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The Final Storm
By WAYNE THOMAS BATSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Wayne Thomas Batson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneInto the Storm
Aidan searched for Gwenne's image in the thunderclouds. But the aircraft banked hard to the right and threw him back into the seat. No, not into the storm! Aidan thought urgently. He grabbed the armrest and tried to pull himself back up to the window.
"Aidan!" his dad yelled. "Aidan, sit back!"
The airplane was steering directly for a massive black cloud fortress. Lightning rippled across the cloud, turning it the color of an ugly bruise. And there in the center of the massive thunderhead was a hollow of darkness.
The plane began to shudder and bounce like a speeding boat on rough surf. Lightning lit up the cabin. Passengers shrieked and gasped. The engines screamed, and the plane banked back to the left. Everything shook. It felt as if the cabin would break apart under the strain.
Then, just as suddenly, the plane leveled out. The lights came back on. Hundreds of passengers sighed.
"You okay?" Aidan's dad asked.
Aidan wasn't sure. He wasn't hurt, but he didn't feel okay exactly either. "I saw Gwenne," he whispered.
"When the lightning flashed, I saw her in the window. She looked scared, Dad. I think she's in trouble."
"You've been thinking a lot about Antoinette being in The Realm, and Gwenne is her Glimpse. They look alike ... maybe—"
"Dad, I saw her," Aidan replied. "Something has gone terribly wrong. The clouds outside ... the storm—it wasn't normal."
"This is your captain speaking," came a tinny voice from the speakers. "Sorry about the bumps back there. The thunderstorm to our south intensified. We've, uh, adjusted our course to keep our distance."
"Well, duh!" someone said in the seat behind Aidan. "That sounds like a plan!" The passengers nearby laughed nervously.
"We will be beginning our initial descent into the Baltimore/ Washington area in about a half-hour," the captain continued. "We don't anticipate any more problems."
"That's a relief," said Aidan's dad. The other passengers buzzed with conversation. A little blond girl in the next row tugged at her mother's sleeve. Aidan nodded and turned to look back out of the window. Intermittent bright flashes of lightning illuminated the dark clouds bubbling in the distance.
Why did I see you, Gwenne? Aidan wondered, closing his eyes and picturing her beautiful pale face. Was it a foretelling as so many of his visions had been? Had something happened to Antoinette in The Realm?
A strange noise from the rear of the plane interrupted Aidan's thoughts. It reminded him of the buzzer for the dryer that lets you know when the cycle was done. He turned, unclasped the seat belt, and looked back over the headrest. A muffled boom followed. Then a sharp cracking sound. The plane shook. Some of the passengers cried out. A businessman's laptop skittered into the aisle.
"Aidan, sit down and put your seat belt back on," said Aidan's father in a quiet but commanding voice.
Aidan sat down hard and clasped his seat belt. He looked up at the flight attendant, who was still buckled into her own seat behind the cabin. An older gentleman had gotten up and peppered her with questions. Finally she ushered him back into his seat. She belted herself in again and grabbed an intercom mic. The last thing Aidan saw, before the curtain hid her from view, was her colorless and terror-stricken face.
"Dad?" Aidan asked. But suddenly, there was another cracking sound from behind. And then the hissing sound of air from all around. Passengers became frantic, looking from face to face for answers. The lights flickered, and the plane lurched forward with such force that Aidan hit his head on the back of the seat in front of him. He fell backward, disoriented and frightened. There were screams and people shouting at one another. Aidan turned and saw his father slumped in his seat, his head flopped down at his chest.
"Dad!" Aidan yelled. He grabbed his father's shoulder. "Dad, wake up!" The airplane began to shake. Aidan gently lifted his father's chin and tilted his head back. A welt was already forming in the center of his dad's forehead. "Dad, oh no! Please be okay! Dad!" But his father did not answer. The plane lurched again. The lights went out and did not come back on. Aidan heard the plane's engines whining, and the plane dipped down.
This can't be happening! Aidan thought. We're going to crash. Lightning flickered and lit up the cabin. The other passengers were frantically grasping at their seat belts, their chairs—they too had come to the grim conclusion that the airplane was going down.
Chapter TwoChains of the Enemy
Antoinette heard the jangle of keys, followed by a metallic click and the groan from the hinges of the chamber door. "Kearn!" she called out to the darkness.
"Yes, m'lady," Kearn replied, stepping forward into the moonlight. "I have brought you something to eat, but a moment, please. This darkness will never do." Kearn placed a tray on the one chair in the chamber and disappeared into the hallway. He returned bearing a large torch, which he placed in a holder on the wall.
"There, now we can look upon each other." He grinned as he placed the tray on the floor by Antoinette's cell. "Please, eat, m'lady."
"I'm not your lady!" Antoinette growled.
"Be that as it may," he replied, "you must have something. The meat is cured, the bread is fresh—it is all unspoiled. The mug is full of water from snowmelt. You will find it quite refreshing."
