She tried to warn them. They wouldn’t listen.
As a child, Terrin of Xell barely escaped a spirit from the Dark Forest. She knows better than to rely on magic. But with her schoolmate Chris accused of a magical crime he didn’t commit, she couldn’t let him face banishment alone.
So Terrin gets caught up in Chris’s quest to recover an ancient relic, with only magic to guide them. Naturally, everything goes wrong.
What lurks in the shadows, hunting Terrin and her friends? Or did the magic itself turn against them?
Hunted: The Riddled Stone Book Two is being serialized freely on this website at the pace of one chapter per week. You can buy the full novel at my publisher’s store or in ebook or paperback format at your favorite online retailer.
They were now walking almost constantly in ankle-deep water. It felt like for every step they took towards the center of the swamp, they took three in the opposite direction to avoid a section of too-soft ground. Absentmindedly, Arnold tried to rub his sleep-blurred eyes — Chris had gotten them moving first thing — but only a stump bumped his head. He winced at his forgetfulness and dropped the arm back to his side.
The stump wasn’t sore anymore, but every time he had drawn his sword to practice, it had made him feel oddly off balance. And every once in a while, he would find himself trying to do something, like scratch his forehead, or brush back his bangs, or brush something off his clothes. And sometimes, like now, he would feel the intense need to scratch the palm of his now non-existent hand. He clenched his right hand into a fist, and pressed his left arm against his side.
He had told everyone that it was just a hand, that he was still fine. But even when he didn’t need two hands — it only took one to hold a sword — he still felt completely useless.
“Here.” Thomas said, startling Arnold. He was holding out a yellow leaf with sawed edges.
“What is it?” said Arnold, taking it gingerly. He wasn’t sure if he trusted anything of that color — though on closer examination, the other side was a vibrant green.
“Put it in your mouth and suck on it for a while. It’ll help with ghost itches. I had nearly forgotten it existed — not needed very often, outside of wars — but it grows thickly here in the swamp. Pick it, let it wilt a couple days, and then suck on it. I’ve been picking a few leaves here and there, and by the time we leave, I should have enough to last you a while.”
When Arnold still hesitated, Thomas laughed. “It doesn’t even taste too bad.”
Arnold rubbed the leaf between his fingers. “I’m not sure I can trust a medicine that doesn’t taste bad.”
“Yes, most of us healers are of the same opinion. But I’m afraid that in this case, there’s not much choice.”
“I knew you healers did it on purpose.”
He placed the herb on his tongue, and a mild sweetness flooded his mouth. A few seconds later the itching began to fade.
“I’ve heard that the swamp people use it to sweeten their water,” the old man continued. “Some people say it purifies as well as sweetening, but who can tell?”
“Thank you, Thomas.”
“Ah, don’t thank me. I can’t help it. And besides, imagine how dull things would be without your jokes.”
They both smiled.
“Now, we’d better get back to walking,” Thomas added.
Arnold looked up and realized that the others had pulled ahead by several yards, though they had paused to wait on an isle.
As the morning passed, Arnold noticed odd sounds — splashes that didn’t sound quite like fish, an odd creak or snap. Occasionally he felt like eyes were staring into him. Whenever he searched for the source, he would see nothing. Sometimes he thought he saw a branch flip back into place, or ripples in the water. There was even once or twice when he thought he saw a flash of hair, or the features of a face, out of the corners of his eyes.
It was a bit past mid-morning when Chris called back, “Dead end.”
They had reached a larger island, and the ground was surprisingly dry. As usual, it was crowded with bushes.
Arnold moved forward past Terrin, to see what Chris was looking at. This was not the first time the swamp had forced them to try another way, but this time the blockade was more extreme. The island ended in a two foot drop to an area of fast-flowing current nearly two yards across. On the other side, the bank of the next island rose even steeper.
“Well,” said Arnold, as Nora and Thomas came up beside him, “it’s not really a dead end. It’s actually quite lively.”
No one laughed, though Thomas and Nora smiled slightly, and he sighed. The swamp was a dreary, bug-infested place. Between the mugginess, the difficult footing, and being watched, they were all starting to wear out.
“Fine,” said Chris, stepping away from the edge. Then he called, “If you’re going to help us, then help us. We know you’re there.”
There was dead silence.
Then an eerie voice responded, “I am the second sentry of Shylak, and I hear your cry. But tell me, why did you enter our land?”
Arnold had always thought the swamp people a bit crazy — why else would they live in a swamp? — but the voice sent shivers up his spine.
“We wish to go to Shylak,” responded Chris. “There is something we need your help with.”
“Our business is — hard to explain. I would speak to your elders about it.”
“And what would you give us in return?”
The voice seemed to have dropped deeper, and Arnold wondered if it really belonged to the girl they had seen. And what would Chris do now? They didn’t really have anything to give. Thomas had brought some gold, but—
“We bring the gift of friendship,” declared Chris.
A second later, a wooden raft appeared to their left, from beyond an isle thick with vegetation, maybe twenty yards away. The same girl from earlier stood on it, guiding the craft with a long paddle as she pushed off the isle. She stood, holding her paddle still and letting the boat glide towards them. A slight smile was on her face as she spoke in a voice that was not eerie, but rather soft and sweet.
“The greatest gift that one can give.”
Copyright © 2015 by Teresa Gaskins
Published by Tabletop Academy Press.
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover Photo Credits: “Girl with bow” by Yeko Photo Studio via DepositPhoto.com and “Forest, untagged” by Lukasz Szmigiel via Unsplash.com.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.