The night was cold and perfect for magic.
The Spellbinder rubbed his icy hands and drew close to the fire, his ears alert for any unwelcome sounds--the hoot of a screech owl, the careful shuffle of a raccoon, even the low growl of a mountain Blood Wrecker crouching just beyond the blackness. The crack of a branch punctured the silence and he whipped around, his dagger slicing the air. At the forest's edge, a deer paused in its grazing to study him warily. The Spellbinder half rose, as if to chase it, but changed his mind and turned back to the fire. Deer were harmless--stupid really--and wouldn't reveal secrets. The same could not be said of other creatures in Ancora.
He sat quietly for a minute more. Not a sound. He was alone, the only human for miles, which was perfect. The Spellbinder removed a bottle from a satchel at his feet and swirled the contents around, admiring the scarlet liquid sloshing inside. He glanced at the sky. Two shadow moons. Yes, everything was perfect. The old woman had done her best to stop him from making this potion, but she had been foolish to think she stood a chance against him. A pity. He didn't enjoy killing people and he tried to do it as little as possible.
His fingers twitched as he poured the liquid into the flames, his arm moving in a graceful circle. There was a smoldering sound as the flames weakened and disappeared into the embers. For one horrifying second, the Spellbinder wondered if the old woman hadn't beaten him after all and he was out here in the middle of nowhere, pouring a perfectly useless potion into a perfectly good fire, wasting both and looking like an idiot. Then, as though marked with an invisible brush, the fire began to change colors.
It raced from red to purple, then green, blue, back to red with dizzying speed. Flames licked upwards, forming curls and ribbons that streaked into the night, twisting and bending as though alive. Blue flames merged with yellow ones before exploding in showers of emerald that colored the air. Other flames wove in and out of one another, creating strands so vibrant that the Spellbinder's eyes ached. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time but he couldn't look away. As the fire climbed higher, the Spellbinder heard a low chanting coming from deep within the flames. The chanting grew louder until it filled, not just his own ears, but every nook and cranny in the forest. For hours--or perhaps only seconds--this bizarre scene played itself out until, with a burst of sparks, the chanting stopped and the fire vanished, leaving only charred logs. The Spellbinder watched as a ribbon of blue smoke wafted up into the night, growing steadily larger until it blocked out the trees. In the center of the smoke, two red orbs flickered, then pulsed. The Spellbinder smiled.
The fog banshee was here. The search had begun.
Chapter One: The Three Adventurers
In the beginning, the Harper sisters did not set out to have a full-blown adventure.
They did not plan to insult magical creatures (Kat), ride on the back of something with enormous teeth (Rosie), or find themselves in a net twenty feet off the ground (Lulabelle).
And they most certainly did not intend to battle evil fog banshees that wished to suffocate them slowly and painfully.
That's not to say they never had adventures at all, but there's a big difference between bumping into a small, tidy adventure by accident and running after one as fast as you can until you feel like your lungs might explode. Sort of like the difference between tripping over a hole in the ground and jumping off a cliff. The Harpers had never had a jumping-off-a-cliff kind of adventure, with the exception of Kat Harper, who literally jumped off the roof of their house on the morning of her tenth birthday. She had just read the story of Icarus and decided that now was as good a time as any to fly. Like Icarus, Kat had made her own set of wings. Unlike Icarus, she was determined not to die.
She built her wings out of whatever was lying around: old clothes hangers stretched out to provide a frame, her mother's new bed sheets to maximize gliding, and a lot of brightly colored feathers to make the wings seem more authentic. She imagined her family sitting at the breakfast table while their mother made Kat's favorite pancakes (caramel and banana), when Rosie, who was eight, would leap out of her chair and cry in a voice full of wonder, "Look at Kat! Isn't she magnificent!" That Rosie had never in her life used the word "magnificent" was a minor detail. Kat then pictured herself making a grand birthday entrance to loud applause and extra pancakes.
Unfortunately for Kat Harper, this particular adventure did not end well. Once on the roof, she realized it would be impossible to get a running start. There was also a slight chance that she was deathly afraid of heights. By then, however, there was no turning back, especially with Rosie firing questions at her from the front lawn.
"Are you scared, Kat? You're very high up."
"I know I'm high up, I'm on the roof...and I'm not scared," Kat added, rather unconvincingly, even to herself.
