JJ and the Wizard's Quest

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In JJ and the Wizard's Quest, when the injured wizard Devlin tells JJ that only he can stop the evil Annika from sucking all the joy out of the world; JJ must rely on his wits, his courage, and his new friend Bernie to outsmart the wicked Annika!

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Chapter Six

"We need to head north!" Bernie called, already running in that direction. "Grab the map, let's go!"

JJ grabbed the map with the amulet's location and followed Bernie. The two ran as fast as they could, but they soon hit a dense forest that tripped them up at every turn. Large roots poked out of the ground and spindly branches hung down from above, scratching and clawing them. There was no way they could run without poking an eye out or twisting an ankle.

"Bernie, wait," JJ stopped to massage a particularly painful scratch on his arm where a branch had gotten him. "Look at this map. It looks like we have a really long way to go, doesn't it? I mean, all the way through this enormous forest, and up what looks like a very big hill. Or even a mountain."

"We can't stop now! Devlin would want us to keep trying, no matter how impossible it seems."

"Yeah, I'm not saying we should stop." JJ caught his breath. "But I am saying there's no way we can make it by running. Not before Annika gets there. She must be using her magic to get her there more quickly, don't you think?"

"So we should, too!"

"Do you know how to do that kind of magic? Can you cast a spell and just send us there?" If that was possible, JJ wondered, why had they been hiking through the forest for so long?

Bernie grinned. "I'm awfully tempted to try, but no. It wouldn't be safe. That's very advanced magic, really only for someone like Devlin or Annika to try. If I did it, we might end up in two different worlds entirely. But I don't need to do it. You can!"

JJ wondered if their success with the wise monkeys had gone to Bernie's head. "What are you talking about? I don't know how to do magic!"

"But you do! Sort of. Don't you have another piece of origami paper? Maybe it will make something that gets us there quickly."

"That's right." JJ scrambled through his pack and came up with a jet-black piece of paper. He started folding, quickly.

"Careful. I mean, I know we're in a hurry, but if you make one wrong fold ..."

JJ nodded and focused on his fingers. He smoothed every crease with caution, increasingly surprised by how many creases there were. He hadn't ever folded something this complicated before. He kept trying to guess what it might be, but before he could figure it out, it was done. He had been staring so hard at the piece of paper transforming into different shapes that he couldn't see what it was at first.

"It's a horse!" Bernie said with a big grin. "I've always wanted to ride a horse. Are you ready?"

JJ nodded. "Bigger," he told the origami horse. It doubled in size.

"Bigger!" Bernie hooted.

"Bigger."

"Bigger!"

"Bigger."

"Bigger! Bigger!"

JJ held out his hand to stop Bernie's enthusiasm. "I think that's enough." They stood in front of the largest horse JJ had ever imagined in his life. It was so large, in fact, it might take magic just to mount it.

But saving the magic for when they really needed it, Bernie and JJ climbed the closest tree and dropped onto the waiting horse's back. As soon as they were both on, the horse bolted.

"Hang on!" JJ cried, clawing desperately for something to hold onto. The paper mane was slippery, but he finally got a grip he hoped would hold. Behind him, Bernie wrapped his arms tightly around JJ's waist.

It was, without a doubt, the ride of their lives. The tangled roots proved no problem for the agile horse. The spindly branches, however, still threatened Bernie and JJ at every turn. Every time JJ leaned away from one branch, he got scratched on the other side. Judging from the yelps behind him, Bernie was getting scratched up, too. JJ finally decided dodging the branches was a waste of energy. Instead, he ducked down as low as he could, with his head buried in the paper mane, and waited it out.

Not watching where he was going was even more exciting. The horse seemed to know exactly where it was going, and with his eyes closed, JJ felt like they were flying. However this all turned out, he would never forget the wild feeling in the pit of his stomach as he rode a magical horse through an immense, dark forest.

When the horse began to slow and JJ hadn't been scratched for at least a minute, he opened his eyes. The horse was still laboring; beads of sweat glistening against the slick, black paper. But now he was headed up a hill. A hill! It must be the same one they'd seen on the map. Once they reached the top, they would find the amulet.

JJ nudged Bernie behind him. "Are you looking? We're heading up the hill!"

"A mountain is more like it!"

Bernie was right. The horse was forging ahead, but he was moving quite slowly, since the way was very steep. One misstep and they would all plunge back down to the bottom. JJ closed his eyes again, trusting in the horse. If the paper frog did not dissolve in the river and the crane did not get burnt up by the dragon, it only made sense that this paper stallion could make it to the top of the hill.

His eyes still closed, JJ realized the horse had stopped moving. He opened one eye cautiously, and then the other. "We're here!"

Bernie could see the small cave in the distance and was eager to dismount and find the amulet. But there was no nearby tree to climb onto, and the stallion was still enormous. "How do we get off?" It seemed ridiculous to be so close to the amulet, but stuck on top of a paper horse.

