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The Sword of Tropagia

The Sword of Tropagia

(Book #1 of the Advisor Trilogy)

Previously published as “The Staff”

By

A. J. Chaudhury

Copyright © 2017 A. J. Chaudhury

All rights reserved

Special thanks to Courtney Umphress for help with the copyediting.

About the author: I am a young author hailing from Assam, India. Writing has been the only constant in my life and I hope to make it big one day. You can visit my blog http://ajchaudhury.wordpress.com/ where I often interview indie authors.

Available Books in The Advisor Trilogy

Book 1: The Sword of Tropagia

Book 1. 5: The Felis Catus

The Drabird (a prequel)

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Prologue

Algrad had found the dead cockroach stuck between some big rocks on the riverbank. The most peculiar insect he had ever seen. More than half a metre in its breadth alone, its length surpassed two metres and filled quite a big chunk of his table.

A new species, what should he name it? He wondered for some time. What could be an appropriate name for the giant cockroach?

“Ummm . . . ah, Bezorium!” he decided finally, after his surname “Bezon.” Yes, that would be good, he thought. “Bezorium, the largest cockroach ever!”

Coming to Tropagia hadn’t been all a waste. He had discovered innumerable numbers of new plant and animal species. More than half of them he had named after His Majesty, a quantity after himself, many after family members, and a good deal still after his more efficient of men. But he considered his greatest achievement of all as succeeding to pierce the countless superstitions people held concerning Tropagia. The talks of such and such supernatural beings dwelling in the forest would go now.

Yes, there were beings in the Tropagian forest. None the nonsensical kind of people had nightmares of, but rather exotic ones, such as the cockroach that lay in front of him.

However, Algrad’s success had a downside as well—the expedition could not reach the sea on the northern shore of Belaria as the plans had been. Also, an estimate of the area over which Tropagia was spread could not be taken. This was because Algrad had collected too many specimens of the flora and fauna already to keep on continuing. In two days’ time, they were scheduled to begin their return journey to the capital.

Still, as far as his calculations went, the expedition party had penetrated around sixty-three to sixty-five kilometres into Tropagia. It did not include the various turns of the river Gordan, which they had been utilising both as a water source and as a guide into the forest since the start.

“Sir, sir!” said a rather frantic Ashmil, one of Algrad’s men, rushing into the tent. Ashmil was a lean lad, just a few years past his boyhood. Algrad had only ever known him as a person who lost his calm whenever the tiniest problem presented itself. Maybe it was his inexperience, or maybe it was Algrad’s fault for bringing him along. There were younger lads in the party than Ashmil, none of whom fretted as much as him.

“What?” said Algrad with a small grimace, never having really liked the lad a lot. He didn’t enjoy this sudden invasion of privacy. Ashmil should know better than to enter a senior’s tent without asking permission first.

“I-I think you should come see this, sir!”

He was surprised when Ashmil caught him by the arm and pulled him out of the tent.

“See this, sir!”

Ashmil pointed at the opposite bank on the other side of the river. Looking at the place, the ground might have disappeared from beneath Algrad’s feet.

“The gods protect us,” he muttered.

There were about a dozen of them, halfmen, halfbugs. It was a paralysing sight. Men till their waists, they were bugs from below, having six hairy stick-like legs. They were looking at the expedition party, observant, just as the men were looking at them, fear-stricken. One thing was set clear. The devil’s children dwelt within Tropagia.

Algrad shook his head in disbelief, appalled at the scene before him. He had been wrong in his perception of Tropagia. The superstitions of the people had been true.

“The men are ready, sir,” said Ashmil. “Should we open fire?” And ready they were: all of Algrad’s men had armed themselves with rifles, muskets, and pistols. But Algrad declined.

“No, it’s too risky; we’d be foolish to fire without knowing what strengths they possess.”

“But what should we do, then—?”

Out of the blue, a lone gunshot cracked the air, shattering the suspense. Someone, fear overtaken, had fired.

The bullet hit the thick armour of a mutant and bounced off like a pebble. It was enough to unleash the mutants into action. And with a thundering roar, they charged; the shallow river in between little of an obstacle for them.

Before he knew it, Algrad was running away from the riverbank toward the lush density of plants just as everybody else was yelling a single word—“Flee!”

As they fled, some of Algrad’s men fired aimless shots at the mutants. This, however, was no hindrance, and by the time a handful of seconds had passed, the mutants reached their side of the river.

Algrad ran madly, uncaring of the direction as long as it took him away from the halfmen, halfbugs amidst the thickness of vegetation. He could hear pained screams of his men from behind—the mutants had gotten them. Poor fellows, he thought, but what could he do besides try to somehow save his own skin? So Algrad kept running.

After sometime of the adrenaline-filled run, Algrad slowed down his pace and looked behind— only plants. He ran some more, farther the better.

Algrad came to a stop and crouched behind a tree, gasping for breath, heart drumming and body hot. After inhaling furiously for two minutes, his body cooled down and his breath returned.

Algrad considered his surroundings more sensibly.

Where was he?

He had definitely come a long way away from the riverbank, for the cries and howls of his men and the mutants had faded into an undisturbed quiet.

Now trees, bushes, and other plants surrounded him on all sides, as though caging him. He felt claustrophobic, despite all his love for nature.

More moments throbbed by, and fear returned to Algrad as stark realisation overtook him. He could not get to the river, his only chance of any survival at all.

He might have escaped the demons, temporarily most, perhaps, but now Algrad Bezon was lost in the Tropagian forest.

***

The Stocker

You have no guts,” said Manu as Meela’s house came into view behind the tree beside the road.

“Come on, Manu,” said Viven. Today, on their way to Dolby Doof’s house to get a Goigpaise recipe book, Viven had planned not to even spare a glance toward Meela’s house. Manu had caught him looking at Meela’s house several times while they passed it in the past. Once or twice, Manu had even caught him staring at Meela herself.

“Couldn’t you just tell her?” Manu persisted. “Believe me, that ear doesn’t make you look ugly.”

“Get over it, Manu,” Viven said. He knew how it would turn out ultimately, just as it had with all the other girls Viven had . . . liked in the past. He would keep staring at them while someone else made them theirs. His right ear was much bigger than his left, and that only raised the odds against him.

But then, maybe this time he might get lucky. Meela was a year junior to him in school, and he actually could make some reason to talk to her every week. The summer break had, however, made it almost impossible to even see her, and Viven hadn’t glimpsed her even once in the last ten days. Those black eyes of her, boy!

Then Viven’s eyes fell on the boulder not far from Meela’s home, and her face fled from his mind. Viven’s father had died just beside the boulder. Viven recalled that fate-less day when he had been playing in the road with his friends. Upon nearing Meela’s house, he had seen the many people gathered around the boulder. Some of the people had seen him and pointed his way, and Viven had run to the spot to find his father on the ground, blood oozing from his head. A broken carriage lay not far away, and what had happened was clear. The driver had fled and the horses stood beside the carriage, looking shocked from the incident. One of them had a red wound on its neck.

“Father! No!” Viven had said, kneeling on the ground beside the man.

His father tried to smile at him.

“I . . . see . . . your mother,” he croaked. He died minutes later, leaving Viven an orphan.

“Mum didn’t really tell us why she needed the book, did she?” Manu said presently. “I mean, there’s got to be some occasion, right? Why else would she want to prepare Goigpaise?”

“Well, I heard her mumble something about an old friend or something,” Viven replied. Manu’s mother was the cousin of Viven’s father. Her own husband died shortly after Manu’s birth. She had taken the responsibility of raising Viven. Viven had been living with her for five years now, since he had been ten cycles old.

“I guess we should send her to the bazaar more often instead of going ourselves,” Manu said. “Maybe she’ll meet more ‘old friends’ and want to prepare Goigpaise . . .”

“Aren’t you afraid we can be stuck with Doof for hours today?” Viven said.

“Hell, don’t say that. I wouldn’t have come along had it been any other dish but Goigpaise. We must make an escape from Doof’s house the moment the book’s in our hands.” Today was one of those rare occasions when Manu had accompanied Viven to Doof’s house. Mr. Dolby Doof was the most boring person living. He had a whole house stuffed with books, books, and books—all recipe books at that, too. No sign of fiction or poetry or anything else. Mr. Doof lent his books for free to anyone who wanted to try out a new dish, and that, he considered, was his way of contributing to their society.

And with him giving lectures on almost every book he owned, Viven’s earlier visits had been deathly dull. He remembered being thankful he hadn’t fallen unconscious out of excessive boredom.

Reaching the Recipe Book House, they knocked and were welcomed in by the wide-smiling Mr. Doof.

“Um, Mr. Doof,” said Viven, wanting to hit the point directly. “Um, do you have any book on how to prepare Goigpaise?”

The big-bellied Mr. Doof frowned at the word, and then smiled at his own forgetfulness.

“Ah, Goigpaise, how can I forget that dish!” He looked at them approvingly. “It’s one of the finest delicacies! Well, do take a seat while I go bring just the book for you.”

They sat, and Mr. Doof, humming an awkward tune, walked to the next room. Manu looked at Viven, drumming on his chair’s handles with his fingers.

“The moment the book’s in our hands,” he said in a hushed voice, “we’re gonna make a run from here.”

Viven nodded. Make a run, he thought; he was sceptical it was possible in a dream.

Mr. Doof returned in a short while, clutching a fat little book titled Goigpaise? Here it is! that featured a tiny man on the cover swimming in a bowl of Goigpaise.

“As I said, just the book for you; it tells everything about Goigpaise, How to prepare it, its history, additional information, etcetera, et cetera . . . Here.” He made a bow and handed Viven the book.

“By the way, how many times have you tasted Goigpaise before?”

“Just a couple of times,” Viven replied.

“And you?” Mr. Doof had no intention of sparing Manu, who flinched as though accused of a crime he hadn’t committed.

Then he answered in a small voice, “Yes, a few times.”

“What sort of visions did you behold?”

“Er, I-I don’t remember . . .”Manu said, turning a shade of pink. Mr. Doof’s eyes bulged like he hadn’t heard a funnier joke.

“What?”He laughed. “No one ever forgets a Goigpaise vision!”

Manu might as well have received a slap.

“No-no, really, I cannot remember them properly,” he said in a feeble attempt to explain; it couldn’t have been clearer, though, that whether he remembered any Goigpaise vision or not, he simply wished to keep the conversation the shortest possible with Mr. Doof.

“Okay,” said Mr. Doof, “if you don’t want to share your joyful experiences with a poor old man like me, so be it.” He stretched his lips in a weak smile, and Viven could almost sense all Manu wanted to do was disappear. All the same, Viven did not think Mr. Dolby Doof was any poor old man he claimed to be. He did have a few streaks of grey hair here and there amongst his balding circle of jet black. But with a face that yet had to shed the youthful glow, he couldn’t have been anymore than around forty-five years of age.

Viven spoke up before Manu had to suffer more interrogations.

“Um, Mr. Doof . . . Well then, I think we should leave now.” As Viven and Manu got up to go, someone began rapping hard at the door.

“Master, I am home!” a voice yelled from outside.

Manu opted to open the door.

“No! Don’t open!” yelled a frantic Mr. Doof. “No!”

Too late; Manu opened the door, already giving Mr. Doof a confused look.

Viven gaped in raw bewilderment as he saw the man at the threshold. Standing with the identical bulging stomach and funny rounded face was the replica of Mr. Dolby Doof!

“But-but!”Manu stuttered, looking from one to the other. “Two Dolby Doofs!”

Viven gaped at the Mr. Doof inside, brows raised.

“Who is he?”

Mr. Doof went and roughly pulled his look-alike inside, who grinned widely, not minding.

“He is, err, my-my twin brother. He, er, lives in Lofusgrad,” he explained to the boys rather desperately. “He looks like me a lot, doesn’t he?”

Viven eyed Manu, who shrugged giving him a tragic I-think-we-should-make-a-run look.

“Well,” said Viven, heeding Manu, “so long, then, Mr Doof. We’ve got work at home. I think we should be on our way.”

Then, uncaring for any response from Mr. Doof, the boys sprinted out of the house.

“That geek has a twin brother?” said Manu once they were on the road. “And he’s come to live here?”

“Maybe, though I’ve never heard that before,” said Viven. He could not recall any earlier incident when Mr. Doof had mentioned his twin before—something he shouldn’t have failed at with his big-mouthed nature. And why would his twin call him master?

Manu stopped in his tracks and caught Viven’s arm.

“What?” Viven asked. Manu’s face had become parchment white.

“There, the hat is a pointed one,” he said, pointing down the road. Looking, Viven felt cramps in his stomach.

A person with a great moustache that reached down to his waist in tendrils, and wearing brown rags all together with a high pointed hat, was coming toward them, staggering unsteadily.

A Future Stocker.

“What are we gonna do now?” Manu said, panicking.

“Dunno,” said Viven. “Best thing would be to ignore him totally.”

“We cannot ignore him,” said Manu. “Stockers smell too bad! I don’t want to go near him.”

“We’d have to. He is coming our way.”

“Let’s take the other road,” said Manu.

“The other road? We’d take an hour to reach home! Come on, Manu, don’t be a git!”

Viven nudged Manu’s arm. Manu looked at him with grave eyes.

“All right,” he said with a grimace.

As they approached the Future Stocker, a bad smell wafted to them from him, intense like that from animal droppings, except many times stronger, making them cover their noses.

The Stocker, in his coarse, broken voice, was singing himself a song (one that would win any Ugly Melody contests in the winter celebrations), when suddenly, he stopped.

“Viven,” he said.

Wait. Viven? No, not possible, Viven thought. The Future Stocker certainly hadn’t spoken his name! His heart sank.

“Quick,” he whispered to Manu, and as they hastened, the voice came again.

“Viven . . .” A chilling sensation crept down Viven’s spine, clouds blocking the one last tiny ray of hope he had. It wasn’t considered good when a Future Stocker knew your name. Viven swallowed.

The Stocker scrambled, and the next moment, Viven found himself separated from Manu. The Stocker’s dirty brown eyes drilled into his own while his bony but powerful hands held him tightly by the collar.

He almost couldn’t breathe, the Stocker stank so horrid. Nausea overwhelming, Viven fought to get loose from the Stocker.

“Let go! Let go!” he yelled as the Stocker grabbed his arms, restraining them from movement. The Stocker, though fragile-appearing, was extremely strong.

Viven tried to kick him away, but it was no use, his drastic attempts a mere itch to the Stocker, who kept whispering “Viven! Viven!” in an eerie tone, like he would forget the name if he didn’t.

“Let him go, you—!” Manu boxed the Stocker: a mistake.

The Stocker glared at him. Grasping Manu’s clothes with one hand while controlling Viven with the other, he hurled him away.

Manu landed on the ground, fortunately escaping injuries.

Rolling his eyes back at Viven, the Stocker once again repeated, “Viven. . .” Then, most unexpectedly, he released Viven and burst into a bout of hysterical sobbing. Viven seized his chance to scram away as the man sank into a ball and wailed pathetically.

***

Aunt Gina was aghast when, after reaching home, they told her about their misadventure.

“But they have no right to go about frightening people like that! Even King Agarz has forbidden them from going near normal people!”

“It’s all right, Aunt Gina,” said Viven, wishing they hadn’t opened their mouths in the first place. “He didn’t really harm us, anyway.”

“No, Viven, you don’t know these Future Stockers. They are a curse.”

“A curse?” asked Viven.

“Yes . . . when I was young,” she continued, her eyes teary and red, “my uncle, your grandfather, h-he met one—the next day, he was m-murdered!”

“What?” Viven had never known this.

“Yes, that was wh-what happened.” Aunt Gina was weeping now. “Th-these Stockers are to be blamed for everything bad.”

She stood up and, wiping her tears, went out.

Manu stared at Viven, big-eyed.

“Are you going to die tomorrow?”

Viven and Manu spent the rest of the day taking baths. (They had gained a nasty stench after coming into contact with the Stocker.) Aunt Gina was quiet most of the time, talking only to call for meals, and her eyes remained bloodshot. Manu wasn’t very talkative either, not his usual preference. Viven suspected he was wondering if he, Viven, was really to die tomorrow. Viven himself thought it was unlikely, though he had an unpleasant feeling in his gut for the next day, anyway.

***

What Happened to Bablu

That night, a man staggered on a road of Tempstow village. He was weak, terribly weak, but not devoid of hope.

Armando had a big cut in his stomach, and his swollen thigh only suggested the bone had fractured, but he kept going, inching on like a snail. His mauled body was ablaze with a fire of pain, but he was not prepared to succumb to it, not just yet. At least not before he reached the Descendant.

Suddenly Armando thought he had heard a voice. He stopped and looked around. The night was dark, and the crescent moon that floated amongst the clouds did little to pierce it. No, there couldn’t have been anyone, not in the dead of the night; it had most probably been only his imagination.

Armando trudged on; he knew the little energy left in him was draining. He smiled at the thought, although his blood-smeared lips pained: his life would no doubt end in the next couple of hours. All these years he had been striving to attain immortality, the only reason he had abandoned Luidhor, his blood-brother, why he had taken to serve her . . .

Peculiarly enough, death seemed a funny business now. And, anyhow, it mattered little to him; all he wanted was a small amount of time in which to deliver the warning.

Armando’s heart beat faster. He could sense the Descendant was only around half a kilometre away. Then his heart fell. This would be a long half-kilometre. Spitting out a bloody bog of phlegm, he forced his bruised-up reluctant legs to move on, that had themselves come to a halt. Armando ruefully imagined what it would have been like if he still had his tattoos on his body. He could have gotten himself to the Descendant in no time at all. Tattoo-less, he considered it a sheer miracle that he had slipped from the Assurs’ clutches with only a handful of wounds, though they would prove fatal.

“Armando,” a female voice whispered, which made his already shivering body shudder.

He recognised well to whom the voice belonged. He shook his head. His mind was playing tricks on him. No wonder he was hallucinating; too much had happened to him that day. She couldn’t know where he was despite her infinite powers . . . Still, as a precaution, he quickened his pace, although that worsened his suffering.

“You think you can succeed?”

Armando gasped, fear enveloping him. No. It was only his mind. He warily looked around again; no one. Muttering a quick prayer, he continued on the Descendant’s trail.

A few minutes passed, the stars blinking down at the substitute for any ghost, struggling his way on the Tempstow road, urging himself to carry on.

“You can’t let go,” Armando kept telling himself. “You will make it . . .Make it.” Though a part of him, and a rather large one at that, never gave up the idea that he might collapse on the road any moment now.

His fears merged into reality the next minute. He couldn’t fathom where it came from, but suddenly a sharp pain erupted on his back, accompanied by a loud cracking noise like that of a whip. Armando trampled face-first to the ground and moaned like he had never before, wriggling over and over like a worm, the dust sticking to his face and wounds.

“So, what do you say now?” said the female voice he was now sure was no figment of his imagination.

“Go away, you filth!”Armando groaned.

“Go away?” said the female voice. “You want me to go away? And filth you call me?” She paused for a second, and then continued. “So sad! I only came to sing you a lullaby before you sleep! Um, anyway, ahem.” She let out an artificial cough. “Listen . . .”

She broke into a melodious song. Ah, melody it was! But only as melodious as poison could be. The tongue she sang in was one that Armando had heard for years but couldn’t understand a tad bit. Still, the song caused Armando more and worse pain than his body or soul had ever been exposed to in life . . .

Long before the female voice stopped, life had already abandoned Armando’s limp body.

***

Viven awoke early the next day to the freshness of the morning and cheerful chirping of birds outside the window. For some time, he remained in a dreamy state, staring dizzily at the ceiling, thinking of Meela, enjoying the moment.

Then he started, jerking to a sitting position, all that had happened yesterday fleeting to his mind’s eye . . .Aunt Gina, Mr. Doof’s twin, the Stocker.

An icy cold overcame his body. The unpleasant feeling in his gut had never left, only disturbing him more.

He had always somehow believed he would accept death when it came to him, but now, with a supposed death day—today, already fixed, he felt spooked. Were he given the chance to choose his manner of death, he would have opted for an unexpected and sudden one, totally out of the blue.

Something purple flickered in the corner of his eye. Viven turned his head. It was a purple cat, sitting on one of his schoolbooks on the table. Viven blinked.

The cat wasn’t there! It was like it had vanished into air. Had he been imagining? he wondered, but not a moment ago, he was sure the cat was there. So, where had it gone?

Was this some sign of what was forthcoming?

Viven swallowed. He had to stop thinking about this.

Breakfast was a grim affair that morning—not the usual cheer of everyday. There was scarcely any sound; the only available were of spoons and dishes being moved, and of chewing.

Viven wasn’t enjoying it. There had been many occasions like this in the past, mostly due to some fault of Manu. All of them seemed to drag for eternity.

“Um, Aunt,” he began; Aunt Gina looked up at him vacantly. Viven lingered for a while, scanning his memory for a topic, before he found a good one.

“Er, yesterday, you sent us to get the Goigpaise book. Are guests going to come?”

“Oh, that?” said Aunt Gina, sipping her tea. “Yes, my friend and her son.”

“Your friend?” Viven asked.

“Yes, her name is Nandi. I met her yesterday in the bazaar and invited her here. The last time I met her was three years ago.”

“You mean Bablu’s mum?” said Manu. He appeared eager since Aunt Gina was at last speaking.

“Yes, exactly,” replied Aunt Gina.

“So when are they coming, Mum?”

“Today. Nandi said around noon.”

Noon soon arrived, and with it, the guests. Around a quarter past twelve, a horse-drawn carriage came rattling along and stopped at their gate.

Besides the driver, there was a lady and her son in it. Nandi was a tall, gaunt woman of sharp features; the boy, Bablu, though, was short and obese, and of Manu’s age.

Everyone had gone out to receive them, and Aunt Gina, especially, was delighted.

“Nandi!” she called out as Nandi and Bablu got down from the carriage.

“Gina!”Nandi cried, and they hugged.

“I’m so glad you came!” said Aunt Gina.

“Oh, Gina, you know we came across a dead man!” said Nandi, furrowing at the memory.

“Dead man?”

“Yes, there was this dead man not very far from the gate of the village. You know of him?”

“You are the first one from whom I am hearing about it.”

“You haven’t? It looked like somebody had murdered him. There was blood all around the spot. Some men were preparing to take him to the cemetery.”

“Really? Oh, the gods! I live in this village and know nothing about what’s going on!” Aunt turned toward Viven and Manu. “You two heard about the dead man?”

“No,” Viven replied. Both of them hadn’t gone out of the house that day, it being hot outside since it was the middle of summer. Tempstow was the biggest village in north Belaria, and it was a little surprising news of the dead man hadn’t reached them. It often took a whole day for news to travel from one end of the village to the other end. And the east gate, through which Nandi and Bablu had entered the village, was far from their house.

“Well, Nandi,” said Aunt Gina. “Let’s go inside now . . . I’ve got loads of other stuff to talk with you. Boys, help with her luggage.”

“So sweet of you, my dears,” Nandi said as Viven and Manu picked up her bags. Then they all went inside.

After lunch, Aunt Gina and Nandi got to cooking Goigpaise—the dream dish. They were to serve it at night only, but since Goigpaise needed a lot of time and was a tedious procedure to prepare, they were required to start early.

The boys spent their time playing Trimpato, the most popular board game in Belaria. They discovered that Bablu was a great Trimpato player. Viven watched in amusement as every game ended with Manu hitting himself on the forehead with his hand in utter defeat.

But Bablu had a weak point of being rather goofy. Manu tried to put it to use, playing pranks on him in hopes of settling the scores, but in vain. Manu’s pranks, simple as they were to Viven, were beyond Bablu’s understanding range. He would look at Manu most of the time and say a confused, “What?”

However, the Stocker of yesterday kept returning to Viven’s mind. They later got to know from a villager who lived some distance from their house that the man who had been found dead wasn’t someone from the village, and Viven couldn’t help but wonder if the man’s death had something to do with the Stocker he and Manu had encountered.

Around eight, dinner time, Aunt Gina and Nandi proudly announced the completion of the special dish on the menu—Goigpaise.

Everyone was thrilled; Manu composed a rhyme on Goigpaise, drumming with spoons on the dining table. Viven added a few lines to it as they waited for the dream dish to be served.

And when they finally had their Goigpaise-full-bowls in front of them, Nandi raised her arm and said, “On the count of three: one, two, three! To Goigpaise!”

“To Goigpaise!” they cheered after her. The next moment saw everyone spooning Goigpaise into their mouths.

Viven leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, letting relaxation grasp him all as he savoured the soup. He saw great things, marvellous ones, and of indescribable beauty, far surpassing any earthly splendour. Who knew, he might have been with the gods themselves!

Viven never knew how long he remained in that blissful state until it withdrew from him. He then took another spoonful of Goigpaise, and the marvels returned in seconds. And each time it was over, a spoon was everything needed to revive it. The glory and splendour went on and on, never ending, forever . . .

That night, Viven went to bed thinking only of Goigpaise. His mouth watered as he recalled its taste. Oh, the lovely dish that made one tour the Heavens! Neither Stocker nor death held importance or any of his concerns. Those were trivial stuff.

***

“Manu! You know you shouldn’t have done that!” said Nandi, glaring at Manu in suppressed anger.

“But . . . but I did nothing!” Manu said in response. “It was the cat’s fault!”

“What cat?” Bablu wailed, clutching his buttocks. “There was no cat! You did it!”

“No, Bablu. There was a purple cat. You tripped on it, not on my leg!”

“Purple cat?” Aunt Gina said. “I have never seen a purple cat anywhere in this village my entire life! Do purple cats even exist?”

“Why don’t you believe me, Mum? There was a cat and Bablu tripped on it while he was walking backward.”

“You told me to walk backward so you could make me fall!” Bablu said as tears streamed down his face and his cries rose louder.

After breakfast, Viven had barely gone to his room, intending to brainstorm a plan to somehow meet Meela and talk to her. His classmate Baddil, whose house was located not far from Meela’s, had told him of seeing Meela sometimes go to her friend Krina’s place during the evenings. Maybe Viven could catch her on one such trip. But then he had heard the commotion and rushed to see what happened. Manu and Bablu had been playing outside on the lawn when Bablu had gotten hurt, apparently a prank of Manu that he had lost control of.

“Shut up, Bablu,” Nandi yelled at her son. “You are not going to die!”

“I think it’s paining him,” said Aunt Gina. “He fell on some stones after all. And you, Manu, what sort of prank were you playing on Bablu, eh? Say sorry to him.”

“I DIDN’T DO IT!” Manu yelled at the top of his voice, and ran out of the house.

It was a good two long hours before Manu returned home and sneaked into Viven’s room.

“Bablu’s in my room,” he said, and sat on the chair beside the door.

“What really happened to Bablu?” Viven asked after letting some silent minutes pass.

“What I told Mum,” Manu replied. “He tripped on a purple cat and thought it was me.”

“A purple cat?” Viven said. A picture flashed in Viven’s mind of the purple cat he had seen, or thought he saw, the other morning. There were few pet cats in the neighbourhood, and Viven knew nobody with a purple cat. But he didn’t think Manu was lying since he never lied about a prank to Viven. Maybe it was the same cat he had seen.

Both Bablu and Manu followed a no-speaking rule toward each other. The next day, the guests packed up and were ready to leave for town, on the account that Nandi could not afford being away from business too long. The two boys had to be persuaded by their mothers to shake hands and exchange “byes,” which there was little need to say. They did as though the other’s hand was covered in pig poop.

Manu took on a gayer shade after his rival’s departure, and Viven was happy for him; he had grown tired of Manu’s lonesome and quiet behaviour of late.

“See? That Stocker you met was a bad sign,” Aunt Gina said that night, over dinner.

“Well, Viven is still alive, Mum,” said Manu.

“Shut up, Manu. Don’t speak such things.”

“The man who died wasn’t from our village, though, Aunt,” said Viven.

“He wasn’t,” said Aunt Gina, “but I don’t think he would have turned up dead near the gate of our village had that Stocker not come here. I can only wonder why King Agarz hasn’t banished these Stockers to the Tropagian forest. They can scare whatever dwells in the north, then.”

“Mum, don’t you think it’s time somebody went to the north and found the demons that dwell in Tropagia?” said Manu dreamily with a burp.

“There are no demons there,” said Aunt. “Your great uncle led the expedition to Tropagia and proved no such things exist there.”

“All his crew members died, though.”

“It’s still a forest, Manu. It’s dangerous even without demons.”

“I would like to go there one day,” said Manu, and from the way he gazed at the ceiling, Viven could bet Manu was already in Tropagia in his thoughts.

Just then, someone rapped on the main door.

“Mrs. Bezera?” a man’s brawny voice said from outside. “Mrs. Gina Bezera?”

“Who could it be?” Aunt said.

“Let me see,” Viven said, and went to open the door. A strong putrid stench, like that of some insect, greeted him the moment he did so.

A uniformed soldier stood outside, holding a club in one hand and a paper in another. Beside him were about six other soldiers, lower-ranking as their differently hued uniform said. They looked impatient, some scratching their armpits and groins, and the intimidation in the air was thick for Viven.

“Yes?”

Viven wasn’t able to say beyond the word. The soldier hit him on the head with his club. Viven dropped unconscious.

***

In Nascat

When Viven was next conscious, he was no longer in their house at Tempstow. The corner he was lying in belonged to a small damp and enclosed room that just had a single window with bars, and a firmly closed tiny door.

Sitting on the floor by him were Aunt Gina, who was massaging his head, and Manu, who gazed, with a nasty curiosity, at a bone-sack of a woman in shackles in the other corner. Both Aunt Gina and Manu were thin-faced and crack-lipped, and their despair was clear.

“Aunt Gina,” Viven said weakly. She turned her eyes at his face.

“Viven.” She smiled. “You are awake.”

Viven sat upright with much effort. It was difficult—his head hurt so badly.

“Where are we?” he said. “Those soldiers . . .”

