THE MAGIC STONES OF MIDNIGHT KEEP

About the book…

The Magic Stones of Midnight Keep (56k words) is part of The Magic Stones collection, middle grade companions to the young adult The Proving and the rest of The Tome of Pasaron series. It features a diverse cast of multi-racial and multi-cultural characters while delivering a thrilling adventure. Imagine the action and excitement of the recent Wonder Woman movie transformed into a middle grade novel!

While The Magic Stones of Lakesdawn Castle tells the story of Trustan and Veri during an enemy attack on the capital of Falonir, The Magic Stones of Midnight Keep takes us to the Dramini Waste, the vast desert in the south of the Known Land, where we meet young Aril Galana and her friends.

Twelve-year-old Aril’s parents, teachers, and even the general in charge of Midnight Keep always warned about the desert’s dangers. But Aril loved using her significant smarts for adventure despite her parents’ desire for her to become a scholar like them. Besides, decades of peace continued between Aril’s home country Touran and the barbaric Dramini Warriors who lived far away among the dunes. What’s the worst that could happen while sneaking out to explore the ocean of sand?

Dramini scouts kidnapping Aril’s friends and the general herself, that’s what!

The night of the terrifying attack, Aril finds a pair of mysterious magic stones that give her amazing powers, such as superhuman strength, impenetrable skin, and the ability to heal herself and others. With the help of the stones, she ventures deep into the heart of the desert in search of her friends. But instead Aril discovers rivers of magically flowing sand, strange villages and creatures, and a pair of evil sorcerers planning to destroy all she holds dear.

In the end, it will take all of Aril’s courage, her new-found magic, and the help of surprising new companions to unravel the desert’s endless secrets, save those she loves, and thwart a shocking plot that could doom the Land. In the end, she also learns who she was truly meant to be.

Aril’s story is fast-paced, twist-packed, and epic as she finds herself inadvertently in the middle of the most infamous event in Touran history forty years before the action of The Proving.

To view a map of Southern Touran and the Dramini Waste, click HERE.

For your reading pleasure, here is chapter 1 of The Magic Stones of Midnight Keep.

*****

Have you ever wanted to be a hero?

Have you fantasized about being the one who breaks in at the last minute and saves her friends from sudden death, or that rescues the kingdom from invaders, or that ruins the bad guys’ evil plans?

Well that’s me. That has always been me. But here’s the rub. When it happened, when I went from being just another twelve-Summers old girl in Midnight Keep to being an actual hero, it was nothing like I expected. They never tell you in hero school (I wish there was such a thing!) that saving the day usually involves being terrified and in danger and screwing up more times than you can count. But it also means never, ever quitting. I’ve never been one to give up easily, especially when it comes to helping my friends, so maybe it’s no surprise my story turned out as it did.

“Thirty seconds,” I whispered into the darkness behind me as I peeked around the corner of the towering black keep walls. “Both guards just made the turn.”

“We’re ready,” Truly answered in her normal speaking voice. “You know we don’t have to whisper, Aril. They’re about a hundred feet away!”

“Someone can still come up from behind us, Tru” said Brin, also whispering. “Do you want to get caught?”

“Oh, come on,” Truly sighed. “We’ve been doing this forever. Has anyone ever just magically appeared out here in the middle of the night? Except for other kids pushing their luck like us?”

She had a point, but I chose to ignore it as I watched the sentries and wiped sweat from my face. The night was perfectly clear and the moon just past full in the southern sky, bathing the giant keep and the forest around it in silver-white light. This was the worst possible weather for exploring sand-side since it was so easy to be seen. On the other hand, we would be able to see any dangers in the wood almost as well as by daylight.

“Clear!” I hissed, then sped across the open space between the walls of the keep and the trees with Truly and Brin close behind. I glanced back to make sure no one was watching, scanning the many levels of the hulking black fortress’ outer walls. I thought, and not for the first time, that I would be terribly afraid at the sight of Midnight Keep if it wasn’t my home.

We jogged for several minutes under cover of the thick branches above, then stopped at the base of the huge pith tree that marked our first stopping point. There were very few of these gigantic piths anywhere in the southern Onofel forest so it made a great landmark.

