Winter captivity

Rain-Background

An icy blast steals my breath as I zip up my hoodie. Tight jeans, unbearable in summer, hug warmth into my legs. Lollie, my Pomeranian, trots at the end of his leash, ears pricked and tail curled over his back. Rain threatens, and I need to take him for a walk before it’s too late.

Bare black branches reach out to the grey skies above us. Lollie and I tread silently on sodden leaves scattered on the street. I walk as fast as I can in my boots, hoping my pace will keep me from shivering. The day is bleak. Where are my California blue skies? Even though 45-degree temperatures would be mild this time of year in Iowa, my wardrobe is not prepared for this unusual weather.

What will I do the rest of the day? On a typical Sunday, my husband, Frank, and I would be out exploring the back roads on our Harley or camping at the beach. My quick trip around the block today will be the only outside time I can steal. Other tasks await. I could work on revisions to my book or do laundry. But I feel the weight of the black clouds pressing down, draining my energy.

I pull off a glove with my teeth to tap the weather app on my phone. The week’s forecast features a raining cloud next to each day. Great. Not only am I stuck inside this weekend, but the students I teach will be stuck inside my tiny portable classroom all week, too. Children who need playtime to be productive. Quickly I slip my phone back into my pocket and put on my glove. Lollie yanks me to a stop as he sniffs a worm floating in a puddle. A cold raindrop spatters on my cheek.

“Come on, Lolls, let’s go home.” I pull him along with me, almost running the last block back. Wet polka dots appear on the street, as I dash up our driveway and into our warm home.

As my tea steeps, I stare out the slider at circular ripples forming on my swimming pool. I’m held captive inside my own house by a relentless curtain of rain. I take a sip of Earl Grey and close my laptop. Time to read a book.

Am I whining about much-needed rain? Not at all! Californians have restless souls that can only be soothed by excursions into its endless variety of dramatic scenery. The mountains restore our sense of awe. Watching the surf calms our anxieties. The desert expanse reminds us that we are part of a larger design. Our California dreams can’t be contained in houses, condos, or apartments. We need to feel the road under our wheels and soar to the top of the highest peak. Our sense of journey propels us through the chaos of modern life.

And rain, although essential, slows us down, tethers us to man-made things until the sun comes out, and we are free to wander again.

So I read a science fiction book, wrapped in a blanket next to Lollie, waiting for the pounding on my roof to cease. Waiting for release from my winter captivity.

 

 

 

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All in a Day’s Journey- HOGs in Utah

utah

The second day of a four-day overnighter Harley trip is not weighed down by expectations. On our Utah trip, we were not scheduled to visit Bryce Canyon and Zion until the third day, so my husband, Frank, and I emerged from our motel room ready for a mostly highway ride up to Torrey. On a June day in St. George, we reluctantly pulled on our jackets, not believing that we could find cool enough weather in this desert. But our road captain, Jim, assured us that the temps would fall as we gained altitude so we wore our jackets, unzipped for now.

Frank and I had never been to Utah before on a motorcycle, and couldn’t help looking around at the sweeping red rock horizon surrounding us. Every mountain was a sculpted into unique shapes that reminded us of clay animals we had crudely fashioned in school. I could see dogs and even one that certainly was a camel. As we followed our Harley Owners Group chapter (HOG) out of the parking lot, the pink dawn held promise of wonders yet to see.

The first part of our day was just getting there—following red highways toward the northern horizon. It felt like driving to LA on a holiday, almost no cars on the road, only the familiar big rigs faithfully carrying their loads cross-country. Mountains watched us from the distance on both sides of the road. I relaxed into my backrest, listening to music on my com set. Frank followed the group, his stereo blasting out classic rock.

Just as my bottom was starting to get sore, we turned off the main highway and headed up into the mountains. Our destination was a road on the backside of a ski resort closed due to snow when the ride captain prerode the trip at Easter. His curiosity whether the road would now be open had driven us all up there. We followed the group as they wound around the mountain, giving us glimpses of meadows and grassy patterns that in the winter would be ski slopes.

