Excerpt for Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

ALISON HENRY

and the

CREATURES OF TORONE



Smashwords Edition



C. J. Darlington



Published by Mountainview Books, LLC

Alison Henry and the Creatures of Torone

Copyright © 2017 by C. J. Darlington. All rights reserved.

Cover design: Kirk DouPonce, DogEared Design


Edited by Carol Kurtz Darlington



This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.



ISBN: 978-1-941291-37-5 (paper)

ISBN: 978-1-941291-38-2 (ebook)

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Thanks for Reading!

About the Author

Acknowledgments

Also by C. J. DARLINGTON




Jupiter Winds

Jupiter Storm


Thicker than Blood

Bound by Guilt

Ties that Bind

Running on Empty



Chapter 1



The boys were going to kill the buck.

Ali peeked from behind the giant oak tree as they charged through the woods like a herd of elephants. Laughing, joking, waving their rifles around. She knew they’d spotted the buck in the clearing just like she had. When the stag with antlers bigger than her entire body fled, the boys pursued.

“No you don’t,” she said, darting after them.

She dodged from tree to tree, keeping the boys in sight. They were making enough racket that at least the buck would hear them coming, but it might not be in time. High-powered rifle vs. beautiful deer wouldn’t be a fair match. Not at all.

Ali glanced down at her bow made from a hickory branch and parachute cord. Her dad had helped her craft it right before he left for deployment, and every day she feared it was the last project she’d ever make with him. It was strong and the arrows were sharp enough to lodge into wood, but they’d be no match for a rifle either.

Suddenly the guys stopped. The leader held up his hand.

“You hear something?”

She froze, her face pressed against the bark of a pine tree. Pungent sap stuck to her cheek, but she didn’t move to wipe it away. Bo Sorrels was fifteen, three years older than she and at least a foot taller. Blond hair, freckles, and a moustache that would’ve taken her father two days to grow but had probably taken Bo twenty.

“I totally heard something, dude.”

Six boots crunched in the dry undergrowth of the forest, far too close to her.

“Yeah. The buck,” said the second boy, Tank Mitchell, whose voice hadn’t changed yet. He was Bo’s cousin, and even though they were the same age he looked like Bo’s kid brother.

Ali didn’t know who the third kid was. His hair was dyed red like a Ronald McDonald wig.

“No, I’m serious,” Bo said.

Please just keep moving.

Ali couldn’t risk another peek around the tree, but at least every minute they spent here meant the buck had a greater chance to get away.

“Whoa!”

She heard the buck’s hooves hit the leaves, and the boys forgot everything but chasing the animal. It wasn’t even deer season, but since when had Bo or his buddies ever stuck to the rules? She’d seen him smoking outside school and her dad said to keep away from him, but she couldn’t watch them poach such a beautiful animal for sport.

The boys were running now, crashing through the underbrush, and Ali trailed silently behind them. A rabbit darted across her path, nearly tripping her.

“There he is! Go!”

No, no, no.

Ali threw stealth away and hurled herself over the dead leaves, fallen sticks, and ferns. She had to stop them.

A flash of white in the trees told her exactly where the scared buck was, and he was far too close. Then he suddenly stopped in his tracks.

The boys did too.

“Shoot him.”

Bo raised his rifle.

“Nooo!” Ali screamed, and even though the boys were far ahead of her she saw their heads turn in her direction.

She charged for them, eating up the ground with her legs. Her thighs already ached from running all the way out here from school, but she forced herself to go even faster. Trees flew by her in a kaleidoscope of green and brown, and she thought of her father again. Was he running and ducking enemy fire even now? Was he thinking of her? Would he be mad at her for confronting these boys?

“Stop it!” Ali pulled an arrow from the quiver she’d made out of an old mailing tube and rope. Was she really going to threaten to shoot?

Bo sighted down the rifle, and Ali honed in on him. She couldn’t risk missing her shot and instead channeled every ounce of energy she had left into that final sprint across the forest floor. She led with her shoulder and slammed into Bo’s ribcage.

Her shoulder pulsed in pain from the impact, and Bo stumbled two feet to the side with a grunt as he pulled the trigger.

His shot went wide, and the deer jumped away. Tank and the other guy fired wildly in the direction the buck ran, but she didn’t see the majestic animal drop. Ali shoved Bo again with both hands, calling him a name her dad would’ve punished her for using.

This time he braced against her with a laugh. “Ooh, look at you, tough girl.”

“You could’ve killed him!”

“Yeah, that is the point of this.” Bo held up his rifle. “And now you’ve made me miss.”

She squared her shoulders. “I’m glad I did.”

“I don’t like to miss, girl.”

“Come on, Bo. Let’s go after it,” Red Hair said.

Bo glanced over his shoulder. “He’s gone. She’s not.”

Ali scanned the woods hoping not to see the buck, but then she caught sight of that rack of antlers behind a tree trunk and knew he hadn’t gone far. These boys couldn’t discover how close the buck was, but she knew she was no match for three teen boys.

So Ali did the only thing she could think to do.

She ran.



Chapter 2



Ali imagined herself as a white-tailed doe. She darted around the huge pine, kicking up dust and leaves, not caring anymore if she made noise. All she needed to do was get those boys away from the buck.

“Slow pokes!” she called, knowing it would provoke them. “Turtles!”

Except the boys were faster than she bargained for. It helped that their legs were probably twice hers in length.

She heard their breaths coming hard as she vaulted over a log across the game trail they probably hadn’t even seen. She had that on her side. She knew these woods. But with dusk approaching it was getting harder to see.

“Go, go!” Bo yelled.

Ali stopped taunting and concentrated on running. Her chest was starting to hurt, but she pushed onward. Slide down the embankment, avoid that puddle. Jump over that weird bush whose name she couldn’t remember.

“Split up!”

She risked a check behind herself. Bo held his rifle in one hand and leapt over the rock she just passed.

How far was she from home? She hadn’t kept track when she trailed the buck. A mile? Two?