"What if you fall? Are you planning to land on your head?"
"Nobody plans to land on their head, Rose."
"You might if you smash into a tree. Have you thought about smashing into a tree?"
"Of course I haven't!" snapped Kat, now picturing herself smashing into a tree.
"You're just standing there--aren't you going to move?"
“I’m waiting for the wind conditions to be right.” Kat closed her
eyes and imagined herself soaring into the sky. “No more talking, Rose, ok? I have to concentrate!”
Her concentration was promptly broken by Lulabelle, who came running out to see what all the noise was about and discovered Kat, wings extended, ready for flight.
“Kat!” she shrieked in horror. “Are you insane? Get down from there!”
Kat sighed and gritted her teeth. In her dreams of flying, she had envisioned a lot more wild applause and a lot less arguing with the spectators. She wondered if she would be featured on the news, maybe given a nickname, like Falcon Girl or Kat the Condor.
“Kat, are you listening to me?” Lulabelle paced back and forth, talking rapidly and making wild gestures, the way she always did when explaining a concept foreign to her younger sister, like the law of gravity or following rules. “I once read that fifty people die each year from tripping over their own two feet.”
She didn’t say how she knew this but Kat believed her. Lulabelle was basically a talking encyclopedia with blond hair and a peanut butter addiction. “If all those people can die on the ground, think about what’ll happen when you fall. Because you will fall, Kat. Fall, not fly. It’s against the laws of science and just plain idiotic.”
Kat wrinkled her nose and considered Lulabelle’s advice for a good five seconds. Nice try, Lu. She wasn’t going to be talked out of this history making moment that easily.
“Anyone who’s dumb enough to die from tripping over their feet wouldn’t have a chance anywhere,” she called back. “And it’s not that far down, I probably won’t have time to die.” She adjusted her wings, preparing for takeoff .
Lulabelle’s mouth fell open. “Don’t do it!” she screeched. “You will plummet to your death! Do you hear me? TO YOUR DEATH!” She turned and raced away. Great. It was only a matter of time before their parents got involved. It was now or never.
Kat looked down at Rosie, who gave her a thumbs up and an encouraging, “You can do it! And don’t listen to Lu, I bet you won’t break all your bones!”
Kat took a deep breath. Showtime.
As if on cue, Mrs. Harper came running out the back door followed by Lulabelle. “Katarina Juliet Harper!” she said in a shaking voice and Kat knew she was in serious trouble. “Stay right there and don’t move! Lu, tell your dad to get the ladder!” Lulabelle dashed off, relieved to be away from the crime scene and off the hook for whatever happened next.
“Rosie!” Mrs. Harper turned to the small figure standing meekly in front of her. “How on earth did your sister get up there? Why didn’t you—KAT!”
Kat had taken advantage of her mother’s turned head and shuffling as fast as she could along the ridgepole, she leaped bravely off the edge of the roof, flapping her wings with all her might, and landed with a loud thump in the azalea bushes. Amazingly, Kat escaped with minor scratches and a sprained ankle, although the wings didn’t survive nearly as well. She spent a good part of her birthday at the doctor’s office while Rosie, the accomplice, spent the rest of the morning in her room. Worst of all, the caramel and banana pancakes burned.
Three months had passed since the birthday fiasco. As Kat stared out the window of her family’s car, watching the landscape fly by, she felt an itchy restlessness that she couldn’t explain, like a mosquito bite on your back that you couldn’t quite reach. Next to her, Lulabelle sat motionless, her face behind a book. Kat was convinced that their car could launch itself into a river, sprout flippers and swim downstream, and Lu still wouldn’t notice the fish swimming by her window. In the back seat, Rosie was sketching something in a notepad, her small, heart-shaped face frowning with concentration. In the front of the car, Mr. and Mrs. Harper argued good-naturedly about whether they had missed the turn, with Mrs. Harper insistent that they had and Mr. Harper insistent that they had not and if the map said they had, then the map had made a mistake.
