It turned dark in Morana and it was a starlit night. Hours had passed since crossing the river Andal. The moon was like a pale sickle in the sky when they reached the first foothills of Mount Tularon. Grewels had just returned from one of his reconnaissance flights and was eagerly awaited.
"You're finally back. We were beginning to worry that something had happened to you", Lhasmo greeted the dragon.
"Oh, what could ever happen to me?", Grewels replied cockily and dropped down into the snow. They gathered around him in curiosity.
"Well, did you see it?", Simon asked excitedly.
"See it? What do you mean?", Grewels asked innocently.
"Oh man, the Gate of the Damned, you quick-wit!", Anjoux broke in impatiently, before Simon could reply.
"Right, that's what we mean. That strange Gate is why we are here!", Richie exclaimed.
Everybody looked at Grewels in expectation.
"Oh, the Gate!", he then remembered. "Sure, I was able to see it very clearly. It's not so far from here", he told them, popping one of those squeaking little furry balls into his mouth that he had taken from his bag.
"Don't keep us in suspense, tell us!", Simon griped.
"You really want to know?", Grewels asked conspiringly.
"Of course!", they all replied in unison.
"Then I won't keep you in suspense any longer", he said generously, and they perked up their ears.
"As I've already said, it's not far from here. If we keep to the north, we should reach the Gate in just a little over an hour. We can't miss it. There's a dark spooky crevice at the foot of Mount Rham. I have often flown over that peak in search of my brothers, but it's the first time I've noticed the crevice. Simon, it seems as though the Gate has opened for you only in this one special night", Grewels said and rummaged in his bag for another snack.
Simon had a strange feeling. Actually, he and Richie had simply wanted to enjoy their summer holidays. All they had wanted to do was take pictures and gather seashells. Sure they had looked forward to a few adventures. But not in their wildest dreams had they expected that one night a fire-puffing dragon would land in front of their tent and tell them the craziest story they had ever heard. Not to mention that they would follow Grewels to a land such as Morana.
No idea how long they had already been away from home. No doubt there were several hundreds of police officers scouring the Exmoor looking for him and Richie. Or they had already given up hope of finding them alive and broke off their search. Simon shivered down his spine. For now, he tried to put such thoughts out of his mind.
Without his help, Morana would be lost forever. That thought alone counted for now. He was going to see to it that Asragur's prophecy would be fulfilled.
"Now that sounds like some adventure!", Nanik enthused, pulling Simon from his thoughts.
"It will certainly be an adventure passing through the Gate, but it will also be dangerous. Don't forget it!", Lhasmo warned them again. "Stick close together and don't lose sight of each other!
Simon, give me the dragon king's scale", Lhasmo requested. They looked at the scale in astonishment when Simon pulled it from his leather bag. It lay bright and shimmering in his hand.
"You see? It's turning brighter and clearer", Lhasmo declared in satisfaction. "That is a very good sign. Asragur's spirit is with us and will guide us along the right path. Let's depart. You should wear the scale around the neck now for all to see, Simon. Just to make sure that we receive the sign of the Well in time on the other side of the Gate", Lhasmo said. He quickly drilled a hole in the top of the scale and ran a thin leather strap through it. "I think a talisman will come in handy", he said and returned it to Simon, who at once put it around his neck.
"Before we depart, however, there's something else I wish to give you, Simon. The time is right", Lhasmo continued and presented Simon with a dagger in a leather sheath. Fascinated, Simon gazed at the grip covered with sparkling gems.
"But this dagger belongs to Elian. He had it with him at our farewell when we first left Leyhda", he recalled. Simon carefully pulled the dagger from the sheath. They gathered around him in curiosity.
"Look, how strange! The blade is black", Richie remarked.
"Yes, that's right. There's a magic spell on this dagger", Lhasmo explained.
"This is the same dagger that Rodan rammed into Asragur's chest back then. The blood of the dragon king turned the blade to black. As Rodan was banished to the castle in the Lake of Eldor, the wind snatched the dagger from him and carried it to Elian, back to the empire of the moor elves. He was only saving it for you, Simon.
And I believe the time has finally come to hand over this magic blade to you. None of us know what is going to happen on the other side. Should you succeed in slashing Rodan with this dagger, even a slight scratch would destroy him. At least that's what is claimed. Always keep it within reach.
You will need it someday", Lhasmo explained. While Simon attached the precious dagger to his belt, Lhasmo turned to the dragon.
"Grewels, how far do you think Rodan and the shadow wolves have come?"
