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The Gift Of The Lightlings

Chapter One








Thunk, thunk, thunk. Agri's hoe connected solidly with the soil. It wasn't naturally good, but he had worked hard to enrich it, and Leela would be pleased with the greens he was hoping to grow.



Agri had labored hard to clear his small patch in the dense forest. The work was back breaking, and there was never enough sun. His heart was heavy as he worked on. He wasn't about to give up, but his hope was failing. Leela now carried their little one under her heart, and he feared for its future.



A feeling of despair threatened to engulf him as he looked up at the sky: thick clouds were rapidly veiling the frail light.



He looked to the south, and what he saw, made him drop his hoe and run quickly to the hideout. Dread gave energy to his tired body. Unspeakable evil approached in massive formation: Abyssion and his dark hordes were on the move.



***



Abyssion's immense, black wings nearly obscured the last light as he swooped low over the forest. Even the fir trees trembled in fear as he passed.



His hordes followed close behind him in a terrible, dense cloud. It is hard to describe such evil as was passing over Agri's little parcel of land. Nothing you have read in a book could prepare you for the unadulterated evil of the dark lord and his monstrous servants. I won't try dear reader, lest you own heart fail, like the hearts of the poor enslaved ones in the forest below.



"Ha! They are hiding in their holes, and trembling with fear! See how easy it is to keep them under our control." Abyssion's horrid voice rose victoriously.

"Yes, master. It is as it should be. You are the master of all," hissed Zothor, "but it is too easy. Shouldn't we do more to frighten them and bend them to our will, master?"

"I admire your eagerness, Zothar," Abyssion's eyes glowed, red as blood, "but we will save that for another time. Our mission is accomplished here. Now we must fly over the rest of Darkdrear 'til all the slaves lay down in the dust."



Agri and Leela clung to each other in their cave. Tendrils of mist snaked beyond the entrance, and the air became bitterly cold. Only once the sound of heavy wingbeats had disappeared into the distance, did they take a deep breath. Leela shuddered. "Do you think they'll come back, Agri?"

"Perhaps not for a while, my love. You should lie down a little." As Agri held Leela close, he felt the little one move, and a small spark of hope and courage flared in his heart once more. Tomorrow he would call for a secret meeting. They needed to find the Messenger.



***



Agri slipped through the twilight hoping to gather his friends together quickly. There were no signposts or markers to guide him, but Agri had no difficulty finding the hideouts he sought.



At last, several figures huddled in Benno's cave.

"What can we do to stop the darkness?" Asked Bakan. "No one can stand up to the power of Abyssian."

The others agreed. The darkness was getting worse. Soon there would be no light at all, and they would surely all die. Their hearts were faltering and wouldn't be able to beat much longer.

"That is why we must do something," insisted Agri. "we can't fight Abyssion ourselves, but we must send for help. And there is only one who is able to help us."

"The Messenger?" Guessed Yalon, "I have heard of him. But he lives many footsteps away. Such a journey would be perilous."

Agri nodded, his face grave."He is our only chance. We must go quickly, at least three of us. I will be one of the three."

It was quiet in the cave, and a familiar fear gripped the hearts of those present. Traveling through Abyssion's kingdom was not something to be undertaken lightly.

"I will go." Said Yalon.

"And I," Bree, Agri's sister, said resolutely, "but we must make use of the tunnels as much as possible. I know them well."

"Yes," said Agri, "and Bakan, we will need the map. Denita, may I bring Leela to stay with you while I am gone?"

Denita nodded her head, sympathy etched on her face."Of course. And we will see to the provisions."

A sigh of relief escaped Agri's lips and he thanked her. "If it is well with everyone, we will leave at twilight tomorrow."



Chapter Two





Agri held Leela and the unborn one that night as though it could be their last night together. He did his best to calm her fears by reminding her of the tunnels and of how well Bree knew them. Leela fixed her gaze on his brown eyes and beloved face as though to imprint them on her mind. At last she fell asleep in full knowledge that the mission was their only hope. There were no other options.



A short while before twilight, they gathered at Benno's hide-out to gather their supplies, study the map, and run through the proposed route. If they hadn't returned after a month, Benno and a couple of the other men would set out to see what had become of them.



It was nearly dark when they set out, for the night hours had been steadily lengthening as Abyssion's power grew. An eerie hush was settling over the forest, almost as though both it and the creatures within were aware that a secret journey had begun.



Bree led the way, her footsteps soft, and her black cloak helping to disguise her. Her auburn hair was

secured in a low knot and hidden under her hood. Agri and Yalon followed close behind, straining their ears for any rustling noises or the sound of wings. Like Bree, they were clothed in black, and their provision bags were dark-coloured too. No one spoke, nor even whispered. It would only be safe to do so once they reached the first tunnel.



The first tunnel lay beyond a clearing. Bree stopped and indicated with her hand that they should rather skirt the clearing. Coming out into the open was to be avoided as much as possible. More by feel than by sight, they made their way along just inside the trees. A rustle sounded in the bushes, causing them to freeze in place, but it was only a small fox out hunting and it darted off in fright at the sight of the cloaked figures.



