Excerpt from Layla
Ian took a longer walk than he had earlier that day. His nerves wouldn’t settle. He told Abbi he felt better, but it turned out to be a lie. He wasn’t better. The tragedy that had happened to Tod’s family did a number on him. The news that the boy’s father had died shoved his past into his present like a bulldozer shoves mud into a hole. Tod was younger than he was when his father disappeared, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t relate. Even though Alex might be alive, separation from him was eternal. He thought he could cope, and he’d been doing well this last year, but after hearing what happened to Tod and his family, all those old emotions rose to the surface. Again.
The day was nearly over when he jogged into the yard. He stopped to brush the maple leaves off his father’s foundry sign, a vigil he performed every evening. He never took it down. No one came around with welding requests. The house had been abandoned for three years, so all his father’s clients had since gone somewhere else for their needs. Whisperings and rumors spread when his dad vanished: in school, at the local market, and with the neighbors. Occasionally, the rumors had reached Ian’s ears. He never argued, no matter how much the assumptions hurt, how much his father’s name was slandered. Let people believe what they wanted. They would never believe the truth. Sometimes he suspected the rumors were passed to prod him into telling what he knew about his father’s disappearance. He wouldn’t! And so, the shadow of mystery hung like a cloud over the house—and over his life. Abbi’s folks took him in and raised him until he finished school. They seldom interrogated Ian and when they did, they never commented or questioned his stories.
When Ian came of age, after returning from his last visit to the Realm, he remodeled his dad’s house, made it livable again, and moved in. The neighbors avoided him.
He was glad. The fewer questions, the better.
Streetlamps blinked as twilight fell. A dog barked in the distance, and cars passed by as Ian stepped onto the porch stairs. He let himself into the darkened house and turned on the lights, noticing immediately that the shield was still absent from its place on the wall. Abbi should have returned it.
After calling Abbi’s cell phone and getting no answer, Ian called the Huntington’s house.
“What’s up?” Brad answered, his speech muffled by chewing.
“Is Abbi there?”
“Nope. And Mom and Dad are mad cause Elisa isn’t either. I thought they were over there.”
“I haven’t seen either of them since this morning.”
“Well, that’s the pits. Guess Elisa’s going to be grounded for a day or two.”
“Sorry about that.” Ian glanced up at the empty wall where the shield should be, and his heart skipped a beat. “Did they say where they were going?”
“Forest Park, I think. That’s what Elisa kept talking about. Hey—” his voice quieted to a whisper, “When Elisa took off with Abbi, I looked out the window and saw your shield in the car. What were they doing with that?”
Ian didn’t answer.
“Did they steal it? You don’t think they were working magic, do you?”
“I don’t know what they were doing. When they get back, have Abbi call me, please.” He hung up.
Forest Park! Five miles away! Should he wait here? Or take the hour and a half walk in the dark to look for them?
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.
Drew Bradshaw, Abbi’s father—his foster father—was a tall man, graying slightly and very distinguished looking. Seldom did he wear a frown, but tonight his grave countenance could have shattered a mirror. “I have questions for you, Ian.”
“She’s not here. I swear I haven’t seen her since this morning.”
“May I come in?”
Drew didn’t wait for a response, though Ian wouldn’t have refused. The man, dressed in a tailored business suit, stepped inside, and gave a quick disapproving glance around the room. Ian never boasted about his housekeeping skills. The Bradshaws were immaculate.
“Did you see Abbi today?”
“This morning,” Ian answered, hoping this interrogation didn’t dive too deep.
“What happened? What did she tell you?”
“Not much. Just that she was worried about Elisa.”
“What did she say about Elisa?”
“Just that the girl was upset about her friend and his family. She wanted to comfort her.”
Ian swallowed and unconsciously eyed the space on the wall. “I don’t know. Take her somewhere. Spend time with her. She didn’t say exactly,” Ian lied.
“When did they leave?” Drew followed Ian’s gaze and then shot him an accusing look. How could the man possibly know what was missing from Ian’s décor?
“I don’t know. Around noon maybe.”
“She was supposed to work today at three. She’s never missed a day at work. Never! Her career means everything to her.”
“How has your relationship with Abbi been lately?”
Taken aback by such a personal question, Ian stumbled for an answer.
“Fine? What does that mean? You’ve been getting along? No squabbling?”
“We have our spats from time to time, but what does that have to do with anything? We didn’t fight today. What are you suggesting?”
