Eleanor blinked and found herself sitting at her barren kitchen table.
‘What the . . .’
She scanned the room. Something wasn’t quite right. The pictures . . . they hadn’t hung on those walls in many years; and she’d replaced that infernally old toaster when it caught fire one morning. How could it be back on the counter?
The familiar creak of the loose floor board in the hall brought her to attention. Someone was there. Could it be Rowan?
The shadow came into view a brief second before its owner.
Eleanor gasped. ‘Bill?’ she whispered.
‘Hello, love.’ He stood in the doorway, eyes shining with a mix of joy and sorrow.
She rose with tears streaming down her cheeks, then ran into Bill’s open arms. He wrapped them around her and rested his cheek on the top of her head. Eleanor wept, holding him as tightly as she could, her face buried in his chest. Long moments passed before she could bring herself to pull away.
Bill wiped her remaining tears away as she reached up to touch his face. His smile ignited a ball of warmth in her gut, bringing a calmness she hadn’t felt in ages.
‘Bill . . . This can’t really be you, can it? So much is going on and I feel lost without you. I understand that Rowan must be stopped. And, now I’ve found out you were protecting me all these years and Hal’s also some kind of guardian and I’m supposedly part dragon and —’
‘One thing at a time, El,’ he said. ‘Let’s sit and have some tea.’
When Eleanor turned, two cups of tea had appeared on the kitchen table; considering all that had happened recently, she wasn’t all that surprised. She sat in her usual chair with Bill next to her. A wave of shame crashed over her as she stared into her cup.
‘The last time I sat at this table . . . Bill, I’m so sorry! He tricked me into selling our house, and I agreed to a retirement home . . .’ Eleanor covered her face with her hands as new tears formed.
‘I know. There’s no need to apologise. I know all about Rowan and what he’s done, trust me.’ Bill reached out to take her hands from her face, and held her left hand gently as she continued.
‘But you’re gone because of me. Lorelie said you wore yourself out trying to shield me from him.’
‘You ran yourself ragged taking care of Sam and Lizzie when they were little. When you love someone with every pulse of life within you, nothing is too much to give to protect them. It was a choice I made, El, and I would make the same decision again, every single time. Don’t blame yourself. You made me the happiest man in all the worlds.’
‘Man, you say? Speaking of which, what exactly are you? Don’t try to tell me you’re human.’ Eleanor arched an eyebrow and gave him her no-nonsense look.
Bill smiled sheepishly. ‘I certainly wouldn’t dare. Guardians are powerful protectors of the universes. Dragons used to guard the realms, but through many wars and cataclysms, they were targeted and their numbers declined.’
‘In desperation, they recruited others to help, and eventually replace them. Most guardians don’t come from this galaxy, but we all are naturally gifted with different abilities or magics, and we train hard to fight to protect living beings in all dimensions. Hal, your mother, myself . . . none of us are from the same world.’
Eleanor cocked her head to the side and he chuckled. ‘I know it’s a lot to take in, and I stepped around your question, but I am not of Earth’s realm, so I fear my explanation would make little sense without a long discussion of space-time and the fifth dimension.’
A crack of thunder shook the walls and rattled their teacups.
‘Oh my,’ Eleanor said.
‘Our time runs short.’ Bill’s form flickered, though he remained solid to the touch.
‘I don’t want you to leave again. I miss you so much, Bill.’ A knot braided with desperation, sadness, and pain twisted inside her.
‘I will always be in your heart. Don’t think for a moment I would ever leave you unprotected.’
Eleanor followed his eyes to their joined hands, then gasped as she saw her wedding ring. The Celtic swirls glowed red and orange, the colours shifting in and out as they chased each other around the silver band.
‘This talisman has helped shield you all these years, and it will continue to serve as your protection.’
The ground rumbled again, this time chunks of ceiling tumbled down.
