Small clouds appeared in the otherwise clear starlit sky. Mount Tularon rose up before them with its snow-covered, moonlit peaks. There were deep snow-covered valleys and innumerable passes ahead of them which would no doubt greatly hinder their progress.
Curiously they looked in the direction the light was coming from. Simon opened his leather bag and fetched the telescope he had found in the dusty chest in Aunt Abygale's attic. The elves and the dragon looked on with interest as Simon extended the brass telescope and looked through it.
His heart beat faster and faster. The entrance to the Well of Hope was within reach. The warm light shimmered gently, well-hidden at the end of a narrow ravine deeply covered with snow. Simon sighed and lowered the telescope.
"What's wrong?", Richie wanted to know, taking the instrument from Simon and looking through it expectantly.
"Oh no, not again!", Richie groaned in disappointment. "So what's new?! I might have known!", he grumbled to himself and handed the spyglass to Lhasmo, who took the "magic eye" and looked through it somewhat baffled. Simon laughed. "You have to look through the small end", he explained to the Elder. So Lhasmo put the strange contraption up to his right eye, for a moment transfixed by what he was seeing. He lowered the telescope and, glancing at where the light was coming from, narrowed his eyes and looked again through the fascinating instrument. "Absolutely amazing!", he murmured to himself. "I can see the entrance to the Well as if it's right in front of me. I understand your disappointment very well, Richie. It is well hidden and doesn't seem like we will be able to simply stroll up to it", Lhasmo realized and returned the spyglass to Simon.
"I've got to see it with my own eyes!", Grewels exclaimed and grabbed the telescope before Nanik and Dakko could get their hands on it. The dragon extended the telescope impetuously and closed it again, several times, with a loud "click". He examined the strange thing in detail from all sides. Grewels opened the telescope again and used it to scratch his scaly back and then did a good job balancing it on his nose. Just as he prepared to stick the small end of the telescope in an ear, an irritated Anjoux grabbed the magic instrument from him, shook her blond curls in disgust and looked in to the distance.
"What?", the dragon asked innocently and peered into the amused faces of this friends.
Anjoux was just lowering the telescope again when suddenly the lamenting howl of a wolf broke the silence of the night. "Shadow wolves", Simon was alarmed and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. All of them froze in place for a moment. They waited in silence and held their breaths as they listened to the night. Lhasmo was the first one who dared to move. He let his eyes wander into the distance in worry.
"It seems that our head start is not as great as I had originally assumed. Time to move on!", he decided and urged the others to get going.
"I'll scout the area and cover your backs from the air", Grewels said and flew away.
Lhasmo stood still for a moment while he watched Grewels disappear, before they continued their march through the snow-covered mountain range.
The winter conditions slowed them down considerably. Time and again Lhasmo stopped and listened, glancing in all directions. He'd had the sensation for a while now that they were no longer alone. As they drew nearer to the entrance of the Well, the dreadful howls of the shadow wolves increased from the snowy hillsides around them. They must have been nearby, even though they had not yet showed themselves.
The wolves had begun playing a macabre game with their prey. "Where'd the dragon go?", Lhasmo wondered after a long while and trudged on through the deep snow. Simon was wondering the same thing and could only hope that nothing had happened to Grewels. He was convinced that, without the dragon's help, they didn't stand a chance against the wolves. Simon felt for the scale of the dragon king hanging from his neck. As before, it filled him with a warm gentle feeling that drove out all fear and doubt.
Anjoux, who had been walking silently next to Richie and Simon, began to sing quietly. It was an ancient method of the elves to bring luck and courage to hunters and warriors. The icy wind carried the melody and words of comfort from the little elf over the snow-covered peak of Mount Tularon and throughout the land. Only the girl's blond curls and the tip of her nose were visible from under the cloak.
Every creature listened in quiet fascination, knowing full well that Morana's destiny was at stake.