Panting, the three of us dropped to our knees next to a massive, gnarled root bathed in moonlight on the south side of the trunk. We slid our arms into the deep hollow space underneath to retrieve our hidden weapons. I strapped on my leather dagger belt as Brin retrieved his short sword. Truly slung her bow and arrows across her back and hooked a coil of spring rope to her belt.

I loved this part. To me, this is where we went from being a bunch of lower-school kids sneaking around after dark to being real soldiers in training, ready for whatever came next. I pictured myself as a royal knight, charged with defending our home country Touran from the murderous ranks of the desert-dwelling Dramini. I chose to ignore the fact that there hadn’t been any conflict with Dramini warriors, the fearsome Bonecrushers, since my parents were children.

“He’s starting to look like a real Grey Shields apprentice,” Truly said with a nod to Brin, brushing her straight blonde hair back from her pale face. She was right. He was easily four inches taller than me now, and towered over the shorter Truly. His short, wavy black hair and thickening tan arms helped him look much older than his twelve summers. “Easily an inch taller every month nowadays,” Truly continued.

Brin rolled his eyes, adjusting his sword belt. “You’re just mad that I’m taller than you now.”

“I am!” Truly quipped. “I used to be able to push you around.”

“There’s no height requirement for knights,” I said, leading the way southward from the pith tree through thin scrub brush. “So go ahead and grow as tall as you want, Brin. We’re still gonna be right there with you some day.”

Truly snorted. “And you’ll be the first knight ever who’s also a teacher and a doctor on the side, right?”

I frowned, my shoulders sagging back to reality. “Absolutely not,” I grumbled, hands balling into fists in the dark. “My parents can say whatever they want, but I’m still the one who gets to choose. I don’t have to be what they are.” Truly was only teasing, but the comment stung.

“You’re one to talk, Tru,” Brin challenged. “Are you gonna throw away your bow and be a dressmaker like your grandma?”

“Never!” she hissed. “Aril and I will work it out. It’s really not fair… as the General’s son you’re pretty much expected to become a knight like her!”

“Sure,” said Brin, “but I still have to earn it on my own. The way my mom is, I bet she tries to make it even harder for me to become a knight!”

Thinking about Brin’s mom, General Revara, brightened my mood a bit. She was a knight herself, was in charge of Midnight Keep, and was always incredibly nice to me. I was determined to be like her one day. But my parents hated the idea of me becoming a knight, just like they hated me sneaking sand-side with my friends. A familiar ache settled into the pit of my stomach. If my parents had their way, I’d never have a shot at my dreams.

I heaved a sigh then decided to change the subject.

“I think we’re going to be safe to stay out a little longer this time, guys,” I said, resting my hands on my twin dagger hilts as we walked. “You know we have the excuse of the Grey Shields recruits camped near the river. It we’re caught, we can always say we headed up there to see them for ourselves.”

“I’m game,” Brin said.

“I dunno, Aril,” said Truly. “We’re back in Kellen’s blacksmith shop tomorrow morning, remember? I don’t think he’s gonna be happy if we fall asleep while we’re supposed to be learning how his business works.”

“We’ll be fine,” I replied, tying back my long brown curls with a black sash. “We’ll chew on extra sweet root. Let’s go.”

We pressed southward through the forest at a swift walk, single file with me in the lead and Brin in the rear. The breeze brought smells of the wild vanilla plants that dotted the woods and the first hints of blowing sand, but little relief from heat.

In about fifteen minutes we reached the looming twenty-foot-tall sand wall, a massive structure of black stone slicing through the forest. It never ceased to impress me, even after all these years. It was hard to imagine how the people of Touran built a single, massive wall almost a thousand miles long hundreds of years ago with no modern tools… and with Dramini invaders threatening at every step. There were no doors in the wall except for inside each of the seven keeps spread along the structure’s length.

But some of us knew, to the General’s great distress, that it was not hard to find a way to get sand-side. All you needed was patience. And it didn’t hurt to be small.

We angled to the left and walked eastward along the base of the wall, feeling along in the sandy soil with our shoes since the moon cast little light here.

“Here’s one,” said Truly suddenly.

I joined her and rooted around for the spot where the soil was not mixed sand and dirt but pure sand. From time to time those sands would wash or blow away into trenches at the base of the wall. If the trench was deep enough, we could squeeze under the stones and to the other side.

