The two friends set up their camp. A light wind was coming up, so it might turn chilly in the night. But that wouldn't ruin the adventure. They both wore thick sweaters and also took their jackets into the tent.
It turned dark and Simon and Richie were stretched out on their sleeping bags, gluing pictures into their album by the light of the lantern. Over in the house, Aunt Abygale had turned off the lights an hour before and the small estate was in ghostly darkness. In the back part of the garden, something rustled near the gorse bushes.
"What was that?" Richie said with a jolt and looked at Simon anxiously.
"No idea", he said and continued to nibble on his chocolate cookie and busy himself with his ships. "It was surely a rabbit", Simon said absently.
"Yeah, I suppose you're right", Richie calmed down some.
There was a rustling in the bushes again. It was so loud this time that even Simon was alarmed and looked up from his photo album. Twigs snapped. And then all was quiet again.
"I don't think a rabbit would make so much noise hopping through the bushes", Richard commented, his heart beating for fear. "Maybe we should better sleep in the house", he suggested and drew back into the tent.
"It could have been a fox", it occurred to Simon, knowing right away that this information wouldn't calm Richie down much. Especially since he wasn't sure himself and was also a bit nervous.
"Let's have a look", he suggested all of a sudden and grabbed his flashlight. Richie looked at him incredulously and instead of jumping up to look into matter, he entrenched himself in his sleeping bag.
"Come on, Richie, don't be a scaredy cat!" Simon prompted, shining his flashlight around in the dark garden. Richie anxiously moved a little closer to the opening of the tent when suddenly there was a rustling in the bush again. But this time they clearly heard wheezing.
From one moment to the next, the boys were terror-stricken. They carefully leaned out of the tent and pointed the flashlight in the direction of where they thought the strange noises were coming from.
The two friends froze and Richie nearly peed his pants for fear. Two green eyes starred at them from out of the thicket and they were absolutely sure that they were not the eyes of the neighbour's cat. Richie poked Simon. "You got any idea what we are supposed to do now?", he whispered fearfully.
"Not the slightest", Simon replied. And before they could consider who or what was staring at them from the undergrowth, the terror grew instantly worse. No more than twenty metres away, a fireball shot up into the air which slowly started to turn on its own axis and came towards them inexorably. Simon and Richie were paralysed with horror and fear. They couldn't move an inch, let alone bring themselves to say anything. They were rooted in front of their tent and stared spellbound at the fireball drawing menacingly near to them.
"Oh my goodness, a ball-lightning!", Richie screamed, the first one to find his voice again, and threw himself to the ground with his arms protecting his head.
"Simon, we're going to die. That thing's going to burn us alive!", he wailed at Simon's feet.
"Richie, that's not a ball-lightning! It must be something else!", said Simon, who couldn't take his eyes off the brightly shining ball. The faster it rotated and drew near to the boys, the more clearly the two friends became aware of the loud puffing and groan that came from within that turned into a bloodcurdling scream and ended abruptly when the ball reached the entrance of the tent. No longer rotating, the glistening bright ball of light hovered about a meter over Simon's head.
Simon tried to get a closer look and kept his hands over his eyes because of the bright light. A biting smell of sulfur reached their noses and Richie found the courage to place himself next to Simon when it became clear that the ball meant them no harm with all the noise it had made. "What the heck was that all about?", asked Richie, staring at the fireball and forgetting his fear.
"I don’t have a clue", Simon said.
Suddenly there was a strong blast, causing both of them to scream and knocking them back inside the tent onto their sleeping bags.
They remained still for a moment, completely stunned and not knowing what had happened. The loud whistling noise in their ears was staggering and they feared that they would never again be able to hear a peeping sound. They slowly recovered and dared a glance toward the front of the tent, where only a few moments before the fireball had hovered above their heads.
The smell of sulfur was stronger than ever and brought tears to their eyes. Not believing their eyes, a fat grey dragon was moving around in the grass in front of their tent. Silently moaning and cursing to itself, the creature stretched its wings. Carefully sweeping its scaly tail, the dragon raised its head while grumbling. With its mouth full of grass and dirt, the dragon finally looked directly at the boys with its fierce green eyes.
