Émilien jumped off the side of the mountain and landed in the middle of a small grouping of trees. The mist roiled up around his thighs then settled back to mid-calf height. He stilled, straining his ears as he listened for the normal sounds of the forest, but heard nothing. Not even the scurrying of small animals or signs of the magical creatures from other pantheons could be detected, which was unusual. As the realm’s guardian, he saw all, from the timidest spirit to forgotten god, and held court for all with any perceived problem.
Turning in a tight circle, he raised his nose in the air and sniffed. The only scent he caught was elusive and faint. Old, as if no one had been in the area for a while.
Frustration mounting, he moved soundlessly through the trees, their bare limbs skeletal in the darkness, lending a macabreness to the space. It was as if it was a never-ending winter without the frigid temperatures. He wouldn’t mind if it were freezing since he was covered in fur. That was the only thing he had liked about Hel’s kingdom, the cold that seemed to permeate everything so completely.
He continued his rounds, checking everywhere and everything he could, but found no one. Not a single spirit, animal, or god. Frowning, he made his way back to the caverns, praying Madoc and the other three were still there.
He strode through the outer entrance and heard voices. Exhaling in relief, he entered the kitchen and stopped, tilting his head at the scene in front of him. “What in the hell are you all doing?”
All four heads jerked around, their eyes wide in surprise, but it was Madoc who lowered himself to the floor to face Émilien. The coblynau looked up from a height of just above Émilien’s knees and smiled. “We are preparing your dinner, sir. Delara didn’t want me moving about all by myself and messing up what she had just repaired, so I put them to work. We’re making your favorite—stew. From your mother’s recipe, of course, but with extra meat.”
“And cornbread? You know I can’t eat Mama’s stew without cornbread.”
Cattarix sat up a bit straighter, and Émilien noticed lumps of yellow batter coating the panther’s black fur-covered paws. A very messy spoon dangled between his claws, which were pressed together, so he could stir the ingredients. “Yes, Émilien, you will have cornbread with your stew.”
Émilien covered his internal laughter with a scowl, his gaze meeting Cattarix’s. “I better not find black hair in my bread.”
The fire demon chuckled. “How would you ever know if it was his or yours since your fur is black too?”
Émilien glared at Ostrik’s innocent expression. “I will know.”
Humph. “I don’t have to finish this, you know.” Cattarix raised his paw and licked off the batter from one of his long claws. “Tastes good enough just like this. Maybe I’ll just lick the bowl, so you won’t have to worry about fur.”
A low growl filled the room, stopping the panther from sticking his tongue in the middle of the lumpy batter. “I have a much more pressing question to ask all of you—Cattarix, keep your tongue out of my supper.” It was difficult, but Émilien managed to keep a straight face. He manifested a chair and turned it around, before sitting and letting his arms drape over the back. “Have any of you noticed anything off here?”
Delara frowned. “In here?”
He swallowed his instant frustration. She was still a chick. “No, little one, in the Shadow Lands.”
“Everything was normal before we saved you,” Ostrik said. Émilien glanced down at him, lifting one heavy brow. The fire demon’s skin turned a darker red.
Delara patted his arm. “Remember what Émilien said about not biting us. Just ignore him when he glares at you.”
Cattarix huffed in disgust and in one fluid movement, stretched and dropped to the cave floor before heading outside.
Madoc hurried after the black panther as fast as his still-healing body would allow, grumbling about manners and making the large cat clean up the batter-splotched floor. Émilien twisted his neck and leaned back to see Madoc stop in the cave entrance. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for, you silly cat! Come back here and clean up your mess!”
Émilien rolled his eyes and shook his head. “As I was saying—”
Madoc let out a loud yelp, and Émilien whirled around to see a wide-eyed Cattarix leap back inside, his sides heaving, Madoc pressed against the cave wall beside him. “Cattarix, what is it?”
“I tried to transport to my father, but the way is blocked. We can’t leave this valley. Some sort of force field is holding us here. Why?”
“Well, that’s something strange,” Ostrik said. “Was that what you were talking about, Émilien?”
“No. I was talking about the lack of residents. During my rounds, I found no one. No magical creatures, no gods or goddesses, and even the spirits are gone.”
“Émilien you try to return to Midgard,” Delara suggested. As he’d done a million times, he opened his mind and called on the Elven magic that allowed him to move between worlds. He felt the magical buildup, a sort of energy surrounding his body, but he couldn’t leave. Meeting the small chick’s gaze, he shook his head. “Oh, dear, that isn’t good,” she muttered.
She then turned to the fire demon. “Ostrik, you try. You can do amazing things.”
He held Delara’s gaze, and the beautiful phoenix chick smiled and nodded. “Where should I try to go? I never leave the Shadow Lands.”
Émilien leaned down on one knee, close to the fire demon. “Try to get into Helheimr. The Shadow Lands are part of Hel’s domain, and she will be able to break through whatever is holding us here.” He reached under the wide belt slung across his chest and pulled out a small ring from a special pocket he’d had sewn into the leather.
Laying the ring in his large palm and, using the pad of his finger, he traced the elegant circle, remembering the day he had fashioned the piece of jewelry, the Elven symbol of unity twisted into the elegant band. He had carried it close to his heart for a millennia, unwilling to part with something so precious. Something that had meant everything to him. Before he changed his mind, he held out the ring to the fire demon.
“Give this to Hel, and she will let you return here.”