The sun beat down on the expansive plains east of the Weave, as it raced to the ocean deep in the west. Two figures on foot cast long shadows over the dry and parched earth as they stalked from rocky perch to low bush. Stands of long grass and hearty vegetation were the only evidence that this place would be a lush and green pasture in more temperate weather. This vast plain between Naroom and the Weave was always dry and hot during the height of the summer; here it was unusually late in the year for it to remain this desolate.
"Look! There’s one now!" Grej pointed toward a shimmering cloud of dream energy coalescing in the air a short distance away. "This has got to be it! Just look at the size of that cloud!" Grej was barely able to keep herself from laughing out loud with excitement. Her fungus-haired companion was more reserved. Ulk was far more distracted by the brilliant light and heat than her hardier mountain-bred friend. Underlings were ill suited for this environment, but she had agreed after Grej mentioned the striped korrits that Wence had mentioned. She was glad Ulk came. It was no small creature she was after and she enjoyed Ulk’s company. As for Grej, she was hoping to come across one of the famed but elusive junjertrugs, which could only be found in the open expanses of these barren northern plains. The two friends had been searching the plains for three days and the cloud currently forming before them was by far the largest they had encountered thus far.
"It must be a junjertrug!" repeated Grej, anticipation filling her voice with passion. She turned to Ulk, "Hope you been trainin? this ain’t gonna be an easy fi? Her words trailed off as she saw the determined and eager look on Ulk’s ruddy face. "Hehehe, alright, lets do it!"
Like a pair of hunting jiles, they raced toward the sparkling cloud of dream energy. As they neared, they noticed two smaller clouds forming alongside their target, as if attracted to the imminent battle. With a deafening roar the junjertrug materialized in a flash of green and gold dream energy. Towering above the two Magi, the massive dream creature raised its shaggy head to the sky, its curling horns framing its enormous jaws as they opened to issue a roar of challenge. Ulk, having already planned her first course of action, calmly waved her hand as she magined forth her bold parmalag and trademark korrit pack. Her favorite korrit, Kyug, led the pack as they charged into battle. The creatures looked out of place on the open sunny field but Ulk knew them like family. They were up to the fight regardless of the setting. A split second later, Grej magined her own korrit and began to circle the huge Weave creature. The junjertrug reared up on its hind legs, then slammed down with earth-rending force. Like an avalanche of muscle, fur and tusk the junjertrug charged toward the challenging creatures. Waiting for just the right instant, Grej cried out the words of a carefully memorized spell. As the spell took effect, the ground beneath the charging beast’s claws creaked and roared, suddenly shifting upward and clasping the junjertrug’s mighty legs—stopping the monster in its tracks.
"Now!" Ulk shouted, signaling to her parmalag. The parmalag curled into attack position, leaving only rock hard carapace exposed, and began to spin at blinding speed, shredding a path toward the junjertrug. Amused by the little dream creature’s efforts, the junjertrug the parmalag approach. With a show of unimaginable strength, the mighty dream creature tore free from the magical grip of Grej’s Feet of Stone spell and bellowed triumphantly, swiftly leaping out of the way of the rolling parmalag, which spun past harmlessly.
Without missing a beat, Ulk motioned to Kyug to gather the korrits—now joined by Grej’s korrit. Ulk muttered some ancient phrases she knew by heart, closing her eyes in momentary concentration as she used her special craft to strengthen the entire pack of korrits. The korrits seemed to swell in stature as a rain of violet energy surrounded them. The visibly enhanced korrits moved to swarm the junjertrug.
The two smaller clouds of wavering dream energy chose that moment to flash open and release a pair of new combatants into the fray. "Ulk! Beside you!" Grej shouted, pointing at the newly arrived creatures now flanking the Underwarden. Ulk calmly eyed the new beasts. Grej watched in disbelief as the two creatures charged up to join the korrits in attacking the junjertrug. As they joined the korrits, Grej realized that these were korrits as well, albeit a little different from those she was used to seeing. She looked to Ulk and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Don’t worry Grej, I think these must be the striped korrits Wence told us about. They’re on our side," Ulk said, reassuring her confused friend.
Looking back to the heated battle, they saw the junjertrug buried in a mound of swarming korrits, still struggling valiantly and putting up a mighty fight. "Alright then! Lets see what we can’t do about this big guys attitude!" Grej’s spirits were lifted by the sudden change of odds. The junjertrug, however, shrugged off its attackers with a mighty shake of its wooly hide and resumed its charge in the direction of the two magi.
