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Read Dragontide’s Daughter

Dragontide’s Daughter

The First Book of Dragontide

A teen girl embarks on a quest to cure her grandfather’s sudden illness with the legendary Elixiron, only to confront the ancient guardian of Lake Dragontide and uncover that the true cost of the cure may sever her deepest family bonds.

  • Chapter 1: Need
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Chapter 1: Need

In the shadowy confines of their modest home, seventeen-year-old Ellie Harper kept a vigil by her grandpa Joe’s bedside. The soft murmur of the great lake just beyond their doorstep and the distant music from the springtime Iceberg Festival stood in stark relief against the oppressive hush that had enveloped the room. The only other sounds were the faint rustle of Dr. Bennett’s movements as he concluded his examination, the clink of medical instruments gently laid to rest.

Dr. Bennet carefully stowed his stethoscope in a bag that bore the marks of countless house calls. He then retrieved a tiny bottle from the depths of his medical kit, its contents obscured by the dim light.

“Is that Elixiron?” Ellie’s voice broke the silence as she fixed her gaze on the vial now resting on the side table.

With a weary exhale, Dr. Bennett met Ellie’s anxious stare. “Elixiron is a rare commodity, Ellie. And its cost is steep, well beyond the means of Crystal Shores’ residents.”

The finality in his tone felt like a cold tide washing over Ellie. The injustice of it all—that wealth could dictate the value of a life—kindled a spark of defiance within her. “But if it could heal him, shouldn’t we try? Grandpa’s life is worth more than any price tag.”

Dr. Bennett’s response was gentle. “We Shorlings are simple folks, sustained by the bounty of Lake Dragontide. Despite its generosity, none of us, not I or even Mayor Wright, have the means to afford it.”

“But it’s not his time to die, is it? He should have many more years ahead of him.” Tears glistened in Ellie’s eyes as she fought to hold them back.

“You’re right, Ellie. Your grandpa’s time is not meant to be up yet.” He paused as if weighing his words carefully. “The truth is, this illness that has gripped him is quite mysterious. I have never seen anything like it before.”

Ellie’s heart sank. “So there’s nothing we can do to help him?”

Dr. Bennett nodded slowly. “There is one thing that could potentially help him, but it’s a long shot.” He reached into his bag again and pulled out a small notebook filled with scribbled notes and diagrams.

“This is my research on Elixiron.” A nearby lamp cast a warm pool of light as he flipped through the worn pages. “I have been studying its effects for years, and I believe it has the power to cure your grandpa’s illness.”

Ellie leaned in, her curiosity piqued by the meticulous diagrams and handwritten notes.

“We can gather most of what we need—Starlight Dew, Glimmerpetal Powder, Auron Herb, Silvermist Essence, and Heartwood Bark.” He tapped the page with a finger gnarled from years of practice.

A thrill of hope sparked within Ellie, bright and sudden as a shooting star. “You mean we can make the Elixiron?”

“These ingredients,” he sighed, “as rare and costly as they are, we can manage. But there’s one more elusive and guarded.” His eyes met Ellie’s. “It’s the Dragonscale Moss from Thornveil Wilds. And no one dares to tread those grounds.”

Ellie’s heart sank at the mention of the Thornveil Wilds, a place shrouded in mystery and danger. As far as she knew, no one had ever ventured there and returned alive.

“Don’t be filling her head with such notions,” Ellie’s mom said, wiping her hands on her apron. “We can’t have her chasing fairy tales, especially in the forbidden forest.”

“I apologize, Sarah.” He closed the notebook and tucked it back into his bag. “I didn’t mean to sow seeds of reckless hope.”

“I suppose there’s no way to get the Elixiron, then.” Ellie’s voice trailed off as she eyed the modest bottle of medicine resting innocuously beside Grandpa Joe’s makeshift bed in the corner of the living room. “There’s got to be something more effective than that stuff you’ve left for Grandpa.” The word ‘stuff’ held an edge of disdain—not for Dr. Bennett, but for the sheer helplessness of their situation.

Dr. Bennett stood; his chair scraped lightly against the wooden floor. “There may be another way. I’ve heard rumors of a map that leads to Elixiron hidden somewhere in Crystal Shores. It was said to belong to an old sailor who used to live here many years ago.”

Ellie fiddled with the necklace around her neck, its pendant an intricately carved dragon. It was a cherished family heirloom, passed down from her great-grandmother, linking generations with its enduring presence. “Do you know where it’s at?”

“I don’t know where this map could be,” Dr. Bennett said. “It could be a lost treasure or just a rumor.”

Grandpa Joe’s weakened frame shuddered with each cough; his hand trembled as he raised it to wipe the phlegm from his mouth. With a weak voice, he managed to speak, “That old sailor is me, doctor.”

The room fell into a hush. Ellie’s gaze locked onto her grandfather. “Do you have the map to the Elixiron, Grandpa?”

Grandpa Joe glanced at Ellie, his eyes reflecting both love and apprehension. “Life’s currents, my dear Ellie,” he began, his tone grave yet tinged with nostalgia for past voyages. “They ebb and flow like our beloved Dragontide. It’s not just about reaching shore but about enduring the storms that test our mettle.”

Ellie tried to make sense of her grandfather’s cryptic words. His wise sayings often left her more puzzled than enlightened. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the weathered wooden table that stood between them. “What do you mean, Grandpa?”

He took a sip of his tea, the steam curling up from the chipped mug. “Ah, Ellie, the Elixiron is a legend as old as the lake itself. They say it holds the power to heal any ailment, to grant life everlasting. But the path to reach it is fraught with perils unseen, dangers lurking beneath tranquil waters.”

Shaking her head, Ellie couldn’t bring herself to accept such a passive stance towards the looming shadow of death. Her eyes wandered to the old chest that rested in the shadowy corner of the room, a silent guardian of Grandpa Joe’s vast and vibrant history. She knew every inch of its contents, having explored it with wide-eyed wonder since she was a child. Maps that spoke of distant shores, and exotic trinkets from lands Ellie had only dreamed of.

Ellie leaned back in her chair, the old wood creaking under her weight. She crossed her arms, a skeptical look on her face. “But Grandpa, you haven’t answered my question. Do you have the map?”

Grandpa Joe’s weathered face creased with worry. “Ellie, you must understand how perilous that forest is, child. Promise me, promise me now, that you won’t venture into those forbidden lands.”

Ellie’s mother added, “Your grandpa speaks true words, Ellie. Please promise us you won’t risk your life for this.”

Reluctantly nodding in agreement under their watchful gazes, Ellie felt the weight of her promise settle heavily on her shoulders.

As thoughts raced through her mind searching for another solution, she remembered the upcoming Iceberg Festival competition offering a substantial prize purse. Ellie turned to her mother. “What if I were to win first prize in the festival’s competition, would that be enough to buy Elixiron.”

With a sad smile, Ellie’s mother shared a simple saying passed down through generations: “A storm may rage, but the calm waters always return.”

The words lingered in the air, carrying little comfort and hope. “Why do Shorlings speak with proverbs? I have no gift for those wise thoughts.”

Ellie’s mother sighed with a weariness that seemed to transcend mere fatigue. “Ellie, dear, could you help me dry the dishes? It’ll keep your mind occupied.”

Though her thoughts were still on Elixiron, Ellie nodded. She followed her mother into the plain kitchen, the scent of home-cooked meals mingled with the sweet smells from the festival that floated in through the window.

As Ellie took her place at the sink, her mother passed her a damp plate, the ceramic still warm from the soapy water. Ellie accepted it, running the worn towel over its surface.

In the other room, she could hear Dr. Bennett gathering his belongings, the swish of fabric and the faint clink of glass vials. His footsteps approached, signaling his impending departure.

“Thank you for your care, Doctor,” Ellie’s mother said. “We’ll follow your instructions to the letter.”

Dr. Bennett’s reply was muffled, but Ellie could discern the solemn cadence of his words. A moment later the door opened, and a gust of crisp lake air swept through the house, carrying with it the distant strains of festive music.

Before the door could swing shut, another figure appeared on the threshold. “Hey, El!”

Ellie recognized the familiar voice instantly. It was Tyler Green, her best friend since childhood and partner in countless adventures along the shores of Lake Dragontide. She hastily dried the cup she was holding and placed it in the cupboard. “I’m gonna enter the competition.”

Tyler’s eyes lit up with excitement, a wide grin spreading across his face as he clapped Ellie on the back. “Ellie, this is brilliant! Entering the contest is a fantastic idea. But I think the entry deadline is by midnight tonight.”

As Ellie dried a delicate porcelain plate that her mother had just washed, the cozy kitchen was suddenly invaded by a fierce gust of wind. The windows rattled ominously, their panes vibrating in protest against the unexpected intrusion of the outside world. It was as if nature itself was trying to convey a message, whispering secrets of an uncertain future that loomed ahead.

“Whoa.” Tyler’s expression shifted from joy to mild concern as he glanced at the quivering windows. “That was intense. Almost like the universe is giving us a heads-up or something.”

Ellie paused for a moment, then she carefully placed the now gleaming plate back in its designated spot. “Maybe it’s a sign.” Her gaze drifted toward the turbulent sky visible through the window. “A sign that things are about to change.”

Chapter 2: Of Clay and Petals

The swirling clouds subsided, allowing the afternoon sun to cast a warm glow through the dusty window, illuminating the back room where Ellie and her mother spent countless hours giving life to their imaginations through crafts. Today, however, the room had been commandeered for a singular purpose. A table, once cluttered with fabrics and threads, now lay bare except for the mound of clay at its center and the various sculpting tools meticulously arranged beside it.

With Tyler across the table, Ellie’s hands moved with the precision of an artist, shaping the soft earth into the intricate form of a Moon Flower. Her gaze was focused on the unfolding petals. Strands of hair occasionally fell across her face as she leaned in to perfect a detail.

“The Moon Flower,” she began, her fingers tracing the outline of what would be one of the flower’s iconic luminescent petals, “is more than just a plant; it’s a piece of night sky trapped in bloom.”

“Right you are,” Tyler said from behind a thick tome he had pulled from the shelf. The book, its spine cracked from age and pages yellowed, was open to a chapter dedicated to the flora of their world, specifically the forbidden blooms of the Wilds.

“Listen to this,” he said. “The Moon Flower, native only to Thornveil Wilds, possesses petals that glow with a soft light under the moon’s gaze. It is said that whoever holds a petal of the Moon Flower will be granted visions of truth beyond mortal sight.” He glanced up at Ellie. “Can you imagine? Visions of truth.”

Ellie paused, the clay cool beneath her fingertips. She knew the lore well— too well, perhaps. “That’s not all it grants. The Moon Flower is also believed to protect those who carry it from dark enchantments and ill fates. But to pluck it from the earth is to invite the wrath of the forest spirits. They say misfortune befalls anyone foolish enough to disturb its rest.”

“Which is why you’re making one out of clay instead.” Tyler grinned, but the gravity of Ellie’s expression sobered him. “You’re not actually considering—?”

“Of course not. I don’t need it for my project.”

“Good.”

Ellie’s clay Moon Flower was a marvel to behold. Its intricate petals were as delicate as lace, molded with gentle curves and subtle details that mimicked the real flower perfectly. A thin layer of pearlescent paint made each petal seem to glow with a faint luminosity. It was a masterpiece of craftmanship, capturing the ethereal beauty of the flower in a medium of earth and clay.

Tyler’s eyes widened in wonder at the sight of the Moon Flower taking shape in Ellie’s skilled hands. His fingers twitched with a desire to touch it. “It’s incredible; it looks so real. Do you think we can get it to the competition without breaking it?”

“I’ll pack it carefully,” she said as her fingers shaped another petal. “Actually, it needs to be dried and fired but that can take a few days; and we don’t have that luxury.”

“We only have a few hours.” Tyler glanced at his watch. “We really need to get going, Ellie. The competition will be closing soon for entries, and we can’t risk missing out on submitting your project.”

Ellie nodded in understanding. She carefully packed the fragile Moon Flower into a box with layers of protective wrapping.

Ellie and Tyler made their way into the living room, where Grandpa Joe lay on the couch. She gently placed the box holding her precious Moon Flower creation on the table next to her grandfather. She turned to face him as he watched her with pride shining in his eyes.

“I’ll make sure to bring back the grand prize, Grandpa. Just you wait and see,” Ellie said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

Grandpa Joe chuckled softly and took Ellie’s hand in his. “I have no doubt about that, my dear Ellie. Remember, success is not just about winning prizes but about the journey you take to get there.”

Ellie gave him a hug before turning to her mother, who was folding a basket of laundry while keeping one eye on the simmering soup on the stove.

“Be careful out there, Ellie. And make sure Tyler keeps you safe,” her mother said with a teasing smile.

Ellie rolled her eyes playfully at Tyler, who grinned in response. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Harper. I’ll make sure Ellie doesn’t get into too much trouble.”

As they stepped out of the house, the storm clouds had parted, revealing the warm glow of the sun. The village streets were adorned with colorful lanterns and fairy lights for the Iceberg Festival. Laughter and music filled the air, blending with the tantalizing scent of sweet treats and savory dishes being prepared for the festivities.

In the distance, Lake Dragontide glistened under the rays of sunlight, its surface dotted with majestic icebergs that sparkled like diamonds in the late afternoon light. The sight was breathtaking, a reminder of the beauty and magic that surrounded them.

“You sure you don’t want me to carry that for you?” Tyler gestured toward the box. “It looks pretty heavy.”

“I’ve got it, Ty. It’s not that heavy.” She adjusted her grip on the box, feeling a surge of pride at her creation.

But just as Ellie took a step forward, her foot caught on a protruding cobblestone. With a yelp, she stumbled forward, unable to regain her balance. The box slipped from her grasp, tumbling to the ground with a resounding crash.

“Oh no!” Ellie winced at the crunch of shattered clay from within the box. She knelt quickly, assessing the damage with a sinking feeling in her chest.

Tyler crouched beside her; his expression filled with concern. “Ellie, are you okay?”

Eloise swallowed hard, carefully moving the shattered fragments that had spilled out of the box and spread across the cobblestones. Tears welled up in her eyes as she realized the extent of the damage.

“It’s . . . it’s ruined.” Ellie said, noticing the crestfallen look on Tyler’s face. She knew he understood just how much effort she had poured into creating the Moon Flower sculpture, and witnessing it shattered into pieces was a blow to them both. Without a word, he knelt down beside her and began carefully gathering the scattered shards, gently placing each broken fragment back into the box.

“I’m sorry, Ellie,” Tyler said, his voice filled with regret as they tidied up the mess.

“How much time do we have left before the competition begins?”

Tyler hesitated for a moment before replying, “Just a few hours.”

Ellie took a deep breath, steadying herself as she made a decision. “There’s still time.”

Tyler’s forehead creased as he regarded Ellie with a faintly skeptical look. “Time for what?”

“To get a real Moon Flower.” Ellie rose to her feet, dusting off her hands as she looked toward the Thornveil Wilds in the distance.

“Ellie, you can’t be serious. The Moon Flower is too dangerous to go after.”

However, Ellie was determined. She grabbed the box containing her ruined project and headed toward the old bridge spanning the river between the village and the forbidden forest, with Tyler trailing behind her.

As Ellie and Tyler approached the edge of Wildsedge River the joyful revelry of the festival faded into the distance behind them.

A swift, darkly currented river separated the village from the looming treeline of the Thornveil Wilds. An ancient stone bridge arched over the rushing waters, its weathered blocks of granite grown mossy and mottled over countless seasons. Creeping vines snaked along the bridge’s sides, as if nature itself was slowly reclaiming the man-made structure linking the two realms.

Tyler reached out a hand to stop her. “Ellie, are you sure about this? We can’t just go in there; it’s forbidden for a reason.”

Ellie turned to face him. “I know it’s risky, but this is my only chance to salvage my project for the competition. Besides, the Moon Flower is said to have powerful properties that could help me win and save Grandpa.”

“Your grandpa wouldn’t want you going in there, and you know that.”

“If it’s really as dangerous as they say, why isn’t the bridge barricaded? I don’t think anyone even mans the guard tower anymore. It can’t be that bad on the other side.”

 “Everyone, except you, apparently, knows enough to not cross the bridge to the other side,” Tyler said. “Even if nothing happens to us and we’re fine, they’ll know you picked a real Moon Flower. I mean, it’s obviously not the clay one you made earlier. And that could get us both in trouble.”

“The clay in the box isn’t dry.” Ellie shook the box. “I’ll apply the clay over the flower—hopefully that works.”

Tyler shook his head. “If you’re going to do that, just make the flower yourself, why pick one?”

