstable and it might collapse. Come on. We have to leave right now.”
But he continued to kneel looking down at the floor, completely ignoring me. I took a deep breath and sighed. It appeared that he was lost in one of his spells of intense concentration and hadn’t even heard me. Carefully I walked across the floor toward him. Once I was directly behind him I noticed that I’d been wrong. I’d assumed that he’d been staring down at the floor silently studying something he might have seen, or thought he’d seen, just as he had done so many times before. But now that I was standing over him, I could see that his hands were busy at some task.
“Damian.” I said, my voice growing louder. “Come on. We’ve already tempted fate to its limit.”
I bent down to take his arm in an attempt to get him to stand up, but he jerked it away from me and kept digging into the stone floor with his hands.
“Damian!” I was now shouting, but he continued to ignore me.
Kneeling down beside him, I tried to get a better look at what he was doing, hoping that if I could find out the source of his interest maybe I could bring an end to his actions or at least distract him enough to get him up on his feet and back down the stairway. Looking closer, I gasped. The stone he had been clawing was covered with blood – Damian’s blood. I took one of his hands to examine it and found that he had rubbed the tips of his fingers raw. But he snatched his hand out of mine and continued to dig at the floor. Once more there was a slight vibration. I felt it run up the sides of the tower and my body shook slightly as the tower sifted around us.
I put my hand to my face and shook my head. The tower seemed to know that someone had violated it and was now making its feelings known by trying to shake us out of itself. In desperation, I reached out and grabbed both of Damian’s hands.
“Damian. Do you understand me? We must get out of here… NOW!”
Damian raised his head and looked into my eyes. The intense look he gave me made me shiver. I could tell that if at that moment he could have spoken his words would have had a great intensity and urgency to them.
“What is it?” I asked, my voice filled with frustration. “Damian, why is this so important to you?”
Damian looked away, pulled his hands out of mine and once more went back to the stone in the floor. Exasperated, I looked up at the ceiling of the room and was surprised to see small bits of mortar falling down like grains of sand. My eyes widened as I began to imagine what would happen to us if the stones in the ceiling suddenly gave way, sending tons of rock raining down on our heads.
A second look at Damian’s hands made me shutter. The stone he had been clawing at was now bloodier than before, red blood on red stone. But as I stared closer I saw something that I hadn’t previously noticed. This particular stone didn’t have any mortar around it. It was loose. And I could finally see that Damian hadn’t randomly chosen it to claw at, he was actually trying to lift it out of the floor. The stone was large and heavy, and since he wasn’t strong, each time he tried to lift it, it slipped from his fingers. That explained his cut and bleeding fingertips. Taking stock of the situation, I once again took his hands in mine to stop his incessant clawing at the stone. He looked up at me with the same intensity as before, but this time I looked back at him with equal intensity.
“Damian, I think I can help you, but we have to work together.”
I couldn’t believe I was saying the words, but I was so exasperated that I didn’t know what else to do. I had a feeling I would never get him out of the tower unless we accomplished his seemingly meaningless task and I couldn’t risk him fighting me for fear that any unnecessary movements would precipitate the tower’s collapse.
Placing his hands on one side of the stone I put my hands on the other side. There wasn’t much room to get two sets of fingers between the narrow joints. I dug my fingers into the crack on my side of the stone as deeply as they would go, and explained to Damian that I wanted him to do the same. He seemed to completely understand what I as suggesting and following my example, he dug his fingers deep into the joint on his side of the stone. Once we were ready I looked over to him.
“Damian, lift the stone when I tell you to. If we lift both ends together at the same time and straight up, we might be able to get it.”
Damian seemed to accept that.
“Ok Damian, slowly and together. Lift it straight up along with me.”
Our first attempt was a failure. Just as the stone began to move it slipped from my fingers and slid back into the floor. I winced then lifted my hand and saw that the sharp edge of the stone had cut it. It stung and I was amazed at how Damian had been so persistent in his attempts since every finger of both his hands had been cut and scraped.
