Authors: Christopher Healy,Todd Harris
Tags: #Children's Books, #Action & Adventure, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales & Myths, #Other, #Humor, #Children's eBooks, #Literature & Fiction
he tunnel’s entrance sat amid a scattering of bent pine trees and loose boulders in the shadow of the tall, curved peak of Mount Batwing on the border between Sturmhagen and New Dar. It was hidden under a big, hollow rock that rolled easily out of the way with a single shove from Rauber’s foot.
“You don’t keep it locked?” Frederic asked.
“Don’t need to,” Rauber said. “No one’s going to lay a finger on that rock. Check it out.” He gestured down at a skull and crossbones that were painted on the face of the fake stone. Below the image were the words
HE WHO TOUCHETH THIS STONE, HIS FACE SHALL MELTETH. SO SAYS THE EVIL SPIRIT OF MOUNT BATWING
. He smiled slyly. “There is no evil spirit.
“Never would’ve guessed,” Liam said.
Rauber lit a torch and slipped into the dim, damp tunnel, followed by Liam, Frederic, Ella, and Val, who ducked to avoid the low ceiling. As this particular mission called for stealth, the group had decided they should pare down their numbers. Before leaving the tavern, all eleven had stocked up on new weapons and more seasonally appropriate clothing: thick woolen pants, fur-lined coats, heavy boots, and ear-flapped caps. (Thanks to the Boarhound’s burglary-prone clientele, there was always plenty of new merchandise coming in.) From Flargstagg, the whole company had trekked through the snowy forests of Sturmhagen to Deeb’s astonishingly well-built tree house. It had a sturdy, smooth-sanded floor, casement windows, two chandeliers, and a foosball table. (“The trolls could learn a lot from you,” Frederic had mused upon seeing it.) From there, the four-person strike team—plus Gustav and Rapunzel—had journeyed with Rauber to Mount Batwing. Rapunzel and Gustav were along to stand guard at the entrance—not Gustav’s first choice of assignment, as you might guess, but one he agreed to after Frederic promised him all the leftover “boiled mammal.”
“Don’t take too long,” Gustav called to the others as they disappeared into the tunnel. “It’s cold out here. You know, for Rapunzel.”
Smirking, Rapunzel offered him her cloak.
The passage beneath the dusty wastelands of New Dar was long and dark—but it was paved, so moving along it took no more out of them than walking down a typical cobblestone street. “It would have helped a lot if we’d known about this tunnel last June,” Frederic said.
“Another new rule,” Rauber hissed. “No one mentions last June.”
They felt like they’d been walking for hours, but eventually they reached a door—or rather a flat stone wall with a door-shaped line cut into it. Rauber pulled a lever, and with a faint rumble and a sprinkling of dust, the wall slid to the side. There was a small cellblock before them, with three empty cells on either side. The floor of one was littered with scraps of canary-yellow fabric. Frederic gaped.
“Is this the very cellblock that Liam and I were held in?” he asked.
“Ironic, huh?” Rauber said with a chuckle.
“Go ahead, lead the way,” Liam said to the boy.
“Nope, you’re on your own from here,” Rauber replied. “I said I’d get you in. Nothing more. I’ll be waiting right here until you’re done.”
Annoyed but unsurprised, the others stepped out into the cellblock. As soon as they did, Rauber dashed back the way they’d come. From somewhere farther down the tunnel came the low rumble of another stone door sliding open.
“There was a second tunnel,” Ella snarled. “Why did we trust him?”
“Do you think Rauber really is Rundark’s secret accomplice?” Frederic asked.
Liam huffed. “No, I think the one thing he wasn’t lying about was his hatred for the Warlord. But he’s obviously got some other plans of his own. And whatever he’s run off to do, he’s doing it. So let’s move fast.”
They started down the corridor. Frederic shuddered as they passed one crumbly brick wall that had a huge hole bashed through it and a spool of thread sitting among the debris at its base.