“I don’t have my tools,” Ellie said. “I’ll wet the clay down by the river and apply a really thin layer over the flower. It’ll look realistic.”

“It is realistic,” Tyler said, running a hand through his tousled hair. “I don’t think it’ll work; the flower will fall apart.”

“We’ll find out,” Ellie said cautiously stepping onto the bridge. “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”

Tyler grumbled and followed Ellie over the bridge and into the forbidden forest.

Chapter 3

The Forbidden Glow

Ellie’s boots sank into the damp moss blanketing the forest floor. An eerie stillness hung heavy in the air, muffling even the faint sounds of the village’s festivities. The only noise came from the occasional drip of melted snow from the twisted branches reaching overhead like bony fingers, and the haunting call of an unseen owl. Tyler stood beside Ellie, their breath intermingling in misty clouds in the cool, spring air clinging to the river’s edge.

“Have you ever been in here before?” Ellie asked as she walked slowly forward.

Tyler cast his gaze toward the shadowy sprawl of the forest. “When I was a young kid, my friends and I dared each other to go inside. We hadn’t gone very far when . . . well,” he paused, swallowing hard as if trying to keep down a bitter memory, “we heard a roar echo through the trees. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. Scared us right out of our wits and sent us running for home.”

“A bear?” Ellie asked, continuing to move forward.

“Definitely not a bear. I’ve heard a bear before in Eldengrove. Anyway, we basically ran for our lives.”

Ellie laughed.

Above the forest, the waxing gibbous moon peeked over the horizon, its pale disk rising into the twilight sky painted in hues of dusky blue. Though daylight still clung to the world, shadows lengthened and deepened.

Trees lined the path, their twisted branches forming natural archways leading deeper into the ancient forest. Dappled light filtered through the canopy, casting shadows on the rough bark and undergrowth that created an unsettling atmosphere, as if teetering between dream and nightmare.

“Look at it, Ty.” Ellie’s voice was filled with a mingling of awe and unease as she gazed at the spectacle unfolding before them. “It’s like another realm is reaching out, calling to us.”

“Or warning us.”

Ellie remembered the stories whispered by the village elders about spirits and ancient magic that might just be more than mere tales told to scare children.

“Are you afraid?” Ellie asked, turning to study Tyler’s expression closely, looking for even a hint of apprehension.

He met her gaze. “With you? Never.”

The misshapen shadows beckoned like crooked fingers, drawing Ellie deeper into the forest’s mysterious depths. Then something caught her eye—a faint luminescence emanating from a patch of foliage ahead.

“Look over there.” Ellie pointed toward the source of the eerie glow.

Tyler followed her gesture. “What is that?”

“It must be the Moon Flowers.” Ellie was unable to contain the sense of excitement inside her. This was it—the prize that would unlock the path to her grandfather’s cure.

“Moon Flowers? Ellie, are you sure we should—”

But she was already moving, drawn toward the ghostly blooms. “Let’s check it out.”

Ellie hurried forward, her boots crunching twigs underfoot. Tyler rushed to keep up, his earlier worries forgotten as Ellie’s excitement proved contagious.

They emerged into a small clearing. Hundreds of delicate white blossoms carpeted the forest floor, their petals casting a pale, almost spectral radiance. It was as if someone had plucked beams of moonlight from the night sky and scattered them amidst the foliage.

“Wow.” Ellie was utterly transfixed by the sight before her. Tyler, too, seemed entranced, his features bathed in the gentle glow.

Ellie took a tentative step forward, then another, drawn closer to the captivating blooms. She knelt, reverently brushing her fingers against one of the shimmering petals. It felt like satin caressed by starlight.

Her gaze drifted across the sea of Moon Flowers, drinking in their delicate beauty. This was what she had come for. All she had to do was gather one blossom.

Ellie’s fingers hovered mere inches from the stem of a luminous petal She was so close to securing first prize—close enough to practically taste victory.

“Ellie, wait. Don’t forget, the book said misfortune befalls anyone foolish enough to disturb its rest.”

Ellie froze, her hand suspended in midair as the weight of Tyler’s words sank in. “But it also said something about granting visions of truth and protecting.”

“I don’t know how it can possibly cause both bad luck and good.”

Slowly, Ellie pulled her hand back. “It’s probably just an old wives’ tale anyway. Something the elders made up to scare kids away from the forest.”

“And what if it’s not?” Tyler’s gaze roamed the shadowy fringes of the clearing. “My gran used to say there are older powers at work in these woods—things we can’t begin to understand.”

Ellie felt uneasy. But the image of her grandfather, withered and feeble in his sickbed, banished any uncertainty. “It’s for Grandpa. I won’t let some silly superstition stop me from getting the money I need to buy the Elixiron.”

“There has to be another way, El. One that doesn’t risk angering whatever ancient forces might still linger here.”

But Ellie wasn’t listening. Her focus had narrowed to the glowing blossom before her, the answer to her grandfather’s suffering shimmering in its delicate petals. Without a second thought, she reached out and plucked the bloom.

For a breathless moment, nothing happened. The Moon Flowers continued their ghostly luminescence, bathing the clearing in a mystical glow. Ellie stood upright; the precious blossom cradled gently in her hands as a triumphant smile spread across her face.

“See?” she said, turning to Tyler. “Just an old story to—”

Her words caught in her throat as a sound like creaking timber echoed through the clearing. All around them, the twisted branches of the ancient trees seemed to shudder, shaking off their stillness. A cold dread gripped Ellie as dark shapes began to coalesce within the shadowy depths of the forest.

Heavy footfalls thudded against the loamy earth, joined by a cacophony of eerie groans and snapping twigs. Ellie tried in vain to pinpoint the source of the encroaching sounds.

“Tyler . . .” She took an instinctive step backward, clutching the Moon Flower tightly against her chest.

Twisted humanoid figures, their bodies composed of gnarled bark and reaching branches, lumbered into the clearing. Empty sockets burned with pinpricks of smoldering light as they trained their sightless gazes upon the two intruders. Ellie felt the blood drain from her face as realization took hold—they had awoken the ancient forest guardians.

The nearest guardian let out a groaning bellow that sent tremors rippling through the ground. Its arm—if it could be called such—composed of interwoven vines and branches as thick as a man’s torso, lashed out with startling quickness.

Ellie barely had time to react before the blow caught her squarely in the chest, expelling the air from her lungs with brutal force. She felt herself lifted from her feet, the world spinning wildly around her as she hurtled backward. Her body slammed into the unforgiving bark of a towering oak, sending lances of fiery pain shooting through her.

Dazed and wheezing, Ellie collapsed to the ground in a jumbled heap as Tyler scooped her up and dashed back toward the bridge.

Chapter 4

Moonglow Masquerade

Every breath was agony, like her chest was being crushed by an immense weight. Ellie winced as Tyler finally set her down on the soft sand near Lake Dragontide, well beyond the treacherous Thornveil Wilds they’d narrowly escaped.

“You okay?” Tyler steadied her with his hands on her shoulders. “Do you need to see Dr. Bennett?”

“I’ll live.” Ellie uncurled her fingers to reveal the delicate Moon Flower cradled in her palm. Its pale, luminescent petals pulsed.

Tyler’s eyes went wide, then narrowed. “After all that, you still want to keep the blasted thing?” He shook his head incredulously. “Ellie, we nearly got killed by those . . . those tree monsters! Just leave it in the Wilds where it belongs.”

“And risk letting Grandpa down after coming this far? This flower is the key to winning that prize money for the Elixiron cure. I won’t give up now.” Ellie paused, then said, “Can you get my box and bring it here, please?”

Tyler exhaled deeply in resignation, then exited and came back carrying the battered box.

As Ellie moistened the malleable clay, she handled the blossom with the utmost care, gently coating its stem and petals with a thin layer that still allowed the moon-kissed glow to radiate through. Once satisfied, she nestled it safely back in the box’s cushioned interior.

“I can’t believe that flower is still glowing.” Tyler looked at his watch. “We better get going, the competition is about to close to new entrants.”

Ellie hugged the box with the fragile Moon Flower tightly to her chest. She and Tyler raced through the bustling village square, weaving between clusters of people.

Up ahead, Ellie spotted the judges’ booth just as the main adjudicator, a stern-faced woman draped in an official-looking sash, was closing the humble wooden shutters.

“Wait!” Ellie called out, raising her hand. Tyler skidded to a halt beside her. “Please, you have to let me enter!”

The judge paused, mouth set in a hard line. “I’m afraid the window for new submissions has passed, young lady.”

Ellie opened her mouth to protest, but another judge, a warm-eyed elderly man with a neatly trimmed beard, leaned over and whispered something in the woman’s ear. She pursed her lips, considering, then turned back to Ellie. “You wouldn’t happen to be the granddaughter of Mr. Joe Harper, would you?”

“Yes, that’s my grandpa.”

The woman’s expression softened slightly. “Very well, we’ll make an exception.” She unlocked the shutters and swung them open once more, gesturing for Ellie to approach.

With trembling hands, Ellie gently lifted the flower from its padded box and arranged it atop the round, rotating display stand. The judges gathered around, murmuring in admiration as the Moon Flower’s petals cast a pale glow through the thin layer of clay.

“It’s quite exquisite,” the bearded man remarked, carefully rotating the stand. “What is the name of your piece, my dear?”

Ellie chewed her lip, considering. She had been so preoccupied with retrieving the actual bloom that she hadn’t even contemplated a title. Her eyes fell upon the flower’s moon-like luminescence, and the words came unbidden to her lips.

“Moonglow Reverie.”

The judges methodically recorded Ellie’s entry title, their pens scratching against clipboards. One of them—the stern-faced woman—gave Ellie a curt nod before swinging the shutters closed once more.

Beside the humble wooden judging booth stood a long table adorned with a dazzling array of artistic creations. Ellie’s breath caught in her throat as she drank in the staggering talent on display.

Tyler nudged her gently. “Come on, let’s get a closer look.”

They wove between the gathered throngs until they reached the front of the table. Ellie scanned the diverse entries, her eyes wide with wonder. Near the end, nestled between an intricate ice sculpture and an oil painting of the Thornveil Wilds enshrouded in mist, sat her own modest clay creation—the Moonglow Reverie. Even with the flower’s subtle glow filtering through the clay casing, it paled in comparison to many of the other breathtaking works.

Near Ellie’s entry rested an ornate wooden carving depicting a spritely eldengrove nymph frozen mid-dance, vines and blooms twisting up her lithe form. Its exquisite details and life-like quality were simply spellbinding.

“Wow.” Ellie exhaled, shaking her head slowly. “That woodcarving is incredible.”

“You’re not kidding.” Tyler leaned in closer, examining the piece with admiration. “This is some world-class talent here.”

They drifted further along the table, taking in each offering. An elaborate ship fashioned from what appeared to be salvaged scrap metal and driftwood, an ode to the village’s maritime heritage. A huge canvas emblazoned with a striking vista of Crystal Shores’ cliffs dappled in the first light of dawn. Every single entry seemed to out-dazzle the last.

As they reached the end of the table, a judge stepped forward. The bearded man who had advocated on Ellie’s behalf raised a Triton’s Trumpet, a conical shell, to his lips and blew. The deep, resonant tone sliced through the clamor like the call of an ancient mariner commanding the waves to stillness. Gradually, the crowd quieted until a hush fell over the square, yielding to the mythic summons of the Triton’s Trumpet.

“Greetings, one and all!” His voice boomed through a makeshift amplifier. “On behalf of my esteemed colleagues, I wish to extend our deepest admiration for the outstanding artworks you have presented here today. Each piece is a stunning celebration of our humble village’s natural splendor and rich cultural tapestry.”

His face grew solemn. “Regrettably, only three entrants may be named winners on this occasion. But make no mistake—every creator here is a victor, having poured their passion and talents into these magnificent offerings.”

Ellie found herself holding her breath as the man paused, sweeping an appraising gaze over the table laden with masterpieces.

“And so, without further ado . . .” His chest expanded as he drew in a preparatory breath.

The stern-faced judge and one of her colleagues stepped forward and positioned themselves beside an entry near the middle of the table—a breathtaking oil painting rendered in rich, vibrant hues. It depicted an idyllic meadow scene, complete with frolicking woodland creatures amidst a tapestry of wildflowers. The brushstrokes were so lifelike, Ellie could almost see the delicate leaves trembling in an unseen breeze.

The bearded judge’s voice rang out once more, his Triton’s Trumpet amplifying his proclamation.

“In third place . . .” He paused, sweeping his gaze over the crowd before settling on the painting. “Emerald Meadows, by local artist Marjorie Fleming.”

A murmur of appreciative applause rippled through the spectators as the woman emerged from their midst, color blooming in her cheeks. She approached the judges with a bashful smile, eyes shining behind her thick spectacles.

“A truly breathtaking landscape that captures the essence of Eldengrove’s lush splendor,” the judge praised, gesturing to the artwork with an open palm. He nodded at his fellow adjudicator, who produced a coin pouch that jingled promisingly with the clinking of metal. “For your exemplary effort, you shall receive this purse containing twenty-five silver Thornveil pieces.”

The crowd’s applause swelled as Marjorie accepted the modest prize, holding the bulging pouch to her breast with a look of heartfelt gratitude. Ellie found herself clapping along, moved by the woman’s obvious joy.

The two judges relocated further down the table, pausing before the intricate wooden carving that had so captivated Ellie and Tyler earlier. The bearded man raised his Triton’s Trumpet once more, and the enthusiastic clamor subsided in anticipation.

“For second place . . .” He turned, admiring the exquisitely crafted figurine of the whimsical forest nymph. “The entry Sylvan Serenade, by local artisan Tobias Underhill.”

A young man with an unruly mop of sandy hair emerged from the back of the assembled masses. He approached with a swagger, grinning from ear to ear as he basked in the crowd’s cheers and whistles of admiration. Tobias took his place before the judges, arms crossed casually over his chest.

“Your meticulous craftsmanship has captured the wild, fey essence of Eldengrove in stunning detail,” the bearded man said, gesturing to the carving. “Truly, it is an honor to name you this year’s second place champion.”

The stern-faced woman revealed a leather drawstring pouch, its contents clinking heavily. “For your achievement, you shall receive one hundred silver Thornveil pieces.”

A roar of thunderous applause erupted from the onlookers as Tobias snatched up the generous purse, grinning wolfishly. He raised it over his head in triumph, clearly relishing the accolades. Ellie couldn’t help but join in the raucous cheering and clapping, buoyed by the infectious swell of revelry.

After the din had ebbed somewhat, the bearded judge lifted his hand, and an expectant hush fell over the square once more. He allowed it to linger, milking the dramatic pause as he surveyed the remaining entries and the teeming throngs before him.

“And now . . .” His voice swelled with ceremonial pomp. “The moment you have all been eagerly awaiting. This year’s grand prize shall be awarded two hundred and fifty gleaming silver Thornveil pieces, a small fortune that could enrich any young artist’s dreams of higher pursuits and travels beyond our humble shores.”

Ellie sucked in a sharp breath at the staggering amount, her pulse pounding with anticipation and giddy hope. She turned to Tyler, practically vibrating with nervous energy and exhilaration. “Oh my. That has to be enough to buy the Elixiron cure ten times over!”

Tyler leaned in close. “Just try to stay calm, El. No matter what happens, I’m proud of you for giving it your all.”

The crowd fell into a reverent hush, every eye trained upon the bearded judge as he cleared his throat once more. The anticipation almost too much to bear. This was it—the moment that would determine if she’d secured the means to purchase her grandfather’s cure.

“This year’s grand prize winner . . .” The man paused, his gaze sweeping over the assembled masses before settling directly on Ellie. His eyes beheld her humble clay creation, the Moon Flower softly radiating beneath its delicate shroud.

Ellie drew in a sharp breath, scarcely daring to hope.

“The entry Moonglow Reverie . . .” He turned back to face the crowd, raising the Triton’s Trumpet to amplify his declaration. “By the talented young artist Eloise Harper!”

A massive cheer exploded from the onlookers, but Ellie barely registered the thunderous roar. She stood dumbstruck, utterly disbelieving even as the news washed over her in crashing waves of euphoria. After everything she’d endured to reach this moment, it was almost too much to process.

“Ellie!” Tyler seized her by the arms, breaking through her stunned trance with an ecstatic laugh. He shook her gently, eyes sparkling with shared triumph. “You did it! You actually won!”

Reality came slamming back into razor-sharp focus. Ellie blinked, then let out a whoop of unbridled joy. She flung her arms around Tyler, squeezing him in a fierce embrace. The two friends jumped and spun in a celebratory dance, drunk on the intoxicating rush of victory.

