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How Dark the Light Shines
by MJ Bell

The sound of a wolf howl penetrated Deston’s conscious. He reared up, instantly awake, and looked around in confusion at the dark shapes surrounding him. It took him another minute to realize he was lying on the ground beside a cold fire pit and was not in his cave.

What the hell? he thought as he wrapped his arms around his chest and rubbed his hands up and down his biceps to bring some warmth back into them. A wolf howled again, and then another much closer, which finally got Deston moving.

His joints were stiff with the wet cold and his muscles were sore, but he scrambled to the small woodpile, grabbed a handful of kindling and dried leaves and threw it on top of the ashes. His numb fingers could hardly hold the match and it took him several tries to light it, but he finally got a spark and the leaves caught fire. As the flame grew, he slowly added bigger branches until the fire was going strong and produced a good amount of heat.

He held his hands close to the flames letting the heat drive away the numbness, but his mind remained foggy and he couldn’t recall why he’d been sleeping on the ground. He knew better than that, especially in the wild, where a bear or a wolf would relish a tasty treat like him for a midnight snack. But the only thing he could remember was Keir leaving after their argument and his grandfather appearing.

Ah crap! Was it all just another dream? Deston sighed in exasperation. He ran his fingers through his hair and closed his eyes, thinking back to the events of the previous day. His emotions volleyed back and forth like a tennis ball over a net: one minute, clarity—the next, despair.

As he sat, trying to put the pieces of his memory back together, a sudden cold shiver ran up his spine and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Every one of his senses came alive, but the only thing that moved were his eyes, as he scanned the area for the cause of his alarm. The trees looked the same as they always did and nothing was out of place; but it was the middle of the night and the fire only provided a small ring of light that did not even reach to the edge of the campsite. But he didn’t need to see to know there was another presence nearby. He sensed them.

Casually, he threw another branch on the fire as if nothing was wrong. Then he got up and walked to where he kept his bag. He bent over as if to retrieve something out of it, but he reached for Caluvier instead. His hand closed around the sword’s hilt and in one swift move, he straightened, spun around, and brought the sword up to show whoever it was that he was armed.

“You can come out … I know you’re there,” Deston yelled into the darkness.

There was a pause and then a soft chuckle came from within the thick underbrush and quickly dissolved into a raspy cough. Seconds later, Rellik ambled out of the foliage, his chest heaving with the effort to take in a full breath. Deston tensed and gripped the sword tighter at the sight of his old nemesis. Before leaving Tir na-nÓg, he had heard rumors that Rellik had forsaken Grossard and was helping the fae, but he wasn’t as quick to believe Rellik’s switch in alliance was genuine like the others apparently were.

“Look at this … the Prince of Tir na-nÓg alone and unguarded in the wilderness once again, and as before, I am amazed at how foolish the fae can be.” Rellik cocked his head and studied Deston with his one good eye. A knowing look flitted through that eye and he smiled. “There is something different about you,” he stated. “You’ve grown some since I last saw you.” His gaze roamed over Deston. “Your muscles have developed nicely, and you were able to detect me, so your powers are beginning to emerge as well.” He nodded his head. “I’m duly impressed.”

Deston pressed his lips together and held his glare, although his chest puffed out a little at Rellik’s offhanded compliment.

Rellik’s legs were trembling from the exertion of racing to the forest. Gritting his teeth, he ambled into the clearing, counting on the darkness to hide his weakness from Deston. Deston took a step backward and raised Caluvier, but Rellik walked to the fire and collapsed beside it without giving Deston a second look.

“You can lower that sword. I am not here to do you harm,” Rellik said causally.

“Yeah? Then why are you here?” Deston responded without lowering Caluvier.

“May I have some water? It was a long run from the gateway and I’m still recovering from some recent injuries, as I know you are,” Rellik replied, purposely darting a glance down at Deston’s thigh even though Deston’s trousers were covering the scar.

