Lise and her friends have finally defeated their greatest foe, but at a great cost. One of their number has been captured by wrathful enemies determined to extract revenge. Now with his life on the line, Lise must venture underground one last time before the final mist gate, and her final chance to go home, closes for good.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Long, Dark Road
The Mist Gate Crossings
By Susan Bianculli
Children's Brains are Yummy BooksCopyright © 2016 Susan Bianculli
All rights reserved.
"Let's see; we've been fully re-supplied, we have a new kit of makeup for disguising ourselves as Under-elves, the bags are packed and waiting, the mounts are rested and ready, we have more iron bars to use as weapons. What am I forgetting?" I asked myself out loud, ticking off the items on my fingers.
I sat on the window ledge looking out of the bare stone-walled bedroom I'd slept in last night. I smothered a yawn and stretched away my morning sleep cramps. It was not long after sunrise, and I'd stayed up kinda late for the ruined keep's courtyard party celebrating the final defeat of Bascom Bloodknife. But that wasn't what made me tired today. When the festivities had finished last night, I'd immediately started getting ready to go back into the Sub-realms to rescue Arghen, Champion of the goddess Quiris and my Under-elf friend and mentor. A couple of days ago, Arghen had sacrificed himself to save us from detection while we escaped from the city-state of Chirasniv. I, as a Champion of my goddess Caelestis, had vowed upon getting back to the freedom of the surface that I would return to save him.
"You're forgetting that we've no idea how we're going to rescue Arghen, chica?" said Jason behind me.
I startled nearly off the large window ledge, my heart beating faster as a smiling Jason Vasquez came into the room to stand beside me. He looked good this morning. Real good. He wore a grey tunic and clean red hose which accentuated his nice legs. His short black curls had the look of having been recently washed, and the smell of an herb-scented soap rose from his bronzed skin. I sniffed in appreciation as I stared up into his dark eyes, and I wished I'd taken the time to do more than a quick basin wash this morning. I also wished I could kiss him, but I felt shy about kissing him first. We really didn't have any kind of stated relationship yet, not even a "casual dating" one, so I didn't feel like I could just stand up and leap into his arms the way I wanted to. He had called me "mi amor" and passionately kissed me a couple of times, but he was older than me. He hadn't really said or done anything else since then. Of course, that could have been because we had been a bit busy the last couple of days saving our corner of the world .
"Details, details. There has to be other entrances to the Sub-realms. The goddess Quiris pretty much said so," I told him in a high, breathless voice that sounded like I'd just run up the steps of the keep. I blushed at my reaction to his presence.
"Did Quiris really say that Underearth has lots of entrances, chica?"
"Weeeelll, maybe not in so many words, exactly," I said, disciplining myself to a more normal tone, "and maybe not a nearby one like the one we closed."
Jason raised his eyebrows at me for that over-simplification.
"But pretty much," I finished.
"Uh-huh," he said, unconvinced. I saw his eyes widen as he finally took in where I was seated and said, "I see you're sitting on a window ledge. Does that mean you can finally stick your hand out through one?"
For an answer I smiled at him and then reached out the casement and waved my hand in the air beyond it. My friend Ragar the mountain-cat-elf, who'd just come into the courtyard down below, looked startled. He stopped and hesitantly waved back, thinking I'd waved at him. I giggled.
"When did you discover that Morsca's death curse on you had been broken?" Jason asked, pulling me away from the window and up into his arms.
I was thrilled at the contact between his body and mine. "Last night before bed," I replied, hooking my arms around his neck and looking into his dark eyes.
"Bed, eh?" he asked, interrupting me. "Did you actually go get any sleep? I know I told you that we were both so tired that we should stop packing before we made any mistakes. I went to bed and grabbed some shut-eye, but did you?"
I stuck my tongue out at him. "Yes, I did. Eventually. Anyway, back to the curse, Auraus suggested to me that I should experiment. When I tried last night, I found I could put my hand through the window. Auraus said then that the curse must have been bound partly to Bascom and partly to Morsca. Morsca's death triggered the part of the self-destruction of the keep, and Bascom's life must have been the part that kept the one responsible for her dying from escaping it. So with Bascom's death the rest of the curse was obliterated. At least, that's her theory."
Jason smiled down at me. "That explains a lot. Too bad Auraus didn't think about that possibility before, or we would've had a clue that that hijo de cabra hadn't died like we'd thought. But it doesn't matter because the curse's gone now, and it's all good. Although in a few months it won't make a difference if you still can't use a door or a window in this place because most of them will have been taken away by then."
