Simon was conscious of noise in his ears. "What a nightmare", he was thinking and didn't dare open his eyes yet. Where in the world was he? He remained very still. Something was moving under him. He could hear the wind blowing, but couldn't feel it.
They had been swept from the Great Hangman and plunged into a bottomless abyss. It seems that Grewels had played a deadly joke on them. Well, apparently they were dead and were on their way to nowhere. Simon slowly opened his eyes, first one and then the other. He froze! Were his senses tricking him? Richie lay next to him and began to stir and moan. He hoped that his buddy was all in one piece and would stay cool when he opened his eyes to take everything in, Simon worried.
"Hey Richie, wake up!", Simon whispered and shook his friend on the shoulder. Richie was holding his head. He felt like it was about to explode. He slowly opened his eyes, which at once opened so wide that Simon feared that they would pop right out of their sockets.
"Holy cow!", escaped from Richie's mouth. He sat up with a jerk and looked around in confusion. He and Simon were sitting between giant feathers on the back of a bird. At least he hoped that it was a bird, because he'd had enough of fire-spitting dragons.
"How the heck did we get here?", he wanted to know.
"Hmm", Simon tried to remember. "I believe Grewels literally blew us through the Gateway. And when we got through it, we fell into the deep. I can still remember a scream. Then all was dark. At first I thought it was you. But now I figure that it was the bird we are now sitting on, who is now taking us to who knows where. It looks as if the bird was waiting on the other side to catch us in the air", Simon concluded.
"That might all be true, but where is he taking us? And where the hell is Grewels? He's the one who got us into this!", Richie complained. And rightly so, Simon found. Carefully he got up on his knees, holding on to a giant feather, and signaled Richie to do the same.
Curious and yet afraid, they stuck their heads through the feathers, only to encounter an icy wind. They were in fact situated between the enormous wings of a mighty eagle. Nearly soundless, they glided through the air and saw nothing but water clear to the horizon.
"Greetings, Simon Knox, Deliverer of Morana and you too, Richard Dawson, welcome!", the boys heard the clear, friendly voice of the eagle. They looked at each other in disbelief. "I'm going crazy”, Richie whispered. "It’s a speaking eagle. Nobody would ever believe us", of that he was certain.
"Thank you for rescuing us. We are in your debt", Simon thanked him politely.
"It was my honour to render this service to you. My name is Nephtor. Grewels has told me a lot about you. Indeed, he did not exaggerate. You humans are really courageous."
"Where is Grewels?", Richie interrupted the eagle. "He almost got us killed", he added angrily.
"My friends, Grewels will meet you in Morana when the time is right."
"Whatever that means", Richie thought sourly.
"It was never his intention to betray or harm you in any way. He might be an angry and rude dragon. But believe me, his heart is in the right place." The two friends pondered the words of the eagle and hoped in their hearts that they were true.
"Tell me, Nephtor", asked Simon. "Where exactly are you taking us to and how long will it be, till we get to Morana?"
"Well, my friends, we have a long way to go. When the sun rises in the east, you will be able to see Morana in the distance at dawn. I have orders to accompany you to the edge of the moorland Xuria. Simon, the task before you will be difficult and extremely dangerous. Both of you have a lot to learn. Otherwise you will not succeed against Rodan. Which would mean your death but also the destruction of Morana", Nephtor explained to the two boys.
Destruction?, Death? Simon felt queasy when he recalled Grewels’ warnings about what awaited them in Morana. However, the words of the eagle had more of a calming effect.
"But what should we do, Nephtor? What can we possibly do against such a mighty Rodan?", Simon asked the eagle.
"Trust in the strong bond of your friendship, Simon. That bond, plus the wisdom of the elves, will give you the strength you need to fulfill your calling", Nephtor replied kindly.
"Thanks, Nephtor", Simon said. He and Richie crawled back into the warmth of the feathers of this friendly eagle. The events of the last few hours affected them hard and they fell asleep in no time.
"Wake up, sleepyheads!", they heard Nephtor's voice waking them up the next morning. Awake at once, Simon and Richie quickly made their way forward to peer between the feathers. The sun arose and the three flew along the coasts of Morana. High cliffs jutted upwards from the sea, slammed by foaming waves.
"Hey Simon, just look at that!", Richie was exited and pointed to the coast they were rapidly approaching.
"They look just like the cliffs at the edge of Exmoor."
