We Begin Our Story with a Story
IN THE HINTERLANDS OF eastern Siberia was the village where Katherine, North, and Ombric called home. The village of Santoff Claussen felt somewhat lonely without them, but a dozen or so adventurous children played in the enchanted forest that protected their homes from the outside world. The surrounding oak trees were among the largest in the world. Their massive trunks and limbs were a paradise for climbing.
Petter, a strong boy of twelve who imagined himself a daring hero, catapulted onto the porch of his favorite tree house. He landed just ahead of his little sister, Sascha. She was testing her latest invention: gloves and shoes that allowed her to scamper up a tree, like a squirrel. But Petter’s catapult was faster.
“I’ll beat you next time,” Sascha said, hoping that a small engine on the heel of each shoe would do the trick.
She peered down at the clearing hundreds of feet below. The village’s bear, a massive creature, loped around the perimeter of the clearing along with Petrov, the horse of Nicholas St. North. Sascha was wondering if she’d ever be allowed to ride Petrov when she spied Tall William, the first son of Old William, squatting on his heels, talking to a group of centipedes. The children of Santoff Claussen had begun to learn the easier insect languages (ant, worm, snail), but Tall William was the first to tackle the more difficult speech of centipede. Sascha pressed a trumpet-shaped sound amplifier to her ear.
Tall William reported what the centipedes said, that all was well—Pitch, the Nightmare King, was nowhere to be seen. It was a warm summer day, but the memory of that terrible time when Pitch appeared in Santoff Claussen made Sascha shiver as if it were the darkest night in deepest winter.
Pitch had once been a hero of the Golden Age, an ancient time when Constellations ruled the universe. His name in those days long ago was General Kozmotis Pitchiner, and he had led the Golden Age Armies in capturing the Fearlings and Dream Pirates who plagued that era. These villains were wily creatures of darkness. When they escaped, they devoured the general’s soul, and from that moment on, he hungered for the dreams of innocent children and was known simply as “Pitch.” He was determined to drain the good from dreams until they became nightmares—every last one of them—so that the children of Earth and then other worlds would live in terror. And the dreams of the children of Santoff Claussen—who had never before known fear or wickedness—were the prizes he coveted most.
Sascha, like the other children of Santoff Claussen, had survived that terrifying night when Pitch’s Fearlings had nearly captured them in the enchanted forest, thanks to a glimmering boy with a moonlit staff who drove back the inky marauders.
Now she climbed out onto a branch and hung by her knees, still holding the ear trumpet. The world looks different upside down, but it sounds the same, she thought.
Sascha listened once more, then lowered the sound amplifier. The insects had said all was well. Even so, what if Pitch and his Fearlings come back again? She frowned, but before that thought could darken her mood, Petter called out for a new contest. “Race you to the clearing!” he shouted, leaping for the nearest branch.
Scrambling down the tree, Sascha’s shoes and gloves now gave her the advantage. She landed proudly in front of Tall William and his brother William the Almost Youngest. Her own brother was still half a tree behind.
She was about to brag about her victory when she spotted the stone elves hunkered amidst the vines and trees. There were at least ten statues in total, and they made for an eerie and unsettling sight, some with arms raised, swords at the ready; others frozen in midscream.
They were Nicholas St. North’s band of outlaws, turned to stone by the Spirit of the Forest. The Spirit had spared North for he alone was true of heart. Rejecting her offer of riches, he had gone to the village’s rescue when Pitch attacked again. He then decided to stay in Santoff Claussen, and became their wizard Ombric Shalazar’s apprentice.
The Spirit of the Forest was just one of the magical barriers their wizard had devised to protect the village when he first created it. He’d also conjured up a hundred-foot-tall hedge, the great black bear the size of a house, and the majestic oaks that blocked the advance of anyone who tried to enter Santoff Claussen with ill intent. But none of these had been able to protect the children from the shadows and Fearlings at Pitch’s command.
Petter and his friend Fog began crossing stick swords with each other, acting out the battle that took place when Nicholas St. North had come face-to-face with Pitch.
Everything they knew and loved had seemed lost until North had galloped up to the rescue on Petrov. Though badly wounded, North had been able to drive Pitch away, but the children all worried that the Nightmare King would return. At this very moment Ombric, North, and their friend Katherine were far from Santoff Claussen, searching for the weapon—some sort of relic!—that would conquer Pitch forever.
The youngest William was near tears. “I’m afraid. Pitch told us he would come back.”
“North, Ombric, and Katherine will find a way to stop him,” Petter told him reassuringly.
William the Absolute Youngest wasn’t entirely convinced. “But Pitch’s magic is strong. What if it’s stronger than Ombric’s?”
“What does Ombric always say?” Petter asked.
The youngest William thought for a moment, then his eyes grew bright. “Magic’s real power is in believing,” he proclaimed, clearly pleased to remember Ombric’s very first lesson.
And he began to chant. “I believe! I believe! I believe!”
Sascha joined in. “I believe! I believe! I believe Katherine and North and Ombric will come home!”
© 2012 William Joyce