At that moment, two Darian guards burst through a doorway down an adjacent corridor, shouting, “Yes, Lord Rundark! Right away, Lord Rundark!” Liam and the others ducked into an alcove and the guards ran past them, hustling to the dungeon exit and up the stairs. The heroes tiptoed down to a door that stood slightly ajar, and Liam peeked inside. The room was very dimly lit, but he could see that it was one of Rauber’s old torture chambers. The Bandit King’s instruments of terror—a mechanical hair-puller, a man-shaped box filled with itching powder, and a mechanism bearing the label
—had all been demolished and shoved to the walls in broken heaps. Four stone pillars formed a square in the center of the room, and at the heart of that square stood a pedestal formed from dozens of stacked skulls. The top of the pedestal was a stone hand—or possibly a real hand, they couldn’t quite tell—clenched into a fist. An eerie orange light pulsed from between the hand’s long, clawed fingers: the Jeopardous Jade Djinn Gem.
On the far side of the room stood the familiar, broad-shouldered silhouette of Lord Rundark. He had his back to them as he mumbled into the glowing crystal orb that sat on a small table before him. Liam held a finger to his lips as they slipped carefully into the chamber—Liam and Ella scuttling behind one wide pillar, Frederic and Val behind another. Ella mouthed, “I’m going for it.” Liam shook his head adamantly, but Ella was already on her way. She spider-walked out to the middle of the room, crouched by the pedestal, and began to pry back the claws of the hand (which was most definitely real—though what kind of creature it once belonged to was anybody’s guess).
It took some effort to wrench up the stiff, mummified fingers, but she was getting the job done. One, two, three claws out of the way. Rundark was still occupied with his orb. Four, five, six.
Boy, that thing had a lot of fingers,
Frederic thought as he held his breath. Val stood behind him, clutching his shoulders (and squeezing quite a bit too hard for Frederic’s tastes).
Seven, eight. Ella bit her lip. She was almost there.
Liam’s eyes darted back and forth. To Ella, to Rundark. To Ella, to Rundark. The Warlord scratched an itch behind his ear.
She’s going to be caught!
Nine! Ella pulled back the last of the monstrous claws. The Gem was free. But before she could snatch it, Liam darted from behind his pillar and grabbed her by the arm. He tried to pull her back behind the column. But she planted her feet.
Let go of me,
she mouthed at him furiously.
He’s going to see you,
he mouthed back.
The two were locked in a tug of war. Val and Frederic watched in shock.
“You’re going to ruin everything,” Ella hissed.
going to ruin everything,” Liam hissed back.
And then they ruined everything. Ella yanked her hand from his grip, and Liam stumbled backward, crashing into the ruins of the Spit-Dribbler.
The Warlord spun around, beard-braids flailing. His eyebrows rose when he spotted Ella. “You, my dear,” he said, “are supposed to be dead.”
“I could say the same thing about you,” Ella retorted.
“I suppose I was foolish to put my trust in that Avondellian fop,” Rundark said. “But I can remedy his mistakes.” The chamber door slammed shut—all by itself.
Ella stood and snatched the Gem, but with remarkable speed, Rundark bounded toward her and grabbed her by the wrist. The Gem flew from her hand; Liam scrambled across the floor and caught it.
“Aha!” he cried. “We have the Gem, Rundark!”
“And from what I recall,
cannot use it,” the Darian said coolly.
“We’re not here to use it,” Frederic said, stepping out from behind his pillar. “We’re here to destroy it.”
“And how, pray tell, do you plan to do that?” Rundark asked as he spun Ella around and bent her arm painfully behind her back.
“With a jar of magical acid,” said Liam.
have in my pocket, Liam,” Ella groaned. She struggled, but Rundark had her trapped firmly in his grasp.
Until Val made her move, that is. She pounced out from behind her pillar, shouting, “Sock to the jaw!” and planted her powerful fist squarely into the side of the Warlord’s face. Rundark staggered, released Ella, and crashed backward into a broken hair-pulling machine.
“Wish fulfilled!” Val cheered, raising her arms in triumph.
“You’re beaten, Rundark,” Liam said as the Warlord climbed back to his feet. “It’s four to one.”
Rundark laughed. He glanced at Frederic, who quickly tried to pretend he hadn’t just been biting his thumbnail. “Three. I’ll give you three,” the Warlord said. “And three to one might still seem like good odds for you. But I am not exactly
He thrust his hand forward and sent a stream of mystical blue energy sailing forth, like lightning bursting from his fingertips. The blast hit Val square in the chest. She landed in a heap at Frederic’s feet.
