Authors: Matthew Ballard
The dead men’s trapped souls struggled to gain freedom, but Tara had long ago gained mastery of her art. She’d invented it after all.
Using the slain men’s stored soul energy, she wove a flow of dark ethereal mist that hovered above her outstretched palm. With lips puckered, Tara blew on the mist and set it drifting outward.
After a few feet, the mist split forming two parts, each moving in opposite directions, but aiming toward a common goal. The dark mist hovered inches above the dead men's lifeless bodies before disappearing into their skin.
Sergeant Reed’s corpse twitched. A stifled shriek came from Montgomery, who had done his best to inch away from the horror unfolding before him. Corporal Oliver’s body followed lurching upward and convulsing before his eyes fluttered open.
Tara pulled the anchored souls into her body and added their weight to her depleted energy reserves.
Montgomery looked on, his face a mask of stark terror. His friends rose and stood from where they’d died a few minutes earlier.
Wisps of dark energy drifted from the slain guards. Each now served as a dark soldier under Tara’s complete and total command. Reed and Oliver knelt before Tara using the same fluid motion they had in life. The glassy sheen and utter void in their eyes betrayed any idea that life still clung to their soulless husks. They stared ahead emotionless and without focus ignoring Montgomery.
“What have you done to them?” Montgomery’s voice came out edged with a harsh husky rasp as if he’d had the wind knocked from him.
Tara smiled. “I’ve given them a new purpose.”
Like a wraith, General Demos appeared as if from thin air.
Tara jumped, startled at his sudden presence. She’d never understood how he managed such uncanny stealth.
General Demos bowed low showing Tara great respect with the gesture. “Mistress, Porthleven is yours.”
Like the basin of a bone-dry ocean, never ending sand stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction. To the untrained observer, two oversized desert hawks drifted on thermal currents. To those trained in Lora’s guardian magic, the hawks doubled as Danielle Deveaux and Keely Bouchard.
Despite the winter season, the desert heat never retreated in the Chukchi. The heat produced excellent thermal winds fueled by the rapid change in daily temperature. Nighttime’s bitter cold gave way to harsh afternoon sunshine producing enough updraft to glide all day long.
Danielle’s head throbbed. She’d grown sick of the sand, the heat, and especially the unforgiving sun. In her dreams, she felt the Heartwood’s gentle winter breeze and the cool comfort of her own bed high in the forest canopy. Despite her month long investigation, the raging desert storms remained an unsolved mystery. Why had she insisted on leading the investigation? If she and Keely didn’t find some evidence soon, she’d order the expedition halted, and they’d return to the Heartwood.
Keely glided a half-mile ahead, taking her turn scouting the ever-shifting dunes. Danielle trailed behind taking a moment to recover on the stifling updraft.
Keely disappeared behind a thirty foot dune only to reappear a moment later. With her wings extended, the thermal current pulled her high above the desert floor. Her head swung toward Danielle, and she screeched using a long fading tone. Keely beat her wings in short succession, breaking into a circular flight pattern over the enormous dune.
Danielle recognized the sign. Keely had found something she felt worthy of investigation. Danielle screeched a short burst of confirmation and beat her wings faster picking up speed. She and Keely had investigated dozens of rocks, dead animals, desert shrubs, and the oddly shaped cactus. Nothing interesting had surfaced, and she didn’t expect that changing now.
Keely soared climbing fifty feet before diving again spinning into a tight headfirst barrel roll. She plunged straight downward moving at break-neck speed before disappearing behind the towering dune.
Danielle’s stomach flip-flopped. Had Keely lost her mind? She couldn’t have stopped herself before she hit the sand. Such carelessness placed them at risk, and Keely knew better. Danielle channeled guardian magic increasing her size and fueling faster speed.
The desert sand came faster moving beneath Danielle in a blur. Heat waves curled off the desert floor blending sand and sky into a glossy melted sheen. Twenty-five yards ahead, the massive dune loomed.
