“Fancy a little… adventure?”
The “talkie-talk” rock whipped through the thick mist of the bog, into the sky and out of sight in the blink of an eye.
1… 2… 3… and back.
It levitated just above Sia’s open hand, glowing a faint blue before emitting an echoey voice.
“Of course,” said Eerika, “can I bring the kid?”
Go south of the bog. Continue south. South until you are beyond where any ration Diren soul would venture, the Southern Woods. Deep within, by the Throne Hill, I will be waiting.
That is what the witch had told an excited Sia, who walked ten paces ahead of her two travelling companions: Eerika and Mae, her bare feet sloshing and slapping as she pattered through the fresh, wet mud of the shadowy wood.
“We shouldn’t be here, Eerika.” Whispered Mae to Eerika in a not so subtle lean, with rattling breath that was laced with fear and cold.
“You scared?” replied Eerika, punctuated with “goo goo ga ga” and rib-jabbing fingers.
“Fuck aff, yu!” Ye know it’s nat that. I’m not the supercisous type.”
“Superticous – shit! That’s a hard word.”
This continued for a time, the two women laughing with each failed attempt. Until Sia cut threw their words.
“Superstitious” She said firmly.
“Aye” continue Mae in hushed tones, “– but, people aren’t meant to come here! Da used tae say he’d chuck me out here with…”
“The… ginormous flesh-eating hares.”
“You are joking. You are an adult woman, Mae. Well… ish. Just trust Sia and keep walking. She’s a prickly wee shite at first, just give her time.”
For just shy of thirteen acres they walked. No sign of the flesh-eating rabbits that Deiren parents threatened their children with (they loved the taste of bad boys and girls). Not another soul to be seen – just the birds, the insects the–
A rustle. A pounce.
“Fuuuuuck!” yelled Mae.
A rabbit. Small, grey and… harmless. That didn’t stop the stout, powerful Kath woman from embedded her throwing axe in it’s back in one swift swoop; laughing as she retrieved her prey.
She let out a satisfied sigh as she wiped her bloody axe on her leine, smearing blood and fur on the tunic and not doing much to clean the ornate blade – not that she seemed to mind, as she tucked it back into the dangling loop on her belt.
“I slayed the monster m’lady! Wouldst thou liketh to leaveth it on your Da’s pillow?” she said in a deep, camp mock-Ilosian voice, bobbing the dripping corpse left and right by the scruff.
“He-he” replied Mae in apparent humour, heart still racing.
Sia stopped in her tracks.
“There she is!” she shouted Sia in glee.
Just as the witch had promised, deep within the Sothern Forest, at the entrance to Throne Wood, there she stood. Just as Sia remembered: a portly woman, with saggy rolls hanging and exposed, as she always wore a thin robe that barely covered her flesh. She cocked her head when she saw the party approach, causing a cascade of wild locks to drop over her face.
“We are gonna die.” gulped Mae.
“Maybe.” admitted Eerika.
“Yiv chosen some allies, very fine ones at that” said the witch, in a voice that was as croaky as it was kind.
Mae and Eerika tried to smile politely, but awkwardness struck them like a pyro bolt, and they were left staring at the forest floor with tightly clenched teeth.
“Sia,” the witch began, “you wish ta learn of magic, witchcraft – our past, forgotten by history – forcibly torn from its pages… all of these things lie beyond the Throne Hill.”
She gestured at the overgrown incline in the forest. Mae swore she could hear the malicious hiss of something foul… the wind.
“Throne Hill has hidden books, tomes…? asked Sia.
“Look at the hill – deep into the darkness.”
“Okay” replied Sia, with slight hesitance.
“Now… look beyond” the witch commanded.
But before the words fully formed in her mouth, the sight of the hill before her melted away like a scrap of paper in an open fire; revealing high, stone walls, some standing tall, but most collapsed into rubble – so much rubble.
“What is…?” Sia started.
But the witch was already gone.
“So whaddya think it is?” Eerika asked Sia, as Mae readied a dose of mute powder at the agreed upon point of entry.
“A castle. A temple. Hard to say. But we shall find out! She said with flare, that immediately dropped as she continued, “but did we have to bring her? She seems… simple, cowardly.”
“You have her all wrong. Wait until you see some of the brews she can make. Will amaze you!”
“Yes – but that would be accomplished if we just brought her journal!” Sia bleated, a little too loudly.
“Oh, aye?” Mae interjected. “Here: we are about ta use a dose o’ silent step, have a look at the brew.”
“E… one… R… twelve… - this is gibberish!”
“It is coded. Woulda thought a genius like yu coulda worked that out! Potions masters write their brews in code so that they cannot be stolen by peers or enemies. Now -”
Mae was about to spark a flame, but Sia, desperate to prove herself stopped her.
