A Dawning Light

Chapter 1: Small Mission, Big Discovery Ann entered her father’s room, on a mission to find a spare light bulb to replace her own one in her bedroom, (it had recently fused). Ann looked around the room, wondering where she should start searching; her eyes fell on the wardrobes on the right side of the room. Ann Raven was a normal fourteen year old girl; she had fair skin and cheeks as red as a new rose; with bright green eyes like emeralds. Her jet black hair was straight, sleek; and fell down her back like a perfect, black waterfall. Ann opened the first wardrobe and inspected the contents, there were her father’s clothes hanging on the rail, just underneath the shelf, which was quite clearly, empty. Her eyes then drifted to the bottom of the wardrobe which was cluttered with all sorts of objects. Ann crouched down onto the floor, so that it may allow her to delve deeper into the wardrobe, she then started to search for a light bulb, taking and replacing photos, papers, pens, pencils and other various items. ‘He really needs to tidy up his wardrobe’ Ann thought to herself as she searched. After about ten minutes of this, Ann felt her hand brush something round, ‘Aha, here’s a light bulb’ she thought. She grasped the light bulb more tightly and attempted to remove it from its place. But, to her surprise, the light bulb did not budge; Ann held her grip and pushed her head through her father’s clothes into the wardrobe, so that she could discover why the light bulb was not moving from its current place. She was stunned as she saw that she was not gripping a light bulb but the brass handle to a small drawer that was built into the right wall of the wardrobe. Ann slid open the drawer- she could tell that it had not been used in a long time as the inside and outside was coated in dust- she peered inside and found a gold box. It was decorated with intricate patterns that were studded with glittering diamonds and jewels. Ann looked inside the box, and found a single silver key. On the key, a sword was imprinted, Ann replaced the key and closed the lid, and then she saw something she hadn’t noticed before. Inscribed on the lid was a small poem: ‘Across the vast water that separates you from me, Are the roots that will lead you to the place I will be, All your lost treasures you will find, Your worldly possessions you will leave behind’ “Ann!” Ann jumped to her feet, her father had just walked in, her father named Michael, was a thin man who looked older than he actually was, he was tall, and wore glasses on the bridge of his nose, and he had black hair and green eyes (which Ann inherited). His green eyes took in the open doors of one of his wardrobes and Ann standing with her hands behind her back, looking extremely uncomfortable. “What are you doing here?” Michael enquired. “Erm, uh, I just…” Ann stuttered, she tried to remember what she had actually come into the room for, her mind was occupied with the box, the key and the mysterious riddle, she wanted to ask her father about the small drawer from which the gold box had originated, but she didn’t feel this was the right time, or if it was right at all.

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“Ann?” Michael said. Ann racked her brains for something to say other than ‘erm’ or ‘uh’, then she realised what she should say. “I just came to look for a light bulb” Ann explained. “My own one fused” she added. “But the light bulbs are downstairs in the closet” Michael replied. “Oh” was all Ann could say, now that she thought about it, she did remember her father saying something about moving the light bulbs from upstairs to downstairs, but how would she remember a minor thing like that when she had been absorbed in one of her favourite television programmes. Feeling awkward and foolish, she began to make her way out of her father’s bedroom when her father stopped her by asking: “Hey, what’s that you got behind your back?” Ann froze, adrenaline affecting every part of her body. “Ann?” Michael repeated for what seemed like the tenth time that afternoon. “Nothing, why would I be hiding anything behind my back?” Ann gabbled quickly. “Well, you’ve had your hands behind your back all this time and you don’t normally do that” Michael answered. Ann could not think of a convincing answer to this, so she said as an attempt to escape from answering this difficult question. “I got to go” Ann said hastily. “Where do you have to go?” Michael asked. “I, uh…have to feed the ducks” Ann invented wildly. “But you always said that was boring and childish” Michael contradicted. Ann was not accustomed to lying, and as a result, was not able to come out with convincing lies. So to prevent herself from arousing any more suspicion, she said “Well, there’s no harm in trying out something new”. Then before her father could say anything else, Ann darted out of the room, ran down the stairs and out of the house. She stopped running only when she had run past the play area and reached her favourite nook right near the river, not far from her house, which was situated in a place in England called Kingston-on-Thames. There were many trees and plants nearby, and there were always swans and ducks in the river that was in fact part of the river Thames. Ann gazed out towards her home, to be sure that her father had not followed her out. Then she paused, took a long breath and sat down. She then opened the hand in which she had held onto the gold box, all this time (even when she had been running). She stared at the beautifully decorated golden walls, and wondered why her father would keep an ordinary looking, insignificant key in such a lavishly decorated box, and then keep that hidden away in a small compartment in his wardrobe. Ann resolved that the importance can’t lie in the key itself but in what the key unlocks. She read and reread the riddle, but was still baffled, she hoped that when the riddle said ‘vast water’, it didn’t mean the ocean, but she didn’t think that it meant ‘vast water’ figuratively either. The idea of a lost treasure excited her, but that idea seemed too childish. Ann had learned nothing from her intense thinking, she had a vague idea that when it said ‘YOUR lost treasure’, it meant as in something that had a value to her personally, but she didn’t know if that idea was worth pursuing. She soon conceded defeat, and started to make her way back. She opened the front door as silently as she could; made sure her father was not around, before making her way delicately up the stairs to her bedroom on the third floor of the house. Ann needed to hide the gold box in her bedroom, away from her father’s eyes.

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She reached her bedroom quite easily, her eyes moved around the room, seeking a latent place for the golden box. Her eyes soon found the space under her bed, it was fairly concealed, she never kept anything under her bed, her room was always tidy, and her father only ever came in when he needed something, there was no reason on Earth for her father to look under her bed. As Ann pushed the box right to the wall under her bed, she felt a collision; she groped around for the object blocking the path of the box, and found a home made mother’s day card. Ann had made in school when she had been six years old. It was a flower pot made from various bits of tissue paper stuck onto yellow card, then in a black untidy scrawl, the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ were written . Ann remembered, how on that day, she had put a lot of effort into the card, only to come home, and realise she had no mother to give it to, she remembered how she had ran up to her room, cursing her luck as the tears streamed down her face, she remembered how she had fell upon her pillow, wishing with all her heart, that she could have a mother. As Ann recollected all of this, she felt her eyes water. Ann’s parents were divorced; they had gone their own separate ways when she had been very young, but she had been old enough to remember the soft, warm, but firm feel of her mother’s arms, however, her memory of her mother’s appearance was very vague and obscured. Ann wiped her eyes with a finger, she walked over to the dustbin and dropped the yellow mother’s day card in, exactly where it belonged-why would she ever need it? - Ann thought bitterly. She collapsed onto her bed right beside window, which had a delightful view, of the play area, the trees, and the swans in the river. She stared out of the window. She thought about what that riddle could possibly mean and hoped that she would find out the purpose behind the silver key and the gold box. She had to find out, it wasn’t that she was a gossip mongrel, but once she got curious, she would not feel at ease, until she found out everything. If her father hadn’t started calling her downstairs for her lunch, Ann would have sat there daydreaming all day long. She got up off her bed, and clattered down the stairs noisily, and walked into the kitchen, where her father had laid out a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise for her on the table. Ann hadn’t realised she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast until she saw the bowl of spaghetti bolognaise. She sat down and began to devour her lunch quickly, she knew that she hadn’t put up a very convincing performance in front of her father, and she wanted to avoid any awkward questions. But her father had settled himself on a chair opposite Ann, before she was anywhere near finished. “So, how did feeding the ducks go?” Michael asked. When Ann just looked at him blankly, Michael said “You forgot the bread.” “Oh yeah, I did” Ann could see the suspicion in her father’s eyes, she couldn’t blame him, she knew that her act of ‘feeding the ducks’ had been pathetic. She continued to eat her lunch, as her father watched her like an Eagle, for signs of deception. She ate her lunch, and even as she walked out of the kitchen, she could still feel her father’s gaze. Ann dived towards the floor beneath her bed, in order to extract the lavishly decorated gold box, she removed the silver key from its container, and replaced it with her own silver house key, she then copied the riddle onto a piece of paper, so that she may refer to it whenever she wanted to. Her father knew that she was hiding something, so she needed to dispose of any evidence available. But the only problem was that she knew her father was already inside his bedroom on the second floor of the house, she was afraid that her father

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would notice the absence of the gold box and immediately suspect her, but she could not go put he box back in the hidden drawer of her father’s wardrobe while he was in the room. She decided that she had no choice but to wait until her father left the room, she remained outside her bedroom door, until she heard her father’s footsteps disappear downstairs. Then, as is that was the signal, Ann ran down the stairs, and into her father’s room, she looked behind her to make sure that she had closed the door, then she walked towards the wardrobe, whilst her heart quickened its pace to the point where it was beating so hard, she could feel it banging against her chest, slamming hard against her ribcage. She squatted down on the floor for the second time that afternoon, not knowing whether she was in the right or wrong, she found the drawer quite easily, she slid it open and quickly put the gold box (with the fake key) back in. Then before, her father walked in again, she fled the room, several questions running through her mind: What did that puzzling riddle mean? Would she ever be able to figure it out? Was all this trouble worth it? And why was it so important to her?

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Chapter 2: Extra help or Extra Stress Ann returned to school, he following Monday, feeling safe an secure, the reason for this was that she knew that she had nothing to be worried about, as she had the silver key and the mysterious riddle safe in her blazer pocket. As she sat on the bus, she had another attempt at interpreting the riddle; she was desperate to tell her best friends, Hannah and Sofia all about her discovery. Maybe, they would be better at understanding the riddle. Ann attended a secondary school called Kingston River School, every morning, she would take the bus to school and meet her two best friends, Hannah, who was quite short, with light blue eyes behind a pair of spectacles, a round face with rosy cheeks, and had chestnut curls that fell to her shoulders, and Sofia who was the complete opposite of Hannah in personality as well as in appearance. Sofia was extremely tall, one of the tallest people in the year group, she had long, straight hair which was he same colour as honey, and dark brown eyes. As Ann arrived in the school playground, she found Sofia and Hannah already waiting for her by a bench. By the time the bell had rung, and they had all traipsed into their form room, Ann had recounted everything about the golden container of the mysterious key, the confusing riddle and everything that had puzzled her during her weekend. Sofia and Hannah were equally intrigued by the whole business as Ann, and at break, the first topic they discussed was the riddle. “Tell us how that riddle goes again, Ann” Sofia said. ‘Across the vast water that separates you from me, Are the roots that will lead you to the place I will be, All your lost treasures you will find, Your worldly possessions you will leave behind’ Ann recited. Sofia looked thoughtful for a moment, then looked expectantly at Hannah and asked “So what do you think it all means?” “How should I know? I’ve only just heard it, same as you” Hannah replied irritably. “Yeah, well, you’re the smart one” Sofia replied, then added “Except at P.E” “It wouldn’t hurt to offer some suggestions yourself, you know” “You’re wrong, thinking makes my head hurt” Sofia stated, as though that would settle matters. “How can thinking hurt when you don’t have a brain to think with?” Hannah responded. “Will you both stop fighting like little kids?!” Ann intervened as she Sofia open her mouth to retort back. “You’re a fine one to talk, you filthy hypocrite” Sofia retaliated. “What do you mean?” Ann asked, confused. “Well, you went exploring in your dad’s wardrobe, and stole one of his belongings, now; you’re a very naughty little kid, aren’t you?” Sofia jeered. Ann was infuriated by this, and would have preferred to have not to talk to Sofia for the rest of the day, but this would have given Sofia the pleasure of knowing she had got to Ann, so wishing to act like the mature one, she replied “Just shut up, and help me figure out this riddle”. “That means you have to think as well, Sofia” Hannah added. Sofia glared at Hannah, but did not argue. The three of them spent the entire break discussing the riddle, but made no progress at all. Even Hannah who was normally very intelligent when it came to poetry admitted later on that she hadn’t the faintest idea what the riddle could mean.

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Ann was thoroughly disappointed by the lack of success, and it was in a rather frigid manner that she bade goodbye to Sofia and Hannah, after which she set off for her home. As she walked, she endeavoured, once again, to solve the riddle, she became so absorbed in thought that she missed her bus and had to wait for a long time for the next bus. However, once again, she failed and had to give up for a moment as she stopped in front of the front door to her house and fumbled for her key, before remembering that she had left her house key in the gold box in the drawer of her father’s wardrobe, where the key with the imprinted sword should have been. With a jolt, Ann realised that she was locked out of her house; she also remembered that her father would not be back for another hour or so, as he was working extra time that day, brooding on the misfortune that had befallen her made her vaguely recall her father requesting her to make plans to stay at someone’s house until he returned home. However, this important bit of information had escaped Ann’s attention, thus explaining Ann’s negligence to arrange something for her to do until her father arrived. Ann cursed herself for not foreseeing this difficulty of getting inside her house when her key was in the gold box, in her father’s wardrobe. She did not want to wait outside her house for an hour nor more, for her father to arrive and open the door, so she decided that the wisest thing to do would be to go to either Sofia or Hannah’s house until her father returned home. After obtaining permission from Hannah to go to her house, Ann sent her father a text message informing him of where she was. Then Ann set off towards Hannah’s house which was only ten minutes away from her house which was why it was the most ideal place to remain at whilst her father was unable to return home. Ann cursed her foolishness once again as she knocked on Hannah’s front door, her legs were aching, she wished she hadn’t missed her bus, because her legs would not be in half as much pain as it was in now. After what felt like ages, the door opened, and Ann followed a beaming Hannah upstairs. “So, how come you needed to come here?” Hannah questioned as they both sat down on Hannah’s bed. “I was locked out of my house and needed somewhere to wait for my dad to come home” Ann explained. “What! How can you be locked out of your house? You have a key!” Hannah exclaimed. “I know that, thanks” Ann replied in an annoyed tone. Ann enjoyed Hannah’s company, but there were times when Hannah made Ann feel like an idiot, it was at these times that Ann felt like she was friends with the wrong person. “So then, how did you get locked out of your house?” Hannah enquired in an exasperated voice. “Because my house key is in that gold box in my dad’s wardrobe, I mean, I couldn’t risk him not finding a key and getting suspicious” Ann explained in an equally exasperated voice. “Oh, I get it” Hannah said, comprehension dawning on her face. “I’m not such an idiot as you think, you know” Ann replied reproachfully. Hannah blushed in embarrassment, still quite pink; she said apologetically “I’m sorry, Ann, I didn’t mean to offend you” “It’s alright” Ann mumbled.

