This is my favorite fanfiction. It was written by Starry Dancer on the original Bella Sara Community website in 2010. I do NOT own this chapter of this story!!! But I am going to put it here.
A fresh spring breeze stirred the smoke rising from the chimneys of Midhaven, one of the largest cities in North of North. The sun was just beginning to rise over its sea of rooftops when twelve-year-old Mina Lind turned to look at the houses and shops spread before her. The road she had taken out of the city, heading west towards the rolling plain of the Grass Sea, afforded her a magnificent view of the metropolis where she had lived her entire life.
And I’m free for today! Mina thought happily, turning her back towards the rising sun and continuing down the road. She began to whistle a merry jig as she skipped down the path, her sturdy brown riding boots kicking up a cloud of late May dust. A flock of birds wheeled overhead, joining her in her song. What an amazing day for an adventure! Mina thought with a smile. Too bad it’s only one day…
The Lind family’s mapmaking business in Midhaven was a small but well-established firm, and Mina loved helping her parents create maps that were both beautiful and useful. Her job, painting detailed pictures of villages and castles, forests and deserts, was enjoyable, yes. As she painted, Mina could almost imagine herself riding the wind in the Overgaard skylands or exploring the splendid palace at the bottom of the Equinesian sea. But that was just the problem- her imagination could only take her so far. Mina devoured books that told tales of the distant lands of North of North and the magical horses that inhabited them. But even this wasn’t enough; Mina wanted to experience the adventures she read about, to blaze new trails, and, most of all, to encounter a steed of her own to accompany her on her journeys. Her favorite stories involved the Valkyries, immortal women that aided heroes and protected the realm in days of old with their flying steeds. Mina often daydreamed that the Valkyries would swoop down and pluck her out of her uneventful, albeit pleasant, life in the city. Midhaven was no place for adventure! It was full of mundane things, like vegetable stands, thatched-roof cottages, and ordinary, workaday horses that were used strictly for business. That was why she had asked her parents for a day off; to go out and see the world, even if she was only a few hours’ walk from home. The splendor of the Grass Sea, today’s destination, was sure to make up for the lack of adventure that has been the norm in her life so far. But what fun was some epic locale like the Grass Sea when you were alone? Mina sighed, interrupting her tune, and the birds flew away with a farewell tweet. Even if she were to meet the perfect horse for her, Mina’s family had no room to keep an equine! In fact, the family’s small yard could barely contain her mother’s robust garden, let alone a spirited horse! A brown study was about to settle over Mina when she crested the final hill on the way to the Grass Sea.
Mina’s breath was snatched by the infinite expanse of green. She knew like all children of North of North that the Grass Sea was really a giant mat of plants floating atop a huge reservoir teeming with life. Perhaps she would see a rare and elusive Pool Diver today! On the surface, colossal trees known as emerald cloud trees sheltered many species of animals such as small, friendly root ponies and pufferfoxes. Herds of Frondessence horses, beautiful equines with grass in place of manes and tails, roamed the meadows throughout. Mina had even brought her sketchpad in case she met any of these creatures. Or had she? Just to make sure, she checked her canvas bag. Edged in emerald-green leather, the bag held everything a girl could wish for when seeking adventure. Besides her sketchpad and a few writing utensils, Mina had packed a compass, a delicious lunch of homemade bread and cheese, her slingshot (for plinking away at boulders and things), her favorite map of North of North, and a warm blue cloak to use as a picnic blanket. The last item in Mina’s bag was particularly special: a blank book, bound in warm, honey-colored cloth. Though the book had been accompanying Mina everywhere for years now, she was waiting for the perfect adventure to happen in order to fill its pages. It would be the story of her experiences. Might she be able to add the first chapter today? Mina smiled at the possibility and picked up where she left off on her song, back into her previously ebullient mood.
An hour later, Mina was thick in the hip-high grass that covered the plains of the Grass Sea- or, the Grassy, as many local people called it. The sun had finally made its ascent, and was smiling down upon countless miles of waving prairie. Already, Mina had spotted a small herd of Frondessences grazing a few miles off. Now, she was approaching the base of an emerald cloud tree. Her house back in Midhaven could have fit inside of its trunk with plenty of room to spare! Mina leapt onto a benchlike root and gazed upwards, becoming dizzy from the astounding height of the branches. Soon, a trio of pufferfoxes had poked their orange heads out of a burrow beneath the trunk, and were sniffing at her bag. “You’re adorable!” cooed Mina, and pulled out her sketchpad to capture the foxes’ capers in drawing. Presently, a small gathering of Root ponies had come to see what the ruckus was about, and Mina added them to the picture. Chocolate-brown with snow-white manes and tails, the ponies seemed to accept Mina with ease. “We match,” she observed to one inquisitive pony that came up to sniff at her boot. Her cropped hair was indeed the same color as the ponies’ coats, as were her eyes. How she wished that personable horses like this lived in Midhaven! Their company was a joy. It was almost as if she had a natural affinity for horses, and they for her. If only she was able to be near them more often! If only she had a horse of her own! She could picture it now: a strong, beautiful horse, a best friend who understood her completely. Together, they would ride to the ends of the earth! They would see everything there was to see, experience the wonders that North of North had to offer! They would fight for justice and peace, protect their beloved land… Mina was about to settle into her favorite daydream when a confused rush hoofbeats erupted from somewhere not too far off. A herd of Frondessence horses suddenly came charging over a nearby drumlin, snorting and shaking their heads in fear.
Mina knew very well that no predators were indigenous to the Grassy. What could have frightened the herd? She was almost too shaken to wonder, but her fears were confirmed by a second sound: a distant growling, coming from where the Frondessences had just been. Mina rushed to her bag and grabbed her slingshot. This could, after all, become an emergency situation. Mina slung her sack over her shoulders, ready for flight. Steeling her nerve, she crept forward in a crouch. Every step she took widened the gap between herself and the comfort of her Emerald Cloud tree. Would she be able to make it back to safety if the mysterious growler chose to pursue her?
After scrambling up a steep bank, Mina reached the peak of the hill that obscured her view. Taking a deep breath, she peered through the grass and barely managed to cover a shriek of fear.