Looking at the coasts of Morana drawing nearer, Simon had mixed feelings. Thinking about their trip to Exmoor yesterday, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. The two friends became pensive. What was awaiting them? Who and what dangers would they encounter? Was it really Simon who could save Morana? So many questions twirled around in their heads and they feared the answers they knew would inevitably come their way. Their future was like a blank piece of paper yet to be written on.
"Hold on!", Nephtor shouted. "We're going down!"
The eagle flew towards the cliffs in a nosedive. Simon's and Richie's stomachs turned. They closed their eyes and held on frantically to the feathers of the eagle. Before they crashed into the rocks, Nephtor slowed down their rapid descent with a few powerful flaps of his wings and flew in an elegant curve. They made a soft landing in the heather. Simon and Richie slid down Nephtor's back and were glad to be standing on solid ground again. Still a bit wobbly in the legs, they looked around in uncertainty.
"It seems to me like Aunt Aby's house should only be a few miles from here. Even the cliffs and the moorland look just like at home", Simon said in amazement.
"Nephtor, where exactly are we and what are we supposed to do now?", he asked the eagle.
"We find ourselves on the edge of the moorland Xuria, Simon. From now on you are on your own. Walk southwards along the cliffs until you come to the Andal River. Following the river in western direction, you will come to a big stone bridge that will get you over the river. Cross the bridge and continue your journey southwards. Not long afterwards you will reach the edge of a large forest.
Leyhda, the underground city of the moor elves, is located in the middle of the forest. You have to find Elian, their eldest and speak in front of the great council. You have something valuable with you, Simon: Asragur's scale! They will know what to do and you will be safe. Be certain of their protection, trust your heart and let them lead you". The eagle spread his powerful wings and made ready to depart.
"Many thanks, Nephtor", Simon called out to their new friend.
"We shall see each other again, Simon Knox. May the spirit of Asragur protect you, lads!"
Simon and Richie watched as the eagle slowly disappeared into the blue sky.
"So what do we do now?", asked Richie, who was bewildered suddenly to be utterly on his own. Simon reflected a moment.
"It's a nice warm day. Let's take off our sweaters and jackets and have a bite to eat. I'm dying of hunger! Where's your backpack with the blanket?", Simon wanted to know and removed his jacket. Richie, working on taking his sweater off, replied: "I must have lost it when Grewels blew us through the Gateway", he grumbled sullenly. "Do you have any idea how far it is to Leyhda?"
"No", replied Simon and looked at the scale of the dragon king that he had pulled out of his pants pocket. The scale had turned light grey and was gradually losing its magical shimmer. Simon sighed and showed it to Richie. "We will only take a short break and eat something. We have to ration our food. Who knows when we will get something to eat again?”
Richie nodded. He was also quite hungry. And so the two boys looked for a nice place on the cliffs and each of them had a sandwich and shared an apple, all of which Aunt Aby had given to Simon for his trip to Ilfracombe.
It was good that Simon had brought his pocket knife along to help him cut the apple in four parts. They looked out over the sea and Richie asked: "Do you believe we will ever see home again, Simon? Maybe they're already looking for us. What time is it, anyway?"
Simon looked at his watch. "Hm, that's strange. Look, it says it's quarter to two". Simon held up his watch to Richie.
"That must have been the time when we went through the Gateway. Could be that the watch stopped and will start up again normally when we go back through the Gateway?", Richie guessed.
"That might be", Simon replied. "We will find out", he added with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. They remained sitting for a while and Simon checked to make sure his compass was working. "Perfect!", he said relieved. And so the two friends started out on their adventure into the unknown.
It was a beautiful summer day, which gave them the impression that they had never passed through the Gateway to Morana, for Xuria was so similar to Exmoor. Far below at the foot of the cliffs, the waves thundered against the rugged rocks. Xuria stretched out before them as far as the eye could see. The familiar moorland turned into a range of small woods, murmuring brooks and expanding wet meadows. Jagged rocks shining brightly in the sun jutted out here and there into the lovely countryside. Beautiful coloured butterflies, in such a size they had never seen, lingered on flowers here and there to be refreshed by their nectar. And cobalt blue birds, with breasts of red and funny black caps, fluttered around them and filled the fragrant summer air with their song.
The sun was up high as Simon and Richie came to the edge of a small wood, and so they decided to take a short break under the shade of some trees. The colourful goings-on fascinated them so much that they didn't notice movement in the heather and dirt being kicked up behind them. Something or other was making tracks directly towards the two unsuspecting friends.
