Max’s Quest | By: Ng Hoi Yee | | Category: Short Story - Fantasy Bookmark and Share

Max’s Quest

1. 'Do you think it's going to collapse one day and kill Mr. Beal altogether?' Stanley mocked. The other boy didn't reply. Both boys were hiding behind the bushes opposite Mr. Beal's rundown house. Since Mr. Beal had moved in, several kids had gone missing. Kids who were mischievous and meddling, just like Stanley was now. All of them had explored his house and were never heard of again. Curiosity sure kills the cat. All kind of rumors had fired around but Stanley was certain Mr. Beal was somehow involved in the disappearance of those kids. He had a camera and wasn't going to leave till he got his evidence. His friend had tagged along involuntarily filled with an impending doom but his warnings fell obdurately on Stanley's ears. The dilapidated house did look like it was going to collapse the way an old man was going to die of a sudden heart attack. Its two windows on top and a wooden door twisted in a sneer just like its owner. It stood like it belonged there and wasn’t going anywhere soon. Its immaculate, aghast and gloomy exterior set it apart from the rest of the neighborhood. One could almost imagine a dark cloud looming above it with foreboding peril. It was a little past midnight. Stanley climbed over the fence behind the house and landed insides the garden. There was a big garden shed near the corner. The graveyard that might be older than the house itself was right behind. 'Let's go!' The boy begged. Stanley didn't listen. He was too excited about his mission. He opened the door with a loud creak and he disappeared from view. His more timid friend cringed behind the bushes near the garden shed. His small built in his green shirt and dark trousers camouflaged him nicely. Suddenly the boy heard footsteps. He tried to whistle as a signal to warn Stanley but Mr. Beal had somehow appeared out of thin air like he had been expecting them. His heart sank when he knew he was too late. He could only watch as Mr. Beal banged open the door, hear Stanley’s cry of surprise, and the thud that could only belong to Stanley’s camera. He heard the hustle of struggle. He wanted to help but he heard Mr. Beal started mumbling strings of words of an alien language that sounded as if he was chanting. Mr. Beal's anomalously tall back blocked his views but he could tell from the muffled sounds that he wasn't dreaming. There was a burst of glowing white light that was not from this world and to his horror he lost sight of what he could originally make of Stanley’s hair and shirt behind Mr. Beal’s back. Mr. Beal snatched something from the floor where Stanley just stood a few second ago. It was a black spider and there was no doubt that it was Stanley. Its legs were still trashing around in a futile struggle. Mr. Beal entered to the graveyard with Stanley in his clutches and disappeared from view. 2. Grandpa had been working behind the graveyard forever, kept poking at the ground with his walking stick, his back curved from bending too much, looking for his friend Stanley. People were sure he was driven crazy amidst prolonged years at the graveyard, surrounded by buried corpses and mourning dirge of funerals that was the norm for his job. His friend Stanley had gone missing and presumed dead even though his body was never found. There was a small tombstone with his engraved name and some withered flowers littered on it. In front of the graveyard there was the dilapidated house, which looked like it was going to collapse anytime but it had been standing forever. The last occupant, Mr. Beal, had disappeared along with Stanley ages ago but sometimes at night, the silhouette of the tall, thin man could still be seen through broken window panels, wandering around insides the creepy ancient house. All kind of stories spread and none were pleasant. Therefore, nobody had or dared to live in the house for a long time. Yet here I was, hiding among the bushes near the house at night. Before my Grandpa died, he warned me never to go near the house. And it is in my nature, for better or worse that the more someone warns me not to do something, the more I'm going to do it. Curiosity overwhelmed any little common sense I reserved. I don't believe in ghosts, the house doesn't scare me; it's just a house. I climbed over the fence to the garden behind the house. There was a big garden shed near the corner. The air was cool and I was excited to be doing something wrong. The door creaked open and I tiptoed in. Insides it was messy and there was a strange unpleasant smell. Tools, used cans and newspapers littered around. A cockroach darted across to disappear underneath a pile of newspapers while my feet searched for some empty spaces to step on. Antiques and half-broken porcelain mannequins lined forgotten along the lopsided shelves. Resting on one of them, I saw a thick reddish-brown book that caught my attention. It was leather-bound and the only thing that wasn't covered with dust, out of place from the rest of the scenario. I flipped through the pages and there ware scribbles in languages I had never seen therefore could not identify. They filled half the book and on the last page, there was a quick sketch of a sword, a ring and a necklace arranged in triangular formation insides a circle. I was so engrossed I failed to hear someone crept up behind me. I was too late to see a tall, dark and thin shadow grabbed me from behind. I dropped the book in fright. 'Another troublesome boy, I see,' the man spoke in a low, raspy voice. He had the exact silhouette of the man that was sometimes seen loitering around in the house during the night. And I knew it must be Mr. Beal. 'Curiosity kills the cat, haven't you heard?' He had his hands gripped the back of my shirt collar. He half dragged and half carried me behind him, strong enough to lift me off the ground at times. I struggled to keep my footings. . 'You want to explore? I'll give you something to meddle about.' We entered the graveyard. He was too strong and I was powerless. I came to my grandfather's tombstone. Next to it was his friend Stanley’s. Mr. Beal pushed the letter ‘a’ of Stanley’s name engraved on the tomb. I realized it was a hidden button of a level. The pillar on the ground slid aside to reveal a flight of staircase descending into darkness. Mr. Beal pushed me in front as we walked down. He clicked his finger and a small but bright flame burnt mid-air above it. I was certain he wasn’t human now. Grandpa had mentioned him when he was boy and no man could live longer than Grandpa and hadn’t aged at all. There was a heavy stone door which he pushed aside effortlessly and threw me in. 'You could scream but no one would find you here forever.' He closed the door. Fire was burning on two sconces attached to the wall to give me some light. I was in a small empty room. 