I was going through my old short stories and I came across a story I wrote for my partner for his 19th birthday (seemingly aeons ago), which I then followed up with Part 2 the following year for his 20th. It’s fun and light hearted and I thought I’d share. My writing style has (hopefully) developed since then, but it’s still interesting to see how much I have changed, especially just between Part 1 and Part 2. My partner insists my writing has matured though whenever that word and others (like adult, grown up, working and loans) come up in conversation I have a tendency to run and hide. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a short little fantasy with little angst and no doubt that the hero will persevere with all limbs attached! So enjoy! For those inner children of ours that refuse to be put to bed.
“Wake up Ben,” whispered a voice in my ear. I promptly ignored it, nestling further into the white furs around me. My head pounded and I admitted it was possibly due to the sia I’d consumed the night before. I couldn’t have had more than three, surely? I grunted and ran my fuzzy tongue against my teeth. Sure felt like I’d had too much to drink, but unfortunately I couldn’t quite recall what had happened after the stranger had arrived. Odd. I rattled through my mind, opening closets and chests in search of those memories, but they were nowhere to be found. I prayed I hadn’t made a fool of myself.
“Ben, wake up!” repeated the voice firmly.
Without opening my eyes, I noted that the voice belonged to that of a woman, young too. I’d hazard a guess that she could hold a pretty tune when she wasn’t waking someone up. Wait. A woman? At the Shotakan Monastery, men and women were segregated and the women I knew were far from young with voices like gravel. This voice was soft, soothing and smooth, not harsh and rasping. Still, my eyes remained shut. Maybe it was a dream?
“Ben, you’re going to be late. Time’s running out,” the voice snapped. Someone pinched my ear and my eyes flew open. I stared up at the arched stone ceiling, the morning light hesitantly lighting up my small room and quickly revealed to me that I was very much alone.
Sitting up, I searched around me, eyes glancing over my book-covered desk, the piles of ancient scrolls piled upon a narrow bookshelf wedged beside the door and yesterday’s clothes heaped on the floor. I couldn’t even remember taking my clothes off. Next to my clothes was an unfamiliar large knapsack and, curious, I slid from the warmth of my bed and padded softly across cold flagstones to the bag.
It was a very ordinary pack, brown with brass buckles, but its sides bulged with contents. I lit a candle on my desk, holding it steady in one hand and opened the bag. Inside were a number of items, a large canteen of water, a loaf of bread, cheese, dried meat and various other foodstuffs, as well as a steel dagger, spare clothes and an unmarked map.
“How curious,” I muttered, my words echoing off stone-walls. No one answered me. No strange woman’s voice and I snorted. “That will teach you for drinking too much!” I mimicked my master’s gruff and often scolding voice. “Hearing voices! What next?” I unfolded the map before me. What on earth was this for?
The map was of Alegria and its neighbouring islands and I was impressed to see every mountain, forest and village replicated in vivid colour. Even my home, the Shotakan Monastery, was included. The Monastery was placed in the secluded Crystalfall Mountain Ranges at the very peak of the tallest mountain. I could almost make out the brown and red tiles on the roof and the cartographer had even included snow, which glistened pale blue in the flickering candle light.
It snowed all the time at the Monastery, but I didn’t mind. Whenever my master was too busy to notice, I would often sneak out with my homemade skis and explore the slopes at impossible speeds. Sometimes I imagined I could fly.
A sudden movement caught my eye and I peered closely at the map. I recognized the Royal Palace where tiny miniature golden flags flapped a top of massive towers. I blinked and they were still. A trick of the light perhaps?
“Ben, time is running out,” someone whispered in my ear and I jumped, dropping the map and searching the room frantically, my candle raised high. It hadn’t been any louder than a butterfly’s fluttering wings, but I’d heard it loud and clear.
“Who’s there? Come out and face me!” I shouted, feeling very vulnerable wearing only goose bumps. My voice echoed back at me.
“No need to shout my dear. I will not harm you. I’m here to help you with your task.” The voice murmured, its owner remaining invisible.
“Where are you?” I repeated, hiding my growing fear with anger.
“I’m here but not in the way that you are,” the woman said simply before adding, “and you can put some clothes on now. It is getting rather cold.”
Blushing, I dashed to my clothes and hastily dressed. My fears had vanished, replaced by my ever-strong, and fool hardy, curiosity.
“What is this task you speak off?” I asked, tugging on my thick leather boots.
“You must go on a journey to retrieve the Dragon Stone.”
“The Dragon Stone? That’s a myth! A tale to entertain the young! Next you’ll be telling me Dragon Lords exist!” I laughed. “Even the stories say that no one knows where the Dragon Stone is!” I blew out the candle and stood in semi darkness.
“It does exist and I know where it is, but I’m not the only one who seeks it. Your journey will be a race against Dresdner and his disciples.”
“Dresdner?!? The god of emptiness? What has he got to do with this?” I puzzled, my mind tumbling over words and phrases until settling on one that my master had taught me soon after I’d first arrived at the Monastery so many years ago.
“The gods play a significant role in the world and how events are played out.” He’d been slurping soup at the time, his beard trailing in his bowl. “They pull the strings of time to complete their own agendas. Don’t play their game boy for we are but their playthings like ants to wanton boys with spyglasses. But a time grows near when the gods will draw sides and so must we if we are to survive.” The old man had then noticed his soaking beard and had scowled for the remainder of the evening as I’d held back my laughs through sheer will power alone.
“Everything. He has everything to do with this and I will explain it all in good time. However, I must insist we go.” The soft voice was adamant and I felt a slight push that sent me tumbling onto my bag. “You’ll need that,” the voice chuckled.
“Who are you?” I grumbled as I pulled on the heavy bag.
“I have many names,” the bodiless voice whispered.
“But I have to call you something.” I grabbed my skis and tucked them tightly under my arm.
“You can call me Faith for now.”