In the grass below her, three large animals were locked in some sort of confrontation. One she knew easily- it was a Verdant Liona, an herbivorous big cat common in most forested parts of North of North. Pacifistic and even lackadaisical, Lionas lived off of water and sunlight in order to keep their coats of leaves in good health. What such a creature was doing so far from its typical forest habitat was more than Mina could fathom at the moment, though, especially when faced with the other two creatures. She had never before seen anything like them. Both had the long, slender bodies of weasels, but had to be at least seven feet in length. They made the Liona, who was the same size as a smallish puma, look like a kitten! Their bodies were a dark gray-blue. The color of storm clouds, Mina thought. But there was more to it than that; storm clouds were beautiful and meant life-giving rain for North of North. Somehow, Mina could tell that these creatures were purely evil. They had thick ruffs of stark white fur on their necks, and huge yellow eyes glared from their pointed faces. Mina caught a glimpse of excessively sharp claws extending inches from each of their paws. The two creatures were methodically circling the Liona, every so often uttering a guttural growl that sent the poor feline into shivers. What could they want with the poor Liona?
Suddenly, Mina caught sight of their obvious target: a red silk bag, held in the Liona’s mouth. The bag could have fit in the palm of Mina’s hand, but the Liona’s actions made it clear that it held something very, very important. The blue creatures circled closer, and the larger of the pair took a snap at the Liona. Mina knew that she had to do something. Even if her slingshot was a pathetic excuse for a weapon against the huge creatures, it could at least keep the poor Liona from becoming their next meal! Her fingers scrabbled in the loam at her feet, and Mina grabbed up a fistful of pebbles. Taking a deep breath, she flexed her fingers and stood up, and then, in the longest moment of her life, sent a volley of stones raining onto the blue monsters.
As if suddenly turned to stone, the creatures froze, but Mina could tell that their luminous yellow eyes were riveted on her. All four locked eyes for an instant, suspended in time. Mina knew there was only one thing to do- the animals would come back to life any second!
“Run!” she cried to the Liona.
The golden cat didn’t need to be told twice. It bounded out from the circle of the two blue bodies and came streaking towards Mina, the red bag flapping in the wind. Mina herself was still frozen. In a split second, the Liona was next to her, and, much to her shock, the red bag came flying through the air, straight to her! Mina dived for the pouch and caught it, skidding across the turf. The Liona had given her its treasure! Mina leapt to her feet, but realized that the feline was already climbing into the upper bows of the nearest Emerald Cloud. And then, the blue creatures snapped to life. The larger one growled, his ruff rising and his teeth bared. The smaller one hissed, and then led the charge straight towards Mina. As fast as she could, Mina spun around and began to pelt towards the tree. The blue creatures were gaining on her with every tremendous stride, and Mina’s breath was already ragged in her throat. She couldn’t make it! The steep bank she had climbed before surged up ahead of her. There was no way she could make it down that cliff without being eaten alive by her pursuers! Mina mustered the last ounce of strength in her legs and put on a final burst of speed. The edge came closer and closer. She could feel the scorching heat of a monster’s breath on the back of her neck. This could be the end, she told herself.
The voice entered Mina’s head, loud and clear. Someone- or something- was telling her to jump! To go flying off into thin air, never mind the crash landing at the bottom! But Mina really had no choice; a split-second decision found her airborne. Mina pushed off the bank, soaring up and out. The ground rushed towards her, and Mina screwed her eyes shut.
But the impact never came. A firm something swooped in to catch her, and Mina found herself to be flying.
Hold on, the voice said.
Instinctually, Mina reached for a handhold. She found herself holding two fistfuls of gleaming black mane. On either side of her, iridescent wings beat furiously, and Mina soared up into the air on the back of a winged horse.
Each beat of the gigantic wings took Mina further and further into the brilliant blue sky. She chanced a glance behind her and saw the tiny blue shapes of the monsters hundreds of feet beneath her. She was safe! The cold draft of air rushing by brought tears to Mina’s eyes, and she buried her face in the pegasus’s ebony mane as they flew higher still. Finally, the pair leveled off. Mina could tell that they were tacking towards her Emerald Cloud tree.
“Thank you, thank you!” she exclaimed, finally looking up from the horse’s neck. She had so many questions to ask! But, first things first: “What is your name?” Mina asked the Pegasus.
The image of a small brown bird, flying through the sky popped into Mina’s head. She gasped- a horse had never used thoughts to communicate with her before! She had only read about that in her books. Mina realized that the bird in the vision that the mare sent her was one of those that had been singing with her this morning. It was a nightingale! “You have a beautiful name, Nightingale,” Mina informed the Pegasus. “What were those frightening creatures, though?” Nightingale snorted, and Mina got the strong impression that Nightingale was just as confused as she was. “Whatever they were…” she trailed off, as she realized that the red silk bag was clutched tightly in her hand. The bag!
“The Verdant Liona threw this to me, right before I fell,” Mina told Nightingale. An image entered her mind of the whole thing, as seen from above. The dark magenta color of Mina’s tunic showed up well against the green of the Grassy, and she could clearly see herself throwing stones with her slingshot, then turning, running, and falling as she caught the bag. She also saw that the blue creatures had been frozen solid the whole time. What on earth could be the cause of that?
Her thoughts were interrupted when Nightingale alighted on the sturdy branch of the Emerald Cloud tree. Immediately, the Verdant Liona poked her head out from a clump of leaves. With a happy roar, she leapt out into the open and began to purr, rubbing herself gratefully along Mina’s and Nightingale’s legs.
Mina jumped to the ground- or, rather, the branch- and stroked the Liona’s ears. She noticed that a small chain was fastened around the big cat’s neck, like a necklace or collar. A tag hung from it, reading “Chlorophyllis.” Mina assumed that this was the feline’s name. “That was a close shave!” She said, holding out the bag to Chlorophyllis. “Here’s your treasure.” But the Liona refused to take it back. Instead, she leapt backward a few feet, and looked intently at Nightingale. It seemed that they were somehow communicating with each other, in a way that only animals could. Presently, Chlorophyllis whirled and disappeared into the foliage, after casting one last thankful look at Mina.
“What did she say?” Mina breathed. The bag weighed heavily in her hand. One thing was obvious; it was now her quest to bring it to whomever the bag was meant for.