'Wait!' I called but it was no use. I was locked in. I froze as a swishing sound broke the eerie silence. It was coming from behind a wall. Somebody or something was digging. I’d run if there was an exit. The sound gradually grew louder, till the wall finally crashed and I came face to face to a giant black spider. 3. At first I allowed myself to contemplate the giant spider in front of me as a hallucination of mine spurted from sheer confusion. Maybe it’s not carnivorous, I thought hopefully. I closed my eyes and thought how I was going to die. It charged and was on top over me in a second. Its legs pinned down my body painfully. Then in my head I heard a voice, like a small itch creeping around insides my brain: 'Don't move, I’m not going to hurt you if you promise not to run.' Yes! The black spider was talking to me in my mind. Its mouth wasn't moving but I could hear its voice loud and clear. My head throbbed with pain from the force of its echo like a broken music recorder, only I couldn't stop it. 'My name is Stanley,' the spider spoke to my mind. I instantly knew the name from the tombstone. 'Stanley?' My mind raced as I made the connection. 'Grandpa's friend, Stanley?' 'But you're dead!' I said, and then felt embarrassed. 'Sorry. You've been missing for so long. People all thought you were dead.' ‘Yes. It's been such a long time. So you won’t run away now?' Stanley released his grips and I stood up. ‘Not as if I could really run away. I’m trapped here now just like you do’. ‘I might as well be dead. It's more probable this way than the truth. No one would believe the truth.' 'I know he’s after something, buried somewhere deep here, that Mr. Beal has been trying to find all these years but can’t. That's why the house is still here. Mr. Beal makes sure no one knows what he’s doing and no one comes near the place till he gets what he wants. Anyone he caught gets turned to creatures like me and locked down here forever.' 'Forever? You mean I'm going to be here forever?’ 'Not if you can find what he's looking for. There's the book in the garden shed. You saw it. It’s some sort of a magic book. Too bad I can't read a thing.' I remembered the sketch on the last page. My grandfather was not crazy after all. 'I'm old and I don't think I have much longer to leave. I don't want to die this way.' 'Why wasn't I turned to a spider or anything?' 'There's some sort of magic spell at work under the ground here. You'd turn into something, once you stay down here long enough. You can't be a boy and live long under these conditions. Your body will change to something to help you survive. By the way, I’m a Tarantula, not just any spider. I use venomous fangs to hunt and that’s how I survive. I was on my hunt when I heard your voice. That was how I found you. He never kills us because he needs us. And as we’re trapped down here we aren’t much of a threat. If we get him what he wants, only he can turn us back to humans.' Or he could kill all of us, to make sure no one breathes a word about it, I thought. If he wants something so much that he's been staying here since my grandfather was a boy. Somehow it was hard to believe Mr. Beal would likely feel grateful for our help. 'So you don't have a choice but to find the things he wants. It's the only way,' Stanley sounded resigned. 'The down side of being me is that I've been down here too long. I’ve grown too big and tired. I can't go through small tunnels. I’m useless but you're a good bet.' Stanley turned around and used his powerful legs to smash an aperture through the wall behind him. It opened to a small tunnel. He turned and handed me a small bottle. It was filled full with green liquid in it. 'I’ve filled this bottle with my venom. I can’t come with you but this will help you. You'd know when you need it.' I put the bottle in my shirt pocket. I’d take what I could. Then he handed me a necklace. Its orange pendant had the image of a beautiful, glowing red circle of fire burning brightly insides. I was surprised but put it on. I recognized it as one of the items I saw in Mr. Beal's book and knew it must be important. 'I found it during my search under here all these years. It’s all I could get. This is a fire necklace, it will help you see in the dark and its fire is everlasting. If you want to put out its light, just chant 'Fire vanquished' or 'Fire ignited.' 'Remember, you can talk to me in your mind when you want to. And I'd rush to your side whenever you call me. But I can only do it three times. All these years underground has taken a toll on my body. I know this body won't last. If I die, I'd end up a ghost and I'm going to haunt you for as long as you’re alive.' I'm not sure if he was joking or not. 'So hopefully, you can find whatever that can get us out.' I knew it now. I had the necklace. I needed to find the ring and the sword. Maybe these were what Mr. Beal had been searching for. 'The tunnel would lead you to different chambers, just be careful. Good Luck.' 4. I walked along the corridor. The fire pendant was bright and felt warm against my chest. It helped me light up my path. At some point the path slopped downwards and I knew I was entering deeper underground. I was graceful for the fire's warmth. I noticed a few hairs had grown on my arms and along the back of my palms. I dreaded to think what I was turning into but there was time. Soon I heard the gabble of arguments. I was excited and fearful of what that could mean. I didn’t want to be seen yet, so I whispered 'Fire vanquished!' and I was in darkness. I approached the chamber which was bathed in glowing light. Two giant shadows danced on the wall. I peered in. There were two groups of creatures, three of the same kind each. The one group of the three, except for their faces they were covered in brown fur from head to toe and short tails swished side to side in agitation. Two brown stripes ran vertically down from forehead to chin. This distinguished trait and their overall appearance reminded me of the burrowing badgers I saw on TV. All three were standing at my height with their two hind legs and front paws that must once be human hands. I knew they were transformed from three of the kids that were trapped here. I wondered if I was going to turn into one of them. The other group of the three, they had large ears on top of their heads, big shiny black eyes, pointed snouts protruded from their almost shiny cloth of red-brown fur with long bushy tails with white tips at the end. They had been turned into foxes but still conserved some traits from their former human selves. Both Badgers and Foxes circled in a warrior stance and their noses twitched furiously, smelling each other out. All six animals carried medieval weapons like stones and knives around their waists. Neither army was backing away. One of the Badgers spoke. 'The treasure is that way!' 