“Faith.” I rolled the word in my mouth before smiling. “It’s very pretty.”
“Thank you,” the voice quietly murmured and then I was out the door, feet pounding against stone.
The man that stood before me was ancient. Well, he looked ancient. Bent almost in half, the wizened old man would have once been dominating with wiry white hair that had once been black and sharp grey eyes that even now seared into your soul. My master knew everything, often knowing what I was going to do before I had even realised it, which had been very annoying if the man also didn’t have a sense of humour. Upon his shoulder roosted a magnificent falcon over four hand spans high and conveyed the strength of the man who seemingly didn’t even notice its weight.
“Ahh my dear Benjamin,” my master spoke clearly and quickly, cheeks crinkled with amusement. “It’s’now time for you to spread your wings and fly.” As he said that his falcon, Meena, spread her wings, feathers touching the stone lined corridor walls.
“I’d gathered that,” I replied, shifting my skis to a more comfortable position. The voice, Faith, had ushered me out the door and promptly disappeared. It was then that I literally ran into Master Gamelyn and his falcon Meena.
“Follow me, my lad. I have something to give you before you set off on your journey,” he said, starting off at a quick march.
“What happened last night? What do you know that I don’t?” I asked as my master led me to his study.
“Many things and you heard them all, but it is essential to your mission that you don’t remember and so your mind obligingly forgot. You’ll learn everything in due time.”
“Humph.” I had never been one who liked being kept in the dark. Especially by my own mind.
We passed few people on the long walk to Master Gamelyn’s rooms. This was partly due to the fact it was very early and also that Master Gamelyn lived in the tallest eastern tower of the Monastery. Two copper and bronze eagles guarded the entry to his rooms and they knowingly winked at Master Gamelyn while spitefully ignoring Meena. With the sound of rasping metal on metal, their wings parted and we entered the impressive rooms of my master. His rooms actually consisted of multiple levels separated by partial floors and bridges, creating five different sections. The first floor was the largest with wall to ceiling bookcases of every know scroll, book or paper ever written.
The next room was my master’s teaching room with a massive fur rug draped across the stone floor in front of an ever-blazing fire. I remember spending long hours in front of that fireplace mesmerised by the gentle, but firm voice of my master as he explained the workings of the world to me.
The section above this room was more like a balcony with my master’s modest bed placed against the far wall with Meena’s roost beside it. A steel door also stood formidably on this level opening onto the final that led to a massive peaked room made entirely of glass that never frosted up. Only a few people had ever laid eyes on this room and I felt blessed to have actually studied the skies from it.
“Now my lad, we have little time,” said my master as he started up the spiral wooden staircase to the second level. He rushed to his desk and hastily lifted a letter written in lacy gold that he rolled and tied with a black ribbon, sealing it with his signet ring: a sphinx. He handed the letter to me then pulled off his signet ring and shoved it onto my right index finger. It was at first loose, but then tightened to fit. My eyes widen in confusion.
“What? I can’t have this!” I tried to pull it off. It was stuck tight.
“It’s time my boy. I don’t need it any longer. Not for where I’m going anyway.” My master stroked Meena’s plumaged chest. She cawed softly and combed his hair fondly with her beak.
“I don’t understand! Where are you going? I’ll go with you! You’ve so much more to teach me!” I cried, suddenly feeling lost and alone like the fated day that I’d entered this monastery so many years ago. This man had become my life, my waking hours spent in his patient presence. It was him that comforted me after I woke screaming from night horrors. We’d grown so close that it was me that he told his future too, not the other monks who he’d known for a life time. A future that would see me part the Monastery the day he parted this world. That memory I’d stored in a tiny drawer, locked away so I wouldn’t cry whenever I saw his lively face, knowing that this time would soon be upon us.
“Only I can walk this path. You’re ready, my son, to leave here. Find your place in the world. Meena will watch over you for me.” My master turned sad eyes to his falcon, cooed something to her and she nodded before perching on my own shoulder, her feathers rasping against my cheek. Her weight descended down upon me and I staggered, but after a moment stood strong, tears in my eyes.
“I’ll miss you,” I managed and my master smiled kindly, eyes twinkling.
“Of course you will,” he whispered and then a blinding light filled the room and Meena and I cried out in unison as our master disappeared from this world.
Swoosh! I rocketed down the smooth slopes of the mountain-side. Meena drifted overhead, somewhat amused at my mean of transport, but I was smug to see that often she would flap hard to keep up with me. This is what I lived for. The rush. The chill. The awesome power!
The monastery was far behind me, a mere shadow a top a mountain and it was the first time I’d ever been so far from home. The lump that had settled in my chest with my master gone still smouldered away, but he’d been right. I could still sense his presence and, even though we could never talk again, I felt that he was journeying with me. And I was excited.
Nearly bent double, I built up speed and careened down the slopes until I was almost flying. Nothing would dare stand in my way.
“Watch out!” Faith cried out too late and I grunted, crashing against a furry hill in a flurry of ice and snow. Almost lost in all the hair, my stomach sank as I realised what exactly I’d run into. The creature rolled its many eyes towards me and roared. I staggered back frantically as the massive beast turned.
She was a yeti, covered in blue fur with four massive tree-trunk like legs and an elongated head sporting four eyes. Her teeth were made of ice and she was over ten feet tall. I shuddered, dread sending chills up my spine.
”‘ello lit’ one,” she growled through her teeth, “how ‘ay I ‘elp you.”
I gulped, frozen in fear.
“Bow,” whispered Faith and I frowned, not comprehending. “Bow you dolt,” she snapped and I bent over awkwardly. The yeti nodded in approval.
“At ‘east you ‘ot some manners.” The big beast looked me up and down, one of her many eyes catching the light reflecting of my master’s ring. She looked startled and glanced around nervously, as if she expected my master to pop out of the ground. I wished he could.
“Where is Gam’lyn?” the yeti demanded.
