22. The Tunnel
The faint, reddish light from Zing's breath showed Zann that he and his friends were in a stone passageway. The place had a damp, dusty smell that tickled Zann's nose.
"Careful," Perda whispered as they started walking. "We don't know what could be hiding down here."
Zann tried not to think about that. He kept his gaze on Zing, who flew ahead, letting out an occasional burst of flame to light the way.
Suddenly Zing spun around and leaped at him. "Whoa!" Zann cried. "What's the matter with you? This is no time for our game!"
He tried to push the dragon aside. But Zing spat fire at him, narrowly missing Zann's arm.
"Zing!" Zann scolded again. "Stop—"
"Wait," Darb told Zann. "He might be trying to tell us something."
Perda peered past them. "Look," she said. "There's a hole!"
Zing relaxed and backed off. He scampered to the edge of the drop-off, blowing out a sheet of flame so they could see better. Zann gulped as he looked down. The hole was at least ten feet deep. And something at the bottom was moving.
"What's down there?" Gliss sounded horrified.
"It looks like a nest of cave hissers." Darb shuddered. "This must be a trap in case anyone tried to follow the king or queen." He patted Zing. "Thanks for the warning, little buddy."
They picked their way carefully around the pit. After that nobody talked much. They just walked.
And walked. And then walked some more. The tunnel took so many twists and turns that Zann completely lost his bearings.
Then Zing stopped again. "Look! There's a fork in the tunnel," Darb said.
"Which way should we go?" asked Perda. "Both tunnels go up."
"Well, we have to take one of them," said Gliss. "I vote we go that way." Gliss pointed at the left-hand tunnel.
They followed Zing's glowing breath up the tunnel. "Careful," Zann said as he stumbled over something. "There's a rock on the floor here."
He waved the others past him so they wouldn't trip. Then he glanced down at the object on the floor.
His eyes widened. "I was wrong, you guys," he said. "It's not a rock. It's a bone!"
"What?" Gliss squeaked. "What kind of bone?"
Suddenly a terrible howl echoed through the tunnel behind them. A huge, dark beast emerged right out of the wall!
"Oh no! It's a shadow beast!" Darb shouted.
"A what?" Perda exclaimed.
"I didn't think they really existed." Darb sounded scared.
"Run!" Zann yelled.
They ran up the tunnel with the shadow beast chasing them. Perda was in the lead, but after a short distance, she skidded to a stop.
"Dead end!" she cried breathlessly.
Zann looked back, terrified. The monster was lurching right toward them!
Just then Zing flew toward the beast, sending out a burst of flame and lighting up the whole tunnel. To everyone's amazement the shadow beast disappeared for a moment!
"That's right!" Darb said. "Shadow beasts have to stay in the dark. The light destroys them."
Zing continued to breathe fire while everyone quickly ran back down the tunnel. They reached the fork and dashed up the right-hand tunnel. Zing soon followed.
"Whew, that was close," Perda said.
"Yeah," Gliss said. "I hope this tunnel leads to the palace. Because I definitely don't want to pass that thing again!"
Nobody answered. They all just started walking again. And soon they were climbing as the tunnel grew steeper and steeper.
Just when Zann was starting to think they'd be climbing forever, Darb spoke. "Is it my imagination, or is it getting lighter in here?"
Zann suddenly realized Darb was right. "There must be an opening nearby!"
They hurried around the next corner. Just up ahead, pale light poured in through an opening at the end of the tunnel! The opening was large enough for a person to squeeze through—except it was completely crisscrossed with stout iron bars.
"I think we found the palace!" Gliss exclaimed.
Zann pressed his face against the iron bars. The opening was located near the floor of a large room. A pair of golden chairs stood in the center of the polished floor.
"This must be the throne room!" Zann whispered.
"Then where is everybody?" Perda murmured.
Zann shrugged. "I'm sure the king and queen don't spend all their time here," he said. "All we have to do is wait for—"
The crash of doors flying open drowned out the rest of his words. About a dozen people rushed into the throne room, talking loudly. Zann couldn't follow most of what they were saying, but they sounded upset.
"Isn't that the queen?" Perda pointed to a statuesque woman with bright red hair.
Zann nodded. "I see the king too. Let's try to get their attention."
Before he could yell, there was a blinding flash of light. Zann had to squeeze his eyes shut for a second.
When he opened them, the scene had changed. Morb was in the throne room, along with a dozen trolls and at least fifty tiny, stinging dragons!
"No!" someone screamed. "Your Majesties—"
"Get back!" the king's deep voice roared.
Others were also shouting, screaming, or calling out various spells. Above the din Zann could hear Morb's chilling laugh.
There was another flash of light. Thick, choking smoke filled the room. When it cleared, the scene had changed again.
The king and queen were gone, along with the few other Reds who had been present. The trolls and dragons were gone too. Everyone else was frozen or unconscious.
Morb had also vanished. But Zann could still hear the fading echo of his terrible cackle.