What do you do when you’ve insulted the chief’s daughter of your village, have been exiled with your best friend, told to never return and your father couldn’t care at all? That’s what Max was thinking. All he had was a frugal pack on his shoulder, with an even sorrier looking wallet in his pockets. Max sighed. He didn’t know what to do.
A voice rang about him. “Come on, Max. Whatever happened to your usual bravado? Got exiled as well, did it?”
Max looked up at his friend. Leon smiled, and patted him on the shoulder. They were a strange pair, being different yet so similar. Their friendship began 8 years ago at their village’s school, where Leon broke their teacher’s necklace, yet Max took the blame for him. Ever since, they were together, talking quietly or engaging in mock battles, re-enacting the stories told by the greybeards of their families.
“Come,” Leon encouraged. “Perhaps before nightfall?”
Max smiled to himself as they began to jog south along the river Shepherd’s Beard, travelling down the path that would lead to the Temple of 100 Trials.
Their plan was something that even the village chief would balk at. It is because the temple is said to be inhabited by monsters, like goblins, giant spiders and horrors of the worst sort. After being exiled, Max and Leon felt it would be a great place to hide out until they figured out a way to redeem themselves, as no one would look for them among the ivy-snared walls.
As Max came back to their camp at the mouth of the Temple, arms laden with firewood, Leon was not there. Confused, Max tried to think while, as Leon was setting out the rations for their dinner before…
There! By the temple entrance, a muddy boot lay. Max flinched, as the boot’s partner rested forlornly on the dirt inside the Temple. Not knowing what to do, Max thought of his options. He could get help, yet that would mean going back to the village. Or he could go inside…
With a torch in hand, Max plunged inside…
The temple seemed innocent enough. The moon’s glow pierced through the ceiling and the pillars stood stubbornly, despite the forest’s vines curling about them. Yet architecture was the least on Max’s mind.
“Leon? Are you here?”
Max heard rustling. Holding his torch high, he glanced upwards.
Suddenly, the room was filled with moonlight, and a hulking mass landed on the ground. Max gasped, as it was a spider, yet it was bigger than a cow, and twice as smelly. The arachnid’s pincers snapped, before it let loose a stream of thread. Max rolled to the side, fear flooding his heart.
“MAX! Up here!”
Max looked up, flinching in surprise, for Leon was trapped in a cocoon on a pillar.
“Quickly! No time for lollygagging!” Leon yelled. “Over there! Look in the bones!”
Max stared in the corner, seeing something shining among the dust. Max reached down, and threw a stone at the spider, striking it in one of its eyes.
As it flailed in agony, Max rushed to the bone-pile, seeing a sword and spear in the skeleton’s hands. Dropping the torch, he grabbed them both and turned, but the spider was rushing at him, its 8 eyes rolling madly, pincers dripping with venom.
Feeling courage swell in his heart, Max stepped forward, sword in his left hand, the spear in his right. Yelling with fervour, Max leapt, thrusting the spear into another eye, and he hacked at the spider’s legs with the sword, before managing to kill it with another spear thrust.
Max breathed deeply. He would’ve earned great renown if there were anyone to have seen his deed. Speaking of anyone…
THUD! Leon groaned, as his cocoon had fallen down with him in it. Max ran to his friend’s side.
“Are you okay?”
“You would think a spider would’ve woven its cocoon properly, but no, it did a botch job…”
Max chuckled as he helped Leon unwrap himself from the webbing. It was a good sign if Leon’s usual good humour was returning. He put the spear next to Leon.
“Here, if we get attacked again, at least we can defend ourselves.”
“Huh. Never knew you had the warrior in you, Max.”
“You know I always said that I wanted to be a warrior.”
“You say a lot of things, Max. I don’t listen to everything you say.”
They stood up, yet shock took hold, as all of a sudden, on the other side of the room, the wall gave way. Yet what was more surprising was the noise of grinding stone. Which could only mean…
Leon and Max peered at the ceiling, which was easing itself downwards. Then, they looked at the exit’s door, which was already closing. They looked at each other, their eyes answering the questions. With a nod, they dashed deeper into the temple…
Max and Leon dived into the next room, hands over their ears as the ceiling of the previous room crashed to the ground.
