It so happened that once upon a time there was a young man. The young man’s name was Scoff, and he lived in a remote and sheltered corner of the world unknown to almost everyone, where it was widely accepted that nothing dangerous lurked in the shadows except for the occasional troll, and that even the trolls preferred to eat goats. Scoff was a humble lad who lived on a farm that he would one day own. He loved cows and flowers and dancing. And he loved a girl named Clara.
Scoff wanted more than anything to impress Clara and make her his wife, and so he set about looking for something wonderful to give to her. After some time, he came to an old wizard who lived by himself in a cottage a few miles from town. The wizard was old, and although he had magic to aid him, he preferred not to use it to perform mundane tasks, and was looking for someone to repair his roof and clean up his cobbled walkway. And so, in exchange for a few days of labor, Scoff was given a ring that the wizard had obtained in a faraway land many years before. The wizard had determined through careful examination that the ring had no magical properties whatsoever. It was, however, very pretty—a golden band with a small, smooth emerald set into it.
Scoff took the ring home, and a few days later worked up the nerve to give it to Clara and ask for her hand in marriage. She happily accepted, and the two of them would live together on Scoff’s farm until the end of their days. They had a son together, whom they named Spiff. It was a good story that was told often around their hearth and in town, and even though the two of them would never be important to anyone but each other, they needed nothing more.
Thirteen years after the marriage, the old wizard sent a message demanding that the ring be returned to him immediately.
Clara loved her ring dearly, but one did not say no to a wizard, especially when he asked impolitely. Young Spiff was sent to return the ring, and to give the old wizard his father’s sincere thanks. The boy set off to do his duty. And so it was.
* * *
There were a few moments before things went wrong when all was calm and quiet, a few moments in which he might have stopped to appreciate that there were still things he understood before everything changed—or in which he might have simply turned around and went home. There he was, a small boy on a small path in the middle of a very, very big world into which he was about to be thrown. But he did not know.
It was a beautiful, sunny summer day. The sky beamed down in its happy blue way. The dirt road upon which Spiff traveled was a band of gold stretching across miles and miles of verdant landscape, and the grass to either side was dotted with flowers of every color. He toyed with the ring in his hand, admiring it as he had often admired it on his mother’s finger, knowing that he would probably never see it again. It hummed ever so faintly—rather, it made no sound, but it felt as though it were humming. It was so faint that he only noticed it when he paid close attention, but he marveled at it nonetheless. He wondered if his mother had felt it too.
He did not see the gremlin hiding in the tall grass to his left, and was very surprised when it leapt out, snatched the ring from his fingers, and began running in the opposite direction as fast as its little legs would carry it.
Spiff had never seen a gremlin, but he had heard a great deal about them. There were many boys from the town who liked to go hit gremlins with sticks down by the river on afternoons after they had finished their chores. It was three feet tall and spindly, with long arms and short legs, and a head that was much too large for its body. Its face was flat except for a thin and pointed nose, and was shaped like a radish. Its ears were enormous and triangular, jutting out more than a foot horizontally from either side of its head. Its skin was a dark, grayish shade of green—like snot, the boys with the sticks were fond of saying. In spite of its awkward appearance, it moved very quickly.
Spiff had much to lose. He pursued it.
* * *
He did not know how long he ran after it. The one time he glanced back over his shoulder, the road he had left was nowhere in sight. The long grass slowed him slightly, but it was not so tall that it obscured the gremlin from view as it fled. He could see its head bobbing up and down far ahead, and the grass parting around and behind it like the tail of a comet. He knew that he could not keep up for long, but fear kept him running. He did not want to face either his father or the old wizard with the news that he had lost the ring. He imagined what the rest of his life would be like if he were turned into a frog or a worm. Maybe he would be kept in a jar.
He no longer recognized any of his surroundings. He had never been this far from town before. The pastures and plains surrounding the town all looked very much alike, but there was always this or that tree to keep him oriented, and there were the roads. This or that tree was nowhere to be found now. He had only his sense of direction, and the large rocky ridge ahead which had always seemed so far in the distance when viewed from home, even though it had taken up so much of the western horizon.
The ridge came closer. Spiff had lost sight of the gremlin except for the rustling of the grass around it. He hoped that the sheer rock face would slow the creature, because his energy was nearly spent. Instead, the gremlin darted inside of a large opening in the rock wall.
Hoping that the cave had only one entrance, Spiff slowed to a walk and cautiously approached it.
