By Forrest Roy Johnson
Katherine blinked. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes from the mid-morning sun. On the trail ahead of her stood a blonde and curly-haired little girl wearing a sky-blue dress. She looked at Katherine with eyes the same shade as her dress.
“My name is Ammy. What’s yours?”
“Katherine,” she said. “My name is Katherine. Why … What are you doing out here?”
“I live here.”
“I didn’t know anyone lived out here. Is your daddy a ranger or something? Where are your parents?” Katherine had never heard of anyone, ranger or otherwise, living in Henry State Park, but what else could the girl have meant?
“I don’t have any parents. Do you want to see where I live?” Without waiting for an answer, Ammy scurried off into the sparse brush.
Katherine had seen strange things in the park before — a dead deer halfway up a tall maple, squirrels throwing acorns at a hiker’s dog — but what in heaven’s name was this? She patted her front pocket, knowing her cell phone was back in her car but checking for it anyway. She’d just have to keep an eye on the girl until she could figure out what was going on.
Ammy, already a dozen yards ahead, turned and grinned. “Hurry up, pokey-butt!”
Ammy ran with all the unabashed enthusiasm of youth. Fit as she was, Katherine struggled to navigate the underbrush and vegetation that choked the hillside they climbed.
After several minutes of frenzied climbing, Ammy stopped abruptly and sat in the cleft of a largish ash tree. Ammy faced downhill, watching Katherine as she dragged herself the last few feet to join her. The Whetstone River wound its way through the valley below. As Katherine leaned against the tree, she looked down at it, wondering how much of her sweat had traveled in it over the years on its long voyage to the Gulf of Mexico, via the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.
Katherine nodded. “Very. Is this where you live?”
Ammy crinkled her nose and giggled. “Of course not. How could I live in a tree? I live that way,” she pointed behind her, still further up the hill.
“Must be a dickens of a time carrying your groceries up there.”
Ammy laughed. “I like you, Katherine.” She bit her bottom lip. “I hope Baldo likes you too. He doesn’t usually like visitors. But you’re nice. He won’t mind.”
“He’s my friend. I live with him.”
“How long have you been friends with Baldo?”
“I dunno,” she shrugged. “A while. Since this summer, a couple weeks after school.”
“And you live up there somewhere?” Katherine nodded to the higher edges of the slope.
“Yeah. I’ll show you, come on.” This time she reached out and grabbed Katherine’s hand.
Just before the hill’s crest, they came to a tumble of deadfall trees. Ammy scampered in, despite Katherine’s attempt to restrain her. What sort of wild animals might be in there? Raccoons? Skunks?
“No, hey! Don’t go in there!” She hurried over to collect the girl, but she was gone.
Katherine saw a dark fissure concealed by the fallen trees. Ammy’s voice issued up from it. As Katherine’s eyes adjusted, she saw rough, steep steps of packed earth and loose stone leading to an uneven floor ten feet down. She descended, uncomfortable with the idea of crawling into some sort of animal’s den. But yet, she could see some dim light from somewhere inside the fissure. Once at the bottom of the stairs she saw Ammy silhouetted against a thin rectangle of yellow-orange light on the far end of a short tunnel.
“Ammy, what is this?”
“It’s where I live.”
“But where did this come from? There aren’t any caves here.”
“I made it. Let me show you.” She passed through the doorway — the rectangle of light — and Katherine followed. The door itself was steel-banded and riveted. And beyond it, a grand stairway leading down to a chandelier-lit and lushly carpeted ballroom.
The door creaked shut behind them. Katherine started and turned back at the noise. Flanking the door were two massive men in lobster-tail armor and gunmetal gray masks. They stood perfectly still, left arms to their sides and right arms crossed in front, hands on the grips of crude cudgels. Only the faint motion of their chests told Katherine they were not merely suits of mounted armor.
“What … what are they?”
“Oh. They’re my Tin Soldiers. Well, they’re sort of mine. Corbin made them, but I made him. My room’s this way.” She bounced down the stairs and disappeared into the wide hallway on the right.
As Katherine went down, she felt the gaze of those Tin Soldiers on her back. It gave her the willies.
