“Almost there, just a little more,” Quinn says, breathing heavily.
“You need to take a break?” I ask, giggling. He’s been breathing like this for the past half hour.
“Oh, no! You're talking to the mighty Quinn! He doesn't need breaks!”
“You sure? You've been trying to keep up with me, not the other way around!”
“Now that I think about it, the mighty Quinn is thinking about retirement. Sounds good to me!”
“Alright, let's just pop into the woods over here. We can sit for a few minutes, and have some water.”
We find a break in the trees next to the road, and sit down on an overturned log. Quinn pulls out his water bottle, and gulps almost all of it down. I take little sips of mine, knowing a lot at once can give a person stomach aches.
“Ready to go?” I ask, with a smile.
“Yeah. Now, can I ask you a question quick?” He answers. His tone was serious.
“Sure,” I say, starting to feel worried.
“What should I do when you get back with your family?”
I thought about this for a second. What was he going to do? He’s alone in this big wide world.
“No.” I say out loud.
“You're not alone. You have me, and you will soon have my family. You are my adoptive father, I'm not letting you go so soon. There are plenty of houses in the village up for sale, you could stay here in Ailey. There’s schools, the city, so many opportunities up for grabs.”
“You're right. Sorry for worrying you,” he seems more calm now, with a smile on his face that means something.
“Quinn, I know I've only known you for a little while. I know that you probably have no reason to trust me, and the other way around. But we opened up to each other, and I am more than grateful for that. Having someone beside me in this fight, it makes me feel so much better. And knowing that you can relate to me and know how I feel, it makes this situation so much different. The least I can do is let you stay with me, and welcome you into my family.” My heart pours out into these words, and I say what has been on my mind this whole walk. Knowing Quinn had my back kept me alive, and able to put one foot after the next. One foot after the next, and the next.
“Dawn, thank you. That is all I can say. And don't expect some heart tugging speech like yours, I can't handle words like you do.” He says. I giggle, and grab him in a hug. He hugs back, and we stand there for a few seconds.
“Now, we should get moving. Only a little bit more, and then we’re home!” Quinn exclaims. We walk in silence for the next few minutes, until we peek over the top of a hill. I see it, and it sure is a sight for sore eyes. But there is something happening on the road before us. A crowd of guards is around a stand, where the head is speaking.
“What do you think is going on?” I ask.
“Dunno, seems like they’re about to set out on a mission or something,” Quinn replies.
“I can't be seen.”
“What? Those are Ailean guards!”
“I want Mom and Dad to be the first to see me. Can you ask them what’s going on?”
“Sure. You go into the woods, and make your way to the wall.”
“Sounds good, good luck!” And with that, I disappear into the wall of leaves lining the road. My feet, tucked softly in the slippers from the orphanage, silently weaved across the layers of plants and sticks that lined the floor. As I crept closer to the village walls, I started overhearing the conversation between Quinn and one of the guards.
“Excuse me, but can you tell me what is going on here? I'm moving here soon, and want to make sure everything is safe for me,” I hear Quinn say.
“Sure. But no funny business, I've got my eye on you,” the guard replies in a deep voice.
“The last princess of Ailey and her friends have gone missing, last seen going through the village with her friends. They all had huge backpacks on, so we are hoping they are ok. But they haven't been seen for 2 days, and we need to find them.”
I tuned out the rest of the conversation, and fell onto the ground. No. Not Penny. She can't be gone too. Tears welled in my eyes, and all of my senses left me. I was numb as my head hit something. I don't know what it was, and I don't care. Sparks danced in my eyes as thoughts of what could be happening to Penny erupted in my mind. But just like my vision, my thoughts were blurry. I could only form one thought as the darkness flooded my body.
No. Not Penny.
“Dawn! Dawn, what happ—”
I didn't hear the rest.
“Hey! Look!” Mabel shouts, jumping around in excitement. Her fingers wave towards something peeking out of the leaves surrounding us.
“What’s that?” Evie asks.
“Well, we won't know unless we go see!” I say, sprinting ahead. I break out of the trees into a clearing, where a little house stands in the center. It's made of wood planks, loosely attached to each other with nails. The roof is woven grass, barely functional for the house.
“Should we go in?” Vivi asks.
“It doesn't look very functional for living, so I doubt anything useful is in there,” Mabel confirms.
“Psh, let's go see!” I insist, pushing ahead once more.
“Yeah, come on!” Vivi shouts, joining me in the rush. We break through the makeshift door, and stop. The place is empty, grass replacing the floor. It's dark, with shadows corrupting the corners. The only thing that stood out against the darkness was a single trapdoor. It was covered in dirt and dust, with grass growing over the edges.
