Secret of Ashona CHAPTER ONE
Tarvos the Great
TWO SNAILS SAT ON THE KITCHEN TABLE. Their eyes drifted back and forth on their long stalks, tracking a teenage boy as he paced the room. From the snails’ perspective, the tall fourteen-year-old looked quite normal—although his dark hair was straight in front and wildly curly in the back.
But normal was the last thing Erec Rex felt like.
Normal kids would not have dragon eyes that let them see into the future.
Normal kids would not be forced to become king of a magical land.
Normal kids would not have to do twelve ridiculously dangerous quests to become king.
Erec sighed. Weird or not, it was his life. He could live with that. But what was hard to live with right now was doing absolutely nothing. Normal kids would be having fun in the summertime. Erec had been sitting around for over a month reading books and staring at the walls. He didn’t want to go on a quest again—there was no mistaking that. But he had to do something. Instead, he was pacing this dingy apartment kitchen, stretching out the time before he opened the letters that the two snails had brought him. Once he finished reading them, it would be back to complete boredom again.
Normal kids, Erec thought, would at least be able to hang out with their friends. But all of his friends were far away in another world, and he was stuck here alone.
Well, he wasn’t exactly alone, and he wasn’t exactly doing nothing. He was babysitting, as usual, for his younger siblings—red-haired Trevor and little Zoey. It basically amounted to reading to Zoey and watching her play house. His sister Nell had found a friend in a nearby apartment and she hung out there all the time, and their adoptive mother, June, was working. Erec didn’t know anybody around here, but at first that hadn’t bothered him at all. The idea of a little rest time with the family sounded great. Peace and quiet. But he soon realized that doing nothing but babysitting for weeks felt like being chained to a couch watching maternity channel reruns.
He paced some more, watching the two message-carrying snails watch him back. They eyed him impatiently until, finally, Erec grabbed the one on the left and pulled a letter out of its thin shell.
Ashona is amazing! Every day that I’m here I keep finding secret passages, ancient spell books, and other incredible surprises. Queen Posey gave me a master key, and yesterday I discovered a huge room filled with buried sea treasure that had been dug up and brought from all over the world’s oceans! I can’t wait until you see this place.
What are your plans? I still haven’t gotten a letter from you—write me back!
Without thinking, Erec crushed the letter into a tight ball. It wasn’t fair! He understood why June wanted them to stay in New Jersey, hoping to give Trevor, Nell, and Zoey something close to a normal life. But how could New Jersey hold a candle to the undersea world of Ashona? Bethany was Erec’s best friend in the world, and she was there with his father, the King of Alypium. King Piter’s powers were gone, and for safety he had to stay close to his sister, Queen Posey, who ruled Ashona. Alypium, the land where magic was still real, was where Erec was destined to become king, and it was out there waiting for him. Bethany was probably having the time of her life in Ashona, and Erec was here . . . stuck.
He stared a while at the Love in “Love, Bethany,” trying not to think about exactly what that meant. Bethany had become close to a girlfriend . . . more than just a friend, but it was hard to know exactly where they stood. He should be glad she was having fun . . . but he
couldn’t help being jealous. He also knew that he should write her back. But what could he say? Hey, that’s cool about the buried treasure. I’ve been reading How Are You, Mr. Schmoo? to Zoey twenty times in a row. Sounds like we’re both having a blast!
He would have to wait on that letter back to Bethany.
Plus, he already knew what she would say. She would tell him to get on with his next quest—the seventh out of twelve that he had to finish to become the next King of Alypium. Once he was ready, his mother would find a way to let him go. Nell would have to babysit, and Erec could leave here and start his next adventure.
The only problem was, he didn’t want to do any more quests at all. He had almost lost his life in the last one. Actually, he had lost his life to the three Furies—huge, all-powerful creatures that had taken his soul to escape their prison. But through some ancient magic, dragon’s blood, and a grateful cat, he was brought back to life again. After that, who could blame him for his lack of desire to do any more quests again—ever?
He wondered if his mother would let him go to Ashona just to have fun instead of doing his next quest. But he could imagine the look on her face and the firm no.
Something moved in the family room, jolting Erec out of his thoughts. He walked in and peered around with interest even though he had barely seen the thing. It was gone, but Erec was suddenly alert. It almost felt like nothing else mattered. But then the feeling passed as quickly as it had come on.