"Hard to say", Grewels replied. "As far as I know, he and his flunkies have already reached Mount Tularon. Apparently a few Nagrims have joined them on their way there. I spoke with a couple of Wulloms, who were in a hurry to grab their supplies and to bury themselves into the earth, deeper than they ever had before. They explained that you never can tell how the battle for Morana might turn out.
Parts of the land are totally deserted. Many of the creatures are doing their best to bring themselves to safety. Rodan is waiting for the sign of the Well, the same as we are. My guess is that he will try to cut us off at the path from the east. But I could be wrong, especially since I'm not sure where we will leave the Gate again on the other side", the dragon explained and shrugged his shoulders.
"Be that as it may, we have to get a move on!", Lhasmo decided.
So they set out to the spirit world that awaited them behind the Gate of the Damned.
“See you at the Gate", Grewels said and lifted off into the air.
What was coming upon them?, Simon wondered and watched the dragon fly away. Lhasmo had already told them many horror stories about the power-hungry beings who had tried to overthrow Asragur's throne so long ago. It wouldn't be long before Simon and his friends arrived at the magic portal, at the Gate of which many thieves and good-for-nothings found an abrupt end.
The Well of Hope and the throne of Asragur were inseparably linked. Only he, who approached the Well with the same dreams and hopes as the dragon king, earned the right to the dragon throne. Up to now, Asragur's magic had kept Morana and the Well from being poisoned by the dark powers that strived for the throne out of greed and self-interest. But that magic was not strong enough to protect Morana from evil for all eternity. It was therefore only a question of time until the Well of Hope would dry up altogether and raging battles for the dragon throne would shake the country.
The night was clear and bitterly cold. Simon and Richie walked side by side, shivering as they followed Lhasmo, who was leading them uphill. They could already see the dark crevice Grewels had told them about. "What if this stupid mountain swallows us up like all the others before us?", Richie blurted out his concern. Simon stopped. "Oh man, Richie! How am I supposed to know that?", he replied, unsure himself and fighting his own doubts. "In any case, this seems to be the only way for us to go if we ever hope to get back home. There's no other choice, buddy."
Richie was fidgety. "Yes, I'm aware of that", he admitted. "But all those horror stories we've heard from Lhasmo and Grewels about this place have got me pretty scared. This is a bit different, after all, than the ghost train at the carnival in Portsmouth", Richie chattered, more out of fear than cold.
"You are right about that. This is really quite different. This is for real, or at least it feels that way. It's too late to back out now. One thing to remember is that the mountain only swallows up those who are evil. We're the good guys, Richie", Simon tried to calm him down. "So let's keep moving. It'll be all right!", he encouraged Richie to keep walking.
Grewels joined them again and together they arrived at the magical Gate. Just as the dragon had told them, it was not a gate in the usual sense of the word. The crevice opening before them looked more like a passage to an uncertain future.
They remained rooted to the spot and gazed in fear but also in fascination at the spectacle unfolding before them. The huge crevice opened wider into the mountain and a frosty wind hissed at them from deep within. From one second to the next a violent storm came up, swirling ice and snow in its wake.
Lhasmo warily observed the rapidly approaching whirlwind.
"It's time. Get ready!", he shouted and they crowded together.
Before they knew it, the icy whirlwind had enclosed around them. Suddenly they were surrounded by deep abysses and the only place for them to stand was the small spot of rocky ground under their feet. A storm erupted above their heads and threatened to sweep them off their feet. Snow and ice swirled faster and faster around them, causing the great peak of Mount Tularon to blur before their eyes.
"Take hold of each other's hands!", Lhasmo hollered against the storm. "No matter what happens, close your eyes and don't let go!", Simon heard Lhasmo shout, before the whirlwind drowned out his voice completely. The blizzard around them grew stronger until Simon could no longer feel the ground under his feet. He could hear Richie screaming loudly to his right, but he didn't dare open his eyes. He had lost all sense of space and time. Suddenly the storm and snow stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and silence fell around them. A dull impact brought them roughly back to the here and now, and they tumbled all together.
A moment later, Simon regained consciousness. He felt the rocky ground under him once more. But he still couldn't move nor open his eyes. A few feet away to his left, he could hear Nanik groaning and picking himself up. Richie had also survived the rough landing, because he had no longer opened his eyes before he started his usual grumbling. "Well now, that's just perfect! That's all I needed. I just knew it was going to happen. The mountain swallowed us alive. But does anybody listen to me? And we were supposed to be the good guys? Think again. The mountain only swallows those who are evil", he nagged and looked around in bewilderment.