Drew’s entire body sighed, showing clearly how stressed he’d been. “The police won’t look for them for twenty-four hours, but the moment those hours are up, I assure you we’ll be searching everywhere and questioning everyone. I am beside myself with worry. I don’t want to accuse you of anything, but…” he surveyed the living area again, from the computer to the window, and to the space on the wall where the black hook that once held the shield stuck out.
“What used to hang there?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Ian bit his lip and when Drew looked him in the eye, he stuttered.
“Just an old shield that was my dad’s.” Before Drew could inquire further about the shield, Ian went on. “It fell. Too heavy for that hook. I need to replace it.”
“Where is the shield now?”
“In the shop,” Ian retorted quickly.
“I raised you for three years. You were a son to us. Our family did what we could to keep you healthy, get your mind off your father’s disappearance. Finish school. Maybe even go on to college, or work in my firm.”
Ian nodded and waited for the… “but.”
“In all those years, I had hoped you’d be honest with me.”
“Yes, sir. I’m thankful.”
The silence stiffened. Drew paced to the couch and stared out the window. Finally, he inhaled slowly, pivoted around, and faced Ian. Letting his breath out with his words, he said, “I never believed your story.”
Ian’s eyes widened.
“I never believed that your father just walked away from you. Not from the state-of-mind you were in when Abbi found you. Something happened to him, and you knew what it was.”
Ian froze, shell-shocked. Speechless.
“I just want you to know that. I want you to think about it. And then I want you to tell me where my daughter is. You have my number.”
He walked out the door.
Ian couldn’t move for a good minute and a half, stunned by Drew’s sudden and justified mistrust of him. A sick feeling stirred inside, like he would vomit. If he were younger, he’d cry. Guilt pointed its blackened finger at him. He didn’t deserve the trust he craved. He’d been a liar all along. By not telling them about the Realm, he’d been a traitor to his foster family; and to Abbi, whom he convinced to validate his lie. And for what reason? What was he protecting? Certainly not his dad, nor the Realm either.
He’d been protecting his pride.
Drew drove away, and Ian stood on the porch watching him with fingers itching to pick up his cell phone, call him back, and confess everything. Yet a confession would lead to a hundred more, and then what? How could he explain the Realm, or a dragon, or the portal?
Ian turned toward the house. “Ian!” It was Brad. The boy called out again and broke into a run.
“What are you doing here?” Brad was the last person he wanted to see after being humiliated by Abbi’s father.
“Wanted to see if you were going through that portal to find my sister.”
“Come on, Ian. Where else would they be?” Brad skipped up to the porch and would have bumped into Ian if Ian hadn’t dodged inside.
“Where else? I don’t know. Playing hopscotch in the woods? Something could have happened to them in this world. You forget, this neighborhood just had a drive-by shooting. Crime runs rampant here. I hope they’re safe, but I can’t just go jumping through the portal on a whim. Besides, it’s closed, remember? Sealed shut.”
“And you forget. The girls have a shield. Nothing in this world is going to hurt them while they have the shield.” Brad insisted.
Brad made a valid observation, far-fetched as it was. But then, the girls being in the Realm made less sense. Ian shook his head and turned toward the window.
“Come on, Ian. The sooner we find them, the better. We can’t let them wander around in the Realm without us.” Brad made his way to Ian’s kitchen, opened the box of pizza on the table, and grabbed a piece.
“You don’t know that they’re there,” Ian argued.
“And you don’t know that they aren’t.”
Ian walked back and forth in the living room, tormented by Brad’s presumption, eyeing his dad’s old computer that nested in a dark corner in the living room. How could Abbi have entered the Realm? The portal had been sealed. No one from this world could go back. But then, his rubied shield had displayed magical properties before, even here in Seattle.
“What do you say, Ian?” Brad appeared with a slice of pizza in both hands. “Do we go in and be their heroes? Or do we let the cops waste taxpayer’s money looking for them here? I don’t know about you, but I like my sister, the little brat that she is. And if she’s lost in the Realm, I want to go get her. Be her hero, so to speak!”
Ian brushed his hair back with his hands.
“No one else is going to save them if they’re in there. You know that!” Brad continued with a mouth full of food.
“You really think that’s where they are?”
“Yep. I do.”
“How?” Brad laughed. “C’mon, Ian. How?” He laughed again and wiped his mouth.
“Very well, then.” Ian strolled to the sword that hung next to where the shield had been and pulled it from the wooden plaque. He drew the weapon from its sheath and glanced at Brad. He had hung the blade up for good, having sworn to Abbi he’d never return to that alternate world. How ironic that Abbi was the reason he was considering going back in.
“Yes! You’re really going to do it!”
