Daevin helped the girls navigate their way back to where they had started, and it took them a few moments of walking ahead to realize that he had stopped a few feet from the forest’s edge. Seedlings of fear were in his eyes, but the gentle Mia (who knew well what fear was) stepped toward him and offered him her hand in encouragement. With a comforted smile, he accepted her hand and allowed her to guide him onward. The sun was taking its final steps across the sky as Daevin took his first step outside the Whispering Timberland. He let go of Mia’s hand and sucked in a large breath of new air while his memories slowly came back into his system. There were flashes of joy, of delight, of pain, and of sorrow upon his countenance, which all dissolved into an expression of resolution.
“Look!” said Mia, who pointed to a small fire that burned at the bottom of the hill they were standing on top of.
The silhouettes of the shivering bodies of Jack, Magus, and Zwinkie were in front of the fire’s orange light. The girls called their names and hurried down the hill, with Daevin following close behind.
“Joanne? Lizzie? Mia?” said Jack. “You girls are okay?”
“Yes, Jack,” replied Joanne with a smile.
“So, I finally meet your beloved fiancée,” drawled Daevin.
“Fiancée?” echoed Jack before he burst out laughing. “Joanne is practically my sister!”
“Jack!” growled Joanne.
Jack saw the look of confusion on Daevin’s face and winced. “Oops.”
“Wait a moment… you lied to me too?” questioned Daevin in a hurt voice.
Joanne sighed. “I’m sorry, Daevin. The truth is, we really did come for you, but it’s not because you’re the wild boy of the Whispering Timberland.”
“Then why?” demanded Daevin.
“Because we knew you were the prince of Eurovia,” answered Lizzie. “Don’t you remember now?”
“The Eurovians need you,” said Mia. “You’re their only hope against the Dark Lord.”
“Who’s the Dark Lord again?” asked Daevin.
“He used to be known as Sir Demetrius,” informed Mia. “He became a power-hungry tyrant of the land when your father died, and he was going to kill you to keep the throne.”
“What?” Daevin laughed. “This is my father’s closest friend you’re talking about. I know he had a rough time after my dad died—I did too—but he would never hurt me. If you’re going to keep feeding me lies, I might as well go back to the forest.”
Daevin motioned toward the opposite direction, but a savage roar stopped him mid-step.
The Earth Dwellers huddled together, and Mia squeaked, “What was that?”
In response, a flare of orange yellow was thrust into the starry night sky, revealing a dark blue dragon and its rider. The rider was in all black, and screamed a war cry that chilled everyone to the bone.
“Quick, into the forest!” yelled Daevin, sprinting back to the woods.
No one hesitated to follow. Once they were deep inside the woods, Daevin began calling for the Dryads.
“Ashtalon!” cried Daevin. “Ashtalon, are you here?”
Instead of the honey-sweet voice of Ashtalon, a wolf’s howl and a clap of thunder overhead answered Daevin’s cry.
“Thunder?” said Magus. “The sky was clear tonight.”
“Uh, Magus, I think the more pressing issue is the wolf,” pointed out Jack.
“If that thunder means what I think it means, we have something much bigger to worry about than a wolf.”
Another howl, louder and wilder, tore the night air, and the teens shuddered.
“Grab a rock, face the direction that the wolf is coming from, and don’t look it in the eye,” ordered Magus as he followed his own instructions.
Jack had barely turned to where he had heard the last howl, when the source of it jumped out from a cluster of trees and landed on top of him in a blur of teeth, fur, and legs. The girls screamed in horror, but no one threw a stone for fear of hitting Jack as he rolled along the ground with the gray mass of fur attached to him. Jack had sucked in a breath in preparation for the piercing pain of the wolf’s teeth on his arm or side, but it never came. Instead, he felt a tongue scrape the side of his face, and his eyes widened with shock at the wet sensation.
“Master Jack!” cried a gravelly voice.
Jack flinched. “Did the wolf just talk?”
“He’s a Talking Animal?” Mia asked.
“The wolf didn’t say anything,” said Magus.
“Master Jack, Master Jack!” said the voice again, and this time Jack was sure it came from the wolf’s mouth.
“He did, he just called me ‘Master Jack,’” asserted Jack.
“I only heard yelping,” stated Lizzie.
Jack shook his head and turned to the wolf. “Do you mind getting off me? Your weight is suffocating me.”
The wolf immediately retreated his paws from Jack’s chest and plopped himself in front of Jack as he sat up.
