The Hidden Realm


A. Giannetti








Two weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Elerian decided that he ought to pay his old friend Tullius a visit. He had not seen the mage in quite some time and wondered how he was getting on.

“I am off to see Tullius,” he said cheerfully to Balbus, his grandfather, who was preparing to take an afternoon nap in his chair by the fireplace. From a rug by Balbus’s feet, a large black hound wagged his tail, but he made no move to get up. Like Balbus, Carbo was getting on in years, preferring sleep to long walks through the forest.

“Tell the old rascal, I said hello,” said Balbus with a smile. “Bring him a bottle of wine. That will cheer him up.”

Elerian took Balbus’s advice, selecting a bottle from their cellar to bring with him. After bidding Balbus goodbye, he crossed the fields below the farmhouse and passed through the hedge gate, entering the forest that covered the slopes below Balbus’s farm. Elerian found the coolness of the forest welcome after the heat of the sun on the open hilltop behind him.

“I should visit Tullius more often,” he thought to himself as he walked silently down the faint forest path that led to Tullius’s home. Since completing his apprenticeship as a mage two years ago, he and his old teacher seldom saw each other.

When Elerian neared the ring of rowan trees that circled Tullius’s home, he was surprised to see the old mage standing behind his gate, his polished staff in his right hand.

“I was just coming to see you,” said Tullius when he saw Elerian approaching. “I thought we might take a walk today.”

“Odd how we both had the same thought,” said Elerian with a smile as he handed Tullius the bottle of wine he carried in his right hand. The mage’s eyes gleamed in appreciation, but he set the bottle on the ground by his feet and stepped through his gate, setting off into the forest without a word of explanation. Clearly, Elerian was expected to follow, so he fell in behind Tullius. He knew better than to ask questions. Tullius would reveal his purpose for taking this walk when it suited him and not before.

They traveled west, Tullius moving with a purposeful stride, as if he had some particular destination in mind. Eventually, they neared the borders of the Abercius, and Elerian began to wonder what Tullius was up to, for the mage usually avoided the Wild Wood and had warned Elerian many times to do the same.

Abruptly, a wall of ancient trees reared up before them. Tullius raised his staff, and with his magical third eye, Elerian saw a golden glow envelope its crooked length. He had long suspected that the staff had a finding spell on it like the staff Tullius had given Balbus, for he had never seen Tullius lose his way in the forest. Elerian had never felt a need for such a staff himself. He never became lost and always knew which way he must travel to return home.

“What can he be searching for?” wondered Elerian to himself as Tullius’s staff began exerting a gentle pull on the mage’s right hand, leading him into the Abercius. Elerian followed eagerly along behind him. He had been forbidden to enter the ancient forest for his whole life, and he looked curiously at the enormous trees that towered over him on all sides, casting longing glances at the branches thirty and forty feet overhead, some of them thick as young trees. He had to suppress a strong urge to climb up to the canopy of the forest where he could run sure footedly along the branches, startling the squirrels and birds that made their homes in the heights.

“Keep alert,” said Tullius sternly, without turning around, as if he sensed Elerian’s wandering thoughts. “There are all sorts of dangers to be wary of in this wild place.”

“I wish we would encounter something dangerous,” thought Elerian to himself. At eighteen, he had reached the stage of life where he thought himself equal to any danger he might encounter. Also, life had been somewhat dull lately. His last serious adventure had occurred a year ago when he had saved Balbus from Granius and the gang of Ancharian robbers that the woodcutter had joined forces with. Elerian imagined a leopard springing down on them from the branches overhead or perhaps a mutare suddenly appearing from behind a tree, its yellow eyes gleaming with hunger. They would be forced to use their mage powers to defend themselves, for Tullius carried only his wooden staff, and Elerian was armed with a single, long knife cased in a sheath hanging from his wide leather belt.

As if sensing his thoughts again, Tullius glanced back at his onetime apprentice over his shoulder. He had noticed what he considered a growing overconfidence in Elerian for some time now. It worried him and today he had decided to do something about it.

