© 2019 Cameo Renae Books 

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FIRST FIVE CHAPTERS

Copyright © 2018 Cameo Renae Books

CHAPTER ONE

   Rustling leaves and cracking branches alerted twelve-year-old twins, William and Anna, that something or someone was in the woods, but an overgrowth of foliage concealed the mysterious intruder.

High up in their favorite tree, in the middle of their fifteen-acre forest, Will pressed a finger to his lips, then leaned over, peeking through leaves to spy down at whoever was coming.

   The twins lived with their mother in a quaint little cabin in the remote north, fifty miles from the nearest town. They didn’t have many neighbors, so Will anticipated his best friend, Henry Hobbs, to jump out in an attempt to scare them. 

   Pulling a small stone from his pocket, Will held it in his palm and glanced at his sister with a sly grin.

Anna sighed and shook her head as he cocked his arm back.

   “Hey, Henry! We know it’s you. You can come out now,” he yelled.

   “Do you think it’s Henry?” she whispered.

   Will tipped his head to the side and rolled his eyes. “Who else would it be? His dad bought him binoculars for his birthday. He’s probably got them focused on you right now.”

Anna growled, her face flushing red. “Don’t you dare encourage him, Will.”  

   “I don’t.” Will chuckled. “Henry likes you, but he also knows you only like him as a friend. Besides, you’re the only girl he’s ever known.”

   “Well, I wish he’d stop staring. It’s creepy.”

   “He’s harmless.”

   The rustling in the woods drew nearer, making Will’s smile broaden. Readying the stone in his hand, he saw an unusual head peek out from the shrubbery below. 

   Anna let out a blood-curdling scream. Flinging her body over to Will’s branch, she nearly knocked him off. At the same time, Will hurled his rock downward, smacking the intruder on the head.

   “Ouch!” it cried.

A hideous looking man-creature stood at the foot of their tree, rubbing his noggin. He was three-feet tall with an unnaturally large head, an oversized nose, and enormous feet covered in hair. His skin was dark and leathery and there were a few grotesque bumps on his face—some with long, wiry hairs winding out from them.

   Will was frozen with fear. 

   The creature stood there panting; its breath, loud and wheezy. One hand was pressed against the base of the tree, while the other wiped beads of sweat from its bushy unibrow. Tightly gripping its chest, the despicable thing looked as if it was about to keel over and die.

   “Chil’ren of Archer?” it puffed in a raspy voice.

   It knew their name.

   “Who are you?” Will hollered, his trembling voice gave away his fear.

   “Name’s Tobin,” the creature replied, then bowed his head. “Tobin at yer service.”

   Although the man-creature had a freakish exterior, Will noticed something odd about his brown, lemon-sized eyes. They appeared kind and friendly, yet filled with distress.

   “What do you want?” Will asked, attempting to pry Anna’s fingers from around his arm.

   Frantically waving his stubby arms in the air, he motioned for them to climb down. "Please, chil’ren. Ya must come at once. We’ve only but a short time ta get back an’ help yer mudder.” 

   Will felt his sister trembling and turned to see fear in her widened eyes. Anna was usually a spitfire and headstrong, but Will had never seen her so afraid. Although he was just as frightened, he knew he had to be strong. For both of them.

   William Archer was born seven minutes and eleven seconds before his sister. He was the first to walk, was extremely fast, and exceptionally coordinated. Light-brown hair fringed his oval face, and he had the brightest sapphire eyes.

   At the age of seven, his mother gifted him a beautiful hand-carved bow and quiver of arrows. She said they were his father’s, so he cherished them even more. It was the only thing of his father’s he’d ever possessed, and he practiced every chance he could. In no time, he was able to shoot a bullseye from fifty yards away.

   Most of Will’s waking hours were spent outside in the woods, climbing trees and exploring, while his twin sister, Anna, was the complete opposite.

   Anna had long, silky auburn hair that curled around her heart-shaped face and down her back. Her skin was soft and smooth as porcelain, and behind long lashes were the brightest emerald green eyes.

She didn’t like climbing trees or playing in the forest, but some days she’d give in, just to keep Will from nagging. Anna preferred lying in the grass with her head buried in a book, dreaming of what it would be like to be swept away on a wondrous adventure.

   They didn’t know much about their father, aside from the fact he’d died before they were born. Their mother didn’t talk much about him, and they never really asked, seeing how much pain it brought her to mention him. What they did know was that he was very handsome and strong, with sapphire eyes like Will, and Anna’s intelligence.

   Will and Anna seemed like typical twin siblings, with one exception. They shared a secret. 

Since the day they were born, they could communicate with each other without speaking a word. All one had to do was think and the other could hear as clearly as if they were speaking out loud. Their mother learned of their unique gift when they were around the age of six, and made them promise never to tell anyone.

   “Where is our mother?” Will shouted down at Tobin.

   “She’s gone through da portal, but she’s sent me ta fetch ya. Hurry chil’ren. Hurry!” Tobin bellowed with growing anxiety. “We must be quick, or we’ll not get back in time.”

   Will’s growing anger quickly overshadowed his fear. “What have you done with her?”

   “I’ve done nothin’. Promise! Look now. She wanted me ta give dis ta ya. A message from yer mudder.”  Tobin reached into a satchel around his waist and pulled out a crystal ball—about six inches round—and held it in his palm. “Look. Look fer yerself.” He was on his hairy tiptoes, holding the ball up as high as he could.

   Will wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, but he knew if that little man tried anything, he could take him down.

   They cautiously climbed out of the tree, and when they reached the ground, Will stepped forward and took the ball from Tobin’s outstretched hand, pushing Anna behind him.

   “What do I do with this?” he asked, shaking it like a snow globe.

   Tobin grabbed hold of Will’s wrists and steadied them. “Look,” he whispered, then softly blew onto the crystal ball.

   A dim light began to flicker within, and then a figure appeared in its rounded surface. It was their mother.

   “Will. Anna,” she spoke determinedly. “I know you must be frightened, but you mustn’t be. I need you to trust me and listen very carefully. I had to return to my world, but have sent you Tobin, an old friend from years past. He will bring you to me, so do whatever he asks. You can trust him. I’ll explain everything when you get here. Please move with haste, and don’t be afraid. I’ll see you soon. I love you both so very much.” She blew them a kiss and quickly faded.

   “Wait,” Will yelled, shaking the crystal ball. “Mom!”

   But it was too late. Her image had vanished, and the ball was empty.

   Tobin quickly grabbed the ball from Will’s hand and tucked it back into the satchel.

   “Tis only a message. She can’t talk back ta ya,” he said shaking his head. “Do ya see now? Ya must hurry if ya wish ta see her again.” He pivoted and waddled away at a quick pace. “Foller me, chil’ren,” he called back over his shoulder. 

   Will nodded to Anna, deciding to follow, but stayed a cautious few yards behind.

   Before they reached the edge of the woods, Will noticed a giant glowing orb hovering in the doorway of their cabin.

   “We must enter before da portal shuts,” Tobin pressed as he neared the bright sphere. “Come now!” As soon as he touched the light, he vanished.

   Anna stopped, frozen in place as they reached the stairs. “I don’t think we should go. What if it’s dangerous?”

   Will took a deep breath, then exhaled. This was all happening so fast … much too quickly to think clearly or make an educated decision. More than ever, he wished his mother were here.

   The glowing orb’s light dimmed, and a faint, pleading cry called from within.

   “Hurry, chil’ren! If ya don’t come now, ye’ll never see yer mudder again.”

   Will wrestled with his own fears, wondering if they should risk going through the portal. Was their mother really on the other side?

   He sucked in another deep breath, turning his attention to his sister. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if this is the only way we can see mom again, we have to do it.” He turned to her and held out his hand. “But we have to do it together.”

   She hesitated, her eyes welled with tears.

   “Are you with me?”

   Anna wiped her cheeks dry, then took hold of her brother’s hand. “Yes.”

   Together, they stepped toward the orb.

CHAPTER TWO

   Surrounded by a blinding white light, Will and Anna were thrust forward and pulled through space by an invisible force. As a violent wind whipped around them, Anna screamed and squeezed Will’s arm in a death grip, while he tried to stay balanced on his feet.

   When the light vanished, they were standing atop a tall mountain. Snow crunched under Will’s feet as he took a few steps forward. The air was cold and crisp and smelled of fresh pine. The land below was a quilt of the most vibrant colors he’d ever seen.