“What’s your name?” asked Jack.
The wolf cocked his head to the side. “Don’t you remember me, Master Jack? I’m Aatu.”
“Aatu,” murmured Jack. “I-I think I do remember—”
“Jack, what are you doing?” asked Joanne.
“Talking to Aatu,” responded Jack, gesturing to Aatu.
“You were making the same noises he was,” informed Joanne.
“I was?” said Jack. “It felt like I was just speaking English.”
“It must be your magical gift, Jack,” explained Magus. “You can communicate with Non-Talking Animals—some people in Eurovia have that ability. But let’s not talk about that now. We have to get out of here before the storm comes upon us.”
“But you just got back,” said a silky feminine voice.
Magus and the others looked up to see the Dryads gathered around them.
“I’m sorry, ladies, but I’m afraid things are—” Magus was interrupted by another thunderclap and a flash of lightning. “—urgent. And I have a feeling that soon even your haven will not be safe anymore.”
Ashtalon’s face fell, and Magus nodded in response to her questioning gaze. Ashtalon turned around and crouched in front of Daevin and the others, gesturing for the other Dryads to do the same.
“Climb onto our backs. We will take you swiftly to the other side of our forest, before he can get to you. Any of you.”
As she said the last sentence, Ashtalon stared at Daevin with her dark green eyes.
Magus and his friends obeyed Ashtalon’s orders, and the Dryad carrying Jack felt extremely wary of the wolf happily howling and running at her side the whole way there. Every strike of thunder seemed to shake the very earth with its powerful sound, but the Dryads ran with steady feet through the midst of jumbled trees. Black clouds dropped their burdens of water in sheet after sheet, but the roof of leaves helped to lessen the impact of rainfall. The Dryads were almost at the outer boundary of the forest when they heard a crackling sound in between thunderclaps. Mia screamed, and when the others turned their heads, they saw a black, vine-like mass gobbling up the trees and greenery of the forest behind them. The leaves of the trees wrinkled into grey clumps, the limbs curled into menacing poses, and the bark transformed into a blackness that rivaled a starless night. The Dryads ran slower and slower, feeling like the weight of their burdens gained ten pounds with every step they made.
“We’re losing our power!” cried a Dryad with noticeable strain in her voice.
“What’s happening?” croaked another Dryad.
Magus turned to the other end of the forest.
The Dark Lord stood at the outskirts of the Whispering Timberland with his black staff in hand, laughing.
“You Dryads have evaded my hands until this night,” declared the Dark Lord. “But now I have mastered a new spell from which you can never be broken, not even by Adonai Himself!”
As soon as he finished saying this, there was a crash of thunder that the Dark Lord hadn’t directed from the sky, and the Dark Lord involuntarily flew back in fear. Recovering quickly, he shook off the look of terror on his face and touched another tree with the end of his staff. A cluster of blackness swelled up from the spot that he touched, and took only a second for it to devour the poor young tree. A self-satisfied smirk reappeared on the Dark Lord’s face.
“As punishment for hiding what was rightfully mine,” began the Dark Lord, “you, Dryads, will serve me for the rest of your lives.”
“Keep going!” yelled Ashtalon. “Just a few yards more!”
Dryad after Dryad fell from exhaustion, but the ones carrying Magus and the others pressed forward with all their might. Jack’s Dryad, struck in the heel by the black mass, fell instantly and began writhing on the ground. Aatu skidded to a stop, helped his master get up, and set off across the remaining few feet of the forest. Except it was too late. A screaming Jack and a howling Aatu were swallowed by the blackness until they were squirming bundles that an invisible tether dragged back into the forest. Ashtalon, who was carrying Daevin, gasped when the blackness struck her as well, and at once she threw Daevin as easily as a paper airplane through the last of the trees. Daevin yelled as he flew through the crisp night air, while Ashtalon collapsed in a heap of blackening leaves and graying skin along with the other Dryads.
Daevin swallowed a pint of dirt when he landed on the ground on the other side, and he turned around just in time to witness the final trees being swallowed by the black monster. Suddenly, the dark, angry clouds in the sky receded, and silence dominated the area. Magus, Zwinkie, Joanne, Lizzie, Mia and Daevin sat there watching the desolate scene before them with labored breaths and tears stinging their eyes.
Joanne stood up and cried: “JACK! JACK! JACK, WHERE ARE YOU?”