As the dune’s summit passed beneath her wings, Danielle’s eyes widened. She twisted and bucked keeping her gaze fixed on the horizon, while under her wings, the world changed.
The dune gave way to a steep slope ending in a sheer cliff. From the middle of a hundred-foot wall of solid rock, water burst outward. A towering waterfall emptied clear water into a churning pool fifty-feet below. At the pool’s low point, a river flowed downhill before disappearing into a mile long stretch of dense jungle canopy. Nestled at the oasis’s heart, the blue edge of a small lagoon peeked above swaying green palm trees.
Danielle’s fatigue disappeared. Her eyes feasted on clean water, fruit-laden trees, and the promise of a soft place to sleep. With a few flaps of her wings, she shot forward and glided on the welcome flows of moisture rich tropical air.
Keely glided in a slow downward arc on a path ending near the lake’s calm blue water. As she descended, Keely skimmed the treetops following the meandering river a dozen feet below.
Danielle inhaled, breathing in the sweet fragrance of flowers blossoming atop a nearby tree. The ripe yellow fruit hanging from its limbs set her mouth watering.
The rustling treetops gave way to a small beach, glittering with pure white sugary sand. Keely touched down shifting into human form before she’d come to a complete stop.
Danielle followed tempted to shift into human form above the lake’s welcoming waters. She could perform a spectacular swan dive and disappear beneath its cool inviting surface. But, after her mental admonishment of Keely a moment earlier, she thought better. She shifted letting her human feet jog to a stop atop the soft powdery sand.
Danielle loosened the heartwood staff strapped to her back and sank it deep into the soft sand planting it like a conquering hero. “That water looks absolutely delicious.” Danielle worked free the top button of her thin cotton blouse. “I can’t wait to cool off. Why didn’t you tell me about this place earlier?” She flashed Keely a smile while she worked loose the last button of her shirt. “You’re holding out on me, Keely.” Danielle ripped off her shirt and peeled away her thin tank top beneath.
“You think I could’ve held onto a secret like this?” Keely tore away her shirt revealing her bronzed skin and washboard stomach. “If I’d known about this place, I would’ve shown up here a week ago. As far as I know, nobody’s ever gone this far south into the desert.”
Danielle slipped off her leather boots and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Really?”
Keely nodded as she twisted her corded leather belt. “The Guard has long considered it too dangerous.” Keely rolled her eyes and held up her hand. “A big shock, I know.” She kicked free her boots and worked the edges of her pants near her flared hips. “The council believed shards too precious to take the risk. If you lost a crew out here, you’d never find them or their shards. But, I guess that’s all changed now.”
Danielle pulled off her pants and gazed with lust at the cool waters lapping at the white sand ten feet away. “I suppose it has.”
Keely wriggled her tight pants around her hips and kicked them from her outstretched foot. She flashed a quick smile, pushed away a lock of short dark hair draping over her eye, and rushed the water. “Last one in is a water bison’s pimpled ass!” She sprinted down the beach kicking up sand with her bare feet and hit the water with a giant splash.
Danielle pulled back her long blond hair bleached platinum by the relentless sunshine and tied it into a ponytail. “Keely!” She darted after her laughing as she plunged headfirst into the clear glassy water.
Danielle’s skin came alive as the water’s cool relief washed away a month’s worth of sweat and grime. She turned onto her back and ran her fingers through her hair washing away layers of dirt and gritty sand.
Across the lagoon, Keely dove underwater before reappearing a few seconds later. She froze, staring with furrowed brows at a strange object floating in the water. “That’s odd.”
“What is it?” Danielle said. She swam near Keely and treaded water staring at the object floating at the water’s surface. “Ice? I know the nights can get cold, but not cold enough to freeze a desert lake.” She scooped up the chunk of ice floating in the lake, and her palm immediately went numb. “I’ve felt ice before, but I don’t remember it being this cold.”
“Danielle look at that stretch of beach over there,” Keely said, pointing across the lagoon.
Danielle gasped and nearly choked on the lake water. “What’s that?”