“This is like the star of all creepy,” Evie whispers, standing in the doorway.
“Yeah. Why would this house be here? It is clearly protecting something down there. Otherwise, it would be a little more appealing. It isn't somewhere where someone lives, it isn't just an old home, It's definitely protecting something,” Mabel informs us. She’s crouching next to the door, deep in thought.
“Well, whatever it's protecting, I want in. This is a real adventure!” Vivi squeals, immediately being shushed by Evie.
“While I agree we should be quiet, I think we should go in. What is this place hiding? It could be what we were looking for the whole time,” I suggest calmly.
“Yeah!” Vivi shouts.
“Are you sure, Penny?” Mabel asks.
“Yes. I'd at least like to see what is down there.” I reply.
“Ok, fine. But if anything creepy happens, we’re out,” Evie says, and crouches next to Mabel by the trapdoor.
“Sounds like a plan. We won't leave each other, ok? Let's go,” Mabel confirms. We all bend down next to the trap door, and clear the dirt away.
“I can't believe we’re doing this,” Evie whispers.
“Psh, it'll be fun!” Vivi replies, her voice ecstatic. The overgrown grass reveals a handle, right in front my my toes. Everyone stands back, and I pull. With a bang, the door opens up into a dark staircase. The tunnel was made completely out of stone bricks, which appear to be pretty new. A single torch dimly lit the stairs, lighting a path to a wooden door at the bottom.
“You sure?” Mabel asks, her voice clearly shaking. I take a deep breath.
“Yes. You guys can stay up here, but I'm going down,” I answer.
“No. We’re coming with you, Mabel replies, and slides her feet over the edge of the staircase. The others nod, and we all form into a line and slowly make our way down the stairs. I'm in front, leading us into the unknown tunnel. The wooden door stands at my shoulders, appearing shorter than it looked from above.
“It is unlocked?” Vivi asks from the back. I check, and the door opens smoothly.
“Apparently not,” I say as I walk in. I take a look around the room we’re now in, and I stop in my tracks. A scream bubbles up from my soul and escapes through my body, unleashing my emotions. I immediately feel arms on me, and I collapse into my friends.
It takes a little while, but I finally gather up the courage to look again. To look at the sight I thought I'd never see. My neck stretches from my friends, and I look again. One step. Then the next. Towards her.
It's her. It's Luna, in a cage. A dirt room. Metal cage. She’s curled up, sleeping. Her black hair is in snarls, and the red petals of her hairband are spread across the area. Her clothes are ripped, and cuts are spread across her body.
“Who did this to you…?” I whisper, falling to my knees by the cage. At the impact of my knees and the floor, her eyes flutter open. Tears jump to them as soon as her eyes lock in with mine, and she pulls herself up.
I reach my hand out towards her, and she looks at it. Her tears fall onto my fingers, and run down my palm. Her hand moves towards mine, her fingers dancing as her hand makes its way towards mine. I was so close. So close to touching her again, when she pulled away. She stumbles into the corner of her cage, avoiding eye contact.
“You can't be here,” she whispers. Her voice sounds exactly like it used to, but it was filled with sadness.
“Who did this to you?” I say, reaching my hand through the bars.
“I… I did. And you'll find out why if you don't leave.”
“Luna… please. Let me talk to you.”
“Penny, please. I can't leave. I can't go completely gone.”
“What? Luna, what do you mean?”
Luna didn't answer, but I saw her body tense up.
“No…” she whispers, and her fingers claw the floor. She kicks and flails her body, as if she was trying to defend herself from something.
“Go!” GO!” Luna screams, and looks up. Her red eyes are brighter, and the flower petals on the floor shine. In a flash, Luna throws herself at the bars towards me. Someone pulls me back, I'm not sure who. All I could focus on was Luna. She was fighting to break through her barrier to me, and all the evil locked in her was being unleashed.
Instead of fear, I was depressed. Watching her biting and clawing the air outside of her confinement, it filled me with sadness. She wasn't Luna. She was a monster. I don't know how long I watched, but after a while Luna’s body collapsed and the petals around her stopped glowing.
“I'm so sorry. I locked myself in here with the little hold I had left. I can't leave, I'll kill so many,” Luna gasps, curling into a ball again. Her words tug on my heart.
“I can't leave you,” I say, reaching through the bars and taking her hand.
“You have to.”
“Penny, I'm sorry. We know where she is, but we have to go,” Mabel says, and I could hear the sadness in her voice.
“We can fix this, and Luna will be in your arms,” Evie reassures. I give one last squeeze of Luna’s hand, and stand up. Tears roll out of my eyes, and I let the girls pull me away. Away from my sister. Away from the monster.