The path led them higher and higher into the mountain range. The higher they came, the colder the wind blew in their faces. They would soon arrive at the pass where Rodan and the dragon king had once fought bitterly. From there, the path would branch off to the canyon of Mount Tularon. And not far from there, where Asragur suffered defeat by the hand of the black elf was the entrance to the Well of Hope.
They stayed close together and remained on alert while looking around in all directions. Time and again the hunting call of the shadow wolves sounded.
"You hear that?", Richie asked, out of breath and nearly tripping over his own feet for fright. "I have the feeling that they're all around us and getting closer", he shivered and glanced around nervously. "They're up to something, that's for sure", Simon said and let his eyes roam the snow-covered hills.
"If only Grewels were here", Richie complained. But their friend was nowhere in sight. "The dragon will be back in time when we need him", Lhasmo encouraged them. He had his own doubts about whether they would ever see the dragon again, though he chose to keep such thoughts to himself.
Teldan had joined Lhasmo at the head of the group. The courageous and experienced warrior calmly led them higher and higher into the mountains.
At the first howls of the wolves they kept their bows and arrows at the ready. Their watchful eyes didn't miss the slightest movement.
Lhasmo gave Nanik a subtle cue to draw his bow. Cautiously, he led his friends around the next bend.
They reached a plateau strewn with huge boulders. The wind joined forces with the shadow wolves and howled from between the boulders. From up here there was only one path leading to the tangled gorge of the mountain and to the entrance of the Well of Hope. A narrow pass carved into the rock wall led from the plateau down into the deep ravine.
A soft light penetrated the night from within.
"Simon, where is the dragon king's dagger?", Lhasmo asked anxiously. "You should have it ready at all times. Rodan won't wait too much longer!" Simon nodded tensely and wrapped his cold fingers around the dagger's handle, ready to give Rodan a mortal blow the first chance he got.
"Stay back!", Teldan warned all at once and signalised them to stand still. They heard a deep growl. Before they knew it, a huge wolf leaped out from behind a boulder. Baring its fangs, he blocked their path.
Anjoux let out a yelp and took a step back. The giant black beast stood before them drooling, with ears flattened and hackles up, with an evil look from fiery red eyes.
One false move and the creature would tear them to pieces with its razor-sharp teeth. That much was sure, Richie thought, and stared paralyzed into the eyes of the shadow wolf.
"Stay behind me!", Lhasmo whispered. "We are going to slowly make our way towards the pass. When I say run, then run and don't look back! Is that clear?", he asked them, without taking his eyes off the wolf. They nodded in unison and got ready.
Teldan, Nanik and Lhasmo kept the black beast at bay while slowly nearing the pass, step by step. The wolf followed their every step, ready to attack at any time. Anjoux took Simon and Richie by the hand. The poor girl was trembling all over.
They had already put a good deal of the pass behind them but it was clear to Simon that, should it come to a fight here, there would be no escape for them. They could only walk straight on in the direction of the ravine, not knowing what would be awaiting them there. They had no other choice. A massive rock wall rose up to the sky on their left and the edge of the pass on their right dropped off hundreds of yards below into the depths.
The cawing of a raven interrupted the strained silence.
Suddenly the wolf paused briefly but kept an eye on each and every one of their movements. All at once, an entire pack of hungry wolves appeared from out of the shadows of the surrounding rocks and gathered around their leader.
And again the cry of the raven sounded.
With a sense of foreboding, Lhasmo searched the night sky overhead. "We're getting company", he informed his friends, every fibre of his body tensing. They discovered the large raven in the starlit sky, which first circled above them and then landed in the midst of the wolves. Shortly before touching down on the snow-covered ground, the black bird stretched his wings and took on the form of Rodan. He slowly floated to the ground and remained standing among the shadow wolves.
They were finally standing face to face for the first time. No sound could be heard and the friends were extremely tense. The wind blew the long black hair out of Rodan's face and he sized up his adversaries with cold grey eyes. The feathers of his coat shimmered in the moonlight and danced in the frosty wind.