“If things work out as I hope, perhaps I can restore some measure of the caution and good sense he will need to stay alive,” thought Tullius to himself. Secretly, the old mage was also pleased at the prospect of showing Elerian a new kind of magic, something he had not done since releasing him from his apprenticeship three years ago. Tullius’s staff eventually led them near the banks of a cold, clear brook, which flowed over a bed of coarse gravel. Large, flat stones, water blackened and covered with green moss, lined its banks, and a mixed grove of ash and oak trees sank their thick, twisted roots into the leaf covered ground on both sides of the stream. Their trunks rose like gray pillars above the forest floor, and gray green lichen covered their deeply fissured bark. Except for the splashing of the brook, a profound and somehow menacing silence filled the air, as if Tullius and Elerian had ventured into some forbidden place. Elerian suddenly had the oddest sensation of being watched, but he saw nothing around them but the great trees of the forest.

Ignoring the silence, Tullius walked up to an oak tree growing a short distance to the left of the stream. When he took up a position a short distance from the tree’s furrowed trunk, the steady pull emanating from his staff suddenly ceased, telling him that he had found what he was searching for. From where he stood behind Tullius, Elerian carefully examined the oak, wondering why the mage was so interested in this particular tree. As far as he could tell, it was exactly like all the other oak trees growing around it.

Suddenly, Tullius said, “Expergiscor,” in a firm voice while tapping the tree’s thick trunk with his staff. Eight feet above the ground, a huge, bark covered, human appearing face suddenly emerged from the trunk of the tree, and Elerian stepped back in surprise.

“This must be an Ondredon,” he thought excitedly to himself, for he had never encountered one of the creatures before today. Gray eyelids sprang open, and Elerian found himself looking into set of sleepy, irritated black eyes. 

“Who disturbs my rest?” asked the face in a deep, menacing voice. A shiver ran up the trunk of the tree, causing all the leaves on its branches to quiver. Was it his imagination Elerian wondered or were the tree’s great limbs taking on the shape of mighty arms ending in enormous leafy fists. Beneath his feet, the ground trembled, as if the tree’s mighty roots had shifted uneasily deep underneath the carpet of brown leaves that covered the ground. The sense of danger in the air was almost palpable now. Elerian held himself ready for a quick retreat, but Tullius remained where he was, his face composed.

“Calm yourself, Urbanus,” said the mage in a reassuring voice. “It is Tullius, your apprentice of old who disturbs your sleep. I have brought my own apprentice with me. His name is Elerian.”

Tullius turned and motioned Elerian closer to the strange tree. The wary look in Elerian’s eyes pleased the mage.

“He is none so sure of himself now,” thought Tullius to himself with wry humor.

Elerian reluctantly walked to Tullius’s side and waited tensely while the dark eyes in the wooden face suspiciously looked him up and down. He had a great affinity for trees as a rule, but he had already developed an intense dislike for this strange creature that seemed to be neither tree nor man but a blend of both.

A frown distorted the wooden features of the face and abruptly, another shiver ran through the tree. Overhead, the leaves on its branches rustled softly as if blown by a sudden wind. Elerian tensed himself to spring away as the face suddenly shouted angrily,

“What trickery is this Tullius? Your apprentice wears a false shape. What do you seek to conceal from me?” The tree creaked alarmingly and seemed to sway and bend toward Elerian, as the face shouted harshly, “Show your true form boy!”

Elerian was filled with confusion at the Ondredon’s words. A quick glance at Tullius revealed a look of surprise and alarm on the mage’s face. Whatever Tullius’s reason for bringing him here today, Elerian had the feeling that things had taken an unexpected turn not foreseen by the mage.

“What is he talking about, Tullius?” asked Elerian in a bewildered voice, as he kept a distrustful eye on the tree, which now glared at him with eyes gleaming with anger. “I am not wearing any disguise.”

Tullius kept his face expressionless, but his thoughts were in turmoil. He had no desire to reveal Elerian’s past at this time, but he dared not try to dissemble before Urbanus. If the Ondredon felt that he was being lied to, there was no telling what he might do. A single blow from one of Urbanus’s enormous wooden arms would spell instant death for both Elerian and himself. Tullius’s silence, as the mage struggled to marshal his thoughts, further inflamed Urbanus.

“I will see your true form, now!” he bellowed impatiently at Elerian.