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Hannah smiled, before saying thoughtfully in an obvious attempt to change the subject, “I wonder where and how your father got that box though” “What do you mean?” Ann asked, frowning. “Well, I don’t think your dad could’ve figured out that riddle, or he might not have kept it” Hannah answered. “Yeah but, he might just be keeping the box because of whatever the key opens which we still don’t know anything about” Ann contradicted. “Maybe we’re not looking for the right thing” Hannah contemplated. “What do you mean?” Ann asked again, for what felt like the umpteenth time in the space of a few minutes. “Well there’s a line in that riddle about someone in a certain place, right?” Hannah said to Ann, as though asking for confirmation of this statement. Ann allowed the entire contents of the riddle to run through her mind before arriving at the line: ‘Are the roots that will lead you to the place I will be’. “Yeah” Ann replied slowly in the affirmative. “But I still don’t see where you’re going with this”. “Well, most riddles tend to lead to another, instead of one riddle just taking you to the end, the meaning of the first riddle would lead you to another puzzle, so that until you’ll get o the prize step by step” Hannah clarified. Finally having understood what Hannah had meant, Ann was attempting to elaborate on Hannah’s theory. “So what you’re saying is, that the riddle could be leading us to a place or person, instead of what the key unlocks” Ann said slowly and carefully. “Well, not necessarily a person, the riddle could just be personifying an object there…and please tell me that unlike Sofia, you had actually been paying attention in English when personification came up” Hannah finished with a stern look in her eye. (Hannah was always very passionate about academic studies). “Of course I was Hannah, what do you think I am? Some sort of a slacker!” Ann retorted in an as indignant voice as she could possibly gather. This was partially true as Ann had heard the discussion about personification, however, she, like Sofia, had been unable to pay attention to the rest of the lesson, having been engaged in a game of Noughts and Crosses against Sofia. “But that still doesn’t get us anywhere!” Ann cried. “I know, and that’s what is so annoying” Hannah agreed empathetically. They both sat in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts. When, at last, one of them did prick the thin bubble of silence overwhelming them, it was not to pursue the subject of the riddle, as neither of them had been hit with any miraculous inspiration and they did not want to deepen their disappointment any further. Ann’s father came to collect Ann just before dinner time at Hannah’s house. “So… why couldn’t you just go inside the house yourself?” Ann’s father asked. “I lost my key” Ann fabricated. “That’s not like you to lose your key” Michael stated. “Yeah, I guess I just misplaced it or something” Ann replied pathetically. “Well, it’s a good thing we have a spare key” “We have a spare key?” Ann repeated in a bewildered voice. “Yeah, we do” Michael confirmed in a soft voice that indicated his mind was lost elsewhere, the dazed but gentle tone in his voice puzzled Ann deeply. ‘First there is the gold box, and now this, what the hell is going on here?’ Ann mused.

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After having eaten the take-away dinner her father had bought for that evening, Ann withdrew herself from the kitchen table to fling herself, fully clothed, on to her bed out of weary fatigue and frustration. She soon drifted off to sleep. * A beautiful woman sat on a magnificent silver throne, her brown, and waist length hair rippled across her back like a perfect waterfall as she leaned forward; the tiara on her head glistened in the lustre of the silk draped around the room. Evidently this woman was some sort of a royal. Although she was seated, her towering height was obvious as well as her slim figure; her brown eyes glinted brown, yellow, orange like the various shades of Autumn leaves; and her features were gentle and haughty at the same time. Her mere presence emanated intimidating beauty. “My lady, I have some bad news” a voice announced. The creature who had just spoken was very short and extremely stout; it had protruding eyes the colour of flames that seemed to blaze right through people; instead of skin, it had repulsive scales; it had greasy, grey horns on the top of his head as sharp as daggers, it had a revolting snout; pointy ears that gave it the resemblance of a bat, and thorns at the tips of his fingers where his nails should be. It was very ironic that such a grotesque creature could be welcomed into the presence of such an attractive woman. “You assured me that you would not do anything to disappoint me, Athens, so why do you bring me bad news?” the woman spoke in an even voice, but it was still clear to the creature that beneath her neutral response, there was furious displeasure which would eventually make it wish it had never been born. The creature, Athens, gulped nervously before saying “The mermaids are now refusing to go anywhere near the cave, let alone Mystilica, who is getting more and more…stranger with each passing day, the wood raths are prophesizing that the chances of the amulet escaping your possession are higher than ever, which they say is now pretty high, might I add”. Athens said all of this in one rapid jumble almost like he could get it out into the open and then pretend that someone else and not him had brought this unfortunate news. “I am more disappointed in you than ever, Athens, when you said you had bad news, I did not think that you had news bad to this degree” the woman mused in the same expressionless tone, she could have been commenting on how surprisingly cloudy the weather was. “I was merely giving you details of the main point, the wood raths say that these are just signs of you’re…” Athens paused fearfully, before glancing at the woman who was examining her fingernails, before then finally continuing “Downfall”. No sooner had the last word escaped Athens’s lips, the woman’s head jerked up and she threw the pathetic Athens such a look of anger and malevolence that it was no wonder that the creature recoiled. “You call these happenings ‘just signs’ then, do you?” This time when the woman spoke, there was anger etched in every syllable of her voice. All trace of neutrality was gone. Sensing he renewed danger he was now in, Athens cried frantically “No, my lady, I was not ignoring the severity of the situation, I was just…” “Enough” the woman said in a quiet but dangerous voice.

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“This means that security on the amulet is more unstable then it has ever been; it will need to be increased by tenfold. I am entrusting this task to you, Athens, as you seem to think the situation so simple and small” It was obvious that this was too major a task for Athens, if the way he kept opening and shutting his mouth was any indication. “Oh, and Athens, I will not tolerate anything but success” the woman’s voice was now like acid. * Ann opened her eyes, and then sat bolt upright, she looked around her room swiftly, her head swivelling in every direction. She was in her own bedroom. There was no stunning, formidable woman tormenting any vile… thing. Ann’s shoulders sagged in relief, and she exhaled a long sigh. The phone on her bedside table rang. “Hello” Ann answered shakily, the unpleasant dream still fresh in her mind. “Hi Ann, what’s wrong?” Sofia’s voice enquired. “Nothing; why?” “It’s just that you sound kind of, I don’t know… troubled” Sofia observed. Ann was troubled, the dream was now on her list of things to brood on, but she was uncertain if she should tell Sofia about it, after all it was just a dream, and yet, Ann just couldn’t dismiss from it her mind. “Ann, are you still there?” Sofia’s voice enquired into Ann’s ears, breaking into her thoughts. “Yeah, sure, what is it?” Ann asked in a dazed voice. “Well, I forgot to write down the maths homework, so I figured you’d have it” Sofia explained nonchalantly as though homework was not something worth bothering about. “Oh no, I totally forgot about the homework” Ann groaned. “Well, you’d better do it” Sofia admonished. “Yeah, I sure don’t want detention” Ann admitted. “I was talking about Hannah, she’ll just keep going on and on at you, I’d rather have a detention, at least that only last an hour, max” Ann laughed, Sofia was a good person to talk to, without even knowing it and she was steering Ann’s mind onto a completely different topic, one a lot less daunting. “Hey, I almost forgot, have you got anywhere with that riddle?” Sofia questioned. “As far as I am to becoming queen” Ann replied bitterly. “Well, let me know when you get there, and I’m not talking about your coronation” Sofia said lightly. Ann chortled. They talked for a while longer with the result that when Ann finally hung up, she was feeling a lot less anxious than before. She completed her homework and then went to bed and this time when she fell asleep, there were no disturbing dreams.

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Chapter 3: Time for Action The following afternoon found Sofia, Ann, and Hannah at a sheltered nook under a large blossom tree by the river. It was their regular tradition to frequent the same, charming place in the spring, straight after school. They went to the same place five days a week, Ann, sometimes, six or seven days of the week as it wasn’t far from her house. The trio would not go there in the winter, but in spring, summer, and autumn, they would go there, whether to study, talk, or just think. The grass there was long, thick, but soft and comfortable to sit upon; the river streamed effortlessly like a long ribbon of clear, crystal blue; and the huge blossom tree stood resolutely, casting a cool shadow over its enormous trunks; and the pale pink blossom petals fluttered down towards the ground, enhancing the serene glow of nature. Hannah sat in the shade of the tall blossom tree, on a conveniently large tree trunk, poring over a sheaf of revision notes for an upcoming algebra test. Sofia, meanwhile, stood some paces away, skipping stones over the pristine surface of the river, whilst Ann sat staring into its depths. “Okay now, are we going to do something useful or not?” Ann enquired abruptly and angrily. “Like what?” Sofia replied quizzically. “Like cracking that riddle” Ann answered irritably. “I already told you to let me know when you get there” Sofia shrugged indifferently. “So you’re not even going to help!” Ann exclaimed, profoundly disgusted. “You know how useless I am at using brainpower” Sofia reproached. Ann turned to Hannah, completely dismayed by Sofia’s lack of ambitious interest. “You will help me, won’t you?” “I’m sorry, Ann, I can’t, I really have to revise all of this stuff” Hannah explained. Ann turned back to the river, angry and crestfallen. “Why are you so edgy today? Anyway, it won’t be the end of the world if you don’t figure out that riddle” Sofia rebuked. Ann said nothing. The silence hung frostily in the air, like an unwanted gas. Ann suddenly got to her feet and reprimanded furiously “You two might not be interested in the riddle, but I am and I can’t rest until I find out exactly what it means, so if you two aren’t going to help me, then I’ll just go from here and figure it out on my own” Then she began to walk away when Sofia turned around and snapped moodily “Stop being such a moody brat, if it means so much to you, then we’ll talk about your riddle” Ann hovered by the tree trunk, where Hannah was sitting- who was ignoring the squabble- uncertain of whether she should flounce back to her house like she planned, or sit back down to discuss the riddle with Sofia. She finally decided on conferring the riddle with Sofia as Ann knew that she would get nowhere with the riddle on her own. She sat back down as Sofia ceased skipping stones and sat down with a sour expression on her face that portrayed only too well what she thought about exerting her time and energy into such a task. Sofia glanced at Hannah, as though she was expecting Hannah to participate in the conversation instead of her, before looking away and turning back to Ann: “Tell us the riddle then” “Across the vast water that separates you from me, Are the roots that will lead you to the place I will be, All your lost treasures you will find,

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Your worldly possessions you will leave behind” Ann repeated from memory, she had read the riddle so many times that the words were now lodged in her mind. “Well, to me, it sounds like that riddle is hinting at a quest” Sofia surmised. “Wow! Well done for stating the obvious, do you want a prize for that genius idea?” Ann commented sarcastically. “Well, I warned you that I would be useless” Sofia reminded her tetchily. Ann glanced at Hannah just like Sofia had done previously. However, Hannah was oblivious to everything apart from the notes she was reading persistently. “Wait, that riddle mentions something about a river or sea, isn’t it?” Sofia ruminated slowly. “Yeah, so?” Ann replied. “Well, doesn’t that mean we’ll need a boat or something to go sailing” Sofia wondered loudly. Ann hadn’t paid particular attention to this detail, but now that Sofia had pointed it out, something occurred to her. “The Thames is a river” Ann thought out loud, unconscious of that fact. “Oh, well-spotted” Sofia jeered sardonically, with a roll of her eyes. “No, I didn’t mean to say that out loud, I meant what if the riddle is talking about the Thames” Ann explained. “That would be so brilliant” Sofia exclaimed excitedly. “A bit far fetched and unrealistic, don’t you think?” Hannah interrupted, finally looking up from her pile of papers. “Why? What’s wrong with it?” Sofia challenged indignantly. “Well, first of all, what makes you think that the riddle is actually referring to the Thames?” Hannah questioned sceptically. “Well, it’s not as though we got any other ideas” Ann answered. “Yeah, unless you want to go and explore the sea and every other river in the world” Sofia interjected scornfully. “Okay, let’s just say that the riddle is referring to the Thames, can you tell me exactly what to look for on the other side of the river?” Hannah asked critically. Although Sofia looked nonplussed by the question, Ann had her answer ready without even having to think. “A sword” Ann replied calmly. Both Hannah and Sofia stared at Ann as though she had suddenly suggested that they all should jump off a plane without a parachute. Ann, noticing the perplexed expressions on their faces, went on to elaborate on her previous answer. “The key from the box had a sword on it, so it would make sense that whatever it is we’re looking for should have a sword on it, right?” “Yes, but do you even know what you are looking for?” Hannah retorted, in an infuriated tone. “I told you already, we just need to find that symbol of the sword, and then we’ll have solved that riddle” Ann answered again, in that same calmly measured voice, which just seemed to enrage Hannah more than anything else. Perhaps, because just as unwillingly Ann took part in the argument, Hannah participated actively. “This is beyond ridiculous, how are we supposed to get across the Thames, are we supposed to paddle across?” Hannah enquired scathingly. “Don’t be so stupid, Hannah, we’ll hire a boat to sail across” Ann answered wearily.

