Stories

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Nine

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 THREE

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

Chapter 39

Christopher

Chris shifted and pulled his blanket tighter around him. Warmth wasn’t an issue in the muggy swamp, but it felt strange to sleep without the blanket. The small raft was crowded, with all five of them spread out to sleep, but he wanted to reserve their strength for when they landed. He wanted to get as far as possible as quickly as possible. With soldiers around…

He shut his eyes, willing himself to relax, for the sound of Ceianna’s steering pole to lull him to sleep. And maybe, just maybe, for one of the dreams to come and tell him he was on the right track.

You found the riddle, he told himself. You must be on the right track. That’s probably why the dreams are absent.

He clenched his hand into a fist, pulling the blanket tighter around him.

Eventually he began to drift off. The sounds of Ceianna guiding the boat, even the sense of her moving about the sleepers faded to a blur.

Then there was a rapid series of soft thuds, a splash, and something landed just an inch from his head. Another something flew over him, landing with a thump.

Chris threw back his blanket and rolled away enough to jump to his feet.

Ceianna stood, arms wrapped around Terrin’s waist, attempting to pull the taller girl away from the edge of the raft. Terrin strained forward, her eyes wide and her face pale.

He stepped forward, blocking her way with his arm.

“Terrin, wake up. It’s just a dream.”

Her face turned slightly towards his. Her eyes were blank except for the panic. Her mouth was open, and her breath came in ragged gasps. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face.

“Terrin?” he said.

She blinked, and her straining lessened. Across the raft, Nora threw back her blanket and sat up, watching.

“It’s just a dream, Terrin. Wake up. Please.”

“Chris?” Terrin said softly.

Ceianna released her, and she slumped forward onto Chris’s arm. Ceianna stepped back, and Chris lowered himself and Terrin to a sitting position.

“What happened?” said Terrin.

Chris glanced up at Ceianna. She shrugged and turned away.

“You got up a couple minutes ago,” she said, “and wandered around for a bit. Next thing I know, you’re running across the boat. We nearly didn’t catch you.”

“Shouldn’t someone be steering the boat?” Terrin asked, glancing ahead.

“Looking for my — ah!” Ceianna’s hand flashed out and grasped a long rod sticking up from the water. Chris hadn’t even noticed it in the poor light. With a sucking sound, Ceianna pulled her steering paddle free from the water and mud.

She threaded her way back to the head of the boat, and as she passed Terrin, she said, “I’m more interested in WHY you tried to take a swim.”

Chris locked his gaze with Terrin’s.

“You’ve been having the dreams, haven’t you?”

“Of course, I’ve been having dreams. Everyone has dreams,” she said, standing up and turning away.

“You know what I mean, Terrin. The type of dreams … like the one that made me ne—”

Terrin turned back towards him sharply, cutting him off with a wave of her hand.

“Terrin?” said Nora softly.

Terrin glanced at Nora, then collected her hair, pulling it back over her shoulders.

“Alright, maybe I have.”

“That’s how you found me and Thomas, isn’t it?” Chris smiled as he made the connection.

Shrugging, Terrin sat back down. Nora came over and joined them.

Chris glanced at Ceianna. Her focus seemed locked on steering the boat, but she stood unnaturally still at the same time.

“So,” he said, turning his attention back to Terrin, “you’ve been having the dreams.”

The feeling of relief made him almost giddy.

“But what were you dreaming about, just now?” said Nora. Her eyebrows were knitting together.

“It’s not important,” Terrin said, tilting her head back.

“Of course it is,” said Chris. “These dreams have already proved important.”

“Well…” said Terrin, but she paused. Her gaze fell to her hands, folded in her lap.

“Terrin, why wouldn’t you tell us?” asked Nora.

“Fine,” snapped Terrin. “In my dream, I woke up in a clearing. And there was some crazy old lady and a wraith. The woman kept going on about me being a fool to come into the swamp, and that I was a threat, and — she wanted me to do something. Then I ran away, which is when you woke me up.”

They fell into silence. Arnold let out a loud snore, then rolled over.

“Well, at least someone is getting sleep,” said Terrin.

Chris refused to be distracted.

“Terrin, what was it the woman wanted you to do? And where were you in the dream, exactly?”

She held his gaze for a minute, then dropped her eyes back to her hands. Her fingers tugged at the edge of her left sleeve.

“We were in a clearing in a forest. I think Xell, but I couldn’t be sure. I don’t know. She just wanted me to do something.”

Chris considered pressing the issue, but discarded that idea.

“We should go back to sleep,” he said. “Tomorrow will be a long day, no doubt.”

As Chris knelt back down by his blanket, a thought crossed his mind. He looked over his shoulder to where the two girls were settling into their own beds.

“If you have any more dreams — if either of you have any more dreams — please, tell me. And also, Terrin, don’t worry too much about the dream. I promise that we’ll be there. We might not be able to stop the dream from happening but I promise we won’t let that woman hurt you.”

Terrin looked over to him and opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again and turned back to her blanket.

Chris did not sleep much more that night.


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Eight

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 THREE

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

Chapter 38

Terrin

“Arnold…” murmured Terrin. She hesitantly touched his shoulder. “You did your best.”

“My best? What did I do that was my ‘best’?” Arnold said, shrugging off her hand.

“You saved us,” said Chris, coming up to his other side.

“I said we’d come back for her. If I hadn’t taken her knife…”

Arnold ran his fingers along the side of the knife. It was an odd blade, and Terrin couldn’t help shivering whenever she looked at it.

“I already said, if you hadn’t taken the knife we’d be dead,” Chris said.