The second attempt was similar to the first. Just as the stone started to rise, it fell back. Since our fingertips were the only things we could lift with, it was hard to get a grip on the large and heavy stone. On the third attempt I concentrated a bit harder and was able to raise it slightly higher than the previous two attempts, but I was again frustrated as it fell back into the floor. The fourth attempt proved no better than the previous three, since a few seconds after we started lifting it, a powerful shudder vibrated through the tower, causing us to lose our grip on the stone.
“Damian,” I shouted in frustration. “This isn’t working and we’re going to get killed!”
But he ignored me, and once more put his fingers into the mortar-less joint on his side of the stone. I realized that nothing I did, short of dragging him by the neck out of the tower, was going to take him from his task.
“Wait, Damian,” I said trying to calm my voice. “Wait one minute. Let me think.”
As if he suddenly understood that I was actually trying to help instead of hinder him, he stopped and stared at me, patiently waiting for me to say or do something.
“Ok, we simply can’t lift it up like this,” I said. “Maybe I can lift this stone like I lifted the coffins. It’s worth a try.”
Stretching out my hand, I held it above the stone. Damian moved back. Then, in the same fashion that I’d reached out my mind to the coffins, I reached for the stone. Closing my eyes, I envisioned it in my mind, trying to make my thoughts focus enough to wrap around the heavy stone. It was harder to do than I thought. The contrast in density between the coffins and the earth they were buried in had been distinctive enough that I’d been able to make out the difference between the solid mass of the coffins and the looseness of the dirt quite easily.
This stone block, on the other hand, was identical to all the other stones around it and I found it hard to focus on just one solitary stone in a floor of over a hundred. Concentrating as hard as I could, I began to envision the size and shape of the stone in my mind. Once I was sure I had it firmly in my mind I placed my hand closer to the surface of the stone and began to tug at the cold, square shape. While not as big as the coffins, it was dense and very heavy. Inch by inch the stone lifted out of the floor until my hand shook and beads of sweat stood out on my forehead.
Damian sat back on his heels, quietly watching my progress. Finally, once the stone cleared the others and floated above them, Damian reached out and pushed the stone away from above the hole it created in the floor so that it couldn’t fall back into it. As he pushed the stone away, my concentration broke and it dropped to the floor with a dull thud.
“All right Damian, the stone is out, “ I said, glad that we’d accomplished our task and even happier that I might finally convince Damian to leave with me. But Damian remained on his knees, staring into the hole that gaped in the floor. He bent down, reached into it, and began feeling around. At that moment, another shudder ran through the building. It was the strongest one yet, and I not only felt but also saw the wall beside us shake and sway.
“That’s it,” I shouted to Damian, “We’ve got get out of here. NOW! Damian if you don’t come with me, I swear I’ll drag you out of here.”
From the moment I walked into the tower, I suspected that it had been a long time since anyone had entered it. Now that we had, the delicate balancing act it had performed for so many years was disrupted by our presence. As if to validate my assumption, a low, grinding rumble echoed from the tower’s base and a large stone block that had been part of the ceiling came crashing down behind Damian.
Damian was still reaching around in the hole in the floor. He was almost doubled over as he reached into it up to his elbow. Angry and frightened, I grabbed one of his upper arms and began pulling him to his feet just as another large chunk of stone came crashing down on the other side of the room. At first Damian resisted, but even though he was taller and older than me, I forced him to his feet and pulled him toward the door. As I did, a whole section of the upper ceiling collapsed and barred our way.
Since there weren’t any windows in the room and a pile of rubble lay in the doorway, we were trapped. Silently I cursed myself for coming in here. Nic had warned me, and I was filled with regret over my refusal to listen to him. No longer content to create an occasional shudder or vibration, the tower was shaking and rocking as violently as if it were in an earthquake.
In the blink of an eye there was an enormous crash as part of the floor gave way. Desperately I scrambled to get my footing as a large hole opened in the center of the room and I watched in fear as one by one the stones making up the floor fell into it as its size increased. Frantically looking around the tower room for a means of escape, I realized that somehow Damian had ended up on the opposite side of the room, separated from me by the chasm in the floor. I could see that his eyes were wide with fear as he stared into the rapidly growing hole.
I heard a loud crack and turned to look behind me as a large section of the outer wall crumbled and fell away. The opening it created was just enough for me to get through. I looked across the room to Damian, who was frozen in fear. The only way to reach him was to fly across the hole, but the floor had become so unstable that it would have been certain death for me to make the attempt.
