Dead or Alive
Dead people cannot come back to life, right?
Jules rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stared at the open doorway of the underground cave. The candles his dad had placed here and there on the ground in the vacuous room didn’t exactly illuminate the space. It was as if the room swallowed up the light that tried to brighten it. As the flames wavered and flickered, shadows in the corners shifted like ghouls. Stop imagining ghouls.
He sat up from his mat and looked at Ralston, who was sound asleep. Even an earthquake might not wake his brother. Sleeping—Ralston’s talent in life.
The last few days had been trying, not to mention tiring. Only now did Jules and his four siblings feel assured enough to rest without being plagued by nightmares of being annihilated by the evil Lord Gehzurolle. Or worse, by Scorpent threats when these vile creatures had thrown Jules and his friends into the death pits. Or the invisible Whisperer’s subtle suggestions that had wormed into their hearts; whisperings that there was no escape no matter where they hid. At least they had three working dragonfly lanterns left between them. The magical lanterns had covered them with light, keeping them shielded from the evil hunting them. Jules had some peace of mind after placing these protective lanterns next to each slumbering group.
Jules reached for the dragonfly lantern. Better make sure the light was covering him if he was going to check on that shadow by the cave door. He took a step forward, even though the hair at the back of his neck rose.
Could have just been a nightmare, he reassured himself. That apparition beckoning to him from the doorway must have been a dream—the outcome of his strained imagination influenced by the stress of the day’s events. How could Saul Turpentine—Miranda’s grandfather, who’d died in the fire at Jules’s home two days ago—visit them? Jules stood and cast a glance at Miranda, bundled in her cloak, looking cold and knocked out from exhaustion. Let her sleep, poor thing.
He thought of Saul, that evil, old man. Jules felt little affection for the elderly Keeper. Still, Saul had been his neighbor for as long as he could remember. His tree home was just a ten-minute run from Jules’s now destroyed home under the oak in the Kingdom of Reign—or what was left of it. Besides, Saul had been a close friend to his Grandpa Leroy. Even though Jules tried his darndest to abhor Saul for deceiving his grandparents and maybe even causing Grandpa Leroy and Grandma Bonnie to drown, Jules couldn’t muster more than pity for Miranda’s crazy grandfather.
Let the dead be, Grandpa Leroy would have said, if his grandfather had still been alive. If only he were still alive.
But, what if Saul was not dead? What if Saul was colluding with Gehzurolle’s agents to destroy the Blaze family and steal the Ancient Books from them, as Saul had tried to do all along? This could be true since they’d found the lost Ancient Book that had belonged to Flamethrower, the famous Elfie of long ago who was one of Eleazer’s sons.
A shiver like a wet finger ran up Jules’s back. He whisked the tattered cloak he’d been sleeping on off the mat and wrapped it about his shoulders, bony now thanks to the lack of food. The underground tunnels were a safe bet to stay in for the present, but living in these dank burrows would soon mean bitter cold for the small Elfies, what with winter around the corner.
Jules grabbed the lantern and strode to the doorway where the shadowy image had gestured to him. The bent figure had urged him to follow, before it ran—no, floated—farther into the tunnel, away from the cave Jules and his family had settled in. Could this be a lure, like how Saul had caught his fish with bait?
Holden! He would ask Holden to accompany him to check things out. His sometimes rival but most of the time best friend had helped him out before. Should he disturb Holden? Holden’s mother, Jessie Lacework, had drifted into that comatose sleep, and her fever had risen dangerously high. It might have affected her brain. Jules’s mother had wept when she’d heard this news.
No, he’d let Holden sleep. Jules would check things out himself. It was probably nothing.
Jules shrugged off his uneasiness and trudged on. He glanced behind him and squinted at the lumpy figure his three sisters made, all huddled together in a far corner, as if freezing to death. He scanned the next corner where his mother lay sleeping next to his dad, just steps from the girls. It was a good thing the cave was big enough to accommodate them. All eleven of them had lost their homes: his family, which included his parents and the five Blaze siblings; Holden and his mother; a stray neighbor, Mr. Knapp, who’d suddenly turned up, having lost his entire family when the locusts attacked; and Miranda, whom he still wasn’t sure he could trust completely.
