THE MAGIC STONES OF MIDNIGHT KEEP – MG Fantasy

About the book…

The Magic Stones of Midnight Keep 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. While The Magic Stones of Lakesdawn Castle told 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 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. With the help of the stones, she treks 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 learn the truth about her destiny.

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

*****

Chapter 1 – Venture

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 fortress 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 for years. 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 a huge pith tree. 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.

“He’s starting to actually look like a Shieldman,” 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 thick head of wavy black hair and newly muscular, deep 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.”

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

“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. “You know we have the excuse of the Grey Shields recruits camped near the river. We can always say we headed up there to see them for ourselves.”

“I’m game,” Brin said.

“I dunno, Aril,” said Truly. “We have your dad tomorrow morning, and I don’t think he’s gonna go easy on us if we fall asleep during grammar.”

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

The three of us moved south through the forest at a swift walk, single file with Brin in the lead. The breeze in my face brought smells of the wild vanilla plants that dotted the woods, but little relief from heat.

In about fifteen minutes we reached the looming twenty-foot-tall sand wall. 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 anywhere along the black stone structure except for inside each of the seven keeps spread along the wall’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. After I had first discovered the trick of the trenches, I taught both Brin and Truly how to find them.

The messy part was that these gaps were an obvious risk should the Dramini ever attack, so whenever we found one we would always find a way to pass word to the General’s wallkeepers so they could fix it. We were loyal residents of Midnight Keep and the whole country of Touran, so we considered it our responsibility to help maintain the giant wall designed to keep the nation safe from the Dramini. And Brin was, after all, the General’s son.

With a few grunts and wiggles we were under the sand wall and into the forest beyond.

“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.

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 a Dramini warrior, a terrifying great hooded snake, and just about the biggest rhinoceros anyone has ever imagined. We walked around the outside of the ancient statue display as always given what was in the center of the circle; a great open pit about twenty feet wide, with its opening rimmed in ancient gray blocks even with the surface of the sandy ground. Everyone in lower school claimed that the relic pits were bottomless, which was crazy. My dad had explained many times that a sandy bottom meant not easily hearing when a dropped rock finally landed.

But the zoo relic held little interest for us. We had seen it so many times that there was little else to learn unless we jumped in the pit itself. Passing back into the trees, I broke into a jog leaving Brin and Truly behind. The warm breeze grew hotter, meaning we were nearly there. 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!”

I heaved a sigh. “What am I gonna do with you guys. Anyway, give us the gems, Brin?”

“Okay,” he said, suddenly sounding conspiratorial. “Remember how I told you about overhearing my mom complain about the lost patrol?”

I nodded, not taking my eyes off shining desert.

“Didn’t make sense then, still doesn’t now,” said Truly. “We know there weren’t any sand-side patrols missing recently. There haven’t been in years!”

“Didn’t make sense to me either,” Brin said. “Because 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.”

“That makes even less sense,” 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. 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 many keepsmen with sand burns over the years while working as her assistant.

“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 Midnight safe and sound. But this is a real mystery. No one has a clue what’s been going on. The is our chance to do something big, like we’re really on Venture!”

“We have a few hours at most, Brin,” Truly said, shaking her head. Her practical point of view always threatened to cut our adventures short. “Not a lot of time to reenact entire Bard’s Tales in the desert.”

I grinned. “I’m with Brin on this one. Sure, we may not have much time, but let’s use what we have. Doing some exploring is way better than another night spent trapping sand turtles or failing to catch hares.” We kept moving as we talked, ever southward into the great hills of sand with the moon as our guide.

“But in a few days you’re staying with me, right?” Said Truly. “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?”

“Onofel Keep. I talked them into leaving me behind.”

“You know my grandma sleeps like a stone,” Truly said. “We will be able to sneak out for way longer than usual. That’s when we should go further into the Waste. Sorry, Brin, that you won’t have the same freedom.”

At the top of the next dune, a roaring rumble shook the sand violently, knocking us off our feet. I stifled a terrified scream, staring wide-eyed into both Brin and Truly’s faces, then down into the dune valley below us where a strange long line of dark sand stood out in the moonlight. The rumbling grew in intensity, an earthquake deep under the desert that made my insides hurt with its deep bass sound.

Down in the valley an explosion of sand erupted 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 strange 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, but 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?

Turning to Brin and Truly, I tried to ignore the knot in my stomach and make a plan. Maybe we were safe laying atop the dune? Or we could wait for them to climb back into their hole and close the door?

Truly started to shake like a leaf in the wind.

“Aril!” she hissed.

I jerked my head back to the valley. The Dramini were running up the sand dune toward us.

“RUN!” I yelled as I popped up onto my feet and literally 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 on 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. “Nightwings!” I yelled. “They’re gaining on us! Run!”

Brin’s long legs pulled him ahead as we pounded and stumbled our way up and down the next dune. Truly lagged behind me, heaving and gasping for air as we galloped. But the Dramini scouts were fast! They continued to close the distance.

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 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. I heard the panting grunts of a Dramini scout that had to be just a dozen feet behind me in the dark. So close! They’re going to catch us!

A flash of gray shot past me, 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 me 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. 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. Tears streamed down inside my face wrap. “Origis!” I whispered. “Oh, help me!”

“Let me go!” came a loud call from the top of the pit. It was Brin. “Ouch! 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 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!” 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. 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. Hannon would help with the pain. Of course, I had none of the above in the pit.

Jagged loose rocks lay all along the ledge among piles of sand. Near my head, though, were 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 grabbed one of them. 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 silver halves close to each other and with a click they pulled together firmly. They immediately grew warm in my hands.

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.

Then I heard sounds from the mouth of the pit. My heart froze.

“Aril! Brin!” came an intense but quiet call. 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 had 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.

“Creator…,” I breathed. “What is happening?”

“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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