Saturday, June 27, 2015


Previously- Celeste and Joshua had been kidnapped by Korelians. On their seventh day of capture, the leader of the group left, later followed by all but one of the Korelians. Celeste used her magic for the first time and froze the Korelian Cormack and then promptly collapsed, caught just in time by Joshua.


  “Celeste? Celeste, are you alright?” Joshua gently shook her, careful to keep the dagger in his hand pointed away from her.

  Celeste’s eyes were half closed. She was so tired. More tired than she had ever felt in her entire life, and all she wanted to do was sleep. But this person— what was his name?—kept yelling at her. Whatever he wanted must be important. Celeste forced her eyes open, focusing her mind as much as she could. Joshua’s face peered down at her in the darkness, and she remembered Cormack. She’d frozen him. Celeste’s eyes fluttered. “Joshua?”

  “Yeah, it’s me. Are you alright?” Using the dagger, Joshua cut the rope still binding Celeste’s wrists. “I need you to stand.” He went on. “We’ve got to go back to the camp and get out of here before the Korelians come back.”

  “The Korelians!” Celeste’s foggy mind recalled the danger they were in. She dreadfully wanted to fade away into blissful unconsciousness, but she knew she couldn’t. With Joshua’s help, she managed to make it to her feet, swaying in small circles and almost falling asleep with each blink.

  “Look, I’ll support you, ok?” Joshua encouraged. “But we have to move as quickly as possible.” Celeste nodded and held on to Joshua as they made their way back to the camp. Their progress was slower than she would have liked, but everything was sore, and whatever she had done to Cormack had absolutely drained her. It was an incredible effort to stay upright, put one foot in front of the other, and to just keep going.

  When they got back, Joshua gently let Celeste to the ground. She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly cold without Joshua beside her. “Ok,” he said, “wait here.”

  Joshua ran to the horses first. There were only three left: Nutmeg, Amos, and Cormack’s horse. Quickly, Joshua rifled through Cormack’s bag for anything useful. There was a bit of food, but mostly it was alcohol. Joshua took the food, adding to the pack on Nutmeg. He shifted some of the bags, and let Cormack’s horse go, slapping it to get it running off into the woods. He didn’t bother at the moment to go through the other packs. He brought the horses over to Celeste, handing her the reigns while he ran back to the fire. Scooping several handfuls of dirt on the fire to kill it, he glanced around the camp one last time.

  “Ok,” he said to Celeste who was happily patting Nutmeg’s snout. “Come on, I’ll help you onto Amos. We’ll both ride him.” She was too tired to argue and didn’t think she’d be able to ride a horse by herself without falling off anyway. With a great amount of help from Joshua, she climbed into the saddle and slid as far forward as she could. Joshua leapt up behind her. He paused a moment, then wrapped his arms around her to reach the reigns. In her ear, he murmured, “You can lean back if you like.” Celeste didn’t even hesitate. She leaned against him, feeling warm and safe and tired.

  With Nutmeg tied to them, Joshua gave Amos a kick, and they started off through the jungle. It was hard to see with almost no light, but Joshua seemed to know where he was going. Although the ride was bumpy Celeste could barely keep her eyes open as mind-numbing weariness dragged at her. She struggled to stay conscious. At some point, they splashed into a river and began following it downstream. It got so deep for a time that the water was up to their knees, soaking through their clothes. As Celeste shivered, Joshua automatically tightened his arms around her.

  It seemed both as if they were traveling forever and for no time at all. Celeste, falling in and out of consciousness didn’t actually know how many hours had gone by She was vaguely aware of the rocking motion of the horse below her and of Joshua holding her steady. She swam in dreams, coming in and out of them, unaware of what was real and what was imagined.

  Cormack came at her in a dream, and she shouted, her hands up to try to keep him away. Then she heard a voice, “It’s ok, Celeste. Shh.” And Cormack faded away. Then her mother was there, and Celeste was sick in bed. Her mother was patting her forehead saying, “Shh. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about your father.” Celeste cried. She turned and muttered in her sleep, barely aware of the world around her.

