When Charles next was conscious of the world around him, he was no longer in their house at Tempstow; the corner he was lying belonged to a small damp and enclosed room that had just a single window, with bars, and a tiny door, firmly closed.
Sitting on the floor by him were Aunt Isabella, who was massaging his head, and Thomas, who curiously gazed, with a nasty sort of curiosity, at a bone-sack of a man, shackled, on the other corner. Both Aunt and Thomas were thin faced and crack-lipped, and appeared to be in despair.
‘Aunt,’ Charles said weakly. She turned her eyes at his face.
‘Charles,’ she smiled, ‘you are awake.’
Charles tried and sat upright. I was difficult, his head hurt so badly.
‘Where are we?’ he said, ‘Those... Those soldiers...’
‘We are in Nascat,’ said Aunt, ‘They brought us here,’ she grimaced, ‘Countrymen; they call themselves—and beat others for fun.’
‘In Nascat?’ said Charles, the blaze in his head, it took time for him to properly take in the words, ‘You mean... You mean the prison of Nascat?’
‘But why? Why did they bring us here?’
‘They won’t say,’ said Thomas aloud, turning away from the old man and at him, ‘They have kept us here one whole day and still won’t explain why they brought us here at the first place!’
‘But surely,’ said Charles, ‘there must be a reason.’
‘It’s all because of the Stocker you two met,’ said Aunt, sounding mysterious, ‘Stockers are evil omens.’
‘Whatever,’ said Thomas, irritably, ‘I just want to get out of this awful place.’ Scratching his head, he took back to gazing at the man, who apparently was sleeping, breathing slow and deep.
‘Mum,’ said Thomas, ‘that man’s been sleeping since yesterday itself.’
‘So,’ said Aunt, ‘what’s the problem with you? We don’t want him awake; he’s a convict and we don’t know for what crime he’s here.’
‘We are here for no crime,’ said Thomas, ‘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, they were totally made devoid of any energy and had little of it to even converse. Charles would pass into sleep many a times, 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, Thomas got up and banged furiously at the door of the cell several times, and then fell in a swoon by it when no response came from anyone outside. Fanning, using their hands, it took a long time for Aunt and Charles to get him conscious again.
Food came only at night, as they could see through the small window. A panel at the bottom of the door opened and some loaves of bread along with water was passed in.
The bread was stale and the water tasted of mud. But so hungry they were, they swallowed it all down the throat. They had no option.
Ponder how much he did; Charles failed to see the point behind them being made prisoners. They were clean of wrong doings, paid the taxes regularly, and were what one called good citizens. What more, the soldiers themselves were guilty of taking them from home by force and not making known the charges against them. Charles prayed things to solve soon and hoped they could get out of the pit they had fallen into.
The old thin man, their sleeping cell mate never woke up. His sleep was to last forever. It was Thomas who saw him first and pointed out to Aunt and Charles, who realised that the man had ceased breathing.
What followed was an endless session of banging at the door. Fortunately, it didn’t go futile as someone finally 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, her whole form shivering in anxiety, ‘a man has died here!’
‘What rubbish!’ said the man in the other side, ‘You’re lying, aren’t you?’
‘No, really,’ said Charles, ‘there’s a dead man here!’
‘Alright,’ 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, after which there was a sound of a key being inserted into a lock, and then, with a creak, the door swung open.
‘There, there!’ said Charles, pointing at the corpse of the old man, as three jailors poured in. They took him out in a matter of minutes and locked the door behind them.
‘It’s horrible!’ said Aunt, 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 Thomas, ‘but you won’t listen—you never listen.’
The death of the convict spilled terror into their hearts. What if they were never released and had to suffer a fate similar to the man? 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 why they were imprisoned and when they were to be set free, if it was to happen, was impossible.
Then, one night, something occurred that was to install itself in Charles’ mind for permanent.
It was stormy outside, thunder clapping to stun the ears every now and then. They had only just had their meek prison food, and were preparing to sleep. Sleeping on the floor was a task in itself, no trace of comfort in sight, and they knew when they woke up they would be hardly capable of moving their stiff muscles. Everyone was half their initial size now, and Charles, skinny from before, was a skeleton and worse. The effect of prison life was clearly evident on their bodies.
Suddenly, there was a great ‘BOOM’, like a cannon shell being fired, not outside though, it had nothing to do with the thunder, but inside their cell, forcing them to cover their ears, the noise a torture.
‘What the heck was that?’ said Thomas after it passed, awed. It was dark and only an outline of him could be seen.
‘It originated inside for sure,’ said Charles, getting to his feet, alert.