'No, it's this way, Brad!' One of the Foxes replied in a female voice. She had a scar on her left cheek and I assumed that was the leader. Both pairs of eyes glared at each other, too intense to notice my existence. There were two exact same doors in size and color. One was behind the Foxes and the other behind the Badgers. There were two keyholes on both doors. Where’re their keys? Then I saw there was a key around Badger Brad's neck, just one key. 'Look, Selene, this key can fit both doors, but only one leads the correct way to the treasure. If you open that door,' Brad indicated the door behind her, 'the water would rush in and we'd drown.' He attempted to walk around Fox Selene but she stood in his way. Selene held a map in her hands. 'Look, the map says that's the door,' she waved her hand to the one behind Brad. 'The water is below; we should choose the door up. You'd trust a piece of old paper over your common sense?' mocked Brad. 'This is the treasure map; it's at least 100 years old. Somebody must be digging there when it caved in. You open that door, the rocks would crumble and we'd be crushed to death. Now, give me the key.' Selene took a menacing step forward. 'No, I'm not getting drowned!' 'Well, I don't want to get crushed either!' Selene lunged for the key but Brad was too quick. I was hiding and from my view, the 'treasure map' was like that drawn by a 5-year-old. It could be fake; it could also be genuine. Either way, I needed to look at it. Selene had had enough. With a roar she lunged for Brad, heading for his throat. That was the signal for war. Soon all the six animals rolled around and sprawled on top of one another, scratched into fur with paws, smacked their tails on faces and bit any flesh that didn’t belong to their own species. Selene was on top of Brad, trying to snatch the key. Brad flailed his arms wildly, scratched her on the face a couple of times, one which hurt her left eye. She screamed as she fell back to nurse her bleeding eye. Brad took the chance to punch her hard in the stomach. As the air went out and she gasped for her breath, Brad pounced on her. Now on top and had the upper hand, he braced his teeth and swooped down for her neck. Her scream turned agonizing as blood spurted out and she knew she had lost. I watched with horrified fascination as her life ebbed and hands fell flat on her sides. It was like seeing a horror movie in Discovery Channel. The Foxes froze as their leader went down. I retreated to darkness as the remaining two yelled and scurried away past me now their leader was dead. Exulting victory, Brad grabbed his key and I knew he was going to unlock the door that Selene was so convinced would set off a avalanche of rocks to crush them. What if she was right? I would be crushed too. I was still in the dark. No one knew about me. That was my advantage. I was outnumbered three to one. That was my disadvantage. I remembered Stanley's bottle. I chose five big rocks and put two drops on them each. The liquid sizzled like acid as it evaporated the surface. I could imagine with Stanley, his venom was probably much more virulent in proportional to his prodigious size. Two steps and Brad was about to slot the key in. I picked up a rock on its good side. I aimed at the back of his head. 3, 2, 1! I counted and threw it as hard as I could. I heard a loud crack as Brad dropped the key; both hands snapped and clutched his head, shouted in agony. The venom had touched its fur. Like acid it was melting into his skin and cut into his flesh. Blood was seeping out. Before his two shocked companions could comprehend the situation, I threw the remaining rocks, two at each of them. Soon all three were thrashing around on the ground screaming in pain, tears stung their eyes and blood seeped out of their snouts. I made my appearance. I couldn’t tell shock or pain from their expressions as I snatched a knife from Brad. He was in pain and there was only one way to stop it. I slit the knife across his throat. Death was instant. Brad stopped struggling. By then the acid had eaten almost half their bodies and the other two were probably begging me to kill them. So I did the same thing to them as Brad. I needed a weapon so I pocketed Brad’s knife. It was useless to him now. Picking up his key I went over to Selene’s body and took her map. The map was simple, like drawn from a child's hand: There were two shapes like doors on top of each other. An arrow pointed down to the second door. Selene must have assumed that was the door that would lead towards the treasure. Insides the bottom right square there was a symbol: an oddly-shaped cross. I recognized the symbol as one of the ring. I peered into the keyhole whose door Selene chose. I couldn’t see a thing but I felt a gust of wind, and smelt the sea air. I knocked on Brad’s door and could tell something solid was bursting to fall in. I used the key to open Selene’s door. It fitted and opened to a new tunnel. Selene was right after all. I thought about the two fleeting Badgers after Brad was killed. They might bring in reinforcements. I didn’t want any followers. I opened Brad's door. It fitted and I pulled open the door. Rocks came stumbling down and I was prepared. I ran and as soon as I dashed out of Selene’s door, I slammed it shut behind me. I turned the key in time to lock the door just as I heard the last drop of rock sealing the entrance on the other side. 'Fire Ignited!' It was good to see light again. I could feel the wind and knew I was coming to a river. I descended deeper. 5. Halfway through the tunnel there was a river running along besides me. I realized how thirsty I was and took a few gulps of water. Then I washed the blood off my knife. The path got narrower and the water current was getting stronger which led me to suspect I was walking towards a waterfall. I was right. The path came to an end and the river besides me churned furiously to hit the rocky side before it swooshed into the air and dropped abruptly down to create the waterfall. Below was a circular pit of water where the current continued to swirl round at its furious rate. The noise was deafening. I looked at Selene’s map and at the strange-looking cross. I had a sudden thought. If this was a map to the ring and the narrow meant down, maybe it meant down, like under the water? There was no other way. There were ledges and cropping of rocks below where my path ended. The waterfall ran besides it. They were dry and made easy footholds that I could climb back up if I needed to. It was crazy, but it was the only way I could think of. There was no way to turn back now. I pinned my knife on top of the map, took off my shirt, socks and shoes. I cushioned the remaining bottle of the green poison with my socks insides my left shoe. Looking down the pit of churning water, I took a deep breath and dived. Cold water welcomed me as I purged headed in and my body quickly adapted to the water temperature. I felt a rush of energy as I burst