We passed a clear blue lake on our left and then the group pulled over. Jim and a few of the guys walked up the road farther where there was a metal gate blocking our further travel, with a big sign, Road Closed. He joked about riding around the gate, but several of the more reasonable members of our group heartily disagreed. Instead of exploring the road, which appeared to be dirt mixed with large gravel, we took a break by the lake.

No one was there except us, another unusual situation for people from Southern California. We ate our snacks, drank our water, and took pictures. It was getting later in the afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten anything except the motel’s meager free breakfast. Hungry bikers are crabby bikers, so Jim rounded up the group to head back down toward civilization.

Of course, the tiny village at the foot of the mountain didn’t have any fast food, or any restaurants at all. We rode up to a campground that boasted a Mexican restaurant and pulled in to check it out. Unfortunately, the tiny restaurant was not scheduled to open until 4:30 pm. It was around 2:30. I sought out the bathrooms, never wasting an opportunity when the next rest stop was uncertain.

I emerged to find that Jim’s charm and the presence of twenty hungry Harley riders had convinced the owners to open up just for us. When we all got inside and sat down, we filled almost all the tables. Servers appeared from nowhere, and soon plates of steaming hot enchiladas, tacos, and carne asada were set before us. The room was completely quiet except the clinking of forks on stoneware.

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San Simeon from a Cage

 

snajodi3

A black line of Harleys wrapped around the mountain, hidden in curves and revealed in straightaways. What was I doing, following in my Corolla, when I longed to feel the ocean wind bite while dancing the twisties?

Most of the time being a teacher is rewarding. Third grade enthusiasm recharges me daily. However, when my school schedule interferes with our riding schedule, grrr. Instead of sitting behind Frank on the HOG overnighter to San Simeon, my fate was to ride up in a cage, joining the others later.

Saturday morning, I followed Frank’s bike up to Monterey where we planned to meet our group for lunch bayside. We sipped coffee and watched sea lions play among bobbing sailboats at the marina. Gentle November sunshine kept us warm in spite of the brisk breeze.

I checked my watch. Almost noon. When were the HOGs going to arrive? I heard a low rumble from up the coast, building to a roar, culminating in the line of Harleys parading onto the wharf in search of parking spots. Every head turned, forks paused at mouths as people took in the sight of chrome and snarling thunder.

We joined our friends for fish and chips and listened to stories about the morning’s ride through misty wine country. They peeled off layers of leather in the bright sunshine, grateful to be warm at last. Everyone rested and refueled for the challenging road back to the motel on the famous Highway One through Big Sur. Then it was time to ride.

That’s how I found myself following them through massive forest, skirting bare edges of cliffs, crashing surf on my right. There was a steady stream of traffic, and no one seemed in a hurry to rush past the dramatic scenery. At every overlook point, some cars would pull off while others rejoined us.

This influx of vehicles separated me from the Harleys, as well as bicycles hugging the blacktop’s edge. Scanning the cliffs ahead, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the HOGs. Knowing that the road would bring me back to the motel eventually, I continued on.

Finally, I came out from around a curve and sighted our group stopped in a large pull out area. I parked in front of them and got out. Jagged rocks rose behind us, waves foaming on the rocks below. No craft dared navigate the churning ocean here. It was a desolate place, defiant of man’s attempts to tame it. Gulls screamed in circles above us as the sun sunk down toward the horizon.

Frank gave me a hug, and a friend took a picture of us with the ocean gleaming in the background. Out of my car, I felt connected to the HOGs again. Even though I had missed the thrill of riding Highway One on our Harley, I wouldn’t have missed this moment for anything.

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Riding Among the Ancients

sentinel

Wrinkled trunks, witnesses of centuries, watch us ride through their domain. Sentinels perched on rocky battlements sigh, “Safe passage,” to the line of Harleys slithering up the narrow mountain road. Our HOG overnighter group pulls into the museum parking lot in the Sequoia National Park, and rests under the shelter of giants.