Joanne, Lizzie, and Mia tried to run towards the forest, but Daevin tackled Joanne to the ground and Magus grabbed the other two by the arms and yanked them back. Daevin could feel Joanne shaking underneath him.
Meanwhile, the Dark Lord emitted a low whistle that reached its arms into the furthest depths of the forest and touched the ears of the unconscious Dryads. Slowly, the Dryads arose and followed the sound of the whistle until they found their new master standing in front of them. He clicked his tongue approvingly at the sight of their gray skin, black hair, and long yellow nails; the only things that remained green were the irises of their bloodshot eyes.
“You called, Lord Demetrius?” asked Ashtalon and the other Dryads.
“Yes, my dears,” replied the Dark Lord. “Perchance have you seen something I’ve been missing?”
As soon as he asked this, two bundles appeared at the Dark Lord’s feet, and he kicked one that was growling. A muffled yell came from within the other bundle, and the Dark Lord smirked.
“Never mind,” said the Dark Lord. “I’ll take him and… whatever his companion is.”
The Dark Lord’s contingent of knights arrived atop their black horses and awaited his orders. He opened his mouth to speak, when a startled roar came from his dragon behind him. When he turned, he saw his dragon rubbing its snout into the earth and realized it looked burned when it lifted up its head.
The Dark Lord shook his head. “I’ve told you before, you stupid beast, this forest does not take kindly to dragons, even if I’ve cast a spell on it.” While the dragon glared at him, the Dark Lord turned back to the bundle of the person still yelling from inside, and he grinned.
“M’lord, shall we take these?” the guard inquired.
“Yes,” said the Dark Lord. “Soon I’ll have what I want.”
He looked up at the sky and winked.
Joanne threw Daevin off of her with more force that he had anticipated from her, and he rolled along the ground until he came to a stop at Magus’ feet.
“I knew we shouldn’t have gotten tangled up in all this!” cried Joanne. “What happened to him?”
“My guess is that this is all the Dark Lord’s doing,” answered Magus. “The black monster must have thought Jack was the prince and took him back to the Dark Lord.”
Daevin looked back at the forest. “If what you say about Sir Demetrius is true, then Jack will be a prisoner of the castle. I know exactly where we can find him.”
“How?” Joanne inquired.
“Remember, I was born in that castle,” reminded Daevin. “I know it’s been a long time, but I spent nearly every single day exploring every corner of that place. The day I accidentally discovered the dungeon is especially vivid, which I’d thought was an unfortunate thing until now. I’ll go in and save him.”
“No, my prince, it’s too risky!” protested Zwinkie. “What if you were also captured?”
“You underestimate my stealth skills,” replied Daevin with a wink. “For ten years I successfully eluded the grasp of anyone trying to discover me.”
“Except for me,” piped up Joanne.
“Yes, thank you for the reminder,” responded Daevin. “The good thing is that you’re on my side now.”
“All the same, I’d feel better going with you to save Jack.”
“The more people who go with me, the more likely we’ll be discovered.”
“You don’t understand; going without me is not an option.”
Daevin grinned and turned to Lizzie and Mia. “Are all human women this stubborn? I can’t remember.”
“Nah, she’s definitely the most stubborn out of everyone,” answered Lizzie.
“Prince Daevin—” started Magus, before Daevin interrupted him.
“Please, Magus, just call me Daevin,” insisted Daevin. “I don’t call you ‘Wizard Magus,’ so why should you call me ‘Prince Daevin’?”
“Daevin then,” said Magus with some reluctance, “I’ll provide invisibility dust to help you on your mission.”
There was a damp smell in the air of the prison cell, but the Dark Lord had experienced worse. The only light to see by was a torch on the wall and a ball of weakly glowing light in the Dark Lord’s hand. Once he entered the cell, he saw a young man who was strapped to a large table and was struggling with all his muscle power to snap his binds. The Dark Lord shook his head and clicked his tongue as he approached the side of the table. When the Dark Lord bent down to look at his prisoner, he jolted, and his lips pressed into a dark, thin line.
“Gustav, who is this?” the Dark Lord asked the guard standing by.
“I assume Prince Daevin, m’lord,” Gustav promptly responded.
“Thisss,” hissed the Dark Lord as he whirled about on the heels of his black boots, “is not the prince.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him!” said the prisoner.
“H-how do you know?” stammered Gustav.
“I know the mark of a prince and he does not have it, you fool!”
“I-it’s not my fault it’s th-the wrong man.”
