“I still don’t understand why we’re doing this,” Gwen whispered.
“Do you see anything?” I asked. Will knelt in front of me, staring at the ground.
“Faintly. There’s a thin layer of dirt in some places. Like here,” he pointed, and after a moment, I could distinguish a very faint mark. It was shaped oddly, flat, with three toes.
“What are these things?” I muttered.
“Something we should probably be running from, not toward!” Gwen said.
“Shut up, you’re ruining the excitement,” I said. On the inside, though, I knew she was right.
Will stood and ran in the direction the footprint had pointed. We followed.
“You know, Sensa, this reminds me of a conversation I heard earlier today,” said Rich. “I recall someone was reaming Will for running heedlessly into danger.”
“I was reaming Will for running heedlessly into unnecessary danger,” I corrected. “Think about it. We’ve been wandering aimlessly around the mountains for–what, a month now?”
“Five weeks,” said Will, a yard in front of us. “Five weeks, and this is the first sign of something different. We owe it to the Queen to at least check it out.”
“I contest that,” I said. “The orc forest was the first sign of something different.”
“And the orcs tried to kill us!” Rich said to prove his point.
“And whose fault would that be?” I said.
Rich muttered something under his breath and dropped the issue.
We trekked on further, until Will stuck out his arm. We stopped. He motioned for us to follow him, and began climbing up a large boulder. At the top, Will motioned for us to stay low. Then he risked a look over the top of the boulder, peering over his shoulder with his back pressed against the rock. Will’s eyes went so wide, I thought they might fall out. Will turned around to get a better view, then grabbed Gwen’s cloak and tugged her up beside him, pointing. Rich and I also looked making sure only our eyes were visible. I could barely restrain my initial cry of surprise and disgust.
There was a cave. And outside the cave slept the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen.
It was huge, at least eleven feet tall, and grotesquely humanoid. Its torso was thickly armored with scales like the one we had found–except these scales lacked the luster of age–in a manner reminiscent of an armadillo. The scales grew sparser at the arms and legs, revealing thick, gray skin like a tortoise’s. The creature had three thick, nail-less digits on each hand and foot.
Its head was the worst though–large and hairless and gray, with holes for ears, a thick, protruding brow, a large, lipless mouth with a ridiculously pronounced overbite, small, dark, lidless eyes, and a nose turned up like a pig’s.
It was a troll.
We ducked back below the top of the boulder.
“No. Way.” Rich said.
“I can’t believe it,” whispered Will.
“I TOLD YOU!” I hissed as loudly as I dare. Exhilarating vindication coursed through me. “TROLLS ARE REAL!”
Rich clapped a hand over my mouth.
“It’s here,” Gwen whispered.
“Mmpff?” I asked.
“What?” Rich asked.
“The thing the Faerie Queen wanted us to get,” she said. Her eyes were full of wonder, fixed on an irrelevant spot in the distance to focus on other senses. “The Great One’s talisman. It’s here. Listen.”
The space between us went silent. I closed my eyes, and listened into the night.
“I feel it,” whispered Rich, eyes closed.
“Feel what?” I asked. Rich had released my face.
“Don’t you feel it?” Will asked, eyes closed. “Can’t you feel the–the tugging?”
I closed my eyes and tried again. Nothing but the sound of my straining ears.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well…” Will grasped for words. “It’s close.”
“It’s in the cave,” Rich breathed, eyes unfocused.
For a moment, I just looked at the three of them, caught up in some magic I couldn’t feel.
What are we dealing with here? I thought.
Something best left alone, whispered a voice in the back of my head. An unfamiliar voice. Goosebumps crawled up my arms.
We argued quietly over a plan, but this was difficult, because we had no clue what we’d encounter once we entered the cave. The overall plan was pretty obvious:
Step 1: Sneak into the cave. Don’t wake up the guard troll.
Step 2: Once in the cave, locate the talisman, get it, and leave.
The devil was in the details. If we encountered trolls, should we negotiate or fight? Should we steal the Great One’s Tear outright, or ask the trolls for it? Buy it? What could we even pay them with?
Most of these questions relied on the trolls to provide the answers. Somehow, we doubted they would be open to negotiation.
We decided to attempt to get in and out without alerting the trolls at all. If it came to swords, Will and Rich would stay behind to fight, allowing Gwen and me to find the Tear. Gwen protested that she and Will should stay behind, as they were the best fighters. But Gwen seemed to be the best at sensing the talisman, so we needed her to find it, and as the smallest and lightest, Gwen would make the best thief. I would guard her back. If separated, we would meet up behind this Boulder, and if that didn’t work, at the camp.
