Lucas found himself standing in a round, stone vault with an array of more stained-glass windows taking up the entire front wall of the chamber. “A church?” he whispered, staring at the light flickering beyond the panes of each window.
He counted six of the colored windows, with an oak door situated beneath them. It reminded him of Saint Patrick’s church down the street from the Emerald, with its ancient stonework, its oaken doors, and its own windows, usually illuminated by candle light.
Twin birch trees stood on either side of him, their lower branches creating a framework for the window-like screens in the front wall. Swift movement behind the first window on his immediate left caught Lucas’s eye, and he stared in amazement as the shadowy forms of two dragons slammed into each other, locking together in fierce combat. One beast was sleek and black with green eyes, while the other was white as snow with deep blue eyes. Flames burst from the mouths of both beasts as they tumbled through the skies, disappearing from the view that the window-screen allowed Lucas to see.
Looking at the second window, Lucas saw a bird’s eye-view of a massive castle under siege by a vast horde swarming across its green-way. Thousands of antler-crowned warriors converged upon the for-tress, while above the high towers of the besieged castle black banners unfurled, revealing a winged, white lion.
The third window showed a herd of wild horses fleeing across a wide-open plain, their eyes wide in terror as sleek, black wolf-like beasts pursued them. Hundreds of horses appeared there on the screen before Lucas. He cringed as the dark beasts drew closer behind the steeds. Suddenly, a pack of shaggy gray Wolfhounds sprang up from the long grasses, and hounds and wolf-beasts crashed into each other, while the horses ran on, spared by the attack of the noble dogs.
Lucas looked over at the fourth window where a company of child-like figures drew twin swords from sheaths depending from their shoulders. The impish warriors were cloaked and hooded in black leather. As each blade was drawn from shoulder-sheaths, a brilliant display of multicolored light burst at the base of each sword, and like electric eels slithering beneath the surface of dark waters, scintillating colored hues of blue, green, red, and violet traveled down the length of each blade, coming to an abrupt stop at sword tips with a crackle of blue-white lightning.
“Those wee woodland imps,” came the voice of Billy moving into the chamber behind him, “are the Jewel Folk. And fierce is the fight within them, Children of the Woods that they be.”
Lucas wheeled around, his blond shaggy bangs whipping wildly as he turned to gape at the Irishman. Rumors of Billy’s cruelty whirled through Lucas’s mind, especially the one where Old Man Connors once caught Reason Nelson stealing pop off of his loading dock, and put a knife to the back of his knee and threatened to hamstring him, making him a cripple for the rest of his life.
Not checking to see if Billy even carried a knife, Lucas bolted and ran, placing distance between himself and the old man. “No!” Billy shouted. “Don’t. Go. In. There!”
But Lucas paid no heed to the Irishman’s warning, and he swung open the door beneath the windows. He darted through, pulled the door closed behind him, and ran into what could only be described as a Hobbit hole.
In full flight mode, Lucas passed through a rounded room, lit up by a small, cozy-looking fireplace to one side of the room. A cheery blaze crackled inside its hearth, and yet its bright red glow was enhanced by a row of lanterns lined up on the mantle above. In each globe of the lanterns were lime-green and lemon-yellow specks of luminous lights that cast a deep green aura about the rest of the room, causing the rounded white walls to sparkle and gleam.
He noticed a steaming tea pot on the small table between two high-backed, deep-cushioned chairs situated before the fire, then glanced down at the two small figures seated there. At the sight of the fair-haired kid racing through the den, both woodland imps let out startled yelps of surprise, steaming cups of tea flying from their hands, and fragrant mint tea splattered all over the hearth stones.
As Lucas ran past them, he muttered, “Hobbits! As if dragons weren’t bad enough? And I don’t even do drugs!”
Skidding to a stop before a round green door, he reached for the latch and heard one of the wee folk behind him say, “Not hobbits, but Chaykin, lad! Chaykin of the Jewel Folk fame!”
