By Grace Gomez-Palacio, age 12, Colombia, Missouri
Shara opened the door to the closet and there, sitting on the floor, was a locked chest. A smile spread across her face. Finally! She crept closer, her feet scuffing the fine layer of dust that had settled over the silent, little room. Now only a few feet away, Shara could tell that this was no ordinary chest, just as she’d suspected. It was a dull bronze with gold fastenings that sparkled enticingly in the half light. And it simply reeked of magic. Crouching on the dusty floor, Shara spread her hand and fluttered her fingertips over the thin chain that encircled the whole box, grinning all the while.
“Shi’asan fortile.” Shara whispered. A flicker of blue energy sprang from her outstretched fingers and landed with a zzzt! on the binding. It raced up the chain, sizzling as it went, and the slender links sagged as the silver metal began to melt. Shara reached forward and hurriedly brushed the hot lump of a chain off the trunk’s smooth surface. She rested a hand on the chest’s burnished cover, savoring the electric pulse of magic that thrummed from inside the box. This was her chance. With what lay inside this small chest, she could rise to become the most powerful sorceress in Radaren, maybe even all of Arynaea! With trembling fingers, Shara lifted the latch and pulled back the heavy lid, her heart racing with anticipation. What could possibly be inside this forbidden box? Shara was just about to peek inside when, suddenly, the closet door slammed shut. Shara, startled, turned her head to see what had locked her in. Looking away was her first mistake.
High Sorceress Lyreni usually woke up to her phoenix’s song in the morning. Today, she awakened to a scream. The High Sorceress sat bolt upright in her bed as the shrill cry echoed from… Was that the dungeons? How concerning. Lyreni yawned, then slid from her comforters and into her heavy, blue robe. Sliding on her soft, golden slippers and snatching her Magical Staff from its stand, Lyreni strode out of her bedchamber and into the large hallway outside. When she reached the end of the corridor, she held out her staff and walked straight through the wall. Lyreni allowed a small smile as she passed through the cold limestone, leftover magic from her phase-through tingling up her arm. She’d always loved the entrance to the dungeons. It was a great trick to pull on dinner guests, and only Lyreni knew how to slip through the solid stone as if it were a thick bit of fog. Well, Lyreni conceded, only my apprentice and I know, of course. But why in all of Arynaea would her lowly apprentice want to visit the dungeons? After all, that was where they kept the—
“GRRAR!” Lyreni jumped, then felt ridiculous for doing so. It was only Ralyth, their resident dragon. Lyreni shook her head and continued on, passing Ralyth’s cage without even glancing at the magnificent beast. She had to find the one who screamed—and woke her up. But as Lyreni made her way deeper into the chilly stone dungeon, a heavy feeling of dread settled on her blue-robed shoulders. Something was off. An imbalance of magic, perhaps… Yes, a very strong imbalance. Lyreni frowned. Then she gasped as a thought came to her like a sharp, sudden wind.
“No,” she muttered as she raced down the dungeon passage, long robe flapping behind her. “No, no—she wouldn’t have.” A new urgency propelled Lyreni farther and farther along until she skidded to a halt, panting, in front of a plain wooden door. A closet. Lyreni grabbed the tarnished door handle and pulled with all her might. The door didn’t budge. Lyreni, eyes wide, pounded on the door, first with her fists, then with her staff.
“Shara!” Lyreni yelled. “Shara, are you in there?” Nothing. “Shara!” Lyreni called her apprentice’s name again, her voice shaking. Still no answer. Lyreni stared at the unmoving door. She had told Shara of the dangers that lay here. She had told Shara what might happen to her if she ever opened this door. “Oh, Shara,” she whispered, gazing at the innocent-looking closet. “What have you done?”
Shara opened her eyes. Where am I? She tried to stand up and found she couldn’t…which was probably due to the tentacles that wrapped around her chest like a vice. With her back pressed to a stalagmite, Shara was held in a rigid sitting position. Fighting back hot tears, she strained against her bonds. Everything was coming back to her now—how she opened the chest and those black, smoky tendrils had spilled out. One had caught hold of her foot, and another had slammed the door shut. Shara shuddered, remembering the way those tentacles had grabbed her and pulled her into the chest. She had screamed in terror just moments before she vanished beneath the lid.
And now, here she was. But where was here? It looked much like a cave, with stalagmites protruding from the cold floor like rows of teeth and rocky walls that seemed to go up forever. Shara swallowed hard.
“Help!” Shara flinched as her voice echoed loudly through the craggy room. She waited, but no answer came. The cave remained sinisterly silent. “Please! Anyone?” Suddenly, a rustling noise came from the far side of the room. Shara’s eyes widened, but she stayed quiet, trembling.
“Oh, my,” a deep, silky voice sounded from far away. “You are quite lost, aren’t you, child of light?”
“What are you talking about?” Shara asked, scanning the gloomy cave for the speaker.
“Well, you’re certainly not one of the Tenebri,” the voice said, a laugh tinging its words.