“Yes. But I didn’t know that when I took it. If she had had the knife—”

“It would have been one more thing to carry,” said a familiar voice from behind them.

Terrin spun to face the sound. Ceianna. The swamp girl was standing where they had left the raft. She had thrust the paddle into the mud and now leaned into it casually. For the first time Terrin could see the hint of a smile in her eyes that Zuen, and many of the other swamp people, seemed always to possess.

“Bu-wha- how?” spluttered Arnold.

Ceianna shrugged. “After you were gone, the tree let me go. The upper stairway was already sealing shut, so I came down to wait for you. Here, I grabbed these,” she turned and knelt, then stood and held out two knives and a sword.

“My knife,” said Arnold, stepping forward and carefully taking and sheathing it.

“And Nora’s sword,” said Ceianna, turning it so Nora could take it hilt first.

“Thank you,” murmured Nora, sheathing it.

“And,” Ceianna said, turning towards Terrin, “I believe this is yours.”

Their eyes met, and for a second she felt like Ceianna was measuring her.

“Thank you,” said Terrin.

“No,” said Ceianna. “You lost this knife in order to help me. Thank you.”

She turned the knife’s hilt towards Terrin and smiled.

Terrin took the knife, sliding it into it sheath with a satisfying hiss, and then returned the smile.

“So, what exactly happened?” said Chris.

“As soon as Arnold left, the staircase started sealing up. By the time he was out of sight around the bend, there was no chance of my getting through. The root tendrils just melted back off of me, and they also spit out Arnold’s knife. So I collected the weapons and came down to wait. Guess once there wasn’t a chance I’d be getting up, the tree didn’t care about me.”

“No, the magic never cared about you,” said Terrin. “I shouldn’t have gone in.”

“What?” said Arnold.

Ceianna gave a short nod. “Maybe. But then it also attacked Thomas and Chris.”

“Because they were too close to me. The magic couldn’t seal them off like it did with Arnold, or like it tried with you and Nora.”

“What?” said Arnold.

“Oh,” said Chris.

Arnold frowned. “Would someone please explain what Terrin’s blaming herself for, so I can tell her off?”

“I think,” said Thomas, “they’re referring to the old war between the swamp and forest peoples, from before the plains people came to Raec. If this is an ancient swamp deity, it is safe to assume that it, or rather any magic it left behind, would remember those days.”

“Oh,” said Arnold, his eyebrows knitting together. “Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I mean, we all made it, and we got the riddle.”

“So you found it?” said Ceianna.

“Yes,” said Chris.

“Then we should be on our way.” She stepped back onto the boat and pulled up the paddle in one smooth movement. “I’ll be taking you straight out of the swamp, since you found what you needed.”

“We won’t be returning to Shylak?”

“No. Some soldiers entered the swamp just before you did, and from what you’ve said, I’m assuming you would like to stay far away from them. Which way are you headed?”

“North,” said Chris. “We need to get our horses before we do anything else.”

“Right. If we leave now and travel through the night, you should be out of the swamp before lunch tomorrow.”


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Seven

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 THREE

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

Chapter 37

Christopher

Chris glanced back over his shoulder and was pleased to see Terrin coming up the stairs. Then his pleasure vanished as Ceianna’s cry rang out. He exploded forward, but his breathing was ragged and his legs screamed in rebellion.

Thomas’s toe caught the edge of a stair, and he stumbled. Chris grabbed his arm to pull him up. The old man’s face was red, and he was breathing heavily, but recovered his balance and kept running.

The wall rippled, and root tentacles began to sprout all around them.

“Faster!” Chris shouted. Even as he spoke, Terrin pressed past him.

A root struck him from behind, knocking his breath out of his lungs and pinning him against the edge of a stair.

Terrin turned back.

He tried to shoo her forward, but he couldn’t get enough breath to speak.

Arnold supplied the words: “Keep going, Terrin!”

Chris looked back to see his friend charging up the stairs, a white knife flashing in his hand. The tentacles shriveled back before him. As Arnold approached, the root that pinned him pulled back, and Chris quickly scrambled to his feet.

Arnold kept going, zigging past him and Terrin to the front, where more roots were leaping out to block Thomas’s way, then dropping back to fend off a tentacle reaching for Terrin.

“Not far, now,” said Arnold.

Chris nodded.

As they climbed on, Arnold waltzed up and down, keeping the way clear with more nimbleness than Chris would ever have expected. Then they rounded the final curve, and he could see a room up ahead. Nora waited at the top of the stairway.

As Chris cleared the doorway he turned back, expecting the tentacles to pursue them, but the roots had stopped just outside the doorway. They waved angrily but did not enter the room.

He collapsed to his knees, fighting to catch his breath.

“The magic … it’s different here,” Terrin said. She was leaning against the wall, her breath coming in ragged gasps. “More like at the other riddles.”

Chris tilted his head, trying to feel a difference. Maybe the magic was thicker here. Or maybe it was his imagination.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“Where’s Ceianna?” said Nora.

“We couldn’t get her free in time,” Terrin said. “She knew we couldn’t free her and survive ourselves. She did her job.”

Nora slumped to the ground, her face pale. Terrin sat down beside her and hugged her shoulders.

Arnold sat, his back to the wall, glaring at Terrin.

This room was like the ones before, with smooth walls and a floor stretching the full width of the tree. But in the center of the room, the floor swelled up, making a hump the size of a boulder. Runes were carved across its face, but Chris refused to look at them. The other riddles had stuck in the forefront of his mind, forcing him to think about them. He wasn’t ready for that.

Thomas went to the riddle, and knelt. He pulled out a notepad and began to scribble.