‘It’s time.” Bill stood, pulling Eleanor to her feet, then embracing her with a fierceness that gave her heart strength and made her legs go weak. ‘I love you, El.’
‘I love you too.’
When Eleanor opened her eyes again, she was looking up at Lorelie’s face.
‘Welcome back,’ the selkie said.
‘What happened?’ Eleanor sat up. She was on a bench in the castle courtyard.
‘You fainted when you found out you’re half dragon.’ Lorelie grinned.
‘I was dreaming of my Bill . . .’ Her voice broke as she said his name. An unfamiliar warmth drew her gaze downward; her wedding ring still glowed. ‘He . . . he said this had always protected me and always will. A talisman.’
‘Are you sure it was just a dream? How could you know about the protective spell otherwise?’
‘I don’t know. It’s never done this before.’
Lorelie rested a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. ‘For a magic that strong, he must have forged it with great care and skill.’
‘I always thought he was joking when he said he made it.’ Eleanor smiled.
‘I think you two should have a talk,’ Lorelie said. She stood and gestured her head to the side.
Eleanor turned to see Isullander approached her. Lorelie walked past him, bowing her head in acknowledgment as she passed. He motioned to the space next to her.
‘Of course,’ Eleanor said, smiling.
‘I know there is a lot of information being thrown at you right now and there are still many things you don’t know. I’m so sorry for upsetting you earlier.’ His face wrinkled and his eyes filled with concern and regret.
‘Please don’t worry. It’s not that you upset me. I was just, well . . . surprised, to say the least. It’s not something one generally thinks they might hear one day.’
Isullander’s face softened. ‘Are you feeling well again?”
‘I’m still trying to wrap my head around things, but aside from that, I’m feeling better than I have in years.’
‘I am overjoyed to hear that.’
‘May I ask you a question?’ Eleanor turned to fully face him.
‘What can you tell me about my mother?’
Isullander sighed, then smiled. ‘She was beautiful, inside and out. Her heart full of such passion and purity that it could be intimidating. Abgandila was one of the most powerful guardians I’ve seen in my extensive lifetime. We met in battle, and the fierceness with which she fought our enemies was truly a sight to behold.
‘She said she knew she was always destined to be a guardian, and I’d say she was right. Abgandila mastered her magic at a younger age than anyone in her clan had ever known.’
‘Your mother was finn-folk. A shapeshifter of the sea. And the moment I saw her in action, I knew I needed to learn more about her. Her magic was strong, swift, and elegant, and her ability to manipulate water was stunning.’
‘You don’t look like a dragon.’
Isullander let out a roaring laugh that reverberated throughout the courtyard. ‘Now what would you have done if I had transformed in front of you?’
Eleanor laughed with him. ‘Considering my record here, probably fainted. Fair enough. What do you know about my blue flamey lightning stuff? Sometimes it seems to drip off of me, but I can also shoot it at things.’
‘Your magic would manifest as a combination of mine and your mother’s powers. I’m a thunder dragon and I can generate electricity and flames. Your mother, being a finn-folk, would give you some control over water, and that may be why your magic looks and acts as it
does. We’ll have to put it into action to know more.’
His face grew serious as he looked past her. ‘Forgive me, but our friends need us. We have rather somber business to attend to.’
Isullander stood and offered her his hand; she took it, and ahead of them, Hal exited the courtyard. Once outside, Eleanor realised where they were going. Lorelie and Hal stood amongst lush gardens; she cradled her lost child. Next to them was a heart-wrenchingly small hole and a large stone.
When they had gathered, each of the others said words Eleanor didn’t understand, but felt the emotion pouring from; Hal started to take the child from her mother, but Eleanor stopped him.
‘I would like to say something, too, If that’s okay?’ She glanced at Lorelie.
Lorelie smiled and nodded.
Eleanor placed her hand on the blanketed child’s head. ‘I never had the honour of meeting you, little sister. I promise that Rowan will pay for what he did to you.’