“You realize this is probably the stupidest thing we’ve ever done?” Max remarked.
“Didn’t stop you from coming, though, did it?” Leon retorted.
“Well, you remember that legend about the village’s Sacred Ruby?”
“How could I forget? My sister never stopped talking about it when my gaffer raved about it last year…”
Leon looked at Max, stepping back from the look of his grin.
“Max, no. That’s insane, even for your standards.”
“Think about it. If we got it, they’d take us back! We’d be heroes!”
Leon sighed. “Ah well, it’s not like we have a choice anymore, since we’re stuck here.”
Max clapped his friend on the shoulder. ‘Then let’s get a move on. If this temple goes by its name, we’ve got another 99 trials to get through!”
There were two types of trials that Max and Leon had to complete. Some tested their combat prowess (Max was prominent in these) in battling other-worldly creatures, including goblins and reanimated skeletons, while other tests involved mental puzzles and riddles (Leon was the main contributor in these).
After slaying another pair of goblins, Leon bent over in exhaustion, his spear clattering to the ground. “Who knew killing goblins could be so tiring?”
Max rested his back on the chamber’s wall. “I dunno, but we gotta keep going.”
Grunting slightly, Leon got up, and he and Max went through to the next chamber, after which the door closed behind them.
Looking warily around the room, there was no sign of an enemy; just two passageways.
“Do you think this is another puzzle thing?” Max whispered.
“Might as well find out,” Leon replied as he stepped forward.
Suddenly, a mist formed in the room, completely obscuring Max’s vision and Leon disappeared. Max cried out and was about to run forward, yet a figure formed in the fog. Max exclaimed in fear, as the shape turned into his father. It spoke aloud,.
“You killed your mother.”
“Because of your birth, you took her away from me.”
“You disgrace our family; make yourself the biggest fool of Shepherd’s Ford, so banishment is a fitting punishment…”
“You disgust me. Why don’t you give into despair? With you gone, the world will finally be rid of your insolence.”
“You sucked the life out of her. You have the same brown hair, the same face and you stole her green eyes from this world.”
“Your apology means nothing. Give in, boy. Allow the darkness to fill you. Let its fingers grasp your heart, and may the light never enter your eyes again…”
Max curled into ball, sobbing uncontrollably, feeling grief submerge his mind, until…
Max opened his eyes. The figure of his father melted away, and the mist twisted together into a woman. She wore a commoner’s dress; her hair fell by her shoulders into masses of brown. Then, she opened her eyes, and Max was astonished by their colour. Like two bright emeralds…
“Oh, my son. How you’ve grown. The fact you’re here means that you have your father’s audacity.”
“Was Dad an illusion? Are you real? Am I…dreaming?”
“Come, Max. I may not be here in flesh, yet heed my words.”
Max sat up, staring at his mother in awe.
“You are courageous, my son. Counting this chamber, you have already passed through 37 trials, which was more than the Shepherd himself, who never got past the first.”
“So, the skeleton in the first room, the sword and spear…”
“Aye, they belonged to the Shepherd. You and Leon fought like the warriors of old.”
“You know Leon?’
“I am a spirit, Max. I see far and see all. I have watched over you since my mind left my body, 15 years ago in our home. I am so very proud of you.”
“There is little time for me. Already, my strength falters. So I will help you the best I can. Listen closely. Before the mist, you saw the two passages, correct?”
“Very well, I advise you to take the passage on the left, as it will lead you to the end.”
“Yes. Now, I bid farewell to you, Max. Your road will be difficult, yet remember this. Your father is a good person at heart, despite his gruffness.”
“Hush. I leave you now. Be safe. I love you.”
“Max! What happened?”
After the mist had appeared, Leon stood stock-still, waiting for it to dissipate. Once it did, he saw Max kneeling with an empty expression, and so Leon feared the worst.
