A trees a tree with a door.
A door materialised from the black, twisted bark. Davina stared up at the heavens. She half expected to see a sign advising her not to enter. Nothing.
The rest of the group stayed back watching. Davina slowly pressed her hand onto the door; it retracted to reveal a staircase leading inside the trunk. Davina frowned, how could stairs go up inside a tree? Where could they go?
‘Weird,’ she muttered. With a shake of her head, she realised she had been affected by the rules of the human world. She had been away from Gargantuan for only a short time, but had almost forgotten there was an entirely different set of rules in that reality. Davina glanced back at the group; they stood hands in pockets shuffling.
‘The only way I’m going to find my father… is if I go inside. Will you come with me?’ she asked.
‘Can’t we just wait out here?’ asked Ghost. ‘I could sunbathe… I’m quite pale you know.’
‘You’ll get burnt and run out of water if you do that,’ said Davina sharply.
Ghost sighed, why was it always down to practical issues? He certainly didn’t want to enter a dead tree in the middle of the desert; certainly not with stairs leading up instead of down. In fact, a tree with stairs leading anywhere was peculiar. Ghost didn’t like it, it wasn’t ringing true, but he needed water. ‘So is this the Meru fortress?’ he asked.
Davina shrugged, ‘How do I know?’
‘Well if it is – who puts a fortress inside a dead tree? Honestly!’
Johnny cocked his head to the side, ‘If you think about it – it’s the ideal place. Who’s actually going to work out this is a fortress, let alone attack it?’
Susie glanced at the two boys then scurried over and stood by Davina’s side. ‘I’ll come with you,’ she whispered.
‘Okay if girls can go inside so can we,’ said Ghost with a look of irritation.
Johnny glanced at Ghost and started walking ahead of him. Ghost didn’t like being left behind so tried to walk faster, to overtake. Neither wanted to be left behind and neither wanted the girls to go first.
When the group was fully formed, they stood at the door gazing up into the tree with their mouths open. The crooked staircase spiralled in a triangle.
Ghost shook his head. ‘I don’t get it. Why is it triangular? How can it go up and up, yet there is no room out here for the stairs to go up like that. I really don’t like it. I feel odd…’
‘Shh! Be quiet or you’ll draw attention to us,’ whispered Davina.
‘Who’s looking?’ said Ghost ‘We’re in a desert for goodness sake!’
Davina turned her attention to the stairs, where did they lead? If it was a fortress, then why were there no guards? There was a rumbling beyond the dunes. Thump! A thunderous pounding resonated through the earth accompanied by a blast of sand. The group glanced at each other; they had to go inside.
Ghost glanced behind him, ‘Davina thousands of them just broke the surface. They know we’re here, I reckon they can smell us because they’re all sniffing the air and looking this way. Oh… they are all dragging themselves out of the sand and scrambling in this direction. Davina…!’ he said turning paler.
Davina stepped over the tree’s threshold.
Ghost glanced at the dunes; the bright sunshine flickered as huge, hideous figures dragged their newly formed bodies through the sand. Even though there was bright light, he could see movement about the edges of the dunes. ‘Surely someone needs to tell them what to do? They can’t just be born knowing who they’re after?’
Davina shook her head, ‘I guess that as long as the Chimera is in control of the Rebis egg then that army will be given instructions. Plus their orders will be sent through the egg, which acts like a transmitter.’
Ghost revealed a pained look. They were surrounded.
‘We have to go now,’ said Davina pulling at Ghost.
‘I really hate this! I hate them, I hate the tree and I hate that we have to do this!’ said Ghost stamping his right foot.
‘We can’t change it now, now move before I shove you!’ Ghost huffed. Before he stepped inside, he sniffed. If it smelt rancid and rotten he would vomit. As Ghost sniffed, he could tell the inside was actually dry and smelled similar to autumn leaves. Maybe he could manage it. Ghost sighed, he studied the stairs; where they led was a complete mystery – up, down and back and forth.
Johnny pushed forwards. Susie held back. She was distracted by the dunes changing colour as thousands of stone shapes scurried on all fours towards the tree. Each creature was gaining momentum as every second of life gave it more strength. Susie was rigid; she had never seen anything like it.
Davina grabbed the nearest part of Susie and dragged her by the hair into the tree. As soon as the group were inside, the door dissolved leaving only bark. They were trapped!
For a few moments, the group stood in darkness. Davina tapped the Shamaventus, its multicoloured flames illuminated the interior and their faces. Davina glanced at the group; there was an air of trepidation. No one wanted to be there.
‘If we can come in here, then surely they can too?’ said Ghost scratching an empty patch of cheek.