I nodded. Since the ruined keep was a free and close source of building materials, the reconstruction of the surrounding villages and farms damaged in the mini-earthquake of Morsca's body's death was going pretty fast. It was just like what had happened in the Middle Ages on the human side of the Disjoin. Back then, humans in places all over Europe had taken apart old Roman constructions for uses of their own. Here, the valley Elders were already making plans to expand the village boundaries using the bounty of construction supplies once repairs to the existing buildings had been finished. I wished them well but privately hoped that Jason and I and Heather, the other human traveling with us, would not still be on this side of the mist gate to see it all happen. We all wanted to go home to New York City.
Jason continued, "But going back to what I said earlier: how're we going to figure out how to find Arghen?"
I was torn at his words. I know he wanted to go and help save Arghen. The white-haired Under-elf was just as much his friend and mentor as much as he was mine. But I dearly wanted to prevent Jason from going a second time to Chirasniv. If he got captured by the city-state's Under-elves again, I didn't think my heart could take it. But, ultimately, I knew I didn't have the right to stop him from coming, so I said nothing.
"We are going to have to ask that of the Goddess Quiris, I believe," Auraus unexpectedly answered him as the golden-haired Priestess of Caelestis came into the bedroom.
The beautiful Wind-rider looked freshly bathed, and her tan flying leathers were clean. She rummaged through her pouch on the bed she'd slept in last night for a comb to run through her wet hair. Jason and I broke away from each other, my hands reluctantly sliding off his shoulders.
Man, has everybody else taken a full bath except me? I wondered half guiltily, making plans to slink off at the earliest opportunity to fix that. I'd dressed in clean clothes after my body wipe down this morning, but after looking at the two of them I felt dirty.
Jason frowned slightly, and I patted his arm in encouragement.
"Don't be like that," I said to him. "Quiris knows you better now, Jason. She has to have been watching you from time-to-time as we've traveled. Why else, after we rescued everyone from the keep the first time, would she have sent you fresh clothes, healing ointments, and other useful gear for you as a reward? There won't be any trouble between you two; I'm sure of it." I turned to Auraus. "So how are we going to ask Quiris? Call a meeting or something?"
"A meeting? But you have already met her," said Auraus, her beautiful face looking perplexed.
Jason laughed as I explained, "I meant, ask her to come somewhere and talk with all of us."
"We will have to have Dusk do that," she said. "I have not seen him yet this morning, but I...."
Just then, a green and brown lizard-like Ataque dressed in black leather pants and a billowy white shirt appeared in the open bedroom doorway. He cleared his throat to get our attention as he bowed to us.
"Will you all please join Leader Dusk in the audience chamber? He wishes to speak with you," he said in a formal manner.
Auraus thanked the Ataque. When he left, she smiled at Jason and me. "I think your 'meeting' is about to happen, Lise."
"Then let's go see what Dusk has to say!" I said enthusiastically. My bath could wait for that.
We traveled through the stone corridors of the keep, dodging all kinds of beings rushing around looking extremely busy — usually with their hands full of linens, tools, or building materials. We did take a detour to the kitchen so we could pick up something portable for breakfast, though the toasted bread and cheese didn't take us long to finish off as we walked. The three of us arrived at the regal black and white marble audience chamber only to discover that the meeting wasn't actually in there. Instead, we were redirected by another Ataque servitor to the little room right off it. Opening the camouflaged door in the marble wall, I could see the room beyond hadn't been ransacked yet. The black and white stone walls were still lined with empty shelves, the two black leather chairs remained in their spots by the fireplace, and the tall open air windows still had the decorative latticework in them. But what drew my eye was the map table, which had always dominated the room. The map, which the mountain-cat-elf Ragar had taken from it a couple of days before, had been returned. A silver tray with silver goblets and an unopened bottle of something weighted down one corner of the vellum, while chunks of stone weighted down the other three corners. I was pretty sure there wasn't anything like grapefruit juice or orange juice in the corked silver bottle, which was too bad. I would have loved either of those options just then.
Dusk, Ragar, and Heather Chung, a fellow human teenager and used-to-be rival from my New York fencing class who'd managed to accidentally cross a mist gate as well, were studying the map intently but glanced up from it as we came in. They too had bathed, and each wore what I'd come to privately call "medieval casual." Well, except for Ragar, who'd apparently decided that he didn't need to wear a tunic with his soft black leather pants.
"Ah, there you are. Thank you for coming so promptly," Dusk, the half-Surface-elf/half-Under-elf, said to us.
He stood up straight and smiled. Auraus went over to give him a "good morning" kiss that he returned enthusiastically. I briefly envied her ability to do that.
Meanwhile, Heather said, beaming, "Good morning, sleepyheads!" while Ragar just nodded a hello.
I grinned to see that Heather and the mountain-cat-elf were holding hands. "Sleepyhead?" I retorted in a friendly fashion. "I was up half the night after the party getting things together for our trip back underground. What have YOU been doing?"
Heather's tan face reddened a little, while Ragar found a sudden interest in examining the wooden lattice of the window. I widened my eyes with realization at what their reactions might mean, and then I decided I just wasn't going to go there. What Heather, who was after all at least a couple of years older than me, and Ragar chose to do after hours was certainly none of my business.