Nightingale sent Mina an image of the two of them, soaring through the sky. They banked and landed in a place that could only be Trail’s End, the most famed and magical city in all of North of North! The amethyst towers of Rolandsgaard castle were visible in the distance, along with the Bookend monuments. The scene shifted to the two of them entering the castle, and of Mina presenting the bag to…someone. It could only be the goddess Sara! Though the vision didn’t show it, Mina could tell from the auras surrounding the room that all five of the legendary horses were also present. Sara and the Legendaries! Bella, Thunder, Nike, Jewel, and especially Fiona, Mina’s favorite immortal horse, would all be there! “We’ll be going to Trail’s End?!” Mina cried in disbelief. Nightingale nodded sagely. It was the first time Mina had had an opportunity to see the lovely horse as a whole. Nightingale’s coat was a deep, dark brown, the sort of shade that would turn to black in the winter. This being spring, her color was somewhere between dark chocolate and the night sky. However, shining golden dapples covered her coat, giving the mare a glowing sheen. Her mane and tail were ebony black. Nightingale’s wings were the same mix of browns and blacks and golds as her coat, but shone with every color of the rainbow when the sun hit them just right. She wasn’t a particularly tall horse, and stood at what Mina would approximate at just over fifteen hands. She had a slightly dished face and solid, elegant conformation. The thought of accompanying such a beautiful horse all the way to Roland’s Hold was the stuff of dreams! “Did Chlorophyllis tell you what was in the bag? I’d hate to pry,” Mina said. “But I’m sure that it would help us explain why the blue creatures were after it.” Nightingale shook her head, but sent Mina an image of the two of them going back to the spot where the monsters had accosted Chlorophyllis and looking around. “Good idea! I’m sure that Sara, Bella, and the legendaries will also want to know why two such scary animals would be roaming North of North.” Mina swung back onto Nightingale’s back, after securing the silk pouch in her won traveling bag. “Come to think of it, we’ll want to know where they went, what they were doing…they looked dangerous, and we can’t just let them run free in North of North, stealing valuables from innocent magical creatures.” Though she was trying to put on a happy face about the matter, a chill went down Mina’s spine. Nightingale felt the shiver, and had a small tremor of her own before sweeping off the branch and into to open sky.
“The tracks just…disappear!”
Mina sat back on her heels, frustrated. She was crouching in the tall grass near where the blue creatures had been. Their tracks led off to the west, towards the Midwinter Mountains. She and Nightingale had hunted through the fronds, looking for broken stems and muddy pawprints that told where the monsters had gone. They were such large animals, there was no way that they could pass through the grass unnoticed. Yet, the tracks stopped abruptly a few hundred yards from where they had left off. Nightingale trotted over from where she had been searching, giving an aggravated whuff and stretching her wings. Mina was receiving No luck here vibes from the mare. Still, an image of Rolandsgaard popped into Mina’s head almost at once, and she knew that Nightingale was anxious to reach the castle. “Okay, we can take a break of hunting for clues and navigate the best way to Trail’s End. How does that sound?” Nightingale cocked her head, waiting for Mina to produce a map.
From her bag, Mina drew the smooth roll of parchment that would point them on their way to the great city. She spread it out between her hands, and faced north. Nightingale nosed the place where Trail’s End was clearly visible.
“We’ll want to get there as soon as possible,” Mina pointed out. After all, she was expected home from her Grass Sea excursion…tonight! “There’s no way I’ll make it to Rolandsgaard and back before dark,” Mina lamented. “Can you take the pouch without me?” She immediately felt a strong No! come from Nightingale, and was again sent the image of herself presenting the bag to Sara. Apparently, her presence was important, though Mina couldn’t quite figure out why. Before she could request and explanation, Nightingale sent her a mental image, along with a beam of positive thoughts: A small brown bird, bearing a note into the houses of Midhaven city. “You can talk to birds? Splendid!” Mina tore a page from her blank book-the first piece of a grand adventure, this was!- and scrawled a note explaining her situation to her parents. She was sure that they’d understand. Besides, she promised to take plenty of mental notes on the topography of North of North from Nightingale’s back. By the time she sealed her missive, a nightingale was perched between Nightingale’s ears, ready to carry it to Mina’s home.
“Have a safe flight!” Mina called after the bird. It uttered a merry peep, and then wheeled off to the northeast. “Now, for our flight plan.” The Midwinter Mountains afforded the most straightforward route, though high mountain winds and cold climes would make the going far from comfortable. Still, Mina figured that this path would take them only two days, as opposed to the three or four needed to trek through the desert or along the coast. She explained this much to Nightingale. “What do you think?” she asked the mare. Nightingale whinnied, an apparent agreement, and Mina got the image of them both camping in a springlike mountain meadow, surrounded by bright green pine trees. “The Everspring pines! That’s where we’ll stay the night,” she agreed. Mina rolled up her map. “Now, back to the blue critters-” a stream of evening sun hit the grasspool next to her, and a small Grasspool otter, pale blue in color, emerged. Standing on its six legs, it yawned, stretched, and proceeded to bounce upon the tip of its tail.
“Sunset!” exclaimed Mina, worry in her voice. “We still haven’t found any clues to the mysterious case of the disappearing creatures, and it’ll be dark soon!” Nightingale, however, looked excited, and swung her nose to the grass pool.
“That’ll help us?” Mina asked. Then, she remembered: Pool Divers! Though elusive and shy, the marine horses that lived beneath the Grass Sea might have an idea about the monsters!
“ ‘Pool Divers are drawn to music and have been known to surface quite close to a gifted musician.’ ” Mina quoted her favorite reference book. “I’m not much of a singer, but here goes nothing…” she knelt by the water’s edge, and began to sing the first song that came to mind:
I’ve been telling my dreams to the scarecrow
‘bout the places that I’d like to see,
I said, friend, do you think I’ll ever get there?
Oh but he just stands there smilin’ back at me,
But how do you wait for heaven?
And who has that much time?
And how do you keep your feet on the ground
When you know that you were born-
You were born to fly?
It was a happy little tune, and it did the trick. A sky-coloured head popped out of the pool, and a doe-eyed pool diver snuffed happily at Mina’s skirt. “Hello there,” she said softly. Nightingale touched noses with the pool diver, who gained confidence and paddled closer to the bank. “Can you tell us anything about where the frightening blue creatures went?” Mina asked, gently. The pool diver gave a fearful shake of his head, and sent them an image: the two blue creatures. They seemed to be conversing, and then, suddenly, took off for the west. Just as they were about to go behind the crest of a hill, something shocking happened. The two creatures stood up. But they were no longer animals! They had somehow morphed into a pair of humans. Tall, thin, and attired in stormcloud-blue with thick fur ruffs, they looked like brother and sister. Each carried a long, narrow sword, both of which looked just as evil as their former claws. With that, they took off running, nimbly leaping to avoid muddy patches.
“Shape-shifters? I had no idea that they existed,” whispered Mina. Nightingale snorted and took a step back. This was, indeed, disturbing news. The pool diver didn’t know what they could have wanted with the bag.