Lhasmo slowly pushed his charges backwards, step by step.
"Lhasmo, old friend", Rodan addressed the Elder. “It’s nice to see you again after such a long time. You have my thanks for bringing the lad this far alive and well. Your job is done and over with. Give me the child and the rest of you can take off and not a hair on your heads will be harmed. You have my word", Rodan promised.
Lhasmo shook his head. "Your word has never been worth much, Rodan. We will keep going and the boy will arrive at his intended destination, just as it is written in the prophecy of the dragon king", countered Lhasmo, placing himself protectively in front of Simon.
Rodan laughed. "Don't be a fool, Lhasmo. Do you really believe that a small boy can govern a country the size of Morana? The old Asragur was weak and insane when he thought that a human child could simply take his seat on the dragon's throne and steer the destiny of Morana. The country needs a new and powerful ruler. A true king, who has the power to unite the various people of our country. A king who can lead Morana into a secure future!", Rodan's voice thundered and the wolves joined in with howls of cheer.
"You are not of royal blood, Rodan! You are an outcast who has forfeited the right to a life in Morana. The banishment served you right for hundreds of years and will continue to do so in the future. The dragons have always ruled over Morana, allowing the country to flourish in peace and prosperity. The prophecy of the dragon king states that only this boy can cause Morana to blossom again as of old. Thus wrote Asragur once upon a time on the sacred stones at the Well. The prophecy shall be fulfilled! I will make sure of it, even if it's the last thing I do!" Lhasmo countered courageously and prepared for battle.
"Believe me, dear Lhasmo, it will definitely be the last thing you do!", Rodan snorted with wrath. He angrily stretched his fists to the sky and dark clouds came over the snow-covered peak of the mighty mountain range. All at once, a storm brewed over them. The wolves howled combat-ready and Rodan bellowed his magic spell into the night.
The storm arose and whipped snow in their faces. Thunder and lightning shook the ground. Lhasmo, Nanik and Teldan formed a wall in front of the others. Rodan screamed curses into the wind and turned in anger to Tamir and his pack. "Don't forget our pact, wolf. Freedom and redemption for you when you bring me the boy unharmed", he reminded the leader of the pack about their agreement. Then he turned back to Lhasmo and pointed a finger at the Elder and his companions.
Lhasmo turned around to Simon and Richie. "Now, run as fast as you can!" He didn't have to tell them twice. Simon, Richie, Anjoux and Dakko ran for their lives towards the small ravine, where the light of the Well was softly shining into the darkness of the night.
They heard Rodan set the shadow wolves on them. "Kill them all! But bring me the boy!", he commanded, and the beasts attacked the three elves who were standing in their way. With one enormous jump, three of the huge creatures pounced on Teldan. As quick as lightning, he and Nanik shot their first arrows at their opponents. But before they were slain, Lhasmo froze the attacking wolves in place with one move of his hands.
Rodan screamed with anger. "Your magic is not strong enough to save yourself and your friends! Even if you're not torn to bits by the shadow wolves, I will kill the boy this night and lead Morana into a new era!", Rodan laughed grimly. Before Lhasmo could attack, Rodan changed back to a huge raven and flew away with a caw. With irrepressible anger, Lhasmo watched as the dark bird made its way in the direction of the ravine where Simon and the others had sought refuge.
"Rodan is right. My magic is not strong enough. We have to leave at once and join the others. Soon the shadow wolves will awake out of their frozen state and hunt us down", Lhasmo said to the brave archers, who couldn't take their eyes off the picture before them. Even the arrows that Nanik and Teldan had shot off were frozen in midair, ready to pierce their targets with deadly accuracy.