She moved back out of the way and Lorelie kissed her daughter on the head one final time. Hal gently took the child, crouched, then placed her into the tiny grave. Eleanor hugged the now-crying woman and guided her back to the courtyard as Hal and Isullander finished the task.
Isullander found Eleanor in the library, staring up at towering bookshelves.
‘This is one of my favourite rooms in the castle,’ he said as he joined her.
‘It’s wonderful! I feel as though I could live here for a hundred years and never see everything. It would take decades just to get through all these books.’
‘Indeed. I really should make more time to come here.’
An unexpected sadness in his voice made Eleanor look over at him. His wistful expression disappeared as he cleared his throat and set his jaw.
‘I know the last few days have been overwhelming, so I am loathe to pile more burdens upon you, but we don’t have much time.’
‘Time for what?’
Isullander turned to her. ‘This castle and its expansive grounds are shielded in a way that has long kept Him from finding it. But he must be out there searching for you. We have a better chance if we can keep the element of surprise. Griogair should be back in a week or two, and we need to be ready. Tomorrow, we begin your training.’
‘You have powers beyond your wildest imagination. You could turn the tide in this battle, yet you don’t know how to control or manipulate them. For the next three days, Hal will train you in self-defence. Following that, I will teach you how to control your magic, and how to fight with it.’
Eleanor walked to one of the large windows and leaned against the frame, peering into the darkening world. The sunset gave colours to the sky that rivalled the flower fields below. Without turning, she asked the question that had been on her mind for days.
‘What is Rowan?’
Isullander sat on the corner of the grand mahogany desk behind where Eleanor stood, as she watched his reflection in the window.
‘A demon-fae. His mother was a purebred fae and his father was full-blooded demon. A truly powerful and frightening combination that has spent nearly a century seeking dimensional sovereignty.’
Her shoulders dropped as she sighed. ‘Well, I guess that also answers the question of what he wants, though it seems terribly unimaginative.’
‘No more negativity for today. Come with me. I’ll show you where your quarters are, and then we can join the others for supper before we retire. We’ll all need our rest for the days to come.’
Eleanor spent the next three days training with Hal, Lorelie frequently joining them. Isullander left to take care of other matters.
Hal attempted to begin their session by showing Eleanor basic self-defence manoeuvres, but she waved him off, saying she hadn’t gotten to her age without knowing such simple moves. Next, he and Lorelie sparred so he could demonstrate use of weapons. Shortly into their second bout, Lorelie caught Hal off guard and took him to the ground. The surprised look on his face sent Eleanor into a fit of laughter so severe that they decided to take a short break.
On the afternoon of the third day, Lorelie returned from a long swim to find Eleanor and Hal in the courtyard. The selkie leaned against the wall and watched, making brief eye contact with Eleanor as she did.
Hal had her in a bearhug and she was struggling to break free. A moment later, their movements slowed and they stood still, Hal’s arms still around her. He finally let go, and Eleanor turned to face him, mere inches away as they caught their breath, staring at each other. Lorelie must have quietly slipped away to give them some privacy, because when Eleanor looked again, she was gone.
Isullander returned that evening looking exhausted. Eleanor and Lorelie doted over him, much to his poorly-disguised dismay; he soon excused himself muttering about early nights. After a cup of tea in front of the fireplace with her friends, Eleanor went to her room. She only made it two pages into the book she’d borrowed before she fell asleep.
The next few days were even more strenuous as Isullander pushed Eleanor to her limits. The first day was spent learning to control what she had come to think of as her second pulse — the living energy that was the source of her powers. She and Isullander worked long into the night, but before the witching hour struck, Eleanor had gained enough control to satisfy him.
The rest of their training consisted of Isullander manifesting various targets for her to practice on. She started by focusing her energies into her hands, showing him what she had done to the black dog that attacked her in the woods. Eleanor steadied herself by planting one foot behind her, then flung her hands outward, wrists together. The blue bolt sizzled as it struck the target, then slowly dripped to the ground.
