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Eliza May Brown

A snip of The Dragon Challenge:

      Most of our group huddled on the sand in a miserable, frightened mass. As soon as the twenty-four had passed through the barrier the gas evaporated. On the far side we could see anxious adults peering through the opening. Judging from their expressions, they couldn’t see us.

But the way back was clear. Only a few steps away the sun shone. As we’d been told, it would be much easier to give up than to go forward.

And some of the group looked like they were already giving some serious thought to giving up.

Ysidris moved through the group, wiping eyes clear and speaking words of encouragement. I wondered how long we had before the next obstacle showed itself.

We were in a sort of high-ceilinged antechamber. The ceiling of the cave soared above us, barely visible in the filtered light that made it through the cave entrance. This space was about twenty feet wide with smooth walls and thick sand underfoot.

The way forward was as wide and clear as one of the Queen’s highways. It ran for about a hundred feet before it ended abruptly at the foot of an imposing wall.

Helen and Disa unwound their cloaks and shook out their long hair. Those girls were always playing with all that shaggy hair. Ysidris, I noticed, unwrapped her face but kept her head covered.

“All right, everybody,” she said, looking around as if she expected an attack at any moment, “let’s get up and get moving. This doesn’t get easier as time passes.”

“Who died and left you in charge?” Helen groused.

Ysidris ignored her. “Tandy, get your rope ready. Reed, you’re a big guy. You bring up the rear and make sure we stay together.”

“I mean, the wall is right there.” Helen gestured. “How can we get lost?”

Once again Ysidris seemed more interested in looking for hazards than in stifling dissent. “Let’s go,” she urged.

Even though this cave looked safe I felt uneasy, too, as if something nasty was about to happen.

I helped a Highland girl to her feet. I might’ve been born on a farm, but it wasn’t last night. We needed to get out of here.

The Highland girl, Phia, shook me off. “This is supposed to be your time to shine,” she said to Ysidris, “or fail, big time. So lead on.”

“I’m sticking with Ysidris,” I agreed.

“You’ve been stuck on her since the moment you saw her,” Tandy smirked.

“This is not the time to fight among ourselves,” Ysidris said. “Follow me or not.”

Some of them obviously wanted to argue, but all of them followed.

“Stay close,” Ysidris urged. “Move quickly and keep your head down.”

“I don’t think so.” Helen swirled her blond head and a stray flash of light lit her up like a beacon.

Disa stopped in her tracks and stared. “Helen,” she whispered, “something is in your hair.”

“Oh, crap,” Tandy sighed, and the Highlanders hit the ground. They folded their arms over their heads.

I knelt next to Ysidris and wondered what the hells was happening. And that was why I had an unobstructed view when Helen reached up and touched the bat in her hair.

Helen’s shrill screams reverberated through the cavern and a million rats with wings screamed back. They seemed to fill every inch of air with beating, skeletal wings and mangy bodies. Helen fainted gracefully, her long body stretched out on the sand. The flying horde swept Disa, Cerise, and Miles with them and out of the cave.

I flung myself over Ysidris’ prone form, sheltering her as the bats flew past us. As the dust settled and the flutter of wings died down the screams ended with shocking abruptness, almost as if the screamers had had their throats slit.

I lifted my head. The remaining teens, shaken and gritty, exchanged speaking looks. “Well,” Tandy said as he came to his feet, “that was fun. And it looks like they slammed the door shut behind them.”

We all looked. The cave opening had closed seamlessly, blocking most of the light.

“Everyone here knows that these bats can’t hurt us, right?” Tandy asked with exaggerated politeness.

“There’s one on your shoulder.” Reed pointed.

Tandy spun around three times before he realized that there was no bat. It almost made me like my cousin. Almost, but not quite.

Ysidris stood next to me and brushed ineffectively at the sand that covered her clothes. “Well, let’s see,” she said. “We’re twenty feet and five minutes into this challenge and we’ve already lost three of us. Can we stop horsing around now and move?”