Mr. Harper was an English professor, which meant that he liked to quote long passages from very old books and was con-stantly misplacing his glasses. Mrs. Harper was an artist, which meant that her clothes and hair were always streaked with paint and she spent most of her day behind an easel. Of all the Harpers, only Rosie had inherited her mother’s talent, although she looked like Mr. Harper with her delicate features and big brown eyes. Lulabelle was eleven and loved books and school like her dad, but she and Mrs. Harper shared the same curly hair and lanky arms and legs. Kat, it must be said, took after no one in looks or interests. Her freckles and unruly honey-colored hair resembled neither of her parents, and Lulabelle had once remarked, after a disastrous show-and-tell that earned Kat yet another trip to the principal’s office, that she had done the math and there was a ten percent chance that Kat had been raised by a pack of rabid squirrels and dropped on the doorstep (“It was only a baby opossum!” Kat retorted. “It’s not my fault the whole class panicked!”).
For the past month, Mr. and Mrs. Harper had talked of nothing but going to the country and the cabin they would be renting for the summer while Mr. Harper taught at the local college and Mrs. Harper worked on her painting. Lulabelle, Kat, and Rosie, it had been decided, were to spend the summer doing what children were supposed to be doing, which Kat suspected meant entertaining themselves and staying outside. Her parents were so enthusiastic, though, that it was hard not to share their excitement. Lulabelle had decided to keep a science journal listing all the plants in the forest by their Latin names, while Rosie wanted to spend her time drawing scenes from nature. Not surprisingly, Kat had dismissed both ideas as uninteresting, and in Lulabelle’s case, hopelessly boring. For her part, she was hoping to catch and tame a bear.
Mr. Harper found the turn at last and steered the car onto a gravel driveway and down a hill where their cabin sat nestled in a cozy tangle of trees. While Mr. and Mrs. Harper unloaded suitcases from the car, Kat and her sisters took in their new surroundings. Through the trees a lake glistened, the water sparkling like a field of perfect diamonds. Far away came the unmistakable drone of a motorboat and Kat wondered briefly where they could find a boat and whether ten-year-olds were allowed to drive them.
She turned her attention instead to an enormous tree just beyond their cabin. This tree wasn’t tall and straight like the others, but was wild and knotty, its limbs splayed out in all directions as though struggling to keep its balance. Kat exchanged glances with Lulabelle and Rosie and all three of them grinned. Racing to the tree, they began pulling themselves up through the branches.
The limbs were thick but Kat easily found footholds as she pulled herself from branch to branch, loving the raw smell of the leaves and the scratchy bark against her palms. She wished she could climb forever. She positioned herself with her back against the trunk, arms grasping the branch above, and gazed out at the forest, lush and seemingly infinite.
“Kat, please be careful,” came Lulabelle’s muffled voice. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Kat called down into the leaves. “What if a pack of hungry wolves was chasing you and the only way to escape was up a tree? You have to think of these things, you know.”
“But I read once that tree impalement is the nineteenth leading cause of death in Estonia—”
“You’re making that up.”
“I’ll climb with you, Kat,” chimed in Rosie. “I want to be chased by wolves!”
Kat opened her mouth to reply but it was then that she saw it. At the top of a nearby hill, something glittered. She squinted, trying to get a better look. What was that? Could it be treasure? Jewels, maybe? Kat’s heart began to pound as she scrambled to climb down the tree (admittedly a much harder, less fun process than climbing up it). Buried treasure on their first day in the country! Or, maybe—-her thoughts spun wildly as she hit the ground and dashed up the hill toward the sparkles, Lulabelle and Rosie’s voices echoing behind her—maybe it was some sort of signal—maybe jewel thieves had hidden diamonds and were on their way to reclaim them. The jig is up you scoundrels, she shouted triumphantly to herself. A policeman had said that in a book—or was it a pirate? At any rate, it seemed fitting. She ran faster.
“Don’t go far, girls!” she heard her mother call. “Remember to stay together!”
Kat reached the top of the hill in record time. The sparkly thing was nestled in the crevice of an enormous black rock. Kat reached into the crevice and grabbed for it just as Lulabelle arrived, panting heavily, followed an instant later by Rosie.
“What got into you?” Lulabelle gasped. “Why did you take off like a crazy person?”
Kat started to speak but, glancing at Rosie, she saw with alarm that her younger sister was bent at the waist, her face pale, her breathing ragged.
“Rosie, are you ok?” Lulabelle’s concerned expression mirrored Kat’s own. “Did you bring your inhaler?”