Deston’s eyes narrowed, but the wheezing in Rellik’s chest made him realize that at least part of what Rellik said was true. Upon closer look, he noticed the wolf did appear quite ragged and not at all well. Rellik was quite a bit thinner than the last time Deston saw him and the wolf had been thin to the point of being unhealthy then. Each of his ribs were clearly visible, heaving in and out with each breath and a drop of blood clung to his bottom lip from the earlier bout of coughing. Ugly reddish scars covered his left side, which made it look as if his skin was still raw, and there were only a few small patches of his once luxurious coat left.

Deston lowered Caluvier, but didn’t put it back into its scabbard. His eyes stayed on Rellik as he bent, picked up his one and only bowl and went to the creek to fill it with water. He placed it on the ground in front of Rellik and stood back to let him drink.

“I doubt you came all this way for a drink, so I’ll ask you again … if you don’t wish me any harm, why are you here? Were you sent to spy on me?” he asked after Rellik had emptied the bowl.

“I am no one’s spy. I came here to give you a gift,” Rellik replied, raising his head and smiling his lop-sided smile.

“You came a long way for nothing then. I don’t want anything you have to give.”

“You shouldn’t speak so impulsively until you know the facts, because you may be wrong about that. Unless I’m completely mistaken in assuming you would like to know where to find Mordred.”

Deston eyed Rellik skeptically, but held his response.

The wolf let out a sigh. “Not interested? Well then …” He slowly got to his feet, “I guess I did waste my time.” He walked to the edge of the clearing. “Zumwald may have put protection around you and this place, but Grossard and Mordred can most definitely figure out how to get through it. So if I were you, I would keep my guard up a lot better than what you are doing.”

As Rellik stepped into the trees, Deston called out. “Why would you want to tell me where Mordred is? What’s in it for you?”

Rellik paused and looked back. “Mordred is merely a means to an end. My only interest lies in Grossard, but I have not been able to locate him. Mordred has that information and I want it.”

Deston stared at the wolf’s one glowing eye, which was all that showed from the shadows. He didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Ever since the temple incident, every fae had been searching for Mordred and Grossard, but no one had been able to find either of them. If Rellik really did know where Mordred was going to hole up, it would be a real break. It could also be a real-life test to see if he was capable of fulfilling his destiny. At the same time, it could be a trap.

 

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Before the Full Moon Rises Excerpt
by MJ Bell

Deston pushed with all his might, but the door didn’t budge. Taking a step back, he wiped his hands on his pants and threw a quick embarrassed look over his shoulder at Margaux. Even though it was a big door, it shouldn’t be this hard to open. Digging his feet into the dirt, he pushed until he was red in the face and out of breath, to no avail. Margaux joined him then and together they pushed. The door didn’t give an inch.

“Is it stuck?” asked Margaux.

“I don’t know,” Deston panted, resting his forehead against the wood.

“Or could it be locked?”

“Maybe. But if it is, it has to be locked from the other side, because there is no keyhole or locks out here.” Deston stepped away and looked up at the door. “And if it is locked, we’re screwed,” he added in an afterthought.

Margaux’s brow puckered. “What does that mean, ‘we’re screwed’?”

“It means we aren’t going to get the door open,” he snapped back, taking his frustration out on her.

“Oh,” she said flatly. “So what do we do now?”

Deston had no answer. He looked back at the ravine. It was completely hidden by the mist, which was now rolling over the ground toward them.

Aghh! There has to be a way to get inside. What am I missing? He walked away deep in thought and sat down on a large boulder.

Margaux craned her head back and looked up. Her mind was also wrapped up in the problem, and there were several things in particular nagging at her. For one, she didn’t understand why someone would need this much protection in a place that was already so secluded. It was also strange the key to the bridge was fairly easy to find to get over here, but was hidden now. It almost seemed as if they’d been set up. As she pondered these mysteries, another thought came to her. They had almost missed the indentation for the key on the pyramid. In fact, it was only when she had re-examined it very closely that she found it. Maybe the key on this side was just as inconspicuous.