Something was rumbling inside. It was a very regular rumbling, rising and falling evenly. It grew louder as he came closer to the entrance, and sounded as though it was echoing across the walls inside. Alarmed and wary, Spiff entered.
Sunlight drifted in from behind him, but all he could see were rocks. The cave appeared to be just one long tunnel; he could see a speck of light ahead that could only be another entrance on the other side of the ridge. Spiff was very worried now that he had lost the gremlin completely, but he had no way to go but forward.
The rumbling got louder and louder until it was almost deafening. Spiff was so focused on the opposite end of the tunnel that he almost failed to notice when he came upon the sleeping troll whose snoring was the source of the noise.
The troll was twice Spiff’s height and three times as wide, and in the dim gray light of the tunnel looked like a boulder. It was curled against the wall, with its gigantic hands wrapped around its knees. Spiff could make out the gleam of its tusks, and the black mass of its shaggy mane, and the muscled arms the size of tree trunks. He backed away in horror. This was dangerous. Trolls were not friendly to humans. Everyone in town said that the creatures preferred to eat stray goats and avoid trouble with people, but he knew that if this troll caught him here in its own lair, he would be doomed.
It didn’t move except for the slow rocking of its shoulders in time with its snores. Spiff inched past it along the opposite wall. As he did so, he stumbled and kicked a rock, which skidded across the floor and smacked the wall.
The rumbling stopped.
The troll rolled over onto one arm, shook its head vigorously, and raised its other hand to rub the sleep from its eyes. Then it saw him.
Spiff ran. Behind him, the troll staggered to its feet and began to lumber after him, slowly at first but picking up speed. Spiff could see the other end of the tunnel clearly now, gradually growing larger. The troll had begun to run, its steps so loud and powerful that they caused everything to shake. It bellowed with rage. The echoes made it impossible for Spiff to tell how close it was, but it sounded as though it were right behind him. The opening grew nearer and nearer, until at last he emerged into the sunlight, preparing to run in zigzags or scamper up a tree or climb onto the rock face, anything to get free from the angry troll…
At the very mouth of the cave his foot caught on a rock, and then the ground was flying toward him.
He hit the dirt hard and bounced into the edge of the grass, twisting as he did so to see the troll pounding toward him, nearly out of the cave. And there was a foot next to him. His gaze followed it up to a robed leg, and then to an angry white-bearded visage.
The old wizard raised his wand, a thin sliver of some bleached bonelike wood, and uttered a word. A bolt of lightning arced from its tip and hit the troll squarely in the chest. The troll shrieked. Its whole body was thrown back through the entrance of the cave, and for a moment Spiff could see the churning and boiling of its flesh before it was swallowed by the darkness of its dwelling. It landed with a heavy, meaty sound. A stench rose into the air and hung there.
The wizard tucked his wand away, spun neatly on his heel, and began striding away. “Come with me. I have much to say, and would prefer to say it somewhere …cleaner.”
Spiff stared after the dead troll. Tiny, orange pinpricks of light glowed in the shadows where its mane was burnt to embers. The cave was silent.
“Now,” the wizard said stiffly. Spiff followed.
The old wizard had already set up a camp of sorts—a circle of cleared ground and a few smooth logs. The wizard shifted his robes and sat. Spiff stood stiffly, aware that something was strange about all of this, but failing to grasp at any of the specific questions he felt should have been rising in his mind. He was just afraid. Suddenly, there was so much to be afraid of.
“I expected something like this to happen,” said the wizard, “but I’m holding you personally responsible nonetheless. You cannot imagine how important that ring is.”
“I’ll get it back,” Spiff said. “I was just going to get it back right now.”
“Needless to say, it must be retrieved.”
“The gremlin,” Spiff said. “I was following…following after it, and it came this way, so I can try to look for footprints and then I’ll find it and I can go get the…the ring. And you’re here, and you have magic, so maybe we can find it with your…magic…or…”
The wizard stared at him. His voice trailed off.
“Sit down,” said the wizard, and Spiff found himself compelled to do just that. Meanwhile, the wizard sat staring at the center of the log circle, his lips moving as he mumbled silently to himself. He was ancient and wizened and small. He ran his hands through a beard of almost pure white that reached to his belt, which stood out sharply against his robe of deep blue and a broad-brimmed, pointed hat of the same color. He looked quite wizardly. It was as though he was trying very hard.
“I should begin,” said the wizard, “by telling you the story of the ring.”
Spiff waited. After a long pause, the wizard began.
