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So... this here is the first book of my series, Protectors of Peromia. If you haven't heard about it, there's magic, mice, pegasi, dragons, unicorns, lycanmice, and cute mousethieves... ok only one of those so far. xD But anyway, I decided to post it here as well as on Peromia wiki, so... enjoy! :D

TSB cover

Chapter 1 - AdventureEdit

Lance groaned and rolled over to face the wall, pulling the bed covers tight around her. She didn't want to get up and face another boring day. She heard a hoof tap on the door of her room, then a knock, follwowed by loud rapid knocking. This reminded her what day it was. The weekend! She threw back her blankets and jumped out, gasping as her bare paws hit the cold stone floor. "I know! Coming! Just wait!" called the mousemaid, and the knocking stopped. She threw on her green dress, it was simple and not her nicest one, perfect for adventuring. As she put her paws through the sleeves, they stopped at the ends and wouldn't go through. She sighed and snapped through the weak thread they were sewn closed with. There was a giggle outside the door.

"Having fun getting dressed, Lance?"

Lance rolled her eyes, but couldn't resist a smile. "Not really. If you really want it to work better, don't use such cheap thread." She brushed her bright red hair quickly and braided it.

"Well, I wanted it to be easy enough to break, so you wouldn't get mad." answered the voice.

Lance grabbed her purple leather satchel, slung it over her shoulder, and flung open the door. There stood her best friend Niegra, her black mane and tail streaked with blue and braided, just the way she always liked it. The dark pegasus stomped her hoof in impatience.

"There you are! Come on, before the day's over!" Lance followed her down the stairs, rolling her eyes. It was dawn.

"Should we stop by the kitchen and borrow some food?" asked Niegra.

"Sure, but just for breakfast." answered Lance. "I've already got food." she patted the satchel. The kitchen was basically deserted at this time, so Lance grabbed some scones, and the two headed out.

Soon they were in the crisp early morning air, Castle Terraqua below them. Lance settled herself comfortably in Niegra's back as they soared over the sea. Castle Terraqua, their home, was placed on top of a high cliff, facing the sea. The island it was on was the smallest fief in all of Peromia, but also one of the most beautiful. It was windy, rather rocky and heathery, but beautiful nonetheless. And it was home. And Lance was bored of it.

All her life had been spent here at Terraqua as a ward, for she had no parents and nobody knew who they had been. She had just mysteriously showed up in a basket at the front door, no note, no clues of any kind to where she was from, only the name, "Lance" on the basket. Baron Anglo had taken her in as a ward, at almost the same time as Niegra, a tiny colt, whose parents had been good friends of his. Lance and Niegra, being the same age, had groiwn to be best friends, and both were now tired of castle life. Lance hated the schoolwork, and was sick of wearing nice clothes and being polite, and Niegra had read nearly all the books there were in the catle and needed something new, and didn't like being constantly polite either. So what they both wanted was adventure. Now that they were old enough, they were allowed to go out of the castle by themselves on weekends, the only time they had to do almost anything they wanted.

Where no one goes

Today they had decided to get a very early start and see how far they could go across the kingdom of Peromia. Usually they would just mess around on the beach or in the woods of Tessaway, but today they were off on a journey. Neigra found an air current and soard for a bit.

"Do you think we'll reach the mountains way on the far side of Peromia?" she said over her shoulder.

"Maybe." answered Lance. "If we fly straight and don't stop except to rest and eat."

"And go to the bathroom?" giggled Niegra. Lance laughed. "Yeah, that too." She leaned forward, shading her eyes as she looked ahead of them. She could just make out a dark bumpy smudge along the horizon, which were the Dracopyr mountains. They were known to be full of many dangers, inhabited by dragons, lycanmice, manticores, and many other scary creatures. The perfect place to find adventure. They flew on, passing over villages and farms as they went. Overhead and around them flew birds, a few small house griffins, and a dragon or two. Obviously tame creatures, as they weren't attacking anyone.

Hours passed by, though they felt more like a few minutes, and soon it was almost noon. Lance laid on her back, looking up at the sky, when Niegra said with startling suddenness, "Hey look! Castle Peromia!" The mouse sat up, nearly choking on the scone she was still nibbling on, and looked down where her friend pointed with a metallic silver hoof. There was the castle where the King and his family lived. It was much bigger than Terraqua, and fancier, with more, taller towers and much more room inside the courtyard. Niegra slowed slightly and started down.

"Where are you going?" asked Lance.

"You'll see!" grinned the pegasus. "See those two towers?" Two towers sat very near each other, and were the tallest. Lance saw right away what she was planning.

"Niegra, I don't know if that's a great idea..."

"You can't stop me!" Niegra winnied mischeviously as she swooped down, and right between the towers. There was just enough room for her wingspan to get through. Any other pegasus would have at least brushed their wingtips on the stones, but Niegra was a rather small one. Lance looked behind them, laughing in spite of what she had said at first. She imagined the people must have been very surprised to see a wild-haired girl and pegasus suddenly come diving out of the sky. If anyone had seen them at all. Maybe no one had noticed. Either way, she hoped they wouldn't mind.

They flew on, following the River Pegacorn, until they were ready to eat lunch, then they landed on a small island. There was nobody on it except some birds, and a few fishing boats a little distance off. Lance hopped off Niegra' s back and onto the lush green grass, which Niegra saw and ecstaticly began eating. At home she was told eating grass straight off the ground was undignified and unhealthy, but she could eat however she wanted right now, and this grass was beautiful and clean. There was not much grass on Terraqua anyway, mostly just that tough, scratchy seagrass that grew in clumps among the rocks on the beach. She folded her wings. A grown pegasus could fly for days and not tire its wings out, but she was young and her wings could use all the rest they could get on this trip.

Lance plopped herself in the grass, not bothered by the breeze flipping her dress up over her legs. She reached in her satchel and pulled out a cheese sandwich. Her favorite was fish, but she had just done cheese today, so there would be less chance of it spoiling. She took an enormous bite and drapd herself over a smooth sun-warmed rock. One might never guess from her manners when she was alone with only her friend that she had been raised in a castle.

A ponybug, like a tiny horse with butterfly wings, hovered over her sandwich momentarily, probably wondering if it was a flower or anything good. There were a lot of these tiny creatures buzzing all over the island, drinking nectar with their long tongues as they flitted from flower to flower. They flew frantically out of the way as Niegra, done eating, laid down beside Lance.

"Isn't this just beautiful?" she sighed. "I wish I had my book, it would be so perfect to read here."

"Which one?" Lance crammed the last of her sandwich in her mouth.

"That one you gave me for my birthday a few years ago, where a princess is cursed to be a dragon during the night, and the young man who loves her as a girl doesn't know that she is the dragon he is trying to kill at night. I've read it a thousand times, but it's still my favorite."

"Oh yeah." said Lance. "I really like it too. I wish we could have cool adventures like they always do in stories." Books were rather expensive, and Lance had saved up for weeks to buy this special gift. The girls sat in silence for a bit, until Niegra stood up and said, "Well, if we wat to make it to the mountains today, we should get going." The Dracopyr mountains were in sight now, and they rose up from the horizon, like gigantic jagged dragon's teeth.

"You're right." said Lance, getting on her friend's warm back. Niegra flew off into the air, and they continued Westward. They flew on over the Pegacorn, winding like a serpent through the foothills, then a castle, not as fancy as the previous one, but more fortified. A while after that, a thrill went up Lance's spine as they came in sight of Highburn, a deserted castle. They were in the mountains now.

"We made it!" Niegra wooped. "We got to the mountains in one day, and before dark!" The sun was just beginning to go down. Lance dismounted as they landed in the courtyard. The deserted castle was so quiet, save for the mall sounds of griffins and small dragons who nested in it. It had been deserted decades ago, during a short war with the mountain dragons. The castle they had passed over a bit ago had been built instead, just over the border of the land the dragons claimed. But the war was long over now, and the dragons had a different ruler, who was not as warlike.

"So..." Niegra said hesitantly. "We aren't going to make it back home today, obviously... What's the plan? are we staying the night here?"

"I guess." said Lance. "We've stayed away overnight without telling Baron Anglo before. We'll head back tomorrow morning. Why, you scared?"

"Of course not... well, not really." Niegra suppressed a shiver. "It's just, the mountains are very, very dangerous. I've read about big, feirce dragons, and hungry lycanmice, and..."

Lance couldn't help her ears pinning a little at the mention of lycanmice. They were horrifyingly scary creatures with the body, head, and arms of a mouse, but wings, legs, tails, and fangs like dragons. They breathed fire and were scavengers, but viciously preyed on any creature, civilized or not, they could find... even mice. Lance acted unconcerned, though.

"There shouldn't be too many lycanmice around, they tend to live at higher altitudes.. and anyway, we'll sleep inthe castle."

Niegra's eyes widened. "That sounds even creepier... but safer." The sun was behind the hills, now they were on the ground.

"If it wasn't scary, it wouldn't be adventurous, would it?" grinned Lance.

"You're right." said Niegra, forcing herself to be braver. "Not that I'm scared or anything, of course." The two walked into the Hall of the castle, pushing open the heavy, rusty doors with a crrrreeeaaakkk. Niegra looked around in growing exitement. This was adventurous, rather than creepy. She decided there must be secret passageways hidden under floorstones and behind the old faded tapestries on the walls. Huge, thick tables, and ornate chairs still sat around, left behind by the former occupants, as they were too heavy to carry away in a hurry. Some of them were half burned, probably by dragons. There were also some dishes on the floor, but these had been found and scattered by dragons in their search for treasure and nesting material.

Lance hoped no dragons currently claimed this room as their home. She walked over to the big fireplace, which still had ashes in it, and a woodbox near by, which she opened, and found there was surprisingly still firewood in it, ancient-looking, but dry and not rotten. She stacked some of it in the huge fireplace, which she could stand up in. Just like the one at home, she thought. Except that you wouldn't want to stand in that one, because it almost always has a fire going. Pulling her flint and knife out of her satchel, she started to light it.

Niegra, meanwhile, had wandered over to a tapestry depicting an armored black unicorn fighting a rock dragon. She carefully pulled the heavy cloth back, then dropped it in disappointment as she saw no trap door or secret passage. Nothing but the gap between the cloth and the wall, which made a very good hiding place, but she and Lance had used it and got in trouble so many times, Baron Anglo knew all about it, so it was no use anymore. Besides, that was when they were little, Niegra was too big to fit behind a tapestry now. After checking some of the others, she began tapping the floor with her hooves, to see if any of them were hollow-sounding.

"Hey Niegra, ready to eat?" called Lance from the other end of the huge hall. "I got a fire started." Niegra trotted over.

After eating a supper of apples and cheese sandwiches, they sat by the fire, Lance wrapped in a cloak she had brought. It was now dark outside, and getting colder. They talked for a bit, until Lance said, "Well, I think we should really get to sleep now, so we can get up very early in the morning and head back home. We've gotta get back at least before dark or Baron Anglo will ask whre we've been." They had not even told him where they were going. Lamce put more wood on the fire as Niegra curled up by it, then got under her wing, tossing the cloak beneath her. This was how they always slept when camping, Niegra rarely needed a blanket, she just covered herself with one big, warm wing and her friend with the other.

"Goodnight!" they whispered to each other. Half an hour later, they were both sound asleep. 

The next morning, they were awoken by sunlight streaming in one of the high windows of the hall. Lance began shivering when Niegra took her wing off. Mornings were freezing cold in the mountains. She wrapped the cloak around her instead. Even Niegra was cold, but she could take it better, with her feathered wings to wrap around herself. Lance groaned. "The sun's already up! We'd better hurry!"

They ate a quick breakfast, then rushed out into the courtyard. Niegra enjoyed feeling the frigid mountain air in her lungs and on her feathers as she took off.

"Well, that was sort of an adventure, right?" said Lance as they left the castle behind them. "I mean, sleeping in a deserted castle, how cool, right?"

"Yeah, it was fun!" agreed Niegra. "Not creepy at all! If we come back sometime, we might have even more of an actual adventure!" She longed for adventure almost as much as her rider. As she soared over a rocky spire, the black pegasus spotted something. She circled around. "I just saw something! I just wanna take a really quick look!"

"Alright." said Lance. "Really quick." She was curious too. There appeared to be a fire on a rock ledge, with round stones sitting in it. Niegra landed on the ledge beside it. "Oh... it's a dragon nest." Most dragons laid their eggs in fire, to keep them warm while the parents were out hunting.

"And those look like.. the eggs of a specklespined rock dragon." She could tell this because they were large and bumpy, and looked much like rocks themselves. Niegra had read a lot about dragons. "We'd better get out of here, fast." Rock dragons were very aggressive, even ones who weren't protective mothers. Niegra lifted her wings, and prepared to leap, when they heard a growl. Loooking up, they saw a huge, gray dragon flapping over their heads.

"Too late!" Niegra jumped just in time, as green and yellow fire blasted down where she had stood a second before. The pegasus nieighed in terror, and Lance gripped her mane tightly as she swooped up. The dragon chased after them, roaring. Niegra panicked and kept going up.

"Niegra, down!" shoted Lance. "There's no way to escape going up, we've got to go down and find shelter in the rocks!" There were only bare rocks below, but it was their only chance. Niegra, frightened and confused, shot downwards quickly, the dragon following. Thinking quickly, Lance grabbed her cloak and flung it behind her. It whapped onto the dragon's face, tangling around its head and disorienting it.

As she flew closer to the ground, Niegra stammered, "Wh-where do we g-go?!" She looked behind them at the dragon, didn't see the rock sticking up close beside her, and whacked her wing on it, tumbling to the ground with a little scream. Lance fell as they hit, rolling painfully across the rocks. Niegra scrambled to her feet, running to her friend, who got up, saying, "I'm fine!" They had fallen behind the rock, so they were hidden for the moment, but it would not take the dragon long at all to get the cloak off and find them.

"W-where do we hide?" asked Niegra again, eyes wide. Lance looked around helplessly. Then she spotted a crack in the cliff beside them. She ran to it and looked in.

"Yes!" There appeared to be a cave behind the big boulder covering most of it. "There's a cave back here!" she said. "It's just covered by this buolder! Do you think you could move it?"

"I-I'll try." Niegra planted her hooves firmly on the rocks, to the side of the rock, spread wide her wings, and shut her eyes tight in concentration. All pegasi could deliver a mighty magical blast with their wings. Niegra was young and small, but even she could knock down the thick kitchen door with one try. She had done it only a week before. The dragon had heard them behind the rock by now, and had the cloak off its face. Niegra clapped her wings together. There was a loud woosh and a blue flash, and the stone rocked.

"Not quite..." Niegra readied herself again. She concentrated once more, and gave an even bigger blast than before, with a bright flash, and the rock finally toppled, revealing the cave entrance. She and Lance dashed inside, a second blast of fire from the angry dragon just missing Lance's tail. Thankfully, the cave turned a corner, and they ran around it as more fire came shooting in, followed by a roar. The dragon could not fit in.

Lance slumped against the wall in relief, and Niegra's legs very nearly collapsed under her. "We... got away..." sighed the mouse, brushing dirt off her dress from the fall. The dragon still roared outside, scratching at the tunnel and trying to stick its head in. The two friends sat quietly for a while, until they heard a snort, then silence.

"Think it's gone?" whispered Niegra. Lance peeked around the corner, then quickly drew her head back.

"It's waiting out there." she answered. "I really hope it won't stay too long..." She took a look around the tunnel they were in. It was fairly small, and appeared to be mouse-made, though Niegra could just fit. It went back farther than where they were sitting, and turned another corner.

"I want to see how far back this goes." whispered Lance, nodding in the direction of the continuing tunnel. "It might come out somewhere safe." Niegra nodded. They walked down the tunnel, Lance leading. As they came around the corner, they saw a very faint purple glow, which seemed to be coming out of a large rock that sat on the floor next to the wall. There was just enough light from outside that, looking closer, Lance could see there was a sword, its blade faintly glowing, stuck halfway into the rock. She walked over to it. 

"Why is there a sword here?" she wondered aloud.

Niegra inspected it. "I have no clue.... But I don't really like it." It was a very pretty sword, with purple and red stones on the crosspeice, a dark blue leather pawgrip, and a purple pommelstone, but Niegra felt something off about it.

"Wait, it says something..." Lance said. Four letters could be seen on the blade. "Spel- the rest is buried in the rock."

"Well, I think we should leave it there." said Niegra.

"But I really want to see what it says." argued Lance. "We might learn something more about it. Come on, this is an adventure! Plus, how could pulling a sword out and looking at it be bad?"

"I don't know... but don't pull it out." Niegra was persistent. "Most swords don't glow." Lance rolled her eyes. Niegra saw something else on the floor.

"What's this?" When she turned to look at her discovery, Lance snuck her paw onto the hilt of the sword. It looked like it had been in here a long time, yet the leather was still soft and comfortable. Maybe it was a magic sword... why else would it glow? While Niegra was distracted, Lance decided she would pull the sword out, just enough to read the rest of the word, then put it back. She did so. Spellbane. What was that supposed to mean? She decided it must be the name of the weapon. Many people named their weapons. But there seemed to be something very special about this one.

Lance did not realize that she had pulled it all the way out until it was too late. The sword glowed a little stronger as she did, and she felt a slight almost tingling sensation run up her arm and through her body.

"Lance, put it back, please, before something happens!" cried a voice behind her. "It might be booby-trapped!"

Finding Spellbane

"It's fine, Niegra!" she said quickly. "I'll put it back! What did you find?"

"Just a coin." she answered. "But please put that thing back before-" She stopped as the rock all around then began to tremble. Lance hurriedly tried to put the sword back in the rock, only to find the slit in it was no longer there.

"I-I can't!" she cried in alarm. The whole mountain seemed to be shaking now. "I think this place is going to collapse! We need to get out of here!"

Niegra was already headed for the exit. "But what if the dragon's still there?!"

"I don't know!" They both ran to the opening, stumbling as the very ground beneath them shook. The dragon was gone. The girls dashed out into the sunlight, and Lance jumped on Niegra. Just as they took off, there was a massively thunderous BOOM that came from the heart of the mountain behind them, and ran out across the land like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond. The force of it knocked Niegra out of the air, and they tumbled to the ground together. Lance landed painfully on her arm, then suddenly there was silence again.

Niegra, once sure the shaking was over, staggered to her feet. "Y-you okay, Lance? I'm f-fine..." she gulped. "J-just a little... shook up."

Lance sat up, holding her arm. "I'm alright, just twisted my arm." She stood, leaning against a stone. "What... what happened there..." 

Niegra shook her head. "Something not good. I knew it was booby-trapped. Things like that always are in books. I think we need to get out of here. Hop on." Lance did so without arguement, and they flew off quickly. She glanced back only when they were a good distance from the area of the occurance. It appeared undisturbed, as if they had not just been there.

"Wait, Lance, you didn't bring that sword out with you, did you?" Niegra saw a sword tip flash out of the corner of her eye.

"Yes, I did... What else would I do with it? I couldn't just leave it there, right?" Lance laid it across her lap. "It's a cool sword, of course I'm bringing it home."

"What's the Baron going to think of it? And anyway, you can't use it, can you?" Niegra objected.

Lance sighed. "Well, he's not going to know. I'll hide it, and learn to use a sword, one way or another, until I can use it! It might come in handy sometime."

Niegra shook her hair out of her face. "Fine. I won't tell."

They arrived at Terraqua Castle a bit after dark. The two girls each snuck into their rooms, hoping no one would notice they had been back late. Lance stuck the mysterious sword under her mattress, a hiding place she decided would be safest, since she prefered to change and make her bed herself. She sat down on top of it, trying to look as if she had been there quite a while, drawing.

Chapter 2 - Repercussions Edit

Unfortunately for them, the girls' late return was noticed by Anglo, and the next morning they had to tell him their adventure. All except the bit about the sword, which Lance wanted to keep a secret, at least for now.

"An earthquake, you say?" The centaur Baron scratched his neat beard. "Very strange. We felt an earthquake just like it here, at just about the same time."

Niegra and Lance exchanged puzzled glances. The earthquake went all the way across Peromia?

"And it wasn't just a little one, the whole island shook and there seemed to be thunder coming from all around. Very strange earthquake..." Anglo did not like the fact that they had traveled to the Dracopyr mountains and spent a night there, not to mention gotten back late and been in danger. They were forbidden to go outside the castle alone for the next two weeks. Also, Lance's arm was found to be sprained. Over the next few weeks, though, it healed quickly, and when it was better, she began swordfighting lessons. She learned fast, but still kept the sword under her bed. She and Niegra did not talk much about what had happened that day in the mountains.

Even when the two weeks were over, the friends did not travel far from the castle, mostly staying on Terraqua, but sometimes going to the edges of Alnor or Tessaway Fief. During this time, they heard more reports from far away parts of the kingdom of the same mysterious earthquake and thunder. But nothing more interesting happened until almost three months after the incedent.

One weekend, Lance and Niegra decided to go on another trip, a shorter one than last time, just one day to be safe, and certainly not as far as the mountains. They flew out early in the morning, passing again over Peromia Castle. They planned to go back to the little island where they had eaten lunch that one time, and explore the area a bit more before returning home.

As they came to where the Bladerun River flowed into the Pegacorn, Niegra suggested, "Ooh, we should go up the Bladerun! We might find something new!"

"Mmm... sure, I guess." said Lance cautiously. "But not very far... we don't want to end up in Kirinwood. We don't need an adventure like the last one." Kirinwood was a large, dark forest that was nearly as full of mysterious, creepy creatures as the mountains.

They turned and flew along above the Bladerun, winding across the open grassland like a blue-green snake. 

"What..." Niegra said, looking down. "There's something or somebody running down there." She pointed at the dusty road, where they could see a figure, glinting in the sunlight, moving along the road.

"Let's check it out. Doesn't look very normal." Lance said, naturally curious. Niegra swooped down for a closer look. What they saw was quite a surprise. Galloping as hard as he could, was a golden unicorn. He was dirty and dusty, and covered in sweat, but he was quite definitly a Doradian unicorn. Doradians were a very special breed, only ridden by members of the royal family of Peromia. The majestic creature was running hard and swift, but the next moment, he stumbled, and went down in a big poof of dust. He struggled, but appeared unable to rise.

"Looks like he needs help!" Lance said, but Niegra was already on it. She landed beside the unicorn. His eyes were closed, his sides heaved, and his bright golden head lay limply in the dust. He was so exhausted he could barely move. Lance hopped down quickly, and knelt to examine him. He did not appear to be badly wounded, though he had a few scratches and cuts on his legs.

"Are you alright?"

The unicorn gulped in air, his eyes opening momentarily. "The Prince... I think... the spell... got to..." He was still gasping.

"Don't try to talk." Lance said quickly. "Just rest. Catch your breath." She grabbed her canteen and gave him a small drink. He was very handsome, gold all over, mane, tail, hooves, horn and all. He had a short beard on his chin, but still looked fairly young. Only his eyes were a different color, a deep, dark blue, the same as the jewel on his silver necklace, his only adornment.

They sat there, Niegra fanning the unicorn with her big black wings, and Lance holding his head on her lap, off the dusty road. After what seemed forever, his breathing slowed down and he opened his eyes.

"Thank you... for helping me." He tried to sit up.

"No problem." Lance smiled. "Just keep resting as long as you need to. Don't try getting up until you can breathe normally again."

The unicorn sat up anyway, shaking dirt out of his mane. "But... I can't rest for long! I have to get back to the castle, right away!" His eyes were wide. "It's extremely urgent!" 

"Well then, you should wait until you're fully rested." advised Lance. "You won't make it very much further otherwise."

"You're right." sighed the unicorn. "I'll rest just a little longer."

"What's the message?" asked Niegra. "Maybe I could take it for you. I can fly you know, it would be much faster."

The Doradian shook his head. "No, I don't think I should tell anyone else before the King. It's very... bad news... and he needs to hear it first, and right away."

