Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal #4 is the fourth book in a series of original young adult novels set in the world of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal.
About the Author
Cory Godbey creates fanciful illustrations for picture books, covers, comics, editorial, advertising, animated shorts, and films.
Read an Excerpt
Shadows filled every corner of the world.
Naia could hear water. Could smell thick, damp air all around her. But no matter which way she turned, all she could see was darkness. Reaching out, she felt something wet brush against her fingertips. Then it was gone.
Light flickered. Silver and flashing like a shooting star, or sunlight shining through the dense swamp foliage. Before she could react, it sped away.
Naia burst through a cluster of branches and leaves, wings spreading enough to catch a current of warm jungle air. She was airborne only a moment before her feet struck the hard surface of an apeknot tree branch, and then she was off again. Leaping from branch to branch through the light-dappled canopy, chasing after the silver star that flitted like a bird in front of her.
“Tavra!” she shouted. “Wait up, Silverling!”
Tavra did not slow down. If anything, she took it as a challenge, spreading her gossamer wings and taking flight, zipping through the trees like only a Vapra could. Naia heard the swamp rumble below and grinned. Tavra might have the advantage of flight-worthy wings, but this was the Swamp of Sog. Naia’s home.
She jumped from a branch just as a bubble of hot swamp gas jetted up, filling her wings and launching her high into the treetops. She tilted, riding the current, speeding closer to Tavra. She might catch up yet.
Time slowed as she drifted. Though the swamp was beautiful in its greens and purples and golds, vibrant in the daylight and full of life, something was off. She felt as if she had done this before. But the last time she’d traveled this route, she hadn’t had wings. She had only watched Tavra from afar with envy. Wishing she might one day be able to do the same.
And then . . .
Pain lanced through Naia’s brow and she stumbled, nearly slipping from a branch. She fell to her knees and clung to the whorled bark to keep from falling as the world went dark for an instant, as if a bird had flown overhead and blocked all three suns at once. Then it was over, the light returned, but . . .
“Wait,” she tried to say. “Tavra, wait—”
The swamp and every tree in it shook at a deafening groan from below. The bog churned, bulging, as something enormous rose. Naia covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want this to happen. Not again. She had no other choice. She couldn’t look away forever.
Naia looked down.
A monster breached the surface. Black and purple, scaly and shelled, with tusks like a Nebrie and bone-hard spikes along its skull like a horner. Endless rows of legs of every size and shape emerged from the swamp, pincers and claws, hooves and bony hands. Its face shifted, one moment with bulbous, sad eyes, the next with a flat, reptilian head and a maw big enough to swallow the entire swamp. It let loose a roar, spraying spittle and gore, and Naia could see the blackness inside its gullet was endless, a cavernous tunnel into the abyss at the center of the world.
Silver flashed again. Tavra had drawn her sword.
Naia’s voice was lost in another of the monster’s gruesome cries. A moment later, the monster smashed its jaws down around the tree where Tavra had perched. The towering apeknot splintered like a sapling, and Tavra was gone.
Naia stared at the tree where it broke. Its white heartwood stained with violet. A sickness from within. When she turned her eyes once more on the monster, she saw the same illness pulsing through its skin. Violet, glowing veins streaking through every joint of its anatomy. An inky darkness pooling in its maddened eyes as it saw her.
“No,” she whispered. “No—”
The monster’s jaw unhinged and it lunged. The world shattered to pieces, and Naia was falling. Down, farther and faster, her wings refusing to open as water and debris rained down around her.
Her body struck water, and everything went dark.
Help, Naia wanted to say. Instead, she thought it, projecting it into the murky, liquid nothingness that surrounded her. Dreamfasted it, even, to whoever might be able to hear her. But she was alone. She drifted, sluggish, tired. Wanting to move, heart racing when her limbs refused to obey her. The gills on the sides of her neck and shoulders opened. The water was dank and brackish, but it was better than suffocating. She breathed it in, feeling its cold current revive her. Awaken her. Her fingers tingled, coming back to life.
Her shoulders were sore. Someone was holding her, floating in front of her in the water.