The Dark Lord spun around again to stare at the young man. Upon his second look, the Dark Lord felt his heart freeze.
“Who are you?” he barked.
“I’m Jack, and you have no reason to keep me here!” said Jack. “I was just minding my own business.”
The Dark Lord frowned and pressed his face so close to Jack that he involuntarily flinched.
“No man is allowed into that forest except for Prince Daevin. I know there’s more to the story than that, and perhaps a few days without food or water will help you realize this.”
The Dark Lord’s eyes lingered on Jack’s face, and then he shook his head, turned from the prisoner, and scowled at Gustav before marching out of the room. Gustav shot the captive a dirty look, as if he were the one to blame for the mix-up, and soon followed his master. When the door creaked shut, the prisoner sighed and let his head fall back onto the hard wooden surface that he was bound to. He hoped that his friends would come soon, because he had a strong feeling that the Dark Lord was not one to kid around.
Meanwhile, instead of retiring to his chambers to sleep, the Dark Lord climbed up the steps to the tallest tower where his study was housed. He only paused for a brief moment to skim his desk for a palm-sized black book, which he snatched greedily before returning to his throne room. He ripped apart the curtains to let in the moonlight and lit a few torches for good measure. Once he finished, he slumped against the side of his throne as he fished out a small square portrait of a young woman. The only sound that could be heard was the Dark Lord’s steady breathing as he absent-mindedly stroked the portrait. The woman’s long, coffee-colored hair cascaded down her shoulders in natural curls, and practically all her teeth showed, as her mouth seemed to be caught mid-laugh in the portrait. The Dark Lord had almost allowed a smile to consume his thin mouth, but the hint of happiness vanished at the sound of a familiar male voice.
The next night, Daevin and Joanne stood outside the exterior castle wall, where Daevin remembered the secret entrance was. The wall of a mountain face stretched behind the castle, so not as many mechanisms of defense or guards were present. Only the royal family and a few top advisors knew this entrance’s location, in case a quick getaway into the mountain forest ever needed to be made. Daevin jammed a stick into one of the cracks between the stones of the wall, sliding it down until a square shaped door popped open. Smiling, Daevin threw the stick aside and faced Joanne, who had a small brown bag in her hand.
“Okay, it took Magus all day to concoct this, and I don’t want to waste any,” said Joanne. “Remember, the invisibility wears off after thirty minutes, so let’s be fast.”
“Got it,” replied Daevin.
“Okay,” said Joanne, who shook the dust on top of their heads.
As soon as the dust made contact with the crowns of their heads, Daevin and Joanne disappeared. The only thing that confirmed they were still there was the rustling sound of their feet crunching the leaves on the ground before going through the entrance. Daevin closed the door and took Joanne by the wrist as they ventured into the darkness. They found the second passageway to the interior of the main castle building and slipped inside before any of the guards noticed. They came up to a path that split into three directions: one led to another staircase, one turned left, and the last turned right. Daevin puffed out a breath, pressed a finger to his temple for a moment, and nudged Joanne to the right. Unfortunately, a couple of guards on patrol were walking from that direction, so Daevin and Joanne backed up against the cold, slightly damp wall. Their breathing returned to a regular rhythm once the guards had passed, and they continued on their way down the hall of cells.
Poor, forsaken, grimy creatures were shivering in their cells and groaning with hunger; it took every measure of self-control for Daevin and Joanne to keep walking forward without stopping. Daevin inwardly promised to save these pitiful beings from their prison, but in the meantime he focused on finding the largest cell, where he assumed Jack was being held. He and Joanne stopped at a dark wood door, for a tall, burly guard was sitting up against it and was nodding off to sleep. Daevin carefully drew the sword Magus had given him, crouched beside the guard, and held it up against his throat. Instantly the guard opened his eyes, but when he tried to move, he could feel the blade cut into his skin.
“It would be wise for you to stay still,” Daevin informed the guard.
“Who are you?” demanded the guard. “Why can’t I see you?”
“You don’t need to see me, only feel my sword against your neck. Now, hand over the key to this door and don’t make a sound.”
Joanne took the key that the guard extended and unlocked the door while Daevin stayed with the guard. She crept inside and sighed with relief when she found Jack fitfully sleeping within his bonds.
She brushed back his sweat-soaked bangs and whispered, “Wake up, Jack. It’s me, Joanne.”
Jack opened his bloodshot eyes and squinted in the semi-darkness. “Huh?”