“I hate to say it, but I think you’re right. If Abbi and Elisa are in the real world, there are enough people searching for them that the two of us won’t make much difference. But if they aren’t in the real world, the only ones who can find them are you and I.”
“Yes!” Brad pumped his fist.
Ian glared at him. “This isn’t a game. The girls are in trouble either way.”
Ian wrapped the belt that held the sword around his waist. Oddly, its weight gave him strength, and he stood tall. He’d be going home. That’s how he saw it. He shuffled through his father’s desk and found the whetstone, sat on the couch, drew the sword, and sharpened it. The sound of metal against stone brought back memories of the battles, of fighting side by side with his friends, of Amleth, the Kaempern chief, trusting him to lead his army, of his father, and of having a purpose in life. Too long since he’d been away, unarmed.
Brad sat next to him. “Want me to boot the computer?” he asked.
Brad jumped up and rushed to the old motherboard that sat neglected in the corner. “If this dinosaur still comes on…” he joked.
Ian looked up when the monitor lit the room. He grabbed his jacket from the coat rack and proceeded to his father’s dusty desk. The last time he’d seen the portal, it had closed for what was supposed to be forever. Now Ian had to unblock the malware protection that he used so he could hack this drastically outdated processor! Brad leaned over his shoulder as Ian navigated to DOS and typed the code.
“Try another portal,” Brad suggested when Ian’s first two attempts failed. When Ian typed a different code, a security threat indicator lit up. “That’s it!” Brad cheered.
“I think it is,” Ian agreed. A menu popped up asking what he wanted to do with the virus. Ian typed ignore and immediately the computer went into auto-drive, ending only with a curser blinking over a time option. “It’s only going to let this override for a certain number of hours.”
“Looks like 48 hours.”
‘Two days? From now?”
“From whenever I push enter.” Ian took the USB cord and plugged it from his phone into the computer, syncing the files into his device and then unplugged the cord. He looked up. “Ready?” Ian stood, stuffed a box of matches in his pocket, and tucked a water bottle in his coat. Brad slipped the flashlight into his belt and clasped the weapon that Ian had confiscated from his father’s room and given to him.
“Good to go!”
Ian swiped his phone settings until the same box appeared, and then touched the ‘okay’ option.
At first, both the phone and the computer hummed, but when the two stepped into the center of the room, the entire house vibrated, swaying back and forth as though it were a ship at sea. The rocking became so turbulent Ian lost his balance and fell to the floor. His vision blurred, he grew light-headed until he could no longer see the furniture, the walls, nor could he see Brad.
He did not manifest in Alcove Forest. At least if he did, he sure couldn’t tell because darkness surrounded him. No fragrance of pine or cedar trees filled his senses, no fresh mountain air or salty breeze, either. Instead, a musty stink permeated the blackness that engulfed them. The silence was frightening.
Ian sighed with relief after hearing Brad’s voice. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Where the heck are you? Where the heck are we?”
Ian reached into the dark until he felt Brad reaching for him. They were nearly on top of each other. “I do not know where we are. You still have that flashlight?”
Ian could hear Brad shuffling around and tugging at his clothes. Soon, the beam of a flashlight shone in his face.
“There you are!” Brad said.
“Don’t shine it in my eyes!”
The beam made its way to the gravelly surface they sat on, and then into the dark oblivion of their surroundings.
“Turn it off,” Ian instructed.
Brad obeyed. “This is terrifying. What is this place?”
“Quiet.” Ian listened.
“Nothing,” Brad whispered.
“We seem to be in a void, don’t we? Let’s move on. Let’s see if something lies ahead.” Ian stood. His eyes had adjusted enough that he could see Brad to give him a hand up. Brad had trouble keeping his balance. “Just take little steps.”
“Can I turn the flashlight on?”
“Not yet. Let’s look for a light showing a way out. Just move slowly and stay by me.”
With nothing to guide him, Ian took Brad’s arm and together they walked, taking one cautious step at a time. After a few minutes of trekking into the unknown, Brad stopped and turned on the flashlight. The dark turned to gray nothingness. He turned it off again.
“I see something,” Ian pointed into the distance at a fleck of light. “Do you see it? Looks like a light at the end of the tunnel!”
Any relief from this doom of blackness would be welcomed. As he neared the light, its peculiar glow puzzled him until he realized what it must be.
“The crystal! Brad, that’s the crystal that Dad and Amleth used to plug the window of the Realm. It’s grown. Huge! And it seems to cast its own light.”