With only seconds remaining before the great beast trampled them both, Grej swept her arm low to the ground, then reversed it in a sweeping arc far over her head, before bringing her fist smashing into the ground like a lightning bolt. As her fist hit the ground, a man sized boulder streaked from the sky and crashed into the junjertrug, knocking it from its feet and sending it sprawling. Signaling to Kyug with a wave of her crystal gauntlet, Ulk commanded the strengthened pack of korrits resume their attack. They crashed into the hulking form of the junjertrug, a tidal wave of enraged, shrieking mushrooms. With a final bellow of rage, the junjertrug lost its remaining energy and fled back to the dream plane. The flash of dream energy caused by its abrupt departure sent Grej and Ulk reeling backward and a sonic boom tore at their eardrums as air rushed into the space left by the vanished creature. The battle was over. A shimmering of blue animite crystals tinkled down to form a small heap where the junjertrug had once been.
"WHEW!! Don’t get that kinda fight at the training grounds!" Grej exclaimed, clapping the dust off her hands. "Ulk, you did great! Those striped korrits showed up just in time! How did you know they were coming if you didn’t magine them?"
"Well, its hard to explain, it was like they were surprised to see me too and I could just tell they were there to help I guess? Ulk said modestly.
"It was perfect! Wait’ll I tell the kids in Ogar’s class about the mighty Ulk and how she stood fearless, beside her ever expanding korrit allies! Ha ha! What fun, we should do this all the time!" Ulk shuffled her feet bashfully and couldn’t help but crack a smile. She enjoyed fighting alongside her korrits. She loved to see how they were growing and progressing, as she had raised many of them from the time they were just spores.
"Well, let’s go see how much animite that big terror left us!" Grej slapped Ulk on the back and trotted toward the celebrating korrits.
The sun sank into the western sky as the two set up camp and started a fire. Grej was ecstatic about all the infused animite the junjertrug had left behind. It was more than enough to forge a ring. Ulk rushed to describe the striped korrits in detail in her Underwarden’s journal, rendering elaborate illustrations of the creatures and denoting all the features she could remember. Her own belt pouch was full of infused animite as well, the striped korrits had left a lot of it behind, though they undreamt themselves. Ulk figured it was their way of saying, "Let’s be friends." She couldn’t wait to see if there was enough for Fossik to make her a ring.
As the evening wore on into full night, Ulk fell soundly asleep, happily curled up with her journal while Kyug—whom she had left magined—purred contentedly against her side. Grej was just about to turn in when she saw a familiar shape heading her way through the dim light cast upon the plains by the homeworld above. Squinting, she strained to make out what looked like Vokor, her oldest friend and strongest creature. She had left his ring with Ullig, back home in Kybar’s Teeth, to aid in the diligent patrolling of the region. Although happy to see him as always, she couldn’t help but wonder why would he fly so far north to see her, unless it was incredibly urgent.
On silent wings, the vogo swooped down beside their fire and bowed his head to meet Grej’s hugging arms. When the happy reunion was over, Vokor produced a letter from Targ’n himself. It contained news both urgent and dire. He described his puzzling dreams and his fears of dark times rapidly approaching. The letter also warned her that Naroom had already been attacked by the dark powers of the Core. He ordered her to hasten to Vash Naroom and meet up with Kazm if it wasn’t already too late.
Turning from Targ’n’s directive back to her trusted vogo, Grej declared, "Well, it appears fate is on our side, big guy. We couldn’t be more than a couple of days from Vash Naroom, I think? She looked up and thought a minute. "Well, in any case, we can’t be loungin?around here! HEY ULK!!" Ulk jumped up in alarm, sending Kyug bouncing on his spongy head with an indignant squeal.
Ulk peered around blearily. "Wha-what? LOOK OUT…oh, hey Vokor. Umm…what’s wrong Grej?" When Grej explained Targ’n’s message, Ulk agreed with her friend that they should head to Naroom right away. She had been there once before, when Tony Jones had finally defeated Agram. There had been a big party at which she had met many new magi from all across the Moonlands. Ulk fondly remembered the funny little historian Evu as well as Pruitt, Poad and so many others. Before the Naroomese had helped Tony on his journey to defeat Agram, the Underneath had been plagued with terrible invasions of Core monsters. The entire Moonlands owed a great deal to the people of Naroom and Ulk felt it was only right that she aid them in whatever way she could. She was sure that her Underling companions would agree. "Their enemy is our enemy!" That’s what Gogor and Strag would say, she thought.
It was nearing midnight when Ulk and Grej began their journey eastward into the great forests of Naroom. Although it was hard to see in the dim light from distant El, it seemed preferable to walking in the uncharacteristic heat of the autumn sun. Despite the foreboding nature of their mission, the pair found themselves in good spirits. Grej had never been to Naroom or in a forest like the one that was rapidly growing thicker around them as they moved steadily northeast. As they walked through the thickening underbrush, Ulk told her friend all about the funny historian of Vash Naroom and those little candies he loved, as well as the fun loving Naroom Magi and their terrific tree city. Grej could hardly imagine the things Ulk was describing and couldn’t wait to see them. It sounded like such a light and lively place, much removed from this silent and near lightless maze of trees.