‘I guess they just have to work it out,’ she replied with a shrug. Her eyes navigated the interior of the tree; she could make out that the staircase led to various levels, which coincided with the position of the branches. ‘I think it’s better we get started,’ she said.
‘But where are we going?’ asked Ghost
‘Ghost I know as much as you do, so stop asking questions,’ said Davina angrily. ‘Use your eyes Ghost. You’re the only person here who can see everything clearly. You’ve been given a gift so please use it!’
Ghost mumbled to himself and plodded up the endless stairs. He strode ahead then paused every now and again looking smug. After a couple of flights of stairs, he paused and took a rest. ‘Have you noticed that the different levels of the stairs coincide with the branches? Each has a different landing and leads in a different direction. Over there is something that looks like cells. I think there might be…’
‘What Ghost?’ asked Davina.
‘Er… something in them,’ Ghost trailed off.
Davina stopped and studied Ghost hopefully. ‘Do you think…?’
‘Davina I don’t know who or what they are… but something just doesn’t read right,’ he replied.
The group caught up with Ghost and stood behind him.
Ghost leaned forwards and whispered, ‘I think we’re in some kind of prison.’
‘Do you think it’s a decoy?’ wondered Susie.
Ghost shrugged, ‘If I was going to set a place like this up I wouldn’t make it easy.’
‘Maybe this place isn’t set up like that. Maybe it is set up for our minds to play tricks on us,’ said Susie.
‘Whatever it is I don’t like it. Anyway the only way we’re going to find out is if we actually go and look,’ said Ghost.
‘But we haven’t come to a proper floor yet. What if it’s booby-trapped?’ said Susie.
Ghost shot Susie a look, ‘You’re right! But… maybe we have simply stumbled into a tree in the desert, which happens to have a staircase inside. It might happen all the time. Maybe we – actually me – as humans just don’t notice these things.’ Ghost didn’t need to turn; most of the eyes on the back of his head could see the expressions on the others’ faces. They weren’t convinced by such a theory. Davina huffed; she couldn’t be bothered with such speculation. She stormed past Ghost and scrambled to where the prison area was.
The prison was dark apart from clusters of fireflies gathered in a corner. Their combined illumination cast enough light in the room to make it clear that the cells were empty.
‘I thought you said there were figures,’ said Johnny peering into each cell.
‘There was…’ said Ghost.
‘I wonder what this place was used for. It just doesn’t seem right that all this is here – inside a tree. It has to be more than just a prison doesn’t it?’ said Johnny looking around.
Davina was preoccupied with a small hole she had found. It enabled her to peer outside.
‘What’s going on?’ she muttered.
‘What can you see?’ asked Susie in a whisper.
Davina said nothing, stepped away from the hole and pointed. Susie stepped up to have a look and squirmed. Thousands upon thousands of Grotes had formed lines as far as the eye could see.
‘What are they doing Davina?’ asked Susie.
Davina was silent; something about the formations triggered a memory. ‘I think they’re arranging themselves in battalions. The Chimera is going to wage a full war while we’re trapped inside here.’
Johnny tapped Susie; she stepped away from the spy hole.
‘Oh… my… God!’ he gasped. ‘There must be millions. They go as far as the eye can see,’ he said stepping back from the peephole.
Davina fidgeted, ‘What should I do?’ she paused, ‘I have to inform the Goyles.’ She gestured to move back to the peephole and made a strange whispering noise. In response, the wind snaked through the desert to the tree. ‘Southerly I need your help. Tell the Goyles to conceal themselves. The Grote army is about to march.’
‘Yes Davina, and would you like us to inform Clio – she’s in the vicinity,’ it replied.
Davina scanned Mortvlei, there was a shape she recognised. Clio had turned herself into a black, tree-shaped stump. Davina felt a sense of warmth in her heart, Clio, although secretive, was looking out for her.
Ghost wanted to look outside, but wasn’t going to distract Davina.
‘Erm Davina. What if your father was in that tower and this was set up to send you on a wild goose chase? What if he isn’t really here at all?’ asked Ghost.
Davina clenched her fist, became rigid and reluctantly moved away from the hole. ‘Ghost I know he is here somewhere!’
‘How do you know?’ asked Ghost. He aligned one eye from the back of his head with the hole so he could gain a clear view and talk whilst facing the group at the same time.
‘I just know… so leave it,’ said Davina.
‘How can you possibly know where your father is? You don’t even know what he looks like,’ he said with one eye scanning Mortvlei, the others studied Davina.
‘Ghost I just know okay? The rainbows and the tears…’
‘But… since we have been in this situation have you really had no memory come back at all?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Davina shaking her head.