The stern-faced judge cleared her throat pointedly, piercing through the raucous cheers that still echoed through the square. Ellie and Tyler broke apart, faces flushed but beaming as they approached.

“Young lady.” The woman fixed Ellie with an appraising stare. “A most impressive creation.” Her expression softened ever so slightly into something resembling pride. She reached into her sash and withdrew an impressively bulging coin purse that fairly strained against the confines of its drawstrings.

Beside her, the slim man in a severe black robe leaned in closer, peering intently at the glowing Moon Flower through a jeweler’s loupe. His brow furrowed as he scrutinized every delicate petal and nuanced curve. 

The stern judge held out the prize purse, then paused. She glanced sidelong at her robed colleague, arching one severe eyebrow in a silent query.

The slim man lowered his jeweler’s loupe, his frown deepening into a scowl. “That’s no mere clay replica.”

All the blood drained from Ellie’s face as a sickly sense of dread curdled in the pit of her stomach. The reverie of triumph evaporated in an instant, leaving her reeling with stark dismay.

He knows.

Chapter 5

Desperation’s Folly

The slim judge straightened, fixing Ellie with an accusatory glare. “This is an actual Moon Flower plucked from Thornveil Wilds. I would know that glow anywhere.”

A ripple of shocked gasps echoed through the crowd. All eyes turned toward Ellie, their earlier adulation warping into appalled scrutiny.

“Is this true?” The stern judge’s nostrils flared, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Did you venture into the forbidden forest and steal this sacred bloom?”

Ellie wished the ground would simply open up and swallow her whole. There was no use lying, that would only compound her ill-advised actions.

“Y-yes,” she stammered, forcing the admission past a throat gone abruptly dry. “It’s true. I made a clay flower, but it broke just before the competition. I-I was desperate to win the prize money for my grandfather’s cure, so I . . . I went into the Wilds and took a real one.”

A chorus of dismayed murmurs and cries washed over the once-celebratory crowd. Ellie felt Tyler edge closer, lending a subtle gesture of solidarity amidst the rising tide of rebuke.

“I can explain—” Tyler began, the slim judge looked at him, face contorted in fury.

“Silence!” he snapped; his words edged with venom. “This reckless, thoughtless violation of sacred ground will not be excused!”

Ellie shrank back, feeling as though a titan’s hand was squeezing her.

“Do you have any inkling of the consequences of your dire trespass?” The man advanced, jabbing an accusatory finger toward the glowing Moon Flower. “That bloom is the anchor that maintains the protective wards around this cursed forest and keeps its vile entities at bay!”

The slim judge scanned the bewildered faces in the crowd. “By plucking it from the sanctified roots that gave it life, this foolish girl has jeopardized the whole of Crystal Shores! Even now, the barriers that shield us from the Thornveil Wilds’ wrath are weakening!”

Cries of dismay and fears of rising water billowed up from the masses. Ellie stumbled back a step, her eyes stinging with tears of shame. Her hands flew to her mouth as the crushing reality washed over her in suffocating waves.

It was true—she had brought calamity upon her own village with her pursuit of a cure, however noble her intentions. The curse Grandpa Joe had long warned her about, the scourge no Crystal Shores resident dared tempt fate by breaching the Wilds. And she had unleashed it through her own desperation.

Shouts of “Shame!” erupted from every direction, a deafening torrent of contempt and condemnation raining down upon her. It felt as though the very air turned to crushing stone, pressing her ever downward.

Tyler stood in a defensive stance before her, throwing his arms wide in a futile shielding gesture. “You’re not listening! She never intended this—she just wanted to save her grandpa!”

But the din drowned out his frantic pleas for understanding. Ellie fell into Tyler’s arms. All around, faces twisted into masks of livid fury and fear. And in their midst, the Moon Flower pulsed ominously, its gentle glow now a sickly beacon of catastrophe.

The slim judge raised one arm, silencing the riotous outcry with an authoritative sweep. When he spoke, his tone was low and grim.

“This offense against our sacred ground is unforgivable. And until that Moon Flower is returned to the Thornveil Wilds with due reverence and sacrifice, the curse shall only intensify, and Crystal Shores will be swallowed up by the great lake Dragontide.” His eyes bored into Ellie’s, devoid of mercy. “Just pray the elders are more merciful than the forest spirits you have so foolishly incurred.”

With that, he turned and strode away, the crowd parting in waves. Ellie remained in Tyler’s embrace, utterly devastated amid the rising clamor of fury all around her. No sum of prize money, no cure in all the world, could undo what she had wrought.

The bearded judge climbed down from his pedestal and strode toward Ellie, his face etched with fatherly concern rather than anger.

“Silas, what are you doing?” The stern judge’s voice cut through the tumultuous din. “Forget about the girl, this matter requires swift action from the elders.”

But Silas ignored her as he planted himself before Ellie. “Brienne.” He uttered the stern judge’s name like a rebuke. “Stay back.”

Ellie remained frozen in place, tears streaking her cheeks as Silas towered over her. “Look at me, child.” His gruff tone softened ever so slightly. “Is what they’re saying true? Did you take that Moon Flower from the Wilds?”

A nod was all Ellie could manage, a fresh wave of sobs wracking her slight frame.

“She had a good reason, sir,” Tyler insisted, pulling Ellie closer to him. “She just wanted to help her grandpa.”

Silas held up a calloused hand, his gaze never leaving Ellie. “The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.” His words rang with the weight of experience. “But we mustn’t dwell on the wrong once committed—only how to make it right.”

Reaching down, he plucked the ethereal Moon Flower from Ellie’s project, its delicate petals bathing his weathered features in ghostly luminescence. “This is what you’ll do.” He placed the flower into her hands. “Return this bloom to the heart of Thornveil Wilds from whence it came. No harm, no foul, as your grandpa might say.”

Tyler picked up the box that had contained Ellie’s shattered clay flower. “Put it in here, El. We’ll get it back where it belongs.”

Ellie simply nodded, numb with remorse as she reverently nestled the Moon Flower’s glowing form amidst the shards of her ruined artwork. Tyler slung a supportive arm around her shoulders as the indignant crowd still clamored for penance.

“We’ll make this right, sir. I promise,” Tyler said.

Silas leaned in closer, his gruff whisper cutting through the clamor. “I understand your plight, girl. Don’t let their scorn weigh on you.” His eyes shone with empathy. “Return that bloom with a pure heart, and all will be well once more.”

Ellie reached up to swipe the tears from her flushed cheeks, struggling to find her voice amidst the maelstrom. “I’ll do it right away.” 

Silas awarded her a gentle smile. “That’s the spirit.”

“We need to get out of here.” Tyler’s urgency couldn’t be denied, casting a wary glance over the seething mob. “Away from these hot-heads and back to Thornveil Wilds before anything else happens.”

With a determined nod, Ellie allowed Tyler to guide her through the parting crowds. Behind them, Silas was heard calling out the new grand prize winner—Tobias Underhill.

Almost running, they fled the chaos, leaving the cries of outrage and condemnation behind. Through the whirling haze of tears and shame, Ellie kept her head down, allowing Tyler to lead her away from that wretched scene. How could she face her grandpa and mother after such catastrophic foolishness? The very thought hammered another spike of anguish through her heart.

For now, she forced those haunting notions aside, focusing instead on the path ahead. Ellie recognized the familiar sights of Crystal Shores flashing by—the dingy shops, the rickety pier where Tyler used to dare her to jump from its creaking heights . . . And there, looming in the distance, was the ramshackle house where her beloved grandfather whiled away his remaining days. A fresh wave of grief threatened to buckle her knees imagining how she had imperiled the very life she sought to save.

But there was no time for regrets—not yet. They needed to return that accursed bloom to its rightful resting place before further calamity befell them all. Tyler’s steady grip on her arm was the only tether keeping Ellie’s feet churning forward.

At last, they reached the dilapidated bridge marking the boundary of Thornveil Wilds. Ellie stared at the shadowy tangle of foliage beyond, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She held the precious box close, feeling the pulse of the Moon Flower’s ghostly radiance through the worn cardboard.

“Stay here,” Tyler said. “I’ll put it back where we found it.” 

Ellie shook her head, unraveling herself from his supportive grasp. He had stood by her thus far, but she wouldn’t allow him to brave the Wilds’ perils for her own careless blunder.

“No.” Her voice was a choked rasp. “I’m the one who took it. I have to be the one to return it.”

“El, you’ve already been attacked once! Let me—”

“Tyler, please.” Ellie fixed him with a look that allowed no further protest. Tucking the precious cargo under one arm, she walked over the broken stone bridge.

Taking a steadying breath, Ellie stepped across the threshold, the twilight shadows engulfing her. After a moment’s hesitation, Tyler followed suit.

While the angry shouts withered into distant echoes, a deafening silence fell over the sinister woodland. Save for the whisper of the evening breeze toying with the twisted branches, the forest seemed to hold a watchful hush. Pale moonlight filtered through the canopy in slanted beams, casting stark illumination on the path ahead.

Ellie tightened her grip on the box and fixed her gaze on the luminous cluster of Moon Flowers blossoming in the nearby clearing. Long tendrils of glowing flora wreathed the forest floor in a fey carpet, radiating the same glimmer as the precious cargo nestled in the box.

Wonder and trepidation warred within Ellie as she beheld the entrancing blooms. How could such haunting beauty contain the seeds of utter devastation?

But she couldn’t dwell on that now. Casting a sidelong glance at Tyler, she saw his own expression mirroring her guarded vigilance. With a resolute nod, she gestured toward the spectral garden, and they set off at a brisk pace.

Every snapping twig or rustling leaf made Ellie jump. The forest seemed to press in from all sides, watchful and foreboding, as though aware of the interlopers once again defiling its sanctum. Shadows danced in her periphery, tricks of the mottled moonlight or harbingers of more malevolent entities lying in wait. She fought the urge to flinch at every imagined movement.

At last, they reached the periphery of that haunting glade, ringed by twisted, looming trunks. Luminescent fronds swayed in a spectral breeze, beckoning them forward with eerie grace.

“This must be where I . . .” Her words trailed off as she traced the perimeter, searching for any indication of disturbed soil or a bare patch amidst the sea of white petals. Finally, her gaze settled on a dense cluster near the clearing’s heart. “There.”

Edging through the shimmering foliage, Ellie approached that spot with measured tread. Kneeling amidst the soft, damp loam, she carefully opened the box’s lid, revealing the softly pulsating Moon Flower within the nest of shattered pottery.

With painstaking care, Ellie extracted the delicate bloom and its trailing emerald stem, striped with shards of dried clay. For a moment, she simply held it aloft, mesmerized by its haunting beauty and the glittering dance of moonlight across its silken petals.

“How does it keep glowing?” Ellie looked up at Tyler. “Away from the roots that gave it life, I mean?”

Tyler moved closer, crouching at her side. “Maybe it draws energy directly from the moonlight itself? Or the soil here has some kind of mystical properties?” He shook his head in bemused wonder. “Your grandpa always did love a good yarn about the living magic in these woods.”

With the delicacy of cradling an infant bird, Ellie brushed the remnants of clay from the stem with her fingertips. Then, setting the bloom aside, she dug into the soft earth with her hands, scooping out a shallow depression amidst the carpet of foliage and tangled roots.

Gently, reverently, she nestled the delicate stem and trailing tendrils into that makeshift cradle. With feather-light motions, Ellie tucked the loamy soil around it, tamping down the earth to secure its precious charge.

For a fleeting instant, an ominous stillness descended, as though even the forest itself held its breath while the trespassing humans performed their solemn rite. Then, with a subtle ripple, the ghostly petals unfurled with renewed vigor, their luminosity swelling.

It was done. Ellie sat back on her haunches, relief washing over her in a warm tide. Against all odds, she had managed to make amends for her unwitting transgression. The Moon Flower had been returned to its rightful home, the cosmic order restored . . .

A deafening crack split the silence like thunder, the ground itself seeming to convulse beneath them. Tyler instinctively threw his arms around her, shielding her from the unseen threat.

With a savage groan that sent tremors rippling through the loam, the soil itself began to churn and roil. Displaced clumps of earth and tangled flora burst forth as if propelled by some subterranean force.

Chapter 6

The Icy Artifact

The ground beneath their feet settled at last, the tremors subsiding into an eerie stillness. Ellie exhaled slowly, her gaze sweeping the shadowed forest around them.

“It stopped.” Ellie closed her eyes briefly, savoring the feeling of relief.

Tyler gave a nod, his face cautious as he held his breath in anticipation, the gnarled shapes of the Dryads did not emerge from the dense foliage. An eerie silence draped over the forest, the only sound the muffled strains of fiddle and pipe music wafting faintly from the festival revelries back in Crystal Shores, carried on the breeze through the trees.

After several tense moments with no further disturbances, Ellie turned toward the path leading out of the Wilds. “Let’s go.”

They hurried along the narrow trail, Ellie stealing glances over her shoulder until they emerged from beneath the gnarled canopy. The aged bridge arched before them, vines and moss weaving along its weathered stones and timber. Ellie’s boots thudded hollowly against the planks as they crossed the swiftly flowing river separating the village from the Wilds.  

Ahead, the glittering expanse of Lake Dragontide stretched out before them, its waters shimmering like molten silver beneath the moonlight. Towering icebergs drifted lazily offshore, their hulking forms cutting pale swaths through the mirrored surface. Ellie paused at the shoreline where they stood alone, drawing in a deep breath of the crisp night air, she looked along the abandoned stretch of beach surrounding them.

“I guess we’re back where we started,” Tyler said, looking further down the shore, pinprick figures could be seen holding torches, the Shorlings undoubtedly there to marvel at the seasonal icebergs.

“Not really. I’m actually worse off because now everyone hates me.” Ellie turned her attention back to the lake itself, and the ghostly shapes of icebergs drifting across its surface. The floating masses of ice seemed to almost glow in the moonlight, tinged with hues of pale blue and ghostly green that danced across their sculpted forms.

“They’ll get over it.” Tyler looked toward the distant figures on the shore. “At least we’re still alive; it could’ve been worse.”

“I suppose. But it could’ve been better, too.”

“You’ll figure out another way to help your grandpa. Maybe he’ll just get better on his own.”

“That’s not what the doctor said.”

The two of them stood on the shore beside the waves’ tranquil ebb and flow against the beach. Then Ellie noticed an anomaly among the icebergs. A faint, pulsing radiance emanated from one of the icy masses bobbing gently near the end of the long pier extending out into the lake’s depths.

“What’s that?” Ellie pointed toward the iceberg.

“You seeing more glowing things?” Tyler’s voice held a teasing lilt, but his eyes had already locked onto the same strange phenomenon.

Rather than rise to the bait, Ellie started down the wooden slats of the pier, her boots ringing out over the gentle lapping of waves against the pylons below. Tyler fell into step beside her, the two teenagers making their way toward the source of the mysterious light.

As they neared the end of the pier, Ellie could make out the throbbing blue luminescence trapped within the ice more clearly. It seemed to be emanating from some object frozen just inside the massive berg.

“What could that be?” Emily squinted toward the strange glow. “It’s really odd.”

Tyler leaned over the edge to look at the peculiar sight. “There’s definitely something in there.”

“Hold me,” Ellie said, glancing back at Tyler.

He stepped up behind her, his arms looped securely around her waist as he anchored her in place. Ellie dug her hands into the surprisingly soft ice, packing it away in chunks to gradually reveal more of the entrapped artifact. She cleared away the icy layers until her probing fingers brushed against something hard and metallic.

With a final heave, she gripped the object fully and pulled it free, dislodging it from its frozen casing. She rocked back, settling onto the pier as Tyler released his hold.

Brushing away the lingering clumps of ice and frost, Ellie’s eyes widened as the relic was revealed in all its intricate glory.

“It’s a compass,” Ellie said, trailing her fingertips over the burnished surface.

“Let me see.”

Emily handed Tyler the exquisitely crafted artifact, with the appearance of tarnished bronze or brass worked in sinuous, looping designs. A stylized dragon’s form had been molded into the casing itself, its body coiling around the piece with a look of sinewy power. Delicate etchings covered every inch, forming symbols and markings of indecipherable meaning. 

At its center, a capsule of blue liquid glowed with that same warm, pulsating light—the guiding light that had led them to this incredible find.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, El.” Tyler handed it back. “And how did it get inside an iceberg?”

“I have no idea, but here it is, an old compass that must’ve been dredged up from the floor of the lake.” Ellie slowly turned the relic over in her hands, marveling at the way its centerpiece spun lazily, the delicate needle quivering as if magnetized and seeking true north. Intricate dials along the rim rotated in response, their etchings aligning and realigning with each subtle shift as the compass oriented itself.