The three hurried away. They wished to reach the entrance to the ravine before the wolves began to stir. They closed in on their destination, fighting against storm and snow. It felt like they were being pushed back again and again by the wind. About halfway along the pass they could hear the yelping and whimpering of the unfortunate creatures pierced through by the arrows. There were angry howls and Lhasmo saw the pack coming their way in long jumps, with revenge in their eyes. Nanik and Teldan quickly shot off a few arrows at the charging wolves, albeit to no affect. The wind slammed the arrows against the rock wall, smashing them in a thousand pieces. Just then, Lhasmo, Teldan and Nanik reached the entrance to the ravine. But right when they believed to be safe, they stepped into empty space and slid several yards into the deep. They landed roughly in front of their friends, who had been longing for their presence.
"You finally made it!", Anjoux cried out in relief and helped them to their feet. Lhasmo, Teldan and Nanik brushed off the snow and glanced around cautiously. They were standing in a deep, rugged gorge in the middle of an endless range of mountains. Innumerable caves and tunnels branched off and disappeared in the rock walls that arose darkly before them. So which was the right way to go? Hoping to find some sort of clue, Lhasmo looked around searchingly. But there was absolutely nothing to see.
Simon brought out the scale of the dragon king from under his cloak. His friends drew closer to have a look at Asragur's scale, which was now shining brighter than ever before at this sacred place. Simon gently laid his hand over the scale and briefly closed his eyes.
"We have to go to the east!", he determined and was ready to leave when Richie held him back.
"What's that terrible smell?", he asked and wrinkled his nose. Simon also detected a rotten odor. While the two were wondering whether the Well of Hope would welcome them with such a nasty smell, the odor hanging in the air put the elves on high alert.
"Nagrims!", Anjoux whispered and fear was written all over her face.
The words had just left her mouth when Tamir, the leader of the shadow wolves, jumped down into the ravine and landed a short distance away from them in the snow, with the Nagrim Oldur right behind. The wolf sized up his adversaries with glowing eyes. Lhasmo, Teldan and Nanik pushed the others behind them. Oldur, the devious Nagrim full of warts, who had helped his lord Rodan to defeat Asragur, stood before them with a smile of satisfaction on his face.
"Well now that explains the stink!", Lhasmo gave a little cough in disgust.
"My smell won't be disturbing you much longer, elf!", Oldur glared at Lhasmo.
"Is Rodan losing his powers so that he has to send his stinking servants to secure the dragon throne?", Lhasmo continued provoking the Nagrim, while Simon, Richie, Anjoux and Dakko slowly retreated.
"The mockery will be wiped from your face!", Oldur shot back.
"Let's take care of them right here!", Tamir growled impatiently and took a step towards the elves.
"No, no, let's not do that, my friend. A hunt without playing is not a real hunt", Oldur whispered into the shadow wolves ear.
The Nagrim's loud whistle echoed off the walls of the ravine. In no time, one shadow wolf after another leaped down from the rocks. The bloodthirsty pack growled as they gathered around Tamir, ready to attack.
"Let's go!", Simon said and grabbed Richie. With Anjoux and Dakko close behind, they ran deeper into the gorge.
"What about the others?", Richie panted.
"They will fight and try to hold off the wolves. I can only hope that we find the Well before those beasts catch up", Anjoux shouted.
When they felt it was safe, they stopped and looked back. Anjoux was right. The fight was in full swing. The deadly arrows of the elves whooshed through the air, taking down one wolf after another. The elves defied their attackers with courage and determination. But it seemed that the onslaught was too much for the elves. For every shadow wolf killed, two more would stand in its place.
Simon was ready to hurry back to the aid of his friends. "There are too many of them! They won't make it without our help! We have to do something!", he cried in desperation. But before he could race back to them, thunder roared in the ravine. "What's that?!", Dakko yelped for fear and pointed towards the rock walls. Thick pieces of rock fell from the steep walls and plummeted to the bottom. Lhasmo, Teldan and Nanik brought themselves to safety, while a great number of the wolves were slain by the falling rocks. They watched the horrible spectacle from the distance, helpless to do anything even if they'd wanted to. It looked like the ravine was going to cave in. The rumble spread throughout the ravine, causing rocks to break over their heads as well. They had to find a hiding place quickly before the rocks fell on them as well. One group of shadow wolves broke free from the turmoil and gave chase with large leaps. Just as the children turned to run, huge flames darted out of the rock walls, forcing their pursuers to retreat.