   A few yards away, Tobin paced back and forth, his hands gripping the sides of his big head, mumbling a bunch of nonsensical words. As he turned and spotted them, he dropped to his knees. 

   “Ya made it!” He panted loudly. “An’ just in time. We best be goin’. The sun’ll be settin’ in a few hours, an’ we mustn’t be out after dark.”

   A terrifying scream made them all jump. Will reached down, grabbing the nearest and largest branch and gripped it tightly in his fist. Cold air blasted around them, making Tobin dive behind a large boulder, while    Will took a defensive stance in front of Anna.

   A sudden flash of light revealed a body curled in a fetal position on the ground. Will ran toward it and began beating it with the branch. 

   “Ouch! That hurts!” a familiar voice cried out.

   They all froze as the body uncurled.

   “Henry?” Anna gasped. “What are you doing here?”

   Henry Hobbs, age eleven, was the Archer's nearest neighbor and had practically grown up with them. He was awkwardly tall and scraggly with curly red hair, and usually wore red-rimmed glasses that were a bit too large on his freckled nose.

   Every afternoon, after his home studies, Henry would ride his old, rusty bicycle down the rocky path to visit them. His mother had abandoned him and his father when he was three years old, but Mr. Hobbs did quite well raising Henry alone.

   In Will’s opinion, Mr. Hobbs resembled a dwarf—not that he would share this thought with anyone out loud. The man was short and stout and wobbled when he walked. He also had the same fiery red hair as  Henry and a long beard. But, he was very kind and accommodating, offering their mother help whenever she needed it.

   Henry glanced up at them, revealing a red welt on his forehead.

   “I was on my way to your house when I saw you both disappear into that glowing light thingy. So, I ran as fast as I could and touched it before it vanished. And … here I am,” he said, sitting up.

   “You’re lucky I didn’t beat you to death,” Will snickered, offering a hand to pull his friend up.

   “You were pretty close,” Henry complained, his face crumpling in pain. “I’ll have tons of bruises thanks to you.” Henry’s eyes scanned the area until they fell upon a pair of large eyes peeking out from behind a boulder. “W-what the heck is that?” he exclaimed, pushing behind Will.

   Will twisted his head back and laughed. “That is Tobin.”

   “Oh. No, no,” Tobin moaned. “Lady Lavinia isn’t gonna like dis. Not one bit. Outsiders aren’t allowed in Misteria.”

   “Don’t worry, Tobin. Henry’s a friend,” Will replied, slapping Henry on the shoulder.

   “Owww!” Henry winced in pain.

   “Sorry,” Will apologized before turning his attention back to Tobin. “I’ll take full responsibility for him.”

   Tobin continued to whine, shaking his big ol’ head. “He shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe for outsiders, an’ it’s too late ta send em back.”

   "Don't worry. It’ll be all right,” Will assured. 

   Henry’s eyes scanned the area. “Where are we?”

   “Yeah, Tobin. What is this place?” Anna asked. “I’ve never seen any place like this.” There was a glimmer in her eyes and a smile on her face as she looked out over the scenery below.

   Tobin hobbled out from his hiding place and spread his stubby arms out wide. “Dis, chil’ren, is me home.    Welcome to Misteria, da land of mist and magic,” he said with a broad, toothy smile. “Da mist surrounds us. It’s an invisible barrier dat keeps us hidden from da human world. But dere has been a great darkness an’ evil spreadin’ across da land.” His broad brow furrowed, and despair filled his face.

   “What kind of evil?” Anna asked.

   “Da kind dat can end us all,” he answered.

   Will and Anna glanced at each other and didn’t need words to know what the other was thinking—a mixture of fear and trepidation. What had they just stepped into?

Will turned around and witnessed something he hadn’t noticed before. “Look,” he gasped, as he lifted his finger and pointed.

   A thin, white mist rose high into the heavens, following the landscape as far as his eyes could see. Concealed and nestled within the center was a hidden world, beautiful beyond words. The rivers and lakes shimmered like brilliant diamonds, and the forest of trees were a kaleidoscope of the most stunning shades of green, gold, and red.

   Although Will had never seen this place before, it felt familiar. His mother had described this place so vividly in the bedtime stories she shared throughout their childhood. The Land of Far Away was real, and it had a name. It was Misteria.

   Anna turned to Will and spoke to him in her thoughts. “Do you think this place has anything to do with our unique ability? Could any of mom’s stories about the Land of Far Away be true?”

   “I don’t know, but I have a feeling we’re about to find out.” With all the pressing questions, Will had one thing on his mind. “Tobin, are you going to take us to our mom?” he asked out loud.

   “Yes, yes. Come, foller me.” Tobin turned and headed down a narrow, rocky path.

   Henry paused, glancing at Will with a confused look.

   “Follow him,” Will translated.

   “I thought that’s what he said.” Henry chuckled.

   During their trek, the cold had seeped straight through Anna’s clothes, and all the way down to her bones, making her teeth chatter. Her pink tank-top and blue jeans weren’t suitable for being on a frigid, snow-covered mountain. She attempted to blow warm air into her cupped hands and fiercely rubbed them together, but it didn’t do much good against the icy wind.

   Henry must have noticed her discomfort because he quickly peeled out of his blue and white checkered flannel. “Here,” he said, offering it to her, still wearing a white T-shirt underneath. 

   “No thanks. I’m fine,” Anna replied, pushing it back at him.

   “I know you’re freezing. Take it.” He held it back out to her. “I don’t need it. I swear.”

   She paused, debating. She didn’t want to take anything from Henry, but being warm was a priority.

   “Just take it,” Will scolded in her thoughts.

   Sighing, she finally reached out and accepted it.

   “Thank you,” she murmured. After taking a good look at Henry, she noticed something different about him.

   “You cut your hair, and your—”

   “Contacts. Just got them yesterday.” He smiled broadly.

   “You look … nice,” she complimented, quickly slipping into his flannel shirt. It was still warm, and although the sleeves were too long, it quickly heated her frozen fingers inside the extended cuffs. Taking a deep breath, she was surrounded by his smell. It was actually pleasant, which wasn’t typical for Henry. She took another whiff and realized it was the gift Will had given him for his birthday. A small bottle of cologne he’d told Henry was a chick-magnet.

   Anna laughed to herself. Not a magnet for me, she thought.

   “What the heck are you talking about?” Will questioned.

   Anna gasped, her cheeks flooded with heat. “Get out of my head!” she snapped, her eyes glaring at him, arms folded across her chest.

   “It’s not my fault.” Will laughed out loud.

   Henry and Tobin stopped and stared at them, clearly befuddled by their wordless conversation.

   “Well now, dat’s interestin’,” Tobin mumbled, glancing from Will to Anna and back again. “Looks like ya two have da gift.”

   “What gift?” Anna questioned.

   Tobin gave her a crooked grin. “Oh, I tink ya know exactly what I’m talkin’ ‘bout,” he noted, tapping the side of his temple. “Da voices in yer heads.”

   “How would you know?” Will asked.

   “Yer mudder and her brudder shared da same gift,” he answered.

Anna inhaled sharply, hearing this information for the first time. They had a relative they knew nothing about. “She has a brother?”

   “Had, child. He was killed long ago.”

   “Oh,” she breathed, her heart constricting with pain. “Were they twins?”

   “No. He was her younger brudder.”

   Anna wondered why her mother never mentioned him, or that she had telepathy. Was she able to hear her and Will’s conversations all these years? What else had she kept from them?

   Henry’s eyes shifted between them. “Is it true? You guys have telekinesis?”

   “No,” Will puffed. “Telekinesis is when you can move things with your mind. We have telepathy.”

   Henry pressed his finger to Will’s chest. “I knew it! I knew there was something odd about you two. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”

   Anna’s eyes narrowed, glaring at Henry. “We are not odd.”

   “Special then?” Henry backpedaled with an apologetic look.

   Anna rolled her eyes and turned away.

   “Yer mudder is with Lavinia, da Lady of da Hallowed Wood. Come now chil’ren. She’s waitin’,” Tobin interjected.

   Anna couldn’t wait to see her mother again and get some answers to some very heavy questions. Her stomach twisted and turned as Tobin continued to lead them down the mountain on a small switchback trail.

   “Hey, Tobin?” Anna called up ahead. “Can I ask you a question?”

   “Of course, ya can.”

   “Are you a troll?”

   “Anna!” Will shot her a stern look.

   Henry chuckled, quickly throwing a hand over his mouth.

   “No, no,” Tobin replied shaking his head. “I’m no troll. Trolls are mean an’ ugly fellers.”