Chris walked over to sit by Arnold.

“Terrin’s right. If we had died trying to save Ceianna, she would be shamed.”

“But I’m a knight,” said Arnold. “It’s my job to save people, too. I could have at least left her the knife.”

Chris dropped his gaze to examine the knife. Ceianna’s knife. Its blade was white and triangular, and the hilt simple wood. Then he shook his head.

“No. Without that knife, we would never have made it up the stairs. We’ll rescue her on our way back down.”

“Chris,” said Terrin. “I don’t think we’re going back down.”

Chris spun around to look at the stairs. The walls seemed to be melting inward, oozing between the tentacles. In seconds, the way back was just a solid wall. Arnold jumped up and stabbed at it with the knife, but it bounced right off.

“Great, now we’re stuck in here,” he said.

“Not necessarily,” said Nora.

Arnold, Thomas, and Chris turned to look at her.

Nora blushed, but pressed on. “I was just thinking of how well hidden the entry door looked from the inside. And before, at the mountain … It’s worth looking for another door.”

“I think,” said Terrin, “that we’d better look fast. Something is happening.”

Nora leaped to her feet and started running her hands over the wall.

“Chris, the riddle,” said Arnold.

Chris turned to look at the carved hump. As before, the text looked like plain Raecan to him. He read it aloud:

“Air rushing, rushing by.
Faster, faster than the eye.
Far above the deep, deep blue.
Where water splashes at the rocks.
And higher still the great one flies.
Guarding hope as watchmen pose.”

There was a long silence. Chris could feel three pairs of eyes watching him. Everyone but Nora was still.

Then Nora spoke. “I found it!” she called, throwing herself against the wall.

There was a screech of the wood rubbing against the floor. Then a door swung open before her, showing a dark, narrow passage, leading down.

“Looks like fun,” said Arnold.

“But it’s just in time. We need to clear out now,” said Terrin.

Then Chris felt it — a surge in the magic, as if it was all gathering at one spot, collecting into itself.

“Go!” he called, jumping over the hump and to the stairs. Nora stepped aside to let him pass. He grabbed her hand and dragged her after him. He heard the thudding boots of the others following.

Then the magic released. It was rushing out around him, as if something had breathed in deeply, and let it out all at once. The same thing had happened at the lake, and it had caused the whole lake to drain. He didn’t really want to know what would happen this time. He wasn’t sure he had a choice, though.

Then there was a sucking sound.

“Go faster,” Arnold called. “It’s closing.”

A second later, the light coming through from the riddle room was blocked, leaving them in pitch black.

Chris plunged forward as quickly as he could, glad for the evenness of the slope and the close walls to brace himself against — and the lack of tentacles trying to block their way.

Then he collided with a wall.

“Wait!” cried Nora, as she nearly ran into him.

Chris braced himself and pushed. There was another screech, and then they poured out of the stairway and paused, blinded by the brightness of the entry room.

“Feel for the door,” Chris said, running to the wall and rubbing his hands over it.

“And quickly,” said Terrin, looking up.

Chris glanced back to see that the passage behind them was thoroughly sealed. The ceiling and the main stairway were melting. The walls pulsed out and rolled down the stairs like a great wave of molten wood.

“Here!” Arnold shouted, as the door swung open before him.

They ran out onto the grass, and then stopped to look back. The wave had reached the bottom of the stairs, and now the floor was pulsing up to meet it.

Then the door slammed shut.

They stood, staring at the tree and panting.

Arnold was still holding Ceianna’s knife, his knuckles white.


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Six

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 THREE

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

Chapter 36

Arnold

Arnold’s sword did nothing against the wood that blocked his way. Its crisscrossing pattern made it hard to strike, and the limbs had hardened into place. He had tried hacking and stabbing, but nothing helped. He’d even sawed at the thing with his knife. That had gotten nearly half way through one of the limbs, but then the wood had grown up and engulfed the blade.

So he watched helplessly as his friends battled the tree.

Only Ceianna seemed to be having any success. She had charged into freeing Thomas, and her knife flashed white as she struck the tentacles left and right. Her hair swung around but never seemed to get in the way.

But what was strange was that when she struck a tentacle, it actually withdrew. Several roots curled near the floor and wall, withered from her blows, though they seemed to be slowly recovering.

Chris was doing his best to watch her back, but his blade was as useless as Arnold’s.

Terrin was having a bit more success. She nimbly avoided the tentacles that reached for her, even causing a few of them to get confused and tangle with each other. And her knife was striking deeper than the swords while still sliding free easily. But the tentacles didn’t wither, just flinched away for a moment.

Nora was still struggling against the floor. Only her hands and lower legs were covered, but it was enough that she could not pull free.

“Chris, Thomas,” said Ceianna, “Try now.”

She spun and thrust her knife into one of the tentacles holding Thomas. He fell forward, and Chris caught him and pulled. It was enough. They surged free of the wood, and Ceianna pulled her knife back as the roots retreated.

The three paused to catch their breath, and for a second Arnold thought the tree was doing the same.

Then the floor seemed to ripple.

“Keep moving,” he shouted.

Chris glanced down. The floor was starting to melt around his feet. He jerked free, and the others danced away.

The tree shook a bit, and then more tentacles lunged for them.

“Ceianna, free Nora,” said Chris, beating one off. “Then try and get through to Arnold.

Ceianna nodded and practically leaped to Nora’s side. She knelt and began to stab at the floor, carefully avoiding Nora’s hand. The wood grew up around her calves, but she ignored it. The floor did not retreat from the knife as the tentacles had, but the knife sliced it well enough, and it did not grow back.