It feels good to stretch out after the slow procession through hairpins and switchbacks all the way up General Sherman Highway. Taking pictures next to the sequoias makes me feel like the tiny humans we are in this immense universe. These rugged trees have seen it all for thousands of years—bears, rabbits, Native Americans, European explorers, early settlers, awestruck tourists.

For a moment, time stops. Voices muffle here. We have ventured into a cathedral with vaulted ceilings of whispering green, a monument to a mighty Creator. As we pass between the reddish-brown pillars, I tilt back my head to glimpse tiny sparkles of sunlight that filter through the branches. Peace is a heady pine fragrance.

In the museum, I learn about sequoias through a slice of trunk. Dark rings record forest fires, but the trees are nearly indestructible. After a fire, they heal themselves, taking years to cover burned bark. The sequoia’s patience is a lesson we humans should learn. Disasters pass through, but the forest is constantly renewed.

Frank and I munch our sandwiches back in the parking lot, watching the steady flow of visitors. What draws us here, to the forest’s hush? A deep breath of crisp pine-scented air, the crunch of dry needles beneath our feet?

Perhaps we long for permanence in the midst of whirlwind change and relentless entropy in our modern world. These trees care nothing about politics or fashion. We are the blindfolded children swinging wildly at the piñata, while the forest, our great-grandfather, smiles fondly at our struggle.

Soon it is time to move on, to roar through the tunnels of trees and return to the cultivated farms of our world. With regret, we leave the retreat of wood and rock. We swish our way back down the mountain, our silent vows to return accepted by ancient giants.

 

 

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My Harley story up on Blacktop Passages

Sorry I haven’t been writing for my blog recently, but I’ve been working on revisions on a new book. PismoFrankme

Check out my story on my first visit to Cook’s Corner, a famous Harley roadhouse.

Blacktop Passages

 

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Teachers in Faerie: Part Four- The Secret of the Blight

sorm2

A high-pitched yowl ended the light show, and a few moments later, two faerie guards emerged from the trees. As usual, their uniforms were spotless, although their faces looked worn. Meghan was glad that she couldn’t see the remains of the dire wolves. She gave Captain Granite a spontaneous hug. He gently pulled her away from him with his usual brisk manner.

“Come now, Lady Meghan, it’s all over now,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “Let’s get some  sleep.”

“As if we could sleep now,” Debbie said, holding onto Mary.

At dawn’s light, Meghan and her friends headed back to Hollystone. Both guards kept their eyes roaming in all directions. They passed a few farmers headed to market, their wagons heavy with fragrant peaches and plums. In the Summer Court, the weather was always warm and the harvest was continual.

When they reached the castle, the teachers gratefully accepted hot baths and fresh gowns before presenting themselves to the Queen in the North Garden. She was sitting on an elaborately carved wooden bench, painting a colorful scene of the lilies next to a pond.

“Your Majesty, the teachers have returned,” her lady-in-waiting said as she held the Queen’s palette. Queen Amber handed the tiny faerie her brush, accepted a linen cloth for her fingers, and turned to Meghan and her friends. They curtsied low before her.

“You may rise,” Queen Amber said eagerly. “Did your travel prove fruitful?” Her lady-in-waiting offered her a silver cup filled with her favorite peach wine. She took a tiny sip and waited for their news.

On the way out to see her, the teachers had agreed that Meghan should speak for the group. “Queen Amber, the blight is horrible to view in person. We brought back some samples. With your permission, we’d like to do some tests.”

“Of course,” the Queen said. “Go directly to Chamberlain Chalk, and he’ll take you to my son’s laboratory. His resources are at your disposal.”

Chamberlain Chalk was an ancient wrinkled faerie with sparkling grey eyes and white hair that stood straight up. He was in the middle of discussing the evening’s guest list with the servants. Upon hearing their request, he led them to the northwest tower that had been nicknamed Mica’s Lair.