“He’s gone. I’m his apprentice on a special mission he gave me before…” I hesitated and glanced down, “he went away.” Tears burnt the back of my eyes and the creature looked down on me sympathetically.
“He was a ‘reat man. Do not fear lit’ one. Go west, the travel’n is easier and you shall reach Sago Swamp wit’in two days.” The yeti instructed and gave a blindingly bright toothy smile. Using all my courage, I bowed and thanked the yeti before skiing off as quickly as possible.
Meena landed on my shoulder and squawked.
“And where were you?” I demanded. The falcon pecked my ear lightly before flying off. Grumbling to myself, I was soon racing across the snow again, making sure to keep an eye out for any blue and purple, furry hills.
By the time I reached Sago Swamp, a little over a week later, I was tired, sore and wishing desperately for a hot bath and a meal. Meena didn’t seem bothered by the cold and frequently hunted. She seemed to enjoy eating her meals in front of me, which made my stomach squirm. I’d been left eating cold cheese and bread in front of small pitiful fires that offered little warmth due to the utter wetness of any burnable wood.
The swamp was no better. I’d begun to smell it miles away, a putrid sweet smell of rotting fruit that made my head ache. The snow ended and the mud began and I strapped my beloved skis to my back before setting off. Meena flew above the trees and the smell, and I envied her greatly. The further we went, the stickier it became, and before long I stopped on a little island that rose above the swamp to remove my heavy furs.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Faith suddenly asked, making me jump.
“Geez, can’t you ring a bell or something?” I muttered as I pulled my jacket off.
“You better check the map.”
“Why? It has nothing on it.” I still pulled the map from my bag and unfolded it. To my surprise, a gold thread had weaved its way from the monastery, through the swamp and ended at what seemed to be a little town at the base of a mountain.
“Okay, that’s where you’re going.” Faith stated and I could imagine her smirking as she proved me wrong. Sighing I stuffed my jackets into my bag and then tucked the map into my shirt for safekeeping.
“So that way,” I pointed to where I could see a peak of a mountain through the trees.
“Actually I suggest you climb a tree. Fast,” Faith said in alarm. I rolled my eyes but did as she asked, scrambling up the smooth trunk of a massive mangrove tree. At the top, Meena met me and we both listened intently as the whole swamp grew quiet. I hadn’t noticed how noisy it had been with insects droning and the shrill cries of the birds. Now it was eerily quiet. That was until a soft groaning began, getting louder and louder, closer and closer. Looking back at the direction I’d come, I was alarmed to see the trees sway and bend to some unseen force. It was the trees that were groaning.
“What’s happening?” I yelled to Faith as I wedged myself firmly in the tree branches.
“Just hold on!” And it was suddenly upon us. The wind hit us first, a roaring, tearing wind and Meena shrieked. I reached out and tucked her close as the winds intensified.
Then in horror, I looked down in time to see a massive dark wave of water, weed and mud smash into my tree. Groaning, the tree bent to the wave’s force and my feet dangled inches from the surface. Then it passed, the wind subsiding and the water draining into the ponds and pools of the swamp.
Meena chirped, rubbed her head against my cheek and then flew up into the sky. I carefully lowered myself to the ground and was surprised to find that the swamp had completely changed. Gone were the murky green waters and debris I’d been wadding through. Even the smell of rotting fruit had been washed away. The wave had completely cleaned it out and left a forest of mangrove tree islands surrounded by clear still water.
“What happened?” I asked, eyes wide in amazement.
“Once a year a massive wave rises up from an underwater catchment and clears out the swamp to make it more habitable for its creatures. Most people believe the earth is dead or it just exists, playing no active role. However, the swamp lands know that if vegetation is left to rot for to long, the air becomes gaseous and poisonous,” Faith explained as I started off again towards the clearly visible mountains.
“Wow. So where do all the animals that live here go? When the wave comes?” I asked, wading through ponds full of curious fish.
“I’m not sure,” Faith admitted.
By the evening the next day, we reached the little town known as Sagoberg, tucked alongside the sheer rock face of the mountain. All the houses were built on massive stone pilings and wooden bridges linked the houses together.
“Ahoy there!” Bellowed a beefy man, waving a lantern somewhat violently. Stepping into the light, I greeted him with a hesitant smile as he looked me up and down.
“Welcome to Sagoberg. Who’re you?” The man bluntly stated and I felt the little confidence I’d gathered fall away. The man’s red face and bulky shoulders stared down at me fiercely.
“Speak up, Ben. He won’t harm you,” Faith murmured reassuringly and so, squaring my shoulders, I answered, “Benjamin, the apprentice of Master Gamelyn and who am I speaking to?” My voice was soft, but steady.
“Rand the Blacksmith,” the man bellowed out. It seemed he spoke no other way. Then Meena decided to make an appearance and the burly blacksmith started back when the massive falcon landed on my shoulder. I barely flinched, long used to her erratic landings. In the beginning, I think she enjoyed trying to freak me out, but somewhere along the way we’d become used to each other.
“Where you be heading?” The blacksmith asked, trying to regain his domineering stance. It didn’t work.
“West. Is there anyplace here I can stay the night? I could kill for a bath.” The man looked startled at my choice of words and I could see, in his mind, that I was transforming into a ferocious knight despite the grime and lack of weapons.
“This way,” the man gestured and led me up a set of stairs and across a few bridges before we reached one of the larger buildings. Warm light spilt from the windows like milk and music wafted out in the cool night air. We entered but were ignored, for which I was grateful, and Rand led us to a beer-stained counter where a buxom woman was cleaning glasses.
“What can I do for you Randy, my dear?” The woman winked and Rand blushed.
“I’ve guests for you Ms Amae.” Rand gestured towards me and the woman’s eyebrows rose significantly. Her piercing eyes looked me up and down, and I felt myself blushing too.