Bree's sure memory brought them to the first tunnel. Its entrance was concealed by dense shrubbery. Without prior knowledge, it would have been hard to find indeed.



The three travelers felt safer once they had entered it. Agri smiled at his sister. "Well done, Bree. We are indebted to your memory."

"It was a joint effort brother. We all played our part."

"It is far too early to celebrate." Said Yalon. We have far to go. I propose that we travel a short way only tonight so as not to waste lamplight. We can sleep in the tunnel till daybreak. If we journey through the tunnel during the day, we'll have a little light from the vents."

Agri and Bree quickly agreed to Yalon's suggestion. The travelers progressed only to the first alcove, where they set up camp for the night, speaking quietly about the next leg of the journey before settling down to sleep.



***



Agri was the first to wake. He hadn't slept too well, for his thoughts kept flying to Leela and their little one. At least he could take comfort in the thought that she'd be well looked after. Now, faint tendrils of light spoke of morning, and Agri was keen to move on. He rolled up his blanket, and ate some bread whilst waiting for the others to prepare themselves for the day's travel.



"How long is this tunnel, Bree, and where does it end?" Asked Yalon.

Bree took a few sips of water before answering. "This one cuts through the hills. The length is about a day's worth of footsteps. That is, if we move steadily."

"Then we should be able to travel to the next tunnel under cover of night." Said Agri.

"It will not be so easy this time," cautioned Yalon. "The terrain will become more unfamiliar the further south we go. I am afraid we may need to risk moving about when there is still some light."

Bree nodded. "You are right, Yalon. We might have to. The other alternative is to risk using our lamps."

Yalon consulted the map once more. "We would do well to stay under cover of the forests as far as possible. The enemy gets about mainly by flying and will have a bird's eye view of the land."

"True. And we will find kin along the way. We will rest in their hideouts as often as possible. Come, we must leave." Agri lifted his pack and moved out of the alcove and into the tunnel. Bree and Yalon followed, and soon they began the long trek through the damp and dark tunnel. Oddly, Agri felt less fearful than he had on the day of Abyssion's terrible fly-over. He realized that it was because he was actually doing something to help put a stop to the evil one's reign of terror. A reign of terror which had begun many sunsets ago.



***



Amahris



"He is beautiful." Uriel smiled at his wife, Aurora. "Another Messenger is added to our clan. May he bring more light and hope to Dawn Star."

"Yes, may it be so." Aurora gazed out the window. Sunlight sparkled through the tree leaves as a chorus of feathered friends sang out their congratulations to the happy couple. A knock sounded at the door, and Estrada, the king of the Messengers was ushered in.

His beauty persisted despite his age, and his silver beard sparkled like a spider's creation on a dewy morning. "You are truly blessed, loved ones. May this little one be a blessing to you, to his fellow Messengers and to all the Forest Folk." He smiled gently at Aurora. "What is the precious one's name?"

"His name is Amahris." Aurora said softly.

"May he bring much love." Estrada closed his eyes and lifted his head, as though listening. His eyes clouded briefly. He would need to keep a close eye on the little one.



Chapter Three



Agri, Bree and Yalon traveled steadily through the day, only stopping occasionally to rest and eat. Their diet would consist mainly of dried berries, meat and rusks. None of them complained. The forest folk had been eating simply for many years as certain crops became harder to grow, and the game of the forests began to dwindle.



The tunnel network had been dug over several decades by the forest dwellers. Agri and Bree's father had been a tunnel digger. From a young age, Bree had taken an intense interest in the tunnels, and her father had wisely taught her all she needed to know to be a tunnel guide. There were other tunnel guides too, but Bree was one of the best.

"Our fathers must have had a terrible foreboding to cause them to make these tunnels." Said Yalon.

"What do you know about that time, Bree?"

"Well, it started in the days of our fathers' fathers. Before those days, there was no need for tunnels. The tunnel construction began in the days when the darkness first started to spread." Bree spoke as they pressed on through the gloom.

"They must have been terrified." Yalon shuddered. " After all, they'd only known good and light."

"Yes," Said Agri. "All they knew to do was to flee from the darkness. There was nothing they could do to stop it or to fight it."

"And it remains so to this day." Bree said. Her anger and frustration were evident.

"That is why we must get to the Messenger. We can no longer allow fear to rule us," Agri encouraged them,"for so long we have been creeping and tunneling, hiding and running. We cannot continue if our children are to live."

Neither Bree, nor Yalon were married, but they felt Agri's fear and concern. They would do all they could.



***



As they neared the end of the tunnel, it was hard not to let fear get a grip on them. When they reached the last alcove, they studied the map once more by lamplight. They were now on the other side of the hills. Forest and clearings as well as a lake lay ahead. Hidden throughout the area were the hide-outs of forest folk like themselves.

"Should we progress to the next tunnel by night, or wait for the morning?" Asked Yalon. His youthful face looked grim in the lamplight as he tucked his long light-coloured hair under his hood.

"Perhaps we should leave in the morning." Agri suggested. "We have many kinsmen here. We should inform them of our mission. And perhaps they can give us counsel for our journey."