Katherine knew that some species of hallucinogenic mushrooms grew in the park. She certainly wouldn’t have ingested any, but she wondered if she’d somehow come in contact with one and if that would be enough to make her see little girls and Tin Soldiers and ballrooms. That’s it, she thought, I’m just having some weird dream. Let’s see where it goes.
Ammy stopped in front of a huge door. “I want you to meet Baldo,” she whispered, “but you have to promise to be real quiet, okay? Shh.” She opened it a crack.
Katherine nodded and slipped in after her. In the center of the room, an enormous man, ten feet tall and nearly as broad, sat on an equally huge bed with his back to the door. Ammy scrambled up and jumped on his back.
“Wooh!” the giant said, jumping. “Ammy? Ammy, you scare me.”
The girl simply giggled at this. “Hey, Baldo. I have a surprise for you. Close your eye and turn around.”
He turned. Katherine managed to hold back a cry when she saw his face. Baldo only had one eye, the size of a dinner plate, in the middle of his forehead. He didn’t have a nose to speak of, only a lump with nostrils, and two huge incisors jutted up from his lower jaw.
Baldo’s eye opened. He shrieked and leapt behind the bed, sending Ammy flying onto a pillow like a giggling ragdoll. “AUUUUGH! What is it, Ammy? Is it a bitey-boo? I not like the bitey-boos!”
“No, Baldo,” said Ammy, laughing and swimming her way to the top of the crater she’d made in the pillow, “this is my friend Katherine. She’s nice and she won’t bite you at all.”
“Hello, Baldo,” Katherine waved. “She’s right, I promise not to bite.”
Baldo peeked Kilroy-style over the edge of the bed. “Hi Katherine.” He looked at Ammy dubiously. “You promise?”
“Of course, you silly. Pick me up, let’s go shake hands together.”
Baldo plucked Ammy up and sat her on his shoulder, walked over to Katherine. He stooped, delicately took Katherine’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Katherine. I Baldo.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Baldo.” She was amazed at the sense of restrained power in the giant’s grip, like he could snap tree limbs one moment and pet butterflies the next.
“I hungry, Ammy,” he said, almost immediately forgetting about Katherine. “We go get food?”
“Okay. Bring Katherine too, Baldo.”
“Oh! Hi, Katherine. You get ride on me?” Without waiting for an answer, he scooped her up and deposited her on his other shoulder. “Jackie make food?”
“Yes, Baldo, Jackie will make lunch for us, like always.” Ammy grinned at Katherine and rolled her eyes, as if to say, You see what I have to put up with?
They lumbered down the hallway, its high ceiling affording just enough clearance for the giant and his passengers. A few doors down from Baldo’s room, Ammy tapped his ear. “Hey, hold on. Let me down. I bet Biki wants to eat. I’ll see if he’s awake.”
Baldo obediently lowered her and she crept to a small door. He let Katherine down and said, “Biki funny. Watch Ammy.”
Katherine ducked through the doorway and saw Ammy at the foot of a child-sized hammock. In it, a tiny man with a long beard and gnarled, sharp features lay snoring. On his head, a long, pom-pommed sleeping cap dangled the fuzzy ball precariously close to his mouth; it nearly went down his throat with every breath. Ammy started tickling his feet.
“Eeeyahhh!” The little man sat bolt upright, twin daggers shining in his hands. His eyes gleamed wildly as Ammy jumped back laughing. “Ohh, Princess Amethyst, you miscreant! Beware who you awaken so rudely, I am a warrior and my instincts are razor sharp!” He sheathed the daggers.
“Oh, you’d never hurt me, Biki.”
“Not intentionally, I assure you, but without knowing it I may do you harm. Especially when awoken suddenly! Which brings me back to – Hold on now, who’s this?”
“This is my friend Katherine. Katherine, this is my friend Biki.”
“Lady Katherine,” Biki knelt and bowed his head, “humblest apologies for my temperamental and rash words.”
“Um, just Katherine, please.” She felt herself flushing. “I’m not a ‘lady,’ by any means.”
“Nonsense! A woman of your beauty and grace must be descended from only the noblest of noble families. I pray, Lady Katherine, do not be offended by my coarse words and humble demeanor. I am but the least of Princess Amethyst’s servants, and I put myself in your service.”