“With all their magic, you’d think they’d come up with an elevator,” Debbie grumbled as they climbed the steep stone stairs.

“It would hurt us to get a little exercise,” Mary said. “Those evening feasts are killing my diet.”

“Come on, girls, we’re in a castle, in Faerie,” Meghan said. “It’s part of the charm.” She was in the lead and called to their guide. “Pardon me, Chamberlain Chalk, but we’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Queen Amber’s son. What is he like?”

The faerie paused on the stair, as if considering what to reply. After a moment, he said, “Prince Mica is a bit eccentric, not doubt due to the time he spent in your world going to university. He was quite indulged as a child.” The chamberlain shook his head. “Prince Mica believes that the most powerful magic combines both high magic and your world’s science. In his laboratory, he has several scientific instruments he brought back with him. They’re quite disturbing, really, all those blinking lights and whirring sounds.” He turned and continued climbing.

Meghan marveled at his words. A faerie wizard that used machines! She looked at the jars she carried in a basket. Surely they would be able to find out some answers.

Finally, they arrived at the top of the stairs. Chamberlain Chalk, not winded at all, knocked at the heavy door.

“Who is there?” a deep voice boomed.

“Chamberlain Chalk, Your Highness. You have visitors from the Queen. Is it safe to enter?”

The door opened without a sound, and the teachers walked in. The chamberlain bowed and quickly descended the stairs.

“Welcome to my lab, ladies,” a pleasant voice, different from the one that guarded the door, invited them. The voice’s owner was a tall, thin faerie dressed in a white lab coat, latex gloves, and safety goggles, his long red hair pulled back in a braid. He was in the middle of adding drops to a boiling glass container with no flame under it.

“Who was at the door?” Debbie wondered aloud.

The faerie finished his mixture, waved his hand over it and chanted a few words. The liquid in the container turned black and stopped bubbling. “That was my door spell. Often I’m in the middle of an experiment, and it would be too dangerous for me to stop and answer the door.”

The teachers looked around the circular room in wonder. There were computers, control boards, and machines of every size. Meghan saw a large aluminum refrigerator, cages containing strange creatures, and even a treadmill. “How do you power all this?” she said, forgetting to address him as the prince. “Prince Mica,” she added quickly.

“Solar power,” he said proudly. “I made my own panels. Part of my grad studies project at Cal Tech.” He smiled. “Good times. Oh, and don’t worry about formality here in the lab. You can call me Mica.”

His smile was mesmerizing. Meghan shook her head. “I’m Meghan, and this is Mary and Debbie, my friends. Queen Amber brought us here to Hollystone to help with the blight.”

“Your lab is impressive,” Mary said. “I never thought I’d see machines in Faerie.”

“Still no elevators,” Debbie commented. “Why don’t we see any technology anywhere else?”

Prince Mica shook his head. “My mother won’t allow it. She follows the old ways. But at least here, in my lab, I can do what I want. Did you bring me something?” He looked at the basket Meghan carried. “Those are the containment jars I designed.”

She handed the basket to him, his hands brushing against hers. Even with gloves on, she felt a shiver from his touch. “These are samples we collected from one of the affected areas. Can you test them to see what they are?”

He picked one up and looked at it, frowning. “I’ll have to run some spectral analysis on it, and maybe even some DNA tests. It could be organic.”

“Do you need some help?” Mary asked.

Prince Mica smiled. “No thank you, ladies. I work better on my own. If there’s a containment issue, I can usually deal with it using my magic. I wouldn’t want you to get in the way of a spell.”

Meghan couldn’t help noticing that his bright green eyes keeping coming back to rest on her. Was he interested in her? Probably nothing more than scientific curiosity. Here in the Summer Court, humans were regarded as fireflies that shone for a brief moment, delightful as friends but nothing deeper. However, in the Winter Court, faeries saw humans as disposable entertainment.