"Finally some shade", Simon groaned and they sat down on the soft moss at the foot of a great oak tree. Just as Simon realized that there were only three lamb chops and a little bread left, they both felt the ground shake, and the quake grew stronger. Paralyzed by fright they looked on as something was headed their way below the woodland ground. Before they could even think about escaping, a huge mound of dirt rose up in front of them. A hairy creature of some kind peaked out of the dirt at them curiously, with cheeky little button eyes.
„AAHHH!“, Simon and Richie screamed together, still holding lamb chops in their hands.
„AAHHH!“, screamed the small hairy fellow back, more amused than afraid. It seemed he was having fun by frightening the two boys. He crawled out of the mound of dirt and hopped around boldly. After shaking all the dirt off himself, he stood in front of them and looked at Simon and Richie boldfaced and challenging. The furry animal apparently wasn't dangerous, the boys concluded, and so they relaxed a bit. The creature standing before them was half mole, half beaver, with wiry dark-brown fur, the strong teeth of a rodent and friendly black eyes covered by a few long, coarse hairs. His paws were those of a mole, however covered on top also with thick fur. The little fellow's beaver tail tapped eagerly on the ground.
"Hmm, that smells quite delicious", mumbled the furry animal with a quaking voice, whose sniffing nose came closer to Simon's lamb chop.
"Do you want one as well?", asked Simon, holding the last lamb chop towards the nosy visitor, who was apparently very hungry.
"Oh how nice of you! I would love it", said the funny creature and grabbed for the chop with a paw of strong claws. The funny "molebeaver" leaned back against the mound of dirt and relaxed. One paw was on his rather large belly and the other one was holding on to the meat, which he was sniffing delightedly with his eyes closed.
"Oh, pardon me. I forgot to introduce myself. How rude of me. I'm usually not that way, you must know", said the friendly rodent, who then bowed to them politely. "Welcome to Morana. My name is Biggs and I am the best and fastest tunnel builder of all of us Wulloms", he said proudly with a puffed out chest. After the formalities were taken care of, he sat back down as before and turned his full attention to the lamb chop again.
Simon and Richie liked the chubby Wullom.
"Hello Biggs, nice to meet you", Simon replied with a laugh. "I am Simon and this is my best friend Richie.
"We just arrived in Morana a few hours ago", Richie added with his mouth full.
"Oh, I am fully aware of who you humans are. Lately we have been hearing about all kinds of things", Biggs replied, who was now chewing on the bone. Simon and Richie were amused to see that he was about to eat the bone as well. And that he did with great relish, thanks to his sharp teeth.
"We're on our way to the city of the moor elves", explained Simon. "Can you perhaps tell us how much farther it is?"
"So, you're headed to Leyhda, to the moor elves", Biggs said looking at the two, while licking off each and every claw. "Hm, that was delicious", he said and patted his belly in contentment.
"Would you like some bread?",Simon asked and offered Biggs a piece of Aunt Abygale's freshly-baked bread.
"Only if it's no trouble", the hungry Wullom grabbed the piece from Simon's hand.
"Oh what an excellent aroma", he raved and let each bite melt in his mouth.
"Well you want to go to the moor elves", he began in reply to Simon's question. "Elian will be happy that his underground existence will soon be coming to an end", Biggs continued. "You should know that the moor elves have been hiding underground for years now for fear of Rodan's wrath. Nobody knows for sure where their underground city is located, except for me, of course", the fat rodent said importantly.
"I helped them to dig a few tunnels back then, which was only the neighbourly thing to do. Those moor elves are such friendly and helpful beings. But as neighbours they are simply too loud. The constant music, all that moving around, day in day out, ghastly! My wife Elda and I put up with it for half a year. After having our hibernation interrupted by so much noise, we decided to move to a quieter place.
You know, I always told Elian that he wouldn't have these problems if Rodan had been given a good smack as a kid. Then he wouldn't have turned into such a creep, they would still be living in moorland and Elda and I wouldn't have had to move. But now that you are here, it seems everything will take a turn for the better", Biggs sighed in contentment and locked his paws behind his head.
"In any case, everybody is longing for your arrival", he continued apparently forgetting Simon's question.
He looked at Simon cheerfully.
"I guess there is not much time left otherwise the mightiest of Morana wouldn't be doing everything to make sure you're prepared for the task at hand. It's a good two day's march from here to Leyhda. But I know a shortcut", Biggs announced, proud to be of help to his new friends.