“How can I be of service to ya, young man?” The woman smiled, showing stained teeth and I gulped. Meena gave a shrill cry and the woman jerked away, the room going silent. I glared at the bird but Meena pretended not to notice.
“A room miss, and something to eat,” I said quietly. Everyone’s eyes were still on us and I was feeling very small.
“At once, my lord,” the woman curtsied shakily and somehow I’d become a lord as well as a knight.
Ms Amae brought a massive bowl of hot stew and a tankard of ale and I dug in quite happily. Meena had decided to go hunt after she’d made her spectacular entrance and everyone seemed to be ignoring me, which is what I wanted. Until…
“Where’re you from?” Asked a young woman who sat down beside me. She leant forward, exposing a mass amount of cleavage and I gulped. She batted her blue eyes, twirled her blonde hair and pouted, making me feel very uncomfortable. Could you blame me? I was raised by monks!
“Somewhere interesting, I bet,” said a red haired girl as she settled herself on the other side of me.
“Not really, no.” I managed, focusing on my food. The red head rubbed a leg against mine and I glanced at her. Maybe it was an accident?
“My name’s Dove, like the bird, and she’s called Gracie,” said the blonde and the girls laughed. I didn’t have much experience with girls and their voices grated. I wondered where Faith was.
“I’m here,” said the reassuring voice in my ear.
“What do I do?” I asked. The girls laughed.
“We’ll show you what to do.” Gracie whispered into my ear.
“Don’t speak out loud. I can hear you no matter what,” Faith chuckled and I nodded. “I think you should have an early night. Say you must sleep because you’re going to leave early. Be specific. Say you don’t need company.”
I repeated what Faith had suggested and the two girls pouted, sighing so their assets heaved. Somehow I got away and found my room. It was small with a narrow bed, washbowl and a window overlooking the town.
“At least it’s clean,” Faith approved and I washed, changed and clambered into bed. I left the window open for Meena, who’d yet to return.
“Faith?” I thought and Faith’s presence warmed my mind.
I rose early and dressed, eager to be on my way. Meena happily chirped to me as we left the tavern and started up a small winding path that led over the mountain. At a safe distance from the town, we settled down to have breakfast that Ms Amae had provided and I pulled out the map.
Not so surprisingly, the gold thread now passed through the mountain ranges and the three of us began a four-day hike to the next marker. I was the only one walking.
On the forth day we reached the edge of the Forest of Illusions where we camped for the night. Sitting by a crackling warm fire, I studied the map and the golden thread that reached the Royal Palace.
“Is that where I’m going, Faith?” I asked, tracing the path with my finger.
“Obviously,” Faith said dryly. I imagined her rolling her eyes. Why were women so difficult?
“I mean, is that my final destination?”
“My dear Ben, you’ve a long way to travel yet,” Faith said softly and I stared into the fire, watching the flames leap and twist.
“What am I doing Faith? I don’t even know what I am meant to do wherever I end up. What if I fail?”
“I’ll be here with you, always.”
I smiled but something was nagging at the edge of my mind. It had been there for a while.
“Faith, are we being followed?” The hair on the back of my neck rose and I resisted the urge to look around.
“For some time now, but they’re still two days behind us.” Faith admitted.
“Who are they?”
“They are hiding behind incredible magic. I’d suggest it’s one of the gods minions, but one can never be too sure.”
I thought about this for a while, trying to steal myself against what might yet come. I took out my dagger, almost pathetically small, and placed it within easy reach.
“Well we better get some sleep,” I decided. “We’ll leave first light.”
The further we travelled into the forest, the darker it got. Massive oaks over a hundred feet high blocked out the light and their roots created massive bridges and walls that had me sweating heavily as I clambered over and under, through and around.
The forest was also quiet. No bird calls or cricket whistles. The moist leaf cover squelched underfoot and Meena chose to ride on my shoulder. I was pleased that I could carry her weight easily now, like my Master once could.
“Hush, can you hear that?” Faith asked and I stopped, both Meena and I cocking our heads to the side.
Whispers. Hundreds of whispers. I couldn’t hear what they were saying and at times I thought I was mistaken, yet often they grew so loud I could hear words. Man…searcher…dragon…keeper… But then they’d fade into the treetops.
“Who’re they?” I thought to Faith.
“Dryads. Tree spirits,” she whispered. “Be careful. They’re an odd species. If you insult them they can be quite spiteful and you being a gorgeous young man doesn’t help things.”
“You think I’m gorgeous?”
We finally made camp when it grew to dark to travel. I didn’t dare make a fire. Meena and I huddled together as a chilly breeze rushed its way around the tree trunks, whistling and whispering eerily. I could sense the beings following us getting closer, but it was too dangerous to continue in this total darkness.
“How far away are they?” I asked Faith.
“They’re getting closer. I think we should hide.”
Feeling with outstretching hands, Meena swaying on my shoulder, I fumbled my way across broad roots and around massive trunks, searching for a hole of some sort. You can imagine my shock when my hand touched flesh. I would’ve screamed, but my mouth was covered and I felt like I was being dragged into the very earth itself.
Just in time it seemed as suddenly blinding light filled the clearing. Lights danced before my eyes and I blinked them away, shadowy blurs evolving into actual figures.
There were four of them in total. They stopped and conferred in hushed voices. One was a massive hound that would’ve reached my shoulder, black as midnight and its nose sniffed hungrily at the air. Could it smell me?
The man that stood beside the massive dog was small and wiry, yet with extraordinarily broad shoulders. Strung across his back was a massive bow. He was deep in conversation with an older man in simple travelling clothes. However in his right hand he wielded a tall oak staff topped by a large purple crystal. He was a mage and, by the colour of the stone, a very powerful one.
The fourth member was cloaked with his hood pulled far over his face. He seemed set a part from the others. Watching him curiously, my heart stopped when the hooded figure suddenly looked at me. Although I couldn’t see his eyes, I felt them on me and I gulped. The other three stopped talking and also looked towards where I was hidden.