When Jules arrived at the mouth of the cave, he peered into the tunnel. All was dark and quiet and the only movement came from the shadows his lantern made on the cave walls. He’d heard about a red ant hive two tunnels up and possibly even a family of mice two tunnels below them. He wondered if the shadowy figure might have been one of those creatures straying from its nest. He knelt and checked for ant scat or mice droppings. This wasn’t his favorite chore, but needful. Droppings or tracks were always surefire signs of trouble, as the Elfies only stood an inch tall since the curse centuries before.
After a few moments, Jules discovered nothing—the shadow was probably his hyper-alert senses. Enough of this nonsense, he scolded himself and turned back toward his sleeping area. If he didn’t get some shuteye he might just end up insane like Saul. Sleep deprivation had been known to play tricks on the mind.
Miranda knew she had to wake up earlier than her usual time so she could gather enough supplies and make her way to Handover, that land across Brooke Beginning. She’d already lost a day and wanted to catch up, feeling her mother, Chrystle, needed her somehow. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on her part. But having never met her mother, Miranda yearned to be of some use to her now that she’d found out that Chrystle was alive. Still, Chrystle had abandoned her as a baby. Would she truly want to see Miranda?
After all Miranda had gone through, she was in no mood to leave the relative comfort of the cave, even though it was bitterly cold underground. A fire in the middle would have made a welcoming difference, but Jon Blaze, Jules’ father, with his army training, had insisted a campfire would only announce their presence to their enemies, both Scorpents and agents of Gehzurolle. Also, predators like moles, ants, and other carnivorous, earth-dwelling insects would seek them out if any sign that lunch or dinner was present.
“Do you want to wave a red flag to them?” Jon had asked when she’d argued.
She wondered if her own father, Tennesson, would also shut her up the way Jon Blaze could. Tennesson, a Handoveran, must surely be less cautious than the Captain Blaze. She stretched her legs, yawned, and shook her head, her red hair spilling behind her back, swaying across her shoulders with each move. Time to get going and find her mother. Miranda wasn’t sure if she was looking forward to meeting Chrystle after so many years. True, Chrystle had abandoned her for Miranda’s own safety. Why leave her with Grandpa Saul, a self-serving old man consumed by bitterness?
That she should have reservations about meeting Chrystle was strange. She’d almost gotten her friends killed to get information leading to her mother.
Now, she realized the error of her ways, but weeks back when Whisperer had approached her, it had seemed reasonable to sacrifice her friends for news about her mother’s location.
What a fool Miranda had been!
From now on, she’d only do the right things. And those Ancient Books? She’d study them first before setting out, certain they held answers on how to proceed. Handover was a vast land with mountain ranges, hidden lakes, gorges, snake and death pits, and droves of Scorpents. Reign was a walk in the park compared to the land across the river, Brooke Beginning. But Miranda had no choice. Her heart quickened at the thought of Chrystle, and she couldn’t understand the urgency within her—as if her mother could be in trouble. Grave trouble.
Miranda stuffed her extra cloak into a woven backpack Jules’s mom had given her the night before. It belonged to Jessie Lacework, who wasn’t going to need one for a while. A hand tapped her on her shoulder, and Miranda gasped.
“Hey.” Jules’ brown eyes glowed brightly as he gazed into her face.
“You’re up early. I thought you said not even buzzing mosquitoes could wake you.”
“I lied. Besides, I’d already slept for two nights, and I wanted to say good-bye. You sure you don’t want to stay a few days?”
She gathered the last of her things, stuffed them in the pack, and stood. “My mother might need help. She was supposed to be here with Tennesson—or rather, my dad—but from what Ralston said, the Scorpents could already be ransacking her house in search of the chest.” She dropped her eyes to the dragonfly lantern in Jules’s hand.
“And you think you can help her?” Jules said. “She managed to avoid Scorpents over a dozen years on her own. She can take care of herself.”
“And I can’t?”
Jules’s face fell, and she quickly added, “I know you’re worried, but I’ll be fine. I’ll go to Tenne’s—I mean my dad’s—place first, and see what he has to say. Maybe he’ll come with me. He is my father, after all, even if I keep forgetting.” She barked out a short laugh.