to the surface. I'm okay! I took in gulps of air and dived in again. The water was not deep. I reached the bottom easily. Sure enough, there were two entrances. Where would each lead to? I broke to the surface for oxygen, I wondered if the fire pendant would work its magic underwater so I tried. To my enormous relief it did. It gave me confidence to know I wasn’t made vulnerable by the darkness. The pendant provided ample light. I decided to follow the arrow on the map and enter the right entrance. Not long later my leg brushed against something. I looked down and almost shouted in fright. A pile of skeletons in withered clothes scattered on the floor. I dashed back to the surface to gasp for air and recover my shock. I reasoned that such sight was normal and if people had been there below, it meant there was something worth checking into. I must go on. Taking in new breathes of oxygen I returned to look at the skeletons again. What could have happened to those people? Inspecting closely I noticed there were some writings on the wall above them. Some letters were fading but I could still make out the words. It looked like some sort of magic spell. I took some time to memorize it. Beneath those words, there was that odd-looking cross that was exactly the same on Selene’s map. The ring! I touched the cross and it moved inwards. It was a loose brick. It was old and I shook it loose easily. Something with the cross on popped out of the brick. I grabbed it before it dropped on the ground. Yes it was the ring! I put it on my left middle finger. I was about to exult in victory when I suddenly felt a distant rumbling. The hole where I had pulled out the loose brick, the bricks on top which formed the wall started to crumble easily with age. A rush of water on the other side burst and the sudden impact blew me backwards. My vision was blurred by the water bubbles for a split second. I opened them only to see myself face to face with a shark's head. Its teeth were small but razor-sharp, and its eyes burnt into mine with hunger. Its body was withering to get through the wall and it was succeeding. I could see the whole wall was going to collapse and I’d become the dinner it was longing for. The burst of current helped push me along. I swam out the entrance and climbed frantically up the rocks next to the waterfall. The small shark swam around the water pit, waiting. The water level was rising. Time was running out. I remembered the ring and the words on the wall. I had a crazy theory. Either I'd get drowned or become shark's dinner. I recited the words as I remembered: 'Power of water, under my command, Hide your strength!' There was a blue glow on the cross of the ring. As it grew brighter, so was its power as a stronger magnet to the water which started to churn round like a swirl pool and behaved like a living thing on its own. It seemed to struggle to break free out of the pit which had held it prisoner. Faster and faster it circled till it lifted itself up mid-air. Its size expanded as it sucked more water to its body till there was none left, and became a giant water monster with the bottom now solid ground. Yet the ring sucked every last drop of this water monster like a giant suction. It vanished in seconds and was over as quickly as it had started. I looked down at the now empty pit. The shark was writhing on the ground. It trashed itself around blindly, smashing its body against the rocks and debris. It was suffocating and bleeding from its wounds. It was a painful death. I could only watch and the wait seemed like forever till it finally stopped moving and died. I climbed down the pit, felt exhausted and hungry from my ordeal. I returned to the pile of skeletons where I found the ring and carried them to the center of the pit. They were hard and their shredded clothing was dry. The ring had sucked up all the moisture. I took off my fire pendant, threw it on the pile and chanted. As orange flames burnt to make a hearty fire, I used my knife to cut open the shark and cooked the meat over the fire. I also used it to dry my clothes and warmed my body after the swim. The smell made my mouth water and the meat made a scrumptious feast to fulfill my hunger. Food never tasted so good as I wolfed down like there was no tomorrow. Like the fire pendant, I could feel the ring grow on my finger. It was like common sense that I knew how to use it without anyone showing me. The ring was my mentor and it was teaching me how to use it once I wore it. My body would response naturally without my own mind knowing how I came to attain this knowledge. When the need came I'd know how to use it. I turned my left hand and water flowed from the cross on the ring into my mouth, the same as drinking from a cup of water. I didn't have to worry about water from now. Hunger and thirst satisfied, I sprawled on the floor and let the fire warmed my aching muscles. I felt relaxed and positive about finding a way out of this place. My eyes felt heavy and now the danger was over, I shifted to sleep. 6. I lost track of time. I didn’t know how long I had slept. My muscles ached less when I woke up. I felt hungry again, and finished the remaining chucks of the shark's meat. Then I drank from the ring and stamped out the fire. Since the wall had caved in and the right entrance was completely blocked, I could only go the left way. The tunnel went up and down. After a while it was a dead end again. My hand felt the wall horizontally from right to left, searching for some kind of level. This time, there was no level. My hands pushed the side of the wall and it turned counter-clockwise. I stumbled on the other side of the wall in surprise and fell... …on the soft patches of grass. I nearly went blinded by the garish rays of sunlight. I closed my eyes and smelt the grass, flowers and wild berries. My hands clutched armfuls of dirt to ensure I wasn't dreaming. Something furry brushed against my leg, tripped and fell. I jumped up instinctively ready to fight. That thing curled up to a brown furry ball my size. Then I heard footsteps running towards my way and from the noise I could infer they were being made by more than one animal. Panicked, my eyes roved around for an escape. I didn't want to get involved, so I couldn't risk being seen. Whatever they were, they might not be friendly, and I was definitely outnumbered. Without hesitation I scooped up the furry intruder. I didn’t know why I’d want to rescue it, but I couldn’t bring myself leave it to face its impending doom. Luckily it was light in weight, so it was no burden as I sprinted with it under my arm into the nearby forest. The footsteps were getting closer. Worried that I could not outrun them without getting lost I turned to a corner and climbed up the first tallest tree I could reach and hide in its thick canopy. I peered down between the leaves. There were six creatures with black panthers’ heads, all whiskers and with razor-sharp teeth. They walked on their hind legs and moved their arms like human beings but with bigger and more powerful build. They carried silver swords, bows and arrows, wore helmets and hard wooden vests. The biggest one, I assumed the leader, called out instructions but I was too high to hear. They split in pairs and were gone soon after. I waited a while to ensure there would be no ambush. I started to climb down but somewhere I slipped and was diving straight for the ground. A split second later I sat unharmed. The brown furry thing had wrapped itself around me and had cushioned my fall with its fur. Its head protruded from my left shoulder. 