   Anna giggled, then realizing he was serious, quickly bit back her smile.

   “You’re so embarrassing,” Will scolded, shaking his head.

   “I was asking him a question. How are we going to learn anything if we don’t ask? We’re new here, remember?”

   Tobin stopped for a brief moment and twisted back to her, tapping his large hand against his chest. “I’m a Bugul.”

   Anna’s brow furrowed. She’d never heard or read of a Bugul before and couldn’t recall her mother ever mentioning them in her countless stories. Maybe he was one of the little people she referred to.

   “Bugul’s are common in Misteria,” Tobin added. “We dwell mostly in da grasslands an’ are excellent at farmin’. We’re one of da best lookin' folk in da land too, don’t cha think?” He glanced at Anna, giving her a wink.

   Anna’s face flushed with heat and she couldn’t find any words, while Will burst into laughter. “You totally deserved that!”

   “Not only dat but we Bugul’s are also great dancers,” Tobin added. He hummed a tune while twirling in a circle, moving his hands and feet in different directions. He again looked to Anna for confirmation. “Yes?”

   “Oh, yes,” Anna gulped, her face bright red. “You dance very well.”

   "That’ll teach you to mind your own business!” Will chuckled, rubbing it in.

   “Zip it.” Anna huffed, walking away.

   “We mustn't stop,” Tobin urged, waving them forward, continuing down the path.

   It warmed as they descended the mountain. The setting sun cast an orangish, golden glow across the sky.

   As they reached the tall trees that bordered the forest, they stopped.

   “Don’t be frightened,” Tobin said. “Come. Come.”

   The forest was damp and warm, making Anna feel peaceful like she was back home in their own woods. 

An earthy, musty smell lingered in the air, and a light mist hovered just above the ground. Rays of sunlight shone through the canopy of leaves above, peppering the forest floor.

   Tobin hummed a familiar tune . . . a melody Anna had heard her mother hum daily while she tended their garden back home, and it offered a bit of comfort.

   “How do you know that tune, Tobin?” Anna asked.

   The Bugul looked at her and tilted his head to the side. “Tis a song of da Fairies,” he answered, then continued weaving his way through a labyrinth of massive trees.

   “Fairies?” she breathed, her mind reeling at the thought.

   “You don’t think Fairies are real, do you?” Will jested.

   “I like Fairies. Even if they aren’t real,” Henry muttered from behind. When Anna twisted and glanced at him, he smiled and shrugged. Will groaned loudly, shaking his head. “What? They are cool.”

   “Tobin?” Anna asked enthusiastically. “The Fairies . . . are they real?”

   “Dem is real all right but are pesky critters,” Tobin huffed, trudging on. “Dey do have some beautiful songs.”

   Will rubbed his temples and sighed.

   “Are you okay?” Anna giggled.

   “Just trying to wake up from this crazy dream.”         

   “I don’t think it’s a dream. If it is, we’re sharing it, and I have a feeling we won’t be waking from this one anytime soon.”

   Will moaned, and Henry nudged his arm. “Hey, are you two doing that head talking thing again? If you are, that’s totally not cool.”

   “Don’t worry,” Will slapped him on the back. “If it were something about you, I’d have no problem saying it out loud.”

   “Good,” Henry exhaled. “I think.”

   Further into their journey, Anna happened to look up and notice tiny balls of light materializing out of nowhere, fluttering down toward them like falling snow.

   “Are those fireflies?” she asked. But the lights were much larger than the fireflies she’d seen back home.

   “Nope,” Tobin answered, trudging forward.

   Then, one of the lights floated down and stopped directly in front of Anna’s face. Another one touched Will’s nose.

   “What the!” Will inhaled. “These are—”

   “Fairies!” Anna screamed, making Tobin jump and nearly fall.

   “What in da Fairy fog?” he spluttered.

   “Sorry,” Anna apologized, but her wide eyes were locked, entranced by the delicate being hovering inches in front of her. She held her palm open, and the Fairy landed on it. “Oh my,” she breathed.

   The tiny winged creature was around three inches tall, with iridescent wings, resembling those of a dragonfly. She was wearing a mini dress that came just above her knees and had multicolored flowers arranged in her hair like a halo. Her face was luminescent, and her skin was chocolate brown and smooth as porcelain. Pointy ears peeked from curly black hair, and her petite frame glowed in a white light.

   Anna’s eyes remained fixated, completely spellbound by the perfect creature in the palm of her hand.

Another Fairy landed on Will’s shoulder, and another on Henry’s outstretched arm.

   “This is unreal,” Will mumbled, staring at the red-haired, winged girl sitting cross-legged on his shoulder. She leaned over and kissed his cheek, then took off giggling.

   “You’re blushing!” Anna teased.

   “Am not.”

   She laughed. “Yes, you are.”

   “Yeah, you totally are,” Henry added, smiling blissfully from ear to ear, while Will shot him an evil eye.  “What? I told you Fairies were cool.”

   Dozens of Fairies surrounded them, their laughter filled the air as they played with Anna’s hair, and snuck kisses on Will and Henry’s faces.

   “Off wit ya!” Tobin hollered, running around, flailing his stubby arms back and forth, swooshing the Fairies away. “Go now! No time ta play. Dey must see da Lady. Off wit ya, now!”

   “Aww, Tobin,” Anna whined. “Why do you have to send them away?”

   “Dem pesky tree Fairies are always wantin’ ta play,” he huffed. “We’re close now. She’s expectin’ us.”

CHAPTER THREE

   As they traveled deeper into the forest, Will noticed the branches above linked together, creating a canopy that constricted any light from filtering through.

   Tobin paused and reached into his pocket, pulling out a smooth, perfectly round stone. Will jockeyed into position to see what he was going to do with it. Tobin rubbed the stone between his large hands and whispered, “Illume.”

   The rock glowed brightly, illuminating the entire area surrounding them.

   “Whoa,” Will breathed.

   About a mile in, Tobin finally stopped and handed the stone to Anna.

   “It’s so warm,” she whispered, cupping it carefully in her hands.

   “Wait here.” Tobin took a few steps forward. He bellowed a bunch of foreign words into the thick, dark trees ahead.

   A thunderous boom rocked the forest floor, making the ground quake. Unbalanced, they all fell to the ground. The trees directly in front of them parted . . . branches untwined, and a glorious light shone from a brand new opening.

   As they shielded their eyes, they heard a gentle, female voice beyond. “Come,” she beckoned.

   Tobin hobbled over to Will and Anna and offered to pull them up. Will stood on his own, but Anna accepted his assistance.

   “Thank you,” she said kindly.

   “Tis no trouble, child.” He bowed before proceeding toward the new opening.

   “Do you think it’s safe to follow him?” Anna asked Will.

   Will didn’t feel any immediate threat, and if this was the Hollowed Wood Tobin mentioned earlier, then their mom should be inside. “Yes,” he answered, then stepped forward with Anna at his side. Henry followed close behind.

   As Will passed through the opening, his body began to tingle with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

   Before them, stood an enchanted lady wearing a flowing, white gown. Her face was luminous and fair, her eyes shimmered like gold. Pointed ears peeked out from long, auburn hair, and an elegant, gold-leafed crown encircled her head.

   The earth trembled again as the trees twisted back together, enclosing them inside.

   They stood in a large clearing, surrounded by enormous trees. Their massive trunks were adorned with intricate carvings and magnificent spiraled staircases built into them, swirling upward toward vast dwellings within their boughs.

   Will’s jaw fell open in complete awe as he witnessed the guards situated around the perimeter with dark, sharp features and pointed ears. Standing tall, they were imposing in stature. Each carried a bow made of pale wood, adorned with gold leaves and intricately carved wings. Leather quivers, filled with arrows, were fastened to their backs, and elaborate golden daggers and swords hung on their sides.

   Will knew exactly who they were. They were Elven warriors, the same ones from their mom’s countless bedtime stories. They were real and standing all around him.

   “Oh man,” he breathed. His legs were unsteady, and his insides twisted.

The lady before them spoke, immediately breaking his trancelike state. Her arms extended in greeting. “Welcome, children. I am Lavinia, Lady of the Hallowed Wood.”

“Hi,” Will breathed, dumbfounded. Anna and Henry mimicked him with the same awestruck looks on their faces.

 “I realize you are quite shocked by the recent and sudden events, and I’ll try to explain as best I can as to why you were brought here.” Lavinia turned and lovingly gazed at Anna. Stepping forward, her fingers feathered across her soft cheek. “You are as stunning as your mother,” she said before her gaze shifted to Will. “And you look so much like your father.”

