Small muddy feet slid sideways and the child disappeared, swallowed by tall ferns.
“Not again,” Austin groaned. “Sydney, get out of there!” He rolled his eyes and smiled at Sydney’s little friend.
Her bright blue eyes transformed to the color of a stormy ocean.
His gaze drifted back to the dense ferns, “Sydney?” His smile faded and he reluctantly moved to the edge of the forest where his sister had disappeared.
A small hand restrained him.
”I will try to get her,” Alyssa said in a tiny voice.
He looked down at the pale fingers gripping his sleeve. Confused, Austin watched the girl slip past him into the woods. He followed, “She’s just hiding …” the ground gave way beneath him and he slid in to a deep hole. Scrambling for a foothold, his feet continued to slide as he moved deeper into the ground, finally stopping with a jolt. In complete darkness he groped around until his muddy fingers tangled into something twisted and damp. Roots.
“Alyssa,” he called softly.
“Alyssa.” The name echoed back to him.
He waited. Counted to five. No response. “Sydney?”
“ … Sydney … Sydney.” Two echoes. How strange.
“Where are you?” He waited for the echo. There was none.
Holding on to the roots, he stood. Bump! His head hit the rock ceiling. “Ouch.”
“Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.” The sound of his echo changed each time he heard it, as though someone with a squeaky little voice was mocking him. “Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.”
“That’s not funny!” Austin’s voice reverberated through the dark space, overpowering all other sound. Then it was quiet. He counted to five again. “Alyssa, Sydney!” Again no echo, but the sound of his breathing was very loud.
“Austin.” The voice was small and close. High-pitched like his sister, but not.
“Alyssa.” He ducked his head and inched forward, holding out his hand to avoid bumping into things hidden in the darkness.
All at once, he heard scampering sounds like a rat stampede bustling through the cave. He felt movement; brushing his fingertips, pattering over his feet, and bumping his ankles. Then a hand wrenched his shirt sleeve, pulling fiercely. Reaching out, he found that hand and clasped his fingers around a petite wrist … “Alyssa.”
Losing her grip on his sleeve, she moved away from him.
His hand held her wrist and he pulled her back.
“Don’t let them take me,” Alyssa pleaded.
Austin was surprised when he tugged and found his strength more than adequate to retrieve Alyssa from whatever was pulling her away. His courage soared and he reached around the strange little girl. Her would-be captors were small, about half her size. He gently began to push them away. The first squealed like a little baby pig when he gave it a small shove, the next squealed in the same manner. Multiple squeals filled the space and gradually faded into the distance.
Alyssa held his arm with both hands, “I have never met anyone so strong,” her soft voice filled the dark space.
That was the last thing Austin expected to hear. He was tough for such a little kid, but he was the smallest boy in seventh grade. No matter how tough he was, the big boys would always be stronger. Not today. Even the pitch-black darkness was, well, tolerable. “Where’s Sydney?”
“The Xyloc have taken her.”
“Is that what those little things are called?”
“No, those are Leals. Xyloc are huge, like you.”
“Like me?” No one ever called him huge. “Why would Xyloc take my sister?”
“Because brown-eyed fairies have strong magic.”
“Fairies? She’s not a fairy.”
“Let us hope then, that they do not discover her secret.”
“Dark-eyed Sprites are rare indeed. She is quite large. Will the Sprite Queen barter for her?”
“She’s not a Sprite.”
“Not a Sprite? What then?”
“Everyone is something,” Alyssa said softly.
“She’s a girl. Human.”
“But humans are giant, cruel, and smell bad. They eat their young and destroy the forest.”
“No way. We might be rough on the forest, but eat our young? That’s ridiculous.”
“Perhaps. You do not seem cruel.” Alyssa sniffed the air, “Have you ever eaten anyone?”
“Gross, no way. Have you?”
“Everyone knows that fairies eat tender roots, mushrooms, and honeysuckle.”
“Then, you’re a fairy?”
“Of course. What kind of magic does Sydney have?”
“You are mistaken. I saw her wrap twine around her ears that made sounds like thunder.”