“Those blue bolts,” Ella muttered.
“They’re just like . . . ,” Liam began.
Everyone was suddenly aware of a strange, greenish aura that surrounded Rundark. The sickly green vapor slowly peeled itself away from the Warlord’s body and re-formed as a second, completely separate figure. It had the shape of a scrawny old woman clad in a gown of flowing rags. She had a pointed nose and even pointier fingers. Random sprouts of hair shot from her scalp in various directions.
“Ooh, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see the looks of sheer horror on your pathetic little faces,” the spirit crooned in a voice like broken bagpipes. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.”
“Zaubera,” said Frederic (because he was the only one who remembered the old witch’s name).
rederic, Ella, and Liam were stunned—standing, or rather hovering, before them was the very witch from whom they’d saved their kingdoms nearly two years earlier. (Val was stunned, too, but in a more literal sense, since she’d gotten blasted by Zaubera’s magical lightning and couldn’t move.)
“Can it really be you?” Liam muttered.
“Of course it’s me, you lollygagging dunderhead,” the vapor-witch screeched. “Has anyone else ever had hair like this?”
“But you died,” Frederic said.
“Ooh, very observant,” Zaubera cooed. “You get bonus points for paying attention.”
“But you died,” Frederic said again.
“I’M A GHOST, PORRIDGE-BRAIN!”
The heroes shrank back. As creepy and frightening as Zaubera was in life, she was even more so in death.
“How?” Ella managed to ask.
“How am I a ghost?” the phantom witch echoed. “I died! Isn’t that where this conversation started?”
“Allow me to explain,” Rundark said, stepping in front of the floating spirit. “Once I’d removed that joke of a Bandit King, my first order of business was to clean up his castle, to remake it in my own fashion. The childish toys with which he’d filled these halls had to go. I was personally smashing the offensive contraptions in this torture chamber when I felt a strange presence. I had felt it several times since arriving at this fortress, but at that instant, the sensation was particularly intense. I recognized it at once as an unrestful spirit—someone who had died in this very castle.”
“It was me!” Zaubera interjected, zipping in front of the Warlord and flashing a wide grin full of translucent teeth. “Apparently I didn’t make the cut to get into the afterlife. The Beings in charge fed me some gobbledygook about ‘not enough good deeds’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. So, ever since you and your buddies fed me to that dragon, I’ve been stuck here, left to haunt the place forever as a floating phantom. I still have all my awesome magical power—but I can’t use it! Because, it so happens, you need a
for that. These wispy mist-hands aren’t enough to shoot a good magic missile out of. It kills me. Figuratively, of course.
“And what made my situation even worse was having to sit by and watch as that little brat, the Bandit King, came in and took over my fortress. All the cheesy decorations he hung up. And the sticky fingerprints on everything. But even that didn’t incense me as much as when
walking pigeon-droppings showed up here again! I did everything I could to help thwart you.”
“I thought you said you had no powers as a ghost,” Ella said.
“No witch powers,” Zaubera continued. “But I still have ghost powers! Granted they pale in comparison. Mostly little things—moving stuff with my mind and whatnot. But, hey, I managed a few good blows against you guys! I was happy, for instance, to open a certain closet door and make sure the bandits found my old crate of sleeping potions when they needed it. And I helped untie that stupid snake-man when he was knotted around the fence on the roof. But perhaps most fun of all was when I cut the rope in the dumbwaiter. In the end, I must say I rather enjoyed watching your laughable attempt at burglary fail so miserably.”
“Hey, we succeeded on that mission!” Liam said, thoroughly offended.
“Did you?” Rundark chimed in. He waved his arms, temporarily scattering Zaubera’s misty figure and causing her to reconstitute a few feet away, scowling. “The way I see it,” the Warlord continued, “all you did was aid me in taking over the world. Before you arrived, I had no idea that the legendary Jade Djinn Gem was within these walls. You practically placed the thing in my hands.”
“But he couldn’t do anything with it!” Zaubera added. “Nothing stylish, at least.”