All this decided, we snuck around the rock and moved toward the cave entrance. I was grateful for the soft leather soles of our boots and our hooded cloaks, helping us blend silently into the night.
The troll, though quite malodorous, didn’t stir from its sleep as we passed. We crept into the cave.
Darkness enveloped us instantly. We stopped, waiting for our eyes to adjust. I could hear strange noises echoing from somewhere else in the cave. Fear crawled up my back, leaving goosebumps in its path. I wasn’t aware I was reaching for someone else until Will’s warm, calloused fingers met mine. After a moment of fumbling, his hand enveloped mine. I reached out with my left hand and found Gwen’s hand, equally rough but significantly smaller. Through our clenched hands, I felt Will reach out for Richard. The four of us stayed like that for a long time, until we could see somewhat properly, and thumping of our hearts quieted a bit.
Silently, Gwen led the way through the cave system. Once, we came to a fork in the road, but the others didn’t hesitate, walking down the left tunnel as if it were the only one.
Eventually, we ended up in a spacious cavern. A dead end.
“It’s here,” said Rich. “But where?”
“There,” said Gwen, pointing to the ceiling.
I looked up. Sure enough, there was a large metal box suspended from the ceiling. Problem: the cavern was a dome. There were a few ledges along the wall, but . Most of the ceiling was smooth rock. It would be impossible to get up there.
“Bet you a pie I can I get it.” Gwen said.
We all turned to look at Gwen, who in turn was looking at the box. Five-foot-nothing, a solid one hundred and two pounds of pure resolve.
“You’re on,” said Rich after a beat.
“I’m going to need rope,” she said, pulling off her cloak and armor. “Will, how much rope do we have?”
“About fifty feet” said Will.
Gwen looked up for a moment, then nodded. “That should be enough.”
Will gave her the coil of rope. Gwen took the end of it and tied it securely to an arrow. She notched the arrow and raised the bow. She shifted her point aim several timed before settling on one, aiming her bow a bit high to allow for the added weight of the rope. Gwen inhaled, and on the exhale, loosed her arrow.
It struck a high point in the wall, above a ledge. Gwen gave us the rope, now attached to the wall. “Pull on it. I want to be sure it will hold.” We pulled the rope hard, but not too hard. It held.
Satisfied, Gwen walked over to the rock wall and began to climb the rope, always keeping one hand on the stone. Gwen’s size actually helped her; I doubt the arrow could hold the weight of anyone much bigger. She was halfway up in no time.
And then her arrow snapped.
In an instant, the rope slipped over the ledge and fell to the floor. I saw Gwen drop and I was frozen and someone screamed her name–and she was clinging to the rock. Gwen had only dropped a few feet.
“Great One, I nearly had a heart attack,” whispered Rich after a moment. It was he who had screamed. Oh. Oh no.
“Gwen, are you okay?” Will shouted.
I clapped a hand over both boys’ mouths. “Are you out of your minds?” I hissed. “The trolls!” Will’s eyes went wide with his mistake. Richard winced in regret.
“Look,” said Will. “She’s climbing.” I looked up.
Gwen was climbing. She clung to the wall, finding impossible handholds and footholds, inching her way up like a giant spider. Wow.
“Rich,” said Will.
“Got it,” Rich replied. He ran over to the wall and grabbed the end of the rope. Running back, he tied the rope to his spear, picked a spot on the wall and threw it with his whole body. It stuck in the wall with a satisfying crack.
Gwen grabbed the rope with a sigh of relief and scrambled up it quickly. She rested for a moment on the ledge.
“How is she going to–” I was cut off by a sound, faint but clear: footfalls. Heavy. Nearing us.
“They’re coming!” I said.
“Don’t tell Gwen; it’ll only throw her off.” Will said. He drew his swords anyway, and I, my knife. Rich’s spear clattered to the floor. I looked at Gwen as he snatched it up. She was busy tying the rope to an arrow.
Wordlessly, Gwen lifted her bow and shot an arrow through a link in the chain suspending the box from the ceiling. She then used the rope to pull the arrow back against the chain, the rope attached to it in a T-shape so that the arrow would brace against the chain horizontally instead of slipping back through the link. I realized what she was going to do a second before she did it, and my heart skipped a beat.
Before we could protest, Gwen jumped.
She clung to the rope, falling and then swinging as the rope hit the side of the box. But she’d already proven her arrows could’ hold her weight for long. Gwen swiftly climbed the swinging rope, then climbed on top of the metal box. Pulling an arrow from her quiver, she leaned over the side of the box, holding to the chain with her legs, and used her arrow to pick the lock.
