The first sound that either one of them heard as they woke was the scraping of a chain on the stone floor. After a few heartbeats of stunned silence, they both remembered what had happened to bring them there. They both looked at each other. The erpon spoke first, believing that the human child would need some comfort.
He asked the boy’s name, and the boy answered, “Cor.”
“Demetrius,” the erpon soldier said, placing a hand upon his chest.
The boy stared with wide eyes that unabashedly traced the length of his fellow prisoner’s form, from the flared fins atop the soldier’s head, to his beaked face, to the leather cuirass and pauldron, even to his tail.
Demetrius was not as interested in the child as he was in their current predicament. They were both lying upon a hay-strewn stone floor in a chamber with curved walls and small windows. The chain they had heard was connected to a shackle on Cor’s right ankle and another on Demetrius’s left ankle.
The soldier rose and said, “Come, Cor. Let us see where we are.”
The boy nodded and they looked out of the windows. They were inside of a watchtower, long abandoned from the weathering of the stone. From the windows, they saw grassy plains all around, and in one direction, a forest. Above, the sky gleamed in a curious way.
“Forgive me, Master Demetrius,” the boy said, his first words since speaking his name. “This is my doing.”
Demetrius began to remember. There was a confrontation with a wizard, who took offense.
Suddenly, they felt another presence in the chamber and turned to watch as the wizard himself appeared in a swirl of powder-gray smoke.
“I’m certain you have surmised by now that I have trapped you here for your insolence,” the wizard said. He was young, or appeared so. He might have been younger than Demetrius.
The soldier stiffened. There were some who believed that the erpon could do magic. But none had thus far proven it. Only humans had the power to wield magic, which most erpon—Demetrius included—were convinced was some kind of pollution. Though part of that belief arose from envy of the power. The erpon wanted nothing to do with magic if they could not have some of it themselves.
The wizard explained that they were inside one of his globes, a sphere of glass that contained part of a world within it. He had set a challenge for them, a game.
“If you solve the riddle of what game you are playing, play it, and win,” the wizard said, “you will find the way out of the globe.”
If they tried to escape in any other way, say by attempting to break the globe, they would fail and die. It would not be a true death, for the wizard was not that cruel. They would merely be transported into another globe. One with a more difficult riddle to solve, a more challenging game to conquer.
The wizard pointed to the chain that linked the two prisoners and announced, rather obviously, that their fates were joined.
Demetrius wanted to ask why they should believe that the wizard would abide by his own rules. So many did not. Instead, he summoned as much caution as he could and asked if they might know if the rules would remain the same for the game.
The young wizard sighed impatiently. “I know what you are truly asking.” But he did not seem offended. He surprised them by giving them his wizard’s word. (A wizard did not often give his word without much goading and persuasion, and often trickery.)
After that, the boy and the soldier both knew they could trust the rules.
Demetrius politely asked the wizard how he and the boy might send word to their loved ones to say that they were well and in the care of a great wizard while they played the game. The wizard merely said they should not worry themselves about such things.
At the sight of his prisoners’ downcast eyes, the wizard sighed again, and offered that he might consider letting them out once his temper cooled, but he warned that he often forgot about his globes and who he might have trapped in them.
With that, he vanished in the same manner he had appeared.
Cor slumped his shoulders.
“Do not worry, zestaima,” Demetrius said. “This wizard seems a reasonable fellow, as wizards go. If we join our efforts, we will win this game.”
The boy looked up. “What does that mean?”
Demetrius frowned, not knowing which of his words had confused the boy.
“The word you called me.”
“Ah, it means ‘hot-blood.’”
“My mother says that word is…impolite.”
The soldier smiled. “Truly?”
“You’re a skriddir, aren’t you?”
Demetrius started. He did not expect a human boy to know of the different types of erpon. He placed his hand against the stone wall. The boy, understanding, watched the hand as it shifted color, slowly, until it matched the color, and even the texture of the stone wall.
“You are!” Cor said, grinning.
Demetrius removed his hand. “Come, let us go. Our families will worry if we are gone too long.” He began to search the chamber for anything useful.
“They won’t notice, I’m sure,” Cor said, his smile fading. “My father says I’m always underfoot. My mother says I am aimless.”