“Damian,” I shouted, “Fly to me. Fly to me, NOW!”
Damian remained where he was, his feet planted to the floor and a wild look in his eyes; he reminded me of a frightened horse trapped inside a burning barn.
“Damian!” I was now screaming. “Damian, fly to me. Please, I know you’re afraid, but you’ll be killed if you stay there. Fly to me NOW!” But Damian refused to budge.
In the mean time, more chunks of the tower fell around me, and I was beginning to panic myself. Entering the tower had been utterly foolish and it looked like I would be paying for my mistake with my life. Another large stone crashed down at my feet, and the tower creaked and groaned as it shook and swayed.
‘This is it!’ I thought, `I’m going to die.’
The tower shuddered again, and I watched as the outside wall behind Damian toppled backward, falling to the ground below and creating a large opening. As the stone fell away, I saw Nic hovering in the air near the open space.
“Nic!” I screamed, “don’t come in. You’ll be killed.”
“I know Jamie, but I’m not going stand by and watch you get crushed to death,” he shouted back. “Fly this way, if you can. Fly towards Damian.”
I was shaking, not only from fear, but also from the progressively stronger shocks that were wrenching the tower. My heart was beating like a drum. I prepared to leap but paused, paralyzed with fear. Then, before I could weigh the options, my mind was made up for me as the entire floor collapsed out from under me. For a few seconds I fell into the void, but instinct won out over fear. Without thinking I’d somehow gotten my wings to begin stroking and I was flying.
It was hard. Between the confined space of the tower room and the constant falling stones, maneuvering had become almost impossible, but I stroked my wings with just enough force to remain in the air while trying to avoid being hit with falling debris. For a few brief seconds the shower of rock and mortar ceased and I hurled myself across the gaping hole beneath me. Racing towards Damian, I hooked his arm with mine and with all my might drug him to the opening in the wall. My momentum continued and suddenly we were outside. Damian, who was still dazed and didn’t even attempt to fly, slipped out of my grip and began to fall. Instantly Nic grabbed him and with the help of Charles, who had also been hovering nearby, lowered him to the ground.
I flew away from the tower as fast as I could until I felt that I was a safe distance from it before I landed. Once on the ground, I turned my head upward just in time to see a large section at the top of the tower fall into itself. That apparently was the final straw and I watched as the tower imploded. The ground shook and a great dust cloud rushed skyward, as what was left of the structure crumbled into oblivion. Suddenly there was a shout from Nic, who was looking up at something behind me. I turned and lifted my eyes skyward just in time to see a massive stone hurling towards me. I opened my mouth to scream, but gaped in surprise as the stone abruptly stopped, and floated inches above my head.
I stood frozen with fear. Dimly, I heard Nic shouting at me to run. I turned and saw Cody standing a few feet away. His usual smile was gone, replaced by a look of intense concentration. While Cody often amused us with his tricks of levitation, he had never lifted anything more than small objects. Now he was keeping the great stone suspended above my head. A second shout from Nic jolted me back to reality, and I quickly jumped aside. As I did, Cody’s concentration broke and the stone came crashing to the ground with a great thud. I just stood speechless, staring at him.
“Practicing,” he said with a broad grin.
The dust cloud created by the fall of the tower began to clear. Nic rushed to my side, making sure I was unhurt. Everyone else stood nearby in silence.
“Jamie, how could you have been so foolish and irresponsible?” he shouted at me.
I knew he was right and had every reason to be furious with my behavior, but I also noticed that even though he was very upset, he’d gently wrapped his arm around me and pulled me tighter to himself. I lowered my head in shame and was just about to utter an apology when Damian suddenly came running up to me. I was about to round on him just as Nic had done with me, when he dropped to his knees and extended his arms out toward me. He was tall enough that even kneeling, I didn’t have to look down to stare into his eyes, which now held an eager excitement in them. I looked to his hands and saw that he was clutching a small wooden box. Raising his arms, he pushed the box forward, holding it out for me to take.
