Hunted Chapter Thirty

Hunted-600

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.


PART TWO

Click here to read from Chapter One. Or go back to the very beginning in Banished: The Riddled Stone Book One.

Chapter 30

Christopher

The inside of the council tree was hollowed out evenly, its walls and floor polished smooth. Beneath Chris’s feet, the tree rings showed exactly how ancient the tree was. A staircase wound around the wall.

It had been more than two months since he had last climbed stairs, and, by the time he reached the meeting room, he was winded. A stitch poked his side.

Instead of chairs, there were cushions arranged on the floor. It had always been a custom of the swamp people to leave themselves fully visible at official meetings, as a sign of trust. The elder they’d met before and two slightly younger men had already taken their seats.

Chris lowered himself and mirrored their cross-legged posture. The others sat as well — except for Ceianna, who stood by the stairs.

The elder gestured to the cups of tea in front of their seats.

“Please, drink. The climb can be quite tiring.”

Chris obediently took a long sip. It was soothing, and the stitch faded within seconds of the liquid hitting his stomach.

“So, what has brought you to the swamp?”

“My friends and I are on a quest,” he began.

In the corner of his eye, he could see Terrin spinning her cup in her hand. She had been fidgety since she returned the evening before but had brushed off his attempts to question her. He continued slowly, not taking his eyes off the elder’s face. This part sounded strange no matter how many times he said it.

“We believe that we have found the riddles that King Miles followed, that led him to the Stone. We decided to follow these riddles ourselves, and they have brought us here.”

A light sparked in the elder’s eyes, and he leaned forward a bit.

“A riddle? May we hear it?”

Chris let his eyes slide shut as he began to recite.

“Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho.
Twiddle your thumbs and dance.
Winter winds freeze away.
And sun doth rain its golden heat.
And I will laugh all day with
Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho,
And I will laugh all day!”

Chris opened his eyes. He was surprised to see the elder’s own eyes had fallen shut. The three swamp men began to chant.

“Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho.
There be work to do, but nay.
Spring doth already fade,
And so many things need doing,
But I shall laugh all day, with
Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho,
And I will laugh all day!

“Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho.
Fish do beg to be caught,
Summer be a going,
And they be hop, hop, hoppin’.
Though I do laugh all day, with
Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho,
And I will laugh all day!

“Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho.
Now time be runnin’ out,
Fall is going by,
And winter may freeze hope.
Yet still I laugh all day, with
Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho.
Aye, I will laugh all day!”

As the song ended, the elder’s head began to nod. He opened his eyes, and leaned back, his head bumping against the smooth interior of the tree.

“Yes, indeed, your logic seems sound. And I believe we can help you. Though—”

The man straightened and folded his hands across his lap. His eyes seemed to bore into Chris.

In the thick silence that fell, Chris’s mind raced through everything he had learned of the swamp people, wondering if there was some custom he was forgetting.

The seconds ticked by until the elder spoke again.

“You and, excepting Thomas, your friends are very young,” he said, and his eyes went from one of them to the next. “Yet you are on a quest first taken by King Miles many generations ago. Tell me, for I can’t help but be curious, why did you start on this quest? How did you find this riddle? So many have searched for it, yet failed, but you…”

“It was sheer luck. No, not luck, some sort of magic. No—” Chris paused. In reality he had been kidnapped by harpies, but that was a story all its own.

A smile tugged the men’s features at his hesitation.

Gathering his wits, he began again.

“We have found two riddles. We were led to the first one by magic — and some help. And when we found it, only I could read it. To my friends, it was in a strange tongue. We interpreted it, and then followed the clues to the second riddle. Again, only I could read it, and it was as you heard.

“In both cases, the riddles were surrounded by powerful magic. And I believe this, or some other magic, has been guiding us along the way—”

He stopped again.

He had not actually had a dream since just after the second riddle, and that had been of little use.

Was the magic still guiding them?

“And?” the elder said. He had once again leaned forward.

Chris mentally shook himself.

“And those facts have led me to believe that I — with the aid of my friends—” he added forcefully, and in the corner of his eyes he saw Nora smile, “—am meant to be following the riddles.”

The elder’s gaze continued to bore into him for what felt like hours.

Finally, the man spoke.

“I feel like there is a very interesting story to be told here, and I would one day like to hear it in full. Of course, no doubt, if these truly are King Miles’s ancient riddles, it will be written down in a book. If so, I hope someone of the swamp will write it. You plainsmen make history sound so dull and dry.”

The other men nodded.

“But for now,” the elder continued, “I have heard enough. I will accept your friendship and give you aid.

“In swamp lore there is an … archaic entity. It is said that this creature acted as guardian of the swamp people in their early days. The entity is called Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho. The same Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho in the song.

“Deep in the swamp, there is a place where no one goes, where the being is said to have lived. If you wish, Ceianna will take you there. I cannot, of course, promise you success in your quest. But if you fail, it shall not be my fault. You may go.”

Chris and the others stood, and Ceianna started down the stairs. But as he stepped away, he paused, his conscience stabbing his heart.

He turned back to the elder.

“I have offered you friendship,” he said, “but it cannot be true friendship if I do not tell you the consequences that come with it.”

The elder’s eyebrows arched.

Chris straightened his back and took a deep breath before finishing.

“My full name was Honorable Christopher Fredrico, son of Earl Fredrico. However, more than two months ago, I was suspected for the theft of the Shard that rested in my city. I was banished by Prince Tyler — given only one month to leave the country.

“I assure you that I did not commit this crime, and it is part of why this quest is important to me. But if knowing this means you must take back your offer of aid, then … I would ask that you at least allow me to continue my search on my own.”


To be continued…

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.

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