“But you’re only a child. What should you be aiming for?” Demetrius found a lantern and a flint.
The boy was stunned. “I didn’t think you would agree with my side of the matter.”
Demetrius stopped and faced the boy. “I agree with both. You should have an aim at some point in your life, but for now, you are young. Your…aim should be to learn and enjoy life. Toil and trouble come to us all, soon enough. If we don’t have memories of happiness, we would never have the will to tackle that toil and trouble. And we would never recognize happiness when it returns to us, sometimes in unexpected ways.”
“When we escape this globe, I would very much like for you to explain this to my mother.”
Cor and Demetrius found their first clue in the watchtower itself. It was a note from the wizard instructing them to find the ape king and ask him where the golden way was. The wizard left no map, but the only thing to see beyond grass from their vantage was the forest, so they decided to head toward the forest.
Their first challenge was the watchtower itself. There were no stairs, and so Demetrius lowered Cor out of one of the windows, instructing the boy to latch onto the side of the tower whenever he found a hold. The soldier expected to find many a hold in the pitted and scarred surface of the worn stone. The soldier would then climb down until he was level with Cor, and repeat the process. Demetrius would have no trouble gripping the stone with his strong hands and sharp fingers. But as he lowered the boy, the chain grew longer and longer, and he was able to lower Cor all the way to the bottom. Demetrius then scrambled down himself. When he reached the bottom, he found Cor watching him, gaping and smiling. The chain shrunk down to its original length.
Demetrius watched the sky as they walked. The forest was farther away than it seemed. The sky was darkening. Before they reached the forest, he began to suspect that something was strange. They had been walking straight ahead to the forest from the watchtower. He had confirmed it by glancing back to spot the tower until it was too far away for him to see. Cor could still see it for a while longer, and he too said it was still straight behind them. But while their path followed a definite line, it had not been a straight line. The soldier reasoned that it might be a part of the game or the structure of the globe.
They went over all the possible games the wizard might have chosen for them to play within the world of the globe. Cross-squares, Knights and Queens, Conquest, and Stairs and Serpents, were some that Cor suggested. Demetrius wondered if they might be playing an erpon game like Soldier and Sun, Traps, or the aptly named Wizard’s Curse.
They were only guessing. The only way to know was to find out, and the only way to find out was by moving forward. It was full dark by the time they entered the forest, which was lit only by the fireflies that abounded. Not knowing if it was safe to light a fire, Demetrius kept watch, while Cor slept.
When morning came, the soldier found no danger nearby and slept a few hours, while Cor tried to explore. He did not get too far. He tried to gently pull the chain to make it extend as it had before, but it would not change its length.
When Demetrius woke, they started again, and soon found a rough path. They followed it cautiously. Soon, they found the ape king. It was no living king, but a statue made from stone, of a great ape holding a crown of vines in one hand and an empty bowl in the other.
They searched around the statue for clues and found some stones shaped like different fruits scattered about the underbrush. They placed the fruits in the bowl, believing they had solved the riddle. They waited, and watched the statue. Nothing happened.
Cor asked the ape king’s statue about the golden way. He was answered by a rumbling roar, not of an ape, but of a big cat. The cat leapt into view from behind them. It had flame-colored fur and gleaming golden eyes that watched Demetrius and flicked toward Cor. The soldier had no weapon. The cat lowered herself to the ground, readying herself to pounce.
Demetrius cried out for Cor to run. The prisoners ran, away from the path, plunging deeper into the forest. As they ran, the chain extended and even seemed to lighten. Demetrius spotted a fallen tree branch. He stopped and hefted the branch, sweeping it toward the cat as she hurtled past. The cat was smaller than she had first seemed from the flaring of her fur. The soldier’s blow knocked her down. She rose and growled in irritation and anger, facing the soldier. Suddenly, something struck the side of her face, then her neck. She mewled and pawed at her face. Demetrius looked up. Cor was sitting fairly high up in a tree, pelting the cat with rocks and smaller branches. With a final roar, the cat bounded away, giving up when she realized that the prey would not be so easy.