Keely shook her head. “There’s only one way to find out.” She swam to the beach and scooped up her clothes.
Danielle followed, pulling on her breeches and tossing on her blouse.
Keely stood frozen, staring down the beach her eyes never leaving the dark spot.
Danielle slipped on her shoes and hurried down the beach, stopping beside Keely. “Come on, let’s check it out.” She grabbed her staff and set off at a trot.
Keely nodded. “Be careful Danielle. I’ve got a bad feeling about this place.”
Danielle reached the edge of the dark mass and paused. She knelt and flattened her palm against its shiny glass-like surface.
Danielle cocked her head, recalling an old half-remembered conversation. The strange substance looked and felt like smooth black glass. “It’s melted sand,” she said and stood. “Arber showed me once what happens to sand when enough heat’s applied. It turns into this strange black glass.”
Keely knelt and ran her fingertips across the smooth surface. “What’s going on here?” She stood and scanned her surroundings as if expecting someone to jump on her from the jungle overgrowth. “What is this place Danielle?”
Danielle didn’t have an answer. She took a tentative step onto the glassy surface and paused.
The melted sand stretched in a rough oval shape beginning near the jungle’s edge. It covered the beach before disappearing beneath the lagoon’s waterline. “I don’t know, but it just got stranger.” She knelt and touched a small indenture embedded into the glass.
Set into the murky glass, small child-sized footprints started midway down the melted sand. The tracks curled upward disappearing into the thick jungle undergrowth.
A cold chill crept along Danielle’s spine, raising the short hair at the nape of her neck. What human could withstand temperatures hot enough to melt sand? “Keely, can you switch into snake form, please?” Danielle tapped into her nature magic, and a sleek layer of white bark spread over her body like a second skin. She hoped she wouldn’t need the added protection the bark gave her against thermal attack.
Keely shifted into a gray skinned jungle viper. She slithered along the glass before vanishing into the jungle floor’s dense underbrush.
Danielle followed the pint-sized tracks until she reached the point where the beach ended and the jungle began.
A narrow sandy game trail twisted between three palm trees before circling a spectacular fig tree. The fig tree’s thick roots spread outward engulfing nearby shrubs and plants. Its thickest roots had grown large enough to climb through. Keely slithered through the fig tree’s meandering root system and curled around its wide trunk.
Danielle leaned on her staff and climbed through the tree’s gnarled roots. She followed the twisting path around the trunk.
The trail wandered a few yards beyond the fig tree and ended before a dark moss covered cave. Keely slithered ahead disappearing inside the cave’s foreboding shadows.
Danielle’s stomach fluttered. The entire oasis held an overwhelming sense of wrongness. The cave's sinister feeling magnified that wrongness tenfold. Her instinct screamed for her to run, but she pushed away the physical reaction. She needed answers, and the trail started here. She tapped the magic entrusted her by Lora’s Sphere, and a bright globe of green light radiated from her staff’s head. She took a deep, steadying breath and pushed forward into the darkness.
Bright green light pierced the shadows. Keely stood ten-feet ahead shifted into her natural human form. She stared deeper into the cave’s murk, her face locked-in concentration. “I can’t sense any animal life inside the cave,” she said. “It doesn’t go back very far.” She faced Danielle and released a held breath. “I think we’re alone.”
Danielle nodded. “Did they leave anything behind?”
“There’s some gear and an old campfire near the back,” Keely said.
Danielle’s shoulders eased as some tension faded, but she kept her armor in place as a precaution. “So someone was here.”
Keely nodded. “This way.” Keely tipped her head forward. “Follow me.” She squinted into the shadowy passage ahead. “Can you make that staff of yours any brighter?”
Danielle opened her mind tracking the cave’s nearby fauna. She found moss covering the cave’s walls and held out her hand channeling nature magic. Swirls of yellow and green energy drifted from her palm spreading across the cavern. The light sank in infusing the plants with a torrent of magical energy. The moss responded to Danielle’s magic illuminating the cavern with a soft green hue.