  Eventually, she felt she was sliding off the horse, and she tried weakly to grab something before she realized Joshua had caught her and was carrying her. She nuzzled closer to him, and he held her tightly. “Joshua,” she whispered. He laid her down, and she sighed, quickly falling into a deep sleep.


  When Celeste came to, it was sudden. One second she was asleep, the next her eyes were open. She was laying on her side, and she was immediately struck with disorientation. The Korelians—she had been captured. Where was she? She sat up suddenly. Memories hit her like arrows, and she groaned, everything aching. Cormack. She had turned him into a party decoration then shattered him. How was she supposed to feel about that? Strangely, she felt nothing, only apathy. It had happened. She had done what she had to do, and it had felt natural to her.

  “So the sleeping beauty finally awakens.” Celeste turned, seeing Joshua crouching in front of a fire in a fire pit. For the first time Celeste looked around her. She and Joshua were in some kind of cave or hut, but there were no windows, and she couldn’t see the entrance.

  “Where are we?” She muttered. The only light was from the fire that cast an eerie glow over Joshua. Nutmeg whinnied happily and plodded over the Celeste. “What are you doing in here?” She asked him. “How did you even get in here?”

  “We’re in a—what do I call this?—an underground… mmm” Joshua paused, looking for a suitable word. “Burrow I guess? It’s a place I stumbled across a year ago. Literally stumbled across. I was heading for a tree as cover for the rain, and I tripped over the entrance to this. It’s man-made, but I have no idea who made it. I really wish I could thank him though. Unless he’s, you know, evil or something, but that’s probably unlikely. We are in Korelia, though, so there’s no telling…” Joshua paused, trying to get his thought process back on the right track. “Anyway, we can stay here for a little while, lick our wounds so-to-speak, and let the Korelians get tired of searching for us.”

  “Ok,” Celeste said, nodding. “So…, I froze Cormack.”

  “Yes you did.”

  Celeste nodded again.

  Joshua looked at her sympathetically, “How about we discuss that another day.”

  Celeste sighed, “Ok.” Her raw, bruised wrist brushed against the blanket that was covering her, and she hissed in pain.

  “Oh, here,” said Joshua. “I’ve been making something for that.” He stirred something in a pot over the fire. “You can thank the Korelians for the pot.” He lifted it from the fire and crouched next to Celeste. Gently, he took one of her hands and began applying a greenish-brown muck to her wounds. The muck was warm, but not too hot, and it felt soothing. When he finished he lifted her hand in the air and glanced at her as if realizing how close they were. “Should let it dry,” he murmured quietly, his eyes flickering over her face “before you touch it.” For some reason, Celeste’s heart beat a little faster. Abruptly, he let go of her hand and took the other one, dropping his eyes from hers and focusing on her wrist. Clearing his throat, his voice returned to a more normal volume. “Now,” he said, “This paste has crushed mushrooms in it, among other things. There are two different kinds of mushrooms: one is used for healing purposes, but there’s this other kind that looks the exact same and can cause your hand to have to be amputated. I’m pretty sure I picked the right kind, but if you feel a terrible burning sensation—“

  “What?” Celeste jerked her hand away from him. Then he looked up at her with a grin on his face, and, shoving him, she yelled, “Joshua!” But he just laughed, refusing to apologize.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Previously- Joshua gave Celeste the Prophecy Stone to wear around her neck just before the two of them were captured by Korelians. Since then, they've crossed the border into Korelia and have been traveling for six miserable days. The Korelians get drunk at night and have occasionally thought of doing something awful to Celeste but were stopped before these ideas could come to pass by the leader of the group Kailak.

  The next day marked a week of captivity for Joshua and Celeste. Stumbling over their own feet, the two of them slogged through the mucky jungle, unable to shoo away mosquitos or wipe their sweaty brows as they were led like dogs by a leash. The cries of the beasts of the jungle still serenaded them, but Celeste mostly focused on her legs and feet now, forcing them to move just one more time, then just one more time, over and over and over again.

  Around mid-afternoon, Kailak called for a halt. Celeste immediately and gratefully sunk to her knees, Joshua beside her. Fighting to catch her breath, she asked, “What are they doing?” She hoped whatever it was lasted a long time. “Why are we stopped?”