Nevertheless, they watched for her for a while, and Demetrius sharpened the branch he’d found with the flint from the watchtower.
The cat must have already had a good kill and her fill of it, for she did not return. Then too, they were not in the natural world. Perhaps their efforts were satisfactory to the game they were playing. Demetrius wondered if they should return to the ape statue. Cor tried to climb higher to see farther, but the trees were short in that part of the forest, short and thick. He did not see much.
The trees did bear fruit however, a curious variety of familiar fruits, blue-skinned mangos that were brown and creamy inside, bunches of purple bananas, and something that smelled like an orange and tasted like an apple. They ate, and were much energized by the food, and decided to keep onward.
Soon, they reached another statue. It appeared much like the one they had passed, but was different in some ways. It was a different kind of ape. He held a crown of flowers in one hand, and in the other, a cup. This time, as Demetrius searched the area, Cor studied the statue and he noted an inscription at the base that he could not read. But Demetrius could, for it was in an old language that his people used for story-telling. The inscription requested that a traveler give the king a drink. In return, the king would show the traveler the way. The clear sky above promised no rain, so the two prisoners collected the orange-apple fruit and squeezed its juice into the cup.
In a tumbling of dust and pebbles, the statue came to life. The ape king thanked the travelers, and directed them to the golden way. He warned them, perhaps unnecessarily, that there were dangers on the trail. He could not tell them of the dangers. They must learn for themselves. But he could help them with a clue.
“You will find wisdom at the seventh step,” he said. With that, he returned to stillness and was a statue once more.
At the seventh step onto the golden way, which Demetrius doubted because it was not visibly golden, Cor spotted something near the roots of a tree. It was a small book and within it was knowledge of the forest. There still was no map. But there were pages full of spells and chants, drawings of creatures and plants, with descriptions written in some languages that Cor understood, some that Demetrius understood, and some that neither could decipher.
Cor wondered if their aim was to face all the dangers and solve all the riddles, to reach the other side of the forest, where the door to leave the globe would be. Demetrius did not think it would be that easy. Cor flipped through the book and showed the soldier all the possible dangers they might face. He turned over page after page of gruesome creatures. Creatures whose eyes were full of malice, hatred, and a hunger far more terrifying than the hunger he had seen in that big cat’s eyes.
Cor began to tremble. He shut the book, his heart hammering, and his breath grown quick. He suggested that they turn back and return to the watchtower where it was safe, until the wizard’s temper cooled and he released them. Demetrius placed a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder and assured him that he would not let anything happen to Cor. Then he placed his hand to his chest.
They continued on. Demetrius had insisted on carrying and studying the book, but Cor knew that the soldier could not be distracted from watching for danger. Being an erpon, he could likely not work any of the spells and chants in the book. That meant it was up to Cor to study the book, which in truth, contained far more wonder than terror. Using the book and their own wits they found clues that helped them onward a bit at a time.
Demetrius came upon what he thought was a sword, but it was a large broad knife that was later useful for hacking through thick vines that barred their path. They encountered creatures who guided them to the next step in their journey. They avoided creatures who threatened to harm them. Often they hid until the danger passed, Demetrius making use of his color-shifting skriddir skin. Rarely, they faced and fought the danger. After days upon days of travel, the worse they had suffered were insect bites, cuts, bruises, and sore feet.
Demetrius and Cor collected many treasures along their journey. They were soon adorned in rich cloaks that kept them warm and cool as the weather changed. Demetrius had found weapons and armor, some of them dropped by enemies he fought, some of them found after they solved a riddle. Cor found many a device that charmed him. Small machines and tools, some that seemed to serve no purpose but to amuse, such as the small metal figure of a bird that would flutter and even fly for a few moments if its gears were wound with a key. (Even that device served a purpose, in actuality, for it helped to distract a bothersome badger when they were trying to cross his path.)
Sometimes they failed to solve the obstacle before them, and would take a detour around it, but they would end up facing a different, usually more difficult, obstacle. So they learned to face whatever problem was before them. Oftentimes they were not prepared and would have to search the forest around them, or study the little book, or think and call upon their own knowledge to prepare before facing the obstacle.