"Yuck, disgusting", snarled the enraged dragon and spit grass and black dirt in a high arc. Fascinated, Simon and Richie watched as their strange guest slowly sat back on strong hind legs. He was at least three heads taller than Richie with a scaly, slate grey body that was lighter in colour on his well-nourished belly, a powerful tail that slapped around furiously and strong, sharp claws. The wings were similar to those of a bat and situated on the back, and there were horny scales from the head to the tip of the tail. The head was lizard-like with small ears out of which small tufts of fur grew. Cunning green eyes, a wrinkled face and a wide mouth with sharp teeth completed the picture of their nocturnal visitor, which didn't exactly inspire confidence.
Outraged, the dragon puffed smoke out of his nostrils, looked down and gave himself a shake and grumpily began knocking the dirt from his scale-studded skin while stamping a foot and swearing.
"Just look at me, what a mess!" Simon thought, just as Richie, that he was dreaming and had difficulty believing what was going on before his eyes.
"Now that we know that dragons really exist, perhaps we should reconsider the theory of fish that climb up on roofs", Richie whispered, still staring in utter fascination as the grumbling dragon dusted himself off.
"Now's not the time for that, Richie", Simon said, turning silently to his friend and saw out of the corner of his eye how their scaly visitor was rummaging through a somewhat greasy-looking, old leather bag he was carrying over his shoulder.
"Not that too! Half of it is mush, squashed, inedible!", moaned the dragon and shook out the contents of the bag on to the ground. Simon and Richie couldn't believe their eyes when they saw fleecy and beeping little fur balls rolling around on the ground. The dragon sat down awkwardly in front of the tent and started sorting through his travelling companions. Those little fur balls that no longer moved, they had no doubt been cute little animals of some sort, were heedlessly thrown into the thicket. Those members of the tour group who were still alive he put back into the bag.
He held an extra fat specimen in his claws, examined it in detail and tossed it in the air. Simon and Richie's blood ran cold as suddenly a flame shot forward out of the mouth of their guest, turning the poor little squeaking creature into a flame before disappearing between the teeth of the hungry traveller. Simon turned white as a sheet and felt chills down his spine. Richie was also as quiet as a mouse and was about ready to throw up when he heard how the dragon enjoyed his meal, smacking his lips and chewing thoroughly.
The snack must have been overdue, for right after the scaly beast finished his meal, his facial features relaxed. Picking his teeth clean with a sharp claw, he was now interested in his surroundings. After a mighty burp, the dragon rubbed his belly in satisfaction and let his eyes come to rest on Simon and Richie. The situation seemed to relax a bit. Still they remained cautious, neither of them wanting to put their trust, just like that, in a fluffy ball grilling monster. After the three of them just sat there quietly looking at each other, however, curiosity caused Simon and Richie to move in a bit closer to the dragon.
"Who are you?", asked Simon.
"And where are you from and what are you doing here?", Richie added.
"My name is Grewels, Excubidor of the holy Well of Hope of Morana, Simon. And I've been looking for you for a long time now", the dragon replied with his deep, smoky voice while thrusting his chest out proudly.
"However, there was no mention in the prophecy about your round-eyed friend", Grewels commented with raised eyebrows and looked Richard over from top to bottom.
"These are glasses I'm wearing", said Richie indignantly and glared at the impudent dragon, who was rather amused by the boy's sudden courage but remained unperturbed. Simon couldn't make heads or tails out of what Grewels was saying.
"Excubidor?, Well of Hope?, Morana?, and what kind of story is that about a prophecy?", he stammered to the monster.
The dragon examined Simon with narrowed eyes and shaking his head, he sighed. "Oh my, you don't really know, do you? Oh dear, we'd better start at the beginning", groaned Grewels a bit irritated and said more to himself: "Great, just as I imagined it would be - an unenlightened human, together with such a perky, four-eyed friend. Always the same, everything's up to me and here the Gateway will be closing this night. I said from the beginning that I don't like field service. But nobody listens to me. Grewels can do it, he'll swing it somehow", he griped to himself.
"Err...", harrumphed Simon and interrupted Grewels, who was slowly drowning in self-pity.
"You seem to be pressed for time. Maybe you can just tell us the short version", he suggested to the dragon. Grewels paused briefly, looked at Simon reproachfully and thought for a moment.
"Hm, yeah OK", he snarled, "we don't have much time but I'll do my best".