“They say they have brought us to Nascat,” said Aunt with a furious grimace. “They blindfolded us all the way, and I am not sure if it really is Nascat. We reached here inside a day’s journey, and Nascat’s far away from Tempstow. But then, it can only be Nascat, right?” Aunt grimaced harder. “They call themselves soldiers and do this to ordinary people!”

“In Nascat?” said Viven. With the blaze in his head, it took time for him to take in the words, “You mean the prison of Nascat?”

Aunt Gina nodded.

“But why? Why did they bring us here?”

“They won’t say,” said Manu aloud, turning away from the old woman. “They have kept us here one whole day and still won’t explain why they brought us here in the first place!”

“But surely,” said Viven, “there must be a reason.”

“It’s all because of the Stocker you two met,” said Aunt Gina. “Stockers are evil omens.”

“Whatever,” said Manu irritably. “I want to get out of this awful place.” Scratching his head, he took back to gazing at the woman who was sleeping, breathing slowly and deeply.

“Mum,” said Manu, “that woman’s been sleeping since yesterday.”

“So?” said Aunt Gina. “What’s the problem with you? We don’t want her awake; she’s a convict, and we don’t know for what crime she’s here.”

We are here for no crime,” said Manu. “And besides, are they going to give us any food or water? I’m heck hungry and thirsty.”

By what it looked like, they probably weren’t. Hours upon gloomy hours of starving hunger and thirst sapped them of energy, and even conversation became a task. Viven would pass into sleep many a time, but sleep with an empty stomach was more disturbing than refreshing, and the ache in his head never sought to cease.

Once, out of pure excessive frustration, Manu got up and banged furiously at the door of the cell.

“Stop it, Manu,” Aunt Gina told him. “It’s useless—No!” she cried when Manu stopped all of a sudden as his body became very rigid and he fell. It was an attack of Rigimemia.

Viven and Aunt Gina rushed to his aid.

“Oh no! Oh no! Be calm, Manu, be calm,” Aunt Gina said while she herself shook with panic. “O moon god, help him! O moon, he is your child! O moon, help him! O moon, may you always reign . . .”

It was a long time before Manu’s contracted muscles returned to a relaxed state. Aunt Gina kept on praying for almost half an hour after the attack ceased. Rigimemia was caused due to overexertion, and it was the first time Viven had seen someone have an attack. Besides prayer, few herbs could do anything to offer relief from it.

Food came only at night. A panel at the bottom of the door opened, and some loaves of bread, along with water, was passed inside.

The bread was stale, and the water tasted of mud. But they were so hungry, they swallowed it all in no time. They had no option.

Ponder how much he did, Viven failed to see the point behind them being made prisoners. They were clean of wrong doings, paid the taxes, and were what one would call good citizens. What’s more, the soldiers themselves were guilty of taking them from home by force and not making known the charges against them. Viven prayed things would be solved soon and hoped they could get out of the pit they had fallen into.

***

The thin old woman, their sleeping cellmate, never woke up. Her sleep was to last forever. It was Manu who saw she had ceased breathing, and pointed it out to Aunt Gina and Viven, who realised that the woman was dead.

What followed was an endless session of banging at the door. Fortunately, it didn’t go futile as someone got annoyed by the noise and, opening the panel, warned them to stop or he would have them beaten up.

“But it’s not that,” said Aunt Gina, her whole form shivering in anxiety. “A woman has died here!”

“What rubbish!” said the man on the other side. “You’re lying, aren’t you?”

“There really is a dead woman here!”Viven yelled. He was angry. He couldn’t understand at all why the man thought they were lying.

“All right,” said the man, “I’m opening the door, but try to be smart and you won’t see the next hour.”

The man then was heard calling for others. There was a sound of a key being inserted into a lock, and then, with a creak, the door swung open.

“There!” said Viven, pointing at the corpse of the old woman as three jailors poured in. They took her out in a matter of minutes and locked the door behind them.

“It’s horrible!” said Aunt Gina, clutching her head. “It’s simply horrible! When are we going to get out of here?”

“I was telling you from the beginning,” said a shaken Manu. “But you won’t listen—you never listen.”

The death of the woman spilled terror into their hearts. What if they were never released and had to suffer a fate similar to hers? As the days passed in the prison, days of unbearable hunger, with nights of only little relief compared to the former, their fear and dread heightened. The jailor, who supplied them with food every night, rarely talked to them, and his mouth opened solely to scold. Getting any information out of him regarding their imprisonment and when they were to be set free, if it was to happen, was impossible.

Then one night, something happened.

It was stormy outside, thunder clapping to stun the years now and then. They had only had their meek prison food and were preparing to sleep. Viven despised sleeping on the rough floor of the cell, and he knew when he woke up his muscles would be sore. All the same, any escape from the prison was welcome, even the world of dreams.

A sound like the lashing of a whip occurred, startling all of them.

“What was that?” said Manu. Then it came again.

Crack.

Viven got to his feet, alert. It wasn’t the thunder, for sure. The sound had occurred inside the cell. He didn’t even think it had anything to do with the soldiers outside. Again.

Crack.

“What’s this noise?” said Aunt.

What happened next awed and spooked all three of them. A white light appeared in mid-air in the middle of the cell. The light formed into a ball that hovered, illuminating the cell brightly.

“Fear not,” the coarse voice of a woman said. “I mean no harm to you, but rather the opposite. I am the spirit of Wiams Sezia and seek nothing but help from you.”

A spirit? Viven thought. What was happening?

“Hey.” He dared himself to speak, his voice shaking. “Hey, if you are playing a trick . . .” He didn’t know what to say.

“I am not playing any tricks on you,” the woman’s voice said. “I am the spirit of the old woman who was in this cell and died.”

“ The old woman?” said Aunt. “You- you are her ghost?”

“Yes. I am her ghost, if that is what you wish to call me.”

Viven looked around the cell. He suspected someone was playing tricks on them by creating effects with sound and light. But there was no aperture or any other source from which the light was coming. The ball was all there was.

“Why have you come back?” Aunt Gina said.

“Many reasons. I was innocent of the crime they accused me of, and that too of the worst crime there could be: of murdering my dearest of friends, the renowned scientist, Algrad Bezon!”

Algrad Bezon? Had Viven heard it right? But both Aunt Gina and Manu gasped, and he was sure they had heard the same.

“You-you are the same Sezia who killed my uncle?” Aunt Gina said.

“You are his niece?” It was the spirit’s turn to be surprised.

“And these are his grandchildren. Why did you kill my uncle?” Aunt Gina asked. She was afraid of the witch, but she also sounded angry.

For Viven, the entire thing was like getting hit with a club a second time. All he had known about the circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death was that a certain Sezia had attacked him with a dagger and killed him. And this was the very Sezia? His grandfather’s killer?

“No,” said the spirit in remorse, “I didn’t do anything to him. It was all false. I never murdered Algrad . . . I was framed.”

“You were caught red-handed,” said Aunt Gina. “The dagger was in your hands.”

“Noooo!” the spirit bellowed. The ball dissolved into liquid light that swirled and took the appearance of the woman who had died.

Aunt Gina gasped but maintained her boldness. “Go away,” she said. “Go away in the name of the almighty gods!”

“I didn’t kill Algrad,” said the woman. “Please believe me. I am innocent. He was my friend!”

“Don’t lie,” Aunt Gina said.

“I am not lying. I still remember that terrible day; Algrad came to my place, looking all white and shuddering, and spilled information about the sword and the axe and, after that, let out a painful cry and-and died. I was terrified and did not know what to do. I discovered the knife sticking into his back, which I had not seen earlier because of his shawl. At the precise moment I was removing the dagger from his body, people burst into my house and saw me holding it. They had heard Algrad’s cry. I tried to explain to them, but everyone was adamant.”

“You’re lying,” said Aunt Gina.

Sezia eyed Aunt Gina sorrowfully.

“It is all right if you do not believe me,” she said. “I understand. No soul believes me anyhow. But as for going away from here and leaving you, that I cannot do—not alone. You will have to help me because I am obliged to this cell as long as the promise I made to Algrad is not fulfilled.”

“You’re lying,” Aunt Gina said again.

“Please trust me,” said Sezia. “If you help me, I could help you too. I can help you get out of here.”

“You can help us get out of here?” said Viven. Unlike Aunt Gina, he felt himself inclining toward believing Sezia. If she really was a spirit, he couldn’t see any reason why she should lie. Maybe she had really been framed?

“Yes, but not until you do me the favour of completing my unfulfilled promise to Algrad—It is what binds me to this place.”

Viven looked at Aunt Gina; she did not seem acceptant of the deal.

“No,” she said. “We aren’t criminals like you; we needn’t escape from here. They’ll release us themselves soon.”

Sezia shook her head of white light.

“They would not because they do not. Once you are in Nascat, you either escape or are here for life. They want to keep as many people as possible to show they are doing their duties well. And if you run away, they would not bother to search for you; they will pick up someone else.”

Aunt Gina flinched. This line of conversation was having an effect on her. The prospect of spending his entire life in the cell made Viven queasy. He could still taste the stale bread in his mouth.

“But surely,” said Aunt Gina, “they won’t do something like that.”

“They have done so to hundreds of people,” said Sezia. “It is least likely they will spare you; trust me, I can be of help. Alive, I, myself, could not flee, but as a spirit, I can help you to be free.”

Aunt Gina glanced at Viven and Manu, pursing her lips. Viven was sure it was their bony faces that compelled her, for the anger disappeared from her eyes and she said, “What will we have to do?”

“You will have to go to the Tropagian forest.”

Aunt Gina simply gaped, stupefied.

“You want us to go to the Tropagian forest?” Viven asked. He had become a little hopeful when Sezia had said she could help them escape. But now he thought she was just a crazy dead woman.

“Yes,” said Sezia. “It is where the sword and the axe are.”

“What sword and axe?”

“The sword Navarion and the axe Acario. Algrad had instructed me to destroy Navarion by cutting it into two using Acario.”

“Why would my grandfather ask you to do something like that?” Viven said.

“Because he had me in his confidence,” said Sezia. “He had come to know of the two artefacts during the Tropagian expedition. Navarion is an evil sword that, if it falls into the wrong hands, can make everyone slaves of its wielder. Hence it needs to be destroyed—the axe Acario being the sole object that can do so.”

Aunt Gina shook her head. “This is impossible. You can’t simply expect us to go to a place like Tropagia! That vile forest took the lives of all except my uncle during the expedition.”

“And they all died to save him—so he could destroy the sword Navarion, but he died without succeeding, handing me the task, which I failed at as well.”

Aunt Gina eyed the spirit suspiciously.

“The men died in an accident while crossing the river. My uncle had gotten to the other bank first. That’s why he survived.”

“No,” said the woman, “what you have been hearing is not true. Algrad told me he hid the real facts as he did not want people to grow more afraid of the Tropagian forest. His party had encountered demons, and in the ensuing battle, his men gave up their lives to save him.”

“Demons?” said Aunt Gina. “You are lying!”

“I am not. But demons and the dark creatures are beings of the night—they are not around during daytime. So, if you go to Tropagia and can get to the axe hill before nightfall, you should be secure from harm. By Algrad’s words, the hill is magical and bad forces cannot wander near to it.”

“So, the forest is free from dangers during the day?” Viven asked. “And we’ll be safe if we can get to the hill?” Nothing Sezia said made any sense. But Viven wanted to believe her anyway. If Sezia was spinning a delicious lie, then so be it. Even lies were better than the four walls of the cell.

“Yes,” said Sezia. “Algrad said so, although I do not know how he came to know it all.”

“Still,” Aunt Gina said, “we can’t go to Tropagia as long as we are locked up here.” She frowned doubtfully. “Which forces me to think—how will you help us when we can’t help you in the first place?”

“No,” said Sezia, dismissing her confusion. “After death, I have gained magical powers. Though I cannot go myself, I can teleport you to the Tropagian forest, as close to the axe hill as my powers allow me.”

“But what will we do once we get to the hill?” Viven asked.

“Climb to its top. There you will find a cave. In it, the axe Acario resides, which you should retrieve. Then, after spending the night there, you will have to journey to the temple of Breene on the banks of the river Brank, which is at a sight-able distance from the hill, toward the north. The sword Navarion is located inside the temple, and you must use the axe to cut it into two so that its dark powers are diminished.”

Aunt Gina looked at Viven. She appeared confused regarding what decision to make.

“What do you say?” she asked him.

It was easy to decide. Easy as choosing a bowl of Goigpaise over normal soup.

“Maybe we can give it a try,” he said. He was excited like he had never been in a long while. He hated the cell. Anywhere was better than the cell. “Besides, she says they won’t search for us if we escape from here.”

“And what after we destroy the sword?” Aunt Gina asked the spirit.

“Worry not,” she replied. “Once the sword is destroyed, my obligations to Algrad will be over and I shall become a free spirit. I could go to the forest myself and take you from there and transport you to your home.”

“And what if you don’t come?” Aunt Gina said, heavy scepticism in her voice.

“I promise I will,” said Sezia. “And you can trust in that, for unless a spirit has fulfilled all her promises, she may not pass into the other world.”

The night went in nervous anticipation of the morning. They didn’t sleep; besides, sleeping would only give them cramps.

With the breaking of the first rays of dawn, Sezia, who had turned herself invisible the previous night, reappeared and told them to assemble in a line, holding hands.

“So,” she said, “as about your food, Tropagia will provide it in abundance. You will find there quantities of fruits and berries. You should keep a lookout for darker-coloured fruits, as they may well be poisonous. Other colours you can go for. I am transporting you as close as possible to the hill.”

The three of them exchanged looks and nodded, grasping each others’ hands more tightly.

“Let’s hope for the best,” said Aunt Gina.

Viven took in a deep breath. He was shivering. They would finally get out of the cell.

“This will be adventurous,” said Manu, glowing for the first time in what Viven thought was ages.

Sezia lifted her arms and, making complicated gestures with them, muttered strange words, riddling incantations their mortal ears could not make any sense of.

Smoke gushed from her hands, dense but breathable smoke that surrounded them until it was the only thing in their vision.

When the smoke cleared, they were no longer in their cell at Nascat. No walls held them captive any longer. The wide blue sky was over their heads and trees were everywhere; freedom was theirs.

They were in the Tropagian forest.

***

Dirita

So?”said Manu, looking about the spot. “This is the bloody forest, eh?”

A stream flowed nearby, a small one, its breadth only a few metres. The rustling water appeared clean; thirsty, Viven scooped and cupped a couple of handfuls into his mouth. It tasted much better than the water they provided at Nascat.

“It ought to be,” he said. “But where is the hill?” The trees weren’t that tall, but they were so thick in numbers everywhere that they did not permit a good view of any direction.

“I can climb a tree,” Manu began, but then he gasped. “Viven! Where’s Mum?”

“Aunt?” Viven turned around. There was no Aunt Gina. He had thought she was just near the two of them.

“Mum!” Manu cried. “Mum! Viven, I think Sezia didn’t send her with us!”

“Aunt Gina!” Viven cried. He knew there was something not okay with that Sezia. They shouldn’t have listened to her. “Aunt Gina!”

“I am here, boys!” Aunt Gina said, appearing from behind a tree.

“Mum!” Manu cried. “We thought she didn’t send you!”

“I guess she ended up transporting me away from you two,” said Aunt. “I suddenly found myself in the forest all alone. When I heard your cries, I came this way.”

“Well,” said Viven, relieved, “we are together now at least.”

“Yeah,” said Aunt. “So where’s the hill?”

“I can climb a tree and see,” Manu offered.

“Yes, do it,” said Aunt Gina. “We need to get to the hill as fast as we can.”

Manu was an expert in climbing trees, way more agile than Viven. He got on top of one while Viven and Aunt Gina waited below, watching.

“I see it,” he said, flinging his arm forward. “And good news! We’ll have that stream with us; it flows straight to the hill and then curves.”

“Come on now,” Aunt Gina said after Manu descended, and they began their journey.

***

The Dwarfy Dwarf castle was dark as always. Not that light was scant, only its inhabitants hated the name of it. Anyhow, they did not require it at all since darkness enabled them to see. What more, its mistress, Mai Canniola—three witches who had found residence in one body—had made sure her castle was wholly light-proof by using her strongest of light repelling spells. She also disapproved of her dear Assurs going out of the castle during daytime.

Today, she sat on her majestic throne as always, scratching her misty yellow teeth with her misty deformed nails. In front of her was a golden stool on which a purple cat sat, licking his paws.

“Is she replaced?” the Purple One asked.

“Yes, and quite successfully,” Mai Canniola replied with a glint of pride in her eyes. “For now, Milli is playing the part. So, we don’t need her any longer, do we? The Assurs can have a feast.” The Assurs cheered, howling in appreciation. A smile crept onto Canniola’s lips; the Assurs were halfmen, halfbugs, and her ever-loyal slaves. She liked them to be rewarded once in a while and enjoyed seeing the savagery of their merrymaking.

“No,” said the Purple One, taut, quietening the Assurs all at once. “We don’t know what use we may need her for and when. Milli will do her job well—there is no doubt to that—but it cannot be said at what turn we shall require the real one. At best, we keep her in a place that is not in a stone’s throw so we are not tempted to kill her.”

“Gullop?” said Mai Canniola, her smile gone, knowing that the purple one’s “we” meant she and her Assurs. “The barren rock of an island; what do you say?”

“Yes, that can suffice,” he said, and blew his nose. “Well, it’s time I get involved.”

Canniola nodded.

“Bye, my dears,” said the Purple One, and with a flick of his tail, the stool was empty.

“You must do with the usual game,” Canniola told the Assurs. “Or hey! Birul and his men—they are useless now. Hunt for them at night!” The Assurs, whose faces had fallen, were revived and delighted. Mai Canniola divided herself into three and chatted with her “selves.”

***

As Viven, Manu, and Aunt Gina waddled through the forest, splashing stream water that flowed beneath their feet, they soon found how bizarre Tropagia was. From three-inch-big army ants, their lines they were careful not to disturb, to mobile plants, the flowers of which kept snapping at flies. The environment felt alien to them.

They avoided consuming the strange-looking fruits showing up every few metres. They had seen none of the like back at home. Although Sezia’s spirit had told them about the edibility of the lighter-coloured ones, they feared at selecting the wrong fruit by mistake.

But by noon, hunger and tiredness had the better of them. Walking for so long, their legs had grown sore and leady. Two kilometres of forest still lay between them and the hill; however, wearied, they gave in to some rest. They plucked three of the apple-shaped grey fruits and, prior to eating, hoped these would not be their last fruits.

“It’s not that bad,” said Manu as he munched.

Viven took a bite of his own fruit.

“It tastes like an apple,” he said. But as he chewed, he thought it tasted more like a mix of a banana and a potato.

“Mmm,” said Manu, finishing and throwing away the leftovers. “I think I’ll get another one.”

He rose and plucked another one of the grey fruits from the lower branches of the tree.

Aunt Gina exhaled.

“I pray we can get to the hill within a couple of hours. I wonder if I’ll manage it, though. Walking is such a task!”

Manu chewed on.

“And that Sezia said she’d get us as close to the axe hill as possible.”

“She must have tried her best,” said Aunt Gina, when abruptly she turned vigilant. “Hey, do you hear that?”

“What?” Viven and Manu asked.

“Someone’s crying. Can’t you hear that?”

They strained their ears. Viven heard a faint continuous weeping noise. Amongst the many sounds that the forest was ever making, it was difficult to listen to, but it existed nonetheless.

“Yes,” said Viven. “Someone’s crying!”

“We are not alone here, for sure,” said Aunt Gina.

“I feel creepy. I think we should get moving,” said Manu.

“Don’t you think we should investigate?” Aunt said. “I mean, someone might be in some trouble.”

“Investigate?” said Manu. “Are you mad, Mum?”

“Sezia said we won’t find demons when it’s still day. What if there is a person there who needs help?”

“I don’t know, Mum,” said Manu. “People don’t come to Tropagia with simple reasons.”

“A tad of looking around won’t harm, will it?” Aunt said. “The gods might help us to get back to Tempstow faster if we help whoever’s in need.”

“It won’t, actually,” said Viven, more to Manu than Aunt Gina. He knew it could be dangerous, knew it was the Tropagian forest after all, and perhaps Aunt Gina was being too thankful for being freed from the claustrophobic cell in Nascat. But he also was curious to find out who was crying. “I think we can take a look, Manu.”

“Okay,” said Manu, a little persuaded. “You never listen to me. Mark my words, this can go wrong.”

Listening hard, they moved into the woods, careful not to venture too far from the stream, peering through the trees in search for the weeping person.

Not long before, they found her: a young girl, younger than Manu by a year or two. Slumped at the foot of a tree, her clothes were torn, and nasty gashes covered her body.

“Whoa!” said Manu. “Who’re you?”

The girl looked up and gasped as she saw them, not realising their presence until then. She jumped to her feet, picking up a rock the size of an adult’s fist.

“Don’t come near me!” she hissed, warningly lifting her hand that had the stone.

A little purple cat appeared from a bush nearby and brushed itself against the girl’s legs.

“Hey, calm down, calm down,” Viven said. “We don’t mean you any harm.”

“We heard you crying,” Manu said, taking a step closer to her. It wasn’t a good decision. The girl screamed and threw the rock at Manu, hitting him on the head. Viven leaped forward and, grabbing Manu’s clothes, pulled him behind himself.

“It hurts!” Manu cried.

“Who told you to go near her?” Aunt barked at him. “Hey, girl, why did you do that?”

“Go away!” the girl cried, picking up another stone in desperation.

“Hey, hey, listen,” Viven said to her. “We will not harm you!”

“Go away! GO AWAY!” And the girl threw the stone at Viven. It was going to hit his chest, but he shielded with his hand and it hit there. The pain shot up his arm.

“Urgh! All right, all right, we are going away,” he said, backing from her. “We are going away. Come on, you two,” he said to Aunt and Manu. “This wasn’t a good idea.”

They put some distance between her and them, just to assure her they meant no harm. The girl maintained her offensive pose, but after they had come significantly away from her, she sat down on the ground and sniffled.

“You sure you don’t want any help?” Viven shouted at her, shaking his hand that was still paining, two fingers having swelled. As for Manu, there was an angry red bruise on the side of his forehead where the rock had hit, and his eyes were teary. The girl didn’t reply and continued sobbing.

“I think we can go near her,” said Viven to Aunt Gina.

“You two stay here,” Aunt Gina said. “Let me try talking to her.”

Aunt Gina advanced close to the girl, not moving fast so that the latter may not be scared. She squatted beside the girl and placed a calm hand on her shoulder. The girl’s cat rubbed itself against Aunt Gina, who petted it. The girl looked up.

“You are not here to harm me, are you?” she said in a tiny voice, such that Viven, who was at a distance, could barely hear.

“Of course not, my child,” said Aunt Gina. “How did you end up in the forest?”

The girl was calm now and unlikely to throw more stones. Viven and Manu too went near her and Aunt Gina, not making any sudden movements.

Tears leaked from the girl’s eyes.

“My uncle brought me here . . . He killed my parents . . . He wants our wealth.”

“Your uncle?” Aunt Gina said with a gasp.

“Yes,” the girl replied. “His name is Birul Gonai. He made it look like I killed my parents!”

“What!”

“Yes. The village elders took his word, for he was powerful and they feared him. They told him to bring me to Tropagia and leave me to my fate.”

“That’s so cruel,” said Aunt Gina. “Your uncle will pay for his crime. You are so little, and he didn’t think twice about inflicting such a cruelty on you!”

“I tried to escape before he brought me here,” said the girl, “but he found me and beat me up.” The girl gritted her teeth in anger.

“H-how long have you been here alone?” Viven asked the girl with some hesitation.

She shot him a daring look, and for a moment, Viven expected another stone. Then her features softened, and she said, “He and his men left me in this place this morning.” The girl’s dark brown hair was a mess. She seemed malnourished, and all the bruises told of recent harsh treatment. But something about her said she had had a well cared for life previous to that.

“How far is your village from here?” Aunt Gina asked her.

“A long way. We took several days to get here.”

“Can you remember which way you came?” Viven asked.

“No, they blindfolded me.”

Aunt Gina enquired of her name.

“Dirita,” she said. “Dirita Gonai.”

“Would you like to come with us, child?” said Aunt.

The girl looked at the three of them, Aunt Gina, Viven, and Manu. She seemed like she was finalising whether to fully trust them or not. Her gaze lingered for just a second more on Manu and the red spot on his forehead.

“Yes, I will,” Dirita said. “Sorry,” she added to Manu, though there wasn’t any guilt in her eyes. Manu blushed.

“Yeah, all right.”

“All right, then,” said Aunt, standing up. “Let’s get back on track now; we need to get to the hill before night.”

They returned to the stream, and after feeding Dirita a few of the apple-shaped grey fruits, they continued on the trek.

They had advanced only a short distance when Manu alerted them he had spotted something, maybe an animal, moving amidst the bushes and shrubs.

“It could be anything,” said Viven. “Come fast! Sezia only said demons won’t be around during daytime. She didn’t tell anything about wild animals.”

A great beast jumped in front of them from the woods. The most fearsome of beasts this was, gigantic in size and odd being one of the scant words for its description. Its head resembled a wolf’s all right, just way bigger, but it had a hump on its back like an ox’s, and three scaled, clawed feet as the ones birds have, oversized birds, that is to say.

All of them made an instinctive dash in the opposite direction, terrorised to their cores.

“Run, run!” Viven shouted, racing faster than ever.

“Look!”Aunt Gina shrieked. With a bound, the fiend had taken to the air and crossed them overhead. Without a second’s ado, it was before them.

Everyone yelled as they almost collided with the animal from the inertia of their run.

The hulking monster roared so loud it seemed to shake the earth.

They rushed, but at that moment, there was a series of “pops,” like bubbles bursting. Through sheer magic, a wizard wearing a dirty green gown appeared by the beast. His face adorned with tattoos, he leisurely kept his arm on the beast’s hump. Viven had seen wizards and magicians in circuses before, but never this close.

“Stop, everybody, stop. Please do!” the wizard said in a dramatic tone.

“Who are you?” Viven asked, stopping and raising his hands to signal the others. This wizard had something to do with the wolf-headed animal. Otherwise, it would have been feasting on him as of now.

“Everybody ’round here calls me Luidhor. Cause ye know what? I am Luidhor!” He smiled wide, his lips stretching the breadth of his face.

Viven narrowed his brows at the wolf-animal.

“And that beast?”

“Oh,” said Luidhor, patting the beast ever so akin to an old pal. “He’s the king of my Bherias and my best friend; name’s Gyepik.”

Viven wondered if the word “friend” was applicable in this case.

“It nearly ate us!” Manu said.

“Nay,” said Luidhor. “He was playin’, that’s all.”

“Playing?” said Aunt Gina, breathing heavily and raising a brow in a displeased expression.

“Yeah, ’course. I understand ye people got a little frightened, but the thing is—What are ye doin’ in my territory? Will ye explain, please?”

“Your territory?” Viven asked.

“Yeah, ’course,” said Luidhor. “It’s my territory. Definitely not yours, I assume? Or hey.” He acquired a warning note. “Are ye Canniola’s Assurs, disguised as ordinary folks? In that case, I won’t step back from assaultin’ ye, though I’m sceptic an Assur’s tongue can ever form a word, and besides, they seldom are seen at this time of the day. This lands me in a dilemma regarding your identity, since ye speak so well.”

“Hey, listen,” said Viven, not understanding a word Luidhor was blabbing. “We don’t know what you’re speaking about. So—”

“So what? Just tell me your identity first.”

“Look,” Viven told Luidhor, “we were just passing this place when we heard this girl here crying”—he gestured toward Dirita—“and stopped to have a look. We decided to take her with us, and were continuing on our way, when that monster of yours jumped in front of us and attacked us. And then you appeared, so that’s it. There’s nothing else to tell.”

Luidhor inflated his mouth with air and thought for a moment.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Viven Bezon.” He frowned at the wizard. He hoped Luidhor would let them go by now.

“Viven Bezon,” Luidhor echoed, sounding reminiscent for some reason. “That recalls old times.”

“Can we go now?” said Aunt Gina, folding her arms.

“Wait,” said Luidhor. “Bezon . . . Um, do ye know of Algrad Bezon, er, the scientist?”

A strange itch came over Viven’s skin. What was Luidhor getting to? he wondered. It was beyond doubt he was referring to his grandfather. “The one who led an expedition to this forest?”

“Exactly,” said Luidhor, an eager expression coming over his tattooed face.

Viven glanced at the others; Aunt Gina and Manu were gaping; Dirita, however, was confused. A tense handful of seconds elapsed before he spoke. “He was my grandfather.”

Luidhor’s jaw dropped, and his eyes came to the verge of popping out.

“Don’t ye move,” he said in a swift breath, and became one with the air with a “pop.”

The wolf-animal remained, though, staring at them, eyes fixed and unblinking.

“Why do all these magic people know granduncle?” Manu wondered out loud.

“That, Manu,” said Aunt Gina, “only your granduncle himself would know. Anyhow, let’s not stay here. That monster is looking too hungrily at us. And we need to get to the hill, remember?”

“Let’s move,” said Viven. “But be slow. We don’t want to provoke it, do we?”

Slowly they moved backward, one step at a time. But the wolf-animal was not to be deceived; before long, it realized the plan they were up to.

It snarled at them and circled them, ready to pounce the moment that pleased it.

Frightened, they considered it wiser to stay still until the tattooed man returned.

And he took a long time, made so by the beast’s ever rigid glare, even if it were a trifle of minutes in reality.

And Luidhor did not reappear alone. He brought a dozen men with himself, whose height did not surpass half of a normal human’s. Height wasn’t, however, their only peculiarity; the bunch of them had a tail each, giving them an appearance of humanised monkeys.

“Which of them is he?” one of the short men said, who carried a sword that was the size of a regular knife in a sheath.

Luidhor pointed at Viven. “Him.”

“And who are the others?”

“Who are they?” Luidhor asked Viven impatiently, pointing at Manu, Aunt Gina, and Dirita.