Antoinette was starving. Well, if they wanted me dead, they could've done that long ago, she thought. She reached through the bars and grabbed a piece of bread. At first she took only a tentative nibble. The bread wasn't just good—it was fantastic. Feathery-light texture, sweet, and still warm! Antoinette tore off a large hunk and jammed it into her mouth. She kept eating until the plate was clear.
"Excellent, Antoinette!" Kearn laughed. "Now it is time for a little exchange of information."
Antoinette eyed Kearn suspiciously.
"Nay, m'lady. I guess your mind," Kearn said. "Fear not. I have not come to pry from your lips King Eliam's secret battle plans, for they matter little to my master."
"Then why are you here?" Antoinette asked pointedly.
Kearn's eyes flickered red. He stood and paced near the cell. "I am ... troubled," he whispered. "Your actions thwart every reasonable explanation! You hunted me across a hundred leagues, and yet when I was snared, you did not kill. Thrice you placed your life in jeopardy to save mine—even when I made it perfectly clear that I serve Paragor and no other. Tell me, are all the beings from the Mirror Realm so stubborn?"
Antoinette actually laughed. "No, I'm about the most stubborn person I know."
"I doubt it not," Kearn replied. "But there is also courage ... and strength. The very mention of my name strikes terror into the hearts of my foes, yet you stood up to me ... to me! And while I can dispatch most knights five at a time, I could not defeat you without guile. Even though you are my enemy, I do respect your strength."
"It is not my strength, Kearn," Antoinette replied.
She stood as best she could, hindered by the chains around her ankles. "I have strength and skill because King Eliam willed for it to be so. While most other girls in my world were playing with dolls, I was taught to fight with a sword. And I have the advantage. I attack without fear, for I know that if I die, I will go to the Sacred Realm Beyond the Sun."
"There is no such place."
"You said yourself that those who served Paragor well will be remembered in the world to come. You must believe something happens after you die," Antoinette said.
"Yes ..." Kearn hesitated. "It is as I said. Paragor will ultimately triumph over Alleble and hold dominion over all The Realm. On the rubble of Alleble, Paragor will create a new kingdom where those who served the master well will have riches and be revered by all those beneath us!"
"Paragor promises you power and fortune, if you'll serve only him. It is the same thing he promised the kingdoms of Mithegard, Acacia, and Clarion—right before he destroyed them. It is his way. If I had my Book of Alleble I could show you."
"You mean that worn-out leather volume over there?" Kearn asked, pointing to the corner of the chamber far outside her cell. Her book lay open, facedown in the shadows. "The guards no doubt cast it aside."
"My book!" Antoinette replied eagerly. "May I have it ... please?"
Kearn looked over at the book and back at Antoinette. "Nay, you have your head already too full of Alleble's harvest tales. Let it lie there and mock you."
"No, you have said your piece!" Kearn roared. "Now, I will say mine. You came after me, you say, to see me turn from my master and bend the knee to King Eliam. That is your wish?" Kearn turned his back to Antoinette for a moment and continued. "You say to me to leave the riches, adoration, and power I have here to be a common knight in the Kingdom of Alleble? Betray my master simply on your word, and let my eyes reflect back the weak blue of King Eliam's servants ... that is what you are asking, is it not?"
Antoinette stared at his back.
"Well, m'lady of the Mirror Realm," he said, his voice deep and stalking. "I give you what you ask." Kearn turned around suddenly, and as Antoinette looked into his eyes, she swayed as if she might fall. For Kearn's eyes flickered blue as only the eyes of those who follow King Eliam do.
"How can this be?" Antoinette asked.
Kearn laughed and held up a small corked vial. He took out the cork and sipped from the bottle. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, they flickered red in the manner of Paragor's servants.
"Yewland," Antoinette gasped. "That's how you fooled Queen Illaria in Yewland, isn't it?"
Kearn nodded. "Yewland and so many other places! It is remarkably easy to turn King Eliam's allies against him. You would think they would be more ... devoted."
"Trickery!" Antoinette yelled. "Deceit! Don't you see, Kearn? That's just another example of Paragor's way!"
"Silence! How easily you cast out such accusations. Do you think your own King, the noble King Eliam of Alleble, is without guile? Would it pain thee then to know that he has kept hidden his true purpose for you in The Realm?"
Antoinette stood very still.
"Oh, yes, your good King has very interesting plans for you, m'lady ... for you and the others. But Paragor has plans for you as well—much better plans," Kearn said. "You see ... they are out there. My master knows, and he will find them before King Eliam. And in that moment, Alleble will be utterly destroyed."
"That will never happen! King Eliam defeated Paragor the first time and cast him into exile. He will do it again."
"Pity, no," Kearn replied. "Alleble will fall. Your beloved King knows this."
"Lies!" Antoinette cried. "Stop it! It's all lies!"
"If they are lies, Antoinette," Kearn said with a hideous smile, "then they are King Eliam's lies. For Alleble's destruction is foretold in the Scroll of Prophecy written by King Eliam's own hand!"
Kearn took the torch from the wall, left the chamber, and locked the door behind him. Antoinette was left in utter darkness. Tears ran down her cheeks.