"You can save at least a day's journey, or more."
"Will you tell us how?", asked Richie curiously.
"I dug a tunnel clear to the river bank of Andal a few years ago. My wife had been bugging me about it for ages. We are living in dangerous times. She wanted to make sure there would always be a safe route to the water so that she could continue to pick her beloved reed shoots. It would be my honour to guide both of you through the tunnel", the Wullom generously offered Simon and Richie. The two were absolutely thrilled and after chatting a while longer in the shade with Biggs, they followed him into a network of passages deep below the moorland.
Crawling on all fours in darkness behind their new friend, Simon and Richie noticed that it was growing lighter. Biggs led them into an illuminated cave, where they could finally stand up and look around.
"This is my domain", the Wullom gestured and let the beauty of the cave have its effect on the boys.
They stood in a huge rock grotto, warmly but also mystically illuminated by luminous and shimmering crystals in the walls.
Simon and Richie were speechless and could hardly believe what they were seeing and the splendour that surrounded them. Simon was the first to finally say something.
"It's so beautiful here below! How is it possible that these stones can shimmer so far under the earth?", he turned enquiringly to Biggs and touched the warm and luminous crystals in fascination.
"Well, that's a good question, my friend. I have a hard time explaining it myself. It is said that there is magic in these stones. In any case we name them sun crystals because they immerse our caves in bright, warm light, without which we could not live here below. I think you will also find some more of them in Leyhda".
Biggs looked around in the cave, astonishing Simon and Richie when he suddenly took a nosedive and started digging into the cave floor at breath-taking speed. After a few moments, they heard him panting on his way back. He held a specially bright and round crystal in his paws.
"As far as I'm concerned we can take off", he suggested, hopped out of the hole and disappeared into one of the numerous passageways that branched off the cave.
"Watch your step", he called back to his companions. "There can be deep holes or even tree roots in the passage", he warned, and scurried along lighting the way, deeper and deeper into the earth.
Simon and Richie felt a bit ill at ease. There were sections they could only pass through bent over and narrow passages where they had to crawl on their bellies. But if it got them to their destination sooner, then that was all right with them. And so they followed Biggs through the darkness without grumbling.
After what felt like forever, Simon and Richie finally noticed how the tunnel started going upwards. Sooner than expected, they were able to step out of the passageway. It took a while for their eyes to adjust to the bright sunshine. Biggs spread out his dirty paws, stuck his nose in the wind and sucked in the balmy summer air.
"What a glorious day", he sighed contentedly.
Simon and Richie looked around curiously. They were standing next to a small lake that glistened quietly and peacefully in the afternoon sun. "Where exactly are we?", Simon asked their hairy friend, who was dozing comfortably in soft heather with a blade of grass between the teeth.
"We are not far from the Andal River. Can you hear the rushing and thundering sound of the water? The river bubbles up here one last time before plunging over the cliff into the sea. A powerful stream that pulls everything with it, one you should never underestimate", the Wullom warned the newcomers with concern.
"The bridge is not much further. Go around the lake westwards and you will soon see the bridge", Biggs gave them final directions and then continued his daydreaming.
This was indeed a good place to have a break, Simon and Richie thought. They quickly took off their shoes and socks and waded in the clear, cool water. They freshened up, skipped stones over the water and were amazed by the many colourful dragonflies buzzing around. Just a few feet away, a swarm of light yellow butterflies gathered near the water, apparently looking for refreshment just like Simon and Richie.
But as beautiful as it was here, they couldn't loiter around for the rest of the day. And so Simon decided that it was time to move on.
It seemed that Biggs was thinking the same thing and turned to the boys with a serious look on his face.
"There are still a lot of things coming your way, my friends. May Asragur's spirit be with you, that Morana can look into the future with hope. Go now to Elian. You can fully trust him and his people. He is an old and wise elf and you would do good to listen to and follow him. It will only be for your best", the Wullom advised.
He bade them farewell and handed over the sun crystal to Simon.
"I hope we shall see each other again someday, Simon Knox. Take this stone and trust in its warming power. It will surely prove useful to you."
"Many thanks, Biggs. We wouldn't have made it this far without your help"', Simon said and Biggs waved off the compliment shyly.
"Good luck to both of you and take care of each other", said the plump Wullom and disappeared into his tunnel.
Now they were once again alone. Simon packed the sun crystal into his backpack and then they set out for the stone bridge that crossed the Andal River.