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“Thank god, I don’t have to think anymore” Sofia interjected, upon which Hannah turned her glacial glare on her. Sofia, noticing the glare, reacted by fixing Hannah with an icy stare of her own, saying “I don’t know what your problem is, but if you don’t want to come, then that’s fine, but just stop breathing down our throats, okay?” Ann, foreseeing an argument quickly asked “So, shall we hire a boat for Saturday?” “Yeah, I suppose we’ll have to divide the paying equally amongst us” Sofia queried, finally tearing her angry gaze away from Hannah. “Definitely, just because you can get away from the thinking, that doesn’t mean you can get away from everything else” Ann teased. “Damn, I hate doing work” Sofia muttered. Ann glanced at Hannah hopefully. She didn’t want to embark on this journey without Hannah, though she could be a critic sometimes who could be very annoying, she was also very intelligent which could be very useful. Ann knew that even Sofia would miss Hannah’s company. Who else would she constantly argue with? Hannah saw the requesting expression on Ann’s face, sighed with resignation, and then said reluctantly “Alright, I’ll come” “Right, because someone has got to keep us two in line” Ann taunted, grinning. “Good luck with that” Sofia added, also grinning. Hannah attempted to smile, with the result that she only managed something that resembled a grimace, which implied that she thought of this plan as a disaster waiting to happen. * Saturday finally arrived after what felt like an eternity to Ann and Sofia. The two girls were completely ready to embark on this small journey to the other side of the river that felt like a colossal adventure. Despite the girl’s best efforts, and Hannah’s pessimistic comments, they were fixated on the plan they had prepared, and on the expectation that they will finally solve the mystery that had haunted them. Ann and Sofia saw the arrangements they had made as a chance to engage in a thrilling adventure, they liked to be in the midst of action, and often took most things lightly, often thinking or acting irrationally, the situation often being Sofia having brought the excitement around, whilst Ann involved herself willingly. Hannah, on the other hand, was always very logical. She liked to see things clearly and rationally. Only participating in things that she saw as being worthwhile. She detested anything wild and frivolous. She preferred everything to be prepared beforehand, and disliked improvisation, especially when it was spontaneous. Therefore, it was no surprise that out of the three, Hannah would be the most unenthusiastic on the subject of the riddle. Throughout the week, she attacked Ann and Sofia with suggestions of what obstacles and problems might arise, to no avail. Ann and Sofia were adamant that they would cross the river and solve the riddle. It had become a bit of an obsession with the two girls, always overruling Hannah’s feeble protests. Therefore, it was inevitable that Saturday morning would find Sofia and Ann waiting expectantly by the riverside. Nearby, a small rowing boat stood floating by the bank of the river, tied securely to make sure the river current would not take the boat away from the girls.

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“You don’t think that Hannah is more scared than we thought, and has decided to back out of this plan, like a wimp, do you?” Sofia mused. “No, she’s probably just running late” Ann contradicted. Sofia gave Ann a very cynical look and said “Hannah is never late” Sofia was right, Hannah was very particular about everything, time was something that was impossible for her to ignore. It was very out of character for her to be anything but punctual. Remembering this crucial detail flooded Ann with worry. Where was Hannah? And why was she so late? “Hi, guys” a cheerful voice said. Ann sighed in relief and turned to face Hannah and received a surprise. Hannah was wearing a thick, padded, red coat that was a couple of inches too big, she was wearing massive black boots that made a loud clomping noise whenever she took a step, which also looked a little too big for her, a blue cap was on top of her chestnut curls, and she had brought with her a huge backpack, she had also substituted her spectacles for a pair of sunglasses that were so dark that it was a surprise she could see through them. The wrongly proportioned clothes, the inappropriateness of her choice of clothing, and the clashing colours made it hard for Ann to keep a straight face when looking at her. “We’re only crossing the river, not hiking Mount Everest!” Sofia jeered, she, like Ann, was endeavouring to keep a straight face, but was failing miserably. “What are you talking about?” “She means why are you dressed like that? You look so…” Ann trailed off, not sure how to be honest without hurting Hannah’s feelings. “Well, we have to be prepared, don’t we?” Hannah retaliated. “Prepared for what? An earthquake?” Sofia exclaimed. “No!” Hannah cried indignantly, as a vibrant red colour crawled up her cheeks. “Then what’s up with the stupid look?” Sofia demanded. “I told you, I have to be prepared” Hannah replied, but with less confidence, and still blushing. “YOU have to be prepared?” Ann asked slyly. “Look, I’m coming with you on this madness you call a plan, isn’t that enough?” Hannah argued. “Okay, seriously, just tell us what is going on in that mind of yours” Ann asked, refraining from using the word, mental, in that request. “Fine, I’ve prepared myself for the cold conditions…” “Cold conditions? Are you joking? It’s spring for crying out loud!” Sofia declared derisively. Hannah continued, acting as though Sofia hadn’t spoken “Plus we don’t know how long we’re going to be down there, so I’ve brought food in case we get hungry”. “Right, now tell us the real reason for…your preparation” Ann ordered. Although, Hannah’s explanation for the food seemed reasonable, and vaguely explained the massive backpack, the rest of her ensemble was still too eccentric to be called normal by any standards. Therefore, knowing Hannah, there was some hidden, but perfect reason for the extremes Hannah had gone to protect her self from ‘the cold conditions’. “Fine, I’ve brought all this because I’m afraid of falling off the boat in to the river” Hannah very grudgingly confessed, her head bowed so low that only the blue cap on the top of her head was visible. There was silence following this confession. It stretched on for so long that Hannah finally lifted her head, only to see her friends failing to keep huge grins off their faces;

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it was obvious from the wide grins on their faces that it took all their restraint to keep from laughing aloud. “It’s not funny!” Hannah reprimanded. “No, you’re right, it’s not funny” Ann agreed, whilst Sofia shook with silent laughter. “It’s not my fault, when I was five years old, I went sailing with my uncle, I had accidentally wet myself, so I thought that the water of the river might wash away the smell and everything else, so I jumped in, and found swimming was harder than I thought, my uncle had to fish me out, with a whole crowd watching, I had never been so embarrassed in my life” Hannah blurted out defensively. Sofia and Ann burst into thick peals of laughter. Their restraint no longer possible to maintain. Hannah scowled at their obvious mirth in the memory she had just shared with them, and grumbled something about not being able to count on their moral support. “Are you done yet?” Hannah demanded moodily, as Ann and Sofia continued to guffaw. When they had got over the worst of the giggles, Ann turned to Hannah and said “Sorry, but do you have to be so scared and bring a whole hiking gear?” “I’m not taking any risks” Hannah snarled fiercely. “Right, I hope you brought some spare clothes” Sofia jeered, mercilessly. “Are we going to get on the boat or not? I thought this was all yours two’s idea” Hannah snapped moodily. “Alright, I think that’s enough for now, Sofia.” Ann allowed for Hannah’s sake, she felt that Hannah had had enough mockery for one day, and wanted to show some graciousness towards her friend. Sofia aimed one huge smirk at Hannah, before following Ann to the place where the boat now stood untied, with Ann already sitting inside. Hannah threw a withering glare at Sofia, before following her into the boat as well. Then using the oars provided with the boat, Ann and Sofia departed from the river bank and began rowing, whilst Hannah kept her gaze fixed on her feet, determinedly refusing to look anywhere else, lest she should accidentally catch a glimpse of the water that was in such close contact. The boat forced its way through the river; it took tremendous strength to keep rowing the boat onwards. Ann began to silently regret this plan she had made in her haste to solve the riddle, and wondered if Hannah had been right that the expectation to find something on the opposite river bank was actually quite far-fetched, but she knew that these doubts were only plaguing her because of the sore ache in her arms that resulted from the heavy oars in her hands, and so she pursed her lips and kept rowing. It was a while before they reached the opposite riverside. Their arms felt dead as they finally dropped the heavy oars, and climbed out of the small boat that had stiffened all their joints. “I am never doing this ever again, not even if you told me that a demented murderer was on the other side that would only chase you till the edge of the other bank. My arms feel like they’ve just been amputated” Sofia complained. “You think you hated that journey, how about you try not to feel the water under the boat, and not think of the last time you went into a boat without wetting your pants again” Hannah growled. Ann and Sofia said nothing in response, but merely trudged on, their feet dragging, and their arms hanging limply by their sides.

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“Look, why don’t we just sit down for a while and take a break? Because otherwise I’m just going to collapse” Sofia moaned wearily. Ann said nothing in response, but just flopped down onto the ground, her legs no longer capable of carrying her any further without buckling under her. Hannah and Sofia did the same and sat down into positions of luxury. “So, what do we start looking for and where do we look for it?” Hannah enquired after a while. “Just look for anything unusual” Ann answered. “Right, can trees be called unusual?” Sofia asked sarcastically. Ann rolled her eyes. Sofia’s jibes could be quite irritating a lot of the time, especially as they were spoken at the most inopportune moments. The three girls stood up, their luxurious break now over. They began to walk through the long weeds, plants, and wild grass. They pulled back weeds and searched behind them, finding nothing. They hunted for ‘anything unusual’ near the trees and in the tangled grass. “Ann! Sofia!” Hannah called urgently after a while of fruitless, frantic searching. Ann and Sofia sprinted forward in the direction of Hannah’s urgent voice. They finally reached her, a long distance away from the river side from which they had disembarked from the boat. She was waiting for them by a very small sycamore tree completely concealed by another large oak tree, and a whole battalion of unkempt, knotted weeds. The sycamore tree was so small, and so brilliantly concealed, but not in a way that seemed natural for nature, the way in which the sycamore tree was hidden was so immaculately organised, in the sense that nature, or more likely, someone, had made sure that the sycamore tree was impossible to notice unless a person deliberately went behind the large oak tree, and hunted beyond the mat of weeds and plants. The order of it all was obvious once a person considered the place a bit more, no other tree or plant on this side of the river was anywhere near as camouflaged as this particular tree. But, the feature of this miniature sycamore tree that had forced Hannah to call Ann and Sofia was the fact that on the bark, a sword was carved alongside a verse: ‘Here is the point where you cross, Into the land of Syan, Where you can find victory or suffer loss, Your journey now lies in your hand’ Ann took out the small silver key from her jacket pocket, and held it up to the light, where the sun shone off it, revealing the imprint of the sword that was the exact match of the sword carved into the bark of the sycamore tree. “Now that is definitely what you have to class as unusual” Sofia murmured softly. Ann and Hannah gave no reply; they were rendered speechless as they stared at the extraordinary. Ann, as if in a trance slowly took a step forward to where the sycamore tree stood, she was still gripping the key in her hand, as she covered the tiny space between herself and the tree, she felt the key in her hand suddenly vibrate as if some unnatural force was erupting from the key. She now reached her hand out to touch the carved message on the tree. Her finger made contact with the carved sword. She felt the key in her hand brush against the rough bark. Then suddenly, the force that seemed to have been shaking the key exploded, and the key flew out from Ann’s grasp. Sudden white, sparkling light fell upon her, Hannah, and Sofia, and then it was as if the whole world had suddenly folded back elegantly away from them in the sudden light. Then, everything disappeared.

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Chapter 4: In the Land of Syan Ann, Sofia, and Hannah all opened their eyes. They hadn’t realised their eyes had been shut until they were open again. In the thrill of the moment, they had all unconsciously shut their eyes, as the white, sparkling light got even brighter until it had been almost blinding. In the instant that the key in Ann’s hand had brushed against the unbelievable tree, something inexplicably bizarre had followed. Now, as they opened their eyes and took in the abrupt and magnificent change in their surroundings, they could hardly be sure that the previous couple of minutes had ever happened, or if they had even journeyed to the opposite river bank, or if they had even woken up that morning. They were in a beautiful field, with nearly every type of tree and plant imaginable. The grass was so long that it came to their knees, but it did not appear unkempt nor did it resemble the grass in a jungle, as would be expected. It was soft, soft as satin, a million drops of dew glistened on almost every blade of grass, daffodils, tulips, roses, marigolds, daisies, and buttercups decorated that soft carpet of green. Oak, Ash, Chestnut, Acorn trees, blossom trees, cherry trees, and many others stood resolutely around them. There was a river streaming through this enchanted field, complete with a wondrous waterfall at the end. The girls could plainly hear it gushing in the background. There were no weeds or anything else that might taint this amazing piece of paradise. “Where the hell are we?” Hannah asked in a bewildered tone, breaking the shocked silence that followed the inspection made by the three girls. “Maybe some place straight out of a fairy tale” Sofia suggested shakily. “Not possible, I have to be dreaming” Hannah stated, as though any other explanation would be beyond ludicrous. Ann listened to Sofia and Hannah with only a fraction of her attention, she was still observing this strange, new place they had found themselves in, whereas another part of her was trying to comprehend how any of this was possible. At first it seemed that Ann would never be able to come out of her reverie until a sound behind her brought her back to reality: “Ow!” Hannah yelped in pain. “What did you do that for?” Hannah screamed at Sofia. “Well, how else were we supposed to check if anyone was dreaming?” Sofia asked rhetorically, grinning. “Why couldn’t you pinch yourself then?” Hannah responded. “I know I’m not dreaming, you’re the one who’s stuck in denial, and I just felt like pinching you” Sofia answered. Hannah turned away from Sofia, scowling in frustration. “So, back to business, what just happened? Now that we’re all sure that we’re not dreaming” Sofia enquired, finishing with a smirk in Hannah’s direction. “I don’t know, one minute we’re just staring at that weird tree and the next we’re in this place” Ann recalled. “And what is this place?” Hannah queried, bringing everyone back to the most important question at hand. “Wonderland? Narnia?” Sofia questioned sceptically. “Maybe we should think about getting back?” Hannah asked nervously.