“You can’t leave till after breakfast,” Jules said with a grin.
“That’s for sure. I wanted to study the Books, too. Maybe Jessie’s, with the maps.” She tied her red hair into a loose knot at her nape. By now most of the Blazes had roused from sleep. Captain Jon Blaze came over as Erin gathered breakfast things.
Later, after the meal, Miranda got up to leave, but Erin’s hand stayed her.
“Let’s look at the Books now,” Erin said. She seemed paler than usual. What if Erin, too, fell ill? Like Jessie? Maybe they’d both been exposed to some disease borne by the Scorpents when they’d been kidnapped for weeks and imprisoned in that putrid dungeon under Brooke Beginning? Miranda’s stomach churned, and she felt queasy. It was all her fault. If she hadn’t fallen for Whisperer’s deception and stooped to bargaining with that evil schmuck, both Erin and Jessie wouldn’t have had to suffer.
What if Jessie died because of her? What could she do to make up for all the mistakes she’d made?
Jules brought out the three Ancient Books stowed behind Jessie’s cot, and together they took turns flipping the pages.
“If we can find,” Erin said, her voice hoarse, “the slightest clue about the chest or the crown, it’d help tremendously. Finding the crown is vital. Without the crown, it’d be pointless even if we found the route to the Point.” She giggled at her own joke.
Jules nodded. “If Flamethrower had fallen near the waterfall, the crown would have been flung into the waters below. What if someone found the crown and hid it? This was centuries ago.”
Holden pointed to a section within Flamethrower’s Book. “Here!” It was a rendition of the crown. Since the crown was under Flamethrower’s care it rightly belonged to Jon Blaze.
But the pages mentioned nothing of significance; at least, nothing that threw light on their questions.
After some discussion, Jules’s father closed the book. “Miranda, you should stay another day. It’ll give us time to study this, and I can scout up there.” He jerked his head to the cave ceiling. “Make sure Scorpents aren’t loitering outside our cave entrance. Another day’s delay isn’t going to make much difference for you.”
Miranda felt hot tears welling up behind her eyes. “My mother could be in danger. She might need my help.”
Jon’s gaze flickered toward Jessie Lacework. “Give your mother some credit. Besides, we may need you here.”
Miranda followed Jon’s gaze and suspected he was more concerned about Jessie’s condition than he was letting on. Mrs. L had been the mother she’d never had all those years. First, Saul had died. Surely Mrs. L wouldn’t be next? Her stomach churned, and she inhaled deeply to calm her nerves.
She turned to face Jules when he patted her shoulder. “If Holden and I need to get help for Mrs. L,” he said, “it’d be good if you stayed. Looks like Mr. Knapp’s caught the bug, too.”
Knapp had not wanted any breakfast, preferring to lie down instead.
Erin nodded thoughtfully. “My Book has pictures of healing herbs. I know I planted some of those in our backyard. If we could only find some arnica, it would ease their pain. Maybe you can go look, Jules.”
“It’s probably incinerated,” Jules said and turned back to the Book on his lap.
As it turned out, they came across some useful information in Flamethrower’s Book, even if it wasn’t about crowns or chests. Jules jabbed his finger at the drawings of candles with the three colored flames. “That sure looks like Abel’s candle.”
Miranda gazed at the mysterious tapers. Each taper was set in a different antique-looking candle holder, and some were even on a seven-pronged candelabrum with the middle candle having the three colored flames of red, white, and blue, on one wick.
“It is Flamethrower’s Book, so I suppose there should be some things about fire,” Holden said. He flipped the pages even though the Book was resting on Jules’s lap. “Maybe Abel Seacrest’s address is in here somewhere.”
“It would be good to locate him,” Jules said. He rummaged about his cloak and brought out the odd-shaped whistle with the many holes Abel had gifted them. “I’d never have thought this was a whistle, but it sure came in handy. The question is, where did Abel learn to design it?”
Before they could continue, a commotion broke out in the far corner of the cave.
“Help! Help!” Jules’s little sisters Tippy and Tst Tst, who were playing by themselves, shouted.