"Was it this dark when you came through here before, Ulk?" Grej asked seriously, expertly hiding the fact that she was more than a little spooked by the murky woods around them.
"Now that you mention it, it is a little too quiet. I remember the singing of life all around last time." The sounds were the thing she remembered most, Underlings delighted in sounds that were inaudible to most. The low light didn’t really bother her, but the strange silence was disturbing now that her friend had pointed it out. Her keen hearing just barely picked up the faint whispers of life around them. Their mood changed from determined and anxious to an unspoken fear. Grej could practically feel menacing little eyes observing and following their every move.
"It looks as if there is a clearing just ahead" Ulk said, breaking the silence and trying to lighten the mood.
"It will be light soon, too." Grej added almost questioningly. She wondered at how their fun trip had turned into this dark mission. On the bright side, Grej looked forward to seeing her old pal Kazm again. Of all the Magi Grej had grown up with, Kazm was the most light-hearted and enjoyable to be around, despite his comical fixation with girls. It cheered her up to think of him stumbling over his words and falling all over himself pathetically whenever he was around her, or any girl for that matter. "I’m sure he’ll be beside himself with joy when he finds out we’ve been sent to meet up with him," Grej thought to herself with a smile.
A clearing opened before them and the cool blue light from the planet El was a welcome relief to the weary travelers. They both wanted to stay but decided it would be better to push on until morning and sleep for a while in the comforting light of day. After a brief rest, they continued on. Moments after starting back into the dark trees, a deafening cracking sound rang out from behind them. The surrounding trees were suddenly lit by a ghostly green light from the direction of the clearing they had just left. Ulk and Grej halted and turned to face the source of the light, more than half expecting the forest to come alive and devour them. Grej heard a familiar cry pierce the darkness only to be followed by sudden silence. After a split-second pause, their paralyzing fear galvanized into grim determination and without a word they bolted back to the clearing. As they neared, Grej could make out a twisted heap that must be the victim of whatever dark magic the forest had just unleashed. Her worst fears were confirmed as they neared the edge of the clearing. Grej leapt and dodged obstacles that seemed to be trying to keep her and Ulk from their goal. Ulk found herself barely able to keep up. The whispers from the forest around them became louder and louder as they approached the edge of the clearing.
"GREJ! STOP! Don’t go out there!" Ulk screamed to Grej, suddenly sensing the danger they were in. She dove and tripped Grej, sending them both sprawling just outside the edge of the clearing.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?" Grej angrily snapped through her ragged breaths.
"Listen!" Ulk hissed. "Look around. We are surrounded by? by? her voice trailed off, as she struggled for words to describe the seething darkness surrounding and filling the clearing.
"By the vast and unsleeping darkness of the Core." A calm and foreboding voice crept from a dark, cloaked figure, which seemed to materialize out of the shadow. Ghostly green eyes blazed from beneath the hood, belying the calm determined voice of the specter looming tall over the two fallen magi. Despite the nature of his appearance, neither Ulk nor Grej feared him. The figure turned his cloaked face toward the unconscious Magi at the center of the clearing. Turning back to Grej, he reached out with two gloved hands, grasping Grej’s shoulders.
"Ulk is right, you can’t help your friend now, not here." The seething green eyes bored into Grej’s frantic eyes, but the voice had become surprisingly gentle. Grej peered beyond the mysterious stranger to see a host of dark twisted shapes descend from the blackness clinging to the trees. Within moments they had overtaken the unconscious magi in the clearing. Grej brushed off the stranger’s hands and jumped to her feet.
"WE HAVE TO HELP HIM! THAT’S MY FRIEND OUT THERE!" Grej shook off the surprise and reasoning and leapt to her feet. "I’m not gonna sit here and let them hurt Kazm! We gotta help’im!" Once more, the stranger held her back.
"We can’t fight the shadows—not yet. But there is another way?
Grej slumped in defeat as the shadows cloaking Kazm’s crumpled form began to spirit him away. Soon, her friend had disappeared into the surrounding darkness, lost from sight.
By this time, Ulk had risen from the ground and was now peering curiously at the strange Magi. "H-how did you know my name?" Ulk asked in a hoarse whisper, now sure he wasn’t a Core Magi or worse. "Who are you?"
Reaching up and pulling back the hood shrouding his identity, Yaki waved his hand to indicate the departed shadows and their captive. The girls gasped in shock as they beheld his well-known but somehow darkly altered features. "You gotta be cool, sister. Fight another day. That day is right around the corner, oooooh yeah!"
Ulk swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. "Yaki? Is that you? Wha…what happened to you? You look terrible!"
Yaki’s greenish face split in his old familiar grin—a sight both alarming and reassuring. "If you wanna help Kazm, we gotta team up. There is a lot to tell you and alotta ears out here?" He gave the surrounding woods a quick glance and, assured they were unnoticed, nodded approval. "Lets roll!"
What happens next? Read Part 3 "Baddies are Bad"
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