'Thanks for your help,' it said. 'My name's Lena.' A few hours ago I'd have been shocked but I was accustomed to oddity by now. 'I'm Max,' I turned to it. 'Who're those people? Why are they after you?' Lena uncurled herself. She stood slightly taller than me. From her eyes I could tell she used to be a human like me but now she had a snout with two big nostrils at the end. Except for her face, she was covered in red-brown fur from head to toe. Her long tail with white tip swayed side to side behind her. She belonged to the same species as Selene from the previous chamber. 'Those were Arcadians. They capture and force us to fight each other to death in their sick boxing matches as part of their entertainment,' she choked back a tear. 'But now, they want us to find the magic sword in the forest.' 'We were all used to be kids in the past. But with time we begin to form into groups and enemies as we fight to get the sword which could get us out of here. They changed differently from us to creatures that mirror their fierce and cruel personalities. It’s different from those who have been around longer where they grow only in sizes to become more powerful.' I thought of Stanley. He had been one of the longest trapped here. No wonder he grew to so big and seemed powerful. But he had said he was also growing old, and weak. I realized with a heavy heart that everyone here was just waiting to die in the end and they'd kill one another if there was the chance they could get out. She nodded towards deeper in the forest. 'Our sight is not very good, but we have a very keen sense of smell,’ she switched her snout and touched her long whiskers. ‘We can smell the whereabouts of the three-headed red dragon which live deep in the forest, while the Arcadians can't. There's the sword lined with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. They burn our villages and force us deeper into the forest and closer to the dragon. And they’d keep doing that till we’ve no choice but to kill the dragon for them if we want to live.' 'But those that ventured insides, none ever returns.' Suddenly, Lena switched her nose in alarm. There were wisps of smoke in the distance. 'Fire! There they go again! The Arcadians are burning our village!' We dashed to the scene where a raid was going on. Flames engulfed the houses and surrounded the village. The women villagers were screaming, men were shouting; little kids huddled and crying for their lost and dead parents. All around, the Arcadian soldiers grabbed and handcuffed as many as they could grab like some sort of game. They placed bets and were laughing over who could capture the most villagers, who were being thrown and locked in cages behind horse carriages like chickens waiting to be slaughtered. For those who attempted to struggle or escape... There were piles of bodies and those were being set on fire too. Smell of burnt flesh mixed with cries of desperation filled the air. There was no escape. We were so transfixed; it was already too late before two pairs of muscular hands grabbed us each from behind. Struggle was futile as they were much stronger. 'Finally, Lena, I've found you,' laughed the biggest Arcadian, the leader, cruelly. 'I know you'd come back. 'How can you bear to run away and hide in safety while your own people suffer under our hands?' ‘Please, please stop, Paco!' cried Lena. She grabbed his arms and begged. ‘No more bloodshed! I'll get the sword for you. Nothing is worth all this!' 'Since you beg me,' smirked Pace knowing that he was holding all the cards, 'Lead me to the forest, find the three-headed dragon and once I get the sword, I'll release your people.' But I could see that he wouldn't. He only needed Lena to find the dragon. Once he got his sword there was no reason he should keep his promise. He'd continue to do whatever he wanted. I considered using my fire pendant and water ring to help overpower him but I didn't want to reveal my powers yet in case he’d take them away too. In a way I knew he was also a victim, trying to get out of the place. I couldn't hate him entirely. It was to my advantage he didn't know about the ring and the necklace. He thought the sword was the only thing he needed to get out of here. Pan spoke to his men and they disappeared with the carriages of their prisoners. Lena, he, two of his men, and me entered the deep forest. Lena held her nose and sniffed the air. We followed her. The air turned cold and leaves whistled an eerie tune with the wind, eluding a solemn atmosphere as we entered deeper into the forest and closer to the imminent pestilent dragon. The birds and squirrels had gone away. Even Paco looked tense and alert. We walked in silence, each lost in his or her thoughts. 7. Soon, we entered a fog. It grew thicker and we heard crows’ speeches as they flapped their wings to fly away when they detected our presence. The ground grew barren, and trees stood bare. I saw wisps of smoke and smelt charred wood. My skin felt cold with goose bumps running up and down my arms and I gripped my knife tighter to seek some comfort of safety. Below the patch of ground, we saw a huge cave opposite us. Loud snores emitting from insides confirmed we had arrived to the right place. Paco grabbed his sword and motioned his two men forward. They looked at each other hesitantly, but none dared to defy their leader. They climbed down the rocks and ledges to the ground below. Pace went after them and soon the three disappeared into the cave. Lena and I couldn’t see much amidst the fog so we waited but not for long. There was a sudden deafening roar that shook the earth, setting off another round of piercing wave of crows’ speeches as they spread far away from the impending danger that came in the form of a furious ball of fire! And we knew with sinking hearts our worst fear had been realized. The dragon was awake! I jumped aside in time to avoid being fried to crisp as a ball of fire blasted my way. The fog cleared as the dragon trudged tardily from its cave, having just woken up from its sleep and I was able to reveal the dragon in its entire fearsome form. On one head, two giant horns protruded from its forehead in a head full of thorns similar to those of the