By the end of the day, she was able to draw the blue energy faster, but she needed to recover after only a short time. Isullander showed her breathing and meditation techniques that helped her focus and control; after her first round of exhausting blasts, she learned that those same skills helped her to regain her energies faster too.
Soon, Eleanor was able to hit moving targets, and even break her glow in two so she could take smaller, back-to-back shots with each hand instead of a single blast. Her favourite trick was taking the energy ball and stretching it as it formed, generating a blue shield. She couldn’t quite spread it enough to cover her body yet, but with practice, who knew how big it could become?
At the end of the final day of training with Isullander, Eleanor got what she’d secretly wanted, but was too polite to ask for. They walked to an open field located a hundred yards to the rear of the castle, basking in the warm sun and gentle breeze. Her newly-rediscovered youth invigorated her, and Eleanor had no problem climbing up a set of boulders for the display.
Isullander moved further into the field before he stopped and faced Eleanor; he closed his eyes and pressed his palms together in front of his face as if in prayer. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. She looked around, wondering if she was missing something obvious, but when she turned back to her father, his skin was moving . . . no, undulating in golden waves.
He took on the same shiny hue as a gilded trophy. The brightness continued to intensify as though he was filled with the light of a thousand suns, all desperately trying to escape. A flash blinded Eleanor for several blinks, and when she could see again, a dragon stood before her.
Isullander stood eight feet tall at the shoulders, and was at least 35 feet long from snout to tail tip. Golden scales covered most his body, and underneath, his abdomen was cream-coloured. Several barbs ran down the length of his spine and tail, and large claws dug into the soil. Enormous wings unfurled as he stretched out his neck and peered at her with fiery, amber cat’s eyes.
Eleanor reached out, mesmerised, and placed a hand on his snout. She imagined herself patting Isullander on the nose in his human form and realised how silly she felt. She dropped her hand and smiled, and he snorted in response. Without warning, he took off and soared through the air with sunlight reflecting off his scales. He wove in and out and around himself until he formed a figure of eight in the sky.
With a bellow, he dropped low, then blasted straight up again, releasing a blazing inferno around him. A shimmering circle opened in the sky, disappearing a second later. As he continued to show off, Eleanor grew less confident. How did anyone think she could stop Rowan, when Isullander could not?
Hurried footsteps drew her attention towards the castle; Hal was heading towards her. The golden dragon glided back to the ground with royal elegance and grace, landing as gently as a bird. In another blinding flash, he was human-shaped again.
‘I guess it’s easier changing into a human than a dragon?’ Eleanor asked him.
‘Not really. But since it was the first transformation you’d seen, I wanted to put on a memorable show.’ He grinned, and Eleanor rolled her eyes.
‘What was that shimmering thing you made?’
‘A portal. It’s the fastest way to get between dimensions, of course.’
‘I suppose that makes sense. One more thing, uh . . . how are you wearing clothes? And what happened to the ones you were wearing before?’
‘Well, clothing tends to evaporate when you combust into dragon form, so I find it easier not to wear any unless I’ll be human for extended periods. What you see is actually just a glamour — an illusion. It’s a convenient little ability that finn-folk also share.’
‘I see. So, you’re . . .’
‘Naked? Yes, I am. Once back in the castle, I will dress for everyone’s comfort. It is not always convenient to carry spare clothes around the dimensions, as I’m sure you can imagine.’
Hal’s voice interrupted. “Isullander, Eleanor, please. We need you right away. Griogair has returned.’
He was pale, and the look on his face made Eleanor’s heart skip a few beats.
They raced back to the castle and were met by a surprisingly small group of individuals. Two human-looking figures — one male and one female — stood with Callidora, who was surrounded by a glistening purple mist. The bite on Eleanor’s leg had healed, but a ghost-throb of pain struck her from the memory of that night.