‘I find that odd Davina… a kid’s mind should heal quickly,’ he said.
Davina’s lip quivered; in the world of logic Ghost was correct, ‘You might be right. What if I am wrong? What if I led you into the desert for no reason?’ Davina struggled, nothing was adding up… What if her father wasn’t there? Davina glanced at the cells; she was only at the lowest branch of the tree. The only way she would know if she had made a mistake would be by climbing to the top and that would take time. Davina thrust her head in her hands; everything was helpless. Davina fought back her tears, she needed guidance, she needed help and where in the darkness of a dead tree was she going to find that? Davina heard a squawk of a bird outside. She ran to the small peephole and stared out into the world. Elora circled above the dunes. Davina turned to the Shamaventus and tapped it three times. ‘I need to talk to you Thalia.’
Davina pointed the Shamaventus and waited for Thalia to appear. A few moments later Thalia’s kindly face flickered, unfortunately she was weak. ‘What’s happening Thalia?’
Thalia look saddened, ‘The Chimera is increasing in power, and without your father Gargantuan is in rapid decline. Elora has reported other cities under attack. It seems the Chimera’s armies are growing by the hour. Oh and Ghost’s freezing idea was good in theory, however he just didn’t set his intention properly,’ she said.
Ghost smiled to himself, finally he felt a bit smug.
Davina nodded at Ghost, and then turned back to Thalia. ‘Thalia, we don’t know if my father is here. There don’t seem to be any guards or anything like that.’
Thalia shook her head, ‘You will have to work that one out yourself, look for the signs,’ she said.
‘Davina remember the rules of Gargantuan are different… A prison in that world is different to the prison here. You don’t actually need a room with bars to create a prison. Whereas here, the way you view the world can imprison you. Now Davina consider the worst container to contain a person – a dead thing. Consider the most difficult place for a person to escape from. Who in their right mind is going to attempt to escape from a desert, especially when they know their chances of survival are remote?’
Davina frowned, ‘But…’
‘I must go; this conversation is draining the Gargantuan life force.’
Davina glanced nervously at the others; had she unintentionally led them into a trap?
‘Nice going Davina,’ said Ghost in a tone.
Davina twirled her hair as she thought; time was running out. In a matter of days, the whole world would be teaming with Grotes. In the vast expanse of the tree, the cavernous rooms were growing larger. Davina needed a plan – there was one thing for it. She tilted her head back and made a cry that filled the air with an ungodly noise.
‘Bloody hell Davina!’ exclaimed Ghost, covering his ears in an attempt to stop his eardrums exploding. ‘Did you really need to do that?’
Davina stood for a moment in silence waiting. Nothing. Davina sighed; she was just about to speak when a solitary call travelled from the higher branches. At first Davina thought it was an echo but it was deeper. She signalled to the others, they covered their ears as she made another series of calls. From far above her there was a faint response. Before the others could ask questions Davina bounded up the stairs then stopped, there were too many stairs and it would take too long. She closed her eyes, created a small whirlwind and climbed on. Johnny, Susie and the others watched.
‘Hang on a minute, don’t you dare think you’re going to leave us to do all the walking when you’re going to get a free ride up the stairs,’ said Ghost.
‘I didn’t want to drain myself again,’ said Davina shaking her head.
‘If your father is here, then you should be okay, surely?’ said Ghost.
Maybe he was right. Davina shrugged and increased the size of the whirlwind and pulled the others up onto it. Of course, Ghost kept slipping into the vortex. In the end, Davina placed him in a nice sitting position with his legs dangling in the centre. ‘Hold on,’ said Davina.
‘What exactly do I hold onto?’ said Ghost as he glanced at Susie and Johnny; they grinned excitedly.
‘We’re actually sitting on a mini-whirlwind. How cool is that?’ said Johnny.
Ghost acted as though it was nothing unusual.
Davina sighed; nothing she did was ever good enough for Ghost. When she turned away, Ghost grinned experiencing the strange sensation of wind rushing in a circle around him. When she glanced over her shoulder she noticed Ghost was smiling.
‘Right just try and balance Ghost, I don’t want you falling down the stairs because you can’t sit still,’ said Davina.
Ghost mimicked her behind her back, Johnny and Susie glanced at each other; it was none of their business.
The wind carried the group up the staircase. At first Davina travelled slowly until she saw the group were getting the hang of it. She then guided the spinning wind over the central barrier, glanced at the group, then sped up the central cavity of the tree. ‘Hang on!’
Davina closed her eyes, summoned her energy and blasted the group up the central cavity of the tree. They came to the area where she thought she had heard the response to her call. Once there she guided the wind onto the landing and allowed it to settle. ‘So what do you think about wind travel?’ she asked.