“Once, long ago, the world was a very different place. During that era, there existed a race of beings called the Majiyan. Virtually nothing is known about the Majiyan except that they were extremely powerful, and their wizards possessed magic that makes the powers of the greatest wizards living today seem insignificant by comparison. The Majiyan wizards and their followers were constantly at war with each other. They fought for centuries at least, probably millennia, without end.”
He wondered why he was being told all of this, and whether he would still be turned into a worm. He didn’t want to live in a jar.
“But there was one among the Majiyan who sought to put an end to the ceaseless war—not only to the war, but to all life as they knew it, for he saw the two things as inseparable. He therefore called himself the Ender.”
“The Ender created a ring. He spent years crafting it, and in the end it was so greatly enhanced by the rituals used to create it that it would make him more powerful than all of the other wizards of his race combined. That ring had the power to reshape the entire world, and with it, the Ender planned to destroy all of his fellow Majiyan and create entire new races and creatures in the wake of their destruction, so that he could rule over them as a god for all of eternity.
“Once the ring was complete, The Ender challenged all of the other wizards to a great battle. Each wizard brought his subjects out to a single vast plain in the center of the world. The entire race was there. As all of the Majiyan charged toward each other, and the wizards prepared their most powerful spells, the Ender raised the ring up high and cast a tremendous spell of destruction.”
“The Majiyan were destroyed in a single moment, just as the Ender had planned, but it seems that something went wrong. The Ender, too, was destroyed by the power of his own ring.
“And then, there was nothing left in the world. All was an empty oblivion.”
He fell silent for a time. Spiff scratched at the dirt nervously with his foot, and vaguely registered that it was still there.
"So," the wizard said, "Only the ring itself remained. But as I said, this ring had the power to shape the entire world, and in some strange way, it had a mind of its own. So it began to recreate the world as it saw fit.
"First, it reshaped the land, creating forests and mountains and such things where there had been none before. We don't really know if these things existed in the time of the Majiyan, or if at that time there were completely different land formations. But at any rate, the ring either recreated or simply reshaped all of the land. The only thing that it left unchanged was the vast plain upon which the Majiyan had died, which is still there, somewhere. A few claim to have actually been there.”
Maybe he should go look for the gremlin now. Surely that was what the wizard wanted.
"Then it began to add living things--nothing so powerful as the Majiyan, but in much greater variety. It created them based on its own ideas of good and evil, ideas that must have been unique to the ring, because they did not exist among the Majiyan.
"So it created living beings in three separate categories. There were the Fair Folk, fairies and pixies and elves and the like, who can never be evil, though they are often mischievous. There were the Dark Folk, gremlins and goblins and trolls and creatures darker still, who can never be good. And finally, there were the In-Between Folk, Men and Dragons, who have the ability to choose between good and evil.”
Or maybe he should just run. But no one could run from a wizard.
"That is how the world came to be the way that it is. After that, it is uncertain how the ring left the plain. Perhaps it wanted to remain there, but was taken by some adventurer, or perhaps it wanted to be among its creations, and arranged for its own theft. It passed through many hands over the last thousand years, and eventually came to me when I traded with another wizard for it. We wizards love to collect magic things. But for years I thought I had been cheated; I could never detect any powers within the ring, much less use them. It seemed to be worth no more than the gold from which it was created. So I gave it to your father. When I finally came across the truth about the ring in my research a few days ago, I sent for it immediately, but it seems that I was too late.
"It may be that the ring was stolen without knowledge of what it actually was; many gremlins love shining trinkets. Or it may be that someone out there knows what the ring can do, and wants to use it to control the world, in which case that gremlin was sent with the intention to take it from you. In either case, the world is not safe. We must get the ring back. If it falls into the wrong hands, it could do unimaginable damage...
“Do you understand?”
Spiff nodded. None of it made any sense at all.
“That probably sounded very pedantic,” said the wizard, and Spiff nodded again because he didn’t know what the word “pedantic” meant and didn’t want the wizard to be angry with him. The wizard continued: “The important thing is that the gremlin must be found, and the ring must be taken back. I myself cannot go in search of it, because doubtless the power of the ring would twist my mind to its own whims; I know not whether I have the strength to bear it. You must retrieve it instead.”
Spiff’s heart froze.
“When the ring has been found, it must be taken to the battle-plain of the Majiyan. That is all that I know. Perhaps there, it can be safely disposed of. I will meet you there when it is finished.”
Spiff didn’t know where to go, or what to do. He had never seen a battle-plain, only some fields of tall grass. He didn’t even know where the gremlin was anymore. What was he supposed to do? When did he get to go home?