Thank Aughra, a familiar voice said, filling her mind. I thought you were gone!
She opened her eyes, and she was no longer in the dark. Instead, she felt as if she were staring into a mirror. No, not a mirror.
The last time she’d seen her brother, they had parted ways between Aughra’s orrery and the Grottan caves. He had been weary then. Exhausted from being a prisoner of the Skeksis and locked away at the Castle of the Crystal. Now he swam before her, his strength restored. The green hue in his skin was vibrant, the spots on his cheeks rich and dark.
What are you doing here? she asked. Where—
Her questions were like the key to a locked door that was suddenly flung open. Memories tumbled out: confronting skekSa the Skeksis Mariner on the cliff high above the snowy city of Ha’rar. Her friends, fighting for their lives. Amri and Tavra, sending a message to the Vapra Gelfling. And their escape.
We jumped off the cliff, she mumbled, treading water. We were trying to get to Onica’s boat. But then skekSa’s ship . . .
The waves had split around the ship’s bony, horned carapace. A living sea creature, a monstrous behemoth, enslaved and under the control of Lord skekSa. It had come out of the ocean and swallowed their ship. Naia shook her head and tried to dislodge the horrifying memory from her mind.
But how are you—where are the others? Amri and Kylan, Onica and Tavra and Tae—
skekSa captured them, Gurjin said. The behemoth swallowed the ship and everyone on it. We’re in the beast’s mouth right now. Look up.
There was barely any light in the watery chamber, but Naia’s eyes were finally adjusting. Overhead, she saw the belly of Onica’s ship, floating aimlessly amid debris. From previous wreckages, no doubt.
After the behemoth’s jaw locked shut, gas filled the chamber, Gurjin continued. It knocked everyone out except me. I was in the water. I was only able to save you before skekSa took the others away . . . Naia, we’ve got to find them. When skekSa noticed you weren’t with them, she said something about using them as bait.
Naia shook out her hands. Her weary mind struggled to take it in, but she couldn’t while her friends were in danger.
Right. Let’s go. For now I’m just glad you’re here.
Naia and Gurjin climbed out of the water onto a fleshy ridge. The noxious gas had faded, but the air in the behemoth’s mouth was dank and musty. Naia shuddered as she noticed a proper walkway made out of wood planks had been built into the behemoth’s body. She could only imagine the agony this giant creature must feel. How long had it endured skekSa living inside its body? Treating it as a ship without a heart or soul?
“She took them this way,” Gurjin whispered, gesturing to one of the many passageways that led deeper into the creature. Though Naia crept as quietly as she could, and the echoing grumbling and burbling of the behemoth’s body were loud enough to cover the sounds of their footsteps, she couldn’t help but feel she was being watched. The walls of every passageway twitched and undulated. The ship knew where they were, even if skekSa didn’t. It could feel them, just as she could feel an insect if it skittered across the top of her hand.
Naia tried to remember their path so they could get back to the ship once they rescued her friends. Though once on the ship, she wasn’t sure how they would escape the locked jaws of the behemoth. One step at a time.
“When Mother was called to Ha’rar with the rest of the maudra, I came with,” Gurjin offered as they scampered up and down the mazelike passageways. “Mother wanted me to find you. When the Vapra fire lit and the dream-etchings were burned across the citadel, I knew it had to be you. I went looking and found your Sifa ship out in the bay below the cliff. Got out to it just as it was swallowed by skekSa’s ship. Glad I did, too. If I hadn’t, you’d be with skekSa right now.”
The comment rankled Naia, as if it were her fault they were in this predicament. She took a breath and let it roll off her shoulders. There was no point in arguing over who was the more responsible of them right now.
“Mother wanted you to find me?” she asked. “What for?”
Gurjin flattened his ears and hurried ahead of her so she couldn’t see the rest of the expression that came across his face.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “I hear something.”
It was a deflection, but an honest one. Voices drifted to her ears, muddled through the breathing and twitching of the porous passageway. Familiar voices. Her friends.