Ali bore down hard, for the first time glad her father made her join the track team. He said she needed to do something with her energy, not mope around the house reading books or wandering in the woods backed up to their cabin. She needed an outlet, he said, for when she was frustrated or angry or sad.

She knew he really wanted her to focus on anything other than the fact that he was leaving her for two years with his spinster aunt who smelled like incense and sold herbs for a living. At least Aunt Maggie had agreed to come live in their cabin.

But track only distracted her a few hours a week. The rest of the time she read books and wandered the woods. The birds didn’t taunt. The silver fox she sometimes saw bouncing in the hollow didn’t look at her like she had a disease. Even the garter snake she found sunning itself on a rock was silent, never calling her “slow” like her math teacher Mrs. Dunning. Didn’t anyone ever think about the fact that maybe she just didn’t enjoy adding up figures? That her brain was wired for open space instead of decimals and coefficients?

Ali felt herself slowing as she neared home. Her quads screamed for her to give up and stop, drop, and roll in the dirt, fire or not. Sweat formed on her face despite the cool evening air.

She unzipped her green hoodie, hoping to vent off some of the heat building up around her body, but it did little good.

Ali didn’t see the root until her foot hit it.

Hard.

And then she was flying.

But not around a track with a finish line in sight. In the split second she was airborne she threw her bow to the side so she wouldn’t land on it and break it.

She hit the dirt with her shoulder first, trying to curl herself into a roll and minimize damage. But all the breath in her lungs left her, just like her dad had. She rolled onto her back, trying not to freak out over the fact that she couldn’t breathe.

It wasn’t the first time she had the wind knocked out of her, but survival instinct was a hard beast to slay. Air! She needed air! It wasn’t a bad way to die, she thought. Lying in the leaves staring up at the canopy of oak trees.

But Ali didn’t see the trees.

She looked up into the face of Bo Sorrels.



Chapter 3



Gazelle. That’s what we should call you.” Bo grinned and didn’t reach to help her get up.

Ali gulped, a strange gurgling ack! the only resulting sound.

“She can’t breathe.”

“Good,” Bo said. He crouched down beside Ali, still holding the rifle, the stock of which he rested on the ground by her head.

“Bo, come on.”

It might’ve been Red Hair speaking.

“Get up, gazelle.”

Finally, she wheezed in two gulps of oxygen.

Everything about her unfair life that track hadn’t cured came to the surface, and she almost punched Bo in the face. But the same survival instinct that had guided her earlier stopped her now. A guy like Bo wouldn’t care if she was a girl. He’d retaliate. And he was already ticked off.

She stumbled onto all fours, then to her feet. Where was her bow? The makeshift quiver and arrows still rattled around on her back. Luckily she hadn’t crushed them.

Bo shoved her in the chest with the palm of his hand, and Ali nearly fell over again.

“Who do you think you are, punk?”

“Thought you wanted to call me gazelle.”

Tank snickered. He was standing a few feet behind Bo with his arms crossed, Red Hair beside him. She finally remembered his name was Jonas only because she had a CD of the Jonas Brothers, and the guy looked like he belonged in a band. Another thing that made her weird to the kids at school. She still had a CD player and liked old music.

Bo sent a glare Tank’s way, and the boy raised both hands in surrender. “Hey, come on. Let’s get going.”

But apparently she’d done the inexcusable. She made Bo look weak in front of his buddies. A twelve-year-old girl had stopped him from taking down his buck.

“I’ll report you to the game warden,” Ali said.

Bo pushed her again. “You don’t even have a cell phone.”

Ali tried to stand her ground, but he was using all his strength. She ended up back-peddling through the dry leaves, falling to one knee and getting back up again. Lying on the ground was not where she wanted to be with these guys on the prowl.

He was right about the cell phone, but the cabin had a landline and she had an old computer. But she didn’t even know if there was a game warden in McCutcheon County or whether they’d care if a kid like Bo went around shooting innocent wildlife for fun.

She’d already seen him take down a squirrel for no reason, and it had taken a week for her to stop thinking about it. What if that one had been the gray she talked to about her deepest fears?

Bo tried to hand his rifle to Tank who looked at him like he was crazy.

“What are you doing?”

“Just take it!”

Tank finally did. Ali wanted to run again, but her legs felt like putty.

“Were you following us?” Bo’s grin disappeared.

“You don’t own the woods,” Ali snapped.

“Neither do you.”

Maybe she should try to run anyway.

Before she could admit to herself her father had been right about Bo, she saw him reach behind his back under his coat. He whipped out a bone-handled hunting knife and sliced at the air.

“I’ve heard about you,” Bo said. “Dad gone, living with a crazy aunt . . . no one left to protect you.”

Ali’s heart was already pumping blood through her veins faster than a hummingbird flapped its wings, but she felt something zap her insides at Bo’s threat. Alison Henry would stand her ground, just like she imagined her father would. Had he ever faced an adversary stronger than he was?

Bo jabbed toward her, sending another slice of the blade near her stomach. He laughed. His friends did not. They just stood like idiots and watched.

Ali spotted her bow on the ground three feet away. She dove for it and brandished it like a staff, ready to defend herself. It would probably break at the first blow, but it would be something.

“Ooh, I’m so scared,” Bo mocked, holding his hand over his chest.

Did she have enough time to nock an arrow? At this point, she could shoot him in the arm or leg and be completely justified. It might give her a chance.

The knife came at her again, but this time Ali wasn’t fast enough. She felt it slice into her thigh and she screamed, grabbing at her leg.

“That’ll teach you, little—”

A thundering sound cut off his words, and all three boys gaped at something behind her. Bo tried to yank his rifle from Tank, but Tank was shaking his head from side to side and backing away from Ali. Jonas’s eyes widened like he’d seen Bigfoot.

“What in the world . . .” Bo stood with his legs spread, still holding the knife, but he wasn’t focused on her anymore.

A vibration in the ground reverberated up through her sneakers.

Branches cracked. Leaves rustled.