Demetrius kept the time and it seemed they had been traveling for many weeks. They did not tire in body or mind, but in spirit they were growing weary. Cor, who had been almost eager for the adventure when they first entered the forest, now wanted to go home and see the faces of the mother and father he missed. Demetrius tried to keep the boy’s spirits up, but he too longed to see his wife. And he feared for what might have happened to his post. Many had witnessed his and Cor’s encounter with the wizard. Word would have found its way—he hoped—to the prisoners’ loved ones and to his commander.
The soldier remained anxious, for his suspicion was mounting that they were traveling around in circles. He had first wondered when they encountered the second statue of the ape king. But more clues emerged. They came across a friendly chipmunk at one point who guided them forward. Later on, they encountered a friendly squirrel. They fled from a wild boar, climbing up a tree and staying there until the boar grew tired of waiting and wandered away. Later on their journey, they found themselves running from a bear in much the same manner.
A spell of darkness barred their path and Cor broke it by learning a spell from the little book. Then sometime later, they came upon a spell of burning brightness that they could only vanquish by solving a riddle. Then sometime later still, they encountered a spell that mirrored the forest so that they would be truly lost. They convinced all the birds in that part of the forest to sing until the enchanted mirror spell shattered.
They seemed to be repeating themselves but in slightly different ways.
Both prisoners came to the realization at almost the same time. They were playing an ancient game called Spiral. They had both played before, but neither claimed to be skilled at it.
“It is a reflection of life,” Demetrius said of the game. “Meeting the same moment, again and again, only slightly different each time. And when one makes the better choice, one comes closer and closer to the middle of the spiral.”
They were indeed traveling in circles, ever-tightening circles that would eventually lead them to the center. That was where they might expect to find their true prize, a doorway, portal, or key. Something to lead them back to the world outside the globe.
There was melting snow on the ground, and despite warm cloaks, the cold seeped in. Demetrius suffered worse than his “hot-blood” companion. Their last clue was guiding them to their last challenge.
Sluggish and sleepy, the soldier spoke to keep himself alert. “What is the first thing you will do when we get out?” They had not dared to speak of it in many weeks.
“I don’t know,” Cor said, trudging along. “Maybe…oh, I know. I’ll eat something other than fruit. Anything at all. Bread. Eggs. Even Farmer Pickle’s cheese—that stuff that smells even worse than his feet.”
Demetrius chuckled. He knew the cheese that Cor spoke of, and he himself thought it smelled divine. And tasted just as heavenly.
“Actually it tastes pretty good,” Cor said. He kicked his chained leg forward and hopped ahead. “What about you?”
Demetrius sighed. He placed a hand to his chest. “Embrace my wife.” He cocked his head toward his young companion. “I supposed you are too young for such talk.”
“Not really. I like lots of girls. Especially the ones who can climb.”
“Do you? Erpon girls as well?”
“They’re the best at climbing. How fast they can move. How they can hang on in the wind. They have no fear. It’s beautiful.”
The soldier laughed. “Perhaps you will marry an erpon girl.”
The boy grimaced.
The soldier stopped laughing at once. “You find the thought distasteful?”
“Of marriage? Definitely.”
The soldier laughed again. The sun shone through the canopy, and he was warmed.
They had reached their last challenge, and it was another wall. It circled the center of the forest. There were no openings. They searched for seams, inscriptions, loose bricks. At last, they decided to try and climb it. Cor had proved himself a skilled climber many a time in the forest. But there was no need. Demetrius could climb faster, and in the stone, his grip would be firmer. Cor would wrap the chain around his waist and Demetrius would pull him up.
But when Demetrius tried to climb, he found the wall was slippery to him. When he tried to pierce the stone with his fingers, he could not. Among their tools and treasures, there was a pickax. Demetrius struck it against the wall, but it made no mark.
Daylight turned to dark. They heard growls, snorting, and snuffling, and spotted glowing eyes in the thick forest surrounding them. Demetrius pulled out a sword and told Cor to stand behind him. The soldier braced for battle with whatever came out of the forest for them, throwing off his cloak. His skin shifted color to match the wall. His shirt and trousers were made of material that could shift color in response to his reflex, but he did not have time to remove his cuirass and belt. He would be found. Cor could do nothing but try the wall. He found a hold for his hand, another for his foot. He began to climb and found that footholds and handholds appeared for him wherever he groped. The game must have wanted him to be the one who climbed. As he moved farther up, he knew the chain must be extending, for he did not feel the tug of reaching its end. The wall too seemed to be extending, growing taller, but Cor still climbed and climbed.