“Good job, Tru!” I said.

“Well, you’re a good teacher,” she replied. I first discovered the trick of the trenches more than a year ago while hiking and learning about plants with my dad. Then I taught both Brin and Truly how to find them.

With a few grunts and wiggles Brin and I were under the sand wall and into the forest beyond. Truly took off her bow and quiver and pulled the behind her to make sure they didn’t get stuck.

“Kind of a dumb name,” Brin said. “It makes sense I guess, but when you get on the other side of the famous ‘sand wall’, you’re still in a forest. And the ground isn’t even all sand.”

“I always thought that these trees must be kind of new,” I replied, then laughed. “Besides, ‘tree wall’ sounds ridiculous.”

I walked faster and took the lead. It wouldn’t be long now, and my excitement grew with every step.

We crossed an old footpath running left to right through the woods, another landmark.

“One hundred paces to the zoo relic,” I called back.

“Speaking of ridiculous names…,” said Truly.

“Well what do you want to call it, Tru?” I asked. “I know the professors and explorers have fancy names for every relic, but who can remember those?” I wasn’t telling the truth at all. My dad made me memorize the names and details of the relics along the sand wall before I was eight Summers old.

“Not me,” said Brin. “Keep it zoo.”

“Ha!” I giggled. “That can be our new saying for when we want to leave something alone. ‘Keep it zoo’!”

Truly sighed and shook her head as we entered a thick area of underbrush, pushing our way through. These leafy branches were no accident; the explorers planted them here over the years to keep people like us from having a very serious accident at a relic. Every kid in Midnight Keep and the town of Midnight just north of the keep knew horror stories about the dangers of relics; explorers that never returned, soldiers being injured in freak accidents, and so on. I didn’t believe those stories.

I emerged from the hedge face to face with an enormous roaring lion, it’s head more than a foot higher than mine, it’s mouth wide and teeth bared in a terrible expression.

Like usual, I scratched the huge statue under its chin just like the many feral cats around Midnight Keep, then passed the piece of art to continue southward.

All around the small clearing were other equally ferocious animal statues arrayed in a circle facing outward toward the forest. A great black bear, a spectacular-looking gryphon, a rearing horse big enough to hold even the biggest knight, a terrifying great hooded snake, and just about the biggest rhinoceros anyone has ever imagined.

In the middle of the wide circle of statues was an enormous pit, a gaping black hole that made my blood run cold every time I saw it. It was about twenty feet wide and featured ancient gray blocks even with the surface of the sandy ground. Everyone said that the relic pits were bottomless, which was impossible. My dad had explained many times that a sandy bottom meant not easily hearing when a dropped rock finally landed. But bottomless or not, the monstrous hole was often in my nightmares.

Passing back into the trees, I broke into an excited jog leaving Brin and Truly behind. The warm breeze grew hotter, meaning we were nearly there, and butterflies danced in my stomach at the prospect of the coming adventure. There was no longer the need for a path as the forest grew sparse along gently rolling hills. The ground was no longer dirt. Our feet churned along through heavy sand that gleamed silver in the moonlight.

I crested the next hill and stopped, a smile spreading across my sweat-lined face even as the hot southern wind stung my eyes like the heat of an open furnace. In front of me stretched the most beautiful sight I knew; the great desert, the Dramini Waste. Wind-blown sand dunes dominated the landscape clear to the horizon, occasionally marred by outcroppings of dark rock the size of castles. The moon hung in the sky directly ahead, perched halfway between the horizon and its apex, looking for all the world like a massive peach that I could just reach out and pick. The blanket of stars was almost drowned out by its brilliance.

Brin and Truly joined me on the high ridge, but neither seemed to share my excitement.

“Diamonds! How can you guys look out at that and not just smile?” I asked, spreading my arms wide as if to hug the whole desert.

“It’s the Waste,” Brin said, shrugging. “To me it’s not exactly lovable. But it is fun.”

“Same for me Aril,” Truly said. “I don’t think anyone loves the Dramini Waste like you do. I don’t think the Dramini love the Dramini Waste like you do!”

My smile broadened. To Brin and Truly, the Waste was just a desert. But to me it was freedom, the very opposite of the closed-in corridors and endless rules of Midnight Keep.