Tank and Jonas turned on their heels and ran. Bo sent a glance over his shoulder at his friends.

“Cowards!” he yelled.

Ali spun around and could barely believe what she saw. Tearing toward them, hooves churning the ground, was the buck. He lowered his massive antlers and headed straight for Bo.

The would-be killer had become the prey.

Ali dove behind the nearest tree trunk and almost closed her eyes. Bo was a thug, but she didn’t want to watch him mauled.

Only twenty feet separated them, and Bo took one more look at the galloping stag before he turned and ran after his friends. She didn’t think she’d ever seen a boy bolt that fast. Or scream like a girl.

Ali would’ve laughed if she wasn’t so scared. A part of her thought it would be justice to have the buck actually hurt him, but she knew an eye for an eye wasn’t the way she was supposed to live.

The buck tore past her with a bellow, his rack still lowered. Ali peeked out from behind the tree. She almost thought she saw smoke shoot from the buck’s nose, but maybe it was just condensation from the cooling night.

One of the boys yelled in the distance and another volleyed back, their voices quickly fading. She watched the brown buck charge a few more yards, and then he stopped and snorted.

Ali ducked back behind the tree and reached for her thigh. It was coated in blood. Bo’s knife had sliced a four-inch gash in her jeans and skin. It didn’t hurt as badly as she would’ve expected, but if she didn’t get it cleaned up soon she was risking infection. Aunt Maggie was gonna freak.

“Stupid animals.”

The male voice made Ali jump to her feet. Had the guys circled back? Still hiding behind the tree, she nocked an arrow to her bow string. She might have to limp home, but she wasn’t going anywhere without a defense.

“You better run!”

There it was again. A man’s voice. Ali scanned the clearing and saw no sign of Bo, Tank, Jonas, or anyone else. She could still see the back of the stag and stood for a moment watching him like she had been before all this began. She’d spotted his huge form, which was bigger than most normal deer, right as she was having a good cry. Ali wiped her face with the back of her clean hand. She could still feel the stickiness of her tears.

Only minutes ago she’d forgotten what those mean girls had called her, and all that mattered was this beautiful buck. Then of course the boys had shown up.

“Stay safe, buck,” she whispered to him and turned to walk the long way home.

Suddenly the deer swung around and faced her. In the waning light he was becoming another shadow in the woods, but she could make out the almost-gold highlights of his brown coat that blended darker on his belly and legs. He was unlike any deer she’d ever seen in real life, but he reminded her of the red deer she heard about in National Geographic whose antler racks could grow to as wide as a meter.

His rack looked more like an elk than a deer, and there was something about the way his mouth, which was white around the muzzle, seemed to twitch. His eyes bore right through her.

Ali froze, lowering her bow. She didn’t want him to think she meant him harm. But she also wasn’t stupid. She’d just seen him charge, and she couldn’t imagine what an antler through her stomach would feel like.

“I’m just going home,” she said.

The buck pawed once at the ground with his front hoof. “If you could hear me, fawn, I’d thank you.”

Ali gasped, stumbling back a step. It was the same voice she heard moments ago only louder, and it seemed to come straight from the buck. Ali closed her eyes and shook her head. No, no. That was totally impossible. Maybe her father had been right all along and she spent too much time in the woods.

The buck came closer. His nose wriggled as he smelled the air. Then his jaw moved up and down once, like he was chewing a leaf.

“I will be on my way too.”

Ali’s hand flew to her mouth. She dropped her arrow. Instinct told her to run just like Bo, but a stronger part of her couldn’t move an inch. Had the buck’s lips really just moved?

She glanced around the clearing for signs of anyone else who could’ve just spoken to her, but there wasn’t a soul, and even if there was there was no way they’d be able to project their voice so it sounded like it came straight from the deer’s mouth.

Ali rubbed her eyes then blinked hard a few times. She was dreaming, right? She’d fallen asleep on a bed of moss and would wake up and have to race home and come up with an excuse for Aunt Maggie.

But her leg throbbed. Ali touched the fabric, still wet with warm blood. You didn’t experience pain in a dream, right?

“Did you . . .”—she slowly reached down for her arrow, which had fallen onto her sneaker—“just say something?”

If a buck’s eyes could widen, this one’s did. He shook his head and something like a grumble came out.

Ali stood up straighter. “Because I think I just heard you talk.”

“That’s impossible. You’re but a child.”

There it was again. A deep, gruff voice with the hint of an accent that sounded British or maybe Irish. Had Bo circled around to pretend to be the buck’s voice so she’d look like an idiot?

“If it’s impossible, then why am I hearing you?”

The buck tossed his head again, staring at her with those eyes. Like dark chocolate marbles, they seemed to pierce her right in the heart.

“That’s a very good question.” The buck’s lips didn’t really move, but they made a twitching motion, and he crossed the clearing until he stood right in front of her.

Ali had never been tall for her age, but she sure wished she was right now. She had to look up a few inches into the buck’s face. He touched her arm with his wet nose.

“Why did you fight those boys?”

Ali swallowed, but her throat felt parched. The voice really was coming from him. When he stood this close, she could hear it slipping out of his mouth.

“I couldn’t let them hurt you.”

The deer made a noise that sounded like hmph.

“Am I going crazy?” Ali said softly.

“I don’t know. Are you?”

She started to laugh at the absurdity of her question, and the buck’s apparent answer. Crazy people didn’t know they were crazy.

“Animals . . . they don’t just talk,” she finally said.

“Don’t they?” The buck leaned down and sniffed her leg.

Ali reached to touch his neck then drew back. He might not like that. But she wondered what his hair would feel like under her fingers. It looked soft, like a thick terrycloth towel.

“No one will believe me,” Ali said. “I can’t tell anybody this is happening.”

The buck pulled up and stared at her. “What is your name?”

“How do I know this is real?”

With a snort, he glanced up at the tops of the trees, like he was searching for something. “Your moon will be setting soon. We’ll have to hurry.” He turned back to her. “Now what is your name, fawn, before I lose my patience?”