Indeed, the crystal his father had mined from the ice cave was now well the size of a man and clear as ice, marbled with a milky white center, with rainbow colors dancing over its prisms. Like a thick window, daylight from the outside seeped through it and into the chamber. No longer a ‘plug,’ the crystal had planted itself in the socket of the dark wall of the tunnel that encased them.
Now that they had found a destination, Brad turned on the flashlight, but no sooner had he done so, did a startling screech pierce their ears—a sound Ian recognized all too well.
The wail of Old Stone Heart.
Ian drew his sword.
“We’re trapped in here with a dragon,” Brad whispered.
“Turn off that flashlight!” Ian ordered. “He’s drawn to beams of light.”
Brad quickly obeyed.
Another bellow and then they saw the dragon’s menacing eyes glow green like shattered emeralds. Internal fire radiated inside its two transparent horns, which protruded from thick scaly knots on its head. The ground beneath their feet groaned as Stenhjaert’s colossal body shifted, scales creaking as it unfolded. Its tail, illuminated by the light coming through the crystal, swayed from side to side, the length of which would span the longest city block in Seattle.
“What do we do?” Brad trembled.
Without warning, fire burst from the dragon’s mouth.
“Drop!” Ian yelled.
Ian plummeted to the ground as a ball of flame hurled toward him. The blaze swallowed the darkness. Extraordinary heat penetrated Ian’s flesh. His hair and eyebrows curled. The flash whirled by, dissipating into the shadows beyond. Smells of sulfur and burning hair lingered. Ian’s heart thundered as he grabbed at the rocky ground he lay on. He dared not speak nor call to see if Brad was still alive for fear the dragon might hear him.
Time stood still. He waited. Listened. The tunnel vibrated as the dragon stirred. Ian lifted his head slightly to look. The crystal glowed dimly, and, in its light, Ian could see the dragon turning its scaled body repeatedly like a cat making its bed. Finally, it settled, tucking its head on its tail. A gargantuan, scaled ball of dread.
If Ian were to survive, he would have to remove the crystal, or part of it, so that he and Brad could escape into the Realm without the dragon trailing behind or killing them.
“Brad,” Ian whispered quietly.
Relieved, Ian exhaled. Sweat trickled off his brow as he pondered what to do. Perhaps if they were lucky, they could move without Stenhjaert noticing them.
“Stay down,” he said as softly as he could. Ian guardedly raised his hand and waved—his eyes keen on the dragon. The dragon didn’t stir or show any sign of seeing them. Ian sat up slowly and leaned toward Brad’s ear. “How is your arm? You feel strong enough to hack into that crystal?”
“Chip a corner of it wide enough for us to squeeze through. Be quick!”
“I’ll creep around to the other side of him. When I say ‘go’, you hack as hard as you can while I turn on the flashlight and throw it in the opposite direction. Soon as you can fit through the hole, get out. I’ll be behind you.”
“Only option I can think of.”
Brad let out a trembling sigh. “Okay.”
“Take this.” Ian handed Brad the phone. “After you find the girls, with any kind of luck, it will get you back home.”
“What do you mean? You aren’t leaving me alone, are you?”
“Not intentionally. C’mon.” Ian slowly rose.
While Brad picked up his sword and crept cautiously toward the crystal, Ian moved into the darkness, stepping steadily over the width of the dragon’s enormous body until he brushed against a solid mass of stone. He followed the wall toward the dragon.
Ian had never been this close to Stenhjaert before. The dragon had always been in the air, flying over treetops and behind mountains—a target for an arrow, never for a sword. Warned against coming close to him, the Kaemperns never once encouraged such a death-defying battle, not even as an army. Here Ian was challenging this leviathan with only a knife-edge.
His father, having forged his own weapons, had taught Ian well enough how to wield a sword, but Ian had found little use for it in the Realm where bows, arrows and black powder firearms had been the weapons of choice. A sword against a dragon was fit only in storybooks and fairy tales of gallant knights. How could he even come close enough to this monster to poke it with his blade? And a poke would be the sum of it, for his plates were thick like iron.
Ian clenched the hilt of his weapon with a sweaty hand, holding the flashlight in the other. This could be his end. It probably would be. With luck, Brad would make it to the other side. Ian had doubts he would survive.
The fear of death made him light-headed. So near now was he to Draconis he felt heat emitted from its armored scales like fiery steel in his father’s foundry. The air now saturated with smoke stunk like sulfur; the sound of the dragon’s breath was like billows feeding a fire. No longer could he see Brad or the crystal, for the vast expanse of the dragon’s body blocked Ian from them. Alone in a most grievous situation, an ant would have more chance under foot than he had with this beast.