  “I don’t know,” Joshua replied. They watched as Kailak dismounted his horse and pulled a scroll from his pack. He unrolled it, laying it out and withdrawing a compass. “It looks like,” Joshua said, “Kailak is referring to a map. It seems I know this jungle better than he does.”

  Aghast, Celeste stared at him, “You know where we are?” The gnarly trees and vines and muck surrounding them looked all looked the same to her.

  “Yeah, I know where we are. I’ve had to hide out in this jungle more times than I can count. A lot of that time was spent exploring and memorizing the territory. Right now, we’re near a town called Akin.” Joshua paused to raise his tied hands and brush a mosquito from his neck. “I sneaked into the town a few times.”

  “To learn information?”

  “I occasionally discovered a useful tidbit, but mostly I just sneaked in to get out of this dratted forest.”

  Kailak called two of his men over to consult with him over his map. Celeste recognized one of them as the man who had found Celeste and Joshua at the Tipsy Tankard. It took her numb mind a moment to recall his name—Alexius. The other man was one who got especially rowdy after he had been drinking. Celeste also knew him, and she hated him. He was the one who always drew the other men’s attentions to Celeste, and he was the one who taunted her the loudest. She thought his name was Cormack. His hair was dirty brown, and he had an ugly scar on his cheek that looked as if it had been deep. Celeste hoped it had been painful too.

  Kailak, folding the map and returning it to his saddlebag, said loud enough for everyone to hear, “There’s a town called Akin a short ride from here. I’m going there to send a messenger to his glorious majesty. I’ll be back in the morning. Alexius’s in charge.” Kailak, a man of few words, mounted his horse and rode from the group. A wave of relief swept over the bone-weary Celeste, and she drooped, thinking how nice it would be to not have to walk anymore. With Kailak gone, the others would set up camp and- and then Celeste jerked up straight realizing that Kailak would not be here to tell his men to leave her alone. What might they do to her?

  Joshua slid nearer Celeste and bumped her shoulder with his own. “You’ll be ok. If it gets down to it, I’ll think of something. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Celeste wished she could believe that Joshua would be able to escape his bindings and fight off ten men to protect her, but she just couldn’t.

  Two men dragged Joshua and Celeste and tied them up as usual. Joshua groaned quietly as his aching back was shoved against a tree before his arms were pulled back and tied to it for the seventh night in a row. His throbbing shoulders screamed at him, and he silently apologized, telling them he would do something if he were able. Then his right hand bumped against something. He stretched his fingers desperately and managed to grasp a rough rock. Bending his hand a way it really didn’t want to bend, he began sawing at his ropes.

  Although the day was yet young, the Korelians began to drink from their bottles as soon as their horses were tied and their fire was lit. Celeste fought to ignore her pain, fear, and helplessness as the day wore on. Her eyes sought out Nutmeg as they had done every night, and a wave of grief, followed instantly by a stronger wave of hatred washed over her. Her beautiful horse was weighed down with a load of excess supplies—mostly liquor Celeste assumed—and covered in muck from their journey through the swampy jungle. His tail, which was flicking back and forth as he tried futilely to keep the mosquitoes at bay, was full of knots. Celeste wanted desperately to go to him or at least talk to him and give him some kind of comfort and reassurance, but on the other side of the camp, he wouldn’t hear her unless she yelled, drawing everyone else’s attention also. Silently, Celeste prayed a prayer that Nutmeg, at least, would get out of this alive and someday see Forellia once more.

  Daylight faded to twilight, and the Korelians were laughing rowdily. Celeste, weary and aching though she was, could not take her eyes off them for fear. They were growing more wild with every sip, and before the day was up, Celeste knew that something unpleasant was bound to happen. She felt it coming like an omen.