The small hands suddenly disappeared and I shrank back, fearing the worse. Then came the whispering and the group of four searched in vain for its source.
Our forest! Get out! Get out! Get out! The voices combined to make an incredible force and then, slowly, as if materialising out of thin air, pale waif-like children appeared in the tree tops, glinting arrows pointing at the unsuspecting four.
“They’re not children, Ben. They’re dryads,” Faith informed me and looking closely I saw that they were all women and slightly green.
Get out! Get out! Get Out! They chanted and then the trees began to sway, yet there was no wind. The wood pressed against my skin seemed to breathe and branches reached menacingly towards the four.
The hound howled and the archer, his own arrows searching for a target, cried out in dismay when a vine coiled itself around his bow and tugged it high up into the treetops.
“Run!” Shouted the mage as massive boughs slammed into the ground millimetres from where they stood. The four quickly disappeared, chased by the trees themselves.
“Well that was interesting.” I whispered.
“Indeed,” whispered a voice that was not Faith.
We were taken to the forest centre where a massive oak reached far up into the sky. Its branches hung heavily with small women that giggled and pointed as I was led to Kirra the Eldest.
“This is her tree,” Faith murmured and I whistled appreciatively at its size. Faith had explained the relationship the dryads had with their trees and it made me realise how old these seemingly young girls were.
Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Whispered the voices. Standing before us was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Her hair floated around her, a soft hazelnut tinted with green. Her eyes flashed emerald and her skin was a golden bronze. She barely reached my shoulders.
“Welcome, guests,” she addressed both Meena and me in a bell-like voice. Meena nodded her head and I clumsily bowed. “I know you’re in a hurry so I’ll make this short. I knew your master, young Ben, and he spoke often of you. When I saw his ring on your finger, I knew he’d travelled to the next world. I’ve something for you.” The beautiful dryad gave me a small leather bag that I emptied out onto my hand. It was a little gold acorn threaded onto a thin piece of leather.
“It’s pretty,” I said, unsure and she laughed, taking the necklace from my palm and reaching up on tip toe to tie it around my neck.
“Friend of the dryads, we will watch over you until you’ve left the forest. I wish you a safe journey.” Kirra smiled and then the dryads faded into their trees and I was left alone with Meena.
It took us another two days to leave the forest and the entire time my neck prickled from watchful gazes.
Stepping from trees to a grassy plain, I stood in awe as a massive city opened up before me. It rose in three tiers, each surrounded by a massive wall topped by guards and linked by open water pipes that glinted in the light. The lower level was busy, despite being quite early in the day, with markets and shops. The second level was housing and the chimneys spouted grey smoke. The final level housed a massive golden palace surrounded by stunning gardens. For a mountain boy, I was taken aback at the absolute splendour.
“Wait until you get inside,” Faith laughed and I almost fell down the hill, eager to enter. Meena’s shadow followed me across the grass, her call ringing out as thermals lifted her swiftly into the clouds.
We approached a set of gates over twelve feet tall guarded by two imperial guards. Dressed in dark blue, their faces were lined in thick kohl beneath their cheeks and across their foreheads making them even more menacing. Both carried a long staff topped by a wicked looking blade. They paid no attention to me as I passed them and entered the bustling city.
Colour and noise assaulted me. Finding a small niche to recover in, I watched as passing men shouted out their trades and women bartered with small children held close, away from carriages and horses.
“Wow,” I murmured.
“Quickly Ben. We need to be out of the city by nightfall,” Faith prompted.
“But what am I suppose to be doing?” I asked, glancing nervously at the crowd. I attempted to push myself back into the throng and got an elbow in the back of my head for my efforts. I pushed myself further into the alley and rested against the cool stone. Meena swooped down and landed opposite me, head cocked to the side.
“You must get the Dragon Stone.”
“It’s here?” I looked around stupidly as if it would appear from thin air.
“In the palace.” My eyes drifted up to where the palace was. Morning light bounced off its walls making it glow. It also seemed impenetrable.
“You’re joking right?” I said aloud. Meena looked at me oddly.
“What do you think?” I asked the falcon. She seemed to grin and then stretched out her wings and took flight, startling a few store holders and heading towards the palace. “Okay then,” I muttered and hurried after her, pushing and ducking.
It was hard trying to keep the bird in sight and watch where I was going so it was no surprise when I hit the stairs and kept going…down. By the time I reached the bottom, I was battered and bruised and my belongings strewn everywhere. The stairs had led to a small alleyway with many doors and it was damp and gloomy.
“Humph,” I muttered as I gathered my things. It was then that I found my Master’s letter. I’d forgotten all about it. It was addressed in spidery writing to someone called Dragon Lord.
“Who’s that?” I asked Faith. She mentally shrugged, a very odd feeling. Starting back up the stairs I met Meena who was quite calmly preening herself. I just shook my head.
It was noon by the time we reached the palace walls. Its formidable sides reached up into the sky and seemed impenetrable. The guards looked even scarier then the first I’d met. Dressed impressively in red and orange, their helmets displayed a row of blades like a frill neck lizard and along their spines were a similar razor edge. Black paint across their cheeks, jaws and eyes made them look down right scary. I gulped and retreated.
“How will I get in?” I thought to Faith.
“Okay Ben, listen very closely.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to survive this,” I moaned after walking around the palace wall a few times.
“Here will do just nicely,” Faith stated and I looked up the massively old oak tree with its branches reaching over the walls. It seemed almost impossible to climb.
“Faith, I’m not a squirrel. I can’t physically climb that!” I complained, watching enviously as Meena flew and rested at the very top branch. The closest branch to me was easily over three metres above me.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll keep watch,” said Faith irritatingly. I just sighed, readjusted my bag and began to run my hands over the wood, trying to find a spot to start climbing. To my horror, a hand suddenly reached out of the wood and gripped my own. It was slightly green and very small, like that of a child. Then the dryad’s head emerged and she shyly smiled. Another hand reached out and touched the little golden acorn I had dangling from my neck.