The wizard droned on. “To aid you on your journey, I have prepared three gifts, each of them imbued with magical properties and each carefully chosen to be of greatest advantage to you. You will find them invaluable.”
He reached into a hidden pocket of his robe and drew forth a small leather pouch. “This pouch will give you either food or gold, as much of it as you need. It will never go empty, no matter how many times you use it.”
He handed the pouch to Spiff, who listlessly began tying its drawstrings around his belt. Then the wizard reached into another pocket in his robe, this time pulling out a wooden rod with a clear crystal cap. “This torch will burn with the brightest, hottest fire whenever you will it. If you have need of light or heat, it will always provide them, no matter how wet it may be.”
As he handed over the torch, the wizard reached still deeper into his robe, finding another hidden pocket and at last withdrawing what appeared to be a tiny ball of blue fluff.
“Hi,” said the blue ball, hopping into the air and fluttering there on tiny wings. “I’m Euclid, the Superintelligent Blue Flying Mouse!”
Spiff was beginning to realize there was no escape. His heart sank deeper. He felt like he was going to cry.
“The world is strange, and staggeringly vast, and you know virtually nothing about it. It is important that you listen to everything Euclid tells you.”
The wizard cleared his throat. “This is the most precious of all the gifts you have been given. Euclid is second in importance only to the ring itself. If you lose Euclid, I will find something very nasty to do to you in return. If you fail to retrieve the ring, it won’t matter what I do to you.”
No one had ever talked to Spiff that way before.
“The most important thing is that you don’t panic. Avoid any sign of trouble, stay away from other people as much as possible, don’t stray from your goal, and pay attention to Euclid. And above all, don’t panic.”
The wizard stroked his beard. “I think that’s everything. We both have much to do. You had better get moving.” The air around him wavered as it did over stones in the midday heat, and then he was gone.
“All right, kid,” said Euclid. “I think I can figure out which way…kid?”
It was too much for Spiff. The exhaustion alone would have been too much. He felt himself swaying.
He toppled over, and everything went black.
* * *
His slumber was filled with strange dreams. He witnessed epic battles and conquests, saw mountains rise and fall, watched multitudes of living things live out their lives and crumble into dust. They went on and on…
…Until suddenly, everything stopped.
He was on a vast, flat span of broken rock. Everywhere the ground was scorched. Dust seemed to hang in the air. Everywhere around him were all of the multitudes of living things he had seen, men and beasts and creatures of magic, all standing still. Every last eye on that field was riveted toward its center, every arm reached out toward a single point of light that seemed so close, and so far away…
…And then he was beneath it, and when he turned his eyes up into the warm glow, he saw that it was a tiny gold ring, with an emerald glittering brightly. The wizard’s ring. He wanted to reach for it too, but instead took a step back. He saw the old wizard, and the gremlin, and an enormous black dragon, and a man with a crown and gilded armor, and a dark-bearded man, and a creature that was neither goblin nor troll, but something in between. They were the nearest; all of them were frozen in place as they reached up toward the ring, each of them almost touching it but none able to go any further.
Spiff felt a nagging sense of urgency. He was the only one who could move. It seemed that he must take the ring. Its light shone softly down on him. Everything was perfectly silent. His father had once told him that silence had a sound of its own, but here it was not true. This silence was blank.
He took a step toward the ring, began to raise his hand to the light.
There was a hole in the stillness. Just outside of the circle, a thing inched toward him, clad all in darkness, trailing itself behind it as though it were made of smoke and fighting against the wind. It oozed forward. It seemed horribly wrong somehow that it should be able to move too.
Spiff reached for the ring. A hand closed about his wrist.
His slumber broke. He would remember nothing of what he had dreamed; he awoke only with a deep sense of dread, followed by the sudden and sickening memory of the task he had been given.
* * *
Spiff sat up, and Euclid fluttered up from his position on one of the smooth logs to settle on his shoulder. “Sorry, kid. I should have thought of that. You must have run a long way. You needed some rest. There was no way we would have made good time with you in that condition. And you’re severely dehydrated. Drink some water.”
“I don’t have any water,” said Spiff. “Is there a river nearby?”
“You can get some from the pouch,” said Euclid. He sounded slightly impatient.
Spiff fumbled with the pouch at his belt and pulled out a large wooden bowl filled with water. It was too large to fit in the tiny pouch, but it came free easily. It was heavier than he thought, and he could not quite make his hands understand what was happening; he spilled it all over the ground.
He overturned the pouch over the empty bowl. Water poured out. He filled it most of the way, and began to drink.
“How long was I asleep?” He asked Euclid.