  An hour before dark, Alexius stood, saying, “You’ve convinced me, comrades. If Kailak can go to Akin and have a decent meal and find a woman to warm his bed tonight, than why can’t we?” This was answered by a roar of “Yeah!” and “Why not us?” Alexius went on, “We’ve been in this wretched jungle as long as he has! We deserve a night of fun!” Celeste’s heart was pounding. Was this a good thing? What would happen to her and Joshua? “There’s just one problem,” Alexius said, stopping everyone with an outstretched hand. “Somebody has to stay behind to watch the Forellians.” His finger pointed directly as them, and Celeste shivered at the snarl on his face. “Do we have a volunteer or shall we draw sticks?”

  “I’ll watch ‘em,” somebody purred. Celeste’s eyes darted among the faces, wondering who would have volunteered until her eyes landed on Cormack. She stiffened, an inadvertent tremor running up her spine. Please no she begged in her mind.

  Alexius slapped him on the back, saying, “I thought you just might take up that opportunity.” His smile was malicious as he said, “Just don’t damage her too much.”

  Cormack’s eyes never left Celeste’s as he replied, “I’ll make no promises.”

  Alexius howled with laughter and joined the others as they mounted their horses and made a hasty departure to Akin.

  Cormack made no immediate move. He continued drinking, staring at Celeste until she felt like a mouse being played with by a cat. She was trembling so hard she felt that the ropes restraining her were the only things keeping her together and without them she’d simply fall apart into uncountable pieces. “Joshua,” she hissed, just trying to feel that she wasn’t so alone. Cormack stood, dropping his now empty bottle of alcohol and coming towards them. Celeste closed her eyes, trying to calm her panicked senses. She had to fight back, and she couldn’t do that if she was shaking this hard.  Cormack pulled a dagger from his belt.

  Beside her, Joshua snarled at Cormack, “Don’t you dare touch her.”

  Cormack glanced at him, “And what will you do when I do touch her?” His speech was slurred from drink. “Spit at me? Curse me?” He smiled smugly, “You go right ahead and curse away.” He bent next to Celeste, the dagger held to cut her binds. Joshua’s ropes finally snapped. He didn’t wait a moment. Powered by adrenaline, he leapt at Cormack with a roar, catching him by surprise, and they both went down. Scrambling in the dirt, Joshua somehow regained his footing first and grabbed Cormack, throwing him to the side. Trying to retain his advantage, Joshua went to Cormack before he could stand and kicked him in the side. Cormack cried out in pain and anger, and when Joshua tried to kick him again, he grabbed Joshua’s leg and pulled him down. Joshua hit the ground hard and groaned. Cormack stood, slightly hunched over the side Joshua had kicked. Weakly, Joshua was trying to stand, but Cormack, furious, grabbed Joshua’s head and slammed his knee into it. Celeste yelled, “No!” an unbidden tear falling down her cheek as she helplessly watched. Dazed, Joshua swayed on his knees, but Cormack had retrieved his dagger and, before Joshua could react, slammed the butt of it on his head. Joshua sighed and fell face-first to the dirt, unconscious.

  Celeste cried, “No! Joshua!” staring at his prone form and praying he was still alive. Then Cormack, breathing heavily and very angry, turned to Celeste. He cut her bonds, dropping his dagger and grabbing her wrists to wrap a rope around them as she struggled uselessly. Cormack seemed to have the strength of a bear, and Celeste, weak as she was, felt like a child in his vicelike grip. Her wrists bound, he took hold of her arm and dragged her away from the camp, away from Joshua, into the jungle.

  She twisted and yanked, trying desperately to slip from his talons, but Cormack only growled and dug his fingers into her arm. Celeste whimpered in pain. He pulled her forward deeper into the jungle until it was so dark, Celeste could only see by the light of the moon through the trees’ leaves. Gracelessly, Cormack threw Celeste to the ground in front of him.