Margaux leaned in close to the door, her nose almost touching it, and lightly placed a hand on the icy cold wood. Gently, she rubbed its silky surface feeling for an indentation, but there was nothing. Moving her fingers to the wall, she inched them up and over the stones that framed the doorway as far as she could reach. The stones were surprisingly smooth along the edge of the frame, but again she felt no place for a key. However, she wasn’t tall enough to reach a good portion it and the mist was beginning to obscure what little light was left, making it harder to see.

Margaux stood back and chewed on the side of her cheek, her eyes going to the torch on the wall beside the door. If it was lit, it would help with at least one of their problems.

“Deston, do you by chance have any matches with you?” she asked.

Wrapped up in his own thoughts, Deston didn’t bother to look up. “What?”

“Do you have any matches?”

“Um … yeah, there are some in the backpack,” he replied.

Margaux flipped her hair back over her shoulder and scurried onto the rock that was set directly under the torch. Standing on her tiptoes, she stretched up, but her fingertips didn’t even brush the bottom tip of the torch. Not to be discouraged, she pressed her lips together and looked around for something else to stand on.

“Will you come over here for a second, please?”

Deston looked up at the second interruption, but didn’t move.

“Come on, hurry. I need you,” she persisted.

Deston rolled his eyes, but got up and walked over just the same. As soon as he got close, Margaux grabbed his arm and pulled him up on the rock beside her.

“Stand right here while I get on your shoulders,” she stated bluntly, positioning him right below the torch.

“What?” Deston cried out. “Are you kidding? Why?”

“Because we need light if we are going to find the way to get this door open. And that torch up there will provide a lot more than your penlight will.”

Deston didn’t have time to argue as Margaux was already placing her foot on his leg and had begun to climb onto his back. He wobbled a little and his knees buckled as she hoisted herself up onto his shoulders, but he automatically locked his knees in place and grabbed her ankles to steady her and keep them both from falling.

Slowly, Margaux straightened her legs and walked her hands up the wall. When she was standing erect, she reached up and pushed up on the tip of the torch to knock it out of the basket. To her dismay, it didn’t even budge. Undaunted, she pounded on the handle in an effort to get it loose.

“What are you doing?” Deston demanded breathlessly, as Margaux’s foot rocked back and forth on his collarbone.

“It’s stuck. I’m trying to … oh!” Margaux shrieked, as her foot slipped off his shoulder. She grabbed for the torch to regain her balance, but the handle was slick with oil and her hand slid right off. She grabbed for it again and the torch and basket both twisted to the side. The unexpected movement sent her tumbling down onto Deston, and they both crashed to the ground.

Margaux’s scream drowned out the soft click of the door unlocking, though as they hit the ground, they both felt the whoosh of cold, stale air blow over them. In an instant they untangled themselves and sat up, as the giant door silently swung outward to reveal a stairway leading down into darkness.

Deston and Margaux turned to each other at the same time, their eyes bulging wide. Slowly, a grin spread across Deston’s face.

“That was so awesome! Way to go!”

He raised his hand for the ceremonial “high five,” but Margaux, not understanding the meaning of the gesture, didn’t reciprocate. Unfazed, he dropped his hand, jumped up and ran to the doorway to peer down the dark staircase as Margaux sat where she had fallen, too shocked to move.

“This is so incredible,” he said under his breath. “It’s got to be Merlyn’s fortress. The old man said it was here, but I thought he was crazy.”

Margaux’s courage had fled the moment the door opened, and she stared up at Deston as if he was insane. “Deston, you cannot seriously be thinking of going in there.” When he didn’t reply, she sprang to her feet and ran to him. “Deston, listen. This is not a good idea. I think we should go home and tell my papa. He will know what to do. We can bring him back here to go with us. It will be a lot safer,” she tried to reason with him as she pulled on his arm to get him away from the stairs, but Deston shook her off.

“No! I’m not leaving now. Are you kidding me?”

“Deston, listen. I really think we should …”

“NO!” Deston roared. “I – am – not – leaving! What if we go and can’t find this place again?” he stammered, glaring at her. “Don’t you see? This may be our one and only chance of finding out if this really is Merlyn’s place.”