Ellie studied the winding, looping patterns etched into the metalwork of the mysterious compass. “What do you think it’s for? It’s not like the compass in grandpa’s trunk.”

“I’d assume a captain had used it to guide his ship and somehow it went overboard.” Tyler leaned in closer. “But I have no idea how to read it.”

“And that liquid inside the bubble is like the liquid in my necklace, except this is blue and mine is red.” After a thoughtful pause, Ellie tucked it into a pocket inside her jacket. “Whatever it was used for, I’m keeping it.”

Shadows stretched long across the empty beach as the moon began its descent toward the horizon. Ellie sighed, brushing back windswept strands of hair from her face as she glanced up toward the dim glow of lamplight spilling from a window of the Harper home overlooking the shoreline.

“I should head back. Mom and Grandpa are going to want an explanation.” She couldn’t meet Tyler’s gaze, regretting having shattered her sculpture and venturing into the Thornveil Wilds against their wishes. “You want me to come with . . . For moral support?”

“Thanks, Ty, but they’re probably sleeping anyway. I’ll tell them what happened in the morning.” Ellie managed a tight smile as she made her way toward the modest bungalow tucked against the rise of the shoreline. The cozy facade was softly illuminated from within, gilding the leaded glass windows with a welcoming glow.

Reaching the kitchen door, Tyler pulled her into a warm embrace, planting a tender kiss against her forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

She nodded, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze before he turned and started up the winding path leading back to the village cottages, leaving Ellie alone on the doorstep.

The living room was deserted—grandpa Joe had moved from the couch to his bedroom. Every surface tidy and in its orderly place. Moonlight spilled through the parted curtains, casting a pale wash across the furnishings and glinting off the cheerful array of seashells and maritime memorabilia adorning the shelves. Ellie moved quietly through the silent space, extinguishing lights as she moved toward the hallway leading to the bedrooms.

From behind a closed door, she could hear the muffled, rasping sound of pained coughing. Ellie wished she could somehow make it all better as her fingers settled on grandpa’s doorknob.

Grandpa Joe stirred in the dimly lit bedroom as she eased inside. Ellie perched on the edge of his bed, the old sailor catching her wrist in a surprisingly firm grip as his rheumy eyes studied her face. “How’d it go, little waverunner?”

Ellie swallowed hard, guilt tempering her voice. “I didn’t win.” She kept her explanation brief, certain her grandfather would see any attempt at deception.

Grandpa sighed, giving her hand a gentle pat. “Fair winds favor only the bold, Ellie girl.”

She held his gaze for a long moment. Grandpa knew. Of course he did—he always saw right through to the truth of any matter. Silent tears spilled down Ellie’s cheeks as her composure crumbled. “I’m so sorry, Grandpa. I messed everything up.” She poured out the entire tale in a remorseful stream, laying bare every misstep from her careless destruction of the sculpture to her disobedient foray into the Wilds “They almost gave me first prize—two hundred and fifty Thornveil pieces—but the judges realized I’d picked a real Moon Flower instead of making one.”  She cringed inwardly, bracing herself for the lecture she deserved. “But I did put it back to stop the floods.”

To her surprise, Grandpa’s weathered palm found her cheek, his touch both fond and solemn. “A wise sea dog knows every squall brings with it a chance to chart a new course. The waves of lies may seem calm, but the undertow drags us toward darker depths.” He met her eyes with a searching look. “Best to brave the storm of truth lest we drown beneath falsehoods of our own making.”

Ellie fell against his shoulder, holding him tightly. After several trembling breaths, she pulled back, determined to face whatever consequences lay ahead.

Grandpa’s eyes settled on the dimly glowing shape now visible through the pocket of her jacket. “What’ve you got there, my girl?”

Ellie retrieved the strange compass, its elaborate curves and markings catching the low light and gleaming with beauty. As she offered it to him, Grandpa’s eyes widened with shock. “Great tides!” His hand trembled faintly as he cradled the artifact with utmost care. “The Seafarer’s Sigil. I thought it lost to the ages.”

Ellie watched his expression, utterly bewildered. “You know what this is?”

“Aye.” Grandpa turned the relic over to examine every facet as if reacquainting himself with an old friend. “They say it was fashioned by the Drakken Lords themselves, a mystical compass intertwined with the ancient elements.” He looked up at her, something undefinable kindling behind his moist eyes. “We best mind where its path may lead . . .”

Chapter 7

Tides of Fate

The morning sun streamed through Ellie’s bedroom window, casting a warm glow over her bed. She lay there for a moment, gathering her thoughts before the day’s events unfolded. She extended her arm toward the desk chair beside her bed, fingers closing around the worn denim jacket draped over its back. Inside the jacket pocket, Ellie felt the solid shape of the Seafarer’s Sigil tucked safely inside.

Rolling out of bed, she winced as a dull ache spread across her ribs—a lingering reminder of the Dryads’ savage blows in the Forbidden Forest. She sat on the edge of the bed, savoring the familiar aroma of her mother’s cooking wafting from the kitchen. The scent of frying bacon and fresh bread made her mouth water. Normally she would have bounded down the stairs, but today she was not looking forward to the conversation—no, confession—she would have to make to her mom. She dressed, combed her hair, and put on her jacket; the weight of the sigil apparent.

Out in the living room, Grandpa Joe was propped up on the couch, his face brightening as she appeared. He gave her a conspiratorial wink, the gesture somehow easing her nerves.

With tentative steps, Ellie entered the sunny kitchen, the buttery scent of toast causing her mouth to water even through her apprehension. “Morning, Mom.”

An uncharacteristic silence met her greeting. Mrs. Harper stood at the stove, her back turned as she tended to a pan of sizzling eggs and potatoes. “Breakfast is ready,” she said flatly, dishing the hot food onto waiting plates.

Ellie’s appetite fled as dread gripped her anew. “I’m . . . not really hungry,” she said, snatching up a slice of toast and smearing it with butter.

Her mother’s rigid posture and clipped demeanor made it clear—she knew. The events from yesterday at the competition must have already become town gossip. Ellie opened her mouth to begin explaining, to apologize, when her mother cut her off without turning around.

“No need,” Mrs. Harper said. “I’ve heard all about your . . . adventure in the forest.”

Ellie’s face burned with shame. She stared at the half-eaten toast in her hands, crumbs scattering across the counter. “I’m sorry.” The simple words utterly inadequate.

Finally, her mother turned, her expression softening as she met Ellie’s downcast gaze. “The path you walk is a winding one, Eloise,” she said, echoing one of Grandpa’s frequent sayings. “All you can do is learn from its twists and turns.”

Ellie met her mother’s gaze. “I love you, Mom.” The words came out thick with remorse. “I did take the Moon Flower back to the Wilds last night. I . . . I replaced it where I found it, so everything should be okay now.”

She turned toward the door, her boots scuffing against the floor. “I should get going.”

“Eloise.” Her mother’s voice stopped her. “At least eat something before you leave.”

“I’m not really hungry. The toast is fine.” She lifted the half-eaten slice. “I’m meeting Tyler; we’re going to . . .” She trailed off, not wanting to reveal her plans regarding the strange artifact in her pocket.

Snatching a battered cap from the hook by the door, Ellie tugged it low over her brow. The last thing she needed was someone recognizing her out on the streets after her stunt at the competition.

Her mother’s expression softened further. “Just be careful out there. And tell Mayor Wright what you did—that you returned the flower. Let her know Crystal Shores won’t suffer any flooding or misfortune because of your . . . mistake.” She exhaled slowly. “That should keep you out of any further trouble.”

Ellie nodded, relief loosening the knot in her belly somewhat. “I will. Thanks, Mom. I love you.” She stepped out onto the porch, the warm spring air caressing her face.

The village of Crystal Shores lay peaceful in the morning light of Thawtidelap, the fourth month when winter’s icy grip begins to thaw. Ellie kept her head down as she hurried along the well-trodden path, avoiding the few early risers already tending to their gardens or opening shop doors.

Just as she neared the center of town, a familiar voice called out her name.

“Ellie! Hey, Ellie!”

She turned to see Tobias Underhill trotting up the road. The young man offered her a lopsided smile as he drew near, tucking a stray lock of black hair beneath his cap. “Morning.”

“Hi, Tobias.”

He fell into step beside her, slowing his gait to match her pace. “Listen, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about what happened yesterday at the competition.” Tobias shook his head, his expression one of dismay. “The way some of those folks treated you . . . it wasn’t right.”

Ellie shrugged, unable to meet his gaze. “I deserved it. What I did was wrong.”

Tobias was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was gentle. “Still, they shouldn’t have been so harsh. Especially not after you returned the Moon Flower to the forest.”

Ellie’s step faltered at his words. She shot him a sidelong glance. “How’d you know about that?”

“You know word travels fast in Crystal Shores. Especially when it involves the forbidden forest and ancient magic.” He reached into the pocket of his worn trousers, fingers closing around something within. “Which is why I wanted to give you this.”

Tobias withdrew his hand, uncurling his fingers to reveal two gleaming silver Thornveil pieces nestled in his palm. The coins seemed to wink in the morning sunlight. “I know your grandpa’s been sick,” he said, holding out the money. “And I want to help, if I can.”

Ellie stared at the proffered coins, surprise widening her eyes. “Tobias, I can’t take your winnings.”

He pressed the silver pieces into her palm and curled her fingers around them. “It’s not much, but please, take it. My parents are making me save most of the prize for scholaring anyway.” Tobias smirked, using the local term for higher education. “Maybe this will help get your grandpa the care he needs.”

Ellie’s throat tightened with a surge of gratitude. She clutched the coins tightly, blinking against the sudden sting of tears. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do this.”

Tobias’s smile widened. “That’s what friends are for, right?” With a nod he turned to head back down the road.

Ellie watched him go for a moment before slipping the silver pieces into her pants pocket and continue on her way.

Tobias’s kind gesture had caught her off guard, a bright spot amidst the lingering shame over her actions. While the coins were a generous gift, she knew they wouldn’t be enough to purchase the rare Elixiron needed to heal Grandpa Joe. But the thought warmed her heart, nonetheless.

Soon Ellie reached the familiar faded fence surrounding the Green family homestead. She swung open the creaking gate and walked up to the small cottage. Mrs. Green stood on the porch with a watering can tending to new sprouts in the hanging baskets. She glanced up at Ellie’s approach, shading her eyes against the morning sun with one calloused hand. “Well, if it isn’t Miss Harper herself. Tyler mentioned you might be stopping by. Best go on inside and find him.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The moment she stepped inside the cozy cottage, a chorus of high-pitched shrieks and giggles assaulted her ears. Tyler’s younger siblings, twin terrors Caleb and Cora, came barreling around the corner in a whirlwind of tousled hair and bare feet.

“Ellie! Ellie!” Cora squealed, her pigtails bouncing as she flung herself at Ellie’s legs. Caleb was hot on her heels, wrapping his arms around Ellie’s knees with a mischievous grin.

“Hey, you two!” Ellie laughed, ruffling Caleb’s unruly mop of hair. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

“We’re playing dragons!” Cora said. “I’m the good dragon protecting the village!”

Caleb puffed out his chest. “And I’m the scary dragon who breathes fire!”

A deep, rumbling growl rolled through the room, causing the twins to shriek with delight. Mr. Green emerged from the kitchen, his broad shoulders stooped as he lumbered toward them on all fours. With a roar, he snatched Cora, eliciting a fresh peal of giggles.

“Dad! You’re supposed to be the brave knight!” Caleb protested with a huff.

Mr. Green greeted Ellie as he put Cora back on her feet. “My apologies, young dragon slayers. Where is Sir Tyler to aid me in this quest?”

“I’m here, I’m here.” Tyler’s said, entering the room. “What did I miss?”

Ellie felt her face warm at the sight of him, her earlier worries melting away.

“You’re just in time,” Mr. Green said, straightening with an exaggerated groan. “These foul beasts were about to overtake the village!”

Tyler rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “You two terrors better not be giving Ellie any trouble,” he said, crossing the room to stand at her side.

“We’re not!” Cora said, already scampering off after her brother.

Mrs. Green’s muffled voice drifted in from outside. “Don’t be chasing those two all around the place, Liam! I need you to finish turning the compost pile!”

With a hearty chuckle, Mr. Green cast one last look at Tyler and Ellie. “Duty calls,” he said before walking outside.

An expectant silence fell over the pair.

“You, uh . . . you want to take this outside?” he asked at last, jerking his thumb toward the door.

“Lead the way.”

She followed Tyler out into the small yard, the warm spring breeze instantly enveloping them. Ellie’s gaze swept over the neatly tended garden plots and the ramshackle shed overflowing with gardening tools.

Despite its modest size, the Green family homestead had always felt more alive than most. She supposed that’s what happened when you crammed several people and a menagerie of well-loved pets under one roof.

“So . . .” Tyler began, his hands shoved into his pockets. “Let’s walk to Eldengrove, I’ve got some news to tell you.”

Ellie could tell by the somber expression on Tyler’s face that the news he had to share was not good. They made their way across the quiet village street. “What is it?”

Tyler didn’t respond until they reached the grassy expanse of Eldengrove. The meadow stretched out before them, a tapestry woven with emerald blades and wildflowers in every warm hue imaginable. Nearby, ancient willows trailed their leafy tendrils in the soft zephyrs, dappling the ground with ever-shifting patterns of light and shadow.

Tyler came to an abrupt halt. “I was drafted into the Oceanriders.”

Ellie suddenly felt chilled. The Oceanriders—that was the name the Shorelings used for their navy. “Drafted? But . . . why? I don’t know of any battles going on.”

Tyler’s gaze dropped to the ground, his expression pained. “There’s a war brewing out in the Dragonspine Reaches. The Oceanriders are calling up every able-bodied recruit to supplement their ranks before shipping out.”

The Dragonspine Reaches—a vast, uncharted chain of islands rumored to be the ancestral home of dragonkin itself—the Drakken Lords. But they lay half a world away across the churning expanse of the Undertow Sea, past Lake Dragontide. Ellie’s head swam at the thought of Tyler being sent to fight in such a distant, perilous place.

“But you’re not old enough. It has to be a mistake. Can’t you get out of it?”

Tyler shook his head, his jaw set in a tight line. “Doesn’t matter anyway, I want to fight. They say the Dragonkin Marauders have raised a fell banner, signaling their savage, destructive intentions as they unite the tribes under one dreadful symbol before marching to war against the Oceanriders island outposts one by one, eventually making their way here to Crystal Shores.” He lifted his gaze to meet hers. “The tides of war wait for no one.”

“This can’t be happening. When do you leave?”

“I ship out with the next moon’s high tide.”

Ellie’s hand trembled as she brought it to her forehead. “That’s tomorrow.”

Chapter 8

The Relic’s Lure

The words lanced through Ellie like a physical blow. She couldn’t bear the thought of Tyler leaving, let alone to face the terrifying Dragonkin Marauders. Her fingers instinctively found the Seafarer’s Sigil in her pocket, but the ancient relic offered no reassurance.

The warm spring breeze carried the sweet fragrance of wildflowers across the secluded meadow. Ellie and Tyler were alone, the tall grass swaying lazily around them. Puffy white clouds drifted across the sky, casting shadows that danced over the dell.

Ellie pulled the compass from her jacket and held it out to Tyler. “Here, take this. It will guide you back to me.”

“I don’t know how to read those strange symbols. You should keep it, El.”

He reached into his own pocket, retrieving something small. “But I do have something for you.”

Ellie watched as Tyler opened his hand, revealing a simple silver ring. She blinked, momentarily at a loss for words as she looked at the piece of jewelry and Tyler’s face.

“It’s for you,” he said softly. “I want you to wear it . . . as a promise that I’ll come back to you.”

Ellie felt a surge of emotions. She extended her hand. Tyler slipped the ring onto her finger, his touch lingering for a heartbeat.

The cool metal seemed to anchor her, a tangible reminder of the bond they shared. Ellie studied the simple band, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill over.

“I’ll keep it safe,” Ellie said as the two of them embraced. “And you’d better come back in one piece, or I’ll have to use this compass to hunt you down myself.”

Tyler laughed softly. “I’m sure you will.”

Before she could respond, he leaned in and planted a tender kiss on her lips. It wasn’t like their usual quick pecks. This kiss lingered, soft and unhurried, sending a shiver of warmth through her body. When they parted, a rosy hue tinged Ellie’s cheeks while her heart danced a rapid beat within her.

“Ellie . . .” Tyler took her hands in his. “I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

The words felt right. “I want that too,” Ellie said. “To always be by your side. For the rest of our lives.”