“They are my aunt Gina, my cousin, and the girl we found,” Viven replied.

“Your aunt? You mean, your grandfather’s daughter?”

“His niece.”

“There you go, then!” Luidhor clapped his hands gleefully. “We’ve got Algrad’s niece and her son too!”

The short man stepped forward, apparently the leader.

“You.” He addressed Viven, an air of curious disbelief hanging about him. “Is Algrad Bezon your grandfather?”

The matter was getting a tad thick, the strangest of strangers questioning them about their identity. But they were greatly outnumbered, and there was the wolf-animal too. For a brief second, Viven ventured if he should lie of not bearing any relation with his grandfather and thus end the matter. But that was not possible now, not after all he had already told Luidhor. Still, he could try it . . .

“No,” he said, making himself sound as confident as possible. “He’s not my grandfather.”

“What!”Luidhor spat. “But ye told me—”

“I lied to you,” Viven cut across him. “We-we just wanted you to let us go.”

“Then why didn’t ye say ye’ve got nothin’ to do with Algrad?”

“Because . . .” Viven began, felling utterly helpless. Fortunately, Aunt Gina came to the rescue.

“You were making us lose our heads!” said Aunt Gina in a convincing tone, understanding Viven’s intention. “We already said we are simple people, but you wouldn’t believe us!”

“Simple people don’t come to Tropagia,” said the short man, suspicion gleaming from his eyes.

“Yeah, Tonkeytus,” said Luidhor. “And the boy’s surname’s Bezon!”

“Bezon, eh?” said Tonkeytus; he gave Viven a penetrating look. He shook his head a handful of seconds later. “Let them go. You’re just being a nuisance to them, Luidhor—”

“Wh-what!” Luidhor seemed as if the latter had slapped him. “Let ’em go? Why in the world’s sake?”

“You and your Bheria monsters,” Tonkeytus snapped. “You are always being problematic to everyone.”

“B-but!”

“Oh, Luidhor, don’t be childish!”

This poked Luidhor’s ego.

“Who cares!” he said in a fury, and vanished before the next second dawned. So did his wolf animal.

“Pardon us, please,” Tonkeytus said to Viven’s group, and he and his men held each other’s hands. They too disappeared in the blink of an eyelid after Tonkeytus muttered a magical word.

Aunt Gina heaved a sigh of relief.

“I guess we can finally be on our way.”

***

Lying on the grass, he expected death to arrive and take him to the other world any moment. Then he dreamed of seeing a boy . . . no, it was a man, but his size was little. The man had the strangest possession: a tail. It dawned upon him death had arrived.

House of the Macacawks

Man, this map’s tricky,” said Naden, one of Birul Gonai’s four men, staring aghast at the map he held. It had been directing them to go north until a minute ago and had suddenly changed for the southwest instead.

“Gonai, this is all shit!”

“Give it to me, dumb head,” said Birul, and snatched the map from Naden. He looked at it.

It was no longer asking them to travel southwest, but east. “Holy!”Birul gasped the next moment as all the contents disappeared altogether, leaving the map a total blank.

Furious, he tore it into half a dozen pieces, which he threw.

“Hey,” said Gensk, another of his men. “Why did you do that?”

“It’s useless. She fooled me!”Birul looked away.

“She?” said Naden, confused. “A woman? Whom are you talking about? Hey, hey, you know then who kept the gold below the tree?”

“Shut up,” Birul snapped. “And get the chest open, will you? I want to see the gold.”

Naden grimaced but dragged the chest to their midst. Producing a key, he unsuccessfully tried at the lock a couple of times. In the third attempt, it gave way. Birul’s heart beat quadrupled, fear stirring in his pit. He shouldn’t have accepted the witch’s deal at all; the map was already nuts. Still, all the hard work with Dirita and his family done, he didn’t want his pains to get wasted.

Naden opened the chest to reveal the glittering wealth and to etch relief onto Birul’s features.

It was rather remarkable to note how quickly expressions changed. Indeed, few things were faster. And, when tragic grief switched places with immense relief, well, expressions forwent their quality of speed—just as with Birul and his men. Even as the quantity of gold became ash, Birul, for a long while, remained gazing at it. His face bore relief still, though at a very slow rate, it was changing.

Birul fell onto his knees.

“Mai Canniola,” he muttered. “You cheated me.”

Stark horror was the only expression he now had.

***

“So people do live in Tropagia, don’t they?” Manu said as they trekked along the stream.

“They weren’t people, exactly,” said Dirita. Manu shot her a look, surprised that she was speaking. He quickly looked away.

“Well, erm, they can speak.”

“People or not,” said Viven, “Tropagia is inhabited.” He recalled his schoolbooks and thought how pointless it had been studying them. But if his grandfather had known about Luidhor and the tailed men, why didn’t he tell anyone about it?

“And we better get out of here as soon as possible,” said Aunt Gina.

Yes, that would be a good idea, thought Viven. He realised now that even glimpsing Meela occasionally had been a great privilege back in Tempstow compared to now.

“Yeah—” he began, but was cut short when he walked against Tonkeytus, the leader of the tribe of short men, when he suddenly appeared right in front of him.

“You!” he exclaimed. Behind, Dirita’s pet cat made a fearful sound. Less than a quarter of an hour had passed since they left the spot where they had been interrogated by Luidhor, the wizard. And here was Tonkeytus once more, who had asked them apology for the trouble from Luidhor.

“You were lying, then, weren’t you?” Tonkeytus asked him in curious words. Caught off guard, Viven spluttered an awkward, “How do you know?” betraying all the efforts he had made at concealment earlier at once.

“It’s child’s play for me to differentiate between a truth and a lie.” Although a small form, Tonkeytus cast quite a towering aura about himself.

Viven attempted at regaining himself, wishing he hadn’t been stupid.

“But why do you care who we are?”

“I don’t care who you are, only your relation with Algrad Bezon. You, boy, resemble him a lot, particularly your ears—which I doubt at being a mere coincidence.”

Viven knew his grandfather had an ear bigger than the other, just as himself. His father, who too had had the same peculiarity with his ears, had told him of the fact. It was a generic physical feature, he had said, that passed from father to son. Viven always betted, no matter how many greats you put before, his entire line of grandfathers had had the same ears.

Viven answered in an obvious manner.

“All right, I’m Algrad Bezon’s grandson, and here”—he gestured at Aunt Gina and Manu—“are his niece and her son; so now, what do you gain from it? And what would you lose if I’m not?”

“It’s nothing about gaining or losing,” Tonkeytus replied. “Are you sure you are Algrad’s grandson?”

Viven kept quiet. He kept looking at Tonkeytus. Either for good or for worse, he didn’t know. Manu picked up the talk so that Tonkeytus was made to turn at him instead.

“Yes,” Manu blared. “Algrad Bezon was his grandpa. You heard that?”

“You are not lying, are you?”

Manu grunted.

“All the time you ask us to tell the truth, and when we do so, you call it a lie?”

“All right,” Tonkeytus said, eyeing Manu and nodding. He produced a small black glass bottle from a pocket in his trousers.

“What’s that?” Viven said.

“Nothing . . .” Tonkeytus murmured, and took in a deep breath. He uncapped the bottle, releasing a sweet aroma.

“Hey, hey—DON’T!” An alarmed Aunt Gina tried to reach for the bottle in Tonkeytus’ hand—she never got it. She fell onto the ground, and before he realised it, Viven had fallen too. Strong dizziness was over him in wee seconds. Then all he knew about was slipping into the arms of a deep sleep . . .

***

It had been a long time since the Assurs and the Dwarfy Dwarfs had seen Canniola get into such a rage as this one. And they feared it most because every now and then, she kept unleashing her fury upon them, randomly shooting curses at anyone.

However, in reality, Mai Canniola’s external madness only reflected part of the internal tantrum inside her. She was doing her best to control herself; by murdering her own followers, she was merely causing harm to herself, and she knew that more too well than not.

But what had happened was not something that could be flung aside without worry. The Macacawks had got them, and neither the Purple One nor Milli, or herself, had been able to stop it, solely because of the risk of getting revealed. She wanted to direct all her powers into solving the problem, but a failed attempt would leave none but the last option: force. It would lead to the disclosure of the entire plot, not only to the Descendant but also to the Potion Makers and Macacawks and whatnot.

Canniola trusted the Purple One and Milli with everything for devising a way out, the former especially. He had been the greatest help ever bestowed on her. However, the main trouble was time; it was the last month of the Three Thousandth year. If they could not shake off the Macacawks well before the days ran out, she would be doomed to be monitored by Navarion for all eternity . . .

The day when Arakosh, the Purple One, came to her was fresh in her three minds’ eye. Initially she had taken him for a threat and had tried to destroy him, but then he had displayed his powers.

“I am extending you a hand in friendship,” the Purple One had said, sitting atop a dead Assur, countless more surrounding him. “And you are trying to cut it? Don’t you have any wisdom?”

Those words had been enough to make her see her fault.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Just to make myself and you more powerful.”

“How?”

And he had told her of the sword Navarion residing in the temple of Brene. It monitored the rise of evil powers and prevented them from rising beyond a certain limit. Near the end of every one thousand years, a misbalance occurred which made the sword vulnerable to destruction by other powerful objects. The end of the third millennium was just around the corner, according to Arakosh, and Canniola saw what he wanted of her.

“So you think I am evil?” she asked him testily.

“You consider yourself of other origins?” Arakosh said, the mockery in his tone gleaming. Yes, her origins were different. But choices mattered, and she had chosen the dark path. She had hated “herselves” for it, but with time, it had proven to be the right choice and the one she had come to love the most.

“Now, Canniola,” Arakosh continued, without bothering for an answer from her. “I have learnt that you possess the axe Acario.”

“How do you know that?” Canniola shot at Arakosh. She hadn’t even let the Potion Makers know that she had taken their dear axe from them. How, then, did this cat know that she had Acario?

“That’s unimportant,” said Arakosh. “Besides, you have already seen that I have some powers.” He swept his tail over the dead Assur’s chest. “What’s important is that Acario is powerful. It might be capable of destroying Navarion at least in the days just before the third millennium gets completed.”

“So you just want me to hand you the axe?” Canniola said.

“I wish it could have been as easy as that,” Arakosh said, “if only not for Algrad Bezon.”

“Algrad Bezon?” Canniola said, confused. “I killed him years ago. How do you know about him?”

“I know a lot, you see,” Arakosh said.

“But what has he got to do with destroying Navarion?”

“A lot. You see, only his eldest grandson can destroy the sword.”

And from that moment onward, they began to create the plot. It was simple enough, and Arakosh had sorted out most of it beforehand. But it still had gaping holes, and only a small turn of events were required to set it askew. And the foremost thing—they needed to hurry.

“There are objects, Canniola,” the Purple One had said at the end of countless hours of tinkering with ideas and plotting, “powerful objects that can destroy Navarion. But such objects are out of our reach. Our only bet is Acario, and once the millennium completes, we shall have no bet at all.”

And then, just as everything was going on as planned, the Macacawks had to intervene.

Presently the head Dwarfy Dwarf, who stood beside her throne, gulped audibly. She twitched her jaw muscles. The head flinched, shocked at his subconscious doing, and then remained resolutely still.

Mai Canniola clenched her fists into balls, fighting to be cool. No, he is too important . . . I mustn’t . . . I cannot . . .

The next minute saw the head Dwarfy Dwarf lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood. The witch had strangled him to limpness and shredded out his guts with her two-inch-long nails.

“NOOO!” Canniola’s shriek reverberated everywhere, shaking every single being in the castle. “NO! DO SOMETHING, ARAKOSH! DO SOMETHING!”

***

Viven moaned as he opened his eyes, feeling a soft bed underneath him. When the blur gave way, he saw a ceiling overhead, decorated with a large painting of a plant sapling.

He thought of rubbing away the remaining sleep, but he never actually did so. He thought again of the same thing, and once more, his hands did not move up to his eyes, remaining as they were. Viven frowned, wondering. Before soon, the frown faded and his brows climbed high on his forehead, his eyes widening. He realised he was unable of moving his arms, how hard he tried. In fact, he could not move any part of his body at all, his head being the one exception. His torso, his legs, arms, hands, and fingers were not responding to his mind’s will. He could feel their presence, that they were parts of his body, but his connection with them extended none further. From his shoulders onward to the tips of his toes, he could not move a single muscle.

The door of the room opened, and Tonkeytus came in, pushing a food trolley.

“So you are awake?” he said, and smiled a V-shaped smile. All Viven wanted to do at that moment was to sew Tonkeytus’ lips so he could never smile again.

“What have you done to me?” Viven yelled at him. “And where are the others?”

“Oh,” said Tonkeytus, still smiling. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing. Your body will be all right in a couple of hours; it’s so at the time being because of the Paralyin gas you breathed. Your friends are in a different room and unconscious. I wanted to show you to somebody.”

“You kidnapped us,” Viven hissed, feeling helpless. “You-you bastard!” He rarely cursed people, and Viven thought his voice sounded weak and wavering.

“Well,” he said, taking it without offence, “I am not one, and this is no kidnapping; you’ll be freed once you talk with Grandcawk.”

“I’m talking with no one. Just release us!”

“Can’t do, not before the effects of the Paralyin gas wears off you. And, anyway, you’ll be only glad I brought you here—at least if you truly are Algrad Bezon’s grandson.”

“I am, so what?”

“Cool down, boy, cool down; you don’t look the killer kind, anyway. And, I repeat, you’ll be only glad I brought you here once you meet Grandcawk. Um, here is bread and tea; your upper body will be quite functional by half an hour, and you can have this then.”

It was at that moment that something struck Viven: Tonkeytus, standing next to the bed, might have as well been taller than him.

Though hatred was boiling hot inside Viven, he could not help but become puzzled at it. Hadn’t Tonkeytus been shorter than half a normal man the last time he had seen him?

“Um,” said Tonkeytus, “I’ve got work, so . . . well, I’ll come after sometime.”

Making to the door, he was about to open it when Viven, in between noisy breaths, said, “You got big. How?”

Much to his surprise, Tonkeytus chuckled.

“It’s strange, isn’t it, how one’s perspective may lend him such a reversed outlook on the reality? Wait for some time—there is more to it.”

He left the room, and Viven sank deeper into his sea of confusion. Reversed outlook on the reality? What did he mean by that? And what was more to it?

Nothing could have been more disheartening to Viven than lying on that soft bed, conscious of mind but exercising a dead man’s capability for movement.

Aunt Gina, Manu and Dirita, were they safe? He did not know if he should trust Tonkeytus. His character was too doubtful for that. He appeared friendly and had a kind face, but Viven could not understand why he had first helped them in getting away from Luidhor and then rounded upon them to make them unconscious and bring them to this place without consent.

Viven sighed, since that was all he could do at the moment. Two years ago, he had found a little poem written in a sheet of parchment while searching amongst his father’s belongings in their old house that he visited every three months for cleaning. The poem had been written in his father’s wide-spaced handwriting; it was the first time he knew that his father ever wrote poems, or maybe he had just copied it from some book. Who knew? Now Viven remembered that little poem. It was lyrical and had stuck in his head.

Nozeb Dargla once slipped and fell,

He saw stars and big did his head swell,

He stood up, and the world danced.

Insects and cats and humans all looked the same, and hence

Nozeb Dargla slipped and fell again.

A lady monkey said, “Get up, my man!

Viven couldn’t help but compare himself to Nozeb Dargla. He had basically slipped and fallen himself, and that blow from the soldier had pained for a long time in Nascat. The lady monkey was Tonkeytus, what with his tail and short height. Insects and cats . . . well, there was Manu’s mythical cat that had made Bablu fall and hurt himself. As for insects, Viven was sure the Tropagian forest was teeming with insects of all sizes.

Viven’s thoughts drifted to Meela. She smiled inside his head. He always pictured her smiling. That he would see her again in real life seemed impossible; maybe Viven, Manu, and Aunt could get out of Tropagia. In the unlikely event they got back to Tempstow, Viven would see her taking a stroll with her grandchildren, her face wrinkled but maintaining the beauty still.

He grimaced. All this was his grandfather’s fault. Why had he led that stupid ill-fated expedition to the forest? All Algrad had achieved was infamy throughout Belaria for the death of so many men. Viven was sure even his father had had no knowledge regarding his grandfather’s veiled relations with the mysteries of Tropagia. He didn’t think it was all sincere on the latter’s part in keeping mum toward his family, if not others.

The realisation of controlled movement of the upper body came after what qualified for an aeon. His legs had still to revive, but just the fact he could move his arms about brought his spirit back. And yes—

It was time he did something.

Viven rolled himself to the side of his bed, and then, using his arms for safety, dropped to the floor, hurting his hips. It was at that moment Viven glimpsed something connected to his lower back, similar to a rope.

He held his breath as a second glance told him more than he would have preferred digesting. It wasn’t a rope; it shared the light brown colour of his skin and extended from his own body. Viven’s heart skipped a beat.

It was a tail. His own tail. Someone had made a small hole in his shorts to let it out.

His hand quivering, he touched and held it. He could feel it. Although, like his legs, it didn’t respond to his will, it was possible for him to sense its being. It was a part of him as the rest of his body was.

And all this time he had never realised its existence until now. How? Viven felt stupid, and then thought it was not his fault. He had never had a tail and wasn’t accustomed to bearing one. It was obvious he had mistaken it with his legs and backside. Question was—

How did he have a tail?

Tonkeytus.

While he could not speculate a reason, he was definite that Tonkeytus, who knew magic, had used his black powers to give him a tail. And was this what he had meant by his words?

Viven gritted his teeth. As a child he had sometimes fantasised possessing a tail. But now it didn’t please him very much to have weird transformations done to his body.

Suddenly the muffled sounds of drums made Viven jerk his head and forget all about the tail. They continued to be beaten for not less than half a minute, and when they ceased, what followed was the raising of an enthusiastic song, sung in unison by what had to be a whole crowd of people:

Grandcawk, Grandcawk,

You’re good and great;

Never have we met someone,

More clean of soul and straight!

You slew the terror,

Balloor.

All our maladies and heartaches,

You’ve always been there to cure.

Today, you’ve reached your two hundredth year,

And, praise you, we’ve no sorrows to bear.

A happy, happy birthday to you, Grandcawk!

Even we nutty people, your blessings turned brainy,

Have washed and cleaned our stinky socks!

Without you, we are nothing, we pride no existence;

You are to us all the smoothest, the wisest,

And the strongest fence.”

The song came to its ending in high tones, after which there was much cheering and merry shouts for some time. They quietened in a few minutes, and Viven wondered what kind of place it was outside the room.

He hadn’t been sure where Tonkeytus had brought them, and the song had increased his curiosity. Tonkeytus did not live alone. He had his men and Luidhor, together with the wolf-monster—Viven needn’t be told of that—but the song had had female voices too and voices that ought to belong to children.

Mustering great effort, Viven dragged himself to the door. It was closed from outside. Viven rapped hard at it two dozen times, yelling Tonkeytus’ name. Everything went in vain; that somebody was nearby outside was not possible.

His arms and throat exhausted, Viven gave up his pointless efforts and retreated to hoping. If Aunt Gina, Manu, and Dirita did not turn up all right, Viven swore, he’d smother Tonkeytus if he could. Thing was, he couldn’t, not now in his present condition, anyway.

Viven waited. It was a wait for the effects of the Paralyin, or whatever, gas to wear off in his legs; however, before the wait ripened, he heard the clatter of approaching footsteps.

Viven fisted his mad out at the door.

“GET ME OUT OF HERE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

A woman called out in a rushed tone.

“Viven, it’s okay. It’s me, your aunt; I’ve come to get you out.”

“Get the door open fast. I want to see him!” she told someone, and an, “Of course,” of ready agreement issued that Viven believed to be Tonkeytus.

A click of unbolting and the door opened to reveal the two of them. Lines of worry were cleaved onto Aunt Gina’s face, and she was respiring fast, her arms thrown wide as if searching; Tonkeytus was about to gesture at the bed, and then opted for the floor once he saw Viven.

They were of the same height. Aunt Gina had a tail.

“Aunt Gina!” said Viven, his astonished eyes prowling over her tail and interrogating of her unnatural short stature.

“It’s him,” said Aunt Gina, flushing red, shooting a glare at Tonkeytus. “He did it to all of us,” she added, and Viven was explained to why Tonkeytus had looked taller earlier— he himself had shrunk in height.

“It’s nothing to worry about. Your bodies will become as before once you go out of the House.” Tonkeytus sounded very obvious.

Viven stared him dead in the eye.

“Why did you bring us here, and what’s this place exactly?”

Tonkeytus opened his mouth, but it was Aunt Gina who answered, her tone pressed.

“He wants us to meet someone called Grandcawk, head of their tribe or something. He says this is their ‘House’ and that we are a great depth below ground.”

Viven exhaled, casting a pair of stern eyes at Tonkeytus.

“You ridiculed that other man, Luidhor, for thinking us of having relation with Algrad Bezon. Why did you change your mind, then, eh, and bring us here without consent?”

“I know,” said Tonkeytus. “I brought you here against your will, and I’m sorry for that. But we have something of your grandfather’s that we want to return. And, as I told you then, you look like a miniature of your grandfather; you reminded me of him. I planned of bringing you here the moment my sight fell on you. But I could not do so in front of Luidhor and the other Macacawks and hence had to fend him off and catch up with you later.”

“But why?” Viven asked. “They are your men.”

Tonkeytus furrowed his brows, as if Viven’s question was a dumb one.

“You sure know little about your own grandfather, boy.” He turned his head sideways. “And you, lady, you must know something about Algrad’s life, right? He was your uncle!”

Aunt Gina, not getting his words, had eyes dull as a vacant room. Tonkeytus pursed his lips disbelievingly, and then, after checking the annals of his memory, was able to wear an expression of understanding on his face.

“So,” he said to himself rather than Aunt Gina or Viven, “good old Algrad kept his promise. He told nobody, not even his own family about us—and still they call him traitor!”He nodded sadly to himself.

“What are you talking about?” said Viven, observing Tonkeytus.

Tonkeytus, lost in thoughts, snapped out and said, “No, no, it’s not your fault you know nothing about your grandfather’s life. We made him vow not to tell anyone about us Tropagia dwellers . . . Well, um, Algrad was a great man and was a great friend of both the Macacawks and the Potion Makers . . . well, that was until he was framed.”

“Framed?” said Aunt Gina.

“Yes,” said Tonkeytus. “Algrad was framed of murdering the then king of the Potion Makers, Brucus the first, and”—Tonkeytus paused in hesitation—“and declared a traitor.”

Viven took a breath and raised a brow. At that bubble of a moment, he told himself that Tonkeytus was either a crazy old brat who wasn’t quite in his mind right now, or many years ago someone wicked had claimed his grandfather’s identity to be his own and fooled Tonkeytus and his people.

Sarcastic as Viven was, he took it best to let Tonkeytus continue his gibberish.

“And that’s why, son, I transformed your bodies into the likes of a Macacawk with doses of a special potion. Otherwise if someone comes to know who you are, the Potion Makers would be communicated and reported. They won’t spare any mercy on you to avenge their old king.”

“All right,” said Viven, nodding approval. His anger for Tonkeytus was slowly vanishing, only to be replaced by exasperation.

“I want to see Manu and Dirita.”

“But they are unconscious,” said Tonkeytus, slightly turned down at the uninterested response. “They can’t come here.”

Viven got up to his feet. It had abruptly come to him he could control his legs again when he had moved his toes.

“Viven!” said Aunt Gina.

“I can go to them, anyway.”

Outside the room, Tonkeytus led Aunt Gina and Viven through several passages and corridors that winded often. One thing that settled in Viven’s mind was that the place was very large; what intrigued him, however, was the absence of a single soul to be seen. Where are those who sang before?

“I heard a crowd of people singing together about half an hour ago,” said Viven. “Then why is this place so empty?”

“You heard Grandcawk’s birthday song, then, didn’t you, boy?” said Tonkeytus.

“Grandcawk’s birthday song?”

“Yes, it’s his birthday today. He’s two hundred years old now. Everyone is in the hall room and feasting. That’s why nobody’s around these parts of the house.” Aunt Gina shrugged when Viven exchanged looks with her.

“I wanted to join the feast too,” continued Tonkeytus, “but your aunt revived fast, and when I went to check, she created a tantrum to see how you were.”

“Why did you keep me separate from the others in the first place?” said Viven.

“There weren’t enough beds, and I didn’t have the keys to the nearby rooms,” Tonkeytus replied. “And besides, I thought it was more secure to keep you in a more desolate sector of the House.”

When they reached the room in which Manu and Dirita were, they found that they had become conscious, though, below their necks, their bodies remained out of function. Dirita’s cat was sitting near her legs, eyes large and twinkling. Both Manu’s and Dirita’s confusion-fixed beings were relieved upon seeing Viven and Aunt Gina. But within seconds, worry and shock overcame their faces as they realised the transformations Viven and Aunt Gina had undergone, added by that Tonkeytus was with them.

It took a long time to explain to them the things they couldn’t make any heads or tails of. They could not fathom why, although they could still feel their bodies, they couldn’t move them; and when told that they too had tails, paleness seized their skins.

“It differs according to the age,” was the reply Tonkeytus gave when Viven questioned him of why Manu and Dirita were taking so long to recover from the Paralyin gas’s effects. “They’ll be as good as ever in an hour; it’s nothing to bother about.”

When Manu and Dirita recovered till their waists, Tonkeytus brought them some food that Viven ate this time, along with the others. They were suspicious that Tonkeytus might try to drug them a second time. But noon and the wild fruits might as well as have been an age ago, and the only option was to subject to hunger.

Once they finished, Tonkeytus took away the plates and, returning, informed that the grand feast was over and that Grandcawk had retired to his chamber. “Let them get well with their legs, and I’ll take you to Grandcawk, the head of us Macacawks. And you will be ever grateful I brought you here; doesn’t matter even if I played crook.”

“When will you let us go back to the forest?” Aunt Gina asked, urgency in her voice.

“Tomorrow morning—because it’s night now. I trust you know the forest is a thousand times more dangerous at night than during the day,” he added when Aunt Gina glinted fiery eyes. “And it is not desired that Algrad’s descendants should die due to our fault. It’s strange why you have come to Tropagia to begin with, though I won’t trouble you asking whatever reason that is for.”

***

Grandcawk

Viven had never seen any room as big as the great hall of the Macacawks in his entire life. An uncountable number of dinner tables and chairs were sprawled all about it. It was so clean and organised that one found it hard to believe it had, a mere short time ago, entertained a grand feast. Huge pillars supported the room’s large ceiling, from which hung numerous sparkling chandeliers. The ceiling itself, as Tonkeytus said, supported an unimaginable quantity of soil and earth, owing to the fact that the House was underground.

“We Macacawks are great builders,” Tonkeytus boasted at the marvelling of the others.

The group swept the length of the hall and reached upon a gargantuan—at least for their new sizes—oak door. Two stiff, bulky Macacawk men stood by it as guards.

“It’s me, Tonkeytus. We have an appointment with Grandcawk,” Tonkeytus said to them.

There was not the slightest change in the guards’ stony expressions.

One of them said, “Drowssap?

“Kwacdnarg,” Tonkeytus answered, confident. The guards stepped aside, and he, with some effort, pushed the door open. They entered.

Grandcawk’s chamber was even more astounding to Viven than the Great Hall. The marble paved floor was gleaming. The shiny polished walls were inlaid with rich tapestries, and many a minutely detailed painting and coat-of-arms hung on it. On a large grand bed in the centre lay the ancient one himself, dressed in plain but expensive white robes, gold bracelets and chains adorning his bony arms and neck.

“Good old Grandcawk!”Tonkeytus addressed, making a bow. “Your son has brought you not only Algrad Bezon’s grandson, but his niece and her son as well.”

“Is it really them?” said Grandcawk, feeble but lively.

“Yes, it is, as was my promise to you.”

“Let them come closer. My eyesight is all blurry ever since I caught Blorosis that even the concoctions of the Potion Makers failed to cure. And oh, get the door closed.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Tonkeytus told them as he carried out his order with the door. “Go near to him so he can see you.”

They took some uncertain steps forward. Viven was encompassed by mysticism, trying to remind himself of something over and over again he had no clue of.

Grandcawk extended a quivering hand at Viven, great fulfilment written on his face.

“You,” he said. “You are the one, aren’t you? Algrad’s grandson?”

“Yes.” Viven nodded awkwardly.

“You don’t know, son, how many dreams I have had of meeting you, and here you are, standing in front of me.”

He smiled toothily. Viven tried to smile back.

“And you, I assume, are Algrad’s niece?” Grandcawk said to Aunt Gina. “And the boy to your right is your son?”

“Yes,” Aunt Gina said in a small voice.

Grandcawk beamed at her and Manu. “What about that girl?”

“Her name is Dirita,” Aunt Gina replied. “We took her with us; her uncle abandoned her in the forest because he wanted her father’s property.”

Grandcawk winced.“People do bizarre acts to acquire wealth and property, only to leave it all behind once they die.”

A moment of silence passed as Grandcawk stared at their group, one after the other, as though trying to memorize each of their faces.

“Is it true,” Viven willed himself to ask, “that my grandfather came to this place?”

“Yes, my son,” Grandcawk replied, nodding. “And although that was over thirty years back, he was the best non-Potion Maker human I have met.”

Viven remembered something.

“But Tonkeytus said he was framed of murdering someone and declared a traitor.” He was taken when Grandcawk’s face fell and he let out a sorrowful sigh.

“Alas, yes. But it was a false conviction that the restless and agitated Potion Makers threw at your grandfather because all the conditions at the time seemed to indicate toward that conclusion. And we Macacawks could only agree, the allies of the Potion Makers as we are.

“But I never have given up on my belief at your grandfather’s innocence. He was too good a soul to commit any sin, whatever they say.”

“How did my grandfather meet your people?”

Viven turned as Tonkeytus spoke up from behind.