Her cheeks reddened and she turned away to look at one of the machines. “We’d like to stay and help. We’ll be careful.”

“Well, then, if you can’t be frightened off, I’ll put you to work,” he said with a shrug. “There are more lab coats and gloves by the door.”

The rest of the day, they spent extracting contained samples and submitting them to the various machines in the lab. Prince Mica tested for viruses, bacteria, shape-shifting microorganisms, curses, poisons, and genetically altered insects. When they finally cleaned the last test tube and made sure the samples were stored in sealed containers, he offered them some rose tea from an electric kettle.

“That’s all the tests I have,” he said and crunched on his tea biscuit thoughtfully. “We now know what the blight isn’t—not an organism or poison. That leaves us with a purely magical cause.” He looked at his notebook where he had carefully recorded their results. “That leaves the Winter Court.”

“But haven’t you been at peace for the past three centuries?” Mary asked. She took another sip of the sweet scented tea.

“There’s a new faerie on their throne now,” he answered. “He calls himself The Frost King. He wants to go all traditional, magic only, no human ways. There’s quite a following for that these days.”

His voice was melodic even when he was serious. Meghan tried to resist staring at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his pointed ears were pierced down their length and covered in emeralds and diamonds. She had an irresistible urge to reach over and touch them.

“What do we do now?” Debbie asked, pinching Meghan on the arm to break her trance. To her friend she whispered, “Snap out of it. He’s a faerie.”

“There’s one more test I can do,” he said. “I can talk to it.”

“Talk to it?” Mary echoed.

“Yes, I can conjure up the spirit of the blight, and ask it what drives it. There has to be a trigger on this kind of magic. If we can find out what it’s linked to, we can develop something to counteract it.”

Meghan couldn’t believe she was acting so foolishly. After Debbie pinched her, she took a deep breath and tried to focus on the problem they were working on. Tonight her friends were going to give her a hard time. She thought she was past all that faery crush stuff after their first visit.

The prince took one of the specimen jars and placed it in the middle of a chalk circle in the middle of the room. He lit candles and placed them around the circle.

“Step back,” he warned as he added a plastic face shield to his outfit. “This could get messy.”

Meghan and her friends backed away from the center of the room. The prince began to walk around the outside of the circle, singing softly.

“Magic made, spell well woven,

Come reveal your purpose given,

Power ancient power hidden,

Open magic, spell well spoken.”

A cloud of white smoke poured out of the top of the sealed jar. It filled up the circle all the way up to the high ceiling, staying within the circle, a cylinder of smoke. Prince Mica clapped his hands in success, and addressed the cloud.

“Mighty magic, why have you come to our land?”

A rumble like thunder preceded the reply. “Master bids me eat, eat all the color. So I eat.”

Meghan looked at the others. Eat color?

“Mighty magic, noble spell, how do you eat color?”

Another rumble. “Stories fade, voices silent. Suck color out of silence.” The rumbling got louder and louder as the cloud turned red and then black. Lightning shot out of it and struck the nearest machine, short-circuiting it.  Torrents of rain burst from the cloud and soaked everything in the room. Prince Mica shouted at it, and suddenly the cloud disappeared and it was silent.

“Well, that was informative,” he said, taking off his drenched lab coat and replacing it with a dry one. “Is everyone unharmed?”

Meghan came out from under the table. “That was crazy! I can’t believe you stopped it.”

“What does it mean?” Mary said, stepping out from behind the computer.

“Eating color? How can something eat color?” Debbie said as she jumped out of a cabinet.

“One moment.” Prince Mica pulled a book from a shelf covered with plastic, a lesson perhaps learned from another incident. He turned to the back of the book, found what he was looking for, and turned to another section. He looked up with a worried expression. “It’s worse than we could ever imagine. This is definitely the work of the Frost King. How diabolical! He’s using ancient magic. A spell no one dares use anymore.”