After two more turns they stopped. A large circular membrane sat in the center of the wall. It was squeezed shut, like an upright eyelid. Naia had seen a similar doorway in the ship once before, back when she’d been skekSa’s guest. Now she leaned in closer. On the other side, she could see hazy lights and hear skekSa’s muffled voice.
“We gotta get in there,” Gurjin said. He reached out to touch the membrane, but Naia pulled him back.
“If it opens right here, she’ll notice,” she said. “There has to be another way in. The good news is, if skekSa’s in there, it means she’s not out here. At least, for now.”
They searched up and down the adjoining passageways. The texture of every wall was different, some ridged and hard, some smooth and shivering and slick. With so many pieces of interlocking anatomy, it was hard to believe there wasn’t a single alternate way into the room.
Naia felt a puff of air from above. An oval vessel, about the diameter of a barrel, protruded from the ceiling, snapping open and shut in time with the ponderous breath of the behemoth. When it opened, air puffed out, though when it was closed, it was almost invisible.
“There,” she said. “That’s how we’re getting in. Give me a hand?”
Gurjin nodded, bracing his hands on his knee as they’d done countless times climbing trees as children. Naia hopped up until she could grab the lip of the closed valve. When it opened, blowing more dank-smelling air in her face, she swung herself in and quickly turned around to grab Gurjin’s hand. She yanked him up, and his feet cleared the opening just in time for it to pop shut again.
They crawled through the sticky air tube toward the voices. It sloped and curved, up and steeply down, until they reached a far end. Naia waited, crouched on all fours, ready to scramble out. She had no idea what was on the other side—would they be hidden from skekSa’s view, or would they tumble out right on top of her?
The valve opened, and Naia made her move, Gurjin quick at her ankles. To their fortune, the duct opened near the floor in a crowded corner half obscured by a heavy red curtain. Naia ducked behind the curtain and paused there, trying to calm her breath as silently as possible as she took in the room.
It was a domed atrium, with a vaulted ceiling in scaled panels over their heads where the inside of the behemoth’s shell must have been. Like the laboratory, it was lit by a chandelier, brightly glowing with fireless, gold light. Exquisite paintings covered the hexagonal scales of the ceiling, depicting sea Nebrie, hooyim, and other ocean creatures, and sprawled across the flooring was a thick covering of woven kelp or seagrass. Ornate furniture decorated the room in sets: a few Skeksis-size chairs with plush footrests, sculpted stands, and a broad table covered in maps and scrolls and books—all in the black, intricate, almost skeletal style that the Skeksis favored. Stone and metalwork statues accented several shelves and consoles, littered with Sifa trinkets and treasure in gold, silver, and abalone. Piles of jewels and glittering ornaments overflowed from barrels and chests, some of it simply mounded in heaps on the ground.
“Now. You all wait there. Move and I’ll kill you . . . I need something for this blasted wound.”
The floor shook with heavy steps as a shadow swept in front of the light of the chandelier, and then she came into view.
skekSa. The Skeksis Lord Mariner, tall and plumed with green and blue feathers, cape drenched with seawater and melted snow and ice. She approached a cabinet on the far end of the chamber, her usually graceful stride broken with pain. The stump of her bleeding wrist was wrapped in a knot of black linen torn from her once luxurious gown. She tore through the contents of the cabinet with her three good hands, a deep groan rumbling from her throat.
While she was distracted, Naia pulled back the curtain. By the light from the flames in a crackling fireplace, she saw Onica, their Far-Dreaming ship captain, and Kylan the Spriton Song Teller. Further in the room, beyond skekSa, were two others, braced and alert: Amri and Tae, the Grottan and the Sifa, like a silver moon and a rosy sun beside each other. Naia could tell from the stern, joyless glare on Tae’s freckled face, however, that it wasn’t Tae. Not really. A tiny shape sparkled like blue glass at her neck, and Naia let out a cautious breath of relief. Tavra would keep them safe.
Naia dreamfasted at Gurjin, speaking between their minds so skekSa couldn’t hear them.
The chandelier. Even skekSa can’t see in pitch-dark, but Amri can. Maybe it will buy us some time to get that door open. If we can get everyone back to the ship, maybe we can figure out a way to escape.