roses. Its angry eyes were narrowed in slits and smoke exhaled angrily from its nostrils. It was flanked by its other two heads: one had hard scales like pineapples and another had petals shaped like leaves but with razor-sharp ends. Their three long necks were connected to a giant crimson body with four legs and a ponderous tail with a sharply spear end swished side to side. One slap from that tail would be lethal. Paco appeared from behind it, his left arm half burnt. I knew his men were dead when I didn’t see them. I grabbed his bow and arrows he was carrying, and started to shoot at the dragon. Two of its heads howled angrily. Lena cowered behind a rock, shaking in fear. The three heads aimed their fire at Paco and me. We darted around in different directions which confused the heads and my arrows succeeded to recede a little of their attack somewhat but there were three of them. Paco ran fast but he was injured and was too occupied dodging around and behind the rocks, there was no chance for him to retaliate. Paco tripped on a rock and that was the slip. He was burnt to ash in a second. I stopped to stare in a moment of shock, unaware I was to be next. Someone rushed to my side. Lena pushed me out of the way as a fire ball blew next to me. Snapped back to my senses, I squatted down to avoid the flames. Besides me Lena was badly burnt. With an anguished cry I gathered her in my arms and ran to seek shelter behind a boulder. I brushed her fur and cried out her name but her eyes remained close. It was too late and she was gone. The fire was burning around the boulder so I could not run anywhere. The boulder would be melted soon and then I'd be toast. I remembered my ring. I chanted and the burst of water threw me backwards. It took me a few seconds to stand firmly on the ground. I aimed the ring at the fire. I kept chanting in the hope it would help to strength its power. More water spurted harder and more powerful till it started to restraint the flame like a gigantic fire hose. I took the sword besides Paco's body as I advanced forward. In my haste I had forgotten but now I called out to Stanley in my mind. Now would be a good time to use his help. Stanley appeared like magic besides me. I came near the dragon's feet and Stanley jabbed one with its poisonous sting. 'Ok,' As Stanley started to fade into thin air. 'That's all I can help you.' 'Wait!' I shouted, but he was gone. I heard a painful howl, and I drove my sword into its other feet as hard as I could. The poison was working. It swayed side to side and fell flat on its back, legs kicking into air like a helpless upside-down tortoise. I jumped on its body and drove my sword straight into its heart. I thought about Lena so I kept stabbing with fervor till it stopped moving completely and died. Where is the sword? I cut open its heart and started to dig with my hands, pulling out and throwing organs and intestines behind me. My clothes were soaked with blood and I was in frenzy. Soon I saw the gleam of the handle and with relish I grabbed and pulled it out. I fell off the dragon's body and landed on my butt. The sword was magnificent. Even covered with dragon's blood its sharp blade made of the finest metal gleamed brightly under the sun. A big red ruby entrusted above the cross- guard which was covered with sapphires. White diamonds decorated the grip while another red ruby embellished on the gold pommel. I climbed out of the pit and up the tallest tree I could find to get my bearings. And I saw it, in the distance just outside the forest, a lone door stood apart. My way out. Tired but spurred on by hope and excitement, I felt energetic and broke into a run. 8. There was nothing behind the door. It was just an ordinary door standing alone. I turned the door knob: locked. Then I saw and noticed the circle on the ground: three holes just the right sizes for... my fire pendant on the left, water ring on the right, and the priceless sword in the middle. It was exactly the same circle in Mr. Beal's book. I placed my three items on the right slots. The ground started to shake, cracks split beneath my feet, and rocks rained from the sky. This world was going to cave in! I tried the door. This time, it opened and I ran in. I expected to fall into a bottomless pit or anything weird like that. But my feet touched solid ground, tripped and fell for the umpteenth time. I felt vulnerable without my three items or a weapon. Then I looked around and forgot everything. It was a city built in gold. There were half-built houses, monuments decorated with intricate patterns and pious creatures emanated a rich and arcane culture that archaeologists and scientists alike would be thrilled to explore. I was not sure if it was a vast room or another dimension. I looked up and it was all darkness. There was no sky. I marveled as I walked deeper. I reached the end and there was a rectangular platform with stairs around its four sides leading up to it, maybe an altar for some erstwhile religious ritual. Lying horizontally on top in the center I saw a coffin. I was about to walk up the stairs when there was a blast of white light behind me. Before I could turn someone had grabbed my hands from behind and put a knife near my throat. 'Well done, Max!' I recognized the voice instantly. It was Mr. Beal! He started clapping as he walked towards me while his man held me captive. I felt my heart dropped to my feet; he was the last person on earth that I had expected to see. 'I've been looking for this place forever and you've brought me here finally!' 'Is...Is this the treasure?' I stammered. 'This is more than just treasure, silly boy,' Mr. Beal nodded to his man who was holding me from behind. I stared at the knife as we started to ascend the stairs. 'The queen is worth more than all the gold you see. Let me tell you.' 'Thousand years ago this city used to flourish above ground. But one day the evil queen arrived and wanted to take over the city for its gold and forced the people to be her slaves to dig more gold for her. She was also a powerful sorceress. And I was her proud servant. Her reward to me is to live forever.' 'The three great wizards combined their powers but could not kill her. They could only contain her,' Mr. Beal gestured to the coffin when we reached the top and walked towards it. 'In here.' 'To protect the people the wizards asked them to live elsewhere and buried their gold city underground where nobody would find it. This is where they cast their spell using three items of their choice each. These three magic items were lost with time but you've found them now and open up the city again...' 'Now that you know everything, I can't very well let you go.' Then I remembered Stanley again. Good thing I could call out to him in my mind. And I did that now. Now he was the only one who could help me. As I waited for him to reach me, I needed to stall for time. 