"Wow, did you see that?!", Richie shouted and stood spellbound.
"Richie, move it! Come on, let's go! We can't stop now! Or you'll be buried alive in this ravine!", Simon shouted against the thunder that was growing louder. He grabbed Richie's arm and tried to get him moving.
"But the walls aren't collapsing at all! Those are dragons, Simon! Look! There are all kinds of them!", he exclaimed and leaped for joy.
"He's right, Simon! Those are cliff dragons!", Anjoux squealed with excitement. "They really do exist. They haven't been seen for centuries now. Rodan was supposed to have destroyed them all. Instead of killing them, he turned them to stone here in this ravine. And now the time has come for them to be freed from their prison. Now that is a very good sign indeed! I'm so happy! If only Grewels were here to see this!", the little elf beamed. "I'm already here, little Anjoux!", she heard the trusty voice of her friend, as a dark shadow passed over their heads.
"Grewels, Grewels! We're down here!", Simon called to the dragon, and his voice cracked for joy. The four of them waved wildly to Grewels.
"I see you! See that you get out of there. More and more wolves are on their way. Even some Nagrims have joined forces with them. Run as fast as you can and get to safety. My brothers and I will stand by the elves in combat. Simon, find the Well and bring all of this to an end! It's time for peace to return to Morana. It's up to you now, Simon!", Grewels shouted and with an angry roar, flew to join the fight.
"You heard what he said, people. Let's go! Simon turned around one more time. The narrow ravine was covered with debris. Pieces of rock were still breaking from the walls and plummeting down. Everywhere they looked, dragons were breaking out of their stone prisons with their huge wings. It was as though they were being born for the second time. They continued to spit their fire into the ravine. One after the other would break free and at once plunge down, snorting with rage, to fight alongside the elves against Rodan's allies. No time to delay!", Simon said.
They could hardly avert their gaze. The sky over the ravine was filled with dragons, nose-diving courageously to their enemies below. The arrows whooshed through the night, seldom missing their targets. Two shadow wolves had pounced on a dragon which had been brought down to the ground by a Nagrim's slingshot.
The dragon angrily straightened up and hurled the wolves against a boulder. But they got to their feet and attacked again. Lhasmo took aim and shot a magic arrow that pierced the heart of one of the wolves, sending it to the ground with a short yelp, where the beast laid dead. Before the second one could pounce, the dragon hissed fire and burned the wolf alive.
He glanced around furiously and spotted the hated Nagrim who had knocked him out of the sky with his slingshot. With two flaps of his wings, the angry dragon flew high in the sky, carrying the Nagrim away. His claws dug deeply into the flesh of his enemy, who was wriggling and screaming.
Simon and Richie felt a cold shiver run down their spines. Even from so far away they could hear the screams of the Nagrim. The dragon climbed higher into the night sky, far above the battlefield, and flew in circles. Suddenly his claws let the struggling bundle fall, and the screaming ceased.
It was the last straw for Anjoux. She had seen enough of the bloody battle. Pale in the face, she turned to Simon. "Grewels is right. All of this bloodshed must stop! Our friends might lose their lives this night, but we dare not lose Morana!", she drew their attention back to the task at hand.
Simon looked at her calmly and nodded. How wise and brave this little elf was. She didn't cease to amaze him. She would never give up, would never lose sight of her ultimate objective. She would rather die, than to do that.
"Then we'd better hurry before it's too late", Richie grabbed Simon.
"You guys are right!", Simon conceded and so they continued on their way in search of the Well.