"I agree." Said Bree, smiling slightly. "They will know the land beyond the next tunnel better than we do."

They settled down for one more night in the tunnel, but took turns keeping watch this time. Agri lay down on his blanket, but Yalon sat next to Bree who was on the first watch. "I will be glad to be out of this tunnel." He said.

"Even though there may be danger beyond?" She asked, as she pulled her cloak more closely around herself.

"I am trying not to overthink things." He laughed softly. "And we will come across friends on our way."

Bree smiled. "You are right to be positive, Yalon. Maybe that is one way we can overcome the enemy."

"The Messenger," said Yalon, "is he the only one left?"

Bree shrugged. "Some say that there are a few Messengers left here and there." She lowered her voice. "And I have heard tell that others died of broken hearts."



***



Amahris



Aurora watched from the door as Amahris trailed home at the end of the day. Always alone, she thought. When will he join the other young Messengers at their gatherings? "Where have you been today, Amahris?" She asked, hoping that her suspicions were unfounded.

"Only to the wood, Mother. I like it there. It is cool and dark."

Aurora sighed. "Your Father and I would like you to start going to the youth gatherings, Amahris. You need to meet other young Messengers"

Amahris merely shrugged his shoulders. His navy blue eyes held an exasperated look. "I don't care for the gatherings. They are all noise and laughter and light. It gives me a headache just to think of them."

"It is not the way of the Messengers to avoid each other's company, nor to avoid the light, Amahris. You were born to be in the light and to share the light." Aurora said as her eyes held his. "It is your calling and destiny."

"Perhaps not," Said Amahris, and he left the room without another word.



***



In the morning, Agri, Bree, and Yalon crept out of the tunnel in the pale morning light. The forest here was very much like their own. It was dense, but a clearing stretched out immediately before them. Neat rows of vegetables and barley took up most of it. "All the hideouts here will be underground as there are no caves." Whispered Agri. "Keep a lookout for the secret sign once we reach the trees on the other side." They walked along the edge of the clearing, stepping carefully and quietly. Only the odd call of a bird disrupted the strange stillness. Agri wondered whether the forest folk had risen extra early to do their outdoor tasks. It was Yalon who noticed a shadow beyond the second line of trees. He came to a sudden halt, then quickly pulled Agri and Leeli behind some undergrowth. They hardly dared to breathe as they crouched and waited, ears straining to hear any movement. For a few moments, nothing stirred, then the sound of soft footsteps could be heard coming towards them. The three travelers looked at one another. They knew that sound. It was the sound of a forest dweller's feet moving as noiselessly as possible. How would they alert him to their presence without frightening him half to death?

"We are forest dwellers." Called out Bree softly from behind the bush. "We are looking for kin."

The footsteps came nearer, then suddenly, a man crouched beside them. "Come." He said. "I will take you to my home."



The tall stranger led them through the forest to his hideout, which at first appeared to be a mound, well covered in bushes and vines. He spoke only once he had ushered them through a weathered door.

"I am Milo. Welcome to my home." The tension everyone felt, fell away as he led them into a large living area. "Please make yourselves comfortable." He left, but soon returned with the rest of his family. "This is my father, Deta, my wife, Zinnia, and my son, Usher."

Deta stepped forward first. He had a thatch of white hair, but his handshake was firm, and his smile merry. "How good it is to see visitors from beyond the tunnel. It happens so rarely these days."

Zinnia and Usher, a teenager, smiled and nodded as they shook hands with the travelers. Agri, Bree and Yalon introduced themselves.

"We are journeying south, and with your consent, we'd like to tell you about our mission." Agri explained.

"South, you say?" Deta frowned slightly, "towards Abyssion's stronghold?"

The faces of the others paled. Bree, who was enjoying the comfort of a soft armchair, realized how awful Agri's words must have sounded to their ears. "Not actually, she broke in. We don't plan to go anywhere near there."

Agri nodded. "We are in search of the Messenger."

Everyone was quiet for a few moments as his words settled around them. Finally, Milo cleared his throat. "You must stay at least overnight. We would like to hear more of your mission. But first, let us eat together."



***



Zinnia brought a steaming pot of stew with plentiful mushrooms to the table, and the hungry travelers ate gratefully. After they'd eaten, they all retired to the cozy living area with mugs of tea. The lantern light cast a warm glow over the gathering, and for the moment, darkness was pushed aside.

"So, you seek the Messenger?" Deta spoke at last.

"Yes, the folk of our area came to an agreement: we can no longer sit by while the darkness continues to spread. As you well know, it is worsening and soon we will no longer be able to farm. We will die unless something is done." Agri spoke softly, yet urgently.

"And the only one who can help us is the Messenger," Yalon added, "that is, he is the only one who can help all the Forest Folk."

"You are right in your thinking. On our own, we are powerless against Abyssion," Milo agreed, "but how do you plan to find him?"

Bree spoke up. "We have a map, made by my grandfather. And we have the tunnels."

Deta looked at Bree. "You are familiar with the tunnels?"

"Yes, they are in my blood, you could say." She smiled, and told how she'd come about her knowledge. Usher looked at Bree, admiration in his gaze. "I know the two tunnels closest to us, but I wish I knew all of them."