“We saved him from those vile demons of Canniola. He was the sole survivor. All his men fell prey to the Assur demons.”

Viven recalled Sezia’s spirit saying the same thing about demons attacking his grandfather’s party.

“And you brought him here?”

“Yes,” said Tonkeytus earnestly. “It was the first time we had come across any non-Potion Maker human, and we were eager to know about them and their culture.”

Grandcawk mused, agreeing.

“He told us a lot about the southern side of the island. He even let us keep one of his handmade maps showing the route to your capital city via the river. We had known that your people existed before, yes, but it was only after he enlightened us with information about you that an image of your society formed in our minds.

“We were intrigued by you, but we feared of the unforeseeable outcomes that would arise once your people knew we existed. We made your grandfather vow of not uttering a word about us to your people until we allowed.”

“And so he kept quiet?” said Viven. “Because of his promise?”

“Yes,” said Grandcawk. “He was always a man true to his word . . .” He stared down at the floor as if in a reverie.

“And now,” he said, raising his eyes to Viven, “there is something . . .” He clicked his skeletal fingers, although the sound produced was unnaturally loud for them.

Viven felt himself get rigid all of a sudden. Something was queer here.

“You did something, didn’t you?” he asked Grandcawk. The latter did not respond. He didn’t even move, his hand remaining as he had clicked his fingers.

“Grandcawk?” Viven said. He tried to turn his head sideways at the others, but somehow found it impossible to shift a single muscle.

At that moment, a ring on Grandcawk’s finger glowed. A stream of light appeared from it and took the shape of a Macacawk body, complete with a tail. While Viven watched, the body of light solidified, assuming the appearance of a person and getting more and more realistic, the light flowing into it from the magical ring.

Soon a replica of Grandcawk, beaming, stood beside the actual one in front of Viven. There was the little difference that, contrary to a real person, the replica’s body was translucent, and to a certain extent, it was possible to see through it. Viven was only the slightest surprised when Grandcawk’s duplicate spoke.

“Son, it’s me, Grandcawk. Don’t be confused regarding everything that just happened. It’s all my doing, for maintaining secrecy is a must.”

“You did magic, didn’t you?” said Viven, and stopped dead as the realisation struck him hard—he had just spoken without opening his mouth at all.

“I-I,” he stammered, his mouth shut, and his tongue might as well have been in sleep.

“No, son,” said Grandcawk, hastening to reassure. “You cannot move any part of your body, but there is nothing wrong with you. I used some of my magical powers to freeze time itself.”

Viven was horrified.

“To freeze what?”

“Time. In this room, you are the only one who can communicate to me, even if it’s through your mind and not mouth. Tonkeytus and the other three are frozen along with time.”

“But it can’t be possible, can it?”

“It is, as of now.”

“How?” Viven asked, astonishment refusing to quit him. Crazy events had been raining down on him ever since the night they were taken to Nascat. Freezing time, though, was the king of them all. Also, Viven observed, not everything he thought got communicated to Grandcawk, only those that he would have otherwise spoken with his mouth.

“Well,” said Grandcawk, “it came as a surprise to me too, when I first realised that I could do all these magical wonders. We Macacawks are a non-magical people, and performing magic is not one of our abilities.”

“Then how can Tonkeytus and Luidhor do magic, too?” Viven said, remembering his shock when he had nearly dashed into Tonkeytus, who had appeared in front of him out of thin air.

“Luidhor is a wizard,” Grandcawk answered. “He is a good friend of ours, but not a Macacawk. As for Tonkeytus, he must have stolen some of Luidhor’s hocus focus powders to appear anywhere he liked by magic so he could get you in the forest.

“Hmmm, I had no business with magic myself. It was only after the Potion Makers presented me with this ring”—he indicated toward the ring in his other body’s hand that lay on the bed immobile as a stone statue, from which his translucent form had emerged—“that I found myself capable of magic.”

“Is it sort of a magic ring?” Viven asked. He had heard old people tell stories of magical rings of power, and they had always attracted him.

Grandcawk nodded briskly, a briskness that Viven did not think was possible for his other body.

“You can say that. It’s made of a special powder called Beaxtonix, which only the nimble-fingered Potion Makers can concoct. It has got both mysterious and wondrous properties. And this”—he gestured a skinny, wrinkled thumb at himself—“is one of the greatest.”

“Because it can make you double?”

“Very much. And this is only a fraction of my soul.” He patted his other body’s shoulder, or rather, the bone. “Here is where the greater portion of my soul is, but frozen along with the flow of time right now.”

“What?” said Viven, blown. Fraction of soul, greater portion! This was bizarre!

“Yes.” Grandcawk smiled at Viven’s astonishment. “So, I can use magic solely being a sub soul.” He was then silent for a moment—considering there was any as regarding the stopped time—lingering and staring brightly at Viven. Eventually, the brightness faded from his eyes and he looked rather sore, his wrinkles deepening.

“It’s time your family knows it . . .” He sighed, the words vibrating the way out of his toothy mouth.

“Knows what?” said Viven, wishing Grandcawk let time flow again.

Grandcawk drew back the corners of his mouth.

“That . . . There is a slight possibility of, uh . . .”

“Of?”

Grandcawk clicked his tongue determinedly,

“You see, son, your grandfather, Algrad Bezon, maybe is still alive.” He finished the sentence as quickly as he could and looked up at Viven, his grey brows coming together as if scared Viven would consider him stupid.

Viven did, in fact, consider him stupid.

“No,” said Viven, not caring to hide the offended tone. “My grandfather is dead. He was murdered thirty years ago.”

“Yes, but even Mai Canniola never realised she killed only the part of his soul that was in his body at the time.”

“Now who is Mai Canniola?”

“She is the foul witch who believes herself to be reigning over Tropagia and who leads the dark creatures. We owe her all the troubles we have ever had. Tropagia is a dangerous regime due to her.”

“A witch killed my grandfather?”

“A follower of her did, anyway, as far as it is known.”

So Sezia had been telling the truth, Viven pondered; she had been convicted her whole life for something she was guiltless of.

“Then,” said Viven, a strange warmth engulfing his insides. “How do you surmise that my grandfather is still alive?”

Grandcawk turned and took off a golden chain from the neck of his still form.

“This tells me so.”

“A necklace?” It was a peculiar necklace, especially the golden, glittering locket that was a man’s head.

“A Soul-Splitter,” Grandcawk corrected.

“A what?” Viven asked, unable to catch.

“A Soul-Splitter, like my ring. It is made of pure Beaxtonix, not gold as you might think; and here.” He opened the locket, splitting the head into two halves. There was a lock of black hair inside.

“See the hair?” he said. “It’s your grandfather’s; were he dead, it would have burnt up and turned to ash, but it hasn’t. It singularly points at one thing: that a portion of Algrad’s soul exists!”

Viewing the lock of hair, which had every possibility of belonging to his grandfather, was substitute to getting smacked flat on the face for Viven. It was somewhat eerie too; however, Viven found himself able to piece up everything together, except—

“You say that my grandfather’s soul was divided into two at the time of his death, and in that way, a portion of his soul could have escaped from getting killed. But can you explain why, in all these years, his sub soul never tried to contact us, his family?”

“No,” said Grandcawk. He shook his head in an obvious manner. “It’s not something I can explain, because I am enthralled by it too. What’s more, I am not in a position to investigate the matter either. It was not more than half a year ago that I discovered myself in possession of this Soul Splitter necklace of Algrad’s. My memory is getting dusty, and I don’t have any knowledge why it should be with me.”

“How, then, are you sure it’s my grandfather’s anyway?”

“Well,” Grandcawk replied, “it was the Potion Makers who made Algrad this necklace, and they announced it to everyone. Your grandfather had won their admiration fast with his talents and was the first non-Potion Maker and non-Macacawk to be given a Soul Splitter. Although they were disappointed and horror-stricken at the end— something I’ve never blamed Algrad for but the Potion Makers themselves.”

Grandcawk sighed, his face contorting into a rueful expression. He then came over to Viven, who was taken by surprise when he put the necklace around his neck and tugged at the collar to conceal it from view.

“Why did you do that?” Viven asked.

“It’s yours. You are Algrad’s grandson.”

“But—”

“I’m not sure if your grandfather is still there or not, but it is better if his belonging is with someone of his family than me.”

“So, this was the purpose for which you got Tonkeytus to bring us here,” said Viven. “To hand over grandfather’s necklace to me?”

Grandcawk blinked his eyes.“Yes, son, this was the purpose. But always remember never to let anyone know you have Algrad’s Soul Splitter. And when I say never, I mean never—and to nobody, whoever it be. This is just between you and me. Even Tonkeytus does not know I have the necklace, or that I meant to give it to you. He thinks it is some other something.”

“But isn’t Tonkeytus your faithful follower?” Viven asked, quizzical. “And why do you want me to keep quiet about this necklace?”

“Because I want your grandfather’s soul to be safe. The chance leakage of information to the wrong ears can be catastrophic to Algrad’s sub soul.”

“Assuming he exists,” said Viven.

Grandcawk nodded in approval. “Assuming he exists,” he echoed. He walked back to his non-see-through, more fragile body.

“I love to be in this sub soul form of mine, but only I myself know how attached I am to my real body. It feels whole being in it, although it’s much weaker.”

“Hey,” said Viven, “isn’t your greater portion of soul in that body?” Viven betted at doubting his mental health had this been a question he had asked to someone yesterday. “Can’t you be two at the same time?”

“Well,” said Grandcawk, spreading his arms as if Viven was being ridiculous. “I am two!”

“I mean your consciousness,” Viven hastened to add. “Can’t you be like two persons at the same time?”

“I can, actually,” Grandcawk replied, more understandably this time. “But it’s horrid you know, the overall experience. It is similar to controlling two bodies with the same brain. One can bear, rather relish, a divided soul, however, not a divided mind. It is exhausting, and people conceive you as awkward.”

Focusing his large beady eyes at the ceiling, he mused for a while.

“Hmmm, so let’s end our little talk here. I request you, do not tell about it to anybody.” He nodded at Viven, who was joyous that he would be released from the stationary position.

A moment later, Grandcawk’s sub soul vaporised into the omniscient light and streamed back to the ring in the real Grandcawk’s shrivelled hand.

The ancient Macacawk jerked his head when the process finished.

Viven heard a loud noise, like a mass falling to the floor, followed by Manu’s terrified scream. He whirled around—it was Aunt Gina! She was down in a heap, all limp and unconscious.

***

Attacked and Out

Aunt Gina!” he yelled, scrambling to her.

“What’s happened to her?” Tonkeytus asked, eyes bulging.

“Fan her!”Viven ordered a stricken Manu, while he tapped her on the cheeks.

It was a few lengthy, anxious seconds before Aunt Gina stirred, the colour returning to her.

“Aunt!” said Viven, giving her a light shake. Rather with much effort, she opened her eyelids. She looked at Viven, transfixed and, in a queer way for a moment, not seeming to recognise.

“What is this place?” she said.

“The House of the Macacawks,” Viven replied, careful to keep his voice low and tender.

“The House of—oh-oh—Viven!” She smiled wearily.

“What happened to you, Mum?” Manu said. “You kind of fainted!”

“You . . .” Aunt Gina lingered for a while, like trying to solve something difficult. “O-oh, Manu!” Manu narrowed his eyes at Viven, sceptical.

“’Course it’s me, mum! You’ve forgotten or what?”

“No, it’s nothing,” she shook her head, “it’s nothing.”

Tonkeytus fetched a stool, and Viven and Manu helped her onto it.

“You okay, Aunt?” Viven asked her, observing the tensed lines that had appeared on her forehead and around her eyes. She seemed like a sudden concern had occupied her as she recovered from her breakdown.

“I dunno. I felt like I didn’t have any energy at all and lost sense.”

“I think it is rest she needs,” Grandcawk suggested from his bed, his liveliness long gone, replaced by a dragging fragility.

“Maybe,” Aunt Gina said. Viven didn’t think so; in his two years of stay with her, he had never known her to require much rest or to be lazy at anything. Although recent circumstances had been a different business altogether, hadn’t they just had food sometime ago? And hadn’t they practically rested for hours on end after being taken by Tonkeytus?

Grandcawk, convinced that Aunt Gina required rest and apparently wanting sometime alone for himself, said, “Tonkeytus, do escort them back to their room. I fear Algrad’s niece is rather weak presently.”

Tonkeytus assumed an understanding face that was a tad confused at the same time.

“But, Grandcawk, didn’t you mean to hand over something of Algrad’s to Viven?”

“It’s already done,” Grandcawk replied in a low, unimportant voice.

“Already done?” Tonkeytus asked. The latter nodded, and Tonkeytus, seemingly considering it not his moral right to question Grandcawk further, gave up without insisting. Instead he told Viven and Manu to help Aunt Gina onto her feet and, after asking Grandcawk for leave, opened the oak door. They left the Macacawk head’s chamber for the night.

***

“One thing I’m sure of . . . grrrr . . . He is dead by now, no doubt.” The Bheria’s feeble voice faltered away, and he fell quiet, as were his ninety-nine brothers present in the large clearing. He was wounded, but his sheer astonishment at the miraculous escape he had made helped him stifle any moans from the stinging pain. Besides, his master Luidhor’s feelings were a way greater deal than his own distress.

“Are ye sure, Blario?” Luidhor’s words were near whispers. “That ye aren’t mistaken?”

Blario nodded his huge conical head with much effort. “Grrr . . . I can swear there was no sign of tattoos on Armando’s skin. Besides . . . grrr . . . I saw him days back.”

“Then he is dead,” Luidhor stated. “Ye are right; he can never survive such injuries.”

He cracked his neck bones and exhaled. Then he sat down upon a tree stump. Blario had been captured by the Assurs a long time ago. For some reason, they hadn’t eaten him, and he had managed an escape after so many days. In his imprisonment, Blario had seen Armando fleeing from Mai Canniola’s territory.

Gargling, Luidhor spat mucus onto the grass.

“Bastard,” he said. “He deserved it. Everyone knows it’s the way Canniola repays her followers—by killin’ them.” Memories of himself and his brother together flooded his mind. Agonizing memories, ones he would do better without. He wished there was some special magic that would help him permanently abort them from his brain.

Their parents had been Potion Makers, wealthy ones, who had always provided them with all they could ever ask for. Luidhor could never decide whether he and Armando had paid them back well by running away and removing the badge of Potion Maker from their names. They had been too intrigued by magic. They had learnt of the existence of dark magic and had sought to transform and reshape it into good magic, which they intended to utilise together with the potions. What’s more, they had even gone to the extent of stealing the ancient scrolls on magic authored by the unknown, pre-Potion Maker people. And further, upon realisation they couldn’t decipher the script used in the scrolls, tried to return them back to the Potion Makers’ library. They were caught while doing so.

And then Armando had cheated him and joined Mai Canniola. There had never been a time when Luidhor was more heartbroken, his sentiments pierced by Armando’s dagger of treachery.

“It’s good he’s dead,” Luidhor snarled in disgust. “He joined Canniola, licked her feet, killed Bezon by her orders before he was tried, and finally turned obsolete in Canniola’s eyes and—” He caught his breath, his temper at its peak. “The dog deserved dyin’. I hope it’s a slow death he received if he escaped those Assurs. He deserved all the agony and sufferin’ . . . The weed of betrayal bears bitter fruits. It doesn’t pay . . . A scoundrel he was. He cheated me; it’s little wonder he was fated to face the same.”

Spitting away his hatred for Armando that he knew would only ever reap him a hot head, he looked at Blario. The Bheria was sombre due to all the tortures those blasted Assurs had tormented him with in captivity, but uncomplaining in spite of all that.

Luidhor cursed himself for showering his plight upon Armando’s bleak memories instead of tending to his brother first.

“Gyepik,” he commanded the head of the Bherias, who was by his side, and who, wagging his tail, became attentive. “Go, dig up the yellow powder by the Z’romin tree. Your brother here needs it.”

Gyepik promptly got up and went out of the clearing, disappearing into the canopy of woods that were thicker and blacker than the clouded night itself.

Yes, the Bherias were his brothers. Though blood-brothers they might not be, they were his brothers in every other sense of the word.

He had met their pack of one hundred after Armando’s betrayal of him, by an absolute coincidence that Luidhor would always be grateful for. At a time when he was all in dismay and devoid of hope, the Bherias had lifted his dwindling spirits. They had helped him to believe he didn’t really require anyone else to achieve his cause. When loyal beasts would do, why should anyone go for some deceiving scum of a blood-brother?

From then on, the Bherias had been his everything. The forest folks, both good and bad, now recognised him for their name and them for his name. After so many years together, they fulfilled him now, made him whole . . .

Gyepik returned, his ghastly canines holding a delicate clay goblet. He came over, and Luidhor plucked it from his mouth.

The goblet was empty, but after Luidhor put his hand inside it and mumbled a complicated spell, it produced a fiery blue light that gave off wispy vapours. Luidhor’s hand came out full with a yellowish sparkling powder.

He sprinkled the magical powder over the Bheria Blario. At once, the wounds, and bruises of the beast healed within the blink of an eyelid, rendering him as if he had undergone no injuries at all.

Blario, gleeful beyond everything for the sudden relief from suffering, showered his gratitude, praising Luidhor with all heart and volleying innumerable “thank yous” upon him.

Despite himself, Luidhor smiled.

Armando might be dead, but the love and respect of the Bherias was everything worth living for.

***

It was a very violent shake. Viven woke up bold upright, nearly falling off from the edge of Manu’s bed that had been joined to Dirita’s so that there was space for the three of them.

Out of the blur, a woman’s horrified face reeled into focus. It was a moment before Viven registered it belonged to Aunt Gina, who was on the edge of bursting from worry.

“This place has been attacked!” she said. “Tonkeytus just informed me!”

“What?” said Viven, the lame after effects of sleep quitting him fast. “Attacked?”

“Yes,” Aunt Gina replied, fighting to keep herself composed. “I’ve asked him to get us out of here right away.”

“But isn’t this House underground?”

“So what? They brought us to this place; they sure can get us out of here too!”

“Right,” Viven said, feeling stupid. “Is it morning yet?”

Aunt Gina nodded.“Yes, so we should be safe from the dark creatures of the forest.”

“Who’s attacking, though?”

She caught her breath, about to say something, and then shook her head.

“Um, the Macacawks’ enemies, I think. Anyway, whoever they are, they mean harm only to the Macacawks. It’s best we keep our distance.”

Aunt Gina then shook Manu and Dirita awake too.

“Dead . . .” Dirita whispered to herself, staring at her cat. Viven saw Manu look at her with some sympathy.

“Are we in danger, Mum?” he asked.

“Of course we are!” said Aunt Gina. “That’s why we are leaving.” She grimaced as she looked at the door. “Ugh! When is that Tonkeytus going to return?”

“We’ll get normal, right, once we get above ground?” Manu said. “I hate this tail!”

“Yes, he said that, didn’t Tonkeytus?” said Aunt Gina. “The gods know he must pay if we don’t become normal.”

At that moment, the unbolted door was pushed open, and Tonkeytus came in. His shoulders were hunched and his haggard face was occupied with thought.

“Are you people ready?” he said with little in the way of interest.

Aunt Gina replied they were and asked him first thing whether the Macacawk features would be lifted from their bodies. The latter assured her hastily, dismissive of the subject.

“Come on, then, fast,” he said.

For the next fifteen minutes, they tailed Tonkeytus through a number of long corridors, which were in a direction opposite from the Great Hall. Each contained no less than fifty to sixty quarters, all of them stuffed with Macacawks as they could make from all the talking noises they heard. They saw none daring out into the corridors, however.

Tonkeytus was silent in heavy brooding most of the time along the way. Only once did he say something about the Macacawks being turned weaker and weaker by their foes. He muttered to himself his son was too young to join the fighting, which explained his mood to the others. Otherwise, he was quiet as a mute plant.

They arrived upon a large metal portal that had two stone sentinels, one on either side.

“Inside is the Room of Steps,” said Tonkeytus, and Viven was under the impression he was forcing the words to come out of his mouth. “That links to the tunnel leading up to the Tropagian forest.”

He stepped forth and placed a gentle hand on the polished metal. Much to the awe of the others, the portal swung and made itself ajar.

“Only a true Macacawk can open this.”

The room disclosed was well lit with lines of red torches on the walls. On the farther side was a cascade of steps, each a bulky stone resting upon another twice as big. There were about thirty of them, if not more.

There was a circular door at the pinnacle of the cascade. It was so small, it was suitable only for a Macacawk to pass through; an adult human was fated to get stuck in any attempt of entering it. Luckily none of them were humans—at least for the time being.

They walked the short distance to the steps, and then Tonkeytus climbed to the top and got the circular door open.

“Come on,” he said over to Viven and the others, and went inside. They too climbed up and passed through the door one by one. As Viven, who was last in the line after Dirita and her cat, clumsily put his right leg on the other side of the door, he viewed the gargantuan portal creak shut by itself.

Viven was surprised when he saw that the other room was devoid of a ceiling. In fact, it was the last thing you’d consider calling a room! It was rather a vertical tunnel, tens of metres high.

“What now?” said Viven.

“We’ll be needing to do a bit of climbing,” Tonkeytus replied.

“Climbing?” Sarcasm was written on Aunt Gina’s furrowed brows.

“Yeah, how’s it possible?” said Manu, shaken, rolling his eyes up at the dark rim where the tunnel ended. “It’s so steep. No one can climb this!”

“Just wait a second,” said Tonkeytus.

He grabbed hold of the lower portion of the only torch available and pulled it to a horizontal position.

Red glowing metal rails popped out of the brick slabs that formed the tunnel’s wall; and in seconds, some fifty—sixty of them had appeared, forming a straight, ladder-like line to the top of the tunnel, illuminating its entire height.

“Will we go up by these?” Manu asked.

Tonkeytus inclined his head. “Yes. Now you people start climbing fast. I’ll start after you.”

“If we fall,” said Dirita with a small gasp, “our skulls will crack open and there will be lots of blood.”

“Wait,” said Viven. Dirita was right, but there was something more. “Our hands will burn if we touch any of them!” He pointed at the glowing red of the rails.

“Tut-tut,” said Tonkeytus, shaking his head, and caught a rail too. His hand didn’t turn to ash. “See that? It’s nothing hot, just for lighting purpose. Now quick! Get climbing; I don’t have the whole day!”

“You sure nobody would lose their grip and fall?” Viven asked, concerned. He was getting a tiny itch at the back of his mind at the prospect of climbing.

“I can guarantee that only if you never look down,” said Tonkeytus, indifferent.

“Okay,” said Manu as he came near the rail ladder, gathering his courage. “Let me try first.”

“No, wait,” Aunt Gina broke in. “Isn’t there any other safer way out?”

“Well, I don’t think I would have brought you here were there some other ‘safer’ way out,” Tonkeytus replied, dismissing the question. “A little bit of Luidhor’s teleporting powder would have come handy— which was how I first brought you here. But I don’t have the guts to steal from him again. Luidhor’s not a bad man, but he’s way too reluctant about sharing his magic powders with others.”

“Then I’m climbing,” said Manu, and he stepped up on the rails and climbed.

Dirita put her cat, Mr. Mekuri, inside her boy-shirt and buttoned it, so that only the cat’s head was visible, which poked out innocently.

“Is anybody joining me?” Manu called from above, already quite a few rails up.

“I’m coming,” said Dirita, and got onto the rails. As if Mr. Mekuri knew any disturbance might lead to a costly glitch, he stayed silent and well behaved inside Dirita’s shirt, not making any attempts to get out of it.

After Dirita went Viven, and then Aunt Gina, and at the end was Tonkeytus, who kept shouting at the top of his voice, “Don’t look down! Don’t look down!” without stopping for once.

Aunt Gina kept complaining in a low voice, saying it was very difficult. Viven found climbing difficult too and a fearful experience. He stuck to Tonkeytus’ bidding and refrained from looking down.

Viven was impatient to reach the top, but halfway up, his grip slipped on a metal bar once and, although he regained it with his other hand, a slight shiver caught hold of his limbs. It refused to leave however many deep breaths he took to calm himself. Added to that was Dirita, who climbed at a snail’s pace. Viven knew it was a safety precaution, since Dirita was also carrying Mr. Mekuri. But as his dread for the heights multiplied with the minutes, he prayed Dirita to better quicken.

The last rail brought indescribable joy to Viven. Hauling himself over the rim, he fell onto his knees, a sense of relief blanketing his core, his muscles relaxing.

“We have nearly reached the forest now,” said Tonkeytus, catching his breath, the last one to get to the top.

It was only then that Viven took in anything of the place they had reached. It was a medium-sized chamber, bare and fogged in near absolute darkness. The lamentable volume of light from the metal bars of the tunnel below was their only help to make out and distinguish one shape from the other.

He noticed Manu gazing at him, or that was what he thought—he could never tell, but feeling his face flush, he stood up.

“To that nook,” said Tonkeytus. Following him, Viven’s now accustomed eyes saw a circular door akin to the previous one in size through the blurry black, having a wheel over it.

Tonkeytus steered it four times, twice clockwise and twice anti-clockwise. Then, summoning strength, he opened it.

The very next instant, charming white light gushed in, dazing Viven for a moment. The scent and beauty of fresh morning light was always cleansing, no matter what uncountable number of times you had experienced it already. And after such a long time underground, it energized them, lifting their spirits.

Tonkeytus went out first, and the rest of them followed suit.

“Hey!” Viven exclaimed, having a funny sensation about his body. His torso, legs, and arms lengthened, and his tail shortened too. It wasn’t happening just with him: Aunt Gina, Dirita, and Manu were changing to their normal sizes as well, shedding their Macacawk characters of short height and tail. What’s more, the hole in the back of his shorts magically sealed itself.

In wee minutes, they had transformed to their former human selves, and Tonkeytus was once again a dwarf in their eyes.

He furrowed and commented in a bored voice, “See, didn’t I tell you? You’ve become as before.”

Viven looked up at the sky, but his gaze fixed at something else.

It was a gargantuan tree, and although the little hole they had emerged from at its base was nothing much of a bother, the unnatural black colour all about the tree, be its leaves or trunk, made him uneasy.

“What kind of tree is this?” said Viven.

“The darned Assurs did this to mark it as one of our several entrances into the House. They did it with powerful dark magic that scars a place forever. But the part they are attacking is on another side and you have no immediate danger from them.” Tonkeytus gave a distasteful look at the tree.

Quietness reigned for a while. The melodious echoing of the wind dominated in unison with the ever-chanting rustle of the leaves. Viven revised, breathing in the morning air, all that Sezia had told them to do. It had seen easy back in the prison of Nascat. But now the forest seemed bigger, while he, Viven, was small. This would be hard.

Tonkeytus evidently thought it was time he delivered his note of farewell. Breaking the dominance of the forest’s music and keeping a formal hand on his chest, he said, “So, er, this is where I should leave you. I must go. My people are in need of me in this time of chaos. May you be safe.”

“Thanks for all the help.” Viven smiled.

Tonkeytus took a breath and, making a hesitant nod bidding goodbye, turned to disappear into the dark hole at the base of the cursed tree.

***

The Demonic Tree

It did not take them long to find out they were in around the same location from where they had been taken by Tonkeytus the previous day. After a few minutes’ search helped them rediscover their stream, they continued on their trek to the axe hill.

As the hours went by, the sky darkened and the clouds cloaked the sun so it appeared like evening, not noon, was about to set. The wind gave company, no longer the pleasant breeze as before but turning fiercer with the minute, blowing away leaves of trees such that the sky was full of them.

“It will rain,” said Aunt Gina after a resounding bolt of lightning thundered high above their heads.

Viven, who was cupping water into his mouth from the stream, said, “We’d better find some big tree for shelter before that happens.”

“I think we can reach the hill before it rains if we hurry,” Manu chimed in. “It’s less than half a mile away.” Just as he finished, a fat drop of rain fell on his nose, followed by a dozen more, the trend continuing. Manu took back his words.

“Let’s go find a tree fast; I don’t want to get all wet!”

The problem wasn’t about finding trees—the forest had them in numbers more than desirable—instead, the problem was of finding a tree that had an apt amount of leaves. Most of the trees, though very tall, were slender, and their tops were too small, providing negligible protection against rain.

By the time they found a generously leaved tree, the rain had developed and taken the form of a storm. Their group was already half drenched when they took shelter beneath its bright purple leaves.

The sky scowled, and the rain pelted down stronger, the heavy downpour coming in merciless torrents, gushing and roaring wild, splashing the muddy floor of the forest.

“These are mad rains,” Viven heard Aunt Gina say, her words barely eligible through the great blather the rain was causing.

Viven felt something light fall over his hair. Retrieving it, he saw it was a leaf. He leant against the trunk as he let it fall, unsure what length of time they would have to wait for the rain to recede. And what if it continued all day long? How would they reach the hill? The night was fated to bring perils of its own.

Viven realised that the trunk was warm like the body of an animal. Not usual for a plant, he thought, despite enjoying the warmth for a change of the rain’s cold. But then, this was the Tropagian forest, the very name symbolising the weird.

Viven looked up at the leaves above, all packed tightly and thick together. So thick, in fact, it was impossible to see any of the branches and twigs interconnecting them.

Also he had the creepy thought that the leaves had actually come lower some inches than when he had last observed them. And then he felt something—a distinctive thump.

Within the trunk.

Viven was forced to wear goose pimples. He was afraid. There was something wrong with the tree, his human instinct telling him so.

He considered talking about the matter to Aunt Gina, but did not want to look foolish since there was every possibility he was just fantasizing. It was likely to be the case. But the thump had been as real as anything real.

“Er, Aunt?” he said despite himself.

“Hmmm?” Aunt Gina turned toward him.

However, the next moment, her face became utterly pale, a look of sheer terror engulfing it. She let out a fearful shriek, her bulging eyes rooted at a spot over his head.

Appalled, he looked up and his eyes witnessed only purple. The tree leaves were clustered as one massive hand.