Miranda gasped. Near one of the three doorways stood a woman with a man propped against one shoulder. A young girl about ten held the woman’s hand. Suddenly, the man slipped and fell to his knees as the girl doubled up and grunted as if in severe pain. What was this plague that had befallen so many?
“What’s wrong?” Erin said as she and Miranda dashed forward toward the sick family.
“We were lost,” the woman said, “and we saw your light.” She glanced at the dragonfly lantern next to breakfast area. “I’m Talia. We were driven underground because of the locusts and stick insects that invaded our home. My husband and daughter have suddenly taken ill. Maybe we haven’t had enough water, or sunlight, or something.” With that she too knelt and clutched her stomach, groaning.
Miranda leaned forward and checked the woman’s forehead. “A high fever, just like Mrs. L’s. Looks like they all have it, whatever this is.”
“Let’s lay them in the corner,” Jon said. “Make that a sick area so we can keep an eye on the lot. I hope there’s not going to be more of us sick than well.”
Knapp’s condition, too, seemed more serious. He’d slept on and was unable to wake up for more than a few seconds to drink before lapsing back into a deep slumber. He muttered in his sleep as if consumed by some stupor, a prisoner of his unconscious mind.
The task of studying the Books fell by the wayside. Miranda kept hoping she might have the chance to slip away for a few moments to gather her thoughts, but Jon was adamant about her fetching water from above. Keeping the younger kids, like Tst Tst and Tippy, occupied so they wouldn’t wander into the passages and become lost was needful, Jon stressed to her.
“Besides,” Jon said, “someone might have stumbled across our entrance. The rock at the mouth of the tunnel had been tampered with, and there were signs of Scorpents.” He, together with Holden and Jules, had just returned from a trip to gather some morsels of food: acorns that they’d have to soak and pulp to make a pasty soup for nourishment. It wasn’t exactly custard pudding, but it’d keep them alive.
Jon went on to describe what they saw. Large, webbed footprints meandered between the burnt conifers.
Were the Scorpents looking for signs of Elfie life, or were they specifically searching for Jules and his family, and hence, the Books? Miranda and her friends debated back and forth.
“I’m sorry, Miranda,” Jon said, raising his hand. “But, as your de facto guardian, I command you to stay put for a bit. Maybe once the soldiers from my camp nearby arrive, they can accompany you to look for Chrystle. But you’re not traipsing on your own to Handover. That’s final.”
Miranda locked eyes with Jules, her lips pressed together in a line. Jules must have been glad to have her here, but more than ever she felt the urgency to search for her mother. Why was Jules’s father being so pigheaded about this? It was well and fine for Jon to order her about. After all, his family was all around him. He’d even deserted his own soldiers to be close to them, so why couldn’t he understand that she needed to connect with her own flesh and blood?
With her grandfather gone, Chrystle was the only link she had to anyone she’d consider family. Of course, there was Tennesson, her Handoveran father. But, not only had she never met the man, she’d never considered his existence from the beginning of time, and couldn’t see how she could relate to a Handoveran, let alone call him Father. Crazy thought. Crazier still that she had to obey Jules’s tyrannical dad. But she’d find a way to sneak out of this problem.
With all the hassle of caring for the sick, the day zipped by. Jules hovered near his dad, wondering what Jon would want him to do next. His stomach tightened each time he thought of Jessie, Holden’s mother. Would she survive? Every attempt at finding even the smallest morsels of the arnica herb had failed.
Soon, his father declared it was time to settle down. He insisted they stay quiet and keep the cave as dark as possible as they slept.
“Mustn’t be a beacon to the enemies,” he said, when Miranda asked if they could have a fire.
“The sick might need the warmth,” she argued.
“As it was, remember how Talia saw our lantern?” Jon reminded her.
Later, as Jules patted his bedding down and fluffed the blanket he used as a pillow, Miranda prodded him on his arm. “Can you talk your dad into letting me leave tomorrow?”
Jules shrugged and stared into her blue eyes. “I agree with Dad. We don’t know who’s lingering in these tunnels.”
“We can’t—I can’t— stick around here forever.” She waved at her surroundings in obvious frustration.
“I don’t want to scare you,” Jules said. “But early this morning, a cloaked figure was at the mouth of the tunnel, over there.” He pointed to the main entrance they’d used. He told her of the apparition.