"Maybe you will one day. Although, I hope they will no longer be needed for their current purpose in the future." Bree warmed her hands on her mug, and wished she could stay in the safety of the hideout. But they needed to finish their journey.

"What will you do if you come across the enemy?" Deta had been listening attentively as the travelers spoke. Now his gaze rested soberly on each of his guests. "Do you have a plan?"

"Only to stay hidden as far as it is possible, and of course to use the tunnels," Agri admitted, "we have no weapons that would work against the enemy. If Abyssion or one of his servants were to accost us, our only option would be to flee. That's if our hearts don't stop beating there and then." He shuddered, and the room went quiet.

"Your plan is good," said Deta kindly, "and you display great braveness by embarking on your mission. But you are wrong in saying you have no weapon against the enemy."

"Wrong?"

Deta nodded his head. "The proof is that I am still alive. I have had several close encounters with servants of the enemy. Something told me to stand my ground; to not fear."

The travelers all looked in wonder at the old man. "But surely they would have attacked you?" Agri insisted.

"No," said Deta firmly, "if you do not fear them, they can do nothing. They rule by fear. Once they have wrapped their bands of terror around you, you are in the grip of fear, and your heart will stop beating. But, if you stand firm and don't give in to fear, they can do nothing."

"And you have experienced this happening yourself? Bree leaned forward.

"Yes. Three times. But not recently. Perhaps they have given up on me." He chuckled.

"Incredible." Agri sat in stunned silence, as did the others until Milo broke the silence. "What my father says is true. I am a witness to his survival."



***



The travelers rose in the early hours of the morning, along with their hosts. After eating a hot breakfast, they bid a reluctant farewell to their new friends, and thanked Zinnia, who had restocked their provision bags.

"Make sure to keep what I told you in your minds and hearts." Said Deta as he shook hands with them.

All three promised him solemnly that they would.

"Good. Our Usher will lead you to the next tunnel."



Chapter Four





The darkness had lifted slightly as they made their way as silently as possible along nearly concealed pathways. Usher walked ahead confidently, now and again moving tree branches aside or motioning to them to go under others. Tendrils of damp mist trailed through the forest. Without their guide, finding their way to the tunnel would have been impossible.



Walking through a strange area made the journey feel longer than it actually was. Along the way, Agri noticed the secret sign in several places: a large rock positioned at the base of a tree. These indicated that a hideout was nearby. Each time they neared a clearing, Usher would proceed with even more caution, not wanting to scare any farmers. A few times, he motioned to the travelers that they should stay behind while he went to speak to gray forms bent over their gardens. Inevitably the forms would straighten and look up in surprise. After a while, they encountered no more secret signs or forest folk. They had reached the last belt of trees, beyond which lay the tunnel.



***



A feeling of apprehension settled over the small party. This stretch of trees was particularly dense and dark: no forest folk lived here, hence there were no clearings to let in light. It was so quiet that each footstep sounded like a thud to their ears. As they reached the center of the forest, both visibility and temperature decreased. The mist thickened, and Usher stopped walking, unsure suddenly of the path.

I don't like the feel of this place, perhaps we should turn back. Agri thought to himself. The mist cleared slightly, allowing Usher to find the pathway again. They only walked a few steps though, when they realized that something large was blocking their way ahead. Usher drew them quickly into the undergrowth, but it was too late. Whatever was blocking the path had seen them. They could hear its steps and its raspy breathing. As their eyes met, they knew at once what it was. Icy fingers of fear and horror snaked through their hearts and minds. Bree clung to Yalon, and Usher took a few steps backwards as though readying himself to flee. Agri felt the familiar feeling of dread, but steeling himself, he remembered Deta's words and looked towards the enemy. The beast was only meters away, and it was half the height of a tree. It was black, and so were its wings, but its eyes glowed red, and evil in the gloom. For a moment, Agri balked at the thought of what he was about to do. An image of Leela flashed through his mind. Would he ever see her again? But he clung to hope, and stepped back onto the path. The beast stopped, then, stretching its neck towards Agri, it let out a hideous roar as its eyes blazed. "I am not afraid of you!" Agri stood his ground. He felt oddly calm, and he raised his voice and addressed his foe again. "I am not afraid. Do you hear me? You can leave, for I am not going to run."

The beast started, as if he'd been struck, then he took a step backwards. Emboldened by Agri's brave stand, Yalon, Bree, and Usher, stood beside him. "We are not afraid of you! Go! Go away!" They all shouted. Oddly, the monster seemed to shrink a little, before doing just that. He roared once, then ran crashing through the trees. The travelers stood on the pathway and listened as the beast's roars became fainter and fainter. Bree was the first to speak. "Look, the mist has lifted, and there is a little light on the path."

"So there is," said Agri. "We must keep moving."

Yalon nodded. "We'd best hurry, and be careful."

They were able to travel more quickly in the increased light, and soon Usher pointed to the concealed tunnel opening up ahead. As before, they stopped to rest and eat in the first tunnel alcove. Usher planned to begin his journey home once he'd rested.