“What kind of magic?” Meghan asked. The teachers pulled out the stools from under the table and pulled them up close to the prince. He turned the book toward them, revealing an engraving of a lizard creature with a large mouth eating the leaves of a tree.

“The spell is called Prismatic Draining, and it will destroy our entire queendom.” He slammed close the book and quickly replaced it. “Come with me. Mother needs to know right away.”

 

 

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Teachers in Faerie- Part Three: Sightseeing

horseback

Meghan’s mouth was bone dry and her bottom ached so badly she was ready to drop off the sturdy white mare that carried her. She could tell Debbie and Mary were feeling the same by the way both of them crunched over their saddle horns. The queen’s guards, one in front and one in back, sat tall and undisturbed in their saddles. Must take practice.

Rather than restate her complaint to Captain Granite’s unsympathetic ears, she tried to distract herself by enjoying the surrounding green meadows dotted with purple and yellow flowers. They had started out from Hollystone Castle at dawn, an ungodly hour for both faeries and teachers on summer vacation. The nearest location of the blight was two and one half days north, following the valley that cradled the capital city of Hollystone.

They followed the Queen’s Road, a scraped dirt road rimmed by small white stones that bisected Queen Amber’s lands from north to south. If they kept riding for five days, they would reach the edge of the Summer Court and end up in the Crystal Mountains, the natural boundary between the Summer and Winter Courts.

“Do you think he’ll ever stop for the night, or will he make us sleep on our horses?” Debbie grumbled on her right.

“It’s a new moon tonight, so I would guess he’d stop by twilight,” Meghan answered.

Just then, Captain Granite pulled his horse to a stop and turned toward them. “Let us make camp. Follow me off the road into those trees.” He gestured toward a clump of overhanging trees.

“I don’t think I can get down,” Mary moaned.

“Do not worry, my Lady. Shale will provide assistance,” the Captain added with a sigh.

After the guards set up their tents, and Meghan showed her Girl Scout skills by starting a fire, the travelers enjoyed some turkey, bread, and berries packed by the queen’s kitchen. Four years ago, she never thought she’d be eating by firelight with her friends, watching swarms of stars overhead. Meghan tried to recognize any familiar constellations, but the sky reminded her she was in a different world.

Later as she drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard distant howls. Too far away to worry about. Besides Captain Granite set a ward over their camp for the night.

At the first pink of dawn, Shale poked his head inside the teachers’ tent. “Time to ride, ladies.”

“Uggh, I feel worse than the first week of school,” Mary groaned as she pulled on her boots.

“Eventually it will hurt so much that it will stop hurting,” Debbie offered, layering on her cloak.

“That’s supposed to be encouraging?” Meghan asked as she tugged a brush through her hair and rebraided it. She pulled a knit cap on and followed the others outside.

“Did you hear that coyote last night?” Meghan asked Shale, who started pulling down their tent.

“Lady, I do not know a ca-yo-tee, but I assure you what we heard was a dire wolf. They roam the hills at night. That is the reason Captain Granite set our camp so close to the road. In addition to our wards, the queen layered enchantments on that road that keep most creatures away.”

Meghan was sorry that she asked. She looked around the lush green meadow that surrounded them. Birds twittered in the trees, and she spied two cottontails hopping away. Nothing lethal.

Their second day riding seemed easier. When the sun finally rested again in the never-ending parade of hills, they reached a tall wooden wall that protected the thatched roofs of Shadowglen. Evening had not yet fallen so the gate was open, and they rode straight in, headed for the village’s only inn, The Barking Dog.

After washing up in a magically heated tub in their room, the teachers met their guards down in the common room. Steaming bowls of stew awaited them. Other travelers sat crowded at the long tables, drinking dark beer and singing along with a young faerie playing a lyre.

“I still can’t believe we get to spend our summers here,” Debbie said, downing her last sip of ale, and looking hopefully toward the barmaid. “This place is like something out of a faery tale.”

“Hopefully not the kind of faery tale with giants or wolves or evil queens,” Meghan noted.