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Ann and Sofia both stared at Hannah as though she had suddenly lost her mind. “Are you joking? We have to explore this place” Sofia declared. Ann nodded her head in agreement. Now that they had found this place, they couldn’t possibly just ignore it as though it didn’t exist; they needed to find out as much as possible as this place. What it is? Why is it here? How did they get here? And how would they get back? “Explore!” Hannah exclaimed in disbelief, staring at her two best friends as though she were seeing them for the first time. “Look, Hannah, we’ll just find out what this place is and then we’ll go home as soon as possible, I mean, we’ve finally found what we were looking for, i.e. the answer to that riddle.” Ann explained placating her, but Hannah, far from looking comforted, became angry. “Please, Hannah, just suffer in silence for a little longer, at least until we find out what this place is” Ann pleaded before Hannah could open her mouth to argue. Hannah scowled deeper, but nodded once. “Okay, has anyone got any ideas about how we find out where we are? Because I don’t see any signposts” Sofia thought aloud. “I wish there was a signpost…oh!” Ann exclaimed, startled, for no sooner had she expressed that wish aloud, then a signpost seemed to materialise out of nowhere with words written on it in gold, italic print: ‘Welcome to the Land of Syan’. The girls stared at the sign, all of them wearing similar expressions of disbelief and shock. “What…, how?” Hannah asked incoherently. Sofia and Ann gave no indication that they had understood, nor heard her; they were still gaping at the sudden appearance of the signpost. “The Land of Syan” Ann murmured. “Well, that puts everything together” Sofia grumbled in an acerbic voice. “Can we go now? Every second we spend in this crazy place just gives me more and more goose bumps” Hannah complained. “No” Ann said clearly and commandingly. “We are going to look around this socalled Syan”. “Here, here” Sofia declared enthusiastically. “But…” “We can’t just ignore this place now that we know it exists, we need to know as much as possible about Syan” Ann argued. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Sofia encouraged, animated by Ann’s idea. Ann and Hannah wasn’t as excited about Syan as Sofia, but they followed, Hannah, being the most reluctant. They walked through the long blades of grass quite easily, the gentle breeze soft as a whisper, brushing against their cheeks. It was near impossible to stay anxious or nervous in Syan, the beauty of it flooded them with a tranquil peace. They had experienced such luxury at the hand of the nature that existed near their home, but that was nothing, in correspondence with the elegance and splendour of Syan. Their trousers were soon soaked from having made contact with the drops of dew that clung onto the long blades of grass, but they continued to walk. They waded through the sea of green, following the direction of which the nearby river flowed. It seemed to flow west, and that was the direction in which they headed towards, the noise of the waterfall sounding more and more distant, as they trudged forward. The scenery didn’t seem to change much; they only passed more trees, flowers, and felt the same soft grass. Syan was enormous, and seemed to stretch on

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for miles. They couldn’t understand how Syan could be so huge when it was only on the other side of the Thames, which ran through Kingston, which was only a town. After a while, their legs began to ache. Nothing seemed to change. Although, they could no longer hear the steady crash of the waterfall. The river continued to flow and bend westward, but the scenery seemed frozen in the same green, plant and tree infested state. The trio began to feel bored as well as sore. The consistency of their surroundings made them wish that something, anything would happen to distract them. Then, quite suddenly, rain began to fall in small droplets on their heads. Quite unexpectedly. The girls had, of course, watched the weather report the previous night, before deciding to make their journey. However, they hadn’t anticipated that they would end up in this bizarre place that was Syan, nor had they expected it to rain when the weather report had announced that the weather would be quite mild, with no rain at all. At first, the girls paid no attention to the rain, but that soon became impossible when the rain became heavier and fell upon them as though the icy drops were trying to attack them. The incredibly fast, fierce change in the rain was disconcerting in itself, but what was even stranger was that when the girls looked up towards the sky, there were absolutely no clouds, the sky was a lovely, calm shade of blue. The girls ran frantically, looking for shelter, the rain was so heavy now; it was painful now, like rocks falling from the sky. They ran forward, not knowing or caring where they were headed. It was with immense relief that they found a large cave. The three girls sprinted towards the cave, and entered, they then made themselves comfortable. “This place is crazy!” Sofia announced, once their teeth had stopped chattering. “Tell me about it, how can it be raining when there aren’t any clouds? It just doesn’t make sense, none of this is possible” Hannah pondered. “Well, possible or impossible, this is all happening, whether we like it or not” Ann concluded. “This cave. It wasn’t here before. We were walking for ages, surely we would’ve seen this cave from a distance, it’s so big, and it just seemed to appear out of thin air” Hannah contemplated. “Just like that signpost and the rain” Ann whispered. All three of them lapsed into thoughtful silence. Everything that had happened to them that morning- they had no idea whether or not it was still morning, for it felt like they had been here for days-felt like some strange dream or hallucination. The rain continued to crash down towards the ground, although the fall of it was more rhythmic and less chaotic than before. However, the girls remained inside the cave, afraid to take the risk of being battered by the rain. It felt like they had spent most of their morning being patient, from the uncomfortable trip in the boat, to their ongoing hike in this strange place called Syan. Ann took off her jacket to give it time to dry, when the light weight of the emptiness in her pocket reminded her of something. “The key” Ann breathed, panic-stricken. Sofia and Hannah’s heads snapped towards her still frame. “What’s the matter?” Hannah asked her face pinched with concern as she gazed at Ann’s frozen form. Sofia stared at Ann with a frown on her face. When several seconds passed without Ann moving even a fraction, Sofia leaned forward and gave Ann’s shoulder a gentle shake, pulling Ann out of her trance.

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“I’ve lost the key” Ann moaned, an expression of painful guilt and remorse clouding her face. “So, I lose things all the time” Sofia placated casually, looking confused at the sorrow on Ann’s face. “I don’t understand what are you talking about? Why do you look so upset?” Hannah said to Ann, shaking her head in agitation. “We need that key, without the key we can’t get back home” Ann stated. Hannah and Sofia stared at her, still unable to understand what Ann was saying. “Look, when we were still at the Thames, looking at that tree, I felt the key in my hand vibrate, it started shaking, and then as soon as it touched the tree, we ended up in this place, that key is obviously what brought us here, and it could be our only way of getting back home” Ann explained. “Across the vast water that separates you from me, Are the roots that will lead you to the place I will be.” Hannah quoted in a hushed voice. “The whole riddle makes sense, the riddle was leading us to Syan the whole time, across the vast water was the Thames, the roots was the tree, and the place is Syan” Ann reflected. “What about the key? What part does the key have in all this?” Sofia asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t matter anyway, I’ve lost the key” Ann replied morosely. “But we need to find the key, how will we get back home then?” Hannah argued, horrified. “Well, where are we going to look? It’s most likely that the key is near the Thames instead of this hallucination called Syan” Ann moaned. “Well, we can’t stay here forever” Sofia contradicted, sounding slightly frightened. “Does it matter anyway? We’re stuck in this cave, hiding from the rain” Ann retorted bitterly. “Well, we’ll go when the rain stops” Sofia shrugged, as though this idea were obvious to even the most idiotic person. “Well, I’m sorry that I missed the weather report for central Syan via madness!” Ann snapped angrily. “Ann, calm down, we’ll find a way to deal with all of this, the rain will have to stop sooner or later” Hannah reassured her, although she sounded uncertain of her own words, which was quite understandable as Syan didn’t seem to follow any sort of logic at all. The three girls sighed simultaneously, waiting for the rain to stop. They sat in silence, listening for the fading sound of the falling rain. All the shock and anxiety they had felt on their arrival in Syan had fell upon them along with the rain, attacking them from all sides. The cave in which they had taken shelter from the rain was warm. The walls were grey and depressing. There was no need to build a fire for the cave walls seemed to radiate its own heat that was a major help to the dripping clothes hanging of the girls. The mouth of the cave was quite large, and they had an exquisite view of the falling rain landing on the swaying grass. A gust of wind had obviously come from the south, causing the branches of the trees to swing and sway, even in this terrible storm, Syan still resembled a piece of paradise fallen to Earth. Just as suddenly as it had started, the pouring rain ceased. The trio inside the confines of the cave gazed out towards the perfect scenery outside, hardly daring to believe their luck, they quickly stared at each other before carefully making their way out of the cave. They were still slightly wet from the previous downpour, but that

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hardly bothered them as they stared around them, making sure that it would be safe to move on without being assaulted by impossibly strange weather conditions. “So, do we just follow the river like before? Or do we search for the key?” Sofia enquired. Before either Ann or Hannah could answer, they hear a series of thundering, deafening noises. It sounded like the sounds were coming from behind them. The trio spun around; ready to confront whatever it was that was making such ear-splitting noises. But they had pivoted around to face nothing but the cool air that carried the sweet, scented, gentle breeze of Syan. The three girls made to return to their conversation but the loud, roaring noises stopped them once again. It sounded like a whole procession was heading their way. Every time they tried to listen to the noise, it stopped as though it had never been in the air in the first place. The girls threw each other the same perplexed looks. “Who votes to track down that racket?” Sofia asked. “I think it’s coming from the west” Ann surmised. “Great, that brings us back to our original plan; following the river” Sofia responded. “Wait! What if following those sounds will lead us to something dangerous?” Hannah cautioned. “And what if following those sounds actually get us somewhere?” Sofia argued. “Maybe we should go look for help, maybe we should just forget about all of this” Hannah suggested. This suggestion made Ann suddenly think of something. “You know, I haven’t seen a single creature since we’ve got here, not even any insects” Ann thought aloud. “So, we might be all alone in this place, without a single living thing” Sofia summarised, looking scared. However, an ear-piercing noise from quite a distance away contradicted her. “Well, looks like we’re about to find out” Ann replied, before squaring her shoulders and walking purposefully forward in the direction from which the deafening sounds were coming from. Sofia and Hannah glanced at each other before forcing similar expressions of determination on their faces, and following after Ann. The trio ambled forwards. Now that it had stopped raining and the serene weather had returned, they were completely relaxed. They continued to saunter forward westward towards the loud noises, bringing them back to their original plan of following the river that continued to stream towards the thunderous roars. They strolled along in the same direction for a long time. The thick mass of trees began to thin, and they saw a change in scenery. The river widened, and the girls could see a large formation of rocks in the river, there were also a number of rapids that gave the elegant river a dangerous edge. Another difference that the girls could sense was that the loud noises sounded extremely close. The girls slowed their walk for a moment as they registered these changes in their surroundings, but continued their search for the source of the disturbance. After another short period of time they reached a slanting slope. They paused as they realised how near the noises were, it was so clear and loud, that it could be just on the other side of the slope. They paused as they contemplated all the advantages and disadvantages of the decision to walk across the slope, they disliked the fact that they could no longer see the appearance of the scenery that lay ahead of them, but liked the fact that they would have an excellent view of what lay beneath them. However, this gave the source of the noise the advantage of the element of surprise.

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Now that they were so dangerously close to the disturbance, they could hear that there were loud voices shouting to be heard above the ear-splitting noise of swords colliding. There were sounds that conveyed that a large group of creatures were plunging themselves into the water, along with the spray of water that arched way above the tip of the slope. There were high-pitched screams denting the air, and if the girls had thought that this combination of ear-splitting noises was deafening before, then that was nothing compared to the deafening roar they heard now in this close proximity. All three girls took a deep breath before striding up the slope. The slope was carpeted in the same, soft, green grass that coated the rest of Syan; it was quite easy to walk on, despite the slanting angle of the slope. All too soon, they had reached the edge of the slope and looked down, all three of them gasped as their eyes attempted to adjust to the scene below. The river here came to a very shallow point here. There were still a lot of rapids intermingled with sharp rocks, and there was a small whirlpool. The river here came to an immaculate mess, but as the girls now expected of Syan, it was still breathtakingly beautiful. But this was not what had rendered the girls speechless. It was the creatures that were the source of all the noise that shocked the girls.

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Chapter 5: Meeting the Balls The girls gasped. They had thought that after having arrived in a place like Syan, nothing would ever surprise them again. They had thought that they were the only living things to be seen for miles. They were wrong. They were not the only living creatures in Syan, there were other creatures in the area, but they were nothing that the girls had anticipated. These things were round, completely spherical, no points to them anywhere, they were perfectly, and elegantly round from all sides, they were small, about the size of a fully grown rabbit. The eyes of these creatures were also perfectly circular to match the shape of their bodies, their eyes being the same shade of dark mauve as their amphibious skin. Their mouths seemed to be incapable of holding any position other than a tiny open “O”, their mouths always slightly agape, showing a glimpse of their pale pink tongues that seemed to resemble the colour of cotton candy, and their tiny, sharp, pointed teeth. They all had a long, coiling tail that trailed along the ground behind them, often being the cause of their miniature legs falling to the ground, though they had legs, they had no hands. These creatures were arranged in a wild throng. Some of these creatures were engaged in dangerous sword fights, using their immensely long tails to hold the sword. Others were climbing the jagged rocks, only to fling their tiny, round bodies into the river. Some of these things were shouting at each other in high-pitched, screeching voices. The sound was not at all pleasant. “Is some normality too much to ask?” Sofia enquired rhetorically in a subdued whisper, her eyes locked onto the teeming crowd of the strange creatures. Though Sofia had spoken in a very quiet whisper, all the creatures below them stopped their boisterous activities- there had to be about more than fifty of these things- and turned their small bodies to look as one at the three girls standing at the top of the slope. All was still for a moment. Then the creatures all simultaneously let out a shriek that could’ve burst the eardrums of anyone in a fifty mile radius and flocked towards where the girls were standing. The girls stood frozen as they watched the creatures jostle towards them. Then they turned and ran. They had no idea whether or not the creatures were dangerous. But, in the instant that the mass of creatures had made that quick lunge for them, they instinctively fled for the opposite direction. They had no desire to acquaint themselves with the savage, small creatures. The girls no longer cared about which direction they were running in, they only wished to place an immensely wide distance between themselves and their pursuers. Suddenly they were trapped. The mass of savage creatures had somehow managed to surround them. It was possible that the number of the creatures had increased; perhaps the creatures had called reinforcements to help remove the danger they saw on their land. However, it didn’t matter as the girls were trapped with no chance of escape. “Please don’t hurt us” Ann pleaded with the creatures. One of the creatures leaped five feet into the air and landed expertly on a rock directly in front of the three girls. It appeared to be the leader, as the rest of the

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creatures stopped jostling and stood motionlessly still when this particular creature had planted himself in front of the girls. “We mean you no harm” the creature said in a high-pitched piercing voice. “Then, what do you want with us?” Hannah questioned fearfully. “Why were you spying on us?” the creature demanded, ignoring Hannah’s question. “We weren’t spying on you, we swear!” Ann argued desperately. “Then, what were you doing?” the creature asked, it was impossible to tell the feelings of the creature through his face, as the only thing that could be said of the creature’s face was that its skin was dark mauve, just like all the other creatures of its species, nor was it possible to decipher its feelings through the tone of its voice as its voice only ever sounded like a shrill scream. The creatures surrounding the girls were not repulsive, only their voices were. “We weren’t spying on you, we were lost and we just happened to stumble across you by accident” Hannah explained, still sounding terrified. “You do not belong in Syan?” the creature asked. “No, we don’t, and we were hoping you could give us directions on how to get out of here” Hannah replied, sounding more relaxed, now that it was obvious that these creatures did not, in fact, intend to hurt them. “No, we don’t want to leave!” Sofia cried indignantly, staring at Hannah. The creature seemed to sense an argument coming between Hannah and Sofia, despite having only just met the three of them, and it turned to stare intently at Ann: “What is it that you seek, here in Syan?” “We came to look for answers” Ann answered, hoping that the creature would not ask for any details. She did not want to have to recount all their actions of that day to this creature. Though the creature seemed harmless enough, it did not appear to be the supportive type. “What answers do you seek?” the creature questioned. There were a million questions that Ann wanted to ask the creature, but as the conversation with this creature continued, she felt her curiosity increase. “I don’t mean to be rude, but where we come from, there aren’t many of your species, so please don’t mind my asking, but what exactly are you?” Ann queried, endeavouring to be as polite as she possibly could. The creature’s mouth moved in something that looked like a smile. The girls were unable to tell as they were not familiar with the creatures and were not able to tell the difference in their facial expressions. “Our species are known in Syan as the Balls” the creature answered. “The balls?” Sofia repeated sceptically. “Yes, the Balls, we are considered as the civilians of Syan, along with the hummers, and the mermaids” the leading Ball explained. “Do you all have names?” Ann asked curiously. “Yes, we do, I am Cyclone” the creatures responded. Ann was beginning to feel more comfortable with the Balls now, it was definite that they actually did not intend to cause them trouble, and they seemed to be vaguely helpful. “My name is Ann, and these are my friends, Sofia and Hannah” Ann volunteered cheerfully. Sofia and Hannah appeared to have been reassured by the polite exchange that had taken place between Ann and the Ball called Cyclone. Therefore, they too seemed more willing to converse with the Balls.