He tried to shake off his strange reaction. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him after all these weeks of boredom. He picked up the other snail and took the letter out. Just then Trevor bounded into the kitchen. “Snail mail?”
Erec smiled. Even though Trevor did not talk a lot, he was a brilliant kid. But before Erec could answer, he was distracted again by something moving in the family room. Curiosity overwhelmed him
this time, and he took off running into the room, nearly tripping over a kitchen chair. What could it be in there? He searched, grabbing cushions and looking under the couch. All through him there was a sharp need to find . . . what was it that he was looking for?
The feeling wore off, but left him confused. What was wrong with him? Was he paranoid?
Trevor stared at him and Erec felt his face turn red. He picked up the other snail mail, pretending nothing had happened.
To: Erec Rex
This letter is to inform you that the three new kings, Balor, Damon, and Dollick Stain, have completed their twelve quests. They will be crowned on June 25. At that time we will need all three of the royal scepters for their use. King Pluto’s scepter is in our possession and Queen Posey’s will be soon. We request that you immediately return King Piter’s scepter to President Inkle at the Green House. If you do not do this in the next three days, we will be forced to send the armies of Alypium and Aorth to track you down.
Rest assured, when you return the scepter to us, you will leave here unharmed. The Shadow Prince no longer has a need for you, and he wishes you all the best. Thank you, and have a great summer!
Scruffymat, the Secretary of Preplanning of Protocol Development
The snail cocked one of its elongated eyes at Erec, watching his stunned reaction.
The Stain triplets were going to be crowned kings? If Balor, Damon, and Dollick became the next rulers of the Kingdoms of the Keepers, they would hand their scepters to Baskania, the evil Shadow Prince, who would destroy the world with them. Well, Erec had one of the three scepters, anyway, and there was no way he was giving it up even if Baskania did send the armies of Alypium and Aorth after him.
His heart sank. If he wasn’t going to do the quests to become the next king, then what did he think was going to happen? He was the one who was supposed to rule. But how could he risk losing his life again doing another quest? The next time he might not get it back. He just wished there was another way to stop the Stain triplets from becoming king. Maybe if he used his scepter somehow . . .
The thought of his scepter brought back memories so intense that Erec had to close his eyes. Visions of the golden staff filled his mind. He could feel its electricity surging through him as if it were in his hands right now. He fought against his cravings for the thing by putting things in perspective. He really wasn’t ready for it—it was far too powerful. Only after he completed all of his quests would he have the strength to use it without falling under its influence. That was why he had sent it away—
Something moved again in the family room. What was running around in there? He had to get it this time, whatever it was. He darted forward as if he were hypnotized, stalking back and forth like a panther searching for its prey. There was a flash of white—he dove and grabbed it . . . but it was just a blanket.
Erec hugged it to his chest, annoyed. Where did the thing go? What was it? And why was it driving him so crazy? Frustrated, he threw the blanket onto the couch.
Trevor stared at him in shock. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t you see that thing . . . ?” Erec gestured around the room, but Trevor shook his head. “I guess I need more sleep—”
But just then, the thing moved again, right behind Trevor. Erec dove, compelled to grab it—
And tackled his younger brother. Whatever it was was gone again.
“Man, I’m so sorry, Trev. You okay?” Erec dusted himself off and pulled his brother up.
Trevor stared at him with wide eyes and nodded.
“Something weird is in here,” Erec said. “You better stand back while I look for it.” He searched under the coffee table and by the front door. Nothing was there. . . .
Suddenly, the entire world froze. A tiny man in white raced from under the couch, toward the curtains. He was moving too fast to see clearly, but Erec was captivated. The little guy stopped, spun around, and gazed at Erec with painted, wide-set eyes. That was when Erec realized that it was a toy—a little wind-up bullfighter. But it was the most fascinating thing Erec had ever seen. He could not pull his eyes away from its face. The harder he looked, the more it drew him in.
“What are you staring at?” Trevor followed his gaze with a confused look on his face.
Erec barely heard Trevor. It sounded like his voice was far away. The painted eyes of the little toy sparkled and filled Erec with curiosity. Their gaze looked right through him, as if it were reading his mind. Erec could feel himself tremble from fear, excitement, or maybe both.
Trevor shook Erec’s shoulder. “Why are you looking like that? What’s wrong?”
