21. A Hopeless Search?
Magica's royal palace stood in a grand cobblestone square in the exact center of the city, its graceful spires reaching toward the sky. Normally the square was very crowded. Today, though, only a few people scurried across it, looking this way and that. And none of them were Reds.
Zann and his friends stopped at the edge of the square. Perda, Gliss, and Darb stared at the palace in awe. Zann wasn't surprised. There definitely wasn't anything like this in Swamp Bottom!
Just then Darb gasped. "What?" Zann asked.
"Trolls!" Darb whispered, pointing.
Several of the ugly, hulking creatures were lumbering across the square!
The kids all ducked behind some shrubs. "Now what?" Gliss asked. "We can't just walk up to the palace with those trolls there, even with our disguises. They might recognize us."
"We need a plan," Perda said.
"Yeah," Zann said slowly. "And I think I have an idea."
"What?" Darb asked.
"When I was a little kid, I met a Void named Gert who was an animal caretaker at my parents' lab. He told me once that there's a secret way to sneak in or out of the palace," Zann said. "It's an underground tunnel that goes all the way from the palace to a big public park. Gert said the tunnel was built during the Old Times, when dark magic was everywhere. The king and queen needed a way to escape in case an enemy struck them with a Dousing spell to keep them from using their magic."
"Really?" Gliss sounded hopeful. "Do you know which park Gert was talking about?"
Zann nodded. "I used to pass it on the way to a friend's house. We could be there in fifteen minutes."
He led the way through the city. Like the palace square, all the streets were deserted.
"Where is everyone?" Gliss asked.
"They're probably hiding from those trolls," Perda said.
Soon they reached the park. It was even bigger than Zann remembered, taking up four city blocks. Dozens of tall stone statues dotted the grounds.
"Wow." Gliss glanced around. "How are we ever going to find a secret tunnel entrance here?"
"Did Gert give you any hints about where to search, Zann?" Perda asked.
"Not that I can remember," Zann said. "Let's just split up and start looking around."
His friends wandered off and started peering under and around the statues. Zann kicked at the park's paving stones, testing to see if any seemed loose. Zing followed Zann around for a while, but then the dragon spotted a buzz worm and started playing with it. The worm buzzed angrily as Zing tossed it into the air.
"Settle down," Zann told the dragon. "You could help us search, you know."
Zing ignored him, batting the buzz worm under a huge statue of a warrior mounted on a dragon. Zann sighed. Normally he enjoyed watching Zing play. But today wasn't normal. Not even close.
"See anything?" he called to his friends, who were still checking out the other statues. Perda had even climbed on top of one.
"Nothing out of the ordinary that I can see," she said.
"We've been searching for half an hour and we're no closer to finding the tunnel entrance," Gliss said. "Maybe we should go back to the palace. The trolls might have left by now."
Just then Zing let out a squawk of surprise.
"Quit fooling around, Zing!" Zann called. He bent down and peered under the dragon statue. "We don't have time for . . ." His voice trailed off. "Zing?"
"What's wrong?" Darb asked.
"He ran under this statue," Zann said. "But now I don't see him." Then he gasped as Zing's head suddenly popped out from the belly of the stone dragon!
By now Gliss had come over to examine the statue too. She blinked in surprise when she saw Zing. "I just checked this one—there was no hole or anything, I swear! I even felt under it as far as I could reach!"
Zann dropped to his hands and knees and crawled under the stone dragon. "The hole must be hidden with some kind of a Camouflaging spell," he said.
Zing had disappeared again. Zann pressed his hands against the spot where he'd just seen his dragon. At first all he felt was smooth, solid stone. But when he pressed a little harder, the stone dissolved and his hand disappeared into nothingness!
"This is it!" he called, amazed. "We found the secret tunnel!" He twisted and shoved himself through the invisible hole. Now that he was inside, he could see that the entire statue was hollow!
Zann glanced toward the back end of the statue just in time to see a spurt of flame coming from that direction. He crawled toward the flame and saw a narrow tunnel angled steeply downward. It was pitch-black except for the glow thrown off by Zing's fiery breath.
Darb and the girls had climbed into the statue too.
"Wait up, Zing!" Darb called. "You'll have to be our light."
"Let's stay close together, okay?" Gliss sounded scared. "I don't want to get lost down here in the dark."
Zann inched his way down the tunnel. "Whoa!" he cried as he started sliding fast. It was steeper than he'd thought!
He landed on Zing's tail, and the dragon let out an offended squawk.
"Sorry," Zann said. "You should've moved out of the way."
He scooted aside as the others slid down. "That was a long way down!" Perda exclaimed. "How will we get back up there without magic?"
"If we make it to the palace, we won't have to worry about that," Zann pointed out. "Come on, let's go."