All Christopher Fredrico wanted was to be a peaceful scholar who could spend a lot of time with his friends. Now, falsely accused of stealing a magical artifact, he is forced to leave the only home he knows.
But as he and his friends travel towards the coast, they find a riddle that may save a kingdom — or cost them their lives.
Banished: The Riddled Stone Book One by homeschooled teen author Teresa Gaskins, is being serialized freely on this website at the pace of one chapter per week. The full novel is available in ebook or paperback format on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers.
Chris stared at the empty, swirling mist. The path ended here, dropping off into a cliff that, but for the fog, would have given him a fine view of the forest far below. He turned and looked back along the narrow ledge they had been following. It would be impossible for Marc, who was trailing faithfully along behind his master, to turn around. And it would be difficult to walk the horse backwards without one of them falling to his death.
The mist had moved in on their camp the evening before, and he had thought it would dissipate when the sun rose. But it was now late morning, and the fog’s cold, slimy arms still dampened his clothes and spirits. It had been so thick that he almost missed the ledge from his dream.
He had risen at around midnight last night. Arnold had been on guard at the time, and he convinced his good friend to go to sleep. After fifteen minutes, when he could hear rumbling snores, he quickly packed his bags and strapped them onto Marc, whom he signaled to remain silent. He placed a light horse print into the mud near the cave that they had planned to explore in the morning. Then he headed around the lake and followed the other stream back up the mountain, until he came to the base of the steep waterfall.
He hoped the others would finally take his advice and go home.
Chris had to wait for the morning light before attempting the climb. Then it had taken longer than he had hoped to find a safe path for Marc, but they finally reached the top of the waterfall. From the steepness of the mountain in his dream, he had guessed this would lead to the ledge he needed to find. Now he wondered if it had all been a mistake, for he could see no way to continue.
“Or, the dream was simply a trick to lead us to our deaths,” he said, glancing back at his horse. Marc twitched one ear in a way that reminded him of a raised eyebrow.
Terrin was right, he was going crazy.
Still, if he wasn’t supposed to be on this quest, why would he have been able to read the stone? So that was encouraging, because if he was meant to be doing this, then the riddle must lead somewhere.
Unless, maybe, his craziness had already begun by the time they entered the harpies’ cave. Maybe the whole thing had simply been his imagination.
Chris bowed his head and leaned sideways against the wall.
Then he blinked. Was there a thin crack in the side of the cliff? He touched it, tracing the indentation with his finger. As he looked at the rock face, he could see that the crack went from his hand down to the path at his feet. He took a half step back and followed it with his eyes. It went up above his head and then turned along the direction they had been going and went on nearly to the edge, where it disappeared.
He looked at Marc and laughed — a dry laugh, not of humor but despair.
“I’m even so crazy that I thought a crack might lead to something,” he said, leaning back against the wall. “Oh, Marc. What are we going to do?”
Then the world seemed to shift, causing his insides to twist in protest. It felt like the whole mountain was moving. His first thought was that he must be dreaming after all. Didn’t his dreams always end with falling? And that would explain the persistent mist. All his dreams had been made of mist.
Marc let out a whinny as he nodded his head, pawing nervously at the ground. Chris reached out to steady himself. Instead of the flat face of rock he had expected, he found a ridge. He grabbed it and pulled himself straight. As he did, the handhold became easier to grip. And as he took a quarter step back, he found that a wedge of rock had twisted around, protruding onto the path and exposing a dark hole.
Marc snorted, dancing backwards and forwards, not wanting the leave his master but startled by the moving rock. Chris, who was on the wrong side of the rock wedge, edged carefully around to Marc’s side.
He rubbed his horse’s forehead and muttered softly, “Look at that, boy. The crack actually was important.”
He fumbled in the pack behind his saddle and pulled out a torch. Lighting it, he gave a tweeting whistle as a signal that Marc should continue following him and headed into the cave. It quickly widened out, so he left Marc to wait and went back to push the rock slab shut.
He had not forgotten that he had told Arnold about his ledge dream. If his friends tried to follow him, he didn’t want them to find a gaping entryway.
The rock slid slowly into place, sending up small dust clouds. There was a slight trench, so that it could only be opened one way, and when it was shut, the cracks were barely visible from outside. Satisfied, he returned to Marc.
As they continued into the cave, his torch became less and less necessary. There was a strange, pale, green light. He wasn’t sure where it came from, and he found it rather spooky — but at the same time, it seemed lovely and peaceful. It was a place where, if you stood still, you could practically hear the silence.
They must have walked along the twisting passage for at least a half hour, possibly longer. By the time they reached a large chamber, he couldn’t guess how high up or low down the place was. The smooth roundness of the chamber reminded him strongly of the cave where the harpies lived, but it was obvious that nothing had lived here for ages.
The walls of the chamber were tall, and its roof shrouded in mist. This mist, however, was green and glowed. At first glance, he thought it some type of moss or fungi, or even some sort of green bug. He was sure that either the mist or something hiding in the mist was casting the light. The glow was so bright here that it might well have been light coming into a thick forest on a sunny day — only greener, green enough to make everything appear a varying shade of green.
A large lake took up most of the room. In the middle of the lake was a shadowy stone statue of two dolphins dancing in a circle, nose to nose and tail to tail. He knew at once that the statue was ancient, though he wasn’t sure how he could tell. The dolphins didn’t appear worn down by time. They looked well made, and of some unfamiliar material.
Around the lake was an amazingly uniform shore, about three yards wide, covered with something pebbly — rocks or small shells, in the green light it was hard to tell. It made a crunching sound as he walked. As for the torch, its orange light mixing with the green only made it harder for him to figure out anything’s true color.
Marc whinnied, loud and shrill, a sound that echoed through the cave. Then he clomped away from Chris, around the lake. Chris hurried after him and then walked next to the horse’s head.
“Well, boy, this is it. Maybe Terrin was right to be cautious. There’s so much magic here that I can’t imagine anyone missing it. And when I compare it to how I’ve been feeling since the harpies, maybe even since I left home, I’m sure it’s magic that lured me here.
“So, either I’ve fallen into a trap, or I’ve been right, that this is important. Say, fellow, do you by any chance know what is so important about all this? Hmm, as if you could tell me.”
They stopped about a quarter of the way around the lake. Chris doused his torch in the lake and put it back into his pack. He pulled out one of the last harpy flowers, snapping it between his teeth. He ate half and offered the rest to Marc, then gave them both a drink from his water skin.
Then he sat down on the pebbly shore. He wondered what time it was, and what he should do next, and how hard it would be to find whatever he was looking for.
He repeated the riddle to himself:
“Where walkers cannot tread and seekers lose,
Beneath the surface, and yet high above,
The path is simple, yet will it be found?
Until the hidden are retrieved,
You cannot be free.”
This place fit the second line, beneath the surface and yet high in the mountains. And he was sure he couldn’t walk on the lake, so that sort of fit, too. But if he was the seeker, what would he lose? Could leaving his friends behind count as losing them?
More important, who was Death stalking, and how could he protect them? And what hidden thing did he need to retrieve? The stolen Shard, or something else?
Well, he thought, the magic has led me this far. I suppose it knows what it’s doing.
Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Gaskins
Published by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover art copyright © Anton Tokarev / DepositPhoto.com, and Christian Joudrey / Unsplash.com
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