They spoke in hushed voices of their encounter with the enemy, scarcely able to believe that they'd survived.

"We must not become complacent though," Agri's eyes were solemn. "We do not know how many of Abyssion's servants are lying in wait, and for all we know, the one we saw may be on his way to his master right now."



***



The following day, as they walked through the tunnel, Yalon admired Bree, and her confident way as she guided them. And he thought too, of how she had sought comfort in his arms as they had faced the enemy. A strong urge to love and protect her came over him, and the hope that they might have a future together, gave him new strength.



***



Amahris



Amahris grew strong and tall. Outwardly, his appearance was impressive, and he was the most beautiful of all the young males, but Estrada saw what others didn't: the light within him was gradually fading. Amahris continued to shun the youth gatherings, but he became popular with some of the more rebellious youth. Slowly, his influence over them grew, until they too, seemed to prefer his company. Amahris and his gang of friends had a hideout in the woods and gathered there regularly. His parents despaired, and often called on Estrada to talk to Amahris and his friends. Estrada did all he could, but he had little hope that Amahris would change.



Chapter Five





Entrophius flew as quickly as he could over the treetops, southward, towards Abyssion's stronghold. He thought of nothing except the fact that he had failed to frighten the forest dwellers. He couldn't fathom how the small group, which had included a female, had not either fled nor fallen down dead. Never in all his years had such a thing happened to him. Abyssion should be told, but Entrophius' evil heart balked at the prospect. His flight slowed a little. What would Abyssion do to him if he found out about the failure? Entrophius landed clumsily in the sturdy branches of a giant tree. He folded his dark wings about himself as his eyes glowed with a mixture of anger and fear. He could see the fortifications of the stronghold in the distance. No. He would not tell. As soon as he could, though, he would find another weak forest dweller and scare the living daylights out of them. Yes, that is what he would do.



***



"This is our last tunnel." Bree told them. "It is longer than the other two, and has more twists and turns." As they rested and ate towards the end of the day, they studied the map once more. Agri pointed to the spot which marked the tunnel exit. "Once we leave the tunnel, we'll be in the last fully inhabited area north of the stronghold."

"We may have a hard time finding the folk of the area. They live deeper underground, and are even more cautious than us," Yalon stretched out his legs, "but who can blame them, seeing as they live in the shadow of the enemy."

"The Messenger lives even closer," Bree added, as she nibbled on a rusk, "we will have to be far more cautious than before." Her eyes sought Yalon's, and what she saw warmed her heart.

"Yes, and we will need a guide. If we can find one." Agri bent over the map once more. He was aware that the friendship between his friend and his sister had sparked into something more. The idea that Yalon could become part of the family one day pleased him, but watching them made him long for Leela and the little one. He had grown accustomed to feeling its strong movements against his back at night.

"We will need to leave the tunnel in daylight once more. We will only get lost if we venture forth at night."

"And our courage is greater now." Bree smiled.

"Yes, but we don't want to take unnecessary risks," Agri cautioned, "news of our bravery may have reached the enemy's ears by now."

Bree shuddered, and Yalon took her hand in his, "but it is good that we know what we do about the enemy. It makes us stronger than we were before."

Agri nodded. "And when all the Forest Folk learn what we now know, it could change things for the better. Of course, that still leaves the problem of how to dethrone Abyssion. He is much more powerful than his servants and won't step down without a fight."

"His claws and fangs will surely come out," Yalon pressed Bree's hand reassuringly, "that is why we must find the Messenger. He will know what to do."



***



Once the thin glimmers of daylight reached them, they set off once more. The exit of the tunnel was hidden by a rocky outcrop and some vines. The travelers peered through these at the scene before them. Just below, was a lake fringed by pine trees. They decided to make their way towards it first, as their water containers needed re-filling. Pine needles cushioned their footsteps as they made their way to the shore. Every so often, Agri would motion that they should stop and listen for a while before going on. Once at the lake shore, they took turns going down to the water while the other two kept watch. Bree dipped her hands in the chilly water and washed her face, as did the men after her. The pale sunlight gleamed dimly on the lake's little waves, but they could see no signs of life either on the water or around its shores. Feeling exposed, they soon headed back to the covering of the trees. Moving cautiously as before, they walked deeper into the woods. Every now and then, their hearts would nearly stop as a startled deer would jump across their path. After a while, they no longer jumped at the noises the deer made. A rabbit would also make a quiet appearance now and then, but these were of little interest to the travelers: they were keeping a sharp look-out for tell-tale rocks. They found several secret indicators, but had trouble finding the hideouts themselves. It was Bree who finally had success when she stooped to pluck a few berries from a bush. Quietly, she moved a few branches aside to reveal a wooden door. Bree returned to the others and whispered her news. Agri suggested that they hide in the bushes in the hope that someone would emerge. Time passed slowly as they waited in their cramped hiding place, and Agri began to wonder whether the folk who lived in that area came out in the day at all. He stretched his tired muscles, and was about to suggest that they move on, when they heard faint noises from below ground. Before long, someone opened the door just a little and peered to the left and right. When the man's eyes rested in front of him, he gave a little start, and froze in place, his eyes trained on the travelers hiding place. Worried that the man would disappear again, or worse, shoot at them with a bow, Agri pursed his lips to imitate a robin's call. Twice more he gave the same call. After only a moment, the man responded with the same call. He emerged from his doorway just as the travelers stepped out from behind the bushes. The man, who appeared to be the same age as Yalon, silently beckoned them to follow him. One by one, they disappeared into the secret opening.