He reached the top, and dizzied though he was, he steadied himself and looked down. Demetrius was fighting off three beasts, swinging his sword, swiping with his clawed hand, even whipping his tail. Cor was not strong enough to pull the soldier up, but he searched the pockets of his cloak for a spell, potion, magic herb, or anything that might help Demetrius.
He found an enchanted pair of vambraces that made the wearer stronger. Cor cursed at himself for not finding them sooner. To their surprise, Demetrius had been able to use them once to punch through a wall. But the soldier could not try that with this wall while also fighting off slavering monsters. Cor could not see them clearly from his vantage but they looked like giant toads with teeth. He watched as Demetrius fell and struggled to his feet. Cor put the vambraces on his own arms, he braced himself, and he pulled the chain. With difficulty, he was able to pull Demetrius off his feet, but that left the soldier dangling within reach of the toad-beasts. Cor braced himself again, and pulled up again and again, hand over hand. He pulled Demetrius out of the reach of the beasts, who croaked horrifically at their loss. He hoisted the soldier to the top of the wall then collapsed, his arms trembling.
The wall was much shorter by far on the other side. Bleeding and battered, Demetrius jumped down and caught Cor as he jumped after. When they touched the ground inside the wall, they found that all the things they had acquired, even the little book that that ape king had given them, even their wounds and weariness, were gone. They were as they had been when they first woke in the place. The only thing that remained was the chain that bound them together.
In the center of the forest, they found a small clearing, and in the center of that clearing, there stood a stone table and two stone benches. Painted on the table was a large spiral. Placed in the corners of the table, outside the spiral, were stone pieces, each shaped the same, with a wide base and tapering top, of a size that could fit within one’s fist, some painted red, some blue.
“What is it?” Cor asked.
“The next level,” Demetrius said with a sigh as he walked toward the table.
Cor too approached the table. He stared at the game of Spiral laid out before them. Suddenly, he cried out in rage and swept his arm across the table, knocking the red and blue pieces off.
“Shifty, two-faced wizard!” he cried. “Cheating ogre!”
The soldier held out a hand. “Easy!”
Cor turned to Demetrius. “You shouldn’t be here. I was the one who was nasty to him. You were just trying to soothe him…and save me.”
A swirl of powder-gray smoke appeared before them, and within it appeared the wizard. He crossed his arms and glanced at the game pieces lying in the grass. Demetrius tried to move in front of Cor, but Cor stood in front of him instead.
“Well done,” the wizard said. “You made it to the center of the Spiral.”
“We won,” Cor said, glaring at the wizard. But he spoke no insults.
The wizard smiled. “Not yet.”
He told them that they must play the game of Spiral that was set on the table. Whoever won that game would escape the prison and do so with all the treasures and knowledge he acquired during the game. The one who lost would remain in the globe as the wizard’s prisoner, with no way to get out, until the wizard willed it, if the wizard willed it.
“You gave your wizard’s word that if we won, we would be free,” Cor said.
“No,” Demetrius said, peering at the wizard. “That’s not what he said. He only said we would find the way out.”
“And there it is,” the wizard said, pointing to the stone table. “For one of you. If you refuse to play, then you will both remain here.” With that, he vanished again.
If Cor had had a game piece in his hand, he would have thrown it at the wizard. But it was just as well. He might have risked Demetrius’s chance to escape. They set up the game, and the soldier warned Cor not to let him win. Cor warned Demetrius of the same. If they did not play honestly, the wizard might claim them both.
They decided that whoever won would go for help, perhaps from an even greater wizard, to free the one who remained.
For many hours, they played the game. It was easy to play it this way after all they had endured in the forest. They even had some moments of laughter and joy as they tried to best each other. Then came the moment when Demetrius placed his hand on his chest, then calmly placed his piece on the spiral. And Cor gasped when he realized that the soldier would lose.