"Alright." Niegra shrugged, though she was a bit worried about what he said. "So, we haven't introduced ourselves yet... I'm Niegra, and this is Lance. We're from Terraqua."

The unicorn nodded in greeting. "My name is Morthorn. I am Prince Hal's mountor." The girls were rather surprised to find they were helping the unicorn mount of the Prince.

"But.. then where is the Prince?" asked Niegra in puzzlement.

"Well, er... that's what I need to see the King about." He staggered to his feet, Niegra steadying him with a wing. "I'm rested now, I must continue."

"Alright," said Lance. "We'll fly near you, to make sure you do okay, how about that?"

"That would be very kind of you." agreed Morthorn. He ran the rest of the way to Peromia Castle, though not nearly as hard a gallop as previously. He took it easier, and found it actually helped him to go farther. Niegra and Lance flew alogside and a bit above him the whole way, to make sure he was alright.

He did make it to the castle, stopping at the gates. Niegra landed beside him. "Should we let you take it from here?"

Morthorn nodded. "I'll be fine. Again, thank you for stopping to help me. How can I repay you? Would you like to come in? I could show you around. After I report to the King, of course."

"You're welcome. And no thank you..." said Lance politely. "We really need to get home today, and anyway you should rest after you talk to the king."

The unicorn bowed. "Nice meeting you, Lance and Niegra. I hope we can meet again sometime. Now I really have to hurry." He ran into the palace. 

Lance looked wistfully back at it as they flew away. "I wish we could have gone in... But we really really need to get back home." She wondered what the news Morthorn had even were. It seemed to be something terrible, and something to do with the Prince. Lance hoped he was alright. She had never met Prince Hal, but she had seen him from a distance once, a few years ago. It would be disastrous if something happened to him. He was the only Prince Peromia had.

"Hal?" King Philip started forward, his heart pounding in sudden anxiety at the look on the unicorn's face. "What is it? What's happened?"

"We... we were riding by the Bladerun, near Kirinwood." gulped Morthorn, trying to speak calmly. "We didn't actually go in the forest of course, but it was in sight. The next thing I knew, each of the four guards with us were on the ground, with arrows in their chests. Then before I could see where they came from, a group of about ten tall strangers with poiunty ears and strange clothes came out of the woods on horses. I have no idea what they were, they certainly weren't mice. They surrounded me and Prince Hal, threatening us with crossbows. He tried to fight them of course, you know him, but overpowered him and grabbed him off of me. Then I tried to fight them, but the one I suppose was their leader threatened Hal with his sword, and made me stay where I was until they had moved a safe distance away. Then they galloped off, and I wanted to follow them, but instead I ran back here to get help." The unicorn finished, his eyes threatening to fill with tears. "I'm so sorry, Your Majesty! I was so scared, I didn't know what to do..."

The King kept his head with difficulty, though inside he really just wanted to run around in circles screaming. "It's alright, Morthorn, you did the right thing by coming to tell me right away. Thank you for that. Which direction did they go?"

"They headed West, back into Kirinwood." answered Morthorn.

"I must get a rescue party out after them immediately!" The anxiety was clear on Philip's face now. "Thank you, Morthorn. You may go now, you obviously need rest."

No one really knew quite how it happened, but by the next day, over half of the kingdom knew (or had heard rumors) of the Prince's kidnapping. Everyone was talking about it. When Lance heard it, she felt an awful sinking feeling.

That evening, a bit before supper time, she and Niegra were sitting on the beach alone together, watching the tide as it began to come back in.

"I sure hope they rescue the Prince very soon." said Niegra quietly. Lance grunted in agreement. "I wonder who those guys were, and where they came from." continued the pegasus. "There are some strange things in Kirinwood, but I've never heard of pointy-eared, funny-dressed strangers. They sure aren't mice. And why did they-"

"Not mice!" she was interuppted suddenly by Lance. "That's it, they're not mice!" she gasped. "What if-what if they're from somewhere else, outside of Peromia?"

"But... that's impossible!" Niegra cried. "The protective spell! Nobody can get in!"

"But... what if..." Lance stood. "I need to look something up. Quick, to the library!" She hopped on Niegra, who flew off to the castle, rather confused.

They ran into the library, and Lance swiftly found the book she needed. She flipped through it to the chapter she was looking for. "Here..." She began to read it.

Eyligno's Spell

Thousands of years ago, the kingdom of Peromia was part of a bigger world. Peromia was fairly peaceful, and not involved in any wars, but the land was so beaitiuful and rich that there were several rulers of neighboring countries who wished they could have it. Only a couple of these were desperate enough to try and buy it, but when that of course didn't work, two were nasty enough to join together and take it by force. They attacked several times, but Peromia defended itself valiantly and successfully. The great sorcerer, Eyligno the Fire Wizard, was a good friend of King Richant. He kindly cast a spell over the entire kingdom that allowed no one to come in. One can go out, but never back in. The spell is said to have been cast in the Cave of Treasures, hidden high in the Dangerous mountains of Dracopyr. Eyligno warned that if one of the treasures was removed from the cave, the spell would be broken.

"Woah," said Niegra. "I've always wondered what it would be like outside of Peromia."

"I'm afraid we're about to find out." said Lance, her voice unsteady.

"What do you mean?" Niegra's voice rose.

"I mean, those strangers must have come from outside!" answered Lance. "Unless they found a way to get in, the spell must be broken!"

"How?" gasped Niegra, though she was already pretty sure of the answer.

"That sword! It must be part of the treasure!" said Lance quietly. "The earthquake and all that happened right when I took it out." She slammed the book shut. "Then whoever those strangers are, they found out the spell was gone, and.... It's my fault the Prince was kidnapped!"

"No..." Niegra's eyes were wide. "But if that's it, then, where was the rest of the treasure? There was supposed to be a whole cave full of it!"

"I don't know... but that earthquake was no coincidence, and not nature either." She put her face in her paws. "I broke the spell... I know I did... Please don't tell anyone though, not yet."

"I won't. You have my word." Niegra looked up. "Time to eat." Neither of them felt exactly famished, but they went anyway.

Afterwards, they met in Niegra's room. The pegasus tried to comfort her friend. "Don't worry about it, Lance. Those guys will save the Prince, they know what they're doing. You can't do anything anyway, and it's not your fault, you didn't know what pulling that sword out would do..."

"I know, I know..." Lance rested her chin on her paws, staring at the floor. "But it's still my fault. And I can do something about it. And I will. I'm going to go help them, or try anyway." She looked up.

"Uhh... how would you do that?" said Niegra. "They don't need help, they'll have already rescued him by the time we could catch up."

"Well, I'm still going to see if there's anything I can do to help." said Lance stubbornly. "We'll be able to catch up with them fairly quickly, they're jut on the ground, and we're flying. We'll leave early tomorrow morning, good thing it's a weekend." She paused. "You... are coming, right?"

Niegra saw the determination in her eyes, and sighed. She was so stubborn. There was no stopping her when she was like this.

"Yeah, fine."

That night, before going to bed, Lance prepared, packing a bit of food in her satchel and picking out a cloak. She hoped this trip wouldn't take too long, but just in case they ended up getting back past the weekend, she wrote a quick note. "Don't worry, we're fine. We'll be back soon, so sorry about being late. Trust me, it's for a good cause." She would leave it on her bed in the morning.

When that time came, she did so, and met Niegra in the hallway.

"Ready?" she whispered.

"Yeah..." Niegra answered quietly. "You're bringing that?" She looked at the sword-shaped lump wrapped in Lance's gray cloak.

"Yeah it might be useful." Lance mounted her, trying to hide the awkward bundle. "I can use it pretty well. Let's go." They snuck out of the castle, and were soon over the ocean. They had gotten a slightly later start than they wanted, but a couple hours later, they were over the Pegacorn River, almost to Peromia Castle.

"Ugh," groaned Lance. "Can we land really quick? I really gotta go."

"Sure!" Niegra swooped down, landing among the trees on the river bank. "Should've gone before we went."

Lance rolled her eyes and hopped off, starting toward a group of trees. She jumped in surprise as a face suddenly appeared right in front of her.

"HI!" This loud greeting was followed by, "Did I scare you? Sorry if I did, I'm not actually that scary. I didn't mean to be." Lance now saw it was a small centaur girl. She was golden-brown, with light blond hair and big brown eyes. She wore a pink shirt and a green belt and quiver of arrows around her waist, with a bow on her back.

"Um, you didn't scare me." answered Lance. "What are you doing?"

"Umm... nothing." shrugged the centaur, a slightly guilty look on her face. "But I wasn't trying to scare you." She shook her head so vigorously her long, loose hair wrapped around her face.

"Okay, that was... I'll be back in a second," said Lance. "Just stay right here, please."

"Okay!" said the little centaur. She turned to Niegra. "Hey, my name's Palaminya, what's yours? Where are you from and what are you doing? I mean like, where are  you going, and why? Do I sound creepy? Sorry if all these questions are creepy. I think I'm kind of creepy sometimes. Do you think I'm kind of creepy? Not like scary-creepy, more like weird-creepy. Does that even make sense? I'm not sure it does. Not much I do or say makes sense anyway." She kept up this chattering for nearly a whole minute, not giving Niegra a chance to answer at all, until Lance returned. "There you are! So, I never got your names. Did I mention mine is Palaminya? Do you think that's a pretty name? I think it's kind of-"

"Sheesh, maybe it's because you didn't give us time to answer." Lance cut her off sarcastically. Palaminya closed her mouth with a clop.

A short silence followed, until Niegra said, "My name is Niegra, and this is Lance. We're from Terraqua Fief, and-"

"And where we're going is  none of your business." finished Lance. "We're on a very important and dangerous mission."

"Ooh!" squealed Palaminya. "Dangerous mission? I love danger! And I'm a great shot! I could be really helpful!" She grabbed her bow, nocked an arrow, and shot it, pinning a daisy to a tree, all in a few seconds. "See?" she held up her bow, grinning.

"Sorry, but you can't come with us, not this time at least." Lance mounted Niegra.

" But when we're done, we'll come back to visit you if you want." added Niegra, agreeing with Lance but also feeling a bit sorry for the young centaur.

"Oh." her face fell. "Okay..." She watched the two friends as they flew away, pulling her arrow out of the tree with a determined yank.

Lance and Niegra flew over Castle Peromia once again. They could sense the unhappiness below, on the air like a bad smell. They knew everyone was unhappy because of the Prince's disappearance, and Lance kept telling herself it was all her fault. She had broken the spell. She had to do this, she had to fix it. A few minutes later, Niegra pointed out a shining figure on the ground below.

"Is that who I think it is?" She swooped down to beside and just above the creature. Sure enough, it was Morthorn, the Doradian unicorn they had met only just yesterday, going at a steady canter.

He looked up. "Lance? Niegra? What are you girls doing here?"

"That's what I was going to ask you!" Lance called down. "Shouldn't you be resting, after that run yesterday?"

Morthorn skidded to a stop, flipping his mane out of his eyes. "I'm rested enough. The question is, what are youdoing?" Niegra landed beside him.

"I'm going to help find the Prince, or at least try." said Lance. "Even if I can't be much help, I at least want to try."

"Why? What does this have to do with you?" Morthorn frowned.

"I... it's hard to explain... long story." she said hesitantly. "Maybe I can tell you later, not here though. Now why are you here?"

"I have to go help Hal, it's my duty!" said the unicorn. "They wouldn't let me come with the rescue team, but now I'm all rested, so I'm going to catch up. I have to be there for Prince Hal!" His voice was rather stressed.

"Well then, why don't we team up?" suggested Lance. "Sounds like we're on the same mission, so we might as well do it together. If not, I can go myself. And I will, if I have to." She shrugged.

Morthorn could see that, like himself, there was no stopping her or talking her out of it. "I guess." he sighed. "We might as well."

"Good! Then on we go!" Lance said, and they continued along the Pegacorn River, Lance and Niegra flying a bit above Morthorn.

Chapter 3 - The ThiefEdit

They found that keeping pace with Morthorn, though he cantered or trotted most of the way, was much slower than when they were flying on their own. They passed the point where they had first met the Doradian, and a while later, the sun was right on the horizon, like a big orange dragon egg.

"There's a freindly little town up ahead." called up Morthorn. "There's an inn there, I've heard good things about it. We can spend the night there if you like."

"Sure." shrugged Lance. "Sounds fine." They soon landed in the little town of Rookbane.

"You girls can head in, I'll be right there." said Morthorn. Lance and Niegra went over to the inn. It was fairly small, but looked cozy enough, despite it's slightly tattered appearance.

"Oh great, I don't know if I have enough money." Lance felt in her satchel.

"Don't worry, I'm sure Morthorn must have some." said Niegra. There was a sudden shout from inside the inn. Lance raised an eyebrow and opened the door to look in, only for a dark figure to run smack into her.

"Woop, sorry!" he said, catching her paw before she fell.

More yelling came from inside. "Get 'im!"

The mouse slammed the door with a kick from his booted footpaw just as a tall, rough-looking man was running for it. There was a big wham on the door, then a whomp, like a stunned body falling to the floor.

"That yours?" The mouse jumped on Niegra before Lance could even answer or realize he was talking about her friend.

"Hey, what?" surprised at the stranger, Niegra tried to shake him off, but he held tight.

"What do you think you're doing?" asked Lance.

"Look, I gotta get away from these guys!" He was a young mouse, not much older than herself, with dark brown fur, and he appeared to be wearing a mask. "They wanna rob me!" He really did look scared.

"Oh! Alright." Lance jumped on in front of him. "But I'll want an explanation later!" Morthorn had said this was a freindly town, but those guys crashing through the door looked exactly the opposite. Niegra spread her wings and quickly flapped into the air, just as the inn door burst open, and large, tough, angry mice came pouring out, yelling and shaking fists and weapons at the escaping creatures.

"He's got an accomplice!" yelled one of them. An arrow or two flew past Niegra, but they were badly shot.

"T' the trees!" said a voice in Lance's ear. She directed Niegra toward a clump of trees a distance from Rookbane.

Morthorn heard the shouting and saw the men as he came around the corner. He looked up in puzzlement at what they were waching; the figure of a pegasus with two riders, swiftly disappearing. What had happened this time? He ran after the retreating sillouhette.

Niegra landed among the trees, when they were a safe distance from Rookbane. The dark-furred mouse hopped off, Lance following.

"Thank you for helping me." he smiled gratefully. "Those robbers woulda killed me if you hadn't came along."

"Don't worry about it, it's fine." Lance grinned back. "Now, what happened there, anyway?" Now that he was standing there, she could see him better. He was quite good looking, with bright, ocean blue eyes surrounded by what she could now see was black fur, not actually a mask. He wore a rather threadbare black shirt under a tattered, patched green jerkin. His pants were also patched and a pouch hung from his belt.

"Well, I... I was just going in, but they attacked me." he said, glancing around. "Just can't trust some people... I'm sorry, I-I really gotta go..."

"Where?" asked Niegra.

"Um, somewhere. It's kinda secret. Thanks again." He was backing toward the trees, but then a flash of gold came jumping into the clearing, knocking him over.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you there!" Morthorn turned to help him up, but his expression turned from concern to anger when he saw who it was. "You! What are you doing here?!" The young mouse tried to get up, but Morthorn slammed him down onto the ground, planting his golden hooves firmly on top of him. "Now would someone please explain to me what is going on here?"

"Um... that's actually what I was going to say." said Lance. "We tried to go into the inn, but there were a bunch of guys in there trying to rob this guy, and he jumped on Niegra so we helped him get away. You know him?"

"Know him? Where have you been? This is Ryder, the theif wanted all over Peromia!" he growled at the mouse.

"What?" Lance was shocked to hear she had helped a theif. She glared down at him. "You liar! You said they were the robbers! And now they think I'm working with you! You used me! Liar!"

Ryder seemed totally unbothered by this accusation. "Yeah, so?" He gasped for air as Morthorn pressed harder on his chest.

"Quiet, theif! I'm taking you right back into town this instant and handing you over! Lance, do you have some rope?"

"I don't think so... do we?" Lance looked at Niegra, who shook her head.

"No, sorry. Ugh, I knew I'd forgotten something! Rope! You can't go on a rescue mission without rope!" She smacked her face with a wing.

This seemed to interest Ryder. "A rescue mission? I bet I could help you. I'm great at that sorta thing."

"Help us find Prince Hal? Yeah right." Lance crossed her arms. "You probably know zero about this whole thing. Let's take him back to town."

"Wait!" Ryder gasped as Morthorn's hoof came down hard on him again. "Would you stop stomping on me? I can totally help you! I know where they've taken the Prince!"

"Oh really?" Morthorn stared doubtfully at him.

"Yes! But they went through Kirinwood."

"We know that, I was right there when it happened!" snorted the unicorn. "Just tell us where they're going, if you do know."

"It ain't really something I can tell." explained the theif. "I'd have to show you. And I know Kirinwood. If you guys're gonna go through there, you're gonna need someone who knows the way."

"How do we know you're not lying about this?" Lance stood over him.

"You just have to take my word for it, I guess." Ryder looked up at her with his bright blue eyes. "You'll just have to decide yourself whether you'll trust me. If you don't, fine. I'm used to it. Nobody ever does anyways."

"Hm. What do you think?" Lance looked up at Niegra and Morthorn. "I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."

"I bet I could throw him pretty far." Morthorn said. "But I still wouldn't trust him."

"I kind of think we should at least give him a chance." put in Niegra. "If he is telling the truth, he could be very helpful. What if he is, but we don't let him help us? Then we might never find the Prince. But if he is lying, we'll just be right back where we are now. I guess we'll just have to chance it."

"Why do you have to be so logical..." Lance sighed. "But I guess you're right, Niegra. We'll just have to take the chance. I guess I'm willing to risk it. What about you, Morthorn?"

"Fine. We'll risk it." sighed the Doradian. "Whatever it takes to save Hal."

"Alright then, you'll show us the way to where they've taken the Prince.' said Lance, turning back to Ryder.

"Alright. And you won't turn me in?" smirked the theif.

Lance gritted her teeth. "Fine. Deal." She leaned down and stared him coldly in the eyes. "But if you are lying to us, I will smack you SO hard, you'll think a mountain has fallen on top of you."

Ryder gulped. "Yeah. Deal." he looked up at Morthorn. "Mind letting me up now?" Morthorn reluctantly removed his hooves, allowing him to sit up.

"Well, since I don't think we can go back to that inn, I guess we're spending the night here?" said Lance. It was dark now.

"Yeah, guess so." Niegra found a comfortable spot on the ground and laid down, one wing outstretched. "Wait, what about him?" She nodded at Ryder.

"Yeah, how do we know he won't run away in the middle of the night?" agreed Lance, getting under her friend's warm wing.

"Oh, don't worry about that." said Morthorn, knocking the mouse back over with one hoof. "I'll make sure he doesn't try anything." He laid down heavily across Ryder's middle, making the mouse gasp for breath again.

"Ooof! You don't... need to do that... I won't run away..."

"Oh, you won't." The unicorn settled down to sleep. "Now be still."

"Be still? I can't move an inch!"

"Good. Now quiet."

Morthorn looked closely at Lance. "Lance, are you okay? Your eyes..."

"Are they yellow?" she looked up.

"Yes."

"It's just... something that happens. Don't worry about it, I'm honestly just fine." She closed her eyes and laid down, hoping they would go back to their normal green soon. It was just a strange thing that had always happened, and no one could explain it. When she was annoyed and beginning to get angry, her eyes would fade to yellow, then to orange as she got angrier. If she got really mad, they would turn red. But she always tried not to get quite to that point.

Lance sighed and turned over, flicking an uncomfortable pebble out from under her. She was not used to sleeping on the bare ground, but she didn't usually have much trouble sleeping almost anywhere. She glanced at Ryder, who was still awake and muttering that he couldn't breath. She hoped he was telling the truth about knowing where to find the prince. If he was lying... she fell asleep thinking of the things she might do to him. 

Ryder was the first to awake, wiggling his footpaws as if to make sure they were still there. He was pretty sure they were, but what was on his legs? It wasn't the big unicorn.

Morthorn felt warmth against him. He opened his eyes, and was suddenly very awake when he saw a small blond centaur girl, curled up right against him on Ryder's legs. "What the-"

She looked up. "Oh, hi! Finally you're awake!" she stood suddenly. "When's breakfast? I'm hungry!" Her hind hoof landed on Lance's ear.

"OW!" the mouse shot upright, like a dragon with its tail slammed in a door, her hair quite wild. "What the- who- where- when- you..."

"Sorry!" said the centaur. "It's me, Palaminya!"

"What are you doing here?" Lance rubbed her ear. "You were way back at the Pegacorn!"

"Yeah, but now I'm here!" grinned Palaminya. "I followed you guys."

"All the way here?!" Lance stared. "But..."

"Yeah, all the way. I was kinda behind, you guys were going so fast, but I finally caught up and found you here last night. Man, am I tired."

"But why?" Lance was astonished she had traveled all this way.

"'Cause what else was I supposed to do? I don't have a family or anything, and I want adventure! Can't I come with you?" She looked sad. "Please?"

"No." said Lance. "It's dangerous."

"But I have my bow!" pleaded Palaminya. "I can defend myself, and-" She was suddenly distracted by Morthorn as something dawned on her. "Oooh! Are you a Doradian unicorn? I love Doradians! Not that I've ever seen one, but wow! You're so shiny!" She tried to touch his horn, but he moved it out of her reach. She stared at Ryder. "Is that Ryder, the theif? You got him? Woah!" She flipped her head sideways to look at him right side up, her hair falling in his face.

Niegra was awake by now. "Lance, I think we're going to end up bringing her, no matter what anyone says, she's gonna follow us. There's not much chance of leaving her behind. I bet she's much more dangerous than she looks, she could be helpful. I don't see why you don't like her anyway."

"It's not that I don't like her." muttered Lance. "It's just... grr. I guess you're right. Fine. But if she gets hurt, it's her fault."

Niegra sighed. Lance was so grumpy in the mornings.

They all ate a quick breakfast. "Alright, let's get moving." Lance had fixed her hair and was in a slightly better mood now.

Morthorn stood, allowing his captive to finally get up. The thief groaned and stretched.

"Man, you must weigh like a million pounds! Whattaya been eatin'?"

"I'll eat you if you make another remark like that." growled Morthorn. "Now let's go! You've got to show us the way through Kirinwood. Though I doubt you even know the way." He added the last bit under his breath.

Chapter 4 - Into KirinwoodEdit

It wasn't too long before the group of five stood at the edge of Kirinwood, staring up at the tall, large-leaved trees towering before them.

“You guys do know this is like, the most dangerous forest in Peromia, right?” said Ryder casually. “It's full'a nasty creatures an' who knows what. Nobody who goes in ever returns. If ya wanna turn back, now's yer chance.”

“We're not turning back, and it's none of your business even if we did!” said Lance.

“Fine. You first?” He motioned to the path that went into the forest.

“If it's so scary, why don't you go first?” Lance raised an eyebrow.

“Hah, you think I'm scared?” Ryder put on a brave face and strode boldly into the trees. The others followed, slightly more cautious.

They walked a little ways in, but no monsters or dragons jumped them. It was surprisingly quiet. Actually, there was barely a sound. The plant life muffled their footsteps, and it was made even more somewhat spooky by the trees overhead being so thick they let barely any light through. Vines were entwined thickly through the branches, and here and there some weird looking flowers grew, some in the trees and some on the ground.

“This is creepy!” Palaminya said in a loud voice.

“Keep it down!” warned Ryder. “You might attract something... unpleasant.”

The small centaur's big eyes grew even bigger and she lowered her voice. “I don't see any scary creatures, though...”

“They're hiding, waiting to pounce.” said Ryder. "They're very hungry..."

“Ryder, if you don't stop that I will plug up your mouth with one of these tufts of grass.” said Lance. “Just be quiet.”

“You'll need a pretty big tuft of grass for that mouth.” muttered Morthorn.

“Aw, you wouldn't do that.” Ryder laughed uneasily. “You know how much you like me.”