“It can’t be Saul. Your house blew up, and he was already dead when you ran out.”
Jules let out a nervous chuckle. “I could have sworn I saw a ghost.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.” Miranda stalked back to her corner of the cave and kicked at her backpack on the ground.
During the next few days, Jules, Holden, and Ralston came across two more families stumbling about in the tunnels not far from their cave. Things went from bad to worse as some of the sick neighbors who came threw up. It was nonstop work caring for the stricken. Even Tippy was put to work spoon-feeding the two little girls, Myla and Dennie, who had been added to the ill list.
“Cool water will keep them hydrated,” Jules explained when he saw her pouty lips.
On the evening of the third day, when Jules was again getting ready for bed, Miranda approached him. Her face was flushed, and he knew she’d been antsy the whole day.
“You have to talk to your dad,” she complained. “He can’t keep me here indefinitely. I’m not a prisoner.”
“Remember that vision I told you about?” Jules’s face was grave, his eyes hot and teary due to lack of rest.
Miranda said, “What about it? You were just dreaming. Did you see it again?” There was disdain in her tone.
Jules bit down on his lips and felt hesitant. He didn’t want to scare her unnecessarily.
He’d witnessed the ghost three times. He’d tried to ignore it and had been thinking about what to do. Finally, he’d come up with what he felt was a brilliant idea. He’d sprinkled acorn flour on the ground right by the doorway where he’d seen the apparition and waited.
“There!” Miranda threw her hands in the air when Jules didn’t respond. “Just a bad case of fatigue playing tricks on your mind.”
He sucked in a deep breath, wondering what he could say without scaring her. “What I didn’t tell you is that I’ve had this same dream, if that’s what you want to call it, three days in a row. Except last night. I did a little experimenting. I sprinkled acorn flour by the tunnel.” He pointed to the opening. “This morning the ground had footprints. Which means I wasn’t dreaming. It was real.”
“You mean my grandpa’s ghost walked, and messed up the flour? I thought ghosts hover.” Miranda waved her hand as if flying. She scoffed and shook her head at Jules.
“I’m serious, Miranda. Someone or something knows we’re here, and it’s trying to entice us, or maybe me, to leave the cave at night.”
“Have you told your Captain Dad?”
Jules looked down at his feet. “He’d never believe me. Even Holden thinks I’m imagining. My guilt about Saul was haunting me, he said.”
“Why would you feel guilty about Saul? You tried to help him.” She shook his arms vigorously.
“But, if I’d acted faster, and dragged him out before the lightning struck, he might still be alive. He might even have been alive when I dashed out of the house. I left him to die.”
Miranda rested a hand on Jules’s shoulder.
He liked the feel of her warm hands on his cold muscles. They shouldn’t argue so much. Who knew what lay ahead for each of them?
She patted his arm tenderly. “If there’s anyone who should feel guilty it’s me. Saul was my grandpa, and he took care of me. Regardless….” She swiveled her head left and right to check on who might still be awake. “I need to leave. You need to help me. Either convince your dad tomorrow, or keep the coast clear so I can make my way out without causing a scene. I’d rather leave in the day, for obvious reasons.”
“You can’t wait for my dad’s soldiers…?”
Miranda brought her finger to his lips. “He’s having a hard time locating them. I overheard him tell your mother. What if they don’t turn up for weeks? Will you help me? Otherwise I’d have to go right now.”
“Best get a good night’s sleep before the long track to Handover, then,” Jules said, as he walked her to her side of the cave.
Miranda watched Jules walk away, his shoulders slumped. If only he’d go with her. She thought about the best route to Handover. She’d use the passage that ran under Brooke Beginning rather than take her chances above ground. Besides, she had no idea where another bridge might be to get across. The last one she’d used, a fallen redwood trunk spanning the narrowest parts of the Brooke, had already washed downstream. But, Jules was right about one thing: she should get some sleep while she could.
When the sounds of heavy breathing filled the cave, and the flames flitted about on their wicks, making shadows dance, something startled Miranda out of her slumber. It was a subtle sound, hushed and muttering.
Someone stood near the main tunnel, whispering her name. “Miranda.”
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