“Allow me. I have been looking for an excuse to test this out.”
Sia slid on a long, leather, fingerless glove that almost met her elbow. In the palm of the glove was a grooved, metal disc with an embedded orange orb. Her eyes tight, her lips flicking as she internally counted down, Sia raised her hand and bright, blazing flame erupted, gently floating above the orb – much more spherical than a natural flame. Sia grinned at her success. Prematurely. The flame dropped, and within moments her entire hand was engulfed in inferno.
“Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she howled, as she rotated her shoulder back and belted her arm forward.
The wall exploded in eerie silence, rocks and rubble shifting and dropping without a sound. Mae groaned in frustration, blowing her fingers wasn’t helping her singed finger.
“Impressive” Mae muttered sarcastically – a half truth, as she was very impressed that her powder actually worked, “here, oh talented one, you should use this.”
A small, smoky jar with a rich, green sand inside.
“What do I do with this?” asked Sia, in-between sucking her stingy fingers.
“Shove it up yer arse and sit on it… what do ye think? Toss it in! Tha sand will absorb ground-level sounds like footsteps.”
Sia’s brow and lip curled with scorn, she had to be at least two years older than this… girl – she thought this would be an opportunity to dazzle with her magic.
Mae continued, “now we need some light” and ruffled in her pockets. Needlessly. Her ruffling was interrupted by a soft, blue glow, emanating from Sia’s hand. The soft glow highlighted the wide grin on her face.
If there was history, magic or any other bolloucks to be found, it was not in this tunnel, mused Eerika, as she shifted rubble, rocks, boulders – all manner of stone, her most prized possessions: doof and thud, her fists. Named after the apparent sound her fists make when they uppercut a chin or bash a cheek. Her short, skinny friend continued to provide light from behind (though it should noted, Sia stood about a foot above Eerika), and her lanky, skinny friend tinkered with another jar – neither interested in helping with manual labour.
“Be honest, Sia – this is the only reason you invited me.”
“Noooo,” replied Sia with a snicker, “you also swing an axe moderately well too!”
Even Mae let herself chuckle.
“Moderate – why, I –“
“Was the greatest warrior in Kath” said Mae and Sia in near-unison.
“I could kill you both, bury you under these rocks. Not a soul would care or notice! And I wouldn’t go to either funeral.”
“How would there be a funeral if not a soul noticed?” asked Sia dry, “dunce.”
“Is that light ahead?” interjected Mae.
“It is!” bellowed the burrowing Eerika, “we will need another explosion!”
As the dust settled from the second explosion, they saw it before them; bathed in sunlight, standing tall, a huge keep. They stood at the foot of a guard tower, battlements flanking them – a training ground with targets, which would usually be shaped like humans, but in this instance, there were as many monstrous shapes as human – crafted from hemp and straw.
“Wow” gasped Eerika, “it looks like a castle!”
“Something isn’t right here.” Mae said.
“Agreed” added Sia, “It should be destroyed, a ruin – that was obvious from the outside and yet it is serene, sunny! Sunny! We are in Deire for Gods’ sake – we waded through the rain to get here!
Her companions agreed with stern nods.
“Magic…” Sia continued, “I can sense magic everywhere.”
“And yid be right!” barked a bald, armoured man with a puffy orange beard and round belly. Gripped tight in his right hand, was a frothy tankard.
“A spirit?” asked Sia firmly, folding her arms, the only one of the company who didn’t briefly lose their nerve.
“Yes. I am a guide. And I bare a warning: five great spirits, greater than I, hold this place – suspend it between your world and ours. I see that fire in your eyes – you aim to take it back… they will test you. Each represents one the five tenants: humility, generosity, chastity, dedication, and calm. Should you agree to challenge them and lose, well…”
Sia was nodding feverntly, the fire in her eyes blazing, goosepimples swarming her arms.
Unfortunately, as she spun to face her whispering companions, the nodding stopped, the flames were doused and the goosepimples subsided. Rejection.
“You two… want to turn back?”
“Eerika and I save people, Sia – we help people who have been attacked by spirts, hurt by monsters. We don’t go pickin’ fights with spirits over history and magic.”
“Let the past lie, Sia. Let’s get out of here.” added Eerika, extending an open hand to her friend.
“Eerika… I cannot do this alone, please stay with me” said Sia, taking her hand. But Eerika had already started to walk back into the tunnel, pulling her along.
And the man with the puffy Orange beard smiled a smile. A smug smile, sinister even. The spirit of Idle was pleased – dedicated, they were not…
“Ensnared so easily! Now, sleep.”
I clicked his fingers, and the three friends dropped in the tunnel.
“Now, let us see what I am working with…”