“Thank you so much,” Mina said as she and Nightingale turned to leave. They were planning to camp in the crook of the Emerald cloud tree, just to be safe in case the shape shifters came back. The pool diver bowed his head courteously, but sent them an image to wait for a minute at the edge of his pool. He gracefully slipped back into the water, and disappeared beneath the mat of grass. He reappeared a minute later, something shiny held delicately between his teeth. He dropped it at Mina’s feet before bidding them one last dignified goodbye.
Mina stooped to pick the object up. She gasped- it was a brilliant white pearl! Then, she remembered the rest of the passage from her boom concerning pool divers: “Sometimes a pool diver will leave a large pearl from a giant freshwater oyster as a gift by a pool’s edge to a reward a particularly good musician.”
“I’m not entirely sure if I was deserving of this pearl,” Mina whispered the Nightingale. The winged mare snorted, in what sounded like grudging agreement. As they flew towards the branches of the tree, both bemused, Mina wondered: If my singing wasn’t good enough to merit this spectacular pearl, why did the pool diver give it to me?
The next morning, Mina awoke to the singing of birds. She was snuggled in her cloak between two mossy branches of the emerald cloud tree. The branch nearest her was so wide that Nightingale could sleep on it with ease! The pretty mare had settled down on a bed of grass supplied by helpful pufferfoxes, and had folded her wings neatly. Presently, the Pegasus rose to her feet also, and began to eat her bed. “It’s a good thing I brought extra apples,” Mina commented, as she unearthed bread, cheese, apples, and peaches from her bag. They made a pleasant breakfast, and the duo was flying high with the sun at their backs in no time flat.
A good portion of the day was spent soaring over the Grassy. The green plains and deep blue pools seemed to go on forever, but, towards noon, the hazy periwinkle outline of the Midwinter Range came into view. “Somewhere up there lies Valeryk castle, home of the brave steeds of the North! Have you ever been there, Nightingale?” the mare tossed her head and whinnied happily, and sent Mina a stream of agreeable memories from Valeryk castle: sliding down snowbanks, skimming on sheets of ice over lake Wintermere, and perusing the vast library that every royal herd was sure to keep. “It looks lovely! I do wish I could go there someday,” Mina sighed. The rest of the day was passed exchanging stories. Mina told Nightingale all about life in the bustling city of Midhaven, and about the wonderful things that happened there. Nightingale related some of her travels to Mina through images. She had been to all four of the royal kingdoms, and had spent a good deal of time in Trail’s End! However, Mina could never quite reach an understanding about what had brought Nightingale to each of these distant lands. In fact, what had Nightingale been doing flying over the Grassy at just the most opportune moment yesterday? Mina decided to keep her thoughts to herself; she didn’t want to pry. But there were so many mysteries afoot lately! What were the shape-shifters up to, and, even more pressing, what were they? What was in the red bag? What was Nightingale doing with her? And why had the pool diver given a gorgeous pearl to someone whose musical abilities were most closely linked to those of a sick frog?
Just as the sun began to dip down in front of them, the flying pair alighted in the valley of the Everspring pines. Mina chaffed her hands together and blew on them; her hands were frozen from the chill winter winds that perpetually encircled the Midwinters. Nightingale stretched her wings, gave a shiver, and then settled down on a soft tuffett of grass at the foot of a pine tree. All around them, deep drifts of pristine snow made the terrain look positively freezing. Yet, warm Chinook winds stirred the branches of the evergreens towering high above the valley. The grass below was fresh and green, and a stream, not frozen but bubbling merrily, made the entire area comfortable. Nightingale sent Mina a mental image of Rolandsgaard, excitement tingeing her thoughts. “Tomorrow, then!” Mina sighed happily. They had only to fly across the second half of the Midwinters. After rounding the peak of mount Whitemantle, they would be within sight of the splendid town of Canter Hollow, right in the middle of Trail’s End! The history of North of North had been written in the hills, dells, and walls of the coastal town. Valkyries had walked its streets, and magical horses were a common sight within and beyond its limits. Mina took her map out of her bag and scooted over to Nightingale. Together, they scrutinized the small oval of land bordered by sea and stone. The great tree Drasilmare was visible in minute detail in the southwestern corner. Beyond was the Naastrand sound, the Brighttree jungle, Stonelory, the Coral Causeway… places that Mina had only read about in books!
“I can’t wait,” she whispered to Nightingale. The mare gave her sable-colored head an impatient toss. She, too, wanted to reach the spires of Rolandsgaard as soon as possible. The stillness in the everspring valley now seemed oppressive. Mina rose to her feet, and surveyed the valley. “Then again, why should we wait?”
Nightingale stood up, too, and joined Mina in the clearing. It was an exciting prospect. Nightingale, energized, sent Mina a collection of images of what could only be the fabled Darkcomb forest. They could camp there for the night! “It’s a risk, but it will put us even closer to Canter Hollow. Closer to finding out what this-” she produced the red bag- “is! Shall we?” Nightingale gave an emphatic nod. She seemed almost like a child, eager and wound up as if expecting candy. Come to think of it, Nightingale was a young mare, and didn’t look to be more than three or four years old. She was more of a friend than a mentor, as magical horses were wont to be. Mina wouldn’t have it any other way. Giggling and giddy, the two packed up and blasted up through the warm air currents, riding a draft at the speed of light into the rays of the setting sun.
It was nearly dark by the time Nightingale sighted a suitable landing spot amidst the dense trees of Darkcomb. The woods were hushed, and every step of the young pegasus’ hooves seemed as loud as a firecracker. Mina plopped to the ground and located a large tree under which to camp. “It’s not permanently spring here, so we’ll want a fire,” Mina observed, rubbing gooseflesh from her arms. Nightingale was ahead of her; she beamed Mina an image of herself clearing a spot of ground among the layers of pine needles whilst Mina collected twigs and rocks to make a temporary firepit. “Right,” Mina said, and hustled off into the trees to collect her branches.
Half an hour passed, the darkness slowly settling like a pall over the forest. Strange noises could be heard from the treetops, and Mina wondered if she was imagining the yellow eyes that appeared in the gloom. She knew that Canter Hollow was somewhere just beyond the screen of foliage, and that Nightingale was only a short sprint away. As if to confirm her thought, a snort came from the clearing behind Mina.
And then a frightened whinny, cut short suddenly.
Mina dropped her load of branches and skidded on the carpet of needles, and pelted as fast as her feet could carry her back across her trail. Pine boughs slapped at her face and tore at her tunic and leggings. Once, she tripped over a log and came up covered in sap and thick loam. At last, she broke through the trees into the clearing.
The scene in front of her was something from a nightmare.