  Celeste growled, crawling to her hands and knees as she felt something inside of her, like her gut was twisting, and she realized was it was: cold rage. The past week of being dragged behind these men like she was nothing, being captured in the first place, all the pain from her wrists and legs and back, the taunts, the fear and terror of this moment, and what this man had done to Joshua— all of it melted and simmered into one pure emotion. Rage. In that moment, on the dirt while Cormack was standing over her, she didn’t think it was possible for her to hate an individual more than she hated him. The anger surged through her veins, making her cold all over. Before she knew what she was doing, she shrieked like a banshee and launched herself at Cormack, her bound hands open, her nails pointed like a cat’s claws as she raked them across his face. Cormack stumbled back in shock, clutching the bloody streaks across his face. Celeste grinned like a demon in the moonlight, wanting in that moment nothing more than this man’s death. The cold wafted from her like mist, and the Stone around Celeste’s neck suddenly grew intensely cold, glowing in the darkness. Instinctively, Celeste grasped cold and the rage and the energy and directed all of it straight at the man before her.

  Cormack had removed his hands from his face and was staring at Celeste with an expression of loathing when he suddenly stiffened, surprise flickering across his face as a blue pallor touched it. He let out one misty breath in the air before ice particles froze him where he stood. The ice spread over his clothes from his head to his feet in an instant, icicles growing from his fingertips and hair, that expression of surprise literally frozen on his face.

  From the trees, Joshua, holding Cormack’s dagger, burst forth, and looked on in wide-eyed shock as the last layer of ice covered Cormack. The frozen figure stood there for a moment, a blue statue in the moonlight. Staring at it, Celeste tilted her head, and the statue shattered like glass, raining down in tiny pieces to the grass.

  With Cormack gone, Celeste’s rage dissipated, and so did her strength. Swaying, she found herself unable to continue standing and collapsed, Joshua catching her just before she hit the ground.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Chapter TWELVE

Previously- Joshua and Celeste were taken prisoner by some Korelians.

  Traveling as prisoners of the Korelians was miserable. By day, the horses walked, and Joshua and Celeste slogged behind, their wrists bound. At night, each was forced to sit in front of a tree and tied to it. Their bonds were only loosened when they were given a small piece of stale bread and a sip of water to sustain them. Leaning back on the rough bark of the tree, they had to learn to sleep sitting up. Hot in the day and cold at night, neither was provided with different or additional clothing, and in no time their shirts and pants were splattered with dirt and sweat-soaked. By the third day their wrists were bloody and raw, their backs ached, and they were sore, dirty, and exhausted from walking all day through the trees. The only time the two could relax was at night while the Korelians ate and drank, mostly leaving their prisoners alone.

  On the second day, they had crossed the border into Korelia. By the end of the day, the cool air had quickly changed to that of the hot and muggy jungle air. The trees were changing from oaks and pines to cypresses. Pretty soon the group would be in the thick of the tropical jungle. As many times as Joshua traveled into this country, he would never stop being amazed at how abruptly the world seemed to turn upside down. He always felt as if he had passed through some kind of portal to another planet. Bird calls, chirps, screeches, and growls he couldn’t identify filled the air. Vines fell from the trees like a snake’s coils and swamps were the landmarks one traveled by. Mosquitoes, already fat on blood, floated amongst the group, frequently choosing a new target. By the quantity of them, one would think the mosquitoes had smelled fresh blood from all the corners of Korelia and come swarming.

  As morning wore to afternoon, sweat soiled their clothes, and the clammy, stifling air wouldn’t let it evaporate. Occasionally it would rain lightly for a few minutes, but the rain wouldn’t be as refreshing one would expect. Rather, it was warm and soaked them without cooling them, only adding to the miserable humidity, and making their arms and legs chafe red and their clothes heavy with water to slow them down.

  By the fourth day, nobody would be able to even tell the party had come from Forellia. The Korelian jungle surrounded them. Snakes were everywhere, and Joshua warned Celeste to watch where she placed her boots lest there be a cottonmouth there sleeping or sunning and prepared to fight. Celeste found herself dividing her attention between walking and searching for the sources of the terrifying sounds of that horrible place. There was never a moment of silence, and Celeste was constantly looking into the trees to see if the croak or growl or squawk she had just heard was some kind of man-eating creature ready to leap at them from the trees. Fortunately, she rarely spotted the owner of the fear-inducing cries; however, that wasn’t always the case. Once, as the group walked near a murky swamp, Celeste heard a kind of guttural roar and looked up in terror to see an enormous scaly lizard on the other side of the swamp. She had read in books of this creature—she believed it was called an alligator— but Celeste hadn’t thought the creature would be so massive. The dinosaur-like monster spread its toothy maw and sat in stillness as if waiting for some unsuspecting prey to wander by. “Don’t worry,” Joshua said as he also noticed the beast. “Once they open their jaws, they hardly ever move until something comes close enough. On this side of the swamp, we’re safe.” Celeste appreciated his trying to reassure her, but she didn’t stop shaking until they were miles away.