Arnold scanned the room.

“Chris, Thomas, watch it!” he called as a tentacle lunged from behind them.

Chris turned and beat it off. At the same time Thomas leaped sideways, avoiding another tentacle but narrowly missing Chris.

And moving himself closer to Terrin.

“Chris,” Arnold called. “They’re trying to group you together.”

Chris glanced around and nodded. “Spread out! We’ll only get in each other’s way.” Then he lunged through a tight group of tentacles and away from Thomas. One caught around his chest, but he struck it with his sword and pulled free.

Ceianna had managed to release Nora’s hands and was working at her legs.

They were running out of time. The roots were multiplying. Every few moments, more would surge from the walls, floor, or even the ceiling. And the ones Ceianna had decommissioned were moving again.

Then Nora was free. She jumped to her feet, the layer of wood that had surrounded her legs cracking into splinters that seemed to melt back into the floor.

Ceianna spun the knife and handed it to Nora hilt first.

“Go to Arnold,” she said. “Get that door open.”

Nora frowned. “But you’re—”

“It won’t matter, if that door isn’t open soon. Remember what I said before.”

Nora still frowned, but she turned and dashed across the room to the stairway and began to stab at it. The limbs of wood reluctantly shriveled away from it, but it would obviously take time.

Arnold moved to the side so he could see around her. Still, he couldn’t see much. Terrin was completely out of sight, Chris and Thomas in and out of it. He could tell they were both slowing down. Thomas was old, and neither was trained for this type of combat — or much of any combat.

Ceianna, at the other edge of his vision, was trying to pull herself free, but she had no weapon to cut away the wood. Then a simple-handled knife thudded into the floor, an inch from her leg, and splintered the wood. Ceianna glanced up to where Arnold knew Terrin must be. Then she snatched up the knife and began cutting her way free.

“Through!” Nora shouted as she clambered into the stairway.

She had only cut away a couple of the middle limbs, but it was enough. She stood panting for a second, then shifted her feet experimentally.

“Give me the knife and keep going,” said Arnold.

“What?” said Nora, though she handed over the knife obediently.

“The stairway isn’t wide enough for us all to go up at once, and there’s only one knife. Just keep going.”

Nora hesitated for a moment, then nodded and ran up the stairs.

Already the doorway was resealing itself. Arnold braced his left forearm against the wall, then thrust at the regrowing limbs angrily.

“You are going to let us go if it’s the last thing you do,” he said, striking it with each word.

Ceianna leaped to her feet, the wood shattering as it had done with Nora. She ran across the room but stopped outside of the door, joining Arnold in his efforts to keep back the blockade. Once again the floor began to reseal around her feet.

“Come through before you get stuck again,” said Arnold.

“No. The two of us on the other side would block the stairway.”

“Then come through and keep going up,” he insisted.

“No.”

Thomas reached the door and jumped through the opening. Chris was right behind him, but he glanced back to where Terrin was still avoiding the tentacles.

“Terrin—” he said and moved towards her, but Thomas reached back, snatched his shirt, and pulled him to the door.

“Can’t be helped right now,” said the older man. Chris reluctantly clambered through, and Arnold moved aside to let them both run up the stairs.

“Terrin, come on!” he called.

Terrin glanced up at him. She had been nimbly avoiding the tentacles, but they would soon cut off her escape route. She turned and loped across the room, dodging under and around and even just pushing past the tentacles that reached for her. Without even pausing, she jumped feet first through the hole, catching the upper limb with her arm so that when her feet touched the floor she did not fall.

“What about Ceianna?” she asked.

“Just run,” hissed the girl, tossing her head back. “I am the second sentry of Shylak. I will be fine.”

Terrin gave her a short look, then nodded. She turned to start up the stairs.

Arnold extended the knife towards Ceianna, but she shook her head.

“Keep it. You’ll need it,” she said, looking over his shoulder. “Go help your friends.”

Arnold followed her gaze and saw the stairway walls were rippling. He glanced at Ceianna one last time.

“RUN!” she shouted, and her voice carried the authority of command that no person with military training could ignore.

He turned and fled up the stairs, taking them three at a time.


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Five

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 THREE

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

Chapter 35

Nora

Arnold shrugged and started up the stairs. The others stood in a sort of shock for a moment, and then Chris followed him. Thomas went next, and then Terrin. The forest girl’s pace was forced, and her face looked pale.

Nora advanced cautiously. Though she did not share her friend’s fear of magic, this place set her skin crawling. There had been powerful magic surrounding the riddles before, but it hadn’t seemed active, just there. But this magic shifted around them, and Nora thought she could feel it brush against her skin. And then there was the light — at the last cave, there had also been unnatural light, but at least it had seemed to have a source.

Something moved in the corner of her eye, and she glanced around.

It was only Ceianna.

The swamp girl seemed as reluctant as Terrin to climb the stairs. She kept glancing back to where the door had been, and the strands of her long hair swirled in disarray.

The others slowed as the stairs passed a side room, but a quick glance convinced them that the riddle was not there. They pressed on.

Nora hung slightly back.

“Ceianna?” she said, softly.

“Yes?” the girl replied sharply.

Nora flinched. The other swamp people had been easy to talk to, welcoming. But Ceianna’s tone seemed ever sharp and defensive.

“I was just wondering, if you’re scared of this place, why did you come with us?”

Ceianna tossed her head, swinging the hair back away from her face. “I’m not afraid of the tree. Was it not the home of the swamp people’s protector?”

Nora walked a couple more steps, before her curiosity again outweighed her shyness. “Then why are you nervous?”