Two tall, slender figures, clad in stormcloud blue, had appeared. One, a hulking man, had somehow tied a rope around Nightingale’s neck. Her nose and eyes were covered with a coarse piece of cloth. Though the mare was bucking, crowhopping, and flapping her wings with all her might, her exertions were to no avail. As Mina watched, the man succeeded in lashing the rope around a treetrunk, effectively crippling the pegasus’ attempts to fly to freedom. The other shape-shifter (there was no mistaking them for anything but the blue monsters shown by the pool diver), a smaller woman, was pawing through Mina’s bag. Mina gasped; the red silk pouch! As soon as the sound escaped her lips, she clapped her hands over her mouth. The woman had heard her!
Before Mina could turn away, the shape-shifter had, in two strides, crossed the clearing, and had a long, thin, wicked blade pressed to Mina’s neck. Even in the gloom, Mina could see that both shape-shifters retained the glowing yellow eyes and white fur ruffs of their animal forms.
“Come this way,” hissed the female, her long, white hair a beacon as Mina stumbled after her into the clearing. Nightingale’s eyes showed white at the edges, and her thoughts were clear: Mina turning and running in the direction of Rolandsgaard!
“Oh I wouldn’t so that, were I you,” the female said with an evil smile. Mina noticed that she had fangs. “One step, and Garwood here,” she motioned to her brother, “will make sure that your steed here will feel…pain.”
The larger shape-shifter laughed twice, a low, cold chuckle that sent a chill up Mina’s spine. He pulled the rope tighter around the tree, and Nightingale uttered a muffled yelp.
“That will do, brother,” the smaller one barked. He made an intricate knot of the rope, and went to stand beside his sibling. “We,” she said, an air of superiority in her voice, “are the Thetans. Shape-shifters, children of the Shadow Path. I am Adaira; this is Garwood. Were I you, I would heed us. Closely.”
The Thetans had soon bound Mina’s wrists and ankles, and sat her down near a tree on the opposite side of the clearing from Nightingale. Then, in silence, they continued to sift through the contents of Mina’s bag. Multiple times, Nightingale sent frenzied escape plans to her, but the shape-shifters seemed to be able to intercept every one. Mina assumed, through the dense fog of her fright and anger, that, like words, mind-pictures couldn’t be sent exclusively between two people or horses. Anyone within a certain distance would be privy to them. This further frustrated Mina. But, in the light and warmth from the roaring bonfire the Thetans had prepared, it was hard to keep her eyes open. It had been a long, tiring day, and Mina presently lost the battle to stay awake.
She awoke to silence. Whatever birds typically lived in the trees of Darkcomb seemed to have fled from the terrible creatures that still stalked the glade. The female, Adaira, suddenly looked up, as if sensing that her prisoner had awoken.
“Good morning,” she hissed, sarcastically. Mina noticed that she had found the bag; she was bouncing it up and down rhythmically in her clawed hand. Its red silk flashed like a fireball in the dim morning light. Adaira proceeded into an interrogation without hesitation. “So, little girl. What are you doing with this-” she jerked her head towards Nightingale- “-and this.” She dangled the bag by its drawstrings.
Mina’s mouth refused to make words for a second or so- what was she to say? What if the truth put North of North in danger from the two monsters? What if the monsters decided to eat her, because she had stopped them from attacking poor Chlorophyllis two days ago? Did they even recognize her? She decided that the truth would postpone any punishment for the time being, or at least until she figured out what exactly was going on. “I… I…you saw me get the bag, didn’t you?” she replied, trying to sound confident.
Adaira bared her fangs, causing Garwood, the male, to turn from his task of stoking the fire to shoot a glare at the captives.
“Of coursssse we did,” she scoffed, yellow eyes blazing. “But you fail to answer my question. Why do you have a Valkyrie steed-” she again motioned to Nightingale- “and a Valkyrie…treasure?”
Mina narrowed her eyes. She supposed that someone might think that all winged horses were Valkyrie steeds, though the probability of Nightingale actually being one was one in a million. The Valkyires had been defunct for millennia. Then how did the two think that whatever was in the bag belonged to them? It made Mina’s head hurt.
“I honestly do not know,” Mina replied. “Nightingale saved me from you, and I haven’t looked in the bag since the Verdant Liona gave it to me.” At her slightly obstinate answer, Garwood rose to his feet and assumed a menacing posture. It looked like he was about to attack her!
“Calm yourself, brother,” Adaira said, holding up a warning hand. “She speaks the truth.” Seeing the confused look on Mina’s and Nightingale’s faces, Adaira’s own face broke into a maleficent smile.
“I see you don’t understand,” she said. “As it should be. We Thetans are a mystery. Or, we would be, if anyone knew of our existence.” Nightingale and Mina exchanged bemused looks. Adaira rolled her yellow eyes. “To extract the information we want, we shall have to tell them our story, brother.”
Garwood took a step closer to Adaira, and folded his arms. “What about the book?” he asked, in a tone like gravel and stone.
“Yes, the book,” Adaira said. She drew from Mina’s bag the sleek leather tome. She opened it to the first page: the scene of pufferfoxes and root ponies frolicking around the Emerald cloud tree. It seemed like forever since Mina had drawn that! “We would like you to make for us a book,” Adaira continued. “I shall tell you our story, and then its purpose will become clear.
“More than one thousand years ago,” she began, “The Valkyrie Warriors governed North of North. With their flying steeds,” she cast a dirty look at Nightingale- “they ruled the land. Every ounce of power was distributed between their numbers. And shared with the horses too, of course. Disgusting.” To prove her point, Adaira spat on the ground. “Back then, my brother and I were but mere mortals, living in a small town in the northwestern forests. Those lands have been forgotten now. We felt that the Valkyries had too much power, what with their silly horses and heroes. We wanted some of that might for ourselves. Why should they rule? Who put the scepter into their hands? North of North was far from its full potential of economic and political clout. So, we two devised a plan.”
Garwood interjected. “The shadow path,” he rumbled.
Adaira sneered at him. “Yes, yes, I am getting there. We were sorcerers, we two. We found a way to tap this world’s dark magic. You know, of course, that the wolf riders (pathetic villains! We could easily trounce them in their current weakened state…but I digress) can use a flow of evil magic high in the aether of this world to gain strength and travel with ease. We didn’t want to join the riders- we wanted to conquer them! Thus, we summoned the shadow path for ourselves. With the proper incantations, it transformed us into the beings we are today: wolflike, but human too. We can change form. We can read the truth in a person’s words. And, unless smote by one with the Valkyries’ inane brand of magic, we live forever.” Adaira looked approvingly at the fright plain in both of the captives’ eyes. “Now is the time for us to finally assert our superiority and overthrow the weak government of this world. There is hope now for the wolf riders to be forever destroyed and for a new dynasty of Valkyries to return. Hope breeds a false sense of security.” She looked triumphant in the most frightening way possible, and again held up the bag. “With the proper tools- this little object, for instance-we will march on Rolandsgaard and win over its people. No one will stand in our way when we have the combined force to conquer Sara and the Legendaries! Would you like to hear our plan?” she hovered close to Mina’s face.