“Yes, I do.” Lance said sarcastically, ripping a tuft of grass out by the roots and cramming it into the thief's mouth before he could react.

As they continued, Ryder still spitting out dirt, the forest seemed to grow darker and darker, until they could hardly see at all. The path was very overgrown too, but was trampled down by the creatures who had gone through before them with Prince Hal. Then, just when they wondered how it could get any darker, it began to gradually grow lighter and lighter, though the underbrush was still thick and there was hardly a trail left.

By the time they had been in the forest for a couple of hours, it was bright and very pretty, with vibrant flowers all around. But it was still silent.

“Wow, this place isn't scary at all!” said Palaminya happily. “Ooh, look at this pretty flower! What is it?”

Niegra looked at it. “I don't know, I've never seen it before. What was that?” A small light zoomed past her ear and landed in a tree. “Oh look, a Forest Fairy!” It was a fairy on the branch, like a tiny mouse with butterfly-like wings. It glowed softly.

“Ooh!” Palaminya forgot about being quiet and squealed. “I love fairies almost more than Doradian unicorns!” Her face fell as the fairy flew away through the trees at the sound of her voice.

“Weird, that's the first sign of animal life we've seen in here.” said Lance. “That fairy seemed nervous.”

“The intruders coming through here must have frightened all the animals away.” said Morthorn. “Well, if there are any scary monsters in here, either they're not scary enough, or there aren't any.”

He gave a look at Ryder, who said, “Or the scary monsters attacked the intruders who have the prince.” He found himself with the tip of Morthorn's horn against his chest.

“Hal is fine, wherever he is.” growled the unicorn. “He'd better be.”

“Of course he is...” the thief gingerly moved the shining horn away from his chest. “I was just saying.”

A few minutes later Niegra glanced behind her. “Um, guys, where's Palaminya?” The centaur was nowhere to be seen or heard. “Anyone see her run off somewhere?”

“How long has she been gone?” asked Morthorn.

“I don't know, she was right behind me, stopping and squealing at every pretty flower she sees, until a few minutes ago I think.”

“Well you've been stopping at almost every flower yourself.” said Lance. “Palaminya!” she called, but didn't want to yell too loudly. “She can't have gone that far.” she muttered.

They all stopped abruptly as a groan floated through the trees.

“Wh-what was that?” Niegra whinnied, jumping.

“It sure didn't sound like Palaminya!” Lance glanced around.

“Prob'ly just the forest monsters.” Ryder grinned nervously. “Making sounds like an injured creature so you'll come to help them, and CHOMP.” He made a motion like his paw was a dragon's mouth chomping on its dinner.

“Nonsense.” snorted Morthorn. “I'm going right over to see what it is.” He strode ahead, stepping purposefully on the thief's tail. Trotting straight over to where the sound had come from, which was right in their path, he leaped over the bush suddenly, rearing aggressively, ready for whatever was there. There was a scream of fright and a flash of blue lightning, and Morthorn staggered back, partly stunned.

Leaping into action, Lance jumped over the bush, a thick branch in her paws. To her surprise, there was no monster, or dragon, or anything scary. She jumped back from the blue sparks, which just missed her footpaws.

“We're not here to hurt you!” she cried, dropping her stick.

Laying at the foot of a tree was a slender, deer-like creature, with brown dragon scales covering its back, a long tufted tail, and small antlers. It looked nearly scared to death, and blue sparks flew around its hooves, one foreleg limp below it.

“What... what happened?” Morthorn shook his head, still disoriented.

“What do you want?” cried the creature, trying to stand up, but failing.

Niegra saw now that there was a terrible gash in the upper part of his left leg, which appeared to have scabbed over but broken again and was still bleeding. “We thought you were going to hurt us!” explained the pegasus quickly. “We're friends! Calm down! My name is Niegra. Are you alright?”

“Friends? But I don't know you!” the creature calmed down a little, but his big brown eyes were still scared. “And what are you doing here? How did you come so far into Kirinwood?”

“We're following someone else who came through here.” answered Lance. “They kidnapped our prince.”

“Oh! Them!”

“Did you see them?” asked Morthorn, now recovered from his shock. “Did you see Hal?”

“Yes, I saw them, they did this to me.” He looked at his wound. “They came galloping through on their horses, slashing all the plants and destroying everything in their path. I tried to stop them, but their leader only laughed and sliced my leg open with his sword. Then they left me here, and none of my tribe has found me yet.”

“And Prince Hal?” urged Morthorn.

“Morthorn, calm down. Of course Hal was with them. He's fine.” said Niegra, but the creature said, “Is he a small mouse with brown fur?”

“Yes!” said Morthorn.

“He was there.” he told the anxious unicorn. “He was tied on one horse's back and looked scared, but he was not injured.”

“Good.” Morthorn seemed more satisfied now. “Can we do anything to help you?” he added, remembering the creature was hurt, but Niegra was already pressing a dock leaf to the wound to stop the bleeding.

“Well, besides being hungry, I can't walk and can't can't get back to my tribe.” said the creature sadly. “My leg is useless for now.”

“We could get you back to them.” offered Niegra. “How long would it take?”

“Well, it would be quite a walk, and I'm not sure how I would walk, and... I probably shouldn't...”

“We might be able to, but we need to find Palaminya." said Lance. "She disappeared a while ago, just before we found you.”

“One of your friends went missing?” the creature thought a moment. “If she disappeared in the forest right around here, I know how you could find her. I'm sure someone in my tribe knows. They might even know more about who took your prince. You'd just have to take me to the Kirin Palace.”

“Kirin Palace?” echoed Niegra.

“It's where all of us kirin live.” nodded the creature. “My name is Twyg. But I can tell you more later, if you'll take me there. I hope the Queen won't mind.” he added the last bit quietly.

“Queen? Now I'm intrigued.” said Lance.

“Of course we'll help you.” said Morthorn, brightening up at the possibility of the kirin knowing more about Hal's kidnappers. “How will we carry him?”

“Put him on my back.” suggested Niegra. The kirin, though a buck, was a very young one, and was small enough that Niegra could probably carry him.

“Help me pick him up, Ryder.” ordered Lance, since the mice were the only ones with paws.

“Gladly.” Ryder took this as a chance to show off his muscles. “Bet I could lift him by myself.”

Lance ignored that. “Carefully, so we don't hurt him more.” The two mice lifted Twyg gently and placed him on Niegra's back.

He was heavier than most people the pegasus had carried before, but not heavy enough to be any trouble. He hooked his uninjured foreleg around her neck gingerly, and she lifted her wings a little to help hold him on.

“This feels weird.” Twyg grinned a little. “Alright, that way.” He pointed with a hoof.

It was a fairly long walk, but a beautiful and mysterious one. Everything seemed to be tinted green by the sunlight streaming through the verdant canopy, except the most vibrant of the tropical-looking flowers. Lance almost didn't know where to look and started to wish she had more eyes. Even Ryder seemed impressed. Only Morthorn kept his usual solemn face. Ryder elbowed him in the shoulder.

“Cheer up, droopyface! Ain't this pretty?”

Morthorn turned a glare on him. “Keep your dirty paws off me, thief.”

“Come on, you know you like it.” The mouse grinned teasingly, leaning an arm on the unicorn. Morthorn growled and shook him off, trodding on his footpaw as he distanced himself from the annoyance.

“What's this?” Niegra kept stopping at nearly every plant she saw that she didn't know the name of.

“That's called Fairytrap.” explained Twyg from over her shoulder. “It makes a glow like a fairy in trouble, so when another fairy comes to rescue it, it sucks them in. It's a carnivorous plant.”

“Oh, ew.” said Niegra, making a face. “That's awful. Poor little fairies. And it's such a pretty plant!” It was pretty, a large cup-shaped blossom on a long stalk with iris-like leaves surrounding it.

“Keep moving, Niegra.” reminded Lance. “I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to gawk over fairy-eating flowers when we get to the palace... thingy. Wherever we're going.”

Soon they came to a fork in the river they were following. “Which way, Twyg?” Lance asked.

“Across this river.” the young kirin pointed to the fork directly in front of them. “There's a hidden bridge over here.”

“Where?” Niegra saw no sign of a bridge anywhere along the river.

“Well, if you can just let me reach the base of this tree, I'll show you.”

Wondering how this would help, the pegasus knelt down near the tree so he could reach it. With his uninjured leg, Twyg pressed his delicate hoof into a hardly discernible shape in the bark, just the shape of his hoof, but a little bigger. Blue sparks flew off it, and out of the opposite bank came a log, with the top flattened to make easier walking. It appeared to grow out of the roots and dirt, and soon had reached their side.

“Well, I'll be a moldy biscuit!” exclaimed Ryder helpfully. “A hidden bridge!”

“Yep! It only works for us kirin.” said Twyg as though pressing one's hoof on an old tree was something to be proud of.

Lance and the rest crossed easily, until only Twyg and Niegra were left.

“Umm, guys, I'm not so sure about this.” said Niegra. The single log bridge was too narrow for her liking, at least with a wounded creature on her back. “I don't want to fall over into the water with him on me.”

“Maybe you could fly across!” suggested Ryder.

“She can't fly, you limpetbrain.” said Lance. “He's nearly her own weight, and there isn't enough wingroom with all these trees in the way.” She walked back out onto the bridge. “Just come across carefully, Niegra. I'll help and make sure you don't fall off.”

“Well, alright.” Niegra stepped onto the log, trying to ignore how bouncy it was. “Hold on tight and don't move, Twyg.” She walked gingerly to Lance, spreading her wings to help balance. Walking backwards daringly, Lance led Niegra across safely, holding her mane to reassure the pegasus. At one point, Twyg did shift a little, and Niegra, squealing, nearly lost her balance, but caught herself with a flap of her big wings. She barely breathed until her hooves were firmly on the other shore, and then it was a sigh of relief.

“Now I just have to close the bridge with this other tree.” said Twyg. Niegra allowed him to press his hoof into a mark just like on the other tree, and the log drew itself back into the bank. Having done this, the group moved on through Kirinwood.

After a while, Twyg said quietly, “We're almost there. Just let me handle it.”

Lance was about to ask what, when a loud voice that seemed to come echoing from all around boomed, “Halt! Who dares come thus far into Kirinwood?”

Startled, Ryder jumped at the sound, bumping into Morthorn, who bumped him back roughly, knocking him over.

“It's me, Runner Twyg, sir!” called the young kirin.

A big bush rustled and out stepped a much larger, dark green kirin with a huge rack of antlers, blue lightning flashing around his hooves. A long, lichen-like beard hung from his chin, but he did not look old, just very commanding.

“Twyg! What happened to you, laddie buck? And who are these... outsiders?”

“Sorry, Commander Lichen.” Twyg nodded to his injured leg. “But I was hurt and couldn't walk. These people found me and helped me. I promise they're friendly.”

“Hmm.” Lichen snorted, giving Ryder a suspicious glance, before looking at the hurt leg. “Looks bad, laddie. We'll get that attended to right away. Guess these creatures'll have to come along, we can't can't just leave them here. Though Her Majesty won't be too happy either way. I'll take him, missy.” he added to Niegra.

“I've got him, thanks.” Niegra smiled politely. “I'm sure I can take him a little farther.”

“Alright.” The Commander motioned them all ahead. “Right this way now.”

Chapter 5 - Queen of the ForestEdit

Commander Lichen led the travellers behind the bush he had come from, where there was hidden a neatly pruned tunnel of vines which grew woven together. It was tall, but a bit narrow, so Niegra had to pull her wings in close to avoid hitting the walls.

"This is really cool!" she said quietly.

"Yeah, we weave the vines together as they grow." Twyg told her. "It's surprisingly strong." He fell silent at a look from the commander.

The tunnel wove through the trees for only a few yards, before ending at a curtain made of the same woven, living vines. Lichen stepped through and swept this aside with his antlers for the visitors to enter.

Twyg couldn't help laughing at their astonished expressions as they saw the inside. "Wait until you see the rest... this isn't even the best part!"

Surrounded by high walls of vines and branches woven through the trees, there was a whole city of creatures like Twyg. Almost all of the huts and buildings were frames with climbing plants growing on them, creating the walls and roofs. The homes were mostly round domes, each with a door and several windows. And in and around them were the kirin. All the same scaley, deer-like creatures, they were all shades of green, brown, and a few gray or yellowish. Some had big antlers, some had smaller antlers, some had none. They seemed very happy and friendly to one another. The air was filled with a murmur of voices, some having conversations, some arguing, some laughing, and some doing who knew what. Young ones, smaller than Twyg, ran around playing and chasing each other and doing what young kirin like to do. All in all it was a wonderful place, the gardens were colorful and organized, but still somewhat wild.

But towering above this, and most breathtaking of all, stood the palace. It too was not only made mainly of living vines, but it's main frame was a huge, tall tree with glittering gold leaves which hung down as if hugging the palace to keep it safe. The vines grew up the branches, creating a perfect dome, which was surrounded by four smaller domes, each of which appeared to be a smaller tree.

All of this was so intricate, the four visitors were speechless. Except Ryder, who just managed a, "Holy horses..."

"Get a move on to the palace." ordered Lichen, not giving them much time to admire it. They did so, still glancing around them as they were led through the city. Kirin along the road stopped what what they were doing to watch the strangers pass. Conversations stopped. Evidently they were not used to seeing creatures other than each other. Delicate young ones stared at them with big round, dragon-like eyes. A tiny one with only bump on her head where her antlers would one day be squealed and leaped behind her father at the sight of Morthorn, who right now did not look particularly intimidating for once in his life.

As they came to the palace, the two guards opened the strong carved wooden gates at a signal from Commander Lichen. They walked through, into an open courtyard filled with the most beautiful of flowers, and a sparkling fountain in the center. Without giving them time to appriciate the beauty, the tall kirin led them through the big door opposite the one they had just come through. This came into a short hall, where there was yet another door at the end.

"Is the Queen busy?" Lichen asked the guards. "I need to see her. More strangers in the forest."

"No sir, go right in." One of the guards dipped his antlers in salute, giving a somewhat mystified look at the strange sight of Twyg on Niegra's back.

The other guard swung the door open, calling, "Commander Lichen to see you, Your Majesty!"

Built and decorated in the same way as the rest of the palace, the big, round throne room was the most magnifecent of all. It had a symmetrical design, and every flower had almost an exact double of itself on the opposite side of the room. In the middle of this symmetry sat the throne, which was a seat of thick moss set in a natural bend in the base of the giant tree that held up the entire building. Lying casually on the throne was the Queen.

She seemed to be the most beautiful thing in the room. Her scales were a slightly darker shade than her soft, bright green fur, matching her yellow and green eyes, which were commanding and firm but still kind and with a small playful sparkle somewhere in them. Her brown antlers were tall and slender, draped with blossoming vines which also wound loosely around her neck and legs, right down to her dainty hooves, as if they grew on her.

"Make your report, Commander Lichen." she said as he bowed. She looked at the visitors behind him, as though deciding what to think of them.

As her eyes met Lance's, the mousemaid remembered her manners and gave a quick curtsy, despite the fact that she was not very good at this, and therefore had never liked it. But she did not want to be rude, especially when she saw Morthorn's elegant bow, Niegra's quick but pretty one, and even Ryder managing a small, awkward bow. She stepped on her tail as she did so, mentally growling. She wasn't usually this clumsy, except for when she most needed to not be. Argh.

"These four strangers were found trespassing on your land, Queen Wyllow." said Lichen. He told her what had happened. "They had apparently found Runner Twyg injured, and helped him."

The ruler looked at Twyg as if asking him to confirm this.

"I was badly wounded, Your Highness." nodded Twyg, still on Niegra. "They found me and carried me here. They're looking for a friend of theirs who was lost in Kirinwood."

Queen Wyllow slid gracefully off her throne, stepping over to Niegra. She moved the pegasus's wing and looked at Twyg's leg. "We'll get this attended to right away." she told him, calling, "Healers!" in the direction of the door. "How id this happen?" She went back to the throne, but did not sit.

"I was doing my scouting job in the forest near the Bladerun," explained Twyg. "When I heard a lot of crashing and voices ahead of me. I've never heard any creature, or group of creatures for that mtter, make so much noise! So I looked, and it was a whole crowd of horses, being ridden by the strangest creatures I've ever seen! They walked on two legs like a mouse, but they were taller and had big, pointy ears, long fur, and fluffy tails! I don't really know how else to describe them, Your Highness, they were just... weird!"

"So, they were the same ones Leaph and the others told about!" The Queen's brows furrowed. "Only they were coming back the other way! Sorry, please continue, Twyg."

He did so. "Aye, they must be. They came galloping through, destroying everything in their path. I jumped out and tried to stop them, the leader only laughed and slashed at me with his curved sword. They had strange accents too, and funny hats like blankets on their heads. Then they rode on, leaving me there, unable to walk. I was there for a long time before they found me." he finished, indicating the vistors at the last few words.

"Thank you, Twyg." said Queen Wyllow. "Now your leg must be seen to." A few healers arrived now, and gently put the young kirin in a big sling carried by two strong bucks.

"Thank you again." Twyg smiled at his new friends. "I hope we can see each other again soon!"

"We'll come visit you later!" assured Niegra. "Hope your leg heals quickly!" Twyg was carried out and to the kirin infirmary.

The Queen turned back to her visitors in front of her, smiling. "And now, I would love to hear your side of the story, what you are doing in my forest, and how you made it this far in. But you're probably hungry, aren't you?" They nodded, Ryder brightening up at the mention of food. They hadn't stopped to eat lunch on the way here, just eating a bit along the way.

"I'm sure we all are, Your Highness." said Morthorn. "But what about our companion, Palaminya? She's a young centaur, and she went missing in the forest a while back." He had not forgotten about her, but had been waiting for a good time to mention it. "Twyg said you would know where she is."

"Oh, her?" said the Queen. "Yes, she was found lost in the forest and was brought here. She apparently rescued a fairy. Don't worry, she is as safe as she can possibly be. I will send someone to fetch her if you like."

"That would be great." said Lance. "Man, is she hard to keep track of."

Only a few minutes later, Palaminya came galloping into the throne room. She squealed happily as she saw her friends. "Oh hi, there you are! You guys totally disappeared! I couldn't find you! Did you get lost? I got kind of lost. I just saw this glowing flower, so I looked in it and there was a fairy trapped inside! So I rescued her and stomped the stupid flower into the ground. It was pretty, but no flower gets away with trying to hurt a fairy around me! Then the fairy gave me this!" She paused, for breath and to pull a leaf-fletched arrow from her quiver. "It's a magic arrow and the fairy said it will explode whatever it's shot at but I can only use it once. How cool is that?!" She slid the arrow back in. "Oh hi, Queen Wyllow! Did you meet my friends? Did you guys meet the Queen yet? Isn't she pretty? What happened to you guys anyway? You haven't told me anything yet! Isn't this place just amazing?"

"We'll talk over dinner." The Kirin Queen chuckled at the way Palaminya never seemed to run out of words or energy. She led them to the dining hall, where a low table was set with with many exotic-looking foods. "Please help yourself." Wyllow told them all as she took her place at the head of the table, her legs beneath her. Kirin did not need chairs, but the table was only about a foot or so off the floor, which was covered with soft rugs, so they sat on the floor as well. Palaminya and Ryder were the first to dig in.

"Now, pray tell how you came so far into Kirinwood." said the Queen.

Lance beat Morthorn to it. "We're looking for our prince, Your Majesty." she explained. "He was kidnapped by the same strangers who tore through Kirinwood and hurt Twyg. We have no idea who they are or what they want with him, but we came in here following them. We're very sorry for intruding."

"It's alright, at least you weren't hacking up the forest. I detest creatures who ruthlessly destroy such beautiful things as trees and plants." she said. "You seem like very nice, honest young people." At this, Ryder, his mouth full of a pinkish-orange fruit, elbowed Morthorn, giving him a juicy, dripping grin. The unicorn merely gave him back a quick, disgusted glare.

"You must be either very brave or very foolish to come into Kirinwood, though!" continued the Queen. "Aren't most of your people terrified of it?"

"Yes, all the tales of Kirinwood are of horrible, flesh-eating monsters." said Morthorn. "But no forest full of horrible monsters, real or not, would ever stop me from getting Hal back home safe and sound." It was evident by the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes that this was more than true. Morthorn would fight any army of monsters and dragons to make sure his young rider was safe.

"It's not that scary anyway!" said Palaminya. "It's not scary at all! It's amazing! There like not even a word for it!" Waving her paws expressively, she accidentally flung her pawful of berries down the front of Ryder's shirt. The thief fished them out and popped them in his mouth. "Yeah, I could live here! This is the best food I ever eaten! And I've tried a lotta foods!"

"I can't wait to write about this in my journal when I get home!" said Niegra. "I hope we can come back someday! Oh, can we?"

Wyllow cleared her throat a little, and suddenly looked slightly worried, like she didn't want to tell them what she was about to. "Er, well... I hate to say this, but you must know... I don't think you will be leaving this forest."

"W-what?" Lance found herself stammering.

Wyllow set down her food. "Well, you see, we're a very secret tribe..." she held up a hoof before any of them could speak. "Please just let me explain. We have lived safe and undisturbed for centuries, hidden deep here in Kirinwood. If your people, who live outside of the forest, knew that this was a beautiful, peaceful place, instead of filled with monsters, we might no longer be safe from the bad people who would hurt us, our young ones, and the forest itself. Thus, there is a law that if any strange person should wander into the forest and be caught, they must never return to the outside land and live the rest of their life here. I am sure you understand, it is our way of protection, and has been for many, many generations."

An uncomfortable silence followed this speech, with Niegra saying only in a small voice, "Oh."

"But... but..." Morthorn looked like he might be ready to panic. "I have to help Hal! I can't stay here forever! There's no telling what they'll do to him! You can't make me stay!" He stood, his horn flashing.

"Please, stay calm." Queen Wyllow arose too. "I understand, Morthorn. I know, your prince is in great danger, and you must help him. You are very brave and loyal. But these are our rules. I am very sorry."

"But.. but!" Morthorn's ears drooped. "I can't just...!"

"I'll tell you what," she laid a gentle hoof on the unicorn's shoulder. "I will talk with my advisors about this. There may be a way we can compromise or overlook this instance. All I ask is that you wait until tomorrow, and meanwhile, enjoy yourselves. I will arrange for you all to be given guest rooms in the palace. You will need to get some good sleep, as there is still a chance you will continue on your journey soon. I will give you my desicion tomorrow morning. For now, I must take leave of you."

Morthorn let out a sigh. "You are right, Your Highness. I understand that you must make the best desicions to protect your people. I am just very anxious for Prince Hal. He's the best friend I've ever had." He gave a bow. "Goodnight, Queen Wyllow."

"Goodnight." returned the Queen. "You may finish your supper, I will send someone soon to show you all to your rooms. Sleep well!"

"Well, let's just hope she makes the decision that's in our favor." said Lance gloomily after Wyllow had left the room. "I can't spend the rest of my life here! I'm not even supposed to stay away from the castle past the weekend! And no one knows where we are!" The mental image of her and Niegra living with the kirin until they were both silver-haired and ancient made her feel like hitting her head on a tree in despair.

None of them said anything else for a while, until Palaminya, out of curiousity, asked, "Hey Morthorn? What's Prince Hal like?"

When Morthorn didn't answer, Niegra added, 'If you want to talk about him, of course. You don't have to if you don't want to." She was curious too, though.

"No, it's alright." Morthorn said. "Well, he's... he's a bit of a pawful, sometimes. He's very adventurous, always doing crazy, unsual things, just for fun. And somehow he always drags me into it." He smiled a little, and Ryder looked like he was wishing he had parchment and charcoal to record this unusual sight. "He's always getting us into trouble, but he's very kind, optimistic, and has good intentions. He just longs for excitement."

"He sounds wonderful!" Niegra looked delightedly at Lance, but the mouse was keeping her thoughts to herself as usual.

"He is a wonderful friend, and will make a great king someday." said Morthorn confidently. "Once he is older and has more experience, at least. He can be a little... naive sometimes."