Their path led them deeper into the ravine. The Well couldn't be much further, that much was clear. Untouched snow lay before them. Meanwhile, the bitter combat between their friends and the shadow wolves and the Nagrims were far behind them. Nothing could be heard except for the sound of their steps crunching in the snow. All at once Simon felt warm all over and the scale of the dragon king began to vibrate. But this time it felt completely different. He could feel Asragur's heartbeat. It was overwhelming, causing him to stagger and then to stop, out of breath.
"Hey, what's wrong?", Richie asked concerned, while Anjoux and Dakko also stood still and looked at Simon inquiringly.
"I can feel his heartbeat. We have arrived. Of that I am sure", Simon wheezed and pointed to the entrance of a small cave, well hidden between the rocks.
Silvery white light shimmered gently their way.
"Wow, you see that light? It would seem that, after all the adventure and danger we've been through, we have finally come to the end of our journey. I had stopped believing that we would ever make it this far. But here we are! It's absolutely fantastic!", Richie rejoiced and peered curiously at the cave's entrance.
"Come on, what are we waiting for? Let's go in and you can do whatever it is you're supposed to do. Then we can get back home!", Richie babbled and shoved them towards the entrance.
"Let's stay together", Anjoux whispered as they slowly entered the cave. "I have the feeling that we won't be alone much longer. Rodan will block our path soon, no matter how far we've come. We are not there yet. He will do everything in his power to stop us and finally reach his goal. So be on your guard", she admonished the three boys, before they vanished into the cave. They took cautious steps deeper into the cave. At some points, they could only move forward by crouching down or crawling on all fours. "Simon, are you sure that we took the right entrance? I have a feeling that we might get stuck here soon and not be able to move forward or backward", Richie feared, who was crawling behind Simon. "Yes, I am sure. Trust me! It's getting lighter up ahead. Hang in there! Just a ways more and we'll be there!", he encouraged them and crawled on in determination.
Simon was right. A few minutes later they were able to stand erect in the middle of a large cave, albeit with scuffed up knees.
They looked around curiously. The many passages they had gone through, partly crawling on their bellies, had led them to deep within the mountain. It was much warmer here below that it had been in the snow-covered ravine where they had left their friends fighting for their lives.
Hundreds of bats dwelled in this mysterious place. Startled by the uninvited guests, they fluttered around on the ceiling of the cave, squeaking in annoyance. It seemed they were venting their displeasure over the disturbance with loud insults and the vigorous beating of their wings. "I believe we are not welcome here", Richie remarked, who quickly ducked his head to avoid the attack of one of the agitated cave dwellers. Simon and Dakko also had trouble concentrating on what lay ahead. They too had to fight off attacks, as the bats were whizzing around their heads. Three more passages lay ahead and branched off from the cave. "Guys, we'd better think of something quickly! We have to get out of here before we're eaten alive by these beasts!", Richie urged, waving his arms wildly all around him. "Which passage do we take, Simon? Hurry up! They're tearing out my hair and picking at my ears!", Dakko whined, who had attracted the most bats.
"Oh man, I have no idea!", Simon shouted desperately and slapped angrily with his leather bag at one of the pesky attackers.
"Light is coming out of all three passages. But only one of them can be the right one", Anjoux wondered, hoping to choose the right passage. The small elf stood in front of the passageways and perked up her ears, strangely unmolested by the enraged bats. "Psst!", she hissed and put a finger to her lips. "Do you hear that? There is water nearby. I hear quiet splashing!", she whispered and signalised the other to follow. They approached the three passages cautiously and listened.
"You're right. I hear it too, very clearly!", Simon confirmed and listened again. "Ouch, that hurt!", Richie swore, attacked once more by a bat. "These little monsters are going to eat us up if we don't choose one of these stupid holes real soon!"
Unbothered by Richie's nagging, Simon and Anjoux took their time examining each opening. They went from one entrance to the next, paused as quiet as a mouse and listened to the silence for what seemed like forever to Richie and Dakko. "It's the middle one, I'm sure. That's where the splashing is the loudest. That must be the entrance to the Well!", Simon concluded. Anjoux nodded in agreement and at once they disappeared between the rocks. "Hey, wait for us!", Richie and Dakko called and hurried after Anjoux and Simon.