Gradually the rest of the group came back to life. Simon blinked at first and then opened his eyes cautiously. Moaning, they picked themselves up, one after the other. Even Grewels had problems getting back up on his feet. He staggered around in a daze, trying to understand what had just happened. Simon glanced around on shaky legs. As a matter of fact, it did indeed look like they'd been swallowed by the mountain. He had to agree with Richie, whether he liked it or not.
"Where in the world are we?", he asked.
"We passed through the Gate, or rather, we are stuck inside it", Lhasmo replied and tried to get his bearings. Simon still felt pretty uneasy, as if he'd just had a confrontation with Toddy Eastman, a really mean bully in the seventh grade. Once he would get you in a headlock, you were done for. But Toddy was far away, thank goodness. The big question now was whether the mountain would let them go.
The silence around them was frightening. It was damp and smelled of stagnant water. The mysterious shining light had vanished. The sun crystals they had with them were their only source of light and prevented them from breaking a leg or, even worse, falling into some deep hole. The scale of the dragon king Simon was wearing on a leather strap around his neck, also provided a little light, enough to keep them from entirely losing their bearings.
Simon leaned back against the cool, rugged rock wall. "Just how are we going to get out of here?", he pondered while absently playing with the leather strap around his neck.
"Simon, let's go. We're leaving!", he heard Richie call.
"I'm coming!", he replied, his voice echoing around inside the mountain. Lhasmo would surely find a way out, he thought confidently and wanted to catch up to the others, but he couldn't move. Something was holding him by the wrist.
"I've been waiting on you for centuries now. And now you will stay here with me", the hoarse voice whispered to him.
Simon felt panic and his forehead broke out in cold sweat. Out of nowhere a skeleton appeared at his side. The cold bones of the hand dug deep into Simon's skin. Horror-stricken, Simon stared into the black empty eye sockets.
"We could have a lot of fun here together", the bony fellow gurgled and crossed his legs with a rattle. Simon hardly dared to breathe. The skeleton carefully wiped age-old dust off of his torn and threadbare shirt before turning his forever grinning skull back to Simon.
"You can't imagine how many years we've been waiting for your arrival, Simon! None of us had really believed that drivel about Asragur's prophecy. And yet in secret it has been our only hope of ever getting out of here, exactly as we came in here, as beings made of flesh and blood. I see you are wearing the sign of the dragon with you", the skeleton clattered excitedly and reached for Asragur's scale with his bony hand.
Simon looked around for help.
"Don't get your hopes up, my child. Your friends will soon take the wrong path and perish. And where you are going nobody will ever find you", the man of death snickered victoriously.
"Simon! Where are you?", he heard Richie calling for him impatiently.
"Richie!", Simon shouted with a hoarse voice. Before he could get Richie's attention, however, a number fleshless arms shot out from the rock wall behind him. Several hands covered his mouth and proceeded to strangle him. Simon tried with all his might to fend off the hands, but it was hopeless. The more he thrashed about, the more hands broke through the rock and reached for him.
The skeleton was overjoyed. Laughing huskily, sure of victory, he hopped around from one foot to the other. "At long last I shall be redeemed and receive what is rightfully mine!"
"You're right about that!", Simon suddenly heard Richie's voice of attack. "Not to worry, you will get exactly what you deserve!"
"Who dares ...?", the skeleton hissed and whirled around quickly. But before the skeleton could attack, Richie shot an arrow at the bony fellow, knocking his head off. The skull fell to the ground and rolled a bit, and immediately the skeleton arms and hands retreated back to the wall and released Simon.
Richie gave Simon his hand and pulled him to his feet. "Whew, that was close!", Simon gasped, still drenched in sweat. "Thank you, Rich. You rescued me in the nick of time."
"You gave us a scare. Why didn't you answer when I called? We were afraid you had fallen into one of these holes around here."
"I couldn't answer you! I had a mouth full of bones, as you might have noticed!", Simon explained and glanced anxiously at the rock wall. "Once again it has gone well", Richie was relieved.
"I'm not going to let you out of my sight anymore. Without you we can't make it out of this accursed mountain", he said and shoved Simon along toward the others.
"Where'd my body go?", the skull screamed hysterically and chattered angrily with its teeth. Simon was dismayed to see the headless skeleton crawl on all fours, groping around for its skull.
"That's good. A little bit to the right. Careful, you rickety good-for-nothing! There's a hole opening up near you!", he bickered. “Slowly, you're almost here", the skull exulted, impatiently guiding the skeleton in his direction.