"Once upon a time, a thousand years ago", Grewels began his story as Simon and Richie listened with pounding hearts.
"...the mighty dragon Asragur ruled over Morana, a land beyond imagination, created from the dreams and hopes of dragons. A holy Well deep within Mount Tularon, for centuries nurtured by the devotion of the dragons, was to be the center of the universe, of good, of abundance and of peace for all eternity. That's what the prophecy said.
Asragur was the greatest and most magnificent dragon of all. He was the first of our kind, chosen from the beginning of time to nurture the Well of Hope by his devotion, so that all beings in his kingdom could live forever in peace and prosperity.
One day it happened that a baby boy was born of the elves in the moorland Xuria. He was a strong child and filled his parents with joy and happiness, going by the name of Rodan; a boy who was different from others. He was taller and stronger than other kids his age, with black hair and cold, grey eyes. Over the years the boy turned into a full-grown elf, handsome but also cruel, and his people began to fear him because nothing good came out of him and he was in league with the powers of darkness. So it happened that the Council of Elders banished Rodan from Xuria for life, hoping never to fear him again and to live in peace.
Many years passed and as fate would have it, the aged Asragur was weary of his office and became careless. More and more he would fly over his kingdom, hoping somehow to escape his lonely calling in life. So it happened one day that Asragur's path crossed with Rodan's, who in the course of time had become a mighty but embittered wizard. Asragur was well aware of who he was dealing with but nevertheless entered a dangerous power struggle which would give the victor power over the Well of Hope as well as over all of Morana.
Asragur failed to obtain victory! His strength could not withstand Rodan's might. It suddenly occurred to the dragon king that he had been careless with the future of his kingdom. And it would be cast into an age of darkness and fear, should Rodan gain power over the Well of Hope.
With his last ounce of strength, he managed to withdraw into the deep caves of Mount Tularon. But he also knew that as long as Rodan was alive, he would not give up his search to find the Well and claim his prize.
There wasn't much time left for him to provide protection for his kingdom. The dragon king summoned his remaining powers of magic and banished Rodan to the castle of rocks in Lake Eldor, where he is waiting full of hate and hope that the Well will begin to dry up.
If the Well of Hope should shrivel to a mere trickle of water, Asragur's spell will be broken and he will arise over Morana. Near to death, Asragur wrote his last words on the sacred stones at the edge of the Well and his prophecy being revealed to a creature pure in heart, which comes to quench his thirst.
With strength fading and devotion to his great dream, Asragur nurtured the Well of Hope one last time by sinking down himself in its depths. Only one of his scales did he leave behind, the one he wore directly over his heart, to be found by the person who would one day come to free Morana.
Centuries went by in the land and it seemed that Rodan was to remain imprisoned in his castle for all eternity. But Asragur's magic was not powerful enough to protect his kingdom from Rodan's dark powers forever. The Well began to dry up and hope started to fade in the once flourishing country. Fear and distrust made their way into Morana. And the first bloody battles raged for the dragon throne of the once gracious ruler", Grewels continued, the boys spellbound by the words of the dragon.
"Like every other creature in Morana, Rodan also knew about the prophecy of the dragon king. But Asragur's magic was still too powerful for him to break out of his prison. He has therefore had no other choice than to sit around idly.
However, he has succeeded recently to subdue the people of Raven. The clever blackbirds have since been crowing treacherously in the air. He sends them in great flocks throughout the land so that the skies are darkened over Morana. Fear and terror has ruled our lives since then. Like a spider that lies in wait in its web for the next fly, Rodan is waiting for the Well of Hope to gradually dry up and to withstand the Chosen One.
The time has come!
The great Gateway to the Worlds has opened to clear the path to Morana for the Chosen One. The One, who can keep the Well from drying out and thus bring peace and hope once again to Morana. But the black elf will do everything in his power to stain the prophecy with the blood of the Chosen One so that he can finally rise up over Morana", the dragon explained and looked at Simon with imploring eyes.
"You are the Chosen One, Simon! You are the only one who has the power to block Rodan's way and free our country from this curse. Many dangers will await you, but trust me, you shall not be alone. Please, you must come with me through the Gateway. We are lost without you!", Grewels finished his story, blew his nose loudly and looked up again to see two incredulous faces.
Simon, holding Asragur's scale in his hands, was the first to speak up.