   “You knew my father?” Will gasped. It was the first time he’d heard anyone, other than his mother, mention him.

   “Don’t be fallin’ down now,” Tobin said, grabbing hold of his arm to steady him.

   Lavinia took a step toward him. “Yes, William. I knew your father well.”

   Henry cleared his throat, catching her attention.

   “And who is this?” Lavinia’s eyes narrowed, then suspiciously shifted to Tobin.

   “Your Ladiness, he’s a friend of da chil’ren, who happened ta jump into da portal as it was closin’. I had nothin’ ta do with his arrival.”

   “I see,” she replied, her eyes landing back on Henry. “And what is your name?”

   “H—Henry. Henry Hobbs, ma’am,” he stuttered.

   “Hobbs?” She paused. “Is Haribold Hobbs your kin?”

   Henry’s head twisted to Will, who shrugged. How on earth could she know Henry’s dad?

   “Well?” Lavinia questioned.

   “Yes, ma’am,” Henry answered with a gulp. “He’s my father. You know him?”

   Lavinia smiled. “I do. Very well, in fact.”

   Henry’s eyes widened, his head shaking back and forth. “How?”

   “Haribold is an old family friend.”

   Henry scratched his head. “A friend?”

   “Wait, where’s our mother?” Anna interrupted. “Tobin said she was here.”

   Lavinia sighed. “Come with me,” she said, motioning them to follow.

   Will was the first to follow as she led them through clusters of Elves who had gathered, past stunning tree dwellings, toward the largest tree at the back of the area. “In my home, we can discuss things more privately. Are you hungry or thirsty?” she asked, glancing back.

   “I am,” Henry admitted. Will turned to him and shook his head. “What?” Henry shrugged. “I missed breakfast.”

   A smile rose on the corners of Lavinia’s lips as she continued to lead them up a grand spiraled staircase. As they reached the top, they entered a large, open area. Everything, from the windows to the doors were beautifully carved from the same wood of the tree. Pleasant aromatic scents, a mixture of floral and earth, carried through the air around them.

   “Please sit and get comfortable,” Lavinia said, ushering them to a large table in the center. “There is so much to tell you . . . so much you’ve been sheltered from all these years.”

She snapped her fingers, and two Elven maidens came from a back room, their arms filled with platters of bread, vegetables, and fruit. They filled large golden goblets with red liquid.

   Henry dug right in, but Will and Anna didn’t touch their food. Will’s stomach was knotted, hungry for answers.

   Lavinia strode toward an outer area that overlooked the forest. Her face was expressionless, gazing deep into the darkness. “Far beyond the Hallowed Wood, beyond the Forked-Tongue River, beyond the Hunchback Hills, and through the Forest of Giants, lies the Crystal Castle,” she finally spoke. “The castle was built for the five Sorcerers of Misteria—those who created and protected our magical land. It was once a place of beauty and celebration. But in recent years, a dark and evil force has crept in, disguised as a once respected wizard.” Lavinia paused and turned toward them. “His name is Malzador.”

   “He’s evil all right. As evil as dey get,” Tobin added.

   “Why would he want to do anything bad to this place?” Will questioned.

   Lavinia turned her gaze back to the forest. “Malzador was once a young, powerful wizard who fell in love with a beautiful Sorceress. He pledged his love to her and offered her a golden ring as a sign of his love. But the Sorceress did not share his same feelings. You see, she had a pure heart and was repelled by his dabbling in dark magic, and therefore, she rejected him.

   “Malzador’s heart was shattered; each piece became filled with hate and darkness. For a while, he disappeared, and no one saw or heard from him.

   “During that time, the beautiful Sorceress found her one true love, and they were secretly betrothed. But word of their nuptials traveled, and somehow caught Malzador’s ears, making his dark heart grow colder and more calloused. Knowing he would never possess her love, he gave himself fully to the darkness, focusing his fury on seeking revenge. He wanted nothing more than to kill the Sorceress and everyone she ever loved, like she had killed his heart.

   “On one fateful evening, Malzador sent a band of Goblins to her home. They murdered her mother and brother but kept her alive, dragging her by her hair to the top of Teardrop Falls, where Malzador was waiting.

   “Malzador’s heart had grown so hard and wicked from his hate and rage, that her desperate pleas for help fell on deaf ears. With a wave of his hand, the Goblins carelessly tossed her over the falls to the jagged rocks below.”

   “Just like that?” Anna gasped. “He killed her?”

   Lavinia sighed and continued. “By some miracle, the Sorceress survived. Barely holding onto life, she pulled her broken body to a shallow bank before becoming unconscious. Two Buguls, out fishing, happened upon her body and called for help.

   “She was brought here, to the Hallowed Wood, while a search began for her missing husband. The next day, his garments were found, soaked in a pool of blood. Laying on top of his clothes, was the ring  Malzador had offered the Sorceress.

   “The Sorceress’s father immediately assembled a group of Elven warriors to find and capture the evil wizard. They found Malzador sitting alone, near the river bank where they found her body. He thought she was dead.

   “That night, the great Sorcerers of Misteria gathered and banished Malzador to the Underworld, where he’s been ever since, plotting his revenge. He wants nothing more than to destroy our land and everything in it.”

   “What happened to the Sorceress?” Anna asked.

   “When the healers began to work their magic on her, they discovered she was with child. Her father knew it wasn’t safe for her to stay in Misteria, not if Malzador’s Goblin assassins ever found out she was still alive. If they did, they would find and kill her. She had to leave. But before her father sent her away, she was given two rules. She was never to use her gifts in front of humans, and she was never to tell anyone about Misteria.”

   Will glanced at his sister and knew she was wondering the same thing.

   “What was the Sorceress’s name?” Anna asked.

   Will’s heart sped up, anticipating the answer.

   Lavinia’s eyes softened. “Her name was Talia…your mother.” The room fell silent. “Your grandfather sent her away from Misteria to keep her safe. He also sent a guardian to protect her and her unborn child.” Her eyes shifted to Henry.

    “My dad?” Henry gulped.

   She nodded. “Your father was given a great duty, Henry, and was chosen because he was highly regarded by the leaders of this land. Haribold is a strong and cunning warrior.”

   “My father is not a warrior,” Henry muttered. “He can barely chop down a tree.”

   Lavinia laughed. “You must understand, Henry. Both Haribold and Talia had to take on human characteristics to fit in. They couldn’t let anyone know they possessed any magical power, including all of you.”

   “I—I don’t believe it.” Henry buried his face in his hands.

   “Your father never anticipated meeting and falling in love with your human mother. You are a special gift to him, and I know he loves you very much.”

Henry’s head snapped up. “Wait. If she was human, then what does that make my dad?”

   “Your father is a Middling,” she replied, “a distant relative of the Buguls.”

   Dread shot across Henry’s face, his eyes bulged, his jaw dropped. “I’m part that?” he exhaled, his finger directing to Tobin.

   A broad smile spread across Tobin’s lips as he wiggled his bushy brow.

   “No,” Henry exhaled, his face paling.

   “A distant relative,” Lavinia added in an effort to console him.

   “Don’t be jealous. Middling are just as superb as Buguls,” Tobin mumbled with a mouth full of grapes.

   Frustrated, Will stood to his feet. “I want to know why we’re here. Where is our mother? We’re here because she told us to follow Tobin. She said she had to return to this place. Why?”

Lavinia sighed, then walked over and placed her hand on his shoulder.

   “In approximately seven days, the earth will enter a rare galactic alignment. At that exact moment, a portal will open.”

   “Like the one we came through?” Anna asked.

   “Yes,” she answered. “Only, this portal opens a gateway between Misteria and the Underworld. It is the only time, in a few thousand years, that Malzador can re-enter our world. And when he returns, he plans to destroy the magical mist which keeps our world hidden and protected from the mortal world.”

   “How can one Sorcerer undo all of this?” Will questioned.

   “The magic protecting our land can only be undone by a ceremony performed by each of the five original Sorcerers who created it. And it must be done during a lunar eclipse, which happens to occur on the same night as the alignment.”

   Anna looked to Will, then back at Lavinia again. “What does that have to do with our mother?”

   “Your grandfather is one of the five Sorcerers, and last night, he was taken.”

   “Our grandfather is alive?” Will choked.