They advanced slowly ahead. It was a narrow passageway that led them even deeper into the mountain. Simon was absolutely sure that they had chosen the correct entrance, because the further they proceeded, the more clearly the ripple of the Well could be heard, hidden somewhere deep within the mountain.
After following the passage for quite a while, they turned a bend and abruptly ran into a wall. Great! It seemed they could go no further. Simon looked at Anjoux for help. The little elf herself didn't have a clue and could only shrug her shoulders. "Looks like we took the wrong passageway after all, doesn't it?", Richie interjected, although that would mean going all the way back to the start and trying another passage.
"No, I just can't believe it!", Simon replied and looked around searchingly. "It goes on somewhere here, I'm pretty sure.
Anjoux started feeling out the walls and searching the ground. "Check everything around, perhaps we're overlooking something. There must be something here that will unblock our path to the Well. Maybe a lock or a latch", she encouraged. She started knocking meticulously on every inch of the wall that was blocking their way. Encouraged, the others followed suit and searched every little crevice for some sort of lever that would cause the massive rock wall to slide open. It wasn't long before they realized that their searching was in vain. Discouraged at having been hindered once again in reaching their destination, they crouched down on the cold floor and brooded about whether they should trace their way back and try another passageway. Only Simon paced back and forth, refusing to believe that they had failed so shortly before their destination. "This just can't be!", he exclaimed and kicked the nearest stone in anger. Before he could even think about the pain in his foot from the kick, the rock wall moved and provided a small opening in the floor. Simon hopped around on one foot while holding the other one in pain. The others giggled when they heard Simon grumbling to himself.
Curious, Dakko went over to the opening, got on his stomach and peered down inside. Richie and Anjoux did the same and then Simon joined them, after the pain had settled down. They saw stairs leading down into the depths along the rock wall.
And there it was again: the warm light of the Well waiting for them, at the bottom of the stairs far below. The massive structure that dragons had once carved into the rocks was impressive indeed. The children could only stare down into the opening in amazement.
"That's the longest stairs I've ever seen", Simon was the first to speak and dropped a small stone down into the depths. With their heads close together, they listened for the stone to crash at the bottom of the stairs. But they waited in vain. After a while, they realized there was no way around the fact that they would have to find out themselves how far down the stairs would take them into the mountain.
"Let's go. We don't have any other choice anyway. If this is the only way to the Well, then we will have to take the stairs", Simon concluded. They stood around the narrow opening, not sure what to do.
"Sure hope we don't have to come back the same way", Anjoux teased and winked at Richie. "Oh no, anything but that!", Richie groaned and looked imploringly at the group. The others laughed.
They lowered themselves into the narrow hole, one after another, and dropped down onto the top step.
They looked around curiously. The place was anything but homey. The stairs themselves were no more than a yard wide, which meant they would have to walk down in single file. Simon studied every little detail of the fascinating construction. Hard to imagine, that they were walking inside of a mountain. A huge shaft opened before them, where nothing else could be seen other than the impressive stairs that spiraled down unendingly to what they hoped would be the Well of Hope.
They started their descent on the uneven and slippery steps with an uneasy feeling. A few steps down, Dakko suddenly slipped and did a balancing act at the edge of a step, swinging his arms wildly to keep from falling. Before he lost his balance completely, Anjoux grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back. "Watch your footing. Lhasmo won't be able to raise you from the dead a second time", she warned Dakko, and then continued her descent. Dakko glanced behind him, still trembling and pale. The deep abyss, along with the fact there was no place to hold on, made him nervous. Anjoux was right there would be no second chance for him. And so he joined his friends, albeit on wobbly legs.
The stairs led them ever deeper below. Anjoux led the group and set the pace. She put her small feet down on the slippery steps with caution and warned the others of any uneven surfaces. Simon, who brought up the rear behind Richie, was so focused on his steps that he didn't hear the quiet flapping of wings above their heads.