Trevor’s words were meaningless background noise. Erec pushed
him away and headed toward the little bullfighter. Its eyes were glowing. Erec had to follow wherever it went.
The bullfighter pulled out a small swatch of red cloth, and swished beneath its arm. Seeing the flash of red made Erec lose his last bit of control. He dove toward the thing—nothing was more important than grabbing that patch of red and having it for his own. The toy darted away. Erec charged, tripping over Zoey’s doll. The thing spun out of reach.
“Erec! What are you doing?” Trevor clutched Erec’s elbow, but Erec shook him off.
The toy buzzed back into view and then disappeared behind the couch. Erec pounced, scraping his face on the wall. “Get back here!” His voice sounded strangled, but he could not think clearly enough to question why. He scrambled behind the couch after the shining toy.
“Stop!” Trevor grabbed Erec’s ankle, pulling him back.
The little bullfighter spun around again to look at Erec. Its painted eyes taunted him. Behind it, Erec noticed a small black spot in the wall. As Erec watched, the spot grew larger until it became a hole that was the size of his fist. The bullfighter disappeared inside its darkness.
How could that thing leave without him? Erec was filled with rage. He reached a hand into the hole, which was still growing in the plaster. The bullfighter was out of his reach, but the gap kept growing wider. Soon it got big enough to climb through. Without a thought, Erec plunged in headfirst. He was in a tunnel that led out of his apartment. It was warm inside, although pitch-black. As Erec surged forward, he felt that his right leg was being yanked back. He shook it, but he couldn’t get it free.
It was too dark to see what was wrong with his leg, so instead he kept pulling himself forward. The tunnel was soft, like it was made of felt, but it was strong enough to support him. The little bullfighter
was somewhere ahead of him, Erec could feel it. In the back of his mind, he realized that he had never been this determined to have something in his whole life. For a second he wondered why, but then all thoughts beyond the little bullfighter toy left his head.
A dim light appeared ahead. Erec crawled toward it, dragging his right leg behind him. The light grew into an exit from the tunnel that emptied into a giant cavern. Erec had to grab the walls of the cave and pull his body from the tunnel against whatever was tugging on his ankle. As he slid out, the tunnel tightened around him, closing as he was leaving it. A sharp scream issued from the tunnel as the gap narrowed snugly around his legs. The sound jolted Erec out of his obsession with the bullfighter, and for a moment he looked around and wondered where he was.
He was almost out now . . . if only his right leg would come. Why was this so difficult?
Erec yanked and pulled, and then with a pop his leg shot out of the closing tunnel . . . with Trevor attached to it.
Trevor looked terrified. “What’s going on?” he gasped. “How did we get here?”
With his brother’s words, the spell on Erec seemed to lift completely. The bullfighter was gone. He couldn’t see it anywhere. But now they were stuck in a cave with no way to get back.
For a moment, neither he nor Trevor moved. Erec tried to collect his thoughts. Someone had obviously used magic to lead him here. Could it have blinded him that much? And where was he now? The rocky cave was enormous and empty, no sign of the little bullfighter anywhere. In fact, there was nothing at all except for a corridor at the other end of the cavern. It seemed silly to just stand there, so Erec walked toward it. Trevor followed him, grasping the back of his red T-shirt. When they reached the hall-like tunnel, Erec was afraid that there would be nothing but more empty cave
and no way home again . . . but something around the corner made him stop in his tracks.
A gigantic bull sat on an ornate golden throne that filled the far end of the hall. The bull must have been fifty feet tall. Fluffy dark brown hair stuck out from its face and body in all directions. A thick gold ring dangled from its nose, and another from its right ear. They both waved in the air when the bull snorted.
The beast reared back and majestically pointed a hoof at Erec. Erec shrank back, half expecting lightning rays to shoot down at him, but nothing happened. The beast shook its hoof and frowned. “Something is wrong with you.” Its deep voice echoed through the room. It raised its hoof toward Erec again, but then dropped it, growling. “You’re not normal. It’s like you’re indestructible. But don’t worry. I’ll figure out how to get rid of you soon enough.”
Three giant snow-white cranes with spindly long black legs were perched on the bull’s shoulders. Red circles surrounded their beady black eyes. They eagerly turned their long necks toward Erec, chomping their long, sharp black beaks
Erec shook from head to toe. What was going on? Why was this strange giant bull trying to get rid of him? Then a thought occurred to him—maybe this was all a dream. It was certainly strange enough.