   “Yes,” Lavinia answered. “He was taken by the leader of Malzador’s army—a dark, masked warrior who carries out all his evildoings in Misteria. The masked warrior has been ordered to capture the original Sorcerers and hold them for the return of Malzador, who will oversee the ceremony.”

   “So, our mom came back to look for our grandfather?” Will questioned.

   “Yes,” she answered. “She wanted to stay until you arrived, but knowing the alignment and eclipse were approaching and time was short, she left with Haribold and a small company of Elves.”

   Henry dropped his fork. “My dad is with her?”

   Lavinia nodded.

   “Why did she have to go? Why couldn’t the Elves go instead?” Anna sobbed.

   Lavinia’s golden eyes fixed onto Anna’s tear-filled ones.

   “Your mother . . .” she paused.

   “What about our mother?” Will questioned.

   “She is much stronger than you think. She is a Sorceress of Misteria, as is her father, as are both of you.  She has magic flowing through her veins, so you mustn’t worry about her.”

   Will and Anna remained speechless. All this time . . . all those countless stories their mother told them of the warrior Elves and Fairies and creatures that roamed across a wondrous land. They were her way of sharing Misteria with them without revealing the truth. Her way of sharing a world she was a part of, and a world they were a part of too.

   “You both possess great gifts. Hidden secrets locked deep within each of you. They have been dormant because you’ve been raised in the human world and have never needed to call upon them. Your mother’s powers were weakened while she resided outside our land—outside of the magic—but now that she’s returned home, her powers will quickly be restored.”

   “Do you think she’ll be able to save our grandfather?” Anna questioned.

   “I don’t know, sweet child,” Lavinia replied. “But she has our best warriors with her.”

   Will steeled himself. He needed to keep it together for his sister, and even more, for his mother. “What can we do to help?”

   “There is one Sorcerer left who has not yet been captured. His name is Rhyder, and he’s gone into hiding. We need to find him before they do because he is the final piece to their puzzle. If they capture him, they will have everything they need to destroy Misteria.”

   “Do you know where he is?” Will asked.

   “No, but I know someone who might.” Lavinia stood and waved for them to follow her. “I will take you to the Seer. If anyone can help us find Rhyder, she can.”

   Lavinia proceeded back down the spiraled staircase, and they followed.

CHAPTER FOUR

   When they reached the center courtyard, Lavinia leaned down and whispered into Tobin’s ear. He turned and signaled the guards, and two immediately descended the stairs and stood on either side of him. Both Elven warriors were tall and strikingly handsome. Even Will was impressed.

   “These are two of my personal guards,” Lavinia said.

   The slightly taller of the two—with sharp features, light brown hair, and brown eyes— bowed his head slightly. “My name is Thane.”

   “And I am Alek,” the other announced, also tipping his head. His voice was deeper, and his eyes and hair were a much darker brown.

   Lavinia stepped toward them. “I am taking the children to the Seer and would like you to accompany us.”

   “Yes, milady,” the guards answered in unison, bowing at the waist.

   Lavinia gave a single nod, then turned and led the group to the edge of the enclosed trees. With a quick wave of her hand and a few spoken Elvish words, the trees untangled, leaving an opening the size of a doorway with a trail leading into the dark forest. The sun had already set, and Will wondered how they would be able to see in the dark.

   Tobin grabbed two torches and handed them to Thane and Alek.

   “Is it safe to go out there at night?” Henry asked.

   “Yes, we are still traveling in the Hallowed Wood. As of yet, no dark creatures have breached our wards,” Lavinia replied.

   “Yet?” Will repeated.

   “Evil creatures are smart not to enter here, for fear they may never find an exit,” Thane added with a sly grin.

   “What does that mean?” Henry asked.

   Will chuckled. “It means we’re safe.”

   “Smart boy,” Alek returned, patting Will on the shoulder.

   Lavinia turned back and winked. “Of course he is. It’s in his blood.”

   Thane and Alek nodded with smiles on their faces.

   “I wonder what she meant by that?” Anna questioned, side-eyeing Will.

   “They clearly recognize how intelligent I am.”

   Anna laughed and elbowed him. “If they only knew the truth.”

   “Let’s go,” Thane said, leading the way. Alek waited for everyone to pass before he brought up the rear.

   As the group made their way through the dark, narrow pathway, Will realized how quiet it was. There didn’t seem to be anything moving in the woods around them—no birds, no insects, no wind. Just an eerie silence.

   “Are we safe here?” he asked.

   “Yes,” Lavinia answered. “We are still within the wards of the Hallowed Wood.”

   He nodded. The silence didn’t seem to affect them.

   After a half a mile or so, they exited the forest, arriving at a small clearing. Directly in the center, stood a single, majestic tree which looked quite old and out of place. It reminded Will of their favorite tree back home, only this one was much, much larger.

   Thane stepped forward and touched his torch to the ground. The flame caught hold and traveled fast, encircling the large tree, but leaving a small opening at the front. The flames didn’t spread but stayed in place.

   The enormous trunk had a smooth, silvery bark bearing intricate carvings. Its roots were massive and matted, and its leaves glowed bronze in the dancing firelight.

   “Tis a special tree,” Tobin whispered. “Tis da king of all trees in da forest.”

   “It’s magnificent,” Anna whispered.

   Will wondered how many incredible stories the tree held from its many years in Misteria and what each of the carvings meant. Did they tell stories? Or were they magical runes that protected the tree?

   Lavinia stepped forward and raised her arms in the air. Closing her eyes, she began to speak in an eloquent foreign tongue while everyone else remained quiet and still as she summoned the Seer.

   A loud wind rustled high within the boughs of the tree, swooshing down and rushing around them. Will turned to Anna, her hair whipped every which way, but her eyes remained fixed on the hollow of the tree.  Someone or something was emerging.

   By the look of the tree, Will was anticipating a beautiful Elven or Fairy Queen to appear. Instead, out hobbled an old looking hag with stringy, silvery hair which hung over most of her face. Her short, withered frame was hunched over as she shuffled toward the party. In her right hand was a twisted wooden cane.

   “My dear Lavinia, it’s been a while since you’ve visited,” she cackled, sounding more like a wicked old witch. “What brings you here?”

   “It’s been much too long,” Lavinia agreed. “I’ve brought Talia’s children with me.”

   “I know,” the Seer responded. “Although these eyes fail me, I still see everything.”

   “Of course,” Lavinia said with a bow of her head. She placed the Seer’s hand on her arm and led her over to Will and Anna.

   Anna stepped closer to Will as the Seer neared them. She smelled like moss and earth and wood and air.  The old lady’s face was horribly weathered, her teeth were yellowed, and her eyes were a grayish, murky color.

   Henry took a step forward to stand on the opposite side of Anna, and Will was thankful for his friend’s gesture, knowing Henry would be as protective of her as he was.

   The old woman lifted her arthritic finger and placed it in the middle of Will’s chest. As she leaned into him, he automatically leaned away from her.

   “Will,” Anna scolded, “don’t be rude.”

   “I can’t help it. She’s creepy.”

   “Ahhh—they are telepathic, just like their mother,” the Seer spoke, turning to Lavinia.

   “You can hear us?” Will said softly, a heat creeping up his neck.

   “But of course,” the Seer replied with a haggard grin.

    Anna elbowed her brother in the side and he grunted but didn’t rebut. He knew he deserved it.

   “This one,” the Seer pointed at Will, “is much like his father.” Her gaze met Lavinia’s. “Does his presence bring you pain?”

   Lavinia’s head fell. “No,” she answered. “Seeing them has brought nothing but joy; something I haven’t felt in a long time.” Her gaze met Will and Anna’s, and although she was smiling, sadness swam deep in her golden eyes.

   “How did you know our father?” Will asked her. He wanted to know why she would be so affected by their father’s death. She must have been close to him. But how close?

Lavinia looked away for a moment, a single tear trailed down her cheek. “Your father, Jarek, was my brother.”

   Will’s heart hammered hard in his chest, hearing her speak his father’s name . . . Jarek. Until today, it was just a faceless name. But here, in Misteria . . . they knew him. He was her brother. And that made him even more real.

   “You’re our aunt?” Anna breathed.

   “In human terms, yes,” she answered softly.

   “That means our father was—"

   “Prince of the Hallowed Wood,” Lavinia finished. “He was a great warrior, a master archer, and beloved by his people. He should have been king.”

   A great warrior and an Elvish prince. Will could hardly contain himself. “Are there any more relatives we should know about?” he asked.

   Lavinia shook her head. “Your father was the last of my kin.”