Surprised at what just occurred, I stepped back, breaking Nic’s embrace, and took a closer look at what Damian was thrusting upon me. The box was black with markings on it. As I continued to stare at it Damian once more pushed towards me, this time forcefully and uttering one of his distinctive hooting noises. Still staring at the box, I paused, then slowly reached out and carefully took it in my hands.
Once the box was in my possession, I took a closer look at it. At first I thought it painted black, but upon closer examination, I could see that it was been fashioned from a dark ebony wood that was dense and heavy. Inlayed pieces of ivory along with small shards of gold and silver formed a pattern around its’ sides. As I stood turning the box in my hands, the others gathered around me.
“Argon and Ajax,” Luc said in a soft voice.
“What?” I said, giving him a puzzled look.
“Your Grace, on the top of the box, see?”
When I’d first taken the box, I noted the decorative inlays crafted into it. Now that I looked at the lid I could see two concentric circles in gold. Intersecting each circle was a round disk made from a pearl like material. And one disk was noticeably larger than the other.
“That’s the symbol for Argon and Ajax,” Luc continued. “It’s supposed to be very old.”
“I guess what I mean is that it comes from a long time ago. My father told me that it was created ages ago, although no one really knows who first made it. It’s still used as a symbol when people want to describe them.”
I touched the top of the box with my fingers. The two disks moved slightly and it appeared that the inlay had become a bit loose over time. Pushing them back into place I lost my grip dropping the dark box. I jumped back in surprise when the lid unexpectedly sprang open. The box clattered onto the stone pavement of the arena and one of its corners broke off. There was a metallic clattering and I heard something roll away.
Damian dove for it, and in a flash was clutching a shiny metal object. Just as he had done with the box, he reached out a hand and thrust it at me. There was a look of excitement and anticipation in his eyes. I stood looking from his eyes to his outstretched hand to the broken box lying on the ground and back once more to the object he clutched in his hand. Finally I reached out and took it.
From a distance, in Damian’s hand, it looked like an elaborately carved metal statue, but once it was in my hand I could see that it was a bracelet crafted in the form of a curling snake. It was fashioned entirely from gold; the snake’s head had beautiful rubies set into its eye sockets and the scales on it’s golden body were highlighted with colorful spots of enamel.
As I studied it, I realized that it had been made in such a way as to allow it to be wound around the wrist and lower arm, giving the illusion that a snake had wrapped itself around the arm of the wearer and was poised to strike. Turning the bracelet over and over in my hands I immediately fell in love with it. It’s beauty and craftsmanship made it a piece to be highly prized. Continuing my examination, I looked inside the bracelet. The backside of it was gold that had been polished smooth, providing the wearer comfort. Then looking closer, I saw ancient runes had been carved into the tail and even though they were tiny, after focusing my eyes, I was surprised to find that I could actually read them. The others crowded me and as I began to decipher them, my eyes widening in surprise.
“What does it say?” Luc asked excitedly.
I looked up and into Nic’s face. He gave me a puzzled look and I returned it with one of my own.
Looking back down at the bracelet I read out loud the words I saw inscribed on it.
“To my brother, boy of the sun, from your brother boy of the wind, our love is eternal – Jamie”
Nic’s eyes widened in surprise.
“What does it mean?” Luc asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered, still shocked to see my name on something so obviously ancient.
I was aroused from my daze when Damian suddenly snatched the bracelet from my hands. I was ready to chide him for his rudeness when he firmly clutched my right hand and began to wind the bracelet gently around my arm. Following his lead, I took over and finished the task by wrapping it up my arm. When it was completely on, it extended from my wrist to my elbow and fit as perfectly as if it had been fashioned just for me. For a few seconds I stood looking at the snake winding its body around my arm. Then I looked with interest and curiosity at Damian. There was no doubt that Damian had known not only of its existence but also it’s exact whereabouts. He’d risked death in the tower to find it and present it to me. As I stared into his eyes, I could feel both wonder and suspicion make their presence known in my mind.
“Damian…” I began.
But that was as far as I got when suddenly there was a loud crash, followed by two great thuds that made the ground shake so hard that I thought we were in the middle of an earthquake. As I frantically looked around, I realized that the entire arena was beginning to collapse upon itself. My mind raced back to the tower, realizing its fall must have started a chain reaction throughout the arena. I watched in horror as great sections of the remaining walls and seats began to shudder and then fall inward toward the arena floor. And then suddenly we were caught in a great avalanche as waves of rock and dirt crashed to the arena floor like giant tidal waves.