She drew the dagger that she’d kept at her side for so long. Gurjin’s dagger. She pushed it into his hand so he had a weapon. It belonged to him, after all.
Got it, he said, and disappeared between the folds of the curtain.
Naia turned her attention back to the Skeksis and tapped gently on the floor, hoping that Amri’s sensitive toes could pick it up. To her relief, his ear twisted back almost immediately. When skekSa turned her back, rummaging through the cabinet and pulling out bottle after bottle of dark-hued spirits, Amri stole a glance. He saw Naia then caught Kylan's eye just as skekSa whirled around with a bottle in claw. She uncorked it and dumped half the bottle down her throat before giving a beak-smacking grunt and drawing a twisted dagger from her belt.
“Now,” skekSa said, jabbing at them with her dagger. “Which one of you will scream Naia’s name the loudest?”
“How about you, Spriton? You’re quite the song teller, aren’t you? How about you do us all a favor and call Naia here so we can be done with this time-wasting farce.”
The Mariner strode toward the group of captive Gelfling, dark eyes set on Kylan, but the blond Sifa in the group flared her wings.
“Were I you, I would consider letting us go,” she said.
skekSa arched a scaly brow, looking the Sifa up and down. “You sound different, little Tae,” she said. “Is that a Vapra accent on your tongue? And I thought I blasted you well and good up on the bluff with my thunder egg.”
Naia swore under her breath. She had forgotten that skekSa knew Tae, as she knew many of the Sifa Gelfling. But even if skekSa could tell something was off about how the Sifa spoke, what had happened between Tae and Tavra was so complicated. Naia hoped it would be impossible for skekSa to guess that Tae had been badly wounded. That Tavra—one of the All-Maudra’s daughters—had lost her Vapra body and was now confined to the form of a crystal-singer spider. And that she was using the spider’s magic to move and speak as Tae, whose mind had gone into a deep slumber after her injury.
There was no way that skekSa could guess all that. The situation even boggled Naia’s mind if she thought about it too hard.
Tavra turned so her real, spider body was hidden from skekSa’s prying eyes.
“You’re not so deadly as you think. Maybe you shouldn’t make enemies you can’t afford . . . You were a patron lord of the Sifa clan once. Why not throw your lot in with us, and reap the benefits when we overthrow the Emperor?”
“Don’t belittle me,” skekSa spat, quickly and hotly.
“Isn’t it worth considering?” Onica suggested. “You’ve seen what we can accomplish. You must have seen the Sifa light the fire aboard the Omerya, and the Vapra down below in Ha’rar, even as the Skeksis watched from the All-Maudra’s citadel. You know, deep in your heart, that we will succeed.”
This time, skekSa did not retort right away—and it was her mistake. Gurjin reached the neck of the chandelier. He drew the dagger from his belt and smashed it against the lamps of the chandelier, showering them with glass and sparks. The atrium went dark, and skekSa erupted with rage.
“NAIA! I will have your head!”
Naia threw the curtains back, though in the dark, Amri was the only one who could see her. He grabbed the others by the wrists, tugging them toward Naia and the door. Through the shadows and smoke, Naia barely made out Gurjin leaping from the chandelier toward the curtains. If he’d had wings, the descent would have been childling’s play, but as it was, he caught the red fabric with a heavy thump. He shinnied down the curtain quick as an apeknot-mouse and a moment later reached them where they stood with their backs to the great valve door.
“It won’t open,” Onica said, pressing her hands against the membrane. “Kylan, try your firca. The chamber doors opened to skekSa’s whistle before!”
skekSa let loose another angry bellow, still thrashing about in the dark. Tavra grabbed a slender iron candlestick that jutted from one of the piles of treasure—it was no sword, but it was better than nothing. Naia braced herself.
A chattering song flew from Kylan’s firca, Skeksis-like and eerie coming from the Gelfling instrument. For a moment Naia worried it wouldn’t work—that the ship wouldn’t respond to Kylan—but then the valve door shuddered and snapped open.
“Naia!” skekSa shouted. A crash followed as she tipped a table, and Naia raised her hand to protect her face from a shower of pearls and jewels. “You stupid girl!”