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“Excuse me, Cyclone; did you just mention something about mermaids?” Hannah enquired her voice uneven. “Yes, not just mermaids, there are many different creatures that reside here, in Syan” Cyclone replied emotionlessly. “Apparently, normality is too much to ask in this crazy place” Sofia muttered in an undertone. “Urm, Cyclone, do you think that maybe you could give us the answers we are looking for?” Ann asked beseechingly. “That depends” Cyclone responded, still without any emotion. “On…” Sofia pushed with an irritated expression on her face. “On what answers you are seeking” “Why can’t anyone just give us the answers straight? Why does everything here have to be so mysterious?” Sofia complained angrily. Cyclone looked at Sofia briefly before turning back to Ann, it was odd the way Cyclone spoke to Ann directly and not to the other girls, it was as though he thought Ann had some sort of authority that made him answerable to her, or as though it was only Ann who wanted answers. “There are many treasures to be found here in Syan, each piece of treasure holds its own individual value of happiness. As soon as a person enters Syan on a quest to find something, they have already, without knowing, made a claim on a treasure. That treasure can only come into the possession of the person when they have completed their quest without any help from anyone else, therefore, I can only answer your questions if it does not make your quest too easy for you” “But we haven’t come here on a quest, we came here by accident” Hannah argued. “A person can only enter Syan if they are seeking something, whether they intend to arrive in Syan or not” Cyclone responded, as though speaking to a rather obstinate toddler. “Look, we don’t really want anything, so surely there must be some other way to get out of here” Ann said to Cyclone, trying and yet failing to keep the impatience and annoyance out of her voice. “The only way to leave Syan is to complete your quest” “We told you already, we’re not here on a quest” Sofia cried angrily, no longer intimidated by the Balls. “And I told you, whether you agree or not, you are here on a quest, even if you don’t know what you are looking for. There is no other reason for Syan to call you to its land” Cyclone argued in a neutral voice that implied how much of his patience was swiftly transforming into irritancy. “Please, Cyclone, we’ve only just arrived in Syan, we don’t know anything about this place and we would really appreciate your help.” Ann pleaded. “I told you, to leave Syan you must succeed in your quest alone” Cyclone answered coldly, in a tone that conveyed only too well how much help he was going to offer the girls. “Nice to see how welcoming people are in Syan” Sofia remarked sarcastically. “I cannot give you what you seek” Cyclone replied, more coldly than the last time he spoke. Ann shot one warning glare at Sofia before turning back to Cyclone who seemed to play the role of spokesperson for the large mass of Balls that swarmed impatiently behind him. “Please, we didn’t mean to be rude, we’re just really desperate” Ann pleaded.

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Cyclone turned his back on her but did not walk away as the girls thought; it seemed that he was merely conferring with all the other Balls. The girls could only comprehend a loud buzzing noise as Cyclone discussed matters with all the Balls at once. It was as this conference took place that Hannah grabbed Ann’s arm in a grip that hurt, and spun her around so that the trio could have a conference of their own. “We might not have to ask for their help” Hannah informed Ann in an excited voice. “What rubbish are you on about now, Hannah?” Sofia asked scornfully. “What do you mean what rubbish am I on about?” Hannah retorted. Then before Sofa could open her mouth to reply, she continued: “My ideas are always good” “What? You mean like your idea of bringing all your hiking gear so that you won’t fall into a river” Sofia retaliated mercilessly. This insult made a familiar, vibrant, red colour appear on Hannah’s cheeks. “Do you guys have to fight even in this serious situation? We don’t need your pathetic fights when we are trying to find a way to survive here in Syan” Ann scolded Hannah and Sofia before they could continue their recurring squabble. “You’re right, Ann, we shouldn’t fight” Hannah agreed, shamefacedly. “Of course, I’m right, I’m always right” Ann joked light-heartedly. The tranquil aura of Syan was once again having a soothing effect on the girls. “Hannah, we’re not rowing anymore, so you can take the ridiculous outfit off now” Sofia pointed out to Hannah. “I know, but I took it from my father’s closet, he’ll notice if they’re missing the next time he gets out his fishing gear” Hannah explained. “The Balls are almost done talking now, what do you think we should do?” Ann asked fretfully. “Ann, don’t you remember when you said that the key was what brought us here? You said that as soon as the key touched that tree, we ended up here in Syan. Well, what if the key can get us out of Syan” Hannah responded. “But Hannah, I lost the key, I have no idea where it is, for all I know, it could still be by the Thames” Ann confessed sadly. “Well, we could go look for it” Sofia replied as though it was the most obvious solution in the world. “But we don’t know where to start looking. We don’t know our way around Syan that we could easily retrace our steps; we would probably end up losing ourselves” Hannah argued, voicing out the worries that were running through Ann’s mind. Before any of the girls could say anything else, Cyclone swivelled around to face the girls once more. “We have all discussed the circumstances and we have finally come to a decision” Cyclone informed the girls. The girls stood frozen. They hadn’t been aware that the Balls were going to make a decision concerning them. But, hearing those words from Cyclone sent a shiver down their spines. “Though we can’t and shan’t assist you in your quest, we will offer you the comforts of our hospitality. We will permit you to spend as much time as you want with us, but we request you to not expect anymore favours from us” Cyclone enlightened the girls. The girls all exhaled in gratitude and relief. “Thank you so much” Ann said to Cyclone.

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Cyclone said nothing in response but merely turned away from the trio and stalked off into the mass of all the other Balls. The girls looked on after him, not sure if they should follow. However, the other Balls seemed to have received some unspoken instructions as they all flocked around the girls and herded them forwards. The girls obliged obediently and moved forwards. It was a slow procession as all the Balls moved a couple of yards behind Cyclone who exchanged not another word with anyone. The girls were stuck in the centre of all the Balls, following those in front of them, often stumbling over a stray long, coiling tail. The balls reached only up to their knees, making it difficult to spot a tail before tumbling over one. Syan was enormous, even when following the Balls. The Balls made no conversation with the girls, but the whole time, nearly every single one of them could not seem to resist staring at the girls curiously. It seemed that every little action required permission from Cyclone, who was quite obviously the leader. Therefore, as Cyclone had given no indication that anyone was permitted to converse, none of the Balls made a sound, so the girls wisely followed that course of action, not wishing to antagonise any of the creatures who surrounded them. As they strolled purposefully along with the Balls, the sky above them seemed to darken. There were no lovely shades of purple, red and orange streaking across the sky. It seemed that time did seem to exist in Syan, as it seemed to be sunset at that moment. This awakened a new worry in the girls. “It’s getting late, our parents will worry if they notice we’re gone” Hannah stated in an undertone. “You’re right, but we haven’t found a way to get home yet” Ann whispered. “I guess we’ll just have to stay put” Sofia murmured. Their conversation ended on that note as they did not wish to dwell on worries that disturbed them, and they all knew that there was nothing they could do to prevent their parents from noticing their absence or from worrying once they did notice. The Balls suddenly stopped. The girls, no longer able to move any further due to the abrupt halt of all the Balls surrounding them, also stopped. They turned their eyes to see why the Balls had stopped their steady flow of marching, and their breathing stopped at their throat as their eyes absorbed the scene in front of them. They had arrived at a waterfall. The same waterfall they had been able to hear gushing when they had first found themselves in Syan. They had never actually caught a real glimpse of the waterfall until now. It was astonishingly beautiful. The water streamed down in separate cascades of crystal ribbons of spray. It crashed downwards into the river that seemed to flow through the whole of Syan from about ten feet above their heads. There were, surprisingly, no rapids at the place where the waterfall met with the river. There were obviously a number of large caves behind the cascades of water. On both riversides, the grass was as soft and pastel green as ever, with all the vast combination of flowers still intermingled. “This is where we Balls live, and where you are welcome to stay.” The girls jumped as Cyclone’s voice snapped them out of their stunned inspection of their surroundings. “You have a very beautiful…home” Hannah complimented. It was apparent that Hannah had trouble applying the word ‘home’ to this wilderness where they were expected to stay. But she was telling the truth when she said that the place was beautiful as it was magnificent. “Thank you, you may stay in any cave you wish” Cyclone informed the girls, and then he turned away and stalked off into the darkness behind the cascading waterfall.

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“Well, it’s getting cold out here, I don’t think we’re going to get any other offers of warmth and shelter” Sofia muttered, breaking the silence that had followed Cyclone’s exit. Ann and Hannah murmured quiet agreements and followed Sofia to the caves behind the waterfall. They were drizzled by the spray of the waterfall as they entered one of the many caves behind the stunning waterfall. Though they had expected it, they were displeased as they walked in to find a large flock of Balls already in the caves. The Balls were all making the same buzzing racket that had drawn the girls to them in the beginning. This was what made the girls unwilling to share a cave with them as they knew that with the noise these creatures were making, they were never going to get any sleep which they so desired because of the exhaustion that was threatening to engulf them. However, as soon as the girls entered the cave, all noise ceased at once. A vast sea of mauve eyes stared at them. This unnerved the girls. “I don’t like this; maybe we should find another cave, maybe, one with fewer Balls inside.” Hannah whispered to Sofia and Ann. “Don’t be silly. I am not going to go hunting for an empty cave” Sofia replied stubbornly. “I think we should stay. They aren’t going to hurt us. Besides it would be rude to just walk out when they’re willing to share with us” Ann told Hannah soothingly. Ann just about jumped a mile up into the air when she felt an icy prod in her knee. She then looked down in surprise to see a Ball staring up at her intently. “You can sleep at the back of the cave. There’s a fire already burning there. You’ll be perfectly warm” the ball notified Ann. “Oh, right. Thanks…” Ann looked questioningly at the dark mauve Ball that, though its eyes were the familiar dark mauve that was the same shade as its skin, its eyes seemed quite kind and friendly. “Terranea” the Ball smiled in response, its mouth still hanging comically open, so that it resembled the image on a photograph of someone who had been laughing wildly when the picture had been taken. “Hi Terranea” Sofia said amiably. “Who are you all?” Terranea enquired. She spoke softly, so unlike the shrill voice of Cyclone. “Didn’t you hear us introduce ourselves to Cyclone?” Ann asked. “No, I had stayed behind here in the caves” Terranea answered. “Well, I’m Ann and these are my friends Sofia and Hannah” Ann replied, indicating who was who with a wave of her hand. “Are you all here on a quest?” Terranea queried. “Look, we’re really tired and we’d much rather sleep. Maybe, we’ll talk in the morning” Sofia responded. The girls were all quite exhausted and they were in no mood to have another long discussion of why they were in Syan. Terranea nodded and walked away. Ann, Sofia, and Hannah sauntered to the corner of the cave Terranea had indicated for them to sleep. There was indeed a fire crackling, radiating relaxing warmth towards the girls. The three of them slumped down on the cave floor, without saying anything, and soon drifted to sleep.

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Chapter 6: A Surprise Visit The girls awakened the following morning. For a moment, the girls were unable to remember the events of the previous day, and then, everything came back to them. They were lying on the cave floor. It was much more comfortable than they had imagined. The fire had burned out long ago, but quite a while after they had fallen asleep. Hannah had finally taken off the large, padded, red coat and had laid it aside along with her blue cap, her huge backpack, her big, black boots, and her glasses. When Sofia had characteristically laughed at this, Hannah had responded that she was only abstaining from all these ‘necessities’ so that she would be able to sleep more comfortably, and would return to wearing everything as soon as she could. The sun rays shined through the rivulets of the waterfall, into the cave, and onto the girl’s faces, forcing them to rise. To the girl’s pleasure, the cave was finally empty. “So, what’s on the Syan breakfast menu?” Sofia asked, stretching. Hannah also stretched, placed her glasses in its correct place: on the bridge of her nose. She glanced at her precautionary garments in the corner, but then turned back to Ann and Sofia. “You do realise that we didn’t eat at all yesterday” Hannah informed Sofia and Ann. “That would explain why I’m so desperate for breakfast” Sofia replied, rolling her eyes. “We might have to hunt for our food, like savages” Ann joked, attempting to lighten the mood, fortunately, her attempt worked. Hannah and Sofia chuckled. “Seriously, what are we going to eat? I am hungry” Sofia moaned. “I wonder if any of the creatures here even need to eat” Hannah enquired rhetorically. “That wouldn’t be the strangest thing about Syan” Ann muttered. “I wish we had some breakfast around” Sofia moaned. No sooner had Sofia expressed that wish aloud then several Balls came scurrying into the cave, laden with bowls of food. They hurried over to the girls, with bowls of grapes, bananas, mangos, melons, papaya, and kiwi. They also held goblets of pure water, one goblet for each of the girls. Although, they came with simple, pure, water, the food they brought was an exotic variety. The girls had been ready for cereal, omelette, or plain toast and juice, but they were delighted with the assortment of delicious fruits the Balls had brought for them, and they very gratefully began to devour the food the Balls offered them. “Cyclone instructed that we ensure you are not lacking in anything. We had all left early this dawn to find you a very satisfying breakfast” Terranea, the Ball they had spoken to the previous night, told them. “Thanks Terranea, we really appreciate all of this. Can you say thank you to Cyclone as well for us?” Ann said to Terranea.