Tyler gazed deeply into Ellie’s eyes. “Ellie, I love you. With all my heart.”

“I love you too, Tyler. So much.”

He squeezed her hands gently. “Then let’s spend the whole day together. Just you and me, before I have to leave in the morning.”

Part of Ellie wanted nothing more. To savor every precious moment with Tyler before their world was upended. But the matter with the Moon Flower still needed settled.

“I need to see the mayor first,” Ellie said. “I have to tell her I returned the Moon Flower to the forest, so the town won’t be flooded.”

“You’re right, we should take care of that right away. The sooner it’s dealt with, the sooner we can have our day together.”

As Ellie and Tyler made their way toward the heart of Crystal Shores, the air was filled with the raucous calls of seagulls overhead, mingling with the gentle lapping of the lake’s waves against the shore. The lake’s breeze carried with it the occasional shout of a fishmonger hawking his fresh catch in the distance. Market vendors setting up their stalls added a backdrop of clinks and clatters, while children’s laughter echoed from the nearby lanes as they played hopscotch on the cobblestones.

“So what is this . . . Dragonspine war called anyway?” Ellie asked, breaking the comfortable silence between them.

Tyler gave a small chuckle. “You mean the conflict with the Dragonkin Marauders? I’m not sure there’s an official name for it yet.”

“Dragonspine War sounds good to me,” Ellie said. “Has a nice ominous ring to it.”

“Leave it to you to come up with something so foreboding. But I like it. The Dragonspine War it is.”

As they walked, Ellie filled the quiet stretches with idle chatter about the peculiar relic they’d found in the iceberg and her concerns for her grandfather’s health. Tyler responded with thoughtful nods and reassuring words, his arm brushing against hers from time to time.

Before long, the imposing facade of the town hall came into view, its clock tower stretching toward the sky.

The doors parted with a creak, and they stepped into the cool interior of the building. A middle-aged woman stood sorting through papers at the counter.

“Good morning, Ellie,” the receptionist said with a polite smile. “How can I help you?”

“Nice to see you, Mrs. Thorne,” Ellie said. “I need to speak with Mayor Wright; it’s urgent.”

“You’re in luck, dear. Mayor Wright is still in her office, but you’ll need to hurry. We close in just a few minutes . . . being the weekend and all.”

She leaned forward conspiratorially. “The mayor is meeting with Mr. Brooks at the moment, but I’m sure she won’t mind being interrupted for something urgent.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Thorne,” Ellie said with an appreciative nod before turning to Tyler.

They made their way down the dimly lit corridor, their footsteps muffled by the crimson carpet. The hallway was lined with framed photographs and plaques commemorating the town’s history—one sepia-toned image captured a crew of grizzled fishermen hauling in their nets on the docks. Another plaque displayed a faded map of the coastline, tracing the perilous shoals and hidden reefs that had claimed many an unwary vessel over the centuries.

All too soon, they reached the end of the hall. A gilded plaque proclaimed “Mayor Helen Wright” in an elegant script. The door hung slightly ajar, and muffled voices filtered through the opening—the mayor’s authoritative tone mingling with the deeper timbre of a man’s voice.

Ellie paused, her hand poised to knock. A burst of laughter rang out from within the office. She exchanged a glance with Tyler, taking a steadying breath before rapping her knuckles against the door.

The mayor’s voice rang out, “Come in!”

Ellie pushed open the door, Tyler following close behind. Mayor Wright sat behind an ornate desk. A man dressed in a suit and tie occupied one of the chairs facing her.

“Ah, Eloise Harper and Tyler Green,” the mayor greeted them. “And what brings you two to my office today?”

Ellie cleared her throat. “If you have a minute, I’d like to explain something to you.”

The mayor looked over at the man sitting in the chair. “This is Gavin Brooks. A local entrepreneur interested in some of our town’s . . . artifacts. You can speak freely in front of him.”

Gavin Brooks gave them a curt nod but remained silent.

“So what is this thing that you need to explain?” the mayor prompted.

Ellie took a deep breath. “Mayor Wright, I wanted to let you know about what happened with the Moon Flower at the art competition.”

The mayor’s expression hardened slightly. “Yes, I heard there was some . . . irregularity with your submission.”

“I took a real Moon Flower from the Thornveil Wilds,” Ellie said. “But I returned it yesterday and put it back exactly where I found it.”

Tyler spoke up. “I was with her. We made sure the Moon Flower was safely replanted in the forest.”

Mayor Wright considered this for a moment, tapping her pen against the desk. “I see. Well, I appreciate you taking responsibility and ensuring no harm came to the town, Eloise.”

Gavin suddenly leaned forward, squinting at Ellie. “What’s that glowing in your jacket?”

Ellie’s hand went to her pocket, feeling the artifact through the fabric. After a moment’s hesitation, she pulled out the Seafarer’s Sigil, its bulb of liquid pulsing with that otherworldly light.

Gavin’s eyes went wide. “What is that remarkable object?”

“It’s . . . an artifact we found,” Ellie said cautiously, unsure of how much to reveal. “We’re still trying to understand what it is exactly.”

“May I take a look?” Gavin asked, his voice tinged with eagerness as he extended his hand.

Ellie handed it to Gavin. The artifact seemed to lose its energy as it left her grasp, its warm glow faded.

Gavin took the relic reverently, cradling it in his palms as he leaned forward to study it.

“Extraordinary,” he said, turning the piece to examine it from every angle. “Simply extraordinary. Where did you find this?”

Ellie glanced at Tyler, considering how much to divulge. “Down by the shoreline, near the icebergs.”

“And you have no idea what it is?”

Ellie shook her head. “Not really. Just that it seems to be some kind of . . . compass, maybe?”

She bit her tongue to avoid mentioning what her grandfather had told her about the Seafarer’s Sigil. Somehow, she sensed it was wiser to keep that knowledge to herself for now.

Gavin let out a low whistle. “If this is what I think it might be, it could be worth a small fortune.” He looked up at Ellie. “Maybe five hundred silver pieces or more.”

A thrill of possibility electrified Ellie’s every nerve. Five hundred silver pieces should be more than enough to purchase the rare Elixiron cure for her grandpa. After all her efforts, the solution might have quite literally fallen into her hands.

“Would you . . .” Gavin began. “Would you consider allowing me to take possession of this for a short time? Just temporarily, you understand. To study it further and determine its full value?”

Ellie’s euphoria deflated slightly as uncertainty crept in. Parting with the Sigil, even briefly, filled her with a strange sense of trepidation. Yet the promise of securing her grandfather’s cure was an enticing prospect.

All eyes turned to her, awaiting her response. The mayor’s polite mask concealed any hint of her thoughts on the matter. Tyler gave an imperceptible shake of his head, not wanting her to give it up.

Ellie sensed the eagerness radiating from Gavin, his gaze fixed intently on her as he cradled the relic in his palm. She desperately weighed the pros and cons. The allure of securing enough funds to purchase her grandfather’s cure sang a sweet siren song in her mind.

Chapter 9

The Artifact’s Keeper

Ellie held out her hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brooks, but I don’t think I can let you take the artifact, even temporarily.”

Disappointment crossed Gavin’s features before he smoothed them into an amiable expression. “I understand your hesitation. But consider this—I’ll pay you two hundred and fifty gleaming silver Thornveil pieces for it. Isn’t that what the first-place winnings were?”

Ellie caught visions of her grandfather’s recovery, yet something stayed her from immediately agreeing. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but there was a sense of wrongness about relinquishing the Seafarer’s Sigil.

“Thank you for the generous offer,” she said. “But I think I need to investigate this artifact further myself before making any decisions about its future.”

Gavin inclined his head, his smile now looking slightly strained. “Of course, of course. I didn’t mean to pressure you.” He placed the relic back into Ellie’s palm.

Mayor Wright leaned forward. “This artifact could be quite significant for Crystal Shores, Eloise. I trust you’ll keep me informed about what you learn regarding its nature and origins?”

Ellie read the unspoken demand in the mayor’s taut posture. “O—Of course, Mayor Wright. I’ll share whatever I discover.”

The mayor gave a curt nod of approval. “Speaking of discoveries, I trust there won’t be any further incidents like the one at the art competition?”

Ellie slid the Seafarer’s Sigil back into her pocket. “No, ma’am. I learned my lesson. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t.” Mayor Wright’s tone softened slightly. “However, I do understand you’re a good kid who made a mistake. If you want to start repairing the damage to your reputation in town, you might consider donating this artifact to Tidelore Hall once you’ve concluded your studies on it.”

Ellie pictured the museum with its turrets and galleries dedicated to Crystal Shores’ rich history and lore. Donating the Seafarer’s Sigil there would be seen as an immense act of goodwill and repentance.

“I’ll . . . keep that in mind,” she said, her mind already weighing the merits of such an action. “Thank you for the advice, Mayor Wright.”

The mayor gave a regal tilt of her head. “You’re quite welcome, Eloise. I have faith you’ll make the wise decision.”

Ellie and Tyler exited the town hall. The cool lake breeze ruffled Ellie’s hair as she took in a deep breath of freshwater air.

“You did the right thing back there,” Tyler said, falling into step beside her. “Not letting Brooks take the compass, even if he promised to return it.”

Ellie nodded. “Yeah, my gut told me not to trust him with it. Especially since the mayor seems interested too.”

“Must be pretty valuable if she wants to get her hands on it.” Tyler arched an eyebrow. “What did you think about her suggestion to donate it to Tidelore Hall eventually?”

Ellie mulled over the idea. On one level, it made sense—displaying such a rare artifact in the town museum would be an act of goodwill after her misstep at the art competition. But something instinctive resisted the idea of simply handing it over.

“I don’t know,” she said finally. “It sounded reasonable, but . . .” She trailed off with a helpless shrug.

“Have you asked your grandpa any more about this thing?” Tyler prompted as they turned onto Chantey Street, the air thick with the aroma of fresh fish.

Ellie shook her head, copper curls swaying. “Not yet. I wanted to, but . . . well, you know how frail he’s been lately.”

“You’ll get a chance,” Tyler said. “So where to now? Back home to fill him in?”

“Actually, I was thinking we could stop by the Scholaring Building first. They’ve got to have some books or scholars there who can tell us more about this compass.”

The Scholaring Building came into view up ahead, a sturdy edifice of stone and stained glass, dwarfed only by the clocktower of the town hall.

Ellie and Tyler ascended the broad steps, entering through the heavy wooden doors to reveal a spacious foyer. Students in tailored blazers milled about the corridors, some lounging on benches while others hurried from class to class, books and scrolls tucked under their arms.

An older gentleman in a tweed jacket approached them. “Why, if it isn’t Eloise Harper! How’s that grandfather of yours doing today?”

“Not too well, Professor Angstrom. We’re still trying to find something that can help him.”

The professor’s expression sobered. “I’m very sorry to hear that. Joe’s one of the good ones—Crystal Shores needs more like him around.” He placed a comforting hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do, all right?”

Ellie nodded gratefully, then reached into her pocket and carefully withdrew the Seafarer’s Sigil. “Actually, sir, I was hoping you might be able to point me toward someone who could help me with this.”

Professor Angstrom leaned closer. “Well, I’ll be . . . Where in the tides did you come across that beauty?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Ellie said. “Do you know anyone here who might recognize it or could tell us more?”

The professor stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Can’t say I’ve seen its like before, but Mara Jenkins would be your best bet—she’s our resident expert on all things arcane and historical. I was just headed to her office now for a faculty meeting—that I’m late for. But you’re welcome to join me.”

“We’d really appreciate that,” Tyler chimed in.

Professor Angstrom motioned for them to follow and set off down a side corridor at an unhurried pace. “Mara’s forgotten more about Crystal Shores’ past than most of us scholarings combined,” he said over his shoulder. “If anyone can shine some light on that artifact, it’ll be her.”

They turned a corner, and Ellie could see the partially open door to what must be Mara Jenkins’ office. Muffled voices filtered out, indicating the faculty meeting was already underway.

Professor Angstrom rapped his knuckles against the wood. “Mara? Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got a couple of students here who could use your expertise.”

The door swung wider to reveal an attractive young woman. Her gaze moved from the professor to Ellie and Tyler.

“Mara, sorry to interrupt the proceedings, but I’d like you to meet Eloise Harper and . . .” Angstrom gestured vaguely at Tyler.

“Tyler Green,” he supplied with an easy grin.

“Yes, yes, of course. Apologies, young man.” The professor waved a hand. “These two have come into possession of a rather unique artifact that could use your discerning eye.”

Mara’s eyebrows arched almost imperceptibly at the sight of the pulsating relic as Ellie handed it to her. “Now what do you have here?”

Ellie opened her mouth, but Professor Angstrom spoke first. “That’s what we were hoping you could enlighten us about, Mara. Do you recognize this object?”

Meeting members gathered around them. Mara Jenkins regarded the compass for a long moment, her expression inscrutable. Finally, she lifted her eyes to meet Ellie’s. “As the tides flow in, so too must they recede. But heed their ebb and surge with wisdom, lest the waters sweep you under.”

Ellie looked confused by Mara’s cryptic proverb.

“Forgive me, I sometimes get carried away with the old sailor’s proverbs.” She smiled apologetically. “What I mean is that the artifact you’ve uncovered looks like a Seafarer’s Sigil. It must be handled with great care and wisdom.”

Ellie watched Mara examine the relic the same way Gavin had done earlier. “You know what it does?”

“I do. This compass—if it is a Seafarer’s Sigil—is imbued with ancient magics, tied to the very forces that govern our lake and its denizens. The stories say it was forged by the seafaring Drakken Lords of old to help them navigate treacherous waters and locate hidden lairs.”

Professor Angstrom looked at Ellie. “Where did you find it? Was it one of your grandpa Joe’s belongings.”

“I recently found it in an iceberg—I saw it glowing.”

Mara’s gaze fixed on Ellie. “You’ve been entrusted as its new keeper, whether by chance or design. The question is . . . what path will you follow? The Seafarer’s Sigil is more than just a compass, you see—it’s also a key of sorts, able to pinpoint and even access hidden places of immense power. Which is why it must be kept safe and out of the wrong hands.”

“With Ellie, it’s in good hands,” Tyler said moving closer to her.

Mara let out a slow breath and handed the compass back to Ellie. “Well. It would seem the Seafarer’s Sigil has awoken to your presence, Eloise. For good or ill, its destiny is now bound to yours.”

The glow of the sigil intensified with her touch. “What destiny? I’m just an old sailor’s granddaughter. And my dad died at sea when I was young. I am no one special.”

Chapter 10

Draconic Connections

“Don’t sell yourself short, El,” Tyler said. “You’re one of the bravest, most caring people I know. If anyone’s worthy of keeping that sigil safe, it’s you.”

Ellie glanced down at the ring on her finger—twisting it absently.

“Mara.” Ellie lifted her gaze. “Do you know how to use the sigil? How I’m supposed to follow its path or whatever you mentioned?”

“I’m afraid my knowledge only extends so far. But we do have a visiting archaeologist from Ravensport who would likely know more—Dr. Miles Kendrick. He’s an expert on such ancient relics and their origins.”

No sooner had Mara spoken the name than a man in a rumpled field vest and wide-brimmed hat came bustling through the door, his arms overflowing with books and papers. He didn’t seem to notice the small group at first, muttering under his breath as he struggled to keep his precarious stack from toppling over.

Too late—the man’s foot caught on a raised floor tile, sending him stumbling forward. Books and loose papers exploded in all directions as he barely managed to stay upright.

“Oh! Dear me, I’m dreadfully sorry!” The man adjusted his spectacles as he surveyed the mess at his feet. “I’m afraid I’ve made rather a muddle of things. You must be the faculty meeting I’m late for—my apologies, everyone, I got turned around in the east wing looking for Professor Angstrom’s office and—”

“Actually, Dr. Kendrick,” Mara said with an amused look, “the meeting hasn’t started yet.”

Ellie and Tyler crouched down to begin gathering the scattered documents as Professor Angstrom held out a hand. “I’m the professor you were searching for.”

Kendrick extended his own hand eagerly, giving Angstrom’s hand an enthusiastic pump. “Ah, wonderful to meet you at last, Professor! And might I say, your reputation precedes you.”

“The young people who are kindly gathering your belongings are Eloise Harper and Tyler Green. And they’ve come into possession of a rather interesting artifact that you might be able to shed some light on.”

“Is that so? Well, I’d be delighted to take a look!” Kendrick leaned over. “Here, let me give you a hand with those, young man.”

Tyler handed him an armful of papers. “No problem, Dr. Kendrick. Glad we could help out.”