Ali blinked again. She was almost positive she wasn’t dreaming.

Another grumbling noise seemed to rise in the buck’s throat. “Do they not teach manners in this world?”

“What?”

“You do have names here, correct?”

Ali slowly removed her arrow from the string and tucked it back into her quiver. She could feel pain. She could see clearly and hear with her own ears that this buck was talking.

“What do you mean this world?”

“I mean exactly what I said.”

“You’re from another world?”

“Realm, actually.”

Ali spun around, checking behind her one last time for Bo and the other guys.

“What are you looking for?”

“Someone has to be playing a trick on me.”

“Why would they do that?”

“To make me look stupid.”

The buck’s ears twitched, and he glanced up at the trees again. The forest was quickly darkening. For the first time, she began to worry about finding her way home. She knew these woods better than anyone, but it would be slow going if she didn’t get home soon.

“We must travel quickly.” Nudging her arm with his nose, the buck took a few steps away, looking back as if he expected her to follow.

She pointed in the opposite direction. “I live that way.”

“But you’re coming with me.” The buck circled back around.

Ali fingered her bow. She’d like nothing more than to escape somewhere with a talking animal, but inside she knew she probably was imagining all this as some sort of coping mechanism. Somehow she had to keep it to herself or Aunt Maggie would tell her father, and then he’d worry. He had enough on his plate fighting overseas. He didn’t need to be worrying about his only daughter.

The buck pawed once at the ground. “Why didn’t they tell me humans here were so difficult?”


“I’m glad you’re okay, but I have to go,” Ali said.

“Perhaps I’m going about everything wrong.” The buck pranced away from her. Then he came back, staring straight into her face. His expression wasn’t threatening, but the intensity she felt radiating from him was almost palpable.

“My name is Artemis,” he finally said, though again his lips didn’t actually open. “May I have the privilege of knowing yours?”

She couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her. The deer sounded like he belonged in a royal court.

“Ali,” she responded.

Artemis gave a slight bow of his head in response. “You must understand. I came here for one purpose. To bring back The Interpreter.”

“The wh—”

“You. I came to bring back you.”



Chapter 4



I think there’s been some mistake,” Ali said.

“You are the first person I have met who can hear me. It’s part of the prophecy, though I admit I expected someone older.” He seemed to look her over.

She cocked her head. “How many people have you met?”

“Enough,” Artemis said.

She slipped her bow over her shoulder. “So you’re from another world and came here to find someone called The Interpreter. And you believe that’s me?”

Artemis grumbled under his breath again. “That is exactly what I just said.”

“It makes no sense.”

“Fawn, some things never make sense. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true.”

She thought about that for a moment. It didn’t make sense her father had to go away, but he promised he was coming back—something she knew he could never guarantee. She was still glad he said it. At night, lying in bed staring up at the mobile of stars she’d hung from her ceiling fan, she remembered his voice and how he’d taken her hands in his, completely enveloping them.

“How did you get here?” she asked Artemis.

“In my land the oak is called the Prophecy Tree.” Artemis’s ear flicked. “Here it looks like all the other trees.”

“You came through a tree?”

“Do you not believe me?”

“Can I see it?”

Artemis seemed to consider the idea then trotted off.

She supposed he expected her to follow. Ali blew out a breath and took off after him, limping as she went. When Artemis got way ahead, she saw him glance back before doubling back.

“Hold on,” she said, ripping off the bottom edge of her T-shirt.

The buck watched her as she sat down in the leaves and tied off her throbbing wound. It might need stitches, but she’d have to wait. At least this would keep the bleeding under control.

Artemis hovered above her so close she could feel his breath on her neck. It sent a shiver of excitement through her. This creature should be scared of her, as she should be of it. What if other animals could talk, but people never took the time to listen?

She climbed to her feet and tried her leg. She’d have to go slow, but at least it didn’t completely give out on her.

“Okay, let’s go.”

But Artemis was staring at her again. He sniffed her leg one more time and came around to the front of her with a huff. He seemed to be waiting for her to do something.

“What?” she said.

Artemis snorted. “You may get on my back.”

She couldn’t help the grin that pulled at her mouth. “Seriously?”

“But you must never tell anyone.”

It was harder to climb onto him than she expected. After many false starts and a few groans on both their parts, Ali finally pulled herself up onto the talking deer.

“What do I hold on to?”

“My neck.”

“But—”

Artemis didn’t wait for her to finish and trotted off again. Ali nearly toppled to the ground at first but managed to squeeze him with her legs and stabilize herself with her hands. It wasn’t as comfortable a ride as she would have imagined, but it was easier than walking.

After a few minutes Artemis stopped in front of a huge oak tree she’d passed many times before. She’d even carved her name down low on one of the roots which stuck up out of the ground. It dumped a truckload of acorns every fall. She tried making acorn pancakes out of them one year, but Dad wouldn’t let her eat more than one for fear she’d get sick. She didn’t admit to him that even just one made her stomach turn against her.

“Here,” Artemis said.

“This is the tree?”

That same groan she was beginning to realize meant he was irritated came from him.

“Right. Of course.” Ali slipped off his back and yelped at the jolt of pain that flew up her leg. She limped over to the tree. “It looks like a normal oak. I’ve seen it before.”

“There is a cleft in the other side,” Artemis said. “Large enough to slip through.”

“I know, but I’ve been in it. It didn’t transport me to another world.”

Artemis walked around the tree. The moon had risen in the sky, and even though it wasn’t fully dark yet it cast a silver glow across the tree.

“It activates with the full moon.”

Ali followed him. The hollowed-out portion of the oak looked black and foreboding. “Why hasn’t someone found it before?”

“Some have.” The deer pranced in place, watching the moon again. “We must hurry.”

“I can’t just leave my home.”

Artemis sighed. “What if I told you many lives are at stake?”

“What?”

“My land is in turmoil. Evil men rule because we have no voice, and the rightful heir to the throne remains in exile.”

“I don’t understand.”