‘What’s the purple stuff around our vampire friend, and who are the others with her?’ Eleanor asked.
Hal glanced their direction. ‘It’s a protection field. They traveled straight here, day and night, so it protects her from the sun. The others are finn-folk, but I didn’t catch their names. There’s a more pressing matter to address.’
Griogair stood in the moat, recuperating from the arduous journey. Eleanor and Isullander followed Hal toward the kelpie, but they’d hardly set foot on the bank before he started talking.
‘Isullander, I return bearing urgent and distressing news. I was unable to gather the help we desired because we were too late.’
‘Please continue, my friend,’ Isullander said.
‘I went to the furthest reaches I dared go with our limited time. By reaching the mother dryad, I knew she could spread the word far and wide about our need. But when I got there . . .’ Griogair paused as he gathered himself.
‘She was ill. Rowan had been there and he infected her with some kind of . . . disease. I saw her dying before my eyes, the rot spreading faster than I could imagine possible. She’d tried to cut herself off from everything around her, using the last of being to protect the forest from the infection, but she was too late. I saw signs of it as I hurried back. She’s . . . gone.’
Eleanor gasped and put a hand to her mouth. Isullander remained stoic, but Eleanor saw his shine dim.
Griogair continued. ‘My next stop was to pick up Marisol, but I smelled the smoke long before I saw the flames. The watermill, their home . . . all razed to the ground. Everything flammable had been set on fire, and the land still burned, spreading its destruction. Rowan had gotten there first.’
‘No . . .’ A whisper was all Eleanor could manage. Marisol can’t be gone . . .
A wail of agony sliced through the air. They turned to see Lorelie standing in the garden at their daughter’s grave, cradling a grief-stricken Marisol. Eleanor was overcome with a wave of relief, immediately followed by a sympathetic sorrow as she knew the two women were exchanging terrible news.
‘As you see, our dear Marisol managed to escape. I found her in boggart-form, hiding in the ravine. On our way here, we stumbled across Callidora and the others. But that isn’t the worst of it. Rowan has been ahead of us the entire way, yet he isn’t here. As well-shielded as this place is, I fear he will find it soon.’
The moment Griogair finished his sentence, a large black cat with a piece missing from its left ear limped out of the thick grass, hissing. It was bald in places, fur singed in others from their previous encounter.
‘Weasel,’ Eleanor snarled.
‘That means Rowan probably isn’t far behind,’ Hal said.
Six black dogs emerged behind Weasel, growling and baring their teeth. How many of the infernal beasts did Rowan have in his service? They were flanked by two fae. Eleanor turned to see that Lorelie and Marisol had joined Callidora and the finn-folk, and they were all moving toward her. Griogair climbed from the moat and stood facing the beasts along with Hal, Isullander, and Eleanor.
‘It’s time,’ Isullander said.
An eternity passed as the two sides faced off in the waning sunlight. Eleanor focused on calming her pulses, trying to hide her fear; she’d only had a few days of training, but that was going to have to do.
Weasel let out a screech and lunged, followed by the nightmare-dogs. The fae held back, aiming their magic directly at Eleanor. Hal knocked her out of the way as Isullander sent bolts of lightning towards the fae; they cackled and flew overhead, raining down clouds of insects.
‘Everyone to the courtyard — gather your weapons. But first, cover your eyes,’ Isullander called out. In a now-familiar flash, he took his dragon form, and his roar shook the grounds.
The demonic creatures were all momentarily blinded. Hal helped Eleanor up and everyone ran for the courtyard. She’d scratched her leg on something, and a slow trickle of blood left a trail behind her. Isullander rocketed into the sky and sent down a cascade of fire that instantly incinerated the insects; one of the dogs yelped as its fur was singed, and it dived into the moat.