It was upon them in no time, swatting their bodies so hard that a ton of bricks might as well have fallen on them.

Viven heard the distant high-pitched meowing of a cat and the shouts of Manu and Dirita, almost made indistinguishable under the mighty bellow of leaves rushing all over his body.

Overridden by the crushing weight, Viven tumbled onto the ground, realising the intention of the live leaves—that of squeezing the life out of them.

They surrounded Viven on all sides and pressed with such brute force that his bones fractured. With eruptions of nauseating pain taking place everywhere in his body, he prayed to the gods to make him go numb.

Every split second passing made it all the more difficult to breathe, drawing him closer to inevitable death, while his lungs were punctured by his very own broken ribs.

Prostrated, he lost the tiniest idea of his being. What was happening? Just what was going on?

Viven’s vision became black due to the immense pressure on his eyes, rendering them nothing more than meek body parts that pained in the incongruous play of leaf and death.

Enfeebled and exhausted past bearing limit, Viven blacked out within the next minute, and his subconscious was beyond grateful for that.

***

It was night when Viven returned to consciousness. The moon god was high in the sky, floating peacefully amongst the plentiful rolling clouds. May thee always reign, Viven thought in prayer.

The live leaves.

“No!” Viven gasped as he remembered what had happened. He looked down at his body, overcome by reflex, expecting a bloody mess.

Nothing.

“What?” he asked himself, shocked and gleeful at the same time. Nothing at all! No crumpled arms and legs, no bones sticking out, no trace of blood, not even a little bruise! In fact, his body’s condition was perfect—But how? And it wasn’t like he was in afterlife or something, right?

He cast a wary look around, just in case. He spotted a strange tree that although was bare of leaves above, had a heap of them at its base, withered dead leaves soaked in water from the earlier downpour. But oddly, smoke was issuing from them.

Since the night was dark, Viven couldn’t make out their colour, but just then, recollections flooded his mind.

The monster tree.

Yes, it was the one. Viven was certain. He picked a stone and got up, his clothes squelching as he did so. His shirt and trousers were sodden in water and mud, on the backside particularly.

He threw the stone at the leaves. No movement besides that created by the stone. Getting angry, he threw another, bigger this time, yelling loudly. No response. It was like throwing stones at normal leaves.

Viven didn’t understand; first they get attacked by these live leaves—wait.

They!

“Aunt! Manu! Dirita!” he shouted, his heart at his throat. “Aunt Gina! Manu! Dirita!” He stopped.

“No! No! No!” He rushed to the fallen leaves, praying himself to be wrong. This shouldn’t happen! This can’t happen!

He searched hastily amongst the leaves, half expectant that a limp limb or two would show up any moment. He had no idea how the demonic leaves had met their demise, not that he cared. All he wanted was to not find anything amongst them.

Viven exhaled when the search proved futile. But where are they? They had to be somewhere.

He moved away, calling their names. They had to be somewhere and near. It was more than sensible to think that if he was all right, they had to be too.

Viven froze when a howl rang in his ears. It was a far away one, long and reverberating throughout the forest. Anxiety crept into his bones, reminding him of something important he shouldn’t have let slip from his mind in the first place—

It was night, and this was the Tropagian forest. He recalled Sezia’s words. Demons and the dark creatures are beings of the night . . .

What if someone, or rather something, had carried the others away?

Much as he hated to think, it was the most plausible explanation for their disappearance.

“No!” Viven said out loud to collect himself. He couldn’t succumb to that belief—

“Viven..”

“Aunt Gina!” he shouted, the tattered voice of Aunt Gina sending spasms of relief down his spine. “Aunt Gina! That you?” He turned around, his eyes in frenzy. Where was she? Where was she?

He spotted her. Lying slumped in the shade of a tree, she blended perfectly into her surroundings. Although Viven had looked over the area a dozen times, he was a little surprised he had mistaken her for a mere shrub.

“Aunt Gina!” Viven cried, sprinting to her.

“Viven,” she whispered, her lips moving wearily. “That you?”

“Yes, Aunt, it’s me, Viven!”

She smiled, but frowned instantly, the drowsiness fading from her face as she seemed to get a firmer grip over things.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “It’s already night! This is dangerous; have you found Manu and Dirita?”

Viven shook his head, the dread returning to him. Manu and Dirita were still nowhere to be found.

“No?” Her eyes were wide, like they were scanning him from the inside out.

“No.”

“B-but,” she stammered, unable to find words. “Surely . . .” she gritted her teeth and stood up,“we have to search for them, Viven. I want to see Manu . . .” She muttered words under her breath, more to herself than to him.

At that moment, a strange pain exploded in the back of Viven’s neck.

“Arrrrghh!” he screamed, clutching his neck that might have been slit by a knife.

“Hey—!” Aunt Gina gave him an arm, not seeming to make any heads or tails.

Red dots appeared in his field of sight, and no sooner were his legs giving up when he swooned, entering the unconscious void.

His eyes snapped open minutes later. Aunt Gina was saying something to him, a desperate look hovering over her face, tapping his cheeks meanwhile, but he heard nothing. All he saw was her lips moving. Then the world blurred, and once again, the other void had him.

The next few hours were most uncomfortable for Viven; he kept slipping in and out of consciousness now and then. The world was nothing more than a hazy mist, a strange illusion he got more and more dubious of as the hours rolled. One thing he had the vaguest impression of was that they were moving. Every time he was awake, the surroundings looked a little different, or at least, that was what he thought.

Aunt Gina was carrying him, her face pale as parchment, the effort required making her so. He did not want to be carried at all. Couldn’t he be stronger? Shame and guilt presided over his heart. He did not want to give her anymore trouble.

***

“I couldn’t find the other two,” Milli said inside Canniola’s head. “I didn’t recognise the blasted tree. It attacked us and I destroyed it. The Descendant had nearly died. I lost my powers in the process of healing him and was down for hours. I have no idea what happened to them.”

“The other two don’t matter,” said Canniola. “Bring him to the castle. Everything is ready here.” Milli had once been part of Mai Canniola, but had detached herself for their goals.

“And where is the Purple One?” Milli said rather angrily.

“I have no idea,” Mai Canniola replied through gritted teeth. Why was the Purple One not helping? He could have easily stopped that Shifter tree, but he had just let it have its way. “Don’t worry; he knows what he’s doing.”

“Tell him to be more helpful the next time,” said Milli. “Arakosh does want us to be successful, right?”

“Just bring him to the castle,” Canniola said instead, exasperated. She blocked the connection with Milli.

***

“Viven? Viven? It’s morning. Get up! Please, you have to.”

Someone was sprinkling water over his face. Viven parted his eyelids.

Aunt Gina was the one who had been sprinkling the water, lines of wear on her features. The smile she drew once seeing him awake contained fatigue and exhaustion.

Darkness reigned no longer; the Tropagian morning had already dawned. The sun’s brightness, which basked him in sweet warmth, would have been pleasant if not for yesterday’s events that came crashing to his mind, making him jolt up.

It was as if something had broken inside him. Manu and Dirita were still to be found.

“Aunt Gina,” Viven began. He stopped short, the hill reeling into his view. It was bigger and nearer than ever, just a tiny distance away; near its peak, he saw a small hole that he knew was the cave they were marked for.

Aunt Gina opened her mouth to say something, but instead of that and most out of Viven’s expectations, she screamed. Viven clasped his ears, the sound deafening. His eardrums throbbed, his only thought being what the devil was wrong with Aunt Gina.

A green mass plunged into the air from behind him, providing immediate explanation.

The humongous animal landed next to Aunt Gina and shut her mouth with its big webby hands. Words escaped from the animal’s mouth, croaky words that only a mucous-dabbled throat could have produced.

“Are you mad, lady? The castle must be so near!” Viven’s stomach did a somersault as he realised what animal it was—

A frog.

A frog one thousand times the size of any he had ever seen.

Aunt Gina moaned, and the great beast released her, as though not wanting to hurt.

She scurried away to Viven’s side, who meanwhile had only gotten up, held paralyzed by astonishment upon seeing the giant frog.

“By what foolishness are you humans here?” the frog demanded, large yellowish amphibian eyes fixed upon the two of them. “Just yesterday did I stumble upon two youngsters of your kind falling prey to a Shifter tree; if not for me, they’d be dead by now.”

It took Viven a couple of moments to take in the words. He wasn’t to blame, though; a frog speaking was too outright weird to register immediately. But when he did, he got sucked into a whirlpool of thoughts: the frog was saying he had found two human children in the forest attacked by a tree. What was the possibility of the two children being Manu and Dirita? Nobody came to Tropagia to take a stroll, except perhaps demons.

“What? Human children?” Viven said, the words spilling out themselves. “You found human children? Is it true?”

“Yes. Why, you do not believe me?” the frog asked.

“We do, we do,” Viven said, adrenaline rushing through him. “There was a boy and a girl, right?”

“Yes, one boy, one girl. Injured bad, though. The leaves of the Shifter tree had nearly strangled them to death.”

“Did the boy have dark brown hair?” said Aunt Gina.

“Yes, he did. The girl had a little cat inside her shirt that was totally unharmed.”

Viven bit his lips. It was confirmed now who the frog was talking about.

“Then what did you do with them?” Aunt Gina said, her voice quivering. “Please tell me, I beg of you!” Her eyes swelled and tears leaked out of them. The frog himself was somewhat taken.

“Well,” he replied, “I took them to the Diamension. They are being treated there; we take it for our moral responsibility to help young ones, whatever race they may belong to, if we find them in any dangerous situation. But why do you so inquire? Are the children your kin?”

“Yes,” said Viven. “But where is this Diamension place?”

“How come you don’t know?” the frog said, surprised. “One can’t be in this part of Tropagia and not know about the Diamension of the Potion Makers, can one?”

“The Potion Makers?” said Viven. “The Diamension is where they live, isn’t it?”

“Well, you know, then,” the frog said.

Viven shook his head, clicking his tongue.

“Can you take us there as well?”

“Ummm,” said the frog, thinking. Viven felt unsure: it was the first time he was asking help from a talking frog that could swallow him in one gulp. Besides, he wanted to get the axe first, since the hill was so near. He felt selfish thinking so, and he kicked the idea out of his head. Manu and Dirita were more important.

“You see,” the frog said, “outsiders are not allowed into the Diamension. It is for security measures, not everyone in the forest can be trusted.”

“But the children,” Viven pressed, “you took them there. They were with us before we were attacked by the tree. One of them is my cousin and her son.” He gestured at Aunt Gina, who was sniffling. “The other is a friend. Please take us to this Diamension place. It’s important.”

A long time the frog kept pondering, and then he said, “Okay, fine. I shall help you.”

***

He slit his throat and watched as Brucus wriggled on the forest floor. Any moans were made silent by the spell. He allowed himself a much deserved smile. Brucus, Canniola’s feet licker. Dead.

A small noise not far away. Had it been a guard?

Prisoners Again

Travelling in a direction opposite to the axe hill didn’t, perhaps, quite do to heighten spirits after coming so close to it. But just the thought he would see Manu and Dirita again more than replaced it for Viven, sending optimistic shivers down his body.

For the past half an hour, they had been riding on the giant frog’s back, who had let his name be known as Bufo—lord of the frogs who worshipped him. He went in mighty leaps, so that most of the time, they were up in the air. It was an experience similar to flying, though a tad marred by the regular landings and take-offs. It was a swift, bumpy ride, the greenery whooshing past by them fast.

Both Viven and Aunt Gina clutched tightly to Bufo’s back, and tighter even during the split seconds of hitting the ground, wary of getting a broken bone, or worse. What’s more, Viven was afraid Bufo would crash into one of the numerous tall trees that occupied most of the forest. However, Bufo was experienced at leaping, and nothing such occurred, for he always found just the correct spot for landing and taking off into the air again.

“There,” said the frog lord, bouncing his way toward a small hut in a clearing ahead, which Viven only now spotted as Bufo slowed his speed.

Bufo landed in the clearing, this time to stay. His two passengers climbed down his back.

“This is the Diamension?” said Viven.

“A hut?” said Aunt Gina, doubtful.

Bufo nodded. “Yes, in a sense.”

“Are they inside?” Viven asked, wondering how a hut was the home of all the Potion Makers. They had to be half the size of the Macacawks.

“Yes,” said Bufo, and his reply was accompanied by a contortion in his facial features that Viven reckoned was a grin. “Ummm, can you wait here for some time? I will get your friends.”

“We’ll wait,” said Viven. “You bring them.”

Bufo went to the hut and opened its door. Viven saw it was pitch black inside . . . magical black. He came to the realisation it was no ordinary hut.

Putting his head in, Bufo said something. He was instantly gone, leaving thin air behind.

Viven gaped, dumbstruck. He turned to Aunt Gina, who could explain only as much as himself.

“He will bring them, right?” he asked her.

“He’s got to,” she replied, but her words lacked much trust. “He has to.”

For the first time, uncertainty formed in Viven’s mind against Bufo. What if he didn’t bring Manu and Dirita? He had accepted all his words and believed him. But now the belief seemed to have sprouted out of anxiety, anxiety for the boys.

“Who be there?”

Viven wheeled around. There was a man at the edge of the clearing. A warrior, sword in hand; he wore chainmail and had a rough face.

“You are not Potion Makers by any angle, are you?” he demanded.

“No,” said Viven, eyeing the sword. “Bufo brought us here.”

“Very well,” said the man. “I thought I had seen him overhead. He is a foolish brute, Bufo. Yesterday he brought two children, and today he has brought you. Why for, can I know?”

He lowered his sword, though not giving up his caution altogether.

“The children,” said Viven. “We came here to get them. We were separated from them yesterday.” If the man knew Bufo, then he shouldn’t pose them any harm. All the same, the sword in his hand made Viven recall the soldiers who had showed up at their door so many days back in Tempstow.

The man mused. He stared at Viven, muttering something under his breath as if studying him, his forehead encased in a frown.

“Wait a minute,” he said after a long pause. “Does the name Algrad Bezon mean anything to you?”

Not again.

Why did everybody in the forest appear to know his grandfather? However, it was beyond doubt that the man was a Potion Maker—and apparently the Potion Makers were humans and not puny beings. Recalling what Tonkeytus had spoken, there was a reason that his grandfather was familiar to them, so, wasn’t it obvious? He touched his right ear, pretending he had an itch there, although he only wanted to tear some of it and make it the size of his left ear.

“Algrad Bezon was my grandfather.”

The man’s jaw dropped.

“Mum! Viven!” Manu’s voice was music to Viven’s ears. He turned: Bufo had reappeared at the threshold of the hut; beside him were Manu and Dirita. They were covered in bruises and bandages, and Dirita’s cat was at his feet.

Aunt Gina ran up to Manu and hugged him, sobbing, but careful not to hug too tightly due to all his injuries.

“It’s okay, Mum,” Manu said, reddening and trying to pull away. “We are fine!”

“Oh, Manu,” Aunt Gina said in between tears. “You don’t know how worried I was!”

“It’s okay, Mum, it’s okay! Bufo says the Potion Maker medicines are super fast and it won’t be long before—”

“Hold on for a moment,” the warrior said from behind as he walked toward Viven.

“You say you are the grandson of Algrad Bezon, the naturalist who led the expedition to Tropagia?”

“Wh-what are you saying, Aremis?” Bufo interrupted, his tone dipped in disbelief. “Him? Bezon’s grandson?”

Aremis raised a hand to quieten Bufo, his hard face becoming all the more hard.

Viven experienced an abrupt weight in his guts. He had forgotten that the Potion Makers had accused his grandfather of murdering their old king!

“Y-yes,” he stuttered. By this time, Aremis was only a few steps away from him.

“TRAITOR!” Aremis yelled, and charged. Viven tried to run, but was no match for someone with years of combat experience behind him. Aremis outmatched him in speed and was upon him in no time.

“What’s going on?” cried Aunt Gina, terrified.

“Shut up!”Aremis roared. He twisted Viven’s arms, pulling them backward so he was a captive, and punched his stomach furiously, sending Viven to the edge of vomiting.

“Scum! You dare to come here?”

“Please,” Viven begged. “What have I done to you?” His torturer boxed him hard in the head as a reply.

“Bufo!”Aremis barked. “Get the others! These are the descendants of the dog, Algrad; don’t you want to avenge Brucus, eh?”

Struggling in vain, Viven heard wild screams and knew the frog lord had gotten the other three. From the corner of his eye, he saw Dirita’s kitten dash toward the trees to save its skin.

“I want to do away with each of them myself,” said Aremis. “But no, let’s take them to the court; only Aderis may punish them for their vile deed.”

Bufo grunted in agreement. Aremis yanked Viven’s hair and dragged him to the hut, Aunt Gina, Manu, and Dirita being already taken inside by Bufo.

Putting his head inside the hut, Aremis mumbled, “The court,” in a low voice, which may have been humble if not spoilt by the intensity of his rage.

All in a moment, the hut was full with light, a peculiar blue light so bright, it was a task to keep his eyes open. Taking effort, Viven looked back. There was no forest. They weren’t in any hut either. Just a void that had light and only light.

Soon the void itself disintegrated. Viven lay on a marble floor. Aunt Gina, Manu, Dirita, and Bufo were by his and Aremis’ side. Just a single roll of the eyes was enough:

They were in the throne room of a king’s palace.

***

The councillors were seated on two lines of daises, their crisp talking being what resonated about the room. Then, there was the king himself, seated separate from the councillors on a glamorous throne that was adorned by intricate minuscule tapestries on the sides.

Atop the king’s head was a ringed crown, fitted with a precious red gem that gleamed and declared his ultimate superiority.

It was he who first spotted them, and the councillors all fell in a pin-drop silence as they noticed where their majesty’s attention was set.

“Your Majesty,” said Aremis, bowing in respect but not loosening his grip on Viven at the same time.

“Speak,” the king said, eyeing the four captives.

Aremis did not waste time blabbing anything trivial, getting to the point at once.

“This lad here, my king, is the grandson of the traitor Algrad Bezon, murderer of your predecessor, our old king Brucus.”

As a shocked expression settled upon the king’s features, Bufo clumsily chimed in.

“And these, my king, I most regret to say, have turned out to be his kin.”

The king’s stare travelled to the other three with Bufo and then returned to Viven, in whom he was more interested.

“Bezon’s grandson?” the king said, awe in each word. “But how do you know, Aremis?”

“He admitted it himself, Your Highness,” Aremis replied. “And besides, just look at him! He cannot not be Bezon’s grandson!”

Aremis pushed Viven into the midst of the councillors. He fell on his knees, his body aching from the beatings received from Aremis, the feeling of vulnerability overwhelming.

The councillors murmured agreement amongst themselves. Their stares, which were locked at his ears, one big, the other small, made the hair over his neck and hands stand.

He closed his eyes for a moment. He didn’t like this. Oh, he didn’t! They were in a mess, a stupid mess. Couldn’t all the troubles abandon them, just for once? Couldn’t they get to the hill, retrieve the darned axe, destroy the sword, and leave the bloody forest for good?

They couldn’t.

The small voice inside his head made him feel all the more vulnerable.

The king’s loud voice brought Viven back to reality. “Lad, are you truly the grandson of Algrad Bezon?”

Why do I have to be Algrad’s grandson? Viven wondered stupidly.

“I am,” he replied in spite of himself.

The councillors gaped on both his right and left sides. When the king spoke, his stern eyes blazed with powerful victory.

“Then you must pay the cost of your ancestor’s treachery with your life!”

“But we didn’t do anything!” Aunt Gina protested. “We aren’t guilty. Why don’t you let us go?”

“No,” said the king. “You bear guilt. In fact, you inherited the guilt from your ancestor. No guilt can go unpunished, even if its actual committer dies.”

The councillors rejoiced, happy and loud at the unexpected revenge they had scored. The king encouraged the rejoicing by announcing their fate.

“Tomorrow evening, Bezon’s descendants will be executed and we shall avenge our dear king.”

The four of them, Viven, Aunt Gina, Manu, and Dirita, soon found themselves handcuffed and in shackles, their visions blinded by the folds put over their eyes. Their pleadings for mercy went ignored as even the guards who let them through the unseen passages of the palace expressed glee at them being caught.

“Finally, after so many years, our old king Brucus will receive justice,” the guards said.

***

When the blindfold was removed, Viven’s eyes met with what was a dungeon room, dimly lit with a magical light that had no source.

The guards left, locking the door from the outside.

“Oh no!” Aunt Gina burst into tears, unable to control herself. “What has happened! They’ll kill us!”

“I don’t know, Aunt. I don’t know,” said Viven, bitter. “I never thought it’d turn out like this.”

“You should have never come for us,” said Manu. “We could have gotten to you somehow then.”

“But how couldn’t we?” sobbed Aunt Gina. “You were lost, and all we cared about was finding you!”

Dirita squatted on the floor, grabbing her hair.

“Mr. Mekuri,” she whimpered. “He-he will never survive the forest.”

“He is better off than us,” Manu said, and shook his head in despair. “You should have never come for us,” he repeated to Viven and Aunt Gina. “The Potion Makers weren’t that bad toward us. In fact, we’d be dead by now if Bufo didn’t bring us here!”

“Well”—there was heavy sarcasm in Aunt Gina’s voice—“they will take our lives now for all the help they gave you.”

Viven hit his fist on the wall.

“It’s all my fault,” he said. “I could have lied and said I’ve never heard of Grandpa’s name before. It’s all my fault.” He could have saved everybody with a little lie, could have been a hero.

Aunt Gina disagreed, rather fiercely.

“My uncle didn’t do anything bad that you need to say you aren’t his grandson. All of them are liars. They are making stuff up. It’s all false!”

“Whatever,” he said, hoping Aunt Gina’s words were right, but also in a fix why people would accuse them for things without solid reason behind it. “But we have landed in a hopeless situation and have only a day to live. We need to get out of this mess; any ideas how?”

Before anybody opened their mouths to answer him, Viven knew there were no ideas, just none. Whether his foolishness caused everything or not, they would die now. Meela came to his mind as he stared at the stone slabs forming the dungeon wall, and he almost laughed. She was lost . . . or maybe he was.

***

Oh, Algrad, what have I done? What have I done?

Bufo the frog lord wept, his big tears draining little of the guilt that flooded him inside.

He had just done as per Aremis’ commands and taken them to the king! He could have trampled the scoundrel instead. Aremis had beaten Algrad’s grandson as if he were a dog. Oh, how he wished to twist those rude arms of Aremis.

But Bufo would never do a thing like that. He had sworn allegiance to the Potion Makers; he couldn’t betray them. Their will was his will, their cause his cause, but—

Algrad Bezon, what about him? Hadn’t he been a close friend?

The Potion Makers were nuts at believing him to be the murderer of King Brucus. There had never been any evidence of it. That Algrad was innocent Bufo was more than sure.

He couldn’t understand why the Potion Makers had taken Mai Canniola’s word that Algrad had been the traitor, how he had been her servant and had fooled their lame lot. However, were it so, why should Mai Canniola make her plot known to them? Was she so stupid?

No, it had been all a lie. A lie to trick the Potion Makers, and that lie would lead to the execution of Algrad’s descendants tomorrow.

But Bufo wouldn’t let such a wrong thing happen. Now that he came to think of it, he was the frog lord, and a lord always stood for truth. He might have sworn loyalty to the Potion Makers, but he would not succumb to their delusions. Instead, he would remove the veil from their eyes and make them see the truth. Yes, that would be far greater loyalty toward them then dancing to their mindless beat.

Besides, he had been the one who brought Algrad’s descendants to the Diamension, hadn’t he? Now that they were in the dungeons, only he himself was to blame. He had to undo his fault, save the blood of his old friend.

He would save them, whatever cost it might bring.

As Bufo looked at the tank on the table beside him and saw the respect gleaming from the eyes of the frogs in it, he finalised his decision.

***

Bufo’s Croak

A strange quietness had fallen over Viven and his three companions. Nobody was weeping over their fate. Dirita kept mumbling words under her breath, which sounded like “Mother” and “Father,” and Viven thought she was happy she would join them soon. Everyone’s face was tired and vacant as they waited for their execution hour.

Viven understood the quietness well, his own lips glued together, determined not to open again. He wasn’t trying to think out a solution to their situation, because he knew there were no solutions. Their fate was sealed. He stared at an ant moving about the floor. It kept moving toward Aunt, and when it reached her slippers, it changed direction. It went near Manu, who was playing with his fingers, pretending they were legs of a person and making them walk on the floor. The ant changed direction again, and Viven declared it was being very pointless.

Like our lives.

A curious sound echoed outside their cell, like a cannon fire, and not at the same time. It had the intensity but not the ear-throbbing quality.

A few minutes later, all the four occupants sprung to their feet in alarm as their cell door burst open, along with chunks of wall around it. The hulking figure of Bufo appeared, beaming and with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Bufo!”Viven said.

“Well, I had to come, right? Had to help you escape from here.”

“You will help us escape?” Manu said.

“Of course,” Bufo replied. “Algrad was my friend, and I can’t let his descendants die—and sorry. It was me who got you into all this trouble.”

“It’s okay,” Aunt Gina said, “since you’ve come to help.”

“Yeah,” said Viven. “But what about the guards and all?”

“Oh, I’ve taken care of them; every one of them is asleep for a whole day. Only tomorrow will they awake.”

“Asleep?” said Dirita. She looked almost turned down that they were going to escape.

“Well, I croaked,” said Bufo, his tone dignified.

“You croaked?” Aunt Gina asked.

“Yes, all frogs do, do they not? I croak too, but being their lord, I do it a mere once a year, and sometimes not even that. My croak is magical, and I can make anyone I wish fall into an enchanted sleep by using it.”

“So,” said Viven, “we are the only ones in this place who aren’t asleep?”

“Absolutely,” said Bufo. “Now let’s get you out of here; come with me.”

All the guards outside were either down on the floor or slouched against the walls, their loud snores the prominent noise in the dungeon corridors, their limp bodies littered here and there.

Around ten minutes later, Viven and the others came to a spiral stone staircase leading upward. Viven recalled descending it when the guards had first brought them to the dungeon, although it was the first time he was seeing it, since he had been blindfolded before.

Climbing the staircase, they emerged in open, unrestricted air. Not a long distance away, a magnificent castle towered, alongside a number of small but beautiful homes clustered together. However, despite the beauty of the scenery, there was an artificial feel about the place that clung to Viven, refusing to wear off.

Viven realised what was causing it as he looked up at the sky—it wasn’t real. What’s more, there was no sun at all! The blue sky, which seemed finite, was the source of all the light available. They were in a peculiar place, indeed.

“We are inside the hut, right?” he asked Bufo.

“Yes,” Bufo replied. “The hut is a portal to this Diamension—a complete world in itself, although a grain of sand if compared to the size of the real one.”

“Did the Potion Makers make this by themselves?” Aunt Gina said.

“Not really. Most of it was pre-existent, including the castle you see there. Their ancestors are said to have discovered this place.”

After they had gazed at their surroundings a couple more minutes—which appeared finite in all directions and there was not a single tree anywhere—Bufo spoke up.

“Come, we need to get to the castle. There is a portal there, which is the only way out of this Diamension.”

In a short while, they reached the castle’s tall ajar gates. Here, too, they saw guards and people lying on the ground, snoring.

They followed Bufo through a few corridors until arriving in the throne room. It was vacant of people. The king’s throne lay empty.

“Well, now I need to open the Connector,” said Bufo, and he moved to a large statue of a man who had his mouth wide open.

Bufo pulled at the statue’s ponytail, which was made of realistic hair-like material and not of stone.

A conical blue light projected from the man’s mouth across the room to where the four of them were standing.

“Walk into it,” Bufo said. They did so, and suddenly the throne room had faded away and they were in the alit void Viven had earlier experienced.

Following it, they found themselves back in the Tropagian forest, standing in front of the small hut.

“Ouch!” said Dirita, as Bufo appeared beside her moments later, nearly knocking her down.

“Oops, sorry!” Bufo apologised.

But Dirita wasn’t caring; she ran to the rim of the clearing and shouted,” Mr. Mekuri! Mr. Mekuri! Where are you? Come back, kitty, come back here! Mr. Mekuri!”

“Mr. Mekuri?” said Bufo, confused. “Is she calling that cat of hers?”

“Yes,” said Manu. “And I think she will be real sad if she doesn’t find him.”

And so, the next half an hour went in a mad search for Mr. Mekuri around the hut’s clearing. It went in vain. Dirita’s grief was untold.

“I don’t think your cat will ever be found, girl,” said Bufo, pitying Dirita. “This is the Tropagian forest. Your cat’s gone.”

“B-but he’s the only one I-I have got!”Dirita said in between sobs. Viven sighed; Dirita’s whole family had been murdered by her evil brute of an uncle, and now her cat was probably being digested in some predator’s stomach. No wonder she seemed looking forward to the execution.

Anyhow, they couldn’t go about searching for Mr. Mekuri the entire day, so Viven had to decide upon a plan, to calm Dirita. Plus he wanted to make up, even if a little, for getting them imprisoned in the Diamension.

“Dirita,” he said, holding the other’s hunched shoulders. “Look, I think Mr. Mekuri is safe wherever he is, but this forest is too big for us to search him out. Now see, I have a plan to find your cat, you hear it? I have a plan!”

Dirita looked up at him, her glistening eyes containing little hope.

“A plan?” she asked in a squeaky voice.

“Yes, Dirita, a plan!” said Viven, trying to be bright. “See, if we can retrieve the axe from the hill and destroy the sword within today, then we can summon Sezia. She knows magic, so there is every chance she can find Mr. Mekuri by using her powers.”

“Yeah, he’s right,” Aunt Gina added, supportive of Viven’s plan. “It’s sure to work.”

After much solace, Dirita agreed.

“But who’s this Sezia?” Bufo asked.

Viven explained to him about Sezia, the spirit of the old woman they had met back in the prison. However, at the mention of the axe Acario that Sezia had said was the only weapon that could destroy the sword, Bufo’s huge face contorted into a startled expression.