“You’re right,” I said, gazing at the dunes. “I’d live out here if I could, I swear it. Anyway, give us the gems, Brin. You said you overheard something about lost patrols while eavesdropping on your mom?”

“I don’t really eavesdrop, Aril,” he chided. “I just… put myself in good places to hear when she’s meeting with her knights and captains.”

“Pretty sure that’s eavesdropping,” Truly said.

Brin rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I heard my mother talking about a lost patrol. But she wasn’t talking about losing one to Bonecrushers or something. She was talking about our patrols getting lost. While on duty here sand-side. They’ve been losing their way.”

“How?” I said, walking down the slope and into the desert. “A kid eight Summers old can pick out a guide star and find his way north at night. We’ve done it a bunch of times. And our patrol chiefs are experienced soldiers.” I pulled my head wrap from the small satchel on my hip and covered my head and face to protect from blowing sand just like my mom taught me. I’d helped her treat keepsmen with sand burns before and it was beyond disgusting. Just another reason I would never be a doctor like her.

“Exactly right,” said Brin, joining me on the hot sand as he and Truly also covered all exposed skin. “Something doesn’t add up. I want to check it out for myself.”

“Wait a minute,” said Truly. “Full patrols have been getting lost over here, and you want to go ‘check it out’? What’s to stop us from getting just as lost as they were?”

Brin pursed his lips, brow wrinkled. “They never got horribly lost. Just turned around, it seems. They always made it back to the keep eventually. But this is a real mystery. No one has a clue what’s been going on. This is our chance to do something big, like we’re really on Venture!”

Truly shook her head as we crested the top of another dune. “Don’t forget that most people who go on Venture end up hurt or dead, not becoming knights like in the Bard’s Tales,” she said. “Let’s just keep this trip normal, just like our other times out here. Let’s keep it zoo.” Her practical point of view always threatened to cut our adventures short.

“But the Bard’s Tales have it right,” Brin said. “Those songs are real. Isn’t that what your father says, Aril?”

“He says they teach us things, and I think I believe him. I still can’t believe I missed that concert last month. We get maybe two Bard visits a year! I love all their songs. As strange as some of them are.”

Truly shook her head. “But they’re really strange! Magic phoenixes the size of cities? People who can tell the future? Maybe there are good lessons in the songs, but there’s no such thing as magic in the real world.”

“But either way,” I said, “I’m with Brin on the plan for tonight. Doing some exploring is way better than another night spent trapping sand turtles or failing to catch hares.”

We crossed a dune valley littered with foot-wide spikes of silvery stone. The wind picked up, briefly obscuring my vision in sheets of blowing sand.

“But in a few days you’re staying with me, right?” said Truly as we climbed the next hill. “While your parents are away? They did say okay, didn’t they?”

“Yup,” I said. “I’m staying with you for the whole week.”

“What?” said Brin. “Where are they going this time? And I thought they were making you go to that awful camp for future doctors?”

“They’re going to Onofel Keep for another set of dual lectures. My mom on some new medicines from the islands, my dad on a new line of textbooks for upper school kids. I talked them into leaving me behind. I am NOT going to that stupid camp. I convinced them I would go next season instead.” I grimaced at the thought of the incredibly boring-sounding week-long “Blue Islands Camp” for kids interested in medicine. I had no intention of ever going, but it was my mother’s dream for me. It didn’t even involve actually traveling to the Blue Islands; the doctors traveled from town to town looking for youths to train, and now they were coming to the nearby town of Midnight.

“You know my grandma sleeps like a stone,” Truly said. “That’s the benefit of only having one parent, and an old one at that. We will be able to sneak out for way longer than usual. That’s when we should go further into the Waste.”

“Aw, that’s just not fair,” said Brin, whining a little. “Don’t go and have all the fun without me!”

“We won’t,” I said, shaking my head. I hated for him to feel left out. “I promise. We’re a team, right guys? We stick together.” This was so true, especially for Brin and I. He was the first friend I made when my parents and I moved to Midnight Keep more than six years ago. Truly and her grandma arrived about three years later but was a fast addition to our adventures.

We stopped side-by-side at the top of the next dune. This was about as far south as our adventures usually took us.