“Um, okay. I think we’re going to eat now, so if you’re hungry …”
“Hi Biki!” Baldo bellowed from the hall. “Jackie make lunch!”
“Ah, you’ve met Baldo, I see.” Biki leaned close to Katherine. “A good fellow, but a bit on the repetitive side.”
“Hello, Baldo. Did Princess Amethyst awaken you very rudely as well?”
The giant blushed, looked down like a schoolboy caught doing something sweet for a crush. “No. I just scared of bitey-boos.”
“Ah, those vile little buggers. Well, they shan’t bother you here, not once you’ve gotten a solid meal under your belt.”
“Jackie make lunch.”
“And a delightful one it shall be, no doubt. Princess Amethyst, would you lead the way, then?”
At the far end of the hall, large wooden doors opened into a banquet hall. Thick stone pillars supported the cathedral ceiling, sconces lit the lower portions, and a rough-hewn table stretched almost the length of the chamber. Four large fireplaces burned along the outside walls. And from a doorway on the far end issued a clatter of metal pots and pans.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” called a baritone yet clearly feminine voice, “you caught me just a little unprepared for your friend. It’ll be just one moment, so take a seat and I’ll be right out!”
Ammy grabbed Katherine’s hand, walked to more or less the middle of the table, and sat. Biki took the seat next to Katherine, and Baldo sat on the floor opposite.
A few moments later, a grizzly bear wearing a chef’s hat and carrying several covered platters hurried out of the kitchen area. “Here you are, ladies and gentlemen. Now, Miss, I do hope you don’t mind what I’ve prepared. We only have so much to work with here — not like all the fancy ingredients you can get where you’re from.” Jackie — for that’s naturally who it was — revealed Katherine’s platter: A whole roast duck, perfectly golden brown, stuffed with cranberries and wild rice, and garnished with leafy greens.
Jackie brought out her own meal and joined the table next to Baldo.
“This is the most delicious thing I think I’ve ever tasted,” said Katherine between mouthfuls.
“Oh, it was nothing.”
“No, really. Did you do this just for me?”
“Of course I did. Just like Baldo’s meal is just for him, and Biki’s is for him, and Ammy’s, and my own.”
Katherine glanced around at the rapidly dwindling meal in front of each of her companions. Fish and berries for Jackie, doughnuts for Ammy, a steaming bushel of Brussels sprouts for Baldo, and an entire spit-roasted pig for Biki.
“I knew what you wanted, that’s all.”
“But how? How did you even know I was here?”
Jackie simply winked and tapped one finger on the side of her nose.
As Katherine nibbled on the last of her meal, she felt her eyelids drooping. And she wasn’t the only one. Jackie let out a rumbling yawn and ambled over to curl up by the fire, and Ammy sprawled herself on the bear’s side, falling instantly to sleep. Baldo lay face-up on the long table, his arms dangling. Biki, a gnawed ham still in his hand, leaned back against Baldo’s shoulder.
Why not, Katherine thought. She sat with her back to a pillar, closed her eyes, let sleep take her.
The banquet hall had grown dark and chill, the massive fireplaces containing only embers. Katherine sat up slowly, rubbing the stiffness from her neck. Jackie, Biki, and Baldo all still lay sleeping, but Ammy stood far to the side looking out a small window. The sun had set, the waxing gibbous moon risen; the river far below shimmered like a thousand silver streamers on a breezy day.
“Oh, Ammy, this is beautiful,” Katherine said as she joined the girl.
“Yeah, I like it here.” Ammy turned, her chin still resting on her fists. “Can you stay?”
“Do you mean — stay? Like live here?”
Ammy nodded. “I really like my friends, but …” she shrugged. “It’s not like talking to people.”
“I suppose not. But I can’t stay here. I have my own house.”
“So? I had a house too. Just move out.”
“I can’t. What would I do with all my stuff? And what would I tell my boss, ‘Send my paycheck to the secret cave’?”
“Quit your job.”
“You just have all the answers, don’t you?” she laughed. But really, what was holding her back? (Well, beside the fact she was hallucinating.) It’s not like she was performing an essential public service, spending her nights and weekends serving burgers and beer to the summer cabin crowd. She barely spoke to her family, didn’t have any real friends to speak of. Would it be so bad if she were to just disappear for a while?