“I can help you, friend of the dryads,” she whispered, her brown eyes twinkling. Hesitantly, I rested my other hand on the tree and the dryad gripped it too. My other hand was freed and I reached further up. It was hard work and my arms strained from holding my entire body weight, but somehow I managed to get to the first branch safely.
“You should be alright now,” said the dryad and I thanked her with a kiss on her hand that left her blushing a rosy pink.
It felt like it took me forever to reach Meena who watched me patiently climb. Sitting on the very top branch, balanced precariously with my pack, I looked over into the Palace gardens and gasped.
Flowers carpeted the ground in blues, purples and pinks. Willows leant over man-made ponds and menageries of wild noisy birds flashed iridescent emerald, gold and sapphire.
“Umm Faith?” I called in my mind.
“You didn’t mention the tigers.” Lazy and sleepy, half a dozen tigers lay around the garden, yawning and showing off their impressively sharp teeth.
“You’ll just have to run very fast. See that door over there?” Faith asked and through the foliage I glimpsed a small door. “It’s unlocked. You have five seconds to get over that wall because the guards are coming.”
Alarmed, I heard the men approach and I leapt from the branch, onto the wall and then met my second dilemma. The drop on the other side was at least forty metres.
“Just jump!” Faith yelled and trusting her with my life, I closed my eyes and leapt into space.
Something sharp dug into my shoulders and no longer was I plummeting but gliding. Meena’s wings were spread wide and we smoothly landed not far from the door. I didn’t even stop. My feet hit the ground and I was running for the door. The once sleepy tigers were very much awake.
I swung the door open, Meena flew through and I slammed it shut just in time. The tigers roared.
“Now what?” I asked, puffing. We stood in a large room with a glass roof. On huge tiered tables lay small saplings still in pots and shovels lay against the wall. We were in a very large gardening shed.
“Look at your map,” Faith said and I pulled it out and opened it. I was no longer surprised to see that the palace had been magnified in some mysterious manner and a small dot showed where I was. The golden thread now led me through the massive maze that was the palace to a small room in the very centre. That must be where the Dragon Stone was.
Once in the palace, it was easy to avoid guards as I could hear them marching from quite a distance away. The inner palace guards were dressed differently again. Completely white, they wore no armour and their faces were painted white. They looked like ghosts. They carried the same weapon as all the other guards did, the staff with the blade at the end, except this time their weapons had a blade at both ends.
With them were small children dressed in green with small caps. I watched quietly as a small group of them practised with a short piece of rope with two bronze dishes attached to the end. Expertly they spun and threw these unique weapons into the air before adding smooth stones to the dishes, which they catapulted with incredible accuracy. The closer we got to the Dragon Stone, the more guards we had to dodge, but finally we could see the room and its guards.
“What now?” I asked Faith but again Meena proved to have the answer. With a war cry like shriek, she fell upon the guards, scratching and distracting them, drawing them away from the doors. I slipped in unseen and was met with an amazing sight.
The Dragon Stone was about the size of my head and perfectly round. Veins of blues, greens and purples covered its surface and it reflected the light of the lanterns spectacularly. It rested upon a golden throne and I slowly walked towards it.
“We don’t have much time,” Faith warned but I ignored her. I carefully reached out a hand to touch it. The stone seemed to sing and my heart burst with joy. A commotion outside the door interrupted my daze and I scooped up the surprisingly light stone into my arms, tucking it into my shirt for safety.
“Quick!” Faith cried out and I burst through the doors to see the four from the Dryad Forest attacking the guards. Meena swooped down in front of me and I followed her.
We reached a room with wall-to-wall windows that looked over the copper piping that carried a continuous flow of water in the open pipes to the different sectors of the city. We’d planned this and I knew exactly what to do. Swinging my pack off, I undid my skies and strapped them to my feet before tightly fastening my bag to my back again.
Then I picked up a metal chair and threw it at the window. The glass smashed into a thousand shards just as I heard the guards arrive.
“Let’s go!” I yelled and Meena shot from the room just as I jumped into the pipes and shot off along them as if I was skiing down a snowy mountain. In my arms, I hugged the stone and tried to keep my balance.
Glancing back, I saw the small green dressed children load up their slingshots. Stones hailed down around me but I was too fast for them and I was quickly out of range. The white guards followed onto the piping, angrily shouting. We reached the palace wall near the dryads oak tree and soon after I passed, a massive branch smashed into the pipe, the white guards plummeting. I saluted to the tree and the little dryad waved back.
My good luck didn’t last. Water shot out waterfall-like over the second wall and in moments I was falling. Meena sank her claws into my bag and we glided to the ground. I threw my beloved skies off and took off running towards the front gate. I just needed to get to the Forest of Illusion.
Alarmed storekeepers and shoppers jumped out of my way as I dodged horses, my heart in my mouth. Horns were blown and I could hear the shouts of the guards as they tried to intercept me.
“Ben, you need to focus now. Reach down inside you, like Master Gamelyn showed you,” Faith whispered as I ran. I struggled to reach the silver power source I knew was inside me. Sweat ran down my face and I felt like crying.
“You can do it,” Faith yelled as I reached the front gates. Reaching out a hand, I brought my entire mind to bear on the closed doors and then, without a sound, the doors disappeared and the guards were thrown a hundred metres.
“I did it!” I crowed, sprinting towards the forest. Cool shade greeted me as I made it to the trees, but I didn’t stop my frantic pace. Looking behind, trees groaned as they bent and blocked any entry to the guards. I’d made it. I was safe. Heaving to a stop, I looked down at the precious stone I carried and couldn’t help laughing. I’d done it. A mere boy had stolen the most prized mythical artifact in the most secure palace in the whole world!