   On the sixth night, as usual, Celeste and Joshua were seated in front of and tied to two trees. Celeste moaned as she leaned back. It actually felt good to sit on the hard dirt after the constant walking of the past six days. Both she and Joshua were covered in filth from trudging over the muddy, swampy ground, and their wrists, which were tied to the tree behind them, sent daggers of pain up their arms anytime they shifted their weight. Celeste’s entire body ached, and as the twilight turned to night and the air cooled, she would begin to shiver uncontrollably as her rain and sweat drenched clothes kept her from keeping warm. She was aware of this, but she was so mind-numbingly weary that she thought she may actually sleep well for the first time since they had been taken prisoner.

  “Look at the bright side,” Joshua said as the Korelians built a large fire to keep the jungle beasts at bay. Joshua paused, trying to think of a bright side, “Nope, sorry, I can’t think of one.” Celeste turned the faintest of smiles towards him. Joshua had been the only comfort in this horror. He somehow managed to retain his ridiculous optimism as he encouraged her in the day and distracted her from her woe at night.

  “I get to see another country for the first time,” Celeste provided.

  “Ah-ha, yes, see? There is a bright side. Now you can tell all your friends that you’ve been to Korelia. I bet none of them have been here.”

  “Yes, and I hope they never have to come here. Although I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to tell them anyway. Once we get to the king, you’re probably dead, and if you’re dead, I certainly won’t be able to survive whatever they subject me to.”

  “Hey, now where’s that fighting spirit you had back in Juroosh? You’re the girl who can do anything she puts her mind to. You’re the girl who’s going to save the world, remember?”

  Celeste raised her eyebrows at him. “Save the world, eh? I would kill all of these monsters if I had that kind of power, but I’m afraid I don’t even have enough to even save myself.”

  The Korelians began to unpack their seemingly unlimited supply of alcohol to drink, as they did every night.

  “Well,” Joshua replied, “how about I save you, and then you save the rest of the world… Just as soon as I figure out how to complete that first step, we’ll be on the road to victory.”

  “It’s a deal, Joshua. If we miraculously escape from this alive, I’ll try my best to save the world.”

  “At least we have our goals then.”

  The two of them sank into silence as they watched their captors grow drunk. It seemed the Korelians had forgotten to feed their prisoners that night, but Celeste was numb and beyond hunger. She was very thirsty, but fresh water wasn’t easily found here. Usually it had to be purified before it could be consumed, which was why, Celeste assumed, the Korelians drank so much liquor instead. She didn’t like it when they become very intoxicated, though, for when they did, they would come over to Celeste and leer at her and talk of taking her into the woods to have a little “fun.” Kailak had thus far not allowed too much of this talk, but Celeste was terrified the men may at some point grow so drunk and brazen that they would ignore him or wait ‘til he was asleep in his tent to come after her.


  As the night wore on and Celeste fell into semi-consciousness at her tree, Joshua grimly watched as the men drank yet more. He worried they may taunt Celeste again, and he was completely helpless to protect her. If just he had something with which he could cut through his binds, he could wait for the Korelians to fall into a drunken stupor. Then he could kill them all.

  Joshua didn’t like killing, and he had only done it a few times before when absolutely necessary, such as when he had broken into the Korelian king’s treasury to steal the Prophecy Stone. Someone had spotted him, and Joshua had shot him before he could call an alarm. Joshua had grimly walked past the bleeding corpse and escaped with his life. That was necessary. Killing his captors now if he had the chance may not be necessary, but if he did have the chance, he would take it to get vengeance for the suffering they had inflicted upon Celeste and himself. Most Korelians were cruel and lacked normal human compassion, but these especially seemed to lack common decency. Joshua didn’t think the world would miss them if they did not reach old age.