“Positions!” Will screamed, as two trolls thundered into the room. They were just as big and ugly as the first, though their features weren’t distorted in quite the same way. They bore heavy, studded maces. Fighting our way out of this one wouldn’t be easy, especially with Gwen on the ceiling. Will and I sprang into our fighting positions, but rather than fall behind (where he could form the third side of a back-to-back triangle if were surrounded), Richard stepped forward and inclined his head in an apologetic and placating gesture.
“Hello, gentleman, and/or ladies” Richard said. “I’m so sorry if we’ve alarmed you; we’re lost. Could you point us in the direction of the loo?” I looked Rich in horror. Will’s mouth was an O.
The trolls looked confused. Did they…did they seriously believe Rich? It was possible they didn’t speak our language.
Suddenly there was a loud click from above. All of us, including the trolls, watched silently as Gwen threw open one side of the box, groped around inside, and removed something that looked like a piece of cloth. A bird flew from the box–a raven if I wasn’t mistaken–melded into the shadows on the ceiling, and fled the room. A nightmare, but why didn’t it put up a fight?
I didn’t have time to worry about it. Gwen slid down the length of rope, but there was a good distance between the end of the rope and the floor. Wordlessly, Rich, Will, and I linked our arms and caught Gwen when she let go of the bottom of the rope.
As we helped her down, Will whispered in the lowest tone possible: “Gwen, that might be the single most impressive thing I have ever seen.”
“Are you a burglar in your free time?” I breathed.
Gwen blushed and pressed something into my hand. I looked down. It was a feather, blue and unextraordinary. I looked at her.
“I need both hands for my bow,” she whispered.
“No bathroom up there, Gwen?” Rich asked loudly. I hid the feather in my hand.
“Nope!” she replied.
Rich sighed convincingly. “Oh, well. I suppose we’ll just have to hold it. Pleasure meeting you, ladies and/or gentleman,” he nodded to the trolls.
And then he walked away, right past the trolls.
The trolls looked at each other and growled something. They seemed confused. The rest of us quickly followed Rich. Once we were out of earshot, we ran like our lives depended on it. Our hearts raced faster than our feet, high on the thrill of getting away with blatant burglary.
“I can’t believe that worked, Rich!” I said.
“Me either!” he replied.
Just then, the feather flew out of my hands, blown by my speed. I managed to catch it, but I couldn’t risk that happening again. I began braiding the feather into my hair, the way we did back in my village with normal, non-powerful feathers. The feather was warm to the touch. It felt somewhat heretical to wear the Great One’s talisman like an ordinary decoration, but I didn’t really have a choice. I muttered a quick prayer of contrition all the same.
“By the way, Gwen,” Rich shouted as we neared the end of the tunnel, “what flavor pie do you want?”
“Boysenberry, of course!” Gwen replied, voice strained with running and exhilaration. Will laughed.
And then we were out of the tunnel, filling our lungs with the cool night air as we caught our breath. I touched the small braid beside my face with the intention of freeing the feather; it was warm to the touch, even hot near the feather. In fact, now that I noticed, waves of warmth were flowing from the braid into my scalp. It felt wonderful.
“I can’t wait to get out of these mountains,” said Rich, stretching.
A huge, luminous grin spread across Will’s face. “We can go…” His voice trailed off, and his face fell, terribly crushed. I followed his gaze and my jaw dropped in horror.
Materializing from the shadows and advancing toward us were twelve humanoid nightmares.
“…home.” finished Will, his voice small and crestfallen.
The nightmares were exactly like the one in the Dead Forest where I looked for Gramma all those months ago, hooded, exuding paralyzingly cold and fear. I remembered what Headmaster Darius had told me, about how three of these most dangerous nightmares slaughtered three dozen Warriors and orcs.
Rich, whom I’d never seen pra before, muttered desperate pleas under his breath. Gwen notched an arrow. I could see in the set of her face she was determined to go down swinging.
Will turned to me, his eyes awfully sad. “I’m sorry we never found your Gramma,” he said.
That was the last straw. I dragged them with me on this wild goose chase, and I was not going to let them die.
Acting on impulse, empowered by a rage burning inside me for these monsters, these shadowy half-things, I drew my knife and stormed forward until I was standing in the center of the semicircle of hooded figures.
“Sensa!” called one of the Warriors behind me.
The Great One’s tear burned against my cheek.
I thew the knife aside.
“Leave my friends alone,” I said, my voice a dangerous whisper.
And then the world went white.