***



A dimly lit ladder led them downwards into a spacious cavern. A young woman holding a baby in her arms, watched nervously as they descended. After introductions, they found out that her name was Faye. The baby was Lia, and the man's name was Dyan. Dyan explained that he had been on his way out to go hunting rabbit or deer. The travelers insisted that they did not wish to keep him from his hunting, but he assured them that he was sure to come across at least a rabbit when he went to find some of his kin. Agri had told him briefly of their mission, and he'd insisted on going to call them.



Bree offered to hold baby Lia while Faye boiled water for some herbal tea and served them stew and barley bread. The little one smiled up at Bree, and it felt ever so homey as she rocked to and fro with the baby in her arms. Yalon studied her, a smile upon his face. Bree was a courageous young woman, and she'd make a fine mother one day. Agri's eyes were drawn to the cozy sight too. Oh, how he looked forward to the day when he and Leela would hold their own little one.

The travelers ate gratefully of the simple yet hearty meal, and thanked Faye sincerely. "You have truly blessed us," said Bree, "with both food and company."

Faye blushed and smiled. "It is a great pleasure. It can't be easy to be so far from home. And such a dangerous journey too." She said quietly.

Muffled sounds were heard above, and soon, several men began their descent into the cavern.

Benches and stools were drawn out and more tea was poured. Dyan introduced the travelers to his father, Henru, a giant of a man with a full gray beard. Two of the men were his uncles, and the other two, his older brothers.

"So, you believe that the Messenger can help us?" Asked Henru, once Agri had explained their mission.

"We know that the Messengers were once the rulers of our planet. Long ago, when it was called Dawn Star. Surely they must have some knowledge of how best to defeat the enemy," Agri continued boldly, "we hope to find the Messenger, but we will need help."

Henru nodded solemnly. "I can take you to him. But it will be dangerous. The enemy has been more active."

"We will be indebted to you. And I think we may have some information that will be of help to all of you." Agri added. "You may not believe me, but we were able to withstand the enemy in Farley Forest."

"Impossible," the men chorused.

"I also thought it would be impossible, but the three of us plus our guide, neither fled nor fell before the enemy, and here we are, to tell you about it." Yalon told them about Deta, about how he'd stood up to the enemy himself, and about the advice he'd given them.

"So, you are saying that not fearing the enemy is the key?" Dyan's uncle Govan asked.

The travelers nodded. "Yes," Said Agri, "when the beast saw that we were not afraid of it, it gave up and ran away. Of course, we were afraid at first, but when we saw that it could not harm us unless we allowed it to, we were able to stand our ground, just like Deta said."

"Of course, we have to use our new knowledge prudently," Bree put in, "we don't want to draw attention to ourselves."

The forest folk were quiet as they thought about all they'd heard. They could see that the travelers were honest folk, bent only on helping. Finally, Henru spoke for them all. "We have been living under a terrible dark shadow for so long. It is becoming more difficult by the day to just go about our work, and I am sure that you are also struggling to produce adequate food in the dwindling light. Yes, it is time to get up and do what we can. I will be your guide, and the others will serve as look- outs. We will also provide you with provisions."

The travelers shook hands with the men. It was agreed that Henru would come for them in the morning.



Chapter Six





Only a little gray light told them it was morning when they set off again the following day. The other men had gone ahead earlier. So far, no alerts had sounded.

"Perhaps Abyssion feels he has spread enough fear for the moment," whispered Bree to Yalon.

"Maybe," he smiled back at her. They conversed no further. It was necessary to be extra careful, even though the coast seemed clear. Abyssion's guards could be posted throughout the area.

Henru led them around the lake, before heading off in a south-east direction. The Messenger obviously preferred some distance between himself and the enemy.



***



They were about to set off after having eaten under a weakened noon-day sun, when an alert call sounded. Henru motioned to them to take cover, while he climbed a sturdy tree in the hopes of seeing where the enemy was. After a few minutes, he stood by their side again. He didn't speak, but his face told them that he'd seen something, and his hands shook as he beckoned them to follow. Thanks to the alert, they could take another route. Each step sounded raucous as they slowly made their way out of the danger zone. A large bird flapped its wings overhead, causing them to dive for the nearest bushes. They sat still for a few moments, and just listened. The only sounds they heard were normal forest sounds. Relieved, they began to pick their way through the dense wood once more. It must be about two 'o clock, thought Agri, as he kept his eyes on Henru's back. Some tense footsteps further, their guide stopped. He craned his neck upwards, then nodded. "This is the house of the Messenger."

Agri's eyes widened. "In a tree?" It was then that he noticed a bell attached to the massive tree trunk before them. No one could summon the courage to ring it. As they stood quietly discussing what to do, a ladder unfurled from above, and a voice said, "Come up."