Ellie handed Kendrick a leather-bound book, then she held up the compass, lightly pulsing its blue light. “This is what we wanted to ask you about. Do you know how it works?”

Kendrick’s eyes widened behind his spectacles as he caught sight of the sigil. He very nearly dropped the book, fumbling it in his hands before clutching it tightly to his chest. “Great whales! Is that . . . could it be?” He leaned in, peering at the relic with an awed expression. “Where on earth did you come across such a thing?”

Once again, Ellie explained how she and Tyler had discovered the compass frozen within an iceberg.

“Extraordinary. I’ve only read accounts, but never dreamed I’d lay eyes on the real thing.” He met Ellie’s gaze. “Might I . . . examine it more closely?”

Ellie passed the sigil into Kendrick’s outstretched hands. Despite changing owners, the artifact’s ethereal glow dimmed only slightly.

He made his way to a nearby desk, gently setting down his books and papers before hunching over the relic. The others gathered around, watching as Kendrick examined the sigil from every angle.

Kendrick cradled it reverently, turning it over with utmost care as he scrutinized every etch and groove. A hushed murmur of amazement escaped his lips as his fingers moved over the sinuous dragon form coiled around the sigil’s casing.

“Ingenious craftsmanship . . . and still glowing after all this time.” He looked up at Ellie. “Do you have any idea what you’ve discovered, my dear? This is the legendary Seafarer’s Sigil—a relic of unparalleled historical and cultural significance!”

“My grandpa said the same thing—that it was the legendary Seafarer’s Sigil. But he didn’t know how to use it.” Ellie paused, then asked, “Can you tell us more about how it works?”

Kendrick leaned back. “Well, as I mentioned, the Seafarer’s Sigil is a creation of the ancient Drakken Lords—a powerful, mystical race with a deep connection to the primordial forces. They were dragonkin, you see, with mastery over the elements and arcane magics. Some say they still exist but live far away from Dragontide.”

He ran a finger along one of the etchings. “It’s said they fashioned these as a compass of sorts, but one imbued with their own draconic energies. A tool for navigating not just the physical world, but the hidden realms that lie between.”

Ellie gripped the edge of the desk tightly. “You mean . . . like magic realms?”

“Precisely. The Drakken Lords were able to attune the sigil to those mystical planes, using it to guide their ships across uncharted metaphysical waters. With a mere thought, they could will the artifact to illuminate the path to any destination—be it a secluded island paradise, a realm of pure elemental energy, or draconic lairs overflowing with untold treasures.”

Kendrick cleared his throat. “Of course, I’ve never actually seen the sigil in use, nor witnessed its full capabilities firsthand. These are just the accounts I’ve studied over the years. But if the legends are true . . .”

Kendrick’s voice took on a wistful tone. “Well, who’s to say what secrets and wonders it may yet unveil? The Drakken Lords were a supremely advanced race. There could be entire worlds hidden just beyond our perception, waiting to be rediscovered by those with the right key.”

Ellie then realized it might help her find the ingredient she needed for the Elixiron. “Do you think . . . the sigil could lead to finding Dragonscale Moss?”

Tyler looked at Ellie. “What are you thinking, El? You’re not seriously considering going back into those woods, are you?”

“What? No, of course not! I was just asking out of curiosity.” Ellie knew Tyler did not believe her.

“Well, if this sigil does indeed have the power to locate hidden realms and treasures . . .” Kendrick stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Then it stands to reason it could pinpoint something as rare as Dragonscale Moss.”

Ellie perked up at this. “You mean it could lead us right to where the moss grows?”

“So the legends would suggest,” Kendrick replied. “Though around these parts, I’ve heard tales that the moss is found within the lair of a great dragon—Aurathorn. But those are just rumors, mind you. I can’t say for certain.”

“What I can tell you is that, in theory, one who has forged a connection with this artifact should be able to will it to reveal the location of whatever they seek—be it a rare plant, a lost city, or a path through the veil between worlds.”

Ellie hid her excitement at the prospect. If the sigil could guide her to the Dragonscale Moss, she might finally have a way to obtain the Elixiron needed to cure Grandpa Joe.

“But how would someone know if they have that . . . connection you mentioned?” she asked, trying to keep her voice casual. “Is there a way to tell?”

Kendrick’s eyes drifted down to the dragon pendant resting against Ellie’s chest.

“Why, I do believe you may already have an inkling,” he said with a smile, pointing toward the necklace and its glass bubble filled with a glowing red liquid. “This looks very much like a trace of draconic essence. Tell me, has this been passed down through your family?”

Ellie nodded. “It’s been in my family line for generations, though I’m not sure where it originally came from.”

“Well then, there you have it!” Kendrick said. “With a tangible link to the draconic forces, I’d wager you have as good a chance as any of forging a connection to this remarkable artifact. The potential to wield its power may already course through your veins, my dear.”

Chapter 11

An Offer Too Good to Refuse

Ellie let out an exasperated sigh. “But I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to actually use it. How do I get it to show me where to go?”

Kendrick smiled reassuringly. “Not to worry, my dear. I would be more than happy to guide you through the process, as best I can.”

He angled the sigil so its luminous face caught the light. “You see this etching here, coiled like a dragon’s tail? This is what the Drakken Lords used as their direction-of-travel arrow. Wherever the tip points is the path the sigil wishes you to follow.”

True to his words, Ellie noticed the tip of the sinuous tail did seem to subtly shift and realign itself every few moments, as if straining toward an unseen destination.

“But that’s not all it can reveal.” Kendrick pointed along the outer ring, where a series of strange glyphs and markings encircled the compass rose. “This rotating bezel acts as a gauge of sorts, warning the wielder of potential threats or safe havens along their journey.”

He gave the bezel a delicate twist, and the symbols realigned into new configurations. “Let’s see now . . . ah yes, this jagged rune indicates danger lies ahead should you continue on the current heading. Whereas this spiral signifies a place of sanctuary nearby.”

Ellie leaned closer, marveling at the shifting patterns. The bezel seemed to have an infinite number of possible permutations.

“And this inner dial—do you notice how it appears to float, untethered?” Kendrick asked. “I suspect it acts as a celestial map, aligning itself with the movements of the heavens to better orient the wielder.”

Sure enough, as Ellie peered at the sigil’s face, she could make out faint etchings that resembled constellations and astrological markers along the dial’s circumference.

“So you see, the sigil is more than just a mere compass,” Kendrick said reverently. “It’s an all-encompassing tool of navigation, both for the realms we know and those that may lie just beyond the veil. By attuning yourself to its draconic essence, you’ll be able to interpret its multitude of signs and signals.”

Kendrick handed the compass back to Ellie, knocking over a pencil holder in the process. “With focus and an open mind, you may find it begins to speak to you through symbolic visions . . . whispering the paths you need to tread.”

The compass began glowing as Ellie’s hands cupped the intricate casing, the pulsating blue light cast a glow across her face.

“How does it work to take someone to different realms?”

Kendrick shook his head apologetically. “I’m afraid the full extent of the sigil’s capabilities remains shrouded in mystery. The Drakken Lords guarded their secrets closely.”

“But how can I use it to find the Dragonscale Moss?”

She glanced over at Tyler, who was frowning and shaking his head almost imperceptibly. His expression conveyed a clear message of caution.

“Well now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Kendrick replied. “First, we need to determine if the sigil will even respond to your bloodline’s draconic connection. Why don’t you try communing with it on a small scale first?”

He gestured for Ellie to proceed. “Focus your thoughts and speak your desire to the compass. Something simple, like having it point you toward your own home. If it heeds your command, we’ll know you possess the necessary attunement.”

Ellie nodded, cradling the compass in her palms as she closed her eyes. She took a steadying breath and whispered, “Show me the path to my home.”

At first, nothing seemed to happen. Then the sigil’s glow intensified, bathing the room in its azure radiance. Ellie opened her eyes, eagerly searching the compass face.

But instead of the expected arrow pointing toward the cottage, the direction-of-travel marker spun aimlessly before settling . . . due west. The exact opposite direction of her house.

Ellie felt a pang of disappointment as the Seafarer’s Sigil stubbornly refused to point toward her home. She continued to cradle the compass in her palms as she focused her thoughts once more. “Guide me to my house.”

But the sigil’s direction marker continued spinning aimlessly before settling in a new, equally baffling direction—this time pointing north, toward Lake Dragontide.

Ellie sighed, deflated. “I . . . I don’t understand. Why isn’t it working for me?”

Ellie’s shoulders slumped as one of the onlookers muttered that perhaps she didn’t possess the proper lineage after all.

The archaeologist offered a reassuring smile. “Now, now, don’t be too hard on yourself. Attuning one’s mind to an artifact of such ancient power surely takes practice. The Drakken Lords were said to have spent years mastering the sigil’s intricacies.”

Ellie couldn’t help but feel some doubt. What if her connection to the draconic bloodline wasn’t strong enough? What if she simply lacked the innate ability to wield the sigil’s magic?

“But how can it be used to find the Dragonscale Moss?” she asked, a tinge of desperation creeping into her voice. “I don’t even know what the moss looks like. How can I summon a vision of something I’ve never seen?”

Kendrick considered her words carefully. “Well, you raise an excellent point. In that case, perhaps you’ll need to treat the sigil more like a bloodhound following a scent trail.”

Ellie’ looked confused. “But . . . it doesn’t have a nose.”

“No, no, of course not,” Kendrick chuckled. “What I mean is, you may need to provide it with a sample—a piece of the very thing you’re searching for. Then, like a hound catching the scent, the sigil can attune itself to that essence and guide you toward its source. With that initial sample to act as a beacon, the sigil may be able to illuminate the path toward a larger cache of the precious flora.”

Ellie couldn’t help but feel a tinge of exasperation. “But if I already had some of the moss, I wouldn’t need the compass to find more of it in the first place.”

Kendrick waved a hand dismissively. “It may not require much—a single leaf or spore could be enough to provide the metaphysical trail for the sigil to lock onto. Anything with even the faintest essence of what you seek.”

Just then, the door swung open, and Gavin Brooks strode in with Mayor Helen Wright close behind. Ellie instinctively clutched the Seafarer’s Sigil tighter.

“I heard there was some discussion about a certain compass going on in here,” the mayor said, eyeing the relic in Ellie’s grasp. “Anyone care to fill me in?”

Before the archaeologist could respond, Gavin pushed his way forward, looming over Ellie. “Well now, we meet again. Have you learned how to make that thing work.?”

Ellie hesitated, suddenly self-conscious under the weight of so many watchful stares.

“She doesn’t have what it takes,” someone muttered, just loud enough for Ellie to hear. “Probably just a child’s fantasy.”

Ellie opened her mouth to respond, but Professor Angstrom spoke up first. “Dr. Kendrick is just now teaching her how to use it.”

Gavin leaned closer to Ellie. “I’d be more than happy to take that particular burden off your hands. I’ll give you five hundred gleaming silver pieces for that little bauble. Should be more than enough to purchase this rare Elixiron cure for your dear grandfather, eh?”

Ellie said nothing, her throat constricting as a heavy silence fell over the room. Five hundred Thornveil pieces was enough to ensure Grandpa Joe received the treatment he so desperately needed.

But there was something about the way Gavin’s eyes hungrily roved over the sigil that made Ellie’s skin crawl. This wasn’t just about money for him; he coveted the artifact itself in a way that felt . . . unsettling.

Sensing her hesitation, Gavin sweetened the deal. “Ten Tidecrests, then. A full thousand silver pieces. That’s more than enough for the elixir and a little something extra for your family. In fact, I’ll even track down this elusive cure myself and deliver it right to your doorstep. You have my word.”

Ellie weighed the merits of Gavin’s offer. She knew, deep down, that with enough time and practice, she could learn the sigil’s mysteries. But Grandpa Joe’s condition was worsening by the day. He didn’t have that luxury of time. By the time Ellie mastered the relic’s powers, it might already be too late for him.

For her grandpa’s sake, Ellie decided the best thing to do was to accept the offer—even if Gavin was a greasy worm.

Chapter 12

The Sigil’s Call

As Ellie extended her hand, the Seafarer’s Sigil glinting in her palm, Gavin’s eyes gleamed with anticipation. He licked his lips, fingers twitching greedily as he prepared to snatch the priceless artifact.

But before the transaction could be sealed, Kendrick cleared his throat. “Now, just a moment, young lady. I’m afraid that relic cannot simply be sold off like a bauble at market.”

Ellie froze, her arm still outstretched as Gavin’s hand hovered mere inches away from the compass. She glanced over at the archaeologist.

“This sigil is an object of immense historical and cultural significance,” Kendrick continued. “It belongs to the Shorling people, as it was discovered right here in Crystal Shores. To part with it so cavalierly would be a grave injustice.”

Gavin scowled; his hand still suspended in mid-air. “Now see here, this young lady was about to accept a more than generous offer. It’s a done deal.”

But Kendrick shook his head firmly. “I don’t believe I actually heard Miss Harper verbally accept your terms, Mr. Brooks.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the room as all eyes turned toward Ellie.

“Well?” Kendrick prompted gently. “Did anyone here actually hear Eloise agree to sell the sigil?”

One by one, the others shook their heads. Even Mayor Wright remained conspicuously silent.

Gavin’s face reddened with indignation. “She was handing it right to me! Until you so rudely interrupted, that is.”

Tyler spoke up, his voice laced with a protective edge. “I didn’t hear her say anything about accepting an offer.”

A murmur of agreement rippled through the gathered crowd. Gavin opened his mouth to protest further, but seemed to think better of it as he found himself increasingly outnumbered.

Instead, he turned his glare back toward Ellie, eyes narrowed. “Well then, Miss Harper? What’s it going to be? Are you going to honor our deal or not?”

Ellie hesitated as a heavy silence descended once more. She knew Grandpa Joe’s life quite literally hung in the balance—the money from Gavin could save his life.

But Ellie couldn’t shake the feeling that parting with the relic would be a grave mistake, one she might come to regret.

Slowly, almost unconsciously, Ellie’s hand drifted back toward her jacket pocket. She met Gavin’s gaze steadily as she slipped the Seafarer’s Sigil back into the safety of her coat, the compass disappearing from view.

“No deal,” she said with an unmistakable finality.

Gavin’s face contorted with rage, but Mayor Wright stepped forward before he could unleash his fury. “Now, now, let’s not let our tempers get the better of us.”

Ellie felt relieved as the Seafarer’s Sigil disappeared safely back into her pocket. Mayor Wright stepped toward her; a polite smile plastered across her face.

“Well, when the time comes that you do wish to part with the compass, please keep Mr. Brooks and myself in mind,” the mayor said smoothly. “We would be more than happy to pay a fair price for such a rare artifact.”

Ellie gave a noncommittal nod, not trusting herself to speak.

The steady, melodic succession from the bell tower sounded the Noonbell, the highest point of the day.

“We should get going,” Tyler said, placing a hand on Ellie’s shoulder.

Ellie turned to Kendrick. “Thank you, Dr. Kendrick, for all your help in understanding the sigil.”

The archaeologist inclined his head. “Of course, my dear. I only hope I’ve provided enough guidance to set you on the right path.”

As they exited the Scholaring building, the warm midday sun washed over them. Tyler glanced sidelong at Ellie. “We should grab a bite to eat.”

“Before we do that, let’s swing by Dr. Bennett’s office. See if he has any Dragonscale Moss, he has been researching Elixiron.”

Tyler let out a heavy sigh. “El . . . you know I ship out at first light tomorrow to join the Oceanriders. I can’t help but worry you’ll try to venture into the Thornveil alone while I’m gone.”

Ellie felt a pang, her heart sinking at the thought of Tyler’s imminent departure. She forced a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I just want to see if I can get this compass working, that’s all. And even if I do end up needing to search for that moss, the sigil will guide me. Keep me safe and lead me down the proper paths.”

Tyler frowned, clearly not convinced. “I don’t like the idea of you going in there by yourself. It’s too dangerous.” He reached out, taking her hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. “But I understand why you might feel compelled to try. Just promise me you’ll be careful?”

Ellie looked toward Lake Dragontide, her heart growing heavy at the sight of the longships anchored just offshore. Row upon row of the sleek vessels rocked gently on the swells, their dragon-headed prows cutting an imposing silhouette against the glittering waters. Small rowboats ferried crew and supplies out to the larger warships, which would soon set sail to join the fight against the Dragonkin Marauders.

She knew those ships would soon carry Tyler and the other Oceanriders off to war. A lump formed in her throat at the thought of her best friend—her closest companion since childhood—being thrust into such peril.

“Come on,” Tyler said gently. “Let’s see what Dr. Bennett knows.”