“Isn’t that a poor idea, sister?” Garwood asked, looking nervous.
“Of course not! You’ll be eating both once they have served their purpose, so we can tell them whatever we wish,” Adaira parried.
“Oh, joy!” Garwood licked his lips. Mina and Nightingale both began a frantic struggle against their bindings, but it was no use.
“So, the plan.” Adaira commenced to pace. “We will appear to the people of Rolandsgaard as heirs to the Valkyrie throne. We have this-” again with the bag- “as proof. We will also have a book that tells of our woeful tale: of how the Valkyries stole our valuables and our magic for themselves! This book will even say that they took our most prized possessions, our flying steeds, from us, to use for their own promotion!”
“Lies!” sputtered Mina, giving a last struggle. “You know that’s not true! You can’t just go about spouting unfounded falsehoods to make people follow you! The Valkyries were good and noble, and-”
Garwood clapped a gag over her mouth, silencing Mina. Nightingale, already muzzled, was sending wild mind-images that said the same thing. The Thetans just laughed.
“This book you’ve been carrying around is centuries old, you know,” Adaira told Mina. “Now take up your pen and write exactly what I tell you to.”
Mina managed to say around the coarse gag: “Why don’t you write it yourself?”
Adaira sniffed. “Be thankful that it has been centuries since either of us had written a word; we have forgotten how. Otherwise, you would have already served your purpose, and we would be compelled to dispose of you. Now, write!” she tossed a quill and inkstand over to Mina, and slid the book across the pine needles.
“Never!” Mina kicked the instruments back.
“Then, your dearest Pegasus will pay,” Adaira said pointedly. Garwood seized hold of one of Nightingale’s feathered wings, black in the low light. He began to tug on one long pinion feather; the mare struggled and whinnied, mutedly, in pain.
“Fine! Stop! But you must undo my hands.” Mina flinched as Adaira sliced through the rope with her evil-looking blade, and then took up the quill.
The rest of the day was spent in tedious work. Every word that fell from Adaira’s harsh lips was transcribed by Mina in her finest handwriting. Tears of anger formed in her eyes as she penned the deceitful tale that Adaira spun. In it, the Valkyries were falsehearted, cunning women who forcibly took the magic of the horse from a pair of poor, lonely orphan children far in the northwestern provinces. Sigga and Mitka Rolandotter, Mina’s lifelong heroes, were painted as the leaders of a foul crime ring in the slanderous story. Mina was then made to illustrate the hateful tale, drawing Adaira and Garwood rising back to power, finding the last treasure of their original trove, and even discovering the descendants of one of their lost steeds: Nightingale! They still would not tell Mina what sort of thing was in the red bag, and had her depict it as nothing but a glow of light.
As darkness fell, Mina finished the last drawing. How her hand ached! Unfortunately, the Thetans remembered to retie them. Adaira picked up the tome and leafed through it. “Satisfactory,” she said. “This will easily pass for an ancient book, telling the truth about the history of our world. We shall come back for our Valkyire steed-” she looked archly at Nightingale- “if the townsfolk are doubtful. Garwood!” she snapped her fingers, and the male Thetan jumped to attention. Adaira instructed him to keep the red silk bag and the book in his rucksack. “Now, we go to Trail’s End!” she cackled.
“What about eating the girl?” asked Garwood, drooling slightly.
“Oh, we haven’t the time,” Adaira sighed, exasperated. “We must reach Rolandsgaard by morning. Now shift!” Garwood reluctantly dropped the handful of spices he had been carrying around for some hours, and morphed into his animal form. Adaira followed suite. As they turned to tear off over the mountains, Adaira cast one last look behind her. “I do wish you could come and view what your folly has led to, ladies,” she simpered. “But we have a coup to create and so little time to do it in! We shall return.” With that, the two disappeared in the gathering darkness.
Mina cried. She couldn’t help it; huge tears formed in her eyes and coursed down her cheeks like rainfall. The treasure she had been entrusted to deliver to Sara herself had fallen into the hands of the enemy! Nightingale tried to send her comforting images, but the future looked too bleak for any of them to do much good. The night slowly wore on.
Then, something stirred in the trees directly behind Mina
Its hot breath sent chill up Mina’s spine. And then, a razor-sharp claw flashed in the dark.
It had cut through Mina’s leg bonds!
The creature bounded forward. To Mina’s shock and delight, it was none other than Chlorophyllis!
“You’ve saved us!” cried Mina, as the Liona slashed through her leg bindings and then scampered to free Nightingale. Chlorophyllis bowed and purred, but sent urgent thoughts to the two. They needed to get to Rolandsgaard and stop the Thetans, fast!
“Right! Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action!” Mina cried. “We can plan our strategy on the flight there. Thank you so much, Chlorophyllis!” The Liona bowed again, but sent them an image: following the coast to Rolandsgaard, so as to avoid detection. Nightingale nodded in assent, stretching her wings and tossing her head in anticipation. “Off we go!” Mina announced, grabbing the spilled contents of her bag. They were strewn across the forest floor, as if carelessly flung by the Thetans. She found everything, even the freshwater pearl from the pool diver. Everything except for her slingshot! “We don’t have time to look for it,” she sighed as she leapt onto Nightingale’s back. The mare gave a dramatic rear, and Mia’s apprehension melted away. They waved goodbye to Chlorophyllis as they rose high, high into the lightening sky, with the sea on the horizon.
Mina plotted furiously as Nightingale soared up into the atmosphere.
“They must have a weakness of some sort,” she reasoned, whispering in Nightingale’s ear. The mare nodded and sent her an image of the two Thetans frozen. It was a scene from three days ago, when Mina had slung rocks at them. What about the rocks had made them stop?
“If only I had my slingshot,” she groaned. “We could at least hold them off long enough for…” but even the possibility of a couple minutes’ reprieve from the claws, teeth, and even swords of the two creatures wasn’t very promising. The Thetans would be in Rolandsgaard spreading falsehoods before she and Nightingale would be able to seek out backup. She knew that the legendaries would be able to stop them-there was nothing beyond the abilities of the five magical horses-but for all she knew, Fiona, Jewel, Thunder, and Nike could each be in their far-flung kingdoms, far away from the trouble brewing in the capital. And there wasn’t time to reach Bella!