"Oh man, what an exciting story! I might be crazy, but are you absolutely sure that I am the Chosen One or did you lose your way coming here?", he asked the dragon in disbelief, who again had one of those little animals in his mouth.
Simon looked on in disgust as their gluttonous visitor reached into his leather bag again, grabbed one of the frightened, squeaking fur balls, threw it in the air and contently swallowed it with a grunt.
"And what in the world are those things you keep scarfing down?"
"Oh, those are deep-burrowers", the dragon replied absently while rummaging in his bag again for another snack and, finding a specially fat one, popped it into his mouth.
"Hmm, they're simply delicious. But they are not easy to find since they usually hide between the roots of grass apple trees. We cliff dragons love these little beasts. They tickle your throat when you swallow them in one piece!", Grewels laughed and then pondered Simon's actual question.
"And yes, Simon", smacking his lips in contentment. "We are certain. Asragur's scale is assigned for you. Otherwise I wouldn't have taken this long trip upon myself. Not to mention the detour coming here. I had no idea you were planning to make a journey", Grewels grumbled, who impressed Simon and Richie as rather lazy and gluttonous.
"When you were first born, the prophecy was revealed to one of our own that you are the only one who can save Morana. We knew of you and just had to wait until you were old enough", Grewels added while chewing.
"Who is we?", Richie butted in, after listening the whole time in silence. Grewels considered Richie with an unfriendly look, rolled his eyes and continued.
"We are cliff dragons, the last of our kind. There are an estimated one hundred of us left, and if the Well dries up completely, we will be no more in a few years", Grewels explained sadly.
"We have always been the guards of the Well, and still are today. Asragur was our king until the day he gave himself up for the benefit of all. Somehow he has remained our king to this very day. And we shall protect his legacy for all time. Should the Well dry up one of these days, which will soon be the case, young man, nobody will remember our kind Asragur; they will forget all about us as well", the dragon predicted.
"Therefore let us get going quickly. The Gateway to Morana is opened only this night. If we miss this point in time, then everything will be lost and we will be doomed.
Rodan will rise and defile or even destroy the Well, and hope will never return to our land again", Grewels lamented. Looking sideways to Richie he added: "If it has to be, your friend can come along as well", he confessed sullenly.
"That's really generous of you", Richie told the dragon. "Thanks a lot. I believe I'll pass", he was reluctant to help the unfriendly beast.
"Then I'll go by myself", Simon decided and saw how his friend's jaw dropped.
"Man, Richie, don't be an idiot! We have to help! At least I do! This adventure is right up our alley. We will never again experience such a thing", Simon tried to persuade him.
"Sure, if we survive", Richie replied with doubt. But of course he couldn't let Simon go alone. He was his best friend and he would definitely need his support on this journey. Letting him down was completely out of the question. If only it wasn't for this strange dragon's obscure story and his gross eating habits. Richie didn't trust the scaly beast the least bit and planned to keep an eye on him.
"Practically nothing can happen to you", the dragon said with a wide grin. He was so sure of himself.
"Well, OK", Richie gave in. "Let's pack up a few things. They quickly packed the absolute necessities. A couple of sandwiches Aunt Aby had made for Simon at midday, the bag of cookies from Mr. Twiggle's Ice Cream Parlour, a couple of lambchops, corncobs and some bread from dinner as well as Simon's pocket knife, the binoculars and the compass from the attic, and also a blanket.
Grewels told them to hurry. The dragon hopped around nervously and flapped his wings in a flurry. Simon looked at the dragon king's scale. "It's changing its colour again", he said to Grewels and held it up to the dragon. "What does it mean?", he wanted to know.
"Well", Grewels began a bit rushed. "Simply this: When the scale turns black, that means we were too slow! Is that explanation good enough for now?", he asked gruffly. Without waiting for an answer, he lumbered into the air with flapping wings and called to the boys. "Follow me! We've no time to lose and there's a long trip ahead of us".
Hurrying the two friends along, Grewels flew in the lead. The full moon was out on this cool night and Simon was glad to be wearing his thick pullover and jacket. But what was awaiting them? Could he trust the dragon? Richie, who was running next to him and cursing under his breath, didn't seem to trust Grewels.
They reached the foothills of Exmoor and made their way deeper into moorland along the cliffs. They could hear the raging waves of the windswept ocean
slamming in the rocks below. Quiet and spooky, the moor stretched out before them.