They made their way through the winding streets of Crystal Shores until they reached the physician’s office, the door’s little bell jingling merrily as they entered.

The waiting room was small but meticulously kept, with a few well-worn chairs arranged around a low table laden with tattered magazines. Potted plants added splashes of green life, their tendrils spilling over the rims of their ceramic homes. The air carried a faint, crisp scent that hinted at disinfectants and herbal remedies.

A few moments passed before Dr. Bennett emerged from the back, his kindly face breaking into a warm smile. “Ellie, Tyler, what a pleasant surprise. My nurse is at lunch, I’m afraid. What can I do for you two today?”

Ellie reached into her pocket, retrieving the Seafarer’s Sigil and holding it out for the doctor to inspect. “This is a . . . well, a magical compass, of sorts. It can supposedly lead me to rare ingredients, like the Dragonscale Moss needed for Elixiron to cure Grandpa.”

Dr. Bennett cradled the Seafarer’s Sigil reverently in his hands. “My word . . . I’ve never seen anything quite like this before.”

“It was frozen in an iceberg,” Ellie explained. “We only just discovered it recently.”

The doctor nodded slowly. “Well, this is certainly an intriguing artifact. Please, come into my office and tell me more.”

He led them through a door and into his private office, a cozy space lined with overflowing bookshelves. After setting the sigil down on his desk, he crossed to a high shelf and retrieved an ornate wooden box. With a key he produced from his pocket, he opened the latch, revealing a single glass vial nestled within.

“This is all the Dragonscale Moss I have remaining,” he said, plucking out the vial and handing it to Ellie. She could just make out a few withered strands of muted grayish green within. “Merely a trace amount, I’m afraid. Not nearly enough for a full batch of Elixiron.”

Ellie frowned but nodded. “That’s what I was afraid of.” She set the vial next to the Seafarer’s Sigil. “If I can find more of this moss, how much would you need to brew up a dose for Grandpa?”

Dr. Bennett consulted one of the thick tomes he pulled from the bookshelf. “Well, let’s see here.” He slid a finger down the page. “With a full bundle of Dragonscale Moss, along with Starlight Dew, Glimmerpetal Powder, Auron Herb, Silvermist Essence, and Heartwood Bark, I should have just enough for a single, potent draught.”

Ellie carefully picked up the sigil once more, holding the moss vial up beside it. She closed her eyes, focusing all her thoughts and energy into a single wish:

[Find me the Dragonscale Moss. Lead me to where I can gather enough to cure Grandpa.]

For a few tense seconds, nothing happened. Then, the sigil’s central crystal began pulsing with a faint blue luminescence that rapidly grew brighter and brighter, soon bathing the entire room in its ethereal glow.

The artifact seemed to shudder in Ellie’s hands as the markings along its surface realigned and rearranged with a series of faint clicks. At last, the sigil’s arrow swung around and pointed decisively toward the window . . . and the dark line of the Thornveil Wilds visible in the distance.

Ellie felt an unmistakable tugging sensation, as though an invisible force were urging her to follow the sigil’s direction.

“I . . . I think it worked,” she said, hardly daring to believe it. “I can feel it calling me to the forest.”

Chapter 13

The Drillmaster’s Call

Ellie watched as the Seafarer’s Sigil’s arrow continued pointing toward the forbidden forest.

Tyler shifted uncomfortably. “Ellie, I don’t like where this is headed. You can’t seriously be thinking of going in there alone? I won’t be here to go with you.”

Ellie knew it was a bad idea to go into the Wilds alone, but it seemed to be the right thing to do.

Dr. Bennett looked at the compass with amazement. “Extraordinary. I’ve never witnessed such an artifact in action before.” He looked up at Ellie. “You say this relic is guiding you toward a source of Dragonscale Moss?”

“That’s what it feels like, at least.” She gave a tentative shrug. “How long would it take you to gather the other ingredients needed for Elixiron? The dew, powders, herbs and such?”

Dr. Bennett tapped his fingers on the desk. “With some diligent gathering from various suppliers and making the rounds, I could likely procure everything except the moss within a few days’ time.”

“So if I can get the Dragonscale Moss . . .” Ellie said slowly.

“Then I could have a full batch of Elixiron ready soon after,” Bennett finished with an approving nod.

Ellie reached into her pocket and extracted one of the silver pieces that Tobias had given her. She extended it toward the doctor. “Would you use this to purchase any remaining components you need?”

Bennett accepted the coin, giving it an appraising look. “Of course, my dear. Consider it done.”

As they exited the physician’s office, Tyler said, “You know I have to ship out at first light, and I don’t know when I’ll return. Nonetheless, you should wait until I get back so that I can go with you . . . even though I’m totally against you going into the Wilds.”

Ellie felt a pang, the reality of their impending separation hitting her once more. “Don’t worry, I’m not about to run off halfcocked into danger. Let’s just grab a bite at the Wavecrest first and I’ll figure out a plan.”

Tyler arched an eyebrow skeptically but didn’t argue as they made their way toward the village’s beloved seaside eatery.

Ellie and Tyler approached the quaint facade of Wavecrest. Tyler reached out and opened the door, gesturing for Ellie to enter first as the little bell jingled merrily overhead. The aroma of fresh-baked bread and simmering seafood stew filled the air. Sunlight filtered through the large windows, casting a warm glow over the cozy interior. Polished wooden tables dotted the space, each adorned with a small vase of wildflowers. Against one wall, a long counter displayed an array of mouthwatering pastries behind a glass case.

As they stepped inside, Ellie’s gaze landed on a group seated near the back—Brienne, the stern judge from the competition, along with a few other familiar Shorling faces who had witnessed her indiscretion with the Moon Flower.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the little cheat herself,” Brienne said, loud enough for the entire cafe to hear. “I’d have thought you’d be too ashamed to show your face around here after that stunt.”

The other Shorlings at the table snickered derisively. One called out, “Maybe she’s looking to steal someone else’s meal since she can’t make her own!”

Heat crept up Ellie’s neck as the cruel jibes continued. She fought the urge to snap back a retort that would only make matters worse.

Tyler leaned in close to Ellie. “Let’s get out of here, El. These losers aren’t worth the breath.”

Ellie gave a small nod. As far as she was concerned, the farther away from these Shorlings, the better off she would be.

Ellie tried not to let the cruel taunts get to her. “Let’s just get our food to go. We can eat it at the beach instead.”

Tyler gave a curt nod of agreement. They approached the counter, where a smiling woman in an apron greeted them. “What can I get for you two today?”

“Two sandwiches to go, please,” Ellie replied. “I’ll have the crab cake sandwich on a croissant roll.”

“Excellent choice,” the woman said. “And for you, sir?”

“The blackened salmon sandwich looks good,” Tyler said. “With a side of those seasoned fries.”

The woman jotted down their order. “And to drink?”

“Just waters for us,” Ellie said.

As they waited for their meal, one of the Shorlings from Brienne’s table called out, “Don’t choke on that sandwich, Moonglow! We all know you can’t make anything for yourself!”

Ellie tensed, but Tyler placed a hand on her arm in a calming gesture. When their order was ready, he paid and gathered the paper-wrapped parcels, steering Ellie toward the exit without acknowledging the jeer.

Once outside, Tyler let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m really sorry you had to deal with that, El. Those people are absolute jerks.”

They began walking along the shoreline, the gentle waves lapping at the sandy beach. Ellie shook her head. “I hope everyone in Crystal Shores doesn’t feel that way about me.”

“Of course they don’t,” Tyler said. “There are plenty of good folks here who don’t care about that whole mess. No one at the Scholaring Building said anything. We should just try to forget it and enjoy our meal, okay? As the old saying goes, ‘The tide washes away the troubles of yesterday.'”

Ellie and Tyler found a weathered wooden bench overlooking the shoreline. Despite the chill in the air, they settled onto the damp slats and began unwrapping their meals. The clean scent of the freshwater sea breeze mingled with the aroma of their sandwiches.

In the distance, Ellie could see the Oceanriders’ longships being prepared for departure. Deckhands scurried about, securing supplies and hoisting sails. The towering masts creaked as the massive canvas unfurled, ready to catch the wind. Ellie’s sandwich remained untouched in her lap as she watched the flurry of activity, her heart heavy with dread.

She turned to Tyler. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know. Believe me, if I had any choice in the matter . . .” He trailed off with a pained look.

“But how will I know if you’re okay? What if you get hurt out there?”

“Don’t worry, they have a way of sending messages,” Tyler said. “They use trained Tidewing gulls to carry messages between ships and the shore. If anything happens, they’ll send word that way.”

“Then I can send messages to you the same way?”

“I don’t think so, at least not easily. But you don’t need to fret, I’ll be fine.” He forced a confident smile.

Ellie leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder as she fought back tears. She wanted to etch this moment into her memory—the way his arm draped around her, the solidity of his embrace, the cadence of his heartbeat. She knew their time was slipping away like grains of sand.

The breeze carried the distant sounds of activity from the docks—shouts of orders, creaking ropes, and the rhythmic slap of waves against wooden hulls. A group of young Shorlings, all around Tyler’s age, approached along the beach. Ellie recognized several of the familiar faces from their classes, even Tobias walked among them, his usual swagger somewhat subdued.

At the front strode an imposing figure Ellie didn’t recognize—a grizzled, barrel-chested man with a thick beard streaked with gray. He carried himself with an air of quiet authority, his heavy boots leaving deep impressions in the damp sand.

As the group neared, Ellie’s grip on Tyler tightened instinctively. She could sense the reason for their approach.

The bearded man came to a halt before them, his gaze falling on Tyler. “Green, I’m Drillmaster Thorfin Ravenlock, tasked with training and preparing the new recruits for war. We’re shoving off sooner than planned. You need to report to the Wavecrest immediately.”

“But sir, I wasn’t expecting to leave until morning. My things aren’t even—”

“Won’t need to worry about that,” the man cut him off. “We’ll issue you what you need aboard ship.”

The drillmaster looked toward Ellie for the briefest moment. “I’m afraid there’s no time for long goodbyes. We make sail within the hour.”

Ellie’s lower lip trembled as she fought back tears.

Tyler turned to her. “El, I . . . I have to go. Now. Can you let my parents know? I didn’t get the chance to . . .”

“I will Ty, I’ll go there right away.”

Tyler wiped away the tears streaming down Ellie’s cheeks, then kissed her on the lips. “I’ll be back; I promise.”

With obvious reluctance, Tyler released her and joined the line of Shorlings heading toward the docks and the waiting longships.

Ellie remained rooted to the spot, watching until Tyler’s form disappeared from view. An eerie screech of a Tidewing gull cried out overhead, as if the very sea itself sensed the darkness looming on the horizon.

Chapter 14

Farewells and Forbidden Paths

Ellie watched helplessly as Tyler disappeared aboard the Wavecrest, swallowed by the bustling activity of the docks. Her heart felt like a heavy anchor weighing her down, the reality of his departure sinking in.

With leaden steps, she made her way through the village streets toward the Green family home. Ellie did not want to deliver the news to Tyler’s parents. She paused on their doorstep, before rapping her knuckles against the wooden door.

Mrs. Green answered, her face brightening briefly until she registered Ellie’s somber expression. “Eloise? What’s happened?”

“It’s Tyler,” Ellie said, her voice catching. “The Drillmaster came and . . . they made him leave right away with the other recruits. He didn’t even have time to come say goodbye.”

Mrs. Green’s hand flew to her mouth as the color drained from her face. “Oh no . . . my boy . . .”

From somewhere within the house, the sound of small footsteps approached. Tyler’s younger siblings, Caleb and Cora, appeared in the hallway behind their mother.

“Where’s Tyler going?” Caleb asked innocently.

Mrs. Green gathered the children close, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “Your brother had to leave sooner than we thought. But he’ll be just fine, you’ll see.”

Ellie felt detached from her body, as if she were in a dream. “He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry he couldn’t say goodbye in person.”

After a few more hushed reassurances, Ellie politely excused herself, not wanting to intrude on the family’s private grief any longer. She wandered aimlessly through the village unsure of her next move.

Ellie knew she had to find the Dragonscale Moss. The image of the Seafarer’s Sigil pointing unflinchingly toward the Thornveil Wilds replayed in her mind as if the journey was meant to be. With barely any more thought, she had made her final decision—she would brave the forbidden forest to find the moss, no matter the risk.

But first, she would have to decide whether to inform her mom and grandfather of her intentions. A part of her knew they would vehemently object and try to stop her from such a perilous undertaking. Yet if she departed without a word, they would undoubtedly be frantic with worry over her absence.

Ellie anxiously approached her family’s cottage. Through the window, she could see her mother tending to her grandfather, gently adjusting his pillows and speaking softly to him. A pang of guilt lanced through Ellie’s chest. She knew her quest could potentially put them through more turmoil, but she felt she had no choice if she wanted to save her grandfather’s life.

Ellie stepped inside, the familiar scent of her mother’s baking filling the cozy cottage. Ellie’s mom glanced up from the hamper of soiled linens she was carrying and gave her daughter a warm smile. “There you are, dear. I was wondering when you’d be home.”

“Mom, I . . .” Ellie’s voice faltered as she struggled to find the words. “Tyler’s gone to war. They made him leave right away to join the other recruits.”

“Oh, Ellie. I’m so sorry.” Sarah crossed the room and pulled her daughter into a comforting embrace.

A soft cough came from the corner where Grandpa Joe lay propped up on the couch. “Come here, Ellie girl,” he rasped, beckoning her over with a wave of his arthritic hand.

Ellie settled on the edge of the couch as grandpa said, “The sea may rise and the tides may turn, but a sailor’s heart will always find its way home.”

“Don’t you worry about Tyler,” Sarah said, wringing out a damp cloth as she prepared to scrub the laundry. “He’s a strong, capable lad. He’ll make it through this and come back before you know it.”

But Ellie knew the truth her mother couldn’t bear to voice—not everyone made it home from war. She gave a somber nod, not wanting to argue the point.

“We’ll just have to keep him in our prayers,” Sarah continued. “Along with all the other brave souls fighting for our safety.”

“I will,” Ellie promised, her gaze drifting to the large, weathered trunk tucked against the far wall.

Rising from the couch, she crossed the room and knelt before the ancient chest, lifting the heavy lid. The musty aroma of aged papers and keepsakes wafted out as she began sifting through the contents.

“What are you looking for, lass?” Grandpa Joe asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ellie said distractedly. “Maybe a map . . . of the Thornveil Wilds?”

Sarah’s head whipped around, eyes widening in alarm. “Eloise Harper, don’t you dare get any ideas about going into those woods!”

“She’s right, Ellie,” Grandpa cautioned, his tone grave. “The Dragonscale Moss isn’t worth risking your life over . . . if that’s what you’re looking for.”

But Ellie continued rifling undeterred, finally extracting a folded, yellowed parchment. She carefully unfurled it, revealing a faded, intricately drawn map. The Thornveil Wilds sprawled across the aged vellum, every twist and turn of the forest paths meticulously rendered. A large ‘X’ marked a location deep within the tangled treeline.

“Ellie, I forbid you from going in there!” Sarah’s voice took on a sharp edge as she hurried over. “It’s far too dangerous!”

Ellie looked to her grandpa, silently pleading for his guidance.

“Bring the map here.” After a coughing spell subsided, the old sailor studied the map, tracing the paths with a wizened finger. “This here’s the route to the Thornveil Wilds, marked by the ancient Drakken runes.” He tapped a series of etched symbols winding through the forests. “But getting in is the easy part, the true trial lies in finding your way back out again.”

His bloodshot eyes met Ellie’s gaze, deadly serious. “The Wilds are a bewitched realm, lass. The trees themselves can shift and deceive, leading even the most experienced woodsman astray into treacherous hollows.” He leaned closer, his voice lowering. “Stick to the runes at all costs. They’re your lifeline, laid down by the Drakken Lords to safely guide those brave or foolish enough to venture inside.”

Grandpa Joe’s finger moved to a series of jagged etchings near the heart of the Wilds. “And this here . . . this be where the dragon’s lair lies. The protector of the elixir’s most guarded ingredient.” He fixed her with an intense stare. “If you do go, lass, remember—the brightest light casts the darkest shadow. Keep your wits about you at all times within those accursed woods. One misstep could prove your undoing.”

Ellie turned to face her mother’s disapproving glare. “I have to try, Mom. It might be Grandpa’s only chance.” She took the glowing compass from her pocket. ” Besides, I’ve learned how to use the sigil and it works; it will keep me safe.”