‘I’ve been on better… I was once on a slow moving stone you know’ said Ghost.
Davina glared at him, what was wrong with him? When she first met him, he seemed so vulnerable and now he acted like he knew it all. What was he trying to prove?
Davina sighed then made some calls in different directions and waited for the reply.
‘I’m here child,’ came a weak call.
Davina jogged along the inside of the branch and came to an area that freaked her out. A lone figure was curled up on a suspended branch that hovered away from the rest of the tree.
Davina’s father looked up slowly. Davina didn’t remember what he looked like, but as he moved something awful dawned on her: her father wasn’t human.
Ghost and the others ran up behind Davina and came to an abrupt halt.
‘What the?’ said Ghost far too loudly.
Davina jabbed Ghost in the ribs. Ghost glanced at Davina and then to her father; Davina’s father appeared to be half Goyle. He was half-stone lion half-human. What was worse was that he was pinned to the wall by his stone wings.
‘Father… What do you need me to do?’
Davina’s father said nothing at first; when he finally spoke, he spoke with a deep, sad tone. ‘Davina you should never have come here. You should have gone out into the world and stopped the multiplication of Grotes.’
Ghost stood for a moment, ‘Davina, I don’t get it. Your father is half Goyle. How does that work? Why aren’t you all stoney.’
Davina shot Ghost a dagger of a glance!
Ghost went quiet, but still he couldn’t understand what was going on. ‘But’ he said.
Johnny used his hand to cover Ghost’s mouth.
‘But we came to save you and we came to save the Rebis egg,’ said Davina desperately.
Davina’s father shook his head sadly. ‘Davina by the time we leave this prison there’ll be thousands upon thousands, maybe even millions of Grotes. How will we ever escape? We can’t fight so many. So effectively we have lost. You were the only hope – that is why we sent you in that guise.’
‘You know I don’t remember… how could I? I can’t believe it. I came all the way out here to save you and you are telling me this is a wasted journey?’ said Davina.
Davina turned, her tiny frame shook with frustration. Davina felt a tear trickle and fall to the ground. As the tear fell, it passed through the dead tree. As it fell towards the ground, it formed a rainbow. ‘Father I don’t understand. What happened to the Rebis egg?’ she asked with a frown.
‘I don’t have it any more,’ he replied.
‘Because the Chimera stole it from me,’ he said weakly.
Davina turned sharply, tapped the Shamaventus and pointed it towards him. ‘You lie… You are not my father!’
With that, the Shamaventus let out a blast of light pulverizing the figure before them. In a matter of moments, the figure dissolved to sand.
Ghost bit Johnny’s hand in horror. Johnny didn’t know what to do and Susie cried. ‘You killed your own father,’ she whimpered.
‘That was not my father. That was an impostor!’ said Davina angrily.
Davina pointed at the pile of sand, three little goblin-like figures emerged laughing and scrambled away. ‘Got yer… You almost fell for it! – He he!’
‘What’s going on?’ asked Johnny.
‘They set a decoy.’
‘So where’s your father?’ asked Ghost.
Davina pointed downwards.
‘Oh no you don’t! Not more of this weird stuff,’ said Ghost with a huff.
‘Ghost you’re acting weird. Now you can stay in this illusion if you want but I need to go underground. When I cried outside my tears turned to rainbows when they hit the earth.’
‘I don’t get it… What’s that got to do with anything?’ he asked appearing confused.
‘What goes up must go down according to earth rules. If the Grotes are growing to the surface of the sand then they must be growing from somewhere below. That means they are moving away from the source of the energy – the Rebis egg. That means my father is down there too. He is the central point from where the Grotes are growing, that means he must be below the ground. Look down Ghost, look at the cyclic pattern. We are now at the epicentre. He is down there!’
Susie sucked her thumb and stroked her nose. ‘How did you work that out?’
‘My tear fell through the tree. As it fell, it became a rainbow,’ she said with a smile. This fortress is an illusion set up to distract me. Whoever set this up must know how my mind works… They must have anticipated how I would react ahead of time. Davina made her way back towards the stairs, climbed onto the banister and slid down. ‘We’re going underground. Hold on.’
Ghost glanced at Johnny and Susie who shrugged.
‘This is the weirdest stuff I ever experienced,’ he said.
Susie continued sucking her thumb. ‘I don’t know if this is real anymore.’
‘Welcome to Davina’s world,’ said Ghost sarcastically. He rubbed the banister to make sure he wasn’t going to end up with a series of splinters stuck in his bottom. What could be worse, trying to walk across a desert with a series of splinters digging in your behind or just walking across a desert with Davina?