Once upon a time, there was a rich _ whose everyday name (which, if written out in full would take a book in itself) was Jack. He lived far away from the capital of the kingdom in a large hillside manor, for he was known in the cities for being quite aloof, and not respectable in the slightest. He shared his manor with his ancient and slightly mad aunt, who was haunted by a very eventful and not remotely legal youth, and was wanted by the king for just about every possible crime on the sheet (the globe having not been invented yet). Jack used this to his gain, and offered his aunt safe haven, so long as she agreed to do the cleaning, and cooking, and repairing of the grounds, and the training of Jack’s myriad tiny dogs with barks higher in pitch than bat-squeaks.

It was to this life that Jack was returning after a day of browsing the wares of a prestigious merchant caravan that was renowned for their anomalistic trinkets from distant lands. It was with a satchelful of such trinkets that Jack trotted home, somewhat wary, for he had heard tell at the market of a dragon sighting not far from there. For several yards, perhaps, he trotted, until he was red and weary, for he was extremely overweight. From then on he walked, ever keeping watch of the sky thereabouts. But with his eyes glued so stickily to the sky, he failed to notice the small, mud-caked foot protruding from a cluster of bushes lining the road. Presently, he was flung into the ground, and cold mud sifted between his teeth like gritty pudding. And before he could even cry out, or gasp, or throw his hands around his head (all of which were Jack’s natural defense mechanism), they were upon him; a band of dirty, emaciated, orphaned, and quite threadbare urchins. Jack only saw that they were dirty. And this he noticed only because they were prodding and poking, shoving and slapping, and all around contaminating him with their despicable filth. In the midst of their wild dance, they began to sing:

We’ve caught a rich rat

Who looks so awfully round!

How does he move about, with a belly like that?

One of the urchins turned Jacks pockets inside out, then disappointedly sang:

Well, some rich rat this is, he hasn’t a pound!

Another of the vicious things stepped forward and added:

Not a pound as in coins, my fellow riff-raff

But oh! So many pounds when it comes to this mound!

 

And with that, he slapped Jack in his sizable paunch. A chorus of laughter followed.

“Eh, what do you want?” he squeaked.

“Everything you got!” they laughed in response.

One of the nasty little creatures got a hold of Jack’s satchel and flung it on the ground. Out of it spilled a cluster of beans, almost emerald in color, and enshrouded with faintly shimmering, pale green nimbi.

“What are these?” they jeered quite haughtily. “Is this all you rich folk can afford to eat these days?”

Another of the vermin began to stomp the beans into the soil, and all at once, the children were all stamping and shouting as they drove them into the earth. The song rang out:

You mischievous kiddies

You stop what you’re at!

Let our friend have his beans

‘Tis fitting food for a rat!

Or,

Down, down, into the ground

Deeper than deep, ’till there’s nothing but black!

Stomp and stamp and pound and pound!

He can eat filthy beans, and that’ll be that

Then he’ll know what it’s like to eek food from the ground!

As if on a queue to the last note, the beans burst into flames and began to burn tracts into the earth; tracts that grew ever larger as the beans ate into the soil. Soon, a large, black abyss glared up at them from its depths. Then they both heard and felt a rumbling drone coming from the heart of the darkness, and the urchins scattered like chaff in the wind, leaving a horror-struck Jack in the dust.

And out of the hole climbed an army of little men- waist level to most. They swarmed over the countryside, trampling Jack to death beneath their thousands of tiny feet. Like locusts before verdancy, the cave dwarves stripped the surrounding lands of all crops and vegetables, for they were stout vegans, and were always on the hunt for sustenance in their subterranean tunnels. By nightfall, the fields and vineyards were utterly desolate, and the land was plunged into a famine of unthinkable proportions. And in such a state it lingered for decades, waiting for some yet unsung hero to light the way…

The Truth Behind the Legend

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Chapter X: Alone, Save a Siren

That night, Peridas slept at the bottom of the stone staircase leading up the cliff, as far from the redoubt as he could get. His sleep was shallow and fitful, and he awoke feeling stiff and sore. For hours, he sat in a quandary as the sun rose lazily over the sea. Torrents of doubts and apprehensions coursed in a frenzy through his mind, nearly immobilizing him. Beads of sweat trickled down his face, and his head throbbed as he thought of his dilemma. But despite his raging debates with himself, he knew deep within himself that what he had to do was really quite simple. He had to do everything he could to save his friends, until he could do no more. He sat a while longer, deep in thought, until he felt he had devised a solid plan. His first step was to discover where the survivors had been taken, and the first logical place to look was, of course, the redoubt.

The boy chuckled without humor. At least, he thought, I still have my armor. For he had not taken it off since the attack.

And so, with determined steps, he climbed once more the carven staircase, ascending almost certainly to his doom. He decided to wait for cover of darkness, and while he waited, he fashioned a rudimentary spear with the sharp flange of his gauntlet. Even in the light of day, the shadows of the forest never dissipated; they wavered and rippled, but still clung to the trees as if they had substance, and the boughs and branches stirred without wind.

Ever so slowly, the sun completed its revolution behind the mountain, and darkness crept back into the deep places of the valley. So Peridas steeled himself, and crept cautiously to the redoubt. The gates were slightly awry, and he slipped through the gap with ease. Inside was a broad set of stairs that stretched into the maze of tall columns. Cursing his popping joints and the dry, steely slithering of his armor, he crawled on hands and knees up the stairs and into the redoubt proper. An ethereal mist drifted among the pillars. Broken masonry lay in heaps at the feet of the great pylons. Roots projected from the floor, wrapping around the columns as they climbed toward the high ceiling. There were no rooms, no altar, and no sub-levels to the structure. Peridas could not help but think how utterly useless an edifice it was.