“Let’s keep going,” I urged, pointedly turning to Brin so I wouldn’t have to hear Truly grouse.

An explosive roar shook the night. I stifled a terrified scream as all three of us fell to our knees, staring wide-eyed into the dune valley below. Waves of misty sand hung in the air above the valley floor so I couldn’t see what caused the powerful sound. But a strange long line of darker sand stood out in the moonlight, extending from the valley below far into the distance to the right. A rumbling vibration began, an earthquake deep under the desert that made my insides hurt with its deep bass groan.

Another explosion erupted down in the valley, sending sand dozens of feet into the air with a rushing burst like a tornado tearing through trees. We flattened ourselves onto our bellies, and I held my breath to keep from yelping. Seconds later another explosion blasted sand skyward about fifty feet further away to the right, still in the center of the long patch of dark sand stretching down the dune valley.

Then a door, like a perfectly square hatch, opened in the black sand revealing an empty black hole. A man’s head and torso emerged from inside the desert itself.

Truly squeaked then clamped her hand over her own mouth before she could cry out.

“Origis!” Brin breathed, as my heart pounded so loudly in my chest that whoever this was down at the bottom of the dune certainly must have been able to hear it.

The figure climbed quickly out of the hatch, closely followed by a second man. I fought to get a hold of myself as I watched them look to the stars then unroll and look down at what must have been a map. The first man was larger than the second, and was either bald or wearing a skull cap. The second had wavy hair that gleamed in the moonlight, either blonde like Truly’s or maybe gray. Both were dressed in uniformly dark colors and wore no weapons that I could see. I’d only seen Dramini Bonecrushers in drawings and paintings, and these men didn’t look nearly as imposing and gigantic. Maybe these were just smaller scouts?

“What in the Land?” Brin whispered, nudging me with his elbow. “Aril, we have to get out of here!”

I ignored the knot in my stomach and watched the distant figures. They seemed preoccupied with whatever they held. Maybe we were safe laying atop the dune? Or we could wait for them to climb back into their hole and close the door? I turned to Brin.

“Those have to be Dramini!” I whispered. “Even if really short ones. And they’re hiding under the sand and making things explode! This could mean an invasion!”

“Aril…,” breathed Truly, her voice shaky.

“It could,” answered Brin, his brow furrowed. “But we are not staying to investigate. Let’s go!”

“Not yet!” I shot back. “This is too important.”

“Aril!” Truly hissed.

I jerked my head to face Truly, but she was pointing down into the valley.

The Dramini were running up the sand dune toward us.

“RUN!” I yelled as I popped up onto my feet and threw myself down the far side of the dune. I hit the sand hard and rolled, pushing myself to tumble and flip forward even faster. Near the bottom I regained my footing and sprinted up the next dune with Brin and Truly churning away on either side of me.

Glancing back, I saw the scouts top the rise behind us and leap down the dune as sweat ran down inside my head wrap. Brin’s long legs pulled him ahead as we pounded and stumbled our way up and down the next dune. One hand was on his sword hilt as he ran, but whether to keep it from tripping him or because he was considering using the weapon I couldn’t say. Truly lagged behind me, heaving and gasping for air as we galloped. But the Dramini scouts were fast! They continued to close the distance.

I slowed down, extending my hand backward to Truly. The whites of her eyes were enormous through the slit of her face wrap. We grabbed each other by the wrist and ran in lock-step. Then Brin did the same, thrusting his right hand back to me was we ran. I eagerly grabbed his arm and the three of us run in unison, stride for stride, as I desperately tried to not look back at the Dramini pursuers.

The tree line, and salvation, was finally in sight. If we could make it into the forest we could hide, or maybe make it to the sand wall and the safety of the keep. We released each other’s arms and sped into the shadowy wood.

Crashing through branches and brambles as my lungs burned in the hot night air, I tried to see if they still followed. The panting grunts of a Dramini scout sounded no more than a dozen feet behind me in the dark. I raced past something tall and gray, triggering a momentary warning in the back of my mind.

Then the ground beneath me vanished and I fell, screaming, into blackness.