He pawed at the ground several times. “Listen, fawn. Please!” Ali was surprised at how desperate the buck sounded, and she gave him a slight nod to continue.

“Many years ago men and animals could communicate. We lived in harmony. But as generations passed, humans no longer listened.”

This was starting to sound really, really weird, and if Ali could’ve run she might have. But Artemis’s face was so sincere and earnest that she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“We must be able to communicate if we are to survive and protect our rightful queen,” Artemis said.

“Queen?”

Artemis nudged her in the arm with his nose. “It was foretold that in our most dire need we would find The Interpreter in the land beyond the Prophecy Tree. Every moon cycle we have sent someone to search for him. Or her, I suppose.”

She backed up a few steps. The sun had fully set, and the forest was enveloped in gloom. Artemis was quickly becoming a dark creature she should’ve left alone. Ali concentrated hard on the pounding in her leg, hoping she’d wake up from this strange dream.

“I need to get home,” she said, turning away from the buck.

Then she saw the flashlights bobbing up the hill, and the voices of Bo, Tank, and Jonas echoed through the forest.

Artemis heard them too. He pulled at her sleeve with his teeth.

“Fawn, now is the time. We must go before it’s too late.”

She spun toward him. She’d read stories about lands hidden in wardrobes or behind waterfalls. Always she longed for them to be real. Escaping to another realm sounded exciting and made her feel like maybe, just maybe, she could be someone special and make a difference. But right now all she felt was afraid. For herself and Artemis.

“Go,” she said. “You’re not safe here.”

“And you are?”

“I can hide,” she said.

And she could. It might not be comfortable, but she’d lie on her belly behind the tree and cover herself with leaves if she had to. Bo and his gang would never find her. But before she could turn away, Artemis did something that changed her life forever.



Chapter 5



In one lightning-fast bound Artemis grabbed her sleeve with his teeth again and yanked her toward the tree.

The move surprised her so much that she didn’t have time to resist. He gave another jerk, and suddenly she was sitting on her rear inside the tree surrounded by an inky-darkness as thick as tar.

“Artemis?”

Ali reached toward where the tree opening would be. She felt nothing but air.

“Artemis!”

Panic bubbled inside her. Small, dark spaces never had made her feel warm and fuzzy. She stood and took two steps in the direction of the opening that would free her from the tree. Ali closed her eyes and opened them again. She should be seeing, at the very least, the light of the moon.

Instead she saw nothing, as if her eyes were still closed, and silence rang in her ears.

All at once it felt like she was freefalling from the top of the Empire State Building in a broken elevator. She screamed. A sharp pain jolted up her leg, and she instinctively clutched at it. What was happening? Where was the buck?

Just as quickly as it began, she felt a jolt in her feet and all was still. Ali reached her hands out in front of her, but her fingers didn’t meet wood. How in the world . . . the hollowed-out tree wasn’t more than three feet wide in its center. She’d barely fit when she explored it last summer. How could it have gotten larger?

Ali spun around and finally saw a sliver of moonlight. She rushed toward it and nearly fell out of the big oak tree, clutching her thigh with one hand and her bow with the other.

She was still in a forest, but everything had changed. Ali lifted her face toward the moon and stared in awe. Moments ago it had been a small disk hovering in the sky. Now it was five times that size, illuminating the forest like a spotlight. Trees as straight as pencils reached for the night sky, and what looked like luminescent ferns glowed on the forest floor.

Ali twirled around, trying to take it all in. Was this really happening? Had Artemis been telling her the truth, or was she still dreaming?

Something stirred in the trees, and Ali jumped. It sounded like bird wings fluttering. Big bird wings.

“Hello?” She pulled an arrow from her quiver. “Is anyone there?”

More fluttering, and a branch snapped and fell to the ground right in front of her. Ali craned to see the top of the tree. The oak was completely different from the one she entered moments before. She’d seen a postcard on a rack in the gas station of a tree so large they carved out a pathway for a car to drive through. This tree looked that big and had bark like a giant redwood.

She pointed her weapon upward, squinting to see in the darkness.

“This isn’t funny!” she called.

Wings swooshed behind her.

“No, it is not,” a deep voice growled.

Ali spun around and almost had a heart attack. A huge black dog crouched in the clearing. That would’ve been frightening enough, but this dog had wings as black as its fur that slowly folded down on its back.

The massive dog’s legs were spread wide, its teeth bared. “Who. Are. You?”

She was hearing this creature’s voice too.

Ali aimed at the dog’s chest. If it pounced and tried to kill her she’d have one shot to take it down.

The dog took a step toward her. “Are you deaf?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t want to hurt you, but stay where you are.”

The dog’s nose crinkled. Its head was nearly at her eye level. Limbs as lanky as a greyhound pulsed with muscle. The fur on the back of its neck stood straight up, but Ali couldn’t take her eyes off those wings.

“What . . . are you?” she finally said.

Her question seemed to puzzle the dog. Its head cocked, but it remained crouched like it was ready to jump on her. It crept forward another step.

Ali kept her bow steady. “Please don’t.”

“You smell human.” The dog sniffed the air distastefully again.

“I am human.”

“Impossible.”

“Believe what you want.”

“No human I know can hear me.”

“Well, apparently I can.”

The dog’s wings unfurled slightly. “How did you get here?”

She wasn’t sure how much to say or who she could trust. Artemis seemed to have disappeared.

“The tree,” Ali said.

In the moonlight she saw the dog’s eyes dart toward the oak. Another throaty rumble came from his throat.

“Look, I didn’t ask to come here,” Ali said. “I was just trying to help the buck . . . Artemis. He said I was an interpreter or something. I told him I wasn’t, but—”

“Artemis brought you?”

She wasn’t sure, but it seemed like the mention of the buck’s name caused the dog to relax ever so slightly.

“Yes. Do you know him?”

A blast of wind made them both glance over at the tree, and Ali forgot about defending herself as Artemis stepped out. He seemed huge standing in front of her back home, but if it was possible, he seemed even larger now. And his antlers—before they looked like normal deer antlers only larger. Now they sparkled with color in the moonlight, surrounded by a mist or smoke or something.