“Tenebri…?” Shara whispered. “Do you mean to say I’m in Tenebris?! The Kingdom of Shadows?” Tenebris was the underworld, where demons dwelled and magical horrors prowled.
“The very one. But this, I sense, is not where you are meant be,” the voice replied. Shara almost cried in relief.
“No, no, I am the sorceress in training in the kingdom of Radaren. I belong there!”
“Interesting,” the voice mused. “You say you don’t belong in our kingdom, and yet no one can come to Tenebris without meaning to. Why have you come if you do not belong?”
“I didn’t mean to! I just—”
“No.” The voice cut her off. “You have entered Tenebris, and this is where you shall stay. In fact, I think your timing is perfect.” A hulking figure emerged from the darkness, lumbering toward Shara. She gasped. “You see, lost one, my name is Dolor, and I am the King of Tenebris. And I’ve been searching for quite a while for a queen.”
Lyreni tightened her grip on her staff and shut her eyes in concentration. Her hands began to glow, and the staff warmed to her magical touch. Soon the entire dungeon passage was lit by a pulsing, magical aura. Lyreni opened her eyes and charged the closet door, staff held like a battering ram. The door shattered, and splinters rained down. Lyreni stood in the doorway, her staff still blazing with magic. And there, sitting in the center of the room, was an unlocked chest.
“Oh no,” Lyreni whispered, her fears confirmed. Without another thought, the High Sorceress gathered her robes about her and jumped into the open trunk.
Shara was frozen with terror. Not that she could’ve moved if she wanted to, as the tentacles were still holding fast. As Dolor got closer, Shara could make out his grotesque features, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. A dragon-like head rested upon a minotaur’s body while leathery bat’s wings hung from his shoulders and a lion’s tail lashed behind him. He wore an obsidian breastplate, and an ebony staff was clutched in his hand. Shara whimpered. Dolor cocked his scaly head to one side.
“Why so nervous, lost one? You should be rejoicing,” Dolor purred. “You are about to become royalty.” Shara shut her eyes and turned her head away from him.
“No,” she whispered. Shara opened her eyes and repeated herself. “No, I’m not.”
“Oh, but you are, my dear,” Dolor said, leering. “No one defies the king.” Shara scowled.
“You’re no king,” she declared, her voice only wavering slightly. “You’re a monster.” Dolor looked taken aback. He opened his jaws to reply, but before he could utter a word, a ball of light exploded in front of him, and he staggered back. Shara looked up. And there, falling from the sky, was the High Sorceress Lyreni. With her staff held aloft and her hair streaming back as she plummeted, Lyreni made quite the impressive sight. It helped that she was glowing with magic. Dolor recoiled at the sight, growling. Lyreni’s fall ended abruptly as she hovered in mid-air so that she was eye level with Dolor. She brandished her staff at the monster.
“Back! Stay away from my apprentice!” Lyreni commanded. Dolor hissed but slunk farther into the shadows, his wings rustling in annoyance. Lyreni watched him go, then carefully lowered herself onto the ground. She knelt next to Shara and lowered the tip of her staff to the tentacle binding. A tiny, concentrated beam of light shot from the tip and cut easily through the thick material. Lyreni shook her head as she reduced the tendrils to ribbons.
“You foolish, foolish girl,” she said venomously. “What did I tell you about that chest?” Shara had the grace to look ashamed.
“Um, you—you said it contained a magic beyond my wildest dreams.”
“Yes, I did. I was trying to warn you of the portal it contained.”
“But why couldn’t you have just said it outright?”
“I was sworn to secrecy, you imbecile! I can’t just tell anyone about one of the last remaining portals to Tenebris!” Lyreni finished breaking Shara’s bonds. “Get up,” she barked. “We must return to Radaren before anyone notices we were gone.” Shara nodded wordlessly and stood. Lyreni gripped her staff and motioned for Shara to take the other end. One incantation later, the pair was back in the musty closet. Shara quickly released the staff, and Lyreni gestured impatiently toward the open chest.
“What are you waiting for?” Shara rushed forward and knelt on the dusty ground next to the chest. Peering in, she could see the cavern where she had been imprisoned as if from afar, like she was looking through a spyglass turned the wrong way. A single black tendril started creeping up at the edge of her vision, trying to escape through the portal.
Shara slammed the lid down with all her might and cried out, “Sha’mirin fortinthaea!” Two thick, golden chains materialized around the chest and fastened themselves into a tight knot. Lyreni nodded in approval as Shara stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“Well done, Shara.” Lyreni said. Shara turned in surprise to see her mentor’s stern expression soften—but only slightly. “Now come. There is still work to be done today, and even a trip to Tenebris doesn’t excuse you from practicing your spells.” And with that, the High Sorceress swept from the room, waving her staff to reassemble the door as she did so. Shara sighed ruefully. Dusting herself off, Shara headed for the door, shaking her head. How ridiculous it had been of her to think that the chest had contained something to make her more powerful! She should’ve known Lyreni had warned her about it for a reason. Shara closed the door and continued on through the dungeons without looking back, leaving behind a locked chest in a dark closet. For now.