With a roar, the Mariner rushed at them. Tavra readied herself, but Naia grabbed a poker from Amri and launched it like a spear. It struck the Skeksis in the chest, but Naia didn’t stay to watch. Didn’t stay to fight. They ran through the door and down the winding passageways. Gurjin took the lead, followed by Onica and Kylan, while Naia, Amri, and Tavra kept the rear, hoping they would be able to find their way back to their ship before skekSa caught up to them.
“You all right?” Amri asked as they ran. With a start, Naia realized she was looking up at him. She’d been so used to his Grottan crouching, she hadn’t realized how tall he was.
“Yeah, but I’ll be better once we get to the ship!”
Gurjin’s memory served them well. Before long he led them back to the behemoth’s mouth. Seeing the little Sifa boat again should have raised Naia’s spirits, but it didn’t. She’d been trying to take their escape one step at a time, but the part where they got out of the behemoth’s mouth had come more quickly than she’d expected.
“Now what?” Kylan panted.
“Maybe we should ask politely?” Amri suggested wryly.
Onica shrugged out of the ragged cloak she’d been wearing. “Let’s start by getting to the ship,” she said. “Even if we end up having to leave it behind to get out of here, there are weapons there. Fishing spears and nets.”
Naia imagined how good it would feel to have a spear in her hand.
“Onica’s right,” she said. “The strongest swimmers will guide the others. Onica, take Tae and Tavra. Gurjin, take Kylan. Amri, come with me.”
In pairs, they leaped into the water. Though Onica wasn’t a Drenchen, she was as adept a swimmer as Naia and Gurjin, darting through the water like a crimson hooyim fish. Naia let Amri hold her ankle as she opened her wings, propelling them through the water and quickly taking the lead on their way to the boat. They were almost halfway there before Naia brought them to the surface for Amri to take a breath of air.
“Surfacing so soon?” Amri teased. “I could’ve made it.”
“You just want me to kiss you again,” Naia remarked. The last time they’d been underwater together, she had done the breathing for both of them, though at the time, she hadn’t thought of it as kissing. Now that she said it out loud, though, her ears tingled.
Amri grinned with a lopsided smile, water lapping against his shoulders.
It was an odd time to joke around, but Naia felt her shoulders relax. skekSa hadn’t caught up with them, though she surely could have guessed where they’d gone. Maybe she’d been injured when the chandelier had come down, or maybe she was more in pain from her wounded wrist than she’d let on. Either way, for the moment they were safe. Maybe things would be all right. Naia smiled when Amri took her hand, and together they swam the rest of the way to Onica’s ship. Rope and net dangled over the side, tied to the hull, and they grabbed on.
“Do you feel that?” Amri asked.
He let go of the rigging with one hand, resting his sensitive palm and fingertips on the surface of the water. Though the water was mostly still, Naia felt a trembling prickling along her skin.
“It feels like a current,” she said. “Like a draft.”
“Like an exit?” Amri asked, ears perking.
Gurjin and Kylan arrived next, with Onica and Tavra shortly thereafter. Onica vaulted up the netting and onto the deck, then leaned over to help Tavra and Kylan. While the others got on board, Naia waited below with Amri and Gurjin.
“What’s going on?” Gurjin asked.
Amri waved his palm flat across the surface of the trembling water.
“Back in Grot, most of the tunnels that have water flow can be followed out of the caves eventually. I wonder if there are underwater tunnels here, too. Like gills, or something similar.”
Gurjin exchanged glances with Naia. “Even if there are, if they’re underwater, we can’t take the ship. And if we can’t take the ship, I’m not sure we’ll all be able to escape in the water. Naia and I have gills, but the rest of you . . .”
“I’m going to check it out.”
Before Naia could grab him, Amri let go of the rigging and dived. The last thing she saw were his white toes flipping a spray of cloudy water. Kylan leaned over the aft rail above.
“Where’s he going?” he called.
“Kylan, help Tavra and Onica,” Naia replied. “We’ll be back soon with news!”