I cleared my throat instead. "So, uh, Dusk, can I guess that you wanted to speak to all of us because you've figured out where we need to go?"
The amber-eyed Surface-elf, who'd put an arm around Auraus and had been chuckling lightly at our exchange, turned solemn. "No, I am afraid not. I had been hoping that Bascom would be keeping his options open and that this," he waved a hand vaguely at the huge map in front of him, "would show other potential routes underground. But there does not seem to be any such markings."
My stomach clenched in disappointment, and I threw my hands up abruptly in the air. "Great! Just great! You went and pulled the plug on us rescuing Arghen by filling the only passageway we knew about with solid stone, and now you tell me you can't find us a different way underground? Can't you get the Magelings to reverse what they did? We don't have TIME to go spelunking in hopes of finding a way to the Sub-realms! Arghen is in trouble now!"
"Lise," Dusk replied in a soothing voice, removing his arm from the Wind-rider. "Asking the Magelings to reverse what they have done would be twice as hard as creating the original blockage of the tunnel, because they would now be fighting their own magic to create a passageway for us. Then they would have to leave it open until such time as we returned, leaving the valley in a possibly vulnerable position, and then they would have to fight two layers of magic to close it again. If there is no other way, we will, of course, have to consider it...."
I cut him off abruptly. "'Consider it?' You aren't seriously telling me that you find the life of Arghen, who happens to be your mother's Champion, to not be worth the effort?" I almost yelled, clenching my fists.
"Lise! Stop it!" said Auraus in a sharp tone. "It is not Dusk's fault that this map does not show other ways to the Sub-realms. And he did not anticipate that we would lose Arghen underground. He did what he thought was needed to keep the valley safe from possible invasion. You, of all people, have seen the might of the Under-elves. Do you not think that they could overwhelm this valley in a few moon's degrees with the cover of night and a sufficient force?"
I shut up more out of annoyance than anything else. But Auraus was right — the Under-elves were angry and could have been a threat. That didn't make it any easier to swallow, though.
"Sorry, Dusk," I muttered.
He nodded more graciously to me than my apology deserved, and that made me feel like a heel.
"What about the hole in the cavern under the keep, amigo?" asked Jason, interrupting.
Dusk shook his head. "I am sorry, but I attended to that even before doing the tunnel. I had the Magelings solidify the exit that the Under-elves had collapsed behind them," the Miscere Surface-elf said with regret. "It is also solid stone now."
"So what can we do?" asked Heather.
"This is where I come in, I believe," Dusk said. "Auraus, Lise, do you remember my mother telling you that she can bend the rules slightly if I am involved in a situation?"
The Wind-rider and I nodded. Auraus and I had met the Goddess Quiris last night when we'd prayed to Caelestis, the Goddess that we both worshiped. Quiris had told us then to remind Dusk of that fact.
"Given that this situation will involve not only me but her Champion, I suspect that if I ask for her she will come and speak with us. Shall we call her?"CHAPTER 2
Jason gulped audibly beside me. I took his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"Now?" Jason asked.
Dusk smiled at him. "I do not think you need to worry about my mother, Jason. She approves of you."
Jason looked disbelieving, so Dusk added, "Elsewise she would not have gifted you with what she already has. Trust me on this."
I smiled at Dusk's confirmation of my previous words.
"So why hasn't she said anything to me?" Jason asked.
"Do you worship her?" Dusk asked him.
Jason shook his head "no."
"That is why then," Dusk said.
But I privately wondered if maybe Jason actually worshiped her without knowing that he did. After all, in order to use magical items you had to believe in a Deity, or so Arghen had said. Jason was able to use the ring of frost he had gotten from the storeroom in the slave Exchange down in Chirasniv, the department where the Under-elves kept the Surfacers they'd bargained for from Bascom and Morsca. Jason had never met Caelestis, but he had met Quiris once before — even if it hadn't exactly been a good meeting. Later she'd given him supplies without being asked. It would make sense if he unconsciously worshiped her. I would have to discuss that with Jason at some later time.
The Miscere Surface-elf looked at the rest of us, and we all nodded our readiness — Jason a little more reluctantly and Heather a little more eagerly than the rest. It struck me then that out of all of us, Heather had the least amount of knowledge of the gods over here. That made me instantly curious to see what would happen if — when — Quiris arrived, especially since Heather had started to finally believe in magic a couple of days ago. Her timing on that had sucked. Bascom and Morsca had been able to take advantage of her new-found belief with a whole steal-your-body magic that they'd done, but thankfully things had turned out all right in the end.
Excerpted from The Long, Dark Road by Susan Bianculli. Copyright © 2016 Susan Bianculli. Excerpted by permission of Children's Brains are Yummy Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.