"Just a moment, I almost forgot something", Richie said with a grin and approached the creeping skeleton with purpose.
"Don't you dare", shrieked the skull angrily. “You can be rest assured that I will pursue you in your darkest dreams if you come any closer!", the skull screamed and rolled back and forth in fury.
"You're going to pursue me?", Richie was amused. "Ha! That'll be hard to do without any legs!", he laughed maliciously and kicked the skeleton between the legs so forcefully that it lost its balance and fell into the deep crevice that had opened before him.
The dreadful sound of the shattering bones echoed through the mountain. Beside himself with rage, the skull showered Richie and Simon with dire cursing and cussing. Taking aim, Richie kicked the skull into the crevice where it broke into a thousand pieces. It was finally quiet again.
"So now that's taken care of!", Richie said and peered down below in satisfaction, with his hands on his hips. Dumbfounded, Simon stared at his friend. He never would have figured Richie to have so much courage. Relieved that the skeleton would bother them no more, they took off to join the others, who were anxiously waiting for them.
Still visibly upset, Simon told them all about his close encounter with the skeleton, of course also including Richie's heroic deeds. Simon couldn't have escaped without Richie's help and the Damned would have carried him off to who knows where.
Richie scratched his head bashfully as all of them expressed their commendation and praise, while Nanik and Dakko were wishing in secret that it had been them who had finished off the bony fellow.
After admonishing them again to be cautious, Lhasmo hurried them on their way. The spooky silence, the musty smell and the darkness gave him to worry. They had to get out of there in a hurry. Nobody knew the dangers that might still be lurking.
The scale of the dragon king that Simon was wearing around his neck kept getting brighter, which meant, that they were still on course. Lhasmo wanted to lose no time.
"Watch your step. There are deep crevices all over the place!", he reminded them to be careful and hurried in the lead in long strides. Time was pressing down on them. Lhasmo could only imagine how far Rodan had advanced towards Mount Tularon.
What was awaiting them on the other side? And how much more time would they have, once they received the sign of the Well? One question after the other shot through his head and the closer they came to their destination, the stronger was Lhasmo's feeling that their head start was not enough to get them to the Well without trouble. He kept his dark thoughts to himself, of course, and led his friends deeper into the mountain in silence.
"This stupid mountain is getting on my nerves!", Richie ranted, slowly growing impatient. "Could it be that we are going around in circles? I can't help feeling that we've already passed by here before", he yammered. "This dump must have an exit somewhere", he whispered to Simon.
"There's one for sure. Patience, Richie!", Simon replied absently. Something caught his attention. He kept stopping, glancing around and inhaling deeply.
"Richie, can you smell that too?", Simon asked and took another whiff of the pleasant fragrance around his nose. Richie looked at him in confusion, sniffed to the left and right and wrinkled his nose in disgust.
"No, I don't smell anything good. For hours now all I can smell is the stink of mouldy water and decay. I want nothing more than a whiff of fresh air. And you are in urgent need of a clean shirt!", he ascertained and continued on.
"Simon, lad, go wash your hands. We will have tea in five minutes!", the voice of his Aunt Abygale called to him.
"I've baked some blueberry pie. Hurry up, otherwise it will get cold!", the voice lured him again. Up ahead, the image of his aunt appeared from behind a boulder. She was wearing a white apron and carried a huge tray with a stack of the blueberry pies he so loved.
"I'll be right there, Aunt Aby!", Simon called to her as in a trance. Half-starved and in anticipation of devouring some of her delicious pies, Simon moved slowly towards Aunt Abygale, who smiled at him kindly and encouraged him to follow.
Richie was further ahead, grumbling to himself. Suddenly he turned around and was shocked to see Simon slowly headed for a wide crevice.
"Stop, Simon!", he warned him.
But Simon kept walking in a daze towards the wonderful fragrance teasing his nose and Aunt Abygale, whose friendly face was gradually transforming into a malevolent grimace. "That's right, come to me, lad. The pies are so warm and taste so sweet. I sprinkled them with powdered sugar, just the way you like them!", she murmured and pulled him further into her spell.
"Yes, just a few more steps, my child. And then they are all yours." Simon was no longer aware of his surroundings. The beguiling fragrance of the blueberry pies fogged his senses and he was not aware of the danger he was in. Abygale grew impatient and called to Simon with a voice that was loud and bossy. The creature hiding behind her countenance could hardly wait for Simon to fall into the depths below. She lurked back and forth without taking her eyes off of him.
"Just one more step! Get a move on!", she nagged.