  The men laughed and roared into the night, under the weary but dogged eye of Joshua. After another hour or so, and to Joshua’s relief, they began to fall into a drunken sleep. After the last Korelian began to snore, Joshua slowly relaxed his tense muscles. When he knew she was safe, Joshua looked at Celeste. By the light of the fire, he could just make her out. Her head was tilted forward slightly in her sleep, her long blond hair was falling about her face, and her eyes were closed. She appeared thus peaceful only when she managed to sleep, and Joshua took comfort in watching her at night after the others fell into dreams. The bone aching weariness from their six days of travel, however, would not let him remain awake for long. Joshua had let Celeste’s peaceful face lull him to sleep each night since they had been taken prisoner. His eyes drifting closed, his head nodding, Joshua sank into a cold and uncomfortable slumber.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Chapter ELEVEN

Previously- Joshua and Celeste were heading back to Forellia when they stopped for the night. As they fell asleep, a Korelian ordered his men to advance.

  The men that faded from the trees were tall, strong, and brutish, completely unlike the average willowy Forellian. Although these men wore common Forellian garb to blend in, they wielded heavy weapons typical of a Korelian—axes, broadswords, meteor hammers. Still, they managed to be surprisingly quiet, which one wouldn’t expect from such men with such weapons. The Korelians were trained to be both strong and sly. This was one reason why no one trusted them and the two bordering countries of Forellia and Korelia had been unable to agree to a treaty for the last hundred years.

  It took only seconds for the Korelians to slink from their shadows and surround the prone forms of Joshua and Celeste. On their leader’s orders they were not to kill the sleeping figures, only capture. The horses whinnied and stomped, fear of these men with metal making them prance away from the figures. The horses’ neighs awakened Joshua, who saw the tall shadows surrounding him and leaped to his feet, only semi-conscious, reaching for his bow as he tried to separate dream from reality.

  “No, no,” said the Korelian quietly nearest him as he leveled a broadsword at Joshua’s neck. Joshua slowly released his bow, silently cursing himself for being so careless. He had thought they were safe so close to Juroosh, and he had been so caught up in his thoughts during the day that he hadn’t noticed he and Celerest were being followed.

  Celeste awoke at the man’s muttered words and had a reaction similar to Joshua’s. Scowling, she dropped the dagger she had drawn as she took in the ten men with heavy weapons that were angled at them.

  Joshua, having seen Korelians more times than he would have liked in his excursions into their country, recognized them immediately for who they were. “What is this?” he growled. A man strode from the trees. He wore better clothes than the others and had lanky black hair to his shoulders. He was large and squarish and held himself with authority. This man was obviously the leader. Joshua repeated his question to him.

  “Let us first start, shall we, with introductions,” said the man. His voice was deep and quiet. He seemed like the type who usually got what he wanted, perhaps leaving a few corpses in his wake to acquire it. “I should like to know the name of the one,” he continued, “who sneaked into our country undetected, infiltrated a highly secure treasury, stole a stone belonging to the king, and escaped without being caught.”

  Joshua paled in the dim fire’s light. Somehow they had found him. He always thought deep down that this would eventually happen, but he never suspected he would be captured on his way back home! The Korelian’s words, as fearful as they were, did provide him with a bit of hope, though. The man had said “a stone belonging to the king” as if he didn’t know its purpose. Perhaps he did not know what Celeste was. “So,” Joshua replied, “you managed to find me. How did you do that?”

  “Ah, you are good at hiding your tracks, but we are better at tracking them. I found your trail and followed it into this cold county. Of course, once we reached town there was no way of knowing who you were so we spread out and become part of Juroosh, easily fooling your people into thinking we were just as they,” the man bragged. “Then the night you and the girl,” he flicked his hand at Celeste, “began talking of a ‘package,’ Alexius” he clapped one of his lackeys on the back, “was there and heard the whole conversation up to the two of you walking out the door of the inn. He then, of course, came to find me.”