Their conversation was interrupted as a light brown kirin stepped in, saluting with his antlers. "Beg your pardons, but I'm here to show you to your rooms when you're ready."

"I'm finished." said Morthorn, walking over to the door.

"But there's still plenty of daylight left!" said Lance. "Wouldn't you like to look around the village more?"

"Not really." Morthorn said. "I'm ready to have some alone time. Goodnight."

"Well, alright. Goodnight!"

"Right this way, sir!" the kirin, who seemed fascinated by the unicorn's shining fur, led him to a round room, decorated simply but beautifully, like the rest of the palace, and colorful rugs on the floor. Morthorn, being a unicorn, had no need to lie down to sleep, so he just stood comfortably in a corner, or what he thought might have been a corner if the room wasn't round. He had never realized how worn out he was until he closed his eyes. He did not take long to fall asleep, but his last thought before doing so was something along the lines of, I wonder where Hal is right now... and wherever he is, if he is thinking of me...

Chapter 6 - Chillbone PassEdit

As a matter of fact, Morthorn was just about all Hal could think of at the moment. The young prince had never felt so lonely and terrified in his fifteen years of life. Everything had become an awful blur after the point when he had been grabbed off of his unicorn friend by the kidnappers. They had galloped almost nonstop through Kirinwood, the roughly bound and gagged Hal thrown over a saddle in front of a masked stranger. By evening they had reached the Dracopyr mountains, but did not stop even then, except for a short break to rest the horses. Then came the worst part yet. The dark ride through a creepy canyon, with walls of rock high above them on either side and bones of all shapes and sizes littering the ground. Hal had no idea where they were, but did not get much of a chance to look. Night time happens to be the mot dangerous time of all to be passing through Chillbone Pass, but these mysterious people seemed to be either very brave or very stupid. Halfway through, they were attacked by a couple of drakamus, but the intruders kept them a good distance away with a steady stream of arrows, until the snarling, half dragon creatures gave up and flew away to look for easier prey. Even though they had not got close enough to hurt anyone, they were still too close for comfort, and the experience had left the defenseless young mouse trembling with fear. They had kept on pushing through, however, fending off a dragon here and there, until the mountains towered behind them, instead of in front. Only then did they stop and make camp.

It was almost midnight now, and the pointy-eared strangers tied their exhasted horses to the scraggly pine trees, lit several fires, and pitched some quick tents.

The one who was carrying Hal dismounted, slinging his prisoner over one shoulder. "Where should I put 'im, Zufar?" he asked gruffly.


Hal twisted his head around, trying to see who he was speaking to. Must be the leader, flashed through Hal's otherwise clueless mind. The one called Zufar was tall, like all the others, with large, pointed ears and sharp teeth. In the flickering firelight, it was hard to see what color it was, but what wasn't covered by clothing looked spikey and he had a few darker spots on his face. As if this wasn't strange-looking enough, he appeared to have a towel draped around his head, and wore a loose-fitting robe, with belts crossed over his chest, and a curved sword at his side, as well as a couple of knives. He also had a canteen slung over one shoulder, and sandals. In answer to the question, he merely pointed to the nearest tree.


The one carrying Hal walked over, dumped him on the ground, and tied him firmly to the trunk of a tree with a piece of rope. Only then did he take the gag off. For a moment, the two of them just stood there, looking at Hal, who stared back up at them with eyes like dinner plates.


"You're sure this is the one?" asked the one who had carried him. "He seems very young and... small."

"Of course it's him, Aarif." said Zufar confidently. "It doesn't matter what he looks like, he's the one."

"Wh-what do you want?" Hal tried to be brave, but it came out more like a stuttering squeak. "Who are you? And... what- what are you?"

Zufar laughed, but it wasn't a very nice laugh. "What's wrong, little mouse, never seen a hyena before?" He sneered down at him. "And it's none of your business. Now be quiet or I'll pull out your whiskers."


The threat didn't scare Hal, at least not much, but he decided to stay quiet anyway. He watched as they ate a quick meal, (not bothering to give him any food) then went to sleep. Hal couldn't sleep, tied up to the tree, and he had no intentions of trying. But he tried to look as if he was, until no one bothered checking on him anymore, thinking he was asleep. When he figured it was safe, he tested his ropes. They were slender, and felt old, but were still strong enough to hold any mouse his size and strength. He wished he had his knife or sword, both of which Zufar had. Maybe there was a sharp sone within reach, as there always seemed to be in stories. He felt around as far as he could with his bound paws. As he shifted his position, something pointy poked him painfully in the bottom. He reached under himself (which was harder than it may sound) and pulled out a rock. It was almost the length of his paw, with a pointed end and an edge that was surprisingly sharp for just a natural rock. This stroke of luck heartened the already optimistic young mouse, and he went to work sawing at his ropes with the stone.

It was hard on his wrists, twisting them into uncomfortable positions to get at the rope, but eventually, after a few breaks here and there, he snapped through the last fews threads. He cut through a few more ropes, pulled, and found he was free of them. He rubbed his wrists. Finally!

Glancing at the tent where his captors slept, Hal slipped quietly around the crooked tree he had been tied to. Should he try to get back his sword? No, he thought, it would be too risky. He wanted to get out of here as quick as possible. A gray horse, who had also been tethered to the tree, lifted its head and looked at him curiously.

"Hey there." Hal whispered, reaching out and petting the horse's nose. "Mind giving me a ride? Really quick?" He paused as he grabbed the mane. Was this a talking horse? It only gave a small snort. Maybe not. Hal untied it and mounted. Glancing behind himself to be sure he was not watched, he started off quietly, hoping the horse wouldn't make any unnessacary noise.

A minute later, he was out of the camp and heading back to the mountain pass, looking nervously around him. He finally looked ahead. Where now? Back through that horrible Chillbone Pass? There was no other way. He gulped. Maybe he could befriend the super scary flesh-eating monsters, he thought, trying to think positively. He was good with animals... He took a deep breath, a final glance behind, and headed into the forbidding canyon.

It was freakily silent in there. Hal gripped the horses mane tightly, imagining he was on Morthorn instead, to give himself courage. What would Morthorn say if he were here? He tried to imagine it, but it was hard, with his nerve-wracked brain. He sat straight up, ears flicking as he heard the flap of large wings above him. He urged the horse into the shadows and looked up, his eyes growing wider as they met with a pair of glowing green ones. The savage eyes seemed to stare right through his body, into his soul, or something. A snarl came out of the darkness like a snake. The terrified young mouse turned his horse back the way he had come, only to see the eyes had flown over him and landed right in the way. The drakamus growled hungrily, showing its sharp fangs, and Hal began to panic. He had no weapons and nowhere to go!

Just as tears of despair began to form in his eyes, a torch flared up behind the terrible creature, which turned, startled. Aarif stood there, holding a torch high above his head and waving it as he advanced. The drakamus, afraid of the fire, backed away, but as the torch-holder only kept coming closer, it finally took off into the air. Aarif yelled and threw his torch at it, causing it to fly away, snorting in frustration.

Hal nearly fell off the horse in relief, but there was no need for him to, as his rescuer grabbed him by the back of his tunic, yanking him off. "Thought you could run away, did ya?" he laughed in his strange accent. "You'd a been eaten alive." Before Hal could answer, the wind was knocked from him with a single punch to the stomach. Slinging him over one shoulder, Aarif took the reins of the horse and walked right back into the camp, dumping the prince on the ground. He tied his discouraged prisoner back up to the tree. Hal squeaked in pain as the ropes were pulled too tight around his paws.

"Don't want you attempting an escape again, do we?" said his captor. "I'd like to get some sleep, instead of chasing you around all night." Checking once more that the ropes were secure, he retired back into his tent, adding, "Try an' get some sleep too. Got a long journey ahead. Remember, you're being watched."

Hal sighed and rested his head against the tree trunk, closing his eyes. It was worth a try. That was what Morthorn might have said. Once again Hal wished he could feel the warmth of the big Doradian lying beside him. He was getting very cold. He shivered and tried to get in a comfortable position, figuring he should at least try to get some sleep in the last few hours of dark that were left. A long journey ahead? Who knew what might happen tomorrow.

Chapter 7 - Out of the ForestEdit

After Morthorn left for his room, Ryder, Lance, Palaminya, and Niegra had taken a walk to explore the kirin village before doing so themselves. The kirin were friendly enough, though it was obvious they couldn't stop staring at the outsiders. All ears in the area were pricked in their direction.

After a while, Lance and her compainions, worn out from their traveling, finally were shown to their rooms in the palace. After saying goodnight, Lance settled comfortably on a thick rug on the floor of her round room, with one rug over her, and another rolled up for a pillow, as the kirin did not use beds. It was much nicer than the ground she had slept on the previous night, and it was not long before the exhausted mouse was fast asleep.

She was prodded awake by Niegra's hoof the next morning. "Wake up, Lance!" Niegra blew in her face, knowing that annoyed her. Of course, anything annoyed her in the morning. "We've gotta go see the Queen after breakfast! And everyone's almost done!"

Lance rolled over and groaned, but sat up a moment later, pushing her red hair out of her eyes. "Alright, alright. I'll be out there in a sec."

A few minutes later, she came to the breakfast table. Her hair was rebraided, but her eyes still wanted to stay closed. Waking up was always hardest when she had just slept in a warm, comfy bed. She grunted something that might have been an apology as she sat on Ryder's tail. Morthorn had already finished his breakfast and stood waiting.

After their quick morning meal, which was pretty similar to dinner the previous evening, the five visitors were ushered into the throne room.

"Good morning, friends!" Queen Wyllow greeted them from her throne. "Did you sleep well?"

They each replied that they had, Ryder adding, "Best place I ever slept in! Like, literally."

"It was amazing!" squeaked Palaminya, narrowly missing impaling her paw on Morthorn's horn.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Your Highness." bowed Morthorn.

"Good! I'm sorry we don't have any beds, for you mice, but you seem to have done just fine." she said. "Well, I spent much time last night thinking and talking it over with my advisors. I have finally made up my mind. Those outsiders obviously kidnapped your prince for a reason. I have no idea what that reason could be, but I am sure by their actions that they have evil plans. Whatever they are planning will more than likely bring danger to Peromia, and thus to Kirinwood, since we seem to be right in their path. I do not want this to happen, to my people or yours. I will not get in your way of saving both our worlds. You are free to leave."

Ten ears shot straight up in her direction.

"Thank you!" Morthorn began, and Palaminya squeaked, but Wyllow added, "However, you must all swear an oath never to reveal anything about us kirin to the outside world. I must still do my best to protect my people by being cautious."

"Of course." Morthorn nodded, then pointed his sharp horn straight up, the green light glinting off it. "I swear by my golden horn that I will never reveal to anyone the location, secrets, or existence of the kirin tribe." he said solemnly. The others followed his example.

"Thank you." The Queen smiled. "I trust you all to keep your promise." Ryder seemed to shift uncomfortably as her gaze landed on him. "Even you, Ryder. You can be honest if you truly set your heart to it."

"Thank you, Your Highness." said Morthorn. "You will definitely not regret letting us out. Just as I have promised myself I will bring Hal home safely, I also promise you that I will make sure no harm comes to Kirinwood. It is a beautiful place, and I cannot imagine it or its wonderful inhabitants being hurt. I will not let that happen."

Wyllow smiled gratefully at this. "How soon do you want to leave?"

"As soon as possible, Your Highness." answered the unicorn. "Right now, actually."

"Would you like some provisions?" saidthe Queen. "I think you have a long journey ahead of you, and we can provide plenty."

"Yes, thank you very much." answered Morthorn, eager to get on their way.

"I will also send with you a guide, to show you safely out of the forest to the mountains." she added.

Only a few minutes later, the five travellers had said their goodbyes and stood outside the village, each carrying a pack of food on their backs. A pale green female kirin walked out of the woven tunnel, joining them.

"My name is Phrost." she smiled. "I'm the guide Queen Wyllow sent to accompany you to the mountains. It can be hard finding your way through Kirinwood, and very dangerous."

As they started off, Niegra asked, "You mean, there are still scary monsters here? I thought those were just things you made up for protection."

"Well, I wouldn't really say there are monsters." explained Phrost. "Although there can be some dangerous animals. Also fairy theives and swamps. Lots of deadly swamps as you get closer to the mountains. But we have special ways of getting around and over those things."

She led them on a narrow path through the trees. It was much noisier than the area of the forest they had traveled through previously. In the canopy overhead, birds and some small griffins and dragons could be heard, chattering, singing, squawking, and arguing. Fairies and hummingbirds flitted and zipped around energetically. The forest was full of life. They walked on in single file. Phrost led the way, of course, followed by Morthorn, Lance, Ryder, Palaminya, then Niegra, who kept stopping to look at every other flower she didn't know the name of. The forest, though always beautiful, changed as they traveled westward through it. The trees got bigger, if that was even possible, and the ground got wetter and mushier.

"Follow as exactly in my footsteps as you can." warned Phrost after a while of this. "This area has the most deadly swamps and quicksand holes in Kirinwood. You would not want to fall in one, believe me." They followed her instructions as they walked cautiously along the roots of trees, sometimes hopping across logs, rocks, and reed clumps.

As they were crossing a sort of bridge formed of fallen logs across a big open field, Ryder pointed at the grass all around them. "What's wrong with walking on that? It's just a bunch of grass, doesn't look like a swamp to me." He poked the spongy ground with a footpaw.

"To tell the truth, this particular area isn't all that dangerous. It's mostly just very hard to walk on." Phrost gave a smile. "Try it and see."

"You sure?" Ryder looked from her to the grass.

"Yes, try it if you want. We'll be right here to help, if you need it." Mischief showed in her brown eyes.

Ryder considered this for a moment, then apparently decided against it. "Nah, I believe ya."

She shrugged, still smiling, and the group continued walking. But a few minutes later, Lance turned as she heard a splash, followed immediately by a surprised, "Woah!"

Ryder sat in the grass, in a deep puddle that had not been there before. He tried to stand up, but the matted grass roots bounced and moved around under his footpaws, making it hard to find his footing. It was like trying to walk on a thick blanket stretched over a pond. After several tries, he managed to grab one of the logs of the walkway. He spit out muddy water, saying to Phrost, "I see what you mean. Holy horses!"

The kirin laughed. "I warned you!"

The thief pulled himself back onto the logs, with some help from Lance. He stood, wringing swamp water out of his shirt. He grinned and winked at her. "Thank you, milady."

Lance made a face, and turned away, in the process hitting him with her elbow. Teetering on the edge, he lost his balance and fell backwards into the soaking mass of roots with a squeak.

"Oops." said Lance sarcastically, and moved on without a second glance.

Some time after they had stopped for lunch, which Phrost had rounded up from around the forest itself, the ground had begun to slope upward most of the way, getting very steep in some places. The trees began to thin out, and the ground was solid again, though with a few mushy patches in lower areas. There was a lot less undergrowth in most places. Phrost soon halted the group next to a trickling stream.

"We are now at the edge of Kirinwood, almost in the mountains." she announced. "Here is where I must take my leave of you."

"What, why?" Niegra was disappointed. She had been enjoying the company of the humorous kirin.

"Like I said, Kirinwood ends here." answered Phrost. "Ahead are dragons, drakamus, enemy territory. Most Kirin do not even come this far. My job was to show you safely through Kirinwood, and now that I have completed that, you must face the dangers of the mountains without me."

"Well, thank you very much for your help." said Lance. "We couldn't have made it this far without you."

The kirin smiled. "No problem, I was happy to help. By the way, there is supposed to be a quick way through the mountains, Chillbone Pass. You should find it if you go straight ahead from here. I've never been there myself of course, but I hear it's quicker to go through than going over the mountains, though extremely dangerous."

"Thank you for everything." said Morthorn. "Goodbye, I hope we can meet again!"

"Me too!" she dipped her antlers. "Farewell, and good luck!" With that, she disappeared into the greenery.

"I think we should stop here for right now." said Lance. "We need to eat and rest, and it'll be dark in a few hours. I don't think we want to be in the mountains at night."

Morthorn stared up at the mountains ahead, thinking. He sighed. "You're right. We'll camp here, but head out as early as we can." He stomped a hoof in impatience. Lance knew how anxious he was to catch up with the kidnappers. Ryder got a small fire started, and they all sat around it, opening their packs to see what exactly the provisions were they had got from the kirin. There was some fresh fruit packed on top, obviously meant to be eaten as soon as possible, which they did. Beneath that was dried and preserved fruit, some nuts, and something breadish, which tasted good and was very filling.

After a satisfying meal, the group sat quietly around the crackling little campfire. Ryder and Palaminya were both poking it with sticks, and the latter soon burned herself. Dropping the burning stick, she popped the paw in her mouth with a squeak.

"Get a longer stick next time, Pal." Ryder, while laughing at her, didn't notice the flames climbing up his own stick, and very soon followed the centaur's example. Morthorn rolled his eyes but snorted something that might have been a laugh.

Niegra, who had been staring out east over the trees that they had come through, remarked to Lance, "Good grief, Terraqua feels so far away! I feel like we've been gone for weeks, rather than just a couple of nights! Wonder what they're doing at the castle right now?"

"Probably eating dinner, as usual." said Lance. "And Dylan is probably being just as annoying as ever." Both girls made faces. "At least we can be glad we're away from that."

"Who's Dylan?" piped up Palaminya, taking her paw out of her mouth in curiousity.

"He's the baron's son." answered Lance. "He's a centaur, like you. Actually, your hair reminds me of his. Always in his face."

"His loud, obnoxious voice is always echoing through the castle." sighed Niegra, flicking her tail. "He seems to follow us everywhere, trying to annoy the heck out of us."

"You live inna castle?" Ryder looked dreamy. "I've always wanted ta live in one myself."

"Maybe you could have," said Morthorn sarcastically. "If you hadn't burned down that orphanage."

Lance gasped. "What?!"

"Woah, wait, no!" Ryder held up his paws. "I didn't do that!"

"Then how do you explain all the evidence that points to you starting the fire?" said the unicorn.

"I was framed!" protested the thief. "I wouldn't burn down the orphanage I lived at! Why would I do that?!"

"Because you're crazy." snorted Morthorn.

"Wait, what's going on?" Lance's confused question went unanswered.

"Honest, it was two guys who were looking to get rid of me!" said Ryder.

"How can you even use the word honest, you thief? You've never been honest in your life and wouldn't know how to be!" Morthorn shook his tail in disgust. "I don't even know why I'm talking to you, you little..." trying to control his temper, the unicorn laid down heavily with his back to the thief, humphed, and was silent.

Lance shook her head. "Uh, that was..."

Ryder looked sad. "No matter what I do, nobody believes me." he said bitterly. "I don't even know why I bother trying to tell the truth anymore." He stared into the fire.

Lance couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for the thief. She wanted to know more about him, but didn't want to rile up the grumpy unicorn any further. She stood up. "We'll need some more wood for the fire. Come on, Ryder, I'll need some help."

"Sure." Ryder rose, shaking his head as if to clear it. "You'll need some help with the big pieces." He flexed his biceps. Lance rolled her eyes. She was not easily impressed by boys. And apparently he had a hard time staying sad for very long, or else he was faking it all. Together they walked into the trees, and began collecting firewood.

Lance was silent for a minute, trying to put her thoughts into a sentence that would make sense and not be awkward. Finally she said, "Ryder... I really want to trust you."

Ryder paused in surprise. "You... what?"

So much for not being awkward, Lance thought, feeling like slapping herself. "I'd like to trust you, I really would." she wasn't sure what to say next.

Ryder looked utterly confused. "You... want to trust me? Why would you want to? Why- why would you even think that?!"

Lance gritted her teeth. "I-I'm not sure. I just... want to. From what I've heard, I shouldn't, but... if you ever want to be honest sometime, I'm willing to give you a chance." She didn't even know what she was saying, much less why! Why did she want so much to like this thief? He annoyed her! She shook her head at herself. Stupid uncontrollable emotions. But she couldn't stop now. That would be mega-awkward.

Ryder was staring at her, unsure of what to think or say. "You're joking, right? Why are you even...?"

"Look, I don't know, I don't even know much about you." said Lance, her ears turning hot with embarressment. "I have no idea what that whole orphanage thing was about. But I'm serious, if you ever want to try being honest, let me know. You can do it if you try." Face red now, Lance turned and walked quickly back to the camp. Where had all that come from?! She must be crazy to have said all that right to his face! Lost in her crazy emotions, she dumped her whole armful of wood onto the fire at once, sending sparks flying.

"Ouch!" Niegra pulled her wing back sharply. "Careful!"

"Sorry." Lance sat down, leaning against the pegasus. "So, who's taking first watch?"

Shocked, Ryder just stood there in the forest for a minute. Another chance? Be honest? Was this girl crazy? Obviously she knew next to nothing about him, or she would never had said something like that. The mouse stared a the ground. Maybe he should take her up on her offer. Maybe this was his one chance to prove that he could be more than just a thief and a con artist. Maybe he could even have a friend. Hefting his bundle of firewood, he trudged ack to the camp, deep in thought.

Hal awoke to a kick. He blinked. He didn't remember having fallen asleep, tied to the tree as he was, which was not a very comfortable way to spend the night.

"Wake up, little mouse." Aarif nudged him in the side again. Hal lifted his head. Now that it was mostly light, with the sun halfway up on the horizon, he could see what lay before them... sand. Nothing but huge sand dunes, as far as he could see. A stream trickled out of the mountains, through the camp, and out into the desert, where a few trees were sprinkled around it before it disappeared into the hills.

Aarif laughed at the young mouse's astonished expression. "Never seen the Firelands afore, eh? Don't worry, you'll soon get a closer look of 'em then you'd ever want."

After a quick, simple breakfast that was really not enough to satisfy his cavernously empty stomach, Hal soon found himself standing next to Aarif's gray horse, untied except for his paws, which were attached by a rope to the saddle. The camp was all packed up now, and they moved out, heading straight for the sun, which had quickly climbed higher into the sky. Hal had to walk quickly to keep up with the horse, to prevent his being dragged along. Soon they were out in the desert. As they came to the top of a dune, Hal glanced behind. There stood the unforgiving, uncaring mountains, so big they made him feel like a bug. The only movement visible was that of a dragon on a far-off rock, probably hunting its breakfast. Hal wondered where Morthorn was right now. Was he coming to save him? Then Chillbone Pass diappeared from sight as he stumbled down the hill, and his heart sank as he looked at the huge desert before them.

Chapter 8 - Monsters in the NightEdit

So much for a good night's sleep.

Lance was having a vivid dream in which she was trying to run through a garden back at Castle Terraqua, but the plants kept getting tangled around her ankles, making it hard to move. That was when she woke up, only to find that part of her dream was true- there was something wrapped around her ankle, and it was pulling. She sat up in a panic to see Niegra, who had been on watch, at the edge of the camp, struggling against what looked like woody tentacles wrapped around her wings and snout. She couldn't say anything, but when she saw Lance was awake, she gave a muffled scream, likely meaning, “Help!”

Lance grabbed the tentacle around her own ankle and yanked, but it didn't budge. Her eyes quickly followed the tentacles to its source, which was the tree above her. It wasn't a tentacle at all, it was a branch. Somehow these trees used their strong, vine-like branches to grab whatever prey came within their reach, which in this case had happened to be five travelers.

Before trying anything else, Lance alerted her fellow campers, yelling, “Guys! Wake up!”

Morthorn shot awake, to find vines curling around three of his ankles. With his one free hoof, he kicked the snoring Ryder, who tried to sit up, failing due to a vine that held one arm close to the ground.

“What's going on?!” squeaked Palaminya in alarm, tugging at the vines on her ankles and wrist.

“I'm not sure!” answered Lance. “Somehow these trees are using their branches like tentacles!”

Morthorn slashed at a vine with his horn. “Somebody get a knife! These things won't budge!”

With his free arm, Ryder reached into his satchel, pulled out a dagger, and stabbed it into the vine holding him. The wood didn't flinch, but as he hacked it off, it seemed to shrivel up and fall off. Only then did he see the others that had crept up around his leg, and he went at them furiously.