Trevor yanked his arm hard enough to hurt. This was no dream. “Erec?” His voice sounded weak. “Let’s go. Quick.”
Erec nodded, but his feet were stuck as if they were glued to the floor. “I . . . I can’t move.” He pulled harder but could not budge, as the bull watched in amusement. “Just go on without me.”
Trevor twisted, but his feet were also fixed to the ground. He stared at the bull in terror.
It dawned on Erec that the bullfighter toy’s spell had brought him here, but Trevor hadn’t even been able to see the thing. He probably wasn’t supposed to have come. Someone was trying to kill Erec,
and now Trevor was in just as much danger. He had to get Trevor to safety, if not himself.
This had to be a trick of Baskania, the Shadow Prince. He must be trying to capture him. But that didn’t make sense—the snail mail from the Green House in Alypium said he had three days to give them his scepter. Why would they trap him here now if they wanted him to bring it?
The bull roared with anger. “What have you done to yourself, you pathetic boy? I can’t take you like this.”
“Who . . . who are you? Where am I?”
The three white cranes looked at Erec like he was crazy. “’Ee’s actually talking to the master! Ee’s asking ’im questions!” one said.
“No doubt that’ll end badly.”
A third scratched its feathers with its pointy beak. “Not that it won’t end badly for ’im either way, now, will it?”
The bull gnashed its teeth. “Don’t bother me with your stupid questions. You belong to me, and I am going to put you in my army. Something is wrong, though. I can’t seem to change you into one of my slaves. . . .”
“Let my brother go!” Trevor tugged against his stuck feet.
The bull nodded toward Trevor, frustrated. “Where did this other boy come from? Did you bring him here? Nobody does this.”
“He’s my brother. He followed me.” Erec squeezed his eyes shut. Why hadn’t Trevor stayed home where it was safe? “Please let him go. You don’t want him, right? Just keep me.”
“I don’t send people back. Ever.”
Erec was overwhelmed with panic. It was bad enough that he was trapped in this awful place, but how could he have let Trevor follow him? Why had he been so obsessed with that dumb little toy that he didn’t stop to look at what was tugging on his leg?
He tried to calm down and talk his way out of this. “Why do you
want me? Maybe we could make a deal. Send my brother home and you can keep me as long as you want.”
“Tarvos does not make deals,” the bull roared. “I’ll keep you forever, and I’ll dispose of that boy as soon as I turn you into a Golem. But you have ruined yourself, so I can’t do it. I have to figure this out fast, so I can move on to the next person on my list.”
Erec and Trevor exchanged looks. Erec had no idea what the bull was talking about, but it didn’t sound good. What was a Golem?
This time the bull pointed both of its front hooves at him. Searing pain flashed through both of Erec’s eyes, like they were being torn from his head. He screamed, covering them with his hands. Soon his entire body burned inside. He dropped to his knees and wrapped his head in his arms, rocking. Tears streamed down his face.
Then the pain stopped.
“’Ee thinks that was bad,” one of the birds commented. “Just wait till ’ee gets the rest of ’is soul ripped out.”
Another bird tsked. “Yup. ’Ard to get used to watching it, but like I says, better ’im than us.”
Erec saw his brother frozen in terror, tears streaming down his face, so he tried to pull himself together. “I’m . . . fine. It’s all right, Trev. Pain’s all gone.” He tried to smile, to show his brother that he was okay, but it was a pathetic attempt. Whatever this bull-thing wanted to turn him into, Erec didn’t stand a chance.
The bull’s brow lowered in annoyance. “What did you do to yourself? I can’t pull those eyes out of you. I can’t burn off that blood.” He snorted. “Something is all wrong here. Those parts of yours are indestructible. I don’t understand. It’s like they’re not even human. Are they from another creature?”
Erec heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe he did stand a chance after all. The bull was referring to the fact that he had dragon eyes. They must have stopped the bull from doing whatever horrible thing he
was trying to do. And his blood . . . did he have dragon blood? “Why are you doing this? I don’t understand—”
“I’ll ask the questions.” A waft of smoke drifted from the bull’s nostrils. “Tell me where you got those eyes. I need to figure out how to remove them.”
