The three children stepped bravely into the blank nothingness of the ghost house, and then the door slammed shut behind them. It was darker even than the tunnel that had led them into the city earlier that day; not just dark in its aspect but in the haunting emptiness of its nature. They could see absolutely nothing, and they felt as if they were standing on the edge of a great void, as if there were no walls or stones or passageways beyond—just a great, heart-crushing nothingness that went on forever.
Joe took hold of his siblings' hands, and in a voice that bore a good deal more courage than he felt, he said, “Let’s go further.”
They took a few tentative steps into the darkness, uncertain if the next one would offer them firm ground to stand on or an endless chasm into the heart of the earth. But they kept walking, one small step after another. The ground under their feet seemed to be sloping downward, so they soon had the sense of being deep underground. There were no sounds around them, no echo of life anywhere ahead of them, nothing but the soft scuffing of their own feet and the pounding of their hearts.
“There’s nothing in here,” Lady whimpered, but in the silence her voice sounded like thunder.
“How far down does it go?” asked Sim.
“I don’t know,” said Joe. “But there must be something—“
His words were cut off by a boom that rolled through the darkness like an earthquake. It was so loud that the children covered their ears. They could feel the tremors in the ground underneath them. But for as loud as the sound was, it wasn’t terrifying. There seemed to be something else in that sound, something different from the darkness surrounding them. It wasn’t the boom of a prison-gate slamming shut; it was more like the peal of a thousand trumpets and drums all blasting forth at once.
Just a moment or two after the sound rolled over them, and before the children even had time to ask one another what had happened, they began to see a light in the darkness far below. Ahead of them, and a long ways down the slope of the cavernous passage, a tinge of golden beauty blossomed into view. They couldn’t see the source of the light, just the edges of it: like the very first hints of a sunrise on the horizon. But slowly, just like the dawn, that golden luster grew. It turned the darkness from gray to darkest purple, then deepest red, and then the fire of brightest orange.
As the great light filled up the vast, dark tunnel down into the ghost house, they began to hear another sound: the muted thunder of footsteps all striking the earth together, like the music of an army at march. Then suddenly, just as the light grew as bright as the blaze of a noonday sun, they saw a figure stride into view. He was tall and strong, with a flaming torch in his hand and a red-stained tunic flowing from his shoulders. And though he was still very far way, the children could see that the man with the torch wore a bright silver helmet, with a wreathed crown of gold about the top.
“It’s the Prince!” Sim shouted, and before the other two could even process their astonishment, their brother was off racing down the passageway toward him.
Soon all three were running, dashing breathlessly down the tunnel, straight toward the brilliant torch and the man who bore it. As they ran, Joe saw that there were others behind the Prince—many, many others, all walking in stride with their radiant leader. But he didn’t even pay any attention to them at first. All he knew was that the Prince was back, and the joy of that moment flooded his heart in a breathtaking wave of exultation.
The Prince saw them coming and knelt to receive them, beaming a wide smile. He passed his torch to the man next to him then threw open his arms to receive the children, just as he had thrown open his arms to take the blow that felled him earlier. They crashed into his embrace with a cascade of laughter and tears, and he wrapped them up in his arms.
‘My brave squires!” he said softly, tousling the hair on their heads. “Have you really come here after me?”
“I told you, Prince,” said Lady, looking at him through swimming eyes. “I told you that I would follow you anywhere.”
“And so you have, dear one,” he replied, his own eyes suddenly bright with tears.
“There was nothing else for us to do,” Sim explained, his head still pressed against the Prince’s chest in the fervor of his embrace. “You were our whole adventure, after all.”
“And you are mine too. Here you are, coming after me, and all the while I was coming after you. Nothing in heaven or on earth can hold me back from you, my friends.”
“We weren’t going to give up,” Joe said. “We were going to rescue our Uncle and Auntie, and then take the kingdom back for you, even if you were gone. But we knew we couldn’t give up.”
“Your courage and faith would be enough to set the old Steward shaking in terror,” said the Prince. “And with such friends as you at my side, how can we fail?”
“But what happened here, Prince?” asked Lady. “We thought you were dead. We thought maybe everybody in here was dead.”
“Not even death can stop the one true King. No, I had to let the Steward send me down here, so I could destroy his power from the inside out. Everything he has locked away from the light is about to come bursting into the morning of a whole new life, and he will not be able to withstand it. Today, sweet ones—today everything changes.”
He stood and took the torch back from the man beside him. It was only then that Joe recognized him—Dama, the First Consul of Arrens, now proud and strong and radiant in the glow of the Prince’s light. Then Joe peered past the Prince and caught sight of the others trailing him: a multitude of people stepping out from the darkness, with undying joy writ large upon their faces.
Then he heard the soft, distant sound of a voice he knew well, as if a memory from a half-forgotten dream had suddenly come back from him.
“Is that my Joe?” the voice said. “And the others, is that them?”
The crowd began to part as someone from further back began to jostle his way to the front. Into the circle of torchlight a worn, weary face appeared, but it was a face that spoke love through every fiber of Joe’s being.
“Uncle!” he cried, launching into the crowd and wrapping the old man’s waist in a fierce hug.
“And Auntie too!” Lady shouted, letting out a little squeal of delight as she dashed into the arms of the lady who had appeared at their uncle’s side.
Sim rushed up and grabbed both of them together, sticking his head in between the two adults and trying to cling to all the members of his family at once.
They laughed and cried and hugged together until all their tears were gone. Then the Uncle looked down into Joe’s eyes.
“My brave little man,” he breathed softly. “I can’t believe it…”
Then they both looked over at the Prince, who stood watching them with the spark of a proud and humble love in his eyes.
“Come,” said the Prince. “Come and follow me. We have one more work yet to do.”
So they followed after him, their Light-bearer, up out of darkness and death, right to the very gates of the ghost-prison itself. The Prince handed the torch to Consul Dama once again, and laying his shoulder against the heavy wooden beams, he pressed against them with all his might. The wood groaned and cracked, and then with a grating cry from the hinges, it swung out. The bright light of daytime streamed in upon them, and they had to pause while their eyes adjusted to the brilliance. Even in their light-dazzled eyes, though, they could see the terrified face of the guard, who dropped his spear and shield and set off running toward the Citadel.
“Prince! Prince!” Joe tugged at his sleeve. “We still have Sir Mack and Sir Kobi and maybe a few others out there. I told them we would find a way to open the gates so they could come in and fight the Steward.”
“Well done!” beamed the Prince. “Consul Dama—take a few strong men with you and these three squires, and see that you convince the gatehouse guards to open the doors of the city.”
“It shall be done!” grinned the Consul.
“Once you have them open,” continued the Prince, “have your forces meet us in the Citadel. I’m going to find Steward Presten.”
Sim rushed over to the spear the guard had dropped, lifted it up, and then placed it in the Prince’s hand.
“Go get him, my lord. We’ll be right at your back in no time.”
The Prince smiled again. “Let’s go, friends. Today we take our city back!”