"Psst!", Anjoux whispered. She suddenly stopped and signaled to the others to perk up their ears.
"What's wrong? Why are we stopping?", Richie asked and glanced around tensely. "Didn't you boys here that? It was like a bird just flew over our heads. Of course it could have been a bat. I felt a gentle breeze go by. It couldn't have been my imagination. Something is wrong here!", she brooded and scratched her head in thought.
Suddenly the top part of the stairs began to rumble. "Oh damned, that doesn't look good!", Dakko noticed and pointed upwards.
"What's going on up there?", Simon asked nervously as he glanced up at the steps they had already been on.
They stood rooted in their places and watched helplessly as cracks appeared in each of the steps above, one after another, before breaking into pieces and plunging into the depths below. What were they to do now?
"Move, move!", Simon shouted as they hurried down the stairs. "Anjoux, what should we do? At the rate those steps above us are disintegrating, we will never make it to the bottom in time! We need another plan, you hear? And right now!", Simon wheezed, taking two steps at a time behind the little elf.
Anjoux stopped abruptly, causing the boys to tumble, nearly knocking each other from the stairs.
"Are you guys crazy?", Richie was out of breath. "This is definitely not a good time to take a break!"
Anjoux thought for a brief moment, peering down over the edge of the stairs.
"You're right, it's not looking good. I agree that we won't make it to the bottom in time. The steps are falling apart too quickly. We can't keep up this speed much longer. As a matter of fact, there is a way out, though a bit dangerous", she told them and looked adventuresome.
"Oh no, don't tell me you're planning to do what I think you are!", Simon groaned and peered down warily into the depth below.
"Come on, tell us! We can't stand here much longer!", Richie reminded her of their precarious situation.
"She wants to jump!", Simon pronounced and suddenly had an attack of weak knees. Richie and Dakko stared at Anjoux and Simon incredulously.
"You must be joking, right? No, no, a thousand times no! You can come up with something better than that! We can't simply step out into nothing!", Richie resisted Anjoux's proposal.
"But Lhasmo said ... ", Dakko began sheepishly.
"Lhasmo is not here! We don't even know if the others are still alive. We're on our own here and have to trust in our own decisions. And we need a decision at once! There is no other way. OK? The stairs is falling apart at an alarming rate. Even if we take three steps at a time, the stairs will break away under our feet before you know it", Anjoux tried persuading Dakko of her daring intentions.
Simon scratched his head. He wasn't crazy at all about the idea of a leap in the dark.
"Lads, she's right! We have to do it now. There's no other choice", he decided, as the steps under them began to vibrate.
The first cracks appeared under their feet. Simon looked at Anjoux sceptically. "Are you strong enough to carry all three of us below?"
She had a determined look on her face. "We'll find out in a moment. Let's do it! Simon, grab my right hand! Dakko and Richie, grab my left one. I'll count to three and then we'll jump. By the way, you can count on a rough landing", she warned her friends and pulled them to the edge of the stairs.
Richie groaned with fear and Dakko closed his eyes tightly. Simon stared at his feet, which were sticking out over the edge of the trembling stairs. All they could make out below was the soft glow of light. It was hard to estimate, however, how far they would drop. Anjoux held on tightly to their hands. The easy relaxed feeling he'd always had when floating with Anjoux in the past was slow in coming this time.
Anjoux counted to three. They pushed off from the step with all their might, before it crumbled and fell below with a loud crash. Screaming loudly, they rushed to the bottom in free fall. The cloaks blew around in their faces and their stomachs turned. They plunged rapidly downwards and Simon prayed that Anjoux would be strong enough to stop their fall.
It grew lighter all around them. Shortly they would smash into the ground below, Simon realized, and his senses started to fade. Shortly before he blacked out, he felt power from the little elf flowing into his body. At once he had that indescribable floating sensation. He had just opened his eyes again when they hit the rocky bottom with a slam and remained motionless.