“Who’s telling this story?” Rundark snapped, glowering at her. He returned his attention to the heroes. “It’s true. The Gem gave me the power to take over any monarch’s mind—and thereby his kingdom. But I wanted all Thirteen Kingdoms. And conquering them one by one would have taken decades.”
“That’s why I revealed myself to the Warlord and offered him a deal,” said Zaubera, swishing to Rundark’s side. “Here I was—a magic-user with no body. There he was—a body with no magic. So I told him that if he let me borrow his physical form from time to time, I would teach him the mystical skills he needed for his little take-over-the-world spree. He agreed! It was a match made in . . . well,
. It was a match made here.”
“It was the witch who showed me how to amplify the power of the Gem,” Rundark said. “Following her instructions, I chipped thirteen small shards off the gem and gave one to each of my generals. With the right spells cast upon it, the pedestal you see before you turns the Gem into an energy source, beaming its power out to all the individual shards.”
“That’s why it seemed like the Gem was in so many places at once,” Liam said.
“Each of my generals commanded a king,” said Rundark. “And I commanded my generals—without ever having to leave this chamber. You have no doubt already experienced the wondrous power of my vision orbs.” He gestured to the glowing crystal sphere that sat on the table behind him.
“Another creation of yours truly—thank you very much!” Zaubera beamed. She flitted in front of Rundark and snarled at the heroes. “I’m also the one who designed the grand scheme for your demise. I had powerful magic bombs planted all over that island—each with enough explosive energy to level a small city. I was going to set them off and let them spew their flesh-charring, bone-melting power all over you. And through my colossal Mega-orbs, the whole world would have witnessed your doom as it happened. It would have been glorious! If you hadn’t somehow vanished off the island and forced us to change our plans!”
“If you hadn’t insisted on such a grandiose plot to begin with,” said Rundark, “my men would have put the princes in their graves months ago.”
“And what good would that have done?” Zaubera snapped.
“It would have saved us from this time-wasting conversation, for one thing,” the Warlord barked back.
“Ruling isn’t enough,” the witch said. “You need to rule with pizzazz! If you want your reign of terror to be remembered for eons, you have to start it off right—by making an impression.”
“The only impression I need to make is the impression of my fist on my enemies’ foreheads,” Rundark growled.
As the two villains bickered, Ella motioned to Liam. “Now’s our chance,” she whispered. She pulled the jar of acid from her pocket and tossed it to him. Liam reached out to catch it. But it never reached his hand. The jar froze in midair.
“You’ve apparently forgotten how difficult it is to distract me,” Zaubera said. She held her ghostly fingers to her temples and flared her see-through nostrils as the jar floated toward her and set itself down on the table.
“Crud,” said Liam.
Then Zaubera rubbed her temples some more. The Gem popped out of Liam’s hand like a slippery bar of soap and floated over to the table to sit beside the acid jar.
“Double crud,” said Liam.
“So this was your secret weapon, eh?” the witch said coyly.
“Another ludicrous attempt at thwarting the unstoppable power of Dar,” Rundark said dismissively. “Doomed to failure from the very start. Because you’re far too late.”
“Yes, far too late,” Zaubera echoed. She turned to Rundark. “Too late for what?”
“We don’t need the Gem anymore,” the Warlord said. “We’ve already won.”
At that moment, the vision orb lit up, and the mustachioed face of Wrathgar appeared within it. “Lord Rundark, are you there?” the huge Darian called out. “Something’s wrong with the Gem. It’s stopped working. I had to beat down the fat old king to stop him from running away.”
The mists in the orb flickered, and Vero’s face appeared as well. “Hello?” he called. “Pardon the interruption, Warlord, but the little baby Gem you have given me, it seems to be, as we say in my country,
“The heart of the Gem has been removed from its transmitter,” Rundark said in response. “But it matters not. Throw away your useless shards of orange rock,” Ten more distressed faces had appeared in the orb. “The time has come for us to reveal ourselves,” the Warlord continued. “Jail the monarchs and introduce yourselves to your people. For now they truly are
people. You men are the new kings of the Thirteen Kingdoms. And I am the emperor of all.” He picked up the jar of acid and slowly spilled its contents onto the Jeopardous Jade Djinn Gem. The amber-colored acid splashed over the jewel, smoking and hissing. In a matter of seconds, nothing was left but a steaming wet spot on the table.