"Simon, I'm afraid!", said Richie. "What if this is a trap and he is just waiting to throw us off the cliff, so that he and his scaly kind can devour us bit by bit?", he whispered in worry.
"I don't feel so good about it either. We've been travelling well over an hour now without knowing where we are actually going, let alone how much further we have to go", Simon whispered back, making sure Grewels couldn't hear them.
"Grewels", Simon called to the dragon. "Where are you taking us?”.
The dragon turned, flapping his wings in the air, and looked annoyed at the boys. "Well, my friends. It's not much further. You see? Over there on the high cliffs is the Gateway to Morana", Grewels pointed out and kept flying in that direction. Simon and Richie wondered what this Gateway was all about.
Could they simply pass through it, did they need a key or perhaps it was not a Gateway in the traditional sense? From far away all they could make out were ominous black cliffs rising up before them, with waves raging against their rocks below and foam spraying upwards in the moonlight.
"We probably have to climb up some of the cliffs and the Gateway will be somewhere in a cave between the rocks", Richie guessed. Grewels stepped up speed and the boys had to pick up their pace just to keep up with the dragon. It smelled of heather and saltwater. The moon peeked out again from a thick cloud, revealing a small herd of wild ponies standing closely together next to a gorse bush not far from the travelling intruders. All was quiet, except for the sound of the surf below, the flapping of their mysterious companion's wings and their own hurried steps.
They were drawing near to the place Grewels had pointed to in what seemed ages ago. Simon could guess where the dragon was leading them to. The path grew steeper and the boys had to work hard to stay up with Grewels. With determination, the dragon pressed on, headed for the highest point they could see.
"Richie, it feels like we are almost there", Simon panted.
"Why do you think so?", Richie wanted to know, not feeling so good himself.
"Because up ahead is the highest point on Exmoor, the Great Hangman!", Simon explained out of breath. "I was up here with my dad one time. And believe me, it wouldn't be fun to climb those cliffs as well. Up there is a two hundred meter drop nearly straight down into the sea. One false step would end our adventure here and now, before it has even begun", Simon added dryly. Richie's face turned ashen and for fear he could only make a faint groan.
"What have I got myself get into?", he sighed to himself. "Close my eyes and hope for the best", he told himself. Now that they were already here, he had to know what else the night would bring.
Grewels had already reached the top of the cliff, stood flapping his wings and cheered the boys on to climb the last distance. "Just a few more feet and you've made it. Put some effort into it!", he commanded Simon and Richie, who crawled up onto the top of the Great Hangman pretty worn out and fell right away into some soft heather, where they remained for a moment to catch their breath.
They got to their feet at the same time and looked at Grewels, who was hovering way above them with lightly flapping wings.
"I can't see a Gateway anywhere", Richie said turning to Simon. He had a bad feeling that something here was foul. Simon, who was also looking around, turned to the dragon.
"Grewels, there's no Gateway here!", he shouted up to him.
"Be patient for just a moment. The Gateway will soon be ready to receive you", he encouraged them.
Simon and Richie looked at each other helplessly and fear arose in them. The wind picked up and the roaring of the sea at the bottom of the cliffs became louder and more powerful.
"It's time!", Grewels raised his voice towards the surf. The air began to shimmer all around the breakers. The night scenery on Exmoor in the moonlight seemed to dissolve before their eyes. They held each other's hands tightly. The Great Hangman they were standing on, with their backs to the abyss, started to quake and the raging waves turned louder and louder and thundered in their ears.
The moon was still visible, but otherwise everything sank into weaving darkness.
"Now!", Grewels shouted loudly into the roaring noise, shooting hot steam from his nostrils.
All of a sudden the dragon inflated to four times his size and then with all his might blew hot wind in the direction of the two friends.
The spray of hot air from the dragon's lungs was so strong that Simon and Richie were picked up off their feet and carried several meters out over the abyss, over open sea, where they plunged spinning into the deep.
They screamed for fright like they had never screamed before in their lives. Having completely lost their orientation, the poor boys raced with gruelling speed towards the stormy sea and surely to certain death.
The only thing Simon was aware of was a piercing scream that filled his ears. Had the dragon tricked them? It was his last thought before all was still and darkness surrounded him.