Simon had a good stretch. The sun had already come up and was shining in his face. He sat up slowly and yawned till tears came to his eyes. He glanced around sleepily. Next to him, Richie was still sleeping. He was quietly snoring and grunting. The elf children weren't awake yet either. All he could see of Anjoux were a couple of blond curls sticking out of her cloak, and there was not a sound from Nanik and Dakko.
Simon was lost in thought. He'd slept fitfully. Early in the morning, before sunrise, he had noticed Lhasmo and Teldan leaving to hunt. The closer they got to their destination, the more restless the dragon was as well. Once or twice last night he flew out over the plateau.
It had been another bitterly cold night. Although the sun was already high in the sky, the dried up grass, as well as the dead trees, were still covered by crystals of ice. Simon was sure that this would not be an uneventful day.
Teldan and Lhasmo had decided yesterday to give them instructions in archery today. But that was not what made him uneasy. There could be only one reason for Grewel's nervousness and his many reconnaissance flights. He must have already encountered Dragoma and tried to lead him from their trail. There was no other explanation for his friend's restlessness. Next to him, Richie began to stir and murmur. He yawned loudly, rubbed the sleepers from his eyes and sat up. "Brrr, it's cold!", Richie chattered and would have preferred to snuggle back down into his cloak.
"How long have you been up?", he asked Simon and yawned in his face.
"Quite a while now", Simon replied. The other three stirred as well. Nanik stretched under his cloak and gave Dakko a kick, who then woke up and grumbled. Just a small squeak came from Anjoux, who then sat up bright-eyed and smiled at the boys.
"Where are the others?" Nanik asked, running his hand through his disheveled hair.
"Lhasmo and Teldan left very early this morning to go hunting. And Grewels has been flying back and forth for half the night", Simon replied. Nanik and Anjoux were wide awake now and exchanged troubled looks. Only Dakko was still half asleep, picking his nose while staring off into space. Their troubled looks did not go unnoticed by Simon. So he had been right after all, something was in the air. He was soon to find out what the nocturnal unrest of the dragon was all about.
Lhasmo and Teldan had been lucky. They had bagged two lizards, which were then prepared for eating and polished off in no time. They quickly packed their belongings and, as announced the evening before, the four boys had to practise and prove their skill in archery.
Lhasmo and Teldan were patient albeit strict teachers. After all, the error-free handling of bow and arrow could mean the difference between life and death. Simon and Richie enjoyed themselves. Even for Nanik and Dakko, the lesson was a welcome change of pace from the arduous journey and helped them to forget, at least for the moment, the task that lay ahead.
Simon and Richie soon got the hang of it. It was a matter of taking aim, concentration and the will to hit the target. This would keep them from missing the target altogether. They improved with each try and became faster at stretching their bows and taking aim at the target. The arrow was quickly pulled from the quiver and positioned on the bow string. The magic bow gently steered their arm to aim correctly at the target. And each shot hit its mark with deadly precision. Lhasmo was proud of his four pupils. They had hit nearly every target specified. Even the bare branches high up in the rotten tree were not a problem. Simon and Richie hadn't had so much fun in a long time. Chattering among themselves, they moved on northwards towards the end of the plateau.
It was growing colder in Morana with every day that brought them closer to their destination. Winter would soon arrive throughout the land. The snow already present on the peak of Mount Tularon would soon cover the valleys and plains throughout the land like a white cloth. Today, though, was glorious and they made good progress. While Nanik, Dakko and Richie came upon small, transparent crystals, arguing about who had found the best one, Simon and Anjoux practised their skills in thinking away.Lhasmo and Teldan seemed to be the only ones who looked worried, walking silently next to each other lost in thought.
Anjoux could no longer find any fault with Simon's skills in thinking away. It was time for a short break.
"I can't teach you anything else, Simon. I've taught you all that I know", the little elf took a breather. She was proud of her pupil.
"What do you mean? That's not all there is to it?", Simon asked and glanced at Anjoux incredulously.