Palaminya stabbed a branch with an arrow, like it was a potato she was about to bake. “Stupid tree! Let me go!”

Lance looked around desperately. She didn't have a knife. Wait- she saw her cloak bundle on the ground where Niegra had left it the night before. It was just out of her reach. Pulling against the vine and stretching out flat on the ground, she managed to grab the corner of the cloak and pulled it toward herself. Throwing off the covering, her paw landed on the hilt of the sword. She looked up at another muffled scream from Niegra. The trunk of the tree, which the pegasus was being drawn closer and closer to, had a crack in it that was opening wider to reveal a big black hole, like a mouth. Niegra kicked hard.

Feeling a humming in her ears, Lance looked down at the purple glow of the sword in her paw. It grew brighter and brighter, and her paw seemed to be glowing as well. She felt a surge, like an electrical shock, run up her arm and through her entire body. It didn't hurt, but all of a sudden, she felt much more awake, and ready for anything. She had the sudden desire to fight something. She had never felt this energetic. Lifting Spellbane, Lance swung it at the vine around her ankle. It cut through the wood like butter, and the branch immediately shriveled and died. Slicing a couple others that had snuck up on her, Lance jumped to her feet, the sword illuminating the whole camp with its purple light.

Ryder, Palaminya, and Mrthorn looked up in surprise as she leaped straight for Niegra. Raising it high, Lance brought the sword down on the thick branches holding her friend. They died, dropping Niegra. With a yell, more of exhilaration than anger, Lance slashed the tree across its mouth-like opening. The crack snapped shut, but Lance wasn't done. Her eyes red-orange, the mouse hacked away at the trunk, until with a crack, it toppled over, leaving a shriveling stump. Her companions stared at her in astonishment. The rest of the trees seemed to sense their companion was dead, and their branches hesitated for a moment, then began to move faster.

“Get away from the trees, Niegra!” Lance warned her friend, who did so speedily. Ryder, still sawing away at a vine with his dagger, dropped it as another branch began to quickly tighten around his neck. Lance jumped back into action. With a single swipe, she severed the vines holding Ryder.

“Get away from the trees, where they can't reach you!” she called as she moved on to help Palaminya. Ryder obeyed, grabbing his knife and scrambling away.

Lance literally felt like a fire was raging inside her, trying to burst its way out. Her vision was weirdly purple, and all she seemed to be able to see were the trees in front of her, which she attacked, freeing the small centaur.

Finally there was Morthorn. She sliced easily through the smaller vines, but the limb wrapping itself around the unicorn's neck was nearly as thick as her own waist. Spellbane glowed even brighter as put all her strength into hacking viciously at it. Other, smaller vines tried to stop her from doing this, but they were easily dispatched. Finally she broke through the last of it, and Morthorn leaped free, dashing out of the group of trees. Lance quickly followed, but at the edge of the grove, she tripped on a low vine, which wrapped around her ankle. The sword went flying out of her grasp, and Niegra started forward to help, but Lance quickly grabbed the sword back, thankful it had landed within her reach, feeling the surge of power again as she sliced through the vine.

“I'm fine! Go!” she picked herself up, swinging onto Niegra's back. Niegra, Palaminya, Morthorn, and Ryder ran away from the trees, toward Chillbone Pass, and didn't stop until they were in the opening of the canyon.

Ryder sat down on a rock to catch his breath. “Okay... what... just...”

The purple faded from Lance's eyes as she set Spellbane down. The extra strength it had given her disappeared as well, leaving her feeling more normal. But the blade still glowed a bit.

Ryder finally found the words he was looking for. “Where did that glowing sword come from?”

Niegra was shaking from fright, and Lance was trying to calm her down. “It's okay, we're safe now, Niegra.”

“I- I know.” Niegra shuddered. “I just... thanks for saving me, Lance.”

“Of course!” Lance smoothed her friend's messy braid. “I wasn't gonna let a stupid tree eat my best friend!”

Morthorn, shaking a shriveled vine disdainfully off his hind leg, turned to Lance. “Where did you get that sword?” he asked. “And... why is it glowing?”

Lance looked at the sword, wondering why it hadn't yet stopping giving off that purple light. “I- it's a long story. I'll tell you later. For now-” she was interrupted by Palaminya.

“What were those trees?! How did they do that?! That was freaky!”

“I think they're Stranglevine trees,” said Niegra, now recovered from the incident. “I've read about them, but I didn't know they were real.”

“Fitting name.” said Ryder dryly. “Well, at least now you know they're real, right? A little too real.”

Morthorn started to say something, then stopped, his head and ears going up in alarm. He stared into the dark night sky. The others followed his example, but saw and heard nothing.

“What-” Ryder began, but the unicorn made a motion with one hoof, whispering, “Shh! Go! Into the canyon! Quietly as possible!” Hearing the urgency in his voice, they obeyed, walking farther into the canyon, stepping quietly. Morthorn pushed them behind an outcropping of rock, just as they heard a soft thump where they had been a minute before. This was followed by some snuffling, then silence. Morthorn turned to the wide-eyed group behind him.

“Single file, stick close to the wall, and don't make a sound.” he whispered, so low they could barely hear him. “And have your weapons ready.”

Ryder took the lead, a dagger in each paw, and nobody argued. They snuck along the canyon wall, Morthorn bringing up the rear. Lance had wrapped Spellbane back in her cloak to dim the glow, but she was ready to use it if needed. The sword seemed to pulse with energy in her arms, and she resisted the urge to pull it out and use it. She wished she could have a light, though, she kept stepping in patches of crunchy, frozen snow and stumbling over smooth things that she hoped were rocks, but sounded like bones. Lots of them. All she could see was the dim shadow of Ryder in front of her, and a jagged strip of starry sky above.

A dragon call sounded out above them, and they all froze. Lance was near enough to Niegra that she could feel the pegasus shaking in terror. Silently, she reached out a paw and patted Niegra on the neck, trying to comfort her friend but also herself. Something touched Lance on the arm and she jumped, only to find it was Palaminya, looking up at her with her huge brown eyes and hugging herself.

“I'm scared.” whispered the tiny centaur, shivering.

“We'll be fine.” Lance whispered back. She didn't know what else to say. What if they weren't? She felt like curling up in a dark corner until the morning came. Somewhere the predators couldn't get her. She swallowed, clenching her teeth. She didn't want to start shivering herself when she was trying to comfort the others. That might only make them more scared.She peered at Morthorn, trying to read his face. She could barely see him in the dark, but he didn't appear to be terrified. How was he so brave? Even Ryder was looking scared.

Morthorn motioned with his head to keep moving on. The dragon, or whatever it was, seemed to be gone now, so they did, still going silently. Then the hair on the back of Lance's neck stood up as there was a sneezing snort behind them. She glanced back to see a pair of yellow glowing eyes staring straight at her. Or were they staring at Ryder, who was right beside her? It was hard to tell, the eyes were so strange.

There was was a horrible snarl, and a shadowy, winged figure leaped straight at them. Niegra and Palaminya screamed, as did Ryder, but Lance, without hesitation, yanked the cloak off off Spellbane, which glowed so bright it lit up the whole canyon around them.

Lance felt the surge of power flow into her as she lifted it, the sword suddenly becoming so light it felt like it was made of wood. There was a screeching yowl as the creature attacking flapped back, its long claws just missing Ryder.

It was a drakamus. And it was terrifying. From the waist down, its legs were blue-scaled dragon legs, although its top half was furry like a mouse. It also had large, dark wings and horns on its head. The scariest thing was its long, sharp, bloodstained claws and fangs. Drakami were not known for their great hygiene. It snarled something none of them understood, in its own language.

“Back off!” Lance held out the glowing sword, trying unsuccessfully to steady her voice and paw. This sword magically gave her strength, why couldn't it give her courage as well?

There was a startled snort from Morthorn. “There are more!”

Lance gave a quick glance behind her, but it was enough to see the three drakami on the other side of the group. She swung Spellbane, lunging at the drakamus in front of her. It leaped back, obviously afraid of the magic weapon, and growling something that was probably drakamus cursing. She looked at Ryder, who looked back at her, holding his long daggers out in front of him.

“Ryder! Think you can hold this one off in the back? I'm going ahead, the drakami are afraid of Spellbane. I think if we can just drive them in front of us, we should be able to get to safety, if there is any.”

“Sounds like it's our only chance.” replied Ryder through clenched teeth. “I'll- I'll try.”

“Good.” Lance gave him a smile. It was small and forced, and disappeared as quickly as it had come, but it Ryder returned it. With that, Lance turned and faced the drakami before them. She felt the fire inside again, and without giving herself a chance to think about it too much, she ran at them, yelling. The three attackers flapped back, almost out of the range of the sword's light. They snarled and growled and yowled, but didn't dare to come nearer.

“Come on!” Lance said to the group behind her. “Let's keep moving! They won't come near as long as the sword is here!” They obeyed, breaking into a run as she did.

Ryder, facing the drakamus behind them, was slower, as he tried to hold off the creature. It was still afraid of the daggers a little, though not nearly as much as the sword. The thief swished his blades back and forth, taking a step back with each swing. The drakamus snarled as it took a swipe at Ryder with one long-clawed paw, but he met it with a dagger. The drakamus howled in pain, clapping the sliced paw into its mouth. Ryder took this chance to pick up a rock from the ground, throw it at the drakamus, hitting it in the scaly foot, and ran to catch up with his fellow travelers.

Lance was still charging ahead, swinging the purple blade before her like a scythe. The drakami finally took off into the air, shrieking in anger that they couldn't get to their prey easily.

Morthorn halted, Palaminya bumping into him from behind. “There appears to be a cave here!” he called. “I suggest we duck in here! It's rather small and the drakami might not fit!”

“Sounds good!” Lance said, still threatening the drakami with the sword. “Everyone in there!”

It was a pretty small entrance, and Niegra and Palaminya had to crawl and wiggle in on their stomachs. Ryder slipped in easily, followed by Morthorn, who had a harder time with it, then finally Lance, who dropped in backwards, holding the sword out still. As soon as she was in, the drakami flew to the hole and tried to get in, but they were too big. Lance sliced a paw that was swiping around inside the cave, trying to find the prey. There was a shriek of pain as the paw was pulled back, and probably lots more drakamus cursing.

“I think we're finally-” Lance stopped mid-sentence as she turned and saw what the light of the sword revealed. It was a small cave, about the size of her bedroom, and on the far wall was what made her freeze and whisper, “Shh! Nobody make a sound!”

Curled up in the corner, on a nest of plant material and scraps of fur, laying a sleeping pile of three or four tiny serpentine dragons. Lance shaded as much of the purple light as she could with one arm. Palaminya clapped her paws over her mouth.

“The- the mother...” Niegra whispered in a barely audible voice. “She might be back any time!”

Lance held a finger to her lips fiercely. The drakami were still outside in the canyon, likely trying to figure out how they were going to get their dinner out of the hole.

One of the baby dragons lifted its head, yawning hugely, then blinking and looking around in confusion at the strangers in its home. It squawked. Lance looked helplessly at Morthorn, who returned the look, then turned a glare on Ryder, as if trying to blame him.

Then Palaminya stepped toward the nest, whispering, “Shh, little dragon, it's okay. We're not here to hurt you.” The dragonet squawked in alarm as she came nearer.

“Palaminya, what are you doing?” whispered Lance angrily.

“I've got this.” Palaminya knelt down near the nest, and began humming softly. The dragonet cocked its tiny red-scaled head at her, starting to purr as she stroked it gently, humming a song. The baby yawned and laid down again, and even when it had gone to sleep, the little centaur kept up her song. She turned and grinned triumphantly. Lance raised her eyebrows.

Just then, there was a new commotion outside. A roar rang out, mixed with the snarls of angry drakami. Lance saw a few blasts of fire, and something like the cracking of a whip.

“It's a whiptail!” whispered Niegra. “And it's the mother!”

The drakami finally flew away, screeching. Lance motioned for everyone to press themselves against the sides of the wall, which they did, and just in time, as the dragon slithered in the entrance. She was a whiptail for sure, confirmed by her body, which was not much thicker than Lance's waist, and she was long, probably about twenty feet at least. She hissed in displeasure at the intruders that she had had to fight away from her home, but walked right over to her babies, before stopping and sniffing the air, sensing that not all was quite right.

“Out!” Niegra mouthed, nodding to the entrance, which was now the exit. Lance nodded, and Niegra, Palaminya, and Morthorn went first. The mother dragon turned, hissing as she saw them.

“Out! Get out!” Lance gave up trying to be quiet, now that their cover was blown. Morthorn was still wriggling through the hole.

“Can't you get your butt through any faster?” Ryder squeaked, not liking the look the dragon was giving them. He gave Morthorn a shove on the bottom, only to get kicked in the shoulder. “Ow!”

“I'm trying!” came a voice from Morthorn's other end. “You're not helping!”

The dragon mother hunched up her back, hissing like a griffin. At last Morthorn made it through. The dragon raised her tail as Ryder made a sudden movement toward the exit, and as he slipped headfirst through the hole, she brought it down with a loud snap. Ryder cried out in pain as the tail got him on the ankle. Lance raised Spellbane, and the dragon roared, raising her tail again. Lance jumped out of the cave just in time as the whip-like tail made a cracking sound on the stones behind her, just missing her tail and footpaw.

“Let's go!” called Morthorn. “Looks like the drakami are gone for now!” They all ran, hearts pounding, away from the small cave, until they couldn't hear the hissing of the mother whiptail any more.

At last they paused at a stream that ran across the canyon, entering in a thin but very tall waterfall and ending in a trickle that disappeared into the rocks. Morthorn tasted it, declared it to be fine, and they all took a drink, to save on water in their canteens, which they topped off as well.

“Ow, my paw!” Pulling off his boot, Ryder stuck his stinging foot beneath the cold water. “That tail whip thing hurt a lot, even through my boot!” He pulled it out, looking at the welt.

“We need to keep moving.” said Morthorn. “The sooner we get out of the pass, the better.”

“I just wanna sleep.” complained Palaminya, shaking her long hair out of her eyes. “We got woken up in the middle of the night and I need my sleep!”

“We'll have to finish our sleeping later.” said Morthorn.

“He's right.” agreed Lance. “We can't sleep in the canyon, it'd be even more dangerous. We can't be too far away from the end of this. When we get there, we'll try and get some sleep.”

Niegra looked exhausted from all the stress of just a few minutes ago. “Okay, let's go then.” They kept moving along the canyon, Lance still holding the glowing sword aloft to keep away predators. Ryder was limping, until he stumbled on a rock and fell with another, “Ouch!” He rubbed his leg. “Thundering centaurs, I think I just twisted my ankle. The same one that's already hurt!” He groaned and stood up, leaning against the wall. “I'll be fine...” he was limping even worse now. “Ugh.”

“Oh come on!” groaned Morthorn. “Couldn't you have waited until we were at least out of the canyon to get hurt?”

“If I could choose when to get hurt, don't you think I would never get hurt?” moaned Ryder. “I can't help it!” He raised an eyebrow as a mischievous smile began to slowly appear on his face. “Well, since I can't walk very well, maybe I could like, ride? You're big and strong, you shouldn't have a problem carrying me.”

Morthorn gave him a glare that would have wilted lettuce. “If you EVER try to ride me...” His voice was filled with so much contempt, he didn't even have to finish the sentence.

Ryder's smile vanished. “Sheesh, just saying.”

“You can ride on me.” offered Niegra, shifting her wings. “It wouldn't be any trouble at all. Hop on!”

“Oh, um...” Ryder glanced at Lance, thinking she might object, but the girl made no signs of disagreement. “Sure. Thanks.” He mounted Niegra carefully. She glanced back, giving a slight smile at him, and the group moved on through the canyon.

They traveled with no interruptions for at least a couple of hours, surprisingly. There were a few heart-pounding moments when a dragon or wild pegasus flew over them, but nothing attacked, and the sword's glow dimmed just a little. It was still unpleasant, though, as the canyon floor was covered in patchy snow and bones of all different shapes and sizes. Lance tried not to imagine the process in which the bones must have come to be there. At last the sky began to grow light, gradually at first, but seemingly before they knew it, they could see all around them just fine without the glow of Spellbane, which was fortunate as it was only glowing very dimly.

“Ugh, I can't believe we just traveled through the whole night!” said Palaminya. “I'm so tired.” She didn't look tired, still almost as energetic as ever, but Lance knew what she meant. Her brain was tired from all the fear and stress of the danger last night. Ryder was resting his head on his arms on Niegra's neck. The black pegasus plodded along, her tangled mane in her blue eyes. She looked tired, as she usually was after walking for a long time. She was used to flying more.

“I'm sure you'll get the chance to fly more when we're out of here.” Lance said to her friend. “I know you prefer flying, but I don't think it'd be very safe here, with all the dangerous predators around that like to eat pegasi.”

“Yeah, I know.” sighed Niegra. “And there's not much point in flying down in the canyon really, there's not as much room as I'd like. I'm actually starting to feel a little claustrophobic. Ugh.” She looked up at the high walls of stone on either side of them. They weren't as high as they had been before, which Lance hoped meant they were almost to the end.

“I can't wait to see what's on the other side of the mountains!” Niegra said a moment later, brightening up a little at this idea. “We'll be the first Peromians to see it in several thousand years!”

“Besides Prince Hal, of course.” Lance added, glancing momentarily at Morthorn. The golden unicorn looked lost in thought, his face expressionless as he walked along. Lance assumed he was highly likely thinking about his missing rider. She wondered what it would be like when they finally found the prince. Would he be grateful to them for saving him, and would he maybe... want to be friends with Lance? Lance shook her head at herself. What a silly idea. He was the crown prince, he wouldn't have time to be friends with a mere ward girl. But he had sounded like a fun kid when described by Morthorn. No, her job was only to help rescue him, to make everything right, and restore the spell. She wondered how she would manage that. Would the spell return if she put the sword back in the stone? She doubted it, but decided it was worth a try. She had to do whatever she could to make right what she had messed up. But what if she wasn't able to return the spell over Peromia? How could she live with that guilt for the rest of her life? The kingdom would be in danger forever! Lance closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead and feeling like crying all of a sudden.

“Lance?” she heard Niegra's voice. “Are you alright?”

“What? Yeah, I'm fine.” answered Lance, taking a deep breath and trying to shake the distressing thoughts from her mind. “Just... would like some sleep, y'know.”

“Yeah.” Niegra replied quietly.

They walked on in silence a while longer, until at last the walls around them ended and they were out of the canyon.

“We made it!” Palaminya punched the air cheerfully with both paws. “Yay!”

By this time the sun was fully up, but it was still not visible, behind the mountains they had just crossed through. Lance leaped on top of a high rock, enjoying the feeling of the few warm rays of sunshine that landed on her back.

“Oh wow.” she breathed as she saw what lay before them. To the west was nothing but rocky foothills, and in the distance, dry, treeless, sandy land. “That must be the desert!”

“There really is a desert!” squealed Niegra, flapping up to get a better look. “The stories are true!”

“Nice!” said Ryder. “Now can we get something to eat?”

“I'd like to get a bit more out of the mountains before making camp,” said Morthorn, glancing behind them. “I'd feel safer.”

Lance nodded. “Me too. Just a little farther, guys.” Ryder groaned and Niegra's wings drooped, but they continued, making their way down the trailless hillside of boulders. Out in the open now, Niegra took to the air to stretch her wings, Ryder still on her back because of his twisted ankle. At last Morthorn halted the group beneath a group of scraggly pine trees that stood around a good-sized flat area with a stream running beside it. Several piles of burned firewood and ashes sat scattered around the area. Morthorn poked one with a hoof, then looked up.

“The kidnappers, they camped here. This is fresh.” He looked tense, and his expression was hard. “If we had gone just a little bit faster, we might have been able to catch up.”

“They where a whole day ahead of us, Morthorn.” Lance said, trying to comfort him. “We're not going to catch up until they arrive wherever they're going, unless Prince Hal somehow slows them down or something.”

“You're right.” the unicorn shook his head. “Hal is smart. He'll at least try to do something. I hope.”

They made a quick camp, since there wasn't much to do, as they didn't need a fire. They ate some of their supplies, then decided to try and get a bit of sleep. Lance and Ryder both laid on either side of Niegra, who shaded them with her wings. Morthorn stood under the shadiest tree he could find, but Palaminya, despite her earlier proclamations, didn't want to rest.

“I'm not tired!” she said, tripping on a stone and sending herself flying onto the ground. “I can't sleep!” she picked herself back up as if nothing had happened. “I wanna keep doing something!”

“Well, the rest of us want to get some rest.” Lance's voice came from under the black feathered wing. “So you can be on guard while we do that.”

“Okay!” Palaminya began clopping around in circles around the campsite.

“Quietly, please.” Morthorn opened one eye briefly to say this.

“Oh! Sorry.” The small centaur did her best to walk quietly, only succeeding in getting her front hooves tangled together and nearly falling again.

Morthorn heaved a sigh. “Maybe you could just, I don't know, stand on guard in one place? That's what guards usually do.”

“Really? Alright!” she followed his advice, standing in one place. Morthorn sighed again, closing his eyes. Lance found she couldn't sleep either, even shaded from the sunlight as she was. But she closed her eyes anyway, knowing that even if she didn't fall asleep, just a bit of rest would be better than nothing.

Chapter 9 - The FirelandsEdit

The group slept well into the morning. Even Palaminya, forgetting she had been on guard, dozed off a little, as did Lance. They awoke with the sun high in the sky and ate, wondering if their meal was breakfast or lunch. Then they set off down through the foothills, toward the desert.

The sand dunes were huge, much bigger than the ones on the beaches of Tessaway, and not a living thing grew on them. They had left the last bit of green life behind them in the hills. Lance turned and glanced back at the mountains, which shrank very slowly as they made their way over the dunes. “I hope we have enough water.” she said, sloshing her canteen. “In stories they're always running out of water in the middle of the desert.”

“We just refilled the canteens.” said Niegra. “So we'll just have to hope that's enough to get across this desert.... and we have NO idea how big it is!”

“I'm sure we'll be fine,” Morthorn assured her, “If we just take it easy and drink sparingly. Also, don't talk too much, it'll dry your mouth out quicker.” He gave Palaminya and Ryder meaningful glances.

Ryder looked back innocently. His ankle was still hurting, but he walked anyway, lagging behind due to his limp. After a couple hours of walking, Lance saw the thief looked about to sit down and give up.

“You okay?” she asked, concern in her voice.

“Yeah, I'm fine.” he replied, giving a forced smile. “It's just hurting... a little. It's not that bad.”

“Why don't you ride on Niegra.” Lance said. “That way you won't be so far behind. Your ankle needs to heal.”

“I guess.” Ryder said reluctantly. “If it's fine with Niegra.” he looked at the pegasus questioningly.

Niegra nodded. “I don't mind a bit.” She landed next to him. “Just hold on, I'll be flying most of the time here, I prefer it to walking.”

Ryder mounted her and she took off back into the air. “Thanks.” said Ryder quietly. He looked down at Lance, as if unsure of what he was about to say.

“Why- why are you... being so nice to me?”

Lance looked at the horizon ahead. She didn't answer.

After a moment of silence, Ryder settled himself more comfortably on Niegra's back, probably wondering what he had said wrong.

Lance didn't know why. She felt like she shouldn't feel sorry for the thief, he was a wanted criminal after all, but something about him just made her want to like him. She tried to ignore the feeling, turning her thoughts to other subjects, such as where they were going, and how far this desert went, and what dangers lay out here.

She flapped her skirt, trying to cool herself off. Finally she got so hot that she took off her black outer bodice, leaving her in her simple green dress. That felt better, but she wished there was more she could strip off without being indecent. This would have to do. She saw that Ryder had also taken off his green jerkin and his tall boots, leaving only his patched pants and threadbare shirt.

Palaminya was walking less energetically than usual, her fur soaked with sweat. “Blech.” she complained. “So. Hot.” She didn't say much more, surprisingly.