Without bothering to even look back, Lucas pulled open the door and sprang outside onto the porch situated before an enormous hill. In fact, both the porch and the round green door were directly in the center of a large mound of earth, similar to what he imagined a hobbit hole at Bagend would look like.
“Holy Moses!” Lucas gasped as he ran beneath the luminous fire-flies flittering through the evening air and listlessly drifting through a woodland clearing. Only these fireflies were as large as doves, their tails lighting up so brightly that the surrounding trees were splotched here and there by a lemony haze.
A horn sounded from the distant woods. The sound of galloping horses came from the opposite direction, deeper in the hills beyond the clearing. Lucas scanned the darkened trees, his heart beating loudly within his thin chest. He wished he’d carried his baseball bat with him, for being armed against whatever was coming seemed to be wise. It seemed odd, but he greatly wished he had one of these glowing swords he’d seen the small, hooded Jewel Folk wielding.
Whatever was coming down from the high hills was not there to be friendly. He had trespassed into a different realm. He was certain there would be consequences for his actions, even if he had only been trying to escape from Old Billy Connors.
His eyes were drawn to a flicker of red flame at the end of a path-way winding up the wooded hillside just opposite of the one he’d exited. A tall, pale figure mounted on a large black elk sat there, a fiery sword held above his head. The rider’s long, silken white hair danced wildly about his shoulders in the night wind. His red eyes matched the fire of his blade, and as they locked on Lucas standing there on the porch, he felt a malicious rage and hatred pass through him as though the pale-skinned rider had cast a spell at him.
The silver-haired swordsman spurred his mount into a run. The elk sprang down the path, carrying his rider gracefully down the opposite hillside. As the black elk picked up speed and brought the swordsman closer, Lucas could clearly see that his heavily-muscled bare chest and arms were covered in blue tattoos, a mix of predatory beasts, tiger, panther, bear, leopard, all dominated by a horned devil inked across his thick chest.
Each tattooed creature emanated a strange bluish glow as the rider closed the distance between them. And yet, Lucas continued to peer up in alarm at the enraged glare the swordsman held within his eyes.
Like an arrow sent swiftly down the hill at him, words were sent to him by the tattooed swordsman: “I was drawn here by your rage, boy! Your anger and the fires and storms of your own making, shone like a beacon in a dark night, calling to me, drawing me to you like a lodestone! And I have come to feast upon your red-hot soul!”
Within the seconds that it took for the elk to reach the bottom of the hill, Lucas suddenly found himself surrounded by a small pack of winter-white wolves. Green eyes glowing, all nine of the large beasts turned to face the approaching swordsman, fierce growls of challenge rising to meet him.
The silver-haired rider raised his fiery blade and snarled, “White Wolves of Masgar dare thwart my hunt? Surely you jest!”
Hearing a sound behind him, Lucas glanced back to see an enormous Wolfhound come bounding across the clearing. Sparing him one quick glance, the huge, shaggy dog raced past him and took his place at the center of the wolf pack, clearly joining the white beasts as they faced the rider and his elk mount. The swordsman swayed back in his saddle, his free hand fluttering over his heart in mock surprise. “What’s this?” he said. “A Hound of the Chieftains? This is my hunt, Hound! This is my feast, Dog of the Gypsy-kin!”
Lucas shuddered at the word feast. He had already been alarmed by the swordsman’s claim that he had come to eat his red-hot soul. He did not like what that implied, since he figured the rider was speaking anything but figuratively. No, Lucas surmised that the red-eyed rider meant to literally eat his soul, though he had no clue how he intended to do that.
Suddenly, the entire clearing between the two massive hills lit up with a brilliant light, and Lucas turned to see a small band of antler-crowned warriors riding horses down into the clearing. As the savage riders formed up on either side of the silver-haired swordsman, they leered at the white wolves and hound in challenge, an assortment of weapons appearing in their hands.
The swordsman glared down at Lucas and snarled, “I am Traxx Dire, King of the Shadow Realm!”
He gestured wildly with his flaming blade and beckoned with his free hand, saying, “Come, join the Karth and I in battle!”