"Yep, I don't know what else I could teach you. You've made great progress and learned well. Hold on to this gift, the day will come when it could be of great use."
Simon knew that Anjoux was right. He hadn't needed her help for a while now to think himself from one place to the other. Of course it's more fun with two.
"I see", he replied thoughtfully and looked at her. "Tell me, Anjoux, do all elves have this special gift? I know Lhasmo does, but I haven't seen Nanik, Dakko or Teldan do it yet", he wanted to know for sure.
"Yes, I think so. In any case, I know that we were all born with the same gifts. Elf children are instructed in art of thinking away at a very early age. But as with everything else, some are better at it than others. Take Nanik and Dakko, for instance", she said and pointed to her comrades. "Both of them were actually pretty good at it. But they're more interested in becoming warriors, though, than dealing with magic. Nanik could zoom from here at any time, but Dakko has almost forgotten how to. As I've already told you, however, we can only think ourselves to places we know. Anything else would be too dangerous", she reminded Simon.
They would soon be leaving Assurah's plateau, as the snow-covered peak of Mount Tularon was already in sight.
"Stay together!", Grewels suddenly warned them from above and they watched as the dragon came in for a fast landing.
"The news I have for you isn't good", Grewels began before he set one foot on the ground, raising a lot of dust with his wings. He landed among them totally exhausted.
"Stay together. We will be receiving a visit soon!", Grewels wheezed and beat his wings excitedly.
"Don't keep us in suspense, dragon. What did you see?", Lhasmo asked for a full report.
"The Athare is not far from here! I've been keeping an eye on her for two days now. She picked up our trail shortly after our arrival in Assurah and has been following us quickly. I thought I had managed to steer her away from our trail, but she's a cunning old beast. If I'm not mistaken, she will do her best to cut off our path. Lhasmo, she is huge, very furious and extremely hungry", Grewels warned the Elder.
Lhasmo's forehead wrinkled with worry. It would have been too good to be true to make it through Assurah without hassle. They had no other choice. If Dragoma really confronts them to fight, they will have to take on the challenge. "What do you think, Grewels? How much more time do we have?", Lhasmo inquired of the dragon.
"Hard to say, it could be two more hours, maybe less. That old lady is pretty cunning. I wouldn't be surprised if she beats us to the end of the plateau", Grewels continued.
"I see", Lhasmo murmured. "Somehow I think you know a way out of here. What do you propose?"
Grewels looked at each of them in turn. "There might be a possibility", he began. "Not far from here the plateau falls away sharply down to the Andal valley. Admittedly, the route is not without danger, but it would be a shortcut and if we're lucky we could avoid doing battle with Dragoma. We would have to leave at once, though!", he urged Lhasmo.
"It means we would have to jump!" The Elder anxiously glanced at the group. He was especially worried about whether Richie and Dakko would be up to it. He had to make a decision at once. A jerk went through him and he turned to Anjoux.
"You heard Grewels. When the time comes, you are to take Richie and Dakko down and explain to Simon what to watch for when jumping. Nanik, Teldan and I will manage". The two elves nodded and agreed with Lhasmo's decision.
And so it was a done deal. Grewels took to the sky again so as to warn them in time from the air. Lhasmo led the others in the direction the dragon had showed him.
"What did he mean, we would have to jump?", Richie asked nervously, pulling on Anjoux's cloak. The elf girl was also a bit uneasy about it herself. Nevertheless, she knew exactly what she had to do.
"Trust me, Richie. It'll be OK. I will take you and Dakko by the hand and we will run together and jump over the edge into the valley below. As simple as that", she explained and tried to calm him with a smile.
"And what is about Simon? Is he supposed to fly down afterwards?", he wanted to know and saw that his friend was turning pale. "No. He will think himself below!", she replied and looked at Simon.
"I'm supposed to think myself into the valley? How does that work? I don't even know where to think myself to!", Simon objected anxiously and was beginning to wonder whether he would survive this part of their journey.