“Yes, I have it, but I’m fine.” Rosie took a deep gulp of air, her small chest straining. “I’m fine,” she insisted. She took another breath, nodding at Kat’s closed fist. “What did you find?”
Kat opened her hand to reveal a slender silver chain with a circle the size of a quarter. It wasn’t beautiful but Kat found herself fascinated all the same. Holding it up, she saw that the circle was decorated with a series of intertwining loops and squiggles.
“It’s pretty,” said Lulabelle, studying the necklace. “A little odd, but pretty.” She turned her attention to the rock formation. “What is this, do you think?”
Kat stuffed the necklace in her pocket. It wasn’t treasure but it was close. Besides, whoever had left it there didn’t seem to want it, judging by the dirt on the chain. “What do you mean? It’s a rock. Anyone can see that.”
“I know it’s a rock, but what kind of rock? Have you ever seen anything like this?”
The rock was black with specks of white. Oddly shaped bulges protruded from it, as though something had tried to force its way out. The rock stretched for fifty feet along the hill and looked impossible to climb (Kat’s first thought) since the sides towered at least ten feet over their heads before forming a smooth slope that leveled out on top.
“No, but all rocks are the same, aren’t they? You’re the only person in the world who would care about that sort of thing.”
“Lu, Kat, over here! You have to see this!”
Lulabelle and Kat followed the sound of Rosie’s voice around a large, jagged piece of rock that jutted out like a wall. At the base was a small opening, wide enough for a person.
“Rosie, are you in there?” Kat called into the opening, feeling a bit silly.
“Yes, I’m here!” came Rosie’s muffled answer. “It’s unbelievable!”
Kat got down on her stomach and peered into the opening. Lulabelle crouched beside her.
“Are you going first or am I?”
“Well, you’re older and bigger so if you make it through then we’ll know it’s safe for me.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Where are you?” Rosie called. “What’s taking so long?”
“Hold on, I’m coming.” Kat took a deep breath and tried not to think about small, enclosed spaces. Digging her elbows into the dirt and pushing off with her tennis shoes, she wiggled through the tunnel.
She got to her feet, brushing spiderwebs from her hair, and felt her mouth drop open in a very undignified way. The tunnel opened into a vast cave that was five times the size of her bedroom back home. The sides of the rock extended so high that Kat had to strain her neck to see the ceiling. Sunlight streamed in through numerous cracks, giving the cave a warm, airy feel and Kat could see a chunk of blue sky just beyond a hole at the top.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Rosie’s voice bounced off the walls. “It’s like a rock castle!”
“It might be limestone,” said Lulabelle, getting to her feet and shaking the dust off her jeans. “Maybe marble. Probably not volcanic, although that would be cool. I wish I’d thought to bring my science textbook with me, I’m sure there was something . . . ”
Lulabelle launched into a rambling speech about the wonderful world of rocks, but Kat, having learned long ago to tune out anything that sounded remotely like school, heard none of it. She had noticed a tunnel o to the side that led deeper into the cave. Curious, she wandered over to peer into it. Lulabelle stopped talking about the important role of igneous rock throughout history and watched her suspiciously.
“Please tell me you’re not thinking of going in there.”
Kat was silent, a strong indication that she was, in fact, think ing of going in there.
“Kat, are you insane? You can’t go marching into some dark tunnel that goes who knows where. You might get lost—”
“We won’t get lost,” scoffed Kat, although she couldn’t help but relish the idea. “These aren’t caves that go on for miles in all directions. Rose, don’t you want to see where this goes?”
“There could be bats,” insisted Lulabelle, “or snakes . . . or spiders . . . or flesh-eating mushrooms!” Kat gave her a disbelieving look but Lulabelle was undaunted. “I saw it on a documentary.”
“Fine,” retorted Kat. “Rosie, don’t eat anything in this tunnel, ok? Especially if it looks like a flesh-eating mushroom. Lu, you stay here and wait for us. If we’re not back in five minutes, we were probably attacked by bats. Ready Rose?”
Rosie shivered with excitement. “Hold my hand?”
She clutched Kat’s arm as they inched their way into the tunnel, Kat keeping one hand on the rock for support, while listening for any sounds that might belong to unfriendly animals. She guessed flesh-eating mushrooms were pretty quiet. They had only gone a few feet when Lulabelle’s footsteps echoed behind them.