“It’s Joanne,” whispered Joanne. “Magus made me and Daevin invisible so we could come rescue you.”
Joanne took out a dagger to cut the straps holding her friend down, but since there were so many and not much light was in the cell, it took her a long time to finish. When he was able to finally sit upright, Jack rubbed his sore arms and smiled at where he assumed Joanne was standing.
“Over here, bud,” laughed Joanne from the other side of the table.
“Oh,” said Jack. “Got any invisibility dust for me?”
“Yeah,” responded Joanne.
As soon as she said this, a glob of dust was thrown into Jack’s face, and he spat it out of his mouth.
“Oops, sorry,” apologized Joanne.
“Never mind, let’s find Aatu,” urged Jack. “I think he’s in the next cell.”
“Why would he lock up a wolf?”
“He heard me talking to him and thought Aatu was part of some magical scheme. Now, let’s go!”
“Wait, take my hand, I can’t see you anymore.”
Jack obeyed Joanne, and when the two of them brought a newly invisible Aatu out of his cell, they saw the guard struggling to work his mouth around an invisible gag.
Joanne gripped Jack’s hand tighter and whispered, “Where’s Daevin?”
Jack and Joanne called Daevin’s name in as loud a volume as they could dare, but no sound answered them save for the guard’s prolonged groaning.
“Should we ask the guard?” inquired Jack after a nervous pause.
Joanne was about to agree, when she heard Daevin—in the most irritatingly carefree tone he could have possibly mustered—say: “Are you guys here? Let’s go!”
“About time,” snapped Joanne. “We came out and you were gone.”
“I know, I know,” replied Daevin in a more apologetic tone. “We don’t have time to argue now, let’s start moving. You have Jack with you?”
“Yes,” replied Jack.
The sun had not risen far above the horizon when the Dark Lord marched down from his chambers to the lowest level of the dungeon. His nightmares were plaguing him more than usual, and the final image he had seen before waking up was too disturbing for him to return to sleep. The Dark Lord decided to go down to Jack’s cell to begin torturing answers out of him sooner than he had originally planned. With a lantern in hand, he arrived at the bottom of the steps with a set jaw and blazing eyes, only to find the guard bound hand and foot. The guard shuddered when the Dark Lord’s shadow fell upon his body, and continued to try to speak through the gag Daevin had put on him. With cold fingers, the Dark Lord pried the gag out of the guard’s mouth and let it fall on his collarbone.
“Now, speak,” commanded the Dark Lord.
“Invisible beings came in and stole the prisoner,” explained the guard.
“What?” the Dark Lord shouted as he nearly throttled the guard. “Who could possibly know—? Who would possibly want—?” The Dark Lord paused, and a snarl came across his pallid face. “Prince Daevin.”
Some hours later, the only sound that could be heard in the throne room was the Dark Lord’s steady breathing and the tap-tap-tap of his foot on the floor. He was clutching tightly onto a notepaper in his hand. His impatience was starting to itch so badly that he was prepared to find his page and throttle him for his sluggishness. However, before he could give in to such a temptation, the doors creaked open. A tall, stick-thin young man with short, jet-black hair and a burning amber gaze strode into the room with an air of confidence that was almost cocky. He bowed to the Dark Lord as a sly grin appeared on his thin face.
“You requested my presence, sire?” questioned the young man.
“Yes, Kyan,” replied the Dark Lord. “You are a rising prodigy in the dark arts, and besides me, I believe you’re the only remotely intelligent person in this land.”
“What is the task you have for me?” inquired Kyan.
“I need you to fetch the lost prince for me. He has finally fled the Whispering Timberland, and by my arts I have discovered that he has found refuge in the cursed Craglands.”
Kyan nodded and swiveled around to begin walking out the door, when he heard the Dark Lord mutter, “I don’t care what you say. He is a threat to my power, and at any rate we need him.”
“Excuse me, sire?” questioned Kyan.
“N-nothing,” stuttered the Dark Lord as he rubbed his forehead in frustration. “Just go do your job and bring him down.”
“You know, Lord Demetrius, there’s something that could be far more worthwhile than capture,” commented Kyan.
A black web appeared on Kyan’s hand and his fingers played with it almost absent-mindedly.
“All you really need to destroy is a little black magic,” Kyan smirked. “Can I borrow your book?”
“Funny you ask that,” said the Dark Lord, opening the paper in his hand.