***



The ladder led to the first level of the tree house: a large, fully enclosed living area, where their host quietly awaited them. The travelers and their guide were struck dumb at the sight of the Messenger. None of them had ever seen a more beautiful being. His bright silver hair and beard spoke of age, yet his face held no lines, and his eyes were the colour of a long-forgotten summer sky. His clothing spoke of bright spring days, but most extraordinary was the way he shone. Being in his presence alone was enough to warm the hearts of the weary travelers.

Once the ladder was pulled up again, the Messenger bade them make themselves at home on bright embroidered cushions. A carpet of yellow, gold and white glowed under their feet, and the Messenger himself seemed to provide all the light they needed.

"You have come at last. I have been waiting for many years, but now you have come. It is time." The Messenger seemed to glow more brightly as he spoke.

"You have been waiting for us?" Stuttered Agri.

"Yes, I have. But I will explain everything, once you have had some refreshment." The Messenger left them, presumably to go to another level of the tree house. He returned quickly, bearing a tray and poured a fragrant cordial into glasses. "This will strengthen and refresh you. Please tell me your names, and I will tell you mine," he began.

The travelers happily complied. "Ah, Agri, you are the one who thought of coming to me, weren't you?"

Agri nodded and bowed his head.

"Now I will tell you who I am. You know me only as The Messenger, but my name is Estrada. Many, many sunrises ago, I was the Messenger king." Estrada's eyes looked like deep pools as he remembered. "Dawn Star, as it was called then, was one of the brightest planets. There was no night at all, and there was joy throughout the land. The Forest Folk were happy and free. They lived above ground, and worked and farmed in peace. The land was abundantly fruitful. Families were large, and well fed. Messengers traveled throughout the land, teaching, helping, and settling disputes."

"It sounds wonderful." Said Bree softly. "I have heard a little of those times."

"It was."

"How did everything go so wrong?" Henru enquired boldly. Everyone looked at Estrada. They needed to hear the story from his lips.

"Amahris."

Agri raised his eyebrows, "Amahris?"

"Yes," Estrada sighed. "That used to be Abyssion's name, before he gave himself completely over to evil. He was born a Messenger, but from the start, I knew there was something amiss in him. I was determined to do all I could to steer him into ways of light and love, but he would never pay any heed. His poor parents were faithful to teach him right from wrong. They never gave up until they end."

"What happened to them?" Asked Yalon.

"They died of broken hearts when Amahris turned his back on the people, and took on his new name. Over the years, as he allowed more and more darkness into his soul, his heart and his appearance began to grow ugly. Finally, no light remained, and he left forever."

"How was he able to take over?" Agri asked quietly, not sure if he really wanted to hear the rest of the tragic story.

"He didn't take over right away. It was a slow process. He had a band of rebels who followed him. Of course, they left us when he did. Some Forest Folk joined his ranks too. It was during this time that Abyssion discovered the weapon of fear, and he began to use it. The Messengers were not afraid of him, but some became discouraged and lost their joy. I am sure that you know full well the terrible effect that Abyssion's weapon has had on your people." Estrada's eyes shone with sympathy.

"We have learned a little about how to overcome his weapon." Agri shared their experience in the forest with Estrada. "We have seen that Abyssion needs us to be afraid."

Estrada nodded, his face aglow. "And now that you have found that out, it means that our battle is halfway won."



***



The travelers and their guide dined with Estrada, and were given a tour of his tree house. They had many questions for their host, and he answered them all graciously.

"Now that your hearts are ready, two fellow Messengers will travel with me to the planet of the Lightlings: Light Star. The Star Lord, Astra, is waiting to receive us. He will tell us what to do."

"Won't it be a very dangerous journey?" Bree frowned as she tried to imagine the great unknown expanse that lay between the two planets.

"Possibly. We must first get past Abyssion's outpost. Once through, there will be no dangers. Astra will send an escort, and the way will be well lit."

"When will you leave?" Agri asked.

"At dawn. You will need to go back home. Be careful not to draw attention to yourselves. The enemy must be kept unaware of our plan. Once home, stay hidden. I will come to you when I return."



Chapter Seven



Clarion and Beam arrived at Estrada's signal. They had been standing at the ready since word had come of the Forest Folk's journey.

Estrada had just bid farewell to his new friends, after replenishing their supplies. Instead of water, he had given them his energizing cordial, and had assured them that it would strengthen their hearts and bodies.



Each Messenger carried only a small bag, as they would be traveling light. They had no fear of the enemy, as they unfurled their bright wings and readied themselves for their ascent.

"Lead the way, King Estrada." Clarion's face glowed in anticipation of the flight.



The three Messengers looked like flashes of light as they quickly traveled towards the clouds.

"How do you plan to get through the outpost? Shall we use our swords?" Beam wanted to know.

"No. We will slip past, behind those dark clouds. Hopefully, our mission will remain a secret."