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Terranea smiled in the usual, comical way of all the Balls, and walked away, leaving the girls alone to talk and eat. The girls were ravenous as they swallowed down the luscious fruits they had graciously been given. The pure water was quite fulfilling and satisfying, and hydrated their dry throats. “Look, I know that the Balls don’t have any problem with us staying here, but we can’t stay here, we’ve already been away from home for a whole day, any longer and our parents will probably be calling the police” Hannah criticised in a rational voice. “Like the police will ever think of searching for us in some fairy land called Syan” Sofia scoffed, exhibiting one of her trademark eye rolls. “That’s not the point. Hannah’s right. If we don’t get back soon, our parents will be going mad with worry” “I guess you’re right” Sofia mumbled. “Well, I think I’m about full, maybe we should get back to finding a way back home” Ann suggested. “Yeah, I’m stuffed. Those Balls brought back enough food to feed the entire continent of Africa. Bless them.” Sofia said fondly. They got up off the cave floor. Hannah walked over to the corner and started wrapping herself back into the precautionary clothes she had brought with her to Syan. Sofia rolled her eyes at Hannah’s back and sauntered out of the cave, appearing momentarily under the crashing waterfall before disappearing again. Ann waited patiently for Hannah, and then when Hannah was ready, they too walked out of the cave, searching for Sofia. They found her standing by the river bank, frozen. She was staring at something straight ahead of her, on the opposite bank. Ann and Hannah turned to stare at whatever it was that Sofia was gazing at. Then they too froze, trying to comprehend the possibility of the sight that met their eyes. On the opposite bank, there were small creatures that resembled fairies. The girls knew what they were instantly. They had heard of these creatures before, but only in fairy stories, never having seen them with their own eyes. However, as they stood on the riverside, they could see the pixies buzzing around in the air with their glowing, yellow wings. Their tiny arms, legs, and faces radiated a yellow light; there was no other colour to them apart from their luminescent glow. “This place never ceases to amaze” Sofia murmured in a shocked undertone. The pixies on the other side of the river stopped buzzing around to stare at the girls. The way in which every creature in Syan reacted to the girls upon the first sight was really beginning to irritate them. They resented being the centre of all the curious gazes when they were the ones receiving shock after shock, every time they saw some new astounding thing or creature, their internal systems seemed to freeze. “Do you think we should run?” Hannah whispered in a frightened voice. “I don’t think so, pixies aren’t supposed to be dangerous” Ann answered uncertainly. “They aren’t supposed to be in stories and that’s not the question. The question is whether they are dangerous” Hannah replied shrewdly. “They’re just staring at us, if they were dangerous, they would have attacked us by now” Sofia contradicted, still gazing at the pixies just as avidly as the pixies were at them. A buzz of movement transpired at that precise moment. All the pixies who had just a moment ago been gazing fixedly at the girls were now flying across the river towards where the girls stood. The girls were rooted to the grass. They only saw

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several yellow, warm balls of light crossing the distance between the girls and the pixies. Then they were surrounded by these balls of light. “Please leave us alone” Hannah told the pixies. “Ha, they’re scared of us” one pixie observed, giggling. “They’re scared of us when they can easily step on us” another pixie giggled. “Only if they can catch us!” one other pixie retorted, chortling in a charming, musical squeal of delight. “All of you should stop talking like that; you’re scaring them to death. One of them looks like she’s going to faint” another pixie chimed in. This was true. As this exchange took place between the pixies, Hannah had been drained off the entire colour in her face, whereas Ann and Sofia merely listened to the pixies incredulously. “Don’t be afraid. We won’t hurt you. My name is Corinne.” One pixie chirruped in her musical voice. “Isn’t that name very similar to a name Jonathan Swift used for one of his poems?” Hannah queried rhetorically, more to herself than anyone else. “Corinna isn’t a particularly common name, is it? Where do you think he got his inspiration from?” Corinne answered in an amused voice, giggling again, just like the other pixies. Hannah seemed too flabbergasted to speak by the fact that these creatures knew who Jonathan Swift was. Therefore, Sofia took the opportunity to ask the pixies a question of her own: “Are you pixies always giggling?” “These humans can be quite rude. Can’t they?” one pixie concluded sounding more entertained than irked, emphasising this by giggling again. “I guess that answers my question” Sofia muttered. “I’m Tiger Lilly” one pixie interjected “It’s very nice to meet you” Ann replied courteously. All the pixies began giggling at once. This should have annoyed the girls but ironically, it actually made them want to smile. When all the pixies giggled at once, it had a very significant effect on the atmosphere; the sound of the pixie’s giggle was a light-hearted sound and had a very positive impact on the atmosphere, adding a blissful veil of contentment to the tranquil aura of Syan. Ann no longer felt worried nor did she feel a need to be doing something. At that moment, being with the pixies, she felt a consoling contentment engulf her. There were no calamities, problems, disasters, or anything that diminished happiness in Syan. All the creatures in Syan were somehow united. They were all hospitable and welcoming. There was no other truth than this: Syan was like a piece of paradise situated in somewhere unreachable on Earth. “So, were you staying with the Balls or something?” Tiger Lilly enquired of the girls. “Yeah, you could say that” Ann answered. “How is staying in a cave going to help you with your quest?” Corinne asked with the faintest hint of a sneer in her voice. “Who said we are on a quest?” Sofia retaliated scornfully, taking the slight sneer in Corinne’s voice a bit too personally. “I think your friend is about to faint” Tiger Lilly intervened, pointing one minute finger at Hannah. Ann and Sofia pivoted around to examine the sickly white colour of Hannah’s face.

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“I’m fine. I was just still in shock” Hannah assured everyone, her face starting to return to its normal colour. Her voice shook only very slightly. Ann and Sofia swivelled back to the pixies, relieved that Hannah was not going to faint, but turned their attention back to her: “Something you said earlier bothers me. You didn’t exactly elaborate” “Well, you didn’t exactly tell us your names and that bothers us” Corinne rejoined. “I’m Hannah and these are my friends Ann and Sofia” Hannah replied curtly. “We would introduce ourselves. But it would take much too long to make introductions of every single pixie here” Corinne answered light-heartedly, with a grin on her tiny face. “Corinne, you should be more polite to her seeing as some thing you said is bothering her” Tiger Lilly told Corinne in mock reproach. “Look, you said before that Jonathan Swift had got his inspiration for the name of Corinna from you” Hannah recalled, cutting off Corinne and Tiger Lilly’s playful banter. “I never actually said that directly” Corinne argued, but winking at the same time. “It was implied” Hannah contradicted, smiling slightly herself. “I can’t deny that” Corinne conceded. “Anyway, well, I was just wondering how, when, and where you met Jonathan Swift. I know you must’ve met him. How else would he have got inspiration from you?” Hannah’s words came out in a rush. “As much as I would love to tell you about my acquaintance with Jonathan, I can’t” Corinne answered apologetically. “What do you mean you can’t?” Hannah cried in exasperation. “We’re not allowed to tell you. If Corinne answered your questions then she would giving too much of your quest away” Tiger Lilly explained, at which point Corinne shot a warning glance at her. “So, basically, we’re not supposed to ask questions” Sofia surmised. “No, we are just not supposed to answer questions that will tell you too much and might result in you completing your quest without actually gaining any knowledge” Tiger Lilly elaborated. “This is so annoying” Sofia stated. “Tell me about it” Ann agreed. “Most people just explore Syan more in order to complete their quest” one pixie suggested. The girls stared at the pixie questioningly. “I’m Melody” the pixie said. “Maybe we should explore Syan some more” Sofia argued to Hannah and Ann. “We’d be happy to show you our territory” Tiger Lilly offered the girls enthusiastically. “Can we just have some time to discuss this alone?” Ann requested off the pixies. “Sure” Corinne smiled. “Well?” Ann demanded of Hannah and Sofia. “Well…we’re not going to get anywhere just by sitting around with the Balls. I think we should try and find out as much as possible about Syan” Sofia mused thoughtfully. “I agree. Cyclone said that whether we intend it or not, we are on a quest and I think that the only way to get back home is to complete the quest.” Hannah contemplated.

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“There are a lot of mysteries about Syan and I really want to solve them” Ann ruminated. The girls lapsed into silence. Each one of them lost in their own thoughts. “So, does this mean we’re going to get a tour of Syan from the pixies?” Ann clarified with Sofia and Hannah. “Yes. Obviously, the pixies won’t answer all our question in fear of giving too much information away, but we just need to be able to ask the right questions” Hannah perceived. “I think, in this case, the right questions are the useless ones” Sofia disputed. “Sofia, the pixies have heard of Jonathan Swift, an existing man from our world. That must mean something and I am going to find out what if it kills me” Hannah stated with a determined expression on her face. “If we let the pixies show us around Syan, then we might know where to look for the key, if it is even in Syan” Ann considered carefully. “Now that we’ve got all our advantages and disadvantages stacked up. Can we please decide whether or not we’re going to accept the pixie’s offer?” Sofia enquired impatiently. “So, are we all agreed then that we’re going to accept the pixie’s kind offer?” Ann asked Sofia and Hannah. Sofia and Hannah nodded and Ann swivelled around to face the pixies again. “Thank you, we would really appreciate it if you could give us a tour of Syan” Ann said to the pixies. “And if you could tell us more about Jonathan Swift” Hannah added, speaking to Corinne. “Oh, you would have to go to the Hummers if a tour of Syan is what you want” Melody giggled. “And you would need to complete your quest, then come and find me if you want to hear more about Jonathan” Corinne informed Hannah, giggling just like Melody. “What are hummers?” Sofia queried, confused. “Oh, they’re like our cousins” Tiger Lilly stated, matter-of-factly. “Not that there is any other relation” one pixie whose name the girls did not know interjected in a sour voice. “What is that supposed to mean?” Ann asked, perplexed. “Nothing” Corinne answered quickly, too quickly, Ann noticed. Ann also caught the warning glare Tiger Lilly shot the pixie who had spoken previously. “So, to get a tour of Syan, we’re going to have to make a surprise visit to your cousins that would be impossible to make” Sofia surmised. “That wouldn’t be impossible for you guys” Melody countered, giggling as usual. “What is that supposed to mean?” Sofia questioned irritably. “Well, you made a surprise visit to us quite easily” Melody clarified, still giggling. “But that wasn’t deliberate” Hannah interjected. “So, if you’re not going to give us a tour of the whole of Syan, what exactly are you offering us?” Ann enquired. “A tour of our territory of Syan” Tiger Lilly answered, the tone of her voice and the giggle at the end adding the ‘of course’. “So, how are we supposed to get a tour of the whole of Syan?” Ann asked. “You would have to drop in on the Hummers” Corinne replied indifferently, or maybe it had sounded like she was trying too hard to sound that way, Ann observed. This sparked another million questions in her, questions that Ann was certain the pixies would never answer.

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“And are you going to tell you us anything about these cousins of yours?” Ann questioned shrewdly. “Maybe some other time” Corinne answered. The response had sounded casual and honest enough, but Ann had noticed the swift, wary glance Corinne had exchanged with Melody and Tiger Lilly. She had also noted the guarded facial expressions of all the other pixies. All of this was enough to confirm Ann’s suspicions: there was more to the relationship between the pixies and the Hummers than the pixies let on, and they were being quite careful not to alert the girls to this fact. “Well, seeing as we have no better offers, I guess we’ll be delighted to accept your tour” Sofia said scornfully to the pixies. “That’s fantastic! Follow us” Tiger Lilly enthused. “I’m guessing that your stories about Jonathan Swift are not part of the offer” Hannah clarified with Corinne, attempting to sound light-hearted, but failing and sounding bitter as a result. “Sorry.” Corinne responded apologetically. The flock of pixies turned and began to buzz through the air. All the girls could make out were a mass of yellow balls of light. Some of these balls of light had already crossed the river when the girls realised that they would have to cross the river to follow the pixies, they may even have to swim across. Sofia and Ann were bracing themselves for the leap into the river’s water when: “How are we going to cross the river?” Hannah cried. “We’ll swim across, of….” Sofia’s reproach trailed off into nothing as she remembered that Hannah couldn’t swim and had a phobia of the river. “What’s wrong?” Tiger Lilly had drifted back to the girls with a worried frown on her miniature face, at which point Ann thought of something of vital importance. “We should tell the Balls where we’re going, you know so that they might not worry or anything” Ann suggested, she wasn’t sure if the Balls really would notice their absence, but she didn’t want to take the risk of causing them alarm. “I’ll come with you” Hannah volunteered, obviously not wanting to confess her phobia of the river to Tiger Lilly. Ann nodded and they both strolled back towards the caves- leaving Sofia behind who was chatting animatedly with Tiger Lilly- which the Balls inhabited. Ann wasn’t entirely sure what her plan was. She resolved to just inform any passing Ball that they were going to be spending some time with the pixies and that they weren’t sure when or even if they would be returning but that they were very grateful for their hospitality. “Hi Cyclone” Hannah called cheerfully. Ann turned her head to see Cyclone walking towards them. “Good morning, I hope you’re enjoying your stay” Cyclone said conversationally. “We are.” Ann assured him, and then she took a deep breath and continued “The pixies want to show us their territory and we just thought we should tell you”. “You’re going to let the pixies show you around Syan” Cyclone clarified incredulously. “Well, not the whole of Syan, the pixies said we would need to go to Hummers for that, the pixies are just going to show us their territory.” Hannah explained seeming confused by Cyclone’s incredulity; Ann was also confused by Cyclone’s reaction. “Did the pixies tell you that, then?” Cyclone enquired. “Yes” Ann answered, exchanging a bewildered glance with Hannah. “Well, if that is what you have decided then I suppose I cannot stop you. But please be warned, there is more to the pixies than meets the eye, do not get too involved with