It felt like forever passed before Ali could find her voice again. “Would someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Artemis walked over to them. “Peace, Bailador. She is with me.”

“That’s not explaining,” Ali said.

“Lower your weapon, fawn.”

She slowly did. “I need to get home!”

Artemis and the dog Bailador looked at each other. Bailador padded over to them on silent paws. She tried not to flinch as his cold nose touched her arm, sniffing at her shirt, then her leg.

“She is wounded,” he said.

“We will take her to a healer,” Artemis responded.

“Is she really human?”

“She is.”

“I didn’t expect The Interpreter to be so . . . young.”

“Nor did I.”

Ali glanced from dog to deer as they conversed about her as if she wasn’t there. Artemis really was from another realm. For some reason she was having an easier time accepting that than the fact that this dog had wings.

“Excuse me,” she interrupted.

The animals looked at her sharply, and Ali swallowed. “Sorry.”

“Speak, fawn,” Artemis said.

“I can’t stay here.”

Bailador snorted. “You don’t have a choice.”

That made her stand up straighter. She pointed at Artemis with the tip of her bow. “You brought me here against my will. Where I come from, you can’t just do that.”

“Against your will?”

“I told you I had to go home.”

Artemis raised his neck, and those antlers glowed again. Okay, she wasn’t imagining. That was smoke rising from them.

“Fawn.”

The way he said it—with such intensity and in that baritone voice—made Ali truly feel like a baby animal in the presence of her sire. Which only made her think of Dad and what he would say about her running off like this. But if she could somehow do what these animals needed and get back home before Aunt Maggie realized anything was wrong, should she try?

Artemis approached her, and she willed herself to stand up tall in front of him. His gaze held the same gravity as his voice, but Ali realized she felt no fear. He was enormous and could’ve killed her with one toss of that giant head, yet he had saved her from Bo. She might not trust the dog—not yet at least—but Artemis compelled her to believe him.

He was standing two feet from her now. The moonlight reflected the moisture on his nose. She could tell he was about to speak again by the way his muzzle twitched.

“I would never have taken you against your will,” Artemis said.

Bailador grumbled, “We don’t have time for this.”

Artemis flicked his tail, still facing Ali. He sent a glance toward the tree. It also seemed to emit a glow.

Ali rested her bow on the ground and leaned on it like a staff. Her leg was really burning now, and she gently touched the wound again. It felt hot and wet.

“I don’t understand any of this,” she said.

“Search within yourself,” Artemis said. “Has there always been a yearning, an unfulfilled desire to speak with the creatures of the wood?”

Ever since she could remember.

“I do not fully understand this myself.” Artemis touched her arm with his cold nose, and it sent goose bumps across her skin. “But our realms have been connected for generations. Once many years ago, the first of your people crossed over to ours, and the woods were never the same.”

Bailador sat down on his haunches. “If I’d wanted a history lesson—”

“Some say the humans brought a balance to our world, and for a long time it was true. They protected the animals, and we them. We worked together. We communicated.”

“You could speak to each other?” Ali asked.

“Yes,” Artemis said.

“What happened?”

“Evil entered their hearts.” Artemis’s body seemed to deflate for a second as he contemplated his words. “It happened slowly. A generation passed before the silence settled on our land. Now the gap between man and animals is wide at the time when we need each other most. A man who has no right to the throne has set himself upon it, allying himself with foreign beasts that care for nothing but bloodshed.”

Ali’s heart went out to the big buck that had pulled her from her world to help save his own. Could she really blame him?

“Where exactly am I?” Ali finally said.

“So you will help us?”

Ali let out a sigh. “I don’t see what I can do, but yes. I’ll try.”

Bailador slunk toward both of them, his wings still lying on his back. Ali had the strongest desire to reach out and touch the feathers. Would they feel like a bird’s or have a different texture altogether?

The dog raised his nose, sniffed the air, and sat down on his haunches in front of Ali, just staring at her.

“What?” Ali said.

“I guess we’re stuck with you,” Bailador replied.

Artemis shook his head. “Forgive me, fawn. I have forgotten my manners. You asked where you are.”

Was it a parallel universe? She’d heard those were possible. Or had she somehow traveled through space and was now on another planet? Ali stared up at the moon, recognizing none of the dark craters.

“Stand, Bailador.” Artemis waved his antlers in the winged dog’s direction.

He obeyed, standing beside the buck.

“I apologize that there are only two of us,” Artemis said in a solemn tone. “But welcome, fawn, to the land of Torone.”



Chapter 6



Torone. The word rolled off Ali’s tongue like a sweet caramel. She wanted to quiz Artemis on where exactly Torone was, but before she could get the question out Bailador jumped to his feet, the hair on the back of his neck spiking.

Artemis spun around to where the winged dog’s nose pointed.

“Kozas. Close,” Bailador said.

Artemis’s tail shot into the air.

Ali edged closer to the buck, feeling safer with him by her side. “What is—”

“Hush, fawn.”

She started to speak again, but Artemis nearly growled at her. Bailador crouched low, his nose wiggling in the moonlight.

“Nock your arrow,” Artemis whispered.

Ali didn’t hesitate and pulled an arrow from her quiver.

“There’s just one,” Bailador said. “I think.”

Pulling her bow string taut, Ali aimed in the direction they faced. Her breath condensed in the chilled air, and she shifted her weight onto her right leg, trying to relieve the pain. She hoped this healer they spoke of would have something to help her.

The moon slipped behind a cloud, casting them into shadows that made Ali’s skin crawl. A rancid smell, like rotting food, hit her nose. She wanted to ask Artemis what it was, but his tone had surprised her. The buck was afraid, even though she’d seen him chase off three boys with guns.

Instinct told her to flee, but she didn’t dare.

“How close?” Artemis whispered.

A roar blasted through the clearing before Bailador could answer.