“The axe Acario!” he exclaimed. “But it had belonged to the Potion Makers!”

“Had belonged to the Potion Makers?” Viven repeated, surprised.

“Yes, it was stolen many years ago!”

“What?” said Viven, digesting the fact with difficulty. “Well, you can take it and return it to the Potion Makers once we destroy the sword with it.”

Bufo thought over it for some time, and then nodded.

“Um, okay,” he said. “That could be done. And that would be for the better good, as your family can rise in the eyes of the Potion Makers by returning them their long lost axe. But this is the first time I am hearing about this sword called Navarion. You say Algrad had told this Sezia it rests in the temple of Brene, eh?”

Viven nodded.

“But,” Bufo continued, “the temple has no known entrance. Not a single of the many who have tried has succeeded in breaking into it to see what exactly is inside. There are rumours it has got untold amounts of gold.”

“No entrance?” said Viven. “Then how will we enter it?”

“Maybe we’ll find a way once we reach the temple,” said Aunt Gina.

“Yeah,” Bufo said. “We can but hope for that. Must agree though, your grandfather had brains. He uncovered more Tropagian secrets than all of us combined. Only wish everything hadn’t ended so badly, you know, instead of him having to bear the name of a murderer—and hey!”Bufo seemed to have remembered something important. “The hill where you say Acario is falls in Mai Canniola’s territory. Both Potion Makers and the Macacawks suspect that the Dwarfy Dwarf castle, the abode of the wicked witch, is located around that place, hidden by the cloak of black magic. You two”—he gestured toward Viven and Aunt Gina—“you are darned fortunate Mai Canniola didn’t get the scent of you wandering into her territory.”

Everyone present gaped hearing Bufo’s words.

***

The ride to the axe hill was rougher than the ride to the Diamension had been; the reason being the extra weight of Manu and Dirita, so that all four of them struggled to stick onto Bufo’s back.

Bufo made his final touchdown a short distance away from the hill, just near the place from which he had earlier taken them. Viven was happy to see their old stream again; it gave him a sense of hope and security, though he wasn’t sure if they were secure in that area.

“It would save us time if I hopped straight to the top of the hill,” said the frog lord. “However, there are prying eyes everywhere, and I don’t think it would be useful if Mai Canniola spots me hopping about atop her head.”

Reaching the hill, they began the ascent.

That was when the problem started—

Bufo was disastrous at climbing. He simply was not built for that sort of thing. His short forelimbs provided no help for balancing his weight in the near vertical slope, and thrice did he lose his footing and tumble. Hence, they made very slow progress.

“There!” said Aunt Gina in glee after hours when they were halfway up, her finger toward a big river that had suddenly come into view, now that they were at a height taller than any tree in the forest. Viven spotted a pyramidal structure along its bank, and he at once knew what it was.

“That’s the temple of Brene, right?”

“Ye . . . yes,” said Bufo as he inhaled mouthfuls of air. “It’s the . . . the temple of Brene.”

“That seems a long way,” said Manu, and he was more than correct—the river and the temple both were far away. It was contrast to Sezia’s words, which she had made to sound like the temple was at a stone’s throw from the hill. But she couldn’t be blamed for that: she hadn’t ever visited the Tropagian forest to know anything in exact detail.

They continued in their climb. By now, the humans felt its effects too, their leg muscles becoming leady with every next step they took.

It was an age later that they reached the cave at the top of the hill.

Wearied out, they rested at the cave’s entrance for a handful of minutes to regain their strength and energy, which felt as though all was depleted.

“Okay,” Bufo said after sometime. “Let’s get Acario.”

The group entered the cave. There was little light available inside, allowing them to navigate through it. They treaded unhurriedly, unable to shake off caution due to the dark. It was then they discovered something that stupefied their nerves.

Twenty metres into the cave, they faced a dead end.

***

Dead end. Was that it? No axe?

“All right,” said Manu, feeling the cave’s wall with his hands. “Where’s the axe Sezia told us about?”

“It’s not there,” Viven muttered, more to himself than the others. “We came all the way for . . .”

Nothing.

“But that can’t be possible,” said Bufo. “Can it?”

In exasperation, Aunt Gina threw a stone at the dead end wall.

“Ouch!”Manu gasped as it bounced back, hitting his arm.

“Sorry. Hey, wait a minute!”

A faint golden outline of an arch was appearing on the wall.

“What’s going on?” Viven said, awestruck.

“This is strange,” said Bufo.

The outline expanded into that of a door, and a hole formed in the centre. Peculiarly, no debris ensued from the process.

In a short while, they were staring down the archway into a great chamber. And Viven couldn’t help but think its maker had been the most lavish spender of all. The chamber’s ceiling and walls and floor and its every nook and every corner were gilded with gold. What’s more, even the alighted torches were of gold.

At the centre of this mesmerizing chamber was a giant bird’s upturned claw—made of gold—that held something in its grasp.

The something it held was an axe.

Feeling a mystic presence at work, they went inside and to the claw that had the axe.

“By the hopping tadpoles!” Bufo exclaimed, joyous. “This is the almighty axe Acario! That Sezia spirit was right about the axe’s location, but wait, how do we get it out?”

He tried to slip his large meaty hand through the slim gaps between the golden fingers. It didn’t come as a surprise when that proved impossible.

“Let me try,” said Viven. He squeezed his right hand through the largest gap the claw had; however, all he could do was touch the axe and nothing else.

At that moment, Viven had to jerk back his hand as the claw came to life.

“Hey!” he said, watching it move its digits like a living claw and open. “What was that?”

“Anyhow,” said Bufo. “It’s been a help, has it not?” He seized the axe and scanned it with his eyes. “Let’s go back; I want to examine this in daylight.”

Once outside, Bufo set about examining the gleaming axe, gluing his eyes to it, holding it as one would hold a newborn baby.

“Pure Beaxtonix,” he whispered, running his fingers over the hilt of the axe. “See how it shines! No gold can shine like this.”

“It’s not made of gold?” Viven asked.

“No,” Bufo replied. “It’s made of Beaxtonix, a special powder of the Potion Makers that can be given any shape, though it is most difficult to concoct.”

Beaxtonix, Viven thought. Grandcawk mentioned Soul-Splitters too were made of it. He felt his grandfather’s necklace around his neck with his hand. He had almost forgotten about it; he pulled his collar up, ensuring the Splitter would remain well hidden. Grandcawk had appeared wise enough, and it was best he heeded his words.

“This axe is very powerful,” said Bufo. “There is even an old saying that Acario can destroy everything in the world except its handler. Anyway, take it.” Bufo offered Viven the axe.

“Didn’t you say it belongs to the Potion Makers?” Viven said, hesitant.

“Well, yes. But you better carry it for now. You can give it to me once the sword is destroyed.”

“Okay,” said Viven, taking the axe.

“Now,” said Bufo aloud, “I have an idea to get us down to the foot and fast.”

“What sort of idea?” Aunt Gina asked, looking quizzical.

“Ummm,” Bufo’s idea seemingly was difficult to explain. “Look, I would hold you all, curl into a ball, and roll down the hill.”

“That’s,” said Manu, eyes wide, “a crazy idea!”

“I agree,” said Viven, sceptical it would ever work and if they would be alive to know if it did.

“But it would get us to the temple faster,” said Dirita, whose face was still tear-stained from all the sobbing she had done for her cat. “And then we can destroy the sword and the spirit could come and help us find Mr. Mekuri.”

Viven looked from Dirita to Manu to Aunt Gina, the latter two not anywhere near as enthusiastic as the former. He asked Bufo, “Have you ever tried anything like that before?”

“Not really,” said Bufo, dismissive as if the question wasn’t much important. “Although I am one hundred percent sure it is fated to work.”

Viven gulped.

Five minutes later, he found himself squeezed with the rest, Bufo’s great belly around him. Bufo had curled up and was rolling down the hill with no restrains. Viven could but entertain a sole thought in his head—it was crazy.

Bufo pulled on his brakes, hands to be precise, just as they reached the foot of the hill. With brute force, he steered himself clear of any obstacle tree.

When all movement stopped, Viven heard Bufo moan.

“That was easy, wasn’t it?” And then the frog lord broke into boyish giggles, which sounded like coughing.

***

With all his magical might, he bonded the jinn to the entrance.

From now on,” he said, struggling to speak as the jinn tried to resist the spell, “you will protect it till the end of eternity unless . . .”—he gritted his teeth. He didn’t want this part, but there was no other way around it—“unless they genuinely impress you.”

The Guardian

Bufo uncurled himself, releasing them. Viven’s temples throbbed even as he took in plentiful gulps of air, the surge of adrenaline calming by now. The rolling had been wild, but yes, it had also been successful. Not only had they been able to save hours’ worth of time, but they were alive and in good form too.

“I think we can rest for some time,” Bufo snorted, very much exhausted.

“No,” said Viven, almost surprising himself considering how tired he was, willing himself to get up from his squatted position.

“Why on earth shouldn’t we rest, Viven?” Manu protested.

“I agree with him,” said Aunt Gina. “We should get moving.”

“Bufo,” said Viven, “didn’t you say the temple of Brene has no entrance? So don’t you think it will take some time finding a way in?”

If there is one.

Bufo blew a sigh.“I hate to admit it—you are right.”

The ride to the temple was far clumsier than the previous rides had been. Drained from the roll down the hill, Bufo struggled to manoeuvre himself. Viven cursed himself for preventing him from taking some much required rest. However, much like Bufo, he hated to admit it himself: he was right. If they rested, they would lose precious time, and he in no way wanted to keep searching for an entrance into the temple till the night.

If they were ever to get out of the Tropagian forest, it had to be today. Tonight he meant to have a good night’s sleep in his bed at Aunt Gina’s place back in Tempstow village.

They had come close to the temple of Brene by now. It was a mere two hundred metres away, the river Brank flowing by it. Then, as Bufo was about to land to take one final mighty leap, a costly glitch came as a fallen tree.

Everyone screamed. Just as Bufo’s feet came over the trunk, it rolled and slipped away. Bufo toppled to the ground, bringing his four passengers down with him. He tossed them off, and they landed roughly onto the forest floor.

As scratches and bruises burnt all over his body, Viven limped up. For a moment, his eyes rested over the muddy waters of the river. He blinked when he thought he saw some kind of red illumination under the water.

It disappeared the next second.

Shaking his head, he turned to the others. They were slowly getting up to their feet, their faces solemn.

“My bad,” Bufo grunted. “But I’m all spent!”

“What now?” said Aunt Gina, holding her right arm, which seemed hurt.

“Are you okay, Aunt Gina?” Viven asked her.

“Will do with it,” she replied, wincing.

“And you two?” he asked Manu and Dirita, who groaned their affirmative answers.

“Let’s continue, then,” he said.

Hobbling the remaining way, they arrived at the temple.

It was nothing spectacular to view, not when compared to all the other things they had witnessed in Tropagia. In fact, it was only as majestic as any other old desolated ruin. Merely a pyramidal structure carved out from stone.

For a long time, they kept staring at the temple, trying to devise a way in.

“This is impossible!” a frustrated Aunt Gina said, giving up. “No one can get inside this thing!”

“And we cannot break in either,” Bufo added. “Many have tried, and every single one failed; you see, there is a rumour that a lifetime’s worth of wealth is there inside this temple, though, you are the first mouths from which I have heard that the sword resides in it—Hey!”

The small group turned, alert, when they heard a mysterious Crack! that appeared to come from within the temple itself. What followed was stranger: an incantation by an unseen tongue that could have belonged to the air itself.

Let the temple open!” the voice hissed so that the hair on Viven’s neck stood on their ends, an iciness stirring in his stomach. Something was at play here, and he didn’t know what sort of result it would produce.

Mystic carvings and shapes appeared on the walls of the temple, odd shapes of insects and worms and larvae. Most of the bugs brandished weapons as though they were sentinels guarding the temple.

When the figures stopped popping out of the walls, Bufo said, the awe in his voice obvious, “Whose voice was that? And what are these shapes? I don’t know, but I feel like it’s through them that we can somehow enter the temple.”

“Maybe they form a puzzle we need to solve, don’t you think?” said Aunt Gina.

“Maybe,” said Bufo, peering at the shapes, “though I can’t see what sort of puzzle it is or how it should be solved.”

As Viven observed the bugs, he noticed a particular wasp that was pointing its sword at its own neck. The other insects too had their weapons drawn at dramatic angles, but the wasp was the sole one that seemed intent upon killing itself.

“Wait a minute,” Viven said, and approached the wasp.

“What are you up to, Viven?” said Aunt Gina.

“Don’t go too close,” said Bufo. “It could be dangerous.”

“Wait,” said Viven. “I think I’ve got something here.” Checking whether the wasp’s tiny sword was moveable and finding it so, he inverted it.

An invisible boost of power hit Viven hard on the chest, and he was thrown off his feet. Hearing screams, he clumsily turned to see the others on the ground as well.

“Urgh!” he moaned, scrambling back to his feet and backing away from the temple with caution.

“Didn’t I tell you?” said Bufo, lifting himself sluggishly. “What were you doing—?”

“Look there!”Viven pointed at the temple in glee. In front of it, a large hole had appeared on the ground, its diameter over six metres. A whooshing sound was coming from it as though a strong gale blew inside it.

Viven went and peered into it. He had expected anything but what met his eyes.

A giant of a man frowned back at him; he was thrice the size of the frog lord himself, the hole only almost fitting him. What quivered Viven’s core, though, was the giant’s lower body. Instead of legs, it was of thick white smoke that retained the shape of a cone.

“What’s in there?” Manu asked as the rest of them, too, rushed to his side. But Viven needn’t answer them, for the next moment, they had seen the giant as well, and their bewilderment matched his, if not surpassing.

“I am the guardian of the temple.” The giant spoke in a roaring voice, jingling the load of jewellery about his neck. “Without my permission, naught shall enter the sacred domain.”

“O guardian of the temple,” said Bufo, trying to keep his face composed, but failing. “We seek your approval. Would you let us enter? I request you.”

“Yeah,” said Viven, daring himself to speak. “We need to take the sword.”

The giant pondered a few moments, and then said, “Whether you need it or want it, I do not know; however, it is my duty to guard it, and I shall. Only on one condition should I allow you to set foot inside the temple.”

“And what’s it?” squeaked Manu.

“Impress it on me you are worthy of possessing a weapon of such power and dignity,” the giant stated.

“How?” Bufo asked.

“I do not know, but I assure you that you do not impress me by questioning myself how I ought to be impressed.” The giant said it all with a severe frown, and Bufo looked humbled.

Viven didn’t go about impressing giants daily back in Tempstow, and he was in a fix regarding how to impress this one. What’s more, he couldn’t shake off the feeling either that they weren’t worthy of possessing the sword, for they would destroy it once they brought it out of the temple.

Viven nearly dropped the axe Acario from his hands when he heard Aunt Gina speak in a voice that radiated only confidence. “Guardian,” she said, “you are a prisoner, aren’t you? Made to guard the temple and the sword from time immemorial?”

“Yes,” the giant confessed in a lower tone. “I was imprisoned here many years ago by a man with many powers. I resent it, but I cannot go away.”

“Then,” said Aunt Gina curtly, and Viven saw the coolness in her eyes, one he didn’t reckon ever seeing earlier, “what if we free you once we have the sword?”

This time it was the giant’s jaw that fell open.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bufo chimed in. “We’ll do it; we’ll free you!”

But Viven was looking at Aunt Gina. Her face was gleaming with a wild excitement, one that gave him cramps in the stomach. Something was off with Aunt Gina. The Aunt Gina back in the village had been different.

“Well,” said the giant, utter disbelief written over his dark face. “Well, I think you can have the sword then. You are quite worthy of possessing it.”

***

The Temple of Brene

I will disappear now,” the giant told them. “Then you will have to jump into this hole.” Seeing the bewildered expressions that had come over the others at the mention of the word “jump,” the giant added, “Do not worry. Once you jump, you will not be harmed. Rather, you would find yourselves inside the temple.” And with that, he yelled something only he understood, leaving their ears temporarily deaf, and was gone.

Once his ears recovered, Viven asked the others, “So, let’s jump, huh?”

“I am not sure if we’ll still have our arms and bones together down there,” Manu said, sceptical.

“We’ll be . . . killed,” Dirita said in a small voice.

“No,” said Aunt Gina. “I don’t think so. The guardian wants to be free, which he cannot if we die.”

“Well, then,” said Bufo, all but looking relieved that the giant had vanished. “Let’s jump. Do it on the count of three: One, two, three!”

Together they jumped into the hole. Barely had they done so when their feet touched floor, and the surroundings transformed into that of an ancient golden room—

It was the temple of Brene.

***

A strange source-less light enveloped the temple that, although had appeared rather small from outside, was twice the size of its outwardly appearance inside.

Precious jewels littered the temple floor like pebbles—diamonds, sapphires, rubies, pearls, and whatnot. However, all these went in ignorance as their eyes were captivated by what rested on the large altar in front of them.

The sword Navarion.

The blade had detailed shapes of men and insects carved on it. The sword was made of a peculiar quality of gold that had a liquid-like appearance, such that the shapes almost seemed to move.

For a long time, they gazed at the sword, huddling around the altar, not wanting to tear their eyes off it; then Aunt Gina broke the silence.

“Destroy it, Viven,” she said, and Viven thought her voice sounded more like a hiss. “Destroy it.”

Destroy it? The sword was beautiful, such that all Viven wanted to do at that moment was keep staring at it, enjoying its charm. He felt like he was losing the heart to destroy it, and wait, there was a second thing to it too—

“Hey,” said Bufo. “Viven cannot destroy it right away. We need to free the guardian, remember?”

“Destroy it!” Aunt Gina shouted.

“Aunt Gina?” Viven said, giving her a caring look. He wondered if something was bothering her, or maybe she just wanted to get done with the chore and return to Tempstow.

“Yeah, Mum,” said Manu. “What’s the hurry? Let’s get out of here first.”

Right at that moment, something happened; Viven could not grasp exactly what, but something did. It was like as if an invisible wave of some sort had just passed them.

Just like that, over five minutes passed. The others fell quiet. Quiet as if the gift of speech had been taken from them. Viven couldn’t understand, a tad bit of anxiety stirring within him. He tried to turn and look at the others. He couldn’t! It was then it dawned upon him as he remembered the similar experience back in the House of the Macacawks with Grandcawk. This had to be the same.

This was a time freeze.

“Yes, it is,” a man’s voice said.

A man appeared behind the altar. He wore black robes, the helm touching the floor; around fifty years of age, the man’s build was medium, and his face was familiar. Also, his right ear was almost double his left, reminding Viven of himself. But the most striking thing about his appearance was that he was translucent, so that Viven could see through him at the blurry wall behind.

“Grandpa Algrad!” Viven muttered in disbelief, aware he wasn’t opening his mouth at all “How?”

“Grandpa?” the man said, puzzled. “You are saying I’m your grandfather?”

Viven reconsidered his calling the man “Grandpa,” but this man could as well have jumped out from anyone of his grandfather’s portraits back home.

“Aren’t you Algrad Bezon?” Viven asked uneasily. “You led the expedition to Tropagia, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” the man replied, astonished. “At least half the man you talk of.” His gaze went to Viven’s neck. “I am his subsoul, and that is my Soul Splitter round your neck—which only Grandcawk could have given to you. So you . . . Are you really my grandson?”

“Yes,” said Viven, “I am.”

“But why have you come to this temple? Or did Grandcawk send you? Oh, no, that can’t be. He doesn’t even know. But you have Acario with you, and that foul witch too.” Some heat had come to his tone. “And that means—you have come to destroy the sword!”

Algrad gawped, his eyes widening in terror. He had spoken so fast that Viven struggled to get any clear meaning out of his words.

“Didn’t you want the sword destroyed?” Viven said.

“Me? Wanting the sword destroyed?” Algrad’s astonishment was infinite. “I gave half my soul trying to protect it!”

“What?” Viven said, the bewilderment in his tone so great, it was accusative. This was really his grandfather right? For all he knew, the man had to be. Hadn’t Grandcawk told him he suspected that the sub soul of his grandfather still existed?

“B-but,” Viven stuttered, “didn’t you tell Sezia this sword should be destroyed, since it could be used for bad purposes?”

“ Sezia?? My friend, you mean? She had murdered my other half of soul, but I know that when she did it, she was in someone else’s control, not her own. Her behaviour had been strange.”

“So you didn’t ask her to destroy the sword at all?” said Viven.

“Of course not,” said Algrad. “That would have been foolish of me. Tell me, how did you come across such misconceptions, son?”

“We were taken to Nascat as prisoners,” Viven explained. “There we met Sezia’s ghost, who said she’d help us escape if we destroy the sword called Navarion. She told us you had instructed her to do so.”

Algrad shook his head. “Then, son,” he said, “I am afraid that you have been fooled . . . and used. Navarion is the most powerful sword there is. It helps to maintain the balance between good and evil, never allowing the latter to rise above a particular limit. If this sword is destroyed, evil will break free and cause havoc to good.”

Although time had turned stationary, Viven felt as if he was swaying. Any moment he might faint and fall. They had been doing everything for nothing. Sezia had tricked them and they would be stuck in Tropagia forever. Why he had done so was another question altogether.

After what appeared to be an age, Algrad spoke again, eying distastefully at some spot behind Viven.

“And may I ask, son, why that witch is with you?”

For a wild moment, Viven wondered if Algrad was speaking about Bufo—but then Bufo was a male frog. How could he be a witch in any instance?

“No,” Viven assured Algrad. “We don’t have any witch with us.”

Algrad shook his head.

“That is a witch.” He pointed a firm finger beside Viven. “I can sense the dark powers emanating from her.”

Unable to move as he was, Viven asked, “Whom are you talking about?”

“That woman, who resembles my niece, Gina. But I know she is no daughter of mine, rather some feet licker of Mai Canniola.”

Viven froze some more, despite being already frozen.

“No,” he said. “Aunt Gina? Are you mad?”

“She isn’t my niece, or your aunt, son,” said Algrad. “She is a witch. You refuse to believe me, don’t you? Well, I can prove it.”

“No,” said Viven, more to himself than his grandfather’s sub soul. “No, she’s my aunt.” Images of all the time he had been with Aunt Gina flashed in front of his mind’s eye. Aunt Gina wasn’t any witch; she was too good to be one. She had always helped him all the time he was in trouble, always taken care of him as his mother would have were she there.

“I can prove it, son,” Algrad said again.

Viven, however, didn’t want him to prove anything. He knew Aunt Gina was no witch.

Then he succumbed to the contagious thought he was trying to keep himself at bay from—what if Algrad was right?

“How?” he asked, unwilling. “How can you prove it?”

“Through a simple test,” said Algrad, understanding Viven’s disbelief. “See, I will free you and them from this time freeze. Then what you need to do is pick up the sword Navarion and strike your so-appearing aunt—”

“I can’t do that!”Viven snapped. “I don’t even know what sort of powers the sword has!”

“Well,” said Algrad, “for that you would have to take my, your grandfather’s, word that all the powers Navarion has are powers of good. If a good soul lives inside your aunt’s body, then she will come to no harm. However, if she is a witch, she will be reduced to dust as soon as the sword touches her.”

Viven pondered over it. If Aunt was truly herself, she would remain unharmed. Anyway, the test was fair enough.

“All right,” he said, decided. “Go on.”

Algrad made a nod.

“I pray I am wrong,” he said. “Right after I let time flow again, I shall disappear. You must grab Navarion very quickly and strike her. It will take the witch by surprise, and she won’t have time to react—considering she really is one.”

“Okay,” Viven said, preparing himself for the task ahead.

Algrad snapped his fingers and was one with the air.

Viven dropped the axe from his hands, seized the sword, turned, and hit Aunt Gina.

To his endless horror, as though she weren’t made of flesh or bones, she turned to dust the moment the sword contacted her skin.

Coughing, Viven fell onto his knees. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry or to slap himself for the act he had carried out.

What did he do? What if it was the sub soul that was evil and had wanted to kill Aunt Gina? And if that wasn’t the case and this had been an imposter, then where was his true aunt?

Questions flooded his mind by the dozens, of which he could answer none.

“V-Viven,” said Manu, taking time to process what had happened. “What did you do?” His voice trailed off, and he fell onto his knees as well.

Feeling tears dribble down his face, Viven hugged Manu, fearing he might turn to dust too if he didn’t put his arms around him.

“Manu,” he wept. “I-I am sorry. She wasn’t your mum.”

“Wasn’t Mum?” Manu pulled himself away, his eyes turning redder by the second. “What do you mean? And why did you do that?”

“May the gods be blessed!” Bufo exclaimed, immense astonishment in his voice. “Algrad Bezon!”

Viven turned his head. Algrad had reappeared.

“Look!” Bufo said to Viven and Manu. “It’s your grandfather!”

“Grandpa Algrad?” Manu said. “But he’s dead. I-I don’t understand.”

“Be calm, my boy,” Algrad told him, coming over. “You are Gina’s son, aren’t you? What just took place was for the best.” He turned at Bufo, who was gaping in positive wonder. “Bufo, the lord of all frogs!”

“I can’t believe my eyes, Algrad. How—?”

“What did you do to Mum?” Manu demanded of Viven.

“She wasn’t Aunt, not your mum; she was—”

“A witch,” said Algrad.

“A witch?” Manu echoed, bewildered. “What are you saying?”

“She was an imposter, Manu,” Viven tried to explain, feeling horrid.

“Wait, wait,” said Bufo, puzzled. “You mean Manu’s mother wasn’t his mother, but a witch?”

Algrad nodded.

“Yes, and I told Viven by creating a time freeze to destroy her. I had sensed the witch as soon as you came here; you came here intending to destroy the sword, didn’t you?”

“Of course,” Bufo said. “That was the whole point of coming here.”

“Well, someone has been fooling about with you all. If you destroy Navarion, the balance between good and evil will be disrupted, giving birth to the perfect environment for the rise of evil.”

“What?” Bufo said.

“Leave all that,” said Manu, face glistening. “Where is my real mum, then?”

Algrad considered the question. “For all I know, son, she has to be with Mai Canniola.”

“The witch everyone talks about?” Manu asked.

“Yes.” Algrad nodded. He looked at Viven. “It is because of a spell I placed over the sword many years back upon my discovery of it. I thought I was the only one who knew about its existence, but Mai Canniola had been monitoring it too.

“My spell imposed on the sword that solely my descendants could destroy it. And not all my descendants, either: only the eldest child of my own eldest child, and his grandson and so on, skipping a generation each time. I had not wanted anyone to be capable of destroying Navarion at all, but that was impossible. There always had to be someone who had the power of bringing about the downfall of the sword, ignoring its holy powers against evil.

“Mai Canniola had tried to stop me from casting the spell, but she got me only after I had already done it. So now as I suspect, since you, son, are my eldest grandchild, she is trying to trick you into destroying the sword. She probably kidnapped my niece Gina and replaced her with the witch you just slew.”

“But how will we rescue Mum?” Manu asked, desperate.

Navarion will help you, my son,” Algrad said to him. “For many years, I had been under the wrong impression that the sword, Navarion, though it possessed infinite powers, could not be actually used, but now, after thirty years being with it, I know that it could very well be used.”

“What are you getting to, Algrad?” said Bufo. “We can use the sword against Mai Canniola?”

“Yes,” said Algrad, affirmative. “It could bring her downfall, but you would need to be very careful. The sword must always be with you. You should never let it away from your eyes.”

“Still,” said Bufo, “bringing Mai Canniola’s downfall, isn’t that great? Tell me, who hasn’t dreamt of it? That is excluding her filthy followers.”

“Well,” said Algrad. “is that girl another of my grandchildren as well?” He was talking about Dirita, who had fallen silent ever since Algrad’s appearance. She appeared pale, and Viven suspected it had to do with her cat and not Aunt Gina. No Sezia would be coming to help her get her cat back.

“She is Dirita,” Viven said for her. “She’s our friend. We found her in the forest; her evil uncle who wanted her property had left her to die.”

“That is a pity, then,” said Algrad with a sorry expression. “Are you going to take her to your house?”

“Yes,” said Viven. He had never really thought what would happen to Dirita once they returned to Tempstow. Maybe, if no alternative presented itself, they would have to keep her with them. There was no point in her returning to her own village.

Giving Dirita another pitiful glance, Algrad said, “Now, Viven, can you give me back my Soul Splitter? I have waited long for it.”

Viven removed the necklace from his neck and was going to give it to Algrad when Bufo interrupted, saying, “Wait, Viven, how did you get his Soul Splitter?”

“Grandcawk gave it to me,” Viven said.

“You have been to the House of the Macacawks, then?”

Viven nodded as he handed the Soul Splitter to Algrad.

“But, Algrad,” said Bufo, “if you put that on, you know what’ll happen, right?”

“Be transported to where the other half of my soul is, I suppose,” Algrad replied.

“But it’s dead!”

“Maybe I would arrive in the other world.”

“You don’t want to stay with us?” Viven asked, getting the meaning of what the other two were talking.

“Well,” said Algrad remorsefully, “son, see, it’s horrible without my other half of soul. And since it cannot come to me, I will have to go to it. Besides that, I cannot survive out of this temple either. If I go outside, I would become weaker and weaker until I am reduced to nothing. And then I cannot imagine the sort of suffering my other half of soul would be in. That is why I have made this temple my dwelling in the first place.”

“Is it the reason you never contacted us?” Viven said.

“Yes,” replied Algrad. “I have never been in a capable position of doing that.”

“Wait,” Bufo said. “I do not understand. Why can you only survive inside this temple, Algrad?”

“Because it’s made of Beaxtonix. It drew me here, Bufo. I can’t explain why, but I suppose it had something to do with this Soul Splitter of mine, which is made of the same element.”

He then sighed. “Well, now it’s time I went.”

“Wait,” Bufo said again, his tone urgent. “I want to ask you something, Algrad.”

“What is it?” Algrad said.

“King Brucus. You didn’t kill him, right? It was all false, wasn’t it?”