‘What caused it?’ said Aunt Isabella.
‘Dunno,’ said Charles, ‘there is nothing really that could have.’
‘Maybe,’ said Thomas, ‘some kind of heavy load fell over the room; what dye say?’
‘No, it originated within itself, I’m sure.’
Again there was a ‘BOOM’, that was swiftly followed by yet another, causing the cell to jitter by the sheer intensity of sound.
‘What’s happening?!’ said Aunt, terrified.
‘Something’s definitely going on!’ said Charles.
A white light flashed in mid-air, just below the ceiling, and formed into a ball that hovered, illuminating the cell bright.
In his utter shock, Charles could not dare himself to move. The event occurring before them was one he hadn’t imagined in his craziest of dreams. Perhaps this was the first time mortal eyes were witnessing something of the kind as magical.
‘Fear not,’ a voice said, and it belonged neither to Charles, Thomas or Aunt, ‘I mean no harm to you, but rather the reverse. I am the spirit of Williams Garvinson and seek but help from you.’
‘A spirit?’ said Thomas, the appal in his tone glassy clear, ‘You mean you’re a ghost?’
‘Alas, yes’ in a sense I am. I am the man who was in this cell and died.’
‘You’re the ghost of the old convict?’ Charles asked. He had always refused to believe in ghosts, spirits and supernatural beings. But this one... He was guaranteed nobody was tricking them by creating effects with sound and light—there was nothing to gain from that.
‘Yes,’ the voice answered grimly,’ however, I was innocent of the crime they accused me with, and that too of the worst crime there could be: of murdering my dearest of friends, the renowned scientist, Albert Bennet!’
‘What!’ Aunt Isabella burst out, ‘you’re the same Garvinson who killed my father?!’
‘Are you his daughter in real?’ the spirit asked, acquiring an extremely surprised note.
‘Why, of course!’ Aunt said, agitated, the earlier fear getting wiped, ‘And these are hiss grandchildren! You are a murderer, Garvinson, you always will be; and I’m not afraid of you even if you are a ghost, the Gods shall protect us against you.’
A few moments passed in cavernous silence. For Charles, the entire thing was like getting hit by a club a second time. All he had known about the circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death was that a certain Garvinson had attacked him with a dagger and killed him. And this was the very Garvinson? His grandfather’s killer?
‘No,’ said the spirit in remorse, ‘I didn’t do anything to him... It was all false, I never murdered Albert... I was framed.’
‘Framed, eh?’ Aunt was in a fury, ‘You were caught red handed, and the dagger was in your hand.’
‘NOOO!!!’ the spirit bellowed. The ball dissolved into liquid light that swirled and took the appearance of the convict, who had died.
Aunt gasped but maintained her bold.
‘Go away,’ she said, ‘go away in the name of the almighty gods!’
‘I didn’t,’ said the convict, ‘kill Albert. Please believe me, I am innocent, he was my friend!’
‘Don't lie,’ Aunt snarled.
‘I am not. I still remember that terrible day; Albert came to my place, looking all white and shuddering, and spilled information about the staff and the axe, and after that let out a painful cry—and died. I was terrified and did not know what to do. I discovered the knife plunged into his back that I had not seen earlier because of his shawl. At the precise moment I was taking out the dagger from his body, people burst into my house and saw me holding it, they had heard Albert’s cry. I tried to explain to them, but everyone was adamant.’
‘You’re making stuff,’ said Aunt, ‘my father never had any friend by your name—only his murderer.’
Garvinson eyed Aunt Isabella sorrowfully.
‘It is alright if you do not believe me,’ he said, ‘I understand, and no soul believes me anyhow, but as for going away from here and leaving you, that I cannot do—alone. You will have to help me because I am obliged to this cell, as long as the promise I made to Albert is not fulfilled.’
‘You’re making stuff,’ Aunt said again.
‘Please trust me,’ said Garvinson, ‘If you help me, I would be able to help you too. I can help you get out from here.’
‘Can you really help us escape this horrid prison?’ Thomas asked.
‘Yes, but not until you render me the favour of completing my unfulfilled promise to Albert—It is what binds me to this place.’
Charles looked at Aunt Isabella; 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.’
Garvinson shook his 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 just 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 merely pick up someone else.’
Aunt Isabella flinched; this was making an effect on her. Charles himself felt queasy of the idea to spend his life span locked in a prison cell.
‘But definitely,’ said Aunt, ‘they won’t do something like that.’
‘They have done so to hundreds of people,’ said Garvinson, ‘It is least likely they will spare you; trust me I can be of help. Alive, I was not able to flee myself, but as a spirit, I can help you to be free.’