"Simon, I'll be honest. It will be extremely dangerous. However, you've learned a lot from me these past weeks. I am confident that you have enough courage, power and skill to think yourself while leaping into the valley below. There is no way to avoid the jump, which presents the greatest danger for all of us. Lhasmo, Nanik and Teldan will be doing likewise. You won't have much time to look for a suitable destination. As soon as you jump, focus on the first tree or boulder you see. And then it will work. But remember, you have to think quickly", she warned.
"I'll do my best", Simon sighed and tried to fight the queasy feeling again.
They were drawing near to the snow-covered peak of Mount Tularon and would soon reach the edge of the plateau, where they would leap off into the unknown. Before they could give it anymore thought, they heard Grewels' voice from the air. "She's coming! She's coming!", he cried and landed on the ground. But before he could explain, Anjoux gave a yelp and pointed ahead. "Look!", she cried and pointed at a huge orange cloud of whirling sand and dust building up at some distance from them.
"Oh crap!", Lhasmo swore.
Richie and Simon stared in horror at the glowing whirlwind coming toward them.
"What is it anyway? I've never seen sand that glows!", Richie whispered to Simon. Before he could reply, though, they heard Lhasmo's worried voice.
"That is Dragoma. She burns everything that gets in her way. Beware of her torrid skin. She will scorch you on the spot. Have your bow and arrows ready! When I give the signal, shoot as many arrows at her as you can. The more arrows that penetrate her scaly skin, the faster the Athare will lose her fire. Beware of her tail! She uses it like a whip and can cause considerable damage to you. Her eyesight is not so good in the daylight, but her sense of smell is that much better! Don't let her get too close. Her teeth are razor-sharp and she will try everything in her power to devour all of us bit by bit!", Lhasmo instructed them.
They quickly pulled back their bowstrings and lined up in a row. Simon's knees were shaking. If he had the choice between a breakneck leap from the edge of the plateau or fighting the angry Athare, then he would leap at once into the valley. But Dragoma wasn't going to let him go just like that. The angry Athare was now blocking their way, grumbling and hissing.
Slowly the monster emerged from the glowing whirl of sand. Like a snake coming out of burning lava, the Athare rose up high before them. She looked at her adversaries furiously, as if she was wondering which of the intruders she should devour first. The scaly ridge on her head straightened up menacingly and foul-smelling saliva dripped off her sharp teeth. Her red-glowing scales rattled with each wriggling movement. Her long cleft tail whistled through the air. But before Dragoma could fall on them, Lhasmo sounded the command to attack.
Tirelessly, they shot one arrow after another at the monster. Lhasmo was right. The arrows that hit their mark put out the fire at that spot and the Athare's scales took on the colour of burnt ash. Every arrow that bored into her scaly skin made her, all the more, angry.
Roaring loudly, the Athare plunged down upon her enemies, her sharp teeth barely missing Anjoux. Grewels set out to attack from the air. Although Dragoma's heat could not harm the dragon, Grewels had to be careful of her bites and her dangerous tail.
"Keep her at bay!", Lhasmo called to them. "We can't allow her to encircle us. Grewels, distract the old beast! We will try to get down to the valley, one at a time!"
"I'll put the heat on the nasty lady! But don't take too long. She is pretty riled up!", Grewels laughed and plunged back down to Dragoma, who snapped at him wildly.
"Anjoux, grab Richie and Dakko and get out of here quickly! You know what to do! We'll meet in the valley", Lhasmo called to the elf girl and shot his next arrow into Dragoma's chest.
"Let's go, lads, you heard him. Take my hands and run as fast as you can", she ordered hastily and reached out to them. Richie and Dakko didn't have to be told twice. Together with Anjoux they raced towards the edge of the cliff. But their getaway didn't go unnoticed. Shortly before their feet left Assurah's ground, Dragoma's tail zinged through the air and struck Dakko hard.
"Hold on, Dakko!", Anjoux shouted as she took her two friends and leaped.