Sarah’s expression crumpled, and she sank onto the edge of a chair, burying her face in her hands. “The tides of life are ever-changing,” she said in a tremulous voice. “But a mother’s love remains a constant shore.”

Confused as usual by her mother’s Shorling proverb, Ellie carefully folded the delicate map. “No one’s going to talk me out of this.”

Chapter 15

Bidding Adieu

The cadence of a meadowlark’s song pierced the predawn hush, its melodies drifting through the cottage window like a song from the fey realm itself. Ellie stirred beneath her patchwork quilt, the avian’s lilting trills rousing her from slumber. She turned over, blinking groggily as her eyes adjusted to the shadowy contours of her bedroom.

Though the sun had yet to breach the horizon, soft washes of violet tinged the eastern sky visible through the glass panes, heralding the imminent arrival of dawn’s radiant glow. For a fleeting moment, Ellie simply drank in the familiar sights and smells—the scuffed hardwood floors bearing the grooves of countless footsteps, the delicate lace curtains her mother had so lovingly hand-stitched, the overflowing bookshelf brimming with adventure tales and childhood keepsakes. Even the air carried the scent of smoldering fireplace embers.

Today marked the beginning of her perilous quest into the heart of the Thornveil Wilds. If she failed to locate the Dragonscale Moss, or worse, fell prey to the forest’s insidious perils, she may never again wake to the comforting sights and scents of home.

Ellie shoved such morbid notions away. Aside from selling the compass to greedy Gavin, she had no choice but to begin the journey, for the sake of Grandpa Joe.

Slipping from beneath the covers, her bare feet found the cool wooden planks as she reached to the nightstand. With a strike of a match, she touched the flickering flame to the tallow candle’s wick, and a warm, reassuring glow bloomed in the small space. Ellie quickly dressed, lacing up her boots and securing the laces with a firm tug.

One by one, she checked her meager provisions. The Seafarer’s Sigil rested securely in her jacket’s inner pocket. In her pants pocket lay the single silver Thornveil piece—a modest sum, yet one that could prove vital should the need for supplies arise.

Her fingers brushed over the slender glass vial tucked alongside the coin, confirming the scant remnants of Dragonscale Moss that Dr. Bennett had let her borrow. With this precious sample, the sigil should be able to discern the path toward a larger cache.

Finally, Ellie lifted the carved dragon pendant from where it rested against her chest, the ruby-hued essence within the glass bubble. Grandpa had always spoken of this necklace’s draconic connection in hushed tones. Perhaps its link to that primordial lineage would aid her along the way.

Ellie sat back on the bed and opened the old map from the trunk. She studied the paths—there was more than one—remembering her grandpa had said to follow the path marked by the ancient Drakken runes. The map was complicated with lines, various markings, unknown symbols, and drawings of strange creatures, including the dragon, Aurathorn. Hopefully she did not need to know all the map’s details, and the runes would get her there, avoiding the dragon’s lair. She refolded the map, placing it into the back pocket of her jeans.

Finally, Ellie’s thumb brushed over the simple silver band adorning her finger—Tyler’s ring, a promise he would return. The love she felt for him now stretched thin by the cruel reach of war.

Ellie looked around her bedroom one final time, searching for any last essentials she may have overlooked. She wanted to travel light and swift through the Thornveil Wilds, hoping to complete her quest for the moss within a couple of days. A candle had briefly crossed her mind, but the wind would surely extinguish any open flame. No, the Seafarer’s Sigil’s ethereal glow would have to guide her way once night fell.

Her eyes settled on the rucksack sitting in the corner, a canvas satchel she often used for gathering wildflowers and shells along the lakeshore. It would serve well for collecting whatever quantity of moss she could locate.

Satisfied she had all she needed, Ellie blew out the flickering candle, plunging the room into predawn shadows once more. She crept toward the door, her steps feather light as she fought to keep the old wooden floors from betraying her departure with a creak or groan.

Out in the hallway, Ellie paused, holding her breath as she strained to detect any sounds of the cottage’s other occupants stirring. But the hushed stillness remained unbroken, save for the cadence of her mother’s soft snores. She continued down the stairs, taking each step with exaggerated care.

As she reached the ground floor, Grandpa Joe’s bedroom door came into view, standing slightly ajar. Part of Ellie ached to slip inside, to bid him farewell. But the faint, rasping whistle of his breathing told her he still slumbered, and she couldn’t bear to disturb what little rest he could find.

Ellie’s steps carried her into the kitchen, where the first pale rays of dawn filtered through the window. There, on the scrubbed wooden table, sat her mother’s shopping list—a meticulously itemized record of supplies needed for restocking the pantry.

Snatching up a stubby pencil, Ellie quickly scribbled a brief note on the parchment’s margin.

[Gone to find the moss. Will return soon. I love you both.]

The words seemed woefully inadequate to convey the gravity of her mission, but Ellie knew any lengthy explanation would only invite more objections and pleas to reconsider. This way, at least her family would know her intentions and that she hadn’t simply run off.

Ellie was about to push through the kitchen door and begin her quest when a raspy voice rang out from the hallway.

“Ellie? That you, lass?”

Startled, Grandpa Joe’s tremulous call reached her ears. So much for slipping away unnoticed. With a steadying inhalation, Ellie retraced her steps until she stood in the doorway of her grandfather’s bedroom.

The old sailor lay propped up against a mound of pillows, as another coughing fit seized him. Ellie hovered uncertainly until the spasms finally subsided. He wiped a trickle of spittle from his lips.

“Are you okay, grandpa?”

“Aye, lass.” His voice was little more than a papery rasp. “I know that look. You’re fixin’ to go chasing that blasted moss, aren’t you?”

Ellie felt her cheeks flush with shame at being caught. “Yes, Grandpa.”

The old man shook his head wearily. “You don’t have to do this thing, child. I’ll be just fine, one way or another.”

“That’s not what Dr. Bennett says,” Ellie said, crossing the room to perch on the edge of the bed. “He said without the Elixiron, your condition will only worsen.”

Grandpa’s hand found hers, his calloused palm against her skin. “I’ve lived a long, fulfilling life, Ellie girl. Watched the tides ebb and flow more times than I can rightly recall.” His gaze drifted toward the window, where the first golden fingers of sunlight began creeping over the horizon. “Everyone walks the final path eventually, lass. Even old salts like me.”

“But the doctor said you should have more years ahead,” Ellie insisted. “You’re not supposed to . . . you can’t . . .” Tears blurred her vision.

“Come here, child.” Grandpa Joe’s arms enfolded her in a fierce embrace, and Ellie clung to him as though he might simply drift away on the next outgoing tide. The old sailor stroked her hair, his touch tender. “I would be devastated, and so would your mother, if anything happened to you.”

Ellie managed a small nod against his shoulder. She knew it was true, knew her grandfather spoke wisdom as he always did. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her quest, not when the possibility of his survival dangled so tantalizingly close.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” she said at last, not totally believing her own words.

Grandpa Joe pulled away just far enough to meet her gaze. “I love you, Ellie dear. More than all the stars in the heavens. But the way of our people has always been to embrace what the tides bring, be they calm seas or raging storms.” His thumb brushed away a stray tear from her cheek. “We Shorlings face our fates with open eyes and unbowed heads, as befits those born to the rolling waves and misty shores.”

“I’ll be back soon.” Ellie gave his hand one final squeeze.

“Fair winds and following seas, Ellie girl. The tides will bear you home again.”

With those parting words, Ellie turned and strode from the cottage, leaving the warm, familiar realm of home behind as she set out alone into the great unknown.

Chapter 16

Suspended Between Earth and Sky

Ellie adjusted the worn satchel slung over her shoulder, as she set out toward the Wildsedge Bridge. Though the first chimes of the Lune bell had just rung, calling the faithful to morning worship, Ellie knew she couldn’t afford the luxury of prayer today. Every moment counted if she wanted to locate the Dragonscale Moss and return home before nightfall—or so she hoped.

As Ellie followed the familiar cobblestone path, the ancient stone arch of the bridge soon came into view, spanning the dark, swift-flowing waters of the river. Ellie paused at the bridge’s edge, her gaze sweeping the area for any sign of the Shorling townsfolk. But the early morning streets near her remained empty, save for the occasional flutter of a seabird’s wings.

Ellie began the ascent, her boots thudding hollowly against the worn lichen covered stone. As she reached the apex of the arched span, she paused, drinking in the sight that lay before her. Below her, the Wildsedge River flowed swiftly, its dark, turbulent waters eventually emptying into the vast expanse of Lake Dragontide. Downstream, the glittering surface of the great lake shimmered in the morning light, dotted with the majestic forms of icebergs drifting lazily in the gentle current.

But it was the view on the other side that drew Ellie’s gaze. Beyond the bridge’s weathered stone and the vines snaking along the crumbling mortar, the Thornveil Wilds loomed, a tangled mass of gnarled trees and impenetrable foliage. The forest’s shadowy depths seemed to beckon, as if daring her to venture within.

Ellie shook off the creeping unease and withdrew the Seafarer’s Sigil from her jacket pocket. The artifact’s glow pulsed in time with her heartbeat as she studied the direction of the arrow, which pointed toward the dark treeline. This was the path she must take.

Tucking the compass safely away, Ellie continued her crossing, her steps measured and cautious. She paused once more at the far end of the bridge, casting a final, lingering look back at the familiar sights of the village, all of it would soon be lost to sight by the Wilds’ ominous embrace.

Ellie turned her back on the comforts of home and stepped into the shadowy realm beyond. She walked lightly toward the flush of the Moon Flowers; the direction the Seafarer’s Sigil had guided her. She assumed that if she traveled carefully, not disturbing anything, she would not attract the attention of the Dryads or any other malevolent creatures that might lurk within these woods.

As Ellie neared the shimmering carpet of ghostly blooms, her thoughts drifted to Tyler. She gazed toward the spot where she had plucked the Moon Flower on her previous venture, then carefully replanted it. The memory was bittersweet, tinged with the pain of his sudden departure to join the Oceanriders. But at least she had escaped the wrath of the gnarled Dryads that day with Tyler’s aid.

Ellie paused, surveying the three diverging paths that led deeper into the Thornveil Wilds. Withdrawing the folded map from her back pocket, she studied the intricate web of lines, symbols, and strange markings that covered its aged surface. It was no simple navigational chart, but rather a puzzle of arcane significance.

Tucking the map away, Ellie pulled out the Seafarer’s Sigil, its azure glow casting an ethereal light around her. But when she held the compass aloft, the needle spun wildly, eventually pointing back toward the bridge she had just crossed. Ellie frowned in confusion. “Great, it’s telling me to go back.”

Keeping the sigil clutched in her hand, Ellie carefully skirted around the perimeter of the Moon Flower glade, not daring to disturb the delicate blooms. As she approached the path on the far left, closer to the lapping waters of Lake Dragontide, the way ahead seemed almost inviting, the dense foliage parting to reveal a relatively clear trail.

“Okay, that doesn’t look so bad.”

Shifting her focus to the middle path, Ellie noticed a series of large, flat stones laid into the earth, each one carved with strange symbols. These must be the Drakken runes her grandfather had mentioned. But without any knowledge of their meaning, she had no idea if they were guiding her forward or warning her to stay away. One rune in particular, an upward-pointing arrow bisected by a horizontal line, seemed to beckon her onward.

“This one is probably the right path.”

As Ellie approached the third option, a faint rustling in the undergrowth set her senses on high alert. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, and she couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling of unseen eyes watching her every move.

Glancing down at the Seafarer’s Sigil, Ellie was relieved to see the direction arrow now pointed firmly toward the middle path, the one marked by the runes. Casting a wary look at the ominous third option, she followed the sigil’s guidance.

The middle trail was narrow and overgrown, the twisted branches and thorny vines creating a claustrophobic tunnel that blocked out much of the daylight. Ellie had to duck and weave her way through, wincing as the sharp foliage snagged at her clothes and skin. But the Drakken runes were clearly visible, etched into the weathered stones that lined the path, and she pressed on, trusting in her grandfather’s advice.

As she walked, the forest around her seemed to shift and change, the familiar landmarks disappearing behind a veil of mist and shadow. Ellie paused, feeling a growing sense of unease. Glancing down at the Seafarer’s Sigil once more, she was dismayed to find the direction arrow spinning aimlessly, providing no clear guidance.

Ellie’s grip tightened around the artifact as she realized, with a sinking feeling, that she may have already lost her way.

Then she remembered the vial of Dragonscale Moss nestled in her pocket. Carefully, she withdrew the precious sample and held it up alongside the pulsing Seafarer’s Sigil.

To her relief, the compass’s erratic spinning immediately stilled, the direction arrow swinging around to point down the path ahead.

Ellie pressed on, the forest around her gradually opening up and feeling less oppressive. But as she continued forward, the ground suddenly gave way, revealing a deep, yawning chasm that stretched out before her. An old, rickety bridge made of rope and weathered wooden planks spanned the gap, connecting the two sides of the path.

Ellie approached the bridge, her eyes sweeping over the dilapidated structure. The ropes were frayed and rotting, several of the wooden planks missing or hanging precariously. It did not look remotely safe to cross.

Ellie peered over the edge of the ravine to the sight of a churning river far below. There was no way to climb down the steep, rocky embankment, and even if she made it, she would still have to find a way across the swiftly flowing waters. This bridge seemed to be her only option.

Gripping the rope railing, Ellie tentatively stepped onto the bridge, wincing as it swayed and creaked beneath her weight. She moved slowly, each step a careful, measured placement of her feet, her knuckles turning white from the strain of clinging to the ropes.

When Ellie reached the point where the ground fell away, a wave of vertigo washed over her. She froze, her gaze locked on the distant, rocky bottom of the chasm. The dizzying height made her head spin, and for a moment, she was certain she would lose her grip and plummet to her doom.

The Seafarer’s Sigil felt like lead weight in her pockets, dragging her down toward the abyss. But Ellie forced herself to focus solely on the placement of her feet, one weathered plank at a time. She could not afford to look down, to give in to the fear that threatened to consume her. With agonizing slowness, she inched her way across the bridge, her entire being fixated on reaching the other side.

Just as Ellie neared the midpoint, a loud crack rent the air, and the plank beneath her foot gave way. She let out a strangled cry as she felt herself falling, her desperate grip on the ropes slipping through her fingers. What had she gotten herself in to?

“I’m gonna fall. I’m gonna die.”

Chapter 17

Title

[[[[notes]]]

Chapter 17

Bram Wildshore (Guardian of Dragontide) reaches down and rescues Ellie, gives her food and water, tells her not to go any farther that odds of her survival are slim. But Ellie explains what she is looking for. Bram says there is a price to pay if she crosses into the actual Thornveil Wilds, and he says that price is that she will be a stranger to her family, they will no longer know her.

Outline for Chapter 17: “The Guardian’s Warning”

I. Bram Wildshore Appears A. Bram reaches down and rescues Ellie from the ravine B. Bram is the Guardian of Dragontide, tasked with protecting the borders of the Thornveil Wilds C. Bram provides Ellie with food and water, concerned for her wellbeing

II. Bram Advises Ellie to Turn Back A. Bram tells Ellie the odds of her survival are slim if she ventures deeper into the Wilds B. Ellie explains her purpose – to find the Dragonscale Moss for the Elixiron to save her grandfather C. Bram warns Ellie there is a heavy price to pay for crossing into the heart of the Thornveil Wilds

III. The Price of Entering the Thornveil Wilds A. Bram reveals that if Ellie proceeds, she will become a stranger to her own family B. Her loved ones, including her mother and grandfather, will no longer recognize or know her C. Ellie is shocked and dismayed by this revelation, realizing the true sacrifice she may have to make

IV. Ellie’s Dilemma A. Ellie is torn between turning back to preserve her connection to her family B. Or pressing on, risking that bond, in order to obtain the Dragonscale Moss and save her grandfather C. Bram urges her to reconsider, warning of the Wilds’ unforgiving nature

V. Ellie’s Resolve Strengthens A. Ellie remembers her grandfather’s declining health and the doctor’s dire prognosis B. She decides she must continue on, no matter the personal cost C. Ellie thanks Bram for the warning, but states her determination to find the moss

VI. Bram’s Parting Words A. Bram solemnly nods, accepting Ellie’s choice B. He warns her to be vigilant and not let her guard down in the Thornveil Wilds C. Bram watches as Ellie resumes her journey, disappearing into the treacherous forest

This outline explores the high-stakes dilemma Ellie faces, as the Guardian of Dragontide reveals the heavy price she may have to pay to obtain the Dragonscale Moss. It delves into the emotional conflict as Ellie must choose between her family ties or her grandfather’s life. Let me know if you would like me to expand or modify this outline further.