“Oh for goodness’ sake!” she huffed, unfastening a small flashlight attached to her belt loop. A faint glow illuminated the passage, casting eerie shadows along the walls. “If you insist on walking through a dark, creepy tunnel filled with snakes, bats, or something else with teeth, we might as well see where we’re going.” She took Rosie’s other hand and shot Kat a fierce look. Kat tried her best to disguise a grin. As much as Lu pretended otherwise, Kat knew her sister hated being left out of any adventure.
They continued in this way for some time, making their way deeper into the tunnel. The gentle thud of their tennis shoes on the rock was the only sound Kat could hear, an unnerving reminder that they were alone. Or were they? What if a prehistoric cave monster was lurking in the shadows, waiting to bite off their fingers? What if she had to fight it?
Lulabelle stopped suddenly and Kat blinked as the image of the cave monster vanished with a poof.
“I don’t understand,” Lulabelle remarked, holding her watch up to her eyes. “We’ve been walking for almost five minutes, we should’ve come to the end by now. It wasn’t that big.”
Kat frowned. They had been walking for a long time. “Maybe we’re zig-zagging back and forth so it’s taking us longer.”
“I don’t think so, look.” They turned to follow the flashlight’s beam behind them. “We’ve been walking in a straight line the whole time, we haven’t turned a corner once.”
Rosie’s eyes widened. “Are we lost in the rock?”
A small shard of uneasiness caught in Kat’s chest but she pushed it away. No sense in worrying Rosie, not when they could easily go back the way they had come. No, this was a much bigger rock than it appeared, that was all. Lulabelle seemed to read her thoughts because she chuckled nervously.
“Of course we’re not lost, Rose, I’m sure we’re nearly at the end.” She handed the flashlight to Kat and Kat took her turn leading the way through the tunnel. When more time had passed with no sign of the tunnel’s end, Lulabelle glanced at her watch and whispered in Kat’s ear, “It’s possible we’re going down instead of across. That would explain why we haven’t come to the end of the rock.”
“Down? You mean like down into the earth?” Kat pictured a staircase descending for miles into the center of the world. Lulabelle nodded.
They walked in silence for another minute. “I once read about
some hikers who got lost in a cave for weeks and they ended up having to eat each other’s—”
“Stop!” Kat was in no mood for one of Lulabelle’s horrifying stories. She glanced at Rosie. “Let’s give it another minute and then we’ll turn around.”
Almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth, Kat noticed that the darkness was fading. At first she thought her eyes had adjusted to the tunnel, but gradually it grew lighter and lighter until the flashlight became unnecessary and Kat switched it off.
“I think we’re coming to the end,” she announced. Sure enough, up ahead was daylight. Kat had never been so glad to see the outside world as she was at that moment. Hopping down from the rim of the cave, blinking furiously, Kat felt a sudden coolness envelop her body. Although the cave had not been unpleasant, the sun on her face and the grass under her feet were a good reminder that she much preferred fresh air to a musty cave that smelled like old socks. Kat sniffed, detecting the faintest whiff of cinnamon on the breeze. Still blinking, she squinted into the light.
And promptly felt her heart crash down into her stomach. For one long second she felt like she was falling. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible. They must have taken a wrong turn back in the tunnel, despite what Lulabelle had said, and ended up . . . where? Not on the hill with the black rock, that was certain. Kat looked frantically at Lulabelle, and her panic only grew when she saw that her sister had turned white.
“Where did all the trees go?” Rosie said slowly. Kat opened her mouth but found that her words had disappeared into her stomach along with her heart. She whirled around, hoping to see their cabin and the lake, but there were only hills stretching as far as the eye could see. Mountain peaks towered in the distance, snow-capped and majestic, the kind Kat had only seen in pictures. Where had they come from?
Looking down at her feet, Kat noticed that the grass was darker, nearly blue, and thicker than she remembered. What had happened? She sat down hard, her mind spinning. Their cabin, the forest, the lake, all of it had vanished. But the strangest thing, Kat thought as she looked out on the hills before her with growing dread, were the two moons that hung suspended in the sky like a set of pale, glow- ing eyes, watching them.
“Lu?” Kat tried but failed to keep the tremor from her voice. “Where are we?”