She turned to say something to that effect, but stopped. Ammy was staring, wide-eyed and frightened, at the darkness near the entrance to the banquet hall. Katherine saw shadows moving and the slight glint of moonlight on metal. A dozen Tin Soldiers holding snares, ropes, cudgels, and blades emerged. Ten moved toward the sleepers, and the other two approached Ammy.
“Amethyst Rebecca Camden, by the authority of the Gatekeeper, I hereby place you under arrest for the crime of high treason.” The voice behind the mask was muffled, hollow.
The two Soldiers lunged forward. One snatched the screaming Ammy and ran for the door, the other grabbed Katherine by the front of her shirt and forced a rough canvas hood onto her head. She screamed and struggled, but the creature pinned and twisted her arms. She heard shouts and roars from other parts of the room, wet sloppy sounds like saturated towels slapping against a tile floor, and above all, the terrified shrieks of a child.
The Soldier shouted for Katherine to get up, walk. But she couldn’t. It twisted harder, and her vision flashed red, then white. The white faded, and she was out of the banquet hall being dragged by her wrists across a rough floor. White. She was thrown down and the hood removed. She saw bars in the near-darkness, heard the squeal of rusty hinges. This time, she barely saw the black that surrounded her vision and closed in.
Katherine felt someone wiping her face with a damp, scratchy cloth. It smelled funny, like a dishrag that’s been thrown under the sink and forgotten. There was something else too, an odor like wet dog, smoke, body odor, and rotten meat. She brought up her hands to wave off whoever it was and contacted solid flesh under fur.
She screamed, a stab of panic bringing her body to full alertness. By the time her mind caught up and identified the thing as Jackie, Katherine had crab-walked backward into the barred door and raised a lump on her already fuzzy head.
“Oh! I’m so sorry, Katherine. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”
“No, it’s … oh my word. It’s fine. It’s fine.”
“Are you badly hurt?”
Katherine checked herself over. “I think I’m okay. My shoulders hurt a little, and I think my back’s scraped up. Probably bruised my knees pretty good too. Otherwise I’m fine. Nothing serious, anyway.”
“Good. The creatures that brought us, though … they paid a heavy price.” The matronly bear’s tone changed, turned into something fierce. “I laid claim to an arm and a head before they could subdue me. Baldo tore one in half while three more threw nets over him and felled him. Biki … he cut down both of his. I don’t know where he is now, but it’s not one of these cells.”
“They said something about a gatekeeper. Who is that?”
Jackie spat. “Corbin. That snake. He’s claimed Gatekeeper as his title, appointed himself the protector of Ammyland, vowed to keep it safe from outsiders. Thing is, there never was any danger. But once Farman died, he convinced Ammy there was. Farman was a stag, you see, the second of Ammy’s friends. I was first, then Farman, Baldo, Biki, and Corbin. At first I thought you were the sixth, but …” She shook her head. “Ammy and Farman used to walk in the woods together. Then one day, Farman disappeared. Biki went out in search of him and found his body lodged in the crook of a tree, horribly mangled. He told Corbin, and Corbin immediately blamed ‘the outsiders’ and asked Ammy for the power to protect Ammyland. Well, Ammy is a sweet, but foolish child. She only knew of one type of power, the one that she created this place with. So she gave Corbin her amulet. Since then, there have been no new friends. Only Soldiers. Corbin is a simple-minded, unimaginative beast, you see, only able to create things that are like to himself.”
“When Ammy brought me here, she said she made this place.”
“That’s exactly true.”
“That’s … how is that possible?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, child. It has to do with the amulet, to be sure, but beyond that, I’m sure I don’t know. It’s… odd, pondering one’s own creation and existence. I must admit, I don’t like thinking about it. For example, would I cease to exist if she died? Would these caverns close, turn back into hills? I don’t know. The only comfort I can glean from those thoughts is that Corbin probably harbors the same questions. He’ll keep the girl alive long enough to find an answer.”
“So this is all … real.”
“Yes,” Jackie said. She then turned away to examine her long, dagger claws.
Katherine felt more afraid than she ever had before.