I crashed down onto solid stone with my hands, feet, and forehead. Stars dazzled my vision as the sour taste of vomit rose in my throat. Laying still, I tried to slow my breathing and open my eyes as pain radiated through my body. My throbbing head cleared as my eyes adjusted to the low light. I lay on a narrow shelf of rock no more than two feet wide cluttered with small pebbles and larger gravel. Beyond the cracked edge, the pit continued downward in absolute blackness. Rimmed in moonlight about thirty feet above me was the circular mouth of the pit, the bottomless pit in the zoo relic, I fell into.

I tried to move, then cried out as my left ankle exploded in agony. I pulled off my face wrap and touched my burning forehead. It was no longer just sweat, but now blood from an open wound near my hairline that stung my eyes. “Origis!” I whispered, crying as my chest heaved. “Oh, help me!”

“Let me go!” came a loud call from the top of the pit. It was Brin. My heart froze. “Ouch!” He called. “Put me down!”

“Quiet, rodent,” a deep, rough voice replied. “Or I will cut out your tongue.”

“Captain,” another man’s voice called, panting as he spoke.

“I’m here, Clane,” said the rough voice. “I caught the tall one.”

“I lost the other one, the shortest. But these are just kids. I don’t think we need to worry.”

“Agreed,” replied the deep-voiced captain. “They say these pits are bottomless, so the one that fell in is likely still falling. Take this one back to the Master, see if he wants to keep it as a hostage.”

“Yes sir,” Clane replied.

Then they were gone.

“Brin! Truly!” I whispered through sobs, picturing my oldest friend being hauled away by evil Dramini scouts. “This can’t be happening!”

I lay there for what must have been hours, too scared to move because of my clearly broken ankle, with no idea what to do beyond weeping bitterly. Finally I rose up on one elbow, gritting my teeth to not cry out, and tried to get a better look at my surroundings. I thought about my mother’s many lessons in first aid; my ankle needed to be wrapped to combat swelling, and I needed to find long straight objects to splint my lower leg. My daggers, still snug in their sheaths thanks to their leather clasps, might do the trick. Maybe I could tear strips from my shirt to secure them.

Jagged loose rocks lay all along the ledge among piles of sand. Near my head, though, was an uneven crevice that suddenly seemed to glow in the moonlight. I peered inside at two small, perfectly smooth stones like river rocks that were each two-toned – half black and half silvery gray.

I did a double take. These stones must have been painted by someone. Nature doesn’t make perfectly shaded rocks like this. Being careful to not move my leg, I pulled one of them out of the crack. To my shock, the second stone came with it, dangling in the air with the two black halves stuck together like magnets.

I pulled on them and sure enough they came apart easily. “They really are magnets,” I breathed. I moved the two silvery halves close to each other and with a click they pulled together firmly. They immediately grew warm in my hands. My forehead and leg tingled, almost like pins and needles.

I gasped and dropped the stones. They had nearly been hot, which is impossible. I carefully reached out and touched them again but they were cool to the touch.

“I’m going crazy,” I said aloud.

“Hello?” said a man’s voice out of the darkness.

I screamed, instantly picturing all the terrors in every relic horror story surrounding me in the dim light. Wide-eyed, I pressed myself even harder against the pit wall.

Then I heard sounds from the mouth of the pit. Panic rose within me as another scream built in my lungs.

“Aril! Brin!” came an intense but quiet call. It was Truly.

“I’m here! In the pit!” I yelled, throwing caution aside.

Truly’s face popped into view at the rim. “Are you okay!?”

“No,” I yelled, “I think–,” But I stopped. I just moved my leg and felt no pain. My forehead didn’t hurt anymore either. I carefully moved my left leg under me and rose to my feet on the ledge, leaning against the smooth pit wall. Nothing hurt, and my heart leapt in my chest at the realization.

“Creator…,” I breathed. “What is happening?” My eyes leapt around the shadowy ledge and into the darkness beyond, but there was nothing to see. “It must have just been Truly’s voice saying hello,” I muttered, slowly standing and testing my ankle. It was completely fine.

“Aril, I’m lowering my rope,” Truly yelled. “Can you get to it? Are you hurt?”

“Lower it now,” I replied. “I’m fine, I think. But Tru… the Dramini took Brin!”

*****

Thanks for reading! Comments and critiques are welcome as always.

 

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