40. You're a Nameless Guard in Red, What Did You Think Would Happen?

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Druscilla's muffled scream followed Ashley into the abyss.

She woke on her back atop Mount Dolorem, beneath a purplish-gray sky, ice pummeling her face, wind whistling so loud, her ears throbbed. On the plus side, the Essence d' enfant had made a difference with the effects of the transport spell. She had none of the usual side effects—nausea, feeling of displacement, headache. The bottles she'd stolen remained safely, though uncomfortably, stuffed in her soggy bodice.

Ashley turned on her side, dragged in a breath so cold it seared her lungs, then clamped her hands over her ears to warm them and ward off the wind.

She vowed that the next time she went questing, she'd head for a balmy, island with flat topography, silly cocktails, grass skirts, and fruits so otherworldly and exotic, that one might think they'd been grown on Venus. Surely there were people in need of rescuing in more temperate climes.

But Ashley had no time to dilly dally with rumination: she had a quest in progress, which required several more steps. 1. Ascertain that it was only the voice part of Druscilla that followed them into the abyss. 2. Take a headcount to make sure no child or royal had been left behind in the garden. 3. Destroy the magical circle so they could not be easily followed. 4. Summon Ruth, who would have Gerald and the other men with her. (Ashley refused to think anything bad happened to any of them.) 5. Help the children climb onto Ruth's back. 6. Fly to safety.

She gave a passing thought to number seven: investigate Gerald's arms/chest/other regions in a private setting, but it was premature to plan romantic interludes, at least in any great detail.

Completing step one would require a better vantage point, so Ashley worked her way into a seated position and looked around.

Her heart stuttered.

A hundred yards away, visible despite the onslaught of snow, were her friends, with the added plus of no evil stepsister within view. She'd done it! Odd that she'd overshot the target herself. Perhaps she'd uttered the magical word with a little too much enthusiasm. Magic was not only annoyingly invincible; it was also annoyingly picky.

Derek, Tressa, Kai, and Sadira remained asleep, but Layyin, Derek Junior, and the children were a blur of motion. With the authority of a ship's commander and the energy of a wind tunnel, Layyin had begun work on step two—destroying the circle.

"Over here. We missed a spot," Layyin barked. "Who wants to make the last snow angel?"

"Me!" said a tiny girl, bony knees protruding from her threadbare "clothing." Giggling, she lay on the snow, stretched out her arms and legs and flapped. Ashley wanted to chastise Layyin for using undernourished, underdressed children to destroy the magical circle, but watching them laugh and scream with unbridled freedom gave her pause.

After the little girl finished, the snow angels lined the perimeter of the circle wing-to-wing, exposing remnants of the squiggly runes beneath.

Derek Junior flew around the circle, flaming the rune remnants.

Hilda Mae glanced over at Princess Ashley and waved. "Hi, Princess Ashley!"

Ashley smiled and waved back. "Hi, Hilda Mae."

Layyin put her hands on her hips. "Finally! Here I am doing all the work while everyone else sleeps on the job."

Ashley did not point out that it was the children doing the 'actual' work. "Why didn't you wake us?" Ashley said.

"I tried to wake up Sadira, but that sweet, kind, lovely princess bopped me in the chin before rolling over and snoring super loud."

"Sadira snores?" Ashley said.

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