The next day, the teachers were up and ready before Shale knocked. It was peculiar how none of the villagers mentioned any about the blight last night, but Shale told them that most faeries were lulled into complacency by centuries of peace under Queen Amber that no one wanted to admit that there could be a problem.

“That’s foolish!’ Mary said. “In order to solve a problem, you have to first admit that it exists.”

“Sounds like some of my students’ parents at conference time,” Debbie said.

“Come on, girls! This is summer vacation, no school talk!” Meghan reminded them.

As they left the village, they rode toward the rising sun, until Captain Granite turned off on a narrow road that wound up through the hills. After riding in the cool shade of the canyon, their leader took another path that clung to the canyon’s side. Meghan kept her eyes straight ahead, trying not to notice the sheer drop off.

Even though she had seen it from a distance, none of them were prepared for the effects of the blight. After gleaming white rock, deep blue stream, and dark green thickets they had just passed, the affected area stood out like a dead man’s bones. The blight covered an area about ten feet square, turning every leaf, stone, and blade of grass into a dull shade of grey. There was nothing living in its path—no birds, squirrels, or even snakes.

Debbie approached the blight carefully. She touched a low hanging branch with her gloves and the leaf broke off in her hand, crumbling into dust.

“I don’t see why this area doesn’t blow away,” Meghan said. “It looks like all the color and moisture has been sucked out of everything.”

“But what about the rocks?” Mary said, kicking one boulder with her boot. It cracked into pieces.

“Everything seems dead,” Captain Granite said. “But what causes this blight?”

“We’re going to take samples,” Meghan said. She took out a glass jar that had been magically prepared with a containment spell. After carefully breaking off a small branch, she dropped it into the jar and screwed on the lid. Debbie and Mary also took samples of the rocks and grass. There was no sign of disease or insect damage.

“I’m thinking this is magical,” Meghan concluded. “There’s nothing back on our world that would compare to this. If it was a microorganism, it wouldn’t affect the rocks or water.”

Captain Granite looked around them. “We need to get back to the castle. I feel eyes on my back here.”

They mounted their horses, retraced their path back to the Queen’s Road, and set off back to Hollystone. It was almost dark when they came near to where they camped the first night.

After they heated up the stew they brought from the inn, Meghan and her friends discussed their findings.

“How can we expect to figure this out?” Debbie said. “It’s not like we have a lab or anything here to analyze these samples.”

Meghan smiled. “I think you underestimate magic, my friend. Queen Amber is giving me access to her mages and court healer. They have resources that will give us some answers.”

“We’re just teachers,” Mary said. “What can we do?”

“We used to making lessons out of nothing, and changing students into voracious readers. We can do this.”

It seemed like Meghan’s eyes had just closed when she awoke to a violent shaking.

“Wake up! We’ve got to get close to the fire!” Debbie said urgently.

Meghan shook her head, pulled on her cloak and followed Debbie out of their tent. Mary, Captain Granite, and Slate were standing close to their campfire, which was roaring with magical intensity. The guards’ faces looked grim in the reflection of the flames.

“Stay close to the fire. Don’t move, whatever you hear,” Captain Granite warned them. Then they disappeared into the gloom.

“What’s going on?” Mary said, her yawns suppressed by fear.

“You must have been dead asleep! Those howls kept getting closer and closer until finally Slate came to get us. It’s dire wolves! They can only be fought with magic,” Debbie said. “Isn’t it exciting? Our first magical creature battle!”

“Yeah, I guess, if we had any magic to protect ourselves,” Meghan said.

Suddenly a howl interrupted their conversation, so chilling that Meghan could only describe it as a mixture of a baying hound, eagle’s scream, and a child’s cry on a haunted house ride. The surrounding trees prevented them from seeing what was happening, until ground shaking thumps and flashes of light revealed that the guards were fighting their attackers.

The teachers stood with their backs sweating against the towering fire as they waited to see what would happen.

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