***



The outpost was merely a small rock, as Estrada dismissively referred to it. It held a single building, a shelter for the one guard normally stationed there. Abyssion had no reason to fear that his slaves, as he called them, would escape. His ego had grown over time, and he had not considered the remaining Messengers to be a threat for many years. In his mind, they had been dealt with, thus he kept most of his dark servants occupied with the task of making the forest people grovel in the dust.



Estrada, Clarion, and Beam slipped by unnoticed behind the thick, dark clouds. Once through the dense mass of clouds, they entered the safety of the Light Belt. Now, they would be completely hidden by the light.

"Look! Our escort." Beam pointed ahead to the edge of the Light Belt. Three bright beings waited, their wings ready for flight. The Messengers could see the Star Path winding off into the distance behind them.

"I am Starburst," said the tallest of the three, "and here are Lightfoot and Stella." The Lightlings' shone with a brightness that far exceeded that of the Messengers, and no mortal would have been able to look upon them without being blinded. "How was your journey through the Dark Belt?"

"Uneventful, fortunately," smiled Estrada.

"How wonderful it is to be in the light once more." Clarion laughed happily.

"I could live with this." Said Beam.

Starburst smiled. "Well, let us journey on. You will enjoy your visit to Lightstar."

"Astra is expecting you," said Lightfoot, "he is very happy about your news."



***



As they flew along the last stretch of the Star Path, the glow from the planet Light Star bathed the way before them in golden light, almost as though spreading a welcome mat before them.

"It is but a little way now," Starburst assured them as they flew through bands of pastel hues before their descent. The Lightlings had purposefully slowed down, knowing that the Messengers were not as quick as they. Fortunately, Estrada and his companions were not much tired by their journey: the presence of so much light had energized and refreshed them. There were no dark clouds or shadows to be seen as they came in for a gentle landing.



***



They flew over magnificent gardens and lakes, before landing at last in the grounds of Astra's shining palace. There were so many beautiful sights around them, that the Messengers would have struggled to describe them adequately. Starburst ushered them straight through the golden doors. There was no need for locks nor guards on the planet Light Star. Estrada longed that this would be true for Dawn Star again.



***



"Astra wishes that you rest a while and have some refreshments." Starburst announced, as he led them into a reception room. Its soothing colours and soft couches enfolded them in peace and comfort.

After only an hour, the three Messengers were fully rested. Every bite they'd eaten had brought life and energy to their bodies.

Starburst returned to lead them into the Star Lord's presence. Estrada and his companions felt humbled by the grandeur of the palace, but when they bowed before Astra, he put them at their ease, and spoke so kindly, that they admired him even more.

"How you and the Forest Folk have suffered under the evil one's terrible reign." He sighed, "but now, at last, it will come to an end."

"Yes, the Forest Folk have begun to shake off the enemy's bonds. As agreed, I embarked on this journey only once they sought me out." Estrada wondered how Agri, Yalon and Bree were doing. Had they managed to evade the enemy?

As though reading his thoughts, Astra said, "I will not keep you away from Dawn Star for long. The enemy will soon become suspicious and you need to act quickly. Now, I will tell you everything you need to know…"



***



Somewhat reluctantly, and yet with great anticipation in their hearts, the three Messengers bade farewell to Astra and to his lovely home. Once again, Starburst, Lightfoot and Stella accompanied them to the edge of the Light Belt.

"Goodbye, friends, goodbye." They called. The Messengers dipped their heads in reply before turning to face the darkening world below.



***



Each Messenger bore a plain wooden box: gifts from Astra, which contained the key to the enemy's defeat. This time, they headed straight for the outpost, knowing exactly what they must do. A dragon-like creature lumbered out of the shelter when they called. It looked confused and angry, as though its sleep had been disturbed. "Messengers!" He snarled, "what are you doing here?" The guard tried to look intimidating, but failed. Estrada stepped closer, and his face lit up as he gave a big smile. "We have brought you a gift. Would you like to see it?"

As the beast lumbered forward for a closer look, Estrada opened the lid of his box. A blinding shaft of light escaped and pierced the evil one's eyes. He screeched, and tried to cover them, but to no avail. And with a dreadful roar, the creature fell down dead, at Estrada's feet.





Epilogue





With gladness, Estrada brought the gift of the Lightlings to the Forest Folk. First to Agri, Bree and Yalon, and then to the others. The gift spread from home to home, banishing all shadows and evil in its path.

Then, accompanied by his fellow Messengers, Estrada bore the gift right up to Abyssion's stronghold, where, having overcome the guards, he delivered the gift in person to the one who had brought so much darkness.

Once Abyssion and his servants had fallen, evil lost its grip, and Darkdrear became Dawn Star once more. Estrada took his rightful place as king of the bright planet.



Daily, the sunshine and light grew stronger, and the darkness fled.

On a day full of sparkling promise, Agri and Leela welcomed Mirth into the world. Estrada gazed at the little one, and saw nothing but love and hope.

And not long after, Bree said yes to Yalon in a gown of shimmering white below the tree house that would soon be theirs to fill with love and laughter.



***



The End





"Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."



(John 8: 12, KJV)



***



Thanks for reading. :)
About author
Alison Lawrence
I am posting an exercise in world building: Islamondo: The Island World. Note: it has a creation theme.

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