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them, for your own welfare” Cyclone instructed them, staring intently at the girls with his dark mauve eyes, something deep within his eyes seemed to be attempting at surfacing, but then he walked away. “Well, that was weird” Ann commented when they could no longer see the retreating figure of Cyclone. “He was definitely trying to tell us something” Hannah observed thoughtfully. “They’re very direct here in Syan, aren’t they?” Ann remarked, her voice acerbic. Hannah allowed herself a small smile that quickly turned into a grimace as Ann sauntered forward in the direction of the pixies and Sofia. Chapter 7: A Short Journey Ann and Hannah found Sofia waiting for them by the same river side they had left her at. Tiger Lilly was still hovering in the air beside Sofia’s head. The girls were no longer disconcerted by the airborne positions the pixies maintained, it seemed natural for them. Sofia was tapping her foot impatiently whereas Tiger Lilly seemed to be conversing with another pixie that seemed to be the only other one who had recrossed the river side to ensure that Tiger Lilly did not get bored. “Did you tell the Balls that we’ll be gone for a while?” Sofia asked Ann and Hannah. “Yeah, we did” Ann answered, giving Sofia an extremely significant look so that Sofia would know that she had something to tell her once they were away from the pixies. Sofia nodded once, just a very slight inclination of her head, so that the pixies wouldn’t notice. “Well, shall we cross?” Tiger Lilly asked the girls brusquely. “But I can’t swim” Hannah mumbled reluctantly. There was no way of getting out of this confession unless she wanted to drown in the river in an attempt to reach the opposite bank. “We’re not going to make you swim across.” Tiger Lilly replied with a laugh in her voice whilst her companion giggled. However, as this was customary of the pixies, Hannah did not feel like she was being laughed at. “Then, how are we supposed to cross the river? Are we going to borrow some of your wings and fly across?” Sofia asked scathingly. It was obvious that Sofia wasn’t completely fond of the pixies. No doubt, she found their persistent giggling irritating. “No, you’ll see for yourself” Tiger Lilly answered coolly. “What is that supposed to mean? I’ll drown as soon as I step into the water” Hannah questioned disbelievingly, her face visibly turning pale. “Just step into the water and you’ll get across easily. Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you” Tiger Lilly said soothingly to Hannah. “I think you should explain what you’re talking about. How are we supposed to trust you when you give us instructions that sound a little suicidal?” Ann reprimanded Tiger Lilly. “You don’t need to be so hesitant. We’re not going to send you to your deaths for no reason. It’s quite simple. All you have to do is step into the water and you’ll get across, what more do you want from me?” Tiger Lilly ranted, sounding annoyed. “Are you sure we’re in Syan? Because right now it feels like we’re in a ward in the mental asylum.” Sofia scoffed derisively. “Fine, don’t come if you’re going to be such a coward” Tiger Lilly retorted. Anger flashed in Sofia’s dark brown eyes. No one ever called her a coward and lived in one piece, Sofia made sure of that, her fighting skills were famous in her neighbourhood.

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“I am not a coward” Sofia snarled at Tiger Lilly. “Whatever you say” Tiger Lilly responded with the air of someone humouring a rather stubborn child. Sofia noted the tone of Tiger Lilly’s voice and her lips straightened out into a thin line of determination. She strode purposefully towards the brink of the river and hesitated. “Sofia, what are you doing?” Ann enquired, concerned about her friend’s sanity. Sofia hesitated. Then she closed her eyes and stepped forward. Ann and Hannah gasped; it was too late for them to yank Sofia back on the grass. Therefore, they could only drop their jaws in astonishment. However, they needn’t have worried as a couple of moments later, Sofia resurfaced on the other side of the river and managed to pull herself out of the water onto the soft, pastel green grass, where she lay, retching and gasping for breath, it all transpired in a matter of seconds so fast that Ann and Hannah couldn’t be sure that it had really happened. “How did she… when…how?” Ann queried incoherently. “I told you; we’re not going to let you die” Tiger Lilly shrugged indifferently. Hannah was starting to tremble. Ann was burning with curiosity: how did Sofia end up on the opposite bank when she didn’t even try to swim? Ann sauntered up to the brink of the river at the same place Sofia had stood. Very carefully, she squatted down, very carefully maintaining her balance, she leaned forward, craning her neck, and she stared down into the depths of the river, trying to decipher the many mysteries buried deep down. Then, very suddenly, a head bobbed up to the surface and looked Ann straight in the eye. Ann shrieked a high-pitched scream, in a hurry to sprint away; she lost her balance and tumbled into the icy water of the river, letting out another earsplitting scream. She crashed into the freezing water and was quickly submerged. Ann was too shocked to even attempt to drag herself to the surface. She felt her consciousness fading away, the last thing she was aware of was strong, wintry hands grabbing her by the tops of her arms in a vice-like grip of iron. Then, she was on the soft carpet of grass on the opposite bank, retching and gasping for breath. “Are you alright, Ann?” She heard Sofia enquire whilst concern and worry furrowed her brow. Her honey coloured hair was plastered to her face, droplets of water dripping down from her face, still wet from her journey across the river. “Yeah, I think I’ll live” Ann managed to splutter. “Not exactly the best way to travel, is it?” Sofia joked, a small smile lighting her face. “I’ll take rowing any day” Ann agreed weakly and then questioned: “What just happened?” “I think we made a bad choice, leaving Hannah with Tiger Lilly” Sofia murmured, staring across to the other river bank from which they had departed, not seeming to have heard Ann’s question. Ann stared in the same direction. Hannah was not looking at them to be able to see that she had nothing to fear. Hannah seemed to be rising from the grass weakly, as though she had just fainted. Tiger Lily was hovering nearby. Although she was too far away for Sofia and Ann to discern her expression, they assumed that it would be something little more than annoyance. But Ann had a question too vital for her to endeavour to reassure Hannah (not that she would’ve been able to even if she had wished to do so as Hannah was too far away to even hear Ann). “How did I not drown?” Ann demanded of Corinne, who was hovering in the air near them along with all the other pixies.

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“The mermaids dragged you across” Corinne answered casually, as though the mermaids dragged girls across the river everyday. “Mermaids?!” Sofia repeated sceptically. Ann crawled to the brink of the river, knowing what to expect this time. Once again, just like before, a head resurfaced. A woman’s head and she was stunning. Her facial features were gentle, beautiful, and friendly. She had blonde hair that ran down her back and into the water; all the tresses were drenched as she stayed afloat in the river. Her eyes were blue, as blue as the river submerging her long, thick, orange tail. A mermaid straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. Ann stared at her. The mermaid stared back. “It’s rude to stare” Melody giggled. Ann snapped out of the trance the mermaid had locked her in. She had forgotten that the pixies were present. Then she swiftly pivoted round so that she could really see that the mermaid was real. The mermaid was still there, staring intently at Ann. “Hello” Ann greeted the mermaid shakily. “Hello, my sisters will be bringing your friend shortly” the mermaid informed Ann. The intensity of the mermaid’s gaze unsettled Ann. It was as though she was analysing Ann with an observant interest; memorising her face, her voice, and every other detail, small or big; and it was also that the mermaid seemed to be comparing the knowledge she gleaned from Ann’s form to someone or something else. “Who are you?” the mermaid demanded of Ann. “I’m Ann” Ann answered, her voice quite uneven as her teeth were chattering from her journey across the river. “Ann who?” the mermaid enquired in a polite tone that suggested she was only asking out of curiosity, but none of the other residents of Syan had asked for surnames which made Ann suspect that it was more than just curiosity that had wrenched this question from the mermaid. “Ann Raven” Ann replied, then continued “Who are you?” “I am Sapphire” the mermaid answered. “It’s very nice to meet you” Ann responded politely. “Your friend will arrive soon” Sapphire told Sofia and Ann, before turning away and plunging back into the river’s depths. Sofia and Ann stared at the spot in the river where Sapphire had been. Then quite suddenly, Hannah’s head emerged out of the water, wheezing and gasping. Ann and Sofia helped to pull her out of the icy water. Hannah, having a phobia of rivers, seas, lakes, took a little longer than Ann and Sofia to recover from the unpleasant swim. “I am never doing that again” Hannah gasped. “Yeah, I’ll be sure to pass up dinner with the mermaids, I’m not exactly fond of under water seaweed” Sofia agreed light-heartedly. “What do you mean ‘mermaids’?” Hannah cried loudly, almost a shriek. “How else do you think we made it across the river?” Sofia retorted rhetorically. Hannah looked so staggered that Ann was worried if she was going to faint again, but then Hannah managed to compose herself: “Great, another thing to fear the river for” Hannah muttered sourly. Ann fought a grin as she knew that it must be the hardest for Hannah to accept the abnormality of all the recent events as Hannah was always so rational, reasonable, and realistic. She clung to logic as if it were a life line. Ann knew it must be excruciatingly difficult for Hannah to accept that her most practical and successful tool was no longer applicable in their current situation.

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“May we move on? Or do you want to have a picnic out here?” Tiger Lilly asked sardonically. It was obvious that her patience had reached her maximum level and now that the girls insisted on proceeding at their own slow pace, her testiness was leaking out. “Yes please, do you have a picnic basket you can spare? And maybe we’ll just hang about here for a little chat as well.” Sofia responded smugly, no doubt she was enjoying antagonising Tiger Lilly. The pixie seemed to have earned Sofia’s contemptuous dislike. Tiger Lilly’s miniature eyes narrowed so that they were almost impossible to see. For a moment, it seemed that she was going to answer Sofia until Corinne intervened: “Calm down Tiger Lilly. We’re in no particular hurry. I’m sure the girls are just trying to recover from their swim with the mermaids” Here, Corinne paused and turned to the girls: “Though, I’ve never experienced the sensation myself, I’m sure it must be disorienting” Corinne said to the girls apologetically. Then she turned back to Tiger Lilly: “We mustn’t antagonise the girls in any way”. Ann scrutinised all of this very carefully, keeping Cyclone’s warning in mind. Her suspicions had been triggered upon the tone of voice the pixies adopted on the mention of their so-called cousins, and then deepened when Cyclone had given them a warning concerning the pixies. Therefore, she was searching for anything that might transform her suspicions into fact. Corinne had told Tiger Lilly that they mustn’t antagonise the three of them, it had sounded like Corinne was merely admonishing Tiger Lilly for being rude, but upon a second scrutiny, and it would appear that they couldn’t afford to be rude to the girls, almost as if it were crucial that the pixies were courteous to the girls. “Shall we move on?” Corinne asked the girls politely. She glanced at Tiger Lilly meaningfully, before turning back to look at the girls expectantly. “I’m sorry for being so rude earlier. I just didn’t think first, I promise it won’t happen again” Tiger Lilly interjected in what appeared as a sincere voice, although Ann wasn’t sure if it was genuine or an act, the glance Corinne shot Tiger Lilly just seemed so significant that it made this idea of Ann’s quite plausible. “It’s quite alright, Tiger Lilly” Hannah reassured Tiger Lilly. Ann nodded slowly behind her to indicate that she held no disdain for the pixie, although she hadn’t wiped out any of her ideas. The idea of confronting the pixies with her observations did not particularly appeal to her as she assumed that even if she was correct in her ideas then the pixies would deny everything, nevertheless. Ann and Hannah glanced at Sofia, Sofia frowned as though she was seriously considering refusing to accept Tiger Lilly’s apology, but then she shrugged as though it didn’t matter to her either way. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Melody enthused excitedly, giggling as always. The girls rose up from the ground grudgingly. They were not completely thrilled by the prospect of another long walk to wherever it was the pixies planned to take them, but they had already agreed to permit the pixies to show them around Syan. The girls walked onwards with the pixies leading the way. The girls remembered vividly the long journey they had walked to the caves that the Balls had inhabited, keeping Cyclone’s warning in mind, Ann couldn’t help wondering if she was making a mistake, she knew by now that the pixies were hiding something and she couldn’t help fretting over the theory that her, Sofia and Hannah might get involved or that they may already be involved, the latter idea deepened Ann’s unease, and she lamented the fact that Sofia had yet to hear about Cyclone’s warning or her theories. She glanced at Hannah and could see that Hannah was deep in thought, which made

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Ann sure, that her worries were not unreasonable because Hannah was also brooding on something. “Do we still have a long way to go?” Ann called to the pixies. “Not far, just a bit farther” one pixie answered- the girls couldn’t discern which pixie it was amongst the tangled flock of miniature glowing balls- adding a giggle at which Sofia rolled her eyes exasperatedly, making Hannah and Ann giggle slightly. “We’re here” Melody trilled, quite abruptly, appearing by the girl’s sides. Ann, Hannah and Sofia inspected their surroundings, every time they explored some new part of Syan; they were always astounded by the stunning beauty of the setting. The pixies had brought them to a large meadow. The grass was the same, constant, soft, pastel green colour that coated the ground all over Syan, there was a small stream that must lead to the river that seemed to run all through Syan, there were tall tress bordering the meadow from every side, trees of almost every type, ash trees, oak trees, Sycamore trees, Chestnut trees, and many others. There were shrubs, flowers, and there seemed to be a whole battalion of squirrels, and birds around. “Well, what do you think of our sweet abode?” Corinne questioned, in a slightly smug voice which indicated that the staggered expressions on the girl’s faces had not passed her notice. “I think their open jaws mean that they love it so much words fail them” Tiger Lilly assumed, her giggle ascending into a laugh. The girls managed to compose themselves and looked up, still spellbound by their surroundings. “So, where do you sleep?” Hannah queried, and then amended “That is, if you do sleep” Melody chortled earnestly, no longer giggling, but laughing. “Of course we sleep.” “Probably trying to catch twenty hours of beauty sleep, no doubt” Sofia muttered. Ann shot a reproaching glare at Sofia. The last thing they needed was for the pixies to be antagonised. Although, the pixies were outwardly friendly towards the girl, she felt certain that they were up to something and something about the pixie’s demeanour gave her the feeling that it was not wise to get on the wrong side of the pixies. “But where do you sleep?” Hannah asked again. “In the trees, of course” Tiger Lilly answered, chuckling. All of the pixies seemed to find this topic quite amusing. “But how are we supposed to get in the trees?” Ann enquired. The fact that the pixies slept in the trees seemed reasonable but Ann couldn’t see how they were going to get there. “Yeah, I don’t know if you noticed, but I doubt those branches will be able to take our weight, even if we could climb trees” Sofia agreed scornfully. “Well, where would you like to sleep?” Tiger Lilly asked. The girls looked at each other. The truth was that, Syan was the most beautiful place they had ever seen and they were starting to wish they would never have to leave, but despite all of this, they did not completely appreciate their sleeping accommodations, they wanted to have their won beds back in their won rooms, and if that was too much to ask, they would even settle for any bed under a solid roof. The girls suddenly gasped, just like the signpost and the cave they had taken shelter in from the rain, a tree house had suddenly appeared in an enormous oak tree. It hadn’t been there before, but it had just appeared as if out of thin air. The girls turned to stare at the pixies meaningfully. “Later, we shall discuss everything later” Corinne told the girls before flying elegantly to the tree house.