"Smaller," JJ said, and the stallion shrunk. Bernie cried out loud. "Smaller, smaller, smaller, smaller, smaller!"

And they were suddenly both sitting in the dirt. JJ moved to one side and pulled a tiny, squashed origami horse from underneath his backside. "Sorry about that," he said. But like the others, the origami horse's job was done. A poof of black smoke made a small explosion in JJ's hand, then blew off on the breeze.

"Come on!" Bernie said, heading for the cave.

"Wait. Don't you think we should check for Annika? We don't want to go charging in there, only to run straight into her."

It was a good point. Bernie knew he would probably encounter Annika sooner than later, but he would rather have the amulet in his hands when he did. He wasn't sure what power the amulet held, but if Devlin was willing to risk his life, it must be worth it.

"All right. Why don't I go around the back of the cave, and you check things out here in front? Look for tracks or any other signs she might have been here already. We'll meet right back in front."

They split up. JJ carefully made his way around the cave. He saw nothing that indicated the recent presence of a fox. He wished he knew what kind of animal had been traveling with Annika. He had gone a little more than halfway around when he heard Bernie shout.

Racing to the front of the cave, he stopped short when Bernie shouted again. "Stop! Don't come any closer!"

Bernie was stuck, ankle deep in a muck that was pulling him slowly, inch by inch, into the center of the earth.

"I thought I'd just run in and grab the amulet so we could be on our way," the poor bear said. "But now I'm stuck."

"Where does the quicksand start?" JJ asked.

"I don't know!" Bernie craned his neck to see, but he had already been pulled down to waist level. It was not obvious by looking what was solid ground and what was quicksand. Maybe it was enchanted. There was no way to tell. "Be careful!"

JJ thought fast and grabbed a nearby stick. He poked it into the ground just in front of him and it felt solid. He took a step forward, testing the ground again. He did this until he could reach out and touch Bernie. Then, just in front of him, the ground sucked the stick under in one ferocious gulp.

Bernie's face betrayed a terrible fear as he wondered when the ground would suck him under completely.

"Now might be the time to use some magic," JJ suggested. "Can you reach your wand?"

Bernie shook his head. "Nope."

JJ felt helpless, but he couldn't just stand there and watch his new friend get sucked under. "All right, just grab onto my paw!" He held out his arm.

The quicksand had sucked Bernie down almost to his shoulders. In a moment, he wouldn't be able to reach out his arm at all. "Are you sure? I don't want to pull you under, too."

"Just do it." JJ grabbed Bernie's paw and pulled. He pulled with all his might. He pulled not just for Devlin and the spirit of the quest, but for this kind-hearted bear who had joined him on the biggest adventure of his life. They had only known one another a few days, but Bernie already felt like a brother to JJ.

Just when JJ thought his arms might give out, there was a loud sucking sound and the ground released Bernie. He and JJ both toppled over onto the solid ground.

"Wow, thanks." Bernie felt the ground to make sure he was really safe. "I shouldn't have gone on without you. I'm sorry."

"It's better than both of us getting stuck," JJ pointed out.

"Thank you, JJ."

JJ was pleased with himself, but he knew there was no time for that. "We've got to get inside. Do you think we can jump?

"It's too far," Bernie said. "Maybe we can build a bridge?"

They looked around for a fallen log or something else that might get them across the menacing quicksand, but nothing seemed right. JJ noticed Bernie fingering his wand.

"Can you make a bridge by magic?"

"That's what I'm wondering," Bernie said. "I think so. And even if I fail, no one will get hurt. I'm just wondering what Devlin would say."

"Bernie, I think Devlin would say, 'Go get the amulet.' If he had a problem with you being here, he would have sent you a message to return. He could have done that when he sent us the message about how to distract the dragon. But he didn't. He even gave you a task then. I think we should be careful, but I think you should use what you've learned from Devlin as much as you can."

Bernie nodded. He had been surprised that Devlin hadn't ordered him to return when he sent the crane's message. He supposed Devlin must approve or he wouldn't have let him stay. It was decided: he would use his magic on the rest of the quest.

Bernie raised his wand and muttered something unintelligible. At first, nothing happened. Bernie turned away, disgusted.

"Bernie, look! You did it!"

Bernie turned back toward the quicksand and saw that a bridge had indeed formed, giving them a safe path all the way from where they stood to the entrance of the cave.

"Come on!" JJ was already halfway across the bridge.

Bernie kept a firm grip on his wand and followed JJ. When he reached the other side, he turned around and cast another spell. Before their eyes, the bridge disappeared.

"What'd you do that for? How will we get out?"

Bernie grinned. "We don't want to leave a bridge for Annika, do we? If she shows up, maybe she'll get stuck, too. I'll make another one when we've got the amulet."

"That's good thinking," JJ said. "But where is the amulet?"

The cave they were standing in was very small. JJ could just barely stand upright. In some spots, his head bumped the top of the cave. He could easily look around and see every corner and crevice, but nothing resembling an amulet jumped out at him. In fact, the cave seemed to contain nothing at all.