Aunt glanced at Charles and Thomas thoughtfully. Maybe it was their dry faces that compelled her, but her anger disappeared from her expressions and she said,
‘What will we have to do?’
‘You will have to go to the Tropagian forest.’
‘What!?’ She was stupefied, as were the boys, ‘To the Tropagian forest?’
‘Yes’ said Garvinson, ‘It is where the staff and the axe are.’
‘The staff and the axe?’
‘The staff Navarion and the axe Acario. Albert had instructed me to destroy Navarion by cutting it into two using Acario.’
‘Why’d my father assign you to carry out such a task?’
‘Because he had me in his confidence,’ said Garvinson, ‘He had come to know of the two artefacts during the Tropagian expedition. Navarion is an evil staff that if falls into wrong hands, has the capacity to make everyone slaves of its wielder, and hence needs to be destroyed, the axe Acario being the sole object that could do so.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ said Aunt Isabella, ‘A woman and two boys, you can’t simply expect us to go to a place like Tropagia! That vile forest took the lives of all, excepting my father’s, during the expedition.’
‘And they all died to save him—So that he could destroy the staff Navarion, but he died without succeeding, handing me the task, which I failed at as well.’
Aunt eyed the convict suspiciously.
‘The men died in an accident while crossing the river. My father had got to the other bank first of all, that’s why he survived.’
‘No,’ said the convict, ‘what you have been hearing is untrue. Albert 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 in it and in the ensuing battle his men gave up their lives to save him.’
‘My father and his men came across actual demons!?’
‘Yes; but demons and the dark creatures are beings of the night, they are not around during daytime. So, if you go to Tropagia and are able to get to the axe hill before nightfall, you should be secure from harm, as by Albert’s words, the hill is magical and bad forces cannot wander near to it.’
‘So, the forest is free from dangers during the day?’ Aunt asked, ‘And we’ll be safe if we can get to the hill?’
‘Yes, ‘said Garvinson, ‘Albert said so, although I do not know how he came to know it all.’
Aunt nodded, her eyes sat at the floor. From what Charles could see, she was thinking hard.’
‘Still,’ she said after a minute, ‘we can’t go to Tropagia as long as we are locked up here,’ she frowned doubtfully, ‘which brings me to thinking, how will you help us when we can’t help you in the first place?
‘No,’ said Garvinson, dismissing her puzzlement,’ after death I have acquired magical powers and though I cannot myself, I can teleport you to the Tropagian forest, as close to the axe hill as my abilities allow me.’
‘Hmmm...’ Aunt mused.
‘But what will we do once we get to the hill?’ Charles asked.
‘You will have to 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 and within sight able distance from the hill, towards the north. The staff 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 looked at Charles.
‘Do you think you should agree?’
Charles brainstormed for some seconds.
‘Maybe we can give it a try,’ he said,’ and he says they won’t search us if we escape from here—And hey,’ Charles turned to Garvinson ,’What after we destroy the staff?’
‘Worry not,’ he replied, ‘once the staff is destroyed, my obligations to Albert will be over and I shall become a free spirit. I would be able to go to the forest myself and take you from there and transport you to your home.’
‘And what if you don’t,’ Aunt said testily, slight scepticism in her voice.
‘I promise I will,’ said Garvinson, ‘and you can trust in that, for unless a spirit has fulfilled all his promises, he is not permitted to pass to the other world.’
The night went quick in nervous anticipation of the morning. Curious and excited, they didn’t sleep, besides, sleeping would only give them the cramps. Charles wasn’t fully sure about Garvinson, and he had chosen to accept his offer just because it didn’t have any downside to it, which meant, even if Garvinson was lying, they had nothing to lose; Nascat was frustrating enough that a week more of staying there would rob him of his sanity.
With the breaking of first rays of day, Garvinson, who had turned himself invisible the previous night, reappeared and told them to assemble in a line holding hands.
‘So,’ he said, ‘of your food, Tropagia would provide it in abundance, 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 the closest possible to xe hill.’
The three of them exchanged looks and nodded, grasping each others’ hands even more tightly.’
‘Let’s hope for the best,’ said Aunt.
‘Right,’ agreed Charles.
‘This is gonna be adventurous,’ said Thomas, glowing for the first time in what Charles thought ages.
Garvinson lifted his arms and, making complicated gestures with them, began to mutter strange words, riddling incantations their mortal ears could not make any sense of.
Smoke gushed from his hands, dense, but breathable, smoke which surrounded them until it was the only thing in their visions.
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 everywhere was trees. Freedom was theirs.
They were in the Tropagian forest.
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