Time passed, though with only Jackie’s increasingly surly growls and the drip-drip, drip-dripping of moisture somewhere in the back of the cell by way of timepiece, Katherine had no idea how much time. Hours, at the least.
Finally, when Katherine had almost resigned herself to sleep, she saw torchlight flickering in the corridor. Two Soldiers turned in from the main passageway bearing a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth and a bucket of water. “Step away from the bars,” the one with the bread said, jabbing at them with a stone-tipped spear.
Jackie narrowed her eyes as she slowly stepped back. The Soldier with the bread tossed it through the bars then stuck the spear through the bars at the prisoners as the other Soldier slid the bucket through the bars. Suddenly, a shout and clamber came from the main passageway. The Soldiers turned, and Jackie fell upon them. She slapped the spear aside then tore open the Soldier with its arm in the cell from shoulder to hip. The second leapt back, but not quick enough to avoid a swipe from Jackie’s claws that left its arm tattered and useless. Thick, black fluid like used motor oil sprayed the walls and floor as the survivor hobbled away. The dead Soldier at the bars seemed to be deflating, what looked like hundreds of giant leeches spilled from the gaping wound and writhed on the floor.
“Get back here, coward!” Jackie bellowed. “I only used one arm, that just makes us even!” She snorted and dragged the body closer to the bars. She rooted around in flaps and pockets. “Agh. I was hoping he’d have the keys. But we may not have to wait much longer.”
The cacophony had grown louder, closer. Shouting and clangs of metal were giving way to screams and sounds of blunt impacts. Katherine watched one screaming Soldier fly through the air, smash into the ceiling at a shallow angle, and disintegrate into a hundred splattering bits.
And she heard Biki’s voice over the crescendoed tumult: “Hah! You metal-faced weaklings! Come again! Hah! Baldo, take a turn!” This was followed by a cackle, a bellow, and another disintegrating soldier. Biki’s head poked around the corner. “Ah, Jackie, Lady Katherine, there you are. We accidentally stormed a guard house just then,” he saw the dead Soldier, “though I see you’ve had a bit of luck yourselves.”
Baldo, dripping with the Soldiers’ oily blood, but otherwise unscathed, guarded the mouth of the side corridor as Biki revealed a large key ring and opened the cell door.
Jackie bounded out. “Do you know where she is?”
Biki nodded. “I think so. Corbin’s barricaded the door to his chamber. Though it may be more accurate to call it a compound now. He’s clearly been making his own additions to Ammyland as of late,” he said, looking around at the cell and corridors.
“She’s alive, I’m sure of it, but I don’t know how much longer Corbin will keep her.”
Biki nodded. “Lady Katherine, you may want to find a safe place to hide while the fighting persists.”
“No,” she said, stooping for a fist-sized stone on the edge of the corridor.
“Child,” said Jackie, “I have to agree. It’s not safe for you.”
Katherine wound up and pitched the rock underhand at the dead Soldier’s mask, denting it heavily and sending it skittering across the floor. “I played fast-pitch softball.” She dumped the water from the bucket and filled it with stones. “Which way?” She marched off toward the intersection Baldo guarded.
Jackie led the way, followed by Biki, then Katherine, then Baldo. The handful of Soldiers they encountered on the way to Corbin’s chamber either fled or died according to their individual levels of cowardice or foolhardiness. Even Katherine scored one kill when a Soldier tried to flank Jackie and fell with a stone embedded in his mask.
They left the prison corridor and found themselves near the ballroom, in the leftmost hallway. At the far end, a door identical to the banquet hall’s was blocked with furniture, rubble, and fallen branches. Jackie and Baldo exchanged a grin and made short work of the barricade — and the four Soldiers who’d been hiding near it. Baldo wrenched the door open, splintering the frame and nearly tore it completely from its hinges. Jackie ran into the chamber with Baldo only a half step behind.
Katherine gaped when she saw inside. This Gatekeeper, Corbin, had set up a throne room. Rows of thick, gray pillars flanked the wide central aisle leading to the dais on which sat a single, blocky throne. Black and gray banners bearing the device of a snake intertwined in a Medieval castle’s trellis hung from the ceiling. And dozens of unmoving Soldiers lined the walls in the shadowed areas behind the pillars.