"It's your turn, Simon! Take off! Hurry!", Lhasmo hollered, who was nearly grabbed by Dragoma. Simon put his bow over his shoulder and started running. He refused to look back but put all of his focus on the abyss before him. The edge of the plateau came upon him as in slow motion.
"Jump, Simon!", he heard Lhasmo shouting from behind. Simon glanced behind him in fear and looked into the wide-open mouth of the Athare. At that moment he left the cliff and plunged into the deep. All he heard was the snap of powerful jaws that had missed their target. He hurtled to the ground below in free fall with the wind blowing in his ears.
He picked up speed. He saw Richie and Anjoux kneeling in the grass next to an inanimate Dakko. Simon knew that something terrible had happened. He wanted nothing more than to be with them. Focusing on that wish, he succeeded in landing safely next to his friends instead of crashing into the ground and breaking all his bones.
Simon appeared next to Richie, his heart beating wildly. Up to now it had always been a lot of fun appearing out of nowhere to scare the pants off his friend. But this time Richie was not the least bit startled. Paralyzed, he squatted there and stared with teary eyes at the lifeless form of Dakko lying in the damp grass.
Anjoux had laid her cloak over Dakko and crouched next to him sobbing. Tears ran down her face, as she gently stroked his hand.
"Dakko, Dakko, can you hear me? Please, Dakko, come back to us. You can't leave us now. We need you!", she whimpered to herself.
Simon and Richie kneeled next to Anjoux and placed their hands on her trembling shoulders.
"What happened?", Simon asked quietly. The elf lifted her head and looked at Simon with tear-stained eyes.
"Dragoma", she sniffed. "Her tail caught him before we could leap. There was nothing I could do except bring him down here. He's just lying there so still. I don't know if he will come back to us", she sobbed, letting the tears flow freely. Simon and Richie placed their arms around her and did their best to comfort the little elf.
Their friend Dakko lay dead before them. Simon felt a lump in his throat. The three of them held on to each other tightly. All they could do was to wait and hope that Lhasmo, Teldan, Nanik and Grewels would defeat the Athare and join them soon unharmed.
Nightfall gradually came upon Morana and eerie dark shadows spread through the valley. Although it was growing colder, the three remained sitting with Dakko and refused to leave his side. Simon was getting antsy down on his knees. Although saddened about Dakko, he was wondering what was next for them.
His desire to find the Well of Hope and to fulfill his destiny grew from day to day. He couldn't fight the feeling and knew that it was the only chance for him and Richie to ever see their home again. They couldn't move on without Lhasmo, Teldan and Nanik. They were in a real fix. That was for sure.
Before such thoughts could overcome him, however, Lhasmo, Nanik and Teldan appeared and fell to the ground in exhaustion. It had been a long, hard battle. Still, except for a few scratches and bruises here and there, the three were unharmed. It had turned dark. Ice-cold wind whistled through the bare treetops and the rushing waters of the Andal River could be heard in the distance. Simon, Richie and Anjoux were still sitting next to Dakko. The dead elf's features appeared pale and ghostly in the moonlight.
"Are you all well?", Simon turned to Lhasmo.
"Except for these few scratches, we came through the fight pretty well. Dragoma is dead. Assurah will prosper again someday. But now it's time to do something for Dakko!", the Elder replied and turned his attention to the dead elf boy.
Carefully he laid his hands on Dakko's forehead and heart. He closed his eyes and murmured to himself.
"It's not too late to help him, is it?", Anjoux asked anxiously. "Please tell me that you can bring him back!", she sniffed. Lhasmo opened his eyes and smiled at Anjoux timidly. "I'll do my best, I promise. Go fetch some water and wood. We have to warm up and need hot water to dress our wounds." Anjoux wiped the tears from her face and signaled Simon and Richie to follow her.
"Where is Grewels?", Simon wanted to know and turned again to Lhasmo.
"We are not far from the Lake of Eldor. The dragon is flying around to make sure that Rodan is still imprisoned in the castle." Let's hope so, he thought. He couldn't rid himself of the feeling that Rodan was already on their heels. Anjoux, Simon and Richie went to fetch water and firewood, relieved to learn that Grewels had survived the fight against Dragoma unharmed.