“To the air,” Nic frantically shouted.
I watched as he quickly stroked his wings while making a mad dash to Luc. Before the little boy even knew what had happened he was scooped up in Nic’s arms being carried skyward as fast as a shooting arrow. I called to the others and without looking around leapt into the air. Within seconds there were more deafening crashes as piles of rock and stone began to tumble to the ground. Clouds of dust billowed up, and I flew as fast as I could to get ahead of them. Any thought of the others completely left my mind as my internal instinct for self-preservation overtook all other thoughts and actions.
When I was finally high enough to avoid the clouds of rising dust, I began to get my bearings and search the sky for the others. I jumped in startled surprise when I turned and saw Nic hovering beside me holding on tightly to Luc. Luc in turn was gripping Nic with all his might, his eyes wide open as he stared back to earth and the destruction we’d just escaped.
Looking beyond Nic, I could see Charles floating off in the distance; as I watched him fly towards us he was joined by Cody. It was only then my eyes frantically began to search the sky for Damian, but without success. By the time Charles and Cody joined us, I was desperate for any sign of him.
“Did anyone see Damian fly out of there?” I screamed in a voice quaking with fear.
The silence and shaking of heads that followed confirmed my worst thoughts. Once again Damian had remained behind – I was sure of it. At first we just remained hovering for a few minutes waiting anxiously and impatiently for the clouds of dust to clear. When they finally began to fade as the dust settled back to the earth, we looked down on what had once been the spot where the arena had stood. The destruction and devastation had been complete. Nothing recognizable remained of the once grandiose structure. My first instinct was to immediately fly down and search for Damian but the instant I began my decent, Nic flew to me and gripped my arm tightly as he fought to restrain me.
“No Nic, let me go, I know he’s down there and probably hurt. I have to find him.”
“Don’t be insane,” Nic shouted back gripping me even tighter as I fought to escape his grip. “That rubble could be dangerously unstable, Jamie. How many more risks can we take before one of us is killed?”
‘One of us might already be dead,’ I thought to myself, ready to shout out my worst nightmare, but I didn’t for fear that the very words uttered from my mouth would make it so.
“We just can’t float here and not look for him.” I said, my voice still cracking with emotion.
“I know Jamie, but there have been too many chances taken here today. Now listen, if I let you go, do you promise not to fly down there until we’ve discussed it?” he added angrily.
Silently, I nodded my head in agreement, and Nic released his hold on me. I backed away, frowning and rubbing my bicep where his strong fingers had dug into the muscle of my upper arm.
Finally, after a few more minutes of silent hovering, it was decided Cody, Charles and I would fly as low as safely possible over the ruins, without landing. Nic, carefully clutching Luc, would remain where he was until he could find a safe place to set the little boy.
The three of us descended and began to explore the piles of rock and scree that were all that remained of the great arena. After a few minutes without success, I heard a shout and realized it was coming from Cody, who’d been flying ahead of me.
Although we’d agreed not to land I saw Cody suddenly drop out of sight behind a large mountain of fractured stone.
“Cody!” I shouted the instant I saw him disappear.
Then giving my large wings a few strong strokes I glided to the spot where I’d seen him vanish. Looking down, I paused for only a few seconds before I, too, made a hasty descent. As I dropped to the ground, I glimpsed Charles a few feet above, coming down as well.
I landed a few feet from Cody, and Charles touched down directly behind me. The three of us stood for a few seconds, and then Cody broke into a run until he was directly in front of Damian and dropped to his knees.
Charles and I began to walk toward them, but as I got closer I broke into a jog. Finally we were standing directly behind Cody, who was still kneeling and now gently holding Damian’s head in his lap. I noticed Charles turn his head, suddenly looking as if he would be sick.