Ceianna scowled at her. “You people sure ask a lot of questions. But if you must know, I’m not afraid of the tree, but of the consequences of letting your group enter it. But I’m here because while you’re in the swamp you are my charges, and I must do my best to protect you. And to keep you out of trouble.”

“Oh,” said Nora. “But aren’t your people loyal to the crown? And Chris…”

“Would you prefer that we locked your friend in chains and handed him over?”

“No, of course not!” Nora said.

She blushed and glanced forward, but the others had climbed out of sight. She looked back at Ceianna.

“Chris is our people’s friend now,” the swamp girl said. “And, like you, the elder believes his innocence. Unless the king himself gives us a direct order, we will keep our word to help him find the riddle. And I must do my part.”

A smile spread across the girl’s face. “If the elder had not believed Chris’s innocence … Well, it would have been a different story.”

“Oh.”

“Come, we are falling behind,” said Ceianna.

Nora’s legs were starting to get tired, but she forced herself to pick up the pace. Ceianna seemed barely touched by the climb. They passed another empty room.

A few steps later there was a cry from above. All weariness vanished from Nora as she stormed up the stairs. Pulling out her dagger, she took the steps two at a time, with Ceianna right behind her.

A wall rose from the next platform’s floor to its roof, blocking their view until they rounded the corner. The stairs ended in an alcove of sorts, which opened into a room the full width of the tree, with smooth, polished walls all around. On the far wall, Nora saw Arnold standing at the base of another set of stairs that spiraled up into darkness. A jagged fence of branches seemed to be growing from the floor, blocking him off from the rest of the friends. He was sawing at it with his knife.

He looked up at Nora and shouted, “Move!”

At the same moment, Nora saw the edges of the alcove warping. She grabbed Ceianna’s arm and rushed into the room as a branch sprang across the doorway.

To her left, Thomas had been wrapped in root-like tentacles, which were pulling him towards the wall. Chris had his sword out and was hacking at them, trying to free him. On her right, more of the tentacles were sprouting out of the floor and waving toward her, but she danced nimbly, swinging her long dagger at any that came too close.

Nora switched her dagger to the other hand and drew her sword. Ceianna was already rushing towards Thomas and Chris, so she turned to help Terrin, who was surrounded by waving tentacles that seemed to be herding her towards the side wall. When their blades struck at a root, it would pull back but immediately lunge forward again. The metal barely scratched the living wood. The one time Nora’s blade did cut in an inch, she nearly didn’t get it back before the root pulled away.

A tentacle lunged for her, and she beat it away, and then stepped back for a second to get her bearings.

“Terrin, the wall!” she cried.

The wall itself was writhing as more tentacles sprouted and reached for the girl. Terrin glanced round and jumped away, slashing at the new foes. Another tentacle sprang up from the front to grab her, and Nora leaped forward, slashing at it.

The root pulled back and turned towards her. When it lunged for her, she jumped sideways to avoid it. But another one swept from behind, knocking her to the floor, and a third snatched the sword from her loosened grip and tossed it away.

Nora caught herself with her hands, and then bunched her muscles to surge back to her feet.

But she couldn’t move.

The floor had grown around her hands and lower legs, holding her in place.


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Four

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 THREE

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

Chapter 34

Brayden

“The ambassador—” King Orin paused shortly, then moved on, “—ors from North Raec may now speak.”

Brayden sat next to Gillian Fredrico, the original ambassador. Of course, Gillian was still the official ambassador. But it would seem odd if the prince, after coming all this way, didn’t meet with the king.

Gillian stood and bowed.

“M’lords,” he began. “There has been a great tragedy. A party of North Raecan merchants was attacked and slaughtered. In their investigations of the scene, our officials discovered evidence that there may have been South Raecan involvement.”

Gillian managed to cover his anger, to a degree, but Brayden knew that everyone present could hear the tightness in his voice. There was a moment of silence as the king and all present mulled over this. Gillian’s eyes remained locked on the king.

Brayden would have found the situation unbearably intense, had his palms not decided to start itching. Nervous energy. After a minute of resisting the urge to rub his hands under the ornately carved table, he began to wonder if he should say something.

Orin finally made a response. “Are you suggesting something, Ambassador?”

The king’s tone was lower than it had been all day, and that sent more tingles through Brayden’s hands.

“Nothing at all, King Orin,” said Gillian smoothly. “We merely wish to inquire whether you might know anything of the situation.”

This time, the tingles went through Brayden’s spine.

One of the younger lords stood. The man had been alert since the king announced that it was the North Raecans’ turn to speak. Now he slapped the table with both hands.

“How dare you imply that His Majesty’s court had anything to do with this attack?”

“I only stated that a South Raecan insignia had been found at the scene. We are not implying anything.”

“You’re right. You practically shouted the accusation in our faces. As if we would waste our time with your people. I bet you’re just dying to draw us into a fight, hoping to grow rich on plunder.”

“You say we’re eager to start a war?” Gillian leaned toward the young lord, his knuckles white where his fists pressed against the table. “Who was it that attacked first?”

Brayden’s hands had stopped itching. His eyes were turned towards Orin, who was watching the two younger men face off. A frown etched itself deeper and deeper into the king’s face. The other lords were either leaning back to stay out of the way, or leaning in, ready to join the argument.

Brayden reacted almost without thinking. He stood and grabbed Gillian’s shoulder. The ambassador was almost ten years older, but Brayden was nearly as tall, and the movement caught Gillian by surprise. He stepped back.

The South Raecan lord froze, staring.

The king spoke, one eyebrow slightly raised. “Prince Brayden?”