Before they knew it, the sun was setting in front of them, turning the sky around it a vivid red. Shading her eyes against it with one paw, Lance looked around as they stopped for a short rest and sparing drink of water.

“Do you guys think we should try traveling at night instead?” She said. “It'd be much cooler.”

“But then we'd have to sleep in the day!” Palaminya said. “I can't sleep in the day!”

“We can do that.” Morthorn gave a shrug. “Doing that, with fewer and shorter rests, we might be able to catch up.”

Lance gave a small sigh. “Morthorn, you're like, obsessed with catching up to those kidnappers. There more to it than that. We can't just charge ahead, if we're going to do anything, we've got to have the energy to do it.”

Morthorn exhaled heavily through his nose. “I thought you wanted to help save Hal.”

“Of course I do!” Lance started to say, “But-”

“But nothing!” snapped the unicorn. “If we're going to catch up, we need to keep going with as little rest as possible! If you don't agree with the way I'm saving my best friend, then maybe we should just split up and you can go do whatever you want! I just-” he broke off, turning away sharply.

The rest of the group shifted uncomfortably.

Lance looked at Niegra helplessly, but Niegra only returned the look.

“I'm going to keep going. You can come if you want.” Morthorn said in a strained voice as he started off at a slow walk, not turning his head.

Without a word, Ryder, Niegra, Lance, and Palaminya followed him.

As the last bit of the red circle of the sun fell below the horizon, Lance sloshed her canteen, which only held maybe a few more mouthfuls. “How's everyone's water?” She asked. This was definitely not going to be enough to last the next day, at least comfortably.

Ryder held up each of the other canteens, all of which sounded like Lance's, except for one full extra one. “Wow. Somebody's gonna have to skip their tea.” commented the thief. “This won't last more than a few days.”

“We'll just have to be careful.” Lance replied grimly.

It seemed forever until the middle of the day, but at last it came, and they group sat down to take a rest, even Morthorn. The unicorn had not spoken a word since his outburst, but as he stood, providing shade for Lance and Palaminya, he took his small portion of water and looked at Lance.

“Lance, I'm sorry about what I said earlier.” he said in a level but sincere voice. “I meant nothing, I snapped at you in a moment of anger and I apologize. I really am grateful to you for helping me on this quest.” He dipped his head briefly, and the mouse returned it with a smile.

“Don't worry about it, Morthorn. You should see me when I'm angry. I say much worse things than that.” she gave a guilty laugh. “And as for helping you, well, who wouldn't?”

Ryder, reclined on the sand in the shade of Niegra's wings, raised a paw smugly. Lance slapped the paw down before the dark mouse could make any smart remarks.

After a few hours of rest, during which a few of them got some restless sleep, the sun began to go down and the air grew slightly cooler. The group traveled on.

The dunes subtly disappeared, leaving them on firmer flatlands, where the occasional strange, alien desert plant could be found, mysteriously surviving on whatever moisture it found.

“How do these weird things even grow out here?!” wondered Palaminya aloud, as she approached a fat, round one no taller than her knee. “Are they even plants?” It was covered in long spikes, one of which stabbed into the centaur's paw as she grabbed it.

“Ouch!” She sucked her finger. “It bit me! It's not a plant!”

“I think it's a plant, Palaminya.” laughed Niegra, poking the base of it carefully with one hoof. “It's more plant than animal, at least. It must either have very deep roots, or store water in it for a long time. I think that's more likely.”

“If there's water in it, could we drink it?” inquired Ryder.

“Um, I don't know.” answered Niegra. “I wouldn't try it, that was only my guess.”

Shrugging, Ryder pulled one of his long knives out of his magical satchel and swiftly chopped off the tip of one of the fat green leaves. It was juicy inside.

“Holy unicorns, that looks good.”

“Ryder, I don't think you should-” before Lance could finish her sentence, the thief was already sucking the juice out of the chunk.

“Mmm...” He slurped it down, wiping his mouth on the back of his paw. “That is one GOOD.... whatever-this-is...” he gave a sigh of satisfaction. “You guys should try some! It really- hic!” he hiccuped suddenly. “What, why are you all- hic! Staring at me like- hic!”

Palaminya laughed aloud. “Your hair is purple! No wait, now it's green!”

Ryder looked at his paws in shock, though they were now sky blue. “What the- hic!” he gave a violent hiccup of surprise.

“Guess we'll call this the hiccup-plant.” smiled Niegra.

“The hiccup-and-rainbow-color-changing-bush!” corrected Lance with a grin.

Even Morthorn had to smile at that, though it was admittedly somewhat of a smirk, as he watched Ryder unable to get rid of his hiccups.

The poor thief was still hiccuping two hours later as the group traveled on. After the sun went down, the temperature dropped with it, like a sack of bricks. Lance had put all her clothes back on, including her cloak, but the sand quickly grew cold under her bare paws. It felt almost freezing compared to the previous heat, so they had to keep moving to stay warm. Palaminya had very little clothing on in the first place, but Ryder had pulled a few extra cloaks out of his satchel for the rest of the group. He rode on Niegra again, as he could not seem to get rid of his hiccups any way he tried, which made it hard for him to walk. The rapidly color-changing fur had slowly faded away to nothing, leaving his fur the regular dark chocolate brown once again, and Lance wondered how much longer the hiccuping would last. It was getting quite annoying.

“Aaaar-hic!-aarrrrgh!!!” Ryder at last gave vent to a yell of frustration, interrupted rudely by yet another hiccup. He bent over, holding his stomach. “I've been hiccuping so-hic! Much that I feel sick- hic!” he groaned miserably. “Ugggghhh-hic!” He looked on the verge of sobbing.

Lance sighed. “It'll wear off eventually, Ryder.” she said, reassuring herself more than him. “Just don't talk, it makes it worse.”

Ryder moaned and hiccuped again, resting his head on the back of Niegra's neck.

“I'm so cold!” Palaminya bounced along like a rubber ball that couldn't stop. “Coldcoldcoldcoldcoldcold! How can this place be so HOT in the day, and so FREEZING at night?!”

“I'd guess it's because there's no cloud cover to keep the heat in at night.” speculated Niegra, looking up at the clear, starlit sky above.

Lance followed her gaze. The longer she looked at the stars, the more there seemed to be. Soon there were so many, it seemed impossible for there to be any dark space still left between them. The young mouse had rarely seen so many stars all at once, partly because Terraqua was usually partly cloudy, and partly because there was so much room out here in the desert, with no artificial lights whatsoever. All around them, as far as even the sharpest eye could see, there was nothing but open, empty desert, excepting the tips of the Dracopyr mountain behind them, which could still be seen behind the line of sand dunes. In making this observation, she peered closely at the horizon all around. Nothing... she halted suddenly. What was that? Far, far ahead, in front of them, she thought she saw something.

It was just a smudge, barely visible against the dark starry sky, but she was pretty sure it was something. Maybe just a group of hiccup-bushes, but something. She dismissed it without pointing it out, not wanting to disappoint anyone if it turned out to be nothing more than a rise in the land or more weird desert plants.

Half an hour later, however, Niegra noticed it too.

“Do you guys see that?” the pegasus nodded ahead. It was much more visible now, but still only a larger, dark lump on the horizon. “Do you think it could be a city? Could there be a city out in the desert?”

“Maybe.” replied Morthorn, peering at it. “But I think it looks like trees. Could be a river or lake there.”

“Out in the middle of the desert?” Palaminya tripped over her own hoof as she looked ahead. “Isn't the point of a desert that it has no water?”

“Well, there can still be bodies of water in the desert.” Niegra told her. “I guess they'd have to be springs to not dry up. I don't know much about deserts, so we'll all have to find out together!” she shrugged.

They walked on in silence, until it was shattered by a sudden scream of terror from the pegasus.

“My leg!” she shrieked.

“What is it?” Lance ran to her friend's side, heart in her throat. “What's wrong, Niegra?”

“Stay back!” screamed Niegra, nearly throwing Ryder off in her hasty retreat. “It-it's a s-snake!”

Lance saw it then, a hissing reptile about three feet long, jaws wide open, showing long fangs dripping with black venom.

“Did it bite you?” asked Lance, backing away.

“N-no!” Niegra was panicked. “It-it.. I don't know! It got my leg!”

Lance gasped as she looked at her friend's leg, with a trickle of black liquid dripping down it, smoking.

“Acid!” Lance looked up. “It spit some sort of acid at her! -Oof!” She and Niegra were knocked to the ground as Morthorn threw himself at her. A hissing stream of black acid flew over their heads, landing smoking on the sand.

“Sorry!” Lance felt herself helped up by Morthorn. “It almost got you!”

“Thanks.” Lance turned back to Niegra. “Does it hurt too much or can you fly?”

“I-I don't know.” Niegra was shaking, her ears pinned in pain. “I-I think I could.” Ryder dropped off her back, pulling his knives out. “Come and get me, snake!” He threw a knife at it, missing and dodging to the side as it spit at him. “Wow, that thing can spit really far! It's like, ten feet away!”

“Just fly, Niegra.” Lance instructed, petting the pegasus's nose to comfort her a little. “Take deep breaths, and fly to the trees, or whatever that is up ahead. We'll catch up with you! I don't want you to get hurt any further, so please just go!”

“Alright!” Niegra was too scared to object. “I-I-” she stuttered.

“Just go! You'll be okay!” Lance gave her a pat, then the pegasus lifted her wings shakily and obeyed. She only glanced back a few more times before taking off swiftly ahead.

“You too, Palaminya!” she added to the little centaur. “Get behind us.”

Palaminya obeyed instantly, stringing her little green bow as she did.

“What should we do?” Lance turned back to Morthorn. “Think we can outrun them?”

“Probably not.” the unicorn said steadily. “Snakes are fast, and this one can shoot its venom incredibly far.”

“Well then, what should we do?” asked Lance impatiently. “It's just sitting there, staring at us.”

At least, it had been. Now the snake seemed suddenly unable to do anything. It's head twisted to one side, and it hissed weakly, thrashing around. One glance at Morthorn confirmed her guess.

The Doradian merely stood there, staring at the snake. He was simply strangling the snake with his mind from where he stood.

Ryder looked confused, until he saw what the unicorn was doing. Then he raised his knife and threw it, slicing the head off the snake, which then lay wriggling on the ground.

“Gotcha! Uh oh!” Ryder's eyes grew wide as the body of the snake turned around, revealing not a tail on the opposite end, but another head, identical to the one it had just lost.

It hissed, but before it had a chance to spit any venom, Morthorn grabbed it, mentally clamping the jaws shut.

“Yikes!” Ryder, having thrown both his knives, ventured close enough to retrieve them.

Thunk! An arrow pierced the second head, and Palaminya already had another shaft nocked. Now both heads and the middle body lay wiggling helplessly on the sand.

“Ew! It has two heads! Had, I mean!” exclaimed the thief.

“Ryder, watch out!” Lance shouted. “Behind you!”

The dark mouse turned swiftly to find three more snakes, each with double heads, approaching him from behind.

“Holy unicorns!” he ran, throwing himself flat on the ground as two streams of acid were fired over his head.

“There's more!” warned Lance. “Over there!”

“Lance, Palaminya, get out of here!” ordered Morthorn, straining to grab more than three snakes with his mindlifting. “Get where they can't surround you too!” he advanced then, and with a battle-ready snort, charged the snakes.

Lance grabbed Palaminya by the paw, leading her quickly to the top of the nearest rise, but would go no further.

“I'm not leaving until we're all out of here.” she grumbled reluctantly.

Morthorn stomped the snakes bravely, strangling the others at the same time so they had no chance to spit.

“Come on!” Ryder picked himself up, calling to the unicorn, “We can outrun these things!”

The Doradian paid him no attention, so the thief threw a knife at a snake which was about to get Morthorn. Out of weapons now, Ryder dug desperately in his satchel, grabbing the first thing he could, which happened to be a small glass bottle, and threw it hard. The bottle hit a snake on one of its heads, so hard that it killed the head and shattered the glass at the same time. A clear liquid sprayed out all over the rest of the snakes, and suddenly they didn't look very enthusiastic about attacking anymore. They all shrank back, hissing weakly. Their heads drooped and they slithered slowly away.

“What was that?” Morthorn asked as they ran to catch up with Lance and Palaminya.

“Was that a potion?” gasped Palaminya. “Are you an alchemist or a wizard?”

“Yes, I mean no! That was a potion, but I'm not a wizard or anything. I don't know any magic.” explained Ryder hurriedly.

“Where did you get it then?” asked Lance curiously.

“None of your business.” Ryder said quickly. “Now let's go catch up with Niegra.”

He started off, hesitating when Morthorn said, “You stole that, obviously. Probably from some poor old alchemist.”

Ryder made no answer, but walked on without looking back.

It was about half an hour more until they at least reached the spot where they were to meet Niegra, which indeed turned out to be a group of trees. They were small and ragged, but green grew on them.

Even better than that, however, was the water.

Palaminya ran screaming into the small river, slipping and landing on her face in the shallows. “WATER!” she yelled ecstatically, making enough of a splash for a drowning griffin.

Niegra was waiting in the shade of a group of trees. She had cleaned her leg the best she could in the cool, fresh water, but it still pained her and she had not recovered from the terror.

“I think it'll be fine.” Lance soothed her after inspecting the injury. “It just needs to heal up.” It didn't look very good, but Lance had never seen an acid burn before, so she didn't know what it should or shouldn't have looked like. She certainly didn't know what she could do about it, besides cleaning and bandaging it.

“Do you happen to have any bandages in that satchel?” she asked Ryder.

“Maybe.” the thief shrugged, his paw venturing into the unknown of his pouch.

“There’s no need.” said Morthorn, pushing Ryder none too gently aside as he stepped up to where Niegra lay. Kneeling on the ground beside her, the unicorn looked at her leg.

“Hold still.” he said briefly, but with the most kindness the group had heard from him yet. Niegra obeyed silently, holding her hoof out.

Bowing his head down, Morthorn touched his golden horn to the worst part of the burned leg. Closing his dark eyes, he let out a deep breath through his nose. A moment later, he lifted his head and shook his mane.

Niegra’s eyes popped wide open as she inspected her leg. The acid had entirely disappeared, along with the burn it had made. There was only a faint tracing of a scar now.

“Thank you.” breathed the pegasus, looking up at Morthorn gratefully.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” replied the unicorn, a ghost of a smile in his expression. “Just a little unicorn magic.”

Palaminya was squeaking. “That was so cool!” she looked at Niegra’s leg for the tenth time since it had been healed. “Wow!”

Lance grinned. She had never seen a unicorn’s healing abilities in action before, let alone those of a Doradian, and it was pretty awesome. After giving her best friend a quick hug, she began refilling the canteens from the river nearby.

Morthorn rose, and Niegra said shyly, “Morthorn, I saw the way you faced those snakes… That was… really brave.” her wings folded slowly up over her head in embarrassment and she looked at the ground, saying quietly, “I wish I could be that brave. All I did was… run away.” her dark wings covered her face.

“You were injured and frightened.” said Morthorn with surprising gentleness in his gruff voice. “Flying away and leaving your friends in danger when they tell you to can take courage.”

“But it wasn’t courage.” mumbled Niegra sorrowfully. “I was scared out of my mind! I’m always so scared of everything, and when I’m scared, I can’t think and I do stupid things.”

She looked up sadly as Morthorn brushed one of her wings gently away from her head.

“Courage is not the same thing as being fearless.” he said firmly. “Courage is acting anyway, no matter how scared you are. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to tell Hal this. Don’t let your fear stop you, and you will be brave.”

Niegra was silent as she pondered this for a while. Finally she smiled.

“Prince Hal is a lucky boy to have you as a friend.” she told him quietly.

Morthorn did not answer, but his dark eyes thanked her for the compliment, simultaneously betraying the longing for his missing prince.

Niegra peered curiously into the pouch, asking, “So, can you pull like, anything you want out of your pouch? How does it work? Where did you get it?”

“Nah, I can't pull out anything that wasn't already in it.” shrugged the thief. “But it doesn't seem to have a limit to how much I can fit in it.”

“And where did you find it?” Lance repeated the question she was most curious about.

“Oh, I got it from a guy,” Ryder replied carelessly, “Who had stole it from another guy, who had stole it from another guy, who had borrowed it from a guy, who had stole it from another guy-”

“I get it.” cut in Morthorn with a roll of his dark eyes. “That could go on FOREVER.”

The group had rested a while at the river by now, refilling water bottles, eating, and taking turns bathing in a pool sheltered by trees which Palaminya discovered a little ways up the river. Lance had just returned from her own bath, to find the group sitting around, waiting for her.

“There you are, Lance,” Niegra said when Ryder had put his pouch away after Morthorn’s comment. “What do you think, should we rest here longer?”

“We don't have that much time!” argued Morthorn. “We need to-” he checked himself, taking a deep breath.

Ryder looked about to give his own input, but before he could say anything, Morthorn shot him a glance, saying sharply, “Whatever you're thinking, it's wrong.”

Ryder opened his mouth, closed it, and finally said, “Uuummmmm...”

“What?!” the unicorn raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” said the thief hesitantly. “I was just thinking you were right...”

Lance picked up her basket, slinging it over her shoulder by its carrying strap. “We only stopped here for a short rest, right? We should keep going while we can, before the day comes and gets too hot.”

“But I'm tired.” said Niegra.

“I'm sorry, Niegra, but you'll just have to keep flying.” said her friend firmly, patting the pegasus. “We're all tired, but as Morthorn said, we've got to keep going. Don't worry, we'll rest as soon as we can.”

“I'm not tired!” Palaminya chirped, bouncing around the small group in a circle. “Let's go!”

“Can I ride?” Ryder asked Niegra.

“Ryder, she doesn't need the extra weight.” said Lance. “Just walk, like the rest of us.”

“Eh.” the thief grunted, then turned to Morthorn with a smile that he evidently thought was quite charming. “Hey, you're really strong, I bet you're not too tired to carry me.”

The look he received from the unicorn would have split a log in half. “You try riding me, and you will not see another sunrise.” came the cold, threatening reply.

Ryder's grin disappeared like frost in the sunshine and his eyes dropped to the ground. “Never mind, I'll walk.” he mumbled.

The questers hiked onward across the cold desert, until behind the now far-off mountains at their backs, the sun began to rise. Lance shivered as a warm ray popped up over the peaks, hitting her and warming her back. Only an hour later, it had grown warm enough that she took her cloak off.

“Should we stop soon?” asked Niegra, who still soared overhead. “I'm hungry.”

“Sure, let's stop for something to eat at least.” replied Lance. “What do you think, Morthorn?”

The unicorn, being hungry himself, agreed, and they took a break in the sparse shade of a couple of hiccup-bushes surrounding a boulder.

“Are you sure we're even still on the right trail?” Ryder asked, gulping down his ration of water. “Those kidnapper guys must be waaayy ahead, we might never even catch up with 'em.”

“They've got to stop sometime.” grunted Morthorn. “And when they do, that's when we'll catch up to them. And, unless they somehow made fake tracks and left no real ones, yes, we are still on their trail.”

It was a few hours before midday when they next stopped for a break.

“Just a little longer, I think,” said Morthorn. “Then we should stop and sleep during the hottest part of the day.”

“I agree.” was all Lance said. It was already like walking through a never-ending oven. Making it even worse was the stifling hot breeze, which occasionally blew sand into their faces.

When they at last stopped, Lance spit a bit of sand out.

“This is really-” she began, then stared ahead in shock. “What on earth is that?!”

There was no need to point it out, as the others had already seen it as well.

On the horizon, growing larger and taller by the second, was an enormous dark, golden-brown cloud. A distant roar of wind could be heard, and soon the cloud was close enough that they could see what it was.

Sand.

A huge, swirling wall of dusty sand.

“Moldy biscuits, that can't be good.” gulped Ryder.

“That's moving incredibly fast!” observed Niegra, who had landed on the ground.

“It's kinda scary looking.” added Palaminya.

“I'm thinking we should find shelter.” Lance looked at Morthorn. “Well?”

Morthorn glared up at the approaching cloud. “There's not much shelter out here, but I think our best bet is to get behind the nearest rocks and pray. I've never seen anything like this before.”

“Oh mermouse feathers, we can make it through there.” Ryder said with false confidence. “It's just a little bit of sand, it can't be that bad!”

“Haven't you ever been on the beach on a windy day?” Niegra raised an eyebrow at him. “The sand is blown everywhere and it stings. This will be way worse, if my guess is anywhere near good.”

Ryder frowned at the wall of sand, now so high it blotted out a third of the sky.

“Yeah, we're gonna die.”

The group dashed behind the nearest rock formations. These twisted spikes and plateaus reminded Lance of the sea stacks back at home, only surrounded by sand rather that ocean. The best they could find was a shallow trench between two towering spires, but it was better than nothing for desperate travelers.

Morthorn laid on the ground, his side against the wind, extending the barricade a little with his own body.

“Everybody, get behind me.” he ordered, yelling over the wind, which was now an almost deafening roar. They obeyed without hesitation, Lance, Ryder, and Palaminya crouching up against the unicorn's leeward side. Niegra laid down on the other side of them, spreading one big black wing over their heads and the other over her own.

They were settled just in time, as the storm hit them.

Chapter 10 - The SandurinEdit

One time, when Lance and Niegra were much younger, the two girls had been playing in the warm dry sand on the beach at Terraqua. Lance had dug a little tunnel into the side of a sandy bank, but it had collapsed on top of her. Niegra dug her out very quickly, but the mouse had never tried that again after the unpleasant feeling of having sand everywhere; in her hair, in her eyes, in her mouth and nose. Worst of all had been the suffocating feeling, how every time she tried to take a panicked breath, she breathed in nothing but sand.

It was like that now, but three times worse.

At least the sand on the beach was cool and soft.

This was suffocatingly hot, and the wind whipping the particles of sand all across her felt like billions of microscopic bugs biting her all over.

Following Ryder's example, Lance pulled the hood of her cloak far down over her head, curling up into a tight ball, but still the sand found its way into her nose and mouth. She heard a muffled shriek from Palaminya right next to her, but couldn't make out any words.

The only sound besides that was the howling, raging storm all around. It roared like thousands of angry, pained dragons and griffins all screaming at once.

It was deafening. Lance found herself with her paws over her pinned ears, her eyes and mouth shut as tightly as she could, barely daring to breathe.

Minutes passed like this, and all Lance could think was, “When will this stop?” Her heart pounded in her ears and she pressed herself further into Morthorn's side. She knew her companions were around her, but she had a terrifying, creepy feeling that she was all alone. All this noise and sand cut off any communication whatsoever, and she felt strangely small and alone. She wondered briefly if the others had the same feeling.

The next few hours were a blur for her, as if she had fallen half asleep. In fact, she had no idea how long they lay there in the storm, but it felt like at least an entire day.

The next thing she became aware of was a voice. It was unfamiliar, and sounded far away and at the same time very close. She wasn't sure afterward what was being said, but it was comforting somehow. There were a few more voices then, and she realized how silent it was now. The storm must have stopped, she thought vaguely.

Sand still filled her face, but at least it wasn't blowing around stinging her anymore. She felt a cool, wet cloth on her face, and at the moment it seemed like the best thing she had ever felt.

Trying to open her eyes, she found she couldn't, and panic started to build up inside her momentarily. Had she gone blind?

The cloth stopped at her eyes now, gently scrubbing away grit, and a second later relief flooded her mind as she opened them. Squinting in the sudden light, Lance could finally see who it was helping her.

It was a kind face, with round brown eyes and reddish-golden fur, but a strange one. At first glance, the person looked like a mouse, but the ears were incredibly long, and stuck straight up, like the ears of a tufted griffin.

Maybe her eyes were still wacky. Lance attempted to ask for a drink of water, but her mouth was so stuck together and dry that she found she could barely open it.

“Wait just a second.” murmured the creature over her, and a minute later, a bit of cool water trickled down her throat.