Did the bull think that Erec would really help him do that? “I—I didn’t get them anywhere. I don’t know what you mean.”
The cranes on the bull’s shoulders started pacing, agitated. “This ain’t good, I tell ya.”
“I know, chum. The boy’s odd, all right. Causing all kinds of problems, ain’t ’ee?”
Tarvos sneered. “You’re making me look stupid and I don’t like to look bad.” It roared in frustration. “You’re wasting my time. I have important work to do.” Then the bull sighed and shook its head. “I suppose I’ll just have to kill you, then. What a waste. You would have made a fine soldier.”
Erec threw his hands up. “D-don’t kill me! I . . . I can help you get my eyes out if you want me to.” Better blind than dead, Erec thought. He had to stall for time, figure out what to do. “Just . . . um . . . explain a few things to me first. Then I’ll tell you how to pull my eyes out, okay? I’ll even do it for you.”
The bull looked at him quizzically. “You can do that?” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like having to ask for help.” He laughed. “Then again, once I turn you into a clay fighting machine, you won’t be able to tell anyone about it. All right, then. I’ll answer a few questions. But make it quick.”
“’Ear that?” one of the birds said. “’Ee’s going to talk to the boy. I can’t believe it!”
“No tellin’ what will happen. Kid is strange, all right.”
“Who are you?” Erec said. “And why am I here?”
The bull’s bloodshot eyes bored into Erec’s. “I am Tarvos the
Great. Ruler over you and your kind. It is my right to collect all you living beings without souls and turn you into my army of clay Golems. The Fates have bequeathed you and your soulless brethren to me to use as I please.”
Erec was too stunned to speak. This didn’t make sense. Why did the bull think that he had no soul? This sounded more like a strange mistake than a plot of Baskania’s.
“Listen . . . Tarvos. There has been a big misunderstanding. First of all, I have a soul. And so does Trevor here. I just saw this strange little bullfighter toy and ended up crawling through a tunnel into this place—”
The cranes exploded in laughter. “Listen to ’im! ’Ee thinks it was all a big slipup!”
“Oh, don’t they all.”
“Cut it out!” Erec yelled at the birds. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, now, that was a slipup, all right,” a bird said. “Insulting me like that.”
“Yeah, that there troublemaker deserves to become one of those icky Golems.”
“Look,” Erec said. “You’re all wrong. You have to let us go home. There are a few things that are . . . different about me. I’ve done six quests to become the king of Alypium . . . and I’ve used the king’s scepter. Maybe that did something to make you think I have no soul?”
The bull’s eyes remained hard. “Of course that’s not it! You think I’m stupid, don’t you?” His eyes drifted above Erec’s head. “Everyone thinks I’m stupid. But I’ll show them. Once my Golem army is ready I’ll wipe out everyone who has ever laughed at me.” He focused on Erec again. “Don’t think you can talk your way out of this. I know your soul is missing. Souls are more visible to me than the bodies that they rest in. You do have a tiny piece of one left, but it’s not much
to speak of. Definitely not enough for me to spare you.” He grunted. “Your kind need to be removed from humanity and destroyed before you cause damage. That is why the Fates have given you to me to dispose of.”
This sounded crazy to Erec. “Why do you think my soul is gone? What if you are wrong—?”
“What?” the bull yelled, enraged. He dragged his claws on the ground, making a harsh scraping noise. “I’m never wrong! How dare you question Tarvos the Great? Of course I can’t tell why your soul is missing. You are the one that should know that.”
Erec searched for an answer. Could he have lost his soul? He had done nothing but sit at home for a month. Before that, his last quest was to give himself to the three Furies—terrible, powerful creatures who were about to be unleashed upon humanity. He had to let them out of their prison. Luckily he had managed to change things so that they were at peace when they escaped.
Not that he had gotten out easily himself. He had died and was brought back with the help of a bee locked inside amber and a healthy dose of dragon blood.
Erec’s jaw dropped open. Something else had happened when he died. . . . He had given something to the Furies. . . what they needed to escape Tartarus . . .
It all seemed so vague and long ago. . . . His dying had literally made it seem like it was another lifetime. But now everything made sense. He had given his soul to the three Furies. After being killed and brought back to life, he assumed that he had been brought back to his normal self, how he started off. But that was not the case at all.
He was alive . . . but the Furies still had his soul.