Brayden swallowed, fighting to keep his voice calm.

“We are not accusing anyone, sir,” he said. “Nor do we want a war. It never entered our minds that the nobles of South Raec had known of the attack.”

Ignoring murmurs around the table, he fixed his attention on the king. “However, since the rogues appear to have come from your land, King Orin, we were hoping to gain your assistance in tracking them down before they cause further trouble.”

He spread his hands in a gesture of peace. “We are not trying to incite a war. We’re trying to prevent one.”

Brayden took a deep breath and sat down, making sure that Gillian came with him. The ambassador looked just as stunned as everyone else at the table — except for Orin, whose face had become unreadable.

Brayden waited, surprised that his voice hadn’t been squeaky.

The king coughed.

“Baron Torc,” he said, “please be seated.”

The young noble jerked backwards out of his stupor and sat down hard. Brayden could see a light blush beginning to brighten the man’s cheeks.

Orin stood, turning towards Brayden and giving a slight bow.

“Prince Brayden, I’m sure that what you say is true. I shall, of course, tell my men to discretely search for any rumors of such a renegade force. I hope I may soon have news for you to take back to your father.

“While you are here, I would like very much to discuss some terms of a treaty I’ve been considering, which I hope your father will agree with. A treaty that will bring both Raecs great prosperity and peace.”

Brayden stood and bowed deeper.

“I would be greatly honored to talk of such a treaty—” he paused, feeling Gillian’s gaze. “But, ah, I feel it would be best if I consult with advisers before entering any negotiation. I had not intended to stay very long, and I may not be able to change my plans.”

“Of course.”

Brayden sat, and the king moved on to the next order of business. After a minute his hands started itching again, and the restless tingle spread to his neck and back. He could feel Gillian’s glare. Not that he could blame the ambassador. He was sure that his father’s letter had said Brayden was not to interfere.

Perhaps his father hadn’t known about a particular young, volatile baron, or about the tension within the South Raecan court.


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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Three

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 THREE

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

Chapter 33

Trillory

“For the last time, no,” Trill said. She sent a glaring glance over her shoulder at him, then continued to read her book.

With little else to do around the manor, she spent most of her afternoons in the mage room, watching Eric practice. But today, he had been continually pausing to pester her about learning magic.

Across the room, Eric muttered over a stone cupped in his hands.

“From stone to wood. From rock to wood. From stone to wood. From rock to wood.”

Finally Trill’s curiosity got the best of her.

“Won’t the spell wear off?”

“No, once the properties of an object are changed, they stay changed. Once the magic from the casting fades, someone would have to cast another spell to change it back.”

“I see. What about before the magic fades?”

“They could reverse the spell. It would take more control than casting a new spell, but in other ways it would be easier.”

There was a slight change in his tone that made Trill glance at him again. He was watching her with an amused smile.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing. I just thought you didn’t want to learn magic, that’s all.”

Trill stared at him. He continued to smile back.

She let out a long sigh.

“I don’t. I was just curious.”

“Mhm,” he said, turning back to his rock and taking up the chant again.

When his magic continued to fail for several minutes, he finally joined her at the small table, pouring himself a glass of water from the ever-present pitcher. Trill stared at the book without really seeing the words. She could feel him watching her, but she refused to meet his gaze.

Finally Eric spoke. “Why not? You obviously don’t have anything against the use of magic, or you wouldn’t be here. So why don’t you want to learn?”

She leaned back and looked at him, turning her answer over in her mind.

“I guess,” she finally said, “I don’t want to learn something that I’ll never use.”

“You don’t know that.”

“When would I use it?” she challenged, leaning forward a bit.

“You could have used it with the bear. Or for fun.”

“For fun? I don’t want to learn magic just to use ‘for fun.’”

“What would make it different from any other hobby? Like your gardening. You’d just be nurturing a talent you already have.”

“Because…”

She paused. He had a point. A small one.

“Because?”

“Because I don’t want to use something like magic for a hobby. Especially not when a war is coming on. If there’s a war, the king could use a good magician like your father. Or you. But does even the king know? Are you going to tell him?”

Eric was silent, his eyes lowered to the table, where his fingers traced its grain.

Trill watched him, letting the silence thicken till it was a heavy blanket that pushed down on her, making it hard to breathe. Finally he glanced up.

“I don’t know what we’ll say. That is up to my father.”

“Well, I don’t want to have a talent like that, only to hide it from those I could help.”

“Why should you hide it? Surely not just because my father chooses to do so? He has no control over you.”

“My father hates magic. He barely tolerates its use for common wards. Even if I did learn magic — even if I tried to offer my services to the king — my father wouldn’t let me. He’d be horrified with me. So I’d rather not learn.”

“So instead of having a talent and not using it, you’re just going to deny ever having it?”

“No!”

Trill dropped her book, and despite the fact that it was mere inches from the table, its clunk sounded like thunder to her. She met his eyes and held them for a minute.

Then she sighed. “That’s not it.”

“I think it is.”

The blanket of silence returned.

After several minutes, Eric tried again.

“All I want to say is that maybe you should give it a chance. Learn to use your talent, and then at that point you can decide what to do with it. Would that really be so bad? Besides, if you wanted to use your magic for the king, would you really let your father stop you?”

Trill shifted her gaze to stare over his shoulder, tears of frustration and confusion welling in her eyes. Her eyelids slid shut as she breathed deeply, forcing herself to clear her muddled mind and think.

Then she met his eyes.

“You said earlier that reversing a spell took more control, but was easier. What does that mean?”