Lance sat up weakly, working the water throughout her mouth, trying to wet it thoroughly. “Don't sit up yet.” the long-eared mouse put a paw on her shoulder, gently trying to push her down, but she resisted, shaking her head briefly. Where were the others? Lance glanced around at her strange surroundings.

She appeared to be in a tent, around the edge of which her companions lay. Ryder, Morthorn, Niegra, Palaminya, they were all here and safe. A few other creatures, similar to the one attending her, bent over the companions. Morthorn was stirring, but she was unsure about the others. Sighing, she laid back down on the pallet, tired and still unable to speak. After a few more small sips of water, however, she managed to ask, “More?”

“Not yet,” answered her rescuer. “Only a little bit at a time, or you will make yourself sick.” Lance saw the rescuers more clearly now, and whatever they were, they were certainly not regular mice. Not only their ears were strangely long, but their legs too, and their supple tails ended in tufts of fur. Their clothing consisted mostly of long robes and headscarves, in bright colors.

It was several minutes before Lance was allowed to sit up, and several more before she had quenched her thirst and regained speech. Finally she could ask the questions that had been whirling through her head ever since she awoke.

“Where are we? Who are you? Are they okay?”

“Your companions are alive. And uninjured, for the most part.” the stranger who she had first seen assured her. As she said this, Niegra lifted her head, looking around with big, startled eyes, until she met Lance’s.

“Lance, where are we?” she squeaked, having already got her voice back. Palaminya was up as well, and Ryder was in about the same state as Lance. Only Morthorn lay still, tended gently by a stranger with the paws of an expert healer.

“I am Zava.” said the rescuer near Lance. “You’re all lucky we found you. If we hadn’t been nearby, you could have been buried in that sandstorm forever.”

Lance swallowed, her throat still swollen and dry. “Thank you.” She looked around at her surroundings, not sure what else to say. The white tent was round in shape and quite warm. Her basket sat at her feet, its contents quite sandy, but otherwise unharmed as always.

“How are the strangers doing, Zava?” a newcomer stepped into the tent. She looked to be the same kind as the rest, tall, with long ears, but her fur was white, with wavy black hair peeking out from under her wildly wrapped headscarf. “I see they are all awake.”

“All but the unicorn, Yayyah,” answered Zava with a nod.

Yayyah had a commanding look, with a gold chain hung around her neck and a sword at her side, its curved blade half hidden in the folds of her robe.

“How are you feeling?” the tall leader smiled at Ryder and Lance, giving them a small, polite bow. “You are our guests, so please, feel free to ask for anything and we will fulfill it to the best of our ability. I am Yayyah.”

“I’m Lance,” Lance returned the greeting with a nod. “I’m feeling much better, thank you. Much better than out in that… storm.” She scraped a bit of sand out of the corner of one eye. She was going to be doing that for days to come. Worse than getting buried at the beach, definitely.

“Ooh, I could go for something more to drink,” grinned Ryder, sitting up.

Slipping off her pallet, Lance stood, her head clearing quickly. She moved to Niegra, giving her a comforting hug.

“Where are we?” she asked, looking back up at Yayyah as she brushed sand out of her friend’s mane with her fingers. “And how did you find us?”

Yayyah smiled. “I wonder myself where you are from, but we are the Sandurin, one of the wandering tribes of the Firelands. We were to the north of your group when we spotted you as the sandstorm was approaching. Seeing you take cover, we did so ourselves and, when the storm passed, found your hiding place and rescued you.”

“I don’t think we can thank you enough,” Lance grinned ruefully. “We’ve never been in the desert, so we probably would have died.”

“I don’t mean to pry, but if you have never been in the desert before, where did you come from?” asked Zava, her large dark eyes shining with curiosity. “I have never seen a golden unicorn, nor a pale centaur, nor such a black pegasus. Are they all yours?” She brushed Niegra’s warm side with a soft paw.

“Um, they’re all my friends,” replied Lance, a bit puzzled by the way the question was asked. “Though I only recently met Morthorn and Palaminya.”

“Your hair is pretty,” remarked Palaminya, looking in delight at Zava’s dark, curly headfur that fell just past her shoulders.

“Thank you,” nodded Zava, surprised at the compliment.

“Can I braid it?” Palaminya bounced to her feet, paws clasped eagerly.

“Perhaps another time,” smiled Zava. Yayyah turned back to Lance. “None of you appear to be at all prepared for the desert. Where did you come from?”

“Um,” Lance hesitated, looking at Niegra as if mentally asking her how much they should tell. “Just… we just came out of the mountains.”

“I understand if you do not wish to tell,” laughed Yayyah, “But perhaps you should tell a more believable lie.”

She glanced in Morthorn’s direction. “Your unicorn appears to have awoken.”

Lance did not bother to correct their new friend, only following her to where Morthorn stood, shaking sand out of his golden mane.

“Are you alright, Sir Morthorn?” asked Lance in concern. “You were out longer than any of us.” “He was merely sleeping longer,” smiled one of the nearby healers. “He must have been tired.” “I knew you were gonna wear yourself out,” Lance gave a half-joking frown, paws on hips. “Never stopping to rest enough.”

“Like I said, man, you gotta chill out,” smirked Ryder, who sat crosslegged on the sandy floor of the warm tent. He was quite comfortable, with several pillows and some unfamiliar but refreshing drink in one paw. The healers seemed quite concerned about his ankle, which he claimed was hurting from hitting it on a rock while protecting his companions from the storm. Lance rolled her eyes at this.

“I told you and told you, you need to rest. But nobody ever listens to poor little Ryder,” the dark mouse shook his head, making an exaggerated pouty-face.

Snorting in annoyance, the unicorn swept his tail over the thief's nose, causing him to jerk away, spilling his drink. Ryder looked down in dismay at half his drink all over his lap, only to sneeze and drop the rest.

Lance, aided by Zava and Yayyah, explained to Morthorn how they had been rescued by the Sandurin.

“We cannot thank you enough for saving our lives,” Morthorn said gratefully, bowing politely to Yayyah and the healers. “Is there anything we may do to repay you?”

“You need not repay us,” smiled Yayyah, “I think it will be enough payment for our tribe to meet such an odd assortment of creatures. Of all the strange things we have set eyes upon in our wandering, you must be the most unusual. A golden unicorn, a yellow centaur, a black pegasus, and a boy and girl, all traveling as friends. This is a tale I wish to hear.” She looked Ryder and Lance up and down, puzzled. “Of what kind are you? You look a bit small to be rats.”

Ryder only looked at the floor, his face a mask.

“We’re mice,” answered Lance. “Do you mind me asking what you are?”

“Mice?” a puzzled look passed between Zava and Yayyah. The latter raised an eyebrow, but her smile remained. “We are jerboas, surely you know of the wandering desert rats. Wherever you are from, it must be quite far away, or isolated.”

“Um, yeah, kinda isolated,” shrugged Lance, still not willing to reveal where they were from. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt unsafe telling any strangers this.

“Is there anything else we can provide for you?” Yayyah folded her paws in front of her, hiding them in her flowing sleeves. “More refreshments? Fresh supplies? Safe passage to the nearest city?”

“The latter would be wonderful, if it isn’t too much trouble,” spoke up Morthorn. “To be honest, we’re quite lost here in the desert. Where is the nearest city, may I ask?”

“Uyuri, several days to the west of here,” answered Yayyah. “We were headed in that direction anyway, we can certainly drop you off.”

“We would be eternally grateful for your help.” Morthorn nodded low.

“There is no need,” smiled Yayyah. “The tribe will love meeting such unusual creatures as yourselves.”

><><

“We will arrive soon,” Yayyah spoke up, pointing ahead to the city that could be seen on the horizon. “By tomorrow morn, if all goes well.”

The group had been traveling with the Sandurin tribe for several days now, all of which had been enjoyed by both sides. Now Lance rode in front of the caravan with Yayyah, Niegra’s folded wings shading her feet. The pegasus walked in the shade of a camel, trying to avoid the sun that collected in her dark fur and threatened to overheat her.

“Great,” replied Lance, shading her eyes with one paw to gaze at the strip of green far ahead that indicated the river. Not much else broke the horizon, besides a small lump to the right that may have been an oasis, and the distant rock formations behind them. That and a new arrival; the shape of something moving closer to them from the south.

“What’s that?” Lance pointed at her discovery.

Yayyah followed her paw. “Another caravan. Looks like a larger one, so we should stay out of their way if they come too near us.”

As the newcomers drew closer, it was evident their paths would meet.

“Is it another wandering tribe?” inquired Niegra.

“No,” Yayyah shook her head. “Doesn’t look too friendly.” She called the Sandurin caravan to a halt. “We don’t want to get in their way. It’s best to let them pass.”

Sure enough, the other caravan appeared to be coming straight for them, though it was obvious they were really just heading in the most direct line possible to the city. They were coming pretty fast, too. It rumbled right up to the Sandurin, and kept right on rushing past. The camels and horses were almost trotting, but their riders did not look particularly rushed. They were mostly tall, unfriendly looking creatures, which Yayyah identified as hyenas, jackals, and foxes, explaining to Lance and her group that these were the kinds who typically preyed on the creatures they thought of as less than themselves.

“That includes us jerboas,” she added. “And most of the smaller, more timid races.”

“Mice?” questioned Ryder.

“Aye, but,” Yayyah looked sad, yet puzzled. “There have been no mice in this land for hundreds of years.”

Ryder made a face, his eyes growing wide. “Seriously? Why?”

“They died off, simply,” answered Yayyah, her eyes settling back on the caravan. Her tone changed to an angry, disgusted one as she watched about ten pegasi and unicorns, all attached to one another by ropes, were led by. Their heads drooped, their eyes nearly closed in exhaustion as they passed nearly in a trot.

“Slavers. I knew it.” muttered the jerboa leader.

Lance only watched in horror. “S-slavers?”

“They capture all manner of creatures and sell them as slaves, usually to be treated cruelly until they die.” nodded Yayyah, wrinkling her nose. “Please, hide your faces. We don’t want them getting any ideas, even though you are safe in my company.”

Lance obediently lowered her face slightly, pulling her head covering farther over her head, but she still watched.

“How-” Niegra almost choked on her words, quiet as they were. “How could anyone do that? That’s horrible!”

“Of course it is,” muttered Yayyah. “But we can do nothing about it. I’m sorry you had to see this, but there will be more in the city. Now please stay quiet until they pass.”

Niegra kept her head down, shading her eyes with her own head cloth, but she felt the eyes of the strangers on her as they passed. They had probably never, or at least rarely, seen a pegasus of her coloring. Yayyah had said black was a rare color in the desert, and, as the sun collected in her fur, she knew why.

Unable to resist looking, Niegra lifted her head just enough to see, peeking out from behind the unicorn Yayyah rode.

The last pegasus in line was white, or would have been, had he been cleaned of the dust that covered him from his miserable journey. Despite the ropes holding his wings to his sides, however, and his lowered head, dripping with sweat and covered in a dark cloth that blocked his vision, he carried himself with a stubborn determination unlike any of the other slaves. Where they plodded along hopelessly, this one looked ready to pounce. Had he not been so exhausted and had a slaver near enough to attack, Niegra was sure he would have killed.

His ears flicked up briefly, as if sensing another of his kind, and his head turned slightly in Niegra’s direction. He snorted, then he was out of sight as the caravan moved on. In his place came a hyena on a horse, and Niegra’s heart nearly flipped as he stared right at her. His golden eyes were filled with cruelty and seemed to be scanning her for a price tag. She turned her gaze to the ground, hoping he hadn’t seen her staring at him.

He was gone quickly, and that was the end of the caravan.

Niegra heaved a shaky sigh of relief.

She was sure now that she was not going to like Uyuri one bit.

><><

A few days later, they at least arrived at the city Yayyah had spoken of. It sat on the wide river, sprawling across the rocky desert. A high wall surrounded the huge city, and in the middle of it stood what must have been a palace, its thin spires and towers reaching for the clear sky. The banks of the river itself were green with farms and reeds, the only thing that felt remotely welcoming to Lance. It seemed to have been forever since she last saw green. The Sandurin set up their camp among the shade of a rocky cliff that stood atop a plateau overlooking the city.

“We wandering jerboas are not very welcome in Uyuri, or any city for that matter,” Yayyah explained to the group as they helped. “So we make our camp out here, and take turns going into the city for supplies and anything else we may need, leaving the majority of the tribe to protect the camp. We will take you into the city in a group, for it is a very dangerous place.” “Dangerous? We’ve faced two-headed snakes, deathworms, sandstorms, and pretty much everything in the desert that can be deadly, which includes everything!” Ryder groaned, throwing up his paws. “How can a city be any more dangerous?”

Yayyah smiled grimly at him. “There are different types of danger, Ryder. In the desert, the danger comes mostly from nature. In the city, it comes from people and their evil ways.” She was arranging a pouch for herself, putting in money and several extra knives. She held one up. “Many robbers roam the streets who would kill to take a mere pouch of money. One must be on guard at all times, and above all, avoid going out at night.”

“Well, there’s that, I guess,” shrugged Ryder. “But I know a thing or two about that.”

Leaving her trusty right-paw in command, Yayyah left the camp with the group, now including several others of her tribe, well armed.

“Remember all I have taught you,” Yayyah said as they walked, reminding them of the unfamiliar things they would find in Uyuri and how to deal with them. “Robbers and no-goods of that sort are found mostly in the worst parts of the city, which we will be avoiding as much as possible. Our goal is the market, which is full of pickpockets and con artists who will try to take advantage of your ignorance of the city ways, but stick close with our group and stay alert.”

“I’ll have no trouble with that,” muttered Morthorn. “We’re looking for someone, after all.”

“Speaking of the market, as I warned you earlier, there are slavers there. Do not interact with the scum, please stay away from them at all costs. They will do anything to anyone to make money, and you will all be quite eye-catching.” Yayyah sighed, glancing at Lance and Ryder, who both wore loose robes and headcloths borrowed from the Sandurin. “Your disguises should help somewhat, but I’m afraid there’s not much we can do about Morthorn, Palaminya, and Niegra.”

“Like I said, I’m not staying behind,” said Morthorn. “I have a mission here.”

“None of us would stay behind,” added Niegra, who also wore a white cloth around her head to protect her face from the sun. “We’ve kinda gotta stick together.”

“This may be where we’re dropping off,” said Lance, hoisting the strap higher on her shoulder that held Spellbane, still wrapped in her cloak. “If we find who we’re looking for.”

Chapter 11 - The CobraEdit

Lance’s senses nearly overloaded as they stepped into Uyuri.

The enormous decorated doors were only the beginning. Within the thick walls of the city were countless buildings, all packed together. Unlike Peromia City, this place looked like it could have used some cleaning up, both literally and figuratively. The base color of everything was brown, but brightly patterned doors, tiles, and rugs hanging from open windows added a splash of color. The street consisted of dusty cobblestones, littered with all manner of garbage and camel dung in some corners.

“Litterbugs,” snorted Ryder. “Don’t these people know what a garbage can is? Or do they think they live in one? I guess if you lived in a garbage can, it wouldn’t matter where ya throw your trash, right?”

Yayyah led the group farther into the city. “Keep your weapons at the ready in the market,” she reminded them.

Morthorn trotted up beside her. “Once again, this may very well be where we part ways. I believe we may find who we’re looking for in this city. Before we do leave your group, I have to say again, we cannot thank you enough for your help. With our inexperience, we may very well have left our bones in the desert days ago, had it not been for you and your tribe. I wish we could repay your kindness, but I have a quest to complete. I hope that one day our paths may cross again. For the time being, may Trinitus bless your tribe. You have helped my country more than you realize.”

Yayyah’s eyes darted around briefly, and she lowered her voice. “Please be careful using that name here. It is not welcome and you may find yourself in more peril than you are already.” She smiled. “But thank you. It was nothing, we were merely helping out a few clueless travelers.” She winked. “I will long wonder where you mysterious creatures sprang from, but I respect if it is that important to you to keep it secret. I too hope we may meet again someday.” She was silent for a moment as they walked on, then motioned ahead as they turned a corner.

“Here it is. The market.”

The market was the brightest, loudest part of Uyuri they had seen yet. It was nearly impossible to make out any words in the hubbub of shouting voices, bargaining merchants and customers, and general yelling and advertising. Now Lance’s senses really were full.

“Oh pegasauce,” groaned Ryder, clutching his stomach dramatically. “What smells so freaking good?” He looked wildly around the marketplace, jumping in place, trying to see over the heads of the other creatures passing around them on their own business.

“Oh my shriveled stomach,” he jumped desperately up and down like a frog high on energy potion. “Is that PIZZA?”

He started forward, but Lance caught him by the shoulder. “Ryder, we’ve gotta stay together, remember? Safety in numbers.”

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t get a snack.” Yayyah smiled. “And no, it isn’t pizza, but it’s very much like it.”

“What are we waiting for, then?” Ryder looked about to die of desperation. “Let’s get it before everyone else eats it all!”

Laughing, Yayyah led them to the shop that the delicious smell wafted from. They had to wait in a line for a few minutes, Ryder moaning constantly, but when they got to the counter, Yayyah took a head count of the group and turned to the creature running the place. “Can we get ten pizavas, please?”

“Certainly,” the shopkeeper smiled, her face lighting up in a playful manner as she turned to the table at her side which held her wares. “That’s what I sell here.”

“Ten?” Ryder looked puzzled. “But there are eleven of us.”

“Xak doesn’t like pizava,” Yayyah shook her head with a rueful grin.

“It makes me feel sick,” Xak made a face. “Unfortunately. I’ll have to just enjoy watching you all eat it.” The jerboa rolled his eyes.

“Here you are.” The shopkeeper handed Yayyah a paper-wrapped bundle that nearly filled her arms. “Ten pizavas. That’ll be-”

“Ten suns.” Yayyah slapped the coins on the counter. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you.” the shopkeeper swept up the money expertly. “Have a nice day!”

“Well, not everybody here seems to be as bad as you made it sound like,” commented Lance as they left the shop and continued through the market. “She was very nice.”

Yayyah smiled. “I only spoke of the bad side of the city, to warn you of it, but of course there are the nice people. There is good even in the worst places, if you only look for it. But now let’s unveil this pizava, before this poor boy dies of starvation.”

Opening the bundle, she handed the first packet to Ryder.

The thief tore the wrapping off eagerly, his eyes widening at the triangular pastry inside. It very much resembled a slice of pizza, but thicker and with few toppings. His eyes bugged out as he bit into it.

“MMMMMMM!” he nearly screamed through his mouthful.

Lance opened hers and took a bite. Her mouth immediately filled with saliva at the taste. It was something between sweet and savory, like pizza dough, but with the toppings inside, and instead of regular pizza toppings like vegetables, they were cheese and some kind of dried fruit, which went surprisingly well together. It was topped with an unfamiliar spice, and the crust was a bit flaky, and sweeter than most pizza dough.

“THISH,” Palaminya screamed through her much-too-large mouthful, “ISH THE BESHT THING! EVER!”

“Yodeling unicorns! HOW could you NOT like this?” Ryder looked aghast at Xak. “It’s like a piece of heaven!”

“More like a piece of hell, for my digestive system.” Xak shook his head. “Trust me, you don’t want to sleep next to me after I’ve eaten it.”

They explored the market as they followed Yayyah, who told them all about the unfamiliar things she bought.

“Here are some sandjars,” she said, picking up a fist-sized glass jar filled with pale desert sand. “You may find these come in handy later, so I’ll buy you each one.”

“Sandjars?” Ryder wrinkled his nose. “Why thank you, I’ve always wanted a useless little jar of sand, to carry around in remembrance of the Firelands. Maybe it’ll be useful to throw in somebody’s face, but that’ll only work once. What a genius idea.”

“It is not as useless as it appears.” Yayyah laughed, placing the jar in Ryder’s paws. “Try shaking it. Hard.”

“Even better.” Ryder shook the jar up and down jerkily. “I guess it works as an arm exercise.” He held the sandjar up to his face, staring at it as if expecting it to pop open and explode. “What is it supposed to do?”

“Just wait a second,” Yayyah smiled, buying a few more sandjars.

“It’s getting warm!” Ryder held it out at arm’s length. “Is it supposed to do that?”

“That’s what it’s for.” Yayyah handed a jar to each of the rest of the group. “It’s special desert sand, and when you shake it, it reacts with another mineral that has been added in, and heats up. It works well as a paw-warmer for a few hours, then you have to charge it up in the sun. They’re good for the cold desert nights.”

“Wow!” Now Ryder was impressed. “Musta been a genius alchemist who made this.” He dropped the sandjar into his satchel. “Handy-dandy.”

After studying her sandjar and coming to the conclusion that it was awesome, Lance placed it in her basket, along with Palaminya’s and Morthorn’s, who had nowhere else to carry their own.

“I wonder if they have books or scrolls around here,” Niegra said to Lance as they moved along. “I haven’t really seen any.”

Lance smiled, shaking her head a little. “Always worried about books. I’m sure they have a library somewhere, bookwyrm. But I don’t think we have time for that.”

“Maybe if we go to a library, we can find some clues to the bad guys,” added the pegasus hopefully.

“Huh.” Lance flipped her braid onto her back. “Maybe you’ve got something there, Niegra.” She turned to Morthorn. “What do you think, sir?”

“I agree,” was Morthorn’s answer, somewhat to their surprise. “I feel like we’re not getting much of anywhere, wandering around the city. We’ve found nothing leading us to the whereabouts of the villains.”

“What if they’re not in Uyuri?” Ryder stepped forward to Lance’s level. “We don’t really have any clues at all where they are. Do you even know who they are?”

Morthorn heaved a sigh. “My point is, even if they aren’t here, perhaps we could at least learn something… which we have a better chance of doing at a library than out here.”

“Well then, let’s try it.” Niegra trotted up to Yayyah. “Yayyah, is there a library here in Uyuri?”

“Aye, it isn’t too far from here, actually.” Yayyah waved a paw in the direction of the center of the city. “But I’m afraid you would be even less welcome there than us Sandurin.”

“Not welcome?” Niegra nearly squealed in indignation. “In a library? How completely ridiculous!”

“Rarely can the lower class creatures learn to read,” explained Yayyah calmly. “So if they come to a place like a library, it is safe to assume they are there to make trouble. And you all look like very roguish ruffians to me.” She smiled jokingly.

Ryder appeared to take her last sentence as quite a compliment. “I’m sure we could sneak in.” he grinned eagerly. “I’m an expert at that.”

“I can see you are,” Yayyah nodded. “The library is not heavily guarded, but if you were to be caught…” her smile faded. “Even the smallest crimes in Uyuri are punishable by death.”

“Well then, we won’t get caught.” Ryder grinned. “Simple as that.”

“This is where we part ways, then,” Yayyah folded her paws behind her back. “It has been an honor to assist you mysterious creatures in your quest. I wish you the best of luck in completing it and returning home, wherever that may be, safe and happy.”

“Again, we cannot thank you enough.” Morthorn bowed. “I wish you and your tribe well, too.”

Yayyah returned the bow politely and gave them directions to the library. “Farewell. Take care, friends.”

Fifteen minutes later, the group arrived at the large building. The architecture was stunning, with peaked arches, statues, and a couple rows of pillars in the front, which stood at the top of a wide staircase.

“How do we sneak in here?” Palaminya hopped around, looking at the few stained glass windows that sat high in the roof. “There’s not really any place but the door.”

“I’ve got this.” Ryder cracked his knuckles. “You guys go up on the left, quietly, and get behind the pillars at the top. I’ll letcha know when to go in.”

Morthorn snorted, but kept his complaints to himself as they followed his instructions.

“Trust me,” grinned Ryder, winking. At this, Morthorn could not help rolling his eyes and mindlifting a pebble, which struck the thief in the nose sharply. The dark mouse rubbed his snout, giving a mock pout, but the unicorn was already up the stairway.

Ryder made his way up the right side nimbly, walking boldly up to the front door.

“Hey, fellas.” He lifted a paw in greeting as he passed between the guards who stood on either side of the ornate doors.