Nanik and Teldan didn't want to stand around doing nothing, so they went hunting. It had been a long and exhausting day. They had to have something to eat, to regain their strength. Thus the two set out for the woods, still limping a bit.
While Anjoux was busy filling the water bags, Simon and Richie were hauling all the dry wood they could carry. It was bitterly cold. They would need a big fire for the embers to keep them warm throughout the night. Grewels returned sooner than Simon had expected. Apparently Rodan's prison was not so far away from them. Simon shuddered at the thought of his last encounter with the wicked elf.
The dragon quickly got a crackling fire going and Simon was glad to see that his friend was doing well. Grewels and Lhasmo quietly conferred with one another. What were they discussing this time? Had Rodan succeeded in breaking out of the castle?
It was enough excitement for one day he thought and decided not to get himself worked up with any more speculation. He started back towards the river to help Anjoux and Richie carry the water. As he arrived at the riverbank, Anjoux held up three big fish that she had grabbed out of the water. Soon afterwards they were all sitting around the big fire, drinking sweet-smelling herbal tea from wooden cups and eating in silence the fish that Anjoux had caught. Nanik and Teldan hadn't had any luck. They couldn't even bag one rabbit. So their evening meal was a bit meagre. They had placed Dakko near the fire. He had to be warm for when he returned to them.
Lhasmo and Anjoux made final preparations for the ritual that was to bring Dakko back to the land of the living. They prepared a paste of hot water, healing oils and the no-puke herb and applied it to the gaping wound on Dakko's back, and then bandaged him up. Lhasmo then crushed up one of the sacred pearls they had gathered from the bottom of Lake Gozhal and added hot water to the silvery powder. The milky liquid formed which was then administered to Dakko.
With his hands placed on the young boy's forehead and heart, Lhasmo fell into a trance and chanted the formula of life in quiet murmurs. The others looked on spellbound. Dakko's body suddenly began to move. He slowly lifted off the ground and hovered low over his cloak he had been laying on. Lhasmo took his hands from the boy and held them up towards the sky. A small light appeared and buzzed around Dakko. No one dared to make a sound. Simon's and Richie's jaws dropped. Then another light appeared. And then another one and another one, till many hundreds of lights circled around Dakko and Lhasmo, like fireflies. Faster and faster, the sparks of light zoomed around their friend until they formed a single ray of light that suddenly vanished into Dakko's chest. The body of the elf reared up with a loud groan and then sank back down again. Smiling, Lhasmo held Dakko in his arms and bedded him gently in his cloak. He covered him carefully and stroked his forehead. "So, my little friend, welcome back to life. Get some sleep now, for you will be needed here."
Anjoux's entire face beamed with relief. She fell into Lhasmo's arms with joy. "Did he really make it back?", she asked anxiously.
"Not to worry, my little one. Dakko will be his old self again soon. What he really needs now is rest, warmth and something to eat. Let him sleep. He'll come to all by himself. He won't yet be able to continue the journey tomorrow. We can take care of him in the morning and spend the day here, till he's doing better.”
Lhasmo was right, too. A burden lifted from their shoulders the next morning as Dakko opened his eyes and looked into the inquiring faces bent over him. He gave them a weak smile. But before they could drive him crazy with all their questions, Lhasmo sent Dakko's tormentors away to either, hunt, fetch water or gather wood. Simon, Richie and the others grumbled as they left to do what Lhasmo had asked. The Elder now had his peace and quiet to examine the small elf and attend to his wounds. He told the boy all about how they'd defeated Dragoma. Dakko listened to him with wide-open eyes. He only vaguely recalled what had happened to him. The painful wound in his back and the lack of strength he was experiencing were cause enough for him to believe what Lhasmo was telling him.
Two days passed before they could continue their journey. To everyone's joy, Dakko recovered quickly and was romping around with Nanik and Richie.