I met with Kirra and thanked her and her people for all their help, but Faith told me I was still not safe. The four were following us again and at night I could hear the Hound howl.
“Where are we going to go then?” I asked Faith as we left the dryad’s forest with a heavy pack of food and water. The Dragon Stone was tucked safely in my shirt and I cradled it in my arms.
“Look at the map,” Faith suggested. The map had returned to its original size and the thread now led up into the mountains, further west of the forest.
“What’s up in those mountains?” I asked, tucking away the map.
“Safety,” Faith murmured and we were off again with chilling howls following our every step.
“I’ll have to fight them, won’t I?” I asked one evening. We’d left the forest and were camped on a grassy knoll. Fireflies dotted the grassy plains and the stars winked in an inky black sky.
“Eventually, but not yet. You need to be stronger.” Faith murmured into my head.
“Stronger with my power?” I asked, remembering the daring escape. It felt like it had happened years ago.
“Yes. We’ve another three days until we reach the mountains. We’ll practice as we go.”
“My master never taught me how to use it. He just showed me where it was, inside me. He said I must learn the ways of the world first before I learn to change it with my will. I wish he’d taught me more,” I whispered. Meena hopped over, her wings spread for balance. She cocked her head to the side and looked at me, clearly puzzled.
“What’s on your mind, dear Meena,” and when I looked at her I saw my Master’s grey eyes staring back at me.
“I’ve been here all along,” the bird uttered. I leapt back in surprise with an embarrassing squeak. Slightly warped by Meena’s beak, my Master’s voice was scratchy and soft. “Ever since the day your mother left you outside the Monastery doors, I’ve know you were very special. I could see the power glowing from within you.” I clicked my jaw shut and sat straight, habit instinctually making sure I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.
“My dear boy, when you pushed open the palace gates you’d had no training at all. Yet still you did it. You have a gift I’ve never before seen, a very powerful one that can be easily manipulated. I taught you right and wrong so when you did discover your power, you’d know when to use it. Just focus, draw the power from deep within you and you can do anything.” Meena suddenly shook her head and squawked in confusion. My Master was gone yet I felt comforted knowing he was still with me.
“Feel more confident now?” Faith asked and I nodded, a smile crossing my face. I looked down at the Dragon Stone that had not left my side. To me, it seemed like it was singing.
“Get some rest, my dear Ben.” Faith murmured and I complied, my mind drifting away.
The mountains towered over us yet we did not stop. The following four were very close and my breathing was heavy as I pushed myself faster and faster. A howl made me turn and across the plains I saw them, quickly moving, almost flying across the long grass.
“It’s time,” Faith stated as I clambered up onto a ledge. It was about four metres above the grassy plains and was partial protected by a sheer stone-wall. I hid the Dragon Stone in a small hole in the cliff face and Meena settled herself in front of it.
The Hound reached the base first and salivated up at me as he waited for his companions. I was horrified to see its eyes glowing red and I almost lost my nerve. And so I acted. Reaching into my centre that contained my mystical magic powers that I’d barely mastered, I focused on the ground beneath the creature.
“There,” I encouraged my power when I found a fault in the earth and suddenly the ground disappeared beneath the Hound and he fell down into the massive crevasse. One down and three to go. Easy!
“Well done Ben,” Faith applauded and I grinned although I was shaking. Great waves of weariness washed over me. The Archer and the Mage saw the Hound disappear and stopped, seemingly far from my reach. The Archer strung his bow and let an arrow fly. Meena took flight, caught it mid air and snapped it, showering the pieces over the two.
The Mage lifted up his staff and pounded it twice into the ground, muttering in a foreign tongue. The earth began to shake and pebbles rained down on me. I lifted my hand up and a giant silver spider appeared. Quickly, the spider built an intricate web that withstood the barrage of falling debris and began to hurl its catch back at the Mage.
The Mage was so surprised, he didn’t see what was coming until it was too late. A suffocating mist descended upon the Mage and wrapped itself around him. He struggled, but the mist just tightened its grip until the Mage fainted. The mist lifted his unconscious body up and was carried by the wind to a far away place. His staff remained behind, purple crystal shattered.
By now the Archer was prepared and let fly a dozen arrows in quick succession. Meena tried her best, but the Archer was too quick. I threw myself behind a boulder as arrows rained down, panting hard. I couldn’t stop shaking and dots danced before my eyes.
Reaching inside myself again, I heard a shrill cry from Meena and my heart froze. Leaping from my boulder, I was just in time to see Meena fall, an arrow piercing her breast. White, hot fury roared through me and washed away my fatigue. Lifting my hand, I blocked the Archer’s arrows with a silver shield while with the other I created a giant fireball. With no mercy I threw it and the man screamed as he disappeared in a rush of flames.
“Meena!” I cried as I clambered down the cliffs to find her. Her crumpled body lay not far away and I gathered up her body. She didn’t move.
“Ben! Look out!” Faith screamed as the final of the four suddenly appeared from thin air, shrouded in darkness, swinging a scimitar. I rolled just in time, hugging Meena to my chest, as the scimitar sliced through the air. I stumbled to my feet, tears blearing my vision as I created a shield to block the vicious attack that continuously rained down on me.
I backed myself up till the rock was behind me and looked up as my silver spider descended, taking and lifting Meena’s body up in a silver cobweb sling. Wiping away burning tears, I glared up at the man before me as he lifted his scimitar high above his head. This blow broke my shield and I rolled again, although not as quickly as before.
“Ben! You must focus!” cried Faith and I could sense her fear for me. Seeking deep inside of me, a silver scimitar of my own materialised in my hand and I blocked another attack. We both retreated to catch our breaths and the man laughed hoarsely.
“Do you know me boy?” The man hissed. The voice was vaguely familiar and made me shiver. Slowly he reached up and pushed back his hood, revealing a strikingly handsome man.