* * *
Antoinette awoke with the dawn. She found a new tray of food just outside her cell. She took a bite of the bread and savored it. Surely this was not the kind of food that prisoners in Paragory usually received. She went to take another bite, but then dropped the bread on the floor. Her Book of Alleble, which had lain in the corner of her cell just the night before, was gone.
Chapter ThreeThe Stones of Omen
Sir Kaliam, Sentinel of Alleble, stood at the large window in a lofted keep high in the castle and stared out over the kingdom and the moonlit lands beyond. Sir Thrivenbard, Alleble's chief tracker and woodsman, entered the room and stood respectfully behind him.
"Well?" Kaliam demanded.
"My Sentinel," Thrivenbard said, and bowed to the knight. "It is with a sad heart I bring you the news that the body of Sir Gabriel was found among the twisting paths and dark boughs of the Blackwood."
Kaliam was silent.
"Sir, it has been three days since our search parties have discovered a survivor. We are only finding those slain, and Sir Aelic was not among them."
Kaliam did not turn around. "Thrivenbard," Kaliam said quietly, "I do not expect you to find Sir Aelic among the slain."
"But my Sentinel," Thrivenbard said. "So much time has passed since the battle and—"
"Nonetheless!" Kaliam shouted, before mastering himself and turning to face the knight. "Nonetheless, you will not find him among the dead. The Battle of the Blackwood raged from one end of the Forest Road to the other, from the borders of Yewland and into the heart of the Blackwood itself. In such a large area, a lone knight might be missed."
"My men are skilled," said Thrivenbard. "They have searched every thicket and under every bough—"
"Then you go, Thrivenbard," Kaliam exclaimed, "and search every thicket and under every bough again! No one in all The Realm has your skills in tracking and knowledge of the woods—not even the elder scouts of Yewland." He walked over and put a gentle hand on Thrivenbard's shoulder. "Thrivenbard, much depends upon your success."
"I will see to it, my Sentinel," Thrivenbard replied. "With King Eliam as my guide, I will not rest until I find Sir Aelic."
"Thank you, servant of Alleble," Kaliam replied. He knew if anyone could find Sir Aelic, Thrivenbard could.
"Never alone!" the Sentinel said.
"Never alone!" Thrivenbard replied as he bowed. Before taking leave, Thrivenbard stopped. "Sir?"
"Since we have not found Sir Aelic," Thrivenbard said, choosing his words carefully, "is it possible that he was taken alive as a prisoner of the enemy, as was Lady Antoinette?"
Kaliam turned his back to Thrivenbard and stared out upon the moonlit realm again. "Losing Antoinette to the enemy is already a great blow to our cause. If Paragor has Sir Aelic as well ..."
Thrivenbard bowed again and walked swiftly from the chamber.
* * *
The moon was much lower in the sky when Lady Merewen entered the library and found Kaliam at the window. "How long will you stand there?" she asked in a gentle voice. With great difficulty she lowered her dark hood, and her long silver hair spilled out upon her bandaged shoulders.
"Merewen!" Kaliam turned, and she went to him. Kaliam looked at her and put the back of his hand to her brow. "Your fever has passed! How do you feel?"
"Sir Oswyn says I was fortunate only to have been scratched by one of the Sleepers and not bitten," she replied, her violet eyes gleaming. "Herbs to treat my wounds are readily available, but not so for a bite. I am to be fine, Kaliam. But I am not sure you can say the same. You look in need of rest."
"I cannot rest." He sighed. "I am the Sentinel of this kingdom. I have charges."
"And you will do your charges no good if you kill yourself with anxiety."
Kaliam stared west into the night sky. "Paragor has released the Wyrm Lord and the Sleepers from their tombs. Alleble must prepare. Sir Aelic is still lost, and we cannot abandon Lady Antoinette to torment behind the Gate of Despair!" Kaliam's head fell to his chest. He seemed suddenly aged, burdened with a weight that he could not bear.
Lady Merewen kissed him on his forehead and gently raised his chin. She stared kindly into his dark eyes. "In the midst of my darkest doubt," she said, "you lifted my chin and told me, 'Dwell not in dreary chambers of the past!' You reminded me of the hope that we have as servants of King Eliam. This hope I return to you now. Stare not west where shadows dwell, but upon Alleble and be reminded!"
Kaliam looked down to the Seven Fountains. The moonlight danced in the high plumes of water and mist, and for a moment, his heart was glad. Then he saw the seventh fountain now so long dry, and his hope fled.
"You see," he said, "even in the most glorious places in Alleble, the enemy's black touch can be felt! I see below me a place empty and barren, save for memories of pain, despair, and ... Paragor's treachery!"
"Nay, m'lord! That is the site of our King's greatest victory!"
"But Paragor remains. He has brought evils out of legend into his service and amassed at least an army to match our own."
"King Eliam defeated death!" Lady Merewen said sternly. "Who shall stand against the one who rose again?"
Excerpted from The Final Storm by WAYNE THOMAS BATSON Copyright © 2006 by Wayne Thomas Batson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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