The fae extinguished the flames and the dogs were upon them once again. Hal grabbed Eleanor by the wrist, yanking her towards the stairs as everyone scattered. He pulled her onto the landing. Below them, Griogair sent one dog flying with a swift kick, while another lunged at one of the finn-folk. He screamed as he hit the ground, the dog clawing at his back.
‘Hal, we have to help!’ She pulled against him.
‘We will, but you need to be safe. You’re our only hope against Rowan. You can use your powers from up here, right?’
‘I suppose so —’
‘I just want what’s best for you.’
‘I know . . .’ Eleanor was torn, but a screech stopped her thoughts.
Callidora launched herself at one of the dogs attacking the finn-folk; the male had stopped moving, but the female was trying to fight the beasts off. Griogair fought two other dogs on his own as they tried to get past him to the stairs below Eleanor. Isullander had stayed outside, likely fighting the fae and remaining dogs — every now and then a roar echoed through the air.
Marisol had taken boggart form and was fighting her little brother, but he’d gotten the best of her. She faded back into human form, clutching a large gash on her throat that spurted blood. Lorelie screamed, and ran to her wife’s aid. Without hesitation, she brought a knife down into Weasel’s back, stabbing him twice more before he released Marisol. Lorelie grabbed the limp feline and hurled him away as she reached for Marisol.
One of the dogs took the opportunity and bolted for the stairs. Eleanor recognised the surge of power building in her, and took her practised stance; a second later, blue, sizzling energy ripped from her hands, hitting the dog between the eyes. The impact flung it into the air, and its smoking, lifeless body landed at the foot of the stairs.
‘That’s amazing. You’re incredibly powerful,’ Hal said.
Before she could respond, one of the fae flew into the courtyard. It zeroed in on Eleanor and shrieked as it sent a wave of iridescent blackness towards her. Eleanor threw up a shield to protect her exposed upper half, jumping in front of Hal. The force of the blackness slamming into her shield sent both of them backwards into the wall; her shield dissipated as they fell to the floor, but it had saved them.
Hal unceremoniously jerked Eleanor to her feet and pulled her down the corridor behind cover. He threw open the first door they came to and shoved her inside; she stumbled from the momentum, but when she hit the ground, she landed on dirt and gravel. She wasn’t in the castle anymore.
Eleanor jumped up and spun on Hal, but she took several steps back, barely stifling a gasp. Hal’s face was changing, and a moment later, it was no longer Hal who stood before her. It was Rowan.
‘You! What have you done with Hal?’ she yelled.
Rowan laughed. ‘He’s tied-up at the moment, quite literally. Is one of the other rooms. I knocked him out before I came to fetch you from the field. I’d have killed him straight away but thought better of it in case I needed leverage.
‘It was too risky to snatch you under Isullander’s nose, so I had to get you alone, but then I couldn’t resist seeing what you could do first. And don’t get your hopes up about rescue. This charm’ — he pulled out a necklace from under his shirt — ‘means they cannot track me.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll just take care of you myself.’ Eleanor clenched her fists, but the energy was slower to come than before.
‘Ah, but then you would be trapped here. An unknown dimension with no way home, Ma. Or should I say “Grandma?”’
Eleanor’s blood ran cold and the blueness building in her fists shuddered. ‘What did you just say?’
Rowan laughed harder than he’d ever laughed before. “Why, our dear Lizzie is expecting! Don’t you want to congratulate me, Ma?’
For a moment, Eleanor couldn’t breathe, her body went numb; her vision fogged over, and a sharp ringing filled her ears. She fought to take a breath, and when she finally did, her vision and hearing cleared. Something within her had changed. Her pulses were no longer two, but one, and a new surge of power raced through her.
She looked at Rowan and planted her feet on the ground.
‘Don’t you ever call me Ma again, you slimy little toad.’ Balls of blue flame ignited in her palms. ‘My name is Eileanori Halfdragon.’
THE FINAL CHAPTER of The Great Escape is next week. Dinosaurs permitting...
Yes, it's Alex Bradshaw!