With his third eye, Elerian saw a golden orb of light spring from Urbanus’s bark covered lips. Instinctively, he cast a shield spell, but it was instantly overcome by the immense power of the Ondredon’s spell. The orb struck him in the chest, changing into a flood of golden light that spread over every part of his body. Elerian felt the familiar shifting in his body that preceded a shape change, and he wondered angrily what the Ondredon had done to him. As the golden light of the spell faded away, Elerian saw the anger in Urbanus’s jet black eyes turn to outright hostility.

“You risk much, Tullius, bringing one of this accursed race near me,” shouted Urbanus furiously.

“He was born long after the Great War, Urbanus,” said Tullius, striving to keep his voice calm, but the hand holding his staff trembled a little, for he and Elerian were now balanced on a knife’s edge. One slip and Urbanus would slay them both without a second thought. “You can hardly blame him for what happened so long ago,” continued Tullius in reasonable tones. Without turning his head from Urbanus’s angry eyes, he whispered softly to Elerian, “Move away slowly.”

Not daring to take his eyes off the Ondredon for an instant, Elerian reluctantly edged away, leaving Tullius standing alone by Urbanus. He did not like leaving the mage by himself, but as most of Urbanus’s anger seemed directed at him, it made sense for him to distance himself from Urbanus. The Ondredon’s furious black eyes followed his every step, as if he were trying to make up his mind what to do next. With Urbanus’s attention focused on Elerian, Tullius also began to back away.

Elerian heard the sound of running water behind him and stopped. His retreat had brought him near the stream. He glanced behind him and saw that he stood in front of a small, clear pool of slack water formed by a bend in the brook. No ripple broke the surface, and the shining water was almost as still as a mirror. The pool reflected his image, but it seemed strangely distorted. Forgetting about Urbanus for a moment, Elerian turned and leaned apprehensively over the water. With a sense of shock, he saw that the face looking back at him from the surface of the pool was not the one he was accustomed to seeing. His brown hair had darkened to a deep, shining black, and his eyes were now a light gray. The planes of his face had become leaner, less rounded, and when he looked down at his body, he saw that it had become slimmer and taller. His hands had changed too. Instead of the powerful, thick-fingered hands he was accustomed to, he looked with confusion at the long, slender fingered hands that had taken their place.

Forgetting the danger he was in, Elerian turned to Urbanus and shouted furiously, “What have you done to me?”

Elerian’s anger seemed to please Urbanus. “I have restored you to your native form. You are not pleased at what you see then?” he asked with a touch of malice.

“This is not my body,” shouted Elerian angrily.

“It is your native form whether you wish it to be or not,” replied Urbanus coldly. “You are an Eirian, a race that I despise. For the sake of my old apprentice, I will spare your life this once, but do not come near me again, or I will be less merciful.” The Ondredon suddenly leaned toward Elerian, and a branch ending in a massive, knotted fist suddenly crashed into the ground in front of him. The blow was so violent that Elerian felt the earth tremble beneath his feet, and some of the leaves and thin branches attached to the wooden fist painfully lashed his face and body. Refusing to show any fear, Elerian stood his ground and glared at Urbanus, making no attempt to hide the intense dislike he had developed for this angry, threatening creature.

“Did he wish only to frighten me, or was his reach too short?” Elerian could not help wondering, as Urbanus’s fist slowly withdrew and the Ondredon straightened back up.

“Calm yourself, Urbanus,” said Tullius, his voice trembling slightly. Like Elerian, he was none too certain that the blow had been meant to miss. “I am sorry to have disturbed your rest. I assure you my apprentice will not come near you again.”

Moving slowly and deliberately, Tullius edged along the bank of the stream until he stood by Elerian’s right side. Taking Elerian’s right arm in his left hand, Tullius firmly dragged him farther away from Urbanus. At first, Elerian resisted, but after a moment, he shook off Tullius’s hand and walked under his own power. He was still seething with anger, but when he looked at Tullius’s face, Elerian was startled to see that large beads of sweat dotted the mage’s brow even though they were now well out of Urbanus’s reach. Elerian looked back over his shoulder and saw that the face in the trunk of the oak tree had disappeared so that it looked like an ordinary tree once more.

“Keep walking, you fool,” hissed Tullius in a barely audible whisper. “Our lives are still in danger, for he controls all the trees around us.”

Elerian followed Tullius in stony silence, until they had put a good distance between themselves and Urbanus. They were out of the Abercius now, and feeling safe at last, Tullius sat down on a great tree root and motioned for Elerian to sit down next to him.