“I see door. Jackie, you see door?” Baldo pointed toward the throne. Indeed, a flat lintel was visible just over the top of it.
“Yes, Baldo, I do. I also see at least a hundred Soldiers on either side of us.”
“Good,” Biki strode to the center of the room, “it’ll finally be something like a fair fight.”
“Katherine,” Jackie said as they walked to join Biki, “Baldo and I will hold the Soldiers here. You and Biki get through that door and find the child.”
As one, the Soldiers converged.
“I heard that, you canny old fish-breath! Steal all the fun, will you? Well, at least I shall be able to cut my way there. Hah!” Biki dashed to the door, hamstringing one Soldier on the way. More closed in. He leapt, buried his daggers in the collarbone of one, then pushing off its chest he back-flipped over another, removing its head with a swipe-swipe! Katherine floored two with stones to the head, and then they were through. She turned back to see Jackie slashing and tearing Soldiers to pieces and Baldo pounding them to the floor and flinging them around like dolls. But for every four or five they downed, another had a blade or cudgel digging into their hides.
“Come on!” Biki grabbed Katherine’s arm and dragged her through the door. The passage beyond was dark, rough but afforded no cover for additional Soldiers.
They advanced. The passage sloped downward, and soon Katherine lost sight of the throne room, though the tumult still echoed. Biki stopped. “Agh!”
“What? What is it?”
The passage came to a T-junction. Biki crouched and ran his hands over the floor, sniffed in both directions, paused. “This way,” he said, going left.
This passage was twisty, forcing them to slow. Each new turn could hold an ambush, but none came. A hundred yards and a dozen turns in, Katherine saw light, flickering and red. Biki peered around the bend, then let out a cry, “Princess! Princess, are you harmed?” Ammy, cowered in a barred-off nook in the cavern wall. Biki dropped his daggers and rushed over.
Ammy’s eyes were wide. “Biki! Katherine! You have to leave! You have to leave before Corbin comes back!”
“He’s here?” Katherine whispered.
“Yes, he is,” a voice rumbled from behind.
They turned. Corbin stood eight feet tall, and was thickly muscled. He wore a breastplate similar to the Soldiers’ armor, but no mask. His eyes glinted in the torchlight as he stepped forward.
“Dog!” Biki spat as he snatched up a dagger and leapt between Corbin and Katherine.
“Katherine,” Ammy hissed. “His necklace!”
She looked up. Around Corbin’s neck was a simple string of beads with a seashell dangling just above his collarbone. “What about it?”
“That’s his power. My power. Get it back and I can fix everything.”
Biki glanced at the amulet as well. “Lady Katherine, be prepared to retrieve any fallen objects.”
“Daring little fool, you are,” said Corbin. “Come, dwarf, I’ve long desired to break your bones.”
Corbin’s fist snapped toward Biki, so quick that Katherine hardly saw it move. Biki dodged, barely. The fist slammed into the stone wall where it sent dust and chips of granite flying. Biki lashed out with his dagger, but Corbin pulled away before contact. Dart, dodge, slash, miss. A flurry of blows from each side, none landed. Then, the sound of metal slicing flesh — syyyict! Biki jumped back with a wicked grin. Corbin stood to his full height, looked at the long laceration on his forearm. It wasn’t bleeding. Rather, it lengthened and spread. Slick, black, scaly skin glistened underneath. He grinned, and his mouth grew impossibly large as his entire body twisted and he tore every inch of skin away. In place of an eight-foot tall warrior stood a twelve-foot long reptile that looked something between a snake and a rhinoceros. It still wore the necklace.
Biki took a breath and charged again. This time, Corbin lunged forward and swallowed him whole. He turned his eyes toward Katherine.