A grin cut Eric’s face from ear to ear, and he quickly launched into an explanation. “There are two main aspects to a magician’s ability: their skill at controlling and focusing the magic, but also how much power they have available. To reverse the spell, you’d just be dispersing the magic, so you wouldn’t be expending much power.

“Some people are natural at control, others have lots of power. You seem to have a good bit of both. Which is good, because if you have control but not power, you might learn quickly, but you can’t exactly learn more power, just how to conserve what you have. But if you have power, but no control, then you’re like me, and even simple spells take effort. In that case…”

Trill couldn’t help but smile at his eagerness. He may struggle with spells, she thought, but he’s not a half bad teacher.


Read chapter thirty-four…

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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-Two

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 THREE

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

Chapter 32

Terrin, 8 years earlier

The oak was beautiful, the tallest tree Terrin had ever seen, and her brother’s fingers barely brushed the lowest branch.

“Trunnen, if you fall, I will not be held accountable,” Terrin said, her hands planted on her hips.

“Good thing I won’t fall,” Trunnen said, gazing from his perch on a large rock.

“You’re right, you won’t. Because you’re not going to climb it. Because you’re a good child who does what his parents say. Oh wait, that’s me.”

She waved a handful of the water-wort they’d been sent to fetch. “We should go back to the village. Mother will wonder why we are taking so long. Or did you forget we’re on an errand?”

They had had to go several miles out to find the herb, and the sun was already well on its downward track.

“This won’t take long. I won’t go all the way up,” Trunnen said. “And Mother wonders why we can’t get along. You’re no fun.”

Terrin crossed her arms. “Father will find out, somehow. He always does.”

“Well, it won’t be from my mouth. So unless it’s from yours, how could he?”

He crouched, and sprang straight up, his hands reaching for the branch.

His fingers closed around the limb’s bark, and a victorious grin split his face — for a second. The expression contorted as his feet scrambled for purchase against the tree trunk. Then his fingers slipped from the limb and he fell to the ground, tumbling over.

Terrin laughed. “I told you you’d fall.”

Trunnen slowly picked himself up, scowling slightly.

“I can climb it. That rock just wasn’t big enough.”

“Well, we definitely do not have time to find another one, so let’s go.”

She turned away.

“Wait, I want to try one more thing first. I saw someone in another village do it. I’ve wanted to try it for a while now.”

“Then can we go?” Terrin ask, glancing back at him.

“Yes,” he said.

He bent down and rolled the boulder slightly to the side.

“Fine.”

She turned back to watch. He moved as far back from the oak as he could, dancing on his toes slightly. A glint shone in his eye.

“What are you doing?” Terrin asked.

Instead of answering, he just grinned and started to run. His feet churned over the ground as he narrowed in on the tree. Then, a few feet away, he leaned back and without slowing down he set one foot against the tree trunk. Using his momentum he pressed his foot into the trunk and pulled his other foot up after it. He started to take a third step. His hand reached to wrap around the branch.

Her breath caught in her throat. How could he run up the tree?

Then the smooth leather sole of his shoe slipped.

“That was never going to—”

He hit the ground with a sharp thud.

“Trunnen!” she cried, dropping the water-wort.

Though he’d moved the rock to clear his path, he had not moved it far. When he fell, he clipped his head against its edge.

She dashed to his side, dropping to her knees as she reached him. She touched his shoulder. His eyes were shut, and he made no response.

“Trunnen, get up. I told you it was a bad idea, you idiot.”

Then she noticed a red puddle growing around his head, and she felt her own blood drain from her face. Her throat tightened.

“I have to stop the bleeding,” she said weakly.

She lifted his head and pressed her hand against the wound. She cringed at the warm, sticky feeling as the blood oozed through her fingers. She couldn’t stop the flow. For a minute, she struggled against throwing up.

“I’m not afraid of blood,” she said, staring at the puddle.

How many times had she killed and cleaned animals? How was their blood any different from this?

But it was different, and she couldn’t stand it anymore. She pulled away, franticly wiping her hand against her leggings. She turned her eyes away from the blood, fighting to hold back both her stomach and her tears.

“Trunnen, please wake up. I don’t know what to do.”

How could she stop the blood when she couldn’t stand to look at it? But if she didn’t do something, he would probably bleed out before she could get help.

The only thing she could think of was to scream, and hope someone was near enough to hear.

She lifted her head. Her jaw dropped open.

She blinked.

A slight, gray man sat on a pony, with a second pony tied behind, covered in baggage. His gaze swept between her and Trunnen. The man was covered in mud. A swamp man.

“Who are you?” Terrin asked, standing and crossing her arms.

He swung off the horse, and bowed slightly.

“My name is Zuen. I am a merchant. I offer my assistance.”

Terrin’s throat tightened as she fought for a second with her instinct to distrust strangers. But what choice did she have? She glanced once at Trunnen, and quickly looked away.

“Please,” she said softly.

“Hold my horse,” Zuen said.

She took the reins, and he went to his saddle bag. Though she generally disliked the large creatures, Terrin found herself burying her face in the warm neck of the horse she held.

“Get on the pony,” said Zuen, after a minute.

Terrin looked up. Zuen held Trunnen, whose head was now bandaged.

“Why?”

“Because he needs to be kept upright, to minimize the blood loss. I don’t want him in the saddle alone, and I will not ride while you walk.”

With a short nod, Terrin clambered into the saddle. Zuen lifted Trunnen up in front of her and took the reins.

“You know the forest well, do you not?” Zuen asked.

“Y-yes.”

“We need to get your friend to a healer quickly. Will you guide me?”

“Yes.” Terrin thought for a second, then pointed. “That way. And he’s not my friend, he’s my brother.”