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The girls nodded. They would get their answers. They were not going to accept anything else. They squared their shoulders and walked towards the oak tree with the tree house in it purposefully, following the pixies.

Chapter 8: Conference Time The girls ascended the wooden ladder to the tree house. Although, the thought that with each step they climbed up the ladder, they were getting further and further away from the solid, safe ground, they were in no doubt that the ladder was secure and had no chance of falling away from the tree, taking them to their deaths. They reached the top of the ladder and pulled themselves into the interior of the tree house, and when they were inside, their mouths fell open and they gaped. The tree house was a lot bigger than it looked. There were three beds that looked so soft and warm that they just wanted to collapse on the mattress and fall asleep. There was a full length mirror on the back wall, next to where the beds stood, and a large wardrobe standing in front of the opposite wall. Ann, Hannah, and Sofia gazed around at their accommodations for a while longer when they were interrupted by a small, almost inaudible cough. “I hope you like where you shall be staying” Corinne said courteously. “They should, they’re the ones who had thought of this” Melody giggled. “What do you mean?” Ann challenged swiftly and demandingly. “You can’t get out of talking, you promised us answers” Hannah stated accusingly. “What do you want to know?” Tiger Lilly enquired. “We’ll give you whatever answers we can” Corinne added soothingly. The girls paused for a moment, contemplating all the millions of questions they wanted to ask. However, they knew that only a few of them would be answered and they thought carefully of what questions they most wanted to ask and what questions were most likely to be answered. “How did this tree house get here? We know it most definitely wasn’t here before and then it just seemed to appear out of nowhere…” Hannah’s voice trailed off into the air as the pixies ruminated on whether or not they should answer this first question of theirs. The girls wondered how the pixies knew which questions would give too much information away on their quest. “When a person arrives in Syan on a quest, Syan is able to provide the person with whatever wishes they think of” Corinne ventured to explain. “So, whatever we want, we get straight away. But if that’s true, then how come when we wish for answers, we don’t get it…” Sofia began to argue, however Tiger Lilly interrupted her before she could get to the climax of her argument: “Syan doesn’t just give you whatever you want. It provides you with whatever materialistic wish that would make things more convenient for you. But, at the same time, it doesn’t undermine the complexity or difficulty your quest is supposed to have, the way it works is that whilst you’re on your quest, Syan will make sure that small, trivial things won’t slow you down from your quest.” “Unfortunately, this freebie of Syan’s only lasts while you’re on your quest, once that’s over, Syan no longer provides you with your wishes, but don’t worry, the quest is always going to be difficult” Melody added.

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“Oh, a difficult quest is really the most convenient thing for our present situation” Sofia retorted, her tone acerbic. “We don’t make the rules here, kid” Melody growled, for once, not giggling. There was a bitter edge to her words as if she resented not having the power to control the rules and regulations of Syan. “This crazy, out-of-control, place has rules” Sofia remarked sceptically. “Of course, there are rules. A place with this infinite amount of magic needs some figure of authority to keep everything in control” Corinne responded condescendingly, with a small smirk on her face as though she were talking to a bunch of mentally impaired people. Sofia seeming to both notice and resent being spoken to this way, scowled and looked away so as not to glare at the pixies. “You mean you have some sort of ruler” Hannah clarified. “Well then, who is your ruler?” Ann queried, her burning curiosity leaking into her voice when she spoke. “We have a queen” Corinne answered simply, in a tone that conveyed that there was no more to be said about the topic. Ann opened her mouth to ask another question, but Tiger Lilly spoke before she could even get a word out: “It’s getting late. I want to sleep; we can all talk some more in the morning”, and with that, all the pixies flew out of the single window of the tree house, leaving the girls alone. “It’s so lovely talking to those pixies. They’re so good at explaining things in detail and they make me feel so superior” Sofia scorned sardonically, in a pixie-like drawl, adding a perfectly imitated pixie giggle, whilst rolling her eyes in her usual humorous way. This made Ann and Hannah chortle in laughter. “Those pixies do seem to know all the perfect ways to frustrate the hell out of you” Hannah agreed. “Then again, for once, they did just what I wanted them to do” Ann contradicted slyly. “What do you mean?” Hannah asked. “I wanted them to leave as soon as possible so that I could talk to you in private” Ann explained. “And they willingly obliged so that they could avoid our clever questions, how kind of them” Sofia sneered at the pixie’s expense. “What’s on your mind?” Hannah questioned Ann. “I think those pixies are up to something” Ann stated matter-of-factly. “Besides from irritating us to death” Sofia interjected. “I think they’re up to something a lot more major than that” Ann replied, amused. “And you think that is?” Hannah pressed. “I’m not exactly sure, but from Cyclone’s warning and their attitude to us, I think that we might have something to do with it” Ann ruminated hesitantly and slowly. “What warning?” Sofia queried. “Cyclone warned us that there is more to the pixies than the eye can see and it might be dangerous for us to get involved with them” Hannah explained. “What? All those tiny giggling machines out there are going to pick a bone with us” Sofia scoffed derisively. “Looks can be deceiving” Ann reminded her. “Um, guys, I’ve just had a thought” Hannah announced, at which Ann and Sofia looked at her questioningly. “Well, you know we’re on a quest to find something…well, what if the three of us had our own separate prizes to search for. What if we have to separate? What if the

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three of us all end up searching for the same, one prize? And that all of this might have an effect on our friendship?” As Hannah’s words tumbled out in an almost incoherent mass, her voice became more and more frantic and nervous as each worry and doubt that plagued her mind leaked out into the open. Ann found that the comfortable tree house was now suddenly scarce on oxygen for her to breathe in until she realised that there was plenty of oxygen in the tree house, she had just forgotten to breathe. Ann had been paying too much attention to the pixies and on finding any subtle clues that might give them, even an essence of what their quest may be, she hadn’t thought of any of these worries until Hannah had pointed it out to her and Sofia. “That can’t happen. We need to stick together” Ann whispered, subdued, as panic possessed her. “Yeah, I’m too useless at work; I would never be able to survive on my own in this nuthouse” Sofia exclaimed, with a forlorn expression on her face. “I’m not saying that will happen. I really hope it won’t, but what if…” Hannah’s voice trailed off as she contemplated the thought of the three of them separating. “We’re not going to let that happen. Quest or no quest, we’re going to stick together. No treasure, or prize, or anything is worth losing my best friends” Ann declared adamantly, a fierce glint lighting her emerald eyes, so that it blazed ferociously, looking as though a green sea within her eyes was thrashing against resolute rocks. “Look who’s getting all leader-like. If this were an election, and our country were about to go to war, you’d get lots of votes, because no bombs would get past you” Sofia teased, a wide grin lighting her face. “Do you want us to stick together or not?” Ann enquired softly, the corners of her mouth twitched as though she were fighting a smile. “I’m with you the whole way.” Sofia answered simply, for once, looking serious. “I’m always going to be on your side, Ann” Hannah added quietly. The blaze in Ann’s eyes gentled as she smiled at her two best friends who had promised to accompany her on this complex journey. Sofia and Hannah smiled warmly back at her, and the three of them simultaneously leaned in for a hug, wordlessly promising to remain friends forever. “So, back to those annoying pixies” Sofia said once they had released each other. “Yeah, but before that, maybe you should take off your hiking gear, Hannah, your clothes still haven’t dried off” Ann goaded Hannah. “Yeah, and where am I supposed to put these, I can’t just dump them in the corner, they’re already covered in dirt from being on the ground in the cave, and because of that, plus having been dragged through the water by mermaids, it’s all starting to itch now” Hannah explicated. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always used a wardrobe to put my clothes into, because that’s what I always thought a wardrobe was for, just like the wardrobe over there in the corner” Sofia drawled sarcastically. “Thank you so much for your kind reminder” Hannah shot back as she strolled towards the large wardrobe in the far corner. Sofia grinned as Ann chuckled at their playful banter. “Are there any new clothes in the wardrobe?” Ann asked Hannah, curious. “Yeah, there is” Hannah replied, her surprise evident in her voice. Ann and Sofia were there at the wardrobe, by Hannah’s side in an instant. The wardrobe had piles of clothes hanging of a rail in the wardrobe. There was a tremendous amount of jeans, T-shirts, pullovers, skirts, and a number of other such

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garments. Ann then remembered the pixie’s explanation that Syan had the power to provide them with convenient necessities as soon as they thought of it. The tree house obviously came complete with beds, clothes, and who knew what other stuff. When they had followed the pixies inside, they hadn’t had much of a chance to explore the interior of the tree house, but it was then, as Ann gazed around the room, she noticed a door built into one of the walls, she assumed that the door must lead to their own bathroom. “Well, this is convenient” Sofia remarked, breaking the silence that had followed after the realisation that the tree house came with all the essentials that were required to make a certain place something close to home. Ann and Hannah chortled. The three of them each grabbed a fresh set of clothes according to their size; the girls were pleased to find that the wardrobe came with all the correct sizes as well. After taking turns to dress in the one bathroom Syan had provided for them in the tree house, they finally sat down on the wooden floor of the tree house. “If there’s no more weirdness to find, then I could get used to Syan” Sofia commented as she examined the plain white T-shirt she had worn with jeans. Ann and Hannah smiled in response. Ann had chosen to wear a snow white sweater with black jeans, and Hannah had opted to wear casual, comfortable, brown trousers with a beige blouse. She had taken slightly longer to pick what garments she would don, as she wasn’t as indifferent to the chill as Sofia, but after having worn the thick, padded, red coat, along with her black boots- which she had finally taken off- and her blue hat, she was feeling a bit hot, and felt uncomfortable with anything thicker than a blouse. “It felt good to finally have a shower” Hannah sighed contentedly. “I think Syan isn’t so bad once you know how to make yourself comfortable” Ann perceived. “Yeah, useful having a built in genie, minus the lamp” Sofia joked, tapping her forehead, at which Ann and Hannah laughed. “But the whole thing about getting whatever we want when we think of it goes once we complete our quest” Hannah reminded them. “I know, but wouldn’t that mean that we would only have to worry about the small things instead of a whole big, hard quest?” Ann argued. “Hey, I didn’t know we were planning to stick around much longer once we’d completed this so-called quest” Sofia intervened. “Well, I’d like to go home after this…” Hannah admitted quietly. “But?” Ann asked slyly, she could tell there was some problem Hannah could see with this desire. “What if we can’t go back home?” Hannah whispered so softly that Sofia and Ann had to lean forward to catch all of the words. Hannah’s voice was so low with the depth of the emotion behind her quiet words, and her eyes seemed to glisten with the tears that threatened to spill over her cheeks. “We will go back home, we’ll find a way” Ann promised Hannah, as she gently put her arm around Hannah’s slumped shoulders. “How?” Hannah murmured, her expression crumpling into one of hopelessness. “Just like every other idiot who forgets a map and gets lost. We’ll stop and ask for directions” Sofia answered, attempting to feign confidence, however, her eyes appeared unfocused as though she, herself were pondering the truth of her words. “How will that work?” Hannah questioned, her expression of hopelessness being replaced by one of confusion and irritation at the irrationality of Sofia’s words.

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Ann smiled appreciatively at Sofia for distracting Hannah from the more depressing topics. Sofia returned the smile, understanding the gratitude behind Ann’s smile. Although, Sofia was not one of the most tactful of people, she had a sense of humour that easily diverted people from their worries. However, Hannah was gazing at Sofia expectantly, waiting for the answer to her question. Sofia looked around, obviously groping around for an answer that would be adequate enough to keep Hannah of the sensitive subject of a return journey. “The hummers!” Ann blurted out delightedly as a miracle of an idea occurred to her. Sofia and Hannah stared at Ann in bewilderment so Ann elaborated. “Remember, the pixies told us that if want a tour of Syan, we’ll have to go to their so-called cousins, the hummers. That obviously means that they must know Syan inside-out, so we can just ask them to show us a route home” Ann explained. Hannah gasped: “Do you really think that something as simple as that would work?” “Well, we could try, couldn’t we?” Ann disputed. “I suppose. I mean, what do we have to lose?” Sofia shrugged. “But we still have to complete our quest, that’s what Cyclone, and everyone else says” Hannah reminded them. “Well, we can always go ask the hummers to show us a route home anyway, so that when we’re ready, we can go home easily without any worries” Ann suggested. “I say we go to those hummers first thing in the morning” Sofia proposed. “And I say that you’re just in a hurry to escape those pixies you find so annoying” Hannah retorted. “Aw, come on, you can’t tell me you don’t find them annoying with their constant giggling, plus I just got a bad feeling about them” Sofia responded, scowling at the cracks in the wooden floor. “What do you mean?” “Well, they’re always watching us as though they’re afraid we’re some sort of prize they’re afraid someone is going to steal, hell, I wouldn’t be so surprised if we found them spying at us through the window” Sofia ruminated slowly, throwing a swift glance at the single window of the tree house, it would have been comical and Hannah and Ann might’ve laughed if Sofia hadn’t looked so serious or anxious as she explained all of this. Hannah was silent as she digested all of this; she gazed unseeingly straight ahead, through the wall behind Sofia. “There is definitely something the pixies are deliberately hiding from us, and we are going to find out exactly what that is.” Ann breathed into the silence. Sofia stared up at Ann after she had said this, and nodded once, indicating that she understood and was going to accompany Ann on this. Ann looked questioningly at Hannah. Hannah sighed, still staring ahead; she said “I told you already, Ann, I’m on your side”. Ann nodded. The three of them lapsed into companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. “I’m tired, I think we should get some rest” Sofia recommended. Ann and Hannah nodded. The tree of them sauntered up to their own single bed and climbed in. The beds were extremely soft, but it was still a while before any of them managed to get any sleep. Eventually, their exhaustion won over and they fell into a peaceful sleep.

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