Lucas shouted, “No! Don’t kill the dog!”
He then, without thinking, ran between the two wolves on either side of him and snatched up the violet-shaded jewel-blades in a pitiful attempt to meet the brutal attack of the oncoming Traxx. “No, lad!” cried Peyton as he attempted to rise to his feet. “You don’t stand a chance against—”
Arroooo! erupted from the mouth of the noble hound, and a shimmering blue field of force appeared between Lucas and the falling blade of Traxx, stopping the flaming sword from descending.
A tall, well-built figure suddenly moved in front of Lucas and said, “Traxx, return to the Shadow Realm!”
Traxx was flung backwards by the large figure, who stood there sadly shaking his shaggy-maned head. Traxx and his fiery blade were then gone, vanishing into an ethereal cloud at the edge of the forest.
The heavily-muscled figure turned to stare down at Lucas. He had the large body of a man, and yet the head, the face, and the long, scraggly mane of a lion. His smile was dazzling, and the light in his eyes caused Lucas to cringe as the lion-man fixed him in his curious gaze.“Tawn,” said Peyton, rising to his knees, “Chief Messenger of the One. Is this the Chaykin Advocate and Mediator?”
Tawn shook his head, his mane trailing over his huge shoulders in a slight breeze. “No,” he simply said. “Not this one.”
A movement across the clearing caused Lucas to look to the giant elk as the creature moved to stand over Peyton’s fallen stag. Lowering its head, its great rack of white antlers glistened in the moonlight as it sniffed at the dead stag. “Leave it alone!” Lucas snapped, raising the twin blades he held. Before he could launch himself across the clearing, Tawn gently said, “Hush, child. He means no harm.”
As Lucas lowered the twin swords, he watched Tawn approach the elk. The lion-man ran a hand down its flank and said, “You are free. Go. Run the forests again, no more to serve such a master.”
With a soft chuff, the elk sprang away, vanishing into the night. Tawn kneeled beside the fallen stag. Peyton staggered to his feet and moved to join him. Smiling down at the raven-haired Chaykin, Tawn reached down and placed his hand on the head of the dead steed. A strange green mist drifted out between the fingers of the lion-man’s hand. It swirled round, evolving into a thick emerald cloud that slowly covered the entire body of the small, black stag.
Lucas actually gasped when he saw the ethereal form of the stag settling down on the prone body, blending with the undulating mist, now sparkling with tiny bursts of lime-green light. With an audible click! the soul of the fallen stag entered back into its body, and the once-dead creature’s eyes blazed a bright blue as he lifted his head, staring up at Peyton, now kneeling beside the lion-man, tears of relief streaming down his face.
The wolfhound and the white wolves darted across the clearing, reminding Lucas of excited puppies as they snuffled and whined, each garnering attention from Tawn. Some rolled over on their backs, ex-posing their stomachs to the lion-man, while others burrowed their heads into his outstretched arms as he petted and hugged them to his massive chest.
Studying the lion-faced man, Lucas noted the gold hoop hanging from the lobe of one ear, barely concealed by the silvery white strands of his mane. The well-muscled beast-man was dressed in a leather vest and pants, and yet he was bare-chested, his bare arms rippling with muscle. He reminded Lucas of his dad and his uncle, both bikers who had similar proportions when it came to their physical ap-pearance. It then occurred to him that this beast-man was a warrior. In this realm there were no bikers, but simply warriors who relied on their muscles to conquer their enemies. And this lion-man was a . . . What did Peyton call him? Lucas thought. A Messenger of the One?
As the band of Black Foxes dismounted from their tiny steeds and gathered around Peyton and his own resurrected stag, Tawn’s head snapped up and he peered in alarm at the western sky.
“Drakvoren is coming!” he whispered. “This is not good!”
“The Drak?” Peyton said. “Coming here to the Lodge? But why, Tawn, why?”
Tawn’s eyes locked on Lucas. He said, “The Drak is drawn here because of him. He radiates turmoil, rage, and distress. I would say, he’s a walking wound that desperately needs healing.”
Lucas was just looking to the red dot moving through the darkness of the western skyline, when Peyton said, “If he is not the Advocate of our kin, send him back, Tawn. There is really no other recourse.”
The black-haired Chaykin moved to Lucas, retrieving both of his jewel-blades. “Sorry, lad, no offense, but you cannot stay.” Sliding his glowing swords into sheaths on either side of his stag’s saddle, he cried, “Boyos, you must ride from here now!”
Vaulting into their saddles, the Black Foxes rode out of the clearing and away into the eastern vale beyond the Lodge. The white wolves trailed behind them, and within seconds, the band of Jewel Folk and wolves vanished into the dark night.
With one last glance at the western skies, Peyton led Lucas to the porch of the Lodge, the wolfhound trailing behind them. The dog whined as it appeared to be fully aware of the danger coming their way.
Lucas asked, “What is the Drak? Why is it coming here because of me? He’s a dragon, right?”
But Peyton simply pulled open the large, round door of the underground haven, and ushered both Lucas and the dog inside.
“I’m sorry, lad,” he said, a certain sorrow in his eyes, “you are not the one I have come here for. You must return to your realm. It would be far too dangerous for you here. Your raw emotions attract evil beings of all sorts, and I’m afraid you would be like a magnet. Nothing for you then, but to go back to your world.”
A thunderous roar came from the sky beyond the wooded vale.
Peyton glanced back, alarm in his eyes. The roar came again, and Lucas looked past the lion-man to see a dark dragon coming swiftly through the night sky, angry flames bursting from his wide open mouth. Tawn then turned to face the dragon. Peyton stepped into the Lodge behind Lucas and pulled the round door closed behind him.
Lucas looked across the den to the fireplace where Billy Connors kneeled as he picked up pieces of the cup Lucas had caused the Chaykin to drop on the hearthstones. “Sorry,” Billy said, “the wild child got past my guard. He should have never trespassed into the realm of Valasar. I’m sorry he made such a mess. I should have been a bit quicker on my feet.”
Suddenly, a deafening roar erupted from the outside in the forest. Pieces of shattered glass fell from Billy’s hands. “Sweet Jesus!” the old man gasped in alarm.
As he and Peyton hurried to the round window overlooking the clearing outside, an answering roar exploded from the grove beyond the window. It had a deep, throaty harshness to it, and reminded Lucas of the roar of an African lion. He imagined that Tawn was now battling with the dragon, and he had little hope that he would win such a combat. Bright flashes of red light illuminated the panes of the window glass, and while Billy and Peyton were distracted, Lucas made his move to escape.
He darted across the den, his sights set on the oak door he’d come through to enter this realm. As he raced past the fireplace, he glanced down at the Chaykin now seated in one of the high-backed chairs, a leather map clutched in his hand.
Impulsively, Lucas snatched it up, crumpling it up in his grasp.
“At least, I’ll have some proof,” he whispered as he reached the door. “Halflings with glowing swords! White wolves! Tawn the Lion-Man! A dragon named Drak! When Alex laughs at my story, I’ll just shove this map in his face as proof I’ve been here!”