“I see. Thank you.”

He clucked the horses into a brisk walk, then added, “Luck is on your brother’s side, since he chose the very week I started my merchant life to be injured. And besides that, you both strike me as strong-willed young people. He will be fine.”

Terrin nodded.


Read chapter thirty-three…

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.

Hunted Chapter Thirty-One

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 31

Terrin

The raft cruised through the water with Ceianna’s determined strokes. The girl’s face had been stony since the elder announced that she would guide them to the tree.

The tree was amazingly well hidden, despite its size. The other trees clustered around, making it impossible to see its true width until you were within a few yards. Terrin knew at once it was the tree from her dream. Besides the enormity of the trunk and the large, carved door, she could sense the sameness of the tree — or maybe that was just the magic flowing from it.

The group trooped off the boat solemnly, staring up at the large tree. Even Terrin, though she had seen it before, couldn’t help but be awed by it.

“Well,” said Arnold, “either this is it, or I’m a great big baboon … oh, wait — Well, guess this isn’t it.”

Everyone shifted their stares to him, and Terrin rolled her eyes.

“Congrats,” she said, “you get the Worst Joke Ever award.”

Chris shook his head, and stepped towards the door.

“Let’s go in. Like Arnold said, this is it. It feels just like before.”

He placed one hand on the wood and pushed for a second, with no results. He threw his weight against it. The door did not budge.

“I should have mentioned,” said Ceianna. “That door, it has never been opened.”

“It’s a door. Of course it’s been opened,” snapped Terrin.

Chris frowned at her slightly as he stepped away from the tree.

Thomas quickly said, “That is a good point. Why make a door, if not to open it? And for another thing, if this is the location for the next riddle, then King Miles must have got in somehow.”

“The question is,” said Chris, “how do we open it now?”

Terrin started to examine the door when a thought struck her. Slowly she stepped away from the tree and looked across the waters to the other isle in the dream, where the wraith and the old woman had been.

Where the wraith and the old woman were now.

Terrin’s heart caught in her throat, thinking for a moment it was the same woman from the dream who now glowered at them. Then she realized that the truth was even more frightening — this woman was the same as had watched her back in Xell.

“Chris, can you read the inscription?” said Nora, distracting Terrin. “It looks a bit like swamp script, but it’s not familiar.”

Terrin glanced up at the swirls above the door and realized that they were indeed words.

“No, can’t read it,” said Chris, frowning.

“I can,” said Terrin, as she realized that they were not only words, but words she recognized.

Ceianna arched her eyebrows.

“It’s ancient swamp script,” Terrin continued. “For Laughter will this door open, Laughter with ho ho he he ha ha ho ho always in hand.”

“Maybe it means you need the entity to open it,” said Ceianna. “And since Ho ho he he ha ha ho ho’s not here, we should really all just go home.” Her brow was furrowed.

“Or maybe someone should tell a joke,” said Arnold. “If I was an ancient entity of protection, what would be my favorite joke?”

While everyone’s attention was averted from her, Terrin glanced back to the bushes. The woman and the wraith were gone.

They’re probably just my imagination, Terrin told herself. No one else had seen them.

Unless Ceianna had, and that was why she was nervous. Terrin glanced back at the swamp girl. Once again she felt something nagging at the back of her mind, a connection that she ought to make.

“Ceianna, you’re the expert here,” said Chris. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Well,” she said, rubbing her hands together as if they were cold, “I would not say I’m an expert. However, in the inscription, Laughter is used as a name, not as an action. Also…” She paused here, chewing her lip.

“Also?” said Chris softly.

“I don’t think ho ho he he ha ha ho ho does refer to the entity,” she said quickly, and flushed slightly.

Terrin glanced back at the inscription. “She’s right.”

“What does that mean?” said Nora.

There was a long silence, and Terrin gave up on the nagging feeling, and turned her attention to the problem at hand. In the dream, no one else had showed up, certainly not any ancient entities. No, one of the companions had opened the door.

Reluctantly she recalled the dream’s details, searching for clues. She was sure the stocky young man had opened it, but how? Some particular way of touching the carvings? And why was Laughter used as a na—

“Oh! I see,” said Terrin.

The others all stared at her.

“Names and titles are basically the same thing in the ancient swamp tongue. And titles are just descriptions of what you are or do. So it would mean someone who is known for causing laughter. And I think,” she couldn’t help smiling as she finished, “that we all know who that is.”

“Huh,” said Arnold, cracking a grin. “Nope, still don’t get it.”

Terrin glared at him, but he was already moving towards the door. He didn’t even touch the wood before the door swung open, just like in the dream. Magic seemed to exhale from the room beyond, sending tingles up and down her spine.

They filed through the door into a round room. It was not as big as the size of the tree might have led her to expect, most of the space being taken up with a broad spiral stair case similar to that in the council tree. The walls and floor were all smooth, but instead of the gray of the council tree, they were a sandy brown color, as if this tree were somehow still alive.

Terrin thought she felt the floor pulse under her feet, though she couldn’t be sure.

When they reached the middle of the room, the door swung shut, silent until the clunk as it fell into place. They looked back, and Terrin was unsettled to see that the inside of the door was exactly like the rest of the wall. It was impossible to tell where it had been.

Though there was no obvious source of light, the room was still bright. Magic seemed to emanate from the wood itself, sending shivers up and down Terrin’s spine in a way that she thought only spirits could.

“Of course,” said Arnold, looking up the stairs. “It would be too easy to put the riddle on the first floor.”


Read chapter thirty-two…

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.

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.”


Read chapter thirty-one…

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.