It took me a moment to realise it was me.
Rarely did I ever look into a mirror but indeed there were my own piercing green eyes glaring back at me, my own lips sneering in distaste, my own messy black hair wet with sweat. All I could do was stare.
“It’s a trick.” Faith whispered urgently and she was right. I looked closer and could see the air shimmer faintly. It was all an illusion, meant to throw me off.
I dropped my sword, it instantly disappeared and I pretended to fall to my knees in shock. My other self smirked triumphantly, lifting his scimitar, but I didn’t wait. With a cracking boom, I slapped the ground and the earth rolled. The man stumbled and that was all I needed.
Up in an instant, I grabbed the man’s wrist and swung him against the rock face. Instead of hitting the rock, the man sank into it like quick sand. In horror, the man panicked, his face flickering from my own to that of millions of others. Red hair, blue eyes, black skin, a million voices all crying out in hate and then the rock ate him and he was gone.
Meena’s body lay still as I approached her.
“What am I going to do?” I asked Faith, cradling Meena’s broken body. The spider had removed the arrow and slick wetness gleamed off her silky black breast.
“I want you to carry her to the very peak of the mountain. You don’t have long,” Faith softly said. I placed the Dragon Stone into my pack and then gathered Meena up in a cobweb sling. My spider seemed to nod sadly before disappearing.
It was hard work. The climb was steep and often I had to backtrack when I reached a dead end. The sun was setting as I reached the top. I paused and looked out across the world and was amazed as deep purples and oranges played across the landscape. I could almost imagine Meena’s silhouette against the burnt colours.
“Quickly,” Faith said, her voice echoing slightly and I turned slowly in disbelief. There, standing before me was a beautiful young woman; her chestnut hair braided intricately and deep amber eyes glowing softly with warmth.
“Faith?” I gasped, feeling my knees tremble.
“Yes, Ben. Now we must hurry,” she quietly prompted and I followed her in a daze to a small cottage seemingly built into the rock itself. Warm light spilt from the windows and a small garden filled the air with sweet smells. Stepping into the little house, Faith gestured to a table that had been covered with blankets.
“Lay her there. Quickly now.” I did as she said and watched as she took a white cloth and covered Meena with it. Faith closed her eyes and gradually, the cloth began to glow. I blinked and it was over.
Faith pulled back the cloth and Meena blinked at me sleepily.
“Meena!” I cried out and hugged her. The falcon chirped and happily nuzzled my head.
“You both must be hungry,” Faith said, smiling and with a wave of her hand, the dinner table was decked with lavish foods of every kind. My mouth dropped open and Faith giggled.
“What else do you expect from a god?” Faith asked and laughed harder when she saw my look of amazement.
Two weeks passed and I settled in quickly enough. Meena loved her new home. I watched her as she launched herself from the cliff edge and soared higher and higher on the hot winds. The Dragon Stone sat snug against my chest as always. Faith insisted that I keep it by my side at all times, but wouldn’t tell me why. Whenever I thought of Faith, shivers of pleasure would run up and down my back. I remembered the first night I’d met her, the night before I’d left the monastery. It was she who had sought out my Master’s help and started my adventure.
She had told me it was necessary that I didn’t know her real identity until now because apparently the man who had looked like me could also see into a persons mind and it was vital that the god Dresdner did not know she was involved. Here, in her home, we were safe.
Suddenly I was drawn from my thoughts as the Dragon Stone began to wail.
“Faith!” I yelled as I ran for the house. Had I broken it?
“It’s okay Ben.” Faith reassured me, continuing her cooking. Not including the first night here, Faith always cooked from scratch. She said it relaxed her.
“Is it meant to be making that noise?” I asked, alarmed. I placed the stone on a pile of blankets and watched in horror as all colour drained from it.
“Yes, Ben,” Faith soothed and then the most horrible thing happened. The stone cracked.
“I broke it!”
“Oh settle down Ben and watch,” Faith reprimanded gently, taking my hand.
The crack grew larger and the wailing louder until a tiny head burst forth. My eyes almost dropped out of my head. The rest of the shell broke apart quickly to reveal a tiny creature with scales the colour of mother pearl. The baby dragon looked at me with adoring eyes and attempted to get to me. The little thing fell over and it started to cry.
“Hey there, don’t cry,” I murmured and gathered the tiny creature into my arms. It snuggled into my shirt and I looked at Faith in wonder.
“All hail the new Dragon Lord,” Faith cheered softly and the little dragon looked up at me, its eyes a crystal blue.
“What’s its name?” I asked Faith and the god shrugged.
I looked at the teeny creature and asked its name.
Kaida. She whispered into my mind.
“That’s a beautiful name.” I murmured.
After coming to terms with my new responsibility and putting her to bed, I sat in my room and thought. That’s when my eye caught my Master’s letter on a shelf. I’d been tempted to open it but every time I went to crack the seal I’d been distracted. The words Dragon Lord glowed. I unrolled it and breathed deeply before beginning to read.
My dear boy,
You’ve been through so much and I’m afraid your part is not yet finish. As I taught you, the gods are taking sides and soon the world will be torn apart by war and you must ensure that good prevails. It will not be easy but you’ll have help and I’ll be watching.
As the new Dragon Lord you’ve many responsibilities including the new life that was born today. She will need your guidance as she grows and I assure you, that she’ll not remain small for long.
Practice with your power. The more you do the less tired you’ll be and you may be surprised by what you can do.
I believe in you, Ben. You will soar one day and I hope I’m there to see it.
I didn’t know what the future would bring but my heart was full. Never would I have believed I would have a falcon, a god and a baby dragon as companions but I couldn’t have been happier. Placing my Master’s letter in a safe place, I drifted into Kaida’s room.
She snored softly in a wooden crib watched over by Meena.
“I’m proud of you.” Faith whispered coming up beside me and I took her hand. We stood together and watched Kaida sleep.