'How... how did you follow me?' 'It was simple. I was the queen's servant. This’d a very simple spell. I could track your whereabouts, like some sort of GPS system as you kids like to call these days. I always knew where you are and, I can appear anywhere at any time I want. I've got the whole thing under control.' My mind reeled back to the shark and the three-headed dragon. 'You mean you know all about those things that happened to me?' Mr. Beal nodded, a self-satisfied smug. I was suddenly angry. 'You mean you knew about Paco and Lena and you just let them died? And I almost died a couple of times before. You just stood and did nothing? All because of this?' I wanted to strangle him but I couldn't move. 'Honestly I never expected you to make it. You're a very brave boy, I've under-estimated you. I'm sorry you've to die, but nobody must know about this.' The ground shook a moment. Stanley! That must be him. He must be making his way in. Mr. Beal took no notice. I was hopping mad. 'You used me! I could be dead.' 'Well you didn't,' he said flatly. 'But as a reward, I'm going to show you something you'd never forget.' Mr. Beal called to his other man and both each held one side of the coffin. 'On, 3, 2, 1!' They lifted the lid together and crashed it on the ground. I coughed at the cloud of dust. Insides it was a skeleton lying on a mass of long withered grey hair covered with lice and spider webs. It was clad in a silk purple gown with green crystals decorated around the collar and silver jewels chained in intricate patterns to assemble her shoulder pads. Her gold crown tinseled with a red ruby on her head. Two black hollow eyes stared out into the endless darkness above and a pair of hand bones clasped above her waist. Even in death there was something graceful and imposing that I had no doubts this was the formidable queen and sorceress. 9. I forgot about my fury and just stared. Besides me, Mr. Beal opened the book that I recognized instantly from the garden shed and he started to chant in a strange non-comprehensive language. He spoke in a low and deep voice that wasn't his own, but belonged to some great erstwhile magician transported from the past. A whirlpool of wind started to swirl around the coffin and expanded along with its accelerating velocity to circle us around the entire platform. Dust and debris blew against my body. Both Mr. Beal's men looked alarmed. They were being paid to do their jobs, but they weren't expecting this. My captor lowered his knife but I was too stunned to break free! All three of us stood still. Thunder bloomed from above and lightening flashed redolent of an imminent storm except this was worse. Mr. Beal had his eyes closed and was oblivious to his surrounding except his own chanting. Insides the coffin, the silhouette of a beautiful woman started to emerge: nose and lips started to form where the holes were; the grey hair turned black and lush, any torn pieces of clothes seemed to magically being sewn together while the gold clown replenished its shine. Most horrifying of all, two eyes were coming alive where the two black holes of a skeleton once were, except they were glowing red. The ground shook again. At first I thought it was part of the scenarios due to the chanting but suddenly I knew with joy that it was Stanley! Snapped back to action from my trance, I grabbed the man from behind and twisted his arm. He cried and dropped the knife. I slammed his head on the ground and he was knocked out. Stanley had thrown himself on the other man from behind, easily overpowered him who had probably fainted at the sight of the giant spider if not been knocked into unconsciousness as well. Mr. Beal, still chanting, was oblivious to the turn of events around him. I threw myself on him and we were rolling on the ground. Taken by surprise I soon straddled on top over him. Mr. Beal's eyes snapped wide in horror as he stared at Stanley over my shoulder. 'It''s you,' he was grumbling. 'Yes, it's me,' Stanley smirked. 'Because of you I've been locked away here my entire life, while you roam free above the ground.' He might have turned to something else, but he still had the same eyes and manners that could be recognized easily. His eyes were filled with hatred as he looked at Mr. Beal in disgust and hatred. Driven mad, Stanley knocked me roughly on the side, and with one swift motion, injected a leg right through Mr. Beal's heart and out of his chest. Mr. Beal might know his magic, but it had brought upon his eventual death. Mr. Beal coughed up blood and his body shook in spasm. He sprawled on the floor, immobilized. Stanley's venom had killed him instantly. It was not over. I looked in horror as a half-skeleton sat up in the coffin and looked at us with its red burning eyes insides the holes of the skeleton. Stanley had killed Mr. Beal halfway through his chanting. The magic spell was incomplete. I picked up Mr. Beal's book of chants and opened it. Insides were the same scribble of words I'd never understand. I flipped through to the last page and saw the same picture of the pendant: Fire, Ring: Water. And the sword: Earth. It was the exact same circle with the same arrangement of the three items. It was the way I used to open this door. Maybe I could use the same way seal it as well. Grey hair flailed around her shoulder in a mess, her lips were twisted to an ugly snarl as they were, and nose with no flesh had two oversized holes for nostrils. The human flesh on her left face threaded loosely on the bone and waived with her movement as she climbed out of the coffin. It was like looking at a cosmetic surgery gone horribly wrong. Her knee bone cracked loudly as she bent to get used to walking again, her feet bones smacked on the stone floor like crackling firewood’s, her head turned side to side as she scanned her surroundings. Then she looked at her hands: left had most flesh on but still had some loose skin that hung like threads on her skeleton arms, her right hand was completely bare: just bones. She let out a blood-curdling scream as she realized what she was. We had stopped the chanting. We had made her this way. The queen was furious. An evil thousand-plus-year-old powerful queen raised from the dead was coming at us for our blood. 10. The ground shook and rocks started falling from above. I realized this might be just another chamber, only with a ceiling so high that I couldn't see the top. And if it was a chamber, there must a door, a way out. I saw no door on my way in. If there was a door, it could be up. 'Stanley!' I shouted above the rubble. 'Get us out of here now!' Before he could respond, the queen waved her arm and a giant greenish spider web had snapped open to trap Stanley on the wall. He couldn't move, and the web eluded some form of acid. It sizzled as it cut through his skin. Its body fast eroding away, I saw the human Stanley, in a ghost form where he was transparent, slithered from the spider's body and started to fade as it few upwards. 