The heroes exchanged shocked glances.
“You fool!” Zaubera spat at the Warlord. “You can’t begin an empire just like that! Without any pomp! Without any glitz! Without any sparzle!”
“But I just have,” Rundark said. “My generals—excuse me, my
are addressing their people as we speak.” The vision orb had gone dark.
“And you expect those people to welcome their Darian overlords with open arms?” Zaubera asked.
“It’s not often I agree with a dead witch, but she’s right,” Val wheezed from the floor. “The people will rebel.”
“Oh, but they won’t,” Rundark said slyly. “Because I have used the one power that is even more persuasive than the Jade Djinn Gem. I have used
“I hate bards!” Zaubera shrieked. “I told you not to use them! You used to say you hated them, too!”
“I did,” he said. “But I realized the error of my ways. I used to puzzle over how the laughable Rauber boy could have earned such a terrifying reputation—and then it hit me. The bards. Without bards telling the world how clever and fearsome he supposedly was, Rauber would have been nothing. People believe anything they hear in a song. So I kidnapped all the bards and forced them to write a few epic melodies in praise of Dar. Songs that told of the kind, benevolent, and wise rule of Lord Rundark. For months now, those songs have been taking hold. People are already under their sway.”
“You’ve denied me my glorious revenge upon these princes!” Zaubera growled, whirling impatient circles around the Warlord. “In case you haven’t figured it out, that’s the only reason I’m in this partnership. What do I care if
rule the world? I’m a ghost! If I have to spend eternity floating around this castle, I at least want to do so with a smile on my face!”
“Are you so easily defeated, my phantom friend?” Rundark asked. “Do we not have three of your archenemies right here? And some other random woman as well? Activate the orbs. Let us give the people a show. Right now.”
Snarling, Zaubera’s ghost flew into Rundark’s body and merged with it.
“Ahh,” the Warlord said, once again surrounded by a pale-green aura. “There’s the power.” He raised his arms, flexed his fingers, and cooked up two extra-large balls of crackling blue energy.
Val scrambled to protect Ella, but Ella yelled, “Get Frederic!”
Frederic tried to object, but Val tossed him over her shoulder and ran for the door. Liam and Ella were right behind them. None of them made it.
Ella and Liam were each blasted between the shoulder blades. They hurtled forward, plowing into Val and knocking her over. Frederic spilled from her arms and skidded into the door with a thud. On his knees, he reached for the handle.
“Always the coward,” Rundark spat. “Your fleeing days are over.” His glowing fingers popped and fizzed as he worked up another ball of energy. But before he loosed his magical bolt, he paused. There was a sound. They all heard it. It was faint at first but quickly grew louder, until the source of the cry was directly outside the room: “Stuuuuurrrm-haaaaayyyyy-geeeennnnnnn!”
With a crunch and a roar, Gustav ripped the door from its hinges and hurled it at Rundark. The startled warlord was smacked backward into the table and knocked the vision orb loose from its small ebony stand. The crystal ball began to roll away, and Rundark moved quickly to protect it. That moment of distraction was enough for the heroes to make their escape.
“Grab them and run,” Frederic sputtered, motioning to the groaning Liam and Ella. “No time to explain.”
Gustav hoisted up his injured friends and tore out. Frederic then threw himself back over Val’s shoulder, and she ran, too.
As they hurried down the dungeon corridors, they could hear Rundark and Zaubera bickering. “You blew it! You let them get away!” “No, you are
them get away! As we speak! Merge with me again!” “Bah! Your clumsy fingers can’t handle my magic!” “Merge with me!” “Fine!”
Gustav slowed for a second. “That sounded like—”
“It is! Go!” Frederic snapped.
They reached the cellblock and darted into the open tunnel, where Rauber was waiting for them. They dashed past the boy as he yanked the lever and slid the false wall back into place. Inside the dungeon, Rundark—glowing with the power of Zaubera’s spirit—barreled around the corner to find nothing but an empty cellblock. He cursed through clenched teeth and punched the brick wall.