The sight before my eyes made me shudder and I could almost feel the blood in my body drain down to my feet as a cold feeling of shock and dread washed over me. The sight was appalling. Damian’s body, from his waist down, was completely covered in stone and rubble. As I stood looking down at him, the most shocking and obvious thing I could see was that his right wing had been almost completely torn from his body. It was hanging by a few shredded tendons and shards of bone. Blood oozed, luridly red, from his back. His left wing was crumpled and twisted at a strange and painful angle. Looking closer, I noticed that his thin and narrow chest had an unnatural, caved-in look, and a shattered and bloody bone jutted out of his lower arm.
I made my way to his left side and knelt down opposite Cody. Damian’s eyes were closed, and there was blood in his mouth. As I got closer I saw a flicker under his eyelids and then much to my surprise, his eyes opened and he stared upwards toward the sky. I maneuvered myself over him so that I was looking into his face. He blinked a few times and his eyes seemed to focus on mine. I tried to speak to him, but my mouth felt as if I’d swallowed a handful of the dry, red dust that covered the ground around us.
Looking into his eyes, I realized that the vacant, child-like look he usually affected was gone. Although broken and in pain, he seemed to be aware and lucid. After weeks of trying to probe his thoughts, I wasn’t sure why I suddenly had the urge to try one more time, but I did. I concentrated, and as easily as a hot knife cuts butter, I fell into his mind.
In the past, all of my mind probes resulted in images of events or snatches of former memories. But as soon as I entered Damian’s mind, I was instantly aware that my contact with his mind was completely different from anything I had ever experienced before. I gasped when I realized that I was actually standing in a beautiful, moonlit garden. I could feel a warm gentle breeze scented with orange and cinnamon against my skin. And while it was night in the garden, the light coming from the two moons overhead was bright enough for me to clearly view my surroundings.
“Jamie?” a voice gently said, and strangely I recognized its tenor and tone.
I jumped and turned. There, standing behind me, was Damian. He was perfectly fine, unhurt and whole.
“Jamie,” He said again and began to smile.
“Damian, but why…”
And then everything went black and I felt a strong sharp stabbing pain explode through my head. Clutching at my head I opened my eyes and realized that I was once again on my knees in what was left of the arena kneeling beside Damian.
“Ahhhh…” I shouted, “damn, he threw me out again.”
“No, he didn’t.” Cody said nodding his head downward toward Damian.
Although I didn’t want to, I eventually looked down at Damian, whose head was still cradled in Cody’s lap. Cody was gently stroking Damian’s dust covered hair and the sudden stab of pain I felt watching that tender gesture burned deep into my chest. Looking into the face of the tall, mute boy I could see that his eyes were staring vacantly into space – the light that had once burned in them forever extinguished.
“He’s dead,” Cody said quietly.
I closed my eyes and bowed my head, knowing that there was nothing more I could add to the finality of the scene before me. I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked up to see Niklas standing behind me. He had seen the three of us land, gotten Luc to a safe place and joined us just as Damian took his last breath.
Cody carefully took Damian’s head from his lap and gently laid it on the ground. Because the lower half of his body was already buried under a mountain of stone we gathered rocks and gently placed them around and on top of his body, creating a stone cairn as a sign of his final resting place.
Then Nic told us it was time to go, suggesting that we return to the nearby forest. Without further discussion or even a second’s pause he leapt into the air. Cody and Charles followed. I stood next to the pile of stones that now hid and protected Damian’s body and gazed at it. My mind went back to the vision of us standing in the beautiful garden, lit by the light of the double moons, Argon and Ajax. Why had he risked his life to give me the bracelet and what was he about to tell me in the garden?
I heard a shout and realized that it was Nic calling out to me. I beat my wings with more force then I probably needed to and took off. Ahead of me I could see Nic quickly sweep down and pick up Luc, who had been perched on a large stone. Cody and Charles weren’t far behind. All four of them were making their way to the forest that bordered Castle Rood.
It was time to go. I turned my head to catch one final glimpse of the cairn that marked Damian’s grave. The sun, now low in the sky, was beginning to cast long shadows across the ground. Some of its rays fell on the cairn now encasing Damian’s body. The red rock it had been fashioned from appeared to blaze and glow like a bonfire in the light of the setting sun. I hovered and paused for a few more seconds taking in one final look at the ruins of the great arena of Castle Rood and the blazing cairn of rock that marked the final resting place of Damian. Then I turned, and followed my friends to the forest.