“It wasn’t,” Algrad replied in a guilty voice. “I killed him.”

“What!”Bufo exclaimed. Viven could barely believe his ears.

“It was a trick, Bufo,” Algrad said. “The foul witch played a trick on me. She made me think His Majesty was on her side! I was convinced that King Brucus was going to help her in an attack on the Diamension. But only after I had his blood on my hands did I realise that Canniola was the one who had set everything up to convince me against King Brucus. Oh, Bufo, I am sorry! It was the biggest mistake I ever made! I am sorry!”

Bufo sighed.

“Well,” he said, and lingered for a moment, torn between himself and unsure of what to speak. “I-I was hoping you were innocent, but”—he looked at Algrad—“I think I believe you, Algrad.”

“Thanks.” Algrad managed a small smile.

“Canniola is vile,” Bufo continued. “She makes people dance to her likings. She must be destroyed.”

“Yes, Bufo,” said Algrad. “She must be.”

He exhaled, staring at the altar for a few seconds. Then he looked up at them.“Well, I must leave now,” he said.

Bufo nodded.

“Save my niece, Viven, and bring Canniola’s end. Farewell, Bufo, and you three, as well.”

Smiling at everybody, he put on the necklace. There was a blinding flash of light, and when Viven opened his eyes, there was no Algrad Bezon in the temple of Brene.

“He’s gone,” said Bufo, rueful.

“We’d better get out too,” said Viven.

“All right,” said Bufo. He picked up the axe Viven had dropped. “Guardian! Let us be out.”

“As you please,” a loud, reverberating voice said. In an instant, they found themselves outside the temple before the giant in the hole.

“I see,” he said in his booming voice. “The woman had been a witch, but you must keep the promise she made: free me.”

“Okay,” said Viven, raising the sword doubtfully. He waved it a little. “You are free to go.”

The giant wagged its gaseous conical lower body and soared into the sky at breakneck speed. Soon he was a tiny dot, and then the clouds had him.

Manu threw a stone into the river, looking grim.

“Wonder how Mum is at the moment.”

“Won’t lie,” said Bufo. “She isn’t well, though I believe she’s alive. Canniola never kills her victims right away.”

Viven felt about the length of the sword in his hand, observing the tip.“How do we use this thing?”

“Maybe you need to tell it what to do,” Bufo suggested.

“Well,” said Viven, “let’s try.” He pointed the sword at a large boulder on the opposite bank of the river and commanded, “Sword, er, destroy that boulder.”

In a split second, a red beam of light shot out from the tip and hit the boulder, disintegrating it into a thousand tiny pieces.

“Wow,” said Bufo. “This sword is powerful!”

Viven spotted Dirita, some colour returning to her eyes after seeing the sword in action. Dirita had kept quiet regarding her cat after coming to know that they had been tricked. Viven had an idea.

He pointed the sword at Dirita and said, “Sword, retrieve Dirita’s cat!” He felt a strong pull in his gut, so intense it almost threw him off his feet. Then, after a few uneasy moments, the pull ended, and to his ultimate surprise, something appeared in front of Dirita.

A cat’s bones and skin.

“No!” Dirita shrieked, squatting down.

This wasn’t possible, Viven brooded in dismay. The bones and skin were almost dry, like it belonged to something that had died weeks ago. Dirita’s cat had been lost only on the day before yesterday, so in no way the remains could be of Mr. Mekuri.

“It’s not your cat, Dirita—” Viven began, but was cut off midway by Manu, who was jumping.

“I’ve got an idea! I’ve got an idea!” he said, his words vibrating with excitement. “You can bring back Mum like that!”

Grasping Manu’s brilliant idea right away, Viven commanded the sword to bring Aunt Gina. The pulling sensation seized him once again, but this time when it ended, nothing appeared.

Manu moaned, slumping to the ground, his spirits lowered. Meanwhile, Dirita continued weeping, clutching the stinking remains as though the cat would spring back to life if she did so.

“Dirita,” Viven tried to explain. His own little ray of hope had vanished after the failure. “That’s not Mr. Mekuri.”

“I-I recognise him,” said Dirita, sniffing. “It’s my Mr. Mekuri!”

“Well,” said Bufo to Viven, sighing, “what you just did is proof that your aunt is under powerful dark magic restriction—but then, it also proves she’s alive.”

They were taken surprised when Dirita ceased crying on her own, the remains being her attention no longer.

She raised a quivering finger at the river.

“I saw something there,” she said in a watery voice.

“You saw something?” Viven asked Dirita, curious about her behaviour.

“Yes. Something like red light.”

Bufo sprang up. “You saw red light below the water?” he asked Dirita, his voice urgent.

“Yes.”

“Wait,” said Viven. “I think I had also seen something like that when we fell down.”

“Oh my!” said Bufo. “Why didn’t you tell me? Now quick! Everybody, get on my back!”

“Why?”

“It’s the vamfant! Monster of the river Brank!”

***

Standing in Unison

Something had occurred. The dreaded witch Mai Canniola had never felt weaker and, strangely, duller.

Right after they had entered the temple, she had lost her connection with Milli. The last thing Milli had informed her of was that she had performed the spell to reveal the runes on the walls of the temple of Brene. The connection wasn’t supposed to go off in any circumstance, and yet it had—twice, including this one. However, the last time, which had happened within a few minutes of them entering Grandcawk’s chamber when Milli had swooned, the connection had re-established itself almost immediately. Also, Canniola hadn’t had to experience the odd weakness. Milli had told her the connection had broken due to an unseen wave of power suddenly hitting her.

In comparison, the break this time was way more prolonged and over half an hour had already passed since it occurred.

She sighed. The plan had seemed foolproof when she and the Purple One had first conceived of it. The only thing that had troubled her somewhat was the prospect of teleporting the grandson such a good distance away from the hill— a limitation in her powers due to Navarion’s existence. But it mattered no longer since they already had the axe.

Now Canniola struggled to convince herself the plan wasn’t breaking apart. Her trust on the plan had begun to waver. Had her playing Sezia’s character not appeared genuine enough? Well, she had won their trust and gotten them to come to Tropagia, so that had worked.

Besides, Milli had succeeded in letting the boys believe she was their aunt and mother. Oh! Canniola so desired to take hold of the grandson’s mind and make him destroy the sword. But that could not be considered. The grandson could not be forced to destroy the sword by any means. He could only be persuaded, never forced. If he did not wish to destroy the sword, she could do nothing, nothing at all.

So far, she had had to assist them to overcome three major hurdles in achieving her goal, a fourth—she dreaded—was on the verge of emerging.

The first hurdle had been the Macacawks, who had taken the four of them to their House and insisted that they meet their head of tribe, the disgusting old freak Grandcawk. She had been forced to deploy the Assurs to attack the House, knowing that the Macacawks would hesitate to keep outsiders among them if such a situation arose.

She regretted the attack, though, as she had had to carry it out during break of dawn. Her Assurs, like her, hated light, for it drained energy from their bodies. She had had to provide them with power shields to safeguard them from the effects of light. Gritting her teeth, she promised “herselves” to make the Macacawks pay for her troubles once the sword was destroyed.

Then, there was the Shifter tree. The darned tree had been a complete surprise. It had nearly murdered the grandson himself, if not for Milli, who saved him in time, although losing consciousness in the process for a few hours.

However, it was the third obstacle that Canniola found not displeasing but actually appeasing. Milli and the grandson had stumbled upon Bufo, the frog lord, and he had taken them to the Potion Makers, who had made them prisoners.

Bufo’s presence with the group had quite quickened them; though, they would never have slowed down if not for the Macacawks and the Shifter tree.

Foolish even if the frog lord was, Mai Canniola had always liked him from the start. If a beast of his strength were on her side, her victories would have doubled without doubt. But the frog lord had outright refused taking her side and becoming her servant. He was too influenced by the Potion Maker scum lot.

Then, as of the time being, another problem was also emerging: the disappearance of the Purple One; not that he hadn’t disappeared countless times before, as he was independent of her and could do his pleasing. But that was prior to the plot. His role in it was to act as the pet of Gonai’s nephew and to help Milli in difficult times. He had stuck to none. When the Shifter tree had attacked them, he hadn’t cared to help Milli, who lost consciousness in the process of saving the grandson and herself. And he hadn’t stuck to being the nephew’s pet cat as well. It was all in his character, though, and Canniola knew well he was still trustworthy.

She sighed. The broken connection was swelling more and more as a worry at the back of her three minds.

“Mai Canniola,” a voice purred. It was the Purple One; he had just appeared on the stool in front of her.

“You?” she asked him, tone callous. “Where have you been? The connection between me and Milli has broken!”

The Purple One grinned, his long whiskers longer than ever, taking Canniola by surprise, brushing away her anxiety.

“We can force the grandson to destroy Navarion once the sword has been brought out of the temple.”

Her misty jaw dropped. “How do you know?”

“Well,” he said, and lingered, not wanting to reveal. “I gathered knowledge from . . .some source.”

She waited a couple of moments to pass by before speaking, dumbfounded as she was and in a dilemma whether to feel elated or stupid.

“Why didn’t you tell me before? The plan has been pointless!”

The Purple One shook his furry head in disagreement.

“Not that pointless, my dears. Besides, I didn’t know about it until today. And anyway, the grandson remains the sole individual capable of retrieving the sword from the temple. So the plot is not all in vain since we cannot force him either physically or mentally to bring the sword out of the temple.”

“But you just said we can force him to destroy the sword, didn’t you?” Mai Canniola said, puzzled at the other’s words.

“You do not understand,” the Purple One said. “We can force the grandson to destroy the sword once it has been brought out of the temple. But we cannot make him, by force, retrieve Navarion neither of which I think will be necessary anymore as he thinks Navarion is a destructive weapon. He would destroy it on his own inside the temple itself.”

“That hasn’t happened, though, as yet. I don’t feel myself getting stronger. If anything, I feel weaker.”

“Maybe he hasn’t,” the Purple One agreed. “But he will soon. I think I should check out what has caused the breach in your connection.”

“You should?” Mai Canniola’s sarcasm knew no bounds. “I think you must.”

***

Bufo’s announcement of a monster being in the river was followed by some very unusual disturbance in the surface of the river. The waves turned violent, rising almost double their normal height.

Bufo picked the three of them up and hurried to the trees. He stopped only after putting a considerable distance between themselves and the riverbank.

As they slipped down his back, Viven witnessed what he would have never liked to witness at all. Next to the spot in the bank where they had been but a moment ago, a creature of terrifying magnitude arose from the river. Cylindrical in shape, the creature’s height reached hundreds of feet, and it was making a high-pitched screeching noise that wanted to rip Viven’s ears.

However, the real appalling feeling struck when it dawned upon him that the creature was made up of innumerable small beings that resembled human infants. It was their crying that was creating the noise. Far from cute, though, the babies, who acted as a single organism, were the ugliest beings Viven had seen. Their eyes bloodshot, their skin was the darkest shade of the colour black, large razor-like fangs and stripped snake-like tongues visible through their open mouths.

“Viven,” said Bufo, and it was amazing he let himself be heard, “I have a plan.”

“What?” Viven said, frowning at him, the screeching continuing to inflict torture over his ears.

“Use the sword to kill that offspring of the devil!”

At first Viven wondered if Bufo was being over-expectant. The sword was a powerful weapon all right, but wasn’t the monster just too big for it to tackle?

However, after a moment’s thought, Viven realised that it should be possible. When his grandfather himself had said the sword could bring Canniola’s downfall—and, judging from the rumours, he supposed she was the most powerful in the forest—it should also bring down any monster, and of any size.

Viven gathered his courage. It’s a test. And whether he could rescue Aunt Gina from the witch’s clutches or not depended on whether he could slay the monster and pass this test.

With a shout that sounded puny in his own ears, Viven raced down to the riverbank. It was eerie, the uncountable eyes of the babies licking his skin. Shaking like a reed in the wind, he lifted Navarion and, not sure what to say, begged it for help.

Slowly, maybe because he hadn’t begged with his mouth, a beam of light shot from the tip. It hit the topmost part of the creature where Viven was pointing.

Not moments afterward, the whole pillar of babies had turned to ash. It fell with a tremendous amount of force, splashing great loads of water and making huge waves, so that Viven had to trot some distance away from the bank.

The waves subsided, and the river turned to its usual size, the ashen vamfant sinking to its depths.

Manu gave Viven a thumbs-up, while Dirita ran to the place where her cat’s remains had been—the river had washed the remains away. Manu then clumsily went to where Dirita sobbed, digging the sand with her bare hands as if her cat was buried there.

Bufo beamed after making a sore look in Dirita’s direction.“See!” he said. “You did it! You killed the vamfant!”

Viven smiled, finding it hard to grasp his own achievement.

“You saw that, Crealus? He killed the vamfant!”

“Unbelievable, isn’t it? The boy’s even more powerful than his grandfather!”

Who was speaking? Viven thought, because it was nobody of their group. Wondering if he had heard the first speaker’s voice before, he turned. Viven trembled: at the distance of a few yards to their right were two Potion Makers emerging from the trees. Aremis was one of the duo, his companion a red-bearded man. Both men were waving their swords at them.

Bufo gulped.

“How did I forget? A troop had been sent to assist the Macacawks against further Assur attacks!”

***

Viven and the others realised soon that there were not two Potion Makers but a whole batch of them, who now emerged from all sides.

“I can explain,” said a desperate Bufo as the men approached cautiously.

“Oh, shut up, Bufo!” Aremis barked. “We saw what you did at the Diamension. It’s been a task reviving all of them.”

“But didn’t you see?” said Bufo. “Algrad’s grandson brought down the vamfant singlehandedly!”

Viven felt a sudden tug on the sword he had been holding. The next moment, before he knew it, an enormous eagle had snatched it away in its claws. The eagle—a tamed one, as it wore a ring on one of its talons—released Navarion, and Aremis caught it.

“No!” Viven said, cursing himself for not being careful.

A smile split Aremis’ face. “It’s only because of this sword.”

“And see,” said Bufo, giving Viven a hopeless sideways look as he held up the axe Acario. “He helped to find Acario!”

A wave of attentiveness swept over the Potion Makers at the name of the axe.

Acario!” said the red-bearded man beside Aremis, while the latter remained flabbergasted. “But it’s lost, isn’t it?”

“No longer now,” said Bufo.

They were taken to the Potion Makers’ Diamension. It was a long trek, now that Bufo could not be a means of transport for them. Viven’s thoughts kept drifting to Aunt Gina. What sort of condition was she in at present? Was she okay or suffering? The former wasn’t a strong possibility. By the gloomy face that Manu bore, Viven reckoned more or less he was thinking the same thing. Viven felt stupid: if only he had had the sense of being less careless with the sword, they could have shaken off the Potion Makers and gone to rescue Aunt Gina.

However, the four of them pleaded the soldiers to let them go, that Aunt Gina was with Mai Canniola and they needed to save her. They were adamant. The Potion Makers refused to listen to them and said that they couldn’t make any decision without their king.

So around the time they reached the little hut that was the entrance to the Diamension, it was almost evening. Viven repented over the loss of precious time and time they would lose further on, which they could have devoted to Aunt Gina.

After entering the Diamension, they were presented in front of His Majesty and his bunch of councillors. All of them, including the king, appeared drowsy and had puffy eyes. Viven suspected it had to do with the enchanted sleep Bufo had put them into by croaking.

At first their small group was quiet as stones, and then Bufo took up. “Your Majesty,” he addressed the king, “pardon me for what I have done today, but I was only helping the Potion Makers the entire time—”

“Helping us?” the king asked. “By making us fall asleep? Do you realise you made the Diamension vulnerable with no one guarding it?”

“I do, Your Majesty, I do.” Bufo was struggling for words. “And-And I am very sorry for that, but . . . but had I not done so, I would have never found the weapon that can bring Mai Canniola’s downfall!”

“What are you speaking of?” The puffiness was vanishing from the king’s eyes. “Weapon for bringing the witch’s downfall? Make yourself clear.”

“Hey-hey, show him!”Bufo shouted at Aremis, and then turning to the king, said, “And I even found our axe, Acario!”

He spoke the last word so loud, it qualified for a yell. It had the intended effect as all the drowsiness fled from everyone’s faces right away. Meanwhile, Aremis handed the sword and the axe to the king. Putting the sword aside, he marvelled at the axe in disbelief, checking its genuineness with open mouth.

Ac-Acario!” he stammered. “Oh my! It is Acario! Where did you . . . ?”

“In a cave in the hill in Canniola’s area,” said Bufo, the confidence increasing in his voice. “It would have never been possible if not for the help of these people.” He indicated at Viven, Manu, and Dirita.

“Bezon’s kin,” the king asked Viven, “how did you know where our axe, Acario, was?”

“Er,” Viven began. Luckily Bufo took over for him.

“It comes down to a trick the foul witch played on them.” He then recounted, with particular interest laid on the two boys and Dirita, all that had occurred ever since he had helped them escape from the Diamension. How they had found the axe in the cave. How they had gone to the temple, intending to destroy the sword, where Algrad’s sub soul had told Viven that someone was fooling with them and that the sword was a good weapon. How Viven had destroyed the imposter witch after coming to know from Algrad that she wasn’t his aunt, and finally, how Viven had slain the vamfant. However, in all his recounting, Bufo did not utter a single word about Algrad being King Brucus’ killer, and Viven couldn’t be more thankful to him.

“It’s true, Your Majesty,” Aremis added reluctantly. “We saw him turn the vamfant into ash with that sword.”

The king nodded at him. He turned to Bufo and said, “So, you mean to say that Algrad Bezon, whom we have long suspected to be a traitor, was framed by Mai Canniola? And that all the time he was trying to safeguard this powerful sword from her?”

“Absolutely, Your Majesty,” said Bufo. His tone was very much genuine sounding, but it wasn’t hard for Viven to detect a slight trace of hesitation.

The king placed the axe in his lap and picked up the sword. Examining the tip with intense curiosity, he said, “Can this really demolish Canniola’s powers?”

“Algrad said so,” Bufo assured.

“Well, boy,” the king said to Viven, “you know how to use this sword, right?”

“Yes . . . Your Majesty,” Viven replied awkwardly, unfamiliar to court manners.

“Then here.” The king held out the sword. “Take it.”

Viven went and, making what was the most primitive form of a bow, took the sword and returned to where the others were standing.

The king cleared his throat and addressed everyone, the councillors especially.

“So, I have decided to believe all of what Bufo says.” He paused once to see if any councillor was disagreeing—none were. He continued. “It seems Algrad Bezon had always remained our fast friend, and maybe it was ourselves who were faulty at taking Canniola’s word of him being a traitor. Anyway, we cannot change the past, can we? So, to undo our wrongdoing, we will assist Algrad’s grandson to rescue his niece from Mai Canniola. And since we have the powerful sword Navarion on our side now, we will wage a large scale attack on Canniola within a week’s time and free Tropagia from her vile shadow!”

Agreement passed over the councillors and soldiers, all of whom apparently had intense hatred for the witch and wished nothing but her downfall and destruction.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Bufo said in a low voice, more to himself than the king. “Thank you.”

“Do you think she will survive one extra week?” Manu asked Viven, his eyes that of a baby sheep watching its mother being chased by wolves at a distance.

“She has to,” said Viven. He knew a week’s gap would lower Aunt Gina’s chances of survival under the nose of the witch, but since the Potion Makers would be helping, he was sure that their chances of rescuing her would also be much increased.

Anyhow, he had never expected something of the kind that happened today to take place. The Potion Makers were their allies now, no longer savage to execute them, and besides, his grandfather’s name was cleared. He had been guilty, yes, but his actual intentions had been to help the Potion Makers. No one would be ever calling him a traitor again, thanks to Bufo. That was something good.

***

Viven, Manu, and Dirita were given a room for lodging themselves inside the castle. As for the frog lord, Bufo, he had his own house, which was one of the many outside. The preparation for the war began in full force; the Potion Maker soldiers were trained rigorously day and night. Everywhere in the Diamension there was a great rush. Weapons were forged to increase their available stock, and potions, both destructive and wound healing, were brewed. Messages on scrolls were sent to the Macacawks, and soon, a number of them were seen in the Diamension, helping about in various activities.

Viven observed that the way they spoke was strange and difficult to understand. It hadn’t been so during his stay in the House. Tonkeytus and Grandcawk had been fluent with their use of speech. Curious, Viven asked Bufo, who replied that most Macacawks, unlike the Potion Makers and himself, didn’t know Belarian properly.

“But I heard them singing,” Viven said. “And they were good at it.”

“Um, did you turn into a Macacawk yourself and enter the House?” Bufo asked.

Viven recalled himself waking up in the House of the Macacawks, only to find he possessed a tail and was half his actual size.

“Er, basically.”

“Then, that’s the thing!”Bufo said. “You were a Macacawk yourself, so you could understand and talk Macaquek yourself, and that’s why they appeared good talkers to you.”

“Macaquek?” Viven said. “Is it the language of the Macacawks or something?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, but we were talking to Tonkeytus in our human forms and he talked normal.”

“Well,” said Bufo, “Tonkeytus is one of the few Macacawks knowing good Belarian, so that should have been the case.”

Once Viven even sighted Luidhor, the queer tattooed wizard they had first met, talking to some of the councillors. Evidently, he was also a friend of the Potion Makers. The councillors were shivering in fear, though, as Luidhor had brought his wolf monster with him.

Manu and Dirita were not at all considered of going to battle. But stubborn Manu, despite Viven’s repeated attempts of explaining him the dangers, told the Potion Makers he wanted to join the attack. Fortunately, the Potion Makers refused outright.

Viven often had long talks with Bufo regarding his grandfather and all that had taken place between him and the forest folks the many years back. Bufo told him they had found him unconscious and badly injured after some Assurs, Mai Canniola’s demons, had attacked him and his men, and he had been the sole survivor. Algrad had recovered quickly, though, with help from healing potions of the Potion Makers, and made friends with most of the people within weeks of his recovery, including the Macacawks.

“He was fast,” said Bufo. “Fast at making friends, fast at everything,” he added reminiscently. Bufo also advised Viven further about the sword and that he should guard it well and keep it secure.

“Keep the sword safe and see to it, you ought to.” His voice was barely more than an undertone. “The Potion Makers, they are good but not all of them. Some are too thirsty for power. I have known them inside out; you never should trust them on big matters.” He nodded to himself. “Besides, the whole attack is based on the sword. And if it’s lost or stolen, it is simply inviting doom; you won’t be able to rescue your aunt too.”

Then, something took incidence on the third day prior to the attack.

Viven, Manu, and Dirita had just had their lunch when a strange female voice reverberated about their room.

“Potion Makers,” it hissed, giving Viven the jitters. “What is this that you have done? You have broken the truce by deciding to attack me. Do you think I do not know? Well, I know everything. Give Bezon’s grandson to me; I lend you three days, or else, prepare to meet your ends. Also, grandson of Bezon, your dear aunt is with me. If you do not want her to suffer pain or worse, come with the sword. I likewise give you three days.”

The voice then ceased to exist, leaving a ghostly silence.

“What was that?” Viven whispered, looking at the horrified faces of the two boys.

He got the answer soon enough when he went out and asked the people around: It had been the voice of Mai Canniola herself.

Her warning had a considerable impact on the spirits of the Potion Makers. However, the impact hopefully wasn’t dampening. Far from it, it rather increased their will to bring her downfall, and they took it as a challenge. And knowing that the Potion Makers were relying on the sword Navarion for winning the upcoming battle, Viven always kept it in sight and guarded it as per Bufo’s advice.

***

There was a massive rush the last day before the attack, which, as decided, would be straightforward and bold. The allied armies of the Potion Makers and Macacawks were to surround the area around the axe hill and inflict as much damage over it as they could. Mai Canniola would be forced to reveal herself, and then Viven could have a shot at destroying her by using the sword.

As Bufo told him, the last time the allied armies had waged battle against Canniola, she had replied to it by unleashing a monster land vamfant on them. This time, however, the Potion Makers, who had witnessed Viven bringing the vamfant crumbling down, were confident that if Canniola was to send any monster, then Viven could bring it down using the sword.

Viven spend the whole of the last day building, or trying to build anyway, his confidence and calming his nerves, which had become extra alert to the smallest of sounds. He was impatient so much, he couldn’t sit in a place for anymore than a couple of minutes, and kept pacing in circles about the room for hours at length. He almost found the idea of himself going to battle ironic, but he was acutely aware it was all real. He wished he was back at Tempstow, trying to get something going with Meela instead.

Finally, the day came to an end, and Viven, tired due to all the pacing, was happy because the tire lowered his anxiety. It did nothing to boost his confidence, though, which remained low as ever.

After dinner, Bufo visited their room with some words of encouragement for Viven. He had to squeeze himself through the small door.

“You look pale as parchment, lad!” he joked, looking not so gleeful himself. “I suppose it’s because of tomorrow, eh?”

Viven nodded, very much grave.

“Well, it’s natural for first timers. I would advise you not to give a thought to the thing, not until tomorrow, that is. When you are in the midst of battle, you won’t have much time to worry, to be true; your instincts will take over and your body will do stuff on its own.”

“Thanks,” said Viven as Bufo departed. Heeding what the latter had said was a task that sat next to impossible, for however he tried, Viven couldn’t not think of tomorrow. He shuddered. Tomorrow would be a big day.

***

The Helper

The following day, after a quick fitting breakfast, they set out toward the hill. Most of the Potion Makers, including King Atomus, had come, and only a few were left behind in the Diamension as guards.

“Don’t worry, boy,” said Bufo, Viven riding on his back. “Your aunt will be with you by the end of this.”

Viven looked at the many soldiers all around him, making their way through the forest. All to rescue his aunt. He gripped the sword in his hands tighter.

“Let’s hope for it.”

The Macacawk army joined them at a point in the forest. Grandcawk didn’t come, being too frail for anymore of war. However, Tonkeytus did, and he was among those in the lead, looking enthusiastic and ever ready for what was to come. There was a younger Macacawk beside him, whom he was patting now and then, and who resembled him a lot, probably his son. Tonkeytus smiled broadly when he spotted Viven, who did the same.

The armies rendezvoused with Luidhor at another point. It turned out he had more than just one wolf monster—about a hundred. The savage animals, a mixture of several animals in themselves, apparently were way more disciplined than what their appearances suggested, and followed Luidhor, who was grimmer than usual today, with obedience.

The Macacawks, marching alongside him and his beasts, did not seem fond of them. Some even kept stealing scowls and frowns at them.

Upon reaching the hill, they stopped. It was Mai Canniola’s territory from here on. A knot tied in Viven’s stomach, the arms of fear closing on him like some cold vibe. He had no idea what lay for him ahead.

The king climbed down from his horse and boldly went a few steps forward.

“Mai Canniola—” he began, but was cut short by the witch’s voice itself, which rang about the area as the boom of some cannon fire.

“I know, I know,” she said. “You have come here to war upon me. I am giving you your last chance. Leave the grandson here and return to your home.”

“We have come to help you meet your end,” the king replied. “How can we go back without helping you, eh?”

“Ah, big words!” snarled the voice. “But if that is what you wish, then so be it!”

“Yes, and do show that beehive of a face you possess. We’d like to punch it.” The king was trying to agitate her enough so she would reveal herself and Viven could make use of the sword. He was doing pretty well.

“You dare call me that, you filth?”

“I do,” the king said. He was forcing himself to grin so that he would look like he was enjoying himself calling her names, but the underlying shiver in his tone was evident. “And you actually look better—a beehive covered with Assur dung! But still, I think an improvement has come over your looks after you stopped being women.”

The king’s mockery, along with the fake laughter of the allied army, did the job.

“You shall pay!”Canniola’s voice yelled.

“Well, we can definitely hand you some potions, if you insist,” the king retorted, and waited for a while, but no response came; knowing that the job was done, he hurriedly climbed back onto his horse.

“Prepare yourselves,” he shouted over at the army. Right after that, a great clap of thunder occurred in the sky. What followed were strong tremors that made the ground shake like it had become alive.

“Stay put! Stay put!” King Atomus kept encouraging at the top of his voice as the quake grew in intensity, the soldiers crouching to keep their balance.

“Keep your sword ready,” Bufo told Viven. “Anything can come from anywhere.”

And it did.

A great crater appeared in the ground just at the foot of the hill. No sooner, troops of demons—half men and half bugs—and abnormal gigantic cockroaches and other insects all swarmed out of the crater in uncountable numbers.

Viven knew it was his moment of action.

“Try to be steady,” he told Bufo, and Bufo did all he could against the dancing earth.

“Yeah, burn them up!”

Viven took a deep breath and raised the sword. Gulping, he said, “Navarion, destroy the demons!” To Viven’s instant glee, a blue magical flame shot from the sword toward the crater. Turning into a large fire, the flame spread rapidly among the demons, and in minutes, it had engulfed the majority of them, leaving only ashes behind. The few who were fast enough to escape fell prey to the arrows and spears of the soldiers.

Viven expected more of the demons to come out of the crater. They, however, didn’t. Certainly Mai Canniola had other plans, he found himself thinking. Didn’t she?

However, the allied army was cheering at the small victory, the display of Navarion’s power refreshing their spirits.

To add to that, the tremors ceased. Viven couldn’t shake off the nasty feeling they were merely being tested, and that there was more and worse stuff to come.

“Hey,” said Bufo, the curiosity in his tone taking Viven’s attention.

“What?”

“Isn’t that your friend Dirita’s cat?” He pointed at a small creature behind a shrub.

“Mr. Mekuri?” It was then that Viven realised how beautiful Mr. Mekuri’s eyes were. Ah, those eyes! And Mr. Mekuri was the cutest pet in the world, the cuddliest one. In fact, he could be king of Belaria! Why hadn’t he been already given the throne? Viven had an urgent want to complain to someone, anyone. Mr. Mekuri should be made king immediately; and oh, he could levitate too! He was floating seven feet above the ground and was coming toward Viven.