"This doesn't make sense," JJ said. "The map the wise monkeys gave us was very clear. This has to be the location of the amulet."

Bernie tapped on the walls of the cave. "Maybe there's some kind of secret hiding place."

"Maybe. But it all just looks like an empty cave to me. Is there a spell you can do to make it appear?"

"Not that I know of." Bernie kept tapping until he had tapped all over the cave. "I don't know what else to try."

In exasperation, Bernie flopped down on the floor of the cave. Then he perked up. "Hey, come here. Listen."

JJ joined Bernie on the ground. "What are we listening to?"

"The ground sounds hollow, don't you think?" Bernie thumped on the dirt where they were sitting, and suddenly the very ground beneath them gave way.

JJ felt himself falling, but it felt very different than when he started falling in the library. This time, he was very clearly falling down. He was falling fast, and he could see out of the corner of his eye that Bernie was falling with him. It felt like they fell forever. But JJ knew that eventually, they would have to reach the bottom with a tremendous crash.

JJ was right about that.

The crash jolted every bone in his body. Everything was black. JJ thought for a moment that he has passed out, but then he heard Bernie moan next to him. He blinked, wondering why everything still seemed so black. Then he realized they had fallen into a very dark place with no light.

"Bernie? Are you okay?"

Bernie moaned again.

"Any idea how we might get some light in here?"

Bernie moaned for a third time, but after another minute, a bit of light flickered. He held out his wand, which glowed from end to end. JJ looked around. They seemed to be underground, in a narrow passageway that went on in either direction as far as he could see.

"Can you get up?" JJ asked, dusting himself off as he stood. There was more room above his head than there had been in the cave. Surprisingly, the fall didn't seem to have injured him at all. "We ought to keep going after the amulet, don't you think?"

Bernie grumbled as he stood. "I'm all right. A bit sore." He held the glowing wand out in one direction, and then turned and held it out in the other direction. "The question is, which way?"

JJ shrugged. "I suppose we just guess. Eenie, meenie, miney mo," he muttered.

"What's that? Magic from your land?"

JJ chuckled. "Not exactly. I say we try this way first."

And so, with nothing but a hunch, the two very sore friends headed off in one direction. Bernie led the way, holding out his glowing wand. JJ didn't know exactly what he was looking for, but he hoped the amulet would be obvious when they got to it.

They were both quiet. There wasn't much to say, and they were focused on their task. Finally, after walking for what seemed like forever, Bernie stopped.

The passageway was so narrow, JJ could barely see around Bernie. "What is it? Did you find something?"

"Just the end of the passageway."

Bernie sounded discouraged. JJ understood how he felt, but they had to keep their spirits up. "All right, well poke around! Maybe there's another trap door."

"Great, then we're in for another fall."

"Come on, Bernie. Chin up. We'll figure this out. Here, let me get in front and I'll poke around. Just brace yourself in case the floor opens up."

But no matter how many times JJ poked and prodded the cave around them, nothing happened. Finally, he admitted defeat. "All right, I guess we go back. I must have chosen the wrong direction. Come on."

Without a word, Bernie turned and headed back. The damp darkness was depressing, and it was easy to feel like they might never find the amulet. JJ's legs ached. After walking for a while, Bernie stopped again.

"Keep going, Bernie," JJ urged. "We don't have time to rest."

"No, listen." Bernie was quiet.

JJ listened and realized there was faint sound coming from directly above their heads. He looked up. They were back where they had first landed after falling through the hole in the cave. A very long chute extended above their heads, into the cave. A tiny pinprick of light marked the entrance to the cave.

"What is that?"

"Listen," Bernie said again. "I think it's Annika."

JJ sharpened his ears and listened hard. Bernie was right.

"My wand, Simon, my wand!" JJ heard her screech. "My wand!"

"What do you think happened to her wand?" JJ whispered, even though there was no way Annika would hear them from all the way down the chute.

"Get me out of here! And find my wand!"

"She's stuck in the quicksand!" Bernie said. "And maybe her wand got sucked under! Come on, we've got to hurry!"

Bernie turned and galloped along the passageway, with JJ on his tail. At least they knew Annika hadn't gotten to the amulet first, but it was no comfort to know she was right above their heads. It was only a matter of time before she freed herself from the quicksand and found her way down the chute into the very passageway they were running through.

"Faster, Bernie, faster!" JJ urged, encouraging himself as much as Bernie, whom he knew was running as fast as his little legs would carry him.

"We'll make it, JJ," came Bernie's response. The little bear's good attitude had returned, under pressure. But then he skidded to a halt and JJ crashed into him from behind.

"What'd you do that for?" JJ demanded.

"JJ." Bernie's voice was trembling. "Look."

JJ looked up and saw something even more terrifying than the dragon outside the wise monkey's tree. A giant scorpion was blocking the passageway. He was looking directly at them, and he was poised to strike.

- End of Chapter Six -