“You have no idea of the danger we were in,” said Tullius wiping his brow with his right sleeve. “Urbanus could have slain us both in the blink of an eye. Besides possessing the enormous strength of a tree, he is also a powerful mage. We have done very well to walk away with our lives,” he concluded, making no attempt to hide the relief in his voice.  

“Why, then, did we approach him in the first place?” asked Elerian irritably. “We risked our lives for nothing.” 

“I do not take risks simply to set my old heart racing, like some that I could name,” said Tullius with a flash of anger. “You asked me at one time how I knew about the Ondredon,” continued Tullius dryly. “By bringing you to Urbanus, I hoped to show you where I gained my knowledge. I also thought it might be instructive for you to see him. I did not expect any danger, for I have visited him safely before. Usually he is very sleepy and does not speak at all when I rouse him. His actions today surprised me as much as they did you.”

“What did you expect me to learn from such an unpleasant creature?” asked Elerian, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“I intended for him to serve as a warning to you,” replied Tullius. “Urbanus was a man once, a powerful mage who, like someone sitting not far from me, was confident that his powers could meet any challenge. When he grew old, despite my advice to the contrary, he became a tree to cheat death. He has succeeded in remaining alive, but in spite of all his power, he has succumbed, like so many others before him, to the chief danger faced by those who change their shape. His new form gradually overwhelmed him. Today, he can barely remember his name and that he was once human.”

Tullius’s words caused a rush of guilt in Elerian.

“What would Tullius say if he knew that I almost suffered the same fate during my first shape change,” he wondered uneasily.

“Was Urbanus telling the truth when he said I am not a Hesperian?” asked Elerian to change the subject. He was more than half convinced that everything the Ondredon had told him was a lie calculated to upset him as much as possible.

“We will not talk about that here,” replied Tullius, rising to his feet. “Once we are safely seated at my table, I will tell you the full story of your past as I know it.”

They walked in silence after that, in single file with Tullius in the lead, each of them occupied with his own thoughts but still alert to the forest around them and any danger that might present itself.

“What strange twists life takes at times,” thought Tullius to himself as he stole a quick glance over his shoulder at Elerian. “After all my warnings to Balbus to conceal Elerian’s past from him, I am the one who revealed it to him.”

Elerian paid little attention to Tullius, being occupied with his own thoughts. At first, the change in his outward appearance occupied most of his attention, but he soon found that, beneath his strange exterior, he felt the same.

“It is as if I have merely changed my clothes,” he thought to himself.

Experienced in changing his shape, he soon adjusted to his new form and, instead, began to wonder what Tullius would say about his past. With his mind bubbling with questions like a pot full of boiling water, Elerian followed Tullius with barely contained impatience until they reached the ring of tall rowan trees that encircled Tullius’s home. The mage opened the rickety wooden gate that barred the only opening through the circle of trees and breathed a sigh of relief as he and Elerian passed through it, entering the protection of the shield spell that guarded the clearing around his home. They felt no resistance as they passed through the barrier, but any evil or dangerous creature that attempted to penetrate the ring of rowans would have encountered an invisible, impassable wall. Although Tullius had never spoken of the spell, Elerian had discovered its existence long ago with his mage sight. With his third eye, he saw it as a pale curtain of greenish light that stretched from one rowan tree to another to form a wall around the clearing.

After retrieving the bottle of wine he had left by the gate, Tullius led the way across the thick, unkempt turf that covered his front yard. After the mage opened his battered wooden front door, Elerian followed him into his dilapidated house.

Beyond the door was a room that served Tullius as kitchen, sitting room, and bedroom. The same buckets and pots that Elerian had first seen as a child were still scattered across the stone floor, set out to catch leaks, for the roof still dripped water whenever it rained. Tullius threaded his way through the obstacles on the floor, headed for the rickety wooden table in the middle of the room. When he reached it, he uncovered the mage light that sat in the center of the table, and a soft yellow light filled the room.

Elerian cautiously sat on one of the two old chairs that stood near the table. It was a familiar setting for him, for he had learned most of his magical lessons at this same table. Tullius fetched two wooden cups from a shelf. After pouring a cup of red wine for each of them from the bottle Elerian had brought, he sat in the second chair, across from Elerian. There was a resigned look on his face as if he faced a necessary but unpleasant task.