Max shook his head as he stood up, and looked Leon in the eye. “I need you to believe me when I tell this to you, Leon.”
Several minutes later, Leon shrugged.
“You believe me, don’t you?”
“Max, it seems illogical, but this temple is really weird, so I don’t doubt it. So, ready to go through the left passage?”
Max and Leon were blinded by their arrival into the final chamber. The walls were dotted with jagged green crystal; its light giving the room a green glow. But what really caught their attention was the pedestal in the middle of the room. On it lay a stone, glowing dimly with a deep red. It was the Shepherd Ford’s Sacred Ruby!
Max and Leon were struck dumb by its beauty. As they stood in front of it, they could see themselves reflected a hundred times over.
“By my father’s belly,” Leon muttered. “The stories didn’t describe it well enough.”
Max raised his hand. “Come, let’s take it.” His hand rested on the jewel’s multifaceted surface.
All of a sudden, the crystals grew dark, their light disappearing into nothingness.
Crying out in alarm, Max released his grip on the stone. The stench of brimstone pervaded the chamber, and an eerie glow on the other side of the room twisted into the figure of…a man.
Dressed in tattered, faded robes, it had a pointed hat on its brow and it had a long beard. Yet what were most unsettling were its eyes, for they pierced their very souls, scouring the corners of their very beings.
Then, it spoke.
“WHO DARE DISTURB THE RESTING PLACE OF THE SHEPHERD, THE ONE WHO MADE MIRACLES WHEN HE BROUGHT HIS VILLAGE FROM DAMNATION TO SALVATION?”
Terror overcame them, yet while Max cowered, Leon stood defiantly.
“Max and I came, o Shepherd, creator of Shepherd’s Ford,” Leon began. “As we seek the village’s Sacred Ruby, so we may barter it to our village chief’s and renounce our banishment.”
“Umm!” it replied. “Your claim seems plausible, for even in death, I know the chief of my ford and his daughter are fools. Yet, by what crime earned you your banishment?”
The spirit waved its arm, and the light returned to the chamber’s crystals. Picking himself up, Max stood.
“The chief’s daughter made comment about my mother and the fact that she died soon after giving birth to me,” Max said slowly. “For that, I insulted her ridiculous blonde pigtails. Her father was drunk at the time, and so in his befuddled state, he banished me.”
The spirit nodded thoughtfully. “I would have done the same thing that you did, if I were in your place. Yet, who is your companion?”
Leon stepped up. “We are friends, and so I defended him, yet the truth was ignored, and so both of us were banished.”
The shepherd turned away and laughed. “Such loyalty! It is unusual in these times for such a bond to form! It reminds me of the old days, when Ryan the Blacksmith and I were brothers in arms…”
Max started in surprise. “Ryan?” He asked. “My great great grandfather was Ryan!”
The shepherd looked at Max with a new light in his eyes.
“Well,” the spirit started. “At least my friend’s brethren turned out well. Very well then.”
The spirit grasped the ruby, placing it in Max’s hands.
“I give it to you now,” the spirit murmured. “In return, I ask for my weapons, the sword and spear, so that I may finally rest in peace.”
Max and Leon placed them on the pedestal, and the spirit gazed at them fondly. He pointed to the wall, which came away to reveal a passageway.
“Follow it and return home. Do not disturb the temple any further, for I will not be around to help you.”
At this, Max and Leon bowed low to the Shepherd, before running down the passage, their hearts filled with silent joy and wonder at escaping with their lives, with the Sacred Ruby, and meeting the Shepherd.
Air! Sweet, night air!
The passage led to the side of the temple into a clearing of trees. Leon fell to the ground in exhaustion.
“Never knew that you could miss the taste of air and the touch of the night’s breeze,” he said.
Max breathed deeply, held the Sacred Ruby aloft and looked at Leon with a new light in his eyes.
With the gem in tow, and a new resolves running through their veins, they felt at peace.
It was time to go home again.