Margaux let her hand fall to her side, and her eyes turned glassy.

“Ah, man,” Deston sighed, turning away from her. He knew this would happen. How could she not see this was possibly one of the greatest discoveries in history? He ran his hand through his hair and tried to think. The only thing he knew for sure was he was not leaving now. Even if she went home, he was staying.

Taking a deep breath, he turned back with what he hoped was a resigned look on his face. “You know what? You’re right. Maybe we shouldn’t go in there alone. So how about this…you run home and get your dad, and I’ll stay here. You know, to make sure the door stays open.”

Margaux sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “You won’t go in there without us will you?”

“Noooo, of course not.” Deston crossed his fingers behind his back to cancel out the lie.

“But how am I going to get across the ravine?”

Deston looked over his shoulder. He had forgotten all about that little problem. “Oh yeah … umm … I’m sure there’s a way around it.” He looked off through the trees. “Why don’t you walk down there a bit and see if it gets narrower. Or maybe there’s a shallow spot where you can get across. I’m sure you’ll find a way,” he added with a nod of his head.

Margaux looked over her shoulder in the direction he was pointing. “Do you really think so?”

Deston nodded more earnestly. “Yeah, I do.”

“OK … I guess it’s worth a try.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “But you’ll stay right here and wait for me to come back, right?”

“Sure. Just hurry up, OK?”

Feeling more than a little apprehensive, Margaux gave Deston a wary smile. She walked the few feet to the edge of the tree line, hesitated, and looked back.

Deston gave her a thumbs-up in encouragement and sat down on the rock. “I’ll be waiting. Just hurry.”

She swallowed hard and nodded, and then stepped into the trees.

 

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Once Upon a Darker Time Excerpt
by MJ Bell

Deston’s pulse quickened and his senses went on high alert. Slowly, he straightened and looked around. As he concentrated on his surroundings, he picked up on the sound of heavy breathing and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Someone was close by, but he couldn’t tell if it was a friend or foe. He peered deeper into the shadows and then flinched as a low, raspy voice spoke from within the darkness.

“I must say, I’m a bit surprised the Fae would allow their new found prince to venture out into the forest alone,” the voice stated with a hint of contempt.

Deston jumped at the sound and flipped around to face the direction of the voice, his hands coming up in front of his face, ready for an attack. His heart was pounding inside his chest and as Rellik stepped out of the shadows, his eyes widened in shock. The last time Deston had seen the colossal wolf was when Rellik leapt into the abbey. Deston assumed the wolf had been killed when the building collapsed on top of him and the shock of seeing Rellik standing less than ten feet away was only surpassed by Rellik’s appearance.

The white of Rellik’s left eye was blood red and the pupil was a cloudy white. A yellowy liquid oozed from the corner of the eye and crystals had crusted all the way around the lid. The fur on the left side of his face, as well as most of the fur along his left side, was gone, except for a few small patches here and there. The exposed skin was splotched pink and red, with ugly crinkled scabs and scars. He was thinner than when Deston last saw him, but the weight loss actually emphasized the powerful muscles of his chest and legs, making him look more threatening than ever.

As Deston gawked, the right corner of Rellik’s mouth lifted somewhat as the left side drooped to give him a twisted half smile. “So tell me then … why is it the Fae would allow their young prince to come to the forest all alone, knowing Grossard is still seeking his revenge?”

Deston visibly tensed and his eyes widened even further as horror replaced the look of surprise. Grossard is still alive? The words silently slammed into his brain.