Viven felt himself return to the world. There was no sign of Mr. Mekuri any longer, and hordes of demons were playing havoc over the ally army everywhere, gigantic cockroaches flying about the sky.

“Viven, can you hear me?” He realized only now that Bufo was earnestly calling him.

“Wh-What?”

“Why did you give it the sword, and . . . why didn’t I stop you?”

“Give it the sword? What are you—no! Wait!”Viven fumbled for the sword. It wasn’t in his hands. It hadn’t fallen to the ground. It wasn’t anywhere.

“Oh no! No!” Viven said, so desperate he was sweating. “I have lost the sword!”

“The cat,” said Bufo. “It wasn’t any ordinary cat. It kept both of us under some kind of spell and took the sword!”

“What are we going to do now?” Viven asked, worried as hell. He had failed Manu. He couldn’t rescue Aunt Gina now, never without the sword. As for the allied army, every single one of the soldiers would die.

“I don’t know,” said Bufo. “I think we must retreat—HEY!”

Viven was thrown off Bufo’s back and landed on the ground as a powerful tremor hit.

The earth split apart, and humongous cracks appeared here and there, consuming not only trees and plants but also the allied army soldiers by the dozens.

The pandemonium in the air heightened as the quake climaxed, so that the earth’s stability was comparable to that of water. Viven lost all control over his body, which rolled off toward the edge of a large crack nearby.

“BUFO!” he cried, trying to cling to whatever plants and roots he could grasp along the way, most getting uprooted easily. “HELP ME!”

Too late. In a wee moment, Viven found himself in mid-air, after having bounced off the edge.

“Arggggggh!” he yelled, closing his eyes and accepting the worst.

Peculiarly enough, when Viven opened his eyes next, he hadn’t died yet; neither had he reached the bottom of the crack.

He was still in mid-air.

Refusing to believe, he looked down. Leaving aside the fact he was levitating fifty metres above the crack—a height double that of the trees— what blew his mind was that his body had gone entirely purple. Within seconds, he realized it was due to a sticky substance of the colour that had covered his body.

Weird.

He couldn’t feel the substance on his skin at all.

His thoughts channelled to the purple cat that had taken the sword from him, and he suspected a connection.

Below, the ground still shuddering, Viven saw Bufo take a leap into the air toward him. Come, Bufo, come fast!

Bufo ascended higher and higher. However, when he reached Viven, Viven shocked himself by grabbing hold of Bufo’s head. He spun him trice in the air as though he were not the frog lord but rather a small stone. Viven released Bufo after the third spin, and his boulder-sized body flew a long way and landed against some trees, not showing any signs of movements.

“Why did I do that?” Viven asked himself. Why had he done that? He could just not swallow the thing.

“Because it is I who controls your body,” a soft voice replied behind his head.

Under normal circumstances, Viven would have never believed anything of the kind. But levitating tens of metres above the ground, covered in a strange substance, and being answered by an unseen voice was anything but normal.

“Get off me!” he protested. “Get off me, whoever you are!”

“Shut up for the time being,” the voice said.

“Get off—” The sticky substance covered Viven’s mouth too, preventing him from making a sound.

In the distance, Viven saw massive chunks of soil fall off from the hill.

The allied army soldiers were watching it in raw terror as well, as they suffered at the hands of the demons that seemed to think of the soldiers as nothing more than game animals. They were relishing the weak resistance provided by their enemy, now that they were deprived of the sword.

In about ten minutes, most of the soil had fallen off. However, it was not like the hill had collapsed onto itself. Instead, the process had led to the revealing of a mighty castle that had been inside the hill the entire time.

It was quite a stupefying sight to withhold. Viven had never known there was a castle beneath his feet when he had climbed the hill. The thought was eerie to an extent, considering the castle, almost the height of the previously standing hill, was far from magnificent. It was a piece of horrifying architecture, endowed with a crude appearance increased by the debris and dirt settled over it. The stone slabs and bricks that the castle was made of were black in colour, and its entrance door had large stone fangs on either side.

“Come, let’s go there,” said the voice behind Viven’s head, and it was clear to him that there meant the castle. It was the last place he wanted to visit, but try as he might, he could do nothing to not go there. His body was no longer his belonging. He drifted toward the castle, his mind resenting; the gory terror of battle went about on the grounds below him.

***

Reaching the castle, Viven descended and landed in front of the unwelcoming entrance.

It opened. It was pitch black inside. He didn’t want to go in, but he did nevertheless. The door closed behind on its own, and Viven was surrounded by the ethereal darkness. His legs kept walking for a couple of minutes, knowing much more about the place than himself, guided by the mysterious voice’s owner.

Viven heard gibberish sounds ahead and realised somebody was talking. They were speaking in an odd language, with lots of clicking of the tongue and gargling. But they stopped talking once he reached them, and his legs stopped walking too.

A sharp, splitting pain erupted inside Viven. It was intolerable and beyond, so much he cried out madly, and again and again.

As unseen hands clutched different parts of his body, Viven blacked out.

***

Viven came back to his senses when a resounding slap fell upon his cheek. Tasting blood, he opened his eyes. Spots kept flashing in his vision as he made out a puny candle a few metres in front to his right. After they cleared, with the help of the candle’s meagre light, he saw a woman’s face not more than a foot away from his own.

However, the face was unlike that of any other woman he had ever seen. It was not constant, the shape of the head altering every handful of seconds as though it was made of gas. It resembled the looks of both a teenage girl and that of an old woman.

“You are Bezon’s grandson, aren’t you?” the woman asked in an icy voice.

“Yes,” said Viven, taking himself by surprise that he could speak. He glanced at his body—nothing! No trace of the purple sticky substance that had earlier covered him. He relished being in control of his own body,

Then he came to see the metal chains around himself binding him to a massive pillar, and his glee strangled itself and died.

“Please let me go!”Viven begged the woman, whose appearance Viven was finding to be very disturbing by now. “Let me go!”

“Let you go?” The woman smiled with malice, revealing misty teeth. “Without what you came seeking for?”

At that moment, Viven abruptly knew who the woman was—the witch, MaiCanniola. It could only be her.

Seized by fear, he stammered, “You-you have my aunt, don’t you?”

“Ah! That’s what I’d call clever!” She patted him with force on the head twice, making it ache, and moved aside.

Now that she wasn’t in front of him, he saw that there was an altar. And a figure was mounted atop it: a woman. Viven’s heart sank so low that it might as well have fallen into his guts.

The unconscious woman was Aunt Gina.

He could identify her face even with the poor light. She was bony as though she hadn’t eaten a meal in days and days on end. She was breathing slowly.

Gritting his teeth, Viven struggled with all his energy to break free from the chains. “Aunt!” he cried, hoping like mad she would wake up upon hearing him. “Aunt Gina!”

After a minute or two of frantic efforts, Viven gave up, forcing himself to realise it was pointless. If only he were strong enough.

“Please let us go!” he said to Mai Canniola. He felt pathetic as tears swelled in his eyes. No wonder he had found himself coming to battle ironic. Begging was all he was capable of.

Mai Canniola smirked, eyeing him detestably.

“What would be the point in bringing you here, then? Anyway, I’ll still be letting you and your aunt walk away free from my castle on one occasion.” Viven sensed the words before they came. “You must destroy the sword Navarion.”

Canniola’s words were tempting, and Viven wished the sword Navarion had never existed. The decision was painful, but Viven had to make it.

“No, I-I can’t do that.”

“Really?” Mai Canniola raised a bushy eyebrow. “Well, I can assure you that you can definitely destroy it . . . you do want to destroy the sword, don’t you?”

Viven didn’t answer. Mai Canniola stared at him for a while, glowering. Then she raised her arm and slashed at his cheek with her long nails.

He yelled, feeling for one fleeting moment as if his life was being taken out of him, the nails being poisonous, beyond doubt.

As Viven whimpered, his head bowed and fighting to not pass out from the pain, Mai Canniola grabbed his nose and lifted his head. She snapped the fingers of her other hand.

There was a spark, and then she was in possession of both the axe Acario of infinite powers and the sword Navarion, the monitor of evil.

“Look here,” she said. “This is the sword. And you will destroy it using this axe.”

“I won’t,” Viven said, feeble but firm. He well knew that even if he destroyed the sword, the chances of Mai Canniola letting him and Aunt Gina go out of the castle without becoming corpses were zero. Scowling, she nodded and walked backward to the altar.

“Your aunt might not enjoy it if that is what you say. Come on, be clever. Think!”

Viven considered the situation, his gut never being more uneasy than now. It would be easier if Mai Canniola killed the two of them, rather than making Aunt Gina suffer, him watching.

It was then that Viven struck gold, though corroded gold, that is to say.

“That is not my aunt, just an imposter like the previous one.”

“Ah,” Mai Canniola said, grinning in her evil way. “You want proof, then, don’t you? Fortunately, I have proof in plenty that this woman is your aunt.”

She slashed at Aunt Gina’s feet with her nails. Blood seeped.

“See that?” she asked. “Red blood. We witches bleed milky white, not red like yours.”

There was every possibility that Mai Canniola was making it up. Viven hadn’t seen the imposter Aunt Gina bleed before.

“So, what do you say now, boy?” Mai Canniola asked him. She edged closer to Aunt Gina and laid her nasty fingers on her neck. “Think fast. We don’t have an age.” Viven was indeed thinking fast, his legs quivering from his mental agony.

He opened his mouth and closed it, his gaze ever on the long nails of Mai Canniola that she kept drumming on Aunt Gina’s skin; then, she raised her forefinger and, with the nail, made a small cut so that blood oozed.

Viven sighed. A man had his limits.

“Wait!” he screamed as the witch raised her middle finger to make a second cut. She stopped and raised a brow, smiling a self-contended evil smile at the same time.

“I will destroy the sword,” Viven gasped. “I’ll destroy the sword.”

“Given up being stubborn, have you?” said Mai Canniola, relishing his despair. “That is a good boy.”

She placed the sword Navarion on the altar beside Aunt Gina. Then she came over to Viven. She ran her hand over the chains binding Viven to the pillar. They disappeared.

The first thing Viven wanted to do once he was free was to hit Mai Canniola. But such an act would only reap him bitter fruits. He accepted Acario from the witch.

Mai Canniola quickly returned to her position beside Aunt Gina and placed her hand on the latter’s neck, nails ready to dig into the soft flesh.

“Any smartness with the axe will cause you your aunt’s life,” she hissed. “Remember that. Now destroy the sword!”

Viven looked at the axe and felt dumb that the thought should come to him only after Mai Canniola had mentioned it herself— he could use it against her.

Slowly, Viven approached the sword lying on the altar, the weight of the task making his legs shiver.

Taking a deep breath, he raised the axe. For a moment, he wanted to bring it down on Mai Canniola. But those nails . . . Suppose she backed away before he struck her, what then? He couldn’t dare to think what the witch would do after that with Aunt Gina.

Viven looked down at the sword.

“Destroy it already, will you?” Mai Canniola said impatiently.

Destroying the sword was suicidal. Mai Canniola would do away with him and Aunt Gina right after he split Navarion into two.

Suicidal.

A thought floated to his mind, and he allowed himself the luxury of a grin. Hadn’t Bufo talked about a saying that Acario could destroy everything but its handler? Viven brought the axe down with all his strength.

On himself.

He heard Mai Canniola shriek as the blade of the axe split his skull. All he knew after that was pain.

Red dots covered his field of vision as he felt his face smack onto the cold floor.

And then, very strangely, the pain ended.

“You cannot do this,” a mystical voice said that echoed everywhere inside his head. He couldn’t see where the person was. He wasn’t even sure if he was seeing anything or not. It was like being in a dream and not at the same time.

“You are my handler,” the voice continued, and it dawned upon Viven that the speaker had to be Acario itself. “I cannot kill you. I cannot let you pass to the other world. Return to the world of the living!”

Viven opened his eyes and found himself lying on the floor. He was alive. It had worked!

Meanwhile, Mai Canniola had fallen silent, making a small sound that hung halfway between laughter and sobbing. A moment passed like that. And then she began screaming; it was unbearable.

He sprang up. The surprised Mai Canniola stopped screaming at once.

“You are alive!” she said in glee, managing a ghastly smile. Then her eyes went wide as Viven grabbed the sword.

“Do that and your aunt dies,” she hissed, but Viven had already pointed the tip toward her. He concentrated on the thought of destroying her. A beam shot out.

Just before the beam could strike her, she waved her hand, and a dark translucent screen formed, shielding her from the beam.

All of a sudden, Viven found himself requiring a lot of mental effort to keep the beam going; otherwise it was flickering. However, he could see that Mai Canniola too had to put in a lot of effort to keep the shield up.

Then his eyes fell on the axe lying on the floor. He crouched, one hand still pointing the tip at the witch, and picked it up. Acario might not be able to kill its handler, but it definitely had the power to destroy the magic shield.

“Die!” he roared, and hurled it at the shield. The shield gave way the moment Acario hit it, and now the beam from the tip struck Mai Canniola.

She screamed, and it was only some seconds before she was reduced to dust.

Viven fell onto his knees, drained of all energy. With his hand, he touched his head where he had hit himself with the axe. It was wet with blood, but he didn’t feel the slightest pain on touching. Somehow Acario had healed his wound.

Viven took in deep breaths and looked at the sword. He owed it not only all the troubles in Tropagia but also his life.

There was a great ringing sound, and from nowhere, a man leapt in front of him.

He was spectacularly built. Muscles decorating his body that was bare if not for the tight short trousers on the lower part and strips of clothes on his huge chest that appeared to be remnants of a shirt. His face was clean shaven, though his greasy black hair cascaded down to his shoulder and below.

Barely did Viven register the man that the latter snatched the sword from his hands.

Boy, couldn’t his troubles end with Mai Canniola?

He scrambled to the other side of the altar and, picking up the axe, wielded it in a pitiful threat display.

“Now who are you?” he asked the man.

The man didn’t reply. Instead he turned, pointed the tip of the sword at a wall, and roared. The beam from the tip melted the wall and the wall after it in the next room and the next and so on, creating a kind of straight passage, at the end of which Viven could see daylight.

Then the man looked at Viven and gestured at Aunt Gina on the altar and the passage he had created.

“What?” Viven said. “You want me to take her and go?”

The man made a clumsy nod.

Viven didn’t move, still unsure if that was what the man really meant.

The man grunted and lifted Aunt Gina from the altar.

“Hey! Don’t touch her!” Merely did Viven finish speaking that the man heaved Aunt Gina onto Viven’s shoulder.

“Urgh!” Viven said, struggling to maintain his balance under Aunt Gina’s additional weight.

The man patted him on the back and pointed at the passage; then he pointed the tip of the sword at the ceiling of the room, and another beam shot out and hit it. A rumbling noise arose as the castle began to vibrate, the vibrations getting stronger and stronger with the passing seconds.

“So, you coming?” Viven asked the man, trusting that he wasn’t on Mai Canniola’s side and only meant to help. The man shook his head and gestured Viven to go.

“Okay,” Viven said.

He trotted off along the crude passageway as fast as he could. There were several dark shapes of short-armed men in the rooms through which he ran. But none of them tried to bar him, and on the contrary, tittered away, apparently frightened of him.

Once reaching the end, he looked back. Was the man going to come?

The castle vibrated with much intensity by now. It was only a short length of time before it would fall down on itself with the stability of a matchstick castle.

Unclear of the man’s intentions, Viven decided against waiting.

He took a deep breath and sped toward the trees. The war was raging on outside; hopefully, though, it was the allied army that was wrecking havoc now. The demons and their counterparts, the bugs, seemed to have been weakened by the demise of their mistress, Mai Canniola. Also, the Potion Makers appeared to have utilised their healing potions, and most of the allied army soldiers were in good shape and up and fighting.

Viven’s legs were wearing out. Carrying Aunt Gina was rigorous. Still, he kept his limbs going on, delivering himself and his aunt farther and farther away from the castle, being fuelled not only by fear but also the mad realisation of how lucky he had been. He imagined Manu’s face when he saw his mother. Viven had been successful in keeping his promise . . . But he could only shudder when he thought what if he had died after hitting himself with the axe.

He came to a halt, gasping. Lowering Aunt Gina to the ground, he turned his head.

Just then, the castle collapsed onto itself. It was all dusty for half a dozen minutes before it cleared. A shrill cry echoed everywhere, and three giant translucent heads formed above the debris—each resembling the witch, Mai Canniola, but none exact.

New spirit dawned over the coalition army battling the few demons left, sparking the thirst for victory.

That day it was the coalition army soldiers who drank victory.

***

Aunt Gina’s Tale

The hospital wing of the Potion Makers’ castle was pin-drop silent. Aunt Gina was opening her eyes very slowly, as though even that was a labour for her. It was half a minute before they were fully open.

Manu broke the silence with his tears.

“Don’t cry, Manu,” Viven told him, patting him on the back.

“I-I am not,” said Manu in a quivering voice, putting his hands over his eyes. Viven patted him again, trying to console.

“Where are we?” Aunt Gina asked in a weary voice, eyeing uncomfortably the two Potion Maker physicians standing beside the bed, only Viven and Manu containing her.

Viven smiled.

“It’s a long story, Aunt. We’ll tell you later.”

“So,” said the elder physician who had a red beard going down to his chest, “there you go; she’s back. I think we’ll let you have some time alone with her.” He nodded at Viven, and he and the other physician walked to the door on the somewhat far left. They opened it, and Viven had a brief glimpse of the giant green mass that was Bufo, waiting outside.

Bufo had been in the hospital wing for the whole of yesterday. His right arm had been fractured badly, and he had also received ghastly bruises on the head. Viven had been feeling very guilty toward him, for he had been the one who had thrown Bufo and knocked him out. Of course, though, as Bufo had later dismissed, Viven was being controlled by the purple living substance. Still, the guilt remained.

The day before yesterday had been Viven’s biggest day. Sometimes he thought of all his weak emotions back in the castle with Mai Canniola, and he couldn’t believe that he had survived. What’s more, by now it felt more like a dream than reality. All the same, he had achieved his goal, and he knew given the circumstances he couldn’t have performed better.

Viven had returned the axe to the Potion Makers and told them of the stranger who had taken the sword from him in Mai Canniola’s castle. They said that they had never seen or heard of him. Nevertheless, he had only helped by destroying the witch’s castle, and they could only be grateful to him.

Then, there were the coalition army soldiers who had been critically injured at the battle. The numbers were only a handful, and the Potion Makers little doubted at failing to revive them. Many were already half-healed, a couple being at the verge of full recovery. Sadly though, eight casualties had occurred on the battlefield. Also, three of Luidhor’s wolf-monsters, or Bherias as they were called, had gone down. They had fallen into a crack and, because they failed to climb out fast enough, soil and rocks had fallen over them and they had been buried alive. However, Luidhor hadn’t taken it as a cause of grief, and instead, tagging the animals as martyrs, he told his other Bherias to feast on the remains of the insects and demons that were in huge quantities at the site of the battle. As for the dead soldiers, the Macacawks and Potion Makers had held a funeral service yesterday and distributed gold to their family members.

“No,” Aunt Gina said, “you two tell me now. Where exactly are we?”

“We’ll tell you later, Aunt. You should rest.”

“No!”Aunt Gina was getting agitated now. “Tell me we aren’t anywhere near the coast!”

Manu wiped his face. It was glistening, but he was no longer crying and looked happy, on the contrary.

“We are in the Diamension of the Potion Makers, Mum,” he said, a smile wide on his lips. “In the Tropagian forest . . . but why are you asking if we aren’t near the coast?”

“In the Tropagian forest?” said Aunt Gina, her eyes darting from Viven to Manu. “So this is where she brought you after separating us?”

“She?” said Viven. “Whom are you talking about? The imposter?”

“The witch . . . S-Sezia was no spirit or friend of my father, but a wicked witch! She-she kept me in a dungeon first and then moved me to a cave in a large rock overlooking the shore. For days I wasn’t given any food or water. I was weakened, but the shackles I was put in were magical. They provided me with just enough energy to prevent me from dying. I reckon we were never brought to Nascat either. It was some hideous place belonging to the foul witch.”

“Wait, Mum,” said Manu. “Slow down . . . When exactly were you parted from us?”

Aunt Gina’s face contorted into a strange expression at the question. “You don’t know?” she asked, and Viven couldn’t refuse the incredulity in her voice.

Manu sighed and turned to Viven, his eyes seeking help. Viven heaved a sigh as well, preparing himself to tell her everything, right from when they had landed in Tropagia.

***

They departed from the Potion Makers’ Diamension a week later, after Aunt Gina had regained enough strength needed for travel. It had turned out that the other day, much to Viven and Manu’s surprise, that the witch—Viven was positive was none other than Mai Canniola—had separated them in the prison itself, at the time when she, the so-called Sezia, had transported the boys to Tropagia, and this was the first time Aunt Gina actually knew of being in the forest. It had been the imposter witch who had shown up after Viven and Manu had been transported to Tropagia.

They left Dirita with the Potion Makers, for Bufo wanted to raise her, as she was an orphan. There were plenty of Potion Maker children with whom she could make friends, and after being granted consent by the Potion Makers, it was decided being best for her.

A few of the Potion Makers accompanied them. They had some of Algrad’s maps and knew the route out of the forest, which was along the banks of the river Brank.

After countless days of trekking through the forest, they reached a village at the end of it, and from there, they bought horses with Potion Maker gold. After twice as many days of galloping on horseback, stopping only at nights for rest and food at villages on the way, they reached Tempstow.

The little village was the same it had been when they were taken to Nascat. Encountering many familiar faces on the way to their house, all of which frowned in puzzlement at the men with them, they finally reached their home.

Rejecting their requests, the Potion Makers did not wait, though, and bidding farewell, rode away.

Entering the tiny heaven of a house, Viven didn’t care to brood over all the events that had occurred to them. The Diamension might have been grand; however, nothing seemed cosier than the old home and life of theirs.

Then one day, on his way to the bazaar, Viven saw Meela and a boy standing near a tree. He knew the boy, Hazark, who was a year senior to himself in school and not even a distant relative of Meela. Viven made a half-hearted attempt at smiling at Meela when he thought he had caught her eye as he passed them. She didn’t notice him.

She was gone.

As expected.

He didn’t feel sad. As he saw the bazaar emerge into view in the distance, he thought of Mai Canniola, just a vague mist now, and all they had gone through in Tropagia. He took in a breath and relished it.

Tempstow air smelled sweeter. He was at peace.

***

Epilogue

In the lone island of Gullop, far off the eastern coast of Mainland Belaria, a lone bony purple cat treaded the shores, lamenting, and seeking stark revenge.

He gazed wistfully at the red setting sun.

It had risks . . . It didn’t matter whatsoever.

He would summon Valni, god of the dimensions.

***

The End . . . for now

Thanks for reading the story. I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t, I am sorry, I tried. Be sure to leave a review on Amazon, as reviews are an indie author’s best friend. Praise me like I am Shakespeare or shoot me down with criticism. I’ll be thankful for both.

If you think I can improve in anyway, please send your suggestions at my email [email protected]

Read on for an excerpt from “The Felis Catus”

Excerpt from “The Felis Catus”

It was eight at night. An auto-rickshaw pulled up in front of the gate to Mr. Jitendra Baruah’s house. A lean man wearing a straw hat stepped out of it. With one hand, he carried his suitcase, and on his shoulder, a snowy cat sat, perfectly at ease. He paid the driver, and the auto-rickshaw went.

Benglam Singsit took a breath of fresh air and looked around. Perfect, he thought. He heard little unwanted noise, if at all. Television sets, occasional sounds of people talking, and distant vehicle horns didn’t give him half a bother. In a big town like Jorhat, the Dikhu colony was the perfect place he could find for his one-year stay.

Benglam pushed open the gate and went in. The first thing he noticed was the absence of barks and was glad. Loy wouldn’t be getting into nasty fights with any dog.

Reaching the door, he knocked. A little girl opened it.

“What?” she asked, frowning rather severely at Loytamtah.

“I—” Benglam began, but was cut short by the girl, who shouted, “Papa! A man’s at the door. I think he’s the one who will occupy the room above.”

Her father came and welcomed him in. A man in his mid-forties, he was wearing a white vest and jogging pants.

“Come in, come in. Do sit for a minute while I get the keys.” Mr. Baruah smiled, gesturing at the sofa.

“So you are going to stay for a whole year, right?” Mr. Baruah asked as he opened the door to Benglam’s room, eyeing uncertainly at Loy perched on Benglam’s shoulder.

“Yes,” said Benglam.

“Um, but you will have to pay me every month, as I wrote in the ad.”

“Definitely.”

Pushing open the door, Mr. Baruah switched on the light bulb. It was a decent enough room with everything necessary—a bathroom, a toilet, a kitchen, a bed, a chair, and it even had a small TV set.

After Mr. Baruah went, Benglam closed the door, threw his luggage on the chair, put Loy on the floor, and hurled himself onto the bed.

It had been a tiring day. The bus from Arunachal Pradesh had been stopped by some farmers who had put up a protest, and the wait of four hours had sapped him of energy.

Benglam sighed noisily. He had been on the move for fifteen years now. Every year he would live in a new state, and his online business, which involved selling traditional Northeast Indian merchandise to foreigners, only allowed his nomadic lifestyle. This was the first time he had returned to stay in Assam ever since completing his matriculation.

Puffy eyed, he looked at Loy, his pet and companion of twenty years. Benglam had never told anyone of Loy’s age. He had never heard cats live so long and thought no one would believe him. All the same, he was grateful Loy was still living; what’s more, the cat had aged little from the time his grandmother had first brought him.

His grandmother . . .

He put on his mind brakes before his thoughts drifted to her, not wanting to wallow in self pity.

He got up, briskly clapped once loud enough to startle Loytamtah. He unzipped his bag, took out some cat food and, putting it in a bowl, gave it Loy, who munched.

As for himself, there wasn’t anything besides a bottle of water. However, he had had dinner at a hotel earlier and wasn’t hungry. As he switched on the TV, he glanced at the empty kitchen.

“We’ve got a lot to shop for tomorrow, Loy!”

***

At eleven o’clock next morning, Benglam and Loy went shopping. Descending the steep outdoor stairs, Benglam nearly tripped but regained his balance just in time.

They took a rickshaw to town and arrived at a grocery store. He told the shopkeeper about all that he needed, and as the shopkeeper counted the total money using a calculator, quite a scene broke out not far from the store.

People were beating a ten-year-old thief, who had apparently picked a man’s wallet and was refusing to give it back. Benglam couldn’t help but feel sympathetic for the boy. Although he himself had never picked pockets, when his grandmother had died, life had forced him to steal food, for it was his only route to survival back then. Unlike the boy, though, Benglam had managed to stay away from getting caught.

Benglam tore his eyes from the scene outside, asked how much he had to pay, paid it, and went out. Not letting his gaze waver to the poor boy, he went to a rickshaw stand. The men were being cruel, no doubt; after all, it was a child they were beating up. But then, thieving was an art to speak of, and the boy hadn’t carried it out correctly. Maybe he deserved the slaps and the boxes, then. Either he would stop thieving altogether, or end up developing his art to escape the same again.

“It’s a crazy world, Loy,” he said, getting onto the rickshaw.

Halfway back to the rent house, one of the rickshaw’s wheels got punctured. So he paid the driver half the fare and continued on foot.

As he was passing the fifth house before Mr. Jitendra’s, the sound of sobs reached his ears. Turning his head, what he saw pained him.

It was a child crying beside his pet dog. The dog’s tongue was lolling out, and swarms of flies were all about it. It was dead.

The parents were trying their best to separate the child from his pet, but they themselves seemed not wanting to go away from the dog, and had sore eyes.

Benglam’s vision blurred as tears filled his eyes. His heart heavy, he returned to his room.

***

“Loy!” Benglam called, exhaling as he clicked on the shut down button on his laptop screen. He had spent most of the day immersed in the online world, and it was almost evening.

Benglam looked around when Loy didn’t mew. He wasn’t in the room.

The door was open.

“Loytamtah?” he called again, louder. Hurriedly closing his laptop, he went out.

“Loytamtah!”

A wave of relief passed him when he sighted Loy in the compound with Mr. Jitendra’s two children. Wait a minute, though, he thought. What do children do with cats? Bully them, of course.

He sprinted down the stairs.

“Hey!” he said, not caring if he sounded harsh. “What are you doing to him?”

“Nothing,” the girl’s brother replied, who looked elder by a couple of years.

“Nothing, eh?” Benglam picked up Loy, giving them a scornful expression. “Never again mess around with my cat!”

The girl narrowed her eyes. “But we were just—”

Benglam marched away before she could finish, and returned to his room. Closing the door with a bang, he sat on the bed.

Benglam didn’t like people messing with Loy, especially kids. He didn’t have anyone in the whole world but him, and didn’t think he would stand it if he had to lose Loy because of others.

He remembered that day, nineteen years back. A higher class bully had tried to ignite Loy’s tail. Ironically, and Benglam had no idea how it happened, it was the bully’s pants that caught fire on the contrary.

Benglam had laughed till his cheeks ached at the bully and his followers who just couldn’t put out the fire, and the bully had had to spend a week in the hospital for second-degree burns on his butt.

Yes, God had justly punished him for his doings. Although Benglam didn’t wish bad things to happen to others, such was the fate awaiting anyone who tried to mess with Loy.

Benglam exhaled. He would have to make sure Loy and the children stayed away from each other.


The Sword of Tropagia

Viven resides in the village of Tempstow in central Belaria with his Aunt and her son, and has a peaceful existence. In the north of Belaria, over which the Tropagian forest is spread, many a creature of the dark lurks behind the cover of trees. There a vile plot is being concocted by those who lust for more power. Viven is oblivious to the dangers looming over him and his family, and even a warning from a Future Stocker makes little meaning to him. Soon, Viven’s world is going to be turned upside down as he and his family get sucked into the sinister plot.

  • Author: A. J. Chaudhury
  • Published: 2017-08-06 08:05:30
  • Words: 48941
The Sword of Tropagia The Sword of Tropagia