Cor emerged from the globe into a chamber that smelled of spice and potion. He wore the sturdy boots and rich cloak that he had acquired in the forest, and a pack upon his back that was heavy with treasure. He glanced about and spotted a case lined with shelves upon which there sat globe upon globe. He did not wonder how many were occupied. He only found the one that he knew held the erpon soldier. He grasped the globe and turned to find the wizard standing in the chamber with him.
Cor almost dropped the globe, catching it in both hands.
“That globe belongs to me,” the wizard said. “That you cannot take.”
Cor dropped his pack and unhooked his cloak. “Please take all this treasure in exchange.”
“I don’t need or want any of the trinkets you acquired in the forest.”
“You said I would earn all the treasure that I acquired during the game if I won.”
“And you have them.”
“Begging your pardon, but I do not have them all.”
The wizard crossed his arms. “What, then, is missing? What treasure did you gain that you do not have with you?”
Cor held up the globe. “A friend.”
The wizard grinned. “A valiant try, but friendship abides even when the friend is not present. You still have that. Now, leave the globe and leave my presence, before I decide to grant your desire and send you back into it to be with your friend.”
Cor would have challenged the wizard further, if it weren’t for the more precious treasure he carried in his pocket. The one Demetrius had given him, making him swear oaths to guard it. He left the globe, but he left with determination. Once the stone was safe, he would return.
During their journey, Cor had sometimes wondered why the soldier kept touching his chest. He had thought it was an erpon greeting at first. Then he worried that the soldier had a wound or an illness of the heart. All along, Demetrius had been checking on the treasure he carried, the stone egg that contained the beginnings of a living being, one made by him and his wife.
Cor delivered the stone egg to Demetrius’s wife. He told her where her husband was and how he meant to get the soldier back. He was surprised to find that only seven days had passed outside the globe, so she and his own parents were not as worried as he feared they would be. They had heard about the wizard and were trying to rally allies to get their loved ones returned to them. But they had thus far found no luck.
Demetrius’s wife told Cor to return to his mother and father and to let her take care of getting Demetrius back. She promised that she would send word to Cor when his friend returned.
Cor returned home and enjoyed his reunion with his mother and father. But the next morning, while they slept contentedly for the first time in days, Cor set out for the wizard’s abode. His aim was to bargain, to trade places with Demetrius if need be. He had left a letter for his parents. But when he returned to the street where the wizard’s home should be, it was not there. The buildings around it seemed to have filled in the space where the wizard’s home once stood.
His panic rising, Cor asked those who lived on the street, but none remembered the wizard’s home. An elderly woman said that she did not remember, but she believed Cor that the wizard’s home was where he said it was. Wizards often moved their homes about and fit them in places where others could not see from outside. Cor could likely see it when he first left only because he had been inside. It may well be that the house was still there, but they just couldn’t see it.
Dismayed, Cor returned to Demetrius’s house to let his wife know of his new failure, and swear oaths to her of how he would find spells of seeing, for he had cast spells before when he was in the globe. But when she opened the door and saw him, she scooped Cor up in a prickly hug, exclaiming that he had arrived faster than she expected. Cor was puzzled until she told him that she had sent word to him.
As she spoke, Demetrius entered the room. He had taken off his soldier’s gear. He looked strange to Cor without it.
Cor beamed. “He released you.”
“I fell asleep in the clearing,” the soldier said. “When I woke, I was lying on the floor where you now stand.”
Cor frowned. “He was teaching me a lesson, wasn’t he?”
“Not just you, zestaima.”
“Have we learned what we were meant to?”
“Time will tell. Perhaps the wizard learned something as well.”
Cor sighed. “I hope I never see another wizard again for the rest of my days.”
Demetrius grinned. “If you did see this wizard again, what would you say?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
Demetrius laughed and Cor joined him.
“The chain is gone,” Demetrius said, “but I feel there’s still something that binds us.”
The soldier held out his hand.
Cor approached and grasped his friend’s arm.
“There is,” he said, his eyes filling with tears, “Farmer Pickle’s cheese.”
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Prisoners of Spiral” by Sanjay Patel.