   “I’m sorry,” he replied, fighting back his emotions. “I wish we’d had the chance to know him.”

   She dipped her head. “For that, I am sorry. Your father would have loved you both. You would have been his entire world,” she replied, her eyes studying his face. “You look so much like him, William.”

Will was still grappling with all the new information when the Seer turned, taking a few hobbled steps back toward the great tree. She raised her arms and entered some sort of trance, swaying back and forth, chanting in a foreign tongue.

   The leaves rustled high in their silvery branches, and the boughs creaked and groaned as if they were speaking to her. When she stopped her movements and her hands fell to her sides, the tree stilled.

   The Seer slowly made her way back toward them. Stretching her arms out, she offered Will and Anna her hands. Will turned to Lavinia for affirmation, and when she gave an approving nod, he placed his hand on top of the Seer. Anna did the same.

   The old woman’s palms were surprisingly warm and soft. She closed her eyes tight, and when they opened again, they’d gone entirely black.

Anna gasped, and Will twitched at the alarming change in her appearance. She looked horrifying, like a witch.

   The Seer’s gaze locked onto Will, speaking in a raspy, high-pitched voice. “You are strong, son of Jarek, a legacy passed down through the generations. The future holds much mystery but do not flee from it. The fate of this land rests in your hands.”

   Her obsidian eyes shifted to Anna. “Special powers are your birthright, daughter of Talia. Born in the world of man but conceived in the land of mist. Your gifts will reveal themselves in time. Embrace the power bestowed or it will destroy you.” Her head fell forward.

“Two conceived from a single seed,

With magic shall arrive.

Together, standing hand in hand,

The darkness they will drive.”

   She raised her head again. “Alone, you will have the power to defeat a single enemy, but together, your gifts will be unstoppable. Misteria has always been a part of you, and now that you’ve returned, your powers will grow. You are the two the prophecy has foretold.”

   Will looked at Anna, but the Seer wasn’t done.

   “Seek out the Lady of the Crystal Lake, she knows where the last Sorcerer is hidden. He will help release the gifts inside and instruct you how to use them. Your gifts will be instrumental in defeating Malzador. We all must prepare for his arrival.” The Seer’s eyes rolled back into her head, and her body convulsed. She closed her eyes, and when they reopened, they’d returned to their murky, grayish color.

She was weak, and as her legs faltered, Lavinia reached out and caught her, wrapping her arm around her waist.

   “Take me back,” the Seer wheezed. Lavinia nodded.

   Henry picked up her cane and followed them back to the tree while Will and Anna stood still, heads spinning. Tobin stepped behind them and gently patted their backs.

   “Everyone in Misteria has been waitin’ for ya. It’s truly an honor ta be in yer presence.”

   “This is crazy. There is no way we can defeat a great Sorcerer,” Will exhaled. “We’re just kids. The only gift we’ve ever had is telepathy.”

   “He’s right,” Anna agreed. “She has to be wrong. It can’t be us. We’re not special.”

   “Ah, but dat’s where you’re wrong. Ya are special. And just for yer information . . . da Seer is never amiss.”

   Lavinia and Henry returned after delivering the Seer back to her home. Lavinia placed a hand on Will and Anna’s shoulders.

   “I know you’re confused, and I can’t begin to imagine what’s going on inside of your minds. But there is so much more to tell, and I believe a short history of Misteria is what you need before we go any further. Come, this way.” She walked over to a fallen log and sat down. The rest of them gathered as she began to tell the story.

   “At the beginning of time, man lived in harmony with all creatures, magical and non-magical. There was perfect balance for hundreds of years, until one fateful night when a baby boy was born to a lowly farmer and his wife. Creatures large and small gathered from every corner of the earth, keeping watch in the farmer’s fields.

   “Word of the unusual occurrence spread like wildfire, soon reaching the leaders of men. Afraid the child was sent from the gods to overthrow them, they secretly conspired to kill him. The wicked men sent an army of one hundred men, who marched throughout the night until they reached the farmer's house. When they arrived, they dragged the couple out into the middle of their field, with the baby swaddled in his mother’s arms. There, the soldiers executed the farmer and his wife. In her last moments, the woman wailed, screaming a prayer—her dying wish—into the heavens.

   “Out of the dark sky swooped a wondrous, mythical creature, answering her plea. It was a white, winged horse. His frame was muscular, and his silvery coat glistened in the firelight.

   “The soldiers froze in amazement as the woman reached up, and with her last breaths took hold of his mane. She placed the baby on his back, securing him tightly with swaddling. Then, she whispered in Pegasus’ ear the last words she ever spoke.

   “Pegasus reared as the woman took her final breath and fell to the ground. With a single flap of his mighty wings, he took off into the star-filled sky with the baby on his back. He flew, higher and higher, carrying the child deep into the mountains, to a place he knew he could grow and be safe. Far away from evil human hearts.

   “Pegasus set down quietly at the edge of a small village, and out of the woods, an Elven princess came to greet him. She wondered why the boy had to stay with the humans when he possessed such greatness.

   “‘It is his destiny,’ Pegasus replied. ‘You can keep watch from a distance. Make sure he is safe until the prophecy is fulfilled.’ The child was left on the doorstep of a local farmer and his wife, who could not bear children of their own. They took him in and gave him the name Eason. Eason was deeply loved by his new guardians, and everyone in the village played a part in raising him.

   “As the years passed, Eason grew into a handsome young man, much taller and stronger than any other boy in the village. From the age of thirteen, he showed signs of magic and power. Knowing the risks, the Elven princess visited him and warned him that if the humans ever found out about his gifts, they would kill him. So, she made him promise to keep his powers secret.

   “Once a week, he would travel to a secluded area where he met the Elven princess and other mystical creatures—Mermaids, Fairies, and Unicorns. On rare occasions, Pegasus would join them and teach him about his gifts and how to use them for good. In time, and in secret, Eason grew into a powerful Sorcerer.

   “As Eason continued to grow, the jealous leaders persisted in their search, scouring the countryside to search for him. They captured every being that showed magical power, or power greater than their own, and threw them into dark dungeons where many were slaughtered. They stripped Unicorns of their magical horns, Griffons were shot from the skies, and even the Dragons were hunted and killed until there were only a few left.

   “Eason caught word of what the evil men were doing, and when the time came, he gathered and led an army of Elves to the human dungeons and released all magical beings. They fled north and eventually came to this place. Then Eason, along with four other Sorcerers, used their powerful magic to ward and glamour our land and our kind. They conjured an enchanted wall of mist to surround and blind us from all human eyes—veiling us forever. And thus, Misteria was born.”

   As Lavinia finished her story, everyone remained silent, absorbing her words.

   “Your story was so vivid, it was like you were right there,” Anna said.

   Lavinia’s face softened, a slight smile lifted on her lips. “I was.”

   Anna gasped. “You were the Elven princess, weren’t you?”

   “Yes.”

   “Whoa,” Henry interjected. “You must be like hundreds and hundreds of years old.”

   “That may be, but a lady never reveals her true age.” Lavinia winked at Henry, making him blush.

   “Henry,” Will scolded, elbowing him in the arm.

   “What?” He groaned, rubbing his new bruise. “I’m just saying, she looks really, really good for her age.”

   “Thank you, Henry.” Lavinia smiled.

   “If our grandfather was one of the five Sorcerers, what was his name?” Anna asked.

   “I think you already know the answer to that question,” she replied.

   “Is Eason our grandfather?” Will’s pulse raced, waiting for confirmation.

   “Yes,” she answered. “And he is still, very much alive.”

   “Wow, your family is a huge deal in Misteria,” Henry said, patting Will on the back.

   “It’s unbelievable,” Anna breathed.

   “So, fairytales are real?” Henry asked.

   “Not all of them,” Lavinia replied, standing to her feet. “We should go. We mustn’t linger.”

   Will was getting restless, his mind spinning even more than before. “Why do we have to go back?  Shouldn’t we be looking for our mom?”

   “Not tonight, William,” Lavinia protested. “It’s not safe these days in the darkness, especially in areas beyond the Hallowed Wood, where Malzador’s creatures roam.”

   “What kinds of creatures?” Anna’s voice trembled.

   “Creatures ya don’t wanna know ‘bout,” Tobin muttered. He’d been quiet until now, stepping out from between the two Elven guards. “At night, dark creatures are everywhere, especially da Hellhounds. And during da day, it’s dem Howlers ya have ta worry ‘bout.”

Anna’s eyes widened with fear.