They could see Amri below, cheeks puffed with his held breath as he ran his fingers along the wall. As she and Gurjin swam down to meet him, Naia idly tongued inside her own mouth, noticing how the wall looked like a larger—much larger—version of what she could feel with her tongue just below her gum line.
Amri was inspecting a valve in the wall, identical to the one they’d used to get into skekSa’s atrium, though this one was completely submerged. If such a thing opened and closed, like a gill or a blood vessel, it could lead almost anywhere. Outside into the depths of the ocean. Somewhere else in the monster’s body, just as dangerous.
Amri must have sensed Naia and Gurjin close by, for he turned with a smile on his ballooned cheeks, pointing energetically at the valve. Naia made her way toward him, reaching out to touch him so they could dreamfast, but she paused when the water shivered—
The valve sprang open. Water rushed toward it, sucked in at an alarming speed and volume. A bubble of shock burst from Amri’s open mouth, and then he was gone.
Naia pumped with her wings, shooting toward the valve in time for it to snap shut. She threw herself against it, pounding on it with her fists and kicking with her feet, but it didn’t open.
Open up! Open up, you stupid thing! Give him back!
Gurjin grabbed her shoulder. Naia, stop!
Stop? We’ve got to get this thing open! We have to go after him!
Real fear seeped into her brother’s paling face. Terror that went beyond a simple, rational fear of the unknown. But you don’t know where that . . . tube . . . goes!
She stared at him through the murky water, surprised she had to say it at all.
It doesn’t matter where it goes!
Her brother’s grip trembled on her arm, but she pulled free. He drifted away from her, glancing back to Kylan and the others on the boat as if he were thinking about leaving her. Her and Amri, who had no gills. She imagined her Shadowling friend caught in the current of endless water, lungs filling with sea. Drowning. Alone.
She didn’t care what Gurjin did. She had to help Amri.
Open up! She kicked at the valve, struck it with her fists. Whatever it took to get it to open again. Give him back!
She struck it once more and was rewarded with a trembling shiver in the water. Naia folded her wings tightly along her back and braced herself. When the valve snapped open, she leaped in, feetfirst.
The water rushed at an incredible speed in the smooth, curved channel. Naia held her arms around her head to protect herself as the water whipped her through turns and twists.
She gasped when she reached the end, dumped out into a new chamber. From the sticky, pulsating walls around her, Naia could tell she was still inside the behemoth ship’s body. It was dim and pungent with the smell of fish and decaying seaweed, but at least there was air. She scrambled to her feet, up to her knees in the brackish water. Lying in a coughing puddle nearby was Amri, thumping his own chest in an attempt to get the last drops of water out.
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” he wheezed between coughs.
“Really? No smooth lines like ‘I’m better now that you’re here’?” Naia asked, helping him to his feet. She tried not to show how relieved she was, though her instinct was to hold him tightly and never let him go ever again.
“I’m saving all my smooth lines for next time. You know, the second time I get sucked down a water tube inside a giant marine creature’s living body.”
The walls of the chamber were slick, like everything else in the behemoth, glistening with faint bioluminescence. Now that Naia knew what to look for, she could make out half a dozen more valves in the wall.
“Look. I think that’s a door.”
The chamber narrowed on one side, ending in a flattish membrane that looked like the others they’d passed through. She pressed her hand against it, feeling it tighten under her fingertips. She wondered if the ship could truly hear her. Had the valve opened because she’d told it to, or because she’d struck it? Maybe it had only been a coincidence. But if it hadn’t, and the ship was really listening, Naia realized maybe she should be kinder. It was a living creature, after all.
“I’m sorry I was rude earlier,” she said softly, and the membrane shivered. “I was worried about my friend. We’re just trying to get out of here.”
Naia stepped back, gasping as the door twitched, about to open.
“Naia, wait!” Amri cried, but he was too late.
A monster loomed on the other side of the doorway. Not skekSa, but a second Skeksis, tall and cloaked in red and gold, a single horn jutting from the top of his head. He held a scepter in one claw, studded with a ruby, a string of pearls and diamonds draped over his shoulders.
skekZok the Ritual Master looked down on them with a scowl so deep, it could have been their graves.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.