'I can't stop now,' Stanley was flying up and away. 'Wait! Don't leave me!' 'I've been living for a long time but I was trapped in this body because of his spell. Now I've killed Mr. Beal, I'm free from his spell.’ 'As promised, I'd help you this the third and last time, ' I felt the fire pendant around my neck, water ring on my finger and the magic sword in my hand. Before I could ask further Stanley had completely disappeared. I used them to enter this place. Maybe I could also use them to leave. The queen produced a long wand in her right hand. A small skull was perched on top and it had a pair of glowing red eyes reflecting its mistress. She waved the wand at me. Red lasers shot from the two red eyes. It wrapped around my sword and she pulled me towards to her. My strength was nowhere compared to her. I remembered Mr. Beal's book, that I was holding the Earth sword. I made the connection that its power had something to do with the ground and I had an idea. I twisted it down to touch the rocky ground, sweating in my concentration. Like the other two I could feel the sword grow on me and was urging me to do what I was doing. Once touched and twisted into the ground, the red ruby glowed, and like a magnet the rocks on the ground around it cracked into pieces. Suddenly alive like swarms of insects they crawled up from its point, attaching themselves along the whole shining blade till there was no more empty space. It broke free of the queen's red laser around the sword. Once I lifted the sword from the ground, the rocks dropped and littered the ground back in pieces as the ruby stopped glowing. Once I knew how it worked, I looked around the gold buildings that made up the erstwhile gold city and had an idea. I snapped the sword down on the ground. As soon as the tip touched the ground and rocks formed and covered the blade about half way, I swung it like a golf club and smashed the rocks towards the queen. The queen brandished her skull-headed wand with its red lasers and explosion was everywhere as it smashed my hurling attacking rocks. But agility was on my side as the queen struggled with her steps backwards after a thousand years of immobility. I forced her deeper into the gold town, swinging non-stop as any pause might give her all the opportunity to knock me down. My plan was working. Soon I had forced her to a gold wall of a building where her crackling legs could not retreat further. This time, I waited longer for more rocks to form around my sword and with much force that strained my muscles; I sent two boulders rocket to both her sides each to trap her skeleton form in between. The rocks dropped heavily on her skeleton feet, securing her stationary on the ground. She couldn't move, so I was brave enough to advance towards her and used the sword to knock off her wand. Without it she was helpless. I used the fire pendant to fire a ball of flame to her way. It exploded like a bomb and blew the queen to pieces. Once the cloud of explosion had dispersed, I stood up and saw her charred head rolled to my foot. I kicked it into the rubble like a football. Now, I needed to get out of here. I remembered Mr. Beal's book and knew I had to use the three items. I climbed up on the platform where there was the only open space I could find. I pushed the coffin aside. Taking a deep breath and hoped it would work, I used my sword to scratch a large circle around myself. Standing insides the circle, I placed the three items at the same places the way they were illustrated in Mr. Beal's book. I waited. There was nothing at first. Then the earth started to shake. The ground rumbled and chunks of rocks fell from the top. I thought about what a waste of the gold city was, as it was a beautiful and grand place, viewing at it from the top of the platform like now. A bright white light flashed insides the whole circle that I was standing in and projected straight to the top, where it must be the exit. It was forming a circular transparent shield. The rocks fell but only some could drop insides it; an electric-like current repelled them like different poles of magnets. I was safe insides the circle. The shield was turning to a solid pillar itself. Suddenly, something grabbed my ankle. It was the queen. It was headless but its body was still moving. As I watched, her broken arms and legs were crawling from the steps below to reattach themselves back. I grabbed her hand and frantically pried her fingers away. They were surprisingly strong. I grabbed the sword to chop off her arm. Once I got the sword from its place in the circle, the pillar grew weak and transparent again with some rocks and debris fell insides the circle. Soon, her legs and arms had reattached to its body. She was insides the bright light and I tried to fight her off with the sword. She straddled on top of me, knocked the sword off my hand, and her stone cold fingers ran for my throat. My head was out of the circle and a falling rock narrowly missed my head. My hand struggled to reach for the sword. Got it! I snatched and slammed the sword straight through her heart. She was half-human and knew I had got her when I saw blood flow from her heart onto the blade. Her strength weakened and I threw her off me. I extricated my sword then kicked her off the circle. Her body stumbled down the stairs and disappeared along with the rumble. I quickly placed the sword back on the ground and the layer of shield grew stronger again, till it was solid and opaque. It blocked out any of the remaining noise of what was left of the rumbling and I couldn't see the gold city anymore. I touched the surface. It was smooth and slippery and I felt as if I was in another new different room. The electric current surrounding around the three items had died and everything was quiet. I ventured by picking up the water ring. Nothing happened. I wore it on my finger and had an idea. I wore the pendant and took the sword. I kissed the water ring for luck, took a deep breath and chanted. Soon heavy flow of water splashed around me and started to fill up the pillar with water. I kicked my feet off the ground and swam upwards as the level rose. The water seemed to have a life of its own as its churning current grew more and more powerful. It pushed me upwards and I didn't need to swim anymore. It became a whirlpool and soon I was shooting upwards in top speed. In the end, I still couldn't master in controlling the ring. I was tossed from to side to side, upside down and around like riding on a rollercoaster, spinning 360 degrees in circles. I wondered if I was on my way out. My head was spinning and my body felt it didn't belong to me anymore. I wondered feebly if I was going to die. And I'm too young to die. That was my last thought before my whole world blacked out.

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