Darkness pressed against Drew, the night wind like a heavy breath of fear against his neck. He gripped Bobby’s hand. A rustle ahead caused both boys to falter.
But it came from behind them--a crashing roar that made them yell as they spun to face it.
“Ha! Scared ya good!” Luke stumbled from the brush, laughing as he thumped his friends on the back.
“My turn!” Drew sprinted away, looking for a hiding spot. His surprise birthday party was turning out to be a smashing success.
Only one surprise was missing: Drew’s dad. Figured.
He pressed forward through the brush when suddenly the ground itself was gone, leaving only blackness and a horrid falling feeling, like his worst nightmare.
He hadn’t hit the ground. It was more like something had grabbed him, holding his body in a vise-like grip. For a moment all he knew was pain.
The light came to his consciousness gradually, materializing into an old-fashioned lantern, with a bearded face peering from behind it.
Drew felt panic. “Stop! I’m armed!” He scrambled for a stick or rock.
The man chuckled. “Hello lad, welcome to Illisandra. I’m Michael. No need to fear.”
“Illisandra. The land deep within.”
“Within what?!” Drew gaped.
Michael just smiled and motioned for the boy to follow him. They stepped into a campsite teeming with men. “One of Jaiah’s sons, Benjamin, has left.” Michael explained. “We’re searching for him.”
“He is our protector. Our leader. Our father.” The men looked at him. “Our Jaiah.”
Another man ran in from the woods. “We’ve discovered Benjamin’s location! He’s with the Ultiers.”
“They won’t let him go without a fight.” Michael’s eyes flashed. “Benjamin is one of Jaiah’s. He will be restored.”
The fire was stamped out and packs thrown on backs. Drew stood in the middle of the commotion, yet apart from it. It seemed only seconds before they were crouching on the outskirts of the enemy camp, assessing the situation.
“We’ll make a sneak attack and create a diversion,” Michael said. “Then Jaiah can go in and speak with Benjamin.”
The next thing Drew knew was a battle, with shouts, and flashing iron. He was backing out of the way when a rough hand grabbed him, a sword against his throat.
Drew screamed. The blade cut into his neck, pain searing through him. His body hit the ground, warmth pouring down his chest. He braced himself for the final blow.
It didn’t come.
He opened his eyes and found a man bending over him. The attacker lay unmoving next to them. Somehow Drew knew. This was Jaiah. The man pressed a bandage against Drew’s neck. “I heard you call. Your wound is not deep. You’ll heal quickly.” He left as quickly as he had come.
Michael knelt beside him then. Drew stared toward the fight. “Jaiah’s going into their camp alone? He’ll be killed!”
“Our protector will risk his life for one of his own, even though it was Benjamin’s foolishness that got him here in the first place.”
The night stretched on. Drew fumed, having nothing to do but sit in pain, wishing he could help.
At last Jaiah emerged from the shadows, an arm slung around another man. The group cheered and pulled back from the fight. They marched home together, chattering jubilantly.
Then Michael turned to Drew. “Jaiah would like to speak to you.”
“To me?” Drew bit his lip, his steps slowing as he approached their leader.
The man’s eyes were deep with wisdom. “Drew, when you came down here you were very afraid.”
“Yes, sir.” Drew hung his head. “I didn’t know you were here, that you were...you.”
“I am.” Jaiah smiled. “But Drew, I’m not just down here. I am always with you.”
Drew looked up, into those eyes.
“I would like to be your Jaiah, your Father.”
He could only whisper his reply, but the word held strength. “Yes.”
Jaiah pulled him into an embrace, then leaned back. “It’s time to return now, son.”
Drew was plunged into darkness, the vise once again binding him, pain wracking his body. He cried out. The smell of earth seeped into his nostrils, choking him with stale dust. Far above him, a pale circle of light shone. A head thrust itself into the opening. “Drew! Can you hear me?”
Drew gasped. “Dad?”
Relieved laughter burst from above. “We’ll have you out in a minute!”
A faint voice echoed, “Remember, son, I will be with you always.”
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