Nonetheless, the time had come. Ian switched on the flashlight and shone the beam in the dragon’s eyes, waving the light back and forth. “Come on, fella. Wake up,” he whispered. With a drawn breath and ready sword.
“Brad, go!” he shouted.
Steel hammering against quartz rattled the chamber. The dragon opened its eyes. Ian waved the flashlight beams back and forth over the monster’s pupils and then above his head, hoping the dragon would follow the light. A thunderous roar shook the ground as the scaled body coiled and turned. The tunnel vibrated, jarring Ian closer to the dragon. Fire seeped from his mouth.
“At last, the time has come.” Ian whispered as he dodged behind the dragon’s talon and gritted his teeth. The dragon’s head glowed red hot as he opened his mouth and emitted flame like a volcano spewing molten lava and hot ash. The ash turned white and dropped from Stenhjaert’s chin. He arched his head, reached out his neck skyward, and released a deadly cry spewing another white blaze. This time, the inferno raced through the chamber like a comet. Ian threw the flashlight as far as he could in hopes the dragon would chase the beam.
Instead, the dragon turned its wrath towards Ian with eyes that glowed like giant glass marbles.
At first, he froze in terror, but only for a second. Flashback of the moments preceding the Trail of Tears tormented him. That terrifying ride on Sparkles when he tried to save the Kaempern women and children and the horrifying inferno that killed so many of them.
“You’re the evil one!” he affirmed. “The murderer of children!” He braced himself as thoughts of revenge raced through him.
“You’re a wicked devil. A treacherous, miserable beast and you’ll pay for the death of the Kaemperns, and of Vilfred!” Ian ran toward the monster, sword extended. With all the strength in him, he leapt and thrust his sword into the dragon’s neck.
Ian held on to his sword as the dragon shook its head, swinging him into the air and slapping him against the wall. He lost hold of the sword and spun into space just as the dragon’s tail whipped him to the ground. Ian rolled in agony, burying his face in the dirt, paralyzed.
“Ian! I did it. We can get out now!”
Despite his anguish, Ian rolled over and staggered to his feet. The blurry shape of the dragon approached. Ian reached for his sword. As his hand folded around its hilt, a wall of fire shot from the dragon’s mouth. The air blazed. His sword glowed as molten steel, scorching his hands.
“Ian. Come on! Just get out of there!”
Smoke and ashes scattered. Ian stumbled toward the crystal. Was that light from the portal? Was that really Brad calling me? Am I almost there, just seconds away?
Brad slid through the opening, feet first, but reached out toward Ian before he exited the tunnel.
“Come on Ian. Hurry!” Brad cried.
But the dragon coiled. So close was Stenhjaert that the heat from its body melted a hole in Ian’s leather jacket. He spun to face it and prepared to plunge his sword into its heart and die with the dragon. Stenhjaert shrieked and blew a flame of exploding white light. The ground rumbled and shook under Ian’s feet, and he lost his balance again and fell.
“Ian!” Brad, now out of the chamber, reached back inside and tugged at Ian’s boots. “Get out of there!”
Ian remembered nothing after that. How he had the strength to move, or how he slithered out of the opening and landed on moist earth. He fell and blacked out once he hit the ground.
How long he had been unconscious, he did not know, but when he slowly opened his eyes and gazed at the stars and the remnant of a crystal evaporating into the sky, he knew he had survived. Or died.
Locusts chirped. A cool breeze numbed his cheeks and chilled his burning body. He shivered. Brad sat next to him, panting.
“We made it,” Brad mumbled. “Barely though! Boy howdy, I thought you were a goner!” he added.
“Yeah,” was all Ian could utter as he slowly lifted his blistered hands and inspected them.
Brad handed Ian his phone. “I sure hope we don’t have to go home that same route. You okay?”
“Just hang on to that phone for now. My hands are killing me. I’m hurt, Brad. I need water. Did we bring water?”
“There’s a water jug in your coat pocket,” Brad answered, and pulled it out. Ian drank half the contents and poured water over the blisters on his hands. He gradually sat up, switching elbows to lean on because of the pain. “Where are we? Are we in Alcove Forest?”
“Doesn’t look like it. I don’t see any trees. Looks like a wide-open prairie to me,” Brad answered.
“Can you see the mountain?” Ian fought light-headedness; his blurry vision prevented him from seeing any distance.
“Yeah. It’s there. Which way are we going? Where do you think the girls are?”
“I don’t know. Just let me rest for now. I don’t think I can go anywhere now…” His voice trailed off, and he lay back down, falling into a deep sleep.