“Wait,” the fox guard on his right grabbed him by the arm. “What are you doing here, boy?”

“Goin’ into the library, what else?” answered Ryder cheekily. “Got a problem with that?”

“On what business?” asked the other guard.

“Business that ain’t yours.” Ryder shrugged casually.

“Don’t talk back, you little rat.” the fox swung the back of his paw at Ryder’s head, but it swished through air as the thief ducked. “I know you’re only here looking for trouble!”

“Oh yeah? How ‘bout that guy climbing to the windows over there?” Ryder pointed to the right. “He looked pretty shifty to me.”

“Who?” The guard on the left furrowed his eyebrows.

“Wasn’t that the guy you were looking for? He looked familiar.”

“Him?” the guards gave each other an exasperated look. “Again? He won’t get away this time!”

The fox shouldered his spear. “I’ll go take a look. You stay right there, boy.” He jogged off in the direction Ryder had pointed out.

“He looked like a dangerous guy to me.” Ryder grimaced. “Wouldn’t wanna face him armed with only a spear.”

The remaining guard gripped Ryder’s shoulder hard, but briefly, digging his claws in. “Don’t move from this spot, rat,” he hissed, “Or I’ll skin you alive.” Drawing his curved sword, he ran around the corner after his companion.

As soon as the guard was out of sight, Ryder rubbed his shoulder, saying in a low voice, “Come on!”

Lance and the rest of the group ran out from their hiding place and joined him in the entryway.

“How did you know to do that?” marveled Palaminya as they hurried into the library.

“Good guessing,” grinned Ryder. “I’m fulla surprises.”

“Whether those are good surprises or bad surprises are up for debate,” muttered Morthorn. “But that was a good waste of time when I’m sure we could have found a much quicker way in.”

“Oh, probably.” Ryder laughed. “But at least it was fun.”

The library was huge and spacious inside, with a ceiling so high and open Niegra could easily have flown around in it. The stone walls kept the building cool, a good break from the heat of the desert outside. The group hurried into the tall shelves stacked with countless books and scrolls, so high that there were ladders for reaching the top shelves.

“Let’s avoid being seen by too many people,” suggested Lance, gazing at their surroundings. “Especially anyone who looks like a librarian.”

“I agree,” Morthorn nodded. “And stay quiet.” He gave Ryder a pointed look, but the thief was already exploring the shelves.

“Well, get to work, bookwyrm,” Lance grinned at Niegra. “You’re in your element, let’s get looking for clues.”

“I wish I could spend forever in here,” sighed Niegra, her blue eyes sparkling as she swept a wingtip gently over the scrolls. “So much history and literature and so much everything, that no one in Peromia has seen for five hundred years, maybe never. It’s… mind-blowing.” Her eyes scanned the rows of shelves. “But for now, I know we need to focus on finding the prince.”

“So where do we start?” Ryder didn’t look very interested in the books.

“That’s just it, I don’t know.” Niegra groaned, her wing dropping to her side. “Maybe if we just look around, we’ll find something.”

Lance picked up a book. “Yikes. If you can read these. A lot of them seem to be in a language I’ve never seen. Maybe we should start in encyclopedias.”

“Sounds like a good start,” shrugged Niegra, trotting off to follow her suggestion.

“What should I do?” Palaminya clopped her hooves restlessly. “I can’t read. Are there books with pictures?”

“There might be,” Lance waved vaguely at the shelves all around. “Take a look.”

“I can’t read much either,” came Ryder’s voice from above. Lance looked up to see him sitting on the top of one of the bookshelves with a ladder. “So I guess I’ll just take a look around.”

“Don’t get into trouble,” Lance crossed her arms, but the thief had already disappeared, running along the tops of the shelves as nimbly as if he was on solid ground.

“Might as well tell dirt not to be dirty,” Morthorn snorted.

Lance dug through scrolls and books for she knew not how long, skimming pages for anything that looked familiar. Half of them were in strange languages, with symbols that did not at all resemble words or letters to her. Some had pictures, but they were mostly of plants and animals in the desert, almost all of them like nothing she had ever seen or heard of.

Niegra was right. There was so much information here, she felt like staying in the place for however many years it took her to learn it all. Her heart sank as she realized the downside to the amount of information here was that it would take forever to find what they were looking for. Then her hoped rose again as she came upon a section of atlases.

Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Of course. Finding a large one that she could read, she sat down on the rug with it and flipped to a general map of the continent. Her eyes widened. She hadn’t known there was that much more world out there.

Her gaze settled on a dot labeled “Uyuri”. The river flowing past the city kept right on going, to a star labeled “Al Jafadel”, which sat on the far western shore, but before that, the river started in the Dracopyr mountains. And east of that was marked Peromia. Beneath, in parentheses, was written “page 168”.

Flipping quickly to the mentioned page, she found it was quite blank. There were only the mountains, some vague forest, and a river in completely the wrong place. It was labeled “Peromia”, and below that, “The Lost Kingdom”.

So the spell had even prevented outsiders from even seeing inside. Apparently they didn’t have any maps of Peromia from before the spell was created.

“Ooh, maps!” giggled Palaminya over her shoulder.

Lance started a little at the centaur’s sudden appearance. “Yeah, a map of what they think Peromia looks like. Find anything?”

“I don’t think so,” Palaminya shrugged, holding out an open book. “But I found some books with pictures. Cool pictures. See, here’s Spellbane.”

Lance nearly grabbed the book out of the centaur’s paws. “Spellbane?!”

Sure enough, it was a beautifully accurate, detailed drawing of the very sword she had pulled from the cave months ago.

“Shoot, I have no idea what language this is in.” She flipped swiftly through the pages of squiggles. “Great job, Palaminya. This could be helpful somehow.”

She gasped as the next page she turned revealed a fiery image of a majestic phoenix. His long beard and fanned tail feathers filled the page, and his huge wings overflowed it.

“The Fire Wizard,” muttered Lance, recognizing him from the many books she had read about how the ancient prophet had protected Peromia. “I wonder what they know about them. I just wish I could read this…” her voice faded away as she looked closer at the illustration on the page opposite that of the Fire Wizard. It was an entirely black dragon… or was it a dragon?

“Is that a furry dragon?” Palaminya pointed at it. “An evil furry dragon?”

It certainly looked very evil, with pupil-less green eyes that seemed to glow right out of the page. Unlike the other illustrations in the book, this one had very little detail. The creature was a mere silhouette, with only eyes and sharp fangs showing where its facial features were.

“I don’t know,” Lance tried to recall reading anything about a creature like this, but nothing like it had ever been described in her books. Perhaps it was the evil that Eyligno had defended Peromia from. “But it does look pretty bad. And it must have some connection with the Fire Wizard. Let’s go show this to Niegra.”

She rose, still studying the book, and started around the corner, only to smack into a person quite a bit taller than her. The thumping of dropped books echoed through the library.

“Sorry,” Lance looked up at the golden fox, with ears just about the size of her head. Though nearly a head taller, the girl looked not much older than Lance herself.

“It’s fine,” mumbled the fox, leaning down.

“I wasn’t looking where I was going,” Lance laughed sheepishly, kneeling to pick up the books. She stacked them quickly into a pile in front of the other girl, then picked up the blue-covered volume she had dropped herself. “Here you go.”

“Um, thanks.” The girl never made eye contact, but picked up her stack and hurried on in the direction of the tables in the middle of the huge room.

“Niegra, look what Palaminya found!” Lance held up her book as she approached her friend. “I can’t read whatever language this is in, but it might help.” She flipped through the book. “It’s right…. Where was it…. Where is it?” Closing the book, she saw the title. “Alchemy? This isn’t the book I had. Dang it.”

“It musta gotten mixed up when you dropped it,” Palaminya made a face. “That other girl must have it.”

“Oops.” Lance flicked her hair out of her face. “I’ll be right back.” She ran to the tables, where creatures of all kinds and sizes sat with their snouts buried in their own research. Spotting the golden fur and red clothing, she ran over to the fox, setting the book on the table next to her.

“Sorry, our books got mixed up when we dropped them,” Lance tried to smile, but was sure it came out as more of a nervous grimace. “This one’s yours.”

“Oh.” the fox looked up, her emerald green eyes unreadable. “Okay. Is that one yours?” She pointed at the other blue book that as still in her stack.

Lance picked it up, scanning to make sure she got it right this time. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Fine,” mumbled the other girl, turning back to her book.

Lance couldn’t help glancing at what the rest of the books were before she turned away. Mostly alchemy and other magical subjects.

She returned to Niegra. “‘Kay, here it is.” She showed the pictures to the pegasus.

“Woah.” Niegra studied it. “No idea what this language is, darn it. How do you think it could be connected with the prince’s capture?”

“I’m not sure exactly,” admitted Lance, “But it has to have something to do with the spell.” She pulled her braid. “It’s like having every other piece of a puzzle that almost makes a picture but not quite!”

Ryder ran up, skidding to a stop beside the girls. “Hey, find anything?” He glanced briefly at the book. “Nice. Are we ready to go yet? Don’t wanna keep the prince waiting too much longer, do we? We’ve gotta rescue mission to complete.”

“Uh, we haven’t got much of a lead yet,” answered Lance, watching Ryder’s tail twitch impatiently. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

“Oh, I just thought maybe we should- Maybe I should go out there and have a look around for clues, I feel like I’m not being very useful in here.” Ryder’s paws fidgeted with the belt that his satchel hung from.

“We’re all safer if we stick together in here for now,” Lance reminded him. “You find something, Morthorn? What’s wrong?” she added as the golden unicorn trotted over.

“That young golden-furred fox,” Morthorn nodded, “May be our best bet.”

“The girl I bumped into?” Lance glanced in the direction of the tables. “What makes you think that?”

“On the clasp of her necklace, I saw a symbol I recognized,” explained the Doradian. “It took me a while to place it, but it was the same symbol the kidnappers wore on their helmets and weaponry, a small green spider. I haven’t seen anyone else in the city who wears that symbol, so this girl likely has some sort of connection with the kidnappers.”

“She’s reading books about magic,” Lance lowered her voice even more. “Maybe you’re right. But what should we do? Follow her when she leaves? She’s not very talkative.”

“We may have to shadow her,” Morthorn agreed.

“Leave that up to me,” Ryder put in. “I’m pretty much an expert on being sneaky.”

“We know you are.” Morthorn rolled his eyes.

The group stayed a while longer, reading what more they could find about Peromia and its relationship with the country they were currently in, or rather the lack of one.

At last Ryder alerted them that the fox was getting up and leaving, so Niegra regretfully left her scrolls.

The fox checked out some of her books, and went out.

The two guards were back in their places now, and did not look happy about being tricked by Ryder. They both glared at the fox as she left, but she kept her gaze on the ground and scurried down the steps.

“How do we get out?” muttered Lance, but Ryder held up a paw for silence.

Creeping to the edge of the doorway, flat against the wall, the dark mouse poked his snout around the corner just a little.

“Hey!” called a voice from the pillars to the left of the guards. “Help! He’s getting away!” The voice sounded like Ryder’s, but deeper and more gruff.

“What is it now?” grumbled both the guards, running in the direction of the voice.

“Go now!” Ryder motioned to the group, and they ran out, dashing behind the pillars on the right.

“Who’s over there?” yelled the shorter guard, wielding his spear as he whirled around. “Come out right-” he stopped short as he spotted Ryder crossing to join his companions behind the pillars. “You? You little-”

“Gotcha again!” Ryder laughed, leaping onto the foot of a pillar and leaning on it casually. “You fellas really ain’t too smart, are ya?”

“Help me out here,” the guard growled to his companion, who began circling around behind Ryder. Morthorn, Palaminya, and Niegra dashed down the steps, but Lance hesitated, seeing the guards close in around Ryder.

He merely grinned at them. “I didn’t make any trouble, just wanted to do a bit of reading. So bye for now!” He jumped suddenly for the gap between the two guards.

“Stop him!” came a panicked cry from a librarian in the doorway. “He stole a valuable book!” Ryder almost made it out, but the shorter fox managed to catch him by the back of his tattered collar. The guard shook him.

“I knew it! Thieving little rat!” He got no farther, as Lance, leaping forward, kicked him hard, causing him to release his hold.

“Let’s go, Ryder!” she and Ryder ran for the stairs, pursued by the remaining guard who was not on the ground in pain. Joining their companions, they all hurried around a corner.

“The fox went this way,” said Niegra, “But I’m not sure she’s still in sight. No wait, there she is!”

The fox, oblivious of being followed, was walking slowly along the street. Her huge ears flicked back breifly, but apparently it was enough. She sped up her pace.

“We kinda have other problems!” Ryder grimaced. “Namely, one with a spear and a sword. Right behind us.”

“Let’s get him off our tails,” Morthorn growled. “Spread out a little. He can’t chase us all at once.”

Ryder scampered onto a rooftop, as did Lance, and Palaminya and Niegra each hid in an alley, as did Morthorn.

The guard stopped as he turned the corner where he had last seen his quarry.

“I’ll need reinforcements,” Lance heard him mutter to himself. He was right below the flat roof she hid on. “There’ll be a good reward for that thieving little scoundrel.” He ran back in the direction of the library.

“What in the world did you steal now,” Lance glared at Ryder as they regrouped in an empty alleyway. “And why would you go and do that? Now you got us noticed! There’ll be guards all over the city searching for us!”

Morthorn was even more upset than her. “You little… Do you have any idea what you’ve done? You’ve made everything infinitely worse! Not only are we now going to be hunted, but we’ve lost track of the fox, our only clue to finding Hal!” Fuming, the unicorn slammed the startled thief against the wall, pinning him with a hoof.

“Now... I don’t even know why we ever brought you along.” His deep voice nearly shook with fury. “You’re nothing but trouble, and we’ve got enough of that already. I should have left you behind for the monsters or city guards to take care of. I’ve put up with you for too long. You’ve done nothing of help on this mission.”

He snorted passionately. “You’re so… so useless.”

Ryder stared wordlessly back at the Doradian, every trace of his usual cocky, carefree behavior gone from his face.

There was silence in the alleyway.

“Morthorn,” Lance said quietly at last, summoning the courage to put a paw carefully on the unicorn’s shoulder. “I’m sure we can still find the fox. There’s still a good chance.”

Morthorn sighed, closing his eyes and releasing Ryder, allowing him to land suddenly on his behind on the ground.

“Let’s find her, then.”

“I know which way she went,” Lance nodded. “I saw from my hiding place on the roof. Follow me, quickly.”

They hurried along behind her as she led them through the streets.

Ryder followed in the far back, eyes on the ground and paws drooping at his sides.

Glancing back to make certain he was still with them, Lance felt a pang of regret. Maybe she should have stood up for him better. But he had put them all in danger with his thieving ways. She gave a shaky, uncertain sigh. Too many things to think about. Right now she needed to focus on finding that fox. How to do that when she again found herself in a crowded marketplace?

“There she is,”she dropped back a few steps to Morthorn’s level, saying in a low voice, “Looks like she’s heading for the center of the city.”

“Don’t lose sight of her,” replied Morthorn. “This area of the market is even more full than the one we were in before.”

“Hey, Niegra-” the question died on Lance’s lips as she looked around, only to find Niegra was no longer with the group.

“Oh no.”

><><

To say that Niegra felt out of place would be an understatement.

Not only did the unfriendly, cruel looking faces of the crowd make her feel uncomfortable and unsafe, but the looks they gave her told her that she did not belong here. That, and the guilt of having left the group when they were supposed to stick together. But she couldn’t help it, she told herself. She had seen this area of the market from around a corner, guessed what it was, and something drew her to it. Her eyes grew wide as her suspicions revealed themselves to be true. The lack of four-legged animals told her something else as well. All the people going to the auction were tall predators, very few of them were of the smaller, more timid-looking kinds. A shiver ran through her body as she realized why.

Her fears were confirmed as the auctioneer, a bearded, curly-mustached hyena who looked like he could do without a few dozen extra pounds, stepped up to the platform, calling, “Come on, what’re you waiting for? Bring him up!”

Niegra quickly recognized him as the one who had stared at her from the end of the caravan the day before. Her heart thumped. Did that mean the white pegasus was here too?

“We are coming,” was the strained reply, from a person Niegra could not see, though she reared up briefly, trying to peek over all the heads in front of her, as she wove carefully through the crowd.

“But he isn’t.”

The crack of a whip, followed by the shrill whinnying scream of a horse, sent another shudder down Niegra’s spine, but she clenched her teeth harder in an attempt to keep from shivering.

“Watch where you swing your wings, horse,” swore a short person with ears the size of his head, as Niegra’s wing bumped into his back.

“Sorry, sir,” she apologized, moving away only to bump into a huge muscular creature, who merely growled at her, his pointy, feline teeth showing through a matted beard.

She stopped to watch the two creatures, struggling to hold a rope each, on either side, as they tried with difficulty to pull a horse onto the platform. No, it wasn’t a horse. It was a pegasus like herself. The very one she had seen yesterday.

Powerful muscles rippled beneath his dusty fur, which must have been a pure white when clean. Despite the dark cloth covering his eyes and the ropes holding him from either side, he put up a good fight. Apparently the slavers surrounding him had motivated him to fight back. His wings were immobilized by more ropes, but he reared, blindly striking out with his sharp hooves. One of his captors cried out and fell to the ground, clutching his bleeding head.

Evidently satisfied that he had succeeded in injuring one of them, the pegasus stood still, breathing hard from his efforts, but keeping his head high.

“And now you see why we call this winged wonder the Cobra,” the auctioneer called to the crowd, as if he had been expecting the casualty all along. “I expect a good offer for this creature, he is straight from the Southern Firelands and fit for a prince!”

Niegra felt as if an alchemist was boiling some sick potion gone wrong inside her stomach. How could anyone be so cruel and blind as to sell other creatures as if they were nothing more than tools? How could the whole crowd around her be so horrible as to take part in buying them, and not even care? Her wings trembled, but she found she could not turn away.

The next words of the auctioneer barely even registered in her shocked mind as she pushed on through the crowd, until she found herself at the foot of the platform. The offers had begun, and the prices poured in from the crowd, but she hardly heard them as she looked up at the pegasus. His nostrils twitched and his head turned slightly, once again sensing the presence of another of his kind.

Cobra. Tears welled up in Niegra’s eyes at the thought of this handsome, fierce creature being treated cruelly, as she suspected he would, and possibly even subdued. Broken.

Her heart pounded. She couldn’t let this happen.

“That’s more like it!” shouted the auctioneer, pounding his fist into his paw. “You can do better!”

“Excuse me?” Nearly choking on her words in fear, Niegra lifted one wing halfway, calling out to the auctioneer.

He never heard her over the noise of the rest of the crowd, of course, so she tried louder.

“Excuse me?” she shouted, lifting both her wings above her head and stretching them out to their full length.

“Excuse me, sir!” At last he heard her, and looked down with a frown, one bushy eyebrow arched.

“What have we here?” he cackled, as the crowd quieted down enough to stare at Niegra. “You don’t look as if you have enough money.”

The crowd laughed.

Niegra gulped and stepped forward, her legs quivering as she took the first few steps up the short stairway at the side of the platform.

What now? “I’m sorry, but slavery is wrong,” didn’t sound very convincing, and, ““Would you please let him go free?” didn’t quite cut it.

“Well, what do you want, girl?” snarled the auctioneer, losing his patience swiftly. “Move on out, I’ve got a job to do!” He scanned her, recognition flickering across his face as he studied her black fur and the star markings on her hindquarters.

“I-I don’t exactly want to…” Niegra stammered, finding the next part hard to say, “To… b-buy him, but…” She looked at the white pegasus, who stood with ears alert and muscled tensed. Finding the strap that held his eye covering on, she began to work it loose. It was hard from this distance, but the buckle slowly came.

The hyena raised both eyebrows contemptuously. “But what? Either say what you have to say, or get out of my way, though I’d rather you do the latter.”

“I-I just wanted to… to…” Niegra stuttered, frantically pulling the strap.

Oh, I’m terrible at stalling, she thought in panic, I wish Ryder was here.

“That’s it, get off.” The auctioneer waved a paw dismissively at her. “I’ve had enough.”

Two big-eared foxes carrying whips walked up to Niegra and began shoving her roughly off the stage.

“No, please-” she started, but one of the foxes raised his whip, snarling.

“Don’t make me use this.”

She hurried down the steps, but as she did, the strap at last came undone.

The covering slipped off Cobra’s face, revealing deep, dark eyes that burned with fierce hatred for his captors. Suddenly he reared, his eyes fixed on the guard to his left, who dropped to his knees, his paws slipping from the rope to hold his neck, gasping for air.

The guard on the right raised his whip. Leaping onto the stage, Niegra knocked him over with a smack of her wing. Running to the white pegasus, she grabbed the ropes binding his wings in her teeth and tried to pull them off.

“Stop them!” screeched the auctioneer to his remaining helpers, running clumsily off the platform. “Don’t let either of them escape!”

His attempted escape was halted by the unexpected arrival of Morthorn, who came barreling onto the platform, his sharp horn nearly impaling the auctioneer as he knocked him to the ground. The unicorn, followed by Lance, Ryder, and Palaminya, ran to Niegra.

“Niegra, there you are!” cried Lance.

“What are you doing?” put in Morthorn. “We have to stick together!”

“But these people are enslaving other creatures!” Niegra cried through still pulling the ropes with her teeth. “I have to help them!”

“You totally ran away back there,” Lance hissed at her friend. “And now look, you’ve drawn the attention of practically everyone in the city!”

The auctioneer’s guards surrounded the group now, whips and curved swords at the ready.

“It’s the thief!” snarled the auctioneer as he pulled himself into a half-sitting position, holding his bruised head. Apparently the news had traveled fast. “And all the other troublemakers! Don’t let them escape! I want them all alive, you hear me?”

Seeing Niegra’s trouble, Ryder sliced the ropes holding the white pegasus’s wings with one of his daggers.

“Who is this guy?” The thief slipped the rope pieces into his satchel. “You know him?”

Ignoring Ryder, Niegra turned to the white pegasus, whose wings had risen as if glad to be free. “Cobra, if that’s your name, please go. Fly away. I want you to be free.”

Cobra bowed his head briefly. “I… thank you,” he said haltingly, in a deep voice, his accent so thick the words were hard to understand.

“Find your family, your home, or anything. Just please go now.” Niegra pleaded.

“You come?” Cobra questioned.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” she answered. “I can’t leave my friends.”

Cobra nodded, understanding in his black eyes. “I return.”

With a few flaps of his huge wings, the pegasus lifted off the ground and shot upwards. Making a complete circle overhead, like a bird of prey, he gave a mighty wing blast, knocking half the guards over. With a final triumphant whinny of freedom, he soared away to the south.

“Well, that’s great,” groaned Ryder, throwing his paws in the air. “You find a guy that could be helpful, then you just let him fly away and leave us here to die? Awesome.”

“Let’s get out of here,” grunted Morthorn, charging through a few guards who were trying to stand up, still slightly dazed by the powerful blast of Cobra. The rest of the group followed, and they ran for the nearest opening in the crowd, which parted as they scrambled to avoid Morthorn’s horn, held in front like a spear.

“Stop there, troublemakers!” An official guard stepped in their path as they entered an alley, backed by more guards.

But Morthorn did not stop, of course.

He charged straight into the lead guard, who saw it coming. Stepping to the side at the last second, the guard calmly watched as the unicorn’s golden horn stabbed deep into a thick wooden shield held by two soldiers, who were knocked flat by the force of the blow.

Morthorn, unable to stop his headlong charge, ran into the wall, blinded by the shield impaled deeply on his horn. There were several synchronized clicks as the remaining guards loaded crossbows in unison. The same clicks sounded behind the group, sandwiching them in the alley.

The leader rested his paws serenely on the hilt of his curved sword, the gleaming tip stuck into the ground. A fanged smile spread across his features.

“Looks like I’ll be getting a reward today.”

Chapter 12 - Held BackEdit

TBC Brighter than a Shooting Star 20:31, March 18, 2018 (UTC)

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