“Get away from her,” Jackie growled. She stood in the entrance to the chamber, teeth bared, reeking of gore, dripping blood, and keeping weight off of her left foreleg. Baldo loomed behind, fist closed around a jagged rock, and in similar shape as Jackie. He waited for Corbin to turn, then flung the rock at his head. Like a cannonball it struck the side of Corbin’s face, crunching bones and destroying an eyeball. He howled in rage and pain, and tore forward at Jackie. None of the subtlety and nimbleness of his fight with Biki were present now — he rained hammer strikes and desperate slashes. Every blow he landed, Jackie countered, tearing loose wide strips of flesh from Corbin’s forelimbs and pounding the damage from Baldo’s rock. Then, with a feint to the left and a blow to Jackie’s face from the right, Corbin sent her sprawling. Baldo leapt over Jackie’s slumped form and slammed his foot into Corbin’s foreleg, snapping it at the joint. This put Baldo off-balance, however, and Corbin head-butted him to the floor. He hobbled over and was about to tear into Baldo’s exposed abdomen when Katherine called out.
“Hey!” She stood, gripping Biki’s other dagger. “You’ve still got me to worry about.”
Katherine felt nothing, heard nothing — not the terror in her chest, not Ammy’s shrieks, not Corbin’s chuckles as he turned her way. She merely looked in his remaining eye and threw the dagger directly at it.
“Poor little fool,” he hissed. He took a step, then arched his neck as a silvery spike grew from the center of his throat, just above the seashell. Then he stumbled. The spike slowly moved downward, opening the flesh and cutting the necklace as it went. Blood spilled and beads scattered. Corbin fell to the floor, clutching at his throat. The spike made one more sudden lurch downward and Biki, dagger in hand, fell from the slit. He gasped, wiping Corbin’s black blood from his eyes. Corbin thrashed for a few more seconds, then stilled.
“Oh no,” said Ammy. “Oh no. My necklace!”
Biki looked at the scattered beads. “Lady Katherine,” he said quietly, “I must ask you to escort the princess to safety.”
“What? But she’s …” Katherine turned. The bars across the niche crumbled in Ammy’s hands, turning into piles of ashy dust.
“Oh no!” Ammy scrambled over to the necklace, clutched at the fallen beads. “I can’t fix it! I can’t fix it!”
Cracks began to appear in the walls, floor, ceiling.
“I insist that you hurry,” said Biki. He nodded toward Corbin’s body, which was rapidly growing gray and sagging, like a time lapse video of a cigarette burning.
Then Biki slumped to his knees, fell onto his side. He too began turning gray.
“No!” Ammy shrieked. She ran through Corbin’s body to Biki, who crumbled when she wrapped her arms around him.
Katherine saw that Jackie and Baldo were also in the process of turning to dust, and that the cracks were widening, sending rivulets of earth and pebbles into the chamber and corridor beyond. She prayed she could remember the way out.
She snatched up Ammy, who had gone catatonic, and ran. Along the length of the dark, twisting passageway, she stumbled countless times, slammed into walls dozens, and fell often. When she reached the throne room, ash Soldiers dotted the floor. Pillars had collapsed, others were on the verge. Katherine sprinted, made it to the door as a pillar on the far end toppled and shattered Corbin’s throne.
Just a little more, a little further.
The grand ballroom was in tatters. Chunks of stone and soil fell from the ceiling, smashing the ornate banisters and blocking off the side halls. Up the stairs, to the reinforced metal door. Katherine reached out to the latch, and the whole thing collapsed in a cloud of dust. She ran through the earthen tunnel, hearing stones close up the doorway behind her, then up the steep stairs and through the gap in the fallen trees.
In the cool, damp, predawn air, she set Ammy down. The girl’s eyes were glazed. Gray. Her hand opened and a single bead from the necklace dropped to the ground. Within a few seconds, Ammy turned to dust and was scattered by a puff of wind.
Katherine had been missing for over 24 hours when the search party found her at the top of the hill where the landslide had started. She was digging with her bare hands in the space between two fallen trees, shouting a name over and over, “Ammy! Ammy! Ammy!”
She had to be sedated.
Amethyst Camden never existed, the doctors told her. Her injuries were caused by a fall, followed by a day of delirious wandering. Anything she had experienced — or thought she had — was her mind trying to protect itself from the reality of a traumatic event.
They told her these things, yet had no explanation for the bright stone bead she’d been clutching.
Forrest Roy Johnson is a Minnesotan exiled to Iowa. He lives there with his wife. His fiction has appeared in The Whole Mitten, Miracle Ezine, Fiction 365, and HelloHorror.