Simon slowly took his last step. He no longer had control over his own body. His legs moved by themselves. Just when he was about to step into empty space, Simon recognized the ugly delusion that was deceiving him.
There was no trace of Aunt Abygale anywhere. The doomed creature shouted victoriously, exposing its black rotten teeth. Worms crawled out of her mouth and strands of hair hung in turmoil in her face. Laughing madly, she flung the tray with the sweet-smelling pies far from her. All that remained of the sweet illusion was a pile of dead, stinking rats on the ground. "Simon, stop!", he heard Richie from behind. But Simon could not stop himself from moving forward. He tried to fight it with all his might and his heart raced. He knew exactly what would happen if he kept walking. But the creature had him under his spell so much that he could no longer fight against it.
Simon lost his balance and closed his eyes in fear. Before he plunged into the deep, however, a strong hand grabbed him and pulled him back out of the crevice with a jerk. He landed roughly on the stony ground.
"Simon, Simon!", he heard Richie, who came running in panic. "Hey, buddy, are you OK?", Richie asked and kneeled beside him. He'd survived! Simon was surprised and looked into Richie's worried face, still a bit stunned.
"Are you totally out of your mind?", he scolded and grabbed Simon by the shoulders.
"You were taken in by an evil illusion, Simon", Lhasmo cut in before Simon could speak.
"I don't know what got into me", Simon stammered in confusion and tried to comprehend what had happened. "I couldn't do anything else other than to follow her", he explained and peered, full of horror, down into the deep crevice that would have been his death.
"This whole place is accursed. A creature can be waiting to mislead you anywhere, after every bend and behind any boulder. Your carelessness could have been the end of us all. Your death would mean the destruction of Morana. Don't forget that", Lhasmo warned them.
The boys felt guilty as they looked at the elf.
"Thank goodness all went well again", Lhasmo smiled in relief and led them back to the group.
Relieved to have once again escaped harm, Simon and Richie swore never to let it happen again. The creature who tried to lure Simon to his doom was nothing more than a grotesque shadow.
"You shall not escape me!", sounded a creepy whisper one last time through the mountain, before it vanished completely.
As it turned out, Simon wasn't the only one who had nearly been misled by the damned souls. Nanik told them that the spell of a terrifying illusion was also cast on Anjoux. She stood helplessly as she watched Rodan destroy the people of the mist fairies and defeat her mother in combat. Transfixed with a pale face, the elf girl was still looking back to where the awful scene had taken place. She wiped the last tears from her eyes and turned to the others with resolve. "There's no way we're giving up. We owe that much to those who have already given their lives for Morana!", she swore to her friends and clenched her tender little fists. Simon felt guilty. What would have become of Morana, if Lhasmo hadn't saved him in the nick of time? What would have happened to his friends if he had fallen to his death? Again it became clear to him how Morana's destiny depended on his survival. The responsibility lay heavy on his shoulders. He didn't want to think about what remained ahead for them.
He still had no idea what to do when they would finally reach the Well of Hope. Was victory over Rodan the only way for them to get back home?
The nervous flapping of the dragon's wings interrupted his thoughts.
"People, something strange is going on here. I sense it very clearly!", Grewels whispered and looked cautiously to all sides. He had just finished speaking when the ground under them began to quake and shadows came rushing towards them from the rock walls. Lhasmo quickly huddled them into a tight circle.
Laughing and hooting loudly, the shadows swirled around and slowly encircled the group. Scary grimaces appeared out of the darkness. Simon expected to be swallowed at once by one of the grotesque faces. The creatures of the Damned mustered all of their strength one last time to prevent the group from moving on. This was the end, Richie thought, and pulled his cloak protectively over his head.
The mountain trembled with roaring thunder and the rock in front of them split in two with a deafening crunch. The Gate of the Damned finally opened again and let them go. They shivered in the clear cold winter air that came through the crevice. "How wonderful!", Anjoux hooted in delight and pointed to the crevice, where a soft warm light was pouring into the mountain. Simon felt the scale of the dragon king begin to vibrate. He gingerly placed a hand over it. All at once warmth and happiness flowed through him like he had never experienced before. All the perils, coldness and fear of the past were forgotten. They watched in fascination as Asragur's scale absorbed the incoming light and then blasted a single glistening beam of light back out into the night.
"That must be the sign! Come on, let's get out of here! Head for the exit! This night has more things in store for us", Lhasmo moved them on and guided them through the crevice into the clear winter night. And just like that, they were surrounded by biting cold but didn't mind at all. They were just happy to have made it through the Gate of the Damned unharmed.