Ali screamed as a monster burst through the trees. She froze, and it felt like the wind had been knocked out of her again. The beast was as tall as a person and walked on two feet, but hair covered its whole body. Its face was more like a ram than a human, and two huge, curled horns protruded from the sides of its head. A minotaur? She’d seen illustrations of the mythological animals in books, but they were just that. A myth. Yet here one was charging at her and swinging a gleaming axe in an arc, baring its pointed teeth. The beast roared again, a deep-throated yell that seemed to come straight from the depths of evil itself.

She let her arrow fly, and the koza bellowed as sharp wood met the flesh of its arm. With no hesitation it ripped the arrow free and flung it to the ground. If she thought wounding it would slow it down, she was wrong. She’d only angered it.

“Stop right there!” Ali aimed for the koza’s chest, hoping it couldn’t see the tremor in her arm.

Its head cocked. “Vile things,” it spat. “You will die tonight.”

“The only thing that’s vile and dying is you,” Ali shouted. “If you come one foot closer I will shoot again!”

Artemis nudged her shoulder with his antler. “Fawn, we must run. It is our only hope.”

The strange koza swung the axe toward them again, and Ali knew the buck was right. But she would only slow them down. It had been hard enough to ride Artemis at a walk. She wouldn’t be able to stay on him at a run.

“I’ll hold it off,” she said. “You two go.”

“We will not leave you.”

“Do you want us all to die?”

“Yes,” the monster hissed, lumbering toward them. “You will all die.”

Ali hesitated for a split second. Was she ready to take a life? She knew she could not miss. Her father had taught her that if she ever pointed a weapon at someone, she must only do so for one reason—to kill in self-defense. You did not shoot to wound if your life was on the line. But she had never killed another living creature, vile or not. She was the one who rescued moths that got stuck in the kitchen window and who carried crickets up from the basement to set them free in the backyard. She’d only ever shot her arrow at a target far in the woods.

“Don’t test me! I’ll shoot!”

She thought of her father facing off the enemy on the battlefield. Had he ever killed someone? What would he do if he was in her shoes?

Then the beast was charging them, that gleaming axe ready to end their lives. Ali could not let this—whatever—harm her new friends.

She shot straight for its chest.

For a split second she thought she’d hit her mark, but then the arrow bounced off and she saw in the waning moonlight that the koza was wearing some sort of leather breastplate across its hairy chest.

Ali frantically pulled another arrow from her quiver, but before she could notch it the koza was upon them. She scrambled backward, barely avoiding being decapitated. She yelled for Artemis and Bailador to escape while they could, but they paid her no heed.

Artemis swung around and rammed the koza in the side with his antler rack. Bailador leapt for the monster’s axe-wielding arm, latching on with his teeth. But the koza swung at Artemis with a hand the size of Ali’s head, landing a blow to the buck’s side that sent him halfway across the clearing.

Ali fired another arrow at its neck. By its scream, she knew she’d hit the thing, but it didn’t seem to be slowed. It grabbed Bailador by a wing and yanked hard.

The dog yelped, and the cry went straight through Ali. Was this beast really going to kill them?

Artemis recovered and charged toward the koza again, antlers lowered, hooves eating up the ground.

The creature seemed to anticipate the move and spun toward Artemis, tossing Bailador to the ground as effortlessly as if he were a pillow.

Bailador yipped then lay still.

Artemis was ten feet away, aiming right for the koza’s side. But before he could land his head butt, it reached out and snatched at his antlers with a meaty, hairy fist, lifting Artemis off the ground.

“Did you really think you would defeat me?” The koza’s voice grated through the air.

Artemis’s hooves waved in the air, and he twisted and writhed to free himself to no avail. The monster swung back the axe.

Ali didn’t care if her leg was injured or that she had no weapon. She could not watch it kill Artemis.

“No! Let him go!”

The koza turned toward Ali. She couldn’t see the features of its face very well, but she was almost positive its eyes glowed red as it grinned, still holding Artemis up by his antlers.

“Brave,” it growled. “But bravery is for fools.”

Artemis’s hooves flailed helplessly through the air, and Ali felt tears dripping down her face. She didn’t know this majestic stag well, but he hadn’t run when he had the chance. Instead he stayed by her side, knowing it would probably mean his own death.

Ali reached back for another arrow, but her fingers grabbed at air. She ripped off her empty quiver, threw it to the ground and ran straight at the koza, carrying her bow as if it was a spear. She might not be able to save Artemis, but this thing was going to pay for hurting her friends.

Suddenly the beast dropped Artemis and fell to its knees. The axe thunked to the forest floor and the koza fell forward, flat on his face. He didn’t move.

Ali looked up to see a young woman pull a sword from its back. Blood as dark as the night dripped down the blade.

Artemis righted himself. “Are you hurt, fawn?”

She didn’t take time to think about proper protocol in Torone and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. She could feel the buck’s heavy breathing, his heart pounding.

Then she remembered Bailador.



Chapter 7



Their defender was already crouched over the winged dog, stroking his head with her gloved hand.

“There, there, boy,” the young woman said. Her hooded cloak hung loose on her shoulders, and the sweat on her forehead glistened in the moonlight.

Ali rushed over. “Is he . . .”

“He’s alive.”

Ali didn’t care about her leg. All that mattered was Artemis and Bailador. They tried to save her. The dog raised his head and seemed to look right into Ali’s eyes.

“The koza?” the dog whispered.

“Dead, I think,” Ali responded, touching Bailador’s flank. His wing looked unnaturally bent, and she could only hope he didn’t have internal injuries. If he landed on a rock, he could’ve broken ribs or worse.

“Where do you hurt?” she asked the dog.

His tongue lolled out, and he panted a few times before responding. “I think my wing’s broken.”

“Oh, Bailador,” Ali said. “If it wasn’t for you and Artemis, it would’ve killed me first.”

The buck took a few steps closer. His sides still quivered, and he seemed wobbly on his legs, but he was alive. They all were, and that was not something Ali expected only a few moments ago.