   “Don’t pay him any mind,” Lavinia sighed. She turned and narrowed her eyes at Tobin before turning back to the children. “This area is still safe, and you’ll remain safe in my home. No evil has stepped here.”

   “What are Hellhounds and Howlers?” Will asked. He wanted to know what kinds of things they were going up against.

   “Da ugliest an’ meanest creatures in all da land,” Tobin replied. “Dog-like creatures. Dem Howlers have no hair, but leathery, tough skin, sharp claws, an’ ugly spikes runnin’ down dem backs. Evil, ferocious creatures. But dey is not as bad as dem Hellhounds. Evil hounds with red glowin’ eyes and a bite dat’s poisonous. Hellhounds also breathe fire.”

   “But our mother,” Anna wailed. “She’s out there with those beasts. What if she runs into them?”

   “Don’t worry,” Lavinia answered. “Your mother is so much stronger than she seems and has many friends here. Right now, Malzador’s creatures have been sent to hunt for rebels and Rhyder. They have no idea your mother is alive, let alone back in Misteria.”

   “That’s comforting, I guess,” Will replied rubbing his aching head.

   “First you must find Rhyder, so he can help release your gifts. Then, you will be able to help save your mother and grandfather.”

Will nodded, but his thoughts lingered on his father. An Elven prince who had once lived here, in Misteria with his mother.

   “If our father was Elvish, then why don’t we have pointed ears like you?”

   “I don’t know,” Lavinia replied. “Maybe being born and living in the human world for so long suppressed that side of you.”

   Anna’s quiet sobs filled the area, and Will knew what she was feeling. The entire day was overwhelming, and now that they were tired, it was hitting them hard. They both missed their mother terribly, and hearing about their father, as if it were the first time, made Will’s heart ache even more.

   Lavinia placed her arm around Anna. “Come. I don’t like to be outside of the Elven dwelling for too long, even with our wards up. Besides, you will need to rest before your journey tomorrow.”

   “We aren’t going alone, are we?” Will asked.

   “No,” Lavinia said. “Tobin will be your guide.”

   Tobin choked on his last breath, grasping his chest. “Oh—no, no, yer Ladiness,” he said, bowing. “Me is not fit ta guide dem on such a quest.”

   Lavinia clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Come now. You are most fit. You know more safe places and residents in Misteria than most, and often brag about how crafty Buguls are. Besides, the Seer told me it must be you. I trust you, Tobin, and am entrusting the lives of my kin in your hands.”

   Tobin trembled and dropped to his knees. “Oooh, dear Lady, I can’t. I mustn’t. Tis such a great task. Too great, indeed.”

   “You can, Tobin, and you will. This is not debatable.” Lavinia leaned down and patted Tobin on the cheek.

   All the way back to the Hallowed Woods, Tobin moaned and groaned and carried on.

CHAPTER FIVE

   Henry’s hair was a matted mess, but he was up and ready for the journey ahead. He bumped into Tobin on his way to the washroom.

   “Sorry,” he mumbled.

   “Don’t worry.” Tobin grinned. “Henry, I can take ya to da Middling village on our way. Ya’ve probably got some kin dere.”

   “No.” Henry shook his head. “The only relative I want to see is my dad.”

   Tobin shrugged. “Da Middling folk are very friendly an’ are great cooks.”

   “I don’t care.” Henry huffed and turned away.

   Will walked over and patted Tobin on the shoulder. “Don’t mind him. He’s battling some insecurities.”

   “Don’t know why he would,” Tobin muttered.

   “Oh, I think it’s a short matter, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.” Will chuckled.

   “Not funny,” Henry growled.

   “What?” Will shrugged. “Think about it. You actually have relatives in this place. Relatives you never knew you had. Maybe you have some hidden gifts too?”

   “Like what, whacking average-sized people in the kneecaps?”

   Everyone laughed, including Anna, which made Henry feel the tiniest bit better.

   As the sun kissed the morning sky, Will, Anna, Henry, and their sulking guide gathered their things and met Lavinia in the center of the courtyard.

   Before they set off on their journey, Lavinia handed each of them a small satchel filled with food, a canteen of water, and a cloak to keep them warm on their journey.

   To Henry, she gave a dagger sheathed in a beautiful brown leather case. He pulled it out and inspected it.    He’d never had a weapon of his own before, especially this sharp, and it made him feel special.

   Will thanked Lavinia as he received an Elvish bow and a quiver of arrows. She also gave him a smaller dagger, which he strapped to his side.

   Anna was also given a dagger, like Henry’s, but her blade was curved and had an intricate design carved into its golden handle—most likely Elvish. Around Anna’s neck, Lavinia fastened a necklace—a golden spiral with a clear gem set into it.

   “What’s this?” Anna asked, her fingers grazing the pendant.

   “It’s an amulet of protection to ward off evil,” Lavinia replied. “It carries a magical enchantment from the Sorcerers of Misteria.” She placed her hands on Anna’s shoulders. “Never take it off.”

   “I won’t,” Anna promised, tucking it into her shirt. “Thank you.”

Lastly, Lavinia gave Tobin a short, double-edged sword which looked extremely sharp, along with a single kiss on the top of his head.

   “Travel only by day, and before darkness falls, find safety within the trees.” She lay her palms on Tobin’s shoulders. “Keep them safe. We will gather as many as we can, and on the sixth day, we’ll assemble at the ruins of Hunchback Hills. Meet us there.”

   Tobin bowed his head. “Yes, m'lady.”

   “May the magic of this land carry you safely and swiftly to your destination,” Lavinia spoke.

She hugged each of them, and as the four set off from the Hallowed Wood, the Elves, who had gathered around to watch them set off, bowed to each of them as they left.

   They traveled west, through the grasslands towards the Forked-Tongue River. Multi-colored wildflowers, as tall as Tobin, danced in the wind around them as if bidding them a fond farewell.

   “Are there Fairies here?” Anna asked.

   “Not anymore, especially da areas which aren’t warded with protection,” Tobin replied somberly. “Ever since da Sorcerers started to go missin’, da Fairies don’t come out in da open anymore. Dey choose ta take shelter in da forests, where dey is protected.”

   “That’s so sad.” Anna frowned. “How can such a beautiful place have so much evil?”

   “Maybe we’ll be able to help get things back to normal,” Henry suggested, trying to lift her spirit.

   “You make it sound like it’ll be simple,” Will replied. 

   “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Henry said, quoting the words his dad used on countless occasions. “I don’t think we should be negative right from the start. I mean, look at this place. It’s where fairy tales were born. The human world has no idea this land exists. But we are here and are somehow a part of it.”

   Will gave him a side-eyed glance. “Look who’s suddenly positive.”

   “Hey, the sun is shining today. It’s not all bad.”

   Anna smiled at his sentiment. “That’s an excellent way to put it. We are walking in a land filled with magic. A land where dreams are born.”

   “That may be true,” Will muttered, “but we have to remember this land also holds nightmares. We can’t go walking around with our heads in the clouds, or we might have them bitten off by some mystical, flying monster.”

   “Will,” Anna scolded.

   He shrugged, then pushed past them. “Just keeping it real.”

   “He must not have had enough breakfast,” Henry murmured, and Anna agreed with a nod.

   It wasn’t long before Henry heard the sound of rushing water. As they made their way through an area of dense trees, they soon stood at the bank of a wide river, filled with heavy rapids.

   “Wait here,” Tobin said before hobbling away.

   “Hey, where are you going?” Henry called after him.

   “Gettin’ our transportation.” He continued down the side of the riverbank, then disappeared into a thick patch of trees.

   “We aren’t going out on that river, are we?” Anna groaned. “It’s too rough. We’ll die before we make it anywhere.”

   “Will and I have rafted many times. We’ve got this,” Henry boasted.

   “Yeah, but you had grownups with you,” Anna clarified with arms crossed over her chest.

   “We could have done it without them,” he returned.

   Tobin finally emerged from the trees, dragging a small boat behind him. Will and Henry ran to help him, each taking an ore.

   Henry looked back to see Anna frozen with fear. He walked over to her. “Don’t worry. We won’t let anything happen to you.”

   Anna didn’t look convinced, but she allowed Henry to lead her to the boat. Once she got in and took the front, he jumped in right behind her. Tobin was next, then Will pushed them off and hopped into the rear.

   “Where will this river take us?” Will asked.

   “If we go right, it’ll take us right off da Razor Falls. If we stay to da left, we’ll be headin’ into Malzador’s territory.”