Nightingale nudged Mina’s boot with her nose, prompting her to return to the plan of attack. “Focus,” she told herself. “From what we know, they’ll be standing in the middle of Canter Hollow, showing people the book and whatever was in the bag.”
Nightingale pictured the great fountain in the plaza central to the town. Yes; that would be the most likely place for them to make an appearance. “Adaira will probably be giving a speech about her so-called ‘history,’ and Garwood will be baring his fangs at anyone who decides to question them.” Nightingale created an according image in her mind, and shuddered. “If only we had proof…” Mina felt around in her bag for anything that could be of assistance. Peach pits, charcoal stumps, a compass, and a map were no good when it came to thwarting evil. If only she were the heroine in one of her favorite stories- they always had some sort of magical device or helpmeet that assured their victory. Mina had…
“The pearl!” she crowed.
Reaching once more into the bag, she drew out the creamy pearl. As large as a plump plumberry and glowing in the morning sun, it looked nothing short of miraculous.
“What other reason would the pool diver have given this to us for?” Mina cried, muddling her words in her excitement. “It just has to help us.” She stared intently at the smooth surface of the pearl, waiting for a vision or a voice; anything!
“We’ll just have to trust in it,” she concluded, slipping it back into her beg. “Perhaps the pearl only works when we are in grave danger.” Nightingale was in the midst of agreement when she let out a resounding trumpet. They had burst through the final layer of maritime clouds, and were now coasting down through the mists shrouding Trail’s End. The sun sparked off of the amethyst towers of Rolandsgaard castle. Rich green fields spread out like a royal carpet, welcoming them to the most magical place in North of North. Mina immediately felt more peaceful, and a surge of confidence suddenly gave a start in her veins. Nightingale gave a good-natured series of crowhops; she was feeling it, too.
“This must be Bella’s magic at work,” Mina breathed. The great white mare had the power to inspire hope and positivity in others. Nothing else could account for the feeling of belonging and enthusiasm that settled over Mina. She was feeling the magic of the first horse, a power as ancient as the land itself!
Anything was possible. As the rooftops of Canter Hollow came into focus through the morning mist, Mina felt that she had a fighting chance.
“To the fountain,” she whispered the Nightingale.
The mare’s hooves hit the cobblestones with a resounding clatter as the sun began to slant through the pillowed sky. A buzz could be heard coming from the town square, where the Thetans were sure to be garnering their share of attention. “Brace yourself,” whispered Mina. Nightingale nodded curtly, and they breezed through the deserted streets to the gathering throng.
The crowds parted as the horse and rider cantered through to the fountain. It was almost dreamlike. The morning mists were slowly burning off, revealing a brilliantly beautiful day. But, the ugly murmuring and suspicious, unhappy looks of the throng made it seem like a pall of stormclouds was hanging low over Canter Hollow. Mina could almost feel the tension buzzing in the air. Just like before a lightning storm, she thought. Nightingale shivered, feeling it too. Then, both started; the acidic glare of Adaira cut through the crowd to jolt them back to the task at hand.
Adaira had been in the middle of her diatribe. The book and the silk bag were lying at her feet, already having been used as visual proof. “And so,” she had been shouting, “the noble Valkyries of North of North were indeed nothing more than a clever ruse, designed to deprive the true heirs to the power of this ancient land: the Thet-”
“Lies!” roared Mina, as Nightingale slid to a stop directly in front of the Thetans and their elevated post. Garwood growled, and his fur ruff seemed to be standing on end, but Mina felt assured that he would do nothing to harm them with so many witnesses.
The crowd ceased their apprehensive muttering and gazed right at Mina and Nightingale. Mina took a deep breath, and continued.
“Adaira and Garwood are trying to mislead you,” she said, attempting to add some semblance of authority to her voice. “They want to take the throne of North of North for themselves, in a coup backed by the people. They are trying to make you believe their lies and follow them. Really, they have been planning this overthrow since the fall of the Valkyrie sisterhood. They have the power of the shadow path!”
Adaira forced out a bark of laughter at this, though it took no genius to understand that she was nervous.
“This young lady must be simply delusional,” Adaira purred, though her expression spoke more of murder than of sympathy. “Poor dear, doesn’t want to believe that her childhood heroes were hardly worthy of her deference…” she trailed off, with a sickly sweet smile. It showed her fangs, though the audience seemed to be too entranced to notice. In fact, they seemed to be registering little: could Adaira and Garwood somehow be enchanting them to follow their cause? Mina shuddered at the thought. She seemed to be losing ground so fast!
A voice entered her head. “How does one combat falsehoods?” it whispered, distantly.
“Reason! Truth!” she exclaimed, aloud. She would save the pearl for a last resort. In the meantime, Mina drew her map out of her bag.
“If you’re so sure that you’re telling the truth,” she said, approaching Adaira from Nightingale’s back, “You won’t mind lending me that book, there.”
If there hadn’t been a throng, hundreds strong, mere feet away, Adaira might have devoured both horse and rider whole. Instead, she merely shot them daggers with her eyes as she wordlessly handed them the book. Its honey-brown cover caught the sunlight, and Mina thought back to how, only days ago, it had been hers, blank, ready to record an adventure.
This adventure isn’t over yet.
There was that voice, again, and it gave Mina hope. She flipped to the final page of the book. At the far lower corner of its illustration, a small but clear mark could be seen. Mina unfolded her map next to it. An identical mark was stamped into the vellum of the map. The mark was a stylized ML: her initials. Every Lind map was marked as such.
“My family are cartographers in Midhaven,” Mina announced. “We always sign our work, and I have proof that I myself wrote and illustrated this very book. It is not centuries old; rather, I, Mina Lind, a twelve-year-old girl, created it only yesterday.”
“You have no proof,” spat Adaira.
“Is there a mapmaker in the audience?” an elderly man with ink-stained hands shuffled forward to answer Mina’s request. “I own the mapmaking shop here in town,” he said. Mina invited him to scrutinize the map and the book. The audience held its breath as he deliberated over the fine lines.
“I recognize the mark,” he finally replied. “It is a variation of the Lind family’s seal, a well-known signature that is applied to every map they make. Besides that, the ink on the pages is as fresh as this morning; it has not been sitting there for thousands of years, as these people claim.”
Adaira chuckled once more. “Meager proof,” she said. “Provide us with more.”