“We owe you our lives,” Ali said, turning to their rescuer.

Her eyes widened as she stared first at Ali, then Artemis and Bailador.

“She can’t hear us,” Artemis said. “You will have to pass on our thanks.”

Ali stuck her hand out, hoping people shook hands in Torone. Their rescuer grasped it and stood to her feet. She was quite a bit taller than Ali and looked down on her as if she was a species she’d never seen before. Artemis did say there were other humans in this world, right?

“Thank you,” Ali said.

The woman waved away her words. “I am sorry I did not arrive sooner.” She glanced down at Bailador. “We must leave here quickly. I found a set of their horrible traps only a stone’s throw away. I barely had time to destroy them before several of these beasts showed up. The others will come for the body, and I guarantee you we do not want to meet more than one.” She glanced at Ali’s leg. “Can you travel?”

Artemis prodded Ali’s shoulder with his nose. “She is right.”

Ali was still trying to figure out what she meant by horrible traps but wasn’t sure if she even wanted to know. Leaning toward the buck, Ali whispered in his ear, “Can we trust her?”

“She is why we are here. Her name is Ciara.”

Artemis stepped closer to Ciara, bending his front legs slightly in a bow. Ali guessed it was his way of offering thanks. Ciara nodded toward him as if she understood.

Ali retrieved her empty quiver and glanced down at her bow. The string had broken in the struggle, rendering it useless as a weapon, though she could still use it as a crutch to help the throbbing in her leg.

“How did you come to be in these woods?” Ciara wiped her blade clean on the luminous ferns and sheathed it. Metal slid against metal with a clink.

Ali wasn’t sure how much she should say and looked again to Artemis.

The buck cocked his head. “Tell her the truth.”

“Are you sure?” Ali said.

“I do not speak unless I am.”

Well, that was a trait she wished she could learn.

“I came through the”—she tried to remember what Artemis had called the portal—“the Prophecy Tree.”

Ciara stared at her. “Lies are not becoming on you.”

Ali took a deep breath and tried not to think about how badly her leg was aching.

“Ciara, I wouldn’t make something like this up.”

The young woman took a step nearer. She wore leather armor across her chest and arm guards wrapped around her forearms. Ali might’ve been afraid of her if she hadn’t just saved their lives.

“We have never met, and yet you know my name?”

Artemis looked at Ali, and she knew she had to tell everything.

“The buck. He told me your name,” Ali said. “That’s how I know it.”

“You jest at a time like this?”

“I’m not . . .” she looked at Artemis. “Some help here, please?”

The buck let out one of his sighs. “Ciara is the rightful heir to the throne. Her stepfather has stolen it from her.”

Oh.

Ali faced Ciara. She repeated what the buck said, but the young woman rested her hands on her hips and didn’t seem to buy her words.

“Ronan sent you to spy on me, didn’t he?”

“What? No. I have no idea who Ronan is.” Ali limped closer. “It’s the truth. I swear. I’m from another realm.”

“Another realm?”

She nodded. “Artemis—that’s the buck’s name—he brought me here saying I was some interpreter or something. I didn’t believe him, but now I do. I can hear him, Ciara. All the animals. I can hear them. There’s a prophecy or something, he says.”

Ciara took big strides over to the dead koza and unfastened the straps of its breastplate, yanking hard to pull it out from under the body.

Ali edged closer to the corpse. “Are you sure it’s dead?”

“My sword pierced through,” Ciara answered.

That didn’t exactly answer her question. Ali tried to put weight on her leg, but it was becoming harder and harder to do.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Ali said.

“Anyone could tell your tale,” Ciara said. “No doubt my name has been etched on every Torone most-wanted list by now.”

Ali glanced back at Artemis, hoping he could see her desperate expression. The buck stood over Bailador, guarding him.

Ciara retrieved the beast’s axe and hefted it in her hands. “What is your name?”

“Alison Henry, but everyone calls me Ali.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“I will ask you again, Alison Henry. Why were you in these woods?”

Ali started to roll her eyes in frustration, but if what Artemis said was true—that she was the heir to this place—Ali didn’t think it would do to act childishly in front of royalty. She stared down at her feet. Her left shoelace had come untied, whether running from Bo or in the fight with the koza she didn’t know. She suddenly felt how cold the woods had become and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I don’t lie,” Ali said.

“A worthy trait,” Ciara said. “Men and animals have not spoken to one another for nearly two generations, though I will admit they once did.” Ciara slid the breastplate over to Bailador. “We’ll have to lift him on it.”

Ali knelt down beside the dog, deciding they needed to concentrate on getting out of these woods before she tried to convince anyone she could hear animals talking. She probably sounded insane.

“We’ll make it quick,” Ali said to the dog.

“I understand,” he managed. “Tell her I knew Ignus. He was . . . a good friend and died happy.”

Ciara knelt at Bailador’s other side, gesturing for Ali to slip her hands under the dog.

“He says he knew Ignus,” Ali said.

Ciara looked up sharply. “What?”

She nodded toward Bailador. “He told me to tell you that Ignus died happy.”

Gently slipping her hands under the winged dog, Ciara gestured for Ali to do the same on her side. “On the count of three we’ll lift him onto the breastplate.”

Bailador whimpered as they did.

“I’m sorry,” Ali said.

The dog lay still, panting, his injured wing trembling. Ali gritted her teeth. She didn’t want to cry, but she kept thinking this was all somehow her fault. If she had run like they wanted her to, maybe they would’ve made it out okay.

“Can you walk?” Ciara said.

“I’m fine.”

“My camp is three miles east.”

“I said I’m fine.”

But Ali wasn’t sure how she would manage to walk all that way. The moon disappeared behind another cloud, sending them into shadows.

Ciara glanced up at the sky. “We must hurry. Kozas hunt in the darkness.”

Her questions would have to wait, and so would her guilt. She might not have been able to prevent the beast from injuring Bailador, but she could make sure he wasn’t left here alone for the rest to finish him off.


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