“It’s tomorrow morning,” Euclid’s voice piped from his shoulder. “Assuming that we refer to yesterday as today, because that’s the last thing you remember. You’ll want to drink at least a liter of that water.”
“How much is a liter?” Spiff asked.
“Keep drinking. I’ll tell you.” Spiff did so, and after a few moments Euclid told him to stop.
“Have as much as you like,” Euclid said, “But do it while you’re walking.” He hopped down and hovered near the ground. “Our first problem is catching up with the gremlin. I’ve taken the liberty of scouting the area, and I’ve caught his trail. I can smell him—I have a very keen sense of smell—but I’d need to keep my nose to the ground the whole time, and we wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough. The grass is still pretty tall here, and he bent it as he moved.” The mouse flew about twenty yards away. “Here. And if you get close enough to the dirt, you can see his footprints.”
“But following those may not work either,” said Euclid. “The gremlin moves faster than you, and it won’t get tired as quickly either. I could probably catch up to him rather quickly, but it wouldn’t do much good without you. Now, if we think geo-metrically, we might be able to get him. Gremlins have a strange sense of direction, accurate but imprecise, and so they tend to travel in a path that is not quite straight, curving back and forth a bit. Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, we might be able to gain some ground over time by taking the straight path as opposed to the zigzag of the gremlin. To do that, though, we must stop following his tracks. Now, if we could calculate where he is going by converting his path into a simple cosine formula and determine the period, amplitude, and shift of the curve, we can tell where he is headed and travel straight to his destination. If it is far enough away, we will reach it first.”
He spoke very rapidly, and Spiff comprehended very little of it anyway, so he simply remained silent as Euclid zipped back to the cleared circle the wizard had made, landed in the dirt, and began furiously scratching symbols on the ground with his tiny claws. After a few moments, he returned to Spiff’s shoulder.
“All right, I believe I have it all figured out now,” said Euclid. “I made a rough guess of how far the creature might have traveled since yesterday, and we can probably catch up to him after about forty miles. Give or take. I do have an exact bearing though. Hurry, this way.” With that, he sped off away from Spiff at a slight angle.
Spiff followed dutifully.
* * *
They went on for a long time. Spiff walked briskly, hoping to finish the journey as quickly as possible. Euclid flew in energetic circles around his head, occasionally correcting their path. Every so often, Euclid made him stop for a few minutes and drink another liter of water, but otherwise their travel was uninterrupted. Occasionally, they would cross the path of the gremlin’s tracks, proving that they were headed in the right direction.
Twice, they stopped to eat. The pouch happily provided whatever food seemed appropriate.
When darkness fell, they made camp, although it entailed little more than finding a soft patch of grass and going to sleep. Spiff was thankful that it was summer and the nights were warm. At sunrise, Euclid landed on his nose and woke him, and he began walking again.
The process repeated itself.
Some time during the fifth day, they came to the middle of nowhere. In the middle of nowhere was a house.
It was a simple wood and thatch house, with a stone chimney. Spiff could see a little window and a little door. It was very quaint, and made him think of home. But here it was, miles and miles from any other sign of human life—Spiff had seen nothing but grass and trees since he had left home—and there was not even so much as a road passing nearby. Whoever lived here must be very solitary.
Spiff thought about that for a moment. Almost everyone he knew lived in town or in farmhouses nearby, but the old wizard had kept his house several miles away, preferring not to be bothered by the everyday business of everyone else. Whoever lived here probably didn’t want to be bothered either—or maybe they were lonely living by themselves for who knew how long, and would be happy to see another person. Maybe they would bake him a nice loaf of bread, or some cookies.
Spiff took a few steps toward the house. “Wait,” Euclid hissed in his ear, but before the mouse could finish the warning they both stopped short. There were voices coming from the house—at least three of them.
Euclid climbed onto his ear and whispered into it. “Don’t alert them to our presence. We don’t know who’s in there. If you creep up to that window very quietly, we can listen and find out.”
Spiff began walking quietly.
“Crouch down,” the mouse snapped. “They’ll see you out the window.”
Spiff began crouching quietly. In a few moments he was underneath the window sill. He raised his head as high as he could without making himself visible, and cocked his ear to listen.
The voices were arguing loudly.
“You must give it to me, Yobbo,” a man’s deep voice shouted. The sound of it made Spiff glad he had stayed outside.
“No, I mustn’t,”
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: Aaron Redfern 2007
Images: Aaron Redfern 2012
Publication Date: 05-19-2012
All Rights Reserved