“Very well,” Mina countered. “The Thetans claim that this mare, Nightingale, is their own steed, when in fact they captured her by force.” Nightingale shared with the crowd a quick recount of the events of the past few days, emphatically showing that she had experienced just what Mina described. “Were she their horse, she would agree with their tale, and not mine.”
“Hah! A scribble of ink and a lying nag are hardly pejorative evidence,” Adaira hissed. Garwood was already dancing from foot to foot, anxious. But the battle wasn’t over yet- Mina dismounted Nightingale, to be at the level of the crowd, and drew the pearl from her bag.
The pearl began to glow with the light of the night stars. It slowly swelled and grew, floating upward from her palm, until it was hovering, the size of a paper lantern, high above the heads of the crowd. A scene began to flicker across it: the blue creatures, harassing the Liona, chasing their prey, and then morphing into the humans the crowd saw before them.
Gasps rose up one after another. The crowd started to back away. One woman, tall with graying auburn hair, stepped forward to examine the pearl. “A freshwater gem of the rarest quality,” she said. “Bestowed only by pool divers, who are known to be truthful. This shows a vision of the truth.” Mina turned to the Thetans, triumphant.
“Retract your claims,” Mina said, confronting them. The crowd was now whispering, angry. Adaria and Garwood exchanged nervous glances, but deadly flashes still lit their eyes whenever they looked towards Mina.
“Never,” Adaira barked, under her breath. Then, with a sudden leap, she was standing at the base of the magnificent horse statue crowning the fountain. From far above the throng, she called out:
“In a few generations, your kind will have forgotten us, and we will be back! Garwood! Catch the horse! I will summon the path!”
And with that, chaos broke loose.
Garwood turned into the hulking beast that Mina had first seen him as, and pounced at Nightingale. But she wasn’t there; the mare was tearing off towards the west, wings beating madly as she skimmed the ground. Mina wished she could race after her horse, make sure she was all right. But Adaira was already sprinting off to the south, to summon the Shadow Path! She couldn’t get away with that! Mina turned and pelted after her, legs pumping as fast as her boots could take her. She didn’t know how she could possibly atop the juggernaut of the evil magic Adaira would call forth, but someone had to try!
Adaira skidded onto the polished stones of the Coral Causeway. Mina was losing ground, breathing hard as the long-legged villain raced further and further ahead.
And then, she stopped.
At the brink of the land, Adaira stopped. Mina kept right on sprinting, until she stopped too, a hundred feet away from where Adaira was standing, still as stone. Then, a most peculiar thing happened. Mina took a step back in horror.
The Path was forming.
Particles of darkness- as if such a thing were possible- seemed to materialize from nowhere. Cold and despair crept into Mina’s heart, and she could almost hear the faint whisperings of evil spirits as the path formed. Soon it was a wavering line in the sky, leading up into the atmosphere. Then it solidified, little by little; a road into darkness.
Adaira turned, glowing with malfeasance. “Here we are, little girl,” she spat. “Once my brother arrives with your precious horse, we will leave you. Of course, we’ll need the beast, for our glorious return centuries from now.” At the shocked look on the girl’s face, Adaira laughed and said, “You didn’t know she was immortal, did you? Well, I suppose you won’t ever get the chance to appreciate just what that entails. Were I you, I would run.” To Mina’s terror, she drew her long, glowing sword with a scrape of metal.
She was monologue-ing.
Mina could buy time, as long as she kept the Thetan talking. Meanwhile, she frantically thought: Nightingale! I’m here!
“We can’t have you running around, keeping us from the plan, can we?” she asked, advancing a step. Mina’s reflexes were screaming for flight, but she couldn’t leave! What about Nightingale? She had to stop them from taking her horse! “I’m afraid I’ll just have to do away with you,” Adaira sighed. “You’d be surprised at just how close you came to unhinging our little plan. All because of this-” she took out the red bag- “and by way of this.” She withdrew Mina’s slingshot, broken in two.
“After that little altercation on the Grass Sea, I couldn’t have you interfering with us again,” Adaira continued. “When my brother and I were shot with your insignificant little pebbles, it disrupted the flow of the Shadow Path’s power to us. Without it, we would be long dead. Without it, we freeze.” She stopped to let it sink in. “When you hit us, we were momentarily powerless. And you weren’t there to see what was in this bag, and I don’t think you’ll ever be the wiser.” Another step forward.
Then, Adaira lunged.
Mina dodged the blade, and made a grab for the red bag. She knocked it from Adaira’s hand, and the Thetan turned to strike again, murder in her eyes.
Then, a blast of frigid air came tumbling from above the Goddesswall.
Adaira paused and looked up, distracted. But only for an instant; she hacked at Mina with greater force. Mina leapt to the side, but fell to her knees.
A gust of rain-scented air from the East suddenly whipped Adaira’s long, white hair to the side. The Thetan turned, again distracted, and Mina scrambled to her feet.
Whoosh. Now it came from the West, stronger than ever. Both combatants were knocked to the ground, in the opposite direction.
Adaira surged up, only to be flattened against the stone wall behind her by a blistering gust from the South. She forced herself up, and leveled her blade at mina’s throat.
Stay low, the familiar voice cried in Mina’s head.
Mina threw herself against the causeway, but looked up in time to see four huge storm systems meeting directly above them. Cloud roiled and bubbled, foaming together like waves on the sea. Lightning crackled between them, and thunder rolled in one earsplitting continuum. Ice chunks the size of apples-giant hailstones- battered the ground. The Shadow Path wavered, lost focus, and slowly began to dissolve. In between the thunderheads, Mina could make out the shapes of four winged horses, plunging and rearing in the atmosphere.
The four winds! Boreas, Euros, Zephyros, and Notos had come to their rescue.
Help has come, the familiar voice said again. Presently, Mina made out the form of Nightingale, winding her way through the storm on what seemed like a beam of light. The hail and lightning seemed to bend around her, and Mina once again felt peace wash over her.
They had won!
She stood up, unaware of the pounding hail and rain. Before her, Adaira flickered between her animal and human forms. Her evil blue sword clattered to the ground next to Mina, and slowly, she began to turn to stone. As the hail thickened, she was lost in the torrent.
Nightingale landed near Mina, and the girl swung up onto her back, still dazed. Then, with a shake of her head, she returned to cognizance. “The bag and the sword,” she bellowed over the pounding storm. Mina leapt to the ground and retrieved the items, wrapping the blade in her cloak for safety. It was only then that she realized she also held her pearl tightly in her fist. Mina remounted, racing through the hail, Nightingale whirled. They raced, immune to the ice and wind and rain, up high into the sky.