“You mean her IPOD?” Austin thought, “Yeah, I guess we both have magic.”
“A magical warrior?” There was awe in her voice.
“Well, only a little magical. Let’s get my sister.”
“The Xyloc will not give her back.”
“They are lazy creatures; they want her to dig their tunnels.”
“You’re kidding, right? They think they’re going to make Sydney work? She won’t even clean her room.”
“She does not work? Her magic must be powerful.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Then she will use magic to free herself.” Alyssa’s voice was strong with confidence.
“Maybe. Maybe we should get her, just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case she forgets her magic, she’s only five.”
“Five years old.”
“A youngling. I have never encountered one of only five years, we must retrieve her immediately.”
Austin heard her footsteps retreating, “Wait, I can’t see.”
“You fought the Leals without seeing them?”
“Yeah, and I bumped my head,” Austin rubbed the sore place in his scalp.
“Are you blind?”
“No, it’s too dark for me to see.”
“That explains why humans fear the dark. You are a brave magical warrior.” Alyssa made fluttering sounds and a glowing worm crawled nearby. More appeared, followed by a flock of lightning bugs.
The bugs swarmed until Austin could see the small cave and Alyssa… “Wings?”
She blushed, “They only just unfurled.”
“Wow, they sparkle. Awesome!”
Pleased by the compliment, Alyssa fluttered around the cave on her newly unfurled wings. “My friends have agreed to light the way to the Xyloc. In return, I told them that you would remove the boulder that the Xyloc rolled onto the firefly den.”
Austin had never moved a boulder, neither had he ever fought Leals, nor rescued anyone. “I’ll try.”
“That will be enough.” Her voice was packed with confidence.
The glowing swarm moved into a low tunnel. With Alyssa fluttering behind him, Austin followed, ducking to avoid injuring the little bugs that lined the ceiling.
He expected an epic journey with danger at every turn. Instead, he stepped out of the passageway into a tall chamber filled with moist soil, large roots that coiled into peculiar shapes, giant mushrooms, four strange little men with pointed ears, and Sydney.
“It took you long enough,” Sydney glared up at her big brother with both hands on her hips, “Come on; I told them you would dig some tunnels.”
“No way. We’re going home as soon as I move a rock.” He took Sydney’s arm.
She tugged away, “I don’t wanna go.”
“Fine, stay. Dig tunnels all by yourself. I’ve got a boulder to move.”
Reflecting the glow of fairy wings, Sydney’s big brown eyes sparkled, “Wow, you’re a fairy.”
Alyssa smiled, “Yes. I hoped we could play together, but this is no place for a mortal child.”
The four Xyloc backed away from the little girl. “Mortal,” one hissed. “Throw it in the pit,” another growled.
Frightened by the sudden change in her companions, Sydney moved under the protective arm of her big brother and whispered, “Okay, let’s move the rock and go home.”
A dozen more Xyloc swarmed into the chamber chanting, “Throw it in the pit. Throw it in the pit.”
Austin shifted to stand protectively in front of the girls.
Alyssa fluttered above him, hovering over the strange little men, “You shall all perish at the hands of this magical warrior. Please get on with it; I am eager to bring news of your demise to the good creatures of Neither-Earth.” She landed on a giant mushroom, looking on expectantly.
Maybe he should have clarified that magical warrior thing. Better yet, maybe the weird little men would believe it.
The Xyloc mumbled secretively, debating among themselves.
Austin whispered to his sister, “Turn on your IPOD and crank it up.”
Sydney manipulated the IPOD in her pocket and a base beat filled the chamber, causing loose soil to fall from the high ceiling.
The Xyloc huddled together, covering their heads with their thick fingers.
Austin moved toward the huddled mass of creatures, each step in synchrony with the familiar rock beat. He waited during a pause in the music. When it resumed, he lifted his arms and shouted so loud that he feared the cavern might collapse.
The Xyloc fled in terror, clearing the cavern long before the echoes of Austin’s voice did.
Austin, brave magical warrior, turned and winked at his sister, “Let’s get that boulder moved, it’s supper time.”