  Joshua’s mind flitted back to that night and remembered the few drunkards at the bar. Examining ‘Alexius,’ Joshua recalled the brutish man there, sitting in a corner on a stool, glancing back at them when their voices had become raised. Joshua could kick himself for letting this happen.

  “I see,” Joshua said. “Very clever of you.”

  With a tilt of his head as acknowledgment, the man said, “Now, what is your name?”

  “Joshua Reed. And yours?”

  “I am called Kailak.”

  Joshua nodded, “Nice name, especially if you like kale. So what happens now?”

  “Now you give me the stone.”

  “And if I do, what happens to us?”

  “Why,” Kailak replied, “we let you go, of course.”

  Without doubt, this was a lie; however, Joshua thought it may play in their favor if he acted the fool. “And you won’t hurt us? We can take our horses and go?”

  Celeste stared at him. “You can’t believe him, surely.”

  “Why not? If we give him the Stone, he has no reason to keep us.” He cut off Celeste as he looked back at Kailak. “Ok, I’ll give you the Stone.” Celeste stared in confusion. Hadn’t Joshua told her over and again that the stone was incredibly important? Then Joshua took a pouch from his pocket, a pouch identical to the one around Celeste’s neck hidden under her blouse. Joshua was gambling with their lives. He knew Kailak wouldn’t release them, but would he kill them or take them back to Korelia? This, Joshua did not know. Korelians didn’t like to kill women (although they would if they needed to) so there was a chance Celeste would be safe either way. Joshua was the one who stole the Stone, and if he was right, these men had been told to retrieve a valuable gem without being told what it looked like or what its purpose was. If he could convince them the large opal he had in this pouch was the stone they were looking for, perhaps Celeste would have better odds of getting away with her life.

  Joshua held the pouch in his hand a moment, looking at it, then reluctantly tossed it to Kailak. Kailak emptied the pouch’s contents onto his palm, revealing a rainbow colored oval opal, roughly the color and size of the Prophecy Stone. The opal was a flashy jewel that was very expensive. Joshua had brought it, along with several other gems, with him when he had left Forellia to travel to Juroosh. The other stones he had already traded for valuable items or information or had used for bribery, but he had kept the opal in case he needed it for an emergency such as this. As a smug smile spread on Kailak’s face, Joshua was glad he had kept it.

  Now was the moment of truth. What would Kailak do with the two of them?

  “Tie their hands,” Kailak ordered. “We’ll drag them behind the horses.”

  “Please,” Joshua said, “you said you’d let us go. At least let Celeste go! She had nothing to do with any of this. She’s no threat to you!” Kailak didn’t bother replying. He turned and disappeared into the woods. The other Korelians grabbed Joshua and Celeste before they could try to escape. The Korelians searched them for any hidden weapons and tied their hands together so tightly that Celeste cried out as the rope bit into her wrists. She bit her lip to keep from making any other sounds.

  The men bridled Nutmeg and Amos and, after one of the ten retrieved the Korelians’ horses from the trees, tied Nutmeg and Amos to their own horses. Then, taking the other end of the ropes tied to Joshua and Celeste, they attached them to the horses so the two of them were forced to walk behind the horses, pulled by their wrists after them.

  The Korelians began on a southern path through the woods. Joshua and Celeste trudged behind and tried not to trip as they were pulled after them through the darkness.

  “What are we going to do? For what purpose could they possibly want us?” Celeste whispered to Joshua in between breaths.

  “I’m not sure yet,” Joshua replied. “They probably want to publicly execute me for trespassing into their country and stealing from the king. This, of course will be their excuse to start war with Forellia. I don’t know why they want you. It may be because you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

  Celeste yelped as the horse they were tied to jumped over a log, yanking her forward. There was blood on the rope binding her.

  “I don’t suppose you feel any magic you can blast these brutes with, do you?” Joshua whispered to Celeste once they could walk at a normal pace again. Celeste just gave him a look. “Yeah,” he said, “I didn’t think so.” He glanced at her fearful expression. “It’ll be ok, Celeste,” he told her. “I’ll think of something. We’ll be ok.” Her eyes glistening, she gave a curt nod, and the two of them focused on keeping up with the horses.