There was a deathly silence in the air; not even crickets chirped in that place, and it made the boy’s futile sneaking seem almost comical. Of course, he found nothing comical about his situation. Fear enshrouded him like an oppressive cloak. It burrowed in his back, bidding him to turn around and face the monster that was never there.

The boy searched for hours among the columns, until he was entirely sure it was abandoned. With a sigh, he leaned against his spear. “Where are you?” he muttered to himself.

“…Here.” whispered a voice behind the boy.

He spun around and raised his spear. There, standing opposite him several feet, was the woman. She was unarmed, and wore a dark green cloak. Her eyes blazed with their usual intensity. Peridas began to slowly back away from her, angling toward the exit. Before he took more than a few steps, she said, “Do not flee, but listen. I would help you save your allies.”

Peridas wouldn’t be fooled. He quickened his retreat, but she only followed him. “Do not be a fool,” she said. “I would already have killed you, if I had so wished. Hear me…”

Her voice was deep and her accent thick, but there was something about her tone…. Despite himself, Peridas found he was standing still. “Who are you?” he asked, his spear still leveled at her.

Slowly, as if Peridas was an imbecile, she said, “I am the one who stabbed you-“

“I am aware. But who are you?” he asked again.

Regally, she replied, “I am Livaen, one of the vampiric sea-folk that your kind calls sirens.”

If he had been anywhere else, Peridas would have been surprised. As it was, he didn’t much care what she was. He only cared what her intentions were. “And what do you want?” He tried to project an air of confidence.

She was silent for several moments. Eventually, she said, “My people have become twisted in their isolation. Their minds are malformed, and their hearts are full of blood-lust. Though it troubles me, I know our time is ended. When I looked into your eyes on your ship, I saw in you the strength to challenge my people. Now, I need your help, as you need mine.”

“You want my help… to kill your people?”

“I want your help to cure my people. The lord of the sirens is the reason my people became so vile. If we kill him… perhaps the sirens could be reasoned with. If not, we will still have killed him. And that is a satisfying thought for me.”

“Why?” he asked.

“That secret, I will keep to myself.” she replied.

For all her talk, she avoided the one excruciatingly obvious fact that Peridas couldn’t let go. “But you stabbed me!” he shouted accusingly.

“Yes,” she answered. “I showed you what will happen to your lands, if you should fail. When you succumbed to the bite of my blade, did you not see your country in chaos?”

“How did you know?” he asked, shocked.

“For ages, I have listened to the pulse of the earth, and I have learned much from the whispers of the world. I know of your war with the men of the North. I wove a spell about you when you were unconscious; a spell to inspire you to survive. I revealed what would become of all you loved, if you died here.”

“Why?”

“As I said, I need your help. I need you alive. I will lead you to the sirens’ lair, and together we shall free your comrades, and kill the lord of the sirens. So, what say you?”

It didn’t take long for Peridas to make a decision. He knew he needed help. “Very well,” he said. “Lead on.”

And so, Peridas and his new-found ally began the long and dangerous journey to the sirens’ lair. Livaen led him into the mountain foothills. She explained to him that their path led north through a great forest, a nearly impassable marsh that spanned much of the island, and, eventually, to the sirens’ lair on the northern coast. When Peridas’ stomach began to growl, Livaen procured a bow from under her cloak, and informed him that there were great herds of deer that wandered the wilderness nearly everywhere on the island. Peridas stared at the bow ruefully, then told her that he could neither hunt nor use a bow. Livaen appeared truly surprised at this, and from then on, she did the hunting, but she began to school Peridas in archery and the art of stalking.

Their trek through the forest took them several weeks, during which time, Peridas’ skill gradually increased. To his surprise, he found Livaen to be an excellent teacher. Her first teachings were somewhat stilted, and her apparent youth sometimes created discrepancies and rifts in her lessons, though she was really quite old by human standards. But she quickly began to comprehend the boy’s rhythm for learning, and after a few weeks, he could creep through the forest as quietly as a mouse, though his skill with a bow still left something to be desired. Livaen began to make Peridas hunt for himself, and when he returned, always empty-handed, she would admonish him about his form with the bow. They also took up sparring with sword-sized branches, and as she thrashed Peridas’ forearms and bloodied his knuckles, she would instruct him as to his technique, tell him to control his breathing, or give him various strategies for disarming her.

Once, when they were resting for the night, covered in bruises and blotches, Peridas asked, “How do you know my tongue?”

When her reply came, it did nothing to gain the boy’s confidence; she said, “Your friends were not the first prisoners we captured.”

***

Peridas notched an arrow and pulled back on the string evenly. By now, he remembered to keep the shaft pressed firmly against the bow. He drew until the fletching tickled his cheek, then clumsily worked his fingers round the string to hold the arrow by only the nock. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and let out a shallow breath. The string began to tremble slightly as his arm grew heavy and stiff. With an exasperated sigh, Peridas withdrew the string and made himself relax. The deer he had been stalking for the past three hours had not moved. He drew again, and focused not on his form but on his breathing. He raised the bow a hand above the deer and two fingers right. He breathed in, he breathed out. And he released just as a branch snapped somewhere behind him. The projectile whistled through the green forest-dawn in a shallow, twisting arc. The doe’s ears pricked up at the buzzing noise, and one of them was sheared off by the ill-honed missile. The beast grunted and bolted into the mist as Peridas strung another arrow and spun around to face… Livaen.

“What are you doing?” Peridas demanded. “I had-“

Livaen clamped a hand over his mouth and whispered, “Quiet! Listen…”

Peridas listened, and heard arguing voices in the mist far ahead. “What is it?” he asked.

“Sirens.” hissed Livaen.

La Isla de Desolacion