Grewels returned from one of his many tours one evening as they were all merrily sitting around the campfire. He sat next to Lhasmo with a worried look and glanced seriously at the group.
"It seems you have nothing good to report", Lhasmo asked anxiously. The dragon sighed and tiredly shook his head. At once the mood around the campfire changed and all eyes were glued to Grewels.
"We are not far from the Lake of Eldor", he began his report. "An estimated two-day walk separates us from those dark waters. Rodan has succeeded in escaping from the castle. It has already been a few days since he turned the old ruins to rubble. He left the tower standing, which protrudes eerily into the sky and is guarded by the ravens. Asragur's spell has been broken and we must now make haste. We have to reach the Well of Hope by all means before that monster does, otherwise it's the end of Morana", the dragon admonished them.
Simon swallowed. "Does that mean he is already closing in on us?", he asked nervously and shivered at the thought of another encounter with Rodan. Back in the temple garden of the mist fairies, he had nearly breathed his last. He could hardly imagine what it would be like to meet Rodan face to face. He shook off such thoughts and turned his attention again to the dragon's report.
"No one can say for sure exactly where he is at the moment. Apparently he was seen in Boscra. All indications are that he has in fact teamed up with Tamir and his cowardly pack. He won't waste his own power chasing after us. The wolves will try to cut off our path.
Rodan cannot pass through the Gate of the Damned. Otherwise he would also be trapped forever between the gates. He will have to find some other way to beat us there. We have to break camp before sunrise tomorrow, Lhasmo!", Grewels urged the Elder.
As Lhasmo always did when deep in thought, he rubbed his hand through his beard in thought.
"But", Simon interrupted. "Isn't there a direct path we can take to the Well, without risking a confrontation with Rodan and the shadow wolves? Grewels, you are the only one of us who has been to the Well. You have already drunk from the Well, according to what Lhasmo told me. Asragur's prophecy has been revealed to you. Why can't you simply lead us directly to the Well?", Simon asked the dragon.
Grewels glanced angrily at Lhasmo. "It seems that you have not told our little human friend the whole story!" Grewels hissed at the Elder, who could only shrug his shoulders. "I always have to do everything myself!", the dragon growled to himself and turned to Simon.
"My dear Simon, I would like nothing better than to do that. It's true that I drank from the Well. I was in search of my brothers for many days and became thirsty while roaming the mountains. I can't really say how I came upon the Well. Today I couldn't even describe the way there.
You should know that a magic spell lies on the Well and the path to it constantly changes. Sorry, I can't tell you more. If the prophecy is accurate, you are the One whom the way to the Well shall be revealed as soon as we reach Mount Tularon and pass through the Gate of the Damned.”
"The dragon is right, Simon", Lhasmo interjected, before Grewels could continue.
"Only you can find the way to the Well because you are the Chosen One. With Asragur's scale, you've been entrusted with something very precious. The scale will show only you the way, when the time has come", Lhasmo explained and took a gulp of herbal tea. Simon and Richie looked doubtfully at each other. How in the world could the scale of a dragon act as a signpost to the Well of Hope? Simon fished it out of his leather bag. He looked at the scale thoughtfully and ran his fingers over its blunt surface.
"Look at that, Simon!", Richie exclaimed. "Its colour is changing!" Sure enough! Simon gazed at the scaly platelet in his hand in amazement. The scale of the dragon king, that had been black without sheen just a few days ago, shimmered gently again.
Simon held it high for all to see. "What does it mean?", he asked and handed the scale to Lhasmo, who took it with a smile.
"It means that we are on the right track. Morana isn't lost yet. We will take off tomorrow before sunrise and cross over the Andal River."
That night, Simon's sleep was restless. He was plagued with nightmares that woke him up with a start. The wind was cool and he was chilled. The dragon scale was his destiny and it would lead him the right way. They were getting closer to their destination and Asragur's prophecy would soon be fulfilled. What would await them? What if he failed? Could he and Richie find their way back to their own world?
This journey could end in his death. He was agonized by so many questions, the answers to which were not yet revealed to him that night.