Seeing Deston’s reaction, Rellik cocked his head. “Oh come now, don’t tell me you didn’t know?” Rellik hesitated and studied Deston another moment. “You didn’t, did you? They never told you Grossard survived!” He chuckled deep in his throat, which quickly turned into a fit of coughing. When he regained his composure, he didn’t bother to wipe the drool dripping from his mouth. “I swear I don’t know how They can be the chosen ones and guardians of this planet. They are so naïve about so many things.” He shook his head in amazement. “Though I’ve thought Them foolish many times in how They handled things, this—not telling you about Grossard and letting you come here without a guard—this is beyond foolishness!” Rellik took a step forward, the corner of his mouth lifting higher, stretching his lips back to expose more of his teeth. “So I can’t help but wonder if fate has brought you here for me to find, or—”

Before Rellik finished his sentence, there was a loud crack within the shadows of the trees. Both Deston and Rellik looked up just in time to see a tree trunk arching toward them. They both jumped backward as the tree fell into the center of the clearing, bouncing up once before settling between them. As the sound of the crash quieted, several indecipherable yells echoed through the trees along with the boom of feet pounding into the ground. Then five giant ogres appeared at the edge of the clearing. Upon seeing Rellik and Deston standing there, they slid to a stop, their ugly faces contorted even more than usual by their surprise.

Deston took a couple of steps back and reached behind him, trying to be inconspicuous as he broke off a branch of the tree to use as a makeshift weapon. Rellik’s eyes narrowed and he lifted his head to stand taller.

“What are you doing here, Iccasor? This is not your normal haunt,” Rellik growled.

Iccasor stared back in a daze, as surprised to see Rellik as Rellik was to see him. He hadn’t been told the wolf was back and his first thought was he was being upstaged once again. The last time Grossard sent him after Deston, Rellik had stolen his glory. To think it was going to happen again pushed Iccasor past the point of reason. In his tiny brain he reasoned Grossard didn’t trust him enough to capture the boy on his own and in an instant his surprise turned into indignation.

Narrowing his eyes, he purposely moved forward with the resolve to be the victor and claim the prize himself. “We have the situation under control here, Rellik, so I suggest you return to whatever freak show you belong to and leave the boy to us.” The four other ogres chuckled callously at Iccasor’s intended sting.

Rellik ignored the gibe about his appearance and shook his head. “Yes … well, I’m afraid you are mistaken as usual, Iccasor. You have nothing under control here.”

Iccasor tensed at Rellik’s words, but after a quick assessment of Rellik’s apparent weakened state, he took a step forward with confidence. Rellik wasn’t intimidated and he too stepped forward. At Rellik’s bold response Iccasor’s eyes went hard and he brought his club up, slapping it loudly against the palm of his hand. At the same time the other ogres silently moved back, vanishing into the shadows to surround the perimeter of the clearing while Iccasor kept Rellik occupied.

“Grossard sent me to capture the boy, not you, Rellik, so there’s no reason for you to be here. I will be taking the boy back. You can either step aside or suffer the consequences.”

Rellik eyed Iccasor with malice. He despised ogres. They were stupid, ugly, and what’s more, they had an obnoxious smell. Before his injury he could have, and would have, taken care of the whole lot of them, but at the present he knew he was still too weak to take on this many. However, he didn’t want them to know that, and so with as much indifference as he could muster, he relaxed his stance.

“I don’t wish to take your glory, Iccasor. That,” he said in a softer tone, tilting his head toward Deston, “is all yours. I’m only here to make sure nothing happens to our … umm, your captive.”

Deston stood rigid, watching Rellik and Iccasor argue over who was going to deliver him to Grossard. He’d seen the four ogres move into the shadows and once they disappeared, he held his breath and inched slowly backward to take advantage of Rellik and Iccasor’s distraction. All he needed to do was make it to the trees and find a place to hide before they realized he was gone and he might have a chance.

He moved silently and as quickly as he could. The edge of the clearing was only a few feet away, but suddenly a nauseating smell assaulted him from behind and before he knew what was happening, two large stubby hands grabbed his arms and launched him into the air. He landed in a heap between Rellik and Iccasor, stunned and with the breath knocked out of him.

Iccasor didn’t flinch, or even look surprised. The second Deston hit the ground the ogre jumped forward and put an enormous, mud-caked foot on Deston’s back. “Going somewhere?” he sneered.

Deston let out an “oomph” as Iccasor’s foot crushed him into the ground, forcing the rest of the air from his lungs.