   “Why would we want to go to either of those places?” Anna sighed softly.

   “We need to stay left,” Tobin said.

   “Left?” Henry barked. “So, we're heading into the madman’s territory?”

   “We could go right,” Tobin shrugged, “but dat would end in a painful death.”

   “Left it is,” Will said, pushing his oar into the water, steering them across the river.

   As the rapids carried them swiftly, the boat became harder to handle and began twisting in a circle.

   “I thought you guys knew what you were doing?” Anna’s fingers white-knuckled the sides of the boat.

   “Straight. We need ta be goin’ straight,” Tobin moaned, looking a little pale.

   “It’s not me,” Henry announced. “Will is the one steering.”

   Will growled. “It’s been a while since we’ve been on a river, and if you feel like you can do a better job, I’ll gladly let you steer.”

   “Nope,” Henry piped up. “You’re doing just fine.”

   “I’m getting dizzy,” Anna said as the boat approached its seventh twist.

   “I think we need some help,” Will hollered. “I can’t stop it.”

   “Look!” Anna pointed toward some colorful ripples in the water directly alongside the boat. The water began to swirl in the opposite direction, and within seconds, the boat stopped its spiraling and evened out, putting them back on track.

   “What just happened?” Henry asked, completely shocked. “What did that?”

   “River Sprites,” Tobin replied plainly.

   Just above the sound of the rushing river, they heard faint giggling and watched trails of rainbow colored water ripple away from them.

   “Thank you!” Anna called out, waving to the invisible creatures.

   “Why can’t we see them?” Will asked.

   “Some Sprites, especially outside protected areas, don’t like ta be seen,” Tobin noted. “So much evil exists nowadays, dey like ta remain hidden.”

   “I’m glad they helped us,” Anna exhaled. “I was getting sick.”

   “Me too,” Henry admitted.

 

 

 

   For the next few hours, Will and Henry were able to keep the boat straight, but fighting the river’s currents was exhausting. Anna was also tired and began to panic as she watched the sun set. A half-moon hung high in the sky.

   “We have to find shelter,” Anna urged. “It’ll be dark soon.”

   As the current slowed, Tobin directed them into a small alcove along the riverbank. After they hopped out of the boat, Will and Henry dragged it to shore, and at Tobin’s direction, hid it beneath some brush.

   “Foller me,” Tobin said, leading them into the forest.

   “Where are we going?” Anna asked.

   “Ta an Elvish huntin’ tree,” Tobin answered.

   “Is it safe?”

   “No one but da Elves an’ I know ‘bout it,” he said turning back with a wink.

   As they made their way deeper into the darkening forest, Tobin stopped in front of a large tree.

   “Is this it?” Anna asked. It looked like every other tree in the forest.

   “Ya,” he replied. “Now give me a boost, would ya?”

   Will and Henry each took one of Tobin’s legs and pushed him up the tree as high as they could, then watched as he disappeared into its branches.

   “Come,” he hollered down.

   Anna was next, and as she was lifted, noticed there were small rungs on the tree to hold onto for easier access. She never would’ve seen them unless she was up close. They were well camouflaged.

   From the ground, it looked like an ordinary tree, but as she made her way into its boughs, she found a hollowed-out area, much like Lavinia’s, only a lot smaller and plainer. The area was flat with a circular stone table in its center and just enough room for the four of them to lay comfortably. It was also high enough that creatures on the ground couldn’t reach them, and the thick branches and leaves concealed and protected them from the elements and things flying above. Tobin pulled a few flint rocks from his pouch, then gathered a few dead branches and dried leaves to start a small fire in the center of the stone table.

   Settling around the fire, they were all exhausted from the long day on the river. Dinner was dried meat and fruit, bread, and a canteen of water given to each of them from the Elves.

   “Hey, this Elvish food isn’t too bad,” Henry said, biting into a piece of jerky.

   “Yeah, it’s not bad at all,” Will agreed, “But I’d give anything for a piece of cheesy pizza.”

   “Stop. Just stop,” Henry groaned. “You know how much I love pizza, especially your mom’s homemade, cheese pizza.” He set his food to the side. “All of a sudden, this dried meat doesn’t taste as good as it did a few seconds ago.”

   Anna giggled. She didn’t want to say it out loud, but her mom did make the best pizza, and now, she also wanted some.

   The woods were quiet and peaceful as the sun retreated behind the mountains, and the moon offered a faint glow.

   “Tobin?” Anna asked, breaking the silence.

   “Hmmm?” he hummed.

   “Where is your family?”

   Tobin tugged his cloak up over his body and sucked in a deep breath. “All of me kin is dead.”

   “Anna!” Will’s head snapped to his sister, his eyes narrowed.

   “Oh, Tobin, I’m so sorry!” Anna apologized. “I didn’t know.” She felt horrible she’d asked.

   “No harm done. It happened long ago when I was a wee Bugul. Me kin was out harvestin’ crops late one evenin’ when dey was attacked by a pack of evil Howlers. All of dem were killed. Da Elves found me, an’ Lady Lavinia took me in. For dat, I’m forever grateful. I guess she felt bad ‘cause her own mudder was killed by a pack of Howlers.” Tobin rolled over and pulled his cloak up to his ear. “We best be gettin’ some sleep. In da mornin’, we have a long way ta travel.”

   “Goodnight, Tobin,” Anna whispered.

   “G’night, chil’ren.”

   As night settled, the air became frigid. Anna shivered under her cloak, while the guys had no trouble falling fast asleep. As hard as Anna tried, her mind wouldn’t rest. Her thoughts were a whirlwind, worrying about her mother, wondering about her father, grandfather, their gifts, and the fate of Misteria.

Tobin’s wheezing, and Henry’s snoring, frequently interrupted her thoughts. Anna pulled the cloak tighter around herself, noticing a faint odor wafting on the breeze. It smelled like… death. And with every breath, it seemed to be getting stronger. Then, in the distance, she heard a creature howl.

   “Will!” Anna whispered, shaking his shoulder. “Will, get up.”

   The stench burned her nostrils, and the cracking of branches was getting closer. Her pulse raced and her heart thrummed loudly against her chest.

   “Will,” she huffed again, pushing his arm. 

    When Will didn’t budge, Anna crawled to the edge of the tree and pulled back a few branches. In the distance, she saw three pairs of red, glowing eyes, swiftly approaching.

   “Will!” she screamed, this time in her mind. She shuffled back to him.

   “What’s your problem?” he snapped. “I finally got to sleep and now you wake me up?”

   She threw her hand over his mouth. “There is something out there. I think it might be those creatures Tobin was talking about . . . those fire dogs. The Hellhounds.”

   “Are you sure you didn’t just dream it up?” he answered, his eyelids heavy.

   “No! There is something out there,” she urged, pointing with every word.

   Will rubbed his eyes and crawled to the edge of the area. Anna pulled back the branches, and this time, they both witnessed the fiery, red eyes heading toward them.

   “What do we do?” Anna cried.

   “Tobin!” Will jumped over and yanked on his leg.

   “No, no. I don’t wanna go,” Tobin whined in a deep sleep.

   “Tobin!” Anna bellowed, grabbing his arm and furiously shaking him. When he didn’t wake, she smacked him on the forehead.

   Tobin shot up from his deep sleep. “What in da Fairy fog?”

   “What’s going on?” Henry asked, sitting up in a daze.

  “Something’s coming!” Anna twisted Tobin’s big head in the direction of the red glowing eyes as Will moved the branches. Just in front of the beasts, a small figure was running. Whoever, or whatever it was, was running for their lives.

   “Ooh, ooh,” Tobin whimpered. “It’s dem Hellhounds. Get down an’ stay quiet.” He dropped back down, pulling his cloak over his head.

   “But someone’s out there,” Will said, peering back through the branches to get a closer look. He grabbed his bow and nocked an arrow to it.

   “Will, don’t do anything stupid!” Anna warned, grabbing hold of his shirt to pull him back.

Then she glimpsed a boy sprinting toward them.

   “Help!” he screamed.

   The Hellhounds were catching up to him fast, burning crimson eyes focused on their prey. Thick steam shot from their nostrils while howls pierced the air as they tore through the forest.

MISTERIA is FREE with

MISTERIA

Copyright © 2018 Cameo Renae

 

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

Cover Designer: Stefanie Saw of Seventhstar Book Covers

Book design by Inkstain Design Studio

Editor: Victoria Rae Schmitz of Crimson Tide Editorial

 

First Edition: May 2018

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.